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David Handler: 5 Favorite Films From My Youth

Hey, it’s not by accident that Mitch Berger, one of the heroes of my Berger-Mitry series, is a film critic. I spent immense chunks of my childhood sitting in the dark watching old movies on television exactly like Mitch did. “Everything I know in life I learned from the movies,” he tells Des Mitry when they first set eyes on each other in The Cold Blue Blood. That goes double for me. I also learned a huge amount about how to tell a story from watching movies, and those lessons have stayed with me my whole life. Even now, as I celebrate the publication of my 22nd novel, The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb, which is my tenth Berger-Mitry mystery, I’m beholden to five movies from my youth that totally blew me away:

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES(1938) — My dad, who was a real life Dead End kid from the slums of Brooklyn, never talked about his rough childhood. And he never watched old movies with me on TV in our den in Los Angeles. Until one night when he came wandering in and I was watching this Cagney classic. Not only did his face light up (trust me — a rare occurrence) but he actually sat and took in the whole movie with me. A movie that he knew by heart, line for line, even though he hadn’t seen it in 30 years. I found out that night that a) my dad loved Jimmy Cagney’s fast talking, streetwise Rocky Sullivan and b) absolutely everybody hungers for a lead character who they can identify with and root for. That’s a lesson I never forgot. And, in honor of that night, Mitch wears a ROCKY DIES YELLOW tattoo on his left bicep.

OUT OF THE PAST (1947) – I stumbled upon this gem on late night TV when I was in high school. At the time, Out Of The Past didn’t enjoy the richly deserved status as a noir classic that it does now. Not very many people had heard of it. And, believe it or not, Robert Mitchum was not taken very seriously as an actor. I had never, ever seen a movie like Out Of The Past. For me, it was love at first sight. Not just because Mitchum and Jane Greer were so fiendishly good. But because it showed me that richly drawn characters – much like flesh and blood human beings – aren’t necessarily who they first appear to be. And that if you want to find out who they really are you have to peel away layers and layers of deception. Be careful though. You may not like who you find.

BULLITT (1968) – When most of us think of Bullitt we think of the car chase and about how super cool Steve McQueen was in it. I sure do. But I also think about just how many of the film’s most memorable sequences involve little dialogue or no dialogue at all. It was from watching Bullitt eighteen gazillion times in my youth that I came to realize that you define characters not by what they say but by what they do. Talk is cheap. Behavior is everything.

THE THIRD MAN(1949) – For me this is one of the greatest movies ever made. Greatest closing shot in movie history – Alida Valli striding right past Joseph Cotton in the cemetery. Greatest entrance ever made by a character – Orson Welles standing in that darkened doorway with the cat on his shoe. But what is The Third Man without its setting in post-war Vienna? How good a movie is it if you don’t have the famous ferris wheel scene or that final chase sequence through those Viennese sewers? It’s just an average crime drama, am I right? The Third Man brought home to me way, way vividly just how crucial a story’s setting can be. Years later, I discovered this is particularly true if you’re writing a mystery series like my Berger-Mitry novels, which are set in the fictional New England village of Dorset. For me, Dorset – its history, the interlocking lives of its highly quirky people — is as vital to the Berger-Mitry series as Mitch and Des are.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) — Crazed, slavering Preston Sturges fans will argue passionately that The Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story are funnier than Sullivan’s Travels. I know this for a fact. I’m one of those crazed, slavering Preston Sturges fans. But this movie was an utter revelation for me the first time I saw it. Seriously, my jaw dropped. Until I saw Sullivan’s Travels I had no idea that it was possible to blend broad farce, romance, sentimentality, gripping drama and breathtaking tragedy all in the same story at the exact same time if — and that’s a mighty big if — you know what you’re doing.

Me? I’m still learning how to do what I do. And I consider myself very fortunate to have masters whom I can learn from whenever I want. All I have to do is go in a room and turn the lights off. The popcorn is optional.