Dreams (1955)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 27min

The romantic dreams that young model Doris and her agent Susanne each chase down in the city of Gothenburg are blindly hinged on the belief that men are not inherently disappointing creatures. Both women are separated in age by about a decade or so, and the gap in maturity shows. While Doris thoughtlessly breaks up with her boyfriend and passionately launches herself into a new affair with the first man to shower her with affection, Susanne slowly unravels as she rides into the city where an old flame resides. Lights from outside the carriage pass rhythmically across her sweaty face, we follow her rapidly shifting gaze between ‘open’ and ‘shut’ signs, and as she mutters an apprehensive resolution to “see him,” Ingmar Bergman maps out the psychological terrain of her anxious, compulsive desire.

Susanne slowly unravels on the train to Gothenburg, and Bergman puts his penchant for lighting and close-ups to excellent use as we enter her anxious mind.

Dreams arrived in 1955 a mere two years before Bergman’s major breakthroughs The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and though critical praise was lukewarm at the time, within it are sure signs of a maturing artistic voice moving towards a higher level of filmmaking. The first five minutes of this film are spent in the wordless silence of Susanne’s modelling studio – fresh prints are brought to the agency owner, an assistant lights her cigarette, and finally Doris arrives on set, where the photographer arranges her in elegant poses. It is especially one fat man’s lustful, impatient finger tapping which breaks through Bergman’s subdued sound design of luxurious lounge music and ruffling clothes, creating an atmosphere which begs for escape from its own stifled repression. It is only when Susanne and Doris arrive in Gothenburg on their work trip though that any sort of catharsis starts to feel tangible.

An suspenseful five minutes to open the film, examining the tensions between characters on this model photo shoot without a word of dialogue.

This is not a film about the bond between two women though. Bergman keeps them separate throughout most of Dreams, alternating between their parallel stories. His visual compositions are precise and considerate, especially in the constant presence of reflections around Doris as she gazes through shop windows and lets herself be swept away by Gunnar Björnstrand’s wealthy middle-aged consul, Otto. Mirrors follow her into the dressmaker’s shop where he buys her a new gown too, inviting her into his superficial, material world, and she returns the affection as she takes him out to an amusement park. There, Bergman fixes his camera to rollercoasters and spinning rides, letting it fly in manic movements and cutting its footage up into violent montages within a ghost train. While she screams with delight, he is visibly queasy, and though he regains his composure upon taking her home to his giant manor, that uneasy dynamic soon returns.

Bergman weaves in reflections of Doris through her early wanderings around Gothenburg, centring the world around her.
Vigorous excitement as Bergman plants his camera on a rollercoaster and spinning rides, joining Doris and Otto on their date.

This time though, Otto’s reservations seem to stem from quiet guilt rather than nausea. A painting of his wife on the wall bears significant resemblance to Doris, but she has been dead for some time now, according to him. When a third party enters the scene, it comes as a surprise – Otto’s daughter’s entrance is framed in a doorway that Doris is peering through, and she immediately launches into a disdainful chastisement of her father’s arrogance.

“You disgust me. I find you ridiculous and repulsive.”

An elegant frame as Otto’s daughter unexpectedly enters the picture, bringing Doris’ dreams to an end.

Otto’s wife is not dead, as it turns out, but in a psychiatric hospital he refuses to visit. He is stingy with spending money on his own family, but apparently not on Doris. “Lust overcame tightness this time. It’s a laughable sight,” his daughter derisively proclaims, before quickly realising that he has even gifted her valuable family jewellery. For the first time, there is cold detachment in Bergman’s blocking, poignantly facing Otto and Doris out a window before she awkwardly departs with the realisation she has walked in on a sad, wounded family, and pulled them even further apart.

Parallel faces in Bergman’s blocking, expressing sober disappointment.

At least Doris has the excuse of naïve youth behind her though. With Susanne’s extra years of experience, she should know exactly what she is walking back into with her old lover, Henrik. For a time, she dances around the decision, silently passing through forests where she spies on his home, and eventually making the call to meet up. Once again, Bergman chooses to carry this stretch of storytelling without dialogue, absorbing us in elegantly composed shots which themselves become expressions of her silent emotional journey.

A picturesque frame in the forest as Susanne watches her old lover from afar.

The contrast between the Susanne we see in these lonely moments and the woman in control of a modelling agency is quite striking. When Doris misses a shoot, Susanne proves herself to be a harsh, assertive woman, though evidently one simply using this severe demeanour as a cover for her own insecurities. Deep down she is “sick with hatred” for Henrik’s wife, even wishing her dead, and yet this intense loathing frightens her. The further we get into Dreams, the more this seemingly confident woman is layered with internal conflicts.

Quite essential to our reading of Susanne’s vulnerability is also the ways Bergman lights close-ups to perfection, especially his dimming of the backlight to emphasise the contours of each expression passing across her face during her rendezvous with Henrik. For a brief time, she is swept away by his romance and invitation to join him in Oslo for a work trip, though such fantasies are short-lived with the arrival of his shrewd, perceptive wife. Her words are cutting – there is no substance to this man whatsoever. He is lazy and tired, and any illusions one might have about carrying on affair with him would be quickly destroyed by his own inability to commit to anyone. Henrik meekly lingers in the background of this scene, framed right between the two women, and with this succinct visual blocking, Bergman definitively proves his inadequacy.

Bergman’s arrangement of faces is just as important as the performances themselves, here pushing a shameful Henrik into the background and turning him away from the camera as his wife and old paramour trap him on either side – while between them, there is a whole other story unfolding.

Dreams is bookended with a return to the modelling studio it started in, signalling a withdrawal to the ordinary lives Doris and Susanne have always known, and effectively putting an end to those far-flung fantasies suggested in its title. Even here though, Bergman continues to draw a brilliant formal contrast between these two heartbreaks, letting the wildly emotional Doris emerge with renewed optimism and love for her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Susanne is driven further into her cynicism, tearing up Henrik’s apology letter and re-invitation to meet him in Oslo. She has evidently been in Doris’ situation before and forgotten how deeply this misery could cut her. Perhaps this is just part of life’s cycles though, Bergman posits, leading both young adults and their older, wiser counterparts down the same paths of inevitable disappointment.

A bookended return to the photo studio, bringing Susanne and Doris’ parallel journeys full circle.

Dreams is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


Ikiru (1952)

Akira Kurosawa | 2hr 23min

Death has come slowly for government worker Kanji Watanabe, settling over his monotonous life long before he receives his stomach cancer diagnosis. To his younger co-worker, Toyo, he is known as “the Mummy,” plodding through familiar routines like a tired, thoughtless creature reluctantly tied to the mortal world. After briefly taking offence, he accepts the accuracy of the metaphor. It has been a long time since he felt the vitality that comes with innovation, altruism, and human connection – thirty years, to be exact, as that is when he began working in the Public Affairs division at City Hall. A prison built from endless stacks of paper wrap around his office desk in an oppressive display of mise-en-scène, and from a reverse shot Akira Kurosawa brings careful precision to his blocking of colleagues on either side of him like guards. Ikiru is far from the samurai films he is most known for, and yet the Japanese auteur brings the same formal grandeur to this existential search for life’s meaning as he does in his sprawling historical epics.

A prison cell of paper stacks, and colleagues lined up like guards – as always, Kurosawa is purposeful with his mise-en-scène, turning actors into part of his scenery.

For such a pensive character study, Kurosawa keeps us at an unusual distance from Watanabe’s first-hand experience. We are led into this story by an omniscient voiceover informing us of his tumour before even he finds out, which itself pays homage to Ikiru’s literary roots in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. For a time though, we do disappear into his own subjective memories of the past, reflecting on his failures as a single father following his wife’s death.

The sight of a baseball bat triggers a flashback to a game his son, Mitsuo, played in as a young boy and struck out on. Kurosawa’s match cut back to the present via a pair of close-ups reveal a man who once felt disappointment in his son, and yet is now overcome with remorse. So too does he recall his abandonment of Mitsuo the day of his appendicitis surgery, prioritising “other things” he had to do. It is telling how little the details of those distractions have stuck around in his memory. Ikiru’s third-person narration is savage in its judgement, declaring that this lonely father has been so caught up in “the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness it breeds” that “in reality, he does nothing at all.”

Kurosawa’s typically superb editing does not disappear outside his thrilling samurai films. This match cut from the past to present reveals a huge shift in Watanabe’s disposition.

Only when Watanabe sees the final months of his life slipping away does his silent discontent start to worm its way out of his subconscious, and assert itself at the forefront of his mind. Kurosawa has always drawn magnificent performances out of his actors, and Takashi Shimura is no exception here, whose existential anxiety is etched into the lines on his ageing face, now visibly haunted by his own impending demise. His eyes widen with terror, as if cutting through time to see the truth of his wasted past and future, and desperately searching for some way he can change his legacy.

His encounters with two separate figures of wisdom shine a light forward. The first is a quirky novelist he meets in a pub who resolves to become a beneficent Mephistopheles – the demonic wish-granter of the Faust legend – though one who won’t ask for his soul in return. Their journey through the urban nightlife begins Watanabe’s solemn awakening, and Kurosawa brings a delicate beauty to these scenes, passing city lights across car windows and gently ascending his camera up to the top storey of a club. There, he invokes a magical silence among its patrons with a simple song request to the pianist. As ‘Gondola no Uta’ plays, he quietly sings of life’s beauty and brevity, and tears spring to his eyes. There are few scenes in film history that are so purely moving as this melancholy musical rendition, which may only be beaten by its reprise later in the film.

City lights passing across the car windows as Watanabe searches for hope in its nightlife.
Simply one of the great performances of the 1950s. Takashi Shimura’s face is etched with worry lines of existential anxiety, later fading as he uncovers a deeper purpose to his shortened life.

When the sun rises, he happens upon his second guide, Toyo, who is handing in her resignation with the resolution that life is too short to waste in such a soul-sucking bureaucracy. After begging her for the secret to her enthusiasm, the answer is revealed to be quite simple – she spends her free time making children’s toys. Therein lies the inspiration he needs to change his entire trajectory.

Kurosawa is incredibly efficient in his storytelling, as a scene we can only have assumed early on is pure exposition returns later as a major plot point. A proposal for clearing out a cesspool and replacing it with a park makes the rounds at City Hall, with each department passing off responsibility onto another and thereby leaving it on a constant loop of inaction. In this montage of endless wipe transitions, it is almost comical just how frustrating the situation is, though this is not some isolated demonstration of the government’s incompetence. The construction of this park becomes Watanabe’s life goal in his remaining months, seeing it through to its end – and then after a time jump forward to its completion at about the 90-minute mark, he passes away.

Kurosawa’s deep focus lens assists greatly in his stunning arrangements of actors, keeping up the muscular visual through Watanabe’s funeral.

It is an audacious shift in narrative that Kurosawa implements here, and an incredibly inspired one at that. Much like the opening narration, we are placed in the hands of a party observing Watanabe’s life from the outside, though these voices are far from objective. At his funeral, colleagues congregate and ponder what brought about his sudden shift in disposition, and in the formal piecing together of their personal memories, Ikiru effectively transforms into a Citizen Kane-like study of man’s depth and unknowability.

Shimura brings a refreshing energy to Watanabe as we move into flashbacks, commanding the attention of the camera as he bustles down hallways.

Quite notably, Watanabe had never told anyone of his illness. He was found frozen to death in the park he built, and only when an autopsy was conducted did it become publicly known that he had cancer, leaving everyone to wonder whether even he was aware of his illness. Surely he did, some reason, given his reinvigoration. In these flashbacks, we notice a slouch gradually take hold of his weakened shoulders, but no longer is his face turned downwards in a permanent pout. He is more persistent than ever, physically chasing down colleagues in hallways about deadlines until they are deliberately avoiding him.

A gorgeous arrangement of the frame – Shimura slumped in the foreground, trapped on either side by fellow bureaucrats, and that paper prison continuing to lurk in the background.

“Only his work was keeping him alive,” one man claims, recalling how hands-on Watanabe was on the park project from start to finish. Even on a rainy day, he went out there with the women who first put forward the proposal, huddling beneath umbrellas to see his vision spring to life. Kurosawa uses the weather to illustrate the uphill journey from here, as later someone else recalls how he paused while out on a walk to look at the sunset for “the first time in thirty years.” The transcendence of the moment is matched with an elegant low angle, slowly tracking the camera forward on the pair of silhouettes gazing into the distance.

Kurosawa slowly tracks his camera forward in this low angle, absorbing the sunset view as it catches Watanabe’s attention.

This is the sort of crisp, perfectly composed imagery that one can expect from Kurosawa during his fruitful 1950s period, infusing his cinematography with a rich depth of field which emphasises his intricately layered blocking, and yet it shouldn’t be taken for granted in Ikiru. Even the film’s most minor players are characterised by their staging, staggered across layers of the frame. Meanwhile, this deep focus also renders Watanabe’s existential journey with melancholy detail, at one point contrasting it against a joyous birthday party in the background.

Kurosawa uses his full depth of field in this meeting between Watanabe and Toyo, contrasting his melancholy demeanour against the birthday party in the background.

Perhaps the most profound use of this ambitious technique though is that shot which arrives towards the film’s end, playing out as the flashback recounted by one policeman who spotted him sitting on the park’s swing set a few hours before he passed away. Slowly, the camera tracks to the side, gazing through a grid of climbing bars where frames within frames funnel down to the lonely figure sitting on the other end. Once again he croons ‘Gondola no Uta’ to himself, though this time with no accompaniment, and with far more contentment than his previous rendition. Watanabe is not letting the cancer take him, but rather chooses to go out on his own terms, and on the site of his enduring legacy no less.

As those mourning men at his funeral bring their contemplations to a close, many of them claim that they would have done the same in the same situation. As one of them suggests though, they could die at any time. A direct translation of Ikiru to English is ‘To Live’, and it is in formally binding Watanabe’s spiritual revitalisation so closely to this ideal that Kurosawa gracefully transforms his introspective study of mortality into a broader consideration of life’s subjective yet highly intrinsic purpose.

One of the strongest compositions of Kurosawa’s filmography, funnelling the shot through the play equipment down to Watanabe as he quietly sings ‘Gondola no Uta’.

Ikiru is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 33min

Life is a circus, Ingmar Bergman posits in Sawdust and Tinsel, creating entertainment out of backstage affairs and laughter out of humiliation. It travels long, grey roads from one location to the next, never staying anywhere long enough to grow roots and thrive. It has a strange pull over those trapped in its cycles – the ringleader of this specific troupe, Albert, dreams of leaving it all behind, but realistically this is not something he could ever be satisfied with. When he meets his estranged wife, Agda, who has since settled down and found peace, there is nothing about her stagnant existence that is even slightly appealing to him.

“Year in and year out… everything stands still. For me it’s fulfillment.”

“For me it’s emptiness.”

Therein lies the irreconcilable difference between the nomadic buffoons of Sawdust and Tinsel and the ordinary people they fall for. Albert and his mistress, Anne, will find disappointment wherever they go, but at their very core is a desire for those perpetual distractions which save them from self-pity. In the very first scene as a trail of wagons ascends hills and crosses bridges, Albert joins the coachman to hear the story of how the circus clown, Frost, pathetically tried to cover up his wife as she went swimming in front of nearby soldiers. Bergman renders his flashback through overexposed film, like a bright memory fondly living on in everyone’s minds save for Frost himself. Albert would do well to take the clown’s mistake as a lesson rather than mere entertainment, though given the parallel trajectory that he heads down in Sawdust and Tinsel as a cuckolded man trying to save face, it appears that his embarrassing story may too one day be recounted as a light-hearted joke at his expense.

Over-exposed footage in this initial flashback like a dream, which foreshadows the struggle of sexes that will play out as the film’s main narrative.

Bergman’s wry sense of humour is stronger than ever here, marking a shift in his career away from the troubled romances of youth and towards more philosophically minded dramas with sharp, witty edges. So too does it mark another step forward for him as a visual filmmaker, pairing for the very first time with cinematographer Sven Nykvist who would go on to shoot seventeen more of his films right into the 1980s. In many exterior scenes, and especially that opening montage of wagons trailing across grassy landscapes, the horizon looks as if it has been smothered by a giant grey blanket and pushed right to the bottom of the frame, along with the lowly people who traverse it.

An elegant montage of the traveling circus, its reflection bouncing off calm rivers and rising up over the horizon at sunrise.

As we move indoors, a Wellesian deep focus takes hold of the camera, letting Bergman’s typically excellent blocking emerge in dressing rooms and theatres. It is here where divisions are drawn between characters, both in the layers of visual depth and the cluttered production design, as Frans’ seduction of Anne in his trailer frequently splits them between mirrors in beautifully fragmented compositions. Bergman works wonders with this sort of framing, in one shot catching Frans’ reflection while he stands behind the camera, and having him dangle an amulet right in front of the lens. With a simple image, Anna is tempted away from the life she has grown sick of, and a physical barrier is simultaneously drawn between them. When they are united in this cramped space though, it is of course the mirror which brings them together, inviting an intimacy which she cannot find in her relationship with Albert.

Some impeccable blocking in the mirrors of Frans’ trailer, first dividing them on either side of the frame, and then uniting them in a single reflection.
More division in the blocking, though this time through Bergman’s depth of field splitting Anna and Albert across layers of the frame.

Whether in his personal or professional life, Albert can barely catch a break from anyone, as even when he approaches the local theatre director, Mr Sjuberg, and asks to borrow costumes, he is turned down with a savagely poetic soliloquy. From a low angle, Gunnar Björnstrand stands against an imposing backdrop of the stage’s ornate ceiling and chandelier, drawing a snooty distinction between creators with noble ambitions such as himself, and those like Albert who belong at the bottom of society’s ladder.

“We make art. You make artifice. The lowest of us would spit on the best of you. Why? You only risk your lives. We risk our pride.”

A truly Wellesian low angle, slightly askew and using the deep focus lens to turn the ceiling into an imposing backdrop.

Only an artist with as much self-awareness as Bergman could write a passage so sharply satirical of his own profession. To consider one’s ego as more precious than life is to deem oneself above the material world, and to equally condemn those material beings such as Albert to the “world of misery, lice, and disease” they have always known.

As an actor in Mr Sjuberg’s cast, Frans is just as much an advocate of this classist thinking, topping off his cuckolding of Albert with one final act of sadistic humiliation in the hapless ringleader’s own circus. Starting with a few sexual taunts thrown Anne’s way as she rides a horse around the tent, Albert quicky gets involved too, whipping off Frans’ hat in a show of petty power. It is a brutal, bloody brawl that follows – a struggle of masculine dominance which simply ends up asserting the same rigid hierarchy which makes Albert, Anne, and their troupe the butt of society’s joke.

Albert’s humiliation rendered as circus entertainment, building on Bergman’s potent metaphor of life.
Bergman’s blocking of faces in close-up is among the best in the artform’s history – a lot of this has to do with the lighting, the depth of field, and of course, the actors.

There is nothing but a sorrowful look shared between these two lovers before it is time for them to move on again, riding across monochrome landscapes with the rest of their misfit crew in much the same way they came in. Life’s tragicomic farce continues, undercutting dreams of escaping its stranglehold with constant reminders of their own inadequacy. If there is any solace, at least those embarrassing stories will make for great comic fodder down the track, offering momentary distractions from their sad, squalid circumstances. Bergman needles the existential drama of Sawdust and Tinsel with a fine, sophisticated point, and in his extraordinary staging finds both sympathy and outright pity for its wayfaring circus performers doomed to eternal ridicule.

Sawdust and Tinsel is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Forty Guns (1957)

Samuel Fuller | 1hr 20min

In this classical Western tale of law enforcers, landowners, and mercenaries, somehow Samuel Fuller always finds the most inventive angle to frame their vicious clashes. When reformed gunslinger Griff approaches the town of Tombstone in the opening scene and is rushed by a herd of cowboys, the camera peers out from under his wagon and horses’ legs, dangerously at risk of being trampled. After he arrives and is confronted by local troublemaker Brockie, we cut into an extreme close-up of his eyes while he confidently strides down the street, several years before Sergio Leone would use the exact same technique. When two of Brockie’s friends seek revenge, Fuller’s low angle reveals the hidden shotgun emerging from the window right above Griff, heightening the dramatic irony of his own obliviousness. Forty Guns draws significantly from the mythology surrounding lawman Wyatt Earp and his time spent restoring order to the real Tombstone, and yet in Fuller’s skilled hands, it becomes a refreshingly imaginative, female-centric fable.

An extremely low angle revealing the suspense and dramatic irony of the scene – a rifle emerging from a window above an oblivious Griff on the street below.
Fuller shoots and edits this showdown like a Sergio Leone film. When his camera isn’t right in Griff’s eyes with extreme close-ups, there is constant attention paid to the blocking and background. Especially in the second shot of the three above, there is such a clear sense of geography and tension conveyed through his intelligent staging.

She’s no public official, but Jessica Drummond wilfully rules this town with her forty hired gunmen by her side, while turning a blind eye to their own misdeeds. Next to Barry Sullivan’s passable lead performance, Barbara Stanwyck easily commands the screen in this role, adding the Western genre to her repertoire of melodramas, noirs, and screwball comedies that she had already proven her hand at. Whether she is aiming to inspire laughter or fear though, there is often a hardy resilience to her characterisations, and it only matures here in her middle age. When an arrest warrant arrives at her headquarters, Fuller follows its movement through the hands of twenty men lining a table, and at its head Stanwyck sits as a calm, authoritative figure, letting the sheer quantity of men beneath her speak for itself.

A letter is passed through the hands of twenty men lining one side of this extra long table, leading to Barbara Stanwyck at the end – the most powerful of them all.

The cool fluidity of Fuller’s camera movement is weaved all through Forty Guns in some remarkable tracking shots, the longest of which set a record at Fox Studios with its four-minute take descending the side of a building and traversing the entire length of the town. In a more delicate scene after Griff saves Jessica from being swept away by a tornado, the two rivals find an unlikely romance burgeoning between them, and as they lie on the floor of a barn, the camera gradually floats down from its rafters towards them. Bit by bit, Fuller closes the distance between us and these hardened lovers, inviting us into their sweet but unusual dynamic. Even their dialogue crackles like partners in a film noir, giving Stanwyck the opportunity to call back to her own iconic role of Double Indemnity’s whip-smart femme fatale.

“I don’t kill for hire.”

“I’m sure you don’t kill for fun.”

“I’m sure you’re sure.”

A magnificent long take that drifts down from the rafters of the barn to Griff and Jessica below, where Fuller casts shadows and light across their romantic interaction.

Griff isn’t the only outsider to find companionship in this town either. One of his younger brothers, Wes, takes a strong liking to the local gunsmith’s daughter, and in a James Bond-like shot Fuller frames her coquettish smile at us down the barrel of a rifle. Meanwhile, his other brother, Chico, is making his own enemies, killing an assailant on the verge of shooting Griff. In effect, these three men are shaking up Tombstone’s dynamic in a major way, and Fuller makes superb use of CinemaScope to reflect that in his intricate compositions of actors staged across its black-and-white, widescreen canvas. The depth of field in his cinematography is exquisite, arranging dozens of extras around his leads and into the background, while his long shots of Tombstone develop the town into its own dangerously irresistible character.

The James Bond gun barrel shot – though preceding Bond by a few years.
Fuller works with dozens of actors in his ensemble, and always finds a place for each of them in his meticulously arranged frames.

Griff may strike the image of a Western hero seeking to bring order to the American frontier, and yet even his righteous sense of justice is tainted by his vengeful fury following Wes’ murder at the hands of Brockie – Jessica’s own brother. Fuller takes the time to mourn this tragedy, delicately placing long dissolves over close-ups of his characters’ morose faces, before launching into a second showdown between Griff and Brockie that mirrors their first, though with a far greater dose of merciless rage. That Griff barely hesitates to shoot Jessica when she is taken as a human shield is totally shocking given all that has unfolded between them, though perhaps this is outdone by her surprising decision to subsequently relinquish power, forgive his killing of her brother, and follow him out into the world. Such rich, complex character transformations bring touches of bitterness and sensitivity to this revision of the Old West, examining these qualities in its male and female leaders alike, and eloquently uniting both in Fuller’s eccentric visual expressions.

Forty Guns is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Bellissima (1951)

Luchino Visconti | 1hr 55min

There is a strange blend of neorealism and comedic satire in Bellissima which, at first glance, Luchino Visconti only seems half-suited to. As a forefather of the Italian movement in the 1940s, his stark, grounded direction never falters, and yet at the same time he is not a filmmaker known for his sense of humour. It is surprising then to see just how well he formally unites both in their shared inclination for social criticism, aiming them towards a mutual target – the ludicrous glorification of a cruel, exploitative entertainment industry. The rigorously blocked compositions that bring rich visual detail to his greatest films are scarce, but within the studio backlots and working-class suburbs of Rome, Visconti identifies an authentic connection between the pursuit of one effusive show mum to make her daughter a star, and her struggles of post-war poverty.

In what appears to be Anna Magnani’s effort to collect distinguished Italian directors from Rossellini to Fellini, her illustrious career intersects with Visconti’s here, ticking him off her list with a performance that swings from amusing parody to heartfelt poignancy. Maddalena is not a perfect mother, but she is deeply passionate, and when a casting call is sent out for a new film by Alessandro Blasetti, she joins the crowd of zealous parents trying to book their children a spot for the lead role. One might almost think these masses of working-class people were fighting for rations the way they elbow each other to the front, doing everything in the power to rise above the others.

It doesn’t stop there for Maddalena though – the arrival of veteran actor Tilde Spernanzoni on the scene brings promises of coaching her daughter, Maria, to the highest standard, and yet even here this coddling mother can’t help but call her own inexperienced feedback from the apartment window. When she learns from a rival parent that the character in the source material was a ballerina, she enrols her daughter in ballet classes as well. As it turns out, there’s no actual dancing required for this role, but a little girl in a tutu is too cute for movie executives to turn down. In effect, these children must be moulded into images cut for them by popular culture, as only then can they be considered successful. Visconti milks the comedy from this premise for a while too, throwing another comical obstacle into the mix when a boy mischievously cuts off Maria’s pigtails, though eventually Maddalena winds it all back, solemnly reminding us of the desperate insecurity underlying her misguided efforts.

“I want my daughter to become somebody.”

For the struggling lower classes of post-war Italy, movies represent everything they don’t have. With regular screenings in the square just outside Maddalena’s apartment building as well, they are virtually inescapable. American imports are particularly popular, as Red River projects fantasies of the Old West up in front of huge crowds, and the voice of Burt Lancaster penetrates the walls of Maddalena’s own apartment. As Visconti pans his camera around the destitute courtyards and streets surrounding her home, it is easy to see why the glamour of show business is held in such high regard here. Perhaps the only thing that would be more crushing than the state of her current life would be the realisation that her exceedingly ordinary daughter doesn’t possess that much talent after all.

Despite meeting with a film editor and former star who fell into obscurity after nabbing a few decent parts, Maddalena still refuses to recognise the cruelty and difficulty of the movie industry, leaving the heartbreak to sink in all at once when she peeks inside the screening room where casting directors watch Maria’s audition. Not only does her daughter’s incompetence as an actress become entirely apparent, but these executives don’t even try to hold back their callous laughter, calling her names without realising that her mother can hear everything. Magnani’s face crumbles in close-up as she is pulled back down to earth, finally seeing the futility of all her sacrifices.

If Visconti’s narrative disengages from reality at any point, then it is surely in the miraculous change of heart the casting directors experience upon watching Maria’s reel a second time, where they apparently discover hidden, unconventional talent. For Maddalena though, it comes too late. Her daughter needs to live on her own terms rather than those written out in exploitative contracts, and she deserves greater stability than that which the fickle movie industry can provide.

“I didn’t bring her into the world to amuse anyone.”

As the satire and naturalism of Bellissima’s narrative equally resolve, there are greater things in the world to aspire to than pure entertainment. This may be a strange mix of film conventions, and yet in its earnest consideration of parental ambition, both Visconti and Magnani prove their own impressive versatility as neorealist innovators.

Bellissima is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Summer with Monika (1953)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

Ingmar Bergman treads familiar ground in the tragic tale of one young Swedish couple’s idyllic summer fling, and yet there is something about Summer with Monika which goes down even smoother than many of his previous ill-fated love stories. Perhaps its laidback pacing can be given some credit for this, dispensing with his usual flashback structure to meet Harry and Monika at their most innocent and linger in their escape to the Stockholm archipelago. Maybe it is also Harriet Andersson’s remarkable debut film performance, the best in any Bergman film at this point, utterly charming us with warmth, poignancy, and honest expressions of sexuality. Certainly though a large portion of this film’s humble beauty can be traced back to the sensitivity of his visual artistry, studying the expressive contours of the actors’ faces in close-up and gracefully traversing their city and island homes.

Rocky coastlines and oceans winding around these young lovers in gorgeous long shots.
Bergman blocks his actors’ faces like few others in film history, and his camera is especially drawn to Andersson’s face throughout Summer with Monika.

With the city’s infrastructure and rivers forming a backdrop to the early stages of Harry and Monika’s relationship, Bergman borrows a few neorealist qualities from the Italians, mounting pressures on both in their individual lives. The camera uneasily hides with a small child behind a wagon wheel as Monika’s father stumbles drunkenly from the local pub with his friends, and though he seems to be in a good mood for the moment, there is still suspense back home as his family carefully walks on eggshells. Slowly, the camera tracks to the side where it settles on Monika’s face anxiously anticipating an outburst – which of course arrives the moment she snaps at him to stop standing on her new shoes.

Meanwhile at Harry’s job, he is visually hemmed in by colleagues criticising his work ethic, and Bergman further crowds the shot with a handsomely constructed composition of glassware lined across its foreground. With the men around him dissipating, Harry’s decisive resignation in this moment feels truly freeing, even seeing him cheekily push one of those glasses off its shelf.

An inspired arrangement of the frame, pressing men in on Harry from the background, and the set dressing from the foreground.

In the surrounding Swedish islands where both seek refuge, city views are replaced with rocky coastlines and oceans, turning this gorgeous rural scenery into their new home. There are plenty of long shots here that Bergman lavishes upon them, framing them within the gentle curve of seashores and atop a pier as they slow dance at dusk, and as he moves his camera closer, they are infused even more with their surroundings. Still landscapes are disrupted by their faces rapidly moving into the foreground, and their silhouetted reflections ripple in ponds like natural extensions of the environment.

Long shots of Sweden’s islands ruptured by faces suddenly entering the frame – playful blocking from Bergman.
Looking up at the sky via reflections in a pond, where Andersson’s own silhouette ripples in the water.
A dilapidated boathouse, a lone dinghy, and a wooden pier reflected in the water – a quiet, romantic composition for Monika and Harry as they slow dance together.

Within the context of the 1950s, Andersson’s intermittent onscreen nudity was considered particularly transgressive, though within this ‘Paradise’ it also carries implications of an Adam and Eve-type fable, much like Summer Interlude from two years earlier. This is a romance that is allowed the time and space develop without external pressures, and Bergman’s close-ups of their faces resting against each other intimately expresses that delicate sentiment.

The appearance of Monika’s jealous ex-boyfriend to destroy their boat though effectively serves the same role as the allegorical snake, bringing moral corruption to the islands where they bask in their simple lives. Small arguments arise as time languidly drifts on, and soon they realise that their days of shirking responsibility are coming to an end. “We have to make something real out of our lives,” Harry ponders, though neither he nor Monika are particularly well-equipped to handle the soul-sucking drudgery of adulthood. Unlike the sudden deaths of previous Bergman melodramas, the downfall of these lovers simply comes through those rites of passage one must shoulder in a society of strict moral standards. Settling down, having babies, the woman staying home as the man goes to work – it is a contrived dynamic that they never had to consider as runaways, and which now wears away at their own self-identities, love, and happiness.

Divisions drawn in the mise-en-scène, with faces at different depths in the frame. Bitter disconnection rendered visually between the two lovers.

Divisions are drawn in the mise-en-scène as their quarrels turn into vicious arguments, and even the bars of their bed frame become oppressive visual obstructions when a fight turns into physical abuse. Yet amid such tragic conflict, Bergman still finds the time to hang on his empathetic close-ups, once capturing their tender love, though now only finding melancholy isolation. When Harry comes home and catches Monika in the middle of an affair, we don’t even get a reverse shot of what he is seeing, but instead we simply linger on his seething dismay. Later after they have separated and all their possessions are being carried out, he catches his own reflection in a mirror and almost seems to stare right at us, as Bergman dissolves into all the memories of their summer paradise.

Bergman shaping Lars Ekborg’s face in close-up through shadows as he wistfully reminisces the romance he has lost.

Easily the strongest and most memorable shot from Summer with Monika is that which hangs on Andersson’s sad, prolonged gaze for over thirty seconds, letting her lock eyes with the camera while she slowly puffs on a cigarette. Though she is sitting in a club next to the man she is cheating with, she clearly feels no emotional investment in any of it, as Bergman gradually tracks in on her passive face and dims the background lighting into complete darkness where she is totally isolated. Jaunty jazz music keeps playing, but there is no joy to be found anymore. Bergman guarantees the loss of innocence in his characters’ lives as sure as seasonal changes, and it is in that contrast of light nostalgia against the demoralising fatigue of urban living where he sinks in a poignant recognition of what modern society has so cruelly stolen from its youth.

Maybe the single strongest shot in the film. Andersson locks eyes with the camera in close-up, which tracks forward as the background lighting dims.

Summer with Monika is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Summer Interlude (1951)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

By the time the world Ingmar Bergman started manifesting his great artistic potential and the world started catching on, he was up to his tenth feature, Summer Interlude. In 1951, it was his brightest film yet, though such tender optimism only makes its inevitable heartbreak land with larger impact. The warm days that young ballerina Marie and college student Henrik spend basking in each other’s love on their tiny Swedish island drift by with idyllic grace, and even within his short 90-minute narrative, Bergman affords them what feels like all the time in the world, right up to the devastating end of their summer vacation.

The contrast between Marie’s sunny memories and the cool remoteness of her present is readily apparent. In place of light clothing and swimming costumes, she now wraps herself up in thick coats, putting up an armour against the cold Swedish winter and the pity of others. In the theatre where she is rehearsing for an upcoming production of Swan Lake though, her pale, austere makeup is what provides that impenetrable cover instead, as she refuses to cave into whatever tragedy we assume unfolded between her and the man whose diary has fallen back into her lap after thirteen years. Since then, she has grown proficient in her art, and much like the use of Beethoven’s music in Bergman’s previous film, To Joy, ballet becomes a creative outpouring of emotion in Summer Interlude where words will not suffice. The stage’s plain grey backdrop forces our attention entirely onto the dancers in front, where Bergman’s depth of field and camera angles keep finding new dimensions to their elegant movements, making for some exquisite displays of choreography.

Beautifully framed extreme close-ups revealing the cold austerity of Marie’s made-up face.
So too does Marie’s clothing in the present day tightly restrain her – very different from the flashbacks.
Like To Joy, Bergman spends a good while revelling in his characters’ artistic expressions. Here it is ballet, and he uses camera angles and depth of field to make it entirely cinematic.

