Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 532: Louie Bluie (1985)

This hour-long documentary has some consistency with the later work of director Terry Zwigoff, which (like Crumb and Ghost World at least) is quite obsessed with the world of both blues and outsider art. In this case, its protagonist Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong is a fiddle player (amongst other instruments, including the mandolin) and also the artist of some odd little works, the chief one of which appears to be his own Bible of sorts, albeit about p0rnography. He is an interesting raconteur of course — the chief necessity of any documentary subject — and we get several extended clips of him playing his blues music with his little band of similarly elderly practitioners. It’s a charming little film about an odd and interesting life lived in the margins.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographers John Knoop and Chris Li; Length 60 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 528: “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg”

This box set presents three films by Josef von Sternberg, the last three of his surviving silent films. And while they’re not thematically related, they do present a fine example of the evolution of his florid filmic style towards the end of this period, as he went into a run of films starring Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg was an emigré director who came to the States at a young age from Vienna, so it’s fair to say he had a good feeling for Europe, and demonstrates it in the second film here, The Last Command (1928), which deals with a Russian general (and a revolutionary, played by a young William Powell) who has also come to Hollywood — not that this could be construed as in any way autobiographical of course! The first of the three is Underworld (1927), which in some ways sets up a lot of the generic template of the gangster movie. The other is The Docks of New York (1928), perhaps his greatest silent achievement, a film that is lit and shot with an atmospheric eye for its dockside setting, and presents a love story of sorts, although there are plenty of lowlifes and ne’er-do-wells to get in the way of our antihero George Bancroft. All three films are essential artefacts of late Hollywood silent cinema, and go nicely together with the box set of his work with Dietrich.

Criterion Sunday 523: Night Train to Munich (1940)

This British film, made near the outset of World War II, certainly seems to aspire to that Lubitsch touch, and if it doesn’t quite succeed it still has a daffy charm. After all, I can’t fully take against any film that treats Nazis as quite this contemptible and foolish (there’s even a lovely moment where a guard has been gagged with a copy of Mein Kampf, a neat visual metaphor of sorts), even if apparently Rex Harrison did enjoy wearing the uniform a little bit too much. He has a dashing presence that makes up for Margaret Lockwood, who has that prim quality so beloved of wartime films, and the cast is rounded out by some fine turns, including a reappearance for the cricket-loving fuddy-duddies first seen in The Lady Vanishes (penned by the same writers). It’s very English in that way of the period, but ultimately its heart is in the right place and so it’s a fun ride.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (based on the short story “Report on a Fugitive” by Gordon Wellesley); Cinematographer Otto Kanturek; Starring Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid [as “Paul von Hernreid”]; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 9 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 515: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Initially there’s plenty to really dig here, not least the moody, highly-contrasted black-and-white cinematography, little shards of light illuminating faces as Brando’s rebellious kid trying to go straight in his 30s comes up against the usual kinds of corrupt Southern lawmakers who just want him out of their town. That’s in truth where the film starts to drag a bit, as the melodrama builds to a pitch and Joanne Woodward’s drunken girl gets into scrapes while Anna Magnani suffers her brutal bed-ridden husband’s anger with stoic suffering. There are a lot of clichés of the Southern gothic genre being bandied around here, and they could lend a hothouse atmosphere if you’re in the mood for that, but by the film’s end they seemed a little wearying, as if working against the film’s better senses. The stage origins are clear and so too are the classical metaphors, as a bunch of characters all play around in the apparent Hades that is the Jim Crow South, including a magical African-American character to silently observe the goings on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writers Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams (based on Williams’s play Orpheus Descending); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, Maureen Stapleton; Length 121 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 March 2022.