This idea grew out of conversations with Peter Schilling and James Parrish during the 17th James River Film Festival in March 2010. My father had passed the summer previous, and I remembered all the classic movies we’d watched together (from the age of 8 or 9 yrs., starting with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, among others), but also films I wished we’d shared. Here’s the short list, unranked.
Judgement at Nuremberg (’61) – A film by Stanley Kramer I only recently watched, and I was impressed by the strong democratic rhetoric and the acting – a star-studded, international cast with Tracy, Lancaster, Schell, Dietrich, Clift, Garland, Widmark; Schell would take the Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actor as defense attorney for the accused Nazis and their collaborators. Acting was something my father put a premium on, and movies for him were simply stories, basically told/sold by the actors. I think most movie fans are brought to the stories by familiar faces. If we had watched it together I’m sure he would’ve turned and said that so and so was a “helluva” actor or actress. High praise. Plus he was a WWII veteran and as he got older all that seemed to come back – he was fascinated by a part of his history seemingly that he’d been too busy to reexamine.
Force of Evil (’48) – Abraham Polonsky’s film is a noir with anti-capital overtones as John Garfield, a corrupted attorney, comes to grips with his own greed. Polonsky was blacklisted a short time later, and so too did Hollywood’s fortunes turn – divesting themselves of reams of talent during the duress of the first decade of television’s competition. My dad loved Garfield and thought him one of the best actors of his time. Graylisted, Garfield would die early of a heart condition. Polonsky wouldn’t make another Hollywood film for twenty years – Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Dad also liked Robert Blake from the Baretta television series.
Salt of the Earth (’53) – Director Herbert Biberman’s film was harassed during shooting and post-production by Hollywood and Congressional right-wingers, and disappeared quickly because of anti-Red hysteria from reviewers and exhibitors. Now considered a classic of labor and feminist issues, the film survives as a beautiful exercise in cooperative filmmaking (many of the crew had been blacklisted) centered around a real miner’s strike in New Mexico, with the miners, families and friends in most of the roles. One of the few professional actors was Will Geer as the sheriff – yes Waltons fans, Grandpa was a Communist. During the ‘60s and early ‘70s my father tried several times to unionize the Doubleday and Co. book plant where he worked. Each attempt failed – but not in this feel-good movie, and if you liked Norma Rae or Matewan check out the original!
Night of the Iguana (’64) – John Huston’s screenplay out of Tennessee Williams became a vehicle for actor Richard Burton, and he drove it practically off the screen. Huston was known to let actors run with it if he agreed, and Burton had the green light as an alcoholic minister turned tour director. Set in a part of Mexico – Puerto Vallarta – that Huston loved, the director elicited solid performances from Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Lolita star Sue Lyons. Reportedly, Huston kept Burton off the hard stuff until siesta time by letting him drink beer during the shoot – regardless, Burton stands in this film as “one helluva actor,” perhaps the best of his generation. My father also admired the hard drinking Welsh – of which he was one. Another of Huston’s many underrated films.
True West (’83) – Sam Shepard’s play, performed by The Steppenwolf Theater Company for Public TV, with Gary Sinese and John Malkovich as brothers. Like Burton, Malkovich runs wild as the ne’er do well, drinking and threatening the good-arrow, screenwriter son played by Sinese. I’m not sure what attracts me here, surely the acting and the material, and I’ve brothers of my own, but maybe it resembles some of the scenes I recall from childhood and perhaps ones I was told. In our family sometimes yelling was just a stronger form of communication. Anyway, I think my father might have found some kernel of his own broken family, plus there are two fine actors on the brink of substantive careers.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2002) – Perhaps my favorite film of the past decade, Wes Anderson’s fabled melodrama of separation and integration works on so many levels and is reminiscent of the great ‘50’s family melodramas, Rebel without a Cause for example, where the father is either absent or ineffectual. Its exposition is brilliant and the handling of the mise-en-scene stunning at times – remember Wilson and Paltrow in the tent together with the Rolling Stones “She’s A Rainbow” on the record player? But the real soul of the film for me is the relationship between Gene Hackman’s Royal and his children, and how he reinvigorates the flagging futures of his brood. In fact my father reminds me of Royal in many ways; chief among them that he once shot me in the back with a BB rifle as I walked to set the can back on the pole. And like Royal he laughed.
The 400 Blows (’59) – Thrust into adulthood early, like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, my father found himself at the age of fourteen living in a Washington hotel down the hall from his own father. Like Antoine, he attended schools where corporal punishment was daily administered; in my dad’s case, meted out by the nuns in the Catholic schools. My grandfather was a barber and a bellhop, prone to protracted alcoholic binges. After a bout, he’d ask my father how much money he had left – maybe enough for a couple of fruit pies and a bottle of beer? My favorite part of the film is when Antoine makes his escape from the soccer field – a series of mesmerizing tracking shots linked by dissolves carries us to the ocean, and Antoine’s frozen visage as he turns back to the camera and us. I’ve seen the same look in pictures of my father at that age.
Open City (’45) – Roberto Rossellini inaugurates Italian neorealism in his tale of sacrifice and resistance in the waning days of WWII. Shot in the streets of Rome, the film centers on the resistance, a sympathetic priest, an impending marriage, and a group of young boys waging their own guerilla war against the German occupiers. This was the first of a trilogy – Paisa and Germany: Year Zero would follow – and the gritty realistic look of the film convinced audiences of the time they were watching a documentary. A war story that bestows its pathos and compassion on the everyday. Critic James Agee was so moved by the film he refused to review it. No greater sign of hope for the future would come out of neorealism than the boys whistling their enduring anthem of resistance as they turn from the fence at the film’s conclusion. Rossellini later would leave his wife for Ingrid Bergman – an international scandal – and since my Dad loved Bergman, I’m sure he’d have liked this film by proxy.
Wild Strawberries (’57) – Ingmar Bergman’s greatest film to my mind, as reaffirming about the tangles of familial responsibility and forgiveness as say, The Royal Tenenbaums. In the course of one day, the aging, emotionally hardened doctor Isak Borg makes his way to his alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate for his contributions to the medical field. Accompanied by his daughter-in-law (recently separated from his son), Borg picks up a trio of young hitchhikers who subconsciously provoke a series of reveries and dreams that bestows a sense of meaning to his life. Truly one of the most beautiful black and white films ever, as photographed by Gunnar Fischer. A strange reassurance emanates from the director to the viewer, a reassurance about the patterns and circling snares of life that I feel my father would have appreciated. Late in life he abandoned his lapsed Catholicism for agnosticism, then atheism, and then vague notions of reincarnation – he would joke about returning to earth as an elephant, the biggest thing that walks the planet. At least I think he was joking.
The Battle of Algiers (’65) – Another story of heroic resistance – threads of Open City and Salt of the Earth – in this docudrama from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. A study of Algeria’s struggle for liberation from the French colonists, told from dual points of view – those partisans who plant bombs in the milk bars and airports and the highly trained military personnel determined to squash the insurgency – which as portrayed in the film was overwhelmingly led by Islamic nationalists. Since WWII over forty African countries gained their independence from various European colonial powers; where are the other stories? The rise of Islam in the world’s eyes piqued my father’s curiosity and the last few years I found various books and articles on the subject about the house, in his bedroom, the endtable. He was, like Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries, still evolving.