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.

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.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Nicholas Ray | 1hr 50min

It is a rare sight to see a woman take the lead in a classical Western, and perhaps entirely unique to Johnny Guitar to see her set against another woman as the equally compelling villain. Don’t be misled by the title – the string-strumming outsider and his distaste for guns is only secondary to this bitter conflict between saloonkeeper Vienna and cattle baron Emma, simmering with a vile tension that is ready to boil over into violence at any moment.

The reason for such loathing on Emma’s behalf though is masked behind layers of excuses. There is Vienna’s support of the railroad that will soon run through her land, bringing sheepman to town. There is her unpopular decision to permit a group of rambunctious confederates to frequent her saloon. There is the false suspicion that she is behind the stagecoach robbery that recently killed Emma’s brother. Emma cares little for any of these quarrels, but they certainly at least prove to be useful in riling up the local cattlemen. Instead, it is her unrequited love for the Dancing Kid, Vienna’s old flame, which underlies her hateful rage.

It is Ray’s blocking of actors across layers of so many fantastic compositions that marks Johnny Guitar as his greatest cinematic achievement.

Similarly, the job that Hayden Sterling’s titular guitarist has been summoned to town for is also one layered with separate intentions. On the surface, Vienna has hired Johnny to play music for her saloon. Prodding a little deeper, he reveals himself to be a quick draw with a gun that she realises will be handy when trouble inevitably arises with the locals. On a base, psychological level though, her reasoning is simple – there is still some unresolved feelings lingering between the two from a past relationship. Nicholas Ray’s development of such multifaceted characters gives way to profoundly gripping drama in Johnny Guitar, delivering pulsating dialogue as rhythmic and loaded with subtext as anything one would find in a film noir.

“How many men have you forgotten?”

“As many women as you’ve remembered.”

It isn’t that Ray’s narrative moves slowly, but the time he takes to flesh out these character interactions in both his screenplay and staging certainly takes up larger portions of the film than most other Westerns of this ilk. Johnny arrives at the saloon in the first few minutes of the film, and it isn’t until almost forty minutes that we leave this location for another, but this magnificent, rustic set proves to be all Ray needs to set up his drama. One wall takes the appearance of a rocky cliff face, as if the saloon has been built into the side of a mountain, and with a balcony setting a stage for interactions across uneven levels, romances and rivalries are blocked with stunning visual flair. From low angles, Vienna stands tall upon the balcony like a queen in her domain, while high angles from this vantage point shrink Emma below, whose lack of physical power is offset by the large mass of ranchers standing right behind her.

High and low angles in mid-shots and wides, setting up these two rivals as polar opposites.

Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are opposites in these roles, yet both deliver an equally remarkable pair of performances as enemies. McCambridge’s eyes are as small and mean as Crawford’s are large and expressive, and where the former predominantly dresses in drab, black dresses to put on a show of mourning, the latter is instantly recognisable for her array of bright, colourful costumes. Ray’s striking Technicolor serves these outfits well, setting Vienna apart as a woman fully embracing the full range of sartorial expression, as opposed to more traditional gunslingers like Johnny whose muted greys and browns blend into his earthy surroundings.

A remarkable composition illustrating the separation between the old lovers. Kitchen utensils hanging in the foreground, Johnny a little further back, Vienna isolated in the window frame wearing her gorgeous purple dress. As the conversation goes on, she emerges around the corner and romantic tension grows.
A bright red shirt – Vienna is out for vengeance, and Ray throws shadows across these scene as they plan their next move.
Several scenes are spent watching Vienna change outfits, but the blocking never falters.

As Johnny Guitar progresses, Vienna’s regalia grows even more vibrant with the intensifying conflict. The navy blue she starts off with is perhaps the subtlest we will see her dress in the entire film, and yet it still projects a mannered demeanour while she is most in control. When her mind later turns to vengeance, she changes into a burning red shirt, and then as she goes to confront her adversary one last time, her iconic canary yellow top finally makes an appearance, setting herself up as a vibrant source of hope – though not without keeping the angry touch of scarlet in her scarf.

A pale white figure accepting her fate, calmly playing the piano as Emma and the lynch mob arrive.

Sheila O’Brien’s costume design makes for a particularly striking composition when Emma and her lynch mob arrive at the saloon to confront Vienna a second time, only to find her peacefully playing piano in a flowing, white gown against the rocky brown wall. There is a calm acceptance here which, while confident, also makes her terribly vulnerable. Ray is sure to keep emphasising the massive oil-lamp chandelier that Vienna lit at the start of this scene here, especially capturing it from low angles, hanging over Emma’s head in a daunting piece of foreshadowing. Sure enough, she sends it crashing down to the floor only minutes later, burning down the saloon in a devastating set piece. In her mad smile and dour black outfit, one might call to mind the image of the Wicked Witch of the West, and with the orchestra playing up and down a delirious scale reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz’s tornado sequence the comparison is even plainer.

In every shot this oil lamp chandelier appears, Ray uses it to craft an excellent composition and set up its eventual relevance to the narrative.
Foreshadowing in this tremendous low angle and blocking.
Emma’s gun shot, dropping the oil lamps to the floor and setting fire to the saloon.
Ray knows what he has with this set piece, frequently cutting back to the burning facade.

The climactic showdown that ends Johnny Guitar does not try to top this in scale, but it does pay off on its character drama to an even greater extent, subverting our expectations that Johnny will be the one to save the day by letting Vienna land the killing blow on her foe. It is not his physical strength or skill with a gun which sways the course of events, but rather his moral fortitude, winning her over to his pacifist, musical lifestyle. Though the two lovers happily unite in these closing minutes, there is still something tragic about the way this male-dominated environment drives a wedge between two headstrong women, setting them up in bitter competition against each other as if there were only room for one. The most obvious feminist reading of Johnny Guitar is right there on the surface for anyone to grasp, but it is just as much in the sympathy that is offered to the mean-spirited Emma that the film reveals its deepest compassions, projecting a feminine sensitivity upon the Western genre through its marvellously complex characters and vibrant visual expressions.

The geography of Ray’s blocking. Vienna in the top left, Emma in the top right, Johnny in the bottom left, the Dancing Kid in the bottom right. Everything is set up visually in this wide shot for the final showdown.
A high angle sending Johnny and Vienna on their way, walking through a crowd of black-clad men.

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

Sabrina (1954)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 53min

Sabrina may not have the reputation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Roman Holiday, and yet there is a good argument that Billy Wilder’s first collaboration with Audrey Hepburn features the actress at her most nuanced. Here, she combines two roles she would be commonly associated with – the fresh-faced innocent and the stylish fashion icon – and grows up before our eyes in a gorgeous transformation, confidently inhabiting a new look which turns heads that previously went unturned. Even before this takes place though, Hepburn is a screen presence to behold, with Wilder soaking her face through close-ups as she watches a young William Holden from afar. Though Sabrina carries great loneliness she is still evidently immature, as an ill-thought-out suicide attempt over her unrequited puppy love reveals a naïve belief that there is nothing else out there in the world for her.

Audrey Hepburn can play childlike innocence as well as the stylish leading lady.

The two years she spends in Paris changes that quite drastically though. To David, her then-crush and now-suitor, she is an entirely new woman, bearing no resemblance to the one who left. To her father, she is still the young girl with no wider understanding of the world. To her, the truth is more complicated. She is still carrying insecurities that haunted her before, as we are reminded in the instrumental motifs of ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ recalling that night she had her heart broken while watching David flirt with another woman. But now she has lived and experienced more, and she finally sees her own great potential.

“You’re still reaching for the moon.”

“No, Father. The moon is reaching for me.”

Elegant staging across layers of the frame painting out these characters and relationships.

Up against Hepburn, Holden is struggling in what is easily one of his lesser performances, hitting comedic beats that land quite clumsily in a film that is otherwise extraordinarily elegant. Faring better is Humphrey Bogart, playing David’s older brother, Linus, carrying a magnificently commanding presence even if he doesn’t run away with the movie like Hepburn. Both are the sons of a wealthy family of whom Sabrina’s father serves as a chauffeur, and yet as they develop romantic interests in her, the clearly defined class boundaries dividing them are challenged in complex ways, giving rise to a web of intricate relationships that Wilder relishes in his staging and luscious deep focus cinematography. Of all the romantic set pieces we witness here, by far the greatest is the indoor tennis court upon which the figures of all three leads stand out prominently, whether they are isolated in the wide, open space or caught in a moment of tender affection.

From being the one who lurked in the shadows and watched lovers on the tennis court in the first scene…
To being on the court itself, and the centre of attention. Wonderful form in the progression of this imagery.

As much as we are drawn to Sabrina’s journey of independence, the callous duplicity of Linus also forms the basis of a compelling character who apparently lives to serve his family. In his efforts to ensure David doesn’t get distracted from a potential marriage that would be good for their business, he charms Sabrina with the intent to eventually send her off on a boat alone, and yet in the process of enacting this cruel plan, he incidentally falls for her. Like the hard, durable plastic he has obsessed over in his corporate ventures, it looks like no one is going to break him. And yet, ultimately, someone does.

“The man who doesn’t burn, doesn’t scorch, doesn’t melt suddenly throws a $20 million deal out the window.”

Essentially, Linus is a romantic pretending to be a practical businessman pretending to be a romantic. As he stands in a meeting room committing to the future of his company, Sabrina’s ship sails away in the background behind him, its whistle blowing like a final reminder of what he is losing. Before the rom-com trope of a man chasing down his lover in the airport, we had Bogart sailing after Hepburn on his boat, culminating in a romantic meeting of two movie stars that gorgeously ties off two parallel arcs – a man finding himself in love, and a woman finding herself beyond infatuation, realising that she has the entire world in her hands.

Bogart’s face warped in this shot through the plastic hammock – a cunning, duplicitous man.
The ships in the background and the office in the foreground – a painful dilemma for Linus in these final minutes.

Sabrina is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.