Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Manhattan Murder Mystery”, 1993 | TriStar Pictures
Here’s the thing. I am getting tired of all this flood of advice on leading a more meaningful life, about what movies to watch, about what books to read, about what music to listen to while in quarantine. Because you know what? We had already been doing that and that’s what this online cultural journal has always been about: living mindfully, living a well-cultured life. So we will continue doing what we have been doing: celebrating cinema, culture, style and storytelling. And keep our rate of publication of two articles per week here on the site so that our limited collection of thoughtful stories can patiently inspire and truly be appreciated.
Now, I have been watching movies these weeks, obviously, but not more than I usually do, and I haven’t watched Netflix at all. That’s my normal, and I will keep it that way. And if I do have some recommendations, they are on movies I would watch on repeat any given time. These are a bunch of good movies, too, so if you need a respite from what “you should watch”, here are some films worth watching today, tomorrow or in ten years.
Montgomery Clift and O.E. Hasse in “I Confess”, 1953 | Warner Brothers
Alfred Hitchcock is the only director whose entire filmography I would rewatch, and have rewatched, time and again. There are movies that stay with you, or movies you watch once and are afraid of rewatching because you are afraid you will not love them just as much. Not Hitchcock’s movies. His movies require constant rewatching because the universe he created is so unique. He developed a singular cinematic style. You don’t just watch his films, you observe details, shots, you participate in the suspense and action. Hitchcock expresses visually everything he wants to, even the thoughts of his characters are expressed by visual means rather than dialogue, and the audience perceives that. That’s the brilliance of his cinema.
In Rear Window, it’s both the row of events and the summer heatwave that make James Stewart edgy, and he transmits it to you too. It’s a perfect blend of thriller (like that scene of perfect suspense when Grace Kelly’s character sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment while he’s momentarily out, and James Stewart powerlessly watches from afar with mounting anxiety, making you jumpy in your own seat), voyeuristic mystery, romance, style, technical mastermind and sharp humour (the priceless silent looks between Jeff and his friend when the latter spots Lisa’s belongings when she is planning to spend the night, or Thelma Ritter’s quippy remarks every time she is on screen). It is incredible how a movie confined to a room – one inside a Hollywood studio, no less – has the ability to give you such a powerful sense of the intoxicating, loud, breathless atmosphere of the city of New York.
In the introduction to his book, Hitchcock Truffaut, Francois Truffaut recounted: “In the course of an interview during which I praised Rear Window to the skies, an American critic surprised me by commenting, “You love Rear Window because, as a stranger to New York, you know nothing about Greenwhich Village.” To this absurd statement, I replied, “Rear Window is not about Greenwhich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema.” His movies are entertaining, but what Hitchcock did with them was much bigger than that, his contribution to the art cinema of cinema is the greater achievement.
My top fifteen Hitchcock films: Rear Window, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, Spellbound, The Birds, Psycho, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rebecca, The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief.
“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies”, 2006 | Gaumont, Mandarin Films
Maybe it’s the Latin in me, but I believe the French possess an inherent comic sensibility. Just the sight of Louis de Funès’ expressive face in one of his comedies makes me laugh. Or the pitch-perfect parodical recreation of Connery-era Bond in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), directed by Michel Hazanavicius (the films are based on Jean Bruce’s spy novel series that actually predate Ian Fleming’s 007 and Jean Dujardin is such a natural, his spy is as stylish as Bond, but he has the upper hand, the humour), where narrow-minded views on French colonialism, racism, religion, sexism and accidental homoeroticism run amok but are made fun of at the same time (there is no other nation that seems so at ease with making fun of themselves) – I don’t believe this comedic freedom is possible anymore and every time I watch these films is like a breath of fresh air. Or the way Marcel Pagnol, with his usual satirical wit, delivers a slice-of-life comedy in La femme du boulanger (The Baker’s Wife, 1938).
Other mentions: La Grande Vadrouille (1966), Le gendarme de Saint Tropez series, Les Tontons flingueurs (1963), Jour de fête (1949), Playtime (1967), Le corniaud (1965), La traversée de Paris (1956), Le Roman d’un tricheur (1936), La cage aux folles (1978), Intouchables (2011).
Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe in “Clash by Night”, 1952 | RKO Radio Pictures
The most obscure B noir films
Forget about Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Maltese Falcon. I like the more obscure, underrated or least known noir films just as much, if not more. The shadowy visual and shady morals, the grit and glamour never disappoint, and I like to look for them beyond the usual suspects. One of the first on the list would be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953). In the 1960s, Ida Lupino “earned the nickname the female Hitch for her… talent at creating suspense” in television productions. She even directed episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She used the power of the unseen, the open ending, actual locations for shooting, neo-realist twists to noir narrative. Her films dealed with the decadence of man, but also with humanity and decency, and avoided melodrama stereotypes. A claustrophobic road movie, The Hitch-Hiker is Lupino’s most purely cinematic venture, a tough and singular noir vision, bringing consistency and humanity into neo-realist noir. A genuine, unique approach, not a studio- or society-dictated approach.
Other mentions: Clash by Night (1952), Naked Alibi (1954), Caught (1949), No Way Out (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Naked Kiss (1964), Nightfall (1957), The Narrow Margin (1952), The Reckless Moment (1949), Cry of the City (1948), Too Late for Tears (1949).
Peter Falk in “Columbo” | NBC
His crumpled raincoat, his cheap cigar, his rusty car, his humble manner. Elements that shaped up the image of one of the most distinctive, recognizable and beloved film characters of all time. Peter Falk’s disheveled and disarming, enormously engaging and quirky lieutenant Columbo lives on popular culture in a way that few television and movie characters ever manage – I have been rewatching it in the evenings for the past week (it’s sheer joy to forgo Netflix – the only things I have watched on Netflix in the past year, and way before this crisis, were The Two Popes, Marriage Story and The Crown – and rely on your own film archive) and it’s just as good as it has ever been. I still find it delightfully unexpected, ingenious and believable, brilliantly written and performed.
When talking about what drew him to the role of Columbo, Peter Falk said it was the opposite traits of the character, an average-Joe hero. A regular, next door guy, who is at the same time the most brilliant detective on the globe. The actor himself was an ordinary guy, he confessed, and maybe that’s why portraying the ordinary side of Columbo came easily to him. But he was also a great actor (his performances in John Cassavetes’ intense indie dramas further reinforced it), and that’s why the character endures. It’s a classic.
Scarlett Johansson in “Match Point”, 2005 | BBC Films, Thema Production
Woody Allen films
Woody Allen’s films have a certain look. Have you noticed? They are beautiful to look at. I feel at ease watching them. It’s like entering a familiar world. And what can be a better frame of mind for watching a film? I can not speak for others, but the cinematography in Allen’s movies has always been one of the things I personally love the most about them, to the point where I think you can not talk about his films without talking about the way they are filmed, just as you can’t talk about them without talking about the writing. Because “cinematography is the medium,” as the writer-director himself insists.
Until Allen came along, comedies did not look like this. “Mostly the good-looking stuff is stuff without laughs in it,” he remarked. The look of comedy, its status as cinematographic artifact, was not something anybody paid attention to or considered important. “I don’t see any reason why movie comedies can’t also look pretty,” said Allen, who hired Belgian cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who had worked with Jacques Demy and Robert Bresson, to shoot Love and Death (1975). He then went on to employ The Godfather‘s cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot Annie Hall (1977), and continued to work with him on seven more movies, including Manhattan, “one of the best-photographed movies ever made,” as Roger Ebert described it, along with the thematically and visually chilly Interiors (1978), probably Allen’s most Bergmanesque film, and Zelig (1983), one of Woody’s most visually complex movies.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) marked the beginning of Woody Allen’s collaboration with Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (Blow-Up, Il deserto rosso), who had had an auspicious beginning in cinema with Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). They would work together on eight more films and it was in fact argued that it was Di Palma who brought a cosmopolitan, Europeanised look to Allen’s New York. Another Woman (1988) was the first time shooting with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who had developed an intimate, close-up-driven style of shooting with Ingmar Bergman which he called “two faces and a tea cup”. Allen and Nykvist would do two more films together, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Celebrity (1998).
He filmed Vicky Cristina Barcelona (one of his his most beautifully shot – how could it not be in the natural vivacity, sun-drenched splendour and luscious beauty of Barcelona?) and Blue Jasmine with Javier Aguirresarobe (of Almodovar’s Talk to Her, Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts). For Midnight in Paris (2011), Allen had discussions with cinematographer Darius Khondji, who would film three more of Woody’s films, about shooting the 1920s sequences in black and white, but they eventually decided to go with colour. “Matisse said that he wanted his paintings to be a nice easy chair that you sit down in, and enjoy. I feel the same way: I want you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the warm colour, like take a bath in a warm colour.”
My favourite Woody Allen films: Match Point, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Celebrity, Cassandra’s Dream, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
More stories: Style in film: North by Northwest / Diane Keaton: The Real Look Behind Annie Hall / Lizabeth Scott: She Had what It Took for Film Noir