Featuring fourteen of the French filmmaker's favourites from the 1930s to the 1960s — including classics by Hitchcock and Hawks, Fuller and Ford, Nick Ray, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and (of course) Jerry Lewis — this sidebar to our Godard Forever retrospective overflows with dazzling formal invention and a glorious excess of excess.
"I pity the French cinema because it has no money, I pity the American cinema because it has no ideas." — Jean-Luc Godard
Before he was a cinéaste Godard was a cinéphile, and before a director a critic, so it's only natural that Godard's own cinema would emulate or subsume his countless passions, particularly given his inclination to reference and homage (witness, for one of innumerable instances, Jean-Paul Belmondo's wicked imitation of Burt Lancaster's toothsome grin from Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz in Une femme est une femme). As a sidebar to the first part of our major retrospective Godard Forever, the winter season of Hollywood Classics is comprised of fourteen of Godard's favourite American films, gleaned from his many lists of Ten Best this and Six Best that (of the year, of the postwar period, of American sound films, of all time, etc.) that he composed for Cahiers du Cinéma.
During his tenure as a critic at Cahiers, Godard joined his future nouvelle vague colleagues Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol in an overhaul (or demolition) of traditional film criticism, a revisionist project that often championed what became known as films maudits: films rejected by conservative or uncomprehending critics for their artifice, excess, or seeming incompetence, or sometimes those criticized by their own directors (e.g., John Ford's Two Rode Together or Fritz Lang's Moonfleet). What divides ardour from hyperbole is not always clear in Godard's many encomia — some of which, particularly those celebrating Howards Hawks and Nicholas Ray (the only director represented twice in this series), became renowned for their passionate exaggeration — but even when skewing to such dubious candidates as Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport? or Hatari!, Godard's taste proved pretty unerring, and indeed prescient. Many of the films that are now regular fixtures on Sight & Sound's top ten of all time list — from Vertigo to The Searchers to even Citizen Kane — first found their way into the canon largely thanks to the efforts of Godard and his fellow French critics, as well as such American auteurist adherents as Andrew Sarris.
Though this season's selection, representative of Godard's taste in the 1950s, is disparate in both genre (western, comedy, noir, costume adventure, musical, war film) and tone (ranging from the terse and macho to the grandiloquent and feminine), one can discern many shared thematic motifs, both obvious and abstruse. Disguise and duplicity (the mild teachers in Bigger Than Life and The Nutty Professor turning into their grotesque opposites under the influence of a drug, the actors in To Be or Not to Be pretending to be Hitler and entourage, the Jewish barber masquerading as a raving tyrant in The Great Dictator, the reporter in Shock Corridor posing as a madman to get a scoop); criminals and their women-fetishes (the "King of the Jukeboxes" and his talentless moll in The Girl Can't Help It, the demented kingpin and his far-too-beloved sister in Scarface); two ships of fools, unsettled by a femme fatale (the fraught riverboat in A Letter to Three Wives, the dangerous yacht in The Lady from Shanghai); happy marriages suddenly under strain (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bigger Than Life, A Letter to Three Wives); small boys in grave danger (Moonfleet, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bigger Than Life).
The motif-hunting game could go on ad infinitum, but suffice it to say that these fourteen films employ excess — elaborate or ornate mise-en-scène; gaudy colour, inky black and white, and the overwrought sprawl of CinemaScope; a surfeit of language and baroque images; tonal dissonance and actorly overkill — as a kind of Brechtian device. For a director equally attuned to the austerities of Don Siegel and Robert Bresson, Godard's taste for the delirious and the overmuch proves not that he was given to extremes, but that, above all, he despised mediocrity. The proof lies before you.
— James Quandt
Thanks to Todd Wiener and Steven K. Hill, UCLA Film & Television Archive.