Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
Nothing I can say could add to what has already been said about this classic film, so I will quote Roger Ebert comparing this film to the next one: "The Third Man" is like the exhausted aftermath of "Casablanca." Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But "Casablanca" is bathed in the hope of victory, while "The Third Man" already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb. The hero doesn't get the girl in either movie--but in "Casablanca," Ilsa stays with the resistance leader to help in his fight, while in "The Third Man" Anna remains loyal to a rat.
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
Roger Ebert captures the appeal of this great movie the best: "Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies. I saw it first on a rainy day in a tiny, smoke-filled cinema on the Left Bank in Paris. It told a story of existential loss and betrayal. It was weary and knowing, and its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured. Seeing it, I realized how many Hollywood movies were like the pulp Westerns that Holly Martins wrote: naive formulas supplying happy endings for passive consumption."
Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
The site "Picturing Justice" aptly calls this the best pure trial movie ever made. The setting of Michigan's Upper Peninsula adds to the magical allure of this great film. Jimmie Stewart is perfect as a small-town lawyer taking on a big case. The courtroom back-and-forth between Stewart and the big-time lawyer from the Attorney General's office, played by George C. Scott, is wonderful to watch. I especially like the way the film doesn't show the closing arguments, but rather skips to Stewart and his secretary, the wonderfully sardonic Eve Arden, hanging out in his trailer waiting for the jury verdict to come back. It perfectly captures what happens after a case goes to the jury, and all you can do as an attorney is sit around and wait helplessly for the result.
The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather 2 (1974) (Francis Ford Coppola)
I don't know where to place #2 so I'm lumping them together. Critics tend to praise #2 as superior, but I totally reject this. #1 is superior in at least 3 respects: 1) Marlon Brando is far more appealing than Al Pacino as a leading character; 2) New York is far superior to Nevada as a setting for a mafia movie; and 3) #2 has confusing plot elements as to the involvement of Hyman Roth, while #1 is easy to follow. The best parts of #2 are the flashbacks to the young Vito Corleone as he becomes the Godfather in New York's Little Italy, but unfortunately that is not the main part of the movie.
Bull Durham (1988, Ron Shelton)
Perfectly captures the grind of minor league baseball. You don't have to like baseball to like this great movie. The irony for me is that I don't like Kevin Costner at all, but he was lucky to get this great part. The part was supposed to go to Kurt Russell, but when Shelton went to cast the film, Russell was in Europe and couldn't be reached. Hence, the part went to the no-talent-bum Costner. A special aspect of this film is that men can enjoy it as a great baseball story, and women can enjoy it as a great love story.
Annie Savoy's narration at the start of the film says it all: " I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... which makes it like sex. There's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I'd never sleep with a player hitting under .250... not unless he had a lot of RBI's or was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I've got a ballplayer alone, I'll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. 'Course, a guy'll listen to anything if he thinks it's foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. 'Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball - now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake? It's a long season and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball."
In one of the most famous scenes, the whole infield gathers around the mound during a game. The manager sends Larry, his assistant coach, out to the mound to find out what's going on. Larry says,
"Excuse me, but what the hell's going on out here?" Crash responds, "Well, Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here. We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and nobody seems to know what to get Millie and Jimmy for their wedding present. We're dealing with a lot of shit here." Larry responds, "Okay, well, uh... candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern."
What I recently found out from a Sports Illustrated article is that the script had Larry saying "OK, I thought there was a problem." After doing it that way a few times, director Ron Shelton said to the actor, "OK, do one for yourself." The actor, Robert Wuhl, had called his wife a week before asking advice about a wedding present for a friend of his, and she said "Candlesticks always make a nice gift; or find out where they're registered and perhaps a nice place setting."
The true beauty of this great film is that it is one of the few sports films to tell the story from the viewpoint of the players themselves. All the others take the point of view of the fans, and the story invariably leads up to a dramatic point in the final (championship) game. This one describes life in the minor leagues as experienced by the players.
Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
Great work of art by the great Scorsese. A huge blunder was made by the Academy in giving the best picture Oscar for 1990 to the mediocre "Dances with Wolves".
A Few Good Men (1992, Rob Reiner)
The second-best trial movie ever made, after "Anatomy of a Murder". The performances are uniformly exceptional. A statement made by Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, illustrates the tensions at work in this film. Jessep testifies that "Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives." Dick Cheney used the same language in justifying the Bush administration's use of torture, that it "saved lives". Cheney and Col. Jessup were made for each other. Col. Jessup was arrested and court-martialed. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for Cheney and Bush to pay for their misdeeds.
To be mentioned here is another good court-martial movie, "Breaker Morant", which tells the true story of three Australian soldiers who were convicted of atrocities during the Boer War and were executed, even though they were following orders. The higher-ups made a deliberate decision to scapegoat these three, while denying that the orders came from the officers in charge, because the British Lord in charge was trying to reach a peace treaty and didn't want the incident to derail those peace talks.
To complete the court-martial trilogy, we have "The Conspirator", about the trial and execution of Mary Surratt for the Lincoln assassination. I have long felt that this was one of the worst injustices in American history, and this film bears that out. As in "Breaker Morant", the person in charge here, Secretary of War Stanton, wanted there to be peace between North and South, and Mary Surratt had to be sacrificed in order to preserve the tenuous peace which existed at the time. The officers who served as the judges and jury in the court-martial actually voted for leniency for her, but Stanton ordered them to reconsider and vote for execution, so firm was his resolve for a favorable outcome to this court-martial.
