Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Film Noir - An American Art Form

Hollywood directors unleashed a new type of film on American audiences in the 1940s, raw, realistic, and black to the core.

As American an art form as jazz, Film Noir sprung out of the national angst surrounding World War II. And like the syncopated rhythmic music developed by black and Creole musicians and first heard on the streets of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th Century, noir films blended existing artistic motifs and slapped in generous doses of improvisation and cynicism to become a new cinematic language or genre that would affect film-makers across the globe.

Its heyday was an approximate fifteen-year stretch starting in the early 1940s. The term film noir, meaning "black film," was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 as applied to Hollywood movies of the period. Its roots can be found in American crime novels of the Depression era and German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

Though the visual style might vary, its most consistent characteristic was stark, distinctive high-contrast lighting in black-and-white photography, laden with deep shadows and menace. Its citizens were mostly low-rungers: desperate small-time hoods, beat cops, waitresses, lonely saps and loners, and most famously, femme fatales, gals out to move up a rung or two, anyway they could. Along the way the audience is sure to get a good hard look at society's underbelly.

Sunglasses can't disguise Barbara Stanwyk's duplicitous Phyllis Dietrichson.

In Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), smitten agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), finds himself in over his head when he joins Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in a plot to kill her neglecting husband to defraud the insurance agency. Stanwyck embodied the cool, calculating femme fatale role as well as any actress. Based on James Cain's hard-boiled crime novel, it ends badly for both of them. Neff never had a chance, saying at the end, "I killed him for money--and a woman--and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the girl. Pretty isn't it?"

Noir icon and champion chump, Robert Mitchum, falls in love with the wrong woman in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), a tale of a detective unable to escape a past mistake. He has a choice, but he can't help turning his back on the good, sensible girl who loves him. Featuring Jane Greer as the twisted object of his affections, and Kirk Douglas as his gangster nemesis, the film contains characteristic voice-over dialog. Some of the best reveals the depths of Mitchum's obsession. "I went to Pablo's that night. I knew I'd go there every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I sat there and I drank bourbon and I shut my eyes, but I didn't think of a joint on 56th Street. I knew where I was and what I was doing. What a sucker I was."

Mitchum had bad luck with cars in noirs. When Greer's character realizes he is driving them toward a police barricade, she shoots him dead before police machine gunfire shatters the windshield. Six years later, in director Otto Preminger's Angel Face, dreamy but dangerous Jean Simmons backs him up over a cliff.

Mitchum wasn't the only sap to fall victim to an enticing beauty. Edward G. Robinson starred in two films by German-born director Fritz Lang: The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlett Street (1945). In each he is mild-mannered, middle-aged, and a little dumpy. If it occurs to him that it is odd that the beautiful Joan Bennett seems attracted to him, he pushes it out of his mind--he is infatuated. Both films have the relationship leading to run-ins with Dan Duryea and murder. Duryea, a fixture in many noirs, had a sniveling demeanor and could curl his lip in a sneer with the best of them.

Edward G. Robinson can't resist the beautiful Joan Bennett.

The quintessential heist movie is The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Directed by John Houston and set in Cincinnati, it features a band of small-time crooks, more pathetic than sinister. These are just guys looking for a break in life: Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the recently paroled mastermind hoping for one last big score; Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the muscle with a dream of owning a horse farm; Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the safe cracker whose wife and kids live in a cramped tenement; and Gus (James Whitmore), the getaway car driver who owns a greasy-spoon.

Noir crime doesn't pay and you can often expect a double-cross. The band comes up against one when, after securing the gems, their fence, dishonest attorney Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), fails to deliver the payout as promised. Shots are fired and the band disperses to their respective fates: arrest, suicide, and death.

The Asphalt Jungle inspired numerous copy-cats, and to demonstrate its influence overseas, director Jules Dassin produced the similarly constructed Rififi, a stylish 1955 French thriller.    

