What John Keats called the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is a gift to filmmakers, especially since the advent of colour. Black-and-white cinema served us well for decades, but what use was it to capture autumn’s annual display as leaves turn through dazzling shades of red, orange and brown?
Summertime films feast on that season’s sense of chance and hedonistic opportunity, but by autumn that ripeness is starting to turn. For a brief, resplendent moment, colour is everywhere, but then the leaves fall, the nights darken, and a mantle of melancholy settles over the earth in anticipation of the descent into winter.
The autumn in cinema is lovers kicking up leaves in parks (When Harry Met Sally…, 1989; Autumn in New York, 2000); repressed emotions bubbling out from under in New England small towns; and Alvin Straight driving his tractor across farmland America during harvest season (The Straight Story, 1999). It’s horror movies set at Halloween, or warming Thanksgiving comedies.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
There are films about harvest time, from City Girl (1929) and Earth (1930) to Days of Heaven (1978) and Tess (1979), and relationship dramas from the likes of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen that thrive on the season’s downcast ambience. Woody’s New York is so often an autumnal New York – never more so than in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987) and Another Woman (1988), his mini cycle of autumn films in the late 1980s.
A list of 10 omits so much, but what follows are some of the cinematic autumn’s brightest moments.
The Stranger (1946)
Director Orson Welles
“Gets dark earlier these days,” storekeeper Mr Potter (Billy House) remarks across a draughts board, killing time while he waits for wily investigator Mr Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) to take his turn. And, sure enough, the leaves are falling from the trees in the small Connecticut town of Harper, leaving denuded branches for the stark winter ahead.
Potter’s drugstore is the acme of small-town normality, rivalled only by the church and the schoolhouse as the focus of a community’s comings and goings. But there’s a stranger in this wholesome midst: a high-ranking Nazi abomination, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), hiding out as a respectable New England schoolmaster while he awaits the rise of a Fourth Reich.
Welles’s third film, after Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger proved he could do a straightforward thriller too, but one that leaves no doubt of whose imagination is behind the camera. It’s a picture of homely Americana to rank with Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but confronts a flipside of horror in its incorporation of footage of the Nazi concentration camps from the still-recent war.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Director Douglas Sirk
Here we are in small-town Connecticut again, though this time the malignant forces come from within. Douglas Sirk’s heartbreaking 1955 melodrama casts Jane Wyman as middle-class widow Cary Scott, whose romance with her rugged gardener (Rock Hudson) causes a scandal among the local gossips at the country club. Scott’s intellectualising daughter blithely refers to the Ancient Egyptian tradition of entombing widows with their dead husbands, but her and her brother’s rejection of their mother’s handyman beau amounts to something similar. While it suits them, they want their mother to stay in their family home, surrounded by the memorabilia of a respectable marriage. To compensate, they buy her a television set for Christmas: “All you have to do is turn that dial and you’ll have all the company you want. Right there on the screen.”
But before we feel that dual chill of conformity and Christmas, Sirk luxuriates in one of the most resplendent autumns on screen. The wide streets and front gardens of the fictional town of Stonington are lined with trees whose leaves have turned all shades of brown and orange.
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Three films into our list and it’s clear where the leaves fall most beautifully in the cinema: New England. While we don’t think of him as a director whose head was easily turned by a pretty landscape, Alfred Hitchcock heard the call of the wild in 1954 when he decamped with cast and crew to Vermont to film The Trouble with Harry amid the fall colours which draw visitors from around the world each year.
A macabre comedy about a body that refuses to stay buried, it’s an unusually rustic entry in the Hitchcock canon that’s reminiscent of his Shadow of a Doubt in its subversion of our image of the squeaky-clean American small town. In Highwater, Vermont, the tragedy of Harry’s death plays second fiddle to the farce of the citizens’ attempts to keep the corpse concealed, with huntsman Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) and Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) all separately believing themselves responsible for his death. The humour is jet black but it plays out against the fleeting, gilded beauty of deciduous trees on the turn. Too fleeting in fact, and when Hitchcock’s crew arrived too late to catch autumnal Vermont in its prime, they were forced to glue fallen leaves back onto branches.
An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
Director Yasujiro Ozu
The scene changes from New England to Tokyo during its postwar industrial boom, and to a director who was something of a poet of the changing seasons: Yasujiro Ozu. Like 1960’s Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon is another riff on his 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, that story of a widower who urges his grownup daughter to take a husband – though he knows that her eventual marriage will take away the only companion he has left.
An Autumn Afternoon is mostly an interior film, set within those houses, offices and bars that become so familiar to anyone who spends enough time watching Ozu’s work. This time even the director’s trademark ‘pillow’ shots, short montages which establish a scene’s setting, tend to feature factories rather than natural beauty, offering a wry comment on the creeping industrialisation of a nation. But from the opening credits, featuring etchings of bare trees, to the muted, browns-dominated colour scheme, an air of autumnal finality imbues every inch of what would be, sadly, Ozu’s swansong.
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Director Ingmar Bergman
In 1970, director Bob Rafelson introduced an easterly wind of Ingmar Bergman-inspired psychological drama into the American cinema with Five Easy Pieces, in which Jack Nicholson travels to visit the ailing father whose bourgeois lifestyle he has turned his back on.
Can it be that Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata is, to some extent, the Swedish auteur’s effort to return the compliment? Both films are about an estranged son/daughter being reunited with an overbearing parent, both are set in remote houses by the sea, and both feature pivotal scenes in which Chopin is played on the piano, where each note is freighted with emotion between the player and the listener.
In Autumn Sonata, the listener is concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman), who patiently sits out her daughter Eva’s (Liv Ullmann) merely good rendition of Chopin’s Prelude No. 2, is soft with her praise, then shows her how she might have played it. It’s the way their relationship has always gone – the pianist mother wrapped up in her talent and celebrity; the mousey daughter, never good or interesting enough. This was a late film in the careers of both Bergmans, but reveals neither talent diminished. Don’t be lulled by the rather cosy coastal setting and autumnal hues (Charlotte’s bright red evening gown is the warning), this is an explosive film about maternal negligence, where the collateral damage fills the screen.
Director John Carpenter
Setting your slasher movie or creature feature around the macabre celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve is cliché now, and it’s probably John Carpenter’s fault. With some notable exceptions (Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944; the unforgettable Halloween sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944), the movies had made surprisingly little of this darkest of festivals until Carpenter introduced masked psychopath Michael Myers into the world, setting him loose on a cookie-cutter suburban neighbourhood where teenage sexual promiscuity will meet with his savage retribution.
The slasher formula that Carpenter laid down has proved so influential on horror cinema of all budgets in the decades since that the Scary Movie team consider it ripe for spoofing 20/30 years later. But you can still watch the 1978 original and feel the same dread: those point-of-view shots that lurk around houses and outside windows; the opening credits with that eternally suspended jack o’ lantern and Carpenter’s own electrifying score; the chilling moment when Donald Pleasence’s doctor arrives at the asylum and realises the inmates are loose in the dark around his car. As the nights draw in, many of us feel the annual urge to bed in with a horror film; Carpenter’s Halloween still delivers.
An Autumn Tale (1998)
Director Éric Rohmer
Before Sideways (2004), critics were dusting off their wine metaphors for this effervescent romantic drama by Éric Rohmer, the concluding part of his Tales of the Four Seasons series. Set around a vineyard in the Rhône Valley, it’s the story of a middle-aged winemaker, Magali (Béatrice Romand), who’s persuaded by a friend to place a lonelyhearts ad in the local newspaper. She places little hope on finding her man – after all she’s getting old and her work keeps her both busy and apart from the world. Yet, as so often in this director’s films, such reasoning and rationality are tested with a simple chain of events, the machine-like gears of fate gently shifting.
Rohmer, many a time a filmmaker of the summer (Pauline at the Beach, 1983; The Green Ray, 1986), serenely captures French wine country at harvest time, the passage of an autumn day and the golden light of a lowering sun. As Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times: “the movie evokes such a sensuous atmosphere – bird song, wind and light and shadow that delineate the season and time of day with an astonishing precision – that you are all but transported into Magali’s fields”.
Director Wes Anderson
Harvesting and Halloween and fall colours, but let’s not forget that the autumn is also the time for going back to school, with whatever dreads and excitements that brings for kids coming off their long summer holidays. For Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), kingpin student at prep school Rushmore, it’s nothing but excitement. Dreaming of fiendish maths equations, listing Harvard as his ‘reserve’ university option, and running every conceivable extra-curricular club, overachieving Max lives for his school life. “What’s the secret, Max?” asks Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a millionaire friend bedazzled by the boy’s savoir faire. “I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do,” replies Max, “and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”
Far from Heaven (2002)
Director Todd Haynes
Autumn has never looked lovelier on screen than it does in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, a tribute to the 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk that sees the iridescent fall palette in All That Heaven Allows and raises it. We’re back in suburban Connecticut, in 1957, and homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her housewife friends are dressing for the season in pastel shades of rusty reds, greens and browns – all the better to match the glory of nature’s deciduous turn.
But beware of getting too hung up on that beauty, or the luscious pre-Mad Men retro stylings. Like Sirk, Haynes is at pains to prise away at the picket-fenced perfection, to expose the age of conformity in all its double standards and hypocrisy. In a plot that transfuses elements from All That Heaven Allows with Sirk’s later classic Imitation of Life (1959), prejudice gnaws away at Cathy’s status in the community after her ad-exec husband (Dennis Quaid) reveals himself to be gay and Cathy seeks solace in the arms of their black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
Directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor
In the opening shots of this enigmatic drama, a teenage girl in a bright yellow jacket makes her way across a park, past other pedestrians lingering amid the piles of fallen leaves. The dreamlike motion of these images compels us to pay attention, though we’re not yet sure what we’re looking out for. Shortly after, we discover that a girl by the name of Joy has gone missing, so we try to remember what we’d witnessed in these shots, in case this innocuous autumn day somehow contained a clue.
Glancing back to the park mystery of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), co-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor leave question marks hanging over Joy’s disappearance (though their accompanying short film, Joy, offers a potential answer), instead focussing on the eponymous Helen (newcomer Annie Townsend), an orphaned girl hired to play Joy in a police re-enactment. Adopting a similar leather jacket, dining with Joy’s distraught, middle-class parents, and growing close to Joy’s boyfriend, Helen steps easily into Joy’s vacant shoes as if into a waking dream. In this striking feature debut, identity is fluid and there for the taking.
Whatever has happened, the trees aren’t telling – they stand in silent witness, the wind rippling through their gnomic boughs.