Here is my contribution to the National Classic Film Day Blogathon: 6 Films-6 Decades
Six favorite films, one from each decade beginning with the 1920s through 1970s. It was hard just picking one film. How do I choose between The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity? I picked one from each decade, but did I pick the right one? The answer is on the day I wrote this post, it was the right answer, but I keep asking myself how could I leave Double Indemnity off? How could I have chosen Mean Streets over The Godfather or The Last Picture Show? How could I have picked The Graduate over Rosemary’s Baby or The Manchurian Candidate? I’m sure if you call me tomorrow, I would come up with six different films and still be conflicted.
Find more contributions to this series by clicking here.
The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush was the first silent feature film I ever watched. Back in the days before streaming, before DVDs, before VHS, a few movies, silent films that had fallen into public domain were sold on 8mm film via Blackhawk Films. Most were shorts and comedies by the likes of Buster Keaton. Laurel and Hardy and others. The Gold Rush is my favorite of Chaplin’s feature films. For pure laughs, you cannot beat it. But there is more; iconic images such as the “dance of the dinner rolls,” the boiling and eating of one of his boots for dinner and waking up one cold morning after a fierce snowstorm to find his cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff. These images are at times poignant, sweet and always laugh out loud funny.
Angels With Dirty Faces
I love Warner Brothers gangster films. They were tougher, grittier, and more streetwise than say a MGM gangster film like “Johnny Eager.” I grew up on films like The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties and Angels with Dirty Faces, and to this day they remain favorites.
Michael Curtiz was one of Hollywood’s great house directors. The only other director who can match him for one great film after another Is Alfred Hitchcock. “Angels With Dirty Faces” brought James Cagney back to his gangster type roles of the past, as well as back to Warner Brothers after a contract dispute. He came back in style in one of the best gangster films of the classic era. But “Angels” is more than just a gangster flick, it’s Warner’s, known for its social commentary, giving us a dose of how fate can change the course of your life on a dime. How things turn out in life is sometimes just a matter of chance. Who can make it over the fence, getting away from the police, and who does not. This was sophisticated filmmaking dressed up as slick popular entertainment. Rocky’s last mile is brilliantly shot with high contrast lighting. His defiant attitude and then the final moments of his life as he “turns cowardly.” The filmmaker’s leave it ambiguous. Did Rocky really die a coward? Did he do it for the kids or did he do more for Father Jerry, his only real friend. We can only surmise and draw our own conclusions because the filmmakers aren’t telling.
The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart has been one of my favorite actors ever since I first became a film lover. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, he never lost that cynical anti-hero touch of a man who always went his own way and live by his own code, best expressed in this classic line: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” There is much more to the story that investigating his partner’s death. There are lies, deceit, sex and betrayal. There is also a supporting cast of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elijah Cook Jr. all who would become seminal supporting players in noirs to come.
I’ve written about this film times before. It’s my favorite Hitchcock, and that is saying a lot, and one of my all-time favorites. Rear Window gets to the roots of movie watching, and still photography. For anyone who is an avid filmgoer, it is no great revelation that watching movies is an extension of voyeurism; after all, that’s what we do, we look into the lives of others. Observing, in a socially acceptable way, as opposed to peeping into the windows of neighbors or strangers. We are all, to an extent, curious to know what other people are doing, it’s human nature. However, most people can keep these voyeuristic tendencies limited to the socially accepted variety. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of this trait in humans, and he suckers us into compliance right from the beginning with the casting of James Stewart. Who better than Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Straight Lace to lure you into peeping in on your neighbors and making you think there is nothing weird about it. You may not like hearing it but yes, if you like watching movies you are a voyeur! Rear Window is also smart, funny, tense, meticulous and intriguing.
There are some films that are indelibly burned into your psyche for whatever reason. It may have to do with the heart of every audience member jumping into their throats the first time the shark comes out of the water in Jaws. It could be the blaring rock sound of The Ronettes singing, Be My Baby, on the soundtrack of Mean Streets, or the discovery of a little know film called The Panic in Needle Park as you watch a then unknown actor named Al Pacino blow you away. There are certain films that are etched into your life and become a brick on the wall that helped build your love for movies. For me, The Graduate was one of those films. The source material, a novel by Charles Webb, was published in 1963 to little and no acclaim.
By 1967, a lot had changed in America; the anti-war movement had emerged, long hair, hippies, the love generation, an anti-establishment movement was growing. There was a feeling of it was us against them (in 1968 Jerry Rubin would make the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30” a rallying cry). Webb’s Benjamin Braddock did not live in that world. He seems to be a character on the cusp, a product of 1950s white picketed suburban America. Though unlike his 50s counterparts, he did not want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Subsequently, he drifts… mostly into an affair with Mrs. Robinson.
Still, the film was revolutionary for its time. It came out at a time when American cinema was finding a new path; a new generation of filmmakers were just beginning to emerge. America’s old guard was on their last legs with their best days behind them. The look and style of the film was very much influenced by these factors.
Every serious film lover sees a film that once in a while affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about. This is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it doesn’t have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply. “Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks. The movie’s energy comes from the powerful acting, the cinéma vérité style filmmaking and Scorsese’s pioneering use of popular music. From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.