Documentation Team Leader (BFI); Credits Supervisor (Sight & Sound)
|The Old Dark House
|The Lady Vanishes
|Hail the Conquering Hero
|The Band Wagon
|A Man for All Seasons
|Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Old Dark House
This brilliantly atmospheric knockout, somehow both cosy and hair-raising, has the air of a charmingly comical nightmare. Eccentric, creepy, touching and funny, it’s so deftly done that the characters, and that storm-battered house, seem to have real history beyond the unforgettable 70-odd minutes we spend with them.
The Lady Vanishes
Hitchcock pulls off this dexterous, dizzying puzzle about strangers on a far-flung train with a masterly lightness of touch. A non-stop journey of frissons, laughs and twists, it’s a masterclass in juggling the shifting perspectives of a host of memorable characters. Its themes of paranoia and panic in unfamiliar surroundings tap into the sort of fears that make people stay at home (or seek thrills vicariously, in cinemas).
Hail the Conquering Hero
A quintessential ‘growing lie’ comedy, this topsy-turvy celebration of patriotic pride is a gleeful masterpiece of mischief, tearing like a tornado through any pomposity associated with such beloved touchstones as small-town communities, war heroes, widows and orphans. (Overreaction, not the touchstones themselves, is Sturges’ target; the Hays Office approved it.) The zany antics, though crafted like a Swiss watch, feel spontaneous and fresh, and barrels of laughs are punctuated by well-judged moments of real emotion. (Inept studio meddling serendipitously afforded Sturges the rare chance to shoot a new ending and fine-tune the film before release, and it became his favourite of his own films.)
The Band Wagon
It’s said that Singin’ in the Rain (1951) wins plaudits from those who don’t like musicals, whereas aficionados often prize this vibrant backstage comedy (from the same screenwriters), satirising the gap between what artists love to dish out and what audiences want to see. (Given the film’s own jam-packed parade of imaginative sophistication, directorial ambition was a bold target indeed). The theme is distilled in its key song, “That’s Entertainment!”, a joyous anthem of anti-lofty sentiment. The dancing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse could be cinema’s contribution to the wonders of the world.
This flawless gem may be the perfect thriller: suspenseful from the word go, romantic and witty (with two of cinema's most enduring stars in their element), glamorous, playful, sinister (with palatable peril), and brimming with delightful removals of rugs from under the audience. It positively radiates ‘movie magic’, that rare quality which, like a truffle, cannot be farmed. (You can see Donen rooting round copycat material in his next film, Arabesque (1966), with nothing like the same results.) It’s not personal or poetic, it has no message for humanity and no aim other than to whisk us thrillingly away, and I’m all for this classic taking its place among the greats.
A Man for All Seasons
What troubled Thomas More in the 1530s, and Robert Bolt in the 1960s, troubles us no end today: the struggle for self-preservation against the tide of the times, and the confronting of those power-grabs whereby any elite or mob tries to sidestep troublesome facts by silencing dissent. As the wily More pays ever more drastically for his implacable resistance to the whim of a king, the ever-decreasing walls of his world point up the film’s Orwellian prescience; over time, the film grows more uncomfortable to watch. It’s very moving, it looks like a painting come gloriously to life, and Bolt’s captivating dialogue is formidably clever and striking. Hilary Mantel devotees could be in for a shock.
Heretically declare this Irish village tragedy your favourite Lean film and even his staunchest admirers eye you askance, but I love the way it unfolds with a transporting mix of novelistic grace and meticulous cinematic rigour. It reaps the best of old and modern eras of filmmaking, and I've heard the audience gasp at its (70mm) splendour. The ending is quietly magnificent, leaving me with a not-quite-melancholy feeling I get from no other film. Every viewing is enhanced by my fascination with the production's turmoil: a year of location shooting driving cast and crew to distraction, locals in pubs picking fights with Robert Mitchum, and hard-up MGM in despair at the vast extravagance and slow progress. Lean’s grit saw it through, it played for two years in London, there’s nothing else like it and I feel grateful that it’s there.
A forceful, ferocious experience full of dread and hope, but beneath the skilful shock-and-lull pacing and gruesome spectacle, there seems to be something beautiful and true in its presentation of humans as the unsuspecting and undeserving ultimate prize, a sort of cosmic MacGuffin, in a battle between divine love for humanity and the enemy’s hatred of us. More than any subliminal spooky visuals, that supernatural intimation is, I suspect, why the film attaches itself to us and won't leave.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg’s ripping yarn par excellence never grows old and has been copied ever since. Its virtuoso sweep of dynamic adventure is a crowning culmination of cinematic escapism. Nobody does it better.
Attenborough’s deeply moving drama of love and loss addresses our living “in the shadowlands”, where the certainty of sorrow keeps us at one remove from the joy we can’t help but crave. Showing intellect and spiritual strength both in harmony and at odds, it wonders whether we can summon something more than mere coping in the face of suffering. Stopping short of offering answers about the sussing of divine will (it’s only a movie…), it nevertheless invites an inward glance, the instigation of an interior journey which viewers will take as far or as little as they like. Grappling with the intertwined beauty and unfairness of life, this warm, affecting film stirs something in our heads and our hearts, and discreetly leaves the rest in our hands.
I saw no virtue in limiting my choices by keeping one eye on quotas as to where, when or who the films were from, nor was I concerned about sticking to 'canon'. (Much as I love Lawrence of Arabia (1962), I prefer Ryan's Daughter (1970).) I have taken ‘greatest’ in the more personal spirit suggested in the last poll, so instead of saluting the films justly pondered in film schools, I have selected those that have had the most overall impact on me, cropping up in my thoughts most regularly over the years and deepening my love of cinema the most. It amounts to the films I would be happiest to find washed ashore in a crate on my desert island.