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75 years ago...

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Obsession (1943)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Country: Italy
Length: 140 minutes
Type: Drama, Crime

'Obsession' ('Ossessione') is a fairly faithful but unauthorised adaptation of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', made under the last year of Italy's Fascist Government. Luchino Visconti's first film is far from his lavish later films, it's more an early entry in the gritty Neorealist style. A frank film about the sexual obsession between a bored wife and a roguish drifter, who plot to murder her husband did not please the Vatican, or the Fascists. It was banned and destroyed in Italy but Visconti luckily kept a copy for himself. The immediate lust between the two lead actors Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti in their first scene is electric. Despite many other powerful scenes, at 2-hours and 20-minutes, it felt longer than it needed to be.



The first film in the list by Vincente Minnelli next.
73 years ago...

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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country: United States
Length: 113 minutes
Type: Musical, Comedy

'Meet Me in St. Louis' is a light Musical-Comedy about a middle-class family in a suburb of St. Louis, during the months leading up to the 1904 World's Fair. It's a jolly Technicolor confection but the way the seasonal cross-fades were done, made me wonder if Director Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza) was partly inspired by the more dour 'The Magnificent Ambersons'. Nothing of any real consequence happens in the first 90-minutes, the family are blighted by problems as serious as dinner being served and hour earlier than usual and the prospect that a telephone call may be missed. Consternation is finally caused by the father of the family announcing that they are all moving to New York (IMO it should have happened in the first act). Then the final quarter is about the family realising that they dearly love St. Louis and it morphs into the kind of full-on Christmas-Genre movie we know today.



There are so many classic songs that have lasted the test of time (unlike other period Musicals). Judy Garland singing 'The Trolley Song' is a camp classic but 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' is the most famous composition. The old "Separated by a common language" quip came to mind during my watch Big Grin . I kept having to look things up on Wikipedia because apparently, a trolley is a tram (not a shopping cart), corned-beef is salt-beef (not canned minced-beef) and an exposition is an exhibition (not an explanation).



Lauren Bacall's film debut is next.
73 years ago...

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To Have and Have Not (1944)
Director: Howard Hawks
Country: United States
Length: 100 minutes
Type: Drama, Noir

'To Have and Have Not' is a blatant attempt to repeat the success of 'Casablanca' by replicating all the same plot ingredients. Humphrey Bogart plays a similar 'rogue with a heart of gold' to Rick but this time he's a shady fishing-boat Captain. The Location is switched from Morocco, to the French Colony of Martinique, but it's a similar nest of corrupt Vichy officials and Free-French Resistance fighters. For me this has always topped 'Casablanca', it's seedier, raunchier, more disreputable, more realistic and with Howard Hawks in the Director's chair, it looks better too. Even Dooley Wilson pretending to be a piano player, is upgraded to the actual Hoagy Carmichael himself. Lauren Bacall in her first ever screen appearance is "smokin' hot" as Bogart's love interest, maybe that phrase was made for her as she is constantly wreathed in seductive smoke, obliging men to give her lights and letting a cigarette dangle causally from her lips. Bogart was more than twice her age but it doesn't matter on screen, or off it, their chemistry is so strong. Can smoking look any sexier than this? :

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Bacall flirting with Bogart and her suggestive dialogue is what really makes this movie a classic and why I've watched it several times. Bacall's delivery of lines like "I'm hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask me" and "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow" leave little to the imagination.



The first film on the list by the renowned Otto Preminger next.
73 years ago...

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Laura (1944)
Director: Otto Preminger
Country: United States
Length: 88 minutes
Type: Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery

The first half of 'Laura' has all the hallmarks of the emerging Film Noir Genre, with the requisite moody atmosphere provided by Director Otto Preminger. A poker-faced New York Detective investigates the brutal murder of the eponymous "Laura", a high-flying Advertising Executive. One-by-one he quizzes her circle of friends, family and lovers, sifting through their lies and half-truths. The film then switches to more of an Agatha Christie style, including the "assemble all the suspects in the drawing room" trope. The best of these characters is Clifton Webb's delightfully waspish Manhattan dandy, a mixture of Noël Coward and Dalton Trumbo. The script is a brilliantly designed mystery, doing that always impressive trick of showing you seemingly irrefutable evidence that one person must surely be 100% guilty, then later handing you one more tiny clue that exonerates them totally. An slightly underdeveloped and unearned romantic subplot is the only thing spoiling this otherwise perfect thriller.



Another Ingrid Bergman film next.
74 years ago...

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Gaslight (1944)
Director: George Cukor
Country: United States
Length: 114 minutes
Type: Drama

George Cukor's 'Gaslight' is a Hollywood remake of a 1940 British film of the same name. It seems to have been standard practice at the time to burn all copies of the original, when purchasing the remake rights but thankfully MGM were unsuccessful. Why this later remake is in the 1001 list and not the original is odd given that the critical consensus seems to be that the remake is marginally inferior. Still, I haven't yet seen the original to compare and the remake is damn good, so I judged it on it's own merits.

Ingrid Bergman plays the niece of a famous Opera singer who was murdered. She hastily marries Charles Boyer's character and they move into her aunt's old house, where he slowly and subtlety begins to psychologically torture her. It occurred to me that such "controlling or coercive behaviour" has only recently been made an offense in the UK. The always wonderful Joseph Cotten plays a Detective who has his suspicions about what is happening within the house and tries to help. I was delighted by the Sherlock-ian elements of this film, not just the foggy Victorian London setting but the nature of the mystery too. Precious Jewels missing, murder, Society scandals and bizarre events that have simple explanations. There is even a scene of Cotten's detective taking breakfast in a silk smoking-jacket, in what looks very much like a Baker St. flat.

(I might add this to my imaginary Sherlock "cinematic universe" by deciding Cotten is playing one of the various Scotland Yard coppers who studied under Holmes Wink )



Laurence Olivier's Directing debut next.
73 years ago...

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Henry V (1944)
Director: Laurence Olivier
Country: United Kingdom
Length: 136 minutes
Type: War, Historical

I much prefer Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film in almost every way but Laurence Olivier's film is very memorable for several reasons. It was one of the first widely seen and respected full-length screen adaptations of Shakespeare. Olivier opens the film during a meticulously recreated performance of 'Henry V' at The Globe theatre in Tudor times, complete with boys dressed as girls, rain coming through the roof and a boisterous crowd. The Globe was rebuilt in 1997, 50-years after Olivier's film and it's remarkable how close his filmed version was. Before then, this movie must have been a rare glimpse into what seeing a play at The Globe was like. After the opening he cleverly and seamlessly transitions from the stage play, into the world of the film (and back out at the end). The Technicolor cinematography is a close recreation of paintings of the Medieval period. So vibrant primary colours are used for the costumes and the warped perspective of Pre-Renaissance art, is deliberately exaggerated in the set designs.

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Lastly, the film is noteworthy because of when and why it was made. Made after Britain had recently survived alone against Nazi Germany during The Blitz, I'm sure contemporary audiences would have been struck by the parallels with Henry's victory at Agincourt. Henry's inspiring speech to his frightened and (on-paper) hopelessly outnumbered troops, is similar in theme to Churchill's own "We shall fight on the beaches" address. Released just after the liberation of Paris, the film's happy ending with England and France united by marriage and the war over, must have felt appropriate but the Allies still had to move on to Berlin... "Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more!".



Next, Eisenstein also comments on contemporary politics using a King from the past.
73 years ago...

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Ivan the Terrible: Parts 1 and 2 (1944)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Country: Russia
Length: 187 minutes
Type: Epic, Historical

'Ivan the Terrible' ('Ivan Grozniy') is a 3-hour Historical Epic about the life of Tsar Ivan IV, commissioned by Stalin himself. Part 1 was released in 1944 to Stalin's approval but he hated 1946's Part 2, so it was banned and not seen until 1958. The production of Part 3 was also cancelled and what had been shot was later seized and destroyed. Sergei Eisenstein was clearly now on the wrong-side of the despotic regime he'd help to promote in his earlier Soviet propaganda films. 'Ivan the Terrible' would be his last. Strictly speaking, only Part 1 is a 1944 film but the book lists both, so I also watched Part 2 (finished in 1946) as well.

