The B+ Movie Guide: Part X
In May of 2012, Colin said I should make a list of movies that need to be seen, because he felt there were huge gaps in what he’d seen, and wanted something to do. The idea was that I’d make up a list, as “homework” for him, and he’d use that as things to watch.
So we came up with a giant list of 500 movies that worked, and Colin went about finishing it. And now that it’s finished, we’re gonna write it up. Because you don’t watch a giant list of movies without documenting that you did it.
We’re going through the entire list, little by little, for posterity’s sake. And here’s the next set:
Brief Encounter (1945)
A Lean night! This movie is beautiful, and perfect. It’s amazing how simple it is, and how much it still resonates 70 years later. Purely essential for any film fan. (2)
There were a few movies on the list that struck me initially as not really my thing and proved to be masterpieces when I watched them. Brief Encounter is one of those. The story is of Celia Johnson as a middle aged housewife who’s bored with her marriage and meets Trevor Howard, a doctor. They spend time together in the most impossibly British ways until they decide it needs to be more and they try to have a tryst. Then, in a still more impossibly British way, that falls through and the movie becomes about their parting, hence the “brief” part of the encounter. Most movies like this start with an affair and then turn it into something like, “Well, now we have to kill my husband,” or, “Oh wow, I hadn’t realized she was a psycho,” or, “Your husband is trying to crash his plane into me…so much for English patience.” This one keeps it on the affair for the duration of the movie and still managed to hold my attention better than most. Lean is one hell of a director, that’s for sure. This was unexpectedly one of my favorite films on the list, and it’s 86 minutes long!
The quintessential B movie noir. You’ll love this one. It’s so great. It actually holds up better than most A pictures. That final monologue is the best. Plus, if you’ve never seen it, go into it blind. It’s great how things just get out of hand over the course of the movie. It’s also a terrific exercise in watching a movie made well on a budget. (2)
This movie is a perfect example of why I bristle at people who try to guilt me into watching TV shows that last multiple seasons. I’m sure those shows are very good, but when you ask me to watch 80 one-hour episodes of the same series, I’m thinking about what I could be watching instead, like this kind of movie. This movie is 68 minutes long and works the whole time. It’s so far B that you can’t help but to admire how well it’s put together. Guy hitchhikes out west, finds that the guy who picked him up has died, and a woman finds out and blackmails him. The ending is too perfect, and the whole thing is entirely self-contained in basically an HOUR. How are you going to tell me to watch a whole series before you’ve watched this?
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
There are more essential movies that could go here, but I’m putting this on because it’s great. It’s a mix of a noir melodrama, but in Technicolor. The color in this movie is some of the best ever put to film. This movie is gorgeous. It’s also structured like a noir (though that’s also how melodramas get structured. It’s more the latter than the former). It’s pretty terrific, and is one of those movies you should see in as good a quality as you can find. I could put a more “essential” movie on this list, but I like saving spots for movies that are just great and will be enjoyed by people who haven’t heard of them. (3)
This was up there with Brief Encounter for how taken aback I was when I watched it. First, it’s the color. 40s and 50s Technicolor is a gift to humankind. There are certain hues that pop in a major way, like crimson. Rock Hudson’s coat in All That Heaven Allows is one example of that shade that sticks with you long after the film is over, and Gene Tierney’s lipstick is the same in this. I loved her in Laura, but this is a more…I want to say “involved” role for her. Without the color, it’d be an incredible movie, but with the color it’s divine. Not to mention that it’s the second movie in two years in which Vincent Price gets dumped by his fiancee, Gene Tierney. You watch this happy story unfold and then watch things get worse and progressively more nightmarish until the film ends and you’re utterly spent. I had to call a friend and go get a drink after watching this movie — but in a good way.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
This is the first real movie about alcoholism. You could say something like maybe Three on a Match or those Pre-Code movies, but this is the first real classic Hollywood effort that really deals with alcoholism. Even if you have an idea of how 40s movies worked, you’ll be blown away by how direct this is and how frankly it deals with the disease. It’s pretty terrific. Also a Best Picture winner, with good reason. Billy Wilder too, because the man could do it all. (2)
Or as Oliver Reed called it, The Weekend. Thanks, I’m here all week. Man, what a movie. The only other movie on this list that freaks you out about booze half as much as this is The Days of Wine and Roses (even Leaving Las Vegas didn’t freak me out that much, compared with this), but this one starts with him as an alcoholic. Ray Milland is the best case against drinking to excess on film. He’s an alcoholic writer who scams his girlfriend and brother into leaving him alone for the weekend to drink himself basically to death. It gets low, to the point where he’s walking uptown to pawn stuff for booze money and cursing the public holiday that’s got all the pawn shops closed. This movie was major when it came out — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay…it’s one of Wilder’s best serious films, and when that guy was on, he was on. I didn’t get it until I saw the movie, but there was a Looney Tunes short sometime in the late 40s where Elmer Fudd works at a Hollywood nightclub and restaurant, and he has to find a rabbit to serve Humphrey Bogart. Like all the other Hollywood shorts, it features other actors doing goofy stuff, including Ray Milland getting his drink bill and paying with a typewriter. And of course, the bartender gives him little baby typewriters as change.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
I mean, of course. No film better represents the post-war experience than this one. This movie is 1946. The next one is the timeless classic, but if we’re putting it in context, this movie is the most important movie of its era. Another Best Picture winner, and just a great, great movie. An absolute must. (2)
The reason it’s the most important film of the era is because it tackles the veteran issue head on, better than anything else. Hurt Locker or American Sniper dealt with individual aspects of the veteran’s experience, focusing on combat as the primary setting for action. We start this movie with the three veterans on their way home from the war, so everything that they face during the film is about re-acclimation. Millions of servicemen were going through this at the time, which is why the movie was so huge. It won everything. Sorry, I guess it lost Sound Recording. But it won everything else. Harold Russell, the real vet who’d lost both his hands, won Best Supporting Actor AND got the honorary award that they tossed his way in case he didn’t win. This movie IS the American postwar. The way people rallied behind it shows just how much more invested people were in doing right by veterans.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Oh, Clarence, I wanna live again! (1)
Is it, though? This is that movie that reminds us how without Jimmy Stewart, children and soldiers die, people go to jail, and attractive young women are relegated to the library. Also, Lionel Barrymore was the original Biff from Back to the Future Pt. II.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Get ready, folks. The Thief of Bagdad was the appetizer. You were familiar with that story. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the salad. You can like a salad, but that’s not where the fun part of the meal is. Now we’re getting to the fun part. Get ready for the joy that is Powell and Pressburger. You guys remember the end of Captain America? When he’s going down and talking to Peggy over the radio, and it’s all sad? Well, that was completely lifted from this movie. That’s how this movie starts!
David Niven is in a plane going down and has a beautiful conversation with Kim Hunter. And then he jumps out so he doesn’t die in the explosion. Only, as he falls, the angel that was supposed to catch him and take his soul up to heaven can’t see him in the fog and misses him. So he wakes up on the beach, alive, not wondering how that’s possible. And then he meets her for real, and they fall in love. And the rest of the movie is about heaven essentially trying to get him back, because he’s supposed to be dead, and him arguing that their mistake is not his problem.
It’s just a beautiful movie, gorgeously shot, and it ends with a great trial scene, where Niven essentially has to argue for his own life. Trust me when I say, if you don’t know this movie, and you don’t know Powell and Pressburger, you’re about to experience the true joy of watching and discovering great movies first hand. (3)
So, Mike said all the stuff I usually say. Allow me to simply endorse the film wholeheartedly. It’s a masterpiece, it’s Powell and Pressburger, and it makes you want to live a long, happy and fulfilling life.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
This is a perfect western. There are a few perfect westerns out there, and many of them were directed by John Ford. John Ford pretty much had one perfect western (at least) per decade. It’s Stagecoach for the 30s, Clementine for the 40s, The Searchers for the 50s, and Liberty Valance for the 60s. Have you guys seen Tombstone? This is essentially that story. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s all of that. But it’s wonderfully told, and really gets enhanced by the way that Ford shot it in Monument Valley and how he included a lot of the ‘community’ moments that define his films. Even if you don’t like westerns, this one is definitely one you should see and will likely enjoy.
(Side note: Colin, remember when they showed this movie in westerns? I remember being really excited for this coming up, because I had seen it in 304, and then the day-of, it was pouring rain. I still remember where I was sitting in Goldsmith when they showed this.) (2)
This is the one I go back and forth about. Not about whether or not I like it, but about whether I think it’s my favorite Western ever. I think I’m sticking with Liberty Valance. But Mike and I are in perfect agreement on which Westerns represent their respective decades. This is the 40s all over. Everyone’s seen this story done, but this is the best telling of it by far.
Henry Fonda is Wyatt Earp, the guy who rolls into town with his brothers. Their cattle is rustled and one of the brothers is killed — we know that it’s the Clanton boys, led by family patriarch Walter Brennan (YES). Fonda decides to stay in town to bring the Clantons to justice and runs into saloon keeper/surgeon (you never find that combination anymore) Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature. Then Mature has his Mexican girlfriend and the woman who shows up looking for him — Clementine. The whole thing is Mature being caught between life and death, light woman and dark woman, while Fonda’s trapped between the civility of society and frontier vengeance. And it ends with one of the most iconic shootouts ever. Ford kills it.
Good Hitchcock is always essential. When he’s great, he’s great. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains. Nazis. You cannot go wrong. Just stop reading and watch if you haven’t seen it already. (2)
You had me at Claude Rains. Claude Rains and Hitchcock, even better. He’s up there with my favorite supporting actors of all time. Look at what he’s done so far on this list. The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now Voyager, Casablanca (what a year that was for him) and now this. You can probably guess what his final appearance on this list is going to be. I hadn’t seen this until the list, and I’m so glad I did, because Hitchcock and Cary Grant is fantastic. Nazi conspiracies are always welcome plot devices in anything. The cinematography, too. I don’t know why so few movies were nominated for this year, but I don’t think people are still talking about Anna and the King of Siam too much almost 70 years later. Notorious, however, is remembered for shots like this.
They could have made this movie another excuse for Cary Grant to say funny things and for Ingrid Bergman to have a great wardrobe, and all of these things happen. But on top of all that, it’s an unbelievably taut story full of suspense. Hitchcock’s genius is in establishing characters who seem to fall into several different camps, but then changing the circumstances. At the end of this movie, you feel bad for the bad guy. How does he do that?
How did Claude Rains not get an Oscar for anything? I need to see Mr. Skeffington.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
I’m both simultaneously sorry and okay with the fact that, for a lot of people (since we were about the age of fitting into this), the first time they heard of this movie was when it was name-dropped in Kill Bill. When Michael Parks as the Mexican pimp is talking about taking Bill to the movies. And he says John Garfield like, “Jakarfield.” Which always randomly stood out to me.
Anyway — this is a classic noir that’s one of those movies — maybe not as big as some of the other names not here, but it’s worthwhile. A lot of my list is replacing movies that are 1s but more for film students with 2s that are not quite as big, but pretty much right there, that are movies that everyone is more likely to enjoy.
My big example — when I wrote up this list originally, a movie I had on there was Pather Panchali, which is a huge international movie that’s a big movie considered essential by a lot of film people. That’s one of those that came out of the early film school generation — people like Coppola and Scorsese, and all those people who make the Sight and Sound lists of the greatest movies ever made.
But the thing is — a film like that — the regular people looking for essential movies don’t need to see that. You can if you want, but I want you to enjoy the list. And you’re more likely to have a conversation about how awesome The Postman Always Rings Twice is than about how Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is a masterpiece of the medium. Because if you are having that conversation, you’re in a Woody Allen movie and not at a bar with people who can really talk movies. (2)
This movie sort of reminds me of Detour in how hardboiled it is. John Garfield’s a drifter who shows up at a diner where Lana Turner’s working with her older husband. He starts working there, but Turner’s so comically younger and too hot for her husband that they have to have an affair. They plot to kill the husband, and that’s practically where things begin. It’s a noir, so you know things have to end badly.
It wasn’t nearly as recognizable as a lot of the other noirs on this list, but it was so twisted and unpredictable that it had me shaking my head nonstop.
Just like Lana Turner.
– – – – – – – – – –
This is a genre list and an auteur list. Or both, in some cases. Noir, Hitchcock, John Ford western, Powell and Pressburger, Technicolor melodrama, B movie noir. And then you have some really famous movies sprinkled in. Man, this was the era.
First off, if you haven’t yet seen It’s a Wonderful Life, find a copy right now and watch it.
After that — Brief Encounter and Best Years of Our Lives are really important movies for anyone getting into film.
Lost Weekend is very important as well, and you’ll get into it pretty quickly. Clementine is an all-time western that everyone needs to see. Just like The Exorcist is an all-time horror movie even if you dislike the genre. Detour is an all-time B movie and a noir, so that has to be seen. Postman Always Rings Twice is the same for noir. Notorious is Hitchcock, and one of his top tier ones. You’ll get to that pretty quickly.
And then there’s Matter of Life and Death and Leave Her to Heaven. Masterpieces of color, and no matter when you see them, you’ll feel like it wasn’t soon enough.
This is where a lot of the good dramas happen. Brief Encounter, The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Matter of Life and Death — these are all amazing dramas that wouldn’t really happen pre-war. Brief Encounter, maybe, since it takes place pre-war. But I don’t see a hardcore movie about alcoholism coming out in 1935. Fun movies featuring alcoholism, sure.
There’s a shift now in what noir is like, what thrillers are like and how Westerns are made. Noir is getting darker, Hitchcock’s started doing love stories, and we’ve got the walk down gunfight now as an archetype of the Western genre.
People were alive during this. People witnessed this going on and these movies coming out. But hey, we have Ted 2, right?
– – – – – – – – – –
More movies tomorrow.