COM123 - Screen Studies

Tadpole Jones

Charles Sturt University

Wagga Wagga


Introduction to COM123

Topic 1

Topic 2

Topic 3

Topic 4

Topic 5

Topic 6

Topic 7

Topic 8

Topic 9

Topic 10

Topic 11

Topic 12

Topic 13


The two discs for this subject have been developed for students at Charles Sturt University undertaking COM123 Screen Studies and are designed to be used in conjunction with the Subject Outline that is necessarily updated from session to session. The entire package was first devised by Dr. Stephen Vagg in 2005 and revised by Fred Goldsworthy in 2009.

It contains a wealth of material that combines readings, web links and film extracts designed to augment the notes. Your experience of the subject is further broadened by the requirement to see 10 current release ‘art-house’ films at the cinema.

In order to access the web links in the Internet Activities, you need to be online when you click them. If the access is not automatic (this will depend on your software, browser etc.) then copy the link and paste it into your browser address line. The readings and film extracts need to be accessed separately and directly from the disk. The film clip presentation is dictated by a combination of copyright considerations and DVD space. 

About COM123 Screen Studies

This subject is an introduction to film with a primary focus on narrative film of the Western Tradition and covering basically the twentieth century. The strategy of the subject is to provide a concentrated experience of film throughout the session.

Aims of the subject

The subject has two interconnected strands:

Strand 1 is concerned with the development of film. A selection of well-regarded works from the history of Western cinema will be viewed and discussed to trace developments in technology and to examine changes in thematic and artistic focus in various genres. It is a necessarily brief set of stepping-stones through one hundred years of American and European cinema ignoring important movements and styles from other national cultures.

Strand 2 is concerned with contemporary film. A selection of recently released films will be viewed and various technical and thematic links with the development of cinema will be discussed. The works of other cultures may be considered in this section according to specific choices that students make themselves.

Research & Information for the Subject

The International Movie Data Base (imdb) contains a wealth of material covering virtually all films from the beginning experimental productions to scheduled future releases. It has a very effective internal search engine through which you can find names, dates, personnel lists, plot summaries, shooting locations, production companies, awards lists, viewer reactions, critical reviews etc. It is a mine of reliable information that is a great help for tracking down films and other information helpful for your research.

IMDB is appropriate and relevant to all Internet Activity sections on this CDROM.

Wikipedia contains a huge amount of generally reliable material that is relevant to this subject. Entries on most films and directors as well as arts issues and movements can be found using the specific search tool within the site.

YouTube is also a useful site on which you can find clips from a wide range of films and on occasion even whole films. The visual quality is often not great but the images are more than adequate for checking visual information, styles, shots and sequences. Use the search tool, typing in titles, personnel names etc. You will be surprised what is there. But remember the information is not peer reviewed and entries can be made by anybody with a computer and access to the web. The visual material is okay but much of the other material is suspect and subject to all sorts of biases and hobby-horses. Be Careful.

YouTube is appropriate and relevant to all Internet Activity sections on this CDROM.

Also use the various search engines for specific information but again be careful; not all commentators or reporters are reliable. In general I strongly urge students to get hold of one or more of the substantial texts that are available as these are much more likely to provide a context for the information.

BUT do not neglect libraries – specific books and journals provide by far the most comprehensive and illuminating research information. One of the modern disappointments in essays is to see students struggle to construct a coherent point of view from disparate bits of web gleaned information that are often incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive. Try to get the “big picture” and that you’ll most substantially acquire from books. An easy place to begin is with some of the comprehensive survey texts listed in the Subject Outline – they are most often lavishly illustrated and very approachable They are available on loan and the library holds multiple copies of them.

Topic 1

Realism and Expressionism

At the outset of cinema as we know it today there seemed to be two main approaches: realism and expressionism.


Pioneers Louis and August Lumiere were concerned to record moving reality in a way that could be transported geographically and across time and their approach became the basis of what film scholars and commentators came to call realism.

Realism basically involves attempts to reproduce reality (or the illusion of reality) with a minimum of distortion, i.e. the camera simply records reality or what is set in front of the lens as a constructed and recognisable reality. It seeks to depict objects and experience as though they are real and generally as though the viewer’s eye is the lens of the camera. A most obvious example of this today would be reality television shows such as Big Brother – a hidden camera recording reality. Well, a form of reality, anyway – a representation of reality.


A contemporary of the Lumieres and a following pioneer George Melies, a magician by profession, realised that there were other possibilities beyond recording mere reality and so he began to construct story films made up of fantasy elements: cartoons, toys, trick photography and the like. He used his camera to capture data that he could manipulate in various ways to construct his stories. Early commentators referred to this approach as expressionism and it is still a term you will see used in this way.

After the specific formal experiments of Russian filmmakers (and particularly Seigei Eisenstein) in the 20’s the Melies approach was more often referred to as formalism because of its concern with manipulated form to tell story rather than apparent realistic content. The later term also helped to distinguish the original and relatively poorly defined term from a particular style of Expressionism – German Expressionism. This subject will use the later term (formalism) though you will encounter the earlier one in your reading.


In the 20’s and 30’s formalism as a critical term came into prominence with the work of Russian filmmakers and particularly Sergei Eisenstein who developed elaborate theories of the way images convey visual meaning by the way they contrast or support one another. The creation of visual meaning is largely carried out in the editing process where the shots and sequences are arranged to comment on one another.

Formalism involves the camera recording visual data rather than reality. The production approach is focused is on the form, rather than the relying on the content. An example of formalism today would be a highly stylised rock video.

A way of describing the difference between the realism and formalism is this:

  • realism is concerned with recording reality or the illusion of reality on film; technical aspects of the film making process are de-emphasised and the focus tends to be on content rather than process. The illusion is that you are watching the scene as if it is happening and that you (as viewer) are there watching it happen – “let the story tell itself without the obvious hand of the author”.
  • formalism is interested in what is done or how a story is told through captured visual raw material. Techniques are not hidden (unrealistic sets and props, extreme angles, close-ups, time changes etc.); they are all part of the filmmakers tools and are used as he/she determines without attempt to conceal them – “the author’s point of view is crucial and should be presented in the most direct way possible.

It should always be remembered that both approaches are constructs and can be used variously across the range of films: narrative feature, short, documentary etc.

Classical cinema involves elements of realism and formalism.

View extract of Visions of Light documentary

  • This extract on cinematography is available on your CDROM, Visions of Light, Todd McCarthy, (1992), The American Film Institute

Internet Activity

You may like to bookmark the following glossary of terms so you can easily check on new terminology as you come across it in this subject

Useful information and links also emanate from:

Louis Lumière (1864-1948) & Auguste Lumière (1862-1954)

The Lumières from Lyon were the sons of a photographer and manufacturer of photographic products. In 1894 they saw the Kinetoscope in Paris, a machine invented by Thomas Edison which could record moving images but not project them.

In late 1894, the Lumière brothers developed the Cinematographe, a combination camera and projector. During 1895 the brothers shot hundreds of one minute films that they referred to as “actualities”. They drew on their experience as photographers in composing shots. (So even though they were filming ‘reality’, in fact it was a representation of reality.)

On December 28, 1895, the Lumière brothers projected their films for the first time to a paying public at Le Grand Café in the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Many people consider this date the ‘birth date’ of cinema. It was the first time that projected moving pictures had been presented to a paying public.

The program that day included:

  • Workers leaving a factory – A film about workers leaving a factory.
  • Arrival of a train at a station – A film about a train arriving at a station. The vision of a train rushing towards the audience is alleged to have caused some audience members to scream in panic.
  • Watering the garden – A film about a gardener watering the garden. This has more of a plot, though: a naughty boy steps on a gardener’s hose, causing the water to stop. The gardener wonders what has happened and looks into the nozzle to see what is wrong. The boy takes his foot off the hose, and the gardener has water sprayed in his face. This is sometimes considered the world’s first piece of fiction film and the world’s first comedy.

Most Lumière films recorded real life and current events, rather than fiction. They used unobtrusive editing and no camera movement. See an extract from one of the films here:

View this extract of Lumière film


Premiere Program, Lumière Brothers (1895), Association Freres Lumiere

By 1898 the Lumières had made over 1,000 films and had an extensive network of Lumiere Agents throughout the world. Agents would take moving photographs of all sorts of exotic things that would be sent back to Paris for exhibition. At the same time they would hold projection evenings in their often remote locations where they could demonstrate the wonders of modern moving photography to foreign audiences.

Most of the films were simple scenes and simple sketches though in time they did venture to a couple of more complex fictional narratives such as dramatisations of Faust and The life and passion of Jesus Christ, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

The Lumières stopped film production after the Paris Exposition of 1900 and concentrated on the invention and manufacture of photographic equipment and processes. Among the inventions they developed were a stills projector, a colour process, and a 3-D process.

Internet Activity

The following websites provide fascinating reading about the Lumière brothers and their films.

Reading Activity

Read an interview with Louis Lumière:

Georges Méliès (1861-1938)

Méliès was the son of a wealthy footwear manufacturer. He became an artist, illustrator and magician, famous for his inventive stagecraft and flamboyant showmanship at Theatre Robert Houdin.

In 1895, Méliès witnessed the historic premier exhibition of the Lumière brothers’ cinematographe at Le Grande Cafe. He started showing films as part of his magic show. He tried to purchase a cinematographe but Lumiere’s would not sell one so he had a camera constructed by Lucien Korsten from a design by R.W. Paul and began making his own films. His early films were straightforward ‘reality’ films, patterned after the films of the Lumières but so novel was the whole idea of transporting reality that he used them as part of his magic show. In a short while he had produced a number of films scripting, designing, producing, photographing and directing.

Soon he was using the camera to film magic acts from the stage. He combined his knowledge of magic and of motion pictures to start producing ‘trick’ films. These (short) films were early examples of cinema special effects.

There are many apocryphal stories about Melies and his discovery of trick editing is one of them. The story goes that he was out on a street corner in Paris filming a sequence for his show that included a bus going under an archway but the camera jammed. He got it going again and continued but when he processed the film later it appeared that a bus had entered the archway but a hearse had emerged. A,Ha he thought!

An example of one of the earliest Méliès’ tricks is as follows:

  • Film a cat sitting on a table
  • Stop the camera running
  • Remove the cat
  • Start filming again
  • When you watch the film later, it gives the impression that the cat has ‘disappeared’.

Over the next few years, Méliès was perhaps the most inventive filmmaker in the world. He showed that moving pictures could be used not just to record images, but to tell stories.

Among the special effects he developed in filmmaking were:

  • the jump cut, i.e. where a cut occurs in the middle of an action being shot, creating a ‘jump’ in the action
  • double exposure, i.e. where two images are superimposed on the same piece of film
  • actors performing with themselves over split screens, and* use of the dissolve and fade.

He also pioneered the art of film editing.

Méliès best known film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), a lampoon of contemporary French Astronomers based loosely on work of Jules Verne, is often considered the first ever science fiction film.

View this extract of A Trip to the Moon

Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon, George Melies (1902), Star Film

The film highlights the difference between the Lumière brothers and Méliès – the Lumières photographed nature whilst Méliès offered audiences a reconstructed life. The film was hugely successful, but not as profitable as it should have been because it was frequently illegally pirated.

Méliès continued to produce films, but his filmmaking style did not progress much past the groundbreaking work of 1899 – 1902. His films began to seem old fashioned compared to the work done by other filmmakers such as Edwin S Porter and D W Griffith.

Some of the new techniques these filmmakers used (which Méliès did not) included:

  • composing scenes out of separate shots rather than just one shot
  • changing the camera’s point of view
  • employing a close-up in addition to medium and long shots.

Méliès eventually went bankrupt but he was rediscovered by cinema fans in the late 1920s, awarded a Legion of Honour medal, and given a rent-free apartment to live in for the rest of his life.

Internet Activity

Click on the link below to go to an interesting summary of Méliès’ life, films and achievements.

Reading Activity

For further information about Méliès, read the article on this CD by Lloyd, ‘Seeing is believing. Special effects in the early years’.


Edwin Porter and The Great Train Robbery

At the outset of film the two particular approaches could be seen as recognisably separate but as filmmaking became more complex makers often tended to use both approaches within the one film according to the needs of the story and how they wanted to tell it. Some directors favoured one approach while others the other but few, especially in America, adopted an exclusive approach to their work.

An early step forward in this process of combining approaches and a harbinger of how American film was to develop occurred with the US film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). This film was significant as an early example of cross cutting, i.e. cutting from one story strand to another to suggest action occurring at two places at the same time. The film was a great success and advanced the cause of ‘films as stories’ immeasurably and demonstrated to entrepreneurs and potential filmmakers that there might be significant entertainment and business opportunities in a new medium that was beginning to look more like a serious entertainment form and less like a curiosity.

It was directed by Edwin S Porter (1869-1941) who originally worked as an engineer and projectionist. In 1900 he became a producer and director of films for Thomas Edison. Like most filmmakers around this time, Porter planned, wrote, filmed and edited his movies himself.

The Great Train Robbery (1903) is an important milestone in film history. It showed that:

  • Action did not need to be continuous. Aspects of story could be inter cut – you could cut from one story strand to another. Movie audiences could follow a complex story.
  • You could incorporate both scenes shot in a studio and scenes shot outdoors.

Porter is also famous for making Life of an American Fireman (1903). This film took footage of real fires, firemen and fire engines and combined them with dramatised scenes which Porter shot. It marked a progression from Méliès as it was using realistic film for dramatic purposes.

View this extract from The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Proter (1903), Edison Manufacturing Company

Great Train Robbery
A harbinger of how American film was to develop occurred with the US film, The Great Train Robbery.

Note how the film employs elements of realism (location shooting) and formalism (parallel editing, camera movement, a story). Like Méliès and the Lumières, Porter helped people understand what made cinema different from other art forms.

Porter made films for a variety of companies until 1915. Like Méliès, he was eventually overtaken artistically by new directorial talent, eg. DW Griffith. Porter retired from filmmaking and went back to working on projectors. He lost most of his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, but kept experimenting with motion picture devices until his death in 1941.

Internet Activity

Now follow the links in the web site below to find out more about Porter, The Great Train Robbery and Life of an American Fireman.

For more information about DW Griffith, visit the following site:

Topic 1 Films

Assigned FIlms

You are required to watch at least 10 films in a cinema for this subject as well as at least 13 of the assigned films (or a film associated with one of the assigned films).

This topic assigned films are available as extracts:


Premiere Program, Lumière Brothers (1895), Association Freres Lumiere

Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon, George Melies (1902), Star Film

Great Train Robbery

A harbinger of how American film was to develop occurred with the US film, The Great Train Robbery.

Topic 2


In the early part of the 20th century, cinema spread rapidly around the industrialized world. The leading filmmaking countries of the time were England, France, Denmark, Australia, Japan and the USA.

By the end of World War I, the USA had become the dominant filmmaking country in the world. There were several reasons for this:

  • World War I devastated the film industries of the USA’s key international competitors.
  • American film producers were the most skilled at organising film production along economically efficient lines. They understood how to organise film production according to industrial principles, notably division of labour, with the roles of the producer, director, writer, designer, cameraman and editor clearly defined. These principles carried over to distribution and exhibition.
  • The American film industry came to be based in California, specifically Hollywood, because production costs were severely cut by year round sunlight for shooting; lax labour laws and a relatively itinerant population meant that labour costs were more negotiable and relatively exotic shooting locations were attractive to the bulk of the domestic audience that was based on the east coast.
  • The American film industry began to lead the way artistically – notably in the development of the star system and the filmmaking techniques of DW Griffith.

Reading Activity

For an historical overview of the development of the film industry in America between 1909 and 1918, read the following article.

Internet Activity

Click on the link below (the Digital History site) to find out more about The rise of Hollywood and the arrival of sound.

Birth of a Nation and DW Griffith

The Birth of a Nation (1915) is one of the most famous and infamous films of all time. It was directed by DW Griffith (1875-1948), who is perhaps the single most important figure in the history of American cinema and one of the most influential filmmakers in history.

Internet Activity

If you haven’t already done so in Topic 1 click on the link to DW Griffith biography.

Griffith was the son of a Confederate Army Colonel known as “Roaring Jack” Griffith. His “Old South” background was to be a very strong influence all his life along with that of his mother Mary Oglesby who was said to be strong, severe, religious. He acted and wrote for the stage before breaking into the burgeoning film industry. He sold several stories to the Biograph studio and eventually became a director. By 1913 he had directed over 450 films although most of these did not have a very long running time. From the beginning of Griffith’s career, he demonstrated an instinct for the possibilities of filmmaking.

Griffith is often credited for either inventing or being the first systematic user of the following cinematic devices:

  • the close up
  • the flashback
  • the fade in and fade out
  • the full shot, i.e. a shot whose subject completely fulls the screen
  • the use of the iris lens to pick out details of action
  • use of lighting that was realistic, expressive and dramatic
  • the concept of editing for parallel action and editing within a scene
  • the encouragement of restraint in expression in screen acting
  • colour tinting
  • widescreen cinema
  • giving the cinema frame perspective by using the foreground and background
  • commissioning original music scores (although this was the silent era, scores could be written for an orchestra to accompany the film)
  • night photography
  • moving camera shots

Many of these things had in fact already been invented and/or often used by other directors. For instance, we have seen how Edwin S Porter used parallel editing in The Great Train Robbery.

Griffith didn’t invent most of the technical innovations listed above – but he is still important as he made systematic use of them and demonstrated how effectively they could be used in the art of celluloid story telling. He used the above devices creatively and consciously, helping give cinema a language of its own. For example, directors before Griffith had used the close up but Griffith used the close up for psychological impact.

Griffith had great assistance from his regular cameraman, GW Billy Bitzer, who helped develop the use of pans, close ups and dissolves.

In 1913 Griffith left Biograph. By then he had made the American cinema’s first four-reel film, Judith of Bethulia (1914).

Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. Some historians consider this film the single most important film in the development of cinema. It was certainly one of the most influential. The film’s significance comes about because it served as a summary of all that had been known about filmmaking at the time. It is also a racist film that endorses terrorism.

View this extract of film Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith (1915), David W. Griffith Company

Internet Activity

This website provides a descriptive review commentary on the film as well as some interesting background history and discussion of film techniques.

Here is an extract from a biography on Griffith which talks about the background to making Birth of a Nation:

Reading Activity

See also:

Cook, David A. (ed) 1981, A History of narrative film, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, Chapter 3: D.W. Griffith and the consummation of narrative form, pp.59-106. [It is worth borrowing this on interlibrary loan if you are interested in follow up on Griffith]

Griffith’s follow up film, Intolerance (1916), consisted of four separate but interwoven stories linked by a common theme of intolerance: i)The Destruction of Babylon; ii)The Crucifixion of Christ; iii)The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; iv)The Mother and the Law – a contemporary story of an abandoned mother. The film was a box-office disappointment and ruined Griffith financially. However the film was influential as well, particularly in Russia where it was studied by film makers such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

Griffith continued to make films, his most notable being Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922). He was one of the founders of United Artists, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. However, his career grew progressively less successful and he directed his last film, The Struggle, in 1931.


DW Griffith has been described as someone who was particularly skilful at ‘mise-en-scene’. Mise-en-scene was originally a French term dating back to the travelling theatre of Moliere where it became his custom to send directions on to future locations explaining how things were to be set up. It means literally ‘put in scene’ or ‘put in place’. It is used to describe how visual materials (including actors, props, set) are staged, framed and photographed within the individual frame. The director, designer and cinematographer are usually the ones who decide mise-en-scene.

Aspects of mise-en-scene include:

  • Settings, i.e. where the filmed action occurs

    Is it a set or location? It is realistic or non realistic?

    It establishes the place and time where the film is set, establishes mood, reveals characters.
  • The subject, i.e. what specifically is being filmed – an actor, a location, an object, etc.

    Look at action and appearance. Costumes. Characters. Type of acting.
  • Composition

    How lighting and subjects are arranged in relation to each other and to the sides of the frame. How far away is the camera from the object? What is the camera angle used?

One of the drawbacks of movie making is that the cinema frame is a fixed size. It cannot adjust the same way that the human eye can. However, although the frame is fixed, a director can do various things to manipulate audience response to what they are seeing on screen. Among these are changing a film’s mise-en-scene.

Examples include:

  • masking – blocking out portions of a photographic image through the use of black masks
  • using an iris – an adjustable circular or oval mask that can open up or close in on a subject
  • deep focus – camera technique which enables sharp definition of all objects in front of a camera (both close up and far away) in the same shot
  • putting objects of the shot in the foreground and/or background
  • rack focus – changing the focus during a shot from foreground to background or vice versa
  • use of camera angles.

Internet Activity

The following website provides a further explanation of mise-en-scene, and describes some examples.

The other leading way a director can manipulate what the audience is seeing is through editing, which we will discuss in greater detail in Topic 4.

The Cinema Frame

You will often hear of a film’s ‘aspect ratio’. This is the width-to-height ratio of a motion picture frame. From about 1910 to the early 1950s most films were shown in what is know as the “standard” aspect ratio. This was 4:3 or 1.33:1 aspect ratio, i.e. a ratio of four vertically for every three horizontally. In the past most television screens used the standard 4:3 aspect ratio.

However experimentation with other sizes continued. In the 1950s widescreen came along (eg. Cinemascope) and screens became wider. Today most films are shot using aspect ratios of 1.66:1, 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. This is why on older TV screens you often see films ‘cropped’ (with the top cut off) so what you watch is in the letterbox format.

The current wide screen TV’s and video production have adopted the compromise 1.78:1 format or 16:9 aspect ratio which is why many films still do not exactly conform to modern TV screens.

Topic 2 Films

Assigned film

This topic’s assigned film is available as an abstract:

Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith (1915), David W. Griffith Company

Topic 3


During the 1920s the film director DW Griffith described two major ‘schools’ of film practice – the American film school and the German film school. According to Griffith, the American film school involves the audience having a great film experience, whereas the German film school involves the audience seeing a great film experience.

What is the difference?

In Birth of a Nation, Griffith used unobtrusive filming techniques in order to tell the story. Examples of this include continuity editing and unobtrusive camera angles. The aim was to create a suspension of disbelief.

Contrasting with this are filmmaking techniques that draw attention to themselves. An example of such a technique is the expressionism of German films of the 1920s.


Expressionism was a style of art that developed early in the 20th century, and became an influential movement in painting, theatre, music, literature, architecture and cinema, particularly in Germany.

Expressionist art did not aim to be realistic, to reproduce the world as it is. Instead, Expressionism aimed to present what individual artists thought was the ‘inner life’ of humanity rather than its outward appearance.

It used a form of heightened reality, often via the use of things like obvious symbols, stereotyped characters and stylisation. It was non-traditional, anti-naturalism, subjective and emotional. It favoured disunity over unity, montage and collage over continuity, and it is far closer to formalism than to realism.

Films made in Germany in the years following World War I often used expressionistic film techniques involving an extreme stylisation of mise-en-scene in which the formal organisation of the film is made very obvious.

Examples of expressionism in filmmaking include:

  • extreme stylisation of sets and décor, e.g. painted backdrops rather than real ones
  • artificial lighting – in particular, chiaroscuro lighting (low key lighting in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio) and an emphasis on deep shadows and sharp contrasts
  • distorted camera angles – e.g. use of high angles and low angles, often to emphasise the fantastic and grotesque
  • actors who externalise their emotions to the extreme
  • filming that takes place in the studio to ensure complete control of the sets, lighting and camerawork.

Design students will particularly be interested in expressionism, because it marked a time where films became increasingly under the control of art directors, i.e. the people responsible for sets, costumes, lighting and their relationship to the camera.

Internet Activity

The following websites provide an excellent overview of Expressionism and introduce you to other concepts that you will be dealing with in this and future topics in this subject.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)

The first classic of German cinema was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It was also the film that really introduced German Expressionism to a wider audience of the movies. Although it has a traditional story and filmed with a mostly fixed single camera, it is presented in a non-traditional, expressionistic style.

The story is traditional in that it follows conventional story telling methods, namely:

  • characters have a goal
  • there is a hero and villain
  • there is a female romantic lead
  • there is cutting between various plot lines
  • the editing is naturalistic.

Three elements of the story of Caligari – the mad doctor, the monster he has created, and the girl they terrorise – became key figures in Hollywood horror films. However the way the story is filmed is non-traditional.

View the Dr Caligari extract

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari

The first classic of German cinema which introduced German Expressionism to a wider audience.

Internet Activity

The websites below present an overview of the plot as well as numerous links to other related websites.

YouTube provides many clips – you can re-construct a version of the entire film from them.

In Caligari expressionism is used to make the film an outward projection of psychological events. The visuals are not just used to tell a simple story, but as symbols for a hidden meeting.

Reading Activity

You may also find the following articles interesting:

German Film of the 1920s

Caligari launched the German film industry into one of the most creative periods in cinema history. During the 1920s, the German economy was a mess, the political scene an uproar, the Nazis were on the rise… yet the cinema thrived.

Leading directors of the period included Ernest Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Billy Wilder, GW Pabst, Robert Siodmark. The leading producer was Eric Pommer, who ran UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) studios, the largest production company in the country. The leading writer was Carl Mayer. Many of these filmmakers subsequently moved to Hollywood before or soon after the Nazis came to power and had successful careers there.

Many of the leading German films of the 1920s employed expressionistic film techniques. Among the classic German films of the period are:

  • The Spiders (d Fritz Lang, 1919) – a two-part adventure melodrama about master criminals aiming to dominate the world.
  • Dr Mabuse the Gambler (d Fritz Lang, 1922) – a two-part thriller about an arch-criminal who leads a gang of murderers.
  • Nosferatu (d FW Murnau, 1922) – an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike most expressionistic films, it was shot on location rather than using sets. The recent Shadow of the Vampire (d E. Elias Merhige, 2000) was about the making of this film, starring John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Die Nibelungen (d Fritz Lang, 1924) – two part film based on the 13th century Siegfried legend. It was allegedly an inspiration for the notorious Nazi propaganda documentary, Triumph of the Will (d Leni Riefenstahl, 1935).
  • The Last Laugh (d FW Murnau, 1925) – a film famous because, although it was silent, it features just one film title. It was far more realistic than expressionistic, although Murnau does use techniques such as unusual camera angles.
  • Metropolis (d Fritz Lang, 1927) – the science fiction classic, inspired by Lang’s glimpse of the New York sky line. Discussed in greater detail below.
  • Pandora’s Box (d GW Pabst, 1929) – the story of Jack the Ripper starring Louise Brooks.


Metropolis was the most expensive film ever made in Germany up until that time. It marked the high point of Germany’s attempt to challenge the domination of Hollywood and is seen by some as the greatest silent film ever made. Technically it was superior to any Hollywood movie of the time. However it was not very profitable (it was very expensive), and expressionism soon declined in popularity. The director of Metropolis, Fritz Lang, went on to make the more realistic thriller M (1931).


If you are able to borrow a copy of Metropolis from a library or video store, watch it and take particular notice of the elements of Expressionism – the sets and staging, the stylised acting.

Internet Activity

The following website contains a wealth of information about Metropolis: resume of the story; information about various released versions of the film, links to other Metropolis sites, and information about the different soundtracks.

Reading Activity

The reading by Kreimeier will give you more information about Metropolis.

The extract is taken from The UFA Story: A history of Germany’s greatest film company, 1918-1945.

Influence of Expressionism

The German films of the 1920s were often popular in the USA, especially with American-based filmmakers, possibly because they were so different from Hollywood films. As many German directors settled in Hollywood in the 1930s, the Expressionistic influence began to be felt there at that time, and it was most notable during the first ‘golden age’ of horror movies in the 1930s.

For example Dracula (d Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (d James Whale, 1931), The Mummy (d Karl Freund, 1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (d James Whale, 1935) all bear the imprint of Expressionism.

Note that Expressionistic techniques continue to be used in horror films today, with a most notable recent example being Bram Stoker’s Dracula (d Francis Ford Coppola, 1992).

Expressionism was highly evident in the 1930s films of the British director, Alfred Hitchcock – films such as The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1937).

Expressionism was highly evident during the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. This will be discussed in greater detail later on.

Expressionism is also evident nowadays in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Metropolis was as influential on science fiction filmmakers as Caligari was for horror film makers. Look at Blade Runner (d Ridley Scott, 1982) or any film directed by Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

Topic 3 Films

Assigned film

In this topic an extract of the assigned film is available:

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari

The first classic of German cinema which introduced German Expressionism to a wider audience.

Metropolis, Fritz Lang (1927), Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft

  • Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • The Spiders (d Fritz Lang, 1919)
  • Dr Mabuse the Gambler (d Fritz Lang, 1922)
  • Nosferatu (d FW Murnau, 1922)
  • Shadow of the Vampire (d E. Elias Merhige, 2000)
  • Die Nibelungen (d Fritz Lang, 1924)
  • The Last Laugh (d FW Murnau, 1925)
  • Metropolis (d Fritz Lang, 1927)
  • Pandora’s Box (d GW Pabst, 1929)
  • Dracula (d Tod Browning, 1931)
  • Frankenstein (d James Whale, 1931)
  • The Mummy (d Karl Freund, 1933)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (d James Whale, 1935)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • The 39 Steps (d. A. Hitchcock, 1935)
  • Sabotage (d. A. Hitchcock, 1937)
  • Blade Runner (d Ridley Scott, 1982)
  • or any film directed by Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam.

Topic 4

1920s and Russian film

In the 1920s there was a Russian boom in cinema. Following the 1917 Russian revolution and the subsequent Civil War, the film industry was nationalised, film schools were established, and machinery for production and distribution of propaganda films was established. Soviet filmmakers aimed to create a filmmaking tradition that would be distinct from pre-revolutionary days. They began experimenting with their filmmaking, and the 1920s was a time of much theoretical thinking and writing about film.

Out of this experimentation came montage.


Montage (or ‘intellectual montage’ or ‘Soviet montage’) involves putting two shots together to create a third meaning. Meaning is made by emphasising the difference between the shots. Instead of trying to cover up dissimilarities between shots (as in Hollywood classical cinema), the difference is emphasised.

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 2001-05,

Montage is the art and technique of motion-picture editing in which contrasting shots or sequences are used to effect emotional or intellectual responses. It was developed creatively after 1925 by the Russian Sergei Eisenstein; since that time montage has become an increasingly complex and inventive way of extending the imaginative possibilities of film art. In still photography a composite picture, made by combining several prints, or parts of prints, and then rephotographing them as a whole, is often called a montage or a photomontage. (See M. Teitelbaum, Montage and Modern Life, 1919–1942 (1992).

However Russian montage is focussed primarily on the creation of visual meaning and should not be confused with ‘Hollywood montage’ which consists of a sequence made up of a quick succession of brief shots blending and dissolving into one another rapidly cut together to convey the passing of time – e.g. a falling in love montage, a training montage (sent up recently in a scene in Team America: World Police (d Trey Parker, 2004)), or a rise-to-fame montage.

Sergei Eisenstein

Eisenstein was actually Latvian, born in Riga 1898 the son of an architect father who was the City Engineer. He was packed off to St. Petersburg to study Civil Engineering but that came to a halt when the Russian Revolution broke out and the 19 year old suddenly found himself designing and building bridges for the Red Army.

In 1920 he was posted to the newly formed Proletkult Theatre as a poster artist, set designer and photographer. Among his early colleagues were Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky all of whom would become internationally renowned figures in theatre and the arts.

The purpose of Proletkult was Bolshevik propaganda but it was an institution that provided an umbrella for experimentation and instruction that would eventually have global significance and included such participants as Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin as well as those mentioned in the paragraph above. (look up “Kuleshov effect”, for example)

It is commonly accepted that two of the most influential figures in the early development of cinema theory and practice are D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein but where Griffith’s impulses were overwhelmingly technical and emotional Eisentein’s were scientific and rational.

He developed and pursued his theories of the ways that images relate to each other in the communication process and how these relationships might be manipulated to create alternative meanings with the painstaking care and zeal of a scientist. (see Readings)

Eisenstein’s relationship with the establishment was always fraught with difficulty. In 1935, for example, he was officially accused of over-intellectualism and not being properly focussed on the important issues of Socialist development. Head of the Institute of Scientific Cinematographic Research, Nikolai Lebedev defended him vigorously at the All-Union Culture Conference of Workers:

“Eisenstein seeks the roots and forms of the development of a cinematographic language … Well, is it not a respectable problem to be preoccupied with film language and to experiment in this field in order to create a new theory and to test it in his own film production?… I feel that it would be well to furnish Eisenstein with an empty studio and let him experiment to control his theories.” – From Cinema: A critical dictionary, Vol 1, ed. Richard Roud, Viking Press, New York, 1980 (p.314)

Eisenstein’s relationship with Soviet authorities remained difficult up to his death in Moscow, 1948.

Battleship Potemkin and the Odessa Steps sequence

One of the most famous sequences in cinema is the ‘Odessa steps’ sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

View extract of film on DVD

There is an extract on the DVD but try to see the whole film. You will find a number of the best known sequences on YouTube.

Internet Activity

The following website is just one of many Battleship Potemkin sites.

Reading Activity

Read Eisenstein’s writings on the film:

Eisenstein writes about filming the sequence here:

The Odessa Steps sequence has inspired many filmmakers over the years, particularly directors and editors. If you are able to borrow The Untouchables (d Brian de Palma, 1987) from a library or hire it from a video store, watch it, taking particular note of the train station sequence, and consider any similarities to the Odessa Steps sequence.

Other Features of the 1920s Soviet cinema

In Eisenstein’s early films, he used several techniques in addition to montage that set his films apart from classical Hollywood cinema:

  • The stories for his films did not concentrate on individual characters. Instead, they tried to address broad social issues, especially class conflict from a particular political standpoint.
  • He employed greater use of the close up.
  • His films showed a higher level of symbolism.
  • He did not use professional actors. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate class backgrounds.
  • Every frame is a beautifully constructed photograph.

It is interesting that, for all Eisenstein’s genius, his films were never really particularly popular with audiences, even with Soviet audiences. It seems that movie-goers preferred films that they could get ‘swept up’ in – films with heroes, villains, clear-cut stories and continuity editing. It seems that alienating techniques such as montage tend not to be audience-pleasers.

In his later career, Eisenstein suffered from censorship at the hands of the Soviet government. After making October (1927) he toured the world, worked for a time in Hollywood, and made an unfinished film in Mexico, Que Viva Mexico!

He returned to the Soviet Union where he made the films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1942) and Part II (1946). These films marked a significant departure from earlier Eisenstein films – for instance, they often centred around one character. Nonetheless they remain striking films – the battle on the ice in Alexander Nevksy was the inspiration for a similar scene in King Arthur (d Antoine Fuqua, 2004).

Eisenstein and his Russian colleagues developed very elaborate and systematic theories of montage. An approachable summary can be found in:

  • Cook, David A. (ed) 1981, A History of narrative film, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, Chapter 5: Soviet silent cinema and the theory of montage, 1917-1931, pp.133-194.

A brief aside: Storyboards

During pre-production, film directors such as Eisenstein often plan how they see a film by using a story board. A storyboard is a graphic, sequential depiction of a narrative which can be done by using sketches, drawings or stills photography. Storyboards are often used today when preparing a film, particularly animated films.

There is a famous storyboard which graphically demonstrates the collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev as they prepared the production of Alexander Nevsky (1938) part of which can be seen in A history of narrative film, D.A. Cook (1981) cited above.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

Topic 4 Films

Assigned film

Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein (1025), Goskino. Extract available on your DVD


Sergei Eisensetin (1928), Sovinko

Associated films

The Untouchables (d. Brian de Palma, 1987)

Topic 5

French Poetic Realism

By the 1930s, both German and Russian cinema, so prosperous the decade before, had been gutted by censorship and totalitarian regimes. Thus Hollywood’s main international rival in the 1930s, in artistic terms at least, was French cinema. Particularly noteworthy were the French ‘poetic realist’ films made during this time.

Poetic realism was a film movement in France from the early 1930s leading up to World War II. Its leading filmmakers were directors Jean Vigo, Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carné, the screenwriters Jacques Prevert and Charles Spaak and the actor Jean Gabin.

The movement had its roots in 19th century literature and had links to the Popular Front, left wing political movement in France in the 1930s. Poetic realism is a blend of lyricism and realism. It is often pessimistic and fatalistic, in some ways the mood reflected an unease with what was happening in Germany and the gathering prospect of conflict. It was at the same time paradoxically romantic.

Some of the features of films that were part of the poetic realism movement include:

  • Long fluid shots in deep focus where the camera follows action and character.
  • Stories often concern desperate men experiencing emotional turmoil or on the run – characters who get a last chance at love, but are ultimately disappointed.
  • Claustrophobic sets and part lighting sometimes used to suggest inner conflict.
  • The films often portray urban life – night streets, dingy apartments, working class life. However they do so in a romantic way, with a touch of nostalgia.
  • With Renoir, in particular, there is a sense that old class relationships are an impediment to good society.

The movement had a significant impact on later film movements, in particular Italian neo-realism, film noir and the French New Wave. Particularly influential was the way the films found ‘beauty’ in less pleasant aspects of life.

Notable films of the poetic realism movement include:

  • L’Atalante (d Jean Vigo, 1934) – a young but partly mismatched couple begin their married life together sailing down the Seine on a barge.
  • Escape from Yesterday (d Julien Duvivier, 1935) – a criminal seeks refuge in the foreign legion.
  • Pépé lo Moko (d Julien Duvivier, 1936) – Jean Gabin as a gangster hiding out in the Casbah. Remade in Hollywood with Charles Boyer as Algiers (d John Cromwell, 1938).
  • Grand Illusion (d Jean Renoir, 1937) – discussed below.
  • Port of Shadows (d Marcel Carne, 1938) – an army deserter looks for a second chance in life.
  • The Rules of the Game (d Jean Renoir, 1939) – the story of a weekend hunting party in the country. A critique of French society disguised as a comedy of manners.
  • Children of the Paradise (d Marcel Carne 1945) – technically made outside the period of poetic realism but still influenced by it. The story of a woman in nineteenth century France who is loved by four men.

Jean Renoir and Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was one of the greatest directors in history. The son of the impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir, he served in the French army in World War I before going into the film industry. His great years were in the 1930s, where he directed several classic films. During World War Two he worked in Hollywood before returning to France.

Arguably Renoir’s greatest film was Grand Illusion. In 1938 this was the first foreign language film nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

Why is this film so special? Why is it such a good example of poetic realism?

Viewing Activity

An extract is available on your DVD.

Consider the following as you view Grand Illusion:

  • Renoir’s use of extremely long takes. He employs the camera as observer/eye of the audience, following a scene, seamlessly picking up another scene (conversations etc.), and using the camera to make visual comment on character (commandant’s office).
  • Renoir’s use of visual symbols within the realistic approach – see for example Capt. Von Rauffenstein’s gesture with his flower.
  • Renoir’s complex use of mise-en-scene. Dramatic tension is created through depth of field and action taking place in various planes.

Reading Activity

For more information, read:

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

Classical Hollywood Style

Movie making in Hollywood grew steadily throughout the 1910s and 1920s. It emerged from an assortment of small competing companies into a highly-developed and efficiently-run industry dominated by a few giant corporations.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, motion picture production in the movie capital was as neatly organised on an assembly-line business as any major industry. The major studios – Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM and RKO – controlled the production, distribution and exhibition of their films, making products that could be shown in their own subsidiary chains of theatres across the country. The minor studios – Universal, United Artists and Columbia – did not have their own cinemas, but had their own production facilities and distribution chains.

Studios maintained extensive filming facilities and large numbers of cast, crew and administration on a permanent payroll. Labour was divided according to various specialities: editors, art directors, producers, sound recordists, actors, directors, etc.

This Hollywood system essentially operated until immediately after World War Two and when people talk of the Golden Age of Hollywood they are usually talking about the years from the 1920s to the late 1940s. This period saw the perfecting of the ‘classical Hollywood style’ that had been developing since The Birth of a Nation.

Internet Activity

The article ’1946, Hollywood and the Great Directors’ discusses the 1920s Hollywood studio system, some of the best films of 1936, the end of the great studios in 1938, major films and directors of 1946, and Film Noir.

The Palace website was created in 1995 for fans of Hollywood’s Golden era, and the great Classic Films, and contains hundreds of images, many audio clips, and a comprehensive bibliography. It also contains informative articles on movies and filmmaking as well as links to many classic film sites on the Web. To find out more about this era of filmaking, why not visit the website?

The basis of classic Hollywood filmmaking is for filmmaking techniques to be unobtrusive – this means that the spectators are caught up in the story, unaware that they are watching a movie (the suspension of disbelief). This style has a visual component and a narrative component.

Classical Hollywood Style – visual component

Visual components of the classical Hollywood style include the following:

  • Use of establishment shots to contextualise characters and locations. Directors often shoot an entire scene in long shot without cuts – this is the master shot – then shoot the scene again for close ups. This gives the editor more choice in the editing room.
  • Eye line match – when shooting close ups directors ensure that the actors’ eye lines match for each shot.
  • The 180 degree rule – A line is drawn between actors to keep the camera to one side of the action. The actors are kept on the same side of screen so the audience won’t become confused. If several shots of differing perspective are cut the perspective remains the same.
  • Invisible editing is a goal – i.e. editing which does not call attention to itself (as opposed to montage, which was discussed in the previous topic.)

Use of the three point lighting system. The three points consist of:

  1. key light – principal source of light
  2. fill light – auxiliary light that is softer, placed opposite the key light
  3. back light – placed above and behind subject to give it depth.

The lighting can be adjusted into high key lighting or low key lighting:

  • High key lighting is a lighting arrangement used to produce an overall light tone in a scene. The use of a high level of illumination emphasises the lighter tones at the expense of darker ones. It is often used in comedies and musicals.
  • Low key lighting uses dim illumination and deep shadows to produce a ‘dense’ atmosphere and a shadowy effect. It is often used in horror films and film noir.
  • Soft lighting and soft focus is very popular amongst film stars because it softens lines and enhances looks.

Classical Hollywood Style – Narrative component

Classical Hollywood filmmaking follows certain narrative conventions. Among these are the following:

  • Use of the three act structure:
    Act I – an existing equilibrium exits
    Act II – an event takes place which disrupts the equilibrium
    Act III – the disruption is resolved and a new equilibrium is set up (the resolution).
  • Stories are ordered. i.e. there is a cause and effect so that there is a logical linking of events. One plot twist follows on from the other according to laws of cause and effect. Stories do not violate audience understanding of where they are in relation to the characters. Narrative is linear, i.e. in a chronological order.
  • Stories feature a lead character or characters (often played by stars) with whom the audience is encouraged to identify.
  • Realism is a goal – i.e. the film seems as realistic as possible by creating a believable, consistent ‘world’ in order to make the audience forget they are watching a film. There is an attempt to have a resolution that gives closure as opposed to being open ended.

Frank Capra & It Happened One Night

Frank Capra (1897-1991) was a Sicilian who moved to America at an early age. Although he had a degree in chemical engineering, he went to work in the film industry as a gag writer. He joined the lowly Columbia Pictures in the 1920s and soon became that studio’s leading director, in the process turning that studio into a major player. Among his major films were It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

It Happened One Night was the first film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Script. This feat would later be repeated by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (d Milos Forman, 1975) and Silence of the Lambs (d Jonathan Demme, 1991).

View Activity

Watch the movie It Happened One Night (1934). An extract is provided on your DVD but it is worth seeing the whole film as an example of the classic Hollywood style at its apogee – although there are hundreds of other films which would fit the bill as well.

Here is an extract on the making of the film from Joseph McBride’s biography on Frank Capra, The Catastrophe of Success.

Internet Activity

You may also enjoy the information about the film at this site:

Topic 5 Films

Here are some other key films of the Golden Years of Hollywood (there were hundreds but here are just a few):

  • The Gold Rush (d Charlie Chaplin, 1925) – Chaplin rarely exceeded his ability to mix comedy and pathos that he showed in this film.
  • Dracula (d Tod Browning, 1931) – the film that ushered in a boom in horror films, heavily influenced by German expressionism.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (d Lewis Milestone, 1931) – realism Hollywood-style, a look at World War I from the German point of view.
  • King Kong (d Merian C Cooper, 1933) – still one of the most popular adventure/fantasy films of all time. Cooper had a background in documentary filmmaking, which gave the film extra ‘realism’.
  • Swing Time (d George Stevens, 1936) – perhaps the greatest Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. Hollywood musicals are the ultimate example of taking an inherently unrealistic situation, i.e. people breaking out into song, and making it as realistic as possible.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (d Walt Disney, 1937) – the first feature-length animated feature from Disney.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (d William Keighley, Michael Curtiz, 1938) – has been described as Hollywood’s most perfect evocation of a legend on screen.
  • Gone with the Wind (d Victor Fleming, George Cukor, 1939) – Civil War epic which became the most successful film of all time.
  • Stagecoach (d John Ford, 1939) – the film that made John Wayne a star and helped revive the Western.
  • The Wizard of Oz (d Victor Fleming, 1939) – classic fantasy film that made Judy Garland a star.
  • His Girl Friday (d Howard Hawks, 1940) – one of the greatest ‘battle of the sexes’ comedies, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as divorced reporters.
  • The Grapes of Wrath (d John Ford, 1940) – another attempt at realism, a film about the Depression in California.
  • Casablanca (d Michael Curtiz, 1942) – a wartime propaganda film that is often considered the best Hollywood movie of all time.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (d William Wyler, 1946) – film about three veterans returning home after World War Two which became the second most popular film of all time. The film’s sense of dissatisfaction paved the way for greater Hollywood ‘realism’ after the war.

Assigned films

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

  • La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir (1937), Realisation d’art Cinematographeique. Extract available on your DVD
  • It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1935). Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • L’Atalante (d Jean Vigo, 1934)
  • Escape from Yesterday (d Julien Duvivier, 1935)
  • Pépé lo Moko (d Julien Duvivier, 1936)
  • Port of Shadows (d Marcel Carne, 1938)
  • The Rules of the Game (d Jean Renoir, 1939)
  • Children of the Paradise (d Marcel Carne 1945)
  • The Gold Rush (d Charlie Chaplin, 1925) film
  • Dracula (d Tod Browning, 1931)
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (d Lewis Milestone, 1931)
  • King Kong (d Merian C Cooper, 1933)
  • Swing Time (d George Stevens, 1936)
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (d Walt Disney, 1937)
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (d William Keighley, Michael Curtiz, 1938)
  • Gone with the Wind (d Victor Fleming, George Cukor, 1939)
  • Stagecoach (d John Ford, 1939)
  • The Wizard of Oz (d Victor Fleming, 1939
  • His Girl Friday (d Howard Hawks, 1940)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (d John Ford, 1940)
  • Casablanca (d Michael Curtiz, 1942)
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (d William Wyler, 1946)

Topic 6

Introduction to Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (d Orson Welles, 1941) is one of the most influential films ever made, and as recently as 2002, in a poll of directors in Sight & Sound magazine it was voted the greatest film ever made. Citizen Kane was an attempt to combine all the various forms of movie making into one (much like Birth of a Nation did in 1915).


Orson Welles (1915-1984) made Citizen Kane when he was only 25 years old. Although it was Welles’ first feature film, he was already nationally famous because of his theatre and radio work. He was involved in a radio broadcast of H G Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1938 which inspired some listeners to think that aliens were invading the USA.

Welles had been enticed to Hollywood to work for RKO, a Hollywood studio that offered Welles a contract to write, produce, act and direct in films with total artistic control. After several false starts he decided to make his debut with Citizen Kane, loosely based on the life of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Reading Activity

Here is an account of the making of the film which you may like to read:

Internet Activity

The following website provides some fascinating details about the making of the film, and provides information about those who worked on the film. It also lists similarities and differences between Kane and William Randolph Hearst, describes the cinematic techniques used in the film making, and discusses the films’ themes.

Viewing Activity

Obtain a copy of Citizen Kane and watch it, looking for some of the innovative cinematic techniques outlined in Film-making innovations.

Film-making Innovations

Why was Kane so innovative? There are several reasons:


  • Basically circular;
  • Told in multiple flashbacks;
  • Linear chronology of investigation but non-linear chronology of flashbacks;
  • Nine part story:

    1. Xanadu – Night, day, gates, fog, great house, Kane’s death.
    2. Newsreel Previewing Theatre – “News on the March” – Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt) discusses newsreel/life, assigns Jerry Thompson (William Alland) to find the significance of “Rosebud”.
    3. Atlantic City – El Rancho – Thompson meets Susan Kane (Dorothy Comingore) in the night club.
    4. Thatcher’s Story – Thatcher Memorial Library, Philadelphia. Story of Colorado load (1871), Bank owner Thatcher (George Couloris) as guardian, New York Enquirer, defender of the poor, Depression 1929, business setback.
    5. Bernstein’s Story – Bernstein’s office, New York. Bernstein (Everett Sloan) recounts first day at Enquirer, buoyant business.
    6. Leland’s Story – New York City Hospital. Jebediah Leland (Joseph Cotton). Political marriage, deterioration of marriage, political candidacy, scandal, marriage to Susan, Susan’s career, falling out with Leland.
    7. Susan’s Story – El Rancho, Atlantic City. Susan’s lessons, attempted suicide, exile in Xanadu, break up and departure.
    8. Raymond’s Story – Xanadu. Raymond (Paul Stewart) recounts, Kane destroys room, “Rosebud”, walks out between mirrors.
    9. Xanadu – Crane shot over loot (looks like miniature city), secret of “Rosebud” (known only to audience), smoke from chimney (Papal death), last shot as first – circular structure.


  • The cinematographer on Kane was Gregg Toland who was excited about Welles’ achievements in theatre (where directors do the lighting) so specifically asked to work on the film. Welles and Toland formed an excellent team and each inspired the other to great heights.
  • Toland was interested in creating a film with greater realism – he wanted the film to look like reality rather than a film. Accordingly they used devices like sharp focus, depth of field, and ceilings on sets. Ironically, because these things were not common in Hollywood at the time, the film would come across as highly stylised.
  • Visually, Kane is most noticeable for its unprecedented use of deep focus. In nearly every scene in the film, the foreground, background and everything in between are all in sharp focus, which was achieved by use of low key lighting and wide angle lenses. Such techniques were not common at the time – but became so increasingly after Kane.
  • Kane is also famous for actually showing ceilings in the background of several scenes. (It was rare at the time to show ceilings because the sound stages had none.)
  • The film includes a plethora of cinematic techniques – back lighting, side lighting, steep angles, crane shots, long shots, and extreme close ups. These were all techniques familiar from German Expressionism but they had not been greatly used in Hollywood outside of horror films.
  • The film used many special effects, such as the mock newsreel and trick shots.


  • The two writers credited on Kane were Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. Although there has been some dispute over the extent of the contribution of each, there is no doubt that Mankiewicz’s contribution was incredibly important.
  • Citizen Kane used a highly original narrative structure – it tells the story in non-chronological order, has a protagonist who is barely seen (the investigating reporter), and uses devices such as flashbacks and montages.
  • The film was not the first in Hollywood to be non-linear – The Power and The Glory (d William K Howard, 1933) used a similar structure – but it was the first time a great deal of notice had been paid to such a device.
  • Partly due to Kane, Hollywood became increasingly bold with using non-linear narration as the 1940s went on. Examples include: Passage to Marseilles (d Michael Curtiz, 1944) and The Locket (d John Brahm, 1946), both of which featured a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. Woman in the Window (d Fritz Lang, 1944) featured an ending where the whole film was revealed to be a dream.


  • Most of the cast of Kane had little film experience but they had worked with Welles in New York on stage and radio as The Mercury Players and he insisted on their being part of the film deal.
  • Several of the actors who made their debuts in Kane went on to have highly distinguished acting careers, including Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead and Welles himself.


  • Perhaps the most famous sequence in Citizen Kane is the ‘disintegration of marriage over breakfast’ scene. This use of editing to rapidly convey a story was inspirational in its brevity and speed.
  • Again, Wells was not the first person to use such a montage – but up until then had been mostly used to convey simple passing of time. The skill with which it was used so dramatically in Kane has always inspired directors as to the medium’s possibilities.
  • Editor Robert Wise went on to an illustrious career as a director – West Side Story (1961) among his credits.

Sound and musical effects

  • Citizen Kane also broke ground in the way it exploited sound. Welles had a background in radio so he was attuned to its possibilities.
  • Among the techniques used in the film were overlapping dialogue, and using sounds but not showing their source on-screen. These techniques were not common at the time.
  • He also used techniques such as the mock narration in the opening newsreel, the mock opera composed by Bernard Herrmann, and the song sung by the dancing girls about Kane.

Citizen Kane – After Release

Unlike other films which changed filmmaking, such as Birth of a Nation (1915) or Breathless (1960), Citizen Kane was not a box-office hit on initial release. This has been blamed on the campaign that the Hearst organisation ran against the film. However, Citizen Kane has never been a large crowd pleaser. The film features too many things which alienate the viewer – an unsympathetic hero, a down-beat ending, gloomy atmosphere.

  • But it has been an enduring success as a piece of cinema art in a cultural sense. The story of a brilliant grandee with a tragic flaw is Shakespearian in scope and stature;
  • And it’s a very American story – rags to riches – poor boy makes good then crashes; independent hero – “I did it my way”; story of courage and daring; story of ‘frontiersman’ forging his own destiny; and above all it is a moral story – money and power don’t necessarily bring happiness.

In many senses the film’s influence mainly stems from the number of other filmmakers it has inspired, and its subsequent impact on movie making in general: its photography, its narrative structure, its use of long takes and sound, etc.

Welles subsequent career was, perhaps inevitably, something of an anti-climax but it was always dogged by the legacy and power of William Randolph Hurst who remained implacable until his death. However Welles continued to make interesting work, including the following films:

  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – a powerful film about an American family at the turn of the century. After poor sneak previews, the film was recut in Welles’ absence and his original ending was destroyed.
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1948) – film noir starring Welles and his one-time wife Rita Hayworth that is best known for its climatic shoot out in a hall of mirrors, later copied in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (d Robert Clouse, 1973).
  • Touch of Evil (1958) – a late film noir, famous for its three minute opening tracking shot, later copied in Absolute Beginners (d Julien Temple, 1986) and The Player (d Robert Altman, 1992).
  • Chimes at Midnight (1966) – adaptation of various plays by Shakespeare, with a famous final battle sequence.

If you enjoyed Citizen Kane, these are all worth watching.

Welles also made numerous uncompleted films, including Don Quixote, The Deep (based on a novel later filmed as Dead Calm (d Phil Noyce, 1989)), and The Other Side of the Wind.

Topic 6 Films

Assigned film

Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (1941), Mercury Productions, RKO Radio Pictures. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films (also directed by Orson Welles)

  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Topic 7


“If you ever have any doubt about the power of movies to affect change in the world, to interact with life and fortify the soul, then study the example of neo realism” – Martin Scorsese

Neo-realism is a term used to describe a movement in Italian cinema that began in 1942 with the film Obsession (d Luchino Visconti, 1942). It is characterised by films that represented everyday life through a compromise between the real and the documentary.

Features of Neo Realist Cinema

Features of neo realist cinema included:

  • Shooting on location rather than in the studio.
  • Employing ‘real people’ in the cast rather than actors.
  • Using real stories rather than fantastic ones.
  • Avoiding neat storylines and instead using stories with loose, episodic structures that evolved organically.
  • Using natural dialogue (including dialects) rather than literary dialogue.
  • Avoiding artifice in editing, camera work and lighting – aiming for a style-less style.
  • Dubbing of dialogue.
  • Shooting style similar to that used in a documentary: use of natural light, hand held cameras, etc.

These things had been used in films before (such as in France and the USSR) but it wasn’t until the 1940s in Italy that their use became a recognisable movement.

Neo-realism grew out of the destruction of Italy in World War Two as a result of which Italian filmmakers were often forced to use real locations and non-actors out of necessity. In fact neo-realist films often did use real actors and phoney sets, but even the ones that did gave the impression of greater realism.

Features of Neo Realist Ideology

Neo-realism was also an ideology as well as a style. Italian filmmakers were keen to show the world the essential humanity of the Italian people. (This is why Italian-American director Martin Scorsese calls it most precious moment in screen history.)

Features of this ideology included:

  • emphasis on the value of ordinary people
  • compassion and a refusal to make easy moral judgements
  • preoccupation with Italy’s fascist past and the war
  • emphasis on emotions rather than ideas
  • criticism towards the harshness or indifference of the legal authorities.

The first recognised neo-realist film seen internationally was Open City (d Roberto Rossellini, 1945) about the collaboration between Catholics and Communists against the Nazis shortly before the Americans arrived.

Other Key Neo-Realist Films

  • Shoeshine (d Vittorio De Sica, 1946) – the effect of wartime on children, in particular two shoeshine boys.
  • Paisan (d Roberto Rossellini, 1946) – six episodes of war and resistance – featured a scene where animals were killed for food on camera!
  • The Earth Trembles (d Luchino Visconti, 1947) – fishermen rebel against the wholesalers who dominate their market.
  • The Bicycle Thief (d Vittorio de Sica, 1948) – a man has his bicycle stolen and goes looking for it with his son. Discussed in greater detail below.
  • Bitter Rice (d Giuseppe de Stantis, 1948) – a tale of love and lust in the rice fields staring Silvana Mangano. The film was a more ‘commercial’ example of neo-realism, with an emphasis on sex: the image of Mangano standing in the rice fields wearing very little ensured the film was seen around the world.
  • Ways of Love (d Roberto Rossellini, 1948) – a two part film, one of which was The Miracle, about a naïve woman who is impregnated and she thinks God is the father.
  • Umberto D (d Vittorio de Sica, 1951) – a film about a lonely old man and his dog.

Viewing Activity

An excellent documentary on neo-realism (and later Italian cinema) is My voyage to Italy (d. Martin Scorsese). See extracts on DVD. The documentary is available from the library and is essential viewing for an understanding of the development of Italian cinema after World War Two.

Vittorio de Sica and The Bicycle Thief

De Sica (1902-1974) was one of the leading directors of neo-realism. He broke into the film industry as an actor and became a suave leading man in many Italian films during the Mussolini era. (Some of these films were known as ‘white telephone’ movies because they were often set in a lush imaginary world where the characters were rich, glamorous and lived in expensive apartments with white telephones.)

During the war, de Sica became interested in directing and he soon made several masterpieces, including The Bicycle Thief which is considered one of the greatest films of all time, winning a special Oscar, and having been seen around the entire world.

Viewing Activity

Obtain a copy of The Bicycle Thief and watch it.

Internet Activity

Some useful links:

Use also Imdb, YouTube, Wickipedia etc. as normal.

Italian Neorealism was gradually phased out by the 1950s. After Liberal and left wing parties were defeated in the 1948 Italian election the incoming Christian Democrat leader, Giulio Andreotti made sure that neo-realism and what he regarded as Italian dirty laundry was dead. The truth is that the gritty neo-realist cinema was always more popular internationally than it was with Italian audiences who preferred American cinema or more optimistic local films.

De Sica stopped making neo realist films in the 1950s, but kept acting and directing up until his death. Some of his later films included Two Women (1960) and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971).

Why was Neo Realism so Influential?

  • It established the international reputation of Italian cinema.
  • Many future Italian directors such as Fellini and Antonioni got their start in the industry as assistants in neo realist work.
  • It helped loosen censorship. The Miracle was banned in some parts of the USA until the Supreme Court in 1952 held movies entitled to same freedom of expression as the press. This was a landmark decision and helped led to ‘freeing up’ of movie censorship.
  • It encouraged filmmakers to shoot films outside of studios – by the late 1940s Hollywood films were increasingly shot on location (e.g. Calling Northside 777 (d Henry Hathaway, 1948)).
  • It encouraged Western filmmakers to take an increasingly ‘realistic’ look at the problems of ordinary people. Subsequent examples include Marty (d Delbert Mann, 1955) and the English social realist dramas of the late 50s and early 60s and even with the modern British social realist cinema of directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
  • Its influence today is particularly noticeable in the cinema of Iran, Taiwan and the Netherlands, as well as the independent cinema of America.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

Topic 7 Films

Assigned film

  • The Bicycle Thief (d Vittorio de Sica, 1948)

Associated films

  • Open City (d Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
  • Shoeshine (d Vittorio De Sica, 1946)
  • Paisan (d Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
  • The Earth Trembles (d Luchino Visconti, 1947)
  • Bitter Rice (d Giuseppe de Stantis, 1948)
  • Ways of Love (d Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
  • Umberto D (d Vittorio de Sica, 1951)
  • Two Women (d Vittorio de Sica, 1960)
  • The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (d Vittorio de Sica, 1971).

Topic 8

Film Noir

Film noir is a term invented by French critics to describe a type of Hollywood film made during the 1940s and 1950s, and the words actually mean ‘dark film’.

Film noir tend to have a dark, sombre tone and look, and a cynical pessimistic mood. They tend to be set in a dark underworld of crime and corruption, and involve characters such as loners and femme fatales. Visually the films were different from classical cinema, being heavily influenced by Expressionism. Instead of unobtrusive visual style they emphasised moodiness and atmosphere.

Common Visual Elements of Film Noir

  • black and white photography.
  • lots of scenes taking place at night time and/or in dark-looking interior sets.
  • urban settings.
  • use of low key light – i.e. the ratio of key to fill light is great, creating areas of high contrast and rich, black shadows. The diffuse lighting and shadow patterns of venetian blinds are a constant stand-by. Unlike high key lighting which attractively displays all areas of the frame, low key lighting opposes light and dark, hides faces, creates shadows, etc.
  • close ups that use direct undiffused light to create a ‘harder look’ (i.e. no soft focus to make the actors more attractive).
  • greater depth of field gives all objects and characters in the frame equal weight (similar to what we saw with Citizen Kane).
  • extreme camera angles.

Film noir departed from classical Hollywood cinema in terms of narrative as well.

View extract of Visions of Light documentary

  • This extract on film noir is available on your CDROM, Visions of Light, Todd McCarthy, (1992), The American Film Institute

Common Narrative Elements of Film Noir

  • use of voice over.
  • tough, cynical dialogue and attitudes from its characters.
  • unsympathetic characters. Standard film noir characters included femme fatales, doomed heroes, detectives, psychopaths, corrupt wealthy people, and even the heroes in film noir were usually cynical, disillusioned, corrupt and insecure.
  • flashbacks instead of a linear narrative.
  • plots involving treachery and betrayal, greed, adultery, with lots of sex and violence, alienation, loneliness, and fatalism a la French poetic realism.
  • film noirs were heavily influenced by literature, in particular writers such as James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, many of whom wrote for pulp magazines.
  • The stories were influenced by existentialism, Freudian psychology, the trauma of the Great Depression and World War Two. They often dealt with fate, and absurdity of existence. An example of a common film noir plot – Starts with flashback, is about a doomed man who gets involved with a sexy femme fatale to rob a bank and/or kill someone, ends with everyone dying.

The key period of Film Noir was from around 1941 to 1955.

Key Films of Film Noir

  • The Stranger on the Third Floor (d Boris Ingster, 1940) – sometimes called the first American Film Noir.
  • The Maltese Falcon (d John Huston, 1941) – based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett about private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart).
  • Double Indemnity (d Billy Wilder, 1944) – Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray plot to kill Stanwyck’s husband. Based on a novel by James Cain and co-written by Raymond Chandler.
  • Murder My Sweet (d Edward Dmytryk, 1944) – former 30s crooner Dick Powell changed his image to play tough guy Philip Marlowe. Watch the influence of expressionism in the dream sequence.
  • Detour (d Edgar G Ulmer, 1945) – low budget Film Noir that has become a massive cult hit. The lead role was played by Tom Neal, who was later sent to prison in real life for killing his wife.
  • The Blue Dahlia (d George Marshall, 1946) – Alan Ladd plays a returning war veteran who finds out his wife has been unfaithful while he has been away. (Post-war disillusionment was a common feature of film noir.) Raymond Chandler wrote the script.
  • The Killers (d Richard Siodmark, 1946) – adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, the film which made a star of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. The German director Siodmark also made noirs Phantom Lady (1944) and Criss Cross (1948).
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (d Tay Garnett 1946) – adaptation of James Cain’s famous novel about a woman (Lana Turner) who teams up with her lover (John Garfield) to kill her elderly husband (Cecil Kellaway).
  • Gilda (d Charles Vidor, 1946) – Rita Hayworth does a strip tease (takes off one glove) singing ‘Put the blame on Mame’.
  • Out of the Past (d Jacques Tourneur, 1947) – Robert Mitchum plays a former private eye haunted by his past.
  • The Lady from Shanghai (d Orson Welles, 1948) – Orson Welles falls into the hands of femme fatale Rita Hayworth.
  • The Third Man (d Carol Reed, 1949) – the British do film noir, with this tale of treachery in Vienna. The film has many classic moments, including Orson Welles’ entrance, the zither music theme song, Orson Welles talking about the Swiss, and the final image.
  • Gun Crazy (d Joseph H Lewis, 1949) – another major cult film, about two young lovers going on a crime spree.
  • The Asphalt Jungle (d John Huston, 1950) – a ‘heist’ film with Sterling Hayden in charge of a robbery that goes wrong.
  • Sunset Boulevard (d Billy Wilder, 1950) – a sort of cross between film noir and a horror film with Gloria Swanson as an over the hill movie star seeking to make a comeback. Narrated from the point of view of a dead man, a device later used in American Beauty (d Sam Mendes, 1999).
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955, d Robert Aldrich) – adaptation of a novel by Mike Spillane starring his detective hero, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). This film was the inspiration for the mystery suitcase used by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994).
  • Rififi (d Jules Dassin, 1955) – a French ‘heist film’ made with American director Jules Dassin, whose previous noirs included Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948). Dassin had been forced to move to Europe due to the Hollywood blacklist. The film is best known for its opening silent heist sequence.
  • Touch of Evil (d Orson Welles, 1958) – a final flourish of Film Noir.

Many film noirs were made by directors from Germany who had first hand experience of German Expressionism; the influence on lighting, camera angles, tone, feel and style is quite evident. Mostly they were Jews who left their homeland on Hitler’s rise to power. These ‘refugees’ include Robert Siodmark, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Anatole Litvak, Fred Zimmeman, Edgar Ulmer, Billy Wilder.

Viewing Activity

Obtain a copy of Double Indemnity (d Billy Wilder, 1944) and watch it, noting some of the visual and narrative elements as you watch. You will need these entries for your journal.

Reading Activity

This article on Film Noir is by Paul Schrader, later a director, and a writer of the film noir-influenced Taxi Driver (d Martin Scorsese, 1976).

The next reading discusses the influence of expressionism on Film Noir.


Film Noir in the Modern Era

Although Film Noir was not critically prestigious during its production hey day, its critical reputation first increased in France in the 1950s and in the USA in the 1960s.

It was really forced off American screens and production lists because it’s critical focus on American society was regarded as unpatriotic in the gathering cold war political scene. The operations of the House on Un-American Activities Committee especially under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy had an enormous influence on the American film slate from the late 40’s to the beginning of the 60’s.

As noted at the beginning of this topic, Film Noir is a French term and it was the French critics who first championed film noir. Many of these critics later became directors, eg. Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer.

By the 1970s Hollywood was making Film Noirs again – only this time Film Noirs that consciously harked back to the earlier films, e.g. Chinatown (d Roman Polanski, 1974), Farewell My Lovely (d Dick Richards, 1975).

Examples of modern era Film Noirs include

  • Body Heat (d Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) – a replay of the central situation of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, only with graphic sex and new twists.
  • Pulp Fiction (d Quentin Tarantino, 1994) – opens with a tribute to pulp magazines and updates several noir-ish situations to 90s LA. Filled with noir references.
  • Se7en (d David Fincher, 1995) – Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt track down a serial killer. Pay particular attention to the use of lighting in this film.
  • LA Confidential (d Curtis Harrington, 1997) – set in 1950s LA, and uses noir devices such as narration, and highly flawed, corrupt heroes.
  • Sin City (d Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, 2005) – based on a popular graphic novel, for all the film’s technical wizardry at heart it is old-fashioned film noir – three of them, in fact.
  • Le Samourai (d Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) – noir was always popular in France and Melville, in particular, made a number of cross-over films that that were a tribute to both American and Japanese film making.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.


Topic 8 Films

Assigned film

  • Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder (1944), Paramount Pictures. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • The Stranger on the Third Floor (d Boris Ingster, 1940)
  • The Maltese Falcon (d John Huston, 1941)
  • Murder My Sweet (d Edward Dmytryk, 1944)
  • Detour (d Edgar G Ulmer, 1945)
  • The Blue Dahlia (d George Marshall, 1946)
  • The Killers (d Richard Siodmark, 1946)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (d Tay Garnett 1946)
  • Gilda (d Charles Vidor, 1946)
  • Out of the Past (d Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (d Orson Welles, 1948)
  • Force of Evil (d Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
  • The Third Man (d Carol Reed, 1949)
  • Gun Crazy (d Joseph H Lewis, 1949)
  • The Asphalt Jungle (d John Huston, 1950)
  • Sunset Boulevard (d Billy Wilder, 1950)
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955, d Robert Aldrich)
  • Rififi (d Jules Dassin, 1955)
  • Touch of Evil (d Orson Welles, 1958)

Examples of modern era Film Noir includes

  • Le Samourai (d Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)
  • Body Heat (d Lawrence Kasdan, 1981)
  • Pulp Fiction (d Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
  • Se7en (d David Fincher, 1995)
  • LA Confidential (d Curtis Harrington, 1997)
  • Sin City (d Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, 2005)


Topic 9



In the 1950s and 1960s attention in the West turned to cinema around the world. Non-Hollywood cinema blossomed artistically during this time like no other time since silent film. There were several reasons for this:

  • Hollywood became less strong in the post-war era.
    • A 1948 decision of the Supreme Court of the USA forced the major Hollywood studios to sell off their cinemas. This meant that when they made a film, they no longer had guaranteed distribution.
    • Television emerged in the late 1940s as a major competitor to Hollywood.
    • Hollywood was affected by political turmoil in the 1940s, with industrial unrest and investigations into communist activity. This hampered the community creatively.
  • Film industries in other countries began to flower.
    • Peace and prosperity encouraged other countries to improve their filmmaking.
    • Countries often put tariffs on Hollywood films to encourage local film production.
  • European films actually started earning money at the US box office.
    • There was a growth of film societies, art house cinemas and film festivals. Film going audiences became interested in seeing films elsewhere.
    • In the 50s and 60s European films more liberated than Hollywood ones and American audiences were attracted to the chance to see some nudity and sex. A noticeable early example was And God Created Woman (d Roger Vadim, 1956), starring Brigitte Bardot.
  • Many European films made great artistic strides.
    • They broke conventions, had anti-heroes, played around with film time, and put less emphasis on Hollywood-style story-telling.

Europe’s two leading filmmaking countries during this period were France and Italy.


France and the French New Wave

The New Wave (French: La Nouvelle Vague) is a term for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950′s and 1960s. They included directors such as François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard.

Although never a formally organised movement, the New Wave film-makers were linked by their rejection of classical cinema, their youth, their inexperience (they all made their first film around the same time), and their knowledge of film history.

Background – Cahiers du Cinema

France’s film industry was in a healthy state in the 1950s. There was plenty of government support at every stage of film production, a large reservoir of talent, and a film-going public who genuinely liked French films, particularly thrillers, sex comedies, period pieces, and comedies.

However, artistically the industry was seen by some to lag behind the achievements of the 1930s. In the 1950s, a number of French film critics, led by André Bazin, formed the journal of film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema.

They were influenced by French film critic Alexander Astruc, who advanced the theory of camera-stylo (camera pen), which claimed that film should have a means of expression all its own, free of the limitations of traditional story telling concepts. (Astruc made some films of his own to support these theories but they weren’t very successful).

The Cahiers critics were all young film buffs (or cinephiles) who had grown up in the post-war years watching mostly American films that had not been available in France during the Occupation. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette were among those who worked for Cahiers du cinema.

Cahiers had two guiding principles:

  • a rejection of classical, impersonal style filmmaking (which they claimed was prominent in France during the 1950s), and
  • a conviction that the best films are a personal artistic expression and should bear a stamp of personal authorship (just like great works of literature bear the stamp of the writer). This would later evolve into the auteur theory, which we will discuss later.

New Wave begins

The Cahiers writers wanted to see if they could apply their writings to actual movie making. The success of And God Created Woman (d Roger Vadim, 1956) indicated that young, unknown directors could make successful films, and film financiers became more willing to give young filmmakers a chance.

The French New Wave burst on to the scene from 1958 to 1960, and most of the early films of the French New Wave broke with convention in one form or another.

Examples of these included:

  • Directors who also wrote the screenplay
  • Use of improvisation in dialogue
  • Natural locations used over studios
  • Natural lighting used over traditional lighting set ups
  • Direct sound recorded at the moment of shooting preferred to post-recorded sound
  • Cast of non-professional actors or unknown professional actors
  • Existential themes, such as the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence
  • Fluid camera movement and long takes
  • Use of jump cuts (removing a section of a continuous shot).

Since most of the French New wave films had a low budget, many of these things (hand-held camera, location shooting) were influenced by economics as much as anything else, but they made an immediate impact and electrified world cinema.

Reading Activity

This brief article from Ann Lloyd’s The history of the movies makes for interesting reading.


Jean-Luc Godard & Breathless

Jean-Luc Godard (b 1930) was born into a wealthy Swiss family in France. A passionate devotee of cinema, he worked at Cahiers du Cinema before starting to make short films with his own money.

Breathless [A bout de Souffle] (1960) was Godard’s first feature film. Based on a story by Truffaut and supervised by Chabrol, it is full of reference to American cinema: it is dedicated to the American B-film studio Monogram Pictures, stars an American actor (Jean Seberg), and is full of tributes to Bogart films. There are other cultural references as well. Godard mixes this in with a backdrop of everyday Parisian life shot in a realistic way – hand-held camera work, natural lighting, etc.

Breathless’ most noticeable features are its jump cuts which occur throughout the film. He also uses quick cuts, and long takes with a hand-held camera. The result seems spontaneous, irreverent and totally vital. The film was a hit and made a star of Jean Paul Belmondo.

Reading Activity

The next article discusses Jean-Luc Godard and his movie, Breathless.

Internet Activity

Both of the sites below provide interesting information about Jean-Luc Godard

By the early 1960s Godard was perhaps the most discussed director in the world, with every new film he made being a major event (on the art house circuit, at least). As the 1960s progressed, Godard’s films became less accessible and by the late 1960s, he left Paris for Switzerland, where he still lives, still making films and also experimenting with video and other new media.


Other key films of the New Wave

  • Le Beau Serge (d Claude Chabrol, 1958) – one of the first films of the New Wave (sometimes called the first). Chabrol was perhaps more of a craftsman than the other new wave directors. He partly funded the film with some money that his wife had inherited – a prime example of the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethos that was central to the New Wave.
  • The 400 Blows (d Francois Truffaut, 1959) – an autobiographical film where Jean Pierre Leaud played Truffaut’s alter-ego. Leaud repeated the role for Truffaut in many sequels, including Stolen Kisses (1968) and Love on the Run (1979).
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour (d Alain Renais, 1959) – a highly influential film in regards to its attack on linear construction.
  • Shoot the Pianist (d Francois Truffaut, 1961) – A New Wave version of a gangster film, starring Charles Azanavour.
  • Last Year at Marienbad (d Alain Renais, 1961) – a radical exploration of the formal possibilities of film that is sometimes bewildering but memorable and featuring the fine and graceful cinematography of Sacha Vierny.
  • Jules and Jim (d Francois Truffaut, 1962) – the story of a ménage a trois relationship between two men and a woman.
  • Cleo from Five to Seven (d Agnes Varda, 1961) – 90 minutes in the life of a woman – the story is told in ‘real time’ i.e. the running time of the film corresponds to the length of the time shown in the story.
  • La Jetee, aka The Pier (d Chris Marker, 1962) – a 28 minute black and white film made entirely from a montage of still images. Remade as Twelve Monkeys (d Terry Gilliam, 1995).
  • A Band of Outsiders (d Jean Luc Godard, 1964) – the French title of the film, Bande a Part, inspired Quentin Tarantino to call his production company A Band Apart.
  • Weekend (d Godard, 1967) – Famous for its ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam. The film that marked the end of Godard’s use of narrative cinema – from this point on his work became increasingly experimental and inaccessible.

Several dates are given for the end of the New Wave – some around 1962, others in 1968, during the student uprising in Paris of that year. Regardless, all the leading directors of the New Wave except Godard went on to have successful careers within the established industry.


Influence of the French New Wave

The most overwhelming impact of the French New Wave was the way it showed that film lovers could simply go out there and start making their own films (or so it seemed). Martin Scorsese described it as liberating.

“They gave you the feeling that you could make a film yourself, anyhow, with anyone, no matter what the story was and that you didn’t need expensive materials, famous names or powerful lights. It was enough to go out into the streets and make a film and that it would work if you had the courage of your convictions.” (Cahiers, January 1999 p. 97)

The American independent cinema of the 80s and 90s is clearly influenced by the French New Wave. In fact, low budget filming everywhere is influenced by it.



Auteur is the French word for “author”, hence auteurism refers to a theory of filmmaking in which the director is considered the primary creative force behind a film. The theory emerged from France in the 1950s, led by writers such as Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol who wrote in the cinema journal, Cahiers du Cinema.

They rejected the traditional French commercial cinema and instead embraced directors – both French and American – whose personal signature could be read in their films.

The French directors endorsed by the Cahiers critics included Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Marcel Ophüls. The American directors included John Ford, Robert Aldrich, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles.

Aueteurism was brought to America by the critic Andrew Sarris in the 1960s. Sarris reduced the auteur theory to three principles:

  1. the auteur is technically competent;
  2. an auteur has a personality that manifests itself in recurring stylistic traits that become his or her signature; and
  3. an auteur’s films exhibit a tension between the auteur’s personality and his or her material.

The theory has come under criticism from people who claim that the director cannot be considered the author of a film. They argue that a film is too complex to be attributed to a single person, and point to other influences on a film’s content, including the screenwriter, the producer, the composer, the star, the studio, etc.

However the auteur theory helped give critical validation to the increasing power of the director during the time of the decline of the studio system. And from an audience point of view, the auteur theory is a way of enjoying cinema – to look at various movies by a particular director and see their personal stamp. Hitchcock is a particular favourite.

However, there are other ways of enjoying cinema, too. You can, say, look at it from a feminist point of view, a stylistic point of view, a generic point of view etc.

Internet Activity

This site has some helpful information about auteur theory, and discusses films and directors who were exponents of auteurism.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.

An extract is available on your DVD; Breathless (d Jean Luc Godard, 1960)

Associated films

  • The 400 Blows (d Francois Truffaut, 1959)
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour (d Alain Renais, 1959)
  • Shoot the Pianist (d Francois Truffaut, 1961)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (d Alain Renais, 1961)
  • Jules and Jim (d Francois Truffaut, 1962)
  • Cleo from Five to Seven (d Agnes Varda, 1961)
  • La Jetee, aka The Pier (d Chris Marker, 1962)
  • A Band of Outsiders (d Jean Luc Godard, 1964)
  • Weekend (d Jean Luc Godard, 1967)


British New Wave

While the focus of this Topic has been the French New Wave we have included some information on British cinema at about the same period.

The British New Wave is a term given to a series of films made in the late 1950s and early 1960s that reinvigorated British cinema. British cinema had struggled during the 1930s (with some key exceptions) but really flourished during World War Two, with the emergence of such talents as David Lean and Michael Powell. During the 1950s the British film industry lost many of these talents overseas, and the industry was seen to be in something of an artistic decline until the new wave.

There were two main influences of the British New Wave:

  • The ‘free cinema’ documentary movement of the 1950s. Free cinema refers to a series of low budget films made by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and a number of other directors. They were usually made using hand-held 16mm cameras, shared a sympathy for working class people and used experimental film techniques.
  • The revolution in British theatre and literature that took place in the 1950s. Many British writers were keen to attack the established social order, tackle contemporary problems and introduce new types of characters and themes. Examples were such plays as Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. Many directors of the British New Wave came out of theatre or television, and accordingly were keen to use new types of actors and stars.

The main feature of the British New Wave was that it gave a new voice to the British working class. Up until then, working class characters in British cinema had been marginalised: used for comic relief or as loyal servants. The British New Wave treated them seriously (much like Italian neo-realism did for working class Italians).

The British New Wave also launched an amazing group of talent – directors such as John Clayton, Tony Richardson, Karl Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger, and stars such as Alan Bates, Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Christie, Richard Harris and Michael Caine. These would become central figures in the British industry over the next two decades.

Internet Activity

This brief overview of British New Wave from the British Film Institute provides some interesting links to other sites.


Key films of the British New Wave

  • Room at the Top (d. John Clayton, 1958) – Laurence Harvey plays a working class man who works his way to the top in business.
  • Look Back in Anger (d. Tony Richardson, 1959) – based on the play by John Osborne which introduced the concept of the “angry young man”.
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karl Reisz, 1960) – the film that made Albert Finney a star with his portrayal of a hedonistic working class youth.
  • A Kind of Loving (d John Schlesinger, 1962) – Alan Bates plays a man living in northern England torn between his responsibilities and his dreams.
  • This Sporting Life (d Lindsay Anderson, 1963) – Richard Harris as a rugby league player. Although the film’s downbeat nature saw the film perform poorly at the box office and marked the end of the “social realism” phase of the British new wave.

As the 1960s went on, British cinema became increasingly less interested in ‘kitchen sink’ realism and more interested in formalism. Examples include:

  • Dr No (d Terence Young, 1962) – the first James Bond movie.
  • Billy Liar (d John Schlesinger, 1963) – kitchen sink realism meets fantasy, with Tom Courtney as a working class boy who lives a rich fantasy life.
  • Tom Jones (d Tony Richardson, 1963) – a joyous treatment of the novel by Henry Fielding. Actors wink at the camera, there are rapid montages, self-conscious narration.
  • Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment (d Karl Reisz, 1966) – an artist embarks on a series of escapades to prevent his ex-wife’s impending marriage.
  • If… (d Lindsay Anderson, 1967) – rebellious students at an English school lead a revolution against their school masters.

Hollywood studios invested heavily in British filmmaking but eventually they pulled out at the end of the 1960s and the British film industry nearly collapsed.

However, the spirit of the age still lives on. The films of directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach – Kes (1970); My name is Joe (1998) etc. and Mike Leigh – Secrets and Lies (1996); Vera Drake (2004) still involve social realism. More stylistically bold filmmaking can be found in the work of directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. Trainspotting (1994)).


Topic 9 Films

Assigned film

  • Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard (1960), Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Societe Nouvelle de Cinematographic (SNC). Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • Room at the Top (d. John Clayton, 1958)
  • Look Back in Anger (d. Tony Richardson, 1959)
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karl Reisz, 1960)
  • A Kind of Loving (d John Schlesinger, 1962)
  • This Sporting Life (d Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
  • Dr No (d Terence Young, 1962)
  • Billy Liar (d John Schlesinger, 1963)
  • Tom Jones (d Tony Richardson, 1963)
  • Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment (d Karl Reisz, 1966)
  • If… (d Lindsay Anderson, 1967)


Topic 10


Sweden & Ingmar Bergman

The best-known non-Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was the work of great directors; one of the greatest is Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman.

Prior to Bergman, Swedish cinema was best known for the directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, both of whom moved to Hollywood in the 1920s. (Stiller was responsible for the early films of Greta Garbo).

Ingmar Bergman began making films in the mid-1940s but the film that brought him to international attention was Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Bergman liked to tackle the big issues. Recurrent themes in Bergman’s films are:

  • the search for the meaning of life
  • men’s and women’s inability to communicate with each other
  • the role of the artist in society
  • the search for God, and
  • the emotional cruelty of human beings.

Perhaps Bergman’s greatest accomplishment was taking a subject not normally thought of as cinematic – such as existential or psychological problems – and making great films out of them.

Like many directors, Bergman liked to re-use the same actors. Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann are among the Bergman ‘stock company’, and his regular cinematographer was Sven Nykvist.

Bergman’s other famous films include:

  • The Seventh Seal (1957) – set in the fourteenth century, where a knight challenges Death to a game of chess. A film about man’s search for meaning in life in the context of death’s inevitability.
  • Wild Strawberries (1957) – an old professor (Victor Sjostrom) makes a road trip.
  • The Virgin Spring (1960) – a girl is raped and killed in medieval Sweden. The film was reworked as an exploitation film in Hollywood as The Last House on the Left (d Wes Craven, 1972).
  • Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – a mentally ill woman, her husband, her father, and her brother holiday on a remote island.
  • The Silence (1963) – the title of the film refers to God’s silence. With this film, Bergman began to rely less on traditional dramatic conventions and more on dreamlike narratives.
  • Persona (1966) – discussed below.
  • The Shame (1968) – Bergman’s exploration of war.
  • Cries and Whispers(1973) – takes place at an old English manor and revolves around four women, one of whom is dying of cancer.
  • Fanny and Alexander (1983) – the tale of a theatrical family in 1900 Sweden.

Bergman’s influence on a number of filmmakers can be seen, particularly Woody Allen, who has used Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Some of Allen’s films such as Interiors (1978) and Another Woman (1987) are very Bergman-esque. So, too, are some of David Lynch’s films, such as Mullholland Drive (2001).



Persona is probably Ingmar Bergman’s most challenging and experimental (and confusing!) film. It centres around two women, an actress (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse (Bibi Andersson). Be warned: it puzzles some of the film’s greatest admirers but it is a film that rewards close attention.

Viewing Activity

Hire or borrow Persona.

When watching the film note the following:

  • Bergman’s use of extremely tight close-ups
  • The use of single camera shots throughout the duration of a scene
  • The lack of camera movement
  • How the monologue scene is filmed
  • The exchange of identities of the two female characters – confusion over husband etc.

Internet Activity

This website provides an excellent overview and analysis of the film mentioning the relevance of Bunuel – it is useful to have a look at Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) in relation particularly to the beginning and end sequences in Persona.

This website is ‘a tribute to the great Swedish film and theatre director’.

And here’s another interesting site about Bergman – his life and his films.

Reading Activity

This reading is by Bergman who writes on the making of the film.

Susan Sontag wrote this perceptive piece on the film here.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.


Topic 10 Films

Assigned films

- Persona, Ingmar Bergman (1966), Svenska Filmindustri. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • The Seventh Seal (1957)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • The Virgin Spring (1960)
  • Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
  • The Silence (1963)
  • Persona (1966)
  • The Shame (1968)
  • Cries and Whispers (1973)
  • Fanny and Alexander (1983)


Topic 11


Changes in American Society in the 1960s

The 1960s was a time of immense change for American society and cinema reflected this. Several events happened during the 1960s that were influential on filmmaking:

  • Most Hollywood studios were taken over by large corporations. Warner Brothers had merged with Seven Arts in 1967 and been overtaken by Kinney National in 1969; Paramount was overtaken by Gulf and Western in 1966, United Artists by Transamerica in 1967, Universal by MCA in 1962,and MGM by Kirk Kerkorian in 1969.
  • Most of the moguls and filmmakers who created Hollywood retired or died, allowing new executives and filmmakers to take their place.
  • European films began to be widely seen in art house cinemas. Some even broke out into the mainstream to become genuine hits. These encouraged greater experimentation with filmmaking – e.g. A Man and a Woman (d Claude Lelouch, 1966), Blow Up (d Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966).
  • Almost all the major studios reported losses during 1969-71, losing a cumulative $600 million. The American film-going audience, which in 1946 had been 4,060 million, had plunged to 820 million by 1971. This resulted in a crisis of confidence amongst executives – but, paradoxically, an increase in creative freedom.
  • The counter-culture of the time influenced Hollywood to be freer, to take more risks and to experiment with alternative, young film makers. In addition, political events of the time (the Vietnam War, Watergate) encouraged bucking of the mainstream trends.
  • The established Hollywood movie studios took a decreasing interest in direct control of production. Although studios still dominated film distribution, other areas were increasingly in the hands of independent studios, producers, and/or agents. ‘Packages’ of talent would be assembled and presented to studios.
  • The cheaper cost of on-location filming (using Cinemobiles or film studios on wheels) encouraged more location shoots, or filming in rented production facilities.
  • Censorship was loosened, enabling more sex and violence to be shown on screen. The old Hayes Code was abolished in 1967, replaced by the rating system currently in use.


Emergence of the 'Movie Brats'

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of ‘movie brats’ – highly cinema-literate Hollywood filmmakers who had grown up on television and been to film school or worked as film critics.

The main film schools in the US have been:

  • University of Southern California (USC). Graduates include George Lucas, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, John Carpenter, Ron Howard.
  • University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Graduates include Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader.
  • New York University (NYU). Graduates include Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone.

Another ‘unofficial’ school of the time was the ‘Roger Corman’ school. Many of the leading directors of the present day got an early big break making a film for Roger Corman. Examples include Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, John Sayles, James Cameron, and Robert Towne.

While the films of the ‘movie brats’ did not enjoy a uniform style, they were distinctive in that they frequently referred to other sorts of films. For instance, Brian De Palma became well known for the number of Hitchcock ‘homages’ he included in his films (Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Peter Bogdanovich’s films frequently referenced Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and John Ford.

It should be pointed out that the most successful director of this generation, Steven Spielberg, did not go to film school or work for Roger Corman. However, he, too, was highly cine-literate.

Internet Activity

This website provides a clear film history of the 1970s, with clickable links to discussion of many of the top movies of this era.


Key films of the 1960s to 1970s

  • Dr Strangelove (d Stanley Kubrick, 1963) – a black comedy about nuclear war.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (d David Lean, 1963) – spectacular biography of a British World War I military leader.
  • Bonnie and Clyde (d Arthur Penn, 1967) – story of two famous American outlaws. Discussed in greater detail later.
  • Blow Up (d Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) – the first English-language film of Antonioni. Partly famous because it showed (then rare) full frontal female nudity.
  • The Graduate (d Mike Nichols, 1967) – Dustin Hoffman plays a college graduate who has an affair with one of his parent’s friends (Anne Bancroft).
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1968) – the first science fiction blockbuster. Features perhaps the most famous ‘match cut’ of all time – the cut from the shot of a bone thrown into the air by the ape, to a shot of a spaceship.
  • Easy Rider (d Dennis Hopper, 1969) – the story of two “counter-culture” bikers travelling throughout America. The film became phenomenally popular despite its down-beat ending, and inspired Hollywood to produce a large number of counter-culture films (most of which were box-office flops). Interesting use of visuals, such as jump cuts in scene transitions.
  • The Wild Bunch (d Sam Peckinpah, 1969) – A film which turned the Western on its head, notably through its emphasis on violence and unsympathetic characters. Helped popularise the use of slow motion during action sequences.
  • Five Easy Pieces (d Bob Rafaelson, 1970) – A disaffected man (Jack Nicholson) seeks a sense of identity, not being able to fit in with the ‘establishment’ or the ‘counter-culture’.
  • MASH (d Robert Altman, 1970) – Film about an American medical unit during the Korean War. Note the imaginative use of sound – overlapping dialogue, even spoken credits – and the way Altman uses effects such as bloody operating scenes to increase the appearance of realism. The film also has a loose, improvisational feel.
  • A Clockwork Orange (d Stanley Kubrick, 1971) – advertised as the adventures of a young man (Malcolm MacDowall) whose interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven. Note the stylised use of sets and language.
  • The Last Picture Show (d Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) – nostalgic film about growing up in a small Texas town in the 1950s. It refers cinematically to films of Orson Welles and John Ford, and includes a scene from Red River (d Howard Hawks, 1948).

All the above films departed in some way or another from classical Hollywood cinema. They used devices such as hand held cameras, unusual editing, unsympathetic lead characters, and unresolved endings.

It should be pointed out, however, that during this period more traditional sorts of movies were still being made in Hollywood that were closer to the classical model – The Sound of Music (d Robert Wise, 1965), The Love Bug (1969) and Airport (d George Seaton, 1970).


Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (d Arthur Penn, 1967). A copy of this should be available at most video stores.

This film was selected by author Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as the start of a cycle of ‘new Hollywood’ filmmaking which went through the 1970s and basically ended with Heaven’s Gate (1980). The script was written by Robert Benton and David Newman specifically for French ‘new wave’ director Francois Truffaut. The film was critically slammed by many on its initial release and it flopped. However, it was re-released and became a massive hit.

The film was particularly admired for its leading anti-hero characters, and its mixture of violence, sex, social comment, commentary and glamour. It used techniques associated with European cinema and applied them to American cinema, noticeably the combination of comedy and tragedy, sexual boldness, and use of irony.

Viewing Activity

Obtain a copy of Bonnie and Clyde (d Arthur Penn, 1967) from a video store or library and watch it.

Internet Activity

This website provides a good overview of the movie and associated personnel.

Reading Activity

Writings on the film by Peter Biskind and Pauline Kael are here.


Emergence of Independent Film

Theoretically, ‘independent film’ is American cinema made without Hollywood studio support or creative control. However it is often hard to tell because many films described as ‘independent’ are in fact financed and/or distributed by a major studio.

There has always been independent cinema and filmmaking outside the mainstream, with the most notable examples being exploitation films (i.e. films featuring lots of sex and violence), and films for highly specialised audiences (e.g. those in Yiddish, or those for African Americans). The 1960s were a time when independent and experimental films began to be seen by a wider audience.

Key early independent filmmakers

John Cassavetes – an actor who turned director for Shadows (1959). This film was shot on 16mm and was improvised by a cast of unknowns. His other films as director include Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970).

Kenneth Anger – maker of a number of provocative short films including Scorpio Rising (1964).

Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey – the artist Andy Warhol (often in combination with director Paul Morrissey) made a series of experimental and/or controversial movies. They included Sleep (d Andy Warhol, 1963) (the camera films a man sleeping for eight hours), Flesh (d Paul Morrissey, 1968) and Trash (d Paul Morrissey, 1970).

Russ Meyer – a maker of hugely popular ‘sexploitation’ films, often starring women with large breasts. His best known works include Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill (1966), Vixen (1968) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). The latter was made for a Hollywood studio, but Meyer soon returned to independent production.

Herschel Gordon Lewis – director of Blood Feast (1962) considered to be the first ‘gore’ film.


Cinema Vérité

Cinema vérité is a style of filmmaking where the filmmakers attempt to capture truth on film by observing, recording and presenting reality without exercising directorial control or otherwise using conventional film techniques to affect the situation. The name is a French phrase meaning, literally ‘cinema truth’.

The concept can be traced back to Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertoz, who used objective filmmaking using real people and events in the 1920s, e.g. The Man With the Movie Camera (1929). The movement began officially in France and the USA in the 1950s and flourished in next decade, mostly in the area of documentaries. It received great impetus with the emergence of lighter, more mobile camera and sound equipment. In the USA the movement was known as ‘Direct Cinema’ and tended to treat everything like on the spot news.

Techniques of cinema vérité include:

  • non-intrusive, observational filming techniques
  • use of hand-held camera and portable sound equipment
  • use of genuine locations rather than sound stages
  • naturalistic sound without post-production
  • absence of narration, interviews, scripts, actors, or studios
  • absence of pre-planned set ups and technical refinements that may interfere with the immediacy and spontaneity of the action.

The best known cinema vérité style is the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary. Famous cinema vérité documentaries include:

  • Primary (d DA Pennebaker, 1960) – film that followed JFK during his primary campaign in 1960.
  • Don’t Look Back (d D A Pennebaker, 1967) – documentary about a Bob Dylan tour of England in 1965. Featuring the famous sequence where Bob Dylan holds up cards while “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays on the soundtrack.
  • Woodstock (d Michael Wadleigh, 1970) – documentary about the famous three-day music festival.

Although cinema vérité was initially mostly used for documentaries, the techniques and style have increasingly been used by dramas which aim to appear more authentic. An example is the use of hand-held camera on the TV series NYPD Blue, and ‘mockumentaries’ such as The Blair Witch Project (d Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). Indeed, it is used so often today that it has become something of a cliché.

Internet Activity

You’ll find more about cinema vérité at this site.

Viewing Activity

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.


Topic 11 Films

Assigned film

  • Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn (1967), Tatira-Hiller Productions, Warner Brothers/Seceb Arts. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • Dr Strangelove (d Stanley Kubrick, 1963)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (d David Lean, 1963)
  • Blow Up (d Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
  • The Graduate (d Mike Nichols, 1967)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Easy Rider (d Dennis Hopper, 1969)
  • The Wild Bunch (d Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
  • Five Easy Pieces (d Bob Rafaelson, 1970)
  • MASH (d Robert Altman, 1970)
  • A Clockwork Orange (d Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
  • The Last Picture Show (d Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

‘Independent’ film-makers

  • Shadows (d J Cassavetes, 1959)
  • Faces (d J Cassavetes, 1968)
  • Husbands (d J Cassavetes, 1970)
  • Scorpio Rising (d K Anger, 1964)
  • Sleep (d Andy Warhol, 1963)
  • Flesh (d Paul Morrissey, 1968)
  • Trash (d Paul Morrissey, 1970)
  • Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill (d R Meyer, 1966)
  • Vixen (d R Meyer, 1968)
  • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (d R Meyer, 1970)
  • Blood Feast (d H G Lewis, 1962)

Cinema vérité

  • Primary (d DA Pennebaker, 1960)
  • Don’t Look Back (d D A Pennebaker, 1967)
  • Woodstock (d Michael Wadleigh, 1970)


Topic 12


Jaws as the beginning of an era

“Jaws was devastating to making artistic, smaller films. They forgot how to do it. They’re no longer interested.” – Peter Bogdanovich

The ecology of Hollywood changed as the 1970s went on. The turning point is often said to be the release of Jaws in 1975. Jaws was a massive hit on release. However, there had been blockbuster films before – such as Love Story (d Arthur Hiller, 1970) and The Godfather (d Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and going back to Birth of a Nation.

So why is Jaws so often said to be the beginning of an era?

1. It changed the way a film was released and marketed.

Before Jaws, the usual method of cinema release was ‘platforming’. Films were released in a few theatres in large cities, then gradually released throughout the country. However in 1975 Universal released Jaws to 464 screens across North America, the widest release ever. This release was backed by a saturation advertising campaign.

Jaws was not the first film to use immediate wide release and intense advertising – however such methods had traditionally been the domain of exploitation films. Jaws used exploitation film methods on a large scale. After Jaws, saturation releases in association with simultaneous media promotion on a massive scale became more common.

Jaws was released in summer, which before the advent of air conditioning was not traditionally a popular time to go to the movies. The success of Jaws soon saw summer the most popular time to release a blockbuster.

2. It changed expectations on what was a commercial film and the amount of money a film could earn.

Jaws became the first film in history to hit the $100 million mark at the box office. The film marked the end of a five year slump in Hollywood, and ushered in the first period of sustained economic vitality and industry stability since the introduction of television.

Prior to Jaws, most blockbusters had been aimed at adults – films like Ben Hur (d William Wyler, 1959) or The Godfather (d Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). Jaws’ main audience were children or teenagers who established themselves as Hollywood’s most lucrative audience.

Movie executives naturally wanted to see if they could repeat that $100 million. Accordingly, they ordered in more films with similar elements to Jaws – lots of special effects, aimed at a younger audience, etc. Jaws was followed two years later by Star Wars (d George Lucas, 1977). The era of the summer “blockbuster” had begun.


Cinema of High Concept

“So much of the 70s was about revealing the disparity between what the country said it was, and what the filmmakers perceived it to be, and they had au audience that was interested in that. When the 80s came along, we entered a world of steroided-out superheroes, starting with Superman. Sly, Arnold, even Bruce Willis would re-fight the Vietnam war, and win. Any country that in LBJ’s words had truly become a helpless giant, needed a fantasy where it was not impotent, where it was as strong as Arnold, as invulnerable as Robocop.” (Robert Towne, quoted in Easy riders, raging bulls by Peter Biskind).

Hollywood in the 1980s is often described as the cinema of ‘high concept’ – movies based on stories that could easily be summarized in around 25 words or less. An example is Beverly Hills Cop (d Martin Brest, 1984). You could describe it easily: ‘a fish out of water action comedy about a Detroit detective who goes to Beverly Hills to investigate a friend’s murder and stirs up the local police.’

High concept has always been around in Hollywood, but its emergence as a particular philosophy came at Paramount during the 1970s. The executives at Paramount developed the theory of high concept from their experience of making movies for television where they did not have big stars or pre-sold elements such as being based on a best-selling book. Accordingly, they had to come up with story ideas that sounded attractive in a listing in the TV guide.

Many of these Paramount executives went on to run Hollywood in the 1980s – Barry Diller (Paramount, Fox), Michael Eisner (Disney), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks), Dawn Steel (Columbia), Don Simpson (Paramount).

The 1980s in Hollywood was particularly notable for the following:

  • A rise in a number of films with ‘pre-sold’ elements, such as a sequels or remakes.
  • A rise in the number of films aimed at a young audience. (e.g. films based on comic books or old TV shows).
  • Increased launching of films though saturation release with simultaneous media promotion on a massive scale prior to its release (instead of building up slow word of mouth). A film’s box-office performance in its first weekend of release became crucial.
  • Increased use of spin-offs associated with the film, such as theme park rides and merchandising.
  • Increased spending on things like star salaries, special effects and advertising.

There is no denying the success of some of these films – they have re-asserted Hollywood dominance internationally. American film-going increased in the 1980s for the first time since 1946.

It should also be pointed out that just because a film is high concept it does not mean that it is not enjoyable.

Cable TV networks, direct broadcast satellites, and VHS videocassettes provided extra markets for films. Many films began to be made specifically for these markets rather than theatrical release.


Visual Style of the 1980s

A leading influence on the style of modern filmmaking has been the emergence of rock videos which really gained popularity in the 1980s with the start of MTV pay channel. Directing rock videos became a way for directors to work their way up through the ranks. (Another way is through television ads). Because they enabled directors to experiment and play with the form, unconventional movie making techniques became familiar to audiences. You could try anything out in a music video.

Features of rock video/ad-influenced filmmaking include:

  • rapid editing
  • dizzying camera angles
  • bold visual styles
  • action fore grounded and centred
  • quicker pace and transitions
  • increased use of music and montage
  • slick production values
  • increased use of special effects.

Directors who developed these techniques in advertising and went on to use them in cinema include Tony Scott (Top Gun (1986)) and Michael Bay (Armageddon (1998)).

Some of the most famous feature film directors in recent years to graduate from rock videos include Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich (1999)), Russell Mulcahy (Highlander (1986)), Alex Proyas (The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998)) and Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)).

During the 1980s and 1990s, then, it can be seen that Hollywood filmmaking styles became increasingly formalist, at least visually.

American independent film in the 1980s and 1990s

As Hollywood product became homogenized during the 1980s and 1990s, increasing attention was paid to American independent cinema of this time. These films were often different from the classical Hollywood model. Although they were often plot-less, featured hand-held camera, and had stories without clean resolutions, etc. they became popular with viewers. Many of these films first came to public attention at film festivals – particularly the Sundance Film Festival, and several broke out into the mainstream.

Famous independent films from his period include:

  • Return of the Secaucus Seven (d John Sayles, 1980) – a group of former 60s radicals turning 30.
  • Blood Simple (d Joel Coen, 1984) – film noir, Coen-style.
  • She’s Gotta Have it (d Spike Lee, 1985) – the feature film debut of Lee, who helped prompt a renaissance in African-American filmmaking. The film features a dancing interlude that is Lee’s homage to Hollywood musicals.
  • Sex Lies and Videotape (d Steve Soderbergh, 1989) – drama about the tangled relationships among four people and a video camera. The film that is said to have really started the independent movement because it went from Sundance to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes and became a genuine box office hit. It was an early success for Miramax, who became the leading distributors of independent cinema in the 1990s.
  • El Mariachi (d Robert Rodriguez, 1992) – a film shot for a reported $7,000 budget. Rodriguez went on to have an immensely successful career, including Spy Kids (2001) and the highly expressionistic Sin City (2005).
  • Slacker (d Richard Linklater, 1991) – episodic, day-in-the-life film of several ‘slackers’ in Austin, Texas. An early example of a Generation X film.
  • Reservoir Dogs (d Quentin Tarantino, 1992) – the story of a bungled heist told in non-linear method. Tarantino was consciously influenced by a variety of films, including film noir and non-linear story telling. He used many of the same influences in his other films, especially Pulp Fiction (1994) and is still turning audience heads with his recent Inglourious Basterds (2009).
  • Clerks (d Kevin Smith, 1993) – made for $40,000 and shot in black and white, this film tells the story of a day in the life of a convenience store clerk.


Generation X Filmmakers

Some have argued that there is a particular sensibility of filmmakers who are members of ‘Generation X’ (usually described as people who are born in the 1960s and 1970s). This applies to makers of both independent and mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Some characteristics which are seen as typical of ‘Generation X’ movies include:

  • pop-culture references – e.g. characters talking about TV pilots in Pulp Fiction (d Quentin Tarantino, 1994), characters talking about Return of the Jedi in Chasing Amy (d Kevin Smith, 1997)
  • clever narrative structures – e.g. non-linear narrative of Reservoir Dogs (1993), Out of Sight (d Steven Soderbergh, 1998), Adaptation (d Spike Jones (2002)
  • ‘edgy’ visual style, often influenced by music videos or other non-Hollywood models (French new wave) – e.g. Fight Club (d David Fincher, 1999) – often influenced by music videos
  • less idealistic, celebration of political apathy – e.g. the graduates in Reality Bites (d Ben Stiller, 1993), the students in Pump Up the Volume (d Allan Moyle, 1990).

Reading Activity

This article by Peter Hanson provides a clear perspective on Generation X filmmakers.

And the next article provides an interesting comparison between the classical Hollywood film One Fine Day (d Michael Hoffman, 1997) and the non-classical Clerks (d Kevin Smith, 1993).


Hollywood & Independent

The cross-fertilisation between Hollywood and ‘independent’ cinema is strong, and many filmmakers work on both, such as Steven Soderbergh, Sean Penn and George Clooney.

Much ‘independent’ cinema is financed by the majors. For example, in 1993 Disney bought out Miramax. Universal bought Gramercy, October Films and PolyGram. Other studios started up their own independent film divisions, including Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and Fine Line Films (from New Line).

Most of these divisions remained relatively autonomous and had more financial stability and bigger budgets for production and marketing, allowing independent filmmakers to reach a broader audience.

However, there were clashes. For instance, Disney wouldn’t let Miramax release movies like Kids (d Larry Clark, 1995), Dogma (d Kevin Smith, 1999), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (d Michael Moore, 2004). This resulted in the Weinstein’s leaving Miramax.

What is an independent cinema? Does the source of finance really matter, or is it more a state of mind?


Three Kings

This film is set at the end of the first Iraqi war code-named “Operation Desert Storm” and is a fine meld of action and comedy.

It is not exactly a re-make but it does owe much to an earlier film set in WW2 that tells the story of a group of US soldiers who sneak across enemy lines to grab a secret stash of treasure that the Nazi’s had stolen – Kelly’s Heroes (d Brian G. Hutton, 1970) It is worth a look if you can get hold of it – early Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas work.

While Three Kings is an action film it is one where the action grows out of the narrative rather than the other way round as is the case with most modern action films where the story often becomes a vehicle to keep the action going.


  • its political alertness and the moral considerations at the heart of its focus as the characters change from cavalier to concerned and from superficially mindless to intelligent;
  • the complexity of the ‘enemy’ situation – this is not a film of simple sides and stereotypical characters;
  • the deliberately bleached reality in a forbidding wilderness.

What do you make of the ending?

Internet Activity

This site contains the entire shooting script for Three Kings:

Useful information also at:

Viewing Activity

The assigned film for this week is Three Kings (d David O Russell, 1999). It is an example of a film made by a Generation X director, David O. Russell, whose first two films are generally categorised as ‘independent’ – Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996). Three Kings is generally categorised as a studio film, but one to which Russell brings an ‘independent’ sensibility”.

Make sure you watch your assigned and associated films for this topic, and make suitable notes in your journal.


Topic 12 Films

Assigned film

  • Three Kings, David O. Russell (1999), Warner Brothers Pictures. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films

  • Top Gun (d T Scott, 1986)
  • Armageddon (d M Bay, 1998)
  • Being John Malkovich (d S Jonze, 1999)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (d M Gondry, 2004)
  • Return of the Secaucus Seven (d John Sayles, 1980)
  • Blood Simple (d Joel Coen, 1984)
  • She’s Gotta Have it (d Spike Lee, 1985)
  • Sex Lies and Videotape (d Steve Soderbergh, 1989)
  • El Mariachi (d Robert Rodriguez, 1992)
  • Spy Kids (d Robert Rodriguez, 2001)
  • Sin City (d Robert Rodriguez, 2005)
  • Slacker (d Richard Linklater, 1991)
  • Reservoir Dogs (d Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
  • Pulp Fiction (d Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
  • Clerks (d Kevin Smith, 1993)
  • Chasing Amy (d Kevin Smith, 1997)
  • Out of Sight (d Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
  • Fight Club (d David Fincher, 1999)
  • Reality Bites (d Ben Stiller, 1993)
  • Pump Up the Volume (d Allan Moyle, 1990)
  • Kids (d Larry Clark, 1995)
  • Dogma (d Kevin Smith, 1999)
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 (d Michael Moore, 2004)
  • One Fine Day (d Michael Hoffman, 1997)
  • Clerks (d Kevin Smith, 1993)
  • Spanking the Monkey (d David O Russell, 1994)
  • Flirting with Disaster (d David O Russell, 1996)


Topic 13


Dogme 95

It seems appropriate to end this subject with what might prove the last significant and consciously created movement in film of the western tradition in the 20th century.

Dogme 95 is a collective of film directors founded in Copenhagen in 1995, and it is interesting to look at it in the context of this course because it marked a conscious effort to create a new ‘wave’ of filmmaking, one embracing the technological advances in filmmaking.

Largely the brainchild of Lars von Trier there is an element of humour in the set up of the movement but the basic intention is very clear and serious: to try to put serious and properly distributed filmmaking back into a realm where it could be afforded without the huge budgets that are necessary for even relatively inexpensive mainstream films.

In this aim Dogme shares some intention with the ideas behind the French New Wave that also sought to put filmmaking in the hands of people rather than corporations. The resulting Danish films share something of the freshness, experimentation and tongue in cheek enterprise of the French films of the New Wave. However it should be noted that unlike the New Wave theorists the Dogme manifesto attempts specifically to renounce auteur theory in favour of a sense of artistic co-operation with input more equally recognised and valued.

At the outset principals Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg set down the rules known as ‘The vow of chastity’ -

I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.
  11. Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a ‘work’, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY”

Copenhagen, Monday 13 March 1995

On behalf of DOGME 95

Lars von Trier; Thomas Vinterberg

Dogme films have been made all around the world – they are even given a number on the Dogme website. Some of the rules were deliberately altered (vow 9, for example) but many others have been violated to one extent or another.

The first three films of Dogme movement are Festen (d Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) – available on DVD as The Celebration; Idioterne (d Lars Von Trier, 1998) – The Idiots – and Italiensk for Begyndere (d Lone (pronounced ‘Lerna’) Scherfig, 2000) – Italian for Beginners.

Most of the films retain the very dry sardonic humour that is typical of the Northern European sensibility though some of the later films, particularly as the movement spread from Denmark, abandon the bitter northern humour in favour of more outrageous bad taste.

Von Trier is the most high profile of the Dogme group. His early films include Zentropa (1991), and Breaking the Waves (1996) and there is a TV series made for Danish Television called The Kingdom (1994) that is sometimes bundled for Film Festival exhibition – it is set in the great Copenhagen hospital known as The Kingdom and worth seeing for its biting wit and sense of bleak fun. His later films include Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003).

Internet Activity

A list of the first 32 Dogme films can be viewed at:

More useful information at:


Italian for Beginners

It is nicely appropriate for the last film of the subject to be a film that is a serious but up-beat comedy that makes excellent use of black Nordic humour and combines it with a romantic note.

It is also overdue that a film made by a woman becomes an exemplar of the style being examined. Until recently filmmaking, in the directing and photographing sense, has been pretty much a boys only show. There have been a few exceptions like Leni Reifenstahl (German Third Reich) and Agnes Varda (French New Wave) but they have been rare.

Italian for Beginners (Dogme No. 11), made under the austere principles of the Manifesto is Lone Scherfig’s first international feature and the first Dogme film made by a woman.

As the movement intends it is a small, low budget film set in a small town outside Copenhagen. It is set in a world of fairly tightly interwoven relationships and focuses mainly on six adult characters each of whom have difficulties in their personal lives and all end up learning Italian in evening classes at the local school hall.

Points for consideration:

  • The parallel work situations each with an incipient difficulty
  • The realistic approach to the visuals – camera use and lighting
  • How well does it conform to the tenets of Dogme as you understand them?
  • Does it indicate strengths of the Dogme idea or highlight weaknesses?

Italian for Beginners is an entertaining sweet meat to finish up with. I hope you find it enjoyable – as well as instructive.

Internet Activity

This site also contains a list and links to a number of contemporary films directed by women:

Dialogue script of Italian for Beginners:

Interview between Carol Skian (AFC) and Lone Scherfig:


Hollywood Today

The legacy of ‘high concept’ still lingers on. Hollywood continues to make special effects-heavy blockbusters, with a depressing tendency towards sequels and remakes.

However, Hollywood has demonstrated a consistent desire to push the envelope when it comes to new filmmaking techniques. And there are always interesting films being made out there.

Foreign exchange

Hollywood’s dominance of world screens is one of the most noticeable aspects of globalisation. Foreign markets provide for an increasing percentage of a film’s box office earnings. Even countries with a strong tradition of indigenous cinema such as Japan, India and France and now China have seen an increase in Hollywood product playing in local cinemas.

One of Hollywood’s strengths is that it has always stolen the top filmmaking talent from other countries. However, there is an increasing trend for the traffic to be two way. Historically, foreign directors came to Hollywood and stayed there. Examples included Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, and Fritz Lang. More recent years they include Wolfgang Petersen, Paul Verhoeven, and Adrian Lyne.

Now they go increasingly back and forth. Filmmakers such as Phil Noyce, Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Baz Luhrmann, Wayne Wang and Alfonso Arau make films in Hollywood then back in their home country then back in Hollywood again.

Hollywood is also increasingly co financing films made overseas in local languages. Two recent successful foreign language films, A Very Long Engagement (d Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (d Ang Lee, 2001) were both co-financed by Hollywood studios.

The Passion of the Christ (d Mel Gibson, 2004) was a privately-funded film which became the highest-grossing film in a language other than English.

Documentaries and the comeback of realism

In 2004, the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest-grossing non-fiction film of all time. The 21st. century has been something of a golden age for documentaries that have become more popular than ever before, especially as feature films, e.g. Super Size Me (d Morgan Spurlock, 2004), Bowling for Columbine (d Michael Moore, 2002).

In addition to this, reality television dominates the small screens (that are rapidly getting bigger) not only with those observer programs of various sorts but all manner of information and competition based programs of which Masterchef is a prominent recent example – one that has now gone into Celebrity Masterchef – and so it goes. It seems that realism is challenging formalism for dominance. Is this a backlash to the excesses of the MTV-driven 1980s and 1990s?


One of the most significant technological developments in Hollywood in recent years has been the growth of digital technology. Many feature films are now shot on digital film instead of celluloid. A recent example is Collateral (d Michael Mann, 2005). One-third of the world’s homes will be digital by 2010.

CGI (which has been around since 1979) can be used to make things seem more ‘realistic’ – such as the fight scenes in Gladiator (d Ridley Scott, 1999) and documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs (1999).

Other technological developments include:

  • big screen technology such as IMAX – immerses the audience in a wrap around image of such size that you have to turn your head to follow the action
  • high definition television
  • multimedia
  • interactive games – where the audience helps determine stories and characters
  • virtual reality – the audience interacts with a computerized fictional world.

Some filmmakers are making movies expressly for showing on the internet. For example.

There is a move among some filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh to release films in theatres, on DVD and cable at the same time.

Internet Activity

Useful information on the Indie scene:


The Thing That Hasn't Been Invented Yet

Every generation or so there is a major change in audio visual industry. In the 1900s it was cinemas. In the 1920s, radio. In the 1940s and 1950s, television. In the 1970s and 80s, video. In the 1990s, DVDs and internet.

What will the new thing be; what will the 21st Century bring to birth? If you can guess correctly, you can make a lot of money.


Topic 13 Films

Assigned film

  • Italian for Beginners, Lone Scherfig (2000), Danmarks Radio, Det Danske Filminstitut, Zentropa Entertainment. Extract available on your DVD

Associated films


  • The Celebration (d Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)
  • The Idiots (d Lars von Trier, 1998)
  • Open Hearts (d Susanne Bier, 2002)
  • Brothers (d Susanne Bier, 2004)

Non Dogme:

  • Run Lola, Run (d Tom Tykwer, 1998)
  • Dancer in the Dark (d Lars von Trier, 2000)
  • Dogville (d Lars von Trier, 2003)
  • Adam’s Apples (d Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005)




List of readings


Andrew, D 1982 ‘Breathless: Old as new’, in Breathless, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick & London, pp. 3-20.

Armstrong, R 2005, ‘Narrative and realism’, in Understanding realism, BFI, London, pp. 11-34.

Bergman, I 1994, Extract from Images: My life in film, Arcade Publishing, New  York, pp. 44-65.

Biskind, P ‘One: Before the revolution – 1967’, in Easy riders, raging bulls, Simon & Schuster, pp. 23-51.

Boorman, J, Luddy, T, Thomson, D & Donohue, W (eds) 1995, ‘Founding father: Louis Lumière in conversation with Georges Sadoul’, in Projections 4. Film-makers on film-making, Faber & Faber, London, pp. 3-9.

Callow, S 1995, Extract from Orson Welles: The road to Xanadu, Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 507-519.

Eisenstein, S 1968, ‘Introduction’, in Potemkin: A film by Sergei Eisenstein, GR Aitken (trans.), Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 7-21.

Eisenstein, S 1970, Extract from Notes of a film director, Dover Publications, New York, pp. 26-29.

Eisner, L 1969, ‘The beginnings of the Expressionist film’, in The haunted screen: Expressionism in the German cinema and the influence of Max Reinhardt, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 17-37.

Faulkner, C 1979, Extract from Jean Renoir: A guide to references and resources, GK Hall, Boston, pp. 282-288.

Hanson, P 2002, ‘Born in the USA’, in The cinema of Generation X: A critical study of films and directors, McFarland, Jefferson, NC & London, pp. 9-17.

Hirsch, F 1981, ‘The cinematic background: From Expressionism to Neo-Realism’, in The dark side of the screen: Film Noir, AS Barnes & Co., San Diego, pp. 53-67.

Jowett, G 1976, ‘The development of an industry, 1909-1918’, in Film-The democratic art, Focal Press, Boston, London, pp. 51-73.

Kael, P 1968, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, in Kiss kiss bang bang, Arena, Boston, pp. 47-63.

Kreimeier, K 1999, ‘Was there an Ufa style? The limits of illusion’, in The Ufa story: A history of Germany’s greatest film company, 1918-1945, R. Kimber & R Kimber (trans.), University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 146-157.

Lloyd, A (ed.) 1988, ‘Seeing is believing. Special effects in the early years’, in The history of the movies, Macdonald Orbis, pp. 13-20.

Lloyd, A (ed.) 1988, ‘The cabinet of Dr. Caligan’, in The history of the movies, Macdonald Orbis, pp. 40-41.

Lloyd, A (ed.) 1988, ‘The French nouvelle vague’, in The history of the movies, Macdonald Orbis, pp. 305-311.

McBride, J 1992, Extract from Frank Capra: The catastrophe of success, Faber, London, pp. 302-309.

Robinson, D 1997, Extract from Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligan, British Film Institute, London, pp. 33-41, 76-77.

Schickel, R 1984, ‘Re “Birth”’, in DW Griffith: An American life, Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 212-223.

Schrader, P 1996, ‘Notes on Film Noir’, in Film Noir reader, A Silver & J Ursini, (eds), Limelight Editions, New York, pp. 53-63.

Sontag, S 2000 ‘Bergman’s Persona’, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, L Michaels (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 62-85.