How About 139 Worthwhile Movies? Part Two

Why another list of old movies?

With the Biograph Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration next month in mind, my hope is that a reader might be persuaded to take a chance on watching one or two on this list. The movies all played at Richmond’s Biograph during my stint as its manager.

Last week I posted the first 40 films on the list. This week’s post covers the next 40 titles.

Hopefully, this effort also represents a fair overview of the 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.

The Biograph opened in February of 1972 and closed in December of 1987. The Fan District was a bit behind the curve, but it was in the game.

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

“Duck Soup” (1933): B&W. Directed by Leo McCarey. Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Margaret Dumont. Note: With Rufus T. Firefly in charge of the tiny country, flush from a fat loan from Mrs. Teasdale, what could possibly go wrong? War.

“East of Eden” (1955): Color. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey. Note: This adaptation of the Steinbeck novel provided the role that launched Dean’s meteoric career. Only six months after its release he was dead.

“8½” (1963): B&W. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: A film about making a film, but fret not about making sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images.

“Elmer Gantry” (1960): Color. Directed by Richard Brooks. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones. Note: Lancaster’s riveting, Oscar-winning portrayal of a salty traveling salesman, turned evangelist, is unforgettable.

“Eraserhead” (1977)*: B&W. Directed by David Lynch. Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph. Note: Is it all a moody but meaningless dream? Is it an experimental, fantasy flick? Or, is it a tongue-in-cheek spoof of haughty art movies?

“A Face in the Crowd” (1957): B&W. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick. Note: An early warning about television’s potential to boost a charismatic personality into power. Andy is a scary good villain.

“Farewell, My Lovely” (1975): Color. Directed by Dick Richards. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland. Note: Mitchum is perfect as Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, in this faithful flashback to film noir’s heyday.

“Forbidden Games” (1952): B&W. Directed by René Clément; Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée. Note: The toll of mechanized war, as seen by small children who can’t grasp what’s happening around them, is stunning in this anti-war classic.

“Five Easy Pieces” (1970): Color. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Sally Struthers. Note: A gifted pianist works oil fields and shacks up with a waitress to escape the expectations of his upper crust family. Then push comes to shove.

“The 400 Blows” (1959): B&W. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy. Note: This story’s deft portrayal of a brave boy’s yearning for dignity in an indifferent world kicked in the door for the New Wave’s filmmakers.

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971)*: Color. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Cast: Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi. Note: With WWII approaching, why did wealthy, well educated Jews stay in Germany and Italy? This film provides answers.

“Gilda” (1946): B&W. Directed by Charles Vidor. Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready. Note: Set in Argentina, everyone has too much baggage in this slick film noir classic. Rita, the songstress, stops the show by merely peeling off her gloves.

“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Color. Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles.  Performers: The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more. Note: A documentary with much concert footage and one murder.

“The Godfather” (1972): Color. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden. Note: Power, turf and family are at the heart of this quintessential mob saga. In other words, it’s about sincere payback.

“The Godfather II” (1974): Color. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Lee Strasberg. Note: Together, The Godfathers, Part I and Part II, received 22 Oscar nominations. Both won Best Picture.

“Grand Illusion” (1937): B&W. Directed by Jean Renoir. Cast: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim. Note: With the imagined glory of war waged honorably by proper gentlemen falling out of style, this classic spotlights the folly of modern warfare.

“Grapes of Wrath” (1940): B&W. Directed by John Ford. Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Ward Bond. Note: This stirring story of Dust Bowl victims, a family pursuing a California dream of honest work, is still quite effective.

“The Great Escape” (1963): Color. Directed by John Sturges. Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson. Note: McQueen is at his antihero best in this somewhat true WWII story about prisoners of war plotting a massive escape.

“The Harder They Come” (1972)*: Color. Directed by Perry Henzell. Cast: Jimmy Cliff. Note: In this Jamaican production, Cliff is Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. This movie paved the way for the explosion of interest in reggae music in the mid-1970s.

“Harold and Maude” (1971): Color. Directed by Hal Ashby. Note: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort. Note: This off-beat comedy presents a whimsical story about an unlikely pair — an alienated, faux-suicidal rich boy and a feisty old lady. They both like funerals.

