Kalatozov. With only three films in the archives (I’ve tried to find others but no luck yet) Kalatozov is an interesting case. His three films are big stylistically muscular ambitious films and the images below alone make a strong case (and of course can’t fully take into effect his revolutionary work with camera movement). It is simple- he if he had more films like this he’d be closer to a top 10 filmmaker than a top 50 filmmaker- he’s a major “style-plus” auteur.

Best film:  I Am Cuba.  It took me a long time to get to Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. I didn’t get to it until 2016 and when I did I saw it again the next night I was so blown away. It’s a revelation of cinematography and camera movement. Its roots can be found in Murnau and Ophuls and influences found still today in Inarritu(specifically Birdman and The Revenant), Cuaron and Chazelle in La La Land. Both the best cinematography winners from 2015 and 2016 (Revenant and La La Land) owe a lot to I Am Cuba and Kalatozov. PT Anderson takes his pool shot in Boogie Nights from it as well. Anyways, back to the film, this anthology film is a giant technical tour de force and should not be missed by anyone who is serious about cinema. I’m extremely conservative about films I’ve only seen recently so for me to put this in my top 50 (I’m at #36 of all-time) so early into my relationship with it is a statement of its greatness.

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I Am Cuba– Kalatozov’s use of long angles (did this even more in The Cranes are Flying) to show the protagonist as part of the larger mise-en-scene tableau

total archiveable films: 3

top 100 films: 1

canted frames and parallel lines– glorious architectural as part of the frame in I Am Cuba

top 500 films: 3 (I Am Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent)

top 100 films of the decade: 3 (I Am Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent)

most overrated:   Zilch here. There are only 3 films to choose from, 2 are on the TSPDT top 1000 (Letter Never Sent tragically left off which I’ll get to in the next category) and those two are both underrated by hundreds of spots by the consensus critics.

most underrated:  You could pick all three films below but for now I’ll focus on Letter Never Sent which I have at #320 and isn’t anywhere to be found on the TSPDT top 1000. It’s the third Kalatozov film I’ve seen (after I Am Cuba and The Cranes are Flying) and it cements Kalatozov as one of the great stylists of this or any era of cinema. Letter Never Sent comes between those two films from Kalatozov, Cranes is 1957 and I Am Cuba is 64’. Opens with a gorgeous helicopter reverse tracking shot. Heavy handheld camera work in the Siberian River and Taiga forest. There’s a magnificent graphic match dissolve edit—we go from one set of eyes (sender of the letter) to another set of eyes (receiver of the letter) in a memory flashback. A ridiculously dazzling and experimental framing shot/scene. There are the three protagonists crowded around the camera in a tightly-spaced tent— and then in the background there’s a fire, and then a character who moves back there into the vacated space in the frame. Kalatozov is in love with the canted frames— he also moves the camera to simulate the violence which is very ahead of his time. The high angle shots again and again show the flowing river as part of the mise-en-scene- striking—lots of close-up low-angles like Welles— heavy close-ups. Flames in front of the camera is bold— doesn’t always work but I like that it’s a bit of foreshadowing as well to the forest fire— which is an utterly impressive set piece and sequences- lots of “oners” hand-held tracking shots of the protagonists moving through the fire, then through the ash, then through the snow- sometime in wonderful silhouettes. Absolutely has influence on The Revenant– it’s a survival film and some of the shots (river shot)— Iñárritu clearly loves Kalatozov – he’s borrowed from I Am Cuba as well. Sometimes Kalatozov will use the cluttered flames in the mise-en-scene as a hidden cut (again like Iñárritu in say Birdman but also like Hitchcock in Rope. Again- graphic match edits—he has an entire extended dialogue scene (there aren’t many of these in the entire film) with each face, in profile, almost taking up the entire frame like a mountain- haven’t seen anything like it. In the snow sequences you can tell Kalatozov is bored with the flatness so he meticulously creates these little hills to show nuance and texture—some of the shots remind me of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia which would come 2 years later- Lean uses sand instead of snow of course. One of the three leads dies in each element- structurally and formally the film is so sound- fire, ash, snow. There’s a great hallucination/surreal scene like Sunrise from Murnau. Ends with symmetry- booked helicopter tracking show finale. Must-See after one viewing.

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glorious use of depth of field here in Letter Never Sent
another one here- the frame as canvas and unique angles created that had never been seen in cinema at the time

gem I want to spotlight:  The Cranes Are Flying. There are only three films to choose from (and look how much I adore Letter Never Sent and I think this is superior) and I already had a chance to wax poetic on I Am Cuba and Letter Never Sent. This doesn’t have as many stylistic footprint in the sand moments as I Am Cuba and I’ve seen Letter Never Sent more recent—but this is the first of the trio and the most out of character for the other films that came out that year (by 1964 with I Am Cuba many auteurs were experimenting near Kalatozov’s level, but in 1957 that was not the case).  He uses his characters as objects that are just a part of the frame—the greater tableau– so miraculously.

one of Kalatozov’s greatest wall art images– this one from The Cranes Are Flying

stylistic innovations/traits:     Kalatozov is the auteur equivalent of baseball’s 5-tool player. You can go one by one. Cinematography, he’s a Mount Rushmore-ish auteur (man there have been so many) in terms of moving the camera. His brief filmography is loaded with stunning oners. Next to mise-en-scene, he’s in love with the canted frame, low-angle and high-angle Wellesian work. He huddles his characters around the camera and uses their body shape both to block/shape other objects and as just objects in space against a greater architectural backdrop. He got bored with the snow like I said above in Letter Never Sent and designed snow—snow—haha—just to give it texture. This is Tarkovsky-ish.  As far as editing, we have the graphic matches. The formal structure is always there as well- it’s never a flourish without cause or a point without a counter-point.

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In Letter Never Sent Kalatozov actually designs the snow to give the high angles a new mise-en-scene backdrop (a la Tarkovsky)– this level of meticulous production design puts Kalatozov in a pretty peerless group

top 10

  1. I Am Cuba
  2. The Cranes are Flying
  3. Letter Never Sent
shadow work and stunning angles in I Am Cuba

By year and grades

1957- The Cranes are Flying MP
1960- Letter Never Sent MS
1964- I Am Cuba MP

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives