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Gordon's Precious Obscurities Part 3: 25 Underrated Films To Check Out

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.