Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Orson Welles | 1hr 59min

To faithfully adapt a Shakespeare play into a film as Orson Welles did several times throughout his career obviously entails a strong affinity with the Bard’s rhetorical devices and archetypes. To lift individual scenes from several plays and rearrange them into a compelling study of a relatively minor character requires something even greater though – a profound understanding of narrative structure as art, reinvented across centuries and media forms while retaining the same, core principles. As such, the once-clean divisions of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and history plays are melded together under Welles’ inspired reconstruction, Chimes at Midnight, offering a nuanced depth to Sir John Falstaff, the drunk, buffoonish knight who serves as comedic relief in Henry IV, Part I, Part II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Falstaff may not be the only side character that Shakespeare imbued with remarkable complexity, but he is clearly that one that Welles was most drawn towards, and it isn’t hard to see why. As a gluttonous, indulgent man who surrounded himself with powerful people and seemed to live in permanent debt, the parallels are clear, making the reason behind the casting doubly apparent. Although it is said that Welles went on a diet to slim down for the part, one wouldn’t guess it from the huge mass he carries around onscreen, only further emphasised by his trademark low angles that see him dominate most of the frame. From those low vantage points, Falstaff looks as if he is on top of the world, though such a steep incline only makes his descent in the final act land with greater force.

Orson Welles is said to have slimmed down for this party, but he still carries an immense weight on screen, and his trademark low angles only emphasise that.

The enormous depth of field that Welles innovated over twenty years earlier in Citizen Kane continues to emerge in his ravishing black-and-white cinematography here as well, bringing a razor-sharp focus to immaculately staged character interactions layered deep into the background. With the camera sitting so close to the ground in those abundant low angles as well, the overcast skies of England’s countryside and the vaulted ceilings of its cavernous castles become daunting backdrops to majestic scenes of royal power plays.

Three levels of depth in this frame creating a quietly impressive composition of faces.
Always a precise framing of the horizon, here right at the bottom of the shot to emphasise the overcast skies hanging over these executioners.

Centuries of tradition weigh heavy on the nobles who dominate these spaces, visually smothering them in doorways and corridors which open into vast, empty caverns. There, sunrays pour through the high windows cut into the roughhewn walls, throwing harsh shadows across faces and casting blocks of light on the stone floor. These castle interiors make for an especially daunting set piece when King Henry IV eventually passes away, as Welles sets his camera far back in a distant long shot from the throne where he slumps, before gradually trickling a mass of robed men into the room like dark spectres waiting to carry him away.

Cavernous halls in King Henry’s castle illuminated by the natural light pouring through high windows – an absolute feat of black-and-white cinematography.

This is not the environment where the King’s son, Prince Hal, is terribly comfortable though, and neither is Falstaff for that matter. The Boar’s Head tavern is where they would much rather spend their time, drinking, dancing, and poking fun at the King. Outside, the long, spindly trees of the forest that obstruct Welles’ compositions formally mirror the decorative arrangements of tall spears and flagpoles back at the castle, and in this double-sided visual motif of court and country, a formal divide is drawn between the two domains. If the castle is a building of mighty architecture and cavernous rooms, then this inn of drunkards and harlots is its opposite, as in place of high, arched ceilings Welles clutters his mise-en-scène with low rafters, rustic wooden beams, and bawdy crowds.

The Boar’s Head Tavern stands in complete contrast to the castle in its clutter and low rafters.
Another formal contrast, though this time between the trees of the forest and the spears of soldiers, both obstructing frames.

These are Falstaff’s people, and this is his kingdom, catering to his pleasures and humouring his boastful exaggerations that quickly turn two bandits he fended off on the road into eleven. His intimate close-ups may not hide his hefty weight, but there is a lightness to his spirit, often booming out across crowds through Welles’ loud, resonant voice. That his best friend, Hal, would ever turn his back on him is far out of the question, and yet the political machinations of the monarchy are not something he is bright enough to wrap his head around.

In case there was any doubt in our minds about Falstaff’s incapability among knights and nobles, the Battle of Shrewsbury arrives at the film’s midpoint to comically underscore his utter incompetence and cowardice. For Welles, it is a majestic triumph of action filmmaking, staging King Henry IV’s forces against the rebels with lines of horses stretching across fields, and blocking tight formations of soldiers in their military units. As they stand at attention, charge across an open field, and hack each other to pieces, one would almost believe they were watching thousands of men, though in truth Welles only had 180 extras to work with, and consequently had to be resourceful with his staging and editing. Even with an incredible depth of field, he still manages to obscure our vision with the fog blowing across the battle, while the fast-paced cutting strikes a fine balance of chaotic frenzy and clear coordination. As chests are pierced with arrows and horses fall to the ground, of course we can’t go without noticing that girthy lump of metal containing Falstaff bumbling through the middle of it all.

Welles is incredibly resourceful with his backdrops, turning what would have been a plain, grey sky background into a fierce shot by lining it with with spears.
One of Welles’ finest moments as a director in his career, recreating the epic Battle of Shrewsbury with what was actually a limited number of extras.

The cowardice of this drunken, foolish knight is rarely so evident as it is here. Not only does he feign death to avoid the fight, but he also stands on the sidelines from afar to watch Hal and the King’s enemy, Hotspur, battle it out, claiming the victory as his own when his friend comes out on top. Falstaff does not fit so simply into Shakespeare’s leading character archetypes of heroes and villains, nor is he even the sort of antihero who cunningly plots his ascent to power. He is totally driven by his own base, hedonistic desires, making his ultimate rejection at the hands of his own friend particularly difficult to grapple with.

As the man Hal once jokingly called a “villainous abominable misleader of youth” comes shambling into the new King’s coronation ceremony expecting a warm reception, it is hard not to feel a twinge of pity for him. For a second time he is branded a “misleader”, though there is no longer any humour in this indictment. All the time we have spent gazing up at Falstaff on his pedestal of privilege makes the high angle we now look down at him from land with even heavier weight, as Welles’ joviality and lust for life crumples into heartbreaking despair within seconds.

A heartbreaking final scene between Hal and Falstaff, separating them by high and low angles that put a great distance between both.

One the other side of this dialogue, King Hal looms over him, framed by the flags, spears, and vaulted ceilings that make up his new domain, far from the Boar’s Head Tavern. If one was to look hard enough, perhaps there might be a trace of regret in his expression, though his face otherwise now rests in an inhumanly cold stare, piercing Falstaff’s soul and exposing his greatest insecurity to the world – his total lack of substance or significance. As he is written in Shakespeare’s works, he is a mere side character, not destined for the spotlight he is given here in Chimes at Midnight, and yet by forcing him into it regardless, Welles peels back the compelling layers of his vapidity. To live as a fool in world of kings, nobles, and conspirators automatically puts one on the back foot, though in Falstaff’s carefree disengagement from their petty affairs altogether, perhaps we can find some unassuming wisdom to his short-lived yet jovial debauchery.

Chimes at Midnight is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Seconds (1966)

John Frankenheimer | 1hr 47min

Most citizens of the world will only get one chance to live their life according to how they envision it, but for the elite few who go under the knife at the enigmatic ‘Company’ in Seconds, rebirth into a new body and life does not need to be some intangible, far-flung dream. In this absurd, Kafkaesque nightmare, plastic surgery has advanced far enough to transplant one’s entire life, and banking executive Arthur Hamilton is the latest to take up the offer, being immensely dissatisfied with his passionless marriage, tedious office job, and estranged relationship with his grown child. What sounds like the basis of a high-concept science fiction story is effectively transformed into a psychological horror under the steady hand of John Frankenheimer, whose intrusive, distorted camerawork carves out existential musings over the source of human misery.

