In the last few months, I’ve seen more classic movies than new releases. These are five (of varying genres) that I would highly recommend (even if you don’t go out of your way to watch older movies).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (available to rent via iTunes, YouTube, and GooglePlay)
This sci fi classic has been remade at least three times, and that doesn’t even include Robert Rodriguez’ loosely adapted version starring Josh Hartnett and Jon Stewart and Elijah Wood, The Faculty. But there is no touching the original. I thought it might be campy and dated, but it holds up incredibly well.
The movie opens with a paranoid man who’s been admitted to a hospital psych ward, claiming that he is a doctor himself and not crazy—just listen to his story and please believe him. This man turns out to be Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), and we follow him back to the beginning, when he returned home from a trip and started noticing something was wrong in his sleepy hometown. Lots of canceled appointments, lots of people with delusions that their relatives are not who they appear to be, and police officers who don’t seem too concerned with things that should concern them.
Of course, there’s also a romantic angle in this story. Dr. Bennell is trying to hook back up with his old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who recently returned from Nevada where she got a divorce and is now back on the market. These two have lots of history and even more chemistry in the present day.
A lot of the suspense is built simply by not knowing who can be trusted, but there are some great chase scenes and a few eerie special effects shots of the “pods” that the doc and his lady friend uncover eventually.
This movie has influenced the style and spirit of so many others, and it’s interesting to watch it now and think about the possible social or political metaphors it was going for then. Some of these metaphors (like communism) don’t necessarily apply today, but the idea that people would rather compromise their humanity to avoid pain or inconvenience is definitely valid even now.
I loved this movie for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the lead performance from McCarthy. He oozes charisma—think George Clooney—and his transformation from carefree doctor to paranoid outsider is excellent. Wynter brings a lot to her role as the romantic interest, grounding the character with a healthy dose of realism and humanity.
Another thing this movie has going for it? Brevity. At 80 minutes, not a second is wasted. The story unfolds quickly, giving us just enough details to feel involved and ending on a strong note. More genre pictures of this era could take notes—tension and terror can only be felt for so long before they lose their effectiveness. This movie gets that balance just right, and then sends us on our way.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) (currently out of print, but will soon be available as part of a Criterion Blu-ray collection of Jacques Demy films)
I already know the two hurdles that have kept you from seeing this movie so far, because they used to be my excuses too:
1. It’s in French with English subtitles.
2. Every single word of it is sung.
But guess what? Get over that. Because this movie is too good to miss. If you’re anything like me, you’ll forget about the subtitles and the singing about five minutes in, and just get absorbed in the lush scenes and human drama. (It is WAY better than Les Mis, if that helps encourage you.)
The movie starts off as a story of sappy sentimental first love. We meet Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a 20-year-old auto mechanic who is totally gorgeous and charming; and then we meet Genevieve (a luminous Catherine Deneuve), the 17-year-old beauty who works in her mom’s umbrella shop when she’s not gazing wistfully out the window or making up excuses to go out with Guy.
Genevieve’s mom is skeptical of their relationship, especially because Guy hasn’t fulfilled his mandatory military service yet, and Genevieve is so young. And sure enough, pretty soon Guy gets his notice of service in the mail, and the two lovers are parted amidst much weeping and promises to wait for each other, to the tune of the movie’s best-known musical theme.
Of course, young love can’t foresee all the possible bumps in the road ahead, and there turns out to be one bump in particular that complicates the decision of waiting for two years to be reunited. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say this romantic movie also has its feet firmly planted on the ground; and sometimes reality intrudes on the fairy tale notions of teenage girls.
Remember how up top I mentioned the music as something that had daunted me from seeing this movie originally? Well, that was stupid. I loved the music. I would totally listen to the soundtrack of this movie on repeat for days. In fact, I’m listening to it as I type this.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (Available for rent via Amazon)
Hitchcock referred to this movie as his favorite of his own filmography on more than one occasion. I still prefer Rear Window and North by Northwest, but I can definitely see how you could make a case for this one.
The Newton family lives in Santa Rosa, California—a small town where the librarian and the police officer directing traffic are on a first-name basis with every citizen. Dad loves crime novels, Mom has her ladies clubs, little sis devours classic literature, and teenage Charlie is bored out of her mind and spends time in her room “thinking.” This quiet routine is interrupted when the family receives word that Uncle Charlie is coming for a visit. He’s a favorite, and teenage Charlie’s named after him, so she’s especially excited. But we get hints early on that he’s hiding something, and probably not anything good.
