Monday, August 31, 2009

1974: The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

Released: December 12, 1974 (NYC Premiere)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Screenplay: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based partially on the novel by Mario Puzo; Cinematography: Gordon Willis; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Francis Ford Coppola, with co-producers Gary Frederickson and Fred Roos

Cast: Al Pacino (Don Michael Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Robert De Niro (Young Vito Corleone), Diane Keaton (Kay Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie “Five Angels” Pentangali), Morgana King (Mama Carmella Corleone), G.D. Spradlin (Senator Pat Geary), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Gastone Moschin (Don Fanucci), Dominic Chianese (Johnny Ola), B. Kirby Jr. (Young Pete Clemenza), Frank Sivero (Young Ginco Abbandando), Joe Spinell (Willie Cici), Tom Rosqui (Rocco Lampone)

- “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

Let’s just start with the two most obvious questions to emerge with this selection. Was it as easy to envision as the sun rising in the east? My guess, knowing how in tune with my tastes many of you are, is yes. Never being one to shy away from populist picks, it really was a no-brainer for me. Plus, I in turn would be willing to bet that a lot of folks reading the blog will pick this one as their #1 for 1974 as well, or at the very least give it strong consideration. The second question would be this: is the sequel better than the original? My short answer is no, it’s close, but even that might change by the time I address the question more fully later in this write-up!

The staggering thing about how easy it is to pick The Godfather Part II for 1974 is that it masks what an incredible year in film this was – particularly for Francis Ford Coppola. There are a number of films released in this year that would have contended in any year in this countdown. Aside from this legendary middle entry in The Godfather trilogy, Coppola also released the equally superb The Conversation, which riffs on (and in my opinion improves upon) the template used by Antonioni in Blow-Up. Also released in this year was Roman Polanski’s most celebrated film in the neo-noir thriller Chinatown. And the list goes on. R.W. Fassbinder put out Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Martin Scorsese went to Hollywood and made the underrated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Jacques Rivette, who I have very little experience with, released the outstanding Celine and Julie Go Boating. In short, this was a huge, top-heavy year.

And yet, there was absolutely zero drama in making this pick. No second-guessing, no double-take, no hesitation. The movie is that magnificent. For me, there are few films in the history of cinema that could have unseated it from the top spot.

It follows the continuing saga of the Corleone family, as the new leader Michael (Al Pacino) tries to move the family business into more legitimate interests in Nevada and elsewhere around the globe. To do this, he begins to work closely with his father’s longtime associate Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who steers Michael into business deals in pre-Castro Cuba. Unfortunately for the gangsters looking to capitalize on gambling on the island, Castro is near taking power and nationalizing all of their business interests. Along the way, various plots and counterplots are hitched, as Michael tries to protect his high-level business interests abroad while at the same time mediating street-level disputes back in New York. Being pulled from every direction, in addition to having to endure Senate hearings into organized crime, Michael scrambles to maintain control.

The other unique aspect of Part II is that it simultaneously tells the story of Vito Corleone’s (Robert De Niro) rise from orphaned Sicilian immigrant to kingpin of the entire New York underworld. We see him flee from Mafia leaders trying to kill him in Sicily, travel as a young boy through Ellis Island, and then try to make a life for himself in this strange country. Much like his son Michael would years later, Vito enters a life of crime very reluctantly. It is by a chance favor he does for the young Pete Clemenza (B. Kirby, Jr.) that he realizes that he can make a way in the world through such means. After he kills Don Fannuci, the neighborhood boss, and takes over the rackets, he then begins to emerge into The Godfather that Marlon Brando portrays so brilliantly in the first film. It is amazing to see both the similarities and contrasts that can be drawn between Vito and Michael. They are the same in that they both grudgingly became crime leaders, but the differences in their situations are striking. For Vito, becoming a crime boss was his one way up and out of the ghetto. Michael, by contrast, is realizing that being a Mafia boss at this time makes him an anachronism. While Vito emerged as a respected neighborhood hero, Michael is the target of everyone from the authorities, to rivals, to even family members.

The thing that makes Part II so fresh and able to stand on its own – despite the fact that it follows essentially the same path as the original – is the addition of the new characters and cast members. Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth is simply amazing. Strasberg was already a legend in the worlds of acting and theater, becoming director of the Actors Studio in 1951. He was an advocate of what is now commonly known as “method acting,” and would teach this craft to a variety of stars. The list of those that studied under him is staggering: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and, most importantly in regards to this review, Al Pacino. Pacino and Coppola convinced Strasberg to make his on-screen debut as Hyman Roth, a character based on legendary Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. The parallels between Roth and Lansky are quite obvious – Jewish gangster who teams up with a rising Italian gang leader, the headquarter move to Miami, financing casinos in Havana, the “we’re bigger than US Steel” quote are all straight from the life of Lansky. And this also allows me to repeat one of my favorite stories concerning Strasberg and his performance. It’s a legend of sorts, and one that I don’t know is completely accurate, but according Strasberg’s widow, shortly after the film was released he received a mysterious phone call. Although the man did not give his name, it supposedly was Meyer Lansky himself, who told Lee “You did good.” Lansky also wondered, “Why couldn’t you make me more sympathetic?”

I eat up such legends and tall tales like this, so I had to include it. Is it true? I have no idea, but I don’t know why Anna Strasberg would make it up – let’s hope she was either telling the truth or just embellishing, so it doesn’t ruin it for me! But even if only apocryphal, it’s interesting. Strasberg’s performance is that good. He makes Hyman Roth a lovable grandfatherly character when sitting in his Florida home watching football on a Saturday afternoon, but a tenacious businessman when dealing with associates and rivals in the underworld. The speech delivered at the hotel in Havana about “this is the life we chose” is probably my favorite monologue in all of cinema. It still has the power to give me goosebumps. Strasberg was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but unfortunately did not win.

Who, you might ask (as if you didn’t already know), possibly could have been honored over Strasberg? Fellow cast-mate Robert De Niro. This is not the brash, in-your-face De Niro that made him famous as Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets or would become his signature in roles such as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. As the young Vito Corleone, he is calculating, contemplative, at times even timid. What is interesting is watching as Vito overcomes his trepidation in this new world and grows into the man that would dominate an entire city. If I wanted to be argumentative, I could squabble and say that I slightly prefer Strasberg’s performance, but that is splitting hairs. They’re both superb.

To a lesser degree, it is also necessary to point out that Frank Pentangali (Michael V. Gazzo), with his loyal minion Willie Cici (Joe Spinell), also adds much to the film. A character such as this was vital to add the element of Michael being pulled back into the streets, so to speak, as it shows the complete futility of his trying to move his family away from New York. In addition, Frankie Five Angels in general is just an entertaining character, adding not only drama but many lighthearted moments.

Yet with all of these brilliant additions, it can be argued that the film is still carried on the strength of those characters returning from the first film. While it might have been in doubt in Part I, in this sequel Michael is unquestionably the main character. Gone is the idealistic war hero that walks into the Corleone compound at the beginning of the first film. Michael now has become ruthless, a man blinded by his greed and aspirations. He continues to lie to both Kay and himself that the Corleone family will be legit in a few short years, but all the time working with the same shadowy methods that made his family so powerful. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), always one of my favorite characters in the entire saga, emerges as the rock of the Corleones. The man is steady in the face of every storm the family faces. And then there is Fredo, the black sheep of the family played to perfection by John Cazale. His murder scene, with Michael standing alone at a window, is the most haunting image in any of the three movies.

At the beginning of this piece I posed the question of whether this is better than the first film. Traditionally, I say no. But in all honesty, this entire series has reached the point where it’s silly for me to even separate them into parts. Watching the entire progression from the rise of the Corleone empire to the destruction of Michael Corleone is American storytelling at its best.

And, just as an addendum, I would submit the final scene of this film as among the finest in the entire series. It is a flashback to December 7, 1941, the Don’s birthday, and the family is sitting around the table waiting for Don Corleone to arrive for his surprise party. Everyone is there – Sonny, Fredo, Tom, Connie, Carlo, Tessio. Everyone is laughing and having a good time. Then Michael drops a bomb, announcing that he has enlisted in the Marines. It is Michael flashing back to his idealistic days and it is a perfect cap to arguably a perfect film.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1974: I basically went ahead and ran through my other favorites of this year. So, I’ll just go ahead and list them in rough order of preference. It’s also amazing to think that both of my top two films for the year are directed by Coppola. If he waits a year to release either of them, I can guarantee that it would have been my top movie of 1975.

- The Conversation (Coppola)
- Chinatown (Polanski)
- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Scorsese)
- California Split (Altman)
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

1973: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

Released: May 23, 1973

Sam Peckinpah; Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematography: John Coquillon; Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (original release), Warner Bros. (DVD); Producer: Gordon Carroll

Cast: James Coburn (Sheriff Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Bob Dylan (Alias), Richard Jaeckel (Sheriff Kip McKinney), Slim Pickens (Sheriff Colin Baker), Katy Jurado (Mrs. Baker), Chill Willis (Lemuel), Jason Robards (Governor Lew Wallace), R. G. Armstrong (Dept. Sheriff Bob Ollinger), Jack Elam (Alamosa Bill), Matt Clark (Dept. Sheriff J.W. Bell), Emilio Fernandez (Paco), Barry Sullivan (John Chisum)

- "Garrett: It... feels like times have changed.
The Kid: Times maybe, but not me."

There is one indelible sequence that remains with me from this film, almost haunts me really. Not haunts in the sense of scaring me or making me terrified, but leaving me in awe of how powerful an image can be. Amazingly, it’s not even an event that bears much significance in the central game of cat-and-mouse between the two titled characters. It is the walk to his death by Sheriff Colin Baker, played by veteran actor Slim Pickens. Mortally wounded while assisting Pat Garrett in a shootout, it as if Baker knows that that this will be the end. Mounting all of his strength, he begins to slowly stumble away from the site of the shooting, walking into the the colorful horizon toward a stream. Nearby, his wife sees him taking his final steps and lets out a wail, but nothing can stop the determined Baker on his death march. All of this action is set the to the strains of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” for which there could have not have been a more appropriate use. This scene epitomizes what made me fall in love with this film – the lyrical beauty of it all. For a director known for his excessive violence and hardened personality, this scene was the one that made me realize that there was more to the work of Sam Peckinpah than is commonly cited.

Much maligned upon its release, the troubles and pitfalls experienced during shooting and post-production are legendary. Filming was a near disaster, with many crew members catching the flu and technical difficulties being commonplace. Peckinpah continually clashed with MGM president James Aubrey, asking for both extra time and money that Aubrey was unwilling to grant. The director soldiered on, doing his best to see his own vision realized, which meant drafting local Mexican citizens to work as crew members and shooting some scenes without Aubrey’s knowledge. All of this meant that the movie was finished weeks after its expected completion date and ran well over budget. Still, despite all the trouble, Peckinpah felt that his original cut of the movie was among the finest films that he had ever made. As was to be expected, Aubrey disagreed and demanded that certain sequences in the film be removed. With control of MGM, Aubrey ultimately won, taking over post-production and significantly trimming the length. Peckinpah himself thought so little of the cut eventually released by the studio that he sued MGM in order to have his name removed from the credits.

Thankfully, rumors surrounding alternate cuts of the film continued to swirl in Hollywood and among movie fans, and eventually such versions closer to the original vision of Peckinpah would be released. In 1988, Turner Entertainment released a director’s cut of the film, restoring it to 122 minutes in length and causing many detractors of the film to reevaluate its merits. Later, in 2005, a DVD version would combine certain elements of both the theatrical release and the 1988 rerelease, resulting in a version slightly shorter in length than the director’s cut, but touted as being as close to the vision of Peckinpah as could be reached. It’s worth pointing out that in this write-up, I’m speaking to the 1988 and 2005 versions of the film. There is debate among which of the two is superior, but both are amazing films. Both include key elements that were absent in the theatrical version that elevate the film to a masterpiece in my opinion. If forced to choose, I would definitely say that the 1988 version is superior to all other cuts, but either of the two are worth seeing for someone watching for the first time. It’s also worth noting that I’ve come to this film very recently, having watched the two latest versions only within the last month or two and immediately fell in love with it. For someone who has never been a huge Peckinpah fan, even I was shocked at how quickly I was drawn to it.

The story, not surprisingly based on its very literal title, follows the final days of Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), the most famous of western outlaws in the late 1870s and 80s. Among his many comrades and friends is Pat Garrett (James Coburn), who once rode with The Kid but has now been hired as sheriff in order to clear him out of the New Mexico territory. With anyone at all familiar with western mythology or the legend of Billy the Kid, the ultimate conclusion of the story is never in doubt – Garret shot and killed the outlaw at Fort Sumner in 1881. The drama and tension of the story comes from the uncertainty over Garrett’s own conviction to follow through on the job that he was hired to perform. Early in the film, there is a scene in which Garrett warns Billy that he is now the sheriff and that he intends to rid New Mexico of him, whether that means chasing him out of the territory or killing him. It is as if Garrett is pleading with his old pal to leave for Old Mexico and not to make him have to kill him. He is telling him, like a father would a son, that the days of the renegade outlaw are over. But Billy, brash as always, refuses to heed the warning.

For all of the moments of bloodshed and shootouts that are found whenever Peckinpah is in the director’s seat, things are at times quite leisurely. This lilting pace gives the film a very dreamlike quality, which works perfectly and very much appealed to me. In this sense, the 1988 version of the film gets it right by inserting key sequences at the beginning and end of the film. In these sequences, we see an aged Pat Garrett as he is ambushed and killed. In the midst of the gunfire that will claim his life, the picture jumps back and forth to Garrett having flashbacks of his friendship with Billy the Kid. The ’88 version closes with similar shots of Garrett’s death, while the 2005 version uses only the flashback sequence in the opening. Both work, in my opinion, as it is necessary to set the proper tone for the dreamy feeling of the entire film -- although, admittedly, the 1988 is probably the better version. Also helping in creating the dreamlike effect is the fact that the strains of Bob Dylan’s soundtrack is always to be heard in the background, accentuating the beauty of shots created by Peckinpah and cinematographer John Coquillon. The movie in turn flows like the slow-moving river that Slim Pickens marches toward in his death scene, as if the audience is being bounced from one fleeting memory to another on the journey toward the end of the outlaw era.

