The Asphalt Jungle
Witness for the Prosecution
The Bad Seed
Dressed to Kill (1946)
Night of the Hunter
To Kill a Mockingbird
Suddenly, Last Summer
Lawrence of Arabia
The Long Hot Summer
Everybody loves surveys. Lately Facebook friends have been asking each other, “What movies stick with you? You have 15 minutes to come up with your top 15.” My friends’ lists are astonishingly different. I had no idea “Heidi” was Bec’s favorite movie, or that Drake was a big Dustin Hoffman fan—he’s put “Midnight Cowboy” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” on his top 15. But then I found out that “Heidi” was not at the top of Bec’s love- it-seen-it-a-hundred-times list. She just can’t forget the scene where Klara gets out of her chair and walks. And Drake being a fan of Dustin Hoffman? Not really. “Midnight Cowboy” was the first truly adult movie he saw, and “Kramer” came out when he was fighting his ex for custody of their children.
A movie sticks with you for a variety of reasons. It could be that it is visually stunning, like “Lawrence of Arabia.” Or a character like Boo Radley (and Robert Duvall’s performance) in “To Kill a Mockingbird” just won’t let go. Or you shudder every time you think of the look on Olivia deHaviland’s face as she walks up the stairs in “The Heiress.”
I see patterns in my list. Two-thirds are mysteries, and most involve violent crime. At least 11 were based on books or plays. Twelve are in black and white. I saw 14 out of the 15 as a child. I have good taste—most won or were nominated for Academy Awards.
Of all the original and striking aspects of “Citizen Kane”—directing, innovative camera action, cutting, translating such huge stage and radio talent to the screen, rich development of complicated characters—my favorite is Welles’s narrative choice. The way he chose to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane—stories within stories--is so much more than a series of flashbacks. The only movie that comes close to it is “Memento.” A faceless reporter goes on a quest to discover the meaning of a rich and powerful man’s last words. It’s a mystery that the people closest to Kane and the reporter himself never figure out. But the filmmaker gives us the answer. When Welles reveals the secret to us we feel an enormous sense of satisfaction because not only is the mystery solved for us, it is a secret we share with the story-teller.
When I first saw “The Asphalt Jungle” I prayed that gut-shot Dix, played by Sterling Hayden, would make it home to the bluegrass fields of Kentucky and I was sick to my stomach when he didn’t. This was probably the first time I was rooting for a hero, someone I’d come to care about even if he was a criminal, who didn’t win. This was a new experience for me. Did I make a poor moral choice? Why was I attracted to this character? A lot of questions for an eight-year-old.
I cut my teeth on courtroom dramas with one of the best--“Witness for the Prosecution.” Her performance as Christine Vole is arguably Dietrich’s best. And there’s not just one twist at the end but two. Plus, who can forget Janet McKenzie on the witness stand?
Just about any Sherlock Holmes movie starring Basil Rathbone could be on my list. I chose “Dressed to Kill,” the one about music boxes, because I am fascinated by how music can be a clue to solving a mystery. Standard forensic tools—magnifying glasses, sniffing dogs, autopsies, microscopes--are irrelevant. It is Holmes the musician who observes the differences among the variations of the tune and in fact Watson who figures out their relevance. (And Holmes gives him credit.) Adding to the suspense is that a group of very smart and ruthless crooks—the murder of Watson’s old chum Stinky is unforgivable—is following the same clues.
“Night of the Hunter” is not only one of the most visually stunning films ever made, it features one of the creepiest characters ever imagined. The fact that a sociopath hiding behind the collar of a preacher could fool so many salt-of-the-earth people for so long scared the hell out of me. It still does. How can anything be amiss with someone who brings so many souls to Jesus? Movies like this are dangerous—they make you start questioning social institutions and wondering about the hypocrisy you see around you.
Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was one of my first exposures to a sociopathic personality. More than one person in my family had been treated for neurosis, so the idea that there are genetic tendencies toward mental illness already worried me. Plus Rhoda was female. And a child. Could my parents see that movie and decide I wasn’t so bad in comparison?
The most startling feature of “Psycho” is not that the heroine meets a violent end early in the film, but that Hitchcock and Perkins make the killer so sympathetic. We are morally outraged by murder and want to see justice for Marion Crane, but we’re fascinated by Norman and want to understand him, and at least a small part of us wants him to succeed. We enjoy this internal conflict and seek it by watching the movie again and again. Plus, this film addresses a seldom-treated aspect of murder. The clean-up. Could we do as well, covering up for our own mothers?
“Dr. Strangelove” demonstrated the power of film to me. I was indoctrinated to believe that détente with the Ruskies was tantamount to worshipping Satan and that the U.S. was justified any time it dropped any bombs on anyone, and right here in the living room my parents were laughing at this movie. How did the filmmaker make these bomb-shelter-building ultra-conservatives forget their belief system and relish the humor of a horrifying scenario they swore could never happen?
“Suddenly, Last Summer,” fascinated me because I found myself able to understand the action from metaphor and implication. Williams deals with such taboo themes as the Oedipal complex, homosexuality, and cannibalism without overtly referring to any of them. This subtlety was thrilling for me as a teenager, intellectually and artistically. It was also stimulating that the action revolves around a character who has been dead for months and whose violent end is not only incomprehensible in its ferocity and unfairness, it can not possibly be avenged. Catherine’s reveal is a triple-whammy—it lets everyone know how Sebastian died, it saves her from the nut house and sends the one who wanted to put her there into it. Wow.
In the hands of another filmmaker “Jaws” would have been a good action movie, but Spielberg’s direction elevates it to classic status. The directorial choices he makes are spot-on. He communicates layers of story visually, the actors inhabit their roles effortlessly, and the action and dialog ring true. Add superlative editing by Verna Fields and the most appropriate score imaginable by John Williams, and you have a primer for any aspiring director on how to make a classic.
Movies allowed me to glimpse romances that were different from my parents’, and I paid particular attention when it was obvious on screen that two actors were in love in real life. The 50-year romance Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward began during the filming of “The Long Hot Summer” translated to the screen, and as I watched them spark and spar as Ben Quick and Clara Varner, I wondered, “Is this what falling in love is?”
Real-life partners Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play husband and wife attorneys in “Adam’s Rib,” and their off-screen intimacy translates to the screen as well. In the play, written by real-life husband and wife Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the characters maintain their intellectual integrity, moral idealism, and the sanctity of their marriage while fighting on opposite sides of an ethical and legal issue. This was a very exciting version of the institution of marriage that I wasn’t certain would work in real life. I found out it is quite possible, going on forty years now.
I see deeper patterns here than the ones I stated up front. Yes, I have chosen movies that revolve around crime and murder, revenge and obsession, sociopathy and mental illness. Even the comedies feature major felonies. But the larger pattern is that all these movies are masterpieces of story-telling--the filmmakers chose exciting, novel ways to deliver the action. And as a story-teller, that’s what impresses and interests me the most.