Flickering images in the dark

Reading my dear chum Sweet Rouge’s blog, Flights of Fancy I had a look at the list of 100 films she had cribbed from the Internet Movie Database, where a poll is ongoing for the top 250 movies. Sweet had listed the top 100 and highlighted in bold the ones she had watched, being scrupulously honest by not marking ones that she has only seen parts of. Looking down the list I realised that there are perhaps two I haven’t seen in their entirety. I know I watch a lot of films of all types, but it’s when you check a list like this that you realise just how many. A few years back Empire movie magazine gave away a booklet of the top films of all time that you should have in your collection. My then flatmate Brendan (another big movie buff) and I went through the list and realised we had seen pretty much all of them and, between us, we had most of them on tape.

Rather than make a list of my own top movies I thought I’d perhaps list instead some Triple Ms. What is a Triple M, you ask? A Magical Movie Moment – those scenes which stay in your head forever; you replay them in your mind, you quote them liberally, reference them often.

Heathers, the finale outside the hell of High School. As the assembly inside roars approval of the cheerleaders (well, who wouldn’t?) JD (Slater) stands with his bomb strapped around his body and asks a bruised and bloody Heather (my darling Winona) what she wants as he activates the timer and waits for her to intervene. She calmly takes a battered cigarette out of her ripped jacket and lights it; “cool guys like you – out of my life.” BANG!

Star Wars – technically Episode IV: A New Hope as we now have to call it. Back in ‘77 though it was simply called Star Wars to a generation of wide-eyed kids. As many of you know I’m not only a cineaste, I studied films at college (so I am officially allowed to bullshit about the media!). One of the things we used to discuss when studying classic films was the fact that you were looking back with hindsight – you couldn’t really put yourself in the position of those original audiences seeing that film, that scene for the first time. Well, in this case I was in the original audience. I sat there, all of ten years old, the perfect age to first see this film, in the dark with my parents on either side of me. After the Flash Gordon-style prologue had scrolled across the scene there came a huge, deep bass rumbling. John Williams’ music pounded out on timpani as a small spaceship roared across the screen, followed by the most enormous starship as an Imperial Star Destroyer powers across the movie screen from a close-up perspective. And it kept going. And going, and going… We’re so used to astonishing FX sequences now, but this, at the time, was so new, so unexpected, so magical I knew I was in another world.

The Adventures of Robin Hood – the duel on the stairs. I’ve always loved swashbucklers and this early Technicolor attempt is still, more than sixty years on, one of the finest. Basil Rathbone as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham fights the dashing Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. The sound of steel on steel reverbates as the swords clash and the witty repartee flows. Their shadows are outlined on the stone walls of the castle as Rathbone and Flynn duel their way down the long, circular stone staircase of Nottingham Castle. One of the greatest images in movie history. I’ve since been to the real Nottingham Castle which looks nothing like that – impressive as it is though. However, it does have a wonderful series of tunnels cut into the rock beneath the dungeons which spiral around, slowly descending to come out at the base – right next to the oldest pub (or so claimed, there are a few who say the same) in Britain, Ye Olde Trippe to Jerusalem Inne. Groovy.

The Phantom of the Opera – the masqued ball. The original 1920s silent version with the great Lon Chaney Senior. This is an early film replete with amazing imagery: punting through the flooded foundations of the Paris Opera, the Opera House itself, Chaney’s amazing makeup when his mask is removed (he used real rings inside his nose to give that effect – talk about suffering for your art). In the middle of this amazing silent film however is a very early experiment in colour reproduction. A masqued ball is underway, the revellers dancing with gay abandon. All comes to a halt as a figure descends the great staircase of the Opera – a crimson-robed, skull-masked Red Death walking amongst the happy, carefree revellers in an image straight from Poe. The early film colour is imperfect and gives a fantastically lurid finish to the palette. The scene finishes with the young lovers fleeing this apparition to the roof of the Opera. Unaware that he has followed them, the camera tilts up from their embrace to take in the Phantom in his Red Death costume, his cloak fluttering in the wind on top of the Paris Opera… Stunning.

Citizen Kane – the breakfast table. Another classic film stuffed with amazingly innovative visual imagination. One of the more small-scale, intimate scenes is the breakfast table of the newly married Kanes. A few, short scenes with a tiny amount of dialogue in a montage of overlapping dissolves conveys so much more than tenpages of dialogue ever could. Starting with the happy couple breakfasting at a small table after a wonderful night on the town, we move to a bigger table and smaller chat, to a bigger table and arguments and finally a huge table with husband and wife sitting in stony silence behind their newspapers. Love turning to despair and isolation, all in a few seconds.

Casablanca – the Marseilles scene. Another old film which bulges with classic scenes. This, however, sums up that brave, defiant spirit of the fight against the Nazis. Major Stracher leads a group of German officers in the German national anthem during a night out in Rick’s Café Americane. Resistance leader Victor Lazlo leaves the side of his wife Ilsa (the beautiful Ingrid Bergman) and crosses to the house band. “The Marseilles – play it!” The band looks at Rick (Bogart) who simply nods. The Marseilles starts quietly. As the sound reaches through the crowd the French and others fleeing Europe stop and stand up, joining in. The Germans sing louder before giving up, being drowned out by a gloriously defiant song of liberation. The message is clear – the going is tough, but the bad guys are not going to win. They are not going to win.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the Indian camp scene. After a long literal and symbolic journey for tortured soul Wales after the Civil War he seems to have reached a place where he can be at peace, in a small farm steading with the settlers he rescued. A return to hearth and home and love seems to beckon – until the local natives attack. After a furious defence night falls. As dawn breaks next day Wales mounted up and ridden off, straight for the Indian camp. He enters utterly alone, surrounded by Braves. The Chief rides up to him, asking him if he is mad. Wales (Eastwood) explains to him that they can choose to live together on the vast lands of the New West or they can die together in battle. The chief, looking at this lone gunman surrounded by his warriors asks him who he is to come into his land with such pronouncements. “I’m Josey Wales,” answers Eastwood. There is a Pinter-esque pause as the chief looks at his fellows and finally back to Eastwood. “We have heard of you…” he says slowly. A few minutes later they peace pipe is out.

Alice in Wonderland (Disney version) – Unbirthday. Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party celebrating all of their un-birthdays. Carroll’s bizarre imagination married to Golden Age Disney animation.

Cyrano de Bergerac – the duel in verse. Right at the beginning of this magnificent film Gerard Depardiue’s Cyrano follows a foppish young noble outside the theatre. The fopp has insulted Cyrano who then humiliates his learning by reciting dozens of insults he could have used if he had a brain. This results in a sword duel during which Cyrano creates a poem of the duel while fighting. And all for the unspoken unrequited love of Roxanne, who had schemed to marry her against her will. “I fought not against such lies, dear cousin, but for your bright eyes.” Romantic, beautifully photographed swashbuckling action with wit.

The Big Blue – the free-diving. Marc Barr’s dolphin-like diver (Jacque Mayall, anmed for a real diver) descends to the depths without any support equipment. His heart slows down like a dolphin’s as the depth increases. The clear, blue crystal of the Medditeranean becomes deep blue, midnight blue then finally black. Shot on luxurious 70MM widescreen we see a tiny spot on the screen – it is Mayall descending in seeming slow motion, a tiny figure, alone, falling into the ever-darkening space deep beneath the waves. Beautiful, serene, inspiring.