Better than BFI’s Top 100: 35-31

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

 

35) The Man in the White Suit (1951), directed by Alexander Mackendrick

The most successful of the British labor comedies, The Man in the White Suit does a good job of making the comedy work. This is a fairly zany movie largely thanks to Alec Guinness. Sid Stratton is a little clueless about anything which isn’t chemistry or textiles, which is why we can see him clinging to Daphne’s car while she drives at a breakneck pace, or why he seems a little confused about Daphne clinging to him later in the movie. His eyes glaze over a little bit, his eyebrows raise, and all at once he is the dizzy, distracted genius we’ve all seen before. I love the way his chemistry set, which he tries to hide in two separate factories, makes recognizably musical sounds; it’s a little reminder that this is as much a fairy tale reliant on some silly potion as The Sorcerer or any other topsy-turvy Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. He is the victim in the movie’s lengthy last setpiece in which he, still wearing his glow-in-the-dark white suit, is chased around this northern factory town by a mob that intends to silence him, and even the ending, while deeply bittersweet, is still pretty goofy. It turns out that the stainproof and indestructible material that he’s created is, in fact, not the latter after all. Pieces of the suit peel away like flakes of soap off the bar, and as the mob decides to destroy the suit instead of its inventor, he’s left in the middle of the road in his undergarments. Sad, yes, but pantsing someone is a classic element of physical humor all the same. And despite that scene which makes it seem like he and his one-suit revolution have been defeated, there’s hope for him yet at the end as he continues, undaunted, to putter around those beakers and tubes. This is not the quintessential Guinness performance—this sounds weird, but I’d tab Our Man in Havana for that—but it is one of his finer comedic performances. Pratfalls there are few, but the pure affection we gain for Stratton is a necessity for this kind of piece, and Guinness is completely affable.

Make no mistake, though: this is a very serious movie where dark things come to pass. I’ve argued in the past that the premise of this movie (i.e., the new fabric would destroy the clothing industry for the owners and laborers alike) is sort of dumb, but everyone on both sides is in earnest that Stratton’s white suit is Death’s pale horse. It means that a woman who takes in laundry as a necessary side hustle (oof) can scold Stratton for his invention, certain that the spread of his sort of clothing would put her out on the street, and it’s the first time that we see Stratton really face the consequences of what his clothing is capable of doing; indeed, it’s a reminder to us that this great leap forward would certainly leave the worst off behind. It means that the owners and wealthiest stakeholders of the factory are willing to stave off Stratton’s invention by any means necessary. Paying him off doesn’t work, for Stratton is a true idealist. It’s then that the men gathered there eye a different target: Daphne, the pretty daughter of the factory owner and the fiancee of one of its managers. The hired gun suggests; Daphne turns to her fiancee first, asking what his thoughts are. He tells her that things are “desperate,” and with that extraordinarily English ability to make one’s hurt plainest through humor, she replies that they must be before negotiating a price for her services. It’s a striking scene in the present day; it must have been an absolute breathtaker in the 1950s.

