Imagine films themselves, not their makers, went to film school. And imagine that the tenured professors in the classrooms and the untenured mentors hanging out in the halls or just off campus were films, too. Which films would they be? This is the analogy that keeps coming to mind as I dip again and again into the new book from Joe Leydon, an award-winning critic for Variety and other papers and, as it happens, an adjunct professor of film history himself. The title is a mouthful: Joe Leydon's Guide to Essential Movies You Must See If You Read, Write About - Or Make Movies. The idea behind the book is much simpler, though it'd also be easy to mistake for a more obvious one.
"Please understand," Leydon underlines right from the get-go, "Unlike most other books of its kind, this is not a purely subjective guide to the greatest movies of all time." Instead, the 65 titles he's chosen to write about are "the reference points, the defining terms, the standards of measure." Each film gets a couple of pages of (often very funny) discussion of its impact, followed by annotated mentions of three other films that bear the traces of the film at hand, plus a brief "lesson for filmmakers," more often than not a kicker of an anecdote. The tone is conversational and, like I say, frequently amusing. Example. Listing a few of the ways 2001 hasn't aged all that well, Leydon notes that, "It doesn't help that, when [Keir] Dullea awakens after a dazzling sound-and-light show, he finds himself trapped inside what looks like the spectacularly garish luxury suite of a Las Vegas hotel."
So is Citizen Kane one of the 65? Sure, but as Leydon writes in his very first sentence on the movie (you can practically see his arms flailing, waving you back), "don't let that scare you off." Between the same covers, see, is Flash Gordon, and, while it's hard to imagine that serial ever appearing in the next batch of Sight & Sound top tens, it's just as hard to imagine, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars as anything like the films they are if there hadn't ever been a Flash Gordon. That's where Leydon's choices come from: If movies were mentors, whose lessons, for better or worse, are we seeing and hearing in the current graduating class?
Over a period of several days during the run-up the holiday season - always one of the busiest for anyone who writes about movies - Joe Leydon was kind enough to take the time to be interviewed via email.
Hudson: Joe, one of the aspects of your book I've thoroughly enjoyed is the sort of historical context that doesn't come from books referencing each other, but rather, from personal experience. For example, of Annie Hall, you write, "even those of us who bought tickets to see it during its first-run engagements can all-too-easily forget what a risk-taking, rule-breaking stunner it seemed in 1977." Now, as someone in his mid-40s, someone who's among the "those of us" you're talking about, and someone who's seen countless variations of Annie Hall-ian moments (or entire sequences) pop up again and again in mainstream features, when I read that, I practically blurted out loud, "Exactly!"
How far back does this experience of witnessing film history unreel in "real time," so to say, go for you? And I'm guessing you've been a fan of movies all your life, but when did you realize how serious, how life-determining this fandom might turn out to be?
Leydon: I literally cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn't a movie buff. As for becoming a film critic - well, my father has to take some blame for that: He purchased a second-hand typewriter for me while I was still in grade school. And right away, I started to write mini-reviews of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) horror and sci-fi movies on index cards that I dutifully filed in a small green metal box.
(These mini-reviews, I should add, were very much in the style of the blurbs that were published in my favorite magazine of the time: Castle of Frankenstein. As an adolescent, I was inordinately proud when the magazine published my letter to the editor regarding, among other things, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace.)
But to address your question directly: In the Heat of the Night is the first movie that made me fully aware that movies would be more than a hobby for me for the rest of my life. And not just because it's the first movie I ever reviewed for my high school paper while growing up in New Orleans. It's also the first movie that made me appreciate just how powerful the medium can be. No kidding.
Scan a list of all the films Joe writes up in the first of what'll hopefully be more than a few volumes on the most influential movies of all time. A soundbite from Movies You Must See accompanies each title.
I saw In the Heat of the Night two or three times during its first-run engagement at a downtown moviehouse. (The Loews State on Canal Street, to be
specific.) But the epiphany didn't hit me until months later. Norman Jewison's racially-charged murder mystery was released in 1967, and picked up several Academy Awards during the April 10, 1968 Oscar ceremony. (Please remember the context for all this: The Oscarcast was delayed a couple of days out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated the previous week.) When In the Heat of the Night was reissued shortly after winning the Best Picture prize, I went to see it again at the Tiger Theater, a second-run house in a working-class neighborhood where, to put it charitably, folks were less than racially enlightened. Early in the evening, however, it occurred to me that most of the other ticket-buyers in the all-white audience might not share my enthusiasm for the film. And I felt my worst expectations would be fulfilled during the scene in which Rod Steiger's redneck police chief questions Sidney Poitier about a recent murder in a small Mississippi town.
