Blog Directory CineVerse: January 2023

A South Korean masterwork that ignites our imagination

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took the world by storm in 2019, further demonstrating the ascendance of South Korean filmmakers and their mastery of the cinematic arts. But a key predecessor to Parasite – a movie that shares many similarities and, one could argue, is equally praiseworthy – is Burning (2018), produced, co-written, and directed by Lee Chang-dong. Last week, we at CineVerse gathered close to the brilliant light and heat generated by this film and conversed extensively about its ample virtues. Our major discussion points are outlined below (warning: spoilers ahead; click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

This is a picture that works on multiple levels, including multiple interpretations. Can you identify two common readings of Burning?

  • A literal, more straightforward analysis is that Ben is a serial killer who enjoys murdering women of inferior status, including Hae-mi. Jong-su suspects Ben of this and ultimately kills him in an act of self-imposed justice and revenge.
    • Evidence of this includes the various jewelry, presumably collected from different female victims, found in Ben’s bathroom cabinet; the sudden appearance in Ben’s building of Hae-mi’s cat, who immediately answers to the name “Boil”; Ben’s sociopathic traits, including lack of empathy and confessing to never shedding a tear; and Hae-mi’s apartment suddenly appears tidy and clean after she disappears, in contrast to the disheveled state it was in earlier.
  • A different reading suggests that most or all of what we see is factual and literal up through perhaps the scene in the middle of the film where the three main characters smoke marijuana. But starting roughly from the point when Ben begins talking about burning greenhouses, the remainder of the tale is metaphoric and imaginary – within the head of aspiring novelist Jong-su, who finally has a good plot for that work of fiction he’s dreamed of writing. Keeping with the burning imagery and motifs, his imagination has been “fired up” by his exposure to Hae-mi and Ben, the former a teller of captivating but possibly untrue stories, the latter a Gatsby-like figure of fascination, and he now has more of those invaluable life experiences to fuel his writing.
    • Evidence of this includes the later scene where we witness Jong-su typing on a laptop in Hae-mi’s vacated apartment; there’s also the sudden and horrific violence Jong-su unleashes upon Ben, followed by the strange behavior of removing his clothes; we also hear a character mention the word “metaphor” and explain what a metaphor is earlier in the film. In this reading of Burning, it’s likely that Ben is an elitist jerk but not a bad guy and that Hae-mi wasn’t killed but instead decided to abandon her old life and start fresh somewhere else.

Motifs and patterns

  • Fire and burning. The burning in this movie takes at least three forms: the burning of kindling or combustible materials; a burning that drives your desire, whether it be sexual, spiritual, or otherwise; and an emotionally volatile burning as represented by anger and jealousy.
  • Hunger, eating, and consumption – consumption of food both real and imaginary, and consumption of combustible materials like cigarettes and marijuana as well as kindling like greenhouses and human bodies.
  • Running. We see both men running in different scenes and hear Hae-mi presumably running and panting on the phone.
  • Dreaming. Jong-su has actual dreams he awakes from as well as aspirations and desires for something better, whether that be Hae-min as a girlfriend or the money and popularity Ben has.
  • Dancing.

