Better than BFI’s Top 100: 55-51

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


55) Sabotage (1936), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I wasn’t ready for Hitchcock to do it, and then he did it anyway. That sounds naive, but the man was called the “Master of Suspense,” not the “Master of Dropping the Hammer,” and Sabotage is a movie which lives to drop that hammer. With the threat of war bearing down on England, Hitchcock’s story features a heavily accented man and his unscrupulous comrades striking at the heart of London over and over again, acting with impunity and befuddling the authorities. What they’re up to, although the word was not so common then, is terrorism. The film begins with a blackout which we know has been caused by mysterious actors; it ends with a literal suicide bomber obliterating the evidence of Verloc’s crime, although in so doing it obliterates the crime committed against Verloc, too. The movie’s greatest sequence, one of the best sequences of any ’30s movie, is an unbearably tense ten minutes in which Verloc sends his young brother-in-law, Stevie, who is only a kid, to deliver a time bomb (“Don’t forget, the birds will sing at 1:45”). The target is a crowded London Underground station. Being a preteen, Stevie is entirely clueless about the job; he thinks he’s delivering some films to another location. One is hopeful the whole time that someone will discover that he’s carrying a bomb. He manages to get onto a city bus, even though the cop aboard notes that films are explosive and that they shouldn’t be on the bus at all. I was convinced that someone would uncover the attempt when he made friends with a weeks-old puppy in another commuter’s arms. Not long after that, we see a shot of a bus still slightly aflame, although “bus” is a charitable name for the pile of twisted metal in the street. Verloc has sent his wife’s brother to complete his odious assignment; he failed to complete it, and the proof of it is in charred bones belonging to men and women and a boy and a puppy. For sheer violence, Sabotage is a landmark, a movie which understands the emotional toll of mayhem without romanticizing it or trying to pass it off as excitement for its own sake. The question in Sabotage was never if the bomb will go off (or why Verloc’s superiors want it to happen at all), but who will be hurt by it in the moment and in the days to come.

Sabotage benefits from some really good performances, although they are always a bit more grounded in verisimilitude than flash or pizzazz. Sylvia Sidney plays Mrs. Verloc, and she plays this young woman with an exquisite sadness. Her parents are gone, and we learn that although she seems to like her husband well enough, her marriage to him is largely one of convenience. He is a successful business owner (a movie theater!) and she and her brother had little recourse than to come under his umbrella. Sidney is more petite and meek than Margaret Lockwood or Madeleine Carroll, almost childlike herself compared to Oscar Homolka’s bulk. She goes to “wake” him in one early scene, and their differences in age and power could not be more stark. His head is enormous where hers is little, his hands huge where hers are delicate. Homolka, for his part, makes any happiness of Verloc’s feel suspect. Dour and distant, his most expansive moments are those not long before Stevie is blown up. If there’s a weak point in the movie, it’s John Loder as the police officer who befriends Mrs. Verloc and tries to intercede for her once she’s done something forgivable in the eyes of people and unforgivable in the eyes of the law. One can almost feel Hitchcock trying to work around him, like a coach trying to compensate for a player’s defensive weaknesses in an overall scheme. Sidney isn’t Lockwood or Carroll, and the movie is better for it; what the movie is dying for, though, is Michael Redgrave or Robert Donat.

54) The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Less shocking than Sabotage, but also more haunting. The killer of women could never have been Ivor Novello, but seeing his face fill up the screen as Marie Ault opens the door to him is a kick nonetheless. He wears a scarf across his face—protection from the London smog, perhaps—and his eyes glow in that very silent movie way whenever we see him on screen. He is just right for the part that any good suspense story needs: the man who is suspicious but not threatening. There is a real villain in The Lodger, and not just the one who murders blondes for kicks. Jealousy is the prime factor in what is only just stopped from being a lynch mob in the end. Malcolm Keen is capable of playing Joe the detective as the kindly beau, who wants to marry his beautiful girlfriend, Daisy. He’s also the man whose bright eyes glint with malice in a long, increasingly frightening close-up, one that makes his jealousy as clear as it needs to be without intertitles or dialogue. He has enough evidence to make it look like the lodger has committed the murders—much of it having come from Daisy’s parents—and he intends to get his suspect behind bars and maybe even on the gallows, but the real victory would be in reclaiming his girl. Daisy has fallen for the handsome and mysterious lodger, and it’s this that motivates the law to arrest an innocent man who is much more intricately tied to the case of “the Avenger” than anyone else. His sob story: his sister was the first victim of the Avenger, and his mother died hoping that her son would get justice for her daughter. It’s all a little maudlin, but it’s all rescued by Malcolm Keen’s eyes and the implicit promise that, serial killer or detective, we are driven to wickedness by the desperation of our feelings.

