The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
45) Gone with the Wind (1939), directed by Victor Fleming.
Scarlett O’Hara is a personality test stronger than anything Isabel Briggs Myers or the stars in their dances could have dreamt up. What you (an American) think of Scarlett O’Hara is as clear a statement of how you view the world as any other test I can think of. We all know people who focus on her ambition and hard-headedness just as surely as we know people who focus on her cruelty towards men just as surely as we know people who focus on her cruelty towards people with less power than her. Like many of the other blockbuster tentpoles of the past hundred years – Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow, Jack Dawson, a Tyrannosaurus rex – what you see in Scarlett is what you get. She is, whatever your perspective on her, a genuinely fascinating case study. Unlike, say, India Wilkes, she is not the true “Southern belle” nor is she the Southern womanhood that William Faulkner and Alice Walker tore down. India grows up the daughter of the great Southern gentleman, John Wilkes (how’s that for a name?), as opposed to the daughter of an Irish intruder like Gerald O’Hara. After the Civil War, India stays out of the public sector at the risk of not finding a husband at all; Scarlett not only involves herself in business but seems determined to use her financial acumen as her guide for choosing a man. (Consider how India tells her father that she hates Scarlett: “if you’d see the way she throws herself at Ashley.” It’s no wonder that India, with her aversion to throwing and her addiction to dresses in awful colors, never does lay the snare that hooks a fella.) Connected to that ability to pick and choose from the ranks of men is a statement from Mammy that proves to be as prescient as anything Rhett Butler says at Twelve Oaks. “What gentlemen says and what gentlemen thinks,” she chides Scarlett, “is two different things.” India is as demure a virgin as a man like John Wilkes could wish, but the men surrounding Scarlett at the barbecue that day aren’t fathers. The ideal of Southern womanhood, as importantly as any other element, rests on not recognizing that the rules are created by Southern male nincompoops but never enforced by them; I would use the clockmaker analogy here, but I’m afraid the Enlightenment wasted it on God. Scarlett does not immediately understand that point of view, but she sure learns it; India is innocent of it forever, scolding Scarlett invariably until the end.
Incidentally, Gone with the Wind is its own test for how much racism one is willing to stomach in a movie and still call it great. It’s at my limit, to put it simply, and I can appreciate and agree with people whose limit this movie passes. (For a movie which went past my limit, Touch of Evil was eliminated from consideration when Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich were made up to play Mexicans.) Gone with the Wind as a movie is somehow less racist than Gone with the Wind as a novel, which is impressive, and a lot of that has to do with McDaniel. Mammy in the film – which generally stirs up Lost Cause imagery as sure as the moldering corpse of Jefferson Davis is great fodder for worms – is a bunch of racist stereotypes blended together. (Just as we now wonder at the Stepin Fetchits and Mammies which were the only roles available to black performers, future generations will wonder why we couldn’t find roles for Middle Eastern actors which weren’t terrorists.) McDaniel’s performance above all else makes Mammy a person, though, and Mammy is the most moral person in a movie with several dozen named characters. She does not scheme like Scarlett, make apologies for slavery like Ashley, rape like Rhett, or go blind from looking on the bright side like Melanie. Mammy is the one person in this universe who can call good good and evil evil without getting the two of them confused.
44) Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Major Kong’s B-52 is nearing its target in the USSR, and he’s starting to lose his cool a little bit. Their plane has taken on some damage already, and it appears that it’s also made it impossible to open the bomb bay doors despite the best efforts of his crew. Cowboy hat on his head, yodeling but reassuring, he tells the crew he’s going to find a way to fix the problem. He drops into the bomb bay. “Nuclear warhead,” they say. “Handle with care.” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” has been trumpeting tensely in the background. Major Kong clambers up on one of the nukes (“Hi There!”) and throws his hat at the wires. Eventually he manages to fix it, and swinging his hat wildly and giving an ol’ rebel yell, the commander rides a nuclear bomb down to the surface. Few would accuse Dr. Strangelove of being a subtle comedy, except maybe for Slim Pickens. Legend has it that Pickens was only given the parts of the script involving Major Kong and was directed to play the part like he was in a Cold War action movie; if that’s the case, then gaslighting him into one of the funniest, darkest images ever put on film is almost as hilarious as Dr. Strangelove itself.
