It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of these, but we’re back now: the FOTS team shares their personal favorite films released prior to 1965, fifty years ago.
Who could have thought a bunch of dudes in a room, talking — for a basically a real-time 96 minutes — could be so thrilling? It’s in my Top 10 for many reasons, but most of all for the searing characterizations, the brilliant performances, and its puzzle-box structure. Henry Fonda radiates decency as “Juror #8,” the only man in a room of 12 who believes a teenage boy from the wrong side of the tracks, charged with murdering his father, might be innocent. And through reasoned arguments and a few clever reveals, he attempts to bring each of the other eleven over to his side. Using only the scant details provided by the screenplay, each actor creates a complete character, each with their own prejudices and mini-arcs: the bigoted garage owner; the nervous bank teller; the pragmatic handyman; the icily logical stockbroker. Fonda appeals to all of them — and to us — with an almost saintlike grace, as Lumet’s camera gives the illusion the walls are slowly closing in. Forget whether the boy is innocent or guilty: the real question is, which man would you be?
Almost no director has ever had a hot streak like David Lean. In between masterpieces Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, he delivered the Oscar-dominating crown jewel of that trio: Lawrence of Arabia. It’s the first title that comes to mind whenever anyone says “they don’t make ’em like they used to” — a film epic in every sense of the word. From its breathtaking desert vistas, to its literal cast of thousands, to its weighty, complex themes, to Maurice Jarre’s rousing score, it’s absolute perfection. We’ve become so inoculated to CGI-enhanced spectacle that watching a sequence like the attack on Aqaba still leaves me dumbfounded. Peter O’Toole is never better than here in his first major role, as the unlikely English officer who inspires the fractured Arab clans to unite against the Turks; Lawrence is idealistic, intelligent, courageous, arrogant, and just a bit mad. (“What is that it attracts you to the desert?” “It’s clean.”) If you’ve never seen this film on the big screen, you’ve missed out on one of cinema’s holiest experiences.
Hitch has had his name attached to so many genre classics — Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho — that for me to earnestly say that my favorite is actually Rope must sound like a joke. Sure, it’s a small, low-key chamber play, one of Hitchcock’s “experimental” projects: the conceit is that it’s intended to unfold in one unbroken shot, with the camera gliding through the loft apartment set (as grips furiously move the walls, props, and cables out of the way), but technology limited Hitchcock to only capturing about ten minutes — the length of a film reel — at a time. Some of these “hidden” edits are smoother than others, but the effect works, and proves that Hitch was at his best when he was testing himself, breaking through the limitations of the day to produce something great. And hey, Rope‘s actual story — two students try to pull off “the perfect murder,” hosting a dinner party with the corpse of their friend still in the room — is a tense slow burn, anchored by outstanding performances from John Dall, Farley Granger, and Hitch favorite Jimmy Stewart.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) — Directed by George Cukor
I subscribe to the firm belief that every man is either a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant. The Philadelphia Story is not only the best romantic comedy of all time, but the one that broke the mold when it came to the “love triangle” — with Stewart and Grant on equal footing instead of one playing a clear second fiddle, Hepburn’s choice is that much more interesting, believable, and suspenseful. She is the epitome of a 1940s socialite, floating in and out of every scene – it’s hard not to fall in love with her yourself. Peppered with some of the best lines ever uttered in cinema, Story’s script is at once witty, hilarious, and heartfelt — this is comedy at its best. (“You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.”) Story would go on to win Oscars for Stewart (Best Actor) and its screenplay, and in 1956 it was remade into the musical High Society starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra (a decent film on its own…but not nearly as powerful as the original.) FYI – I have been and will always be a Cary Grant girl.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) — Directed by Just So Many People…
Disney is oft referred to as the “House the Mouse Built” — however, all the princesses, future money-making ogres, and Roger Rabbits have a certain poison apple to thank for their screen adventures. Walt Disney took a gamble in producing a little-known fairytale for the theater, under the firm belief that animated characters could make an audience feel as much as live-action ones. It took a large team of writers, directors, and animators to bring Snow and her small housemates to the screen; so many, in fact, they could have their own football team. Adriana Caselotti’s Snow White might have been the fairest of them all, but the true star was Lucille La Verne’s iconic lilt, bringing the Evil Queen to life in her final screen performance. Frightening, dramatic, and true fantasy on celluloid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brought dancing sketches to life in an era where one still had to know how to draw them by hand.
Rashomon (1950) – Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece on perspective paved the way for Tarantino and Nolan to manipulate time, truth, and dramatic irony. A crime occurs, and we see eyewitness accounts of four different characters, each with an alternate version of events — but what makes this film unique is how each account is influenced by that character’s perception. A movie so far ahead of its time – frankly, Kurosawa himself seemed to operate out of time – it could be produced today unchanged and would revolutionize current cinema. The stunning cinematography plays with light and shadow to influence the viewer’s moods and comfort, never lingering on one image too long. Its ending will stay with you long after the credits and have you questioning everything you thought you knew. One might find the film changes with multiple viewings, as the perspective of the viewer is altered by one’s own life.