"All About Eve" "Amadeus" "Apocalypse Now" "The Battleship Potemkin" "Ben-Hur" "Bicycle Thieves" "Blade Runner" "The Blue Angel" "Das Boot" "Breakfast At Tiffany's" "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" "Casablanca" "Chariots Of Fire" "Cinema Paradiso" "Citizen Kane" "City Lights" "Clueless" "A Clockwork Orange" "The Deer Hunter" "Dirty Dancing" "Dirty Harry" "Don't Look Now" "Double Indemnity" "Dr. Strangelove" "El Cid" "Elvira Madigan" "Fantasia" "Far From The Madding Crowd" "Fatal Attraction" "A Fistful Of Dollars" "Forrest Gump" "From Russia With Love" "Gandhi" "Gaslight" "Gladiator" "The Godfather" "Gold Diggers Of 1933" "The Graduate" "Grease" "Heat" "Henry V" "Hero" "High Noon" "If...." "It Happened One Night" "The Italian Job" "It's A Wonderful Life" "La La Land" "The Last Emperor" "The Last Of The Mohicans" "The Last Valley" "Lawrence Of Arabia" "The Lion In Winter" "A Matter Of Life And Death" "Manhattan" "Mayerling" "The Mission" "Monty Python's Life Of Brian" "North By Northwest" "October 1917" "The Outsiders" "Persona" "Planet Of The Apes" "Queen Christina" "Raging Bull" "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" "Ran" "Red River" "Rio Bravo" "Rocky" "Rope" "Seven Samurai" "The Shawshank Redemption" "The Shop Around the Corner" "Spartacus" "Star Wars" "Suspicion" "The 39 Steps" "Throne Of Blood" "To Kill A Mockingbird" "Top Hat" "12 Angry Men" "2001: A Space Odyssey" "The Untouchables" "Vertigo" "When Harry Met Sally ..." "The Wild Bunch" "Yojimbo"
"All About Eve" (1950)
Rarely can a movie have been so dark, portrayed such a venomous female character, and been so savage about the vanities of the acting profession, but it is a vehicle for many wonderful lines delivered by many accomplished actors. Eve Harrington herself (Anne Baxter) is a woman in her early 20s who insinuates herself more and more into both the personal and professional life of her apparent idol, the successful Broadway actress, 40 year old Margot Channing (Bette Davis). Davis gives a sparkling performance as a largely unsympathetic character with such lines as the famous: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."
The work was both written and directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz who took the idea from a 1946 "Cosmopolitan" magazine short story. This was a time when even a married couple at night had to be shown as in different beds with a decent space between them. But what the movie lacks in visual explicitness, it fizzles with dialogue so sharp it threatens to cut the characters to pieces.
The film was nominated for a then record of 14 Academy Awards. It won six, including Best Picture and Best Director & Best Screenplay for Mankiewicz. No less than five of the actors - including Davies and Baxter - received nominations and George Sanders actually won Best Supporting Actor. Marilyn Monroe makes a brief but memorable appearance.
"All About Eve" bears comparison with "Sunset Boulevard" which was released the same year and is the biting satire of the theatre world that the other film is of Hollywood.
I first saw "Amadeus" in early 1985, by which time it had already been festooned with eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. I saw it again in the summer of 2002 when it was re-released as a director's cut, an additional 20 minutes taking the total running time to a full three hours. The extra footage does not make much difference to what was already a stunning work, but the digital remastering can only help the appreciation of a glorious performance.
Peter Schaffer reworked his own play to create the screenplay for this psychological and musicological struggle between the young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and his much less well-known contemporary Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), while Czech director Miloš Forman returned to his former homeland where Prague provided brilliant settings evocative of 18th century Vienna, including the Tyl Theatre where in fact the premiere of "The Magic Flute" was held. Indeed the film is veritably a visual and aural feast with sumptuous costumes and sets and plenty of Mozart's sublime music.
I still have some difficulty with the casting of American-accented and eternally giggling Tom Hulce as the farting but fabulous Mozart, although he is undeniably impressive. His performance brings out the suggestion that Mozart was a sufferer from Tourette's syndrome. However, it is F Murray Abraham as Salieri - a man consumed by jealously over the other's precocious talent - who gives a breathtaking, virtuoso performance. Inevitably, when one revisits a film after so long, one notes the subsequent career of the actors. Tom Hulce seemed to disappear, Abraham never obtained a similarly challenging role, while Cynthia Nixon (who played a maid employed to spy on Mozart) has found fame of sorts in the hit television series "Sex And The City".
"Apocalypse Now" (1979)
This is the film that nearly ruined director, producer and co-writer Francis Ford Coppola and almost killed leading actor Martin Sheen. As Coppola himself once put it: "We made 'Apocalypse' the way the Americans made war in Vietnam; there were too many of us, too much money and equipment - and, little by little, we went insane".
Yet the outcome was a triumph, even a masterpiece - a surreal, nightmare vision of Vietnam that won 8 Academy Award nominations and became a classic. Scene after scene is burnt irremovabaly onto one's memory, starting with the opening seconds as the vision of a ceiling fan and the sound of a helicopter are merged and finishing with the inter-cut slaughter of Kurtz and a cow, with so many others - notably the helicopter gunships attack sequence to the music of Wagner. Cinematographer Victorio Storaro created some stunning visual imagery, while the unconventional soundtrack has one constantly on edge.
Having seen the original cut three times, I then viewed the 2001 "Apocalypse Now Redux" version with an extra 49 minutes of footage, taking the whole work to three and a quarter hours. The main extra material is an extended French plantation scene which - in spite of its erotic love sequence - was not a terrible loss from the original cut, since the dialogue is confused and inclusion breaks up the river narrative. The "Redux" version - like the 70 mm original version - shows credits over black, but I thought that the 35 mm original version - depicting the destruction of Kurtz's compound - had a satisfying feel about it.
"The Battleship Potemkin" (1925)
This black white silent film directed by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein narrates the mutiny on the titular vessel in 1905 which can be seen as a forerunner of the two revolutions of 1917. Except for the leader of the mutiny, all the roles were filled by 'people off the streets' and, in the Odessa steps sequence, many of the extras were people who had been present at the actual event. The close-ups of many of their faces are memorable features of this strikingly radical work. The other dramatic elements of this innovative film were the use of montage and symbolism, while the cutting is superb.
The most memorable sequence is a segment of the slaughter on the Odessa steps: a pram with a baby inside tumbles downwards in a frightening juxtaposition of vulnerability and violence. The idea was replicated some six decades later in the concluding shoot-out of the gangster movie "The Untouchables", a homage to the Russian Eisenstein from the American Brian De Palma.
Astonishingly this movie was nominated for no less than 12 Academy Awards and managed to win 11 of them, a feat not equalled until "Titanic" 40 years later. I say astonishingly because it is really not that good. The cinematography in Panavision is wonderful and the chariot race is genuinely exciting, but the plotting is slow, most of the dialogue is leaden and a fair bit of the acting is forced, while the appearance of Jesus and the incidence of a miracle appear out of sorts with today's more secular days. Nevertheless, at the time, the film was a great commercial success which saved MGM from bankruptcy.
Based on a 19th century novel by civil war general Lew Wallace, it is a strong story of conflict between former childhood friends, Roman officer Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Jewish dignitary Judah Ben-Hur in Roman-occupied Judea at the time of Christ. At some three and a half hours, the material before and after the chariot race should have been shortened, but the race itself was a triumph for winner of three Best Director Academy Awards, William Wallace. It required 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome and it took five weeks to film.
"Bicycle Thieves" (1948)
This film is frequently on critics' and directors' lists of the best films ever made. It was given an Academy Honorary Award in 1950 and, just four years after its release, was deemed the greatest film of all time by the magazine "Sight & Sound" poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952. I'm not sure it's quite that good but it is a work with which I can make a personal and emotional connection: just two years before it was shot in Rome, my Italian mother married my British father in Naples.
The film - directed by Vittorio De Sica - was part of the neorealism wave, being shot entirely on the streets of Rome with a totally non-professional cast led by Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola as the father Antonio and his son Bruno. Telling the tale of the purchase, robbery and attempted recovery of a bicycle essential to a man's work and dignity, it is a moving and humanistic work that was a million miles from the escapist fantasies of so much of Hollywood at that time.
Footnote: In the United States, the film is known as "The Bicycle Thief" which, as well as being a blatant mistranslation of the original Italian title, is manifestly absurd since the whole point of the movie is that there are many thieves and, in tough economic circumstances, anyone of us could become one.
"Blade Runner" (1982)
Science fiction is one of my favourite movie genres because the multi-media experience that is the cinema - acting, photography, sound, music and above all special effects - really comes into its own when we leave this world or time.
One of the classics of the genre has to be "Blade Runner", based on the Philip K Dick novel "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" Directed by Ridley Scott ("Alien"), with special effects by Douglas Trumbull ("2001") and music by Vangelis ("Chariots Of Fire"), this is a brilliantly atmospheric evocation of a dystopian future set in the Los Angeles of 2019 where the difference between humans and androids has become seriously blurred. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, the blade runner (the term is never explained) in bloody pursuit of five replicants portrayed by Rutger Hauer, Brion James, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy and Sean Young.
In 1992, a director's cut was issued with minor, but important, changes. The voice-over by Harrison Ford is gone, there is a brief phantasy sequence of a unicorn, and a curtailed, less hopeful ending. The unicorn reference is used at the very end to make the suggestion - in the book, but not in the original film - that Deckard himself may be a replicant.
Among many iconic scenes in this movie is the death of the replicant Batty (Hauer) as he declares: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die."
"The Blue Angel" (1930)
This was the film that acted as a bridge from the silent to the sound era for the career of noted Austrian-American director Josef von Sternberg and propelled to stardom its female lead, the then little-known Marlene Dietrich. It was produced simultaneously in German and English language versions and I saw it in German as part of a Weimar Cinema retrospective.
The titular 'Blue Angel' is not a person but a place - a club in small-town Germany. The star of the club's show is the sultry Lola Fröhlich (Dietrich) who bewitches the middle-aged and paunchy local teacher Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings). The film is best-known for the use of the song "Falling In Love Again" which Lola sings twice: first in a playful and flirtatious rendition and at the end in a colder, more remorseful manner.
This is a sombre work that reminded me of the Italian opera "Pagliacci". The impact of the film is strengthened by the real-life parallels: director von Sternberg and star Dietrich had a romantic involvement at the time and the rise of Lola and the fall of Professor Rath were echoed by the ascent of Dietrich and the decline of Jannings in career terms.
"Das Boot" (1981)
"The Boat" is a German war film with an interesting genesis and aftermath. In 1941, war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim joined German submarine U-96 on a patrol as part of the hard-fought Battle of the Atlantic. In 1973, he published a best-selling novel called simply "Das Boot" based on his experiences aboard U-96. Wolfgang Petersen then wrote and directed a film of the same title based on the novel and this was released in its initial theatrical form in 1981 (how I first viewed it) and then as a director's cut in 1997 (how I subsequently saw it). The first version lasted two and a half hours, while the director's cut ran to three and a half hours. In between the two cinematic versions, German television broadcast a five-hour version as a mini series.
Quite rightly the work has been both a commercial and a critical success and viewing it is a nerve-wracking experience. It is very rare for a non-English speaking film to receive an Academy Award nomination outside of the Best Foreign Film category, but "Das Boat" received no less than six (although it did not actually win any). The film had one of the largest budgets in the history of German cinema and the sets and sound are terrific with the claustrophobic nature of the submarine constantly hammered home. The captain of the real U-96 during Buchheim's 1941 patrol served as a consultant which ensured the authenticity of the operation although some of the narrative is fiction. A fine cast is led by Jürgen Prochnow as the submarine captain.
"Breakfast At Tiffany's" (1961)
This is a curiosity as much as a classic because at one level it is a romantic comedy but at another it is a sad exposition of a vulnerable and exploited woman.
Holly (Audrey Hepburn) is the beautiful (if thin) occupant of a New York apartment who both bewilders and bewitches her new neighbour Paul (George Peppard). Director Blake Edwards - known for his "Pink Panther" comedies - plays the story for laughs with Holly coming over as a restless bohemian who flits from situation to situation and relationship to relationship bumping into a cast of odd characters including Mickey Rooney in a cameo as a stereotypical Japanese. But the real story is much darker. Holly and Paul are both damaged people who in effect prostitute themselves (in the Truman Capote novel on which the film is based she is a call girl) and she is even acting as a messenger for an imprisoned drug baron. Everyone smokes and drinks to excess and indeed the only wholly sympathetic character in the whole movie is a ginger cat who does not even have a name.
Many classic films have a memorable opening or closing, a stand out character, or a popular piece of music and this one has all of these. Beginning with the early morning scene outside the famous jewellers, ending with the newly-acknowledged love in the rain scene, sparkling with Hepburn's stylish clothing and exaggeratedly long cigarette holder, and overlaid with Henry Mancini's "Moon River", this is a film one cannot forget.
"Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" (1969)
This immensely popular film is a chase movie, a buddy movie, an action-comedy movie, all in the guise of a western. It declares at the beginning: "Most of what follows is true". Sure there was a Butch and a Kid, played respectively by Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the height of their cinematic allure, but this is a very sanitised view of the Hole in the Wall Gang and the decline of the wild west. For a much more hard-hitting western set in the same period and similarly concluding south of the border, see "The Wild Bunch" which was released the same year.
This film won four Academy Awards. The first went to William Goldman for his sharp screenplay with memorable lines like "What do you mean you can’t swim? The fall'll probably kill ya!" and "Who ARE those guys?" (uttered three times). The second was taken by Conrad Hall for his distinctive cinematography characterised by lots of scenes in sepia. And the other two Oscars were won by Burt Bacharach for his music and the song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head".
Both "Butch Cassidy" and "The Wild Bunch" conclude with a huge Latin American shoot-out, but it is the former that deploys a freeze shot that spares the viewer and immortalises the stars.
"The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" (1919)
This wonderfully radical German Expressionist work from director Robert Wiene is unusually wordy for a silent film but then it has quite an intricate plot with a surprise ending. It is not just the story that is original; the stage sets are full of disorientating features such as unnatural angles and and weird shapes. The whole idea is to draw the viewer into the madness at the heart of the narrative. But this was a very political work: the all-controlling Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) represents the authoritarian figure that has so often dominated German politics, while the somnambulist Cesare (Conran Veldt) who blindly does the doctor's bidding - even when it involves murder - stands for the German populace that allowed itself to be marched into the Great War.
It is a truism (but often forgotten) that, at the core of every great film, is a great script and, in the case of "Casablanca", every line serves the plot and is worth savouring. The screenplay was the work of twins Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch and is based on the then unproduced play "Everyone Comes To Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Ironically the line that everyone associates with the movie - "Play it again, Sam" - is never actually delivered.
Humphrey Bogart is brilliant as the cynical and laconic Rick, the American owner of the bar at the centre of all the plotting in wartime Casablanca, while Claude Rains is the charming but totally amoral Vichy France police chief. The latter explains: "Rick is the kind of man that, if I were a woman, I would be in love with Rick". The beautiful Ingrid Bergman (as the Norwegian resistance worker Ilsa) is indeed in love with Rick, but she is also married to the urbane, principled and courageous Czech resistance leader played by Paul Henreid. As if war were not complicated enough, only one person has the strength and guile to make sense of all this and Rick makes a truly noble decision that gives a perfect film a perfect ending.
British film critic Mark Kermode wrote in his book "Hatchet Job": "On a very basic level, Rick is America, feigning neutrality whilst hating the Nazis, eventually giving up his chance of happiness by throwing in his hat with a European man, expressing his love for Ilsa by letting her go, allowing her to carry on keeping Victor going - a crucial part of the war effort."
"Chariots Of Fire" (1981)
I saw this film - an account of British athletes at the Paris Olympics of 1924 - twice when it came out, but I was prompted to watch it again by the holding of the 2012 Olympic Games in my home city of London. The contrast between the movie of the 1926 Games and the television coverage of the 2012 extravaganza showed just how massive the Games have become and yet how the personal factors involved are essentially the same.
"Chariots Of Fire" opens and closes with the iconic scene of the British bare-foot runners exercising on a beach by the sea as the haunting music of Vangelis soars - a scene borrowed by Mr Bean (aka Rowan Atkinson) for a very funny pastiche at the 2012 Opening Ceremony.
All the characters are real life, even if some of them seem larger than life and there is a degree of artistic licence in the story-telling. The two main ones are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a sprinter driven by a need to prove himself in a world where being Jewish is still a problem for the English Establishment, and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston), a deeply religious Scot who refuses to take part in an Olympic heat because it is scheduled for a Sunday (an issue echoed in the 2012 Games which coincided with Ramadan and posed problems for some Muslim athletes). Among a strong support cast, special mention should be made of Ian Holm as the Arab-Italian trainer Sam Mussabini.
It is a wonderfully uplifting story told with style and panache. The film won five Academy Award, including Best Picture, leading the writer Colin Welland to shout: "The British are coming!"
"Cinema Paradiso" (1988)
I confess that I do not see that many foreign-language films, but this Italian movie is something quite special. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and filmed in his Sicilian hometown of Bagheria, this is a wonderfully affectionate and nostalgic homage to the post-war cinema, by turns amusing, sad, dramatic and always sharply observant. It records the changing technologies of film projection and the changing tastes of cinema audiences, while referencing dozens of specific movies.
There are marvellous performances from Philippe Noiret (a French actor whose lines were dubbed into Italian) as the grizzly, small-town projectionist Alfredo and the diminutive and endearing Salvatore Cascio (a child actor who celebrated his eighth birthday during filming) as the boy Toto he befriends. Ennio Morricone's music is quite haunting and seals the success of this captivating movie. The picture holds a special memory for me since, the first two times that I saw it, it was with my beloved Italian mother who is no longer with us.
"Citizen Kane" (1941)
Widely considered - at least by critics - as the greatest film ever made and nominated for nine Academy Awards, at the time this film actually failed to recoup its costs at the box office and in fact only won one Academy Award (that for Best Writing). It was very much an Orson Welles creation: at the age of only 24, it was his first feature film but he was its producer, co-writer, director and star.
The quasi-autobiographical film examines the life, loves and legacy of American newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, a character based on a number of real personages, most notably William Randolph Hearst (who tried hard to prevent it from being made and then from being distributed). The structure is non-linear with a series of flashbacks representing the points of view of various Kane associates - a technique unusual at the time - and the plot is driven by something called Rosebud as a MacGuffin (an object that shapes the narrative but is itself unimportant).
Having seen "Citizen Kane" several times, I always admire it but never warm to it. I admire it for its technical brilliance with use of deep focus photography and a whole series of unusual camera angles. But I find it a dark, even unpleasant, work because Kane is such a vain, cruel and unsympathetic character.
"City Lights" (1931)
This is one of the classics of the silent era, but I was fortunate enought to see on the big screen with live orchestral accompaniment when I attended London's Royal Festival Hall where the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis, performed a score composed by Charles Chaplin and Carl Davis.
Chaplin was a comic genius and the tramp his greatest creation. In his penultimate silent movie ( a substantial work of 87 minutes which he both wrote and directed), the tramp befriends a suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) and a blind flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill), changing both their lives in a story that is always hilarious and ultimately poignant. Every scene is calculated and Chaplin extracts the most from each visual gag.
"A Clockwork Orange" (1972)
In its country of origin at least, this film had a bizarre history. First shown in 1972 when I saw it on the London screen, the resultant public furore over its dramatic depiction of violence and alleged copycat incidents led writer/producer/director Stanley Kubrick to withdraw all British prints so that, after a ban of 26 years, it could only be shown again after his sudden death in 1999. Returning to the work after almost 30 years, the costumes and sets looked dated, but the wonderful originality of the production and the awful power to shock were still there, while the issues examined were just as relevant.
The surreal atmosphere is rendered immediately by the use of the Nasdat language - a strange mix of English, Russian and Latin - invented by the author of the 1962 dystopic novel, Anthony Burgess: "There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is, Pete, Georgie and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening." Then there was the exaggerated acting and the clever casting, especially unconventional-looking Malcolm McDowell. Above all, though, there's the music.
Kubrick frequently made original use of music in his movies - think of the spinning space station in "2001", shown over "The Blue Danube", or Jocelyn Pook's eerie music in his last movie "Eyes Wide Shut". In a sense, the violence in "Clockwork Orange" is often tempered by the idiosyncratic use of music, most notably in the horrific rape scene where Alex croons a version of "Singin' In The Rain", but repeatedly to the electronic strains of Mozart, Rossini and the magnificent fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The surreal settings also dull some of the impact of the savagery - who else but Kubrick would have his protagonists fight to the death wielding a bust of Beethoven and a giant phallus?
However, for all its violent imagery, this is a brilliant film with an anti-violence message which also - non too subtly - asks to what extent society can counter violent acts with violent techniques. It argues that morality can only come from choice and choice requires freedom.
Footnote: The film never explains the title. However, in the novella by Burgess, it is the title of a book by the writer whose wife Alex rapes and it derives from a remark overheard by Burgess on a London bus: "He's as queer as a clockwork orange".
Although I'm a massive movie fan, I guess that it's not surprising that I never caught "Clueless". At the time of its release, I was a father in his late 40s - not exactly the demographic attracted to this witty satire of teenage life in Beverley Hills very loosely based on the Jane Austen novel "Emma". But roll forward to 2020 and the coronavirus lockdown. One of the ways in which I stayed connected was to have a weekly online movie quiz with a buddy from my film courses. She revealed that she just loved "Clueless" which of course I'd never seen. When cinemas eventually reopened again, the British Film Institute had this film in its early schedule, so I - a male in his early 70s - invited my film buddy - a female in her late 30s - to accompany me to its showing (her first viewing actually on the big screen).
I have to say that I found it a sheer delight. Both written and directed by Amy Heckerling, it is absolutely crammed full of acute one-line zingers and the central character - rich high schooler Cher played wonderfully by Alicia Silverstone - has as many lines of narration and dialogue as her change of outfits. While trying to set up a new school friend with a boy, she neglects the attractions of her stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), but you just know that will not remain the case and the ending brings a broad smile to every face (young or old). Totally cool.
"The Deer Hunter" (1978)
There have been many American films about the Vietnam war and "The Deer Hunter" was one of the first and finest, being nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning five including Best Picture and Best Director (for Michael Cimino who originated the story). I saw it on its original release and revisited it on the big screen 40 years later. I had forgotten how long it is (just over three hours) but it remains a moving and shocking work. The first hour or so is set in a Pennsylvania steel town (although it was shot in eight different locations in Ohio) with a traditional Russian Orthodox wedding and robustious reception, before jumping to the horrors of Vietnam (filming was in Thailand). We meet three steelworkers who have just been drafted: Mikey (Robert De Niro), the hunter of the title, Steven (John Savage), the husband of the marriage, and Nick (Christopher Walken) who has just proposed to Linda (Meryl Streep).
The film was immediately criticised for its repeated use of disturbing sequences of Russian roulette on the grounds that there is no evidence that such events actually occurred. However, like the deer hunt, the Russian roulette is a metaphor: the first of an experience of simplicity and nobility, the second an illustration of chance and brutality, both deployed twice in ways which contrast with each other and each use. The cinematography by Oscar-nominated Vilmos Zsigmond is striking and the main title theme by John Williams is haunting which, with a strong storyline and fine acting across the board, makes for a truly memorable movie. Viewing it again four decades later, it is wonderful to see how Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep have carved out such long and illustrious acting careers.
"Dirty Dancing" (1987)
Set in a summer holiday resort in America's Catskill Mountains in 1963, great music and great dancing provide the setting for a romance between 17 year old Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and her dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). It is an unusually sensitive and sensual tale of 'coming of age', perhaps because it was written by a woman (Eleanor Bergstein), and it is full of memorable scenes and at least one memorable line ("Nobody puts Baby in a corner"). While "Dirty Dancing" is the classic, the almost unknown "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" (2004) is equally recommended.
"Dirty Harry" (1971)
"Uh-huh. I know what you're thinkin': 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I've kinda lost track myself. But bein' this is a forty-four Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?"
OK, so Clint Eastwood as San Francisco cop Harry Callahan is not the most politically correct film in the world. It suggests that the law is loaded in favour of the defendant and that it is honourable for a policeman in effect to become a vigilante. But Eastwood - as both actor and director - has become a cinematic legend and arguably this movie was his 'breakthrough' performance with a mass public after the surprising success of the Italian "Dollar" westerns. His confidence and coolness in this and many successive roles - there were four more "Harry" movies - have made him something of an icon that, much later, he himself was willing to challenge in the impressive "Unforgiven".
"Don't Look Now" (1973)
This is a haunting thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg and set almost entirely in an Autumnal and atmospheric Venice. It is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier and concerns the efforts by a couple, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, to come to terms with the drowning of their little daughter at home in England. The love scene - and it is love, not just sex - between them in their Venice hotel is one of the most erotic in mainstream cinema and is sometimes cut for television, but this is certainly not a sex film. Indeed there is a lot of tension, it is quite scary at times, and the final sequences are shocking - you'll never look the same at little children in a red coat.
At first, I did not like this film so much since it involves the supernatural and the events are not always clear, but it is one of those movies that benefits from being seen several times and it is now a firm favourite of mine.
"Double Indemnity" (1944)
Based on James Cain's novel of the same name, this classic film noir was written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder and directed by Wilder. The term 'double indemnity' refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout when the death is accidental. This invitation to murder is seized upon by a femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck, who was nominated for an Academy Award, and an insurance salesman portrayed by Fred MacMurray, who took on a rare serious role, while Edward G Robinson was the claims adjuster at the salesman's company. A memorable leitmotif in the action is the lighting of cigarettes and cigars. This is a wonderfully plotted movie with shifting interactions between the three main players and the production received no less than seven Academy Award nominations (but won none).
"Dr. Strangelove" (1964)
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" - to use its full title - was directed. co-produced and co-written by Stanely Kubrick with the other writing credits going to the author of the book on which it was based ("Red Alert" by Peter George) and noted satirist Terry Southern. Coming so soon after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, this black and white film was a brave piece of dark comedy that was commercially very successful in spite of military and right-wing critics. It is quite a wordy work but there are some wonderful lines including the injunction: "Gentlemen, you can't fight here. This is the War Room".
It posits a scenario in which all-out nuclear war is unleashed by some crazy individuals, sophisticated technology, and unfortunate occurrences. Following the success of "Lolita" in which Peter Sellers' character assumes several identities, Colombia Pictures agreed to finance "Dr. Strangelove on the condition that this formula was repeated, so here the brilliant Sellers plays the British RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the bland American President Merkin Muffley, and the mad German scientist Dr. Strangelove. Other stand-out performances come from ex-communist Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper, George C. Scott as General 'Buck' Turgidson, and Slim Pickens as bomber pilot Major 'King' Kong, each of whom wishes to eliminate the Soviets.
Another strength of the movie is the set of the War Room, a huge artifice designed by Ken Adam, fresh from his work of "Dr, No". An inevitable weakness of the film is representations of the B-52 bomber since the U.S. military was clearly not going to provide the sort of access and cooperation that it did for the 1955 work "Strategic Air Command", so Kubrick was reduced to very obvious use of models although the cockpit scenes and crew procedures look and sound very convincing.
"El Cid" (1961)
This is an old-fashioned epic of the kind that they simply don't make anymore. El Cid means The Lord and it was the name given by the Moors to the 11th Century knight Roderigo de Bivar in what today is Spain. He is played by the square-jawed American Charlton Heston, while his glamorous wife Chimene is the Italian actress Sophia Loren and the international cast includes players from Britain and France. Producer Samuel Bronston and director Anthony Mann assembled an enormous cast of 7,000 for the battle scenes between Christian knights and Moorish warriors, while commissioning 10,000 constumes and using a variety of splendid locations to add authenticity to the movie which is wonderfully photographed.
"El Cid" is a three-hour film with noble intentions, proclaiming the messages of national unity and religious tolerance. The eponymous leader is as heroic a figure as one could wish for: utterly brave, fiercely independence and totally loyal. The final scene where he rides out to fight one last battle for his people is - for me at least - one of the most moving in the history of celluloid.
"Elvira Madigan" (1967)
I confess that my taste in films is quite popular - although, I hope, not populist - and therefore I don't see that many foreign films, but "Elvira Madigan", a movie in Swedish, is one of my all-time favourites and, over a period of more than four decades, I've seen it six times.
Based on a true incident and inspired by a ballad from Johan Lindstrom Saxon, it is set in 1889 and is the account of forbidden love between the dashing Swedish Count Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) and the angelic Danish tightrope walker Elvira Madigan/Hedvig Jensen (18 year old Pia Degermark) who run away together and finally die together in a Danish wood. Not much happens and much of it is wistfully slow, but it is beautifully shot by Swedish writer and director Bo Widerberg and the music - mainly Piano Concerto No 21 by Mozart but also two pieces by Vivaldi - is to die for.
Even seven decades later, it is astonishing that Walt Disney - the creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck - could put so much energy and resource into the production of what is still a unique movie: a brilliantly inventive 135-minute animated interpretation of classical music. In the original version, the music was conducted by the famous Leopold Stokowski; in 1982, it was re-issued with a digital recording by Irwin Kostal; and in 2000 there was a reworking of the masterpiece with some new scenes.
Can you name all the eight classical pieces? They are:
"Far From The Madding Crowd" (1967)
John Schlesinger's film of Thomas Hardy's novel was released in 1967 and I saw it twice in the early 1970s. I was prompted to view it again by the 2010 movie "Tamara Drewe" whose storyline is inspired by "Far From The Madding Crowd". It was a pleasure to revisit Schlesinger's work which has a star-studded cast with the beautiful Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdine and Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates as the three men seeking her affections. As eye-catching as these performances though, are the Dorset and Wiltshire countryside and the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg three years before he became a director.
"Fatal Attraction" (1987)
At the time of its release, "Fatal Attraction" was a sensation: the most viewed and the most debated movie on show. Directed by Adrian Lyne, who had made the lighter "Flashdance| and "9 1/2 Weeks", this taut thriller stars Michael Douglas as married lawyer Dan Gallagher who has a weekend of passion with causal acquaintance Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his wife Beth (Anne Archer) and young daughter are out of town.
Close is terrific as the spurned lover who turns increasingly vengeful and manic in a performance reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's "Play Misty For Me" (she even sends Dan a tape labelled 'Play me'). As the tension ratchets up, there are more and more shocking and memorable scenes with perhaps that involving the daughter's pet rabbit as the most disturbing. Given the time of its release, many viewers saw this as a moral tale against sexual infidelity with the Alex character as the personification of AIDS.
Viewing it again almost three decades later, it still has the power to shock and awe, but we now know that the ending - so satisfying to audiences and conducive to box office records - was changed as a result of test screenings. So the frequent references to the opera "Madam Butterfly" and Dan's handling of a knife hint at the finale intended by screenwriter James Deardon and indeed a recent stage version of the film presents a more nuanced treatment of Alex and offers a different resolution.
"A Fistful Of Dollars" (1964)
This was the film which reinvigorated, indeed reinvented, the genre of the western and, in the process, turned an actor from the television series "Rawhide" into an international star. When Clint Eastwood was first suggested to director Sergio Leone, the Italian had never heard of the American and, when Eastwood went to the shooting in southern Spain, he had never been to Europe, but it proved to be an inspired piece of casting. Eastwood is ideal as the enigmatic man with no name, few morals, and fistfuls of dollars and his piercing eyes are perfect for Leone's trademark close-ups, while his sardonic delivery is just right for the laconic lines.
The story itself is taken straight from the Japanese classic "Yojimbo" directed Akira Kurosawa, as Eastwood's character rides into dusty San Miguel to play off the rival Baxters and Rojos against each other, while at each turn collecting more money. However, Eastwood's poncho and small cigars, the expressive faces of the largely Italian cast, the blasted and bled terrain and the haunting score of Ennio Morricone all make this a movie with its own distinctive look and sound.
The film led to two equally successful sequels, "For A Few Dollars More" (1965) and "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" (1966), and together the "Dollar" trilogy reshaped the moviegoer's view of the western. Eastwood himself returned to the role of mystical avenger several times, notably in "High Plains Drifter" (1972).
"Forrest Gump" (1994)
Director Robert Zemeckis ("Back To The Future") and screenwriter Eric Roth did a wonderful job bringing to the screen the novel by Winston Groom and Tom Hanks was terrific as the eponymous intellectually challenged but kindly narrator of the story which is both a personal odyssey and a wry commentary on recent American politics and social change. Forrest may have an IQ of 75, but he manages to be involved - thanks to the wizardry of special effects - in many important events of recent American history and do much good along the way in a tale that is by turns genuinely hilarious and deeply moving. In a strong support cast, Sally Field as Forrest's mother, Robin Penn as his long-term friend, and Gary Sinise as his commanding officer stand out.
There are so many memorable scenes - starting and finishing with the floating feather - and so many mememorable lines ("My momma always said, 'Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'") that this is a movie that has to be seen again and again (or as Forrest would put it - after meeting another President - "Ugin").
"From Russia With Love" (1963)
As an adolescent in the early 1960s, two of my greatest influences were Bond and the Beatles. I read all of Ian Fleming's novels and, over the next 50 years, I've seen each new 007 film as it appeared. My favourite has always been the second, "From Russia With Love". From the brilliant pre-title sequence, it was a triumph of entertainment. After their experience on the first movie "Dr No", director Terence Young was in his stride and the ultra-suave Sean Connery was making the Bond role his very own.
Above all, though, this was the last Bond film to take itself seriously. The plot was intelligent and credible and, at its heart was the Russians' Lektor decoding machine, based on Fleming's wartime knowledge of Enigma (not that we knew this at the time). For me, Italian Daniela Bianchi was always one of the most attractive of Bond's many girls, partly because she looked so naturally beautiful. The main villain was chillingly believable in the form of muscle-toned Robert Shaw. The multi-functional briefcase genuinely serviced the story line, whereas in later films the gadgets became more objects of fun. The location scenes in Istanbul - including the Saint Sophia mosque - were atmospheric. Finally, as well as the original Bond theme, we had terrific incidental music and one of the best songs.
In short: simply the best of the Bonds.
When I first saw this classic film at the cinema, the audience applauded at both the intermission and the end (it is a long work of 188 minutes). Although the narrative covers over five decades in Gandhi's life, a major segment concerns the the process by which independence of India and Pakistan was brought about and the huge loss of life and massive migrations that resulted. When I saw the events of 1947 portrayed in the 2017 film "Viceroy's House", I was encouraged to revisit the earlier film which I think deals with these events more powerfully.
"Gandhi" was a triumph both for Richard Attenborough, as producer and director, who worked for 20 years to bring the story to the big screen and for Ben Kingsley, a man whose father was Indian but who had until then had a minor profile, proving to be a superlative choice for the eponymous role. The cinematography is wonderful, making superb use of local filming in India and evocative of some of the work of David Lean. The huge cast represents a rich array of British thespianism (as well as American and Indian actors) with cameo roles for stars such as John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and James Fox and even a tiny role for Daniel Day-Lewis who would go on to be a towering talent. Finally the script by John Briley works well in communicating essential information with some effective lines.
The film is a little too reverential towards its subject and at times it is a trifle ponderous, but these are relatively minor reservations. It went on to win no less than eight Academy Awards.
This is the film which gave rise to the term 'to gaslight', meaning to cause someone to doubt his or her sanity through psychological manipulation. In the film itself, a husband played by Charles Boyer seeks to undermine the sanity of his wife portrayed by Ingrid Bergman through - among other things - repeatedly dimming and brightening the gaslights in their 19th century London home. Based on a play called "Angel Street" and the subject of an earlier British cinematic version in 1940, this American-made movie was directed by George Cukor. It is somewhat static in location, but finely acted with plenty of atmosphere, and it won an Academy Award for Bergman.
When I first started going to the cinema some 40 years ago, the sword-and-sandal saga was a staple part of the repertoire. Many of the films came from Italy and starred the ubiquitous former Mr Universe Steve Reeves who ironically died a few days before the opening in Britain of "Gladiator". Easily the best of these epics was "Spartacus" (1960), but I had thought this type of film long dead before the talented and resourceful Ridley Scott - director of such magnificent work as "Alien", "Blade Runner" and "Thelma And Louise" - decided to revisit (and partially revive) the genre. The plotting and values of "Gladiator" are decidedly old-fashioned, but the skill and technology deployed to bring it to the screen are state-of-the-art.
The basic storyline is thoroughly familiar to anyone who has seen "The Fall Of The Roman Empire" (1964): following the death of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 180, a noble soldier seeks to restore the glory that was Rome in the face of the corruption and brutality fostered by the new, young emperor Commodus. But, whereas "Fall" was very slow and stilted, from the opening battle scene in Germania ("At my signal, unleash hell") to the closing combat in the Colosseum, "Gladiator" is simply thrilling.
Credit must go to David Franzoni who created the story and co-wrote the script which has so many memorable lines. Hans Zimmer has produced an outstanding soundtrack which superbly complements the action sequences especially. Above all, however, the success of this great movie is a tribute to Ridley Scott who is a consummate film-maker: the photography, the pacing, the cutting, the sound are all brilliant. Having twice visited the ruins of the Colosseum, I had wondered what it looked like originally and know I believe I know as a result of Scott's computer-generated recreation of the mighty edifice and its visceral exhibition of violence.
Yet the director is well-served by his stable of actors. New Zealand-born Russell Crowe, who first came to the fore in "L.A. Confidential", is inspiring as Maximus, a hero as honourable and laconic as he is brave and resourceful. Plato would have been proud of him, since he believed that the only man fit to rule was one who did not want to do so. Joaquin Phoenix has a deeply unsympathetic role as Commodus but brings immense depth to the evil part. Among the other performers are an unusually venerable Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Derek Jacobi who was so magnificent in the British television series "I, Claudius", and Oliver Reed who drank himself to death during the filming in Malta.
"The Godfather" (1972)
This long (it runs for almost three hours) and complex (dialogue and plotting are sometimes hard to follow) movie has become - and rightly so - a true classic. It won the Academy Award for Best Film, as did sensationally the sequel two years later. It is the kind of rich work made for film studies students and I was once in a course that spent half an hour discussing shot by shot the opening few seconds.
Like every great movie, it starts by having a fine script, co-authored by Mario Puzo (who wrote the best-selling novel on which it is based) and Francis Ford Coppola (who directed the work in bravado style at the age of just 29). Many of the lines have gone into everyday speech ("I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse") and, in the film "You've Got Mail", the Tom Hanks character claims that the answer to most of life's dilemmas is to be found in the dialogue from "The Godfather".
The cast is wonderful. As Don Coleone, Marlon Brando gives one of his last great performances (the other is in "Apocalypse Now"), before he fell apart physically. As his son Michael Corleone, newcomer Al Pacino gives the first of many excellent performances, thanks to Coppola successfully fighting the studio to cast an unknown in this pivotal role. Robert Duvall and James Caan are just two of the others who contribute to a virtuoso ensemble.
When I first saw the film on its release in 1972, I was shocked by the violence and saw it essentially as a ganster movie. Over the years, we have become somewhat inured to cinematic violence and I have been struck more by the character development, especially that of Michael who wants so much to tread a new path but is sucked uncontrollably into a quagmire of duplicity and death. My favourite scene is the one when Michael first uses murder as a weapon of revenge. The tension in the Italian restaurant is almost unbearable and the use of the subway noise in the toilet is a brilliant piece of sound.
"The Godfather Part II" (1974) - which portrays events and characters both before and after the original movie - was that very rare case of a magnificent film being succeeded by a sequel which was as outstanding. I once saw the two films on television, recut so that the whole narrative was chronological. "The Godfather Part III" (1990) was certainly an inferior film, but still worth seeing.
"Gold Diggers Of 1933" (1933)
The gold diggers of the title are New York chorus girls struggling to eat and pay the rent during the Great Depression who are not above seducing older men with more money than sense. If this seems an unlikely theme for a romantic musical, it managed to raise the spirits of its contemporary audience and still works a treat 76 years later. Based on a Broadway comedy that had already been filmed twice by Warner Brothers, the story was opened up by director Mervyn LeRoy with music and lyrics from Harry Warren and Al Dubin and fabulous dance routines choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley.
The movie is astonishingly risqué for the times with scanty costumes and songs such as "Pettin' In The Park". What really distinguishes this particular musical from others of the time is the sombre ending: a dramatic appeal for social justice in the form of a number titled "Remember My Forgotten Man" which references the controversial 1932 Bonus March of jobless veterans. And there's even a role for Ginger Rodgers before her famous pairing with Fred Astaire.
"The Graduate" (1967)
In its day - I was an undergraduate when the film was released and I first viewed it - this was seen as something of a daring work depicting sex in the suburbs between different generations. It is a sharp piece of social commentary - a critical look at the American middle class - disguised as a kind of rom-com. I say 'a kind of' because the central relationship is transactional rather than romantic (the romance comes rather later in the narrative) and the comedy is often somewhat surreal (the eponymous young man decked out in underwater gear or banishing a crucifix as a weapon). Based on a novel by Charles Webb, there is some memorable dialogue including my favourite lines: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word ... Are you listening? ... Plastics".
In his break-out role, young Dustin Hoffman plays 21 year old Benjamin Braddock and this proved to be just the start of an illustrious movie career. His temptress is Anne Bancroft who makes the most of some wonderful lines as Mrs Robinson. The young daughter of Mrs Robinson is portrayed by newcomer Katherine Ross whose later career was mostly in television. The movie was only the second directorial outing for Mike Nicholls but he impresses with a variety of of cinematic tricks, perhaps the most memorable being a shot of Ben framed by the raised naked leg of Mrs Robinson. Another distinguishing feature of this enjoyable film is the use of songs by Simon & Garfunkel including the catchy "Mrs Robinson". So all the elements of a classic.
It took me more than 40 years to catch up with this kitsch classic, but a lockdown during the coronavirus crisis of 2020 was an opportunity to plug a few gaps in my rich experience of the movies. Based on a successful Broadway musical, this is a simple, old-fashioned tale of young love in an American high school of the 1950s, but it is raised to a special level by the wonderful casting - notably John Travolta as Danny Zuko, hip leader of the"T-Birds, and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsson, out-of-town ingénue - and the high-energy song and dance routines - including such classics as "Summer Nights" and "Greased Lightin'".
It was clear when I first saw this film on its cinematic release that it was destined to be a classic and revisiting it after 20 years it is obvious why. Written and directed by Michael Mann, this is a crime movie with some great action sequences - notably two robberies - but terrific characterisations that raise the work to another level. It is long (170 minutes) and it is not always entirely clear what is being said or what is happening, but it is utterly absorbing and immensely atmospheric with the city of Los Angeles - 65 different locations were used - almost a character in itself.
A major part of the excitement around the film's release was that it was the first time that the two lead actors - both hugely talented stars - had appeared opposite each other, although they had been in the same movie but not together ("The Godfather Part II" two decades previously). These two actors are Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, the tough and wily leader of a highly professional gang of robbers, and Al Pacino as Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a cop who remorsefully turns up the heat on his prey and never gives up the chase. The two characters do not meet until 92 minutes into the movie and then, in a classic sequence, it is a conversation over coffee in which each is candidly revealing about his life but utterly cold in threatening the other's life. In fact, in the course of this lengthy work, the two of them are only together for 10 minutes and we had to wait until 2008, in "Righteous Kill", to see them together again.
But, if De Niro and Pacino, are the heart of "Heat", this is a film with a host of other impressive actors, most notably Val Kilmer and Jon Voight. Also, many of the characters are shown to have complicated relationships with women so, although the female roles are only support ones, they are important, most clearly Diane Venora as Hanna's wife and Amy Brenneman as McCauley's girlfriend. Returning to the film after 20 years, one spots Xander Berkeley and Dennis Haysbert who went on to appear in the TV series "24" and a very young Natalie Portman who has gone on to a distinguished career. So there are so many reasons to watch "Heat".
"Henry V" (1944)
This is a classic cinematic rendition of a Shakespeare play, produced and directed by Laurence Oliver who also took the eponymous role. It is brightly coloured and very cleverly produced, starting with the tight and authentic Shakespeare venue of the Globe theatre and gradually opening out more and more until one has an exciting horse charge on the fields of Agincourt. The timing and choice of the work were very deliberate - this depiction of British valour in combat against the odds and eventual unity with France represented a morale-booster for a British audience that had suffered five years of total war. Watching the film now after so many years, the upper class English accents - even when the roles are Welsh, Scottish or French - are very noticeable but this is tolerable when the acting is so fine.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was marvellous and I loved it, but "Hero" is even better and I feel it is little short of a masterpiece. What makes it so is the brilliant combination of superlatives: fine acting and sharp dialogue; exciting fighting sequences and stunning scenery; evocative sound and music; and a breathtaking use of colour and composition. This is quite simply a triumph for Chinese director Zhang Yimou - and the budget was a mere $2 million.
The setting is the Qin kingdom in the 3rd century BC when modern-day China consisted of seven warring kingdoms. An astonishingly proficient warrior known only as Nameless (Jet Li) is brought to meet the Qin emperor (Daoming Chen) on the basis that he has managed to kill the emperor's three most formidable enemies: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Chueng). The story unfolds in a formal structure involving a series of flashbacks, as Nameless explains to the emperor how he dispatched each foe, but we see the same conflicts in different versions as a result of successive plot twists. As each segment of the tale is told, Nameless moves closer to the solitary emperor - to what end, we can only speculate.
The movie looks sumptuous with magnificent natural settings (including Inner Mongolia) and balletic fight scenes in the rain and the trees, among banners and leaves, and even on water, while the different flashbacks are distinguished by the predominant colour of the scene and the characters' costumes: red (passion), blue (love), green (youth), white (truth), and finally black (death). The sound - whether horses thundering across the countryside, massed soldiers marching into position, swords clashing angrily or arrows winging impossible distances - is terrific, while the original music from Tan Dun (who scored "Crouching Tiger .."), with Kodo drummers from Japan, is wonderfully atmospheric. The cast is huge, but the speaking - using classical Chinese grammar but pronunciation in the Mandarin dialect - is confined to less than 10 characters. Besides the actors already named, we have the young and beautiful Zhang Ziyi - another link with "Crouching Tiger.." - as the servant girl Moon.
