8.25.2006

The MediaLog Movies 100: The 30s

Welcome to the latest installment of "The MediaLog Movies 100," my countdown of the hundred most influential movies in my life. These are not my favorite movies (necessarily) or what I think are the "greatest" movies of all time. They are movies that made an impact on me and my cinematic sensibilities, tempered by considerations of the traditional film "canon" and the conventional wisdom regarding what are the all-time "best" movies.

The "Movies 100" is not a film by film ranking in precise order, but rather groupings of ten films which have no additional discrimination within each group. Today's installment is the 30s, or films #31-40. The films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, and in the case of foreign films, the country of origin (and English translation where applicable), in parentheses after the title, with the film's director listed after that. This is followed by a brief annotation on the film.

The remainder of the "Movies 100," including the highly anticipated Top Ten, will appear soon, so stay tuned to the MediaLog, and feel free (please!) to make comments on the countdown and the films in it.

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The MediaLog Movies 100: The 30s


The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder. I've only just realized that this is the fourth Wilder film in the "Movies 100" (after Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot). Although I've always liked him, I've never considered him to be one of my very favorite directors; I guess in light of his showing in the countdown, though, I should reconsider that preference. The Apartment is a great film about the "grey flannel suit" set of the 1950s and the corporate, "organization man" culture of the post-WWII era. Jack Lemmon (a Wilder regular) stars as a mid-level paper pusher who, in an attempt to curry favor with his superiors, allows them (particularly Fred MacMurray--another Wilder regular) to use his apartment as a rendezvous point for their extramarital trysts. Lemmon becomes enamored in a strictly chaste way with one of MacMurray's girlfriends, a young kewpie-doll cute Shirley MacLaine (in a star-making portrayal), who is the elevator operator in their office buliding. Hilarity and poignancy ensue when Lemmon takes care of an accidentally overdosed MacLaine in his apartment while his bosses wish to continue using it for their assignations.

The Birds (1963) Alfred Hitchcock. I did know that several Hitchcock films were in the countdown, as this legendary director made so many truly masterful films, and I was exposed to them very early in my cinematic tutelage (many in the first film course I ever took, in fact). Although this one is often discounted in light of his other, more prominent masterpieces, I think it is underrated. Flocks of randomly attacking birds of all kinds descend on the northern California sea village of Bodega Bay, where Tippi Hedren has impulsively followed Rod Taylor after a chance flirtatious encounter in, of all places, a pet shop selling birds. Jessica Tandy plays Taylor's mother, and the three of them, along with Taylor's young sister, end up trapped in their farm home during the feathered siege. The attacks by the birds are truly frightening, as they ambush Hedren while using a telephone booth, indirectly cause spilled gas to erupt in an explosion, chase scared schoolchildren, and nearly peck through the roof and doors of Taylor and Tandy's home. The most terrifying thing about The Birds is the fact that all of the attacks are inexplicable, with no discernible reasons or motivation or impetus. The creation of this kind of cinematic terror is the mark of a great director.

Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski. Another of Jack Nicholson's greatest roles, private detective Jake Gittes in Chinatown has become one of the legendary characters of cinema. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown is a story of the corruption and back-channel dealing that resulted in modern-day L.A. This dealing relates to the diversion of water to the arid L.A. basin so that it would be fertile enough and have enough municipal water to prosper. It doesn't sound like a real thrilling tale, but Polanski's direction (in a latter-day film noir style), the performances (in addition to Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston in co-starring roles), and the exquisite screenplay by Robert Towne make it into an absolutely compelling film. The film has restricted narration, which means that we as viewers only know what Gittes knows, and at times, that's not a whole lot since he is, throughout most of the film, a little clueless as to the true magnitude and import of what he has gotten himself into. In true noir form, Dunaway serves as an excellent femme fatale, there are healthy doses of double-crossing all around, and the L.A. landscape provides for some really nice imagery. Added to all this, Chinatown ends with a twist impossible in the original noir era and suitable to the "New Hollywood" era of the 1970s.

City Lights (1931) Charles Chaplin. Chaplin famously disregarded the transition from silent to sound cinema and kept making films starring his mute Tramp for a decade after silent film had become obsolete. He did succumb to the nonverbal elements made possible by sync sound, though, and this film was his first utilizing recorded music and sound effects, even if it still contained no dialogue. For example, in the film's opening scene the Tramp is snoozing unsuspected under the tarp that covers a statue only to be rudely waked up (and discovered) when the statue is unveiled; the pontificating officials who are speaking are not heard uttering speech but rather a "wah-wah" kind of nonspeech sound effect not unlike that which would later be used for the voices of adults in the "Peanuts" cartoons. In addition, Chaplin, who was also a composer, created the original score for City Lights, as he did for nearly all of his subsequent films. The film is one of the most poignant of all that the Tramp appeared in. At the beginning, he is, well, a tramp, and he encounters a beautiful blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who is selling flowers on a street corner. Since she is blind, she can't see that the Tramp is a tramp, and mistakes him for a rich man who has bought some of her flowers. The Tramp perpetuates the misidentification because he enjoys her attention, and she further responds to the kindness and compassion he shows her. They develop a kind of platonic yet, for the Tramp, courting relationship, until she has surgery to correct her eyesight. The final scene, in which she discovers the true identity of the Tramp, is one of the most touching and genuinely heartfelt of any movie I have ever seen.

Grease (1978) Randal Kleiser. This 1950s nostalgia musical is truly one of the formative movies in my life. It came out when I was in first or second grade, and I would argue that it had as much impact on me as Star Wars did on me and others of my generation. Part of the reason for this is that it was one of the few times my family ever went to see a movie in a drive-in. As the perfect viewing environment for a film about '50s teenagers (that has one key scene that takes place at a drive-in), Grease made a strong impression. Helping out was the fact that my parents bought the soundtrack album (on vinyl, natch) shortly after. The remainder of my childhood had occasions when my sister and I would put Grease on the turntable and I would replay the movie in my head as the record spun, aided by the still photos on the double gatefold record sleeve. On at least one other occasion, the neighborhood boys and I dressed up in our jeans and white t-shirts and mimiced the choreography to "Greased Lightnin." I saw the film again for the first time in years on its 20th anniversary re-release in 1998, and I was delighted at how well it held up and surprised at the sexual content that I, of course, didn't get at age eight. John Travolta is Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John is Sandy, a teenage couple who has had a special summer romance, but is having a hard time now that school has started again. Zuko has his gang, the Thunderbirds, Sandy falls in with a group of girls called the Pink Ladies, and the two groups of kids enjoy hi-jinks, hot rod races, homecoming, and a graduation party with a full-fledged carnival that totally ruined me for high school when I found out that most schools didn't have one just like it.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Curtis Hanson. It's coincidental that this Los Angeles period piece appears in the same tier of the "Movies 100" as Chinatown, but its no coincidence that L.A. Confidential is almost as good. Set in the early-1950s instead of the 1930s, Confidential is a monument to the tabloid excesses of its late-studio, early-TV, scandal-sheet era. Guy Pearce (as Ed Exley) and Russell Crowe (as Bud White) appear in star-making turns as a pair of L.A. detectives who attempt to solve an intricate set of crimes that involve pornography, prostitution, racketeering, mob executions, police corruption, and the seemingly glamourous patina of Hollywood that envelopes all of it. The remaining cast is a sparkling ensemble: James Cromwell is their police captain, Dudley Smith; Kim Basinger (in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winning role) is Lynn Bracken, the Veronica Lake lookalike call girl that both Exley and White have affairs with; Kevin Spacey is fellow detective Jack Vincennes, a dapper dick who serves as "adviser" to a "Dragnet"-like TV series called "Badge of Honor"; and Danny DeVito is Sid Hudgens, the editor of a smarmy tabloid called "Hush-Hush" who puts most of the cops on the take in exchange for juicy info and photo ops. Hanson's direction of his and Brian Helgeland's script based on James Ellroy's novel provides a fascinating look into the seamy underside of the movie colony and its Southern California setting. I had the opportunity to meet Ellroy when the movie came out and he (an L.A. native, but now living in Kansas City) was a guest in a film course that I was helping to teach. His view into the world of L.A. Confidential (found also in his novel The Black Dahlia and memoir My Dark Places) is something to behold.

Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock. There's no problem with this Hitchcock film being underrated; if I had to pick his best film, this might be it. Shot on the cheap with equipment and personnel from his TV series, this thriller is nonetheless one of film history's greatest, and marks a number of formal and industrial breakthroughs as well. To begin with, there is the murder of the main character about one-third into the film--something unheard of before Psycho (and not common since). It is also basically the grandfather of every slasher film that has followed. Industry-wise, it opened the door for films to be more daring in their portrayal of sex and violence, and the films and directors of the late-1960s "New Hollywood" movement would strut right through that door. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary who has noontime trysts with her boyfriend and goes on the lam after she pilfers a pile of money from her boss. She ends up at the secluded Bates Motel, welcomed by caretaker Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is awfully lonely and wants something to distract him from his overbearing live-in mother. Marion provides quite a distraction, and the ensuing legendary "shower scene" is, like the "Odessa Steps" sequence in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (in the 40s in the "Movies 100"), a textbook example of editing technique (not to mention the source of many an anxiety about taking showers).

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Frank Darabont. This film started out as a low-profile character study starring Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as "Red" Redding and directed by the then-unknown Darabont. Once available on video, Shawshank took on a life of its own, finding a large cult audience and benefitting from the growing Internet fanbase, which currently ranks the film at #2 (behind only The Godfather) on IMDb's Top 250 films. Based on a Stephen King short story, the film is the story of the friendship that inmates Robbins and Freeman strike up while in the Shawshank prison in 1940s Maine. Robbins is a new convict in for a crime he didn't commit (the murder of his estranged wife), while Freeman is an old convict serving a decades-long sentence for a youthful robbery. Freeman, known in Shawshank as the guy who can get stuff for inmates, and Robbins, who becomes with his accounting training a wily and conniving lackey for the corrupt warden, dream about getting out and living the good life in Mexico, and eventually, years later, they realize their dream. Shawshank is a nice period piece that gives a glimpse into the mid-century prison setting, while also being a tour-de-force examination of the power of hope.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. This landmark musical is, besides being filled with infectiously peppy music, a great comic story about a landmark era in movie history: the transition from silent to sound cinema. Co-director Gene Kelly stars as a silent film swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, Donald O'Conner is his sidekick and musical guru, Jean Hagen is his silent film leading lady who isn't quite as successful in talkies, and Debbie Reynolds is the ingenue who replaces Hagen as Kelly's leading lady of preference both on and off screen. The film is filled with wonderful examples of the foibles of the new talkies (which, although made humorous, are pretty close to the actual problems encountered when sound films first emerged): the incongruity between the sound of actors' voices and their images (suffered by Hagen's character here, and stars such as John Gilbert in real life); issues related to syncing sound and image, both in production and in exhibition; the thorny logistics of microphone placement (illustrated in a hilarious scene in which Hagen has a microphone concealed in her oversize boutonniere); and the hazard of inadvertent sounds being recorded (illustrated in the same hilarious scene just mentioned). Songs like "Good Morning," "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses," and the title song, and the remarkable dance sequence with Kelly and Cyd Charisse to the music of "Broadway Rhythm Ballet," add great enjoyment, especially the iconic "Singin' in the Rain" song and dance sequence by Kelly, performed while joyfully stomping through puddles of rainwater.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Robert Wise. When this film came out, I only vaguely knew of Star Trek, having inadvertantly seen a handful of reruns of the original series on TV (I was eight at the time). Still, having been conditioned to enjoy sci-fi through my generation's interest in Star Wars, I begged my dad to take me to this film, which he did, I remember vividly, on New Year's Day 1980. From that day, I have been an avid Trek fan. This first ST movie has gotten a bad reputation as a plodding, boring mess, but I strongly disagree with that assessment. True, it is very slowly and deliberately paced, but that is not necessarily the sign of a bad film. I think that ST:TMP, on the contrary, is a wonderful examination of the character relationships among the three main characters, Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and McCoy (DeForest Kelley), as well as an exploration of their vessel, the Starship Enterprise, and its place in their lives. In addition, it is a philosophically intriguing story about human evolution and the implications of humanity's forays out into the universe. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the film is set several years after the time period of the original series, when Kirk has been promoted from starship captain to paper-pushing admiral, and he itches to get back to the final frontier. A major overhaul of the Enterprise is just reaching completion (in practical, moviemaking terms, to make the ship more silver screen friendly compared to its old TV counterpart), and is to be commanded by a brash young new--and inexperienced--captain, Decker (Stephen Collins). When a massive lumbering seemingly-sentient behemoth spaceship that calls itself "V'ger" is found to be on course to destroy the Earth, the Enterprise, with Kirk commandeering a ride, is sent to explore the threat. Ultimately, Kirk and crew save the world (of course), but not before Decker uses V'ger to make what could be the next leap in human evolution.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Grease? GREASE?! GREASE!?!?!?!?!!