Friday, December 30, 2016

My Cinema Discoveries of 2016

The countdown has already begun on Twitter

25 – It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963) Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
If you can’t be the funniest comedy ever made, then you may as well try to be the biggest. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is packed with famous faces, to the extent that the likes of the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton are squeezed into negligible cameos. Shot on 65mm, Stanley Kramer’s film is an epic madcap comedy with an all-star cast chasing each other across the United States in pursuit of a hidden fortune, and it just never stops upping the ante. Phil Silvers drives a car into a lake, Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney crash a plane through a billboard, Sid Caesar and Edie Adams get trapped in a hardware store and destroy the place as they try to escape, while Spencer Tracy observes every calamity with the same wryly amused expression. It’s exhausting and sometimes annoying, but it also sustains the level of humour surprisingly well over the course of three hours, and the sheer novelty of seeing a comedy played on this gargantuan scale is something to cherish.

24 – X, Y and Zee (Brian G. Hutton, 1972) Barbican, 35mm
There are masterpieces on this list, but X, Y and Zee isn't one of them. The film enjoyed a rare screening in London as part of the Barbican's superbly curated celebration of 'trash cinema', but before you think that I've included it on my list simply for camp value or its 'so bad it's good' status, think again. X, Y and Zee was a cinematic highlight for me because it contains a performance by Elizabeth Taylor that is easily among the most entertaining things I saw at the movies all year. As the manipulative wife driving her husband (Michael Caine) and his young mistress (Susannah York) to distraction, Taylor gives a comic performance for the ages, with her every flawless line delivery and disdainful eye-roll being perfectly calibrated for maximum impact. Director Brian G, Hutton builds everything around his star, while Caine gamely tries to keep up with her and poor Susannah York never stands a chance. It's a tremendously entertaining picture – silly and overripe, sure, but Taylor is utterly mesmerising.

23 – Yellow Sky (William Wellman, 1948) BFI Southbank, 35mm
There were a number of westerns and Shakespeare adaptations among my rep discoveries this year, thanks to two very rewarding seasons at the BFI, but here's a film that straddled both themes, being a very loose adaptation of The Tempest. It has a knockout first half, with Gregory Peck leading his band of outlaws across the desert, their parched mouths begging for water and the unforgiving sun beating down on them. There are few words required in this opening section, with Wellman allowing the images speak for themselves. They find themselves in an abandoned mining town, seemingly populated by just an old man and his granddaughter, and this meeting adds an element of sexual tension into the already volatile relationships between the thieves. It's an offbeat but gripping western in which the psychological nuances of the characters – accentuated by the strange surroundings their find themselves in – are far more compelling than the climactic gunplay. Peck's leading performance is superb, but he's ably supported by the ever-excellent Richard Widmark and Anne Baxter.

22 – Her Man (Tay Garnett, 1930) Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, Digital
I didn't originally have Her Man in my Il Cinema Ritrovato schedule, but was forced to settle for a screening of this completely unknown pre-Code when I couldn't get into an oversubscribed Flesh and the Devil screening. While I mourned the missed opportunity to see Clarence Brown's film on an apparently gorgeous fine-grain print, I ended up stumbling across a tremendous discovery. Her Man is a highly entertaining drama set in and around a seedy dockside bar, in which the romance between a sailor and a showgirl is threatened by her mobster boyfriend. The mechanics of the storytelling are a little stiff and the performances are uneven, but what catches the eye is Tay Garnett's direction. I loved the boisterous energy of the bar scenes, and the way Edward Snyder's fluid camera snakes its way through and around the characters. The film builds to a truly extraordinary fight sequence that escalates in an unbelievable and hilarious way, and away from the main narrative there's a bizarre subplot involving a couple of drunks, a hat and a slot machine that kept me chuckling throughout.

21 – Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Thirty years before Carol, Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts was considered a groundbreaking drama for its depiction of a lesbian romantic relationship that doesn't lead inevitably towards an unhappy end. In many ways it's a simple and straightforward movie, built upon familiar archetypes. Helen Shaver is the uptight and proper university professor travelling to Reno to finalise her divorce, while Patricia Charbonneau is the unruly tomboy who sparks an instant attraction, and the film makes a number of conventional choices along the way. But what elevates Desert Hearts is Deitch's smart writing and direction, the way she creates a real sense of place around her characters, and the two terrific central performances. Shaver and Charbonneau share a tangible chemistry and their relationship develops through a series of encounters that are alternately tense, touching, erotic and fulfilling. By the time the end of the film arrives, you're willing them to stay together, you want them to make it. Donna Deitch has subsequently made a good career for herself in television, but on the basis of this film it's a real shame we didn't see more from her on the big screen.

20 – Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Deep Cover may look like a rote genre piece on the surface but Bill Duke’s hugely underrated thriller quickly reveals itself to be a complex and intelligent film about moral compromise, racial identity and political hypocrisy. Laurence Fishburne is the cop posing as a drug dealer and Jeff Goldblum is the supplier who becomes his partner in crime, and I loved watching the dynamic between these two charismatic performers. Goldblum in particular is on marvellous form here; with his weird energy, odd non-sequiturs and fetishisation of black culture, he makes for a fascinatingly unusual antagonist for the brooding Fishburne to go up against. Deep Cover begins as a street-level portrait of drugs, violence and social decay but it gradually expands its perspective to look at the systemic corruption that keeps these characters in their place. The screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean is slick and compelling, with some great character details, while Bojan Bazelli’s textured and atmospheric cinematography – full of rich blues and reds – was a treat to experience on a beautiful print.

19 – It Happened in Broad Daylight (Ladislao Vajda, 1958) BFI Southbank, 16mm
As a fan of Sean Penn's 2001 film The Pledge, which features one of Jack Nicholson's best and most overlooked performances, I was naturally keen to see this original screen version of the same story. Heinz Rühmann is the retired policeman still obsessed with the unsolved case of a little girl's murder. He takes up residency in a small town and befriends a lonely mother, using her child as bait to lure the killer. Screenwriter Friedrich Dürrenmatt was actually unhappy with the altered climax to this film, which ends with the policeman's success, and he rewrote the film as the much darker novel that Penn ultimately adapted. Despite his misgivings, however, I think the closing image in Ladislao Vajda's picture is a potent one that complicates the apparent happy ending, and it works as a thoroughly engrossing mystery that upends our expectations by spending much of the first half focusing on the man wrongly accused of the original crime, and by not revealing the killer until very late in the film. Rühmann is very good as the darkly obsessive cop, but the film is stolen by a creepy Gert Fröbe and the wonderful Michel Simon.

18 – The House I Live In (Lev Kulidzhanov, Yakov Segel. 1957) Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, 35mm
The House I Live In is the story of a handful of Soviet citizens whose lives are torn apart by the onset of the Second World War, but the war doesn't begin until the second half of the picture. The film's first half introduces us to the residents of a new housing complex in Moscow as they move in, and then it follows their fortunes and interpersonal relationships over the course of the subsequent years. The effect of this approach is to give us a real sense of who these people are and how they live, which makes it all the more wrenching when disaster strikes later on. A huge hit in Russia when it was released in 1957, The House I Live In is a moving film that focuses on the ordinary lives of those caught up in the midst of conflict, and it celebrates the resilience and collective endeavour that pulls people through such trying times. Co-directed by Lev Kulidzhanov (who also takes an acting role) and Yakov Segel, the film benefits from handsome production design, atmospheric cinematography and a terrific ensemble.

17 – Posse (Kirk Douglas, 1975) BFI Southbank, 35mm
In the year he celebrated his centenary, it was perhaps appropriate that I'd have a Kirk Douglas film on this list, but it's not his work as a movie star that I'm celebrating here. That's not to say he doesn't deliver a customarily fine performance in Posse, but it's his presence behind the camera that distinguishes this underrated western. Douglas is the US marshal with political ambitions who pledges to bring the notorious bank robber Jack Strawhorn to justice as part of his election campaign. The film builds as a conventional western but then it quickly doubles back on itself, with Douglas allowing Bruce Dern's cocky performance to steal the movie as Strawhorn turns the tables on his captor. As a director, Douglas doesn't do anything particularly attention-grabbing, but his choices always serve the narrative, which twists and turns satisfyingly in a tight 90 minutes. This is very much a western of the 1970s, with its cynical portrait of political corruption and its subversion of genre tropes, and while it may not be as immediately stunning as the likes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Hired Hand, it remains a sharp, surprising gem that deserves to be rediscovered.

16 – Omkara + O (Vishal Bhardwa / Tim Blake Nelson, 2006 / 2001) BFI Southbank, 35mm
One of the best aspects of the BFI's celebration of Shakespeare this year was the opportunity to see how malleable his plays have proven to be over the years, and how different filmmakers have taken them in wildly divergent but equally successful directions. Here's a case in point: Othello was the basis for both Omkara and O, two films that attack the text from different perspectives and both work brilliantly on their own terms. Omkara was the second film in Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespeare trilogy, and I think it's the best, as it interprets the pay through the generic model of a Bollywood crime drama and integrates a number of songs that work surprisingly well. It's also superbly played, with Saif Ali Khan being a wonderful Iago. I was equally taken with Tim Blake Nelson's O, which takes this tale of jealousy, back-stabbing and revenge to its natural habitat – an American high school. O is a very intelligent and impressive high school drama but the film's original release date coincided with the Columbine massacre and it was quietly dumped. It has never really been given a fair shake and a re-evaluation of this fine and relevant film is long overdue.

15 – The Films of Peter Tscherkassky (Peter Tscherkassky, 1982-2015) Close-Up, 16mm/35mm/Digital
I discovered the work of Peter Tscherkassky last year through his most recent short film The Exquisite Corpus, which played at the London Film Festival and was easily the best short that I saw there. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to delve deeper into his body of work this year when a retrospective of his films took place at Close-Up with Tscherkassky himself in attendance to discuss it. He has created a cinematic language that’s entirely his own, collecting existing black-and-white footage and hand-crafting it into something new and imbued with fresh meaning. I saw around 16 shorts across two days and was dazzled by the energy, playfulness and distinctive beauty of his work, particularly in the longer films such as Coming Attractions, Happy End or Parallel Space: Inter-View, which possess a rhythm and flickering seductiveness that pulls the viewer in (although I was equally delighted by the flawless comic timing of his 22-second Shot – Countershot). And with most of these films screening from 16mm and 35mm prints, this weekend proved to be a vivid celebration of the unique qualities of celluloid.

14 – The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates (Robert Drew, 1960-1964) Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, Digital
In the midst of a tumultuous and frequently repugnant presidential election, this glimpse of a bygone age of American politics was most welcome. Robert Drew’s portraits of John F. Kennedy were groundbreaking in their day and are still feel remarkably intimate and revealing, with Drew and his team (including Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker) using their new lightweight handheld cameras to take us inside the beginning and end of JFK’s presidency. Primary follows JFK and Jackie as they court voters ahead of their victory over Senator Hubert Humphrey, while Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment – filmed three years later – goes behind the scenes as the President and Robert F. Kennedy deal with Governor George Wallace’s refusal to let two black students enrol at the University of Alabama. It’s an incredibly absorbing look at how a key moment in the history of civil rights unfolded, with Drew generating palpable drama from cross-cutting between telephone conversations and the tense situation at the university. Finally, this series of films comes to a quietly powerful end with the 12-minute Faces of November observing devastated mourners on the day of Kennedy’s funeral. It’s a haunting postscript.

13 – Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (Richard Pryor, 1986) BFI Southbank, 35mm
In 1980, after spending days freebasing cocaine, Richard Pryor set himself on fire. When he had recovered, he decided to make a film about a stand-up comedian with a drug problem who set himself on fire. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is best described as Pryor’s All That Jazz. As Jo Jo lies in a hospital bed, covered in bandages and fighting for his life, his soul rises out of his body and wanders through his past, showing us how he reached this critical juncture. Pryor walks out of the hospital completely naked, which sets the tone for the film – he is presenting himself to us as he is, with all of his genius and his flaws. While Jo Jo Dancer never hits the cinematic heights of the films it seems to aspire to, and there are certainly holes to pick in some of his directorial choices and the variable acting, it is endlessly fascinating to see Pryor exploring these dark recesses of his past with such fearlessness, imagination and humour. It’s sometimes a very funny film, but more often it’s a sad and painful one, and at the end you can only hope that he achieved some kind of catharsis through making it.

