Friday, June 29, 2007


Still full of arsenic after 50 years

Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney Falco: Way up high, Sam, where it’s always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, “Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!” Or, “Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.” I don’t want tips from the kitty. I’m in the big game with the big players … In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.

By Wagstaff
Fifty years on, Sweet Smell of Success looks better than ever. Every time I watch it, I forget where it is going. It seems to move irrevocably toward tragedy almost until the end, when disaster is narrowly avoided. Susan and Steve may have escaped the maniacal J.J. Hunsecker’s clutches to start a new life together, but Sidney Falco’s fate isn’t so lucky. This one-of-a-kind movie is hard to categorize: it’s too flamboyant and funny to be just drama. It’s certainly not a comedy. Satiric noir comes nearest but it’s not even that exactly. What it really is is a seething cauldron of big city cynicism. Here are a few quick reasons to watch it again.

The Direction

Alexander Mackendrick didn’t direct many movies, but he made the ones he did direct count. A veteran from Britain’s Ealing Studios with such films to his credit as The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, his good eye and sure touch is evident throughout. The details are wonderful, such as the way a paper sign reading “Sidney Falco — Press Agent" is taped to his office/living quarters door, establishing his hungry, low rent status, or the way he doesn’t wear a coat because he can’t afford to tip every hat check girl in town.

The Score

The superb composer Elmer Bernstein contributes another score in a career filled with great film scores. It’s big, loud, and jazzy with more than a hint of urban raunch. It kicks into high gear when J.J. overlooks the city from his apartment balcony; he’s an emperor surveying his dominion.

The Cinematography

The brilliant cinematographer James Wong Howe’s on location photography is some of the best I’ve ever seen. He could shoot nighttime exteriors like nobody else. Whether the locale is inside or out, his Manhattan is a bustling ant hive of activity that overflows with the lives of millions trying to climb that golden ladder.

Burt Lancaster

Our first intimation of J.J. Hunsecker is painted on the side of a newspaper delivery truck. “Read the Globe” it says. “The Eyes of Broadway.” Above it the eyes of J.J. Hunsecker stare out from behind a pair of thick glasses, like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. We hear enough to know he’s powerful, and when we first meet him, the columnist is holding court at 21 Club. Burt Lancaster, in a role modeled after the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, shines darkly as the demented Hunsecker. He’s so duplicitous and diabolical that his right hand hasn’t seen his left hand in 30 years. Burt is menacing as hell. One character asks, “Why does everything you say sound like a threat?” “I don’t know,” he replies, “because I never threaten friends.”

Tony Curtis

The criminally underrated Tony Curtis plays the press agent Sidney Falco. He jumps through hoops for Hunsecker for little reward. Every dog will have his day, and Sidney wants his. When he fails to break up a romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas, he knows that J.J. will be pissed. “If he puts 2 and 2 together I’m a chicken in a pot.” Curtis’ amazing performance is a repertoire of nervous tics and desperation. He has a remarkable ability to deliver the rapid-fire dialogue in a way that feels effortless and natural. Actingwise, this is Tony’s movie. All hail Tony Curtis.

The Script

Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ script, based on Lehman’s novel, has some of the most quotable, over-the-top dialogue this side of a Billy Wilder film. There’s a reason one character in Barry Levinson’s Diner speaks only in lines from Sweet Smell of Success. Just read this page of memorable quotes, or better yet, watch the movie.

Bonus Reason

A chance to watch Martin Milner as Steve Dallas in a pre-Adam-12 role.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007


You must pay before you get them back again

By Edward Copeland
What happened to Steve Martin? He used to take such chances and even when they didn't work, such as is the case with 1981's Pennies From Heaven, his willingness to try something new was impressive. Now, he seems content to just coast through lame remake after lame remake and sequel after sequel to the same lame remakes. Will the great Martin ever return?

I recently caught up with Herbert Ross' film of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven. While this curiosity has much to admire, it really doesn't quite work, especially when you think of Potter's great British miniseries The Singing Detective starring Michael Gambon, which had similar ideas but executed them so much more successfully. Martin plays failing sheet music salesman Arthur Parker, whose own depression almost rivals the Great Depression the country is suffering through at the time. Arthur is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a frigid spouse (Jessica Harper) and he often fantasizes of huge musical numbers as he tries to shake up his life for the better while he's hampered by his own innate selfishness. I should correct one thing: EVERYONE in the film fantasizes musical numbers, which I think is part of the problem. If it were only Arthur who had these dream-like diversions, it would make more sense, but nearly every character does the same thing, making the conceit seem even more like a gimmick than it is.

While The Singing Detective found the perfect balance between the dark and the light, Pennies From Heaven doesn't seem to pull off the balancing act as well. (There also was a miniseries of Pennies From Heaven prior to the film, but I haven't seen it.) It's a shame that something as imaginative as this movie doesn't work out better. Still, there is much to like, from Martin's melancholy performance that doesn't downplay the fact that his character is a heel to the production numbers themselves. There's also a great one scene appearance by Christopher Walken, dancing up a storm as a man who meets a fallen schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters) in a bar and hastens her decline even further. Unfortunately, the visual flights of fancy don't come close to making what should be cruelrealism feel ever crueler. Instead, it just makes you impatient to get back to the dance sequences, since they are the touches that work. Fortunately, I see that the miniseries version starring Bob Hoskins is available on DVD, so I look forward to watching this soon and see if that explains better where this film version went wrong.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


A Timex watch in a digital age

By Edward Copeland
This is how you revive a movie franchise. It's with great pleasure that I report that Live Free or Die Hard is a rousing thrill ride which, though nowhere near the greatness of the 1988 original, certainly marks the series' second best installment as well as being the best popcorn action film I've seen in quite some time.

Directed by Len Wiseman, whose most recognizable previous films were the Underworld films that I haven't seen, Live Free or Die Hard starts out fast and never slows down, moving at such a breakneck pace that you are too busy enjoying yourself to question the multiple implausibilities and cartoony action sequences.

Some of the bad guys survive such calamities that it reminded me of those crashes on The A-Team, where helicopters would slam into mountains, burst into flames and hit the ground, yet the occupants would climb out and figuratively go, "Shew." Still, it doesn't matter because the movie has planted a silly grin on your face that seldom leaves, let alone turn into a frown.

The plot is based on an magazine article that theorized how a cataclysmic cyberattack could bring the United States to a standstill. The aging, now divorced John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets dragged into this mess by pure accident. (Isn't it always the case?)

When the signs of the hacking first pops up at FBI headquarters in Washington, the deputy director orders senior detectives throughout the country to apprehend the most well-known hackers as the usual suspects. McClane gets assigned to pick up one Matthew Farrell (Justin Long, though I wonder if his role as a mischievous computer prankster affects his role as the Mac in the Apple TV commercials) in Camden, N.J.

Farrell recently broke some code for some mysterious people who are trying to cut the ties to the hackers they used and try to bump off Matt just as McClane arrives to pick him up. From that point on, the film doesn't let up as McClane tries to get Farrell to D.C. alive and the cyberattack escalates across the U.S.

The mastermind behind this plan turns out to be one Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a Richard Clarke-like figure who warned the government after 9/11 of the country's vulnerabilities to an attack such as this only to be crucified and drummed out of the government instead. It's really a quite pointed message against the Bush Administration without ever mentioning Dubya by name.

Gabriel's plan induces panic everywhere, including the stock market, prompting him to comment, "As Lenin said, useful idiots." Even though I was a huge fan of HBO's Deadwood, I never warmed to his portrayal of Seth Bullock, but when you see the actor do a great comic turn on a series such as My Name Is Earl or with cool malevolence he displays here, you really appreciate Olyphant's talents.

Long also makes a fine sidekick for Willis as a young man who never expected to be "an accessory to armageddon" and provides the essential contrast between a dinosaur such as McClane and a technophile such as Farrell. As the chaos unfolds, McClane is disbelieving at first that the government could be so ill prepared for such a cataclysm when the bad guys hijack the airwaves to ask America, "What if help will never come?" Farrell reminds him, "It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome."

Still, though McClane is older, balder and grimmer, he's still got a lot of the same moxie, asking to no one in particular at one point whether they think throwing a car at him would stop him. One thing that does always seem to separate McClane in all the Die Hard films, from the peerless original, to the awful second and the watchable third installment, is that he actually shows the evidence of the turmoil he's embroiled in.

As the understandably frightened Farrell asks McClane at one point how he can be such a hero, McClane laments that you don't get anything for being a hero.

In addition to Long, Willis and Olyphant, there also are good performances by Maggie Q as one of the cyberbaddies, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane's estranged now-college age daughter and a funny cameo by Kevin Smith as a hacker extraordinaire who resides in a bunker in his mother's basement.

One concern I had going in was that the film's PG-13 would remove some of the edge off the series, but it really doesn't affect it much, even if McClane's signature line's expletive is muffled a bit at the end.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Twin Peaks Tuesdays: Episode 16

By Edward Copeland
Before I begin the recap, I'm going to break the conceit that I'm writing these as if seeing the episodes for the first time to say what I've said many times in the more than 16 years since these second season episodes aired: Ray Wise was robbed. It's bad enough that he didn't get an Emmy nomination, but he should have won as well.

Back to the recap: The mystery is solved, but questions still remain as the simple solution as to who killed Laura Palmer is put to rest, even if they raise even deeper mysteries than any of the lawmen expected to find. Following the discovery of Maddie's body, Cooper, Hawk, Harry and a returned Albert gather to assess the evidence. A letter O was found beneath Maddie's fingernail as well as strands of fur from a white fox reeking of formaldehyde, indicating the animal was dead and stuffed. Harry is ready to inform Leland, so he can pass on the sad new to Maddie's mother, but Cooper asks him to wait. He wants 24 hours to finish this once and for all. Albert pulls Cooper aside and offers him these words:

"An observation. I don't know where this is headed but the only one of us with the coordinates for this destination and hardware is you. Go on whatever vision quest you require. Stand on the rim of the volcano. Stand alone and do your dance. Just stop this beast before he takes another bite."

Cooper says he doesn't quite know where to begin, but Hawk reassures him that he's on the path, he doesn't need to know where it leads. At the Double R, Donna and James are making goo-goo eyes at one another with the clear implication that they consummated their relationship the night before. Vivian is trying one of Norma's omelets and spits it out in disgust. Norma is offended and Vivian offers her advice for a truly memorable omelet but Norma says she's grown weary of a lifetime of her criticism. Also, at the counter, Andy is repeating "I am a lonely soul" in French and Donna overhears him. She asks if he knows Mrs. Tremond and her grandson because that's where she first heard the phrase, but Andy said it came from Harold Smith's suicide note. Donna insists she has to see Agent Cooper because there must be some sort of message there. When Cooper, Donna and Andy arrive at Mrs. Tremond's house though, it is a different, younger Mrs. Tremond, who insists her mother has been dead for years and that she has no children and could have no grandchildren. When she catches Donna's name, she asks if she's Donna Hayward and says she found a note addressed to her in her mailbox the day after Harold killed himself.

Within the envelope are pages from Laura's diary, describing the same exact dream that Cooper had and asking if he could possibly be MIKE, the only person BOB fears and who might protect her from him. It also contains her final entry, declaring that it was the night she would die because that was the only way to stop BOB. Cooper heads to see the now dehydrated and near-death One-Armed Man to ask him more questions. He says he knows the Giant and he'll help Cooper find BOB, if Cooper asks. He tells Cooper he has all the clues he needs and to look in his heart, not in his head. Out in the hall, Cooper runs into the decrepit waiter who tells him, "I've heard about you. That milk will cool down on you, but it's getting warmer now." At the sheriff's station, a worker is making adjustments to the sprinkler system. Andy is frustrated by Lucy's confusion over the father of her baby, so he calls Dick and asks him to come for a meeting.

Ben gets another visitor to his jail cell: Tojamura. Ben tries to make excuses as to why he can't sign the papers when suddenly Tojamura slides a bare foot with painted toenails into the cell and Ben recognizes the foot. "Catherine?" "Benjamin Horne, you're a slimy rat bastard," Catherine declares. Ben is relieved that she came and willingly signs the mill and Ghostwood over to her. He asks if she'll tell the sheriff the truth and verify his alibi. "We've spent our entire adult lives lying to each other," Catherine says. "Why spoil it with the truth now?" Donna stops back by the Palmer house to see if they have Maddie's address. She's wearing Laura's sunglasses and it sets Leland/BOB off a bit. He gets a phone call from Maddie's mom say she never arrived in Missoula. Leland pulls out a stick of gum and assures Donna they'll figure it out while he sees BOB again in the mirror. He convinces Donna to dance with him and just as he violently pulls her close, Harry arrives to tell him the killer has struck again and they need him immediately. Donna figures out what that means and goes crying to James that Maddie is dead. James is convinced they could have done something to help her and says nothing matters. Even if they are in love, the world is still going to hell, so what's the point? He then tears out of town on his motorcycle.

Meanwhile, Dale is gathering people at the roadhouse. Ben is there in handcuffs, as well as Albert at the bar. Harry brings in Leland. Ed soon arrives followed by Hawk and Bobby wheeling in Leo. Cooper has them clear a large space in the middle. He tells them he has employed many techniques in his investigation but now he is going to try, for lack of a better word, magic. Ben asks if perhaps they should hum, a Tibetan chant perhaps. An unusually positive Albert says he thinks things are going tremendously well. Cooper says someone is missing and sure enough, Major Briggs arrives, bringing with him the decrepit waiter who flagged him down on the road and asked him to bring him there.

The waiter offers Cooper a piece of gum. Leland spots it and smiles saying that is his most favorite gum in the world. "That gum you like is going to come back in style," the waiter says and everything freezes. Cooper returns to his dream and hears Laura whisper in his ear, "My father killed me." The Giant returns and gives Cooper back his ring. When everything comes back to action, Cooper tells Harry to take Ben back to the sheriff's station and recommends that Leland go along to act as his attorney. They clear out and as they begin to leave, Cooper turns around and gives the waiter a thumbs up and the old man gives him a smiling wave. Once they return to the station, Cooper pulls Harry aside and tells him of his plan. As they prepare to put Ben in an even-more secure cell, at the last minute they pull him back and shove Leland in. Leland goes insane, tossing off his suit jacket, hooting and hollering and running back and forth in the cell. Cooper tells them to take Ben upstairs and release him. "Leland?" a puzzled Ben says. "That's not Leland," Hawk replies. Truman asks Agent Cooper how he knew and Dale tells him that Laura told him in his dream. "I think we'll need stronger evidence than that," Truman says. "How about a confession?"