Ultimately though, Marie finds her life thoroughly unfulfilling. Only when the arrival of Henrik’s diary motivates her to catch a ferry back to the island where they fell in love does she recognise what is missing, and romantic long dissolves accompany her as she returns to those old memories. A priest she hasn’t seen since her Confirmation is the first to make an appearance, as if summoned by fate to bridge the gap between the present and the past, and from there the extended flashback described in Summer Interlude’s title starts flowing in picturesque visuals and poetic voiceovers.

“Days like pearls, round and lustrous, thread on a golden string. Days filled with frolic and caresses. Nights of waking dreams. When did we sleep? We had no time for sleep.”

Bergman showing off the rocky shorelines and forests of Sweden in his scenery, setting it up like a woodland fairytale shared between lovers.

Not until this film had Bergman shot the rocky shorelines, towering woodlands, and grassy hills of Sweden with such scenic adoration, turning it into an Eden-like paradise where these Adam and Eve stand-ins swim, kiss, and eat wild berries. So too does his staging of their romance flourish in its tiny tensions and pleasures, creating the first instance of Bergman’s characteristic blocking of parallel faces lying down, with one slightly obscuring the other and creating a visual harmony. Marie’s Uncle Erland remains a slightly disturbing figure here too, as even in one scene where he does not appear onscreen, his presence ruptures a shot of the lovers’ faces nestled against each other, swiftly splitting them up on either side of a door that he is lurking behind.

The iconic parallel faces shot that both Bergman and Agnes Varda would keep returning to, studying the contours of the actors’ profiles.
A smooth camera transition from one romantic close-up into a slightly wider shot that splits them on either side of the door Uncle Erland lurks behind.

Even though Summer Interlude’s narrative remains firmly in the real world, Bergman’s writing hints at the lyrical, philosophical dramas that he was only a few short years away from making at the time, speaking directing to the intersection of spirituality and love in his characters.

“One night, after a scorching summer day of blazing sunlight, there was an immense silence that reached all the way up to the starless vault of heaven. The silence between us was immense as well.”

So too does he weave melancholy metaphors into his screenplay with astounding fluency, as this intimate dream draws to a close along with the warm weather, foreshadowing colder days on the horizon.

“Can you feel autumn on the air?”

It is not some tragic character flaw or adversary which destroys these lovers, but simply a moment of poor judgement and fortune. Henrik’s jump into shallow water leaves him badly injured, and after Bergman tilts his camera up to a cloud hanging above, a graphic match cut to his head lying on his deathbed touchingly makes him one with the heavens.

A tragic graphic match cut upon Henrik’s premature death.
It’s always about the blocking for Bergman, getting adventurous here with the use of mirrors to place Marie side by side with the Ballet Master.

Marie’s pilgrimage back to the island of her youth in the present day is merely the start of her journey back into the world as she used to know it – a happier, more welcoming place, brimming with opportunities. It is rather by engaging with the personal entries in Henrik’s diary that this is made possible, and by sharing those memories with her new boyfriend, David, she can finally open herself to the affections of others again. Her internal monologue as she wipes off her makeup in the dressing room mirror is a totally unnecessary addition to the scene, as Maj-Britt Nilsson’s expressive face tells us everything about this transformation, smiling and playfully pulling faces at her reflection. Marie and Henrik aren’t the first lovers in a Bergman film to be brutally torn apart, but they are first to be developed with such visual splendour and warmth, romantically calling back to those innocent summers of youth that seemed to go on forever.

Summer Interlude is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

To Joy (1950)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 38min

Before we even meet Stig’s wife, Marta, in To Joy, we discover that she has already died. It was an accident with a kerosene stove, we are told, though the tragedy doesn’t feel nearly as potent as it will by the end of the film. Their relationship is one of frequent turmoil, rocked by an unexpected pregnancy, an affair, and insurmountable ambition that Stig’s talent as a violinist just can’t live up to. Like so many other lovers in previous Ingmar Bergman films, bitter scorn and overwhelming passion are locked in a constant struggle, but there is also a mutual understanding here which transcends either, expressing ideas and emotions that can only be captured through their music.

As the conductor of the classical orchestra that both play in, Victor Sjöström becomes a father figure of sorts to this young couple. Professor Sönderby carries out his own rich emotional arc in his transformation from a perfectionistic who won’t budge his rehearsal time for a wedding, into a man whose heart melts at the sight of their small family, proving himself to be perhaps the richest character of them all. He is a pure embodiment of the joy they share together, shaping the sounds of strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments through the movement of his hands, and frequently underscoring scenes of their life with pieces written by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.

This isn’t quite Whiplash, but Bergman’s pairing of montage editing and camera movements as the orchestra plays brings a dynamic energy to these swells of grand emotion. Crane shots move from high above stages down to ground level where Bergman finds harmonious patterns in rows of identical instruments, and through the harp’s strings he obstructs wide shots of the entire ensemble, each putting in their part to create something grander than any single one of them. These interludes make up a decent portion of the film’s entire run time, becoming extensions of the characters as their faces fade in over the top of sheet music flipping from page to page.

When the exuberant Beethoven symphony from Stig’s rehearsal continues playing beneath his discovery that Marta has given birth to twins, dialogue isn’t needed to feel the pure elation of the sequence. Neither is it integral to the tender sadness of Bergman’s visual compositions, underlining the couple’s gradual estrangement in one beautifully blocked shot of both their heads turned away from each other at different depths, nor the elegant frame of Stig’s mistress, Nelly, entering a doorway through a thin strip of light to silently watch him play.

At the same time though, Bergman’s achievement in screenwriting here may be one of his strongest at this point in his career, letting a drunken Stig deliver harsh condemnations to his fellow musicians he calls “despicable loafers” who “wallow and slobber and burp in your stained ties.” It is impossible for him to separate the disappointment he feels in his own solo performance from his relationships, and so when his debut as criticised an “unnecessary suicide”, Marta is regrettably caught up in his angst. She insults him, he slaps her, she sardonically tells him that perhaps Nelly will nurture his genius, and it all seems to be over for this once happy couple.

But this is an Ingmar Bergman film, and so ties between quarrelling spouses can’t be severed as easily as this. Love and resentment move in cycles, leaving much to regret when a promising reconciliation is cut short by the tragedy that led us into his extended flashback, and which now sombrely greets us as we return to the present. Music was the language of Stig and Marta’s love, and so too is it the expression of Sönderby’s great sorrow, poured out in the final rendition of the film’s leitmotif that has followed the lovers through their relationship – ‘Ode to Joy’. It is from that symphony where the film gets its title, and where the great conductor finds profound inspiration to reflect on Marta’s passing.

“It’s about joy, you see. Not the joy expressed in laughter… or the joy that says “I’m happy”. What I mean is a joy so great, so special, that it lies beyond pain and boundless despair. It’s a joy beyond all understanding. I can’t explain it any better.”

Sönderby is only partially right here – perhaps he can explain it better, just not through words. Joy is a strange way to describe Stig’s state of mind in this moment, but within that final piece of classical music there is a complex mixture of sadness, tenderness, regret, and pride among so many other emotions, each one unfolding across his face as his son sits in the auditorium and watches him play. Bergman’s tribute to artistic expressions that speak directly to the human soul resonate loudly through these final minutes of visual and musical orchestrations, each one harmonising to acutely pinpoint the intersection of love, tragedy, and a wistful longing for happiness that was always taken for granted.

