It’s the big dilemma of the video age: You walk into the local rental store, see that all 60 copies of Ghost are rented out, and scan the aisles with dread. Thousands of titles stare you down, and you haven’t heard of one of them. How many bad movies can they make, anyway?
Wait a minute: Total obscurity doesn’t necessarily mean that a film is unworthy, merely that it’s unknown. In fact, there are movie treasures buried on the shelves of every video store. Lost classics hide behind lousy titles (I Walked With a Zombie has to be terrible, right? Wrong.) Neglected jewels suffer from hideous packaging; forgotten miracles are filed in the wrong section, because the stock-kid’s cultural memory stops at Young Guns 2. None of it matters: They’re still good movies.
Don’t believe us? Fine, we’ll prove it. On the following article, you will find 100 Great Movies You’ve Never Heard Of. You’ll also meet some of the great unknowns who made them. You’ll learn how bad things can happen to good movies, and how to unearth the gems of your choice when you can’t find them at the neighborhood Blockbuster. And maybe next time the new Tom Cruise of Schwarzenegger flick isn’t available, you’ll take home a mysterious stranger with surprising charms instead.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
A tense, claustrophobic thriller from the days when John Carpenter made good cheap movies, this is an imaginative urban update of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo: Cops and crooks band together for one night of survival when a guerrilla youth gang lays siege to an L.A. precinct house. From the moment one thug offhandedly kills a little girl (setting the plot in motion), the movie takes no prisoners.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
In a modern reworking of the classic Western, one-armed Spencer Tracy shows up in a Southwestern town that’s got something to hide, and it has to do with the treatment of Japanese- Americans during the war. Director John Sturges captures, mercilessly, what it’s like to be a stranger in an unfriendly town. Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine are astonishingly evil local villains.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch came out the year before, and audiences probably expected more slow-mo balletic violence from him. But Peckinpah decided, cinematically speaking, to ”go fishin”’ for fun. Jason Robards is an ornery prospector who builds a prosperous stagecoach stop and becomes an anachronism in his own time. It’s a story of individuality, set under spacious Western skies, that takes its own sweet time.
Most ’80s Westerns were bloated, jokey affairs. Not this unpretentious winner, which gave Willie Nelson his best role to date, as a desperado in the dusty Rio Grande valley. Gary Busey is a farm boy- turned- sidekick in Fred Schepisi’s fine, funny campfire tale of a movie.
La Bete Humaine (1938)
Every film buff worth his or her salted popcorn knows Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, but his feverish adaptation of the Emile Zola novel is just as gripping. A dark moral chiller in which railroad worker Jean Gabin is cajoled into murder by hot Simone Simon, Humaine is a key influence on Hollywood noirs like Double Indemnity — and its soul runs much deeper.
The Big Combo (1955)
”First is first and second is nobody” is the motto of racketeer and human slime Richard Conte in this flashy and often unforgettable crime flick set on the seamy side of the tracks. Cornel Wilde is the detective obsessed with putting him behind bars, and Jean Wallace is the society girl Conte keeps in sexual thrall. Surely one of the first movies to feature a pair of homosexual lovers who are also thugs.
Black Narcissus (1947)
Deborah Kerr leads a group of British nuns whose Himalayan outpost inflames their imaginations in ways not at all in keeping with vows of chastity. This smartly written, stunningly filmed, outrageously sensual psychology lesson was, like most films directed by the great British director Michael Powell, at least 20 years ahead of its time.
Brain Damage (1988)
A chatty parasitic slug attaches itself to human spinal cords and trades a hallucinogenic secretion for its prime dinner: fresh brains. This cheap, fast, gross, and extremely funny horror-comedy by Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker) manages to be both an antidrug parable and a sleazy B flick without losing its cool. That’s some kind of trashy feat.
The Brood (1979)
The title refers to the rampaging mutant spawn of Samantha Eggar, but it could just as well mean the dour tone of any horror movie from David Cronenberg (The Fly), in which the real source of terror lies in the ways our bodies betray us. For a cheap horror flick, The Brood echoes on levels you may not care to acknowledge.
Incendiary indeed. Marlon Brando gives one of his seductively mysterious performances as an agent provocateur sent by the British government to incite a slave uprising on a Caribbean island in the 19th century. Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s complex film is as remarkable for its steaming, sensual surfaces as for its sophisticated political thinking.
Candy Mountain (1988)
Codirected by esteemed still photographer Robert Frank and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Walker), this lovely shaggy-dog story takes a cocky kid from New York to the wilds of Canada in search of a reclusive guitar maker. On the way, he meets every musical eccentric from Buster Poindexter to Leon Redbone to Dr. John and finds a surreal stillness at road’s end.
Unpopular because of its frank treatment of unwholesome material, director William Wyler’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (not to be confused with Brian De Palma’s 1976 film) may contain Laurence Olivier’s best screen performance. As George Hurstwood, the married man who runs off with Carrie (Jennifer Jones), Olivier paints an almost unbearably painful portrait of dissolution. Carrie becomes a renowned actress as Hurstwood falls deeper into the abyss of himself.
A dark, eerie weepie made by French director Max Ophuls. Barbara Bel Geddes marries dashing, Howard Hughes-like millionaire Robert Ryan, but he’s revealed to be a sadistic egomaniac. By the time James Mason rescues her, she’s nearly bonkers, a martyr to her dime-novel dreams of romance.
Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979)
John Heard wants last year’s girlfriend, Mary Beth Hurt, back, and so what if she got married in the interim? Its studio originally released this film as Head Over Heels, but the truth lies between the two titles; this isn’t so much a cerebral film or a romantic comedy as it is a mature charmer about people using absurdity to keep loneliness from the door.
Comfort and Joy (1984)
Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth’s gentle comedy about a Glaswegian deejay whose life has slipped out of its normal groove is a true piece of eccentricity. A walking Murphy’s law, the music spinner gets caught in the cross fire between two underworld families fighting for rights to an ice cream concession — the oddest twist ever in the shoot-’em-up genre.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
What do you get when you mix Little Red Riding Hood, Sigmund Freud, The Werewolf of London, and Bruno Bettelheim, then toss in Angela Lansbury as Grandmama? This maze-like fantasy is a tart, luxurious marriage of medieval fairy tale and kinky coming-of-age symbolism, with a wild sense of play that offsets its sizable pretensions.
Criss Cross (1949)
Robert Siodmak directed this film noir hold-up movie with speed and surgical precision. Burt Lancaster is the slightly dopey armored-car guard who gets the dirt from a skirt — the extremely alluring Yvonne De Carlo as his duplicitous wife. The robbery itself, executed with the thieves wearing gas masks, is memorably surreal. And keep an eye out for a kid named Anthony (Tony) Curtis, making his movie debut.
Dancing Lady (1933)
The mind boggles: Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and the Three Stooges in the same movie? It’s as if the different levels of ’30s Hollywood stardom had suddenly collapsed into a wonderful ground-floor pigpile. The movie’s like that, too: a fine, weird MGM musical that runs the style gamut from Astaire’s lithe elegance to the Stooges’ socket-popping rowdiness.
Dark Star (1974)
If John Carpenter’s directorial debut looks like a low-budget student film, it is. It’s also a very funny sci-fi parody in which four astronauts and one dippy-looking alien go around the bend from boredom and lack of toilet paper. Presenting space travel as a never-ending car trip with people you used to like, it wickedly deflates the pomposity lurking behind almost every episode of Star Trek.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
This zippy prototype of post-apocalyptic-car- chase flicks offers something The Road Warrior and a zillion other clones don’t: a gleefully sophomoric sense of humor and a tough-guy antihero (Keith Carradine) with unexpected reserves of wit, tenderness, and humility. As competing drivers barrel across the U.S., racking up points by mowing down pedestrians, director Paul Bartel keeps the gore almost discreet, and Sylvester Stallone has a lowbrow field day playing Carradine’s boorish rival.
Bette Davis plays Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata while composer Alex Hollenius (Claude Rains, at his sneering best) destroys the stemware in a jealous rage. He’s furious because cellist Paul Henreid has returned and reclaimed Bette’s heart. This is wonderful old kitsch in which people always seem to be wearing evening clothes, gazing out at skyscrapers, and saying such things as, ”Oh please, don’t let’s make a scene.”
Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle) (1983)
A thinking person’s Mad Max, this first film from Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) is a remarkable post-holocaust play-off between a nice little guy and a big brute. There’s no dialogue (chemical weapons ruined the survivors’ vocal cords), but gleaming sepia photography and surreal touches like a rain shower of fish keep the viewer enthralled.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s brutally nasty cult thriller is perhaps the cheapest good movie ever made. A hitchhiker (Tom Neal) is picked up by a femme fatale (Ann Savage) and led down the road to ruin. The fun of Detour is its absurdly economical technique: The entire film appears to have been shot in a living room, yet this tumbledown shack of a movie works as a raw evocation of the noir spirit.
Made at a time when most films portrayed the middle-aged as cantankerous characters or cute ol’ fools — gee, sounds like today’s movies — this William Wyler drama remains one of the most clear-eyed cinematic views of mid-life in America. Walter Huston, as an industrialist dispirited by retirement and his failed marriage, conveys a lifetime of can-do idealism by trying to come to terms with its inadequacy — all played out on striking, Oscar-winning sets.
The girl on whom Lewis Carroll based Alice in Wonderland arrives in America at age 80 to participate in the author’s centenary. Once there, the elderly Alice (Coral Browne) is tormented by memories of Carroll (Ian Holm), who she realizes was passionately in love with her. This is one of the most profound movies ever made about the intermingling of art and life, and Holm is superb as the tormented, stuttering fantasist-mathematician.
A Fine Madness (1966)
Sean Connery took a break from Bondage to play an obstreperous, rambunctious Greenwich Village poet who likes to give the rest of the world a piece of his mind. Not normally a loose actress, Joanne Woodward really lets her hair down as his waitress wife. It’s a wonderfully daffy portrait of someone who believes his own publicity too much. Studio honcho Jack Warner thought Irvin Kershner’s satire “antisocial” and had it recut but still didn’t manage to destroy it.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
If the early ’50s were really so bland, how do you explain this screwy musical, designed and coscripted by Dr. Seuss himself? Lassie‘s Tommy Rettig plays a kid who dreams that his martinet piano teacher (Hans Conried) has imprisoned 500 boys in a Whoville-style castle for a recital on a piano the length of a freight train. From the kid’s surreal beanie to the Busby Berkeley-for-tots finale, Fingers is a triumph of gaga production design — a toy chest bulging with Technicolor strangeness.
Forbidden Zone (1980)
This genuinely twisted cult flick plays like a genetic recombination of Alice in Wonderland, Frank Zappa, and a Betty Boop cartoon. You get Herve Villechaize as the King of the 6th Dimension, Susan Tyrrell (Fat City) as his cheesy consort, and a lot of great old Cab Calloway music. Composer Danny Elfman, leader of Oingo Boingo, plays the Devil. Uncategorizable and incredibly cool.
49th Parallel (1941)
An epic thriller about Nazis on the run in Canada, of all places. When a U-boat runs aground in Hudson Bay, the German crew crisscrosses the continent, trying to sneak into an America that hasn’t yet entered the war. It’s as entertaining as propaganda gets, with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey popping up in guest shots.
A movie that dares to treat Valley girls as if they were humans? Like, sure. Actually, this first feature by Adrian Lyne (9 1/2 Weeks) is surprisingly touching as it watches four childhood pals heading in very different directions. Ex-Runaway Cherie Currie is the party girl hell-bent for meltdown, and Jodie Foster has the best of her teenage roles as Currie’s hardheaded best friend.
Get Crazy (1983)
This mindless teen comedy has a goofy, Airplane-esque spin. Set behind the scenes of a New Year’s Eve concert, it offers Lou Reed’s dead-on parody of Bob Dylan, Malcolm McDowell’s gleeful Mick Jagger imitation, Fabian and Bobby Sherman as villain Ed Begley Jr.’s henchmen, and more skewed cover versions of ”Hoochie-Coochie Man” than you can count. Gloriously dumb essential viewing.
Glen or Glenda? (1953)
Edward D. Wood Jr., the renowned Worst Director of All Time, made this scrappy docudrama about transvestism and transsexuality. Wood (here billed as Daniel Davis) plays the earnest hero, who adores his fiancée — but not as much as he loves her white angora sweater. The movie is as mind-bogglingly inept as Wood’s better-known Plan 9 From Outer Space, but it is also — in its brain-dead way — as personal a piece of cinema as anything Bergman ever made.
Good News (1947)
Need a pep shot? MGM’s perky college-campus musical works on the nervous system like a cup of sweet, milky coffee, which seems to be the strongest drink ever sampled by the movie’s squeaky-clean students. After Peter Lawford, the football star who’ll have to miss the big game if he flunks French, meets June Allyson, his just-this-side-of-snippy tutor, all their romantic and scholastic problems are resolved with a few fun production numbers.
Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
Hailed by critics in the same year that Coming Home and The Deer Hunter were released, Spartans looked beyond the anguish of individual Vietnam vets to examine the war’s fundamental tactical lunacy. Preferring a four-hankie catharsis to sober analysis, audiences stayed away in droves. That’s a shame: They missed one of Burt Lancaster’s best performances, as an embittered military adviser who in 1964 already sees the conflict’s inevitable downward arc.
Gun Crazy (1949)
A forerunner to Bonnie and Clyde, this crackerjack B movie features some of the most thrilling crime scenes ever staged. A sweet, small-town guy who is obsessed with guns (John Dall) comes under the spell of a femme fatale (Peggy Cummins), and the two are soon outlaws. During the getaways, director Joseph H. Lewis employs an uncanny you-are-there approach, planting the camera in the car and letting the actors speed for blocks.
Conchata Ferrell comes to work as a housekeeper for Rip Torn, a taciturn and stingy Scot, in the unrelenting Wyoming of 1910. This restrained period piece about the harshness of frontier life, based on a pioneer woman’s diaries, has so little talk that it’s almost like a silent movie. Like any good silent, however, the pictures speak volumes.
Hell in the Pacific (1969)
The paradisiacal setting of a lush South Seas island threatens to turn into Club Dead as two stranded World War II soldiers try to kill each other. A resourceful American (Lee Marvin) and a Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) who is his match are men of few words, but John Boorman’s direction is a textbook example of visual storytelling.
The Hidden (1987)
An excellent, extremely violent sci-fi thriller that joins The Terminator and Aliens as the best of the slick action-sci-fi movies of the ’80s. This one’s about a surly alien that jumps from human host to human host (and one dog host) while acting out its most psychopathic impulses. Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent is a dry run for Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks, but in this one he has a reason for being weird.
High and Low (1963)
Not till 1972’s The French Connection did Hollywood produce a detective thriller as gritty and sociologically attuned as this tour de force from Japan’s Akira Kurosawa. The title refers to the film’s two milieus: the luxurious home of a shoe-company executive whose chauffeur’s son is abducted, and the squalid haunts of the boy’s heroin-addict kidnapper.
High Tide (1987)
The title is perfect for this modern-day weepie from Australia: An irresponsible rambler (the great Judy Davis) gets stranded like a piece of post-’60s driftwood in the coastal town that holds the daughter she abandoned a decade before. Under the direction of Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), it’s a devastating portrait of a woman with nowhere to grow but up.
Hi, Mom! (1970)
One of the few counterculture satires that deserve to be called subversive, Brian De Palma’s comedy features the young Robert De Niro as a Vietnam vet who becomes a peeping tom porno filmmaker and, finally, a bomb-wielding anarchist. The movie has a scrappy, throwaway wit that has long since disappeared from De Palma’s work, and its centerpiece sequence — a theatrical revue called Be Black, Baby! — is as daring and perceptive a vision of racial discord as anything in a Spike Lee film.
The Hit (1984)
With this sly, unpredictable gangster yarn, The Grifters‘ Stephen Frears returned to movies after 13 years directing for British TV. Everything feels fresh: Terence Stamp as the stool pigeon at peace with his impending death, John Hurt as his confounded, world-weary assassin, Laura del Sol as a hooker with a bite like a horse, and the sweepingly gorgeous Spanish scenery they pass through.
Home of the Brave (1949)
Producer Stanley Kramer’s taboo- breaking portrait of a black WW II soldier, though somewhat dated in language and style, offers powerful insights into the psychology of racism and warfare. As a GI literally crippled by his platoon’s bigotry and his own guilt, James Edwards indelibly etches the sting of each insult, and Lloyd Bridges, as his buddy, conveys the well-intentioned but ineffectual goodwill of an entire American generation.
The most beautiful — and misunderstood — film from director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero). In a ravishing wilderness town high up in the Rockies, two orphaned sisters come under the care of their wacky, free-spirited aunt (Christine Lahti). The movie is a tragicomic portrait of a woman in touch with the noncomformist impulses of the ’60s a decade ahead of schedule. Lahti makes the blissed-out drifter at once a heroine and an irresponsible bum — and shows us that the two sides are inseparable.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The sourest and most deeply felt of the inside-Hollywood movies. As a paranoid screenwriter, Humphrey Bogart gives a scary performance that shows his tough mask cracking open to reveal a bitter neurotic. And what went through Nicholas Ray’s head as he directed scenes of Bogie breaking up with Gloria Grahame, knowing that his own marriage to Grahame was on the rocks?
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
That’s a lousy title for this voodoo chiller, one of the most spectral B movies ever made. Reworking the plot of Jane Eyre in a Haitian setting, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (both fresh from the original Cat People) bring their nurse-heroine, Frances Dee, into a plantation family cursed by lust, jealousy, and creepy zombie fever.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)
Practically cowering from the daylight in their Age of Cool shades, some all-time jazz greats gather at a tony Yankee seaport to play the music of city streets. In the process, this record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival takes on the same sort of quirky clean-cut naughtiness as early issues of Playboy. There has never been a jazz documentary more shamelessly gushy; in gorgeous long takes, director Bert Stern treats jazz musicians (including Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, and Anita O’Day) with the same smooth idol worship he brought to his Marilyn Monroe pinups. The result is just about as sexy.
The Killing (1956)
Years before he began making ”Stanley Kubrick movies,” the creator of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange directed this down-and-dirty caper picture, in which a pack of scuzzy crooks — Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr. among them — bring off a thrillingly elaborate racetrack robbery. Kubrick transforms the perfect-crime material into the screen equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle, leaping back and forth in time and showing the same scenes from many points of view.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Robert Aldrich’s nails-for-breakfast style is perfectly suited to the spirit of Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled prose as Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) goes after a gang smuggling atomic-energy secrets. From its disorienting opening to the apocalyptic finish at the beach house, the movie flashes nerve, verve, and curve balls.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Kirk Douglas is a lonesome cowboy who hates fences and seems to belong to another century. After escaping from jail he takes off on his horse, Whiskey, only to be pursued by a laconic, sympathetic sheriff (Walter Matthau) and a posse using a helicopter. This lovely, understated film, shot in beautiful, high-contrast black and white, has a real feeling for the cowboy’s stoic melancholy. And keep your eye on the truck driver, who one day would become Archie Bunker.
”Everybody’s lonely, worried, and sorry,” says tough gal Jane Russell, setting the tone for Josef von Sternberg’s moody action picture (partly reshot by an uncredited Nicholas Ray), set in the Portuguese-Chinese colony. Russell sings at a joint called the Quick Reward. Robert Mitchum is her companion in world-weariness. This was as hot and suggestive as it got in the ’50s.
Marked Woman (1937)
Warner Bros. was so nervy in the ’30s that it barely bothered disguising Bette Davis’ profession in this brutal crime melodrama. Based on the case in which mobster Lucky Luciano was brought down by his hookers, Marked Woman bristles with protofeminist cynicism: Their boss is a sadist, and DA Humphrey Bogart’s a wimp, so Davis and her working-girl friends walk into the fade-out by themselves.
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Two gangsters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) engage in a soul-searching, all-night talkathon. The sparring is springy and fun, and after a while, it becomes clear that one of the fellows is trying to finger the other. Directed by Elaine May, this explosive comedy is done in the improvisational style of Cassavetes’ own films — and it’s a more successful example than many of his efforts.
Miracle Mile (1989)
Anthony Edwards makes a date with the girl of his dreams (Mare Winningham), only to discover that nuclear war is an hour away. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Directed for maximum love-it-or-hate-it appeal by whiz kid Steve DeJarnatt, Miracle posits that Armageddon will look like an epic shopping-mall riot. It’s that rare thing indeed, a slapstick tragedy.
Mixed Blood (1985)
The only movie with a scene set in a store devoted to Menudo merchandise, Paul Morrissey’s drug-war revenge comedy is so deadpan that it barely has a pulse. But Marilia Pera is a campy stitch as the leader of a drug gang in New York’s Alphabet City, and the Bowery-Boys-on-smack dialogue has the loopy, vicious ring of truth.
Monkey Business (1952)
Not the 1931 Marx Brothers film, this little-known gem from Howard Hawks is probably the last great screwball comedy. Scientist Cary Grant and wife Ginger Rogers accidentally drink a youth serum, and while the results are a little predictable (imagine Cary in a letter sweater), the timing and performers make it screamingly funny. There’s a young Marilyn Monroe as a bonus.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
A movie that confounds all expectations. Constance Towers, a hooker who arrives in a small town pretending to be a champagne saleswoman, reforms, and begins working with handicapped children. She marries the town millionaire, who’s not exactly what he seems either. Written and directed by Sam Fuller in a sensationalistic style that would leave the editors of The National Enquirer slack-jawed.
The Naked Spur (1953)
James Stewart, seeking a bounty, tries to bring killer Robert Ryan back to justice in Anthony Mann’s complicated morality tale as Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, and Millard Mitchell get in the way. This is vigorous moviemaking — with stunning Rockies scenery and thoughtful characterizations — wrapped as tightly as a tourniquet.
Near Dark (1987)
What’s remarkable about Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire revamp is how thrillingly mean it is. Reassembling several Aliens alumni as a blood-hungry family barreling through the Midwest in a van, Dark has the despair of a great country tune and the acid humor of a sick joke (as when one of the undead says of a redneck victim, ”Ah hates it when they shaves”).
Writer Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful) has turned his memories of small-town Texas into a whole cycle of plays and films; 1918 is the heart of the bunch. Hallie Foote, playing her own grandmother, is a newlywed caught in the deadly flu epidemic of that year; Matthew Broderick is her brother. It’s a home movie, in a sense, but the family is fascinating and the events indelibly moving.
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Questions like ”Is it good or bad?” get left in the dust as you watch this lulu, directed by author William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist). The new head of an Army nuthatch (Stacy Keach) turns out to be crazier than his wards, but the plot soon gives up in favor of bizarre philosophical exchanges and inscrutable passions. It’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest turned inside out.
On Dangerous Ground (1951)
It only sounds dreadful. Robert Ryan is a sadistic New York detective, sent upstate to investigate a murder, who carries around a hatred for everyone, including himself. Ida Lupino is a blind woman at a lonely farmhouse who helps him find his humanity. Nicholas Ray’s strikingly composed film, mostly shot in the flare of rural snow, is tough, taciturn, and finally very tender.
One-Eyed Jacks (1960)
The only movie Marlon Brando ever directed, this psychological Western epic, in which an outlaw (Brando) seeks vengeance on a friend (Karl Malden), was greeted as a pompous, oddball failure. One-Eyed Jacks is nothing less than the first fully enlightened Western, and its sprawling, contemplative portrait of an America in which courage and camaraderie no longer hold sway makes it a neglected precursor to the cinema of Sam Peckinpah.
Over the Edge (1979)
Set in a suburb as sterile as a moon colony, Jonathan Kaplan’s juvenile-delinquent fable was the first film to update the James Dean ethos to the permissive ’70s, when the conventional forms of teen rebellion had been co-opted. It’s about junior-high kids who spend their summer vacation guzzling whiskey and playing with guns. Matt Dillon is terrific as the glamorous bad kid who leads the hero astray.
Paris Blues (1961)
In the Left Bank jazz club where trombonist Paul Newman and saxman Sidney Poitier wail, Paris seems a doped-up wonderland of racial harmony and free love. So guess what happens when smitten tourists Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward argue that they’d all be happier back in the States, leading civil rights protests and mowing the lawn? Duke Ellington’s score grooves all the way to the big brush-off.
This little number leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, which probably explains why it came and went so fast in theaters. Rip Torn does wonders with the role of an addicted, low-rent country singer on tour. The movie, fueled by dead-on dialogue, follows Torn on his bender of self-destruction without either judgment or self-righteous message-making. The effect is truly frightening.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Producer-director Michael Powell effectively destroyed his career with this grotesque portrait of a camera-obsessed killer. British critics were outraged by it, and with good reason: Powell forces viewers to acknowledge the prurient kick they get from cinematic violence, making them accomplices to Carl Boehm, who murders women to capture their terrified expressions on film. Peeping Tom holds a mirror up to the audience to create a disturbing meditation on voyeurism.
Personal Best (1982)
Screenwriter Robert Towne’s debut as a director is both a visual celebration of women athletes and an insightful look at the relationship between competing runners Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly. One of the better sports movies ever, it’s also the sole mainstream film of the early ’80s to handle homosexuality without either hysteria or coy timidity.
The Plague Dogs (1982)
A dark, terrifying, and heartbreaking tale of two dogs who escape from a laboratory that is carrying out cruel experiments on animals only to enter an equally fierce landscape, this may be the most disturbing animated film ever made. The animals take on the sympathetic personalities of humans, who in turn lack the simplest decencies.
Point Blank (1967)
John Boorman’s hallucinatory gangland melodrama is a cross between an early-’50s film noir and a late-’60s LSD flick. Mobster Lee Marvin, left for dead by wife and partner, comes back for revenge in an L.A. that looks like a harsh vision of hell. A welter of crazy style and provocative content, this could be the only film besides Jacob’s Ladder in which the hero may already be dead.
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
There’s a giant pterodactyl living in the Chrysler Building, picking off New Yorkers for lunch. Cops David Carradine and Richard Roundtree want to know why window washers are losing their heads, and Michael Moriarty is the cheeseball who finds the nest and holds the city for ransom in this hilarious tabloid sci-fi/horror film.
The Revolt of Job (1983)
A Jewish couple (Ferenc Zenthe, Hedy Temessy) adopt a Christian child (Gabor Feher) in Hungary just before the Holocaust engulfs them. Quietly harrowing, the film is played out in a leisurely rhythm against the hazily gorgeous Hungarian landscape. But its real achievement is to show the progress of love between the couple and the child without ever resorting to easy, tried-and-true ways.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Few directors have caught the poignance of the passing of time as well as Sam Peckinpah. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are former lawmen whose professions are antiquated in the changing West and who are given one last chance to prove their worth. This drawling, droll, and sometimes violent character study brings out the beauty of the American landscape in color the way photographer Ansel Adams did in black and white.
Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Don Siegel’s tense, hard melodrama is far more than just a ”prison movie.” There are good guys and bad guys on both sides of Riot’s jailhouse standoff, but in the end the issue dividing them against each other (and themselves) is simply power. The Folsom Prison locale and no-star cast add to the brutal matter-of-factness.
The Saga of Anathan (1953)
Almost two decades after his seven shimmering films with Dietrich, director Josef von Sternberg made this final, bizarre one-shot, filmed in Japanese with a Japanese cast and crew. Based on a true incident in which 12 sailors and a woman were marooned on a desert island, Anatahan is a mocking distillation of the director’s lifelong themes of human folly and the cruelties of romance. It’s a gorgeously shot, almost unbearably sensual movie.
Saint Jack (1979)
Moviegoers had just about given up on Peter Bogdanovich when he came through with this character study of Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara), an American pimp in early-’70s Singapore whose decency surprises even him. Denholm Elliott gives the performance of his career as a thoughtful, burnt-out businessman, and the film has the moody sense of business being transpired at midnight.
