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What makes a Great Film?

Review of the Special Interest Morning
led by Richard Cupidi
on March 14th 2020

We were delighted to welcome Richard Cupidi back to Cranleigh Arts Centre to apply his unique approach to this intriguing question.

Session 1 – Elements of great films

Cinema is probably the most popular art form, but greatness is, of course, subjective.

Orson Welles is quoted as saying that it takes one artist to paint a picture but an army to make a film.

  1. All films are constructed; the elements being directing, script writing, visuals, story-telling, editing, acting, and sound.
  2. Openings and closings – to gain attention and prompt reflection of what has been seen.
  3. Great Scenes – which remain with you as part of an emotional landscape.
  4. Longevity – will the film stand the test of time?
  5. Film “Magic” – the element which is indefinable, but something that stays with the viewer.

Directing  Directors interpret and bring the film to life, controlling vision, style and continuity.  Francois Truffaut was mentioned, and Richard showed us clips from Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky in parallel, which to me illustrated the similarity with which different directors use their skills.

Script  The manner in which characters and dialogue are structured.  Scripts are merely a blue-print, words on a page which require embellishment.  The opening sequence of The Godfather was shown, when the camera slowly pans away from the man asking Don Corleone for help, eventually showing the back of Marlon Brando’s head.  The camera takes the place of our eyes, hiding what cannot be seen.

Visuals – cinematography, lighting and CGI.  Lighting in particular is used for dramatic effect – “painting with light”.  A clip of a scene from Once upon a time in Anatolia demonstrated well the effect of lighting.  Tea was served to 4 dozing men by an attractive young woman in a darkened room.  On the tea tray was a lit lantern, which brought each man to life, and the lighting was all that was necessary.  No speech was involved, but it was not silent, as dogs were heard barking, teacups rattled and the wind was heard - hence the importance of sound.

Story-telling  Must include themes, narrative and complexity.  Andrei Tarkovsky is quoted as saying that Cinema is a mosaic made up of time, movement and meaning.

Editing  Richard considers Sergei Eisenstein to be a master of editing, which establishes the element of time.  He then played the opening sequence from Apocalypse Now, which moved from the tree line with occasional helicopters, to destruction by napalm, then superimposing the face of Martin Sheen and subsequently his whole body lying on a bed with artefacts around his room.  The first words in the film were “This is the End”, part of a song by The Doors.

Acting  Makes the characters come to life.

Sound  Can be from inside or outside the frame.  The shower scene from Psycho was shown – all soundtrack and no speech.  The stabbing is never actually seen, only the blood running into the drain.

Test of Time  The popularity or influence of a film, and its cultural impact.  Every few years a list of the best films of all time is produced, compiled by votes from critics.

Cinema “Magic”  The “Wow” factor.  Inevitably, the scene from Casablanca when “As Time Goes By” is played illustrates that factor.

Session 2 – Examples of great films

Richard offered us two films which he considers great, and which have stood the test of time: Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

Citizen Kane has been voted the “best” film for many years, although dropped to number 2 at the last census, behind Vertigo.  The opening and closing scenes are of particular interest, but are like chalk and cheese in their treatment.

Orson Welles started his innovative direction in the theatre, but came to prominence with his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, presented as a live recording, which caused panic in New Jersey!  As a result, the cinema studios “smelled money”, and gave him total creative licence to make Citizen Kane.  This had never been done before.  Welles drafted the script with Herman Mankiewicz.  In contrast, Casablanca had 5 script writers.  With the licence given to Welles, he was able to alter the set, change lighting, amend camera angles, erect ceilings, dig holes in the floor for the cameras; in effect do whatever he wanted.  On the other hand, Casablanca was a conventional studio production, with fixed cameras and the usual parameters.  Interestingly, the majority of the extras in that film were not English speaking.  It was a love story, whereas Citizen Kane was based on the life of the media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, an amoral person, who attempted to purchase the negative of the film for destruction.

Is it possible to compare these two films?

Citizen Kane poster

The opening to Citizen Kane is designed to confuse.  A two-minute “death” scene, during which the camera surmounts a wire fence, seems to cross continents, following the light in a window until gaining access to the bedroom in which CK lies dying.  His only word uttered is “Rosebud” before dropping a snow globe which breaks on the floor.  Hence the mystery is created, and the rest of the film tries to elucidate and interpret his life in flashback and his struggle for power.  By contrast, Casablanca is a straightforward story, set over a two-day period.

The ending of Citizen Kane reveals a warehouse full of artefacts and boxes collected during his lifetime, shown by way of a long tracking camera shot, the first time that such a technique had been used.  The name “Rosebud” is seen briefly on a sledge being incinerated, and signifies his lost childhood.  In essence, the film is a study in cinematic drama, illustrating the perils of power.

Casablanca poster

Casablanca’s opening shows a mundane map of Africa, identifying the town itself.  The film was made in 1942 using locals as extras.  Rick runs a saloon/club during WW2, but as Morocco was neutral, both Germans and French frequent it.  The interplay between these powers is played out in the film.

It is a simple drama – Rick’s lost love, Ilsa, arrives with her husband, Victor, who is involved with the French Resistance.  All is explicable and there is no moral ambiguity (apart from perhaps the hint of a gay relationship between Rick and Louis, the corrupt policeman).  The film illustrates the classic question of what will win – money, love or power.

There is one “battle” scene in the saloon, fought with music!  German soldiers are in full song in one corner, and so Victor engages the resident band to play “La Marseillaise”, soon taken up with passion by the other customers.  All of the extras knew the words and shed real tears.

Casablanca contains a sparkling screenplay, which apparently was being written as the film was being made.  Its ending plays face on face whereas Citizen Kane had no close-ups.  In the final scene Rick, Ilsa and Victor are at the airport, and significantly, as Ilsa choses her husband over her lover, Victor wears a white hat – the good guy.

Originally, the film ended with Rick and Louis walking away, but the producer, Hal Wallis, was not happy with this, and so was added Rick's concluding line “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.

Thanks to Richard Cupidi as always, for an illuminating lecture, which I found enjoyable, and from which I learnt a great deal about the elements of a great film.

Philip Akroyd

Richard evoking the action and impact of a great film ...

Richard Cupidi