By Craig Leask
The term “Greatest Films” troubled me when I was first presented with this topic as an “assignment”. My stress is based upon the concept that creating such a list is entirely subjective. Could these be my “Desert Island” films? Are these the films that were the most ground breaking? Most controversial? Most thought provoking? Well, as my bent on the topic of film is based on set design, production techniques and effects, these are the aspects of a film to which I gravitate. So understand my list may not necessarily be as philosophical, directorially superior, or a “moral game changer” as some of my colleague’s choices. These are the films I consider my top ten (although, like my colleges I could come up with dozens of runner ups and my list could change tomorrow as new films are released or I recall additional films I had previously forgotten.)
10. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
One reason Gone with the Wind made my list is the fact that the picture really never should have been completed in the first place, let alone becoming the critical and financial success it became. The other reason is that it is a brilliantly and flawlessly detailed epic of a film.
Based upon Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel, the story, when broken down to its raw core, is a brilliant study of a deservedly dying way of life fighting to stay the same in an evolving world. Initially set in the beautiful Georgia plantations of 1861, Gone with the Wind portrays an era of classic gentility, where proper women in flowing gowns are pursued by suitable and appropriately attired gentlemen, all living a life of leisure. Like a movie set supported behind the scenes by an enormous and unseen crew, the gentile lifestyle of the characters is sustained by a well-organized system based entirely on slave labour. Gone with the Wind is based on the real-life termination of this unsuspecting society with the onslaught of the Civil War. Although slavery was an integral part of the 1860 economy in the south and the basis of the Civil War, the negative stereotyping of black slaves portrayed in Gone with the Wind is one of the reasons the films has been losing its stature.
The two and a half year endeavour to develop Gone with the Wind (planning, writing, pre-production, casting, production, editing, etc.) was a complete and utter mess comprised of conflicting egos, countless versions of the script (which continued to change daily throughout production) and a virtual revolving door of directors, cinematographers and screen writers.
In fact, both the chaos and the brilliance of Gone with the Wind, are both due to the involvement of Producer David O. Selznick in every aspect of the movie – casting, planning, filming editing, writing – even involving himself in the costuming. Fueled by excessive amounts of prescription drugs (predominantly Benzedrine and barbiturates) Selznick developed an obsession with the details. This use of amphetamines allowed Selznick to work 22-hour days, which he also demanded of his team. It is unfortunate to say, but Selznick’s excessive use of over the counter prescriptions, while wreaking havoc on the set, the cast and the crew, was responsible for creating the exquisite details of one of the most cinematographically perfect films of all time.
9. MRS. MINIVER (1942)
Mrs. Miniver makes my list as it’s one of those perfect movies where timing is everything. It was the right film at the right time. Based upon the 1940 Jan Struther novel of the same name, with production commencing soon after the book’s release, the timely story depicts the effects of World War II on an ordinary British middle-class housewife and her family.
Many movies have been produced showing the horrors of war (Patton (1970), The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957) and Dunkirk (2017)) and on soldiers returning home (The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and the Vietnam War drama Coming Home (1978)). Few have been as successful in depicting the effects on the home life during such trying times as Mrs. Miniver. The key may be due to the fact that the movie was conceived and filmed while the world was at war and the stress, fear, sacrifice and atrocities were real facets of daily life.
The timing of production (fall 1940) meant the movie was set prior to the US entry into the Second World War. As the script developed and moved closer to fruition, so too did America in moving closer to joining the war effort. In fact, the production of Mrs. Miniver was well underway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. This major change in world events resulted in the immediate need to re-write and re-shoot completed scenes to keep up with rapidly changing alliances. The final version of the ever-evolving script and plot line now mirrored a new US – British alliance and furthered anti-German sentiment. Scenes filmed post Dec 7, 1941 no longer concentrated on the fear and uncertainty facing a nation at war. The spirit of the film now reflected a tough new resistance, a spirit of national pride and the emergence of a nation of strength and stamina.
The film was released July 3, 1942, three years prior to the end of the war. The timing of the film’s release had an unanticipated effect on a world in crisis. The movie had a major impact on the morale of the allies and, at the request of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Vicar’s (Henry Wilcoxon) speech in the final moments of the movie was immediately broadcast over “The Voice of America in Europe” radio programme. Additionally, also at Roosevelt’s request, this same speech was translated into numerous languages and air dropped over parts of Europe occupied at the time by the Germans. Mrs. Miniver to this day, is cited as a pivotal film which helped to mobilize the United States in its defense of the Allies.
8. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Sunset Boulevard makes my list as it was the first black and white film I was absolutely mesmerized by. Directed by Billy Wilder and released in 1950, it is the tale of old Hollywood, a delicious crumbling mansion, and an aging and forgotten silent movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). How could you not fall in love with this one?