This eerie tone is set right from the opening credits that visually warp extreme close-ups of an unidentified man’s facial features to the ominous sound of an organ and strings, breaking them down into fragments disconnected from his vague identity. In Arthur’s everyday life too, it remains equally difficult to orientate ourselves, continuing to isolate parts of his body by tracking his face, legs, and back of his head through a subway station, though this time with a wide-angle lens that places him at the centre of a world he no longer feels part of. Time, wealth, and ennui has turned him into a solipsist, absorbed in his all-consuming self-pity and showing little regard for others, making him a prime candidate for the Company’s procedure of rebirth. All it takes is a recently deceased doppelganger to be dug up and their death staged to appear as if the client themselves has perished, effectively ‘killing’ their previous identity and creating a new one.

Eerie, extreme close-ups setting an unnerving tone over the opening credits.
Frankenheimer carries through with the extreme close-ups here too, though this time pairing them with rigid tracking shots.

The path to the Company’s hidden headquarters is itself laden with misdirection, leading Arthur to a dry cleaner, an abattoir, a truck, and eventually a misshapen hallway of patterned walls and checkered floor tiles, looking like a scene ripped straight from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Even more broadly though, it is Orson Welles’ absurdist quest for nonsensical answers in The Trial which exerts an influence here, with James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography heightening the impact of his low angles and tracking shots through bizarre set pieces to his final destination.

This journey to the Company isn’t far from the endless wandering from one location to the next in Orson Welles’ The Trial – completely Kafkaesque.
German Expressionism in the absolute madness of this distorted hallway’s warped lines.

Inside the Company’s operating theatre, the man we once knew as Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson, and the dashing Rock Hudson takes the place of the slightly older John Randolph in the role, fluently adopting his constrained mannerisms. During his recovery, mirrors surround him everywhere he goes in the facility, reflecting his freshly constructed, Frankenstein-like visage back at him before the stitches come off and he is released back into civilisation. His dreams of becoming a painter are closer than ever, and a beachside community in California becomes his new home, finally wiping his slate clean for him to embrace a new, carefree life on the other side America without the baggage of his old one.

Fantastic work in Frankenheimer’s mise-en-scène, surrounding Arthur/Tony with mirrors as he gets used to his new face.

Frankenheimer’s commitment to the metaphor of rebirth carries through to the unofficial baptism during his community’s wine festival, where our leading man finally manages to shed Arthur’s inhibitions and accept Tony’s love of life. The rigid camera movements that once set him on straight paths give way to a liberated, handheld camera, wildly cutting around the dancing nudists crushing grapes beneath their feet and Tony’s apprehensive face, isolated from the crowd. A mere few seconds though after his free-spirited love interest, Nora, pulls him into the pool of grapes, his protestations give way to laughter, accepting the joyous christening of the juices being poured over his head. The calm, romantic dissolve from his ecstatic face to the calm beach where he cradles Nora in his arms might have marked the end of a character arc for anyone else, but for Tony, bitterness and regret are ingrained deeper in his psyche than his mere surroundings.

This fast-cutting, handheld scene of baptism and rebirth is heavily juxtaposed against earlier scenes of stiff tracking shots, marking a point of a transition for Tony.
Long dissolves bleeding through a sweet but short-lived romance.

It isn’t long before we see Frankenheimer’s camera sitting on Tony’s shoulder again, intently following him through a party, and this is really our first sign that old habits are rising to the surface again. Suddenly, this community doesn’t seem so idyllic after all, with dauntingly staged shots pressing the attention of the guests in on Tony’s irresponsible behaviour. It is evident that this is not the life for him – but if his old one wasn’t either, then where else is there to go? He isn’t exactly overcome with nostalgia when he revisits his previous home in New York, but there is a wistfulness in his expression as his new face is faintly reflected against a framed picture of his old one. The conversation he has with his ‘widow’ doesn’t make it any easier either, offering an alternate perspective to which he had been obstinately blind while living as Arthur.

“I never knew what he wanted, and I don’t think he ever knew. He fought so hard for what he’d been taught to want, and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused. The silences grew longer. We never talked about it. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate truce.”

Confronting arrangements of actors as Tony’s new friends crowd around him and the camera, helped a great deal by James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography.
A wistful reflection of Tony’s face over Arthur’s photo.

Really, this path to disillusionment that she describes seems no different to the path he is on now, pursuing a dream that he never truly desired and thus never finding the fulfilment he expected. He could go on forever, taking on new faces, growing bored, and moving onto the next, but according to Frankenheimer, such is the nature of our modern, material desires for more than we have. It takes human intervention to bring these cycles of constant dissatisfaction to a close, and in its own dark way, this is what the Company seeks to fulfil.

It is a genius narrative twist which Seconds lands in its final minutes, wheeling Tony away down a corridor to the operating theatre again as we move with him in a menacing low angle, though this sterile room is not the last thing he witnesses. Instead, we see a beach much like we have seen before, though in place of lovers, we glimpse a silhouette of a father and his children walking into the distance. If this is a realisation in the last few seconds of Tony’s life of what he truly desired above all else, then it comes far too late. Just as distorted footage brought us into Seconds, so too do we leave it with this dream gradually warping into surreal oblivion, tragically slipping away from view before it even gets a chance to be born.

A glimpse of what Tony truly wanted all along? Perhaps, but it quickly warps into oblivion before he even gets the chance to grasp it.

Seconds is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Funny Girl (1968)

William Wyler | 2hr 35min

If you were to ask Elvis Presley, making the move from singing to the silver screen is not an easy leap to make. Though Frank Sinatra was substantially more successful in this regard, he would have agreed too, taking over a decade to finally hit his stride in The Man With the Golden Arm. As such, Barbara Streisand’s comical wit and vibrant musicality in her film debut in Funny Girl is nothing short of remarkable, proving her to be a naturally magnetic presence whether she is clumsily falling over her roller skates or taking the spotlight with soulful ballads pining after her gambling lover, Nicky Arnstein. Based on the stage musical of the same name, which in turn was based on the life of comedienne and Broadway star Fanny Brice, Funny Girl finely balances a rollicking showcase of its leading woman’s talents against the drama of her personal troubles, radiating an upbeat irreverence that was so uncommon among female performers of her era.

Loneliness bookends both sides of this film, wedging the extended flashback of Fanny’s life story between scenes set in 1927 where her relationship with Nicky has drawn to a cold, dark close. Though she is in virtually every second of this film and leads every single musical number, William Wyler knows when to subdue her dynamic presence with a subtler cinematic touch, introducing her with a long take hanging on the back of her head as she silently enters the empty theatre where her production, the Ziegfeld Follies, headlines the billboards. It isn’t until she settles in front of a mirror that we see her face for the first time, drained of the passion and laughter that we will soon see her younger self embody.

A slow crawl into the theatre, hanging on Streisand’s back, before finally revealing her face in a mirror.

When we do finally see her light up, it is apparent that Streisand is uniquely suited to translating this role to the screen, with her bright, slightly crossed eyes and distinct profile setting her apart from more conventionally attractive alternatives. Fanny’s physical comedy is there in Streisand’s performance, as she shows off a range of physical comedy talents in a cartoonish, balletic parody of Swan Lake, and appears as a bride with a fake, pregnant belly in a musical number she irreverently turns into a straight-up charade. But even offstage, Streisand deflects invasive media questions with quick-thinking wit, and in one high-stakes poker game that she is invited to observe, her rapid shift between expressions of nail-biting anxiety and blank impassivity is incongruently hilarious.

Sending up Swan Lake, making her bride character pregnant, a slapstick routine on roller skates – Streisand’s comedic talents are on full show and it is wonderful.

Unlike Streisand, Wyler was a mainstay of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas by the time Funny Girl came around, crossing into the movie-musical genre for the first time after a long career of directing romances, dramas, and historical epics. As one of the relatively few filmmakers whose artistic voice flourished during the glory years of America’s studio system, he is well-acquainted with stunning displays of interior production design, here crafting velvet red dining rooms, vibrantly purple bedrooms, and a muted green restaurant of rattan decor and indoor plants. Crucial to the filming of these sets is his trademark deep focus photography, handsomely capturing the bustling crowds that fill Fanny’s family’s bar, and he even experiments a little in the realm of editing with freeze frames that ring an angelic echo of “Nicky Arnstein” around in Fanny’s head when she first falls head over heels for him.

