The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

John Huston | 2hr 6min

At times it feels as if every post-1940s representation of greed on film in some way comes back to that immortal figure of madness at the centre of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The image of Fred C. Dobbs talking to himself as he spirals into a whirlwind of paranoia bleeds into the characterisation of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Spike Lee’s screenplay for Da 5 Bloods. John Huston’s writing of a potentially great man whose hollow pursuit of riches leaves him with a corrupt, rotten soul also manifests in the arc of Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There is something distinct about Dobbs’ treachery though, especially with it being so rooted in Western genre archetypes that form part of a greater narrative about humanity’s attempts to tame wild, natural lands beyond their control.

The adventure and shooting typically found in other films of this genre is not entirely missing here, though it does play a secondary role to the drama unfolding among the three American prospectors traversing Mexican mountainsides, and their conflicts with the locals. They do not belong in these parts, but the older ex-miner Howard possesses a little bit more experience, providing sage counsel and wisdom in their endeavours. “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he warns ominously, and Huston thus sets in motion a cautionary tale that turns the weak-willed Dobbs into a mistrustful, insatiable, and vindictive creature, prepared to kill his friends in anticipation of their betrayal, as well as to enact his own. As he lays down behind the campfire with a haunted, wide-eyed expression, the flames continue to flicker up higher and higher, roasting him in a hellish image of spiritual damnation.

A striking, hellish image as Dobbs descends deeper into his madness.
There is a solid argument for this as Bogart’s single greatest performance, and one of the best of the 1940s.

With such magnificent direction backing it up, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is hugely significant in solidifying Huston’s status as an all-time great filmmaker, though it is just as much a major achievement for Humphrey Bogart who steps far outside the realm of hardboiled detective roles to deliver a ground-breaking performance of pure insanity. He is in full command of his rambling monologues, many of which are directed to no one but himself, and in close-ups Huston sticks us with his sweaty, tanned face, at times twisted in wicked, cackling expressions. In the darkness Dobbs appears as a truly formidable figure, though in the broad light of day Huston’s superb use of deep focus cinematography and open, natural spaces allows some remarkable formations in the blocking of his actors, painting out this web of thorny relationships in great detail.

Magnificent blocking integral to Huston’s visual storytelling.

Perhaps the most important element of Huston’s staging is the framing of Dobbs and his companions against these graceful yet imposing mountains, wearing them down with bandits, deadly animals, and collapsing goldmines. Even as Dobbs digs deeper into his delusion, there remains an organic, circular flow to this environment. While the younger prospectors don’t dwell too long on the damage they have caused, Howard recognises the need to respect to the ecosystem he has plundered by closing up the “wounds” he has made in it.

Staggering actors through the foreground and background, making use of the landscape’s natural terrain.

Even then though, there remains a strange, auspicious mysticism in the earth’s efforts to claim back that which was taken from it. Friends and strangers alike murder each other to claim ownership over those tiny grains of gold extracted from the mountainside, and yet all their self-centred efforts are so quickly undercut by the simple winds of fate blowing in from across the ranges. “The gold has gone back to where we found it,” Howard roars with laughter, recognising in equal awe and amusement the absurd joke that the universe has played on them. Not everyone gets off so lightly, especially as Dobbs finds himself cowering beneath the lethal blows of bandits who send him to an end fitting of his obsessive mistrust. In this way, poetic justice finds its way home in each of Huston’s character arcs, orchestrated by some omnipresent force of nature that gives and takes in cyclical motions, ultimately carrying The Treasure of the Sierra Madre through to an end that leaves almost everyone no better or worse off than before – minus those individuals who tried and failed to exploit the earth’s resources in order to build self-serving worlds of delusion and greed.

Dobbs’ fate catching up with him, revealed in a single haunting reflection.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 32min

There may be screwball comedies that can match His Girl Friday in its sheer narrative lunacy, but Howard Hawks’ satirical take on the newspaper industry stands unparalleled in its breakneck pacing which, when combined with its rhythmic, rattling screenplay and the verbal gifts of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, becomes an accelerating effort to keep outdoing its own hysteria. Hawks himself can turn a phrase and orchestrate performances like he is the one delivering them, as his actors breathlessly zip between lines to the point that their dialogue begins to overlap and multiple conversations emerge all at once, creating similar chaotic soundscapes to those that Robert Altman would innovate thirty years later. It is curious that Altman never used this device to create a film about journalism though, as within this newsroom setting Hawks discovers the potential of its seemingly permanent state of urgency, and charms his audience into a whirlwind of words and wits.

Even as the master of gender comedy sets a ridiculous standard in his own madcap narrative pace, his leads are more than up to the challenge of pushing it even further, all in service of their characters who insistently chase up crucial information and loose ends across a number of plot threads. This complex balancing act poses a tricky challenge for Russell in particular, as although former reporter Hildy Johnson finds herself drawn towards a quiet life of marriage and children, she also simultaneously falls prey to the temptation of re-entering her old career as a newspaperwoman, where her spark of passion ignites into a full blaze and lures her into a primal feeding frenzy.

Rosalind Russell, a wicked force of comedy here in His Girl Friday, and an appropriately loud costume to match that persona.

From the moment she walks into the newsroom in her matching zig-zagged hat and coat as if they were entirely normal fashion choices, Russell owns every moment she is onscreen. Not only does she prove her ability to match Grant with every comedic beat, but at one point she even demands that Hawks’ camera keep up with her as she frantically moves side to side, switching between concurrent phone calls. It is a well-timed dance she is leading here, and one that points to her own skilful characterisation of a competent woman so entranced by her work that she barely hears her fiancé, Bruce, threaten to leave her.

Not only is the promise of good news story too much to pass up, but when the escaped convict at its centre winds up in her own office, the chance to use her own unique position to take down a corrupt politician is entirely irresistible. Of course, it takes a few minor manipulations on the behalf of Walter, her ex-lover and editor, to keep her around. In a hilarious running gag that he sets in motion, he ensures that Bruce continues getting arrested so that he remains out of the way, though this situation only escalates when the heavily foreshadowed arrival of his mother finally transpires to complicate things further.

Subplots comically punctuated by the slamming of doors open and shut, efficiently keeping the narrative moving along.

As this kidnapping sublot contributes to the overall tapestry of this narrative, it is just one of several irreverent plot threads dealing with the darker side of humanity, including attempted suicide and death threats. There is a certain hint of amorality here, as while such weighty topics pass through the story, these journalists brush them off with comical ease as nothing more than minor distractions to be dealt with in the moment and never considered again.

Many screwball comedies get by without being overly attentive to their visuals, but there is some superb staging of ensembles in this newsroom.

Rapid montages and brisk camera movements can be found here to match the pace of dialogue, but for the most part it is in deftly staged compositions of actors within this office of low-slung lamps that the film is visually elevated to a level that few other screwball comedies have reached, pairing some of Hawks’ greatest direction with one of his most masterful screenplays. Even as doors slam open and shut in markers of narrative threads jumping in and out of this story of their own accord, he never once loses control of His Girl Friday’s eccentric rhythms, sparring, and effervescent chemistry.

Among the best shots of the film in its fantastic lighting and camera placement, as Hildy visits the imprisoned Earl Williams.

His Girl Friday is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 7min

Not much about Christmas in July is terribly festive, but it is a fitting title nonetheless given how much Preston Sturges fills the film with his own brand of wholesome benevolence. Our hero, Jimmy MacDonald, is an office worker lost in a sea of desks. He has his eyes firmly set on the American Dream, and then one day a prank gone wrong sees him believe he has won $25,000 cash in a slogan competition for a coffee company. The instant that he believes in his own success, his entire attitude changes. His sudden boost in confidence is enough to earn him a promotion, an office, and a personal secretary, with even the executive of the company running the contest believing that he is the real winner. As for the actual slogan itself – it is nothing less than lame, wordy, and confusing.

“If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

And yet there is something endearing about Jimmy’s whole-hearted conviction in the cleverness of his quip. Within Sturges’ world of naive, incompetent businessman, such self-assured belief is infectious, as the slogan’s apparent success spurs on a surge in popularity until everyone who once saw it as a meagre attempt at humour convinces themselves of its brilliance. After all, it won a contest judged by a board of professionals. How could it not be? Even Jimmy’s own boss uses it as the basis of his own judgement.

“I think your ideas are good because they sound good to me. But I know your ideas are good because you won this contest over millions of aspirants.” 

The comedy in Christmas in July is a little more low-key than the usual Sturges outing, especially since the focus isn’t so much on the slapstick or zany antics than being a satire of American success. But his trademark commitment to running gags and expeditious pacing is present even this early in his career, and the faith individuals place in mainstream opinions rather than thinking for themselves is a perfect target for a director with such a skill in crafting farcical escalations. A more cynical film would make Jimmy a selfish egomaniac, but here he is a sincerely good, compassionate man, and as such it isn’t hard to get behind his stroke of good fortune, or conversely fear his inevitable downfall. It may not belong among his greatest works, but thanks to Sturges’ comical screenplay, Christmas in July strikes an easy tonal balance of skepticism towards corporate America and a comfortable, agreeable comedy.

Christmas in July is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Great McGinty (1940)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 23min

Tamer than most Preston Sturges comedies, but also more overtly political, The Great McGinty marks the debut of a satirical filmmaker who, within just a few years, would go on to define an entire genre. Sturges isn’t afraid to hit dramatic beats here in the rise and fall of tramp-turned-mayor Dan McGinty, though pulling these off in any seriously compelling manner is not his strength. It is the lowbrow slapstick sprinkled throughout where we discover traces of the Sturges who would become one of Hollywood’s great comedic directors, especially as he capitalises on the running gag of fist fights between McGinty and his Boss, with these serious threats of injury gradually turning into petty eruptions of male egos, and eventually melding into the background as a natural part of the environment.

Sturges’ skill in the editing room is also on display here in his creatively efficient montages, passing time through long dissolves, double exposure, and even the use of a stop-motion effect to show shrinking piles of money. Later, he intercuts McGinty’s campaign for Governor with that of his opponent, contrasting a level-headed, virtuous candidate with the frenetic showmanship of McGinty’s endorsee. And of course, it is McGinty who comes out on top between the two – it only makes sense that a man whose political career began in voter fraud only continues reaching new heights by playing the part of a pawn.

A political pawn, wilfully strung along a path of corruption.

Yet after playing the part of upstanding husband and democracy-loving family man for far too long, the artificial code of ethics he pretends to live by eventually settles in his conscience, giving rise to a self-loathing and disgust for his own lack of integrity. The irony of a corrupt political system defeating itself through its own artifice is not easily lost, especially as Sturges underlines how all it takes is a “moment of honesty” to send these institutions crashing to the ground, finding the humour in the unpredictability of public life. The Great McGinty may not have the formal or comedic brilliance of Sturges’ strongest works, but it is a modest effort at political satire from a director who would only go on to sharpen his artistic voice from here.

The Great McGinty is not currently available to stream in Australia.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

John Ford | 1hr 58min

In transplanting his usual explorations of tradition and community from America’s old West into a rural Welsh village, John Ford finds a nostalgic beauty in the Victorian-era working class ideals of ‘How Green Was My Valley’. The saccharine adoration of the “olden days” comes with the territory of Ford’s films, though as usual it is also not so straightforward. As tight-knit as this fictional coal-mining town is, judgement and gossip run rife when someone steps outside its boundaries, and there is a hypocrisy to the small-mindedness of many villagers.
Nevertheless, the narration of an older, wiser version of our protagonist, Huw, reminisces on the idyllic peace of his childhood in this community, and the strength of the bonds between neighbours which got him through the roughest times. In Ford’s wide establishing shots of the town, people move and act in unison, singing, working, praying, drinking, and playing games like a single, cohesive mass. When they celebrate, the air is filled with hats being waved and tossed; when they hear the mine’s emergency whistle, they rush towards the site in common concern for their neighbours; and when one person is sick, the entire village walks down the main road in quiet solemnity to wish them well.

A magnificent set from John Ford, from the uniformity between each house to the coal mine sitting atop it all. Within this space, crowds move in unison, Ford staging them as a single, unified community.

The townscape itself is an impressive set, with smoking columns, wooden structures, and triangular roofs rising up in uniform patterns from the modest, primitive village below. Gnarled trees with twisted branches line the edges of Ford’s frames, simultaneously confining the environments within which these characters interact with each other, and unifying the townsfolk in these quaint, natural spaces.

The trees are a significant part of Ford’s scenery, obstructing frames and wrapping around characters in shots like these.

It is once the tranquillity and closeness of this blue-collar community is set up that Ford starts to reveal the forces chipping away its prosperity bit-by-bit. The first major threat is the wage cuts of the coal miners, with the ensuing strike only settling after many of them are made redundant. The industrial revolution is well underway by this point, and managers all over the United Kingdom are realising the expendability of loyal employees who demand more money than less experienced labourers.

Paralleling the significant cultural shifts of 19th century South Wales are changes taking place within Huw’s own family. Realising the poor outlook of the industry, Huw’s father, Gwilym, pushes him away from the manual work which formed the bedrock of the Morgan family’s modest success, and down the path of formal education. Even in this polished, refined environment, Huw continues to absorb the rough, confrontational values of his village, engaging in fights with peers who ridicule him.
Meanwhile, Huw’s sister marries a wealthy man and moves away, one of his brothers dies in a mining accident, two others lose their jobs, and the friendly local preacher who forms the spiritual backbone of the village is driven away by the vicious gossip of his own parishioners. In a climactic final church service, he confronts those responsible for the private attacks on his reputation, addressing their selfish imitations of faith which actively erode the community’s open-hearted ideals.

“Why do you dress your hypocrisy in black and parade before your God on Sunday? From love? No. For you’ve shown your hearts are too withered to receive the love of your divine Father.”

The perils of a tight-knit community – these people are as equally capable of ostracisation as they are of warmth and support. The symmetry and formal cohesion of compositions such as these are among Ford’s best.

While so many forces eat away at Huw’s innocence, he continues to persevere in his faith right up until the final, most devastating personal blow. When Gwilym doesn’t return from a cave in at the mine, Huw goes down below to investigate, journeying through the dark depths of the mine in much the same way as his father. Upon completing his mission, he rides the elevator back to the surface with his father’s body, mirroring his rise up into the role of family patriarch, and thereby effectively marking his complete loss of innocence.
We learn through Huw’s narration that he has spent the vast majority of his life trying to recapture the kinship that he once shared with his town, and it is only now, decades later, that he is finally leaving. “How green was my valley,” he laments, mourning the loss of an era that saw neighbours share each other’s losses and wins as a community. John Ford’s adoration of bygone eras may be considered twee or sentimental, but it doesn’t make his portrait of an idyllic childhood in Victorian-era rural Wales any less charming.

The loss of Huw’s father marked by his own physical ascension up from the mines and into the role of family patriarch, his lost of innocence complete.

How Green Was My Valley’ is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)

William A. Wellman | 1hr 15min

It is a very lean 75 minutes that The Ox-Bow Incident plays out over, using the western genre as a simple framework for a self-contained moral tale warning against mob mentality. Though the artificial soundstage is obvious at times, the film is never visually flat. Much of this is thanks to William A. Wellman’s compositions of actors’ bodies, many of which are worthy of Kurosawa comparisons in their beauty, and which are made all the more impressive by the size of the ensemble he is working with.

Wellman keeps finding these fantastic compositions of bodies in his shots, blocking them through the foreground and background, and using beams to divide them visually.

When the small western town of Bridger’s Wells gets news of an outlaw gang killing a local rancher, the men of the community quickly form a posse hellbent on seeking vengeance for their neighbour. Caught up in the company are two travellers resisting the rancorous rage around them, one of whom is portrayed by a very well-cast Henry Fonda playing right into his kind, intelligent screen persona. 
Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble is filled out by supporting and minor characters with their own motivations for retribution. While some are blinded by their own self-righteousness, others simply take delight in the prospect of violence, with one man specifically repeating the same grotesque hanging gesture as he cackles wildly to himself. The suspects can do nothing but plead their case, gradually growing more irritated with the posse’s hypocrisy. 

“What do you care about justice? You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men or not! All you know is you’ve lost something and somebody’s got to be punished!”   

A powerful pan across the reproachful expressions of the vengeance-seeking posse.

Wellman continues to layer his shots with strong attention to the character relationships all throughout, binding the accused men together in small spaces then surrounding and dwarfing them by the violent mob. His blocking most effectively works its way into the narrative when the posse take a vote on the captives’ fate, during which seven men stand together in a lonely but empowering low angle, while a reverse shot pans across the furious eyes of the company staring right down the barrel of the camera. The Ox-Bow Incident may be a simple, short morality play, but there is a lot to say about the empathy that Wellman brings to this narrative purely through his thoughtful staging.