Of course, the whole idea of using a court-martial was dubious from the start, as the war was over and Mary was a civilian. The injustice inherent in the court martial process is fully displayed here, as there was no due process, no jury of one's peers, none of the protections we take for granted in the non-military criminal court system. Still, her determined lawyer obtained a writ of habeas corpus from a federal judge to stop her execution and award her a new trial in a non-military court. However, President Johnson canceled the writ and ordered the execution to proceed, continuing the pathetic tradition started during the war by Lincoln, who suspended the writ and imprisoned 12,000 alleged "Southern conspirators" without trial or charges. Mary was hanged with the others.
The only conclusion to be drawn from these two real-life stories is that "military justice" is as much of an oxymoron as "military intelligence". The true purpose of a court-martial has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with maintaining order and discipline within the ranks.
The filmmakers of "a Few Good Men" should be commended for not giving in to the temptation to have something romantic happen between the Tom Cruise and Demi Moore characters. Had they done so, it would have been perfectly plausible as Demi Moore gains increasing respect for Tom Cruise during the film, due to Cruise's casting aside his original nonchalant attitude towards the case and eventually giving the case his full attention and energy. The filmmakers rightly realized that such an affair would not advance the storyline; so, they kept their "eye on the ball", and simply told the story, and what a wonderful story it is.
I can't help but think of other films with a similarly deft hand on the part of the filmmakers. There is "Norma Rae", in which the small-town union activist, played by Sally Field, practically propositions the big-city activist, but he (and the filmmakers) chose to "keep their eye on the ball". Very similar is "A Time to Kill", in which the Sandra Bullock character practically propositions the local lawyer, but he declines. In "Brannigan", John Wayne visits London on a case, and he and his local driver develop a close relationship, but again, the filmmakers show a deft hand in keeping it at the level of friendship, which here makes sense in light of the age difference.
A film which completely explodes with incompetence is "Absence of Malice", in which the filmmakers do have something romantic happen between the Paul Newman and Sally Field characters. The filmmakers poke fun at the improbability of this with an exchange, in which Sally Field says, "I'm 33 years old, I don't need romancing", and Paul Newman responds, "Well I'm 58, and I do." Besides the age difference, this romance makes little sense in light of the fact that the irresponsible reporting by the Sally Field character has wrecked Newman's business, plus has caused the suicide of Newman's good friend.
Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
A film I have watched a lot with my kids (especially Lisa), and it is just as magical today as it was the first time I saw it. The famous "People will come" speech by James Earl Jones is probably the most famous one from this film, but my favorite is when Ray Kinsella visits Moonlight Graham, and asks him if he didn't maybe have some regrets. Moonlight says: "Well, you know I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't. That's what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases - stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?"
A bit later Moonlight muses poignantly that " You know we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day."
Groundhog Day (1995, Harold Ramis)
Another film which I learned to enjoy watching with my kids, and it remains a favorite of mine.
No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen brothers)
Several times I happened upon this film on TV at one stage or another of it, and I was always mesmerized by what was on the screen, even though I had no idea initially what the movie was or what the plot was. Any film this mesmerizing must be included in the top 10. In the same vein as this film is "The Getaway" (1972, Sam Peckinpah), which I also like though perhaps wouldn't be included in the top 50 solely on its own steam.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Frank Lloyd), The Caine Mutiny (1954, Edawad Dmytryk), and Billy Budd (1962, Peter Ustinov)
I love ships, and I love the law, and when you combine the two it makes for great movies. The question naturally arises as how close to the actual events the 1935 "Mutiny of the Bounty" was. First, we need to understand that the movie was based on a novel, not on the actual events. The novel was a fictionalized account which distorts the actual events.
Fortunately, since 1935 there have been a number of serious attempts to describe what actually happened. The two books I have read are both meticulously researched, with a level of detail that at times borders on the tedious. As for the broad themes, the film depicts Bligh as a cruel taskmaster who flogs his men for no good reason. The statistics show that Bligh actually flogged his men much less than other captains of the time. A second broad theme from the movie is that the mutineers wanted to return to Tahiti, where they had lived a hedonistic lifestyle during their six-month stay there just before the mutiny. Again, there is no verification of this in the historical record.
So, what actually happened? What actually happened is that Bligh was a verbally abusive captain who constantly berated his men, threatening them with all sorts of punishment. He was like a parent who constantly berates and threatens his children, without ever following through and administering disciplinary action designed to correct the bad behavior. Fletcher Christian simply got to the point that he couldn't take it anymore. His statement, "I am in hell these past two weeks", is repeated over and over by the accounts that are available (journals plus detailed testimony at the later court-martial). As a result of his feeling like he was in hell, Christian planned to take a raft during the night and set out for a nearby island. However, he was talked out of it by some of the crew, who promised their support for a broader-based action. So, in the early morning they burst into Bligh's quarters and took him prisoner, setting him on a boat with provisions, though no arms.
Bligh always insisted that the mutiny must have been well planned and choreographed by the mutineers. However, the evidence shows otherwise; there was virtually no planning, and it was strictly a spontaneous "play it by ear" endeavor. It took all morning to get Bligh and the other 17 crew members loyal to him onto the boat and set off, so disorganized was the process.