I can see why Stalin would react the way he did. Part 1 tweaks historical events to present Ivan as a hero of the workers, fighting for them against the powerful nobility. It's a heroic depiction of the rise of a benevolent Dictator as he remolds Russia into a super-state. Part 2 focuses on turmoil in the Russian government, the setting up of a feared secret-police, political assassinations and growing despotism. Part 1 was how Stalin liked to see himself, Part 2 was how he actually was. I also think Part 1 is just a better film because it's more driven by plot and more varied in location and theme. For example, Part 1 has a huge siege battle that is a precursor to later Hollywood siege films like Ridley Scott's 'Kingdom of Heaven', Part 2 never ventures beyond a few rooms.

The score for the film was composed by none other than Sergei Prokofiev. The acting is still rooted in the silent era mime style but is good nonetheless. Particular attention is paid to composition within the frame, costume and makeup design, the casting of shadows and character movement. Part 2 concludes with a 10-20 minute two-strip colour section. I'm not sure if the sickly red hue is supposed to represent a decent into hell or something but I just found it off putting to be inter-cutting colour and B&W in the same scene, when I'd been watching a purely B&W film for the preceding 3-hours. Overall I found Eisenstein's film to be dramatically captivating and historically interesting. The 187-minute run-time zipped by.



The first film from the book by the genius that was Billy Wilder.

Additional: Due to the length and it being in Russian I wanted to make sure I had a good copy, so I bought the DVD set from the Eureka! video label (Home of the fantastic 'Masters of Cinema' blu-rays) but I couldn't believe my eyes when it was an extremely poorly encoded VHS rip, with illegible white-on-white hard-coded subtitles. It serves me right for trying to pay to see the film, when it turns out it's available to watch for free on youtube in pristine 1080p with English subtitles (From the official studio I think?).
74 years ago...

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Double Indemnity (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Country: United States
Length: 107 minutes
Type: Film-Noir, Crime

I got hooked on Billy Wilder some years back, so I've already seen lots of his best movies but it'll be a pleasure to have an excuse to revisit them again. 'Double Indemnity' kicks off Wilder's 15-year-plus "purple patch" where he produced almost nothing but brilliance. Some reckon this is the first true entry in what would later be called the "Film Noir" genre. Although it doesn't have a private-eye at the center, it does have drink, sex, murder, criminal scheming, a femme-fatale, a moody voiceover and looming shadows so deep characters disappear right into them. The always terrific Barbara Stanwyck plays a wife who draws an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into a plot to bump off her husband. Edward G. Robinson plays an obsessive insurance investigator who turns the screws on the couple. A total classic in every way.



Another Noir next.
73 years ago...

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Country: United States
Length: 95 minutes
Type: Film-Noir

With 'Murder, My Sweet' (aka 'Farewell, My Lovely') we are again in full-on hard-boiled Detective, femme-fatale, Film Noir territory. Dick Powell, the smooth singing/dancing matinee-idol of earlier Busby Berkeley movies, is almost unrecognisable as hard-drinking, tough-talking, cynical private eye Philip Marlowe. The convoluted mystery plot is a challenge to follow at times but who killed who isn't as import as the general shadowy, threatening atmosphere created by the cinematography. The standout scene is a drug-induced hallucination, using trippy FX to represent a delirious half-reality.



A WW2 documentary next.
73 years ago...

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The Battle of San Pietro (1945)
Director: John Huston
Country: United States
Length: 32 minutes
Type: Documentary, War

'The Battle of San Pietro' is a US Army Documentary short about the fight to take a small Italian town from the Axis forces. Director John Huston and Producer Frank Capra (who were both Majors in the US Army film-unit. See Netflix's superb 'Five Came Back' series) rapidly cut together documentary footage from the heat of the conflict, as if we are seeing a live news report of the battle being fought. There seems to be some controversy about Huston "faking" parts of the Documentary but I don't see why, as he placed a very clear disclaimer at the end saying that parts had to be recreated for continuity. Apparently reaction to the film was mixed from the Army top brass, some thinking that showing the horrors of combat would be bad for recruitment but some thinking that the unvarnished truth is exactly what nervous recruits needed to see.



Another Hitchcock film next.
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