Comely Marilyn Monroe was introduced to America in The Asphalt Jungle.
Director Henry Hathaway pushed the violence envelope to a sick level to show that something stank in post-war American society. If we had defeated Hitler and Tojo in Europe and Asia, we had still failed to eradicate corruption, poverty, and malaise in our own cities. In Kiss of Death (1947) Richard Widmark burst onto screens as Tommy Udo, one of Noir's most demented characters. In one memorable scene, he laughs maniacally as he lashes a woman to her wheelchair and sends her bouncing down a flight of stairs, first taunting her, "You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over. You're worse than him, tellin' me he's comin' back. Ya lyin' old hag!"

Tommy Udo helps a lady down the stairs.

Udo wasn't the only psychopath loitering in movie houses that year. Robert Wise's Born to Kill showed that depravity wasn't restricted to the low and middle class. It featured Lawrence Tierney as the appropriately named Sam Wild, a man without a conscious or morals, and whose liaison with a wealthy socialite out to grab her sister's money is no bargain for either. Claire Trevor played the woman, who one character describes as "the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I've seen plenty, too. I wouldn't trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces."

Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor form an unholy alliance in Born to Kill.

Ten years later we had made little progress in fixing our problems. They might be covered in a veneer of shiny new refrigerators, green suburbs, cars with power-steering (Chrysler's Hydraguide), and that most sought-after creature comfort, television; but they were alive and well.

No film shined a light under the veneer with better acuity and sharpness than Sweet Smell of Success (1958) by Alexander Mackendrick. The story plays out in the tony clubs and restaurants of Broadway and Times Square, and on the dark, crowded, and wet streets of New York. It's a wonderfully shot film by famed cameraman James Wong Howe in gritty black and white, helped immensely by Elmer Bernstein's tense jazz score--you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and garbage cans, and feel hot sweat running down people's backs in the jostling street venders and crowds. It is a fascinating look at how the media can peddle scandal and insinuation to titillate readers. You can't help but peek.

"Match me, Sidney."

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster star, Curtis as Sidney Falco, a lapdog press agent who "wants to get way up high, where it's always balmy;" and Lancaster as powerful columnist J. J. Hunsecker. Their relationship, rotten and symbiotic, is the heart of the film.

Happiness is an elusive dream in Film Noir. The genre attracted some of the best Hollywood directors and actors. Film-maker Nicholas Ray fashioned a tense drama from Dorothy Hughes' pulp novel, In a Lonely Place (1950), where the dark soul of a man in on view in all its ugliness. The requisite atmospheric lighting and shadows are here, along with melodramatic music and as flawed a protagonist as ever trod the genre. Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a paranoid writer, beset by inner demons and a wild temper. When falsely accused of murder and hounded by the police, he slowly unravels and cracks under the pressure until he risks losing the woman he loves. He sees it happening and that makes his inability to control his emotions and behavior that much more affecting. 

"I was born when she kissed me.  I died when she left me.  I lived a few weeks when she loved me."

Like most noirs, you know it won't end happily. The final scene is gripping as Steele confronts Laura Grey (Gloria Grahame) in her apartment, believing she has betrayed him. He finally goes too far and Bogart sags a broken man. You can't help but feel sorry for him. He came so close.

Noir characters often face moral conflicts. In Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) police Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) lets his penchant for excessive use-of-force box him in a corner. His victim, a low-life hood, doesn't matter, but Dixon's plan to cover up a likely manslaughter charge goes awry when his actions put an innocent man under suspicion. That he happens to be the father of the girl Dixon has fallen in love with makes matters even more difficult. Does he confess the crime, face expulsion from the police force and jail time, or keep quiet and win the girl of his dreams? The dilemma leaves the officer at a loss. His lament, "Where the devil am I? I keep coming and going," mirrored the state of confusion America sometime found itself in in dealing with societal woes in the post-war era.

Preminger had earlier cast Andrews as a policeman in Laura (1944), one of the genre's most celebrated efforts. Here, while investigating the killing of Laura (Gene Tierney), Andrews falls in love with the girl's memory, helped along by her striking painting. In a surprise twist, Laura turns up alive. It is an innocent friend who was murdered by mistake.

