The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) “Don’t you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?“ An American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) vacationing in Morrocco accidentally gets involved in a spy ring when a murdered agent whispers a crucial secret to them with his last breath. Their young son is kidnapped in an attempt to keep their them silent about an assassination that is scheduled to happen soon; fearing for their child, their only recourse is to take the law into their own hands and track the kidnappers down before time runs out. This is Doris Day’s best dramatic role, playing the grief-torn mother, and James Stewart, here as the desperate father, is always excellent. Do not confuse this one with the 1937 version of the same name; both films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but the remake is a vast improvement on the original. This films is possibly his best, demonstrating why Hitchcock earned his reputation as an incomparable master of suspense. He builds the tension with excellent directing, without resorting to any of the cheap gory effects of his later films like Psycho or The Birds.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) “I’ll tell you right out, I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” This is the quintessential noir detective film; Humphrey Bogart is at his best in the famous “Sam Spade” role, here caught up in a tangle of international treasure-hunters all vying for a famous jeweled statue of a falcon and willing to do anything to get it. Note Mary Astor as the femme fatale; she was a gorgeous, very intense actress, and often ironically cast as one of two extremes: a) dangerous, “bad” women or b) matronly, gentle, “good” women. Also, as in The Thin Man, the original novel has a lot of less-than-decent stuff in it, but because of the code in Hollywood at that time, the filmmakers had to edit out the most objectionable content. Far from detracting from the characters or the plot, the result of the editing was a superb film. So, Hollywood, what did we learn there?
Mon Oncle (1958) I cannot find a quote from this movie–partly because it’s all in French, partly because it’s almost a silent comedy, as the dialogue is so–at first glance– unimportant. But after you watch this movie a few times, you’ll realize that it isn’t just a quaint little French comedy; it’s a carefully-crafted work of art with subtle and poignant, almost Chestertonian themes, and every shot and every word heard in the background is deliberately placed where it is. At the same time, its a genuinely funny story about a bumbling, humble, simple man, Monsieur Hulot (French comedic genius Jacques Tati), and the misadventures that ensue when he is given charge of his young nephew for a day. Chivalrous, modest, and especially old-fashioned, Hulot represents an older world, a French neighborhood of ramshackle brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies, little cafes, mischievous boys, street-sweepers and stray dogs. This milieu is swiftly being swept away in a flurry of modern inventions, sleek new apartment buildings, sterile homes, factories and fancy cars–the grim, largely colorless world his nephew is growing up in. This, along with M. Hulot’s Holiday, is undoubtedly the best of Tati’s Hulot films.
Sergeant York (1941) “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War’s killin’, and the book’s agin’ killin! So war is agin’ the book!” As much as we value higher education, the history of the world is bursting at the seams with men who never had it and yet were wise in the manner of common sense, and willing to fight for what they believed in. This move is about one of those men and it isn’t fictional. Alvin York, a young man from back-woods Tennessee and an uncannily good sharpshooter, had a very deep and sincere faith in God and the “Good Book” which compelled him to become a “conscientious objecter” during the draft of World War I. His objection was denied, and he was drafted anyway. This films beautifully recounts how York, excellently played by Gary Cooper, struggled to reconcile his faith with his duty to his country.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) “I have a proposition–because, frankly, sir, you and I are the only two characters worth saving in this whole affair.” A traveling Englishman who looks remarkably like the drunkard king in an Austria-like country is obliged to secretly fill the throne while the real king is busy being kidnapped. Alright, maybe I just have soft spot for this one because I love Ronald Colman, starring in the double-role as the king and his look-alike. Or because I love swashbucklers. And Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. And . . . actually, I don’t think there’s anything about this movie I don’t like. The plot is thrilling, the action unmatched, and the characters are unforgettable, from a strait-laced, noble old soldier (a superb C. Aubrey Smith), to the beautiful princess (Madeline Carroll) torn between love and duty, and a roguish and witty villain (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) just too good to kill off in the end! This movie is so much fun, in fact, that the 1952 remake with Stewart Granger copied this version exactly scene for scene.