#25 To Kill A Mockingbird

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus Finch

If there’s one thing that American writers do well it is to tell their story in an almost autobiographical style, change people’s names, and call it fiction. Harper Lee is no exception. Thankfully, some things happened in her life that were more entertaining than painting a fence (Why Twain…why?). With that hang up aside, I did actually enjoy this film.

Scout Finch (Mary Badham) is a six-year-old girl who is just about to discover the word in all its both horrific, and redeeming qualities. It is the last summer before she is to attend school, and, though her life is quite carefree, it is quickly becoming apparent that the next year of her life will change her forever.

When Scout’s father Atticus (Gregory Peck) is asked to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who has been accused of rape, the world begins to close in quickly on Scout. She is now forced to deal with the horrors of the world that had previously eluded her.

This is quite a shock to Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford). Previously, the darkest thing that had existed in their world was Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), an intellectually stunted shut-in neighbor whose reputation in the neighborhood had garnered much scandal.

As the trial draws closer, hostility towards the Finch family reaches a boiling point. Prejudice quickly blinds the town of Monroeville, and Atticus quickly assumes the role of the town pariah.

As the trial moves on two things become clear: Tom is not guilty of the crime that he has been accused of, and it does not matter. It is up to Atticus, the American Film Institute’s all time greatest hero, to prove Tom’s innocence at all costs.

The film is a delight to watch. Scout, is an engaging protagonist. Discovering depression-era Alabama through the eyes of an optimistic six-year-old is an effective tool that creates a genuine mood of discovery. This was aided by the superb performance of Mary Badham who, with excellent direction, was able to portray Lee’s fictional counterpart in a way that was deserving of her Oscar nod.

Nothing can be said about the acting in this film though without addressing Gregory Peck. Much like Bogart in Casablanca, or Brando in On The Waterfront, Peck has a certain indefinable quality about him in this film. It is nearly impossible to look away from him whenever he is on the screen.

It is nearly impossible not to feel nostalgic as Scout and Jem run out to greet Atticus when he returns from work, or are scolded for being obviously wrong, perhaps this is due to the fact that Peck reminds me of my own dad (something that Lee, myself, and quite a few other people have in common).

By far the most intriguing aspect of this film is Atticus’ integrity. The fact that he defended a man that no one else would is a testament to this, but there are so many other examples.

When Atticus “takes care” of a mad dog, any notion of that his children had about him being too old for action was eradicated, but this is not what earned him their respect. When a man spits in Atticus’s face, Atticus does not retaliate, he simply wipes his face, and walks away. This is not an indication of his cowardice though. Instead it is a beacon of his strength. But Atticus is not done teaching his children lessons there.

Atticus does not simply tell his children what to do. He lives in a way that he expects his children to, and if there is any lesson that needs to be learned by today’s society from this film, it is that. When Scout asks Atticus why he is defending Tom when everyone else says it is wrong Atticus responds with a simple answer. He tells her that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up high, or tell her and Jem not to do anything.

Atticus’s complete lack of hypocrisy, and his stern integrity, is what make him the greatest hero in American film history.

The story is well known, and important, today, yesterday, and tomorrow. It is not the most entertaining film, but the characters are engaging enough to keep the attention of the viewer. The titular metaphor…I don’t think it needs to be explained.  And the writing, with a few not-so-important omissions, remains quite true to the novel. It is definitely well one and deserves to be watched by everyone.

#24 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.
Elliot

Steven Spielberg’s imagination inspiring, out of this world, sci-fi fantasy about a marauding alien, is a movie that should be watched by everyone as a child.

When a group of marauding aliens lands on earth, only to take off later that night, they leave behind one of their own.

This alien, who has a sweet spot for Reace’s pieces, eventually stumbles upon a young boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas). Fearing that the alien will be lobotomized or experimented upon (the natural fear of any ten-year-old boy), Elliot decides to keep the alien as a pet and give it the name “E.T.”

E.T. quickly begins to mimic Elliot’s actions, and the two form a bond that quickly becomes the most important thing in young Elliot’s life.

As Elliot and E.T.’s relationship builds they start to form a psychic link. This is amusing at first, but when E.T.’s health takes a turn for the worse it becomes problematic for Elliot. He to begins to suffer from whatever it is that is ailing his alien friend.

