Boy Loses Girl: The Coward (1965)

Karuna Ami

When the taxi in which he’s traveling breaks down at the start of Satyajit Ray’s 1965 film The Coward, Kolkata resident Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee) finds himself stranded in the countryside, unable to reach his brother-in-law’s house in the town of Hashimara. There’s no chance of leaving before the next day — the car needs a new ignition coil that the local garage doesn’t have in stock, no other taxis are available, the last train has gone — and the only nearby hotel is reportedly a less than pleasant place to stay.

“What’s your line? Tea or forest?” asks a stranger (Haradhan Bannerjee) who has taken an interest in his troubles; after all, why else would anyone be out in the middle of nowhere like this? The stranger himself, Bimal Gupta by name, owns a tea plantation, and he invites the young man to spend the night at his bungalow. As they drive there, Amitabha explains that he’s a screenwriter seeking local color for his next scenario, a romantic tale. “Boy meets girl, boy loses –” Bimal begins, but Amitabha corrects him: “Boy gets.” “Boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Right?” he says. “Exactly,” his guest replies with a laugh. A simple formula — real life proves a bit more complicated.

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Blind Spot Series: Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar Title

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) — Rico for short — is tired of knocking over gas stations in his small town. He longs to be like the big-time crime bosses he reads about in the newspaper, and not just because of their impressive wealth. “Money’s all right, but it ain’t everything,” he says. “Ah, be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they’ll do anything you tell ’em. Have your own way or nothin’. Be somebody!”

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A Strange Game: Two English Girls (1971)

Game

Early on in François Truffaut’s 1971 film Les deux Anglaises et le continent, or Two English Girls, sisters Anne (Kika Markham) and Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), their mother (Sylvia Marriott) and their house guest, Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), get caught in the rain. After the group takes shelter in a small cave, Mrs. Brown suggests that they play a game called citron pressé (“squeezed lemon”) in order to pass the time until the weather improves. Her daughters agree eagerly and sit down on either side of her, their backs against her arms while she faces forward, and begin to rock her to and fro, first one leaning backwards and then the other. Laughing and out of breath, Mrs. Brown soon invites Claude to take her place, which he does — but what was merely an innocent diversion for the Browns becomes something quite different for the young Frenchman. “Suddenly he was a pawn in a strange game. Squeezed between the girls, he didn’t dare breathe. He’d never even touched their hands. Now their supple backs thrust against him. It was like an indiscretion,” the narrator (Truffaut himself*) says as Claude is pushed from side to side, surprise, pleasure and uncertainty flickering across his face.

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Reflections: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cleo Mirrors

“Take another card,” a fortune teller (Loye Payen) instructs the tearful young woman (Corinne Marchand) sitting across the table from her at the start of Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7. Awaiting a potential cancer diagnosis, singer Cléo Victoire has come to Madame Irma in hopes of receiving some sort of comfort or reason for hope. So far, her tarot reading has been less than encouraging, and although Madame Irma has tried to remain positive throughout, even she jumps back in alarm when she turns over the next card and reveals a skeleton holding a scythe. “This card is not necessarily death’s. It means a complete transformation of your whole being,” the fortune teller says, still endeavoring to make the best of it, but Cléo doesn’t want to hear any more: “I’ve known for two days. I don’t need the results of the tests.” Nevertheless, she immediately asks Madame Irma to read her palm, as if that might reveal something that will cancel out the rest; Madame Irma gazes down at it for a few moments, looks up at Cléo’s face, and finally declares that she can’t read hands. “Is it so bad…?” Cléo asks, bursting into sobs. She leaves in a daze, and it’s not until she encounters a mirror downstairs that she begins to revive. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks while smiling at her reflection. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”

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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)

Stanley Driving

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)

Colonel Blimp Title

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)

isak-guido

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)

laura-title

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)

day-for-night

“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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