Today’s post focuses on older films (pre-2000) that I discovered for the first time in 2016. You could make a case that some of these are film noir or neo-noir titles, but for the most part they aren’t. I’ll cover those as well as more modern movies (2000 to the present) in upcoming posts. The following weren’t all the pre-2000 movies I saw for the first time this year, just the ones I enjoyed most. As always, I hope you’ll find something to discover as well. Films are listed in alphabetical order by title. For the films that have little or no commentary, click on the title to read more.
Alice in the Cities (1974) Wim Wenders
It’s almost impossible for me not to think of Paris, Texas (1984) while watching Alice in the Cities, although Wenders directed Alice first, ten years earlier. Both films contain similar unmistakable themes, but each is also unique, like cousins who grew up in different parts of the country.
Rüdiger Vogler (who has nearly 200 acting credits on IMDB) plays Phil Winter, a German journalist in America working on a story. Phil is fascinated by America, but can’t quite capture what he wants to say in words, but rather Polaroid snapshots (which really pisses off his editor). Attempting to fly home, he gets stuck with a nine-year-old girl named Alice (Yella Rottländer) after meeting her and her mother (Lisa Kreuzer) at a New York airport. The mother gives Phil the slip and leaves him with Alice. After arriving in Germany, Alice tells Phil that if they can find her grandmother’s house, he can drop her off there, but Alice can’t remember her grandmother’s name or the name of the city she lives in. All she has is an old photograph of her grandmother’s house. This unusual road picture is subdued, slowly unfolding into something of a character study of both Phil and Alice, yet contains a richness that goes far beyond a typical character study.
The Big Lebowski (1998) Joel Coen
If you’ve never seen it, I’m not sure I can say anything that will prepare you for The Big Lebowski. Ask anyone their favorite Coen brothers film and this one will probably be named at least half the time. As wild and wacked-out as it is, a familiarity with the Howard Hawks classic The Big Sleep (1946) goes a long way to a greater appreciation of The Big Lebowski.
The Black Cat (1934) Edward G. Ulmer
The first pairing of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is one of the strangest horror movies ever, equal parts nightmare and surrealism. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a Hungarian psychiatrist who befriends young newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) as they share a train compartment and later a bus ride through the Hungarian countryside. The bus crashes and Dr. Werdegast leads the couple to the home of an old friend, architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff).
We soon learn that Werdegast is terrified of Poelzig’s pet black cat, but that’s just the beginning of several weird goings-on. The story (which has almost nothing to do with the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name) is weird, twisted, and often ridiculous, but Lugosi and Karloff together are absolute magic. They would star in six more films together, but this one may be the best.
Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) Otto Preminger
Fat City (1972) John Huston
Fat City is one of those little films that you watch in utter fascination, little realizing until hours, days, or weeks later that you’re watching what’s quite possibly a work of genius. These characters are so well-drawn and the actors playing them so natural you’d almost think you’re watching a documentary. Stacy Keach plays a 30-year-old boxer trying to make a comeback, Jeff Bridges a young boxer on his way up, and a whole supporting cast of characters only John Huston could come up with. Fat City is, quite honestly, a story of losers, but it may just be the finest film about losers you’ve ever seen.
Gloria (1980) John Cassavetes
Julia, my co-host for our Great Movies series at the library, picked and introduced this film, one I’d always wanted to see but never had before that night. She started by saying that if he were alive, John Cassavetes would not appreciate the fact that we were showing this film. Apparently Cassavetes wrote the screenplay, but never intended to direct it. But then Cassavetes’s wife Gena Rowlands got the lead role and asked Cassavetes to direct. I think things turned out quite well. (As a slight aside, Julia had wanted to show A Woman Under the Influence, but that film is unfortunately not part of our licensing agreement. Maybe someday…)
A family in a South Bronx apartment complex has been targeted by the mob. Before the mobsters arrive to carry out a hit on the family, Jack Dawn (Buck Henry), a mob accountant who has been talking to the FBI, pushes his son Phil (John Adames, in his only screen performance) into the arms of their neighbor Gloria Swenson (Rowlands). Gloria wants nothing to do with the kid, but what can she do? It turns out she can do quite a lot; she was a former mobster’s girlfriend and knows a thing or two.
I really enjoyed the film even if Cassavetes dismissed it. Rowlands is great (as always) and should be celebrated much more than she is. Also look for noir tough-guy Lawrence Tierney in a cameo as a bartender.
Hard Times (1975) Walter Hill
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) John Huston
It Came from Outer Space (1953) Jack Arnold
Nifty little sf flick that was originally (and probably effectively) shown in 3D. (The Best Buy Exclusive edition contains both 3D and 2D versions.) When amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his fiancee Ellen (Barbara Rush) witness a meteorite crash in the Arizona desert, Putnam gets close to the site, discovering an alien ship moments before a landslide covers it up. No one believes Putnam’s story, even after strange things start happening around the small Arizona town.
It Came from Outer Space is a fun, mostly effective sf film that points towards paranoia-fueled films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the like. Although I watched the film in 2D, there are plenty of nice 3D effects going on. Both video and audio are quite good and the disc also offers some nice extras, which I have only skimmed: an audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, and a documentary on several sf films called The Universe According to Universal. If the Best Buy Exclusive deal is still going on ($7.99), you should pick it up. This is a steal. *Update* If you didn’t pick up the exclusive at Best Buy, the disc will go on sale February 14, 2017. The current Amazon pre-order price is $9.99.)
King of Hearts (1966) Philippe de Broca
I really had a wonderful time with King of Hearts, not knowing what to expect when a friend of mine encouraged me to borrow it. The film was not very successful when released in France in 1966, but achieved something of a cult following in the US. It’s not talked about much these days, but it should be.
Near the end of World War I, a small French village has been sabotaged by the Imperial German Army, who have rigged a bomb to go off, one powerful enough to destroy the entire village. The locals find out and completely abandon the village. The only people left are the inhabitants of the local insane asylum, the gates of which have been left open. While a Scottish soldier named Plumpick (Alan Bates) has been sent to the village to find and disarm the bomb, the inmates of the asylum have taken over the town, completely unaware that they’re in danger.
King of Hearts is a delightful romp with great performances, especially by Alan Bates as the only sane person trying to prevent a disaster. The film also stars a young Geneviève Bujold. Seek this one out.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks
You sometimes hear this film discussed in conversations of great films from Hollywood’s Golden Year of 1939, but it’s rarely mentioned in most peoples’ personal favorites. It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (10 films were nominated in those days) and wasn’t one of the top grossing films of 1939, yet it contains a power and charm – even in the midst of literal and thematic darkness – that makes it unforgettable.
Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, a pilot and manager of a South American airmail service called Barranca Airways. An entertainer named Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives in town and is immediately attracted to Carter until she learns how focused he is on his business and – to her – heartless towards his pilots.
I could go on about the greatness of the film, but it’s best left up to you to discover. I’m a big fan of Howard Hawks, who made just about every kind of film you can think of, and he’s certainly in his element here. The aerial shots are still impressive today and Grant is at the top of his game. The film is also Rita Hayworth’s first major screen appearance.
Panic in Year Zero (1962) Ray Milland
Paris Belongs to Us (1961) Jacques Rivette
Paris Belongs to Us is Jacques Rivette’s first film as well as my first exposure to his work. Had it been released when actually completed, the film might have kicked off the French New Wave, but it didn’t see a release until a couple of years later in 1961, by which time the movement was well underway.
The film centers on a small group of actors rehearsing Shakespeare’s Pericles amid various problems and delays. A young woman named Anne (Betty Schneider, above left) unexpectedly finds herself in the play, but she’s more interested in finding out what happened to a missing musician whom no ones seems to want to talk about. The film is filled with mystery and possibly conspiracy, but Rivette’s narrative is certainly not a traditional one. Often ambiguous and unpredictable, Paris Belongs to Us will either fascinate or frustrate viewers. I was fascinated, so much so that I bought Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1 a few days later. I watched Paris Belongs to Us on Hulu, but Criterion recently released the film on Blu-ray.
Persona (1966) Ingmar Bergman
Seconds (1966) John Frankenheimer
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
What can you say about a film that’s arguably the greatest musical of all time? I must admit two things here: (1) I typically do not like musicals and (2) I woefully regret not seeing this film in its entirety before now. There is absolute wonder in this film, especially in the dance numbers, which are so beautiful, so gorgeous… We have nothing like this in movies anymore; don’t even try to tell me we do. Leonard Maltin once said that if you had only one film to show people who had no idea what classic cinema is, this is the film to show them. I think he’s probably right. If you’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain before, don’t be a dope (like me). See it.
The Straight Story (1999) David Lynch
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Joseph Sargent
This is literally the kind of thriller they don’t make anymore. You know from the opening notes of the high-energy score by David Shire that you’re going to be in for quite a ride (no pun intended) and Joseph Sargent’s direction does not disappoint. Four men in trench coats and disguises enter a New York City subway car at different stations and quickly take the conductor and passengers hostage until their demands are met. What are those demands? It seems laughable in 2016, but they want a million dollars. (Remember, this is 1974.) If their demands aren’t met in an hour, they’ll kill one hostage per minute.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three feels true in a way that modern thrillers don’t. It is in no way predictable and everything (well, most everything) that happens in it feels organic, especially the characters and performances. Walter Matthau, for instance, seems like a typical New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant, a man who’s seen it all, is slightly (okay, maybe more than slightly) cynical, and no-nonsense. He’s surrounded by several New York characters who might seem like stereotypes in any other movie, but they come across as very believable here, including Jerry Stiller as another police lieutenant, Dick O’Neill as the man in charge of keeping the trains going, and Lee Wallace, who comes close to stealing the show as the Mayor of New York. And of course you have the four gunmen played by Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Earl Hindman, playing respectively Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. (Quentin Tarantino would give a nod to these characters by using them again in his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs.)
I must also point out two films from the 80s that I somehow never saw when they were released. I’m kicking myself for never having seen them before now, but I now own the first and hope to own the second soon.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) John Carpenter
For some reason, I stopped watching John Carpenter films after Starman (1984). Big Trouble in Little China was his next film, but I guess it just wasn’t on my radar. It should’ve been. It’s a big, wacky, mystery/adventure/martial arts/comedy that you can’t help but like. Forgive me if I don’t talk about the film that much, but rather let the images speak for themselves. This is one fun movie.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) W.D. Richter
Oddly enough, I had never seen this film before this morning. I think it went immediately from the theaters to HBO, where I saw ads for it over and over, but never watched it, thinking it would be absolute garbage. The film is certainly not for everyone, but it hit on all cylinders (or most all cylinders) with me. Describing it would be both a waste of time and an exercise in futility. Just watch it, let it happen, and enjoy with weirdness, the 80s vibe, and the strange humor. (It also might help if you’re slightly blitzed.) I will definitely be exploring the different options of purchasing this film on Blu-ray. (If anyone has any thoughts on the Arrow UK release vs. the Shout Factory release, please let me know.)
I neglected to discuss the silent films I saw in 2016, which I hope to do next time.