Cinema that was invented in the last decade of 19th century, flourished in the 20th century and for the most part,it was the most popular and in a way the most creative art format, borrowing from other art forms. After the invention of television, and the production of TV films in the second half of the last century, and later on the internet media and the new age of digitalism and online streaming or stealing of the movies, at least over the past couple of decades, Cinema has lost its glory. At the same time, while in the first half or most of the 20th century, Cinema was heavily in the hands of story tellers, photographers, and actors, who were all led by the filmmaker or the creator, in the last few decades of the past century and more so in the present 21st century, it is dominated by digital special effects and out of reality. So cinema as an art format has greatly transformed to a technical/digital industry. Along the many efforts across the globe to save this modern art against the box office sales pressure and capital demand, this site hopes to contribute a small part in this endeavor!
Cinema initially sprang from photography, so that later on and to this day, it is called “motion picture” or “movies”, while the term “film” could be used for both cinema and photography. In the beginning, cinema was simply, pictures in motion with no other adding arts or technology, such as sound, music, or else, but acting. That is why for the first few decades since the birth of cinema, the movies were “silent” and this art form had to rely basically on the power of imagery with all its cinematographic components and the filmmakers like painters on canvas had to do whatever they could to create a powerful moving picture on the screen in addition to silent acting without talk. In this endeavor, some relied on set design, the use of light and shadows, like the German expressionists, and some relied on editing like Eisenstein, and some relied mostly on acting and sensible realism like Chaplin. At the time and even today, it is easier to rate and rank a silent film, as there were no white noise of sound or talk and all were imagery and picture in motion to measure. Due to simplicity, originality and the role of these pure ingredients, the silent films are still on the top of many best films of all time, such as the works of Serge Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, D.W.Griffith, and Charles Chaplin.
The sound brought theatrical acting to the cinema despite strong oppositions of silent films’ actors who were great action actors, specially in comedy. While 1920’s were still dominated by the silent movies, the 1930’s were the era of infiltration of theatrical acting to cinema that lasted for several decades until the recent domination of special effects and interception of digitalism into cinema. Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Catharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, James Dean and Marlon Brando were such actors who stemmed from theatre or acted as such. This continued to the modern era so that the newer actors such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio continued with such legacy. The theatrical acting while added rich flavor to the story telling and content through dialogues to the cinema, in many instances became very close to theatrical plays and robbed the cinematic experience and presentation, and limited the filmmakers in showing their talents. This is somewhat parallel to the digital cinema nowadays, where digitalism and special effects have totally stolen the rich cinematic creation.
Evaluation, rating and ranking movies, is not a matter of personal taste, likeness, or even a collective voting of majority, as the majority could be wrong and do not consider all the components of a film, with a delicate consideration of the differential factors. In other words, the role of camera, acting and editing are not the same and do not carry the similar weights as special effect. Unfortunately this has not been done closely in most rating and ranking of the motion pictures and the best lists, or awards such as Oscar. Beyond the different components of a film, that somewhat and singularly are recognized as in awards for script, acting, editing, directing, etc., the following factors in ranking the best films are essential. (Of course based on the following criteria, the earlier a film, the higher the rank would be, except the films that in addition to these factors, they have the “best impression” that could go beyond the time boundary. This is certainly very rare and on our list could include only a few rare films such as “The Battleship Potemkin”, “Man with a movie camera” and “Metropolis”, but these films are still frontiers in the time frame and only a few ranks above the other films made before them.
- Originality: No matter how well a film has been made today, if it is a copy of an original work, or an adaptation in one form or another, it would put it out of any best rank. An original work, even if not well done to perfection, it is still original and a creation that needs to be considered. Of course the earlier films fairly take on a lot of credits from this factor, but this may encourage the true filmmakers not to be copiers or followers but original and creative!
- Technicality: This factor should cover all the technical aspects of filmmaking from the story and script to the all works of camera, acting, editing, special effects, etc. The originality and proper application of each technique or component need to be considered in ranking.
- Impact Factor/Significance: This is the factor influencing other films, urging them to copy and experience the original work in part or in whole. This factor is not only the influence that an original work has on the industry, but on people in general and other forms of art and aspects of life as well. In conjunction with the influence that a film could have on other films or else, the significance of the film on cinema as a whole and on the history of this art medium is important and will be counted on.
