In mid-winter, Valentine’s day means Oscar will soon be coming out of the closet to look in the mirror. If he sees himself, it will be a good year at the multiplex. But sometimes you have to look through the thorns on the odorless long-stemmed roses to find anything. If not, there is always Netflix and the great stuff from film history.
A friend posted a frame from the great romantic film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and it got me to thinking. The Academy Awards are about to come around and I really don’t give a damn. A sad frame of mind to be in. I love film, but I haven’t watched that particular exercise in poor taste in many years, and not only because of the wanton exhibition of narcissism and repetitious glorification of cynicism, or even the self-righteous politics, but because so few films are simply worthy of my interest, or the twelve bucks! This year, the only movies on the list of best films that I actually saw were Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, and they were both fine, though I liked Darkest Hour more. But there isn’t another nominated that I would watch for free on the telly.
Really. Daniel Day Lewis is a great actor. Say it out loud ten times. Stamp your feet and threaten never to make another film. It still doesn’t make this year’s exercise worth seeing. That would require characters you could give a damn about. . . . There’s that word again. But it really is my measure. All the artful photography and ambiguous silence they might load in the digital film canister doesn’t amount to a hill of beans otherwise. Ask Bogart.
Three films, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), rank with me as the three most romantic movies of all time. That’s what I know. You can have your own pick if you like. Brief Encounter is often cited, but there is an element to the romance which is not just doomed but assumed, and that I find hollow. David Lean’s cinematography is beautiful, but I wanted to know more about the characters. It was not so uncommon then for two people who had other commitments to run off together. Hell, the King of England had done as much a few years before! In any case, these three gems first appeared within just a few years of each other and at a time when real romance had just been made possible at a very dear price. I believe the Baby Boom generation was the result of the same hopeful zeitgeist. The next time you find yourself watching Sleepless in Seattle, or When Harry met Sally, consider the differences. Nora Efron is a cynical humorist, dependent of the handy cultural reference and always willing to be mean for a laugh (usually at the expense of some other human being looking for love). She plays well to a soulless crowd who are afraid of their emotions and have no interest in the better results of lovemaking (children) except as props. Efron’s sharp eye for human detail can be very funny, but it is not romantic—even when you are told repeatedly in the very same movie that it is. For human detail that is both funny and profound, you are far better off watching Hobson’s Choice (1954), or I remember Mama (1948).
And sadly, it is no accident that so many of the best such films were made back then. It is almost heart wrenching to consider what has been lost to us as a society that now thinks Fifty Shades of Gray or Punch-Drunk Love are romantic, or that Django is a good western, that the recent hash of Murder on the Orient Express is worth an hour and fifty-four minutes of your life (that you’ll never get back again), or that La La Land is as good a musical as Singing in the Rain (1952). Sure.
Not that Hollywood is incapable of doing it right. Open Range (2003) is a great western. I think it ranks with Red River (1948). And as late as 1992, the historical adventure The Last of the Mohicans was transformed into one of the greatest Romantic films of all time by the unlikely and jaded hand of Michael Mann. But, the romance, like the mystery film has mostly become small and mean, and nasty too. Perhaps interesting in some detail, well acted, and well filmed, but seldom well written and often unpleasant. Cynicism is the pox of our age. A mystery film as great as The Third Man (1949) just can’t be remade without the addition of a Le Carre style jaundice, and political amorality. Graham Green actually still believed in hero’s back in the day. Soon thereafter, even the great Hitchcock could not recreate the magic of North by Northwest (1959), though he tried.
John Ford was not given to romance, but The Quiet Man (1952), revealed his better soul, and that one is a pure romance, but given the strife in Ireland before and since, the so very smart critics must wish Sean Thornton had shot the protestant vicar for revealing his identity. Almost all the great films of the past had an element of romance because it is a timeless motivation and the most satisfying end. Even when the lovers must part forever, you want to hold that much tighter to the one beside you.
David Lean, who had made Brief Encounter one of the great romantic films back in 1945, was still capable of using his extraordinary visual sense to make one of the greatest of adventure films, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. The romance there is between man and sand, of course. But a few years later, the sad cancer of modernism had swallowed the director whole with Ryan’s Daughter (1971), beautiful to look at, but miscast and thoroughly modern with ambiguity, and nothing more. I have studied his films and I think that Hobson’s Choice is his second best. Better even than Bridge on the River Kwai, which I rank third (Man loves Bridge?). Better than Great Expectations (the book is better, but then, that’s a given) or Doctor Zhivago, which is best seen having no previous knowledge of Russian History. And the reason simply, is the story. Sight is only one of the senses. Cinematography won’t cut it alone. Lean tried mightily to screw up Lawrence of Arabia, adding pointless scenes like the one with great actor Jose Ferrer, and stretching other sequences far beyond any point they might have had, while casting an actor in the lead who was a foot taller than the original subject. But with T. E. Lawrence’s own words behind the fine script of Robert Bolt, and the incredible performance of Peter O’Toole, all set against Lean’s camera work, make it one of the best of all time.
I am a believer in the great director theory of film. This is not at all the same as the ‘auteur. ’ Film is a collaborative effort. Some elements can fail, but, as I am saying, there must be more than a pretty picture. Think of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977). It would be hard to get a more beautiful film than that. I watched it twice to be sure. It is the story that really sucks. But given a stronger subject, as he had in Alien (1979) and in Bladerunner (1982), he transcends his time.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A fine director. But he was essentially a writer and it is that sense in his screenplays which raises his films above the ordinary. However, that was his best. Better than All About Eve, or A Letter to Three Wives. And I think this is because of the lack of true romance in the others, unless self-love qualifies.
A Portrait of Jennie was directed by another artist of cinematography, the great William Dieterle, who was also responsible for the only credible version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), in which a teenage Maureen O’Hara—her red hair even visible in black and white—was first the object of a misshapen man’s true love. And I still love herself. His signature chiaroscuro lighting long predated what became ‘film noir’ and was a direct cousin of the German film school of Lang, Murnau, Wiene, but there was not a romantic among them. And Dieterle is another example of a director who, within the Hollywood system, was seldom paired with enough talent to truly shine, though he always made good. He made 89 films! There is no director working today who would come close. And a dozen of those he made are at least superb.
Which brings me again to a Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven, but I like the original title better.) It is truly sui generis—along with the other 23 films written and directed jointly by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. No such partnership, even near as perfect, has existed before or since. They called themselves The Archers. And though the air did finally come out of the tire, when they were rolling along, they made one great film after another, and most of them during and after the stringent war years when British feature film budgets were comparable to a Hollywood B production. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death are my favorites. All of them are touched by an understanding of what happens between two people in love, but the one about the laird and the lady is one of the great romances too.
The British stand tall in my appraisal of film, mostly because of their respect for the basic elements of good storytelling. But there were good and plenty American filmmakers too. I think I’ll write more on the subject with that in mind.