Better than BFI’s Top 100: 50-46

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

 

And we’re back! Halfway through, let’s keep rolling.

50) Howards End (1992), directed by James Ivory

As sumptuous as the sets of Howards End are, and as lovely the costumes, all of it enhanced by some seriously underrated photography by Tony Pierce-Roberts, this is a movie that only goes as far as its actors can take it. As a general rule I’m down on actor-driven movies, and there are definitely holes in the cast Howards End. Samuel West has had a nice career, but playing the meaty role of Leonard Bast hasn’t exactly catapulted him to stardom in the intervening quarter-century. He’s somewhere between a hollow non-entity or a hollow shouter for the most part, certainly a better face for Emma Thompson to pity or Helena Bonham Carter to fall for than a voice or a man. (A Room with a View is not going to show up on this list, even though Julian Sands is stronger in his blandly-handsome-but-wait-why-is-he-bland? role than West is in his; it’s as much a statement about the strength of the rest of this cast as anything else.) Hopkins, who had just won Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs, is in a period of his career where he got better every time out. Henry Wilcox is a mealy human being, the kind of man whose wealth allows him to put a good face to the world but who is the human equivalent of a mop with a bucket on its head. Easily affronted, quick to gain a grudge and slow to release it, pompous, supercilious: it’s a great role for someone to play who knows how to make such a character loathsome. Hopkins’ performance makes me itchy with dislike. The closer Margaret and Henry come together, which of course includes their marriage, the more Margaret becomes like him. Education takes a back seat to snobbishness. A friendly temperament is increasingly peevish. Thompson plays all the facets of such a person who knows better, should know better, and then knows better once more. It’s a great performance, if not her absolute best.

Helena Bonham Carter, before she did the full Margaret Hamilton on herself by signing up for Bellatrix Lestrange, used to be a marvelously cool actress, someone who wouldn’t sweat in hot weather or who doesn’t let butter melt in her mouth. Helen is not this kind of person at all. In her own way she is just as careless at Henry, unsure of where the chips will fall when she throws them but mostly uncaring of how events will turn out until she has a stake. Falling for Leonard and seeing the way that his life declines unfairly and precipitously after he comes to know her, she tries to take his side only when it’s too late. Carter yells in this movie as she has not often yelled in her roles, uninflected by breath or pitch but fully built up by righteous anger. What’s happening to Leonard Bast is not outside of context. His increasing poverty and despair are not without origin: in some way they come from Henry Wilcox, a wealthier man who idly hands out bad financial advice and who has slept with Leonard’s wife in the distant past. That Helen can connect these dots, even all the way back to herself, when she heedlessly took his umbrella instead of her own, makes her the center of virtue in the movie even as, by the standards of the time, she does things which no honest woman does. There’s less going on with her than there is with Hopkins or Thompson or even Vanessa Redgrave, but for impact she’s arguably got the performance of the movie.

49) Eastern Promises (2007), directed by David Cronenberg

Another movie where the most remarkable performance is not where you’d expect it. Viggo Mortensen is good, but after Green Book I think you can sort of tell that he’s in this to house accents like Buster Baxter flexes before entering a pizza eating contest. Mortensen and Cronenberg collaborated for the second time on this movie, the only picture in their vanishingly loose trilogy made together which I think of as eligible for this particular list. The hair does almost as much work for Mortensen as the voice, but he’s still good. He is world-weary, frosty because it usually makes people back off but not a bad candidate to be thoughtful or even sympathetic. This is going to sound incredible, but Nikolai is just not as interesting as Tom/Joey of A History of Violence or Freud in A Dangerous Method. Like his performance in the former, Mortensen is playing a man who is more like two people, deep undercover and living on the edge of exposure at any moment. And like the latter, there’s room for him to be kind of oddly funny and cutting as well; there’s something a little too smug about the way he lets a line go like “I know lots of girls named Tatiana,” just like many of Mortensen’s lines as Freud require him to play to the cheap seats about what we assume about Freud. Jokes aside, it really is a strong performance. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel are really good, too; Mueller-Stahl gets to do this terrifying courtly act, while Cassel, who is always at his best when the character he’s playing is a little too vulnerable to thrive. In Cassel’s hands, Kirill is obviously desperate, too loud and brash and foolish not to be simmering with anguish that he can’t push away for a dozen reasons. But the knot which binds this film is Naomi Watts, who for my money does the best work in it. She walks an incredibly fine line, at once an audience surrogate who is our introduction to the Russian mob, a curious and moral woman who knows how incredibly dangerous her prodding into Tatiana’s death is, and most of all a person dealing with as much hurt as anyone else in the picture. One of the images of the movie that stands out most to me is a woman who has been abandoned by a boyfriend, whose miscarriage still haunts her, and who works in a hospital delivering babies, holding them, rocking them, cooing at them. For Watts, depth comes easy, and I’m not sure there was someone they could have gotten who was more right for the part or who could have played Anna better.

