Monday, April 25, 2011

My Favorite Films: From 70 to 61

Last month, I covered 80-71 of my favorite movies. This month, the countdown continues with an eclectic mix of films ranging from a B-mystery to a famous film noir with everything—a French classic, a George Stevens’ Western, jungle natives, and Spencer Tracy’s final screen appearance—in between. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

70. The Scarlet Claw - One of the best of all Sherlock Holmes films, this smart little mystery finds Holmes and Watson chasing a “phantom” over the marshes of Canada. The murderer, a former thespian, is a master of disguises—which sets the stage for several tense sequences. Nigel Bruce adds just the right amount of humor in this one and director Roy William Neill keeps the atmospheric proceedings moving at a snappy pace. This is easily my favorite Basil Rathbone Holmes film, to include the more expensive 20th Century-Fox pictures.

Roland Toutain and Jean Renior.
69. The Rules of the Game - Best described as a "comic tragedy," Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece focuses on three themes: the relationship between and among the frivolous upper-class and their servants; the complex emotions between men and women; and the boundaries and expectations of society (the "rules of the game"). I first saw it in a college film class in the 1970s and it left a lasting impression. Although some contemporary audiences may find parts of it dated, it’s easy to see why critics often rank Rules alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made.

68. The Road Warrior – Originally called Mad Max 2¸ this sequel surpasses the original in every way. Whereas 1979’s Mad Max drowned in a bleak view of a post-apocalyptic future, The Road Warrior creates a mythic portrait of its hero and presents a world with a glimmer of hope. It also doesn’t hurt that it features some of the most exhilarating chase scenes ever filmed and a star-making turn by Mel Gibson. It’s a near-perfect action film and the thematic parallels with Shane (see below) don’t hurt either.

67. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – It’s easy to find flaws in this not-very-controversial film about a young interracial couple who plan to marry despite the objections of both sets of parents. I suppose that audiences in 1967 might have been more shocked if the groom-to-be wasn’t a handsome, educated do-gooder played by Sidney Poitier. But even if it’s simplistic, this last pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is a heartfelt, impeccably-acted tale of love and understanding. It always leaves me with a good feeling.

66. The Naked Prey – Cornel Wilde (who also directs) plays an unnamed jungle safari guide who works for a cruel ivory hunter. When the ivory hunter offends a tribe of natives, the members of the hunting party are killed or captured and tortured to death...except for Wilde. He is stripped and sent into the veldt, with a slight head start and a group of warriors in hot pursuit. The rest of the film is a brutal saga of survival, as Wilde struggles to find food and water in addition to fending off his ever- present pursuers. Not for the squeamish, this unique action film relies on visual storytelling with minimal dialogue.

65. The Dirty Dozen – A recurring motif among my list of favorite movies is what I call the “Robin Hood theme” in which disparate characters come together to form a team. I don’t know…there’s just something entertaining about watching a bunch of folks bond en route to saving a village, overthrowing an evil prince, or defeating the Nazis. That leads us to The Dirty Dozen, which finds the defiant, but effective, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) faced with a dubious mission on the eve of D-Day. He must train twelve hardened military convicts to go behind enemy lines and assassinate a group of German generals cavorting in a well-guarded chateau. With an amusing first half and an exciting second half, The Dirty Dozen plays to the strength of its terrific cast, which includes Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine.

Edward Fox as The Jackal.
64. The Day of the Jackal – This taut tale of a 1962 plot to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle is potent example of the power of cinema. Despite knowing that the assassin—known only as The Jackal—is the villain, I find myself admiring his meticulous planning and (temporarily) rooting for him to accomplish his mission. Fortunately, a plot development late in the film always reels me back in so that I’m relieved when persevering detective Michael Lonsdale foils the Jackal at the final second. A clever plot, fine performances, and Fred Zinnemann’s expert use of European locations make this is a first-class thriller.

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
63. Laura – Otto Preminger’s film noir classic seems to improve with every viewing. What’s not to like? It features: one of the most memorable characters in the history of cinema (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker); a stunning plot twist involving the equally stunning Gene Tierney; a haunting music theme courtesy of David Raksin; and a detective hero whose obsession with the murder victim would be almost creepy in any other film.

62. The Charge of the Light Brigade – Often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, this Warner Bros. classic is nonetheless a top-notch historical action film. Against the backdrop of the Crimean War, Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles play brothers vying for the affections of Olivia de Havilland. An early scene informs us that Olivia’s character, though engaged to Flynn, has secretly fallen in love with Knowles. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Flynn’s British officer as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. I think it’s one of Flynn’s finest performances. The climatic charge, directed by Michael Curtiz, is an incredible sequence (although it resulted in many complaints over the mistreatment of horses).

