Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

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Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances – 1925

Director – Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, and T. Roy Barnes

Each and every time I watch a brand new Buster Keaton movie, I go into it remembering the last one I saw.  So far each of them that I have seen, except the first one of course, the extreme level of quality has me continuing to hold the next one to that high standard.  The problem with that, comes in with my memory.  Each and every time I forget that these films start out slowly.  There is the inevitable set-up of the premise, the introduction of all the main characters, and the reveal of the potential love interest for Keaton’s character(it happens in each of them).  As a result I get worried in the first 15 or so minutes, that it’s going to be all slow pace, and cutesy plotting.

The fact that Seven Chances was a movie about a man who desperately needs to get married by 7 o’clock on the same day, only elongates the necessary set-up of the film, and tricked me into believing that this would be the one that would simply be corny and sweet, without the usual jaw-dropping action.  As in each of the others, however, I was not disappointed or let down in the least, it simply took me a little longer to get to the meat of Keaton’s athleticism, derring-do, and stunt-work.

As I mentioned earlier, Seven Chances is about a man who needs to get married on the double in order to gain a huge inheritance, and after doing an inventory of the women in his life, and in the immediate vicinity, he determines that he has seven opportunities to make that happen.  Of course the girl he truly loves misunderstands how he actually feels about her, and thinks he only wants the money.  The real trouble starts when his lawyer, in an effort to expedite the process, explains in the newspaper just what the situation is.  Soon enough a flood of women come out of the woodwork all bent on marrying the rather flustered bachelor cum-millionaire.

As with all of the Keaton films that I’ve seen (Sherlock, Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), the plot of Seven Chances is a backdrop at best and really ends up being a device through which to deliver the action.  The romance and characterization serves the purpose of setting up the scene and attracting people to the film in the first place, and while there are some fairly funny gags with Three’s Company-like misunderstandings, everyone is really there to see Keaton potentially kill himself.

Once again, the mans sheer physicality is astounding.  Each of the stunts is actually done by him, usually in one-unbroken take, and certainly without our modern-day concern for safety.  The rock-slide sequence in particular is the defining moment of this film.  The capper on a 20 plus minute chase sequence, it’s pretty insane to watch this guy run head first into a stream of rolling and bouncing rocks (I assume they weren’t really rocks, but still, his skill at avoiding all the obstacles in his path is exemplary).

That being said, I don’t think this film was quite as good as any of the others I’ve seen, and I’m not quite sure what aspect or characteristic placed this film on this list in the first place.  Perhaps the compilers of this list felt that Seven Chances had some unique defining quality, or maybe that it was of some great historical import, or perhaps it was simply a personal favorite, I’m not really sure.  I will say that it didn’t seem that there was a real stand-out reason to choose it over something else.  Perhaps there was a quota for a certain number of movies from each year, and without this film, 1925 was looking a little light.  Who knows?

Hopefully, I haven’t given the impression that Seven Chances is a bad film or anything.  The fact that I was excited to watch it, I enjoyed it, and that I will be excited to watch the next Keaton film is a testament to his staying power as an entertainer, one who I would have been completely ignorant of, if it hadn’t been for this list.

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) (1929)

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) – 1929

Director – G. W. Pabst

Starring – Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz

There are a whole stable full of directors that you hear about, and see examples from during film school.  You get a bit of a buffet education as it concerns the history of film combined with a bit of the preferences and eccentricities of the person teaching the class. What you don’t get, is a real comprehensive view of any country or movement’s stable of talented directors or actors for any given time period.  Due to a lack of time, and with such a wealth of history packed into the 130 years or so that film has been around, there are bound to be more than a few important names and examples that fall through the cracks.

