I spent a great many years watching truly dark and despairing films as a teenager, when my capacity for angst – as well as violence and unredemptive grimness – knew no bounds, and during college, where I was exposed to the esoteric films that an arts major is expected to know and appreciate. Now, I’d much rather stab my eye with a fork. Nothing pleases me more these days than a story that has a beginning, a middle and a resolution, told with heart and charm.
I have dozens and dozens of favourites. Partly because watching films is something I reliably do, no matter what else is going on in my life. Partly because I work in the business. And perhaps primarily because it still amazes me how I can be taken on a journey for a mere two hours and feel like a different person at the end of it.
I love the focus on human nature and snappy dialogues of early Hollywood. The lean and finely honed style of filmmaking is also appealing – there is no extraneous or self-indulgent frame in these films. Every single line and shot is there to push the story forward. It doesn’t come more elegantly than this, in more ways than one.
The Philadelphia Story
Cary and Kate and Jimmy! How lucky can we get? An heiress, Katharine Hepburn, about to marry for the second time is followed by a journalist, James Stewart, while her ex-husband, Cary Grant, observes all. Hilarious from start to finish, a story about not judging others’ frailties too harshly. I have watched it countless times and never, ever tire of it.
How To Marry a Millionaire
Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe – again, how lucky can we get? Three models decide to hook a millionaire or three. The Technicolor New York setting is glamorous, the story zings through witty lines and clever plot twists, and it showcases an impeccably timed comic performance by Marilyn at her most luminous. I also love the self-referential lines thrown in: ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ to describe a costume being worn by Monroe at a fashion show; and ‘that old fellow, whats-his-name, in The African Queen, absolutely crazy about him,’ quips Bacall. A fun and stylish treat.
The only film with both Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant (though Grant had been offered Sabrina as well as Roman Holiday, but had turned both down as he’d felt the story’s focus was on the female lead). A madcap romantic comedy adventure – I use the opening scene to illustrate how important it is to establish the genre and tone of a film immediately; Charade does it the most elegantly, showing its thriller, comedy and romance aspects seamlessly within three minutes. Set in Paris in the 1960s, this frothy but fun caper keeps delivering. All of Hepburn’s films showcase her style, and this is no exception (see the leopard print pillbox hat worn with a red coat and black gloves).
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant
Audrey Hepburn blossoms from the gawky chauffeur’s daughter to a Paris-styled beauty, intent on capturing the heart of her love, William Holden, the playboy younger brother of the mansion where her father works. Only for the elder brother, Humphrey Bogart, to try to woo her away. I love that every line uttered by every character sizzles, from the doddering father to the cook. This is part of my revered trinity of Billy Wilder’s brilliant romantic comedy films, along with The Apartment and Some Like It Hot.
One of the few Hitchcocks where the (frequently archetypal) woman isn’t held at arm’s length. Grace Kelly’s Vogue employee and James Stewart’s policeman make an unlikely but beguiling couple trying to solve a murder mystery with little beyond a window frame and a pair of binoculars. Style fans will love Kelly’s impeccable dresses and her Mark Cross overnight bag.
North by Northwest
It’s extraordinary how many times I can watch this and still be entirely seduced – one minute thrilled, the next laughing, the next swooning. Cary Grant at his suave best against my favourite slimy cinema villain, James Mason (just hearing him speak sends shivers down my spine) while charming Eva Marie Saint. Penned by Ernest Lehman, this is the sharpest script in the West. Unmatchable on so many levels, Hitchcock out-Hitchcocks himself.
More (mostly Hollywood) favourites:
- All About Eve The many layers of sisterhood.
- A Letter To Three Wives Another Mankiewicz film with well-drawn strong women.
- Fellini’s 8½ The film I’ve seen the most number of times – Marcello in a crisis of male identity.
- The Lady Vanishes Another favourite Hitchcock.
- Holiday Cary and Kate match wits.
- Pather Panchali Satyajit Ray’s transforming storytelling of the Apu Trilogy.
- The Graduate The immortal Mrs Robinson to the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel.
- Now, Voyager Love the lesson that you need to change yourself, not the people around you.
- The Godfather I remember watching this once a week for a year when I was sixteen.
- The Man In The White Suit Or any of the Ealing comedies showing Alec Guiness’s deftness, though in this film, he is almost upstaged by a young, silent girl for ten seconds.
- To Be Or Not To Be Ernst Lubitch’s well-observed comedy.
- Day For Night Truffaut’s wise and sweet feature about making a film.
- Vertigo I wish Hitchcock could have been indulgently self-referential in the sequence where James Stewart thinks he keeps seeing his lost love every time a glacial blonde passes him, and have shown Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint et al as these women…
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks’s musical comedy.
• Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons