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.

A Star is Born (1954)

George Cukor | 3hr 2min

There is something universally compelling in the archetypal narrative of A Star is Born which begs to be updated every few decades, rewritten and recast with celebrities who typify the dominant culture of the era. With such a clean balance of light romance and dark tragedy moving in conflicting directions, it may be the closest thing Hollywood has to a modern fairy tale, firmly rooted in classical storytelling conventions yet inseparable from America’s modern entertainment industry. That George Cukor’s 1954 adaptation may be the most triumphantly successful version does not just speak to his own talents as a director, boldly building the fable out into a drama epic pushing nearly three hours and capturing it all on vibrant, widescreen CinemaScope. The immense emotional weight contained in Judy Garland’s performance is also largely responsible for guiding this story along its inverse trajectories, sending the career of Esther Blodgett to soaring highs while her personal life and relationship with Norman Maine plunges to soul-shattering lows.

George Cukor working where he did much of his best filmmaking – in a large-scale, Technicolor musical, making splendid use of the widescreen format.

The pattern of Norman’s drunken behaviour impeding on Esther’s public life is there right from the start, as he clumsily tramples over her performance at the Hollywood function where they meet. With some quick thinking and slick improvisation, she effectively turns his interruption into a charming publicity stunt, leading him by the hand into a dance. At this point in time, the troubles that this embarrassing sort of conduct will cause down the road are not entirely clear yet. For now, both are intrigued by the other, feeding an affectionate curiosity which eventually develops into full, besotted love. While Norman surreptitiously pulls strings with producers behind the scenes to draw attention to this great talent he has discovered, Esther wrestles with the beauty standards and rigid systems of an industry that makes over her appearance and forces a new, more attractive name upon her – Vicki Lester.

Fifteen years removed from her iconic performance in The Wizard of Oz, Garland approaches Vicki with more mature sensitivities, seeking to understand the tender discomfort of an actress whose job is to cover up that pain with acts of dazzling spectacle. This is never demonstrated so sharply as it is in her upbeat tap number ‘Lose That Long Face’, taking place on a monochrome movie set which highlights her at the centre bearing strong resemblance to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, with short black hair and an eye-catching red coat. Between takes of this song that preaches unwavering optimism, Vicki breaks down beneath the weight of all her personal troubles, uninhibited by rolling cameras or domineering directors, and yet the moment she is back on set again a mere few minutes later, the shift in her disposition is jarring. Quite ironically, Garland loses that long face in an instant, and replaces it with the smile that audiences pay money to see.

‘Lose That Long Face’ sets up the devastating contrast between Vicki’s joyful screen persona and her troubled personal life, letting her vividly stand out in her red coat on this otherwise monochrome set.

This formal contrast between the two sides of Vicki’s life is one that Cukor delicately extends all through A Star is Born, as it is only in the adoration he holds for Vicki at her most playful and passionate that her pain lands with real impact. Following her run-in with Norman onstage, the two meet again by chance in an after-hours club where she soulfully sings ‘The Man That Got Away’, soulfully pining for a lost love. Her dark blue dress cuts out a bold imprint against the bar’s soothing red background, but just as stylistically affecting is the way Cukor illuminates her face with an attractive, soft light and lets his camera follow her around this space in an unbroken take, totally under the spell of her magnetic presence.

Norman’s discovery of Vicki in this dimly lit, red bar is a stunning scene, softly illuminating her face while those around her sink into darkness.

Cukor’s production design and cinematography takes yet another leap up right before intermission as we watch Vicki’s breakout movie, where she dresses in a tuxedo and stands on a stage of lush red curtains and flowers, recounting her childhood and entry into the industry. As ‘Born in a Trunk’ and ‘Swanee’ burst to life in a Vincente Minnelli-style interlude, we disappear into expressive, imaginary realms, and not one to pass up an opportunity to indulge in his magnificent cinematic panache, Cukor defines them with striking, geometric sets, totally separating this artificial dream from reality.

The red flowers and curtains of ‘Born in a Trunk’ takes a turn into Vincente Minnelli territory with an imagery musical interlude, and Cukor doesn’t waste the opportunity to splash an exceptionally gorgeous visual style up onscreen.

Even outside the big musical numbers, Cukor brings a polished slickness to his mise-en-scène, absorbing Vicki into a world of ravishing opulence while Norman finds himself on the way out. At the exact moment she decides she is going to stay behind in Los Angeles and accept his offer of a screen test, a gorgeous sunrise manifests behind her in clear reference to the film title, illuminating her in a woozy, lovesick light. Later as we transition to the fateful Oscars ceremony, Cukor’s long dissolve-heavy montage dazzles us with the red carpet’s glitz and glamour, setting a stylish stage for her greatest victory and Norman’s most shameful humiliation, thereby cementing their ultimate fates.

“Those big, fat lush days when a star could get drunk and disappear and hold up production for two weeks are over.”

Glitz and glamour in this montage of long dissolves bringing us into the Oscars.
Strong storytelling in this visual choice, washing Norman in the waves of the ocean preceding his suicide.

In the couple’s attractive Malibu beach house, the reflection of the ocean in its giant glass walls wash over Norman as he wallows in disgrace and embarrassment, realising the sacrifices Vicki is prepared to make to her own career for his rehabilitation. Once again, the sun marks a milestone in their trajectories, though where it previously rose in the early morning with Vicki’s hopeful prospects, it now sets over the horizon, shedding a warm orange glow over Norman’s silhouette as he walks into the ocean.

A rising and setting sun at either end of these characters’ journeys, symbolically manifesting the title of the film with extraordinarily handsome lighting.

Not that his tragic suicide really solves any problems for his wife at all. This is not the start of a new career for her, but rather the end of any chance at the happiness she dreamed of, trapping her in an unresolved sort of misery known only to those who aren’t given the time or space to properly grieve. Even at Norman’s funeral, she is cruelly mobbed by a crowd of zealous reporters and fans, pulling the black veil from her head to expose her vulnerability to the world. Just as fading celebrities are cruelly discarded in show business, neither is there any dignity for those successful stars like Vicki who are ripped from their old identities and consumed by new ones, pushing them to keep up the act of perfect contentment. This is an industry of happy lies, not painful realities, but it is in its pointed balance of both that Cukor’s take on A Star is Born stirringly paints out the life cycle of those talented individuals we happily turn into beautiful, disposable commodities.

Darkness takes over Cukor’s mise-en-scène in the final minutes – Vicki will forever be tied to this tragedy.

A Star is Born is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Early Summer (1951)

Yasujirō Ozu | 2hr 16min

On one side of Noriko’s circle of friends in Early Summer, Fumiko and Takako proclaim that “Single people don’t know what true happiness is,” asserting contentment in their marriages even while complaining about their husbands. On the other side, Noriko herself and Aya lightly tease their friends for being tied down to traditional institutions that keep them from living their lives freely. It is a relatively light-hearted dynamic, and one that acutely represents the cross-sectional divide of social attitudes spread across Yasujirō Ozu’s depiction of post-war Japan, though it is back home in domestic settings where the film truly takes hold of these cultural stakes. As the rift in Noriko’s group widens, so too does the conflict between multiple generations of Japanese men and women under the same roof intensify, each of them struggling to reconcile the happiness of one individual against the security of the family unit.

There are few filmmakers in history so stylistically suited to these delicate tales of domestic dramas as Ozu, whose sensitive examinations of familial love and disenchantment offer a stage to those voices typically silenced in public arenas. While his camera will intermittently turn to broader visions of Tokyo rendered through its impressive structures and greyscale landscapes, it is evident that his characters’ homes are where he truly thrives, infusing interiors with the rich lives and personalities of the families who inhabit them. Door casings and hallways are often layered deeply into his shots, creating a funnelling effect that keeps narrowing each successive frame into the background, each one wrapping characters up in cosy compositions.

Ozu’s characteristic use of frames within frames aren’t just among the best in cinema history – there are simply no other auteurs who are as defined by this stylistic choice as him, creating these evocative compositions of domestic settings.
Character interactions captured through this thin slice of a frame coming through a doorway at an angle, often returned to as these characters enter or leave the home.

Incidentally, this also means that it is difficult for the characters of Early Summer to hold private conversations away from prying ears, as right after Noriko finishes gossiping with Fumiko, the door in the background slides open to reveal a whole other room where her brother, Kōichi, has been eavesdropping. Similarly, another discussion between Kōichi and his mother, Shige, can barely progress without the constant interruption of the family’s young boys popping in and out of the shot to bug their elders, injecting a small dose of humour into the drama. The claustrophobia of this space is especially felt in the narrowing of frames through doorways so much that they become vertical. Even as family members are squeezed into tight spaces though, the décor that surrounds them never suggests anything but a personalised environment they have crafted for themselves. Ozu arranges each teapot, sake bottle, and basket with great precision, crafting a tidy sort of clutter in settings where parallel and perpendicular lines otherwise dominate his mise-en-scène.

Multiple generations living under a single roof makes for some excellent character dynamics set across layers of Ozu’s frames.
It isn’t just the doorways, but Ozu turns his precisely arranged decor into frames too, here foregrounding a chair and desk around Kōichi as he comes home from work.

Every now and again, these stray items will become gorgeous frames of their own, as we observe in one composition that encloses everything between a chair and a desk sitting in the foreground. Though it is subtle, the formal consistency of this visual choice has a tangible effect in binding characters to their environments. Ozu will frequently begin scenes right before characters enter and only cut away a few seconds after they leave, and in those short moments of silence, we can feel the presence of its inhabitants. Every now and again he works in his trademark shot of hanging laundry as well, imprinting cut-outs of human shapes onto his scenery, and in this he effectively reminds us of the family who are still carrying out mundane lives in this comfortable home, even when they are not physically onscreen.

Hanging laundry makes for another trademark of Ozu’s, imbuing the setting with the presence of its characters even when they aren’t around.

Most powerful of all though may be the recurring series of shots drawing attention to the birdcages tended to by Noriko’s father, Shūkichi, hanging outside the family home. Ozu’s opening of the film with this motif and intermittent return to it is especially important in underscoring the nature of Noriko’s predicament. Like her father’s pets, she is fed and cared for by her parents, and marriage would similarly ensure a stable future, but the pressure to enter this patriarchal institution poses the same limitations upon her as those bars separating the birds from the open sky. It is not surprising that it is the men of the family who have the most outspoken views about this, with her brother, Kōichi, tersely bringing them up at mealtimes.

“It’s deplorable, what’s happened since the war. Women have become so forward, taking advantage of ‘etiquette’.”

“That’s not true. We’ve just taken our natural place. Men were too forward up to now.”

“That’s why you can’t get married.”

Ozu threads his bird motif through the film in pillow shots, marking the significant underlying metaphor of Noriko’s restricted life.

On virtually every level of her characterisation, Ozu defines Noriko as a modern woman. It is clear in the mention of her Audrey Hepburn idolisation that the seeping of Western culture into 1950s Japan is not merely limited to the relationship values that Early Summer most prominently explores, and quite surprisingly, the question of her queerness even arises with relatively little judgement. Though she works in an office and intelligently asserts her own independence, none of this takes away from the warmth of Setsuko Hara’s radiant performance. She is a bright beam of sunlight in this cast, sincerely offering support to her family with a smile that, for at least the first couple of acts, seems impossible to wipe away.

Ozu blocks bodies like land formations, crafting gorgeous landscapes in interior settings.

The unity in her family interactions is thoughtfully painted out in Ozu’s staging, drawing comparisons to his creative contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, in the way arrangements of bodies become landscapes in their staggered blocking, rising up like hills across the scenery. Admittedly though, this is where the similarities end. Ozu is happier to dwell on static shots for longer than his Japanese counterpart, quite literally sitting in shots that hover only barely above ground level, equally absorbing the comfort of family gatherings and the sorrow of Noriko’s imminent departure. On top of this, his editing veers sharply away from Kurosawa’s fast-paced action, and instead manifests in languidly paced pillow shots, delivering formal cutaways between scenes that elaborate on the social context of this modern world of brick office buildings and sleek automobiles.

Modernist architecture is prominent in Early Summer, visually displaying the new Japanese society of progress and functionality that is gradually displacing older traditions.

It is within this tension between Japan’s past and future that Ozu’s narrative precariously lingers, as we watch Shige almost get hit by a car while nervously crossing a street, and Shūkichi being forced to pause mid-walk at a level crossing while a train passes, inspiring an impromptu meditation on this new, unfamiliar society. Within their home though, it is a strain which tugs at Noriko’s mind, with her arranged marriage to an older, wealthy man feeling more like a reduction of her value to a mere pawn in some social game she has no interest in. It is not this discontentment though which drives her impulsive acceptance of an informal marriage proposal to her widowed childhood friend, Kenkichi Yabe, who has recently accepted a new work placement in the countryside and must now move away from the city with his daughter. Above all else, she is swayed by the sudden realisation that this is simply the right choice for her. Though she claims that the feeling she can “trust him with all my heart and be happy” is not love, Aya begs to differ – from an outsider’s perspective, that is exactly what love is.

Creating frames out of cars and boom gates, using the full depth of field to trap older characters within a modern society beyond their understanding.

Naturally, Noriko’s family is not so keen on this unexpected prospect given its significant deviation from Japanese tradition. To them, it is a purely thoughtless act, and even in Ozu’s blocking there is a sudden turn towards a quiet disconnection that we haven’t seen on this level before, lingering painfully in grating silences. The only time we have previously seen Noriko’s bright smile waver was while facing the growing separation in her friendship group, and so her devastation over her family’s disappointment feels all the more heartbreaking for the immense shift we witness in Hara’s disposition. In the time spent mulling over this internal conflict, Ozu instils her character with real depth, letting her cry over the pain she has inflicted on her loved ones, even while she recognises it as the best thing to do.

The shift in family dynamics echoes silently through the atmosphere, as eye contact disappears and Noriko becomes lonelier than ever.

Noriko is a self-proclaimed optimist after all, unafraid of poverty and refusing to be scared off by the prospect of becoming a stepmother. As she wanders handsomely bare landscapes of beaches and streets with Fumiko, Ozu gradually sets in motion a gradual reparation between the modernists and traditionalists of the family, and though there is not a single point where everything is suddenly set right, there is the realisation that understanding is not needed for cooperation. Perhaps the beautifully harmonious family photo he stages right before her departure marks the closest these generations will ever get to complete unity again. At the same time though, there is also a promise of new beginnings in the film that lifts its bittersweet conclusion into something a little purer in its hopefulness. “Our family has been scattered. But we’ve done better than average,” her mother ponders, and therein lies the sobering acceptance of time’s forward march that underlies Early Summer, and which Ozu introspectively embraces with both wistful reminiscence and eager inspiration.

Not always a filmmaker known for his natural landscapes, and yet Ozu keeps reminding us that he can operate comfortably here too, setting a key conversation in the film’s closing minutes on this bleak, monochrome beach.

Early Summer is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 31min

Casting a glamorous cultural icon as magnetic as Marilyn Monroe in a film directed by a master of gender comedy like Howard Hawks could only ever lead to the wildly vibrant musical romp that is Gentleman Prefer Blondes. A luxurious cruise liner to France is the stage upon which the young star performs as naïve showgirl Lorelei, teaming up with Jane Russell’s sharper-minded Dorothy to deliver a series of duets that charm and entertain, while behind the scenes both women pursue different lines of love. Given that their audiences consist largely of suited men enraptured by their sultry enchantment, it often seems as if they are swimming in a sea of potential lovers, and even in one song taking place offstage, Hawks cleverly turns scantily clad male gymnasts training for the Olympics into background dancers for Dorothy’s playfully pining number ‘Anyone Here For Love?’

There can be no ignoring the major musical set piece of Hawks’ film though, which marks one of the finest moments of both his and Monroe’s careers. ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ may be the purest visual manifestation of the star’s compelling allure, not just over her audience, but towards the choreographed crowd of handsome men gathering around her like a band of besotted devotees. Her pink dress stands out brilliantly against their black-and-white attire and the dazzling red background, shining a deep vibrancy that seems to radiate out from Monroe. As she glides across the stage, Hawks’ camera remains glued to her face, tracking it with adoring infatuation. Around her, women in black dresses become candelabras and chandeliers, and others dance in attractive ballroom formations wearing flowing, pink dresses – though none so tight-fitting or vivid as that which adorns Monroe.

There are few images that so evocatively capture the image of a Golden Age Hollywood starlet as this, offering a brilliant visual panache that the rest of the film never quite delivers again. Still, this is not to say that Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a one-trick pony, as around his musical numbers Hawks builds out an unusual buddy comedy that indulges in Lorelei and Dorothy’s unlikely friendship. Where Monroe’s blonde bombshell speaks with a breathy whisper and falls into comically unfortunate situations through her own guilelessness, the wiser, more sensible brunette Dorothy keeps an eye out for her friend, all while pursuing more conventionally attractive men.

Still, there is something unassumingly shrewd about Lorelei’s own attitude towards the opposite sex, gradually revealing a more perceptive mind than she is given credit for. Though she has a fiancé back home she is perfectly happy with, she is also well aware of the effect she has on men, and is happy to use this to her advantage in feeding her love of diamonds – especially if that man is the affluent elderly businessman, Piggy. As superficial as her desires may seem, she is fully conscious of the double standard being held against her.

“A man being rich is like a girl being pretty. You don’t marry a girl because she’s pretty, but my goodness doesn’t it help?”

Hawks does not seek to make any grand, insightful social commentary, but instead his keen subversiveness rises organically in his genre archetypes, pointedly observing modern gender roles by revealing their artificial limitations. Lorelei and Dorothy’s expectation that a wealthy man onboard may be a potential suitor is hilariously overturned when, after specifically arranging to be seated with him, they discover that Henry Spofford III is in fact a seven-year-old boy with the comically straight-faced mannerisms of an adult.

“I expected you to be much older.”

“I’m old enough to appreciate a good-looking girl.”

Hawks draws in this wonderfully deadpan character again later when he discovers Lorelei stuck climbing out of a porthole from Piggy’s room. When Piggy approaches, some quick thinking and resourcefulness turns Spofford into Lorelei’s lower half hidden beneath a shawl, while her head pokes out the top. This wafer-thin façade is all it takes to trick an old fool like Piggy, who still does not suspect anything even after kissing Spofford’s hand and noting its small size.

In these situations where wealthy, powerful men fall over themselves just to win the attention of attractive women, there is an amusing status-reversal that the two friends have learned to skilfully manipulate. Hawks’ superb command over physical comedy plays an important part in underscoring this, incrementally removing his narrative from reality with each consecutive visual gag, so that by the time Dorothy has invited an entirely male courtroom into a wild musical number, it has fully transformed into a madcap fantasy. There are few Golden Age Hollywood directors as willing to embrace the comical leading power of his female stars as Hawks, but it is through Monroe’s mesmeric screen presence carrying entire songs and visual gags that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes becomes all the more flamboyantly intoxicating.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Vincente Minnelli | 1hr 52min

A couple of decades before Vincente Minnelli took to The Band Wagon with his excitable camera and lavish colour palettes, it was a musical revue on Broadway, playing through comedic sketches and musical numbers with no great connective thread other than a consistent dedication to entertaining its audience. Fred Astaire headlined the show, though this would be one of the last theatrical productions he would perform in before becoming a major movie star at RKO Radio Pictures. When he returned to it again in 1953, it took a very different form – not as a revue, but rather a full-fledged movie-musical, with a story that plays out a fictionalised account of its creation and triumphant acclaim. Much like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon’s boisterous examination of the thin line that divides failure and success in the entertainment industry rolls along with grace and zeal, marking it as one of the finest musicals of Golden Age Hollywood.

A top hat and cane to open the film, emblematic of Fred Astaire.

Even before Astaire appears onscreen, his presence is already announced from the very first shot of the iconic top hat and cane held through the opening credits. Then without so much as a cut, we pan to the left and discover the significance of such items within the film – nothing more than relics of a washed-up actor who can barely make a dime off his old props and costumes. The ever-churning Hollywood dream machine has effectively written Tom Hunter out of its story in favour of younger actors, though one last shot at reviving his career arrives in the form of his good friends Lester and Lily, whose musical comedy script could set the stage for his comeback. The only obstacle is the vision of one Jeffrey Cordova, the chosen director whose background in traditional theatre barely masks his camp, tasteless sensibilities, leading him to interpret their creation as a retelling of Faust.

Given the theatre sets that form the basis of many scenes through The Band Wagon, it is no surprised that those stage performances make for some gorgeously expressionistic set pieces. Minnelli indulges in a deep red lighting setup early on when we first meet Jeffrey in a production of Oedipus Rex, complete with ancient Greek robes and Doric columns to fill out the mise-en-scène, and later Cyd Charisse’s young starlet Gab Gerard bursts forth from the frame as she sings ‘New Sun in the Sky’, matching the bright yellow set with a sparkling dress. The camera glides and swirls around these performances, rushing up to meet the actors in elaborate entrances and quietly following them around as they tap dance across the screen.

We don’t spend a long time in this set, but every frame of this Oedipus Rex production could be a painting in its matte texture and colours.
A bright sunburst in ‘New Sun in the Sky’, marked by an explosion of red in this marvellous costume.

This is a level of cinematic energy that Minnelli maintains all throughout the film, not just in those musical numbers that the characters self-consciously perform for audiences on stages. The film starts off steady with Astaire’s solo number ‘Be Myself’ and a set of long tracking shots that capture his jazzy, prancing dance around an arcade in ‘Shine on Your Shoes’. ‘That’s Entertainment’ might as well be this film’s version of ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ in its vaudevillian comedy that continues to show off the talents of the broader cast, but it is when The Band Wagon finally reaches the instrumental piece ‘Dancing in the Dark’ that the bravado of Minnelli’s full spectacular vision is unleashed.

‘That’s Entertainment’ is one of the most energetic numbers, showing off the dancing, singing, and vaudevillian talents of our main cast.

As Tony and Gaby stroll through a city park at night, the camera sweeps in a majestic crane shot over a garden of couples dancing in close embraces, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble off to the side. As the only pair still holding their inhibitions between them, they independently make their way through the crowd, until they reach a hidden courtyard shrouded by trees imprinted against a matte backdrop of tiny city lights off in the distance. Their dance movements start slow with matching footsteps and a twirl, before they both strike a pose. From there, the entire story of their relationship unfolds in their unified movements. It also calls to mind ‘A Lovely Night’ from La La Land which was almost certainly influenced by Minnelli’s narrative setup and elegant visual execution here, but ‘Dancing in the Dark’ even more significantly evokes Astaire’s traditional 1930s movie-musicals with those long, sweeping camera movements that seem to dance with him in synchronisation.

The camera swoops over this crowd of dancing couples in one long tracking shot, anticipating the romance about to unfold.
Elegant choreography to make you swoon, and not a single sung lyric – ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is an easy highlight to pick out with both Astaire and Charisse moving in harmony.

Even outside his musical numbers, Minnelli’s attention to detail in his exquisite production design continues to astound, surrounding characters with deeply sensual and highly curated colour palettes. It is a fortunate thing too that he possesses such a keen eye for spectacle given that the revue The Band Wagon as it exists within the story opens as a major flop. Unlike its theatrical source material, there is narrative tension driving this piece forward, and much of it comes down to the chaotic direction of the production itself. One could imagine a young Mel Brooks watching this and conceptualising The Producers in all its zany ambition, with flamboyant characters taking charge of a disastrous show destined for failure, and Minnelli too fully manifests a catastrophe of grand proportions. On the night before opening, he simply sets his camera back in long shots to watch the chaos comically unfold, with wired actors flying across the stage, the cast breaking down in confusion, set pieces moving up where they should move down, and down where they should move up.

No stage or musical number in sight, and yet Minnelli can’t help colouring in his shots with deep reds and golds – then adding a gorgeous splash of green in the middle of it all.
Masterfully blocked visual comedy, staged to look like pure chaos as everything that could go wrong on this stage does go wrong.

After audiences leave in disturbed confusion from whatever they just watched, the cast and crew party, revelling in what they describe as a “good old-fashioned wake” as if celebrating the death of something they couldn’t get out of their lives sooner. Upon being offered some ham and devilled egg, Tony responds with a sardonic “I think I’ve had enough of both for one night,” trying to keep the tone light, though it doesn’t take long for sobering artistic integrity to kick in. To give up on this show would be to compromise their commitment to entertainment. All it might need is a makeover and back-to-basics revision, without any pretensions of heavy thematic material.

It is with the thirty remaining minutes of The Band Wagon that Minnelli delivers what is essentially the closest thing to a direct depiction of the original revue that the film gets. A medley of musical numbers cascade across the screen, taking the cast from city to city on a wave of success. Astaire finally gets the tap performance with a top hat and cane that is so characteristic of his style, but he also becomes a pulpy detective hero in ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’, a twelve-minute episode that could very well mark the high point of Minnelli’s career. Fight choreography blends seamlessly with dance as the set expands beyond the stage and becomes its own boundless world much like the ballet sequence from The Red Shoes, offering him the opportunity to vivaciously spin and twirl his camera in conversation with this heightened mini-story.

The ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ is a visual treat, with Astaire taking the role of a hardboiled detective and finding himself in a heightened world of deception and reflections that Minnelli relishes staging.

Needless to say, both versions of The Band Wagon end up a resounding success, though it is far easier to speak to the artistic accomplishment of the film over the revue. The process of creation organically melds into its very narrative construction, and with a director like Minnelli taking charge of the difficult task to render it in cinematic form, it flourishes in becoming far more than just a string of disconnected songs and dances. The Band Wagon lands as one of Hollywood’s most exceptional movie-musicals, fully realising the potential of movements behind the camera to bring exhilarating, propulsive dimensions to that which unfolds onstage.

There is simply no understating the power of Minelli’s colour palettes – a master at work.

The Band Wagon is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Shane (1953)

George Stevens | 1hr 58min

Shane is recognised so widely as the western that launched a thousand genre conventions, it is easy to forget how much of it takes the form of a 1950s melodrama. The threat of the cattle baron is only really secondary to the central story here of a mysterious man emerging from the Wyoming mountains and changing a family for the better, affecting each member in different ways. George Stevens’ blocking of his actors is integral to these relations, offering layers of subtext and revealing their unspoken feelings. There always seems to be interactions going on between the foreground and background, Stevens using the direction of their eye lines to indicate where their attentions lie, in spite of, or in conjunction with, their physical distance. Shane and the Starrett family are also always being trapped within all kinds of frames – windows, doorways, fence posts, broken slats on saloon doors, even the legs of a horse. Even though they live in this vast, open landscape, their surroundings are visually closing in around them.

Foregrounding of the axe as Shane takes note of it from the background – foreshadowing through Stevens’ pragmatic framing.
Staggered blocking of actors – Kurosawa was crafting compositions like this around the same time. An air of tragedy and melancholy hangs around these silhouettes.

The family dynamic is efficiently set up in the choreographed movement of the opening scenes. Joe Starrett is a man who feels shame in his powerless to protect his family against an indomitable threat. His wife, Marian, loves him dearly but can’t access the same emotional connection they used to have. Their son, Joey, remains oblivious to the serious stakes at play, but the respect he has for his father is gradually eroding.

Joe in the foreground, Joey in the midground, Shane far in the background, and everything is faced towards him. Fantastic layering in Stevens’ staging.

In introducing Shane as the catalyst right away, we immediately see how these dynamics start to shift. He offers them the protection that Joe can’t provide, bringing with him a strength that Joey admires and a sturdiness Marian might even desire sexually. During the community dance scene, Shane and Marian engage in what should be an innocent interaction, but the closeness of their bodies captured in the background while Joe watches them in the foreground from behind a fence visually demonstrates the silent love triangle emerging. Though they are drawn to him, we see restraint and inaccessibility in Alan Ladd’s performance, indicating a lack of emotional support that only Joe can offer. Rather than leaving Joe on the sidelines, Shane bolsters his confidence, thereby giving him the opportunity to win his family’s respect back.

Joe is no fool though. He understands the connection growing between Marian and Shane, but he isn’t angry or bitter. His first priority is that his family is safe and happy, and he sees Shane as a sort of backup plan if he himself were to die.

Joe looking in on Marian and Shane’s relationship from the outside. There is more character development packed into Stevens’ blocking than any dialogue could ever achieve.

