13. The Graduate (1967)
Mike Nichols was a comedian turned stage director turned film director and he seemed to have no problem morphing from one entity to another with success at every. He was always a star but he also always relied on skilled collaborators and very rarely ever filmed original material.
Though he made many notable films, his key artistic and popular milestone was his second film, The Graduate . Taken from a successful novel by Charles Webb, the book told the story of a confused recent college grad named Benjamin Braddock who hasn’t a clue as to what to do with his life.
One thing he hadn’t counted on was having an affair with predatory Mrs. Robinson, the sophisticated, alcoholic, morally bankrupt wife of his father’s business partner. He also didn’t count on falling in love with her daughter Elaine, the polar opposite of her mother.
Nichols never let go of of the fact that he was a comedian. While Webb had seen the humor in his story, Nichols and his writers, Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, were comedy specialists. They saw the California setting of the story as a perfect vehicle for satirizing its over-privileged denizens. He also proved to be a master of film technique and his shot compositions are superb.
Nichols also shrewdly counter-cast the leads with New York stage actors. Technically 30-year-old short, dark, Jewish Dustin Hoffman and 36-year-old ItalianAmerican Anne Bancroft should be considered miscast (during the planning everyone but Nichols kept pitching tall blonde actors) but they have such a fresh, original and sharp take on their characters and such interesting chemistry together that it all works.
Nichols also had the innovative idea of putting several Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack, all previously well known except for “Mrs. Robinson,” which was composed for the film. It’s one of those magic touches that helps bring a film fully to life. At every point Nichols and company sharpen and expand on the material and make what might have been an unlikely tale into one of the key films of its generation.
12. Blow-up (1966)
The elegant, subtle, very modern Michelangelo Antonioni was one of the key figures in 1960s cinema. His theme was often the emptiness of modern life and howindividuals are often disconnected and isolated and even when stirred by unexpected events often lapse back into old patterns.
For his English language debut, Antonioni did something uncharacteristic: he chose to adapt material from another medium. this wasa story by South American writer Julio Cortazar which tells of how a news photographer sees a situation that can’t possibly end well and declines to get involved.
Since the story never completely defines what the incident was, the director thought it perfect for his aversion to explicit exposition. He never intended for the film to be a faithful version of the story but even at that he got thrown a major curveball by producer Carlo Ponti. He decided that the director had overspent on what was intended as a prestige failure and shut down the production.
This left many scenes unshot.. Antonioni took what he had and skillfully composed it into another film altogether.BAnd this creative version turned out to be a major critical and commercial hit.
The story takes place in one twenty-four hour period. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a high profile fashion photographer who hopes to make an artistic breakthrough with a book of candid photos he’s taking around “swinging London” inbetween the fashion shoots which bore him mightily.
In fact, pretty much everything bores Thomas, including beautiful women, casual sex and plentiful social drugs. Nothing seems to resonate with him. Then he happens to take a number of candid pictures of two lovers kissing in a park. The woman, Jane (Redgrave) runs after him, demanding the pictures.
Thomas lures her to his studio and after playing with her, gives her an empty roll of film. When he develops the actual film he sees something in the background. In a masterfully shot and edited sequence, Thomas blows up sections of the picture again and again until what comes out appears to be a hand holding a gun aimed at the man in the park.
The rest of the film ponders if this indeed is true and what Thomas will do about it, if anything. Antonioni had no intention of telling a linear mystery story. London was trendy at the time but he chose to show that even such a hot spot could mean nothing to a detached populace.
The mimes that open and close the film are a genius touch that demonstrates how futile and ineffective human efforts at communication and progress can be. Antonioni was the master at expressing that difficult to convey thought.
11. Double Indemnity (1944)
James Cain, a one-time movie script writer, became a prime force in the “hard boiled” literary movement, writing novels of lust, greed, crime and punishment almost always told from the criminal main character’s point of view in first person narration.
Though he would be successfully adapted many times, he was originally considered too hot for Hollywood until another great force, and a cinematic maverick who still managed to work the system, brought a Cain work to the screen.
Viennese-born Billy Wilder had managed to escape Europe just ahead of being sent to a concentration camp and had found Hollywood one tough town once he did get to it. He had no illusions about humanity but he had kept his sense of humor (albeit a majorly cynical one). When he read a story by Cain he knew that it was for him.
The story, Double Indemnity, spun the tense tale of an insurance salesman being sucked into an adulterous murder plot by a lethally manipulative woman. He tries to fool the authorities and, even more so, his sharp-witted boss, into making it look as though the woman’s husband died in a manner that would net them double indemnity, the fullest amount a policy can pay.
Wilder, who had been a top screenwriter before being allowed to start directing two years earlier, loved the idea and the way Cain grounded the story in mundane reality before unleashing the tense murder plot and its aftermath.
Wilder kept the characters and basic storyline, minus a rather operatic finale, and such everyday settings as the shiny, impersonal insurance office, the dully conventional home the woman shares with her husband and a supermarket where the schemers frequently meet, all to brilliant effect.
However, he and his co-writer, the great mystery author Raymond Chandler, dropped the author’s deliberately banal dialog (great on the page, blah on the screen) and added some juicy and darkly funny lines to leaven the bleak story.