While not earth-shattering, the performances are universally solid and the two leads give Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid very distinct and vibrant personalities. As played by Coburn, Garrett is the brooding ex-gunman who longs to be seen as a professional. In the Kid, Kristofferson plays him as impetuous as the historical record seems to indicate, while at the same time making the outlaw very likable. But in the end, the individual performances are not what is most striking about the overall production. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s the dreamlike quality and the sense that you are watching a requiem mass for a man and an era that makes it for me. I have often seen Pat Garret and Billy the Kid referred to as a revisionist western, but I think that this is something of a misnomer, as it has a different feel from other films that are categorized as such. To me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as brought to life by Peckinpah actually are romantic figures, but ones that have simply outlived their time and usefulness.

I may be partial due to a lifelong fascination with Billy the Kid, but I don’t hesitate in declaring this to be the finest work that I have seen from Sam Peckinpah. If you haven’t seen the two restored cuts of the film, you owe it to yourself to at least give them a shot. Chances are, they still will not be for everyone, but they are worth seeing for any fans of Peckinpah or westerns in general.

Rating: 10/10 (It was a 9 until I watched it again shortly before posting this and it got upped -- it's that great of an experience for me.)

Other Contenders for 1973: Had I not seen Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid before I got to this year in the countdown, there is really no doubt in my mind that George Lucas’ American Graffiti would have been my selection. I’m a sucker for well done nostalgia films and that one fits the bill perfectly. Lucas would go on to bigger blockbusters, but in my opinion he would never direct another film to equal American Graffiti. This is another year of many solid films, all bunched together behind the Peckinpah. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, the first western that the icon ever directed, is outstanding. Robert Altman’s take on the Philip Marlow character in The Long Goodbye is a must see. George Roy Hill made another Newman-Redford collaboration with The Sting, which I always find entertaining. My favorite Peter Bogdanovich movie is actually Paper Moon, which I know puts me in the minority. Martin Scorsese makes his first great gangster film with Mean Streets, and while I don’t rate it quite as highly as some others, it’s still one that needs to be seen. Don’t Look Now, from Nicholas Roeg, is at times chilling. And finally, The Spirit of the Beehive, from director Victor Erice, is one I’ve just recently seen but it’s quite good.

One movie I’ll have to point out that I’m not including is Badlands from Terrence Malick. Malick is among a handful of my favorite directors, but I have the unique opinion of his films that he has actually improved with each release, so I don’t rate Badlands as highly as most Malick enthusiasts.

All in all, though, a very deep year.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

1972: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)

Released: March 15, 1972

Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Screenplay: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola based on the novel by Mario Puzo; Cinematography: Gordon Willis; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Albert S. Ruddy

Cast: Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Santino “Sonny” Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams-Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Costanzia “Connie” Corleone), Richard S. Castellano (Pete Clemenza), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore “Sal” Tessio), Al Lettieri (Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo), Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi), Sterling Hayden (Captain McCluskey), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Richard Conte (Emilio Barzini), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), John Martino (Paulie Gatto), Victor Rendina (Philip Tattaglia)

With a movie that has acquired the reputation of The Godfather, it’s easy to take for granted what a masterpiece it is. After seeing it innumerable times, hearing the most famous lines repeated to the point that they have become clichés, and suffering through countless imitators that never manage to approach the brilliance of Coppola’s 1972 treasure, it’s easy to forget just how engrossing this three-hour opus truly is. I’ve seen it so many times that I feel like I know every facet of the film, which means that it had been a little while since I took the time to experience it again. Fortunately, this countdown slowed me down in my adventures into various areas of film and had me revisit favorites such as this, and watching it again just reinforces my love of it. I don’t care how stereotypical it is to say it, but this is on the short list of my all-time favorite movies.

The Godfather is a bona fide landmark. In the world of film, it has influenced virtually every organized crime movie that has been made since it debuted, specifically in depictions of “dons” and “bosses” that lead crime families. Don Corleone has become the prototype in the minds of the public at large of how a mob boss is supposed to look and act, and has subsequently been mimicked and imitated ever since. The dark photography of Gordon Willis is something of a blueprint for how to film crime dramas aspiring to the same epic sweep contained in The Godfather. But even beyond film, the movie has had an enormous impact on popular culture. I would venture to say that terms like “family,” “don,” “capo,” and “consigliere” were completely unknown to a majority of people before they became common lingo thanks to this film. The characters and story of the movie are almost universally known, with people being able to talk about the Corleone Family or Fredo and have others completely understand the references. Even if they haven’t seen the trilogy, they’re likely to have some idea about such allusions.

What has always amazed me, as well, is the extent to which this fictional portrayal of an organized crime family had such an enormous impact on the actual organizations. The movie’s popularity was so widespread, that the actions and ideals put forth in it became something like self-fulfilling prophecies in that even true wiseguys began trying to pattern themselves after the characters they saw on the screen. There are multiple accounts of guys who were involved in that lifestyle that admitted to essentially being shown how to act by watching The Godfather. Such proof is seen most clearly in the autobiography of former Gambino crime family underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, when he reminisces about the first time he saw the movie when it was released in 1972. At the time, he was just a 27 year old associate, but he remembers the experience like this: “I left that movie stunned. I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life... I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, everybody, who felt exactly the same way.” (from “Underboss” by Peter Maas). This romanticized vision of a life of organized crime was what guys like Gravano aspired to, what they wanted to believe. Evidence of influence such as this is obviously anecdotal, but to me it is incredibly fascinating and points to how widespread and potent the impact of this film was and continues to be.

Rather than go through the usual plot synopsis, I’m again going to assume that anyone reading this at least has a vague idea of the storyline, and instead focus on the aspects of the film that still leap out at me to this day after countless viewings. The first thing that always strikes me is the number of great performances. And I know that I tend to overuse the word “great,” but in this case I mean nothing less than _great_. I cannot think of another film that can match the number of spectacular, and arguably career-defining, performances that are found in this movie. Marlon Brando had a number of legendary roles over the course of his career, but chances are if you were to approach a stranger on the street and say “Marlon Brando” their first response would be “Don Corleone.” There are few images in film as iconic as Brando as Vito Corleone, cotton balls stuffed in his mouth to puff out his cheeks, stroking a cat as he waxes poetic behind a desk. It truly is a powerhouse performance, among the finest that I’ve ever seen, but it might not even be the best in the film. Michael, played by Al Pacino, is in actuality the main character of the story. It is his fall from grace as the Corleone’s one shot at legitimacy and his rise as the leader of the organization that provides the tragedy of the tale. Pacino’s performance is prickly, giving Michael an attitude that is never completely clear. From the time he arrives at his sister’s wedding at the beginning of the film until the time that underlings are kissing his ring as the new don, he is a complicated character. Even when he is dead set against joining the family business, it is still clear that he has admiration for his father and brothers. When he finally joins, it is more out of obligation than actual desire. In this film and throughout the entire trilogy, Pacino gives Michael the proper amount of darkness necessary to set him up as a character that can both be identified with and sometimes disliked.

These two lead performances are supplemented by the multitude of worthy contributing roles. My personal favorite is Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, the adopted Irish son of Don Corleone. Duvall is such a versatile actor, but whenever I picture him it is as the newly appointed consigliere, trying his damnedest to calm the hotheaded Sonny. Every other support performance adds to the film: James Caan as the wild Sonny, Lenny Montana as the ultra-loyal Luca Brasi, Richard Castellano as the lovable Clemenza, Al Lettieri as the snake Sollozzo, John Marley as the golden era studio executive, Abe Vigoda as the turncoat Tessio, Richard Conte’s Don Barzini as the power behind the scenes. There is not a bum performance in the film. Few films, even great ones, can make such an assertion.

It also blows me away to think of the number of “time capsule” scenes that are littered throughout the film. Just listing them is staggering. The ambitious opening wedding sequence that brilliantly introduces the audience to each major character. Don Corleone declaring that he is going to make Jack Woltz “an offer he can’t refuse.” The horse head in the bed with Woltz. The use of the falling oranges as Don Corleone runs from the assailants sent to kill him. The delivery of the package of a bulletproof vest and a dead fish. The scene in the diner as Michael kills Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. Sonny being gunned down at the toll booth. The showdown at the casino between Michael and Moe Greene. My personal favorite is the sequence in which Coppola displays his genius in juxtaposing the image of Connie’s infant son being christened at the same time that Michael orders the murders of the heads of the other five families. These are just off the top of my head and there are many more that could be added or substituted on such a list. The brilliance of the screenplay of Coppola and author Mario Puzo is that it weaves such episodes together seamlessly. And in terms of “time capsule” aspects of the films, I’ll just go ahead and tack on the score from Nino Rota here as well. Are any themes more instantly recognizable than that of The Godfather?

The other key thing that I want to acknowledge is one that many film lovers are well aware of, but is a feature of the film that does not receive near the credit that it should. One of the defining aspects is the photography of Gordon Willis. The color contrasts utilized by Willis suit what is happening on-screen perfectly. The famed wedding sequence takes place outdoors, where the camera is drenched in sunlight and things could not look more cheerful. At the same time, in the Don’s office, things are dark – at times nearly ink black, such as when Amerigo Bonasera pleads with the Don to start the film. In fact, a large majority of the film is an incredibly dark production. The film may be filmed in color, but there is a definite noir vibe to the photography. I wouldn’t say that Willis’ is an overlooked performance, but it’s one that certainly deserves more praise and recognition than it often receives.

If this write-up is lacking in gushing praise for Francis Ford Coppola, it’s just because I chose to focus my attention elsewhere. There will be many more chances to exalt the director in later years of what I consider to be “The Decade of Coppola.” I instead used this as an outlet just to ponder why I am as passionate about this film as I am. It might not be the most accurate portrayal of organized crime ever put to film – the oft-used description of “romanticized” is certainly accurate – but it is storytelling at its finest. It is a criminal version of the American Dream, one that is both endearing and frightening as the empire built by Corleone and those of legitimate businessmen are shown to be separated by a very fine line. I’ll end things with the talk between Michael and Vito that has stuck with me and emphasizes exactly this point.

Don Corleone: I work my whole life – I don't apologize – to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That's my life, I don't apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something...
Michael: Another pezzonovante.
Don Corleone: Well, there wasn't enough time, Michael. There just wasn't enough time.
Michael: We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1972:
I love, love, love Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. I am a sucker for historical fiction films like this and Herzog is at the top of his game in this one. The visuals are beautiful and there are obvious similarities to another favorite film, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s a great film and one that I would like to come back to and review after the countdown is completed. A very underrated film from this year is John Huston’s Fat City. A depressing look at the lives of fighters and their handlers, the performance by Nicholas Colasanto is outstanding. A lot of people seem to assume that Huston’s career had gone south by this point, but this proves that idea to be completely false.

Some of my other favorites from this year: Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock), Cabaret (Bob Fosse), Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci), and The Merchant of Four Seasons (R.W. Fassbinder).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

1971: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)

Released: June 24, 1971

Director: Robert Altman; Screenplay: Robert Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel by Edmund Naughton; Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producers: Mitchell Brower and David Foster

Cast: Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), Rene Auberjonois (Sheehan), William Devane (The Lawyer), John Schuck (Smalley), Corey Fisher (Mr. Elliot), Bert Remsen (Bart Coyle), Shelley Duvall (Ida Coyle), Keith Carradine (Cowboy), Michael Murphy (Sears), High Millais (Butler)

[NOTE: This was the first review ever written for this blog, and is re-posted here with only minor alterations. In reading back through it, I like to think that my writing for the site has improved somewhat, but I do stand by this write-up and think it captures what appeals to me so much about this film. I have added an "Other Contenders" section at the end to fit with the Year's Best Countdown, but other than that have kept the original review intact.]

The 1970s output of director Robert Altman is not only rightfully celebrated for its excellence but also because of the versatility he displayed in the various genres he tackled, and in many cases deconstructed, with his work. Over the short time span between 1970 and 1975, Altman was nothing short of prolific. During this time he produced his landmark anti-war film M*A*S*H, a complete re-working of the classic Philip Marlowe private eye character in The Long Goodbye, and a film that certainly left an impact on future generations of directors (here’s looking at you Paul Thomas Anderson) with the release of 1975’s Nashville. However the best movie he made during this incredibly creative period may very well be this exceptional 1971 release.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is unique from nearly any western to come before it. Until the climax of the film, it is essentially free from the usual macho, tough guy bravado and wild shootouts that have long been staples of the genre. It moves at a pace that could be described as lumbering, focusing more on the thoughts and actions of gambler John McCabe than on action to propel the storyline. To refer to this as an anti-western would be cliché, but as the viewer is drawn into the movie it becomes apparent that the picture being painted of the settling of the American frontier is not one that is very pleasant for anyone involved.

The story centers on gambler and entrepreneur John McCabe (Warren Beatty), who rides into the upstart mining town of Providence City. With the reputation of a former gunslinger, McCabe is able to angle himself into the purchase of property on which he plans to build a saloon to house everything from gambling and drinking to a whorehouse. In the process of constructing his business, McCabe meets Constance (Mrs.) Miller (Julie Christie), a veteran madam who convinces him that the real money is in creating a high-class establishment with fine women and equally fine prices. Mrs. Miller manages to convince him that she is precisely the person who can help him create and run the business, promising to import and manage the women herself. After taking her in as a partner, McCabe quickly establishes himself as the leading businessman in town.

The problems start for McCabe when a large mining company begins to make overtures about buying out all of McCabe’s interests in Providence City. Continually rejecting their tempting offers, McCabe believes that he is playing hardball in negotiations, expecting the miners to begin increasing their offers. Instead, the mining company decides to take the business by force, turning the matter over to a mercenary of sorts to see that McCabe is pushed out. On top of this, McCabe’s life is further complicated by the fact that he has fallen in love with Mrs. Miller. McCabe resists Miller’s urgings to leave Providence City and start over in a new town, leading to his inevitable showdown with the mining mercenaries.

The overwhelming sense of griminess and filth is felt throughout the entire movie. Providence City is not like the settings in a John Ford or Howard Hawks western. The photography from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is dark and extremely gloomy. The town is filthy, full of puddles, mud, and grime. Snow seems to fall at nearly all times. It works to create quite a brooding atmosphere, but one that fits perfectly with the pacing of the film and laid-back nature of the characters. The strength of Zsigmond's work cannot be exaggerated. There are certain shots in the film that are stunning and gorgeous. These are contrasted with the filth and dirt described above and create an unsettling feeling to all of the visuals.

The fact that there is not “action” in the traditional sense for most of the film adds to the dream-like quality. The film simply flows. McCabe is a man who is on a journey to try and find a place of his own, where he can put down roots and escape his “Pudgy” McCabe persona from the past. This is driven home in the scenes of him traveling in the stark Northwestern landscape, set to the soundtrack created by Leonard Cohen. Is he really simply trying to up the ante with the mining company or is he hesitant to sell his business because he appears to have finally found a place of his own where he can be successful? I think that is open for debate, as he only willingly looks to make a deal once he recognizes the forces that have been aligned against him. The gloominess is repeatedly broken up by lighthearted moments and quips, usually coming from McCabe himself. Things like his trademark line of “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass so much” manage to lighten things, but never to the point where you forget that there is a distinct feeling of doom hanging over the dealings of John McCabe.

This is my favorite performance from Warren Beatty. He plays the character to perfection. He is equally adept at showing McCabe to be an enterprising businessman and in displaying the idiosyncrasies of the character – things like drinking his double whiskey with an added raw egg or the constant conversations that he has with himself. It is an interesting lead character in a Western, as it's a character that is rumored to be a former gunslinger, but not someone who ever comes off as believable in the role. In addition to the persona that McCabe uses to push himself to the top of business in the town, Beatty is able to show how tenuous a grasp that McCabe truly has over his own emotions and situation.

While I don't intend to give away all the details as to how the movie plays out, this article would be incomplete without mentioning the stunning finish to the film. McCabe recognizes that the three mercenaries sent by the mining company are making their way across the town in order to kill him. At over twenty minutes in length, this cat-and-mouse game played out in a heavy snow storm is incredible to watch. Filmed without any soundtrack or background music, it is just with the sounds of the men crunching through the elements and trying to get the drop on the other. It is truly an iconic sequence of events and the final frames of the film are unforgettable.

As already mentioned, Robert Altman made a number of outstanding films over the course of his career, but this is without question my personal favorite. Although it is different from traditional westerns, it is as atmospheric in its own unique way as any other film in the genre. Equal parts humorous and tragic, Altman manages to draw you deep into the story and keep you hoping that things do not turn out as desolately as you recognize they likely will.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1971:
A really solid year in 1971, if not quite reaching the heights of the top films in surrounding years. The two closest contenders for me in this year are actually two Shakespeare adaptations. I have to confess that I've been on a Shakespeare on film binge lately, but I still think that these are outstanding movies regardless. Grigori Kozintsev has already made this countdown with a Shakespeare adaptation with 1964's Hamlet and he also repeated the feat with this year's King Lear. I slightly prefer the Hamlet, but this one is excellent as well. The other one given serious consideration was Roman Polanski's Macbeth. It's very bloody and violent, which is to be expected considering this time period in Polanski's life. But Macbeth is a story that is very bloody and violent even in its original form, so it fits.

Some others from 1971 that I really like: The French Connection (William Friedkin), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel), and Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle). And, due entirely to the love of this film by Sam Juliano, I did revisit The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich) for this countdown and had a more positive experience with it than I had in the past. I still don't consider it at the same level as Sam and most others do, but I can now say that I like it. Does this make me a hypocrite? Possibly, but I think it's fair for tastes to change over time.

I dislike Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange like no other, so I won't devote much time to it outside of recognizing it's place in cinematic history and that I am in the _extreme_ minority with this opinion of the film.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

1970: The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Released: October 22, 1970

a.k.a.: Il Conformista

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci; Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci based on the novel by Alberto Moravia; Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro; Studios: Mars Film, Paramount Pictures; Producers: Giovanni Bertolucci and Maurizio Lodi-Fe

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Giulia), Gastone Moschin (Manganiello), Enzo Tarascio (Professor Quadri), Fosco Giachetti (The Colonel), Jose Quaglio (Italo), Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri), Pierre Clementi (Lino), Yvonne Sanson (Giulia’s Mother), Giuseppe Addobbati (Marcello’s Father)

I have an interesting personal history with The Conformist and the unique path taken as it has become an all-time favorite. Long unavailable on Region 1 DVD in the United States, when I finally got a copy upon its long-awaited release, I was watching it based primarily on reputation. Outside of it being lauded as among the finest films ever made, I actually knew very little about it. I had a general outline of what the story would be about, but was in no way prepared for the way the story is told. And after my first viewing, I was appreciative of the cinematography and glad that I finally had the chance to see it, but outside of that I didn’t think that it would merit many subsequent viewings.

And then the strangest thing happened. As I went about my usual movie-watching for the next few days, moving down the list of the never-ending “need to watch” list, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Conformist. Something about it that was embedded in my mind made me revisit it and give it a second appraisal. Since then, as I’ve watched it a number of other times, my appreciation continues to grow. While it was the stunning photography that originally drew me in, I’ve now come to find the story fascinating, at times downright chilling, and one that holds up very well to multiple viewings.

In making this masterpiece at just 29 years of age, director Bernardo Bertolucci set expectations that he has unsuccessfully been trying to live up to ever since. He has certainly come close – I am definitely a fan of 1900 and The Last Emperor – but I feel confident in saying that The Conformist towers over his other works. Bertolucci was recommended Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel by a girlfriend who had recently read it. However, being so busy on another film project, he never found the time to actually read Moravia’s original work. Amazingly enough, he went to a producer at Paramount and told him the story based solely upon the description of his girlfriend. The producer read the novel, approved the idea, and Bertolucci then set to work writing a screenplay for a novel that he had not properly read. Instead, he sat at a typewriter and essentially winged it, adapting and adding as he thought would best fit the screen.

The result is a cerebral political thriller and a visual masterwork. The story follows Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who has an unmatched yearning to be the perfect “conformist.” He wants to be seen as a normal in every way – with women, with his sexuality, with friends, with the government, in everything that he does. In the 1930s Italy that is the setting of the movie, this means that Marcello has become determined to be seen as a dedicated follower of Mussolini’s Fascists. But true to the title of the film, he does not do this out of any great political or ideological convictions. Rather, he dedicates himself to the Fascists out of a desire to be seen as fitting in. Likely because of his malleable character, the Fascist leaders recognize the opportunity to use Marcello for their own purposes. His former college philosophy professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) is a leftist who has become a leader of exiled anti-Fascist. Now living in Paris, out of the reach of party leaders, it is decided to send Marcello to rekindle his acquaintance with Quadri and then kill him. Marcello takes his new bride Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) with him to Paris and soon the couple is growing closer to Quadri and his wife Ana (Dominique Sanda). Marcello steadily grows more conflicted on whether he can go through with killing his former mentor, while at the same time finding himself becoming more and more attracted to Ana. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Giulia and Ana seem to be attracted to each other as well.

A series of flashbacks are interspersed throughout the narrative that could at times confuse an inattentive viewer, as it could be unclear exactly when an event is taking place. It is far from incomprehensible however, and the flashbacks are used brilliantly, as Bertolucci inserts them at key points that allow Marcello to reflect on past events before he embarks on serious affairs in the present. Through these various flashbacks, details about Marcello’s life reveal episodes that have shaped him into the compliant person that he has become. Most significant is his remembrance of a homosexual encounter he had as a child with a chauffeur named Lino (Pierre Clementi). Lino would lure young boys to his room and then engage in sexual acts, but in this case Marcello grabbed hold of a gun in the room and began firing. It is unclear whether he intentionally meant to harm Lino – but rather is just showing a childlike fascination with controlling a firearm – but in the process he hits the chauffeur with a shot. Believing he has killed the man, Marcello flees and is haunted by the memory of the entire episode for the rest of his life.

It amazes me now that at I was not at first all that interested in the story, which looking at it now is very interesting. The performance of Jean-Louis Trintignant is superb, making every struggle and indecision experienced by Marcello feel arduous and giving the political tale a very human facet. But if one does overlook the compelling nature of the story, it is understandable because the visuals are so overwhelming that they can easily overshadow any other aspect of the film. Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro are among the greatest of director-cinematographer duos, having worked together on a number of films – this, Last Tango in Paris, 1900, and The Last Emperor among others. This outdoes all other collaborations between the two, and probably outdoes anything else that Storaro has ever done. This is a very subjective statement, I know, and I love the work that he did on Apocalypse Now, but it just underscores how amazed I remain at the look created in this film. Were it not for the three most recent movies of Terrence Malick (with “recent” being a relative term whenever one is discussing Malick!), I would consider declaring The Conformist to be my favorite cinematography.

This is an achingly beautiful film, with Storaro managing to create an atmosphere that manages to be picturesque and simultaneously melancholy. The colors are muffled in their intensity but used with extraordinary taste. Just witness the opening moments with Marcello seated on a bed, waiting on a phone call, drenched in the red glow of a sign outside his hotel window. Or the gorgeous blues that surround Marcello and Ana as they try to fight their urge to get intimate. Storaro and Bertolucci combine to create scenes that have the power to haunt the viewer long after the film has ended. The sequence in the woods, with the frantic Ana banging on the car window for help as Marcello forces himself to ignore her is cinematic perfection.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1970: Another outstanding year with a number of films that I really like. The strongest competition for me came from another gem from Jean-Pierre Melville, who very nearly took the top spot in three out of five years. While I don't consider Le Cercle Rouge to be quite as strong as Le Samourai or Army of Shadows, it's still a great film in its own right. Alain Delon played characters like this better than anyone else.

No other films really threatened to overtake either The Conformist or Le Cercle Rouge, but here are some other from this year that I really like: M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman); Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner), on the basis of the outstanding performance from George C. Scott; Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh); The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Vittorio De Sica).

Friday, August 21, 2009

1969: Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)

Released: September 12, 1969

a.k.a.: L'armée des ombres

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville; Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Joseph Kessel; Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Studios: Les Films Corona and Fono Roma; Producer: Jacques Dorfmann

Cast: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean Françoise Jardie), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Claude Mann (Claude Ullmann/“Le Masque”), Paul Crauchet (Felix Lepercq), Christian Barbier (Guillame Vermersch/“Le Bison”), Serge Reggiani (The Hairdresser)

Jean-Pierre Melville is the only director who could have made Army of Shadows and achieved such spectacular results. There certainly are other directors that have excelled in making “war films” and could have outdone any action sequences that Melville created. There are definitely other directors, both French and around the world, who have successfully explored the struggles of common French citizens in their efforts to resist the Nazi occupation. But in Melville, there was a man who could not only adapt compelling source material for the screen, but also draw upon his own unique experiences in the Resistance movement. Even more importantly, Melville represented a director who quite naturally created characters that went well beyond the clichéd heroes common to many films dealing with World War II. Utilizing his knack for creating the brooding, conflicted people that are used so perfectly in his crime dramas, Melville transplanted these same characters into the setting of 1940s France and allows the audience to appreciate the decisions that these seemingly ordinary men were forced to grapple with.

This is what stands out to me most about Army of Shadows and why I make the bold statement at the beginning of this piece. Knowing Melville’s track record, it seems obvious to me that he was the perfect fit to make the travails of characters like Gerbier, Luc and Mathilde come alive and feel harrowing to everyone watching. In the 1960s, prior to beginning work on Army of Shadows, Melville made three highly-acclaimed crime dramas that presented heroes that were far from perfect. In Le Doulos, Le deuxième soufflé, and Le Samourai, the lead characters are ones that are difficult to classify. These men may be criminals, but they all show redeeming qualities that reveal dualities to their personalities. Nothing is ever completely as they seem with any of them, whether it be Jef Costello or Maurice Faugel.

So it is in Army of Shadows, which feels very much like a noir-meets-war film. Absolutely nothing is black and white. Even when the answers to problems confronted by the various characters appear obvious, the actual execution or implementation of the answer is never simple. This gray area is what makes the drama so riveting. Rather than displaying French heroes performing herculean feats and slaughtering any Nazi in their path, Melville highlights the haunting decisions that must be made by those leading the Resistance. Even though men like Gerbier have dedicated their lives to freeing France and defeating the Nazis, the trepidation with which they make life-and-death decisions for themselves and others feels sincere.

The movie focuses on the efforts of engineer turned Resistance fighter Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), who at the start of the film is being transported to a Nazi internment camp. While being transferred from this camp, Gerbier sees an opening and makes a daring escape. Managing to dodge the gunfire that ensues, he works his way back to Marseille and reenters the Resistance network that he heads in that city. The film then fleshes out the extent of the secretive organizations operating throughout France, as the various contacts that Gerbier works with are revealed. We meet Felix (Paul Crauchet), his second-in-command in Marseille, and the always-effective Mathilde (Simone Signoret), who as a woman appears to be completely above suspicion by the authorities in Paris. There are also more mysterious figures that are known only by codenames like Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and Le Masque (Claude Mann). It eventually emerges that they all answer to a boss in Paris, but only a select few are aware of his true identity (which will not be revealed here!).

The story is told very matter-of-factly, making it the antithesis of any romantic visions of the French Resistance movement or WWII in general. At times, the movie is downright brutal, and will make a viewer squirm and hesitate in the same way that the characters on the screen do. The scene in which Gerbier and his underlings uncover a turncoat and drive him to a safe house in order to execute him makes me uncomfortable in a way that few other scenes I have ever viewed are capable of. They drive the man, who in actuality looks like a boy barely out of his teens, to the house and realize that the neighbors are home. This rules out the original plan of shooting him and disposing of him quickly. The men then begin going over the possible methods of execution, trying to come upon the one least likely to alert the neighbors. All of these machinations take place while the soon-to-be victim looks on, terrified by the fact that he is witness to the planning of his own execution. Plus, the more discussion that takes place, the more time that is allowed for the enormity of the situation to sink in upon Gerbier, Felix, Le Bison and Le Masque. When they finally settle on strangling him, the assassins themselves are so horrified by the prospect that they argue over who is actually going to carry it out. Eventually the man is strangled with a dishtowel and although there is little gore or blood, it is among the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen in film. It is impossible not to sympathize with these men who are trying to act as detached partisan leaders, but can never completely shed their ordinary civilian personas.

Melville couples such psychologically troubling scenes with sequences that are reminiscent of the action sequences he perfected in his gangster films. Gerbier’s escape from the Nazis is the equal of a Hollywood action blockbuster. So too is the distressing scene in which his would-be Nazi executors instruct Gerbier and other captives to start running down a dark hallway in hopes of outrunning the machine guns that they have set up. They tell the men that anyone who can successfully run the gamut will be spared. There are other exciting scenes that are more familiar in similar war films such as Philippe being secretly spirited away to London by a British submarine or his parachuting back into France in order to reenter the country undetected.

Lino Ventura as Gerbier is spot on. As a bespectacled, middle-aged engineer, he is completely believable. He lends credence to the idea that most of the people involved in the Resistance were ordinary citizens thrust into extraordinary situations. When he grapples with important decisions that must be made, the trepidation displayed feels not only understandable but fitting. Jean-Pierre Cassel as Françoise Jardie and Simone Signoret as Mathilde are excellent as well, but it is Ventura who stands out from all of them.