61. Shane – I’m a sucker for a good tale of redemption and Shane is one of the best. Alan Ladd plays the former gunslinger who unexpectedly finds a home when he stops at a struggling farm. Shane fills a void in the life of each family member. For Joe, Shane is a “man’s man” willing to work or fight beside him—whether it’s a barroom brawl or the war against a villainous cattle baron. For the wife Marion, Shane is the attentive suitor, who notices the little things that her reliable, but bland husband never does. And for little Joey, Shane is a substitute father who takes time to bond with him—something his busy father has had little time to do. Like many of the great Westerns, the importance of family triumphs over all.

Next month, I’ll reach the halfway point of this list with two Malcolm McDowell movies, two films with snowy settings, a colorful Judy Holliday classic, and the only feature directed by a classic film star.


  1. Wow! Another terrific set of ten faves! Of these films, my favorites are THE ROAD WARRIOR, THE NAKED PREY, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, LAURA and SHANE (I thought you'd already included JACKAL but then remembered that you'd dedicated a post to it last month). You mentioned the "Robin Hood theme" in THE DIRTY DOZEN. Perhaps there's also a "Shane theme," as so many films deal with a loner who's taken in by a family, gets the attention of the wife, and becomes a surrogate father to a child. "Shaaaaaane!" I sometimes think Cornel Wilde's film is called THE NAKED JUNGLE; there's a reasonable mistake, isn't it? Rick, your monthly list of favorite films has been quite enjoyable and, as always, I'm looking forward to further entries.

  2. Great list! My favorites on it are: THE SCARLET CLAW (I agree with you, it's probably the best of the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, even if the setting is supposed to be Canada.) LAURA, DAY OF THE JACKAL, THE DIRTY DOZEN and SHANE. Terrific films.

  3. Rick, Awesome list!! I have seen the films: The Road Warrior, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Naked Prey, The Dirty Dozen, Laura and Shane. Even though, I do tend to be on the squeamish side, the film, Naked Prey.. is an amazing film.

  4. Sark, although I'd watched SHANE many times, I never considered that he was dying as he rode away until you pointed out that he was slumping in the saddle. Yvette, it's always great to hear from another fan of THE SCARLET CLAW. Dawn, I saw THE NAKED PREY on TV in the 1970s and became an instant fan. I never saw the original theatrical version until a year or so ago and was surprised by how potent some of the scenes were. It's a pretty gripping motion picture.

  5. Rick, I always look forward to your countdown list of favorite films. "The Scarlet Claw" is one of my favorite Holmes' films, even surpassing "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in its cleverness. I first saw "Laura" in a college film class and fell in love with film noir, Otto Preminger, and the elegance of Gene Tierney. The third film I'll comment on is "The Road Warrior." It was truly a trailblazing work of science fiction and introduced us to a very talented Mel Gibson, whose work I have subsequently admired in "Tim," the Lethal Weapon films with the equally fun Danny Glover, and "Braveheart." Great post and looking forward to your next installment!

  6. Rick, what an interesting group of films on this part of your list. I've never seen The Scarlet Claw, The Naked Prey, or The Day of the Jackal, but the rest were pretty good films. Of those on this month's list, I'd have to say Laura and The Rules of the Game are my favorites. However, I have a very soft spot in my heart for Shane--especially when Joey asks him to come back...I always get a little teary-eyed. Plus, Jack Palance was the best SOB ever--and named Wilson to boot.

  7. You know me, Rick -- Charge of the Light Brigade would have been higher on my list, but I was so tickled to see it on yours. It is just as good as you said, with Flynn's performance, and that fabulous charge!

    My other favorites of this bunch: The Scarlet Claw, Day of the Jackal, Dirty Dozen, Laura and Shane!

    Love these lists -- keep 'em coming!

  8. The Scarlet Claw, The Dirty Dozen, Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Naked Prey are all great favorites of mine.

    So is Shane, and I think Ben Johnson sometimes gets short shrift in it. It's probably my favorite Ben Johnson performance after Last Picture Show. But everyone is wonderful in it.

    A big black hole in my classic film viewing is foreign films. I really need to see Rules of the Game one day. Also need to see Children of Paradise too. I have nothing against foreign films and don't mind reading subtitles. Just never got around to them.

    Great picks, as usual.