This week I chose films from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 90s, and 00s. Two are from the same director. They take place in Rome and Paris and Berlin and Tokyo and Washington. Several of them are considered to be the greatest films of their genres. There’s comedy, political satire, civil unrest, a hitman double-cross, and what we do for those we love is a recurring theme.
This week’s films are:
92. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
This film by director Vittorio De Sica is considered one of the greats. Set in post-war Italy, a man desperate for work lands a job pasting up posters around the city of Rome. To do his job, he sells what little he and his wife have and are able to retreive his bike from the pawn shop where it was languishing. But when it’s stolen on his first day of work, he suddenly has nothing and his job is in jeopardy. The police offer no help, so he and his son set out to find it. As they search for the bike they realize that no one is there to help them. Neighbors and bystanders help the thief when they find him and ultimately the father makes a heartbreaking decision.
Shot entirely with non-actors, the film was made at the beginning of the Italian Neo-Realism period. It was a hit in the States, but was criticized in Italy for its negative portrait of the Italian people. De Sica claimed he was being true to the book from which it was adapted and its view of Italy’s “post-war culture of rampant thievery and disrespect for civil order countered only by an inept police force and indifferent allied occupiers.”
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and awarded an honorary award from the Academy Board of Governors as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1949.
This is without a doubt one of the greatest dark comedies/political satires ever made. Directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, it was made at a time when the fear of a nuclear war was more than real for people all over the world. In the film, an insane general has taken it upon himself to launch a first strike attack on the Soviet Union, and in the War Room at the Pentagon a group of politicians and military leaders are scrambling to stop it. The film begins with the planes just two hours from their targets inside the USSR.
Sterling Hayden plays General Jack D. Ripper, who’s clearly off his rocker. He rails against the Soviets, accusing them of fluoridating the water in order to pollute our “precious bodily fluids.” Back at the Pentagon, President Muffley is trying to find a way out of a full-blown nuclear war. He’s aided by Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear scientist and former Nazi who is his scientific adviser and weapons strategist, General Turgidson, his closest military adviser, and various other functionaries. Meanwhile British liaison Group Captain Mandrake is the only one in the office with Ripper, and he’s trying to reason with the madman and get his hands on the nuclear codes to stop the bombing.
Peter Sellers plays three characters in the film: American President Muffley, British Captain Mandrake and Nazi Dr. Strangelove, and he’s simply brilliant! He apparently also improvised much of the hilarious dialogue. George C. Scott is also fabulous as General Turgidson, the principle military advisor to the President. His performance is very different from what he intended for the role, because Kubrick talked him into doing over-the-top “practice” takes, which would never be used, simply as a way to warm up for the “real” takes. Then Kubrick used these takes in the final film!
The film received four Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Sellers), Director, Screenplay.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Bill Murray, and this was one of my favorites. He play Bob Harris, a washed up film star who’s in Tokyo to film a whiskey ad. In the very same hotel Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is at loose ends, having accompanied her husband on a work trip and him not being around. Bob and Charlotte meet in the bar and become friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, but funny and sweet and sad at the same time. The two of them may have a large age gap, but they’re both unmoored. And both of them are questioning their marriages and their next steps in life.
Sofie Coppola definitely came into her own and showed off her talent with the writing and direction of this film. She wrote the role with Murray in mind. And he and Johansson have exquisite chemistry in the film. It’s one that’s worthy of repeat viewing!
It garnered four Oscar nominations. Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture. It won for Screenplay. And it’s Bill Murray’s favorite film of his own.
I loved this high-octane German thriller. The story begins as Lola’s boyfriend informs her that he has messed up big-time delivering a big chunk of money to his mobster boss. He left the 100,000 Deutschmarks in the subway. Oops! And Lola has 20 minutes to find a replacement or he’ll have to rob a store to get it or he’ll surely be killed. The rest of the film is Lola running through the streets of Berlin desperate to find a solution. What’s unique about the film is that the film takes off in three separate scenarios, like a frenetic Groundhog Day with someone’s life at stake. In each one though, Lola has decided to go to see her bank manager father to help her out. But each time ends in an entirely different outcome.
At the center of the film is the love story. Lola is willing to risk everything to save her boyfriend. The film has a fabulous soundtrack and Franka Potente’s breathless performance is amazing. You’re pulling for her the whole way.
This is gritty black & white film feels very “of the moment.” It follows three young men who live in the same housing project outside Paris through the 24 hours following a riot in reaction to the police arresting and beating unconscious their friend Abdel. Vinz, Hubert and Saïd are all immigrants. Vinz is Jewish and wants to violently avenge Abdel. Hubert is an Afro-French boxer whose boxing club burned down in the riots, but doesn’t want to rock the boat. Saïd is a North African Muslim who just wants to keep the peace between Vinz and Hubert.
Vinz, played by the amazing Vincent Cassel in his breakout role, found a gun during the riots, and he vows to kill a policeman if Abdel dies. As the night passed, the three of them wander from one violent situation to another, encountering skinheads, sadistic plainclothes cops, and crazed drug dealers. And finally there is a confrontation with a policeman that ends tragically, though you know that’s where it had to go. It’s a film that rings true even now, or especially now with BLM protests about police violence.
Hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lives spartanly with only his bird to keep him company. He’s meticulous in his life and his planning out airtight alibis. But after his latest hit on a nightclub owner, he messes up and is seen leaving the club by several witnesses. There’s a police lineup that he’s included in, but several of the witnesses,, including the club’s piano player Valérie say it isn’t him. Though he’s released, the police still believe he’s the killer. Nevertheless, he loses the cops and goes to pick up his money only to be shot by the middleman making the payment. Wounded, he sets out looking for the witnesses who lied for him and finds that the piano player lives with the man who hired him and then set him up. After killing him, Costello returns to the club to find out why they set him up. But he’s ambushed by the cops.
For a movie about a hit man, this one has very little action and even less dialogue and yet it is riveting. Delon is cold and calculating and handsome. And the film is beautifully shot and directed. Many modern directors from John Woo to Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino have been influenced by this film. It’s a must see!
Also from Vittorio De Sica (see Bicycle Thieves, above), this may one of the saddest films ever made. In it an old man and his dog struggle to survive in post-war Rome. Umberto is a retired civil servant who is out one day protesting for higher pay on his pension. When returns to his run-down apartment he finds the this landlady has rented it out by the hour, and unless he pays his back rent, she wants him out. He can’t pay the rent and has no savings, so he sells what little he has. But then he falls ill and goes to the hospital, and when he comes home, he finds his apartment filled with workmen renovating the place, and his dog Flike is missing. After reclaiming his dog at the pound, he attempts to get a loan from a friend so he can pay the back rent, but when that fails, he and his loyal dog are out in the streets, homeless.
Umberto is at the end of his rope, but his priority is finding a good place for Flike. He tries several times to find him a new home, but Flike won’t leave him. And when Umberto attempts suicide by train, Flike saves him. It’s a beautiful relationship that dog lovers will totally understand.
That Umberto is played by a non-professional actor is incredible. De Sica called it the film he was most proud of.
The film was an Oscar nominee for the screenplay.
HAPPY VIEWING AND CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 15!
All of these are streaming and some of the older ones you can find at your library.
And in case you missed them, here are the links to the previous weeks:
This list started as a pandemic exercise wherein I posted a film a day on my Facebook feed. The only criterion was that it was something I remember liking back when I saw it last. I am not sure they all hold up to repeat viewing given hindsight and more recent social mores. But hey, they were all considered good films at one time, and so many of them were multiple award winners. I’m just hoping to give my “the theaters may be opening, but I’m not ready to go yet” friends some alternatives to the new films coming out these days and a quick guide to curtail the endless scrolling through Amazon and Netflix and whatever streaming services you’ve signed up for.