What one movie should subscribers watch on FilmStruck before the service closes up shop on November 29?
Jacques Tourneur’s 1948 Berlin Express is a thriller with a then-topical twist: An American, a Brit, etc. in Germany on postwar political business need to track down a kidnapped German peace activist. The premise screams dull and dutiful allegory about global cooperation, but Tourneur (still best known for ultimate noir Out Of The Past) applies his visually expressive A-game to very real locations. With the perpetually world-weary Robert Ryan anchoring the tone as America’s rep, this is noir that doubles as documentary. The film was shot in rubble-strewn Berlin at the same time Billy Wilder was making A Foreign Affair and Roberto Rossellini his bleak Germany, Year Zero; together, all three—which strived to avoid shooting the same locations while shuttling equipment back and forth—provide complementary, wildly different, and still-startling views of the terrain.
I’ll pause in the middle of my frantic rush to determine how much I can watch before FilmStruck goes dark to recommend a hardly obscure but thematically (and seasonally!) appropriate classic: The Shop Around The Corner, Ernst Lubitsch’s pen-pal rom-com that inspired the about-to-turn-20 You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are adorable as feuding coworkers who have been unwittingly writing each other anonymous love letters, but what struck me when I finally caught up with the film was how much time and care Lubitsch takes in detailing the business where both characters work, a leather goods emporium in Budapest. He makes running a retail outlet look kind of exciting and even sometimes honorable, without shortchanging the hard work and frustration that goes into it—which seems like an appropriate choice to celebrate a business (and subsidiary of an enormous corporation) that also did wonderful and beloved work that seemed like it must have been a lot of fun, too. (Maybe even more so than selling leather doodads in Budapest.) Not to spoil anything, but The Shop Around The Corner ends happier than the FilmStruck story does, so if you haven’t seen it, maybe you could use the comfort.
Though less heralded than other French New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut, Claude Chabrol remains a significant figure of that vaunted circle. (At the very least, he has the distinction of appearing briefly in The Other Side Of The Wind.) A number of his films are currently streaming, but the best of these is his late-period masterpiece, 1995’s La Cérémonie. Transposing Ruth Rendell’s 1977 British novel, A Judgment In Stone, to an isolated area of Brittany, the film stars Sandrine Bonnaire as an illiterate maid employed by the wealthy Lelièvre family, and Isabelle Huppert as a local postal worker who harbors more than a little ire toward the Lelièvres. From the opening aerial shot of a car wending through a rural countryside, Chabrol’s superlative talents at crafting genre thrillers are on full display. No mere kill-the-bourgeoisie tract, La Cérémonie spirals toward its shocking, inevitable finale in a manner that’s far more complex and chilling.
I feel confident that the jewels of the Criterion Collection will show up on that new streaming service it’s launching. But I worry that some of the FilmStruck/Criterion esoterica—like the contents of last year’s phenomenal 100 Years Of Olympic Films box set—won’t carry over. There are a healthy number of rare documentary shorts to watch at the Olympic page, but the feature to seek out is Tony Maylam’s 1977 White Rock, an arty, Rick Wakeman-scored record of the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics, inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (both of which are also available on FilmStruck). White Rock is much shorter than its predecessors but just as pretty to look at, with a dynamic audio-visual style that sports TV producers quickly tried to copy.
But what will happen to the FilmStruck titles that aren’t part of the Criterion Collection? Will Je T’aime, Je T’aime, for example, find a new home on the new streaming service? Long unavailable in the States (Kino Lorber brought it to Blu-ray three years ago via a transfer that many have criticized for its distracting blue tint), Alain Resnais’ 1968 science-fiction melodrama tells the story of a heartbroken man (Claude Rich) who submits himself to a time-travel experiment, only to find himself unmoored in his own past, experiencing a recently aborted relationship out of order, as a jumbled montage of moments. As in much of Resnais’ work, the larger subject is the mysterious pull of memory, and here the filmmaker uses lo-fi sci-fi to capture the endless agonizing a breakup can incur—the way so many flip the events of their love life over and over again in their minds, trying to make sense of how and why things went wrong. Something of a time traveler itself, Je T’aime, Je T’aime anticipated not just the basic premise of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind but also the fragmented storytelling style of a thousand nonlinear art movies. Stream it now, before it fades from the web again like a distant memory.
What better way to emotionally process the demise of FilmStruck than with a screwball comedy about death? Arsenic And Old Lace has been a favorite of mine since my high school put on Joseph Kesselring’s play my freshman year, and while I maintain that our production was very good, I’ll concede that Frank Capra’s 1944 version just might be a little bit better. Murder has never been as charming as it is when carried out by two cheerful old aunts determined to end the suffering of lonely bachelors. Throw in a little Teddy Roosevelt comedy, some Boris Karloff gags, and my all-time favorite, flabbergasted Cary Grant performance, and you have the perfect funny, macabre way to toast the end of FilmStruck. Just, uh, maybe raise a glass of something other than elderberry wine.
Although it doesn’t quite live up to one of the greatest titles of all time, Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964) deserves more attention than it generally receives nowadays. (That may have something to do with the middling reputation of its director, Bryan Forbes, who’s now best remembered for being the first filmmaker to screw up The Stepford Wives.) Anchored by a chilling performance from legendary stage star Kim Stanley—she won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle that year, and was nominated for the Oscar—it’s the quietly demented story of a rinky-dink medium who persuades her meek husband (Richard Attenborough, wearing a prosthetic nose for some reason) to kidnap a child, with the intention of solving the crime via her alleged psychic powers and thereby becoming, if not world-renowned, at least London-renowned. The film is spookily atmospheric enough that it was remade, decades later, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa as simply Séance, but it’s primarily worth seeing for Stanley, who made very few films and puts herself heart and soul into the grandiose mindset of this delusional woman. This is the sort of singular sleeper that you’ll recommend every time someone solicits examples of lesser-known gems. Just as I’m doing now!
I am the basic bro of the film world; catch me expounding at length about David Cronenberg and Blade Runner but never finishing Tokyo Story despite multiple attempts and lots of critical analyses read. A service like FilmStruck—and, by extension, the Criterion Collection at large—is aspirational for someone like me, an attempt to fill in the continent-sized portions of film history that remain shadowy. I flit through based on genre and cover design and hope to find something that connects. My point is that I can’t really tell you much about why Jacques Tati’s 1967 Playtime is his “masterpiece,” beyond that Wikipedia informs me as such. What I can tell you is that it rearranges the purposeful architectural composition and modernist anxieties of so many of my other favorite movies into a sprawling comedy bursting with pathos, slapstick delight, and unexpected beauty. If you, like me, struggle with the obtuseness of a lot of movies you’re supposed to like, give it a shot.
FilmStruck’s imminent demise all but demands that cinephiles seek out work that’s otherwise difficult to access. Although Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland is available to purchase on DVD, and thus not quite “unavailable,” it still deserves to be in the conversation of underseen, underappreciated gems. Featuring a stellar lead turn by Dore Mann (his only screen credit to date), Bronstein’s film situates us in the headspace of a pathologically anxious, mentally unbalanced coupon salesman as he struggles to exist in a New York City that neither has the patience nor the inclination to keep up with his festering neuroses. Frownland won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—its abrasive approach and scuzzy aesthetics are almost designed to quickly weed out detractors, and that’s not even getting to Mann’s daringly alienating performance—but Bronstein’s stubbornly personal vision will be a balm for those who wish more films would be less eager to do the work for the viewer. You can trace the last decade of great American independent film to Frownland, and it features one of the most stunningly cruel roommate exchanges ever put to film: “Has it ever occurred to you that your ridiculous, disjointed sputterings might inspire me to want to malign you?”
As Richard E. Grant (hopefully) inches his way toward his first Oscar nomination, it’s a shame that it’s about to get more difficult to see the movie that started it all. Yes, once FilmStruck shuts down, Withnail & I (1987) will be tossed out like so many champagne bottles full of cigarette butts, unavailable for even paid streaming. (At least until the Criterion service launches.) Set in London in the late 1960s, the film stars Grant as Withnail, an unemployed actor whose pompous grandstanding belies his crazed, lighter-fluid-chugging alcoholism, alongside Paul McGann as his paranoid roommate, Marwood (the “& I” of the title). One of the all-time great British hangout comedies, Withnail & I rivals even Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in the sheer volume of drugs and drink consumed on screen, and has even more quotable lines. (Grant’s fist-pounding declaration of “We want the finest wines available to humanity! And we want them here, and we want them now!” is an all-timer.) Its DNA can be seen in everything from Spaced to Wayne’s World, and Grant’s never been able to fully shake the gutter-dandy persona he established in that film—which, at least in the case of Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
My immediate instinct was, as is often the case, to shout “Rififi! For the love of god, RIFIFI!” But alas, it’s too late—that title’s vanished from FilmStruck (though it is in the Criterion Collection, so I say again, “For the love of god, Rififi!”) Luckily, lovers of doom-laced noir have plenty of other options, chief among them Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946), in which four titans of the genre—Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, and the immortal Barbara Stanwyck—get tied up together in all manner of dubious things. It’s a tangled web, as they say, and all stemming from a childhood act of violence to which Martha (Stanwyck) was driven when her abusive aunt started beating her kitten with a cane. That’s the level at which this thing starts—kitten beating—and it never eases up on the ugliness. Luckily, a streak of cleverness percolates throughout Robert Rossen’s sharp screenplay, bringing something almost like levity to the proceedings. Watch it in a dark room with someone you love, and let the guilt, paranoia, and hopelessness mess you both right the hell up.
The Philadelphia Story is a perfect movie: the film that saved Katharine Hepburn from her reputation as box office poison, cemented her screen partnership with Cary Grant, and gave Jimmy Stewart his only Oscar. As Hepburn’s magnificent Tracy Lord prepares for her second wedding, her first husband (Grant) comes back to cause trouble, as does a nosy reporter (Stewart), sent to cover the social event of the season. Besides the shimmering chemistry among all three leads, Philadelphia Story has a lot to say about class—the faults and bravado of the upper-crust lords, the sincerity of a working-class reporter—and the multitude of misconceptions that can accompany the prejudice of first impressions. As one of the film’s myriad quotable lines puts it, “The time to make up your mind about people… is never.”
The possibilities for viewing many of the great silent films of cinema’s infancy are tragically few, and with a couple of famous exceptions, the era has been left behind in the popular consciousness. But The Phantom Carriage (1921) endures for good reason: The Swedish tale of a cursed soul remains a marvel of storytelling and visual style, nearly 100 years later. The film is a haunting vision of loss and regret, all woven through its supernatural conceit, but the ambition is impressive even now. Flashbacks within flashbacks create a hallucinatory sense of time bleeding into itself, and the effects are all the more fascinating for how difficult they were to pull off: To create the impression of ghostly spirits walking around fully formed in the world of the characters, the double exposure effects required the hand-cranked cameras to be turned at the exact same speed, in order to perfectly match the backgrounds and create the illusion of semi-transparent entities passing through material reality. It’s a wonderful film that deserves to be seen by whole new generations.