C’era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) (1968)

Italy has no red dirt desert, no arroyos, no mesas. It has no history of the frontier, of westward expansion, of civil war between Confederates and Unionists. It doesn’t have the cowboy myth, so when Italian filmmakers began producing the so-called spaghetti Westerns they were borrowing whole-cloth from American mythology, using the iconography of cinema for the basis of the stories that would eventually reinvent and redefine the whole Western genre. Once Upon a Time in the West is in many ways the ultimate evolution of that process, the ultimate spaghetti Western, an epic populated not by characters but by archetypes, a sequence of references to other films from which a plot emerges, each climactic moment another escalating showdown.

A dispute over land ownership sees railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sending ruthless gun-for-hire Frank (Henry Fonda) to intimidate widow Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) into selling her land to make way for the railway; meanwhile, a nameless gunfighter known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has some unfinished business with Frank. There’s also a bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who is framed for Frank’s killings early on and remains a part of the plot. I say plot, but it feels a lot more like improvisation, where the characters and their traits and the way they will act is well-known beforehand but the situations they find themselves in are made up on the fly; the why of what’s happening is almost completely superfluous, as you can understand any given scene just through context and how each character poses themselves. It makes for an iconic film, but the players are so grand and distant in scale that it’s not possible to relate to them as anything other than iconography. The pacing is incredibly slow, focusing much more on the build-up to the violence rather than violence itself, and while that is initially interesting I found myself continually thinking of Leone’s other epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and how that was similarly carved out of gangster mythology but felt like a faster experience even though it had an additional hour of footage. The operatic nature of the film requires perhaps a finer appreciation of the Western genre that, as I feel like I’ve stated time and time again, I just don’t have; ironically I think I’d prefer a film with a little more Italian influence over American when it comes to cowboys and gunslingers.

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Casablanca (1942)

The reason I took up this project was to lessen the amount of times I’d be in a conversation about films and have to admit that I’d never seen certain classic, well-known, everyone-has-seen-this films; it’s not going to cover every film one could say “How have you never seen…?” about, but it should hit all the ones worth seeing. Most of these films are great for a reason, and so far I’ve been mostly able to identify that reason, agree or disagree, and write a little about it, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what it is that makes Casablanca great. It is great, in that sort of self-evident way the famous lines and famous scenes and famous songs have permeated our culture, and I had a great time watching it for the first time, but… why was that?

Casablanca, Morocco has become a kind of purgatory for European refugees escaping the war and looking to sail to neutral America; one of the hotspots of activity is Rick’s Café Américain. Proprietor Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who “sticks his neck out for nobody”, comes into possession of two letters of transit, priceless commodities for any refugee; the two who need them the most are Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), resistance leader and known enemy of the Nazis, and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), old flame of Rick’s and Laszlo’s wife. Films become classics for doing something right, but if it is possible to also become a classic through a round-about double-negative way – by doing nothing wrong – then Casablanca is the perfect example. Everything is comfortably perfect, from the wry dialogue to the collection of the time’s A-listers to the heart-of-gold redemption story to the exotic and international tone achieved on just a handful of interior sets. The whole film is incredibly enjoyable, with the proverbial something for everyone, and it is very easy to enjoy – it demands nothing, no deeper understanding of film theory or acting technique or human nature or even much of the political climate at the time – being made up of universally-relatable “fundamental things”, to borrow terminology from a famous song. All of the elements are so well-balanced against each other, one would have to be the bitterest cynic to find fault with their mixture; although, perhaps the film should appeal to the cynical most of all, who only became that way from their romanticism not being realised one too many times.

Rear Window (1954)

It’s a bit of a shame that I burned through a lot of my material on voyeurism in film in my last review, as where Psycho deals indirectly with the topic, Rear Window deals with it overtly. Much of what I said there applies also to this film, so much that they could be considered two halves of the same coin, and the subject of voyeurism, the urge in people to see things they shouldn’t and dig through the private moments of the lives of others, becomes more and more relevant with each passing day. With an endless stream of information that purports to show what’s really happening in the world, from 24-hour news to every breed of reality television to any sort of shocking behaviour imaginable available somewhere on the Internet, is it any wonder people continue to connect with films that deal with those who observe others at their most private?

Confined to a wheelchair in the sweltering city heat, photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) has nothing to do but observe the goings-on of his apartment block neighbours; things take a turn for the macabre when he believes one of them has murdered his wife. Jefferies scans the windows he can see like a man flipping through cable channels, pausing only on the enthralling (a potential murder) or the titillating (a dancer he dubs Miss Torso working out in only her underwear) and skimming over the mundane (Miss Lonelyhearts, constantly unlucky in love). It seems for the longest time that he’s projecting gruesome happenings on what there should be a perfectly reasonable explanation for, manifesting the little urge that wants this kind of violent entertainment, to the point that I was convinced there still had to be an alternate sequence of events right up until the climax of the film. But when Jefferies begins to interfere with the events playing out in front of him, not longer content to be an observer in his own personal theatre, the facade is broken and reality intrudes quite literally into his own apartment: there is not a trite misunderstanding to be explained away, there is in fact a bad man out there who has killed and may kill again, and now he is standing in the same room as our hero. Many people consider Psycho to be Hitchcock’s crowning achievement in horror, striking the audience where they are most vulnerable, but I find Rear Window to be infinitely unnerving for insinuating that the murderer can detach themselves from their little fictional prison and invade the audience’s reality.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s Christmas – it has been Christmas for a while, if you go by the scheduling of seasonal advertising, so how fortunate that a famous Christmas film happens to come up in the list. I thought I knew the basic idea behind It’s a Wonderful Life because, in addition to its status as a Christmas film, it’s also been referenced or homaged or parodied on nearly every episodic television series ever made, with pleasant little throw-away episodes that show a character a series of things to be thankful for that make them feel better about their lot in life. Uplifting, right? Fun, right?

How very mistaken I was.

George Bailey (James Stewart) dreams of a life that leads him outside of his little town of Bedford Falls, but somehow events always conspire to deny him his chance to leave. Depressed and suicidal on Christmas Eve, he thinks of taking his own life, only to have a trainee angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) intervene. My only real reference to anything actually from this film is the famous “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” scene at the end, and it came as a shock to learn that the rest of the film didn’t share the same tone. Far from it – It’s a Wonderful Life overall is incredibly dark in an unassuming and relatable way. George’s ambitions constantly passing him by as he sinks deeper and deeper into the suburban mire are made all the more tragic by not being very bold ambitions in the first place – all he wants is to see a little bit of the world before finding his place in it, and he only seems to survive as long as he does through he amiable nature, but even he has a breaking point, and when he hits it, he hits it hard. His frustration and fear of a life half-lived is more ominous than any monster or morality play put to the screen, and a thousand-fold more unjust – it’s like watching the events of A Christmas Carol inflicted on Bob Cratchit instead of Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet this unfairness, this darkness, is also the film’s greatest strength – seeing George’s faith restored in the life he has led up to this point is elating, all the impact it has stemming from the audience accompanying him for every step on his journey that led him to suicide. I don’t know if it’s quite right for it to be considered a Christmas film – James Stewart himself was surprised at the eventually association the film gained – but there is no doubt that it is a classic.

Unlisted: Solan og Ludvig – Jul i Flåklypa (2013)

Here’s a film few people will be aware of – it doesn’t even have an alternate English title. It would most likely be translated as Christmas in Flåklypa with Solan and Ludvig, or perhaps just as Christmas at Pinchcliffe if the translators remembered the English version of the film this is a sequel to. With a title like that, it sounds like it has the potential to be especially nauseating and childish – which thankfully is not the case, as it manages to replicate the charming tone of the original and transport it into a pleasant, non-standard Christmas film.

Returning characters from Flåklypa Grand Prix – inventor and tinkerer Reodor Felgen, speed-loving magpie Solan, and timid and pessimistic hedgehog Ludvig – are faced with an impending problem: the possibility of no snow for Christmas, despite insistence to the contrary from Frimand Pløsen, editor of Flåklypa’s local newspaper; Reodor builds a device that can generate enough snow for the whole town, but using it produces some disastrous results. The film touches briefly on the standard Christmas theme of not letting the pursuit of something immaterial overshadow the true importance of the holiday, the snow standing in for the all-too-typical materialism found in most other versions of the narrative, but doesn’t dwell on it – in fact, the film spends a lot more time attacking the media through Pløsen’s sensationalism and the hilarious Presserobot, a previous invention of Reodor’s that can conduct interviews through a series of inane and predictable questions, than imparting Christmas-themed messages. The humour is often quite sophisticated – not necessarily adult, but certainly mature, hitting an all-ages-accessible tone that contemporary children’s films often fail at and entertainment for adults never attempts, and the stop-motion animation very close in style to the original. Flåklypa Grand Prix holds a great legacy in Norwegian film, and Solan og Ludvig – Jul i Flåklypa is a worthy follow-up.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

There’s a breed of voyeurism that I try to avoid subscribing too much to, and that’s the fascination and pursuit of celebrity. I understand what’s appealing about it, though – these famous figures going through their triumphs and downfalls in the public arena, familiar enough that you feel like you can know them and yet still distant and glamorous. It has all the spectacle of a good drama, yet it’s all playing out in real life. Of course, the vast majority of these narratives are just as constructed and contrived as things that are actually presented as fiction, and it’s because I would rather engage in a made-up story with better writers that I don’t buy into celeb gossip. There’s a similar sort of meta-fiction that happens in films, the films that are about Hollywood and purport to show how the sausage is made, and they also rub me the wrong way. They have that same air of inauthenticity, that what’s happening isn’t quite real but desperately wants to be. I have no doubt there’s fascinating stories to be told about the inner workings of Hollywood, but I don’t trust Hollywood to present them.

In Sunset Blvd., possibly the most famous of these stories, unsuccessful screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in a strange and unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), star of silent films who refuses to believe her time has passed by, writing the final draft for her big comeback script and getting paid in expensive suits and a taste of the glory days of Hollywood. Swanson is a glorious ham, playing up the scenery-chewing habits of the silent era, and her accompaniment of the hacky noir narration provided by Gillis compliments the tone of performers whose reach exceeds their grasp perfectly. The film manages to make the Hollywood machine look casually heartless, a ruthless balancing act that affects people like a drug and cares not a bit for the addicts… but in a world that’s seen reality television and Internet stardom, where it’s almost an iron law that each person can have their fifteen minutes of fame but no more, is this still such a shocking revelation? Like I said, I don’t find the glittery illusion of Hollywood all that interesting, and the inward navel-gazing that pierces it even less so. The film is well-written and full of biting and wry observations, but I’ve dropped it a level for being turned on a subject that’s in every tabloid.

North by Northwest (1959)

I wasn’t especially impressed by the last Hitchcock film on my list, Vertigo, and quite a large number of people share my opinion, both from its original release and through modern retrospective. Some of the people who do give it a lot of praise, it seems, only do so precisely because it doesn’t neatly fit together, that being uncomfortably dark and surreal adds to the experience rather than takes away from it. It’s a kind of thinking that borders on film snobbery, openly embracing anything that rejects the mainstream because by default anything that’s popular is automatically terrible for attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than challenge audiences, or whatever the popular codewords are about the thing you’ve never heard of versus the thing everyone’s heard of. It’s not an inherent failing to be popular – sometimes a film manages to capture the exact thing that everyone wants to see at the time, distilling the essence of what the people wanted out of their entertainment and presenting it in a neat stylish package. It takes a measure of skill to craft sometime like that, too, especially if it’s able to persist long after public attitudes shift and remain entertaining, and that’s exactly what Alfred Hitchcock did in his follow-up to the critically-panned Vertigo, North by Northwest.

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) stumbles into a web of secrecy, spies, and state secrets when he is mistaken for “George Kaplan”, a fictitious secret agent created to flush out a plot involving the sale of a McGuffin to foreign hostile parties. The current of Cold War paranoia drives the film along at a steady pace but never pauses to examine it in any great detail; the action/thriller setpieces are varied and inventive, scaling up in size and intensity until the film culminates with a scrambling chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore, and when there’s no chases or men in suits holding guns Grant is invariably engaging in some extremely risqué banter with Eva Marie Saint. As I was watching North by Northwest I was thinking that the spies, the sharp suits, the dirty dialogue, and the ever-changing background felt like a Bond adventure, only to read later that the film was a direct influence on Ian Flemming; while there’s something datedly charming about the Bond adventures from the 1960s, North by Northwest retains the electricity and sense of adventure of a good old-fashioned spy chase.