Film correspondent, The Irish Times.
|Bride of Frankenstein
|The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
|Joseph L. Mankiewicz
|The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
|Sweet Smell of Success
|The Happiest Days of Your Life
|I Know Where I’m Going!
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|All That Heaven Allows
Bride of Frankenstein
In an era overwhelmed with pastiche and self-consciousness, it is worth remembering that Universal Pictures' great horror series was turning in on itself almost before its conventions were fully formed. Whale's follow-up to his own loose take on Mary Shelley's still resonant philosophical fantasy is so cavalier in its comedy it scarcely qualifies as horror at all. Karloff's monster roughly embraces civilisation. Colin Clive's Frankenstein is a neurotic mess. Inadvertently acknowledging the source of her quickness, Elsa Lanchester's Bride wears a lighting flash down her shock bouffant. But it is Ernest Thesiger as the camp Doctor Pretorius who best represents the film's delicious blend of high and low culture. "Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good," he remarks. What can he mean? Few other mainstream Hollywood sequels have deployed so much talent and so many resources in placing ornate quotation marks around the preceding episode. You wouldn't get away with it now. Despite the film being another smash, Universal didn't try it again.
Released the same year as Tokyo Story, Mizoguchi's supernatural morality tale – luring unwise men into sinful regret, as have fairy stories and religious parables throughout history – helped open up the West to contemporaneous Japanese cinema. Its eerie beauty wafted through film schools, wholewheat arthouses and inky film journals. Yet the succeeding decades have failed to scuff its lacquered mystery. Trading in characteristic long takes whose languorousness adds to the sense of a dream-yarn, the director follows a young potter as a female spirit lures him away from his loving wife. Taking a journey through a watery, misty netherworld, the film is comfortable with the uncanny, but there are real-world lessons here about the toxicity of the male ego. If nothing else, Ugetsu deserves its place for a famously poignant ending that allows only the most qualified comfort.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Gene Tierney is not usually classed among the absolute top tier of Hollywood stars – where sit Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and the Hepburns – but she had an extraordinary hit rate. Heaven Can Wait, Laura and Leave Her to Heaven are among the best American films of the post-war era. Then there is Joe Mankiewicz's sentimental, funny, immaculately performed The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Everybody involved is on top form: Tierney transcendent as a plucky young widow; Rex Harrison briny as the ghostly captain who haunts her new home; Natalie Wood perky as her young daughter; Edna Best sassy as the Thelma Ritteresque factotum; George Sanders flawless as an oleaginous seducer (what else?) who writes children's books under the unbeatable pseudonym of Uncle Neddy. It all takes place in a version of England whose Californian unreality only adds to the spooky romance. The staggered series of bitter-sweet endings is ruthless on the tear-ducts.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Is it cheating to select The Umbrellas of Cherbourg over the American musicals that came just before? Like so many of his co-conspirators in the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Demy spent a career repaying debts to Hollywood cinema of the golden age. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring Catherine Deneuve as a Norman umbrella vendor in love with the right man at the wrong time, could surely not exist without Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris. Yet the film is so resolutely odd and determinedly French it escapes any accusations of pastiche. Indeed, few films are so confident in their singular identity. A lot of that is down to the boiled-sweet visuals: colour-saturated camerawork displays rigorously lavish production design – the wallpaper alone deserved an Oscar – to the best imaginable advantage. Sung through, in a fashion then uncommon for musicals, it builds to an encounter with the most magical petrol station in all cinema.
Sweet Smell of Success
All About Eve or Sweet Smell of Success? Meryl Streep faced just such a choice in a famous film of the 1980s. Released seven years apart, those dramas work from the two most deliciously bitchy scripts ever to poke lancets into the guts of New York society. Mackendrick's film, photographed in sharp mono by James Wong Howe, has perhaps one awkward flaw: the drippy romantic couple at the centre belong in a much less interesting film. But everything else zips with the hip syncopation of Elmer Bernstein's jazz score. Tony Curtis wears suits for the nation as creepy press agent Sydney Falco. Though rarely ambulatory, Burt Lancaster manages a balletic class of malevolence as columnist J.J. Hunsecker. A few screenplays have been as quotable (All About Eve for one), but none have been more so: "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."
The Happiest Days of Your Life
There are more celebrated British comedies from this era (notably those by Ealing Studios). But Frank Launder's school farce stands out as a near-perfect vehicle for a collection of unequalled geniuses. Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford – than whom there are none greater – play, respectively, headmaster of a boys' school and headmistress of a girls' school who are accidentally billeted together. All chaos breaks loose as they fail to compromise. One might compare the clash to watching Spassky versus Fischer at their prime, but that would be to undervalue the contribution of a third maestro. Joyce Grenfell comes close to upstaging her superiors as the cowed Miss Gossage: "Call me Sausage."
I Know Where I’m Going!
The defining films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can – at a stretch – be divided into the operatic and the intimate. The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp squeeze into the former category. A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going! operate at a slightly less brassy register. Yet this peculiar, spume-blasted yarn, following an unlikely love affair in the Hebrides, is as seasoned with ancient magic as are any of the team's more extravagant works. Wendy Hiller plays a society lady who travels north after becoming engaged to a magnate who lives on his own Scottish island. This being an Archers film, she meets a gruff Roger Livesey among the local eccentrics and slips slowly into love. Livesey, otherwise engaged when the team was on location, didn't shoot a second in Scotland, but the film is nonetheless soaked with a sense of place.
Though it was not universally praised on release, Stalker subsequently acquired the dubious honour of being dubbed the most 'accessible' of Tarkovsky's great films. What can it have done to attract such a back-handed compliment? It is not as if the story flies along. Two men progress through a beautifully distressed interior towards a room that is alleged to grant wishes. The parallels with the Wizard of Oz are unavoidable, not least in the decision to have the everyday world in black-and-white and the 'Zone' in colour. They spend a great deal of time travelling and less making explicit sense of the premise. What has most freed up Stalker for the ages is the adaptability of its apparent metaphors. It was once about the Soviet Union. It was then specifically about Chernobyl. Now it is about everything.
All That Heaven Allows
Two films starring Rock Hudson and produced by Ross Hunter were vying for this spot, but in the end the durably hilarious Pillow Talk lost out to the bitterest of Douglas Sirk's great melodramas. The film has had a vibrant afterlife, inspiring both Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven. Jane Wyman plays the well-off lady who falls for her mildly bohemian, much younger gardener, thus triggering all shades of distaste from neighbours and family. "All you see is a good-looking set of muscles," her awful son argues. That class of social repression is everywhere. The story is universal. But it has particular resonance in the buttoned-up, end-of-history complacency of Eisenhower's America – an era evoked through the most gorgeously unreal Technicolor. On the way to a surprising conclusion, Sirk fastens upon the real enemy… damned television.
The choice of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along for the (somewhat ambitious) school play in Gerwig's irresistible coming-of-age drama is surely no accident. There is no clunky voiceover or neat framing sequence, but it remains clear that this is a life remembered from the not-too-distant future. Few films have better demonstrated the way parents and children express affection through conflict. Just watch as Saoirse Ronan's protagonist and her mother, played heartrendingly by Laurie Metcalfe, squabble in a dress shop. "Please stop yelling," mum says. "I'm not yelling," Lady Bird doesn't quite bellow back. A beat as the parent locates a pleasing garment. "Oh, that's perfect," the daughter laughs. "You love it?" her mother replies. They are friends again. One senses the unseen and unheard older Lady Bird regretting her earlier abrasiveness. What adult wouldn't empathise. A delight for the ages.
There is always some criticism that such lists fail to connect with anything remotely like the present. Can it really be that all the greatest films were unveiled before the Berlin Wall went up? The average year of release for my selections is 1960 and, without the cheeky inclusion of whippersnapper Lady Bird, it would be a whole seven years earlier. Yet this is not to imply contemporary filmmakers have lost the knack.
In modern film discourse – in particular that vast part of it which takes place online – we are not short of lists that seem to argue the medium began around 20 years ago. Nobody should begrudge the marking out of one space that allows films to settle into the collective consciousness before canonisation. So, no apologies are given for the creaky nature of my selection. Nothing too shabby will have lasted so long.
I do owe myself an apology for all the titles – and genres and nations and decades and directors – that have not made it into the final 10. There should be a German film there. There should be an African film in there. Maybe, there should be an Irish film. There should certainly be a silent film. What about a western? We can hardly prostrate ourself more guiltily before the memory of Mr Hitchcock. But other priorities take over as the vast list gets whittled into one that has 100 films too few. Apologies, My Darling Clementine, This Happy Breed, Persona, Red River, Strangers on a Train, Syndromes and a Century, Under the Skin, Pillow Talk, Random Harvest, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, Dogville, Repulsion, The Great Escape, Loveless, The Apartment, L'Atalante, 8 1/2 and on and on and on.
I am left with a compromise, but a useful one. A list that gets at the essence of my greatest ever films (obviously nobody else's), one that gets at the mode of my taste. One that seems a little sentimental. One that inclines towards female protagonists. One that savours strong endings.
There are worse things.