Stray Dogies

The Self-Styled Siren was just doing what she does best, which is lighting a fire under other people’s asses, when she posted a list of her favorite old movies that she saw for the first time in 2011. Here’s a list of mine, with the usual caveat that I’m probably blanking on some of the ones I loved most. (I’ve already written about a couple of these, while there are others, such as Alice in the Cities, I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. But as the guards in Cool Hand Luke so lovingly put it, my mind ain’t right.)

1. Hell’s Hinges – William S. Hart’s 1916 version of Taxi Driver. The final apocalypse is one of those great eye-opening surprises in silent cinema.

2. Four Steps in the Clouds (originally 4 passi fra le nuvole) – Alessandro Blasetti’s graceful story about a traveling salesman who winds up helping a (single) pregnant girl rejoin her very conservative, very judgmental family. One lovely moment after another, though the ending—when the hero realizes his life has been one big missed chance—is a punch in the gut.

3. Ken Annakin’s Across the Bridge – When mysterious international financier Rod Steiger is caught embezzling millions of dollars and flees to a sun-baked, booze-marinated border town in hopes of disappearing into the interior, he only finds chaos: stolen identities, a dead body come back to life, a gallery of characters representing almost every level and degree of moral sketchiness, and a dog, a lowly mutt, who becomes a central player in his drama. It was filmed in Spain using Gypsies for Mexicans, but it works; Steiger told Annakin the only movie of his that he liked more was The Pawnbroker. “Dolores”—the mongrel that Annakin found in a pound—became a celebrity when the movie came out. (Welles HAD to have seen this before making Touch of Evil a year or two later.)

4. Adua and Her Friends – Simone Signoret and three fellow hookers, ready for a better life, put their life savings and all of their hopes into a countryside restaurant. Insert frowny emoticon here—things don’t go as planned. A vivid demonstration of how much flypaper there is on our social roles.

5. Blast of Silence – Great no-budget post-noir story about a jaded hit-man, shot in the streets and skuzzy hotel rooms of NYC. Allen Baron both directs and stars (his first choice, Peter Falk, was busy getting famous in Murder, Inc.). Baron makes brilliant use of his locations, especially the reed-choked Jersey marshes where the climactic gunfight goes down in a driving rainstorm.

6. Chronicle of a Summer (Paris 1960) – Jean Rouch’s great documentary of French attitudes about sex, race and politics. Some of the interview subjects and their exchanges are mesmerizing.

7. Nothing But a Man – Honest, down-to-earth study of race prejudice in America—it’s brimming with layered characters and subtle insights. Much of its gaze is trained on how the targets of bigotry can internalize hate until they begin undermining themselves—an insidious and still under-discussed syndrome. Julius Harris and Gloria Foster, as the hero’s father and the father’s girlfriend, are astonishing. Here they are with the film’s star, Ivan Dixon of Hogan’s Heroes fame. (Not seen: the late Abbey Lincoln, who’s dynamite in the movie in her own quiet way.)

8. Two shorts: “Meet Marlon Brando” (Maysles) & “Hôtel des Invalides” (Franju)

9. Deep End (Skolimowski) – Jerzy Skolimowski’s gorgeous, funny, shocking tale of teen obsession.

10. Alice in the Cities – The whole “uptight adult gets chilled out by precocious kid” idea done as well as is humanly possible. That Wim Wenders managed this while making one of the great road movies AND one of the great buddy movies—well, it’s all clearly unfair.

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