If you thought my tribute yesterday was going to be the last thing I did for Roger Ebert’s passing, you’ve got another thing coming. One of my favorite things to do right after watching a classic film for the first time (or second, or third, or fourth) is to check Ebert’s Great Movies series and see if he had an entry for that movie. His conversational writing style always had a way of clarifying thoughts I already had about a film, or sparking new avenues of consideration – but ultimately in a way that didn’t substitute his opinion for my own, as can sometimes happen with more forceful, single-minded critics. I might not respond in the same way to a film, might find it more or less worthy of praise, but I could always see where he was coming from.
But for the films on this list, anyway, we were in total agreement. As we continue to revisit Ebert’s life and work, I thought I would blatantly steal an idea from In Contention’s Kris Tapley and provide some particularly meaningful passages by Ebert on my personal favorite films of all time (so this list can double as a tribute and a peak inside my own tastes). All of the following come from his Great Movies series, links to the full essay provided.
12 Angry Men (1957)
“This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism–the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, “12 Angry Men” was lean and mean.”
“The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion.”
“Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of “Casablanca” is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.”
Do the Right Thing (1989)
“A pizzeria does not equal a human life, but its loss is great to Sal, because it represents a rejection of the meaning of his own life, and Spike Lee knows that, feels bad for Sal, and gives him a touching final scene with Mookie in which the unspoken subtext might be: Why can’t we eat pizza, and raise our families, and run our businesses, and work at our jobs, and not let racism colonize our minds with suspicion?
[…] The thing is, there are no answers. There may be heroes and villains, but on this ordinary street in Brooklyn they don’t conveniently turn up wearing labels. You can anticipate, step by step, during a long, hot summer day, that trash can approaching Sal’s window, propelled by misunderstandings, suspicions, insecurities, stereotyping and simple bad luck. Racism is so deeply ingrained in our society that the disease itself creates mischief, while most blacks and whites alike are only onlookers.”
“The wisdom in “Eternal Sunshine” is how it illuminates the way memory interacts with love. We more readily recall pleasure than pain. From the hospital I remember laughing nurses and not sleepless nights. A drunk remembers the good times better than the hangovers. A failed political candidate remembers the applause. An unsuccessful romantic lover remembers the times when it worked.”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
“Few films have such an overwhelming sense of location. Presbyterian Church is a town thrown together out of raw lumber, hewn from the forests that threaten to reclaim it. The earth is either mud or frozen ice. The days are short and there is little light inside, just enough from a gas lamp to make a gold tooth sparkle, or a teardrop glisten. This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. They have been here for a long time. They know all about one another.”
“The movie has been described as “outrageous satire” (Leonard Maltin) and “messianic farce” (Pauline Kael), and it is both, and more. What is fascinating about Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay is how smoothly it shifts its gears. The scenes involving Beale and the revolutionary “liberation army” are cheerfully over the top. The scenes involving Diana and Max are quiet, tense, convincing drama. The action at the network executive level aims for behind-the-scenes realism; we may doubt that a Howard Beale could get on the air, but we have no doubt the idea would be discussed as the movie suggests. And then Chayefsky and the director, Sidney Lumet, edge the backstage network material over into satire, too–but subtly, so that in the final late-night meeting where the executives decide what to do about Howard Beale, we have entered the madhouse without noticing.”
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
“Mitchum is uncannily right for the role, with his long face, his gravel voice, and the silky tones of a snake-oil salesman. And Shelly Winters, all jitters and repressed sexual hysteria, is somehow convincing as she falls so prematurely into, and out of, his arms. The supporting actors are like a chattering gallery of Norman Rockwell archetypes, their lives centered on bake sales, soda fountains and gossip. The children, especially the little girl, look more odd than lovable, which helps the film move away from realism and into stylized nightmare. And Lillian Gish and Stanley Cortez quite deliberately, I think, composed that great shot of her which looks like nothing so much as Whistler’s mother holding a shotgun.”
Rear Window (1954)
“Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw–all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.”
“In “Rear Window,” Jeff is not a moralist, a policeman or a do-gooder, but a man who likes to look. There are crucial moments in the film where he is clearly required to act, and he delays, not because he doesn’t care what happens, but because he forgets he can be an active player; he is absorbed in a passive role.”
Some Like It Hot (1959)
“Wilder’s 1959 comedy is one of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft, a movie that’s about nothing but sex and yet pretends it’s about crime and greed. It is underwired with Wilder’s cheerful cynicism, so that no time is lost to soppiness and everyone behaves according to basic Darwinian drives. When sincere emotion strikes these characters, it blindsides them: Curtis thinks he wants only sex, Monroe thinks she wants only money, and they are as astonished as delighted to find they want only each other.”
“And watch the famous scene aboard the yacht, where Curtis complains that no woman can arouse him, and Marilyn does her best. She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.”
The Third Man (1949)
“Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies. I saw it first on a rainy day in a tiny, smoke-filled cinema on the Left Bank in Paris. It told a story of existential loss and betrayal. It was weary and knowing, and its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured. Seeing it, I realized how many Hollywood movies were like the pulp Westerns that Holly Martins wrote: naive formulas supplying happy endings for passive consumption.”