New Year's Resolution Challenge Complete!

Back in January I decided to do a New Year's Resolution that I could actually stick to and asked friends on Facebook to recommend older films (preferably black and white) for me to watch. Since this is a part of my film viewing resume that is extremely lacking I figured it was a great opportunity to explore eras of cinema that I was previously not finding the time for. It took longer than expected for various reasons but here I am finished at last.

Below is a complete rundown, in alphabetical order, of my brief thoughts on the films that were suggested to me. Overall I was really impressed by what I saw and even the few I really didn't like I had been meaning to view someday so the reminder was appreciated. As always my ratings are on a 5 star scale (5 = Masterpiece, 4 = Excellent, 3 = Good, 2-1/2 = Mehh, 2 = Disappointing, 1 = A train wreck, 1/2 = Cinematic garbage.)

 

All Through the Night (1941)  (No Rating)

Recommended by: John Pena

Oh, how I'll celebrate when I finally get to watch this Bogart film. The story of me and John's disc of All Through the Night was quite a tale. First it got stuck in my PS3 because of some glue left behind from a former rental sticker that was on the inner ring. I took the PS3 apart, got the disc out, and patted myself on the back for being such a resourceful and clever individual...until the next morning when I noticed a large plastic cap from the interior of the Blu-ray player still sitting on my kitchen table that I had forgotten to install when I put it back together. No problem, right? I had already taken it apart once. So I took it back apart and while being a less resourceful but plenty forceful moron, I broke the Blu-ray player. 

Several weeks later after building a new PC, I decided to give it a second shot but only after cleaning the disc, of course. I have to say that whatever adhesive was used on this sticker must have been used at NASA to protect the Space Shuttle during reentry. Several rounds of Goo-Gone had no effect and to put the cherry on top I cracked the disc while trying desperately to get the gunk off. For those keeping score that's ATTN  - 2, Jerry/PS3/Goo-Gone - ZERO. I give up.

John, as soon as you or I find a copy of this movie we'll have to have a viewing party.

 

The Big Heat (1953)  ★★★½

Recommended by: Don Henderson

Glenn Ford was great in this noir thriller from director Fritz Lang. The scenes with him and his wife were a little too saccharine and a plot twist with her all but had a warning flash on the screen but other than that I really enjoyed watching Ford relentlessly dog the crime boss Lagana who ran the town. One of the highlights of going through these old films was seeing stars that I had previously only seen in advanced age on the screen in their prime. I think my only exposure to Ford was when he played Clark Kent's father in the 1978 version of Superman. Lee Marvin also makes an appearance here in his late 20s as Lagana's second-in-command.

 

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)  ★★½

Recommended by: John Pena

While Creature from the Black Lagoon suffers from a small scale and typical '50's movie cheese, it does have two things going for it which save it from the dumpster of silver age "creature features": some fantastic underwater cinematography and a monster who I think stands the test of time when it comes to special effects. As guys in a rubber suit go, the Gill-man is effectively creepy and agile at a time where many monster suits came off as clunky and ill-conceived due to budget constraints. They also do a great job of hiding what the creature looks like for quite some time. My favorite moment was a great underwater shot where the Creature swims upside down just feet below the woman he's stalking as she explores the lagoon. I still remember my dad bringing home 3-D glasses from (I think) 7-Eleven to watch this on Son of Svengoolie in the '80s.

 

Double Indemnity (1944)  ★★★★

Recommended by: Don Henderson

As someone who only knew Fred MacMurray as the smiling nice guy from Disney films and the television series My Three Sons, it was fun watching him as an insurance salesman trying to get  away with murder while constantly calling his accomplice and would-be lover "baby" in that way which only works in film noir. Edward G. Robinson is the claims adjuster who's friends with MacMurray and doesn't know his friend is in on the death connected to the insurance claim he's sure isn't as clean cut as it seems. One thing I learned from watching these noir films of the '40s and '50s is that they relied heavily on a leading man who could sell the attitude and sometimes silliness of the dialog or they would completely fall apart. I don't think there's any middle ground. You either sound ridiculous or you sound like the coolest guy in the room as MacMurray seems to pull off effortlessly here.

 

Fail-Safe (1964)  ★★★★

Recommended by: Adski Badski

Director Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe was not only a true highlight of all the films I watched but I consider it to be the definitive Cold War thriller of that era, let alone 1964. As much as I love Stanley Kubrick, I've yet to fall under the spell of Dr. Strangelove; as sacrilege as that may be for a cinephile.

The great Henry Fonda plays the POTUS who's trying to avert nuclear war when an American bomber squadron accidentally heads towards Moscow ready to drop their bombs. Stunning black and white cinematography helps ratchet up the tension in this film which also includes actors Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman, Walter Matthau, and Dan O'Herlihy. This one will definitely end up on my shelf when it gets a Blu-ray release.

 

Grand Illusion (1937)  ★★★

Recommended by: Jason King

Something about Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion left me a little cold and I could never really get into what was happening to the characters in this story about imprisoned French soldiers plotting an escape during World War I. Still, there are gorgeous shots of the German countryside and Jean Gabin is in fine form as Lieutenant Maréchal. Another high point is the friendship that develops between the French prisoner Captain de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, the German officer who shot them down and is eventually the commander of the fortress they are held prisoner in.

 

House on Haunted Hill (1959)  ★★★

Recommended by: Kevin O'Keefe

As expected from a '50s William Castle movie, this one is pretty dated with some terrible acting but it's also a lot of fun with inventive scares and the incomparable Vincent Price starring as an odd millionaire who invites people to stay in a haunted house for a chance to win $10,000. If you can stand actress Carolyn Craig's constant shrill screaming this is a great one to add to your list for Halloween marathons and is also safe for kids.

 

The Killing (1956)  ★★★★

Recommended by: Cinema Sandwich's own Matt VanGronigen

The first full-length feature film with a professional crew from director Stanley Kubrick is a brilliant tale about a group of men planning a racetrack robbery. One of my favorite examples of film noir I've watched so far; I never would have guessed this was a Kubrick film if I didn't know going in. Quentin Tarantino sites this as an influence on his debut film Reservoir Dogs. The way events are staged during the robbery and shown again from different perspectives as the story climaxes is just perfect and you're left just shaking your head at some of the decisions these men make. 

 

The King and I (1956)  ★★½

Recommended by: Brian Doyle

It's time for me to just accept that I'm not into musicals. With the exception of Singin' in the RainThe Wizard of Oz, and Disney's best efforts; I just end up tuning out wondering why they are taking forever saying in a song what can be handled in a minute or less of dialog. Yul Brynner's King Mongkut is a goofy caricature and maybe this was feminism in the '50s but the way Anna acts tough but constantly capitulates to the King's ridiculous antics is somewhat embarrassing. The costume design and set decoration are great and this is another selection with some excellent cinematography (it was one of only two films shot in CinemaScope 55mm format.) I think I need to give musicals a rest for awhile.

 

Laura (1944)  ★★★

Recommended by: Matt VanGronigen

Laura was entertaining but ultimately somewhat forgettable. One of the reasons is that I felt it failed what I mentioned earlier: that these films need a strong leading man. Dana Andrews as detective Mark McPherson (who's investigating the murder of the titular character) just didn't work for me. What propped this film up in the end though were two great supporting turns by Clifton Webb, as Laura's older friend and mentor Waldo Lydecker, and Vincent Price who played Laura's lout of a fiancé, Shelby. I found it interesting that producer/director Otto Preminger had to campaign to get Webb cast while also battling studio head Darryl Zanuck and others on a number of issues. 

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)  ★★½

Recommended by: Don Henderson

Being a 1929 Russian silent film with no actors or story, I completely understand the historical and technical importance of Man with a Movie Camera, however, that didn't make it any easier of a watch for me. Even at a slight runtime of 68 minutes I found it hard to stay interested at the random images flashing before me. It may have been groundbreaking in its time but with such masterpieces as Baraka and Samsara being produced today which show life unfolding through gorgeous imagery; it's hard to go back and not feel the scope is limited. 

 

Morvern Callar (2002)  ★★★½

Recommended by: Shane "The Pain" Schubbe

Since it's from 2002, Morvern Callar didn't exactly match the description of old or black and white that I requested but I'm very glad Shane recommended it because I don't see any way it ever would have come under my radar. In short this is about a Scottish woman played by Minority Report's Samantha Morton who awakens to find her boyfriend has committed suicide. I'll leave you to discover the rest as it never goes where you think it's going to and doesn't try to answer all the questions it will undoubtedly raise in its audience's minds. It's also filled with great atmosphere and an outstanding selection of music.

 

The Naked City (1948)  ★★★½

Recommended by: Don Henderson

The Naked City had potential to be a genuine masterpiece of film noir. Barry Fitzgerald is an absolute delight as veteran homicide detective Dan Muldoon who's investigating the death of a model and the entire movie is like a time capsule of 1940s New York City including some wonderful aerial shots. Unfortunately, producer Mark Hellinger insisted on narrating throughout the film and it gets increasingly irritating as if your hand is being held the entire time. Just as annoying was Don Taylor as inexperienced cop Jimmy Halloran. His simpleton routine was already tiresome but it reached its height during an unneeded scene showing him at home being a bumbling husband afraid to discipline his son the way his wife saw fit. Remove those two bumps in the road and this easily could have earned another star from me. As it is it's still a great picture.