- Survival: This shows how long a work, no matter how great, it will be remembered and looks fresh for years to come, specially in the eyes of the true cinema patriots.
Throughout this site, in writing on films and ranking them, the above factors will be delicately considered, though no evaluation or ranking could be rightful. Such comprehensive evaluation and ranking will hopefully encourage others to take on such or similar process in ranking and awarding, and avoiding a single factor such as the content of the story for political or trend of the time reasons!
“Double indemnity” of Billy Wilder based on a year before novel of the same name by James Cain, has set a gold standard and prototype of a genre of mystery murder plot thriller, that followed by many alike such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder”(1954), “Diaboloique” of Henri-Georges Clouzot (1955), “Empire of passion” of Nagisa Oshima (1978) “The postman always rings twice” of Bob Rafelson (1981), “Basic instinct” of Paul Verhoeven (1992), “Fatal instinct” of Carl Reiner (1993), and finally the most recent “Gone Girl” of David Fincher (2014) among many more.
The film which was nominated for seven academy awards and received none, has at least been hailed by the critics from its first release and by AFI ranking it 38 in its first 1998 release of the 100 greatest American films and ranking it 29 on its second edition of 2007. The film not only boasts a genre prototype, but great acting of all the three main characters, of Walter Neff played by Fred MacMurray, Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck, and Barton Keyes played by Edward G. Robinson, and set another high standard for acting. The film also depicts the best earliest flashback opening scene in the history of cinema, by showing Walter an insurance salesman, returning to his office late at night, being shot and in pain, dictating his story of what had happened earlier into a Dictaphone.
The Gold Standard of a genre:
The film from its inception and over years has become a gold standard of the genre mystery, murder and thriller, specially depicting the main protagonists not as heroes but villains. As the story from the start unfolds, we learn that Walter caught up by greed and fatal attraction of Phyllis, a married young and beautiful woman to plot her husband’s accidental murder, to master and steel the double indemnity clause and money in his life insurance. With quite a few twists and perfect plot, the husband is killed and his body laid on the train truck, like he has fallen from the train while on a trip. But Barton Keyes a brilliant and veteran claim adjuster, played amazingly by Edward G. Robinson, would not accept the death as suicide and accidental for many reasons according to his experience, such as slow-moving train, and with his “little man” that is his instinct in his belly starting to suspect a murder.
Adding to the worries and panic of the murdering couple, is the victim’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) who is convinced his father has been murdered by her stepmother and her lover, whom she does not know to be Walter. Moreover there is a witness on the train who has seen the victim to be much younger than the victim, seeing and talking briefly to him off the observation deck of the train, before his alleged fall (Walter pretending to be Phyllis’ husband by having a broken leg and carrying a clutch).
The film continues with its twists and surprises in this classic murder mystery, as Barton rejects the claim and cleverly forces Phyllis who is now the most eager and greedy to pursue the case as a sue against the insurance company in the court. Hence he is trying to trap her and her murder associate, while yet not knowing to be his own close colleague, Walter who tries hard to change Phyllis mind. Finally Lola breaks up to Walter that her hotheaded boyfriend, Nino (Byron Barr) is in an affair with Phyllis behind his back. While upset, Walter sees the disclosed equation as perhaps a way out for him, as Barton becomes suspicious of Nino as the accomplice in the murder. Here with more twist and surprise, Walter tries to kill Phyllis and cast the second murder suspicion on Nino as well, so getting rid of his only witness and associate in the crime. But Phyllis is ahead of him in plotting and ready with a gun in her hands, shooting him in the shoulder. Surprised and wounded, Walter dares her to shoot again and finish her job, when Phyllis realizes and states that she cannot, as she is still in love with him. Walter not believing in her, grabs the gun from her and shoots her to death, saying “Goodbye baby”!
Back to the opening scene, while Walter is dictating the story in confession into the Dictaphone at his office desk, Barton arrives unnoticed and overhears the whole story. Then he tells him “Walter, you’re all washed up”, that Walter tells him, he prefers escaping to Mexico than facing the gas chamber. But shortly Walter falls on the floor from blood loss, before he can reach the elevator. Here Walter tells Barton, the reason he could not figure out the case, was because the guy was “too close, right across the desk from you”, that Barton replies “closer than that, Walter.” In the last moment, Barton lights a cigar for Walter, who had the habit of lighting cigarettes for him throughout the film, while waiting the arrival of the police and ambulance.
