M (1931)

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M (1931)

M (1931).  110 minutes.  Directed by Fritz Lang.  Starring Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert), Gustaf Gründgens (as The Safecracker), and Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Karl Lohmann).

It has often been pointed out that M is a terrific example of a film that bridges the silent and talkie periods.  M was German director Fritz Lang’s first talkie, and it makes use of sound in a very interesting way.  For many early filmmakers, their first ventures into sound became opportunities to show off the new technology by using sound constantly and extravagantly — hence the large number of musicals in the early days of sound films.  Lang’s M was different, though, in that it actually contained many evocative, intensely silent passages and, at other times, very carefully and strategically used sound.  For example, early in the film, we come to know that young Elsie Beckman (played by Inge Landgut) has disappeared for good when we spy her balloon silently trapped in the … Read the rest

Duck Soup (1933)

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"Duck Soup" (1933): Detail from movie poster

Duck Soup (1933).  68 minutes.  Directed by Leo McCarey.  Starring Groucho Marx (as Rufus T. Firefly), Chico Marx (as Chicolini), Harpo Marx (as Pinky), Zeppo Marx (as Bob Roland), and Margaret Dumont (as Mrs. Teasdale).  Screenplay, music, and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.

If aliens landed on earth tomorrow, and the American Film Institute gave them a copy of Duck Soup to watch as a way of helping them to understand the history of American film culture, I think that these hypothetical aliens would enjoy it, but it might cause them to be perplexed.  If we had to explain to the aliens why Duck Soup is funny, then we might be perplexed.  Duck Soup is funny — in fact, it’s hilarious.  It is the movie, after all, that in a supremely life-affirming moment convinces Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters not to commit suicide, and it is widely considered to be the Marx Brothers’ finest film.  … Read the rest

Ninotchka (1939)

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Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka (1939).  110 minutes.  Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Greta Garbo (as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova), Melvyn Douglas (as Count Leon d’Algout), and Ina Claire (as Grand Duchess Swana).  Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Melchior Lengyel.

Ninotchka is a sparkling comedy about the collision between the Soviet East and frothy 1930s Paris.  It was released in October 1939, just one month after World War Two began, and it gleefully depicts pre-war life with barely a reference to the ordeal unfolding on the continent.  The closest we come to a note of the German conflict comes early in the movie when three Soviet envoys await the arrival of their Russian supervisor at a Paris train station.  They assume this supervisor will be a man, and they scan the crowd for him, not knowing what he looks like.  One of them arrives at a possible candidate: a man with a round, bearded face — perhaps it is him?  … Read the rest

The Third Man (1949)

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"The Third Man" Featured Image

The Third Man (1949).  93 minutes.  Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Holly Martins), Alida Valli (as Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (as Harry Lime), and Trevor Howard (as Major Calloway).

The Third Man is sometimes compared to Citizen Kane.  Both films prominently feature Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, both concern male friendship and betrayal, and both examine the inherent difficulties of knowing great men, men who loom large either in the eyes of society (Citizen Kane) or in the eyes of their childhood chums (The Third Man).  Both also have final shots of enormous and legendary significance.  But despite these similarities, the courses of the two films run through very different territory, and so I shall have to leave off comparing the two so that I might focus on what makes The Third Man so unique, so powerful, and so devastatingly moving.  I am hardly alone in this assessment: Roger Ebert observed in Read the rest

It Happened One Night (1934)

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"It Happened One Night." Detail from movie poster.

It Happened One Night (1934).  105 minutes.  Directed by Frank Capra.  Starring Claudette Colbert (as Ellie Andrews), Clark Gable (as Peter Warne), and Walter Connolly (as Alexander Andrews).

It Happened One Night is a distinguished film, perhaps most famously because of its five Oscars.  It swept all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), and that feat has rarely been achieved since.  But for a production of such legendary industry success, it certainly had humble origins as a film that was developed at Columbia, then a struggling studio, and whose script was passed over for various reasons by a number of stars including Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis, and Margaret Sullavan for the female lead.  It took some finagling to secure Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the lead roles. An apparently legendary story claims that Gable was farmed out to Columbia to work on the film as a punishment for … Read the rest