William Wyler’s opulent production design revels in his gorgeously curated colour palettes.

Most of all though, Wyler proves to be especially versatile in his staging of his major musical numbers, moving beyond the theatre with the end of Act 1 showstopper, ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’. Up to this point, soundstages have allowed him the flexibility to crane shots around handsomely mounted sets in sweeping motions, but here as Fanny decisively risks her career to chase Nicky across America and start their new life together, she emerges into the real world. As she rides her train through a forest, she hits each consonant with unwavering force, and when the final chorus finally arrives, Wyler blasts us with a helicopter shot of her steamboat cruising past the Statue of Liberty, swooping the camera right up to her face and out again in a single, extraordinary take.

One of the boldest shots of the film at the climax of her show-stopping number ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’, flying in close and then out again in one brilliant helicopter shot.

Love and prosperity surround Fanny at every turn in the early years of her relationship with Nicky, situating them on either side of a pink sun setting over a waterfront as they properly commit to each other. As was foreshadowed in the very opening scene though, such good fortune cannot last forever. Nicky’s corrupt business ventures and gambling losses have put them in deep debt, but even more devastating for Fanny is his lack of moral support, missing her show’s opening night and wearing away at her radiant optimism. The pressure to hide such tragic circumstances from the public and maintain the image of a “funny girl” is difficult enough on its own, but the final gut punch arrives when her own husband, of all people, places that label on her.

The sun sets between the two lovers as they commit to each other on the waterfront – beautiful natural lighting and framing.

In this way, the final number ‘My Man’ is a retort to everything that has built up in Fanny’s life to this point. With her black dress blending in with the black curtains, Streisand’s body sinks into her surroundings, though Wyler sharply carves out the shape of her face against the backdrop to light up her aching, melancholic expressions, yearning for the man who can’t take her seriously. Whatever compassionate respect Fanny was denied in her lifetime, Streisand and Wyler make up for in their representation of her as a sensitively layered figure here, examining the energetic drive behind this subversive innovator of female roles in the show business of 1920s America.

Consumed by blackness in her final number, Streisand balances out the darker aspects of her character with the lighter, comedic moments.

Funny Girl is currently streaming on Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

If…. (1968)

Lindsay Anderson | 1hr 51min

Within the long hallways and hallowed grounds of the British boys boarding school in If…., the seeds of an uprising are sprouting. At the top of its centuries-old hierarchy, there is the headmaster, distantly reigning over the housemasters below, who in turn grant special privileges to the prefects. Beneath them, there are the younger years who have not yet reached seniority, and then right at the bottom are the junior boys – children who are forced into servitude by the prefects. The soon-to-be leader of the looming rebellion is Mick Travis, played be a pre-A Clockwork Orange Malcolm Dowell whose wry smile, pointed intonation, and simmering rage sets a prototype for troubled youth that Stanley Kubrick would study three years later with even greater finesse. Here though, he is but one figure in an empire of leaders, subordinates, and slaves, each of whom are assembled into a microcosm of 60s British politics and its restless, burgeoning counterculture.

There is no surprise that this school’s demographic is incredibly male-dominated, with only women of note in the film being those employees and wives upholding the system that safeguards their social status, and the nameless Girl who is recruited into Mick’s revolt. With such close quarters between teenage boys and such little female contact, the homoerotic implications are clear, as corrective punishments are turned into a sublimination of latent sexual desires, and sex into a weapon of humiliation wielded by the ruling classes to enforce the status quo.

There is frequently a sexual connotation to the prefects’ punishments and displays of dominance, picking at the homoerotic undertones of competitive male relationships.

In this way, there is little privacy to be found. Even shower times see the boys strip down and wash themselves together under the keen eye of the prefects, who on a whim can turn the water to cold and force their inferiors to stay under just for the sadistic pleasure of it. Later when they exact punishment on Mick and his friends through a beating, the bent-over, submissive position they are coerced into can barely be looked past as anything but sexual abuse. As they yelp in pain, we cut to other rooms in the school where fellow students simply listen on in silence, and we quite curiously cut to one of their views beneath a microscope – bacteria steadily multiplying on a petri dish. It is an image of multiplication growing greater numbers, but it is also notably a form of asexual reproduction, hinting at a mounting wave of anti-establishment contempt that wields power not through sex, but through sheer, overwhelming masses.  

Sadomasochism – bending the inferiors over to beat them from behind, caught in a long take.
A curious cutaway to the binary fission of bacteria, asexually reproducing and growing in numbers.

What Lindsay Anderson lacks in visual style in If…. is compensated by his narrative’s electrifying formal texture, dispensing with straightforward plotting in favour of chapters that tease out random pieces of life within this institution. Along one storyline, a secret relationship is struck up between Mick’s friend, Wallace, and a younger boy, Bobby. The moment that infatuation strikes in the gymnasium is rendered in swooning slow-motion, while the school guns that surround their secret rendezvous in the storage room stand erect in as phallic symbols. Further up the food chain, Denson and his fellow prefects court their housemaster over private dinners, manipulating him into granting them greater power. Meanwhile, Mick continues to stew in his dormitory, darkly ruminating that “War is the last possible creative act” and that “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” He is not a hero in any conventional sense, but his dangerous philosophy looks to be the only way for anyone to break free of the school’s tyrannical rulers.

An effective set piece in the gun storage room, standing them upright as if erect.
Malcolm McDowell easily gives the best performance of the film as Mick Travis, it is easy to see why Kubrick picked him out for A Clockwork Orange.

Anderson’s sharp political allegory might almost be considered a piece of realism with its location shooting in authentic schools, if it weren’t for the intermittent rupturing of our belief in this setting as a rational, coherent system. The surrealism that emerges in brief passages brings a wholly unexpected layer of incongruence to these characters, at times purposefully marking the point of distinction from reality as we slip into Mick’s animalistic fantasy of wrestling naked with the Girl, but more often simply dropping absurd images into otherwise normal situations.

A surreal dream of naked, animalistic wrestling between Mick and the Girl, breaking free of society’s cultural restraints.

There is good cause to believe that such surreal scenes as the naked stroll of the housemaster’s wife through the dormitories are purposefully shot in black-and-white to mark a divergence from reality, though the lack of consistency here creates a more disorientating uncertainty than anything else. When ordinary church scenes are rendered in monochrome and the hilariously unexpected rise of the school chaplain from an office drawer appears in full colour, any theorising about the device’s formal meaning beyond its prominent bewildering effect is undermined, leaving it as a strange, unexplained anomaly like so much else we witness here.

Realism and surrealism, black-and-white and colour photography – the distinctions aren’t always clear, but they both offer a nice formal texture to the film.

As If…. approaches its vicious, final minutes, Anderson only continues to ramp up its eccentricity and irony, introducing the school’s Founder’s Day celebrations with an amusingly generic speech on honour, freedom, duty, and upholding traditions while a man wearing full knight armour sits in the audience. As smoke rises from the floorboards and the audience starts coughing, the drone of the speaker persists, proudly ignoring the emergency unfolding in front of him until he is forced to usher everyone outside. There, Mick and his fellow students pour gunfire onto the crowd, who feebly take up their own arms and fight back.

No such luck for the status quo though – the counterculture of an oppressed people is on the rise, and Anderson’s political parable positions it as the only logical outcome of a civilisation so divided among its classes. The implication of the title If…. is not a question, but an unfinished dream, conjecturing a world parallel to our own that cannot bear the weight of its own brutal, twisted, and nonsensical bureaucracy.

An apocalyptic finale, bringing the school’s oppressive, rigid hierarchy to an end through violence.

