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6 Films from 6 Decades

This year's blogathon from the Classic Film & TV Cafe is 6 Films - 6 Decades. Originally Rick asked people to choose six favourite films from each decade from the 1920s to the 1970s. But he took pity on those of us who aren't that big on silent cinema and allowed us to make it one each from the 1930s to the 1980s. There are plenty of films I like from the 1920s, but nothing I could really call a favourite. So, for that reason, I've gone for the cheat's option on this one.


The 39 Steps (1935)


I've written before about The 39 Steps and I said then that I think of it as the quintessential Hitchcock film. It may lack the psychological complexity of some of his later films, but it boils the Hitchcock thriller down to its essential elements: a shocking murder, an innocent man, a beautiful blonde and a totally irrelevant MacGuffin that everyone forgets about. 

Perhaps most importantly for the viewer, The 39 Steps is just a lot of fun. A breakneck chase from London to Scotland and back again as Robert Donat attempts to clear his name and uncover a spy ring. Forget about the plot though, because it's really about the accumulation of one danger or excitement after another. A gunshot, a murder, a scream, a train ride, an escape, a chase, another escape, and so on until the finale. There are some Hitchcock films that are more sophisticated than this, but not many that are quite so entertaining.


A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


I first saw some of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US) on TV one afternoon in the school holidays. It was in colour (mostly) but it was also clearly old ... and strange. 

There was an RAF pilot in conversation with an 18th century French dandy. There was an enormous moving staircase carrying them up into the heavens. There was a cavernous black & white celestial court. There was a woman's tear captured on a rose, and the players in a table tennis game suddenly frozen in mid-play. And a man arguing for his life in a heavenly court. And prosecuting him was a soldier from the American Revolution. Obviously. What was this film?

A few years later and I vaguely recognised the outline in a TV guide. Was this that strange, otherworldly film that I'd seen part of as a child?

Watching the whole film it finally made sense, although it was just as weird and wonderful. David Niven is a bomber pilot who, as his doomed plane is crashing to earth, is comforted on his radio by Kim Hunter's ground controller. Somehow he miraculously survives the crash and they meet in real life; obviously they fall in love. 

Then Marius Goring (the 18th century Frenchman) appears as a "heavenly conductor" who should have escorted him to Heaven after the plane crash. Unfortunately he missed him - there was a terrible fog in the English Channel! Niven is understandably reluctant to go, but he is allowed to argue his case in a heavenly court. Then again, does the "conductor" really exist, or is all this taking place in his mind? 

A Matter of Life and Death is a wonderful romantic fantasy mixed with political satire and pointed musings on the afterlife in the wake of World War II. And, for me, the perfect introduction to the extraordinary world of its makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.


Les Diaboliques (1955)


For the fifties I've decided to go with Les Diaboliques, one of the best-known thrillers from H. G. Clouzot, sometimes seen as a French equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. 

Les Diaboliques stars the director's wife, Vera Clouzot, as the fragile wife of cheating husband Paul Meurisse. Together the pair run a slightly run down boarding school, while Meurisse dallies with his mistress Simone Signoret on the side. 

The two women decide to team up to bump him off and deposit the body in the school's overgrown and disused swimming pool. But then his body mysteriously disappears and he starts to be seen around the school grounds. Did he really die, or has his ghost come back to haunt them?

This classic thriller is genuinely unnerving at times and paved the way for a whole genre of these twisty nothing-is-as-it-seems films.


The League of Gentlemen (1960)


This droll crime caper stars Jack Hawkins - riffing on his established "war hero" persona from the 1950s - as an ex-army officer who plans to commit the perfect crime. He recruits a gang of similarly disgruntled former soldiers, who are all struggling in civilian life, to carry out a robbery in the style of a military operation. Among the men he recruits are Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey and Bryan Forbes (who also wrote the script).  

The League of Gentlemen arrived at the beginning of a decade full of cinematic crime capers but this is easily one of the best, with a strong cast, fine script by Forbes and polished direction from Basil Dearden. And who doesn't love that opening scene, when Jack Hawkins pops out of a manhole cover in the street, wearing his best dinner jacket and trying to look inconspicuous?! 


The Man Who Would be King (1975)


This adventure stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Danny and Peachy, two former British Army sergeants in 19th century India. The pair plan to make the perilous journey across the mountains to the fabled land of Kafiristan, where they hope to become rich, maybe even kings.

A rip-roaring buddy adventure follows as the two men face bandits, the mountains, avalanches and hostile tribes, before convincing a local despot to let him train his ragbag army into a competent fighting force. They become successful beyond their wildest dreams, soon toppling the old ruler and uniting local tribes under their leadership. 

But events take a darker turn when Danny miraculously survives being shot with an arrow - thanks to a concealed bandolier - and is mistaken for a god. Soon he starts to believe his own legend and the belief of the locals that he is descended from Alexander the Great. Peachy wants to get out with his loot while he still can, but Danny has other ideas.

The Man Who Would be King was based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, hence the author's supporting role in the film, where he is played by Christopher Plummer. The film was a long-gestating dream project of its director John Huston, who supposedly considered Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, then Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole and later Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the leading roles, before finally settling on Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The two stars are so perfect together, and have such natural chemistry, that you have to wonder why did no one else ever try and team them up again?


The Living Daylights (1987)


As I took the easier option, I've picked from the 1980s a film that at least has much older roots. 

The Living Daylights is the 25th anniversary James Bond film and the first of two to star Timothy Dalton as Bond. Much as I like Roger Moore's Bond films, Dalton brought a danger and intensity to the part, as well as some serious acting chops, that hadn't been seen for a long time. 

