The B+ Movie Guide: Part XI
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:
Black Narcissus (1947)
This is one of those movies where, when you start it, people go, “Why the hell are you making me watch this?” But when it’s over, you get it. This is Powell and Pressburger again, and it may well be their best movie. Which is weird to say. It’s so utterly fascinating. On so many levels, this should not be as engrossing as it is.
Here’s the pitch: a group of nuns are sent to a mountain in India to bring religion to the natives. That’s pretty much the movie. I don’t want to go any further, but that’s basically what it is. But trust me when I say, this movie is great. And it is one of the five or ten most gorgeously shot movies of all time. Ever. Full stop. Not an exaggeration. This movie is other level beautiful. It’s stunning, it’s haunting, and the climax of this movie actually gets pretty terrifying.
There’s a moment in this movie, accomplished through nothing more than editing, composition and makeup, that’s so terrifying it actually makes you go, “Whoa… shit.” Colin knows what I’m talking about, and all I’m gonna say is: Sister Ruth. If you don’t know what this movie is, pop on the Blu-Ray, don’t look into it, and be prepared for one of the greatest film experiences you will ever have. (2)
The two most celebrated Powell and Pressburger movies, both on today’s list, are each movies about stuff where, if you’d told me that I was going to watch a feature film about these things and be enthralled, I wouldn’t really believe you. Mike first told me about this movie during college, which I why I was familiar with the imagery, and I admit that there was a fair amount of skepticism as I listened to him describe it.
“It’s about nuns in India.”
“Oh, did a tiger eat one of the sister’s brothers?”
“No, they just do nun stuff and it looks amazing.”
And that’s the only way you can describe this movie. It gets freaky at one point, and the location is really what you’re watching for most of the time, because they’re up on this cliff with a sheer drop of like 5,000 feet. Like, they’re ringing the church bell from a spot you could easy BASE jump from and there are lots of high angle shots. So I watched the movie, and yeah, it pulled me in entirely. Made my brother watch it and he, too, was converted. It’s like the classic movie fan pod person formula. Unless you really know about Powell and Pressburger and their movies, you’re going to view this with some skepticism, until you see it and start raving about how amazing it looks. So watch it, and make sure you’ve got a Blu-Ray or something because watching this film in poor quality is like showing someone the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a Motorola RAZR.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
I actually wanted to leave my comment as just that, but I’d be doing a disservice to the movie if I did. It’s crazy to think that this movie was revolutionary at the time, shining a light on anti-Semitism in this country. The basic premise is that Gregory Peck is a reporter who decides to write a piece about anti-Semitism by going around and telling everyone that he’s really Jewish and seeing what happens. And it actually gets pretty fucked up. It’s the kind of thing where you wonder if this kind of stuff could have ever happened, and yet somewhere you know that it did. You just know this stuff was completely prevalent and accepted back then. I’m sure it’s embellished somewhat, but that doesn’t diminish the power of the film. Also a Best Picture winner. And an Elia Kazan film. (2)
Can my comments just be “Jews?”
Seriously, a great movie. I’m not sure if I’d have viewed it the way I did if it hadn’t been Gregory Peck. We all know Gregory Peck as the most stalwart warrior for social justice Hollywood has ever seen (though Harper Lee’s long lost novel seems to challenge that, which is why I’ve been saying “la la la” with my index fingers in each ear for the last several months), so even though that movie came out 15 years after this one, I can only see him as righteous. He didn’t have to win me over at all during this movie. From minute one, I was already thinking, “Gregory Peck is the only Gentile in America who understands the plight of the Jews, and damn it, he’s going to do something about it.” He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s Atticus Finch. It comes naturally.
The one thing that really gets to you, though, is that throughout this film you’re shown how bad Jews had it in 1940s America in social examples. Gregory Peck gets turned down at a hotel and shunned at a party — that sort of thing. It doesn’t really hold up when you consider that at the time this film was made, there were still very public lynchings in the US. Of course, the point is not necessarily to compare or even to reflect on a single group, but rather to illustrate the societal prejudices of postwar America. Dealing with Jews in this case was the easiest because Peck was able to do it by simply adopting a pseudonym. And there was the recent Holocaust and the issue of the Zionist cause to be considered at the time, so it makes sense why they’d go that route.
Anyway, a great movie that was both woefully narrow in scope and ahead of its time. I’ll watch anything with Gregory Peck, and as far as 40s drama goes, this one has its heart in the right place.
Kiss of Death (1947)
Great noir. Richard Widmark is a fucking psycho in this. It’s the one where he pushes the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Iconic scene, and a great performance. (3)
This movie was disturbing. It starts with Victor Mature as a cheap crook who gets sent up the river. He doesn’t rat, but he finds out later that his wife has committed suicide and his daughters are being sent to an orphanage. So he works with the cops to try and put some guys away so he can do right by his teeny daughters. It’s sweet, how he goes from this mug to a caring dad so fast.
Widmark is insane, though. This is the movie that makes you think, “What the hell did Victor Mature ever do to y– oh, well I guess he’s trying to help the cops put you away and he’s out without having served all his time and there are reasons to want him dead. Yeah, okay. But he has kids!”
And yes, Widmark pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs and laughs. Dude is properly messed up in this.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Speaking of iconic — Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and that house of mirrors finale. That’s iconic. (2)
Those were the days, when Orson Welles could just put himself in a movie and noir it up and turn out something like this. I’ll admit I wasn’t watching it too closely because if you’re watching an Orson Welles movie too closely you miss the prize. You know, skip the finer details and recognize the genre and the medium you’re dealing with. And once you can do that, the relationships and the dialogue come together differently. I had a pretty good idea as I was watching how things would probably turn out with the main characters based on having seen movies. It’s not that this was some hackneyed attempt at an original noir; it uses the language of the genre to do something with what’s there. I liked it, but as I find with most of Welles’ films, it might be a while before I put it on again.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Yeah, yeah, I know you all saw the one with Matilda from the 90s. This is the one you gotta watch. Edmund Gwenn actually won an Oscar for this movie. And Maureen O’Hara and young Natalie Wood. This is essential viewing for humans, just because it’s a timeless Christmas classic. And we all need to see those. (1)
Joy. This movie is joy. There are dozens and dozens of movies that are about how you just “have to believe” in Santa, but those are more about people who need some proof or haven’t found the holiday spirit. This is a movie that features an extended courtroom sequence during which characters have found varying reasons for which they’ve chosen to believe in Santa. It’s not about if you believe or not, it’s about if you choose to believe. And Santa’s just doing awesome Santa stuff the whole movie with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood not believing him. And Porter Hall’s in it!
I liked it because it wasn’t just a straight up Christmas movie (those are cool, too), it was about people deciding what might be more important than demonizing the happy myth of Santa Claus. And it has a happy ending. This should be part of your annual Christmas movie marathon with Die Hard.
Out of the Past (1947)
Lot of noirs here. This is the era for noirs. (Plus I knew that Colin would like the noirs more than some of the other stuff.) If you’re looking at noir as a genre, there will be about five films listed as the quintessential ones. This is one of those five. You can argue against Kiss of Death being on this list. You can’t argue against this one. (2)
The noirs are good, but they’re a bit heavy. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I went out of my way to spread them out. This was no exception. I watched it and then took my sweet time queuing up another. You know who I love, though? Robert Mitchum. Bob Mitchum as a private eye, Kirk Douglas as a rich guy and Jane Greer’s a femme fatale. Things really go downhill in this movie in a major way. If you think noir isn’t twisted or devastating enough, try this one on for size. I’m not sure you can even imagine Mitchum’s character being happy anywhere, or with anyone.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
I tried to keep as American as I could, but sometimes a foreign movie just has to be there. This movie is beautiful and heartbreaking. Wanna know how important this movie is to cinema? It led to the creation of the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. Also wanna know how great this movie is? It’s a foreign movie from 1948 and still managed to stay in the top 100 on IMDB, which is just a den of ridiculousness. That should tell you how good this is and how much you need to see it. (2)
There are a lot of things that I can tell you about this movie. It’s gorgeous, it’s minimalist, it’s heartbreaking and it remains one of the most poignant commentaries on the human condition in the postwar world. But what I’d like to leave you with is: without this movie, there’s no Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Force of Evil (1948)
I saw this movie as part of a Studio System class, detailing its rise and fall. And this was as we were talking about the Blacklist, as this movie is essentially about that. And man… did this blow me away. I had vaguely known about it because it was an influence on Scorsese, but when I saw it, I realized how powerful it was. Thomas Gomez is astounding in this. Garfield is great too. But Gomez — that scene where he’s sitting with him at the diner is just heartbreaking. Terrific movie, and very important if you want to see how Hollywood responded to the whole HUAC thing. (Since the B pictures are often more direct about it than the A pictures. Take Crossfire, for example. The B movie version of Gentleman’s Agreement in terms of handling Anti-Semitism.) (3)
There are a lot of films noir that use this naming format, huh? Force of Evil, Touch of Evil, Kiss of Death, Edge of Doom…you’d be forgiven for letting them get mixed up. Just like Detour, this is one that takes care of everything really quickly — it’s only 78 minutes long. While I was watching movies off the list, I’d go for months without watching anything off it and then have these bursts of productivity where I’d set aside a whole Saturday and watch five or six movies straight. This was one of the movies I was watching on a day with at least four others, because it’s so short. The average length of movies on the list was 116 minutes, so if I wanted to make some progress in a single day, I’d stack four or five shorter flicks to watch. Or knock out like, Cleopatra. But this was toward the end of a packed day, and I had to stop after I watched it because it was so unexpectedly awesome. You need some processing time after this. This was the kind of movie where it was so good I emailed my dad about it.
Red River (1948)
You ever had a good Swiss Watch?
This is a classic western. Howard Hawks. He had his own little string of westerns. Mostly this and Rio Bravo are the two super classics. This movie is terrific. It’s one of the first times John Wayne really stretched himself in a dramatic part. John Ford actually said, after seeing this movie, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”
Plus — that Swiss Watch scene… my god. Talk about… well, I’ll just leave it at “overtones.” You’ll know when you see it. (3)
This is an important turning point for Wayne, since he’s really making himself look less than perfect. The movie is about him driving cattle up to the railroad, which is the start of the famous Chisholm Trail. His adopted son goes along and turns out to be the better man. There’s a whole callback to what Wayne had done as a younger man and how the son has learned from the mistakes and can stand up to Wayne. What an awesome movie this was, and with a killer cast. Wayne, Montgomery Clift as the son, John Ireland as Clift’s quick draw friend/rival, Walter Brennan as the old coot (named Groot, by the way) and both Harry Careys. Half of this film is basically Oregon Trail: The Movie. And yes, the Swiss watch. Swiss watch this movie.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Powell and Pressburger. Perhaps my favorite part of this entire quest was introducing Colin to the joys of Powell and Pressburger. This is probably their best overall movie. I am a sucker for A Matter of Life and Death, but this and Black Narcissus are also right there. (Also, all three were made in CONSECUTIVE YEARS! That’s a Sidney Lumet in the 70s kind of run. Or Rob Reiner in the early 90s.) This is a perfect movie. The Red Shoes ballet in the center of the film is a stunning piece of filmmaking. The color and direction of this movie — just watch it and experience it. There’s a reason this is constantly put on the list of the best films ever made. Just — wow. (2)
The second Powell and Pressburger film on this list, and the other one that I was skeptical about watching. I’m not much of a ballet guy, didn’t get too taken in by Black Swan, don’t really understand what’s great about the aesthetic of it. And that’s my fault. So obviously I was still wary when Mike mentioned that this film’s centerpiece is a 17-minute ballet sequence. I watched it, and the experience was not unlike the sensation a child has in a candy shop. Your eyes dart around for most of the time because every little detail is so beautiful, but then your gaze is fixed on a single color or thing for a while. Then you realize you’ve been staring at that one thing while other stuff goes unnoticed, so your eyes start darting around again. You can watch this movie with the sound off, and it’s still a better film experience than most movies that are already on this list.
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This is one of those sections where I get progressively more excited as I go down, because I see movie after movie that I want people to see. There’s a certain behavior in the movie buff community that is prevalent, which is the genuine excitement for other people to share in great movies. It’s the same excitement children have when they want to show you something awesome they found. Except in our case, this isn’t some bullshit spider web they found outside behind the steps.
The point is, there are all great movies here that you can’t wait for people to experience. Logistically, I’d say that Force of Evil should be here for historical purposes, even though it doesn’t necessarily strike most people as being an obvious fit. The Lady from Shanghai is famous for its climax, but theoretically could be left off. But why? It’s awesome. Otherwise, all great here.
Rankings: You need to see this version of Miracle on 34th Street if you’re alive. If you’re gonna get into movies, Bicycle Thieves, Out of the Past and The Lady from Shanghai will be very quickly on your list of movies to see, and rightfully so. The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus should be seen quickly, but seen once you feel you are mature enough to understand them. I wouldn’t throw this movie on at age 14, just because I don’t know if you can fully understand why these movies are perfect at that age. We all have that experience. I’m sure there’s something I saw at 13 where I went, “I don’t get why that’s so great.” But that aside — you need to see them if you like movies. Gentleman’s Agreement is a 3 movie, in that you don’t need to get to it immediately, or in that first batch. However, issues-wise, I think it’s closer to a 1, that everyone should see. So I leave that as a 2. Kiss of Death I left as a 3 even though it’s a memorable title that pops up a lot in terms of classic movies that get referenced. Force of Evil is a clear 3, and Red River is a solid 3, but it’s a classic western and a case can be made that it’s a 2.
Powell and Pressburger, noir, one Christmas movie, Jews, Italians, and a Western. If I have to focus on anything here, it’ll be the Powell and Pressburger because you know about the noirs. Hopefully. You’ll have seen Bicycle Thieves, or at least you’ll know you’re supposed to see it. And then there’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Miracle on 34th Street and Red River. I hope you watch Gentleman’s Agreement, but not as much as I hope you watch Powell and Pressburger. Everyone’s seen Christmas movies, unless you’re one of those Gentleman’s Agreement types. And Red River…it’s an amazing Western. Its place here is really just reminding me of what’s still to come in the Western category, because there’s so much more. And if I’m honest, I’m a Ford guy. Hawks is great, but he loses to Ford in the Westerns category.
As far as essentials? Bicycle Thieves and Out of the Past are probably the most essential here, and then the Powell and Pressburger stuff because watch them, you fools.
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More movies tomorrow.