Major themes

  • Hunger and desire. Each of the main characters craves something, whether it’s a climb up the social ladder, justice/revenge, or a higher purpose or meaning.
  • Reality versus illusion or metaphor. This film juxtaposes facts and tangible/believable details with representations, speculations, possible fantasies, lies, and beliefs.
    • Hai-me demonstrates how you can effectively imagine something, such as eating an invisible tangerine. She says “Don’t think there is a tangerine here. Just forget that there isn’t one. That’s the key. The important thing is to think that you really want one. Then, your mouth will water and it’ll taste really good.”
    • It’s also possible Hai-me is lying about things, like owning a cat.
    • Deep Focus Review blogger Brian Eggert wrote: “Burning revels in the ambiguity between the known and perceived, inhabiting the vast space between the objective and subjective. His thorny character study, its currents of class and masculine identity shaping many of its scenes over the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, portrays its themes in a way that raises more questions than it answers. And despite the viewer’s uncertainty about the motivations behind every character, or whether what unfolds in the film is what actually occurred or just our perception of it, the filmmaking somehow leaves us more engaged than if everything had been delivered gift-wrapped with a tidy bow. Lee’s interest in ambiguity further sculpts his use of the central mystery, how the characters have been written and performed, and where he chose to shoot the film.”
  • Class inequality. Jong-su represents the lower class who must struggle in Korean society and who yearns for opportunity and money. Ben symbolizes the upper class and privileged in society who seemingly don’t have to work for the wealth and privilege they enjoy. Hae-mi stands between them as someone from the lower class who aims to ascend the social ladder and fit in with the upper crust. A subtheme of a classic love triangle also fits within this concept.
    • Many believe this is a sociopolitical film whose key subtext preaches that these class divisions are a tinderbox waiting to ignite. With this reading, the message of class division is tied with the hunger and metaphor themes. Burning is perhaps saying that, like the imaginary tangerine, hunger by the lower classes for a better life can’t be satisfied by pretending, fancy words, illusory concepts, or trickery. If the underprivileged aren’t given real, tangible solutions, the cycle of resentment, jealousy, isolation, and ultimately violence against the empowered and upper class will continue.
    • Slant Magazine critic Niles Schwartz wrote: “Jong-su, working through his literary mind, scornfully sees (Ben) as one of South Korea’s many Gatsbys, for whom work and play are indistinct, living the good life on the backs of people like Hae-mi, who will be handily disposed in time. Lee is drawing an analogy between how both authors and sociopolitical systems cast real people as abstractions or metaphors. The author or artist heightens life with metaphor, while the exploitative materialist cheapens it, and for Ben, the employment of “metaphor” implies something destructive and not creative.”
  • Life is uncertain, mysterious, and unfair. There are few certainties in this story and many mysteries. From Jong-su’s perspective, his lot in life is unfair; from Ben’s point of view, assuming he is innocent of killing people, it’s undeserved that he is brutally murdered by Jong-su.
  • The inability to escape your fate. Ben talks about lives as predestined by DNA or nature. Proof of this theme is played out by Jong-su, who eventually demonstrates violence as his father did.

Similar works

  • Parasite
  • Vertigo
  • Taxi Driver
  • Gone Girl
  • Mulholland Drive
  • The Vanishing
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Memories of Murder
  • The Mad Monkey
  • Classic works of American literature, including The Great Gatsby and stories by William Faulkner, including his story Barn Burning

Other films by Lee Chang-dong

  • Poetry
  • Secret Sunshine
  • Oasis
  • Peppermint Candy
  • Green Fish


You can't teach an old instructor new tricks

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

In 1951, a film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1948 play The Browning Version was released that garnered high praise for its fidelity to as well as expansion beyond the source material. A 1994 remake starring Albert Finney contemporized the tale and introduced the story to a new generation. A close examination of the latter edition was undertaken by our CineVerse group last week; here is a roundup of our primary discussion points (click here for a listen to a recording of our group discussion).

In what ways is Andrew humiliated throughout the story?

  • He is forced to leave the school due to a change in the curriculum, although his health condition is cited by the school as the main reason.
  • His wife is cheating on him with another teacher, and many around the school are aware of this possibility.
  • He is denied a pension by the school.
  • He is disliked by most students and referred to as the “Hitler of the fifth form,” which he is embarrassingly informed about by his teacher replacement.
  • The headmaster asks him to deliver his graduation farewell speech first, not second, because it is feared that his speech will be anticlimactic compared to that of the more popular teacher who is slated to give the second speech.
  • His wife Laura embarrasses him in front of a table of peers by lying about Taplow’s reasons for gifting Andrew the book.

Can you cite examples of how Andrew is uplifted via generous gestures from others?

  • The teacher replacing him compliments him and shows Andrew respect.
  • Two past students say hello to him and one offers financial guidance.
  • Taplow gives Andrew the “Browning version,” a rare and special translation of Agamemnon, and inscribes a moving personal message inside.
  • Frank, his wife’s lover, feels sorry for Andrew and tries to console him with comforting words and advice.
  • Andrew is given a long round of applause by students, teachers, and attendees at the graduation ceremony following his apologetic speech.

Major themes

  • The passing of an era, inevitable obsolescence, and replacing the old and archaic with the new. Andrew and the subjects he loves are being ushered out, to be replaced with a younger teacher and more contemporary languages and studies. He’s become a fossil of a bygone time and no longer fits within the modern world.
  • How failure and success can define your life and its value if you allow them. Andrew regards himself as a failure in academia, marriage, and life overall. Unwilling or incapable of showing emotion or expressing kindness or empathy, he’s unpopular, unloved, and disrespected by many around him. This story suggests the pitfalls of attempting to gauge your self-worth by using strict concepts of failure and success, and the benefits of revamping this mindset and finding joys and triumph in even the smallest acts and gestures, such as Taplow’s bestowing of the Browning book and tableau’s inscription within it.
    • According to LitCharts: “The quote (in ancient Greek) reads: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” Taplow thus offers Andrew a redemptive perspective on his life, suggesting that he deserves the respect and understanding of a master and that his lack of sociability was more a reflection of his incompatibility with society’s strict definition of success than some deeply embedded personal failure. In fact, as the quote is both well-chosen and transcribed perfectly in Greek, the inscription represents a quiet triumph of Andrew’s teaching… Rattigan shows how a shift in perception—a freeing up of the restraining characteristics of a particular kind of success—empowers an individual to take control of their own world; and though it’s not certain Andrew will follow through on this powerful shift, the possibility is suddenly there where previously it wasn’t.”
  • You get what you give in this life. Andrew’s famous words, “you have obtained exactly what you deserve – no less, and certainly no more,” prove karmically fitting in describing the state of his life as the story progresses.
  • Sometimes it’s the simplest and smallest events and details in life that can make the biggest difference. Taplow’s kind deed triggers major changes: It causes Laura to, like Clytemnestra, wound her husband, Frank to reject Laura and attempt to befriend Andrew, and Andrew to separate from Laura.
  • Acceptance versus rejection, or popularity versus disfavor. Frank is an instructor beloved by his students with a fun and exciting approach to teaching; Andrew, a teacher who is unliked and secretly disparaged by most of his pupils, is stodgy, rigid, and intractable in his educational style.

Similar works

  • Goodbye Mr. Chips
  • Dead Poets Society
  • The Emperor’s Club
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • To Sir With Love

Other films by Mike Figgis

  • Leaving Las Vegas
  • Internal Affairs


Hitchcock casts a long shadow of excellence across this 80-year-old film

Friday, January 20, 2023

Alfred Hitchcock called Shadow of a Doubt his favorite among all the pictures he directed. And it's easy to see why: Here is a film endowed with richly layered characters; a brooding atmosphere of infiltrating evil contrasting against a bright and cheery family milieu; memorable performances by Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright—perhaps the best of their careers, with Cotton playing against type as Uncle Charlie, a rare villain role in his acting career—and masterfully composed shots imbued with stylized lighting that evoke the very best of the classic Hollywood period and the encroaching influence of film noir.

We at CineVerse took a fresh drive behind the wheel of this cinematic vehicle last week and had plenty to talk about, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode celebrating Shadow of a Doubt’s 80th anniversary, click here).

Has the movie stood the test of time? Why is it worth honoring 80 years after its release, and why and how does Shadow of a Doubt still matter?

  • This is a memorable milestone in Hitch’s oeuvre thus far because he infuses cynicism, pessimism, and mistrust into his depiction of a wholesome, clean-cut, old-fashioned sleepy little burg. The pessimism and cynicism about small-town USA are remarkable when you ponder that this is a film shot and released in the middle of World War II, a time when America and Hollywood tried to emphasize positive, morale-boosting messages.
    • David Keyes of The Cinemaphile Blog wrote: “This thoughtful 1943 noir – about a mysterious family man with a dark history – emerges, even now, as a watershed moment…Movies about characters with those sorts of dubious backgrounds had, up to that point, belonged almost exclusively to the world of B-movies, and major film studios dared not touch on subjects perceived as cynical for fear of undercutting broad appeal.”
  • What makes Shadow work so well? Hitch builds mood, atmosphere, and disquiet in a seemingly benign, charming, and comfortable Everytown USA locale. The suspense here is a slow builder, insidiously creeping into a place the characters feel safe, invading a middle-class home and usurping the safety and values of Norman Rockwell-era America. This is apple pie Americana, but with a burnt crust, a critique of assumed American innocence.
  • Several critics regard Shadow of a Doubt as possibly the purest distillation of Hitchcock’s style and common themes and the director’s first American masterpiece; consider that he had already directed five films in the States prior to Shadow. Even though his first U.S. feature, Rebecca, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, much of that glory is shared with producer David O. Selznick. Many feel this is a more personal work that surpasses Rebecca and stands as his finest American feature up to this point in his filmography.
  • It matters that the screenplay was co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder, a talent purposely chosen by Hitchcock to weave a wistful but twisted vision of a small town that is threatened by a secret dark force. While several people contributed to the story, Wilder was an ideal hand-picked choice by Hitchcock because he was the author of Our Town, a popular play that depicts everyday life in a small American town and that uses minimal props and scenery. Shadow of a Doubt seems cut from this same cloth.

Can you trace any influence this movie had on the cinema or filmmakers who may have been inspired by it?

  • Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), movies that also explore danger lurking in seemingly safe suburban communities, are two inheritors of the plot and design of Shadow of a Doubt.
  • The Stepfather (1987), Bad Influence (1990), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), What Lies Beneath (2000), Seven (1995), and Stoker (2013) are six contemporary examples, and The Usual Suspects (1995) invokes Shadow of a Doubt somewhat in the character of Keyser Soze, who walks with a fake limp much like Charlie emerges from the train with a hobble and a cane.
  • There were also two remakes: Step Down to Terror (1958) and a 1991 made-for-TV feature also called Shadow of a Doubt.
  • It’s noteworthy that Hitchcock admired the low-budget horror films of RKO producer Val Lewton, including Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), which each depict malignancy and menace lurking about in everyday settings with modern Americans and/or small towns.

Hitchcock said that Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite among the films he directed. Why do you believe he held it in such high regard?

  • Biographer Donald Spoto called this film “the first spiritually autobiographical film of (Hitchcock’s) career.” To provide context, the director’s mother grew gravely ill back in England while the screenplay was written, with her son not able to visit due to the challenges of traveling abroad during World War II. During production, she passed away, and Hitchcock poured a lot of his heart and soul into the movie, especially its more idealized vision of domestic bliss found in Santa Rosa, California.
  • Note that, like Hitch’s own mom, the mother character is named “Emma.” Interestingly, Emma represents the last time a major maternal character (the mother of the lead character or villain) is shown in a positive light in a Hitchcock film; most subsequent mothers would exhibit evil or undesirable qualities.
  • Hitchcock shot most of the picture on location in Santa Rosa, the setting of the story; he appreciated the amiable nature of this town and its people, making the shoot a pleasant one.
  • Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other works of suspense, this one has more fully realized characters, especially the two Charlies, who form a symbiotic relationship. Hitchcock was quoted as saying he was particularly fond of this movie because “it was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense. Usually in a suspense story, there isn’t time to develop character.”
  • Interestingly, the plot is far from airtight or completely credible. Ruminate on how Uncle Charlie evades capture several times, how improbable it is that a niece would kill her uncle or permit him to leave town in exchange for her keeping quiet about his secret, and how the detectives are dimwitted amateurs who don’t abide by jurisdictional boundaries. Yet, plausibility isn’t what Hitchcock is going for here.

What directorial choices by Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt are most impressive?

  • Here, the artist prioritizes subtlety and simplicity over grandiose visuals, sensationalistic storytelling, glamorous starlets or marquee stars, showy set pieces, or gimmicky techniques, which causes us to focus more on the central thematic conflicts and the well-developed characters. Recall how Joe Newton says to his friend Herbie when discussing a detective story, “those writers from the other side get too fancy,” which serves as an in-joke about how this screenplay was kept simple and written by Americans (half true). The plot is lean, the setting is relatively mundane, there isn’t much action, and all the characters aside from Uncle Charlie are middle-class normies who lead uninteresting lives.
    • The personification of Uncle Charlie is a primary fuel that drives the engine here, as he emerges as a fascinatingly complex individual with idiosyncrasies and curious traits that create an unpredictable but colorful character. He’s irresponsible about loose cash and not exactly careful about covering his incriminating tracks, despite saying that it’s the little details that are most important to him. He’s outspoken and verbally insensitive, as when he makes callous remarks about Joe and his job at the bank, yet he’s careful not to reveal too much about his past. And though he’s capable of terrible acts of violence and psychopathic tendencies, he’s beloved and trusted by his family.
    • Peter Bogdanovich said in an interview that Hitchcock never makes his villains cliché, that “he goes out of his way to give this (Uncle Charlie) character as much depth as possible.”
  • Consider Hitchcock’s ability to insinuate disturbing violence, infuse a subversive tone, and suggest the slightest hint of incestuous sexuality without depicting anything graphically. We are never shown Uncle Charlie strangling any of his victims, and the most inappropriately creepy he gets with his niece is when he gifts her a ring and puts his arms around her. Yet the implications and potentialities of these sins churn the waters enough to make it a tense journey for viewers.
    • Recall how often the director places Uncle Charlie in profile, often in a close-up or medium shot. In these shots, he faces left or right, at roughly 90 degrees from the lens and other characters in the shot, perhaps suggesting that there are multiple sides to the uncle’s character, including a side we can’t figuratively or literally see in that moment.
  • As further evidence of the director’s visual savvy, he repeats dreamlike imagery of dancers waltzing hauntingly in Uncle Charlie’s mind, employs a dramatic push zoom to emphasize the ring on Young Charlie’s finger, and uses canted camera angles to suggest a world made crooked by the uncle’s presence. And it’s a nice touch to have Uncle Charlie break the fourth wall by turning to look directly at the camera—at us—in a key shot.
  • As with so many of his works, Hitchcock compounds suspense often by giving the audience more information than the protagonist—in this case, by hinting at a dark side to Uncle Charlie that his niece doesn’t learn about until midway through the picture. He further builds tension by suggesting that exposing the truth about Uncle Charlie will harm the Newton family.
  • Also, the filmmakers cleverly use a comedic subplot to relieve and subtextually comment on the tension: the humorous friendship between Joe Newton and Herbie, who regularly meet to discuss the perfect murder.

What significant messages or themes from Shadow of a Doubt are worth examining?

  • Rot and infection beneath a pristine surface. Santa Rosa is an idyllic small town with friendly traffic cops, residents who know your name, and kids who respect their elders and say bedtime prayers. Yet this village is not as wholesome as it looks since a mysterious stranger came into town. Shadow of a Doubt is about the intrusion of evil into a typical American household via a Trojan horse of sorts. And the unsettling nature of this relationship is that the murderer is a relative who shares the same blood and genes as the decent, morally upstanding family members whose home he has infiltrated. This suggests that every other member of that clan—particularly Young Charlie—can become infected with or victimized by Uncle Charlie’s malevolence. Hitchcock said that the overarching theme of Shadow of a Doubt is: “Love and good order is no defense against evil.”
    • Hitchcock makes the viewer second guess the sanctity and unimpeachable ideals of small-town society by permitting Uncle Charlie’s dark influence and negative worldview to seep into Young Charlie’s mind.
    • The uncle tries to taint her perception of the town and the people she loves, telling her: “You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell.”
    • In the same scene at the restaurant, young Charlie sees as a cautionary figure the morose waitress who serves them—a reflection of what she could become in the years ahead.
    • Young Charlie, a kind, chaste, gentle teenager, also finds a festering and violent animosity within herself that compels her to threaten violence. She tells her uncle: “Go away or I’ll kill you myself.”
  • Twinning, doubling, and doppelgangers. We have two Charlies at opposite ends of the spectrum: one young, one old; one sweet and innocent, one devious and devilish; one from the west coast, the other from the east coast. Visually, the film links them by using symmetrical shots and poses, cross-cutting action that juxtaposes one with the other, and mirrored events like both attempting to send telegrams. The uncle even remarks: “We’re sorta like twins.” Young Charlie conjures up a sinister twin of herself, as well, when she says, “Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” suggesting a darker facet of her personality.
  • A human monster in plain sight. Uncle Charlie is depicted as a kind of horrific psychological vampire. Ponder how he prefers to lie in the dark behind curtains, evades capture by the two gumshoes, doesn’t appear winded from the chase, insists on not being photographed, and seems to possess a telepathic power to communicate with his niece. Later, a character mentions the story of Dracula.
  • Toxic misogyny. Uncle Charlie says: “Women are fools—they fall for anything,” and “The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
    • According to film scholar Michael Ryan: Uncle Charlie “uses his sex appeal for power and power alone. Not even for money-- which he acquires from his serial murders only to dismiss it. What he wants is to be superior to the human race and control everyone, especially women. He is absolutely isolated. He seduces only to conquer— and destroy.”
  • Subversion and perversity. Hitchcock subtly suggests a sexual conflict between the two Charlies. She tells him: “We're not just an uncle and a niece. It's something else. I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have the feeling that inside you somewhere, there's something nobody knows about.” Also, remember how the uncle gives his niece a ring as a gift and places it on her finger in a manner slightly similar to a wedding proposal. And after she learns the truth about him, she appears more as a jilted lover betrayed by him than a disappointed niece.
  • Shadows and doubt. The film is aptly named, as we see shadows fall across the screen as foreshadowing elements, such as the darkness that falls across the train when it pulls into the Santa Rosa depot and the black billowing smoke it belches out; the high contrast lighting sometimes used in scenes with Uncle Charlie; and the visible doubt that creeps into Young Charlie’s face in several later scenes.
  • Suppression is the lesser of all evils. Young Charlie must squelch her urge to kill or unmask Uncle Charlie to preserve the appearance of normality and wholesomeness that Santa Rosa requires to maintain stability, reputation, and purity. Remember that Uncle Charlie’s crimes go unpunished and unexposed; he’s given a hero’s funeral at the end, which prevents the town from being forever stained.
    • Slant Magazine critic Fernando Croce posited: “Shadow of a Doubt is about awakening, the simultaneous darkening and enlarging of the world…Young Charlie must muffle her knowledge as to not disturb the order of things…Hitch’s habit of taking us to the edge of the abyss and then returning us with a wink, so often resulting in unconvincing happy endings, here seals one of his most pitiless visions of a monstrous cosmos admitted only to be denied.”
  • Dark secrets and skeletons in the family closet.

Are there any problematic elements that don’t pass muster 80 years later?

  • Younger sister Ann seems a bit too precocious and articulate to be believable.
  • We see Uncle Charlie pass over a stack of forty $1,000 bills to the banker, a denomination that has long been out of circulation. Today, that would be like carrying $689,000 in your pocket adjusted for inflation.
  • More problematic are silly plot movers like Young Charlie being afraid to tell her parents or the authorities that her uncle is trying to kill her and the detectives agreeing not to arrest him in town to spare a scandal.
  • One obvious creaky component is the black porter on the train, yet another example of a classic Hollywood film in which characters of color were often limited to tiny roles as servants to whites.

What is Shadow of a Doubt’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • This is a film that truly picks up steam as it progresses, hitting a higher gear by the midway point, which is when Young Charlie discovers the unsavory facts about her uncle and we witness her sunny disposition depart, replaced by distrust, fear, and hatred. Earlier, the niece had expressed disbelief and exhibited naivete about her uncle’s seemingly shady side, but as the tale progresses she demonstrates savvy intuition, healthy skepticism, cautious agency, and bravery in standing up to Uncle Charly. All of these qualities help her survive and keep the town’s purity and incorruptibility intact. It’s this transformation of Young Charlie that serves as one of Shadow of a Doubt’s greatest gifts.
  • Thematically, this is an exceptional loss of innocence and coming-of-age story in which a wide-eyed, gullible girl comes to realize that the world isn’t simply black and white—it has layers of gray that can cloud your judgment. She learns that some of the people populating this sophisticated world—including trusted kin—may harbor evil secrets and terrible sins that can leave a harmful residue on loved ones. Young Charlie is forced to grow up quickly and shield her family from this danger, even stifling the truth at the very end when unsuspecting townspeople gather to mourn her uncle’s death. Fortunately, despite her pseudo telepathic connection to Uncle Charlie and the fact that, as he says, “the same blood runs through our veins,” Young Charlie ultimately won’t be corrupted by his hate or negativity, and she’ll have her family and a partner in the detective to remind her that the world is full of good people.
  • The way Hitchcock and his collaborators slowly but consistently erode Young Charlie’s veneer of blind bliss and familial exuberance, thickening her skin for the harsher realities and lethal dangers to come, makes for a captivating character study. The uncle may be the more fascinating figure in Shadow of a Doubt. But the niece’s conversion from an innocent adolescent to an awakened young adult burdened by the unspeakable—a shameful family secret she’ll probably need to take to her grave—help elevate this film to masterpiece status in the eyes of many.


Cineversary podcast celebrates 80th birthday of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #55, host Erik Martin and guest Carrie Rickey, former film critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, explore the hidden rot beneath the white picket fences of a small town and the sinister secrets that threaten to destroy an all-American family as they celebrate the 80th birthday of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
Carrie Rickey
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Why Rules still rules

Monday, January 9, 2023

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) set new cinematic rules of its own that many filmmakers followed and still abide by. Often ranking just behind Citizen Kane on the Sight and Sound poll conducted every 10 years, this masterwork can be challenging to fully appreciate on first watch. Last week, our CineVerse group honed in on what makes Rules such a fantastic film (a recording of our group discussion is available here). Here’s an outline of our discussion points.

What did you find memorable, distinctive, unexpected, or different about The Rules of the Game?