The film essential success elements:
The novel that was based on a true such story of Ruth Snyder of New York, who persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband for his double indemnity clause life insurance, was sent to different Hollywood studios and was quickly purchased by Paramount pictures. Cane’s previous novel “The Postman always rings twice” had been a similar murder and passion story and had been well received. Although the novel was quite intriguing, but to translate it onto the screen, Billy Wilder needed the writer, Raymond Chandler to write it up again with less lengthy dialogues, more effective short screen dialogues, and above all more visual imagery to add to the mystery and thrilling of the plot. The screen adaptation was so well done and received, that even Cain himself was very pleased with the way his book turned out on the screen, and after seeing the film half a dozen times he was quoted as saying, “… It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”
The film with its two main protagonists depicting negative roles as criminals, was first hard for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray the highest paid actors in Hollywood at the time who always played positive and heroic and good roles to accept such. But at the end these two stars in a fit collaboration, marked a stage of acting in cinema for years to come, that the protagonists do not need necessarily to be good and heroes. Another major factor of achievement of the film was its cinematography by John Seitz who applied German expressionism with dramatic deployment of light and shadows, strange angles, making the scenes dark, gloomy with dusty and rotten interiors to provide a sense of lurks beneath the façade, giving the impression of the true nature of the characters as villains.
The “venetian blind” lighting effect that Seitz applied in the background of Walter image, giving an illusion of trapped behind the prison bars, became a standard in cinematography. The set design by Hal Pereira, specially showing for the first time rows of colorless and lifeless corporate desks in the insurance office, a reminder of what American capitalism becoming, is another achievement of the film beyond its gripping story and acting. The show of Phyllis deliberately with her blonde wig to look sleazy and seducer different than her other film roles, was another thoughtful improvisation in the film. Lastly and not the least the music score of the film by Miklos Rozsa, despite being first criticized harshly by the Paramount’s musical director as unfit, it was well received by the time the film was previewed that all were astounded, for being dissonant and hard-hitting, adding more spice to the crime thriller of the film milieu.
The initial reception of the film despite its amoralistic, negative and disturbing content for the era, was amazing and unexpected. The film equally was praised by the audience and the critics, specially for setting a new standard for screen adaptation, and breaking the regular delicacy of Hollywood at the time with its sharp, dark and devilish portray of human greedy nature beyond the normal and innocent façade. Hitchcock who perhaps wished to have directed the film, later on wrote to Wilder “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder’”. In short, “Double Indemnity” has set not the standard for “film noir” of its era, but for many other genres of mystery, murder, thriller and a love-lust-greed relationship kind of story that ends up in a Shakespearian type of fate!
In closing remarks “Double indemnity” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: “Double indemnity” is original and set the standard for a genre of film noir, mystery, murder and thrillers for the years to come with many direct, indirect adaptations and influences on films and filmmakers. The film was also one of the very first one to depict the main protagonists as negative and villains than good and heroes. Although the film could be itself an adaptation of the early Silent film “Greed” of Erich Von Stroheim of 1924, it raised such content story and film idea another level higher, adding more original cinematic elements to be still considered original.
- Technicality: The technicality of “Double indemnity” that somewhat detailed in the above main text, are in its artfully screen translation of the original novel based on a true life story, that set another standard for film writing. Its cinematography, a reminiscent of the old school of German expressionism with the brilliant application of light, shadows and angles, is another major technical achievement, though not very original, but done right with the newer techniques. The music score, dissonant and disturbing was the perfect match for such a dark thrilling film. Finally the amazing and gripping acting depicting two ordinary peoples caught in lust and greed, committing murder is a well reminder of the dark side of he human nature, adds to the technical aspects of the film.
- Impact Factor: The influence of “Double indemnity” has been so much through adaptation and copies, that Caine the original novelist of the story, initiated a movement in Hollywood for the protection of the right of screen writers for their original works.
- Survival: “Double indemnity” has survived well to this very day through its many direct, indirect adaptations and influences for the murder, thriller genres, and also being still entertaining and watchable by the present day audience.
