The Reel List
A Categorical Companion
to Over 2,000 Memorable Films
An Irreverent Guide Arranged by Uncommon
Categories, from Rock ’n’ Roll to Revisionist Westerns
Lynne Arany, Tom Dyja, and Gary Goldsmith
by Lynne Arany
CUTTING ROOM FLOOR . . .
Hollywood women (and their Men): Before the Code
These are the pre-screwball films—if you accept the screwball definition that all the high-rolling glitz and glam and innuendo are covers for SEX SEX SEX. So here they are telling it (and showing it—well, almost) like it was—at home, at work, in bed—before the Legion of Decency and Will Hays got their censoring paws on this still wide-open new medium.
Madam Satan (1930, U.S., 105 mins., b/w) Dir: Cecil B. DeMille; Cast: Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Lillian Roth, Roland Young.
Totally ridiculous, though DeMille comes through with that fabulous dress-ball-in-a-blimp scene. This one looks dated in a silent-film kind of way, but it is notable for its straightforward approach to adultery, though taken from the standard male point of view. The wifey seductress-to-win-him-back shenanigans are more notable for their hothouse costuming than for any sign of female independence.
Skyscraper Souls (1932, U.S., 80 mins., b/w) Dir: Edgar Selwyn; Cast: Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Hedda Hopper.
Building a skyscraper monument to himself, the letch at the top (William) shows us his priorities as he toys with his women and the stock market with equal charm and deceit. Interesting how those female execs abound (and how William’s wife is also given uncensored room to adulter herself), but still it’s clear the big boys are in charge. Well-developed plot about power, money, and modern architecture during the Depression. Good stuff.
Female (1933, U.S., 60 mins., b/w) Dir: Michael Curtiz; Cast: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Philip Faversham, Ruth Donnelly, Johnny Mack Brown, Lois Wilson, Gavin Gordon.
A table-turner with ruthless car-factory boss Chatterton using her adorable hunky factory workers, then discarding them in boredom. No mere figurehead, she fights hard to save the company—even to the extreme of giving up the one “real” man who can’t be bought. The portrayal of her ultimate change of heart is more than a little limp but the ride is unusual—for then and now. And Brent’s sensitive-but-strong guy is also a nice surprise.
Possessed (1931, U.S., 72 mins., b/w) Dir: Clarence Brown; Cast: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Wallace Ford, Skeets Gallagher.
Crawford, clearly in it for the money, leaves small town and suitor to make it in the big city. She tangles with politico Gable and we have one of the firsts of filmland—she’s clear-sighted and not manipulative. Another difference here is he’s not married—and doesn’t want to be, but she can still bring down his career. They’re both tough cookies with hearts, and swell to watch.
Baby Face (1933, U.S., 70 mins., b/w) Dir: Alfred E. Green; Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Douglass Dumbrille, Margaret Lindsay.
Stanwyck’s plan is to get out of her steel-mill town and work her way up the ladder—or sleep her way to the top, whichever comes first. Her Lily Powers, obviously a girl with major smarts, makes fast progress till lover-cum-bank-pres Brent faces ruin and it’s soul-searching time.
She Done Him Wrong (1933, U.S., 66 mins., b/w) Dir: Lowell Sherman; Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant, Gilbert Roland.
C’mon up and see Mae at her bawdy best. She’s tough, she’s sharp, and she knows what she wants and how to get it, giving new meaning to the use of feminine wiles. You know she’s never been anyone’s fool; she didn’t have to sleep her way to the top—she was already there. Oh, yeah, this is the one with that line . . . and Cary.
Ex-Lady (1933, U.S., 65 mins., b/w) Dir: Robert Florey; Cast: Bette Davis, Gene Raymond, Frank McHugh.
Bette’s first above the title. Here’s one of the early career women but, unlike post-code, the film doesn’t shy away from sharing her domestic life as well, as successful Cosmo magazine cover illustrator resists pressure from her live-in boyfriend to tie the knot.
Red-Headed Woman (1932, U.S., 74 mins., b/w) Dir: Jack Conway; Cast: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Charles Boyer, Lewis Stone.
You may not agree with Harlow’s m.o. of sleeping her way to the top, and while she doesn’t get our sympathy, the sexpot homewrecker manages to do it and make it clear she’s no fool either. Anita Loos’s screenplay doesn’t quite make up for a whiny Harlow, but a few elegant little twists keep this interesting.
Bombshell (aka: Blonde Bombshell, 1933, U.S., 90 mins., b/w) Dir: Victor Fleming; Cast: Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Franchot Tone, Frank Morgan, Pat O’Brien.
Here she is again, and she’s nobody’s fool. Tracy is distinctive as a PR man with all the angles. It takes a hot Harlow as megastar Lola Burns, helped with some sizzling fast dialogue, snappy sets, and a sharp look at thirties Hollywood, to get him to see beyond his own hype.
Our Modern Maidens (1929, U.S., 70 mins., silent, b/w) Dir: Jack Conway; Cast: Joan Crawford, Rod La Rocque, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Anita Page.
Sort of an Ivy League Plato’s Retreat melodrama. Crawford does well as the friend who forfeits her hold on her lover when she recognizes he has a chance at true love with the object of his indiscretion.
Blonde Venus (1932, U.S., 97 mins., b/w) Dir: Josef von Sternberg; Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Herbert Marshall.
Successful performer gives up career for traditional husband and motherhood, until life throws in one of its proverbial monkey wrenches. Once you get past dealing with Dietrich as the perfect mom and wifey, you’ve got major melodrama here. Terminal illness, rampant chauvinism, high glamour, destitution, adultery, N.Y.!, Paris!, somehow all that matters is that luminous Dietrich. By the way, this is the one in which she sings “Hot Voodoo” in a chimp suit, and offers us her unique brand of glittering androgyny in that white tux.
LIVELY ARTS . . .
On Your Radio Dial
Radio turns out to be a field that inspires filmmakers. Although two major periods are not much available on video, yet: movies about radio’s early years like Big Broadcast (Bing’s big break), Professional Sweetheart (early Ginger, spoof on radio), Twenty Million Sweethearts, and a bio about Walter Winchell, Wake Up and Live, and a whole genre of God-speaks-via-transistor, including Ron Reagan’s first, Love Is on the Air, plus The Next Voice You Hear, and Red Planet Mars. We’re sure you’ll want to catch some of these, so stay tuned.
Play Misty for Me (1971, U.S., 102 mins.) Dir: Clint Eastwood; Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills.
Eastwood’s propitious start as a director. In this taut suspense thriller, late-night radio DJ Eastwood is stalked by a psychotic, played by Walter. Effort is supported by a soundtrack that features Johnny Otis and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.
Talk Radio (1988, U.S., 100 mins.) Dir: Oliver Stone; Cast: Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, Alec Baldwin.
Like the title says, Bogosian talks—vicious, vulgar, and nasty—in his portrayal of a master of the modern radio phenomenon of audience abuse via the airwaves. Details of the career of Alan Berg (a real-life Colorado DJ who was assassinated by white supremacists) are melded into the screenplay, which is based on Bogosian’s original theatrical piece.
Handle With Care (aka: Citizens Band, 1977, U.S., 98 mins.) Dir: Jonathan Demme; Cast: Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Ann Wedgeworth, Charles Napier, Marcia Rodd.
This special movie à la Demme captures a moment of Americana during the height of the CB radio craze. The story is woven around the quirky characters who are busy talking back and forth as they roll down our highways.
Pump Up the Volume (1990, U.S., 105 mins.) Dir: Allan Moyle; Cast: Christian Slater, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, Samantha Mathis, Chris Jacobs, Annie Ross, Mimi Kennedy, Cheryl Pollak, Seth Green, Ahmet Zappa, Billy Morrissette, Lala.
Teen angst, pirate radio, and Christian Slater as the DJ providing words of wisdom and appropriate tunes, house music vintage, to help his friends get through the night.
American Graffiti (1973, U.S., 110 mins.) Dir: George Lucas; Cast: Ronny Howard, Cindy Williams, Charlie Martin Smith, Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips, Candy Clark.
Car-radio cruising, early 1960s style. Wolfman Jack DJs this entire movie with tunes that will take you back. The story—teen angst on wheels in middle America during a much more innocent time—is pretty swell.
American Hot Wax (1978, U.S., 91 mins.) Dir: Floyd Mutrux; Cast: Tim McIntire, Fran Drescher, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis.
And now, back to the 1950s with the king of rock ’n’ roll DJs, Brooklyn’s Alan Freed. Movie features his radio schtick as well as some of the great acts he aired, live in concert.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987, U.S., 121 mins.) Dir: Barry Levinson; Cast: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Tung Thanh Tran, Bruno Kirby, Richard Edson.
Robin Williams does a virtuoso turn in a bio loosely based on the experiences of Adrian Cronauer, an Armed Forces radio DJ stationed in Saigon in 1965. Williams’s wit brings him into conflict with the Army brass, but the greater part of the story is about his evolution from a man who uses humor to distance himself, to one who becomes increasingly sensitive to the concerns of a local population caught in a war nobody seems to want.
Orpheus (1949, France, 95 mins.) Dir: Jean Cocteau; Cast: Jean Marais, Maria Casares, François Perier, Juliette Greco, Roger Blin.
A magical allegory as concocted by Cocteau, where the poet Marais meets the Princess of Death, but not before he is besieged over his radio by voices from other worlds.
Christine (1983, U.S., 116 mins.) Dir: John Carpenter; Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Alexandra Paul.
Voices over the radio here also, but this time Stephen King style. This is Christine, the evil-talking car. You won’t be too scared, but then you might not look at that heap of metal and fiberglass as quite the inanimate object you used to.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, U.S., 104 mins.) Dir: Bob Rafelson; Cast: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Julia Anne Robinson.
A complex movie about the relationship between two brothers. Nicholson is an all-night disc jockey who uses his monologues as a kind of therapy—and to mythologize his brother (Dern), who’s really more like a low-rent scuzz, an Atlantic City dreamer. Compelling, uneven, worth seeing.
Comfort and Joy (1984, Scotland, 106 mins.) Dir: Bill Forsyth; Cast: Bill Peterson, Eleanor David, C. P. Grogan, Alex Norton.
Forsyth is a delight, and this is no exception, though it’s somewhat weaker than his earlier work, like Local Hero. Here, a Scottish DJ gets involved in a territorial dispute between rival ice-cream truck owners.
Radio Days (1987, U.S., 85 mins.) Dir: Woody Allen; Cast: Mia Farrow, Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Josh Mostel, Dianne Wiest.
A nostalgic montage of growing up in the 1940s, when glamor was defined by the music and the stars of radioland, and home was an overcrowded house in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Beautifully photographed time capsule lushly supported with the big-band music, original programs (including many actual old-time radio stars), and Santo Loquasto set designs of the era.
THINGS TO COME . . .
The first movies to come to mind in this category are the superb and seminal Alien, Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back, and of course all of the Star Treks and the irresistible E.T. These movies epitomize the fear of the unknown, tied irrevocably with the lure of the same, and often not just a little bit of the urge to conquer.
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902, 14–21 mins., b/w, silent) Dir: Georges Méliès; Cast: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Corps de Ballet du Châtelet.
Wonderfully perky first sighting—the first film aliens were charming little moon people who were inclined to explode when tapped with an umbrella. Strikingly imaginative effects from a director (with a great sense of humor) who was a magician by trade, with tips of the space helmet to Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, U.S., 92 mins., b/w) Dir: Robert Wise; Cast: Patricia Neal, Michael Rennie, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe.
An alien comes to warn the Earth about the dangers of the Bomb. One of the best, and not just for the glimpse of monolithic 1950s Washington, D.C., and its Cold War trappings. A moving and effectively acted picture about how our national psyche is so rooted in fear we risk not hearing what we need to hear. The effects are great too.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Great Britain, 140 mins.) Dir: Nicolas Roeg; Cast: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Bernie Casey.
International businessman is really an alien on a mission. Starring a genuine alien. But this isn’t only about aliens—it’s about Big Business and Success in America, and is as absorbing as it is offbeat. Wonderful footage of New Mexico. There are a few different cuts of this around—in fact, the fully restored version has some stuff they might as well have kept out. Note: Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler.
Solaris (1971, U.S.S.R., 165 mins.) Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky; Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet.
Cult repertory favorite. This time scientists are sent into space to a new world, where they confront sentient counterparts from their past. Visually stunning knockout; try to see it on a big screen.
The Thing (aka: The Thing From Another World, 1951, U.S., 87 mins., b/w) Dir: Christian Nyby; Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, James Arness.
