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Burgess's Top 10 Classic Flicks

Movies to hunker down with.

By Steve Burgess 1 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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What's your favourite classic flick?

When I finally signed up for the full meal cable deal, I anticipated commercial-free delights on the premium movie channels, located up in the 60s. As it turns out, the best movie channel is down the dial at 46. Turner Classic Movies library fills the frustrating gap left by most local video chains. Unless you're in the Videomatica neighbourhood (in Vancouver's Kitsilano) it's pretty hard to drop into the local video store and find a 40s or 50s classic. Now that I'm plugged in to TCM, I haven't visited a video store in months.

Turner Classic Movies offers a veritable tutorial on film history, going beyond the familiar classics to the second and third tier of the cinematic canon. Most of us have seen Citizen Kane by this time, and TCM has that. But TCM also offers the rest of Welles's troubled oeuvre: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil have all aired in recent weeks. The best-known film noir standards are paired with less famous examples of the genre, like Force of Evil, a 1948 flick with one of the more unusual subjects of any film (it's about a scheme to monopolize the numbers trade). The channel also offers lowbrow fun with camp offerings like Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And it was only last week that I finally saw the cheesy yet seminal 1963 special effects epic Jason and the Argonauts, complete with the battling skeletons. That's what Saturday night TV ought to be about.

TCM can help you rediscover old greats, and shine a revealing light on certain other "classics." 1955's The Night of the Hunter, for example. Famous as one of critic Pauline Kael's favourite films, the Charles Laughton-directed flick stars Robert Mitchum as an evil preacher. I saw it as a teenager and remember it as godawful. Yet it is consistently ranked as one of the greats, so I was grateful to have a second look. For five minutes, anyway -- the movie stinks. Sorry, Pauline.

All this TCM watching has made me reflect. Thus inspired, I have compiled a list of 10 film favourites. They're not all obscure, but I have tried to avoid the obvious choices -- no need to mention Casablanca at this point:

'Sweet Smell of Success'

In this 1957 black and white gem, Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, a character based on powerful gossip baron Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis plays press agent Sidney Falco, whose livelihood depends on getting names into J.J.'s column. No private detectives or scheming femmes fatale, but this qualifies as classic film noir anyway. It flopped on first release but was rediscovered when it started showing up on late night TV. Simply one of the all-time greats, full of quotable lines like: "You're a cookie full of arsenic."

'Brief Encounter'

A 1945 David Lean movie that bears no relation to later epics like Lawrence of Arabia. This is one of the most heartbreaking romances ever made, detailing a chaste yet passionate affair with a humanity that few Hollywood movies ever approach. Based on a Noel Coward play.

'A Night to Remember'

Proof that history trumps bullshit. This 1958 black and white epic is the definitive retelling of the Titanic disaster, based on Walter Lord's book. It's a lesson Hollywood never seems to learn -- why make up plot twists or fictional lovebirds when history can be so much more compelling told straight?


Still Terrence Malick's best film for my money. Based on the murderous rampage of Charlie Starkweather (also the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album), 1973's Badlands employs the ingenious technique of having his killing spree narrated by a silly and romantic teenager (Sissy Spacek), neatly demonstrating how psychopaths are glorified in the retelling of their crimes. As with later Malick films, it is also a feast for the eyes -- visual poetry about horror.

'Miami Blues'

A classic? Maybe. But this darkly funny 1990 thriller definitely deserves more attention. Miami Blues is one of those little movies that is so clever and well made that it rises above its station. Possibly Alec Baldwin's best role as Fred Frenger, a charismatic thief/con man with a dream. Fred Ward is great as a detective whose teeth and badge have been stolen. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a rookie hooker, aptly characterized at one point as "Princess Not-So-Bright," but smart enough to conduct a little experiment involving vinegar pie.


I haven't seen director Whit Stillman's 1989 debut in a while, and I'm getting all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it. A film that recreates a little world and wraps you up in a way you don't expect. In this case, the world is one of upper class, snobbish, self-involved yet strangely endearing New York teenagers who adopt a genteel interloper with only one good shirt.


Another gentle piece of cinema that creates its own world -- in this case, the next one. Set in a drab way-station between life and eternity, Afterlife depicts Heaven's office staff, whose job is to help the recently departed select the one memory that they will live out forevermore. The chosen memory is then recreated on film sets that are wonderfully low-tech -- you'd think Heaven would have more of a budget. But why haven't the office staff moved on to eternity themselves? They each have their reasons. (This being a Japanese film, all of the recently deceased people are Japanese. Maybe Canada gets a separate office.)

'The Third Man'

Not exactly obscure, but so good it must be lauded at every opportunity. One of those movies that gets better with every viewing, it has the courage to portray its main character as a third-rate author and naïve dupe, knowing that we will not think the less of him for that. One of the most famous Orson Welles films, and he didn't even direct it -- Carol Reed directed from a Graham Greene script about a man who travels to post-war Vienna, on the invitation of a friend who turns out to be dead. Welles stars as the unscrupulous Harry Lime. But if you haven't seen it I've already said too much. Although Welles has the most-quoted speech in the film, my own favorite lines are, "Balloon, Mein Herr?" and "I never knew they had snake charmers in Texas…"

'The Maltese Falcon'

OK, it's another obvious one. But watching it again recently I found myself wondering if a more perfect movie has ever been made. Arguably the quintessential Bogie film, and director John Huston's masterpiece. Fantastically memorable characters like Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) don't even show up until the movie is well underway. It does what the only the greatest movies can: weaving a perfect spell never broken by a false word or moment. It may be even more compelling now than when it first appeared in 1941, since now it also works as a period piece. And remember, when you're slapped, you'll take it and like it.

'Roman Holiday'

Also justly famous, but I can't resist plugging it. Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough film and still her best, it features the real live city of Rome instead of the movie sets typical for movies of the time (1953). Gregory Peck is the perfect foil for the dazzling Hepburn and Eddie Albert is almost unrecognizable as the bohemian photographer. You won't even be able to hum "Green Acres." Cinematic perfection, and far superior to the iconic Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany's.  [Tyee]

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