The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
80) High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann.
High Noon reflects a peculiarity in the American consciousness; the most powerful nation in the history of the world frequently likes to pretend it’s the underdog. This is errant nonsense in virtually all cases, and has been since the dawn of the 20th Century. (The most recent example is, what, the 1980 Olympic hockey team?) Will Kane, like a horoscope in the newspaper, is just blank enough to be worn as a mask. Kane stands in for that feeling of American independence and duty, and we in the theater use Kane to stand in for own troubles and our own sense that the world is against us. This ignores certain facts about the film’s setting – for one, that Will Kane is the marshal and thus he has significant authority – but it feels good to think it. (Thus the famous response from John Wayne that he thought this movie was the “most un-American” thing he had ever seen; has Kane really vacated all of his authority, and so thoroughly, that he can’t work anyone else into a posse?) High Noon is a great feel-good movie, maybe the consummate picture about the myth of the West.
Zinnemann’s most memorable movies – High Noon and From Here to Eternity more or less back to back, with A Man for All Seasons and Julia at the tail end – are by and large about people placed in untenable situations who must by their nature stand tall or break down. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity is a paragon of stubbornness; you don’t call what Thomas More did “stubbornness” because it was especially moral; Julia fights the Nazis to massive personal cost. And Will Kane, of course, has come to mean something special in that genre of character. He is one of the first of the breed of “one last job” policemen who knows that “last” is a nebulous term; it turns out that the last job is the killing itself, but the job before the last job that he completely fails to execute. Hadleyville is revealed over and over again as a group of people who aren’t necessarily bad. The men in the saloon and the hotel manager seem like jerks, to put it plainly; Kane was a leader of a factional burg, not some unified and idyllic little town. There’s a small group of people at his wedding which is absolutely dwarfed by the number of men in the bar and the number of folks in church and the number of people just sitting at home and living their days. Some of them volunteer right out to join their marshal, who many of them even respect and like. They are dissuaded by Kane’s so-called friends from helping him do the right thing. There’s always another reason to put down the tin star—High Noon wonders how rare it is to find anyone who will put down those reasons for even ninety minutes and take the risk.
79) Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray.
I can understand why Johnny Guitar is one of those Westerns which did not land gently on arrival. The moments with the most drama in the film don’t belong to men with deep voices and perfect aim, although Sterling Hayden and Ward Bond are both key players. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are at the center of the film, wheeling around each other like vultures lowering themselves towards carrion. Men die in the movie, are beaten up and punched and are shot and roll down hills like tumbleweeds who are late for an appointment. It’s the women who spur the action and who incite violence against one another. Crawford’s Vienna runs a saloon. McCambridge’s Emma has a thriving trade in cattle. These are the realms of men in almost literally every other western I can recall, but Johnny Guitar does not flinch much at either woman’s business acumen. Nor does it flinch at giving us characters who are easily read as queer or lesbian. Something is going on with Emma in this movie which pushes her to almost operatic fits of fury, and one of the better explanations we have is old-fashioned repression. It’s a suggestion the film even traffics in a little bit. Vienna believes that Emma wants the Dancin’ Kid dead because she’s in love with him. What does that say about the frenzied way in which she calls for Vienna’s hanging?
The lunatic whites of Crawford’s eyes are like a character themselves; at fifty, Joan is no longer the screen star who made her name in black-and-white and who transitioned flawlessly from silent to sound. Although she’s dressed almost as well as ever (for Sheila O’Brian, like the rest of us, is no Adrian), it’s harder for Crawford to be a clothes-horse when she is out west. She’s not the only one wearing pastels, either; while McCambridge and the posse all wear black nearly all the time (thanks to a well-timed funeral), just about everyone else is dressed as brightly, almost garishly, as Crawford. In the climactic scene she wears yellow with a red scarf. She’s nearly hanged in a flowing white dress which might be better suited to a wedding. She threatens a group wearing a black shirt with a neat turquoise tie around her neck. These are not the outfits usually associated with westerns. Joan appears to be carpetbagging, but she was merely ahead of her time. Had her career taken place fifty years later, everyone would have praised her for her boldness. As campy as she gets from time to time, one of Hollywood’s superlative professionals fits the stage she’s on about as well as she ever did.
78) Paths of Glory (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Someday it may seem very distant, perhaps as distant as Dickens or Dumas are to us, but there will be a time when directors who worked in both black-and-white and color will feel very far away. It’s possible that of the directors who have significant pieces of their oeuvre in both camps, Kubrick may be the last master of black-and-white and color alike. The Killing, photographed by Lucien Ballard, is a stunning showcase of how black-and-white cinematography works; Paths of Glory (by Georg Kraus) is likewise remarkable. In these late ’50s movies, Kubrick displays such an understanding of the interplay of light and shadow. In The Killing, the scene where Sterling Hayden prepares himself for a robbery in a dark room with a single bulb is simply unbelievable. Paths of Glory uses shadow more consistently, covering half-faces and bodies in the same way that war seems to do when it’s had its way. The scenes of battle are not lit in great light like the California sunshine on the events of The Killing. Rather, they are cloudy and gray. It is not precisely misty, but it is obscure and hazy. Nothing can quite be seen clearly, even though it’s obvious what everyone’s actions are at any moment. (For the most part, people are dying in vain.)
