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!
7) Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder.
Joe Gillis knows what it’s like not to have a car in L.A.: “If I lose my car,” he tells his disinterested agent, “it’s like having my legs cut off.” So it is that Joe, a screenwriter hopelessly behind on his payments and devoid of any way to make money, involves himself in a high-speed chase with the insurance agents after him – a solid enough car chase, but once again, with insurance agents doing the chasing – blows out a tire, and has to turn right sharp into the driveway of what appears to be a jungle exploding out of a Sunset Boulevard mega-mansion. Eventually, the insurance company finds the car and repossesses it, and at that point Joe is more right than he knows. His legs have for certain been cut off, but it’s less tragic than he might have guessed. There’s this strange competition which unfolds between the people who want to push his wheelchair. One of them is a good pal’s fiancee (the pal, Artie, is the only guy willing to loan Joe a few bucks when he tries to put together enough cash to keep the car), a girl brought up on the movies who thinks Joe is just swell. The other is a fifty-year-old, a former silent screen star who failed to transition to the talkies, but who has built a vast fortune through smart investments. The girl is fresh-faced and pretty, prone to playacting which doesn’t mask her sincerity. The woman looks older than she really is, and not even Hamlet looked at his troubles with a more histrionic eye than her. I appreciate that Sunset Boulevard flips the script that Western culture had been pushing for a couple of centuries by then. Instead of a woman whose choice of a husband from between two dissimilar men will teach us everything we need to know about her and, hopefully, lead to her improvement, we have a man, stripped of his pride, who has a choice between two women. Sunset Boulevard, in its opening moments, makes it clear that Joe won’t end up with either one since he’s dead in a swimming pool. Sunset Boulevard also understands that Joe shouldn’t end up with either of those women. He’s wrong for fooling around with the girl; he’s wrong for having encouraged the woman to sink deeper into her melancholy and nostalgia for his own benefit. Execution is a little harsh, but his original plan – go back to Ohio with no relics of his Hollywood experiment – sounds like a fair verdict.
This is the movie that made William Holden a star, and presumably could have done more for Nancy Olson had that girl-next-door look not shifted her sideways to Disney comedies and retirement so soon. Gloria Swanson, the star of silent classics like Male and Female, Sadie Thompson, and Queen Kelly, has her best role playing an alternate self in Norma Desmond, who, through isolation and regret, has lost touch with reality. It’s played for humor, or at least very good camp, in our first meeting with her; a couple scenes later, she’s bawling her eyes out over a dead chimpanzee and we can’t help but feel for her. Erich von Stroheim, the director of silent classics like Foolish Wives, Greed, and Queen Kelly, has a pretty good role himself as Norma Desmond’s longtime butler, Max. I’ve written about this scene in some detail before, so I’ll hold off here, but the revelation that he’s a former husband of Norma’s is as good as it gets. (The history that Swanson and von Stroheim share via Queen Kelly is a little off this topic, but I highly encourage you to look up what happened there…it gives you a good sense of the kind of relationship the two of them had in real life, and it makes the presumed relationship between Norma and Max a mite bit scorching.) From one perspective, one that I indulge in about as often as any other I take while watching Sunset Boulevard, this movie is the story of a woman and her butler living in a time capsule, one which both of them are expending all of their energy on keeping up. Norma is writing a novel-length screenplay for a silent feature for DeMille to direct; she’d play Salome. (God bless the movie for letting us work out who John the Baptist is in this movie without feeling like it has to tell us.) Max is writing fan mail to Norma and mailing it to the mansion; although he cannot keep up with the 17,000 letter-per-week storm that flooded Norma at the height of her career, he manages to make her feel like the world is waiting for her comeback. Or, alternately:
Norma: I hate that word. It’s a return.
