Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

TIFF Cinematheque - Hollywood Classics

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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.

Films in Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Godard's Hollywood Classics

    • The Lady from Shanghai
    • Orson Welles
    • Orson Welles directs and stars in this baroquely bizarre noir about a hapless Irish sailor who is lured into a murder plot by a glamorous siren (Rita Hayworth).

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    • The Great Dictator
    • Charles Chaplin
    • Godard listed Charlie Chaplin's scathing, merciless spoof of Hitler's Third Reich as one of the ten greatest American films of the sound era.

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    • Two Rode Together
    • John Ford
    • A cynical marshal (James Stewart) and a straight-arrow cavalry officer (Richard Widmark) head into Comanche territory to ransom a group of white settlers in this late John Ford masterpiece, which Godard named as the best film of the year.

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    • Scarface
    • Howard Hawks
    • Godard named Howard Hawks' still shocking gangster-movie masterpiece as the greatest American film of the sound era.

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    • Moonfleet
    • Fritz Lang
    • A young orphan is plunged into intrigue with a dashing smuggler (Stewart Granger) in Fritz Lang's sumptuous and suspensful CinemaScope swashbuckler.

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    • Shock Corridor
    • Samuel Fuller
    • An ambitious journalist has himself committed to a mental institution to solve a murder — and soon finds his feigned madness becoming all too real — in Sam Fuller's deliriously stylized and courageously outspoken commentary on the madhouse of modern America.

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    • Bigger Than Life
    • Nicholas Ray
    • A gentle schoolteacher (James Mason) is turned into a malevolent monster by the side effects of a cortisone treatment in Nicholas Ray's searing critique of 1950s conformity, which Godard chose as one of the ten best American films of the sound era.

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    • The Man Who Knew Too Much
    • Alfred Hitchcock
    • An American couple vacationing in Morocco becomes caught up in a terrifying assassination plot, in Alfred Hitchcock's sterling Hollywood remake of his early British thriller.

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    • Man of the West
    • Anthony Mann
    • A reformed outlaw (Gary Cooper) is compelled to return to his old, violent ways when he becomes embroiled in a robbery masterminded by his vicious mentor, in Anthony Mann's brutal and beautiful western classic.

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    • The Girl Can't Help It
    • Frank Tashlin
    • The buxom and blindingly blonde Jayne Mansfield is a seemingly talentless gangster's moll whose sugar daddy tries to skyrocket her to stardom in Frank Tashlin's uproarious rock 'n' roll comedy, which features classic performances by Gene Vincent, The Platters, Fats Domino and Little Richard.

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    • Bitter Victory
    • Nicholas Ray
    • Nicholas Ray's WWII desert drama about a deadly conflict between two British officers prompted Godard to make his famous pronouncement, "Le cinéma, c'est Nicholas Ray."

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    • The Nutty Professor
    • Jerry Lewis
    • A shy, bumbling science professor is turned into a louche lounge lizard after imbibing a curious chemical concoction, in Jerry Lewis' classic comedic take on the Jekyll and Hyde tale.

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    • To Be or Not to Be
    • Ernst Lubitsch
    • In Ernst Lubitsch's classic and controversial farce, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as the headliners of a theatre troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland, who employ their thespian talents to try and thwart a double agent's plan to provide vital information to the Germans.

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"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.