The plotting may be a little thin, but my only real reservation about the movie is political rather than artistic: the use of tyranny is defended on the grounds of nationalism. That apart, I cannot fault this utterly sensational work which for me is up there with such classics as "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Gladiator".
"High Noon" (1952)
This western is a classic but it is not a classic western for three reasons. First, there is no shooting until the very end. Second, action is subordinate to character as Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is seen failing to win any support in facing a gang of four who want him dead. Third, the time (the communist scare of the early 1950s) and the writer (Carl Foreman who was later blacklisted) of the film make this a very political work highlighting the dangers of McCarthyism. Director Fred Zimmerman tells the story in real time as the town waits for the noon train which will deliver the leader of the gang and frequent close-ups of clocks remorsefully build up the tension. A man's gotta do what he's gotta do.
The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations and won four including one for 51 year old Cooper and another for the song ("Do not forsake me, oh my darling on this my wedding day").
Directed by Lindsay Anderson, this is a film with almost revolutionary intent. At one level, it is a savage satire of the British public school system (it was shot at Cheltenham College). At another level, it is a compelling cry for individualism everywhere. One of the characters opines that: "There's nothing wrong with privilege - as long as you're prepared to pay for it", which is enough to make any fair-minded person bristle. It is a strange work with odd lapses into black and white and increasingly surreal sequences, but it is a stunning piece of film-making with some memorable scenes. My favourites are where the Christine Noonan character acts like a tiger in a café as the "Missa Lubba" plays and the finale as Malcolm McDowell and his friends literally take arms against the Establishment.
Note 1: The original script was written by David Sherwin and John Howlett, both of whom attended Tonbridge, a middle-ranking public school in Kent.
Note 2: The McDowell character, Travis, made two further appearances in Anderson films: "O Lucky Man!" (1973) and "Britannia Hospital" (1982).
"It Happened One Night" (1934)
This black and white movie is classic Frank Capra (the director): engaging, uplifting, romantic, funny. It stars two of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time: Claudette Colbert as spoiled heiress Ellie, on the run from a domineering father and on her way to an unappealing husband, and Clark Gable, as newspaper reporter Peter who is looking for a story and finds more than he bargained for. The makeshift 'curtain' between their beds - dubbed "the walls of Jericho" - assumes a metaphorical meaning as both characters change along the journey represented in coy terms reflecting the repressed times.
The film won five Academy Awards including ones for Gable, Colbert and Capra.
"The Italian Job" (1969)
Very sixties, very British, deliciously camp, and enormously entertaining - in short, a minor classic. Michael Caine is perfectly cast as the sarf London cheeky chappie Charlie Croker who leads a bullion raid, under the leadership of imprisoned boss man Mr Bridger (Noël Coward), with a specially put-together crew including Professor Peach (Benny Hill in a rare cinema role).
What makes this movie so special is the location - the heist takes place in the middle of a giant traffic jam in the northern Italian city of Turin - and the escape plan - the bullion is spirited away in three Mini Coopers (coloured red, white and blue naturally). The best lines go to Caine: "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" and - in a cliff-hanging conclusion - "Hang on, lads. I've got a great idea". But the best scenes go to the unlikely antics of those three Minis.
The iconic nature of the movie can be gauged less from the unnecessary refilmimg in 2003 than from the one-time appearance in the Saatchi modern art gallery in London of a Mini (decorated in differently-coloured dots) positioned descending a set of steps.
Footnote: What was the "great idea" of Caine's character at the end of the movie? In a 2003 documentary, the actor revealed that the coach's engine would be turned on, so that the petrol runs out and the equilibrium of the vehicle changes. The men would jump out and the gold would go over the cliff - to be collected by the French mafia waiting at the bottom. The intention was that this would pave the way for a sequel in which the British gang would seek the return of 'their' gold. So now you know.
"It's A Wonderful Life" (1946)
Based on a short story "The Greatest Gift" by Phillip Van Doren Stern, this classic Christmas movie is certainly sentimental, but also gloriously life-affirming. The legendary film-maker Frank Capra directed, produced and co-wrote this seasonal morality tale set in small-town America at the end of a devastating world war.
James Stewart - who had been a pilot in the air force - is loan-company owner George Bailey, befriended by Henry Travers, as the unlikely-looking angel Clarence Oddbody, who shows him the difference that his life of sacrifice and care has made to so many working class people: "You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?". The movie is almost socialist in its critique of the selfishness and brutality of the capitalist values personified by Lionel Barrymore as the manipulative Potter, but Bailey's 'salvation' comes not from the political or the divine, but simply from people helping each other in time of need.
"La La Land" (2016)
I have very wide tastes in cinema, but I generally avoid two genres: musicals and horror. However, I was always going to make an exception for "La La Land" following the vibes from the festivals and indeed, by the time I caught up with the movie, it had already been nominated for no less than 14 Academy Awards, putting it up there with other record-holders "All About Eve" (1950) and "Titantic" (1997).
Among massive support, the film has had its critics. OK, the plot and characterisation are slight, but essentially this is a homage to the old-fashioned Hollywood musical and we don't need a complicated narrative or lots of back story. Instead we have gorgeous colours and wonderfully zooming and swirling cinematography with uplifting dance sequences and a memorable soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). OK, I've heard better singing and I've seen better dancing, but Ryan Gosling as Seb and Emma Stone as Mia are playing a jazz pianist and an actress respectively and their singing and dancing are much more than adequate. These are two glorious performances.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle has given us a movie - such a contrast in tone and style from his previous "Whiplash"- which is destined to be a classic and become a long-running stage show (it is structured into four acts based on the seasons). The vibrant sequence before the title is shown - reminiscent of a scene from "Fame"- is alone worth the price of admission; musical numbers seemingly shot in a single take hold the attention and bring a smile to the face; a scene where the two leads first hold hands in a cinema is pure romance; the dance sequence in the Griffith Observatory is absolute magic; and the bitter-sweet ending not what I expected but a realistic conclusion to a work that urges us to strive for our dreams whatever the cost.
I just loved this movie and I went straight out of the cinema and bought the soundtrack. Indeed it is my all-time favourite musical and I've watched it again and again.
"The Last Emperor" (1987)
Directed by Italian Marxist Bernardo Bertolucci ("Last Tango In Paris"), this is the fascinating story - told in a lengthy 162 minutes - of how Pu Li, played by John Lone ("The Year Of The Dragon"), became China's all-powerful emperor at the age of three (1908), only to finish his life as a mere gardener at 62 (1967). Along the way, he becomes the puppet ruler of the Japanese-occupied state of Manchuria and experiences a prolonged moral re-education in prison.
Beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro, the film is visually stunning with characters, ceremony and colour in abundance. The first half was filmed on location in Beijing's Forbidden City and, since I originally saw the film, I have had the opportunity to visit it and savour the majesty and wonder of this wonderful setting. The work was nominated for no less than nine Academy Awards and won them all. If ever there was a film which just had to be seen on the big screen, this is it - and it probably helps if you know something of the history of 20th century China.
"The Last Of The Mohicans" (1992)
This is an action-adventure film with everything you could want from the genre: an authentic historical setting (British colonial America in 1757), an athletic hero (Nathaniel or Hawkeye played in fine style by Daniel Day-Lewis at the start of his illustrious career), a beautiful and plucky heroine (Cora portrayed by Madeleine Stowe), the hero's ultra loyal supporter (Chingachgook aka The Last Of The Mohicans played by Russell Means, a genuine Oglala/Lakota Sioux Indian), an evil-looking villain (Magua acted by Wes Studi, a Cherokee), lots of great fight sequences, plenty of blood and death, terrific scenery (shot in North Carolina) and a stirring sound track (main theme by Scotland's Dougie Maclean).
It is all brought together wonderfully by director Michael Mann who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay following an adaptation from James Fenimore Cooper's famous novel of 1826. Like any good film, it has an opening that grabs you, as Hawkeye and his two Indian companions race through the forest after their foe, and a satisfying ending, with a line of dialogue that echoes the title of the work. In between, there are just so many memorable action sequences, but my favourite is when a British military line is attacked by Magua's men and Hawkeye has to reach Cora before she is killed. There are many good lines too of which the most memorable is Hawkeye to Cora: "Submit, do you hear? You're strong! You survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far. I will find you!"
Confusingly there are four versions of the film besides the original three-hour cut that was rejected by the studio. All four versions run to less than two hours and the differences are quite minor. I've now seen the movie four times - twice at the cinema and twice on a television set - and you really should try to catch it on a big screen to enjoy best the cinematography and sound.
"The Last Valley" (1971)
Over my many years of cinema-going, I've viewed a whole range of movies with titles beginning "The Last .." including "The Last Emperor" (1987) and "The Last Samurai" (2003). "The Last Valley' may not be the best-known film with this kind of title, but it made an impression on me when I first saw it at the cinema in 1971 and still resonated with me when I viewed it again on DVD some 46 years later.
It is partly the unusual historical context: the story is set during the repeated bloody clashes of Catholic and Protestant armies largely in German-speaking continental Europe in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and reference to a particular battle in a line of dialogue places the period more precisely in late 1643 and early 1644. It is partly the important subjects that it addresses: the narrative is a sharp critique of the role of religion and superstition in fostering hatred and war and the leading character eventually shouts at the local priest: "There is no Hell. Don't you understand? Because there is no God. There never was. Don't you understand? There is no God! It's a legend!"
This British film was written, produced and directed by James Cavell before he became famous for his blockbuster novels. The 17th century village in question was recreated in the valley of Trins in the beautiful Tyrol region of Austria. The Catholic villagers who live there may look rather too clean and well-clothed for the period but the mainly Protestant soldiers who occupy the valley certainly look the part. The music is from John Barry who had made his name with the early James Bond movies.
At the heart of the story is the changing fortunes of the characters as they are subject to competing sources of power: civil authority in the shape of the head villager Gruber (Nigel Davenport), religious dogma provided by the village priest Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson), military authority imposed by a character known only as The Captain (Michael Caine), and the voice of reason and tolerance offered by the academic refugee Vogel (Omar Sharif). In the course of the story, each will have his moment of triumph but each will suffer grievously in this under-known and under-appreciated film.
"Lawrence Of Arabia" (1962)
If I have an all-time favourite film, then I guess it would be "Lawrence Of Arabia". In spite of my great love of the movies, it is not that often that I see a film twice and rare that I view it a third time but, over a period of almost six decades, I have see this classic a total of 12 times, almost always on the big screen. The first time was on its general release in 1963 when I was an impressionable 14 year old; another time was in 1989 when I saw the restored version at the National Film Theatre in the presence of the director David Lean and photographer Freddie Young; another time was in 2012 when it was re-released theatrically to mark its 50th anniversary; and the latest time was in 2020 at what is now the British Film Institute.
I think that I admire it so much because it is a brilliant combination of epic and character study. On the one hand, it is a heroic wartime battle against the overwhelming odds of the Turks and the punishing conditions of a blazing desert. On the other hand, it is a fascinating psychological portrayal of an intelligent, but sensitive, man tortured by both his destiny and his sexuality.