A few aspects of this film really set it apart. For starters, we get plenty of light moments even though a sense of dread creeps in early on and continues to build to the climax of the story. The adults seem mostly clueless, even when Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) exhibits very suspicious behavior and gives unexpected dinner monologues about the “faded, fat, greedy women… like wheezing animals” who spend their dead husbands’ fortunes on food and drink and jewelry. In fact, Dad and neighbor Herb sit around the very same dinner table one-upping each other’s plots for murdering each other undetected. When young Charlie finds this conversation upsetting, her mother chides her that this is simply how her father “relaxes.”
So it’s mostly up to a teenage girl to uncover what her creepy Uncle is up to, and then she has to deal with the consequences when he learns that she knows his secret. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, periodically interrupted by romantic interludes involving a detective who is looking into Uncle Charlie but would rather be looking into Teen Charlie, it would seem.
Aside from the story and the great performances from the two leads, another wonderful element has to be the cinematography and setting. Hitchcock uses shadow so expertly, it’s no wonder the word is in the title. The way silhouettes are framed, casting light or shadow in a specific direction, growing in stature as the threat becomes more imminent—it reminded me of some images from The Night of the Hunter. We also get some signature staircase scenes, and the house itself becomes important because of its layout. For example, Uncle Charlie’s room is upstairs and just down the hall from where the girls sleep. There’s also a door that leads outside to the back stairs, and those are utilized multiple times as an important device in the story. And then there’s the garage door that gets jammed so easily… You get the idea. Hitchcock knew that a sinister person might be scary, but that suspense can be enhanced even more in specific kinds of architecture and home layouts.
Last year’s Stoker was a darker and more twisted homage to this story, but to me, this is the better movie by far. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.
Christmas in July (1940) (available on DVD via Netflix & Amazon)
This brisk (67 minute) comedy introduced me to screwball master Preston Sturges. Witty banter, farcical premise, and sweet but knowing outcome… this movie has it all. Released toward the end of the Great Depression, it belongs in a double feature with “It’s A Wonderful Life” and sends up corporate behavior and snobbery while letting us all root for the common man finally getting a chance to do more than just scrape by.
Jimmy and Betty are young and in love, but they don’t have enough money to marry and live together. Jimmy enters a contest with a big cash prize: A coffee company looking for a new slogan. His strikes Betty as odd and unlikely. “If you’re up all night, it’s not the coffee; it’s the bunk!” She doesn’t understand it, even though he repeatedly attempts to explain the word play and new scientific studies that inspired him to write it. She thinks he probably shouldn’t get his hopes up about winning; he’s impossibly optimistic.
Meanwhile, we flash to the coffee company, where a room full of arguing dudes in suits make the jury from 12 Angry Men look downright agreeable and civilized. They’re tasked with sorting through the thousands of contest entries to settle on a winning slogan. The president of the company is just about fed up with them and their indecisiveness. We get the idea that maybe this movie is about more than just a down on their luck young couple—it might just be a little dig at corporate America.
I could keep going but this is a short movie and I’m not interested in relaying the whole plot in the review. Let’s cut to the chase: Through a mix up of humorous proportions, Jimmy believes he has won and begins a spending spree that includes gifts for the whole neighborhood; and he’s suddenly the go-to idea man at work, too. It’s funny how fame and fortune can radically change people’s view of someone instantly.
I loved the sweetness and witty banter and just the overall spirit of this fun little movie. It’s a simple premise, but it’s nice when something straightforward pays off in a big way and is so well made.
Breathless (1960) (available via HuluPlus or for rental on Amazon)
The first movie Jean-Luc Godard directed, and the first French new wave movie I encountered, oozes style and insouciant sexiness. I adored every second of it—so much so that the next day I brought a screen shot of it to my hair stylist and had her attempt to replicate actress Jean Seberg’s chic pixie cut. (The only other time my movie obsession led to hairstyle emulation was for Run Lola Run, which vaulted into my top 5 movies ever upon first viewing.)
The plot, which is secondary to the look and characters in this film, revolves around Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he deals with the consequences of a crime inspired in part by his film noir heroes, particularly Humphrey Bogart. On the run from the law, he takes refuge in the company of an American girl named Patricia (Seberg) he’s casually dating. The couple, especially Michel, sometimes appear nihilistic; but that might be a front for their more romantic notions that keep cropping up in subtle ways. They do their best to pretend they don’t care, but we get the sense they actually do care—about each other, about what the rest of the world thinks of them, about their uncertain future.
Visually, this movie stands out for its long takes and jump cuts—an editing style that Godard pioneered and popularized. Shooting in black and white rather than color imbued the movie with a timeless cool, and led to gorgeous silhouettes and minor touches like the way cigarette smoke shades an intimate scene.
If you have been avoiding this movie for fear it might be pretentious or overrated, think again. It earns every bit of praise that’s been bestowed upon it, and just writing about it makes me want to watch it again right now.