À Nous la Liberté (René Clair, 1931). I watched this after I had written my postscript to Snowpiercer, but some of what I said there could apply in this case as well. À Nous la Liberté is an early sound film with some humorous, if obvious, comments on modern society. We see prisoners working an assembly line making toy horses. We see workers on an assembly line making phonographs. The similarities between the two far outweigh the differences: prisoners and workers perform highly regimented functions while dreaming about a freedom that is always out of reach. Clair is clever, and his approach to sound is inventive for its time. Also, his attitude towards capital (favoring the workers), combined with the afore-mentioned regimented approach to production, clearly influenced Chaplin for Modern Times. The film’s ending, with the workers owning the factory (allowing them a life of complete leisure), is both optimistic and ironic. Yet, despite the ingenious set design and staging, À Nous la Liberté isn’t nearly as good as Modern Times. The latter was funnier, and it has Paulette Goddard. À Nous la Liberté is gentler, and I appreciated it without laughing very often. #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. The obvious companion piece is Modern Times.
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). David Thomson called it “a version of screwball as if done from lawn chairs at the end of a fine summer evening”, and I think he’s right. But he thinks the movie is a “casual masterpiece,” while I find myself not as interested in the casual screwball of lawn chairs. Monkey Business is ripe for those who find subtext more important than laughs in a comedy. Hugh Marlowe being scalped isn’t funny because Marlowe looks silly with his fake hair, it’s significant as a symbol of castration. Your enjoyment will depend in part on how much you like excavating subtext. And how much you like Marilyn Monroe, who has a supporting role and doesn’t have much to do. For me, that’s a good thing ... she doesn’t have time to overdo those facial things that always irritate me. Best moment: when Ginger Rogers does a balancing trick with a coffee cup. Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors. This is not one of my favorite films. 6/10. See Bringing Up Baby instead.
I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949). Fuller’s first film as the man in charge (he wrote and directed) is an economical 81 minutes, which ought to embarrass anyone associated with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which took twice as long and was many times more boring. Fuller’s approach can be found in the title: this isn’t a movie about Jesse James, but rather a movie about Robert Ford. Fuller is fairly sympathetic to Ford’s problems, although Ford also comes across as a bit of a dimwit. (Hat tip to John Ireland, who does a fine job as Ford.) In this telling, which is at least as unreliable as other attempts to tell the tale, Ford hates himself for what he has done to his best friend. Fuller shows that Ford became famous in the “wrong” way. At one point, Ford takes part in a play that stages the James’ shooting ... Ford walks off the stage, not being able to recreate the crime. And in another scene, a troubadour comes in and sings a song about “that dirty rotten coward” Ford, not realizing Ford is right in front of him. Ford demands the singer finish the song, taking the punishment for what he knows he shouldn’t have done. There are plenty of such interesting touches, but in truth, the film doesn’t amount to much. Interesting side note: two of the actors in the ensemble, J. Edward Bromberg and Victor Kilian, were later blacklisted, while Ireland sued producers who thought his politics were shaky. 6/10. For another Fuller film, try Shock Corridor.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). 10/10.