Bearing in mind these reflections about the shortcomings of lists…
Prompted by re-watching one of my all time favourite films over Easter, I was inspired to make a list of a small handful of favourite films that I re-watch every couple of years or so.
The Glaswegian actor Robert Carlyle mentions that he has always been fascinated by films that feature a cowboy riding into town from nowhere pausing for a while before continuing on his way to somewhere equally vague. This has prompted me to reflect on what my own favoured themes might be. I’m not entirely sure if this will hold, but the exploration of secret and multiple identities is probably a major interest for me. Another fascination is the dissociation of words from their commonly accepted meanings – either making those meanings literal (Flying High (1980) and Police Squad! (1982)) or disconnecting them entirely (India Song (1975) Sapphire and Steel, 1979-82, some of Alain Resnais’ films). Unfortunately there are not too many films or television series which provide fodder for this esoteric interest. Any suggestions for further viewing on this front would be most welcome.
I, like many others, am intrigued by the motif of a secret identity – the secret man of action hidden behind an everyday innocuous and often incompetent persona. The Scarlet Pimpernel appears in my list below, but Zorro, of course, follows in this tradition as well – my favourite film rendition being Zorro, the Gay Blade (Peter Medak, 1981), played with early 80s camp panache by George Hamilton. This is not the kind of role inhabited by many (if any) women unfortunately – except under duress – a condition which disqualifies them from my personal pantheon. The various versions of Nikita (two films and two TV series) and Alias are cases in point.
Also disqualified are the comic book heroes who follow this trope (Batman comes to mind). I think this may be because I find the kind of alternative worlds that characterise comic books, graphic novels and game worlds tedious in their remove from our own world and overwhelmingly and excessively gendered. A notable exception to this personal rule of superhero exclusion, however, is the one version of Superman originally helmed by a woman, namely the 1990s TV series Lois and Clark.
Rules for my list
The criterion for selection here is that it must be a film that I enjoy and which gives me food for thought every time I re-watch it.
Excluded from this list are films I have found immensely powerful, but which I am not tempted to watch over and over again. In this latter list, I would include Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) (and certain other of Kurosawa’s films), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Masaki Kobayashi’s trilogy The Human Condition (1959-61), Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975). There are quite a few others as well – definitely more than enough material for another blog post or two.
Also excluded from the current list are films that I have watched and re-watched and have eventually worn out to the point that they have nothing to offer further viewing.
Also excluded are TV series, which would need to form the subject of an entirely different discussion.
I have arranged the list chronologically in order of year of original release. There are quite a few links (but not exclusively) to Wikipedia here, as for all its unreliability, Wikipedia often provides a good general overview and offers links to the most important sites concerning the topic in hand. In the case of films, Wikipedia articles provide general plot background and useful pointers to critical and production information.
Be warned: as this is a list of my favourites, the writing may be characterised by the excessive and gushing language more commonly seen in marketing blurbs.
‘Pimpernel’ Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). Actor and director Leslie Howard returned to Britain from the USA at the beginning of World War II to help the war effort and was subsequently killed when the plane he was in was shot down in 1943. In this film he reprises his 1934 role as The Scarlet Pimpernel, but moves the character from the French Revolution to pre-War Europe where he engages in the fight against the rise of Nazism. The film is an entertaining and occasionally edifying blend of English whimsy and anti-Nazi propaganda. In addition, it is gratifying to see a university professor as hero of a film and one who uses his intelligence to propel the action (Indiana Jones simply doesn’t cut it on the second front). Interestingly, the film helped inspire Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to mount an operation which saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from concentration camps during the War.
The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett, 1945). A wonderful and intense combination of cod psychoanalysis (a young Herbert Lom given the gravitas of age by a pince-nez and white streaked hair), romantic classical music and a superbly neurotic and complex-ridden lead couple in James Mason and Ann Todd. It also helps that the entire plot revolves around a talented and successful (if notably maladjusted) woman who is not punished for her success at the end of the story. Audiences loved the repressed ambiguities of this film and it remains the tenth biggest box office hit in Britain of all time – outstripping even the later Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Leaving aside the magic cure offered by the psychiatrist/psychoanalyst and the taken-for-granted social class divisions, this film is still engrossing more than sixty years on.