There are marvellously fresh performances by newcomers Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, memorable dialogue from Robert Bolt, and a stirring score from Maurice Jarre. The desert scenes shot in Morocco and Jordan and other scenes filmed in Andalucia, together with attention to costume and huge ensembles of men (no woman has a speaking part), create a series of awe-inspiring vistas and sequences. The cinematography is stunning and both composition and editing are brilliant. Scene after scene is meticulously constructed - the arrival of Sherif Ali is a classic - and often breathtaking. In short, it is quite simply a masterpiece.
If I have a favourite scene, then I guess it is the one of Lawrence's triumphal return from the Nefud desert, having gone back to rescue the Arab Gasim.
The crossing of the Nefud desert is considered impossible, even by the local Arabs, but Lawrence persuades them that, in this way, they can take the Turkish port at Aqaba. Having carried out the superhuman feat of traversing this furnace, it is discovered that one of the Arabs, Gasim, has fallen off his camel and is no doubt dying somewhere back in the desert. Lawrence is told that any idea of rescue is futile and, in any event, Gasim's death is "written". When Lawrence achieves the impossible and returns with Gasim still alive, Sherif Ali admits to him: "Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it".
As an impressionable teenager when this film was first released, I was stunned by Lawrence's courage and unselfishness in going back into the hell of the Nefud to attempt to find a man he hardly knew among the vast expanse of a fiery terrain and I was so moved by the sense of purpose of a man who is determined to take nothing as "written" but to shape his own destiny. This sense of anti-determinism and this belief that anything is possible has stayed with me always and continues to inspire me in small ways and large.
"The Lion In Winter" (1968)
What could be pleasanter than a family reunion at Christmas? Except that this is 1183 and it is the eponymous lion Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole who had previously played a younger Henry in "Becket"), accompanied by his young mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), who summons to his castle at Chinon his incarcerated wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) and their three sons, the feisty Richard (Anthony Hopkins), the smarmy Geoffrey (John Castle), and the simple John (Nigel Terry), plus King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton). Henry plans to arrange his succession, but each player has his or her own agenda and the power play swings back and forth constantly.
James Goldman adapted his own play for the screen and the dialogue is superb: every lacerating line counts and is usually imbued with venom. Films of plays can look static, but director Anthony Harvey opens things up with three introductory scenes outside the castle and then has his characters running around the spacious fortress. Music from John Barry aids the dramatic atmosphere.
The film received seven nominations for Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actress for Hepburn. But all the performances are impressive with O'Toole arguably giving his best after "Lawrence Of Arabia". Looking back on the movie now, it is interesting to see which of the five supporting actors went on to make a successful movie career (Hopkins and Dalton).
Any compilation of classic films has to include at least one Woody Allen movie and this one - which he directed and co-wrote and in which he appears in almost every scene - is one of his best works in a career spanning more than six decades and embracing more than 60 films. Like so many early Allen movies, this is located exclusively in central New York and indeed is a veritable homage to his home town being shot in black and white with a soundtrack from George Gershwin. Again like so many early Allen movies, the core of the narrative is the neuroses of the central character - essentially Allen himself - as explored through his relationships with women.
In "Manhattan", Isaac is a 42-year-old, twice-divorced, television comedy writer trying to make sense of relationships with his lesbian ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep with very long blonde hair, his 17 year old girlfriend, played quietly by Mariel Hemingway with her distinctive cheekbones and eyebrows, and his best friend's lover, played by big-haired klutzy Diane Keaton (Allen's partner shortly before the making of the film). Looking back at the movie almost 40 years after it was made, one notes how little other high-profile work Hemingway did, how brilliant and long-lasting a career Streep has had, and how the large age gap between Allen's character and his girlfriend seems to anticipate his subsequent relationship with Soon-Yi Previn where there is a 35 year difference.
Perhaps, above all, one enjoys and remembers "Manhattan" because of the witty and hilarious script - one of Allen's finest. Who else would write lines like this?: "No, I didn't read the piece on China's faceless masses, I was, I was checking out the lingerie ads." Or this?: "I dunno, I was just thinking. There must be something wrong with me, because I've never had a relationship with a woman that's lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun."
"A Matter Of Life And Death" (1946)
At the end of the Second World War, relations between the Americans and the British were a little strained as, in the run-up to D-Day, the yanks won local hearts while they were "overpaid, oversexed and over here" and a British Government department suggested the idea of a locally-made film to improve perceptions. Written, produced and directed by the quintessentially British Michael Powell and the Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger, the work may not have fully met its contemporary brief: British critics of the time thought the film was too pro-American and the Americans renamed the work "Stairway To Heaven" because they thought the word 'death' would kill its prospects. But the movie played well with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and it was so visually inventive and verbally clever that it has become a classic.
At the heart of the story is an inversion of the usual 'yank gets the girl' narrative, as RAF bomber pilot Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) wins the affection of American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) in record time and audacious circumstances as he is about to bale out without a parachute. That should be the end of the 'matter' but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) of "the other world" (the word 'heaven' is never used) fails to find his man in the Channel fog. So this is a romance - and a comedy - but it is also very political with some satirical analysis of contemporary Britain and America. The tribunal in the other world, pitting an American prosecuter (Raymond Massey) against the British defender (Roger Livesey), features critiques and characteriisations of both nations, not least in the choice of the members of the two juries.
The set designs - by German-born Alfred Junge - are simple but striking, especially the staircase to the other world and the scenes of that world, while there are a whole range of clever visual techniques, starting with the representation of earth in colour and the heavenly world in black & white and including the 'freezing' of 'real life' when Conductor 71 makes his earthly appearances and an amzing shot from an eyeball point of view. Even the statutes on the stairway are carefully chosen (all of the 17 famous personages named in Pressburger's copy of the script were believed to be sufferers of epilepsy). Indeed the whole film is constructed so that the viewer can interpret the story either as a real life medical phenomenon or as an obviously spiritual experience.
Most people will only have seen this film on television which is where I first encountered it. But, in December 2017, a digitally restored version was shown in British cinemas and I was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen as a Boxing Day treat. Seven decades on, the film still has resonance as a British Prince Harry wins the heart of the American actress Meghan Markle and the second jury - made up entirely of self-declared immigrants to the USA - reminds us that current US President Donald Trump does not represent the real America.
There must be something about me and doomed romances (see "Elivra Madigan"), because this is another true story of fated love, this time between the suave Omar Sharif as the Crown Prince Rudolf and the delectable Catherine Deneuve as the lowly Marie Vetsera. Set against the backdrop of student unrest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there is a real sense of the need for, and the resistance to, political change and James Mason and Ava Gardner are good as the Emperor and Empress. Like "Elvira Madigan", it ends with the soldier shooting his lover and then himself and, in this case, the attendant music by Katkachurian makes the conclusion especially dramatic.
After seeing the film, I visited Mayerling, the site of the hunting lodge outside Vienna where the lovers took their lives in 1889, but - such was the scandal at the time - the Emperor had the place destroyed immediately and Marie was buried in a commoners' cemetery, so there is actually nothing much to see.
"The Mission" (1986)
Rarely can a film have had a more spectacular setting: the thundering Iguassu Falls at the confluence of modern-day Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The time is 1750 and the Spanish and Portuguese Governments have set up a boundary commission to settle their imperialist interests in the region. In truth, it is part of an elaborate power conflict with the Jesuit order in Europe but, in the middle of it all, there are the trusting Indian communities of the Guarani (portrayed here by four communities of the Waunana people).
This a lavish production in the hands of a formidable team: director Roland Joffé ("The Killing Fields"), producers Fernando Ghia & David Puttnam, and director of photography Chris Menges. The screenplay is by Robert Bolt ("Lawrence Of Arabia") and the haunting pan pipe music is from Ennio Morricone. When I first saw the movie, I had some concern about the sparseness of the dialogue and the plot but, on the second viewing, I found this a strength rather than a weakness. Faith is represented by Jeremy Irons as the Jesuit leader Father Gabriel, while Force is personified by Robert de Niro as the mercenary turned penitent Rodigo Mendoza. But neither can save the Guarani.
Fifteen years after the release of "The Mission", I spent two days at Iguassu Falls and, throughout my time there, Morricone's theme music kept playing in my head.
"Monty Python's Life Of Brian" (1979)
Originally conceived as "Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory", this is the totally irreverent and incredibly funny take on Christianity - or at least Christians - that in Britain was campaigned against by the Festival of Light and banned by some local authorities and in Sweden was advertised as "So funny, it was banned in Norway". It was such an outrageous proposition that it was not easy to obtain funding. EMI pulled out when Bernard Delfont took offence and it was ex-Beatle George Harrison who came to the rescue with Handmade Films.
The wonderful script was written by all six members of Monty Python - Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin - each of whom took multiple roles in the movie, while Terry Jones was the director. There is even a tiny cameo from Spike Milligan who was in the area (Tunisia) during some of the 41-day shoot as he checked out Second World War battlefields. There are so many marvellously memorable scenes including a discussion on what the Romans did for Judea, the procedural antics of the revolutionaries, the allocations for crucifixion, and the crucifixion itself when the victims all sing "Always look on the bright side of life"!
"North By Northwest" (1959)
Any list of classic film has to include at least one directed by the British maestro Alfred Hitchcock. He made cameo appearances in 39 of his 52 surviving major films and, in this one, the trademark comes right at the beginning. Many of his movies involve fugitives on the run from the law alongside "icy blonde" female characters and, in this sense, "North By Northwest" is traditional Hitchcock, but what I particularly love about this work is that it's really a romantic comedy disguised as a political thriller.
Debonair Cary Grant - a Hitchcock favourite - is Roger Thornhill, a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for a government secret agent, and the beautiful blonde is Eve Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, a leading lady - in more than one sense of the adjective - whose role and motives are obscure. The film contains some classic scenes, notably the crop-spraying aircraft attack and the struggle on the Mount Rushmore monument. As well as Hitchcock's clever camera angles and sharp cutting, we have a delicious script from Ernest Lehman which ensures that the tension is regularly offset by witticisms.
"October 1917" (1928)
This is the black & white silent movie, written and directed by Grigoriy Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, which was produced to mark the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and covers the dramatic events of February to November 1917. Famously it was created on such a grand scale - many scenes were shot on the actual sites of the events portrayed and 11,000 extras were used for the storming of the Winter Palace - that there were more injuries in the making of the film than in the actual revolution.
If one does not know the details of the period and event, the narrative is a bit confusing and the messaging is simplistic and polemical, but this is a well-regarded classic because of the stunning cinematography with unusual angles, striking compositions and innovative use of montage plus the appearance of some wonderful faces. All the scenes involving Trotsky had to be cut out and Lenin has a surprisingly low profile, while Kerensky and Kornilov are vilified.
"The Outsiders" (1983)
After he had made the first two "Godfather" movies and "Apocalypse Now", Francis Ford Coppola directed this smaller film based on a novel of the same name by S. E. (Susan) Hinton who wrote the rites of passage work when she was just 16 based on her school experience. Hinton advised on the filming, contributed to the script, and has a cameo role as a nurse. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s, it examines the social divide between two teenage gangs from different sides of the railway tracks, the working class 'greasers' and the middle class 'socs', with the viewpoint being that of the 'greasers'. An outstanding feature of the film was the casting of a collection of young actors who went on to have distinguished movie careers. So there were major roles for C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio and Matt Dillon with support roles for Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane.
I saw the 2021 restored version - titled "The Outsiders: The Complete Novel" - at the British Film Institute when the screening was followed by a live interview online with the 82 year old director.
I suppose that any set of reviews of classic films should include a reference to Sweden's Ingmar Bergman and he both wrote and directed "Persona". This is a classic art house work: black & white, sub-titled, slow, and somewhere between totally opaque and utterly pretentious. Although the film is regarded by critics as a modernist masterpiece, this is not my sort of material at all. Essentially there are only two characters and, for all practical purposes, only one of them talks: the traumatised and silent actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) and her incessantly chatterng nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). The Latin word 'persona' means a mask worn by an actor and, in the course of the film, the masks of both women crack - but frankly I couldn't have cared less.
