Recently, a very dear friend of mine who wanted to become more familiar with old movies asked me to compile for her a list of some of the films that were essential to understanding classic Hollywood and cinema as an art form. I’m an incorrigible old movie buff, and so was thrilled to have an excuse to talk about my favorite films. In fact, I had so much fun arranging it I decided to reproduce the collection here on God’s Spies.
There are many people who tend to dismiss old movies as boring. A subdued black-and-white movie from the ’40’s in which the best thing is acting and dialog seems a bit unbearable to audiences accustomed to the deluge-style eye-candy in popcorn-blockbuster movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. As filmmakers have upped the visual ante with every new decade, it is sometimes too easy for the mind-blowing techniques of today to numb our senses to some of the subtle artistry–and good ol’ fashioned fun–in older films.
Films made in Hollywood of yesteryear are a not only a window into the ideals and perspective of the past few generations, a way to see things through their eyes, but also an extremely potent art form with gems of cinematic workmanship that shouldn’t be ignored by audiences today. We put great art on display to be viewed by future generations, and don’t stash it away in a back closet just because it’s old. We can’t ignore the old movie masterpieces; we have to appreciate them for their full artistic and entertainment value.
For now, here’s the start of the list! I’ll post more as the summer goes on!
The Caine Mutiny (1954). “I don’t want to upset you too much, but at the moment you have an excellent chance of being hanged.” If you watch ONE movie this summer, let this be it. An excellent cast (Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer) back up this story about a crew on a back-water ship in WWII who begin to suspect their captain is mentally unstable; one officer takes the situation into his own hands and then faces a court martial for mutiny. There’s a random irrelevant romance in Yosemite that is entirely unimportant to the plot, but otherwise this movie is a masterpiece about the psychology and politics of a tight-knit society–there’s so many twists, right up to the final scenes, that it’ll leave your head spinning.
Stalag 17 (1953) “The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe. Well, since then I’ve wised up. This ain’t no Salvation Army – this is everybody for himself, dog eat dog.” A typical witty Billy Wilder film: dark subject matter treated humorously. It’s part black comedy and part drama, about American POW’s in a Nazi prison camp during WWII who suspect that there is a spy in their midst, and have to find out who it is before they plot the escape of a condemned American saboteur. Bill Holden won an Oscar for the main anti-hero role in this, and boy, did he deserve it.
Rear Window (1954) “That’s a secret, private world your looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.” A thriller from famous suspense-director Alfred Hitchcock; for years it was my favorite film of all time. A photographer (James Stewart, excellent as always) holed up in his apartment with a broken leg begins spying on his neighbors, at first for fun–until he suspects one man of having murdered his wife. It raises a serious moral question: Is voyeurism ethical if by doing it you prove or even prevent a crime? It raises this question–but doesn’t answer it. A great movie, all the same.
The Mark of Zorro (1940) “They heated the water from my bath too early. It was positively tepid! By the time more was carried and properly scented… Life can be trying, don’t you think?” A true swashbuckler. This is not the original Zorro–there was a fantastic silent version made with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.)–but you can’t miss this one. Tyrone Power–besides being dashingly handsome–is the perfect Zorro, equally convincing as the hapless, effeminate fop and the daring bandit. Basil Rathbone (a fantastic fellow) plays the villain (he typically does); the sword fight at the end is alone worth the watch. But the characters are also unforgettable, the setting lovely, and the story as romantic and adventurous as they come.
It Happened One Night (1934) “I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.“ One of the original and best romantic comedies ever made; along the lines of “Bringing up Baby,” though less screwball. Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled brat heiress who runs away when her father won’t let her marry the shallow aristocrat she thinks she’s in love with. She falls in with self-sufficient, plebeian newspaperman Clark Gable who offers to help her on her cross-country trek in return for exclusive newspaper rights to her story. But of course, you can imagine what happens instead. This is very witty and lots of fun; Colbert and Gable are quite comfortable and even easygoing when they are playing off one another’s personalities on screen, so that they work very well together and are able to somehow make this highly improbably romance believable.