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76 years ago...

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Director: Orson Welles
Country: United States
Length: 88 minutes
Type: Drama

Orson Welles' second film 'The Magnificent Ambersons' might have been even better than 'Citizen Kane' but we'll probably never know. After Welles had made his cut he went off to shoot a Documentary in Brazil for the US government. While he was away the studio deleted about 45-minutes of footage and reshot a new happier ending. The original Welles cut has been lost ever since, so finding it remains the film-preservation "Holy Grail". It's one of the ultimate examples of studio vandalism but Welles is also partly to blame. He should have stayed and fought for his masterpiece but was reputedly enjoying the sun, Rum and Brazilian girls too much Big Grin .

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The story is about a high-society family as their importance and wealth ebbs away in the face of mechanisation, the dawn of the automobile in particular. Even in the butchered version, the elegiac story is sad, moving and thoughtful. Welles' Direction of the camera is impressive but never flashy and the sets and costumes are sumptuous. Unfortunately some of what were probably the best bits are cut, like a long take that was supposed to glide around the Amberson mansion and then up a three story staircase but there is just an awkward wipe that removes the middle of the scene. Also, the start of a beautiful speech about 'life, the universe and everything' is faded to black while the actor is still in full flow. The editing becomes exponentially choppy as the story nears the conclusion and the tacked-on happy ending.



I've seen Ambersons several times on DVD (a good transfer but still no Blu-Ray!) and once on the big-screen, which looked stunning. Maybe one day the full version will turn up in a salt-mine, or a private collection, until then it's merely a great film, instead of being one of Cinema's best.



Next is another Jimmy Cagney musical.
76 years ago...

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Country: United States
Length: 126 minutes
Type: Musical, Drama

I detected the influence of 'Citizen Kane' (from the year before) on this biopic of Vaudeville/Broadway impresario George M. Cohen. Similar transitions, uses of Vis-FX and large yet fluid jumps in time and space are all used but for a happier, more uplifting tale. One impressive FX-shot stood out which floats through the lights of Broadway show signs. If Kane was the dark side of the American dream, this is the dream in all it's sparkling splendour. I read that star Jimmy Cagney was named in the early HUAC witch-hunts, so he and his brother picked this ardently Patriotic vehicle in order to wrap Cagney up in the proverbial red, white and blue.



We watch George M. Cohen in his early days in a Vaudeville troupe, to struggling to get his break on Broadway, to becoming the biggest star of his day. He wrote several Patriotic tunes about the USA and it's fighting men (The one I knew best was 'Over There' from WWI). So this aspect is used to comment on the USA's then recent joining of WW2. We see Cohen being commended by President Roosevelt and marching in a modern parade who are singing his old songs as they march towards battle in Europe again. The script is smart and had some clever subversions of my narrative expectations. The movie always has forward momentum but the constant detours into full musical numbers slowed it down at points for me. But if you like those old-timey Vaudeville style songs then you'll probably love those bits best.



An avant-garde short next.
75 years ago...

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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Director: Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid
Country: United States
Length: 14 minutes
Type: Surrealist

'Meshes of the Afternoon' is a short Surrealist film Directed by and starring husband and wife team Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid. A bit like 'Un Chien Andalou' but with a clearer yet circular narrative, a woman observing herself within a dream. There are interesting uses of editing, camera movement and slow motion. The elongated arm entering the first frame was obviously an influence on Terry Gilliam's Python animations. More generally it's very David Lynch and handily a comparison video is available:



A film about the Blitz next.
One of the problems with the 1001 book is the over-reliance on US movies and the following film is the first in the last 27 that has been from any other country. The only films from 1940, 1941 and 1942 are US films, so notable works by Carol Reed, Henri-Georges Clouzot, David Lean, The Archers and Ealing Studios are all omitted. The book has been a good way to watch the classics but I just wish it was more varied, so I've added a list to the OP of the films from the 'BFI Top 100' (that I've not seen yet and that are not on the 1001 list) to add some optional variety. Mild-rant over Big Grin .

75 years ago...

