The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
Set in a hilly village more twisted with jagged, crowded shacks than a Brazilian favela, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the great landmarks of film history. Like so many early films, its theatricality is literal—one can plainly see the edges of set design—yet Robert Wiene's Expressionist masterpiece turns the psychological thriller into one of the great examples of pure cinema in its infancy. This is a warped film, with buildings twisted and curved in wracked pain and characters plumbing the depths of facial expression. Even the title cards are twisted—the card that the titular doctor hands over is so gnarled and indecipherable in bunched, sinister spiracles that it seems the inspiration for nearly every black metal band logo. Regardless of what Siegfried Kracauer says, Caligari is not as political as later German silents, but its aesthetic power is so distinct from contemporary American and French filmmaking that it certainly feels confrontational. Lang, Murnau and others would soon use the style to tackle the depravity and anomie of Weimar Germany, but Wiene is content simply to wow. And I wonder, is this the first great twist ending of the movies? Grade: A
P.S. Be sure to pay attention to Conrad Veidt's show-stealing performance as the somnambulist Cesare, hypnotized into murder by Caligari. Big and bold as silent acting (especially Expressionist silent acting) was, Veidts introduction is subtle, a close-up on his sleeping face capturing ever slight tic as the synapses along his face slowly fire, undulating his flesh in zombie-like reanimation as Caligari first awakens him. Veidt's most memorable performance is, of course, the ever-disturbing protagonist of The Man Who Laughs, but he is no less unsettling here as the tortured sleepwalker.
Cœur Fidèle [Faithful Heart] (Jean Epstein, 1923)
I cannot even imagine how good MoC's new Blu-Ray of Jean Epstein's unfairly ignored silent looks, given the quality of the old video I downloaded. (It's one of those titles that makes me wish I could afford a region-free player.) Epstein's film, inspired by Abel Gance's editing innovations, makes a starkly realistic yet poetically magical work. Made before Eisenstein et al. started demonstrating their theories on montage, Epstein's film uses a realistic background of working-class concerns and romantic melodrama (its light evocation of Victor Hugo, particularly Les Misérables is no coincidence) as a means of editing experimentation. Even the final shots, showing romantic joy tempered with the traumas of endured trials, finds the balance between poetry and reality. Epstein uses close-ups of hands and faces not only to establish character and occupation but tension and the emotional subjectivity of the film's character relationships. The acting is often "big"—especially Edmond von Daële's lecherous Petit Paul, who infuses every gesture with boozy arrogance—but it too is remarkably restrained, setting a precedent for realist cinema even as it shows how daring and aesthetic probing realism can be. Grade: A+
Best Scene: The fairground sequence set after Paul steals Marie away from her lover Jean, a bitterly ironic jubilation surrounding the miserable woman and the sneering, victorious thug. Epstein turns the carousel ride into an experimental frenzy of editing, using a rapidly cut collage of faces and POV shots of the fairground swirling in a fast panorama to visually elucidate the tension between Marie and Paul and her slow resignation to his domination.
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
Marlon Brando was just turning 30 when On the Waterfront premiered: in it, he looks a great deal younger and behaves a great deal older. His plain, goodhearted never-was Terry is world-weary before his time, a washed-up boxer-cum-stevedore gently but forcefully coerced into being a mafia hood, his bosses playing on his obedience and gullibility. Brando's performance set off a firestorm, dismissed today by those looking to kill gods by saying all he did was mumble. But take one look at Brando's plaintive face, occasionally wracked in unsuccessful attempts at intimidation and always filled with longing of romantic and existential varieties, and the hype justifies itself. "He tries to act tough, but there's a look in his eye," says Edie (Eva Marie-Saint), the sister of the dockworker Terry unwittingly lured to his death, and Marie-Saint's fascination with him at times seem as much unfettered astonishment of Brando's skill as Edie's attraction for this lovable bum.
A reworking of Arthur Miller's screenplay for The Hook, a project he was meant to work on with Kazan until HUAC pressure forced denouncing confessions from the director, On the Waterfront's morality play about the virtues of snitching smells of moral wish-fulfillment for Kazan, who wished to see a character honored for ratting. This moral equivalence and fantasy is even more potentially loathsome when one considers that not only are the crimes that prompt Terry to testify far worse than political affiliation, they also actually happened. Still, viewed within the diegesis and broader questions of the morality of speaking up, On the Waterfront emerges a morally sound treatise on the importance of not staying silent in the face of horror. Situated between these extreme poles of self-absolution and rectitude, On the Waterfront finds a moral complexity by truly considering what choice to make and then showing the consequences of those choices. Even the priest, guilted into a social crusade only to become a self-compelling force, is more than a moral stereotype. It's easy to pigeonhole Kazan's film as self-forgiveness, but to these eyes it seems a lot more like a confessional and ensuing penance. Grade: A
Best Scene: Cliché as it is, the "I could have been a contender" scene is iconic for a reason. When his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), the mob boss' lawyer and right-hand man, reluctantly pulls a gun on his own brother to ensure his silence, Terry has a defining moment of reflection and bitterness. Brando never sounds angry, only deflated and sad, as he recounts how his brother's boss ruined his boxing career, and Brando's even tones and measured volume convey overwhelming emotion. Brando was one of cinema's most heartbreaking actors, but I don't know if he was ever more wrenching than here.