34) The Long Day Closes (1992), directed by Terence Davies

“Some of those stars are dead,” Bud tells a friend as they look out at a night sky which is impossibly dark for Liverpool. “The light from them started out when Jesus was alive.” A choir sings “The Long Day Closes,” and the movie ends. The movie begins with a lengthy shot of rain falling on a street which is painfully dark and wet, black-and-white even though it’s shot in color. The camera moves down the street and turns right into a doorway, where the steps are battered and bashed in, and wet planks of wood lie on the floor. The voice of Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers reaches us, but it’s not the first voice we’ve heard. The first voice we heard was Nat King Cole, singing “Stardust.” “Love is now the stardust of yesterday,” he croons, “the music of the years gone by.” It is a short movie but a long day indeed, one which begins with the recognition that the past and the stars must belong together and one which ends by bluntly stating a truth about that past: some of it is dead, gone forever. The years that Davies presents are musical ones indeed. There are a number of subdued performances by Marjorie Yates, although one can hear Doris Day or group singing of “Auld Lang Syne” just as easily. Guinness we hear, but so too do we hear Orson Welles and Martita Hunt. The sights continue to be largely muted in The Long Day Closes, as the blacks and grays are supplemented with dim colors and beigey offshoots, but the sounds are immemorial. The events matter, but the sound of them matters more. It’s a measured movie that makes an incredibly bold choice, one that I don’t think most films would be comfortable with. In one scene, Bud looks out his window at someone making a little bonfire in the street. The blackness of Bud’s room is like the closing in of our failure of memory. The light is what stands out in the back-and-forth, but not even so much as the crackling of the fire or the dialogue about whether it’s wise to have the fire in the first place. In Romagnolo these feelings might be summed up as “amarcord,” in French “je me souviens.” In English it’s “the long day closes.”

If there is a plot to The Long Day Closes, it is about Bud, even though the character does not change much, nor do the characters around him differ from one time to another. Bud is the same meek person throughout the movie, whether he is clarifying a mondegreen (“kinershet” is “kindness yet,” which also happens to sound like “kirsch,” which could also go in a cup, yeesh) or trying to convince someone to pay for a ticket to the movies or being bullied at school for being a homosexual. The ideas are built on, certainly. Bud is close to his mother, likes his siblings, loves the movies and the movie theater they play in. If he were a boy in 1830s Paris, no doubt he would have joined the other gods in the Funambules; as a boy in ’50s Liverpool, he returns to the theater and sits in the light of the projection and sees the tops of heads and The Magnificent Ambersons and Kind Hearts and Coronets. His relationship with his mother does not change. Perhaps he works through his budding realization, so to speak, of the fact that he likes boys. He stares at a bricklayer from his window, gets a mocking wink back, hears the laughter (though we never see the people laughing), and the light falls out of his face and he returns, crouched against his wall, into his bedroom. But even if there’s little progress or movement of character or story, Davies has the right idea anyway. Our lives are one day after another, one holiday meeting the next, some small memory feeding one that may have occurred before or after. In its own way this is as lovely and experimental as any of Jarman’s work, and it does so with the lid tightly on top of this jar.

33) Another Year (2010), directed by Mike Leigh

One of my all-time favorite Ebert reviews is his piece on Another Year. It has some wonderful lines about how Mike Leigh has a talent for casting people with bad chins, the surprising types of risk he’s willing to take, and what feels like an awfully personal statement about sobriety. He gets to the heart of what makes that movie wonderful, which is that the characters in this picture have “personalities,” not “attributes.” The center of it is probably the elder Hepples, Tom and Gerri? They anchor the characters in their routine. With a title like Another Year, an exquisitely depressing pair of words, you come to expect a circuit, and Leigh decides on the gardening the Hepples do in their allotment as his way in. There’s a scene in the “Autumn” section where they aren’t speaking to one another, and at first I thought it would prefigure an argument, but the tone of voice in which Ruth Sheen asks Jim Broadbent if he’d like some tea, and the warmth with which he replies, shows something very different. This is a married couple that knows each other so well that speech, especially after a routine trip, is superfluous. It’s a delightfully romantic moment. Or maybe the center of the movie is Mary, Lesley Manville in a sordid, pathetic role. She refuses to see how sad she is. From outside it’s painfully clear. In The Cherry Orchard, a minor character is nicknamed “Two-and-Twenty Troubles,” and it’s so apt for her that she should have it embroidered on her clothes. She flirts with Joe, Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son, and when he meets a girl his own age she is deeply hurt and can’t hide it from his mother. (I love that the movie gives Tom and Gerri opportunities to be the stern figure. Tom does it with his nephew later in the movie, but Sheen gives Gerri a chance to be flinty with her eyes and words once she sees how far Mary’s imagination has gone.) She buys a car and within months is cursing all that’s gone wrong with it. She has a drinking problem that no one puts into words. A movie about Tom and Gerri would hardly be about anything; Mary, who is as helpless as a kitten and hardly as innocent, gives the movie a reason to happen. Stability is its own reward in this movie, and more than that this is stability built on a foundation of decades. For people only pretending to be stable, Mary might be the wolf able to blow down a house of sticks, capable of sending this family into a tailspin. (For better or worse this feels like the precis of a Sam Mendes movie.) Yet the genuinely stable Hepples can watch as the air blows through the house and barely even rustles the tchotchkes.

I may be as guilty as the next guy in overhyping a repertory cast or frequent collaborators—it feels very press release to talk about how many times Scorsese has directed De Niro—but I watch Another Year and think working with the same people over and over again must make for a more effective movie. Every line of work benefits from continuity, whether it’s medicine or food or sports or hospitality, and this is a very Leigh cast. (Just because old friends return doesn’t mean that they all have to do the same things. Manville is helpless in this movie as I’d never seen her in Leigh, Martin Savage is abrupt and terrible as I’d never seen him in Leigh, and so on.) Gary Yershon does the music once more, which accents the movie’s sadder moments well. Dick Pope returns as cinematographer, and the light is perceptibly but not distractingly different in each of the four sections of the movie; the difference between Spring and Summer is not so significant, but by the time we reach Winter the colors and look of the film are totally different, rather in the way that March and December are part of the same year but obviously not like one another. When we talk about movies which are well-made, we too infrequently mean movies like this one, where each choice is deft and each member of the team is essential in bringing about effect. Give me that over the myth of the auteur every day of the week.

32) The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton

There are other movies ranked higher on this list that I suppose one could categorize as “horror” in a general sense, but I don’t think there’s a scarier movie on this list than The Innocents, a masterful technical accomplishment which is deeply unsettling. In one scene—it reminds me most of the Bum from Mulholland Dr., just four decades earlier—things seem to be okay. Miss Giddens and Flora are out of the house which has already spooked the timid governess, sitting by a little reedy lake. They’re having a nice time, and the relief for us is almost palpable as well. Ghosts live in dark rooms, just out of sight of our impotent candlelight, reaching their shadows into the moonlight. They insinuate their faces closer and closer in the darkness, although they never reach out and touch us; Miss Giddens knows this from experience. They certainly don’t appear during the daytime, when the light signifies safety. What we get in that scene is all the more unbearable because it breaks all the rules of engagement. But Flora is nonresponsive when Miss Giddens asks her questions. She stares off into the reeds, and Miss Giddens squints, and then her eyes widen. Clayton’s timing is impeccable. He lets us see every bit of disbelief that Deborah Kerr can get into her face, and then he cuts. There’s someone there. We know who it is already—this is Miss Jessel, the last governess, the one who Flora latched onto—and knowing does not mean more solace. It means that they can follow them outside, that there is no safe place on the grounds. Miss Giddens tries to get a reaction out of Flora, but Flora is fixated on the spot, like a cat who knows there’s a roach underneath the dishwasher. There is time in this scene for us to feel relief, to chastise ourselves for feeling relief, to imagine what Miss Giddens sees, and then finally for us to get the enormous jolt of seeing the spirit of Miss Jessel in the reeds where she is supposed to have drowned herself. It’s a beautifully composed image. Miss Jessel is just off-center, just away from the geographic middle of the frame, far away enough that we cannot make out features but close enough that there can be no doubt that she is there. Any director can make the dark frightening; it takes masterful work to make the daytime too scary to venture out into.

It takes masterful work, too, to let an audience see both sides of a possibility. Watch The Innocents literally, and it functions as a straightforward ghost story. Miss Giddens is a woman of a certain age in turn-of-the-century England, which means that when the rubber meets the road one must find one’s daily bread doing something. The uncharitable interpretation of a woman seeking her first job as a governess is that she lacks the ability to do anything else. Clearly she doesn’t come from money, and it’s evident in her first scene with the children’s dismissive uncle that she is unequipped with whatever material women had back then to rope a husband. It makes the story all the more frightening, for the adult in charge of the haunted house has nothing more than suppositions and fear to combat the hauntings themselves. By the end of the movie she is fighting the children more than the apparitions, mistrusted by everyone else in the house. The ghosts have eroded what little claim to authority she had over the house. But the figurative interpretation works as well: there are no ghosts, and Miss Giddens is hallucinating her repressed sexuality into existence. There’s one moment late in the movie which is particularly scary, almost as scary as Miss Jessel’s person in the reeds. Miss Giddens is speaking with Mrs. Grose about her plan to contact the uncle (whose primary instruction to her was that he didn’t want to be bothered about the kids) due to the extreme circumstances in the house. I know what he’ll think, Miss Giddens says. “He’ll think I’m insane,” or, she adds, “or that it’s some stupid trick to get him to notice me.” It’s a small moment, but it makes so much of the rest of the movie click together, down to the obsession with the brutal love affair that ended with Miss Jessel’s suicide because of her ill treatment by Peter Quint in the recent past. In either case, the movie is a true spine-shudderer, and like the best horror movies poses questions which linger well into the night.

31) Secrets and Lies (1996), directed by Mike Leigh

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Mike Leigh has made better movies before and since Secrets and Lies, and I hope he’ll go on making movies for a long time. But I doubt very much that he’ll ever make another movie which is so unquestionably his, which stares a contemporary Britain in the eye and can make room for individuals while still managing giant concepts like “resentment” and “class” and “family.” The Purleys are very much a family of the past, a family that probably still thinks nice things about Neil Kinnock from time to time. I can’t imagine Cynthia getting a cell phone any more than I can imagine an elephant in a suit. Hortense, on the other hand, is modern Britain, or at least what modern Britain should aspire to be. Maurice is the one who manages to express what makes her special, and what makes Hortense such a necessary addition to the Purley family. She’s brave. Hortense, who has just seen how her presence at a birthday party has kicked off a giant fight on multiple fronts, tells Maurice that she’s stupid. Maurice rejects that hypothesis, knowing as well as anyone that the fights between Cynthia and Monica, Cynthia and Roxanne, Roxanne and everybody, is not at all her fault:

You wanted to find the truth and you were prepared to suffer the consequences. And I admire you for that. I mean it.

It’s a fine summary of what bravery boils down to, and it shines a light with such terrifying starkness on what happens in the movie. For so long, we have watched Monica act the lady, distant and standoffish, condescending and cold. We have seen Roxanne lash out at anyone who dares to criticize or even suggest another possibility. We have seen Maurice sink into a personal hell where he pretends to be cheerful and inside feels like he might die of loneliness. We have seen Cynthia deny to Hortense’s face that she could have been her mother. I would have remembered sleeping with a black man, she chortles, and then almost immediately she begins to cry. Is it possible that a person could have erased months of her life from her memory? What kind of labor does that require? The Purleys, to a person, were not willing to find the truth. Monica and Maurice are further away from each other than ever because they’ve hoped that they might forget about Monica’s infertility if they just buy more stuff. Roxanne refuses to come to grips with the fact that she could be more than a street sweeper. Cynthia has practically rejected her whole history. But Hortense wanted to find out about her adoption, no matter what it might have meant. Her bravery, the bravery of a future Britain, is the one that carries a past Britain that should have known better into the present. The movie never acts as if it’s somehow Hortense’s responsibility to fix the Purleys; on the contrary, Maurice’s speech at the end of the movie makes it clear that the Purleys should have fixed themselves a long time ago. But it does see her as a happy accident, like Fleming’s out-of-the-blue discovery of penicillin, that can get the hard work begun.

2 thoughts on “Better than BFI’s Top 100: 35-31

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