Better than BFI’s Top 100: 15-11

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


15) Mr. Turner (2014), directed by Mike Leigh

J.M.W. Turner was famous for his seascapes. There’s nary a person to be found there; there are the clouds, the sun, the ships, of course the water. But people are of less interest, somehow. Mike Leigh’s biopic (which actively makes stuff up and is not meant to be a replacement for actual history, thanks be to God) is fascinated by this question. Turner is obviously a great artist, a man of considerable talent and the little gleams of magic that create a legend. That sequence where he sees a rival painter present an overwhelmingly red painting, seems to maim a blue-gray seascape of his with a little red blotch, and then turns that blotch into a buoy is something extraordinary. As much as we all claim to dislike arrogance, we rather like it when it comes in the form that Satchel Paige talked about (“It ain’t bragging if you can do it”), and there’s no doubt that as far as his art goes, Turner can absolutely do it. Although his countenance is grubby and sad, his speech marred with porcine grunts, and his eyes squinted to the nubs, he is a man of education and thoughtfulness. There’s another great scene where a scientist comes by his house and uses a rainbow to magnetize a needle; he’s fascinated by this connection between the natural world’s unity between beauty in form and beauty in motion. So too is he fascinated by the daguerrotype, which a lesser painter would see as a sword of obsolescence hanging above his head, but which Turner finds so interesting he returns again and again to the shop. These would be the easier parts for any actor to play, and for Timothy Spall these are child’s play. He is so good at that little crouch that we imagine a painter must have if s/he really wants to enter the canvas. He could have done this part after a tonsillectomy, not just because Turner is definitely into that brevity thing, but because we know everything we need to know about Turner the artist and educated man with his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth and his great belly.

The movie asks a really haunting question of its protagonist: how can he show such facility in everything but the people? There is no relationship of Turner’s, with the possible exception of Sophia Booth, onetime landlady and ultimately lover, which seems to be built on that whole “mutual respect and admiration” deal. The flip side of the prank he plays on Constable at the art exhibition is that it’s really a kick in the nuts for ol’ John Constable as much as it is a testament to the wit of J.M.W. Turner. Turner’s relationship with his immediate family is sort of awkward and brusque. He’s much the same way with Hannah, his maid, who he comes up from behind on one day and begins pounding away. The movie presents that scene without any sort of context, which makes it horrifying. For all we know they have some kind of agreement to this effect; it’s far more likely that the powerful man in the house is taking advantage of a servant who has little recourse to manage the problem. Turner’s romance with Booth is kind of cute in an awful way, because they certainly enjoy the aspects of playing house together that Turner likes to indulge in when he comes to see her on vacation. But we must know that it can’t be that cute, because we know that he’s already had a mistress who has mothered two of his illegitimate children, and we know that he does not consider them members of his family. The movie does not look long and hard for answers to these questions, nor does it find a way to dramatize them in the end with some big moment. It simply presents them, and assumes that we’ll know how to puzzle out as much as we can in our minds. That’s what makes Mr. Turner the finest English-language biopic of the century.

14) Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell

Inevitably to be compared with the significantly scarier PsychoPeeping Tom must console itself with the fact that it is a far more interesting movie. The story of Psycho is held up with some weird Freudian offshoot; Peeping Tom features the sickness of all cinephiles, scopophilia, but also the very real effect of child abuse. At no time can we feel sympathy for Mark the adult, who murders multiple times over the course of the movie and whose favorite targets are prostitutes and loose women: in short, he’s punching down. In a time before serial killers were really part of the cultural zeitgeist, before Myra Hindley and Ian Brady had committed their immense evils, it only makes sense that Powell reaches back to Jack the Ripper for an analogue. But Mark the child, who spent his adolescence as a test subject for a famous psychologist father whose experiments on his son only increased his standing in the field, him we can feel for. The one who wakes up with lizards in his bed, the one who is photographed and filmed all the time, the one who cannot have any positive relationships with adults. Powell is willing to give us significant backstory for his antihero at the top of the film; with a choice that continues to make my spine feel loose, he sneakily casts himself as the father and his son as young Mark. (I don’t know why he did it, and I don’t know why he felt like it was a good idea, and I don’t want to know about either. All I know is that it’s the greatest cameo by a director in one of his or her own films, one that hardly even needs Powell to be in focus for us to realize that he’s trying to make some kind of point about the sickness of loving to watch, of loving to arrange people in certain ways, of setting them to action, of doing it over and over again for years.) The movie dares us to feel for Mark on that front. It dares us to sympathize with him as he struggles not to kill Helen, the girl downstairs he falls for, knows he cares about, and proves day in and day out by never climaxing because of he’s stabbed her to death. It dares us to sympathize with him by making his gaze our gaze in the beginning of the movie. Even by the standards of the antiheroes of the year (Michel from Breathless, Norman from Psycho, Tore from The Virgin Spring, Elmer Gantry of the same, etc.), this is strong medicine, castor oil for the kino crowd.

