Every Sunday, Old Ass Movies presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. You probably noticed it’s not Sunday, but we’re taking the opportunity to shine the light on five vintage films that played at this year’s Butt-Numb-a-Thon.
I’ve only slept for 8 of the past 48 hours, but the enthusiasm I feel for these films is difficult to numb even in the face of drastic sleep deprivation.
I know the talking cartoon elephant sitting next to me would agree.
Butt-Numb-A-Thon, the 24-hour movie festival celebrating the birthday of Aint It Cool founder Harry Knowles has been heralded as a Geek Christmas because of how incredible the experience is. My first was 7 years ago when Old Boy, Return of the King and early John Wayne spooky Western Haunted Gold graced the screen. That year is regarded as one of the best years on record, but the vintage choices this year – including a Gene Kelly musical, a classic noir that shaped most modern hitman movies, and an impossible to see Orson Welles flick – were devastating in their complete domination of year’s past.
Le Samourai (1967)
I’d only heard about this film through the many directors that mention it as an inspiration. Directors as diverse as John Woo and Jim Jarmusch. There’s also little doubt that Leon might not have existed without the influence of Le Samourai, and the film lives up to its slow burn hype.
It follows hitman Jef Costello (played by the steely Alain Delon) as he takes on a job only to be double-crossed. Costello may be the hardest character of screen history. He lives off of cigarettes and mineral water and can genuinely frighten a man (and an audience) by simply taking off his gloves.
There’s no doubt that the film moves at a deliberately slow pace, but it’s done deftly and creates a beautiful story held up by the crawling current. It’s absolutely brilliant.
On the Town (1949)
It’s a beautiful thing when a musical places a thin sheet over the raunchy behavior of its leads in order to feign purity and good, old fashioned gee-golly-ness. The subversive truth is that the film is about three sailors taking leave in New York City, and they have 24 hours to find dates. There is zero pretense as to what they want to spend that time doing, and it has nothing to do with being clothed or sober.
The music here is mostly forgettable even if the performances are great. Still, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly performing together is something not to be missed. Add in Ann Miller (who looks like she was built out of sex) and Vera Ellen, and the spell is complete.
Kelly plays a sailor smitten by the young woman chosen as ‘Miss Turnstiles’ for the subway’s odd monthly profile on attractive female riders. He bumps into her randomly and is determined to spend his precious time in the big city tracking her down. Fortunately, wacky antics ensue (which lead, obviously, to three grown men cross-dressing), and the lady cab driver they mix in with keeps trying to take Sinatra’s innocence by force. Seriously. If you’ve ever wanted to see a young Frank Sinatra worn down and coerced into intercourse, this is the heartfelt musical for you. It’s a lot of fun, and movie fans will get the added bonus of a few great inside jokes sprinkled throughout the singing and dancing.
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
It would be interesting to see if most modern politicians that evoke the Great Communicator’s name have ever seen Ronald Reagan in a movie. If they haven’t, here’s a prime chance. He plays Lieutenant George Custer alongside Errol Flynn’s JEB Stewart in the comedic drama retelling of the John Brown militia taking over Bleeding Kansas to spread their message of hate love and anti-slavery.
What’s fascinating here is the villain, played with sick intensity by Raymond Massey, is ultimately fighting for a highly noble cause. He’s just killing people and burning towns to the ground in order to achieve it. The man wants a war that will end slavery, and it looks like he’ll get it.
It’s a difficult ethos to get a handle on, and even the film seems to forget which side of slavery Brown is on from time to time, but the film is a great Western/Military/Historical Fiction with the right amount of comic relief and the odd 1940s skill of seeing the hero smile and wink charismatically after killing a bunch of people.
Plus, Reagan and Flynn ask the same woman to marry them at the same time. That woman is played by Olivia de Havilland, so, you know, it’s pretty understandable.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
When Harry announced that we’d be seeing a pristine print of the Charles Laughton version of this classic, about 1/4 of us in the theater lost our collective minds. This film is perfection in almost every single frame. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time was without a doubt my favorite part of BNAT this year – modern films be damned.
Laughton does more with silence and a few grunts than most actors can do with the full use of speech. The impressively grotesque make-up from Perc Westmore of course helps, but Laughton shines through the monster.
The film also takes liberties with the novel that change the game a bit but work incredibly well. The stakes are raised with the murder of Phoebus, and Esmerelda actually falls in love with Gringoire; both give the story more to fight for in the hope of a happy ending. The message here is also a drastically different one than the novel intended, but its one that can still resonate with modern audiences.
The action, the adventure, the religious bigotry, the scariest Little Dutch Boy haircut of all time, and the triumph of another human being bringing a beaten man a cup of water – this is one of the best movies of all time.
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
What’s most compelling about Chimes at Midnight (or Falstaff as it’s also known) is that Orson Welles completely bought into his own startling abilities as a writer/editor/director/actor. What’s most odd about it is the fact that it can’t be seen by most. It’s not on any home video format in the US (although it’s on Region 2 DVD in Spain and the UK), and even finding a print of the damned thing was apparently a massive chore.
This is a movie that demands to be seen by more people.
There is a mixed bag here, of course. It’s basically a large chunk of Shakespeare plays Frankensteined together to make a new familiar story. Welles plays the massive waste Falstaff who spends his time drinking heavily, speaking with wit and honesty, and looking like he’s about to have a heart attack. His lost friend Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) has taken to drinking and lounging around despite being the next in line for the crown. Together, they make for fantastic foils, especially when maturity has to take over because King Henry IV is slowly dying.
It’s really Prince Hal’s story, although Falstaff plays the constant of cowardice and frivolity. There are some phenomenal things done with the acting here, but there are also great moments of ego on display. Welles considered this his best work, and the quality is clear even through the meandering sections that play like the bad kind of fat. Over all, though, the story is grandly told, severely acted, and stands out as a film that could never be made today because it was barely finished even in its own time.