Ben-Hur (1959) So here’s something: I love Biblical epics from the 1950s and 60s, but I have yet to encounter one I’d call a great film. They’re splendid entertainments and, more importantly (to me, at least), the sort of impressive done-for-real cast-of-thousands productions you don’t find in today’s CG-loaded features. In addition to the spectacle, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur provides the sort of quiet human drama often overlooked in the genre – for all of Heston’s hammy overreach, he also delivers some touching moments where his character’s pain peeks through. But like I said, I can’t quite call it a great film, just a very good one. It’s about an hour too long, with producers mistaking excess for dramatic grandeur. There’s a lot we simply don’t need, leaving us slogging through long patches of wooden pageantry and repetitive dialogue in order to get to the meat of the story. Perhaps paradoxically, Judah’s personal spiritual journey feels muted and underdeveloped; this is mainly a result of screenwriters deliberately toning down the the more heavy-handed Christian aspects of the original novel, but the story filler can also be to blame, causing the film to lose just enough of its focus. But back to the good: good performances, great production value, and two jaw-dropping action sequences. The chariot scene, yes, but also the first act’s sea battle, which has some of the best stunts and effects work I’ve ever seen.
This Gun for Hire (1942) This adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, a blend of early noir and spy thriller, is hard to pin down. Not content to offer easy answers or pander to its wartime audience, the film gives us characters who live squarely in a world of greys – most notably its hitman hero (Alan Ladd, and it’s easy to see why the role made him a star; he even manages to upstage Veronica Lake), a sociopath who’s bent on revenge, not justice or patriotism, despite a plot which places him against a fifth column conspiracy. Change out the leading man with someone more innocent and you might wind up with a breezy Hitchcock thriller, but here, where our hero is unquestionably vile, the story becomes dark, uneasy stuff as it convinces us to sympathize with – and even root for – him. And we do.
The Wild One (1953) “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” “How about a silly, sometimes sharp, mostly too self-serious juvie panic flick from the 50s that has a rough time with its square attitude toward a specific subculture that now seems a quaint caricature, especially when focused on a lead performance that comes across as less iconic and more parodic these days?”
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) It’s quiet and contemplative in ways few others of its genre attempt – but it’s also just as pompous, perhaps more so. Depending on one’s mood, the film’s near-whispered tones and unhurried pace can be seen as either solemn or sluggish, graceful or pretentious. This time around, I found George Stevens’ direction to be exquisite, especially in the use of location shooting which open up the story and remove it from the stagey look of its predecessors, adding a certain poetry to the reverence. Of course, the film is mainly remembered for its performances; the leads are mostly stunning (my favorite being Claude Rains, who’s haunting as a completely off his rocker Herod), while the infamous pile of cameos are (mostly) not as distracting as the film’s reputation may suggest. Except for John Wayne as a Roman centurion who comes out of nowhere, says one line, then disappears, because, you know, John Wayne as a Roman centurion who comes out of nowhere, says one line, then disappears.
Mirror Mirror (2012) I can’t tell if it started as a glossy-funky art house upgrade that got turned into a comedy midway through or if it started out as a Shrek-y fairy tale send-up that got arted up once Tarsem came on board. Either way, the film plays out as Tim Burton Lite (although, let’s be honest, everything Tim Burton’s done in the past decade is Tim Burton Lite, but you get the point), glorious visuals and some nice performances getting lost amid the camp. And while I’d like to think it would’ve played out better without the comedy (or, at least, that particular brand of self-aware snark), but I’m not sure even a more serious approach would help it, considering Tarsem’s usual “story shmory, as long as it looks neat!” approach.
