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.