One persistent researcher uncovered a letter that the second-in-command (Christian's counterpart) on Bligh's second voyage to Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees wrote to his brother describing the voyage. He goes on and on at great length to describe what a tyrant Bligh was, how he constantly berated the men and never praised them. This provides good historical support for the conclusions set out above. Further support is given by the fact that Bligh actually faced a second mutiny, some years later when he was serving as governor of New South Wales.
It is said that more people fail in their jobs because of not being able to get along with other people than fail because of inability to do the job adequately. This describes Bligh, who was an excellent seamen but had no people skills. It is said that the great Ted Williams, when he made an ill-fated attempt at managing, used to say to his hitters, “Can’t you see when the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand that it's a curve ball”? Williams had Bligh’s shortcoming of expecting perfection in others, and also a lot of Bligh's shortcomings of arrogance and self-centeredness.
The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
Humphrey Bogart seems born to play the hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, crested by Dashiel Hammet. When Joel Cairo says, "You always have a very smooth explanation...", Spade responds, "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
At the end Bogart has a climactic scene with his co-star, in which he tells her, "You killed Miles and you're going over for it." He goes on to say, "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you." He later explains his reasoning for turning her in: "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere."
"The Maltese Falcon" is noteworthy as the movie debut of Sydney Greenstreet, at age 62. Greenstreet had been a successful stage actor for 40 years, but this was his first film part. He acted in 23 more movies before retiring just 8 years later.
Inherit the Wind (1960, Stanley Kramer)
This is the third in my trilogy of great trial movies. I normally don’t like filmed theater, but this story works perfectly. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the trial transcript of the Scopes Monkey Trial, including, I presume, this argument from the great defense attorney Clarence Darrow, played perfectly by Spencer Tracy: "I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys every one it touches. Its upholders as well as its defiers. Can't you understand that if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!"
Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
I read recently that Paul Newman has an amazingly small number of lines in this film, something I had never thought about. But it is true, as most of the movie consists of the reactions of the people around him to Newman's "do your own thing" persona. George Kennedy won a well-deserved supporting actor Oscar as Dragline, and Strouther Martin is exceptional as the captain.
In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison)
Patton (1970, Franklin Schaffner)
Superb performance by George C. Scott. This film is a good war story for those who like war, and a good anti-war film for those who abhor war. Thus, it serves as a sort of Rorschach test in that regard.
In an attempt to judge how factual "Patton" is, I undertook the following analysis:
1. Near the start of the movie, Patton is depicted as orchestrating the re-assignment of General Bradley as his assistant in the North Africa campaign, so that he would no longer be "spying for Ike". Wikipedia agrees, saying "Patton had Bradley reassigned to his Corps Command as deputy commander. Thus began a long wartime association between the two diverse personalities." This complicated relationship is a major theme in the movie.
2. When Patton takes over the forces in North Africa in the movie, he instills discipline, which includes requiring everybody to wear steel helmets, even the doctors in the operating room. Wikipedia again agrees, saying "Patton required all personnel to wear steel helmets, even physicians in the operating wards, and required his troops to wear the unpopular lace-up leggings and neckties. A system of fines was introduced to ensure all personnel shaved daily and observed other uniform requirements. While these measures did not make Patton popular, they did tend to restore a sense of discipline and unit pride that may have been missing earlier."
3. Concerning the infamous "slapping incident", Wikipedia states that:
When General Eisenhower learned of the incident, he ordered Patton to make amends, after which, it was reported, "Patton's conduct then became as generous as it had been furious," and he apologized to the soldier "and to all those present at the time, "After the film Patton was released in 1970, Charles H. Kuhl recounted the story and said that Patton had slapped him across the face and then kicked him as he walked away. "After he left, they took me in and admitted me in the hospital, and found out I had malaria," Kuhl noted, adding that when Patton apologized personally (at Patton's headquarters) "He said he didn't know that I was as sick as I was." Kuhl, who later worked as a sweeper for Bendix Corporation in Mishawaka, Indiana, added that Patton was "a great general" and added that "I think at the time it happened, he was pretty well worn out himself." Kuhl died on January 24, 1971.
The film omits Patton's personal apology to the soldier, and presents him as half-heartedly apologizing to the entire army en masse, after being instructed to do so. Thus the film omits the fact that Patton on his own made some effort to make his amends.
4. After the slapping incident, the movie makes much of the Germans being mislead by Patton's deployment in non-combat areas. This seemed to me to be the most artificial of the movie's depictions. However, Wikipedia supports the movie depictions, saying that "During the 10 months Patton was relieved of duty, his prolonged stay in Sicily was interpreted by the Germans to be indicative of an upcoming invasion of southern France. Later, a stay in Cairo was interpreted as heralding an invasion through the Balkans. German intelligence misinterpreted what happened and made faulty plans as a result."
5. During the 1944 offensive into Europe the movie depicts Patton as ordering his chaplain to come up with a prayer for good weather. This seems pretty artificial; however, again the movie got it right. Wikipedia states that: Needing just one full day (24 hours) of good weather, Patton ordered the Third Army Chaplain, (COL) James O'Neill, to come up with a prayer beseeching God to grant this. The weather did clear soon after the prayer was recited, and Patton decorated O'Neill with the Bronze Star on the spot. Following this, he continued ahead with dealing with the German offensive and von Rundstedt.
The battle scenes and campaigns seem to be factual also, so overall I would say the film is much more factually accurate than many film biographies.
A passage from Patton's famous speech to his men, which mirrors closely the text of his actual speech: "Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war... because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans." And again from the speech, this famous line: "Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."
The movie ends with this poignant voice-over: "For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph - a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."
Basic Instinct (1992, Paul Verhoeven)
One of the rare movies that has a woman as the center of power, and Sharon Stone pulls off the challenge to perfection. The famous interrogation scene is amazing to watch, as she dominates the five seasoned law enforcement men who are there to interrogate her. Watching the Wayne Knight character sweat, when the suspect is usually the one who should be sweating, is a real treat.
The honesty and directness of the Sharon Stone character is revealed early on, when the homicide detective Gus asks her, "How long were you dating Johnny Boz?" Catherine: I wasn't dating him, I was fucking him." "Are you sorry he's dead?" "Yeah, I liked fucking him."
The honesty and genuineness of Catherine is so refreshing in this world in which lies, cover-ups, deceit, half-truths, euphemisms, innuendos, and diplomat-speak seem to be the order of the day. I have never been adept at "reading between the lines", but it seems that one must be good at this in order to get along in this screwy world, in which everyone seems to talk in code.
I still, after all this time, cannot figure out what we are supposed to believe happened between Catherine and Beth when they were at Berkeley together. And why was Detective Nielsen poking around in this old history a year before the events of the story? But maybe we're not supposed to know for sure. One of our failings as human beings is the need for certainty, an unfortunate trait in light of the fact that most of the world comes to us not in black and white, but rather in various shades of gray. A term a colleague of mine used to use years ago is "tolerance for ambiguity"; a few of us have a high tolerance, but most of us have way too low of a tolerance. Perhaps this movie is trying to teach us to have a higher tolerance for ambiguity.This movie exists in the vast universe between what we truly know and what we truly don't know.
In writing the above, it occurs to me that the oath we ask witnesses to take in this country is totally bogus. A witness must swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". This is bogus because it assumes that one person can have "the whole truth", when we know that no one person can possibly have anything approaching the whole truth. It is well-known that ten people can view the same event and come up with ten different versions of what happened. We each have our own truth that is personal to us, but it's a stretch to try to universalize our own personal truths.I hope I get called to testify in a trial at some point. I can't wait to see the judge's expression when I say I cannot swear to tell "the whole truth"!
Other noteworthy films which have women at the center of power include "Thelma and Louise" and "Working Girl". Jodie Foster's "the Accused" also rates a mention, although I have no desire to see it again, due to the violent and brutal subject matter.
The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)
Another gross blunder by the Academy, as the Oscar went to "Braveheart".
Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)
The performances of Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier are fabulous in this great suspense movie. But check out the performance of Don Cherry as the bail bondsman; he is so spot on that it is eerie. Great stuff, I could watch this movie over and over, as I have many times already.
(added 7/27/17) About two years I got interested in the novels of Elmore Leonard, and I was surprised recently to come across a book of his which was said to be the basis for "Jackie Brown". The novel in question is entitled "Rum Punch". The movie seems to be faithful to the book, though much of the side stories in the book were left out. Leonard is a master at devising complicated plot lines, and none are more complicated than that in "Jackie Brown"!
Fargo (1996, Coen brothers)
About half-way through "Fargo" there is a scene where the police chief, played by Frances McDormand, has a luncheon meeting with an old high school classmate, a Chinese guy who claims his wife had died. One might wonder what in the heck this scene is doing in this film, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. However, upon reflection it seems that this scene is in there as a link between the chief's first and second meetings with Jerry Lundegaard. She learns that things aren't always as they seem to be, finding out first that the Chinese guy's story was a pack of lies, and then in the second meeting finding out that Lundegaard is also hiding something.
Yet another Academy blunder, as "Fargo" lost out to "The English Patient" for best picture.
Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)
Wonderful film about the relationship between Thomas Becket and King Henry II in 12-century England. As the name suggests, we are asked to identify with the principled Becket, who sacrifices his life rather than submit to the King's request that felonious priests be tried in his civil court instead of in Becket's ecclesiastical court. The same phenomenon is seen in "a Man for All Seasons", where the title refers to Sir Thomas More, martyred by Henry VIII for not submitting to the crown.
But let us examine the consequences of Becket's position. With the autonomy which the Catholic Church has had since the 12th century, it has propagated all manner of evil against the people. The sex abuse scandals of the last 50 years are a good example of this. The church covered up the abuse, and never as far as I am aware were the felonious actions of an abusive priest ever reported to law enforcement. Not only that, but the guilty priests were most often transferred to other parishes, without telling the new parishioners about their past, so they were left free to continue to molest young boys.
The Penn state scandal of recent months is quite similar. Penn State seems to think itself immune to the laws and rules the rest of us must adhere to. In a very real way, Penn State. like the Catholic church, sees itself as above the law. This kind of attitude leads to the scandal of a coach being observed raping a 10-year-old boy in the shower, and nothing being done about it.
So, maybe we should reconsider viewing Becket and More as the great martyrs that history has painted them as.
The Great Waltz (1938, Julien Duvivier) and Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
I first saw "The Great Waltz" in a theater in Ann Arbor with my dad in the summer of 1962, and it instilled in me a life-long love of Strauss waltzes. The great thing about these two films is that they both show the artistic process, i.e., they depict music being created, rather than simply being biographies.
The performance of Louise Ranier in "The Great Waltz" is especially noteworthy and she deservedly won an Oscar for her stunningly winsome performance as Strauss's girlfriend and later as his wife. When Strauss gets good news about his composing, he embraces her and says "I don't know what I'd do without you". She replies, "I don't know what you're doing with me." Later, as he is getting ready to run off with his soprano singer, she approaches the singer and, instead of complaining, gives her advice about how to take care of Strauss. The singer is so moved that she tells Strauss to stay with his wife.
Interesting that the waltz is described as not suitable for polite society, until this changed when Strauss's music had gotten accepted. (Similar would be some genres in the U.S., such as country, rap, disco, and jazz prior to the landmark Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.)
Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)
To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)
The Court Jester (1956, Melvin Frank)
The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan) and Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
Both of these fine films have the theme of the man who falls for a married woman and then plots with her to get rid of her husband. Both have intricate plots, with interesting twists along the way. However, the relationships as portrayed are totally different. In "Body Heat" there is the hottest sex you will ever see on the screen, except for "Basic Instinct". The screen absolutely sizzles. In "Double Indemnity" the woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is so cold and distant that it seems unbelievable that the Fred MacMurray character could fall for her as he does. The great performance of Edward G. Robinson as the insurance investigator is the only thing that saves this film from mediocrity.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) and Badlands (1974, Terrence Malick)
Two excellently crafted films about real-life man-woman tandem crime sprees. The execution of Bonnie and Clyde in Louisiana at the end of the film is true-to-life, and calls into question the law enforcement methods used here. Instead of capturing Clyde, they simply executed him. And Bonnie was not even wanted except for a minor misdemeanor, so her execution is totally inexcusable. This execution, on May 23, 1934, was the first of four in 1934 by law enforcement, mainly the FBI. There followed John Dillinger on July 22nd, Pretty Boy Floyd on October 22, and Baby Face Nelson on November 27th.
Charles Starkweather, the subject of "Badlands", was humanely captured in early 1958 and given the due process of a trial. This is a timely subject in light of recent US actions in summarily executing suspected terrorists instead of capturing them.
"Bonnie and Clyde" illustrates the principle that one should see a movie more than once before making a judgment about it. When it was first released, only one major newspaper critic (Roger Ebert) praised it, and it quickly closed. However, its reputation gradually grew and it was eventually re-released. Newsweek critic Joe Morgenstern famously retracted his original negative review, saying he had been mistaken. Critic Louis Menaud says that the release of "Bonnie and Clyde" was the moment the United States took over the creative dominance of film from France.
The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill), House of Games (1987, David Mamet), Matchstick Men (2003, Ridley Scott), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, Frank Oz), and Out of Time (2003, Carl Franklin)
These 5 fine films all depict elaborate con games. All have interesting twists and turns along the way, and are great fun to watch.
Beautiful Girls (1996) (Ted Demme), and Diner (1982, Barry Levinson)
Two great films, each depicting a group of young 20-something men who are trying to find their way in life.
Donnie Brasco (1997, Mike Newell), Prince of the City (1981, Sydney Lumet), The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)
All these films feature undercover cops and/or confidential informants. And what a murky, sleazy world this is. I tend to agree with Justice Douglas, who said that undercover cops have no place in a free society.
In "Donnie Brasco", an FBI agent infiltrates the New York underworld, primarily by befriending a mid-level guy played by Al Pacino. We see their friendship develop and all the moral ambiguities that present themselves to someone leading this sort of life. The guy's family life goes to pot, of course.
In the most telling scene in this film, the cop is in Miami working on a business venture there, when he meets with the other FBI folks in a makeshift headquarters set up in what appears to be a motel room. The "suits" are listening to wiretaps, and generally just pushing paper around, while the undercover guy, who is the only one doing real work, and certainly the only one doing dangerous work, just does not seem to fit in. He has taken on the personality of his alter ego, Donnie Brasco, and by this point he prefers the company of his friends who know him as Donnie Brasco.
The callousness of the FBI toward Donnie and his precarious situation is appalling. He is used as a piece of meat for their own ends, and this is troubling. The last scene is especially troubling, as the agent is presented with a plaque and a paltry $500 check. Hardly anyone is there except for his family, and it is obvious there is no real appreciation for what he has gone through.
In "Prince of the City" a cop who is disgusted with what he has to do in his undercover detective work decides to work with the federal authorities who are investigating police corruption. The real-life result, as mentioned in the bonus part of the DVD, is that 52 of the 70 members of New York's Special Investigations Unit (SIU), are indicted on criminal charges.
At the start the feds ask him if he has done anything improper, as he will be asked about this on the stand during cross-examination when he eventually has to testify. He mentions 3 things, but of course there are many more and the most telling scene in this film is a huge meeting in the Attorney General's office with all the prosecutors there giving their opinions to the AG on whether to seek perjury charges against the poor guy. Passions run high on both sides, and after hearing all sides the AG decides not to prosecute him. On the same day, ironically, the Judge in a Motion for a new trial against the highest-profile defendant, a crooked lawyer, denies the new trial request, which was based on all the false testimony of the detective, holding, correctly I think, that this testimony was a "collateral matter" and didn't affect the outcome of the case.
The SIU group is presented as basically a very dedicated group of cops, who do take some money and take some dope on occasion, but have also taken plenty of bad guys off the street. As in "Donnie Brasco", the feds are not presented in a very good light. The 2 prosecutors who worked most closely with the main character are decent guys, but some of the higher-ups are just pricks. In fact, a scene in "Prince of the City" which the audience applauded in the theater had one of the cops charging into the office of one particularly sleazy prosecutor and assaulting him. This cop, memorably played by the great Jerry Orbach, is presented as the only true hero in the film, as he is going to fight the charges rather than either cooperate with the feds in exchange for leniency, or commit suicide, which are the options chosen by all of the others.
These films present troubling pictures of the use of undercover informants in our society. Part of the problem here is that the types of "crimes" these guys usually work on should arguably not be crimes at all--things like use of dope, prostitution, and gambling. If we can get these things de-criminalized, that would go a long way to ridding our society of the stench of undercover informants.
The trial in the summer of 2013 of notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger revealed many sordid aspects of using undercover informants. (Bulger, by the way, is thought to be the model for the Jack Nicholson character in "The Departed".) To gain a conviction of the 83-year-old Bulger, the prosecution gave a get-out-of-jail free card to John Martorano, a confessed killer of 20 people. Similarly, Kevin Weeks, involved in five murders, also got a get-out-of-jail free card.
But this wasn't even the most sordid aspect of this whole mess. During his heyday, Bulger had been acting as an FBI informant, giving the FBI info on rival mob figures. The FBI ended up being so in bed with Bulger as to be a part of his criminal enterprises. In fact, it was an FBI man who tipped Bulger off that an indictment against him was imminent, causing him to skip town and remain in hiding for 16 years before finally being discovered living in California. All of these facts and many others were brought out at the trial, and one cannot help being sickened at the corruption in law enforcement caused by the use of undercover informants.
2/26/16 update. I recently read the book "Donnie Brasco", Joe Pistone's own account of his time undercover. The book is much more enlightening, as Pistone undertakes to tell us what he was thinking at each stage of the way, something a movie is obviously unable to do. Interesting that the book does not contain two of the most interesting scenes from the movie. Joe and his wife are in couples counseling due to the strain his undercover operation has put on their marriage. At one point Joe uses a slang phrase, and his wife says, "Listen to him. I married a college graduate." But the best dialogue comes when the FBI guys are listening to the tapes, and one of them comments about the frequent use of "Forget about it", and asks Joe what it means. Joe responds: "'Forget about it' is, like, if you agree with someone, you know, like 'Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass. Forget about it!' But then, if you disagree, like 'A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac? Forget about it!' You know? But then, it's also like if something's the greatest thing in the world, like, 'Minghia! Those peppers! Forget about it!' But it's also like saying "Go to hell!" too. Like, you know, like 'Hey Paulie, you got a one-inch pecker?' and Paulie says 'Forget about it!' Sometimes it just means 'Forget about it'."
The Great Escape (1963) (John Sturges) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
"The Great Escape" is based on Paul Brickhill's 1950 book describing the real-life escape attempt in 1944 from a German POW camp. Only in recent years did I learn this, although if I deep-down believed the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction", I no doubt would have suspected it right off. I also learned in recent years that Brickhill resisted efforts to make his story into a movie for many years, finally relenting only upon receiving satisfactory assurances that the depiction would accurately reflect what happened.
The plan was for 200 prisoners to escape, but the escape ran into some snags and only 76 actually escaped. Three of the 76 made their way to freedom, while the other 73 were captured. It is said that 5,000,000 Germans were involved in the effort to capture the escapees. Upon direct orders from Hitler, 50 of the 73 were executed, though not all at once as the film depicts.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" also depicts a WW2 POW camp, this time a Japanese camp in the jungle near the Burma/Thailand border. The question of possible escape is settled early on in the film, when Colonel Nicholson, leader of the prisoners, tells his officers there will be no escape attempt, because any such attempt would be futile and possibly a violation of military law since they had been ordered to surrender by the Allied higher-ups. He then has this exchange with one of his officers: "You mean, you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?" " Without law, Commander, there is no civilization." "That's just my point; here, there is no civilization." "Then we have the opportunity to introduce it." This introduces the concepts of duty, honor, pride, and collaboration with the enemy which are explored in this complex film. Nicholson takes charge of building a bridge for the Japanese captors, and does his best to build the best bridge possible, based on the idea that morale will be higher for his fellow prisoners if they are being productive, plus they will be treated better by their captors. And with Nicholson in charge of the building project, the prisoners get to see themselves as soldiers and not prisoners.
The film is based on a novel, which in turn is based on an actual Japanese POW camp. However, the blowing up of the bridge by an allied unit at the end is entirely fictional. In real life, two bridges were built, a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel/concrete bridge, both of which were in use for two years until destroyed by Allied bombing. The steel bridge was rebuilt and is still in use today.
Many see this film as an anti-war film, because it depicts the madness of war. This view has been challenged quite forcefully in the book "War and Film in America". Here Richard A. Kallan argues that to truly be an anti-war film, a film must show that the outcome of the war being depicted does not benefit society, and must also show how the war could have been avoided peacefully. Kallan concludes that this film has "numerous barbed references to the madness, oddity, and irony of war, but it does not present any opposing framework to war. Instead, it remains primarily a study in military character and sensibility and how noble but flawed leaders behave at their best and at their worst in the heat of conflict."
A final note about David Lean, the director. Lean has been acclaimed for his epics, but this is the only one which interests me. And one of his last films, a complete debacle called "Ryan's Daughter", was just awful.
Stand by Me (1986, Rob Reiner) and When Harry Met Sally (1989, Rob Reiner)
Two great films by the great Rob Reiner.
Marty (1955, Delbert Mann)This has aptly been called the best "slice of life" movie ever made.
Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
This has aptly been called "the best 'B' movie ever made". Welles directs and acts in it as the sheriff of a Texas border town. Marlene Dietrich as an eccentric fortune-teller is marvelous. Charlton Heston is not too believable as a Mexican, but one can overlook this flaw, so good is the film as a whole.
The post-production saga of this film is quite interesting. Welles finished shooting and went back East, and the studio in his absence edited the film and even re-shot some of the scenes.
When Welles saw the result he was beside himself, as he had very clear ideas about how it should be edited. He wrote a 58-page handwritten memo containing instructions on how to edit the film. The studio ignored this and released the film with the studio edit. Years later this memo was discovered, and in 1998 some film-lovers got permission to re-edit the film following Welles' instructions as closely as possible. If you get the DVD it will probably have this new version; if it's 93 minutes it's the old, if 110 or so it's the new.
California Split (1974, Robert Altman)
Here is Altman at his free-wheeling, improvisational best. It is a tale of two small-time gamblers who hit a big winning streak. The style is completely captivating.
North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock) and Charade (1963) (Stanley Donen)
Two films featuring the great Cary Grant.
10 (1979, Blake Edwards)
I once had a would-be girlfriend who thought "10" was sexist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apparently she was unable to distinguish between depicting something and endorsing it. In fact, the film goes way overboard in trying to depict Dudley Moore's chasing after the beautiful Bo Derek character as a complete failure. It shows Moore coming back home and asking his girlfriend, played by a completely miscast Julie Andrews, to commit to their relationship. This rings completely hollow, as Julie Andrews doesn't have a sexy or appealing bone in her body.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one with Dudley Moore talking with the bartender at a bar at the Mexican resort he has followed Bo Derek to. The bartender is wonderfully played by Brian Dennehy, the same sort of understated brilliance that Don Cherry showed in "Jackie Brown".
Eight Men Out (1988) (John Sayles)
This move has grown on me over the years. Using jazz music and muted colors, the film captures perfectly the atmosphere of the 1919 era it depicts. The film is based on the great book of the same name by Eliot Asinof, who meticulously researched the 1919 Black Sox scandal and really set the record straight about what actually happened. The White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, is depicted as pretty much of a caricature, but this seems to be true to history. He was a notorious skinflint who treated his players horribly, breaking promises to them at will. And the aides of the gambler Arnold Rothstein were not any better, betraying both Rothstein and the players they were supposed to be bribing. Really a horrible mess of a situation, but the film is exquisite in its depiction of it.
While the depiction of the 1919 Black Sox scandal is historically accurate, the true significance of the film cannot be understood without understanding the historical context. In a great article in "Total Baseball", Stephen S. Hall provides this historical context. Hall describes how the Black Sox scandal was merely the climax of "five decades of dubious collusion between players and gamblers".
The other theme here is the treacherous actions of the owners in ruthlessly imposing the odious "reserve clause" on the players, making them little more than indentured servants. Players had basically no rights, no redress for their grievances. It all coalesced in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
The aftermath, as depicted in the movie, is probably the most pertinent part of the film. This part shows Comiskey meeting with his people, and being told that he needs to get out in front of the scandal, and make it look like he wants to clean up the game. So, he decides to join with his fellow owners in hiring Judge Kenesaw "Mountain" Landis to be commissioner, with total power to do what is in the best interest of the game. And Landis insisted on a lifetime contract, so that the owners could not, at their whim, remove him.
The other major post-Series scene shows a representative of Arnold Rothstein meeting with Comiskey, and pointing out that both of their interests require that the scandal should go away, i.e., the so-called "confessions" should disappear. At the subsequent trial, those confessions have in fact disappeared, and the players are found not guilty. The movie does not undertake to explain how these confessions have disappeared, but the book describes how the disappearnce was engineered by the high-powered Chicago lawyer hired by Comiskey and/or Rothstein.
The movie makes much of the disappearance of the written confessions, and implies that this disappearance was the reason for the "not guilty" verdicts. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. The book describes how the trial judge allowed the confessions into evidence, after hearing testimony from the judge before whom the confessions were signed.
What the reader needs to understand is that the ballplayers were not charge with throwing ballgames, as there was no crime under which that could be charged. Rather, they were charged with conspiracy to defraud Comiskey, and conspiracy to defraud the public. The defrauding of Comiskey was shown to be bogus when the defense introduced evidence showing that his receipts actually doubled from 1919 to 1920, hence he was not "defrauded" of anything. As far as defrauding the public, there was no evidence of any intent to defraud the public. The judge himself said that a conviction against the five players who did not confess and who had not talked directly with the gamblers could not stand, as there was no evidence that they ever participated in any "conspiracy".
Notwithstanding the "not guilty" verdict, Commissioner Landis banned all eight from any further association with major league baseball. The most serious injustice in this is the third baseman, Buck Weaver, played by John Cusack, who took no money and played his heart out to win the Series, but was in the room when the fix was being discussed by his fellow players and so was deemed to be just as culpable. He is truly the moral center of the movie.
The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)
Have you ever heard a eulogy in which the minister did not know the deceased? I did, at the funeral of my then wife's grandfather, and it is truly a ridiculous experience. Well, this is what Stephen Spielberg's "message" moives seem like to me. He completely botches both "The Color Purple" and "Amistad", because he has no clue what he is doing.
Polanski, by stark contrast, knows what he is talking about when he made "The Pianist", as he experienced the Holocaust first-hand. The scene in which the father if ordered to walk in the gutter instead of on the sidewalk actually happened to Polanski's father. It is small moments like this that give a film authenticity, and distinguish the good films from the mediocre.
Gorillas in the Mist (1998, Michael Apted)
Sigourney Weaver completely immerses herself in the role of Dian Fossey. A must-see.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005, Ridley Scott)
Watched many times with my daughter, I recently learned that it is based on true events and actual characters. What sealed the deal concerning its inclusion in this list is a viewing with the historical commentary turned on. The comments came fast and furious, one every four seconds or so, and I learned more about the crusades during this viewing than in the rest of my life put together.
Mystic Pizza (1988, Donald Petrie), The Breakfast Club, and American Graffiti
Three great teenage “coming of age” tales. Traditionally such tales focused on boys, as in, for example, “Summer of ‘42”. “Mystic Pizza” focuses on three girls, and what a great treatment of this subject it is. The other two also include girls though there is somewhat more focus on the boys.
"Mystic Pizza" is noteworthy as the movie which made Julia Roberts a star. At the start she was simply one of the three girls, and did not even have top billing. But she really steals the show, and from then on she was on her way to becoming America’s top female star.
Pulp Fiction (1994) (Quentin Tarantino)
When I first saw "Pulp Fiction" years ago it didn't make much of an impression on me. For one thing, the movie is hard to follow, as there are 3 or 4 different stories (depending on how you count them) going on simultaneously. What's more, the movie jumps around in time as well as back and forth between the stories.
Because I like Jackie Brown so much, I decided to give Pulp Fiction another try. Now I understand it for the great movie it is. The stories do all come together in the end. This is one of those films, like "The Usual Suspects", that you can see 20 times and notice something different each time. In fact, even more so with Pulp Fiction.
As for the mystery of what is in the briefcase, we are never told and Tarantino says it is whatever the viewer wants it to be. This is in line with another quote from him, that "If a million different people see my movie, I hope they see a million different films."
A last thought: one of the supporting characters, Harvey Keitel, gives as good a performance as you will ever see in the movies. He is absolutely wonderful.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the movie:
Vincent: "I ain't saying it's right. But you're saying a foot massage don't mean nothing, and I'm saying it does. Now look, I've given a million ladies a million foot massages, and they all meant something. We act like they don't, but they do, and that's what's so cool about them. There's a sensuous thing going on where you don't talk about it, but you know it, she knows it, Marsellus knew it, and Antwan should have known better. I mean, that's his wife, man. He can't be expected to have a sense of humor about that. You know what I'm saying?"
Jules: "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee." (Misquoting Ezekiel 25:17)
Captain Koons: "The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He'd be damned if any slopes gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy's birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you."
Mia: "Don't you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?"
Fabienne: "It's unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same." (Explaining why she thinks women's pot bellies are sexy.)
Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler) and The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille)
Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) and The Two Jakes (1990, Jack Nicholson)
Jack Nicholson reprises his private eye role in "Chinatown" 16 years later in "The Two Jakes", and the latter refers to the events of the former, making it a true sequel. I thought maybe the 16 years (1974-1990) was a record for the gap between a movie and its sequel, but I see that "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money" has it beat with a 25-year gap (1961-1986).
2/26/16 update. I recently saw "Chinatown" at the Fifth Avenue Cinema, a theater on the edge of the Portland State University campus which shows old movies. I was struck by how good four of the supporting performances are in this film. John Huston as Noah Cross is of course magnificent. But take a look at Perry Lopez as Captain Lou Escobar, and the performances of htt officious librarian and of Nicholson's ex-con friend. Really good stuff.
The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)
I usually prefer plot-based movies to mood-based movies, but The Big Sleep is an exception. The plot makes little sense, but we don't care because what is on the screen is so interesting.
The Shootist (1976, Don Siegel)
It is said that when it became known that John Wayne had agreed to play the lead in this film, many in Hollywood fought to get the supporting roles. And what a great supporting cast it is--Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Harry Morgan, Scatman Crothers, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone and Hugh O'Brien. All are great except for Harry Morgan, whose portrayal of the sheriff is silly and over-the-top.
The key concept is revealed early on when the Wayne character, who has cancer and has come to the town to die, tells the Bacall character, who runs the boarding house he is staying in, that Queen Victoria had died the right way--with dignity. And this is what Wayne sets out to do. The philosophy of the Wayne character is revealed in a great quote: " I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."
The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis) and Witness (1985, Peter Weir)
I am no great fan of Harrison Ford, having been so put off by his juvenile and one-dimensional performances in the Star Wars series and in the Indiana Jones series. However, these two Harrison Ford movies are first-rate, thanks in part to Ford's solid performances, but due even more so to the great supporting performances of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive", and Kelly McGillis in "Witness".
Office Space (1999, Mike Judge), While You Were Sleeping (1995, John Turteltaub), Kissing a Fool (1998, Doug Ellin), High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears), "The Wedding Singer (1998, Frank Coraci), and "Mister Saturday Night" (1992, Billy Crystal).
These are not great works of art, but are so darn appealing and entertaining that they must be included. They cannot be called "guilty pleasures", since there is really nothing to feel guilty about in liking them, so I suppose they fall somewhere in the middle ground between works of art and guilty pleasures.