12 – The Sin of Harold Diddlebock + The Good Fairy (Preston Sturges / William Wyler, 1947 / 1935) BFI Southbank / Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, 35mm
I made two major Preston Sturges discoveries this year. I’d watched part of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock some years ago but the quality of the copy was so poor I gave up on it, and figured its reputation as a disaster was fully justified. What a difference watching a film on the big screen with an audience can make! Sturges’ first post-Paramount feature stars Harold Lloyd in a loose sequel to Lloyd’s 1925 film The Freshman, and it takes flight when one sip of a potent cocktail called The Diddlebock sends Harold on a drunken and expensive bender with surreal consequences. Far from be a late-career pale imitation of former glories, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is as adventurous, surprising and hilarious as Sturges’ earlier masterworks. Speaking of great early work, I should mention The Good Fairy, a smashing 1935 farce starring Margaret Sullavan as a kind-hearted orphan whose attempts to do good cause unforeseen chaos. The film was skilfully directed by William Wyler, but its Sturges’ voice that comes through loud and clear with a superbly structured and very funny screenplay.

11 – Soñar, soñar (Leonardo Favio, 1976) Il Cinema Ritrovato, 35mm
I was entranced by Soñar, soñar in its opening minutes. As the setting sun casts a golden light across the frame, a young man is seen in long shot cycling up a country lane, eventually passing a travelling entertainer who is resting by a tree. The man on the bicycle is Carlos, a simple-minded but likeable Charles Bronson lookalike with little knowledge of the world beyond his small village, and he is played by the former World Middleweight Champion boxer Carlos Monzón. The other man is Mario or “Curly”, a conman who takes the naïve Carlos under his wing and takes him on the road. Leonardo Favio’s road movie is an oddball buddy comedy that meanders and rambles happily without any clear destination, but it’s fun to spend time in the company of these two characters, and there’s a general sense of warmth and empathy in the film that’s most welcome, even if Curly is always looking to exploit Carlos under the guise of friendship. The real star of the movie is cinematographer Rogelio Chomnalez, whose gorgeous use of light and movement of the camera was wonderful to behold on the stunning print we saw in Bologna.

10 – To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Danny Glover used his status following the success of Lethal Weapon to fund this brilliant film by Charles Burnett – the first feature this great director had made in seven years. Glover also takes the pivotal role of Harry, a mysterious character who turns up at the home of Gideon and Suzie, old friends whom he hasn’t seen in many years. Harry brings a lot of charm and laughter, and many tall tales, but his presence also stirs up old memories, touches on individual weaknesses and opens old wounds among this family and the extended community. Burnett keeps the film simmering with his graceful and understated direction, and he gives the film an off-kilter tone that keeps us guessing, right from the remarkable opening credits sequence. The film also builds to a tremendous climax, with the family tensions coming to a head in the middle of a violent storm, until Harry meets his end in a prolonged and tragicomic manner while the community comes together around him. This is a great American independent film by a filmmaker whose work has been too often neglected.

9 – The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941) BFI Southbank, 35mm
1941 was a pretty good year for movies – Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan’s Travels, How Green Was My Valley, Ball of Fire – and I think that The Strawberry Blonde deserves to be ranked alongside those acknowledged greats. This extraordinary film is a tricky one to pin down; is it a romantic comedy? A dark tale of revenge? Under the pitch-perfect guidance of Raoul Walsh, the film flows through a series of contrasting tones and a narrative that spans a decade and encompasses a number of triumphs and tragedies. As the aspiring dentist who is infatuated with Rita Hayworth, James Cagney is at his pugnacious best here – the opening scene has him picking a fight with his neighbours – but he’s also charming and graceful when the role requires it. This is definitely one of his greatest performances. He’s matched by Olivia de Havilland, whose attempt to present herself as a modern independent woman on her awkward first date with Cagney is a lovely piece of comic acting. The Strawberry Blonde is a far deeper and more moving picture than the lighthearted entertainment that it initially appears to be, and it saves its best surprise for the end, with the closing credits encouraging audience members to sing along with And the Band Played On.

8 – Show People (King Vidor, 1928) BFI Southbank, 35mm

One of the earliest instances of filmmakers spoofing their own profession, Show People is a terrific comedy about a young ingénue named Peggy Pepper, who heads to Hollywood to try to make it as a movie star. Peggy is played by Marion Davies, and this is one of her best roles with a number of standout scenes; notably her brilliant first audition sequences, as she shows off her range, and a wonderful comic set-piece later on when a frustrated director introduces onions in a last-ditch attempt to make her cry. In an inspired touch, Marion Davies cameos as herself too (prompting a snooty response from Peggy), and she’s just one of the many famous faces appearing as themselves here. Chaplin introduces himself after the first screening of Peggy’s movie ("Who is that little guy?" she asks) and King Vidor appears late in the film as a director making a film that bears a suspicious resemblance to his 1925 masterpiece The Big Parade. Show People is a goldmine for fans of early Hollywood, as it nods to everything from Keystone-style pie fights to prestige dramas, and it also satisfies as a straightforward romantic comedy, with William Haines proving to be the perfect foil for Davies.

7 – Tout va Bien + Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972) BFI Southbank, 35mm / 16mm
I spent much of the first three months of 2016 watching Jean-Luc Godard films. It was fun to reacquaint myself with some old favourites on the big screen – including Breathless and Vivre sa vie – and I also enjoyed some wonderful first-time viewings, such as Les Carabiniers, La Chinoise and Numéro deux. However, the films I’ve chosen here are a fascinating pair exploring Godard’s relationship with a major American movie star. Having spent the post-Weekend years making political films for dwindling audiences, Godard attempted to take a step back towards the mainstream with Tout va bien, joining forces with Jane Fonda in a film that opens with the line, “If you use stars, people will give you money.” It’s a funny, complex and fantastically inventive take on filmmaking and workers’ rights, and it contains some of Godard’s best sequences, including the sensational climactic supermarket set-piece. He also made an unofficial sequel to this film, but not with Fonda’s consent. Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still is a close examination of a single photograph of Fonda that was taken during her time in Vietnam, with Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin attacking both her and the cultural and political influence that she represents. It is a lucid, pointed, brilliantly conceived and altogether remarkable piece of work.

6 – Penda's Fen (Alan Clarke, 1973) BFI Southbank, Digital
Alan Clarke received a long-overdue celebration this year with the release of an essential blu-ray set containing his restored films and a season of his films at the BFI. I could have picked a number of great Clarke films for inclusion in this list – including such brilliantly stark and powerful films as Road, Contact or Christine – but the one I’ve chosen is in some ways his most atypical film. Nevertheless Penda’s Fen, which was the first Clarke film I saw this year, has stuck with me more than any of his others, and its inclusion here is a tribute to both Clarke and the writer David Rudkin, who collaborated to create this extraordinary drama for the BBC’s Play for Today. Through the story of a schoolboy questioning his faith and his sexuality, Penda’s Fen interrogates English history, culture, theology and society; it is a film that is alive and dense with ideas that are stimulating and provocative, even if they don’t all stick. Clarke himself has said that he didn’t fully understand the script, but he directs it beautifully, with the visions of angels and demons that the young protagonist experiences being both spectacular and fitting into the overall aesthetic design. Imagine something like this appearing as a standalone drama on the BBC today. It truly is something special.

5 – Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I’ve been waiting for years to see this film, and it was worth waiting for. This translation of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend to Rio de Janeiro in the midst of their carnival celebrations is an inspired film, visually and sonically breathtaking, and it was a particular joy to see it projected from 35mm and to fully appreciate the film’s rich and dazzling palette. Black Orpheus possesses a pulsing, infectious rhythm that sweeps the audience along, but what makes it work is how well played and affecting the central love story between Orfeu (Breno Mello) and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is. Even as music and dancing fills the screen, the spectre of death hovers over this couple – literally, in the form of double Olympic gold medallist Adhemar da Silva – and the film has a powerful emotional pull as Orfeu wanders away from the celebrations and into the darkness of the city in search of his beloved. Directed by Marcel Camus – only his second film behind the camera – Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or in 1959 and remains a work of astounding imagination, energy and beauty. 