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Fires Were Started (1943)
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Country: United Kingdom
Length: 64 minutes
Type: War, Drama, pseudo-Documentary

Humphrey Jennings' 'Fires Were Started' is a kind of pseudo-Documentary about Firefighters during the Blitz. A propaganda film made for the government that takes the unusual step of casting the real London firefighters in all the roles. Occasionally this leads to some wooden performances but mostly it adds a patina of gritty realism. The thick London accents, Cockney slang, cosy banter and sing-a-longs round the Joanna feel totally authentic and unlike the more genteel portrayals of 1940s Britain we are more used to from the movies. The story breaks into two halves, us getting to know the men and women of the volunteer fire-service as they prepare for their nights work and then them tackling a huge blaze to save an armaments ship. The film doesn't shy away from showing the danger the Firefighters face and they do not all survive the night.



An early role for James Mason next.
74 years ago...

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The Man in Grey (1943)
Director: Leslie Arliss
Country: United Kingdom
Length: 116 minutes
Type: Drama, Romance

I can't imagine 1940s Hollywood's puritanical Hayes-Code allowing marriage to be shown as an empty sham, in the way it is in this Regency costume Drama. I also doubt an upper-class lady being friends with a Black working class kid, or showing her brutish husband beating his mistress to death with a riding crop, would be permitted either. Not to mention James Mason and that same mistress being shown coming out of the bedroom still putting their clothes back on. The differences between what censors would tolerate was clearly greatly divergent across the pond at this point in history. The fact that it's written by two women and focuses on the female character's desires, further increases the refreshingly different perspective. The Direction is serviceable but the excellent script has some great ominous foreshadowing cleverly concealed within a comedic sequence and an ingenious WW2 framing device that engineers a crowd-pleasing ending for the dark story.



One of the greatest films ever made next!
75 years ago...

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Country: United Kingdom
Length: 163 minutes
Type: Drama, War

I first saw 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' on an unrestored DVD about 9-years ago and was blown away by what is probably the finest ever British-made film. Then I saw the Scorsese-backed restoration on the big screen a few times, once when it was introduced by Pressburger's grandsons (both acclaimed filmmakers in their own right). The colours and detail of the Technicolor images were stunning and when the Criterion blu-ray came out, I bought that and have watched it many times since. This latest watch was as ever a joy because the film is so rich and nuanced, that it gets better with every repeat viewing.



Blimp was Written, Produced and Directed by 'The Archers', which is the name Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger assumed for their many close collaborations. Blimp is about the military-career, life and loves of the fictional Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, from his return from the Boer War in 1902, through WW1, to "present day" post-Dunkirk WW2. In a bold move, the wars themselves are skipped over and instead the theme is aging, love, loss and memory, as we witness Clive as an energetic young man shaking up the world, to him as an old man, out of touch with modern life. This time I was struck by the comparison between Clive and Winston Churchill. Churchill had a similar career and age but he was "the man for the hour" when Europe fell, somebody who was prepared to take the hard decisions and do anything to ensure Victory over the Nazis. Clive is still stuck in the fair-play, gentlemanly conduct and sportsmanship of a forgotten military age. Something that Clive's friends try tell him, in powerful scenes like this one:



Co-star Anton Walbrook (speaking in the above scene) was a Gay, half-Jewish, Austrian who had escaped the Nazis for Britain in 1936. So in his role as Theo, a German who has fled the Nazis for Britain in 1939, the power and emotion he delivers is so real. Roger Livesey as Clive, transforms his whole body and voice as we watch him slowly age before our eyes (helped in no small part by superb hair and makeup). Not forgetting leading-lady Deborah Kerr, playing three distinct roles, as Clive's lost-love Edith and two more women that (for Clive at least) resemble her. The 2 and 3/4 hour runtime rushes by and feels shorter every time I watch. I'd hesitate to say 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' was the best film ever made because it's hard to quantify that accolade but it's in my personal 'All Time Top-5' for sure.



The follow up to 'Cat People' next.
75 years ago...

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I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Country: United States
Length: 69 minutes
Type: Drama, Horror, Mystery

The second B-Movie collaboration between Director Jacques Tourneur and Producer Val Lewton for RKO, after 'Cat People'. I much preferred this film because although I can't find any info on the budget, it seems a classier production overall with much improved acting talent. The sensationalist title and the poster markets this as a Horror movie but it's more of a gothic-mystery akin to Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' with a Voodoo twist. Perhaps audiences in 1943 were truly Horrified and creeped-out by depictions of Voodoo rituals, performed by "mysterious" Caribbean natives, to the sound of primal jungle drums. I just found it fascinating, as it all looked pretty authentic and well researched to me (not that I'm an expert on Voodoo).



