When I flip around the channels, I’m usually drawn to anything in black & white (including documentaries with historical footage). All the lists of great old movies seem to start with Citizen Kane, which is no doubt a masterpiece, but I can’t really identify with any of the characters, and it never really did much for me emotionally. Casablanca is probably my number one favorite. However, everybody knows about it, so I wasn’t intending to discuss it except to point out that it’s a pleasure to focus in particular on the lighting and especially the way Curtiz shot Bergman.
My intent is to make a list of some of my favorites that you may not have thought as much about. I hope you have seen them all and love them, but if not, that is great! Because you should watch them soon, and you are in for some real treats!
Gaslight (1944) — starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and a very young Angela Lansbury, directed by George Cukor — Bergman is the real attraction in this psychological thriller, just perfect for the part with her vulnerability. Boyer is delightfully creepy, and just the way he says “Paula” when addressing Bergman’s character always sticks in my mind. You really have to sit back and enjoy how the tension builds; great films are not about flashy action sequences. The plot is far from formulaic, not easy predictable, and it has a great ending.
To Have and Have Not (1944, what a coincidence) — starring, of course, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in her first film, directed by Howard Hawks — The greatness of Bogey and Bacall goes without saying; I can’t get enough of them. Bacall’s line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow” was pretty risque for its time, but what it really did was establish the chemistry between the two leads. Bogart was married at the time, but began seeing Bacall during shooting (no surprise there), and they were married about a year later! Apart from that, the hidden gem in this movie is Walter Brennan as the chronically drunk Eddie, side-kick to Bogart’s character.
Roman Holiday (1953) — starring Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn (in her first Hollywood movie), and Eddie Albert, directed by William Wyler — OK, I really can’t imagine anyone not having seen this movie, but I almost hope there is someone who hasn’t so that they can discover it for themselves! Hepburn, as I like to say, is simply the classiest actress of all time, and she deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress in her first starring role. Gregory Peck is probably better known for other roles such as in To Kill a Mockingbird (which could also be on this list), yet he may never have been as understatedly wonderful as in this film. And don’t laugh, don’t think of Green Acres, Eddie Albert was a really really good fit in this movie. One thing I really like is that there is not a typical Hollywood ending to the movie — it’s bittersweet, and I like that sometimes. It’s the kind of film that invariably makes me sigh contentedly at the end, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
A Place in the Sun (1951) — starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winter, directed by George Stevens — this is the true “sleeper” on this list, the one I’ll wager has been the least viewed, and I really do hope you watch it, or watch it again. The thing is, it’s a tragedy (which is NOT to say a “tear-jerker”, there’s a difference, but you do have to be in the mood for it. Don’t let that scare you away. I was never really a fan of Taylor, but she is stunning in this film, really in her prime. Montgomery Clift is superb, an under-rated star. He works the hell out of this part, and his chemistry with Taylor is amazing. This was a break-through film for Winters, who has a very difficult role. Frankly, her character is not very likable at all, which is key to making the whole picture work. Talk about a love triangle, if you like that kind of thing, this film did it superbly.
Modern Times (1936) — starring (and directed, of course) by Charlie Chaplin, and co-starring Paulette Goddard — this is the opposite of a sleeper, you had to have seen it already, but just give it another look, OK?! My favorite aspect of this film is Goddard and her amazing face, especially those eyes. You can have Bette Davis, I’ll take Goddard. Was she the first “It” girl? If you don’t fall in love with that face, there may be something wrong with you, ha ha. This is one of the last great silent films, and one can argue whether it should have been a “talkie” or not — the Wikipedia article says Chaplin actually started out making it as a talkie but switched back to silent mode after production began. It’s not 100% silent anyway — there are sound effects. At any rate, the story was a pretty serious commentary on society in addition to being very funny and poignant. Watch it. Watch it now!
I would love to continue on and make this post much longer, so maybe I will do a part 2 and beyond… so many great films, so little time. And no, they don’t have to be in black & white to be great, but there is something about the classics that I love.