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.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Samuel Fuller | 1hr 20min

The early Cold War paranoia of 1950s America pervades Pickup on South Street, where a pickpocket, former prostitute, and street-smart tie-seller unassumingly collide with a Communist plot to secure confidential government information. Much like North by Northwest which would come six years later, the MacGuffin here is microfilm, upon which this data is stored. Beyond this, the stakes of national intelligence barely matter. It is Samuel Fuller’s storytelling around these three ordinary people who come from the pits of society which crackles with chemistry and tension, letting each one use the skills they have honed in their individual professions to navigate tricky negotiations, duplicitous dealings, and sensual seductions.

Fuller is a skilled visual storyteller, often using the staging of his actors and lighting to create superb compositions like these.

Perhaps it is chance which first brings Skip and Candy together on a New York subway train, but his theft of her wallet is all it takes to send them both tumbling down a rabbit hole of spies and secrets. It is a silent opening of superb visual setups that Fuller commands here, drawing the thief out of a dense crowd before moving into close-ups, cutting between their shared glances and the main target of his desire – her white, ornate purse.

One wouldn’t suspect from this skilfully staged opening that Pickup on South Street would be a film especially notable for its bubbling, effervescent screenplay, and yet that is exactly what Fuller delivers, especially once Thelma Ritter enters as police informant, Moe. Though she has always shone in supporting roles, her impact here is sizeable enough to stand next to Richard Widmark and Jean Arthur as our romantic leads, lifting what could have almost been a throwaway character to a career-best performance. She is confident, chatty, and fully understands the savvy power that Moe holds over everyone else, and it is through this marvellous characterisation that her death packs an even greater punch than it might have otherwise, setting up tremendous stakes for our surviving couple.

One of Thelma Ritter’s best performances – she is confident, chatty, and street-smart, selling ties as a front for her work as a police informant.

It is upon those unlikely lovers, Skip and Candy, that Fuller absolutely delights in hanging his camera, recognising the power of both these actors when left alone together. All throughout the film Fuller’s camera moves like its own character, tracking in and out of close-ups and weaving through scenes with intrigue, though in Skip and Candy’s first official meeting after the subway incident he lets it linger on their nuzzling faces for two straight minutes. Skip’s intimate seduction only thinly masks his sly interrogation, though with soft murmuring and sensual kissing like that, we can’t blame Candy for falling right into his trap. Meanwhile, Leigh Harline’s smooth, jazzy score lays the eroticism on thick, lending an extra salacious edge to these stakes of life-and-death.

This film is just burning with passion in the dialogue, performances, and blocking.
An excellent frame here, using the bars of the bedhead to isolate Skip.

Though there are other characters floating around this story who make their own mark, it is predominantly through Skip, Candy, and Moe that Fuller drives his powerful narrative, even bringing it full circle back to the opening subway train where Skip’s pickpocketing skills once again prove useful in lifting a handgun from a Communist spy. Pickup on South Street is a triumph of writing, character, and stylistic camerawork for Fuller, and it is in the marriage of all three that he crafts a compelling thriller soaked in the fizzing tension of Cold War stealth and espionage.

Mirroring in the narrative bookends, bringing this scene from the beginning…
…back into this story at the end. Skip’s pickpocketing skills are both the cause for this narrative’s complications and the resolution.

Pickup on South Street is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Roman Holiday (1953)

William Wyler | 1hr 58min

After Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this is the version of Audrey Hepburn that stands tall in the public consciousness – a young, fresh-faced actress who, while not yet entirely refined in her craft, exudes such natural magnetism that she can carry entire scenes solely with her reactions. This performance, paired with that of the handsomely confident Gregory Peck, makes for a breezy two hour hangout in the streets of Italy.
 
Aside from the clear acting talent on display, Roman Holiday is also all the more effective for its location shooting in the nation’s capital, with William Wyler clearly relishing every opportunity to frame his actors against bell towers, sculptures, cars, stairs, columns, and historical monuments. The seeping of Italian neorealism into American film culture is evident here as early as 1953, even if the product is more hybridised than directly imitative. It isn’t like the studio system of this era to step beyond its backlots and sound stages, but the extra effort pays off here in emphasising the emotional immediacy of the characters and their environment, thereby letting the plot take a backseat much like the films of neorealism.

Shooting on location makes a real difference in setting this film apart from so many other Hollywood films of this era, drawing on the influence of Italian neorealism though with a distinctly more romantic tone.

The tension that underlies the narrative is twofold – firstly in the lie that Joe is maintaining to get a good news story out of the runaway Princess Ann, and secondly in Ann’s own concern about being pulled back into the restrictive royal lifestyle she has grown tired of. We get just enough of these complications recurring through the ensuing adventures that they are never forgotten, but they are not so present that they dominate the sheer joy and romance of the film.

A fantastically efficient character introduction in these sly cutaways to Ann stretching her feet beneath her dress during a formal engagement.

