Five Classic Movies I’ve Seen In The Last Month

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

I heard an interview on the radio in the early 90’s with rap group Public Enemy where they were asked about cursing out John Wayne in one of their songs.  Chuck D said it was a protest against Wayne “going around shooting Indians” in his movies.

I thought about this as I watched She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne stars as an old cavalry commander who finds himself about to retire just as a conflict is escalating with nearby Native American tribes.  At the end of the film, desperate to stop the brewing fighting, Wayne goes to see the old chief of the Indians.  Showing an easy familiarity with and respect for their culture, Wayne asks this longtime friend to help him stop the younger men from starting a war.  The old chief tells Wayne that there’s nothing they can do because they’re too old.  In one of the most moving, stereotype-defying quotes I’ve ever heard on film, Wayne chuckles and says, with the kind of gentle chiding we use to disagree with good friends, “Old men should stop wars.” 

Wayne then risks his career, just hours before retiring with full benefits and honors, to go against orders and lead a run on the Indians’ camp and chase their horses away, thus averting the crisis without violence. 

I suppose Chuck D never saw She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

Incidentally, it was a terrific movie.  I especially enjoyed the shots of a wagon company moving along the plains under a gathering thunderstorm.  Very atmospheric. 

 

Singin’ In The Rain

There’s a lot to recommend this classic musical.  First of all, it’s hilarious.  As Gene Kelly recounts his career at the beginning of the film, I was surprised to see such a relatively old movie sporting such a pitch-perfect satire of Hollywood’s excessive foibles.  Jean Hagen’s work as the ditsy, scheming, annoying-voiced bombshell is still unsurpassed.  That alone makes me wish more people would see this movie now: that character will always be funny.  And Donald O’Connor’s athletic slapstick during the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number was impressive as choreography and as comedy.  It certainly makes anything Jim Carrey or Jack Black has ever done look like child’s play.

 

Howard’s End

I was apprehensive about this one, because I was underwhelmed by Anthony Hopkins’ and Emma Thompson’s other joint effort, Remains of the Day.  I needn’t have been.  This slightly soap opera-y web of social criticism takes on class divisions in early 20th century Edwardian England.  This may be the only movie where the upper class British bad guys are actually portrayed realistically, even with some sympathy, and not just as cartoon monsters.  A young Helena Bonham Carter is a joy to watch as Thompson’s fiery younger sister, whose passion ranges from indignation to biting wit to spontaneous romance.  Really, it’s a wonder I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice more than I did. 

Not to short change the cast, but I was equally thrilled by the cinematography and score here.  Howard’s End reminds us just how subtly beautiful the English countryside is; verdant green is always gorgeous, especially when veiled by a misty gray breeze.  And the music!  The delicate piano throughout the film was more than just a complement, it was symbiotic.  This is one of the few movies of which I know where the music truly is that important, and stands well on its own (Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another example).  I could see myself buying this soundtrack and listening to it on the way home from work.

 

The 39 Steps

Speaking of Hitchcock, this was the latest entry in my efforts to screen his oeuvre.  This very early work is just typical, ordinary Hitch, which is to say, brilliant.  One of the great joys of seeing his movies is finding those elemental devices that influenced later cinema so thoroughly that it’s like discovering an ancient Ur-text (North By Northwest and Strangers On A Train might be the best examples here). 

Sadly, since we’ve all been raised on those derivative movies that are so saturated in Hitchcock’s legacy, seeing his original visions can leave us feeling flat, since the celluloid for which we have such nostalgia was usually so much more exaggerated than those earlier classics.  Such is sometimes the case with The 39 Steps, but it will still surprise you. 

Our Everyman protagonist is on the run from a sinister cabal of spies that he has haplessly crossed (naturally), and some of his exploits rely on more coincidence on his part and negligence on his enemies’ part than we would find credible today.  Still, the pacing and plotting here is taught, and the scene where our hero wows a crowd with an impromptu speech at a political convention as he evades the authorities is worth two hours of your life by itself.  And a tasteful “bedroom” scene where he is handcuffed to an equally hapless heroine is a touching reminder that this world used to be a simpler, sweeter place, and made for better entertainment than the lowest common denominator sludge we see today.

Last year I saw this movie in a bin at Wal Mart for a dollar.  I wish I would’ve gotten it.

 

Solaris

I’ve read that this 1972 science fiction psychodrama was Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The similarities are obvious: these are both ambitious stories using space travel as a metaphor for humanity’s civilizational journey, though Kubrick’s was extroverted, whereas this Russian gem is almost painfully introverted.  The slow, moody pacing of both films certainly stresses our attention spans, but also allows us to savor the style of presentation, if not always the heavy handed ideas.

In fact, one scene in Solaris has an old cosmonaut being driven down a monotonous, sterile city highway, a scene which stretches on for minutes.  I started asking myself what the point of that was, until some sonic sound effects began erupting at us from the vanishing point of the road up ahead.  We were probably being taken into the cosmonaut’s quietly tortured psyche (as a result of a shocking experience at Solaris years before), but I couldn’t help but also be reminded of Dave Bowman’s psychedelic space flight at the end of 2001.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps?

Solaris makes explicit references to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky near the end, and clearly wants to be taken as seriously.  I respect the audacity of a film this somber, but found much of its emotional pontificating to be trite.  Still, the film is well made and worthwhile, though not something I plan to see again.  But maybe I should; the last time I saw 2001 I got much more out of it than the first time.  I suppose films like this, slow and sparse as they are, might still need time to grow on you.

One comment on “Five Classic Movies I’ve Seen In The Last Month

  1. The 39 steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of…bang!
    I saw this movie not too long ago and was blown away. Current movies need to take notes on the drama and mystery that movies used to have. Back then, they didn’t have CG for looks and THX for sound, so they had to rely on directorial talent and raw acting (is directorail a word?)
    Have you seen The Big Sleep? That is another movie worth watching, especially if you liked The 39 steps. They tell me The Big Lebowsky is loosely based on The Big Sleep. Have to rewatch both to see.

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