Great Movies You’ve (Probably) Never Seen

Like most people, I really enjoy a well made movie. I share the view that many of the movies widely acclaimed as classics are indeed that. Among them, in no particular order, would certainly be the following: Casablanca (Warner Bros.), The Wizard of Oz (MGM), Singing In The Rain (MGM), My Fair Lady (Warner Bros.), 2001: A Space Odyssey (MGM)…I could go on and on. We all know them.

Once in a while you stumble across a movie whose quality stuns you, yet has won no award and hardly anyone you know has seen it. People used to call these movies ‘sleepers’, but I have no idea if that term is still in use.

Here are four movies I’d put in that category. Next time you feel like curling up on the couch and breaking out the popcorn, consider one of these. You won’t be disappointed. They each have a flavor all their own to fit the mood you’re in.

To Have and Have Not (1945) Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan.

In this little treasure, 19 year old Lauren Bacall, in her first screen performance, plays a young drifter who encounters a hard-bitten Humphrey Bogart on the island of Martinique. It has a feel highly evocative of Casablanca: French Resistance, the Gestapo, sultry setting, tropical island nightclubs, and a beautifully played out sexual tension between Bogey and Bacall – replete with all that 1930’s style banter and inuendo. People just don’t write dialogue like that anymore. Very much a period film in that sense. By the way, Bogey and Bacall fell in love making this film. Adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemmingway. Screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner.

The Bounty (1984) Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis

I’ll quote Laura Mirsky’s editorial review at Amazon, since she’s done such a good job capturing the film in words:

“The Bounty takes a revisionist tack through the well-charted waters of an oft-told tale. Hopkins’s Captain Bligh is no raving sadist in the Charles Laughton mode. (Laughton played Bligh in the first Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935.) Instead, Sir Anthony plays Bligh as a hard-nosed imperialist explorer simply trying to get the job done in the time-honored manner: on the backs of the poor gobs under his command. Still, when Bligh’s suppressed powder keg of rage finally blows, Hopkins is formidable indeed. Mel Gibson gives one of the most soulful performances of his career as mutiny leader Fletcher Christian. He’s also at the height of his blue-eyed, buff good looks, and his romance with Tahitian maiden Mauatua (lovely Tevaite Vernette) is decidedly erotic. Liam Neeson is a veritable force of nature as the scrappy seaman Charles Churchill, and Daniel Day-Lewis is sublimely hateful as Master John Fryer, a pompous toady. With special effects to rival those of The Perfect Storm, the alluring eye candy of a tall-masted schooner under full sail, lush tropical greenery, and bevies of bodacious South Sea Islands babes, plus a gripping story line, The Bounty deserves a rescue from undeserved obscurity.”

I remember reading about this film as it was being made. The writers went back to original sources to create the screenplay, with the goal of telling the story as historically accurately as possible. Much was taken from the records of Bligh’s trial by a British Naval Board of Inquiry. An amazing film.

9 1/2 Weeks (1986) Mickey Rourke, Kim Bassinger

This movie sizzles, but it is not for the faint of heart. Playing a New York art dealer, Bassinger is slowly seduced by a wealthy, mysterious, and quietly domineering Wall Street broker played by Rourke. He gently but inexorably draws her into an intense sexual relationship with subtle but unmistakable undercurrents of bondage, domination and submission. Beautifully filmed. Easily one of the most erotic movies ever captured on film. Watch it with the one you sleep with.

Empire of the Sun (1987) Christian Bale, John Malkovitch

This movie is a masterpiece, and I don’t say that lightly. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it brings to the screen the actual WWII experiences of James (Jim) Ballard. Adolescent Jim, the privileged and spoiled child of a wealthy British industrialist in Shanghai, is separated from his parents during the mayhem following the Japanese invasion of the city. Left to his own devices, Jim begins a slow transformation from a child into a survivor. The movie is filled with haunting images of desperate coolies, brutal Japanese prison camps and displaced British aristocrats unable to comprehend, much less cope with, the collapse of their position. Young Jim, never having even been to England, and who fantasizes constantly about becoming a pilot, adopts Japanese pilots as his heroes and role models when he’s transferred to a prison camp adjoining a Japanese airfield. The prison camp becomes his home and the Japanese become, in his mind, all that stands between him and chaos and starvation. As the war comes to a close, and American bombers pound the Shanghai docks nightly, food and supplies run out and the Japanese fall back deeper into the countryside, taking their prisoners with them on something approaching a death march.

This movie seems to be a transition piece for Spielberg, incorporating elements of his early action-adventure films with the beginnings of the darker, richer and sadder vision he would bring to bear with such overwhelming power in Schindler’s List. There’s a sweeping, sublime grandeur to the cinematography I haven’t seen in any other Spielberg film. The score, by John Williams, is perhaps his best ever and incorporates a Welsh hymn of amazing beauty into it’s theme. Reminiscent, to me, of Aaron Copeland’s incorporating a Shaker hymn into Appalachian Spring. I’ve only scratched the surface of this wonderful film and it really needs to be seen to be appreciated.

If you’ve seen any of these films, I’d be interested in your take on them. Also, feel free to mention any ‘sleepers’ you’d recommend.

17 thoughts on “Great Movies You’ve (Probably) Never Seen”

  1. Yes..Empire of the Sun and The Bounty are two of my favorites…I have seen them both probably 5 times….

    “Mr. Christian! Around the horn is the best way…the easiest way…and it’s the way we’ll go!” – Anthony Hopkins as Bligh

    I probably screwed up the line as I haven’t seen the movie in 15 years….but one of the all time great movie lines…

  2. To Have and Have Not:

    The reason they don’t write lines like “You know how to dial a phone, don’t you Steve? Put your finger in the hole and make little circles.” is that they don’t have to. I often wonder if censorship does not force creators to rise to higher levels of creativity in order to overcome it. It also shows how quickly technology becomes obsolete and references to it unfathomable. I still have my rotary phone from before deregulation and it is evil fun to watch my children’s friend’s try to phone home the first time.

  3. Credit where credit is due. In all likelihood the real screenplay writer for To Have and Have Not was Leigh Brackett. She typically cleaned up after Faulkner when he fell into a bottle (which was most of the time in his Hollywood screenplay days). She was hard to beat for snappy dialogue.

  4. The Bounty was made from the POV of the 18th Century Navy. Bligh is no more sadistic than any other captain of his day. He’s just not very effective administrator who doles out punishment un-equally. He plays favors. That and the lure of paradise, really tip over his command.

  5. But Bligh was one of the greatest sailors of the age. He managed to get an open boat over thousands of miles of ocean after he was deposed. The old-time British sailing Navy was not composed of nice officers, but it was composed of extremely competent ones.

  6. Details about Bligh’s voyage, with a map, here.

    Bligh and 18 other crew members loyal to him were set adrift on April 28th in the Bounty’s launch, an open boat, 23-foot long by 6’9” wide. In most cases such an act would have led to certain death for the men aboard, but Bligh was a magnificent seaman and he sailed from Tofua, one of the Friendly Islands, landing in Timor, Java, without any loss of life on June 14th. The journey of 3618 nautical miles took them 47 days.

    And this:

    …as Captain of HMS Glatton in 1801 took part in the battle of Copenhagen, after which he was commended for his bravery by Admiral Nelson.

    Nelson was probably a better judge of men than anyone in Hollywood.

  7. The ones I’ve seen are wonderful – and thanks for listing the ones I haven’t; will look for them.

    By the way, I agree The Empire of the Sun is great. Tom Stoppard is also credited with the script. I’ve always wondered if he wasn’t attracted to the project for biographical reasons: “Born Tomás Straüssler on 3 July 1937 in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. . . [h]e grew up in Singapore and India during the Second World War and moved to England in 1946 with his mother and stepfather, his own father having been killed in Singapore.” Of course, he adopted his stepfather’s name and many English passions, retaining a loyalty to his birthplace during the difficult seventies and eighties.

    And Google throws up as the first reference, his somewhat debateable observation: “If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”

  8. Nelson was probably a better judge of men than anyone in Hollywood.

    Lex, I know you don’t have a TV, so I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie or if you can watch the DVD. However, as the reviewer says, Bligh is given a completely different treatment this time around. He’s portrayed as a man of immense self discipline and a highly competent navigator and seaman, albeit with occasional lapses into bad judgement.

    Christian is portrayed as a basically decent chap who, being young, lacks the maturity and self discipline of Bligh. The lush tropical splendor of Tahiti, coupled with the native’s tradition of sharing their women freely with guests, sings an irresistable Siren Song to the crew. It’s especially tough for Christian because on leaving Tahiti he’s forced to leave behind a Tahitian woman whom he’s fallen in love with. As an officer, Bligh expects Christian to be setting an example of self discipline for the crew, not indulging himself (as Bligh sees it) in their excesses. That’s the crux on which the mutiny turns.

    Bligh is also given the hero treatment in his amazing feat of navigating his launch across the open ocean to safety. It’s really a well conceived and well executed production. Try to see it if you can. You’ll enjoy it.

  9. Re. “To Have and Have Not”:.. Read Hemigway’s short novel… I don’t mean to criticize the movie, but, as I recall, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the vivid life, death, political and economic issues and symbols.

    There’s some scenes in depression/revolutionary era Cuba that’ll make your toes curl up.

    As for sleeper films I’d suggest another Bogey fim, The Treasure of the Sierra Madres. .. Set in about the same era, I think, as To Have and Have Not (indeed some issues overlap – in the books, esp.) An American speculates on a gold mine, not with a gold fund, but much more colorfully….. “BADGEZ??? WE DOEN NEED NO STINKING BADGEZ!!!”

  10. Great post. I missed the Mel Gibson _Bounty_, but it sounds excellent. I recall reading somewhere that Bligh ordered way fewer floggings than most captains [the Royal Navy kept detailed records of such actions] but that he was hated by many sailors because of his caustic criticisms.

  11. Double thinking (and checking my library) my above comments re. “To Have and Have Not” were based on the reading of only a portion of the novel called “One Trip Across”.

    I realize, now, that I have to pick up a copy and read the whole thing.

  12. “The Razors Edge” (early 80’s)

    Bill Murray in a dramatic role, with an Oscar worthy performance, and the screenplay is INFINATELY better than the Summerset Maugham book on which it’s based.

    Always chokes me up inside, and blows my mind at the same time.

    It inverts Maugham’s “what happens if the main character never directly appears in the plot” literary experiment that makes the book such a bore, and puts Larry back into the spotlight where God intended, and plunges the depths of his internal struggles in a remarkable way.

    My favorite film, period!

  13. For anyone interested in Bligh’s story, I highly recommend Carol Alexander’s recent book “Bounty,” a masterpiece of modern historiography and a well-told tale, too. It’s hard not to conclude that Bligh, while not necessarily a paragon of virtuous leadership, is nonetheless one of the most unjustly maligned personalities in history, victim of a “smear campaign” by the politically connected family of mutineer Peter Heywood and of the mischaracterizations of Bligh for dramatic purposes in the original Bounty books and the Laughton movie.

    Bligh was not a particularly harsh disciplinarian–in fact Alexander notes that there was very little flogging on the Bounty. But because the Bounty traveled under the auspices of the Royal Society rather than the Navy, it lacked a complement of Marines, standard on RN vessels and a very strong discouragement to mutiny. Even a handful of Royal Marines–whose role, among other things, was to serve as the captain’s private guard–would have been enough to quell the Bounty mutiny.

