Highlights from Last Week: Senso (1954), Hellzapoppin' (1941), and Killer of Sheep (1978)
For the past few Sundays, I’ve gotten into the habit of Tweeting my top three “new to me” movies from the previous week. It’s a habit I’m really enjoying so far and I’m hoping that some of these films will also be new to you as well. Rather than just listing these titles as I do on Twitter, I thought I’d give you a little more information about them. Although they certainly all deserve such treatment, this will not be a deep dive on each film, but rather a teaser in the hopes that you might also discover them for yourselves.
Senso (1954) Luchino Visconti
Visconti’s Italian melodrama is set in Venice during the Italian-Austrian war of unification circa 1866. Alida Valli plays Livia Serpieri, an Italian countess trapped in a loveless marriage to the much older Count Serpieri (Heinz Moog). Upon departing the opera (Verdi’s Il Trovatore, by the way), Livia meets a young Austrian officer named Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). The two are instantly attracted to each other, despite the fact that Livia is married and Franz represents the invading force of the enemy. We might think we know where this is going and perhaps we’re right, but we’re also in the hands of Visconti, a director who isn’t afraid to show the best and worst in human nature. He also isn’t afraid to treat the audience to lavish colors and gorgeous cinematography. It seems appropriate that Senso begins with an opera; you might say the entire film is an opera. Senso is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Hellzapoppin’ (1941) H.C. Potter
Hellzapoppin’ is the craziest movie I’ve ever seen from the 1940s and possibly the craziest movie I’ve ever seen period. If you can imagine the Marx Brothers on steroids and triple shots of espresso, you at least have a starting point for the wonderful madness that awaits you. The basic plot (and it’s a stretch to call it such) involves the comedy team Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson as they try to adapt a play into a movie for their company Miracle Pictures, whose tagline states, “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle.” (Hellzapoppin’ actually was a stage production before it was a movie.) With the exception of a couple of songs, the movie is absolute non-stop mayhem with several running gags, some of which were inspirations for later movies and shows such as Airplane!, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and others. You absolutely must see it and right now you can buy the DVD for only six bucks on Amazon (or just watch it on YouTube).
Killer of Sheep (1978) Charles Burnett
I’m ashamed to say that earlier this year, I’d never heard of Charles Burnett. After watching the excellent To Sleep with Anger (1990), I knew I had to see Burnett’s other works. Killer of Sheep is Burnett’s first film, made while he was a student at the UCLA School of Film. Set in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep is the story of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an African-American man trying to make an honest living working in a slaughterhouse. The film (in stark black-and-white) is more a series of vignettes than a traditional plot. It’s the accumulation of these moments (involving Stan’s family, his work, the local poverty, and the thugs who want to recruit him for their criminal activities) that give the film its power. Burnett also chose several songs for the soundtrack that bring even more impact to an already stunning film. Those songs would prove to be a blessing and a curse, as obtaining the music rights kept the film from wide distribution for many years. Thankfully the film is now available on DVD from Milestone and is currently on sale for 50% off its regular price. (This set also includes another Burnett film, My Brother’s Wedding and four short films.)
So let me know what you encountered last week.