All The King’s Men (1948)

All The Kings Men (1949)

A sharp warning about the corrupting influence of power, All The King’s Men is a magnetic and harrowing watch which chronicles a Southern American governer’s political career, trailing his incline from every-man to corrupted political mogul.  Played superbly by Broderick Crawford, Stark’s story is narrated by his aide and confidant Jack Burden, distancing us from the events and inviting us to make more dispassionate observations about the process of Willie’s fall from grace.

In what must surely be a defining example, the plot is often advanced via the (now) cliche of spinning newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts, a reference to the rise of the media and to the irremovable space they hold in our engagement with life and politics.

Despite an undeniable sense of the contemporary, there’s something very Shakespearean about the structure of All The King’s Men (I believe I counted a body count of five by the film’s end).  We could go further still in an analysis of All The King’s Men and consider the ways it uses Aristotilean constituents to construct it’s drama.  Aside from clarity of plot, character, theme and diction, Aristotle claimed that tragedy resonates best when it is about ‘great men’, or people who hold a position of power and authority.  When a leader falls from grace, the tragedy is all the greater for it.  An example in contemporary film is the tragedy of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, where Dent’s descent into maddness and corruption are made all the more potent by his position as Gotham City’s District Attorney and one of its final saviours.  Such is Stark’s tragedy – his position as a favoured and trusted figure in politics makes his descent into corruption all the more devastating and powerful.

Given the film’s proximity to the close of World War II, it’s easy to draw certain parallels between Willie’s rise to fame and the rise of various fascist leaders of the 20th Century.  It’s hard to read if the film’s message is that Willie’s corruption is an inevitable result of power itself, or whether Willie’s socialist background underlines a hint of the ‘witch-hunt’ which would soon grip American politics.  At any rate, there is certainly a sense that power is something which the individual must be well wary of: whether that power be manifested in the self or in another.

All The King’s Men is drama at it’s finest.  Well-written, acted and shot, it’s a film that should not be missed.

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (1948)

To understand Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, you must first try to understand the concept behind today’s screen acting.  Screen acting is generally considered to be ‘good’ if it is realistic and natural, and ‘good’ characterisation comes from being able to decipher a character’s motivation: their wants, needs and desires.  These are ideas are imported from the realist movement of the late 19th Century and were brought to America by the famous Constantin Stanislavsky.  To be successful, he taught, acting must be real.

Emerging in tandem with realist acting at the beginning of the 20th Century were various advances in psychology, notably Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the development of the human mind.  It’s all very complicated stuff which I won’t pretend to know more of than the basics.  In the case of Olivier’s Hamlet, the Oedipus Complex is the most relevant – the idea being that the male psyche desires, often unwittingly, to surplant one’s father and marry one’s mother.  Freud’s work has largely been discredited, but even today we can observe his fundamentals in various artistic movements.

Olivier’s Hamlet binds itself to these two forces irremovably.  Watching the film, it would be easy to think that Shakespeare’s text is solely about Hamlet’s search for meaning and self-realisation.  Sure, this theme features strongly, but this version of Hamlet has also been heavily edited to emphasise this aspect of Hamlet’s psychological turmoil.  Some characters, such as Ophelia, have major speeches whittled down while others, such as Rosencratz and Guildenstern, have been removed entirely.  Through their absence we are given a film which focuses very much on Hamlet’s actions, desires, and inability to take control.

The film also uses various visual symbols and metaphors to further engage us in the psychology of Hamlet.  Elsinore, Hamlet’s castle, is not just isolated, it is perched on the edge of a rocky precipice with waves crashing against the cliffs below, symbolising the psychological turmoil and feelings of isolation inside Hamlet himself.  The castle is scattered with dominating towers, suggesting the phallocentricity of the film’s title character, while the Queen’s bed (Hamlet’s mother) is adorned with vulvic curtains which suggest a sexual interest in his mother.  The whole film, from the words to the setting, is about Hamlet: his thoughts, his feelings and his inability to deal with his father’s death.

So defining is this film that we carry it with us whenever we look at Shakespeare today.  Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily interested in providing his audience with a well-rounded, psychologically plausible person.  He was writing for effect and excitement.  Performance in Shakespeare’s day was big and over-the-top (if you ever get the chance to see a production at the Globe Theatre in London, do it!).  In the 1940’s, Olivier captures the essence of 20th Century acting by transposing the ways that we understand the human mind onto one of the most complex, fascinating and popular plays to grace the stage.

And how does the film hold up?  I love it.  It’s tightly wrought, and to the point.  The characters are played just as I imagine them.  Olivier is magnificent of course, a fantastic performance, and his co-stars have been excellently directed with a complete understanding of their line delivery.  The ghost scene, spooky and haunting, is a highlight.

Hamlet is a defining film of the 20th Century.  We can find faults today, in the way that it quashes the voice of the female characters for instance, but even so it stands up as one of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare and one of the most significant films of the 20th century.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

One of the seminal themes amongst the Best Picture winners is that war and hatred are not okay.  I believe it is a responsibility of film, as a mass medium, to export these wholesome and valuable ideas, and to this end I feel that Gentleman’s Agreement is a success.  Dealing with one of the most influential themes of the 20th Century, antisemitism, the film offers a unique and much needed response to the terrors of racial hatred as they were witnessed during the Second World War.  In the 1940’s, I’ve no doubt that this film was screaming to be made and it’s statement to be heard.

Unfortunately, watching this today I found it bland as old chips and incredibly monotonous.

For one thing, the aesthetic is dead boring.  Sure, the star Gregory Peck is very handsome.  Sure, there’s a scene in a house in the country that looks quite pretty.  But as for the rest, it’s nothing more than a drab, samey and impartial series of visual images.  So, so boring.  Maybe this movie is meant to be about the message and story, but film is a visual medium and as such needs to keep us engaged with interesting visuals.  In this case, that was severely lacking.

Secondly, in a film that is clearly about race-relations, why do we have to suffer through an interminably dull, tacked on love story?  Honestly, who cares?  We want to see the meat of the tale.  Phil, the protagonist, is a journalist posing as a Jew in order to better understand racial discrimination.  With a set up like this we’re yearning to vicariously experience some rousing and troubling persecutions.  Instead, the main contest to Phil’s experiment comes from the whinings of his girlfriend.  This plot angle is seriously lame.

My main issue with Gentleman’s Agreement is that there are really no surprises.  Where I come from, being Jewish is barely recognised as a marker of difference, and the terrible anti-semitism that plagued the world in the early part of the 20th century is a strange and distant memory.  Where I’m from, we know already that anti-semitism is bad news.  Here, Gentleman’s Agreement offers nothing we don’t know already, and as such has been castrated, left utterly impotent and exposed for the bland, drab film that it is.

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a sincere and passionate look at how it feels to return from war, and in equal measure how it feels for a loved one to return.  Thinking of the meta-narrative I mentioned earlier – the idea that these films tell an over-arching story – The Best Years Of Our Lives ‘closes the book’ on World War II, functionally helping a (no doubt) reeling America cope with the sudden reality of peace, and also offering an artistic engagement with the post-war experiences of soldiers and their families.  The Best Years of Our Lives is a true successor to Mrs Miniver, which was also directed by William Wyle and for which he deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Director (that’s twice!).

Interestingly, this is the first Best Picture to take place in contemporary America without featuring New York City.  I take this as a sign of maturity in American filmmaking, and as a symbol that American filmmakers feel in control and are able to tell their stories through their eyes.  From my perspective though, what’s most interesting about this film is the way that we, of the 21st Century Pacific, pick up on, and relate to, a sense of nostalgia.

From the shots of the townscape through to the ice-cream parlours with coca-cola logos, there’s a sense of ‘coming home’ emanating so strongly from this film I almost feel like this truly is a part of my history.  That’s the trick though, right?  To make me feel like this is what life should be, like it’s all the things I yearned for during my ‘best years’.  We’re suckered in, convinced by this foreign time and place.  Is this the magic of film at work?  Or is it the homogenising force of war-time imperialism living on?

I’m not really interested in answering those questions directly, I think that’s up to the individual, but what I can offer is a little more light as to why this film works as an indelible piece of cinema; and consequently, how it sells it’s nostalgia.  The Best Years Of Our Lives has captured the essence of human feeling.  This is in large part helped by the story’s excellent pacing and structure (three men’s lives and families wrapped around one another), and in equal measure through the film’s incredibly astute and well honed performances.  Fredric March: outstanding, and Harold Russel: unarguably sublime.

To match the top-notch acting and superior story structure, the camera work and editing are given true attention to detail.  Just observe the way the early aeroplane flight makes you feel as though you are in motion when you are clearly just sitting in your living room.

I’ve suggested that this film is homogenising and imperialist, yet it remains exciting  today in it’s technical wizardry.  It’s themes are often off-kilter, unusual and interesting.  I believe that The Best Of Our Lives is a whole-heartedly sincere and pure film.  I wonder, then, that perhaps it may be less homogenising and more…universal?  For instance, observe Al’s young son debating the use of nuclear war with his father.  It is striking that even seventy years ago people wanted to see the same changes in the world.

I wonder if we should feel happy that our feelings today are echoed across time, or sad that these pleas are yet to be fully acted upon.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

What never ceases to surprise me about these films are the undeniable parallels between my lived and seen experiences and the experiences of people from over half a century ago.

The Lost Weekend is a film about addiction.  Alcohol addiction specifically, but a modern audience is easily able to read alcohol as a stand-in for any form of drug, substance or perceived dependance.  Our protagonist (perhaps an early anti-hero?) has got it pretty bad for the booze.  His girlfriend and brother are trying to help him through it, but all he does is reject their attempts again and again and fall back to the bottle.  I take the message here as being that, ultimately, one is responsible for their own decisions, and no matter how much you are loved it is meaningless if you are not prepared to face up to your actions.

It’s not always that easy of course, and where Don’s actions take on a truth for me are in the way that he desperately wants to be driven and motivated.  I’ve seen too many people talk about the things they want to do, but just end up taking drink and drugs.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of both, but not at the expense of failing at the things I want to do with my life.  This is where Don strikes a chord.  Rather than writing and exploring what he is good at, he allows himself to become a slacker and a drunk.  He needs to take more responsibility for himself rather than letting those close to him deal with his issues.

Not only is this film a thematic success, it’s also a huge artistic acheivement.  Crossing over into art-film territory, some characters appear but are not entirely explored, offering a greater semblence of reality.  Also, the plot is structured a little differently to your typical Best Picture winner – for example, lacking a concrete conclusion – making this film all the more real and interesting.

I’ve said I’m surprised at how much human truth is in these films – but should I be?  As Shakespeare taught us, art holds a mirror up to nature, reflecting true human existence, and Shakespeare’s plays are as current today as they have ever been (more on this later, I’m sure…).  So why shouldn’t a 40’s film stand up against the films of today?  Good art never loses it’s potency, and to me, The Lost Weekend definantly qualifies as good art.

Going My Way (1944)

Going My Way (1944)

Finally, after five years of war-time gloom we’re offered a smidgeon of light relief in the form of Bing Crosby, who stars in Going My Way.  Only a smidgeon of relief, mind – there is still of plenty of human drama here to remind us that the ‘real world’ is close to home.

The film is about a spunky young priest who arrives at a failing New York parish to help rescue it from financial doom.  Played by Crosby, Father O’Malley finds himself at odds with the stuffy older priest, Father Fitzgibbons, played with utter alacrity by Barry Fitzgerald.  Across the course of the film we will watch the old and the new attempt to connect, all the while observing the dramas of the parish and the people about it.

Touted today as a musical, all of the songs in Going My Way appear within the context of the story.  For instance, Father O’Malley plays the piano while his choir sing, or he accompanies a young lady while she demonstates for him her musical talent.  This is far removed from the outlandish spectacle of The Great Ziegfeld. Avoiding the fantastic and the surreal, Going My Way instead opts to keep itself ‘of the world’ rather than taking us out of it.  From what I have read, this film was big with the soldiers and I suppose that this method helped them feel more at home and in touch with both the film and their own place in the world.

To be honest though I found this film pretty bland, yet there was one moment which touched me quite deeply.  I think that the film is meant to be an escape from the war, and there is scarcely any mention of the war bar one moment; Haines Jnr emerges from his bedroom in his new army outfit completely out of the blue, and heads straight out the door to join the front line.  This was a poignant, surprising and very real moment.

At first there’s something a little unnatural, even forced, about Going My Way, and it feels a bit like a series of scenes rather than a fully immersive experience like How Green Was My Valley or Mrs Miniver.  I then remember to pay tribute to the year that this was made: 1944.  America is at the tail end of an intense war.  Money and resources for actors and production teams are scarce.  Like it’s characters who must find a way to survive off little money and huge debt, so too does Going My Way represent the financial hardships of the people of it’s era.  Times were tough, yet Hollywood still managed to make films which helped people see the days through.  I think that this is admirable.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Before watching this film I had a quick discussion about genre.  Genre is an idea I keep hovering around as I watch these films.  For some reason, I like to think of myself as being above genre, like I’m so open-minded that no sort of taste informs what I like or don’t like.  This is a lie, of course.  Genre, in film or music or novel, is present regardless of how we see it, and it always informs how we will read or respond to something.  Exactly what genre is Casablanca, and does this affect how we read it?

I had lamented earlier that there was a lack of noir in the Best Picture selection, and I thought that The Life of Emile Zola was as close to noir as we were going to get (there are some great shadows and noir-esque interactions in that film).  I couldn’t have missed the mark more; Casablanca is the Academy’s nod towards the shadowy, moody, cigarette-smoking aesthetic of the 40’s noir.

We’re not watching Casablanca for long before we start to notice long and deliberate shadows, an expression perhaps of the shady dealings and murders which are going on in the story.  When characters interact they do so with a desperate fire in their eyes and the air of having everything to lose.  Through the use of the noir aesthetic we are transported to a world where we are always on the look out for a double-cross or a twist in fate, much like the characters themselves.

Yet Casablanca is equally a war film.  It’s not so much about battles and military manouvres (although the Nazi occupation of France is awfully humbling), but about what happens to people during war.  And it is here that Casablanca retains it’s status as a classic after all these years, in that despite it’s heavily drawn generical influences it remains a story about human beings and their wants and needs in a time desperation.

If mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, Casablanca has been well and truly given its dues across the years.  The film is peppered with catch-phrases and what have since become cliches, and yet it still manages to transcend all of this and retain its power and conviction.  Intricate and detailed, it is easily one of the most memorable films ever, and at just over an hour and a half it is a nice, easy and fruitful watch.

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