His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)
A long time favourite of mine, I revisited this gem recently after my girlfriend begged me to show her the film I've constantly sighted over the years. Cary Grant stars as Walter Burns - a newspaper editor desperate to stop his best reporter and ex-wife from leaving the paper and remarrying. The film is both touching but not without a cynical edge, a bitterness seeping in like so many of Howard Hawks' films. Hawks was, as Mark Cousins rightfully describes him as, the great chameleon of Hollywood; a filmmaker who masterfully took on each great American genre, crafting some of the greatest examples of each. One of the first and finest gangster films with Scarface (1932), film-noir with The Big Sleep (1946), romance - To Have And Have Not (1944), War - Sergeant York (1941), Musical - Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), and the western genre with Red River and Rio Bravo (1948/59). The un-flashy and sheer economy of his visual approach marked him against auteurs of the time, it was only from the adoration of the Cahiers Du Cinema critics that had people re-evaluate the workman like assembly of his pictures to seek deeper. The French critics were fascinated at the control and quality of Hawks' films while remaining in the artistically crippling studio system and found subtly planted but clear themes running through his work. The 'Hawksian' woman is perhaps what he is most famous for given the times his films were conceived, woman who worked and fought alongside men and gave it better than anyone, even humiliating the comfortable egos of their male counterparts. Here, Hildy Johnson is the most fearsome of all of Hawks' heroines. Hawks began experimenting with the romantic comedy in 1934 with Twentieth Century, a dizzyingly paced story also of a desperate man trying to keep a woman from leaving him. Here the overlapping dialogue is utilised for the first time with actors almost spitting lines at each other in a machinegun like flurry. This manic approach was then taken to the next level with Bringing Up Baby (1939) before (in my opinion) being perfected in His Girl Friday. Being 70 years old it's outstanding how fresh the film feels, having watched it well beyond a dozen times over the years it never fails to get a huge reaction out of me and I dare anyone to find a cheekier and more mischievous character than Walter Burns. I also dare anyone to name me a more versatile director than Howard Hawks, one that matches the sheer impact and undeniable quality, a filmmaker who took on every major genre and won, taking his championship to his grave.
Duck, You Sucker (1971, Sergio Leone)
Sticking out as the much neglected film in the short lived but wholly impressive career of Sergio Leone, film historian Christopher Frayling comments that audiences weren't ready for the new 'maturer' phase of Leone's career. The befuddled advertising of Duck, You Sucker helped non either as it would later go by three titles; A Fistful Of Dynamite was used predominantly in the west to help cash in on the success that came with The Dollar's Trilogy, while Once Upon A...Revolution helped tie in with Leone's previous film Once Upon A Time In The West. One title actively disguising the film's motives and themes while the other actively acknowledging them, one can forgive distributors for rebranding the film due to the original title translating poorly on the world market. Here, Leone continues his much evolving style and pushes it to the extreme; his pace as languid as ever, scenes drawn out for longer, and with camera movements even greater in scope and execution. What's most interesting, though, is how much darker the film is in comparison to what came before it, darker even than OUTITW due to its footing in the bloody historic events of the Mexican Revolution. Focussing on two distinctly different men as they travel through the battles and bloodshed of the revolution, the film's vision manages to be as intimate and personal as it is epic. Rod Steiger's dirty bandit Juan teaches James Coburn's IRA man John a thing or two as they experience great loss and treachery, both shown to us in events from past and present. This central theme of treachery and friendship would be delved into with even more intensity and melancholia with Leone's next film, his swan song, and his only foray into another genre in Once Upon A Time In America. The film's pacing and Ennio Morricone's surprisingly experimental jaunty music certainly stands Duck, You Sucker apart from the rest of Leone's canon, however, it also makes for the most touching of his films too with the end battle sequence revolving around a mighty train crash being one of the best of Leone's moments. A truly dazzling action scene that only sinks the heart upon remembering that Leone planned a war film with Robert DeNero just before his passing.
The Virgin Spring (1960, Ingmar Bergman)
One of the more traditional films in Bergman's extensive career but by no means any less impressive, winner of the 1961 Oscar for best foreign language film it still stands as one of the great man's best films and a timeless parable still used today. The story of a good natured, deeply Christian family taking in unbeknownst to them the rapist and murderers of their daughter is sublime human cinema filled with heartbreak, tension, and a backhanded affirmation of life. I say backhanded because in The Virgin Spring, like his later masterpiece Cries & Whispers, Bergman who was famously troubled with his faith and the 'silence of God' was clearly envious of his characters' faith. Perhaps living through their faith could he ever get as close to understanding himself and the futility of his own efforts. His characters are like children in the face of God, in their darkest hour still unconditionally loving and trusting, something Bergman found he could never be. His characters breathe an idea into the film, that the human soul cannot be broken though it can be made dirty, but looking behind the camera one only finds the truth of the man trying desperately to understand such behaviour, wishing he could be as they are. The Virgin Spring was the first time Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist worked together, a partnership that would last over the following 25years and become one of the most legendary cinematic parings of all time. Bergman and Nykvist's composition is as perfect as ever and makes a case for being the most stunning of Bergman's monochrome output. A clear blueprint for Wes Craven's 'video nasty' The Last House On The Left (1972), Bergman's film was adapted from a 13th century Swedish folk ballad and started an alchemic cinematic bloodline of films that explored similar philosophical alleys with varying results. For those looking to begin with the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, this along with Summer With Monika (1953) and Wild Strawberries (1957) are the best places to start before moving on to the likes of The Silence and Persona (1963/66)