10 Treasures from the Archive at the 2017 London Film Festival – as we first reviewed them

From Scarface to Suspiria and Saturday Night Fever, Lucía to The L-Shaped Room, the 2017 LFF is reviving a host of classics – but which did we originally consider clumsy, vulgar or a “long slog” and which did we hail as a masterpiece?

Faith and creation: Anoushka Shankar on her score for Shiraz

Jan Dawson , Geoff Brown , Scott Meek , Sight & Sound contributors

1. Shiraz

Franz Osten, UK/Germany/India 1928

Shiraz (1928)

Screening Saturday 14 October

…For the modern audience the spectacular locations are perhaps the star of the show. Permission to film inside India’s most exquisite Mughal palaces can’t have been easy to get, but Rai was persuasive; securing the help of the Maharaja of Jaipur evidently opened doors. The cast is good, too: Rai has a natural gravitas and Seeta Devi is a joy as the scheming former favourite of Shah Jahan with rings full of concealed poison to see off potential rivals.

And something of a surprise was the reaction of Anoushka Shankar, who has been commissioned by the BFI to compose the score to our new restoration, to an onscreen kiss – between the future emperor and his new queen, Mumtaz Mahal, who gave her name to the Taj Mahal. While it seemed chaste enough to me, Anoushka thought that in an Indian film of this age it was a bit of a shocker. I greatly look forward to what she brings musically and culturally to the film when it premieres at this year’s London Film Festival.

— Bryony Dixon, in Cross-Border Appeal, on the history of Shiraz and its new restoration, in our October 2015 issue

☞ See also Faith and creation: Anoushka Shankar on her new score for Shiraz


2. Scarface

“Remarkable for admirable direction and brilliant acting”

Howard Hawks, USA 1932

Scarface (1932)

Screening Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October

Wholesale shootings are almost incessant. This film made six years ago remains the best of all gangster films. It is brutal, ruthless and painfully realistic. But it is remarkable for admirable direction and brilliant acting. Howard Hawks has done his work with skill and knowledge.

The characters are real people, seen in the round. Paul Muni shows what a fine actor and sensitive artist he is, and George Raft is excellent in support. Karen Morley makes the gangster’s ‘moll’ almost startlingly alive, and Ann Dvorak is charmingly young and eager as Cesca. An effectively sinister study of a gangster chief comes from Boris Karloff.

The settings are appropriately drab and sombre.

— E.P., Monthly Film Bulletin April 1938 (reviewed upon the film’s re-release)


3. Mildred Pierce

“The authentic Cain touch of brutal realism.”

Michael Curtiz, USA 1945

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Screening Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 October

Basic sordidness both in theme and in detail are here enhanced by rich and polished work by the production department. The film indeed achieves the authentic Cain touch of brutal realism – although, of course, it tones down the incident where Mildred Pierce finds Veda and Beragon together in Veda’s bedroom.

It is fidelity to its unattractive subject rather than technical shortcomings which make the piece seem too long. In direction, camera and lightning it is well handled, with some effective tricks – the dropping blind to cut the sequence, the woman’s shadow on the stair wall after the murder, the dance of the man and his shadow seeking escape through successive locked doors.

Joan Crawford presents a consistent and sustained characterisation of the harassed Mrs. Pierce fighting against relentless spiritual degradation. She has good support from Jack Carson, Eve Arden and, in a delightful child study, Jo Ann Marlowe.

— K.F.B., Monthly Film Bulletin March 1946


4. A Matter of Life and Death

“A brilliant experiment.”

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK 1946

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Screening Thursday 12 and Sunday 15 October

This film is a bold and imaginative tour de force which is not for those who like ‘down-to-earth’ treatments of matter-of-fact subjects. For all those, however, to whom fantasy and beauty and allegory appeal this picture will be fascinating. The human characters, with the exception of Roger Livesey’s convincing study of a doctor, are deliberately colourless; this “stratospheric joke” might have happened to anyone in any age against the cold background of space and stars.

The film succeeds brilliantly in welding monochrome to colour and in conveying an impression of a facet of eternity – an eternity in which even two lovers matter and yet nothing matters at all in comparison with an ultimate which is never revealed. In short, a brilliant experiment which will probably be enjoyed by many and appreciated only by a few.

— R.W.D., Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1946


5. La Vérité

“Clouzot’s view of an amoral Parisian world seems curiously old-fashioned and detached.”

Henri-Georges Clouzot, France/Italy 1960

La Vérité (1960)

Screening 13 and Sunday 15 October

La Vérité marks the decline of yet another member of the French ‘old guard’; despite a complex technical apparatus, a considerable time span and a starry cast, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s investigation into the love life of a wayward French girl produces little that is new, revealing or valid.

The basic fault can be traced to a script which attempts an examination of French criminal procedure brought face to face with the confused habits of the younger generation; unhappily, it gets no further than a tired kind of schematic moralising. Like Carné in Les Tricheurs, Clouzot’s view of an amoral Parisian world seems curiously old-fashioned and detached; none of the young people have a genuine existence of their own and Brigitte Bardot’s much publicised performance, though clearly conscientious and worked-at, fails to excite either pity or blame. Sami Frey, as the hapless lover, is encouraged to play on too strident a note and his conducting scenes scarcely suggest a budding Toscanini.

Clouzot is more successful in sketching in his documentary backgrounds. The court scenes are presented with a sure eye for detail and are enlivened by reliable ‘turns’ by such old professionals as Charles Vanel, Paul Meurisse, Louis Seigner and Fernand Ledoux. But it is symptomatic of the whole that the tragic climax, out of court, achieves little else than the realisation that the long slog through the film has ended.

— John Gillett, Monthly Film Bulletin January 1962


6. The L-Shaped Room

“Leslie Caron has never been more appealing.”

Bryan Forbes, UK 1962

Cicely Courtneidge and Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (1962)

Screening Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October

It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely, or commercially sure-fire group of lodgers living under a single roof than this pregnant French girl, maladjusted negro, lesbian actress, couple of prostitutes, and unpublished writer who finally commits it all to paper – shades of I am a Camera as well as A Taste of Honey. And although it is full of the trappings of contemporary frustration, from the ban-the-bomb marchers to a policewoman for whom the slightest hint of sex is inadmissible in the park, the film has nothing specific to say about life in a London bedsitter in 1962.

Despite his cogently amusing dialogue, Bryan Forbes’ rather capricious direction makes this only too clear quite early on, for after a brilliantly authentic piece of scene setting, with the unseen landlady’s spine-chilling small talk on the stairs and the lights going out on each landing of the hideous house, he disappointingly spills over into melodrama – bugs in the bed, hangings on the wall; a black face at the window – shock effects derived less from Notting Hill digs than The Old Dark House.

Moreover, neither direction nor script is ever tough enough to succeed in suggesting loneliness, and Forbes’ obvious talent (and preference) for drawing likeable performances from his actors tends to work against him. Avis Bunnage’s unpredictable landlady, Cicely Courtneidge’s self-contained old trouper, Patricia Phoenix’s gregarious prostitute (whose moment of truth as she gazes at her reflection in the mirror carries little conviction) are all ‘characters’. Emlyn Williams’ unprincipled gynaecologist is a cardboard villain.

On the other hand, Leslie Caron has never been more appealing than as the idealistic girl who wins the battle to produce her baby against (often unbelievable) odds, and Tom Ben exactly hits off the frustrated attitudes of a would-be intellectual who cannot afford a bottle of non-vintage wine, let alone a wife with child. Indeed, when the film is soberly engaged in telling a simple, romantic story, it does achieve a certain assurance as well as considerable charm. There are scenes, like the one when Toby fails to turn up at the cafe, when music, camerawork and acting pull together on a genuinely elegiac note. In this context, too, one likes the film for its inherent wholesomeness.

— E.S., Monthly Film Bulletin January 1963


7. Lucía

“A savage, Romantic symphony of extreme contrasts and melodramatic emotions.”

Humberto Solás, Cuba 1968

Lucia (1969)

Screening Friday 13 and Sunday 15 October

To describe Lucía as a masterpiece seems almost to belittle it since visually it is not one film but three. Each of its episodes treats a different stage in Cuba’s struggle for liberation, both from without and from within, and each is filmed in a style appropriate to the period it describes.

Emotionally most powerful if hardest on the eyes, the first chapter uses a hysterically dancing camera and some harsh exposures to establish a savage, Romantic symphony of extreme contrasts and melodramatic emotions. Sewing delicate sheets for soldiers, the neurotically giggling spinsters (observed with an eye midway between Bergman’s and Cukor’s) flutter nervously round the heavy baroque furniture in demure white dresses which ironically connote their sentence to a lifetime of chastity; while in the deserted streets below, beggar woman and brigands stand out like ominous black silhouettes from the surrounding grey.

Despite the heavily operatic style, the characters’ emotions are precisely observed; indeed the style itself – introduced only after the arrival of Rafael – becomes a measure of the imperialist’s cruelty, so painfully is it calculated to elicit a response from his repressed victim. (Repression throughout the film equals oppression, and scenes of prayer in church and home discreetly apportion some of the blame to the Catholic faith.)

For his second episode, Humberto Solas shifts from harshly contrasting blacks and whites to a subdued range of grey half-tones which unobtrusively reflect the difficulty of choosing between what will prove to be two equally corrupt alternatives. On two occasions – the riots and massacres which accompany Machado’s overthrow, and the Fellini-esque orgy (complete with anamorphic lenses) which reflects the degeneration of the victorious idealists – an unmuted black and a frenziedly moving camera are again allowed to predominate; but this second chapter is at its strongest in registering (partly through the exquisite performance of Eslinda Nuiiez) the languid melancholy that – even in Havana – underlies so much of the Flapper Era’s surface activity.

The period, in all its fads and uncertainties, is evoked with a perfect naturalism; and only through the heroine’s transformation from bourgeois belle to black-clad worker do we get a glimpse of the arduous road through which independence must be achieved. The film’s final episode is set after the Revolution, and it’s a measure of that country’s good-humoured self-criticism that Solas can show Cuba’s problems to be far from over. Imperial attitudes still beat in many a good, card-carrying breast, and collective pressure and the slow process of education are shown as the only means of combating male and other chauvinisms.

Though the transitions from tragedy to irony to farce reflect an optimistic analysis of Cuba’s revolutionary progress, Western audiences at least may well find that Solas has slightly undermined his own orthodoxy with the simplistically extroverted characters who turn his final episode into a kind of carnival exorcism. But the film closes with the face of a serene and solemn child (a glimpse of the future and perhaps of the next Lucía); and wherever it will ultimately be placed in the political spectrum, it must surely survive, both as a monument of virtuoso filmmaking and as a model of how to tell a collective history in recognisably human terms.

— Jan Dawson, Monthly Film Bulletin December 1972


8. Jabberwocky

“The customary fascination with violence, death and other kinds of unpleasantness.”

Terry Gilliam, UK 1977

Jabberwocky (1977)

Screening Thursday 5 and Friday 6 October

“It seems very pretty”, Alice remarked after struggling through the poem Jabberwocky, “but it’s rather hard to understand”; had she been around to see this film version of Lewis Carroll’s miniature epic, she would certainly have said much the same.

Director Terry Gilliam, cameraman Terry Bedford and production designer Roy Smith – all from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – have fallen over backwards to top that earlier mediaeval frolic in pictorial splendour. The candle-lit interiors of ancient monuments (on this occasion Chepstow and Pembroke castles) are decorated with shafts of golden light, beautifully catching the constant dust clouds and cascades of falling plaster (“Eleventh – no, wait – twelfth century!” says a servant when a lump falls into the King’s meal). The city itself teems with peasant crowds, far more mobile and believable than those in most serious mediaeval movies. The countryside provides the setting for striking compositions on the skyline, elaborate mist effects (notably when Dennis paddles across the river to meet his unalluring girl friend).

And then we have the Jabberwock – a proper special-effects monster with horns, beak, wings, claws and scaly tail. But when the script plainly needs some loving attention, it is perverse to expend so much effort and imagination on background detail and atmosphere.

Gilliam and his co-writer Charles Alverson seem totally uncertain about the relationship between the plot and their gags; the film is structured so clumsily that one often fails to enjoy the jokes because their narrative point is unclear. The jokes themselves are neither frequent nor funny enough to establish their own identity and momentum.

Unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the film only makes half-hearted use of Python tricks and obsessions. There is the customary fascination with violence, death and other kinds of unpleasantness, with tiring displays of urination, spattered blood and severed bodies; there is the Python fondness for daft, incongruous names (Dennis Cooper, Saint Tallulah); there are morsels of cinematic parody (the horror school’s subjective camerawork as the Jabberwock stalks through the forest turning his victims into steaming carcasses).

But nothing builds into full-blooded absurdity, and the enormous cast of British comic specialists is given little opportunity to help out (though they were presumably recruited just for that purpose). Only Max Wall, as King Bruno the Questionable, creates a positive impression: unshaven and without his false teeth, he looks almost too decrepit for laughter, yet he delivers his dialogue with all his usual aplomb, making nondescript phrases like “No, not really” and “Is that all?” far funnier than Gilliam’s elaborate and erratic conceits.

— Geoff Brown, Monthly Film Bulletin April 1977


9. Suspiria

“Every frame is crammed with colour and action in an appealingly vulgar display.”

