Although “classic” suggests a consensus of the ages, most of us have our own ideas. Who hasn’t, at least once, walked out of some so-called cinematic masterpiece—acclaimed over the years by know-nothings—perplexed or indignant? (“All of that over a sled?”) On the other hand, who also hasn’t been heartbroken by a pitiless culture immune to the depths and nuances of, say, Bad Boys II? Sometimes classic is a matter of collective subjective taste coalescing into a kind of objective stature, but sometimes it’s just plain old mob rule, awaiting a cooler head and wiser voice to set things straight.
Off the Pedestal:
1.) Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). With Katharine Hepburn as a ditzy and slightly obnoxious heiress, Cary Grant as an absentminded paleontologist, and Hawks as director, it doesn’t seem like anything could go wrong with this movie, and in the eyes of film history, nothing has. Considered by many to be the definitive screw ball comedy, the emphasis is on the screwball, with loose leopards and big-game hunters and wacky millionaire aunts and collapsing brontosaurus skeletons and high jinks on the golf course and people running in and out of doors falling down in funny clothes and stumbling around without their glasses trying to catch dogs with bones and getting tangled up in fishnets. The movie is so amped, straining for lunacy, that it’s shrill more than anything else; something is amiss when even Grant, usually sublime without breaking a sweat, is trying too hard. Any five minutes of Hawk’s His Girl Friday, which came along two years later with Grant at his wittiest, is funnier than all of this.
2.) Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). Let’s acknowledge Max Steiner’s score (Stephen Foster sung by Valkyries), the spectacular pull-away crane shot of all those bodies at the train station, Olivia de Havilland’s surprisingly affecting performance in the movie’s most thankless role, and best of all Clark Gable, who, as we all know by now, really didn’t give a damn. But most of the scenes that are on any scale smaller than Sherman’s march, particularly involving the woeful Leslie Howard, are dead on the screen, and Vivien Leigh is tediously “indomitable” as Scarlett O’Hara, the Paris Hilton of the Gallant South. Some in the audience—African Americans, for instance—also may be unmoved by the wistful four-hour lament for a lost world of “Knights and Their Ladies Fair” built on human slavery.
3.) It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). This goes too far, doesn’t it? Attacking Gone with the Wind is one thing, but Wonderful Life is part of American 20th-century religion. So I’ll concede one of the greatest performances by the greatest American movie actor; if nothing can be more difficult to convey than despair—that grief of the soul— then no one ever has conveyed it with more frightening power than James Stewart as a suicidal small-town businessman who has a revelation of what life would be if he never had been born. But nothing casts in more stark relief the manipulative nature of Capra’s direction than how (as the critic Michael Ventura once pointed out) the town that would have existed in all its tawdriness without Stewart seems so much more alive, so much more vibrantly human, than the sanitized alternative. It’s a wonder Stewart doesn’t toss himself back in the river after all, or give his guardian angel the slip and just get drunk.
4.) On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). From Rod Steiger to Karl Malden to Eva Marie Saint to Lee J. Cobb to Marion Brando towering above them all, this is the best-acted American film of its decade. I don’t condemn it for the fact that director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg informed on their friends to a congressional committee investigating Communism in the entertainment industry; none of us can say for sure what we would do under circumstances in which our careers and livelihoods are on the line. What’s beyond the moral and artistic pale, however, is the way that Kazan and Schulberg used Waterfront to justify their actions by equating naive Hollywood doofuses who didn’t know any better and never broke any laws or sold secrets to the Soviets with vicious labor mobsters who kill people. Intellectual dishonesty rots this movie from the center out, the whiff of it drifting from one frame to the next.
5.) Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959). Hawks is one of the three or four greatest American directors of the sound era, so what does it mean that two of his movies are on this list? Only that his body of work is such an embarrassment of riches that you can toss out two alleged classics and still have left His Girl Friday, Red River, The Big Sleep, Twentieth Century, To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Thing, the original Scarface, and even Land of the Pharaohs. Quentin Tarantino has stated that he considers one’s ardor for this John Wayne western a test of any prospective relationship, but some years ago, while watching it on TV, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, this really isn’t a very good movie”—an emperor’s-new-clothes moment from which the movie never recovered. Dean Martin as the town drunk out to vindicate himself is quite fine, and the whole shambling, hanging-around-the-jailhouse quality has a certain charm, but it isn’t remotely the stuff of greatness.
6.) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). In the minds of movie audiences this is the quintessential Hitchcock and probably always will be, with Anthony Perkins’s indelible performance as Norman Bates, the brilliantly edited shower scene, and Bernard Herrmann’s music so familiar that the very cliché of it has become cliché. But even setting aside the inept coda—in which Norman’s problems are explained “psychologically”—and how this was the prototype for four unfortunate decades of slasher films, Psycho isn’t a lot more than a series of cheap shocks, the director’s emptiest work. It never gets under your skin like Notorious, or slips into your dreams like Vertigo, or shifts your perspective like Rear Window, or just offers two hours of inventive, suspenseful fun like Strangers on a Train, whose homicidal maniac Robert Walker would creep out even Perkins.
7.) Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965). If just once this dull adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel was as lurid as director Lean believes it is in his uptight British heart, it might not feel frozen in all that tundra; only Rod Steiger as the depraved Russian aristocrat Komarovsky cracks the ice around him. Sexual chemistry is as intangible in movies as in life, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how talented or beautiful are the designated forbidden lovers (in this case Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Julie Christie as Lara) if they don’t catch fire. Adored in large part for Freddie Young’s cinematography, which is too static to overcome the film’s staginess, and Maurice Jarre’s music, which lurches from moderately enchanting to extremely irritating by hour three, this epic of the Russian Revolution is a classic case—if it’s a classic anything—of the parts being greater than the whole.
8.) The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967). It’s impossible to overstate the impact this had when it came out. Along with Bonnie and Clyde, which was released within weeks, The Graduate was the first clue in the 1960s that Hollywood had, well, a clue. But notwithstanding the breakthrough performance of Dustin Hoffman, too old for the role by almost a decade, the movie flatters itself that it’s communicating something substantial through the style of the day, as emblematized by Robert Surtees’ kaleidoscopic cinematography and snippets of gossamer Simon and Garfunkel songs; while Bonnie and Clyde has remained vital, The Graduate has dated badly, now more smug than funny. The self-satisfaction of Nichols’s direction is palpable. If you haven’t seen the film in a long time, and you have profound memories of the way it spoke to your adolescence, you might want to leave those memories unstirred.
9.) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). By the end of the ’60s, American movies had nothing if not style, from trippy soft-focus meanderings on bicycles built for two to violent frozen-frame death, the glamour of youth intact. Robert Redford had been in and around Hollywood for the better part of a decade before this finally made him a superstar; Paul Newman, originally cast as Sundance, understood the casting was backward while also insisting that Redford share above-the-title credit. Their rapport is irresistible, and the buddy movie was born: two heterosexual men who interact in the manner of famous movie lovers like Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall. But Butch Cassidy was a trifle even in its day and has never transcended its slightness. Hill’s direction is hackwork of not even a particularly inspired sort, derivative of better contemporaries, and while William Goldman’s script has its share of smart one-liners, it doesn’t add up to as much as it implies—an elegy for a lost America for which an embattled Vietnam-era America yearned. Such artistic missions were better left to Sam Peckinpah.
10.) Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). A whole generation of audiences not only considers Stars Wars the greatest movie ever made but is confounded by the idea that there actually was such a thing as movies before it. As someone who saw it at Grauman’s Chinese on the weekend it opened, I can’t deny that the first ten minutes were thrilling; after that, the movie begins its long, slow plunge into the Death Star of the imagination. As a director, Lucas never has had any feel for actors, or indicated more than indifference for them; in retrospect the casting of Harrison Ford looks like dumb luck. But more important, Lucas is no better as a conceptualist. His failure of nerve as a mythmaker finally would be revealed two sequels later when Luke Skywalker should, by all mythic logic, have chosen to stay on the Death Star and die with his father. In Lucas’s mythology, there are no consequences, there’s never a price to be paid; God forbid anything tragic should happen. A few months later I also saw, at its opening at the Cinerama Dome, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and there was a movie that had you searching the skies when you left the theater. Leaving the theater from Star Wars, you searched for your car.
On the Pedestal:
1.) The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). Anyone who’s seen this gem, as perfect a picture as ever has come out of Hollywood, will wonder what it’s doing on this list, because for anyone who’s seen it, its classic status is untouchable. But though it’s been remade at least twice (1949’s In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), most people have never heard of it. Written by Samson Raphaelson and shifting from comedy to drama to romance with never a misstep, Shop Around the Corner has become a classic without anyone knowing it in the same way that, without knowing it, Margaret Sullavan falls in love with James Stewart, in one of his subtlest performances as the manager of a Budapest gift shop. Stewart and Sullavan may or may not be aware that World War II is on the horizon, but permeating the film is the sense that everything’s about to be swept away; including music boxes and their melodies, love and its clandestine secrets.
2.) Leave Her to Heaven (John Stahl, 1945). All seems rather sedate for about 15 minutes, but once Gene Tierney begins riding the mesas of New Mexico on horseback, casting her father’s ashes to the wind, this becomes the most deeply berserk studio A movie of the 1940’s. Shot by Leon Shamroy (who won an Oscar for it) in a Technicolor so delirious it makes you queasy, Leave Her to Heaven taught Douglas Sirk in the ’50s and Todd Haynes half a century later everything they knew. If Tierney had been a “better” actress, she wouldn’t have been as good; she would have thought too much about what she was doing and tried to make too much sense out of it. This is noir—pitched somewhere between the hysteria of Laura, in which Tierney played the title role, and the psychosis of Vertigo—trapped in a romantic “women’s picture,” as they were called then, not so much screaming to get out as gnashing its way fang by fang.
3.) Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges, 1948). In this tonally audacious black comedy about adultery, suave maestro Rex Harrison—in a series of fantasies that play out in his mind like a Rube Goldberg invention to a crazed Tchaikovsky symphony—plots his revenge on the wife he’s convinced is cheating on him. At the time the married Harrison was having an affair with an actress who then committed suicide on their breakup, so we can only wonder what he was really thinking in a movie about what his character is really thinking. With Unfaithfully Yours the great writer-director Sturges turned his satirical eye from social absurdities to psychosexual ones, and it was a spectacular failure after ten hits in nine years. His career was never the same, but except for 1941’s The Lady Eve, this is his best.
4.) The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963). Clues to the hushed spell this movie will cast are present from the beginning: in Bernard Herrmann’s credit as not composer but “sound consultant” and in the anonymity—compared with the likes of Cary Grant or James Stewart, Grace Kelly or Kim Novak—of leads Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren, two prospective stars who never quite were. The true music is heard in the dive-bomber screech of the birds themselves, mad as hell and taking over the world, and Taylor and Hedren are too ordinary to triumph, as though triumph is an option. When they drive away in the final scene, you know they have nowhere to go. Of all Hitchcock’s movies this is the one that, after Vertigo, most succumbs to film’s dream language.
5.) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973). More than one version of this has seen the light of day, and it would seem there are as many tall tales about a “lost”d definitive film that sits in a vault somewhere as there are about Pat and Billy themselves. In the meantime we’re left with the two-hour, shrewdly reedited cut that’s rumored for DVD next year and is about a half hour longer than the one originally released. From Rudy Wurlitzer’s terrific script to John Coquillon’s rich cinematography, from James Coburn’s great performance as lawman Garrett to Kris Kristofferson’s indisputable charisma as the outlaw Billy—which explains why so many people once were so excited about him, in case you’ve ever wondered—to the score by Bob Dylan, who has a considerable if muted screen presence himself as Billy’s pal Alias, this is a cockeyed, rough-edged reverie for not just notions of honor and betrayal but a time when they mattered.
6.) Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975). Introducing the underage Melanie Griffith (the daughter of The Birds’ Tippi Hedren) as an underage vixen in what all of Hollywood must have clucked was typecasting to end all typecasting, and James Woods as an asshole—we’ll let Hollywood speak for itself on that one—Night Moves opens with the gravitas of a Rockford Files episode: cheesy music, cheesy credits. But in few films has dread taken on a greater cumulative eloquence, by way of Gene Hackman’s private eye, who in the tradition of all cynical private eyes seeks a redemption no one else understands, and Dede Allen’s editing, which captured the rhythms of a nation then rattled by corruption and loss of purpose (that same year Allen would also edit Dog Day Afternoon and win an Oscar). The climax is as stunning and poetic, if not as famous, as that of Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, except that unlike those gorgeous lovers, there’s not even the suggestion of anyone here passing into legend.
7.) The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975). Not only is this one of Huston’s best—for decades he wanted to adapt Rudyard Kipling’s story, originally with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable—but along with John Milius’s wonderful The Wind and the Lion of the same year, it was the movie that freed Sean Connery once and for all in the public mind from the role of a certain secret agent. Spectacularly shot on location, affectionately nodding to Anglo imperialism and male bonding even as it sends them up, the movie is a boy’s adventure on the grandest scale, with two of the grandest overgrown boys in Connery and Michael Caine—neither ever better—as irrepressible 19th-century adventurers whose cheeky arrogance does them in. The climactic scene of the two friends singing farewell to each other as Connery plummets from a high Himalayan bridge into the doom that yawns below is at once absurd and impossibly moving.
8.) The Freshman (Andrew Bergman, 1990) Audiences didn’t know what to make of this odd little comedy about a film student played by Matthew Broderick who gets involved with someone who bears a startling resemblance to the most famous Mafia don in film history Negotiating material that often is dark and verges on the surreal, with one sterling scene after another—including Broderick’s attempt to strap a seat belt across a Komodo dragon in the back of a car—writer-director Bergman never takes a wrong step or veers into the grotesque or silly With Brando in his last great performance, reincarnating Vito Corleone more than parodying him, to ends both hilarious (shoveling a bushel of sugar into a cappuccino cup the size of a shot glass) and lovely (ice-skating to Tony Bennett’s “I Wanna Be Around”), this is postmodernism of a rare sort: as heartfelt as it is brainy
9.) The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992). Mann has been the best director in America for more than a decade now, a chronicler of modern urban noir with a feel for both nocturnal style and spiritual ennui—so how to explain that his best movie is this ravishing masterpiece about a country that hasn’t been born yet, let alone become cynical or ironic? In an age of patchwork movie scores, Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s has a sweeping beauty; Dante Spinotti’s cinematography catches an America still shimmery with the dew of its newness; and Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawk-eye, the white man raised by Indians, and Madeleine Stowe as Cora, a British officer’s headstrong daughter, were the hottest movie couple of the ’90s in a romance that’s at once fabulous and grown-up, primal and intelligent. But nothing speaks more to the film’s narrative richness, and to Mann’s integrity and abiding concern with the complexities of character, than how the “villain” of the piece is finally given the story’s most wrenching moment of heroism and self-sacrifice.
10.) Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995). As Mann did with Last of the Mohicans, here Jarmusch took leave of his usual turf—hip observations of a contemporary postpunk nation such as Stranger than Paradise and Mystery Train—to go deeper into the Dream of America. Descending into a Blakean vision of the Wild West, an accountant whose name happens to be William Blake is transformed into a notorious gunslinger; at the end he drifts by canoe into the country’s pure and incandescent heart. Two years before Donnie Brasco, this is where Johnny Depp, still an actor known largely for his whimsy, revealed a new and mysterious danger. Hallucinatory; horrific, and beautiful, with a brooding score by Neil Young suggesting a kind of frontier psychedelia, cinematography by Robby Muller that looks like daguerreotype as invented by Albert Einstein, and cameos by everyone from Robert Mitchum to Iggy Pop, this is the Blade Runner of westerns.