Cronenberg, gets to continue his non-traditional study into the human body. In Eastern Promises, there are two events, equally stylized, that push that idea further. First there are the tattoos that everyone reacts to in the movie. The scene where Nikolai gets his distinctive tattoos which signify his heightened rank in the mob is lush and moody, silhouetted like a dramatic cutscene in a video game. Mortensen spends a lot of time with his shirt off and his body in partial shadows, but finally, on a red couch and in what appears to be a spotlight, we see the tattoos applied. It’s as self-referentially dramatic as a scene like the “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, dark and bright at the same time, relishing what can be changed just by four identical shapes placed on a man’s chest and knees. Throughout the scene Nikolai drinks vodka easily. Nothing comes quite as easy in the movie’s money scene, the one which takes place in a bathhouse and a naked Viggo Mortensen is forced to defend himself, naked and alone, against two Chechens, both bigger than him and armed with linoleum knives. The fight moves quickly, but not so fast that it can’t be followed. Other bathers scatter as the fight carries on between rooms, as Nikolai is sliced again and again and in the end wins the fight by a matter of inches. It is grisly hand-to-hand combat. Nothing in it has the panache of Tom obliterating a man’s head with a coffee pot, but it gains strength from what feels like a terribly realistic battle in which the greatest weapon is the simple refusal to stay down.

48) Great Expectations (1946), directed by David Lean

The movie works well enough with its plot, I suppose, although that’s never going to be what I recall first. Give me that opening scene, one of the finest opening scenes I’ve ever come across. The world is in black-and-white, but there is no doubt that that monochrome is equally gray. A boy moves in the distance, running. It is not an unattractive world, streaked with low clouds, but it is certainly gray. He passes what look eerily like gallows on his left; they can serve no other obvious purpose. He heaves himself through a gap in a stone wall into a churchyard, a cemetery. He lays his flowers down. Nature does not look down kindly on him as he does it. There is no warming sunshine to allay the grief, nor rain to empathize with his loss. There’s just this gray, unstinting, and cuts to stone that looks like a messy face, a tree whose branches are too much like low-hanging talons to ignore. The boy begins to trot off, away from the grave, and all of a sudden he is stopped by a strong, rough man whose body is cruel and much greater than that of this skinny little kid. I jumped the first time Abel Magwitch grabbed Pip. Finlay Currie appears to have teleported into that spot, hitting that mark the way Kelley O’Hara leveled Amel Majri the other day. It’s a triumph of camerawork to reveal Magwitch at exactly the moment that will give us the biggest jump, and a triumph of pacing to let us watch this boy be alone in what appears to be an entirely deserted land before Magwitch, and, frankly, after him too. Let Dickens talk us into “Pirrip” and all that, but let Lean give us a rightful fright to open up a movie which otherwise drops the horror.

Sort of. The other sequences in this movie that are just picture perfect take place inside Satis House, and they are not unlike Magwitch’s grab for Pip. They are scary, but the fear fades the longer we get with the characters, who are played well. Pip’s first excursion there is a triumph of lighting. It’s daytime when he arrives there, and it’s in daylight that he gets his first glimpse of Estella, who is the loveliest girl he has ever seen. When he enters the house, it’s like something out of The Innocents. It is seriously dark in there, lit only by the single candle that Estella carries with her. Cobwebs abound. There is no way to know what might approach from left or right; it seems that a rhinoceros could lurch unknown out of the shadows and it would have been as unpredictable as Magwitch’s sudden appearance. I love the way that Lean lets us see the open door as Pip begins to follow Estella in. The light from outdoors is still plainly visible—it will not disappear or run out while he’s inside the manor—but it’s also increasingly far away, and it recedes from him as he recedes from it in the company of this girl who is being trained not to care an inch for him. Comparatively speaking, Miss Havisham’s den is practically blinding, but it’s like a haunted house. Cobwebs the size of bedsheets fill the space between the chandelier and a piece of furniture. Another piece of furniture lies in ruin on the floor. Candles glow. More cobwebs on every conceivable surface, even on objects that one might expect would have been picked up in the last, oh, century or so. In the middle of it all: Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham, gloriously angled, regal, pathetic. And yet the more time one spends with her, the more normal all of it becomes.

