Sunday, 22 March 2009

A Couple of Classics

My friend Cyran was asking what my definition of a classic film was recently, and I realised that I don't really have a definition that I was using for Thing 71. In my mind I was thinking something like "a film that is considered by many to be great" and for the purposes of Thing 71 it had to be something that I hadn't seen yet.

Well, the two films that Cyran loaned me last week certainly fit the bill. On Friday I watched The Maltese Falcon which I vaguely knew of (I knew Bogart as Sam Spade and that was about it), and then yesterday I watched Citizen Kane, which I thought I knew about but clearly I didn't. I didn't know just how much of it I was familiar with from a Simpsons episode (the one where Mr Burns misses his old teddy bear), and as I didn't know that much about the story - other than it being the life of a wealthy man, and it beginning and ending with "Rosebud" - there was a bit of a disconnect for me as I sat down to watch it.

That's not to say that it wasn't enjoyable: the framing device of having the journalist trying to figure out what Kane's last word meant was brilliant, and the jigsaw puzzle story that this results in is well put together and well told. It's by no means the perfect movie or the "best" that I've heard many critics call it, but it's brave and it doesn't do anything by half measures. From what I've read about it before, there always seems to be a focus on Welles the writer, Welles the director, and his performance always seems to come last in his list of accomplishments (indeed, in the closing credits he gives himself last billing as a performer). It's a very clever performance: starting off extremely big and larger than life, but becoming more and more subtle I think as Kane's life becomes a greater excess (the opera house, Xanadu).

The Maltese Falcon was my favourite out of the two films though; a genuine mystery, perfectly executed and with stunning performances from all concerned. I've only ever read one story by Dashiell Hammett before, The Thin Man, and I knew nothing about the core mystery - though I vaguely knew that Peter Lorre was in the film as well, and Sydney Greenstreet, both excellent. The film is brilliant precisely because it is a mystery, and remains a mystery until the final moments. Many thrillers and mystery films today have their secrets revealed halfway through the final act, to leave some kind of action sequence/chase for the final reel, whereas this keeps the suspense going and you know that there is some final revelation to come... Bogart is brilliant, an absolutely perfect performance; his sly smile, his confidence and the seemingly out of place music that accompanies him through the film - only turning more dramatic as the mystery begins to unfold towards the end.

I have a few classic films on DVD that I haven't watched yet, and should do soon. Yojimbo, The Godfather Part II, and when I get the chance I think I would like to buy some westerns starring Clint Eastwood (especially Unforgiven). And watching all of these great films stands me in good stead for Script Frenzy which is just around the corner...


Matt_Evans said...

While I agree that Citizen Kane is not the best film of all time, I do think it is the most technically innovative film when put in the context of its time.

Basically every technical aspect of this film -- cinematography, make up, special effects, scene transitions -- were pioneered by Welles and his crew. The deep-focus used was essentially unprecedented in film, as were the aging effects used, etc.

zero_zero_one said...

Yeah, I agree, it was a revolutionary piece of film-making, and you can see that even today.

I guess, out of the two of them, The Maltese Falcon just really did it for me when I sat down to watch it.