You thought I’d keep doing this in fives! Ha! As if I wouldn’t drag this out!
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!
10) Pulp Fiction (1994), directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Is it really a good Los Angeles movie if the characters don’t have to drive for half the runtime? Pulp Fiction has this admirable quality of showing the way people make it from place to place. Nothing ever just happens; the people who appear to us without explanation have their own appearances revealed later on in the movie. The back of Marsellus Wallace’s head, as sudden as that is in the moment, turns out to be a key sequence which ties in the Butch act with the Jules act within the Vincent act. The opening of the film, the lead-in with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, is (significantly more fun than the Reservoir Dogs open and) the way we ultimately lead into the convoluted, stirring final sequence about the righteous man and the shepherd. And while the movie hits its high points outside of Winston Wolf’s sports car and Vincent Vega’s land yacht and Zed’s chopper, we’d never get to Jimmie’s house or Jack Rabbit Slim’s or that pawn shop basement without them. In real life, people spend ages in cars; many of us are ourselves in cars, for better or worse. Vincent’s essential carelessness – the same quality that almost killed Mia, got himself killed, and led to the endlessly hysterical “Aw, man, I shot Marvin in the face” – is displayed in that vehicle. Not only does he, in fact, shoot Marvin in the face, but he also drives jacked down on heroin and then obliterates every traffic law known to man in his quest to get Mia back to Lance’s. Jules does much of his thinking while driving; he ruminates on the wonder of a Royale with cheese rather than the Quarter Pounder he knows so well, or on why he’s going to quit his lucrative job working for Marsellus. Esmerelda gets Butch to open up about himself personally that he doesn’t do with Fabienne in their motel room, and when Butch drives alone he loses his temper more thoroughly than he’d done with Fabienne just before. It’s on the chopper that he finally says that he’ll explain everything to her.
The last time I wrote about Pulp Fiction, I ended it by saying that Tarantino makes “the festering fascinating,” and I stand by that. Mulholland Dr. is certainly weirder within this subgenre of “strange happenings in sunny Los Angeles,” but the gap is not so stark as one would think. Mulholland Dr. argues that the strangeness is in the atomic structure of the place, that the Weird is in our cells as much as mitochondria or ribosomes. It’s not quite that laid into the foundation in Pulp Fiction, but the movie is more concerned with the effects than it is with the simple fact of its existence. For better or worse, Pulp Fiction would have looked at the effects of the cowboy more than Mulholland Dr. does, and it would have added some choice expletives here and there while it rode down that path. The Gimp was always in the basement, but he’s only unveiled because Marsellus involves himself in a boxing match. God himself, or whatever spirit hovers over the City of Angels, stops the bullets from killing Jules and Vincent. Vincent dies afterward and Jules lives on to “wander the Earth.” Pulp Fiction finds movers, causes for what happens, and I think that’s part of what makes it so satisfying. Even mysterious causes like that briefcase, the Maltese Falcon of late 20th Century movies, provide recognizable impetuses to act. And when Jules makes the single boldest choice of the movie in that diner, it feels good knowing why he’s decided to become the shepherd. We’ll all remember the screenplay for its indelible dialogue, and I’ve argued in the past that even its silences are unusually effective. But the character motivation Tarantino writes in here is limpid and engaging and underrated.
9) Casablanca (1943), directed by Michael Curtiz.
Casablanca is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Catherine Belsey has a marvelous primer on poststructuralism via the Very Short Introductions series, and in it she has a quip about Western romances:
Why is it that the big love stories, those that become legendary when so many are forgotten, tend to be the ones with unhappy endings? Most people in Western culture probably know the stories of more than one of the following: Dido and Aeneas, Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, Brief Encounter,Casablanca. (Do you? How did you score? Two is promising; five is good; all nine and you could write a book.)
Belsey returns us to Lacan for her answer, discussing how desire is our grasp for the Other that we can neither name nor fully understand, but which we know we want to return to. Yet our desire is not the same as that fractionally remembered feeling of invincibility we had before we understood that our mothers and ourselves were in fact separate beings. I’m a fan of Lacan, but he already did Lacan better than I can do, so I’ll take a different tack. In my view, what makes Casablanca so irresistible is that pain is, without dipping into the reasons why, as thought-consuming a concept as we’re capable of feeling. Casablanca immerses us in Rick’s pain in that “of all the gin joints” extended flashback, which recalls “Richard” and Ilsa in Paris in the time just before and in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi conquest of the city. It gives us a sense of Ilsa’s regret in the second story of Rick’s Cafe Americain, and the wide-eyed sequel on the slick airstrip which is supposedly wet with fog, but which we all know is soaked through with the tears of a million moviegoers. Even when it appears that Rick might abscond with the passes as well as Victor Laszlo’s wife, that’s no victory for love. It makes Rick, who up to this point might have done this sort of thing characteristically, into too much of a villain. I can only imagine how audiences in 1943 would have reacted to the seeming betrayal of a Czechoslovakian resistance leader, even one with such a serendipitous and hopeful name. (For his own part, Victor seems to shoulder the news that Rick and Ilsa chugged down one for the road about as well as you could hope. Presumably he’s got something else on his brain anyway, like passing around pamphlets and assassinating Gestapo leaders.) Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit posited that there was no pleasure but meanness; I counter by saying that there’s no pleasure but watching people who are in love be separated by a power far greater than their own. Rick says that their problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” which if Romeo or Tristan or Lancelot had understood, they might have left less of a mess for someone else to mop up. But then again, none of them were relying on what is, pound for pound, the best screenplay in Hollywood history. About some things I am more than willing to be contrarian, but I’m not sure I could manage it about this movie. There’s a reason that you can’t watch Casablanca for two minutes without stumbling on a mountain of legendary line readings (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) or tripping over an under-remembered gem (“if something should keep us apart, wherever they put you and wherever I’ll be, I want you to know that”). Heck, even Victor Laszlo’s mindless propaganda sounds okay when Paul Henreid says it.