The difference between the burrows of the fighting troops and the great staterooms of the generals is made not merely by light, though. Kubrick makes it look like you could stage a decathlon where Adolphe Menjou and George Macready barter over the lives of some troops. Where Kirk Douglas and Ralph Meeker and Wayne Morris cower with fear or puff out their chests in indignation like the inside of an anthill, marked by paths that could never be mapped and low ceilings that make everyone crouch and bend. Claustrophobia is a powerful tool to use in a film, and one that is tricky to get right from a technical standpoint alone. Paths of Glory’s use of that cramping feel is pervasive and flawless, squeezing innumerable bodies into long tracking shots or into an impromptu concert at a tavern.
77) The Last Picture Show (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
One of my all time favorite movie anecdotes has to do with the story of Bogdanovich’s involvement with The Last Picture Show: the truest cinephile of the New Hollywood directors was sorely disappointed when he found out it had nothing much to do with picture shows. When the Oscars came around for ’71, it was something of an upset that William Friedkin and The French Connection walked away with the big two awards instead of Bogdanovich and his movie; more than one review called it the next Citizen Kane. In some ways the comparison is useful; it’s the mirror of Kane, a story of the the flip-side of the country geographically and economically and culturally. Charles Foster Kane would have no more idea of what to do in Anarene, Texas than a space alien. But like Citizen Kane it’s also fundamentally a story of loss and discovering that gripping something tightly means it’s been squeezed from your fist. Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) is the primary example here. Neither Duane (Jeff Bridges) nor Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) can hold her for long, either from her overt disinterest or her father’s intervening. Her glamorous beauty is as much an impossible reclamation as Rosebud.
The most important character in the movie is not one of the young trio, or even Cloris Leachman as Ruth, but Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion. The aging owner of a pool hall in a decrepit little town (one of my favorite lines is a response to Sam’s lament that he wishes he had a better hometown football team – the other man says it would help if he had a better hometown), Sam is not precisely surrounded by venality, but he’s still the last marker of old-fashioned decency in this apathetic hamlet. Maybe I’m sentimental, Sam says, and it’s true that it sets him apart. There are only a few sentimental characters in the movie besides himself (Sonny and Ruth, mostly), and they live in encroaching desert surrounded by cold personalities. Johnson’s acting in cowboy and army pictures of the ’50s was never precisely punctuated by warmth – warmth is not a terribly masculine quality – but there was a man behind whatever toughness he placed in those roles. Sympathy was never too far from the surface for him; consider his role in Rio Grande, where he is on the run from the law because he protected his sister a little too vigorously. Yet in The Last Picture Show, the agility and verve are stripped away in favor of a man who talks as much as he does anything else. When Sonny says that nothing’s been the same since Sam the Lion died late in the movie, it means more than he can know.
76) United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass
One of the common criticisms of the Oscars is that they have a way of giving lifetime achievement awards to certain filmmakers or actors which then causes a chain reaction of snubbing. Whether or not this is a real thing I don’t know – as post hoc viewers, onlookers like us have a tendency to ascribe to the Academy a hive mind it doesn’t possess – but the famous Pacino/Washington trail, for instance, doesn’t hamper that perception. (Al loses Best Actor to Art Carney for 1974, Pacino wins a make-up award in ’92 for Scent of a Woman over Denzel’s performance in Malcolm X, and Denzel gets the make-up award for Training Day in ’01.) In the past decade or so, no makeup award rings more truly than the Best Director award Martin Scorsese won for The Departed, as well as the Best Picture win the movie took home. Some people, like Denzel Washington, win the award later. But what of Paul Greengrass, who seems like something of a long shot to ever pick up the statuette himself, and who probably directed the best American movie of 2006? There will be no make-up award for him, which is sort of a shame.
2006 is becoming a more interesting year in cinema the further we recede from it. Many of the year’s most notable films, like Happy Feet, Children of Men, and An Inconvenient Truth are seriously worried about the future of the environment. As fear about the future sparks, parallels to the past are drawn with sad, personal strokes. The best Spanish movie of the year, Pan’s Labyrinth, is concerned with national history via the Spanish Civil War. The best German movie of the year, The Lives of Others, is concerned with national history via the Stasi and life in East Germany. And the best American movie of the year is concerned with national history so recent that I think it repelled people in the moment.
United 93 is not a propaganda film, nor is it stirring in the conventional sense. No one could come out of that movie pumping a fist or shouting, “‘Murica!” It is shorn down to the roots and disturbing; as well as any other movie I’ve seen, it successfully works on the basis of “We know what’s coming” and “I’ve never seen this before.” United 93 is not purely about the passengers of that flight and the terrorists who hijacked the plane; they’re like mirrors for us at home. We were people who may well have been on flights that day ourselves, and just like the people on the plane we had to learn about what happened secondhand, thirdhand, through rumor and incomplete reports. I’m curious to see how this film is viewed twenty years from now (assuming we still have the resources to watch movies, given how rapidly the planet’s climate is changing). Much of the rawness will have worn off, I think, in how people feel when they watch it. But I firmly believe that United 93 will still continue to move people deeply even if they weren’t old enough to remember 9/11. It may be a different kind of moving, but it’ll still be there.