Another Val Lewton produced movie next.
74 years ago...

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The Seventh Victim (1943)
Director: Mark Robson
Country: United States
Length: 71 minutes
Type: Drama, Mystery

Another Val Lewton Produced B-Movie with a script written to fit a preset enigmatic title. The story they decided on was about a young and innocent Catholic girl trying to locate her missing older and more worldly sister (she's a Goth basically Big Grin), who was somehow connected to a secret Satanic cult. Sets from Orson Welles 'The Magnificent Ambersons' are once again re-used to save money. Apart from one notable sequence where the younger sister is approached by a shadowy figure as she is showering (Shot in a very similar way to Alfred Hitchcock's later film 'Psycho') the first two acts are fairly unremarkable. However, the last part featuring actress Jean Brooks being stalked and menaced by the cult and then contemplating her own death and suicide are quite atmospheric and chilling.



A return to the Western Genre next.
75 years ago...

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The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Director: William A. Wellman
Country: United States
Length: 75 minutes
Type: Western, Drama

I've always had an issue with another acclaimed Henry Fonda film, 1957's '12 Angry Men'. It's a beautifully acted and powerful examination of morality, truth and justice but it's still just a stage-play in one room. 'The Ox-Bow Incident' on the other hand, is very similar in theme and content but manages to be a cinematic Western at the same time.

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A posse is hastily assembled and rides off after some murderous cattle-rustlers. Some members go to try and ensure the law is adhered to, some are baying for a lynching and some need to decide where they stand. On all sides, their motives are complicated by personal grudges and character flaws. Leigh Whipper brilliantly plays Sparks, a saintly black Reverend who joins the posse. Sparks adds another level of dread foreboding because he watched his older brother get lynched when he was little, so is the only one who truly knows what horrors could be about to unfold. Cleverly the movie opens and closes on the same shot, reminding us that it all took over one night, making the viewer consider how quickly things can escalate when humans have a mob mentality.



Another Hitchcock masterpiece next.
75 years ago...

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Country: United States
Length: 108 minutes
Type: Thriller, Drama

'Shadow of a Doubt' was apparently Alfred Hitchcock's favourite of all his own movies. I prefer some of his later colour films but 'Shadow of a Doubt' is the finest of his early black & white period and begins the total mastery of the craft he has become famous for. I've watched it many times and it gets better with each viewing. Joseph Cotten switches gears from playing the affable and noble characters of Kane and Ambersons, to serial killer "Uncle Charlie". With the authorities closing in, he hopes to hide-out at the seemingly idyllic home of his older sister, much to the excitement of his niece, who is also called Charlie (played by Teresa Wright). Cotton is really chilling, showing the world a charming exterior that can snap in an instant. Hitchcock cleverly introduces both Charlies one after the other, in mirrored scenes, contrasting and comparing them:

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It's important because the battle of wills between the two is the main thrust of the story. Hitchcock subtlety suggests an incestuous relationship between the two, showing Uncle Charlie slipping an Emerald ring (which he has kept from his latest victim) onto his niece's finger, shot in a mockery of the standard marriage-proposal scene. As she admires the ring intently, we see Uncle Charlie looking her up and down in a really creepy way. It only occurred to me on this viewing that when Uncle Charlie hands out gifts to his smiling family they are all tokens of time, memory and death. A toy Gun, a stuffed Elephant, a wrist Watch, a Mink-Stole, the aforementioned Ring and framed photos of his deceased Parents... making one wonder how they died?



I get the impression that Hitchcock is laughing at the 1943 censors, knowing that he's clever enough to show and imply, what they wouldn't let him say upfront. Two of the other characters in the quiet town enjoy a hobby that involves discussing the best ways to murder each other and get away with it. We meet a former school mate of young Charlie who is now a dead-eyed waitress in a dive bar. Even the unrelentingly chipper mother starts crying at one point, recalling but never explaining some painful memory from her past. Hitchcock is suggesting that darkness lurks beneath the surface in even the quietest and most respectable towns. The most famous scene features Cotton delivering a disturbing monologue about his hatred of women before suddenly turning to look out of the screen at us. It gives me shivers every time:



The first film in the book by Visconti next.
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