Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A Clearly Defined Issue

Here’s a question for you. It was one asked to me last Friday week when I was out at the birthday bash. One of the guests was a wonderful character actor I hadn’t seen for well over a decade. After we were reintroduced and were catching up, standing outside having a quick gasper, he posed a question that had been put to him perhaps a month earlier:

You have to introduce someone to the world of cinema with only six old black & white movies. What would they be?

It wasn’t something to answer immediately. Especially since, for the few of us standing around who heard this, our initial reaction was to stand open mouthed and say, “Uh.....?” For the next couple of hours, when we’d regroup to spark up, I would throw a few titles out as suggestions, but still didn’t manage to have a concrete list by the time I called it a night and was on my way home.

I probably would have let it go, but then when I was up at the local A&E last week, waiting for tests and then waiting for the results to come back, it came to mind and helped pass the time. Outside the pub I had decided there had to be a film by Stanley Kubrick, Powell & Pressburger, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, which immediately went over the half dozen, so that wasn’t going to work.

When I tried a different tack, the selection contained far too many comedies including Buster Keaton’s The General, The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Palm Beach Story, simply because everyone should be introduced to the drunken goings on of the Ale and Quail hunting club. But then if I had Sturges’ screwball comedy on the list, that would make Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday redundant. So one, if not more, would simply have to go.

Moved from a hospital bed to a wheelchair and then deposited in a corridor to wait my turn for a CT scan where, due to the continual opening and closing of various doors periodically blew a rather substantial breeze up under the hospital gown, I decided to concentrate on picking one film from six different genres. Counting off on my fingers I decided there should be a war movie, science fiction/fantasy, horror, western, romantic comedy, musical, drama, comedy, and a thriller.

Except that still didn’t work because it went well beyond the requisite half dozen, so which would have to be omitted? And I hadn’t even included animation, which stupidly gets listed as a genre, even though it’s a filmic technique rather than a category of story. After all, you don’t get “live-action” included in a genre list. Still, it wouldn’t stop Gertie the Dinosaur or Steamboat Willie making the shortlist.

For war movies I was thinking of Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well or The Small Back Room or even Ice Cold in Alex, but ultimately it would be a toss up between Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, with the latter most probably taking the edge. In the science fiction/fantasy category I’d have to choose from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

A horror movie would have to be picked from either Wise’s The Haunting, Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Bride of Frankenstein, or Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. If a western made it into the final six it would be John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over My Darling Clementine and Howard Hawks’ Red River. At least picking a musical would be easier. Without any question that would be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.

When it came to romantic comedies I’d put Billy Wilder’s The Apartment above The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner and Ninotchka. As for romances I’d like to put forward I Know Where I’m Going or FW Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but I can’t help feeling they’d both be beaten to that top spot by Jean Vigo’s utterly captivating L’ Atalante about a French barge captain and his new bride.

By this point I’m already over the six and still haven’t mentioned dramas like Sweet Smell of Success, All About Eve and Sunset Blvd., or the great action adventure films like King Kong or Gunga Din. Then there are the thrillers such as Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Notorious, or Double Indemnity, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s nerve-jangling The Wages of Fear and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Hot on their tail are the great noir thrillers like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly. And that’s even without mentioning the classics that easily come to mind like Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, The Public Enemy, Night of the Hunter, On the Waterfront and Some Like it Hot, plus the films of Kurosawa, David Lean’s adaptations of Dickens, and even Italian Neo-Realism, although truth be told I wouldn’t say the latter were particular favourites of mine.

Back when the question was posed, I should have asked why the restriction of only black and white movies being available. As I worked down this ever-expanding shortlist before I even got to a semblance of a final list, I began to understand why. Sure there have been black and white films made in more recent years, such as Manhattan and The Man Who Wasn't There, but going back to the 1930s through to the 1950s, the films had to stand on the sole merits of a great script, great acting and great direction.

