Today marks the first contribution to the Criterion Top 10 Series. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running contributions from some of my favorite film critics, writers, and theorists from around the internet. Each writer will list their top 10 from the Criterion Collection, mirroring Criterion’s own Top 10 series. Today’s article comes from firebrand writer Lauren Humphries-Brooks. Lauren is a self-proclaimed Angry Movie Girl and an aficionado of The Avengers (the British TV show, not the film and/or comic book characters). Her writing is a brilliant balance of film theory, film criticism, and raw enthusiasm, in particular for classic horror. I highly recommend that you find her film writing at Man, I Love Films; We Got This Covered; The Artifice; and her own blog, Suddenly, a Shot Rang Out. You may also find her on Twitter- @lhbizness.
1. The Lady Vanishes
Though The 39 Steps has been largely touted as Hitchcock’s finest British film, my vote always goes to The Lady Vanishes. The first twenty minutes play like a screwball comedy, introducing us to a cast of odd-ball characters who have to hole up in a mountain-side hotel for 24 hours while their snowbound train is dug out. The cast is full of the British types Hitchcock made such good use of in his early work: Caldicott and Charters, two overgrown schoolboys desperate for news of cricket scores; Iris, an elegant young lady bound for England and marriage; Gilbert, a brash musicologist who makes Iris’s life very complicated that night; and Miss Froy, a British nanny returning home. When the film shifts to the mystery proper, with Miss Froy’s disappearance and Iris’s desperation to find her, we can predict how the characters will react. It’s a frothy romance, a spy story, and a murder mystery, and moves along at such a thrilling and entertaining pace that you’ll be sad when it’s all over. Like so many of Hitchcock’s early works, it floated around in public domain prints for far too long. The Criterion edition thankfully has restored it to its former glory in a beautiful black and white Blu-ray. Hitchcock may have gotten glossier in his Hollywood career, but nothing is quite so enjoyable as The Lady Vanishes.
2. Journey To Italy
The combined working and personal relationship of director Roberto Rossellini and star Ingrid Bergman has been so oft discussed that the films they actually made together tend to be ignored. Journey To Italy might seem like an oddity, featuring two actors (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) performing in English with a primarily Italian cast. But it is as beautiful and as profound as any of Rossellini’s better-known works, and in some ways even better.
Bergman and Sanders are Katherine and Alex Joyce, a couple in the midst of a fragmenting marriage who take a trip to Italy together. It’s the first time they’ve really been alone in years, and the strain of having to relate to each other shows in every scene. Meeting overtures of love with coldness and sarcasm, the entire film is about two people who just seem to keep missing each other. Katherine begins to enter the culture around her, finding solace in art and spirituality. Alex, the more recalcitrant and stolidly English side of the couple, attempts some slight flirtations with other women that go nowhere. It’s a love story about two people incapable of admitting their love for each other, a moving and intimate tale with the backdrop of Rossellini’s native land providing metaphorical commentary. Although only available in a collection that includes two of Rossellini’s other films with Bergman (Stromboli and Europa ’51, both remarkable in their own rights), Journey To Italy is well worth it. It’s a profound and moving film about the difficulties of love and vanishing passion, lovingly photographed and featuring two quiet, tense performances from two excellent actors.
3. Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir’s films are combinations of humor, pathos, and intimate human drama, they’re character studies on a grand scale, some more successful than others. Among the finest, however, is his inspired comic tragedy Rules of the Game.
The whole action of the film takes place at a country manor where a cast of upper, middle, and lower class characters interact, dash in and out of bedrooms, and damage each other’s hearts. At the center is the accidental murder of Andre, a young pilot still in love with the mistress of the manor, by a jealous husband who mistakes him fro his wife’s lover. The film is underscored with a beautiful melancholy that fortunately does not translate to a depressing fatalism – it is more interested in life than in death. Life, in all its curious and oft-tragic pageantry, is his subject, and human passions are treated with humorous sympathy that emphasizes their ephemerality. Rules of the Game provides no answers to the problems of love, class, and fate, but rather seeks to understand each of its characters without judgement, leaving it the task of the artist to pick up the pieces and show them to us.
4. The Great Dictator
The Great Dictator represents Charlie Chaplin’s first real foray into sound film. He was one of the last hold-outs in that regard, and despite making some use of sound in Modern Times and City Lights, no dialogue appeared in either of those features. The Great Dictator not only used dialogue, it used it to remarkable effect. From the dictator Adenoid Hinckel’s inspired faux-German, to the overblown performance of Jackie Oakes as fellow dictator Napaloni, and Chaplin’s final heartfelt speech that still resonates today, the film makes excellent use of language as well as diegetic sound. While ostensibly an excoriation of Hitler and Mussolini, the film goes far beyond that, following the tribulations of Chaplin’s Tramp character (a former soldier and now a barber in the Jewish ghetto), as Hinckel (also Chaplin, making good use of his famous mustache) begins his reign of persecution and terror. While Chaplin would later say that if he’d known what was happening in the concentration camps, he’d have never made the film, thank God he did. One of the best ways to fight hate is with love and laughter, and The Great Dictator makes us all laugh in the face of hate.
5. High and Low
There’s much to be said for High and Low, starring Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune as Gondo, a company director struggling to maintain control of his shoe company. In the midst of a buy out in which Gondo has leveraged all he has, his young son is kidnapped and held for ransom. The whole is complicated, however, when it’s discovered that it was Gondo’s chaffeur’s son, not his own, who was accidentally kidnapped. The result throws the family and the police into upheaval, with Gondo torn between saving the child, and keeping his lifestyle.
