City Lights (1931) / Modern Times (1936)

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By Scott Ross

I’m taking a leaf here from John Simon, who once said his favorite of these two “silent” masterpieces was whichever one he’d watched most recently. I often think City Lights has the edge, until I see Modern Times again, and then I’m not sure. The latter has Paulette Goddard at her most appealing, a beautifully composed finale, and Charlie caught in the cogs of a factory machine and, later, performing French-laced gibberish as a singing waiter.

But the former has a final shot that, as James Agee once said, constituted “the highest moment in movies.” If it fails to move you, your heart is a dishrag.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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