Better than BFI’s Top 100: 70-66

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


70) The Mission (1986), directed by Roland Joffe

If a movie features the most beautiful piece of music ever written for a film, does it deserve to make a list like this without question? The Mission is a very good movie on its own merits, but I admit that the presence of a single melody raised the ceiling for it considerably. “Gabriel’s Oboe” is a tearfully lovely piece on its own, frail and graceful in its sound and overwhelming in feeling. Even among his ’80s hits (the “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso and the title piece of Once Upon a Time in America), “Gabriel’s Oboe” is exceptional. What makes Morricone’s work stand out, and why I think him the greatest film composer of all time, is his ability to mirror in his music the way we feel as the lights go down in a movie theater. Some of us are alone in the dark seeking the connections we make with the figures and places and ideas on screen. The relationship between the movie and ourselves is an organism, and a film can, if it wants to, make us feel awfully alone or entirely fulfilled. (This is why the “Love Theme” on its own is such a great piece of music. Even though Toto has lost the people and places of the past that matter most to him, the many instruments featured in the piece show that he carries the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and Elena and Alfredo with him no matter how far away they are.) The Mission presents Father Gabriel, free soloing up the waterfall, as a man alone. He takes little with him on what the other priests believe is a suicide mission. His little tune for oboe is one which attracts the Guarani while still clearly signifying how different he is to them. Later on, when Rodrigo decides to join the priests as a way of atoning for killing his brother, Gabriel is the one who comes up with a penance for him. Later still, Gabriel will be the only priest who refuses to fight against the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers coming to obliterate the Guarani in order to consummate a land grab. From “Gabriel’s Oboe” on, the musician is something of a lone wolf, and the deep introspection of his solo foreshadows all of his actions to come; the music and the man are equally holy.

With all that said, The Mission sort of annoys me on a personal level, which I’ve gone into a lot of detail about before and thus I won’t self-plagiarize here. Mostly I think this had the potential to be one of the ten best British films ever rather than the seventieth because its team and its story are, in a vacuum, tremendous. Roland Joffe’s previous work, his debut The Killing Fields, would be on this list if it hadn’t slathered a whole bunch of crap on itself by dropping “Imagine” over the end of a previously savage and profound movie. (Mike Oldfield’s score for that movie is a truly great one, too, which makes that choice even more insane.) The Mission too often combines the worst of Joffe’s sledgehammer instincts with a screenplay by Robert Bolt which simply doesn’t measure up to the best of his material. Robert De Niro chews just a little too much scenery. Even though Irons is the secondary lead, the movie never spends enough time with him; he’s more often a symbol than someone who bleeds. But for all of that, there are still sublime moments scattered about in the film, which is almost as resplendent in its visuals as it is with its music. Chris Menges’ photography is moody, dusky, and rich all at once; only Morricone matters more to the movie.

69) Heat and Dust (1983), directed by James Ivory

Say Robert Bolt really did fall flat a little bit in The Mission. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala emphatically does not in adapting her novel to the screen, and a very literary movie this is. Two stories unfold side by side; as Anne tries to learn more about her mysterious great-aunt Olivia, we see how Anne’s adaptations to India are rather like her kinswoman’s. Both Olivia and Anne fall for handsome Indian men and are impregnated, although the similarities stop there. Prawer Jhabvala’s story is not one about the past repeating itself, nor is it about (lol) “breaking the wheel.” She is most interested in circumstance, both in the sense of randomness and of the specific times and places we live in. Olivia comes to India married, falls for the Nawab while her husband is taken ill, and in doing so she opens herself up to the greatest powerlessness that a white woman could conceivably face in that place in the early ’20s. The film begins with a fairly noisy scene in which we can deduce that Olivia has procured an abortion that has made matters much worse. She faces the true existential crisis of adulterous miscegenating women: when you’re pregnant, will the child you have carried for three-quarters of a year betray you before his first breath? Anne, living sixty years later, has no husband; there is no law, perhaps not even much of a taboo, against bringing her child to term. They may both end up in the same literal place, but they have come there for reasons similar and entirely different. A little coyly, Prawer Jhabvala also implies that Olivia’s indiscretions are far more pleasurable than Anne’s affair; the price she has paid is far higher, but the joy of it was greater as well.

