Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

Samsara (2011)

On the official website of the film Samsara, you can read: “SAMSARA is a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever turning wheel of life’ and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives.”

If you are like me, you will want to enjoy this visual masterpiece without too many preconceived notions. You will want to stop reading here and skip directly to the download link. But of course, you are welcome to read on. I will not reveal too much about the contents.

African warriors in Samsara (2011)

For all intents and purposes, Samsara is a silent film. Sure, it does have a soundtrack, but that soundtrack does nothing more and nothing less than a good soundtrack for a silent film from the 1920s. There is no spoken dialogue or narration, nor any background sounds that I can remember. The soundtrack rests entirely on the music, partly original music composed for the film. Some of the tracks have lyrics, but those lyrics are not directly related to the images, as far as I can tell. For example, there is a Swedish lullaby early on, but none of the images it accompanies seem to be in any way connected with the theme or the words. And yet, the music works extremely well, producing an almost hypnotic sensation.

But the most memorable and powerful aspect of the film is the visual images, filled with vibrant colours. The photography is exquisite, and so is the cutting. The tempo is slow, yet many sudden twists mean that we have time to see images from many different countries and many aspects of both nature and human life. This is a film filled with contrasts. Peacefulness and hostility. Untouched nature and huge cities. Ancient history and modern technology. East and west. Life and death. Religion and … well, I am not sure there is a contrast to religion, but the religious motif is definitely there, and it is very inclusive in the sense that several different religions are represented, and none is shown to be more important than the others.

Samsara is, indeed, a turning wheel of life. If it has a weakness, then it is that it tries to say too much. There is not one message in this film, but many, and perhaps that means it is spread just a little bit too thin, sending its energy into many directions at once. But that is a minor quibble, because who said that good art always has to be propagandistic?

This film is best enjoyed as cinematic poetry. It can be analyzed and interpreted endlessly, but will it enhance the enjoyment of viewing? I doubt it, though meditating about the many wonderful pictures may give you some insight into the world we live in, or even into your own self.

Dancers in Samsara (2011)

Samsara
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Year: 2011
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Directors: Ron Fricke
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×304)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

Scrooge (1951)

Christmas is rushing closer by the minute and the panic is definitely here. Bottle of spumante wine for mother-in-law, some nice book for daughter, no idea even what to get for wife (she claims she likes film, but never watches any, so DVDs are out of the question). And then we need to pack for the trip to the family, and we have not even had time to put up much in terms of decorations in our home.

Well, that is the way it goes, but in the middle of that rush, what could possibly be better than to grab a mug of mulled wine and sit down in front of a nice old film. A film like Scrooge.

Alastair Sim and Francis De Wolff in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge, sometimes released with the title A Christmas Carol, is a breathtakingly beautiful film. The actors are good, and Alastair Sim in particular is marevellous as the aging miser who is reformed through divine intervention. Special effects are simplistic, but that is not really a problem. Dobule exposure and effective lighting go a long way when it comes to creating ghostlike gosts.

Charles Dickens’ classic tale has been filmed a great many times, and many of the versions are good. The versions available at the Internet Archive are too many for me to list them all, but I would like to mention just two short silents. The very first film adaptation of the story, Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901) is available. Like many early literary adaptations, it requires a good deal of knowledge about the original, or it will be completely impossible to comprehend. It is a truly historic film, especially considering that it has been said to be the first film with intertitles, and anyway it is only about three and a half minutes long. The other interesting silent is a really good ten-minute adaptation from 1910, titled simply A Christmas Carol. That one is a small masterpiece in compact story-telling and well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch it.

The 1951 film is best enjoyed around Christmas time, to get in the right mood. Pathetic? Why, certainly, but just a wee bit, and not so much as to ruin it.

Alastair Sim, Olga Edwardes and Brian Worth in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge
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Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst
Stars: Alastair Sim
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (978×720)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.0 G)

His Girl Friday (1940)

The first time I saw His Girl Friday it took me by storm. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The crazy story with the sudden twists and the machinegun dialogue both represented something new to me. It was the first time ever I saw a screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Screwball comedy, apparently, was entirely a product of the 1930s. Some film historians consider The Front Page (1931) to be the first screwball comedy. Incidentally, it was the first movie adapting the play which was also the source for His Girl Friday, which in turn premiered when the screwball comedy as a genre had only a couple of years left of its golden age.

His Girl Friday is the story of the female reporter Hildy Johnson, who is going to quit, get married and have a family (in The Front Page, Hildy is a man). Her editor and previous husband Walter Burns, however, has different ideas and does everything in his power to make her stay at the job and dump her kind but boring fiancé. This is played out against a plot involving a man who is falsely accused of murdering a police officer and sentenced to be hanged, a story which Hildy promises to cover, and into which she gets gradually more and more involved.

The title of this film sometimes creates a bit of confusion. I know I wondered about it for several years before I read somewhere that it has nothing to do with the day of the week. It is a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, apparently suggesting a female assistant. Even knowing this, the title is a bit strained. But who cares? It is catchy, original and easily recognizable. Not a bad thing for a classic film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have the time and energy to really focus on it. It is not a film for casual watching.

John Qualen and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 31 min
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.3 G)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

German expressionism, which on film had its peak in the 1920s with directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood film. One of its footprints can be seen in the Film Noir movement of the 1940s and 1950s.

The Noir filmmakers, just like their expressionist forerunners, explore the dark and hidden sides of the human mind. The Noir movement, which was not to any great extent identified and named during its heyday, can sometimes be difficult to define and pinpoint, but to me, this focus on the inner demons and fears is perhaps its most important defining element.

Take the excellent Noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers for example. Like in so many other Noirs, we see a cynical anti-hero, the gambler Sam Masterson (played excellently by Van Heflin). By chance he runs into his childhood sweetheart Martha (Barbara Stanwyck, also excellent), who seems to have everything a woman can dream of, but hides a dark secret together with her husband (a young Kirk Douglas, absolutely brilliant).

Barbara Stanwyck, Van Helfin and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

As if the tension in this meeting was not enough, Sam also takes an interest in the paroled woman Toni (Lizabeth Scott, good, though not as stellar as the others). Thus, the plot of this film revolves around two love triangles, with Martha and Sam still attracted to one another, though separated still by the terrible events of the past.

Add to the mix the patent dramatic photography found in the best Noirs, an excellent script with good dialogue, and competent editing. Stir, and you get what is perhaps one of the top ten or fifteen Noirs of all time.

By all means, there are a few occasions when the film touches on the overly sentimental, the action sequences are a bit stiff, and there is some rather superfluous Gideonite propaganda, but those are minor quibbles, which do not significantly decrease the overall impact of this classical and powerful movie.

This film is best enjoyed as soon as possible. This is one Internet Archive experience you will not want to miss!

Kirk Douglas, Van Helfin and  Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 56 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

Beyond the Mind’s Eye (1992)

The early 1990s. The World Wide Web had come into being and would soon take the world by storm. Whitney Houston topped the charts with “I Will Always Love You”. Terminator 2 was the coolest thing ever seen on the silver screen. Windows 3.0 made the PC into a user-friendly alternative. Spawn became the most popular comic book overnight. And Doom changed the computer game market forever.

Such was the world into which The Mind’s Eye series of four films was released. The second of these, Beyond the Mind’s Eye, appears to have been the most popular and influential.

Looking into the Future segment from Beyond the Mind's Eye (1992)

The concept of The Mind’s Eye was to stitch together a series of computer animations, the most advanced that the day could offer, and smack on an electronic score (by Jan Hammer). No trace of a common plot. Not even any recurring themes, beyond what the spirit of the times suggested.

Sounds boring? Not for a minute! Sure, a few segments give you the feeling of “look what we can do with our cool new toys,” but even then the part of me that is still twenty-two years old will come out and say: “You know, that actually was pretty awesome in 1992.”

So I wish I had seen this back when it was first released. But even today, there is much in it beyond retro nostalgia. It is not altogether far-fetched to describe it as a sort of Fantasia of its time.

This film is best enjoyed in its entirety. Even though the separate parts are not interconnected, the 1990s feel and the music still make it feel as a whole.

Dreams segment from Beyond the Mind's Eye (1992)

Beyond the Mind’s Eye
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Year: 1992
Running time: 50 min
Director: Michael Boydstun
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: CD/DVD image (1.5 G) or h.264 (296 M)