A Very Plantagenet Christmas: The Lion in Winter (1968)

Eleanor and Henry

“Well, what shall we hang: the holly, or each other?”

It’s a question that might arise at any dysfunctional family’s Christmas gathering, if not aloud then at least in the minds of the participants. But when that Christmas is in the year 1183 and that dysfunctional family happens to be royal, as is the case in Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film The Lion in Winter, it takes on a potentially literal meaning.

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Blind Spot Series: The Blue Angel (1930)

The Blue Angel

Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a professor of English and literature, is a stuffy, stern man, the type who makes all of his students write the word “the” two hundred times because one of their classmates pronounces it incorrectly. When he learns that some of the young men in his class have been frequenting a cabaret called The Blue Angel to see singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), he becomes determined to put a stop to it. As such, he visits the club one night on a kind of moral crusade — only to find himself falling for Lola. His fascination with her quickly sends his life into a downward spiral.

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Romantic Roulette: Bay of Angels (1963)

Iris In

Iris in on the French Riviera: A woman (Jeanne Moreau) with platinum blonde hair walks along a promenade that overlooks the water, a purse in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her pace as she approaches the camera, though fairly brisk, is no match for that of the camera itself. It pulls back ever farther, ceaselessly, racing away from her so that she becomes an increasingly minuscule figure in the distance. After a moment, a piano begins to play — dramatic, impassioned, suffused with romantic longing. It’s the sort of score one expects to hear in a Jacques Demy film (right down to the fact that it was composed by his frequent collaborator Michel Legrand), yet the Demy film that follows this opening — 1963’s Bay of Angels — isn’t quite what the music might suggest.

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Figures in a Landscape: Letter Never Sent (1959)

Opening

Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1959 film Letter Never Sent begins with the following text:

To those who, in any field of human endeavor — be it the settlement of wild and desolate lands or the daring rush into space — follow in the difficult path of the pioneers, and to the Soviet people, this film is dedicated.

In this particular story, those modern pioneers are the members of a geological expedition, and when they first appear onscreen, they’re waving goodbye to the helicopter that’s just dropped them off in the Siberian wilderness. Rather than showing their point of view, the camera is positioned in the helicopter itself, so that the four human figures on the ground appear increasingly minuscule, dwarfed by their surroundings — aptly foreshadowing what’s to come.

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A Woman’s Fate: Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Red Lantern

Nineteen-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) is facing a personal crossroads at the start of Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern. A university student in 1920s China, she’s been forced to leave school as a result of her father’s recent death and her family’s subsequent financial difficulties. With precious few options available to her, she’s decided to get married, and as far as she’s concerned, she may as well marry for money. “Marry a rich man and you’ll only be his concubine,” her stepmother warns her, but Songlian’s mind is made up. “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” she asks stoically — just before a single teardrop runs down her cheek.

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Blind Spot Series: Black Orpheus (1959)

Black Orpheus

It’s the day before Carnaval, and a young woman named Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has just arrived in Rio de Janeiro — but she’s not there to have a good time. Instead, she’s run away from her rural home to seek refuge with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia). A man has been pursuing her, she says, and when Serafina suggests that he’s simply interested in her for her looks, Eurydice disagrees: “I’m sure he wants to kill me.”

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Toil and Trouble: The Organizer (1963)

Professor Meeting

Professor Giuseppe Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), the title character in Mario Monicelli’s 1963 film The Organizer (originally I compagni, or The Comrades), is hardly a prepossessing figure. Shabbily attired, with disheveled hair and a scruffy beard, he appears no better, socioeconomically speaking, than any of the textile factory workers who have gathered in the Turin schoolhouse where he’s taken refuge. Even so, when he suddenly pops out from behind a wall to interrupt their meeting and offer his thoughts on their situation, he must look like a potential savior, a kind of deus ex machina, at least to many of them.
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Devoured by an Ambition: The Red Shoes (1948)

Red Shoes

“The ballet of The Red Shoes is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance, and at first all is well, and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home — but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”

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A Day in the Lives: Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Bed

Throughout the opening credits of John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar, the camera pans along lines of buildings in a northern English town. Although there’s some diversity of styles from shot to shot — apartment blocks, row homes, Tudor cottages — each row in and of itself is strikingly unvaried and repetitive, and the overall effect is of a certain dull monotony. A radio show aimed at housewives provides accompaniment as these images roll past, creating the impression that all of the homes, regardless of their appearances, are united by mundane domesticity. However, within the walls of one of them, a young man named Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is daydreaming about a much more thrilling existence.

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