55 minus 22: One-offs, part 3½… old movies

Posted: 26 July 2019 in 55 minus, movies, one-offs
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(For part 1 of ‘one-offs’, about individual television episodes I will rewatch whenever they’re shown, click here; part 2, about individual issues of comic book series, is here. Part 3, about television pilots, is here.)

In the posts above, I’ve mentioned tv shows or long running comic book series, and that an individual episode or issue will… stand out… for some reason; the guest star will knock it out of the park, the writing or art on that issue will particularly impress, the specific plot will reward rewatching or rereading. So I’ll often rewatch or reread.

It occurs to me that in these days of franchise movies, of movies having continuity with other movies – or even tv series in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – there’s something comfortable in rewatching old movies where they tell a story from start to finish.

By old, let’s say 60 years ago. That’s a nice round number, and it was before I was born, so they qualify as ‘old‘.

OK, they qualify as ‘very old‘.

All right, ok, they were made before I was born, so they qualify as ‘ancient, oh my god, so old, fuck me, budgie, did they have movies back then?‘ Happy now?

None of the movies below, that I enjoy rewatching whenever they’re on telly were made after 1959.

(And yes, if you’re thinking this is a pitiful attempt to just list ten of my favourite ‘old’ movies that I’m trying to show horn into the ‘one offs’ thing, you’re not wrong. But hey, its” my blog, so there!)

So here are ten ‘old’ movies that I’ll rewatch for the pure, unfettered pleasure of watching actors act their stocks off, a story that keeps you engrossed, dialogue that flies off the screen, and cinematography that malmost makes you moan in delight . Of course there may be, probably will be, spoilers, but come on; they’re at least 60 years old; you don’t get to whinge about it.

OK then. In no particular order:

A Matter of Life And Death, 1946
I’m pretty sure I first saw this film at school, one of those ‘it’s the end of the school year, you can all watch a movie in the assembly hall’. Anyway, I remember watching it as a child. And although I’m sure I got different things from it, I enjoyed different elements of it back then – I’m certain I couldn’t have given a damn about the central love story, for a start – the charm and the grace of the movie hit me as strongly then as it does every time I watch it. David Niven is glorious in his role as a wartime bomber pilot, about to very obviously die when his plane crashes, and he jumps from his plane without a parachute when he… doesn’t. Die, that is. He survives, and the reason why is, as the movie goes on to demonstrate is either because heaven made a mistake, and he slipped though their ever so efficient system… or he was just lucky. And the rest of the movie very much doesn’t tell you which is the ‘right’ answer. Niven’s character has a brain tumour that is giving him delusions of him having to fight his case that since he did survive, he should get to continue his life. And heaven argues against it. There’s even a trial, with historical characters arguing against him, while his surgeon tries to argue Niven’s case. It’s become famous not only because of the glorious performances but because of the cinematic decision to film/ the ‘real world’ in colour, and the ‘Other World’ in black and white. (Not quite accurate; all the scenes were filmed in colour, but the Other World bits omitted the colour part of the Three strip technicolour part when processed.) Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey and Marius Goring somehow manage not to act everyone else of the screen, as does Kim Hunter in a perfectly judged performance. I think she has the hardest role in the movie, and he pulls it off with style and class.
The Dawn Patrol, 1938
There had been a previous version of The Dawn Patrol, in 1930, like this version based on a short story. But this version is just perfect. It’s about the terrible inevitability of both death, and the impossibility of terrible decision making making. I don’t mean terrible as ‘wrong’ but as ‘unpleasant, seriously, horrifying’. The movie starts as it ends, with a man in charge of a Royal Flying Corps squadron in the First World War, receiving new recruits, sending them up, knowing that some of them won’t return. Not ‘won’t return from a mission sooner or later’, but knowing with absolute certainty, that of the men he sends up, men he knows aren’t ready for it… some won’t return from that mission. The major in charge, Basil Rathbone, used to be ‘one of the lads’. But now he’s in charge. And he’s hated by Eroll Flynn and David Niven for his uncaring attitude, his ‘we follow orders, so send them up’ attitude. (Of course, they don’t know that he does care, but he has a job to do.) Then Rathbone leaves and promotes Flynn to the job… and Flynn quickly discovers why Rathbone’s character did what he did, and his friendship with Niven falters, then fractures, then dies. Eventually of course, Flynn is replaced… by Niven. And Niven discovers the truth of command. The movie ends with Niven telling the new recruits who’ve just arrived, with hardly any experience in the air… to be ready for the dawn patrol. There have been plenty of other movies that cover the same subject material (Aces High springs to mind) but The Dawn Patrol did it better and with both more heart and more ruthlessness.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir, 1947
I went back and forth on this one, since there was a tv series in 1968, with Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange in the lead roles, but it was effectively a sitcom, and so under my rules it’s an entirely different thing. Look, I bloody love this movie, so it’s in. A widow with a young daughter moves into a cottage that used to be owned by a seaman, who long ago killed himself… and is reputed to be haunted. It’s a love story and Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were never better than as the genteel widow and the rough and ready seaman. Over a decade, before he realises he’s harming her by not letting her live her life, he shows his feelings and she shows hers. She becomes a writer, telling ‘his’ stories, and they become closer still… until, until… He leaves, to let her live her life for herself. Or at least he says he does, and waits… And waits. George Sanders as a particularly loathsome ladies man is wonderfully lizard like, and the supporting cast and crew don’t put a step wrong. But it’s the central performances that raise this movie from ‘Yeah, ok, ghost falls in love with human…’ to ‘oh my god, this is just wonderful’. I find it genuinely impossible not to rewatch this if ever it’s on.

Great Expectations, 1946
Another one I first saw at school. Great Expectations has always been a weird one for me. I saw this at school, and loved it. Then I was forced to read it at school… and hated it. I’ve never been a huge fan of Dickens’s writing (with the notable exception of A Christmas Carol), and I suspect being forced to read Great Expectations at the age of 14 is a large part of the reason why. But pretty much everything I don’t like about the book is either cut, or reinterpreted, or just made alive by this movie. And yes, it’s been filmed lots of times, has been shot as a period piece and as a modern piece a couple of decades back. But none of them for me have the skill, wit and talent involved as this movie does. John Mills as the young, then slightly older, adult Pip shows all the charm, arrogance and ultimate folly, you’d expect from an actor of his calibre. David Lean’s directing is smart and shows the light touch you’d hope for. Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as Estella (child and adult respectively) shine off the screen. Miss Haversham is suitably pitiful and pitiable, bitter but apologetic by the end. And Finlay Currie is the flat out scariest Magwitch there’s ever been… this is an objective fact. Oddly, the only character who comes over to me as less than he could have been is Alec Guinness’s Herbert Pocket, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. But that’s a small price to pay for this wonderful movie.

Casablanca, 1942
Where do you start with Casablanca? One of the most quoted – often inaccurately quoted – movies ever made… it’s a glorious, wonderful, movie with humour, seriousness, suspense, and satisfaction. Bogart as the now utterly cynical nightclub owner Rick Blaine, minding his own business, catering to whoever… surviving. He’s a survivor, and that’s all he cares about. And he doesn’t much care for that either. He’s friends, well maybe friends is too strong a word, with the local police chief, a cheerfully corrupt Claude Raines (who’s quite clearly having the time of his life in the role), less friendly with the thieves and criminals in the city, but on ‘polite’ terms with the Germans occupying the city. As long as no one bothers him, as long as no one causes him inconvenience, Rick is if not contentedly living, then at least miserably… existing. And then even that is turned upside down as an ex-lover, who abandoned him walks into his nightclub with her thought-lost husband and begs him for help. And what he does, how he does it, how his life changes… is the movie. Oh, there’s plenty else that goes on, but it’s a character study of a man brought low, but who survives, stops existing and starts living again. And as a character study of a place, a person, a man who doesn’t want to be a hero, isn’t a hero in fact, how he rediscovers a world outside his nightclub where he’s been hiding from life… it’s rarely been done better, and never with such class and style.

Duck Soup, 1933
Trying to identify which is my favourite Marx Brothers’ film is a bit like asking which is my favourite single malt whiskey. Sure I may have a favourite, but the others are pretty damn good as well. In Duck Soup, however, everything can together perfectly as a movie… it’s not only riotously funny, it not only showcases each of the brothers’ talents, not only is the script a delight… but it’s shot beautifully, letting the visual gags breathe. The plot involves Groucho’s character – Rufus T Firefly – being appointed leader of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia, in order to continue to get financial aid, and a neighbouring country senidng in Chico and Harpo as spies to get dirt on Firefly so their ambassador can romantically pursue Margaret Dumont’s character, who is supplying the financial aid. So there IS a plot… but, as always, that’s just an excuse for everyone to have an an enormous amount of fun.

The Philadelphia Story, 1940
I quite like the later High Society as a film, but I love the original. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey. with a sparkling script, easily as quotable as Casablanca’s, and with flawed characters that somehow are more attractive as characters because of their flaws. Katharine Hepburn is more imperious than at any time until her later Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter (another of my favourite ever movies). I’ve seen it described as a love story, but it’s not; not really. It’t a story about love, about falling in love, discovering that’s not enough, and wanting the other person to change… not realising that even if that happened, that’d not be enough unless you also change.

Mind you it’d get onto any of my favourites list simply for the line spoken by one hungover character: “This is one of those days that the pages of history teach us are best spent lying in bed.

The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, 1954
Another Bogart movie and althought he’s unquestionably the star of the movie, and his performance superb, he’s not the reason I rewatch. In fact, whisper it very quietly, the scenes with Bogart aren’t my favourote parts of the movie, by a long way. It’s Jose Ferrer as the smart, not entrely sympathetic, lawyer, Van Johnson as a main character facing court martial, and Fred MacMurray playng against type as a good old fella, love and soul of the party, smart, a fella you could trust… who turns out to be a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, cowardly and self-centered beyond belief. At the centre of this movie is ‘doing the right thing is never as simple or risk free as it appears, and if it seems so, you’re wrong’. A disliked captain is relived of command during a naval engagement. Should he have been relieved? Was it jealousy, concern, over-reaction? Or was it only but always merely a judgment call… and – if so – was the right all made?

Witness For The Prosecution, 1957
Another trial movie, but this one is set almost entirely around the trial. Tyrone Power is an American accused of killing a woman for her money, and his wife – Marlene Dietrich – goes into the witness box to voluntarily testify against her husband… causing Charles Laughton, her husband’s barrister to go that extra mile to discredit her…. Which he does, proving she perjured herself out of malice towards her husband. So why doesn’t he feel satisfied? Strong story, clever performances, with one of the best twist endings ever committed to film. Wonderful. I can’t say that this was Laughton’s greatest ever performance – I’ve rarely seen him deliver a i performance – but I particularly love his portrayal as a famous and deservedly respected barrister heading towards the twilight of his career, enjoying the legal argument and the cut and thrust of cross-examination… and thinking he’s aware of his own limitations but as with so many great men, wholly but sadly mistaken.

Citizen Kane, 1941
For all its faults – and there are many, and for all that its plot makes no bloody sense whatever, this is a masterpiece in keeping you watching; the acting is first rate, the dialogue makes you pay attention every second it’s on, and there are so many little bits that in a few seconds portray in detail without a word. Whether it’s physical distance between a husband and wife as an analogy for the increasing emotional distance, or the long shot turning into a dingy nightclub the morning after the night before via going a rainy window, there’s not a moment of this film that hasn’t been thought through. Ostensibly an examination of a life, it’s actually a pretty good look what what people want others to see of them. The dialogue varies between pedestrian and pithy, between clever and cocky. But damn, when it delivers, it delivers in style.
Y’know, I reached the end of this post and could have easily written another about another ten… maybe next week, but with same rules applying: their existence must pre-date my own.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s coming tomorrow. Something light, something fun, something very silly. See you then.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

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