Dana Andrews has a strange attraction to a portrait of a dead girl.

Noir films petered out at the end of the 1950s as film-makers and American audiences grew tired of the genre. Westerns had taken over on TV, and technicolor epics were the new darlings of cinema. One of the last noirs was one of the best, Orson Welles' sordid Touch of Evil (1958), which depicted corruption in a Texas border town.

Welles played Hank Quinlan, a corpulent policeman not above planting evidence to secure a conviction. "I've never framed anyone," he says, "...unless they're guilty."

Welles infused his film with his signature camera magic: Extended takes, jarring angles, and uncomfortable close-ups. Like the genre itself, Quinlan comes to an abrupt end, floating in a pool of fetid water. It is a fine and fitting death.

In Touch of Evil Uncle Joe Grande is no match for Hank Quinlan.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Notorious (1947) - Alfred Hitchcock

Grant and Bergman embrace.
U.S. government agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and his superior (Louis Calhern as Captain Prescott) want to know what a group of Nazi scientists and businessmen are up to in Argentina. To find out they recruit Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the beautiful American daughter of a convicted German spy, to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a man who once loved her and was an old friend of her father's. Sebastian is one of the Germans' chief financiers. Even though Alicia has a reputation of being wild and promiscuous, she is reluctant—she is no patriot and she harbors ill will toward post-war America, which she believes drove her father to suicide. She relents however, after falling in love with Devlin. He loves her too but won't tell her; he is too wrapped up in duty and the importance of their mission. Sebastian falls prey to Alicia, but when he discovers she is a spy who threatens their plans, and indeed his own safety, his ruthless mother provides a deadly solution.

Grant's Devlin is Hitchcock's most conflicted hero, and one difficult to root for. Suave, witty, and handsome, he can also be rude and nasty. Deeply in love with the woman he has endangered, it is Grant's most serious role. His barely controlled emotion in several scenes with Bergman are some the best acting of his long career. When Alicia comes to tell Prescott she'll act as spy, she all but begs Devlin to tell her not too. His mouth tightens and he leaves the room. Later, during one of their clandestine rendezvous she tells him that he can add Sebastian's name to her list of playmates. He is more visibly angry, his voice projecting disgust, but it is not with Alicia, but rather with himself. She is merely following orders.

Devlin proves Grant a considerably more versatile actor than his common persona suggests. He never played anyone quite like it before or since. One thinks of Cary Grant as a likable rouge, but Devlin is hardly a character to elicit our sympathy. That role belongs to one of the villains of the film, Sebastian, and that's one of aspects film that makes the film so interesting. Claude Rains—a consistently great supporting actor—makes us feel sorry for him, a Nazi! He is trusting and vulnerable. He genuinely loves Alicia, and unlike Devlin, openly admits it. His shock at her duplicity is painful to watch.

Notorious is slight on action but full of suspense as one should expect from Hitchcock. Grant is convincing as the agent who can keep his cool when needed. No one wore a suit better and it's no wonder that Rains' character is jealous of the man. His suspicions are aroused when he finds the two kissing in the basement after they've inspected some strange bottles of champagne.

                            Alicia: What does the speedometer say?
                            Devlin: 65.
                            Alicia: I want to make it 80 and wipe that grin off your face.

The film has an elegant look, heightened by the black and white cinematography. These Nazis have money. Famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head designed Bergman's gorgeous wardrobe. Though inexplicably not for this, Head was nominated for 35 Oscars.

One of the most famous camera shots in any Hitchcock film takes place at a party hosted by Sebastian. Alicia suspects that a clue as to the Nazi's secret activity can be gleaned in the wine cellar. She has stolen Sebastian's key and must slip it unobserved to Devlin, who has crashed the party. Hitchcock used a crane high above the dance floor;  the shot pans the crowd, stopping at Alicia; her hand is behind her back, holding the key. Another highly regarded shot peers through the space between a door and its jam. It is superbly made thriller.  

