Shoes in films

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I have a love hate relationship with shoes. I dream of having a huge collection of ballerina flats, boots of varying heights, heels and sneakers and am conscious that beautiful shoes make all the difference to any outfit. But buying them has always been a nightmare as my own feet are extremely narrow and generally between sizes meaning blisters and wounds are frequent occurrences and the reason why a packet of plasters is my handbag essential most of the year.

Believing that investing in better quality would solve the problem, I once blew a large part of my salary on two pairs of designer shoes from boutiques on Savignyplatz in Berlin. The first were sandal wedges for summer whose straps broke in a very short time and the other pair inflicted such terrible injuries that I was relieved to sell them to someone with slightly smaller feet for a fraction of the price. I don’t recall limping for more than a week after wearing them. Still, I continue to admire beautiful footwear and dream of the perfect shoe. In the meantime, here are some iconic ones from the big screen to discover and revisit. Let me know what your favourites are or if I’ve missed anything important.

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Along with The Wizard of Oz, the most famous shoes in cinematic history are surely those worn by Moira Shearer in the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece, ‘The Red Shoes’. They have a life of their own in the stunning ballet within the film and take on an unbearable poignancy at the end. Jack Cardiff’s magnificent colour photography is probably the greatest of all time.

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Dorothy with her legendary magical red shoes in The Wizard of Oz, one of my childhood favourites.

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Monsieur Hulot with his trademark raincoat and umbrella who leaves footprints everywhere, here leading to an unfortunate misunderstanding in the brilliant ‘Mon Oncle’.

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Marty McFly with his iconic Nikes in ‘Back to the Future II’. Things haven’t developed as the film predicted but these sneakers are still the stuff of dreams.

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Jennifer Grey was my teen idol after I saw her in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and, of course, ‘Dirty Dancing’. I love her white sneakers and envy her dance moves.

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I can’t say too much about the significance of shoes in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ without spoilers, only that you need to watch it if you haven’t done so already and that it teaches us the importance of looking at a man’s shoes.

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Not only does Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly have Givenchy alligator shoes lying around her bedroom, she also has milk and another pair in the fridge.

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Carrie Bradshaw with her Manolo Blahniks. I don’t much care for the Sex and the City films but have a soft spot for the series as it reminds me of good times in the ’90s and watching it secretly in my bedroom late at night.

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In ‘Bringing Up Baby’, one of the greatest comedies of all time, Katharine Hepburn loses her heel and is forced to walk lopsided during yet another calamity which she inflicts on poor hapless Cary Grant. 

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Films for Valentine’s Day

I’m aware that the very title of this post will make some people scream or reach for the sick bag. Valentine’s Day sucks, in my opinion – overpriced, dyed red roses, chocolates in naff heart shaped boxes, enormous fluffy bunnies for sale in the supermarket. But I’m prepared to accept a romantic film and realise that some of you may even be looking for suggestions. Here are some of my favourites and all can be enjoyed throughout the year, not just today.

An Affair to Remember

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Warning: this is definitely a four Kleenex film. I’ve only seen it once but the uncontrollable sobbing at the final scene remains fresh in my mind. Yet for absolute and classic romance, this one’s hard to beat. Playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is sailing back to New York to marry an heiress when he meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a nightclub singer who is also involved with someone else. They instantly fall in love but realise things are complicated so agree to meet on top of the Empire State Building in six months if they still feel the same. I won’t spoil the rest of the story but needless to say, they don’t meet then. Will fate keep them apart? It’s a beautiful and touching film which hasn’t dated at all and as a sign of its status as the ultimate romantic film, Nora Ephron referred to it constantly in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ many years later. Just don’t forget the tissues!

The Philadelphia Story

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Perhaps the most romantic and sophisticated of them all. This was the film that revived Katharine Hepburn’s flagging career after she’d been branded “box office poison” after a series of flops. She plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy divorcee about to marry again. But things become complicated when not only her ex-husband C.K. Dextor Haven (Cary Grant) but also a couple of newspaper reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) show up at her family home on the eve of her wedding. A few home truths are revealed and needless to say, nothing will ever quite be the same. It’s a gorgeous, sparkling film, full of witty dialogue and I just love the chemistry between the three leads. James Stewart walked away with an Oscar with his performance which he undoubtedly deserved but it always makes me rather sad that Cary Grant was snubbed by the Academy for what is one of his finest roles.

Brief Encounter

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It’s easy to sneer at Brief Encounter today. If married people are in love, they can just get a divorce, nobody is trapped in dull suburban life anymore. And those clipped accents! Yet I defy you to watch it and not be moved by Celia Johnson’s flawless performance which has lost nothing of its power. What makes this film still compelling after all these years is that she and Trevor Howard are simply perfect together and the agony of knowing they can never be together is deeply moving.

