Holding Pattern: Wings (1966)

Larisa Shepitko’s 1966 film Wings opens on a crowded street, along which unending streams of people flow ceaselessly both left and right. From this crowd, it appears, one man suddenly turns toward the viewer; the camera then pulls back to reveal that he’s a tailor walking through his quiet, nearly empty shop, undisturbed by the mass of humanity outside his window. His focus is on a customer, a middle-aged woman (Maya Bulgakova) who’s waiting for him in a dressing room. With skillful hands, he takes her measurements for a jacket and skirt, noting the width of her shoulders, the circumference of her waist, and so on and so on, until at last he announces his verdict: “Standard size.” But while that may be true of her clothing, it soon becomes painfully clear that Nadezhda Petrukhina is not a woman built for a standard size life.

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Bad, Bad Bette Davis: In This Our Life (1942)

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In a movie career that spanned six decades, Bette Davis played everything from a Cockney waitress (in Of Human Bondage) to a Bronx housewife (in The Catered Affair) to Queen Elizabeth I (twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Virgin Queen). My first exposure to her was through the 1946 film A Stolen Life, in which she has a dual role as a pair of twins — one good, one bad. (This, of course, is not to be confused with 1964’s Dead Ringer, which has her portraying two bad twins.) As I delved into her filmography, I quickly realized that I much preferred Bad Bette to Good Bette. Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification, and many of her roles fall somewhere between the two extremes, but I never get tired of watching her misbehave, and 1942’s In This Our Life offers ample opportunity to do just that.

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Blind Spot Series: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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During a training exercise for the Home Guard in World War II England, a group of young soldiers decides to “attack” the opposing side before the mock-war is officially set to begin. Among the men they “capture” at a Turkish bath is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey). He’s furious that they would disobey the rules, but Spud Wilson (James McKechnie) argues that their sneak attack is more in keeping with the real conditions of warfare, where rules mean nothing to the enemy and victory must be won by any means necessary. Wilson has little respect for the bald, paunchy old major-general, who tells him that he’ll be an old gentleman too in forty years’ time. “In 1983, at least I shall be able to say that forty years ago I was a fellow of enterprise,” the younger man replies — which promptly gets him knocked into a pool.

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Two Films: Wild Strawberries (1957) and 8½ (1963)

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Federico Fellini, speaking to Irving R. Levine in a 1965 interview for NBC News, admitted that he rarely went to the movies. “I do my work with such passion that I don’t know how to be just a spectator,” he explained. Asked about contemporary directors whom he admired, he could only come up with three names. One was Akira Kurosawa; another was Alfred Hitchcock; the first was Ingmar Bergman. “I’ve only seen two of his films, Wild Strawberries and The Magician, but they were enough to make me love him like a brother.” The following year, in an interview with the French magazine Positif, he reiterated his high regard for Bergman, whom he described as “a really gifted man, a true author, a real showman.” He also noted that 1958’s The Magician “upset me, in a way, because it is exactly the same as a story I wrote four or five years ago and meant to film — in a different atmosphere, of course. It’s Nordic and I’m Mediterranean, Latin, but the subject is exactly the same.” Although his variation on The Magician never made it to the screen, one of Fellini’s most famous films does share a number of similarities with the other Bergman movie he had seen.

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Blind Spot Series: Laura (1944)

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When advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is murdered shortly before her wedding day, police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) must figure out who’s responsible. Among the suspects are her fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a man with a shady past and possibly a shady present as well; her aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), whose house Carpenter frequents; and columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who acted as a sort of Pygmalion to Laura and was fiercely possessive. He had no shortage of potential rivals. “Wherever we went, she stood out,” he tells McPherson. “Men admired her. Women envied her.” As McPherson delves into her life, interviewing the people who knew her and sifting through the items in her apartment, even he, despite his cynicism, finds himself falling for her.

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Engineering a Train in the Night: Day for Night (1973)

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“It’s often occurred to me that one might make a first-rate comedy on the making of a movie,” François Truffaut remarked during a 1962 conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, the basis for his book on the Master of Suspense. At that point, Truffaut was still a relative novice as a director, with only three feature films and a few shorts to his name. By the time his idea came to fruition in the form of 1973’s Day for Night, he had acquired ample experience, good and bad, from which he could draw material, and draw from it he did.

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The Drifter, the Desert and the Divine: Lilies of the Field (1963)

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To Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an overheated engine is just an overheated engine; to Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), it’s divine intervention.

Either way, it disrupts Homer’s drive through the Arizona desert at the beginning of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and prompts him to seek water at the nearest building. This turns out to be a convent, home to Mother Maria and four other nuns (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch) who have come to the United States from East Germany. “God is good. He has sent me a big strong man,” Mother Maria declares upon seeing Homer, then informs him that she has work for him to do. Although he’s not interested at first and starts to drive away, the nuns’ sad faces bother him, and a glance into his wallet reminds him that he could use the money; he is, in fact, an itinerant laborer, and this job is probably no worse than any other he might encounter. As such, he agrees to fix their roof, intending to leave as soon as he’s finished — but Mother Maria has other plans for him.

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Like a Miracle: Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

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Even after the three Bostock children rescue a sack of kittens from drowning and hide them in their barn at the start of the 1961 Bryan Forbes-directed film Whistle Down the Wind, they know the danger is far from over: It was their farmhand, Eddie (Norman Bird), who tried to get rid of the unwanted animals on behalf of their father (Bernard Lee). Charlie (Alan Barnes), the youngest, is less concerned than his sisters, however. Having spoken to a woman (Patricia Heneghan) from the Salvation Army on the way home, he declares that Jesus will look after the kittens. Eldest child Kathy (Hayley Mills, daughter of Mary Hayley Bell, who wrote the novel on which the film was based) expresses skepticism, but Charlie insists that the woman knows “because she lives in his house.” “How can she when he’s dead?” Kathy retorts. Her sister Nan (Diane Holgate) warns her that she’ll “have something terrible happening now” for saying that, and although Kathy scoffs, it’s clear that she’s rather uneasy. Consequently, when she returns to the barn alone that night, she’s terrified to discover a bearded stranger (Alan Bates) there. “Who is it?” she manages to ask. The slightly dazed man says, “Jesus Christ”; she takes it as an answer to her question.

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A Parable in Pixillation: Neighbours (1952)

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In 1949, Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren traveled to China in order to work on UNESCO’s Healthy Village Project. There, he taught local artists how to create a variety of audio-visual materials that could be used to educate the rural population; he also witnessed the end of the Chinese Civil War. “About three months after I went out there, communists took over our particular town, and for the rest of the year I was living under the new regime,” he said in an interview included in the documentary Creative Process: Norman McLaren. “And I was able to see what it was doing and talk with many people and heard the story of their lives, particularly people between the ages of twenty and thirty. I tended to identify myself with what was going on there because I thought what was happening was very good. So then when I left China, the Korean War broke out the same day, almost, as I left China, and I came back to North America, and I felt a great tension about war in general. The tension that was produced from my year’s experience in China, plus my return to here, and to an environment where the newspapers were saying something totally different from what I’d been used to — that tension produced the film Neighbours.”

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