Top 50 Countdown – #’s 20-17

 

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Touch of Evil

Year: 1958

Director: Orson Welles

Finally given the opportunity to direct with a free reign after being stymied for years by short-sighted studios, Welles responded with a stylistic masterpiece of unparalleled virtuosity, as if years of pent-up creativity and artistic inspiration were finally released and came gloriously gushing forth onto Welles’ cinematic canvas. With its bizarre camera angles, distorted visual effects, expressionistic lighting, and offbeat editing, Touch of Evil – in which crackerjack Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and formidable U.S. police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) butt heads in a seedy border town after Quinlan plants evidence on a Mexican national accused of the car bomb murder of a rich U.S. developer – seems to be taking place less on the Mexican border than in some nightmarish, shadowy netherworld, populated by sleazy criminals, degenerate weirdoes, world-weary whores and corrupt cops wallowing in all manner of perversity in and around dark alleyways, seedy bars, and squalid hotels.

From the justly celebrated opening three-minute traveling crane shot which follows the abovementioned car until the ticking time bomb attached to it explodes, to the exciting, tension-packed climax in which Vargas tricks Quinlan into implicating himself with a concealed wire, Welles’ direction is beyond reproach. But as in Citizen Kane the great director also delivers the film’s finest, most memorable performance. Oozing corruption from every oily pore of his grotesquely bloated body, Welles’ Quinlan fits right into the film’s sleazy milieu, yet he’s no simple heavy. On the contrary, he’s a complex figure whose unconscionable actions in the present appear to be motivated by a tragic event in the past that continues to haunt him – his wife’s murder and his subsequent failure to bring the culprit to justice. So traumatic was this experience, which resulted in his tendency to plant evidence, that he was never the same afterwards, his sense of justice having been compromised and his true potential undermined. Calling upon his prodigious acting skills, Welles manages to generate sympathy for his fatally flawed character and to endow him with the stature of tragic hero: Even though Quinlan sold out his integrity long ago, we sense that, like Kane, he could have been a great man.

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Double Indemnity

Year: 1944

Director: Billy Wilder

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for the money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” With those words, perhaps the most memorable of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s endlessly quotable script, Walter Neff just about sums up the despairing, doom-laden essence of film noir. Like many film noir protagonists Walter finds himself caught up in a world of greed, lust and murder, after having been ensnared by and manipulated into carrying out the nefarious schemes of a seductive, duplicitous femme fatale, unforgettably played here by the sizzlingly sexy Barbara Stanwyck. By the time Walter realizes he’s been played for a fool his fate is already sealed, for his overpowering sexual obsession for Stanwyck has led him inexorably down the path to betrayal, murder and, ultimately, his death. Many similarly themed films followed in the wake of Double indemnity but none quite matched its bleak tone of existential despair and romantic fatalism, which set the standard 60 years ago and continues to captivate us today despite scores of imitations and parodies. Brilliantly written, powerfully acted, impressively photographed and moodily scored, Double Indemnity remains the quintessential film noir. _______________________________________________________________

 

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The Manchurian Candidate

Year: 1962

Director: John Frankenheimer

Drawing on then-current fears of McCarthyism, communist infiltration and psychological brainwashing/conditioning, The Manchurian Candidate is both a ripping good yarn and a savvy political thriller which doesn’t really endorse one ideology over another as much as it condemns fanaticism, both Right and Left, while reserving its sympathies for the victims of such extremism. Raymond Shaw, the son of a prominent, right-wing political family, is one such victim. Brainwashed into unwittingly carrying out assassinations as part of a diabolical communist plot spearheaded by his own mother (Angela Lansbury in a legendary performance), the poor sap is pulled back and forth between the left and the right until he’s stretched to the snapping point and finally reduced to a mass of twitches with a rifle in his shaky hands and a McCathyesque demagogue and a Communism mole in his blurry sights. By the end Shaw can barely tell the difference between the two extremes, and neither can we, which is precisely the point, and that’s why his elimination of both the demagogue and the mole, respectively representing the far Right and far Left, carries as much symbolic weight as it does emotional power. _______________________________________________________________

 

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North by Northwest

Year: 1959

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

After the relative box office failure of Vertigo, Hitchcock regained his commercial eminence with this classic espionage comedy-thriller, a hugely entertaining mix of humor, suspense and romance in which The Master revisits with a vengeance some of his favorite – i.e., quintessentially Hitchcockian – narrative situations/thematic preoccupations: an ordinary man (Cary Grant, superb), after being mistaken for a government agent, is falsely accused of murder and suddenly plunged into a dangerously chaotic situation about which he knows nothing, forcing him to go on the run and travel incognito; a plot built on a series of mistaken identities and revolving around a “MacGuffin”, here the attempt to prevent a spy (James Mason, also superb) from smuggling microfilm containing Top Secret information out of the country; a romance begun under false pretenses, here between Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who unbeknownst to Grant is a government spy/double agent posing as Mason’s mistress; a cliffhanging climax occurring atop a famous landmark, here Mount Rushmore.

North by Northwest also features a typically dynamic Bernard Herrmann score, several virtuoso set-pieces, including the famous crop-dusting sequence, justifiably celebrated for its slow, disquieting build-up – “that’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops” – to the expertly edited plane attack on the bewildered Grant and, perhaps above all, Ernest Lehman’s witty, wonderfully complicated screenplay, surely the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film, which not only boasts great dialogue but also includes sophisticated themes about the nature of role-playing and the disparity between appearance and reality*, lending a thematically rich subtext to the film’s wholly enjoyable thriller elements.

* This is, perhaps, the ultimate film in which nothing is at it appears, with every single character playacting in one way or another : Grant assumes the identity of the (nonexistent) government agent for whom he’s mistaken; Saint poses as Mason’s lover; Mason masquerades as a UN Diplomat and wealthy art collector. Mason and Grant even allude to the role-playing games in this superb exchange of dialogue:

Mason: “Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles severely, Mr. Kaplan? It seems to me you fellows could stand less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actor’s Studio.”

Grant: “Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.”

Mason: “Your very next role. You’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.”

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