I first saw this at one of my favorite theaters in the world, Cafe des Images in Herouville-Saint-Clair, just outside Caen, France. When it was over, I knew I'd seen something very special. Vigo died when he was only 29 -years-old but forever left his mark on the medium -- this film ranks up there for me as one of the two or three most poetic films in the history of cinema.
I think it's fairly easy to create a poetic moment in a film. Usually, you just have to use slow-motion and some evocative music, and presto, you've probably created a moment of poetry. But, sustaining this lyricism and poetry for the entire duration of a narrative film is nearly impossible. For me, the only other films I can think of that accomplish this are Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, some Tarkovsky, The Thin Red Line, The Night of the Hunter, and maybe McCabe & Mrs. Miller.Other contenders for 1934: I'm not without my gaps in this year, as well. I still need to see Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds, Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, Alfred Hitchcock's first The Man Who Knew Too Much, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, Raymond Bernard's Les Miserables, Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat, and Jack Conway, Howard Hawks, and William Wellman's Viva Villa! I need and plan to re-watch Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century. For some reason, the first time it didn't have much of an impact. But there are three other films from this year that did challenge for the top spot. I'm a big fan of the interplay between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. I think Gable's cynicism probably helps offset some of Capra's sentimental tendencies that sometimes rub me the wrong way. I haven't seen that much of WC Fields, but Norman McLeod's It's a Gift had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen from this period. And Jean Renoir's Toni is my second favorite film from the director. But, finally it's L'atalante, with its one of a kind beauty and lyricism, that has the most special place for me this year.
Without Vigo, I'm not sure we'd have two of my other favorite filmmakers: Leos Carax and Jim Jarmusch (I'm not positive about Carax, but I've read where Jarmusch has cited this film as a major influence.) Vigo was a master of mood, atmosphere, and creating lasting images. There's nothing else quite like this film, and it's one I'll continue to re-visit with great enthusiasm as the years pass.
5/30/10 I watched Edgar G Ulmer's The Black Cat. Features my favorite performance so far from Boris Karloff. He is just deliciously sinister in it, and it's obvious he's having great fun with the role. And the film also makes a case for Ulmer being incredibly inventive and having a superb eye.
6/11/10 I watched Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress. An epic with a ton of personality and a film with a tremendous reputation. Emotionally, I struggled with it and never fully connected. But Dietrich is wonderful and von Sternberg pulls out all the stops.
6/16/10 I watched Raymond Bernard's Les Miserables. They certainly cut no corners with this 280 minute version of the Hugo novel. I like some of the characterization we gain in this longer version, when compared to the Richard Boleslawski film of the following year. But all in all, I felt closer to the characters in the Boleslawski film than in this one.
6/23/10 I watched Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century. I had seen it before but couldn't remember it very well. It's amazing seeing it now to realize how much of a sibling film it is to His Girl Friday. Both revolve around the male protagonist trying to lure the female lead back into his world through cunning, manipulation, and humor. Although I prefer Friday (it's one of my all-time favorites), John Barrymore is absolutely incredible here and single-handedly makes it a great film in my book.
7/10/10 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds. It didn't affect me emotionally on the same level as another one of his films I saw recently, I Was Born, But.... However, it still demonstrates Ozu's mastery. His eye, his feeling for nature, the framing, the cinematography are all otherworldly. And here, in the final shots, Ozu says so much by saying nothing. Ozu was still doing silent work when most had moved onto sound. And his silent films have a poetry about them that is very singular and memorable.
6/26/11 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some nice, early Hitch touches, and of course Lorre is great. But some of the plotting feels a little suspect, and doesn't pack the same punch as the remake.
2/19/17 I watched John Ford's The Lost Patrol. What I was most struck by, aside from Ford's signature ability to bring out the haunting poetry in natural landscapes, is a certain modern quality to the work. McLaglen's physicality towards the end does not feel too much different than Pacino in the latter stages of Scarface and the fact that Ford almost never cuts to the opposition gives the film artful restraint that really helps create the effective, ominous atmosphere he sustains throughout.