PICK 3, Vol. 5: Our Favorite Classic Films

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.


Annex - Fonda, Henry (12 Angry Men)_0112 Angry Men (1957) — Directed by Sidney Lumet

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?

VisEd-Lawrence-of-Arabia-Wide-Screen-camelsLawrence of Arabia (1962) — Directed by David Lean

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.

RopeRope (1948) — Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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.


http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Hepburn,%20Katharine/Annex/Annex%20-%20Hepburn,%20Katharine%20(Philadelphia%20Story,%20The)_11.jpgThe 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.

https://i2.wp.com/g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/dvd/Disney/Images/SnowWhite3.gif?resize=474%2C347Snow 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.

https://americangloom.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/rashomon.jpg?w=474Rashomon (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.


the-seventh-seal-chess-gameThe Seventh Seal (1957) — Directed by Ingmar Bergman

The title of Ingmar Bergman’s film comes from the book of Revelation, and describes a silence that falls in heaven after the seventh seal is opened. The film that catapulted the great Swedish director onto the world stage is a meditation on the “silence” of God in a world ravaged by violence, pestilence and death. Max von Sydow stars as Antonius Block, a disillusioned knight returning home after the Crusades. Feeling unfulfilled and disillusioned, Block attempts to stave off death until he can give his life purpose through “one meaningful act.” The image of Block playing chess with a personification of death has been parodied in projects as varied as Woody Allen films, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Colbert Report, Muppets Most Wanted. You probably know it even if you’ve never seen the film. Deeply symbolic and philosophical, The Seventh Seal is just the first of Bergman’s many masterpieces to come over the next 50 years.
Seven Samurai (1954) — Directed by Akira Kurosawa
You can make the claim the Seven Samurai is the first modern action movie, but more importantly, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic might also be the greatest film in the history of Asian cinema. When seven ronin samurai are brought together to protect a defenseless village from bandits, they’re outnumbered and outgunned – relying on their experience and discipline to help them prepare these poor farmers for war. The film is clear representation of the beauty of black and white photography — a still from almost any minute of the film could easily find a home on your living room wall. Kurosawa’s then-revolutionary use of telephoto lenses, multiple cameras, and on-location sets make Seven Samurai an astounding blend of cinematic beauty and stunning action sequences, with a story that’s a testament to loyalty, determination, and brotherhood. If you’ve only ever seen the pale-imitation American remake, The Magnificent Seven, you’re sorely missing out.
8 1/2 (1963) — Directed by Federico Fellini
Coming just three years after the equally seminal La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 might be the greatest film about the process of filmmaking ever put to celluloid. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about a director with writer’s block is an avant-garde masterpiece detailing the difficulties of making powerful art. As Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) struggles to make his new science fiction film, 8 1/2 seamlessly slips between the fictional director’s life, dreams, and memories – blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Fellini takes aim at the very nature of art — creating the exact type of film that his fiction director struggles to make. It’s bold, creative, and unendingly thoughtful. A true filmmaker’s film, many have attempted to replicate Fellini’s surreal masterpiece, but 8 1/2 remains the definitive work on the creative process.
singin in the rain
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) — Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
An infectious musical comedy masterpiece, Singin’ in the Rain manages to be a hilarious skewering of Hollywood’s transition from the silent film era to “the talkies,” all the while providing hummable tunes, memorable dances, and a bit of romance. Gene Kelly gets to flex his muscle both in front of and behind the camera (that signature dance in the rain remains one of the most iconic scenes in film history), but supporting player Donald O’Connor frequently steals his thunder, especially with his tour-de-force song and dance “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Debbie Reynolds jump-started her career, exuding charm and musical skill in the ingénue role and Jean Hagen proved a comic delight as a silent era diva with the shrillest voice in town. With a clever screenplay by Broadway legends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Singin’ in the Rain is an ode to Hollywood’s glorious past and a celebration of the musicals that would come to define its golden era.


to kill a mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — Directed by Robert Mulligan
A classic in every sense of the word, To Kill a Mockingbird may very well be one of the most poignant coming of age tales ever captured on the big screen. True, its sensibilities may seem naïve by today’s standards, but its beautiful innocence and forthright morals contain lessons that remain deeply resonant. Gregory Peck’s performance as widowed father Atticus Finch, struggling to raise his two children Scout and Jem in the Depression-era south, is legendary in its portrayal (Peck won the Oscar over Peter O’Toole’s equally brilliant performance in Lawrence of Arabia that year and to this day it’s near impossible to choose between the two performances).  From the opening credits of Scout humming a childlike tune while sifting through an old cigar box, to the result of Tom Robbinson’s trial, to the discovery of Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird is the ultimate film about what it means to truly grow up and it remains as timeless as the novel on which it is based.


West Side Story (1961) — Directed by Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
West Side Story is undoubtedly the last great musical from Hollywood’s golden era before Bob Fosse changed the game. Directed with plenty of grit, sweat, and burning passion, West Side Story comes alive through its use of narrative driven propulsive dance, real city locations (that opening anyway), and a clever retelling of the classic Romeo and Juliet tale. The film elevated Natalie Wood’s star status as she exuded grace and perhaps a bit too much class as Maria. And then there is Rita Moreno who lights up the screen whenever she appears and does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, especially during her rendition of “A Boy Like That”. The film, dare I say it, is even better than the show (which was not a hit when it first debuted on Broadway) due to its restructuring of songs and scenes. Together Jerome Robbins (who famously got banned from the set, but showed up anyway) and Robert Wise created a groundbreaking film musical that few others have ever been able to measure up to and made West Side Story into the hit classic it always deserved to be.

5 thoughts on “PICK 3, Vol. 5: Our Favorite Classic Films”

  1. All great classics! I would lean towards Sound of Music – Musical, (though Seven Brides is a close second), Bridge on the Rive Kwai – drama, and Dr Strangelove – comedy. No matter, it probably takes 25 different movies to build a revolving list of greats. Just an old man’s opinion.

    1. Not North to Alaska for comedy?!

      So many more films could have been included on any given day, if you asked me tomorrow I might say Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, An American in Paris, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Searchers, Ikiru… Strangely enough I’ve never been a fan of either Sound of Music or Seven Brides despite their technical excellence.

  2. I should apologize for the lack of representation of Casablanca, Bridge on the River Kwai and Dr. Strangelove, I fought to get those titles on my plate, and was then, unfortunately, unable to get the pieces written up.
    My bad. That’s on me.

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