Empathy for the accused through this tightly-framed blocking of faces.

The Ox-Bow Incident is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Michael Powell | 2hr 14min

When the much-touted Ballet of the Red Shoes finally opens for Ballet Lermontov, Michael Powell sets us a good distance back in the audience to watch the majestic red curtains slowly part. For a brief moment we might believe we are going to watch a small excerpt of this adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale play out from this angle, perhaps before fading into the bows, or the audience reaction afterwards. What we get instead is a 17-minute sequence of musical, cinematic bliss that may lay honest claim to the greatest demonstration of Technicolor on film in the 1940s. 
As the stage disappears, we are immersed in a vibrant, expressionist world that towers far taller than any regular theatre ceiling. The camera moves with vigour, following the young heroine as she dances through elaborate, layered compositions of carnivals, oceans, clifftops, and undefined, surreal nightmares. Forcing her to keep moving along are her magical red shoes, sold to her by a mysterious street peddler, whose long, daunting shadow later clutches at her when she tries to rid herself of the curse and return home. Canted angles, montages, visual effects which teleport the young woman from one setting to the next – Powell is throwing his full arsenal of stylistic techniques at this ballet, pulling us into the mind of both the bewitched young heroine and the woman who plays her, Vicky. Acting out this heightened, fantastical microcosm of reality, Vicky imagines the two opposing forces in her character’s life as the most important men in her own, marvellously super-imposed over their counterparts.

The proscenium arch disappears as Powell lets these expressionist, theatrical sets become an entire world.
Inexorable ambition, both in Vicky and the character she plays in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.
Still in the early days of Technicolor film, Powell was crafting all-time wonderful images such as these.
The challenge here is choosing only a few images to lift from this breath-taking 17-minute dance sequence, which disappears into boundless imagination.

This extended, wordless interlude splits the film into two halves, the first of which follows Vicky and her musical collaborator, Julian, along two intertwining paths of ambition. At first they circle each other in theatres and rehearsal rooms, and then over time their innocent interactions evolve into a kind, tender love. They are still set on their careers, but the sharp words of their strict mentor, Boris Lermontov, hang over Vicky’s head as she falls prey to her romantic desires. 

“The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.” 

Regardless of whether this is universally true, Lermontov creates a self-fulfilling prophecy merely in speaking these words, forcing a gut-wrenching choice upon Vicky. By invoking the Red Shoes in his final temptation, he comes to personify them, setting in motion the same downfall as that suffered by her character. Powell often bridges scenes with elegant long dissolves, and after one particularly warm embrace between Vicky and Julian he uses such a fade to impose the next shot of Lermontov over the top, shattering the romance with his threatening presence. 

It’s not just Powell’s colours that astound, but also his long dissolves working to combine images as we see here.

Beyond the stage, Powell’s displays of rich colour and theatrical lighting make their way into offices, dressing rooms, and rehearsal spaces, surrounding our three leads in a world of spectacle. There is detail in the arrangement of hues as tiny as the fruits which lay across Lermontov’s desk upon his first meeting with Julian, and then on the corner of the table, our eyes are drawn to a vivid flourish of orange flowers. From here, blossoms continue to adorn almost every interior in this film, with the full spectrum of coloured petals growing in number as Vicky finds more success in her pursuit of greatness. 

From Julian and Boris’ first meeting…
…to Victoria’s final show. Flowers are everywhere, always vibrant in their multi-coloured beauty.
Matching costumes to the surrounding décor, 16 years before Jacques Demy would make it part of his stylistic repertoire in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

As for her internal struggle between lifestyles, Powell chooses to represent this with red and white patterns, splashing these colours of passion and tranquillity across her wide-eyed, sweaty face and lavish costumes. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the same scheme is used to similar effect in Black Narcissus, or that these are two of the best displays of Technicolor in Powell’s career. His control over these very specific palettes all through The Red Shoes goes beyond the crafting of immaculate compositions, as it furthermore binds us so tightly to Vicky’s mental state, that we can’t help but be plunged right into the psychological depths of her pure, self-destructive ambition.

A pair of images from Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell returning to his red and white colour palette in makeup and costume as a reflection of passion and purity.
A gorgeous melding of blocking, architecture, and colours in this stunning composition.

The Red Shoes is available to stream on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.