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). The striking noir cinematography, the extraordinary zither music and the corrupt atmosphere of post-war Venice and the location settings are the overwhelming attractions here.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951). A film shot in gorgeous lush technicolour by noted cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The visual references to paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, the on location settings in Spain, the genuine flamenco and bull-fight, and Ava Gardner’s beautiful dresses all make this a film worth watching. But it is the back story of the mysterious stranger played by James Mason which combines elements of the Flying Dutchman, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, with some Othello thrown in which is the main drawcard for me. One thing that removes this film from perfection (apart from the odd clunkiness of the intellectual and cultural references) is that although the concept of the doomed romance is excellent in theory, Ava Gardner is simply unable to match Mason’s intensity and acting prowess. As a result, the chemistry between herself and Mason remains lack lustre and unconvincing.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). The expressionist black and white cinematography, the extraordinary theremin music and Michael Rennie’s subtle and sympathetic performance as Klaatu are the standouts for me. Don’t even mention the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake (shudder).
Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977). A film about the surrealist imaginings of a dying writer (John Gielgud) who creates a nightmare world populated by members of his family and memories from his past which intermingles with his current reality. This visual and intellectual interpretation of how the writer’s imagination works is a vision I can readily identify with – for all the gender barriers posed here. Dirk Bogarde is at his sarcastic best. The music by Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa, a mainstay of 1940s and 50s Hollywood film scoring, is absolutely wonderful and creates an extraordinary atmosphere of lush excess, nostalgia, menace and mystery. It is a crime that this film has not yet been released on DVD.
Flying High aka Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1980). The literalist visual and verbal jokes in this never get old. Cigarette? Yes, I know.
The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). 1980 was clearly a vintage year for American comedy. Every scene in this film is perfect. Wonderful music, two immensely cool protagonists and an anarchist anti-establishment message delivered with deadpan humour.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (Clive Donner, 1982). This film (which was originally a mini-series made for TV) is an amusing ride from start to finish with highly entertaining and polished performances from Anthony Andrews, Ian McKellen and Jane Seymour, all in sumptuous period costumes. This is my favourite of all the film and television versions centred on this persona. The 1999 Richard E. Grant TV series, for example, simply doesn’t offer the outrageous character contrasts that are so entertaining in this 1982 film.
The Prophecy trilogy (1995-2000). Christopher Walken’s unique and over the top, but at the same time fascinatingly nuanced, performance as the Archangel Gabriel and a truly satisfying end to the series is what draws me back. A good musical score in the first film is also an attraction. The one major problem with these films is that Walken’s screen time is far too brief – particularly in the third instalment. (The two later Prophecy films without any Walken at all are not included here.)
Cypher (Vincenzo Natali, 2002). Again, a film about secret identity and multiple layers of cover-up. A beautiful minimalist soundtrack, a discreet and touching love story and striking cinematography. My favourite scene is the last one: a close up which fades to black of the main character (a great performance by Jeremy Northam), his eyes enigmatically hidden behind sunglasses. The director on the commentary track remarks at this point that we never truly know anyone, not even ourselves. This scene is a striking visual rendition of this idea.
Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007). This should really go into a separate blog entry on favourite scenes or performances, but I will include it here for the time being. Robert de Niro’s wonderful performance as a cross-dressing pirate is the standout for me in this film. Under the harsh exterior of an old school marauding walk-the-plank pirate, de Niro’s character hides a cultivated and kindly man with a love of fine dresses. His crew, unbeknownst to him, are well aware of his secret identity and are quite happy to play along and maintain his fearsome reputation to the outside world. De Niro’s work has been very patchy since his great performances of the 1970s and early 1980s. For me at least, this performance is a minor return to form.