After writing these film caps for a full year--sometimes in collaboration, sometimes each in his own little cubicle, and almost always at 4 in the morning--Peter and I now retire to the dubious pleasures of writing our senior theses, leaving these pages to the ministrations of our junior partner (the new "DeWitt"). Before we do, however, we thought we would discard our collective identity and unveil our private obsessions about movies. Ordinarily we might produce the standard lists of the year's 10 best films. But since we found it extremely difficult to name ten good movies from last year, decided to present two different lines on the ten best films ever. (Or rather, our 10 favorite films). So here, in no particular order, are mine.
1. Rules of the Game. A good case could be made for this film as the best comedy ever made. It is certainly Renoir's best film. Renoir's work generally involves a search for a community to identify with in French society, whether aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry, or working class. This quest often leads to the sentimental conclusion that such an identification is possible--a denouement that marks such otherwise great films as Grand Illusion. But in Rules of the Game, Renoir rejects false resolutions. Though the film seems to identify itself sporadically with the aspirations of different characters--the eccentric aristocrat, his Viennese wife the romantic aviator, and Octave (played by Renoir himself)--the movie ultimately demonstrates all their limitations. Renoir blows the form of romantic comedy apart. In the process, he constructs a work of great subtlety and complexity, which in the starkness of its vision conveys the difficulties of finding any viable way to live in bourgeois society.
2. The Lady Eve. What Rules of the Game did for French comedy, the films of Preston Sturges did for American comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Though he is an explicitly non-political director Sturges's comedies constantly explode the key assumptions of American ideology. To explore their internal contradictions, they use absurd resolutions to undercut both their standard form and premises. He thus stands in direct contrast with Hollywood comedy directors, especially Frank Capra, whose work always ended up uncritically reaffirming the nostrums of American ideology. Though Sturges's other films, such as The Great McGinty, The Palm Beach Story, and Christmas in July say more about problems like the American Dream, virtue in American politics, and the connection between love and money, The Lady Eve is his most fully realized film. Concentrating on sexual relations, its resolution shows that the dominant American understanding of romantic love requires a suspension of self-consciousness, obscuring the reality that neither of the partners truly deserves the other's love and trust. It should also be mentioned that Sturges is probably the funniest man who ever made movies in America.
3. Gilda. Done in 1946 by King Vidor, Gilda is the best of the film noir style that emphasized the dark side of the American character in the climate of national disillusionment following World War II. The film features Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, and an actor whose name I always forget, who plays a Rio casino owner-cum-international tungsten cartel boss. It revolves around two sinister triangles: one, a quasi-homosexual link between the tungsten boss, the boss's sword-cane, and Glenn Ford (the other, between Rita Hayworth, the Tungsten boss (who marries her), and Ford (who has had a bitter affair with her and becomes the boss's lieutenant). The clash of the two triangles nearly destroys all three of them, and makes possible the emergence of the movie's real theme, the relation between sexuality and power. Gilda is extremely similar in its tone and its themes to another favorite of mine, Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai.
4. The Third Man. This film partakes of much the same spirit as the American film noirs of the same period, though it was written by Graham Greene and directed by British director Carol Reed. Set in occupied Vienna immediately after World War II, The Third Man is by far the best thriller ever made. In the course of exploring two sides of the American character--vicious, anti-social instrumentality and unworldly innocence--Reed gets the best performance of Orson Welles's career. He uses his expressionistic camera techniques as well or better than Welles ever did.
5. The Big Sleep. No list of this kind would be complete without a Bogart film, and I guess this is my favorite, partly on atmospheric grounds, partly because of Lauren Bacall, and partly because of its relation to the Raymond Chandler novel.
6. His Girl Friday. I feel that I should include at least one Hollywood comedy whose perspective is ultimately uncritical, since these are among my favorite types, and this Howard Hawks film about journalism is one of the best of the genre. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel, the film sets up an unresolveable conflict and proceeds to resolve it romantically (though at the cost of turning Russell into "one of the boys.") Nevertheless, the film's hysterical pace betrays its sensitivity to real emotional conflicts, as well as Hawk's attachment to the male professional communities of irrational shared value which he sees as the only repositories of meaning in American life.
7. Chinatown. This is the only film made in American in recent years which compares in insight and emotional power to the Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s. (I include the work of Robert Altman). Polanski turns the traditional detective film on its head. Chinatown is really about the education of Jack Nicholson, who as the film develops learns more and more about the structure of power in Los Angeles, but discovers that the more he knows the less he can help Faye Dunaway. A very pessimistic perspective, but very effective.
8. Rear Window. Probably the most difficult thing for me is to choose only one Hitchcock film. So many are fabulous, especially from the 50s (North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Strangers on a Train). But this little shown film with Jimmy Steward and Grace Kelley is my favorite. It combines all of Hitchcock's strengths: suspense, great plotting, complex direction, and an ability to force the audience to discover its dark and immoral sides by involving it with characters engaged in unsavory activities (here, voyeurism). Yet none of his other films go so far in lending a sinister touch to mundane features of everyday life.
9. Los Olvidados. Bunuel made this film in exile in Mexico in 1950, on a shoestring budget after more than ten years of enforced retirement from making movies. Dealing with street gangs in Mexico City, Bunuel displays here the same sardonic sensibility (combining psychoanalytic and sociological perspectives) which distinguishes the best of his later films, especially Belle de Jour and Viridiana. This film, though technically more primitive, has the most raw emotional power, and contains perhaps the most effective dream sequence in any film I've seen.
10. The Organizer. In my book, this is the best political film ever made. Done by an obscure Italian director in the early 1960s, The Organizer, portrays the birth of working class organization in a small suburb of Turin around the turn of the century. Presenting an intensely vivid but unsentimental portrait of oppression, the film conveys a unique sense of what it's like for people trapped in social processes who begin to take their fate into their own hands. The director raises all of the right questions about working class militancy--the problems of racism, sexism, and sectional divisions within the working class; the limits of union activity; the position of intellectuals in the labor movement--without suggesting there are easy answers. Marcello Mastroianni presents a magnificent protrait of the ambivalent situation of the radical intellectual who has given his whole life to the movement as an organizer, but whose committment is to some extent egotistical and at the expense other committments. The film concludes on a pessimistic rather than a romantic note--the workers lose the strike--but nevertheless manages to convey a sense of the possibilities for ordinary working people to take control of their own lives and overcome oppression. This message serves as a powerful source of political comment for everyone I know who has seen the film. The only other political films whose impact is at all comparable are those of Pontecorvo on colonialism--especially Burn (with Brando) and the Battle of Algiers.