Gordon's Precious Obscurities Part 1: 25 Underrated Films To Check Out
25 obscure films that local film historian Gordon Inman recommends!
After Death (Yevgeni Bauer, 1915) - My personal favorite of one of film history’s first great masters. To my knowledge, all of Bauer’s films were literary adaptations, but this one recreates Turgenev’s sense of loss in a way that puts most modern literary adaptations to shame. This film also likely contains the first example of what could be described as a virtuosic tracking shot.
The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921) - One of only two comedies Pola Negri made (the other being Andrew L. Stone’s 1943 Tarantino-championed Hi Diddle Diddle). The film, which is one of only two or three remaining examples of D.W. Griffith parodies, plays around with iris shots and other frame moderations to hilarious effect. Likely the apotheosis of Lubitsch’s Berlin period (although 1919’s The Doll comes close).
Mockery (Benjamin Christensen, 1927) - One of at least three masterfully heartbreaking performances from the great Lon Chaney, Sr., and almost certainly one of the only films in which Chaney survives to the end.
Nail in the Boot (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1931) - Audiences are more likely to know Kalatozov for his string of late-career triumphs (Cannes winner The Cranes Are Flying, Revenant template Letter Never Sent, propaganda milestone I Am Cuba, and Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent [starring the late great Sean Connery]), but in fact, he was first a contemporary of the montage hounds from the ‘20s, and 1931’s Nail in the Boot proves to be as rousing an exercise in propaganda fiction as the best of Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
The Fourth Dimension (Jean Painleve, 1936) - Without hyperbole, this is the most thrilling educational film I’ve ever seen. The concept of “time” as the functional fourth dimension is explained using basic language and visual aids, and the viewer emerges from the ten-minute lesson feeling measurably more intelligent, even if they may not be able to describe its contents to others.
Tomorrow We Live (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1942) - Whenever anyone refers to Ulmer as “King of the Bs,” they’re specifically referring to Detour (mostly due to the bigger budget of his earlier masterwork The Black Cat). However, a number of his other 1940s work deserves similar recognition, including this nasty little thriller.
The Eagle With Two Heads (Jean Cocteau, 1948) - Easily the most exciting Cocteau film that doesn’t involve a character walking into a mirror. Fun fact: this film, a near word perfect adaptation of Cocteau’s play, contains the longest single woman’s monologue in the narrative film to date.
Bird of Paradise (Delmer Daves, 1951) - The understated humanist master Delmer Daves’s update of King Vidor’s 1932 exotic island thriller (which is known for being the first Hollywood film with a through-composed score) uses actual songs and customs of the islands on which it was filmed. Although Daves kept the ending of the original, the emotional wallop was magnified considerably.
The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1959) - Likely the first great feature film produced for television. Renoir delivers a late-career knockout in his Nosferatu-esque unofficial adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde.
The Exiles (Kent McKenzie, 1961) - It’s notable for being the first major film about Native American characters, but Mackenzie’s triumph comes from sheer freedom expressed in its characters, a handful of twentysomethings who have left the reservation and wander through LA’s Bunker Hill with absolutely no inhibitions. It’s a truly inspiring experience.
Point of Order (Emile de Antonio, 1964) - One of the first examples of the now popular “documentary as thriller” editing style, in which Josephs Welch and McCarthy face off in real-time. It’s truly surreal to watch a politician’s career come to a screeching halt in real-time, an event that will likely never occur in modern times.
A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura, 1967) - Something of a recreated documentary (much like Kiarostami would later famously create in Close-Up) which initially follows the story of a man who has disappeared before devolving into a philosophical argument for the benefits of intentionally vanishing from society.
Fruit of Paradise (Vera Chytilova, 1970) - Chytilova’s follow-up to the zany classic Daisies is mostly a modern retelling of the Adam and Eve story but begins with a melange of floral patterns, Edenic couples moving slowly, and earthy choral music that is indescribably mesmerizing.
Spend it All (Les Blank, 1971) - Since most people’s standard of truth in the anthropological documentary is no more bona fide than Robert Flaherty, it can be shocking to experience the true cultural legitimacy of Blank’s short subjects. This one, about Acadian culture in general, has the power to permanently diminish any viewer’s preoccupation with money.
The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1975) - Pasolini’s masterpiece The Gospel According to Matthew is often inaccurately described as a documentary-style take on the original text, but in reality, the film is highly stylized and full of ‘60s arthouse flourishes. Roberto Rossellini’s final film, on the other hand, deserves the label. Like his other late-career historical films, Rossellini’s brilliance comes directly from his intentional artlessness.
Ieoh Island (Kim Ki-Young, 1977) - During last year’s awards season press tour for Parasite Bong Joon-Ho made a point to champion Kim’s most popular work The Housemaid, which is relatively accessible to Western audiences and representative of his earlier, more Hitchcockian period. His later work, on the other hand, embraces a more fractured approach to storytelling as well as a casual fluidity between life and death. Before his weirdness reached its peak in 1978’s Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, Kim made this quietly unsettling work involving the inhabitants of a small island (not Ieoh) who are terrified of being visited by a water ghost and dragged to an island representation of hades (yes Ieoh).