TOP 5 MOVIES by Gerald Elias
There are two general things I appreciate about a piece of music. One is craftsmanship. The other is integrity: how true it is to what it is. For example, I enjoy listening to a Strauss waltz as much as I do a Mahler symphony. The former exists to entertain and delight, the latter to make a profound statement about life and death. Each accomplishes its goal with consummate skill and conviction. If a composition lacks craftsmanship or has pretentions of being something it isn’t I much prefer the honesty of silence.
I’ve try to hone my skills as a writer, and make no apology for trying to write mysteries intended simply to entertain the reader. Yes, there may be a broader message in my books, but I have no intention of trying to change the world. I I feel the same way about movies—craft and integrity—which is why I have such an eclectic mix of all-time favorites for my movie list. I’d much rather watch a good western than a mediocre social commentary, though I acknowledge the latter might be more important to the future of Western civilization. Sometimes popcorn prevails.
So here’s my list, and why:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). This is by far the best re-creation ever of the Robin Hood legend and is absolutely entertaining from first scene to last. In 1995 film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
Starting with Errol Flynn as Robin and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, the cast is uniformly strong and totally convincing from top to bottom. Even such minor supporting roles as Marian’s maid, Bess, played by Una O’Connor, were multi-dimensional and true to life. The story line, alternating between action and drama (and more action) never flags. The script is delightful: Maid Marian, “Why, you speak treason!” Robin, “Fluently!” (It’s hard to believe that James Cagney, the actor first cast for the role of Robin could have delivered that line with as much panache.) The sound track by Eric Wolfgang Korngold is perhaps the greatest symphonic score ever composed for a film, and is a perfect fit for the story line and cinematography. And the climactic duel between Robin and the villainous Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played “to the hilt” by Basil Rathbone, will unbuckle even the most cynical swashes.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) This adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, starring Gregory Peck as small town lawyer Atticus Finch, is made all the more compelling by its absence of pretension. Where Technicolor opulence complemented the gaudy swirl of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the quiet simplicity of black-and-white magnifies the message of To Kill a Mockingbird. Everything about the film is small, from the town of Maycomb, Alabama, to the inspired, unique perspective of the story from Finch’s child, Scout. By keeping the scale on a modest, human level, the power of the movie’s message becomes universal. If bigotry and prejudice can run rampant in a town like Maycomb, then it can exist anywhere. Yet so, too, can heroism. It doesn’t need to be in the middle of a battlefield. It doesn’t need to be blaring or earthshaking. It just takes an individual with the quiet courage of his, and her, convictions.
Casablanca (1942) What can you say about Casablanca that hasn’t already been written? When you consider all the production glitches the film endured it’s amazing it ever made it to the big screen, let alone become the perfect World War II intrigue drama. Talk about chemistry! And I don’t just mean the heat between Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund. Throw in supporting actors Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, who used the film to hone his iconic eye bulge. And let’s not forget the music, either. Yes, we all remember Sam singing “As Time Goes By,” but Max Steiner, who composed the orchestral score and who achieved his greatest fame with Gone with the Wind, is on the same lofty level as Korngold. When Bogie delivers his immortal final line to Captain Louis Renault (Rains)—“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”—he is also talking to millions of us adoring movie-goers.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) This absolutely unique film, the brainchild of director Stanley Kubrick, is timeless. In this day and age, when computer-generated special effects rule the roost, 2001 retains a freshness that recent sci fantasy movies would, and should envy. Unlike the continuous heavy-handed, ear-splitting, mind-numbing blasting of aliens with soap opera plots and juvenile scripts that prevail these days, 2001 is notable for its vast stretches of silence, its sparse of dialogue, slow-motion pace, and for its supremely understated vision. Who are we, we humans? What is our place in the universe? How little we understand. How insignificant we are in the big scheme of things. The entire universe as the eye of an embryo. Kubrick juxtaposes the banal with the profound with uncanny effect: two astronauts, probing the infinite cosmos, discussing ham sandwiches. This movie also had the novelty of lacking a made-for movie score. Instead, it made Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” and especially Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” such household melodies that they became common fodder for commercial advertising. Such is the power of Kubrick’s universe.
The Godfather (1972) This classic is as much Italian grand opera as it is a crime film. That should come as no surprise. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola, was a flutist with the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini and a composer who contributed music to the film. (The famous Godfather theme was by Nino Rota, who composed most of the sound track.) Francis Ford’s uncle, Anton, is a renowned opera conductor and composer as well. (I have had the pleasure of working with “Uncle” Anton on many occasions in the opera pit. He is still working, hale and hearty, at the tender age of 99.) The intrigue, deception, loyalty and betrayal, and yes, the killing, too, in The Godfather are common themes of 19th century opera. But most of all, it is the undulating development of the relationships among the characters and the demise of the “hero,” Don Vito Corleone, precipitating the action, that are so characteristic of tragic opera and which were so effectively adapted in the film medium. And it didn’t hurt to have Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in starring roles to convince us that our society is steeped in the corrupt blood of greed and ambition. Whew. I need to lie down.