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.

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.

Contempt (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 43min

During his peak of activity in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard took a brief respite from sending up beloved Hollywood genres to aim his incisive wit towards the “gods” of storytelling themselves, be they Greek poets or contemporary filmmakers. The tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in Contempt as writers, directors, producers, and actors argue amongst themselves, trying to determine the motivation that drove Odysseus’ epic ten-year adventure across the eastern Mediterranean. It is indeed a curious thing that so many ancient myths take the emphasis off the internal journeys and onto the external, and yet this allows for some universality in which individuals can imprint themselves on these legendary figures. In the case of these artists making a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the perfect story upon which they can map their own relationships and ambitious endeavours.

Playfully postmodern with ancient Greek art and mythology. These cutaways of coloured in sculptures against a blue sky set them like gods of storytelling.

Cutaways of Greek god statues with their eyes and lips coloured in with reds and blues run through the film, as Godard’s low angles powerfully frame them against the sky. In fact, Contempt’s mise-en-scène may be his most classical we have seen to date, even as Godard’s primary “French” colours keep bursting through in its set dressing and lighting. Back at the apartment of Brigitte Bardot’s actress, Camille, and Michel Piccoli’s playwright, Paul, the occasional bright blue chair or red towel worn like a toga pierces the beige, modern architecture, marking the breakdown of their relationship as a tale just as fresh as it is old, woven into the archetypes of human storytelling. Is it sexual jealousy that has driven them apart, or rather a loss of respect for Paul’s integrity as an artist? Was Odysseus’ journey driven by a faithless wife back home, an indifference to her growing contempt for him, or something else altogether?

Colours and staging in this mid-section of the film, breaking down a troubled relationship.

Unable to agree on the source of their own woes, Camille and Paul are driven to the extreme ends of Godard’s compositions, divided by huge amounts of negative space in the walls and door frames of their accommodation. Even when the two finally come face to face, it is as if they can’t stand to be captured in the same image together, as Godard’s camera instead shifts side-to-side in close-ups of their profiles. This ebb and flow between casual conversation and shouting takes up a full half hour of the film’s modest 100-minute run time, letting them attempt some sort of direct expression of their feelings before returning to the film set for the remaining third.

In the villa where the shoot is taking place, several of Contempt’s characters venture up a cascade of steps to a flat rooftop, overlooking the same Mediterranean Sea which played host to the hero of Homer’s epic poem. Godard knows what he has with this gorgeous set piece as he returns to it over and over, further isolating his characters in long shots as lonely, modern idols wandering a corner of the Earth so famous for its stories. The potential to contribute to the mythos of humanity is right there for the taking, but for those who degrade it with their visions of dishonest, crude entertainment, it ultimately holds nothing but contempt.

Arguably Godard’s greatest set piece, this villa rooftop looking out over the Mediterranean Sea like a platform to the heavens.

Contempt is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.