High and Low combines complex concerns about class and the hierarchy of post-war Japan with an exciting police procedural and intense character study. Mifune, as always, is a rivetting performer, here more subdued and put upon than in his wilder samurai incarnations. Kurosawa uses his greyscale palette to spectacular effect, particularly in the “underworld” sequences as the cops track the kidnapper. The “high and low” of the title (in Japanese, literally “Heaven and Hell”) comes into play as the film juxtaposes Gondo’s “high” house on the hill against the “low” hovel of the kidnapper, down in the valley. The impotent anger of the lower classes in the midst of affluence, along with the implict connections between the police (themselves resident in the valley) and the lower orders further complicate the experience of the film. Gondo is neither villain nor hero, the kidnapper vicious but sympathetic, and the whole society to blame. Kurosawa never made a cliched or easy film, and High and Low ranks up there with his greatest.
6. The Phantom of Liberty
The Phantom of Liberty marks director Luis Bunuel’s return, of sorts, to the tangential surrealist films he got his start with. Though less well known than Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie or the remarkably narrative Belle du Jour, The Phantom of Liberty is a work of surreal humor with under (and over) currents of socialist political commentary.
The Phantom of Liberty has less of a plot than most of Bunuel’s later career works. Loosely connected sequences flow in and out of each other, as one character passes by another, beginning a new vignette. A couple awaken (or do they?) to a variety of animals and men passing through their bedroom; a sniper randomly picks off people on the street and is lauded as a hero; a young man and his mistress (or is she his aunt?) make love next door to a couple practicing S&M at a country inn. A humorous but deeply political work, Phantom of Liberty contains Bunuel’s signature style of dreamy yet subtle imagery, as well as his well-known socialism and impatience with the clergy and the bourgeoisie. I am always struck by how the film makes sense, even while watching an emu wander through a bedroom. There is no real narrative here, yet the whole hangs together with a dream logic that keep it foremost in the mind.
7. I Know Where I’m Going!
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would become known in their later careers for their florid, saturated Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. But my affections still lie with the slightly earlier, slightly more sedate (but nonetheless still almost mythological) black and white films. Shot partially on location in the Hebrides, I Know Where I’m Going! tells the story of strong-willed Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) heading off to the wilds of Scotland to get married to an Englishman who has leased an entire island. Laid up on the mainland due to poor weather, she meets the island’s proper laird, Torquil (Roger Livesey), a naval officer on leave. The result is a romance imbued with comedy, and a dawning realization for the young lady that the wealth and status she has always longed for might not be so necessary after all. Subtle and penetrating, the whole film has the same fairy-tale quality that would crop up again in later Powell/Pressburger films, complete with a local curse, a dangerous whirlpool, and local character types that provide an almost dreamlike quality to the intimate tale.
8. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
Beyond its properties as an adaptation of a brilliantly bizarre book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a fascinating, wild work in its own right, combining implicit nostalgia with a clear-eyed view of the less than stellar past. The deceptively simple plot follows journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his “attorney” Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they hit the road to Vegas in a fire-apple red convertible. They’re ostensibly there to cover a motorcycle rally, but with a kit bag full of illegal narcotics, the adventure takes a turn for the decidedly weird. Gilliam’s visual arsenal is in full force here, the wide-angle lenses and candy-colored palette perfectly complimenting Depp’s voiceover and tirades, many of them lifted from the original book. It’s a 70s version of Alice in Wonderland, a painful rumination on the death of the American Dream, and an oddly uplifting celebration of the weird and freakish. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas inspired me to seek out the works of Hunter S. Thompson, and changed my intellectual life for the better. That alone makes me want to send Gilliam a handle of Wild Turkey.
9. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
I will openly admit to my weaknesses for the spy novels of John Le Carre, Richard Burton, and stylized black and white films made in Britain. When those three elements come together, it is very difficult not to include The Spy Who Came in From the Cold on my list.
The antithesis of the James Bond films, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows the all-too realistic tribulations of a British spy named Leamas (Burton) sent deep undercover to undermine an East German agent. As with so many of Le Carre’s heroes, Leamas begins to lose stomach for his work, as he puts on the performance of a disaffected drunkard and potential defector. There are no good guys in this story any more than there are bad – everyone is pushed inexorably towards their fates, and the only ones we’re allowed to pull for are the very people who are most expendable. It’s anchored by the sad-eyed Burton, who plays Leamas as a man wholly exhausted by the world around him.
Permeated by light and shadow that mirrors the shades of grey in each character, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is one of the most beautifully photographed spy stories put onto film.
10. Rosemary’s Baby
As is possibly evidenced by the films on this list, I have a preference for odd, melancholic, and absurdist dramas. Unsurprising, therefore, that one of my favorite directors is Roman Polanski, and one of my favorite horror films is the terrifying and strangely funny Rosemary’s Baby.
Juxtaposed against the horrific manipulation and paranoia of Rosemary as she becomes increasingly aware that something is horribly wrong with her unborn child, is the inherent comedy in a bunch of old people trying to bring about the rise of the Antichrist. This dichotomy plays throughout the film, moving fluidly back and forth between the horrific and the absurd, notions of terror and manipulation and the self-aggrandizing stupidity of Rosemary’s husband Guy and his desire to sell his wife’s body in order to be a successful actor. In the end, mother love wins out over Heaven and Hell in a triumphant, bizarre, and truly frightening manner. In the face of all the misery that human beings can cause one another, Polanski seems to ask why we’re so terrified of the supernatural.