"Planet Of The Apes" (1968)
In the beginning, there was the French-language novel by Pierre Boulle (1963); then followed the original film in 1968 and between 1970 and 1973 no less than four sequels; there were two television series in 1974 and 1975 and various comics; a new version of the original film came along in 2001; and then ten years later we had a prequel which rebooted the franchise. So, although in cinematic terms the 1968 movie was nothing special, it has become a classic through the spawning of such an extensive and prolonged franchise.
I saw the film on its original release and revisited it 33 years later after seeing the prequel "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes". In a sense, it appears very dated with the costumes and sets looking very low-cost compared to today's blockbuster, special effects movies. On the other hand, the sheer audacity of the central proposition - apes rule the world - remains and the work raises some serious issues such as how we treat lower orders in the animal kingdom, how humankind seeks to balance creative and destructive inclinations, and how we are supposed to reconcile religion and science. And then, of course, there is that classic closing shot ...
"Queen Christina" (1933)
Any selection of classic films has to include at least one starring the magnificent Greta Garbo and this is my choice. Queen Christina of Sweden, played by Garbo of course, is due to marry Prince Charles (not the British heir to the throne!) but, disguised as a man, meets the Spanish Ambassador (John Gilbert) in a tavern and, once her gender but not her identity has been revealed, falls passionately in love with him. The outcome is tragic - as indeed it was for Gilbert in real life. Garbo insisted on her former lover playing opposite her, but he only made one other film before drinking himself to death. Some of the scenes in this movie have become classics: Garbo feeling every corner of the inn room so that she can remember where she fell in love and Garbo standing at the bow of the ship as she set sails with her lover's body.
"Raging Bull" (1980)
This film about the life of American middleweight boxer Jake La Motta is not easy viewing. We see the brutal 'sport' of boxing in all its bone-crunching, blood-splattering detail and La Motta was no Rocky - the fictional hero of the movie of just four years previously - but a foul-mouthed, wife-beating, sadomasochistic product of the rough Italian-American Bronx. That the movie is compulsively watchable is a triumph for Robert de Niro who gives an utterly brilliant performance that rightly won him an Academy Award. He totally inhabits the role, whether it is as the lean, fist-throwing fighting machine in one title bout after another or as the washed-up, pot-bellied nightclub 'entertainer' of later years (for which de Niro put on an incredible 60 lb).
Indeed this is a work in black & white which would never have seen the light of day but for de Niro. It was he who discovered the as-told-to autobiography of La Motta and persuaded director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader - both of whom were collobrators on "Taxi Driver" - to come on board for a film that initially achieved disappointing box office returns and mixed reviews only to grow in stature as the years passed, so that it is now widely held to be among the very best work of both de Niro and Scorsese and a true classic.
"Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981)
Although it now looks rather silly in parts (how does the hero survive on that submarine?), at the time this was tongue-in-cheek action-adventure at its very best. From the exciting opening, it is a rollercoaster of almost non-stop thrills and spills with some slithery and gory bits to make you wince and plenty of wry humour. The combination of director Steven Spielberg ("Jaws") and co-writer George Lukas ("Star Wars") proved to be a winning team and Harrison Ford seemed made to be Indiana Jones with his trademark hat, leather jacket, bull-whip and nonchalant style. Ronald Lacey is splendid in a cameo as a cruel Nazi, but the winsome Karen Allen - who spends most of her time in virginal white outfits - never again achieved such a high-profile role. My favourite scene is when, faced with a huge sword-wielding Arab, Jones casually removes his pistol and simply shoots him.
Following the great success of the movie, we had "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom" (1984) and "Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade" (1989). Amazingly, after such a long interval, a fourth outing came with "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull" (2008).
"In 1981's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', Harrison Ford is being chased through the casbah by a succession of increasingly threatening characters. He ends up confronting a huge Arab warrior wielding a scimitar above his head. The original idea was that Ford would defeat the man in a bullwhip-versus-scimitar fight that would have taken three days to shoot. The temperature in Tunisia at the time was 130F and Ford had been suffering from dysentery. The actor persuaded director Spielberg to resolve the fight more quickly as follows: "Why don't I just shoot the son of a bitch?" he suggested. They tried it with Ford looking at the man and then unexpectedly - with a look of infinite weariness - pulling a gun and shooting him. It still gets the biggest laugh in the film."
Source: "The Secret History of Entertainment" by David Hepworth
This is not a film that would ever attract a mainstream Western audience: it is in Japanese with sub-titles, it runs to 2 hours 42 minutes, and it is a variation of the storyline of Shakespeare's "King Lear". Yet, for serious fans of cinema, this is truly a classic. It was directed by the acclaimed Akira Kurosawa who made such outstanding films as "Seven Samurai" and was in his mid 70s when he shot this work. The title "Ran" is Japanese for "chaos", but can also be translated as "confused" or "disturbed". and the characters show all these attributes in a multi-layered narrative.
The king-like character in 16th century Japan is Lord Hidetora (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) and, instead of Shakespeare's three daughters achieving catharsis, we have three sons seeking power and revenge with - in one case - the support of a daughter-in-law of the Lord who rivals Lady Macbeth for her cruelty (Mikeo Harada is the striking actress). The film begins with some long, brooding sequences but later we have some wonderfully choreographed battle scenes with horses and arrows aplenty. The cinematography is breathtaking but the suffering is acute - as one character puts it: "Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies."
"Red River" (1948)
Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, this classic western - shot in black and white - is the story of a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail and includes a series of memorable scenes created with Hawks' famous eye-level shooting including the river crossing, the stampede, and the Indian attack. More than 5,000 head of cattle were hired for a work which today would use special effects.
It is a western version of the road movie with the central theme being the evolving relationship between the owner of the cattle, Tom Dunstan (John Wayne), and his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). Dunstan is an increasingly driven and ruthless leader which eventually leads to a revolt with echoes of "Mutiny On The Bounty".
For two hours, this is a wonderful film but then the last five minutes spoils it with a magical character transformation that - unlike that of the other John Wayne western "The Searchers" - simply does not work. Borden Chase, who wrote the original story on which the film is based and the screenplay for the movie itself, wanted to use his own ending, a dark but convincing finale; however, Hawks was not prepared to Wayne die, leaving us with a flawed classic.
"Rio Bravo" (1959)
Director Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne made five filns together, all but one of them westerns. To call "Rio Bravo" a western, however, is an oversimplification: as well as many of the classic comboy tropes, this is a film with elements of humour, romance and musical and, above all, a study of characters locked down together and changing each other.
Wayne is John T Chance, the tall, loping, laconic sheriff of a small town in Texas who is holding a criminal in his jail while the murder's brother recruits a bunch of no-gooders to free his sibling. Unlike the sheriff in "High Noon", John T does find people who, in their own time and their own way, come to assist him, whether it is a recovering drunk (Dean Martin), a young hot-shot (Ricky Nelson), an aged cripple (Walter Brennan) or a 'tart with a heart' (Angie Dickinson).
I prefer the earlier Hawks/Wayne collaboration of "Red River", but "Rio Bravo" is a classic in its own right and its siege scenario has inspired many more modern dramas.
This is the film that (unexpectedly) made Sylvester Stallone - who wrote the script and insisted on taking the eponymous role - and (as unexpectedly) turned out to be the creation of a franchise spanning no less than seven movies over an incredible four decades.
The prospects must have looked distinctly doubtful: Stallone had only acted in a few small films and had no muscle in Hollywood and a mumbled delivery of his lines, while boxing is not exactly an attractive sport outside its fans and the idea of an indifferent boxer taking on a world champion must have seemed far-fetched.
Yet audiences love an underdog and Stallone made the boxing the climax and not the core of the movie, taking quite some time to delineate his characters, notably Rocky Balboa himself, the inarticulate and socially-awkward Philadelphia pugilist. The training scenes - bashing frozen meat, doing one-armed press-ups and racing up the 68 steps of Philadelphia's Museum of Art - and the rousing score can not fail to stir the blood and excite the spirit.
No collection of movie classics would be complete without at least a couple of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. "Rope" was his first colour film. It is derived from the play by Patrick Hamilton, based on the notorious murder case involving Chicago University students Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb, and looks rather like a play being set entirely in a New York apartment and seemingly shot in a continuous take in apparent real time (actually there were 10 takes but they are cleverly stitched together).
John Dall and Farley Granger play two bachelors, Brandon and Phillip, living together (hints of homosexuality as with scriptwriter Arthur Laurents) who think they have committed the perfect murder for no obvious reason except the thrill and a sense of social superiority, while Hitchcock favourite James Stewart is somewhat miscast as Rupert, their former professor whose ideas seemingly inspire the murder but who is shocked when his strange notions are taken literally. The loaded dialogue involves both psychological drama and black humour, but the rather wooden acting is a constant reminder of the theatrical nature of the source material.
"Seven Samurai" (1954)
This Japanese film is for many one of the very best movies not made in the English language and certainly one of the most outstanding works by the great director Akira Kurosawa. Set in 16th century Japan, it tells the tale of farmers who are brought close to starvation by the repeated raids of bandits who take all their produce and decide to engage the services of a disparate group of samurai warriors with Takashi Shijmura in the leading tole. This black & white work is a masterclass in cinematography and linear storytelling: the plight of the farmers, the recruitment of the samurai, the preparation for resistance, and a battle of attrition. It is a classic action/adventure movie but with elements of social comment, some humour, and even a romance.
Kurosawa takes his time to tell the story and, in the uncut version, the film runs to just three minutes short of three and a half hours (when shown in the cinema, there is an intermission). Apparently the Japanese director was inspired by the westerns of John Ford and, in turn, "Seven Samurai" was remade by Hollywood as "The Magnificent Seven" in 1960 and again in 2016.
"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
The most memorable movies are those that tell a compelling story and this movie, based on a short story by acclaimed novelist Stephen King, is in effect a parable for our times. It tells of the two decades spent at Shawshank Prison by young banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted for the murder of his wife and secret lover, and the even longer period endured there by his friend prison 'fixer' Red (Morgan Freeman who has a major narrator role). It is a tale of friendship and hope and of brutality and survival. It shows how a task - whether carving a chess set or studying for an exam - can keep one alive and how music and books can free a man's soul.
The acting by Robbins and Freeman is first class with support roles - notably Bob Gunton as the prison warden - equally powerful. Scene after scene is a classic with the playing of Mozart's "Marriage Of Figaro" and Dufresne's escape in the rain especially burnt on the mind. Line after line is sharp and memorable. Red insists that "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." but Andy argues that he must "Get busy living, or get busy dying".
In a coda, Red explains: "In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved Geology, I guess it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes really, pressure, and time."
The whole thing is a triumph of writing and directing by Frank Darabont in his feature film directorial debut.
"The Shop Around The Corner" (1940)
Produced and directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, this is a charming romantic comedy - but with an edge as it underlines the insecurity of work in the Depression. The set-up is two colleagues in a Budapest shop - Alfred Krali (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) - who do not get along at all at work but, initially unknown to both, strike up a meaningful friendship through corresponding anonymously. The film is very static in its settings with only three scenes away from the shop, betraying its origin as a play by Nikolaus Laszlo, but this enables us to focus on the eight people who work at the titular Matuschek and Co. In 1998, the story was updated for the digital age with "You've Got Mail".
