Movie Reviews: AFI’s 10 of 10, Part Two
And here we are with part two of my AFI’s 10 of 10 write-up (read part one here)—the five remaining genres, which are the decidedly darker ones: Gangster, Western, Courtroom Drama, Mystery and Epic.
The ten: Vertigo, Chinatown, Rear Window, Laura, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, North By Northwest, Blue Velvet, Dial M for Murder, The Usual Suspects
Mystery Films I had seen nine out of ten prior to the Summer Movie Watch. Four of them are Hitchcocks, and you can’t watch TCM for a day without tripping over a Hitchcock. The AFI put Vertigo at the top (#1), although I would put Rear Window there for being pure unadulterated entertainment (they put it at #3). North by Northwest is also more unabashed fun than it is mind-bending or thrilling—which is not a failing, just an observation. If you’re looking for the best mystery on the list—the twistiest, cleverest, etc.—I might go Dial M for Murder (#9) or maybe Carol Reed’s The Third Man (#4). The Usual Suspects—I like it, don’t get me wrong—but it’s really a pretty standard crime film until the twist ending. I don’t feel like it has a ton of repeatability—you watch it once and are shocked, then you watch it a second time to see it in the context of knowing who Keyser Soze is. And then…you’re done. (I probably would have gone for L.A. Confidential at #10 myself.)
I don’t remember much about Laura, which I saw quite a long time ago. There was a murder, and a mistaken-identity plot, isn’t that right? I don’t remember. Chinatown was great, and I love that the mystery and murders all sort of boil down to civic disputes over water. Blue Velvet, which was the one of the ten that I watched as part of the Summer Movie Watch, was dumb. I’m not a Lynch fan anyway, but I thought that because that movie was on this list, the actual mystery would be prioritized over the weirdness. It wasn’t. I adore an investigation in a movie, and I hate when there is one, but it’s mostly ignored. The 70s were notorious for this, too, setting up a good mystery and then just cutting it off at the knees without resolving anything.
The Maltese Falcon is a bona-fide classic. Humphrey Bogart is The Man, and this is maybe his Bogartiest performance ever. (Or maybe The Big Sleep is—which also should have been on this list, by the way.) He’s a hard-boiled detective; he doesn’t laugh at danger, he just sneers and snickers at it. His partner gets shot and he shrugs, all, “I didn’t like him anyway.” He plays everybody off one another and even when he isn’t two steps ahead, he’s back on track in minutes with a rueful shake of his head. BOGEY! My favorite moment is in The Big Sleep: he’s got his gun trained on a suspect, but the suspect manages to knock it out of Bogey’s hands. It falls to the ground. Both men pause and deliberate for a split second, and then Bogey says, “Go get it.” The suspect bends down to pick up the gun and Bogey KICKS HIM IN THE HEAD. I can’t even describe how this moment fills me with delight. But again, that movie didn’t even make this list.
The ten: The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Godfather II, White Heat, Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface (’32), Pulp Fiction, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface (’83)
Like Sci Fi last time, Epic and Gangster and Western were all helped immensely by the SMW. The only gangster movies I had seen prior to that were Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas. Pulp Fiction I’ve always liked because I am a Quentin Tarantino apologist (1. I like a dark laugh, 2. he can really turn a narrative, 3. he gets insanely good performances out of actors who are not routinely that good, see: Michael Madsen, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, et al) although I think Reservoir Dogs would have been a better choice for this list—it’s a bit simpler, a purer example of the gangster movie. Which, having seen all ten of the canonical movies on this list, I can say is largely about character and interpersonal relationships—but because the characters are always criminals, on the fringes of society, the relationships are unconventional and interesting.
Goodfellas I like well enough, especially that amping up of speed and suspense during that period when Ray Liotta is all coked-up and about to get picked up by the feds. But, again, like Pulp Fiction, it’s a little showier than I like in my crime movies. I had a long conversation with a friend once about the relative merits of Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco. Nobody in their right mind will tell you that Donnie Brasco is better—but I might, because I enjoyed it more. All those tight interpersonal ties are established and then they just snap due to betrayal. An FBI agent who needs to break one code or another—the law or honor among thieves. The best performance Al Pacino has given in the last thirty years (he’s subtle).
During the SMW, I watched four more of the top ten: Bonnie and Clyde, which was particularly well-acted with just an OK narrative and a lot of that orange, sticky-looking stage blood from the 70s, plus The Godfather, The Godfather II, and the remake of Scarface all during one Epic Wednesday. I saw White Heat at some point afterwards and blogged it here, and the remaining three are all blogged here.
I’d say White Heat and Scarface (’32) were my favorites, but there were really no low points on this list—maybe the most enjoyable bunch of 10 the entire list has to offer.
The ten: The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Red River, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Stagecoach, Cat Ballou
I saw SIX of the top ten westerns during the SMW (Stagecoach, Unforgiven, and four others on another Epic Wednesday). The only Western I had seen prior to the SMW was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is fantastic—an action-oriented buddy comedy with two of the handomest guys in Hollywood history in all their handsome glory. (Paul Newman! Robert Redford! And they’re young!) And it’s actually funny, too. The guys pull of a heist and plan to retire to South America and live like kings. Somehow they bypass all the beaches and party towns and wind up in Middle-of-Nowhere, Bolivia surrounded by huts and wild chickens. Then they try to rob a bank there, but the process just devolves into confusion because they don’t speak Spanish. Cut to Butch and Sundance being educated in useful Spanish phrases (“This is a hold-up,” “I have a gun,”) by a schoolteacher. Come on. That’s freakin’ funny.
Here are the three I saw most recently:
I am western friendly. This is documented fact on my blog. Westerns are short and action-oriented but often have awesome moral ambiguity and characters’ allegiances to one another are complicated by many factors. I mean, the American West was a mess. It was lawless. Well, this particular western has got a great pedigree: starring John Wayne, directed by Howard Hawks. Personally I liked Montgomery Clift in it (although he did not have the face of a frontier drifter! such delicate handsomeness!). I also appreciated that there was a really strong female character. What she was really meant to be doing there was unclear, but she got shot through the shoulder by an arrow and was like, “Oh, what happened? Somebody get that out.” So she was awesome.
There is a showdown between the two male leads at the end, of course. Westerns love to take the good guys and make them fight each other, sometimes out of concern for one another (like when Lloyd Bridges attacks Gary Cooper in High Noon to keep him from making his noon appointment: “I won’t let you go!” [punch]) Classic western behavior: sentimental machismo.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Well, I was not looking forward to this. We all know by now that the 70s and I are not a match—what some alternative critics consider the golden age of American cinema is for me, an era of self-seriousness and rampant sexism. Also, I can take or leave Warren Beatty. Also, it’s about a frontier drifter who decides to establish a whorehouse deep in the mountains during the Old West.
Here are some other pet peeves: movies from that era tend to use silence to build tension. See The Conversation, see All the President’s Men. It drives me crazy. A character walking around for ten minutes with literally no dialogue, nothing other than ambient sound (footsteps, a distant car horn) drives me crazy. I don’t understand what filmmakers had against musical scores back then—I guess it was a rebellion against the sort of melodramatic scores of the 40s and 50s, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that over silence, but there are good scores, unobtrusive ones, evocative ones, which contribute to the story without detracting from the story and I’m glad this 70s trend has basically fallen off.
Another eye-rolling element–when the camerawork apes the New Wave stuff that was going on in Europe a decade earlier. McCabe has an extremely bizarre track-in close-up when one of his prostitutes asked to be helped to the bathroom. How…dramatic?
I didn’t hate this, though. It had at least one element in its favor, which is that it dramatized the building of a business, and I am a sucker for that. Sure, it’s the establishment of a brothel, but here and there were conversations had by Beatty and Julie Christie (as the madam) about business strategy. For example, Christie insists that a bathhouse be built on the property and all the visiting men be required to bathe before visiting the girls. Keep the STDs from spreading. It’s a totally effed-up context, but that’s still good business sense. That, I like. Still, it’s no Butch and Sundance.
This was more enjoyable than I expected. Kind of weird. Jane Fonda is Cat, a genteel schoolteacher in the Old West. At least, they all called her a teacher. She never demonstrably taught, though other characters commented on her book-learnin’. Regardless, she’s not had enough learnin’ not to fall for the Bad Boy, in this case one of a pair of bandits who hide out in her bunk on a train and then basically follow her home from there. She says she’ll let them sleep in the barn, but you know she’s totally marrying one of them by the end. But first she has to get all swept up in the bandit lifestyle.
I think what most people remember this movie for today—if they remember it at all—is the dual performance of Lee Marvin as both the steel-nosed villain and the comically drunk gun-for-hire that Cat engages to battle him. Late in the game, it is revealed that the two characters are actually brothers, but they needn’t have been—they actually look different enough that no explanation would have been needed. I actually thought evil Marvin was Sam Elliott for quite awhile. Anyway, Marvin won an Oscar for his efforts, and I’d say it’s well-deserved. His villain is not really multi-faceted but his drunk is vulnerable but hopeless and saggy and silly and the best moment in the movie is when they try to get his intoxicated ass to shoot a target hanging up on the wall of a barn, and he misses, shooting so far off that they all marvel that he literally couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
The ten: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of a Murder, In Cold Blood, A Cry in the Dark, Judgment at Nuremberg
Courtroom Dramas involved some seeing. Anatomy of a Murder, like The Hustler from last time, is a film that really belongs on a lot of lists that it’s unaccountably not on; it’s astounding how intelligent and complicated it is. Also, I bet it created a lot of lawyers, which is a good effect or a bad one depending on how you feel about lawyers. The story is interestingly complicated—one guy shot a second guy because the second guy supposedly raped the first guy’s wife, bringing up all these uncomfortable questions of whether or not the wife, who is kind of a sexpot, was “asking for it,” and whether we can overlook vigilantism and whether a sort of good ol’ boy mentality (the movie takes place in rural, northern Michigan, which is another weirdly unique element) is poisoning the witness pool. Jimmy Stewart is the defense attorney, who is wise in a laid-back way, and who would like to see justice served mostly so he can get back to his fishing. It was actually considered really risque in its day for all the details of the rape that had to be discussed out in the open; the movie manages to satirize that very thing in a scene where the judge has to convince the assembled courthouse crowd to stop laughing at the word “panties,” seeing as they are a pivotal piece of evidence.
Conversely, I found The Verdict kind of forgettable. Paul Newman is terrific, of course, just the story is average. There’s a typical Big Company That Made a Little Guy Sick, as I recall, and that always feels like kind of a cheat. I like when neither side is totally wrong. Then there’s actually something to argue about. What I did like about the movie is Newman, of course, not just his performance, but how he was portrayed in the film. For example, the movie opened with him—a lawyer in a bar, all drunk in the middle of the day—playing pinball. What a great way to immediately illustrate exactly what we’re supposed to think when we see this guy: “What a waste.”
I had seen To Kill a Mockingbird, of course. My favorite book and one of the best movies ever. Gregory Peck as my beloved Atticus Finch, great performances from the messy-haired Finch kids, and not a lot of grandstanding or moralizing. The movie doesn’t need a lot of stirring music and tearjerky moments to put us on Tom Robinson’s side. And the fact that the court victory is in conflict with the clear moral victory is ambiguity of the kind you aren’t always guaranteed. Especially in the 60s when bleak book endings were so often changed to be a little more fair. One example of this is Witness for the Prosecution, which is based on an excellent short story by Agatha Christie. The story has a great twist ending in which the defense attorney realizes too late that he has played right into a murderer’s trap. The movie—presumably to play for shocks—changes the ending to make sure that the murderer gets punished, though by indirect means. The result is kind of silly. But Marlene Dietrich is in it as the eponymous witness, and Charles Laughton is the lawyer. And that’s a good cast.
In Cold Blood (which I honestly don’t even remember having courtroom scenes in it, although it has a harrowing execution scene. Spoiler) is a good enough movie, but an even better book. The movie preserves Truman Capote’s non-linear narrative structure, which allows the audience to get to know and sympathize with the killers before presenting us with the worst of their crimes. So as to make us more anguished and uncomfortable. Judgment at Nuremberg was good—a cast of a thousand stars, half of them doing German accents, including Judy Garland, if you can imagine such a thing—and severely complicated, of course. After all, it is about Nazis on trial for war crimes. Kramer vs. Kramer is supposedly the movie that put divorce in the mainstream—it came out in the late seventies when everybody was suddenly saying to each other, “Hey, why is everybody getting divorced?” Meryl Streep, as the absentee wife and mother, doesn’t come off that well, although maybe in the 70s people needing to ‘find themselves’ were given a little more leeway. Dustin Hoffman plays his character’s frustration at his life being upended really nicely.
The only courtroom drama covered by the SMW was 12 Angry Men, which is excellent. I love the movies where people just talk and talk and talk. If I ever teach expository writing again, I am going to use 12 Angry Men to show the multiple ways to structure an argument.
A Few Good Men
My reaction to this movie–written by Aaron Sorkin–is that it’s The West Wing with too many Joshes and no Tobys. Everyone is speechifying and being ironic. The Demi Moore character is supposed to be incredibly by-the-book, but even she is not above giving Tom Cruise’s character some snotty little jabs while in the presence of Jack Nicholson’s Big Cheese character. How is that professional? Watching this, I was frustrated, asking, “Why is everybody…like this?” I didn’t really feel like the characters were equal to the seriousness of the material.
And then, it went in the opposite direction, of course. The further they get into the case, the more they get into self-seriousness and the stirring military music. The way the one defendant with the attitude salutes Tom Cruise at the end of the trial? BLAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHH. (That was the sound of me vomiting.) I never want to see another somber military salute as tacit sign of approval as long as I live.
There were moments in the trial that were kind of interesting, however. I liked the conversational manipulation perpetrated by Cruise’s litigator on Nicholson’s magnificent bastard. It basically amounted to, “sure I can get him to admit that he pulled the strings on this whole thing; he wants to admit it.” But the thing I didn’t get is this: what exactly did they arrest Nicholson for at the end? He admitted to giving an order which, as far as we can tell through the scope of the movie (because my knowledge of military law and order is zero), is legal if not exactly humane. So was he arrested for, like, criminal endangerment or criminal indifference? Maybe something like conspiracy after the fact, for the cover-up and falsifying the transfer paperwork? There are possibilities, but they really do not make clear what it is, and it made me uncomfortable, like “You are now arrested for…being a BAD GUY!” I understand our narrative need to see the bad guy punished at the end. But if you’re going to operate in a real-life context (the military, the courtroom) you need to follow real-life rules. To arrest the villain you need to charge him with something.
A Cry in the Dark
This was actually really good – dated, of course, and I jumped on the internet the second I was done watching it to see what had happened to the real-life protagonists since ‘82.
The main character, played by Meryl Streep, was kind of a fascinating study – the grieving mother who is suspected of foul play because she doesn’t fit the conventional image of the grieving mother. I heard Meryl Streep talk about the role once and say, probably about half-kidding and half not, that people distrusted the woman because she had such sharp, angular eyebrows. In the movie there’s a lot more to go on. Her kid is killed and she’s devastated by the experience, but not wrecked. She stays awake, rational, sane. The media descends on her family (because this is a crazy story) and in this must-be-true scene, one of the photogs who’s walking backwards to grab her picture falls ass-over-teakettle into a bush. She laughs—because people falling over is hilarious no matter who has just died—and people are like, “Grieving mother laughs! She must be evil!” Then all this insane circumstantial evidence comes into play, like this mysterious spray-pattern stain on the floor of the family vehicle. “It could be blood,” says the prosecution, and immediately the story begins to circulate that the woman slit the child’s throat in the car, carried the baby corpse into the tent and then staged the dingo attack, all while somehow having a conversation with her husband and neighbors twenty feet away. (“Could it be vomit?” the defense asks the forensics person. “Yes, possibly.” “Did your children ever vomit in your vehicle?” the defense asks the parents. “Yes, all the time.” Clearly they are cold-blooded killers.)
She also has this cold affect on the witness stand. She’s clearly a logical person. She describes the picture that the prosecution is trying to paint. Does it seem possible, she asks them, that I could have slit the throat and changed out of the bloody clothes and done this and done that and thrown the child to a dingo and so and so on, and she’s asking completely reasonably, and meanwhile the entire jury is just shuddering because what awful, awful circumstances in which to lose your child. And how can she relate it so calmly? But, like…she’s had time to become hardened to the events. Also she’s been on trial for months. Her emotional response is probably a bit wasted.
The movie also does a good job of showing—especially considering it was produced right on top of the actual event—how much limited technology and investigative knowledge contributed to the mother’s accusal. There’s the mysterious car stain that COULD be blood and COULD be vomit and COULD be motor oil but none of the scientists who look at it are ever sure. Plus there’s the body of the child, the pattern of the wounds, the likelihood of the dog carrying it away and what position it was likely to be in when it was carried away and so on and so on and nobody can agree on those factors, contradictions which poke holes in the mother’s chain of events. Also, the Australian people, in the movie, are mostly unfazed about the presence of wild dogs. They don’t believe that dingoes generally attack human children, so the idea that one might have done so seems far-fetched. Before the baby is killed, the family’s older children are feeding a dingo from the backseat of their car. They’re giggling and petting, basically reacting like North American children would to a squirrel or a deer that wandered up to eat out of your hand.
But—according to the movie and also to the Internet—after this story became national / international news, other reports started coming out about wild dogs harming children. The more it happened, the more people were inclined to believe that it could happen. Despite all this, the case remains open 30 years later.
The ten: Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Schindler’s List, Gone With the Wind, Spartacus, Titanic, All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan, Reds, The Ten Commandments
My epic record was thus: I had seen Titanic and Gone With the Wind prior to the Summer Movie Watch. For the SMW, I saw All Quiet on the Western Front (the original, although I also saw some Hallmark Hall of Fame version in high school, no kidding), Saving Private Ryan (no I had never seen it before), Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Schindler’s List. I saw Reds soon after that original challenge was over. It had been recommended—weirdly enough—by Ben Stiller in the director’s commentary for Reality Bites. Which I am now embarrassed to have admitted that I have listened to in its entirety. Anyway, Ben Stiller really likes Reds. So did I.
By the way, Titanic is not an epic. Neither is Saving Private Ryan. I can understand the misapprehension about what an epic is that put these two movies onto this list. They were HUGE directorial undertakings. Thousands of extras, crew members, the complexity of the camera work, the setups. James Cameron built a cruise ship in a gigantic water tank. Spielberg re-staged the storming of Omaha beach. That’s some serious work.
