Friday, August 08, 2014

Top 25: Greatest / All-Time Favorites

April 12, 2014 Postscript: RIP to a great lady, say hi to the boys, we'll see you again soon
Bogey and Bacall - Hollywood's Coolest Couples

Anything that kills you makes you cool first

I've been going to bed really early lately, sometimes five or six AM. And any film lover knows movies at dawn have their own rare magic, illuminating inner truths not usually seen within earlier screenings, just as two opposing mirrors might illuminate rarefied sights such as the back of one's head, the better to appraise one's hair, freeing the gaze from its familiar angles in ways the day's medicine cabinet mirror glance of prime time doth not afford. Films I've seen a thousand times are alien and strange at this black magic hour, delivered from their familiarity and made new and wondrous. I would bring on my desert island these gathered here, though if I haven't been living on a desert island lately I never will be. So keep your VERTIGOs, your CITIZEN KANEs, your RULES OF THE GAMEs and GONE WITH THE WINDs. They make me sick. I've been sick all week, reaching the end of a decade-long mid-life crisis--all my tethers coming to an end at once (August has always been my emotional/spiritual Waterloo). So if e'er was a time to build a raft from these timbres, 'tis now. These here films have proven of late still lighter than air, and still potent enough to remind me why I drank in the first place, and that the ultimate message of my favorite director Howard Hawks is that anything that kills you makes you cool first.

dir Howard Hawks (1946)

I'll never go to bed early again, not when I can re-watch THE BIG SLEEP over and over, flipping the disc (there are two versions) and pondering the mystery of who actually killed Owen Taylor and what what exactly transpired in that sexy bookstore between "closed for the afternoon" and the rainy evening; and why Hawks + Bogart + Bacall + Chandler = infinite cool. All I need to know is that Bogie and Bacall both radiate such alchemically rich magic both separately and together (as long as Hawks is there, too) that time stands still and the fine print of the plot fades into the dripping shadows of time like the chuckling gasp of a post-poison Harry Jones. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down, even knowing it would be her last. (See Anima Scythe).

Latest viewing notes, post-reshoot version: I understand now that my adult tastes were formed around this film and that it left me with no love of outdoor scenes actually filmed outdoors. Hawks keeps the principle exteriors on the soundstage so Bogie can prowls the curb around Geiger's, Huck's Garage and the the house out back like a cagey astronaut within a giant's train set dream and Bacall glows right off the screen thanks to all that dark. Even CASABLANCA deigned to have an occasional sunny LA exterior ("daytime comes to Casablanca") around the WB set to dampen the dream-like mood with hangovers and bazaars, but SLEEP never leaves the darkness, one sort or another, and all the women have jobs or are on the make, or are into drugs, gambling, decadence, smoking, drinking their lunch from a bottle, and falling onto a guy's lap while he's standing up. It's paradise. Hawks' greatest film, it leaves me with zero tolerance for the ditzy housewives, Norman Rockwell mailmen, apple-cheeked kids, and ladies home auxiliaries so popular in MGMs movies during the sam era. May they all rot in hell for their code-enforced Americana poisoning. Why couldn't there have been Hawks-Bogart-Bacall adaptions of all Chandler's books, all filmed just like this? I would cut off my left foot for that. Hell, I wouldn't need it anymore.

(1944) Dir. Howard Hawks
"A home with mother... in Albany, too."
Every line of this movie is like champagne, and alongside Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth a classic example of Cavell's "Comedies of Remarriage." Essential reading. Essential re-veiwing too, until the entire script sings in your bloodstream. Like its predecessor in a previous Hawks-Hecht teaming, Twentieth Century, it's the tale of a dance wherein a couple joined by a professional calling must disentangle and then re-tangle themselves anew, the man dancing on the head of a pin to spin reality away from her current lover/replacement (who wants to take her away to a life of domestic tranquility - i.e. boredom - growing up in suburbia, where this popped on local TV a lot - being as it was in the public domain - it blew my and my brother's minds, we'd be rolling on the floor in giddy hysterics, even as teenagers in the 80s) and it's so well acted, written and directed it seems to flow by in about five blissful minutes, no matter how many times you see it, it's always fresh.

3. THE THING (1951)
Dir. Christian Nyby (Howard Hawks)

It happened to be playing on a local TV station one afternoon in 1981 just at the exact moment we connected our first VCR. It was like landing on the moon. I taped it and I watched it obsessively, editing out the commercials, marveling at the miracle of being able to rewind. If I have courage in my life it's thanks to this film-- there's such a great rapport between Hendry and his crew that I really want to be all I can be in the Air Force, at the North Pole, in 1951, forever and ever, without ever actually having to stand guard duty over a block of ice because an assortment of eggheads are too daffy to have read HG Welles (or they wouldn't wave off the disease hypothesis so blithely).

Now that I'm older I'm less amused by Scotty's homespun malarkey, and Carrington's tantrums that everyone's not willing to stand there and die seems a bit like anti-intellectual propaganda (it would be more telling if he was still trying to convince them to try and capture it instead, i.e. a pro-active strategy beyond "crew: expendible" lemming-hood). But it's great as a kid to see the science professor get kicked to the back of the room, and every age I reach I notice and cherish new elements: like the way sensitive conversations are spoken in a low whisper (the lieutenant having kittens, Nicky sticking up for Hendry's decision against her own boss are under-the-breath intimate, and make us feel like welcome confidantes) the well-oiled rapport with the crew that lets you believe they really have flown in WW2 together (the way Scott the journalist pitches in and helps like one of the crew, reflecting his experience as an embedded war correspondent); actors who do such good work in the groups it takes a hundred viewings to really notice and appreciate them like Robert Nichols as Hendry's witty but centered co-pilot and Dewey Martin as the chief crewman ("I think you're right, captain"); John Dierkes (with his deep comforting voice and looming mountainous face like Kenneth Tobey's older brother - in this and as the priest in #17 on this list); and Sally Kreighton as the comforting-voiced nurse/his wife. All those great voices... gone gone with the loss of smoking from the cinematic polescape.

(1932) Dir. Josef Von Sternberg
"I wish you could tell me there'd been no other men."
"I wish I could, Doc. But five years in China is a long time..."
Second only to OVER THE EDGE as far as sending up the harbingers of decency and parental micro-managing, this has got a great pre-code Paramount jazz score, and my favorite character actors, including bullfrog-voiced Eugene Palette; Warner Oland's. and Gustav von Seyffertitz getting tortured for the crime of shutting off fans (a major offense since I always watch this in deepest summer), and Anna May Wong at her most coolly exotic, coolly passing back the prim boarding house matron's business card. Never lovelier (would that Von Sternberg made a dozen movies with her) than in her long black silk gown, listening to jazz on the portable gramophone with Dietrich in her black feathers and veil-- their shared compartment becomes the epitome of why I love train movies. They're like a pair of 60s Carnaby Fashion models wandering into some dream version of 1932 via a Donald Cammell time warp. The whole first half of this film is a glorious ribbing of censors, colonialism, and British prudery, only to reverse the flow later by having the Henry Davidson harumpher turn over to Shanghai Lily's side of things, because he realizes she's true and Hawksian and beyond mortal convention. I watch it every year, with all the fans blowing high on me, rapt in a kind of amniotic ecstasy.

(PS - 2017 re-viewing):
The ultimate rationale for why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade, what I come away this latest viewing is how frozen in cigarette ad abstraction is our Major Harvey. His banter with Dietrich is like a long secret code, repeated in abstract mantra form like some Karloff's Black Cat Latin Mass, the cigarette smoke like holy incense. She's an exotic danger to which his only defense is to freeze in place and betray no desire. She too mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow. It is accomplished.

(1941) Dir. Preston Sturges

Every viewing is like the first, reflecting the mythic undercurrents of the eternal, like a child who can hear the same story every night for months and months: just check the scene where their faces are pressed to each other, her hand (at left of his head) like a cobra bouncing back and forth through his hair. When he learns she's really a card sharp we only feel bad for her for a second - soon drowned in a ship's bellowing horn; her "I feel a lot better all ready" at seeing the check alive and well further cements us to her hip in admiration, re-bonding her to the magnificent Gerald. Love is for chumps and when a grifter falls in love with a chump we sense our hackles rising. On the other hand, aren't we chumps, too?

Fellow swindler Eric Blore shows up in the next scene: "Sir Alfred at the moment by my child" - he only has to introduce them all to his new name once or twice and they instantly remember and we wouldn't see such quick thinking until Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. ("Good old Horace, ho! what a card player.") The next moment, the morning birds are chirping and the lovely bullfrog voice of Eugene Palette comes in "tomorrow we'll be sobURRR" It's the moments that won me body and soul to this movie. The portly butler from ANIMAL CRACKERS shows up trying to supervise the preps for a party. And even as a royal dame from Great Britain, visiting during the Blitz as they often did to drum up support, Stanwyck's Lady Eve isn't some stuffy caricature but a lively suffusion of class and sauce, who jokes of her misunderstandings and cultural confusion trying to navigate the NYC subway, sweeping the whole haute-bourgeois crowd off their feet and saving Palette from another dull evening ("take my arm and we'll fight our way through"). Unlike Cary Grant in similar roles (her always made it seem like he may be--deep down--in on the joke), Fonda is deliberately sincere, giving that measured earnestness in his voice talking about seeming to go way back, or presuming his superiority at cards ("You don't understand psychology,") as if he's navigating his way towards an unblinking monologue in GRAPES OF WRATH. Demarest as his bodyguard is paranoid but he's also right, and in the psyche scheme he's the superego / Iago, with Palette as the Fisher King and Charles Coburn as the sage, magus, trickster yoda. Stanwyck as the anima of course but she's also the trickster princess; she wears many guises: as father Coburn puts it, "Women change their names so often anyway it doesn't seem to matter."

