Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). This big musical from the tail end of the Pre-Code Hollywood era is fascinating for its many contradictions, beginning with the framing of Great Depression challenges with a notably defeatist cheer. The production numbers are the handiwork of Busby Berkeley (the songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) and they show off his skill at mesmerizing vastness. “We’re in the Money” is probably the most famous, but others are more interesting, especially the lengthy “Pettin’ the Park,” which includes a strikingly sexy moment involving a bevy of beauties changing behind a sheer screen, and the grim, powerful closer, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” The plot involves class conflict and romantic deceptions, lending the film a little more of an edge, even if all the problems are resolved a little too abruptly and easily at the end.
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). The second feature from Duncan Jones clearly aspires to tricky sci-fi mind-fuckery in the Philip K. Dick mode. It casts Jake Gyllenhaal as a military veteran who wakes up in the body of another man, a traveler on a commuter train. He eventually discovers that his psyche is being fed through a new piece of technology that allows him to live out the last eight minutes of another person’s life over and over again, in this instance all in an attempt to discover the identity of a bomber who perpetrated a devastating terrorist attack. Even as an gimmicky contrivance, it makes absolutely no sense, and screenwriter Ben Ripley’s over-eager attempts to keep bending the plot back on itself don’t help. Gyllenhaal is merely adequate in a role that calls for endless layers of disconcerted agitation, but there are a couple entertaining supporting performances by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, mostly because they both effectively ride the fine line between taking the material seriously and signaling their awareness of its inherent goofiness.
The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). Depending on how generous one is inclined to be in rounding up the couple of prior efforts that just edged over the sixty-minute mark, The Killing can be viewed as Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film. A heist picture that examines the robbing of a racetrack from several different perspectives, the film sometimes feels like Kubrick actively teaching himself the mechanics of narrative storytelling more than its own satisfying work of art. Of course, since it’s some of the sharpest instincts in the history of the form being honed to perfection, it’s still pretty damn compelling to watch. All of the performances lodge somewhere between angry heat and tock hard stoicism, with the future General Jack Ripper, Sterling Hayden, setting the perfect template as the crook orchestrating the crime. The screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson (adapted from a novel by Lionel White) builds nicely, right up to the cruel turn of fate that ends the film.
Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). The English-language debut of cult favorite South Korean director Park Chan-wook is a delirious gothic horror romp rich in style and short of identifiable human emotions. Mia Wasikowska plays the title character (India Stoker, to be precise), a teenager reeling from the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney, who should really start every film role as a corpse) in a car accident. The funeral brings her long-lost uncle (Matthew Goode) into the picture, and much of the remainder of the film swivels on suspicions about his intentions, towards both India and her mother (Nicole Kidman). Park revels in making seemingly innocent artifacts–shoes, sharpened pencils–into carriers of great dread, but the film never manages to transcend its own giddy luridness in such a way as to make it come across as much more than an exercise.
Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950). Jacques Tourneur’s best-known films fall squarely into the horror and film noir genres, which makes it especially interesting to watching him ply his command of shadows–both those that cut across a set and those that settle on the human soul–in that most venerable of Hollywood genres, the western. The director’s skills honed in other sorts of films come through most clearly in a nighttime raid on the house of a man who’s refusing to sell his land to local mine magnate, the whole sequence staged like it belongs in one of producer Val Lewton’s fright-fests. The film is built around the experiences of a preacher (Joseph Cotten) who comes to a little frontier town, with various stories loosely threaded together giving the whole thing the feel of a dusty slice of life. One of the most notable scenes anticipates a key moment in To Kill a Mockingbird (and arguably does it more cleverly), but the best overall scenes involve the preacher’s conflict with the new town doctor, played with sharp, huffy authority by James Mitchell.