Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.
Laura: Closer to the spirit than the letter of, and decidedly superior to, Vera Caspary’s novel, Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece is highlighted by David Raksin’s unforgettable title song, delectable dialogue, and a superlative cast: Gene Tierney, luminous in flashbacks as one of the world’s loveliest murder victims; Dana Andrews as the cop who, understandably, falls in love with the girl’s portrait; Clifton Webb in the role of his career as her acerbic mentor, Waldo Lydecker; Vincent Price in a pre-horror icon performance as her spineless boyfriend; and Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, Judith Anderson, in one of her patented evil-woman turns.
Local Hero: A unique and delightful comedy from writer-director Bill Forsythe. Peter Riegert is a smooth-talking oil-company executive sent from Houston by boss Burt Lancaster to acquire some property for a refinery in a Scottish coastal village. His interactions with the eccentric locals, who believe the deal is going to make them all rich, are just priceless. Trust me on this one; lots of fun.
The Longest Day: Perhaps the greatest World War II film ever made, this gargantuan, star-packed epic based on Cornelius Ryan’s bestseller details the planning and execution of D-Day. The amazing international cast includes Henry Fonda, Christian Marquand, Robert Mitchum, Wolfgang Preiss, Robert Ryan, and John Wayne. It’s so realistic that officers who had been on the beach at Normandy were shown the film and swore it utilized actual combat footage, but it didn’t. Still stirring and impressive after repeated viewings; forget the overrated Saving Private Ryan. For you trivia buffs, Richard Burton has a scene in a pub with Donald Houston, whom he would kill in the legendary cable-car fight in Where Eagles Dare seven years later, while Sean Connery went from a few lines in this to international stardom in Dr. No. “The bridge—in forty-five minutes.” MWAH!
The Magnificent Seven: Surprisingly, this Western (in every sense) remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai works. In the hands of director John Sturges, with Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme song spurring them on (as it were), the seven—Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, and Brad Dexter—defend penniless Mexican peasants from brutal banditos Eli Wallach and friends (in most cases at the cost of their own lives).
The Maltese Falcon (1941): The film that justifiably solidified Humphrey Bogart’s stardom. John Huston’s directorial debut, which he adapted almost verbatim from Dashiell Hammett’s first and best novel (of which this is the third version, believe it or not), it features a stellar cast (Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan) enacting some of the most delicious scenes ever put on film. One pet peeve: Bogart describes Cook’s character as being “about twenty,” when at thirty-eight he was nearly twice that!
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: I consider the Pythons’ first full-length narrative their greatest achievement, co-directed by the two Terrys, Gilliam and Jones. The members of the troupe get to display their chameleonic natures by playing multiple parts, most notably the Knights of the Round Table who follow King Arthur (Graham Chapman) in his quest for the Holy Grail: Lancelot (John Cleese), Galahad (Michael Palin), Robin (Eric Idle), and Bedevere (Jones), with Gilliam as Arthur’s “trusty servant, Patsy.” I can quote distressingly large bits of this one from memory, or close enough. “Bring out your dead!”
Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Subsequently remade for TV (no, I didn’t subject myself to the ordeal), this paved the way for star-studded Agatha Christie adaptations for years to come, but none enjoyed the advantage of Oscar-nominated Albert Finney, who in my book (as it were) could have stepped off the page as her fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The ever-versatile Sidney Lumet displayed a rare period flavor, in tandem with Finney’s fellow nominees: screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), composer Richard Rodney Bennett, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and costume designer Tony Walton. Sadly, and perhaps inexplicably, only Ingrid Bergman took home a statue for the film despite its stellar cast (Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Casell, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York). Suspects abound when hated American bad guy Richard Widmark is stabbed to death in the Calais Coach.
Mysterious Island (1961): You can keep your Jasons and your Sinbads; this is my favorite Ray Harryhausen film. It has a much more solid script than most, rather than being just a flimsy excuse for the awesome stop-motion animation effects, and so what if the giant crab, bees, Phororhacos (try spelling that one three times fast [and you thought it was just a chicken]), and nautiloid cephalopod weren’t in the book? It’s otherwise surprisingly faithful. Herbert Lom is a satisfactory Captain Nemo; Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of four he composed back-to-back for Harryhausen.
A Night at the Opera: To me, the Marx Brothers’ two best films were the first ones they made at each of their major studios, i.e., The Cocoanuts for Paramount and this for MGM. Alan Jones is a tolerable Zeppo-substitute (he even looks like him), and his duet with Kitty Carlisle is much more bearable than the musical interludes (read “intrusions”) in other Marx films. Of course, the fact that the story is set in a musical milieu (the opera is Verdi’s Il Trovatore) also makes the tunes more organic than elsewhere. Sig Ruman makes an excellent foil for the brothers; in all, this is a delight.
The Night Stalker (1972): On its first telecast, this was the most-watched TV-movie in history, and rightly so. Richard Matheson adapted The Kolchak Tapes, a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice (who, in an interesting twist, subsequently novelized Matheson’s sequel, The Night Strangler, as a companion volume when his book was finally published in the wake of the film’s success). His teleplay superbly mixes wit and horror, while still taking its subject matter of a vampire on the loose in modern-day Vegas with, dare I say it, deadly seriousness. But its greatest achievement is his interpretation (which differs substantially from Rice’s) of wisecracking reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin—who was born for the part—in the aforementioned sequel and the eponymous series (aka Kolchak: The Night Stalker) that followed. Dan Curtis produced; John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel) directed; the stellar supporting cast includes Simon Oakland (who co-starred in the series) as Kolchak’s perennially harried editor, Tony Vincenzo; Carol Lynley as his girlfriend; Claude Akins, Kent Smith, Ralph Meeker, and Larry Linville as various law-enforcement types; and Barry Atwater as the feral vampire, Janos Skorzeny.