Every moment is so rich and full of wise oaths and modern instances, even up to the snake sleeping like a contented penis by it's two huge apple balls, rattling it's baby rattle --the warning implied that desire's quenching leads only to more problems ahead with screeching children - problems which Sturges has no interest in (thank goodness). Meanwhile each new viewing susses out more facets of Stanwyck's gem-like sparkle --for example I only recently noticed the contrast of Eve's deft maneuvering through vastly more intricate and narrow furniture spaces in between Hopsy's pratfalls in the big dinner party scene out in "Connect-icut" -- her eyes never leaving his, while he falls even in the open spaces she weaves between couch and table in a small space with elegant un-showy grace --not even her ostrich feather fan touches wood. That's so termite.

(1932) Dir. Howard Hawks

My second favorite comedy and most favorite gangland saga, it's like the Marxes if there were all Chico and sociopathic killers. The first pre-recorded video I ever bought (I was fourteen and it was $39.99). I first realized the genius of Hawks' 'more than meets the eye' approach around the 20th viewing I noticed the way the group of around six tough-but-unobtrusive extras subtly cohere out of the crowd scenes to form an unobtrusive but imposing ring around Paul Muni whenever he gets up from his chair. It's the kind of termite detail someone like Oliver Stone or De Palma didn't notice so the remake doesn't lacks them. As I say, it's not obvious, it's ultimate termite detail: as viewers we get used to filtering out the background that Hawks shows us just how dead we'd be in the same situation through our obliviousness. With Hawks, the extras are never just background - it all fits together into a cohesive whole no single viewing can absorb. But even so, it's inexplicably macabre --so advanced and darkly hilarious it wouldn't be equalled in disturbing hilarity until Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE: Mr. Camonte's secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) getting so mad he almost shoots the phone, or getting the receiver and gun mixed up so he ends up nearly blowing his head off --the way his final triumph with the phone becomes so genuinely tragic as a result of all this rather than just the inevitable shoot-out like it would be for, say, early Hitchcock; the uneasy chill of watching Tony's clowning face darken like a cloud at the sight of his sister dancing. Countering the Ben Hectht Broadway-cum-Borgia wit are uncool censor-accommodating screeds against the gangster: The insert scene at the newspaper editor's office even has a man asking, "But what can private citizens do?" The cops are dour, declared Edward Arnold, "When I think what goes on in the minds of these lice I want to vomit!"The reporters are snarky and the gangsters are half mad from the high of sudden wealth and constant danger. And there's Karen Morely showing she's way cooler and more fun than Michelle Pfeiffer's vacant coke head. And Ann Dvorak is the coveted, sex-hungry sister - an early forerunner of Martha Vickers in Hawks' BIG SLEEP but way cooler. These are not empty-headed trashy broads to mash grapefruit at but equally cool and tough hotties, displaying all the little but lithe termite details: Poppy and Cesca each having a moment for loading the machine gun drums and pistols in a state amoral exhilaration; Poppy's haunting eyes in the dark in her eyes the night Tony tells her to pack her stuff (the first few viewings you just think she's turned on, but then you see in here eyes she's also afraid of saying no to him, and so you see the degree Stockholm syndrome plays in gangster mollhood); Tony's round of phone calls to Guido's ladies, and their dead-of-night visit to the terrified Lovo, and then his visit to Poppy (you can feel the darkness of the soundstage looming all around them like a loving, cognizant abyss); Cesca's jazz baby seductive dance and the carnal glimmer she gets in her eyes when she says "I'm eighteen."  It took me awhile but 100 viewings later it occurs to me to listen to what Tony whistles during his big show-down at Lovo's office --I thought it was just some Mexican death march ala RIO BRAVO, but it's actually a sutbtle nuanced--in key--rendition of an obscure Donizetti aria! Termites, man.  The other big mobster movies of the day, the Warners crowd - Little Caesar and Public Enemy --are too busy with partners trying to dance their way straight, moral dilemmas of hitherto law abiding citizens, beery lower east side stereotypes, cops on the beat, etc. Hawks' gangsters never worry about that shit - the world is their's and the boring sentiment and social work is shuttled and escaped it's all just one wild rush stops with a bang.

