george sanders

Is Journey to Italy the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t know if you can “spoil” a romantic film. The lovers are in love. We need to establish that to talk about this one because the ending is critical to any discussion of the merits of Journey to Italy.

Thirteen minutes before the final frame of Journey to Italy, one of the lead characters tells the other they want a divorce. It’s a firm, final statement after over an hour of misery that was very obviously leading to this moment. It’s not a “spoiler” to tell you this and it’s not surprising when it happens. If anything you feel relieved in this moment, as it is said that no divorce is ever really sad because it means two people are finally honest with each other.

The last ten minutes or so whip away from the direction the entire movie has been heading and the characters reconcile, very nearly literally at the last second. “Are you suddenly getting sentimental? Listen, Katherine, we’ve been honest with each other up until now, don’t let’s spoil everything,” George Sanders says to Ingrid Bergman in a traffic jam as they try to leave Italy to head home and get divorced. There are roughly 200 seconds left in the movie when this line is delivered. “I despise you,” she says, and she shakes with fury at the lack of romance, the lack of passion he displays even in the face of this nuclear option. They have a change of heart, incredibly, and that’s that.

The first time I watched No Country for Old Men I had to leave the room during what I thought was a slow moment but turned out to be the ending. It blew me away because I expected something else. That’s a masterpiece and a movie I’ve seen a lot since, but it was really shocking that they chose to end with a quiet moment in a kitchen with some ends still loose. Journey to Italy does not appear to be a movie that would give you the same kind of whiplash, and yet, here it is.

Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy is part of the Italian neorealism movement. The charm is intended to be everyday stories about everyday people, where you can see yourself and the world you move around in outside. It’s the story of Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (Sanders) trying to unload some real estate and get out of Italy after a brief vacation. They’re leaving as soon as they get there, with an opening driving scene to set this up as a road movie but some frustrated conversation about laziness and sloth to establish that this is not a fun trip.

Alex is deeply unlikable. I mean deeply. He hates Katherine, it seems, and Rossellini goes to great lengths to make sure we understand that he works all the time and he’s a big bore. There’s a fun scene where he tries to get more wine from an Italian woman because he “isn’t used to all these sauces” but aside from that, nearly every line he says is an insult or a deflection. Sanders never really sells him as a leading man, but he’s got an impossible task given how negative the character is.

Katherine is more interesting. She talks about a poet who passed away and wanders around museums and landmarks in search of something, anything, that might connect her to the world. She finds it to varying degrees. We spend most of our time with Katherine after a few scenes to establish their crumbling marriage. If there’s any joy at all in Journey to Italy, it’s in these moments of Bergman trying to understand this strange place with so much history.

Crowds and critics hated it in 1954. It was recut several times and also released as Voyage to Italy and several other names. Rossellini said that people tried to sell it as a commercial film and didn’t understand it. A.O. Scott said in The New York Times that even the leading actor didn’t seem to understand the point, and he said that as part of a quote from Sanders about audiences not understanding it! No one seems to “get” this movie enough for the judges of what is great. It’s become a masterpiece now and French critics at the time said it was a turning point in cinema.

I think this is a test. There are classics that you aren’t going to like and there are some you will. If you watch everything on the great lists, you will be influenced by their placement on said lists and you will inflate them, invariably. But sometimes you watch something that’s “great” and just don’t click with it. It’s frustrating and it tends to make you think the problem is with you. But I don’t think so.

I don’t like Voyage to Italy and I think the ending is absurd. Every critical analysis I’ve found of it has to grapple with that. Critics call it “surprising” or, yes, even “absurd.” These characters don’t just not love each other, they hate each other. They have nothing in common and we have no reason to suspect that they feel any tenderness at all. I have to assume this is the point and it’s a grander statement about how we deal with each other and how we live our lives. I’m certain I don’t “get it” enough for A.O. Scott, but it left me tremendously cold.

The coldness is interesting, though. It’s remarkable to work through a story that seems predictable and then to swerve at the last second, even well beyond what any reasonable viewer would consider the last second. I don’t buy it at all, and I’m fascinated that it seems like you’re supposed to. If the point was that this is a beautiful lie, that would be something. But I’m not sure it is. It’s all part of a kind of filmmaking that doesn’t care much for traditional plot. Almost nothing happens, but almost nothing needs to. It’s a feeling more than a story.

