I knew and liked David Lean, a director of genius, who was very kind to me when he was making The Sound Barrier for my Uncle Alex, and Brief Encounter has always seemed to me the very best of classic British filmmaking, with its fiercely restrained emotions and good manners trumping passion, typical of its era. It is the best of the “small” British pictures, which my Uncle Alex tried to replace with “big” British pictures in an attempt to outdo Hollywood, rather than coexist with it, after he left it for Britain in 1932. Lean, who in Brief Encounter made this most English of English films (a distinction perhaps shared by This Happy Breed and The Fallen Idol, see below), moved onward and upward to ever bigger pictures, by way of The Sound Barrier, Summertime, and eventually the biggest and best of all epic films, Lawrence of Arabia, escaping from the confines of England to “international” films that challenged and beat those of the Hollywood studios. But Brief Encounter was a perfect, close-up view of a shabby, threadbare England, the England of “books from Boot’s, good drains, and class distinction,” in John Betjeman’s words, and of a muted, sad, doomed, and very English love affair. It has always been a film that puzzles the French, who find it hard to believe in a love story with almost no eroticism, and in which the lovers are usually dressed in raincoats. It is also Trevor Howard, a wonderful actor, at his best.
The Fallen Idol
Carol Reed was a brilliant director and a sweet man, but he was not a one-man band like David Lean; he required a strong, patient producer who loved him, as my Uncle Alex did, and a gifted screenwriter, which Alex found for him in the novelist Graham Greene, as well as an art director of genius—my father. He was at his best surrounded by talented people who loved him, who were virtual family, and that shows in his best films, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man. One unusual aspect of Carol’s gifts was that he was among the rare directors good at working with children—go watch The Third Man and you will be astonished at the brilliant inclusion of the ghastly little boy who accuses Holly Martins of murder. Most of the great directors hate working with animals or children, but Carol—himself the illegitimate son of the great Edwardian actor and theatrical producer Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree—had a natural sympathy and understanding of children. He was in fact childlike himself—hence his choice, later in life, to make a film of the musical Oliver!—and this shows in his direction of Bobby Henrey in this, another of those English films in which good manners manage to hide passion and even murder, except in the alarmingly clear view of a child. Ralph Richardson, dear Ralph, is at his best in the role of the butler.
David Lean again, in perhaps the best translation of a Dickens novel to the screen, and surely the greatest of Dickens’s novels too. Crisp, brilliantly cast, a flawless rendition of the period, and amazingly faithful to the novel, Great Expectations is the model that every Masterpiece Theater rendition of an English classic strives to emulate, only better, far better than that.
Paths of Glory
All right, Stanley Kubrick was a genius, the master of the big, ambitious film that stuns the senses, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Paths of Glory is one of the last great triumphs of black-and-white filmmaking. It is also a tribute to the talent of Kirk Douglas, who here takes on the role of a French colonel in the trenches of the First World War with such explosive energy that one realizes how many films (and directors) were unworthy of Kirk’s genius as an actor—his first acting role, by the way, was onstage as the servant in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, with Catherine Cornell, Judith Anderson, and my mother as the sisters and Ruth Gordon as the dreadful sister-in-law. Nobody has ever captured the First World War better on film (except perhaps for Jean Renoir in Grand Illusion, which is in a class by itself). A heartbreaking giant of a film, not a bad shot or a wasted frame in it; perfect filmmaking.
Jules Dassin’s gangster film about a robbery and its consequences is a French classic, noir before the word was in use to describe a certain kind of filmmaking. A word is in order here: I was educated in Switzerland, in an era when French-speaking people expected to see French films, so when we were allowed to go to the local cinema at Rolle or Gstaad, we mostly saw French films. British films, except for The Third Man, which is very “European” in tone, seldom played; still less big Hollywood ones. Rififi was a stunner, and an eye-opener, teaching us that French gangsters were a lot more interesting and attractive than our own mobsters, but just as tough, if not tougher. “Julie” Dassin was an American who moved to France, but he captured a whole, pungent slice of French life, and for months everyone at my school (le Rosey) went around trying to sound like Jean Servais, and to talk with a cigarette glued to their lips. Whole scenes from it still play in my fantasies.
The Ruling Class
Hilarious, scary, grotesque, macabre; an opportunity to watch Peter O’Toole not playing Lawrence but still acting brilliantly, in a film that sets out to destroy the myth of British upper class superiority and does so wonderfully, demonstrating, among other things, that O’Toole is a great comic actor when given the chance. It in some ways prefigures Monty Python, but with an edge of real horror and madness that leaves one disturbed for days afterward. Not to be missed, despite some really weird moments.
Sweet Smell of Success
Perhaps the noirest of noir films, and for my money one of the three best American films of the postwar period (the others being Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard). Featuring amazing performances from Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and a knife-edge bitterness rare in any Hollywood film, it is at once a tribute to nighttime New York City and a devastating portrait of the power of a big-time columnist like Walter Winchell.
Tunes of Glory
A fierce elegy to Britain’s past glories, this is a film to see again and again, if only because of Alec Guinness’s bold and vivid portrait of a rapidly tarnishing military hero. I am attached to it because I spent some of my two years’ service in the Royal Air Force at the Joint Services School for Linguists in Bodmin, Cornwall, not only with Navy and Royal Marines types but with soldiers from the endless list of British Army regiments, each with its fiercely prized individual identity, history, peculiarities of uniform, and traditions. No soldiers were more clanny or inbred than those of the fabled Scottish (kilted) Highland regiments, like the Black Watch, the Argyll & Sutherlands, or the Cameronians. The regiment in Tunes of Glory is like one of those, a small, enclosed world, and in it the rivalry between the brash and heroic young colonel and his replacement leads to a sad and messy tragedy. It is one of those brilliant “little” films that almost reaches greatness, and it remains, along with The Hill and Zulu, one of the iconic films about the British Army.
The Wages of Fear
Clouzot’s gripping film about a group of men driving a truck full of nitroglycerine to end a mining disaster is, although it could not be more French, one of the great buddy pictures of all time, with a degree of white-knuckle suspense that has never been bettered, before or sense. It is, or could be, an elegy to the French film industry, which in its heyday could produce films of every kind that captured an international audience, and is now pretty much reduced to love stories or French comedies that, with rare exceptions, seldom seem funny to foreigners.
À nous la liberté
Bonus: What can I tell you? My father’s old friend René Clair was a genius, and a sweet man, and this is one of the best French films ever made: funny, trenchant, witty, endlessly surprising. If I seem to wax elegiac about French films, it is not only because I saw so many of them but because the French at one time had a film industry that rivaled the world’s—indeed, my father got his start in the film business when he was living as a painter in Cagnes-sur-Mer and was called in by my Uncle Alex to do the sets for Marius, the first and best of Marcel Pagnol’s immortal trilogy, much of the dialogue of which I still know by heart. The war, the occupation, and the postwar domination of the American film industry brought an end to that, but perhaps the most important thing Criterion brings us is a reminder that film used to be part of national culture, and that great filmmaking can be and has been done in every country.
Kevin Macdonald’s Top 10
Kevin Macdonald is the grandson of the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger. Macdonald’s directorial credits include 2000's Academy Award–winning One Day in September, about the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and 2003's Touching…