The first question I am often asked after I tell people my love for movies is “what kind of movies do you like?” This question has always confused me. I’ll like any movie if it’s good; won’t everybody? Turns out, this isn’t the case. Even people enthusiastic about film, who are otherwise completely open-minded about arbitrary categories like genres, are completely uninterested in any movie made before The Godfather. That’s right folks, there are people out there right now who are being completely deprived of old movies, and they don’t even know what they’re missing. Contrary to what some believe, old movies are neither inaccessible nor hopelessly dated – it’s just a matter of finding the right ones. So, I’ve decided to help out all of those deprived movie lovers with this list, all picked from my list of personal favorite films. One note: for the purpose of this list, we’ll define “old” as pre-1960.
- Rear Window
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
For Fans Of: Thrillers
Though Hitchcock’s Psycho is the introduction to old films for many, I opted for Rear Window, and not just because Psycho doesn’t fit within my pre-60s rule. For Psycho, overhype and 50 years of other filmmakers mimicking its tricks has lessened its shocks, but Rear Window is so unique, it feels as though it hasn’t aged a day. The story is this: photographer L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) has broken his leg and is confined to his apartment in a wheelchair. In between visits from his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his rich, socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), Jeffries entertains himself by watching the people in the apartment across from him. Despite reservations from Stella and Lisa, he loves watching the residents live out their lives, even creating nicknames for all of them. It’s all just entertainment… until he realizes one of the residents may have murdered his wife. Confined to his wheelchair, he is forced to investigate through his skeptical friends. Rear Window is as smart as it is thrilling, as funny as it is twisted. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most accessible movies, which is a good thing, because it’s also one of his best.
- Rio Bravo
(Howard Hawks, 1959)
For Fans Of: cop movies
No overview of old film is complete without the Western. Rio Bravo happens to be my favorite, and it’s also one of the most characteristic of the genre. The legendary John Wayne plays Chance, a sheriff who must keep one of the leaders of the Burdette gang locked up until the state marshall arrives, fending off the rest of the gang with only Dude (Dean Martin), a recovering alcoholic, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a man with one leg, to aid him. Howard Hawks, one of the biggest names in American cinema, directs with subtle touches, such as the first scene having absolutely no dialogue. Everything you need to know about classic Westerns you can find in this movie; the gunfight, the bar, the card game, the slightly awkward romance, and of course John Wayne and Walter Brennan, veterans of countless Westerns. Rio Bravo is not flawless, but it has as much suspense, humor, and heart as you could possibly want.
- Sherlock, Jr.
(Buster Keaton, 1924)
For Fans Of: action comedy, meta-movies
Is it a bit of a risk to pick a silent movie? I don’t think so, at least not a Buster Keaton film. I’ve always said that silent film lends itself to comedy, and if that’s true, than Sherlock, Jr. is one of the best introductions to the strange world of silent cinema. Even now, the movie feels modern and original, with its clever film-within-a-film premise and Keaton’s own hilarious acrobatic stunts. Keaton was called the Great Stone Face for using deadpan humor in a time when hammy acting was the norm, and this style makes his comedy feel just as funny (maybe funnier) than it was in 1924. And if you don’t think you have the patience, no worries- at 44 minutes, it’s the shortest movie I would consider a favorite, and it packs more depth, humor, and imagination into those 44 minutes than some that stretch on for over 3 hours.
(Michael Curtiz, 1942)
For Fans Of: romance
Probably the first “old” movie a lot of people see, Casablanca is one of the most iconic movies of all time, and seeing it is almost a requirement for anyone halfway interested in film. With this reputation, you might expect it to be overhyped; stiff, maybe, or overly sentimental. What’s really surprising about Casablanca, however, is that it doesn’t seem to have aged a day. Set in 1941, Humphrey Bogart plays Sam, a bartender in Casablanca, where refugees from war-torn Europe go to flee to the still-neutral United States. One day, an old love of his, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his bar with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a famous resistance fighter. This romantic quandary provides the emotional center of Casablanca, but it’s what orbits it that really makes this movie great: the city of Casablanca gives the film a unique atmosphere, the threat of the war looms perpetually over the characters’ heads, and the screen is filled with fantastic secondary characters. Claude Rains plays Captain Renault (my pick for best character in the movie), a dryly cynical police officer, Conrad Veidt (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) plays Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser, and the great character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre have unforgettable supporting roles.
- Singin’ in the Rain
(Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952)
For Fans Of: being happy
Singin’ in the Rain might seriously be the happiest movie ever made. Certainly it’s the best Hollywood musical, a fact almost universally agreed on, so good it completely transcends the genre. Malcolm McDowell described the titular sequence as “the happiest a human has ever been,” and it’s hard to disagree. The film is set in the late 20s, when movies are just beginning to transition from silents to “talkies,” and centers on superstar Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly). He meets a stage actress, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), in a chance encounter, and though she initially looks down at him for being a movie actor, which she believes is undignified, they soon begin to fall in love. Later, Lockwood is forced to deal with his jealous co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who believes the romance between her and Don promoted by the studio to be completely real. This story is paralleled by their professional struggle to make their first talking picture, despite lack of knowledge of the equipment and the unsolvable problem of Lina’s horribly grating voice. Filmed in stunning Technicolor, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most colorful films you’ll ever see, as well as one of the funniest, the most energetic, and the most imaginative.
Every movie listed is available at the Holliston library!