One such director was G. W. Pabst, a name I had heard on more than one occasion during one or two of my cinema history classes, but nothing that was ever explored in-depth.  As far as Pabst’s rather sizable list of credits, the name that comes up more than any of the others, time and again as one of his best is (surprise, surprise, that’s why I’m writing this review) Pandora’s Box.  So does the most popular film from one of Germany’s greatest directors of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s deserve more attention in the eyes of the world?  Absolutely, it does.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of the ingenue Lulu, a woman struggling to balance the expectations of the multiple men in her life, while each in turn blames her for all of their shortcomings and misfortunes.  Lulu, the object of each (and presumably every) man’s desire, simultaneously becomes the scapegoat and the solution for each.  It is implied, rather explicitly, that she is a courtesan.  An object to covet, to own, use, and discard as the situation demands.

To Schigolch, the man who turned her out (read: pimp), she is a source of income and security, a commodity to be spent.  To her current keeper, Dr. Schon, she is a trophy to be proudly kept and displayed.  To Alwa, Dr. Schon’s son, she is an innocent to be lusted after and saved.  Each man takes it upon himself to “rescue” Lulu through ineffectual half-measures, later blaming her for their own actions.  Where once she was considered a shining, golden conquest, now she is seen as a home-wrecker, and a burden.

While she doesn’t strictly do anything malicious or wrong per se, Lulu never really learns her lesson and manages to perpetuate the cycle through her own inaction.  She is more than willing to let these people come to her rescue and place her in these gilded cages.  Either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself against her “benefactors”, Lulu continues to spiral downwards into worse and worse situations culminating in selling herself, body and soul.

I have this impression of movies from this day and age as being simply sensational adventures to thrill audiences.  Pandora’s Box, with its contemplation of gender, sexuality, dominance, and castigation, is a different animal all together.  With this film, there is an intelligence and genuine desire to explore different points of view, a challenge to the audience to consider the inequalities facing woman, and illustrating the need for examination and change.  All of this, mind you was taking place in the aftermath of World War I, during the rise of the Nazi party, alongside the economical, and social chaos and turmoil that was Germany in 1929.

Louise Brooks, the American expatriate who plays Lulu, does an exceptional job in the role, embracing the it from her trademark bob-haircut, to her pouty doe-eyed expression.  Many were upset at the casting of an American in what was considered a role meant for a German, but fears were ultimately assuaged and critics were duly mollified upon seeing Brooks’ performance.  Truly, she made the role hers, and she has remained synonymous with the character of Lulu ever since.

Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz provide eye-catching support for Brooks, each turning in roles of a lifetime in their own rights.  Goetz, in particular reeks with a slimy, contestable charm as Lulu’s pimp/father-figure Schigolch, a man who doesn’t think twice about wringing all he can from his young meal-ticket.

The version of the film I saw was the newly remastered version put out by the always fantastic Criterion Collection.  This version was no exception to their rule of providing only the highest quality films, restoration, remastering, and packaging.  If you do get to see this film, I hope it is this version that you decide to watch.  Rent it if you must, and buy it if you can, as the film comes with the usual rogues gallery of special features and a whole book full of essays on the film to boot.

I know very little about the rest of G.W. Pabst’s work, but now I’d really like to know more.  So influential in the world of film was Pabst, that he even gets a shout out, and becomes more than a slight plot point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (a phenomenal film in its own right.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and GO SEE THAT SHIT!)  Needless to say, I will be hunting down more of this man’s work, eagerly hoping that Pandora’s Box wasn’t just a one shot wonder, or simply a fluke.  Highly recommended!!

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. – 1928

Director – Charles Reisner

Starring – Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, and Marion Byron

A big debate amongst cinephiles is the merit of a film whose sole intent is entertainment, dispensing of deadweight such as message, stakes, and emotional heft.  Today these types of films are called “Popcorn Films” or “Blockbusters”, and they are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, kids, elderly, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.  No one demographic is really ever left out of the mix when talking about the audience for a film like this, with the exception of one…film snobs.  Does it have to be this way?  Are the visual hijinks, daring physical feats, and very basic storyline of something like Steamboat Bill, Jr. enough to make watching it worth while?  You bet!

