The Criterion Collection: A Retrospective in Five Films

 

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Please read the previous five reviews on my blog for: Harold & Maude, Persona, The Darjeeling Limited, Dazed and Confused, and Sisters. These five film reviews are the supporting components for this essay.

 

The Criterion Collection has dedicated itself to gathering the most influential pieces of cinema ever made. Updating their collection monthly they remain on the cutting edge of cinema, adding classic and modern cinema to their repertoire to keep a constantly updated collection of influential movies. Ranging across a wide range of genres, the Criterion Collection has collected films that have been revered by critics, have gained cult status, or are seen as influential within the world of cinema and its creation.  I originally started with five different films than the one’s I ended up watching. This just speaks to the sheer volume that the Criterion Collection is made up of. Regardless if a film is currently in rotation or not, it’s still considered a part of the collection. I also learned that the only thing standing in the way of a lot of films getting added to the collection is disputes over distribution rights, which is why viewers don’t get as many animated films as people would like.

In my analysis, I viewed the films Dazed and Confused directed by Richard Linklater, Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby, Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman, The Darjeeling Limited directed by Wes Anderson, and Sisters directed by Brian De Palma. These films make up only a sliver of the massive catalog that Criterion has in their stock. These films offer a wide range of what the collection has to offer from cult classics to art-house thrillers to outright horror. I picked a range of films from different genres and decades to get a view of what makes the Criterion Collection classify as a critically important film in the canon of cinema.

Let’s start with the cult classic Harold & Maude, which is a heart-warming film. It’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection is without question upon viewing, however it at first seems to be an odd choice. Criterion is not one to take things upon first glance, by putting it in the collection they must’ve seen something important in it. This low-budget dramedy has some incredible shots, has a fantastic script, and best of all it’s funny. Criterion clearly defines cult classics as influential cinema due to their word-of-mouth hype, which can often be more powerful and accurate than any critic. This film being added to the collection is a testament to all independent filmmakers that just because no one has heard of your film, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

The next thing I decided to tackle was a strict genre film. So I watched a film entitled Sisters. I chose this film as it fit into the genre of horror, and as it’s a genre that often lacks respect from most movie goers, I was curious at to why it would be in the collection. I quickly found out when my screen split into two. Criterion keeps an eye out for radical cinematic techniques. The split-screen effect in Sisters is clearly the main draw to the film (as well as generally being well made) and it’s wildly successful in execution. The Criterion Collection doesn’t discriminate against genres, it’s definitely an organization that just looks for talent and creativity.

Criterion also continuously adds films to its repertoire for example The Darjeeling Limited was released in 2007 but is still a part of the collection. This is due to the absolutely stunning color palette of the film. While I personally find the film to be appropriative of Indian culture, it doesn’t change the fact that movie is fantastic to look at. The importance of the film lies in its technique rather than its content in this particular example.

I had to do a double-take when I was scrolling through the list of the movies in the collection when I saw Dazed and Confused. I thought it was it just another high school movie. I was incredibly, stupidly wrong. The movie is a testament to youth, growing up, and leaving your hometown. It’s funny and most of all it’s poignant monologs  always give you something to think about and above all else, it feels realistic. This movie deserves its place in the collection because it is astoundingly good for its genre and content. It’s further proof that the Criterion Collection doesn’t care what your movie is about, it only cares if the movie is good, well made, or brings something new to the table.

I chose a classic for the last film to view; Persona. Ingmar Bergman’s film is a fabulous romp through two different realities and personalities. It’s a mind-bender of a thriller and its tense until the very last scene. My theory as to why it’s in the collection is due to its editing and controversial nature. The film was very controversial upon its initial release due to its explicit description of a woman having intercourse with a young boy. It’s a disturbing scene that’s for sure, but once you look past this tidbit you see a film that edits you into the reality of the film. You as a viewer are a conscious part of the movie, as Bergman continuously references that these characters are within a movie.

The Criterion Collection does not care what your movie is about, it doesn’t care if everyone hated your movie, it doesn’t care if everyone loved your movie. Your movie could have made millions of dollars, one every award, and it still might not end up in the collection. However, if your film brings something new to the table, something that takes viewers aback, then maybe your film is worthy of being included. All of the films I watched to figure out what Criterion describes as a good film point to one thing: uniqueness. There is something individual about each film that I watched that I’ll never forget. The burning out of the celluloid in Persona, the doll house like train compartment scene in The Darjeeling Limited, the split-screen technique in Sisters, the cemetery shot in Harold & Maude, and finally the characters in Dazed and Confused. The Criterion Collection looks for films that you will remember, films that bring new things to the table, and films that flawlessly execute their technique.

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Oh Mr. Anderson!: Cultural Appropriation of India in The Darjeeling Limited

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A beautiful Wes Anderson film, perfectly made, incredible to look at it, and sadly appropriative of India. Wes Anderson is my absolute favorite director so it really hurts me to write this article acknowledging his misstep. The Darjeeling Limited, the director’s 2007 effort follows three brothers; Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as they go on a spiritual journey across India in order to reconnect after their Mother’s disappearance, and their Father’s death. The use of India as a back-drop for the reconnection of some spiritually displaced white men is an insult to the rich history, colors, and culture of India. The movie uses the setting to its advantage as the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at it, as with any Anderson film. However, all of that beauty is underlined by the fact that it’s only the background and is marginalized for the benefit of Anderson’s characters. In one of the first stops on a long train

In one of the first stops on a long train journey, the brothers make a trip to a Hindu temple in order to meditate and pray. For what? That’s unclear, however, they clearly seem to think praying at this temple, to a God not of their religion, they’ll somehow be friendly to one another again. Again, while it makes for beautiful imagery to look at, all meaning is lost as it’s not applicable to it’s three white main characters. None of these visuals have any clear cut meaning because it’s all being interpreted through a visitor’s eyes. It’s all being appropriated for the sake of a dramatic back drop for this family drama to unfold.

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In another key part of the film, Jason Schwartzman’s Jack and Adrien Brody’s Peter cause a bunch of problems on The Darjeeling Limited. Peter brings a known poisonous snake onto the train which accidently escapes and endangers the entire cabin and Jack has sex with Rita the train attendant. Both of these things turn lives upside down and carelessly endanger others. The brothers treat India throughout the film as something that can be played around in, where the rules don’t apply to them. Jack turns an entire girl’s life upside down because he’s heartbroken over another girl he knew in France while Peter endangers an entire train car of people and by extension the job of the train conductor. By interrupting the fragile ecosystem of the train the three brothers further prove themselves to be intrusions upon the culture and life of India.

Another point in the story that speaks volumes to the erasure of Indian culture is when all of the brothers meet up on the train for the first time, and all possess new medicines that are available over the counter here. The three brothers arrive in India and proceed to misuse the culture around them and treat it all as their own to romp around in. India is used as a playground for the three brothers and try and become brothers again, creating an image of a magical place that all white people can go and visit to solve their problems.

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The Darjeeling Limited sadly contains all the hallmarks of an Anderson film and is unmistakably his. The problem with this is that I can’t ignore it as part of his filmography through selective omission. Anderson has written a fabulous and well thought out story, all of the characters are well developed and it’s entertaining. What’s inexcusable is his blatant misuse of Indian culture and locales in order to further his character’s emotional development. It’s the fact that the story hinges so much on its background that it would be indistinguishable without it. This makes the film inherently an appropriative one, as it uses India as a background and a background only, there’s no real reason for it be there except to further the experience of Anderson’s characters.

Dazed, Confused, and a little bit worried about the future

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Dazed and Confused is a touching letter to small town life, growing up, and starting your own journey. It’s a story of learning the rules and learning when to break them, a tale about finding out how to love yourself. Richard Linklater’s famous film tackles many subjects, and seemingly defies genre by being comedic in the best and most natural ways, but maintaining it’s dramatic side without taking itself too seriously. This film is a precursor to many of the movies that Linklater would make later on like Boyhood, and Slacker in which, to be honest, nothing happens. The characters exist as we do, trying to make the best of what they’ve got. What we see is life, there’s no plot to it, rather there is a certain amount of common philosophy and debate. Linklater explores the dumb stuff that comes off as meaningful only in context, in other words, he explores the conversations we have with our friends.

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What Dazed and Confused excels at is its believable dialogue, all of these conversations about stupid stuff like whether or not George Washington smoked weed, if going to parties is worth it, the relevancy of your generation. All of these topics are explored by a huge ensemble of fully fleshed out characters. Even though there is almost no ground work to go off of in the beginning of the film, by the end you know each and every character and what they’re like. Most films would crumble under the sheer amount of characters but Linklater balances his cast of characters by having them all be unique in who they are and how they interact. So that when certain characters are discussing if the 70s will be culturally important in one corner of the party you know who’s talking about it because it fits their aesthetic. It works remarkably well, especially when the party is so large that there’s another group of character’s at the kegger talking about whether or not George Washington’s wife had a bowl packed and waiting for him at the end of every night.