As Joe’s dalliance with Betty advances, helped out by Betty’s fiance being out of state and her recently formed writing partnership with Joe, Norma becomes more and more sympathetic while simultaneously growing more and more unhinged. She is tyrannical and self-obsessed – they watch her movies over and over again at the mansion, a practice which has served to make Norma Desmond’s biggest fan the run-down future version of her – but there’s a person under there. She attempts suicide when what she conceived of as a grand romantic gesture for Joe makes him hesitate in declaring any feelings for her. She does this goofy Chaplin impression that I’m sure would be grating for someone like Joe to put up with, but for us it’s simply funny. And there’s a rarely spoken recognition on Joe’s part that no one in Hollywood, maybe no one ever, has treated Joe so well. Free room and board in a great manor which his presence has inspired Norma to clean up. (He always wanted a swimming pool.) A birthday present just before Christmas: a new wardrobe of the highest quality men’s clothes. A solid gold cigarette case. And the gift that Norma knows from omission is the richest of all: undivided attention. Sunset Boulevard has these noirish elements and can be dispassionately snarky, rarely giving us a character without expressing what’s wrong with him or her. However, I’ve always thought Wilder handled the situation with kid gloves; he understands that we can feel sympathy for the flawed.
6) The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford.
In Red River, John Wayne plays a cattle baron on his last legs named Thomas Dunson. In a last-ditch attempt to recoup some funds, Dunson decides to drive his herd from the Mexican border up to Missouri. Dunson is a hard man; his first act on his land is to shoot down a man who comes to tell him the land belongs to somebody else. Before the drive starts, he makes a tough speech to the cowboys who will have to help him move the beeves. He threatens to whip one man who inadvertently began a stampede and is about this close to hanging two men who deserted the march and took some flour with them. There’s a cruelty within Dunson which, if the movie had been made forty or fifty years later, might have forced a tragic ending. Red River is a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks’ great professional rival, John Ford, reacted to the Wayne of Red River memorably: “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” Eight years later, in The Searchers, Ford directed Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a man who makes Thomas Dunson’s gruffness look cuddly and his single-mindedness look scattered. A Comanche “murder raid” draws out the men of the town to chase after some stolen cattle; by the time Ethan, a Confederate veteran only just schlepping home in 1868, makes the connection, his family’s home has been burned and all but two girls are dead. (His taste for blood is evident from the first: he tells a fellow veteran, “I’ve still got my saber…didn’t beat it into no plowshare, neither.”) One of captives is his niece, Lucy, who he finds scalped/raped/no one is going to say those words in 1956 not long after he organizes a group to start looking. The other is Debbie, who is presumably his niece but almost certainly his daughter; the movie gives us a lot of reason to believe that his sister-in-law, Martha, slept with Ethan before the war. For the next five years, Ethan lifts heaven and raises hell looking for Debbie. It should be uplifting – I guess if this movie were ten years older or ten years younger, it would definitely be shooting for more of a feel-good vibe – but the quest is sapping and depressing. Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) go through desert and snow together, although Ethan works hard to try to get rid of Martin when he can. Martin was adopted by Ethan’s brother, Aaron, as a very young child, and Martin thinks of Debbie as his sister. Ethan denies any family connection between them; besides, Ethan is one-eighth Indian, a fraction that raises Ethan’s suspicions. There’s some lightheartedness in their quest; Vera Miles plays Laurie, a young woman stoking some romance with Martin. Short of that, though, the mission is dark. Ethan shoots up a herd of buffalo during the winter in the hopes that some Native Americans will starve. They come across a few gibbering white women who have been taken back from Indian settlements by the Army, prompting the immortal statement from Ethan that “they ain’t white. Not anymore.” Martin accidentally marries a squaw, which I suppose would be comic relief in 1956, but in any viewing nowadays is cringeworthy. And the first glimpse Ethan gets of Debbie in five years results in him twirling his pistol on his finger and aiming it at his daughter, dressed in (what I suppose we take to be) Comanche garb. Martin is the only thing standing between her and what appears to be total annihilation.
The Searchers, for its dark overtones and its willingness to point out that racial animus was, in fact, the most important element of those Wild West years Hollywood had been mythologizing since In Old Arizona, is just as notable for being beautiful. I’ve rhapsodized before (and so has everyone else) about a visual motif in the film. Over and over again, darkness fills the screen except for a sliver of scenery. It is the first shot of the film, opening up to Monument Valley. It is repeated again when Ethan and Martin are forced to take cover from attacking Indians. And it’s the shot we view Ethan and Debbie’s reconciliation from in the end, after he has chased her down on horseback. It is reversed, by the end, as the door closes behind Ethan as he enters a homestead. Compared with the unquenchable desert vistas which compose much of the rest of the film, those shots stand out with special verve; when so many other westerns still worked off the point ‘n shoot system, Ford, even near the end of his career, stays ahead of the pack.
5) Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
I remember seeing a clip from Apocalypse Now when I was a kid, young enough that most of my movie viewing didn’t stray much from Disney and Star Wars. It’s the “Flight of the Valkyries” scene, and the moment that stuck with me was watching the helicopters fly in low, at the camera, over the waves coming in and just onto the beach. I just knew I’d never seen anything like that before; I could see the beauty of the shot itself, and I also understood the foreboding I felt was not unjustified. Watching the scene again as an adult, I appreciate how unusual it is. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not like the average war movie, which can’t help but make war exciting. (This is why the “all war movies are anti-war movies” aphorism is stupid.) You can’t possibly feel triumph watching a squadron of helicopters shoot up a village, which is protected by one anti-aircraft gun and some guys with rifles, unless you’re a really special type of rah-rah jingoist scumbag. The beach and the village are beautiful places, the sort of aquamarine water and light sand we often connect with vacation spots. (So does Kilgore, really; he points out to Lance how great the waves are in the middle of the attack.) The helicopters, in their clean geometric formations, are lend an angular symmetry to the curves and hooks of the beach; the sky is as clear as the village is crowded by the jungle. Interestingly, the aesthetic high of the attack appears to be lost on Willard, who began this movie in a hotel room hearing the sound of helicopter rotors as his ceiling fan swung. (I cannot overstate how good the first two scenes of this movie are; between the jungles burning and Willard, screaming and crying as he bleeds on the floor, there’s no question where this movie is going and how it plans to get there.) Apocalypse Now is a visual feast almost unparalleled not just in American cinema, but in world cinema.
I’ve hinted before that I don’t mind a long movie in the slightest, and Apocalypse Now is certainly that. (…I’ve only ever seen the Redux.) I appreciate that the long trip upriver into Cambodia is just that. It’s filled with soul-numbing boredom alleviated by surprise attacks on the boat, sexual encounters with out of their mind Playmates, a French plantation, a hidden puppy. Willard and Chief and Lance (especially Lance, as the movie progresses) are good at living with the boredom. Chef and Clean have a stronger hankering to get off the boat; then again, they also seem to have something back home they’re interested in. Chef wants to go home and be a saucier; Clean has a mother who cares about him. Lance, as we find out, can surf anywhere. I also appreciate the slow buildup of Kurtz’s compound, the muttered nonsense that Brando spews. (Kurtz recites “The Hollow Men,” which has the epigraph: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” No foolin’, I dropped Apocalypse Now a spot because that’s such a sloppy, pseudointellectual move.) It lasts far longer than I remember it lasting every time; there’s nearly an hour of footage which recounts the shadowy, terrifying milieu, with bodies hanging from the trees and Dennis Hopper playing himself. It’s not about tension, precisely, but temptation. Brando was probably the wrong choice for Kurtz – I think that should have been obvious in 1979 – but he carries in his voice a hypnotic quality that lulls and prods at our thoughts: wasn’t the war in Vietnam a bad enough idea already? What makes Apocalypse Now a great Vietnam War film (beyond the directing and the acting and the editing and the cinematography and the screenplay and all that movie stuff) is that it’s not concerned with what the war did to American boys. It’s not The Deer Hunter, which is similarly beautiful and haunting but which also fundamentally misses the point. Apocalypse Now turns the war into the kind of raving madness that war must be portrayed as. At the Do Long Bridge, sort of a point of no return for the crew of the boat, Willard tries to get some information out of a machine gunner shooting at shadows. “Who’s the commanding officer here, soldier?” Willard asks, maintaining his cool. The gunner looks back at Willard (but also at us – we have Willard’s eyes) and say, “Ain’t you?”