Pat Larson understands poetry. Her works excite and interest the reader no matter the particular form she chooses to use. She is equally at home with free form expression and such demanding disciplines as the triolet. She dazzles us with both forms in this volume. As if that were not enough, she provides three of the most beautiful haikus I've seen (and the first we've ever published). Of course words without meaning are merely forms of exercise. Pat writes with emotion and helps us see the depth of meaning in even that which seems common. We are honored to present the continued excellence of PAT LARSON
This issue we were fortunate to receive a poem of incredible emotion from Donald Minikus. Just Another Barn is not just another poem. This is a painting and Donald's words are the oils that create a glimpse into the emotions that make memories...and lives. I must warn you that there is a powerful poignancy here. We hope this is not the last we hear from DONALD MINIKUS.
OK, we have been known to play favorites and Rick Fogel and his hammered dulcimer are certainly favorites. You need to hear his latest CD. The word masterpiece is not an exaggeration. Read this review of THE DIVINE DULCIMER.
I don't know where to begin in talking about the poetry of Sunny Andrea Farquhar. She simply swept us away with her stunning expressions. How can words be both delicate and powerful? This is the pure imagery of passion...passion in all of its meanings, forms and degrees. This is not the poet in search of something to say. This is the poet crying out and releasing what the soul knows and only the heart can feel. This is the work of someone who is one with the flow and rhythm of her words. Please join us in enjoying the writing skills and meaning laden words of SUNNY ANDREA FARQUHAR .
We have never encountered the movie knowledge so interestingly expressed by Nick Zegarac's The One Hundred Greatest Movies Of All Time. The article should be subtitled: "An Intellectual Analysis Of Film." Most people would be hard pressed to simply name 100 movies. Mr. Zegarac has picked the 100 he feels are the best of all time and he provides a powerful rationale for each choice. In our discussions he has also ably defended his decisions about which films he leaves on his own personal cutting room floor. He willingly admits to the folly inherent in compiling a list of the greatest hundred anything and then he provides an interesting and persuasive list that does just that! It is a good read. An experienced and oft published writer, he displays an understanding of the industry that leads me to see his future as a screenwriter or director. The man belongs in Hollywood. Enjoy the depth of knowledge and expertise of NICK ZEGARAC
Every thinking person is a philosopher worthy of note. Furthermore, the sole test of any great philosophy is "Does it work?" Art not only is the best expression of life, it is in many ways, life itself. We are one with our art. Anything less leaves art the object of mere employment and life but a series of meaningless events. A MOST DARK STAR is an essay in phenomenological ontology.
RICK FOGEL AND
THE DIVINE DULCIMER
One word continually came to my mind as I listened to Rick Fogel's current offering, The Divine Dulcimer, for the first (and second) time. Wow! The hammered dulcimer has never done more in one incredible CD. Under the Whamdiddle label (Whamdiddle), we have been shown that this instrument can beautifully express music ranging from Bach, through Celtic, into Bluegrass, a good old fashioned fiddlin' tune from legendary Luke Thomasson and a classic from Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. And there is even more variety. That is an awfully big tent but this ambitious undertaking doesn't appear as even having the semblance of a stretch. It all fits comfortably. Mr. Fogel is ably joined on 5-octave dulcimers by Simon Chrisman and Josh Pemberton. It is difficult to imagine a finer acoustic bass performance than that provided by Greg Youmans. The Fogel/Youmans team is a winner as once again a recording has given us the comfortable feel of a live concert. This is getting to be a habit with them.
Leather Britches gets us up and going. Literally. This well chosen opener will please Bluegrass fans in particular and dulcimer lovers in general. Rick Fogel coaxes a lively country dance from his dulcimer. For those who are unfamiliar with the hammered dulcimer you may wish to see this Explanation.
Florida Blues was one of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's masterpieces. This particular interpretation is a delight. Mr. Fogel quickly jumps across the Atlantic for the next tune, Hora Oltanesca. Close your eyes and you'll feel yourself sitting near a Gypsy campfire in some mythical setting as people dance an ancient dance. The dulcimers are soulful here and you'll want to mellow in Greg Youmans' bass work. Grey Eyes is next and it may well be the most compelling tune in the whole collection. We used to say: "The eyes don't lie." Well, neither does the dulcimer in Rick Fogel's capable hands. These 'Grey Eyes' flash steel grey and quickly fade to the cold grey of a foggy coast. This is as much painting as it is performing.
The dulcimer was made for Bach. Listen to Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring before you disagree. This is what the Philharmonic would sound like if they used all dulcimers. These aren't instruments, these are angel's voices. Play this for your pastor/priest or other spiritual advisor. He or she will agree time spent listening to this tune will count as time in church.
Midnight On The Water is a fiddle standard created originally by Luke Thomasson, father of the legendary Benny Thomasson. Here Rick Fogel weaves his magic in a steady waltzing airiness as Greg Youmans' rich bass keeps a fine watch on the proceedings. Be prepared. They are setting you up with these calming interludes. Bach's Sleepers Awake provides a little musical foreshadowing but they cleverly lull you back to serenity with Moon Rising Over The Castle. Don't get too dreamy. Starting with Yossela Yosella and high stepping through Scully's Reel and Wind That Shakes The Barley, you're going to see the other side of what the dulcimer can do. You dance and move to these tunes as you enjoy them. Scully's Reel is beyond fantastic. This is no nonsense Celtic liveliness that alone is worth the price of admission.
And then...suddenly, you're sitting in a smoky little club in Chicago or St. Louis watching as Ragtime reaches its high water mark. Mr. Fogel matter-of-factly calls Pig Ankle Rag an 'old time country rag.' Sure...and Jelly Roll Morton and Earl "Fatha" Hines were just piano players...and Rick Fogel is just a dulcimer player. Yes, it's time to start spreading the word that he is at the top of his profession and worthy to be mentioned in these lofty breaths. Remember the big tent I talked about? It just got bigger with the splendid Jazzy likes of Pig Ankle Rag.
All good things must come to an end. Almost as if we're being granted two encores, Mr. Fogel reminds us of the range of what he's presented. Morrison's Jig is pure and simple Celtic excitement. He may have saved the best for last. This is a subdued explosion as all four musicians build a tune that attempts to stir our hearts one more time. They succeed. The Divine Dulcimer concludes with a mellow solo from Rick Fogel. Elizabeth Bay is the perfect tune to pair with Morrison's Jig. Exuberance tempered with a relaxing pleasure and this musical Heaven releases its grip on us, leaving us far happier people than we were 50 minutes earlier.
Rick Fogel goes the other artists I compare him to one better...make that TWO better. In addition to performing, he is truly the ambassador of the hammered dulcimer by teaching the craft in the Seattle area and beyond. Additionally, I don't think John Coltrane ever manufactured a Saxophone. Likewise, Charlie Byrd didn't build his own guitars. Rick Fogel operates Whamdiddle Music in Seattle Washington. Here he manufactures various dulcimers to his high standards. The old adage "If you want it done right, do it yourself" brought him into the business and his highly treasured creations bear a craftsmanship that keeps him there. He can be contacted at: Rick Fogel
THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST MOVIES OF ALL TIME
By Nick Zegarac
The exercise of building a list of the one hundred greatest in any field is a half-hearted exercise in futility at best. But particularly when speaking on artifacts of artistic achievement, of which motion pictures must be considered more an art than a science, it seems a wholly impossible undertaking. For in art, beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. And who can say whose concept of beauty in art has more validity to withstand the rest of public scrutiny in deciding what is great art and what is, well, less than.
Most recently, Time Magazine film critics Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss chose to undertake this foolhardy expedition by listing their top 100 greatest movies of all time. That list, perhaps more than most that have dared to take the exercise to task, seems to be predicated on nothing more than personal subjectivity. And although I emphatically do not agree with at least half of their choices, Messers Schickel and Corliss do seem to have at least proven my point; that list making is a colossal waste of time. So why do it?
Well, for starters, the pomposity inherent in making a list leads to a sort of superficial superiority on the part of the list maker. It’s as though the person in charge is saying, ‘see, these are great. Why? Because I say so’ and, furthermore to the point, ‘you should think so too.’
Yet, as numeric structuring of a hierarchy in incremental validation, the foundation of list construction is purely scientific. But consider the absurdity in placing more value in the number one than in the number one hundred. If we were speaking in dollars and cents I know the number that I would prefer. Yet, herein the number one will reign supreme; it will stand in and stand alone, as though the gold medal winner of some great Olympic event, as a declaration of ultimate triumph and achievement. But will it really?
Several weeks ago, I was engaged in a rather heated conversation with a friend, lamenting over the Corliss/Schickel list as a profound waste of space and complete lack of good judgment on the part of two seasoned film critics.
“How can anyone disregard Gone With The Wind in their top ten, let along top one hundred?” I commented, “What cheek!”
“You think you could do better?” I was asked.
“That isn’t the point,” I replied.
“Then what is?”
“That art should never be ranked.” I explained, “If we were concerning ourselves with statuary or paintings you wouldn’t say that the Mona Lisa is better than The Scream. That Michelangelo’s David is somehow more satisfying than Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. You wouldn’t suggest that Picasso knew more about light and shadow than Botticelli, or that Jackson Pollack had less fortitude in experimentation than Andy Warhol.”
“No I would not,” I explained, “Because I don’t think any one person should ascribe their interpretation of greatness on a collective whole. Besides, all art is unique. While we choose to lump certain forms of art together, according their physicality- for example, all canvas work is considered a painting, we should never be so blind as to suggest that simply because two men took a brush into their hands to render an image on that canvas, that one is somehow better than the other. No such hierarchy exists, except in your own conception on matters of preference and taste.”
“You place too much importance on the list,” I was told, “You think that people will regard it as gospel simply because it exists.”
Yet isn’t that the point of a list; to suggest to someone who might not otherwise have given the matter any great, or possibly any--at all--thought about how the pecking order of ranking perfection should be achieved? To that individual the list emphatically says, “Here I am. Don’t worry your pretty little head about defining great art. It’s all been taken care of herein. What is here is great. What’s not is inconsequential.”
“I don’t think you could do it.” I was told, “I think the prospect of forming an opinion about greatness scares you into believing that it does not exist at all.”
“Wouldn’t you like to see me try?”
So remember then, as you read on and question as to why someone so heretically opposed to list making in the first place should suddenly invest the better half of a week’s time to generate a list of his own; remember then, please, that I was asked to do this.
THE LIST100. Gosford Park (2001): It may be a throwback to the days where simplicity and good story telling reigned supreme in Hollywood film making, but Altman’s penultimate tale of murder, set in the late 20s at an English country estate, is riddled with a rich assortment of deep and brooding characters, each with their own fully realized hidden agenda. Altman’s gift for overlapping dialogue weaves finely wrought narrative threads into one cinematic verisimilitude that is magnetic. Yes, the murder is expected, but that’s not the point. Gosford Park harks to an era in film making when the journey, rather than the destination, was of utmost importance in being able to thrill an audience. On that level, this is Altman’s masterwork.
99. Cleopatra (1964): The undisputed Queen of the Nile ran into her fair share of crocodile infested waters en route to the big screen in this elephantine remake that seemed like a good idea at the time. After producer Walter Wanger bowed out of the mix, screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewiscz found himself the sole overseer of a production that was spiraling out of control. Elizabeth Taylor bumped her status as home wrecker up a notch when she dumped new hubby Eddie Fisher (who some say she stole from Debbie Reynolds) for married costar, Richard Burton. Yet, removed from all of its angst, tabloid backstage backstabbing and studio hype, Cleopatra is perhaps the final flowering of quality craftsmanship from a studio system. It is high melodrama wrought under the most lowbrow of circumstances and a glittering spectacle besides.
98. The Private Lives Of Elizabeth & Essex (1939): In a year where Gone With The Wind cleaned out the Oscar closet, Warner Bros. launched its own resplendent contender for the prize, costarring two stars Jack Warner had offered producer David O. Selznick for his epic: Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Based on the play, Elizabeth the Queen, that title would simply not do since Flynn’s star had risen to a prominence on par with Davis’. Nevertheless, the resulting film was a showcase for Davis. She shaved her hairline and donned a series of unflattering red wigs. But her most tempestuous contempt was reserved for Flynn, whom she considered a pretty boy of substandard acting prowess. During one scene that called for the Queen to strike the Earl of Essex, Davis hauled off with a jewel encrusted ring and struck Flynn with such a force that it left a welt across his cheek. Forty years after the fact, Davis re-screened the film and declared of Flynn to friend and co-star, Olivia DeHavilland, “My God, he’s marvelous. I was wrong about him;” too late a compliment for Flynn who died several years before.
97. Marie Antoinette (1936): The most expensive motion picture ever made up until that time, MGM’s V.P. in charge of production, Irving G. Thailberg, fashioned an opulent spectacle for his wife, actress Norma Shearer. Today, Norma’s contributions in film are sadly underrated, but in her prime she was ‘Queen of the Lot,’ so it only made good sense that she would also be cast as Queen of France. The film rewrote history, casting Shearer as the wrong girl at the wrong time; a benevolent ruler whose people are tricked into believing she is the tyrannical monarch responsible for all their woes and starvation. The French court never glittered so brightly, with lavish sets and costumes so rarified and sumptuous that the French government bestowed its highest honor for artistic achievement on production designers Cedric Gibbons and Gilbert Adrian. But the tragic death of Thailberg in the months before shooting began forced L.B. Mayer to take over the project. He scrapped the idea to shoot it in Technicolor, recast the director and ordered the film’s running time pruned from epic to just barely over two hours. The results were damaging to a production that otherwise spoke on one final note to Thailberg’s good taste, great sense of style and masterful sense of storytelling.
96. A Star Is Born (1954): The story has been made and remade four times, but George Cukor’s masterful reworking of melodrama into musical, perfectly captures the essence of lost opportunities and tragic circumstances that lead to heartbreak. Judy Garland hadn’t worked in three years when producer Sid Luft (Garland’s husband) approached Warner Bros. with the project. Jack Warner, a gambling man, liked the idea so much he imported Fox’s newly christened Cinemascope process for the occasion. Cukor, who had never worked in either widescreen or color proved his adeptness at both, generating a visual style that few novices to the format achieved. But the film was hampered by Warner’s need to interject the lavish – if absurd – “Born in a Trunk Medley.” After theater exhibitors complained that the film’s near three hour running time was hampering their ability to make a quick buck, Warner hacked into the melodrama – removing 40 minutes that negatively affected Cukor’s careful construction and pacing. Nearly three decades later, film historian Ron Haver managed to reassemble much of the lost footage into a reconstruction. But none of it seemed to matter – Cukor, who had always been bitter about Warner’s alterations, had died the night before.
95. Teachers (1981): As Blackboard Jungle had done nearly forty years before, Arthur Hiller’s film about students in crisis – this time at JFK high school - was a brilliant tapestry that exposed the socio-economic rhetoric hampering the public education system. Nick Nolte was top cast as Alex Jurel, a burnt out poor excuse of an educator who is given a second chance to be great when former student cum lawyer, Lisa Hammond (Jo Beth Williams) subpoenas him to testify against the system in the case of a former student who graduated without being able to read or write. Featuring a who’s who of eighties film stars, including Ralph Macchio as a smart mouthed delinquent who comes to care about his own future; and Crispin Glover, as a mentally troubled youth that meets with an untimely end, the film was hard-hitting, satirical and above all else, sobering. Steven Hill – of Law & Order fame appeared briefly as – what else – a district attorney. Buttressed by 58 Special’s electric title track “Teacher Teacher” and finely wrought performances from Judd Hurst, Lee Grant, Richard Mulligan, Morgan Freeman and Royal Dano, Teachers is dynamite entertainment. What is perhaps most disappointing today is this film’s complete disappearance from the home video market.
94. Hamlet (1994): Kenneth Branagh’s contemporized version of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated revenge tragedies is an enthralling cinematic epic. After proving that the bard could be saleable at the box office with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh launched into his most ambitious masterpiece; casting even the smallest part from a roster of formidable acting talent. Everyone, from Charlton Heston and Julie Christie, to Billy Crystal and Robin Williams made their mark. Front and center was Branagh as Shakespeare’s most conflicted hero. Kate Winslet proved a sympathetic Ophelia, and Derek Jacobi, an unscrupulous usurper of the Danish throne. Updating the film’s look to some undisclosed early 20th century venue allowed Branagh the opportunity to execute the play’s most celebrated soliloquy “to be or not to be” in front of a two way mirror – an inspired moment of sublime melodramatic tension. Castlerock Entertainment – weary that audiences would not want to sit through three hours of old English – implored their director/star to release two versions; one full, the other edited to just under two hours. Branagh refused. The result was studio apprehension and a limited release of the complete version, to thunderous critical praise but infrequent patronage at the box office.
93. Goldfinger (1964): If it were not part of a series, this film would have long since made it onto many top 100 lists. Falling into the Bond franchise at number three, Goldfinger is a 24kt hit. From its pre-title sequence, that has Britain’s most celebrated agent, James Bond (Sean Connery) blowing up a chemical plant before electrocuting a would-be assassin in his bathtub, to the glittering showdown inside a fictionalized Fort Knox, between Bond and mute henchman, Odd Job (Harold Sakata), Goldfinger achieves a level of compelling sophistication that few action/thrillers – Bond or otherwise - can lay claim to. In truth there is little of the Ian Fleming novel left in the film. But what remains has been spectacularly fleshed out by a diabolical villain, Gert Frobe, an appealing ‘Bond girl’ – Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and some of the finest stunt work ever to appear on screen. Add to this mix the introduction of the laser beam, a gadget laden Aston Martin, the thought of being decapitated by a bowler brim, and the film’s iconic defining moment; Bond discovering the body of a naked girl (Shirley Eaton) who has been dipped in gold paint, and you have all the elements of an amazingly powerful piece of fiction. Improbable? Yes, but undoubtedly done with such flair for the macabre that there is little but to admire producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccolli for their formidable achievement.
92. Moulin Rouge (2001): The eclecticism and editing prowess exercised by director, Baz Luhrman must rank as one of the most brilliant pieces of escapism at its highest order. For it is no small feat to blend vintage Bohemia with the likes of Madonna, Elton John and Rogers and Hammerstein. Drawing upon song catalogues from Broadway and pop rock music spanning nearly every conceivable decade of the 20th century, Luhrman constructs a mélange of melody that never once seems out of place, rigid or absurd. To this rich heritage he has affixed the most generic of plots; a penniless boy (Ewan McGregor) meets a girl of means (Nicole Kidman) who he falls in love with but ultimately loses in the end. Yet, the best in vintage Hollywood musicals have functioned on far less. What is perhaps most inspiring about Luhrman’s masterwork is his ability to make the generic seem quite unconventional. As proprietor of Paris’ most naughty nightclub, Jim Broadbent emerges as something of a loveable gargoyle – baiting the duke (Richard Roxborough) with the prospect of bedding his most eligible whore (Satine/Kidman), all the while plotting to turn his den of iniquity into a legitimate theatre with the duke’s money. In the end, nobody wins – an uncharacteristic and telling postmodern epitaph for the musical genre, usually bent on tacking happy endings. The acting is superb camp; the pacing, manic and exciting; and the film – spectacular, spectacular!
91. Anastasia (1997): Easily, the greatest non-Disney animated feature of the last ten years – if not of all time – Don Bluth’s musical retelling of the rumor, the legend and the mystery surrounding the last possible surviving heir to the Russian royal throne, is a sumptuous fairytale buttressed by stunning art and wonderful vocal performances. Anja (Meg Ryan) is an impoverished waif in an orphanage who falls prey to a couple of con artists, Dimitri (John Cusak) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammar). They plan to take a girl from the streets and train her in the royal customs, just well enough to fool the real Anastasia’s grandmother (Angela Lansbury) out of her inheritance. But the heartless plot goes awry when Dimitri discovers that Anja is actually the girl they have been looking for, and more to the point, that he is in love with her. Those expecting a history lesson should seek it elsewhere. What this film does is to romanticize fact all out of proportion and transform the events of one tragic night into a very Broadway-esque to Hollywood film musical. But it works, wholly, completely and charmingly. Buttressed by Bluth’s attention to having his artists capture at least something of authenticity in their drawings, the film has a charm all its own, and is a success on every level, but mostly at striking the right chord in our hearts.
90. Anna and the King (1999): As far as the Siamese are concerned, there has never been an adequate film adaptation of what really went on behind the fabled walls of the royal palace at the turn of the last century. Yet Hollywood cannot lay claim to that oversight. Responsibility must be weighed between the novelization of events by Margaret Landon and the penned memoirs of Anna Leonowens, tutor to King Mongkut’s many royal children. Overestimating her importance in print, the story of Anna’s travels to Siam has been made into three films, a Broadway smash and short lived television series. Yet, it is this latest incarnation, helmed by Jodi Foster (Anna) and action star, Chow Yung Fat (the king) that perhaps best delineates some of the truth behind the fiction. The king is neither tyrant nor softy, but an enigmatic blend of smoothness and sandpaper. Anna is not a liberating force against social oppression so much as she becomes the catalyst that inspires the king to come to his own decisions. What this film also has is artistic authenticity. From the conceptualization of the royal palace – that is a miracle of exact reconstruction - to its casting of real Asians to play Asians in the film, Anna and the King suggests a glamorized, but not idealized, period in history that is refreshingly in step with contemporary tastes and sensibilities while retaining a sense of the ancient and time honored traditions in film making.
89. Little Women (1994): Director, Gillian Anderson rekindles the romance and structure of the Victorian age in her brilliant retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Unlike the previous two versions, which have centralized the character of Jo March as their heroine at the expense of all other character development, Anderson treats her film as an ensemble piece. To be sure Jo (Wynona Ryder) is still central to the plot, but she is now surrounded by a loving family of sisters, Amy (Kristin Dunst), Beth (Claire Danes) and Meg (Trini Alvarado) and her doting mother, (Susan Sarandon). Each is given their moment to shine in a production that is stunningly beautiful, filled with poignancy and old world charm. Hence, this Little Women delivers the solid smile and good cry that audiences of melodrama desperately crave but seldom get from their film-going experience.
88. Se7en (1995): David Fincher’s dark (both figuratively and literally) film of psychotic ambition and sadistic murders has both its detractors and its following. By my estimation it is a brilliant example of style triumphing over substance. For there is little by way of dialogue or plot to suggest anything more foreboding from this noir-ish élan than a head cold. But it’s the laconic brooding and unsettled animosity and tension between detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) that really fuels this story. In this, there is a sense of both immediacy and urgency that permeates the very fabric of construction, pushing the plot to its not so inevitable conclusion. Kevin Spacey’s performance, as John Doe is a tour de force of acting economy. In the few scenes in which he appears he absolutely dominates the screen as the puppet master whose greatest victory will be the deconstruction of Det. Mill’s male ego and machismo. To be sure, there are thrillers that do more explaining in their character studies, but Se7en hits its audience where it seems to count the most; in the gut.
87. The Breakfast Club (1985): Not since Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause has a film so closely mirrored the angst and troubled contradictions of being a teenager. John Hughes pits the moral fiber and preconceived notions of five strangers against their own prejudices during a Saturday detention. Claire (Molly Ringwald) is a spoiled and opinionated rich girl. John Bender (Judd Nelson) comes from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. Allyson (Ally Sheedy) is the resident fringe lunatic. Emilio Estevez (Andrew) and Anthony Michael Hall (Brian) round out as opposites of the male gene pool, jock and brain respectively. At first tensions run high. But then an extraordinary set of circumstances occur. The film slowly unravels each preconceived stereotype until its characters emerge as an amalgam of all traits. What is learned in the process, by the characters and the audience is tolerance of one another’s flaws and acceptance of the basic fundamentals that make us all needy and human. While other teenage flicks and Hughes’ films have kept up the pretense of a rigid social structure and delineated character traits, The Breakfast Club provides for the realization; that the world of cinematic characters need not be black or white, but rather, varying degrees of tonal gray.
86. Network (1976): If ever a film could be considered clairvoyant oracle, Sidney Lumet’s Network is the one. A prophetic glimpse into the deterioration of serious journalism on the nightly news into sensationalist propaganda, the film stars Peter Finch as Howard Beale; a man of integrity, honesty and, above all else, corporate professionalism. That is, until he is told he is being sacked by the new management. Faced with the end of his career, Howard announces on air that he is going to commit suicide during his last broadcast. And although the network, headed by corporate whore, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) immediately fires Beale, they quickly reinstate him when the Nielsen ratings jumps by thirty percent. William Holden costars as Max Schumacher, the one voice of reason in an otherwise mad office complex, who is devoured by sycophantic sexual neurotic, Dianne Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) and eventually deposed as head of the news division. What the film brilliantly captures, perhaps more so than any other before or since, is the blind driving ambition to be the best in an industry that, according the film, clearly has no aspirations left to extol.
85. American Beauty (1999): The life of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has officially hit rock bottom. Trapped in a dead end job and marriage to wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) who has clearly forgotten why they should stay wed, Lester’s existence seems to be going from bad to worse when an efficiency expert decides to downsize the work pool. But that’s just the point when things turn around for Lester. Fed up and with nothing to lose, he blackmails his bosses for a year’s salary, begins working out, takes up smoking marijuana, and starts the groundwork for a mid-life crisis fantasy with his daughter’s girlfriend, Angela (Mina Suvari). What is achieved by director, Sam Mendes is a brilliant social critique of the postmodern decline of the American family. We see the balance of power shift from Carolyn to Lester; the level of personal and professional frustration move in the opposite direction; and come to recognize the loss of autonomy that occurs in every family when children are allowed to stray with the wrong external influences. In its execution and delivery then, American Beauty stands as a call to action. What Mendes and the film seem to be saying is that, all we, “the people” have to do, in order to form a more perfect union, is to take a step back from the fray…and then, as the film’s publicity suggests, “look closer.”
84. On Golden Pond (1981): The reconnaissance of ‘loving through time’ is at the heart of Mark Rydell’s transcendent film. Certainly one cannot overlook the back story of reunion and reconciliation between Henry Fonda (Norman Thayer) and daughter, Jane (Chelsea). The sudden appearance of both in the same scene, having to spare off of, and forgive, each other for indiscretions inside the context of the film narrative, provides verisimilitude that the story otherwise would not possess. But it’s the little things about this relatively insignificant return to the country that stand out most; Katharine Hepburn (as Ethel Thayer) performing an old camp song and dance in the middle of the woods; or the moment of reflection that seems so painfully genuine between father and daughter (both film characters and real persons) as Chelsea (Jane Fonda) confesses, “It seems that we’ve just been mad at one another for such a long time,” to which Henry as Norman replies, “I didn’t think we were mad. I just thought we didn’t like one another;” or the sublime way Rydell introduces us to Norman - the camera panning from several photographs and newspaper clippings that show Fonda in his prime as a young and vital man, before framing his weather-beaten façade in the context of a hall mirror. Each moment is like a snapshot frozen in time, a glimpse into bygone years that seem so ripe with meaning and context that one is apt to shed a few tears and smile all the way home from the theatre afterward.
83: Duck Soup (1933): Yes, I know, A Night At The Opera usually gets the nod as the greatest Marx Brothers film of all time. But by my estimation the acerbic anti-establishment bite of Groucho and company was never more wickedly realized than here. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, heir apparent to the struggling European principality of Freedonia. After doing his usual flattery and lambaste of resident straight gal, Margaret Dumont (as Mrs. Teasdale), Groucho embarks on a policy of goodwill with neighboring Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) that, of course, plunges the entire country into war. Director Leo McCarey has made better films, but on this occasion he seems best contented to stand in the shadows and let the Bros. Marx chew up the scenery. Two gargantuan production numbers – both holdovers from the stage version of Duck Soup - only slightly slow down the pace of this otherwise thoroughly riotous film. The sight gags are plentiful and hilarious; including a moment in which Harpo, disguised as Groucho mimics the latter’s every move in what Groucho perceives to be a full length mirror. And although the film, like many of the Marx Bros. endeavors in Hollywood, was only a modest success, what one sees in it today is the way timely affairs of state, closely mirroring the political climate circa 1933, are brutally exposed for their fundamental rhetoric and absurdity.
82. Halloween (1978): Fledgling producer/director John Carpenter never had any notion, even after the film’s premiere, that what he had created was a pop cultural blueprint for all slasher flicks that followed. To be sure, the formula by now seems quaint at best and hopelessly dated at worst. But in 1978, Halloween was an exceptional fright fest about psychopathic killer, Michael Myers (Nick Castle), his bloodlust for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her band of wanton sexual revelers. Wisely recognizing that what can only be seen in half shadow is infinitely more terrifying than what is presented in full light, Carpenter’s low budget slasher comes across today as more high brow, slick and stylish than it actually is. And although only the latter third of the film really concentrates on Michael stalking his victims, sitting in a darkened theater for the first time, one gets the sense that his demonic presence is everywhere, if for no other reason, then Donald Pleasance, as noted psychiatrist Sam Loomis, warning anyone who will listen, of the impending doom to come; “Death has come to your town, sheriff.” None of the subsequent sequels have been quite so viscerally unsettling. Trick or treat, anyone?
81. The Towering Inferno (1974): So costly that it required a joint financial venture between rival studios Warner Bros. and Fox, and so mammoth that its star roster featured nearly every big name in the business at that time, Irwin Allen’s disaster epic about the world’s largest skyscraper going up in smoke was loosely dubbed “Grand Hotel in flames.” Yet there’s much to admire, not only in Allen’s pacing of the raging blaze, his careful planning of the fire sequences (which must have been dangerous to say the least), or the incredible usage of matte trick photography and special effects that continue to hold up under today’s scrutiny; but also in Allen’s attempt to imbue the production with a sense of the ominous lurking in the every day. Both the building’s architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) know that there is no way to effectively fight a fire in a building higher than three floors, “but you guys just keep on buildin’ them as high as you can.” Yet, what remains most desirable about this film, perhaps even more spectacular and mesmerizing than the deluge and gutting of the Promenade Room, is Allen’s concerted efforts to humanize the dramatic portions of the film into something quite sympathetic, appealing and convincing. We are invested in the characters before flames begin to lick at their heels hence our hearts are with their every survival, rather than waiting in anticipation for their expected demise. Today’s purveyors of disaster would do wise to take note.
80. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): On the heels of Raiders of the Lost Ark, anticipation ranked high for this second installment. That the resulting production emerged as a much darker, more sinister, and deeper critique of alienation, was something audiences didn’t quite expect and initially found rather unsettling. It didn’t help that director, Steven Spielberg publicly debased the film as ‘lesser than’ by direct comparison to either Raiders of his subsequent installment; Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade. But what the Temple of Doom has, that neither of the others did, was a sense of humanizing its cardboard cutout action hero, Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) by creating a greater depth of canvas on which the excitement would take place. The first film is undoubtedly superior in its directorial stealth, economy and its ability to generate thrills akin to a roller coaster ride. But the final installment never takes itself seriously. On this occasion then, Indy escapes Hong Kong with sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and whiny nightclub chanteuse, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in tow. They crash land, literally, in India and soon discover that the evil cult of the Thugee has grown powerful once more. Comparisons to the rest of the film’s similar plot line and George Steven’s masterful Gunga Din (1939) are inevitable, but what finally emerges from this milieu is an action packed escape with stunning usage of matte trick photography and miniatures that never appear as fakes. Promotional junkets at the time declared, “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.” Expectations for another roller coaster ride were in place. What came next was a more evenly paced investigation of the darkened recesses of the human mind.
79. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967): In a decade dedicated to civil rights marches, race relations became the subject of tempered dinner table discussions across the country. And while no one in polite society would deny that the times – they were a changin’ – such false modesty became the subject of Stanley Kramer’s critical investigation of apprehensions much closer to the truth. Joanna Prentice (Katharine Houghton) is the white daughter of liberal parents, Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and Matt (Spencer Tracy). She’s always been taught to love thy neighbor, regardless of skin color. But the lesson hits a little too close to home when Joanna arrives on the arm of charming doctor, John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Kramer went out of his way to invest Poitier’s character with every vestige of honest living so that if the match was rejected by either Matt or Christina the audience would have to conclude that their decision was made solely on the basis of race. What emerged thereafter on the screen was a subtle but poignant critique of values, beliefs and platitudes that, once put to the test, would either emerge more galvanic than ever, or be forced to change. As husband and wife, Tracy and Hepburn were never better on screen. Tracy’s failing health added an undertone to his moment of revelation in which he concludes that his daughter has made not only an ideal match, but the right choices in life. Poitier excelled in the role of the doctor, who meets with and is forced to confront race related resistance from his own parents (Beah Richards and Roy Glenn). Remade in 2005 as Guess Who? with the situation reversed and race politics distilled into comedy, the formula proved a quiet little nothing that passed unnoticed in the night.
78. The Great Ziegfeld (1936): Once considered the greatest Broadway impresario who ‘glorified the American girl’ in countless shows and follies along the great white way, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s (William Powell in the film) life and times emerged as something of a curiosity developed in the grand vein of MGM’s grand spectacles. Flo’s second wife, the elegant Billie Burke (best known today as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz), suggested a film based on her late husband’s life, so long as she could exert total control over the script. Hence, Ziegfeld’s many affairs were only suggested as playful and benign dalliances. His first wife, Anna Held (Luise Rainer) was portrayed as temperamental and problematic, rather than merely unwilling to tolerate her husband’s infidelities. The latter half of the picture, in which Flo meets and marries Billie Burke (Myrna Loy in the film) was depicted as idyllic domesticity that only ended when Flo became ill. Despite these discrepancies, the film emerged as a charming – if lengthy and largely fictionalized – melodrama. What is best remembered about it today is the elephantine production numbers, none quite as large as the massive revolving stairway to heaven with its art deco cat girls and dapper Dan’s prancing about to Irving Berlin’s A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody. Few Hollywood musicals have aspired to, or ever reached, such heights.
77. J.F.K. (1991) Oliver Stone sought to stick hot needles in an open wound in the American psyche when he undertook a re-investigation of the Kennedy assassination with this opus magnum of conspiracy theories. Those who were particularly outraged dismissed the film as pure hokum wrapped inside Stone’s own enigma of delusion. Others thought better of that quick dismissal and flocked to see what all the fuss was about. What they discovered was a finely crafted, meticulously woven chain link of plots in which any number of spurious characters involved could have been more likely responsible for the President’s death than Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman in the film). Stone’s critique was based on several books, as well as the real life pursuit for justice launched by Louisiana D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the only man to ever levy formal charges of murder against the perceived culprits. It was the defining moment in both Costner and Stone’s careers; the former delivering his final summation, “Do not forget your dying king…” with such conviction and raw emotional depth that it was difficult to sit through and not find tears welling up inside. On every level Stone debunked what the Warren Commission had presented to the American public as fact. He shot so many holes in their malignant simplicity that even if one chose to discard the film’s alternate theory as far fetched or implausible, there was little to dissuade one from considering its impact.
76. The Women (1939): It must have seemed like artistic suicide to put Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer in a film together. The two had been rivals ever since Crawford doubled as Shearer’s twin sister in Pretty Ladies (1925). Then an understudy, by 1939 Crawford’s star had risen to a status almost en par with Shearer’s; something Crawford hoped to surpass with her next few films. In The Women, Crawford was cast as Crystal Allen, the unscrupulous mantrap out to snag Mary Haines (Shearer) husband. Anita Loos’ bitchy stage play was tempered for the screen, but rarely watered down – leaving the entire cast (including Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Marjorie Main) to engage in a glorious catfight in black and white. About midway through, a fashion show sequence suddenly burst across the screen in Technicolor, leaving one with the genuine excitement of seeing Adrian’s latest and most marvelously absurd creations in a lurid blaze of pure spectacle. What is best remembered about the film today is Shearer’s declaration of having “had two years to grow her ‘claws’ (finger nails) – jungle red,” and, the genuinely startling – though never missed - absence of men from the proceedings. George Cukor, known throughout the industry as a women’s director, had a field day coaching the sparks between Crawford and Shearer. Off camera each actress extended the other every courtesy of the house; a pair of true professionals in the end.
75. The Color Purple (1985): After a decade of directing everything from rubber sharks to hand held puppets, Steven Spielberg surprised everyone with this affecting and bittersweet triumph of the human spirit. Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was elegant in its simplicity and buttressed by absolutely marvelous performances throughout. The film became a showpiece for black actors, of which the standout performance belonged to then, relatively unknown comedian, Whoopi Goldberg. As Celie, the awkward slave wife to boorish, Albert (Danny Glover), Goldberg delivered an Oscar worthy performance that sadly, went unnoticed by the Academy. Others in the cast included talk show hostess, Oprah Winfrey (as the outspoken Sophia), Margaret Avery (as Shug, the drunken hooch singer who finds religion), Willard E. Pugh (Harpo – on who Oprah’s current production company is named) and Rae Dawn Chong (as Harpo’s second wife, Squeak). Walker’s initial misgivings about letting ‘a white boy’ direct an all black ensemble was overlooked when she was invited to view early rushes and became absolutely bowled over by Spielberg’s intimate handling of the subject matter. Rarely has a story of such tenderness and hope been more accurately captured on film.
74. West Side Story (1961): Racial prejudice and gang violence may have seemed like strange bedfellows for the musical genre before West Side Story hit Broadway. Afterward, audiences would never look at either in quite the same way. The contemporary spin of Romeo and Juliet in the ghetto, coupled with Leonard Bernstein/Jerome Robbins’ score was an exuberant example of what the stage was capable of. In translation from stage to screen, co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins resisted the urge to open up the story. Apart from the initial Jet’s ballet, which was shot on the streets of New York, the rest of the story was isolated to stylized backlots and interior sets. The intimacy and electricity generated by both could not have been more perfectly realized. Though hardly Puerto Rican, Natalie Wood made the most of her divinely innocent portrayal of Maria. If somewhat stilted, the film was not particularly hindered by Richard Beymer’s interpretation of Tony either. But the most exciting bit of casting came from George Chakaris (as Maria’s overly protective brother, Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (as his girl, Anita). When the two took to the roof top set to stamp out the defiant and controversial ‘America’ the world stood up to recognize the dawning of two bright new stars.
73. Holiday Inn (1942): It seemed like a good idea at the time – a film in which the central theme of holidays chart the rise and fall of two song and dance men locked in a heated romantic triangle over the same girl. Under Mark Sandrich’s direction this simple plot became galvanic. Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby costarred as Ted Hanover and Jim Hardy. Jim is engaged to Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). The three headline a nightclub act in New York. But on the eve that Lila is set to be married she announces to Jim that she’d rather stay with Ted and further her career: “the two of us, dedicating our lives to making people happy with our feet.” After a short stay in a sanitarium, Jim decides to get as far away from New York as he can. He renovates a Connecticut farm into a tourist attraction that is open holidays only and christens it, Holiday Inn. His peace and happiness seem complete after the arrival of aspiring actress, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds). But that’s exactly when both his peace and happiness end. Buttressed by Irving Berlin’s score that included the already popular, Easter Parade, Song of Freedom and Abraham, the film also introduced what would become both Berlin and Crosby’s most frequently requested standard, White Christmas. The single from Decca sold over a million copies. Holiday Inn became a screen sensation, had a string of luxury hotels named after it and helped to firmly cement Crosby’s place in music immortality.
72. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945): The forties were a period rich in the career of Bing Crosby. Rarely do sequels live up to the expectations established by their predecessor. But in the case of ‘Bells’ a follow up to the Oscar-winning Going My Way, the story proved not only to be more enduring and timeless, but more popular with audiences. Crosby reprised his role as Father O’Malley, a benevolent priest whose new assignment as head of a parish school brings him into immediate conflict with Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). From the onset the two cannot agree on anything. After a fist fight develops between two boys, O’Malley declares one ‘the winner’; “I like a fella’ who can take care of himself” he tells Sister Benedict, “After all, on the outside it’s a man’s world, you know.” “How are they doing, Father?” she glibly replies. But the story takes an unexpected melodramatic turn in two great moments of tear-jerking; the first over a reclusive student, Patsy (Joan Carroll) who is reunited with her biological father; the second, when Father O’Malley discovers that Sister Benedict is dying of tuberculosis. Leo McCarey’s direction allows the maudlin elements of the plot their full scope of sugary sweetness. But it’s the tender sparing between Crosby and Bergman that one tends to recollect fondly in second thoughts.
71. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Steven Spielberg’s early career was awash in financial success. Though critics of the day tended to frown upon his form of entertainment (sci-fi being considered low brow), the director proved that alien abductions need not be hokey or haunted to be effective at the box office. Employing no less than five writers, of which Spielberg was one, the story begins on a dark night out in the middle of nowhere, where telephone repair man, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) suddenly has his first encounter with an unidentified flying object. No laser beams, expensive pyrotechnics or loud drumming music; just a simple moment in which both the craft and Roy acknowledge one another in hallowed reverence. Unable to explain his burgeoning obsession with outer space, Roy leaves his wife and family to befriend Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). She claims that her child was abducted by aliens. The two travel to Roswell New Mexico where they discover that the government has been building a communications device to contact the craft. The ending of the film is best left a secret for those who have not yet seen this great sci-fi classic. Fueled by John Williams score and special effects that, for their day, were startlingly real, Spielberg’s vision for this story neither falls on the usual evil alien cliché nor helps to perpetuate it, but has remained a fresh and perhaps more genuine cinematic experience than any science fiction movie before or since.
70. Beauty & The Beast (1991): To say that this Disney-fied version of the classic French fairytale resurrected Disney animation from mediocrity is perhaps a bit much. But there is no denying that by the time Beauty & The Beast premiered, most of the studios great works were considered to be a thing of the past. What audience and critics alike happily discovered was that a new era in artistic integrity at the studio was on the verge of full blossom. In altering the ending of the original story, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise reintroduced children of all ages to Disney magic of the highest order. With another chart topping score from Howard Ashman and Allen Menken (who had previously collaborated on The Little Mermaid) the film easily became one of the biggest money makers in the company’s history. Paige O’Hara provided the winsome voice of Belle, a young girl who does not want to marry because the most eligible bachelor in town is the sexist oaf, Gaston (Richard White). After discovering her dotty father imprisoned in an isolated castle, Belle offers herself in his stead. What she discovers is that the owner is a hideous monster (Robbie Benson). The rest, as they say, is history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were so impressed, they nominated Beauty & The Beast for Best Picture; the only time in Oscar history that animation was considered for the top award.
69. The Remains of the Day (1997): Merchant Ivory made their second attempt at exploring English aristocracy with this intense drama, costarring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Hopkins played Stevens, a butler who realizes too late that his allegiance to former employer, Lord Darlington (James Fox) has prevented him from developing a meaningful romance with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson). The story is told in retrospect from the vantage of postwar recovery. When former American congressman, Lewis (Christopher Reeve) takes up quarters in Darlington Hall, he sends Stevens to recover Miss Kenton. What eventually unfolded from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay was a tenderly pointed and bittersweet romance, told with nothing more salacious than a subtle glance, chaste reflection or quiet yearning beneath decorum and propriety. On the heels of the company’s Oscar nominated Howards End, Remains didn’t stand a chance. It was quietly and quickly overlooked as more of the same – a genuine shame, since rarely have we have seen cinema this good.
68. The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Odd that no one at the time considered this film worthy of a note of distinction. Even today it rarely appears on 100 best lists. Only a handful of critics had their pens poised in praise in 1994. For the most part audiences stayed away at the box office. After all, what could be so compelling about two hours behind the walls of a prison? Based on the short story by Steven King, and directed by Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption proved that there was more than enough to inspire and keep the mind active. The story concerns the personage of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) a man wrongfully accused of killing his wife and sentenced to life in prison. Behind those walls he is beaten, raped and generally abused – all the while remaining stoic and silent. After befriending fellow inmate, Ellis Boyd (Morgan Freeman) the two strike a pact to reunite on the outside when Ellis comes up for parole. Throughout the plot there is much to admire, from the stellar acting of Gil Bellows, Clancy Brown and William Sadler to the stylized cinematography that made Shawshank prison appear, if not homey, then a place where both prisoners and the audience felt strangely at home. When production wrapped, the film was perceived as a quiet little dud that was expected to fade quickly into the night. So why has its reputation as one of the best films of the decade only continued to grow since?
67.My Fair Lady (1964): By the time Jack Warner’s super production of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway smash reached the big screen, going to see it was not so much a casual night out as it was a cinematic event. Warner paid $600,000 for the rights to produce, under an exclusive agreement with CBS. But beyond that, he could not see the logic in hiring Broadway’s original cast to reprise their roles on film. After inquiring as to whether Cary Grant would be interested in playing Professor Henry Higgins, Grant reportedly told Warner that not only would he not do the part, but to consider anyone other than Rex Harrison would ruin the show. Warner eventually relented, but on the prospect of Julie Andrews as his Eliza, he absolutely refused. She was then an unknown quantity. Ultimately Audrey Hepburn won the role, and although an inspired second choice – she became the victim of undue controversy when it was exposed that her singing vocals had been dubbed by Marni Nixon. Director George Cukor, who only ten years earlier had vowed to never work for Warner again after the disastrous way his A Star Is Born had been mangled without his artistic consent, discovered that on this occasion pretty much whatever he said went. The result was a movie of charming old-fashioned-ness, with great good sense of timing, star caliber performances and overwhelming elegance to boot.
66. Notorious (1946): The most slick and stylish of Hitchcock’s forties films stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi spy. After her father is imprisoned and commits suicide, Alicia is contacted by FBI man, Devlin (Cary Grant) and asked to place herself as a pawn in the midst of a group of her father’s old associates operating in Rio de Janeiro. Dev’ and Alicia fall in love; a match that is forced into extinction when Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), head of the Nazi cartel, proposes marriage. However, when Alex discovers that his new bride is actually working for the enemy, he sets about to slowly poison her. Grant, who was usually relegated to more featherweight material, proved unequivocally that he had a handle on a character of considerable depth and cunning. According to both Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht, inquiries made as to the construction of an atomic bomb – as part of their research for the film’s plot - were met with cold indifference and an FBI surveillance of Hitchcock’s home for several months thereafter. But the director defied the censors (who demanded that a kiss last no more than a couple of seconds) by shooting one glorious long take of a smattering of ‘second’ kisses between Grant and Bergman. Cumulatively they had the on screen effect of appearing as a torrid bit of heavy love making. The film was a high note for all concerned, except perhaps producer, David O. Selznick – who sold off his controlling interest to RKO before its completion to help fund ‘Duel in the Sun’ which was behind in shooting and over budget.
65. Sullivan’s Travels (1941): Preston Sturges’ frank and critical look at Hollywood types and their complete lack of understanding for the rest of the country, going through the Great Depression, was at the heart of this otherwise buoyant message picture. Peppered in Sturges’ usual urbane and sardonic wit, the film starred Joel McCrea as John Sullivan, a producer/director who wants to make a film about “the suffering of humanity” without first knowing what real suffrage is. After befriending a girl he meets in a coffee shop (Veronica Lake) Sullivan impersonates an impoverished hobo and takes to the road. What he discovers is realism more stark and compelling than anything he could have imagined on film. Eventually, Sullivan comes to realize that the true calling of Hollywood should offer a few tender hours of escapism from daily woes. The film was both a profound condemnation, and defense of, the Hollywood style – signifying Sturges’ own conflict with studio bosses in generating ‘reel’ art through a craft that was ultimately considered all business.
64. The Great Escape (1963) Based on actual events that took place during the largest Allied escape from a German POW camp, John Sturges’ film is high stakes tension captured in scope and style under the most limiting of staging possibilities. With exception made to the final twenty minutes, the bulk of this story takes place in one bunk house or inside the tunnel being dug beneath it. Steve McQueen is top billed as Virgil Hilts, a roguish American prisoner who distracts the Nazis from the rest of the camp’s tunnel digging by making more obvious attempts at escape. What is interesting about the Sturges’ depiction of the Nazis is his restraint to portray them in a more human light, as men merely performing a duty on the orders of their country. The second half of Sturge’s masterpiece is a thrilling race against time, as the Gestapo apprehends most of the seventy escapees – assassinating some – returning the rest to prison. What one remembers most today about the film is McQueen’s daring motorcycle ride across the Austrian countryside, one that ends in a bloody mangled mess when he is unable to clear a barbed wire fence.
63. White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh’s gangster flick comes at the end of that particular cycle in America’s fascination with crime movies. James Cagney is Arthur Cody Jerrett, a psychopathic force of nature with a mother fixation that even Freud wouldn’t be able to unravel. After a heist goes horribly wrong, Jerrett cuts his loses and his wounded partner in a remote cabin, and takes off across country with ma’ (Margaret Wycherly) and wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo) at his side. Eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison, the police decide to plant an informant in Cody’s cell, Vic Pardo (Edmund O’Brien) to see if they can learn the whereabouts of the rest of the gang. What occurs next is a prison break of epic proportion that Pardo partakes in just long enough to get his hands on the rest of the gang. Unable to comprehend this sudden betrayal, Jerrett fires shots through a compressed drum at a chemical plant, knowing that the resulting explosion will destroy both him and the police’s chances for his apprehension. What is most instantly recognizable about the film today is Cagney’s central performance, his ability to generate a towering sense of maniacal insanity inside his relatively diminutive frame, and, Jarrett’s final declaration of defiance before his grizzly demise – “Made it ma. Top of the world!”
62. King’s Row (1942): Beginning as a critique of small town lives caught in even smaller-minded criticisms and pomposity, director Sam Woods charts the disillusionment of childhood’s bright-eyed optimism as it becomes dulled and dismantled through maturation into adulthood. The story is that of an unbreakable bit of male bonding between Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) and Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), both of whom have lost their parents at a young age. Parris’ aspirations are to become a great physician and study under the father (Claude Raines) of his childhood sweetheart Cassandra Tower (Betty Field). However, when Drake develops feelings for Cassie as well, the union is frowned upon by Dr. Tower and Parris, though not necessarily by the lady in question. A local businessman, upon receiving his full inheritance, Drake courts Cassie until a near fatal accident occurs in which his legs are needlessly and maliciously amputated to discourage Drake’s prospects of a life with Cassie. There is much more to this macabre melodrama, so potent and shocking that upon its release, the town of Fulton, where author Henry Bellemann grew up and on which the town of King’s Row was based, took considerable offense to both the film and Bellemann’s characterizations in the novel. Clearly, they saw more than a hint of comparison from reel to real.
61. The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Director John Cromwell’s all but forgotten masterpiece of swashbuckling adventure and palace intrigues has been made and remade a half dozen times. But, it’s David O. Selznick’s sumptuous mounting of the seemingly straight forward material that continues to hold up under close scrutiny today. Ronald Colman is cast in the dual role as Rudolph Rassendyll, distant cousin to the king of Zenda, and heir apparent, Rudolph V. On the eve of the king’s coronation his half-brother, Michael (Raymond Massey) plots a coup, one in which the king is drugged while on a hunting trip. Enter Col. Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven). Together with Colman, now impersonating the king, the three make journey to the state capital where Rassendyll is crowned, much to the chargrin of both Michael and his henchman, Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Cinematographer, James Wong Howe lenses some of the most striking and dramatic action sequences ever achieved on film. His use of the split screen process, that renders Colman as both the king and his cousin in a single frame, has rarely been put to better effect. What is particularly compelling about this version however is its bittersweet romance between Rassendyll and the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) who, of course, has no idea she has fallen in love with a commoner.
60. Vertigo (1958): Hitchcock’s sublime love affair with the city of San Francisco is the fascinating backdrop for this psychological thriller. After police detective Scottie Fergusson (James Stewart) spends time in a sanitarium for his fear of heights he is asked by an old college chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife on a retainer. It seems that the cool and aloof Madeleine (Kim Novak) suffers from bouts of memory loss – moments in which both Elster and Madeleine claim she is the victim of spiritual possession from beyond the grave. Reluctantly, Scottie pursues Madeleine as she travels from flower shop to museum to the Golden Gate Bridge, all the while starting to believe in her story and quietly falling in love with her. However, when Madeleine escapes up a staircase to the top of a bell tower, and then seemingly plunges before Scotty’s eyes to her death, the suicide forces Scotty to reevaluate the story he has been fed thus far. Hitchcock’s pacing is perhaps at its most excruciatingly methodical, generating an impatient obsession in his audience who cannot help but beg to get to the bottom of things. While the final moments of this film ultimately leave one somewhat robbed of a satisfactory conclusion, the real deal for Hitchcock on this occasion is more the investigation of the journey than its destination.
59. The Mask of Zorro (1998): There aren’t too many remakes that can take an 18th century legend (remade umpteenth times, no less) and transform it into a contemporary action film. Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) is an aging legend who has decided to retire his mask and cape on the eve that his identity is discovered by arch nemesis, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). Accidentally murdering Zorro’s wife, whom both men are in love with, Montero imprisons Zorro in the Citadel and raises Zorro’s only child, daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as his own. But the legend of Zorro is not yet ready to fade quietly into the night. After a chance meeting between the escaped Zorro and Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), the latter places his trust in tutelage of the old master to avenge both his own brother’s murder and Zorro’s reclamation of Elena. Relying on no less than six scenarists, director Martin Campbell ties together these various threads into an epic narrative that swells to its climax. It is a thrilling moment of self recognition and ultimate defeat as Zorro passes both his expertise and the future of his daughter’s happiness onto the new man in the black mask.
58. The Apartment (1960) ‘Some Like It Hot’ usually gets the nod as director, Billy Wilder’s most sublime comedy. But it’s actually this story of aspiring corporate stooge, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) with his eye on a key to the executive washroom that takes that prize. Baxter is so desperate for a chance to elevate himself at his place of work that he takes to loaning out his apartment as a sort of portable whorehouse for wayward married executives who want more than dictation from their secretaries. Baxter is romantically drawn to elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). And although he senses that Fran shares his flirtatious enthusiasm, that romantic idealism is shattered when Baxter learns that Fran and his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) are having an affair. Wilder’s film is both a critique of, and a snub at, the corporate world; a place he clearly perceives as harboring the lowest common intentions under an umbrella of faux high ideals. Eventually Fran and Baxter work through the growing pains of their auspicious romance, but it’s their proximity in failing to find one another the first time around that rings true for more than a handful of daydreamers still stuck in the steno pool.
57. Grand Hotel (1932): It was the first time a major studio had ever assembled an ensemble for a single movie. Edmund Goulding’s understated, and underrated masterpiece of lives and loves intersecting in the lobbies and private rooms of Berlin’s posh hotel remains a tour de force in glittering entertainment. Based on the novel by Vicki Baum, the film costars no less than seven of MGM’s top ranked thespians; Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel and John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt. Crawford plays a stenographer who develops a crush on a baron (John Barrymore), but ultimately sells herself in both work and trade to her employer, Preysing (Beery). Meanwhile, the baron isn’t really a baron at all, but an elegant thief who is attempting a romance with temperamental ballerina, Grushinskya (Garbo), so that he can steal her jewels. What the baron discovers during their grand amour will alter the choices he makes to his own detriment. William A. Drake’s screenplay keeps the action swiftly paced, moving from room to room and balcony to balcony without a moment to waste, but always with its purpose in mind. The overwhelming sense of tragedy that eventually develops lingers long after the final fade out.
56. Rebel Without A Cause (1955): In only his second film, James Dean managed to capture the essence of teenage frustration that helped define youth for generations to come. Dean is Jim Stark, a young man with issues, who discovers that trouble is where one finds it. On this occasion, Jim finds it in the form of slick greaser, Buzz (Corey Allen). After a switchblade confrontation, that leads to a game of chicken in which Buzz is accidentally killed, Jim and Buzz’s ex, Judy (Natalie Wood) develop along the lines of a surrogate family for the confused and mentally unstable, Plato (Sal Mineo). Two set pieces; the ‘chickie’ run and the climactic showdown at the space observatory where Plato meets an untimely fate, are justly celebrated as defining moments in the emerging youth culture. Though much of the film’s critique on emasculation of the male identity in contemporary society seems dated by today’s standards, what is perhaps most reticent about Nicholas Ray’s pop culture masterpiece is its ability to continue to connect with youth at some basic level. Dean’s method approach to Jim provides the narrowest of margins between artistic achievement and genuine frustration lurking just beneath the actor’s aloof façade. With Dean’s own untimely death in an auto accident only months after completion of this film, the old adage of art imitating life rings painfully true.
55. Chinatown (1974): The enigma that is Roman Polanski’s faux film noir is actually a romantic crime thriller with family incest thrown in for good measure. When the body of engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) washes up, private investigator, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) vows to unravel the mystery. Gittes, has been previously set up by a woman, Ida Sessions (Dianne Ladd) pretending to be Mulray’s wife. His real wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is convinced that Gittes is part of the set up. However, when Jake discovers a conspiracy between Hollis and Evelyn’s father, Noah (John Huston) to buy up desert land for low prices, then irrigate and sell it off for millions, he suspects that the interest shared by both Evelyn and Noah in the girl Mulwray was seen with has deeper meaning. This was to be Polanski’s last American film before his imposed exile in Europe to escape a rape charge. Throughout, he populates his film with desirable locations filled by unflattering and spurious characters. What ultimately emerges from his masterwork is a cinematic landscape in which anti-heroes of all shapes and sizes dismantle and taint the relatively scenic backdrop with their jealousy and dirty little secrets.
54. Terms of Endearment (1983): Director, James L. Brooks took aim at the small familial comedy/melodrama of the forties and came up with this poignant mother/daughter story of bonding under the most adverse of circumstances. After the death of her father, Emma Greenway (Debra Winger) defies her mother, the formidable Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) by marrying Flap Horton and moving away. And although Aurora does everything in her power to try and wreck her daughter’s marriage, her own blind ambitions for Emma’s happiness are sidetracked when Aurora begins a tryst with retired astronaut, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). But both lives are thrust back together when Emma learns that she has cancer. In equal and healthy portions, Terms of Endearment delivered the good laugh and the good cry that audiences found irresistible. It was a sobering, angst ridden critique for anyone who has ever considered themselves the victim of overbearing parental influence, yet, in the same breath, was glad to find that influence waiting to fall back on when the chips are down. Bring Kleenex.
53. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) An element of divine inspiration slowly emerged from Bruce Beresford’s subtle and poignant film about an aging Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) and the unlikely friendship she develops with her African-American chauffeur, Hoke (masterfully conceived by Morgan Freeman). Set in the turbulent period of pending changes in America’s race relations (1950-1970), the film begins when stalwart and staunchly independent Miss Daisy has her license and insurance revoked after an auto accident. Her son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hires Hoke to drive her around town. At first completely opposed to having one of ‘those’ people in her home, Daisy eventually comes to rely on Hoke, not only in getting her from points ‘A’ to ‘B’, but for companionship and understanding in her old age. Rarely has American cinema investigated what happens in our lives after the age of thirty. But in Beresford’s film, these experiences take center stage and considerable weight and meaning that makes the excursion not only humorous and real, but a meaningful 90 minutes of introspection into the virtues and vices of ‘the golden years.’ The metaphor of life as one continuous journey has never been more poignantly illustrated.
52. Adam’s Rib (1949) On the surface, it was the story of a distraught housewife, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), put on trial for the attempted murder of her philandering husband, Warren (Tom Ewell). But under George Cukor’s masterful direction, the film became a critique of changing social attitudes in the growing battle of the sexes. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were Amanda and Adam Bonner – a pair of legal beagles; she the defense attorney for Doris, he the proud prosecuting council. Public sparing in the courtroom eventually spills into their private lives, threatening to end a seemingly happy marriage. The film is a potpourri of memorable vignettes strung together to illustrate the prescribed absurdities of sexual discrimination; including a divine moment of comedic inspiration in which Adam, after having slapped Amanda’s bottom quite hard during a massage, receives the appropriate reciprocation from his wife with a swift kick to his shin. “Let’s all be manly,” declares Amanda. Only through comedy could Cukor have so expressively captured the frustrations of 50s sexual politics. And although Amanda ultimately wins her case, it is Adam who eventually proves that there is nothing quite as exasperating as a woman who doesn’t know her place, especially when it’s the man responsible for placing her ambitions elsewhere.
51. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) Director, Steven Spielberg captured the imagination of all ages with this fairytale steeped in the blind innocence of youth. Continuing with his deconstruction of the alien myth – all extraterrestrial life is out to get us – Spielberg and scenarist, Melissa Mathison fashioned a tale of reverse abduction. After an alien space craft accidentally forgets one of its own on our planet a troupe of young children, fronted by the curious Elliot (Henry Thomas) and precocious, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), adopt the creature as their pet, all the while unaware of the influence earth culture is having on both the alien’s life force and its well being. The first half of Spielberg’s sci-fi opus magnum is an education lesson in tolerance and understanding for both sides. Elliot discovers that his new found friend has powers beyond anything he might have expected, chiefly in his ability to heal wounds, while E.T. develops emotional response that are capable of reciprocating Elliot’s love. And although most critics have been unanimous in praise of the film as a feel good story, what has most often been overlooked in evaluation is Spielberg’s ability as a film maker to make us genuinely believe, if in nothing else, that benevolent life does perhaps exist somewhere beyond our modest solar system – at least for two hours.
50. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): From its unconventional main title sequence, celebrating the lost recesses of a child’s imagination, to the quiet rectitude with which Gregory Peck transformed a seemingly soft spoken gentleman into the very pillar of powerful masculine integrity, there was much to admire in Robert Mulligan’s graceful production. Based on the novel my Harper Lee, it was the story of a small town lawyer, Atticus Finch (Peck) and his unassuming determination to exonerate a black man, Tom Robinson (Brook Peters) from the false accusation of raping a white farm girl. What the story ultimately developed into was a seasoned critique of racial prejudice and family abuse. A subplot involving Finch’s children, Jem (Philip Alfort) and Scout (Mary Badham) and their unjustified fear and mistrust of mentally challenged neighborhood boy, Boo Hadley (Robert Duvall) only served to reinforce the story’s central theme of tolerance. Throughout the film, Peck referred to a pocket watch to keep his character on time. The watch was a studio prop, but after Harper Lee saw the film she gave the actor a time piece belonging to her late father because Atticus so reminded her of him. As an actor, Peck could have been paid no finer compliment.
49. Casino (1995): Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mob tie ins to Las Vegas is misshaped like the villainous smiles of Shakespearian senators cast on two sides of the same Roman coin - one; a glittering playground for good times and fast action; the other, a nightmarish descent into corruption unleashed. The film stars Robert DeNiro as Sam Rothstein, a hand-picked front runner for the wise guys, put in charge of one of the biggest gaming palaces on the strip, The Tangiers. Initially Sam is assigned to clean up the penny corruption of local con artists. After all, the mob can’t be the one’s getting scammed. When Sam meets Ginger (Sharon Stone) that caution is thrown to the wind in favor of a good time. Scorsese populates his cinematic landscape with a veritable who’s who, including Don Rickles, Kevin Pollack, James Woods, Dick Smothers and Alan King. Yet, what is perhaps even more unsettling than the justly remembered bludgeoning of small time hood Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), with a steel baseball bat in a remote cornfield, is the way in which the film presents its most heinous acts of vengeance as just par for the course in another glorious day on the desert strip: blackjack, anyone?
48.2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Stanley Kubrick initially approached prolific science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clark with the prospect of making “the proverbial good science-fiction movie.” Clarke suggested that Kubrick research his 1948 short story, The Sentinel that had been languishing on his bookshelf ever since it failed to even place on the shortlist in a BBC competition. And although Kubrick would borrow from The Sentinel for a brief portion of his sci-fi adventure, the bulk of the screenplay that ultimately found its way onto film was penned by the director himself. To spend the rest of this review attempting some vane cohesion between the various narrative elements seems a pointless waste of space – no pun intended - since even today, audiences and members of the sci-fi elite cannot come to terms with any complete understanding of the film. Perhaps no such understanding is required or even necessary. In the simplicity of his vision; the illustration of man’s naiveté and dangerous reliance on technology – best embodied by the murderous HAL supercomputer – and; in the film’s finale where man is brought forth to confront, both his own immortality and future embryonic state, 2001 continues to buck up against any more profound meaning beyond its stand-alone images. Perhaps in the end, Arthur Clarke put all the speculation to rest most concisely when he declared, “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” Mission accomplished.
47.Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939): Everyman, James Stewart was cast in the vein of congenial bumpkin, Jefferson Smith, to whom the concept of any wrong doing in United States government was foreign. When it is revealed to Jeff that Senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains) - a man he has always admired – is the one chiefly responsible for providing graft to greedy puppet master, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), Jeff’s first reaction is to surrender his idealism. But he thinks better of it when his cultural attaché, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), recognizing Jeff’s innate honesty, urges him into a filibuster inside the state capital. Director Frank Capra’s classy expose on Capital Hill was met with considerable animosity from real life senators and congressmen – to whom the concepts of graft and corruption were clearly not foreign. But the film was brimming to the rafters with wide-eyed optimism that burst forth in a flurry of patriotic flag waving by the final fade out. This was the sort of schmaltzy spectacle Capra not only perfected, but specialized in before the war, and it carried quite a wallop. Today, in our postmodern zeal toward cynicism, much of the story seems maudlin and cliché; a rather telling reminder of how little wide-eyed optimism remains.
46. Pulp Fiction (1994): Quentin Tarantino’s true calling as a director topped out with this eclecticism of four genres; crime, thriller, black comedy and action. An enthralling patchwork of stories, only at the end of which one becomes aware as to how it all fits together, the film was a potpourri for cameo star appearances, made pointedly raw by screenwriters, Tarantino and Roger Avery’s decided disregard for the niceties. In totem, the plot concerned two hit men, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson). They have been assigned by their crime boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to liquidate several former associates. What remains paramount in one’s recollection of the film is not how each of the parts comes together as one complete film in the end, but how each vignette functions independently as its own mini-movie. John Travolta’s career was literally resurrected from oblivion with his role as Vincent. If the film does have one vignette that stands out more than the rest, it is probably the one in which Vincent is forced to save Marcellus’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) from a drug overdose by thrusting a needle full of adrenaline into her heart. After that, every theater attendee’s adrenaline level was elevated.
45. Judgment At Nuremberg (1961): A fictionalized account of the famed post war trials that occurred in Germany, Stanley Kramer’s gift for extolling a sense of immediacy and tradition, help to make this film one of the all time great bits of Hollywood propaganda. Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is assigned to oversee the proceedings, not so much became he is the right man for the job, as he seems to be the only man willing to take a critical look at the material presented before him. Haywood is asked to sit in judgment of four German judges who presided over crimes against humanity. Compassionate lead council, prosecutor, Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and defense attorney, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) seem to have definite ideas as to the spectrum of innocence or guilt that should be prescribed. But Haywood is more interested in the judges as men than as judges. Of particular interest is, Dr. Ernest Janning (Burt Lancaster), in whose political texts and past speech writing Haywood perceives a man, more victim than perpetrator. Kramer stockpiled his courtroom melodrama with a cavalcade of stars, including Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich, the latter portraying the wife of a deceased high ranking Nazi official in whose former home Judge Haywood currently resides. For the most part it was high drama delivered through top notch performances, marred only by the occasional heavy-handed degeneration into melodramatic tripe.
44. Tombstone (1993): Yet another retelling of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday last days of gun smoke and glory at the O.K. Corral, director, George P. Cosmatos’s film touches on many of the central themes that have been made justly famous before. Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) arrives in the town of Tombstone with his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) and their wives, after cleaning up the rambunctious Dodge City. Content to let their reputations as law men fade, Wyatt’s ultimate respect for the law is tested once more, when Curly Bill Broscius (Powers Boothe), accuse the Earps and their outlaw/gambler associate Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) of interfering with their illegal operations. Quietly eschewing a major historical fact; that the Earps were tried but acquitted of a botched Wells Fargo robbery that they may or may not have committed – the film treads the familiar tumbleweed of clear cut good vs. unmitigated evil. What is particularly engaging about Cosmato’s direction and the screenplay by Kevin Jarre is how both ably humanize the clichés back into characters, miraculously transforming legends into flesh and blood, making Earp and Holliday’s friendship ever so much more compelling than heroic to watch.
43. Howards End (1992): Merchant Ivory’s intercontinental joint venture with Columbia Pictures is an investigation into the malignancy of class distinction in Edwardian England. Based on E.M Forester’s novel, the film concerns itself with the Schlegel sisters, Helen (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Margaret (Emma Thompson). Helen has fallen in love with the youngest son of an affluent English family, the Wilcoxes. But this short lived romance leads to greater complications for patriarch, Henry (Anthony Hopkins) when first wife, Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) dies. She has left part of the family estate, a cottage known as Howards End, to Margaret, whom she befriended the summer before. Unable to see his way clear in allowing any member of a class beneath his own to reside at the cottage, Henry acts as house hunter for Margaret and Helen. What he discovers is that Margaret is a lady of quality. Soon afterward, he proposes marriage. Margaret accepts. However, Margaret comes to understand Henry’s innate mistrust of the lower class when it is revealed that he had an affair with, then prostitute, Jacky Bast (Nicola Duffett), who, in the interim has been legitimized in marriage to lowly bank clerk, Leonard (Samuel West), who, in turn, is responsible for getting Helen pregnant. Such fare could have easily degenerated into soap opera. But under the nimble direction of James Ivory, Howards End emerged as sublime paradox; where culture and class do not necessary go hand in hand, and money is rarely the great leveler to truth.
42. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946): In his first post war production, director Frank Capra alienated audiences with this somber tale of simple man, George Bailey (James Stewart) who, after being driven to attempt suicide, is provided the great gift of being able to see what life would have been like if he had never been born. By now, It’s A Wonderful Life is a perennial holiday and television favorite. But at the time of its release the film found indifference at the box office and shortsightedness from its critics; a genuine shame. For in this film we, as an audience, have been given the rarest opportunity to vicariously reevaluate private failings and conceptualize the consequences of ending it all. James Stewart’s performance as the perennial every man at the end of his rope, is both heartbreaking and genuine. In the moments following his initial confrontation with Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) we see George’s mind eagerly at work, believing that the hoax, however elaborately conceived, has been worth the effort. But it is the more stark and bitter realization of knowing that no man lives in a vacuum, and that the impact of George’s life, or void thereof, has destroyed so many that were enriched by his presence, that eventually leads one to coincide with the film’s most gloriously satisfying conclusion; that no man is a failure who has friends.
41. The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1947): Rarely have elements of the supernatural been seamlessly integrated into the fabric of melodrama as on this compelling occasion, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Widow, Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves into the remote lighthouse with her young daughter. Almost from the start she is haunted by the salty ghost of a sea captain, Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Gregg’s first attempt is to scare Lucy back to town. But her defiant will to stay in his former home so captivates him that the two quickly become close friends. However, when the captain discovers that his relationship is preventing Lucy from living her own life, a life he is unable to romantically share with her because he is not mortal, Gregg implants the thought in Lucy while she sleeps that he has been nothing more than a figment of her imagination. The years pass quietly. Eventually, the captain returns to find his former love, old and ill. Calling to Lucy in her sleep once more, she awakens to discover herself the youthful woman she was when first they met, and turning to acknowledge her former self, now quite dead in the chair she takes the captain’s arm, her one true love, and departs into the unknown recesses behind heaven’s door. As the captain, Rex Harrison was a startling presence. Gene Tierney, who often was cast as a stilted American beauty, emerged as the most resplendent glowing creature of the silver screen. The film, a huge financial success, was remade for television in 1968. It proved to be a miserable bomb.
40. Stagecoach (1939): John Ford’s passionate road trip by horse and carriage became a journey of self discovery for nine total strangers traveling across the forgotten landscape of Monument Valley. The relatively simple trip is complicated when dispatches suggest an Indian war party, headed by Geronimo is on the move. Producer Walter Wanger balked at Ford’s insistence on casting John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Wayne’s career as a leading man had stalled after Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail – a disastrous flop. However, the producer eventually caved to Ford’s demand, allowing Wayne his first successful starring role in an A-list movie. The rest of the cast was rounded out by stellar performances from Claire Trevor (as the hard edged woman of the world, Dallas), John Carradine (as the spurious nobleman, Hatfield) and Thomas Mitchell (as alcoholic, Doc Boone). In the eleventh hour, the local Navajo Indians, recast as Apache in the film, storm the stagecoach from all sides. As an interesting aside; Stagecoach is notorious in its usage of a trick device called the Running W; it trips a horse in mid-gallop, catching the animal totally unawares. Unfortunately, more than a handful of horses had to be destroyed because their limbs became badly broken or mangled by the device. When asked, years later, as to why the Indians simply did not shoot the horses to recapture the stagecoach, Ford glibly replied, “Because that would have been the end of the movie.”
39. The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Orson Welles needed money to launch a stage version of ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ Columbia boss, Harry Cohn wanted Welles to do a picture for him. Both got what they wanted and then some with this moody film noir based upon the novel ‘If I Die Before I Wake.’ Originally intended as a B-movie, the hiring of Rita Hayworth for the lead made the film an A-list feature that Welles deplored almost from the moment he agreed to make it. Hayworth, then Welles’ wife, had hoped to rekindle a spark in their waning marriage, but to no avail. Welles had Hayworth’s trademark red tresses dyed blonde and cut short without Cohn’s consent. These alterations to Columbia’s number one glamour girl were ill received. In the film, Welles played Michael O’Hara, a sailor who finds himself the unwilling accomplice to a murder after he meets up with Elsa Bannister – the lady from Shanghai (Hayworth). Elsa’s husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane) is a sadistic cripple whose voyeuristic streak delights in taunting Elsa and Michael into a lover’s triangle. When Welles showed his rough cut to Cohn, the old mogul didn’t understand the greatness set before him. After banishing Welles from the studio, Cohn hacked into his masterpiece with all the tact and sensitivity of a buzz saw – distilling two and half hours into a ninety minute programmer that failed to earn back its money at the box office. Despite the excisions, Welles vision emerges in fits and sparks, and the story, no less appealing than most film noir classics of its vintage, is today regarded as one of the high points in the genre.
38. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968): There is something excruciatingly thrilling about the laconic mounting anticipation at the start of Sergio Leone’s masterful epic. With this film, Leone’s particular brand of international fame – liquidated into perfunctory snap analysis as ‘the spaghetti western’ came of age. Charles Bronson headlined as Harmonica, a mysterious stranger who joins forces with the disreputable, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to protect widow, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) from Frank (Henry Fonda) the man responsible for murdering the rest of her family, including two helpless children. Fonda was working against type, but so radiant was his characterization that few could deny an underlying sense of evil emanating from his stoic façade. In a film of few words, Leone filled the vast expanses of his Panavison screen with a robust visual splendor. Ennio Morricone’s brooding score greatly enhanced, what might otherwise have been a dull 165 minutes into a sublime celebration of the timeless grandeur of the old west, so towering and passionate that it tended to dwarf any and all action set before it.
37.Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs (1937): When Walt Disney announced to the trades that animation would no longer be confined to short subjects he was met with as much public indifference as outright cynical rejection to the proposed project. Borrowing from his own life insurance policy on a gamble few believed had merit Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs disproved every unwritten law in Hollywood filmmaking. It was both a critical and financial dynamo and earned a special Oscar for film achievement that was copied in miniature seven times and presented to Disney at the prestigious awards banquet by a pint sized Shirley Temple, who could barely contain her enthusiasm; “Don’t they look so bright and shiny, Mr. Disney?” The story, that of a lonely young girl (voiced by Adrianna Caselotti), besot by a wicked villainess but destined to marry her Prince Charming (Harry Stockwell), became the prototype for turning time honored fairytales into box office gold at the studio. The songs by Frank Churchill, including Heigh-ho and Someday My Prince Will Come have since become instantly recognizable and forever cemented Disney’s commitment to using music in his films. And while the artistry of animation on this occasion does not perhaps rival later efforts, such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty there is, after all, something to be said about being first.
36.Dances With Wolves (1990): Civil war Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is a renaissance man. After defying a suicide mission, Dunbar is given his choice of commissions as payment for his act of bravery by the army. What he chooses for himself is to discover the west. Weaned on stories of Indian savagery, Dunbar’s first encounter with natives, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Wind In His Hair (Rodney A Grant) is met by apprehension on both sides. But when Dunbar rescues the distraught white woman, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) who has been converted as a member of the Sioux and is grieving the loss of her Sioux husband by attempting suicide, the tribe repays him with the very great honor of a chance to partake in their buffalo hunt. The scope and depth with which Costner allowed the myth of ‘the savage’ to unravel, was both pointedly clear and poignantly executed. One had a sense of the grandeur of forgotten times in Costner’s conviction to allow lengthy portions of the film’s running time to pass without a single word of English dialogue, or dialogue of any kind for that matter. In the end, Orion, the studio funding his project balked and released the film as a three hour epic. Costner’s director’s cut came later to the home video market; one hour and ten minutes longer.
35. The Asphalt Jungle (1950): John Huston’s movie about a bank job gone wrong remains the granddaddy of all heist flicks. A dark and decidedly uncharacteristic film to emerge from MGM (a studio known for its high gloss and glamour), the story concerned parolee, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe). Barely out of prison, Doc conceives of the plan for a new bank job, one that requires a front man, some financial backing and a couple of hired guns. He turns to ‘legitimate’ business and council man, Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern), whose connections to the underworld have helped place him at the top of the totem poll. He also hires some washed out muscle in the form of Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). What is particularly admirable about Huston’s take is his handling of the various hoods that front for the job. The film explores their motivation behind the crime rather than assuming an underlying recklessness that is inherently bad from the start. Dix’s ambition is to regain control of his family’s farm that had fallen into receivership. After the heist goes horribly awry he stumbles to his car with only one goal in mind; to die on what was once his own soil. Often aspired to, but never entirely revived, The Asphalt Jungle remains the penultimate steely-eyed crime thriller, with a decidedly raw underbelly and weak head.
34.Schindler’s List (1993): There are those who will read this list and think that this opus magnum of all holocaust films deserves a much higher ranking. Oh well, let them try and form their own lists. Relying on elements of historical record and more than an ounce of fiction, Steven Spielberg’s account of those terrible years in Poland during WWII is a culmination of all previous exercises in his film making tenure, given their full and undulated freedom to reign supreme. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a roguish playboy who initially latches onto the idea of starting a manufacturing plant that employs Jewish laborers for pure profit. What he ends up doing, thanks to his bookkeeper Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) is saving as many Jewish men, women and children from their certain annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. Along the way Oskar rediscovers his own humanity that allows him to make recompense with his estranged wife, Emilie (Caroline Goodall) and come to the realization that his was an honorable pursuit to serve and protect those who had no other voice to speak in their defense. Except for the film’s bookends and the sudden appearance of a young girl streaking through the city in a lurid pink coat during the evacuation of the ghettos, the rest of the film was brilliantly conceived in black and white – often sumptuous, sometimes starkly contrasted – but always with a sense firmly planted in achieving maximum effect in its faux realism.
33. When Harry Met Sally (1989): Screenwriter Norma Ephron’s take on the virtues and vices of dating in the Big Apple is a robust cornucopia of cute meets and joyous defeats. Under Rob Reiner’s adept direction, this modest little saga of two people destined to wind up in each other’s arms developed much more weight and poignancy than was actually in the writing. So too was the casting of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the film’s central protagonists, Harry Burns and Sally Albright inspired. For in Ryan’s vulnerability and Crystal’s glib devil-may-care attitude there emerged something of a celebration of the sparing all romantic couples in films have undoubtedly gone through, though few ever to such riotous effect. Harry and Sally first meet on a road trip after graduation. She finds his “men and women can’t be friends” philosophy sexist. He thinks she is frigid and a prude. Upon their arrival in New York the two part company, never expecting to see one another again. However, after several years, and more than several break ups the two accidentally reunite and become friends. What is clear from the onset of this second meeting is that Harry is now the one more uncomfortable and rigid with developing any relationship, while Sally clearly craves something more lasting than her usual six month tenures in romance. Reiner’s insertion of several vignettes in which older couples talk sincerely about how they first met, lent an air of timelessness to this otherwise timely bit romantic comedy.
32. L.A. Confidential (1997): Director Curtis Hanson’s investigative prowess was working on considerable overtime in this taut detective thriller, concerned with a series of brutal murders and police corruption. Oscar nominated, rarely seen, but slowly gaining in reputation as a finely crafted bit of American cinema, the film follows the exploits of three Los Angeles police officers. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is all show. He prefers the company of moguls and starlets to his fellow officers. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce), the son of a decorated officer is determined to make detective before thirty-five by any and all means at his disposal. Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe), having come from an abusive childhood, has pledged himself to the salvation of woman in distress; Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). All three officers, through an ingenious set of interwoven circumstances, come to investigate the comings and goings of one, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn); an upscale pimp running a high class brothel where girls have been given plastic surgery to resemble famous movie star. What is unclear to any of the officers until it is almost too late is how Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and district attorney Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) fit into their investigation. James Ellroy’s gritty novel was completely realized by Brian Helgeland’s hard hitting screenplay. The film was nominated for Best Picture – but in a year dominated by the overwhelming hype over James Cameron’s Titanic it never stood a chance.
31.Places In The Heart (1984): Robert Benton’s old-fashioned story of Southern housewife, Edna Spalding (Sally Fields) who is suddenly forced to keep body and soul together during the Great Depression after her husband is murdered, presented audiences with the sort of solid character-driven classical Hollywood narrative that had been absent from the big screen for quite some time. The film excelled in its quiet moments of introspection. From Edna being forced to take in a blind man, Mr. Will (John Malkovich), to her unorthodox acquiescence in hiring African-American farm hand, Moze (Danny Glover) to helm her production of cotton Places In The Heart divested itself of almost every permissible pop culture cliché and expectation from 80s cinema and still came up a winner. Audiences were sold by Field’s genuine heart felt performance. Lindsay Crouse was in it too, as Edna’s sister Margaret Lomax, who discovers that her husband, Wayne (Ed Harris) is having an affair with the town’s school teacher, Viola (Amy Madigan). About midway through this otherwise tender character study, a spectacular cyclone levels half the town, forcing survivors to reassess the error of their ways and reflect upon the grander themes of what is life for and all about?
30. Fatal Attraction (1987): What possible trouble could a happily married man get into when his wife goes away for the weekend? Adrian Lyne’s film suggested that it was every man’s fantasy to have a mistress, but every man’s worst nightmare to discover that his girl on the side was both psychotic and pregnant. Today it looks like melodramatic cliché but for its day, Fatal Attraction trod some particularly tawdry ground in an unexpectedly cheap and tawdry way. Michael Douglas was top billed as Dan Gallagher, married to Beth (Anne Archer) but not above indulging in a little badinage with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). The weekend Dan and Alex spend together is uninhibitedly exciting. But it comes with residual responsibilities; ones that Alex is determined Dan will live up to. Originally, Lyne wanted an ending where a guilt-ridden and completely mad Alex slices her own throat with a kitchen knife, but not before she scatters evidence to suggest that Dan is her murderer. The final shot was to be that of the police hauling Dan off to prison. Paramount balked at this understated conclusion and had Lyne piece together a bit of nonsense that culminated with Dan and Beth killing Alex in self defense. When it was released, feminists denounced the film as masochistic tripe; suggesting that because Alex worked for a living and was pregnant at the time Beth shot her, that the film cast unflattering light on all women who preferred careers to home and family – at least until the chips were down; an absurd notion at best.
29. Sunset Boulevard (1950): Upon attending the premiere of Billy Wilder’s classic exploitation piece of faded glamour, L.B. Mayer reportedly rushed from the theater angrily shouting at Wilder, “How could you do that?” His rage is perhaps best understood when one considers how Hollywood until the 1950s had always maintained its squeaky clean image and good natured façade. To the outside world, Hollywood was a land of dreams. But Wilder’s film plays it for more of what it actually was, a terrible nightmare, populated by undesirable characters and, more importantly, with no grand illusions about a happy ending. The film brought Gloria Swanson out of retirement and gave new lease to William Holden’s sagging career. Holden is Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who finds himself accidentally stranded at Norma Desmond’s (Swanson) gothic mansion. Though he starts off being too proud to accept Norma’s gifts or money, she eventually employs Joe as both her ghost writer and kept man. Norma’s maniacal need to possess Joe leads to a corrosive split; one in which Joe is murdered by his aged sugar mama, now completely gone over the edge. Wilder cast Swanson’s ex-husband washed up Viennese director, Eric Von Stroheim as Norma’s husband in the film, reduced to the status of her butler, Max. For some, including Mayer, the verisimilitude apparently hit a little too close to home.
28. Raging Bull (1980) Director Martin Scorsese managed to capture more than a glimmer of sadness in retelling the decidedly unglamorous life and career of boxer Jake LaMotta. After an evocative bit of sparing in the ring, the film jolts us to LaMotta circa 1980 – a fat, undesirable and washed up nightclub performer preparing for a repertoire of one line witticisms. In an era usually dedicated to the deification of sports figures, Scorsese gambled on a down beat movie shot almost entirely in black and white. As LaMotta, Robert DeNiro underwent a startling transformation – engaging in a rigid exercise regime to bulk up for the first half of the movie, then gaining forty plus pounds to portray his out of shape alter ego. Virtually unstoppable in the ring, LaMotta behind the scene – his manic bouts with depression and fits of violence - these were honestly explored with the real LaMotta’s complicity. For several scenes the former fisticuffs champion even instructed Scorsese to make the film more unflattering and violent, admitting to the director, “I was a bastard.” Upon its release, Raging Bull was largely overlooked by audiences. And although DeNiro took home the best actor Oscar for his masterful performance, it has taken the film nearly twenty-years to develop an appreciation worthy of its considerable artistry.
27. All About Eve (1950) Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed this adroit black comedy – all about a menagerie of backstage friendships, some fair-weather, others legit, intertwined around diva, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Margo is a neurotic middle age thespian, as popular as ever with her audiences, but trapped into playing twenty-something parts written for her by playwright, Lloyd Richard (Hugh Marlowe). Lloyd’s wife, Karen (Celeste Holm) is Margo’s best friend and the one responsible for introducing her to the venomous Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter). Eve is out to destroy Margo and Karen’s friendship and install herself as the next great lady of the American theater. At first no one but Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter) seems to notice what’s going on. Slowly, Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill) also gets a clue. But it’s unscrupulous poison penned columnist, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) who finally unravels the truth behind Eve, and is it a whopper. Mankiewicz’s writing and direction builds on inside jokes, generating a colossal jolt of realization for the audience. Margo’s proclamation of “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” sets the tone early on for what follows; an acidic, acerbic and ultimately satisfying film experience.
26. High Noon (1952): Fred Zinnemann’s revisionist western was a tour de force of economy and stark realism. It starred Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane. On the day that Will is set to marry Quaker, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and resign his commission as town sheriff, he is told of the return of three men whom he sent to prison. Knowing that these desperadoes will most likely kill him as part of their revenge if he stays, Will’s sense of duty to the town’s people precludes him from running away. But what Will discovers is that the town is unwilling to stand up for itself. Men to whom he had pledged both law and order refuse to take their place by his side, forcing Will to go it alone in the film’s climactic showdown. As Will’s one time mistress, Helen Ramirez, Katy Jurado delivered a performance of quiet intensity that proved a perfect counterbalance to Kelly’s purity as Amy. The rest of the cast was fleshed out by stellar turns from Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan and Lon Chaney Jr. – for once free of his usual monster’s garb. Zinnemann’s anti-establishment message is pointedly clear when Will, after emerging from the deluge of gunfire bloody but triumphant, tosses his silver sheriff’s star into the dust, symbolically ridding himself of both his responsibilities and the town’s folk forever. Do not forsake this one, oh my darling.
25. How Green Was My Valley (1941): For me, it is an impossibility to get through John Ford’s classic saga of this Welsh coal mining family without shedding tears. Based on Richard Llewellyn’s best seller, the story concerned itself with the Morgan clan, helmed by a benevolent, if outwardly stern patriarch (Donald Crisp). A quiet character study of small town small mindedness, the film charts an unrequited romance that develops between the Morgan’s only daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) and the town’s minister, Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pigeon). However, when the son of the town’s only factory proposes, Angharad is quietly forced into a loveless marriage – one that ends in rumors, scandal and divorce. For the rest of this unusually plot rich family saga, there was also the loss of eldest son, Ivor (Patric Knowles) in a fatal mining accident to contend with, as well as the near demise of the family’s matriarch (Sarah Allgood) and youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell) when both nearly drown by falling through the ice. Ultimately, John Ford imbued his masterpiece with a sense of decline in family solidarity that, while tragic, was ideally suited to the contemporary crisis taking place in Europe. Years later, when asked by the AFI as to which film he would most like to have his cannon of work remembered by, Ford – who was primarily known for his work in the western genre - chose How Green Was My Valley instead; a most fitting and lofty hiccup in an otherwise remarkable career.
24.North By Northwest (1959): Hithcock’s ultimate ‘wrong man’ picture was a shiny little babble that effectively rounded out the director’s stylish 50s tenure with a bang. Cary Grant played Roger Thornhill, a Madison Ave. advertising executive who is unfortunately mistaken to be George Caplan, a ghost FBI agent who actually does not exist. After being forced at gunpoint to a country estate inhabited by Philip Van Damme (James Mason), and nearly murdered in the process, Roger decides to take matters into his own hands and investigate who George Caplan really is. Along the way he meets Eve Kendal (Eva Marie Saint). But is she really on his side or a plant for the baddies? Ernest Lehman’s screenplay kept everyone guessing. Interspersed with this troubled romance there were marvelous set pieces; one in which Grant is pursued across a baron stretch of farmland by a machine gunning crop duster, another - the faux murder of Roger inside the tourist bureau next to Mount Rushmore. And then, there was the climax. Prevented from shooting on the actual monument, MGM recreated a full scale model of the famed landmark and devised a series of stunning matte paintings to add depth and scope to the harrowing trek across the Presidential faces. It was a high point for all concerned and a resounding success at the box office.
23. It Happened One Night (1934): Frank Capra’s road trip was shot on a shoe-string budget at the behest of Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, who frankly, was not at all convinced such a film could succeed at the box office. But Cohn had faith in Capra’s abilities as a director, so much that he used his clout to sway the loan out of Clark Gable (who had been put on suspension at MGM) to play the part of newspaper rascal, Peter Warne. Because Columbia was a second tier studio, the assignment for Gable was perceived as a punishment. Meanwhile, Claudette Colbert flat out refused to do the film. Only after Capra promised her a short shooting schedule – in and out in time to make her planned vacation to Sun Valley - did she agree to the part of Ellie Andrews. Upon completion she telephoned a friend, claiming “I’ve just finished the worst picture of my career.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The chemistry between Gable and Colbert was undeniable and, with a plot that moved like gangbusters; all about a spoiled heiress (Colbert) and her sudden and mutual attraction to a cub reporter (Gable), It Happened One Night achieved critical and box office success virtually overnight. When it came time for Oscars; Gable, Colbert and Capra all took home statuettes. Worst picture, indeed.
22. Mildred Pierce (1945): To some it must have seemed foolhardy folly on Jack Warner’s part to hire Joan Crawford for the lead in this much publicized murder mystery. Crawford’s appeal at the box office had slipped to the extent where L.B. Mayer felt she could no longer command a starring role. Yet, as the harried matriarch whose singular ambition it is to give her devious daughter every possible luxury, Crawford excelled as nobody – least of all Mayer – could have expected. Aspects of lesbianism, as well as the exploration of family incest depicted in the James M. Cain novel were entirely removed from the film as per censorship of the day, leaving the lover’s triangle between Mildred (Crawford), her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and Monty (Zachary Scott) a tad emasculated, though nevertheless loaded with noir-ish twists and turns that proved both potent and irresistible. Resident Warner buffoon, Jack Carson, was in it too as Mildred’s disreputable agent who wants more than ten percent of the profits from his investment. Under Michael Curtiz’s direction the film’s appeal proved galvanic at the box office and earned Crawford her one and only Best Actress Oscar. To paraphrase an old Mae West quote, “to err is human, but on this occasion it felt simply divine.”
21. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944): Sally Benson’s Kensington Stories about the quintessential teenager in love were at the crux of this timeless musical film. Esther Smith (Judy Garland) resides in her fashionable St. Louis family home with two sisters – the rambunctious, if slightly psychotic Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and eldest, Rose (Lucille Bremer), her mother (Mary Astor), father (Leon Ames), brother Lon (Henry Daniels) and sage old grandfather (Henry Davenport). Chief to Esther’s well being is to get better acquainted with the handsome ‘boy next door’ (Tom Drake). And although the film doesn’t take that long for everyone to get acquainted, the family is thrust into crisis when the father’s law firm announces they are sending him to New York City for good. Vincente Minnelli’s experimental use of Technicolor and his adamancy to having a street of turn of the century homes specially built for the movie were both challenges that almost didn’t get past MGM’s front office. In the end, he got his way. Both proved essential to the film’s resounding success. The score by Martin and Blaine added two lasting classics to our collective repertoire of memories; The Trolley Song and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, both sung by Garland, the latter so poignantly and with such longing for a simpler time, that I suspect Tootie was not the only one listening in the theater who had tears in her eyes. L.B. Mayer’s studio commitment to family entertainment rarely achieved such heights.
20. Rebecca (1940): Alfred Hitchcock’s entrée into American films is a contemporary Jane Eyre; complete with winsome trapped heroine (Joan Fontaine), brooding man about town, Maxim (Lawrence Olivier) and a housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) that is to die for; that is, unless she kills you first. Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, on who Hitch would rely once again nearly forty years later when producing The Birds, this film at first slinks along the route of a convention romantic melodrama. But then the happy couple returns to Manderly, that strong silent estate, proudly clinging to the English moors and hiding its dark little secret just long enough to unravel all dreams for domesticity by the sea. In the book, Maxim DeWinter has indeed killed his first wife, the haughty and exclusive Rebecca. But of course, Hollywood’s prevailing censorship would not permit such a scenario on screen. And although Hitchcock and producer, David O. Selznick eventually worked out an ingenious little twist that kept audiences happy, Selznick – a stickler for the purity of any literary adaptation – was not particularly pleased. In the end he really had nothing to complain about. The film one the Best Picture Oscar, making Selznick International Studios two for two; having won the previous year for Gone With The Wind.
19. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): The film that introduced us to respected archeologist cum fortune hunter, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) catapults its audience into the forgotten recesses of childhood imagination. Like a sprinkle of pixie dust from Tinker Bell’s wings, the world outside seems to melt into the darkened cobweb-ridden corners of an ancient Mayan temple, or is swept under the forbidden sands of a fossilized dig that mankind was never intended to discover. On this occasion, the race for time is predicated on the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant; the final resting place for the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Whoever possesses the ark will command an army that can dominate the world. Naturally, the Nazis just have to have it. Director, Steven Spielberg was by this point in his career, well versed in the art of creating fantasy. But to find his prowess also firmly planted in a story of considerable depth and originality was both refreshing and overall thoroughly satisfying. We ride the film to its inevitable ‘good triumphing over evil’ conclusion – rooting loudly for the hero and booing equally as loud for its cavalcade of stealthy villains. In the end, the journey comes full circle, as the reeling car of an amusement ride. But it’s only after the final credits the audience recognizes that they have remained seated with their arms and legs inside the car at all times.
18. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): It is impossible to set aside one’s own appetite for liver and onions without remembering the good Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and his affinity for whatever else might be on the menu. Jonathan Demme’s sadistic little film about a cannibal psychiatrist who aids fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in her pursuit of a copycat killer is at once mentally disturbing, physically upsetting yet strangely compelling; like a car crash one is privy to but not a part of. The story is seen through Clarice’s eyes; her unrelenting drive to become a criminologist; her fearful desire to be rid of hidden childhood trauma; and her hopelessly flawed relationships with the two men in her life; Hannibal and her boss, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). For the next two hours we are riveted in our seats with our eyes forced wide open, gazing upon the twisted machinations of a sadistic brute that oddly enough, we come to like. In the end, goodness prevails – at least on the surface. But it’s the film’s disturbing resonance upon exiting the theater that has us looking over our shoulders as we make our way out of the parking lot. After that, fava beans and Chianti just don’t seem to go together.
17. Amadeus (1984): Peter Shaffer’s screenplay is about two people who in real life never actually met; the gifted musical protégée reconstructed as oafish punster, Wolfgang Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the ravenous court composer with daggers in his heart, Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Throughout the better half of this epic with music, Salieri employs his oily charm to ingratiate and attach his envy to that talent he most admires yet cannot help but despise. Milos Forman’s direction is a miracle of methodical pacing. Yet, what emerges from this three hour movie are carefully constructed character studies with a sense of decay and deterioration about the antechambers and great halls; an almost prolific moral chiding to anyone whose inner pomposity outweighs their formidable talent. And that laugh…that haunted, cackle from beyond the grave that reminds of vanity’s failed attempts at immortality, and mediocrity’s likewise entrapment inside a craft that only covets the very best of the best.
16. Now Voyager (1942): Bette Davis’ autonomy at Warner Bros. placed her in the unique and enviable position to choose her own material. Quite often the topics she chose to enact were considered less than those Jack Warner thought befitted a star. However, given Davis’ almost clairvoyant ability to accurately choose films that ultimately made money, Warner acquiesced to almost any request the actress made. In Now Voyager, Davis plays spinster aunt, Charlotte Vale, a woman so demoralized and emotionally dismantled by her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper), that by the time she encounters the kindly Dr. Jacquith (Claude Raines) she is on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown. Unafraid to appear on camera as initially unattractive, the transformation of Charlotte, from uni-browed heavy-set spinster to glamorous vixen was made all the more miraculous by Davis’ ability to play both the backward gamin and forthright woman of the world with complete conviction. Leading man, Viennese actor, Paul Henreid forever altered the chemistry of romantic lovers by lighting two cigarettes with one potent flame, passing one to his unattainable paramour. When it was all over, Davis had another hit and Warner had more money that he could have anticipated. But audiences were the real winners; they have had the best reason to break out the Kleenex ever since.
15. Tootsie (1982): Can an unemployed actor find his true calling in a slip and red sequined gown? According to director, Sydney Pollack, the answer was most emphatically yes. Unlike most drag movies, which zero in on the fish out of water gimmick and play up the awkwardness of a man attempting to assume the role of the fairer sex, Tootsie aims at loftier ambitions of critiquing the imposed shortcomings of being a woman in a male-dominated social structure. In the role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, Dustin Hoffman’s sexual assimilation became both commendable and acceptable. Half way through the film, one is apt to forget that Dorothy is really a guy wearing a push up and heavy foundation. In an interview conducted for the AFI, Hoffman confided a personal realization that occurred for him while making the film; that in his early years as an actor he very often was unable to see any women’s potential beyond her physical beauty, “That was never a comedy for me.”
14. Mrs. Miniver (1942): Sited by Winston Churchill as being more effective in getting American involvement in WWII than a fleet of battleships, Mrs. Miniver was the penultimate wartime weepy about a resilient English housewife (Greer Garson) quietly enduring hardships on the home front. During this tenure she proudly stands by as both her husband, Clem (Walter Pigeon) and son, Vin (Richard Ney) go off to fight. But all is not quiet. After discovering a downed German bomber in her garden, and turning him over to the authorities, the lady of the house uses her formidable charm to convince a stoic matron, Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) that Beldon’s daughter Carol (Teresa Wright) would be an ideal wife for her son. Performing the delicate balancing act between romanticism, patriotism and impending global disaster, director, William Wyler managed to stave off the urge to indulge any such notions that war is glamorous, while retaining enough schmultz and kitsch that kept most gruesome aspects of hand to hand combat at bay. In the end, one comes equipped with the sense that both Kleenex and a copy of the Bible are needed. Military recruitment went through the roof and the film justly took home the Best Picture Oscar.
13. Psycho (1960): Oddly enough, this film often falls under the classification of horror at one’s local video retailer. In actuality, it is a melodramatic thriller that introduced the age of the serial killer embodied in the every man. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, the screenplay from Joseph Stefano veers away in its conceptualization of the serial killer, as a pudgy middle aged loaner, to the seemingly congenial and unassuming all-American good looks of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The cast was rounded out by concerned Vera Miles (Lila Crane), stoic Martin Balsam (Sam Loomis) and handsome John Gavin, as the lover of ill-fated Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a thief who discovers that not even a hot shower will be able to cleanse away her sins. Director, Alfred Hitchcock turned his back on a decade’s worth of stylish big budget film making, using the same crew responsible for his weekly television series to lens this feature. Reportedly, Hitch’ placed various prototypes of ‘mother’ in Leigh’s dressing room to discern by her screams which one should ultimately be used in the film. During the defining set piece of Marion’s brutal murder, a kitchen knife was thrust into a ripe melon to achieve the proper tone of metal slicing through flesh. The resulting film was an effective bit of the macabre, peppered with an unrelenting sense of foreboding doom emanating from that gothic house on the hill.
12. Star Wars (1977): A near fatal car accident set the path of director, George Lucas on a high plain of ambitious film making. Inspired by the art of science fiction, Lucas soon discovered that the genre was viewed as so low brow in Hollywood that no studio would even consider an investment in his intergalactic fairytale. After all, the concept of a light saber toting youth doing battle with a tall man in a black cape and plastic mask must have sounded rather childish and risky. But Lucas did eventually convinced Fox to partake in his dream venture, thanks in part to his considerable success on American Graffiti. Assuming the project would die fast and hard, Fox relinquished all merchandising rights and creative control to Lucas; an oversight I am certain studio executives are still kicking themselves over today. For beyond the tackiness of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) braided Danish hairdo, Star Wars proved unequivocally that audiences did indeed have a yen for outer space adventure. To be sure, Lucas was working under a tight budget, but with an inspired cast. In recent years he has taken it upon himself to decide that, although a pop cultural icon, the original film could stand some tweaking. Arguably, insertions of digital effects and background scenery have not damaged the film’s reputation. But in light of the movie’s lasting appeal, Lucas’ alterations seem a moot point, for there was nothing about that galaxy far, far away that needed improvement.
11. Lawrence of Arabia (1962): David Lean’s most celebrated film is an enigma. For without the enormous concave expanses of Panavision being projected inside a darkened theater, the film’s illusory aura is as fleeting as a mirage. The characters are starkly wrought stereotypes loosely based on history; the passionate peasant with a learned mind, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif); the lustful sheik with a darker purpose, Auda (Anthony Quinn) and the emasculated intellectual, Prince Feisel (Alec Guinness) who is shamed by a people unwilling to see beyond the immediacy of tomorrow. Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence was inspired casting; for there is something that goes beyond into the realm of the haunted in the parallel physical shape and coloring of these two men. But the real star of this four hour epic is the desert. Lean holds his long shots on the screen until the sweep and grandeur of those magnificent sand caps and outcroppings of craggy rock work their hypnotic magic on an audience lulled into sweet paralysis. We emerge from the experience of ‘Lawrence’, parched for deeper meaning as to the loss of this legendary, near mythological creature; an immortal on screen tragically too human to even survive a common wreck.
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939): There is much to be said about a film that reports on the basic human need to rediscover our hearts desires in our own backyards. What Frank L. Baum’s books did for childhood dreaming, the film has recreated on a much broader canvas and for the hearts and minds of both the young and the young at heart. The prophetic introduction that proclaims “time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion” has since served to best summate the cultural impact of the film on lasting human idealisms of progress and faith. Unable to persuade Darryl F. Zanuck to loan out Shirley Temple, MGM went ahead with Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, thereby creating one of the most sublime and genuine comings together of star and character in film history. To hear Garland’s opening strains of Over the Rainbow is to be magically teleported into an innate longing for a better tomorrow and brighter future. In the final hour the proof in Oz’s purpose is clear; to find one’s place in the world not through the magical dabbling of some omnipotent power, but at the very heart and soul of one’s own courage to will a dream into reality. And even if the world at hand does not present itself under the most ideal of circumstances, the underlying message is pointed clear; there is still no place like home. Fantasy has never been quite so honest or appealing.
9. The Godfather (1972): Decidedly the most celebrated of all gangster movies what is most unique and compelling about Francis Ford Coppola’s mob saga is its humanization of the criminal element. The choice of Marlon Brando to head this famed crime syndicate was an inspired bit of casting on Coppola’s part that Paramount Studios initially balked at. But in Brando there exists a modicum of integrity that emerges from behind the muscle. Don Corleone is not a bloodthirsty tyrant cut from the cloth of Little Caesar or The Public Enemy, but a deeply religious family man whose lack of formal education and opportunities to partake in the American dream have forced his hand and reshaped his destiny in ways he otherwise would not have preferred. The two sequels that followed this film are little than a more thorough investigations of these struggles to overcome adversity through vice inside a society that does not value its own virtues. That we should find the Corleone family a band of murderous cutthroats is thus not surprising. To discover a vulnerable integrity and deep-seeded ambition to rise above these limited expectations, perhaps is.
8. Modern Times (1936): There are few who would dispute that Charlie Chaplin is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. A modest congenial man in real life, his on-screen persona of the little tramp emerged as something of a triumphant everyman, besought and nearly beaten by unforeseen circumstances, but always with that spark of defiance burning inside. In Modern Times Chaplin is a nameless factory worker who, after going mad, takes up with a penniless gamin (Paulette Goddard).She convinces him that his simplicity of being within the ever-changing complexity of an industrialized society, not only has its merit, but is absolutely essential to the proliferation of the human race. In the years that followed, Chaplin would be misperceived for such commentaries as being a Communist sympathizer. Eventually he was forced into exile by the United States government. To be certain, films like Modern Times are critical – perhaps rightfully so – of a capitalist system that places profit above human knowledge and integrity. As another Charles (Manson) once said, “The truth is ugly, so we put our judges in prison.” Chaplin proved unequivocally with Modern Times that to judge a situation as unacceptable was decidedly not the same as condemning the system that had fostered it.
7. Fantasia (1940): Only a decade earlier the prospect of an animated feature film had seemed like absurd folly. Yet Walt Disney had managed to pull it off. But the concept of a concert feature, in which no words were spoken and no underlying narrative thread tied the segments together, was perhaps an idea conceived under even more blind ambition and greater faith. Like all great art, the concept of Fantasia grew out of a relatively modest idea; to do a cartoon short starring Mickey Mouse and using Leopold Stokowski to conduct Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But when the cost proved greater than the projected return, Disney decided to transform the short into a feature that would showcase some of the greatest classical music. Instructing his artisans to be at their most eclectic and experimental, Disney furthered his gamble by developing the first known six track stereophonic recording and playback system for theatrical exhibition. The result was a masterwork of creative genius so inspired and uninhibited that it would take nearly twenty-five years to achieve its full audience recognition. Upon its general release, Fantasia was considered little more than an expensive flop by the critics. It strained the studio coffers and made Disney retract much of his avant guarde creativity in films. Today, most critics have retracted their disproval. Fantasia is regarded as a masterpiece. If only Uncle Walt had lived to see his most inspired creation revered.
6. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): A war picture with an anti-war message? Yes, and the most satisfying of all David Lean epics. This was the thinking man’s military drama, one that asked and answered the question whether it is best to be on the side or might or of right. The story of a captured British Colonel (Alec Guinness) who act as structural engineer for the enemy to prove his point on the model of British efficiency, the film presented messages of misguided honor and misplaced integrity that were well suited for the cold war age. William Holden was top billed as American POW, Shears, who, after a daring escape and threadbare survival in the jungles of Celon is ‘convinced’ by Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) to return and blow up the bridge. In humanizing the character of Col Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the process of delineating between good and evil became anything but an exercise in clear cutting. In the end the overriding message rang loud, true and clear; that in the annals of war there are no winners.
5. Ben-Hur (1959): Time Magazine called it “by far the most stirring of the Bible-fiction epics.” The story by Gen. Lew Wallace had already been filmed as a silent version that nearly bankrupted MGM. In 1959, with costs up and profits down, this new version pretty much had the same stakes riding on its success. Happy chance for all then, that director William Wyler – whose ambition it was to “make a Cecil B. DeMille picture” was able to provide the studio with so much more; a rich tapestry of human drama that quite easily, became the most engaging and emotionally satisfying of all the sword and sandal movies. The story concerns Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a Jewish nobleman who is falsely imprisoned when Roman tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd) decides to make an example of asserting his authority. Judah’s ultimate conversion to Christianity was tempered for this remake, but it was brought into full bodied light by Miklos Roza’s evocative score. Though Maxwell Anderson, Gore Vidal and Stephen Fry all made contributions in shaping the screenplay, only Carl Tunberg was eventually given credit; a bitter snub. But on Oscar night MGM needed a chariot to haul away its plunder; 11 statuettes, the most of any film until James Cameron’s Titanic tied the tally in 1997.
4. Singin’ In The Rain (1952): Perhaps the most perfectly realized film musical ever made, like most great art, it wasn’t really planned with high ambition or great expectations built in; just a serviceable bit of entertainment that gleaned its title from one of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s best loved songs from the 1920s. Inspired by that decade of prohibition and flappers, screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Greene fashioned a masterwork about the growing pains of Hollywood with the dawning of the sound era. Top cast and in top form was legendary dancer/director, Gene Kelly in the role that would forever become synonymous with his talents. And although the rest of the cast (including Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen) delivered impeccable performances, the standout of this perennial favorite remains the sight of Kelly, under the weather, both literally (with the flu) and figuratively (being sprayed by a faux rain showers), tapping his heart and soul into a miracle of seemingly effortless joy. In everything from ice skating routines to the most recent GE commercial featuring an elephant schlepping the light fantastic, the resiliency of Kelly’s iconic undulated buoyancy is ingrained in our collective consciousness. What a glorious feeling!
3. Gone With The Wind (1939): It has been written that there are only two films in the history of American cinema: Gone With The Wind, and everything else. And while the pomposity behind that statement seems grossly inflated, there is no denying that David O. Selznick’s mammoth Southern soap opera continues to enthrall, captivate and stir the heart. A gambling man, Selznick purchased the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s best seller for the then unheard of sum of fifty-thousand dollars without first reading the book. He then realized that what he had purchased was not one regular movie, but two elephantine productions that needed to be hewn into one. No less than six screenwriters had their hand in shaping the story, though only Sidney Howard eventually received screen credit. After testing every major talent in Hollywood and launching a nationwide search for Scarlett, Selznick found his Southern belle in the embodiment of English lass, Vivien Leigh. By midway through the production the film’s original director, George Cukor had been fired, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) were at odds, Selznick was bent on chronic abuse of Benzedrine, and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. It didn’t matter. Nothing could stop the film from becoming the most highly publicized and celebrated spectacle of the 1930s. Since then, Gone With The Wind has become a pop cultural icon, admired, beloved and respected around the world. Frankly, my dear, we do give a damn.
2. Citizen Kane (1941): Orson Welles was just twenty-three when he decided to challenge media publishing leviathan, William Randolph Hearst with this thinly disguised and thoroughly wicked biography of Charles Foster Kane. And while many critics have been quick to slide this film into their number one slot as the greatest movie of all time, by my thinking Citizen Kane has always been, perhaps, just a little bit too ahead of its time to hold that position. To be sure, the film is a remarkable achievement; an absolute triumph in both Greg Tolland’s cinematography and Welles’ staging; its non-linear plot, decades ahead of the way Hollywood en masse perceived storytelling. And furthermore, there isn’t one false step in any of its brilliant performances. Welles was a creative genius. He is positively superb, exercising a prowess both in front of and behind the camera that should have made him the greatest actor/director/producer that ever lived. But what the film seems to lack, even today, is heart behind all that meticulous attention to detail – that intangible ability to generate pathos or sympathy from an audience for this portrait of a vital man reduced to a greedy shell.
1. Casablanca (1942): Arguably, no one film will ever satisfy everyone’s opinion as being the greatest of all time. But if a decision has to be made, Michael Curtiz’s penultimate wartime melodrama is a worthy contender for the top spot. At the time, nobody associated with the film had any idea of the cultural impact it would eventually have. And truth be told, there were more than a few sweaty palms in the front office when the script continued to change almost daily throughout the shoot. It seems nobody could decide which man Bergman’s character, Ilsa ran off with in the end; the suave saloon keeper with a past, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) or handsome hubby, Victor (Paul Henreid). Yet under Curtiz’s unerring direction, and with a script eventually patched together by Howard Koch and peppered throughout with the indelibly witty dialogue of the Epstein brothers, Casablanca emerged as the most clever, most romantic and ultimately, most memorable film of the 1940s. It frequently hovers in the top five of most critics’ lists but that isn’t why I’ve chosen it as my number one pick. Rather, the reason herein is for the film’s ability to generate perennial freshness each time I sit down to watch. After 100 plus viewings, Casablanca continues to hold me spellbound in the dark – a rarity amongst film favorites. Sam, play it again.
© COPYRIGHT 2005 NICK ZEGARAC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
DARK STAR...A MULTI PART ESSAY
It was definitely not a dry bite. What an inappropriate term! Bite. The snake had struck me...more like a stab...just above the boot on my left leg. No, it was certainly not a dry bite. Despite pressure from my bandana the wound continued to bleed. It hurt...it was a pain somewhere between powerful burning and a sharp aching. My leg was already swelling and I could feel chills. I saw my attacker escape into the brush. A Southern Pacific Rattler. I remembered a story, probably a myth, about a man who was struck in the neck by a Green Mamba in Africa. He didn't panic or even try to reach a hospital. He merely took out his notebook and began writing friends, family and lawyers. We don't have Mambas in California. I guess these Rattlers will have to do. The thought amused me for some reason. I was getting a little dizzy. "Maybe if I didn't travel alone," I said aloud and laughed as I thought of all the old jokes about friends being asked to suck poison from a snake bite wound. My tongue had kind of a tingling sensation and I debated the merits of setting a signal fire.
A SOFT SUMMER'S NIGHT
I was driving faster now. I liked driving with the windows down on summer nights. The wind tousled my hair and I drove without benefit of radio or CD player. Events of months and even years tumbled through my mind and I felt tired. I always found myself feeling lonely when I was most tired.
I needed sleep and was debating pulling off the road when I saw the flashing lights off in the distance. Curious, I drove on and discovered the remnants of an earlier accident. Broken glass littered the highway and I slowly approached a man directing traffic around a single car lying on its top. I crawled past the scene and leaned over to look at the wreck. It hit me like a cold plunge into a mountain stream. My eyes were held by the sight of a lone body. I imagined I even saw the expression on the man's face. I knew at once the man was dead. No one hovered around to check his condition or revive him. That had already been done. People walked about methodically, avoiding the corpse.
Once past the scene I rapidly regained cruising speed. I felt even more lonely and now, strangely afraid. I'd seen dead bodies before...more than I'd ever expected to see. I was chilled. The summer night air that was once invigorating now caused me to roll up my windows. I was alone just as before but now I was conscious of it and that was somehow painful. Gnawing emptiness turned into a hollow fear and nothing I could think kept the discomfort from being continually displayed and redisplayed in my mind. I cursed myself with a mindless vulgarity that had long since lost its impact. I wondered if my own death would be attended by dispassionate strangers who would tend to their obligations in officious and unfeeling motions. Suddenly death with all of its secrecy and muffled horror was riding along. I needed a crowd...I needed to be somewhere where people were talking and laughing and living.
I pulled off the highway and quickly found a car filled parking lot in front of a cheap looking tavern. The sign read "Inn The Wind" and it was a sorry looking dive but the sound of country music could be heard emanating from the building. I got out of my car and walked toward my sanctuary. The once refreshing night air had acquired a damp chill.
There was no sawdust on the floor but the bar was dotted with a few souls intent on numbing their existence. Two couples danced to the twangy voice on the juke box and I found myself a spot at the end of the bar. I ordered a beer and settled in to watch the passing show. A greasy haired romeo left the pinball machine to nuzzle the neck of an obviously drunk and obese barroom angel. I kept my smile to myself as I thought: "The old girl will either put out or pass out tonight." I added: "Or probably both." I concentrated on the label of my beer bottle.
I wished I could talk to someone and put the past hour behind me but I knew it was futile. Somehow I felt as if it were almost urgent to be part of something...anything. My lament was interrupted. Romeo had struck a match and stood holding it to Angel's cigarette as she swayed to and fro. The job finally got accomplished and the man stood smiling and swaying. He had forgotten to extinguish the match and soon squealed in pain as it burned his fingers. He threw it to the floor and held his fingers as he did a little dance. His sweetheart was convulsed in choking guffaws. This strange fertility rite ended with the couple stumbling toward the door.I sipped my beer in silence and finished about half of it before slipping a couple of dollars toward the barmaid and leaving. It felt a little warmer outside and I drove off in silence.
A SILENCE IN HEAVEN
"Come and see." That was all he said to capture our attention on the street corner. The man said he'd had a vision. I reasoned to myself that it must have been drugs talking. Still, the eyes, the set of his jaw...there was something about him. His hair was almost pure white and his squinting eyes barely revealed his piercing dark pupils. Hell, how do you read truth anyway? Besides, truth's such a relative thing in these times. He was dressed in what was once an expensive suit but was now a little wrinkled and dirty.
The guy talked slowly and his eyes opened wider as he looked straight into my eyes: "I was up north lying in a park...staring up into the clouds like I'd done a hundred times before. The clouds formed off in the distance and moved across the sky. They became a person running...really it was actually just a skeleton. It was running and as it approached it held out an old fashioned lamp...you know, a magic lamp or lantern."
Here the revelator paused as if expecting laughter. He seemed nervously buoyed when it didn't occur and he quickly continued. "Clouds poured out of the lamp and took the shape of skulls, animals and faces. I saw a dinosaur. It ran and became a huge elephant with long hair and a huge set of tusks. As it ran it became a bison. It was heading for water or a sheet of ice and I smiled thinking there was going to be a comic scene of pratfalls and sliding. Instantly I realized it was not ice but a drop-off that loomed in front of the doomed animal. The bison went over the cliff and took the form of an enormous sad eyed wolf who looked right at me as he disappeared. Suddenly a crippled eagle took shape and managed to fly in a pitiful effort."
The man looked around at us nervously and licked his lips before hurrying to continue. "The eagle formed into rolling tumbling clouds from which strange shapes emerged. A boat appeared like a huge ship made of smoke. As I watched the ship became labeled with a symbol and soon the whole figure turned into that symbol. A huge hammer and sickle nearly filled the sky. It was not a static figure and began forming itself into various corporate symbols."
The man paused again to take a deep breath before beginning to rattle off a list of corporate symbols and logos. He mentioned symbols from fast food restaurants and automobile medallions and ornaments as well as well known corporate initials. He quickly finished by saying: "There were others but I don't have time to remember them." His eyes checked our faces again for the laughter and sarcasm he expected and he continued: "The last symbol was formed from all of the other symbols and changed quickly into a swastika. Everything was then slowly devoured by a huge mushroom cloud. Out of the cloud I saw faces...some I could recognize...famous politicians were leering, laughing and grinning. Their faces merged into an elephant. The animal became a carnivore and began goring other animals before killing and eating a pig. It roared in triumph, blood dripping from its lips and as I watched it turned into the shape of a comedic dog. It walked and stumbled...it seemed drunk with its power when suddenly every cloud in the sky disappeared and I was left to stare at a totally clear sky."
Our lecturer finished and nervously rubbed his lips as he looked each of us in the eyes. He suddenly turned and disappeared into the passing crowd.
Her chosen professional name was Evangeline. I knew her as Annie and she was the most moral person I ever knew. Annie was an unblushing, proud prostitute who made no attempt to masquerade as anything else. She knew exactly what she was and accepted her life as an honest day by day journey. Annie lived in a reality which was based on moral and ethical tenets she created and refused to violate. Yes, you have heard me correctly. Annie was a prostitute. On one occasion she introduced me to some of her compatriots by saying: "He's the only man I've seen more than twice without getting laid." I of course received a punch in the side when I turned my palms up, tilted my head, and said: "Hey, I never have cash on me." That was Annie. We met in college where she came up against all of the hypocrisy and raging criminality that permeates so much of the business and professional worlds. If she had been rich she could have been just an eccentric cynic but Annie McGee was born poor and as she said: "A girl's gotta make a living."
There was just something about her you had to admire. The meaning of her life was found in her existence and she seemed honor bound to live by her ethical standards. There was no pretense with Annie. She knew what she was and enjoyed her life. I'm pretty sure you couldn't say her clients lived by the moral standards they publicly claimed as their own.
Annie taught me to avoid living in bad faith. I learned the need of discovering what I am and where I am headed. I learned morals were personal or they were worthless. The last letter I ever received from her advised me that people had one task in life: "Know yourself and be faithful to that knowledge." That was the essence, and the triumph, of Annie McGee.
Thirty some years. It seemed like I left only yesterday. I graduated from this arguably famous university. You probably know someone who attended here. Thirty some years had passed like so many weeks or months. I would be hard pressed to explain to you why I came back. There was no alumni program or reunion scheduled. I probably wouldn't attend one anyway. Maybe I was just searching. I guess I am at a point in my life where I'm wondering if I've missed some loose ends that could have been tied.
I saw him from a distance sitting on a park bench on the edge of the campus. How could I not recognize the way he held himself. From a distance I could see his beard and long hair were gray. I didn't approach him at first. Actually, I stayed over an extra day giving myself a chance to get up the courage to talk to him. Maupassant Martin. Professor G. Maupassant Martin to be more specific. I guess you could say he passed for the equivalent of a guru in those difficult days. Professor Martin...Marty, as he was referred to by his students. He had once been a Philosophy teacher at a very prominent Eastern school...maybe the most prominent school in his native New England. Rumor had him leaving over a tenure dispute. He was a young professor, not much older than the rest of us. You could see him biking across the sprawling campus...quite a site in his herringbone jacket with patched elbows, eyes smiling through rimless glasses, scraggly beard and long hair setting him apart from other faculty members. He introduced us to Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Nietczche, Camus and Sartre...and so much more. He launched so many ships by smashing this intellectual champagne bottle across their bow. Thinking...examining life and values...Marty was on the great Existential errand and his infectious manner brought us along. The truth be known, I was here after all these years in the hopes of running into him. I have often thought of him and wondered if he'd ever found the meaning of life...if he'd ever found the answers to the big questions and daunting mysteries he had so often described. I had used the Internet to find he was no longer listed as a professor here. I even did a wider search to see if he showed up on faculties anywhere else. I did not have the courage to check obituary lists and sites. I guess I was hoping against reason that I might find him here. At the very least I would again walk where I once walked and he once walked.
I approached from behind his bench, rehearsing what I'd ask and say. I knew he wouldn't remember me directly. I was a good student (in his classes anyway) but so much time had passed. In one class he had publicly announced that the required Existential journal I had turned in was the equal of any he had ever seen anywhere. Thoughts raced through my mind. My life has been a jumble of unfinished errands. I'd tried the business world and the public service professions. I always started with such drive and enthusiasm but each and every endeavor soon lost its allure and I drifted elsewhere. So much of my life has been a dress rehearsal. The meaning of life? Oh how I sometimes derided myself over that search. All of these years gone by and I've still not found the answer. God, I was still formulating the questions. I've tried on so many religions and philosophies. I've dabbled in drugs and alcohol...even psychedelics. I've experienced so much from the periphery. But always, when the time came to step up or step in I could never pull it off. Maybe I am a victim of tomorrow. I've always put off pulling the trigger on some decision or move thinking that things would be better tomorrow. I would have time to delve deeper tomorrow.
He was wearing an old jacket replete with the well worn, even tattered, elbow patches. I was quickly steeling myself to make my foray when someone came walking past Marty from the front. Marty asked: "Hey pal, can you spare some change?" I was taken aback and then noticed the paper bag clad wine bottle held between his legs. The passerby handed him some change and he said: "Thank you mate." An old term he'd always applied to his students. I didn't know what to do. I was embarrassed, for him. Everything I wanted to ask him about the meaning of life, the mysteries, my questions...his questions, everything, now seemed almost frightening. I noticed his shoes. Old filthy sneakers. His pants were dirt encrusted. While I debated approaching him he panhandled several more passersby. Was this it? Had he fared no better at life than I? Didn't he solve the mysteries either? A sense of dread suddenly chilled me. Maybe he had found the answers.
I took a long breath and walked around to face my guru. "Hi Professor Martin," I said. He studied my face as an impish smile formed on his. He shocked me by remembering both my first and last name and adding: "It's been a long time. I've been expecting you."
COMMENTS FROM UNDERGROUND ABOUT A MOST DARK STAR
I am sometimes asked what this or that story or poem "means." I don't think it is a fair request. Many writers and artists are most concerned with what the reader or viewer thinks something means. Besides, most things have different meanings to different people. Meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.Back Issues
A lifelong interest in philosophy is at the core of much of what I believe. Existentialism (with heavy influence from Christianity, Buddhism and the lives of heroic people) makes up my philosophical world view. The characters I write about may be real or imaginary...or both. I'll leave that for you to figure out. I can offer a similar lack of help in defining existentialism. For me the study is centered on the individual and his relationship to the universe and/or God. There are moral and ethical demands made on us by our existence. The existentialist is concerned with living in good faith. To come to grips with the essence of life one must examine existence. Be aware that so called existentialists do not agree with each other on even major issues. There are many ways to travel just as there are many reasons to do so.
Dark Star is obviously not in essay form but it is an essay of sorts anyway. These five stories or vignettes may well illustrate some points about being and existence. Then again, they may just be five unrelated and unimportant stories. You must decide. I've made my decision. I believe the concept of phenomenological ontology (the study of being through examining the observable) is the essence of existentialism. The ways we live our lives are the best sermons. The same concept may apply to defining existence.
In DAYDREAM the hero is facing death...indeed, he may be dying. So why isn't that story last? It could be because the journey to self begins when a person realizes he is a finite being. I care more why the story is placed first. It should be first. It is there because for the pilgrim the realization of death and dying being universal is the first step of a long and painfully aware journey. Everyone dies...the wisest prophet I ever met told me that. So does the character die? Of course. Sometime. No one gets out of here alive.
A SOFT SUMMER'S NIGHT is not soft. The pilgrim is further aware of death and it intrudes into all aspects of life. The pilgrim is aware of the need of having others in his life...the lofty thoughts of the meaning of living and dying would not exist in a vacuum.
A SILENCE IN HEAVEN could be the rantings of a madman. It may well also be a criticism of a modern society dominated by modern weakness and belief. We concentrate on economic and political systems but in reality the foibles of human nature are the enemy. Isms beget isms and create lives (and deaths?) of their own. "A silence in Heaven" and "Come and see" are terms taken from the Book Of Revelation. They are used for a reason.
ANNIE MCGEE is saying by her life and words as plainly as possible the existential message: know yourself and be faithful to that knowledge. Who is the moral creature, the prostitute honest with herself and those she knows or the customer sneaking around to find her while publicly claiming some superior morals?
LOGOTHERAPY is about therapy based on finding meaning in our lives. This story is about the search for answers to the big questions. Whether we have 20 or 60 or more years upon our heads, the message and the questions are all the same. What is our relationship to God and the Universe. Is there meaning or meaninglessness to life? Time flies and we're still asking the questions. And maybe, the answer is there is no answer. Please note the story ends before the professor and the writer can discuss it...it is your job to figure out how it all ends. The writer may or may not have a clue.
Ok, so is this all DARK STAR means? I don't know...it only matters what you think it means. What it means to me would lose all of its power if I told you for sure what anything I write really means. Besides, everything may mean something entirely different tomorrow. We write to entertain, we write to instruct, sometimes we write just for ourselves.
VOLUME ONE AUTUMN 2003
VOLUME TWO LATE AUTUMN 2003
VOLUME THREE WINTER 2003-2004
VOLUME FOUR SPRING 2004
VOLUME FIVE SUMMER 2005
VOLUME SIX LATE AUTUMN 2004
VOLUME SEVEN 2005
VOLUME EIGHT JUNE 2005
VOLUME NINE AUTUMN 2005
VOLUME TEN WINTER 2005
VOLUME ELEVEN SPRING 2006
VOLUME TWELVE AUTUMN 2006