Remember the Night (1940)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
No film epitomizes the holiday season like this Preston Sturges-penned tale of a sincere, dignified prosecutor and the light-fingered woman, full of profound charm and an unbridled capability for human understanding, he brings home for Christmas. Though the plot is far-fetched, the tender sentiment of the story and the sound performances from—and the emphatic chemistry between—stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as two Hoosiers who unexpectedly find love, is lighthearted perfection.
Life in monochromatic late-Depression New York is tough as usual; to make ends meet, Lee Leander, as she’s sometimes known, steals a bracelet from an upscale boutique, only to be caught hocking it a few avenues over. Assistant DA John Sargent knows the pre-holiday courtroom drill all too well, and during Lee’s hearing, he allows the defense attorney to finish his ramshackle soliloquy before requesting the trial pick up after the new year. Sargent is a decent man, though, and the idea of a young woman—criminal or not—alone and in prison shakes him, so he wrangles bail bondsman Fat Mike to arrange for Lee’s release. She shows up at his door soon after, and rather than bringing her back to the authorities, he takes her out to dinner, and then on a road trip to Indiana so they can both visit with their families.
Though Lee’s visit home is a solemn moment in their journey, thanks to a harsh rejection from her mother, she’s welcomed at the Sargent home, despite her criminality. Lee and John grow closer, and a romance develops, though its outcome is indeterminate as he’ll have to prosecute her come the New Year.
Remember the Night is not a typical screwball farce; it’s a bittersweet, egoless love story full of earnest characters––particularly Stanwyck’s Lee––who stand apart from the commonplace reindeer wranglers and clodhoppers we annually see in December. Samantha Vacca (December 22, 2pm, 6:30pm at the Metrograph’s “Christmas at Metrograph”)
Il Vedovo (The Widower) (1959)
Directed by Dino Risi
Risi milked laughs from showing the extent to which men could behave like scum. The psychiatrist-turned-filmmaker directed documentaries before moving into the commedia all’italiana genre, through which he created portraits of loudmouthed chauvinists, hypocrites, and money-lusting Italian scoundrels played in termite-like fashion by charismatic stars such as Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Ugo Tognazzi, and the indelibly sad-faced Alberto Sordi. Risi is well-regarded for his string of rich 1960s films such as Una vita difficile, Il sorpasso, and the omnibus I mostri, which set themselves in contemporary times or the recent past to show petty Fascist impulses carrying over from World War II into Italy’s subsequent period of economic prosperity known as “Il Boom.” Yet the auteur’s talents were already fully present in the astonishing The Widower, one of fourteen films in MoMA’s large Risi retrospective that will screen on a new 35mm print.
The film’s title character does not actually exist, but is rather an idealized self dreamed of by Alberto Sordi’s character, Alberto Nardi, a Roman factory owner (of lifts and elevators) whose faulty products are driving him and his employees broke. What keeps him in business is his wealthy Milanese wife, Elvira Almiraghi (Franca Valeri), who smilingly regards her philandering small-minded man with a contempt forged from years of witnessing his financial and romantic misadventures. Catastrophe strikes Alberto’s life in the form of a large business loan to repay, followed by a possible sublime reprieve with the news that his benefactress has been in a train accident. The setback of Elvira’s survival nonetheless inspires her heir to dream of new inventions. Dehumanizing profit motives of the postwar world are gleefully skewered as Alberto holds meetings with some of his factory’s employees to design—with elaborate, mechanical, militaristic precision—the best assassination. Aaron Cutler (December 22, 7pm; December 24, 4pm at MoMA’s Risi retrospective)
Two Women (1960)
Directed by Vittorio de Sica
Vittorio de Sica’s adaptation of La Ciociara, a novel by Alberto Moravia (The Conformist and Contempt are also adaptations of Moravia’s books), is a movie about civilians in wartime. But what does it actually mean to be defenseless in a bombed-out landscape, or unarmed when your home becomes the front? Sophia Loren, at 26, plays Cesira, the widowed, well-off mother of a twelve-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). Fleeing the Allied bombardment of Rome, the two return to Cesira’s native Ciociaria region, in central Italy. Hidden in the hills are profiteers, as well as poor peasants who don’t much care who wins, as long as they do it before the food runs out; there’s also Jean-Paul Belmondo, as the kind of sensitive, bespectacled intellectual whom melodrama dooms by definition. A constant hassling-unto-harassment by most of the men Cesira and Rosetta meet, as well as short encounters with dogmatic German, ineffectual British, untouchable American, and shirtless Russian soldiers, fill out a theater of war that looks like a rich, tragic-comic spectacle, until a final act of violence forecloses the comic strain. The question of rapes committed by the armies involved in World War II is still, for historians, a numbers question—not whether they occurred, but how many thousands. Here, for de Sica, it is a question on the scale of the individual, or two individuals, whose daily lives are a constant campaign, in which the distinction between civilian and combatant is rendered meaningless. Elina Alter (December 23, 1:30pm at MoMA’s “Le Grandi Donne”)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Winter requires silent cinema’s warmth. I suspect Scorsese knows this, too, considering Hugo’s Christmas release. It’s a lovingly crafted confection for multiplexes, a charmed adventure wrapped around a crash-course on film preservation’s rocky history. The lesson’s never dry or forced, but as luminous as the City of Lights itself. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, another of Scorsese’s bright-eyed street children. He possesses Scorsese’s fervent love for escapism and gadgetry, sneaking into Harold Lloyd movies after secretly running the giant clock in Paris’s bustling Gare Montparnasse train station. With its gears, mini-scenes of convening characters (often performed sans dialogue), and bombastic layout, Montparnasse symbolizes cinema as both venue and medium. It’s where innovators like George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), and I suppose Scorsese, struggle to empower their dreams. Hugo’s self-preservation intertwines with art’s salvation, so much so that he spends much of the film protecting a mysterious robot, a final gift from his late father (Jude Law). Firmly embracing the innovations of now—digital 3-D being well utilized—Hugo seeks to remind today’s audiences how lucky they are at all. Ironically, the film itself becomes more and more forgotten. Max Kyburz (December 24, 2:30pm; December 30, 3pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Martin Scorsese in the 21st Century”)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Directed by Béla Tarr
Late one evening in a tavern, in a cold and bleak village somewhere in Hungary, János (Lars Rudolph), an innocent, angelic newspaper deliveryman, orchestrates a dance of drunks to illustrate a lunar eclipse. In one unbroken eleven-minute shot, the first of the film, the camera zooms, dips, spins, and phantasmically floats around the tango. One boozer stands in the center of the room, arms raised, fingers merrily wiggling as to represent the sun, while another sot, Earth, spins in circles while revolving around the sun, while yet another, the moon, spins in similar, albeit sloppy fashion around the Earth. As the cosmos align, János pauses the action to proclaim that at this moment, everything goes black, the animals are frightened, and darkness and terror ensue. Indeed, it surely does.
Based on the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by Tarr collaborator László Krasznahorkai, who frequently employs very long sentences, sometimes even composing a book in one single sentence, Werckmeister Harmonies, comprised of just 39 shots within 145 minutes, is nothing short of a mysterious apocalypse. The villagers, in a state of panicked gossip, speak of a circus arriving to town, which promises the largest stuffed whale in the world along with a bonus one-eyed prince. The arrival of the spectacle brings hoards of threatening strangers, and there is talk of looting, fires, pillaging. Soon, nobody feels safe, and the magmatic tension escalates to a portentous climax of violence. Essentially the prince, whose followers are “to make ruins of everything,” is a symbol of oppressive malevolence, as he proclaims from the back of a seedy office room, “Fury overcomes all!” Yes, now is the perfect time to discover or re-visit this invasive depiction of deceptive evil. Samuel T. Adams (December 26, 6pm; December 29, 3:45pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Going Steadi: 40 Years of Steadicam”)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
In a French-Moroccan city on the periphery of a Nazi war zone, rampant with impropriety, baleful foreign officials have gone awry. A New Yorker operates one of the local watering holes, where royalty mingles with the proletariat, each seeking a way out––whether besotted on gin and smoke, or trying their hand at roulette for traveling wages.
When the woman he planned to escape Paris with years earlier walks into his establishment with her husband––a notorious member of the French resistance––Rick Blaine, the bar owner whose sole code was never to do a favor for anyone, recaptures his misplaced political ideals.
Perhaps it’s not the archetypal setting for a love story, but with the striking faces and personalities of Humphrey Bogart as Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as his beloved, Ilsa Lund, Curtiz’s film burgeoned from a play of no importance to the embodiment of romance in cinema. Rick and Ilsa’s love affair ended just before the Nazi invasion of Paris years earlier, where she left him alone and waterlogged on a train platform with two tickets to their freedom. With Sam, his piano player, as his only confidant, Rick makes his way to Casablanca and begins a new life there, leaving any impression of Ilsa, or their infatuation for each other, behind.
During production, none of the actors knew how the film would end, and Bergman’s subtle facial expressions and oftentimes genuine exasperation at which man to choose––a noble, steadfast warrior emblematic of a greater cause, or a hard-drinking, maudlin American––demonstrate that conundrum. Casablanca is timelessly arresting thanks to a remarkable supporting cast (Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson, notably) and a bevy of pungent witticisms carried by Bogart’s languishing mystery man. Samantha Vacca (December 28-January 3 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)