It happened at last—I went for a whole month without finding a single new movie I could bring myself to see. Troy? Van Helsing? The Day After Tomorrow? Don’t make me laugh. I’ll do a lot for Crisis, but I have my limits. So instead of subjecting myself (and you) to a thousand words’ worth of spleen, I took the advice of my editors and chose instead to write a column on the cheerier subject of old movies.
A few months ago, my cable TV supplier started making digital video recorders (DVRs) available to its subscribers. These magic boxes let you record any telecast onto a hard drive by pressing a button. In my case, this almost always means movies. Since my DVR was installed, I’ve harvested some three-dozen films from Turner Classic Movies and the Fox Movie Channel, from which I’ve chosen ten sleepers to recommend to you. Some were blockbusters in their day, others flops, but none is well-remembered now, and I’d be surprised if anyone reading this column has seen all of them. A few have yet to turn up on DVD, but all can be rented or purchased in one format or other if you look long enough.
Chronologically and stylistically speaking, these films range from fluffy frivolity to coal-black comedy. Some are suitable for family viewing, while a few should be saved for after the younger kids have gone to bed. In fact, they have only one thing in common: I like them all.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943, directed by Jacques Tourneur). Not your standard slasher flick, but an understated, intensely romantic fantasy told from a discreetly yet unambiguously Christian point of view, accompanied by the yearning music of Roy Webb (Notorious). Yes, it’s a 69-minute-long bottom-of-the-bill movie full of second-string actors, including Tom Conway (George Sanders’s brother) and Frances Dee (Joel McCrea’s wife), but Tourneur and producer-writer Val Lewton make it into something special.
Panic in the Streets (1950, directed by Elia Kazan). Instead of his usual smirking psychopath, Richard Widmark plays the good guy in this tightly wound, crisply atmospheric beat-the-clock nail-biter about a New Orleans health inspector desperate to nip a potential epidemic of pneumonic plague in the bud.
On Dangerous Ground (1951, directed by Nicholas Ray). Robert Ryan, the quintessential film-noir bad guy, plays a burned-out big-city cop who finds redemption through an encounter with a blind woman (Ida Lupino) and her brother, a mentally disturbed murderer (Sumner Williams). The story sounds trite, even mawkish on paper, but Ray and his colleagues unerringly find the emotional center of each scene, aided by one of Bernard Herrmann’s richest scores.
Trouble Along the Way (1953, directed by Michael Curtiz). John Wayne didn’t always play cowboys, and he had a pleasing knack for romantic comedy. A case in point is this blessedly uncynical film in which he plays a ne’er-do-well single father who becomes the football coach of a struggling Catholic college. It’s no masterpiece, just a Going My Way-style heart-warmer with a great cast.
Lust for Life (1956, directed by Vincente Minnelli). The best of the old-fashioned widescreen Hollywood biopics, this chronicle of the life of Vincent van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), based in part on the painter’s letters, is visually stunning from start to finish. The script (by radio playwright Norman Corwin) is a bit too earnest, but Douglas’s anguished acting is convincing, and Minnelli makes sure you always have something gorgeous to look at. The passionate score is by Miklós Rözsa, who was at the peak of his powers in the Fifties, with Julius Caesar behind him and Ben-Hur yet to come.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969, directed by Burt Kennedy). James Garner, like most actors who started out in TV, never quite established himself as a full-fledged movie star, but he made his fair share of classy films, and this droll Western spoof (written by William Bowers, the author of such indisputably serious efforts as Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter) is one of the finest. In addition to the effortlessly charming Garner, the cast is spangled with familiar faces, among them Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Much funnier than Blazing Saddles—and not even slightly vulgar. (OK, we do see a couple of long shots of “Madame Orr’s House,” but I didn’t get it when I was 13.)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, directed by Peter Yates). Robert Mitchum, the last of the big-time Hollywood stars, kept getting better as he got older, exchanging his youthful beauty for the rumpled disillusion of middle age. This no-nonsense adaptation of George V. Higgins’s gritty novel about organized crime in Boston contains one of Mitchum’s strongest performances as a tired-out small-time heister who gets in a little deeper than he planned. (Among other things, his accent is impeccable.)
Harry and Tonto (1974, directed by Paul Mazursky). Like James Garner, Art Carney was a gifted actor who became so closely identified with a hit TV series, The Honeymooners, that he was unable to move into big-screen parts. Instead, he created the role of Felix Unger in the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple, but alcoholism forced him out of the film version. Once he went on the wagon, he made a comeback as a crusty character actor, winning an Oscar for his poignant performance in Mazursky’s picaresque tale of a crusty Manhattan widower who loses his lease and embarks on a sentimental cross-country journey to a new life.
Hearts of the West (1975, directed by Howard Zieff). Jeff Bridges, the Robert Mitchum of his generation, never looked younger or more adorably naive than in this sweet-natured farce about an aspiring author of pulp fiction who has a run-in with a crooked correspondence-school teacher (Donald Pleasance) and hides out with the crew of a film studio that makes B-minus Westerns. Nifty acting by Bridges, Alan Arkin, Blythe Danner, and Andy Griffith, another small-screen star who had far more to offer than The Andy Griffith Show ever required.
A Shock to the System (1990, directed by Jan Egelson). A melancholic advertising man (Michael Caine) with a shrewish wife (Swoosie Kurtz) gets cut out of a promised pro-motion by a sneaky subordinate (Peter Riegert) and opts to solve his midlife crisis by committing a murder or two…or five. What’s interesting about this seemingly amoral comedy is its moral clarity: Caine may get away with it in the end but only at the price of his soul. Though he’s pitch-perfect as always, there are plenty of other memorable characterizations, including a particularly deft one by Elizabeth McGovern as a starry-eyed secretary who unwittingly becomes the devil’s disciple.
Is there a little-known movie that puts a smile on your face? If so, write to me at email@example.com, and I’ll print some of your picks in a future issue of Crisis.