How this movie was released to a middling reception in France and was never officially released in the United States until 2006 is mystifying to me. From the opening iconic shot of Nazi storm troopers marching through the Champs-Elysées until the devastating finale (which, again, will not be revealed here, but let me take the time to reiterate how amazing I feel the finish is), there is hardly a misstep in the entire film. Melville may have directed “better” films, depending on how you want to define that subjective term, but he never made a movie more moving than Army of Shadows.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1969: In looking everything over, I realized that 1969 was a very good year, even if there is at least one major film that I couldn't get a copy of to watch for this countdown. The one key film that I have not seen is Costa Gavras' Z, which is one that I'm guessing would be right up my alley. On the bright side, it looks like Criterion is releasing the film in late October, so while that does nothing for this countdown it will be nice to finally get to see it.

As for those that I have seen, there are two favorites in this runner-up category. The first is the counterculture road story Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper. I know that it turns a lot of people off, but I genuinely enjoy it -- the craziness, the great use of pop music, the snapshot of a certain era and subculture. The other is George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is my favorite Paul Newman-Robert Redford collaboration and among my favorite westerns as well. The other movie that I would acknowledge, although I don't place it in the same category as the previous two, is Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.

For a second straight year I also have to point out that I go against the conventional pick of the top film of this year, as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one that I have never cared for. I can think of two Peckinpah westerns that I find to be vastly superior to The Wild Bunch and have always been surprised to see this one lauded so much more than other efforts of his that I think are much better. Just a personal opinion, and the influence that The Wild Bunch has had on westerns and film in general is undeniable.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

1968: Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

Released: December 21, 1968 (Italy)

a.k.a.: C’era una volta il West

Director: Sergio Leone; Screenplay: Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati based on the story by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci; Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli; Studios: Finanzia San Marco, Rafran Cinematografica, Paramount Pictures; Producer: Fulvio Morsella; Executive Producer: Bino Cicogna; Music: Ennio Morricone

Cast: Henry Fonda (Frank), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson (Harmonica), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Snaky), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain)

Yes, I know that this one debuted in the United States and worldwide in 1969, but in sticking with my original guidelines in choosing my #1 for each year, I am going with the earliest release date. By that criterion, Once Upon a Time in the West becomes a 1968 movie and saves me the giant migraine that would undoubtedly set in if I had would be forced to choose between this western classic and the film that I have chosen for 1969 (but more on that in two days!).

I have a unique history with the films of Sergio Leone, particularly his westerns. The first movie of Leone’s that I ever watched was actually his final film Once Upon a Time in America. This one is known to be something of an acquired taste, but I loved it from the start. His westerns, however, I did not warm to immediately. I decided that I would go through them chronologically, so I watched the entire Man With No Name trilogy, going into it with unbelievably high expectations. Upon first viewing, I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. I liked them, but not to the extent that I had been led to believe that I would. This meant that as I went into Once Upon a Time in the West, I expected a similar reaction. Instead, I quickly realized that this was what I was originally expecting of a Sergio Leone western. It was an engrossing experience.

Following multiple characters through storylines that are woven together into one cohesive narrative, Leone depicts the once Wild West becoming civilized. The movie begins with an iconic opening scene in which three men wait at a train station to kill the enigmatic Harmonica (Charles Bronson) when he gets off of the train. Executed with leisurely pacing that makes the buildup more tense, it culminates in a shootout that sees Harmonica kill all three men before continuing on his journey. Around the same time, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) waits with his children on the desolate farmland for the arrival of his new wife. Before she can arrive, however, the family is massacred by a group of hired outlaws led by the notorious Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank and his men are hired by the railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who covets the McBain farm in order to complete his vision of a railroad all the way to the Pacific. In order to conceal who is behind the massacre, Frank attempts to plant evidence that will lay the blame at the feet of another outlaw, the recently escaped Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Eventually, Cheyenne and Harmonica come together in opposition to Frank, protecting Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) when she becomes entwined in the chaos.

To go much further with a plot summary would require a lengthy essay. Suffice it to say that the story is epic in scope and plays like an elegy to the Old West that Leone and other legendary directors had created in their films. In Frank, you have the outlaw gunslinger who realizes that the days of he and his compatriots are quickly coming to an end. He is scrambling desperately to ensure that he remains important and that he maintains a line of work that will utilize his coldblooded skill set. Frank works for Morton, despite the fact that men like Morton are the root cause of making Frank obsolete. Cheyenne is in a similar position, in that as an outlaw he is finding it impossible to maneuver as he once did. His past reputation allows him to be set up by Frank, leaving him a man with a bounty on his head and all the dangers that entails. Harmonica’s entire life has been consumed by a vendetta, a commonly depicted occurrence in western tales. And sometimes overlooked, is how the journey of Jill McBain is illustrative of the death of the Old West. For so long the west represented a land where people had the ability to start over; where an individual’s history could be overcome. Jill is a woman that is moving to the west in search of such a new beginning, hoping to forget her past as a prostitute in New Orleans. Instead, she is quickly jolted into the reality that such an option is no longer viable and is plunged into the resulting chaos.

The image of the Old West has come full circle, from the mythology of John Ford all the way to the apparent end of an era in Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone even went to Monument Valley, the favorite location for John Ford, and filmed breathtaking scenes of Jill being driven to the McBain farm. I don’t want to extend this metaphor too far, so I am in no way insinuating that this would be the last of the great western movies – far from it, as great westerns have continued to be made until the present, if at a less consistent pace. But it is fascinating to see Sergio Leone – a man who loved westerns to the point that in preparation for this film he, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento embarked on a marathon of classic westerns in order to spark ideas – crafting a movie that could almost serve as a final chapter in a history of the west.

The movie is a collaborative effort that emerges even greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of acting, what elevates the film for me is the interaction between the characters and the smooth transitions that weave different strands of the plot together. My main gripe in other Leone westerns is that they can sometimes play like a series of vignettes, where individual scenes stand alone rather than working cohesively as one film. This is never an issue in Once Upon a Time in the West – things might feel overly-sprawling at times, but they are always brought back in sync. This is why I say that the film is a collaborative effort, as Leone and the other writers deserve credit, but so too do the actors. The casting of Henry Fonda, an All-American icon, as the ruthless Frank must have been a head-scratcher at the time. Even Fonda was reticent, as he initially turned down the role. However, he would soon come to regard it as among his finest performances, and I defy anyone to argue otherwise. The other performances each contribute their own unique flavor to the film. Robards as Cheyenne adds many lighthearted moments. Harmonica, played perfectly by Charles Bronson, is the brooding enigma that adds mystery to it all. Basically, what I’ve said in a rather long-winded way is that the movie flows remarkably well for a film this epic in scope and length.

Still, for all of the deserved praise of those on-screen, things would not be the same without those who contributed behind the camera. I go back and forth on what is my favorite Sergio Leone film, but this one is never lower than #2. It is amazing to think that if Leone had had his way, he would have abandoned westerns after the Dollars Trilogy and moved on to other projects. The studios wanted to cash in on his western appeal and convinced him to make another. Thankfully, Leone acquiesced and this was the result. He had already proven himself to be a director of immaculate visual style and his collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli was successful on the earlier The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. In this film they outdid even that effort, with sweeping pans and visual flourishes that rival anything ever done in the genre.