Meanwhile, there is strong metaphorical undercurrent of guns that runs through the film. During Shane’s fights and shootouts with the villains, Stevens keeps cutting back to close-ups of Joey looking on in awe, admiring the sheer physical power and violence that the heroic gunman projects. Shane even offers to teach him a few tricks, but Marian is rightfully worried. After all, who is to say that when Joey is an adult he will use his guns for purposes as noble as Shane’s? There is constant tension between his philosophy that a gun is simply a tool “as good or as bad as the man using it”, and Marian’s desire for there to be not “a single gun in the valley”. Neither are wrong. His skill with pistols certainly put a stop to the villains and their firearms, but what’s even better than a good guy with a gun is no guns at all.

Shane isn’t easily separated from them though. Violence is such a significant part of his past, it has infected his conscience with guilt and anger. He is an outsider in this valley, which is a haven for more civilised folk. Stevens keeps framing the breathtaking Wyoming mountains in the background as a reminder of where both Shane and Ryker, the cattle baron, first emerged from – a rougher terrain, and an older era where disagreements were settled with violence. Shane is familiar with men like Ryker, and knows how to deal with them. There is never really much doubt whether he will ultimately win out in that arena. What Stevens invests us in is whether he can deal with them and still live a normal life.

The Wyoming mountains make for a magnificent backdrop to this classical Western story. Like Shane and Ryker, they are coarse and rough, and belong far outside this new civilisation.

Shane realises that is impossible though. The mere fact he so easily bests Ryker and his henchmen in every confrontation tells us that he is no stranger to murder. It is likely he may have even done bad things in his past, as Stevens just keeps painting out the parallels between the two of them. In the end, what distinguishes them is how they decide to use their power in this moment, with Shane choosing to defend the vulnerable. He also realises though that in the act of killing someone, there is little chance for redemption. Though Joe vehemently desires to take on Ryker himself and protect his family, Shane holds him back. Not just because he is worried that he might get himself killed, but because even he were successful he would become a “gun” like Shane, and thus unfit to build his family a nonviolent, prosperous future.

Intimidating framing of these villains, lurking in backgrounds and behind broken slats.

“No guns in the valley”, Shane recalls after winning the climactic shootout. Neither he nor Ryker belong in this valley, and now that Ryker is gone, so is Shane’s purpose for staying behind. Ryker was bitter that younger families were living off the land that he tamed, but Shane recognises that pioneers belong to the past. This new civilisation is one that requires stability, cooperation, and growth – what else was it that the pioneers were building towards anyway? All he can do now is return to the mountains that he came from, bookending the film with a mysterious entrance and exit.

Superhero movies owe a lot to Stevens, as the central theses for so many have emerged from Shane’s own struggle between power and peace. It isn’t without its flaws, since Brandon deWilde’s “gee whiz” performance as Joey Starrett is more than a little forced. But even he delivers in the moments that matter, including the closing scene where he calls after Shane as he heads out of the valley. Regardless of where deWilde’s performance lands, it is only minor compared to George Stevens’ masterful blocking of his actors against open landscapes and confined frames, bringing layers of cinematic excellence to an already outstanding screenplay.

A fantastic composition contrasting the structures of civilisation on the right side of the frame, and the open wilderness on the left, just before a devastating shootout.

Shane is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Douglas Sirk | 2hr 5min

It is an unusual family portrait which Douglas Sirk paints in Imitation of Life, at least in the context of 1950s America. Half of its members are white, the other half Black, and there are no men to be found within it at all. Love interests skirt around the edges, but otherwise the film’s feminine sensitivities flourish across boundaries of age, class, and race, emerging in delicate cinematic paintings of privilege and social adversity.

On one side of the family we have Lora, an aspiring white actress and single mother, raising her daughter, Susie. A chance encounter at the beach one day leads to her meeting Annie, a Black single mother, and her fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who Susie takes to right away. These four women become inseparable, and Lora soon offers Annie and Sarah Jane a place in their home while she gets her acting career off the ground.

Superb framing of this family, often singling out one character and separating them from the others.
The domestic architecture and furniture of wrapping around characters from high and low angles. Note the angles of the beams pointing towards Lora in the foreground, as well as the eye lines of Susie and Steve.

Along Lora and Susie’s narrative thread, we find a mother growing more distant from her daughter due to her fame and demanding schedule. The cosy green drapes and patterned wallpaper of Susie’s childhood home wrap around the small family in a soothing embrace, its décor of ceiling fans and light fixtures hanging in the foreground of gorgeously composed frames. As Lora finds greater success though, Sirk’s production design takes a turn to opulence. The open spaces of the mansion they move into are adorned with bright flowers and candles rising up in the foreground, while decorative mirrors in backgrounds make rooms feel even larger than they physically are. Such exquisite furnishing allows for beautifully elegant imagery, though it is certainly at least colder than before, setting the scene for a burgeoning gap between Susie and Lora as both develop feelings for the same man.

The same day these strangers meet, they all come home to Lora’s place. They are confined to small spaces in compositions like these, while Sirk clutters his foreground with the ceiling fan and light fixtures.
A distinct stylistic difference between the two family homes. When Lora becomes famous, flowers and decorative mirrors make for some lavishly staged shots.

It is by nature of their unequal social standings that Susie’s problems seem a little insignificant when played out next to Sarah Jane’s, who chooses to shun her Black heritage so that she may pass as white. She has seen the ugliness of America’s intolerance in its pre-civil rights era, and yet the bitterness that has been bred from that is not directed at its perpetrators, but rather her own mother. Annie, meanwhile, recognises that anguish in her young daughter, and can’t quite figure out how to reconcile her innocence with the future she faces.

“How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”

Sirk is frequently visually trapping Sarah Jane in tight and concealed spaces – behind grates, blinds, and leering men.

