The Big City (1963)
When her husband’s salary proves insufficient to make ends meet, a Calcutta housewife (Madhabi Mukherjee) persuades him to let her take work as a saleswoman. His pride is crushed; her independence is unleashed. “If you saw me at work you wouldn’t recognise me,” she tells him, her eyes sparkling with new experience. The Big City was Satyajit Ray’s first film set in his home city in the present day (rather than in rural Bengal or the Calcutta of his youth), and there’s a cool breeze of modernity running through it that still feels fresh and invigorating. One of the jewels of Ray’s long career, it’s a great film about women and the workplace, compromise and camaraderie.
Larks on a String (1969)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
The 1960s Czech New Wave was enabled by the new freedoms of the Prague Spring, but it came to an abrupt end after Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. The most famous cinematic casualty of that moment is probably this whimsical satire from Jiří Menzel, which ended up being banned and shelved until 1990, after the fall of Communism. It’s an absurdist parable with a Beckettian setting: a junkyard labour camp where bourgeois dissidents are rounded up for ‘re-education’. Yet Menzel plays this microcosm for comic ridiculousness rather than horror. Despite the bleakness of their predicament (and the number of prisoners who start disappearing), there’s a sense of resilient humanity and potential romance, as the men’s eyes are turned by the women at a neighbouring camp.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Sunday, 12.35am
Near the end of a long career that delivered tight, tough genre classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), Don Siegel made this tight, tough, terse prison-escape drama. One of the run of films he made with Clint Eastwood at the peak of his stardom, it stars Clint as a new arrival at Alcatraz in the early 1960s. Nobody had ever escaped from this maximum-security island fortress, but this is Clint, and he has other ideas. Amazingly, they involve nail clippers and some spoons. Siegel had form in great prison thrillers, having made the jailhouse noir Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), but the way he emphasises the routine and rigour of prison life here is more reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). Patrick McGoohan plays the hardball warden.
All Light, Everywhere (2021)
Where’s it on? Cinemas nationwide
Here’s another prison drama of sorts. Well, not really, but Theo Anthony’s documentary inquiry into the act of looking, and the technologies we use to do so, is also a history of how often these technologies have been used to surveil, categorise and otherwise control. Anthony’s main focus is police body cameras – surveillance devices dominated by Axon Enterprise, who also invented the Taser. Anthony goes inside Axon, and his film ruminates on the strangely disembodied POV shots created by these cameras, while also reaching back to the dawn of moving images to show how quickly the supposed objectivity of the camera has been wielded by powerful interests. An associative essay film rather than a traditional documentary, it provides plenty of fascinating digressions and insights.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Where’s it on? BFI Player
Images from the past are also an object of enquiry in this unique documentary from Bill Morrison, which already feels like a modern classic. Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the strange-but-true story of the discovery of a treasure trove of nitrate film prints buried in the permafrost in a Yukon territory pioneer town. Amazingly preserved, but compiled by Morrison complete with their signs of corrosion, these films from the time of the Klondike gold rush offer a haunting glimpse of a world gone by. They include newsreels, scenes of life in Dawson City and early silent cinema. For fans of archive film, this flickering séance with the past is all but irresistible.