The brilliant director Stanley Kubrick made this moving account of a revolt by the slaves of Ancient Rome. There are some very obvious stage shots, but there is a brilliant battle sequence (staged with 5,000 Spanish soldiers) and it is altogether an epic with intelligence and even a 'socialist' message. The scene where slave after slave cries "I'm Spartacus!" to save the life of their defeated leader is one to remember and I cried at the death of Antonius (Tony Curtis) and the crucifixion of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). In 1991, a restored version was issued with an extra 12 minutes making it 197 minutes. The new scenes include a suggestion that Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is homosexual - a discussion of oysters and snails - and a bit more blood and gore.
A remarkable feature of this film and an explanation for the revolutionary theme is that the scriptwriter was Dalton Trumbo who had been blacklisted by Hollywood following his imprisonment when he appeared before the US Congress House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and refused to testify against his colleagues.
"Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" (1978)
In a time long, long ago - actually 28 March 1978 when I was aged 29 - I was first introduced to the film franchise that would change my cinema-going experience for ever and that would become the most successful series in the history of the movies. At that time called simply "Star Wars", I was hooked from the opening seconds: written and directed by George Lucas who is only four years older than me, I immediately loved the slanting text that reminded me of Saturday serials of my youth; the triumphant music of John Williams grabbed the attention and raised the spirits; and then instantly we were into the action - a spaceship being pursued by another that grew larger and larger and even larger. Wow!
The cast of characters were soon to become iconic: damsel in distress Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the unlikely hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), bravado pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick the Wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Jedi master Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the (really) bad guys Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the black-clad and -cloaked Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse and the voice of James Earl Jones) plus the Laurel & Hardy of the droid world R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). As if these marvellous characters were not enough, we had some wonderful hardware ranging from light sabres to the Death Star and including the Millennium Falcon and those X-wing fighters.
I loved the film so much that, as soon as I could (he was just two and half years old), I took my son to see it, starting a family tradition of viewing each new "Star Wars" movie as it was released. I have now seen the original movie six times over the years - plus every other film in the franchise.
There is a sense in which any film directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a classic but this is one of his lesser-known works. Set in upper-class, rural England, it stars the beautiful Joan Fontaine as Lina, an unworldly young woman who falls immediately and madly in love with a known scoundrel and manipulator called Johnny, played against type by the charming Cary Grant. The stage sets are utterly obvious, much of the dialogue is very stilted, and the occasions of suspicion are highlighted with no subtlety, but Hitchcock manages to create a dramatic sense of anxiety, not least from repeated use of shadow lines on white floors and ceilings, evoking a spider's web of deceit and entrapment.
The problem with this film is the ambiguous and unsatisfactory ending which is much less dark than that in the original novel and Hitchcock's plans for the work, but the studio RKO could not tolerate its star actor Grant being portrayed too far outside the usual moral range of his roles.
"The 39 Steps" (1935)
Although Alfred Hitchcock had already directed 18 films, this is the first of his classics. It introduced a recurrent theme of Hitchcock's work: the wrong man, the innocent bystander who becomes caught up in some nefarious activity. In this case, Richard Hanny (Robert Donay) is a Canadian on holiday in London who stumbles upon a spy ring and eventually finds himself handcuffed to an unwilling female accomplice (Madeleine Carroll as the traditional Hitchcock blonde). It is an episodic thriller with lots of chases but there are elements of humour and even romance.
What are the 39 Steps? In this film version of the John Buchan novel, the viewer doesn't learn the meaning of the phrase until the very end but really it doesn't matter. The film contains a common Hitchcockian trope of a MacGuffin (a plot device which is vital to the story, but irrelevant to the audience) - in this case, the designs for a secret silent aeroplane engine. Just enjoy the ride.
"Throne Of Blood" (1957)
Directed, co-produced and co-written by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, this is a version of Shakespeare's tragic play "Macbeth" set in medieval Japan. There is no attempt to replicate the text of the play but the plot and the themes will be very familiar to any follower of the Bard's work. The location for the filming was the fog-strewn slopes of Mount Fuji and this is a dark work in every sense. It is also a very Japanese production with the deliberate use of elements of the traditional style of theatre known as Noh. In the leading role, bewitched and bewildered General Washizu (that is, Macbeth), we have Kurosawa's favourite actor Toshiro Mifune and his death scene - impalled by endless arrows - is one of the classics of Japanese cinema.
"To Kill A Mockingbird" (1962)
The only novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Harper Lee - which I have read - was published in 1960 and two years later this sensitive film adaptation was released. The movie does not look like something produced in the same year as the epic "Lawrence Of Arabia"; instead it appears as if it was made around the period that it portrays (1930s) with a simple style and in black and white.
Two features in particular make the work stand out as a classic. First is the compelling narrative: the blatant racism of the Deep South during the Depression contrasted with the nobility of the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch who has become one of the most inspiring of all fictional characters. Second is the brilliant casting, most notably Oscar-winning Gregory Peck as the archetypal decent man and nine year old Alabaman Mary Badham as his daughter Scout through whose eyes the story is told (look out for a cameo role for the later to be famous Robert Duvall).
"Top Hat" (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers made many enjoyable musicals together in the 1930s but many consider "Top Hat" to be their finest on-screen collaboration. The plot - centred around a case of mistaken identity - is rather silly and played as a screwball comedy, but the dancing and singing are divine. Astaire shines in the solo eponymous number while "Isn't It a Lovely Day?" and "Cheek To Cheek" are simply delightful. The lyrics and music were by irving Berlin and the magnificent gowns from Bernard Newman.
"12 Angry Men" (1957)
If this American film on the jury system were made today, all of the dozen jury members would not be male and white, but the work remains a classic because it is so well written and acted and because its messages remain so resonant: the majority is not always right, discussion can change minds, and - more specifically - in a criminal trial, where there is a reasonable doubt, the defendant must be acquitted.
Reginald Rose originally wrote this as a television play but Henry Fonda was so impressed that he put his own money into producing the film and took the lead role. Except for very brief scenes at the beginning and end, all the action - shot in black and white with Fonda's character the only jurist in a white suit - takes place in the confines of a hot, sweaty and claustrophobic jury room and the story is told in more-or-less real time. In his first such role, it was directed by Sidney Lumet whose earlier work in television gave him experience of shooting in black and white and in restricted spaces.
Each member of the ensemble cast is given an opportunity to make his mark and, in a taut hour and a half, we see how everyone brings his background, his life experience, and his prejudices (especially of class and race) to the formation of opinions and the making of decisions.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
Directed, produced and co-written by the auteur Stanley Kubrick and five years in the making, this is a true film classic. The brilliant Kubrick created a number of classics in different genres and this science fiction work is among the very best in the genre. I have seen it four times now: the first on its original release at the cinema and the last as part of a Kubrick season at the British Film Institute half a century after its initial release.
"2001" is a long work: two and a half hours. And it is a slow production with long stretches - starting with the first half hour at the Dawn of Man - featuring no dialogue. There are a limited number of characters, most of whom are somewhat robotic, and one of the ironies of the film is that the computer HAL 9000 in some respects comes over as the most human character in the story.
Yet the film is never less than mesmerising. Visually it is one of the most stunning cinematic works ever made with scene after scene beautifully composed like a painting or photograph with tremendous use of colour. Aurally it is one of the most memorable movies ever released with dramatic use of classical music from Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss plus modern sound from Aram Khachaturyan and Görgy Ligeti. Philosphically it is one of the most challenging - and opague - films in mainstream cinema: what are those four black monoliths and who is that star-child at the end?
The work started as a novella called "The Sentinel" by Arthur C Clarke who co-wrote the script for the film with Kubrick. Clarke subsequently wrote a series of four linked novels: "2001", "2010", "2061" and "3001", all of which I have read amd which provide an more intelligible interpretation of Kubrick's film.
"The Untouchables" (1987)
It opens with a terrific Dolby stereo version of Ennio Morricone's gripping incidental music. From the beginning, the camerawork is inventive: high shots, low shots, revolving shots. We are in Chicago in 1931 for a gangster movie starring newcomer Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and magnificent Robert de Niro as Al Capone. In fact, all the performances are excellent, with Sean Connery particularly engaging as an Irish cop (with a Scottish accent!).
The director is Brian De Palma ("Scarface") and he produces a stylish and exciting film with memorable lines and some dramatic and bloody scenes, including the death of the Connery character as we hear the opera "Pagliacci" and a sequence on the railway station steps that is borrowed from "Battleship Potemkin". As a gangster movie, it does not have the realism and depth of that all-time great "The Godfather" but, in its own way, it is most effective with pace, power, tension and humour. It is a classic of the genre.
No collection of movie classics would be complete without at least a couple of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. "Vertigo" was made at the height of his success, but it was not well-received at the time and only later judged to be one of the Master's greatest works. Based on a French novel, it is a psychological thriller with an odd, unsettling feel, starring James Stewart (far too old for the role) as the recently retired San Francisco policeman John "Scottie" Ferguson who has the eponymous fear of heights and Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster who appears to be either mentally ill or spiritually possessed.
After an attention-grabbing opening chase sequence on the city's roof tops, the first half of the movie is a slow series of scenes in which the private eye follows the mysterious blonde in a narrative that becomes increasingly bizarre. Suddenly the work changes tack and gear and gradually the first segment is explained but in terms which are deeply disturbing. As well as a jarring sound track, Hitchcock uses a variety of cinematic techniques to throw the viewer off balance including the invention of a technical trick involving simultaneous zoom-in and track-back to convey the sense of vertigo.
"When Harry Met Sally ..." (1989)
I'm a sucker for romantic comedies and this is one of my all-time favourites. It poses the question: 'Can men and women be just friends or does sex always get in the way?' Over an 11 year period, Harry Burns and Sally Albright wrestle with this dilemma, but we know that there can only be one answer. Harry is Billy Crystal, the mild depressive who reminds me so much of one of my closest friends, while anally retentive Sally is Meg Ryan for whom the word 'cute' was probably invented.
Rob Reiner directs this film with wonderful seasonal shots of New York (the early one of the World Trade Center through the Washington Arch now has a special poignancy) and there is a marvellous soundtrack based on the mellow singing of Harry Connick Jr. The greatest strength of this comedic triumph, however, is the cracking script from Nora Ephron. Every line is measured and there is just so much social observation mixed with great wit, while the 'fake orgasm scene' is simply a cinematic classic. Ephron based the Harry character on womanising Reiner and the Sally character reflects her own compulsive personality.
"The Wild Bunch" (1969)
1969 was a good year for westerns, seeing both George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch". Indeed there are some similar scenes in the two movies - pursuit by mercenaries, train sequence and final hopeless shoot-out - but, for me, this is the classic. We had to wait until 1995 for the complete 145-minute director's cut and, by then, the cinematic violence of the intervening years had 'softened' the impact of the final balletic carnage but, when the film was first released, the effect was simply stunning.
Set in 1913, this is an elegiac work showing the demise of the old ways and the old values. My favourite sequence is when the four Americans - played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Edmond O'Brien - stride out to face the Mexican revolutionaries who are holding their young comrade, knowing that it is the last act that they will perform but determined to die with honour.
Set in mid 19th century Japan, this is a story of how a wandering ronin comes across a town being torn apart by two violent gangs. The word 'yojimbo' means bodyguard in Japanese and the samurai offers his services to both sides and proceeds to play off one against the other. The great Akira Kurosawa created the story, co-wrote the script, and directed the film. If the plot sounds familiar, that is because - like Kurosawa's earlier work "Seven Samurai" - the film was remade in the West as a western, in this case as "A Fistful Of Dollars" directed by Sergio Leone with an almost scene-for-scene reproduction. The original is classic Kurosawa: his favourite lead actor (Toshiro Mifune), a historical setting, lots of darkness and shadows, and a role for the weather (in this case, the wind).
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 2 March 2022
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