By Gerald Peary
Please don’t get on a plane for Thanksgiving. Avoid Covid by eating your turkey dinner before your computer screen, and watching — all free! — these handpicked classic movie entertainments.
Lifeboat (1940) — A minor Hitchcock effort but, as with Rope and Dial M for Murder, a fascinating experiment by the great director in creating cinema in a very confined space. Here it’s a lifeboat floating at sea. The most apolitical of directors signed on for this World War II Popular Front tome. A left-wing sailor, a socialite woman, a conservative millionaire, and a Black man join together to purge their lifeboat of a fascist spy hidden among them. The rich dame is the most commanding screen performance given by off-camera legend Tallulah Bankhead. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-jCLmR5aVE;
The More the Merrier (1943) — Director George Stevens delivered a topical tale about a housing shortage in Washington, DC, with charm and wit. It’s Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn together in one tiny apartment, the squeeze caused by each renting in turn a half of his/her half. Love enters the picture, and then the FBI. Four writers worked on the screwball screenplay, normally a disaster. Here the quartet of scenario chefs homogenized their talents for a smooth, sublime script: truly, the more the merrier. Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the best of the best here is daffy, throaty, feckless Arthur. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCx0ei2M5Sk
Love in the Afternoon (1957) — This Billy Wilder comedy was judged to be tired and flat when first released, but it deserves a reevaluation, even in a judgmental PC age. If one is generous, then this Spring (Audrey Hepburn) and October (Gary Cooper) Paris romance between a veteran playboy and a detective’s dreamy daughter is a buoyant, joyful escapade. Love in the Afternoon is as amiably plotted and beautifully written as a comedy from Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s hero. This was beginner’s luck for screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, who would continue to collaborate with Wilder on, among other prime films, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Si8c74ENwe4;
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) — Roger Corman got five weeks to shoot on English castle sets left standing from the prestige film Beckett, and drew on the expert cinematography of Nicholas Roeg, future director of The Man Who Fell to Earth. Here, a sleek, thin-mustached Vincent Price plays Poe’s Prince Prospero fairly straight and very wicked, burning down feudal villages, capturing fetching maidens, and treating serfs like serfs. When the Red Death comes to his land, Prospero cynically welcomes it, throwing an orgiastic grand ball and sneering at the danger. This is everyone’s favorite of Corman’s Poe adaptations, including the filmmaker himself. And the film is extraordinarily resonant in the age of Covid, as Prospero’s decadent revelers so resemble partying Republicans without masks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoWNkWKrlM4
The Seventh Bullet (1972) — A lively, energetic entertainment from Soviet days by Ali Khamraev, king of Uzbekistan filmmakers, in which a Communist message is wrapped inside a crackerjack Red western. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti ones were terrifically popular in the Soviet Union, and here Khamraev crafted his own wide-screen version using the vistas of his homeland. His hero, with the weasel eyes of Lee Van Cleef and the manic laugh of Toshiro Mifune, is a Red Commandant in the Leninist ’20s, going after the Muslim troops who have deserted him. The political issue was the perennial problem of convincing Muslims in the Soviet Union that their allegiance should be to Marxism, not Allah. But the tremendous popularity of this film has little connection to its didacticism, everything to do with the cool hero and cleverly staged battle scenes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRWXXZ8RzUE
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.