Midnight

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A beautiful woman, Eve Peabody, (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris on a rainy night without a sou to her name and only the clothes she is wearing (luckily they are designer). A kind-hearted cab driver, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) agrees to drive her around in search of a nightclub job for which she doesn’t seem to have much talent. When that doesn’t work out, he invites her up to his room but she flees while his back is turned and crashes a high society soirée. Forced to impersonate an aristocrat, she names herself Baroness Czerny and soon finds herself involved in a complicated web of relations between Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), his wife Hélène (Mary Astor) and her lover Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) who becomes smitten himself with the Baroness. Can she pull off a society marriage? Meanwhile, Tibor has a search party out looking all over Paris for Eve. This is Old Hollywood comedy at its very best with flawless performances from the whole cast, especially Colbert who excelled at screwball comedy. Not all of Charles Brackett’s and Billy Wilder’s scripts were great (‘Ball of Fire’, ‘Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife’) but in the hands of Mitchell Leisen, it’s terrific and great fun from beginning to end.

Lost in Translation

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For those who prefer something a bit more modern and fresher, this is a great choice. I remember how amazing I found it when I first watched it at the cinema all those years ago. Most of you probably know it anyway, but there isn’t exactly much of a plot. Instead, it’s about two lonely people played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson staying at the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo who find a connection. They may seem an unlikely couple but their performances are so wonderful that nothing ever feels forced or fake, you just drift through their long conversations and different encounters in the city. I think many of us can relate to being in a strange place or not knowing what direction to take in life. This film really shows what it’s like to be in those situations and I keep thinking about it long after I’ve watched it again. The fantastic soundtrack and photography help to create something haunting and unique which is why I find myself coming back to this film time and again.

In the mood for love

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Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous film has the same premise as Brief Encounter – two married people (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who fall in love but are kept apart but gossip and social conventions in 1960s Hong Kong. I think it’s a shame that some people see the film as superficial and glossy because of the emphasis on style, beautiful costumes and photography. It’s so sensitively played that Christopher Doyle’s stunning cinematography, haunting score and exquisite clothing manage to express desire in a way few films can. A lingering glance, the heat of the evening, the corridors we follow the two characters down. The most touching scene for me is when they try to prepare for the inevitable separation by practising their farewells. It’s almost unbearably sad.

Jules et Jim

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An unconventional but still romantic film. I am loathe to pick favourites but this is probably my favourite Truffaut (but then if you ask me to choose between La Peau Douce, Les 400 Coups and Vivement Dimanche, I’d be hard pushed). Adapted from Henri Pierre Roché’s  novel, it tells the story of two friends, Jules et Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre), and their changing relationship over 20 years with the unpredictable but beautiful Catherine (Jeanne Moreau at her most iconic). There’s the warmth and fun of the Belle Époque years, followed by the darker period of the First World War and the rise of National Socialism. You really feel what it was like to be alive during those times, how the characters are bound up in these events and how their relationships to one another changes, like the whirlwind in the enchanting song Catherine sings. I must also mention the extraordinary and groundbreaking cinematography by Raoul Coutard and Georges Delerue’s beautiful score. It’s the most complete portrayal of friendship, love and loss that I have ever seen and undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Handbags on screen

I should really start with a disclaimer – I’m going to focus not just on handbags but also on suitcases, briefcases and boxes but failed to come up with a more appealing title for this post. Just so you know. Anyway, if you are prepared to forgive me, I’d like to focus on these accessories which very often didn’t just look appealing, but also had a key role in character development or plot twists.

Rear Window

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Just like with gloves, Grace was the first star that came to mind when I thought of handbags, particularly because Hermès named one of the most gorgeous bags of all time after her. But that doesn’t feature in Rear Window. Instead, her character, Lisa Fremont produces a Mark Cross overnight bag, designed by Gerald Murphy, which is big enough to hold a negligee and a pair of slippers. Alfred Hitchcock based James Stewart’s character on Robert Capa and was inspired by his relationship with Ingrid Bergman which ended because Capa believed she was just too glamourous to accompany him on his photo assignments in far off places. This was fashion’s answer to that and remains my travel bag of dreams.

Blue Jasmine

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And while we’re on the subject of Hermès bags, we may as well mention the other iconic one which became my ultimate object of desire after seeing Woody Allen’s masterpiece. Cate Blanchett’s character might reproach others for staring at her Louis Vuitton luggage but for me, the bag steals the scene. Funnily, this gorgeous camel handbag would have been cost more than the rest of the film’s entire costume budget and had to be borrowed from the costume designer’s own personal wardrobe! The cost and decades long waiting list probably mean it will never be mine…

Kiss Me Deadly

Robert Aldrich’s strange, apocalyptic noir masterpiece has as its central focus a latter day Pandora’s box, perhaps containing the ultimate nuclear ‘whatsit’ which everyone in the film seems to want to get their hands on. The expression on Gaby Rodgers’ face as she opens it is one of the defining moments in cinema and undoubtedly influenced the other films in the list below.

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See the whole film here on YouTube

Pulp Fiction

And in case you didn’t know, the most notable influence was on Quentin Tarantino and the famous briefcase in Pulp Fiction whose glowing contents we never see but which have been speculated on countless times, with Elvis’ lamé suit as just one possibility. Although personally, I’m always too mesmerised by the soundtrack and Uma Thurman’s Rouge Noir nail polish to give it much thought.

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No Country for Old Men

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We know that the suitcase at the centre of this film contains a huge amount of money. Setting off a chain of events from which there seems to be no escape, it represents greed and corruption.

From Russia with Love

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It’s all about the gadgets with 007’s trick attaché case which contains ammunition, a flat throwing knife, a folding rifle, gold sovereigns and a tear gas cartridge. Somehow, I don’t think that would make it through security these days.

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Mulholland Drive

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In David’s Lynch’s neo noir masterpiece, the beautiful brunette with amnesia has a black DKNY handbag filled with lots of money and a mysterious blue key. After the heartbreaking and strange rendition of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ at Club Silencio in the middle of the night, a box suddenly appears in Betty’s handbag which can then be opened with the key. What it all means is open to interpretation.

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I’m sure there are plenty of other examples I’ve forgotten about or missed! Let me know if you have any other favourites.

Gloves in films

Following on from the first post in a series about accessories in films, I thought I’d focus this time on gloves. Today, they are mainly worn to ward off the cold but on screen, they can add a touch of class, something menacing as worn by the criminal, or even represent something rather fetishistic. I’ve put together a few of my favourites, but please let me know if you have any other suggestions in the comments.

Gilda

Few films feature gloves quite this memorably. This cult scene with Rita Hayworth singing ‘Put the blame on Mame’, dressed in a satin strapless dress designed by Jean-Louis (inspired by Sargent’s scandalous ‘Madame X’) becomes the ultimate seduction when she peels off one of her long satin gloves and eventually throws it to the crowd as a kind of striptease. That and the line, “I’ve never been very good with zippers” were as racy as you could get in the days of the Hays Code.

To Catch A Thief

Whenever I think of Grace Kelly, I always think of her elegant accessories – sunglasses, her famous handbag and those white gloves. She’s the epitome of elegance and Cary Grant simply can’t take his eyes off her in Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’ as she drives. When designer Edith Head visited Paris with Grace Kelly before shooting started to pick out accessories and jewellery, Hermès was their favourite stop for gloves as Grace believed they sold the best and they fell in love in everything they saw. I’m not especially keen on cars but each time I see this film, I long to own a convertible and get myself the most elegant pair of driving gloves.

The Conformist

In Bertolucci’s masterpiece, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a man seeking to find status and acceptance in society who joins the Italian fascist party and is sent to Paris to assassinate his former anti-fascist professor. Sexually confused and full of ambiguities, he wears his black assassin’s gloves in order to make up for his lack of willpower and commitment. In one of the most disturbing scenes, we see Dominique Sanda’s terrified face and a single black glove pressed against the glass.

Rope

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And who could forget the murderer’s gloves in Hitchcock’s chilling film?

Drive

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The Gaspar Gloves as worn by Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s film caused quite a stir a few years ago, along with the jackets and boots. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “Louboutin stilettos for your hands,”they are androgynous accessories designed for women but worn with great style by one of the coolest actors around.

Carol

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Gloves play an important part in an early scene of Todd Haynes’ gorgeous film when Cate Blanchett’s Carol leaves them on the counter of a department store, giving the young assistant, Therese, an excuse to see her again to return them. One of the most achingly sensual and elegant expressions of desire in film I have ever seen.

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La Belle et la Bête

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And to finish, Jean Cocteau’s magical masterpiece in which Belle is given a magic glove which will take her wherever she wishes. Later on, they are worn in one of the most heartbreaking scenes. His version of Beauty and the Beast is haunting and poetic in a way that no Disney version can even approach.

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The films of my life

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I’m not one of those people who looks back at their school days through rose-tinted glasses. I was always the outsider with pale skin, messy hair and and bad teeth but things improved when I was 16 and stayed on at the sixth form college. The worst kids left, we didn’t have to wear uniforms anymore (although maybe that wasn’t such a good thing when I think back to what we wore in the ’90s) and could go home early. Comfy chairs and sofas were spread out across a couple of large common rooms in which loud music played. Amazingly, I managed to concentrate and switch off enough to sit in a corner and read classic novels which had the added advantage of annoying the other students who not only thought that I was strange but also stuck-up. “Oh God, he’s so depressing,”one teacher exclaimed as she saw me reading Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’. But my favourite teacher was the head of the sixth form. Also a teacher of chemistry, biology and psychology, he had scruffy long hair, tied back, wore violently coloured ties, chain smoked, swore and was a committed Trotskyite.