Soon, BOB, having completely taken over Leland again, complies. He admits killing Laura and when asked about Maddie says, "I guess I kinda sorta did. I have this thing for knives," then he suddenly turns and stares down Dale. "Just like that time in Pittsburgh, huh Cooper." The agent is understandably taken about. BOB admits that Leland knew nothing of what he did. He says Leland has been a great vehicle, but he's weak and full of holes and it's "almost time to shuffle off to Buffalo." He promises that when he leaves Leland, Leland will recall everything, but not for long. The lawmen leave the cell and Dale admits they should have seen the clues all along. The dwarf in his dream danced and after Laura's death, Leland began spontaneously dancing. BOB had white hair and when Leland killed Jacques Renault, his hair turned white overnight. Upstairs, Lucy meets with Andy and Dick to discuss her bun in the oven which, honestly, I can't imagine any viewer caring about right now, but the scene really is only there so Dick's cigarette smoke can set off the sprinkler system.

Somehow, the water frees BOB from Leland and BOB rams Leland's head into the steel door as the lawmen rush to get back in the cell where Leland lays dying and does indeed remember. Leland is horrified, crying and explaining that BOB entered him when he was young. BOB and his fellow inhabiting spirits wanted Laura as one of their own, but she wouldn't let them in and that's why they made him kill her. He also admits killing Teresa Banks. Cooper holds Leland gently and leads him into the light where he says he sees Laura and she's beautiful, before breathing his last. After the day's startling events, Cooper, Truman, Albert and Hawk venture into the woods where they find Major Briggs and try to come to grips with what has happened. "There's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt up in our philosophy," Briggs quotes. Harry admits he's seen a lot of strange things in these words, but he's having a hard time buying BOB's existence. "Is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?" Cooper asks. Albert suggests that perhaps that is all BOB really is: The evil that men do. Truman then raises the big question: If BOB is real and they had him captured, where is BOB now?

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Monday, June 25, 2007


Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2007

By Edward Copeland
Even though the new AFI list of the 100 greatest American films of all time was an improvement on their first try, I couldn't help but be inspired to do my own Top 100 list. My rules are different: I'm not going to be xenophobic, meaning foreign films count. Also, to be eligible for my list, a movie must be at least 10 years old, so don't expect any titles released since 1997. Also, I decided not to include documentaries: They deserve a list all their own. It was still tough: I started with a pool of roughly 254 films. The first round of cuts was easy, but when I got down to 113, removing those final 13 was a bear and I still feel bad about having to leave some of them out. The rankings also seemed very arbitrary at times and I almost just went alphabetical, but figured that would be wimping out. Remember, this is the list of my favorites, so they don't necessarily need to be seen as the "greatest." All opinions are subjective anyway, whether decided by many or, in this case, by a jury of one.

100 Miller's Crossing directed by Joel Coen

As far as I'm concerned, the brothers' third film remains their best. I love Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink as well, but as far as I'm concerned, Miller's Crossing remains their most mature, accomplished work. They weren't busy mocking their characters (and the audience), seeking easy laughs with dimwitted characters speaking florid dialogue in funny accents, and their camera had calmed down as well. Instead, they just told a well-acted story of Irish gangsters in the South as they paid homage to Dashiell Hammett. Those were the days, at least as far as the Coens were concerned.

99 The Miracle of Morgan's Creek directed by Preston Sturges

The great Preston Sturges offered several possibilities for this list, but for me this madcap tale remains his finest work. Betty Hutton is a joy as the small-town girl, patriotic to the point that after a party bidding farewell to soldiers heading to the battles of WWII, she finds herself married to someone she can't remember and pregnant to boot. Enter the great Eddie Bracken as one of the few men left at home to pretend to be the impending papa. A great romp from start to finish.

98 White Heat directed by Raoul Walsh

James Cagney truly was at the top of his game in his triumphant 1949 return to the gangster genre that made him a star. How the Academy neglected to nominate him for his work as the psycho Cody Jarrett with the mother fixation remains one of their most glaring oversights in a history filled with glaring oversights.

97 Bambi directed by David Hand

Of all the animated classics to come from Walt Disney when he was alive and the studio was at the top of their game, this touching, emotional tale remains my favorite. From losing a parent to the frightening forest fire, it's one of the most intense animated films ever made for "children," but it's also one of the greatest.

96 High Noon directed by Fred Zinnemann

How could I forsake this spare, taut and classic Western? Fred Zinnemann's best film provides the perfect vehicle for the stoic style of Gary Cooper and it works even if you don't realize that it's an allegory for the Hollywood blacklist.

95 The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor

Often, not enough credit is given to truly fun, sparkling entertainment such as The Philadelphia Story, with its peerless trio of lead performances by Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

94 Top Hat directed by Mark Sandrich

While I love Swing Time, for me this is the apex of Astaire-Rogers vehicles. Of course, the plot is silly, but the songs are great, the dancing superb and Edward Everett Horton provides hysterical supporting laughs.

93 The Last Picture Show directed by Peter Bogdanovich

A man who started as a critic but is now better known as Dr. Melfi's shrink on The Sopranos and a frequent DVD commentary track participant, Bogdanovich did make a truly great film out of Larry McMurtry's novel about a dying Texas town, thanks in no small part to the fine ensemble he assembled including Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

92 Lone Star directed by John Sayles

It takes a lot to fool me and, in retrospect, I should have seen the final twist coming but the reason I didn't is because Sayles crafted in his best film a compelling story in which the plot turn was unexpected because the movie didn't rely on it. Even if the secret had never been revealed, this portrait of skeletons from the past and their influence on the lives of people today would still resonate.

91 Gone With the Wind directed by Victor Fleming

It almost has become too easy to pile on this classic because of its status, but it is still one of the great films of all times, piling in a miniseries worth of plot developments in less than four hours without ever losing a viewer's interest. Then again, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable certainly help.

90 L.A. Confidential directed by Curtis Hanson

Of the films of fairly recent vintage, this is one that grows stronger each time I see it, earning comparisons to the great Chinatown (coming up later, as you might expect). Well acted (even if Kim Basinger's Oscar was beyond generous), well written and well directed, I believe L.A. Confidential's reputation will only grow greater as the years go on — yet it lost the Oscar (and a spot on the AFI list) to the insipid Titanic.

89 8½ directed by Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini is one director whom I find I think less of the longer I go on and the more times I revisit him (I came very close to picking Nights of Cabiria for this list and I bet eventually that will end up being my favorite Fellini). Still having seen fairly recently, I still hold quite a bit of affection for it, so it gets the spot.

88 After Hours directed by Martin Scorsese

Simply put: The tensest comedy ever made and perhaps Scorsese's most underrated film. Griffin Dunne is the perfect beleaguered straight man enveloped by a universe of misfits and oddballs in lower Manhattan when all he wanted to do was get laid. Joseph Minion wrote an excellent script and this is one case where I think the changed ending actually is superior to the original intended one. By the way, whatever happened to Joseph Minion?

87 The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton

There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead and Charles Laughton, one of the finest screen actors ever, certainly did with the only film he ever directed. The film's influences seem more prevalent than people who have actually seen this disturbing thriller with the great Robert Mitchum as the creepy preacher with love on one hand and hate on the other and the legendary Lillian Gish as the equivalent of the old woman who lived in a shoe, assuming the old woman was well armed.

86 Back to the Future directed by Robert Zemeckis

Watchability often gets undervalued when rating a film's worth, but I never tire of sitting through this thrill ride. With equal touches of satire, suspense and genuine emotion, Back to the Future is a joy. No matter how many times I see it, the final sequence where they prepare to send Marty back to 1985 still holds me in rapt attention as I wonder if this time might be the time he doesn't actually make it.

85 Prizzi's Honor directed by John Huston

It's always impressive when one of the all-time great directors manages to keep his skills sharp right up to the very end of his career and his life. Huston's penultimate film (and The Dead is pretty damn good as well) is a great Mob satire with a plethora of memorable performances and even more memorable lines.

84 Raise the Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou

Before Zhang Yimou started being obsessed with spectacle and martial arts, film after film, he produced some of the greatest personal stories in the history of movies, especially when his muse was the great and beautiful Gong Li. This film was their first truly flawless effort as Gong plays the young bride of a powerful lord who already has multiple wives and who encourages the sometimes brutal competition between the women.

83 The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner

One of the best decisions George Lucas ever made in his Star Wars films was turning the reins over to other directors twice and letting writers such as Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan take over screenwriting and dialogue duties. Irvin Kershner got the best of it by helming what is unquestionably the series' finest hour and Brackett and Kasdan raised the words above Lucas' stilted chatter.

82 The Player directed by Robert Altman

One of the many "comebacks" of Robert Altman's career, this brilliant Hollywood satire holds up viewing after viewing because it's so much more than merely a satire. Thanks to Tim Robbins' superb performance as the sympathetic heel of a Hollywood executive and the cynical yet deeper emotional punch of Michael Tolkin's script, Altman wows from the opening eight-minute take to one of the greatest final punchlines in movie history.

81 North By Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Set piece after set piece, Hitchcock puts Cary Grant through the paces and pulls the viewer along to his most purely entertaining offering. There's not much else to say about it: It's not an exercise in style or filled with layers and depth, it's just damn fun.

80 To Kill a Mockingbird directed by Robert Mulligan

Making a decent adaptation of a great novel usually proves to be a difficult task, but Mulligan and Horton Foote pulled it off with this superb film version of Harper Lee's great book. Stand when this film passes by. It's earned it.

79 Rio Bravo directed by Howard Hawks

Hawks lands on my list for the first time (It's an outrage he only landed once on AFI's list) with this hoot of a Western with John Wayne providing the solid center while Walter Brennan and Dean Martin (oh, and Angie Dickinson too) adding the color.

78 Schindler's List directed by Steven Spielberg

The film that seemed to herald that Peter Pan had finally grown up. Sure, sometimes he punches the easy emotional buttons with too much force, but for the most part, it is a frightening and sad cinematic journey, and he certainly pulled it off with more finesse than he did with Saving Private Ryan.

77 MASH directed by Robert Altman

A comedy about the Vietnam War that's full of blood and set in Korea, just as a matter of subterfuge. The film that put Altman on the map and inspired one of TV's best comedies (until it got too full of itself), MASH still holds up with its brilliant ensemble and wicked wit.

76 King Kong directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

The first time was the charm. One of the few insightful comments I heard on the new AFI special was when Martin Scorsese said that in many ways he finds the primitive stop-motion effects of the original King Kong more impressive than later CGI versions. He's absolutely right. The 1933 version also offers more thrills and emotions (and in half the time) than Peter Jackson's technically superior but dramatically inferior and unnecessary remake.

75 Fanny and Alexander directed by Ingmar Bergman

The film marketed as Bergman's "last feature" truly is one of his best, painting a vast semiautobiographical canvas of two children from a large theatrical family who find their lives upended when their mother weds an authoritarian monster of a minister.

74 The Crying Game directed by Neil Jordan

So much is made of this film's twist that I think it takes away from how great a movie it was before that plot turn even happened. I was fortunate enough to see it early, before the hype went into overdrive, so I thought another plot turn was the "twist" and relaxed and the real twist took me by complete, wonderful surprise. I hope someday new viewers will be able to see the film without knowing what lies ahead. Even if they do though, they will see a great study in human nature.

73 Do the Right Thing directed by Spike Lee

While Spike Lee still has talent to spare, he has yet to come close to equaling the power of his third film and its study of one hot day in Bedford Stuy. Seeing it pop up on the AFI's list this time was one of the most pleasant and overdue surprises of the list.

72 Smiles of a Summer Night directed by Ingmar Bergman

When people think Bergman, they think heavy, but here is one of his lightest and most enjoyable concoctions. With obvious echoes of The Rules of the Game, it's not only a delight as a film but it inspired the great Stephen Sondheim to write one of his earliest great scores as composer and lyricist in "A Little Night Music." Isn't it rich?

71 Treasure of the Sierra Madre directed by John Huston

Bogie got one of his best roles, John Huston made one of his greatest films and his old man got a supporting actor Oscar in the deal as well. When you see Walter Huston do his mocking, triumphant little dance, you want to join in.

70 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Mike Nichols

There wouldn't be a Breakfast Club without a Virginia Woolf, but I don't hold that against Edward Albee or his great play turned into a superb movie by Mike Nichols. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were never better and while the truth games and verbal battles make you cringe, you can't avert your eyes from their power.

69 Paths of Glory directed by Stanley Kubrick

Kirk Douglas was probably miscast, but this early Kubrick doesn't get the kudos it deserves and it certainly bears up better over the years than some of his later works such as A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick often tackled the futility of war and its inherent contradictions, but he really knocked it out of the park with this one.

68 Notorious directed by Alfred Hitchcock

To me, one of the crimes of both versions of the AFI list is that Psycho is the only representation of black-and-white Hitchcock, as if no one noticed him until he started working in color, but nothing is further from the truth and Notorious is one of the best examples of that. The kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant remains one of the most sensual images ever put on celluloid and Claude Rains is superb as the conflicted heavy of the piece.

67 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington directed by Frank Capra

People like to mock Frank Capra as simple-minded at times and this film especially, but it remains a rousing indictment of corruption in Washington that still echoes to this very day. It's too bad that a filibuster doesn't still mean that a senator has to do what Jefferson Smith did and hold the floor for as long as he can instead of the procedural gimmick it's been turned into today.

66 Amadeus directed by Milos Forman

Salieri may consider himself the "patron saint of mediocrity," but little is mediocre about Forman's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both brilliant and you can't really argue that its musical score is weak either.

65 Bringing Up Baby directed by Howard Hawks

Here comes Howard Hawks again and Cary Grant as well. (I haven't added it up, but I suspect Grant appears in more movies on this list than any other actor). Katharine Hepburn's most inspired performance powers this screwiest of screwball comedies.

64 Horse Feathers directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Speaking of screwballs, let's hear it for the Marx Brothers and this college comedy, which ranks as my second favorite of their inspired lunacies. Whatever Horse Feathers is, I'm not against it.

63 The 400 Blows directed by François Truffaut

A breathtaking debut, the launch of a mostly great series of films concerning Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel and perhaps the most famous freeze frame in film history. It's not bad as a coming-of-age picture either.

62 To Live directed by Zhang Yimou

Of the many collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, this one remains my favorite, even though it's less heralded than many of his others. Epic in terms of the amount of story it covers, but still focused and personal in the telling, if you haven't seen To Live, you should.

61 On the Waterfront directed by Elia Kazan

This film shouldn't work and it probably wouldn't if its stellar cast hadn't saved it. Kazan and Budd Schulberg's attempt to justify their actions during the McCarthy hearings doesn't quite work as an allegory, but the film itself works as a powerful story thanks to the indelible performances it contains.

60 Bicycle Thieves directed by Vittorio De Sica

When I first saw de Sica's masterpiece, myself and fellow English speakers knew it as The Bicycle Thief. It's only been recently that we've learned the more correct English translation. I guess his film still has things to teach us today.

59 The Seventh Seal directed by Ingmar Bergman

A meditation on life, the universe and everything and, for a film whose story revolves around a chess game between a knight back from the Crusades and Death for the knight's life, it has a bit more humor than you'd expect.

58 Tootsie directed by Sydney Pollack

Pollack didn't just direct and act in this comic masterpiece, he really played tailor as well, stitching together multiple versions of its screenplay to come up with the exquisite finished garment. Dustin Hoffman's brilliant performance surrounded by an equally solid ensemble that includes a nearly all-improvised role by Bill Murray didn't hurt either.

57 Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino

As the years roll by, many find themselves less enthused by Tarantino's masterwork. I am not among their ranks, finding that I'm as enthralled, entertained and as giddy as I was the first time I saw it whenever I see any part of it again.

56 Open City directed by Roberto Rossellini

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Italian neorealism movement. This story of Italians fighting back against fascism and the Nazis during World War II is as powerful and moving today as it ever was.

55 Bride of Frankenstein directed by James Whale

Another instance of the all-too-rare occurrence of a sequel that's better the film that spawned it. Whale's funny followup to his own Frankenstein is full of most of the classic moments you probably associate with the story: the blind hermit, "She's alive!" and many more.

54 Broadcast News directed by James L. Brooks

As I wrote about this film during the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon hosted by 100 Films, this is the best cinematic representation of unrequited love.

53 Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Every time I hear that a friend or acquaintance is going to have a baby, I make the same simple request: Do everything in their power to keep all knowledge of this movie away from them until they see it. I would have loved to have seen it without knowing that the shower scene was coming or the truth about Norman Bates. I hope others can have that experience.

52 Vertigo directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Here comes Hitch again with his most personal and, in many ways, disturbing film about love and obsession and the need to replace what one has lost.

51 Laura directed by Otto Preminger

When I wrote about Preminger on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I pegged this film as his greatest achievement. With its great cast and sharp dialogue, I don't think there's much to argue about there.

50 The Apartment directed by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder made so many great comedies with varying levels of pathos that it's hard to pick just one. I considered Some Like It Hot and One, Two Three, but this one remains for me his best film among the ones played primarily for laughs.

49 Die Hard directed by John McTiernan

A running gag between Wagstaff and I in recent years is that I believe Die Hard is the greatest film ever made. OK, I don't really believe that, but this is one of the best, especially as far as action goes and Alan Rickman remains one of the all-time great movie villains.

48 Shadow of a Doubt directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Supposedly, Hitchcock often named this gem as his personal favorite of his films and it certainly remains one of his best with its dry, mordant wit and a great lead in Joseph Cotten.

47 Sunrise directed by F.W. Murnau

The time is over for the debate as to whether the Oscar this classic silent won in the Academy's first year was the equivalent of "best picture." All that needs to be said is that is a great film, Academy seal of approval or not.

46 The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather Part II may have won best picture in 1974, but for my money it wasn't even the best Coppola film that year, let alone the best picture (not that it isn't good). This simple tale of an eavesdropping expert's sudden moral qualms remains riveting and thoughtful to this day.

45 Lawrence of Arabia directed by David Lean

If it weren't for the weaker second half, this movie that almost defines epic would have landed higher on this list. Still, with its stunning cinematography, gorgeous score and great Peter O'Toole performance, it belongs here nonetheless.

44 Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese

I'm not talking to you Travis, but about you, and Scorsese and Paul Schrader's dark, modern spin on The Searchers only grows more stunning as the years roll on. Robert De Niro gives one of his greatest performances and, for my money, this may remain Jodie Foster's finest work.

43 The Ox-Bow Incident directed by William A. Wellman

This film doesn't get mentioned as often as it should, but its portrait of the perils of vigilante justice comes through as strongly today as I imagine it did when it was originally released.

42 Grand Illusion directed by Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir made a lot of great films and at least two unquestionable masterpieces, including this one, yet you seldom hear his name come up unless you are talking with real cinephiles, which is a shame because his films don't belong to elite tastes: They belong to everyone. This vivid portrait of WWI prisoners of war proves that since it was the very first time the Academy bothered to nominate a foreign language film for best picture. It should have won too.

41 Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa

As opposed to Renoir, Kurosawa is routinely mentioned by many as a master, thanks mainly to his great sword-laden epics, but for me this "modern" film is one of his strongest, telling the sad story of a long suffering bureaucrat who seeks meaning in life when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer. A truly touching, remarkable film.

40 Strangers on a Train directed by Alfred Hitchcock

When compiling this list, I feared it was becoming too Hitchcock-centric, forcing the omission of other great filmmakers but dammit, he made so many films that mean so much to me, it would be dishonest to place a quota system on him. Robert Walker's great performance as the madman who expects the wimpy Farley Granger to live up to his part of a hypothetical murder deal remains chilling to this day.

39 The Manchurian Candidate directed by John Frankenheimer

One of the saddest things about the revised AFI list was seeing this superb political thriller drop off the list. I hope the ridiculous and pointless remake by Jonathan Demme didn't leave a bad taste in voters' mouths to the point that they punished the original. It remains a taut (and funny) thriller and Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin remains a villain for the ages.

38 M directed by Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang made a lot of good movies, but nothing equaled this tale told in his native language. Peter Lorre made his mark as the hunted child killer in a film filled with atmosphere, suspense and thought.

37 It Happened One Night directed by Frank Capra

Even people who view Capra as a sentimental sap tend to like this great madcap romantic romp thanks to the great chemistry of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. May the walls of Jericho always fall and keep this gem on these lists.

36 Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa

As personal and moving as Ikiru is, this ultimate swords and sandal epic from the Japanese master remains my favorite. It never grows old.

