This then are my forty favourite movies. They are in chronological sequence, oldest to the most recent. While I might concede my top favourites to be The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, thereafter how could I choose one film to be ‘more favourite’ than another? I dislike those lists of ‘Greatest This or That’ – movies, songs, books, etc. – because they are so arbitrary, and especially when the general public are making the selection, all too often they choose the latest fad-of-the-moment, which in retrospect, within a year or two, no one remembers anymore. By what criteria could I grade my forty movies? It is impossible. They are all different, even quite different genres. There is one musical. There are eight science fiction movies, seventeen crime stories, of which three might be designated as noir – The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, and Kiss Me Deadly. Eight might be classified as drama – but sub-divided as romantic drama and/or psychological drama. One is a spy thriller (Dr No); two might be regarded as erotic dramas – Belle de Jour and Emmanuelle. Nine might be also be regarded as comedy, including three that fall under the crime category – The Ladykillers, Gambit, The Italian Job. One is a occult horror – The Devil Rides Out. Only one is pre-talkie – Metropolis – while four are from the 1930s; four are from the 1940s; nine from the 1950s; thirteen from the 1960s; three from the 1970s; four from the 1980s; one from the 1990s, and one from the 2000s. This probably reflects my own tastes and times, and how few contemporary movies I’ve watched – or want to watch.
So, what is my criteria for a favourite movie? Not genre or period, obviously. Directors or actors? Two star Cary Grant; two star Humphrey Bogart; four are Alfred Hitchcock movies; two are Jean-Luc Godard movies; one is German (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis); four are French (two being the Godard movies); one is Spanish; one is Russian; two are by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, although in English. Three star Michael Caine, two feature Grace Kelly, one stars Kathleen Turner. Nine are British (if sometimes financed with American money, like Gambit); seven are in black and white. Twenty are American, with – in the majority – action actually taking place in the USA. Of the total, one was itself a remake (the 1941 The Maltese Falcon), ten others have been subsequently remade – all quite inferior to the original – or as a stage musical (Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s version of Sunset Boulevard), or had sequels made – Psycho, Emmanuelle, Romancing the Stone. There are no Westerns or war movies. This reflects watching a glut of both genre throughout my childhood and teens, on television or movies. Of war films, I personally enjoyed the authenticity of The Battle of the River Plate (1956, US title Pursuit of the Graf Spee); and I was impressed by Sean Connery in The Hill (1965), a tight little drama set in a British Army detention camp for British soldiers in North Africa. The gung-ho war movies never did anything for me. The anti-war movies, like Oh, What a Lovely War! (1969), or historical war movies, like The Charge of the Light Brigade, were either preaching pacifism to the converted, or simply enjoyable costume romps, little else. Likewise, there are no slapstick comedies – not even Laurie and Hardy or the Marx Brothers, certainly not Charlie Chaplin, who I rate below that of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. But I’ve seen their movies so long ago, I have no vivid memories of them now, while, as much as I enjoyed those old Hammer Film movies with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, there are no horror movies other than The Devil Rides Out, unless, again, you count Hitchcock’s Psycho. Again, I’ve never really liked the gory horror genre. I’m not fond of ‘preachy’ movies, trying to indoctrinate my thought, and while there can often be a good incentive to movies that bring us face to face with social criticism or protest – anti-war, environmental, corruption, greed, human cruelty, violence against women or minorities, miscarriages of justice, etc., all worthy subjects to be sure – they are not something I want to dwell on continually. I can get reality by turning on the television news each day, or reading the newspapers or news websites. I have plenty of books on politics, history, predicting the future, warning of the damage we are doing to the planet and ourselves, but I need escapism from that also.