After years out of the public eye, Norma Desmond, the star of the silent era and focus of the film, has unrealistic ambitions of making a celebrated comeback to the screen. Her fragile mental state and unrealistic aspirations are beautifully paralleled in the crumbling walls of her once beautiful estate. The story paints the picture of a changing Hollywood and struggling writers and actors clamoring for their big break. The youthful optimism of the supporting characters is played out in direct contrast with the desperation of an aging actress who had it all, and is clamoring to get it back.
What enhances my enjoyment of the film is Swanson herself who was playing close to character in the movie. She had been one of the most famous stars of the silent era and, like her character, lived in an extravagant mansion on Sunset Boulevard in the 1920’s and was said to have received 10,000 letters a week from devoted fans. And, like her character, Gloria Swanson had difficulty in making the transition from silent films to talkies. But Swanson was also delusional like Norma. She saw the character as a terrific opportunity to stretch her skills as an actress and be front and center in a major Hollywood production. To address the perceived age difference between the characters Desmond and Gillis, Swanson wouldn’t accept the directors desire to make her look older. Instead, she successfully campaigned to have Holden made up to look younger so her character could still appear somewhat youthful and attractive.
To me, the attractiveness of Sunset Boulevard, beyond the fascinating subject matter and the delicious portrayal of characters, is in the shadowy atmosphere Wilder and his team capture. The brilliant cinematography is to the credit of John F. Seitz who was nominated by the Academy for his efforts on this movie. Seitz utilized such stylistic tricks as peppering the air in front of the camera with dust to add to the feeling of stuffiness within the Desmond mansion. Seitz and Wilder even captured the perfect shot of a dead Joe Gillis floating in the pool, by placing mirrors on the pool floor and shooting the reflection from above. This created a perfect, somewhat distorted image of Gillis, framed by the liquid images of policemen peering into the pool. Film Noir at its absolute best!
7. MARY POPPINS (1964)
For those who know me, know I could not create a definitive list of my top ten movies without including something from Walt Disney. Of the 523 (and counting) feature length animated and live action movies created throughout the history of the Disney Studios, I narrowed my selection down to Mary Poppins, (1964).
One cannot appreciate the development of Mary Poppins without understanding the lengths Walt Disney himself went to obtain the rights from author P. L. Travers. Disney first attempted to purchase the film rights as early as 1938, but was rejected as Travers was extremely protective of her work and feared a film version of her books would be detrimental to her creation. Disney persisted for the next 23 years, finally obtaining the rights in 1961, with Travers demanding and receiving script approval rights, while Disney slyly retained final say on the finished product. This tumultuous relationship between Disney and Travers was portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
To make Mary Poppins into the classic he envisioned, Disney assembled a team of his brightest and most talented (Richard and Robert Sherman to compose and write the music, Bill Walsh to head production, and Peter Ellenshaw for sets and scenery) and staffed the endeavour with top talented leads and periphery characters. Julie Andrews, just 29 at the time and in her feature film debut, truly made the film her own. She is aptly supported by the multi-talented Dick Van Dyke and a host of veteran stars: Ed Wynn, Elsa Lanchester, Reginald Owen, Arthur Treacher, Reta Shaw, Hermione Baddeley and Jane Darwell.
Who else but Disney could envision and ultimately bring to life the tale of a magical British nanny, who arrives by umbrella to improve the lives of a dysfunctional family. Not only does the story masterfully incorporate an incredible array of original songs, but it normalizes an array of periphery characters performing absurd acts: a neighbor who shoots a cannon off his roof every day at 6:00pm; an uncle who hosts floating tea parties; and gangs of chimney maintenance teams congregating on rooftops and climbing staircases made of smoke. No one but Disney could have pulled this off.
Mary Poppins, practically perfectly in every way!
6. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Some Like it Hot (1959) is a perfect comedy. A bit screwball, a bit of a spoof of 1930’s gangster films, part romance, part musical, and filmed in black and white at the iconic beachfront Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. Throw in the flawless chemistry of the perfectly cast leads – Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe – under the direction of the brilliant Billy Wilder – that’s all the rationale I need for inclusion in my top ten.
The plot centres around Curtis and Lemmon as Chicago jazz musicians who accidentally witness the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Escaping the mob, they find sanctuary within an all-girls orchestra heading to a gig in Florida. In order to ‘hide in plain sight’ as members of the troop, the two men must pose as women. Enter the Achilles heel of their plan in the form of the luscious Marilyn Monroe as an innocent yet voluptuous distraction, and the stage is set for a beautifully choreographed plot of intertwining complications.
What makes a movie about two men dressing like women, released at the height of the conformist Eisenhower era a success, is the fact that Curtis and Lemmon never take themselves too seriously.
Some Like it Hot is such a good comedy because of the natural chemistry of the cast, their ability to deliver the beautifully written script and the strength of its humor, right up to that ultimate “blue-ribbon” line delivered by Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) which ties the film up with a perfect bow – “Nobody’s Perfect”.
5. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
My contemporaries will probably disagree, but for pure entertainment and a thrill ride through continuously dazzling sets, locations and scenery, I need to add Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to my top ten.
The film opens with a troop of beleaguered men searching through a remote jungle, the conditions severe, the porters exuding hints of untrustworthiness, and the main character swarthy and mysterious. The troop is confronted by giant spiders, booby trapped passageways and the remains of the dead explorers who preceded them. The main character is double crossed, chased out of a cave by a giant bolder, and lands in a clearing where he is surrounded by an army of natives who relieve him of his recently obtained prize. He is then chased through the jungle, jumps onto a moving float plane under a torrent of poisonous darts and flies off into the sunset. And this is just the opening few minutes – a mere teaser to what is coming and, other than providing some backstory to the main character, really has nothing to do with the storyline.
Raiders of the Lost Ark originated from George Lucas’s desire to create a modern version of the serials of his youth. This, and a happenstance conversation he had in 1977 with Steven Spielberg who, at the time was hoping to direct the next James Bond film. Lucas, who had been working on the Indiana Jones concept since 1973, pitched the idea to Spielberg who immediately loved it and was on board.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a perfect homage to those cliff hanger serials Lucas had originally envisioned. The movie progresses from death-defying situation to death-defying situation at a stressful pace, the momentum of which only allows the viewer to catch his breath during the few vintage moments where an animated plane is shown flying over a map to indicate a change in location. The nearly two hours of constant action is beautifully wrapped up and finished off by that iconic John William’s score.
Spielberg did not rely on CGI or special effects for Raiders. He relied simply on plain old adrenaline-charged film-making and white-knuckle storytelling which, after more than four decades, has not lost any of its original excitement or entertainment value.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – no apologies in including this one on my list because sometimes you just want to sit back and be mindlessly entertained.
4. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
The African Queen is one of the first American productions (King Solomon’s Mines (1937) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950) being the others) to film Africa. For the first time the viewing public was not seeing Africa portrayed as backdrops for Tarzan films produced on sound stages and in man-made jungles. Director John Huston was adamant that the location of The African Queen was so integral to the story, that he personally spent numerous weeks exploring various locations in deep Africa to find the ideal location to shoot. Huston’s conscious decision to film on location in Africa inadvertently legitimized the concept of “nature” as a valid character within the plot. For me it’s my passion for the ‘non-human’ details that make or break a movie. It is for this reason that The African Queen had to be included on my list.
Based on the C.S. Forester novel of the same name, The African Queen follows the journey of a hardened river man, Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and a principled Methodist missionary, Rose (Hepburn) who are brought together by fate in an attempt to escape German troops sweeping through Africa during World War I. Once safely aboard Allnut’s boat, The African Queen and much to Allnut’s protests, Rose decides that rather than flee it is their duty to sail down the river and attack the German gunboat which had been effectively blocking the area from the protection of the British.
In 1951, movies were predominantly shot within studios which covered dozens of acres of buildings and back lots constructed for specific purposes. Props, wardrobe, sets, crews, catering, etc. were all readily available and in their own permanent locations within the property. Lighting within sound stages was established, merely requiring adjustments to suit the needs of a particular scene. Props departments could construct any components required and, when the day’s work was complete, the cast and crew went to their homes, had dinner with their families, and slept in their own beds.
Try to imagine the logistical challenges of an African shoot in 1951 where no sound stages existed. This meant, there was no ready support or access to buildings full of equipment, wardrobes, food, electricity, running water, or even bathrooms. The African Queen was filmed in Uganda and on the Ruiki River in The Congo, chosen by Huston for its narrowness and pitch-black waters. These locations were not chosen for their convenience. To complete this shoot, all provisions, equipment (including the large cumbersome cameras required for filming in Technicolor), food, and support teams had to be brought in and then carted from location to location as required. Cast and crew lived in bamboo huts, constructed for their stay, sleeping under netting to protect them from insects and small critters during the night. Neither electricity nor sanitary facilities existed. Cast and crew faced illness and dysentery, weeks of rainstorms and continuous equipment breakdowns throughout the shoot
It is widely agreed that the process of filming on location in Africa actually made the film the classic it is today. Living in the primitive surroundings of the location with few, if any comforts, perfected the performance of the leads and it shows. It is my opinion, that had they made the same film in a studio, The African Queen would not have been the dynamic movie it turned out to be. The actors were in the real place and they understood the hardships and the dangers faced by their characters as they were living them every day. Bogart and Hepburn were very good actors, but I strongly believe their Oscar nominated performances (with Bogart winning Best Actor) should be credited in a large part to John Huston’s decision to film The African Queen on location, paving the way for many productions to follow.
3. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Without getting too political, in the realm of the present uncertainty of world events, I take great comfort in movies where the little guy has taken a stand in what he believes in and makes a difference. It is for this reason that I am attracted to movies such as The Post (2017), The China Syndrome (1979) and All the President’s Men. I have to limit this list to 10 so I cannot include all three, but my list would not be complete without All the Presidents Men.
The movie is based on the 1974 book of the same name by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and was produced by Robert Redford. Remarkably, All the President’s Men was filmed with the full support of the executive editor of The Washington Post to ensure factual accuracy. Accuracy was so important to Redford that nothing was allowed into the script until it had been painstakingly verified and confirmed by numerous sources. Additionally, to get into character Redford and Hoffman spent months working with and observing the reporters at The Washington Post prior to the first frame being shot.
The movie focuses on the true story of the prelude to the 1972 elections, during which time Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein followed a lead pertaining a minor break-in at the Democratic Party National headquarters. This lead ultimately led to the Oval Office and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
In telling the story, director Alan J. Pakula interlaced the story with actual newsreel footage from the day, seemingly telling the story in real time, utilizing the individuals in the newsreels inadvertently as supporting actors in the movie. This approach legitimized the story while simplistically time stamping the work.
One character to note is Donald Segretti, played by Robert Walden. Segretti was a White House attorney and becomes the face of the Watergate Scandal for the audience – a face of corruption and a face of mistrust. The importance of this story to me is that I believe it depicts the point in time where the United States of America lost its political innocence. This was a very important story to be told and it was told very well.
2. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) makes my list because it’s quite simply a very entertaining film about technology. Much like the back story to Sunset Boulevard (1950), the reality of the transition from silent films to the “talkies” ended the careers of many famous stars of the era. As a result, they fell out of favour with their public. Singin’ in the Rain tells this story and does so as a good-natured parody of the film industry itself.
The development of the movie was initiated by MGM Producer Arthur Freed’s desire to create a vehicle for a number of songs he had previously written with composer Nacio Herb Brown. Freed, having worked on earlier projects with writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green on Good News, (1947) and The Barkley’s of Broadway, (1949), approached the duo to assist in the development of a suitable plot line.
The simple premise of Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of a fictitious studio (Monumental Pictures) and the trials and tribulations surrounding their race with competing studios to develop their first talking picture. The film highlights a simple plot which offers unlimited opportunity to showcase the talents of the principal actors (Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen), while creating an incredibly entertaining and very funny musical.
Endless struggles understanding and working with this new technology are humorously demonstrated throughout the movie – in particular, the scene with Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen) struggling with the placement of microphones and their associated cables, all while having a lover’s spat.
But ultimately what is a great musical without the song and dance numbers. The over the top “Make ’em Laugh” sequence; the fun-loving comradery of “Good Morning”; and the title song, and ultimate show stealer “Singing in the Rain”.
Singin’ in the Rain to me is absolute perfection.
- KING KONG (1933)
One of the reasons I’ve included King Kong on my list is my fascination with pre-CGI/ Green screen movies where special effects (in this case a giant monkey) had to be physically created and then animated to be believable. This involved the extensive use of Stop Motion Photography by Willis O’Brien. And the second reason it’s on my list, and the reason it is my number 1: it’s just a brilliantly conceived and executed film. There is continuous suspense and mounting tension surrounding the unknown awaiting the crew as they approach the island, that crazy tall wall protecting who? And from what? The kidnapping of Ann Darrow from the boat by the natives followed by the stressful, unseen approach of Kong to receive Darrow – all timed and set brilliantly to that amazing score by Max Steiner. The uncertainty, the pace, passion and tension all cumulate into one great thrill ride.
As King Kong was filmed in pre-code Hollywood, there were no limits on what could be shot and included in the final cut. As the film was re-released numerous times however (1938, 1942, 1946, 1952 and 1956), many alterations and cuts were required to meet new and tighter standards under the restrictive Production Code. Unfortunately, RKO did not preserve copies of the films negative and, through constant editing to comply with the code, many of the cuts were misplaced and considered lost. While none of these removed scenes negatively impacted the film’s plot or reception, there became a lost continuity of the director’s original intent. By chance, in 1969 an original and complete 1937 16mm print of King Kong was located in Philadelphia. This discovery allowed for the complete restoration of the film to its original 100-minute version, which included all previously censored scenes.
King Kong is a great movie which can still hold its own, even when paired with today’s CGI dependant contemporaries.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.