35 Bonnie and Clyde directed by Arthur Penn

The next two films on the list come from the same year and the reason they are ranked back-to-back is that I'm constantly switching my allegiance as to which 1967 classic is the best. For this list, Penn's great telling of the Depression-era bank robbers with its great cast lands in second place.

34 The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols

What comes in first for 1967 at this point in time is this great satirical comedy that always seems to speak to a new generation. Occasionally, it slips a little in my esteem, but it always seems to bounce back.

33 The Searchers directed by John Ford

John Ford is a great but I do have to admit that I believe he's a bit overrated, but not in the case of this Western which only grows stronger with each viewing and contains John Wayne's best-ever performance and one of film history's finest final shots.

32 Annie Hall directed by Woody Allen

When I wrote about this film earlier this year on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, I noted that in a way its structure is reminiscent of Citizen Kane and I think that, in addition to Woody's priceless dialogue and Diane Keaton's effervescence, is what keeps it as fresh today.

31 Red River directed by Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks directed John Wayne to his second-greatest performance in this thrilling tale of a cattle drive and bitter rivalries. It also contains the perfect example of a Hawksian woman as Joanne Dru keeps talking, even with an arrow protruding from her body.

30 All About Eve directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

You know 1950 was a great year for movies released in the United States when a picture as great as All About Eve only finishes third on my list for that year. That takes nothing away from it though with its brittle and brilliant dialogue and multiple great performances, especially George Sanders as Addison DeWitt.

29 The Maltese Falcon directed by John Huston

Huston's first time out as director remains my favorite of his work with its great cast, led by Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade. Films such as this truly are the stuff dreams are made of.

28 The Crowd directed by King Vidor

In the 1927-28 contest for "Artistic Quality of Production" at the Oscars, this film faced off against Sunrise and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness. While Sunrise is great, I have to admit my preference is for Vidor's film and its tale of striving to succeed when everything seems to conspire to keep you down.

27 The Wizard of Oz directed by Victor Fleming

My dog doesn't usually watch TV, but whenever this comes on, she's drawn to it and one time even seemed to sit on the couch and watch it from beginning to end. Maybe it's the music, maybe it's the colors, but I'm hard pressed to argue with my dog.

26 The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah

There's a lot of death in The Wild Bunch, but what makes the film so remarkable is not the violence, but its depiction of the death of an era and of a way of life.

25 Dog Day Afternoon directed by Sidney Lumet

Again and again when making this list, I factored in how often I can watch a film and Dog Day Afternoon is an example of a movie that never tires for me. If I catch it at any point and nothing else is on, it always rivets me to the end.

24 City Lights directed by Charles Chaplin

Has there ever been a more touching image placed on film that the ending of this silent film, made well after silent films were dead, when the newly sighted blind girl realizes her benefactor was a little tramp? I don't think so either.

23 Jaws directed by Steven Spielberg

The film that really put Spielberg on the pop culture map remains to me his greatest accomplishment. Two distinct and perfect halves: Terror on the beach followed by the brilliance of three men on a boat. It's also an example of how sometimes trashy novels can be turned into true works of film art in a way great novels usually miss the mark in translation.

22 Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski

There's a good reason that Robert Towne's screenplay often is cited as one of the great examples of writing for film. If only all scripts (including Robert Towne ones) were this superb.

21 Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder (like Howard Hawks) had the talent to soar in almost any genre and this quintessential film noir is a supreme example. How it lost the Oscar to Going My Way and Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson failed to get nominations still puzzles me. Wait – no it doesn't. The Academy is wrong much more often than they are right.

20 It's a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra

No one gives this film the credit for its darkness that it really deserves. This isn't sappy sentimental drivel, this is about a man who feels as if he's been pissed on all his life and finally reaches the end of his rope. James Stewart's talent, Capra's gifts and the script by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett make George Bailey's journey plausible and touching. Only a Mr. Potter could hate this film.

19 The Godfather directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It's almost become shorthand to argue that Part II is better than Part I in The Godfather trilogy, but I disagree. Part II is very good, but the original still takes the top spot in my book. I don't think the crosscutting of Michael and young Vito ever quite meshes and instead interrupts the rhythm of Part II. No such problem in the original, which is another example of making a movie masterpiece out of a pulpy novel. It set the template pretty much every mob movie or story to follow (though really, I think HBO's The Sopranos owes more to GoodFellas in its depiction of the everyday life of a gangster). Another great ensemble with the starmaking performance by Al Pacino as the reluctant heir to the family business and Marlon Brando with cotton in his cheeks yet still able to avoid the campiness that afflicted much of his later work.

18 Children of Paradise directed by Marcel Carné

This epic may be one of the least well-known great films of all time. It's even more extraordinary when you realize the condition it was filmed under in occupied France. Jean-Louis Barrault is brilliant as the gifted mime in love with a woman he saves from a false accusation of crime. The woman (Arletty) gets around, to say the least. It's romantic tragedy on a grand scale with a running time of nearly three hours (in some cuts, more than three hours) but it holds your attention throughout. Every movie lover owes it to themself to seek out this film if they haven't seen it. As Roger Ebert wrote in an appreciation of the film, "Carné was the leading French director of the decade 1935-1945, but to make this ambitious costume film during wartime required more than clout; it required reckless courage."

17 The General directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

When I wrote about The General recently for the 1927 blog-a-thon hosted at Goatdog's Blog , I wrote, "(T)hough The General provides plenty of laughs, it should really be classified more as an adventure than a comedy because it produces just as much suspense as silliness. It's also striking for a degree of realism in its Civil War setting that you wouldn't expect your run-of-the-mill comedy to take the effort to realize." Thankfully, the AFI corrected their 1998 error by including the film on this year's list.

16 Jules and Jim directed by François Truffaut

You would think that being in love with the same woman would provide irreparable harm to a friendship, but it doesn't always have to, even if odds are the triangle will not turn out well as in the case of Truffaut's beautiful tale. As Jim says at one point, "We played with life and lost." Truffaut played with film and certainly won, though anyone who loves his work can rightfully be called a winner as well. As Roger Ebert wrote in another of his appreciations, "There is joy in the filmmaking that feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time. In the energy pulsing from the screen you can see the style and sensibility that inspired Bonnie and Clyde, a film Truffaut was once going to direct, and which jolted American films out of their torpor."

15 Modern Times directed by Charles Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was audacious enough to continue making silent films (although he did allow for sound effects and an occasional song) all the way to 1936. In my opinion, he saved the Little Tramp's best for last in this hysterical tale of man vs. the modern age. The comedy is as funny as you'd expect and even more pointed than usual. Since Chaplin knew the Little Tramp was making his swan song, he even let him waddle off into the sunrise. Sound didn't stop Chaplin, who had two great sound efforts to come with The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. Still, his early works are the most precious gifts. Truly, his silence was golden.

