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Archive for November, 2011

100 Best Directors of All Time?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Here’s an interesting list, with links to IMDB, of the “one hundred best directors” of all time, compiled by The Cine-club de Caen. Of course, all such lists are highly subjective, but this seems like a good place to start for anyone, and any list that contains Manoel de Oliveira — though ranked at number 73, much too low in my estimation — seems worthy to me. Worth checking out, if only for the links to IMDB, and thus the links to outside reviews, resource materials, and the like.

The Mystery of Picasso (Le Mystère Picasso)

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

I have a new piece out on The Mystery of Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot in Senses of Cinema 60; it begins:

“At first glance, it might seem that a film about Picasso should have been directed by anyone other than Henri-Georges Clouzot, the famous misanthrope of the cinema. But then again, both were hard, violent men, absolutely sure of their vocations, and each approached their work with the same sense of absolute control and complete lack of compromise; whatever they did, it was entirely up to them, and anyone who interfered would be cut down in short order.

For Picasso, this was not the first cinematic exploration of his creative process; in 1949, the Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts made Bezoek aan Picasso (Visit to Picasso), a 21-minute film in which Picasso creates, as he does in Clouzot’s film, a number of drawings, painting on see-through glass, which the director films from the other side, to allow the viewer to see both the painting and the artist at work, at the same time. . .”

You can read the entire essay here, or by clicking on the image above.

Force of Evil (1948)

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil is one of the greatest, and bleakest of all noirs. Made in 1948, just before Polonsky became yet another victim of the HUAC Blacklist, Force of Evil boasts a stellar cast, including veteran heavy Thomas Gomez, the always dependable Roy Roberts, noir specialist Marie Windsor, and is toplined by John Garfield in one of his most memorable roles, as a mouthpiece for the numbers racket who tries to make a quick killing, while keeping his brother, who runs a small time policy office, out of the way of the big boys. Based on the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert, and immaculately photographed by George Barnes, this is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and ultimately horrific tales of greed, deception and betrayal ever brought to the screen. And it’s only 78 minutes long.

You can see the entire film by clicking here, on or the image above.

Dead of Night (1945)

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Click on the image above for the final “nightmare” sequence from Dead of Night.

From Wikipedia: “Dead of Night (1945) is a British portmanteau horror film made by Ealing Studios, its various episodes directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. The film stars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave. The film is probably best-remembered for the ventriloquist’s dummy episode starring Redgrave. Dead of Night stands out from British film of the 1940s, when few genre films were being produced, and it had a huge influence on subsequent British horror films; most particularly, the anthology films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and early 1970s.”

From Screenonline: “Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is one of just a handful of ‘true’ horror films of British cinema’s first half-century, and certainly the most important film in that genre until the beginning of Hammer’s horror cycle a decade later. Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing’s.

The film was a truly collaborative venture, including many of the figures who dominated Ealing’s output during and after the War. Directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer, writer T.E.B. Clarke and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe represent the popular Ealing comedies; writer Angus McPhail was active at Ealing as early as 1939; Basil Dearden would pioneer the postwar ’social problem’ film; veteran Alberto Cavalcanti had already made his mark with Went the Day Well? (1943) and was a hugely influential figure at Ealing, despite directing only one further film there. Another studio mainstay, director Charles Frend, was forced to pull out early in the production due to other commitments. The cast included Ealing regulars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

Dead of Night stands up well despite the passing years. The linking narrative, directed by Dearden, holds the film together effectively, building up the sense of dread towards the suitably delirious conclusion. The five supernatural tales may be uneven, but Cavalcanti’s story – a talented ventriloquist is driven to attempted murder by his apparently conscious dummy – is eerie and gripping, and features a powerful performance by Michael Redgrave as the troubled and finally unhinged ventriloquist. Even better is the story by first-time director Hamer, in which an antique mirror with a dark history exposes the cracks in the relationship of smug middle-class couple Peter (Michael) and Joan (Withers).

The film sets up a classic horror genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer a rationalist interpretation of his fellow guests’ stories are dismissed and, finally, he pays for his scepticism with his life. Despite its success, Dead of Night was a dead-end for Ealing, which never really dabbled in horror again; the genre largely went back underground until the Hammer era.” – Mark Duguid

One of the greatest horror films of all time, and the first British horror film produced after the end of World War II.

Harold D. Schuster’s Portland Exposé (1957)

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Portland Exposé.

Want to know what the 50s were really like? Forget On The Waterfront. The brutality, the cynicism, the dirt right underneath the surface of respectability, the small town taken over by hoodlums for prostitution, gambling, protection rackets and slot machines? Then take a look at Harold D. Schuster’s Portland Exposé (1957), a cheap, brutal, violent little film shot on location in Portland, Oregon, ripping the lid off the serene little community to reveal it as a hotbed of vice, crime, and official corruption.

Edward Binns stars as a square John just trying to run a roadside tavern with his wife and kids, but soon the syndicate muscles in, and forces him to join the operation, and “juice up” the joint with rigged slots, “B” girls and endlessly flowing liquor. Soon — in an economical 71 minutes — all hell breaks loose. It takes a cheap, rotten film to convey a cheap, rotten universe, and as the film’s tag line screamed, “Not since [Phil Karlson's] Phenix City Story [a film about a similarly corrupt community in 1950s Alabama] has any film hit so hard…Now, see a vicious empire of vice and corruption blasted before your eyes! The year’s biggest film scoop! The Whole Scorching Story…BRIBE by BRIBE…SIN by SIN…SHOCK by SHOCK!”

Shot in less than two weeks in stark black and white, with cameos from Frank Gorshin as a sociopathic rapist, and Lawrence Dobkin as a smooth criminal kingpin, Portland Exposé, a low-budget effort from Allied Artists, paints a truer picture of the era than the glossy romances and musicals most people fondly remember as emblematic of 1950s complacency. Everyone is on the take, the sweet little old society matron runs the biggest prostitution ring in town, and all the cops are career criminals.

So incendiary was the film’s script that the crew had to rent film equipment in Hollywood, and secretly truck it to Portland, Oregon using non-Teamster trucks, as some of the Teamsters took a real dislike to the film’s depiction of labor’s complicity in the rackets.  Add to that the almost neorealist rawness of the all-location cinematography and direction, and Portland Exposé emerges as one of the most authentic crime films of the 1950s, and well worth a look today for a arguably more accurate depiction of our supposedly halcyon past. And it’s out on DVD!

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Click on the image above for the trailer for Melancholia.

I’m not a Lars von Trier cultist by any stretch of the imagination — his previous work strikes me as empty and pretentious — and I say this only because with Melancholia, easily the best film of his career, he has created one of the the most heartbreaking, elegiac, complex and accomplished films in cinema history — in short, it’s a stop at nothing masterpiece, and instantly joins the pantheon of truly remarkable films, evoking everything from Dreyer to Bresson to Resnais and all the stops in-between.

The plot of the film is no secret; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a deeply depressed young woman whom we meet on her wedding day, afflicted with melancholia, the disease; at the same time, a huge planet, also named Melancholia, is hurtling towards earth at terrific speed, destined to utterly destroy the planet. All of this is revealed in the first five minutes, in a super-slow-motion montage reminiscent of the video gallery pieces of Bill Viola, culminating in the moment that Melancholia collides with Earth, as seen from distant space.

But after this opening, wordless sequence, scored to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film leaves the apocalypse plot aside for a close-up examination of Justine’s disastrous and ruinously expensive wedding, during which Justine bit by bit collapses into a state of almost complete catatonia. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to help her through the day-long ordeal, but to no avail. By the end of the day, Claire’s husband deserts her, she’s fired from her job for telling off her obnoxious boss, and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) stands up during a toast and tells the entire room that she hates the very idea of marriage, even as the forced festivities continue.

That’s the first half of the film, aptly entitled Justine, but when Claire takes over the eponymous second half of Melancholia, the film deepens into a doleful meditation on mortality, the worthlessness of property and money, the fickle stability of family relationships, and because the end of the film is predestined — we know from the opening moments that everyone in the film will die, as well as every other person on the earth — the tragedy becomes almost unbearably intense, as Justine pulls out of her depression, embraces the inevitability of death, and becomes, against all odds, the most courageous member of the group in the film’s final moments.

More than that I cannot and should not say; this is a film that simply must be experienced, preferably on a large screen for full visual and emotional impact. This is the sort of apocalyptic thriller that only an artist can pull off; it’s absolutely pitch-perfect for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time, and like the rogue planet that dominates Melancholia from first frame to last, the film inexorably gathers velocity and resonance as it hurtles towards its horrific and yet transcendant climax. The entire cast is superb — Dunst gives the performance of her career in the film — and John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and all the rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant.

I spend so much of my time watching junk, which is all the Hollywood makes now, so when something as good as this, or Margin Call, comes along, I want to celebrate. It’s as Ingmar Bergman said near the end of his life; you see so many bad movies, that after a while, you don’t expect anything more. Then something like this comes along. Melancholia is an astonishing, absolutely remarkable film that succeeds on every level — as human drama, as science fiction fantasy, as social parable, as purely visual filmmaking. See it at once.

Saul Bass — Master of the Main Title

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

I’m tired of blogging about the ephemeral lately, so let’s take a look at a classic. Saul Bass, designer of some of the most memorable and iconic main titles for films in the 20th century, the golden (and really, the only) era in which pre-digital celluloid ruled. Ian Albinson, editor-in-chief of the web site Art of The Title has put together a short montage — just 1:44 — of some of Bass’s best work. You can get to this by clicking on the image above. It’s smooth, refreshing, imaginative work.

As Albinson notes, “To celebrate the release of the long-awaited book Saul Bass: A Life In Film & Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, I put together a brief visual history of some of Saul Bass’s most celebrated work. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will also celebrate the life of Saul Bass with a film screening and talk on Monday, November 14, 2011, at 7:00 p.m. This special event features the New York premiere of Saul and Elaine Bass’s Academy Award-winning short Why Man Creates (1968), newly preserved by the Academy Film Archive, as well as a rich selection of title sequences, commercials, and corporate campaigns.”

The event is past, but the book is a real keeper; read all about it here.

UNL Government Comics Archive – Curated by Richard Graham

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Click on the image above to go to Richard Graham’s UNL Government comics website.

Richard Graham, an Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in Love Library, has been assiduously putting together a digital archive of US government comics on a wide variety of topics, all available as downloadable pdfs from the UNL Libraries Image and Multimedia Collections.

As reporter Micah Mertes notes in the Lincoln Journal Star:

“Richard Graham’s first foray into comic books didn’t include Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four or Archie but a 1979 Army training pamphlet for an off-road military vehicle: Operation and Preventative Maintenance: the M561/M792 Gama Goat [. . .] Graham, now a 37-year-old media services librarian and associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has made government comics one of the focuses of his career. A few years back, he began a project at UNL scanning and digitizing hundreds of comics, some of which were already in UNL’s collection, some in his own.”

You can read the entire article here; this is an incredible digital resource on web, and well worth checking out for any popular culture historian.

Margin Call (2011)

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

A friend of mine who used to be in what is euphemistically called the “financial services” industry wrote me that J.C. Chandor’s low budget indie Margin Call “totally nails it” in its depiction of events leading up the 2008 crash — which is super scary, because the fictional traders presented in this film are the absolute scum of the earth. And these are our financial advisors? God help us all.

Chandor wrote and directed with film, which was shot simply and efficiently, as Benjamin Wallace described in New York Magazine, noting that “for the seventeen-day shoot last June, the cast and crew took over the entire 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, near Madison Square Garden, which had recently been vacated by a trading firm.” It’s the classic low budget strategy; keep your cast in one location for most of the shoot to keep costs down, have a script that everyone believes in so they’ll do it for a fraction of their usual fees, and film it fast, fast, fast. The results are staggering.

The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley; the film was shot for a mere $3.5 million dollars, and has received spectacular reviews.

First-time director J.C. Chandor labored for 15 years — that’s right, 15 years — to get this off the ground; read an amazingly candid interview with him from Movieline here, which is a testament to keeping going when all the odds seem against you. Independent filmmaking is always a struggle, and it seems that Chandor had to work harder than most to get Margin Call made, but the end of result is more than worth it. This is a remarkable film, and a success on every level, from the impeccable and understated ensemble acting to  the cold, sleek photography and the sharp, observant script, in which the whole awful drama plays out with realistic understatement.

Want to know how it all went wrong? See this film.

Top 75 Lost British Films

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

From the lost film Sleep is Lovely, 1968

While film may seem eternal, in fact it’s highly ephemeral, as this list of 75 lost British films compiled by the British Film Institute clearly indicates. Some of the films on the BFI list are from the 1970s, and one would think that films of such relatively recent vintage would be readily available, but no — they’re lost, negatives and all prints. In most cases, only stills and press materials survive. They may eventually turn up in a vault somewhere, or in someone’s attic or bedroom closet, but for the moment, these films are only memories — moving images that once had life, but now exist no more.

This list, in itself, is one of the best arguments one can make for the essential nature of film preservation. Without proper archival care, all films will cease to exist eventually. Our job is to keep them with us, as part of our shared cultural heritage. The films on this list are all British productions, but such a list could easily be expanded to include films around the world — films that are now just memories. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, and you can’t bring them back — so we must act now.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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