To make matters worse, the government has discovered E.T.. If E.T. is ever going to get home he has to rely on Elliot to get him to the rendezvous spot that he has signaled the other aliens to pick him up at.

Spielberg’s vision for this film was unique. Most of the shots in the film are from the eye level of a child, more specifically Elliot (A technique that was later used in the Swedish Vampire hit, Let the Right One In). This is so effective because it allows adults a perspective change, and creates a feeling of familiarity for children. The affect that this has on the viewer is unsettling.

Because most viewers are used to witnessing a film shot at an adult’s eye level the change in perspective forces the viewer to view the world differently. It creates an atmosphere that makes the real world feel like a fantasy world. This allows the imagination to accept what it is seeing without question, much like a child accepts whatever it sees.

Another technique Spielberg used was to shoot the movie chronologically. This obviously had no impact on the viewer, but it allowed the child actors to have stellar performances. Because their own relationship to the film was coming to an end, the emotions that the children portray are all genuine emotions. This is a perfect example of what a good director is able to do in order to get the best performance out of his (or her) actors.

This film is beautiful, and heartbreaking. When E.T. joins Elliot’s family he brings with him so much. The relationship between Elliot and his siblings was rocky at best as the film opened, but E.T., much like he was able to bring plants into full bloom, was able to bring out the best in everyone who came in to contact with him.

It could be argued that E.T. was meant to represent God, and that Elliot represents Jesus. This argument could come from the separation of the psychic Elliot felt as E.T. was dieing; this would be a messy metaphor though. Furthermore it is one that Spielberg, whose mother is a strong subscriber to the Jewish faith, has refuted adamantly (he has joked that she would disown him if this were the case). Still though, the theme of sacrifice that both Elliot and E.T. display for each other is a beautiful one.

This film was not just an emotional journey though, it was so much more than that.

When E.T. is forced to “go home,” Elliot is forced to confront the residual emotional damage that his absent father had left him with. This time however, he is aiding the departure. As much as he loves E.T., Elliot knows that he has to let him go. And in doing this Elliot is able to overcome the abandonment issues that his father had developed in him.

This is a very important theme to deal with, especially because of the time. In 1982 the marriage rate in the United States was half of what it was in the late fifties and early sixties. What was worse though was that the divorce rate had more than doubled. This film served as a beacon for all those who had been affected by this increase. It displayed the hurt that separated parents could cause their children, but also showed that there was hope.

This film is absolutely delightful and should be watched by all children. I saw it as a child and, despite the fact that it creeped me out (something about the boy being controlled by E.T. set me on edge) I loved this film. And I still do.

“E.T. phone home”

-E.T. (I couldn’t not use this quote)


#23 The Grapes Of Wrath

“Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”
Tom Joad

John Ford brilliantly brings to life Steinbeck’s epic about the formation of unions and the exodus of Oklahoma farmers to California during America’s Great Depression.

When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is released from prison, after being paroled following a murder of self defence, all he wants to do is rejoin his family. But when he arrives home his family is no where to be found. They have, along with most of the families in the area, been pushed off their land by various faceless corporations that are able to do the job of hundreds of men with just a handful of tractors.

When Tom finds out that his family is currently staying at his uncle’s farm he wastes no time to reunite with them. Sadly their reunion is short lived. As soon as Tom arrives on the farm his family is once again told that they must evacuate. The group sees only one option, they must head west and search for work in the land of milk and honey, California.

The family immediately begins their travels to California with nothing more than a hundred and fifty dollars and a jalopy truck.

Along the way, the family is forced to deal with many hardships. The death of their two most elderly members, along with dwindling funds, nearly breaks the family’s spirit. But the family pushes on and finally makes it into their proverbial “promised land.”

After finally making it to California it would seem like all should be good for the Joad family. This makes the harsh realization that life in the west is not much better than it was in the mid-west even more difficult to bear.

Forced into a transient camp the Joad’s are confronted with the harsh reality of true poverty, overbearing employers, and police corruption. The camp is eventually burnt down and the Joad’s are forced out on to the road again.

When it appears that all hope is lost for the Joads a miracle happens, they are offered work. A peach ranch’s workers had recently gone on strike when their wages were cut by fifty percent, and the Joads, are offered the job as scabs. But when Tom kills a corrupt cop, again in self defence, and their wages are cut, the Joads are forced to flee once again.

Once again the Joad’s find themselves on the brink of oblivion. Their Jalopy runs out of gas, and their pockets have run out of money. They decide that their only option is to pull into the next camp they find and hope for the best. This is the first bit of good luck they run into. The camp they stumble upon happens to be one of the only camps that is free from police corruption. The camp will allow them to work to earn their keep, and best of all, it will allow them to retain some sense of dignity.

The family resides happily in this camp until Tom sees police officers checking the licence plates of all the trucks. It appears that they are on the hunt for Tom. Tom is again forced to flee, but develops a new resolve. He intends to unify the workers of California against the oppressive force that is America’s top one percent.

This film is important for so many reasons. During its release in 1940, the film’s sympathy for the lower-class, along with its disdain for corporate ruthlessness, could not have been more topical. But this is why the film was great. The film is great because its themes are universal. It holds a mirror to the ideal of capitalism, and reveals just how ugly it can become.

The socialist undertones of this movie cannot be ignored. The one moment of peace that the family receives is while they are living in a camp that requires all its citizens to do their part to keep the place clean and working efficiently. That being said, this movie was not a call to communism, socialism, or any political ideology at all. It was instead, a “dear John” letter to the American dream of capitalism.

The Joad family is the picture of the American dream. They work hard for their food, their land, even the air that they breath. And they thought that this was what America stood for. This was capitalism at its finest, people who are willing to work hard, are able to make a good life for themselves. Unfortunately for the Joads, and everyone in the quickly dwindling middle-class, the American dream came true, Capitalism as an ideal came to fruition. This meant that the few, the hardest working, the smartest, or perhaps even the luckiest, were able to use the wealth they already had to create more for themselves, while forcing the “simpler” members of society into the dust that they are all to willing to till.

Capitalism is perhaps the world’s first ideal to ever be completely realized in a way that is uncompromising. And the result of this was, and is, disastrous. This does not mean that Capitalism as an idea is bad, or that any other ideology is better. Steinbeck and Ford were simply pointing out the flaws that they saw in society, and they were given a lot of flaws to work with.

This film works because nothing is overdone. The acting is well done, Henry Ford is certainly an engaging leading man, but it was not overly dramatic. Likewise, the direction was phenomenal, but the film was not overshot, or over paced. The film is an exercise in minimalism and it did well to be this way. Nothing took away from what was truly important about this film, and that was the story. The actors told Steinbeck’s story, Ford allowed them to, and the screenwriter (Nunnally Johnston) trimmed Steinbeck’s story down to its most basic form, eliminating the many layers of carbon Steinbeck had created, to reveal the diamond that is at the heart of this story.

#22 Some Like It Hot

“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Osgood Fielding III

Back before White Chicks, Sorority Boys, Juwanna Man, To Wong Foo, Mrs. Doubtfire and every teen sit-com from the 90’s, there was Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s gender-bending rom-com starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe.

When Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon respectively) witness a mob hit they know they have to leave town, the only problem is, they are flat broke. So when the opportunity arises to take a job playing for a band in Florida they are all to happy to take the free ticket out of town. There’s just one problem, the band is for girls only. Not to be held down by such trivial matters Joe and Jerry don wigs and become Josephine and Daphny.

Shortly after joining the band, both Joe and Jerry discover the enchanting Sugar (Monroe), the band’s singer and ukelele player. Jerry immediately finds it difficult to hide his attraction to Sugar, and has to be reminded several times by Joe that he is a girl. But the tables are quickly turned when Sugar reveals that she has always had a thing for guys who play the saxophone, she just “dumb that way.” This just happens to be Joe’s instrument, and the affect that this knowledge has on him is drastic. At this point the film almost instantly switches from focusing on Jerry, to focusing on Joe.

When the band finally arrives in Florida, Sugar is suddenly best friends with Joe’s alter-ego, Josephine. This is not good enough for Joe though. Joe wants more than friendship from Sugar so he creates yet another alter-ego, a young millionaire who is air to the Shell oil fortune. Immediately the connection he builds with Sugar is strong. Using the intimate details that he learned through intimate feminine discussions, Joe is able to create a perfect love interest for Sugar.

Meanwhile Jerry, who adapts to life as a woman better than Jerry, gets duped into escorting a young millionaire who is head-over-heals in love with Daphne.

Life goes quite well for Joe and Jerry. Getting paid to play their instruments while recieving free room and board is exactly what they expected out of their trip to Florida. But when the mobsters that forced them to flee Chicago show up in Florida, Joe and Jerry’s romantic, financial, and physical well being all come under fire.

Everything about this film is well done. Billy Wilder, making his second appearance on this list, was like the conductor of a well-tuned orchestra. The mood of this film changes effortlessly to suit each act and the result is a film that is multi-dimensional without being emotionally taxing.

This film is a perfect example of what good actors can do when they are given a good director. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could have easily over played their roles, but they didn’t. Their performances were tactful, and, unlike most actors who go drag for a role, never opted for the ridiculous in search of a laugh.

Not to be out done was the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is positively delightful in this film. Any one who does not understand why she was the “it” girl must watch this movie. She easily wins over the heart of the audience, and I dare you not to fall in love with her.

This film works because it blends comedy, drama, and even action effortlessly. It virtually created a genre (if you ignore the fact that it was based on a German film), and best of all, it was pure entertainment. It completely defies while remaining an example of what a movie that doesn’t want to settle for being a comedy, romance, or drama, can be.

#21 Chinatown

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”                                                                                                                                                                   Walsh

Roman Polanski’s noir mystery thriller, Chinatown, outreaches its grasp. Polanski is a visionary, visually at least, but the story, as well as its progression, just come up short.

When private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman to catch her husband in the act of adultery, he thinks it will be just another routine case. However, when Jake finds out that the woman who hired him is an imposter, and that the man he was hired to photograph is dead, he finds himself involved in a murder case that involves incest, and corruption.

While on this murder case Jake discovers something shocking about the city’s water supply. It seems that the water supply for the city is being withheld, and outsourced. This stands to make some very dangerous men, very rich. Jake unfortunately stumbles upon this plan and is, in turn, pursued by these men.

Along the way he picks up the woman who he had originally thought had hired him, the recently widowed Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and a pseudo romance ensues.

Polanski achieved exactly what he attempted to with this film, and from that perspective I guess it is a success. But successfully achieving a goal is not a particularly great accomplishment by itself.

The film tells its story eloquently enough, but the story it is telling is not really all that important. Nothing about this film left an impacting imprint on me, and if it were simply a dose of escapism that would be fine, but that was not what this film was. It was never able to fully engage me as a viewer, and I was never able to care about any of the characters (even one that was that was a victim of incest).

I don’t know what to say. Whenever I write anything bad about any film on this list I get negative feedback. The truth of the matter is that every film on this list is a good film. There are 1,500 artists, film industry execs, and critics that are willing to back that up. Fortunately this is my blog, and my opinion is the only one that really matters. This is a critique of opinion, not artistic merit, and Chinatown receives a negative critique.

#20 It’s a Wonderful Life

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Clarence

Frank Capra’s tale of the affect that everyone has on the people around them is a timeless Christmas classic that begs to be rediscovered by every generation.

This film observes the life of George Bailey (James Stewart), a good and selfless man who has put his life on hold for the good of his town. He had many dreams for his life that he had to sacrifice in order to prevent the takeover of his town by Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a relentless man who is obsessed with the complete ownership of Bedford Falls.

George is so important to the town because his building and loan company is the only thing that stands in Mr. Potter’s way. But when George’s 8,000-dollar deposit goes missing, George not only faces the possibility of serving jail time, but also the complete collapse of his company. This would allow Mr. Potter to finally take over the town.

Stricken with grief George decides that his family, and his town, would be better off without him. George brings himself to the town bridge, and is about to end his life, but he is visited by an angel.

This angel (Clarence, played by Henry Travers) offers George a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the ability to see what his life would be like if he had never been born.

The result is a trip down memory lane for George as Clarence leads him through the various deeds in his life that have benefited those around him.

Frank Capra’s dedication to this film was obvious. Everything about this film was put together meticulously in order to create a believable town, as well as believable characters to inhabit it.

Capra’s vision of the town of Bedford Falls is one of the most complete creations of any society on screen (perhaps with the exception of Kevin Smith’s “Askewniverse”). Characters had relationships that were son intertwined it would seem that they were real people that Capra was filming.

Perhaps it is due to the genius mechanism of George re-experiencing the prior events of his life, but nothing feels forced in this film. Nothing is said for the benefit of the viewer. This adds to Copra’s complete vision of the characters. Because there is no one needlessly explaining anything to the viewer, the reality of the characters remains firmly intact.

It is unclear as to how Capra, along with the various credited and un-credited writers, was able to create such a clear vision in this film, but whatever he did, he did it well.

Something that definitely didn’t hurt this sense of realism was the superb performance of James Stewart. This was his first performance after serving in world war two and, though he thought it was too soon for him to be making a film, the affect the war had in his performance was clearly beneficial. That is not meant to sound glib, but it is worth speculating that the scenes of overwhelming emotion would not have been as powerful had he not been in this emotional state.

This film looks good, sounds good, and is good. It deals with themes that are both universal, and timeless. More importantly, it doesn’t fall into the trap of making every decision George made into a positive one. So often films like this go too far in their search for inspiration. They toy with the notion that everything happens for the benefit of everyone. This film manages to not give off this sugar-coated sense of optimism, while simultaneously creating a sense of inspiration for the viewer.

Some people will feel that this movie has become a cliché of itself. After all, nearly every cartoon, sit-com, and family drama has copied the plot of this film at least once. But this should serve as nothing more than a testament as to how important this film is to the industry.

So, if you watch this film for the first time and bells are going off due to how familiar it seems just smile, cause every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

#19 On the Waterfront

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
Father Barry

Elia Kazan’s tale of a Mob-run group of waterfront union workers hits all its bases, and it hits them hard.

At the centre of On the Waterfront is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-meaning, late-twenties, former boxer, errand boy for the mob.

The film opens with Terry, on one of his mob errands, leading Doyle, a fellow union worker and friend, to a rooftop rendezvous with some less than savory characters. Doyle is to be punished for talking to the cops about the mob’s illegal involvement in union affairs. Terry, being not the most intellectually gifted union worker, assumes that the mob simply wants to “lean” on young Doyle. But the mob had other plans. Instead of simply threatening the young man these “less than savory characters” throw Doyle off the roof.

Immediately it can be seen that this does not sit well with Terry, but due to the fact that his brother is the mob leader’s right-hand-man, Terry keeps his mouth shut, and he is not alone in this. No one seems to be willing to say more than two words to the police abut anything related to the waterfront. That’s the thing about people who have grown up around the mob, a different code dictates their actions.

It is not until a zealous priest, and Doyle’s younger sister, make their way to the docks that there is any real hope for change. The priest calls a meeting in the church basement for all dock-workers who are tired of the oppression they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The mob quickly gets wind of this though and sends Terry in to keep any eye on the would-be uprising. But when a group of people from the mob decides to violently end this meeting, Terry is forced to escort Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), to safety.

What ensues is a fledgling romance between Terry and Edie, and the result is the development of a conscience for young Terry. Terry quickly realizes that he can not keep living a life of service to the mob, and hope to enter a relationship with Edie, so he is forced to choose between his code of honour, and his new-found sense of morality.

Kazan proved his skill as a director in this film. Not only was the story well told, but it was told in a way that allowed the viewer to dig deeper, and find meaning in the carefully selected imagery.

After Doyle’ death, which Terry feels responsible for, Terry begins to look after Doyle’s pet pigeons. This simple act may not seem like much, but when Terry reveals the necessity for guarding the pigeons from hawks it becomes quite clear that Terry cares about more than just pigeons.

With Doyle, the only person who had been willing to stand up to the mob, dead, the task will soon fall on Terry to take over, just as he did with Doyle’s pigeons.

But Doyle wasn’t the only Shepard to come before Terry. The Zealous priest (Karl Madden) was the first audible voice of opposition against the mob. Notice in the film that he constantly is asking dockhands for a cigarette, but he never actually lights one. This shows the priest’s dedication to the union workers while never actually succumbing to their vices.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the film though, is the idea of self-sacrifice. The most obvious reference to this in the film is that of Jesus. It is important to notice the physical changes in Terry as he begins to understand the need for this sacrifice.

Almost immediately after Terry agrees to cooperate with the police he is cut with a piece of glass. Normally this would be insignificant, but Terry was cut in the wrist (the exact place that those who were crucified received their nails). He continues to gain more physical similarities to Jesus as the film goes on. Not only does he take a flogging from a group of mob henchmen, which pretty much destroys his face, but he also is forced to take one last walk along the docks in front of the rest of the union workers, a task that is not made easy due to the fact that he could barely stand under his own power. This one final act of sacrifice served as a symbol that was able to set the other union workers free of the mob.

This is a film that was based on a book, which was inspired by newspaper articles, which are (of course) based on true events. More importantly, as one of the detectives in the film said, this is a story that the public has a right to be told. We so often take for granted our rights in this country but we never actually think about where they come from. The military seems to get its due credit, probably about eight or nine times on this AFI list for instance, but men in arms weren’t the only ones that suffered to make our lives better. Countless people had to go hungry, cold, or homeless so that we could enjoy the labour standards that we have today, but they don’t seem to get any credit (as far as I know there are two films on this list that celebrate the achievements of union workers: On the Waterfront and The Grapes of Wrath). Well this is their epic. This is a film that those in the past can be honoured by. And, it is a film that we can still enjoy today.

#18 The General

“There were two loves in his life. His engine, and–”
Narrator

Buster Keaton’s comedy romance set during the American civil war, is at times funny, at times epic, and at times a little boring.

The story is based on a true story, though, as Keaton is playing a confederate, history tells us that his real life counterpart was not so likeable.

When Johnny Gray (Keaton), a locomotive engineer, realizes that is favourite train, along with his favourite girl, has been stolen by Yankees, he sets out on a one man rescue mission to reclaim the only two things that he cares about in the world.

While trying to recover his beloved train, Johnny stumbles upon a union plot to, through destroying confederate telegraphs and support lines, destroy the confederate uprising. Johnny, who does not care about this war nearly as much as he cares about Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), inadvertently becomes an invaluable contributor in the war for the south.

While trying to save Annabelle, Johnny ends up striking a major blow against the North and earning himself a prestigious spot in the confederate army. More importantly to Johnny though, he is also able to win the heart of Annabelle.

Keaton was a perfectionist, and that showed in this film. When you consider the time that this film was made in, some of these shots would seem nearly impossible to achieve. One scene, in which a bridge collapses under the weight of a speeding train, was the most expensive scene to ever be shot for any silent film.

But a huge budget wasn’t all that Keaton had to work with. To get a cannon ball to shoot the exact right distance in one scene Keaton had to count out gunpowder grains with a set of tweezers.

That being said, it is no longer 1927. These shots are not nearly as impressive to a modern audience as they would have been to pre World War II audience. So, like most films from an older time, the value of this film rests on certain timeless qualities. This film, unfortunately, does not seem to have these qualities.

The film, which deals with themes such as love, and social status, is basically one long chase scene. There are a few things that break this up, a union meeting and a final battle between the North and South for instance, but most of this film is either Johnny chasing confederates or the confederates chasing Johnny.

One major area in which this film fails is its inability to draw the viewer in. The characters are difficult to truly invest yourself in. The love interest, whose love is conditional on Johnny enlisting in the military, is hard to sympathize with. More importantly, Johnny himself is difficult to sympathize with.
As a physical comic Keaton is good, but he is no Chaplain. His movements are not as hypnotic as Chaplain’s, and his sense of timing, at least in this film, is not quite as tight. This is very important due to the fact that certain scenes could have been drastically improved had the slapstick physical comedy been more engaging.

The film wasn’t all bad though. Saying Keaton is no Chaplain isn’t the worst insult in the world. His performance is still strong, it just left some room for improvement.

The film did generate quite a few genuine laughs, and, in the end, isn’t that all you really need from a comedy? Moreover, this film’s contibution to the film industry is invaluable. It raised the bar for what could be shown on the screen much the same way Gone With the Wind did thirteen years later. It is likely that this film will not change anyone’s life in any profound way in today’s age. However, this film still has the ability to be enjoyed by viewers, and, eighty-five years later, that is quite impressive.

If you want to check out this film, it is available for free (100% Legal) download by clicking here

#17 The Graduate

“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
Ben Braddock

The Graduate is a story that is old as time. Boy meets woman. Boy is awkward around woman. Boy is seduced by this much older woman. Boy falls in love with much older woman’s daughter. And finally, boy is entrapped into telling much older woman’s daughter about his affair with her mother. All right, maybe the story isn’t so common.

The Graduate focuses on the recent college grad’s experiences. Ben, a track star and debate team captain, returns home after graduating college to a warm welcome, high expectations, and a shiny new Italian sports car, from his parents. The problem for Ben is that he really doesn’t want to do anything. He has no clear picture of what he wants his life to become. But, on the night of his homecoming Ben is trapped into driving his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson, home.

Upon reaching the Robinson household Ben is duped into joining Mrs. Robinson for a late night drink. Alone in the house, Mrs. Robinson plants a seed of seduction in young Ben’s head, and a torrid love affair ensues.

Not all is well for young Ben though. He quickly realizes that Mrs. Robinson does not love him, or even care for him. Unfortunately for Ben, the allure of steady sex without commitments is too much for him to overcome, and both the affair, and Ben’s quite obvious self loathing, continue. That is until Ben’s father forces him to take Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, out on a date. This is of course a strict violation of the only rule that the overbearing Mrs. Robinson has given young Ben.

In an attempt to not anger Mrs. Robinson, and maintain his steady sex-life, Ben attempts to show Elaine the worst possible time he can. Ben is quite successful in his attempts too. Elaine eventually ends up leaving the date in tears.

This is when Ben become truly likable for the first time. He explains to Elaine that he was intentionally trying to repel her because he is already seeing someone. He proceeds to tell her his story (a slightly censored version of course), takes her out for burger, and saves the date. Unfortunately for Ben a fatal error occurred while trying to cheer Elaine up, he fell in love with her.

This leads Mrs. Robinson to give Ben an ultimatum. He either has to leave Elaine of his own volition, or Mrs. Robinson will revel their affair. Not to give too much of the plot away, Ben chooses the latter and spends the rest of the movie trying to get Elaine to forgive him.

This is a romantic comedy that isn’t so romantic. It is raw and bleak, and in spite of the fact the Ben finds hope for his future through love, he never fully overcomes the morose state that he finds himself in at the start of the film.

There are few key themes to this movie that, if missed, could prevent the viewer from truly understanding this film. Ben, who is afraid of the future, returns home to seek comfort and he finds it in the much older Mrs. Robison. This sets up the first main theme of this film.
Many of the images in this film depict a need for motherly love. Ben’s return home, and his constant need to reside in his parents’ pool, shows his longing to return to the comfort of the womb. Clearly lacking a certain degree of confidence, this state would have been ideal for young Ben as babies are generally blindly loved by their parents before they accomplish anything. Ben, who has accomplished quite a bit, fears that his parents’ love is dependant on his continual success. Every thing, even the physical act of love with Mrs. Robinson, demonstrates this need in Ben.

Ben’s dependence on parental acceptance is finally overcome when he meets Elaine. He quickly casts aside his days enveloped in the pool, and his nights with Mrs. Robinson, for the proposition of romantic love rather than platonic. This is further illustrated when Ben flees his parents’ house and takes up residence at Berkley College. Sadly, all is not well for Ben.

The love that inspired him to grasp his independence was fleeting. And, while the couple lasted until the end of the movie, the looks on the faces of Both Elaine and Ben as they iconiclly ride away from the church in a bus, demonstrates the fleeting nature of love, and the need to grasp independence through one’s self, rather than through others.

The Graduate is an excellent study on the affect that love and sex have on a young man. The film is slick with comedic dialogue, and is well acted. The soundtrack, which was done exclusively by Simon and Garfunkel, was perfect for the mood of this film. And most importantly the story progresses naturally, with one exception. Ben’s love for Elaine seemed a bit accelerated, but lets face it, who wouldn’t fall in love with a crying, burger eating, joke telling Katharine Ross.

#16 Sunset Blvd.

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
John Gilles

Strong performances, sharp dialogue, and brilliant narration drive Billy Wilder’s story of love, imprisonment, rejection, and murder.

Sunset Blvd. focuses on John Gillis (William Holden) a washed-up screenwriter who, while on the run from some very tenacious debt collectors, blows a tire and seeks refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Once it becomes clear that his pursuers have moved on, John investigates the Sunset Boulevard mansion and quickly finds out that it is not as abandoned as he had thought.

The resident of this house is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who, twenty years after her film career has effectively died, has become a recluse. With only her butler, and a recently departed chimpanzee, for company, Norma is all too excited at the prospect of having a young writer for company.

Norma quickly puts John’s skills as a writer to use editing a script she has written that she is quite confident will be her return to the spotlight. John, who is not impressed with any aspect of the script at all, sees this as an opportunity to ease his financial woes. So, naturally, he agrees to ghostwrite for her.

John begins to regret this decision almost immediately though when he realizes that it is not his skills as a writer that Norma is after. Rather, Norma seeks John’s love, his youth, even his freedom. This becomes particularly problematic for John when a romance begins to bloom between himself, and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader for Paramount Pictures.

Ultimately Norma’s obsession with John leads to both John’s murder (don’t worry that’s not a spoiler), and one last moment in front of the cameras for Norma.

This film does so much right. The most obvious and impacting aspect of this film is the narration. Right form the start the powerful voice, and moving words, of William Holden draw the viewer in to the story while creating an atmosphere that accurately reflects the mood of the film.

Also adding to the mood of this film is the impeccable job that is done by the four leading actors. William Holden’s performance could most easily be compared to Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca. Every second that he is on the screen he demands the complete and undivided attention of the viewer.

Gloria Swanson is like nails on a chalkboard. As the aging film star, every word that comes out of her mouth causes the viewer to grind their teeth, and this is exactly what was needed of her, and her character.

Much the opposite of Swanson, relative newcomer Nancy Olson was an absolute delight as Betty, the love interest to John. It is hard to see how any one would be able to resist falling in love with this script reader with a knack for inspiring washed up writers. What she does best of all though is provide some sense of hope to this story, which is otherwise quite bleak.

Together these three actors are a force that grab the plot by the reigns, and allow director Billy Wilder to accomplish exactly what he intended to with this film. This is no easy task considering what he intended to accomplish was not a simple murder/love story.

There are many themes that Wilder explores in this film. The various shots of decaying landscapes, as well as the death of Norma’s pet chimpanzee, eerily reflect the mortality of every earthly thing. It also reflects the impact that time inevitably has on each of these mortal things. This sentiment is further illustrated in both the life, and the actions, of Norma throughout the movie.

The second major theme that Wilder explores is imprisonment. Everything in this film, from the barred front door of Norma’s mansion, to the way that characters hold each other (a pool side scene in which Norma tightly wraps a towel around John’s neck comes to mind), demonstrates captivity. Everything in this film, even words in films, holds the characters in a state of imprisonment. More specifically, these subtle images show just how much of a strangle hold the trappings of wealth hold over humanity

The journey out of captivity for these characters is not a hopeless one though. Both John and Norma are able to achieve a sense of freedom through love. This is demonstrated in John’s ability to leave the barred mansion for his late night script writing sessions with the woman he loves, Betty. More subtly this sentiment is displayed when Norma carelessly tosses her tiara to the floor so she can rest her head on John’s shoulder. Sadly the two characters’ love is ultimately not for each other.

Love being an escape from imprisonment is certainly not a new idea. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of modernist literature, and, while this film was made just slightly after that era, the influence of modernist writers is clear in this film. What is special about this film is the way that it presents this theme. It is not the actions of this film that are important. What is important is how these actions affect the characters that inhabit the film (another influence of the modernist movement).

Because of this subtle difference the film is able to use a variety of powerful visuals, dialogue, and narration that creates a work of art that is complete in nearly every aspect of the word.

It is funny how a seemingly simple story of love and murder can carry with it so much else. That is the power that love has over people. For John, Love was late night writing with Betty. For Norma, love was a bit more confusing. She thought she wanted John, but all she really wanted was one last moment in the spotlight. And the world had a funny way of granting her one final close-up.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that have become small”
Norma Desmond