It’s a truism that the first shot of a scene and the last shot of a scene should both be memorable, and Dr. Strangelove takes that advice to remarkable heights. Sterling Hayden standing over a machine gun with ammunition draped around his shoulder, telling his British liaison that “the Redcoats are coming!” cuts to the ultra hi-tech War Room, with its ominous lighting and vast maps on the wall. That scene, which introduces Dr. Strangelove to us for the first time (it used to be “Merkwurdige Liebe,” we find out, but the onetime Nazi scientist he “changed” it upon coming to the USA), ends with the Soviet ambassador mournfully telling everyone that the Premier did not make the doomsday device public yet because he “loves surprises.” (Just for the record, that shot is followed by one which, with photojournalistic aplomb, documents a firefight around a military base. “PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION,” a billboard proclaims.) It’s one of my favorite scenes of the movie, although I’ve had to watch it several times to actually know what happens. Just looking at Peter Sellers in the Strangelove get-up makes me laugh so hard that I can’t actually hear what he’s saying. One of his hands has a mind of its own; he seems to have forgotten how to close his mouth, or, indeed, open it any further than his clenched smile allows. Keenan Wynn has the deadest eyes ever opened in his scene; George C. Scott trips over himself like the Cirque du Soleil sent a representative to the nuclear holocaust, and does an airplane impression par excellence. Somehow, neither one of them can quite touch Sellers’ masterful physical comedy in this movie, culminating in the most impressively deranged final line of an American movie ever: “MEIN FUHRER! I CAN WALK!”
43) Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey.
I’m not sure Duck Soup is funny anymore. I mean, there’s an hour or so of humor in the movie which is absolutely delirious, but Duck Soup simply refuses to credit the political infrastructure of Freedonia (HAIL, HAIL FREEDONIA, LAND OF THE BRAVE AND FREE) with any sort of competency whatever. Arrested Development, Tanner ’88, and Armando Iannucci projects all credit the government with people who are at least vaguely intelligent. Veep, for example, posits that everyone is an idiot, but that even the idiots are good enough at their jobs to keep them. Duck Soup has no illusions about the heads of state: they are all too stupid to walk and breathe at the same time, and that’s the difference. The movie begins when Freedonia, deep in a financial crisis, has to place Rufus T. Firefly at the head of the government because it needs a loan from one very rich woman, Mrs. Teasdale. (I love everything that Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont ever did together, but the Firefly-Teasdale pairing is on another level.) Firefly is a moron. His opposite number, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, is less dumb-looking but still hires Chicolini and Pinky as his spies. At least Firefly is self-aware. As he sings:
The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn’t know what to do with it.
You think this country’s bad off now?
Just wait ’til I get through with it.
All of this is said with a wink, but at the same time the movie was released at the height of the Great Depression and fifteen years after the end of World War I. How could an audience have stopped themselves from nodding in agreement? When Freedonia goes to war, the response from the Marx Brothers is sublimely terrible and, worse than that, prophetic: “They got guns,” they sing. “We got guns. All God’s chillun got guns.”
The movie is not entirely disposed to satire. Some of it is purely, blissfully zany, and for that reason this is maybe my favorite Harpo performance of them all. He has a telephone conversation conducted entirely through a series of bicycle horns on his belt. He has the most active pair of scissors this side of an elementary school classroom. His war with a poor peanut vendor who is just unprepared for his level of insanity is totally one-sided, punctuated with a unique power move. Without knowing it, that vendor always seems to be holding Harpo’s leg.
42) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), directed by Steven Spielberg.
Peru to Chicago, Chicago to Nepal, Nepal to Cairo, Cairo to a little island in the Aegean, home again, home again, and Marion looks odd in conventional ’30s clothing for women. Four continents and one of the holiest objects in the history of the planet dash before us in the blink of an eye…or at least in two hours. I appreciate how neatly the movie fits together, how easy to follow it is. I love that its great plot isn’t convoluted or pretentious. Find the Ark, hook up with the attractive woman, defeat the Nazis, head home to fight the bureaucracy. In short, it’s a movie that kids can watch but that you don’t have to be a kid to love. I’m proof! I saw my first Indiana Jones movie as a teenager, and it was Temple of Doom. Despite that, Raiders is still an absolute delight, and from where I’m sitting it’s also Steven Spielberg’s best movie. It is all of the things I like about Spielberg and in all of the right proportions. There’s affection, decency, adventure, warmth, morality, humor, excitement, and joy. Each of those qualities is measured in the right amount; perhaps there’s something in Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay that, as it is in The Empire Strikes Back and The Big Chill, turns restraint into lightning late in the film.
Maybe the secret ingredient for Spielberg is peak Harrison Ford. Not yet forty, Ford definitely has the “Bill’s thirty-two, he looks thirty-two, he looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now” thing going on; no one ever looked better with that kind of stubble. Ford’s persona over the years has always been brainy with a surprising level of physical dexterity: The Fugitive, Witness, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Patriot Games. It doesn’t quite begin with Raiders, because Han Solo already existed, but nothing tops the professor and archaeologist with a revolver and a bullwhip. Reading that description feels absurd – have you ever seen an archaeologist? – but Ford plays the part without winking, and Spielberg/Kasdan give us his escape from a booby-trapped cave before they show us an adoring chorus of girl students with messages written on their eyelids. Ford accepts both with aplomb, running from the boulder and using that whip to avoid an early death before stammering at the new trend in eye makeup. It’s one of the great screen performances by any actor; Ford makes Indiana Jones a superhero.
41) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), directed by Robert Altman.
So much of McCabe & Mrs. Miller looks and sounds like it was liberated from a dream. It is a misty, hazy film where Warren Beatty’s mumbling and Julie Christie’s irrepressible Cockney whine are layers in the soundtrack; the murmuring of patrons and clinking of glasses and pattering of rain are there too. Sometimes Leonard Cohen’s mournful songs play over movement, and those are just about the only sounds which aren’t whisked in with other noises. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not quick to pick up an action, either, languorously waiting around for more people to come to the developing hamlet of Presbyterian Church. Without McCabe forcing the town into some whores in tents and the frame of a hotel, it might have gone into the 21st Century without electricity or automobiles; it’s Mrs. Miller, really, who manages to land the kick in the rear end which seriously accelerates progress. McCabe loves alcohol and the fawning sounds of his fellow men too much; Mrs. Miller has vision enough to know that the men will pay through the nose for a representation of luxury at the whorehouse, and intelligence enough to take over the bookkeeping and planning herself. She rouses the movie from the dream, though much of the rest of the film still is bleary and confused in our ears.
I’m fond of the way that the movie winds down. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a western which doesn’t give its protagonist a high noon but more like a break of dawn. Like Will Kane, he has to fight off a posse which outnumbers him and which consists of a better set of gunfighters, probably. Unlike Will Kane, McCabe’s woman does not run off the train to join him in his hour of need; she had in fact advised him to run, and as he is ducking and hiding in the town, she is wide-eyed from the opium. And unlike Will Kane, his fight takes place not in the desert but in a driving snowstorm. The carnage goes mostly unnoticed because the church is on fire, and as the men and women of Presbyterian Church congratulate themselves on saving the town’s namesake, one of the movie’s namesakes sits upright, dying, as the snow blows into his face again and again and again.