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Thu June 5, 2014

Film Critic Kenneth Turan Picks 54 Films That Are 'Not To Be Missed'

Originally published on Thu June 5, 2014 9:40 am

You normally hear Los Angeles Times and Morning Edition film critic Kenneth Turan reviewing new movies, but this week, we're talking about old films with him instead. That's because he's written a new book called Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film. In it, he offers up tidbits of Hollywood history and behind-the-scenes drama, as well as his critical analysis of some of the world's greatest movies — some familiar, some obscure.

Turan tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that these films are like friends and are worth watching and rewatching. Like friends, these movies speak to him, he says. "They move me in ways that almost are beyond language, that go into you so deeply, that it almost feels like when a film really works, it changes your life."


Interview Highlights

On the 1941 comedy The Lady Eve

This is with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. It's a Preston Sturges comedy. Preston Sturges was, for a brief period of time, the king of Hollywood. He made these really witty films, these racy films, a lot of great dialogue, a lot of great repartee. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman, and Henry Fonda plays the heir to a great brewery fortune who has just been, for a year, up the Amazon studying snakes. ...

It's wonderful. It's a kind of comedy we almost don't see anymore. It's deft, it's sophisticated. Because of censorship, because so much couldn't be said explicitly, they had to go to lengths to make stuff funny and to make their points.

On Sunset Boulevard, 1950, which begins with the narrator dead in a swimming pool

This is a very unusual choice for an opening, and it's still kind of shocking when you see it. I like inside Hollywood films, and Sunset Boulevard I think is the bleakest one of these. It stars Gloria Swanson as a silent film star who can't make her peace with that fact that she's not a big star anymore. And the thing about the film, the more I watched it: Gloria Swanson's performance — it's fascinated me how sympathetic she makes this character. This is a very desperate character; this is in many ways an unpleasant character. ... You shouldn't really like her, but ... your heart goes out to her as crazed as she is. ... This is the performance that holds the film together.

On the 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which director John Ford captures the violence of the American West

This is a wonderful Western — it's almost an anti-Western. This uses some of the biggest stars of the time [Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne], and it puts them in a story that's very emotional, that's elegiac. It's just very moving. I mean, I find myself, when I watched it again ... partly because I know what's coming, there are certain moments where I start to tear up because you just can feel the emotion coursing through these characters. ...

It's a subversive film in many ways. It's really a film about what is heroic, and what is truth, and how what is received as truth maybe didn't happen.

On the 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity

This is a documentary about the making of the atomic bomb. This is a documentary not only about the specifics of how the bomb was put together in Los Alamos, but the human story about who did it, why they did it. You know, one of the things that so fascinates me is that the people — the very people who made this weapon — didn't realize what they'd done until it was too late. You know, the film was named after the Trinity site, the Trinity tests, the first tests of the weapon in the New Mexico desert. And once they saw it, everything changed. They really had no idea what they'd done until they saw it go off, and then they all said, "Oh, my God."

On the 2001 animated film Spirited Away

This is probably the master work of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It's a strange story of a really fearless imagination. It's about a young girl who kind of gets trapped in a spirit world and all the strange spirits she has to interact with. It's got nothing in common with Disney animation. It's a kind of animation that looks and sounds completely like its own world, and it'll just blow you away.

On whether better technology has led to better movies

Oh, gosh. The movies, no, they're not better. I mean, I hope that they stay the same. You know, there are so many economic pressures that are keeping Hollywood from making kind of intelligent, adult entertainment that used to be its birthright that I'm just grateful that there are still some left, and I'm hopeful that we can stay the course.

On whether smart TV is going to kill the movies

I don't think so. You know, the big dark room, the big screen, there's nothing to replace that. I was really heartened when George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books Game of Thrones -- huge TV hit — once the money started pouring in, what did he do? He bought a movie theater in Santa Fe, N.M., because for him ... nothing can replace a theatrical experience. When a great film comes on, it just takes you away. It sweeps you off your feet. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have movie recommendations next from a man who has seen a lot of them. Kenneth Turan reviews new films on MORNING EDITION. His true love however is old films, which became clear when he wrote a book about them. It's called "Not To Be Messed: Fifty-Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film." Turan breaks them down by decades and decades like the 1930s and '40s are filled with his recommendations. We asked Turan to talk about a few movies on his list.

INSKEEP: And I want to start with this - you describe movies as your friends, which is a great line and I totally understand it. What do your friends have in common?

KENNETH TURAN: They speak to me. No, what they have in common is that they move me in ways that almost are beyond language. That go into you so deeply, that it almost feels like when a film really works, it changes your life.

INSKEEP: OK, let's pick a film off the list. It's from 1941. It's called "The Lady Eve." Who's in it, what's it about?

TURAN: I do love this film. This is with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. It's Preston Sturges comedy. Preston Sturges was, for a brief period of time, the king of Hollywood. He made these really witty films. These racy films, a lot of great dialogue, a lot of great repartee. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman, and Henry Fonda plays the heir to a great brewery fortune who has just been, for a year, up the Amazon studying snakes.

INSKEEP: And now she wants to pick him up, along with his fortune I guess.

TURAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Let's play a clip from this film, "The Lady Eve." And in this scene, Barbara Stanwyck has persuaded Henry Fonda that he really needs to be the one who puts on her fresh pair of shoe, which gets him down at her knees, at her feet there. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY EVE")

HENRY FONDA: (As Charles Pike) It's funny to be kneeling here at your feet, talking about beer. You see, where I've been, I mean, up the Amazon, you kind of forget how, I mean, when you haven't seen a girl in a long time. I mean, something about that perfume that...

BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Jean Harrington) Don't you like my perfume?

FONDA: (As Charles Pike) Like it? I'm cockeyed on it.

STANWYCK: (As Jean Harrington) Why hopsy (ph), you ought to be kept in a cage.

INSKEEP: And having drawn him in, she then pushes him away. There's a lot of, let's say, energy in that scene given that actually nothing happens.

TURAN: It's wonderful. It's a kind of comedy we almost don't see anymore. It's deft, it's sophisticated. Because of censorship, because so much couldn't be said explicitly, they had to go to lengths to make stuff funny, and to make their points.

INSKEEP: Now, you also have on your list a movie from 1950, "Sunset Boulevard." The only film that I know of that begins with the narrator dead in a swimming pool.

TURAN: Yes, this is a very unusual choice for an opening. And it's still kind of shocking when you see it. I like inside Hollywood films, and "Sunset Boulevard" I think is the bleakest one of these. It stars Gloria Swanson as a silent film star who can't make her peace with the fact that she's not a big star anymore. And the thing about the film, the more I watched it, Gloria Swanson's performance, it fascinated me how sympathetic she makes this character. This is a very desperate character. This is in many ways an unpleasant character.

INSKEEP: Self-deluded.

TURAN: Yes, you shouldn't really like her, but you really - your heart goes out to her as crazed as she is. It's just a marvelous performance and even though everyone else - William Holden is quite good. This is the performance that holds the film together.

INSKEEP: You feel what she has lost as the movies have changed. Let's listen to one of the many famous lines from Sunset Boulevard.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNSET BOULEVARD")

WILLIAM HOLDEN: (As Joe Gillis) Wait a minute, haven't I seen you before? I know your face.

GLORIA SWANSON: (As Norma Desmond) Get out, or shall I call my servant?

HOLDEN: (As Joe Gillis) You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

SWANSON: (As Norma Desmond) I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

(LAUGHING)

INSKEEP: Later of course, she's ready for her close-up. I don't think we're giving away the ending to say that much.

TURAN: No. I mean, that's an amazing line. You know, and it's a line that resonates today when people are watching things on cell phones.

INSKEEP: And I'm still big and the pictures have gotten small.

TURAN: (Laughing) That's right.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a historical epic that is part of your list here, from 1962, I believe, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Awesome movie - Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin.

TURAN: This is a wonderful Western. It's almost an anti-Western. This uses some of the biggest stars of the time and it puts them in a story that's very emotional, that's elegiac. It's just very moving. I mean, I find myself, when I watched it again, that partly because I know what's coming, there's certain moments were I start to tear up because you just can feel the emotion coursing through these characters.

INSKEEP: John Ford is trying to capture the winning of the West and the violence that underlays the spread of what was seen then as civilization. You have Jimmy Stewart who's, you know, he's an educator, he's a lawyer, but he can't defend himself and he needs a brutal man in John Wayne to defend him on the rough frontier.

TURAN: Yeah, it's a subversive film in many ways. It's really a film about what is heroic and what is truth and how what is received as truth maybe didn't happen.

INSKEEP: And without giving away the entire ending, let's play a bit from the ending of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." This is a newspaperman who's finally found out the true story of what happened in this film, nd having taken all the notes down, he tears it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE"

INSKEEP: (As Dutton Peabody) Well, you're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

CARLETON YOUNG: (As Maxwell Scott) No, sir. This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

INSKEEP: Also true in film reviewing, right?

TURAN: (Laughing) I try to print the facts. I do my best.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a film from 2001. We're in the 21st century now. The movie is called "Spirited Away." What is it?

TURAN: This is probably the master work of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It's a strange story, it's a product of a really fearless imagination. It's about a young girl, who kind of gets trapped in a spirit world and all the strange spirits she has to interact with. It's got nothing in common with Disney animation. It's a kind of animation that looks and sounds completely like it's own world. And it'll just blow you away.

INSKEEP: So, let me ask you - animation is better, computer generation is much better, all the technology of film is better - are the movies better?

TURAN: Oh, gosh, the movies, no, they're not better. I mean, I hope that they stay the same. You know, there's so many economic pressures that are keeping Hollywood for making the kind of intelligent, adult entertainment, that used to be its birthright. That I'm just, you know, grateful that there's still some left and I'm hopeful that we can stay the course.

INSKEEP: Is smart TV going to kill the movies?

TURAN: I don't think so. You know, the big dark room, the big screen - there's nothing to replace that. You know, I was really heartened when George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books "Game of Thrones," huge TV hit - once the money started pouring in, what did he do? He bought a movie theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico because for him as well, nothing can replace the theatrical experience. When a great film comes on, it just takes you away. It sweeps you off your feet. I wouldn't have it any other way.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan is a regular critic for MORNING EDITION and The Los Angeles Times. And his new book is called "Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime Of Film." Good talking with you.

TURAN: Good to talk to you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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