This is the middle film in an impromptu trilogy, each entry directed by a white man and concerned with the last gasps of British imperialism in Southeast Asia. Gandhi and A Passage to India flank it, and it says something that Heat and Dust, which runs a methodical two hours and fifteen minutes, is at least half an hour shorter than either of its sister films. Like most middle children, this one is more empathetic than the others, less given to grandeur and more inclined to indulge personalities. Aziz is a martyr and the white people are like chess pieces, each only able to move in certain ways; Gandhi is a literal martyr, surrounded by a history book’s worth of names doing multiple history books’ worth of things; Olivia and Anne are groping for meaning in unfamiliar territory, curious to find someone or something or someplace to sate them. In short, they are allowed to breathe in their picture. Scacchi plays the full gamut of feeling in scenes which are well-earned. We see her devotion to both of the men she loves, and where it is almost childish with husband Douglas, it is much more like thrall with the Nawab. Her liveliness with a neutral, Harry (played by my deah Nickolas Grace), is reflected later on when her sympathetic niece Anne will plumb the old man for as much decades-old gossip as she can get. Her performance is, on the whole, one of the more underrated roles of the ’80s.

68) Billy Budd (1962), directed by Peter Ustinov

We’re about as likely to get a great film adaptation of Moby-Dick as we are to get a great film adaptation of Huck Finn or The Scarlet Letter. What we have instead is a really fine adaptation of a novel I really don’t care to revisit in Billy Budd. Ustinov, with an assist from Robert Rossen and DeWitt Bodeen, figured out what Billy Budd has going for it: sex. This is a great homoerotic movie made before people were willing to admit what “homoerotic” meant, anchored by the sweltering sexual tension between Terence Stamp and Robert Ryan. Billy Budd is Stamp’s first movie role, and he is luminous in it. It’s not hard to realize why Claggart finds himself drawn to this handsome, friendly, and eager young man when we watch Stamp play him. He is youthful and fresh without ever feeling false; if the Rights of Man were a hardware store and all the sailors tools, Billy would be a level. Claggart would be one of these. As good as Stamp is, Robert Ryan is the man in this movie who really gives a performance for the ages. He is enchanted by Billy, perhaps even more so than any of Billy’s friends and wrestling buddies aboard ship. He is also vicious with him, toying with him like a cat batting some smaller animal between its paws. If Claggart were not given some way to pin a horrible crime against Billy, it seems that he would come closer and closer to having him in another way. “You make friends quickly,” he tells Billy after walking in on a brawl that the lad has calmly gotten himself into, and sure enough he does. But he steals hearts faster, and Ryan’s performance as a lovesick sadist is what this movie rallies around while his character lives. A long starlit conversation with Billy is soothing to him, and it’s hard to know what horrifies him most about the feelings stirring in him: there’s the obvious, and then there’s the possibility that he must face down the possibility that his personal philosophy, that we are who we are, is in fact on unsteady ground.

I’ve lamented this before, but it really is a shame that a movie with some really fine acting performances—just about the entire crew of the Rights of Man is at worst believable and at best marvelous in their parts—which is shot with aplomb using many close-ups in naturally tight corners comes down to a long talk in which three men prove to be bilingual. English may be their first language, but blow me down and pick me up if Captain Vere, played by director Ustinov himself, is not downright fluent in Legalese. That Billy killed Claggart accidentally, and in circumstances which clearly show Claggart to have been in the wrong, are not up for debate. But Vere knows what his officers would be glad to forget: when Billy struck Claggart, never mind the ultimate consequence of it, he sealed his death warrant. The relationship between Billy and Claggart is not unlike that of Valjean and Javert. Billy’s execution is reminiscent of the lyric: “And now I know how freedom feels/The jailer always at your heels/It is the law.” Law is how Billy Budd ends up, but for three-quarters of the film it is about something else much more difficult and trying, and for those three-quarters it ends up here.