  • The film is an audiovisual wonder for a 1939 feature.
    • Years before Orson Welles and Greg Toland astounded the film world with deep focus photography in Citizen Kane, Renoir was experimenting with this technique in The Rules of the Game, creating remarkable shots that often feature the foreground, middle ground, and background in focus, with all three planes occupied by characters and action. It helps that Renoir shot within expansive rooms and deep corridors that enable the players greater spatial latitude.
    • In addition, the fluidity of camera movement is impressive throughout Rules, as evidenced by plentiful pans, trucks, and graceful moves between rooms and characters. In fact, it’s estimated that half of the shots in the film involve a moving camera. Long before mobile cameras were invented, the filmmakers seemed to flit and float between spaces with a nimbleness and elegance that makes the picture feel more kinetic and alive. Equally impressive is that Renoir doesn’t overly rely on reverse shots or close-ups; two-shots dominate in Rules, but the camera movements break up any monotony that excessive two-shots would otherwise create. Renoirs flowing camera allows the narrative to unfold more efficiently.
    • The sound design and audio approach in Rules are also extraordinary for the time, as we often hear overlapping dialogue and simultaneous background sounds that break from the linear audio conventions of that era.
  • Interestingly, two-thirds of the movie was unscripted, thanks to Renoir permitting his players to improvise their dialogue. Renoir also revised his script during shooting and enabled his actors to fine-tune their characters as shooting progressed. Consequently, much of what we see feels organic, spontaneous, and authentic, including many of the performances, conversations, and actions.
  •  The hunt serves as the standout sequence of the movie, haunting us with its quickening shots, sudden and percussive violence, and disturbing realism (these are real animals actually being killed).
    • Criterion Collection essayist Alexander Sesonske wrote: “The centerpiece of Renoir’s intricate structure, the pivot on which the action turns, the symbolic core of his critique of French society, is the hunt, the scene that most clearly reveals the volcano that seethes beneath the dancers. In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die. Surely one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema.”
  • Arguably, there is no main protagonist or antagonist, no hero or villain of the story. This is more of an ensemble piece in which the rules themselves are the villain and source of conflict.
  • While the film on one hand serves as a scathing criticism of these characters and what they represent, it also shows their good attributes. Renoir demonstrates empathy and humanism for these characters, making many pitiable and tragic in counterbalance to their immoral and negative qualities.
  • Likewise, the film has interesting tonal shifts, largely because Renoir shows his characters' negative and positive sides.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has been part of the film canon for so long that it’s valuable to remind audiences how gloriously alive and just plain fun it is. Low comedy walks hand and hand with tragedy and beauty throughout; the film is frothy one minute, nearly apocalyptic the next, and so you’re never fully allowed to gather your bearings. The Rules of the Game has a tone that could be symbolized by the escalating merry-go-round that prominently plays into the climax of Strangers on a Train—up and down, all around and seemingly totally out of control…The Rules of the Game is so graceful with its volley of character trade-offs, both romantic and platonic, that you can’t help but fall in a kind of love with it, a qualified love that still understands the sourness, the sadness, that gently informs every part of the film.”

Major themes

  • Social hierarchy and class distinctions. This story shows two social classes: the upper-middle-class that occupies the upstairs, as represented by Robert, Christine, Andre, Genevieve, and Octave; and the working/servant class who dwells downstairs, exemplified by Schumacher, Marceau, and Lisette. This is a tale of the haves and the have-nots and the contrasts between these classes, but it also compares them by presenting “matched opposing pairs.”
    • Sesonske further wrote: “For characters, (Renoir) began with…jealous husband, faithful wife, despairing lover, and intervening friend. Doubling this group then yielded the central opposing pairs in The Rules of the Game: matched sets of husbands, wives, lovers, mistresses, and friends—one set among the masters, the other among the servants, thus evoking one of Renoir’s perennial themes, the relations among classes.
  • The dangers of moral indifference. The Rules of the Game was intended as an allegorical critique of the haute bourgeoisie and ruling class in France in the late 1930s, whose apathy about and appeasement of the spreading Nazi threat resulted in disastrous consequences for France and Europe. The hunting scene and its disturbing visuals serve as a metaphor for the real-world brutality coming to Europe as well as a foreshadowing of the later killing of Andre, an innocent victim of violence.
    • Consider the scene where Schumacher is chasing after Marceau with a gun on the upper level as bullets whiz around the upper-class occupants, most of whom don’t seem distressed by this threat of violence and injury.
    • Ponder, too, how Robert downplays Andre’s killing as an accident, convincing his party attendees that these unfortunate circumstances will all be sorted out later. No one expresses shock or alarm about the death or the chaos that has ensued earlier.
    • Additionally, recall the “dance of death” performed by the party attendees dressed as skeletons and ghosts as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” music plays. This dance is another example of how the upper class is acting frivolously and silly, even mocking death metaphorically as Hitler’s forces begin to close in around Europe.
    • Renoir said of his film: “It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society. And it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind, to the world hopefully, was not to talk of that situation, but tell a frivolous story… I had desired to do something like this for a long time, to show a rich, complex society where—to use a historic phrase—we are dancing on a volcano.”
  • Playing by and breaking the rules. This film suggests that there are often unfair and inconsistent rules set by society and played in the game of love.
    • This group of characters – standing in for French society – conforms to etiquette, codes, and conventions that other societies would find immoral, such as the freedom to cheat on your partner and have both secret and open affairs that prioritize sexual satisfaction. Two characters – Andre and Schumacher – break these rules by expressing romantic love and devotion to one person, acting idealistically and sincerely, and (in the case of Schumacher) adhering to marriage vows with utter seriousness. It’s no coincidence, then, that these two characters suffer the biggest consequences by the conclusion.
    • This theme may also help explain Octave’s famous quote: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Substitute the word “reasons” with “rules” and it’s easy to decipher that life and love are difficult to navigate when everybody sets and plays by their own rules.
  • Insiders vs. outsiders. Robert, Christine, Genevieve, and most of their guests are privileged elite—“insiders” who are part of society’s established order and who abide by its rules and conventions. Andre, Octave, Marceau, and Schumacher are outsiders who don’t neatly fit into this clique and are eventually cast out of or leave the world of the insiders. Yet, Renoir isn’t so cut-and-dried and simplistic here; in this film, insiders can also be outsiders and vice versa.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is Robert who understands the game and the world the best, perhaps because as a Jew he stands a little outside of it. His passion is for mechanical wind-up mannequins and musical instruments, and there is a scene where he unveils his latest prize, an elaborate calliope, and stands by proudly as it plays a tune while little figures ring bells and chime notes. With such a device, at least everything works exactly as expected…The finished shot, ending with Robert's face, is a study in complexity, and Renoir says it may be the best shot he ever filmed. It captures the buried theme of the film: That on the brink of war they know what gives them joy but play at denying it, while the world around them is closing down joy, play and denial.”

