Better than BFI’s Top 100: 85-81

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here

 

85) 49th Parallel (1941), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

One way to avoid the trouble of making an action-adventure movie that’s just loosely tied setpieces is to lean fully into the naturally episodic tendencies of the genre. That’s what Powell and Pressburger do in this movie, their first entry on this list. When you’ve gotten as much out of Laurence Olivier’s Quebecois accent filling a tiny room as you can, you downshift into Anton Walbrook as the leader of Hutterites farming on the prairie. In a similar way does Leslie Howard yield to Raymond Massey. Poor Eric Portman, who plays the dastardly Nazi officer who is the sole survivor of a literal cross-country dash, and he plays him in a way that inspires loathing. In each chapter, a different type of Nazi is foregrounded. With Olivier’s Johnnie, we get the sense of their ruthlessness and brutality. With Walbrook’s Peter, we are taught of the ways that Nazis cannot abide peace and must destroy it rather than allow someone to live out his own life. With Howard’s Scott, we find the anti-intellectualism of Nazism. And with Massey’s Brock, we discover the lesson that Stalin had learned about Nazi treachery, that we must never allow our guard to come down or our back to turn. By the time Brock threatens to wallop Hirth from the Yankee side of Niagara Falls to the Canuck side, we’ve gotten an excellent crash course in what makes the Nazis tick. It took Capra years to put together his Why We Fight series, and they speak for themselves as documentary propaganda. But 49th Parallel is a cool two hours of fiction that relentlessly pushes its message with the help of five patriotic stars giving wonderful performances.

All this begs the question of why a propaganda flick ought to make it onto this sort of list at all. The answer is that even if the anti-Nazi propaganda is outdated, the movie itself is not. The scene where some Mounties begin to describe the German sailors—who are, of course, in the crowd listening to the police talk about them while the crowd itself cranes its collective neck—is textbook filmmaking. We see the crowd, we see all these faces, and we think it must be impossible to find someone in such a crowd even when all of his attributes are listed. But cut after cut, we close in on the Germans. We get full bodies first, then heads and shoulders, then just heads intercut with faces of Native Americans filling the screen, scanning the crowd. It’s done the right way, and it should be no surprise as to why: this was the penultimate movie edited by David Lean. The acting is of its time as well—Leslie Howard was only ever going to act like Leslie Howard—but there are some performances that would fit into any time. Anton Walbrook’s face is so subtle and thoughtful even when his point of view is faithfully rigid. Glynis Johns, in a minor role, is every frightened teenager we’ve ever seen. And Eric Portman playing the Nazi officer is not terrifying or grandiose or some other type of comic book villain: he is snide, which for better or worse has informed so many of the villains we’ve seen in the years since.

84) The Ruling Class (1972), directed by Peter Medak

Here’s the kind of movie that The Ruling Class is: about, oh, an hour and forty-five minutes in, the movie’s protagonist admits that he believes he is now Jack the Ripper instead of Jesus Christ. I thought the movie had more or less taken its course by then, and I was prepared to write it off. And then it hooked me again when Jack began to opine about how torture out to come back. He is a man with a fetish, and he takes pleasure in listing the order in which bones will broken, and before I was even ready for it the entire bar is singing “Dem Bones” and I died. What’s incredible about The Ruling Class is that they’ve already done multiple asides to vaudeville in the movie by the time we reach the “Dem Bones” sequence—even in an all-timer of a ludicrous performance, Peter O’Toole’s “Varsity Drag” stands out—and I was still taken aback. Above all else the movie feels like a play, which is typically one of my great cinematic bugaboos, but in The Ruling Class it’s clear pretty quickly that the sitting room in the great home of the Gurneys is just how it would look onstage. (Medak, to his credit, finds ways to shoot the room from seemingly every angle, including multiple overhead locations.) This isn’t some Oscarbait drama about the machinations of a family to outwit the crazy man who holds the title, but a wacky elegy to the music hall and a very British slapstick. If George Formby hadn’t died there would have been a cameo. The movie is at its best when it keeps itself out of Jack’s imagination, when we in the audience see what everyone else must be seeing. In principal there isn’t much difference between Jack’s wooing of Grace while she’s dressed as Camille and Jack’s murders when he envisions himself as Jack the Ripper, but the movie uses one is a slap in the face and the other as a plot device. I was a little unnerved when I realized that there really was a woman in that white dress and with those curls who might have actually been singing Verdi with Jack? And then, naturally, she turns out to be a major character the rest of the way. The crazy has wings in that moment in a fashion it doesn’t anywhere else, and it’s because the movie leans fully into its own theatricality.

