Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

This is a blog about all the nerdy crap we love but are afraid to admit in public.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Top 6: Movies Made Before 1960

I watch a lot of old movies and I love them, but I feel like a great many people today don't give old movies a chance because they're, well, old. Black and white scares people who're used to the HD-CG-3D bollocks that've saturated the market. So here, for the uninitiated, are my six favorite movies made before 1960. Just my opinion, as always.

Considered by many to be the last official entry in the Film Noir cycle, Orson Welles' bleak masterpiece still shocks and astonishes today. It's a gritty, grimy adventure that follows Mexican-American prosecutor Miguel "Mike" Vargas (inexplicably played by Charlton Heston) and his whiter-than-white wife Susie played by Janet Leigh as they cross the border late one night. The sleepy border town is rocked when a car bomb explodes in the opening minute (one of the greatest tracking shots in history) and from there we're introduced to sleazy and corrupt police veteran Captain Hank Quinlan, played for all its worth by Welles himself. The plot gets very muddled, but it's not really about that. It's about these characters and specifically how a once-great man can fall so very far. Three different versions of the film exist due to Welles never getting final cut, but I personally prefer the restoration version that Walter Murch oversaw in the 90s to get as close as possible to the grand auteur's lost vision.

It's very hard to put only one Hitchcock movie on this list, as he made so many that were just perfect. I decided to put this one on the list because it's the Master Of Suspense at his most sinister. It follows the chance meeting on a train bound for Washington, DC of tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and millionaire mama's boy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno is a gossip hound and knows far too much about the famous athlete's personal woes, including his estrangement from his shrewish wife and illicit relationship with a senator's daughter. Bruno wagers that Guy would do anything to have his wife gone because he feels the same way about his own father. He proposes a trade, criss-cross. Bruno would kill Guy's wife if Guy kills Bruno's father. Guy laughs this off; Bruno would never be crazy enough to do it. Would he? Hitchcock is known for his set pieces and there's plenty of them here, making two of the most wholesome activities in America two of the most menacing: a carnival and a tennis match. Also watch for the brilliant shot of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Chilling.

This one's in color, and boy is it ever! One of the earliest uses of grand 3-strip Technicolor, this film also saw the birth of Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling superstar. This is what big budget adventures should be today. The sets are elaborate, the costumes are lush, and the stunt work is stellar even by today's standards. It's well acted, beautifully directed, and the score is thrilling. What more can I say? This movie just makes me feel good when I watch it, and that's what movie watching is all about.

One of the earliest "talkies," this German movie may as well be silent. Made by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also made "Passion of Joan of Arc," "Vampyr" is a surreal, dreamlike depiction of the otherworldly. Allan Grey (Julian West), a traveler obsessed with the supernatural, visits a creepy old inn and discovers evidence of vampires. This film employs a cadre of camera tricks used to induce a general sense of unease, from shadows on the wall disappearing suddenly, to a man digging a grave in reverse, and even Allan Grey himself being buried and his ghost rising from his body. It may seem like kids stuff today, but let's remember this film was made in 1932. It's scary and at times funny but always interesting. Give it a chance, if you dare.

In a time when people were making World War II films like they were on sale at Macy's, a young Stanley Kubrick decided to make his war film about World War I, and have it be about the French. Not a single American character is featured, though most of the actors are, notably its star Kirk Douglas. Its anti-war theme still rings true today as the soldiers on the front line are not only set upon by the enemy only a few hundred yards away, but also the beaurocracy of the officer class, tucked away in their enormous mansion villas. The bulk of the story finds Douglas' Col. Dax having to defend three randomly chosen soldiers on charges of treason and cowardice for refusing to fight in an unwinnable battle. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Douglas gives a wonderful performance as do the three condemned men, who portray all the emotions of the horror of two kinds of war. Early Kubrick is still 150 times better than most everyone in their prime. Kurbick's prime was everthing he made after his first film and before his last film.

I - THE THIRD MAN (1949)
My second favorite movie of all time. This is simply one of the finest films ever made, by a vastly under-appreciated artist, director Carol Reed. Reed was working 22 hour days and became addicted to pills (and possibly other stuff) during the making of this movie, and it shows in the frenzy and paranoia of the third act. It follows hack pulp author Holly Martens (perfectly played by Joseph Cotten) as he travels to post-War Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime. Too bad Lime has just died. He was hit by a car in front of two friends who moved his body off the road. Martens almost leaves immediately after the funeral, except for two things: Harry's girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and a porter's claim that there were indeed THREE men who moved Harry's body. Holly then gets embroiled in Harry's seedy past and the post-war politics of Vienna, which has been cut into four zones, each controlled by the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. The British zone's commanding officer, Major Calloway, is perhaps the best part of the film played by Trevor Howard. He tries to convince Holly to leave while giving him little glimpses of the man he knew as Harry Lime. Also great is the ever-present zither music which is oddly fitting in a creepy way. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it now.

I'm happy with this list, but even as I was writing it I thought of at least ten others I maybe should put on the list. After all, it seems criminal to exclude the works of Billy Wilder, or David Lean, or even the rest of Alfred Hitchcock. And lets not forget Akira Kurosawa. Crap. Maybe soon I'll have to go back and make another list. Start with these, though. They're excellent. Old movies are fun!

You're welcome

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