The Birds. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Arguably the last Hitchcock “masterpiece,” The Birds introduced Tippi Hedren to the world. Hedren isn’t the most talented actress Hitchcock ever worked with, but she does a nice job as our lovely blonde protagonist. Suzanne Pleshette, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright round out the main cast, along with appearances from memorable character actors like Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Joe Mantell, Malcolm Atterbury (the guy who stood across from Cary Grant at the crossroads bus stop in North by Northwest), Elizabeth Wilson and Doodles Weaver. Notably, the film does not have a score; rather, Bernard Herrmann served as “sound consultant,” in charge of the bird noises. The lack of music makes the horror even more effective, especially during the scene when the birds gather and attack at the schoolhouse. Unlike the later Hitchcock flick Frenzy, The Birds avoids the feeling of being an “ugly” story. Its colorfulness, thanks to the cinematography (by Hitchcock regular Robert Burks), costumes, art direction and set decoration, adds greatly to the impact.
Charade. Directed by Stanley Donen. I fondly recall the first time I saw this delightfully romantic comedy-thriller: when I was about eight or nine years old I caught Charade on TV (AMC, to be exact). I was hooked from the moment the film started. For years I had been a big fan of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn so I was pleased by their pairing. Their chemistry is divine, despite the 25-year age difference between them. They are ably supported by Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass and Jacques Marin, among others. Solving the plot’s Hitchcockian mystery is part of the entertainment, besides seeing so many wonderful actors in their prime. Besides Hepburn’s cosmopolitan appeal, the exciting Parisian setting, including a number of scenes shot on location, imbues the film with a real sense of sophistication. All told, Charade is a whole lot of fun.
Hud. Directed by Martin Ritt. Paul Newman has long been an icon of youthful coolness and later-in-life charity, but it’s important to remember what a mesmerizing actor he was. As the title character, the cruel “man with the barbed wire soul,” Newman’s raw charisma is electrifying. Patricia Neal deserved her Best Actress Oscar win; few actresses could portray unglamorous women with the same intensity she had. Melvyn Douglas also snagged an Oscar, earning the title of Best Supporting Actor for playing Newman’s aging, truth-telling father. Perhaps most underrated in the cast is Brandon De Wilde as Paul Newman’s younger brother, who looks up to Newman despite his loathsome habits. De Wilde popped up in a bunch of notable 50s and 60s films, always doing first-rate work. The true star of the film, however, is James Wong Howe’s Oscar-winning cinematography. Filmed on location in Texas, every vista is illuminated – for better or worse – by what looks like natural light.
Jason and the Argonauts. Directed by Don Chaffey. This larger-than-life childhood favorite of mine benefits from the genius of special effects/stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen. Talos, the giant statue that comes to life on the Isle of Bronze, remains a fearsome villain even in the today’s modern age of CGI. The colors of the film are gorgeous, especially the costumes and makeup that Nancy Kovack wears. The acting is maybe not the best it could have been, although Kovack and lead actor Todd Armstrong are decent enough as Jason and Medea respectively. My favorite performances are probably the ones given by Honor Blackman (later Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) as Hera and Patrick “Second Doctor Who” Troughton as Phineas. Moreover, there’s the enjoyably loud, brassy Bernard Herrmann score and the excellent set pieces designed to represent the mythic Mount Olympus.
The Silence. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. If you’ve ever read The Guardian UK, you may have seen their ongoing series of essays called “The Film That Changed My Life.” In my case, I might point to The Silence as one such film. It’s not simply a scandalous art house feature famous for its themes of explicit sex, implied incest and lesbianism; it is a film which challenges the viewer to see and feel things that mainstream American films did not discuss at that time. Not even today do you usually expect to see a scene involving female masturbation, let alone in a movie from 1963. I consider The Silence a turning point in my film-watching history because it changed the way I understood the power of the cinematic narrative. As a 16-year-old watching the film alone during an early morning showing on IFC (this was years ago, back when IFC was still commercial-free), I felt that I was witnessing a story unlike any other. The story told through its two lead actresses, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, is a forerunner of the complicated females in later Bergman films like Persona and Cries and Whispers. New York Daily News critic Wanda Hale referred to The Silence as “the most shocking film I have ever seen”; I think you would be hard-pressed to disagree that it is a film which continues to hold power over its audience.