While a number of my favourite movies have been adapted from novels or short stories, I have not read the originals to judge, other than Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. Things to Come bore almost no resemblance to the H.G. Wells’ book The Shape of Things to Come, which was a rather boring, rambling tome of no great merit. On the whole, the more you love the book, the less you probably like the movie version. Of the three early Len Deighton spy thrillers, for instance – The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967, this by Ken Russell) – they worked reasonably well as movies, but left so much out, and simplified virtually everything else, that it might have been better to have simply written completely new stories. Again, of the two movie versions of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1956 and 1984), the first was ghastly, totally and utterly wrong in both its fake science fiction-like setting, and beefy, too-well-fed Edmond O’Brian as Winston Smith. The later movie did a better job of depicting Orwell’s dystopia within period and place, as a logical extension from the 1940s immediate post-Second World War/early Cold War time-line in which Orwell wrote the novel, and John Hurt as Winston Smith was suitable gaunt and traumatised, while Richard Burton (in one of his last roles) was creepily persuasive as O’Brian (fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins would have been equally perfect), but it was then messed up with inappropriate pop music, and strange, rather illogical minor changes, such as replacing the non-gender ‘comrade’ with ‘brother/sister’ – totally wrong! So the first, I hated. The second, I found myself disappointed.
While there are plenty of good movies, of all genres, I have watched and enjoyed – inevitably some more so than others – this is all something of a detour, as to what exactly is the criteria of my favourite movies. Exceptional stories or well-written scripts come high on the list, together with good actors, and good directors. But I guess the ultimate criteria is – do I still enjoy this movie, and would I want to see it again, even again and again. All forty of my favourites fall, in varying degrees, into that category. Some, alas, I have only gotten to see once – Stalker, for example, or (as far as I can recollect) Emmanuelle. Others more than once. But all I would happily watch and enjoy again. That to me is the essence of the films I really like, rather than the films one ought to watch, like Catch-22, or Alien, or Apocalypse Now, or The Terminator. These are my choices because they are good stories, well scripted, well-acted, memorable imaginary, or just plain fun.
1: METROPOLIS : 1927. Director: Fritz Lang. Germany. Science fiction. Pre-Talkie. Gustav Fröhlich. Alfred Abel. Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Brigitte Helm.
From a screenplay by Fritz Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou, who subsequently published the story in novel form, this starred Abel (a stage actor who had worked with Lang on the Dr Mabuse movies) as Jon Frederson, ‘Master of Metropolis’; Fröhlich (whose background was vaudeville) as his son Freder; Klein-Rogge (Thea von Harbou’s ex-husband) as mad scientist Rotwang; and a young, 18-year-old Brigitte Helm in her first film dual role as the saintly Maria/evil Maschinenmensch or robot ‘false’ Maria. The art directors were Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut, and special effects by Eugen Schüfftan. It cost 5.3million Reichmarks (about 38million euros in today’s money), three times the original budget, but was a financial flop, grossing only 75,000 Reichmarks at the box office, and nearly bankrupting the studio, Univerum Film AG. The original was 153 minutes, but the released 1927 version was 116 minutes. Subsequently there have been numerous versions over the years, including the 1984 version by Italian Giorgio Moroder; another version in 1987; the ‘authorised’ ‘reconstruction’ in 2001, but the final – some say, definitive – ‘complete’ version was in 2010, restored to 148 minutes. Both at the time of its release, and since, opinions and reviews have been mixed. H.G. Wells called it “silly” and the story “naïve” – however, his own venture in science fiction movie-making, with Things to Come, in 1936, was equally silly and simplistic. Others criticized it as “trite”, “ludicrously simplistic”, and “unconvincing and overlong”. Apparently there were “many rewrites”, and Lang later claimed he “detested it” when it was finished, and subsequently disassociated himself from the script, especially after divorcing Thea von Harbou in 1933, before he emigrated to the USA. This was perhaps rather unfair. The two had worked together on a number of outstanding, memorable movie projects, although Thea von Harbou’s outstanding contributions were often uncredited. They were both perhaps larger than life characters – worthy of a biopic – and very much products of their time and place. Friedrich Christian Anton ‘Fritz’ Lang (1890-1976) was born in Vienna, of a Catholic father and Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism. His upbringing was Catholic, although he later became an atheist. As a German-speaking Austrian he