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A Beginner's Guide to Classic Films

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | July 21, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | July 21, 2009 |

I don’t normally hold it against a person under a certain age if they don’t have much familiarity with the classics (unless they boast about their stubborn ignorance). It wasn’t until a heady summer when I was in my early 20s, in fact, before I immersed myself into black and white film. There was a DVD delivery service in Boston in the late 90s, a precursor to Netflix (I forget what it’s called), where you could order a DVD, a frozen pizza, and a pint of ice cream and have it bicycle delivered to your apartment in under an hour. I kept that place in business for three months, watching my way through Cary Grant, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, the Hepburns, and Brando, among many others. (I believe the business went under within a year).

But if you’re coming of movie age today, it’s harder and harder to know where to start. The classics don’t air on television that frequently, and movie blogs like our own are too obsessed with Avatar and (500) Days of Summer to explore the classics very often (let it be known, also, that reviews of old black-and-white movies are typically not as popular, even here). So, where do you begin if you’ve finally gotten over the idea that old movies are for dull, pretentious people and you’ve decided to put aside your biases against B&W.

I couldn’t really say for sure, but below is a very crude guide — modeled mostly after my own experiences — meant to assist you in this endeavor. This is from a film lovers’ perspective, and not from the point of view of a film scholar (our newest contributor, Drew Morton, handles intellectual duties). There are hundreds of great classics, but in my own movie-watching experience, I find the these movies the most accessible to modern mainstream audiences. I’ve only named 30, so obviously there are plenty that I’ve left off. But for the uninitiated, this represents something of an earnest, very rudimentary Beginner’s Guide to Classic Movies.

Bonnie and Clyde Action and Western — Forty years removed, there are two ways to look at Bonnie and Clyde — as a movie standing on its own two feet, and as a moment in the history of American cinema. Looking at it the first way, within the black box of a darkened theater, Bonnie and Clyde is simply a great film. First and foremost, it is absolutely loaded with excellent performances. Warren Beatty is fantastic as Clyde, portraying the robber as a curious mix of sly sarcasm and outward confidence, inner weakness and the occasional simmering anger. He’s charming as hell and, were I a man who swung a different way, I might say he’s in his luscious prime. Of course, my heterosexuality can remain entirely comforted by the fact that Faye Dunaway, as Bonnie, is also in her luscious prime. In one of her first film roles, the then 26-year-old actually (arguably) one-ups Beatty’s charm with her own glittering eye and sex-pot charisma. And while Beatty and Dunaway could’ve carried this movie all on their own, they don’t have to. There’s also a shockingly young Gene Hackman as Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck, who joins the Barrow Gang with his reluctant wife, the endlessly annoying Blanche (played by Estelle Parsons, the one Oscar-winning performance of the movie, despite a host of nominations). And the gang’s rounded out by C.W. Moss, played by Michael J. Pollard, the delightfully nebbish and dim former gas clerk who unwittingly leads to Bonnie and Clyde’s gruesome end (most assuredly more on that, in a bit). As I mention, while only Parsons won an Oscar, the rest were all deservedly nominated — each performance brings something to the table and, regardless of any other aspect of this flick, makes the movie worth a view.

If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll may also like: The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, Bridge on the River Kwai and The Dirty Dozen.

On the Waterfront Drama: On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan, surrounds Marlon Brando with enough timeless quality to earn a place as one of the greatest movies ever made. The story of corruption among New York dockworkers, it’s most often represented by the clip of Terry Malloy, the ex-boxer played by Brando, telling his brother Charlie (Steiger) that he “coulda been a contender.” It’s a great scene, but one of the most pointed in the movie, and Brando’s subtle performance is even more impressive taken as a whole. Living in a time when realistic acting often means just bringing your own personality’s strengths to the screen (see Vince Vaughn in his most entertaining efforts and then on the talk shows), we could all learn a lot by watching Brando’s earliest film work. Like spinning Revolver or Rubber Soul, it will make you simultaneously pine for the good old days and something truly new.

If you like On the Waterfront, you may also like To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rebel Without a Cause, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Apartment Romance and ScrewballThe Apartment, a success with both critics and audiences in 1960, was also the last black and white film (with the exception of 1993’s Schindler’s List) to win the Best Picture Oscar (Wilder also won for best director and best original screenplay). But from the perspective of 2009, the miracle of The Apartment is that, despite the fact that it was released 49 years ago, it remains refreshingly new and surprisingly contemporary. Unlike modern romantic comedies, there’s no outrageous conceit, no gimmicky premise, no zingers, dick jokes, or pratfalls. Nor does The Apartment feature gastric humor, zany madcappery, or hijinx. Hell, no one even raises a voice or slams a door in The Apartment. It’s a simple, straightforward, single plotline movie with killer dialogue and amazing performances. But what really gets to me about The Apartment is that it’s one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen, yet there is not one single kiss in the entire film — the mushiest thing anyone says, really, is “shut up and deal,” four words that— cinematically speaking —- have never melted my heart more. And the biggest irony of all is that The Apartment is the anti-romantic comedy: A brilliantly dark, caustic tale of adultery, corporate whoredom, and what it takes to get ahead, featuring illicit affairs, sleazy pricks, and even suicide attempts; it takes up space on the film spectrum somewhere between farce, drama, and a morality tale.

If you like The Apartment, you may also like: Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot and His Girl Friday.

Rope Hitchcock — Alfred Hitchock, by and large, is already a fairly accessible director, although in some instances, you may find that his ideas have already been completely exhausted by modern cinema, so some of the plots, anyway, may feel old hat. But Rope still feels fresh to me, even putting aside the remarkable technical achievement: It looks as though it were filmed in one continuous shot (thanks to some creative editing), although in reality, it’s made up of several eight-minute shots (the length of film reel in 1948). Simply put, it’s about a group of wealthy society brats who decide, for the fun of it, to see if they can commit the perfect crime for their own, hedonistic edification. They murder a former classmate, hide him in a chest, which they then use as a buffet table for a cocktail party at which, among others, a former professor (Jimmy Stewart) — who once espoused thee intellectual concepts ofNietzsche’s Übermensch and the art of murder — is in attendance. It’s a remarkably simple, yet richly compelling movie, noted mostly for the gimmick it employed. And although it’s one of his lesser seen films, I think the melodrama and the bullshit faux philosophizing actually make it more accessible than his better known works. Plus, it’s just a fun goddamn movie.

If you like Rope, you may also like Notorious, North by Northwest, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and Vertigo.

Double Indemnity Noir — The 1944 classic, Wilder’s third film, is considered one of the first film noirs, an influential project that combined German Expressionist lighting (dim, moody, and shadowy), voice-over narration, sinister themes and amoral protagonists, specifically the film’s femme fatale, who would inspire a series of bad-girl movies in the ’40s and ’50s. I mean, for its time, Double Indemnity was dark, man. Like, David Fincher’s lighting crossed the Coen Brothers’ cynical view of humanity. The two main characters, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanywick) were perhaps as pure evil as any two characters to inhabit the screen up until that point — the Mickey and Mallory Knox of their time, an adulterous couple driven to their demise because of simple overpowering lust and greed. With the huge commercial and critical success of Indemnity (which garnered seven Oscar nominations), Wilder opened up the door for a series of films dealing with doomed antiheroes and the sleazy underbelly of sexual passion. Moreover, there was no tacked-on Hollywood ending in Double Indemnity; there was nothing thrown in to redeem either Walter or Phyllis. They were just bad goddamn people, and if there were any take-home message in Double Indemnity, it was this: If you’re not careful, the smell of honeysuckle will drive you to an early fucking grave.

If you like Double Indemnity, you may also like The Third Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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