I have never tired of watching this film over the decades, ever since it premiered on TV in 1955, the same day of its theatrical release. Richard III is the greatest character the world’s greatest writer ever created, and this is his best play, and the greatest heroic performance ever given by the greatest English-speaking actor, Laurence Olivier, perfectly directed by the actor with a superb supporting cast and a fantastic score by Sir William Walton. It’s quite an achievement in every possible way. From his first appearance in the part on the London stage in 1944, it was acknowledged as the greatest Shakespearean performance anyone had ever seen, and it seems destined to remain that, thanks to this great film.
The Third Man
Maybe the best film ever made in Europe about modern Europe, by my favorite of all European directors, Carol Reed. It’s a companion piece to its follow-up, The Man Between, my other favorite Reed film; both films present a totally pessimistic take on the moral collapse of a divided postwar Europe, with no heroes or possible redemption. I’ve probably seen it fifty or sixty times since it first appeared on TV in the 1950s, and still watch it from beginning to end whenever I get the chance. With the exception of the miscast Orson Welles (how could Alida Valli ever have loved such a mean-spirited, charmless, smirking killer?), the players, led by Joseph Cotten, Valli, and Trevor Howard, are at their best, as are the finest collection of German-Austrian actors ever assembled. It contains one of the greatest musical scores and has easily the greatest ending to any film ever made.
A magnificent example of European filmmaking, totally undramatic and hypnotically watchable thanks to the extraordinary visual beauty of the photography by Giuseppe Rotunno, the set design by Mario Garbuglia, and the costumes by Piero Tosi, all under the superb control of a great director, Luchino Visconti. An extended time-travel visit to another world, the film is comprised of two major events are a family’s trip from the city to a summer residence and a forty-minute attendance at a ball. It’s probably the finest physical production ever filmed anywhere in Europe or America, a relic of a time when taste, intelligence, and artistry were still in operation, but perhaps even then only in Italy, and only with Visconti. The undisputed master of the costume film (he made only six), this is his masterpiece, dominated by the extraordinarily majestic performance of Burt Lancaster. The tall, athletic, handsome Irish American from 116th Street in Manhattan brought a dignity, strength, and reserve to the part of a Sicilian prince that no one else could have played better. Without him, it would be hard to imagine the film as good.
Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan
The Thief of Bagdad
The beautiful music by Miklós Rózsa (the first film score ever released as a recording), the photography by Georges Périnal, the production design by Vincent Korda, and the performances by the Indian child star Sabu, Conrad Veidt, and the entire cast make it the most beautiful fantasy film I’ve ever seen. Like Snow White and The Wizard of Oz from the same period, this type of fairy tale depends on an innocence that has long since vanished, but I think it still works its magic today and is better than all the computer-generated children’s films of the last twenty years combined. Michael Powell, who was only one of many directors who made different sections of the film, attributes its true authorship to the genius of Sabu and the vision of its great producer, Alexander Korda.
The White Sheik
My favorite of all Fellini’s films, it seems his most perfect and certainly his most likable and affecting. And it’s his most comical, thanks to the wonderful performances of Leopoldo Trieste and, especially, Alberto Sordi, who went on to star in over three hundred films in Italy and is rightly regarded as their greatest actor. Its story also prefigures the theme of three of his later films (La dolce vita, Toby Dammit, and Ginger and Fred), as to the corrosive effect of the new media religion of celebrity. In 1950, the inroads of paganism on Christianity still seemed only foolish when a photo¬-comic-book character almost destroys a Catholic marriage. But already by 1959, the lust for media attention had become all consuming and malignant in La dolce vita, where a journalist goes from one idiotic media event to another, including an imagined miracle in the rain. In Toby Dammit, on a nightmarish TV talk show, the church itself parades in front of the TV cameras; and in Ginger and Fred, about another ridiculous TV celebrity program, it has all become totally absurd, only momentarily relieved by a nostalgia for older performers. Half a century later, the celebrity media religion rules, and there is no end to its reign in sight.
Josef von Sternberg
The Scarlet Empress
This fifth film from von Sternberg and Dietrich is their apotheosis, delirious and excessive, with the most perfectly controlled photography (by Bert Glennon) of any black-and-white film ever made. Dietrich never looked more beautiful, nor flaunted her signature decadent Dietrich persona more fully. Their sixth and final film, The Devil Is a Woman, harshly photographed by von Sternberg himself, just didn’t work. But after The Scarlet Empress, it’s not surprising that neither director nor actor had anywhere better to go, as this film summed up and concluded the greatest actor-director collaboration in film history. And the supporting performances by Louise Dresser, as the empress, and Sam Jaffe, as the mad emperor, are really superb.
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Another example of magnificent filmmaking, wherein the performances of Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, and Vittorio De Sica and the direction of Max Ophuls are so perfect that it almost stands alone in a category of romantic European filmmaking. Ophuls’s great fame rests mostly on the extraordinary directorial control he brings to this special film. It seems the most quintessential French film ever made, based on a story by the French Louise de Vilmorin, but it was directed by the German Ophuls. Americans, sensibly enough, never really tried to do this kind of film.
As in the Max Ophuls film, Lean also deals with romantic love outside of marriage and intelligently understands that these relationships were sad and not meant to be. But with the end of marriage as anything more than a foolish, outdated formality that no one takes seriously anymore, the romantic film has logically disappeared, and there have been no great romantic leading roles for women ever since. The vulnerable, sympathetic character Katharine Hepburn so beautifully plays would be now considered some kind of neurotic nutcase, but I think it’s her best performance and it’s David Lean’s best film. He specialized in this genre of marital infidelity in films such as Brief Encounter and Passionate Friends, and when he gave it up for his outdoor spectacles, I don’t think he was ever as good again.
Under the Volcano
In 1941, the year of Citizen Kane, a far greater first film coauthored by its director appeared: The Maltese Falcon. From this great beginning, John Huston went on to forge a consistent and unmistakable identity toward life and film that he maintained throughout his long, varied, and productive career. After Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney has been the greatest English actor to work in films, and Under the Volcano is his greatest role. Like all the great characters in Huston’s best films who are ironic, never sentimental, humorous, and usually very unpleasant, Albert Finney, never offscreen, is playing someone totally inebriated from beginning to end. It reminds me of another favorite, Richard III, where another great actor, in this case playing a serial murderer, pulls out all the stops, brings it all off, and brings the viewer over to his side.
The Bank Dick
W. C. Fields, with wife, mother-in-law, child, daughter, and son-in-law, played by the wonderful Grady Sutton. All this is pure enjoyment. When were movies ever more alive than in the thirties, when the great performers from the musical and vaudeville stage entered films? W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Maurice Chevalier, Fred Astaire, Marie Dressler, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland, among so many others. They were the real authors of their films, needing little help from their directors. American films began with audiences wanting to see performers, not directors, and this, perhaps, continues to separate American films from European films, but we’re lucky to have both, and who’s to say which is really better.