4 – Walden + Lost, Lost, Lost (Jonas Mekas, 1969 / 1976) Close-Up, 16mm
“I live, therefore I make films. I make film, therefore I live.” These two films by Jonas Mekas have been described as ‘diary films’, which I suppose is as good a description as any for films that are so personal, idiosyncratic and freeform in their construction. Walden (a.k.a. Diaries, Notes and Sketches) and Lost, Lost, Lost were developed by Mekas over the course of almost thirty years, and they consist of 16mm footage of his own life, his friends and family, and his surroundings, with little attempt made to shape them into a narrative. But what emerges over the course of the six hours spent watching these two films is a portrait of an artist in exile, looking back at the Lithuanian roots he has left behind and looking around him at the new life he has built for himself in the United States. These films are a treasure trove of intimate moments, rituals, fleeting encounters and social changes, and they unfold in a way that’s reminiscent of memories suddenly being recalled with startling clarity. To spend a weekend watching these films on very fragile 16mm prints (which failed more than once), was a privilege and a communal moviegoing experience that felt very special.

3 – The Yellow Crow (Heinosuke Gosho, 1957) Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, 35mm
In 1957 The Yellow Crow won the Golden Globe for the best foreign-language film of the year, and yet this wonderful film by Heinosuke Gosho seems to have drifted into obscurity. It has never been released here on DVD and while a copy exists on YouTube, the muddy print hardly does justice to the way Gosho and his cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima utilise colour. This film about a boy (Koji Shitara) meeting his father for the first time following his repatriation eight years after the war is one of the most complex and moving films about childhood that I’ve ever seen. The emotions stirred up by this disruption of Kiyoshi’s idyllic life with his mother feel stunningly real, and the confusion, tension and frustration evident in the failed attempts by father and son to build bridges are captured with astonishing sensitivity. The key to The Yellow Crow’s success lies in Gosho’s close attention to character, and the superb work of the actors bringing those characters to life. Aside from the brilliant young lead, Yonosuke Ito is withdrawn and taciturn as a man haunted by his wartime experiences, and Chikage Awashima is very moving as the mother desperate for the two men in her life to connect. The final scenes are so powerful. An amazing film.

2 – Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston,1990) BFI Southbank, 35mm
It’s incredible how much Jennie Livingston packs into her justly celebrated portrait of New York’s ball scene in the late 1980s, and yet at 76 minutes Paris is Burning still leaves you wanting more. The queer and trans people we meet in the film are society’s outcasts, but they have found a protective community that allows them to reinvent and define themselves on their own terms, and Livingston immerses the audience in their world, allowing them to share their own stories. Paris is Burning is riotously entertaining but it’s also eye-opening and insightful, and ultimately it’s very moving, with the participants often expressing the most simple and universal desires: to live a regular life, to be seen as beautiful, to be happy, to be loved. We do grow to love them over the course of the film, and it’s devastating to revisit them in the tragic postscript, or to read about how many of the people we see on screen had passed within a few years of its release. “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world,” Dorian Corey says. “Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark.” Paris is Burning leaves a mark.

1 – Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933) Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, 35mm
So we all know that Letter from an Unknown Woman is a great film – but did you know it was actually the second great film to be adapted from Stefan Zweig’s story? Only Yesterday might not be officially taken from the same source, but the story is unmistakable, and Universal tacitly admitted as much when they quietly secured the rights to Zweig’s novella two weeks before this film’s release. John M. Stahl doesn’t move his camera with the elegance of Ophüls, but the man knew how to direct a melodrama (I saw this on a double-bill with the very good Back Street), and Only Yesterday is arguably his greatest achievement. What’s so striking about the film is how modern and progressive much of it feels. Having been left pregnant following a one-night stand, Mary (Margaret Sullavan) chooses to move to New York, become a businesswoman and raise her son by herself, taking lessons from her equally independent aunt (Billie Burke), whose teasingly antagonistic relationship with her boyfriend is one of the film’s highlights. Still, despite making a good life for herself, Mary yearns for the love of the soldier (John Boles) who has forgotten her, and Sullavan brings forth all of her emotional complexity in what surely ranks as one of the all-time great screen debuts. Since I saw Only Yesterday this summer I have thought of it often and have frequently felt the urge to introduce others to it, only to be stymied by the film’s baffling lack of availability. This is a film that deserves to be restored, rediscovered and celebrated for what it is – a masterpiece that should be ranked alongside Max Ophüls’ later version.