This time around (just like most of the other times around) Buster Keaton finds himself the subject of scorn by an adult or an authority figure.  Despite this treatment, he remains almost blissfully unaware, and instead focuses his attention on the pretty young girl who has caught his eye.  Some sort of catastrophe occurs necessitating Keaton to spring into action, simultaneously proving the nay-sayers wrong and confirming the young girl’s belief in him.  Keaton invariably does this by demonstrating his physical prowess in an impressive and hilarious way.

Okay, so the story line is pretty much the same in each of his movies, only the setting and some of the plot points change.  One time it’s a train, the next it’s a steamboat.  He want’s to be a detective in one and the next he wants to play the violin.  This really isn’t all that different from other of Keaton’s peers, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers for example, were basically the same characters in multiple different movies, but does that remove any of their value, or the value of the film?

I submit to you that this is the best of Keaton’s films that I’ve seen so far.  I say this solely on the strength of the last 30 minutes of the film knowing full well that by then the story has almost completely finished.  We watch Keaton twist and contort his body against the force of a hurricane.  He has to dodge and weave, avoiding entire houses as they collapse around him, and in this flurry of activity I lost track of time and stared in wonder watching him go.  Whereas, during the first 45 minutes I found myself feeling restless and a little board, by the end I was on the edge of my seat.  The only disappointing part, was that the film wasn’t a full hour and fifteen minutes of that.

While I know what to expect from the storyline of a Keaton film, I will keep coming back and watching them because I also know what to expect from the sense of action and adventure from a Keaton film too.  This is my favorite of his films so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

“Buster Keaton, the inventor of break dancing.” – Ashley

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush – 1925

Director – Charles Chaplin

Starring – Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, and Georgia Hale

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is essentially the same film as Modern Times, the other of his films that I’ve seen.  That is not to say that it is bad, or that it is poorly done, on the contrary the gags are very well through out and expertly executed.  No, I only mean that The Gold Rush is a venue for Chaplin’s most enduring character, The Tramp, to play out many of the same, or at the very least similar, gags as seen in his other films.  The backdrops in each changes, but he essence of each is the same.

This time around The Tramp is trying his luck in the Alaskan frontier as a gold prospector.  A number of other characters struggle alongside him, most notably is Georgia, the love interest.  He spends the entirety of the movie pining after Georgia, dreaming up clever ways to get her attention, and most of the time failing miserably.  There is some tension between the Tramp and some of his fellow prospectors, but it mostly amounts to a bunch of innocent, slapstick, sight gags.  At no point was I ever convinced that Chaplin was going to fail, or die, or succumb to any of the dangers to which he is subjected throughout the film.  Once all the danger and opportunity for our hero’s failure is stripped away, all that is left are a series of nice, but rather shallow skits that are barely tied together by setting and characters.

The individual gags themselves (a delusional prospector sees the Tramp as a plump chicken, constant walking through doorways into empty space, and playing round-about games of hide and go seek from ones’ pursuers, to name a few) have inspired more than a few Warner Brothers cartoons as well as defining the language of comedy.  The real accomplishment in what Chaplin managed with his films was in the imitation that he inspired.  His gags (and those of his contemporaries) have been used, re-used, and re-imagined so much that they have become a part of our collective knowledge.  The value of his work is measured in how many people know about it, whether or not they know it’s Chaplin’s work doesn’t lessen the impact of its saturation.

Despite the fact that, in my opinion, The Gold Rush isn’t the best of the movies on this list, I recognize it’s importance.  If for no other reason than it’s contribution to the language and history of film, The Gold Rush deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

“Sorry I’m more of a Keaton and Lloyd kind of gal.”  –  Ashley

Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog)(1929)

Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog) – 1929

Director – Luis Bunuel

Conceived by surrealist auteurs Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou is your standard story about a guy, posing as a nun gets hit by a car while a couple watches from a window.  And goes on to tread even more familiar ground when after witnessing the accident, the man spends great amounts of time and energy trying to knead and massage the womans breasts and butt while she tries to fight him off.  Not one to take no for an answer, he starts leaking ants from the hole in his hand, that is, until he loses his arm in their skirmish.  And of course who can forget the  straight razor cutting woman’s eye sequence which even by this point was extremely clichéd.