Similar works

  • Gosford Park
  • Smiles of a Summer Night
  • The Hunt
  • Summer Light
  • Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills
  • The Decline of the American Empire
  • The Big Chill
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
  • Dangerous Liaisons

Other major works by Jean Renoir

  • Grand Illusion
  • The Human Beast
  • The River
  • Boudu Saved From Drowning
  • The Lower Depths
  • La Marseillaise


One is the loneliest number

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

In A Single Man, the 2009 directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, Colin Firth commands our attention as a George Falconer, a professor privately mourning the death of his male partner in the early 1960s. Focusing on a day in the life of this anguished soul—the day when George has decided to take his life—A Single Man uses vignettes, flashbacks, and dreamlike imagery to present an unshakable portrait of grief and trauma. Last week, CineVerse’s mission was to unravel the emotional mysteries behind this film, as summarized below (click here to enjoy a recording of our group discussion).

What was distinctive, surprising, memorable, or curious about A Single Man?

  • The tone is mostly melancholy and downbeat throughout, partly because we know George is planning suicide eight months after his lover has died but also because of the circumstances: George is a closeted gay man in middle age who depressingly has no meaningful relationships outside of his friendship with Charlotte.
  • The filmmakers employ a wide range of film stocks and color palettes to visually express George’s experiences. We often see scenes and characters muted and desaturated of color, insinuating George’s depression; other shots can pop with a chromatic panache, implying that George finds new optimism or vibrancy in certain people he encounters.
  • The narrative bounces around in time, presenting flashbacks of George’s life with Jim as well as surreal snatches of George’s dreams and haunting visions.

Major themes

  • Coping with grief and the pain of loss. This is a story about what it takes to endure personal tragedy.
  • Keeping secrets, and the challenges of grieving as a closeted gay man during a time of repression and cultural disapproval of homosexuality.
  • Trying to find new meaning and truths after life-changing loss. George recognizes beauty, vibrancy, and new promise in people he encounters on his last day on earth, including Kenny, Carlos, and Jennifer, which suggests that there is hopefulness and optimism after great sorrow.
  • The unpredictability and unfairness of life. Spoiler: George decides not to commit suicide, but apparently succumbs to a heart attack anyway.
  • Drowning helplessly in pain. We see recurrent imagery of a naked George submerged, struggling to survive or surface from the water and being unable to call out for help. We also view George swimming naked with Kenny in the ocean, reminding us of this drowning motif.
  • The inability to truly know and understand someone else. We hear Kenny say that life is what we perceive, which may not be accurate.

Similar works

  • Brokeback Mountain
  • 8 ½
  • Beginners
  • Blue
  • The Hours


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