The Apartment. Directed by Billy Wilder. Jack Lemmon (one of my longtime favorites), Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray are perfectly cast in this genius romantic dramedy from the king of all filmmakers, Billy Wilder. Wilder was the consummate writer-director, always challenging social mores and the limits of what Hollywood could offer. This film is as much a battle of the sexes as his other romantic films are – and yet there is a curious balance of cruelty and tenderness. Where MacMurray treats women as objects he toys with at his leisure, Lemmon (in his best role besides Some Like It Hot) adores MacLaine for her personality as much as for her looks. As in all of Wilder’s cinematic gems, the acting is as top-notch as the witty dialogue. One of my favorite visuals is when Lemmon sees MacLaine fall back onto his bed after her character has had (without giving away an important plot point) a sort of emotional relapse. Lemmon helps MacLaine to the bed and for just a second or two, while he is talking, you see his eyes gaze over her body, which is clad in a short negligee-type outfit. All at once you are keenly aware of his deep affection/lust for her (does his character realize the extent of his feelings toward her?), his desperation to get out of his various work-related predicaments and his wish to save MacLaine from her run of bad luck with men. The Apartment is, now that I think of it, probably a good date movie for film fans.
Breathless. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. No matter what your feelings about Godard are, Breathless is indisputably the hyperkinetic crown jewel of the French New Wave. Jean-Paul Belmondo is perfect as a hood who, though he gets in over his head with theft and murder, admires Humphrey Bogart and wants to start over in Italy. Jean Seberg is luminous as the exceptionally chic Patricia Franchini, the newspaper vendor with journalistic aspirations and a fluid sense of morality. I did not think very highly of Seberg in the comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), perhaps because her character was so one-dimensional; in Breathless, however, she was perfectly cast. The movie was filmed by Raoul Coutard and edited by Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman in such a way that it hews closer to documentary than fiction. The dialogue feels a lot like improvisation (not sure if it was), contributing to sense of reality. The jazzy score sets a snappy pace as the viewer is whisked along by the intriguing plot. Despite the main characters’ sometimes deplorable actions, you can’t help liking them just a little. Sure, Belmondo does some bad things, but all the same you feel an inkling of sympathy. In a fairy tale kind of way, you’d rather he didn’t face any consequences.
Psycho. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. When I was fifteen I used to carry a biography of Anthony Perkins with me to school, such was my reverence for him after seeing Psycho. As I recall, it added to my classmates’ consensus that I was beyond weird. In any case, there’s no denying that the Master of Suspense, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, nearly outdid himself with this brilliant horror film. While I prefer North by Northwest overall, Psycho is a landmark film that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for both filmmakers and moviegoers. The general public was shocked in 1960 and, frankly, I would really be surprised if they weren’t still shocked today. The infamous “shower scene” has retained its power for more than half a century. Psycho is rich with symbolism: first Janet Leigh wears a white bra and slip; then, after stealing the $40,000 from her boss, she changes into black lingerie. Simple yet genius! Best of all, Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is probably the greatest in any of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Yes, Robert Walker was terrific in Strangers on a Train, but Norman has so many more inimitable little tics and traits, right down to his pleasantly lilting, occasionally stammering voice. Unlike Walker, whose character feels creepy even before the audience is aware of his intentions, Perkins gives Norman a boy-next-door charm and aw-shucks sweetness that belie the darkness lurking within him and his, ahem, family.
Two Women. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Sophia Loren deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her role in this heartbreaking story of WWII-era Italy. Loren proved that she could dig deep and act (she has always had a unique and natural presence on camera) while retaining her earthy sex-goddess persona. De Sica (beloved for the classics Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D.) paints a haunting portrait of a mother and daughter struggling to survive in a war-torn country amid extreme violence and political conflict. The film’s raw depictions of rape and murder (war casualties and executions), as hard to watch as they are, lend themselves well to the film’s neorealist style. I strongly recommend Two Women if you want to see Sophia Loren in her finest role and Vittorio De Sica at the peak of his creative powers.
The Virgin Spring. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Having seen The Seventh Seal and The Silence prior to The Virgin Spring, I generally respected Bergman but did not think of him as a master filmmaker. This film, however, changed all that. The Virgin Spring, which won the 1961 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a chilling tale about bringing a mother and father’s worst nightmare to life when their daughter is raped and murdered. Set in medieval times, the story is timeless and would be harrowing in any decade or century. The film greatly benefits from the lustrous cinematography of longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist and stellar performances by Max von Sydow (who made 11 films with Bergman) as the father and Gunnel Lindblom (memorable as the mute girl in The Seventh Seal and the restless Anna in The Silence) as the murdered girl’s foster sister. The conclusion of the film is intensely moving and provides the viewer with hope for what little beauty remains in this world after evil has swept through it.