55 minus 15: Ten [more] old movies I’ll rewatch and rewatch

Posted: 2 August 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. And part 3½ about old movies is here.)

In the posts above, I wrote about individual episodes of tv shows, and long running comic book series, and pilots that I’ll rewatch or reread whenever I teh opportunity presents itself.

And then I blew the format by using it as an excuse to just talk about ten movies – all of which were made before I was born – that I’ll rewatch whenever they’re on tv.

I specifically limited it to movies released before I was born, so I never saw them – never could have seen them – in a cinema.

And it wasn’t difficult – there were a lot of great movies made before I was born, in 1964.

There are plenty of good movies, of course, released after I was born but before I could probably or realistically have seen them – and remembered seeing them – in the cinema, say 1965 to 1971. And I might do some of them next week.

But today? Well, here are ten more ‘old’ movies – released pre-August 1964 – 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:

Seven Days In May, 1964
The first ‘conspiracy’ movie I remember seeing, and I saw it long before I understood anything about ‘Senators’ or ‘committes’ or eve the separation of powers. I just watched, thrilled at the great acting, the easy to follow plot (well, plots, to be fair; the sub-plot is every bit as good as the main plot it serves) and the the dialogue sparkles.

(Actually, that’s a thought. Should have done this before, but oh well. I’ll end each recommendation with a line of dialogue that I like from the movie.)

Anyway, the main plot is simple: a US President wants ‘peace with the enemy’, thinks it’ll benefit everyone. Senior army people think that’s bullshit – you can’t trust the enemy; they’re the enemy – and attempt a coup. A junior military officer stumbles over the plot and… well, you can guess the rest. But you can’t. Because there are enough twists and turns, and clever scripting, and presenting the ‘goodies’ as not always that good, and the ‘baddies’ as not always that bad. It was remade in 1994 with Sam Waterstone, Jason Robards and Forest Whitaker, but with no disrespect to those fine actors, Frederick March, Burt Reynolds and Kirk Douglas as the originals were all astonishingly good. The themes of the movie are betrayal, and when it’s a noble – not merely good, but noble – thing to betray something, or someone, for a greater good. Astonishing acting, astounding writing, and the harshness of the black and white cinematography still impresses today.

Eleanor Holbrook: I’ll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare.
Singin’ In The Rain, 1952
From one area of ruthlessness – politics and the military – to another, the move from ‘silent movies’ to ‘talking pictures’ is depicted with class, humour, music, dance and some very, very funny comedy. I’ve seen all three of the main actors do better work, it’s true, but rarely when all three main leads were so damn good in an ensemble piece.

And let’s not forget Jean Hagen who absolutely nails her unpleasant role as Lina Lamont, and isn’t acted off the screen in any way by any of the three leads. I don’t know about whether she should have won, but, my heavens, Hagen earned her ‘best supporting actress’ Oscar nomination. There is a plot – the aforementioned move from silent to sound movies – but its less important than the set pieces, the joy expressed by all the lead actors and the wonderful production values. Everyone cared about this movie, and it shows.

I watched it recently with some children who’d never seen it before; was genuinely curious as to whether the class, the style, the fun, would translate . Every joke landed, ever bit that was supposed to be impressive was to them, and they absolutely loved it. Some movies, no matter when they’re set, are timeless. This is one of them.

Lina Lamont: I gave an exclusive to every paper in town.

The Maltese Falcon, 1941
A proper old-fashioned – in the best of ways – private eye whodunnit, complete with red herrings, murders, good guys, bad guys, gunsels, betrayals, a femme fatale, and a great story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Bogart and Astor are great onscreen together, and Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are just about perfect as villains about as different from each other as they could be. All looking for a black statuette of a falcon. There are double crosses, of course, and in the best traditions of film noir, there’s no one you can completely trust.

The police are the only – and I stress that – the only fairly disposable characters in the movie. But they’re intended to be. Bogart’s character was described by the novel’s author as “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” And it shows in his performance. He’s not a man to like, but he’s a man you’d hire to get the job done, and you’d never have any idea of the cost to him of doing it. There’s just nothing wrong with this movie. It’s glorious.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Sam Spade: You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere. 

King Kong, 1933
I’ve no idea when I first saw this movie. I know I was young, very young, and that I saw it with my big brother. And that both of us were flat out astonished and amazed that I wasn’t scared at any point. Instead I was thrilled. I was utterly thrilled, and enthralled by the story, the acting, but most of all by the special effects. I was old enough to know that Kong wasn’t ‘real’, but young enough to believe that he could have been. I certainly don’t remember thinking of Fay Wray as Ann Darrow as ‘attractive’; I was too young for that. I do recall thinking how brave she was… so y’know, maybe that comment about me not thinking Kong was ‘real’ was a bit of self-serving justification. The movie’s, the story has, been remade several times, but there’s nothing that comes close to the original for thrills and for sucking you in to the movie.

It was made in 1933, eighty-six years ago. And the special effects stand up today. Sure they’re a little rough and ready compared to CGI today, but when you’re watching it…? You don’t care. You’re – or at least I am – wholly in love with the story, the acting, the dialogue, and the completely real portrayal by every character on screen. And yes, I include Kong in that. If you’ve never seen the original, make time. It’ll be worth it. Robert Armstrong as the film producer Denham is worth the price of admission (as they used to say) on his own.

Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

12 Angry Men, 1957
when movies are made of plays, there’s an instant temptation to take advantage of the medium to stretch the story outside the limitations of a stage. (The obvious example that springs to mind is A Few Good Men. I’ve never seen it onstage but I know that lots of scenes ‘outside’ in the movie take place in offices and rooms in the play.)

This movie, however, resists that. Almost all the movie takes place inside one room, the jury room, as the jury enters, to deliberate whether someone committed murder. Eleven jurors – the credits list them solely as Juror 1, Juror 2, etc. – for various reasons are ready to quickly vote ‘guilty’. One juror differs, thinks the young man on trial for murder is not guilty, and won’t change his mind. The movie, over the next hour and a half, shows the deliberations, shows why each of the eleven think the kid is guilty… and slowly, but inexorably, juror 8 (Henry Fonda) argues, cajoles, and one by one, changes each juror’s mind as to whether the young man is guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt‘.

All of the jurors have their reasons, some more intellectual than others, some more emotional, some more justifiable, some more rational… Even when you know that juror 8 will prevail, even when the penny drops what’s happening, the intensity of the dialogue, and the close atmosphere inside the room, brilliantly depicted by the actors and the direction by Sidney Lumet, keeps you watching, seeing how it’ll happen. And juror 8 doesnt do all the work. There are a couple of moments when an entirely trivial comment or action by another juror triggers a thought that switches yet another juror’s vote. The pressure builds and doesn’t let up. And the emotional roller coaster in the room is no more than I’d imagine in some audience members. A brilliant movie, brilliantly acted.

Juror #6: You think he’s not guilty, huh?
Juror #8: I don’t know. It’s possible.

The Third Man, 1949
There’s very little to like about The Third Man. It’s not as if there are any characters who come out of the story as appearing good, or moral, or just. So you look for the flaws. And wow are there flaws. But they’re flaws that grab hold of your attention and shake it until you’re wondering whether the flaws are what makes someone interesting, and asking when do flaws become irredeemable? And further: are flaws irredeemable. Orson Wells as Harry Lime is a man made up of nothing but flaws, and yet, and yet, that’s what makes him interesting. Take away the flaws and you’d have someone empty. Jospeh Cotton’s character also has flaws but they take a while to identify, and you’re kind of disappointed in them and him when they come to the surface. While Alisa Valli’s character? Well, you know she has flaws, but you’re never quite sure what they are, and just when you think you do, she proves you wrong, by revealing another. This is their movie. Oh, sure there are other actors, other great actors, but it’s these three who are the centre of the movie, which is weird since Harry Lime, despite being the subject of the movie, doesn’t actually appear for some time, for some long time.

Flaws; they make a person, and they break them. And that you’re not sure which character I’m talking about is why the film is so damned good.

Anna Schmidt: A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.

Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949
Every Saturday on the blog, I recommend silliness. Indeed, I regularly do so on Twitter. For all the harsh truths that surrpinds us, for all the shittiness around and abroad, sometimes you need some silliness in your life. Hell, we all need more silliness.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present for your consideration: Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The plot is delightfully silly, yet perfectly rational. Presented in flashback as a man, played by Dennis Price, awaits his hanging for murder, the movie relates how he – in order to inherent a fortune – decided to kill everyone in his extended family who would inherit first. All the characters he intends to murder are portrayed by the same actor: Alec Guinness. And all are eccentrics, all slightly nutty, most elderly, all exaggerations of classic tropes: the Reverend, the general, the Banker, The murders are equally exaggerated and both simple and simplistic.

And considering this is a cold blooded serial killer we’re watching in action, it’s hard, genuinely difficult, to feel badly towards him. It’s not so much that we want him to succeed. Indeed, there’s a wonderful, genuinely wonderful twist, in the final moments, and no it’s not that it was all a big misunderstanding – it’s far far cleverer than that. But as I say, it’s not that you want him to succeed, but you do want to see what he does next, how he accomplishes the next murder. Guinness is sublime in more than half a dozen different roles; each very different, each very much part of a family. (The story goes that he was offered four of the roles and asked if he could play all of them…) The script sparkles, the direction is gorgeous and the sets are just about perfect. Silliness exemplified, and recommended without the slightest iota of hesitation.

[Louis Mazzini just murdered his relative, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, who was distributing suffragette literature from a balloon over London]

Louis Mazzini: I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962
Another conspiracy tale, but a very different one, with very clear goodies and baddies. The goodies are good, the baddies are evil. Is there such a thing as evil? Watch this and you’ll answer yed. But, and here’s why this movie is so bloody good, the killer isn’t the evil; those who make him one are. A group of soldiers return from a war; they were saved from certain death by their captain, who becomes a national hero. Which is odd, because while they’re certain beyond doubt that he’s the finest human they know… they also remember him as being disliked, being cold, being aloof. And why are the soldiers having nightmares about being tortured when they weren’t? And why is the hero, being groomed for the right marriage, the right political career, suffering blackouts… during which people inconvenient to his future are being killed.

The original ‘brainwashing an assassin’ movie with an added ‘let’s brainwash a load of others to say he’s just wonderful’ bit to ice the cake. Angela Lansbury as his mother, who knows a lot more than she lets on, James Gregory as her husband, a politician on the make, a gullible drunkard. And a pack of playing cards plays a central role, both in the plot and as a symbol of something that’s both exactly what it seems, but also so much more. As a representation of the main characters, that can’t be beat.

Bennett Marco: Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

To Catch A Thief, 1955
As a ‘by the numbers’ movie, To Catch A Thief can’t really be beaten. The plot is by the numbers, the direction is pretty pedestrian, the sets are… nice but ok. So why will I rewatch it? Cary Grant and Grace Kelly; the pair of them on screen set the screen alight. I’ve never been completely convinced by the romance they’re supposed to be having but the friendliness – and the sheer pleasure they’re having acting with each other – comes through strong, strong enough that it’s an equal pleasure watching them play off each other. The other actors are all solid as well, and with only a couple of exceptions, every sentence of dialogue either moves the plot forward or tells you something about the character. There’s enough suspense to keep you wondering what happens next, although the final revelation of the true thief isn’t exactly earthshocking. The basic plot of a retired cat burglar discovering someone else is impersonating him, using his style, and being forced to find out who is, as I say, pretty by the numbers but it’s fun to watch, and fun to feel part of.

John Robie: [to Frances] Not only did I enjoy that kiss last night, I was awed by its efficiency.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire, 1961
British science fiction went through a very ‘matter of fact’ stage in the late 1950s and early 1960s; several films showing ‘ordinary people doing ordinary jobs’ facing weirdness and strangeness. What marks The Day The Earth Caught Fire as something special is how the strangeness is portrayed, as something happening to the characters rather than then being involved with it. The main characters work for a newspaper and it’s through their efforts that we discover what’s happened… and what has happened is that various weapons tests have tilted the Earth on its axis. We watch the journalists, and the editor, put the story together, while seeing their flaws as people contrasted with their skills at their jobs. Chasing leads, getting the quotes right, doing the research, this is as much a movie about working for a newspaper as it is about the earth losing a battle against science. The final scene of the movie shows two editions of the newspaper ready to go to print: one if the attempt to ‘save the Earth’ succeeds, one if it doesn’t. Edward Judd is amazingly good as a newspaperman who used to be very good, but hasn’t been very good for quite some time, and Loe McKern is glorious as his friend, colleague and fellow scribbler. It’s very British, very 1950s, and very good indeed.

Peter Stenning: I’m not up on my sci-fi. So, we’re orbiting towards the sun, but how many billion light-years…
Bill Maguire: If that’s true… I’d say there’s about… four months.
Dick Sanderson: Before what?
Bill Maguire: Before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind.


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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