September 2, 2007

Five lost classics worth checking out

Okay, I know that my use of the term "lost" will probably draw ire from some. I don't mean that they were literally buried in some vault, but rather that they inexplicably did not draw the attention they deserve. They all feature able directors, solid casts and Oscar nominations in some cases. Some are the "lesser-known" projects of famous directors. And before you get your panties in a bunch, I acknowledge that a few readers will claim to have known about these films since they were in utero. But I consider myself fairly well educated in cinematic history, and some of these I didn't even know existed until I saw them on a movie store shelf. So check them out and give them the attention and respect they desperately need.

1. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
How is Spencer Tracy so cool? Whether he's bitching out creationists in Inherit the Wind or bantering with Katharine Hepburn in one of their many comedies, he's just always the man. But I didn't realize how much he was truly the man until I saw this John Sturges film. He plays a one-armed stranger who comes to the sleepy town of Black Rock on a mysterious mission - and let's just say that the locals there don't like strangers. (According to IMDB, the character's disability wasn't in the original script, but they wanted Tracy so badly that they wrote it in, because they claimed that no actor could resist playing someone with a handicap.) Saying too much more would give it away, but I love movies where protagonists can defeat villains with their compassion and intellect instead of just guns, and Tracy takes all the hatred and ignorance with dignity. Received Oscar nominations for best screenplay, director, and actor for Tracy.

2. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Before Eddie Murphy was making movies where he was basically the entire cast, Alec Guinness did the same thing in this British film where he plays the complete extended family of Louis (Dennis Price). Basically, Louis vows to avenge his deceased mother's disinheritance by killing off all the family members that stand in his way of the money. It's black comedy at its darkest. Price is a suave, horrible and compulsively watchable slimeball with deadpan narration, and Guinness is a riot as eight vastly different characters. Despite its relatively below-the-radar status, it's in the IMDB Top 250 (as rated by users).

3. Night of the Iguana (1964)
I rarely rent a movie that I have not heard anything about previously - it takes a lot to sell me on it straight from the shelf. When I was checking in returns at work and this film dropped into my hands, however, I had to see it. A John Huston adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr? How had I not heard of it?! It certainly delivered, though, and launched my mild Richard Burton obsession. He plays a heavy-drinking, defrocked clergyman who now makes a living guiding tours in Mexico. Over the course of a few fateful days, he gets pursued by the criminally young Charlotte (Sue Lyon, reprising her Lolita shtick), meets up with old flame Maxine (Gardner), and does some soul-searching with stranger Hannah (Kerr). Like any Williams piece, it's talky and heavy, but the actors give amazing life to the material. It won an Oscar for best costume design, and was nominated for best cinematography, art direction and supporting actress for Grayson Hall (who plays the relatively small role of a bitchy group leader). I was seriously shocked that the three leads didn't get more recognition for their roles. You'd even think that the fame of the Huston name would have made it more well-known, but it has somehow slipped from everyone's memory.

4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Billy Wilder seemed hell-bent on being impossible to classify. He could produce comedies, dramas, mysteries, satires, and noirs with equal ease. In his brilliant career, this film somehow got shuffled out of view - perhaps intentionally, because it was too dark and controversial. You thought Sunset Boulevard was cynical? This film makes that look like Mary Poppins. Kirk Douglas gives in a stunning, tour-de-force performance as a reporter who tries to make a media circus - and a career - out of a mine collapse (particularly relevant in the wake of the media-infested mine collapse in Utah). The message is clear, although Wilder doesn't violently smack you over the head with it. It might sound kind of boring, but the fact that the stakes are crazy high for every character from the get-go makes it utterly compelling. In describing it to a friend after viewing, all I could say was "scathing." Douglas deserved an Oscar and a half for this performance, but the film's only nomination was for its screenplay.

5. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Where is the love for this film?! I mean, it did win a shitload of Oscars including Best Picture, but I feel that it was immediately forgotten afterward. (They did just include it in the new AFI list, which made me happy). I think it's because people approach Racial Issues Movies with apprehension. Done well, you can get Do the Right Thing - done poorly, you can get Crash (don't get me started on that). The key, I think, is subtlety. People running around screaming "I VEHEMENTLY DESPISE ALL BLACK PEOPLE" just makes for sloppy storytelling. Another reason that it may be fuzzily remembered is that in the very same year, star Sidney Poitier was in a similarly themed but ultimately very different movie - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Somehow, that emerged as the more famous of the two (it did pack the Hepburn-Tracy punch) - but I personally consider it to be the weaker one. In Dinner, Poitier plays Token Friendly Black Guy That Shakes Up Supposedly Liberal White Household; in Night, he's Awesome Badass Detective That Won't Take Rod Steiger's Shit. A sign of a good Racial Issues Movie is that characters express their racism through actions or even just stares, as opposed to spelling it out with words. Steiger had a good sense of this, and got an Oscar for his efforts. Oh, and there's also a totally sweet soul soundtrack that features Ray Charles doing the title song. This film rises above being a Racial Issues Movie to just being an incredible drama that excels in every aspect.

Bonus: All that Jazz (1979)
I made this a bonus one because I felt kinda funny labeling a 1979 film a "classic." Still, I couldn't leave it out entirely because it's a semi-autobiographical musical about death starring Captain Brody from Jaws SAY WHAT?! This is the musical that could beat up other musicals in a dark alley. Roy Scheider plays a slightly fictionalized version of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, whose destructive lifestyle causes him to have a heart attack and reevaluate his life. Song and dance numbers range from a highly erotic and highly naked avant-garde piece in a dance studio to a morbid but razzle-dazzle finale featuring women dressed as human hearts. I feel cliche saying this, but it really is like nothing I've seen before.

What "lost classics" can you recommend?

1 comment:

Starnarcosis said...

I love Kind Hearts and Coronets.
My own favorite "Lost Classic" is probably "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir". Such great acting and lighting, and wonderful passion from two characters who can't ever touch each other!