After a long break for mad travelling in October and December, mad movie watching for Noirvember and the Oscars, and mad blogging about some bad-ass women for Women’s History Month, I am back with my final “The Great Unseen” post, which covers the cinematic canon from the 1960s through the 1990s.
As a reminder, for this series, I selected three to five critically acclaimed or culturally significant films that I hadn’t yet seen (or thought I hadn’t seen) to represent each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. My goal was to watch at least twenty-five of these hitherto unseen canonical works over the course of this project. You can see the original list here.
I am happy to say I have finally achieved my goal, although I must admit that this final group seemed much more like homework than my earlier forays.
Since my last post, I managed to get through a further fifteen films on my list: Blow-Up (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The French Connection (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Mad Max (1979), The Thing (1982), Body Double (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Daughters of the Dust (1991), Orlando (1992), and Beau Travail (1999). As a reminder, I also watched Pretty in Pink (1986) early on in the process. Plus, I watched three more new-to-me classics as a direct result of this project—Z (1969), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and The Driver (1978).
As with my first and second posts in this series—Matinée Idle and Dinner and a Movie—the old adage of “classics are classics for a reason” has proved true. Not that I loved every film I watched, but I appreciate that they are mostly deserving of their place in the canon.
And with that… Lights! Camera! Action!
Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni
Cool Hand Luke (1967) by Stuart Rosenberg
In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Norman Jewison
Barry Lyndon (1975) by Stanley Kubrick
The Driver (1978) by Walter Hill
I’m really sorry that I first saw Blow-Up after already having seen Blow Out, the Brian De Palma remake, which is far more satisfying from a plot perspective. However, from a sociological perspective, Antonioni’s film is a fantastic portrayal of London in the swinging 60s. [Side note: Among other 1960s icons, this film stars an unrecognizable Jane Birkin in a minor role.] In Blow-Up, a fashion photographer—based on real-life photog David Bailey—believes he has unwittingly captured a murder on film. Despite this intriguing mystery element, the film is more about a day in the life of this photographer than anything else. As such, it has perhaps the least satisfying ending of all the films in this post, with, of all things, mimes playing tennis. It does, however, have a cool use of diegetic music, with a score by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
Speaking of cool, along with Barry Lyndon (see below), Cool Hand Luke is a film where I had to make multiple viewing attempts. I tried to watch it a few times last year and just couldn’t get into it. Even when I did finally sit down and watch the whole thing, it definitely ebbed and flowed for me. I think one reason is I couldn’t figure out the character of Luke, and so he just couldn’t hold my interest despite being played by Paul Newman. Plus, the film is very heavy-handed with its Christian symbolism—even the folk song Newman sings (beautifully) is called “Plastic Jesus” for crying out loud. Still, I always like a good prison drama and visually it is a stand out, with lots of beautiful imagery and extremely interesting framing and angles. This is definitely one I am happier to have watched than I was to watch it. I chalk that up to director failure.
What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
In the Heat of the Night is one of the films on my list that I didn’t have strong opinions on one way or another. I had no idea if I would like it or not. I loved it. The plot, the performances, everything. The film only feels dated in the sense that race relations somehow seem worse now? The basic plot is that Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective who is waiting for a train in a small town in Mississippi when he is picked up for the murder of a local bigwig. Rod Steiger plays the local police chief who, after initial skepticism on both sides, enlists Poitier’s help in solving the crime. The murder gets solved a little too quickly at the end, but that is a minor quibble for a film that deservedly won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger.
They call me MISTER Tibbs!
Barry Lyndon was one of the films on my Great Unseen list that I was particularly dreading. For its length of course (just over three hours), but also because Kubrick is hit or miss for me. I did have a couple of stops and starts with it; however, once I got over the half-hour mark, I was fully into it. Really, I shouldn’t be surprised, because I love gorgeous period dramas, and this film is certainly that. Every frame is a painting (literally). Plus, it was based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, whose satirical Vanity Fair I loved when I read it yonks ago. Additionally, I usually love when a director takes on a technical challenge and Barry Lyndon does that with a vengeance: Kubrick desired to avoid electrical lighting wherever possible and used ultra-fast lenses to shoot the interiors. [Side note: Although it is often stated that this film is shot entirely with natural light, that is not the case.]
The photography is a fantastic achievement and deservedly won an Oscar for its cinematographer, John Alcott. The film also won Oscars for Adapted Score, Art Direction, and Costume Design. It was nominated in seven categories, but “lost” Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not too shabby. Really, I think the only change I would make to the film (beyond cutting down on the military scenes) is Ryan O’Neal, who seems a bit too bland for the role of Redmond Barry. Of course, I wouldn’t have cast O’Neal in The Driver either, where I thought the same thing. [Side note: The Driver was okay but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.]
Barry Lyndon is certainly not for everyone, but it may end up being my favorite Kubrick and is probably one of the three films in this post I am most likely to revisit.
Z (1969) by Costa-Gavras
The French Connection (1971) by William Friedkin
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) by Sidney Lumet
Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese
The French Connection was a film that I was really looking forward to, despite knowing almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know that there was an actual French connection! I have to say, I was rather disappointed. I had a real hard time following what was going on, even with the subtitles turned on. I guess that makes sense since the director has said that the documentary-realist style of the film was based on Z, another film I had been meaning to see for some time, but ultimately proved to be rather confusing and fairly disappointing. Both films picked up for me in the second half, and they have their high points, but I think I just don’t like the style used. Of course, my disinterest might also have to do with the fact that these films paint an incredibly bleak picture of our world, and that’s just not what I want to see right now.
Dog Day Afternoon is one of those 1970s films that comes up quite often on lists of great heist movies, which is how it found its way onto my original Great Unseen list. Although I really enjoyed this film, I do not agree that it is a heist film, which I think needs to have either an “assembling the crew” sequence or an intricately planned crime, preferably both. The only thing this really has in common with heist films is the back-end “heist gone wrong” element. Still, this is a great “heist gone wrong” film—brilliant performances all around and way ahead of its time in terms of social commentary and representation. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how we seem to only now be getting back to that type of thing. In any case, this is perhaps why Dog Day and In the Heat of the Night seem the least dated to me, even if the look of both is incredibly dated.
On the other hand, the visuals of Taxi Driver seem remarkably fresh. Unfortunately, that was the only thing I really liked about the movie. This is definitely one of those “homework” films I mention above. I’m happy I saw it but do not think I will ever seek it out again. I’m known for not particularly liking unreliable narrators and the subject matter and main character are supremely uninteresting to me. Annoying even. It’s like Catcher in the Rye in movie form. The fact that this is so high on the Sight & Sound list (#31) only goes to prove how much film criticism is dominated by stunted men. I mean, I know women like this film too, but I just couldn’t get past the unrelenting violent misogyny and racism. Perhaps if the ending had been more clearly a fantasy, Taxi Driver might seemed more of a condemnation than a lionization of this behavior, but, as is, this movie is just repellent to me.
Mad as Hell
Mad Max (1979) by George Miller
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter
Body Double (1984) by Brian De Palma
Speaking of repellent, Mad Max. Well, not repellent exactly, but, oh man, not what I expected after loving Fury Road so much. I was really looking forward to this, but it didn’t hold much interest for me. I just couldn’t buy into this world. Definitely grindhouse territory. I know that The Road Warrior is supposed to be much better, but I’m not sure I can muster up enough enthusiasm to seek it out. We’ll see.
Luckily, I was able to quickly rebound from Mad Max with a John Carpenter double feature of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. I had been meaning to watch both as part of this project, but Assault didn’t make it on the official list because I had so many 70s movies to watch ahead of it. Given that Assault is an updated take of Rio Bravo, I suppose it is not surprising that I loved it. From the plot, to the humor, to the incredible characters and camerawork, this is simply one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. In fact, The Thing was almost a letdown after Assault, but it’s very good as well. It probably suffers somewhat from my having seen so many television episodes and other movies riffing on The Thing before actually watching the inspiration itself, but that can’t be helped.
I go through all that, and his gun isn’t even loaded.
—Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13
Body Double is another film that suffers somewhat from my familiarity with other similar films, although in the case of Body Double, it is the films that inspired De Palma rather than the other way around. Body Double also feels incredibly dated, both in its look and attitude. And that’s before you even get to the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video that randomly appears in the middle of the movie. Nevertheless, Body Double has some good twists and turns and its representation of Los Angeles really stands out from the pack.
Crazy Stupid Love
Pretty in Pink (1986) by John Hughes
Raising Arizona (1987) by Ethan and Joel Coen
Wild at Heart (1990) by David Lynch
This string of films is where everything I thought I knew about myself went right out the window. As someone who generally loves the Coen brothers and still loves Sixteen Candles despite its problems, I thought I would love both Pretty in Pink and Raising Arizona and hate Wild at Heart, but no, the exact opposite proved to be the case.
Oddly enough, while the film mostly avoids the problematic messages of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink is mediocre at best. The stakes are so low that it is hard to care about anything that happens. The “rich” kids aren’t even that rich and the “poor” kids certainly don’t seem to be very poor. Not to mention James Spader seems about a gazillion years too old for high school and just comes off as ridiculous. And don’t even get me started on that god-awful dress. Yikes.
Raising Arizona is a film I thought I hadn’t seen but in fact am now pretty sure I did but just didn’t remember. Why didn’t I remember it? I guess because it’s not really funny and sort of boring. That’s right, I said it. It’s like the Coen brothers were trying to make a screwball comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace (which I love) but instead made Bringing Up Baby (which I really dislike). There’s just too much slapstick and stupidity here for me.
So I suppose it’s odd that I liked Wild at Heart as much as I did because in many ways it has a similar vibe to Raising Arizona, with an extra dose of stupid and crazy. But maybe that’s just because Nicolas Cage is in both. Given how much I liked Twin Peaks when it was first on the air, I don’t know why I didn’t see this when it came out. However, I imagine I might have hated it then for its weirdness. But I love this pair of crazy kids; they are truly one of the great cinema couples and very much partners in their individuality, if that makes any sense.
The way your head works is God’s own private mystery.
—Sailor to Lula in Wild at Heart
Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter
Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis
And, finally, three canonical films by female directors, all of which I avoided (for a variety of reasons) when I first undertook my #52FilmsByWomen project.
I have long known that Daughters of the Dust was considered a classic but, to be honest, I thought it looked rather boring. Had I known it also used non-linear storytelling I probably never would have considered adding it to this list. However, that approach really worked for the storytelling here, which in many ways reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, though on a smaller scale. And the visuals are gorgeous. Gorgeous.
You can’t get back what you never owned
—wise words from Nana Peazant in Daughters of the Dust
Orlando I avoided because it was Virginia Woolf. While I didn’t come away loving this, it was certainly very interesting and another film that was gorgeous to look at. I love how the travel through time was represented. It would have been nice to have some sort of explanation or context for the gender change—I’m not sure why it didn’t happen when Orlando first fell into the deep sleep. It almost makes me want to read the novel. Almost.
I watched a series of Claire Denis films when I first did #52FilmsByWomen, including Chocolat (1988), 35 Rhums (2008), and White Material (2009), but Beau Travail escaped my notice because I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a film about the French foreign legion. Had I known it was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and was partially scored with Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name, I might have taken notice. Heck, just knowing it opened with everyone dancing to Tarkan’s “Şımarık” might have gotten me to pop this one in the DVD player. In any case, this is more of a tone piece than anything. You do have to be in the right mood for it.
And that’s a wrap, folks! If you undertook my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you ended up watching in the comments below.
The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The French Connection (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Mad Max (1979)
The Thing (1982)
Body Double (1984)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Beau Travail (1999)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The Driver (1978)
Tune in later this week for my film quarterly report and definitive ranking of The Great Unseen!