Pick Six Great Movies

Whenever I teach my short-story class, I find myself talking about the movies.  I’ve always presumed that my adult-ed students, few of whom were ever English majors, are less likely to have Flannery O’Connor in common than Casablanca. But there’s a flaw in this approach.  I’ll say, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and many of my students will look right back at me . . . but blankly.  They don’t know Casablanca.

I assign not a single short story in my writing class.  But I do assign—no, I demand that my students see—Casablanca. Talk about storytelling!  Talk about characters!  Talk about . . . no, let’s make this a broader discussion:  Talk about an American treasure!  Talk about myth-making . . . star-making . . .bliss-making!  For crying out loud, let’s talk about Rick and Ilsa and Sam the piano player doing “As Time Goes By” and Captain Renault and Major Strasser and—well, after you’ve seen it, we can talk about it.  First, though, you’ve got to see it.

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So I’ve made it my duty to introduce my students to some of the great old films.  Any film buff knows them all—but we’re not all film buffs.  And one of the delights of teaching—perhaps my main delight—is to introduce students to things they hadn’t seen or read or thought or done.  I stand before my writing students acting out scenes of classic movies to illustrate the trickery of storytelling—storytelling is all trickery, you know—but also to egg them on, move them, perhaps get them to rent some movie that was made before they were born, or perhaps even before their parents were born, and which even today will grab them and entertain them and make them happy because it was simply great.

For a writer of stories, there is so much to learn from the old movies that I’m putting together a new course for the winter term.  Six sessions, six movies.  The rules are:  English language, black-and-white, pre-1960.  No two movies from the same genre, or by the same director, or with the same stars.  So, of course, I must ask you, which six would you choose?

I’ll tell you my choices in a minute.  But what fun to decide which six.  Remember, some of my students have never, ever seen a black-and-white movie!  But this time, instead of having to watch me act them out, they’ll actually watch them. Afterwards, we’ll try and figure out how these stories worked their magic on us.  First, though, I’ll get to watch my students watch the films.  I would do that for free.

So many parts of storytelling that work on the movie screen can also work on the page—which is, after all, the screen of the imagination.  One is setting–where and when the story happens–and how the setting is as much a character in the story as any person, and maybe more so.  And the plot, which depends for its success on our believing that all this really happened. And the characters—how we’re made to care about them and what they say or do or cause others to say or do.  How they think and what they want, the forces that impede them, the way the best of them surprise us but really don’t.  The way a story, when it’s over, sometimes feels finished, and sometimes not, and why both can feel good.   And why—it happens all the time—a sad ending is the one that makes you deeply, deeply happy.

I can’t wait.  Here are the ones—boy, this was tough!—that I’ve selected for the course:

Casablanca (1942)
King Kong (1933)
The Thing (1950)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
High Noon (1952)
The Third Man (1948)

So that’s my six.  This doesn’t let you off the hook.  I want to know yours.

By the way, my adult-ed short-story class begins again on Thursday, October 27th, here in Northern Virginia.  Check pg. 24 of the Fairfax County Public Schools catalogue for “Writing a Short Story.”

16 Responses to Pick Six Great Movies

  1. Armstrong Tigre Sep 21, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Always fun to do lists. I’d take Casablanca, Kong, and High Noon, and go bonkers trying to come up with the other three. I’d want something of Hitchcock, something with Jimmy Stewart, and something with Katherine Hepburn. So many to pick from. How about Psycho? Harvey? Woman of the Year? Or Birds, Wonderful Life, and Adam’s Rib. Hmm mm. Ok…let’s take Psycho, Wonderful Life, and Woman of the Year. And there’s Spencer Tracy to boot. But no John Wayne, no Frank Capra. Oh well.