fought on the Russian and Romanian front during the First World War, were he was wounded four times, as well as losing the sight of one eye. Later dabbed the “Master of Darkness”, he was originally of the Expressionist School of arts and movie-making. He met the novelist, director and actress Thea Gabriele von Harbou (1888-1954) in 1920. At that time she was still married to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who she had meet in 1906 and married in 1914. They divorced in 1920 and she married Lang in 1922, after the death of Lang’s first (Jewish) wife, in rather mysterious circumstances, apparently suicide, in 1921. Together they co-wrote the Dr Mabuse trilogy, Dr Mabuse, der Speler (1922), and the other great movie classic Lang alone gets credited for, M (1931), starring Peter Lorre, about a child murderer, based on the real-live case of Peter Kürten, the so-called ‘Monster of Düsseldorf’. Thea, at this time, was said to be well-liked, and a highly motivated “creative force”. However, despite their successful working partnership, and the outward appearance of a happy marriage, almost straightway Lang had numerous affairs with younger women, but things finally came to head between them when he found Thea in bed with a much younger Indian journalist and student, Ayi Tendulkov (1904-1975), who she later married. Both Goebbels and Hitler liked Metropolis, and, in 1933, Goebbels attempted to persuade Lang to continue to make films in Germany – this despite Lang’s Jewish background, and his growing dislike of the new Nazi regime. Thea, however – always fascinated by epic myths and nationalist legends – embraced the National Socialist ideology and became a card-carrying Nazi Party member – this, too, despite being then married to Indian-born Tendulkov. Lang continued his movie career in Hollywood, initially working for MGM, and perhaps his most famous American film was the rather brutal police drama Big Heat (1953), starring Lee Marvin.
As a director, he was something of a harsh taskmaster, hard to work with, with a reputation as a “tyrannical German”, a stereotype he apparently was happy with – he even, at one time, wore a monocle to fit the image!
Lang confessed one of his inspirations for Metropolis was when he visited New York in 1924, but there are also Biblical influences, references to the Tower of Babel, Helm’s evil, ‘false’ Maria as the Whore of Babylon, and the flood scenes. The movie was shot in 17 months throughout 1925/26, over 310 days and 60 nights, and – with Lang’s harsh work ethic and perfection for endless retakes – was a daunting experience for the actors and supporting cast member alike, especially so for Brigitte Helm, who spent many uncomfortable hours trapped in the ‘false Maria’ suit. Although in appearance metallic, it was constructed from plastic wood, which allowed movement, but was still rather rigid. It was designed by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff.
Apparently the message of the movie was “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.” A noble intention, perhaps, but in reality the movie is memorable not for the plot, or the characters (except perhaps the false Maria), but for its stunning imagery, visual effects, and huge set-pieces of the city itself. It is a milestone in both the history of dystopian science fiction and robotics, before even the expressions had been coined or taken root. The transformation of real Maria’s physical likeness to the robot Maria is still a spectacular cinematic tour de force, again ahead of its time in special effects. Likewise, there had been visual or descriptive images of futuristic cities before this time – from Frenchman Albert Robida’s playful drawings of 20th century Paris; to the gigantic, roofed-over London megacity of H.G. Wells’ novel The Sleeper Awakes; to the illustrations of the pre-First World War Italian Futurists, but Lang’s vision of the future would eventually take on a life of its own – greater than that of its creator or original intentions, and continue to influence movies, stories, comics, and music for countless decades to come.
For me, the greatest criticism of the movie is not the rather weak story of the central characters of Fredersen, Freder, Maria or Rotwang, but the absence of any real attempt to explain and rationalise the social structure, economics, or overall politics of Metropolis – the complete mismatch between the rather pointless, downtrodden, toiling masses in the city depths, and automobiles, aeroplanes and airships of the city above. Making Jon Fredersen the ‘master’ of Metropolis, elevated him to a status beyond his station. How was he the ‘master’? How did he exercise his rule? Even a dictator needs a council of governance, of public servants, a police chief, a civil service or police force to keep control. Perhaps it would have been better to have merely had Fredersen as just one of the many powerful magnates or oligarchs, and his story, therefore, just that of one individual family within the cogs of the Metropolis hierarchy – if with consequences that prove to be potentially disruptive to the overall civic order. I remember, many years ago, I read an English translation of the novel, but found it wanting, even in literary merit.
