I have an eclectic collection of very favorite old classic movies. All of these are as fresh and as moving now as they were when they were first made and are examples of the art of film at its best. These are the movies that I always feel compelled to sit and watch when they come on television. This is not a comprehensive list; it is a partial list of my personal favorites.
Disclaimer: I am not a film critic. The opinions I offer are those of a moviegoer who has a background in music and acting. I know nothing of cinematography or the mechanics of movie directing.
This movie was directed by John Ford, with a strong ensemble cast including Claire Trevor and a young John Wayne in his breakthrough role. This is a story of a group of passengers on a stagecoach traveling from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico in the year 1880. They include a prostitute, an escaped convict, an alcoholic doctor, a pregnant woman traveling to join her army officer husband, a gambler, a liquor salesman and a banker who has just embezzled a significant amount of money from his bank. In addition to the passengers, there are the stagecoach driver and the local marshall, who is riding shotgun. The excellent screenplay, excellent direction and great performances from the entire cast make a riveting film.
Double Indemnity (1944)
There is something about film noir that grabs attention. Maybe it’s the flawed characters, the shadowy black-and-white cinematography, or the clipped dialog. Whatever it is, this film is a classic of the genre. Billy Wilder directed. Fred McMurray is perfect as the all-too-willing insurance salesman, as are Barbara Stanwick as the greedy wife and Edward G. Robinson as the savvy insurance company investigator who thwarts their plan to cheat the insurance company after committing murder.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Put Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor together on the same screen, add a brilliant comic performance by Jean Hagen as a soon-to-fade silent movie star and throw in a spectacular ballet with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and you have one of the greatest musicals ever put on film. A young Debbie Reynolds is no slouch, either, as Gene Kelly’s romantic interest. Although the most famous scene from this film is Gene Kelly’s early-morning song and tapdance down a rainy street, there are plenty of other fabulous musical highlights, including the “Broadway Melody” sequence with Cyd Charisse and Donald O’Connor’s athletic “Make ‘Em Laugh.” This film was co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
High Noon (1952)
This movie was directed by Fred Zinnemann. Gary Cooper won a well-deserved Academy Award for his role of Will Kane, and Grace Kelly gives a great performance as his newlywed wife. The screenplay is perfect, and there is a strong supporting ensemble cast, including Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado and Thomas Mitchell. The musical score and the theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, also won Academy Awards.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan, this is a gritty drama about mob corruption in the Longshoremen’s Union. It stars Marlon Brando in one of his most famous roles. Again, there is a stellar supporting cast, including Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. The musical score was composed by Leonard Bernstein.
A Star is Born (1954)
This film was directed by George Cukor, with Judy Garland and James Mason in the leading roles. This movie would be great for the musical numbers alone. Judy Garland’s rendition of “The Man That Got Away” is classic, as is the extensive “Born in a Trunk” scene. However, it isn’t just the music that makes this film memorable. Both James Mason and Judy Garland turn in stellar acting performances.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Although the subject of this film is the life of a troubled teenager of the 1950’s, it deals with universal human themes that have not changed much over the decades. James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo turn in star performances, and Jim Backus gives a fine performance as the ineffective father of Jim Stark, played by James Dean. The director was Nicholas Ray. This was James Dean’s signature role. Unfortunately, the movie was released shortly after his tragic death in an automobile accident.
The Godfather I and II (1972 and 1974)
We have all heard them and repeated them:
“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Leave the gun, take the cannolis.”
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic about the Corleone family, based on Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel, is blessed by great writing, great directing and great acting. Some devices are used a great deal, such as the juxtaposition of religious ceremonies and scenes of violence, but the director manages not to make them look like clichés. Both movies are riveting, even to those of us who have to turn our eyes away when we know that the scene with the decapitated horse’s head is coming up. Marlon Brando’s Academy Award winning performance as Vito Corleone should be studied by every student of acting. Al Pacino’s performance also earned him an Academy Award nomination. James Caan, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton, Richard Castellano and Abe Vigoda are also perfect in their roles, as is Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II.
Wall Street (1987)
“Greed is good,” proclaims corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who, over the years, has become a film character archetype. I had the pleasure of seeing this film in a movie theater when it first came out in 1987, in the middle of a financial boom. The film was relevant then, and seeing it now reminds us of how we have gotten into the economic predicament we are now in. It is also well written and beautifully acted by Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Daryl Hannah and Martin Sheen, with some memorable moments by Hal Holbrook as an older, wiser co-worker and John C. McGinley as Charlie Sheen’s envious office mate. Oliver Stone directed it.
I have other favorite old films, but these are the ones that will always grab me when I see they are on television.
Singin’ in the Rain:
On the Waterfront:
A Star is Born:
Rebel Without a Cause:
The Godfather I and II: