Every month, Establishing Shot brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Noni Ford, contributor | Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown for me was always a film that I seemed to be close to watching and was recommended many times by different people in my life. Through my various coursework in literature movements, including American crime fiction, to my brief fixation on noirs, I always heard this movie mentioned and I finally had the chance to watch it in the last week. While there were of course elements that I found to be hallmarks of the genre, the most surprising thing about this movie was the performances onscreen. Faye Dunaway evokes such a golden-age Hollywood feel throughout that she almost seems to be plucked from the era and placed in this film. And Jack Nicholson goes in on playing up J.J. Gittes’s P.I. instincts and suspicions as he falls deeper into his independent investigation. I went into the movie knowing there was a twist, but even with that knowledge I was not able to pick up on who killed Mr. Mulwray until the case is solved at the end.
Rather than just being a straightforward investigation with some legwork and questioning, this search for a murderer yields scars, fights, car getaways, and suspicious phone calls in the night. The film really bridges the gap between action, thriller, and mystery well with Gittes at the center of it all grappling with the situation he finds himself in. There’s quite a cast of characters that we meet, some who seem suspicious form the jump and some who lie so easily with a smile that we write them off a tad too early into the story. This is also one of those rare films where due to what is revealed onscreen you could potentially guess who the killer is, as opposed to films where the last reveal shows the defining clue is something that happened off-camera that we, the audience, never saw before. Ultimately, this story of a murder, a marriage, and industrial intrigue in Los Angeles delivered exactly what I was looking for.
Chris Forrester, contributor | The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
The film that landed the most profound impact on me this month was one I’ve long delayed watching in preparation for the right moment. That film is Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, a heartbreaking romantic drama about the four-day affair between a lonely housewife (Meryl Streep) and the visiting National Geographic photographer she meets while her loyal husband and two teenage children attend the state fair. The film’s framing device — of the children, now grown, discovering their mother’s journals detailing the affair and its memory’s impact on the rest of her life — recalls sappier fare like The Notebook, but Eastwood’s masterstroke is in his handling of the material not as grand romance, but rather understated drama laced with heartrending poignancy.
Streep gives the performance of her career as Francesca, an Italian immigrant once spellbound at the thought of living in America and now lost in the midst of its vast, empty expanses, committed to a devoted but passionless husband. The film is beautifully empathetic, attuned so sensitively to Francesca’s desires but also the social pressures that keep them repressed and ultimately forbid her from running off with Robert Kincaid, the gruff-looking but tender photographer with whom she bonds in the absence of her family. Eastwood is quietly devastating as Kincaid, for whom the affair rekindles a deep passion for his life and work. The Bridges of Madison County is filled to the brim with lovely expressions of romantic desire, but it’s the (expectedly) heartbreaking culmination of Francesca and Robert’s time together that remains one of the more haunting scenes in any film of its kind.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
I’ve been making my way through the more dramatic films that Marilyn Monroe appeared in after reading Kim Morgan’s superb essay about the influence that Lee and Paula Strasberg had on her style of acting. While Monroe made Don’t Bother to Knock before she met the Strasbergs, it does demonstrate her great and raw talent for drama that she would hone under their tutelage. In addition, it remains a potent and memorable thriller.
Don’t Bother to Knock takes place at a fancy hotel in New York City. Pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) is processing his breakup with lounge singer Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) when he becomes taken by the sight of a young woman named Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) in the room directly across from him. Forbes, who is babysitting a little girl named Bunny (Donna Corcoran), invites him over to the room. But after going to her room, Towers discovers that Forbes has a few secrets, most of which are related to the fact that she is mentally unstable.
My favorite thing about Monroe’s performance is how it shows off her range as an actor. She continues to be remembered for her light-hearted persona as a “dumb blonde,” but her work as Forbes is a direct opposite of the roles which would make her famous. Forbes is haunted by her dark past, socially awkward, and legitimately frightening when threatening Bunny. Monroe isn’t afraid to show off Forbes’s dark side (and she’s so good at it that I’d wished she had been able to play more villains), but she also draws out layers of sadness and emotional pain which make Forbes pitiable and even somewhat relatable. It’s a bravura performance which shows that, even before her breakout role in Niagara (1953), Monroe was a talented actor.
While her performance is the most famous thing about this movie, and arguably the best, Don’t Bother to Knock still has other elements which are fascinating. Richard Widmark is an effective male lead as Towers. Bancroft made her motion picture debut as Lesley, and she shows signs of the charisma which would make her a star. The filmmaking is solid and features a lot of great shots which range from ones that utilize frames-within-frames to good effect to one haunting tilt down from a close-up of Forbes’s face to her wrists. But Don’t Bother to Knock will always be remembered within the context of Monroe’s career. It proved that she could excel at playing dramatic roles, even before she embraced the techniques of the Actors Studio. While she would become most famous for her comedic performances and her status as a sex symbol, her body of work contains plenty of testaments to the fact that she was an underrated and exceptional actor.
Jack Miller, contributor | Under Capricorn (1949)
Alfred Hitchcock’s indelible melodrama Under Capricorn (1949) has experienced a strange reception history in comparison with other works by the great master. For the French auteurist critics who originally championed Hitchcock in journals like Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s — critics like Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, both of whom went on to have successful careers as filmmakers in their own right — Under Capricorn represented something of an artistic pinnacle. When Truffaut sat down with Hitchcock to conduct his celebrated book-length interview with the director, he mentioned off-hand that Under Capricorn was “the one Hitchcock film that virtually everyone agrees is a masterpiece!” This position seems especially strange today as the film has become almost forgotten, at least here in the United States. Hitchcock himself wasn’t a great fan of the film, perhaps because it wasn’t a huge commercial success, and it effectively ended his professional collaboration with Ingrid Bergman, herself only one year away from embarking on a personal and artistic adventure in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.
The film is a hellish study of guilt and deception, set amongst a group of Irish immigrants in 1830s Australia. Bergman’s character, the wife of an ambitious but mysteriously menacing land-owner played by Joseph Cotten, has become a reclusive alcoholic for reasons that are obscured from the viewer for most of the duration of the movie. Formally, the film may be the closest that Hitchcock ever came to making a kind of art film. His previous outing, Rope (1948), had been a bold experiment in shooting a narrative feature in one long, continuous shot. (It was actually done in six or seven shots, but the cuts were ingeniously hidden.) In Under Capricorn, he applies these ideas toward material of deeper substance. Here, the elaborate long takes seem to be used as a means of suffocation, a way of forcing the audience to sit with and suffer alongside the characters for extended durations of time which unfold in a single space, without the relief offered by cutting to the next shot. The critic Jacques Lourcelles once wrote that the real story of Under Capricorn is the one that “takes place inside the characters’ hearts,” alluding to the perverse ways that the film withholds crucial narrative information from its audience. This daring and moving film deserves to be re-evaluated by those who care about film history.