Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.
Horror Express (aka Panico en el Transiberiano [Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express]): One of those little gems I stumbled onto years ago and started telling everybody about. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Telly Savalas star in this nifty Italian-Spanish co-production about an alien intelligence that hops from body to body and leaves its victims bleeding from every facial orifice. Wow! This reportedly came about because the producer got a good deal on the model train used in Nicholas and Alexandra. It’s unusual and action-packed, with a high body count and great lines (“Monster?! We’re British, you know.”). On a sadder note, Lee apparently talked Cushing into making this to help take his mind off the grief he suffered for the rest of his life over the death of his wife, Helen.
Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead): Great ’60s British chiller about New England witches, directed by John (The Night Stalker) Moxey, with Christopher Lee in a supporting role. Story credit went to Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky, whom scriptwriter George Baxt claimed wrote only one scene—the worst! A college student disappears after traveling to the Raven’s Inn in secluded Whitewood to research witchcraft; when her boyfriend and college-professor brother investigate, they find more than they bargained for. With spooky chanting and a slam-bang climax.
I Love You to Death: Knowing how my wife shares my affection for this highly underrated black comedy from Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill), I bought it for her as an anniversary gift. This is ironic in that it concerns a philandering pizzeria proprietor (Kevin Kline) whose wife (Tracey Ullman) decides to kill him, but neither she, her vengeful mother (Joan Plowright), nor the two stoners (William Hurt, Keanu Reeves) she brings in to do the job can carry it out successfully. The cast is uniformly hilarious, especially Kline, and the fact that the film is based on a true story just adds to its offbeat appeal. Why it didn’t do better is an absolute mystery to us both. “I’m an Italian—I cannot make love to a woman with a German shepherd watching!” (A slight paraphrase.)
Ice Station Zebra: Howard Hughes reportedly watched this movie over and over and over during his reclusive last days. He could have done worse. Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, and the great Patrick McGoohan (see “Dutch Master”) star in this exciting Alistair MacLean yarn about an undersea voyage, ostensibly to rescue the survivors of a fire at the titular installation—but we know better. Directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), with a superb score by Michel Legrand, excellent submarine sequences, and nail-biting Cold War tension throughout. At one time, I actually memorized a ten-minute scene from this film, and could recite it given the proper provocation and sufficient time to bone up on it beforehand, but now I’m too rusty.
In the Heat of the Night: This adaptation of John Ball’s first Virgil Tibbs novel won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor (Rod Steiger), and Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant); director Norman Jewison was also nominated. Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a big-city black cop passing through a small, sweltering Southern town who is first suspected of, and then helps local sheriff Steiger solve, a murder while staying one step ahead of racist rednecks. Interestingly, although Poitier returned as Tibbs in two less satisfying sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (one of the more memorable lines from the original) and The Organization, neither utilized Ball’s six sequels as their source, but were written directly for the screen. This also spawned a long-running eponymous TV series.
It’s a Gift: What I consider the definitive W.C. Fields film. As with the Marx Brothers (see A Night at the Opera in our next installment), I feel his early work at Paramount, which seems to have been THE place for comedy in the 1930s and ’40s, was far superior to his later (albeit worthy) efforts at Universal, and this is the quintessence of that early work, an undiluted dose of Fields at his most brilliant. Virtually plot-free (which for once is a blessing in my book, as it gives Fields the liberty to concentrate on his unique comic sketches), the film depicts the trials and tribulations of grocer Harold Bissonette (“Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”) and his hateful family, most memorably an extended sequence in which the long-suffering Fields tries to get some sleep on a porch swing and is tormented by everyone from fruit-bearing Baby LeRoy to a pesky insurance salesman seeking the ever-elusive Carl LaFong (“capital L, small a…”). They don’t get any better.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Earning my Maudlin Man nickname, I cry at regular intervals every time I see this film, which is probably my second favorite after Where Eagles Dare (now there’s a pair). I watch it every Christmas Eve, when my wife makes me stay up all night wrapping presents, and have indoctrinated my daughter into the cult as well. Frank Capra’s masterful storytelling style has never been put to better use than in recounting the trials and tribulations of George Bailey (James Stewart, also never better), whose efforts to keep a small-town building and loan association afloat leave him wishing he’d never been born. Enter Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), Angel Second Class (he hasn’t won his wings yet), who grants his wish by showing him what a poorer place Bedford Falls would be without him. You can’t watch this for five minutes without tripping over another memorable moment, brilliant character and/or delicious line; I practically know them all by heart now. Lionel Barrymore is the splendidly hissable villain, and I’d trade the entirety of Donna Reed’s remaining career for her role as Mary, the quintessential girl-next-door-turned-wife. A superb score by Dimitri Tiomkin. “My wild Irish rose…” BANG! “I’m all right, I’m all right!”
Jaws: Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg made movies that really scared people, as demonstrated by this and Richard Matheson’s Duel (see “Bradley’s Hundred #21-30”). This one’s pretty damn near perfect and spawned three sequels (so far) of varying quality; ironically, Matheson’s original script for Jaws 3-D was disastrously re-written by Carl Gottlieb, who had adapted this with author Peter Benchley. When a great white shark starts snacking on the inhabitants of Amity Island, threatening the tourist trade that is the community’s lifeblood, an uneasy triumvirate mobilizes to stop it: water-hating Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), freelance shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), and ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). John Williams outdid himself with the stellar score. Everybody quotes, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” but my favorite line is Scheider’s frustrated, “That’s great! That’s just great! Now where the hell are we?”
Kelly’s Heroes: Quite coincidentally, this group includes a disproportionate number of my absolute favorites. Clint Eastwood was reunited with Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton for this humorous caper film with a World War II setting and a Vietnam-era sensibility, filmed in Yugoslavia. The members of Clint’s platoon have been getting the short end of the stick since they hit the beach at Omaha, so when they learn of a fortune in Nazi gold kept in a bank behind enemy lines in occupied France, they decide to do a little extracurricular activity. With a stellar cast (Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor), excellent dialogue courtesy of the late Troy Kennedy Martin, an outstanding score by Lalo Schifrin, and a Leone/Wild Bunch parody.
Kiss Me Deadly: Robert Aldrich, in his finest genre-subverting style, turns a typically hackneyed Mickey Spillane novel into the ultimate Cold War SF parable. Ralph Meeker is dazzling as the brutish Mike Hammer, a not-overly-principled private eye who slaps those of both sexes around (and admittedly takes his share of lumps in the bargain) while following a trail of bodies that leads from slain asylum escapee Cloris Leachman to a mysterious metal box, whose contents smell of Armageddon. Repo Man contains a direct visual homage to this film—just one of many, I presume.