“Harry and Tonto” (1974): Color. Directed by Paul Mazursky. Cast: Art Carney. Note: Put out of his building in Manhattan, a retired teacher, Harry, and his orange cat, Tonto, go on a cross-continent journey. Carney’s performance won the 1975 Oscar for Best Actor.

“High Noon” (1952): B&W. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges. Note: The contrasts are vivid. Shadow or light? Happiness or duty? Community or self interest? Honor or whatever is the opposite? Life or death?

“His Girl Friday” (1940): B&W. Directed by Howard Hawks. Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy. Note: The pace of this gem about cynical newspaper reporters is nonstop. The rare comedic timing between Grant and Russell is impeccable.

“The Hustler” (1961): B&W. Directed by Robert Rossen. Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott. Note: This beat parable, featuring pool sharks, gamblers and lost souls, follows a charming fool’s meandering quest for perfection.

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957): B&W. Directed by Jack Arnold. Cast: Grant Williams, Randy Stewart, April Kent. Note: What about unanticipated dangers of new technologies? Primitive special effects don’t hurt this off-beat sci-fi flick’s charm.

“The Informer” (1935): B&W. Directed by John Ford. Cast: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster. Note: This film noir precursor depicts a betrayal within the ranks of the Irish Republican Army. Dark and pitiless, it’s about facing brutal choices in 1922.

“La Jetée” (1962): B&W. Directed by Chris Marker. Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jen Négroni. Note: A stunning example of how less can be way more. This short New Wave classic about memory, imagination, longing and time is unforgettable.

“King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at the Biograph was a zany French comedy, set amid the harsh but crazy realities of too much war.

“Lacombe, Lucien” (1974)*: Color. Directed by Louis Malle. Cast: Pierre Blaise, Auroe Clement, Holger Lowenadler. Note: How does a naive, nihilistic teenager in France, just looking for a way to fit in, end up running with the Nazi invaders? Hey, why not?

“The Last Detail” (1973): Color. Directed by Hal Ashby. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid. Note: Two old salts draw chaser duty to escort a young sailor to the brig. Feeling sorry for the luckless kid, a petty thief, they take a few last-chance detours.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971): B&W. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd. Note: This adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel is a coming-of-age story set in a dusty little Texas town, as its cinema dies.

“Last Tango in Paris” (1972): Color. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider. Note: A young woman and a middle-aged widower meet. Spontaneously, for no good reason, a passionate affair takes off like a runaway train.  

“Lonely Are the Brave” (1962): B&W. Directed by David Miller. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau. Note: To help his friend, a free-spirited cowboy flings himself recklessly at the hobbling effects of modernity … then tries desperately to escape. 

“The Maltese Falcon” (1941): B&W. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Note: With his first effort as a director, Huston brought Dashiell Hammett’s detective story about a mysterious sculpture to the silver screen.

“Manhattan” (1979): B&W. Directed by Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway. Note: Woody Allen has consistently made worthwhile movies. Most have been funny enough. So far, he’s made at least one great film. This is it.

“M.A.S.H.” (1970): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman. Note: This cynical comedy about doctoring in the field, near the pointless battles of the Korean War, is funnier than the television show that followed it.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1969): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie. Note: With Altman, gambling, prostitution and power struggles in the Old West take on a different sort of look. More grit. Less glory. All random.

“Mean Streets” (1973): Color. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Note: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel. Note: This produced-on-a-shoestring-budget feature about awkward street hoodlums in New York’s Little Italy put Scorsese, De Niro and Keitel on the map.

“Medium Cool” (1969): Color. Directed by Haskell Wexler. Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom. Note: Questions about the proper role of journalists are posed in this docudrama that includes real riot footage shot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention.

“Mephisto” (1981)*: Color. Directed by István Szabó. Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda. Note: As the Nazis ratchet up their control of all aspects of German life, with his smartest friends fleeing the country, an actor feels trapped in his role.

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The third and final post for this list of 139 top shelf art house flicks will go up next week. It will include the remaining 59 titles with appropriately opinionated notes.

The list of 139, in its entirety, is included in my collection of stories lifted from the days of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, Virginia. Click here to read more of “Biograph Times,” a work in progress.

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