Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.
Notorious: One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, probably in his top five…but let’s not get any more hung up on numbers than we already are at the moment. Offering eye candy for everyone, be they male or female, gay or straight, it stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, who lock lips in a memorable marathon kissing scene. He’s a debonair government agent trying to stop Nazi spy Claude Rains; she’s the womanly weapon he recruits to infiltrate the villain’s household, all the while dying inside because he loves her himself; and the imposingly-named Madame Konstantin is yet another of the domineering mothers populating the Hitchcock oeuvre. Classy and classic thrills.
On the Beach (1959): I will concede that the Australian anthem “Waltzing Matilda” is overused in this adaptation of Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel, but that doesn’t stop it from opening up my tear ducts every time. U.S. submarine commander Gregory Peck, dissolute (but willing to be redeemed) Ava Gardner, scientist and race-car enthusiast Fred Astaire (in an early dramatic role), and naval officer Anthony Perkins (just before being doomed to type-casting in Psycho) are among those Down Under, coping with the end of the world in their own ways as they await the arrival of a cloud of fallout from the nuclear war that has killed the rest of humanity. Stanley Kramer directed.
Once upon a Time in America (C’era una Volta in America): Adapted from Harry Gray’s obscure novel The Hoods (which, thanks to my pal Gilbert, I now own but have yet to read) by something like seven screenwriters, this complex tale of the Jewish Mafia jumps from time period to time period, echoing The Godfather Part II, and stars Robert DeNiro, James Woods, and Elizabeth McGovern, with a heart-rending score by Ennio Morricone. The uncut, three-hour-and-forty-five-minute version of this film may be Sergio Leone’s masterpiece (much as I love his spaghetti Westerns), but beware the butchered version first released in the States, which removed an hour and a half and, worse, destroyed Leone’s exquisitely crafted structure by placing the events in chronological order.
Once upon a Time in the West (C’era una Volta il West): Not my favorite Leone Western (which is probably a toss-up between For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this nonetheless reveals increasing riches with each subsequent viewing. And while it doesn’t have Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, it does have Henry Fonda spectacularly cast against type as the cold-hearted, blue-eyed villain; Charles Bronson as the taciturn, revenge-seeking hero (who, in fact, has no name, other than “Harmonica,” but never mind); Claudia Cardinale as the ex-whore seeking respectability and security (aren’t we all?); Jason Robards as an enigmatic bandit; Jack Elam, the late Woody Strode, and Some Guy You Never Heard Of as the three luckless gunmen who await Bronson’s arrival in the long, almost wordless credit sequence; a story co-written by Dario Argento (!) and Bernardo Bertolucci; and one of Maestro Morricone’s best scores.
The Philadelphia Story: I’m not normally a fan of screwball comedies, since the characters so often make one another miserable (see, as a prime offender, Hitchcock’s one outright comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and I’m not even sure this is classified as one, although leads Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant also co-starred in one of the most famous, Bringing up Baby. In any event, this follows another of their shared efforts, Holiday; both were directed by George Cukor and based on plays by Philip Barry. Kate and Cary are, shall we say, unhappily divorced socialites, although initially only Cary realizes that what they need is to get re-hitched ASAP. Kate, alas, is prepping to wed a stuffy guy who is Cary’s polar opposite, so Cary sticks around and strikes up an alliance with reporter James Stewart, sent to cover the wedding with Ruth Hussey. Love and laughter ensue. Delightful.
Psycho (1960): Perhaps Hitchcock’s best film, with Vertigo neck and neck and Rear Window not far behind. Faithfully adapted by Joseph Stefano (who tried to take all the credit) from Robert Bloch’s novel, with a superb performance by Anthony Perkins as mother-obsessed motelier Norman Bates. Lovely but larcenous Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stops for the night en route to hooking up with beau Sam Loomis (John Gavin, later our ambassador to Mexico), but when she steps into the shower, things take an unexpected turn. In glorious black and white, with Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, plus Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable, oft-imitated “screaming strings” score.
Rear Window (1954): James Stewart is a wheelchair-bound photographer who passes the time by observing his neighbors across the way; Grace Kelly (Hitch’s favorite heroine, and no wonder) is at her most breathtaking as the fashion model who loves him; Thelma Ritter is his wisecracking nurse; and Raymond Burr is the man who may have murdered his wife. This was adapted by Hitch’s frequent collaborator, John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich; its only real weak link is that all-time champion block o’ wood, Wendell Corey, as Stewart’s police detective friend.
The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max II): That rare sequel that completely outshines the original. Mel Gibson is back in a post-apocalyptic road movie featuring one of the most nail-biting chases ever. I literally jumped out of my seat at one point—I’ll let you figure out which one. In a desert wasteland infested with murderous freaks, Max strikes up an uneasy alliance with a small outpost of normal people refining that most precious of commodities, gasoline. Still haunted by the murder of his family in the first film, Mad Max unexpectedly regains some of his humanity along the way.
Seven Samurai: Much as I admire all of Akira Kurosawa’s work, I consider this by far his finest achievement, all three and a half hours of its uncut form (which, believe me, flies by). The plot will be familiar to those who have seen the American remake, The Magnificent Seven, as a septet of down-on-their-luck swordsmen accept a few handfuls of rice as payment for protecting a village of farmers from greedy bandits. A masterpiece; both the action and the human drama have no parallel, with an outstanding cast headed by Kurosawa’s regular stars, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune.
1776: I’ve gotta hand it to Sherman Edwards for having the chutzpah to think that the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence would make a good Broadway musical, but by gum, he was right, as it’s probably my favorite after Guys and Dolls, with Kiss Me, Kate running third. He wrote the music and lyrics (Mom played in the orchestra of a local production when I was a kid, which is how I was introduced to the show), and found an excellent collaborator to write the book in Peter Stone, whose screen credits include Charade and the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Stone also wrote this rousing film adaptation, featuring original cast members William Daniels (in the role of his career as John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson). The songs are great and the script is said to be very historically accurate.