It is perhaps true that a great film could be recognized in its first few minutes, unlike mediocre films that one needs to wait long until something significant happens. This is the case with “The life and death of colonel Blimp”,written, produced and directed jointly by Michael Powel and Emeric Pressburger of England that until then, nothing major had been released out of that country. Perhaps the second world war needed a trigger to start off good filmmaking, but this time the film is not only a romantic drama or action, but more a satirical comedy. This film became a prototype and a gold standard of its own genre, satirical war films, so many adaptations in different formats such as “MASH” were released in later years on the sliver screen.
The title of the film is derived from the “Colonel Blimp” character of the English political cartoonist, David Low, though the film’s content is different and original. Based on Blimp’s character that is pompous, irascible and briefly stereotypically British, satires the empire’s turn of the century military ambitious expansions. The transformation of the Blimp character to Cilve Candy (played by Roger Livesey) in a more realistic and humanized form to represent the British military royalty and patriotism across three wars of Boer in South Africa in the very early century, then the first and later on the second world war, provides the film with almost three hours of analyzing all through the life of a soldier who evolves to a leading army general.
The opening of the film on a typewriter, typing delivery of beer to an army camp, then the fast tracked action comedy scene after of a group of soldiers riding their motorbikes, but on the way, each taking a different forks on the road, and finally one of them is tripped over at the entrance of the camp by guards, all as a joke, is a great introduction to the viewers of what the film is all about. The fast paced funny soundtrack of the film adds more flavor to the films and prepares the audience for a comedy never seen before up to this point. In fact the film was quite ahead of its time as the modern viewers would never guess that the film was made in 1943 in the middle of WWII, but would think of it as a film of 60’s at least. This is not only because the film was made in Technicolor while other contemporary films were still coming out in black and white, but because of its story and plot development, its satire, action and all beautifully being portrayed on the screen that is still awe inspiring!
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Unfortunately Hollywood other than “The Great Dictator” of Charles Chaplin in 1940 right at the inception of the second world war, did not depict the horror of this war much on the world. It was not until after the end of the war, when such films like “The best years of our lives” was released. Throughout the whole war from 1939-1945, there were only “Casablanca” and “Mrs. Miniver”, but yet not directly, such as what had been well depicted of the casualties of war in for example “All quiet on the western front” about the WWI. “Mrs. Miniver” of William Wyler that won the major awards of the best picture, the best director, the best screenplay and the best actress awards at the Oscar in 1942, and was filmed in US, portraying marginally the impact of the war on the lives of petti-bourgeoisies of London, England during the bombardment of the city. But the film barely shows any real air raids on the city as one expected, but the shadows and the sounds of such attacks.
Before discussing the other war-related film of that year, “Casablanca” we need to review the history of cinema in those sensitive years and how this art medium failed to fulfill its duty towards recording and more so, disclosing the greatest war crimes of the modern time. During the war years while the Europe and the rest of the world in one way or another, even Africa were burning or affected by the war, Hollywood films were about entertainment. “The magnificent Ambersons” of Orson Welles in 1942, that again by many critics was considered as a masterpiece, was addressing the subject of industrialization at the end of 19th century and the change of culture and its impact on two wealthy families, totally out of touch with the reality of the time!
The next year of 1943 holds only “The life and death of colonel Blimp”, a British film, that although it was marginally about the second world war, it was also about WWI and the Boer War, in a satirical style with some Nazi’s sympathy and criticism of the British involvement in the war. Other major films of the war years was “Going my way” of Leo McCarey, not related to the war, but became the highest grossing picture of 1944, a musical comedy-drama about a priest, nominated for 10 academy awards, winning 7 of the major ones, including the best picture, the best director, the best actor and the best screenplay. The other major film was “Double indemnity” of Billy Wilder about an insurance fraud that while did not win any Oscars again in 1944, but was ranked number 38 in AFI 100 best American Films in 1998 and number 29 in the same list of 2007 edition. The other film was “Gaslight” of George Cukor again in 1944, a mystery-thriller about a woman whose husband manipulates her to believe that she is insane, again away from the reality of the war time.
“Brief encounter” of David Lean in 1945 was a romantic drama film about a married British woman on the eve of the war in 1938, confessing to her husband about her extra-marital affair, but not addressing any issue of the war. w “The lost weekend” of Billy Wilder in 1945 was about an alcoholic writer with seven academy awards nomination, winning four of the best picture, the best director, the best actor and the best adapted screenplay was one of the two only films in the history of cinema to win both Oscar and the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival, without addressing the second world war. “Spellbound” of Alfred Hitchcock in 1945, a mystery thriller in a mental asylum with the great acting of Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck was not again about the war.