14 The Third Man directed by Carol Reed

As I wrote when marking the 100th anniversary of Reed's birth (forgive my self-plagiarism, but it makes this enterprise go faster), "Rewatching The Third Man recently, it once again captivated me from the moment the great zither music by Anton Karas begins to play over the credits. ... If you haven't seen The Third Man (and shame on you if you call yourself a film buff and you haven't), watching the Criterion DVD really is the way to go, not only for a crisp print but to be able to compare the different versions offered for British and U.S. audiences (though only the different openings are included – we don't see what 17 minutes David Selznick cut for American audiences). With its great scenes of Vienna, sly performances and perhaps the greatest entrance of any character in movie history, The Third Man stays near the top of all films ever made, even nearly 60 years after its release."

13 Duck Soup directed by Leo McCarey

When Mickey (Woody Allen), depressed and suicidal, wanders into a movie theater in Hannah and Her Sisters, it's this inspired mixture of lunacy that bring him back around. After all, who can sit through the joy that is Duck Soup and not feel better afterward. There is no contest for me as to which Marx Brothers vehicle is the best. With its classic mirror scene and the loosest of plots designed to make the insanity of war look even crazier, I never get tired of Duck Soup. Watch it if only for the great Margaret Dumont. Remember, you are fighting for her honor, which is more than she ever did.

12 His Girl Friday directed by Howard Hawks

As a journalist, His Girl Friday contains one of my favorite nonsequiturs in the history of film. Delivered with frantic panache by Cary Grant as unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns: "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest." Oh yeah, this may also be one of the funniest films ever made with rapid fire dialogue, a great sparring partner for Grant in Rosalind Russell and a priceless supporting cast to boot. It's the best remake ever made (and the film it was based on, The Front Page, is pretty damn good too). Making Hildy Johnson a woman and Burns' ex-wife was a stroke of genius. Besides, when you watch any version of this story where Walter and Hildy are both men, it's clear this isn't a platonic working relationship. I don't advise any more remakes (forget Switching Channels, if you can), but I wonder how it would play if the leads were two gay men?

11 Singin' in the Rain directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Currently, we live in a time of a vicious circle: Movies inspire theatrical musicals which in turn become movie musicals (or in most cases, don't. Don't be looking for High Fidelity: The Musical on the big screen anytime soon). Still, there was a time when musicals were created as motion pictures. Singin' in the Rain is the very best example of one of those. The songs are great, the dance numbers are inspired and the performances are a joy. On top of that, it's even a Hollywood story, set in the awkward time between silent film and sound and milking plenty of laughs from the situation, especially through the spectacular performance of Jean Hagen as a silent superstar with a voice hardly made for sound and a personality barely suitable fir Earth. Gene Kelly gives his best performance and a young Debbie Reynolds shines and then there is Donald O'Connor making us all laugh. Singin' in the Rain decades later inspired (if that's the right word) a Broadway stage version. It wasn't very good. Stick with the movie.

10 The Purple Rose of Cairo directed by Woody Allen

When I wrote about this film for the Screenwriting Blog-a-Thon hosted by Mystery Man on Film, I said, "As far as I'm concerned, this film is Allen's masterpiece. Others will cite Annie Hall or Manhattan or some other titles and while I love Annie Hall and others as well, over time The Purple Rose of Cairo is the Allen screenplay that has reserved the fondest place in my heart. The screenplay isn't saddled with any extraneous scenes and no sequence falls flat as it builds toward its bittersweet ending. For me, it's Woody Allen's greatest screenplay and one of the best ever written as well." I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have said to me since I wrote that how they agree, even among moviegoers who declare themselves not to like Woody Allen as a rule. It's the perfect blend of comedy, fantasy and realism and one of the greatest depictions of the magic of movies ever put on film. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and his pith helmet step off the screen, the repercussions end up being both hilarious, touching and painfully real.

9 Sunset Boulevard directed by Billy Wilder

Of all the great films Billy Wilder made, this "Hollywood story" has always occupied the dearest place in my heart. It's funny, yet pretty bizarre when you get right down to it. William Holden is great as the cynical screenwriter out to sponge off a faded and perhaps delusion silent screen star (Gloria Swanson). With memorable line after memorable line, the screenplay almost deserves to be recited. Here's another example of a movie that got turned into a Broadway musical that never should have been. I hope few of you had the misfortune of seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber's monstrosity, which had pedestrian lyrics that seem lifted right out of The Simpsons parody of a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember many a debate among theater fanatics about whom was the best Norma. Was it Glenn Close? Patti LuPone? Betty Buckley? The answer is and always will be that there is only one great Norma Desmond and she was played by Gloria Swanson.

8 Rear Window directed by Alfred Hitchcock

When I wrote about Rear Window back in March, the post was inspired by my surprise that some Hitchcock fans find the film a lesser effort while I maintain it's Hitch's very best. Francois Truffaut wrote in his book "The Films in My Life," "...I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the 17 Hitchcock made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing." I concur. For me, Rear Window nearly is perfect and revisiting it only strengthened my resolve on the matter. It is the ultimate exploration of film as voyeurism and the most triumphant example of Hitchcock's attempts to use a confined setting for a movie as he tried in Lifeboat and Rope. He truly was in control of his full faculties as a director in terms of pacing and just about everything else you can imagine. On top of that, there is always the great sequence of the kiss. I'm as puzzled now as I was when I first heard the naysayers express their lack of love for this masterpiece.

7 Network directed by Sidney Lumet

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!" Do I need to say anything more?

6 Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese

Some people will pick Raging Bull as Martin Scorsese's greatest work or some will say Taxi Driver. Others, whom I presume are only saying it to be contrarians, will even cite New York, New York, which to me is overwhelming evidence as to why you should never take cocaine or date Liza Minnelli, let alone do both at the same time. For me though, GoodFellas is the Scorsese at his very best. Really, it is a virtual filmmaking class in the form of a feature movie. Watch it again and again, absorb and learn. Great use of camera? Check. Stunning cinematography? Check. Brilliant sound design? Check. How to use songs to make truly memorable montages? Check again. This is a movie that starts with Tony Bennett and ends with Sid Vicious. I love every minute of this movie, from the bravura sequences such as the tracking shot through the Copacabana, the discovery of corpses to the piano exit from "Layla" right down to the way Robert De Niro uses a bottle of ketchup.

5 Nashville directed by Robert Altman

Pauline Kael probably said it best when she wrote that you get elated by the images in Nashville. It's a movie that seems to get deeper and greater every time I see it. This is Robert Altman's masterpiece and I can't deny I let out a little cheer when I heard it made the new edition of the AFI list after being omitted before. Now that we have lost the great Altman, I'm guessing this film's reputation will only grow stronger, and deservedly so.

4 Casablanca directed by Michael Curtiz

The finest example to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system. When I hear young people say they've never seen it or (even worse) find Casablanca boring, it makes me fear for our future. I guess youth often is wasted on the young.

3 Citizen Kane directed by Orson Welles

When I wrote about Citizen Kane on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I asked, "Where does one begin writing about a film like Citizen Kane when so many words have been written about the film over the past 50 years that it seems every possible angle has been explored?" I still feel that way. It speaks for itself.

2 Dr. Strangelove directed by Stanley Kubrick

This film only gets funnier and more daring the longer time goes on, even when the Cold War has disappeared (for now). We can't afford a mine shaft gap, but this masterpiece has plenty of comic gold buried in its mines.