Obviously not all of them ticked all the boxes, but those earlier movies didn’t have the fourth option used far too many times now, which is: rely on hollow spectacle when all else fails. A couple of weeks ago I watched Terminator 2 for the first time in ages. While it was still very slick and shiny, with the liquid metal man effects now rather passé I was surprised by how empty it ultimately was. When it came to the horribly mawkish sermon at the end of this particularly expensive bowl of soup I reached for the off switch, wishing that I had spent the time watching a wonderful old Raoul Walsh B-movie instead.

Having stumbled across Night at the Museum on Sunday night, which Channel 4 felt the need to screen on two consecutive weekends, I watched for a few minutes, foolishly expecting at least a couple of jokes to turn up. For a comedy I thought that would be quite essential but apparently CGI shenanigans take priority over actual gags nowadays. If today’s audience laps up this kind of nonsense its because they are ignorant of the sharp scripts Billy Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett and then Izzy Diamond or the marvellous physical comedy of Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy.

Maybe this shouldn’t be about deciding on the six movies to introduce someone to cinema, but the six movies to reintroduce modern audiences, who obviously don’t know any better, to the real power of cinema. Either way my six would be: Dr Strangelove, The Apartment, L’ Atalante, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Top Hat and La Belle et La Bête. Tomorrow, of course, might me a different story. In the meantime, what would you choose?


At 8:04 am, Blogger Lee said...

I can't do it. I just cannot make a choice. So many!

I have heard many a young naif claim that they never watch black and white films, there's no point, and rather than try and convert them, I cut them out of my life.

Black and white was more or less the norm from 1910 until, what, the mid-sixties? That's fifty years, half of cinema's life. I can't pick six films from that, and anyone who'd so easily dismiss it doesn't deserve to have me attempt to change their gaping void of a mind.

At 9:30 am, Blogger Laura Anderson said...

Hmm... Casablanca, Some Like it Hot, Duck Soup, It's a Wonderful Life, An Affair to Remember and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think.

It's too hard! I'll probably change my mind after hitting publish. I think these are my favourites, though.

My partner and I re-watched all the Terminator films recently. I still love Terminator 1, but T2 was, as you say, empty. I loved it as a teenager, too.

At 3:39 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


It was a question where the initial thought is, oh, that’s easy, until you actually start thinking about it and then your brain starts to feel like it’s going to explode. With only a fraction of the films I’d been thinking about mentioned in the post, the reason it has taken so darned long to publish this was because for days I didn’t have anything like a final selection.

When I left the pub that evening a number of titles were scribbled on one of the unwanted free newspapers that get shoved into your hand wherever you are in Central London and, while most are mentioned in the post, only Kubrick’s film makes the list.

Looking at the selection again, only a day later, I’m still only sure about Dr Strangelove and L’ Atalante. Well, L’ Atalante at least.

Yeah, I don’t get this notion youngsters have that these movies are irrelevant because they were made in black and white or, worse, the excuse for not watching them is because they were made before the person was born. My response to that is, “You’re a complete fucking idiot!”

Still, since there’s no right or wrong answer, have a think about it over the next few days and come up with a selection if you can. I’d be interested in your take on it.

Laura, that’s a brilliant selection, but... An Affair to Remember was filmed in colour. Oddly enough, outside that pub, I brought up She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as a possible entry. Only later I was reminded that whereas Fort Apache and Rio Grande were filmed in glorious black and white, the middle film in John Ford’s classic cavalry trilogy was shot in colour. I just didn’t remember it that way.

Still, the rest would make an excellent day’s viewing. I was so close to putting in Duck Soup but selected Dr Strangelove instead to tick the war/comedy/satire box. The mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo is genius. And God bless Margaret Dumont for taking Groucho’s stream of insults and putdowns on the chin. She was the perfect comedy foil.

I saw that T2 was on ITV1 last night. Watched a couple of minutes. It still didn’t change my opinion. I caught the bit where Arnold comes down in the lift at Cyberdyne, takes out the SWAT team and then drives their van into the building. The pacing and staging of those shots made every scene look like it was announcing: this is very grand and important! I’m thinking, it’s an action flick, get your flipping skates on! I suppose what it was lacking was low-budget urgency.

At 3:50 pm, Blogger Laura Anderson said...

Colour! How strange, the way we remember things. I've seen it recently, too! I obviously need to watch it and weep again.

In that case I'll stick with my girly romantic films and opt for Roman Holiday.

I have never seen Dr Strangelove, somehow. I'm not quite sure how this has happened, as my dad likes it, but there it is. It's on the Lovefilm list though (as is La Belle et La Bête).

My brother once took a girl to see a classic (and fantastic) B&W film. He turned to her at the end, misty eyed, and asked her what she thought of it.

'Wasn't that good,' said she, 'it was in black and white, wasn't it?'

At 5:24 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


It is strange how we remember things. I was so sure She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was in black and white. Whenever I think of Monument Valley and all the incredible mesas, I always see them in monochrome.

You can’t be going about calling Roman Holiday a girly film. I love that movie! A different take on It Happened One Night, it’s like a wonderful reminder of the great Ernst Lubitsch comedies with the luminous Audrey Hepburn stepping in for Garbo. Audrey and Gregory Peck on the Vespa tootling around Rome, the great scene at the Mouth of Truth... Okay, I’m going to stop now.

Enjoy Dr Strangelove and La Belle et La Bête. This is where I get very jealous because, even though the magic of watching them never goes away, you get to enjoy them for the first time, which is always really special.

I just don’t know how to respond to that girl’s comment. I would have grabbed my coat and run away as if my life depended on it. Still, at least she was observant.

I think I’ve told this story before. Back in the 1980s when I was at art school, BBC2 showed the original six-part miniseries of Das Boot. A few episodes in, I met up with a pal from my foundation year who was studying for a 3D design degree at a different college.

We were enthusing about the drama and he mentioned that as the credits rolled on the most recent episode, one of the students he was sharing a flat with suddenly piped up, “There are a lot of Germans in this!” Everyone in the room just turned and stared at him.

At 9:11 pm, Blogger qrter said...

God this is a hard one!

Agree with Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like It Hot, The Day The Earth Stood Still.. howsabout The Apartment? Only got to see that one a couple of months ago, really loved it, has such a nice dark edge.

Maybe Un Chien Andalou? Or is that too short.. it just looks so beautiful, still.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - still scares the crap out of me (the eyes..the eyes!).

Speaking of "the eyes, the eyes!" - What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?.

Speaking of scaring the crap out of me - The Thing From Another World (always found the original much, MUCH better than the Carpenter version).

Village Of The Damned still looks incredibly crisp and the whole blonde hair/scary eyes effect wouldn't work half as well in colour.

If I could pick one film from the colour era, I'd probably go for "The Elephant Man" or "Eraserhead"..

At 9:16 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Gah, you mentioned both The Apartment and Caligari already. Shows how much attention I'm paying (“There are a lot of Germans in this!”)..

At 10:19 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


yeah, it’s a bloody hard one. I’m still getting titles pop into my head, making me think, “Oh, should have had that!”

I think the reason Wiene’s Caligari didn’t make the list was because if that was my introduction to cinema I’d run screaming from the room and never watch anything again.

I didn’t choose shorts because... well, they’re short. With Un Chien Andalou there are bits where I’d be out the room deciding to stick to reading books.

I’m looking forward to seeing The Thing From Another World again soon. Actually one of the channels here showed John Carpenter's remake of Village of the Damned and only lasted a couple of minutes. Compared to Wolf Rilla’s original adaptation it was... cock!

Hey, glad you liked The Apartment. Wilder always put just the right amount of venom into the comedy mix. You know the story of where Wilder got the idea for the movie?

As Wilder says in Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Conversations With Wilder:

The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter. It was the story if a man having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, “What about the guy who has to crawl into that warm bed...?”

A great movie. And, if you haven’t read it already, a great book.

As you said it, I think “There are a lot of Germans in this!” is the response everyone should now give when they realize they haven’t been paying attention. That would be brilliant.

But in the meantime, shut up and deal!


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