Poitier had been arrested for the crime of being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the wad of cash in his wallet made him appear all the more suspicious in Steiger's eyes. "What do you do in Philadelphia to make that kind of money, boy?" Steiger demanded. "That's more than I earn in a month!" To which Poitier replied: "I am a police officer!" Uh-oh.
I thought - no, I was absolutely certain - the crowd would respond by yelling rude comments about "uppity" black people. Or worse. But instead, the audience cheered. Indeed, a few voiced their whole-hearted, full-throated approval of a proud black man's take-no-crap response to a surly Mississippi redneck. Which, in 1968, was a pretty extraordinary thing to happen in New Orleans, or anywhere else in the South.
And that's when it hit me: "My God! Movies can do this!" That is, movies can get people so excited, they can change the way people think. Or even make them feel something that they didn't expect or want to feel. And all of us can feel it together at the same moment.
I know, I know: That sounds simplistic and naïve. But for a 15-year old kid in the darkness of a New Orleans moviehouse, it was a seminal moment. And I'm sure moments like that are what make us fall in love with movies in the first place.
Hudson: Your description of one of Poitier's most powerful moments leads me to ask this next one: Were ever a "fan" at an impressionable age, or even later, of any particular actor or actors?
And I'd like to make it a two-fold question, if I may. In your discussion of Taxi Driver, you make an interesting observation: "De Niro has never been a 'movie star' in the traditional sense of the term. Audiences may respect him, and frequently are amazed by him, but they haven't been able, or willing, to warm up to the guy."
Though, on the one hand, I see your point - "you rarely get the feeling that he's enjoying himself" - I'd nevertheless like to respectfully disagree. Bananarama and the sheer swoonability of the young De Niro aside, I do think there was a time in his career, maybe just a narrow window, but an absolutely vital one - beginning with Mean Streets, peaking with The Godfather Part II, but also including Bertolucci's 1900, after which he starts to grow cold and distant - in which he did pretty much what you're suggesting he at least no longer does: connect. Brando made Vito Corleone and enthralling to watch, but De Niro made him human. (And stunning to look at as well!)
Leydon: Throughout most of my impressionable adolescence, I had a serious crush on Brit actress Hazel Court. I think it had something to do with the acres of heaving décolletage she displayed in such movies as Curse of Frankenstein, The Premature Burial and Masque of the Red Death. (Remember: I told you I was a horror movie buff.)
During roughly the same period, I began to follow the career of Michael Caine, still one of my favorites and, I would argue, one of the best film actors (if not the best) of his generation. Over the years, I've seen almost every feature in which he has starred - even obscure oddities like Deadfall and Kidnapped - and with very, very few exceptions, his performances have greatly impressed me, even when he's marking time and earning a quick buck in something dreadful. (Did I hear someone mention The Swarm?) Trouble is, he makes it look so easy that, even now, after two Oscars, he's criminally under-rated as an actor. I know I'm going out on a limb when I say this, but when he was the right age for the part, he could have played Travis Bickle. I don't think Robert De Niro ever could have played Alfie.
And speaking of Robert De Niro: Isn't it odd and ironic that, after three decades of being recognized as a great screen actor, he finally has become a kinda-sorta movie star? Unlike, say, Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas, who wanted to prove themselves in "serious" projects after establishing themselves as movie stars, De Niro was way into middle age, and deep into a career noted for acclaimed dramatic work, before he started cruising around in star vehicles. He has evolved - almost miraculously - into a snorting, slow-burning comic presence in all manner of broadly written farces (often while satirizing his own screen image). Even more miraculously, he's also proven himself as a genuine action hero in movies like Ronin and 15 Minutes. (Showtime represents a fusion of both extremes, I suppose.) Weird. Maybe most moviegoers couldn't warm up to him until after he started loosening up, kicking ass and/or making fun of himself.