Thursday, October 29, 2009

Favorite Films, Part VII

Part seven of my 100 favorite films in chronological order. We’ll go up to 1960 with this group.

“The Ten Commandments” (1956). I love Cecil B. DeMille epics and this is DeMille at his best. Sure it’s as corny and kitschy as all get out, but it sure is fun to watch and even at four hours, it’s never, ever boring. I actually prefer the early scenes and its evocative images of Ancient Egypt at its most lavish. Charlton Heston takes Moses, pretty much an unplayable role, and infuses it with his special brand of charisma. (But why does Moses have to be so dour in the second half, I always wondered.) The film also contains one of my favorite dialogue exchanges ever, after Baka, Master Builder (Vincent Price) is scolded by Prince Moses for allowing an old woman (who turns out to be Moses’ birth mother) to almost be buried in a tomb. Baka tells Moses he can’t stop the work to save the life of one slave woman. Moses asks him: “Are you a master butcher or a master builder?” Oddly, the special effects used in the parting of the Red Sea are more convincing in DeMille’s 1923 silent version than here.

“Peyton Place” (1957). Soap opera on a grand scale. Lots of subplots centered around a young, exceptionally bright girl Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) struggling to come to terms with herself and her life at the start of World War II. There’s her uptight mother (Lana Turner) who has a few secrets she’s desperate to keep her daughter from learning; Allison’s best friend Selena (Hope Lange), the protector of her home from a sleazy stepdad (Arthur Kennedy); shy boy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) stifled by an overprotective mother; flirty Betty Anderson (Terry Moore) from the wrong side of the tracks, in love with Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), from the richest family in town; and Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan), the decent town’s physician who knows where all the bodies are buried. Peyton Place represents every town, big or small. This holds up very well today and is a favorite among some friends of mine who normally wouldn’t be caught watching anything from earlier decades. The New England locales are gorgeous, as is the Franz Waxman score. Lana Turner leads a very strong cast, with special kudos to Arthur Kennedy and the great Lloyd Nolan.

“12 Angry Men” (1957). Twelve jurors argue the fate of a young man accused of murder, with seemingly all the evidence weighted against him. Based on Reginald Rose’s TV drama, this takes place in one setting, a cramped, hot, sweaty juror’s room, and each actor is given a moment to shine. Henry Fonda excels as the initial lone hold out. He’s not convinced of the boy’s guilt, as much as he wants to at least talk it through. Magnificent performances all around. Sidney Lumet is not one of my favorite directors, but he’s masterful here, making us forget we’re stuck in one room for the movie’s duration.

“Horror of Dracula” (1958). It’s Hammer Time! Probably my favorite vampire film and Hammer’s finest hour. Ideal casting of Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Van Helsing and taut direction by Terence Fisher means there’s nary a wasted frame. After two decades of relatively toothless vampire action, the shocking scenes here of gushing blood in the best British Technicolor fashion re-wrote the horror genre forever. Cushing and Lee co-starred in well over a dozen films together, usually as adversaries though they were very close in real life. Would young audiences today consider seeing a horror movie with middle-aged leads? Probably not. Their loss.

“Ben-Hur” (1959). It’s rather fashionable to look down on this today, but this remains superior entertainment. One of the greatest spectacles ever made, with a very literate script. The 1925 silent version is good, and the sea battle is superior there, but strikes me as more a “Classics Illustrated” version of the famous book. This version exhibits much more character development and motivation. Charlton Heston well deserved his Best Actor Oscar here; a strong physical presence is needed to anchor these mammoth productions and Heston fit the bill perfectly. Director William Wyler wanted the challenge of never repeating himself, and wanted to tackle a huge epic. No one has done it better before or since. The landmark Miklos Rozsa score is beyond sublime, one of the great symphonic achievements of the 20th century.

“North by Northwest” (1959). It’s on TCM seemingly every month, but that’s OK, because it’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made. Loaded with equal parts wit and excitement, it’s probably my favorite Hitchcock movie of the 1950s, arguably his peak decade. Business executive Cary Grant finds himself mistaken for a spy and gets caught in a whirlwind of international intrigue. It starts in New York City and ends with that memorable chase sequence at Mt. Rushmore, with stops in between in Chicago and a certain crossroads in the middle of an Indiana cornfield.

"Inherit the Wind” (1960). A stunning (albeit fictional) dramatization of the famous Scopes trial, with the idea of teaching evolution put on trial. I would love to say this movie is dated, but unfortunately it’s just as relevant today as when it was made. Powerhouse performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in the faux Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan roles, and when these two clash in the courtroom time seems to stand still.

“Psycho” (1960). The first time I saw this was in high school on a Saturday night on WGN. It was the night of the Turnabout dance (aka Sadie Hawkins) and being somewhat of an uber nerd, I stayed home that night. The following Monday morning I talked to a tableful of guys who also had not gone to Turnabout and it turns out they also watched “Psycho” that night. Talk about a communal viewing experience! (Much more common in those pre-cable days of only five or six television channels). Kinda reminds me of Valentine’s Day 1994. I had nothing to do that night so I went to the gloriously seedy Villa Park Theater to see “Death Wish V.” There were about a dozen people there, all guys, all by themselves.

“School for Scoundrels” (1960). An underrated and unknown British comedy gem. Mild mannered Ian Carmichael is tired of being walked on in life, with the final straw being a supremely obnoxious Terry-Thomas waltzing off with his girlfriend. He enlists in the title institution (run by Alastair Sim), to learn the art of one upmanship and turn the tables on Thomas. There’s a car that a couple of huckster salesmen sell Carmichael that is the damndest thing you’ve ever seen. I could never bring myself to see the Billy Bob Thornton remake.

“Sink the Bismarck!” (1960). Another British film, and a great favorite of a generation of boys who caught it every year on Sunday afternoons on Family Classics during the 1970s. A look at the British operation to find and destroy the massive, supposedly unsinkable German battleship at the beginning of World War II. There’s something very intimate about black and white Cinemascope productions that really reach out and bring you into the story. Good acting here, with a strong cast led by Kenneth More, Dana Wynter and Geoffrey Keen. The model work is amazing in this, courtesy of Howard Lydecker, responsible for all those great miniatures in the Republic serials of the 1930s and 1940s.


Archdude said...

I agree with your comments on the making of the film and the actors.
However, being an pain in the butt for accuracy ion WWII films, some mistakes were made.

However, it is a great film in a lot of ways. Family Classics was a great idea which would be terrific to bring back, with you as the host (if WGN had any sense).

Kevin Deany said...

Family Classics on Sunday afternoons on WGN in Chicago was a huge favorite of my generation, and I know many people my age (Mid 40s) who retain fond memories of it.

Dees Stribling said...


Kevin Deany said...