The B+ Movie Guide: Part XX
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:
The 400 Blows (1959)
Not a porno. Actually the French New Wave movie that came out before Breathless. Breathless is the big one, but this one came out first. It’s actually a really great story. It’s kind of an Angry Young Man (or I guess Look Back in Anger) meets Rebel Without a Cause. It’s just this regular kid who everyone thinks is a problem. But he seems pretty normal. It’s well-made, and features one of the best endings of all time. A must for a film person. (2)
It’s fun that Mike’s open works for all 500 movies on this list, if we’re being technical about it. Except…wait, did we have Audition on this list? Anyway.
I enjoyed this more than Breathless. I’m just being honest, though I know that’s probably not a popular opinion. And for you at home, I bet that really rustles your jimmies, but it’s a good movie. Basically, you take the red and the balloon out of The Red Balloon, and also the joy. This kid has rough time at school and an even worse time at home, and you get to watch as he reacts to all of that. In that New Wave fashion, he chooses abstention in most cases, which I can dig. My favorite performance came from the boy’s stepfather, played by Albert Remy (who I know from his supporting role in The Train with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, which is one of my favorite WWII movies that nobody ever watches and everyone should watch).
It’s worth noting that this is Truffaut’s first feature film, and that he was inspired to work on it after seeing Touch of Evil. Some people were totally convinced that Charlton Heston could be a Mexican.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
I think my opening thoughts will mirror Colin’s: This movie is the SHIT. It’s a trial movie. And I always say that trials make movies (any movies) exponentially more interesting. It’s hard not to get caught up in a good trial. This movie is almost all trial. It’s like 160 minutes, and something like 120 of them are all courtroom. Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden — a great cast of characters. It’s Preminger, too. So he’s pushing boundaries. It’s about a rape, in an era when you could not talk about this stuff in movies. And it’s spellbinding. A lot of people will go into this not knowing what this movie is. And you’ll come out wondering why you hadn’t. It’s one of the best movies on this list that you haven’t heard of. It may also be the greatest trial movie ever. (2)
I have a confession to make: long movies still sort of turn me off. When I got the list of 500 movies, I crunched all the numbers and arranged them in a spreadsheet with their data. To be precise, I got the list in installments of 100 or so movies at a time that Mike put together so that everything wasn’t all bunched. My habit — this might say something about me — was to look at whatever was longest on the spreadsheet and try to knock it off early, knowing that they would require more energy and attention. That’s why it took me three years to finish this; I would watch a single really long movie, take time off and then watch another really long movie. By the time I’d worked my way down to the shorter stuff less than 100 minutes each, I’d knock out four or five on a Saturday until the sub-list was done, at which point the next sub-list began and I’d go back to watching long stuff. As a result, a lot of stuff sticks together in my head because of its length. The Anatomy of a Murder goes with The Great Race because they’re both 160 minutes long. The Passion of Joan of Arc and This is Spinal Tap are both 82 minutes. Anyway, I knew this was going to be long, so I hunkered down for a lengthy afternoon watching it, still very early on in the list. It flew by, confirming for me that courtroom dramas are pretty reliably awesome.
Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott were on fire for this one, and Lee Remick was no slouch, herself. I like Stewart’s dramatic performances, and this is the best one where he gets worked up. This Jimmy Stewart isn’t the Jimmy Stewart of The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, or even Rope. This is an older Jimmy Stewart who cross-examines people and slams his hands on tables and stuff. If it weren’t 1:30am right now, I’d probably stop writing and go watch this.
Because everyone needs to see Ben-Hur some time. This is one of those movies where, if you come from a particular background, this is just on TV at a certain point of the year, and you were a four year old playing while this was just on in the background. That’s how I saw it. And then I watched it later on for real in middle school. (Mostly because I had a Latin teacher who didn’t give a fuck and thought, “Oh, well, this is four hours, this’ll kill a week’s worth of classes where I don’t have to teach. I watched Cleopatra the same way.) But yeah, it’s essential. (2)
I saw this one when I was five. I know because my father had just moved into the condo he was living in for a year between houses. We’d get popcorn and ice cream sandwiches and watch movies, and this is one that I remember watching. Finished two ice cream sandwiches before the end of the overture, which….yeah, this is a long one. I prefer it to The Ten Commandments, if only for the story. Charlton Heston is a Jewish prince whose old friend, a Roman tribune, betrays him and sends him to the galleys. He saves the life of a Roman consul, wins his freedom and eventually goes back to Judea. There’s a whole thing with chariots (which is where The Phantom Menace got its podrace) and lepers and then there’s some Jesus business. It’s an epic film at the height of the epic film craze. And Jack Hawkins plays the consul! Jack Hawkins is great.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
You’ve heard of the book. The movie is incredible. You need to see it. It makes you a better person to have seen it. Not just film person. Regular person. (1)
This is the movie based on the book, which is pretty much required reading for humans. The movie does a really great job of capturing all the joy and sorrow that went into Anne’s captivity, and the ultimate tragedy that befalls her.
It’s also the third of four movies on this list in which Shelley Winters appears. It’s also the third of four movies on this list in which Shelley Winters’ character is killed. Not meant as a joke, just as an observation.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Huge movie, historically. More film student level essential than anything else. This is not an entertaining movie. This is a movie that is worthwhile on many levels, but pure entertainment is not one of them. This is about the atrocities that happened when we dropped the bomb and afterward, and this movie makes everyone confront those, in the midst of an interracial romance. (3)
It’s very much a film student movie. You don’t know what’s going on for most of this movie, and you’re not really supposed to. Hell, even the characters don’t really know what’s going on most of the time. They ask a lot of questions of one another and seem to enjoy negating most of the answers they receive in return. As Mike said, there’s a list of reasons to watch this, and entertainment is nowhere near that list. You’ve got a Japanese man and a French woman, both married, having this affair in Hiroshima.
I enjoyed it on a personal level because I’ve spent a lot of time in that city. It’s one of my favorite walking cities in Japan, and they spend a lot of time walking around. I love that it’s all on location because so little has changed — I still recognize most of the public places they’re walking around.
That said, don’t watch this by itself. Have other stuff ready to go with it. As I reported to Mike, the day I watched this, I also watched 42nd Street, All that Heaven Allows, The Shop Around the Corner, and Pygmalion. Because that’s how I roll.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Another Douglas Sirk. His last movie. This one is probably his most overtly heartbreaking. I, personally, think the trio of movies that are his best are All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and this. Written on the Wind is more funny and over the top than anything. All That Heaven Allows is a good example of the 50s Technicolor melodrama. This one is more the total package. It’s about Lana Turner and her daughter, who meet Juanita Moore and her daughter. And they don’t have a place to stay, so she takes them on as her housekeeper, but mostly it’s to help her out, since she can’t really pay her. And they become good friends, and Moore continues working for her, even as Turner becomes a famous theater actress.
The real crux of the movie, though, is Moore’s daughter. She is half-black and half-white, and starts to think of herself and present herself as completely white. And she becomes ashamed of her mother. And it comes to a head at the end of the movie, in one of the single most heartbreaking scenes in all of cinema. I’m not kidding when I say that. It’s impossible to not get choked up during this scene. This one is really well made, and everyone should see it. (3)
Throughout the Fun with Franchises series, we’ve often made the joke, “Just like Lana Turner.” When that gets said, this is the movie I’m thinking about.
North By Northwest (1959)
What a perfect movie. Hitchcock has like five perfect movies. Some directors don’t even get one. This one works on every single level. And it shouldn’t at all, because I bet if you took this story and told it again, it wouldn’t work. It’s him, and the way he shot it, and the way his actors acted in it. One of the most essential movies of all time. (2)
My favorite Hitchcock. I don’t care if you think Vertigo is better or whatever. This is my favorite and it’s going to stay that way. I’m a believer of the idea that when you have someone like Hitchcock who has so many films that are by themselves better than most lesser directors’ entire careers, you can choose one of those that you like the best and go with it without comparing. Like if I told you my favorite star was Vega and you try to tell me that Sirius is technically more brilliant….they’re both dozens of light years away. Chill. So that’s how I am with North By Northwest. You can make cases for other Hitchcock movies, but…why can’t I just love this?
The reasons I love it are legion. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors ever. I can never get enough of that accent, or the wit that comes with it. I love his banter with Jessie Royce Landis as his mother: “No, Mother, I have not been drinking. No, no. These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn’t give me a chaser.” I love a plot of mistaken identity and espionage and spies. I love spycraft on trains. This was a major influence on the early James Bond movies, of which I am a huge fan. So much of this movie found its way into my favorite Bond of all time, From Russia with Love, from the blonde spy to the train trip together, to the protagonist almost getting run down by a buzzing aircraft. Eva Marie Saint in this movie is probably as close to a direct visual inspiration for Mad Men Season One Betty Draper as you’re going to get, for that matter. They could remake this with some actor (I’d expect them to get either Robert Downey Jr. or Bradley Cooper) and January Jones and most people would buy it. How about the incredible house that most of the ending takes place in, or the finale on Mt. Rushmore?
So much of this film is absurd and so much of it seems impossible that to see it all unfold is that much more fun. It’s a movie that demands a suspension of disbelief beyond what Hitchcock usually requires, and in return it rewards you with thrills, romance, humor and a gorgeous aesthetic. If James Bond is the thrilling, European vision of danger and excitement, this is its American counterpart. A stunning movie, and one I can watch anytime.
Rio Bravo (1959)
One of my all-time favorite westerns. I love this movie. There’s barely a plot to it. It’s basically just John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan hanging out and having a good time. The plot is almost secondary. It’s a perfect western, Hawks again, and you need to see it. No excuses. Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. (2)
This is a great Western. You should check out what I had to write about Only Angels Have Wings because this is basically the Western version of that movie, but with John Wayne. Great cast. Wayne, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and Ward Bond because he was around. The point of this movie is — High Noon is crap, and heroes face foes alone, even if it means being outnumbered and outgunned. If other people want to join the fight because the hero is just SO heroic, well that’s cool too.
It’s great as an example of the genre because I have issues with its message in the same way I should have major issues with the genre. I hate this pre-Vietnam idealist position and everything that it stands for, the same way I generally dislike the desert, guns, machismo and unhealthy individualism. But I like this movie, and I like Westerns. This is why movies are great — you get to take what you believe, and put it over here for a while so you can enjoy this art form that clashes with it. People who can’t separate form and message and tell me they disliked a movie because they can’t get down with what the characters did or said… we’re not on the same page. I got that a lot from The Wolf of Wall Street. But anyway, the point is that Rio Bravo is awesome.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Nobody’s perfect, especially if you haven’t seen this movie. (2)
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon witness the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and flee in drag as female musicians in an all-woman band fronted by Marilyn Monroe. Directed by Billy Wilder. What part of ANY of what I just wrote gives you the impression that this isn’t well worth your time and probably more worthy of your time than 95 percent of what you do day to day?
Also, watch the movie so you’ll understand the joke Mike made.
The Tingler (1959)
William Castle holds a special place in the underbelly of cinema. Here’s a B movie producer who made a bunch of noirs and westerns for 20 years before deciding to reinvent himself. So he mortgaged his house in order to produce his first set of B horror movies. But not just any horror movies — gimmick movies. Each of his movies had a specific gimmick to them — for one he supposedly took out a life insurance policy on all the audience members in case they died from fright during the movie. One involved shock buzzers randomly placed under certain seats in the theater. One had skeletons float over the audience during the film to scare them. Stuff like that. He was a real showman.
This movie, I feel, might be his masterpiece. He made some movies that were later remade, like 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill. But this one is something else.
The way this movie was shown was — first, the shock buzzers. That was this movie. And also, he had people placed in the audience during the film who would scream out during the scary moments, in order to induce terror within the audience. And when I saw this as part of a horror class, that’s what my professor did. And it was just an incredible theater experience. This movie is about… man, where do I even begin?
Vincent Price is a doctor who discovers something called a Tingler, which is a creature that everyone has on their spine that grows stronger during states of fear. The only way to weaken the creature is by screaming. And we follow him, his wife (who doesn’t love him and openly sleeps with other men in front of him), and a theater owner and his deaf mute wife, as there are all sorts of Tingler related incidents. One of the Tinglers from an autopsy gets out, and… we’ll leave it at that.
It’s great fun this movie, with some hilarious innuendo and dialogue, and a third act climax that’s just incredible. I’m not gonna spoil it, but it’s really smart and well done, and manages to involve you the viewer in a really unique way. If you ever get the chance to watch this in a theater with people, you will not be disappointed. Trust me. (3)
Mike pretty much covered it, so I would like to instead take this chance to defend the practice of watching movies on your phone. I don’t do it often, but I’ve found that particularly for the horror genre, it can be extremely effective. When we talk about a viewing experience with the screen and the sound, what are we really talking about? It’s really how immersive the sound is and how much of your field of view is taken up by the screen, right? So when I watched this on my phone (during a train commute, because it’s just that short and my commute was just that long), I looked down and had the phone only a few inches below my face, with my earbuds in. You’ve got the sound of the movie going right into your ears and you don’t see anything but the screen because you’re looking down. It was properly scary to watch that way, and I enjoyed it more than I usually enjoy playing horror movies on my laptop or using my PS3. The movie is recommended, and you might want to consider watching it on your phone in the dark if you can’t get to the theater.
Also, Japan has figured out how to perfect the smartphone viewing experience.
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This is where we start getting more specialized. It’s easy to differentiate the true essentials from the early days. Once you get closer to the 60s, it’s different. But here — Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Ben-Hur, 400 Blows. Don’t need to explain those. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film student kind of essential, and should be seen by people who want to me educated about movies. Anatomy of a Murder is a fun kind of essential, but is also really big historically because of when it came out (as the censorship barriers were going away). The Tingler represents the gimmicky, fun, B movie, drive-in culture of the era, which should be represented somewhere. I chose that one because it’s so much fun. Imitation of Life I think is one of Sirk’s best, and Sirk needs to be on an essentials list. Again, I put more than I necessarily needed to, but with a list like this, that’s part of the discretionary percentage that should be offered to the creator of the list. And Anne Frank — I want to see the person who argues against that being an essential movie.
There are only a few here that I really want to plug, because most of them seem really obvious. I mean, North by Northwest is my favorite Hitchcock movie, so there’s that to consider. But everyone knows and loves that. Anatomy of a Murder is super worth it, though I hope everyone knows about it as well, given the timing and the censorship stuff. The 400 Blows was probably my favorite of the New Wave stuff, which is kind of a new flavor we’re getting here and now — it’s very much of the moment on this list. What’s left? Ben-Hur? I don’t need to talk about that. There is the other end of the spectrum to be mentioned, though: The Tingler is not on ANYONE else’s list of 500 essential movies. It’s too obscure, too insignificant for most. In fact, it leaves us open to all sorts of criticism, because we put THIS on and not whatever movie from the 90s? But these things need to be represented, and this was for my coverage as much as it was for theoretical coverage. I hadn’t seen anything like The Tingler to date, and now I have, and I loved it. So that’s why we do that.
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More movies tomorrow.