A more complex plot than is usual for the Bond series sees our hero involved in the defection of Russian General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) and in the shady arms dealings of Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker), eventually leading to an all-action finale in war-torn Afghanistan. This is also an unusually romantic Bond film, as Bond is drawn towards cellist Kara (Maryam d'Abo), the duped girlfriend of the roguish Koskov. 

By this time, Eon Productions had run out of James Bond novels, so this film used the Ian Fleming short story of the same title as the jumping off point for its faked defection plot.

The brooding, Byronic Timothy Dalton makes Bond dangerous again and this film reinvigorated the Bond series. Not universally loved in the 1990s, people are starting to realise how good Dalton's Bond was and The Living Daylights is one of the best and most under-rated of all the Bond films. 


You can see everyone else's choices for this blogathon over at the Classic Film & TV Cafe.




Comments

  1. What fun! Every decade is a winner. I recently re-watched The Man Who Would Be King and loved it as much as when I first saw it. All jewels here in your movie treasure chest!

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    1. The Man Who Would be King is such a classic. I'm glad it didn't get made until the seventies when the right actors for it were around (although I could picture Burton and O'Toole doing it ...).

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  2. Now you've don it! A want a marathon of your choices today.

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  3. A Matter of Life and Death is a beloved movie in this household. I'm a big fan of Timothy Dalton as James Bond and wish he had starred in more 007 installments (though I prefer Licence to Kill over Living Daylights). I just watched the influential Les Diaboliques again this past year. It holds up amazingly well.

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    1. I like LTK a lot too. Although TLD has the edge for me, they are both good films. It's a real shame that there was never a third Dalton Bond film. Connery, Moore and Craig all really got into their stride by the third film and arguably delivered their best in the role.


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  4. This is an amazing list! I also wanted to put Les Diaboliques as a choice for the 1950s decade, but gone for A Streetcar Named Desire instead.

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    1. The only problem with Les Diaboliques is that it's been ripped off so many times that I suppose it's much more guessable what's going on now than it was in 1955. Still a great film though.

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  5. Very interesting picks! Five of your films are pictures I haven't seen in years, so I feel like re-visiting them now....especially The League of Gentlemen.

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    1. Thanks. I feel like I'm due a re-watch of that one too.


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  6. Some films here I've not seen (I'm embarrassed to admit), but I'm really looking forward to them. I've been meaning to see Les Diaboliques for some time, so I was glad to read your thoughts about it.

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    1. Well, nobody's seen everything! I hope you find a new favourite from these.

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  7. Well, I have had The League of Gentlemen on my DVR for a while, and now it's moving up my watch list, thanks to you. I would also love to watch Les Diabolique. I did watch A Matter of Life and Death and hated it, but you're experience has made me consider I might need to give it another chance.

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    1. Wait, what? Are you sure?! Does not compute!

      I never heard of anyone hating it before, that's a real surprise. I guess it shows we're all different.

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  8. I love your story about rediscovering A Matter of Life and Death. I think we all have similar stories -- mine relates to The Queen of Spades with Anton Walbook. I was so excited to have finally found the film that had only existed in cobwebs and shadows in a very early memory.

    I second that choice for the 1940s - really any of Powell and Pressburger's films should make the cut. Your later films are ones that I have yet to watch, so I'll add them to my watchlist!

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    1. That's probably true. I finally found another film I'd been wondering about for years the other day. It didn't help that it was an obscure TV film and I had the wrong title.

      There are three or four P+P films that I would have seriously considered and I love Colonel Blimp probably just as much as Matter of Life and Death.

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  9. Great list! I've seen all but The League of Gentlemen and judging by my opinion of your other four choices, I'm going to see it soon. Can't go wrong with some of the best of Hitchcock, Powell & Pressburger, Clouzot and Huston. Plus the only James Bond I thought really worked after Sean Connery left - until Daniel Craig came along. Loved The Living Daylights and Timothy Dalton. Wish he'd done more than two Bonds.

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    1. League of Gentlemen is great. I hope you like it. It's a shame that there were only two Dalton Bonds, but they are both very good. Licence to Kill was really disliked by many fans and The Living Daylights tended to be damned with faint praise, but people have come around to them. It seems like there are a lot of Dalton fans out there now.

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  10. Sean Connery and Michael Caine would be a very interesting pairing. I'm going to have to look for that movie.

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    1. They do make for a great pairing, so good that it seems strange no one tried to cast them together again. They are both in A Bridge Too Far, but have no scenes together, as far as I can remember. John Huston could be very hit-and-miss but his good films are very good.

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  11. Your choices are very good. Les diaboliques blew me out of my mind when I watched it, and A Matter of Life and Death is one of my favorite films ever. I love films that play with color and black and white / sepia.
    Cheers!

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    1. I was quite young when I first saw Les Diaboliques and it had the same effect on me. I think because it was subtitled and I wasn't familiar with the actors and so on, it was all the more surprising and effective. A Matter of Life and Death has long been one of my favourites and I love that contrast too. The visuals are amazing.

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  12. I almost put The 39 Steps on my list. It’s so good!!! I just watched A Matter of Life and Death for the first time last month. I remember seeing my dad watch the stairway scene at the end and wondering what in the world he was watching! Lol. My favorite P&P film is I Know Where I’m Going.

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    1. I think the black & white P&P films can get overshadowed by the colour ones sometimes, because the colour ones are so sumptuous. But yes, there are several really good ones. I like I Know Where I'm Going a lot and A Canterbury Tale is another favourite, they do have some similarities.

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