To that end, Wilder, who had an unusually cinematic eye for someone who had long been a writer, cloaked the film in what would now be considered film noir style lighting (thanks to cinematographer John F. Seitz), though that style was only just catching on.
The piece de resistance was the casting: forgoing the usual bad guy actors for the salesman, Wilder chose Fred MacMurray, until then usually cast as a comic actor, ingeniously counter-cast since he neither looks nor acts like a criminal, veteran tough guy Edward G Robinson as the boss, on the right side of the law for once but just as dangerous, and the great actress Barbara Stanwyck in a brave performance as the irredeemable villainess.
The result was one of the great suspense/films noir ,the first great moment of Wilder’s career and one which Cain proclaimed the ultimate version of the story.
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Ira Levin was an ultra-smooth, very professional writer of plays and novels. Though he had a fair share of hits none has endured more than his 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby. That may well be due to the classic horror film that Roman Polanski made justas his Hollywood career was commencing.
Levin had noted that the Pope came to visit New York City in late 1965, just before 1966 dawned with the June of that year creating 6/66 on the calendar.
Employing reverse imagery, he imagined the birth of the anti-Christ in that city and that month. He assigned this task to the unwilling, unwitting involvement of a sweetly naive young wife of an ambitious actor. She does not know that he has secretly joined forces with the elderly Devil worshipers living in the same atmospheric old apartment building.
Polanski, who also wrote the script, saw that he had good material and basically changed little plot-wise. Rosemary was cast with waif-like Mia Farrow in order to make her seem fragile and endangered while more mature John Cassevettes drove home the point that he was running out of time to make it as an actor.
The senior citizens who formed the cult were somewhat more believably colorful than Levin may have intended, with veteran stage actor Sidney Blackmer and veteran stage actress Ruth Gordon all but stealing the show. In the end, one might wonder how so individualistic a film maker could work so harmoniously from the vision of another.
The answer is that Polanski understood quite clearly what Levin was getting at since it’s also been a constant theme of his own work: evil can come about in ordinary places, among “normal” people and mundane routines, all of which can slowly crumble away to reveal something more sinister. Polanski’s own life can attest to that.
9. The Third Man (1949)
While still a film critic, noted British author Grahame Greene often expressed his admiration for the suspense films of young director Carol Reed (whose films he preferred to those of Hitchcock).
In the late 1940s, after Greene had left his critical chores behind and became a successful author of more serious works and Reed had begun his ascent as a director, the two men met and collaborated on 1948’s The Fallen Idol, taken from a Greene story and a major hit for both.
Flushed with triumph, Reed told Greene that he was keen to do a story set in poetically ruined, tastefully desperate post World War II Vienna. What happened next was most unusual.
Greene tried to start by just writing a screenplay but he found that he needed to work from something established. To that end he wrote out the story of what would become The Third Man as a short novel, later acclaimed as one of his best “entertainments,” as he called his genre fiction.
It was superb, as was the script derived from it, but it was Reed who gave it life with his assured, tasteful, precise direction. Working on location (and what locations!) Reed and his ace cinematographer Robert Krasker made the story a symphony in chiaroscuro with the striking “Chinese” angles for which the film is well known.
Added to this is the score of (uncredited) zither player Anton Karas to add the right touch to the visuals. The topper is a well chosen cast featuring Trevor Howard and Alida Valli.
However, when Hollywood producer David O. Selznick cast his contract player Joseph Cotton in the lead role of a hack American writer looking for the killers of his longtime friend in the ruins of Vienna, it was Reed who came up with the inspired idea of casting Cotton’s old friend and mentor, Orson Welles, who promptly stole the show! It started with Greene but Reed and his fellow collaborators made it flower.
8. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
British author Anthony Burgess was understandably devastated by the rape and murder of his wife by a gang of aimless young thugs during a World War II blackout in London. As therapy he wrote A Clockwork Orange. It is about a futuristic society (along with highly futuristic slang) in which mindless violence and advanced prurient sexuality had built to a peak while science had discovered a way to control those impulses.
The odd thing is that Burgess argued that it is better to have criminals with free will than robots (“clockwork oranges”) who could only do the things that they were programmed to do.
Stanley Kubrick was never the warmest or most humanistic of directors but that fact may also be a good reason for him to have been the one to bring the novel to cinematic life. As was always the case, Kubrick’s visuals are quite audacious and beautifully composed.
Though his striking look for the future (for an era that is now in the past) wasn’t quite how it happened, the amoral feel is correct as the film details the plight of Alex (Malcolm McDowell ). He is one nasty kid who leads a gang dedicated to rape, fighting, robbing, and killing because… well, just because.
Alex has an incongruous love of classic music (especially Beethoven) but otherwise he’s a real punk. However, those in charge of the society in which Alex lives and which he loathes are even worse then he is. When he’s sent to a reformatory after one brutal crime too many, he becomes the victim of a behavior modification program and sees how cruel the world can really be.
This honest and surprisingly funny satire/horror show really upset a lot of people. Then again, Kubrick surely meant for it to do that. He was in agreement with Burgess. Kubrick always used the theme that the humanities did little to make us human and this film makes the case that honest savagery is better than buying into the phony veneer of “polite society.”