But to me, an “epic” has more to do with the continuous unspooling of the story than the grandiosity of the film itself. Firstly, an epic has to cover a lot of time. The best epics are like three or four movies pasted together. Look at Gone With the Wind: there’s the pre-war stuff and the Atlanta’s burning stuff and the Scarlett and Rhett are married stuff and the narrative just keeps making these major, major shifts where you think the movie might be almost over, but actually it’s just shifting focus to something else that’s going to run on for another two hours. Whereas a movie like Titanic—while it’s long, over three hours long, it takes place over a story-time of like, two days. And it’s got just the one story. It’s a huge story and a long story. But it’s one story. Same with Saving Private Ryan. You could argue that it’s two movies, I guess—the beach scene at the beginning, and then the search for Ryan. In the Ryan part, they cover a lot of ground geographically, and they do sort of meet a new group of people in every place. But what they don’t do is get involved in lengthy plot diversions every time they meet a new group of people. If it were Lawrence of Arabia or something, they would continually be falling into random battles they had to take part in or settling into an industry for a couple of years or having some kind of diversionary flashback where Ryan fails a math test in the fourth grade. In fact, Saving Private Ryan is really more of a mission movie than a war movie. Compare it to something like Patton, which involves numerous missions that all have beginnings and ends, which has numerous rises and falls and just feels broader in scope.
But Saving Private Ryan is actually a small story, concentrated amongst this small group of men in this one troop or whatever. And that’s to Spielberg’s credit—he knows how to take a hugely overblown concept like “World War 2 and the gigantic waste of war” and concentrate it down into something that you can get your hands around, and that’s why he’s the most personable of big budget filmmakers. I don’t like Saving Private Ryan particularly well—I think Munich is totally better (let’s take a centuries-old racial conflict and make it personal! and full of butt-kicking action!)—but I can recognize the achievement.
Of course, the old epics were epics pure and simple. The main character—whether it be Ben-Hur or Spartacus or Moses or T.E. Lawrence—always begins in one kind of circumstances (Spartacus is a slave, Moses is the son of a king) and then those circumstances are dramatically reversed. They have to cross oceans and deserts, in lengthy, harrowing episodes, and then when they get where they’re going it’s like the conflict has just begun. Now they have to contend with figures who are traditionally more powerful than they are—kings, pharaohs, heads of state. They have to raise armies of supporters around them. Some of them do this through divine intervention. Some just spread money around and make shady deals. That’s you, Lawrence! And, come to think of it, Schindler. Schindler’s List? Yes. By this criteria, fits. Excepting the oceans and the deserts, fits. Schindler’s List is an epic.
The Ten Commandments
This was the last of the 100 I watched. I put it off until the very end because it is SO LONG. And because I knew it would be religious in that same mawkish way that put me off Ben-Hur so much back during the SMW.
It was actually not that bad. I was expecting another preachy, treacly experience like Ben-Hur—and really, a movie that is entirely about God intervening in the lives of humans to establish a Christian code could get away with being really preachy—yet Ten Commandments wasn’t overwhelmingly so. No angelic choir music, no beams of light from skyward, no healed lepers.
I was kind of surprised that Moses was such a vengeful figure. He really fought Rameses’s fire with fire. Pestilence with pestilence. Also, why was God so much at Moses’s beck and call? Maybe I’m revealing my doctrinal ignorance here, but how was Moses able to harness God’s will literally every time he needed it? Staff turns to snakes: check! Three days of darkness: check! Pillar of fire: check!
Also, what was with the last part? Moses walks all these liberated Hebrews to the holy mountain and then disappears up there to wait for God’s instructions. He’s gone for forty days, and in that time all the rest of the Hebrews just descend into hedonism? They’re drinking and screwing and worshipping a golden calf. It’s only been forty days. Don’t tell me Dathan was that persuasive. (Although what a great sniveley little villain he was—I could not believe it when I read Edward G. Robinson’s name in the opening credits—like, this guy does not belong in Biblical times—but actually he was one of the better characters there.) I don’t know if my quarrel was with this plot development or how cartoonishly it unfolded in the movie. I guess if it’s 1956 and you’re directing a movie that needs a scene of debauchery that does not include any drugs, sex, or nudity, you do what you can.
I saved The Ten Commandments for last because I thought it would be going out with a bang; it’s a big, bold movie experience. More so than the second-to-last movie I watched, which was Cat Ballou. Anyway, not a bad way to cap the AFI’s 10 of 10 experience. (And if I feel like watching it again, TCM airs it every Easter.)