If…. is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Hud (1963)

Martin Ritt | 1hr 52min

Perhaps if the story of Hud was set a century earlier in the Old West, its dusty landscapes of low-hanging horizons would have been rendered in dazzling Technicolor, and we might have found John Wayne swaggering through the doors of a saloon with his thumbs hooked in his belt. Instead, Martin Ritt’s bleak, greyscale photography captures this rural environment with a dour austerity, and in place of a traditional Western hero, we find Paul Newman taking the abrasive, hyper-masculine archetype to its logical conclusion. It is apparent to any mature adult who spends more than ten minutes with him that his charm is only surface deep though, as while there is no direct correlation between his moral corruption and his family’s waning livelihood, the formal connection that unites them is not without purposeful intent.

The inspiration that Peter Bogdanovich drew from Ritt’s monochrome vision of small-town, northern Texas is evident in the way that both The Last Picture Show and Hud submit to the slow-paced ennui of everyday life, creating a pair of rural settlements destined to be abandoned within a few decades. Lonely vehicles chug their way down empty roads, rarely venturing any further than the outskirts of town, and there always seems to be a country song floating on a warm breeze, breaking up the lingering, dry silence.

Magnificent establishing shots of the town and ranch, hanging the horizon low in the frame and letting the grey sky dominate.

It isn’t hard to imagine these communities as neighbours either, especially given that both their stories unfold in the early 1950s right at the dawn of post-war America. Where the high school students of The Last Picture Show are itching to graduate and escape their tedious lives though, the only teenager we meet in Ritt’s film is strangely content, deluded by Hud’s macho confidence. Lonnie’s departure at the end of the film may mark a melancholy conclusion, but it is also likely the best path forward for him, whisking him away into another world separate from his uncle’s selfish influence.

Ritt fully understands how to use levels in his blocking of actors, towering Newman over the family as they sit and lie beneath him.

The tone is set very early for what kind of man Hud is. If his romantic interest in a married woman or his reckless destruction of delicate flowers aren’t indicative enough of where his moral compass points, then his nefariousness is abundantly clear in his suggestion to his elderly rancher father, Homer, that they sell off their diseased cattle, making them someone else’s problem. For Hud, issues aren’t meant to be solved, but simply pushed onto other people, revealing a complete lack of responsibility on his part. When Homer calls him out on this, his dismissive response only drives that point deeper, painting him out as a self-centred, insecure man hiding behind the good looks and charisma of a Western hero.

“You don’t care about people, Hud. You don’t give a damn about them. Oh, you got all that charm going for ya, and it makes the youngsters wanna be like you. That’s the shame of it, cause you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.”

Hud in darkness, and Homer lit above him on the stairs – a great stage for this chastisement.

Parallel to the story of his troubled relationships, we find an infectious disease wreaking havoc on his family’s cattle, bringing their small ranch to its knees. There is no hope to be found in this storyline, which follows a steady, downward trajectory towards an inevitable defeat, and yet James Wong Howe’s camera brings a nimble sensitivity to its character dynamics, choosing to hang on the actors’ expressions as they wander their environments. Shots shift smoothly from barren landscapes to tightly staged compositions, building a close relationship between the environment and its settlers, though Ritt’s blocking often sees them hunched over as well, as if physically weakened by its pestilence. These men don’t admit it, but they evidently accepted their defeat a long time ago, and in arrestingly poignant shots like that which introduces us to the ranch with a dead tree branch infested with buzzards, we too can sense an oppressive decay hanging in the air.

Depth of field in Ritt’s blocking, creating shapes and character interactions across layers of the frame.
Ritt obstructing the shot with a dead, buzzard-infested tree branch – deathly imagery.

Even Elmer Bernstein’s melancholy music score consisting solely of a lightly plucked guitar induces a far more muted tone than the traditionally bombastic orchestras of Hollywood Westerns, stripping its soundscape back to a stream of flowing, minimalist melodies. Just as vitality has been drained from this once-thriving landscape, so too is it sucked from Homer, destroyed by his two greatest creations that have ultimately mounted to nothing – his business, and his son. “It don’t take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow,” he laments not long before his own feeble death, and that sentiment is never felt so sharply as it is when he and his ranch hands are forced to put down their entire herd of cattle.

An excellent piece of staging from Ritt in a moment of quiet tragedy.

Ritt directs the start of this scene like a sombre funeral procession, spending several minutes rounding up the livestock and driving them into a pit without a single word of dialogue. Around the edges, he stages Homer and his ranch hands like mourners watching the lowering of a loved one’s coffin, though these proceedings are far grimmer than any religious ceremony. When the preparations are finally made, the silence is broken by two words – “Start shootin’” – and the scene erupts into cruel, bleak violence, landing each cut in Ritt’s vicious editing like its own merciless bullet.

A bleak, lingering scene as the cattle are driven into their grave, and then breaking the quiet with the devastating massacre.
Ritt blocking his actors like John Ford, using the levels of his terrain to create a gorgeous composition.

With the family business destroyed, Homer laid to rest, and Lonnie gone for good, there is little left for Hud in this small town. For a man as stubbornly independent as him though, perhaps that doesn’t even matter. Just like the infectious disease that killed off his family’s cattle, he too will continue to spread his own pain and anger to those around him, callously destroying the proud legacy that his own ancestors spent several lifetimes nurturing. More than anyone else in town, he is truly the child of an Old West mythology that bred self-reliant individualism into its men, but which failed to instil in them the heart and compassion of its greatest heroes, thereby creating the means of its own, sad downfall.

Low horizons, wide shots, and sparse mise-en-scène makes for austere imagery.

Hud is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen | 1hr 55min

With its elaborate action set pieces, exhilarating espionage plot, and a debonair Cary Grant calling back to his North by Northwest character, one might be forgiven for thinking that Charade is Alfred Hitchcock’s wish fulfilment of finally working with Audrey Hepburn. Working in tandem with these plot devices though is a screwball liveliness not typically associated with the master of suspense, sending Grant and Hepburn on a romantic rollercoaster through intimate entanglements and creative visual gags. Stanley Donen may not belong among the great auteurs, but in Charade’s airy, colourful comedy we can still see the mark of the classical Hollywood moviemaker and musical-lover, teasing out a light-hearted battle of the sexes amid conspiracies of fraud, theft, and murder.

It isn’t long after Hepburn’s Paris-dwelling American expat, Reggie, learns of her husband’s death that the treachery of his past misdeeds narrows in on her. Charles was not a man she knew terribly well or loved a great deal, but his death regardless leaves her as the benefactor of an illegal, secret fortune that three mysterious men are now pursuing. It would seem her only ally would be a suave, fellow American she has met in France, Peter – or is it Alex, or Adam? Grant switches identities so many times in Charade that we never really know where his loyalties lie, and yet there is an affable ease in his performance that constantly reassures us of his gentle fondness for Reggie, winning our trust even when his actions haven’t earned it. Narrative twists and developments come at us quickly, keeping us in the grip of Peter Stone’s thrilling screenplay, but when we see Grant shower with his clothes on in an act of playful humour, it isn’t hard to see why Reggie is so utterly charmed.

Grant combines his debonair screen persona with his comedy chops as the mysterious man who goes by many names.

Soon enough, the mystery of Charles’ murder escalates into an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None-type whodunnit, driving an uneasy tension through the steady elimination of suspects and a series of spectacularly staged confrontations. Though these stand-offs often unfold in wonderfully Hitchcockian fashion, Donen rejects studio sets in favour of real locations around Paris, creating striking backdrops out of authentic storefronts, skylines, and historical architecture.

Location shooting makes such a sizeable impact in this thriller, creating tangible backdrops of Paris’ architecture and streets.

Behind a shining neon sign on the roof of the American Express office, Grant engages in a physical struggle with one of Reggie’s mysterious stalkers, while Donen’s high and low angles dramatically underscore the sheer altitude and danger. Through the Varenne metro station, Donen suspensefully cuts between Reggie and her pursuer, turning the underground into a sprawling, modern labyrinth. Outside the Palais-Royal, a colonnade becomes a battleground between good and evil, with both sides shooting at each other from behind columns. Most resourcefully of all, the climax moves into the Théâtre-Français, where the orchestra pit, prompt box, and stage become an interactive terrain that both sides creatively wield against each other. Where Hitchcock often returned to iconic British and American monuments as the basis of his set pieces, Donen infuses Charade with an air of Parisian romance and peril, and balances it precariously on the edge of both.

Office buildings, subways, palaces, theatres – Paris’ landmarks become the location of various chases and confrontations, binding the narrative close to its cultural context.

Integral to this tension is the eclectic film score Henry Mancini pulls together, combining the syncopated rhythms of electric keyboards, percussion, and saxophones with orchestral hints of the James Bond-like theme. As we traverse Paris, a broader pastiche of continental cultures emerges in his soundtrack as well, incorporating instruments and harmonies from Eastern European and Latin musical traditions. With the discovery that the conspiracy surrounding Charles’ hidden fortune has its roots in World War II espionage, the international flavours of Mancini’s soundscape progressively reflect the film’s broadening scope, building out its lively, capricious setting.

A thin strip of light shone across the interior of Reggie’s home stripped bare, isolating her in the frame.
Glorious high angles inside the hotel corridors where Reggie is staying, shaping smart compositions with the use of its arched doorways and lighting.

This is not to suggest that Charade lacks focus though, as Donen has sharp intent behind his choices of camera angles and lighting, carving out images of loneliness and intrigue from elegant compositions inside French interiors. So too does his tightly paced editing do well to follow the exhilarating action of each set piece, spill one crucial epiphany forth in a rapid montage, and in the very final shot, land a brilliant punchline in a split screen grid, playing on Grant’s multiple identities. Donen’s mix of calculated storytelling, screwball antics, and authentic location shooting makes for a fascinating blend of tones, and yet he skilfully integrates all three into Charade with enchanting ease, embellishing what could have been a more serious genre film with pieces of his own buoyant affect.

A 9-way split screen landing a punchline with the film’s ending, displaying Grant’s multiple identities throughout the film.

Charade is currently streaming on Mubi, Kanopy, and Binge, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Sergei Parajanov | 1hr 19min

Besides its extreme avant-garde stylings and near non-existence of any visible narrative, it is tricky for foreigners to pick out what exactly made The Color of Pomegranates so controversial in 1969 that Soviet authorities sought to censor its depiction of 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour, Sayat-Nova. One of the primary accusations made against it takes a very limited perspective of art’s purpose and potential – for political purposes, this mystifying film simply was not educational enough. This understatement would be somewhat amusing if the propagandistic principle driving it did not have such a destructive impact on Soviet artists of the era.

Sergei Parajanov had no desire to be a font of factual knowledge in making this film, and so while the forced removal of Sayat-Nova’s name technically detaches it from the actual historical figure, it also ironically digs it even deeper into its abstract emphasis of impressionism over exposition. It is not the details of the poet’s existence he seeks to render in moving pictures, but rather his inner life that gave birth to such delicate written and musical expressions. Dialogue is scarce here, though Parajanov is clearly following in the tradition of silent film with his use of intertitles, many of which are drawn directly from Sayat-Nova’s verses and are lined up with key points in his life. Lyres hypnotically spin in the air as if enchanted by some melodic allure when the young musician uncovers his deeply rooted passion, and his written words unite with it in lyrical harmony.

“From the colours and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me.”

Parajanov endeavours to look inside Sayat-Nova’s creative mind with this image of lyres spin in the air, as if enchanted by some musical spell.
Layers upon layers of opaque storytelling, especially with the use of Sofiko Chiaureli playing multiple roles of women in Sayat-Nova’s life.

Though it does follow a vaguely linear structure that progresses from childhood to death, The Color of Pomegranates is more vividly defined by its dazzling visual poetry, flowing between loosely connected images that are unlike anything other filmmakers had attempted before. The coarse textures and rigid staging directed towards the camera at times even make this feel as if it were born in its own isolated bubble divorced of cinematic influences, coming from a century that predates the invention of the artform. Instead, it is often paintings which feel more comparable to Parajanov’s style here, most distinctly that of Salvador Dali whose surreal artistry invites similarly symbolic interpretations through incongruous representations of reality.

Full-throttle commitment to surreal imagery to create tableaux inspired by painters like Dali.

In the film’s opening shot, three pomegranates weep their juices onto a white fabric, staining it with a red mark in the shape of Armenia as it existed in the 18th century. Even in the emblematic image of this fruit though, Parajanov is drawing on its status as a symbol of good fortune in the nation’s religious culture, patriotically asserting its sovereign identity. Such detailed understanding of these anthropological intricacies are not so essential to understanding The Color of Pomegranates on a purely emotive level though, as each tableaux of Sayat-Nova’s life and artistry is rich with reverent adoration for art on its most instinctive level. At one point in his childhood when a thunderstorm drenches the books of his family’s manor, the adults gather and press them under their feet, draining them of their liquid much like the bleeding pomegranates of the opening. As they are laid open on large roofs to dry out, Parajanov composes an evocative composition of great veneration, surrounding the young poet with open pages lightly flapping in the breeze like living creatures.

Striking compositions set back in static wide shots, watching the pages of these books flutter in the breeze atop a roof, inspiring a love of poetry in the young musician’s mind.

Sayat-Nova’s growth into adulthood is marked by all the usual milestones of a full life, understanding artistic beauty, falling in love, and encountering death, and yet this is about as closely as Parajanov identifies his story with any sense of logical order. Instead, The Color of Pomegranates sinks us into a deep reverie caught up in ceremonial rhythms driven more by the slow, deliberate gesturing of his actors, primitive pieces of folk music, and choral chanting than any editing or camera movement. Perhaps the only exception may be the prominent use of jump cuts to subtract and alter parts of specific compositions, jarringly bridging gaps in time. Unlike his previous film though, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, static shots are the dominant choice here, set back in wides to meditate in sacred rituals tightly bound to Sayat-Nova’s artistry. The death of Holy Father Lazarus marks a period of grief for the poet, who digs a grave for the Catholicos in a strange, stone church full of sheep, while Orthodox priests carry out liturgies accepting their anguish as a blessing from God.

“Brothers of mine in soul and blood, grief, inconsolable grief has been sent to us from heaven.”

The death of Holy Father Lazarus marks a period of mourning for Sayat-Nova, filling this strange stone church with sheep around the dead body.

Darkness seeps into Parajanov’s imagery as Sayat-Nova adopts the black garb worn by the holy men around him, some of whom are seen biting into pomegranates. Tapestries bearing religious icons similarly dominate this section of the film as the artist grows even more in touch with his spiritual beliefs. Eventually we emerge out the other side, and the dark robes are shed to reveal white garments underneath, like new identities being born from cocoons of sorrow.

Shedding the grief in the removal of the black robes to reveal white garments underneath.

The end of Sayat-Nova’s own life comes about in a similarly mystical manner, as the symbolic pomegranates are cut open for their juices to drench his white robes like blood. “Sing,” commands a man standing high up above him. “Sing,” he commands again, dictating the direction of his life. “Die,” he finally orders, and from a low angle we view Sayat-Nova’s younger self floating in the air, looking down at us holding a pair of cherub wings. As the man is escorted away by two small angels in one world, he lies down for the final time amid candles and flapping chickens in another, landing on a final note not of mourning, but of peaceful, spiritual acceptance.

Drenched in the juice of pomegranates, turning these symbols of good fortune into blood.
A young Sayat-Nova hangs in the air holding angel wings as he passes on into the afterlife – masterfully composed imagery with the low angle and golden colours.

