(Note: this article originally appeared here.)
Summer will officially be over in just a couple weeks. If that has you feeling down, however, watching a movie is the perfect way to keep yourself distracted. Here are our recommendations for what you should check out this month:
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar tells the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), a headstrong saloon owner who resides on the outskirts of a small Arizona town. Since Vienna is a woman in power, her fellow townspeople have always viewed her with a mixture of bafflement and hostility. And at the film’s start, they seize upon the flimsiest of pretexts—Vienna’s former lover (Scott Brady) allegedly hijacked a stagecoach—to present Vienna with an ultimatum: close down her saloon or face retaliation.
When Johnny was first released, most reviewers treated it with undisguised disdain: The New York Times proclaimed it “a flat walk-through…of western clichés,” while another publication deemed it “only a fair piece of entertainment.” Even now, you might find yourself at least somewhat sympathetic to those critics’ point of view. The film’s production values are rather low, and it’s often quite obvious that the on-screen characters are merely actors on sets.
Despite its cheap appearance, however, Johnny turns out to be a thoughtful, highly entertaining subversion of Western genre conventions. In the first place, traditional Westerns are generally about men who deal with other men—but Johnny proudly features a protagonist and main antagonist who are both independent women. Moreover, whereas most Westerns tend to lionize sharpshooters like Will Kane (High Noon) and Shane (Shane), Ray refuses to put male gunslingers on a pedestal; instead, he makes the intriguing Freudian argument that their profession allows them to act on unacknowledged desires for sexual domination. Add in the flamboyant (yet carefully designed) color schemes, the emblematic costumes, and Crawford’s fierce performance, and you’ve got a film that’s anything but a merely “fair piece of entertainment.”
Where to Watch: Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Few films have had a more tortured release history than The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s dramatic re-telling of Joan of Arc’s (Renée Falconetti) trial and death. Prior to its premiere, the film was cut at the behest of the Archbishop of Paris. Later, most copies of the original cut were inadvertently destroyed in fires. The fact that we’re still able to watch Passion owes itself to one singularly serendipitous discovery: in 1981, someone stumbled upon a complete, undamaged copy of the film in (of all places) the janitor’s closet of a Norwegian mental institution.
Fortunately, 90 intervening years of mishaps and lucky saves haven’t diminished the extraordinary quality of Dreyer’s direction. For starters, his austere set design strips the film of unnecessary ornamentation, evoking both the rigidity of medieval Christianity and the painfully solitary nature of Joan’s suffering. Additionally, the film’s cinematography is also a stand-out, employing grotesque close-ups and slanted camera angles to create an atmosphere that brims with emotional tension.
If there’s just one reason you should see Passion, however, it’s Falconetti. Legend has it that Dreyer was a sadistic director, forcing Falconetti to kneel on the same stone floor for hours at a time. Yet however unethical his methods were, there’s no denying that his cruelty paid off. Falconetti’s Joan of Arc isn’t the self-assured heroine you might expect to see. Rather, she’s an unvarnished incarnation of agony, a blend of vulnerability and quiet tenacity who is engaged in a never-ending struggle against doubts both spiritual and worldly. Well after you finish watching this film, you’ll be haunted by the memory of Falconetti’s Joan and the numb, despairing expression she wears as she finally gives herself over to martyrdom.
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)
Max Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de… follows Louise (Danielle Darrieux), a wealthy, 19th-century Frenchwoman who’s stuck in a loveless marriage. At the film’s start, Louise is heavily in debt, so she decides to sell off the earrings her husband (Charles Boyer) gave her as a wedding present. Some time later, after a series of fortuitous plot turns, the earrings wind up back in her hands. But during the intervening months, she’s undergone a transformation from vain spendthrift to passionate romantic—all thanks to the influence of an Italian baron named Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica).
As with the best-known works of Ophüls’ friend Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game), Earrings is a portrait of European nobility, a caste that all but ceased to exist after the two world wars. Throughout the film, Ophüls never looks down on his characters, but that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of their deficiencies. These aristocrats all talk good, look sharp, and follow protocol to the letter, but in a tension that mirrors the European political situation before World War I, their elegance is a mere facade that conceals unacknowledged frustration, sadness, and anger.
Undergirding Ophüls’ astute depiction of aristocracy, moreover, is a technique that never loses its finesse. The film’s eerily smooth cinematography ably speaks to its characters’ obsession with facades; the opening shot, moreover, offers a haunting illustration of frivolous materialism. And in what proves to be the most memorable part of the film, a montage depicts how Louise and Fabrizio gradually fall in love over the course of successive evening dances: in the span of just a couple minutes, the sequence captures both the ineffable beauty and the doomed, futile quality of their relationship. No matter how you look at it, in sum, Earrings is a masterpiece, an exquisite testament to the inescapable conflict between love and social norms.
Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, Amazon
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a chronic gambler who reputedly once killed a man in cold blood. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a prostitute who has her sights set on opening and running her own brothel. In Robert Altman’s period Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the two of them become the most unlikely of business partners, establishing an operation that quickly puts them at the center of life in their small Pacific Northwest town.
As with many of Altman’s other films, McCabe is less interested in plot per se than in the creation of an atmosphere. His use of long takes and observational long shots captures the monotonous, anti-dramatic, and somewhat aimless nature of life in the West, a region that’s the very definition of “the middle of nowhere.” Unlike many directors, moreover, Altman doesn’t like to edit out background noise; the result is a film that unfolds like a mosaic, a multifaceted landscape in which even the main characters are merely dispensable parts of a larger ecosystem.
Like Johnny Guitar, however, the best thing about McCabe is that it’s willing to break the “rules” of the Western. The male characters aren’t heroic, perfect-aim gunslingers but lazy drunkards who spend most of their free time in brothels. The town they live in is a squalid, haphazard mishmash of streets and shacks that’s buried in layers of mud. And although the film does feature a final shootout, the sequence shuns the kind of epic music and rapid editing that such climaxes typically use. Altogether, in short, Altman’s work offers a refreshingly naturalistic take on a genre that’s otherwise rife with overused tropes.
Where to Watch: Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is set in a world where deserted, debris-infested streets run alongside buildings that look straight out of How the Other Half Lives. In this bleak futuristic society, the rumor is that anyone who enters a place called “the Room” will obtain true happiness. In their eagerness to reach this wondrous destination, a writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and scientist (Nikolai Grinko) decide to hire a “stalker” (Alexander Kaidanovsky) to guide them through the area around the Room—a mysterious, restricted-access region that’s simply known as “the Zone.”
The first thing you’ll notice about Stalker is that it’s a consummate stylistic achievement. In addition to highlighting the characters’ existential confusion, Tarkovsky’s creeping cinematography gives the film a perpetually ominous feel. The soundscape—a stark combination of industrial noises and total silence—skillfully embodies the protagonists’ feeling of alienation. And the parts of the film that aren’t set in the Zone are rendered in brown monochrome; watching them, you get the uncanny sense that you’re witnessing the aftermath of a physical and spiritual apocalypse.
Ultimately, of course, these formal elements all serve Stalker’s central narrative, which is as mesmerizing as it is enigmatic. You could say that the film is a political allegory about the psychological toll of totalitarianism. Or perhaps a comparative analysis of idealism and pessimism. Or a meditation on human self-interest. Or an examination of our instinctive need to give things “meaning.” Regardless of what interpretation you choose, however, it’s a testament to Stalker’s intellectual depth that it could be all of these things—and so many more. When it comes down to it, you’ll likely need several viewings before you can even begin to appreciate the intricacies of this maddeningly profound work.
Where to Watch: FilmStruck, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes