If you’re on Facebook, you’re no doubt familiar with (and probably incredibly annoyed by) those quizzes that always seem to be in circulation. However, there’s one that recently crossed my path again after four years, and I’ve been intrigued by how my views have changed or in some instances remained the same. I’m referring to the quiz that begins with the instruction: “List the first fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. Fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”
So free-associating I went. It wasn’t until I completed my list and went to the “Notes” section of my Facebook page that I realized I had taken the quiz before. Here are the results:
Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie and Clyde
Up in the Air Smiles of a Summer Night
Some Like It Hot L.A. Confidential
Days of Wine and Roses The Talented Mr. Ripley
Vertigo Music Box
The Godfather The Seventh Seal
The Last Picture Show The Magnificent Ambersons
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Sherlock, Jr.
Yankee Doodle Dandy Meet Me in St. Louis
L.A. Confidential The Letter
Now, Voyager Laura
A Letter to Three Wives A Letter to Three Wives
Elmer Gantry They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Smiles of a Summer Night Public Enemy
Persona Howard’s End
A couple of observations: While some of the films have changed, two of the key players did not: Bette Davis (“The Letter” vs. “Now, Voyager”) and James Cagney (“Public Enemy” vs. “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), which didn’t surprise me at all—they’re among my favorite actors. Several of the movies fell off the list during the intervening years due to sheer fatigue on my part—much as I love “Laura” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” I’ve recently had to give these two a rest as I did with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (one can only take so much Jude Law at his most gorgeous). I can’t say I included any stinkers, though I was surprised to find I had picked “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 2010. And the only movie I regret omitting from either list is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen.
That “Bonnie and Clyde” tops both lists is proof that what you experience in adolescence stays with you forever. I saw this during its first release when I was a junior in high school; no other movie I’ve seen since looks quite like it. Today’s first-time viewers might yawn, but I can’t emphasize enough how shocking the violence and the blood were in 1967, yet how refreshingly hip it all seemed before the shooting started. The ending is both famous and infamous, but the earlier scene in the field, as Buck lies dying of a head wound and the gang is surrounded by law enforcement, is an incredible ballet of death. While all the actors are excellent, Gene Hackman as Buck is the true standout.
“Up in the Air” is my favorite recent film. It definitely rates its own blog post, so stay tuned. Three of the repeaters, namely “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” remain among my most watchable films. The first of these has amazing grit and spectacular performances from Jane Fonda and Gig Young. “L.A. Confidential” is one of the most perfectly cast movies I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that a number of viewers complain that the plot is too complicated, but when I saw it during its first run, I could really feel the story unfold, like a flower opening. If you want to see what a terrific job screenwriter Brian Helgeland did, try the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based—it’s a great read but you’ll spend a lot of time backtracking just to keep things straight. In an entirely different mode, “Smiles of a Summer Night” is unquestionably Ingmar Bergman’s loveliest film. It may be hard to believe coming from the director that gave us “Winter Light” and “Through a Glass Darkly,” but each time I watch it I feel much better about the world in general.
I hadn’t seen “Days of Wine and Roses” in quite a while until Turner Classic Movies ran it one recent Sunday morning, which was odd scheduling indeed. While the film’s set pieces are well-known—Joe’s tearing up his father-in-law’s greenhouse in search of that hidden bottle, Kirsten’s enticing Joe into drinking with her in that cheap motel room—the freshness of the couple’s early relationship makes their descent into alcoholism that much more painful. Interestingly, in the original version of this story, which aired on television’s “Playhouse 90,” Joe and Kirsten are both heavy drinkers when we first see them; there’s no suggestion that he coerced her to drink as there is in the film. Piper Laurie is as wonderful a Kirsten in the televised version as Lee Remick is in the movie version, though Cliff Robertson can’t hold a candle to Jack Lemmon’s later performance as Joe Clay (If you’d like to compare teleplay to film, the former is included in “The Golden Age of Television” anthology)
I was tickled to see that even with a four-year lapse in time, I had “A Letter to Three Wives” in the same position on both lists. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and more universal, perhaps, than Joseph Mankiewicz’s next film, “All About Eve.” You couldn’t ask for a better cast: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are the stand-outs among the husbands and wives, Celeste Holm supplies Addie Ross’ arch narration, and Connie Gilchrist as Ms. Darnell’s mother and especially Thelma Ritter as Sadie the maid (“Soup’s on!”) are wonders to behold. It’s not just an incredibly funny movie—there’s a tragic thread in the relationship of Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, two people who are afraid to say “I love you” to each other. I should warn you, however, that there’s one minor fault in the film: the ending is a bit rushed, to the extent that you may not be sure that Porter is telling the truth (nearly everyone I’ve known who’s seen it says the same thing). Reverse and replay it—you’ll see that he is.
And what 15 films always stick with you?