Anyone unaware of Sayat-Nova before watching The Color of Pomegranates may not come out of it fully grasping his place in Armenian history, and yet there is still a new understanding of his delicate, romantic artistry born in its outlandish stylistic experiments. For all the censorship battles Parajanov fought throughout its production and distribution, it was far from the end of his troubles with Soviet authorities. Four years after the film’s release in 1969, he was arrested and imprisoned in a gulag under false charges that targeted his bisexuality. His friend and artistic inspiration, Andrei Tarkovsky, was anything but silent in his protests, leading an array of prominent figures in Hollywood and world cinema to oppose this great injustice. Although he would be released within a few years, it would take him almost two decades to re-join the industry, and as such The Color of Pomegranates looked to be the last feature film to emerge from this peculiar director for a long time. Even beyond its original context though, this wildly elusive piece of cinema still stands as an innovative, surreal tribute to Armenia’s rich history and culture, vibrantly independent of any modern political influence or narrative convention.

Escorted away by angels from one life into the next – heavily symbolic imagery from start to finish.
An imprint of black and white robes on the ground as Sayat-Nova passes away, bringing this brilliantly mystifying piece of surrealist cinema to a close.

The Color of Pomegranates is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

François Truffaut | 1hr 32min

If the pulpy crime novel ‘Down There‘ had been translated to Hollywood’s silver screen a few years earlier, it may have looked like a standard film noir, composed of stark shadows and austere characters. Had it been adapted by Jean-Luc Godard, it might have deconstructed the genre with self-conscious humour, giving the middle finger to tradition so that it can play in the sandbox of avant-garde filmmaking. With François Truffaut at the helm, what we get instead is Shoot the Piano Player, sitting somewhere between sweet sincerity and lithe playfulness, and existing far from the realm of cinematic expressionism. Any remnants of noir that might linger in the pensive voiceover of a mysterious man with a troubled past are practically absent in the French auteur’s whimsical slapstick and graceful camera movements, which candidly float through the bustling bar where former concert pianist Charlie now plays honky-tonk tunes to Parisian patrons.

Compared to Truffaut’s autobiographical debut The 400 Blows released only a year earlier, Shoot the Piano Player is a livelier piece of cinema, experimenting with its form a little more freely. After a pair of gangsters kidnap Charlie and Léna, the bar waitress who he shares a budding romance with, they explain how their boss Plyne turned them in, and the film cuts to a black screen framing the bartender in three circles, greedily stroking wads of cash and happily divulging their personal information. Any time a scene begins to edge towards stagnation, Truffaut will happily throw in short, amusing cutaways like these that whisk us away elsewhere. Even as Shoot the Piano Player approaches its climax later, a gag is slipped in mid-conversation when a gangster declares “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over this instant!” The immediate cut to an elderly woman collapsing on the floor would have surely provided some inspiration to Monty Python’s comedic style years later, stepping smoothly away from the narrative to land a brief, effortless punchline.

Comedic cutaways used to great effect, innovating a style of cinematic comedy that would go on to inspire so many other filmmakers including Monty Python.

Just as Truffaut’s editing offers levity, so too does it prove to be integral in telling the heartfelt stories of Charlie’s past and present romances. From a distance, the confused shuffle of hands between him and Léna as they walk together down a street might seem like an awkward interaction, but through some insert shots there is rather a nervous intimacy imbued in his reaching out and her recoil, quietly exploring the boundaries of their young relationship.

Truffaut is a magnificent editor above all else, and recognises the potential of the medium in economically telling these love stories through cutaways without dialogue.

Being the tools of Charlie’s musical craft, his hands often receive this kind of visual emphasis from Truffaut’s camera, wringing out tunes from the bar piano. If we are not dwelling on his hands, then the internal piano hammers are isolated on their own, producing jaunty tunes seemingly of their own accord, or Truffaut will otherwise catch Charlie in creative frames and move the camera around him in a relaxed glide. This may not be his ideal life, but while his hands are sliding across keys he can comfortably disappear into his light-hearted music, becoming nothing more than the mysterious bar musician who brings joy to strangers.

“Who is Charlie Kolfer? All we know is he’s the piano man who’s raising his kid brother and who minds his own business. Your music brings in the locals every night, and the joint takes off.”

Very few close-ups on Charlie’s face as he creates music, choosing instead to identify him with his hands, his piano, and the effect he has on others.
Inspired framing with the grand piano lid dominating the shot, consuming Charlie in his music.

The tragic tale of his past romance he runs from today is divulged through a flashback that dominates the middle section of the film, and which Truffaut dreamily slips into via long dissolves and multiple exposure shots of faces, neon signs, posters, and restaurants, as Léna’s voiceover echoes in the background. While there is usually a light spontaneity in Charlie’s present tense voiceovers that express his unfiltered thoughts, the shift to past tense in this flashback associates him more closely with the traditional noir protagonist, haunted by old mistakes and troubled relationships. Within this fatalistic reflection, truths begin to spill out around Charlie’s real name, Édouard, and his marriage with Thérèse, a woman who regretfully slept with an impresario to earn her husband his career as a concert pianist.

“It was like he’d cut me in two. As if my heart were one thing and my body another. It wasn’t Thérèse who went with him. Just her body, as if I wasn’t there.”

A dreamy transition into the past, layering several images in this multiple exposure shot as if hit by a wave of memory.
A tragic long dissolve from Thérèse’s crumpled body to the article reporting her suicide – Truffaut’s editing is used just as much for drama as it is for comedy.

Édouard’s shock and momentary lapse in judgement initially pushes him to leave the room in cold rejection, though his remorseful return a few seconds later comes too late. A melancholy dissolve leads from Thérèse’s splayed body on the pavement below their apartment to the newspaper article of her death, and pieces of Charlie’s new identity thus begin to crystallise. The shame he carries with him is reflected in his new choice of profession, turning away from concert halls and relegating himself to obscurity in a small bar as both penance and escape.

The gangsters’ conflict with Charlie’s brothers takes up a good portion of the present-day storyline, though Truffaut often frames it as a distraction from his actual priorities, right up to the moment he is unavoidably caught up in their affairs and forced to retreat to his family’s hideout in the mountains with Léna. Back in Paris, the glare of streetlamps and headlights blearily refract through the windscreen as the camera drives outside the city’s boundaries, until a dissolve eases us into the bright, frosty landscapes of the French Alps, where the stage is set for a final shootout.

A drastic shift in lighting as we move from the dark streets of Paris to the white snow of the French Alps. Beautiful location shooting all round from Truffaut.

Here, dark pine trees frame and obscure characters set against the white snow, as the key players tentatively anticipate the impending conflict, and Truffaut’s editing dynamically accelerates towards the tragedy that punctuates its climax – the death of Léna, who was instructed by Charlie to wait outside the cabin at the most inopportune time. It appears that life moves in catastrophic cycles for this reclusive pianist, as for a second time he is forced to look down at his lover’s lifeless body crumpled hopelessly on the ground, destroyed by his own rash misjudgements.

Gorgeous cinematography in the Alps as we accelerate towards the climax, here silhouetting Léna in a distant frame between trees.
Devastating narrative form in the repetition of Charlie’s lovers’ deaths, poetically cycling his life in fatalistic patterns.

When Shoot the Piano Player returns to the bar in its final minutes, it might seem that Charlie has simply returned to pay penance once again, covering his deep pain with cheerful melodies. And indeed, Truffaut does linger on his agile fingers dancing across the keys for a brief, few seconds, absorbing him into his own musical expression, but it is not for long, as the camera soon glides upwards to finish on a still close-up of his pained, wistful face. The tonal blend of comedy and tragedy which the film balances so skilfully in its narrative often makes it seem as if it could conclude on either note, and although there may indeed be a lightness that continues to flow from the pianist’s hands, Truffaut’s camera no longer engages in its falsely merry melodies, choosing instead to reach out with its final shot to the sensitive, sorrowful character hiding behind them.

No more running – a poignant final shot as Truffaut’s camera no longer floats around Charlie or engages in his music, but simply sits in this wistful close-up, letting loneliness seep from the empty right half of the frame.