Sarah Jane’s disdain for her mother is crushing, in one scene even driving her to go so far as to put on a mocking show of servitude to a guest, as if that were all there is to her ethnicity. Above all else she wants to be looked at with desire, so when she finally comes of age, she runs away to join a club where she can blend in with a troupe of white chorus girls. Though she claims she doesn’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with being Black, she clearly does not possess the empathy to see how similar her actions are to the strains of racism she is familiar with.

Powerful blocking between Sarah Jane and her mother – Sirk rendering the complete fragmentation of a mother-daughter relationship by splitting them between foreground and background, and divided by lines in the mise-en-scène.

Perhaps we wouldn’t feel the same compassion for Sarah Jane if Sirk didn’t treat her suffering with such tenderness in his staging of this melodrama. When her white boyfriend confronts her about her true ethnicity, she is diminished off to the side of the frame as nothing but a reflection in a window, and the moment he grows incensed Sirk quickly pans his camera to the right to reveal him unnervingly towering over her. When she returns home after being beaten, he shoots all four women standing on separate levels of a staircase, their standing evident in where they are situated – Lora on top, Annie further down with her back to the camera, Susie concealed behind a plant, and Sarah Jane caught in the middle, all lines in the shot pointing to her. Even as characters deliberately pursue contemptuous lines of attack against each other, Sirk never loses sight of the raw pain which motivates them, all four women being destined to struggle in a patriarchal society to different degrees.

Sirk diminished Sarah Jane’s stature in this simmering confrontation by relegating her off to the side as a reflection, then panning his camera to her just at the right moment.
Wonderful use of stairways to bring levels to the web of dynamics between all four women. All lines in the mise-en-scène here point to Sarah Jane, but the ignored child, Susie, is also shoved off to the side behind a pot plant.

With such an interconnected relationship between Sirk’s vibrant mise-en-scène and his emotionally rich characters, it isn’t difficult to trace his influences back through the decades of cinematic expressionism. Stylish sentimentalism flows all through his dialogue and cinematography, outlining parallel paths of generational conflict as set out by two pairs of mothers and daughters. Unlike other Sirkian melodramas of this era though, there are few happy endings to be found in Imitation of Life. Instead, it is in the separation of children from their parents where we find hope that they might mature into adults, blooming like those floral icons of delicate growth scattered all through the film.

True to the form of the film’s mise-en-scène, flowers decorate Annie’s funeral, just as they decorated her life.

Imitation of Life is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Written on the Wind (1956)

Douglas Sirk | 1hr 39min

All the money and oil in Texas can’t save the Hadley family from its own self-sabotage. The daughter of business magnate Jasper Hadley, Marylee, is a spoiled socialite, and her playboy brother, Kyle, isn’t much better, splurging his inherited wealth on alcohol and women. The unofficial third child of the family, Mitch Wayne, comes from a much poorer background, though his childhood friendship with the Hadleys is one which remains strong right up until the arrival of Lucy into their lives. We can’t blame her for the turmoil that follows though. Lauren Bacall is a steady, grounded force playing Kyle’s new love interest, as is Rock Hudson in the role of Mitch. Both actors provide a stability that attract the volatile Hadley children like magnets, wrapping them all up in a messy love of jealousy, insecurity, and selfishness.

The first scene of Written on the Wind opens at its climax, when a drunk, angry Kyle drives to a large suburban home, swings the door open, and marches in, accompanied by a powerful gust blowing in leaves across the luxurious entrance hall. The titular metaphor is set up early in this prologue, announcing itself as a delicate but powerful force tainting the neat interiors of the Hadley manor. A gun shot is heard, but before we learn who was on the receiving end of the bullet Sirk whisks us back in time, letting the wind blow the pages of a calendar to Monday 24th October, 1955, a full year earlier when Kyle first met Lucy and set this unfortunate sequence of events in motion.

A bedroom of many riches, florals adorning Sirk’s production design in a show of extravagant material generosity.
The essence of Marylee is captures in Sirk’s pink decor and costuming, letting her pierce through compositions from the background or otherwise become the centre of them in this gorgeously framed shot.

This is the sort of melodramatic material that Douglas Sirk thrives in crafting, drawing out each of Written on the Wind’s four main characters in the sort of expressive detail that can only be stylistically matched by décor and costuming as equally lavish. Kyle’s grand romantic gesture of buying a full wardrobe of clothing for Lucy and decorating her room with red and white bouquets is met with a mildly suspicious reception, as it is exceedingly evident in these extravagant visuals just how much he is compensating for his lack of substance. Likewise, Marylee is rarely seen without being swathed in pink, whether in her dresses, bedroom curtains, or expensive sportscar. In contrast, we find Sirk dressing Mitch and Lucy in soothing natural hues and lighting them up with a melancholy blue day-for-night wash, suggesting through the subtle language of colour that it is perhaps these two we should be getting behind as a romantic couple.

Sirk shoots beautiful day-for-night like few others – a true expressionist in his casting of shadows across faces and sets.

With each character clearly defined, Sirk follows up by staging their romantic entanglements in tightly blocked formations, especially letting Mitch linger in reflections and backgrounds between Kyle and Lucy like an ever-present third wheel. Sirk’s remarkable depth of field only highlights this further, articulately drawing together and separating these characters across layers and segments of his frame. It is simply Mitch’s being there in otherwise private shots which eats away at Kyle’s mind like a corrosive acid, feeding a self-doubt that clearly has roots far deeper in his psyche than anything Mitch is actually responsible for. On top of his father’s massive legacy that he is expected to carry on, there is also his diagnosis of impotence, meaning he will be unable to pass it onto any children and thus fail to fulfil his most important duty.

