Critic's Notebook: At a Time of Uncertainty, Comfort and Curiosity in Classic Films

Warner Bros/Photofest
'The Breaking Point'

With more time at home than we expected or wanted, now is as good a time as any to broaden our horizons by discovering — or rediscovering — old movies.

Except for the seriously ill, and the unfortunate souls stuck in cruise ship bedrooms or looking for a way home from shut-down Europe or elsewhere, most Americans seem to be anxiously following the latest coronavirus updates while trying to find space in fridges and cabinets to squirrel away enough food and supplies for the long haul. With sporting events, concerts, live stage shows and many movie theaters now dark, people are retreating to the presumed security of their homes and settling in until it’s safe to mingle again.

But as moviegoing and filmmaking itself will slow to a virtual halt, film watching may likely spike in a major way — possibly to record levels, as so many movies are now available at the press of a button. Couch potato-ing looks to increase to all-time record levels, so the question of what to watch suddenly becomes an issue that could benefit from some discerning prioritization.

With all the viewing choices now available, homebodies will have the opportunity to widen their horizon by sampling films and shows they simply didn’t have time for before. For example, over the weekend I for the first time checked out a show that’s now in its fifth and final season, Schitt’s Creek, and became immediately enamored. I’m sure I’ll make my way through it in relatively short order.

I also watched, for the first time since it was released 29 years ago, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise. As a rebellious feminist piece it still packs a good punch, even if the film feels perhaps 10 or 15 minutes too long. And then there’s Brad Pitt, completely unknown at the time but so obviously a star ready to be hatched, playing a charming bad boy who both enhances and complicates the road trip to unknown destinations taken by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. It was satisfying to see once more after so many years.   

Another film I rewatched recently, also for the first time in decades, went way, way up in my estimation. Although Howard Hawks' 1944 To Have and Have Not is one of the director’s greatest films, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Hemingway’s admittedly minor novel. Just six years later, Warner Bros. decided to make it again, this time more faithfully, with a muscular script by Ranald MacDougall that inspired Michael Curtiz to rise to the occasion and direct his last terrific film, retitled The Breaking Point, which concludes with one of American cinema’s most devastating final shots.

And while I’m at it, permit me to add a third older film you might like to see, one that more than rewards with a repeat viewing. Rather down on his luck in the late 1970s after three big flops in a row, Peter Bogdanovich reteamed with his first producer, Roger Corman, to make Saint Jack. A relatively low-budget affair about a smooth and scrappy American pimp in Singapore (wonderfully played by Ben Gazzara), this is about as confidently directed a film as you could ever hope to see. The big bonus now is that it portrays the island state at its tipping point; this may be the last film made that shows the seedy, evocative, old-Asia colonial port city that was already being buried by modern towers and Western styles. If you’ve ever been to Singapore, you’ve got to see this.

Another cinematic approach to consider in the coming weeks, or perhaps months, is to take a cue from a new book, Cinema '62, written by THR contributor Stephen Farber with Michael McClellan. Subtitled “The Greatest Year at the Movies,” the book argues that 1962 represented the peak year in the history of cinema, thanks to the decisive emergence in America of young directors such as Kubrick, Peckinpah, Penn, Lumet and Frankenheimer at a time when David Lean and Tony Richardson were doing their best work in Britain; the French New Wave had unleashed Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rohmer, Demy and Varda; and Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Bunuel, Ray, Bergman and Kurosawa were in high gear. In other words, it was the moment that revealed the promise of the new in full flower while still accommodating the mature talents of the great remaining figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The authors argue their case convincingly by systematically trotting out one exciting foreign film after another, reminding you that, especially thanks to France and Italy, the early 1960s represented a true golden age for arthouse cinema, as it was widely called at the time. And if, like Farber and me, you consider Lawrence of Arabia as the greatest film of all time or something close to it, throw in The Manchurian Candidate, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hatari!, The Miracle Worker, The Intruder, Advise & Consent and Lolita for good measure, and you have the beginnings of a pretty decent argument.

That's before even considering the 1962 flood from overseas that included Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Divorce Italian Style, Yojimbo, La Notte, Eclipse, Viridiana, Through a Glass Darkly, Last Year at Marienbad, Cleo from 5 to 7, Sundays and Cybele and A Taste of Honey.

Still, my problem with 1962 is that, a few films by major directors old and new to the side, Hollywood cinema was largely in a sluggish, lazy and decaying state at a time when the studio system was very much showing its age. Fresh ideas were rare, older directors were manifestly slowing down, and mainstream movies were calcifying while awaiting the real changing of the guard that happened a few years later.

After Lawrence of Arabia, the most popular films of 1962 are so slow, ponderous and imagination-free as to be virtually unwatchable today; these include The Longest Day, In Search of the CastawaysThat Touch of MinkThe Music Man, Bon VoyageThe InternsThe Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, State Fair and Taras Bulba. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were the two top money-making stars of the year.

I would argue that 1962, and the period just before and after it, marked an important blossoming, and in some cases fruition, of great new talent internationally. Hollywood may have been showing signs of wanting to move in the same direction, but it took a while longer, and meanwhile, movie audiences had to be quite selective and smart if they wanted to see much good from the industry.

If you want the best year for Hollywood in the post-classical era, take your pick of 1971 (McCabe and Mrs. MillerThe Last Picture ShowThe French ConnectionKluteA Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, Wanda, Two-Lane BlacktopA New Leaf); 1973 (Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, American Graffiti, Paper Moon, The Exorcist, Serpico, The Last Detail); 1974 (The Godfather Part II, ChinatownThe Conversation, Badlands); and 1975 (Barry LyndonThe Man Who Would Be KingOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestA Woman Under the InfluenceDog Day AfternoonJawsLove and Death); and 1976 (Taxi DriverAll the President’s MenNetworkThe Outlaw Josey Wales).

Now, those were great years for American film. You might have some time these days to check them all out.