This week we launch Robert Harbison’s new series of 50 films that demonstrate this potential, chosen for their intimations of richer sorts of space

1. An Actor’s Revenge

Director: Kon Ichikawa, 1963

In 1973 I reviewed The Last Picture Show for a local paper under someone else’s name. I hardly saw another film for 30 years, until I woke up one night in front of the TV and a film called The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It was as if I had discovered a new medium, an art form that contained all the others.

Ever since that epiphany I’ve felt the crazed passion of the recent convert. Film can remind architects of light, air, sound, colour and cultural context, aspects of experience sometimes neglected by modernists, which buildings at their richest include in more than token ways.

My first film, An Actor’s Revenge, is one of the most consistently beautiful and unexpected of all, but it has occasionally been seen as a piece of self-conscious trash in which the director revenges himself on the studio for sticking him with an old has-been, a 55-year-old female impersonator well past his best.

It opens in a snowstorm on a kabuki stage. The snow is little squares of paper and the only actor moves entranced in time to that Japanese music composed of creaks, pops and bangs. We don’t know it now, but this is the last time we will see this actor on stage until the very end, in a more gorgeous, even briefer tableau.

The ageing female impersonator in An Actor’s Revenge.

The ageing female impersonator in An Actor’s Revenge.

In between lies a lurid play within the play through which the actor takes his long-deferred revenge on the three fiends who ruined his parents and drove them to suicide.

He defeats them with acting, charming the ringleader’s daughter by his magical imitation of femininity until she can think of nothing else.

The settings are like an illustrated version of Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, sometimes cramped, sometimes endless. Colours are garish or muted to invisibility. Deaths erupt like squalls in clear skies and we relish every convulsion, every throttled groan.

What would it be like if the old actor were really as young and beautiful as they all pretend? Nothing special, instead of which we have an exhilarating triumph of art over reality.

An Actor's Revenge, 1963- Trailer

Top 50 Films for Architects

  1. An Actor’s Revenge — Director: Kon Ichikawa, 1963
  2. Shoeshine — Director: Vittorio De Sica, 1946
  3. Pixote — Director: Hector Babenco, 1981
  4. Man With a Movie Camera — Director: Dziga Vertov, 1929
  5. The Saragossa Manuscript —  Director: Wojciech Has, 1965
  6. Once Upon a Time in the West —  Director: Sergio Leone, 1968
  7. Late Spring —  Director: Yasujiro Ozu, 1949
  8. Nil by Mouth —  Director: Gary Oldman, 1997
  9. The Iron Gate (Cairo Station) — Director: Youssef Chahine, 1958
  10. Apocalypse Now — Director: Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
  11. Spirited Away — Director: Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
  12. Cry of the City — Director: Robert Siodmak, 1948
  13. Faust — Director: Murnau, 1926
  14. The Mill and the Cross — Director: Lech Majewski, 2011
  15. My Childhood; My Ain Folk; My Way Home — director: BIll Douglas, 1972, 1973, 1978
  16. Madame de... — director: Max Ophuls, 1953