Shoot the Piano Player is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini | 2hr 18min

Common wisdom says that 8 ½ is titled after the number of films Federico Fellini had directed at this point in his career, the total consisting of six previous features, two shorts, one co-directing effort, and this, his most autobiographical, self-reflexive piece of cinema yet. Had none of those fallen into place, it would have been represented as an entirely different numeral, but instead we get this incomplete fraction, stuck between integers as if waiting to be filled in. The same could be said of the two Italian directors connected to this film, with both the fictional Guido and real-life Fellini reflecting on the pressures of fame, religion, art, and relationships tugging them in multiple directions without a clear, unifying principle which they can follow through on. Thanks to their professional careers, they are familiar with the unique suffering that comes with overactive imaginations trying to sort through fragmented lives of excess, but there is also an irony that this profession is one of the few that can manifest a catharsis for the issues it is responsible for. It is not so simple as projecting one’s crippling insecurities up on large, flickering canvases, but it rather arrives through humbling self-examination, opening one’s mind up to a world that may either praise the genius it sees or eviscerate it for a lack of inspiration.

For Guido, there are few nightmares worse than this claustrophobic social anxiety. Caught in the middle of a traffic jam, he bangs on the windows of his car as if suffocating from the stagnation, while the silent witnesses of neighbouring vehicles passively watch his struggle with cold, bored expressions. Quite eerily, there are no engines to be heard on this busy stretch of road, and neither do we see any close-ups of Guido’s panicked face, which might have otherwise oriented us more clearly in the scene. Even his escape and liberating ascent into the sky are eventually spoiled by a man looping a rope around his ankle, tethering him to the earth like a kite that can only soar so far before crashing back down. When he awakes, the surrealism dissipates, and yet Fellini still holds back from revealing the face of his surrogate, multi-tasking his medical examinations and creative consultations. It is not until he is able to get some time to himself in a bathroom that he is revealed in full, and that Marcello Mastroianni’s perturbed, restless performance finally starts to lift off.

One of the greatest opening scenes of cinema history, with Fellini dipping us right into the film’s remarkable surrealism. A suffocating traffic jam, a liberating flight, and a rope pulling us back to the ground, all without revealing Guido’s face.

Even at the spa retreat where Guido hopes to compose himself before embarking on the production of his next film, there is little hope that he will find the peace that he desires. Journalists, casting directors, crew members, sycophants, agents, and fans turn up to the resort with questions ranging from the trivial to the overly invasive, and none of them are particularly helpful in curing his director’s block. It is not an issue of funding or resourcing, but he is simply not mentally prepared to offer up anything of value to his audiences. In Fellini’s own career, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ mark the point where he begins to veer further away from his roots in neorealism, and so it is not difficult to imagine himself in Guido’s position facing a culture of excessive fame and materialism, trying to create something grounded in real world issues. The result is a psychological dive into his own self-critical mind, picking apart this exact struggle in lavishly designed sets that don’t even bother trying to conceal his own abundant wealth and privilege.

Far from his neorealist roots, Fellini indulges in his ravishing Italian architecture and decor, building Guido up as a man of great wealth and privilege.

Out on the resort’s blanched white terrace, patrons gather beneath umbrellas and in lines for mineral water, though Fellini rarely hangs on wide shots long enough for us to adjust to the almost blinding environment. Apparently reality is just as disorientating as Guido’s dreams, as while strangers and associates gaze right down the lens, Fellini’s camera couldn’t get away from them sooner, disengaging and drifting through the surroundings so that their lines of dialogue essentially become voiceovers. Then every so often, a new character steps into the frame, manifesting like a phantom and suddenly readjusting long shots into close-ups. Guido is used to being behind the camera as the observer, not the observed, and Fellini keeps up this persistent anxiety in his jarring visual whiplash, snapping us between characters, priorities, and dreams that can’t quite congeal into anything productive.

Fellini’s highly-exposed photography in the spa terrace set is almost blinding, pulling us abruptly into this daunting social setting.

Criticisms that Guido’s screenplay lacks any “central issue or philosophical stance” haunt him deeply. If art reflects one’s mind, then this director’s block necessarily calls his value as a filmmaker into question. Disappearing into his own fantasies might at times feel like the single most effective way he can run from these feelings, as we observe in one dream where a harem of women fall at his feet, offering him a power over those in his life he feels threatened by, and yet an unfiltered, self-critical imagination can be an unwieldy thing. Just as it is an endless source of creativity, so too can it spiral off in egotistic directions or turn against the dreamer themselves, as these women do when they catch onto Guido’s misogynistic attitudes.

Fellini’s camera pans across scenes without gaining a firm sense of geography, instead crowding his foreground with extras looking right down the lens.
Sharp distinctions between foreground and background, as faces suddenly move into the frame.

Another layer of Guido’s psyche offers portals into his past, though they are rarely so straightforward as to be direct representations. While his deceased parents make frequent appearances, in his mind they are slippery, malleable figures, with his mother manifesting after he makes love to his paramour, weeping over his sexual vices. This shame seems to be tied to his sexual development as an adolescent, when he and his schoolmates paid La Saraghina, a prostitute who lived in a shack down at the local beach, to dance for them. The Catholic guilt beaten into him by the school priests is instrumental in shaping his awkward relationship with religion, as in the modern day he is still trying to appease a Monsignor imposing Christian morality upon his film, but his mother’s dramatic sobbing also binds every sexual experience of his life from here on to this Freudian angst.

Daunting religious imagery as we slip back into Guido’s childhood, with these Catholic priests asserting their dominance and setting him on a path of guilt.
The spa sauna becomes a confessional for Guido, with this white sheet hung up like the divider between the priest and penitent. Fellini’s creativity with his symbolism is endlessly impressive.

Even above his desire to create art is his need to be loved and affirmed, not just by a select few, but by everyone – the religious, the secular, the fans looking for entertainment, the critics looking for intellectualism, and even his deceased parents, who continue withholding their affection in death. The arrival of an actress he believes is ideal for a role paradoxically described as “young and ancient, a child yet already a woman” does little to assuage his insecurities, as even while he venerates her as some abstract concept, she cuts him down in recognising the character he has based on himself as being incapable of love. Placating even one person is an impossible task, let alone the hundreds of people begging for answers, and therein lies the source of his creative block. “Everything happens in my film. I’m going to put everything in,” he proclaims, but in catering to the desires of so many others, there is nothing truly authentic or honest about his artistic expression. In his impossible endeavour, he has become a walking paradox: a director with no direction.

Finally, the day of shooting arrives for Guido, and he has to practically be dragged on set against his will. Once again, the crowds of journalists, critics, and crew are present, blasting him with questions of political, tabloid, and spiritual natures. “Can you admit you have nothing to say?” one man cruelly jabs, as Fellini’s frenetic editing and score keeps trying to build to a climax. “Just say anything,” he is advised, but still, there is nothing that comes from his mouth. Within the crowd, his wife, Luisa, is present in her wedding dress, taunting him with memories of happier days, and above them all is the giant rocket launchpad set piece, standing like a hulking steel monument to his own meaningless ambition and restricted imagination, offering empty promises of space-bound adventures.

A giant set piece promising great narrative catharsis for both 8 1/2 and Guido’s own film.
Fellini deliberately dismantles the continuity in his editing, breaking eye lines and the 180-degree camera rule to completely disorientate us.

Beneath its menacing shadow, the only feasible solution seems to be a clean, sharp gunshot to the head. At first, this suicide seems to be nothing but another dramatic diversion from reality, adding one more drop to the sea of memory and dreams that Fellini traverses with such elusive grace, and which keeps obscuring the boundaries between Guido’s inner and outer lives. Symbolically though, it is a perfect merging of the two. What is missing here is the explicit reveal that he has aborted production on the film, which we are left to surmise in the following scene when we return to reality. In killing his failed project, he kills the part of himself that simultaneously strives to live to impossible expectations and scorns the people setting those standards.

