My Twelve Classic Movies
1. Night of the Shooting Stars. 1982. Dirs. Paulo and Vittorio Taviani (Italian). Both parable and fairy tale set amidst the horrors of 1944 Italy, this movie features a group of Tuscan villagers who embark upon a quest to meet the rumored arrival of the American liberators. Shot through with irony and gritty realism, the film is nonetheless a story of wonder, and the possibility of miracle, as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.
2. Babette’s Feast. 1987. Dir. Gabriel Axel (Danish). This quiet film, set in a remote Danish village, during the Franco-Prussian War, features Babette, a celebrated French chef, who takes refuge with a pair of spinster sisters whose pietistic father has raised them in a regime of religious devotion so austere that the possibility of simple joy in worldly existence has been denied them. When Babette wins a lottery, she prepares for them (and several other members of the community) a feast beyond their wildest dreams, an experience that awakens in them an understanding of the goodness that remains within reach, even in a fallen world.
3. Rope. 1948. Alfred Hitchcock. (American). For a number of reasons this is considered to be one of Hitch’s best films, not the least because Jimmy Stewart stages a bravura performance as a prep school teacher whose incautious classroom banter comes back to haunt him some years later in the shape of two former students who, stuffed full of Nietzschean ideas of amoral superiority, decide to murder an expendable acquaintance. Set entirely in a posh Manhattan high rise apartment, the film makes brilliant use of handheld cameras and hidden edits.
4. Hope and Glory. 1987. Dir. John Boorman (British). Boorman not only directed but wrote the screenplay for this little masterpiece, which draws heavily upon his own childhood memories of life on the home-front during the Blitz. Set primarily in London, the film allows us to see the War through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy as his family struggles to survive. While it has its serious side, there are also some unforgettable comic scenes.
5. The 39 Steps. 1935. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. (British). This is early, black & white Hitchcock. Based on a memorable John Buchan novel, the film is, if anything, even better. It features one of Buchan’s most popular thriller heroes, Richard Hannay (played here by Robert Donat), who is accused by British authorities of murdering a counter-intelligence agent he had given refuge to. Hoping to clear his name Hannay flees north to Scotland in search of the infamous “39 Steps” ring of spies believed to be stealing British military secrets. Hannay’s adventures are by turns harrowing and hilarious in the best Hitchcock style.
6. La Strada. 1956. Dir. Frederico Fellini (Italian). The Italian novelist Italo Calvino was one of the first to recognize the influence of pre-WW2 popular culture (both American and Italian) on Fellini’s work. Noting that Fellini began as a magazine caricaturist, he argues that the director’s essential method was to force the “photographic image in a direction that carries it from an image of caricature toward that of the visionary.” This is certainly true of the two Fellini movies on this list. La Strada is not usually ranked as high as La Dolce Vita, but is a fine piece of cinematic art, nonetheless. In this one Fellini marries a waif (played by his wife, Giulietta Masina) to a brutal circus performer, powerfully played by Anthony Quinn. Their marriage is complicated by the introduction of the circus “Fool,” Ill Matto. The film offers layer upon layer of visual riches, but the unforgettable face of Masina is alone worth the price of admission.
7. La Dolce Vita. 1960. Dir. Frederico Fellini (Italian). Suffice it to say that this is one of the truly great films in post-WW2 cinematic history, though it has had its critics over the years. It is a difficult film. It abandons the usual arc of plot structure and is constructed around a sequence of seven symbolic days and nights in which the central character, a journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni, wanders more or less aimlessly, and hedonistically, through the moral decay of post-War Rome, torn between his love of pleasure and his literary ambitions. The film is a powerful attack on the affluent society that emerged out of the ruins of the War.
8. The Philadelphia Story. 1940. Dir. George Cukor. (American). It is no exaggeration to say that every scene in this magnificent comedy is meticulously constructed, and the dialog sparkles still today with sharp innuendo and splendid word play. This is Katherine Hepburn’s big “comeback” film after several flops, and she carries the production with style to burn, though with a great deal of help from Cary Grant (in one of his finest performances) and a young Jimmy Stewart. Having shed herself of one undesirable husband (Cary Grant), Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord, a rich Philadelphia socialite, has become engaged to a rather dull financier with gobs of money. When her ex-husband crashes the wedding preparations, the fireworks begin, abetted by the arrival of intrepid reporter for Spy magazine, Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart). American comedy doesn’t get any better than this.
9. The Quiet American. 2002. Dir. Phillip Noyce. (British, though Noyce is Australian). Based on one of Graham Greene’s finest, if somewhat jaundiced, novels, this story was originally made into a 1958 film starring Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy. Noyce’s stunning 2002 adaptation restores the novel’s original ending and is probably the best performance in a long career by the film’s star, Michael Caine, who plays an aging English journalist working out of Saigon just as the French occupation forces are preparing to make their exit and the Americans are establishing a toehold. The central conflict is both ideological and personal, as Thomas Fowler (Caine) becomes suspicious of the activities of an American “aid” worker, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who proves to be a CIA undercover operative. This is probably the most unflinchingly honest critique (on film) of both the arrogance and naivete of America’s imperialist venture in Southeast Asia.
10. The Third Man. 1949. Dir. Carol Reed. Even though Orson Welles has just a few scenes in the latter part of this movie, it is enough to remind us that he was not just a great director but a riveting actor as well. In the role of black marketeer Harry Lime, he steals the show. The setting is Vienna in the aftermath of WW2, where a down-and-out American writer of pulp fiction, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) seeks out his old friend Harry, only to learn that Harry is dead. But Harry doesn’t stay dead, and in the end Martin must come to terms with Harry’s crimes. This movie is vintage film noir, fueled by a Graham Greene screenplay that reflects the grim amorality of those who profit by war and its aftermath. In the most memorable scene, Harry Lime rationalizes his “vocation”: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, and so do I.”
11. The Searchers. 1956. Dir. John Ford. John Wayne is at the top of his form in this Western, frequently judged to be the best of its genre. He plays the role of an ex-Confederate Ethan Edwards, who turns up at his brother’s homestead in west Texas in 1868. Shortly after, the brother, his wife and their son are slaughtered by a Comanche raiding party, while their two daughters are abducted. Ethan embarks on a five-year obsessive quest to find the girls, only to discover that the eldest has been raped and killed, and that the youngest, Debbie, has become the squaw of a chief named Scar. The movie’s enduring value lies largely in its exploration of Ethan’s deeply conflicted character, a man whose own ties to the civilized world have become tenuous. Here his code of honor is stretched to the limit. John Ford and his cinematographer, Winton Hoch, splendidly capture the stark beauty of the Southwestern landscape.
12. The Bicycle Thief [originally titled Bicycle Thieves]. 1948. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Another B&W classic set in post-WW2 Rome, this movie traces a day in the life of an impoverished man who, desperate to find work to support his family, redeems a pawned bicycle at great sacrifice only to have it stolen during his first day on a new job. In the end, the pursuer himself becomes a thief. De Sica’s production is rightly hailed as an exemplar of Italian neorealism; it was filmed entirely on location and used only non-professional actors.
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Jack Trotter is a writer for Chronicles of Culture and member of the Abbeville Institute.