He took me to the sixth form bookshelf and recommended me works by Lao Tzu and Nietzsche, as well as lending me his personal copy of The Communist Manifesto.

The most important day came though in one of our General Studies classes when we brought in the TV and told us he was going to show us and talk about some of the greatest films ever made. We started off with Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. In the opening scene where the heavens part and some strange and foreboding voices rang out, he asked whether we expected this to be a happy film, then went through it discussing all the key scenes which had influenced later directors like Scorsese. It was unlike anything I had ever seen but utterly compelling and the remarkable face of the leading actor, Max von Sydow, was forever burned in my memory that day.

But there was more to come – Chaplin, Keaton, Ginger and Fred, Busby Berkeley, Godard’s ‘Week-end’ which I later hated, ‘Blow-up’, ‘La Dolce Vita’,  John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’, Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samourai’. I went home that day feeling inspired in a way I had never done before and couldn’t wait to tell my my mum all about it. Of course, a huge cinephile herself, she already knew all of those films so well and on our next shopping trip, we called at the music store to pick up a video of ‘The Seventh Seal’ which was incredibly expensive back then. She ordered more and more titles from classic and world cinema and our little collection grew and grew. I have never stopped watching films and couldn’t imagine life without cinema.

When it came for me to leave for university after finishing my A-levels, I gave the head of the  sixth form a large poster of Visconti’s ‘L’innocente’ which my mum had kept from her days running film clubs and he told me that the director was an aristocratic Marxist. I never saw him again after that but always remembered that film lesson with huge affection and wondered if any of my fellow classmates had been similarly affected. I often considered writing to him to tell him how much that lesson had meant but I never did. Then a few years ago, someone posted on a local site that he had died. I felt as if I had lost a part of myself and deeply regretted not writing. But each time I see a truly great film, I think of him and maybe that’s the best tribute of all.

No(ir)vember: Laura (1944)

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Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ is not only one of the finest noirs but also one of the most popular, even among those who are not die hard fans of the genre like me. Is it the theme tune by David Raskin, or Gene Tierney’s exquisite beauty, or the witty dialogue which crackles throughout? To be honest, it’s all of these and more.

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The film opens with a murder mystery. Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating who killed Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Could it be her acid tongued friend, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her shady fiancé, Shelby (Vincent Price) or someone else? As the mystery deepens, MacPherson finds himself more and more drawn to Laura, reading her letters and even sleeping in the apartment underneath her portrait. She seems to have inspired a strange kind of devotion, even in her housekeeper determined to keep her memory unsullied, and in death, she represents female perfection. But who really was Laura?

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I can’t say much more without giving away a major plot twist which would somehow rob the first time viewer of the pleasure of discovering that for him/herself. So I’ll just say that this is a flawless noir, superbly directed by the great Preminger and with equally superb performances from the cast, particularly Clifton Webb whose first major screen role it was. Waldo Lydecker is truly one of the great characters in film, vicious and cynical and unafraid to destroy any potential rivals through the column he writes and his wit. Watching it again recently, I was also struck by the way this film influenced David Lynch in Twin Peaks whose whole plot revolves around the murder of Laura Palmer, another beautiful and enigmatic character who in death exerts a powerful fascination on all those around her but was not quite what she seemed.

A film to fall in love with.

No(ir)vember: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Let’s take a stroll down Edmund Goulding’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, the one of the darkest and grimmest places  you can venture in film noir. Cast against type, Tyrone Power gives arguably his greatest performance as scumbag trickster Stanton Carlisle who works at a travelling carnival. Stan is ambitious and will stop at nothing to reach the top so when he hears that fellow artiste Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell – fabulous) and her husband once had a lucrative mind-reading act, he sets out to seduce her to learn the code while all the name making eyes at gorgeous Molly (the excellent Coleen Gray) who’s in an act with strongman Bruno. Only one thing haunts Stan; the geek, part man, part animal, a stage show freak who devours live chickens and can only be calmed by a bottle of spirits a night. How could anyone sink so low, he wonders?

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Once he has the code, Stan and Molly get married and set about hitting the big time with their new act and make quite a stir in Chicago. But Stan finds himself drawn to Dr. Lillith Ritter (Helen Walker as a chilling therapist), a fellow charlatan and opportunist. They seem to make a great team but can she really be trusted?

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It’s the rise and fall of a man destroyed by his ambition and deceit. I can think of few films so dark and cynical and the alcohol fuelled visions only add to its haunting quality. It’s both compelling and repulsive and one which you’ll never forget. Not even the happy ending they tried to tack on can erase the sense of despair. And you have to see it for Tyrone Power – he is simply magnificent.

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