Josef von Sternberg once said that his films should be projected upside down, to allow the audience to better appreciate the pure play of light and shadow. He was joking, of course—his films do have a profound abstract beauty, but they also have much more than that—but in his final film (1953) he comes close to making this joke a reality, and the result could be his masterpiece. A more extreme degree of stylization is impossible to imagine: the Pacific island setting was re-created entirely in a Japanese studio out of cellophane and paper (Sternberg complained that he was forced to use real water), and the actors who perform this tale of shipwrecked sailors are Kabuki-trained Japanese. Distance is built into every aspect of the production, from the shadowed, filtered images to Sternberg’s own voice-over narration, yet the feelings that emerge are incredibly pure and immediate: Sternberg seems to be photographing the absolute essence of human emotion. In English and purposely untranslated Japanese.
Roberto Rossellini‘s finest fiction film (1953, 84 min.), and unmistakably one of the great achievements of the art. Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a long-married British couple grown restless and uncommunicative. On a trip to Italy to dispose of a piece of property, they find their boredom thrown into relief by the Mediterranean landscape—its vitality (Naples) and its desolation (Pompeii). But suddenly, in one of the moments that only Rossellini can film, something lights inside them, and their love is renewed as a bond of the spirit. A crucial work, truthful and mysterious.
Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest serious critics, the Catholic-minded Cahiersgroup, revered this 1953 film above all his 50s work; today it’s very seldom revived. Montgomery Clift plays a stone-faced priest (Hitchcock’s only direction to him seems to have been “don’t twitch”) who hears a confession of murder and assumes the killer’s guilt. The movie is more interesting than achieved: it’s the most forthright statement of the transference theme in Hitchcock’s work, but it’s also the least nuanced. Still, there are shots of extraordinary beauty, emerging from the grayish Quebec background like flashes into color. With Anne Baxter, Brian Aherne, and Karl Malden. 95 min.