Casablanca: Distinct among others
“Casablanca” of Michael Curtiz in comparison with the major films in interim of 1942-1945, right in the heat of the second world war, is perhaps the most important to address an impact aspect of the war. Although the film is far from depicting the crime and the casualties of the war, like the earlier “All quiet on the western front” of the first world war, it marginally achieves indirectly to show some damages of the war. Casablanca of Morocco, already a colonial of France from her 19th century imperial hunger, was a refuge for the escapees of the Nazi’s war, mostly bourgeoisies or petti-bourgeoisie to find a path of escape to America. Although in the film the refugee seeking path of Casablanca to Lisbon and America is historically wrong, nether less, that exotic town was such a hide out from Nazi’s prosecution and also a hide out to spend some good time away from the war in its night clubs and casino’s such as Rick’s (played by Humphrey Bogart).
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The film starts with this tribute “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated”. This opening dedication message, conveys at least half of what this film is about, but goes beyond and actualize what it aimed at.
A Simple Film of multi-genre: Heart warming and Enlightening
While with the opening message, the viewer expects a comedy, the film’s opening scene is a fight on the roof a train between two men, who finally fall in a river, when we notice that was a scene of another film that was being watched by a director and two producers for viewing approval. The director, John Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea) who is not happy about the film, states his desire of making a picture about poverty and suffering of poor people who live in every corner. But the producers argue with him that his idea would not please the market and is not profitable. Sullivan keeps insisting and the producers keep trying to convince him to change his revolutionary ideas and mock him who does not know anything about poverty and suffering. Then Sullivan who agrees with them of his lack of such life experience, finally comes up with the idea of experimenting the poverty and suffering by wearing torn clothes hitting the road with only 10 cents in his pocket to meet the poor people in struggle.
To the surprise of his butler but with his assistance, he starts his experiential genuine excursion, while reporters in a trailer follow him step by step. After a short while of walking, he runs into a young boy in his toy car who invites him for a fast ride so to loose the reporters. Here the film not only turns to a comedy, as the car while does not look a real one with fake speedometer, it starts speeding and the film turns to an action genre, perhaps the first one of such for the time, being hastily chased by the reporters’ trailer. Then action and slab comedy mix as people including a black chef on the trailer, fall and tumble around, a police on the road by his motorbike gets mud splash on his face and the cook ends up with his face in a bowel of white whipping cream.
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“How Green was my Valley” film was adapted from a 1939 novel of the same title by Richard Llewellyn, about the suffrage of a mining community and the condition of the miners then in Wales, England. The film was directed by John Ford, the most productive American film directors to this day, who was more popular for westerns than dramas. But surprisingly, Ford the most Oscar winning of any filmmakers, with four awards, did not win any for his popular westerns, but for his four dramas of “The Informer” in 1935, “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and the following year in 1941 for “How green was my valley” and finally after 11 years of making many other films, mostly westerns, for “The quiet man” in 1952, another drama with his favorite actor, John Wayne. “How green was my valley” was the only of these four that won the best picture award in 1941, beating “Citizen Kane” for that and even cinematography.
Another iconic realism on screen:
The popularity of this film and Ford’s previous one, a year before, “The Grapes of Wrath” in winning awards, fame and respect for the filmmaker, was for the sheer fact that they were made at the right time, the time of war demanding realism and true stories of people’s sufferings. While the film was initially planned to be in color and at the location in Wales, it was filmed in black and white and on an 80 acres made up studio in the Santa Monica Mountains. This privileged the film with such a strong cinematography of unique depth that felt in the hearts of American audience and truly won the academy awards.
This film with its harsh realism and strong in depth cinematography set the stage for the future realistic and neo-realistic films not just in US, but in Europe after the second world war, particularly in Italy and France, by the great filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. That is why John Ford has been a subject of great accolade by his filmmaker colleagues around the globe such as Ingmar Bergman who believed he is “the best director in the world”; by Frank Capra as “the king of directors”; by Alfred Hitchcock who called his films “visual gratification”; by Akira Kurosawa “I have respected John Ford from the beginning…I am influenced by him.”; by Satiajit Ray “…the nearest description of Ford’s would be a combination of strength and simplicity”; and by Orson Welles “I like the old masters, by which I mean John ford, John ford and John ford.” Ford also influenced so many other great filmmakers of the future years such as Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Jean Renoir, and Martin Scorsese among others. If John Ford did not get attracted to the western films, and had continued creating more cinematic realisms such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How green was my valley”, not only he would have put up himself higher in the cinematic creation, but the American cinema at a higher place!