To Joy is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Man of the West (1958)

Anthony Mann | 1hr 40min

The archetype of morally grey heroes with a shameful past was nothing new to the Western genre by the time Man of the West was released in 1958, but few films confronted their protagonist’s historic misdeeds as explicitly as Anthony Mann does here in his world of crumbling ghost towns and old, battered farmhouses. Deep in its dry, Texan desert, one of these ranches is inhabited by a small gang of vicious outlaws headed by Dock Tobin, a grey, weathered men with a haunting cackle and drunken manner that doesn’t seem to sway the respect his henchmen hold for him. Beneath his greasy beard and bushy brow, Lee J. Cobb is entirely unrecognisable, putting forward a truly sordid character with a contemptibility even more intense than his similarly antagonistic Juror 3 in 12 Angry Men. It is entirely a coincidence that Tobin’s nephew and former protégé, Link Jones, is on the train that his gang chooses to hold up, but it is that unfortunate meeting which brings a reckoning for both men, undermining the identities that they have crafted for themselves as bold, steadfast leaders on opposing sides of the law.

Protégé and mentor, Gary Cooper in one of his best performances and an unrecognisable Lee J. Cobb. An important film for the legacies of both actors.

On the spectrum of cynicism that stretches from John Ford’s idealistic mythologising to Sam Peckinpah’s dog-eat-dog nihilism, it is unusual to find a 1950s Hollywood Western sit so far up the latter end with its bleak resolve and depictions of sexual abuse. Especially striking though is just how much Mann’s specific brand of pessimism bears resemblance to Sergio Leone’s, though obviously preceding his gritty Spaghetti Westerns by just a few years.

Like the Italian auteur, Mann shows real mastery of establishing shots in capturing spectacular sets upon a widescreen, Technicolor canvas, impressively using them in the opening scene to stretch a crowded ensemble across a large train station platform. It doesn’t take long though for us to move away from civilisation into open, desert plains, where that huge scale persists through majestic crane shots of worn-out settlements and actors set against an orange sunset.

The most populated scenes of the film are towards the start before it tapers off into more intimate drama, but Mann makes the most of his ensemble in these long shots.
Gorgeous magic hour shooting, 15 years before Malick would start doing something similar in Badlands.
An excellent compositions using the ridiculously huge depth of field, directing our eyes to the speck in the background through Cooper in the foreground.
Grand establishing shots revealing Man of the West’s dusty, ramshackle settlements.

Perhaps the even greater artistic triumph here though is the meticulous staging, pushing the widescreen format beyond epic landscapes and into confined spaces where Mann’s intimate character portraits unfold, making excellent use of the full frame. While Link first meets his two future companions, Sam and Billie, between the narrow walls and low ceiling of a train carriage, the farmhouse where he previously lived out his days as an outlaw soon becomes the rustic setting of the film’s most significant interactions, staging some remarkable arrangements of characters.

Confined interiors combined with Mann’s masterful blocking staggering actors through layers of the frame.

There in that ranch, Link’s uncle Dock Tobin has built up a new crew over the years, and being an older, wearier man than he was in the old days, he now sends them to his dirty work for him. In wider shots here, Mann often frames the scene beneath a slanted ceiling that subtly tips the dynamic off-balance, though his blocking remains immaculate all throughout regardless of where the camera is placed, consistently staggering his actors across layers of his compositions with a beautifully deep camera focus. These compositions are purposefully driven by the guilt, humiliation, and fear of his central characters, particularly as he alternates between a pair of shots during Billie’s forced strip, sequentially relegating her humiliation and Link’s helplessness to the background.

A pair of shots viewing a single scene from different angles, both superbly staged. While Billie is cruelly forced to strip, all eyes are on her, minus Dock Tobin as he slouches in his chair facing the opposite direction – so much character detail packed into these compositions.
The low angle cowboy shot down at the hip, years before Leone would innovate it further in his Spaghetti Westerns.

Still, traces of more classical Hollywood filmmaking are very much present here, as cinematographer Ernest Haller relishes the bright colours of the scenery, and Mann whisks the narrative along to a lush, expressive score from Leigh Harline. Perhaps the strongest connection back to traditional Westerns though is the self-assured performance from Gary Cooper who, while not always offering the strongest onscreen presence in his lesser roles, here rivals his career-best work as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Cooper’s portrayal of Link is heavy with stifled guilt, as even before we discover the details of his past, he shrinks back from the gaze of men with suspicious eyes, passing himself off under a different name just to afford himself some peace. When it becomes apparent that some level of cooperation and deceit is needed to survive the brutality of his old mentor, that shame only sets in deeper, driving an internal conflict between the need to temporarily revert to his old ways and his desire to set them right.

Suspicion and guilt in a single frame, pressing in on Cooper through the window.
A beautifully inspired use of the wagon wheel to obstruct our view of a fight, as the camera slowly drifts to the right.

The shabby ghost town that Link’s climactic struggle against Tobin’s gang unfolds within makes for a particularly haunting set piece towards the film’s end, marking the outlaw’s fruitless efforts to keep their self-perceived glory alive. Mann proves himself to be an excellent editor several times through the film in its action-heavy set pieces, but the brilliant coordination of his actors across hills, atop ramshackle roofs, and beneath brittle floorboards makes especially brilliant use of the set’s expansive geography, attentively keeping track of each adversary as the pacing accelerates. The Leone comparison is more apt than ever here, specifically with the low framing of one gang member’s shooting bearing strong resemblance to Henry Fonda’s death in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Mann makes astounding use of the ghost town’s layout to stage a shoot out that looks a lot like something Leone might direct a few years later. This last shot even looks strikingly similar to Henry Fonda’s death in Once Upon a Time in the West.

To finally destroy the hold that Link’s old life has over him, it must effectively be put down, and it is with this resolve that he returns from killing the other gang members to confront an intoxicated Tobin. “Shoot me!” the old man shouts atop a cliff while furiously waving his gun, and though it seems to be a taunt, it is possible that he genuinely wants to end his miserable life. It is apparent now more than ever that he is not the daring leader that his gang members believed him to be, or that Link once viewed him as. He is simply a tiny speck in the distance, and his voice a quiet echo, drunkenly inviting a fight that he is destined to lose.

Dock Tobin drunkenly shouting atop a cliff in the distance – all that remains of his sad, shrunken legacy.

Though Man of the West eventually sees each of these despicable men meet their sad, pitiful fates, they cannot be forgotten so easily. The discovery that Billie was raped in the short time that Link was away from the group is downright gut-wrenching, and is destined to leave a mark on them both for a long time. They may share a sweet affection for each other, but they also realise that this is not a romance that will last. The old world is crumbling, and new ones must be built in its place. Link may serve his own purpose in that effort, but to do so this trauma and guilt must return to where we found it – deep in the recesses of his mind, where only he can see the pain that quietly lives on.

A hint of Yasujiro Ozu in this framing, segmenting the shot through the vertical wooden beams.

Man of the West is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa | 1hr 28min

Akira Kurosawa has never shied away from the cutthroat cynicism of Japanese history and mythology, but as dark rain beats down heavily upon the dilapidated city gate that we return to all throughout Rashomon, one might feel as if he is sinking us deeper than ever into an apocalyptic world of total ruin. Even with half its roof caved in and an array of broken wooden beams exposed to the elements, it remains an impressive piece of ancient architecture, obstructing frames inside its walls with the debris that has accumulated over the years.

The sombre mood of the woodcutter and priest sitting silently under its feeble shelter equally suggests a decay that has taken over the land, though as they begin to explain the reason for their dismay to a passing commoner, it becomes evident that the form of degradation they are concerned with is more that of a senseless, moral corruption. Both have just observed the trial of a bandit who assaulted a woman on the road and seemingly killed her samurai husband, though what initially seems like a clear-cut case of truth and justice soon gets muddled as three conflicting stories emerge.

An impressive piece of dilapidated Japanese architecture drenched in rain, setting the scene for the narrative’s almost apocalyptic framing device.

By containing these flashbacks within the larger flashback of the trial, Kurosawa keeps us at a significant distance from each version of these events, recalling them not necessarily how they unfolded, but rather how the individual witnesses would like to believe they happened, presenting them to an unseen, silent judge. Each seated centre frame, the bandit, wife, and a medium channelling the spirit of the deceased samurai present their case directly to the camera, cutting any representation of lawful judgement out of the equation to position us, the viewers, as the sole arbiters of truth. This is not such an easy task though, we soon discover. While each witness agrees that the bandit confronted the travelling couple, tied up the samurai, and raped his wife, the renditions of subsequent events see each respective storyteller curiously frame themselves as the true murderer.

The witnesses in the centre foreground, the priest and woodcutter off to the right in the background as spectators to their recounts.

Despite this, each recount still sees its own narrator come out looking the most honourable among them, or in the case of the bandit, the bravest and smartest. Only in unlocking the fourth perspective of the woodcutter who secretly bore witness to the whole thing do we discover what we might assume is the truth, bookending the trial flashbacks with two of his own. We initially have no reason to doubt the first, which explains how he discovered a trail of strewn possessions leading to the samurai’s body while venturing down the road, though by the time we reach his final confession of how the confrontation really went down, we have been thoroughly conditioned to question the words of anyone with some connection to it.

Sure enough, the woodcutter admits he lied in court to cover up the fact that he stole the jewelled dagger from the scene of the crime. In his final version of events, the samurai humiliated his wife after she was raped by the bandit, and it is only after she challenged their masculinity that they were provoked into a pathetic, clumsy fight, proving that neither were particularly skilled with their weapons. The bandit’s win was not secured by skill or bravery, but sheer luck, and frightened by what just took place, the wife ran away in fear.

A master of blocking at work in static shots and action scenes alike, using his deep focus to draw our eyes around each composition.

Within their conflicting fabrications, all three witnesses are being sincere to some extent, and the only common lie among them is the presence of some courage, honour, and moral conviction in each narrator. Now with the woodcutter going back on his initial story, one has to wonder whether what he proposes is actually the objective truth, especially given that there are still holes in his tale – how did the dying samurai know the dagger was stolen if it was simply taken from his side and not drawn from his chest, for instance?

The point of Kurosawa’s complex structure here is not to lead us towards a single, definitive answer, and neither is it to simply reveal the difficulties in our search for truth. More than just being a bold exercise in narrative form, Rashomon is a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, recognising it as an inherently subjective form of communication through which we understand the egos, insecurities, and shortcomings of other humans, and following on from that, our own as well. Framed within the meeting of three men whose identities are distributed across a spectrum of spiritual faith and nihilism, Rashomon even more broadly applies this study to the dramatic conflict between them, watching the priest’s faith in humanity dwindle right next to the commoner’s pessimistic taunts.

The beams and debris of the Rashomon gatehouse obstructing these frames, throwing off their balance.

Significant to the thread of despair running through the modern-day storyline is that angry storm which continues to pelt down around them, as if dolefully conjured up by the moral failings of the four dishonest witnesses. Kurosawa is unquestionably of a master of using weather formations to bring rich depth to his characters and an effervescent energy to his cinematography, but it also serves a formal purpose here in marking a striking contrast between the present day’s gloomy rain and the recurring low angles of the sun in the flashbacks, rendering the canopy’s branches as dense, black silhouettes. When he isn’t turning our eyes upwards, he will often instead cast the forest’s shadows across the faces of the bandit, samurai, and wife, setting up an intriguing conflict of light and darkness in both his scenic landscapes and intimate close-ups.

Formally recurring shots of the sun poking through the trees, brilliantly tying style to narrative.
And of course, Kurosawa extends this motif to the faces of his characters, casting shadows across their faces like a battle between truth and darkness.

Even within Kurosawa’s screenplay, the impact of weather is quietly influential, with the bandit claiming that the only reason he awoke from his nap and noticed the passing couple was the cool breeze ruffling the leaves above him. In this way, these atmospheric conditions become forces of a volatile, chaotic universe, shunning any belief that there may be a higher power guiding humans along a single true path by splitting itself into multiple realities, each one born in the dishonest minds of its inhabitants.

A real influence from John Ford with shots like these – the placement of the horizon and the inventive use of legs to frame characters in the background.

Kurosawa’s dextrous camerawork and editing are particularly integral to our navigation of these uncertain worlds, both working in tandem to offer multiple spins on the bandit and samurai’s thrillingly choreographed sword fights, and expertly blocking each narrator as the heroes of their own stories. Especially remarkable is the agile camera movements which nimbly adopt the perspectives of the individual storytellers, often moving in close on their faces before rapidly swinging the camera around to view the objects of their focus. It is no surprise that between the multiple characters who claim our attention with these superb close-ups, it is Toshiro Mifune’s bandit who transfixes us the most, pulling off wild mood swings, fits of manic laughter, and eventually an emotional strain which sees beads of sweat cling to his long, black hair and beard.

Inspired camera movements taking on the perspective of each character.
He’s just one part of a larger ensemble, but Toshiro Mifune is by far the stand out as the bandit. Kurosawa’s close-ups serve him well here – we can see every drop of sweat on his face and in his beard.

Whether he really did kill the samurai or not amounts to very little in the end. It is not so much the murder than the cowardice and duplicity of the entire ensemble which stokes Rashomon’s cynicism, and the discovery of an abandoned baby in the gate house at first simply seems to confirm the inherent evil of humanity. But just as the violent storm is not a permanent fixture here, neither is corruption an inevitability for those possessing the self-awareness to reflect on their own fallibilities. Along with the emergence of the sun from behind the clouds comes the woodcutter’s decision to take the baby in as his own, marking what might be the first truly selfless act in the film. There may not be any undisputed truths to uncover here, but for Kurosawa, the next best thing is to at least use the imperfect perspectives of others to reflect on the self-serving lies in our own. It is only with as daring a narrative structure as the one which he builds here that Rashomon’s ruminations on subjectivity, truth, and storytelling can find such peaceful resolve in the acceptance of an uncertain, chaotic world.

The baby emblematic of humanity’s potential for either good or evil, and for all his cynicism, Kurosawa doesn’t falter ending Rashomon on a hopeful note.

Rashomon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.