Finally there is the wonderful Brigitte Helm (1908-1996), born Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm, in her first movie role, undergoing torture to fulfil Lang’s vision, but delightfully sensual and expressive, able to vividly evoke, with poise and face, the contrast between the angelic Maria at one moment, with her wicked counterpart the next. In her subsequent brief movie career, she made another thirty films, before retiring in 1935, when she moved to Switzerland with her second husband, Dr Hugo Kunhelm (died 1986), who was of Jewish background. They had four children. Apparently she was considered for the title role of The Bride of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, but the part eventually went to Elsa Lanchester.
I had obviously seen one of the earlier versions at some time in the past, hence to have read the novel version. My 1988 notes, however, are about the semi-colourised Giorgio Moroder version with the contemporary musical soundtrack. Let’s not be too purist about this. While I would certainly cringe at an all-singing, all-dancing revamp of, say, Casablanca or The Italian Job, there already existed several versions of Lang’s Metropolis, none really as either he or Thea had originally envisaged. It was conceived as something of a myth, a parable or fairy story set in the distant future. How distant? Again, no one really knows for certain, possible dates vary from 2000 to the year 3000. Given that neither Lang or Thea are any longer with us to say otherwise, and the loose – even rather transcendental – nature of the plot narrative, the Moroder version is as good as any, and did at least make a then-60-year-old black and white silent movie relevant again for the modern audience.
My own commentary dated: 27/12/1988.
A remix of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis with a modern soundtrack, and as much of the original restored as could then be found. The American version was drastically cut (seven reels only out of seventeen) making nonsense of the continuity of the story. It is of course a parable about the conflict between capital and labour. The acting (as was normal for that period, and which seems so comic to us now) was stylised and over-dramatic, totally unrealistic, while the story itself is simplistic and naïve, and the ending unbelievable. Such an oppressed workforce would be inefficient (as the film demonstrates), and would need a police force and overseers to control it – which is absent. Personally I think Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes is a story influence here – had Lang [or Thea von Harbou] read that book, I wonder – the great city with its bridges and roadways and towering skyscrapers, and the hidden toiling downtrodden workers down in its depths, owes more to that book than to 1920s New York alone, while Rotwang’s house (“legend has it was built by a master wizard”) is straight out of Zamyatin’s We. And indeed the film lives because of the marvellous visual images of Metropolis; Rotwang’s laboratory; and the robot Maria; and the contrast with the hissing machines and the magnificent elegance and luxury of Frederson’s office and apartments. Brigitte Helm is outstanding as Maria – human and robot – her facial expressions capturing gentle saintliness, lust and pure evil brilliantly, all without words or sound. A lot of modern actors and actresses could learn a lot from her. The modern soundtrack, using pop musicians and synthesizers, is extremely successful, very cleverly and subtly evoking the mood and sounds of the screen images – Bonnie Tyler singing as the false Maria’s rhetoric stirs the workers to blind violence (a horrific prophecy of Hitler 20 years later) is brilliant and memorable. Even if the plot is feeble (Lang later blamed von Harbou, his wife at the time); or the acting (with the exception of Miss Helm) is wooden and overdramatic, even grotesque, still the huge sets and design work of the city takes the breath away – only Things to Come equals it in imagination, certainly until the Star Wars imaginary, and Blade Runner.
“Whenever things get humdrum, something comes along to stun: the huge furnace which turns into Moloch; the electronic transformation of the robot; the building of the Tower of Babel; the flood; and the city of the future.” – David Shipman, Story of the Cinema, Vol. 1.