I have been thinking about the choices a director makes when making a film. What does a well-made film look like? I watched two films back-to-back on the plane to Italy, Lady Bird written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, and Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum and the femme fatale played by Jane Greer.
I recognize it’s unfair to compare these two disparate films as one was a coming-of-age story, the other a film noir. One was made just this past year while the other sixty years ago. One was the directoral debut by a female while the other by an established male director. There is nothing similar about these two films.
Unless you consider the quality of each film as an artistic offering. While Lady Bird was nominated for the top writing and directing awards of 2017, I could not help but scratch my head as to why this was so other than it was a political move on behalf of the Academy of Motion Pictures. I just didn’t think it was an interesting story or directed well. The scenes seemed desultory like mud thrown on a wall with little thought. I wouldn’t have noticed as much if I had not just seen Out of the Past. Wow! What a film. Tourneur took his time to frame each scene. He blocked his characters to take advantage of the space. There was movement. There were silhouettes. The staging was aesthetically balanced. Even the costumes played a visual role–don’t you love how Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) started the film wearing white, but as her devious nature became more apparent, her wardrobe darkened? The characters were interesting–Kirk Douglas was an affable villain. Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey was the anti-hero, private detective who you couldn’t help but root for since he tried to leave his notorious past behind and make an honest attempt as a working man and who fell for the girl-next-door. His relationship with the deaf and mute boy (Dickie Moore) revealed Bailey’s goodness in spite of his tough-guy bravado. Every character was interesting and added to the plot purposefully. It was a beautiful film to watch.
Then there’s Gerwig’s effort. This, a Best Picture contender? It was not structurally interesting. The choppy editing to elicit the passage of time killed whatever emotional investment I had in Lady Bird’s friendships. The only aspect that was quasi-interesting was Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the overpowering mother. The brother and father were a wimpy, wasted pair in a lame plot. I genuinely like Saoirse Ronan as an actress, but her character here in this film was downright boring.
Out of the Past in 1947 was not nominated for an award but was superbly constructed compared to Lady Bird. Maybe if I had not seen both back-to-back it would not have been so glaringly obvious. If you haven’t seen Out of the Past, I highly recommend it. Watch it for the plot. For what a well-made film should look like. For pure entertainment. For the record, I’m all for women directors. Jane Campion and Julie Taymor know what they’re doing. I just wish they’d pass along some tips to Greta Gerwig.