Like most of us, I love movies.
Also like most of us, I’ve developed my own tastes over the years: in my case, a mixture of high-brow and low-brow that tends very much toward classic dramas, film noir, and documentary.
I’m no film critic, nor auteur theorist, but I’ve done my share of reading and studying: Hitchcock and Truffaut in conversation. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies. Burden of Dreams, about the making of the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo.
That doesn’t mean I always worship at the feet of the greats. Last year for example, I finally forced myself to sit through Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It was torture. The whole thing was such a giant bore I was actually indignnant by the end. I loved A Winter Light and The Silence. But The Seventh Seal?—come on.
Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky, whose book Sculpting in Time is a classic on vision, vocation and the responsibility of the artist. But I simply can’t get through, say, Andrei Rublev (1969, based on the 15th-century Russian icon painter and universally adored by serious film buffs). I want to, I’ve tried to.
I once read Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky brothers novel upon which Tarkovsky’s Stalker is based, then I read Geoff Dyer’s Zona, an entire book about Stalker, and then I watched Stalker. My sense was there were stabs of genius but if you asked me today I would not be able to tell you one thing about the movie other than that there were three guys in a bar and then at one point they were in a kind of field or pasture.
I revere Robert Bresson: Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket. I’ve written here of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, named by the Vatican as “the best film about Jesus ever made in the history of cinema.” (Also worth an essay; how the same director could make a masterpiece like The Gospel According to Matthew, and then devolve into the moral obscenity of Salò).
I like a story, a moral, and a tragic flaw and am thus a sucker for black and white films from the 40s through 60s with femme fatales, sadistic husbands, conniving mistresses, deranged prison wardenesses, and demented DIY surgeons. I thrive on close-ups of faces, twisted with love, terror, and the anguish of betrayal especially, as was often the case in those pre-airbrushed days, when accompanied by bad teeth, false facial hair, and (for the women) half-inch thick painted-on eyebrows.
Don’t get me wrong: if The Seventh Seal is your thing, more power to you. But here’s the kind of teaser that grabs me: “A terrible accident leaves Esther Costello (Heather Sears) blind, deaf, mute and without a mother. Living in squalor with her aunt, Esther is rescued by a Margaret Landi (Joan Crawford). Esther learns how to use sign language and blossoms into a lovely young woman. But her life darkens when Margaret’s scheming husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), comes back into the picture.” That’s the amazon prime blurb for a 1957 melodrama called The Story of Esther Costello.
To that end, I’ve compiled a list of pairings of some perhaps lesser-known films—or old favorites—that have entertained, consoled, and delighted over the years. A few of the headings need to be fleshed out; e.g. Films in Which Weaselly Playboy Marries Dying Woman So He Can Grab the Dough—but I’ll get there.
The links are mostly to YouTubes, which may or may not be of decent quality (and/or may or may not be deleted in the future). But you’ll find the film(s) elsewhere if you really want to watch.
Films About Megalomaniacal Populist Politicians: A Face in the Crowd (1957). The male lead, Andy Griffith, was badly miscast, but worth watching for the astonishing Patricia Neal and the uncanny resemblance to someone who occupied a high U.S. office 2016-2020! All the King’s Men (1949), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, starred Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark and won three Academy Awards. Sadie Burke was played by Mercedes McCambridge, who I read up on afterwards: she had an alcoholic son who embezzled the law firm he worked for by forging her name, then killed himself leaving a sarcastic note ending, “Night, Mother”—thereby proving, once again, that truth is stranger and more awful, often, than fiction.
Documentaries About Dysfunctional Families: Crumb (1994). The King of them all—possibly the first real peek into the darkness of “family.” Abducted in Plain Sight (2017): If the guy next door in small-town Idaho kidnapped your teenage girl and took her to Mexico, you’d have an affair with him, withdraw the charges, and let him come over and sleep in her bed at night afterward, too, right?
British Boarding School Dramas: The Browning Version (1951), Michael Redgrave as Classics master at a boys’ boarding school, looking back at what he sees as his failed career in the last few days at his post; beautifully-acted tearjerker; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), based on the Muriel Sparks novel: Maggie Smith as morally corrupt queen bee teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school.
Films About Brutish, Heartless Men: Room at the Top (1959), Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret—Moral: make him marry you first, girls! Underworld U.S.A. (1961), dir. Samuel Fuller. Scene between Cliff Robertson and Dolores Dorn in which she tremulously ventures that she’d like to marry and have his children will send chills down your spine.
Films About Corporate Soullessness: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster as uber-sleazy gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (covert incest with sister; possibly Lancaster’s best role); Patterns (1956), screenplay by Rod Serling, with Van Heflin, Everett Sloane and Ed Begley. The tragic underside of the “American dream.”
Documentaries About Ballet Dancers: Margot Fonteyn (1990). “So I took my courage in my hands, and said, ‘Yes, I’ll daahnce ‘Gisele’ with Nuryev.” I can’t watch ten seconds of this without weeping. One of the most stupendous and beautiful human beings, Fonteyn, who ever lived. Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq (2014). Another stellar human being. Le Clercq’s career was cut short by polio.
Existential Science Fiction Movies: The Incredible Shrinking Man, (1957), dir. Jack Arnold; April Kent and Grant Williams: newly-married husband subjected to radioactivity from bomb test, and gets smaller and smaller—oddly affecting; Seconds (1966), dir. John Frankenheimer; Rock Hudson, based on David Ely novel. Powerful, haunting. Maybe it really is a wonderful life–the one, that is, that we have already.
Creepy Plastic Surgery Movies: Eyes Without a Face (1960), dir. Georges Franju; Edith Scob, Alida Valli: demented surgeon with daughter mutilated in car accident stalks victims from whom to harvest a new face for grafting; The Face of Another (1966), Japanese New Wave. “You can’t kill something that’s already dead!”—words spat from small opening in bandage-swathed face. The bitter failure to forge a new identity through scalpels alone.
Films in Which Weaselly Playboy Marries Dying Woman So He Can Grab the Dough: The Big Bluff (1955), John Bromfield and Martha Vickers, dir. by Lee Wilder who was Billy’s brother. Quite delicious.
Films About Suburban Angst: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), dir. Karel Riesz, British kitchen-sink drama starring a young badboy Albert Finney; adapted from novel of the same name by Alan “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” Sillitoe (also a great film). Paris, Texas (1984), dir. Wim Wenders, with Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassja Kinski, and music by Ry Cooder. A heart-stabbing classic.
Movies Set In Torrid Climates: The Comedians (1967), with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Based on the Graham Greene novel, set in Haiti. The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler, with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. Gayle Sondergaard, who played Bette Davis’s dead (because she shot him) lover’s “native” Malay wife, lost her career to HUAC accusations against her husband.
Bearable “Westerns:” Johnny Guitar (1954), dir. Nicholas Ray, filmed in Trucolor: gambling house operator Joan Crawford and reformed gunslinger Sterling Hayden circle each other like jackals in smoldering love-hate; Hud (1963), dir. Martin Ritt. Paul Newman at his heart-throbbiest and coldest, but the real star is the astonishing Patricia Neal.
Women’s Prison Movies: Caged (1950) Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead. “She’ll be back.” Don’t miss the scene where butch sadistic prison matron steps out for her Saturday night date, lording it over and leaving the love-starved inmates to twist and turn. Turn the Key Softly (1953), dir. Jack Lee; British drama starring Yvonne Mitchell, Joan Collins (surprise) as a prostitute, Kathleen Harrison and Terence Morgan. Three women from different backgrounds are released from prison over the course of 24 hours each face a struggle to avoid returning to her criminal ways. Women’s Prison (1955), Ida Lupino as sadistic, closet Lesbian warden. “Get the straitjacket!” This one is harsh.
Mental Institution Movies: The Snake Pit (1948), dir. Anatole Litvak, Olivia de Havilland. “Based on Mary Jane Ward’s 1946 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film recounts the tale of a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum and cannot remember how she got there” [wiki]; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), dir. Miloš Forman, based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel. Jack Nicholson in the role of his life. Louise Fletcher as the iconic Nurse Ratched.
Movies that Telegraph “Hey Women, Don’t Ever Get Old:” All About Eve, of course. Also The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty. I’m not a Beatty fan but Leigh as Karen Stone, an acclaimed American stage actress past her prime (i.e., 50) who moves to Rome and falls in with the Eurotrash gigolo-procuress set is cringily affecting. Almost worth watching for the costumes alone, by Beatrice Dawson (and Balmain). Room at the Top (1959), Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret, dir. Jack Clayton. “A savage tale of lust and ambition.”
Bad Babysitter Movies: The Nanny (1965) Watch out, Master Joey! Dir. Seth Holt, Bette Davis at her most over-the-top, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, a Hammer Film Production that teeters between camp and genuine emotion; The Innocents (1961), prod. Jack Clayton. Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, and the same scary kid, Martin Stephens, who’s in Village of the Damned (an “Evil Children” movie).
Orphanage/Workhouse Movies: Oliver Twist (1948), dir. David Lean, Alec Guiness, John Howard Davies: “Please sir, I want some more”; A Child is Waiting (1963), Burt Lancaster portrays the director of a state institution for mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children, and Judy Garland is a new teacher who challenges his methods.
Movies for Halloween: Homicidal (1961), dir. William Castle, Jean Arless, William Corbett (presence of murderous woman in a small California town unearths secrets concerning a prominent local family); Strait-jacket (1964) Joan Crawford as fresh-out-of-prison axe-murderer and would-be seductress of daughter’s boyfriend. Priceless.
Films About anti-Semitism: Night and Fog (1956), dir. Alain Resnais, lauded French documentary short made ten years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Ship of Fools (1965), dir. Stanley Kramer. Vivien Leigh’s last film, also starring Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin. Set on board an ocean liner bound to Germany from Mexico in 1933, based on Katherine Anne Porter novel.
Movies About Japanese Prostitutes: (there are a million of these) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), dir. Mikio Naruse, Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori: Keiko, a young widow and Ginza nightclub hostess tries to open her own business; Street of Shame (1956) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi; several Japanese women of various personal and socioeconomic backgrounds work together in a brothel.
Films That Take Place In Crumbling Palaces: Satyajat Ray’s The Music Room (Jalsaghar) (1958) Derelict “opulence of the world of a fallen aristocrat (Chhabi Biswas) desperately clinging to a fading way of life. His greatest joy is the music room in which he has hosted lavish concerts over the years—now a shadow of its former vivid self” (Criterion). Black Narcissus (1947), ridiculous Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes”) film about sexually hysterical nuns in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr, Sabu.
Films About Insane Musicians: Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995) The works and legend of Carlo Gesualdo, a notorious 16th c. Italian composer, wack job and murderer, dir. Werner Herzog (naturally); Night Song (1947), “An improbable piece of romantic hokum about embittered blind composer Dan (Dana Andrews) and the wealthy music lover Cathy (Merle Oberon), who pretends to be blind and poor in order to get close to him” (wiki).
Movies Where Someone Gets Shot Going Over A Wall: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965), dir. Martin Ritt, Richard Burton, Clare Bloom. British Cold War, based on the John le Carré novel. The Man Between (1953) dir. Carroll Reed, James Mason, post-War Berlin.
Films with Ticking Clocks: Time Without Pity (1957), dir. Joseph Losey: former wastrel father tries to save his wrongly condemned son from execution. Deadline at Dawn (1946). Screenplay by Clifford Odets, with Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas (based on Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) novel. Sailor comes to from blackout unsure whether he killed a woman or not. Also see D.O.A. (slow-acting poison).
Films about Priests that Portray Them as Other than Venal Dotards, Power-mad Monsters, or Child Molestors: Leon Morin, Priest (1961) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva. In a town in the French Alps during the Occupation, a lonely, sexually frustrated lapsed-Catholic widow, living with her little girl is also a communist militant. One day she enters a church and randomly chooses a priest to confess to and, while in confessional, attempts to provoke him by criticizing Catholicism. Instead he engages her in an intellectual discussion regarding religion and the two enter into a complicated Platonic relationship; The Prisoner (1955) Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins. “In an unnamed East European country where communist tyranny has recently replaced Nazi tyranny, a Cardinal (Guinness) is falsely accused of treason. The Cardinal had withstood torture when he opposed the Nazis, so the regime knows it will not be able to use force to get him to make a false confession. The Interrogator (Hawkins), an old associate of the Cardinal’s but now a Communist, is given the task of persuading him to make a public confession” [wiki]; Into Great Silence (2005) dir. Philip Gröning. The Grand Chartreuse, a monastery high in the French Alps, and the Carthusians who live and pray there. Possibly the greatest religious documentary ever made.
Films About Nuns That Portray Them As Other Than Repressed Nymphomaniacs Or Sadistic Lesbians: Help me out here.
Oh, a find! Conspiracy of Hearts (aka Las Conspiradoras) (1960) British Second World War film, directed by Ralph Thomas, about nuns in Italy smuggling Jewish children out of an internment camp near their convent to save them from The Holocaust. Lilli Taylor as the Mother Superior. Deeply stirring.
Movies Where Dashing Protagonist Discovers Jean Simmons, Victim of Purportedly Evil Stepmother, Playing a Melancholy Piano Tune in an Oppressive Mansion: The Clouded Yellow (1950), British, with Trevor Howard: an ex-spy helps a girl framed for murder flee across the Lake District, followed by Scotland Yard.; Angel Face (1952), dir. Otto Preminger with Robert Mitchum. Pathology comes to Beverly Hills.
Movies Featuring Twins: Dead Ringer (1964) Bette Davis. “At the funeral of her husband Frank, wealthy widow Margaret DeLorca meets up with her identical twin sister, dowdy and downbeat Edith Phillips (also played by Davis), from whom she has been estranged for 18 years. The two return to DeLorca’s opulent mansion, where they argue about their falling out over Margaret’s marriage to DeLorca, who originally courted Edith but had an affair with Margaret.” [wiki]. A must-see for the deeply creepy scene where Bette peels off the stockings of her dead twin. (This is the second time Bette played her own twin: see A Stolen Life (1946). Dead Ringers (1988), Jeremy Irons, a Canadian-American psychological thriller film starring Jeremy Irons in a dual role as identical twin gynecologists. David Cronenberg directed and co-wrote the screenplay” [wiki]. Enough said. Be forewarned.
Films About Mysterious Strangers Who Uncover Or Carry A Hideous Secret: An Inspector Calls (1954) Alistair Sims. In 1912, an upper-crust dinner party is interrupted by a man calling himself Inspector Poole, investigating the suicide of a lower class girl Eva Smith whose death is linked to each family member [wiki]; The Stranger (1946) Orson Welles as former Nazi, Loretta Young as his loving young wife, Edward G. Robinson nosing around. A claustrophobic New England small-town romp.
Movies Where The Stars Are Hopelessly The Wrong Age For The Age Of The Character. I’m not talking about May-December romances, which are by nature creepy. I’m talking about where the guy purports to be 18 in the movie and he’s like 47 in real life: Fred Astaire in Funny Face (1957). He was 58; Audrey Hepburn was 28. Not that he wasn’t still sublime.
Black-And-White Documentaries About Workers in the Venezuelan Salt Mines Featuring Poetry by Pablo Neruda: Araya (1959) dir. Margot Benacerraf, co-written by Benacerraf and Pierre Seghers.
Films about Lepers: The House is Black (1963) Strange and striking documentary from Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad.
Films about Abortion That Are Not Smarmy “Pro-Life” Propaganda: The Pumpkin Eater (1964) dir. Jack Clayton, with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, and James Mason. Philandering college professor and his beautiful, neurotic wife who just wants to have a lot of children, for God’s sake!.
Films About Photographers: Over-Exposed (1956) film noir starring Richard Crenna and Cleo Moore as former sleazy barfly flash-girl photographer. Good dirty B movie fun. Finding Vivian Meier (2013). Don’t Blink: Robert Frank (2015). Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (2018). We should all know about these people.
Documentaries About Contemporary Artists: Bill Cunningham New York (2010): sui generis, Bill; The Barefoot Artist (2014), about “community healer” Lily Yeh; Seymour: An Introduction (2014) about Seymour Bernstein, classical pianist who abandoned his rising career at age 50 to retreat to a monastic life as music teacher and composer.
Movies Featuring Madames: The Shanghai Gesture (1941), dir. Josef von Sternberg: with Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, and Ona Munson as Madame Gin Sling. A Walk on the Wild Side (1962), dir. Edward Dmytryk. Barbara Stanwyck is the viciously cruel madame of a New Orleans brothel. Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, and the stunning Capucine who, tragically, later committed suicide.
Love Addict Movies: So many! Mad Love (1935) (Peter Lorre, crazed surgeon). Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Gene Tierney in white shantung and killer (literally) sunglasses. Possessed (1947), Joan Crawford and Raymond Massey. “One word…David. David. David”…Eva (1962). dir. Joseph Losey at his bleakest, with Jeanne Moreau as emotional dominatrix. Crazy Love (2007): documentary about guy who threw lye in his girlfriend’s face causing permanent disfigurement; when he got out of prison, she married him. Also see The Honeymoon Killers (1969) (under Movies about Serial Murderers).
Circus Performer Movies: Freaks (1932), dir. Tod Browning (iconic, obviously); Gun Crazy (1950), dir. Joseph H. Lewis, with Peggy Cummins and John Dall. A favorite of Martin Scorcese and regularly included in list’s of best American movies and film noir.
Scary Stalker Movies With No Blood: Cape Fear (original) (1962), with Robert Mitchum–whoa–Gregory Peck, and Polly Bergen. This could also fall under Movies That Take Place on Boats. Private Property (1960): dir. Leslie Stevens. “Warren Oates stars in this slow-burning, sweat- and sun-drenched psychosexual thriller—newly restored in stunning 4K by Cinelicious Pics and created from the original film elements rediscovered and preserved by UCLA after more than 50 years of being thought lost!” [YouTube trailer blurb]. Also with Corey Allen and Kate Manx. Point of interest: Manx was married to the director and committed suicide at 34.
Movies Featuring Keys: Dial M For Murder (1954) Grace Kelly, Ray Milland. Notorious (1946), with Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains. This gives me a chance to mention Alfred Hitchcock, one of the masters. If you’re not already intimately conversant with both these films—I will pray for you.
Cheesy Special Effects Movies: The Naked Jungle (1954) Charlton Heston and Eleanor Powell. Heston plays a male VIRGIN who marries a mail-order bride who is NOT A VIRGIN. Then the army ants come….Fiend Without a Face (1958): Invisible atomic monsters attack a U.S. Armed Forces base and the local residents, sucking out their spinal cords and brains…which later come to life! Very satisfying blood spatters, oozy gore and slurping sounds.
Films About Incest: Phaedra (1962), dir. Jules Dassin, with Melina Mercouri and Anthony Hopkins. Well, stepmother-son, but close enough. An absolute must-see. (Footnote: Dassin and Mercouri were married). Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), dir. Otto Preminger (well, covert incest, but close enough). You know Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder but this one, in spite of the bad title, is also very good. Martita Hunt, as a fabulous eccentric old lady, led me to David Lean’s Great Expectations).
Films About Child Molestors: M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre. Are we not all in some tragic way, Hans Becker? The Naked Kiss (1964) dir. Sam Fuller, with Constance Towers. Utterly bizarre: The film follows a former prostitute who attempts to assimilate in suburbia after fleeing her pimp, but finds that the small town to which she has relocated is not as picturesque as she had believed” [wiki]. Let’s just say that’s an understatement. One of my all-time favorites.
Deaf People Movies: Johnny Belinda (1948), Jane Wyman (also mute), Lew Ayres: the isolated Belinda lives with her father and aunt in the remote farming and fishing community near Nova Scotia; Out of the Past (1947), dir. Jacques Tourneur, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Former New York City gambling kingpin relocates to Lake Tahoe but can’t quite shake his old life, nor the double-crossing femme fatale with whom he’s enmeshed. Dickie Moore as The Kid—a young deaf boy with a code of honor.
Blind People Movies: Magnificent Obsession (1954), dir. Douglas Sirk. Playboy turned doctor Rock Hudson (right) performs restorative operation on Jane Wyman. Unbelievably corny. Blind Corner (US title Man in the Dark) (1963). “She loved one man for kicks…one man for luxury…one man for murder.” Excellent British B-movie thriller dir. Lance Comfort, starring William Sylvester and the vilely scheming Barbara Shelley. I saw this on fandor.
Deaf AND Blind People Movies: Land of Silence and Darkness, 1971 documentary and to my mind Werner Herzog’s best film; The Story of Esther Costello (and mute) (1957, Joan Crawford, see introductory remarks above.
Mute People Movies: The Spiral Staircase (1946), with Dorothy McGuire and George Brent: mute woman working as domestic in Vermont mansion is stalked by serial killer. Mandy (British, in the U.S. The Story of Mandy, aka The Crash of Silence) (1952), dir. Alexander Mackendrick, based on the novel This Day is Ours by Hilda Lewis, starring Phyllis Calvert, Jack Hawkins and Terence Morgan. A family’s struggle to give their deaf-mute daughter a better life.
Movies That Revolve Around a Dream: The Chase (1946), dir. Arthur Ripley. A cult film noir classic. Peter Lorre as dissolute aide-de-camp to sadistic boss, a stabbing in an Havana night club, a fat curio shop madame, a shell-shocked sailor. With Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, Michèle Morgan. The Woman in the Window (1944), dir. Fritz Lang, with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey and Dan Duryea. Psychology professor (Robinson) meets and becomes enamored with a young femme fatale.
Films Based on Raymond Chandler Novels: The Big Sleep (1946), this gives me an excuse to mention Chandler, one of my literary heroes. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall still sends shivers. Lady in the Lake (1947), Robert Montgomery, Audrey Trotter.
Facial Scar Movies: The Big Heat (1953) Sadistic brute Lee Marvin throws coffee in the face of the always irresistible Gloria Grahame.
Pre-TSA Airplane Movies: Jet Storm (1959) (also known as Jet Stream or Killing Urge) British thriller dir. Cy Endfield, with Richard Attenborough, Stanley Baker, Hermione Baddeley and Diane Cilento. Traveler with a grudge! Precursor to other aviation disaster films like Airport.
Movies Where the Guy Gets a Beautiful Woman to Play a Double Agent (That are Not Notorious): Dark Journey (1937), dir. Victor Saville, with Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt. “Leigh plays an Allied double agent in 1915 Stockholm. The Germans, who suspect she is passing secrets to the French, send Chief of Intelligence Conrad Veidt to catch her only to have the two fall hopelessly in love” [YouTube trailer blurb]. Affair in Trinidad (1952), dir. Vincent Sherman. Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford. Rita dances barefoot to a fiery calypso number!
Films with Children Who Aren’t So “Adorable” You Want to Slap Them: Whistle Down the Wind (1961), dir. Brian Forbes, starring a young Hayley Mills, based on the novel of the same name by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, also with Alan Bates. An injured Jesus takes shelter in a Lancashire farm. The children care for him. A stellar film that for ages was impossible to find (I saw it at a church screening years ago) but is now, though who knows for how long, available in full at the link above. Ratcather (1999), dir. Lynne Ramsay. William Eadie as beleaguered child James Gillespie.
Movies Where Plain-Jane Transforms into Glamourpuss: Now, Voyager (1942), dir. Irving Rapper. Bette Davis, Paul Henreid tearjerker.
Movies About Bigamists: The Bigamist (1953) dir. Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenne. Edmund Gwenne plays a…bigamist.
Films That Hinge On A Card Trick: The Queen of Spades (1949) This is scraping the bottom of the barrel but when you’re down on a winter night to a lo-res version of Jamaica Inn—don’t get me going on the brilliant Charles Laughton—The Queen of Spades is the type of thing you’re likely to be led to. And fairly entertaining at that.
Films About Gambling: Croupier (1998), Clive Owen. This allows me to mention Clive Owen. Pale Flower (1964) dir. Masahiro Shinoda. At an illegal gambling parlor, Yakuza hitman Muraki (Ryō Ikebe), just released from prison, is drawn to a mysterious young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Who is kind of addicted to adrenaline! Bay of Angels (1963), dir. Jacques Demy, with Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann, costumes by Pierre Cardin. Affair in Monte Carlo (1952) (seemingly available only in this dreadfully low-quality YouTube), featuring Merle Oberon and Richard Todd with children-of-the-corn eyes, loosely adapted from the Stefan Zweig novella “24 Hours in a Woman’s Life”. Nothing could of course top The Grifters—but everyone knows that.
Movies with Smoky Jazz Singers, Scenes, or Scores: I know there are tons, but for now: The Man I Love, (1947), with Ida Lupino (“Well, well, the people you run into when you’re not carrying a gun”).
Movies About Serial Killers: Lured (1947) with Lucille Ball and George Sanders: London police enlist a young dancer to lure a killer of young women by answering personal ads. The Honeymoon Killers (1969) Based on true-life story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, who preyed on wealthy widows. Utterly weird and compelling: ends in Sing-Sing.
Movies That Are Worth Watching Simply for the Women’s Outfits: Written on the Wind (1956), dir. Douglas Sirk, with Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone in color-coded clothes. The Women (1939), dir. George Cukor. Norma Shearer, Roz Russell, Joan Crawford. Never palls.
Movies where the Woman Ends Up Choosing the Standup Poor Guy Over Rich Weasel: I Know Where I’m Going (1945), dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. “Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is a 25-year-old middle-class Englishwoman with an ambitious, independent spirit. She knows where she’s going, or at least she thinks she does. She travels from her home in Manchester to the Hebrides to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy, much older industrialist, on the (fictitious) Isle of Kiloran. Bad weather postpones the final leg of her journey…” [wiki].
Movies that Take Place on Boats (That Are Not Titanic): Lifeboat (1944), dir. Alfred Hitchcock, from a John Steinbeck story, with Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix. Set on a lifeboat launched from a passenger vessel torpedoed and sunk by a Nazi U-boat; Dodsworth (1936), dir. William Wyler, with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor: a couple on a European grand tour (recently-retired auto magnate Samuel Dodsworth and his narcissistic wife Fran) discover fissures in their marriage.
Movies Based on Stefan Zweig Novels: Letter From an Unknown Woman, (1948) Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan. This could also be a Film Featuring a Duel. Beware of Pity (1946) dir. Maurice Elvey, starring Lilli Palmer and Albert Lieven. A paraplegic young baroness mistakes compassion for love. Costumes by Cecil Beaton. Also see Films About Gambling above.
Films About Protagonists Who Decide To Pull A Complicated Trick And It Backfires: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) dir. Fritz Lang with Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine. Guy decides to frame himself for murder in order to make a case against capital punishment. Bad idea! Shock Corridor (1963), directed by the great Sam Fuller: Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) intentionally gets himself committed to insane asylum in order to solve murder; ends up going crazy himself.
Somerset Maugham movies: Quartet (1948) includes “The Facts of Life,” “The Alien Corn,” “The Kite” and “The Colonel’s Lady.” Trio comprises“The Verger,” “Mr. Know-All” and “Sanitorium.” Encore (1951) consists of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” “Winter Cruise,” and “Gigolo and Gigolette.” Maugham introduces each part of the film with a piece to camera from his garden on the French Riviera.
Sherlock Holmes 1939 series movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce: There are a ton of these on YouTube, including The Scarlet Claw (1944), The Woman in Green (1945), and The House of Fear (1945).
I have watched literally hundreds and could go on and on. But these three jump to mind as exceptionally stellar and the first two aren’t generally to be found on the top 10 or 25 or 50 Lists.
Murder by Contract (1958), dir. Irving Lerner, with Vince Edwards and Caprice Toriel. “Centering on an existential hit man assigned to kill a woman, the film is often praised for its spare style and peculiar sense of cool.” [wiki].
T-Men (1947), dir. Anthony Mann, with Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder. Featuring cinematographer John Alton who frequently worked with Mann. Alton was known for unconventional camera angles—especially low camera shots. His style is most notable in, along with T-Men, He Walked by Night, The Big Combo, The Amazing Mr. X (psychic on English coast), and Raw Deal. Wrote a book called Painting with Light (1949) that is apparently still used.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950), dir. John Huston, with Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, and Sam Jaffe. Jewel heist in a Midwestern city. Unforgettable post-heist scene in roadhouse with jukebox, sexy young girl and the yearning, aging Jaffe.
Film I Would Give My Right Arm To Get My Hands On: Yield to the Night aka The Blonde Sinner (1956) (British, and apparently not avail in U.S.). Diana Dors as killer of female rival (and an affecting portrait of a woman on Death Row). I mean look at that trailer! PS: Available on roku BFI-free 7-day trial! While there, check out Mandy, aka Crash of Silence (1952), also difficult to find (deaf-blind girl rehabilitated by gruff/heart-of-gold headmaster Jack Hawkins) and Alistair Sim in the impeccably-acted An Inspector Calls (1954) (psychological thriller wherein each member of a family is found to be morally-existentially (f not legally) implicated in the suicide of a young woman).
Great one liners:
“Get out, I have to sleep in this room.” Robert Mitchum to Jane Greer in Out of the Past.
“I’ve been turned down so many times I look like a bedspread.” Edward G. Robinson, possibly in an Ida Lupino movie, now lost to the mists of time.
Guy on the prowl to woman at bar: “Are you alone?” “I was.”(also from a film lost in the mists of memory).
“Murder is my business and midnight is my beat.” Sterling Haydn, Crime Wave trailer.
Lola Lane, reluctantly opening door in swansdown-trimmed nightgown to despised ex: “Aren’t you dead yet?” Deadline at Dawn (1946).
Post 1960s TV:
Every once in a while I actually dip into something that was made less than fifty years ago and am pleasantly surprised:
Bill Nighy rules: The Worricker Trilogy (2014) (classiest dresser ever); Ordeal by Innocence (2018), British, 3-episode series: plays patriarch of wealthy dysfunctional family in which hateful mother has been murdered).
Catastrophe (Sharon Horgan, Rob Delaney, 2015 et seq.): devoured; Goliath (2016 et seq.), for Billy Bob Thornton, in spite of insane plot holes, Twin Peaks-ish overlay and that the story went completely off the rails in the last part of Season 2 with amputation motif); Enlightened: 2011-12, two seasons. Laura Dern’s crowning achievement.
More to come, but the point is: Long Live Film!