Yet another great American film list–and like the others, mostly about white people

We’ve got yet another all-time greatest films list. So what’s different about this one? It’s a list of American
films, but it’s not an American list. It comes from the BBC, and was created through a survey of film critics from around the world (and yes, Yankee critics were allowed to submit their opinions).

Of course, there’s always the question of what is an American film. When the American Film Institute made its own 100 Greatest American Movies list in 1998, Lawrence of Arabia came in 5th. When the AFI did it again in 2007, Lawrence came in 7th. I suppose that Americans like to think of Lawrence as an American film, and the British prefer to consider it British.

Like all such lists, this one has something to please every cinephile and something to make every cinephile burn with rage. I mean, did everuone just forget about The General?

I found some surprising choices here, especially in the high numbers. Movie 100, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, falls apart with ridiculous ending. And I think this is the first time I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate on such a list. I’ve yet to see the movie, remembered for being the critical and commercial disaster that destroyed United Artists, but people are beginning to re-evaluate it.

And very close to the middle, at number 47, we have one of Alfred Hitchcock’s worst films, Marnie.
Rear Window didn’t even make the list.

Following tradition, Citizen Kane came in number 1. I’m glad to see it on top again, and not knocked off its perch by Vertigo, as happened on Sight and Sound’s latest survey. (Vertigo came in third, after The Godfather. It wouldn’t have made my list at all.)

I decided to put this list through the test I discussed in Race and Casting in American Movies. You start with a list of American films, then remove all of them with a white protagonist. Then you remove those where the protagonist couldn’t possibly be white. Finally, you remove those whose protagonist is a cop, a criminal, or a soldier.

How did this group fare? 92 of the films had white protagonists. Of the remaining eight:

Some of the films are kind of a gray area. Touch of Evil has a Mexican hero, and West Side Story has a Puerto Rican ingénue, but they’re both played by white movie stars. I don’t think that counts. The documentary Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have a protagonist–or any kind of character. And although The Lion King has a protagonist, he isn’t human; there are no people in this animated film. You can’t really talk about the race of a lion. (For what it’s worth, the hero is voiced by the white Matthew Broderick.)

Killer of Sheep, Do the Right Thing, and 12 Years a Slave all have African-American protagonists. But considering what these films are about, there wasn’t much of a choice there.

And that leaves Night of the Living Dead as the only film on the list where the protagonist isn’t white for the simple reason that a white person wasn’t cast in the role.

I don’t blame the BBC or the critics surveyed for this. I blame the American film industry.

I haven’t done a similar examination considering gender. I’m sure that would also provide some interesting results.

Check the list out yourself. You’ll find plenty of your favorites. But you’ll also find a lot that will make you cry “What were they thinking?”

The A+ List: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Pacific Film Archive

Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.

The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.

In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.

The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.

Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.

And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.

Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.

Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.

That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.

And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.

In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.

Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.

The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.

After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.

The A+ List: 8½ (also Children of Paradise & City Lights)

Getting back to my list of all-time favorite films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

In strict alphabetical order, the next movie on my list is Marcel Carné’s love letter to France and the theater, Children of Paradise. But I’ve written about it twice already, so you can read my appreciation and my Blu-ray review.

Next on the list is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. I wrote a Blu-ray review of that one, too.

So let’s skip ahead to the next greatly-beloved film that I haven’t dedicated an article to.

Federico Fellini’s surreal, autobiographical, self-referential comedy (of a sort) captures the dread of writer’s block, the pressures on a filmmaker, and the male mid-life crisis better than any other film I’ve seen (Barton Fink may equal it in terms of writer’s block). Fellini takes us deep into the worries, dreams, and memories of a successful writer/director who doesn’t know what his next film–soon to go into production–should be about.

And Fellini does it all with humor, stylish visuals, and an enthusiastic embrace of the cinema as exciting as Citizen Kane‘s. The camera swirls and dances through extras drinking mineral water or waiting for a mud bath. Reality slips into fantasy and back again as easily as a Steadicam can slip from one room to another. I’m still not sure which part of the ending is fantasy and which is reality. Since is an auteurist film about an auteurist filmmaker, we can reasonably assume that Fellini based the main character, Guido, on himself. Of course the part is played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was far better looking than Federico Fellini. But hey, this is a movie. I’d want my cinematic alter-ego to look like Mastroianni.

Guido has a lot on his plate. His next film is headed towards production–sets and costumes are being built–but he’s lost his confidence. He’s delayed the shoot. He avoids talking to his stars about their characters. His producer is losing his patience. And his writing collaborator–apparently the only person who’s read the script–does nothing but tell him how bad it is. This collaborator/critic becomes one of the film’s best running jokes. As he continually points out flaws in the film to be made, it begins to sound as if he’s criticizing (“It doesn’t have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks”). It’s as if Fellini beat the reviewers to the punch by panning the movie inside of itself. (Not that has these flaws, but I could see how some people might think it did.)

All this is set in an upscale spa resort where Guido has gone for unspecified health reasons. It appears as if he’s brought his entire production company with him, and that the film will be shot (if ever) near the spa.

To make Guido’s life even more complicated, his mistress arrives (played by Sandra Milo–Fellini’s real mistress at that time). Then his wife arrives. And he keeps seeing fantasies of Claudia Cardinale.

The film contains a number of great set pieces. There’s Guido’s walk, mostly shot POV, through the spa to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries. The descent into the mud bath to interview a cardinal. His childhood memory of watching a woman dance and being punished for the “sin.” And, of course, his harem fantasy where all of the women he’s loved and wanted happily do his bidding. I’m a bit hesitant to call a comedy, although on reflection I think the word fits. It’s nowhere near as funny as The General or Some Like It Hot, but it is often funny in a sardonic way.

I was still in high school when I first saw and fell in love with . I saw it at least three more times in college. But the real revelation came when I revisited it in my 40s. With its flashbacks, regrets, insecurities, and sexual fantasies, is very much about the middle-aged male. I don’t think a young person can catch everything about it, although–as my younger self proves–you can catch a great deal.

The A+ List: The Last Laugh (also Brazil & Casablanca)

I can’t always be alphabetical as I write about the movies on my list of A+ films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

For instance, the next film on my list is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But rather than write about it all over again, I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray Review.

And after that, comes Casablanca. I wrote an essay.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list that I haven’t written about is 8 ½ (which I alphabetize as Eight and a Half). But I just saw an old favorite at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and decided it deserved a full A+. And so I’m jumping out of chronological order.

The Last Laugh

If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when his clothes are taken away? Does he loses his self-esteem? Or the love and respect of his friends and family? That’s what happens in the 1924 German masterpiece, The Last Laugh, written by Carl Mayer and directed by F.W. Murnau.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and enjoys a special status.

Then one morning he arrives at the hotel to see another doorman in his place. The manager, noting the trouble the doorman had carrying a big trunk, has decided that he’s too old for the job. He’s given a new job: washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he steals his old uniform, and wears it home. He can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any more silent than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue (more on that below). Occasionally Mayer and Murnau help the story along with an official document or a written, cake decoration, but I don’t think that happens more than three times in the movie. Everything else is told by visuals and pantomime.

You don’t miss intertitles any more than you would miss dialog.

A lot of the credit for that visual storytelling has to go to cinematographer Karl Freund. His amazing moving camera shots, in-camera special effects, and work with glass and mirrors tell the story as well as the acting and the magnificent, expressionistic sets.

Although The Last Laugh is set in a big, German city, and was shot in Berlin, you never see the real Berlin in the movie. Every shot in the picture was made in the UFA studios.

And let’s not forget Jannings’ contribution. Arguably the greatest film actor of his time (he would later win the first Best Actor Oscar), he plays the role oversized–that was German expressionism–but emotionally real. He takes the unnamed lead character’s journey from egotistical fool to broken object of pity–rejected by even his own family. A very sad ending, indeed.

Which brings us to that epilogue. Warning: Mild spoiler below. You may want to skip to below the photo.

The studio heads didn’t like the original ending. It was too depressing. So the director added a ridiculous, funny, unbelievable, happy-in-the-extreme ending. And to make sure that everyone understood his intent, he separated the main story from the ending with the film’s only intertitle–which basically acknowledges that this ending is tacked on and absurd.

It’s a brilliant way to end this essentially tragic film. You understand that life is hard and will grind you down, and that the happy ending is there only for commercial purposes. You get to laugh a lot in those last few minutes, and by and large you’re laughing with the main character. And even though you know it’s absurd, it still leaves you with a smile.

Okay, you can safely continue reading:

I first saw The Last Laugh on PBS in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager, newly besotted with my love of silent films. I knew it was fantastic even then.

I saw it again a few years ago, on DVD. I still loved it.

Last Friday, I finally saw it on the big screen, with live accompaniment and a large audience. That did it. Better able to appreciate the expressionistic sets, and sharing the film’s emotions and laughs with hundreds of other people, I finally realized that this isn’t just a great film, but a rare one.

The A+ List: Citizen Kane (also Annie Hall & The Bicycle Thief)

And now we return to my list of all-time favorite films–those that I’ve awarded the rare A+ grade. For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list is Annie Hall. But I’m not going to write here about films I’ve written about before, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

After that comes The Bicycle Thief. But I’ve written about that one, too.

So I’ll skip to the next film on the list that I haven’t written about extensively. And that happens to be the movie almost universally called the Greatest Film Ever Made.

Citizen Kane

Can any work of art survive a reputation as celebrated as Kane‘s? For as long as I can remember, it’s been the default answer to the question “What’s the greatest film ever made?” With a reputation like that, there’s almost no way a novice can see it for the first time and not be disappointed.

And sure enough, it’s status has slipped a bit in recent years. In Sight and Sound‘s most recent once-a-decade list of the The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, it came in only second. But it came in first five times consecutively before that.

Cinephiles (including myself) love Citizen Kane because Orson Welles was so clearly in love with filmmaking when he made it. Everything about it, from the flashback-structured story to Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography to Bernard Herrmann’s playful score brims with an adventurous spirit, as if everyone wanted to see what they could do with this new toy called cinema.

It’s important to remember that this was a first film for almost everyone involved–including producer, director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles. Most of the cast–veterans of Welles’ work on radio and the New York stage–had never worked on film. It was Hermann’s first movie score, as well.

Not everyone on Citizen Kane was new to movies. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used short lenses and very bright lights to accomplish amazing setups. Welles could place one person in extreme close up, another in mid-shot, and another in the distance and thanks to Toland have all three in focus. He could thus cover a scene in a single shot without it ever looking theatrical.

The story (a collaborations between Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz) could have been made conventionally. An egocentric newspaper tycoon (Welles) goes through life amassing political power and extreme wealth, but his self-centered world view blocks his ability to find love or real happiness. But into this story we have a production number, an opera, a newsreel, broad comedy, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. You can sit back and enjoy these set pieces, admire the amazing photography, and still be totally caught up in the story.

The structure of the story shows us Charles Foster Kane through multiple angles. The opening scene of his death feels like a horror film. The newsreel that follows it gives us his various public images, and provides an outline to help us follow the out-of-sequence movie that follows. In the five flashbacks that take up most of the running time, we see Kane from the point of view of people who knew, loved, and hated him.

You can’t discuss Kane without praising Dorothy Comingore, whose performance as Kane’s second wife outdoes all the others. Unlike other cast members, she was a Hollywood veteran–although stardom eluded her. It continued to elude her after Kane. To watch her subtlety age from an innocent young woman to a shrill, pathetic, yet sympathetic drunk is to wonder why this role didn’t jumpstart her career.

Perhaps Welles’ performance overwhelmed hers. He plays Kane theatrically larger than life, but that’s appropriate, because Kane is larger than life. A man of unending self-confidence and bluster, he does everything big. Even when he acts self-effacing, he’s promoting himself. I think there’s a bit of Welles in that.

You probably know that the story of Citizen Kane was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies. Hearst attempted–and to a certain degree succeeded–in suppressing the movie. But we have it now, and we should be thankful.

Citizen Kane screens at the Rafael this Sunday, May 31. According to a California Film Institute press release, Warner Brothers (which now owns this RKO film) will withdraw Citizen Kane from theatrical release the next day. Fortunately, this suppression is scheduled to last only through the end of the year.

The A+ List and The Adventures of Robin Hood

I’m embarking on a journey through my all-time favorite films–the ones that I’ve awarded an A+.

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

I started giving my favorite films the A+ grade in 2009. The list currently has 56 films, although it may grow before I’m finished. I strongly suspect that Fargo will make the list next year.

I plan to go through the list roughly in alphabetical order, but I won’t stick to that. I’ve written about many of these films extensively before; for those, I’ll just include a link.

And I’ll start, alphabetically, with what is arguably the most shallow, silly, and entertaining movie on the list.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights.

