The Battle of Algiers
This is a film that every year becomes more and more timely. On a sociopolitical level, its struggle of a people to win national identity against an oppressive regime is the ongoing story of our times. Its raw visual camera technique is in perfect synchronicity with the digital aesthetic of much contemporary filmmaking. Even now, it justifies its up-front disclaimer that not a foot of it is “documentary.”
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
A film that is the cinematic antipode of The Battle of Algiers. Photographed by the great Jack Cardiff, designed by Alfred Junge (both of whom received Oscars for their work here), this film was considered by Michael Powell to be the “most erotic” of all his films. That it takes place within a community of nuns gives his claim a deliciously profane edginess. It is the film that made me first realize how much cinematography can and should contribute to the emotional, dramatic thrust of a movie. It was also a great influence on my own film, the never released Mariette in Ecstasy, a bittersweet experience that made me realize how much more freedom I would always have as a cinematographer than as just another struggling director trapped in the Hollywood system.
The Fire Within
This is the single most underrated film of the entire French New Wave. Its near obsessive tracking of Maurice Ronet through the wet Paris streets as he retraces the steps of a wasted life makes for one of the most tightly focused of the era’s film portraits of a desperate man at the end of his rope. Its slow build toward an inexorable end is Louis Malle’s most nuanced work—this from a director who was already noted for his almost classical discipline. Ronet, until then largely thought of as a lightweight romantic film actor, surrenders himself to the downhill yet strangely transcendent fate that awaits him on the mirror of his room.
The Wages of Fear
This is a companion portrait of the existential man of The Fire Within, but it is the obverse—men facing their end not by the personal choice of suicide but by literally being blown to bits. Beginning in a slow, sleepy town (an extended sequence that was once severely trimmed), it tracks men who are moving toward death on a literal and metaphorical road but whose ability to face the void ahead of them is Camus-like in its indomitability. Screwed down as tightly as a pipe bomb, this Clouzot film threatens to blow up in front of you at every turn. You want to scream as you reach to grab the truck’s steering wheel.
Quiet and gentle, in stark contrast to the ever-looming violence of The Wages of Fear, this human tone poem by Ermanno Olmi has the intimate lyricism of Truffaut layered with Italian neorealism. It is toward this latter strain that Olmi moved in his subsequent work, even to the extent of being his own (albeit mediocre) camera operator; for this film, the fluid camera of Lamberto Caimi creates a near dreamlike space while staying rooted in the details of daily life.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
This is the third film that I photographed for writer-director Paul Schrader. It is the film he was born to make, even though it is in a language that neither he nor I understood. It is the film of which I am most proud. I had never expected that I would photograph a film that I felt could take a place in the cinematic canon. It opened to some indifferent, even hostile reviews, by critics who had little patience to plumb its depths. This film and Two-Lane Blacktop (a film that was my first assignment as a camera assistant and that was also subject to poor initial reviews) represent two poles of the directorial aesthetic that has informed my own work as cinematographer. Paul Schrader and Monte Hellman, as different as their styles are, represent for me the integrity that American filmmaking can aspire to.
Germany Year Zero
I know it’s a cheat to select three films as if they were one, but it’s almost impossible to consider Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero as anything other than a linked narrative of the ashes of World War II and of the struggle to rise out of that dustbin of history. They are vital, raw, even primitive in style, full of nonactors who are alternately charismatic and arch; there is an aesthetic in these movies that is stripped to the bone. These films, taken together, are immediate godfather to the French New Wave. When Truffaut saw the cinematic journey of the eleven-year-old Edmund Meschke in Germany Year Zero, the seeds of his Antoine Doinel character were planted. The interviews and documentary extras in this set are one of the great treasures of neorealism research.
Antonioni’s great L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse are yet another linked trilogy, though their stories and characters are as disparate as those of the Rossellini trilogy. It may be the director’s hyper-refined architectural style that we remember most in this film, people lost in its urban landscape. But Antonioni was also very much a child of Italian neorealism, as we can trace in his early films and documentaries. The long, wordless sequence, devoid of the main characters, that concludes this film is justly cited as a masterpiece of visual alienation and loss. But the hectic frenzy of the Turin Bourse sequence, a near standalone set piece in the middle of the film, shows the director at his documentary best, even as the camera smoothly glides through the rushing masses of stock traders with a singular determination of its own mission.
Even with a nod to some of Hollywood’s best navel-gazing films, I will make a case that this is the best film ever made about filmmaking—made by one of the most self-referential of all filmmakers. Visually lush to the point of a Powell and Pressburger surfeit, Godard’s film lays bare a marriage in crisis. The long apartment sequence between Bardot and Piccoli is a dystopian analogue to the hotel room playful casualness of Seberg and Belmondo in Breathless. A back-to-back viewing of the two sequences constitutes a minihistory of the French New Wave. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography and Georges Delerue’s score give the Greek myth parallels of the film’s story line (and of the film-within-a-film trope) a sensuous subtext—music and image caressing the body of the star of And God Created Woman. It’s great to see Fritz Lang and Jack Palance, two polar opposite cinematic icons, in a room watching dailies. Below the screen is a running legend that reads, “Cinema is an invention without a future. Louis Lumière.” The film’s opening long shot over verbal titles—as the BNC anamorphic camera approaches the viewer along tracking rails, then pans and tilts so that Coutard’s lens points right at you—is one of those great “gotcha” cinematic moments.
The 400 Blows
This is the definitive portrait of conflicted youth struggling toward self-identity. The final tracking shot of Antoine Doinel—running down the beach to the water’s edge, stopping, with no further escape route in front of him, then turning toward camera and freeze-framed with an optical zoom into his young and lost face—always brings me to tears. It is one of the most moving and deeply earned endings to a film ever made. It was Truffaut at the brink of his career, not yet the “Truffaut” to come, still the haughty Cahiers critic who thought that just maybe he could do it better than the films of the French “Tradition of Quality.” And he and his fellow Cahiers writers did do it better. Truffaut and Malle were the two humanist poles of the New Wave, with Truffaut most closely mirroring the mix of emotions that resided in the work of his mentor, Jean Renoir, whose own film . . .
The Rules of the Game
. . . is for me the greatest film ever made, and cannot stand in any list of “top ten” because it is simply of its own class. Renoir’s upstairs-downstairs comedy-drama so defies categories that it is almost impossible to talk about it. You just have to see it—over and over. It’s a film that was almost lost to us, as the original camera negative was destroyed in the early forties. This magnificent restoration (especially of the dialogue) is as close to returning the film to its magisterial pinnacle as we are likely to achieve. New Wave critical demigod André Bazin said that this film contained “the secret of a film narrative capable of expressing everything without fragmenting the world, of revealing the hidden meaning of beings and things without destroying [their] natural unity.” Bazin died at age forty, just as Truffaut was starting production of The 400 Blows.
Ricky Jay’s Top 10
Author, actor, and historian Ricky Jay first worked with director David Mamet on House of Games. They have since collaborated often, including on seven films, the TV show The Unit, the one-man Broadway show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, and Redbel…