The lowest I’ve had Peeping Tom on any draft of this list is the position it’s currently holding—for months it was sitting pretty easily in the top 10—and strangely for a Powell movie, it’s the acting pulling it down. Even on my first go-round with the movie, Carl Boehm didn’t impress me all that much. Even for someone whose mental illness is collapsing his entire life, he seems a little wooden: there can be no comparison between him and Belmondo, Perkins, von Sydow, Lancaster, etc. Anna Massey and Maxine Audley are both good, but never get to spread their wings all that much. In the case of Massey, this may well be expected; she’s playing a character who is as much audience surrogate as anything else, and she only gets so many chances to be an interesting person on her own merits. For Audley it’s more disappointing. She plays Helen’s blind mother, who spends a harrowing scene in Mark’s spotlight, and indeed in his presence while he watches footage of a woman he’s killed. I had hoped that Powell would use the character for more than a secret conversation about Helen and as a possible (though unlikely) victim for Mark to kill; after all, she’s the one person in the movie who cannot watch and cannot derive any pleasure from it. Mark’s escapades on a movie set yield one performance that’s awfully funny and another that’s a little flat, both made by actors who had collaborated frequently with him in the past. Esmond Knight plays a superbly bitchy director who has a great one-liner which happens to coincide with the discovery of a dead body on set; the dead body belongs to Moira Shearer, who, alas, gets a dance sequence which feels like a real hole in the picture even though she’s the one doing it.

13) The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed

The Third Man is a picture born of tragedy. Set in Vienna, which had succumbed to the Anschluss and paid the price of it during the war, neither the people nor the buildings are quite intact. Men from the Allied nations, troops and otherwise, have moved in, and it hasn’t all been an improvement for the average Viennese. The Soviets are bearing down on Anna, who is Sudeten and will be returned there if she is found. Major Calloway is a decent fellow, all things considered, but a Vienna which answers to him does not find much warmth in his embrace; Trevor Howard is so good at playing this icy, dutiful figure. And worst of all, the Americans. On one hand, a man like Holly Martins is merely an idiot, a clueless American who adds little to the scenery. On the other, a Harry Lime is a postwar profiteer, someone who has given over his soul entirely to Mammon in the inimitably American style. Holly and Harry are weft and warp of the worst of postwar Europe, and Reed is not interested in making them sympathetic, as Powell and Pressburger did in A Canterbury Tale and A Matter of Life and Death. Of course, these clowns—one sort of pierrot, the other a tramp—are played by men arguably giving their best performances. One needn’t know about Joseph Cotten’s collaborations with Orson Welles going back to the Mercury Theatre, the fact that they played best friends separated by a parting of the ways in Citizen Kane, to sense the chemistry between these men. It’s just there, and more than that kiss-off line about cuckoo clocks or the hypothetical of 20,000 pounds for each still dot on the ground, that’s what makes the talk on the Riesenrad shine. Cotten knows when to back down and let Welles’ pure magnetism own the scene, and he knows when to bite back. “You used to believe in God,” Holly says—did I mention Graham Greene wrote this? does it show?—and it’s not scolding in Cotten’s voice but a scathing statement of fact. It’s one of the very few things that someone says to Harry Lime in the early time of his reappearance that makes him pause a little; the declamations turn into something a little mousier, a little weaker between sentences. I still do believe in God, Harry Lime says, and if he does he must have mixed up who made whom in whose image.

