Thursday, October 31, 2013

Movies Built To Last

Last month I blogged on some of the movies I return to again and again. As with any list, there were some that I didn't get around to. So here’s a roundup of some of the stray dogies I didn’t corral. Only some? Well, there's more than a handful of films that are in it for the long haul; the more I think about it, the more the list grows. Note: as in the last blog ("Can't Wear 'Em Out"), I list at the end of each entry an estimate of how many times I've seen the movie.

Double Indemnity (1944). For about 20 years I looked for this all over Birmingham. Nobody-rental stores, libraries, friends-had it. It must have been out of print. Then it started cropping up and I watched it. It was more than worth the long wait. Though I still had some reservations about Fred MacMurray playing a heavy. I'd grown up with MacMurray as the All-American nice guy in My Three Sons and scrubbed clean Disney movies. It was a hard sell on his part. I couldn't have been reversed more. Good actors have range; it's as straightforward as that. This is one of the most affecting slide-into-evil portrayals in movie history. His insurance man character tries to get away with murder with the help of partner (Barbara Stanwyck, also brilliant). What a ferociously tangled web they weave, and it's a pleasure to get caught up in this consummately rotten world all over again. Brilliant, diamond-hard, pitiless dialogue by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler is essential to the success of this noir tale. About 8 times.

Sunset Boulevard (1952). Like Double Indemnity, another Billy Wilder-directed triumph, another landmark in film noir history and another tale of doomed love. The tone is different from Double Indemnity, though, in that there's way more humor and a subplot of romance to somewhat lighten the overall darkness. Gloria Swanson plays a past-it silent film star who sees Bill Holden's screenwriter character as a ticket back to the limelight. She tries to swallow him whole; he eventually tries to redeem himself. The movie's a paradox. It's the bitterest indictment of Hollywood ever, yet it was made as a major Tinseltown offering. This shadowy (and shadows have never been better photographed than in Sunset and Double), campy, gothic, witty, pathetic world of loss is one that's so rich, you still see new facets in it after many viewings (as those adjectives might suggest.) More than a few repeats is best for me. About 8 times.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Peter O'Toole's stint as T. E. Lawrence may strike you as overdramatic until you consider that the original was more than a bit of a showman. It's compelling to watch a man assume heroic proportions while going bonkers at the same time. The unearthly desert landscapes are continually astonishing to look at and also function as corollaries to the isolation and alienation going on in Lawrence's head. About 10 times.

Since Halloween is today, here's a couple of horror stalwarts sure not to bore. Genre-defying stalwarts, too.

Beetlejuice (1988). An ultra-conventional couple dies, and when they realize it, they discover that navigating the afterlife is infinitely tougher than getting through life on our side. A plus is that all this adapting makes them more interesting and more sympathetic. Their biggest problem, though, is Beetlejuice, a "bio-exorcist" who promises to rid them of the live people inhabiting their old house. Since this is a Tim Burton movie, and it's from his stronger, earlier years, it's enormous fun, full of zaniness, good in-jokes, on-target satire and celebration/mockery of gothic tropes. One of the best rollercoaster rides ever, but it's much more than merely that. It is showtime. Around 10 times.

The Shining (1980). Despite what the goofballs in Room 237 might make you think, there is nothing necessarily mentally dubious about watching The Shining many times over. No one will want to document you on film. Stanley Kubrick's epic horror national ritual movie will appeal to anyone who appreciates subtle, hidden layers which reveal themselves only after the first two-three times you watch it. There's plenty of shock horror too, of course, but even that morphs every couple of viewings into new takes on old expectations. Stephen Spielberg told friend Kubrick that Jack Nicholson's essay was "one of the great Kabuki performances" of all time. It's that, too, but it's a lot more, as Spielberg would later admit. One critic recently called the movie a screwball comedy and he's partly right, too. It does get funnier after about 8 times. But the first time I saw it it terrified me, something horror movies almost never do. The Shining can provoke an enormous range of emotions the first time and over the long haul, like a good novel. At least 10 times.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department

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