67) My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), directed by Stephen Frears

My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the most dense movies I think I’ve ever seen, and it’s not because it’s trying hard to be complex or, God forbid, “deep.” It’s dense because it presents a realistic picture of the world it was made from. Omar is at the center of a set of relationships that second-generation individuals—especially those who are so fortunate to have come from successful first-generation ones—are forced to navigate day in and day out. He has a father who is deeply suspicious of the country that his son was born into; he has an uncle whose tremendous financial triumphs have completely sapped whatever suspicions he might have had. Nor is it idle to suppose that the father (a ragged and sardonic Roshan Seth), who wants Omar to complete university, is less successful than his brother (a gladhanding and upbeat Saeed Jaffrey) because of his suspicions. Yet even in Uncle Nasser’s house, there is some skepticism of Omar, who is more like Nasser than Hussein down to his sexual preference for white people. They are surprised that Omar does not speak Urdu, which should not surprise us. Omar’s childhood was not spent in Pakistan, but in London, with people like ex-skinhead Johnny. I still don’t know if I’d prefer an Omar who had more of a personality. I’m not sure the movie is equipped to handle that much of a person: the forces which land on Omar and his minor entrepreneurial project are plenty for one movie.

Johnny has more qualities than Omar, but that’s because he has more sins to atone for. Omar is trying to navigate a path between his father’s dismal righteousness and his uncle’s winning career, and the laundrette that he and Johnny fix up is as close as he can come to walking it. Johnny, who is functionally homeless and has nothing to look forward to until Omar returns to his life, has his own dense set of relationships to manage. There are the other skinheads he’s trying to distance himself from (and which Hussein, not for nothing, is concerned he can’t), his ironic position as foreigner as the lowest tentacle in Nasser’s octopus stretching, and of course there’s Omar. In one shot, Johnny’s body, on the other side of the glass of the manager’s office, has Omar’s face on it. It’s a good shot—though it has a long history, and had been used to stronger effect in Paris, Texas the year before—and it speaks to the truth that My Beautiful Laundrette understands. Everyone is everyone in this multicultural Britain that people like Hussein and Nasser had to create. Johnny is a part of Omar, stuck to him, in love with him, employed by him. People like Omar, one hopes, will set the agenda for the Britain to come; My Beautiful Laundrette ends in such a way to show that it won’t be that simple.

66) The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Here’s Hitchcock’s first appearance on this list, and it won’t be his last, although of the (spoiler) three of his movies that appear here, The 39 Steps is probably the most enjoyable, a thrilling little kip over to Scotland. If Robert Donat is only the second most charming fellow to go on the run from sinister, disbelieving forces and become a hero because of it, then it’s no shame to finish second to Cary Grant. His chemistry with Madeleine Carroll is delicious, one of the exemplars of the school of “Just kiss already!” For her part, Carroll plays the goody-two-shoes who can’t quit this man she keeps running into—though the handcuffs certainly have something to do with that—with just as much verve as Donat. Richard lets her believe that she’s handcuffed to a genuinely dangerous man for a long time, while Pamela lets him believe that she isn’t enjoying the experience. I want to reiterate the “handcuffed” part. So what if he might actually “murder a woman a week,” as he ejaculates in one of those particularly long British fits of sarcasm? It seems just as interesting as the alternative, which is watching Scotsmen get all jazzed in random political meetings. Other Hitchcock pairs are steamier—Stewart and Kelly, Stewart and Novak, Grant and Bergman, Perkins and himself (ha! ha!)—but none of them are given quite as many zingers to chuck at one another as Donat and Carroll.

Add in a twisty plot which is genuinely shocking eighty-five years later and you have an absolute classic. The first time out, this movie (lol, plz just let the Game of Thrones terminology go away) “subverts expectations” with indecent ease. The first woman Richard Hannay meets is a frightened, beautiful spy who he hits it off with: she dies a gruesome death, slow enough to ensure that her last breath is taken in Richard’s arms. Just when we think he has done enough to get her vital news to a person who could help him out, it turns out that person is the one she warned him about in the first place. No matter how many times you watch this scene, it still works with thunderbolt puissance. Hannay pulls what we in the States call “the full Teddy Roosevelt” to dodge what should have been certain death; he later pulls what we in the States call “the other full Teddy Roosevelt” when he riles up a room full of people with a totally impromptu speech. (I always underestimate Hitchcock’s capacity to make us laugh. Just like the seemingly dour Mad Men was sneakily one of the ten funniest shows on television during its height, Alfred Hitchcock is able to fool us into a guffaw by luring us into breathless action.) The same tune keeps ringing in our ears; people keep saying “The 39 Steps” like we’re idiots for not knowing what they mean. The secret, of course, is that it doesn’t matter at all. We got what we came for anyway, and what we came for was a rollicking good time.

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