This is the second part of our National Film Registry list. If if you haven’t read the first part yet, please check it out here. For those who have enjoyed the first part, here are 13 more great movies you should cherish.
14. The Conversation (1974)
1974 was a great year for writer-director Francis Coppola, mainly thanks to his multi-award winning sequel The Godfather, Part II. There is nothing bad to say about that fine film but lost in the shuffle of its success was Coppola’s other film that year, which also was a best picture Oscar nominee. This was The Conversation and about the only people who seemed to have seen it at the time were the critics for it caught the unhappy vibe of the times (the infamous Watergate scandal era) all too surely.
The plot centers on Harry Caul (a superb Gene Hackman), one of the best wire-tappers and surveillance men in the business, a job which weighs heavily on his Catholic conscience. His latest job is recording the conversations of two lovers, the employee (Frederic Forrest) and adulterous young wife (Cindy Williams) of a sinister corporate big-wig (an unbilled Robert Duvall).
Caul is very disturbed, for reasons he can’t quite explain, by the conversation of the pair which he masterfully recorded in a public park in San Francisco. He thinks what he got on tape will lead to their deaths and tries to do something, anything, to help the situation. However, as he soon finds out, all is not as it appears.
There were a lot of jittery, oblique films to come out of the early half of the 1970s and this one was among the best. It’s no surprise at all that audiences bombarded with real life news stories of spying, eavesdropping, secret file snatching, wiretapping and other such activities perpetrated by their government didn’t feel like shelling out to see something similar on the big screen. However, this film remains a vivid snapshot of a deeply troubled period in U.S history.
15. Salt of the Earth (1954)
This remarkable film was seen by few in the U.S until recent years, though is was widely shown in the Soviet Union and China (at a time when virtually nothing western was allowed there). The McCarthy era blacklist claimed many fine directors, writers, and actors as victims in a savage political search for those with liberal, leftist sympathies, views which the rights of someone living in a free country should have allowed.
Many would not work again for years after being smeared by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, others would never work in the mainstream film industry again. In 1954 a film premiered which had been written (Michael Wilson), directed ( Herbert J. Biberman), produced ( Paul Jarrico) and largely acted (Will Geer among others) by those who were blacklisted.
In theory these people, forbidden work in commercial films, should have had the freedom to pursue their own ventures but the government exerted intense pressure to halt the filming and/or distribution of the film (including deporting the Mexican leading lady on a legal technicality). The film was shown in fewer than a dozen theaters in the U.S at the time of release.
The film itself is a bit awkward in certain parts (Biberman was normally a writer and had never directed before)but the ideas running through the film are highly progressive and sincerely stated. The plot was based on a strike held by zinc workers in 1951 New Mexico.
The story is told from the point of view of the Mexican born wife of one of the strikers who organizes her fellow wives in taking the place of their husbands after the men are forbidden by law from continuing their role in the strike. The film touches not only on labor/management issues but also on equality of class, race and gender. What other North American film of the time could claim to have done that?
16. All That Heaven Allows (1954)
German director Douglas Sirk had fled his homeland during the Nazi era and struggled for over a decade in the U.S before he gained a foothold in Hollywood. In the 1940s and very early 50s he directed a number of very good independent films and worked for a while at Columbia Studios. However, when he was offered a substantial contract at Universal Pictures he couldn’t turn it down.
Universal at the time was about a step up from poverty row and, though it would turn out a prestige picture or two a year, was known for formulaic comedies, westerns, war films,science fictions pictures, and “weepies”. Sirk had high artistic ambitions in his homeland but knew he must adapt, though the fit was uneasy. That tension shows through in many of his works and the irony of the situation subverts the trite gloss of a large number of his Universal films.
All That Heaven Allows was taken from an ordinary novel which did contain the germ of an interesting idea as a well-to-do small town widow falls in love with a younger gardener and her children and the people at the country club are simply besides themselves over the whole thing.
Reuniting Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, his stars from the successful but atrocious Magnificent Obsession earlier that year, Sirk showed a depth of feeling for the woman and her predicament in being forced to continue the life left to her by a deceased husband due to the protocols of social propriety when a new and fulfilling life beckons at the cost of all that she has known before.
This was pretty much lost on critics and audiences of the day (though the film was a moneymaker) but the feminist film writers of the 1970s rediscovered the picture and it became the basis of German director Werner Rainer Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1974 and the stylistic inspiration for Todd Haynes indie hit Far From Heaven in 2002. The picture also features one of the most stunning blows to the medium of television ever put on film.
17. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
It’s no surprise that the movie studios hated TV, the medium that ended their reign as the predominant audio-visual medium of U.S culture. However, many of surprisingly few swipes the big screen took at the small were in the form of comedies.
A few dramas, however, grasped the dangerous potential of a medium which, though not as physically overwhelming as motion pictures, was more subtle and insidious since it could get inside a massive amount of homes all at once. The best of these films was director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd.