 

Paths of Glory (1957)  ★★★★

Recommended by: Jason King

Another impressive early effort from director Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory is the first of several anti-war films he would make throughout his career. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, who must defend his men against a charge of cowardice after they refuse to continue a suicidal mission during World War I. Watching these two early Kubrick films has convinced me to seek out all of his work from the '50s and '60s when he was making movies at a much more prolific pace than the later part of his career.

 

The Penalty (1920)  ★★★½

Recommended by: Micah Black

This was the first silent film I had ever watched from start to finish. It's a testament to the fact that if your story is good enough and there is skill in front of and behind the camera that's really all you need for a compelling cinematic experience. I've read about Lon Chaney before but had never seen any of his work. He went through excruciatingly painful costuming to appear to have no legs and it's completely convincing. The story gets a little silly towards the end but Chaney truly is a wonder to behold and it's worth watching simply for his commanding performance alone.

 

Porky's (1982)  ★

Recommended by: Bruce Appino

In all fairness it's worth mentioning that I believe Bruce suggested this movie jokingly but I was glad he did because it was one 1980s comedy I had never had time to catch up with. I vividly remember always looking at the box at the video store when I was a kid after hearing stories of the infamous shower room scene but an actual viewing eluded me much to my youthful dismay.

Frankly, now that I've seen it I can only say that I gave it one star instead of only half out of respect for director Bob Clark who, only one year later, would go on to direct a true gem and one of my all-time favorite movies, A Christmas Story. Porky's is spectacularly unfunny. I think I maybe smirked once but I can't remember what for. It's an amateurish clumsy mess and also veers dangerously close to being racist and anti-Semitic with its choice of humor (though it does try and lazily make up for it by chastising the characters who make the offensive remarks.) With there being so many great comedies from the '80s that were often lewd or offensive in a much more sophisticated manner; there's just no excuse for this one to be so poorly made. I'm astonished there are actually TWO sequels.

 

Rear Window (1954)  ★★★★★

Recommended by: Bruce Appino

I was lucky enough to catch Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window in the theater as it was part of Cinemark's Classic Film Series. Hitch's Vertigo may be getting all the press lately as it was recently ranked the #1 film of all-time in Sight & Sound's critics poll which takes place every ten years, however, in my opinion Vertigo isn't nearly the masterpiece that Rear Window is. The way this apartment building set was designed is pure genius and it was a character all in itself along with Jimmy Stewart, the gorgeous Grace Kelly, and all the other tenants that Stewart watches from his wheelchair. I loved the shots of Raymond Burr smoking in his dark apartment, only the cigarette's slow burn to be seen, matching the feeling of both the viewer and the events unfolding on screen. Hitchcock's use of color is just as stunning here as it is in Vertigo but the story is much more fascinating and I found myself completely hooked and eager to discover if Stewart's L.B. Jefferies had really discovered a nefarious plot by his neighbor and if he was dumb enough to push away his devoted girlfriend played by Kelly. I can't wait to watch this one again soon.

 

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)  ½-★

Recommended by: Brett Swanstrom

It's great to have long-time friends. It's even better to have a long-time friend who is a card-carrying professional smartass like Mr. Swanstrom. Of all the people who suggested movies to me, he was the only one to go out of his way to put forth a movie so terrible it often shows up on "Worst of All-Time" lists.

I have to confirm that SCCTM is truly a steaming pile of garbage. It's creepy (Santa often laughs awkwardly for no apparent reason), dumb, and has some of the worst costumes I've ever seen. Even Ed Wood has better sets and alien costumes in Plan 9 From Outer Space. I think my favorite moment was when an actor in a horribly disturbing polar bear costume that looks like it was rejected from a shopping mall Christmas display threatens two children at the North Pole who are severely underdressed and would have been in danger of death from hypothermia. I was lucky (?) enough to catch this on the big screen since it was featured during this year's 24-hour B-Fest at Northwestern University.

 

Sunset Boulevard (1950)  ★★★★

Recommended by: Don Henderson

My initial reaction to Gloria Swanson's performance as washed up silent film star Norma Desmond was that it was simply bizarre and off-putting. At some point though I got it and I began to love every second she was on screen. This was a character who was constantly "on". It was as if she was starring in a silent film every second of her life and she had no control over the compulsion to play to the balcony. I also loved Nancy Olson as script reader Betty Schaefer who eventually falls for William Holden's Joe Gillis who's involved in a parasitic relationship with Norma. Women like Nancy in these old films have a beauty, grace, and (most importantly) dignity about them that's completely lost today. Austrian director, actor, and producer Erich von Stroheim is perfect as Norma's diligent butler and many Hollywood legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, and Hedda Hopper appear as themselves. It's always great when these classics I've heard so much about live up to their reputations.