What Makes Notorious Special:
"You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates."
Long-time Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht wrote the clever screenplay. This is essentially a love story, and as in real life  sometimes one or both partners are unable to express their true feelings and love is threatened. In Hitchcock's, Hecht's, and the actors' hands, how that threat is averted makes for great viewing.

The final scene involves Devlin's suspenseful attempt to rescue a weakened Aliciashe is being slowly poisoned. He supports her limp body as they come down a long stairway where they are confronted by Sebastian and his mother as his suspicious and dangerous colleagues watch and wonder what is happening. They have already "disposed" of one of their own for an innocent but foolish slip of the tongue. Sebastian has a Hobson's Choice. He can stop Devlin, but would reveal that he has compromised the group's efforts; or he can let Devlin and Alicia escape, knowing  that U.S. government authorities will soon intervene. Whispered threats leave you wondering how Hitchcock will resolve the crisis.    

Bergman's performance easily tops that of her Oscar nominated role in The Bells of St. Mary's the same year.

Inside Story:

Sebastian confesses to his mother.
The shady Nazi plot involves uranium, a key ingredient for making nuclear weapons. At the time of filming, FBI agents reportedly kept Hitchcock under surveillance, wondering what the director knew about such efforts.

Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance as a party guest at Sebastian's mansion, accepting a drink at the bar

Major Awards:

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Rains) and Writing.

Other Alfred Hitchcock/Cary Grant Collaborations:

  • Suspicion 1941
  • To Catch a Thief 1955
  • North by Northwest 1959

Grant performances nominated for Best Actor:
  • Penny Serenade 1941
  • None But the Lonely Heart 1944   

Major Awards:

Black Narcissus (1947) - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh.
Five Anglican nuns arrive at an isolated palace, perched nine thousand feet up in the Himalayas, to establish a convent with a school and hospital. They are led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the youngest Sister Superior in the order. Once the site of a maharajah's harem, there is something seductive about the location, leading one character to say it "makes everything exaggerated."  The winds are constant, the air is crystal clear and thick with the scent of intoxicating flowers, there are fantastic colors, and Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British agent. He's the only white man in the area and keeps them supplied, and acts as an interpreter of sorts with the local population.    

Weighed down by responsibility, and going up against native suspicions, Sister Clodagh's mind begins to wander in the exotic surroundings. In her reverie, she thinks back to her life in Ireland before she decided to pursue a religious life. Shown in flashback, we see she was in love and leading a full life. It's only time we see Kerr's glorious auburn hair. As she begins to doubt her commitment to God, one wonders if her decision to enter the order was a wise one. Is she trying to escape a lost love? All the nuns experience some kind of malaise, one rips up the vegetable garden to plant more flowers, but it is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the youngest, who faces a crisis. Perhaps unhinged before they even arrive—Clodagh tried to dissuade the Mother Superior from including Ruth in the group—Sister Ruth becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, convinced she is in love. She becomes unglued and increasingly jealous of Sister Clodagh, whom she believes has her own designs on the man.  
The British director/writer team of Powell and  Pressburger had already produced several highly successful films. But in theme, this was their most ambitious. Previous work dealt with patriotism and secular love. Black Narcissus is infused with religious overtones, leaving the audience to ponder how ordinary human beings can expect to eschew normal temptations to pursue a godly commitment. Do they ever, entirely? Does it make sense to impose a formal, man-made religious institution in a place and setting with its own spirituality and values?    

An interesting aspect of the film is the relationship between Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean. His reactions in a few scenes give you the impression he may have developed something beyond mere respect for the woman: innuendos that may not be so innocent, the way he holds a look or takes her hand.  After-all, she is beautiful, even in a habit, and intelligent and obviously compassionate. But his affection is uncertain; he never verbally expresses anything to her that one could take as proof. For her part, it is even more ambiguous, but Kerr's character is made of stern stuff. In one famous scene the shadow of a cross flashes across her face, hinting at her ultimate choice.  

Kathleen Bryon gives a chilling performance as the mentally disturbed nun. The directors have built suspense by showing her slow dissolve into psychosis and they create a wonderfully moody scene for her final appearance. She appears with blood red lipstick and a crazed stare, having renounced her vows. Dramatic music and a shadowy, wet, and windy convent courtyard give it a Gothic horror atmosphere. At this point, Mr. Dean has spurned her advances and she focuses her rage on Sister Clodagh. It leads to an exciting confrontation at the bell tower, high above the verdant jungle below.   

Sister Ruth becomes unhinged.
The film is a spectacular technical achievement. Alfred Junge created much of the Himalayan scenery in the studio using glass shots and hanging miniatures. And the backdrops were blown-up black and white photographs layered with pastel chalks. Like all Powell /Pressburger films it is beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff's made the colors pop to enhance the exotic feel of the story. He'd win an Oscar for the film.    

Jean Simmons plays an Indian girl of low caste, described in the source novel as a "basket of fruit, piled high and luscious and ready to eat." She has infatuated an Indian prince and serves in sharp contrast to the nuns as their alter-ego. Sister Ruth aspires to her sexual freedom.   

What Makes Narcissus Special:

The color scheme and costumes are fantastic, with clearly separate motifs designed for each class of character. Nuns always appear in white habits of a medieval type. The chief native characters (the old king and his son) wear brilliantly colored robes, decorated  in jewels and rich silks. Other locals are clad in more somber colors, with the usual native dress of the Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan peoples toned down to prevent overloading the eye with brilliance.

Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth.
One of the most luscious uses of color is with Sister Ruth. Without habit her red hair appears Medusa-like when wet. Her red lips and crimson dress symbolize her suppressed lust. Earlier, when in the hospital, her gown is splattered with blood.  

Inside Story:

Michael Powell's thought this his most erotic film, saying, "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts."

The New York Times described the film as "a curiously fascinating psychological study of the physical and spiritual tribulations that overwhelm" the five nuns.


Major Awards:

Won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Alfred Junge) and Best Cinematography (Jack Cardiff). Kerr won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics. And the BFI named it as the 44rd greatest British film.

Other Films of Interest by P&P:

  • The Invaders (AKA: 49th Parallel) 1941
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943
  • I Know Where I'm Going 1945
  • A Matter of Life and Death 1946
  • The Red Shoes 1948

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shane (1953) - George Stevens

Alan Ladd as Shane.
Settling the old West was hard. Among the hazards were competing interests for land. Shane captures the conflict as well as any film, an authentic look at a period and place in American history that lasted but a few years, where ranchers and sod busters knocked heads as civilization and order continued their inevitable march west. You can understand why ranchers who fought Indians and settled the area resented farmers later pouring into the open range. Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is the largest cattleman in the area. He hates men like Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), whose little hardscrabble farm threatens his way of life. Ryker offers to buy out the farmers, but when that doesn't work, he's not above a little vandalism, cutting fences, sending his cows to trample wheat, even burning a barn. Starrett is the most stubborn holdout. A proud man determined to make a good home for his family.
Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious stranger happens into the smoldering battle when he stops at Starrett's homestead on his way north. He's a weary man, a former gunfighter looking for a more quiet way of life. Lured by Starrett's hospitality, Shane decides to hire on. On a trip to town he is confronted by Chris (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men. Shane refuses to fight and is humiliated. An epic fistfight ensues on his next visit, leaving Shane and Starrett bloody but victorious. Ryker now hires a notorious gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), as menacing a figure as ever appeared in a Western. When Wilson first enters Grafton's saloon, a dog instinctively senses danger and slinks out of the room. Later, Wilson and Shane silently take the measure of one another. Wilson mounts his horse very slowly, then backs it up while maintaining constant eye contact. It is a simple shot that more effectively conveys the tension of the encounter than words could.  When the inevitable confrontation between the two takes place later, it is sudden and deadly.

Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar.
Wilson: Prove it.
Stonewall goes up against the gunfighter Wilson.
But the most memorable scene involves another farmer. Stonewall (Elisha Cook Jr.) is a little man, too confident for his own good and still fighting the Civil War. Wilson goads him into a fight. The farmer is no match for the gunfighter. Director Stevens placed Stonewall in the muddy street, Wilson above on the wooden walkway. When Wilson insults the Confederacy, Stonewall takes the bait. He barely touches his gun as Wilson's is already out. A brief look of shock clouds Stonewall's face as he realizes he is about to die. Wilson hesitates a moment, smirks, then shoots with a tremendous roar as Stonewall is thrown violently back into the mud. A distant storm thunders in the background. It is a wonderfully directed scene, full of menace and fear.
That slight pause by Wilson is just one of several little touches Stevens drops in the film to add to its style: Stonewall's dog rests a paw on the coffin before his master is lowered into the grave; the farm women look in wonder at a catalog; Wilson's spurs jingle every time he walks; and Joe watches from a swinging gate how Shane dances with his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur). Shane is simply one of the great Westerns, one that helped create the West as myth in American culture.             
The technicolor film's outdoor sequences were shot in the Grand Teton range in Wyoming. The snow-capped mountains rise high above the Starrett farm and valley, signifying better than anything the hazardous frontier and what drew pioneers to the land. One particularly beautiful shot depicts the grand scale of things by framing the cemetery in the foreground, the town down below in the valley, and the majestic mountains in the far distance. Loyal Griggs was the cameraman.    

What Makes Shane Special:

The art direction and location shooting give the film an authenticity rarely seen in Westerns. It is muddy and the homesteaders are generally dirty. The dogs are mangy. The little town consists of just five or six buildings and Grafton's contains all sorts of tools and supplies you'd expect to find in such an outpost. 

Besides the conflict between the farmers and ranchers, there is an important subtext in the film that essentially deals with redemption: the unspoken affection developing between Marian and Shane. At one point Joe even hints to Marian that he understands something may exist between the two. Shane, a good man with a bad past, does too. It must be a tempting enticement. He faces a choice at the end which signifies whether his life will go on honorably.  

This is Alan Ladd's greatest role and the one he is most remembered for. Contrary to the man's real stature, his performance here is anything but slight. It is also Jean Arthur's last film role. Palance and young Brandon DeWilde as little Joey Starrett were nominated for Oscars.   

The score is minimal but the haunting theme stays with you long after the film is over.

The Inside Story:

Ben Johnson was a real cowboy who got his break in films when John Ford made him part of his stock company. He appeared in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, and Rio Grande for Ford. Later he would be one of The Wild Bunch and earn a Supporting Actor Oscar as Sam the Lion in 1971's The Last Picture Show.

Emile Meyer plays a memorable corrupt cop in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.
Major Awards:
Won Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography, and nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Palance and De Wilde).

Other films of interest by Stevens:
  • I Remember Mama (1948)
  • A Place in the Sun (1953)
  • Giant (1956)
Other films of interest by Loyal Griggs:
  • The  Ten Commandments (1958)
  • In Harms' Way (1965) 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tokyo Story (1953) - Yasujiro Ozu

Setsuko Hara as Noriko.
An elderly couple are disappointed with a visit to Tokyo, where their children's busy lives and attitude make them feel neglected. Only their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), goes out of her way to be nice. Her husband was presumed killed in the war eight years ago. The children send the parents to a resort but it proves too noisy and unpleasant, prompting the couple to cut their visit short. On the train ride home, the woman falls seriously ill, and the children are notified to come quickly.

In a simple story about family relationships, aging, and loss, Ozu creates an extraordinarily  poignant and moving film, filled with quiet moments. Conversations are short with long pauses for thought, and with but one exception, Ozu's camera is stationary, letting the languid pace of life unfold for the characters and audience. A motif of time and travel plays behind the action: a watch, trains in motion, and a tug floating down a river. The pacing serves to remind us there is a universality about how parents and their children grow apart, about how we are all affected by loneliness at one time or another, and about the expectation of death and regret afterwards. Ozu shows this all without maudlin sentimentality in a passive and minimal style that demands your attention and reflection.