So the Air Force goofs and blows up a flying saucer, then melts down its occupant with an electric blanket. Unlike so many Cold War sci-fi films, this one is not too concerned with alien (or capitalist) hegemony. So while the people on the screen would like to cook the alien invader (oh yeah, the “thing” is a high-intelligence tuber of some kind), it’s all done with a light hand but very skillfully—as you might expect with a screenplay by Charles Lederer (The Front Page) and production by Howard Hawks (though contrary to rumor, he did not direct). This is a great movie that brings up all kinds of “visitor” issues without beating us up about them, and still admonishing us to “watch the skies.”
Invaders From Mars (1953, U.S., 78 mins.) Dir: William Cameron Menzies; Cast: Arthur Franz, Helena Carter, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke, Milburn Stone.
This one, however, brings out all the artillery (and we mean everything—looks like WWII and the Korean . . . uh . . . conflict, all in one) for one little flying saucer whose inhabitants are determined to replace humans with mutants (you know, they look just like us . . . but not quite). You’ll not only watch the skies, but you’ll be feeling the back of your neck for that telltale crystal implant they’re threatening you with. Cold War phobia at its best. Beware: The 1986 update of this is pathetic.
UFOria (1981, U.S., 100 mins.) Dir: John Binder; Cast: Cindy Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, Fred Ward, Robert Gray, Darrell Larson.
Adam and Eve were astronauts and Jesus did come to earth in a flying saucer, right? This is one for all you believers out there. Cindy believes, and Brother Bud (our favorite, Harry Dean, but not as great as he can be), a sleazeball evangelist, knows a crowd-pleaser when he sees it. So, done up like Aimee Semple, Williams and her Waylon Jennings-pretender beau (Ward) take it on the road, to mixed results.
Repo Man (1984, U.S., 92 mins.) Dir: Alex Cox; Cast: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Dick Rude.
Now here’s Harry Dean in his element, with a terrific movie that’s as totally quirky as he is. He’s the repo-man mentor to young Emilio, and their escapades include close encounters of all kinds in an L.A. junkyard of odd characters, including a genuine (technically speaking) alien or two. Grand finale is the ultimate car-repossession effect.
Forbidden Planet (1956, U.S., 98 mins.) Dir: Fred McLeod Wilcox; Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Earl Holliman.
Before Nielsen was the hysterical Airplane! passenger he was an astronaut, and while he doesn’t get to do much here aside from some discreet elevator-eyeing of Anne Francis, he does fly us to the land of the Krel—an apparently not-quite-extinct alien world where we find that SF writers of the 1950s were up on their psychoanalytical reading. The planet features friendly robots (who make great sour-mash whiskey), and you have nothing to fear but your id. Nice beam-us-up-Scotty type special effects.
Five Million Years to Earth (aka: Quatermass and the Pit; The Creeping Unknown; and Enemy From Space, 1967, Great Britain, 98 mins.) Dir: Roy Ward Baker; Cast: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover.
This is the penultimate, and arguably the best, in an immensely popular series originally made for British TV by writer Nigel Kneale. The respected Dr. Quatermass (Keir) investigates a mysterious capsule uncovered during an excavation of a London street. Its contents reveal Martian intervention at early stages of human evolution. Powerful stuff.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, U.S.-Great Britain, 139 mins.) Dir: Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Douglas Rain.
Possibly wasted on a small screen—you’re guaranteed to get lost in it in the right viewing situation—but it’s a mesmerizing experience any way you watch it. We visit our past and our future, embryo to archetype. What does it all mean? Is Mankind Really Ready To Know? The startling message to do with aliens comes at the end, so we won’t spoil it for you.
Robots, ’Droids & Other Sentient Beings
It’s hard being a robot—or a cyborg, android, bionic being, or an automaton or deconstructed humanoid of any stripe. And as much as they’re assumed to be better for not having feelings, they all seem to have them anyway. Look at Frankenstein’s monster—not a happy creature. And the burdens they have—in The Day the Earth Stood Still the robots from another planet assume they’re responsible for ensuring peace in the galaxy. But some of them do have fun, like Robby in Forbidden Planet, a swell robot, and a good friend, too.
Star Wars (1977, U.S., 121 mins.) Dir: George Lucas; Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980, U.S., 118 mins.) Dir: Irvin Kershner; Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness, Frank Oz, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, voice of James Earl Jones.
Return of the Jedi (1983, U.S., 133 mins.) Dir: Richard Marquand; Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Billy Dee Williams, Denis Lawson, voice of James Earl Jones.
This series has the zaniest and most wonderful pack of creatures who wouldn’t know from DNA, at least not the earthly variety: the loyal and humble Chewbacca; that charming quirk of prelingual metal, R2-D2, and his somewhat prissy multilingual counterpart, C-3PO; the fabulous Ewoks; all the fearsome war machines in Empire; and of course the bionic Darth Vader. Well, you don’t want to miss any of them. You especially want to see the wonderful intergalactic barroom scenes in the original, where each patron was truly a fresh and inspired creature from another planet (or two).
Making Mr. Right (1987, U.S., 100 mins.) Dir: Susan Seidelman; Cast: John Malkovich, Ann Magnuson, Glenne Headly, Ben Masters, Laurie Metcalf, Polly Bergen, Jeff Hoyt.
What every woman dreams of—her own personal android. Used to be just a young houseboy was enough. Loopy comedy—without quite the punch we expect from Desperately Seeking Seidelman—has some really good bits and bright performances. Malkovich, who does do comedy, and well, is twice-cast as the ’droid and his inventor, and performance artist Magnuson is the android’s tough-cookie P.R. chief and love interest.
Blade Runner (1982, U.S., 122 mins.) Dir: Ridley Scott; Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah.
The movie that asks, are androids really a metaphor for feelings? Story taken from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has re-enlisted cop Ford hunting renegade androids in 21st century L.A.—and Daryl’s really found herself, as one of them. The richly layered sets and action make the future look very much like Tokyo meets Times Square. Lots of fuss about the new director’s cut available (no voiceover; tougher ending), but this is powerful stuff whichever version you see.
The Stepford Wives (1975, U.S., 115 mins.) Dir: Bryan Forbes; Cast: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Tina Louise, Patrick O’Neal, Nanette Newman.
The boys in the ’burbs whip up (with the help of modern robotics in the form of a former Disney tech) their idea of the perfect wife—brain numb, but oh so eager to please. While interpretable as a cautionary tale with fem political overtones, it’s a pretty successful thriller, as in “Who’s been replacing the nice wives of Stepford?” The Perfect Woman, a vintage 1949 plum from the U.K., plays the lighter side of female robotics—here, the boys just want to have fun.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, U.S., 136 mins.) Dir: James Cameron; Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick.
OK all you bionic boys and girls. This is a warmer and friendlier Terminator—a cyborg actually, for you tech types. The action’s rousing, the effects a wow, and Arnold is getting more endearing all the time—but don’t worry, he never loses his punch. Hamilton’s musculature (and character) are pretty good, too.
Sleeper (1973, U.S., 88 mins.) Dir: Woody Allen; Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, John Beck, Don Keefer, Mary McGregory, John McLiam.
A Woody-fest of gimmicks and gadgets help him spoof the early 1970s when he defrosts in 2173 after 200 years of cryogenic sleep and gets involved with poet-revolutionary Luna (Keaton is delightful). You’ll love his robo-butler and orgasmatron (in Jane Fonda’s comic-strip Barbarella they had one of these too, but called it an “excessive machine”), and you’ll especially like the clone job he’s got to do as part of the rebel plot—all he’s got to work with is the guy’s nose . . . and shoes. It’s very funny.
Metropolis (1926, Germany, 120 mins., silent, b/w) Dir: Fritz Lang; Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolph Klein-Rogge.
Based on a novel written by Lang’s wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, this heavyweight Gothic parable about the literally underground working class and the despotic surface rulers features an incandescent performance by Helm as both Maria the reformer and her robot self, created for unclear reasons to lead a revolt of the workers—at the behest of the rulers. Powerful, striking set designs and effects are enhanced further by the mesmerizing Giorgio Moroder score in the color-tinted and shorter 1984 release.
Robocop (1987, U.S., 103 mins.) Dir: Paul Verhoeven; Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy.
Devastating damage to brain and body leaves Detroit patrolman Weller with the cyborg solution as his only chance for continued life on this planet. His digital vision (and other zippy powers) are great for crime control, but he’s still a torn man, somehow still subject to memories of former hearth and home. And maybe that’s part of the appeal of this meaningless (though, some felt, humorous), ultraviolent, super-effects venture into the mechanical cure.
Dark Star (1972, U.S., 83 mins.) Dir: John Carpenter; Cast: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich.
Dark Star is a hilariously out-of-this-world sci-fi satire about a tuckered-out space crew whose job is to go around blowing up unstable planets. One of the bombs in their hold is a master of phenomenological reasoning, and, shades of 2001’s HAL (though unrelated, writers Carpenter and O’Bannon [Alien] say), it’s up to our loyal crew of surfers and other odd-fits to talk it down from premature explosion. In 2001, HAL the computer had a mind of its own as well, but it just wouldn’t listen to reason, with appropriately weightier results. Maybe HAL and Dark Star’s bomb should have had a chat.
The world is too much with us—and we just keep trying to get rid of it, it seems. Herewith, The Bomb . . . and a few other select sources of global apocalypse.
Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, U.S., 93 mins.) Dir: Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull.
Brilliant, biting satire. WWIII gets started by demented U.S. Air Force general Jack D. Ripper (Hayden), who’s convinced the Russians have polluted his “vital bodily fluids” and sends a squad of B-52s loaded with nukes to blast the Russkies away. Sellers is priceless in three roles, but Scott, Hayden, and Pickens are also swell as they each hear the music of their particular character’s insanity. Kubrick, as always, is brilliant with his scoring, especially in the Vera Lynn-accompanied tour de force ending. Terry Southern and Peter George (Red Alert author) co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick.
Fail Safe (1964, U.S., 111 mins., b/w) Dir: Sidney Lumet; Cast: Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau.
Once again an American bomber is mistakenly ordered to target Moscow—this time, however, because of a mechanical malfunction, confronting the U.S. with the horrifying necessity of self-imposed damage control. Effectively acted and tightly wound.
The Quiet Earth (1985, New Zealand, 91 mins.) Dir: Geoff Murphy; Cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Peter Smith.
A global energy grid gone awry seems to have created the “effect” that caused all the earth’s inhabitants to vanish, aside from this odd-lot of three, featuring Smash Palace’s Lawrence as project scientist Zac. Lushly produced film is most interesting when it explores Zac’s adventures in adapting when he thinks he’s the only one left. Film blames Americans, who were joint developers of the project with New Zealand, for not disclosing key info—a timely slam at the U.S. for our sanctions against N.Z. for establishing itself as a nuclear-free zone. Sort of a remake of the 1959 The World, the Flesh, and the Devil with two male and one female holocaust survivors and their inherent sexual and racial tensions, but here we’ve traded a Maori tribesman (Smith) for the black (Harry Belafonte), a redhead (Routledge) for a blonde (Inger Stevens), and Mel Ferrer for Lawrence.
On the Beach (1959, U.S., 134 mins., b/w) Dir: Stanley Kramer; Cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins.
Nevil Shute’s global atomic-war novel brought to devastating life. Melbourne, Australia, 1964: the nuclear radiation fallout is now reaching this last corner of the planet. This is done exceptionally well, with characters and situations realistically rendered. Gives us chills to think about it.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962, Great Britain, 90 mins., b/w) Dir: Val Guest; Cast: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Bernard Braden, Arthur Christiansen, Michael Caine.
Anything you can split, I can split better. . . . Well, this one’s just as hard as On the Beach. Don’t let the sensationalist title fool you—this is a very tough and realistic enactment of the cataclysmic results of A-bomb testing as dramatized via the newsroom reporting of the Daily Express in London (Christiansen, who plays the editor-in-chief, is a former editor of the actual Express). The reporters’ lives and the unfolding events are well balanced, to make this ever-more powerful. Definitely a non-glitzed Hollywood production; those ban-the-Bomb demonstrators, beatniks, and everyone else on the street look just like you and me. Whew.
The Bed Sitting Room (1969, Great Britain, 91 mins.) Dir: Richard Lester; Cast: Rita Tushingham, Sir Ralph Richardson, Spike Milligan, Sandy Nichols.
We wish this was available on video. This is the British Goon Show’s view of the apocalypse. Their lighter-side (if there can be such a thing) version involves the post-apocalyptic mutation process. You know, humans turn into all kinds of other creatures, even pets and the like. Some nice, weird photography of floating St. Peter’s among other submerged monuments.
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989, U.S., 126 mins.) Dir: Roland Joffe; Cast: Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, Bonnie Bedelia, John Cusack, Laura Dern, John C. McGinley, Natasha Richardson, Del Close.
Desert Bloom (1986, U.S., 106 mins.) Dir: Eugene Corr; Cast: Jon Voight, JoBeth Williams, Ellen Barkin, Annabeth Gish, Allen Garfield.
The Atomic Cafe (1982, U.S., 88 mins.) Dirs: Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty.
The Manhattan Project and how we got the Bomb. Fat Man and Little Boy is fictionalized and simplified, but still compelling in its telling of the ethical and moral dilemmas facing the elite group of handpicked Los Alamos, N.M.-based scientists, led by Robert Oppenheimer (Schultz), who were responsible for bringing us into the Atomic Age. Desert Bloom is a real knockout that tells the compelling story of the people in Nevada who were affected by the radioactive fallout that these boys and their successors created with the testing of their new toys. And Atomic Cafe is a must-see for its incredibly wry look at the paranoia induced by the government propaganda of the 1950s Cold War era. Duck and cover.
Koyaanisqatsi (1983, U.S., 87 mins.) Dir: Godfrey Reggio.
In Koyaanisqatsi fabulously majestic images, filmed from mind-boggling angles, contrast aspects of American life and survival with its geological wonders. Tightly edited, enhanced by a brilliantly soaring score by Philip Glass, the beauty of this mesmerizing film—whose title is Hopi for life out of balance, or, a state of life that calls for another way of living—may seem to negate its negative message. The sequel, Powasqqatsi, as powerful in its imagery, scoring, and impact, looks at exploited cultures in Third World countries.
WarGames (1983, U.S., 113 mins.) Dir: John Badham; Cast: Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin.
We’ve really advanced now. David (appealing Broderick) is an all-too-realistic young computer-hacker who accesses the new game “Thermonuclear War.” Turns out it’s the Defense Department version, though, not Nintendo’s. Well-paced and believable action-thriller.
The China Syndrome (1979, U.S., 123 mins.) Dir: James Bridges; Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Peter Donat, Scott Brady, Wilford Brimley.
Silkwood (1983, U.S., 131 mins.) Dir: Mike Nichols; Cast: Meryl Streep, Cher, Kurt Russell, Craig T. Nelson, Diana Scarwid, Henderson Forsythe, Fred Ward.
The China Syndrome is even more believable. Riveting story, with super performances by all, is based on various incidents at nuclear-power plants. A news crew gets involved with the attempted cover-up of a post-earthquake nuclear “accident” causing a perilously low water-shield level, critically exposing the nuclear rod pile . . . and threatening meltdown. Silkwood, Nichols’s well-done adaptation of the real-life Karen Silkwood story, also deals with nuclear-plant accidents (and their cover-ups) with wonderfully developed characters, especially Cher as Karen’s best friend Dolly and La Streep herself as Silkwood, a factory worker who died suspiciously as she was en route to delivering some potentially damaging info about her employer to the New York Times.
The Rapture (1991, U.S., 102 mins.) Dir: Michael Tolkin; Cast: Mimi Rogers, Patrick Bauchau, David Duchovny, Kimberly Cullum, Will Patton.
This list would not be complete without some basic Armageddon. Rogers goes for broke in her portrayal of a woman whose search for meaning in her life has been left unsatisfied until she is literally carried away by her new-found religious enlightenment.
NOTE: Two special mentions for here. In the “fear of annihilation” category we have Joe Dante’s entertaining Atomo Vision-Rumble Rama visit to the Bay of Pigs near-calamity in his 1993 Matinee. And in the apocalypse-noir category we have Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, so dated it’s almost a B, but it still has its own unique punch.
We’re in the Future now. What happened—nukes, meteors, the unknowable, or, certainly, more of What Man Does Not Want to Know—doesn’t really matter. Here are some scenarios about what it will be like.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966, Great Britain, 111 mins.) Dir: François Truffaut; Cast: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack.