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Normally, any film that tried to have this much-extended dialogue filled with useless philosophizing and general babble about life would fall apart chronologically. Due to the uniqueness of each ‘crew’ of characters though the movie becomes completely believable as being in one night. Linklater gives the viewer a large view of an entire small town, and then gives us tiny vignettes of different groups and friends within the town, then widens the view again back to the entirety of the school at a party. We as viewers know and understand that when we’re witnessing the nerdy seniors getting burgers, that the jocks are still at the bar shooting pool. We know that all of these stories and events are happening at the same time, some people are just taking a bit longer to find the party. The viewer knows this because we’ve been catching up with all the characters the entire movies, we’ve seen them at the bar or at the burger joint and we’ve been following everyone from the jocks to the popular girls to the stoners. Linklater makes sure that we always have the upper hand in knowing what’s going on and where everyone is going.

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Dazed and Confused is a perfectly balanced film and a hysterically entertaining watch, it’s bold amount of characters and endless memorable conversations make it a movie that’s surely a cult classic. It’s a great look at how detailed and memorable any type of film can be as usually coming-of-age films fall into a stoically typical type of plot-line. With Dazed and Confused however we’re entertained from the ending of the school day at the beginning to the kegger that ends it all.

Attached at the Hip: Brian De Palma’s Twin Thriller

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Sisters directed by Brian De Palma was an unexpectedly unnerving and inventive film. The director of Carrie proves with his 1973 film that he possesses an adept hand for the horror genre. This movie is deceptive in its placement within the horror genre, as it seems to be another take on the typical horror topic of the twin mystery. The film exists in the same vein of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers or more recently the horror thriller Goodnight Mommy directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. The film takes the twin trope by storm, however, with some truly beautiful and horrific scenes, and without spoiling anything, there is a birthday cake scene that is truly terrifying to witness. Above all else, the film is a testament to the fragility of a lie, the film hinges itself on the crumbling walls of a lie and refuses to let go, continuously highlighting the fragile line between the truth and the discovery of a lie.

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The film employs an ingenious split-screen technique that makes the story that much more intriguing to watch unfold. Usually this would be frowned upon as it strips the viewer of a bunch of background information and thus, retracts information the viewer could be picking up. However, De Palma uses the split screen technique to give us multiple perspectives of the same room. Due to the split screen technique, the viewer is able to see more on one screen than they would be able to elsewhere. For example, in a critical scene that establishes whether or not the main character has a twin or not, one side of the screen depicts Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) stumbling across a birthday cake with both twin’s names printed on it. While on the left side of the screen, Danielle is seen convincing the cops that she doesn’t possess a twin. As Grace approaches the cops the split screen comes together as Grace trips and drops the cake onto the ground. This short sequence literally breaks the divide between the lie being accepted or the truth being accepted. De Palma’s film utilizes the strange split screen technique to divide the viewers and keep them in suspense about this strange tale about honesty and lies.

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The movie plays with who the viewer supports throughout most of the film. Does the viewer support the good citizen who is simply trying to achieve justice for a wrong she has witnessed? Or does the audience support the mystery enshrouded Danielle who is being preyed upon by her twin sister Dominque (both played by Margot Kidder)? Brian De Palma weaves a taught story about the delicate balance between the truth and a lie. He even has Danielle sit on her lie at one point, while a blood spot slowly grows on the back of the couch with a body inside. This all happens while she is talking with her neighbor Grace and the police in her apartment where a murder has just happened. The entirety of the lie again hinges on one crucial detail. Again, Sisters stresses this line between what the truth is and what a lie is built upon by literally having Danielle sit on her lie for the duration of a scene.

Sisters is a truly horrific film in how sparse it is, there is a limited amount of evidence for the crime and what does exist, if lost, will take the crime with it. De Palma creates a powerful parable on the nature of honesty and lies, he takes Grace and drags her down into the depths of what people will do to protect the fragility of a lie. It’s a meditation on how the biggest secrets can be hinged on the smallest of things.

Where do you begin, and I end?: Ingmar Bergman and Mixed Personality

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POTENTIAL SPOILERS: It’s also from 1966 so I don’t feel bad about this.

There are very few films in my life that have made me gasp in shock from an editing technique. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is one of these films. The editing means everything to Bergman’s 1966 horror thriller, it creates a taught meta film that plays with where reality actually is.

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The film begins in a projection room that begins to flash and burn through reels of footage, a video of the two main characters of the film is projected onto the wall of a small boy’s room. The main characters begin to flash between each other and the movie begins. Part way through the movie the celluloid film burns out and then continues on as if nothing happened. Bergman made sure that the editing within Persona was constantly making the viewer aware that they are watching a film. In this way, it’s an incredibly meta film but I digress from this point. The film’s editing is so stellar and mixes several realities, without the energetic editing of the film Persona would most likely be a mediocre film at best.

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Persona is also carried by its strong female leads and stunning framing. The movie often has Alma (Bibi Anderson) move over Elisabet Vogler’s (Liv Ullman) face, juxtaposing Alma’s head over Elisabet’s own to make it appear as if Alma is Elisabet. The real question of this movie is whether or not Alma is Elisabet, and if you look around you’ll find people are really torn on this. I personally thought that it was spelt out fairly clearly, however it is very much so open for each viewer’s interpretation, and I think that only adds to the malicious spirit of the movie.

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For all it’s worth, the setting of the film is rather sparse, the acting is really what makes this film a stand-out performance. Liv Ullman’s character has next to no lines, and Bibi Anderson has massive monologue after massive monologue. The fact that she could deliver all of these with increasing maliciousness throughout the film is astounding. She ratchets up the intensity from caring to hatred really quick, and it’s very believable. With next to no lines, Elisabet is a fascinating character, as she does all of her acting silently. We get to see her very expressive face fill with horror, deceit, compassion. Persona takes us through the full spectrum of human emotion with Elisabet’s face and takes us through both character’s struggles through Alma’s voice. The two are inseparable as one without the other makes the movie impossible, both are reliant on each other to tell the story. Without Elisabet’s facial expressions and actions we wouldn’t be able to interpret Alma’s own inner suffering, while without Alma’s monologues and probing speeches we would have no idea what was going on inside Elisabet’s head. It’s the fact that they’re perfect for each other that makes the viewer wonder if they are one in the same and if this is actually just a conversation with Alma’s own subconscious.

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Persona in its entirety is an absolutely gorgeous film filled with questions and mysteries to unlock. The lack of complete explanation of all of the imagery in the film makes it all the more intriguing to watch. It’s a film that has inspired the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and David Fincher (I honestly didn’t expect those examples to all be David’s). Especially with Fincher’s Fight Club the inspiration is seen clearly. A movie that is as daring and provocative today as it was when it was first released, Persona is a classic that will continue to haunt viewers for years to come.

The Questions We Don’t Ask

 It starts with a circus. A clown car drives into view and announces the greatest show. Nothing strange appears to be here, this could easily be a circus that we would be attending with our younger brother, or on a family trip from someone’s childhood memory. A converging point between children and adults, both seeking to be entertained by daring acts, bright colors, and humorous Three Stooges type comedy. Slowly things begin to turn sinister as Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ôtsuka) is shown to be looking for a criminal of some sort. With a sudden change a spotlight appears on him and he is transported into a cage right in the middle of the circus ring. By this point I’d realized that Paprika was a film that would be playing with my sense of reality, bringing me into settings that are overtaken by the surreal, often times within reality itself.

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         While adults view the show for a brief stunt away from reality, the children are there for the pure enjoyment of the spectacle. It’s the meeting point between the acceptance of absurdity in dreams and the skepticism that adult’s approach dreams with. This battle is reflected later in the film with the confrontation between the film’s villain and Dr. Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara) as they discuss the parameters and dynamics of dream investigation, and it’s effect on the purpose of dreams.

         Dreams provide the answers to the questions we didn’t know we were asking. In Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a sensual and surreal look at the nature of dreams and how they interact in correspondence with reality. While watching the film I was explicitly drawn to how absurd and strange the settings were, and how they seemed to flow together, rather than have strict dimensional lines. Somewhere between the colorful innocence of a children’s picture book and the dark motivations of corporate ambitions lies the masterful anime Paprika. Kon’s 2006 tale of dream investigation is at its simplest a police crime procedural and at its most complex a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction tale. Paprika delves into the furthest reaches of the mind where humans are the most vulnerable. Satoshi Kon translates the unintelligible nature of dreams in a way that induces receptivity to the ideas behind the film’s reality and its relationship with dreams.

         Paprika dives head first into analyzing how people interact with their dreams as something to decipher when the ridiculousness of dreams is meant to be left at bay, more of as a mild reflection on one’s troubles and hopes. Alternatively, as something to be seen as an internal monolog for guidance rather than something to be torn apart in the analytical terms of real life. Kon brings another science fiction opinion piece into his already mind-bending filmography that includes such revered animated films as Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Tokyo Godfathers (2003). Paprika fits tightly into the canon of culturally significant and prolific anime films, such as Akira, or Spirited Away. Paprika additionally has a huge cultural influence in cinema, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception owing many of its plot points and techniques to the animated feature. The movie pushes the limits of what modern animation can accomplish, taking it from the realm of children’s stories to mature audience oriented films with sinister plot lines, disturbing ideals, and questionable morals.

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         Kon’s anime accomplishes bringing together the surrealistic quality of dreams and reality by deliberately blurring the lines between what is dream and what is real. Paprika (Dr. Chiba’s pixie-cut donning dream-persona) frequently infiltrates the real world rather than just existing in dreams. The DC Mini being stolen acts as the main object that pulls the narrative forward, allowing the world to shift uncontrollably between dreams and reality, merging the two with often terrifying and gruesome results such as suicides through hallucinations. Even Dr. Chiba is affected at one point where she believes herself to be hopping a fence, only to have the scene ripped from in front of her like a sheet to reveal that she is actually about to leap over the banister of a high rise apartment deck. The dangers of tampering with the purely personal world of dreams has drastic effects on the city and people around them, as their dreams slowly become collective rather than personal narratives.

         In one particular scene the strangeness and fluidity of dreams is explored in a flawless romp through various dreamscapes. After Dr. Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) confronts the unexpected culprit of the crimes being committed, the viewer gets taken on a surreal chase scene which demonstrates Kon’s masterful balance between mind boggling, David Lynch-esque surreality and modern action in an animated format. The scene shifts fluidly by throwing it’s own setting and power dynamics into question in instantaneous moments like: Paprika jumping into a painting, then diving into an oceans cape within said painting. Paprika matches action perfectly, without there being a single doubt that any of Paprika’s actions had happened, none of her actions are confusing as she’s always where she’s supposed to be in the frame. This is due to the wondrous work of the film’s editor: Takeshi Seyama.

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         Paprika’s intention is to bring critical attention to humanity’s relationship with the realm of dreams in respect to the world they live in, and it completely succeeds in this ambition. Dreams as a way of interpreting troubles in life, what this discusses is the idea that delving too deep into one’s dreams affects one’s reality. The idea being that dreams are a private reflection period rather than something to be poked apart by trained physicians, especially when they are not naturally part of the dreamer’s mind, or lives.

         I was utterly unprepared for the spectacle of Paprika. It’s bright color palette and beautiful imagery solidify the movie as one of the greatest animated films in recent memory. By dealing with mature ideas and bringing an adult film to the anime format. While watching it, I was blown away by it’s cultural relevancy, as it clearly inspired the blockbuster film Inception. It is an utterly gorgeous film to look at with a touching narrative and creating a lush and gorgeous film that is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

 

“The Third Man” & Harsh Lighting: Beyond Tropes

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a perfect example of the pristine understanding film noir directors had of cinematic technique. Film noir employs the tropes of its genre to create a successful formulaic film. Various other film noir’s that came out in the genre’s heyday use the same formula that allows them to have a choke-hold on success in the movie box office. The narrative appeal of intrigue, mystery, conflict and peril, along with the films having a consistent cast of characters. The Third Man uses the tropes of its genre to its advantage in telling its story of lies, heartbreak, and morally challenging effects of ‘the third man’, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

img_current_30_118     Taught editing and controlled camera work create a classic addition to the film noir library, with lighting that affirm the character’s ambitions by low-key lighting that cut characters in half with shadow by the hard light. Solidifying it as a demonstration of how technical prowess and proper use of technique makes the difference between a good and bad film. The Third Man relies on the tropes of film noir, which requires the film to be technically flawless in order to make it’s plot stand out more from the countless film noir (ex.The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, M, e.t.c.) that were being released during this time.

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The harsh lighting is used to perfection when main character Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a victim of mob mentality when a small boy points out that he was in the recently murdered informant’s apartment the previous day. The femme fatale Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is also present at the mob and is originally seen as split between light and shadow, shifting into the light as she goes to Holly’s side. The harsh lighting of film noir, especially in The Third Man, demonstrates the fluidity of the line between good and evil. It highlights how people constantly traverse over this moral line between good and bad intentions in their interactions with each other. The Third Man brings this line to the forefront of the character’s actions and interactions with each other, like how Holly and Anna consistently clash on the moral disposition of their shared acquaintance Harry Lime. The two end up on either side of the harsh lighting with Anna’s character figuratively showing her opposite views by being draped in darkness. In direct contrast to Holly who is lit to highlight his concern with the effects of Lime’s crimes. The lighting of the film The Third Man highlights what makes its characters different from the tropes in the film noir canon. It brings attention to Anna’s conflict as she finds out terrible truths about the love of her life, and shows how Holly faces the moral dilemma of being involved with the crime to bring justice to a terrible racketeering scheme. The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out movie.

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The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out film. The Third Man effectively uses harsh lighting that brings attention to the characters and how they differ from their prescribed tropes, while also still existing in them to maintain the genre