As in The Godfather, the supporting cast is as essential to successful execution as the leads. I can’t imagine this movie without Peter Lorre or Claude Rains or S.Z. Sakall any more than I can imagine it without Ingrid Bergman. How essential Lorre is playing the slimy Ugarte, who’s just Rick with an itchier trigger finger and less circumspection. Like it’s The Maltese Falcon all over again, he throws some noirish softballs for Bogie to hit out of the park.
Ugarte: You are a very cynical person, Rick, if you will forgive me for saying so.
Rick: I forgive you.
Conrad Veidt, the title character in The Man Who Laughs, is as unsmiling as they come playing Major Strasser. I feel for him in much the same way I feel for Margaret Hamilton, although both of their classics would be a little more hollow without them. Marcel Dalio is the croupier who rigs the roulette wheel for the Bulgarian couple and hands Captain Renault his winnings. Casablanca is only the third-best movie of his career; it’s impossible to see him without seeing the nouveau riche Jewish soldier who escapes Wintersborn with Jean Gabin in The Grand Illusion, or to look at him and not find the limp aristocrat who had been at the center of the The Rules of the Game less than five years before. Much has been made of the fact that so many of character actors and bit players – including, of course, Lorre and Veidt and Dalio – in Casablanca were themselves refugees from lands won by the Third Reich, or from Nazi Germany itself. There are better histories on the subject than I can give, and knowing that makes the singing of the Marseillaise not just rousing but abundantly chilling. It shouldn’t go unnoticed, though, that each of those actors bring not only their nationalities but their careers with them to the movie. How easy it is to imagine Rosenthal or Chesnaye forced to abandon their opulent lives and land ignominiously at a roulette wheel. Perhaps the child murderer transitioned to murdering German couriers. It’s a supporting cast that’s more than just a symbol of the history the crew was living.
8) Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
You know how the first time you saw the young woman and the old crone in that picture at the same time, you couldn’t unsee either one? Rear Window is the same way, but with windows and movie screens. I’ve gone in before on how Vertigo is a scopophiliac’s delight (and before I did, Laura Mulvey sure as heck took care of it), but nothing compares to Rear Window. At one point, Lisa is demonstratively upset with Jeff for spying on his neighbor with binoculars in hand. Not long afterward, Lisa is sneaking into that same man’s apartment and wearing his dead wife’s wedding ring. Rear Window takes a step that movies so rarely choose to go for, perhaps only comparable to Sherlock, Jr. and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The film recognizes that it’s a film, points it out to the viewer, and then has its characters go full bore into it layers of filmic observation. The projectionist enters the story of Sherlock, Jr., and Cecilia and Tom flit between New Jersey and The Purple Rose of Cairo with reckless abandon. Rear Window does them one better. Instead of simply throwing its people into a movie screen, it forces us to make a simple but face-melting jump. Jeff invents a fantasy and then his girlfriend goes to live it out beyond his ability to rewrite the script; then he discovers what it’s like when the movie you were watching was writing a script about you too. We spend ages in this movie looking at things from Jeff’s point of view; I don’t know what wall it breaks when Grace Kelly enters the movie screens within the movie screen. Nor do I believe that the fourth wall is adequate to describe the psychological terror I felt when Thorwald looked right at Jeff and thus right at me, saying very clearly with his gaze: I know what you know. Hitchcock made a career out of sledgehammers like that, and that may well be his heaviest one.
Over the course of my research for this particular project, I came to at least one conclusion that I didn’t expect to come to: I think Jimmy Stewart’s the most important actor in American movies. He’s as noteworthy for his westerns as he is for his comedies as he is for his thrillers. He was a fixture for peak Capra and peak Hitchcock, for late Ford and just about everything noteworthy of Anthony Mann. And what I love about Stewart as much as anything else about his persona or the movies he’s in is that there are two of him. Dark-haired Stewart is romantic and expansive and charming; silver-haired Stewart is combative, petulant, and disconcerting. With the possible exception of Rope, where he makes a vaguely Randian argument, this is the first major silver-haired Stewart role. Before Jeff becomes convinced that Thorwald killed his wife and disposed of her body one stormy night, he’s become convinced that he must divest himself from his girlfriend, Lisa. Lisa is wealthy, intelligent, younger, witty, and, as important as anything else, is future princess Grace Kelly. For straight men in the 1950s, Lisa Fremont is quite possibly the most desirable (there’s that word again) woman imaginable, and frankly, the straight guy behind the camera does a little touch of scopophilia re: Kelly. So why is much of the first act of the film spent in Jeff’s utterly inconceivable attempt to break up with her? It’s our first sign of silver-haired Stewart since the man went into an apartment and gave a lecture about why some people should be allowed to kill other people. Dark-haired Stewart, though, would never have figured out that his neighbor was a murderer. He would have taken the binoculars out of silver-haired Stewart’s hands long before Grace Kelly got to them, and then he would have chucked them into that little garden across the way.