Curated by: Leana Hirschfeld-Kroen
SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Directed in Hollywood by a German Jewish transplant most famous for his expressionist silent classics (Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh), SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS rolls out a glamorously hybrid love affair between US rural melodrama and European city symphony, two early cinematic genres rarely united onscreen. The film starts out slow with pastoral boredom, a vamp homewrecker, and murder on the horizon, but keep watching for the plot pivot that carries our philandering farmer and his wife to the city with all its sensual pleasures—pleasures which the camera delivers in a kaleidoscope of dizzying dissolves so powerful, they may just propel the estranged couple back into each other’s arms. Released on the cusp of Hollywood’s transition to sound (the same year The Jazz Singercame out), SUNRISE is both modern, showing us the visual language of cinema at its peak, and already nostalgic for narrative conventions on the wane. Look out for: undulating intertitles, fabulous special effects conveying the tortured mental state of dreamers trapped in the countryside, and the best pig chase scene in the business.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER (David Lean, 1945)
BRIEF ENCOUNTER may be one of the most famous movies ever made about adultery. Notable for its gentle, generous treatment of its two protagonists--both married suburban commuters who develop a friendship on the rail that quickly turns into something more. If you are looking for agonizingly attenuated chemistry that never actually leads to consummation; if you like posh accents and the high drama of heroically repressed desires; and most importantly, if you love love stories that barely happen, that only exist in a fleeting, liminal space that explodes the universe of two ordinary people… then this movie is for you. Over the next twenty years, British director David Lean would go on to make such grand-scale epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The main characters in BRIEF ENCOUNTER do not traverse deserts or tundra. They leave the suburbs once a week for London and return by the end of the day. As viewers, we are confined to an even smaller space, because the film is narrated in elegiac voiceover from a living room. Nonetheless, BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a film of epic proportions. Look out for: crisp close-ups, a great moviegoing scene, and a devastating last line.
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (Preston Sturges, 1948)
Infidelity isn’t always tragic. Sometimes it’s hilarious, especially when it’s the figment of an overactive imagination. This is the premise of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, one of Preston Sturges’s lesser known screwball comedies, starring Rex Harrison as Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-famous symphony conductor consumed by increasing certainty that his wife is having an affair with his (male, young and handsome) secretary. The film’s form is its most striking feature: most of the narrative is structured around three pieces of classical music in a concert conducted by de Carter. Each piece launches and shapes the genre of a possible scenario: in the first (Rossini’s Semiramide), de Carter murders his wife and frames the secretary; in the second (Wagner’s Tannhauser), he magnanimously forgives and releases his wife from all further obligation to him; and in the third (Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini), he challenges his wife’s lover to a game of Russian roulette. I won’t tell you how the film continues once the concert is over but suffice it to say that de Carter’s efforts to translate his fantasies into reality unravel into comic chaos. This is an early star turn for Harrison with a brilliant balance of rising indignation and indignity. Look out for: a home-recording phonograph engulfed in knotted wires and inevitably recording exactly what should not be recorded, establishing a trope (the malfunctioning adultery entrapment sound machine) that comes back, comically reversed, in Divorce Italian Style (1961).
A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)
What if you and two of your female friends received a letter from a woman who claimed to have run off with one of your husbands? How would you react? How would you look back on your marriage? Like Letter from an Unknown Woman, released a year before, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is narrated by a disembodied female voice, with all the mysterious menace that this implies. The voice belongs to Addie Ross, a figure that takes shape as the paradigmatic “one who got away” through a series of flashbacks, haunting the memories of all three wives, without ever appearing onscreen. Joseph Mankiewicz (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, All About Eve) was still early in his career when he directed this film, adapted by mystery writer Vera Caspary from a novel published serially throughout 1946 in Cosmopolitan. Often overshadowed by the catty coyness of its voiceover, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is strongest in the moments in which Addie Ross seems to fade away into what she actually is, a narrative device implemented to force the three main characters to consider the greatest weaknesses in their relationships. Look out for: the best (and most 1950s) of the three storylines, in which Rita, a successful radio writer (Ann Southern), berates herself for emasculating her schoolteacher husband (Kirk Douglas, who can always use a little emasculation).
DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (Frank Perry, 1970)
Directed by American independent filmmaker Frank Perry and adapted by his wife, Eleanor Perry, from an excellent novel by Sue Kauffman, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE belongs to one of my favorite subgenres—what I call the discontents of domesticity film—along with The Pumpkin Eater(1964), Repulsion (1965), Woman under the Influence(1974), The Incredible Shrinking Woman(1981), Mommie Dearest(1981), She-Devil(1989), and Safe (1995). Mutely ping-ponging between two self-involved assholes, one slightly more self-aware than the other, beleaguered housewife Tina seems to be barely surviving, perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown or perhaps a murder spree, throughout the film. Unlike Kauffman’s novel, narrated in a first-person voice that exposes the gap between Tina’s apparent passivity and highly articulate internal turmoil, Perry’s film does not offer cathartic access to his protagonist’s thoughts. We do not hear about her baroque reading habits (nineteenth-century novels), irritation with her therapist, or many creative phobias. Instead, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is brutal in its withholding patterns, creating dark, dark comedy out of a bad, bad marriage: Tina’s blank-faced acceptance of her husband’s demeaning demands and running commentary on her appearance and failings as a wife, mother, person almost make you want to scratch your eyes out, until the camera intervenes with a meaningful cut (from complaining husband to adulterous sex scene, for instance) that speaks eloquently and vengefully enough to make up for her deafening silence. Look out for: a shockingly sexy young Frank Langella, draped languorously over various pieces of furniture in his bachelor playwright pad; an affair staged with Madame Bovary in mind, as the first fun step (but certainly not the last) of feminist movement out of a domestic prison.
THE HEARTBREAK KID (Elaine May, 1972)
Written by Neil Simon and directed by the brilliant Elaine May, THE HEARTBREAK KID is a classic screwball comedy with a modern twist--what happens when a nice Jewish boy meets a shiksa on his honeymoon. The answer? Faced with the ineffable magic of straight blond hair bleached by the sun, WASP youth vernacular, and a bored, blue-eyed gaze (Cybill Shepherd in a rare comic turn), he immediately begins to plot their escape into the sunset. The obstacle? His wife, Lila: very much alive, restless and feeling increasingly neglected as she recovers from a vicious sunburn in their South Beach hotel room. Played by Elaine May’s daughter, Lila is really a joy to behold, because her sole role is to annoy and repulse her new husband Lenny so effectively that he will dive headlong into a Brave New World, sputtering and spouting inanities about Midwestern produce and Republicans like a poor man’s Cary Grant, in order to win approval from cool, collected Kelly and her forbidding father. This was May’s first film and if you haven’t seen any of her work, it’s a great place to start, followed swiftly by A New Leaf, starring May herself as another version of Lila, abject tormenter of men. May grew up touring the country as a member of her family’s Yiddish theater troupe and skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s as half of the improv comedy duo “Nichols and May.” THE HEARTBREAK KID is clearly shaped by both these experiences, balancing a cultural code-switching script with some classical Hollywood physical comedy. Look out for: your impulse to not watch it because you are thinking of the TERRIBLE Ben Stiller remake. Wipe the remake from your brain and proceed.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
The second installment of a romantic trilogy that began with Days of Being Wild (1990) and ended with 2046 (2004), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is the sexiest, lushest Technicolor dreamboat of a film you will ever see, with a killer soundtrack to boot. In a plot that stands on its own, set in 1960s Hong Kong, two neighbors—Chow Mo-wann and Su Li-zhen—meet and realize that their absent spouses are having an affair with each other. Upon this realization, instead of returning to confront them, Chow and Su embark on a much more elliptical journey of psychological play and processing through re-enactment: Chow plays Su’s husband and Su plays Chow’s wife. Sustained by the comfort of sympathetic company, they perform scenes of flirtation and seduction over a series of dinners, trying to figure out how it all began. While the game starts out innocently, seemingly contained by this framing logic, it soon evolves into something more ambiguous and erotic, as Chow and Su fall in love. This is a film that runs on the sensual power of color, music, dangling phrases and long, meaningful silences. The conservative culture and close quarters in which the protagonists live make discretion necessary from the beginning, overshadowing their conversations with paranoia about surveillance that heightens the illicitness of their intimacy. Wong Kar-Wai leans into this effect, leaving unclear which came first, the romance or the romantic aura. Look out for: Patterns, fabrics, and smoldering micro-expressions (Tony Leung and Maggie Chung both deliver magnetic performances); Finally, Wong Kar-Wai fills his films with Easter eggs (puns, recurring objects, leitmotifs), so seek out clues while you watch. These will come in handy if you decide to take in the whole trilogy.
Leana Hirschfeld-Kroen is a student in Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. She currently works as a curator for the Yale Film Colloquium and a Film archive assistant in the Yale Film Archive. Her pursuits: Eccentrics and Machines; Classical Hollywood history; the semiotics of tap dancing in early sound film; urban phantasmagorias; modern cosmological imaginaries (science fiction serials, early planetaria, the Wissenschaftstheater, Edisonades); postwar French slapstick cinema (Tati, Etaix); Hysterical decaying aristocrats in British cinema; restless women; sound studies; celebrity studies; deaf studies; and media archaeology.