For a movie that had Orson Welles in its back pocket in the full flower of his entrancing verbosity, The Third Man is a movie that makes hay with its shots. I love this little segment for just that reason:

In this two minute window, Carol Reed makes a number of odd choices. He uses Dutch angles. He points the camera straight up at a spiraling stair and leaves his star in the edges of the frame, almost making his own fish-eye lens just from perspective. He throws us a misdirection—is that a crying baby in the dark? Lol, no, it’s a chompy cockatoo. At 1:10, we get Holly in the edge of the frame again, but his back is to us and the light is obscuring his body, like he’s wandered through the rubble and into another dimension. Of course, he nearly has: it’s not long before he’s in the foreground of a shot with a churchtower rising up directly behind him. The shadows proliferate. He and the men chasing him manage to fill all three zones of the frame. That zither score which really shouldn’t work but does (sometimes it’s a little goofy, but here it’s intense!) iterates on and on as the chase continues. We are the lucky ones chomping popcorn like a cockatoo chomps fingers, as bold choice after bold choice just pays off. The whole movie is like that, and while I wouldn’t call this Carol Reed’s finest movie, it’s hard to argue against it as a total tour de force of creative direction.

12) The Red Shoes (1948), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Not one person in The Red Shoes seems capable of keepin’ it under 100. The dancers speak for themselves when they aren’t dancing, as Irina does when she cries, “Boris!” in that thin voice of hers, or as Grischa does when he strikes a ludicrous pose and declares, “I quit!” when it seems Lermontov is making a horrible mistake. Julian the composer is hardly immune to dramatic gestures, and his in fact bookend the film. He finds that his teacher has plagiarized his music and storms out of a ballet; he gives up on the premiere of his opera to force Vicky into a choice. Lermontov plays it cool so often, but it’s a tremendously arch coolness, one which revels in eating grapes while wearing a ridiculous bathrobe, one which knows that if you keep people at arm’s length they will scramble for ways to get up to your wrist. It’s his fists which do the talking even if he is much too refined to ever get into an actual fistfight. At the height of his Vicky-related frustrations, he smashes a mirror, and when he believes he’s won her from Julian he delivers a real blow into his other hand with excitement and relief. As for Vicky, who certainly appears to be the sanest of the bunch, she throws herself off a balcony. (This, of course, is after a breathtakingly forward belief that she must dance to live, and after we’ve watched her hallucinate her two potential lovers in the midst of her starring performance in a new ballet.) Like the Emperor parading his new garments or the cygnet who doesn’t know he’ll turn into a swan, the characters of The Red Shoes don’t know they’re in a fairy tale, and they cannot understand that their violent impulses are instructive and their tragedies are lessons. From Julian, the quintessential lone genius, we learn that boldness ought to take a back seat to compromise; from Lermontov, the demanding impresario, we learn that it is better to have than to impose. From Vicky I suppose the lesson is that loving something too much is like entering a jousting match without the shield or the armor, and that one must be absolutely perfect or else one is entirely exposed.

The Red Shoes is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, made when Technicolor was simultaneously an industry standard and a luxury. The movie could never have been made in black-and-white—again, the red shoes—but a movie about the ballet and the backstage machinations, with large sections set in Monte Carlo and postwar London, with a beautiful redhead in the lead, could hardly have been shot in black-and-white photography. Powell, Pressburger, and DP Jack Cardiff had already worked magic for A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus, which are both beautiful in their own rights, but The Red Shoes is a fireworks show, flashes of light across a night sky. I come back to the ballet in the middle of the movie over and over again, which is so gutsy (and so clearly the antecedent for Gene Kelly’s ’50s) and so enormously appealing. It makes black and gray feel old and crippling as opposed to empty spaces; it makes Vicky’s pinkish dress and robin’s egg bow stand out with those carmine slippers. The spotlight is the only safe place to be in that ballet, and around it is moody and vast and haunting. (To say nothing of that famous expression of horror on her white face during the ballet as she sees, in the blackness at the front of the stage, her potential lovers flashing in front of her.) That void is not unlike the one that sucks her in on a sunny (and beautifully shot!) evening when she ends her career. After all, nighttime has not always been so dangerous in The Red Shoes. There’s a twinkling carriage ride along the Riviera, a night where the moon makes a spotlight in Julian and Vicky’s bedroom. The greatest danger in The Red Shoes is, to borrow from Joe Gideon (who would know), is to be on the wire. More than anyone else, Vicky gets to realize the heat and life on the wire, but there’s only room for one foot at a time. The beauty of the film accentuates that danger; it gives us a reason for what intoxicates her, and it gives us the wisdom to understand how far she has to fall.

11) The Remains of the Day (1993), directed by James Ivory

Watch this movie twice, and do it consecutively. The first time, one must focus as much as possible on the person who speaks, especially in those precious scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The way they sound when they speak is important. Hopkins’ speech is the precision of the most beautiful mathematics, honed by years of service, copycatting the master, reading when he has time. Thompson’s speech would seem that way in virtually any other movie, but in this situation her speech is something approaching slatternly in comparison. In either case the two of them are wonderful in their line readings. Her tears are as meaningful as his pauses, her emphases as wonderful as his commas. And then, the second time, one must really pay attention to the face of the other person while the first speaks. It’s in the faces, always captured at a respectful distance, sometimes so far away that the respect is practically papal. (Ivory’s doing some very literal “keeping one’s distance” business here, which is fine, but it’s the commitment to the choice throughout the movie, of refusing to give us anything like a close-up until it can punch us right in the teeth, that makes the choice more than just symbolic.) Any actor can be surprised, or try to cover up surprise; Hopkins is a rare performer who can put another layer over that coverup, practically embalming his face in the thought process of putting it on. It’s the face Mr. Stevens wears when Miss Kenton tells him she’s accepted a proposal of marriage; it’s the face he wears when, twenty years hence, she lets him know that she was for a long time unhappy in a marriage she hardly believed was real. Thompson, your mom’s favorite actor, is not known for performing flirtatiousness. But what else would we call the shy, funny smiles she gives her opposite number as she peels his finger off a book? Or the earlier, slightly muted version in which she accuses Mr. Stephens of wearing his own shy, funny smile? Viewers in 1993 had almost certainly seen these two playing a married couple the year before in Howards End, and yet they appear to be such an odd, impossible couple, like this man old before his time could never fall for this woman who insists on being the perfect antidote for him and, bonus, loves him too.

Because this is Britain, the two of them spend as much time saying goodbye to each other or silently rebuffing each other as they do anything else. Miss Kenton, bless her, keeps trying. Mr. Stephens, in the way that a boy of considerably fewer years but roughly equivalent sexual experience might do, keeps pushing her away. In the late ’50s, the overwhelming question we must ask is what was it all for? Mr. Stephens’ last stretch of time with his father, a man even more cantankerously and totally devoted to service than his son, is fraught with awkward complications. Mr. Stephens never chases Miss Kenton, who would have rolled over at the first sight of a chase, even though he seems to have genuine and potent feelings about her. Mr. Stephens never quite divests himself from Lord Darlington, even after Darlington’s Nazi sympathies break him both publicly and personally after the war. Those late scenes in the movie are, for Mr. Stephens, synonymous with William H. Seward’s invocation of “a last shriek, on the retreat.” He asks Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn these last two decades, to come back to Darlington Hall as the housekeeper under a new master, the onetime congressman and onetime guest of the house, Jack Lewis. Mrs. Benn refuses the offer, and we get as close to Hopkins’ face as we get to anybody’s face in this movie, and the look in his eyes says it all: everything he did twenty years before he did for this moment, and somehow he has failed. It’s a tremendous moment, and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

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