The minimal exposition is especially notable, as all it takes is a few cutaways of Ann slipping her feet out of her heels and stretching during a formal engagement to understand her dissatisfaction. Likewise, the ten-minute finale which wraps up Roman Holiday resolves every single lingering emotional thread with nothing but a few looks and words between the two lovers at a public press conference. Though these words hold little significance on their own, they are brimming with the subtext of coded lovers language. You could mute this scene and understand everything purely through their expressions – Ann’s disappointment in realising the lie Joe has told, his shame at her discovery, her silent forgiveness, his gratitude for their lives crossing, and finally, a mutual, bittersweet understanding that they are set on different paths.
 
Most of all, Roman Holiday is proof that “sweet and charming” doesn’t necessarily mean “small and modest”. William Wyler is a director with an eye for deep focus imagery, and he puts it to good use here by turning Rome’s architecture and geography into a living, breathing environment, providing Ann and Joe the romantic, challenging adventure that both needed at this point in their lives, whether they knew it or not.

A moving end to this brief relationship, everything resolved in pointed subtext and then a silent, satisfied walk away.

Roman Holiday is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Billy Wilder | 2hr

In turning his pen and camera to the incarceration of Americans in World War II German prison camps, Billy Wilder, the master of many genres, crafts a mystery, comedy, drama, and war film all at once, effortlessly drawing us into a narrative that is as gripping in its suspense as it is comical in its escapades. Purely in terms of subject matter, Stalag 17 may be his heaviest film yet, as life-and-death stakes are immediately established in the failed escape of two prisoners-of-war. Not long after, we start getting bleak establishing shots of the captured men gather in large, muddy courtyards, revealing the full scope of the camp in all its desolate misery.

The scale and significance of Stalag 17 can be felt in Billy Wilder’s establishing shots.

But being one of the few screenwriters who may lay genuine claim to being the greatest in film history, such overwhelming despair is no great obstacle to Wilder’s efforts in drawing out the light humour of these men’s lives. Pranks, games, gambling, parties, dances, and holidays – anything they can do to make this place feel like home is something worth holding onto, even as they face real wartime horrors.

Though David Lean’s 1957 British war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai might be one of the first comparisons to leap to mind in its prison camp setting, there is also a cultural gap between them that is difficult to reconcile beyond the presence of William Holden. Instead, it is Robert Altman’s 1970 war comedy M*A*S*H that might bear more fruitful parallels, as although its setting is an American medical hospital in South Korea, the irreverence, humour, and professionalism of its surgeons are qualities shared by Stalag 17’s captives. Wilder’s work with such a large ensemble here is commendable, even Altman-esque in an era before Altman, as he carves out several distinct personalities by attaching key traits to them – Animal the mischief-maker, Price the chief of security, Bagradian the celebrity impressionist, Joey the ocarina player, and of course, Colonel von Scherbach, their Commandant who positions himself as a “good” Nazi even as he actively works to foil their covert plans.

A superb ensemble of characters, ranging from eccentric to richly dramatic.
Clothing draped from the ceiling, crowding out this already claustrophobic set.

Not everything here meshes together perfectly, as the weak voiceover that runs through this story offers nothing that we can’t gage from the dialogue, and it certainly doesn’t help that it is narrated by one of the least memorable characters, Cookie. It is rather Holden’s dark turn as J.J. Sefton that makes the biggest impact in this cast, as he sets himself apart from the other inmates in his guarded, cynical, and manipulative mannerisms. When suspicion is cast on him for being a mole feeding insider information to Von Scherbach, his quest to clear his name sees him set out to unmask the real traitor, promising to see this person get the comeuppance they deserve – and when he delivers this threat, we believe every word of it.

It is exceedingly common for screenwriters-turned-directors to let their dialogue do the heavy lifting, and yet Wilder is one of the few who does not fall prey to such temptations, as the tensions which emerge within this tight-knight community of American soldiers take on new significance in his deep focus compositions. The barracks themselves are a handsome rustic set which always seem to feature some sort of obstruction hanging from the ceiling, whether they be draped clothing left to dry or Christmas lights bringing a touch of festivity. Most significantly, those few prisoners who wind up emotionally ostracised are isolated in Wilder’s thoughtful staging, at times through his layering of bodies across the frame, or otherwise divided by barriers in the mise-en-scéne – most notably a hanging lightbulb, which itself takes on extra significance in the communication between the mole and the Colonel.

The lightbulb acts both as a means of communication between the mole and the Colonel, and a visual divider between the mole and the prisoners.
Magnificent, foreboding blocking here, the resentment of the other men haunting Sefton.

And that isn’t the end of Wilder’s stylistic bravado either. Though he does on occasion indulge in the odd wide shot of the entire cast, such cramped conditions don’t always allow for such luxuries, and so it is in his tracking camera that he allows us to consider this community of prisoners as a whole without cutting. When suspicion is cast upon Sefton, the silence of their mistrustful gazes is drawn out as Wilder pans his camera across their faces, each one staring right down the barrel of the camera. But just as these tracking shots can be used to distance us, they are also just as effective at inviting us into their brotherhood, as during a Christmas celebration we are left to wander through this makeshift dance floor where these lonely men slowly rock against each other. In scenes like these, Wilder recognises the need to step away from the despair and hysteria of the prison camp, and let some quiet hopefulness bleed through. Above all else, Stalag 17 is a tender ode to the persistence of the human spirit in the worst conditions, whether that manifests as irreverent joy or a cosy, quiet peace.

A tracking shot through the soft, warm Christmas party, as men affectionately dance with each other.

Stalag 17 is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel or Tubi TV, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 27min

The social satire of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a little gentler than his later films, but that matters little – Jacques Tati is not a cynical intellectual at heart, but rather an artist with an adoration for the simpler things in life. If some cultural or political force comes along to threaten that innocence, he may bite back with good humour, but his focus never strays from the sweet, childlike love of beaches, dress-up parties, ice cream, fire crackers, and those long summer vacations where you briefly become best friends with total strangers. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a postcard, preserving a nostalgic moment in time where the rest of the world ceases to matter for a few short weeks.

Of course, at the centre of it all is Tati’s titular comic buffoon, Mr Hulot, who himself gets caught up in a series of slapstick hijinks. In carrying on the tradition of silent comedies, Tati maintains the importance of framing in his visual gags just as much as his physical performance, playing with our perspective by obstructing shots with doorways, furniture, and buildings all through this beachside and hotel setting. With a simple cut from one angle to another, a man who we suspect of peeping into a sauna is revealed to simply be taking a photo of his family, though without this secondary context Hulot takes it on himself to give the stranger a good kick on the backside.

A lovely frame here, watching Hulot and his new partner dance the night away.
Another handsome frame, this one constructed carefully out of tennis racquets, shells, and most importantly, postcards, foreshadowing the final shot of this film.
Hulot is rarely so comfortable as he is hanging out with children.

Hulot is not a passive holidaymaker, as much of the time the situations he finds himself are set in motion by his own naïve actions, but once he is caught in a gag there is no escape until its final punchline hits. His own clumsiness leads to him accidentally snapping a boat in half in one sequence, but when he takes it out in the water and both sides fold up to consume him, he is forced into an awkward position beyond his control. As he tries to get out, it snaps its way towards the shore, and around him sunbathers run away shouting “Shark!” Of course, anyone with a good set of eyes can tell that it is not, in fact, any type of sea creature, but to apply such logic to Tati’s world is redundant. Later, a tyre covered in leaves is mistaken for a funeral wreath, and the mouth of a taxidermy fox rug improbably opens wide to latch onto Hulot’s spurs. Every object in this world is reduced to a vague impression and shape, with their actual functions overwritten by whatever comic purpose Tati decides might throw this tall, lurching mime off course. It all makes total sense when filtered through the mind of a child, and who is Mr Hulot if not an overgrown kid?

Tati possesses are remarkable talent for executing these imaginative gags both as a director and actor.

For all of his light teasing of Hulot, Tati holds the awkward man in great esteem, especially when compared to all the other vacationers around him. Among the other adults staying in his hotel are fat capitalists and self-absorbed intellectuals, and most of the dialogue we hear in this film comes from the amorphous background noise of their dull conversations. On a themed night, Hulot makes his way down to the lounge area dressed as a pirate, only to discover everyone else in ordinary clothing, playing cards, and listening to a political report over the radio, unable to switch their minds off to enjoy their holiday. For a brief moment, we feel a little pang of sadness that this evening will go to waste for Hulot. But just as he is about to give up hope, a young blonde woman and a boy also turn up in costumes, and suddenly a small family forms between them. Together, they dance to the music, so wrapped up in the moment that they are oblivious to the heads they’re turning.

The attention Hulot garners from others isn’t always so positive, as in a recurring visual gag, Tati sits his camera at a wide shot of the hotel while lights flick on one by one, disturbed by whatever commotion the bumbling man has accidentally created. Tati himself is as kinetic as ever in his performance, bolting away from stray fire crackers in one scene of utter chaos, but even in quieter moments, he maintains a magnetic presence in his lurching long steps and slight lean forward, naturally becoming the first thing our eyes are drawn to in any shot he is present.

Outside, total chaos as Hulot loses control of his fire crackers.
And back at the hotel, lights slowly flick on, one-by-one.

In a lazy, swinging theme of saxophones, pianos, and vibraphones, Hulot is encased in a gentle, unwinding motif, recalling an era that doesn’t so much belong to a specific point in history as it does to a period that can only ever exist in our memories, where moments of joy are associated with sweet nostalgia and humiliating accidents are simply turned into funny stories. In the very final shot, when Hulot and all the other vacationers have left, Tati freezes on an image of the empty beach, and at the same moment, the first bit of colour appears in this black-and-white film – a red postage stamp, stuck in the upper right corner. With this tiny, elegant touch, Tati effectively condenses everything that we have watched into a single snapshot in time, tying off this cinematic postcard as a charming ode to our reminiscences of long-gone, but deeply-treasured childhood vacations.

A touch of colour to end the film, essentially reframing its black-and-white palette as a nostalgic, dreamy filter.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is currently available to stream on SBS on Demand and the Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.