Double whew. It could happen here. Thinking and literature are verboten, and the renegades devote their lives to memorization of the outlawed texts. A must-see.
Brazil (1985, U.S.-Great Britain, 131 mins.) Dir: Terry Gilliam; Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Bob Hoskins, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin.
Surely inspired by 1984, another vision of our future with the Brain Police. Some hated this film, but with its potent imagery and scale, stunning sets, and clear message, it’s powerful stuff. And there’s just enough Pythonesque attitude to make you laugh. (You’ll hum the title song for a week.)
The Illustrated Man (1969, U.S., 103 mins.) Dir: Jack Smight; Cast: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas.
A trip into the unknown through the graphics tattooed over every inch of Steiger’s body. Three separate stories are told; the future-vision one takes place in the African veldt, where just wishing your parents would disappear can make it so. Not quite as good as the original Ray Bradbury book, but you always feel like it really could happen.
A Clockwork Orange (1971, Great Britain, 137 mins.) Dir: Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Aubrey Morris, James Marcus, Steven Berkoff, David Prowse.
A future of alienation, milk bars, and the ultimate in mindless violence in a fractured society. Based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, sans the last chapter, we are subjected to visual terrorism—the images here will stick with you, and though it’s slow at times, this is a pill worth taking once.
A Boy and His Dog (1975, U.S., 87 mins.) Dir: L. Q. Jones; Cast: Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Jason Robards, Alvy Moore, Helene Winston, Charles McGraw.
Harlan Ellison fans alert! Totally weird picture, with some good twisted zing, of Our Future After the Bomb. The middle class goes underground (literally) and comes out looking like Raggedy Ann meets the Stepford wives.
Alphaville (1965, France, 100 mins., b/w) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard; Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff.
Private eye Lemmy Caution, played by the wonderful Eddie Constantine, takes a car trip through Nuevo Wavo intersidereal space to a city that just might be Paris, where he confronts a society that is controlled by computer central, all with a very 1950s noir attitude.
1984 (1984, Great Britain, 123 mins.) Dir: Michael Radford; Cast: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack.
The ultimate totalitarian society. Big Brother is watching and now you can ring him back if you get Call ID. Nothing can match George Orwell’s book for pure prescient terrorism, but the movie does a pretty good job.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990, U.S., 118 mins.) Dir: Volker Schlondorff; Cast: Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern, Victoria Tennant, Robert Duvall.
Margaret Atwood’s novel about a not-too-future fascist society that’s found God and a sexist solution to the rampant infertility caused by our toxic atmosphere is stylishly told and attention-holding, but vaguely low on impact. Nice cast does what it can with Pinter’s limited screenplay; but Duvall’s Commander is still disappointing.
Death Race 2000 (1975, U.S., 80 mins.) Dir: Paul Bartel; Cast: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Louisa Moritz, Mary Woronov.
Bloody but catchy parable about the innately violent nature of humankind thinly disguised as an intracontinental road-race action flick, features Sly in a ha-ha funny role. This wry Roger Corman production is the granddaddy of the slew of future-road movies that followed, most notably the Mad Max series, with its classic The Road Warrior.
THX-1138 (1971, U.S., 88 mins.) Dir: George Lucas; Cast: Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasence.
Lucas’s remarkable first feature film based on a graduate-school short of his, and partly filmed in the then-unfinished San Francisco BART subway tubes. Shades of Brave New World, the movie asks, “Are you sedated enough?” in this apocalyptic vision of a world moved underground, where the cops look like C-3P0 precursors, and everyone has a vanity license plate instead of a name. There’s work, videos, and sleep, and until THX’s roommate LUH dares to alter their pill intake, almost no one’s awake enough to think much further beyond that.
Planet of the Apes (1968, U.S., 112 mins.) Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner; Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison.
While Heston is stiff as a board as usual and the ape make-up, so lauded in its day, is not so impressive anymore, who could knock a concept that has our future hanging on a reevaluation of the course of evolution? Chuck is one of a trio of surviving crash-landed astronauts on a planet inhabited by a ruling class of linguistically (and otherwise) evolved apes. Of course, Mr. Heston couldn’t quite accept the symmetry of the situation and ends up taking this still quite moving indictment of man and human nature rather personally.
Copyright © 1995–2008 Lynne Arany