47) A Matter of Life and Death (1946), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A Matter of Life and Death was released in 1946, and there’s not another time it could have been put out into the world when it might have had more impact. Every choice is more potent because of its historical place. From a technical point of view, there’s something obviously interesting about making our world a Technicolor one and the other world, whatever it is, a black and white one. Viewers were simply more used to both of them in 1946 than we are now, and I’m sure it must have been a less jarring choice. I don’t know how else we would have gotten across that it’s better to be alive than dead. Certainly there’s a lot to recommend death in this movie, but more power to A Matter of Life and Death in making life obviously the more appealing. The practical ones among us might wonder why Peter couldn’t wait for June to, y’know, pop off, but it’s so clear that living a life in love is far superior to this monochrome other world. (Towards the end of the movie, Farlan tries to get Peter in a little trap: Would you die for her? Peter declares he would, but walks it back: “I’d rather live.”) Emotionally, those choices are stirring. Once we get past that still slightly bonkers introduction about the galaxy or whatever—we do find out that it’s less than a week before VE Day—we get to the last man aboard a plane going down over the Channel. He’s going back and forth between poetry and quirkily poetic statements, bouncing between Raleigh and “flown between Hitler’s legs,” and it’s not long before we realize why this lone survivor aboard this Avro Lancaster is sticking around to coyly quote “To His Coy Mistress.” He has no working parachute in the plane, which has one wing aflame and an interior that’s pretty thoroughly meeting the exterior. The scene is famous because of how rapidly Peter and June fall in love, and I guess any of us talked to David Niven for five minutes we’d empathize. But before that happens Peter gives June some reminders of love he wants to pass on to his family, his mother and sisters. I never really showed it, he tells her, but I do love them. Receiving such a message from one’s son during the War must have been uncommon indeed, but short of a son’s life I don’t know that any soldier’s mother could have received something more precious. Powell and Pressburger, who had up to this point specialized in wartime propaganda, are aiming right at the heart of every Briton in every theater: your Tom, Dick, Harry, or Peter may not have had the chance to pass it along before he died, but he loved you, even if he never showed it as much as he should have. The war is over, and there’s no propagandistic message to pass on about the Hun anymore, but the fact that the war is over doesn’t mean that it’s no longer near.

Just because the propaganda is no longer about winning the war doesn’t mean the propaganda is gone for good. The deft hand that 49th Parallel has in managing the propaganda aspects with the plot is significantly less so in Life and Death, as it’s mostly squeezed into the last half hour of the movie. There are little hints from the beginning that Anglo-American relations, as well as relations between Britain and its not yet former colonies, are going to need to alter after World War II. In the other world, how one arrives says a lot about where one came from. A Frenchman shows up hopping mad, venting his spleen to another man who turns out to be an English chap who tries to reassure him. Another Englishman (a terrifically young Richard Attenborough, so like, double English points) shows up from the escalator and looks around, curious and wary and sad. The Americans, on the other hand, show up in a big ol’ group and immediately find the vending machine, drinking Cokes to the tune of some loud march. We see in the background of another shot two Sikhs walking about. The jury deciding Peter’s case is international, and, as the extremely American prosecutor Farlan points out, made up of people who have fought the British over history: a Frenchman, a Boer, a Russian, a Chinese, an Indian (from the Punjab, so quite possibly Pakistani a few years later), an Irishman. Reeves, Peter’s late friend and defense attorney, gets a new jury for his client, an all-American one. He has just gotten from Farlan, a Massachusetts man, a speech that would trigger responses of “‘Murica” from forty-nine other states. Americans are the ones who most value the individual, who “suck in freedom” at the breast, the only “full-grown” men in the world. It is on this basis, to judge an individual from the perspective of such individuals, that Reeves decides to swap out the jury. Intellectually, this contest between John Bull and Uncle Sam is interesting. From a movie perspective…eh? It’s not that Powell isn’t trying. There are canted shots, and the camera will pull away from Raymond Massey or move in on Roger Livesey, and there are crowd shots, and we even get a sense of this marvelous galactic bowl where the case is being tried. (That long shot that takes us from this court”room” to the sight of a galaxy, from black and white to color, is rarely equalled for magnificence.) But there’s nothing that the movie can do which is as pressing as the matter that these two attorneys are talking around, and it’s always bummed me out that a movie which is so emotive and gripping on the front end descends into actual legalese towards the end.

