May 2011, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour - American Mythmaking and British (Color) Opulence


We continue our journey through American genre history - with westerns, film noir and melodramas from the 1940s and 50s, the age of classical Hollywood cinema. John Ford's name is inseparably connected to the American western movie. Like hardly anyone else, he shaped this archetypical American genre and during the five decades of his career as a director, he developed it further, creating archetypes and legends. Georg Seeßlen called John Ford, who in his late movies critically addressed this production of myths, the "greatest myth poet of American cinema."

FORT APACHE (John Ford, USA 1948, March 1 & 9) "A key film of John Ford's oeuvre, and thus of cinema: Part one of the masterful cavalry trilogy, an ambivalent study of leadership and hubris – and a paraphrase of Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn. With FORT APACHE, Ford is once and for all enwrapped in the singular aesthetics of his late work, less and less obliged to telling a story than to creating a social universe full of moral challenges." (Christoph Huber

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (John Ford, USA 1949, March 2 & 6) is also part of the cavalry trilogy and is captivating due to the melancholy mood and pictures in Technicolor. A shortly to be retired cavalry captain (played by a masterly John Wayne) is for the last time in command of a dangerous patrol in an area controlled by Indians ready to attack. There are also two women in the trek, causing additional unrest.

WAGONMASTER (John Ford, USA 1950, March 4) was one of Ford's favorite films, a small, classical story: an arduous journey aimed at settling in the West: Two horse traders are talked into guiding a trek of Mormons through the rough wilderness. When a couple of bandits try to hide among the settlers, the conflict arises.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN (William A. Wellman, USA 1951, March 3 & 7) Based on a story by Frank Capra, the film tells of a group of 150 women that are led by two trek guides to California to meet marriage-minded settlers. "At times this western resembles the on-the-road version of a women's prison movie. Rarely has Hollywood cinema shown the vigor, the physical power and the suffering of women in a more (neo-)realistic way than in this dusty black-and-white movie." (Hans Schifferle)

In the chapter dealing with film noir, we will show two early films by Nicholas Ray, who later became famous with his films Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without A Cause. In Hollywood's studio system, Ray counted as a rebel, like his protagonists, searching for a place in the world. His debut film THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (USA 1948, March 5 & 14) deals with the longing for normal life and the impossibility of finding a permanent abode. The love of a young couple ends in a hail of police bullets after former cellmates talk the boy into participating in a bank robbery.

ON DANGEOURS GROUND (Nicholas Ray, USA 1951, March 8 & 11) starts as a classical film noir, to then become a psychological drama about lonesomeness and despair. A policeman with violent and self-destructive tendencies is sent by his superior to the countryside to solve a murder case. He meets a young blind woman there, who could redeem him.

KISS ME DEADLY (Robert Aldrich, USA 1955, March 10 & 16) The cynical private eye Mike Hammer becomes involved in a chase of Los Angeles' underworld after a box of radioactive material, after having witnessed the murder of a mysterious woman.

Stanley Kubrick's early masterwork THE KILLING (USA 1956, March 12 & 25) is a fast-paced crime movie working with flashbacks and narrated from different perspectives: a motley group raids the betting office of a racetrack. Their meticulously conceived plan, however, fails due to a chain of unexpected events.

With THE KILLERS (USA 1946, March 13, 14 & 19), Robert Siodmak adapted a short story by Hemingway with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in the leading roles. "With excitingly expressive images, Siodmak starts where Hemingway's excitingly cool short story ends. Why does a man without any indication of flight or defense let himself be murdered? The answer is given in flashbacks that become shorter and denser." (Harry Tomicek)

Douglas Sirk, who was born as Detlef Sierck and emigrated from Germany in 1937, succeeded in making a second career in Hollywood. In WRITTEN ON THE WIND and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, he combines melodramas that are exuberant in terms of content and visuals with a hidden criticism of conformist societal norms.

WRITTEN ON THE WIND (Douglas Sirk, USA 1956, March 18 & 21) The portrayal of a family in bright colors and against a pointedly artificial backdrop: The ominous situation of the wealthy oil family Hedley goes to pieces on account of alcoholism and self-destruction. "In this house that Sirk had built for the Hedleys, emotions bring forth the strangest of fruits. The lighting in Sirk's film is always as unnatural as possible. Shadows where none should be help make sentiments, which one would like to keep away, plausible." (R. W. Fassbinder)

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (Douglas Sirk, USA 1955, March 17 & 22 & 29) Widowed Carrie (Jane Wyman) lives the way her adolescent children and the rigid social order of her small town expect of her. With the slightly younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), she gets to know a world free of social constraints and the possibility of happiness, against which her surroundings are opposed, though.

LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Max Ophüls, USA 1948, March 20 & 24) Max Ophüls staged the story of an unfulfilled love in turn-of-the-century Vienna (based on a novella by Stefan Zweig) as a scintillating melodrama. Joan Fontaine falls in love with a charming yet superficial concert pianist, who has a brief affair with her but does not even recognize her years later.

Finally, we will screen three films of the British director duo Powell/Pressburger from the 1940s: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, GB 1943, March 23 & 26), which was shot during the Second World War, retraces the vitas of a German and British officer from the beginning of the 20th century to the present.

BLACK NARCISSUS (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, GB 1947, March 27 & 31) Five Anglican sisters endeavor to set up a mission school and a hospital for the local population in the mountains at the edge of the Himalaya. In the end they fail, not least due to the severe conflict they get into when one of the sisters falls in love with an Englishman.

THE RED SHOES (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, GB 1948, March 28 & 30) Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the red shoes that allow the one wearing them to dance forever, is in the guise of a background story set in the present, which has the conflict between art and life come to an end in a fatalistic, tragic manner. A masterwork of ballet film that makes excellent use of all cinematic possibilities – foremost camera, editing and colors.