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Here’s a secret: I watch new movies. I even like some new movies. But truthfully it’s becoming more and more difficult to care about any new releases.

With all the recent Top 10 lists of the films of 2009 and indeed the decade, it was interesting to see how dull a lot of the choices were. Of course there were some great movies over the past 10 years, but I was surprised how many of the choices were movies I didn’t like. There also seemed to be a desperation to pin down the ‘important’ films of the last ten years, but I can’t help feeling that it’s all been done before.

I can’t help thinking that you’d have a far better time watching an old film.

So as an antidote to those lists, here’s my Top 10 of 1939, 70 years prior. It’s almost too easy a selection in this case, as many have commented on how this was perhaps the ‘golden’ year of classical Hollywood.

Could any movie from 2009 beat any of these?

Destry Rides Again

My favourite performer, Jimmy Stewart, in his first western. Dietrich characteristically appears out of place, but wait in particular for the moving ending.

Gone with the Wind

The best kind of epic: spectacular and passionate, yet with a tight focus on its central character. It features both one of the greatest performances and one of the greatest characters of the era, Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara, a character surely based on Becky Sharp.

Only Angels Have Wings

I find this movie pretty serious, but it’s atmospheric and exciting, and Cary Grant makes a great adventure hero.

La Règle du Jeu

A funny, delicate and complex ensemble drama directed by and featuring Jean Renoir. Worth seeing a few times.

The Roaring Twenties

The definitive film about prohibition and the rise of the gangster with Cagney continuing to mark his territory as the performer who revolutionised film acting in the sound era.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The movie that defined James Stewart’s star persona as the naive outsider who brings about law, order and decency. It’s funny and light-hearted in places, but also as political as you want it to be.

Stagecoach

The film that galvanised the western genre and created John Wayne’s mighty star image.

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums

This famous Japanese drama directed by Kenji Mizoguchi is vivid, delicate and moving, with long takes that give it a naturalistic and gentle pace.  See this one on the big screen if possible as it’s not currently available on disc.

The Wizard of Oz

The film that sums up the Hollywood film experience with its escapist theme and Technicolor technology. See the new Blu Ray transfer if you can, it’s so detailed that it’s practically a new film.

My favourite of these? The Wizard of Oz. The movie I’d watch right now? The Roaring Twenties.

Surely I haven’t missed any?

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Warner Brothers has announced a forthcoming edition of Casablanca on Blu-Ray to be released on 2nd December 2008. The ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’ will feature a host of extra features but what is most exciting about this release is of course the High Definition print itself. This will not actually be the first time that the film has been released in High Definition. It received spectacular reviews when it was released on the now (suddenly) obsolete HD-DVD format. Let’s hope the Blu-Ray edition at least matches this previous print and if we’re lucky it could possibly surpass it.

It is interesting how legacy title such as Casablanca continue to make money for studios such as Warner Bros. When films were released during the 20s and 30s it was not conceivable that these films could have a life beyond their initial release. At which point did studios suddenly understand that their giant back catalogues could actually continue to work for them? Did this occur during the late 1970s with the dawn of video or was it earlier?

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of you not only have video and DVD copies of the same film, but have even paid to see them in the cinema several times.

The following are the extras slated for the Blu-Ray release:

Disc 1

Behind the Story

Introduction by Lauren Bacall

Commentary by film critic Roger Ebert

Commentary by film historian/author Rudy Behlmer

1988 TCM special: Bacall on Bogart [Laurel Bacall’s candid and moving reminiscences about her husband’s life and career]

You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca [Bacall hosts this spellbinding backstage tour]

As Time Goes By: The Children Remember [Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom remember their parents, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman]

Production history gallery

Additional Footage

Deleted scenes

Outtakes

Who Holds Tomorrow? Premiere episode from the 1955 Warner Bros. Presents series, starring Charles McGraw

1995 WB Cartoon: Carrotblanca

Audio

Scoring Stage Sessions

Knock on Wood Alternate Version, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part One Alternate Take, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part One Film Version, Wilson with Piano

Rick Sees Ilsa Instrumental Medley

As Time Goes By Part Two Alternate Take, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part Two Film Version, Wilson with Piano

At La Belle Aurore Instrumental Medley

Dat’s What Noah Done Outtake, Wilson with Piano

April 26,1943 Screen Guild Players Radio Broadcast

Trailers

Theatrical trailer

1992 re-release trailer


Disc 2

1993 documentary: Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul

la-roue-amazon

A very exciting 2-disc DVD has just been released: La Roue (1927), a monumental silent directed by Abel Gance. I saw this film on the big screen and at that time it ran at four hours, but this new restoration seems to come in even longer at four and a half. 

It revolves around a steam train engineer and the infant girl he saves from a train wreck, evolving into a complex and delicate drama. While containing some devastating and kinetic imagery, particularly around steam engines, it ultimately is one of the most memorable silent film experiences out there. Finally I get to see it again.

Directed by Abel Gance whose Napoleon (1927) is legendary, this is highly recommended. It is published by Flicker Alley, who has emerged as a great new distributor of rare silents on DVD. Check it out at their website.

Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.

There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:

The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)

During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.

Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.

One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.

His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.

One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.

In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed. 

The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.

A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.

Scottie and Madeleine embrace for the last time in Vertigo (1958)

Below I reprint the review of Vertigo published in the influential British journal Sight and Sound upon its original release in 1958, but first a brief introduction.

Hitchcock in the 1950s

I am very interested in how the reception of films change over time, and how their initial reception relates to their standing today. One of the single most interesting cases is Vertigo (1958), a film that has become embedded in the consciousness of serious filmgoers.

By the time the film was released in 1958 (1959 in Britain) Hitchcock was the most high-profile Hollywood director of them all. No doubt this was galvanised by his appearance on television as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) in which Hitchcock was cleverly cementing a clearly-defined screen persona – the slow drawl, the black suit, the sense of humour, the portly figure, and the famous profile. It was Hitchcock himself who had transformed his profile into a neat logo, which then went on to open every episode of his TV show. Hitchcock had become an unlikely but powerful brand.

The 1950s saw key changes in how films were written about. Influenced by the politique des auteurs promoted by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, British film critics of Sight and Sound focused more on the role of the director and the director’s responsibility for the film as a whole, then they ever had before. The combination of this shift in film criticism and the strong Hitchcock brand meant that Hitchcock’s role as an auteur was indisputable. In the review below Houston talks of a ‘typical Hitchcock joke’, for instance. Indeed Hitchcock is seen as perhaps the ultimate auteur: the precise visual style of his films suggest to the viewer that he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The controlled movement and pacing of his visuals suggest control behind the camera.

So when Vertigo was released it was clearly seen as another ‘Hitchcock film’. At first glance his films of the 1950s were clearly Hollywood products, as was the case with the glossy star vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with James Stewart and Doris Day, or To Catch a Thief (1955) with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. He made a couple of grittier movies in the 1950s, notably I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956), which had the feel of film noir and neo-realism, but Vertigo was clearly aligned with his bigger releases: vivid colour, Vistavision, and a star name in James Stewart. But again Hitchcock seems to smuggle dark themes into these studio movies, with Vertigo being a particularly bleak emotional journey concerned with loss and obsession.

Today the film is revered by critics and film lovers, and during the last Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll in 2002 the film almost beat Citizen Kane to the number one spot – it was only 6 votes away. The fact that Vertigo, along with Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) were quickly removed from circulation only to be seen again in the 1980s may have contributed to their appeal when re-evaluated (pirate black and white copies circulated for those desperate to see them during that dark age).

Below is the full review that was published in the Spring 1959 issue of Sight and Sound, written by Penelope Houston, which offers an interesting perspective on how the film was received on initial release. She believes that the film suffers from a plot of ‘egg-shell thinness’ and that one of its key problems is that of pacing: ‘this time he is repeating himself in slow motion’. She does not seem to have sensed the repressed passion that drives as an undercurrent throughout the film. This may be due to the fact that Vertigo is ultimately defined by its repeated viewing. The first viewing is only an introduction, but it is in the re-watching that the film starts to take hold and become an obsession.

Please let me know your thoughts on the review and leave a comment.

Scottie Dashes Up the Tower in Vertigo (1958)

Penelope Houston, ‘Vertigo’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1959, p.319.

VERTIGO (Paramount) finds Hitchcock toying weightily with a thriller by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of Les Diaboliques. As with their earlier novel, the mystery is a question not of who done it but of whether it was really done at all–in this case, how can a girl who has fallen spectacularly to her death from a church tower reappear a few months later in the streets of San Francisco, and is she in fact the same girl? This question of identity, central to the novel, is disposed of by Hitchcock in a brisk and curiously timed flashback, leaving only the secondary problem of how the hero, a detective who first trails the girl, then becomes obsessed by his memories of her, will react to discovering the truth. But in a story of this kind, a sleigh-of-hand affair built on deception and misdirection, mystification counts for everything; to introduce questions of motivation, to suggest that the people involved in this murder game are real, is to risk cracking a plot structure of egg-shell thinness. Only speed, finally, could sustain the illusion that the plot hangs together–and Hitchcock has never made a thriller more stately and deliberate in technique.

If the plot fails to work, there are still some good suspense diversion. These include a macabre, misogynistic sequence in which the obsessed detective (James Stewart) enlists dressmakers and hairdressers to make over the lightly disguised Kim Novak number two in the image of the lost Kim Novak number one; a typical Hitchcock joke, in which the detective tracks the girl down an alley, through a dark and dingy passage-way, and finds that this sinister approach is the back door to an expensive flower shop; and a single shot of stunning virtuosity, with a corpse spread-eagled across a church roof at one side of the screen, and the detective slinking out of the church door at the screen’s opposite edge. A roof-top chase, decisively opening the picture, a struggle in the church belfry, some backchat in the manner of Rear Window with a cool, astringent second-string heroine (Barbara Bel Geddes) are all reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve. One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion.–PENELOPE HOUSTON

Scottie looks down from the tower in Vertigo (1958)

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