It is perfectly fitting to 8 ½’s cinematic form that Guido’s monologue announcing his fresh perspective is not the focus of these final minutes, but instead simply underscores a grand, visual sequence that could only ever be rendered through this artistic medium. Out on this open plain, those people who make up his identity and history begin to congregate, for the first time uniting in a single location. “How right it is to accept you, to love you. And how simple,” he ponders, as men in tuxedos shout to crew members standing up on lighting rigs, who turn their beams towards the launchpad.

“Life is a party, let’s live it together. I can’t say anything else, to you or others. Take me as I am, if you can. It’s the only way we can try to find each other.”

Though his lips are not moving with his voiceover, Luisa can hear him perfectly, and between the two estranged spouses, there finally seems to be some sincere attempt at understanding. It is only in shaking off his constant need for approval that he is able to connect with others in any meaningful way, accepting them as they are and, in turn, allowing him to present his honest self to the world without shame.

Dreams and reality blend in conversations like these, with Guido’s dialogue playing out in voiceover to what may be an imaginary Luisa.

Not far away from the site of this epiphany, a small, ragtag marching band of carnival performers parade towards the set’s scaffolding, and then all of a sudden, a set of makeshift white curtains are pulled back. Behind them, every single character we have met throughout 8 ½, major or minor, pours down the steps of this magnificent launch pad as if attending some grand carnival directed by Guido, who conducts them all in a single, unifying fantasy. As the fragments of his lives piece together in a giant circle and spin around the set, Fellini’s avant-garde visuals become expressions of communal delight, rather than unsettling isolation. Creativity and creation are two different concepts that are not always in sync, but in lining these up through the filter of Fellini’s own wildly surreal stylings, 8 ½ stands as history’s most brilliantly compelling piece of self-reflexive cinema, seeking to examine the arduous processes of its own construction.

Fragments of Guido’s life finally piecing together in this magnificent crescendo of carnival music, with him finally taking the role of director.
Guido’s past, present, faith, secularity, artistry, ambition, insecurities, and relationships finally reconciled in a single joyful display of unity.

8 1/2 is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 40min

Highly stylised, futuristic visual designs do not always mesh so well with low-budget location shooting, but for a postmodern master of avant-garde cinematic form like Jean-Luc Godard, such delightful incongruity only strengthens his genre deconstructions. Alphaville is his take on film noir, but it is also a science-fiction set in a dystopian city, with hints of George Orwell and German expressionism, as well as the seeds of what would later become 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Why then has it fallen so far by the wayside when considering the widespread reverence held for those pieces of art that influenced it, and which it influenced in turn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Godard’s characteristic dissonance that rejects complete narrative immersion, striving to understand how authoritarianism is represented through the medium of film, rather than any traditional examination of the ideology itself. With that set as his thesis, Alphaville doesn’t just take a stand against artistic and emotional censorship, but rather becomes an act of creative rebellion in its very construction.

With the film’s exterior scenes being shot largely on the streets of Paris at night, it does not take a huge leap for Godard to reimagine its modernist buildings and streets as a futuristic society crawling with shadows and pierced by stark, white lights emanating from neon signs, cars, and streetlamps. This may be an economical choice, but it is also a purposefully stylistic one, turning away from artificial sets in favour of realistic environments that seem both familiar and slightly alien.

The streets of Paris at night become the science-fiction dystopia of Alphaville, with each light radiating an eerie aura and bouncing off the wet pavement. A unique blend of futuristic visual designs and location shooting.
Modern architecture that belongs to both 1960s Paris and Godard’s bureaucratic technocracy – he is endlessly inventive with his location scouting and the way he frames his structures.

Ruling this metropolis is Alpha 60, a Big Brother figure that manifests a menacing, croaky voice paired with a single, circular light, occasionally beaming out from behind whirring fan blades like some mechanical piece of artificial intelligence. Alpha 60 is not our protagonist, but it is essentially our narrator, with its ominous voiceover indoctrinating us into its cold rule of didactic reasoning. Its assertion that Alphaville’s technocracy is founded on logic is absurdly inconsistent with its resistance to questioning, though it is evident that the blind acceptance of rules it demands simply serves to suppress anything vaguely human.

“The acts of man through the centuries will gradually destroy them. I, Alpha 60, I am merely the logical means of this destruction.”

Alpha 60’s design is a prototype for HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a surprise given Stanley Kubrick’s praise for this film.
Expressionistic lighting doesn’t need to be complicated – a single, hanging light bulb does the trick here on this stairwell, swinging back and forth.

Lemmy Caution is the craggy-faced secret agent from the ‘Outside Countries’ who comes into Alphaville with a mission to end Alpha 60’s reign of tyranny, but in his character design he bears far greater resemblance to a straight-talking, Philip Marlowe-type detective, ripped from the pages of a pulpy Raymond Chandler novel. Paired with this hard-boiled archetype is Anna Karina’s femme fatale, Natacha von Braun, who has lived her life by the rigid rules set by her father, who is also the city’s malevolent creator. To her, words like “love” and “conscience” are completely foreign, both being banned from Alphaville’s dialect that is specifically designed to limit freedom of thought. Upon meeting Lemmy, we can see pieces of his passion bleed into her, destabilising the brittle foundations of Alpha 60’s despotism.

Anna Karina on her run of films with Godard is magnetic as a femme fatale, proving her own versatility through different archetypes and genres.
You have to admire Godard’s ability to pick out these locations as backdrops. A wild, delirious wallpaper pattern to match the narrative.

Like The Big Sleep and so many other film noirs that came before, Alphaville possesses a dizzying plot that lands us at the mercy of a shady world which cannot be fully penetrated, constantly moving two paces ahead of any single character or viewer. Beyond the shadowy city streets, the bright interiors of buildings become havens from this darkness, lining ceilings with rows upon rows of lights caught from low angles that press down upon our characters. As Godard’s handheld camera passes through the modernist architecture in long takes, we acclimate to this fascinating environment of glass elevators and elaborate spiral staircases that simultaneously belong to 1960s Paris and reach into some progressive vision of its future.

Rows of light fixtures from low angles, spiral staircases, glass windows, long corridors, angular geometry – perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement in shooting architecture, crafting a world of harsh modernity.

It is not merely the immediate atmosphere that consumes us in Alphaville though, as Godard goes on to push his rejection of narrative transparency even further with formal cutaways to the Parisian neon street signs spelling out symbols and equations. These limited, inflexible forms of linguistic expression break up scenes like punctuation marks, reminding us of the world beyond Lemmy’s immediate experience, as well as Godard’s own presence in this story as a disturber of its continuity. Similarly, the suspenseful musical theme of accented horns and strings at first simply sits in the background, but each time it is repeated it announces itself just a little bit more, denying us the cadenced resolution we crave. With his trademark jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera topping off his self-aware style, he keeps us constantly living on a layer removed from the story, recognising the artifice of every technique, motif, and archetype that defines this film, and the science-fiction and noir genres at large.

Godard’s cutaways to neon signs display symbols and equations, underlining the sinister system of logic governing this society.

As Lemmy achieves his great victory over Alpha 60 towards the end, shots of unprocessed negative film invert shades of black and white while the city falls apart, its systematic oppression finally being reversed and Godard’s loud, audacious style proclaiming itself within the very fabric of the projected reel. Like his protagonist, he stages his own angry, one-man riot against the stifling limitations imposed upon artists within the old Alphaville, distinctly exerting his creative power as a director, not just a mere observer of events. The citizens’ conditioning to replace questions of “Why?” with firm statements of “Because” is the antithesis of everything he stands for, most of all regarding cinematic convention. It is not enough to simply continue film noir and science fiction traditions, but getting to their reasons for existence by bringing them to our attention and stretching them to their limits is the basis of his playfully wicked experimentations in Alphaville, confidently asserting the inalienable right to imagination and curiosity among all humans, whether they be real or fictional.

Negative film as Alphaville is inverted on itself – a bold stylistic move from Godard.

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