(also RIO BRAVO)
(1966) Dir. Howard Hawks

There are some who would think me crazy to prize this over RIO BRAVO but I can sum it all up in a few names and words: the first is Arthur Hunnicutt. I love Walter Brennan --he has sass in RIO BRAVO but its a two-note sass; Arthur H. seems like the real McCoy. Only Richard Farnsworth or Sam Elliott even comes close to his level of mountain man folksy authenticity; the folksy drollery is all his. Second is Robert Mitchum, who takes to the Hawlsian air (the way comedy and "things at stake" action/drama coexist so sublimely) like a duck to whiskey, making us wonder in amazement that this was his first and last film with Hawks. Third is 'detoxification.' Though it's played more for comedy here, the 'sobering-up from a two-month bender' feels truer than Dino's--not in spite of being funnier but because of being funnier. RIO's sobering up skipped a few reels of shaking and misery (one wouldn't come off a two-year bender with just a hangover), though it did capture the sudden and mysterious way some random song or word will stop the shakes all at once, like the passing of a storm, and the way beer works (sometimes) for tapering down off whiskey -but in general it's a different kind of drunken recovery, an earlier stage. After the wordless BRAVO opening we find Dino already sobering up and cranky watching the way into town, but here Mitchum is still drunk when Wayne rides back into town --he looks and acts closer to how I felt when I went through the same thing. Mitchum's naturally glassy, hangdog eyes seem already bleary to begin with and here he captures what it's like to still be drunk even after you've woken up in desperate need of another drink to stave off the miseries, the horror and pain that increases exponentially every second your awake and not drinking. Mitchum captures all that, and yet still makes it funny. He shakes it off in a few hours too, but that's the movies.

That may seem callous of me, but as one who lived it, I assure you: self-inflicted misery like that is nothing if not sardonically hilarious to the person suffering through it (if you can't laugh at it you wind up in the asylum like Don in LOST WEEKEND). In short, I'd much rather have James Caan, Hunnicutt and Robert Mitchum in my corner as gunfighters (and drinking buddies / friends) than a teen pretty boy (Ricky Nelson, no offense, sheriff), a short Italian crooner (Dean Martin) and cackling Brennan, though they're all great too, don't get me wrong. I would love to have been on the set of BRAVO and hanging out with Angie Dickinson, but EL DORADO is the movie I most want to live in... The Mitchum and Wayne combo, sharing the affection for Charlene Holt ("he won't get bounced around"); the anachronistically cool side chicks pop up as regular as they do in BIG SLEEP; the colors of sky and interiors gorgeous, all those lots of warm yellows, golden gel spots on the rocky walls inside the jail and deep purples thanks to the great night photography of Harold Rossen; even a cool Hawksian in the bad guys section for a change (Christopher George). I'm in heaven, every time I see it. Though there's no musical interlude (it seems to have been cut in between Wayne's getting "bounced around" and his farewell party) there's Poe recitations, clanging church bells, and a groovy Nelson Riddle electric low note guitar in the scene sneaking up on the old church.

The whole second 2/3 seems filmed mostly at night. If you see skulls in the some of the rocky formations in the middle part, that could just be your hallucination or it could be the echo of all those X-es in SCARFACE. After this movie if you don't want to instantly RIO BRAVO (or vice versa) you're crazy, and also, so what if they're so alike? And two, if I was being honest, BRAVO and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT would all be next on this list instead of in the runners-up, but I didn't want this to just be all Hawks'. It's kind of cheating. 

(1979) dir. Jonathan Kaplan

When a peer group and time-place period are captured correctly on film, as in Wellman, Hawks, or Linklater, you get a feeling of the power and joy of belonging, paradoxically finding yourself through submersion into a group, a power and joy most adults hiding behind the evening paper at home have no recollection of and maybe never even experienced unless they were brothers-in-war, in rock bands, or sports teams. They condemn it when they see it in their children as dangerous and refuse to discuss the matter further, searching their kids' sock drawers for drugs instead of showing them the right way to get high (which is later). EDGE was shelved for two years before being released under the radar, and I found it by accident on TNT one afternoon, surprised it got ***1/2 from Maltin, and was soon enthralled and drunk by it, with it, to it, and because of it. After so many antiseptic years, I was seeing a movie where the kids were genuinely cool instead of just screwing in cars and kidnapping the school mascot and being 'edgy' in that edgeless rote misogynist PORKY'S way. (See Vandal in the Wind)

(1964) Dir. John Huston

There's certain movies so much like my life I can't tell them apart. This is one movie like that, though I first saw and taped it on a TNT colorization, where it saved my life (details here) from a similar spook, and since then it's been a secret weapon--a tin of poppy seed tea coupled to sage Nantucket wise woman counsel--for facing my latest panic, my rather voluptuous crucifixion.. "I'm a New England spinster who's pushing 40." "Well who the hell isn't?!" Sure it's pretentious in parts, and unless you're at the end of your rope, and further you cannot get (so that just getting through the night seems like a mystical endurance test) it can seem datedly arty and overwrought,  but so am I, honey, so am I, I mean; when one is a romantic at heart one risks all for love even if or especially if it means your certain doom. And there's Sue Lyon luring you over the falls like a mirage in the mist. Then she tried to sit in your lap while you're standing up, and all you want to do is make cars in bottles or listen to "in the gloaming" in a rocking chair. Between this and LOLITA, who could refrain that had a heart to love?

My band and I loved this film in the 90s when the. The colorized TNT version I'd taped was a post-gig come-down favorite which we'd quote liberally: "strike the iron's hot, while its hot." My guitarist's cool mom helped me through nights like this and had a British/South African accent like Deborah Kerr's, and we all loved it for that, and so much more. It's a film for all kinds of romantic dysfunction, including abstinence and impotence and--as one who's been both--I respect that "nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon. "Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect, and the tricks they use to dispel their panic. Everything we do to give them the slip and so keep on going." Well, this movie is my trick, this movie my life raft that's never deflating, even sans colorization, sans band, sans Cialis, sans alcohol, sans... everything. Oh, courage...

(1933) Dir. A. Edward Sutherland

I had to pick one W.C. Fields movie, or Marx Brothers, so it was this. It's not perfect but I love it and can watch it incessantly. Peggy Hopkins Joyce is the pre-code equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith, and Burns and Allen do their schtick, and W.C. Fields is at his most feral, alcoholic, and assertive. I guess NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is a favorite as well, but it's tough to put on this list because of all the lengthy Gloria Jean musical numbers, which even she doesn't seem to like doing. Bela Lugosi is the Russian buyer for the radioscope, which is what lured me to tape it in the early 80s, at which time I fell in love, too, With Fields. "Kansas City is lost, I am here!

(1934) Dir. Howard Hawks

Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY. Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses. Contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde with hands curled in pre-strangling mode one moment, lowering them them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest to meet a backer that wants to finance his play "from a religious angle" the next. In a split-second after split-second, Barrymore's whole soul morphs and erupts into entire plays worth of indelible moments bashed together in long single shot takes where Hawks just uses the edges of the frame as the boundaries of the train compartments and lets these cats with their tails tied together have at it. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a remotely comparable locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.

(1935) Dir. Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle

My idealized other/anima is in full materialization in Titania, the fairy queen played by Anita Louise; her flowing sparkly wispy dress with her long straight blonde hair and graceful moves materializes out of the wisps of clouds of Max Rinehardt's surreal lovingly-detailed mise-en-scene; I see her and I melt into the ether, asleep while awake, and in such giddy childlike rapture as to swoon. As Oberon, Victor Jory masterfully hams it up, his low baritone trembling the roots of night, a massive cape unleashing fields of bat-winged dancers; fairies fluttering like rolling clouds as Korngold's peerless adaptation of Mendelssohn's intoxicating music plays throughout like some rare opiate that charges each chakra in turn until, after all the floating on electric ether, one falls through the screen down amidst the foliage to watch little fairies gambol about with newborn eyes. Nymphs cohere from the mist like salvia inner eye visions cohere from the black eyelid blur: dancing interlocked beings moving in playful arm-linked lockstep. Titiana runs her fingers through your donkey hair, sending shivers to your soul's core;  Jory's Oberon holding a lovely Harpo-ish expression as he blends with the trees to hear the lovelorn suffering of Helena (lovely Jean Muir); his black tunic and antlers glowing like Shanghai Lilly's black feather gown. Imagery so nocturnally perfect no words need be spoken for whole reels of slow riding, just Oberon standing upright in his 'mare mount, massive black cape flowing behind him like a the night's own curtain. The scenes with the Danish ballerina Nina Theilade are, to me, the cinematic equivalent of a kind of ecstasy peak memory. Little moments, like Ian Hunter's laugh as he agrees to "burger dance," the surreally beautiful gowns of Jean Muir and Olivia de Havilland or the way the gentle razzing of the Pyramus playlet at the end seems to explain the joy of bad movies ("the worst are now worse..."); With so much loveliness I can even tolerate (sometimes) Mickey Rooney's unbearable speed freak barking as Puck, Hugh Herbert's incessant tittering, James Cagney's robustly forced guffaws, and the smirkiness of Dick Powell.

(1956) Dir. John Huston 

"\Here on the Pequod, in that crazy black stove pipe hat and beard, his eyes wild with endorphin-activating Old Testament energy, Gregory Peck as Ahab is the closest thing yet I'd seen to a living mythic American wild man archetype, that is, until Daniel Day Lewis showed up as Bill the Butcher, and later Daniel Plainview. When I hear Ahab ask who will follow him after Moby Dick, "to his death!" I invariably jump up and cheer, going insane just like Queequeg. Even though I know full well the Pequod won't come back to port, but swim upwards to the bottom of Davy Jones' locker, I can feel the pull in my blood like a magnet. That's psychedelic shamanism at its finest, shipmates! To your flagons, then, for the full measure of grog --it's hot as Satan's hoof." And Orson Welles' prow oration! And Royal Dano as Elijah!!- (full)

(1968) Dir. Jack Hill

SPIDER BABY seems to merge with my psyche as if it had been made just for me... zeroed in but not in a sort of overkill give the people what they want kind of way but a perfectly-realized, just gory and strange enough but never to the point of post-modern narrative disruption way. It lies on the historical time line between my love for those old Bela Lugosi Monogram and PRC poverty row horrors and the post-beat wit, R-rated Addams Family, and Corman trained mastery of on-the-fly shock, schlock, and pacing. Nowhere are there the tedious elements that usually mar old dark house and murderous family films: no snarky reporters, imbecilic cops, doting old ladies or suspicious tire salesmen. Yet there are all sorts of groovy meta links to the gonzo films of the past in the casting: Monogram mainstay Mantan Moreland opens the film as an unlucky telegram deliverer; Carol Ohmart, the archetypal broad in Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1957), makes greed and contempt super sexy as the enterprising distant relative come to claim the property; Sid Haig's savage naive pathos as Ralph, the drunken bonding over old horror movies between the romantic leads.... I haven't even mentioned Lon Chaney Jr. bringing tears to everyone's eyes, or Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn... (more)

(1931) Dir. Todd Browning

This movie has my DNA stamped into it. Dracula was my first and still greatest Halloween costume (in kindergaarten!), my first Aurora model, and Bela Lugosi my first film love. I've performed this movie in a one man ten-minute rooftop sideshow, screened it (in a 'Castle Films' reel) at druggy outdoor parties at half speed, been Drac for Halloween countless times, and I could give a shit that the film's so disjointed, that Whale's two FRANKENSTEIN films are so much better. This is the groundbreaker, the one everyone has seen once at least, and it used to be on all the time on UHF TV. Lugosi is the quintessential undead, the one from which all others flow. He is immortal. He's a part of me, us, our conception of the sexy dread of blood, sex, and death, all of a piece. His unworldly power is still startling. When he tries to control Van Helsing with his double-jointed fingers, you can't help but think to yourself Lugosi really does have ESP ability. You can see the shimmering auric tentacled drawing him across the room ("Come..... here"). I even love the quiet, the lack of film music, the sense that the camera just happened to be on during someone's 5 AM laudanum fever dream. Mina Harker - unearthly; David Manners - anemic and condescending; Dwight Frye - hammy and wild-eyed. Lugosi- perfect.

Lastly a recent uncovering (thanks to Mick LaSalle) of the existentially morbid WWI aviator films written by John Monk Saunders, I've been better able to situate the film in terms of drunken chilled moments at the flight control HQ bar or the consoling arms of Parisian meter maids. Lucy's recitation of the "Hurrah for the next who dies" toast in DRACULA connects to the same toast in EAGLE AND THE HAWK and DAWN PATROL (similar toasts and surrealist gusto in ACE OF ACES); and Helen Chandler wafts through LAST FLIGHT like the ghost of Mina Harker's soul now that the count has her body. (see here) There may have been better movies, but this one's still never been bested. In its unearthly quiet and sheer perverse oddity it's like a British opiate addict WWI pilot's fever dream of what's going on in the mansion of his fiancee back home while he's battling the Huns. Next time you watch it just let it set in your mind that everyone involved with this film is long dead... that's true for most 1931 films but this one feels like it, it's a ghost transmission made from beyond while the actors were still out of their graves, but only just.

(2001) Dir. John Carpenter

John Carpenter is always at his best when trying to remake RIO BRAVO, and this here is RIO BRAVO on (a matriarchal government-led!) Mars meets the old school bad guys and cops binding together to fight an alien source that he explored earlier in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, another favorite. I would never leave the planet without it. The greatest film of the 22nd century. Its genius has yet to be fully appreciated, but if PLAN NINE had a baby with THE THING, it would be GHOSTS. And Ice Cube and Natasha are a dynamite team.

(1934) Dir. Victor Fleming

A stock of top shelf eccentric character actors as the salty pirates on a real ship on real seas, Beery hobbling masterfully about like he's seldom been t'land, Nigel Bruce huffing away and cabins so thick with gunpowder you have to take the fight outside --all combine with lovingly-salted pirate talk ("this molasses is sweeter than serpent sedative!") to make TREASURE a personal favorite. I even love old Cooper as Jim Hawkins no matter how blubbery he gets. When old scalawag Long John rows away at the end, there's a strange elegiac tone almost akin to the end of THE MISFITS or WILD BUNCH. We're saying goodbye to charming rogues who could advise and guide wide-eyed innocents in the ways of social scheming, all the things the code was worried that kids would learn. After this, no Long Johns, certainly, could plunder happily ever after, and certainly not be around as a sage to children. Too damn bad. Certain it is..

Another plus: its ingeniousness in shucking all romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkin’s going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It ain't like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners. No sir. We root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail--“they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em” – but we also root for smooth talking Silver, played with great dog-eared goofiness by Wallace Beery and we even love his rawther repulsive looking band of brigands.

Basically what we see is that Silver wins out, evil as he is, because he’s good with children. He knows how to stoke the fires of Hawkin’s imagination and together they come out ahead even as everyone is dying all around them. You have to appreciate as well the sight of a young boy shooting a pirate he knows by name and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing and all the crap you’d have to go through with the ratings board and parent organizations in today’s hellishly overprotective climate. There's also Chic Sale, crazy as a loon as the Christian diet-starved Ben Gunn, Charles McNaughton as Black Dog. proving the blind can be terrifying as well as hilarious, and Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, staving off the horrors with his near-end alcoholism, and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Love those great wind effects. Hell, love everything about it. "And god bless King George!"

(1932) Dir. James Whale

With numerous viewings the death and age elements kick in -- the way the 'that's fine stuff' rant by Rebecca Femm to Gloria Stuart (who's laserdisc commentary track led to her being cast in TITANIC) leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) And the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas nd Bill's (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); their late arrival like a dose of earthy lower grade humor, the blue collar full of good cheer taverners ("there's a grand fire!"); the end point of madness and the beginning point of savagery, the way Laughton becomes the backbone of Britain; and the introduction of Roderick Femm, played by the elderly real life old lady of the stage Elspeth Dudgeon: "Morgan is a savage, I apologize" - he's a wise old gentleman  "my eldest son, Saul," cementing the biblical links, played by the same guy who played the blind hermit in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

(1948) Dir. Orson Welles

Why haven't any of Welles' better known films made it into my favorites? Because in the end so many are just about his own egotistical genius and the way, once he's tried to sheathe his towering genius within them, film structures often warp and buckle. I most love this one because, if I ever see it enough times to have it memorized from endless viewings, I'll be sitting pretty and sounding like a four dollar swell. Also: I had my last big alcoholic relapse bender in 1998 watching this movie round the clock on an old VHS dupe. In that delirious shame-wracked exaltation (my answering machine slowly filling up with progressively angrier messages from my boss), Shakespeare's packed prose wormed deep into my guilty conscience like a dozen tell-tale heart press agents. And unlike his noirs (Touch of Evil, Lady from Shanghai) and Kane, the rich poetry of the material matches his booming grandeur in ways that challenge him to the fullest --he was born for it. The sturdy Republic B-western sets are built to buckle all they want under the combined heft of two godlike talents combined. And now, on the great new Olive Blu-ray, after aeons of foggy blurs, we can finally see thing clearly, see the dirt in the corners of the sky backdrop, hear clearly the once indecipherable brogues and savor the way Welles' Genghis Kahn face seems to melt in boozy layers of genius under heat of the kliegs and weight of the IVAN GROZNIY crown. Actually, there's no finer performance of a drunk than the stretch of time between his wobbly kaftan-wearing walk to the throne ("fail not our feast!") up through the aftermath of his Banquo-haunted banquet (Lady M's noting the night is "almost at odds with day --which is which?" -being a resonant line for anyone on a major bender) Welles is simply glorious. And Janette Nolan gets a bad rap but in this Olive Blu-ray her genius shines ("your face is a book in which one may read strange of matters" carrying an eerie chill couched within her mellifluent brogue). All in all, it's a classic example of how the right material elevates Welles to giddy heights and this rattletrap soundstage rings like his bedroom during an October childhood slumber party (during which--according to vol. 1 of Simon Callow's indispensable bio--he'd perform Shakespeare monologues after lights out to wow his chums). Maybe it's not as wildly expressionist as his OTHELLO or as melancholic and expansive as CHIMES, but it's enough of each to get by, and without peer in the realm of wild dream-like richness. Myriad interpretations of the material seem to occur all at the same time through some snow globe prism. The only other actor to match Welles' titanic booming ferocity in the Shakespeare realm is a short clip  Barrymore performing as Richard III in 1929's YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS and maybe Olivier's shamefully underseen OTHELLO.  

19. RED RIVER (1948)
Dir. Howard Hawks

I can't watch EL DORADO without watching RIO BRAVO, and then RIO LOBO (which is nowhere near as good as the first two, mainly due to the irregular cast but still great), and then this which is probably the best western ever made. But I snuck it down here to not swamp the top part with Hawks, as I said. But RIO BRAVO and this should be up farther - were there room. 

dir. Eddie Cline

"Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas..."

Dir. Russ Meyer

"I don't know what you're training for, but as far as I'm concerned -you're ready."

dir. Sidney Lumet

dir. Mike Nichols

dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)

dir. Jacques Tourneur (prod. Val Lewton)

You wouldn't think a movie set in the Caribbean would fit this list but this isn't the 'real' Caribbean. No one sweats on the isle of San Sebastian; it's a Caribbean of the mind, cool and dry as a thigh bone rattle, and full of windy mystery as experienced through the eyes of a smitten nurse (the always soothing Frances Drake). I love the spiderweb latticework shadows of potted ferns and porch struts and harp strings, and through it all blows a gentle insistent leaf-rustling wind which builds to a thrilling, satisfying chill in the midnight through-the-cane field walk, the wind calling them through skull sign posts and dry cane stalks and a skeletal Darby Jones guarding the way. When we were young, brother and I watched this and Cat People nearly every night on a back-to-back tape every late night for an entire summer, the fan roaring in front of the TV, amazed how well such apparently slight 'everything to the imagination' films like these could hold up under such heavy repeat viewing. I watched it again recently and was floored about how so little happens, and so quickly. I love the beautiful opening with the Canadian snow outside the window and a Frances Drake voiceover, through to the end with a local black wise man's voiceover on St. Sebastian, offering a prayer for the dead. Where did that guy come from? We don't see anyone with that voice, but it works - he's St. Sebastian himself, perhaps... either way it's as soothing and lovely as a 50/50 gin and grapefruit juice for breakfast.

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
3. Dr. Strangelove (1962)
4.  Rio Bravo (1959)
5. Animal Crackers (1931)
6. Cat and the Canary (1939)
7. The Black Cat (1932)
8. The Fog (1980)
9. Masque of Red Death (1966)
10. Runaway Train (1985)
11. Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)
12. The Black Swan (2010)
13. Hurt Locker, The (2009)
14. Nothing Sacred (1937)
15. Kill Baby, Kill (1966)
16. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
17. Morocco (1931)
18. Black Sabbath (1963)
19. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
20. Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
21. To Have and Have Not (1944)
22. Casablanca (1942)
23. The Black Raven (1944)
24. Touch of Evil (1959)
25. I Know Where I'm Going (1945)



  1. Nice list. Here's mine:

    Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Patrice Chéreau, 1998)
    Out 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971)
    8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
    La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
    Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
    The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949)
    Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)
    Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)
    The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
    Good News (Charles Walters, 1947)

    Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955), Le Diable Probablement (Robert Bresson, 1977), Une Chambre en Ville (Jacques Demy, 1982), A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1958), Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010), India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1974), Palermo oder Wolfsburg (Werner Schroeter, 1980), Che Cosa Sono Nuvole? (Pier Paolo Pasolin, 1968), The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963), **** /Four Stars (Andy Warhol, 1967), La Cicatrice Intérieure (Philippe Garrel, 1972), Judex (Georges Franju, 1963), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948), The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942),.

  2. Any list that puts The Thing and Night of the Iguana in the top 10 has my respect. In my opinion, both films stand out because they develop the characters and really care about people. I also would probably put a lot of the other films on my list too. And with the gentleman who commented above, I share a great enthusiasm for 81/2 and The Night of the Hunter. I enjoy your writings on film.

  3. Anonymous12 May, 2022

    Great list.
    What are your favourite movies of the 21st century? Maybe a top 10.
    Do you have a Letterboxd account?

  4. Thanks - why yes - it's eekuersten

  5. Anonymous16 May, 2022

    I’m just curious. You have a great movie taste and its very different from my movies bubble. Is your top 25 list up to date?

  6. Thanks, yeah, more or less up to date - though is it ever, really?

  7. I'd probably add IT FOLLOWS at some point

  8. Anonymous17 May, 2022

    Do you want to continue this blog?
    What do you think about Asian movies? Movies by Wong Kar-Wai?
    My favourite movie of all time is Spring Breakers:) what are some similar films?


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