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Citizen Kane, Orson Welles first major feature has been considered by many critics and other filmmakers as the greatest American film and has been on the top of many greatest American films of all time. But in our list, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film of all time based on our criteria and the following, though it is one of the greatest films of all time.
Orson Welles: Self-Portray:
Citizen Kane as will be discussed here briefly was a partial self-portray or self-depiction of Welles’ life himself. Orson Welles was only 4 years old when his parents were separated, and 9 when his mother with whom he was living until then, died. After his mother’s death, he spent the summer with Watson family at a private colony in Wyoming, New York where he played with the children of Agha Khan. Soon he was on road, travelling to Jamaica and Far East with his alcoholic father for three years, somewhat looking after him, instead of the other way around. At age 15, his father died too, and he was raised under the family friend, Maurice Bernstein. Welles barely studied formally academically or even arts, but travelled and barely had any consistent place or town to call home, mostly Woodstock, New York where he lived the longest, only for 4 years.
While travelling Europe, it was in Dublin, Ireland where Welles was drawn to the theatre and lied to be a Broadway star to get his debut acting role at the Gate Theatre in 1931 at age 17. Soon he was preoccupied with Shakespearian plays and roles and played later on in several roles as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. Before opening the Mercury Theatre in New York with John Houseman, he enrolled in radio show performances as well. He put the Mercury Theatre shows on air by CBS radio, and his radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Welles in 1938 at the brink of the WWII. In this show, he panicked the listeners so to believe of a Martian attack on earth, sounding so real that thousands ran into the streets out of fright.
All his theatrical fame and radio performances, specially “The War of the Worlds” drew Hollywood offers to him, first by RKO studio where after rejection of his two film projects, his screenplay of “Citizen Kane” with Herman Mankiewicz was approved. In the film, Welles depicted the real life story of the newspaper giant of early 20th century, William Randolph Hearst, as Charles Foster Kane. The similarity of the life of Welles himself at least in ambitious social, political and media (for Hearst at the time publishing and for Welles, media) is amazing. At the same time the parallel resemblance of Welles and Kane in personal, specially early life is interesting. In fact the Citizen Kane is an amalgamation of Welles, Hearst and Kane!
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Thanks to John Steinbeck, one of the greatest American novelist who won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for the story and the Nobel Prize in 1962 mainly for this novel, and thanks to the early liberalism of John Ford, and the great acting of Henry Fonda, “The Grapes of Wrath” film adaptation became a prototype cinematic masterpiece of Realism. When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” He famously said, “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”
From a Great Novel to a Great Film:
Steinbeck after writing the “Dubious battle” in 1936 and “Men and Mice” in 1937 about the situation in California, wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” to describe the migrant situation and the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of people across America. Steinbeck’s work was received very well, the best selling novel of 1939 and won a large accolade among the working class due to Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants and workers’ movement, and his accessible prose style. “The Grapes of Wrath” book has been the most thoroughly discussed novel – in criticism, reviews, and college and high school classrooms. At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio; but above all, it was read. Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist, specially by the Associated Farmers of California who accused him of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. But Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of his novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit. The book has been well listed on many 100 best novels of all time, by Time Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, The Modern Library, Le Monde , BBC 2003 survey and more.
John Ford who was first liberal before becoming more conservative and due to his own Irish background, and the Irish Great famine where people were drifted out of their lands, depicted the Steinbeck’s story on the silver screen in sympathy and hence makes his best masterpiece ever. The film was so much needed at the time of the Great Depression and on the dawn of the World War II, to reach out to the American People more than what the novel of Steinbeck had already reached. The film like the book was a revolution on its own to stir up the American people whose government was still at the time in peace with Nazi Germany. The film arose the people’s conscious along the novel to realize the dark reality of capitalism that was the cause of the Great Depression, their poverty, unemployment and mass misery, also globally the primary cause of wars, and at the time the second world war.
