Harold and Maude (1971)
Harold (Bud Cort) is a well-off, isolated young man whose hobbies include pretending to kill himself and going to funerals – at one of these funerals, he meets a much older woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon), and the two strike up a friendship, with Maude teaching Harold to appreciate life more. The film starts out very well with its one-shot introduction that ends with Harold apparently hanging himself; the macabre elements of the story are made clear as the introduction proceeds, as is Harold’s isolation – Bud Cort shows off some great acting throughout, particularly in his facial expressions. The establishment of Harold’s life goes on for a while, however, and I was wondering what the point was until Maude was introduced. She immediately comes across as more cheerful and reflective – a very unconventional Manic Pixie Dream Girl – and it’s clear why Harold likes her: she teaches an appreciation for life without forcing anything down the audience’s throat. It’s nice to watch the relationship develop, and sad to learn about Harold’s motivations for his behaviour – though the whole thing is quite dull in parts, and I had mixed feelings about the ending.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
As the title suggests, we start with two strangers, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), meeting on a train. Guy is facing the problem of trying to divorce his wife so he can marry another woman – and Bruno just happens to raise the idea of how two strangers could each murder someone that the other wants dead and thus avoid being connected to the crimes. Without any actual approval from Guy, Bruno tracks down and kills Guy’s wife, then starts pressuring Guy to return the favour by killing Bruno’s father.
The character of Bruno is the highlight of the film: he’s such a fantastic character – in fact, he’s one of the best movie villains I’ve ever seen. As he starts talking to Guy, he’s smooth and charming, but you can also sense his dark side as he goes on. He’s forceful and forward, and while he does what he desires without restraint, he always thinks things through first. Following his murder of Guy’s wife – a scene which shows excellent cinematography with its stalking sequence, and the actual murder being reflected in the woman’s glasses – Bruno becomes almost like a ghost haunting Guy, appearing almost everywhere to demand that Guy fulfil his end of the “bargain”. You sympathise with Guy as he’s stuck in this impossible situation (if he just tells the police, Bruno will lie about his involvement), and I liked how when he finally explains things to his fiancee, she actually believes him, contrary to what you might expect in a movie. The third act provides a lot of tension – relating to the timing of a tennis match, of all things – and a thrilling climax. Overall, this has replaced North By Northwest as my favourite Hitchcock film (that I’ve seen so far).
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen, who directed and co-wrote the film, stars as a comedian named Alvy Singer, talking about his life and his failed relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). This, sadly, is the first film in my list that I really didn’t enjoy. I thought I was going to at first. It seems very creative, with things like Alvy incorporating his current self into his own flashbacks, and a shot that starts with the characters far away as they talk and gradually walking up to the camera. And things like this continue throughout the film – but they can’t change the fact that the actual content is BORING. There’s a lot of talking and rambling and very little of it is interesting. I thought I would like Alvy at first but his neurotic, inflexible behaviour soon became extremely tiresome. The timeline goes all over the place and I didn’t even bother trying to follow it because I was so disengaged. The only part of this so-called comedy that I found properly funny was when Christopher Walken’s character tells Alvy how he sometimes fantasises about deliberately crashing his car – and Alvy ends up being driven by him shortly afterwards. One of the worst things a film can be for me is boring – and I don’t recall being so bored by a film since An Ideal Husband.
The Third Man (1949)
Having been offered a job by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to Allied-occupied Vienna to meet him – only to find that Harry has recently been run over and killed. Martins remains in Vienna, talking to the people who knew Harry, and soon comes to believe that there’s more to the story than people are letting on. Watching this film, described as one of the British greats, I was initially concerned that it was another one I wasn’t going to “get”, but I needn’t have worried: I definitely got into it soon enough. It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s so good about it: ultimately, everything works to some degree. There’s stylish cinematography, with close-ups and lighting creating a mysterious and possibly threatening atmosphere: the final shot of the film is especially picturesque. I liked the fast and often tense zither-based score, though it sometimes feels out of place with what’s going on. The pacing is very good, and the intriguing conspiracy comes together bit by bit as Martins talks to more characters and is forced to look differently at his absent friend Harry; Martins seems alone in a potentially hostile environment and you do worry for him. And when Harry does appear onscreen, there’s some particularly good acting by Orson Welles. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes this film great: ultimately, everything works to some degree.
Before Sunrise (1995)
You know how Quentin Tarantino films often have characters just sitting around talking about various subjects for several minutes? Well, Before Sunrise is like that, only stretched into a 1.5 hour movie – and with romance instead of graphic violence. Our two main characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), get to talking on a European train; they are so taken with each other that Jesse suggests they both get off in Vienna and just wander around for the whole night until he has to fly home to America in the morning – which they do. And that’s the whole film. In fact, Jesse lampshades the concept at the beginning when he talks about his idea for a TV show that just documents 24 hour periods in the mundane lives of ordinary people.
Not only are Jesse and Celine’s conversations delivered very naturally, but unlike with Annie Hall, I actually wanted to hear what they had to say. There’s a lot of philosophical talk about things like death, the soul, and of course the nature of love. They talk about various beliefs and episodes in their lives which reveal the people they are. They have the kind of romance that you see in a movie and wish for, but it’s presented in a realistic way without being overblown: Jesse and Celine inspire and compliment each other, and while they have quite ordinary lives as movie characters go, they don’t run out of things to talk about – they’re still finding out new things about each other by the end. There’s a scene where they’re listening to a record in a booth and constantly avoiding eye contact with each other, as if thinking that they’ll end up kissing if they lock eyes for too long – and when they do become physically intimate soon afterwards, it’s very simple, tender and understated.
It isn’t long before you really want these two to stay together, but that’s not going to happen – that’s just how life works sometimes. When the sun starts coming up, it’s a sad feeling. After watching Jesse and Celine together for one night, maybe things would be different if they were together long-term and being tested by everyday occurrences (something that they bring up themselves more than once) – but what we do see is wonderful and touching. This is one of those films that can truly be called beautiful, and I’m definitely going to watch the sequels at some point.