46) The Browning Version (1951), directed by Anthony Asquith

One of my great guilty pleasures is Kitchen Nightmares. I have seen most of the episodes multiple times. God help me, I even have favorites. One of the common moments in each program is the part where Ramsay, appalled by what he’s looking at, asks the owner or the chef or whoever if they’ve “given up.” There are two answers to this question. The first is “No, I haven’t given up,” in a knee-jerk effort at self-defense. The other, usually after service, is more along the lines of “Well, what do you expect, when [insert litany of failures]?” Andrew Crocker-Harris is unapologetically living in the second mood. With his failing health, weak finances, unfaithful wife, and most of all his disappointment at never having become a great scholar, The Browning Version architecturally piles on misfortunes that he seems more or less immune to. He knows that his students don’t like him or his subject, and he understands that his students have neither picked up on his passion for the work of Aeschylus nor discovered a similar passion in themselves. His wife’s infidelity is more or less beneath his contempt, and so too is her backbiting. Even losing out on the pension he’s believed he would receive seems to sting or niggle more than hurt. That’s why, when he has to send a student on an errand so he can cry in solitude, it’s almost a relief. The first time around, this is a moment of stunning pity. Taplow, the only student who feels bad for him, the Posner to his Hector, writes a kind inscription in a thoughtful gift. Good teachers are cognizant of how any little thing they say can be internalized profoundly by a child, but good teachers do not frequently allow the reverse to happen. But the Crock is desperate for a sign that anything matters. He has given up, and what he sees in that little inscription (“God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master”) gives us the proof that he still can weep. This is what stands out on repeat viewings: Michael Redgrave’s tears are unbearably authentic, and they are proof that Crocker-Harris still has it in him to cry. It would be proof enough for Gordon Ramsay that he hasn’t really given up, not yet. He has opened himself up for the first time in heaven knows how long to an honest emotion other than self-pity.

Michael Redgrave is the true center of the film, and without a performance this tightly controlled the movie simply wouldn’t work. Crocker-Harris’ mechanical approach to the world and the sudden and complete emotional breakdown which follows reminds me of valves that Redgrave releases in bits and pieces before finally blowing them. The speech he gives at the end of the movie feels like it’s tacked on because it is, but even that speech works because of the restraint that Redgrave brings to it; he is finally getting the ovation that a man appreciates even if he doesn’t deserve, and he has enough decorum not to break out into a smile or laughter or something similarly human which would ruin this posture he’s tried to build. All the same, Redgrave’s reluctant teacher needs someone to play off of, and that someone for much of the movie is Nigel Patrick’s significantly more upbeat teacher, Frank Hunter. Frank is shtupping the Crock’s wife, Millie, and the more he comes into contact with him, the more he comes to feel for his colleague. Where Crocker-Harris has nothing, Frank has everything. Crocker-Harris’ classroom is dull and stifling; Frank’s room is bustling with activity and engaged students, even when his lessons don’t come off right the first time around. Millie is openly attached to Frank and openly contemptuous of the Crock. Patrick is not the actor Redgrave is, but he is unfailingly versatile, capable of blustery shoulder-clapping and intense quiet conversations alike, and this is one of my favorite performances of his. Even when he’s callow, he’s not entirely unmindful of what he’s doing. The great change in the movie is in Crocker-Harris, but by the end Frank has reevaluated his actions and his impression of his fellow teacher, and it makes him nearly as likable in the end.

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