Roger and Me
On the Trail of the One Hundred "Great Movies"
By Hal Higdon
Film critics almost universally acclaim Citizen Kane as one of the world's greatest movies, most often the greatest. When top-ten and top-hundred lists appear, the Orson Welles movie from 1941 invariably ranks as number one. Everyone has their own favorite--or favorites. In my mind, Casablanca, released a year later, tops Kane.
But make up your own mind. Those two great films and ninety-eight others are re-reviewed in a recent book by film critic (and Michiana resident) Roger Ebert titled, The Great Movies. My sister-in-law Marion, herself a film buff, presented me with a copy for my birthday this summer. Ebert's book offers individual essays on one hundred "great" films, and although he does not rank them in order of preference (preferring an alphabetical distribution), I suspect Roger might line up with his fellow critics and put Citizen Kane in the top spot.
Has there ever than been a better love triangle than Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid? Roger himself admits "no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warner (Brothers) lot than Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson." The combination of love, action and humor in an exotic locale touches all the keys on the keyboard. And speaking of that keyboard: How can anyone who has seen Casablanca forget Wilson (as Sam) playing, "You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss…." Young people whose grandparents saw the picture when it first appeared in theaters can quote all the best lines, including, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she (Bergman) walks into mine." I vote Casablanca the best film of all time--although I might change my mind when I see Citizen Kane again in another year or so.
Viewing one hundred films
And that is what my wife Rose and I have in mind. With a copy of The Great Movies by our sides, we are viewing the one hundred films appearing in Roger Ebert's book. Our early viewing has been mostly of videos borrowed from the Michigan City public library, including All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. Others were borrowed from Rose's sister's collection, including The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. We found Chinatown recently on the shelf at East Coast Video in New Buffalo. On one occasion so far, we saw one of the films in a theater. The General, starring Buster Keaton, was featured at the Sounds of Silent Film Festival at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan this summer.
Do we expect to agree with Roger? We haven't entirely agreed so far. While Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour demonstrated why she was one of the world's most beautiful women, Rose considered the film confusing. She also dissed The Big Sleep for the same reason. I probably would not include Nashville on my hundred-best list, and I felt My Darling Clementine failed to live up to expectations, although it is one of Sister-in-law Marion's all-time favorites. And while Rose and I agree that Mr. Hulot's Holiday is the funniest movie ever made, where was another of my all-time comic favorites, What's Up Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neil? The Hustler. The Train. The Last Picture Show. Where are they, Roger? Will Roger Ebert be offended that we fail to agree with all his choices? I suspect not. He probably would be pleased that someone would take the effort not merely to read the one hundred essays in his book, but try to see each film.
That may be difficult, because the library has gaps in its collection. We're moving through Roger's list somewhat alphabetically, but I have not yet spotted The Apu Trilogy on the library shelves. (After this article appeared in print, a film buff phoned to tell a video store that had it.) Sometimes when I fail to find a film, it reappears later after another viewer has returned it, but the library no longer has a list of videos in its collection. "It became too difficult to keep up with new films we acquired and old ones that disappeared," one librarian explained to me.
Searching for Mr. Goodfilm
I have not yet begun to systematically scour the shelves of local video stores either in my regular home in Indiana or in Florida, our winter home. The Blockbuster store in Ponte Vedra Beach has a wide-ranging assortment, including many hard-to-find foreign films, but I notice their collection of DVD films has begun to outstrip that for VCR. We served notice on our family that acquiring a DVD player stands atop of our Christmas wish list. I'm waiting for its installation, whether packaged in pretty paper and ribbons or not, before we watch several movies that earn their greatness for visual elements, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia.
That raises an important point in our quest to see all one hundred of Roger Ebert's Great Movies. The former is one of my all-time favorite movies, viewed numerous times, and I saw a wide-screen version of the latter at a Chicago theater a dozen years ago. I estimate that I've seen close to three-fourths of the films in Roger's book, some of them when I was still a teenager. But that doesn't count. All of the films need to be seen again before we check them off our list. One has to have standards.
Two exceptions: Just before obtaining the book, I saw two of the hundred films. One was Apocalypse Now, the Francis Ford Coppola dissection of the Vietnam War, which he re-released recently in a "director's cut" version retitled Apocalypse Now Redux. I felt Coppola merely made the movie longer, not better, and Roger has mixed emotions on the new footage too.
The other film recently viewed was Star Wars, John Lucas's epic space series that strangely began with Part IV, followed by Parts V and VI, then back to the future for Parts I and II. When that last film appeared in the theaters this winter, we decided to watch all five existing parts in numerical order, not in the order they were released. The original Part IV from 1977 remains the most successful despite its more limited budget for special effects, while Part I makes no sense at all if you failed to see the films that both preceded and followed it. Although is there any regular filmgoer out there who has failed to see at least one Star Wars movie, even if only out of curiosity?
(The Michigan City public library also has in its video collection the twelve-part Buck Rogers serial starring Buster Crabbe that I first viewed back in the 1940s as a grade-school student. Watch the introduction to each serialized chapter roll, and it becomes obvious where Lucas got the idea for the rolling Star Wars introductions.)
If I seem obsessive in wanting to view every film designated as "Great" by Roger Ebert, that may simply be my personality. At various stages in my running career, I have run six marathons in six weeks to celebrate my sixtieth birthday and seven marathons in seven months to celebrate my seventieth birthday. After writing a magazine article for Runner's World on John Romita, Jr. (current artist of The Amazing Spider-Man), I decided to collect every comic book he had drawn over a career spanning several decades. That introduced me to his work on Daredevil, so I acquired every issue of that comic book too. Each hunt occupied me several years. I have no idea what impulse pushed me to this collective excess, since I already have begun to consider offering both collections for sale on eBay.
In another example of bizarre behavior not entirely unrelated to my current film-viewing scheme, I participated in a 1996 study on sleep patterns at the University of Georgia. The study required that I go twenty-eight hours without sleep in a tiny room with only a bed and TV screen. I could watch videos, but not TV, since that would provide unwanted clues as to time of day. On a whim, I asked my colleague to find videos of every Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie available. Fred and Ginger made ten films together; he found five. I can tell you unequivocally that the best is Top Hat, although Roger favors Swing Time.
I have no desire to possess video copies of the one hundred Great Films; I want to collect them visually rather than actually. While viewing them, I have been jotting comments in the book's margin, in effect reviewing Roger's review. (See sidebar: "Reviewing Roger Ebert")
Legendary rabble-rousing power
As I write this article, Rose and I have viewed twenty of the hundred, most recently Battleship Potemkin. This silent film from 1925 by Sergei Eisenstein possesses the distinction of having been banned at various times both in the United States and in the Soviet Union for its revolutionary message. (Once Stalin was in power, he didn't always like the idea that regimes might be overthrown.) The video available at the Michigan City library has a musical score by Dimitri Shostakovich, but neither the video box nor Roger's book explains whether the Russian composer wrote the music for a sound version of the film, or whether those re-releasing the film adapted the music from Shostakovich's symphonic work. When Roger viewed Battleship Potemkin at the Sound of Silents Film Festival at the Vickers Theatre, a rock group (Concrete) provided background music. "Under the stars on a balmy sunny night, far from film festivals and cinematheques" writes Roger, "Eisenstein's 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its legendary rabble-rousing power."
How you view a film certainly effects your enjoyment of it. Because of its sweeping desert landscapes, Lawrence of Arabia does need to be seen wide-screen. But for a movie like The Apartment featuring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, watching at home with a bowl of popcorn between you and your wife works just as well, maybe even better. The film succeeds because of a funny yet poignant script and the interaction between two stars rather than because of cinematography. Yet the print of The Bicycle Thief available from the library in Michigan City was so murky it restricted my enjoyment. One of the first films we viewed was Beauty and the Beast, not the Disney animated version from 1991, but the Jean Cocteau black-and-white version from 1946. "Some movies a half century old don't seem old," I wrote in the margin of Roger's book. "This one did." Most recently a re-mastered version of the Cocteau classic appeared in theaters, earning obligatory four-star ratings from all the critics. I'm hopeful Jon Vickers books the film into his theatre later this fall.
With my movie-viewing odyssey only begun, Casablanca, remains my all-time favorite. Can Citizen Kane displace it? Maybe I'll make the Orson Welles movie the one hundredth of the one hundred Great Films I watch before deciding which film deserves being ranked at the top of my list. In the meantime: Here's looking at all those movies, kid.