Mitch subtly framed in the mirror between Kyle and Lucy.
A complex piece of staging that reveals a web of relationships – most notably though, Mitch and Marylee totally separated between the foreground and background.
Once again, Mitch in the foreground and Marylee up the back, though here it carries different implications – he is clearly on her mind. A lovely splash of colour with the red flowers and telephone too.

To remove ourselves from Kyle’s perspective though, it is evident that his failures already extended far beyond his infertility. If patriarch Jasper Hadley represents the Old South, then his children are twisted, modern representations of that, disconnected from its cultural values yet taking for granted the prosperity it provides. When Jasper passes away on the staircase of his manor, Sirk simultaneously intercuts the scene with Marylee’s boisterous, blissfully ignorant dance up in her bedroom, the loud music distracting from the tragedy that is unfolding just outside her door. Instead, it is Lucy and Mitch who rush to his body. Without so much as a line of dialogue, Sirk points directly to where the future of this culture lies.

Sirk relishes these scenes where he escapes into the outdoors, drawing out the gorgeous reds of the flowers and reflection of the lake.
A strip of light across Marylee’s eyes – conniving and manipulative.
Tragedy and melodrama all through Sirk’s skilful blocking.

Even when the Hadley family hits an all-time low, somehow Marylee still finds it in her to keep pulling strings and manipulating the system out of some sort of vindictive bitterness towards Mitch and Lucy. At this point though, there is no re-establishing the success and dignity that her family once held. Sirk’s penultimate shot of the film says it all – hanging on the wall, a touching portrait of Jasper shows him proudly holding a model oil tower, and sitting directly beneath, a distraught Marylee holds the same figurine. Perhaps she will manage to keep her wealth, but as the only surviving member of the Hadley dynasty, the name will soon perish along with its cultural presence. As Sirk so thoughtfully demonstrates in his eloquent storytelling and mise-en-scène, when a legacy like this is built on as weak foundations as Kyle and Marylee, then it might as well be written on the wind.

This should have been the final shot, but it will have to settle for second-last – everything you need to know about Marylee and the legacy she has to carry captured in one image.

Written on the Wind is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Foxtel Now.

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Douglas Sirk | 1hr 48min

The melodrama of Magnificent Obsession is set in motion by a stroke of bad fortune. The moment that reckless playboy Bob Merrick loses control of his speedboat, badly injures himself, and uses up the nearest resuscitator, his neighbour Dr Phillips suffers a heart attack and, without access to the device, dies. The tragedy worsens when the doctor’s wife, Helen, is blinded in a car accident, indirectly caused by Merrick’s attempt to apologise. Though he feels guilty, it is evident that his priority is to merely clear his conscience rather than to make real restitution. Ironically, it is the philosophy of the late Dr Phillips which sparks a change of heart within him, inspiring him to spread generosity and good will without expectation of repayment. From there, Douglas Sirk leads Merrick down a path of moral rehabilitation and redemption, transforming him into the very man whose death he is at least partially responsible for.

Though Sirk was not yet at his full powers in 1954, still being a year away from his breakthrough, All That Heaven Allows, he nevertheless paves the way in Magnificent Obsession for the beautifully luscious displays of mise-en-scene and sensitive characterisations he would become known for. He isn’t afraid of sentimentality, but this is no barrier to his acute social critiques of class privilege. In fact, it is exactly because of Sirk’s great empathy that he can so skilfully identify Merrick’s weaknesses, understanding his ego not as a fatal flaw, but rather a fault upon which he can improve.

The depth of field in Sirk’s compositions is excellent. There is always a sense of vulnerability and isolation simply in how these characters are blocked.

Over time as Merrick cares for Helen, his pity for her disability gradually evolves into an authentic love, though one hindered by his decision to conceal his identity from her, still holding onto a bit of shame. It is a love which motivates him to study medicine, carrying the hope that he might one day cure her blindness. Even when all seems lost in their relationship though, we can see the legitimacy in his new lease on life. He continues striving to become a doctor not to win her heart, but out of a genuine desire to help others.

Florals frequent Sirk’s mise-en-scène, lending splashes of colour to his foregrounds and backgrounds.

It is in Sirk’s delicate staging of these character interactions within elegant domestic settings where this drama lands with great emotional power, using mirrors to layer actors across the frame and obstructing compositions with plants hanging in the foreground. When both Helen and Merrick both reach their lowest points, their faces are almost entirely concealed behind lace curtains, and Sirk makes the rare move to dim his usually-soft lighting to starkly illuminate only half of their faces, or else only the edge of their profiles. In representing the affluent status of these characters on this visual level, he also lets it impose upon their presences, complicating their search for emotional truth by crowding it out with so much material wealth.

This scene is unusually dark for a Sirk film, visually speaking, with his expressionistic influences emerging in the low-key lighting.
Wide shots revealing a great distance between his characters, though even in the emptiness there is still great detail to his decor and lighting.
Lace curtains concealing Sirk’s actors, imposing upon their presences.

For this Sirkian melodrama though it is all about tonal balance, as immediately following this dark scene, Helen and Merrick open up about their romantic feelings for each other and go out on a date. As they sit and absorb their surroundings, he describes to her in detail the things he can see which she cannot – the blazing bonfire, the bursting fireworks, the communal folk dancing. Given the way he caters for her disability, it is evident that the relationship which emerges between them is not a direct copy of what she had with her late husband, and yet the parallels between the two are nonetheless apparent. Merrick’s moral reformation is made even more potent by the fact that Dr Phillip is only spoken of and never seen in person, turning him into an intangible ideal for the young playboy to aspire to, or perhaps an empty space for him to fill. Privilege may be a corrupting force in Magnificent Obsession, but any instance where pure goodness wins out over ego and insensitivity is infinitely precious to a soft-hearted empath like Sirk.

Tender affection in a simple composition, Merrick and Helen’s silhouettes kissing above a bouquet of flowers.

Magnificent Obsession is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.