And then there is Ennio Morricone. He had already created the popular scores for the Dollars Trilogy and he would go on to compose outstanding work for decades to come. But I continue to believe that this is the finest score that he ever composed. An equally strong claim can be made that this isn’t even the best score that Morricone wrote for a Leone film, let alone in his entire career, but that just shows how strong his overall body of work is. The music is spectacular, and the memorable melody of the title song is one that I continually have stuck in my head after watching.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1968: This is a down year for my tastes, with the Leone film standing far, far ahead of any other contenders. The other films that were given serious consideration were actually very few, but they would be: Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski), The Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman) The Bride Wore Black (Francois Truffaut), The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey).

My guess would be that Stanley Kubrick's landmark science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey will be a very popular pick. I can appreciate much of the visual innovation, but in all honesty the movie has never done much for me and there are many other Kubricks that I prefer.

I would like to see Ingmar Bergman's Shame but have not yet had the opportunity, so shame on me!

Monday, August 17, 2009

1967: Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville)

Released: October 25, 1967

Jean-Pierre Melville; Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Pellegrin based on the novel “The Ronin” by Joan McLeod; Cinematography: Henri Decaë; Studio: Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique (CICC); Producers: Raymond Borderie and Eugène Lépicier

Cast: Alain Delon (Jef Costello), François Perier (Inspector), Caty Rosier (Valerie), Nathalie Delon (Jan Lagrange), Jacques Leroy (Gunman), Michel Boisrand (Wiener), Jean-Pierre Posier (Olivier Rey), Catherine Jourdan (The Hat-Check Girl), Robert Favart (Barman)

- “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.”

With 1967’s Le Samouraï, director Jean-Pierre Melville generated the perfect mix of style, coolness, intelligence and suspense, and crafted one of the best crime dramas to ever be released. In terms of style and “cool,” none has ever been able to equal hitman Jef Costello, or even more so, the overall atmosphere created throughout the entire film. It screams of being hipper than anything you’ll ever see. Far from being based entirely on style, the script and direction takes the ultra-cool Costello character and allows Alain Delon to carry out a study into what makes a man like this tick. Melville probes into the killer’s psyche, laying out and ultimately testing the code that he has lived by for his entire professional life. And all of this is done in such a manner as to feel like one big game of chess, pitting the police force of Paris against the lone wolf assassin. It is suspenseful until the end and when it finally reaches its dramatic conclusion, it allows each viewer to recalibrate the events of the story to fit their own interpretation of the finish.

So with that opening paragraph I’ve pretty much laid it all out as to why I consider Le Samouraï to be among my favorite films. Since in most of my reviews here I’m not exactly into the whole brevity thing, I’ll soldier on, but I think that paragraph succinctly sums up why I praise this film so much.

Jean-Pierre Melville was such a versatile director and he has many films that I adore, but anyone who watches his movies will instantly understand that this is a man that had a passion for American noirs and crime dramas. The influence is glaringly obvious in 1962’s Le Doulos, where he uses black and white photography to great effect, creating scenes that one would expect from directors like Siodmak or Lang in their noir heydays. The same is true of Le Samouraï, despite the fact that it is not filmed in black and white. The fact that it is shot in color is incidental, as the same atmosphere and visual tones are created by Melville throughout the film. They may be in color, but every visual has gloomy overtones. The interiors are shady nightclubs or dim apartments, the exteriors involve chases through city streets or driving through gray skies and rain. Every action is ominous, every camera movement is used to generate suspicion, and the result is Melville taking a very leisurely-paced film and making it thrilling.

The fictitious samurai code that is displayed to start the film (Melville made it up) is descriptive of the life lead by Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello is a supremely confident freelance hitman, whose services are continually in demand due to his perfectionist nature. He works and lives in complete solitude, with the exception of late-night trysts with his part-time girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon, Alain’s actual wife at the time of filming). He lives in a sparsely furnished apartment, with little more than a bed, a bookcase, and a pet bird that he shows a unique affection for. Such a character also reveals Melville’s love of American noir, as anyone familiar with 1942’s This Gun For Hire will immediately recognize the similarities between Jef and Alan Ladd’s Philip Raven. Like Raven, Jef’s entire life revolves around the contracts that he receives and seeing that they are carried out efficiently and without incident. This is telling because in the assassination that opens the film, Jef is uncharacteristically sloppy in his execution, allowing several witnesses to see him, among them the beautiful piano player Valerie (Caty Rosier). When he is arrested for the murder, he is placed in a lineup and appears to be sunk. However, when asked to identify the killer, Valerie surprisingly declares that Jef is not the man, even though it appears that there is a twinkle of recognition on her part.

The police are forced to release Jef, but the Inspector (François Perier) is convinced that he has found his man. The ambiguity between the good guys and the bad is highlighted by the methods used by the Inspector in his efforts to convict Jef. The Inspector tries to blackmail Jane into admitting to lying by corroborating Jef’s alibi on the night of the murder. Jane, the ever faithful girlfriend, refuses and resigns herself to accepting the wrath of the Inspector.

For Jef, his life is in disarray after the messy contract. On one end he has the police trying desperately to catch him, using elaborate measures to track his movements and planting bugs in his apartment. There is a wonderful sequence in which the Inspector communicates officers via radio, directing them in following Jef through the Paris subway. The underworld is also after Jef because of his shoddy performance. When he goes to meet the contact of his employers, rather than receiving payment for his services the contact tries to kill him. Jef is only wounded, but it sets him down a path of trying to discover who it is that hired him and then tried to have him killed. Eventually, the same man who took a shot at him tries to hire him to kill the employer, Olivier Rey. Sensing a setup, Jef quickly surmises that he is being hemmed in on all fronts. He eventually decides that his only way out is one final job, but this time he doesn’t even bother with his usual precautions.

The superstar of the film for me will always be Jean-Pierre Melville, for the various reasons I have already expounded upon, but Alain Delon and François Perier work as perfect foils. Delon plays the brooding Jef in such a way as to at first make him come across as an enigma, but the more that he reveals about the character the more obvious it becomes why the movie is titled Le Samouraï. Despite the gruesome work he does, Jef is a man who most certainly lives by a code. He believes that there are ways that things are done in his business and that certain things are off-limits – after all, how else can one explain the ending? Conversely, the Inspector, who is supposed to be the good guy, is not above bending the rules in order to attain his own goals. He tries to strong-arm Jane and is determined to convict Jef at all costs. In comparing the two, the argument can actually be made that Jef is the more honorable of the two in adherence to the particular code that each has vowed to follow.

It is funny that once again in this countdown, in a year that is seen as ground-breaking in Hollywood, that I choose another French masterpiece to trump the many great films from the United States in this year. Le Samouraï is that good and is absolutely essential for everyone interested in cinema to see.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1967: A pair of legendary American films come in a close second for me in this year. The first is Mike Nichols' The Graduate, which is always a joy to watch. It manages to be both artistic and fun, at times laugh out loud funny. The malaise that can set in at a time like graduating from college is something that I can certainly relate to. Plus, it has some of the best use of pop music in film. The second movie of this pair is Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn. This was certainly a trendsetting film, but leaving all that aside, it is also very entertaining. This isn't my favorite performance from Warren Beatty, but he is still outstanding.

These two films and Le Samouraï really stand out from the pack for me, but here would be other films to acknowledge for me in 1967: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young), Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel), Playtime (Jacques Tati), Point Blank (John Boorman), The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó)