Mike’s Top Ten of 1963
A lot changed this year. This was the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and you definitely saw a shift in the types of films that came out after that event occurred. Plus, this was the year — I guess it’s because of Cleopatra — where it became clear the foundation of the studio system was really on its way out. This feels like the year that demarcates ‘business as usual, but with some more nuanced and realistic subject matter’ with ‘last gasp of the old ways before everything changes’.
There’s a lot of good stuff under the line this year. A lot of cool little gems worth checking out. As for the top — most of the top ten is incredible. A couple of really beloved films generally considered some of the best ever made. And there’s a handful of great films that aren’t as well seen as you’d think. It’s not as overall strong as some of the other years, but it for sure makes its mark.
If there’s one thing I’d like to stress about this year, it’s that you should really go see films #5 and #6 if you haven’t yet.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1963
Captain Newman, M.D.
From Russia with Love
The Great Escape
Irma la Douce
The Sword in the Stone
11-20: The Birds, The Cardinal, Ladybug Ladybug, The List of Adrian Messenger, Love with the Proper Stranger, Papa’s Delicate Condition, Soldier in the Rain, This Sporting Life, Tom Jones, The V.I.P.s
Tier two: 4 for Texas, 55 Days at Peking, The Balcony, Billy Liar, Bye Bye Birdie, Contempt, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Donovan’s Reef, The Haunting, High and Low, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Jason and the Argonauts, The Leopard, Lilies of the Field, Lord of the Flies, The Pink Panther, Shock Corridor, Spencer’s Mountain, Twilight of Honor, The Wheeler Dealers
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1. The Great Escape
“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”
One of the greatest war movies ever made. I could put this movie on at any time and sit and watch it all the way through. It’s perfect.
There are three perfect POW films — this, Stalag 17 and Bridge on the River Kwai. That’s it, that’s the list. I guess Grand Illusion counts as well, but that feels like a whole different animal.
It’s about a bunch of POWs in a German prison camp who are constantly trying to escape. It becomes a sport for them, and they have a committee designed to come up with and implement new escapes as often as they can. Eventually, a mass escape is planned, and we watch as the men go about planning for it and executing it. Prison escape films are like heist films. They’re always fascinating. Watching the men chisel away with tunnels and come up with ways to get rid of the dirt so no one notices — amazing. Plus, once you get to the actual escape — how great is that? Steve McQueen, spending half the movie in the cooler, bouncing a baseball off the wall, then riding motorcycle and jumping barbed wire fences? I love this movie so much.
“You’re blocking my view.”
“Ohh… which view would you prefer?”
“The one you’re blocking.”
This and Gaslight are the two non-Hitchcock films that people could swear were actually made by Hitchcock because they so closely mirror his subject matter and style. This is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Or mystery. Or rom com. It’s a lot of things in one, and it’s one of the greatest versions of all of those movies.
Audrey Hepburn plays a woman who returns home to find that her husband has been murdered. At his funeral, three odd men show up — James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. She also meets Walter Matthau, a CIA agent who tells her the men were part of an spy operation with her husband, wherein they stole a bunch of gold meant to go to the French Resistance. He made off with the money and the three men want it back. Plus, there’s a fourth man involved who also wants the money and is willing to kill to get it. Enter Cary Grant, a charming man who seems to encounter Hepburn at every turn. He’s constantly changing his name and his story, and may, in fact, be that fourth man. Twists and turns abound, and for some reason it feels like 60% of the film or more is pure interplay between Hepburn and Grant. And it’s wonderful.
This is a movie I could put on for absolutely anyone and they’d love it. It’s that great. Doesn’t matter who you are or what your film tastes are — if I sat you in a movie theater playing this film, you would love it. Universally beloved.
Fun story: the writers shopped this script around for years and couldn’t get anyone to buy it. So they turned it into a novel which was then serialized in a magazine and then read by all the same producers who turned them down for years, all of whom wanted to turn it into a film. Go figure.
3. From Russia with Love
“The mechanism is… Oh James, James… Will you make love to me all the time in England?”
“Day and night. Go on about the mechanism.”
The second Bond film and one that many (including myself) think is the best of the franchise. It’s so good. It, like its predecessor Dr. No, does not follow the same structure that later Bond movies would (the opening credits are set to the James Bond Theme, while the title song is heard over a radio when Bond is introduced), which makes it its own interesting animal.
The film begins with Robert Shaw as a trained agent designed to take down Bond, making him the threat lingering over much of the film. Meanwhile, SPECTRE is trying to steal a Lektor cryptographic machine and Bond is on the case. Detours get taken to assassinate a hit man and go to a gypsy camp. Finally, Bond ends up on the Orient Express, leading to a great showdown with Shaw.
This movie is so good. Everyone always seems to go for the Bond film made right after this (Goldfinger), but give me this one. This one’s so great.
“I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
Federico Fellini’s masterpiece. Typically when one discusses which of Fellini’s films is his greatest, it’s usually either this or La Dolce Vita vying for the top spot. Generally considered one of the 50 greatest films ever made, it’s hard not to appreciate the artistry here.
The film stars Marcello Mastroianni (as a pretty thinly veiled version of Fellini himself) as a film director struggling to come up with ideas for his new movie. And we follow him and meet all the women in his life and deal with his frustrations, all of which seem destined to end up in his movie.
Everything about this film is gorgeous, and it’s one of those movies where, even if it’s not your favorite, you can appreciate it because it’s just so well made and so engrossing.
Also, for those unaware, the title comes from the number of films Fellini had directed to that point (seven features and a segment in an anthology). This was, quite literally, his eighth and a half film.
5. America, America
“My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth and an American because my uncle made a journey.”
Elia Kazan made multiple masterpieces. A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Gentleman’s Agreement, Splendor in the Grass, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd. They’re all incredible films. This, however, may be his crowning achievement.
A completely personal film, through and through, the film is about Kazan’s uncle, who emigrated from Greece to America, and made it possible for him and his family to have the life they had.
This movie is perfect, and it’s one of the legitimately greatest movies ever made. Somehow this movie, while known as a masterpiece, doesn’t get the praise it deserves. Because it’s truly Kazan’s greatest work. I know some of the other films are more beloved, but this is his masterwork.
6. Irma la Douce
“It’s a hard way to earn an easy living.”
This is Billy Wilder’s most underrated film. I know for a fact not as many people have seen this as ought to have, and I also know that when people see this, they love it. Because it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.
Jack Lemmon is an honest cop in Paris. He is transferred to a new beat and finds the street loaded with prostitutes. Naturally, he rounds them all up and brings them in… only to find out that his superior has been allowing the prostitutes to run their business provided they bribe him. So, Lemmon gets fired. And then, by chance, he gets arrested for bribery. He then meets Shirley MacLaine, a prostitute, and one thing leads to another, and he comically ends up becoming her pimp. Comedy ensues when he decides he wants her for his own, so he creates a fake rich man persona who will slowly become her only customer. Only, that costs a shit ton of money, and you can guess what happens from there. It’s absolutely hysterical and is one of Billy Wilder’s funniest films.
Trust me when I say this — you love Billy Wilder, you probably haven’t seen this, and you need to see it right away because you’re going to love this movie.
“I have a fondness for almost all Greek things.”
“As an almost all-Greek thing, I’m flattered.”
The film that is sort of the poster child for the death of the studio system. A movie that went way over schedule, way over budget and is the prime example of the bloated excess that was running thin by this point. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made. That said — it’s wonderful and I love the shit out of it.
It’s a biopic of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor. The film is split into two parts. First, her relationship with Julius Caesar, with whom she bore a son, and then her relationship with Mark Anthony. Rex Harrison plays Caesar and Richard Burton plays Anthony. The film is so expensive you can actually tune out from most of the dialogue and focus on how great the sets, the costumes and Elizabeth Taylor look. There’s an epicness to this movie that I’m just drawn to. I go back and watch it every few years, thinking, “This is the time where I finally think less of it.” But the exact opposite always happens. I always end up liking it more.
“Hud, how’d a man like you come to be a son to me?”
Who doesn’t love this movie? It’s a movie actors love, because the performances are fantastic, but it’s also a movie most people love because it’s just good.
Based on a Larry McMurtry novel, it stars Melvyn Douglas and Paul Newman as father and son. Douglas runs a ranch that’s running into some bad luck. A cow on the ranch has caught an illness and he’s worried the entire herd has it, which will severely limit their profits. Newman, meanwhile, wants nothing to do with the ranch, and spends most of his time going out drinking and sleeping with married women. Newman’s younger brother (played by Brandon de Wilde, the kid from Shane) worships him, and both he and Newman have a crush on Patricia Neal, the family’s middle-aged housekeeper. The film is about the conflict between father and son, and it’s incredible. Douglas won an Oscar for his role and Newman was good enough to have joined him.
Listing the best Paul Newman performances — and you have to go ten deep because his work is that strong — this has to be considered as part of the top ten. He’s that good. And the film is really good alongside him.
9. The Sword in the Stone
‘”And below the hilt, in letters of gold, were written these words: ‘Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king, born of England.’ Though many tried for the sword with all their strength, none could move the sword nor stir it. So the miracle had not worked. And England was still without a king.”
Classic Disney film that everyone has seen and likes, even if it’s never discussed among the top of the Disney animated films.
It’s only 80 minutes, but it meanders a lot and packs a lot into its run time. There’s the scene where he becomes a fish, the wizards duel with Madam Mim, the girl squirrel interlude (which I love), not to mention the jousting and all the other various training sequences with Merlin and Archimedes.
Still, after all these years, this may be the best version of the Arthur story, which has been done to death on film. It also holds the distinction of being one of the few classic Disney films without a memorable soundtrack.
10. Captain Newman, M.D.
This is a movie I was first introduced to when I watched that Kevin Spacey Bobby Darin biopic. There’s a scene of him filming this movie and being nominated for the Oscar and losing. That was my only frame of reference for the film until I actually started watching all the Oscar nominees and got to it. Then I started watching it and realized there’s way more to like about this movie than I would have thought.
Gregory Peck plays a doctor who runs a military psych ward that’s constantly understaffed, underfunded and undersupplied. Which makes his job of dealing with patients even more difficult. He helps alleviate the problem by recruiting Tony Curtis, playing a similar character to the one he played in Operation Petticoat — the wheeler-dealer soldier who can get just about anything he wants, and also courting Angie Dickinson, a nurse he wants to join the ward. And the film is pretty much them dealing with patients. It does a good job of blending comedy and drama, and there are great supporting performances from the likes of Bobby Darin, Eddie Albert and Robert Duvall.
I was surprised at how well this one has held up for me over the years. I still really like it.
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The Birds — Hitchcock’s last major film. He made Marnie after this and a couple of solid movies, but this was the last major success of his career. Filled with iconic imagery (can you not already picture the birds sitting on the jungle gym?) and great moments, this is just one of those movies everyone knows and you need no introduction to. It’s just great.
The Cardinal — Otto Preminger movie that hasn’t held up and is largely forgotten, but I loved it the first time I saw it. It stars Tom Tryon (in a role that would drive him out of Hollywood because of how difficult filming was) as a catholic priest who goes through an eventful career. The film has a lot of little subplots that deal with major issues like interracial marriage, abortion and Nazis. You know, all the good shit. Great supporting performances by John Huston and Burgess Meredith. I like it a lot. It’s dated, but a lot of things are. This movie actually won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) at the time, over five films that are in my top ten and four of the five eventual Best Picture nominees. (That’s the last time that’s happened, that a Globe winner wasn’t actually nominated for Best Picture.)
Ladybug, Ladybug — Frank Perry’s second film. I love when Frank Perry comes up because I get to recommend a bunch of cool shit he made that I’m sure no one’s heard of. This is his second film, after David and Lisa. It’s about a small country school whose nuclear warning alarm goes off. The teachers are unable to reach anyone in the city and are left not knowing whether or not it was a false alarm or if nuclear war has actually occurred. Regardless, the teachers are told to walk the students back to their homes. However, the class’s teacher has a bit of a breakdown and leaves the kids alone in the woods. The kids end up reaching a bomb shelter, and that’s where the good stuff starts. It turns into Lord of the Flies. It’s terrific. It’s a short film, only 80 minutes, and it never answers the question one way or the other as to what’s happening. It’s strongly hinted that it’s a false alarm and that everything is fine, but we never quite know the truth (and the film’s ending leaves everything very much up in the air). It’s really good. One of those movies that will give you way more than what you’re expecting from it. Always watch a Frank Perry movie if you can.
The List of Adrian Messenger — Love this movie. A mystery with great hidden cameos (don’t look for them, just know they’re there). John Huston directed this (something I constantly forget), and the plot is — it’s not exact, but for reference… remember the episode of Archer when all of Woodhouse’s war buddies are being killed because of the tontine? It’s like that. A bunch of random deaths occur that are later discovered to be murders. It’s revealed that all the men were in the same POW camp, and the mystery continues to unfold from there. George C. Scott plays the man investigating. Don’t look up the IMDB page. Just watch the movie. Let the surprises come to you. It’s a good watch.
Love with the Proper Stranger — Rom com with Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, directed by Robert Mulligan. She’s a sales clerk at Macy’s and he’s a musician. They meet cute and have a one night stand. She finds him some months later and says she needs money for an abortion. He comes up with the necessary funds and takes her to get the procedure done, but while there, she sees how sketchy the whole thing is and decides to keep the baby. And that’s when the rom com elements begin, and they start to fall for one another, etc. It’s good. Wood was nominated for it. And it’s one of three top 20 movies McQueen has this year.
Papa’s Delicate Condition — A fun family comedy starring Jackie Gleason. He plays an irresponsible man who does things based on whatever whim he has at the moment. One day his wife says she doesn’t like the color of the neighbor’s house, so he hires someone to repaint it for them. He finds out his daughter wants a pony, so he impulsively spends all of the family’s savings to buy a circus. It’s a fun movie about a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum… and the rippling debt and family trouble he gets himself in. But it’s a musical, so it’s fun!
Soldier in the Rain — A great little movie. I sought this out because the stars are two of my favorites: Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason. They’re both soldiers. McQueen isn’t too bright, and constantly is coming up with half-cocked schemes that constantly go wrong and constantly require Gleason (his best friend) to bail him out of. It’s a beautiful story of friendship. McQueen basically worships Gleason, thinking he’s the smartest man in the world, and Gleason feels affection for McQueen, trying not to let him down. It’s a real hidden gem worth seeing.
This Sporting Life — I always call this movie A Trolley Named Desire, because it’s basically the UK Streetcar, with Richard Harris doing his best Brando. He’s a coal miner who randomly ends up a rugby star after a barfight where he beats up a couple of players. The team signs him and he becomes an integral player, mostly because he’s a big, brutish goon who beats up opponents. Meanwhile, he starts an affair with his widowed landlady still grieving over the death of her husband. It’s a solid drama. Harris is excellent, as is Rachel Roberts.
Tom Jones — Your Best Picture winner for 1963, it is not a biopic of the singer. Unfortunately. Based on a Henry Fielding novel, it stars Albert Finney as a rogue who goes around fucking women left and right, trying to marry the girl he loves, only he’s unable to without a title or a well-to-do family. So he goes in search of that, gets into all sorts of trouble, and things work out. Famous for a scene where he and a woman sexually eat food across from one another. (It makes sense when you see it.) It’s a solid comedy. Hasn’t held up at all, but it’s fun.
The V.I.P.s — An ensemble drama. It’s like Airport without the disaster element. A bunch of different people stuck in an airport due to inclement weather, and all the issues playing out in their lives at that moment. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a couple not unlike Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (the writer based the characters on an incident that occurred when Leigh was making one of his films). She’s at the airport to run away with another man, though she immediately starts to have second thoughts as soon as she gets there, and he is rushing to the airport to talk her out of it. Orson Welles plays a director who is fleeing the country for tax reasons and needs to get out by a certain time otherwise he’ll incur a hefty bill. He’s traveling with a beautiful actress he’s “promised” a lead role in his next film. Meanwhile there’s Margaret Rutherford, a duchess who is hard up for cash who is about to sell her beloved house. She’s the comic relief of the film. Then there’s Robert Taylor as a self-made man trying to close a deal and sell his company for lots of money, and Maggie Smith as his secretary who has harbored a crush on him for years. It’s a solid film with great actors in interesting roles. This is the classy version of those terrible New York indie ensemble movies they keep making year after year.
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- 4 for Texas
- 55 Days at Peking
- The Balcony
- Billy Liar
- Bye Bye Birdie
- The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
- Donovan’s Reef
- The Haunting
- High and Low
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
- Jason and the Argonauts
- The Leopard
- Lilies of the Field
- Lord of the Flies
- The Pink Panther
- Shock Corridor
- Spencer’s Mountain
- Twilight of Honor
- The Wheeler Dealers
The Balcony is an interesting little movie. Nice odd little gem. Shelley Winters runs a brothel where the customers can engage in whatever fantasy they want. Wanna dress up as Hitler as a hooker paddles your balls? They do it. The whole movie takes place in a fictional country on the verge of war. The brothel is so insulated, they don’t know that war is about to break out. Peter Falk plays the chief of police (and friend of Winters’) who gets Winters to impersonate the (missing) Queen in order to stop the revolution. Winters then brings in a few of her regular customers to play other missing people in the government. It’s fun. Features Lee Grant, Ruby Dee and a young Leonard Nimoy. 55 Days at Peking is a Technicolor, Cinemascope (not officially Cinemascope proper, but the ratio is the same) film about the Siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Nicholas Ray directs Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, John Ireland, Flora Robson and Leo Genn. Looks nice, and it’s engaging. It’s about people trying to survive and not be killed until reinforcements arrive. I like movies about people caught in a conflict they’re not directly involved in.
The Pink Panther is one of the most famous titles of all time, with one of the most famous themes of all time. It’s the first appearance of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective. The film was meant to be about David Niven as the jewel thief, but Sellers was so good he stole the movie, and ended up playing Clouseau… what, five times? It’s different from the other Clouseau films. Those lean more on the physical comedy. This one tells a story. So this one is not what you’re gonna get for the rest of the franchise. Still, it’s a classic comedy. Billy Liar is a weird and wonderful little movie. Shot in CinemaScope by John Schlesinger and very much part of the British New Wave of the 60s, it’s about Tom Courtenay as a guy who constantly gets swept up in his own fantasy world and daydreams. He’s constantly making up stories about himself and his family, hence the title. It’s wonderful. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely a unique experience. Lilies of the Field is the film for which Sidney Poitier won his Oscar. He plays a drifter whose car breaks down outside a farm inhabited by nuns. He agrees to help them build a church. And that’s the film. It’s fine. He’s good. Not the greatest film ever made, but it’s enjoyable.
Bye Bye Birdie is a classic musical. Inspired by Elvis being drafted into the Army, it’s about a rock ‘n’ roll star performing a farewell concert before going into the army, and the insanity surrounding the lead-up to it. Namely, one lucky contest winner gets to be the ‘last girl’ he kisses before going into the army, and Ann-Margret is the girl trying to make sure it’s her. Also has Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh and Maureen Stapleton. Not the greatest musical, but a classic (and a fun watch) nevertheless. 4 For Texas is a Robert Aldrich western starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. They start as rivals but eventually team up to open a casino. Charles Bronson and Victor Buono show up as villains and Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress play the love interests. And, for shits and giggles, they throw in The Three Stooges too. It’s a weird ass film, but that’s what I like about it.
Donovan’s Reef is — how best to put it — not a great film, but a great watch. John Ford directs John Wayne and Lee Marvin. I couldn’t tell you what the plot of this movie is, but it’s pretty much just Ford and Marvin drinking and hanging out. And that’s really all you need to see and enjoy this. The Haunting is one of the great horror movies of all time, and generally considered one of the scariest movies ever made. Robert Wise directs and Julie Harris stars, along with Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. It’s about a scientist who invites people into a haunted house and their experiences while there. A classic of the genre and a really solid film. Immaculately shot. It’s the direction that really makes this one soar. High and Low is a Kurosawa crime drama about an executive whose chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom. It’s both a procedural and an interesting class study. A great procedural and one of the great detective films of all time. One of those great ‘middle tier’ Kurosawa films that is regarded as great but never mentioned immediately among his real classics like Seven Samurai. It’s like those second tier Hitchcock movies like Lifeboat and Rope, which are amazing, but never get mentioned first because there’s so much great stuff in the man’s filmography that it’s impossible to mention everything first.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And that movie is pretty great too. It’s an epic comedy, shot in Cinerama. A thief crashes his car and dies on the side of the road. Five drivers stop to help him. His dying words tell them about a bunch of money buried near the Mexican border. This starts a cross-country race between the five strangers, each trying to reach the location before the others. It’s an all-star film, with loads of comedians and character actors in it. Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Jim Backus, Joe E. Brown, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Sterling Holloway, Buster Keaton, Edward Everett Horton, Don Knotts, Mike Mazurki, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante and loads of other cameos. It’s one of the great comedies of all time and a true classic. Everyone needs to see this. Jason and the Arguonauts is a Ray Harryhausen effects feature that’s basically Clash of the Titans twenty years earlier. Famous for the stop-motion skeleton fight. It’s about Jason’s quest for to Golden Fleece. It’s a fun, sword and sandal adventure film with great effects. If you like Clash of the Titans, you’ll like this.
You don’t get into film without finding out about The Leopard pretty quickly. It’s generally considered one of the greatest films ever made and might be Visconti’s masterpiece. Burt Lancaster plays a prince trying to maintain his family during the changing of the times. Gorgeous film. Lord of the Flies is one of the most famous novels ever written, and everyone knows (or should know) the story. This is probably the best screen version of that story. Spencer’s Mountain is a Delmer Daves movie that became the basis for the show The Waltons. For the twelve of you who remember that show. It’s about a family living in the mountains. There’s not much of a plot here. You’re mostly watching the actors in various situations. Henry Fonda is the patriarch, Maureen O’Hara is his wife, James MacArthur is the son, Donald Crisp is the grandfather. It’s fun. A nice little family movie. If you like stuff like Friendly Persuasion or the ‘community’ based John Ford stuff, you’ll enjoy this. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is Glenn Ford as a widower whose son (Ron Howard) tries to set him up with a new woman. It’s a fun family movie that also led to a successful TV show.
Twilight of Honor is one of the hidden gem trial films of all time. No one knows about this anymore. It’s about a young lawyer assigned to a murder case that can’t be won. He enlists the help of his mentor (Claude Rains, in one of his final roles) to try to clear the defendant (Nick Adams) who is accused of murder. A really solid film and a great Claude Rains performance. Shock Corridor is a great Sam Fuller movie about a journalist who commits himself to an insane asylum to try to solve a murder. Similar to a noir called Behind Locked Doors we talked about in 1948. This is way better. This is way more down and dirty and more of an indictment on the treatment of the mentally ill. Sam Fuller knew how to make a picture with balls. This movie is great. Contempt is one of the great Jean-Luc Godard films and one of the greatest movies about filmmaking ever made. It’s amazing. Brigitte Bardot stars, and Fritz Lang cameos in it. Must see for film buffs.
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