How About 139 Worthwhile Movies? Part One

Why another list of old movies?

With the Biograph Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration on the horizon, my lofty hope is that a reader might be persuaded to take a chance on one or two on this list, titles they’ve previously overlooked or forgotten about. In other words, once a know-it-all promoter of supposedly gourmet films, always such. It can’t be helped.

You see, I spent so many pleasant hours in my office sanctuary at the Biograph, reading about old movies, choosing double features and writing film notes that the urge to promote what I believe to be worthwhile flicks is still irresistible. When I see a good one on Netflix, these days, I can’t resist urging friends to check it out.

Why 139 movies?

Needed to pick a number, so this makes one film for each month I worked at the Biograph, from December 1971 (two months before it opened) through June 1983 (when I resigned). The titles on this list all played at the Biograph during my stint as its manager. So this isn’t the same thing as a list of my all-time favorites, which would include lots of movies that never played the Biograph.

Hopefully, this particular list represents a fair overview of the range of movies that were staples at art houses and revival theaters during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema. Let’s say that was from 1966, or so, through about 1981 — roughly, a decade-and-a-half. Richmond’s Biograph closed in December of 1987.

And, of course, this list provides a handy source of movie trivia. With foreign language films, in most cases, I’ve used the convenient translation for the title. Exceptions to that rule were made when the foreign film is better known in this country by its original title. Like all the favorite films lists I’ve made, this one represents my favorites today.

So, some of the movies I might have liked a lot 30 or 35 years ago, that now seem less worthy, didn’t make the cut in 2012. As this overview of movies was compiled and crafted several changes from the first draft were made. Note: All favorites lists must be obedient to the mood of the moment.

To make this list with film notes easier to digest, I’m going to post the first 40 titles this week, then 40 more next week and then the rest of them the third week.


Title, (Release Year), * Indicates a Richmond Premiere

The African Queen (1951): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn. Note: With WWI reaching a German colony in Africa, salty boat captain Charlie and prim missionary Rose are thrown together for a wild ride.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)*: Color. Directed by Werner Herzog. Cast: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo. Note: A bizarre but fascinating look at accumulating madness, Conquistador-style, in search of a dream … by way of a river of danger.

Alfie (1966): Color. Directed by Lewis Gilbert. Cast: Michael Caine, Shelly Winters. Note: Set in swinging ’60s London, narrator Alfie tells the story of his convenient affairs of the heart. It’s the story of a charming young cad, constantly on the make.

All About Eve (1950): B&W. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders. Note: Bette is at her bitchy best in this peek behind Broadway’s elegant curtains. Marilyn Monroe as the quintessential ditz sparkles.

Amarcord (1974)*: Color. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël. Note: A nostalgic but fanciful glance back at growing up in a small Italian port, with its eccentric townsfolk, during the era of Fascist rule before WWII.    

American Graffiti (1973): Color. Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Candy Clark. Note: A wistful glance at choices made in the process of coming of age in pre-JFK assassination times. The oldies soundtrack works to perfection.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)*: Color. Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Micheline Lanctôt, Jack Warden. Note: Pushy, social-climbing Duddy is in an awful hurry to become a player, a somebody — a Boy Wonder.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): Color. Directed by John D. Hancock. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michael Moriarty, Vincent Gardenia. Note: A genuine oddity — a good movie about pro baseball players that even viewers who don’t care about baseball can love.

The Battle of Algiers (1966): B&W. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Note: This account of the nasty tactics employed by both hardheaded sides during the Algerian revolution is part suspenseful documentary, part staged flick. It will tattoo your mind.

Belle Du Jour (1967): Color. Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli. Note: Beautiful Severine loves her successful husband. With him she’s frigid. Her kinky fantasies lead her to the oldest profession … only by day.

Between the Lines (1977)*: Color. Directed by Joan Micklin-Silver. Cast: John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum. Note: The anti-establishment era in which an alternative newspaper was hip is winding down. The quirky staff wonders, what next?

Black Orpheus (1959): Color. Directed by Marcel Camus. Cast: Breno Mello, Marpressa Dawn. Note: This utterly charming film is the retelling of a Greek myth, set during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It won the 1960 Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Blazing Saddles (1974): Color. Directed by Mel Brooks. Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman. Note: Unrestrained lowbrow, dirty-joke humor is at its cockeyed best in this mockery of formula Western movies.

(1966): Color. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles. Note: With England’s Mod scene in the background, a cocky fashion photographer stumbles onto a murder mystery … or does he?

Das Boot
(1981): Color. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann. Note: Submarine warfare during WWII, from the standpoint of the crew who manned Germany’s U-96 in a hell of deep water.

Bread and Chocolate (1974)*: Color. Directed by Franco Brusati. Cast: Nino Manfredi, Anna Karina. Note: An Italian immigrant in Switzerland, trying to make a living and keep his dignity, bumbles his way through this class warfare comedy.

Breaker Morant
(1980)*: Color. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Cast: Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown. Note: This terse Australian film, set during the Boer War, is about how malleable truth can be in war, once politics overwhelm stark realities.

