Shadows Closing In: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

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“Who is Charlie Koller? All we know is he’s the piano man who’s raising his kid brother and who minds his own business.” So says Léna (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the seedy bar where Charlie (Charles Aznavour) pounds away at the keys every night. As it happens, there’s much more to this reticent loner than the people around him realize; for starters, he’s not actually Charlie Koller…

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Essence of Truffaut: Les Mistons (1957)

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Jean Renoir has been quoted as saying, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” When François Truffaut, one of Renoir’s most fervent admirers, made his first film in 1954, he was so displeased by the result — the eight-minute short Une Visite — that he considered destroying it; he didn’t even screen it for his friends until 1982. Three years would pass before he tried directing again, during which time he continued writing film criticism and also worked as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant. This experience paid off. His second short, Les Mistons, would be far more successful and was, in many respects, the movie that he would break into pieces and make again throughout his career.

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Not Any Man’s Property: Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

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The first few minutes of the 1967 film Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by John Schlesinger and based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same title, belong entirely to the English landscape — specifically, that of the southwestern part of the country, along the coast. As seen through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, the pale brown hills and steely sky and sea create a bleak picture, yet one that has its own austere sort of beauty and, above all, power. When a human figure finally appears, he’s little more than a speck on the horizon with a herd of dingy sheep at his feet. Interpersonal drama will soon move to the forefront, but the natural world remains an ever-present force.

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Blind Spot Series: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

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To the outside world, Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) seems an enviable man. A well-to-do lawyer in early twentieth century Sweden, he’s been married to a much younger woman, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), for the past two years. But the Egermans have a secret: They have yet to consummate their marriage. Fredrik wants to give the nineteen-year-old Anne time to mature, time to grow comfortable and cease fearing him, yet he can’t help feeling frustrated with this state of affairs, especially as he suspects that she only sees him as a father figure. His son from his first marriage, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), is about the same age as Anne, which only makes Fredrik more ill at ease.

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Marriage Ozu Style: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

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Jane Austen once described her writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Although she was overly hard on herself (not, one suspects, without irony), it’s true that she rarely strayed far from certain themes and a certain milieu. The same might be said of Yasujirô Ozu’s films. There’s more diversity and experimentation in his silent work — the college comedies, several crime dramas and even a period piece, his now-lost directorial debut The Sword of Penitence — but the vast majority of his sound films revolve around middle-class families and their domestic concerns. Starting with 1949’s Late Spring, one particular issue becomes a sort of idée fixe: marrying off single daughters. (Shades of Mrs. Bennet, or any number of characters in Austen’s oeuvre.) Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) all concern the events leading up to young women’s weddings, but once the weddings have taken place, inevitably off-camera, the remaining minutes of the films are spent observing their parents. The brides’ futures are left to the imagination of the viewer.

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Through the Looking-Glass, and What Arati Found There: The Big City (1963)

At the beginning of Satyajit Ray’s 1963 film The Big City, Subrata “Bhombol” Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) returns home from his job at a Kolkata bank and discovers that his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), has borrowed tea from a neighbor. In light of their financial difficulties — he’s the sole breadwinner for a household consisting of four adults, a teenager and a child — he finds the act embarrassing. “What choice do I have?” Arati asks. “If you don’t have your tea when you get home, you kick up a fuss.” Subrata has to admit that she’s right, yet he looks and sounds rather dubious when he adds, “You pay no attention to appearances.” It’s a brief exchange, a matter of seconds, seemingly incidental. Shortly thereafter, he prepares to go out again in hopes of collecting payment from a student he tutors. While he combs his hair, Arati can be seen reflected in the mirror, although her image is repeatedly obscured by her husband’s elbow. Again, this is a minor thing, so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but like the conversation about the tea, it foreshadows much of what will follow.

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Blind Spot Series: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

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A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) making a movie in Hiroshima meets a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), and the two begin an affair. With both of them happily married to other people and the woman about to return to Paris, it seems destined to be short-lived, yet the man thinks they have something special. He wants to pursue a relationship; she refuses. Her reasons, as she gradually reveals, are tied to a past that haunts her and that, nevertheless, she dreads forgetting.

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La legge è uguale per tutti: Divorce Italian Style (1961)

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Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), the protagonist of Pietro Germi’s 1961 film Divorce Italian Style, is a man in love. Alas, there’s a problem. Is it the fact that Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), the object of his affections, is his first cousin? Is it that she’s sixteen and he’s thirty-seven? No, no; these are mere trifles as far as he’s concerned. The real problem is that he’s already married to the suffocating Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), and because divorce is illegal in early 1960s Sicily, he’s stuck with her… unless she should happen to die. Ah, but how to accomplish that? Fantasize though he will — he imagines her stabbed and pushed into a vat of soap, drowned in quicksand, shot by the Mafia, launched into space — no viable solution presents itself until a local murder trial makes the news.

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Of Athletics and Angry Young Men: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

“Running’s always been a big thing in our family — especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run, run without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like.”

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