When Netflix adds, or renews, cinephile-friendly titles (pre-1970, although that barrier is by no means enforced by rule of law), it’s probably an accident, grabbing, as they do, like an arcade claw crane, whatever titles will allow themselves to part ways with the Great Ether. That doesn’t mean we don’t get nice things every now and then. Here’s a handful.
9. Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972)
26 years before “You’re Mr. Lebowski – I’m the Dude,” Jeff Bridges and David Huddleston shared a film (but not a single scene) in a film that was not so alien to The Big Lebowski in terms of teeter-tottering between comic absurdities and sudden bursts of violence. Bad Company, sort of an aw-shucks comedy about Civil War deserters turned outlaws, made in the long shadow of Easy Rider – and the even longer shadow of the Vietnam War – is a long ways from the bucolic/mythic images of D.W. Griffith, in which motherlove and giving one’s life on the battlefield were equal in grace. Instead, a squad of pimplefaced kids crawls across the hardscrabble wilderness, trying not to get shot, thrown in the hoosegow, or pressed into service. A sourfaced comic western.
8. Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)
All right, so Joan Bennett’s cockney accent earns a few demerits. Nevertheless, Fritz Lang’s gripping wartime thriller, admittedly a little propagand-ish, in which “wrong man” Walter Pidgeon gradually realizes, deep inside, he’s exactly the right man with the right stuff and all that, earns its keep as a bulwark in the Langian cathedral of fate, twisted lines, infernos, shadows, and the legend of Siegfried. With George Sanders as a monocled Nazzy bloodhound.
7. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
As if he didn’t contribute enough icons to the American cinema, Howard Hawks also made the ultimate Marilyn Monroe vehicle – even if doing so meant setting her up alongside Jane Russell, risking the annihilation of millions of moviegoers from an overload of temptation and candy-colored eroticism. Even without CinemaScope, Blondes faced no serious challenger in the approaching threat of television – after all, what is geometric width compared to the limitless expansion of perceptions from within…
6. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
I trust you’ve already met…no? Darling cinephile, feast your eyes on one of the greatest movies ever made, as well as one of the bleakest great movies ever to plant a tripod west of the Mississippi River.
5. The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)
Immortalized in The Godfather, if only as a footnote, as the movie Michael and Kay are exiting just before receiving news of an attempt on Don Corleone’s life, this and Going My Way were among the blockbuster hits of the era, giving war-weary moviegoers solace and graceful humor just when they needed it most.
Nearly 70 years later, McCarey’s most successful movies, a short stopover on his way between being America’s greatest slapstick director and an increasingly peculiar illustrator of American virtue during the Cold War (of which My Son John was the delirious peak), emerge with the director’s delicate, intelligent sensibility unscathed. Your inner youth may snigger at the unironic squareness that ensures there’s nothing too harsh in the disagreements between Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman; the adult viewer may be unfettered by such askance attitudes, and instead moved to laughter and tears. Funny how that works out.
4. Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, 1981)
Since the earliest days of movie entertainments, creating a convincing, “live action” dragon for the screen was a holy grail for f/x technicians, but this 1981 Disney/Paramount co-production, a big-budget flop that year, managed to lick the problem, a full 15 years before the boring, artless CGI of Dragonheart began to indicate a new normal in movie magic. The movie’s crackling good entertainment besides – with some surprisingly dark turns for something wearing the Disney brand.
3. The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999)
Celebrate John McTiernan’s recent release from prison with one of his best films, a high-class, high-style, sexy, and (in terms of what else is egregiously missing from the 1968 McQueen/Dunaway original) funny caper comedy for grown-ups.
2. Ali (Michael Mann, 2001)
Following fast on the heels of The Insider, Mann took another swing at bending the arch of the boring biopic in the direction of his often amazing formal abstraction. It’s also the capstone of his transition to high-definition video (like Collateral, Ali made use of film and digital cameras), the use of which he’d continue to pioneer, up to and including his most recent projects.
1. The River’s Edge (Allan Dwan, 1957)
The first half hour of The River’s Edge, one of Dwan’s final films, after a career of more than 400 directing credits, is all over the place: stark, parched desert vistas, tainted with mystery, give way to a slightly slapstick, slightly operatic domestic squabble, like a bitter Raising Arizona. The pinball doesn’t stop there, either, but the whole enterprise, incredibly, seems to be well under control. Maybe it’s something to do with Dwan being an old hand at this sort of thing – as he was an old hand at just about every movie genre under the sun. The River’s Edge also boasts one of Anthony Quinn’s finest performances; an actor who was too frequently obliged to “be ethnic,” and to play to the nosebleed seats as well, he may seem an unlikely choice for a world-weary, resourceful noir hero of reluctant virtue. But he pulls it off with ease, suggesting an alternate career walking in Robert Mitchum’s shoes.