25 obscure films that local film historian Gordon Inman recommends!
The Blue Bird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918) - This film is an outlier for a list of obscurities. Although this Maeterlinck adaptation is virtually unknown today, the film was highly successful in its initial release and something of the fantasy standard-bearer for Hollywood until the late 1930s. If contemporary studios and directors had been inspired to emulate the rococo art direction of this film, Hollywood likely would have experienced an expressionist movement parallel to the Germans’.
l’Inhumaine (Marcel l’Herbier, 1924) - Like Gance, Marcel L’herbier’s proto-montage editing style has yet to be fully appreciated by modern audiences. Apologies for a slight spoiler: the film’s finale contains imagery concerning a mad scientist and the reanimation of dead flesh that clearly inspired James Whale a few years later. The film’s star, prima donna playing prima donna Georgette Leblanc, was married to The Bluebird author Maurice Maeterlinck.
Borderline (Kenneth MacPherson, 1930) - In a story not unlike Charles Laughton’s experience with The Night of the Hunter, Scottish novelist and film theorist MacPherson directed this sole feature film, an avant-garde late silent work starring Paul Robeson, then hid it from the public and never directed again after its critical and commercial failure. The film was considered lost until its rediscovery in 1983, and it now emerges as arguably the most substantial acting work of Robeson (with the possible exception of Joe in James Whale’s Show Boat).
Spring Shower (Pál Fejős, 1932) - The only major film the first great Hungarian filmmaker made in Hungary. The actress Annabelle brings a pathos seldom allowed to be seen from a woman in the early decades of film history.
History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937) - The 21st-century championship of Borzage is hopefully on its way and long overdue. The “love conquers all” approach to film storytelling has been considered moldy and overdone for half a century, but to see the work of the artist who perfected it is inspiring now. This particular film, which moves effortlessly from melodrama to tense thriller, boasts the single greatest (and possibly final) screen performance of the screen’s first and best Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, as Irene Dunne’s jealous husband.
Opfergang (Veit Harlan, 1944) - Two young intellectuals spend a Summer as next-door neighbors. They share their love of Nietzsche and fall for each other before she is stricken with typhus, although as she retreats in shame he never sees her as any less than the feminine ideal. This would all be so much more charming if it weren’t made in Germany in 1944.
Inspiration (Karel Zeman, 1949) - While Radok’s film is now one of only a handful of noted pre-1960s Czechoslovak films that don’t involve stop motion animation, Karel Zeman’s career fully embraced every conceivable analog special effects technique available to him. Before his trilogy of features which have recently enjoyed a pristine restoration and deserved new fame, he created a number of delightful shorts that are nearly all Christmas or Winter themed. This beauty inexplicably takes place inside a snowflake.
Slightly Scarlet (Allan Dwan, 1956) - John Alton is often considered one of the titans of black & white photography, but Dwan’s late-career noir proves that he was just as adept in color. Until only a few weeks ago the two leading ladies (Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl) were still with us, but sadly Fleming passed away on October 14, 2020.
The Human Pyramid (Jean Rouch, 1961) - The same year he and Edgar Morin invented the “cinema verite” style with Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch released what may very well be the most characteristic of his social experiments (with the possible exception of 1971’s Little By Little). The play-acting of the white French students with Ivorian exchange students is notably more progressive in its discussion of race relations than nearly every piece of current pop culture, and in this one case that’s more a testament to Rouch’s vision than the current state of the world.
The Cool World (Shirley Clarke, 1963) - My personal favorite approach to youth gang violence on film, partially because Clarke couldn’t help but infuse nonfiction elements into everything she did. As a result, we experience an embarrassment of silly language (“bopping” refers to gang fighting) that was almost certainly authentic.
The Moment of Truth (Francesco Rosi, 1965) - Francesco Rosi is already a woefully neglected voice in the postwar Italian film choir, but this particular entry stands out among his most potent use of journalistic fiction. There are likely other examples, but this is the only film I’ve ever seen which combines the use of handheld camerawork with cinemascope.