As the film begins, radio reporter Marcia (a solid Patricia Neal) is looking for subjects for her human interest show “A Face in the Crowd”. Looking around the jail in the little Arkansas town she calls home, she lights on a rather surly, youngish man jailed for drunkenness. The man, who calls himself Lonesome Rhodes (a somewhat exaggerated but oddly right Andy Griffith), blossoms in front of the microphone as he sings and gives out folksy homilies which strike the right note with the audience.
As quick as lightning he’s on his way to the top, especially after he gets in front of a television camera. Soon the course, crude monster is a big star and has the country, even some gullible politicians, eating out of his hand but he is also showing the seeds of his own destruction.
Looking at the film today, the argument might seem a bit overheated (much like the last third of the film) but it does have some salient points indeed. The country was so taken with the TV medium in its early days that many did follow it blindly. The main character was actually based on one time radio and early TV personality Arthur Godfrey who did let his power with the public go to his head and did try and use it to shape political decisions.
Also, the director and writer were right about the fact that this device was a game changer and the U.S has never been quite the same since its introduction.
18. Grey Gardens (1975)
Documentaries are only popular with a select audience right? Maybe most are but there is an exception to every rule and the exception in the documentary field is a film which was turned into both an award winning Broadway musical and an award winning made for cable TV film yet still entrances the public more than either of those entities. This is Grey Gardens.
Where to begin? Well, it seems as though one time first lady and multi-millionaire’s wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had an aunt and cousin on her father’s side of the family both named Edith Beale, distinguished by the monikers “Big” and “Little” Edie. They had money back with Jackie was young but by the time she was jetting around as Mrs. O, their lives had taken some bad turns indeed.
They were hold up in their historic New England home, Grey Gardens, but the local officials wanted to change that. They had lost all of their money and servants and things such as taking out the empty cans of cat food were beyond them. The house, which had no lights or running water, was a wreck and was filled with creatures such as racoons.
The property was condemned as a public health hazard and only some marginal and embarrassed financial intervention from Mrs. O and sister Lee Radziwill prevented the house from being torn down. While all of this was going on the tabloids had a field day and this attracted the attention of documentaries maker Albert and David Maysles, who usually tackled weightier subjects.
The film could have been cheap exploitation or a maudlin look into the fallen lives of the once mighty but the brothers hadn’t reckoned on the Beales. Big Edie was a one grande dame, though she had nothing left to be grande about. Dressed in rags but also antique jewelry, she always seemed to be expecting an invitation to have tea with the Queen of England. However, she was but a sideshow to the spectacle of Little Edie.
Though she had lost her hair to a youthful disease, Little Edie lived in a world of her own where she not only could be the queen of high society but also one of the great song and dance performers of her time, as her endless musical numbers…well, show why she might have thought that. It must be noted that the way she uses a endless variety of sweaters, blouses, and shawls clasped with an expensive looking brooch in place of her hair is quite inventive.
The looney but fascinating way these two interact with each other and world is like watching the world’s slowest motion car accident and not being able to look away.
19. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1958)
Frank Tashlin was a top director and animator for many years (where would Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck be without him?)when he decided to move into the world of live-action feature film making. His two decade career was a bit uneven with the his late 1960s period best forgotten but when he was hot he was so funny and no one has ever captured the spirit of cartoon shorts in live action films better.
It’s no surprise that among his best pictures are works featuring Jerry Lewis or Jayne Mansfield two of the most exaggerated, cartoon-like screen actors of all time.
Though it wasn’t a big hit at the time, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? now looks to be Tashlin’s masterpiece. The film originated with a Broadway play from the pen of George Axelrod, who had just helped to adapt his play The Seven Year Itch into a hit movie starring Marilyn Monroe.
The play, oddly enough, was a satire of Hollywood featuring the character of a dumb, shallow, oversexed blonde bombshell movie star (no comment). Mansfield, who had been trying to make it in Hollywood for years, was cast in the role and, though the critics didn’t rave, the public responded.
20th Century Fox, MM’s studio, bought the play with no intention of filming it simply to protect their star but they also thought Mansfield would be useful as a potential threat in order to keep their real star in line. She and Tashlin scored a hit with the rock ‘n roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It and Tashlin decided to use her and the title of the play to create a satire of 1950s advertising, TV, and publicity with Mansfield, more or less replicating her stage role, joining the expert Tony Randall as a beleaguered ad man inadvertently drawn into a publicity ploy by the nitwit star.
Tashlin’s imagination knows no bounds (such as having Randall perched in the corner of the screen during the opening credits supposedly playing the Fox fanfare on a number of instruments)and the no holds barred take-off on 50’s culture was surely an influence on Mad magazine, among other things. Now, isn’t that worth preserving?