Dario Argento, Italy 1977

Suspiria (1977)

Screening Friday 6 and Saturday 14 October

Ever since The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Dario Argento’s thrillers have been moving away from conventional narrative into plots of increasing absurdity, often full of red herrings, that gratify the director’s delight in stylistic excess. Similarly, his endings have necessarily become more and more arbitrary, climaxing a series of elaborate set-pieces rather than resolving plot and character.

Suspiria is Argento’s contribution to The Exorcist genre, and from the opening of Jessica Harper’s arrival at the airport – as doors open automatically and passengers disappear into the storm outside as though into some infernal limbo – there is no doubt that the film is constructed with great technical skill, nor that this will simply be expended in pure display. The two murders which quickly ensue – and the concomitant gore and special effects, accompanied by Argento’s deafening stereo electronic/rock score, are interchangeable with all that follows, until the delivery of some peremptory exposition in the middle: Udo Kier as a psychiatrist stops the film for five minutes to suggest that there may be a single explanation for all the disturbing occurrences. The ending is equally arbitrary, as the academy is consumed by fire and Susy flees – but not, notably enough, into the arms of a romantic lead, since most males have usefully been relegated to the status of walk-ons. 

Unhappily, Argento never summons the courage to abandon narrative completely, so the script is continually acting as a brake while the visuals are driving forward to the next set-piece (every frame is crammed with colour and action in an appealingly vulgar display). Given that the style of the film precludes the possibility of real acting, with characters representing a single vice or virtue, the cast cope bravely, and Alida Valli lends exactly the right sort of overblown presence.

— Scott Meek, Monthly Film Bulletin October 1977


10. Saturday Night Fever

“The kind of gaudy display that might be considered ‘eye-catching’ on a Top of the Pops show.”

John Badham, USA 1977

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Screening Saturday 7 and Saturday 14 October

Since its release in the United States, Saturday Night Fever has been credited with setting off two explosions: one is the surge of new applicants for dancing classes that teach the sinuously athletic disco steps; the other is the career of John Travolta, a relative unknown (he was a slobbish juvenile in Carrie) now being acclaimed as a smouldering rebel in the mould of the young Brando.

Admittedly, John Badham’s frenetic, relentlessly exaggerated direction does its best to make instant iconography of both the dancing and the star. The disco sequences are effectively self-contained and claustrophobic, with an overwhelming, pounding rhythm that the film artificially tries to carry over into its sociological scene-setting outside. But a barrage of optical effects and tricked-up camerawork too often reduces even the dances to the kind of gaudy display that might be considered ‘eye-catching’ on a Top of the Pops show. Travolta fares even worse, since the film is prepared to leave him alone and show his paces only on the dance floor, but otherwise buttresses his moody if scarcely very intense presence with some slavish camera angles and a cynically overwritten concoction of meeting-cute scenes and social-consciousness raising.

Norman Wexler’s script, in fact, seems almost deliberately to undermine the vigour and novelty of the disco element with its creaking fiction of a confined but perceptive boy from an ethnic ghetto who finally sees the limitations of his background and sets about transcending them. One conventional scene after after another pops up to make a point: the restless roving of Tony and his friends, during which they discuss the viciousness of the System; their assault on the headquarters of a rival gang, after one of their number is beaten up, only to discover later that they may have hit the wrong group of ‘spies’; Tony’s anger at the end when he realises that his win in the dance contest was only due to ethnic rivalry, and he hands his trophy over to the Puerto Rican couple whom he feels did better.

Some of the comedy works reasonably well, such as Stephanie’s desperate attempts to prove she is on the way up by recounting the stream of celebrities who pass through the show-biz agency where she works (such as Laurence Olivier, the famous actor from the instamatic camera ads), or the ritual of exchanged slaps and insults at the Manero dinner table. But the film is unable to capitalise on these more promising moments, opting for a lame and sentimental resolution of Tony and Stephanie’s relationship, and failing to extract more than the obvious and isolated psychological ‘meaning’ from the central crisis in family life, the desertion of the priesthood by Tony’s elder brother (“Maybe if you ain’t so good”, Tony muses to his fallen sibling, “I ain’t so bad”).

Most details of character and setting, finally, are reduced to simplistic icons, mingling with such over-emphasised bric-a-brac as posters of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Rocky and Al Pacino – the latter inspiring one complete little scene in which Tony wakes blearily from a night at the 2001 Odyssey disco, remembers the girl who complimented him by comparing him to Pacino, and startles his grandmother by stalking nearly naked to the bathroom repeating the “Attica!” chant from Dog Day Afternoon.

— Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin April 1978


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