Breaking Away (1979): Color. Directed by Peter Yates. Cast: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern. Note: Set in a college town, this class-conscious story uses its young protagonist’s bike-racing obsession to frame larger questions about society.

Breathless (1960): B&W. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Note: An opportunistic thief on the lam becomes irresistible to a pretty American journalism student in Paris. Uh-oh, the guy is dangerous. How long can it last?

Cabaret (1972): Color. Directed by Bob Fosse. Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey. Note: A striking glimpse at the decadent German nightlife scene in 1931, with Nazis coming into power. Then again, it’s a dynamite musical and Liza was never better.

The Caine Mutiny (1954): Color. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, José Ferrer, Fred MacMurray. Note: A nice adaptation of the Herman Wouk novel about a mutiny at sea in WWII. Contrived, or necessary?

Carrie (1976): Color. Directed by Brian De Palma. Cast: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, John Travolta. Note: Shy and telekinetically gifted Carrie finally runs out of patience with her rotten mother and the popular kids at school who taunt her. Payback!

Casablanca (1942): B&W. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid. Note: Africa. Rick and Ilsa. Paris! Nazis. Victor. La Marseillaise! Major Strasser. Escape. Fog. Captain Renault. Beautiful friendship.

Cat Ballou(1965): Color. Directed by Elliot Silverstein. Cast: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman. Note: Nat Cole and Stubby Kay sing the narration to this slapstick Western spoof. Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his dual roles. 

Cat People (1942): B&W. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith. Note: The first of the Val Lewton productions at RKO was an imaginative, stylish but cheap horror movie. This precursor to film noir was hugely influential.

Un Chien Andalou (1929): B&W. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Note: A 16-minute early effort to adapt surrealism to film that is the result of a collaboration between Buñuel and his artist pal, Salvador Dali. It both stunned and outraged audiences in its day.

Chinatown (1974)*: Color. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Note: The dark story of a dogged detective, who won’t let go of a murder mystery, unfolds in pastel colors. Maybe as close to a perfect movie as it gets.

Citizen Kane (1941): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore. Note: The meaning of a powerful, lonely man’s last word enlarges into a mystery. Flashbacks reveal a life driven by lusts and obsessions.

City Lights (1931): B&W. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee. Note: Silent movies were passé in 1931, but not with perfectionist Chaplin, who shot the pivotal scene with the blind flower girl 342 times.

A Clockwork Orange
(1971): Color. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates. Note: This rather stupefying, yet prescient, look into the violent future of popular culture was seen as over-the-top in its time.

The Conformist (1971)*: Color. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin. Note: A visually stunning look at Italy, with Mussolini in power, with old class distinctions melting away and betrayal in the air. 

The Conversation (1974)*: Color. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Cindy Williams. Note: The secrets of a professional eavesdropper and a murder mystery are peeled away in layers in this brilliant character study.

A Day at the Races (1937): B&W. Directed by Sam Wood. Cast: The Marx Brothers,  Maureen O’Sullivan, Allan Jones. Note: Dr. Hugo Hackenbush hurls wisecracks at everybody in sight, and the horse they rode in on. Great jitterbugging dance numbers.

Day for Night (1973): Color. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of making of a movie, with the private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production.

The Day of the Locust (1975): Color. Directed by John Schlesinger. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith. Note: Adapted from the Nathanael West novel about the lure of stardom in Hollywood and the same old road to hell.

Days of Heaven (1978): Color. Directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard. Note: A love triangle rooted in deception develops in a dreamy film so striking to watch that the plot hardly matters, until something goes wrong.

The Deer Hunter
(1978): Color. Directed by Michael Cimino. Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale. Note: This war story pulls pals lose from their familiar blue collar moorings, to be cast into unimagined horrors.

Dinner at Eight (1933): B&W. Directed by Georg Cukor. Cast: John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore. Note: A tight script brimming over with sarcasm and social commentary from the Depression Era’s school of laughs.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)*: Color. Directed by Luis Buñuel; Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: Probably prankster Buñuel’s most accessible film, this dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles with its dry wit.

Dr. Strangelove… (1964): B&W. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. Note: Surprisingly, this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm at the height of the Cold War.


Next week, look for another 40 titles from the list of 139. This piece is part of a collection of stories lifted from the days of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, Virginia. Click here to read more of “Biograph Times.”

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4 Responses to How About 139 Worthwhile Movies? Part One

  1. kozmicdogz says:

    Pretty impressive list, FT. I imagine that there are quite a few on the list that many people have not seen. It may be hard to believe how exciting and influential some of these movies became in our lives. The entire movie viewing experience is so different now. The picture may be less scratchy and the sound may be much crisper while the images pop out of the screen at us, but there was something about being in that dark room with your community watching that flickering light; lint,scratches, and all, and being transformed by stories and images that would stay with one for a life time.

  2. Dan Neman says:

    Great list. I might argue with one or two (even Antonioni at his best I find nearly unwatchable, with the possible exception of L’Avventura), but only one or two. And isn’t that what lists are for?

  3. Pingback: How About 139 Worthwhile Movies? Part Two | James River Film Journal

  4. Pingback: How About 139 Worthwhile Movies? Part Three | James River Film Journal

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