Continuing the discussion… last time I talked about how the motley mix of Theater of Blood, Invaders from Mars, Seven Samurai, Nine Queens and Star Wars: A New Hope had a profound impact on my cinematic journey. This time I’ll wrap up the discussion with the other five films on my list of ten: Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner, Singing in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Psycho. Buckle up, campers!
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Easily one of my favorite films of all time, there’s a reason that David Lean is considered a directorial genius. His sweeping epic films are unlike just about anything that anyone else is producing nowadays. Lawrence of Arabia, based on the book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (yes, he was a real person and yes, I’ve read the book), takes the film viewer into a massive, epic world. It’s why Panavision was invented and a film that your home theater setup cannot do justice to, however big your TV screen may be. Indeed, David Lean has more films that need that big screen than just about anyone, including Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India and this film.
But unlike so many other films, Lawrence of Arabia is breathtakingly gorgeous but still fundamentally an intimate portrait of an insecure man who struggles to find the balance between cultural and ethnic loyalties and his ego-driven desire to really feel, to really experience life. An officer in the British Army, Lawrence (a superb Peter O’Toole) flaunts his superiors and befriends the local Arabs, notably Price Faisal (Alec Guinness) and Sherif Ali (a wonderful Omar Sharif) and unites them against their common enemy. Lawrence is a complicated character and Lean lets us see the troubled, masochistic and confused sides too. In one scene that still gets me, Lawrence leads a group of Arab compatriots out of the dunes after derailing a Turkish military train. He’s unhinged at that moment, the blood lust of killing, the excitement of the moment completely overwhelming his veneer of civilization. As he later explains to his commanding officer Allenby “You don’t understand, sir, I like the killing…”
This is also a really long film and one that helped me understand how pacing can completely change the emotional journey of the viewer. Too many films nowadays aim for 100-110 minutes, which make them perfect for cable and streaming sales (that’s your two hour slot minus a few minutes for the channel to run its own promotions). But a film should take as long as it needs to properly tell a story, whether that’s 85 minutes or 155 minutes.
Recommended? Absolutely. Prepare yourself for a long film and try to see it on the big screen if you possibly can.
Blade Runner (1982)
There are lines of continuity that run through my favorite films. Alec Guinness shows up in both Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars, for example. And Harrison Ford is nowhere better than as the tired, jaded and cynical replicant hunting cop Decker in the brilliant Blade Runner. Ford might be one of the most lovable scoundrels in cinema from his role as Han Solo in Star Wars or as Indiana Jones but I always think of him as Rick Deckard. There’s something extraordinarily human about this dystopian sci-fi action thriller ably directed by Ridley Scott.
We humans have expanded into the galaxy and have created Replicants, genetically engineered proto-humans who are “more human than human”. They’re tougher, faster, stronger and, in the case of the sexbot models, darkly convenient with their lack of emotions or self-awareness. A group of Nexus-6 replicants escape their off-world mining colony and return to Earth under the charismatic leadership of Roy (Rutger Hauer). Why they have been designed with a very limited lifespan? To find out, they want to literally meet their maker, Tyrell (Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation that creates all replicants. The twist? Tyrell has been experimenting with self-aware replicants that have emotions and pre-loaded “memories” of their childhood. Replicants who don’t know they’re not human.
Deckard is brought back from retirement to retire the rogue replicants and ends up falling for Tyrell’s secretary, the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young). Except she’s also a replicant, though she doesn’t know it. So how zealously is Deckard supposed to do his job of retiring replicants and how does he determine who’s human anyway?
Though not initially embraced by the movie-going community, Blade Runner has grown to become a must-see dark thriller, muchly for the extraordinary multicultural Los Angeles created by the visual effects team and cinematographers. It’s a dark, wet, neon, urban nightmare that’s influenced hundreds of subsequent movies. It’s also quite an extraordinary film to see on the big screen. Blade Runner really hit me hard with the underlying themes of what it means to be human and who decides what defines humanity. Based on a novella by the prolific and paranoid author Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise the themes are heavy. But oh, it’s a beautiful, intense, dark and exciting movie.
Recommended. If you can, try to see “The Final Cut”. The film has five different versions floating around, each tweaked slightly. The Final Cut avoids the unnecessary voice over narrative during some of the dream sequences, notably “the unicorn scene”. Fans know what I’m talking about!
Singing in the Rain (1952)
Changing direction entirely, another film that I adore is the light, breezy and joyous Singing in the Rain, directed by Stanley Donen. The genre of musical has fallen out of favor but in the 50’s it was all the rage, and just about every genre film seemed to spawn a song or two. But cast members bursting into song isn’t quite the same thing as a film self-referentially about singing in movies itself.
The famous trio that lead this wonderful film are Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). The film industry is just transitioning from silent films to “talkies” and Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a hilarious Jean Hagen) has a ghastly, squeaky voice. So the studio hires lovable Kathy to dub Lina’s voice in films. Lockwood falls in love with Kathy and thus begins one of the many parallel layers of story in this surprisingly complex narrative: Don is pretending to be in love with Lina on camera, Lina believes he does love her, but he loves Kathy. Kathy, for her part, is a b-player in the industry and keeps getting the shaft by the studio instead of being offered opportunities to advance her career.
Great films are about big, profound themes. Chinatown is about water rights in early Los Angeles. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is about the ugly history of transportation in Los Angeles. And Singing in the Rain is about the challenge of adapting to new technology: sound. It’s also slyly self-referential in so many ways (as explored again in the brilliant The Player, but that’s another essay entirely). But the centerpiece of Singing in the Rain, one of the most memorable scenes in all of cinema, is Lockwood dancing down a city street in a pouring rainstorm. Kathy’s just told him that yes, she loves him too, and the sheer joy, the delight that Gene Kelly brings to that number on screen is just gorgeous. I could watch that dance sequence a million times and still grin at the visual explanation of that warm fuzzy feeling of love. That’s what cinema’s really all about. Emotions on screen.
Recommended. And then watch it again to catch the storyline rather than having all your attention drawn to the great dance numbers, also notably including O’Connor’s inspired and nutty Make ’em Laugh sequence too.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I’ve talked about profound epic films already on this list, but there’s no film with a grander vision and more amazing visual style than 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterwork from Stanley Kubrick. And that’s saying something for the director who brought us Spartacus, The Shining, Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange. When you want to see what a truly brilliant science fiction film can be, look no further than this movie, based on an equally provocative book by Arthur C. Clarke.
The visual effects are staggering too; fifty years later the film is still fresh, innovative, visually engaging and suffers from none of the tedious green screen effect of too many older films in the genre. Just as Lawrence of Arabia helped me understand how the pacing of a film can dramatically impact its narrative, so does 2001: A Space Odyssey define space as a massive and slow moving world. Zero gravity means things leisurely float from one spot to another, and that almost slow motion, surreal sense infuses so much of the narrative style of this beautiful epic film.
The story is about aliens kickstarting the evolution of mankind through leaving mysterious monoliths that bump primitive beasts to the next level. In the first act, it’s our primitive ancestors who stumble across a monolith and then get the inspiration to use tools to defend their kill. In another of the most famous sequences in cinema, that act ends with the primitive man tossing a bone into the air and it dissolving to a rotating space station: We’re now in the near future. Even fifty years after its release, the space station still looks futuristic. When the Discovery One heads to the monolith floating around Jupiter with a crew of mostly sleeping astronauts, it’s Dave & Frank vs. HAL the sentient computer. But HAL’s mission is to get to the monolith and it turns out that the safety of the astronauts, those puny humans, might not be his #1 priority. And then they arrive at Jupiter and, well, that’s when the film admittedly gets a bit weird and surreal.
Still, this is an amazing film and the exception to the rule that science fiction doesn’t age well in the cinematic library. Most sci-fi films from the 60’s and 70’s are daft, poorly acted and have embarrassingly poor special effects when viewed with a 21st century eye. Except 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is as fresh and engrossing as when it was released back in 1968. Recommended? Oh heck yeah. Just take a deep breath and know that it’s long and sometimes befuddling, and enjoy.
Alfred Hitchcock at his best is easily one of the top directors of the art. A famously quirky chap who feared police and had a troubled relationship with many of his leading ladies, he nonetheless produced a string of brilliant movies, from Strangers on a Train to North by Northwest, Vertigo to Rope, The Birds to Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window. But in my book, one of his very best is the creepy and amazing Psycho. Based on a then-best selling novel about a crazed killer who ran a sleepy hotel, Hitchcock did things in this film that I’d never seen done in any other movie, on the big screen or on television. Psycho is also credited as being the first of the modern horror films and is the most profitable black & white sound film ever released.
The film opens by following attractive young secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who just can’t resist when her boss asks her to deposit the massive sum of $40,000 cash in the bank. She grabs it and runs, but as the first act comes to a close, she’s feeling more and more unsure about her decision and has finally decided to head back, return the money and accept the consequences. Unfortunately, it’s late, the weather’s poor and she needs a place to spend the night before her return trip. Luckily there just happens to be the quaint Bates Motel with a VACANCY sign flashing invitingly. She checks in and meets Norman Bates (a chilling and career defining performance by Anthony Perkins) who is what we would call a “troubled youth” and he is enthralled with this beautiful stranger. Which is not a good thing, by any means.
SPOILER: Then something happens in the movie that shocked me; it pivots entirely and goes from a movie about repentant thief Crane to one about crazy hotelier Bates and his relationship with his domineering mother. Hitch kills off the main character halfway through the movie. I can still remember the first time I saw this film I absolutely kept expecting her to show up again: Who kills off their main character? And yet, that dramatic leap is part of what makes Psycho so unsettling to viewers even 60 years later. It’s still an effective and troubling movie. So good.
Recommended, but expect to be emotionally caught up in the moral dilemma that Crane experiences and then be completely shocked by her murder in the famous “shower scene”.
That’s It, Folks!
And so, ten movies. Ten great films (well, maybe minus one or two that were just impactful to me at a young age) that really helped me understand the visceral and emotional language of cinema and the rich palette of cinematic experiences that make it so extraordinarily successful. Now how about you? What’s on your Most Impactful Films list?