Malaya (1949) For the most part, Malaya is a leisurely stroll of a movie, with James Stewart and Spencer Tracy as a couple of connivers out to smuggle much-needed rubber out of the titular Asian territory during WWII. It’s a sort of lazy man’s adventure, as the duo spend most of their time lounging around, trying to outwit the local Japanese commander and out-bargain local swindler Sydney Greenstreet. The whole thing’s a bit too much of a meander to be effective as a thriller, although it’s nice to see the three stars play off each other so casually.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) What’s best about the most famous Gold Diggers flick? Probably that it’s loaded with fast talkin’ dames who are beautiful, yes, but also smart, clever, and very, very funny. Pre-Code smexy? And how. Rawr. The movie itself is a full evening’s entertainment squeezed into 97 minutes, mixing multiple breezy plotlines (I’m a secret millionaire! Everybody’s falling in love by accident! Let’s put on a show!) with great one-liners, a handful of eye-popping Busby Berkeley numbers and even a handful of topical Depression-era rants, culminating in the brave choice to end the film not with a toe-tapper but with a gigantic eff-you to Washington in the form of “Forgotten Man,” a response to the prior year’s Bonus Army March and its aftermath.
Scarface (1932) I feel more or less the same way about Howard Hawks’ Scarface as I do about Brian DePalma’s: good film whose influence is undeniable, but one over which I can’t find myself getting worked up. Hawk’s direction is unquestionably brilliant, especially his use of montage and shadow to turn the implied violence into something unnerving in its effectiveness. And Paul Mini’s dark, brutal portrayal of an unapologetic thug takes plenty of admirable chances. And yet… the film never hooks me the way contemporaries Little Caesar and The Public Enemy do. Maybe Muni just doesn’t have the same kick as Cagney and Robinson. Maybe the story is too bogged down by tacked-on “crime doesn’t pay” moralizing. Maybe I see that “The World Is Yours” sign and roll my eyes at the overselling. Whatever the reason, I return to the film every ten years or so, only to leave underwhelmed, wishing I spent the time with Rico instead. Mother of mercy!
Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) OK, so the “Lullaby of Broadway” number, while almost absurdly overlong, is also absurdly impressive, a mammoth production continually one-upping (and out-surreal-ing) itself. The rest of the film? It’s passable comic fare, kicking off with style (the opening dance routine is one of the film’s highlights) before quickly fading into generic romcom flatness, without the needed kick to keep the plots from feeling as uninspired as they are. The not-singing, not-dancing, all-talking bits seem to have failed to capture Busby Berkeley’s interest; this was his first effort directing an entire picture, not just the dance sequences, and the differences in effort between the scenes is noticeable.
It Came from Outer Space (1953) …at, we must assume, a deadly pace. (Minor spoilers follow.) The neat twist on the body snatcher formula – namely, the aliens are friendly and are only duplicating human forms as camouflage to protect themselves – has always helped this Jack Arnold effort stand out. (The story, and a good chunk of the dialogue, comes from Ray Bradbury, who lends a lyricism to the proceedings.) What doesn’t work is the film’s smugness. Not content to play switcheroo by making humans the baddies, the script shows its hand too early, revealing the truth about the invaders so, presumably, the audience can spend the rest of the film thinking to itself, “why, of course people are terrible and paranoid and quick to judge, but not me, no sir, I’m so much better than that, because look at me, I’m rooting for the aliens, by gum!” Hell, even the aliens themselves are sanctimonious, going off on a rant about how they’d totally be cool accepting humans, something humans could never do in kind (except, of course, the audience, those forward-thinking, handsome geniuses!). The movie might’ve had greater impact by saving its reveal until the end, stringing viewers along in an anti-alien state of mind only to eventually force them to rethink its own negative attitudes. Instead, pleased with its own arrogance, the script spends too much time underlining its message. It’s a perfect example of science fiction where the creators become so enamored by the Big Idea, they figure the Big Idea is enough on its own, so there’s no need to be subtle or elegant in the presentation.
The Ten Commandments (1956) Tacky? Yes. Corny? Yes. Unintentionally campy? Double yes. Overblown and wooden and just plain goofy? Yes and yes and yeeeeeesssss. How else would you describe Cecil B. DeMille’s crowning achievement? As high melodrama, hot diggity, it’s the stuff.