The Birth of Realism in Cinema:
The film with its sheer realism was a prototype for many films to come in US and the rest of the world, such as “On the Waterfront” of Elia Kazan in 1954, and after the second world war in Italy by the Neo-realism movement and great films such as “The bicycle thieves” “Shoeshine”, “Miracle in Milan” and “Umberto D” of Vittorio de Sica, “Rome, Open City”, “Paisan”, “Europe ‘51” “Germany Year Zero”, “Journey to Italy” of Roberto Rossellini,”Ossessione” and “The Earth Trembles” of Luchino Visconti, “Nights of Cabiria” of Federico Fellini” and more.
The story of migrants across US at the time of the Great Depression to the promise land of California, on the screen opens with a panoramic scene, of Tom Joad played by Henry Fonda in an empty road, surrounded by desert lands or Dust Bowl. While the color films had already been in fashion, the black and while color of the film deliberately adds to the imagery of the realism that John Ford tries to depict. The opening scene puts the man in contrast with the harsh nature in a beautiful imagery. Tom Joad, just released from jail after 4 years for pulling knife at someone, going back home, in Oklahoma. On the way home, he meets a former preacher, Casey who has realized the harsh truths of the life, have fallen on people not only by the nature, but more so by the capitalism, the main cause of the Great Depression. So he like everybody else not only has lost his job and money, but his spirit as well. “maybe there is no sin or anyone to save, maybe that what it is”!
When Tom finally along with Casey reach home, he finds it empty: “they’re all gone or dead”. He finally finds out from someone hiding in the house that they all have left their lands, farms, houses and have gone to California, the promised land for work as they were all pushed off their lands by the banks. The cats (caterpillars) and tractors with the support of law and the police had pushed everyone off their lands, knocked down their houses and left them on the roads empty handed. Tom finally finds his family in a nearby farm house who are about to move along for California, with the promise of fruit picking jobs. But Grandpa is not willing to leave his land and his home even if it is no good , but it is his and he belongs here, so the family have to knock him down with alcohol in his coffee, but he shortly dies on the road.
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Imagine it is 1940 and Europe is at the feet of an ambitious and ruthless dictator and a destructive military machine, and only one man could bring it down to his feet. That man is not a head of a state, a general or a soldier, but the genius of cinema, Charlie Chaplin. “The Great Dictator” on its heroic idea of making and releasing alone at such a sensitive time that could easily lead to the assassination of Chaplin, it is a great achievement and would be impossible not to include it in any list of the greatest films of all time. But of course as any Chaplin’s film, it is multifaceted and harbors its great writing, acting and directing. The originality, the technicality, the impact and the survival of the film was seen right away at the time of its release to this very day. Chaplin once again proved that he is one of the greatest genius of cinema and at the very heart of people of the world.
This political satire comedy was the first Chaplin’s true sound film after a few years of still producing silent into the era of sound film. At the time of 1940 that still the United States was at peace with Nazi Germany, Chaplin stirs the world and more so the America, where the film was produced and released first. That was the first American protest to the dictatorship of Nazis, and at the head Adolf Hitler (in the film Hynkel) and his allies, Italy with Benito Mussolini (in the film Benzino Napoleoni) at the head, and a loud voice of protest against their racism and anti-semitism. Chaplin artfully plays one of the first double roles in cinema, both as the dictator, Hynkel or Hitler and a persecuted Jewish barber. The film became so popular with the audience world wide, to become Chaplin’s most commercially successful film.
As he mocked the capital machinery in the “modern Times”, Chaplin mocks the war machinery right from the start, when in the war camp of the world war I in 1918 as a soldier. Later on in the role of the dictator Hynkel, in his speech to the Tomanian nation, in fact he mocks Hitler German-sounding Gibberish language, very similar to Hitler orations to the whole German nation before and during the war. The dictator speech that liberty, democracy and free speech “stunk”, is not only one of the greatest moment of cinema, but it was one of the greatest blow to the Nazis’ war machine. Chaplin intelligently but very clearly imitates the German Nazi, with very similar terms such as Hynkel for Hitler, XX for SS, Tomonia for Germany or Germania, Benzino Napoleoni for Benito Mussolini, Bacteria for Italy or Italia, Osterlich for Austria, and also satirical terms such as “Garbage” for the minister of propaganda. The satire is not only in words and phrases, but in the whole content of the film such as in the agenda of the dictator to “get rid of Jews first then brunettes to have only blondes, or pure Arians” ruling the world.
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