Setsuko Hara gives a captivating and beautiful performance as Noriko, a kind, smiling  woman scarred by loss. Pre-war cultural norms say she remains part of her husband's family, and she has put her life on hold with his death, keeping his photo displayed on a shelf. This is a troubled soul. Yet throughout, she manages to show great compassion to all the characters in sharp contrast to the couple's own children, who act distracted and inconvenienced by the visit as they mostly ignore the parents, eventually shuffling them off to a spa to get them out of the way. One daughter even scolds her husband for buying cakes for the occasion, saying crackers are good enough for her parents. After a kindness, the old woman encourages Noriko to forget her dead husband, saying she should remarry. But Noriko is resigned to her lot in life. She works in a tire factory and her apartment is small and sparsely decorated. It is a lonely existence. When asked, "Isn’t life disappointing?" she smiles and says simply "Yes, it is," as if nothing can be done to change it.

A revealing scene occurs at the post-funeral meal. The conversation is awkward. None of the siblings express real regret to their father for his loss. One even asks for pieces of her mother's clothing as keepsakes, and they are all in a hurry to get back to their own lives. Director Ozu does not seem to be judging them so much as saying their reaction mimics real life.   

Noriko is overcome with emotion.
Several journeys are developed over the course of the film: that of the parents to and from Tokyo; the father's realization that life is forever changed; and Noriko's transition from the past to the future. This is not a happy film to watch, but it is an honest one. Hara gives one of film's all time great performances. She has a quiet dignity, but the quiver in her voice suggests a brave front. Her final conversation with the father is a catharsis; she finally admits her profound loneliness. Overcome, she buries her face in her hands. The shift is sudden but subtle. In the hands of a different director and actress, the scene might have been overdone; here it is deeply affecting. The film ends hopefully for her. En-route back to Tokyo, she holds her mother-in-law's watch, a gift from the husband; and from her expression, you can believe she is finally ready to move on.

Noriko serves as substitute for their own children. Here she treats the Hirayamas to sake in her modest apartment after a day of sight-seeing.
The supporting performances are strong, especially  Chieko Higashiyama as the old wife. She has a wonderful scene with Hara, reluctantly accepting a small gift of money, knowing the girl can ill-afford to give it. The gesture sparks genuine affection in her for the girl, and shame.  Elsewhere, the old woman tries with little success to bond with a grandchild she has never before seen, strolling along a ridge. It is another nearly speechless moment where Ozu comments on the difficulty of generations to communicate. 

The film contains little music beyond the haunting melody that opens the action and brings down the curtain. The film is notable for its use of the "tatami-mat" shot, in which the camera height is low and remains largely static throughout. The style necessitated all the sets to be constructed with ceilings.

What Makes Tokyo Story Special:
Often in real life, love between old couples remains largely unspoken, yet it's there in their little mannerisms and exchanged glances. The film captures that sweet reality perfectly.     

For Western audiences, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is getting a glimpse of Tokyo a few years after the war. It is economically depressed and socially repressed by Western standards, incredibly crowded and claustrophobic. The only baths are public. It is a fascinating setting and look into another culture.

Deservedly so, Tokyo StoryHara not winning as actress, and the director and film not being nominated.

Inside Story:

American audiences did not get to see the film until 1964, by which time Ozu was already dead.

This was Ozu's third pairing of Hara and Chishu Ryu, who plays the old man. Four years earlier they appeared in Late Spring, and two years earlier in Early Summer. As with this film, Ozu's style was simple story telling, as an observer of ordinary people, without camera tricks and complex plots. Hara retired from acting in 1963, just 43 years of age and shortly after Ozu's death at age 60. As of this writing, she is still alive. 

Ryu and Ozu collaborated in 52 films, surely a record for a director and actor.

Other Films of Interest by Ozu/Hara:

Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo boshoku (1957), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961).

  twice named on Top Ten List of greatest films by BFI critics (Sight and Sound magazine)  

 on Time's All-time list of Great Films

The Third Man (1947) - Carol Reed

Harry Lime trapped in the sewers.
Carol Reed's story of mystery and suspense in post-war Vienna starts with the arrival of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) to the city, lured by a job offer from his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Wells). Martins, an American author of pulp Westerns, is as adrift and vaguely disoriented as the emigres and defeated Germans residing in the closed city.
Like most European capitals at the time, the city is a mess. Suspicion and desperation rule the day. It is divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers: France, Britain, the U.S., and Russia, with a free, international zone in the middle. The black market flourishes. Martins is shocked to learn that Lime is dead, the apparent victim of a hit and run accident. At the funeral, a lonely affair attended by three mournerstwo men and a beautiful womanMartins encounters Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a manipulative British policeman who tells him that his friend was a notorious racketeer. Martins is appalled—he hasn't seen Lime in six years but that doesn't sound like the Harry he knew. Calloway won't  say what Lime was peddling, but hints it was nothing so innocent as tires and cigarettes; he is happy Lime is dead and offers Martins a plane ticket home.

Broke and with no prospects back in the States, prudence suggests that Martins take Calloway up on his offer, but he is offended by the man's callousness. He uses an excuse to linger and "investigate" the accident when one of mourners contacts him, claiming to be a friend of Lime's. This is just the first of several strange characters Martins meets, including a creepy child with a ball. When Martins starts to hear slightly different versions of the accident, he begins to suspect that Lime may have been murdered. A critical detail is the number of men who allegedly carried the body. Were there only two as reported by Harry's friends, or three as reported by another witness? A porter at Lime's hotel may be the key, but he gets tossed to his death out a window.

Alida Valli as the captivating Anna.
Martins falls for Lime's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), a Czech residing in the city thanks to a forged passport. She risks deportation to Russia. Martins will do anything to save her, even if it means turning on an old friend. What Lime was actually up to, and who might be the mysterious "third man," is what Martins learns. Along the way his vision of the man he once admired begins to crumble like the city itself.  It is a thrilling ride.  

The shadowy setting of Vienna.
The City of Vienna is as much a character of the film as the actors. War-scarred streets are strewn with bricks and the pavement is seemingly constantly wet. Dilapidated buildings stand side by side with structures of old world architecture. Director Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker make brilliant use of lighting, shadows, and odd camera angles to give a feeling of discomfort and unease, perfected with crisp black and white photography that suits the mood. Most of the action occurs at night. The bizarre twangy strains of a zither provide the only score. Taken as a whole, it is a masterful creation of a foreign city for the audience, a perfect setting for corruption and intrigue. 

Acclaimed writer Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, though Wells is credited with a famous  cuckoo clock speech beneath a Ferris wheel. It is tight and full of mumbled asides and clipped-off sentences like real speech. Greene bookends the film with two funerals, an apt circumstance given the danger that seems to hover just beneath the surface.

What Makes The Third Man Special:

Memorable scenes and an exotic setting transform a modest mystery into a magnificent story. Tense chases take place over mountains of broken bricks and rubble, and though the sewer labyrinth. There is Lime's dramatic and surprising appearance, the ominous Ferris wheel scene, the frantic cab ride, and best of all, Alida Valli's long, slow walk down a tree-lined boulevard.

"That's a nice girl, that. But she ought to be careful in Vienna. Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this."  
Holly Martins waits for Anna.
It is difficult to say who gives the best performance. Cotton is a convincing romantic, out of his element and awkward around Valli, yet inexplicably hopeful. Valli is impressive as a woman who has dealt with struggle and survived, but is weary of it all. She wears that resigned look of someone who has lost something. Their moments together on screen are touching and wonderful.     

The Third Man is simply one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and possesses the most elegant finale ever shot. In 1999 the British Film Institute named it the greatest British film.

Inside Story:

Director Carol Reed does the voice-over at the start of the film. He lets you know immediately you are in for a treat. A dead body is shown floating in the river as you hear, "I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs."

Reed also supplies the fingers in a critical scene near the end.

The film won the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography and was nominated for Best Director and Film Editing. It also won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Other Films of Interest:

Carol Reed as director - Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), Oliver (1968)
Robert Krasker