One critic I saw suggested rewatching the movie after you know that love wins out and finding how the characters come to that conclusion. This feels like work, but I tried. I still don’t see it and I don’t know that it’s there to be seen. I’m interested in the feelings that Rossellini wants me to feel, but I can’t help but feel like the love story that it’s all grounded in is a little too weird. I know that’s not the point, but it’s hard not to see the movie happening in the middle of all of this ennui.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Husbands and Journey to Italy have a lot in common. The people are miserable and they travel to try a change of scenery to improve their circumstances. In both cases, interestingly, the people who need change the most seem to know this isn’t going to work. These are physical movements but they are disconnected from the emotional shifts that will actually address what’s wrong. Neither film is for me, but I do think Journey to Italy will stick with you longer and is more interesting to consider.

Is it the best movie of all time? It is really interesting that audiences didn’t like this until critics told them it was important. That’s not unheard of, obviously, but I think it’s really noteworthy in this case. People watched this and didn’t like the people or the story they acted in and that, usually, is that. But with Journey to Italy, we’re told that this is seminal work and it’s important in all these ways and you’ve got the paper of record saying even the people who don’t get it don’t get it in some secondary, additional wrong way and it all turns into something more. I think it’s okay for film to be challenging and for you to have to work to love something, but I don’t think the work pays off in this case. It’s worth seeing to see how it makes you feel, but I don’t think it’s the unquestionable, perfect time capsule that the critical consensus seems to think it is.

You can watch Journey to Italy for free on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max or Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is Rebecca Better or Worse Than Crash?

rebecca

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1940 winner Rebecca. Is it better than Crash?

Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcok’s sole win for Best Picture, is mostly about what you don’t see. The story starts with a young woman (Joan Fontaine, who is not Rebecca, but we’ll get to that) who falls in love with a rich aristocrat named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim has recently lost his wife Rebecca and is deeply intrigued by the naive woman. They’re an unlikely pair, and the whole thing feels just a bit odd. There is virtually no courtship and they decide to marry right away. If that troubles you, well, that’s probably for the best.

Upon returning to Maxim’s absurd estate of Manderley, it becomes clear that Maxim’s life is not quite ready for a new wife. The house staff still feels a kind of deep bond with Maxim’s late wife, and even the moments of kindness they show his new one are more awkward than they are anything else. It’s difficult to write about this because “Rebecca” is dead at the start and Joan Fontaine’s character is never named. She’s the most prominent character, but she’s never named in a nod to how much Rebecca, a dead woman, controls her new life. She can’t even be “Mrs. de Winter,” as she soon learns, because Rebecca is that, forever.

It would be enough if the movie were about the struggles to replace a ghost, but it wouldn’t be Hitchcock. The first act of Rebecca touches on that topic, though, and it’s fascinating to watch the young woman walk around an enormous mansion and try to figure out how to be someone she’s never met. She’s too young to be married, even for the time period, and she’s certainly too young in “ways of the world.” It’s heavily suggested that she doesn’t know what to do, in more ways than one, and Maxim clearly got remarried to try to fix his public image as much as he did to try to get over his first wife.

The film gets complicated as some truths about Rebecca start to come out, and I won’t spoil all that. You’ve either read the source material of Daphne du Maurier’s novel or you want to keep this one exciting for yourself, either way there’s no reason to reveal the surprise. It’s genuinely not what you’re expecting, though. For as certain as I was about what the central struggle of Rebecca would be… nope. That much is worth your time, alone.

The strangest thing about Rebecca might be that it’s Hitchcock’s only win. Four of his films were nominated for Best Picture and he was nominated for Best Director five times, but none of those nine instances earned him a win. Rebecca is the sole Academy Award to Hitchcock’s name, and at that time they still gave Best Picture Oscars to the producer. Realizations like that make the Best Picture list problematic as a great history of film, because it is possible to complete the list to date and see only one Hitchcock movie. No list is ever going to be perfect, but my nomination for best Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train, would have competed with the airy musical An American in Paris. What may be worse, An American in Paris also beat A Streetcar Named Desire that year, and that’s a travesty.

So maybe the current list of 86 Best Picture winners isn’t meant to be a complete history of film. That’s fine. You should still see most of them, and this is one of the better ones. It’s dramatic — almost scary, though it’s not a horror movie — and it’s shocking, even 70 years later. It was Hitchcock’s first American film, and though the Academy likely had no idea how important he would become to American film, they got one right when they crowned it “best.”

The Best Part: The supporting cast! George Sanders, who you will recognize from All About Eve, attempts to blackmail a major character. Even with limited screen time, Sanders is remarkable. He plays the “snotty, sneaky aristocrat” type better than anyone, to the degree that you could make a case that he’s a reincarnation of his All About Eve role. Don’t write than fanfic. Judith Anderson also deserves note for her role as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper that will never accept a new Mrs. de Winter.

The Worst Part: It’s honestly difficult to find something for this spot, sometimes. For Rebecca the closest I can come is that some of the staff at Manderley are a little absurd. Other than the terrifying Mrs. Danvers, no one really matters. Not a huge complaint, but a missed chance for some better characters, perhaps.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? If for no other reason than one is a powerful entrance to American cinema for one of the greatest directors of all time and one is a movie where Ludacris talks about wanting coffee with spaghetti, I am going to have to tip this ever-so-slightly in favor of Rebecca.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is All About Eve Better or Worse Than Crash?

eve

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1950 winner All About Eve. Is it better than Crash?

There is just about nothing that needs to be said about All About Eve in 2014. It’s one of the movies that even someone with no reverence for old film will recognize as a “classic” from the list of Oscar winners. It’s a black-and-white Shakespearean-style story of betrayal and trust. Nothing needs to be said about a classic, but even though the stone has been unturned a million times I feel confident that no one has compared it to Crash.

All About Eve is the story of being replaced. Aging (for 1950, 40 is apparently “aging”) actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is at the top of her game. She’s got her name in light bulbs, she’s got a sassy maid, and she’s got love in her life. She accepts one of her biggest fans, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), as a personal assistant. Eve is the perfect assistant — maybe too perfect — and when Margo finds her dancing in front of a mirror with one of her costumes, the whole “girl next door” vibe breaks down.

If you want to read about everything that happens in All About Eve you can look elsewhere for it. Essentially, Eve tries to become the new Margo and does so. There are attempted seductions, drunken parties, and successful instances of blackmail. The story is unassailable: it’s been done over and over since then, and you stand a good chance in this era to have seen a parody of it before the original. It earned a The Simpsons episode. That’s how we measure how lasting something is, right?

The high note of All About Eve is in the disastrous party where Margo first believes that Eve has come for her throne. She’s right, of course, but she plays her hand too drunk and too early. No one else in their shared life believes her, and Margo is labelled a paranoid diva. As with every relationship, the fear of something manifests it faster than anything else could. Margo is worried about Eve taking her role and so Eve takes her damn role.

The comparisons to Crash aren’t easy with this one. The best way to do it is probably with the climaxes of the two films. The drunken party where Margo unleashes the classic “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” line is too early to be a climax, but it’s definitely the defining, lasting element of All About Eve. Margo turns on the rage before the night even starts in accusing her boyfriend of trying to spend extra time with Eve. She accuses the other partygoers of trying to surround themselves with younger women. She pounds drinks and rages, unsuccessfully, in front of a crowd that includes a very young Marilyn Monroe.

The scene is lasting because it achieves the goals and goes steps further. All the scene has to do is establish that Margo fears Eve and that no one believes her. It manages to play out this paranoia and still be funny, even out of the context of a 1950 audience. One bit of wordplay, “stop acting like I’m the Queen Mother” met with “outside of a beehive, Margo, your behavior would hardly be considered either queenly or motherly!” works both as the film’s typical theater-style banter and as an actual joke. This movie about the theater manages to straddle the fine line between being “quick” and being “funny” even more than half a century later.

Crash isn’t 10 years old yet. The big scene in Crash is a car accident where some people almost die. Compared to the rest of Crash, it is filled with meaning and pathos. Compared to another movie that has the same award, it feels completely lifeless. The characters feel totally unrealized. There is no big takeaway. There is no “lesson,” for as much as the people behind Crash demanded that there be absolutely nothing but lessons.

But Crash never asked to be All About Eve, you say? It’s not fair to compare two movies from different time periods? One of the reasons very few comedies have ever been considered for the Best Picture award is that comedy is the product of a time period. All About Eve is funny, to be sure, but a lot of the “quick wit” is more “ha-ha funny” than actually funny. All of it holds up, though, because it has to. By giving a movie the title of BEST PICTURE, the statement is made that this movie will always hold up. Crash is not an accurate depiction of 2005. It already feels dated, even when compared with a movie that won the same award at a ceremony hosted by Fred Astaire.

The Best Part: The party, oh, the party. Or George Sanders, who is an absolutely amazing monster in this movie. I nearly wrote 4,000 words about if he is a hero or villain, but to hear that you’ll have to buy me five drinks and sacrifice a Tuesday night.

The Worst Part: During one scene in New Haven, two characters walk down the street away from a theater. It is the only scene in the entire movie that couldn’t have been shot today. You could shoot this scene better with a green towel and six dollars now.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashYou know how sometimes people ask you a hypothetical question, but you’re not paying attention and you think they’ve lost their mind entirely? All About Eve has one of the AFI top-10 movie quotes of all time. Crash has a scene where someone looks scornfully at someone for an attempted child murder.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump |

 Image credit: IMDB