All joking aside, Bunuel and Dali managed to construct a piece of film that is just as shocking and talked about today as it was back in 1929.  While it is famous for the notoriety of its authors, the film itself is infamous today thanks to the aforementioned eye cutting scene.  My teacher in film school introduced the film, explained the intention, and then had to leave the room before showing it because of the ability of that image to upset.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching just once, if only to say that you did it.  The fact is, it would be hard to find more indelible imagery throughout the history of film than is found in the 20 minute run time of this one film, and while it has a statement, it is not one that is easy to discern from watching the film.

Strictly speaking, the narrative is meant to confound the brain.  It was conceived, purposefully, to seem fleeting and dream-like.  Dali and Bunuel practiced sleep deprivation in order to prepare themselves for the conception and script-writing phases of the film.  The imagery is meant to horrify while at the same time seem like it should make sense when it doesn’t.  This feeling of connectivity through the course of the film is what ties the images together.  Themes and undertones were the goal, not story and character.

Not shockingly, the film got mixed reception at its release, receiving positive marks from those in the art world, and negative ones from those not familiar with surrealism or (then) modern artistic expression.  Despite the mixed reception, Un Chien Andalou stood out as a masterwork of editing, composition, and pacing.  It is interesting to note, that it stands out as being far creepier and more unsettling than most horror or thriller movies released since.

While not for everyone, Un Chien Andalou, is definitely an important benchmark of cinema, as well as a springboard into the works of directors as diverse as David Lynch, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tim Burton.  It definitely deserves it’s place on this list!

“Bitch got her eye cut!” – Ashley

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

SherlockJr

Sherlock, Jr. – 1924

Directors – Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Joe Keaton

The strength of any Buster Keaton performance is his supreme physicality. The man’s ability to use props, his co-stars, as well as his own body to carry out extremely fun and inventive sight gags and stunts is second to none.

Especially considering the fact that his subject of his derring-do often revolves around moving vehicles (trains and cars are what I’m thinking of specifically), it is made only that much more dangerous, and consequently impressive. The weak area of the Keaton films that I’ve seen thus far (The General, and this), are the parts where he has to carry the parts in between the major stunt set-pieces. While far surpassing a lot of the action sequences in most movie of his day, Keaton is trumped when it comes to the dramatic acting. In that arena he is bested by other comedians like Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers.

Sherlock, Jr. is a short film, lasting only about 35 minutes, which I think works in the film’s favor. If it were too much longer, it would drag, and if it were feature length it would eventually become agonizing! As it is, I was more than entertained by film the entire time, and caught myself checking my watch only because I was watching some food in the oven.

The music for this production, just like in The General, serves the purpose of helping pace the film. During the action sequences, the piano music is peppy and lively. Likewise when the story wants us to dwell on the Keaton’s love interest, the music slows down and we know what’s going to happen. This tendency of using the music this way helps to keep the slower parts interesting, but allows for no surprises in the plot. We know immediately what the tone of the scene is going to be. That being said, I don’t think anyone really watches a Buster Keaton movie wondering if he’ll actually get the girl, they watch to see him do what he does best…perform.

Now I realize that Buster Keaton is a pioneer in the movie industry, but he has so many films in this book of 1001, yet some who have carried on in his name like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are not recognized at all in this list.  While I am looking forward to seeing whatever else Mr. Keaton has in store for me in his other films, it seems only right that other performers get recognition too.  So if you liked Sherlock, Jr. check out Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors, or Armor of God (also known as Operation Condor 2: Armor of God).