Say Amen, Somebody (1983)
A feverishly infectious documentary on gospel singers, this movie has sensational performances that make the joint jump with joy. ”Gospel,” says one of its oldest practitioners, Willie Mae Ford Smith, a mammoth woman with flashing gold teeth and a smile as wide as the Mississippi, ”is a feeling that comes from somewhere between the bone and the marrow.” Amen, sister.
Secret Honor (1984)
Robert Altman’s film of Philip Baker Hall’s one-man show is an outrageous affront to the American Presidency. Taking the Nixon we discovered in the Watergate tapes and exponentially increasing the fear and loathing, Hall creates a drunken dark-night-of-the-spleen monologue that’s hilarious and terrifying. It’s the far side of every politician’s grin.
The Sender (1982)
The public had tired of telekinesis by the time this stylish, often subtle, and very underrated horror film came out. Zeljko Ivanek gives a sensitive performance as a suicidal young man brought to a psychiatric hospital, where he transfers his bad thoughts to the institute’s population. The theme of repressed rage and fear lends a dramatic believability to his powers.
Shack Out On 101 (1955)
A one-set camp classic that gives you Lee Marvin as a Communist short-order cook named Slob, Keenan Wynn doing calisthenics on a diner counter, Whit Bissell recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Terry Moore acting with her pointy ’50s bra as the hash-slinging heroine who finds a Red in every bed. Good bad movies don’t get better than this.
The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
Sardonic stylist Josef von Sternberg, flat on his back from an infection, directed this nougat of Hollywood kitsch from a cot, and the film feels like the director had more blood rushing to his brain than usual. Ona Munson is all 10-inch fingernails as Mother Gin Sling, proprietress of Shanghai’s most depraved casino, and Gene Tierney is memorably petulant as Poppy, the debutante gone crazy on sex and drugs and sin. Then there’s Victor Mature in a fez as ”Doctor Omar.” It’s von Sternberg’s loosest film, and his loopiest — a passionate, demented, richly entertaining piece of nonsense.
Michael Ritchie’s behind-the-scenes satire set at a ”Young American Miss” competition was a flop in ’75, too cynical for those who like beauty pageants, too humane for those who don’t. But it’s a wonderfully wry, insightful movie, with a cast worth a look by itself: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd, and especially a young Annette O’Toole.
Like a rambling Johnny Cash story-song, this slice of life is stronger on good-natured feel than actual plot. You won’t mind, though. Willie Nelson essentially plays himself as the musician outlawed from the Nashville establishment and his own home, and Kris Kristofferson is the ex-partner he hooks up with again. Alan Rudolph directs with a relaxed touch.
The Stepfather (1987)
Character actor Terry O’Quinn is impressively screwy as a bland charmer with Father Knows Best on the brain and a dead family in every town. Directed by Sleeping With the Enemy‘s Joseph Ruben, this white-knuckle special never mistakes itself for anything but a taut, creepy-funny B screamer. That’s to its credit.
Straight Time (1978)
In Dustin Hoffman’s most unappreciated performance, he plays a compulsive, small-time crook who is released from prison and can’t get the hang of living in the straight world. Hoffman captures the desperate logic that drives such antisocial hoods as Gary Gilmore — men who keep breaking the law because they just don’t see it as real.
Robert Altman helps detonate the verbal grenades in David Rabe’s smotheringly claustrophobic play set in a Virginia Army barracks, where several young men nervously await transfer to Vietnam. Matthew Modine leads an exemplary cast in this distressing drama of how violence and inhumanity thrive in any setting. Moral: War, like charity, begins at home.
This portrait of homeless Seattle street kids is the rare documentary with the dramatic power of great fiction: It’s like a cinema verité version of The Lower Depths. The movie puts us agonizingly close to the numb resilience and stunted dreams of adolescents who sell their bodies and eat out of Dumpsters to survive. These faces will haunt you for years — especially Tiny, the 14-year-old prostitute whose eerie, downturned smile already conveys the experience of the damned.
The Tenant (1976)
Roman Polanski directs and stars in this funny, sometimes terrifying thriller about a Polish expatriate who moves into a Paris apartment and begins to have delusions about his sinister neighbors. The third chapter in his apartment-house trilogy (after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), this is the most personal. Polanski’s performance is a masterpiece of masochism: He burrows deep into the private, festering dread that drives people to suicide.
They Live by Night (1949)
The first film made by Nicholas Ray, this is a stunner. Later remade by Robert Altman as Thieves Like Us, Night stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as young hicks in love and on the lam. Ray’s original gets the nod for doomed romance, though, and the forgotten O’Donnell is incredibly affecting.
Ticket to Heaven (1981)
Ever wonder what it would be like to become a Moonie? Check out this riveting psychodrama about an ordinary guy (Nick Mancuso) made vulnerable by the loss of his girlfriend, who is seduced into the communal, accepting circle of the Heavenly Children. Made in Canada, it’s perhaps the only movie that truly evokes the frightening psychology of modern cults.
Track 29 (1988)
Critics didn’t know how to take this surreal puzzler directed by Nicolas Roeg, but that’s because they’re used to thinking of movies as the director’s creation. This film starts to make sense only if you know the work of its writer, Dennis Potter. Like The Singing Detective, it’s a reality-versus-pop culture black comedy, about a housewife (Theresa Russell) who imagines that the baby she gave up years ago has returned as randy, spooky Gary Oldman.
Twice Upon a Time (1983)
A PG-rated cartoon fable about a despot out to give the world permanent bad dreams that’s filled with nightmare images and adult wordplay? No wonder family audiences said ”pass” to this fantasy from executive producer George Lucas. It’s too abstract for grade-schoolers, but teens and grown-ups who like fairy tales with a Pythonesque, warp-speed edge should enjoy it happily ever after.
Under Fire (1983)
The most human political thriller in years, this look at three journalists (Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy) in Nicaragua manages to score all its points and still be engrossingly suspenseful. Even the romantic subplot doesn’t seem stupid. The Year of Living Dangerously came out the same year and is better known, but Fire has fewer frills and a becoming directness.
Used Cars (1980)
Good-taste guardians have always hated this raunchy, high-spirited comedy, and that’s all to the good. Kurt Russell is lovably venal as a car salesman with a down payment on political office, and the consistently rude script is consistently hilarious. Director Bob Zemeckis went on to the glossier Back to the Future trio and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but this film is their equal in both laugh count and sheer spunk.
Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
A cult has already formed for this outrageous black farce about a Manhattan trendoid (Nicolas Cage) who slips into insanity and thinks he’s a vampire. The gag is that no one notices until it’s way too late. It’s another caustic slapstick money-loser from the pen of Joseph Minion, with a demento Cage performance that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Three ambitious newspaper employees (Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders) vie to crack the case of the ”Lipstick Killer,” a leather-clad mother hater who is stalking their metropolis. Fritz Lang’s dirty little urban drama is a sleazy roundelay where everyone sleeps around for advancement and the compulsion for personal power within the press is revealed as the embryo of totalitarianism.
Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978)
The dumb title certainly contributed to its initial failure. But Karel Reisz’s adaptation of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, about the corruptive effects of the Vietnam war, is taut, tense, bitter, and unremittingly cynical — you just gotta love it. Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, and Michael Moriarty make up one of the cinema’s oddest ménages à trois as they try to move two kilos of heroin Stateside and are chased by drug dealers.
Withnail & I (1987)
A tour de force by British actor Richard E. Grant, who plays a boozing, unemployed actor named Withnail — an impossibly narcissistic leech who never stops talking (or drinking). The movie, about how this irredeemable lout falls apart during a muddy weekend in the country, captures the toxic excess of the late ’60s with a clear-eyed purity and humor that put Oliver Stone’s The Doors to shame.
One of the craziest movies ever made, John Boorman’s campily imaginative, ravishing sci-fi fantasy is set in the year 2293 in a place called the Vortex, where women are Amazons and men are nervous (and impotent). Along comes the very potent Sean Connery, ready to penetrate the Vortex in general and Charlotte Rampling in particular. Only the helplessly humorless wouldn’t be enchanted.
A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
Five years before Peter Greenaway cooked up The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, he made this provocative inquisition into love, death, physical decay, Vermeer, zoos, and the alphabet. With a plot that resonates but never resolves, and camera work that gorgeously uncovers the horrors of nature, Zed is chilly, beguiling gamesmanship-perfect for people who love really hard crossword puzzles.
Written by: Ty Burr, Owen Gleiberman, Steve Daly, and Lawrence O’Toole.
Where to Go Digging for Video Treasures
If some of these video treasures are so rare, how are you supposed to find them? Try asking your local video store to special-order a title. Most retailers will cooperate — provided that you promise to purchase the tape upon arrival.
If you’d rather rent a movie than purchase one (some titles can cost up to $100), turn to a mail-order club. Several rent videos through the mail at rates comparable to those of the chains, plus the price of round-trip postage. The Home Film Festival carries 1,500 titles, many for as little as $3.50 plus postage for three nights, with a membership cost of $10. The Video Library offers more than 11,000 titles at a rate of $5 plus postage for three nights. Membership is free.
To purchase a tape by mail, try Movies Unlimited, a mail-order dealer of everything from vintage movies to instructional videos.
Written by: Taehee Kim