    It’s interesting to compare the post-mutiny paths of Bligh and Christian. A lieutenant at the time of the Bounty mutiny, Bligh eventually reached the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue. He won praise at Camperdown and Copenhagen and played a vital role in the peaceful resolution of the Nore mutinies in 1797. As for Christian, within several years of landing on Pitcairn’s Island, he and all but one of the remaining mutineers had murdered each other or been killed by the Tahitians they’d brought with them–hardly the image you’re left with at the conclusion of Clark Gable and Marlon Brando Bounty movies (I’ll have to re-watch the Gibson film; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.)

  14. I can’t stand 2001, but “To Have and Have Not” is undoubtedly wonderful. I’d also recommend “Charade,” an Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant caper flick that is great fun to toss in the DVD player and just sit back and enjoy.

  15. Can’t stand 2001? Arrggghhhhh.

    Kidding. Actually, lots of people can’t stand it. I think it’s a clssic for the following reasons:

    1. It was the first piece of sci-fi to use special effects in a realistic, convincing way; as a method to allow the viewer to ‘suspend disbelief’ and immerse themselves in the possible actuality it was trying to present.

    2. It was the first piece of sci-fi movie making that took it’s subjects seriously. Those subjects were:

    A) The possibility that we’re one among many advanced civilizations in the universe and those civilizations may have been visiting the earth for a long time. The visitation is symbolized by the black monoliths, which were machines left by the visitors.

    B) The possibility that, with advances in computer hardware and software, machines may at some point achieve conciousness. They may begin thinking and acting in ways we can’t predict.

    HAL had powerful hardware ( a powerful brain), was self analyizing, and had sophisticated personality routines to allow him to interact more easily with the crew. HAL had achieved conciousness and no one realized it. He had a ‘self’ identity (an id). He was aware that he was the most powerful thinking organism ever created and believed himself incapable of error. He had ‘independent’ thoughts; independent in the sense they were not what the programmers had intended.

    In 2001, this was the result of conflicts within the software. HAL had two sets of programming, one overlaid on the other. The first set, the deeper set, was secret and was meant for use only by the part of the crew in hibernation. HAL was ‘aware’ that the mission to Jupiter was really about searching for the source of the machine previously uncovered on the moon, a machine that had sent a powerful radio beacon to Jupiter when it was uncovered (it was a solar powered transmitter). This put HAL in a situation where he was continuously lying to another part of the crew, the part that was awake during the shuttle run to Jupiter and was unaware of the real purpose of the mission. This set up a psychosis in HAL, with predictable results.

    The book, cowritten by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, is fairly straightforward in spelling all this out. In putting it on screen, Kubrick stuck with images and symbols. I’ll accept that approach is confusing in some ways. Maybe lots of ways. But it’s hard to deny it works extremely well in other ways. For example, the early scenes of apemen discovering tools are fantastic. No dialogue. None. But the story line is crystal clear. Man discovers tools. Man feeds himself using those tools. Man kills other men using those tools and thereby asserts control over valuable resources (the water pond). I especially love the scene where the apeman tosses to bone tool up in the air in celebration of victory over his ‘enemies’ and, as the bone achieves maximum height, it transitions into a spaceship. Beautiful. Tools bring us food and war and (eventually) spaceships. How could anyone not love moviemaking that poetic?

    C) Finally, the film (and book) asks the ultimate question: Where is mankind headed in it’s evolution? Is there something more? When the astronaut enters the star-gate left in orbit around Jupiter by the ‘vistors’, he’s taken on a lightspeed journey across the universe. This represents mankinds future. As we gain knowledge and understanding, we’ll evolve into something better than we are now. That evolution is represented in the death and rebirth scene that closes the film. It’s an optomistic vision that I embrace.

  16. I was stunned by the movie “House of Sand and Fog”

    A moving dramatic tragedy with the all the characters showing some of the good side, and some of the bad side, of humankind.

    I don’t know if it would count as a sleeper — but definitely seemed to be more of a film festival movie than a hollywood type when I saw it — on a flight to/from England in May or June of 2004.

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