The Thin Man (1934) “Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m a very timid fellow.” This is one of Hollywood’s priceless attempts to clean up the novels of Dashiell Hammet, fit them to the code, and put them on the big screen. It’s still not exactly squeaky-clean–the detective-hero and his wife spend alot of time with, um, the dregs of high society–but the overall result is a witty and clever mystery tale with less objectionable content than the original novel. This one was such a hit that Hollywood made about, oh, four or five sequels. The chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, playing Nick and Nora Charles, is absolutely delightful. Interesting historical note: the Prohibition and post-Prohibition era attitude toward drinking is exemplified in this film; see the effects of driving alcohol underground! They drink “indiscriminately;” it’s “fun,” it’s “funny,” and no one thinks twice about breaking the law. “How many drinks have you had?” “This will make 6 Martinis.” “Alright. Leo, bring me five more dry martinis, and line them up right here.”
Rope (1948) “After all, murder is – or should be – an art. Not one of the ‘seven lively’, perhaps, but an art nevertheless. And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.” Here’s a psychological thriller from famous suspense director Alfred Hitchcock, based on a true story: two college students (a charming John Dall and a painfully nervous Farley Granger) decide to commit the perfect murder . . . simply because they think they have the right to do so. Then the professor (James Stewart) who has been preaching this mentality to them for years suddenly comes face-to-face with the consequences of his words. There are many subtleties here: the shots are exceptionally long, for instance, to increase the claustrophobic effect. But above all, the crowning quality of the movie is its uncompromising exposé of what happens when elitist and Nietzsche-like philosophies move beyond the professor’s podium or the casual parlor chat, and are played out to their logical conclusions, even on a personal level.
Harvey (1950) “In this life, you can be either oh-so-smart, or oh-so-pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I prefer pleasant. You may quote me.” When a man in a small town calmly says that he is best friends with a 6 ft tall, invisible rabbit–which no one else can see–his family and the community start having fits; they try to convict him of insanity, but end up showing how much everyone else is lacking in sanity. Jimmy Stewart should have won an Oscar for this; Josephine Hull is also excellent in this as his nerve-racked but loving elder sister. She did win an Oscar for her performance, as Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Beau Geste (1939) “The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon, but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet.” Many film critics hold that 1939 was definitely Hollywood’s greatest year, because there are simply an incredible amount of superb films made then. Here’s one that’s less well known, but definitely deserves it’s place among the great films from 1939. Part mystery and part drama, It’s a beautiful and very touching tale of three orphaned brothers raised by an impoverished English noblewoman. As men, all three join the French Foreign Legion, each with a secret self-sacrificing motive–either to save their brothers or their adoptive mother. It’s almost impossible not to cry at the ending. Gary Cooper stars in the title role, with excellent performances by Ray Milland and Robert Preston backing him up as the other two brothers. Also, take note of the ferocious and memorable Brian Donlevy–a real life soldier–playing the villain commander Markoff. “I make soldiers out of scum like you, and I don’t do it gently. You’re the sloppiest looking lot I’ve ever seen. It’s up to me to prevent you from becoming a disgrace to the Regiment. And I will prevent that if I have to kill half of you with work. But the half that lives will be soldiers. I promise you!”