  2. I’m thinking of movies I’d like to watch other people watch for the first time. Casa Blanca definitely. I dunno, for some reason I’ve never liked King Kong. I prefer Frankenstein. Psycho is great or Rear Window. For sf, I like the original Invasion of the Body Snatches. I also think everyone should have to watch Old Yeller or the Yearling with lots of tissues. How about getting really old — The Kid? I’m also very fond of I Remember Mama and Gaslight. A movie I like that nobody else seems to have watched is Night of the Hunter. And the Haunting (1963). Maybe you should provide them with a supplimental viewing list.

  3. My wife and I raised two children who were spaced 11 years apart, which meant that we went some 35 years without seeing a movie that didn’t come out of the Disney or Star Wars factories. Now we’re using Netflix to make up for lost time, and that will explain why my list is probably quirkier than most:
    1. Casablanca
    2. The Third Man
    3. Brief Encounter
    4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
    5. Ninotchka
    6. Waking Ned Devine

  4. Casablanca
    It’s a wonderful Life
    I remember Mama
    High Noon
    Adam’s Rib

    … Here’s looking at you, Kaze.

  5. Ooops! Forgot:
    Brief Encounter
    that makes 6.

  6. Caroline Altman Smith Sep 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    I had no idea that you “acted out” scenes from famous old movies in your writing classes, Dad. I’m not sure why you didn’t stream these performances live on the Web, or at least tape them. My imagination is running wild! I do think you need to sneak a Hitchcock in their somewhere. I’d suggest Notorious, Gaslight or Read Window. But it’s gut-wrenching to think of dropping any of the others. You never subjected, I mean exposed, us to Brief Encounter- I’ll have to check that one out, as a few folks mentioned it. Although we’re thinking of dropping Netflix after all this splitting-the-streaming funny business.

    • Caroline, it was tough to leave out Hitchcock. It wouldn’t happen if the list were any longer. I think Vertigo is one of the purest “movie” movies ever made, and Notorious one of the most thrilling. But, alas. I was interested to see Brief Encounter pop up. I hadn’t thought of it, though it’s such perfect short-story material you could almost transcribe it. I couldn’t have included it with The Third Man, however, since both feature the wonderful Trevor Howard. Among other movies suggested by my blessed commenters, It’s a Wonderful Life stands out. It really is like watching a drama mde up entirely of people in a Norman Rockwell painting. If we made a list of movies with the highest proportion of priceless and unforgettable scenes, it would be on it.

      • Some of my all-time favorites: The Best Years of Our Lives, The Westerner, Bringing Up Baby, The Palm Beach Story, Almost everything with Bette Davis in it, Mildred Pierce, Some Like It Hot, Stella Dallas, Roman Holiday, My Man Godfrey, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Anatomy of a Murder, Top Hat, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

        • Wow, this is a great list, Ken. But the rule is six! What are they?

          • I’d keep 3 of yours: Casablanca, High Noon and Sunset Boulevard. I’d add Bringing Up Baby for classic comedy and peerless Hepburn; The Best Years of Our Lives for the Zeitgeist, the moral concerns and Homer; and Night of the Hunter because it is, well, sui generis . . .

          • Ken, I like your choices. Not a huge fan of Bringing up Baby–I’d rather some other screwball comedy–but I think The Best Years of Our Lives is a Hollywood miracle. Night of the Hunter scares me, but I it’s a great movie.

  7. I’m glad to see so many votes for Night of the Hunter. Most people I know have never seen it and the scene with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish singing is just so simple and yet so terribly chilling!

  8. Just wanted to throw in another favorite Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

    • Cynthia, I think everybody remembers The Treature of the Sierra Madre for Fred C. Dobbs, but I thought Walter Huston was just wonderful. Did you see him in Dodsworth?

      • Yes, liked Huston, but I’ve never heard of Dodsworth. I’ll have to look that up. Personnally, I loved Antonio Bedoya and his facial expressions. I’m a writer, and have my own treasure story. I named one of the characters, a troll, Bad Oya after him. ;-D

        • Bad Oya! Better than bad karma, I guess. Cynthia, you MUST see Dodsworth. See it and we can talk more about it. Dodsworth would have made my list if I’d had just one more slot.

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