I don’t want to discuss all of these shorts (although, among the Chaplins, the best are The Immigrant, Easy Street, and best of all, The Adventurer). So I’m only writing about feature-length films.
Movies I can recommend
A Key Largo (1948)
In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? But the climax is all cinema!
A Chinatown (1974)
Roman Polanski was at his best when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in 1930s Los Angeles. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights (which actually happened decades earlier), mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece. Yes, Polanski got away with child rape, and you must make up your own mind about whether you would watch one of his films.
A 12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet made a great one-set movie in his very first leap from the small to the big screen. The 12 men of the title comprise the jury in a just-completed first-degree murder trial; a guilty verdict would mean execution. Most of them just want to condemn the kid and get on with their lives, but one juror (Henry Fonda) insists on taking his responsibilities seriously. This is basic 1950’s liberalism – the system is rigged against the downtrodden, but a few good citizens can right society’s wrongs. Read my Blu-ray review.
B+ My Man Godfrey (1936)
Few screwballs turn up the class warfare as high as this one. A wealthy family hires a homeless man (William Powell) to become their new butler. His kindness and intelligence save the family while he romances one of the daughters (Lombard). The movie goes off the train badly in the last act, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the first two.
B+ The Learning Tree (1969)
Gordon Parks became the first African American to direct a Hollywood feature film with this picture. He also adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and scored the music. The Learning Tree follows the experiences of a very well-behaved teenage boy in a small Kansas town in the 1920s. Along with the normal problems of every teenager, he must deal with poverty, racism, and segregation. The film is beautifully photographed by Burnett Guffey, which shouldn’t be a surprise since Parks himself was a noted photographer before he became a writer and filmmaker. However, he should have hired someone else to do the music, which is overly melodramatic.
B+ Clash By Night (1952)
Barbara Stanwyck must choose between the sweet, bland, and not too smart Paul Douglas or the very sexy but misogynistic Robert Ryan. This is all set in a fishing village, where the men go off on their boats every morning and the women are housewives – if they don’t have to work in the cannery. Everybody drinks. A not-yet-famous Marilyn Monroe plays a young woman who knows how to handle her tough man. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, and yet the movie only occasionally feels stagey.
B Born Yesterday (1950)
This political comedy involves a beautiful, ignorant, young woman (Judy Holliday) engaged to a wealthy, coarse, cruel, and corrupt politician. Luckily for her, a handsome William Holden guides her into understanding the horrible society she chose to live in. A heavy reliance on dialog and the way most of the action is set around one main set, constantly reminds you that the movie is adapted from a stage play. Also, the speeches about how most congressmen and senators are honest sound out-of-date today. But it’s funny and charming.
Movies that I can’t review, but may be worth seeing
- Bells Are Ringing (1960)
- Body Heat (1981)
- The Celluloid Closet (1995)
- Female Trouble (1974)
- Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
- Nights of Cabiria (1957)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
- Personal Best (1982)
- Pink Flamingos (1972)
- Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
- Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
And here are all the movies that will go away from Criterion come September.