The old ones are the best…
There was widespread consternation recently – well… widespread among the small band of obsessives like me who talk about such things – when Vertigo knocked Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane off the top slot in Sight & Sound magazine’s prestigious list of the greatest films of all time. Where did it all go wrong for the Big O’s timeless masterpiece?
Interestingly, less attention was paid to the fact that the most recent film in the top ten was Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey – which was released way back in 1968. Nothing from the 70s onwards featured. Have films got worse in that time? Surely this can’t be true, not least because of all the technical advances made in the subsequent years.
I think it’s fair to say that it can take many years for a film to ‘bed down’ into our collective consciousness. The perspective accorded by time is always the main arbiter of whether something – be it films, music or clothes – is deemed classic or simply a piece of ephemera. Vertigo was for years considered highly flawed, far from the best of Hitchcock’s films. From a technical angle, Psycho was surely a far more accomplished piece of direction. Even so, forty years is ample time in terms of movie culture. Perhaps something in the spirit of films and film-watching has changed.
I sometimes wonder if the characters in contemporary films are now drawn so much larger than life that they are no longer people we can relate to. They give you a quick thrill, sure, but ten years later, there doesn’t seem much substance to go back to. This Christmas’s TV film schedule will almost certainly feature – it always does – that 1940s black and white chestnut It’s A Wonderful Life. Over-familiarity means that I groan every time I see it in the listings, though it is actually a terrific film. As a moralistic piece of whimsy, it is charming enough to allow you to swallow the saccharine sentiment time and again. I shudder to imagine what a modern director would do with this material, however. And the scenes between the James Stewart character and his guardian angel would be the green light for production department CGI overkill, obscuring the essential magic of Capra’s film, which lay simply in the interaction between the actors.
Old films played everything down and left us space to use our imaginations, partly because technical limitations meant they had to. But even today, watching them does not represent a diminished experience. Returning to that Sight & Sound list, another near-perennial in the top ten is the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, released in 1928 and directed by Carl Dreyer. It has just been made available in the Masters of Cinema series (on DVD/Blu-ray; see www.eurekavideo.co.uk) and I really recommend it to anyone who, having recently enjoyed The Artist, finds themself drawn to exploring the lost delights of silent movies.
This amazing film was shot almost entirely in close-up – highly unusual for the time – using newly available film stock which made it possible for the actors to appear without use of make-up, emphasising the harshness of their expressions, wrinkles and facial hair. The heroine, Joan, by contrast, was shot under softer lighting. She was played by the French actress Maria Falconetti and she is completely stunning. Critic Pauline Kael once said that this ‘may be the finest performance ever recorded on film’, and having seen it screened at the British Film Institute recently, it is hard to disagree.
For all the realism of modern acting, her performance has perhaps never been surpassed. An accomplished stage actress, she played only two screen roles – the other had been as far back as 1917 – and died in 1946, aged fifty-four.
The Passion of Joan of Arc was an immediate critical success, though not a great commercial one – unsurprisingly, given its harrowing storyline. Falconetti herself was underwhelmed by the ecstatic reaction to her performance, but for anyone who sees it, it will live in their minds for ever. I can’t remember any actor in a recent film making such an impression on me and suspect I’m not alone. It might explain the amnesia of the critics for anything post-1970…