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Rerun: Great Old Movies (The Black and White Edition)

Because it's a bit scattered about, I'm reposting my "Great Old Movies" essay for a broader* audience, and because I don't talk enough about movies.


Inspired by a comment from a friend, my brain has been rifling through the databases in my consciousness and I keep thinking about those really excellent old black-and-white movies that made me fall in love with movies when I was a kid. Roger Ebert famously quotes his longtime-collaborator/frenimy Gene Siskel about the rule of thumb for judging whether a movie is good: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" And since I love documentaries, it's hard for a movie to live up to my standards, but there are some amazing works out there. So here's some of my favourite old movies, in no particular order, so you can take a whack at them and see if you like them.

1) Bad Day at Black Rock. Spencer Tracy as a one-armed man in a small Nevada town. Probably the best modern western film ever made. Directed by John Sturges, who later on went on to make The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven, and Ice Station Zebra (among others), here his spare, careful use of the camera as a framing device shows a brilliant eye for images. Black Rock is what Zack Snyder was trying to do with Watchmen.

2) Rear Window. I promise I will limit my number of Hitchcock movies to two, and this is one of them. Anyone who hasn't seen this movie hasn't actually seen a movie. Seriously. And if you can, see it in b&w; the Technicolor print is awful.

3) The Philadelphia Story. Oh, COME ON. When Jimmy Stewart is the THIRD BEST actor in a film, you might as well just buy a damn copy now.

4) Yojimbo. Remade in the US almost immediately as High Plains Drifter starring Clint Eastwood, the original story is well worth watching even with the subtitles. Akira Kurosawa may in fact be the greatest writer/director in history, but he's definitely in the top five, and this is the movie where you see him at his greatest. He also gets two entries in the list of 9 movies, but we'll get to the other one later.

5) It Happened One Night. There's a LOT of Frank Capra movies you should watch, but if you choose to only watch one, watch this one. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is right up there with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Speaking of which...

6) His Girl Friday. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the prototypical bickering couple. Some of the best dialogue ever written for the screen, a brilliant and funny comedy, and I would just point out that the murder being investigated by the characters involved is the C-plot in the script. This movie was instrumental for my voice as a writer. It doesn't matter what's happening, what matters is how the characters interact and how the words flow. Plot is just stuff going on in the background.

7) Rashomon. The first time I watched this movie, I couldn't have been more than 11 or 12 years old, and at the time it was as much of a kick in the teeth as reading Catcher in the Rye (which I finished probably a week before). It is a beautiful meditation on the power of human frailty and memory, and I can't BELIEVE they remade it into a bad thriller starring Dennis Quaid. This is the second of the two Kirosawa movies in my top nine.

8) North By Northwest. This is the other Hitch movie. Vertigo may be scarier, and Birds may be more disturbing, but NXNW is the most FUN of his thrillers. Plus, Cary Grant. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Then again, who didn't?

9) Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. I thought a lot about this last movie, but when it comes down to it this is the one that keeps coming back to me. Three of the four leads in this movie are giants: Spencer Tracy in his last, probably best romantic lead role. Katherine Hepburn in a defining comedic turn. And Sidney Poitier doing what he always did: bringing grace, poise, and intelligence to the incredibly sticky questions about race in America. This movie is ostensibly a comedy (there's some pretty funny moments with the ice cream), but it is also brutally honest about race and class and relations between the two. So much so that I'm shocked it ever got made, especially in 1967. But movies would not have been so great if not for these.

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