Better than BFI’s Top 100: 20-16

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


20) Sapphire (1959), directed by Basil Dearden

Murder will out, but what’s most interesting to me about the outing in this movie is the reaction. The primary suspect all along was David. His pregnant black girlfriend was found murdered in the park; Hazard, a cop who is canny enough to recognize immediately that the body was moved to the location where it was ultimately discovered, places his suspicions on David pretty quickly. Other possibilities arise over the course of the movie. David’s cold fish father seems likely, and David comes to believe that his father was responsible. Another person who loved Sapphire, Johnny Fiddle, has a whole heap of incriminating evidence surrounding him. All along, through interviews at home and places of work and nightclubs and sick beds, played alongside the sort of jazz soundtrack Dearden loved, the mystery congeals. One can almost believe (not really, but you know what I mean) that Sapphire might have been murdered by someone else for some reason other than racism. Then the actual murderer steps in. She outs herself dramatically, as they do, and is a character who has been in the background for the majority of the film, as they usually are. When Mildred gives herself away at the end, it’s with an indignant scream that a black man is handling a doll belonging to her children. She’ll go on to gild her story with some nuggets about jealousy, loneliness, the fact that Sapphire feels wanted while she is unwanted. The movie is not fooled by this, nor should we be: a white woman who made her feel unwanted wouldn’t have been found a corpse on Hempstead Heath.

David cannot look at her; he returns to staring out the window, where he’s been directing his gaze for most of the scene, with his back turned pointedly to his family. Dr. Robbins (which he is pointedly referred to throughout the entire film, because in his own way Basil Dearden was no more subtle than Steven Spielberg) looks down at the floor, for the first time truly hurt and disgusted by the people who would have become his in-laws. Robbins and David have distinctly human approaches to seeing the murderer unveil herself; it was the former’s sister and the latter’s fiancee, after all, who was stabbed to death. Mildred’s mother, after looking at her daughter, looks away from her, although she shares an embrace with her weeping daughter in the end; her father gets through her confession before he too has to look away. The one who stares her down the whole time is Hazard. Only the man concerned with executing justice can look at this wicked woman, symbolizing the wickedness of her race. It is worth noting that Hazard’s assistant, Learoyd, whose own racism has been on display from the beginning, cannot look at Mildred, has to open the door for his boss and the murderer without quite seeing either one. There’s something to this highly symbolic scene, then. Racism, especially in this most evil form that Mildred has exacted, will not be washed away by human interaction, sad looks, or personal interaction. David apologizes to his father for thinking he killed his fiancee; Ted apologizes to his son for “the hate in our hearts.” David and Robbins make a sort of peace with each other, mutually trusting each other’s good will. But the movie will not be overcome because men like Learoyd, who extends a hand to Robbins at the end, learn a lesson about what they think of as a justifiable prejudice is in fact totally monstrous. Sapphire knows that the only way to deal with racism is to punish it, expunge it, jail it, hang it by the neck until it is dead; the problem is that the law can only do so much, can only react. It’s a fact that Hazard (played by a surprisingly straightforward Nigel Patrick) seems to know when he says, “We didn’t solve anything, Phil. We just picked up the pieces.”

19) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson

I’ve never seen the miniseries adaptation of this novel, which I like to think has purified my approach to the movie somewhat. When people who have seen both (and like, read the book) talk about it they frequently discuss how much this movie has been “condensed,” pounded into a more digestible form. Then there are the people who wonder why this movie is confusing and dull at the same time, so I suppose I’m right in the middle. The miniseries I think Tinker has much more in common with is Chernobyl, and it’s not just because they’re both Cold War stories, or that Craig Mazin appears to have janked the general visual feel of Alfredson’s picture, or that Gary Oldman and Jared Harris might honestly be twins. Both are stories about insiders who have, more or less, gone with the sway of what they’ve been inside for so many years, and it takes an enormous calamity to shudder them to the core. For Legasov, that calamity is an external one which forces him to face his own complicity, his own place in the Soviet hierarchy. For Smiley, it’s internal first. We begin with him at a low point. Let go from the Circus after the very public failure of a mission, his wife run off with a coworker, he is alone without his work and now has the time to reflect on his own life. An external crisis precipitates his return to work, but he’s different. There’s a flashback to a moment in the control room where Alleline, puffed up with CIA intelligence and his own sense of importance, makes it clear that he’s coming after Control’s job. Almost everyone gets involved in the fracas in one way or another, and for nearly all of them it’s something personal; Smiley is concerned only with the information about Soviet action in the Black Sea. It is one of the loudest scenes in the entire movie, and if I thought the movie was trying to be tricky I would call it a misdirection. What it works as instead is a statement of Smiley’s weaknesses. He is too clinical, too businesslike, too data-driven. He has the stiffest upper lip in the room, but it doesn’t save him from getting canned. If he were a little more wary he would see the people around him, and it’s not until he’s been pushed out of the arena that he begins to see the individuals: Ricki Tarr, Jim Prideaux, Bill Haydon, himself. When he sees the people, he sees the profound damage that his cold approach has done. Whether or not it will make him a better Control after the events of the movie is another question entirely—Legasov cannot live with himself in the end, after all—but to solve the case of the mole, it is sufficient.

I’m not really a minimalist and I don’t hate dialogue. A movie’s level of talk does not signify greater or lesser thematic depths or character insights. All the same, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not shy about cutting the dialogue to an absolute minimum, sometimes making it so difficult to hear or so packed with inanities that it’s basically meaningless. There’s a short scene in this movie where Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth are talking. These are two of the most distinctive voices in movies, and the conversation they’re having doesn’t matter all that much. What matters is Cumberbatch’s Guillam buttoning up, as he’s about to do some dangerous undercover work for Smiley that would get him fired and worse if he were to be found out. What matters is Firth’s Haydon riding around on a bicycle indoors, ringing the bell at one woman to get back to work, a slight wiggle of his fingers at the one whose attention he’s really trying to get. Conversations are so often a vehicle for actions in this movie, and when talk is a vehicle unto itself Alfredson slows down. He’ll let Tom Hardy, a tremendously gifted physical actor, talk his way through the bad things that happened to Ricki Tarr undercover, all the while letting him sit as at home but jumpy as a cat on a couch. He’ll let his camera sit absolutely still on Mark Strong speaking quietly to a child and pointing off in the distance. And he’ll let Gary Oldman break into a long monologue about the time when he must have resolved to button up further, recede into himself, lest he give anything away.

18) Women in Love (1969), directed by Ken Russell

There’s a very decent HBO documentary called Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger, which is an extremely fitting tagline for anything about him. I have a bad habit of thinking about him breaking onto the artistic scene by writing Faggots, but of course that’s not true. He was a screenwriter first, and a good one. Women in Love is a beautifully written film on top of being beautifully acted and beautifully directed, and part of it is you can hear Kramer in there, giving out words to say that feel like him without overwhelming the story. Why shouldn’t “Rupert Birkin” discuss all the strange names of the people of Beldover, the way one can easily imagine Kramer going through the original text and saying, “Gee whiz, you don’t hear ‘Gudrun’ much anymore.” But then comes the very Krameresque sense of destiny, or in hard times, something a little more like fatalism:

Do you think we’ve all been singled out, chosen for some extraordinary moment in life, or are we all cursed with the mark of Cain?

It’s a huge leap from “we have funny names” to “our lives are fated,” but Alan Bates makes the connection Kramer makes feel almost natural, lighthearted. (As a personal notes, out of all the actors I’ve watched for the first time doing my little survey of British movies, I think Alan Bates is quite my favorite one. Devilishly handsome with that beard, capable of dramatics and lighthearted smiles alike, sparkling with humanity…he’s just great.) He speaks about “the finality of love” in a way that is practically French—la petite mort, tu connais—and which sticks together love and death in a way that will be true for other people, if not for him personally.

Speaking of people for whom that’s true, Gerald’s take on the Criches is another such point in favor of fatalism, and one which makes his decision to wander off into the snowy mountains and die seem, if not preordained, then certainly in his mind from the start:

There’s one thing about our family, you know. Once anything goes wrong, it can’t be put right. Not with us.

One can feel Kramer’s influence most in the movie’s most potent scene: a naked wrestling match by the fireplace between Rupert and Gerald. It really is an incredible piece of filmmaking. There’s no hiding done. Russell’s camera does not shy away the flopping genitalia or the fit bodies of two good-looking guys. The actors absolutely go for it as well, throwing themselves at each other. We hear the smack of their bellies and ribs on one another, hear the grunts and exertions and heavy breathing. They sweat with the effort as well as the heat. And it all intermingles in the mind with the primary difference between the two men, the reason why Rupert will be happy enough, and alive, with Ursula, while Gerald, that man who amiably agreed to wrestle Rupert in the nude, will give up his will to live when it becomes clear that Gudrun will choose experience over his love. Rupert, as he explains to Gerald, wants to find a loving union with men as well as women, one “equally sacred” to that which one can have with a woman. Gerald is not dubious, exactly, but he is unsure that he can feel the way that Rupert feels. It’s why he, in the end, is reduced to footsteps.

17) The Lady Vanishes (1938), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Firmly one of Hitchcock’s most fun movies, The Lady Vanishes feels like a near cousin of other fun movies like The 39 Steps, the American Man Who Knew Too Much, and North by Northwest. What makes it a better movie is an advantage it has in the storytelling. Where those movies rush across countries or continents (or both), The Lady Vanishes gets on a train near the start in the story and then, for all intents and purposes, stays there. It’s less dazzling than Mount Rushmore, less majestic than the whole of Scotland, but The Lady Vanishes is a like a kettle on the stove. Like Poirot, who solved the case of the murder on the Orient Express a few years before this movie was made, Iris understands that on a train there are only so many places to hide. If Miss Froy has vanished, then alive or dead she must be somewhere, and the combination of Iris’ determination and Gilbert’s big smartass energy should be sufficient to figure out where she might be. This is a movie with idealized heroes, and it takes enthusiastic performances to make them likable. In choosing two relative unknowns for moviegoers, the movie takes a chance, though the result appears effortless: Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are delightful together. Gilbert has all the jokes, down to the most tired of the bunch—he drops a punchline about brainless politicians so fluidly that it actually got me—and he has all the inventiveness as well. It’s old-fashioned to believe that a slightly silly guy will grow up when he’s given responsibility, but The Lady Vanishes lets us believe. Lockwood is every bit his equal. We’re given to understand Iris has thrown herself into a freewheeling life and is marrying more to settle down than to be happy. Finding Miss Froy on the train is a chance for one more adventure, to be sure, but it’s also a sign of the maturity she’s never been able to flash before. Iris and Gilbert do not hit it off on their first meeting or, indeed, in their later ones. When Iris tells Gilbert she’s been hit on the head, Gilbert is not entirely sympathetic: “When, infancy?” Chalk up the legend of the couple who get together because they can’t stand each other to the ones that The Lady Vanishes leans into and turns into something charming.

Like that kettle boiling water, the more atoms there are to bounce off each other, the more the pressure climbs, and the train is filled with those atoms. Todhunter, a Judas who gets his, goes along to get along. Charters and Caldicott, who are a Sociology 102 course in themselves, are only concerned with getting home for the cricket match (“You can’t be in England and not know the test score!”) until it becomes clear that they’re needed, and then they spring into action with a will. Even though Charters and Caldicott are probably as well-remembered as anything or anyone else in this movie, even though Michael Redgrave has enough one-liners to daze a Borscht Belt audience, The Lady Vanishes is surprisingly serious. At first it seems that an entire train is out to gaslight this poor young woman, which implies that something bad has happened to a sweet old lady. It does not take all that long for it to come out that Miss Froy is working for the British government and carries an important message for the Foreign Office, nor does it seem unlikely when our heroes are fighting for their lives in a desperate, almost Wild West style gun battle in a train car. The Lady Vanishes is one of the first movies about World War II, even though by a traditional standard it predates the conflict; it conflates the old-fashioned Western European propaganda about Eastern Europe with the very real fear that something bad was happening in the Sudetenlands of the world.

16) Tess (1979), directed by Roman Polanski

It’s been more than ten years since If I Did It, which is “letting the fox inside the henhouse” for people of my generation. There’s something darkly comic about the idea of that book, squeezing the laughs out of us at the hubris or poor judgment or what have you. What to make, then, of Roman Polanski’s Tess? The gist of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as every AP Lit student can tell you, is that after Alec rapes her, the basically virtuous Tess finds herself blamed, spit on, denigrated. Tess makes it clear that Alec is a bad person, that he tries to seduce Tess, that he rapes her, but it feels perfunctory. That scene where he gets Tess to eat a strawberry is shot much more intimately—I daresay even personally—than the scene where he gets Tess in a dark clearing in the woods. Did I mention that this is Roman Polanski making this movie? Is it worth mentioning that Nastassja Kinski, whose performance is outstanding, was a teenager when that scene was shot? Tess is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, which is what lands it up here. From a position of aesthetics it belongs to a tradition hundreds of years old, and it certainly belongs, and it deserves credit for being truly artful. I would also listen, and probably agree with, an argument that it’s Polanski’s Triumph of the Will. 

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