1 The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir

Picking No. 1 is always the most difficult task for me. My top 10 have remained fairly stable for years, but the order always shuffles a bit. Somehow though, more often than not, Jean Renoir's 1939 classic, almost lost to the world and not seen in the U.S. until the 1950s, always lands on top. Some day, when I'm not as exhausted, I'll discuss why in more detail.



Friday, June 22, 2007


Fading in the last leg

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Ambitious Failure Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by William Speruzzi at This Savage Art.

By Wagstaff
Unlike Edward Copeland’s experience with The Cotton Club — liking it as a youngster and then lowering his estimation on a more mature viewing — my encounter with Major Dundee was quite the opposite. The early pan-and-scan VHS version of Dundee, with its grainy print and washed-out colors was almost unwatchable. It was well known that Sam Peckinpah’s vision was butchered beyond repair by producer Jerry Bresler and Columbia Pictures. I had almost written the film off when news of a restored DVD version with additional footage and a new score got me excited again. By this time I was familiar with Peckinpah’s other work and I waited with baited breath for it to arrive from my Netflix queue. I wanted to call Major Dundee a major done deal.

Alas, while it wasn’t the forgotten masterpiece I had hoped for, it still had enough to keep any Peckinpah fan glued to the screen.

Major Dundee was Sam’s first feature after Ride the High Country, and it’s arguably his most ambitious; if not dramatically, then in terms of sheer scale and the logistics of production. I daresay it has more men and horses than any other Peckinpah film. Sure, he got to use a train and blow up a bridge in The Wild Bunch, but Major Dundee makes that film look like a chamber piece. Major Dundee was a grandly imposing yet necessary stumbling block on the road to The Wild Bunch’s greatness.

The story concerns a group of U.S. Cavalry in the Territory of New Mexico led by Maj. Amos Charles Dundee. They set out to destroy the Apache warrior Sierra Charriba, who has raided, sacked, and looted an area three times the size of Texas. It is during the waning days of the Civil War, and Maj. Dundee is short of men and supplies. He supplements his small group of scouts and army regulars by enlisting the aid of Confederate prisoners jailed under his command at Fort Benlin. He tells potential volunteers, “I need horse soldiers — men who can ride, men who can shoot. In return, I promise you nothing … saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly … and free air to breathe, fair share of tobacco, quarter pay … and my good will and best offices for pardons and paroles when I get back.” He also promises to shoot out of hand any deserters once they’ve signed up.

Maj. Dundee plans to avenge an entire company of men that were sent out of Fort Benlin only to be ambushed and massacred at the Rostes ranch. “I am Sierra Charriba! Who you send against me now?” boasts the fiercely cunning warrior. That man would be the equally fierce, but deeply flawed avenging angel, Maj. Dundee. The Apache practice after a raid is to keep the male children and train them to become part of the fighting tribe. Dundee also intends to get these children back. It is the winter of ’64, and Charriba and his gang of 47 warriors are wintering in French controlled Mexico. Maj. Dundee and company travel south to rescue the children and to pursue vengeance.

All this works wonderfully for the first hour or so. We sense Peckinpah doing some heavy lifting, moving large blocks of character and plot into place for something truly special. The acting is fantastic, the dialogue top-notch and rich with the kind of Western slang you’d expect from Peckinpah. It is replete with lines such as “You are a $70, red-wool, pure-quill military genius, or the biggest damn fool in northern Mexico” and “I want everyone under my command to be drunker than a fiddler’s bitch by nightfall.” (Where did Sam get this stuff?) The film is plenty atmospheric, the sense of time and place expert. Costumes and faces look authentic. The plot’s architectural design is complex and resonates with subtext. The deep divisions of Civil War America feel contentious and real. The racism of both North and South is convincing and honest. A brilliant tapestry of characterizations is woven into something ironic and satisfying. Then … it all falls apart. To borrow a quote from Dundee that could be about the film itself, “You were a rock once, now you’re crumbling like old chalk.” I’ll talk more about the “failure” part of “ambitious failure” in a moment, but first, the cast.

Richard Harris is outstanding as Capt. Benjamin Tyreen, leader of the Confederate prisoners — a man who, in Dundee’s words, is “a would-be cavalier, an Irish potato farmer with a plumed hat fighting for a white-columned plantation house you never had and never will.” Tyreen and Dundee know each other well; they have a history that goes way back. Dundee uses Tyreen’s outdated code of Southern chivalry — the honor of his word — to keep him and his men in line. Capt. Tyreen promises to kill the major, once the Apache are taken or destroyed. James Coburn is excellent as the one-armed scout Samuel Potts. He is knowledgeable and has a natural affinity for the Indians and Mexicans; but he will go with Dundee only so far. I’d wager that his viewpoint is the closest to Peckinpah’s; they even share the same first name. “They all look alike to you, don’t they?” he asks the major.

There is other stellar work from Jim Hutton as the green artillery man, Lt. Graham, who provides several doses of humor, and a slew of Peckinpah regulars such as Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates, who’s given a monologue and a chance to shine as a Southern deserter who gets executed. There also is sound work from Michael Anderson Jr. as Tim Ryan, the bugler whose journal narrates the movie, and whose loss of virginity gives the boys some sexist laughs.

At the heart of the movie is the mystery of Dundee himself. It is Charlton Heston’s most complex role. He is presented simply at first. “I have only three commands. When I signal you to come, you come. When I signal you to charge, you charge. When I signal you to run – you follow me and run like hell.” Then things get murkier. “Are you pursuing the Apache, Major, or a promotion?” The question is asked more than once, and we never find out the answer. Dundee has been demoted to jailer, something that rankles him no end, after “he tried to fight his own war at Gettysburg.” He secures the safe return of the captured children, but then still presses on deeper into the quagmire of Mexico, his men swamped on all sides by Confederates, Apaches, Mexicans, and the French. He is a man driven, but by what? After he “liberates” a Mexican village that has been previously “liberated” by the French, the peasants throw a fiesta, but Dundee doesn’t seem to enjoy it much. “You don’t have the temperament to be a liberator, Amos,” Tyreen tells him. When Amos and his band leave the village, the sequence becomes a harsher and more arid precursor to the similar sequence in The Wild Bunch where Pike and his gang leave the plush, Eden-like village in a drawn out celebration.

The problems in Major Dundee begin in hour two, just about the time the implausibly beautiful Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) shows up. A faltering midsection is then followed by a weak to nonexistent third act. I don’t care how much butchering Jerry Bresler did, nothing could have saved a script that was basically unfinished. It’s a damn shame too, because what’s left is sporadically interesting. You get the feeling that Sam Peckinpah’s logistical problems (he scouted locations in Mexico that were too far apart) the problems with the script, and Dundee’s arrow wound and subsequent drinking and moral disintegration, all mirror each other. By the end, even though they have killed Charriba, the best they can hope for is to fight their way across the Rio Grande and return safely to the U.S. The meandering folly of this ambitious failure is, if anything, even more pertinent today than it was in 1965. American idealism, foreign adventurism and a divided country are still with us. In spite of, or maybe even because of its failures, Major Dundee has weighty if deeply ambiguous things to say on these subjects.

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