If you look at it logically, everything about The Adventures of Robin Hood fails utterly. Robin Hood, the famous mythological rebel and defender of the weak, spends much of the film defending the monarchy. Much of the film, from the quiver that never runs out of arrows to Maid Marian’s idiotic way of hiding incriminating evidence, makes no sense whatsoever.

And the film makes violence look fun and helpful. There is a lot of action in the movie, and Robin and his men kill quite a few bad guys. But not a single good guy–not even an extra–dies.

And I won’t even mention historical inaccuracy.

And yet, when we watch it, we not only can but must forgive everything. We gladly accept this tale of medieval Europe not as it was, but as we want it to be. We imagine ourselves leaping about, fighting with sword, bow, and staff, making heroic speeches, and righting all wrongs by killing those who need to be killed.

This is, quite simply, the perfect swashbuckler.

A lot of people deserve credit for this masterpiece. It came off the Warner Brothers assembly line with two credited directors (one was taken off the film). You can’t call this an auteur film.

But here are the movie’s three best assets:

Errol Flynn

You don’t need to be a good actor to be a great movie star–Errol Flynn proves that beyond a doubt. His acting range was limited. But no one could buckle a swash like Flynn, and this was the movie he was born to make.

First of all, at this time in his life, he looked great; women swooned over him. He was not an acrobat (if you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of stunt doubling in Robin Hood), but he had an easy, natural and athletic grace, especially when he was leaping onto tables or fighting with a sword. And he spoke his lines with a simple conviction that made you believe the most outrageous lines. Consider this scene early in the film.

The movie gives Flynn not one, but three big entrances. With an audience, it’s almost impossible to not applaud for each one of them.

I recently wrote about Burt Lancaster’s swashbucklers. Lancaster was every bit as handsome as Flynn. He was an excellent actor. And unlike Flynn, he was an expert acrobat, thrilling audiences with his own impressive stunts. But he couldn’t quite pull off the dashing, devil-may-care personality that was Flynn’s stock and trade. When Lancaster gives a speech to his men, he comes off as human being (The Flame and the Arrow) or an actor trying too hard (The Crimson Pirate). Flynn comes off as the embodiment of graceful heroics.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Adventures of Robin Hood easily has the best musical score of any action flick I’ve heard. It’s rousing, majestic, epic, exciting, and joyful. The fight theme matches the flavor of a graceful swordfight without trying to synchronize with it. And the score is beautiful in its own right.

Robin Hood not only earned Korngold his only Oscar; it also saved his life. A Viennese Jew and a respected Opera composer, Korngold just happened to be Hollywood, working on this film when Hitler took over Austria. Had he been home, he would probably have been swept up in the Holocaust.

Perhaps Korngold’s appreciation for the assignment helped him create this great and influential score.

Technicolor

Today we take color movies for granted, but in 1938, they were something special. And the people who made Adventures of Robin Hood went overboard to make it especially special–in a good way.

Warner Brothers shot Adventures in the three-strip Technicolor process, which was just six years old in 1938. Only a handful of previous features had been shot in it, and none of them seemed to delight in the new technology the way Robin Hood did.

The movie is a blast of color. Bright greens and reds flow through it. Aside from one scene where Robin is tossed into a dungeon, there’s always something bright and colorful, usually a costume or an ornament, on the screen.

That super-saturated Technicolor look, amped up by Carl Jules Weyl’s art direction and Milo Anderson’s costumes, help create the feeling of a storybook without ever pressing the point.

Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito also deserve credit.

And all the rest

But then, so did so many other people who worked on this film. Consider the supporting cast: Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone conspire and glower as the fun-to-hate villains. Olivia de Havilland makes a beautiful and love-struck Maid Marian. She comes closest to being a real person (not that close), largely because she gets to change her mind.

And then there’s Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin as the second romantic couple, considerably older and homier than Flynn and de Havilland. They’re essentially comic characters, but Mundin’s merry man gets a couple of admirably heroic moments.

Finally, let’s not forget the exceptional fight choreography, done by swordsman Fred Cavens, director Michael Curtiz, and archer Howard Hill. The fights are graceful, exciting, thrilling, and not in the least bit believable.

But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t earns its A+ by providing realism. It earns it by being fun.

Death and families: Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Blu-ray review)

No horror movie can come close to the fear, dread, and dark hatreds of Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama, Cries and Whispers. To watch it is to face the end of a slow and painful death by cancer. But that’s not all. This film, centered around four women and set almost entirely in one house, forces you to face the neglect and out-and-out cruelties with which we treat those who should be closest to us.

This is not escapist entertainment.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the last stages of a long decline. She’s weak, terrified, and often in horrible pain. Her two sisters–who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other–have come to the family home to help ease her passing. How do you face the death of someone you love? Or worse yet, someone that you think you should love, but there’s very little love in your soul.

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One suspects that life has been easy for the stunningly beautiful sister Maria (Liv Ullmann). So easy, in fact, that she doesn’t know how to react in a crisis. When she watches someone’s suffering, she doesn’t rush forward to help, but holds back and cries. A respectable, upper-class wife and mother in late 19th century Sweden, she’s as immature and flirtatious as a teenager.

The other sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), is almost her polar opposite. She’s cold and remote. She does what she has to do, and behaves properly. But she can’t stand impropriety or physical contact.

The fourth woman is the household maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). She’s been with the family for years, and spent many of those years nursing Agnes through her long illness. Unlike Maria and Karin, Anne truly loves Agnes. When Agnes complains of being cold, Anne crawls into her bed to keep her warm. Were they lovers? Hard to say. When Anne cuddles Agnes, the image is closer to a mother comforting a small child.

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The confined story appears to happen over a few days. Flashbacks provide some backstory, and introduce us to Maria’s and Karin’s husbands. But even these take place in the family estate.

You can recognize the interior of the house easily; everything is red–walls, carpet, curtains, and furniture. At the end of a scene, the film fades not to black, but to red. It’s a strange choice, but the right one. All of that red produces a sense of blood, of passion, and of the womb.

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Thank cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist for those reds. He allows the crimson to dominate the image, without it ever looking false or getting out of control. Nykvist clearly deserved the Oscar he won for this picture.

imageAs you would expect, Bergman drew brilliant, loving, yet horrifying performances out of the four leads. When we first meet Agnes in an extended close-up, Andersson’s eyes look directly into the camera with a fear that we all must experience when we face our mortality. When Maria attempts to seduce a former lover (Erland Josephson), her face shows a combination of lust, fear, and pride, confidence, and a deep uncertainty.

I’d have a hard time naming another drama as intense or emotionally realistic as Cries and Whispers. And yet it flies by like an action movie, and has scenes that could have come out of a horror film.

First Impression

Cries and Whispers comes in the usual transparent Criterion case. The cover shows imagea close-up of Andersson–in black and white tinted red (of course.)

When you open the case, you’ll find, along with the disc, a fold-out dominated with an article by Cambridge professor Emma Wilson named–believe it or not–Love and Death. When you’re dealing with such dark matters,the comic reference is appreciated.

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the disc comes with a timeline so you can bookmark favorite scenes. When you insert the disc into a player on which you played that disc in before, you’ll have the option to get back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Nykvist didn’t win that Oscar for photographing pretty pictures. Or sharp ones. Cries and Whispers uses defused light and soft focus. In other words, this isn’t the movie you use to show off your cool HDTV.

But the transfer does its job. Those ubiquitous reds are deep and rich, yet never bloom out of control. The atmospheric lighting, usually replicating sunlight or oil lamps, does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Neither Bergman nor Nykvist lived long enough to approve of this transfer, but I suspect that they would.

How It Sounds

I have no complaints about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s the mix that Bergman approved, and it probably sounds as good here as it did in the projection room. It certainly sounds better than it would on a 35mm print with a 1973 optical soundtrack.

It also comes with an optional English-dubbed track. I didn’t listen to it. The newly-translated English subtitles are just fine.

And the Extras

No commentary track, but still plenty of supplements.

  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman:1080i; 7 minutes. A subtitled interview from 2003. It’s rather long for an introduction, but it contains some interesting stuff.
  • Harriet Andersson: 1080p; 20 minutes. The actress in conversation with film historian Peter Cowie, recorded in 2012. Quite wonderful, especially the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew goofing off while making this extremely serious film.
  • On-Set Footage: 1080i; 34 minutes. More of that footage, this time with commentary by Peter Cowie. An interesting overview of the film’s production.
  • Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson: 1080i; 52 minutes. Interview with director and star from Swedish TV,1999. As I have not yet watched this one.
  • On Solace: 1080p; 13 minutes. 2014 video essay by cinema theorist  ::kogonada. Disappointing. His dull, monotone voice suggested a profundity that simply wasn’t there.

Criterion has done justice to one of Bergman’s best films.

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