classic films

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The Center for Literate Values

Classic Films

There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace:  Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues

Very few of these films were made after 1980–and those are foreign.  On principle, we refuse to kick any business in the way of the reigning Hollywood élite.  Yet the older movies are just too good to overlook.  Below is a short list reflecting the classic literate qualities of strong characterization and a sense of basic human nature.  No gratuitous machine-gunning of establishment goons by social revolutionaries who hope to outlaw guns (after the present job)… just good stuff.

We have abstained from imposing any sort of categorization upon the list.  Good films are often comic as well as sad as well as generic in some way (war movies, Westerns, etc.).  Instead, we have simply appended thumbnail sketches.

And by the way… we noticed after finishing the list that nothing on it has received a more minatory rating than PG.  We didn’t set out specifically to achieve this end: it just so happens that (as Aristotle knew well) good drama doesn’t rely upon lurid shock effects.

Adam’s Rib (1949): We could all list several Tracy/Hepburn comedies, but some have aged better than others; this one is clearly the best.

After the Fox  (Caccia alla Volpe, 1966... don’t worry, this version’s in English): Vittorio De Sica’s take-off on Italians and movie-makers has Peter Sellers (who else?) playing the eponymous Fox, a thief masquerading as a director.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950): As noir as film noir gets.  Sterling Hayden is fully convincing as a not-too-bright but dauntless hood; and when Marilyn makes her first (brief) appearance on the screen as a floozy, your TV sparks.

Backlash (1956): A little-known Western with an unusually well-plotted and acted version of the “young man [Richard Widmark] seeking his father” theme.  Not to be found at Amazon, which volunteers some R-rated claptrap of the same name.  Considering the belated publication of The Frogmen and the persistent suppression of Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (starring Widmark), we have speculated that a) Richard must have said something kind about Elia in Tinsel Town, or b) the glitterati are still upset because Widmark’s daughter divorced Sandy Koufax.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1983): Filmed in south Texas by a small company for airing on PBS, this gem quickly developed a cult following.  Edward James Olmos’s dominating performance is no more here than elsewhere a bid for ethnic votes: the message which emerges is profoundly human.  Pioneered the “hand-held camera” school of realism.  Many actors in bit parts went on to greater (or at least better known) roles.

Baseball, a Film by Ken Burns on DVD (1990):  A very successful venture into Americana, full of very rare photos and film clips.  Sometimes the “enlightened liberal” ethos is a bit thick, as when Burns devotes virtually all of the fifties to Jackie Robinson (ignoring the actual baseball that went on in this Golden Age and also swallowing the canonization of Branch Rickey hook, line, and sinker).  A real fan of the game will enjoy the earlier segments more: a real student of history will find nothing new in the later segments.

Becket (1964): A little heavy with clichés about the Middle Ages… but then, it’s not really meant to be history.  The skirmishing between Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole over the concerns of the other world and those of this one are timeless.

The Big Sleep (1946): Everyone’s seen The Maltese Falcon; here you get all that and Lauren Bacall!

The Black Windmill (1974): Rather rare, for some reason, but Amazon has it for a handsome price.  A tense Michael Caine thriller where the stakes, for a change, are a kidnapped little boy; Janet Suzman is, as always, electric.

Breaker Morant (1980): Australian-made… and though it concerns an incident in the Boor War, the film is in some ways an epilogue to the Vietnam era of scapegoating men in the field for political ends.

The Caine Mutiny (1954): Bogart’s deranged Captain Queag is flawless: a great movie made from a great novel!

A Canterbury Tale on DVD  (1949): Not a dramatization of Chaucer, although it briefly hearkens back to the Middle Ages in a creative flourish which cannot be explained in a few words.  The film could be called, historically, a celebration of the good will which had built up between Brits and Yanks during WW II, in the midst of which momentous event it is set (Chaucer notwithstanding)… but the result is certainly not a war film!

Cape Fear (1961): Not the appallingly grotesque Scorcesi remake; Robert Mitchum’s villain in this one isn’t a psycho–he’s just as mean as they come.

Catholics  (1973): Originally made for television, this collision of faith and progressivism off the west coast of Ireland (filmed on location) was one of Trevor Howard’s last roles; also stars Martin Sheen and the late Cyril Cusack.

Charade (1963): An altogether delightful thriller bordering on spoof… but how could it be otherwise with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant (who, among other things, joke subtly about each other’s careers on the screen)?  Another Blake Edwards/Henry Mancini collaboration.

Damn the Defiant  (1966): One of the great sea epics ever filmed; Dirk Bogarde is the sadistic first mate who vies with a British frigate’s captain (Alec Guinness) for control of a delicate mission during the Napoleonic Wars.

Dark Passage (1947): What would a movie look like from the first-person point of view?  Like the first half of this one!  Bogart and Bacall are always special together.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): Michael Rennie is still the most plausible Martian Hollywood ever produced.  The scene where he reveals himself to Patricia Neal in an elevator (after stopping all the world’s electricity) is priceless.

The Day of the Jackal (1973):  One of the fastest-paced thrillers of international intrigue ever made; there isn’t one otiose frame in this unsentimental, slightly insight-out story of a professional killer’s stalking of Charles De Gaulle, which has you almost rooting for him as he is stalked in return.

Doctor Zhivago (1965): Women tend to prefer it over men… maybe more men should watch it just to understand women better.

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967): Richly pastoral scenes tastefully understated; Alan Bates and Julie Christie are entirely convincing as Thomas Hardy rustics. 

The Forsyte Saga on DVD (1969): Based on the Victorian novels by John Galsworthy, this BBC series predated Masterpiece Theatre, and was probably its inspiration.  The casting was perfectly flawless: no one who had seen the series could read the books and picture the characters as other than they had appeared on television.  The recent BBC attempt to re-make this evolving tragedy of London’s stuffy haute bourgeoisie was dismal by any standard, but an outrage beside the original serial.

The Frogmen (1951): The only World War II flick about divers: original and well done.  Richard Widmark’s character has the kind of “bad-guy hero” edge which he had mastered as well as any actor of his generation.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947):  Perfect casting contributes to the delights of this highly nostalgic (more all the time) comedy, where a young widow (Gene Tierney) becomes a famous author by transcribing adventures dictated to her by a deceased seadog (Rex Harrison).

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981): By now, everyone has heard of this South African release about the little bushman who sets out, through a nest of terrorist activity, to throw a wicked Coke bottle off the edge of the earth… and succeeds.

Harvey (1950): Everyone should have a six-foot rabbit to talk to when the world goes insane; what’s so crazy about that?

The Haunting (1963):  The only question is, will you ever watch this one a second time?  No scarier movie was ever made: despite the date, Robert Wise had the genius to film it in black-and-white and to leave infinitely more to the imagination than the miserable, dumbed-down remake does.

High Noon (1952):  Certainly one of the most famous Westerns ever filmed, High Noon projects a conservative mistrust of human nature and whimsical pacifism in favor of rugged individualism.  (Contrast with the 1953 film Shane, which clings to a more liberal good guy/bad guy view of reality.)  Be sure to follow this link to Gary Cooper and avoid the re-make: the newer version’s effects are superior–but Cooper himself proved to be irreplicable.

I’m All Right, Jack (1959)An inimitable classic about a lovable young fop who–on his first day at a “real job”–runs the fork lift so effectively (on the management stopwatch) that the union goes out on strike!  Peter Sellers as a union leader smitten with his own importance almost steals the show away from Ian Carmichael–but the naive aristocrat’s blistering indictment of all political interests on Malcolm Muggeridge’s show is one of the finest moments of righteous ecstasy in cinema.

In a Lonely Place (1950): An odd and late Bogart film, where the character’s shadowy reputation is both true and untrue.  Deliberately and effectively unsettling.

It Happens Every Spring (1949): Naive and far-fetched it is and always will be–but still the greatest baseball comedy ever.  Train stations and boisterous fans replace the contemporary flick’s backdrop of nymphomaniac groupies… is that naive, or just wholesome?

The Last Hunt (1956): A virtually forgotten Western which deserves rediscovery; buffalo hunting turns Robert Taylor’s character into a human predator.  Great ending.

Laura (1944): A hardboiled black-and-white whodunnit is an odd place to find a romantic obsession… which is why, of course, this film is special.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): In many respects, the greatest film ever made; David Lean’s masterpiece instantly catapulted Peter O’Toole  into international fame.

Life With Father (1947): William Powell (The Thin Man) reminds the Age of Single-Parent Households that a father who didn’t know best could still be lovable and inspiring.

The Luck of the Irish (1948): This pot of gold is infinitely less mawkish  than John Ford’s The Quiet Man (in DVD).  Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter are vastly less clichéed in their Yank-meets-colleen dynamic than the Duke and Maureen O’Sullivan.  The choice between a life of power, fame, and wealth and one of blissful, virtuous obscurity is also more credibly posed by the former film than the latter, making QM (despite its absence of leprechauns) less morally astute and “real”.  Now what amadán is responsible for leaving Luck unavailable?  Maybe you’ll have more luck with this link than we have.

Lucky Jim on DVD (1957):  Based upon a novel by Kingsley Amis, this send-up of an Oxford don’s life is still bang-on when it comes to dissecting the servile fawning required for academic advancement.  Ian Carmichael’s character is easy to root for: the whole cast, indeed, is flawlessly selected.

Man of the West (1958): Few Westerns–even of Anthony Mann’s–project a darker view of human nature.  Gary Cooper and a sultry Julie London find themselves among a gang of dim-witted cutthroats ruled by a psychopath; right prevails, but just barely.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962): The Kennedy assassination forestalled this brilliant film’s release; a grim Cold War tale of brainwashing and assassination, yet also–paradoxically–of triumphant will power.

My Man Godfrey (1936):   William Powell always seems like the butler who out-gentlemans his gentleman in his various roles; this time he actually plays that very role–except that his gent is a lady (or Carole Lombard, anyway).

The Naked Jungle (1954): Marabunta!  If that word doesn’t pop into your head after this movie every time you see an ant… well, then you probably yawned through Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971): A nice companion-piece–or twin gravestone–with Dr. Zhivago.  Not for watching when you’re depressed… but the performances by Jayston and Suzman are worth the trip downward.

The Night of the Hunter (1955): Charles Laughton’s off-beat parable of good and evil in the Depression-era South lets Robert Mitchum pull out all the stops as a serial-killer evangelist.

No Highway in the Sky (1951): James Stewart is perfect as the mathematical genius suddenly faced with a practical imperative to keep a plane from flying.  Something in all of us, no doubt, wants to pull that lever, retract that landing gear, and ground that bird until she’s properly checked out.

Objective Burma on DVD (1945): Directed by Raoul Walsh, our staff rates this as the second-best action-movie ever made–after The Sea Hawk.  Both films star Errol Flynn (who would have to be, one supposes, the best action-movie actor ever employed).

Out of the Past (1947): Few samples of film noir convey a stronger sense of doom behind a more suspenseful veil of action; perhaps Asphalt Jungle (see above).

Panic in the Streets  (1950): The Plague breaks out in New Orleans!  Like all of Elia Kazan’s work, virtually ignored by the Hollywood glitterati–yet a masterpiece of suspense and characterization.  The page for this video may or may not open: the last time we tried it at Amazon, we got bumped off-line!

The President’s Lady (1953): Every time we think of a sentimental classic like this fairly accurate chronicle of Andy Jackson’s strained but devoted marriage to a beautiful divorcée, we find that Hollywood hasn’t had the taste to produce it on video or DVD.  Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward are a perfect match here.  Catch it on the Late Show if you can.

The Prisoner on DVD (1968): Television’s finest hour.  American audiences didn’t quite know what to make of this BBC import.  They were familiar with Patrick McGoohan from that most realistic and hard-nosed of spy series, Secret Agent–but this Cold War allegory of a covert operative shanghaied to a sinister utopia where everyone is given a number and paternalistically “cared for” by an intrusive technocracy was altogether too unsettling.  Is The Village a communist regime, or a Western “nanny state”?  Which side do its handlers represent?  Number Six doesn’t know, either!

Rachel and the Stranger (1948): Delightfully unique!  A frontier adventure with some exquisite laughs and a poignant love story would just about have to enlist Loretta Young in order to keep Holden and Mitchum civil and wholesome.

The Red Balloon/White Mane (1952): If you’re at all sentimental, you’ll shed a tear… and if you’re at all intellectual, you’ll marvel at how such a sober view of human nature and the limits of life can be worked into a children’s fable.  The music will never leave you, either: buy it for your child, or buy it for yourself.

Ride the High Country (1962): An aging Joel McCrea and an aging Randolph Scott play (appropriately) two aging lawmen who decide to end their days on different sides of the law; vintage Sam Peckinpah before the gory debauch of The Wild Bunch.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): The preeminent submarine drama, with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster showing the numerous cracks of being under heavy pressure.

Russian Ark on DVD (2002): Directed by Alexander Sukorov, this film is unique among our recommendations in being so recent.  In the words of a trusted colleague, there is no describing Russian Ark except to say that it encapsulates everything that went wrong in the 20th Century while itself representing everything opposite to what went wrong..  Filmed in a single 90-minute scene which manages to revisit the horrors of the Soviet Union down the corridors of a former imperial palace… but no, it can’t be described!

Secret Agent on DVD (1965): No, this isn’t a dramatization of Joseph Conrad’s novel–but the writing is entirely worthy of a literate viewership.  Star Patrick McGoohan vaulted to international fame as a covert operative for British intelligence who didn’t pack a gun and didn’t dispense any kisses, but instead engaged in the sort of posing, bribing, and purloining to which real spies are accustomed.

The Sea Hawk on DVD (1940): Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, this black-and-white gem is considered by many the best action-movie ever made.  A sequel, one might say, to Captain Blood (which had originally elevated Flynn to Prince of Swashbuckle), the later film perhaps gives fans of the genre more of what they come for.

Term of Trial (1962):  Another very provocative, well-acted, and now quite timely film which is absolutely unobtainable.  Sir Lawrence Olivier plays a pacifist schoolteacher whose friends and colleagues are all too willing to believe an infatuated student’s false charges of molestation.

That Man from Rio (1964): Amazon claims this version is subtitled in English… hmm.  Unless your French is au pair, maybe you’d just better record it off the late show.  Jean-Paul Belmondo’s globetrotting nuttiness is too consuming to allow frequent squints at the screen’s bottom.

Them  (1954): A sci-fi classic about… well, ants.  Not the Brazilian man-eating variety of The Naked Jungle, but REALLY BIG mutant ants created by nuclear testing.  The special effects will probably elicit several unintended guffaws, but the concatenation of events remains convincing and scary.

There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace  (2003): First produced in the early nineties, this documentary–one of the finest ever made in the nostalgic yet highly informative vein–was able to include interviews with Negro League stars like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard shortly before they were promoted to Heaven’s league.  Not drenched in social outrage like so many retrospectives on black baseball, the film focuses on the solid facts of a Negro Leaguer’s day-to-day existence.  James Earl Jones narrates.

This Gun for Hire (1942): Alan Ladd is chilling as a hard-bitten hit-man (his first big role), though his discovery of something worth dying for will persuade few of our jaded generation.

The 3:10 to Yuma (1957): Glenn Ford’s outlaw and Van Heflin’s sodbuster meet in a strange moral parity as the solid citizens sneak off to save their own skin: a reprise of the High Noon theme with a less heavy hand.  Also an unforgettable tune by Frankie “Rawhide” Lane. 

Tiger Bay (1959): Very different–a realist urban tale hiding an attractive idealism.  Name another film where a murderer takes an orphan girl under his wing!  Click here for DVD.

Things to Come on DVD (1936): Written by H. G. Wells and directed by William Cameron Menzies, this film drew a very strong recommendation from our staff.  A stunningly ambitious attempt to glimpse the future of Western civilization, the film traces the rest of the twentieth century in terms which are at once progressive and “dystopic”.

Tunes of Glory (1960): An exquisite and classic clash of wills takes place in the Scots Highlands when an “outsider” (still traumatized by his years as a POW) is appointed to command a wild bunch of “gillies” who regard his Englishness as suspect.  Alec Guinness and John Mills show why they were both eventually knighted for their talents.

The Train (1965): A Nazi connoisseur and the French Underground wage a private war over a trainload of classic paintings.

The Unforgiven (1960): PC reviewers bristle at the raw racism.  As usual, they’re too dense to recognize that directors John Huston stresses white-and-Indian hatred because he finally bridges it–through the ambiguous dark beauty of Audrey Hepburn.

Vera Cruz (1954): An early example of Robert Aldrich’s gritty style, with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper over a decade ahead of Clint Eastwood’s hardened drifter.

Wild River (1951): Another classic from the genius of Elia Kazan, this one about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s “persuading” an old woman to move off her island before the new dam floods it.  Lee Remick never did anything better.  Most suspiciously, this film is not available.  How far does Hollywood hypocrisy intend to persecute an immigrant who dared to testify before the McCarthy committee because he considered it his duty?

Zulu(1964): If this last-ditch defense of Rourke’s Drift doesn’t get your adrenaline flowing, check your pulse.  Also a “must” for Welsh nationalists!