Hitchcock keeps his camera fairly far away from the performers unless he wants us to stare deeply into their eyes in The Lodger. Neatly placed props—a chess table, the staircase, a light fixture hanging from the ceiling—are frequently put in front of the performers, giving us some sense of the distance between us and them. He paces himself. Even scenes that seem particularly noteworthy, like the one where Joe puts the bracelets on Daisy partly for fun and partly as a statement of his control, never quite reach close-up status. It’s important to Hitchcock that we see her frightened look, Joe’s leering humor, the shine that the light makes on the new handcuffs which the detective has big plans for. The light shines on the cuffs again later, and we get as close as we can to them and to our clubbed hero in quick cuts. A lynch mob believes the handcuffed lodger is the Avenger, though by now we (and ultimately Joe, too) realize that he is no murderer. We see dozens, perhaps a hundred people in tight quarters, each reaching for the man who has accidentally hoisted himself by the cuffs on a metal gate. His legs dangle in the crowd as his hands are helpless against the people pulling and tearing at him from above. The symbolism of a man alone, a vigilante nonetheless rejected by society, is distinct and potent; at the same time, the agony I get in my forearms watching that sequence is perfectly real, and the last close-up of the sequence is one of Novello’s face with a line of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

53) The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy

There are two types of people in the world. The first type is made of folks whose body temperature drops when they see the Wicker Man for the first time, and the second type is made of folks who don’t have a pulse. Everything about that cut from the close-up on Edward Woodward screaming to the long shot of the humanoid pyre in the distance is just sensational, and it justifies a movie’s worth of mystery. The Wicker Man is conceived so well. It’s believable that Rowan might have been the victim of some strange doing on Summerisle. Lord Summerisle, played more or less straight by Christopher Lee, is suspicious from the first. He is a little too blasé about how totally the people of Summerisle came to embrace paganism, too unconcerned about the sway he attributes to his grandfather. The townspeople are curious, too, too plainly involved in a cover-up of some sort. At the end of the movie, Summerisle refers to Howie as “the right kind of adult.” He’s quite right. When he comes to the island, he is too self-assured. He badly misjudges their premise. Clearly, everyone there is trying to fool him, but what he doesn’t seem to reckon with is how easy it is. It’s all too easy for him to get lured into the mystery, just as it is all too easy for the people of the island to bring him up to the hilltop. The right kind of adult is curious, unwary, patronizing. He watches an awful lot, especially in places where he believes that he won’t be found. During the parade, a child could tell that the character he’s dressed as is being performed not by the innkeeper but by the mainland cop. He lingers outside the schoolhouse, surely believing that he’s going to surprise the teacher and her students, but he doesn’t imagine that they have prepared themselves for his arrival. Howie doesn’t deserve what happens to him, precisely, but at the end of the movie, it’s hard to imagine any other result.

Even if it’s a very movie form of paganism, it’s exciting to watch the battle between paganism and Christianity being played on paganism’s home court. (This is one of the through lines of British narrative art that could absolutely stand to be paid attention to more, and it’s one of the several reasons I adored Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Though written by an American, it at least recognizes the historical fight between those two religious forces.) Howie has that deficiency of Christians on enemy ground, that is, that they are awfully loud about what they view as sinful behavior. Over and over again he calls out behavior that is inappropriate based on his religion, and like a missionary he must believe that if he does it enough, people will begin to feel the requisite amount of penitence or shame. However, Neil Howie is no Archbishop Mellitus, and so his protestations become increasingly shrill over the course of the film. The Wicker Man is not a movie that deals in a whole lot of humorous irony, but there is something awfully funny about Lord Summerisle’s consolation for Howie before he’s burned alive. By your standards, Summerisle says, we are martrying you, and we know that your god gives special honor to those who die for him. How much it salves the condemned man’s fear is up for debate, and heaven knows the ending of the movie keeps that question running in your mind.

52) The Lobster (2015), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,

I remember hearing as a little boy about why it’s more common for a woman not to have a middle name than it is for a man: it’s because the woman is supposed to get married, change her name, and then use her maiden name as a “middle” name. Now feels like a good time to mention that no woman has a name in The Lobster. Late wives never get a first name. The female hotel manager is the Hotel Manager. The narrator is called “the shortsighted woman.” A woman leads the group of people in the forest who refuse to go through being transformed into an animal after failing to couple is the Loner Leader. Characteristics they have, but names they’re short on. In my original post I went through several of the parallels to modern courtship that are satirized/eviscerated by The Lobster. Perhaps I was dazzled by the completeness of the movie, which only digs for a laugh once—there’s a line about adding children to a crumbling marriage in order to stabilize it—but which gets far more. They’re mostly uncomfortable, disbelieving, amazed. I chuckled when a camel wandered around in the back of the frame, wandering in the woods of Ireland; whether or not this camel was a man or a woman is unknown, but we know that, most likely, s/he simply couldn’t find something in common with a potential mate. The Lobster, a truer horror-comedy than Shaun of the Dead, is most frightening because it watches people who believe that the only hope for someone trying to couple is commonality. Coupling in this high-pressure environment requires people to essentialize one another. John, the man who limps, used to be married to a woman who limped. He finds another partner in the last days of his time at the Hotel by deciding that he could have nosebleeds just like the woman he’s targeted. But even people who have basically rejected the Hotel, like David and the Shortsighted Woman, are tied up in this belief in commonality. Their bad eyesight used to unite them; when she is blinded, he is fairly sure that it can’t work unless he is blind as well.

It would be easy for The Lobster to work off its high-concept bona fides at the expense of other elements, but The Lobster is probably Yorgos Lanthimos’ most beautiful movie. The woods that the loners hide in (as people hoping for extra days to stay in the Hotel seek them) are the brownest woods in the whole world. The loam is dark, almost like a den in a hunting lodge. The people living there wear dark jackets which helps them blend into the shadows. This is a movie that’s shot in a perpetual gray haze—some intern was probably in charge of paying off the weather—which perfectly reflects the mood of the characters. There’s a pregnancy to the people in the Hotel, waiting for some storm to break open, for a cathartic charge to take hold. In the meantime, everyone is subdued, plotting. They sit quietly through presentations about how it’s better to be coupled than single. They make nary a peep when a man is punished for masturbating while his hands are shoved into a toaster. And even when they see their brother’s transmogrified corpse in front of them, they’d do better to hold in their feelings rather than shed a tear.

51) The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), directed by Martin Ritt

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a rare movie, one that can make spywork exciting without ever making it meaningful. Richard Burton has a justly famous rant towards the end of the movie which liquefies the ideologies which men like Control had already put into the blender in their own cool ways earlier. Control sees the Cold War as a fight for survival, not a fight for capitalism or democracy or freedom or whatever tagline rouses people in Newcastle. In Alec Leamas’ new calculus, which he has come to after a series of events that would wear the strongest man ragged (and Leamas was never the strongest man to begin with), he sees the Cold War as an expedient way to avoid boredom. There are no great men guiding nations against one another; there are only “seedy, squalid bastards” like himself who perform their small roles on the world stage. In a movie where very few people die, it’s remarkable how clear it is that life is cheap. Leamas is no longer a particularly good station chief, and so his bosses feel no stab of conscience when they tell him to fake a defection to East Germany (and in doing so lie to him about the actual target so that he can’t give them away). There is a great deal that could go wrong. Leamas could be found out, obviously, and that would end predictably. His paranoia spikes when the East Germans, represented by an incisive and intelligent functionary named Fiedler, hold him longer than he expected to be kept for; what if the West thinks that he’s taken this opportunity to actually go over? In a moment of frustration, Leamas tries to emphasize that his information for the East Germans is valuable and that he ought to be treated better. Fiedler scoffs:

You are a traitor! Does it occur to you? A wanted, spent, dishonest man, the lowest currency of the Cold War? We buy you. We sell you. We lose you. We even can shoot you! Not a bird would stir in the trees outside.

The movie’s only idealist is Nan, Claire Bloom’s Communist Englishwoman who believes in the basic dogma of the party; she is not a particularly smart choice for a British intelligence agent to fall for, but for Leamas, who is turning himself into an alcoholic brute while pretending to be an alcoholic brute, she is radiant. As often as he condescends to her, Burton’s performance makes it clear that his condescension is flavored with admiration. She believes in something. He lost the ability to believe in something, to live comfortably, to love—that is, to come in from the cold—some interminable number of years ago.

The protagonists of these Le Carré novels are almost impossible for an actor to portray unless he is an all-time great. It requires too much misery, too much self-loathing, too much loneliness, and not an ounce of histrionics. Thus Gary Oldman can do it, and Alec Guinness can do it, and Richard Burton can do it. Alec Leamas was Burton’s second of four Best Actor nominations in the 1960s, and it’s a great performance because every action Leamas takes, except two, is characterized by tremendous restraint. Even his moments when he acts out to catch the attention of the Stasi or whoever it is on the other side of the Wall are plotted out in advance, measured to look as realistic as possible. The first moment when he loses his cool is when he and Nan are set free by the man Leamas believed to be Control’s target when he was given the assignment, and he spouts off his monologue about what little morality is allowed for during the Cold War. “Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy,” he spits, “but not today. Today he is evil and my friend.” The second is even more powerful. All we have is Burton’s face, in stark close-up, followed by a shot (ha ha) taken from far away. It’s clear that he really has lost his touch after all; if Leamas was ever a good spy, he never would have taken Nan over the BerlIn Wall. Love or hope or relief leads him to believe that she’ll be able to come back with him to the West, but that was never going to happen. The floodlights, which they had been told would be kept off them, rush back, and Nan is shot dead. Despite the pleas of another agent, Leamas hangs on the Wall. He looks back, climbs down, and takes the bullet. It’s the rare movie suicide that feels meaningful.

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