In this turbulent French Revolution epic, D.W. Griffith fuses spectacle, action and romance with swiftness and intensity. He interweaves a tale of two girls, Henriette (the transcendent Lillian Gish) and Louise (the merely touching Dorothy Gish) -- raised as sisters in the provinces only to be separated in the chaotic streets of Paris -- with the dueling swords and accusations of rebels and aristocrats. The foreground action is ardent, the background volatile; there's nothing middling about it. One episode comes straight out of Thomas Carlyle or Charles Dickens: a marquis' speeding carriage kills a child, but the nobleman is concerned only with the condition of his horses. The same marquis arranges for Henriette to be kidnapped; luckily, she wins the protection of the truly noble Chevalier de Vaudray ( Joseph Schildkraut). As Henriette searches Paris for Louise, who suffers from plague-induced blindness, she crosses paths with Danton ("The Abraham Lincoln of France") and Robespierre ("the original pussyfooter"). Even at its most melodramatic, the movie has an infectious immediacy, as when Robespierre does indeed pussyfoot around Henriette's door. Griffith blows the dust off the 18th century. And Henriette is a heartbreaker. After seeing her enact sisterly hope, bereavement, and hope again, it's hard not to gush about Lillian Gish.
In Jean Cocteau's superb modern version of the Greek myth, death isn't as easy as it is in, say, "Ghost." The inscrutable administrators and envoys of the afterlife, including the slim, severe Princess (Maria Casares), follow their own rules. That's what makes the netherworld attractive to the poet Orphee (Jean Marais), who seeks a fresh source of inspiration. The attraction is mutual. The Princess, who is destined to be the Death of Orphee, develops a crush on the poet, going so far as to kill his wife, Eurydice (Marie Dea). The movie is about how the Princess' right-hand man, Heurtebise (Francois Perier), and the Death-smitten Orphee enter "the Zone" that exists on the other side of mirrors and try to restore Eurydice to life. This film has an eerie seamlessness; emotionally and visually it's a modulated, lyrical tremble. Cocteau's images carry a distinct late-1940s tang, from the post-Liberation tribunals echoed in the Zone to the motorcycle policemen Cocteau saw as Death's special agents and the proto-beatniks he transformed into bacchantes. But the enveloping magic of Cocteau's work is in many ways beyond explication. He manages to explore and to preserve the mysteries of mortality. He makes you believe in a twilight world where Death can face a fate worse than itself.