Understanding that “The Simpsons” had contributed a great deal to my son’s store of both serious and trivial knowledge of the world, I wondered what damage or benefit I had received myself from a lifetime of watching moving pictures. Has my knowledge of history been seriously impaired by watching “Braveheart”? Am I a better person for having endured both parts of Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” at a single sitting? Should I be ashamed of holding back tears each time I watch “Cinema Paradiso”? I thought I might answer these and other questions by examining a few films that stick in my memory, trying to understand why I have already forgotten a 100 million dollar production I saw a week ago but still remember images of the fleeing Jew shot among the drying bed sheets in “Kanal”, a 1957 black and white Polish film about the last days of the Warsaw ghetto. These things seem apparent:
- That some films remain locked into the times in which they were made while others are ageless;
- That unless you are a scientist, life, particularly the part containing sex and violence, is not meant to be viewed in High Definition;
- That most of the films that I feel taught me something were in black and white;
- That it was a sexual odyssey that saw me reject the ethereal Olivia de Havilland for an English rose (Jean Simmons) and her for an American tom-boy (Doris Day) and then her for a sensual Italian in a black slip (Anna Magnani);
- That adding mud and grime in the name of authenticity to remakes of Robin Hood will never improve on Errol Flynn’s 1938 version;
- That horses are the real stars of westerns;
- That time and place alter perception;
- That once upon a time it was impossible to become a Diva of Italian cinema without a large bust;
- That dialogue has been subordinated to visual effects; accordingly, films no longer contain any quotable lines;
- That Jeremy Irons is one of the few actors who can be understood without the use of subtitles;
- That, in spite of increasingly refined technology, the Golden Age of cinema is passed.
In 2012 Sight & Sound, the journal of the British Film Institute, published a list of the 250 best films of all time as compiled by 846 film directors, academics and critics. The most heavily voted film was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 production, ‘Vertigo’. More interestingly only two films in the top 50 were produced in the 21st century, the most recent being David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001). Only in respect of two of the films did the taste of the general public concur with the experts – City Lights (1931) and 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) were the top grossing films in their year.
I’m not sure what this says about the selection process or the quality of films made over the last 15 years. Perhaps films have to be viewed as history before we can understand how important or unimportant they are to our lives.
What we do know is that few of the current crop of red-carpet baggers feature as actors in the chosen top 50; no Brad Pitt, no George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson. But forget Hollywood, Paris, since the days of Leon Gaumont, and the Lumiere brothers, is still Mecca for cinema lovers. Before the invention of the cell-phone, before the advent of the 70 hour week, I occasionally had time to slip out of my office on the Avenue Montaigne and into the dark, anonymous womb of one of the cinemas near L’Etoile. One day in 1976 I emerged from rue Marboeuf to see a reclining, 40 foot long King Kong being paraded down the Champs Elysees. Surreal Paris! Pariscope of June 2001 lists 250 different films to see and you watched them in the company of enthusiasts. One evening in Frederic Mitterrand’s art-house cinema I was part of an angry crowd hurling abuse at the projectionist because he had stopped an old WC Fields movie before the credits had finished playing out.
Here are few films that stick in my mind, not necessarily because they are great art but for reasons sometimes unclear even to me.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Probably, because it was made in 1938, one of the first films I ever saw and one I have never tired of re-watching. The standard tale of the outlawed Sir Robin of Locksley and his merry band living comfortably on venison and wine in Sherwood Forest and protecting Saxon peasantry from cruel and arrogant Normans until liberated and restored to his lands and title by King Richard (a Norman) but made with a panache and style that keeps you riveted to your seat for the duration. Errol Flynn, his face and physique still untouched by the louche living that would kill him at 50, dances across battlements and greenwood with the grace and vigour of a young God, defeating the cloddish men-at-arms and the convincingly evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). There’s romance with Lady Marion Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland) and humour with her middle-aged handmaid who manages to captivate her own outlaw, a humble miller’s son, thereby not crossing the strict social boundaries of the day. The final masterful touch is provided by the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Listen to his powerful, romantic music as the combating shadows of Robin and Sir Guy fight up and down the stone staircase of the castle keep; it won him an Oscar. Michael Curtiz directed. The non plus ultra of adventure films.
How, I ask myself, would Frank McCloud survive in today’s crop of gangster movies? Frank (played by Humphrey Bogart) was 5 foot 8 inches tall, untrained in Karate and quite puny, no match for the steroid-fed Atlases that we now see fighting on celluloid for or against the forces of evil. Mind you, Frank’s adversary, the diminutive psychopath Johnny Rocco (Edward G Robinson), was only 5 foot 5 inches. But Bogie didn’t need to resort to physical violence, he relied on guile, resourcefulness and a refusal to be intimidated that, together with his wisecracks, left villains both infuriated and impressed.
In “Key Largo”, released in 1948, Frank arrives at a small hotel in the Florida Keys run by Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and her father (Lionel Barrymore) to find they (and now Frank) are hostages of Johnny Rocco and his henchmen as they wait to conclude a deal and sit out a hurricane. There is an award winning performance from Rocco’s good-hearted, drunken moll, Gay Dawn (Claire Trevor), and Johnny himself is the archetypical, snarling gangster of the Al Capone School of Thuggery, consumed with self and greed. “I’ll tell you what you want, Rocco” says Frank, “You want more”. Rocco savours the insult, smiles at Frank’s perception; “Yeah”, he agrees, “that’s what I want… more.”
Key Largo was the fourth and last film Bogie made with his wife. One day at lunch in the Bar du Theatre on the Avenue Montaigne, I looked up from my steak frites to see Lauren Bacall, then in her late fifties and still coolly beautiful, waiting for a table. Bogie would have known what to do.
The Wild Bunch (#84 in Sight & Sound’s top 250 films)
As far as American leading men are concerned William Holden was as good as any and better than most. George Clooney is the only current leading man in his class, and even then he seems to lack the humanizing foibles that create character. Holden was a hard drinker and elegant smoker with a taste for fine women and who reputedly captured the hearts and bodies of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. He also had style and, like Clooney, spent much of his life overseas, in his case in Switzerland and Kenya. He had a successful career, which included an Academy Award, but his defining part was towards the end of his shortish life when he made a film, which was both an elegy to declining manhood and to a vanished age.
Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western “The Wild Bunch” cast Holden in the role of Pike, an ageing outlaw at the head of a band of bank robbers looking to score one last hit before the modern world closed in on them. Encroaching civilization (this is 1914) has already pushed them into Mexico where Pike, basically an honourable man, is forced to deal with the brutal participants in a civil war where good is on neither side. The film is also a paean to violence, which Peckinpah believed was insufficiently realistic in action films of the day. The last scene, when Pike and his gang of Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson kill the entire garrison of Mexican soldiers, can only be described as homage to carnage.
Walking past the National Portrait Gallery in St Martin’s Place one morning I saw that it was showing an exhibition of paintings relating to the life and times of Major General Charles George Gordon, the hero of Khartoum. Nothing beats having the time to indulge a spur of the moment inclination and I spent a pleasant hour learning about this extraordinary soldier and veteran of the Crimea, 2nd Opium War and the Sudan; an eccentric, five foot five Evangelist who believed the Garden of Eden was situated on an island in the Seychelles. For some it may well be. On leaving, I saw later that same day the film “Khartoum” was to be shown in the Lecture Room and so duly returned and settled myself in with 12 or so others for the solitary pleasure of an afternoon’s cinema. A Gallery official introduced the film with a brief history of Gordon before announcing that he was pleased to have with us the star of the film who would add a few words. And with that, a tall gentleman sitting next to me rose to his feet, took the dais and addressed us. What Charlton Heston delivered was an apology for a career in which he felt “Khartoum” stood out as one of the few films of which he was proud. The actor, nearing the end of his professional life, appeared concerned for his legacy, perhaps trying to add some thespian credentials to his post mortem resume. Well, his CV is a little short on character roles but, all in all, I didn’t think he needed to be ashamed of “Ben Hur” or “The War Lord” or “Will Penney” and he had every right to be proud of “Khartoum” a 1966 film of tragedy on a massive scale where the cavalry (or in this case a flying column of camel-borne troops) fail to arrive in time. A good foot taller than the man he portrayed, he was not overshadowed by Olivier playing the Mahdi in his Othello grease paint. The story of how Gordon is sent to defend the Egyptian residents of Khartoum from a local Muslim population, impoverished and angered by Gordon’s previous suppression of their local slave trade, is reasonably faithful to history. Gordon’s failure is relative; the Sudan still remains in the hands of criminally minded, whirling Dervishes.
An entire Sydney suburb is named after the General.
The Remains of the Day
The English Patient
How amazing is it that masterpieces of quintessentially English literature can be produced by people who had to learn our language before they started. Men like Joseph Conrad, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje. Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel “The Remains of the Day”, filmed in 1993, is set in the period between the World Wars and tells the story of Stevens, a butler (Anthony Hopkins), who, after a life of dedicated service, understands that his life-long loyalty has been misguided when he learns of his employer’s sympathy for the Nazis. Help is at hand with the arrival of the new housekeeper (Emma Thompson) but, alas, Stevens cannot undo 30 years of repressed feelings to accept the love she offered. It is a love story without an embrace in the whole film.
Michael Ondaatje’s Booker winning novel, The English Patient, was filmed in 1996 and scooped a hatful of Oscars. The story revolves around the affair between Katherine (Kristin Scott-Thomas), a married Englishwoman and Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) a Hungarian Count engaged in mapping the Sahara. Her guilt and his jealousy eventually drive them momentarily apart. What might have been a permanent reunion is tragically ended by both the British and Germans in their fight for control of the Western Desert in the early years of WW2. Juliette Binoche won an Oscar for her part as the nurse who makes Almasy’s last few days bearable as he recalls the passion and defeat of his affair. Scott-Thomas, the thinking man’s pin-up, and Fiennes display real passion, which, in the latter’s case centres on the supersternal notch, the soft thumb-print in his lover’s throat.