Help, Help, the Globolinks! (Gian Carlo Menotti, 1969) - The opera composer is best known for Amahl and the Night Visitors adapts his own alien invasion opera for television, to psychedelically sublime effect.
Zorn's Lemma (Hollis Frampton, 1970) - The New York avant-garde equivalent of Citizen Kane. Despite only lasting an hour, it would try anyone’s patience if it were even a second longer.
Whity (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971) - Fassbinder’s most acidic pre-Sirkian post-Brechtian work, a satirical oater about American racism which borrowed multiple sets from Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy.
A Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker, 1977) - A proto-Diamondian historical text of the months leading up to and coming down from May of 1968. Marker’s monumental masterpiece.
Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 1979) - The stylistic equal to Touch of Zen, without the requisite amount of choreographed fighting to qualify as wuxia.
City of Pirates (Raul Ruiz, 1983) - Although U.S. audiences likely became aware of Ruiz just after his death in 2011 with the release of his magnum opus Mysteries of Lisbon, the Chilean master’s 1980s output is still relatively unknown in the West. My favorite among equals, City of Pirates, involves a housemaid’s adventures with a murderous young boy who may or may not be a ghost followed by her journey to a small island populated by a single dissociative man. No city and no pirates.
Gonza the Spearman (Masahiro Shinoda, 1986) - The second and superior of Shinoda’s adaptations of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s work for bunraku theatre, which features the penultimate example of the cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa (Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Yojimbo, nearly all of Mizoguchi’s 1950s output, Ozu’s Floating Weeds), whose work with deep focus remains unmatched.
Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette, 1988) - There are a number of Jacques Rivette’s films that deserve a mention on a list of obscurities (especially since his work is still underrepresented on Region 1 home video), but I chose this little thriller because it may very well be the best introduction to his work. Each of Rivette’s best films contains a little conspiracy-laced mystery à la Pynchon, but they are never less than delightful in their presentation; I’ve referred to Rivette’s work as “the film equivalent of recess” to friends in the past.
Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris, 1989) - Impermissibly Harris’s only film to date. A biopic of the real-life con artist and impersonator William Douglas Street, who has been arrested for his antics as recently as 2015. A scene at a Halloween party, in which Street is dressed as Jean Cocteau’s Bete, is as intense as anything Hitchcock directed despite the lower stakes.
Highway Patrolman (Alex Cox, 1991) - Mixed emotions can’t be helped when watching this, Cox’s follow-up to his masterpiece Walker, as the label ‘copoganda’ has rightfully made its way into the household lexicon in 2020. We watch the entire career of a police officer assigned to the national highway of Northern Mexico, which ends with a shootout staged after Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail.
Exterior Night (Mark Rappaport, 1993) - Likely Rappaport’s artistic apotheosis, in which an early 1990s dead ringer for Anthony Jeselnik (in color!) wanders through 1940s noir B-roll (in black & white!) after learning that his grandfather and his favorite pulp writer are one and the same.
Nightjohn (Charles Burnett, 1996) - If only every Hallmark original was this good. Charle Burnett, one of the titans of American independent film, adapts Gary Paulsen’s young adult novel about literacy serving as a literal liberating force, which is nothing short of staggering.
*corpus callosum (Michael Snow, 2002) - The capstone of Canadian experimental master Snow, in which an office floor and cartoonish living room are playfully deconstructed using the best CGI effects 2002 had to offer.
Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez! (Everything is Terrible, 2012) - Likely the best-known film on this list to Chattanooga readers, as I believe the multimedia collective Everything is Terrible has been a featured guest at a number of Chattanooga Film Festival events. This short feature uses existing film footage to tell a story, much like György Pálfi’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen from the same year. While Pálfi created a boilerplate love story for his film, Doggiewoggiez sets out to remake no less a narrative than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.