Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Scott Nye ""

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Scott Nye

Scott Nye is a film critic and blogger, writing for,, and He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and lives in Los Angeles.
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I didn’t exactly plan this, but I don’t feel it’s any accident either, that all of the films on this list could be said to be melodramas. I’ve quite fallen for the genre in recent years, and especially as it continues to be looked down upon in many quarters, it’s a natural one to call attention to in considering “underrated” dramas.

Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
Mamoulian’s directorial debut was also among the first talkies ever produced, which might lead one to recalling any number of slightly stodgy filmed plays that dominated the early sound era, which, in turn, will make for all the more startling an experience when you see this film, easily ten years ahead of its time in style, with all the grungy content that defined the Pre-Code era. Mamoulian populates his story, about the nightclub dancer who seeks a better life for her daughter, but whose boyfriend continually drags them both back into the racket, with a genuinely grimy atmosphere. This is not the glamorous stage show of a dozen Busby Berkeley pictures, but one run-down hall after another populated with women who look as though they’ve seen better days, and men who look like they never have.

This decrepit air only enhances the stakes for the film’s lovers, the aforementioned daughter and a sailor she meets one evening, whose earnest hope for a better life is deeply moving amidst the limitations and demands life has placed on each of them. Their first date is so wrenchingly executed, full of that feeling you get when you sense that there’s so much more to life than what you have in front of you. It’s been called in some quarters as impressive a debut as Citizen Kane, and I don’t feel that is at all unwarranted.

Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)
After one watches enough melodramas, you start to realize that the genre essentially fulfilled the same thematic desires audiences previously had satisfied through film noir. Picnic is the perfect example. Hal Carter (William Holden) has stumbled off a freight train in a small Kansas town, hoping an old college buddy will hook him up with a job; no, not just a job - a career. Hal was a college football star without many long-term prospects, and the results of misspent youth, one that was further robbed by a tour of duty in the army, soak this picture through and through. Hal’s charm is both his greatest asset and his undoing, as he’ll soon rediscover after meeting Madge Owens (Kim Novak), the prettiest girl in town who herself is hoping to be taken a little bit more seriously.

Whereas film noir took the wounds of World War II and redirected them through crime and corruption, melodrama focused the conflict inward. The U.S. ultimately won the war, and are seeing the economic benefits that came from it, but the damage of that war still lingers, and melodrama was often a direct outlet for people to express their lasting anxieties and fears. Hal is the perfect form for this to take. Director Joshua Logan hardly rests on the laurels of the celebrated stage play he was adapting, bringing a lush Technicolor palette and a surprisingly sharp eye for composition and editing. The entire sequence at the Labor Day picnic is extraordinary, particularly the middle section, in which various groups of the main cast share small moments amidst the floating seeds and the warm breeze that practically flows into the audience. The scene culminates with a dance between Holden and Novak that, without ever becoming explicit, is one of the most sexually-charged moments any of the cinema I’ve experienced.

Le Amiche (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1955)
His series of films with Monica Vitti was hardly the beginning of Antonioni’s focus on female protagonists, as this film (the title of which translates to “The Girlfriends”) aptly demonstrates. Clelia (Elenora Rossi Drago) falls in with a group of wealthy socialites after discovering one of their number attempting suicide in the hotel room adjacent to hers. What begins as a chance encounter transforms into a wonderful expression of desire, dependency, and the sociopathic tendencies among certain groups of friends, whose desire for a little excitement in their lives never quite manages to account for its effect on others. Antonioni utilizes the classical melodramatic structure to its fullest, while still finding space for so many of the small “traces of feeling” that would define his most famous work. For those who have yet to warm to the filmmaker, this is a perfect entry point, and for those who already are, this is a necessary look as his development.

Love Unto Death (Alain Resnais, 1984)
Simon (Pierre Arditi) and Elisabeth (Sabine Azéma), two months into their relationship, are at the height of romantic enthralment when he dies quite suddenly, only to be mysteriously resurrected moments later. This unexplained event comes to define their lives in the days and weeks to come, as one might expect, tearing out all manner of anxieties - emotional, sexual, spiritual - between the two of them and their close friends, Jerome (Andre Dussollier) and Judith (Fanny Ardant). The cast is in top form, and it’s easy to see why Resnais would continue to work with them over the ensuing decades (eventually marrying Azéma, whose rendering of a woman who didn’t think she’d have to deal with any of these subjects for many, many years is astounding), but it is Resnais’ ever-involved style that elevates it well beyond its slightly easy premise. By intercutting brief shots of snow between each scene, no matter their length, he emphasizes how detached Simon and Elizabeth feel from each other and the world around them, hinting at realms spiritual or supernatural without indulgently confirming them.

The story eventually moves into some deeply troubling waters, morally speaking (at least for me), but Resnais’ expression of them is deeply moving, intensely character-focused, and sublimely open to the possibility that belief systems that are routinely dismissed may have some validity. Even if the film doesn’t convince you, it’s enriching to dive into a film willing to get a little outrageous.

Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)
While Naruse is mostly recognized (rightly, I might add), if he’s mentioned at all, for When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Floating Clouds, I would also submit this as one approaching those levels of grace, beauty, and tough drama. Frequent leading lady Hideko Takamine (who also starred in those aforementioned films) plays Reiko, a woman who lost her husband during World War II and now helps his family run their small market. When a new supermarket threatens to close down shops like theirs, some of the family plots to expand their business model, and in the process throw out Reiko. Complicating matters is the family’s surviving son, who was too young to fight in the war, and who now, suddenly, confesses his love for Reiko, disregarding their age discrepancy and all other matters of conflict.

Naruse draws so much from his film, about the rush to modernity, one’s obligation to deceased (or even living) loved ones, the balance between responsibility and personal happiness, and continuing anxieties left over from the war. Naruse had explored that last themes so beautifully in the decade prior, and he demonstrates here that those struggles are far from over, as a whole new generation has to come up in the shadow of the one that fought for their country. It’s unapologetically melodramatic, but like the best of the genre, it doesn’t sacrifice sharp storytelling for its outpouring of emotion. That he caps the film with as modern a closing shot - potentially more so - as any of the more-acclaimed work being released in Europe at the time is a testament to Naruse’s versatility and intense focus on the here and now. He didn’t let his habits ossify, but continue to develop and grow.

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