Admittedly there is an awful lot of stuff in this movie, even for one that’s two and a half hours, and the fact that it occasionally feels precarious is part of the reason something this funny is in the mid-80s on this list. (Somehow I’ve gone this far without mentioning Alastair Sim as the family bishop, whose demented officiating of Jack’s wedding is at least the equal of he wedding scenes in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Princess Bride, or Nigel Green as a crazy man who eats snifters and self-identifies as “the High Voltage Messiah.”) The class critiques which are essential to the movie are successful enough based on the sheer heft of the one-liners, although there’s nothing really special about Sir Charles’ officious, self-serving take on the world or Lady Claire’s pitch-perfect snootiness. Tucker the butler, a closet Marxist who inherits a lot of money from the recently deceased Earl of Gurney and who becomes stridently independent because of it, has one of the great early gags in a movie; this is saying something, because a man accidentally hangs himself while wearing an officer’s coat and a tutu in the first ten minutes. The lawyer reads the will of the 13th Earl of Gurney and discovers that Tucker has been left £30,000. He continues reading for a few moments until Tucker lets out this huge “YIPPEE!” and starts singing. Perhaps The Ruling Class is not always so kind to the plebeians, but nothing could be a stronger rebuke of the patricians as Jack’s speech to the House of Lords late in the film once he has gone full Jack the Ripper. His plans for restoring law and order to the nation are sheer bloodthirstiness; his peers go mad for it.

83) The Fallen Idol (1948), directed by Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol is replete with some of Carol Reed’s best shots, most of which are from Philippe’s perspective. No one sees as much and understands as little as a small child, and Philippe, whose Rich Child Syndrome is announced with a classic symptom—feeling closer to the servants than anyone else—is given free rein to see as much as he pleases. To an adult or to a ten-year-old, Baines is mostly transparent. It’s clear that he is distant with his nagging, dutiful wife and that he is head over heels for a much younger woman; it’s clear that the tall tales he tells Philippe are just those. But from distance, through windows, and atop staircases, Philippe falls for all of it, processing it as best he can, printing readouts which are riddled with errors. We see as a child sees, and although we are better able to put together the pieces due to our ability to analyze adult situations, we are in some ways as hopelessly out of the loop as the boy. In that shot above, we can tell that Baines and his wife are not close with each other. The table stands like a great wall between them, while Mrs. Baines’ face is undeniably cool even at a distance, and Baines’ body language is a little short of comfortable, his anxiety screaming through his hips and feet. (Give some credit, too, to Georges Perinal, the DP who surely had some say in how the room is streaked with uneven, jagged light.) But for Philippe, it’s the two adults, talking. When he finds Baines with his girlfriend, Julie, he easily accepts that she is the butler’s niece. And when he goes to the zoo with them and bulls his way to the snakes and takes a little change to buy ice cream, he can only recognize the fun of going on an outing with his favorite person and a new friend. The stricken look on Ralph Richardson is, and I realize this is probably an exaggeration, akin to the look on Trevor Howard’s face when he’s in that refreshment room with Celia Johnson. He knows that he stands on the razor’s edge, and the razor is clumsily handled by this well-meaning but clueless child.

The party line on The Fallen Idol is about how this little boy loses his innocence, and I suppose that’s no small part of it. But The Fallen Idol is, to me, much more about the power of narrative. Philippe believes in the narrative that sketches out the wild and courageous life of Baines, a man whose bravery in the veldt is as much a part of him as his kindliness with a boy whose parents are perpetually absent. But when that narrative breaks in much the same way that the vertebrae Mrs. Baines’ neck must have done, it shudders him. For much of the last half of the movie, almost until the last scene, Philippe does not have much to say unless it somehow makes Baines appear like the liar he is. Philippe’s vacant stares are more memorable than anything he says, unless it his tinny, pleading voice begging the Scotland Yard detectives to listen to him. He wants to tell them what he knows, but by then the detectives have their own story in mind, and no longer need his input on the work. The loss of innocence is in this moment. It’s not that our heroes let us down, but that we sometimes cannot even speak the truth into existence. The movie knows that sometimes the right thing and the just thing are separate, and that it’s possible that neither one really comes to fruition. When Philippe knows it, we are reminded of it, and therein lies the tragedy that all of us must have learned when we were his age.

82) We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), directed by Lynne Ramsay

Another merciless British movie, another cheerfully understated title. “We need to” is one of our most graceful ways of saying “We haven’t yet and thus aren’t likely to.” It is basically impossible for Eva to speak to Franklin about their son. Kevin is cheerful and friendly with his father and, excepting a short period of illness as a child, borderline sadistic with his mother. When Eva does try to bring up her suspicions about her son, Franklin doesn’t understand where they’ve come from. We can sympathize with Franklin if we think about his position. His wife is increasingly harried, drinking more and more, has always seemed on edge with a son who has never done anything bad to him. And yet our sympathies ought to be with Eva, who is trapped inside a nightmare which is common across those with children and those without. From the outside, a famous travel writer with an attentive husband, a bright young son, and a house that looks like a Williams Sonoma catalog is aspirational. But she is inside, and like Cassandra, she can experience what no one else can experience, and she cannot find a way to convince anyone else that it’s real until it is much, much too late. By then the punishment for being unable to talk about Kevin is that everyone else in her world will be able to communicate their thoughts about her son with glares and raw, hideous come-ons and broken eggs in the supermarket.

That sort of experience is typically a sign of madness, although Eva would be fortunate to be mad. What happens to her, around her, despite her crosses the line to horror, and there is no doubt that living that horror day in and day out is worse than losing one’s mind. A group of parents crowd around the local high school in the dark while the flashing lights of ambulances go, while people scream and hope that the children peppered with arrows aren’t theirs. Eva is the only one whose fate is worse: it’s her son who comes out, alive, with handcuffs on, and certainly it would be better to be gibbering and drooling and taking electroshock therapy instead of meals than to see one’s child as the worst type of modern teenage villain. It would be better to be dead than to realize that the reason your son used arrows instead of bullets is because you read to him about Robin Hood during the one night in his childhood when he wasn’t hateful to you. When people talk about how good Tilda Swinton is in this movie, it’s because she suffers so well. Most of our dramatic performances have something to do with suffering, and the difference between the posturing stuff people do for Oscars and Emmys and the kind of work that Swinton (and Ullmann and Leigh and most of all Falconetti) does is that this is real. This is how anguish looks, and how anxiety sounds, and how frustration feels, and how effort tells. We Need to Talk About Kevin successfully makes Eva’s fears our fears, and thus when Tilda Swinton is worn thin and wrung dry, we are too.

 

81) A Taste of Honey (1961), directed by Tony Richardson

While we still have Oscarbait on the brain, it is a small miracle that A Taste of Honey somehow manages to put every issue in the early ’60s book into a single film and never feels tired or excessive. We have unwed teen mothers, mixed-race couples, homosexual boys, alky mothers, and all of it not in some posh home or even a middle-class apartment, but on the edge of factory town poverty. (Only the tryst between Jimmy and Jo feels overdone, although in 1961 I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the element that was most titillating for an awful lot of the movie’s audience.) A Taste of Honey is undeniably nimble, a movie that creates deeply unlikable people who nonetheless evoke real sympathy. Rita Tushingham plays Jo as the pill she is, but more importantly Dora Bryan plays her mother as the worthless woman she is. When they wind up together again in the end after rows and screaming matches and separation, it feels right. It feels earned. These two belong to each other and deserve each other and need each other so badly, even if it does take them the entire movie to get there. Bryan plays Helen at full bray in that awful nasal accent, either lying in bed or on her way there with a fella. If she weren’t a little bit funny, she would be unbearable. This is Tushingham’s breakout role, and it’s so ugly and gutsy and raw that it burns like acid through the screen. She is no beauty—though to be fair, A Taste of Honey does populate itself with some real physical oddities—but she has wide eyes that she can make light or deeply sad. They are some of the best eyes in British cinema, so pensive and full that it’s hard to believe that she was only nineteen when the picture was released.

There’s a Fountains of Wayne song called “Fire Island” that I rather like:

We’re old enough by now

To take care of each other

We don’t need no babysitter

We don’t need no father or mother

The second half of A Taste of Honey, after Jo and Geoffrey have moved in together and he has basically replaced Helen in her life, has always reminded me of those lyrics. It’s not quite the blind leading the blind, for Geoffrey is a perfectly competent housekeeper. But it is two people who are deep outcasts from the world trying to make something together. Geoffrey could never be happy living out the lives that the other boys he knows intend to live out; Jo has already obliterated any chance of becoming someone’s nice mummy, although it’s possible that simply growing up in Helen’s vicinity would have been enough to ruin her for any nice ’60s destiny anyway. Between Geoffrey and Jo there is something honest and genuine that doesn’t exist at any other point in the movie: tenderness. They do not always play nicely with each other, but that makes it more like an affection between siblings. This isn’t We Need to Talk About Kevin. It doesn’t need to be bitter in its softest moments to work, and A Taste of Honey does a really nice job of blending those scenes into the movie so that we understand that it’s not all heartache for Jo, and for us.

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