If you didn’t read the first part of this short series, here’s a brief explanation. I am using the term unforgettable to relate to films that have not been forgotten by me, for reasons that will be made clear. I am not asserting that they are the best films ever made, or even the best in their genre. I hope to remind you of old favourites, or perhaps introduce you to something new.
In 1962, I was ten years old. I was taken to see a film by my parents, and from the very start, I found myself immersed in the cinematic sweep of the direction, the unusual location, and solid acting. It was so long, there was an intermission to allow the audience to use the toilets, or to purchase refreshments. Even after the 222 minutes of the film had passed, I could easily have carried on watching more. Few directors have matched the brilliance of David Lean, and it is rare to find a cinematographer to compare with Freddie Young. The dazzling visuals in the alien (to me) desert landscape took my breath away, and everything from the panoramic battles to the claustrophobic sweaty scenes in meeting rooms and prisons, was burned into my memory. It all remains there to this day, fifty-four years later. Anchored by a mesmerising performance from Peter O’Toole in the lead, Lawrence of Arabia found its place into my heart, as one of my unforgettable greats.
I have always enjoyed films about gangsters. When I was young, I lapped up oldies like ‘Little Caesar’, ‘White Heat’, and ‘The Public Enemy.’ As I grew up, the genre continued in popularity, and I trotted off to see ‘Dillinger’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, and ‘Get Carter’. Then came the game-changer. Beginning in 1972, Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ trilogy re-wrote the rules. This was a gangster film on an epic scale, and one of the few occasions where the second film was arguably better than the first. I thought I had seen it all, and it could never be better than this. Even the sprawling ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ didn’t get close to matching it. Eighteen years after I watched the original ‘Godfather’, I went to the cinema to see Scorsese’s new film, ‘Goodfellas.’ From the opening scene, and Henry’s first line, I realised that this was it. The definitive gangster film, telling it like it was, from the mouth of someone who was actually there. I have watched this film many times since. I could watch it again tonight, and not enjoy it any less. But that night in the cinema twenty-six years ago will remain in my memory forever.
Sometimes, a ‘small film’ can have just as much impact as a big-budget blockbuster, or an acclaimed epic. It can haunt your memories, and you find yourself recalling moments from it, then wonder why.
A few years ago, I watched a film on TV, directed by David Lynch. This was not the usual surreal Lynchian fare at all. Made in 1999, ‘The Straight Story’ is an unusual tale of reconciliation between two brothers, in small-town America. The film is based on the real events surrounding the journey of Alvin Straight across two US states, to visit the brother he has not spoken to for many years. The elderly Alvin is unable to renew his driving licence due to infirmities, so he resolves to make the journey on his ride-on lawnmower instead, attaching a trailer for his luggage.
With solid performances from the gentlemanly Richard Farnsworth as Alvin, Sissey Spacek as his daughter, and the reliable Harry Dean Stanton as the brother, this film is simply delightful. It shows a very different side to the America we are used to seeing at the cinema. This is the land of manners, kindness, respect, and cooperation. Alvin completes his journey, and the two old men are once again sitting together to gaze at the night sky. Priceless.
On rare occasions, just one scene springs to mind, when thinking about a film you enjoyed immensely. You recall the events, the overall plot, and some of the characters, but it is that scene that stood out for you, and still does today. In Luc Besson’s 1990 film, ‘La Femme Nikita’, the young woman in the title role (played by Anne Parillaud) is a drug user and petty criminal. She is offered the chance to escape jail, by working for a top secret government agency. After intensive training in an anonymous facility, her controller comes to tell her that he is so pleased with her, he is taking her out to dinner. She is given a classy makeover, and stylish new clothes. She is happy to be escorted to dinner by this man, and looks her best as they arrive at a swanky restaurant in Paris. But she is shocked to face betrayal, as the man produces a pistol and tells her to kill one of the diners at a nearby table. He also gives her a route to escape after the assassination. She does the killing, and runs for her life, only to find the exit blocked, and that she is pursued by friends of the slain man.
Of course, it is a test, but she is dismayed and surprised nonetheless. And so was I.
I have not watched many modern animated films. Other than enjoying some recent classics like ‘Akira’, and ‘Princess Mononoke’, it is not an area of film that I am generally keen to explore. I have never got used to Pixar, and I dislike the dubbing frequently used over Japanese films to avoid the use of subtitles. As a child, this was not the case, and I was happy to watch films like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs’, and ‘Pinocchio’. Later on, I was mildly amused by ‘The Jungle Book’, and enjoyed the songs in that film too. However, just one animated film (I call them cartoons still) has a firm place in my heart, and can – almost – bring a tear to my eye. The delightful tale of a flying baby elephant, his escapades in a travelling circus, and eventual reconciliation with the mother he thought he had lost. Although it was made eleven years before I was born, Dumbo endures like few other similar films of my childhood, and I will never forget it.
In 1970, I was eighteen years old. I would not have been seen dead going to watch a family film aimed at young children, that’s for sure. I had to wait for a TV showing, around ten years later, before I got to see this completely likeable film that I am now perfectly happy to say that I always enjoy, and never forget. Some films are so obviously British, that as soon as the opening credits start, you can immediately tell that you are in Britain, and in this case in the Edwardian era. I had never read the book by E. Nesbit, so had little idea what to expect when I started to watch ‘The Railway Children.’ What followed was an absolute delight. Convincing performances from the three juvenile leads, ably assisted by the cast of solid British character actors. It has everything you might expect. Social class differences, village life at the turn of the century, and steam trains of course. The background story about the mistaken arrest of the children’s father is almost unnecessary, as it is all about discovery, friendship, community, and hope. It is like a cup of hot soup on a chilly afternoon, and warms the cockles of the most cynical hearts. Including mine.
There are times when you cannot forget a film because you actually didn’t like it, or that you found the subject matter upsetting. The debate on Capital Punishment went on for many years in Great Britain, until it was eventually abolished in 1965. (Though not until 1998 for Treason) I am easily old enough to remember the execution of condemned prisoners, and how people would protest outside the prison gates when they were hanged. Many films have been made about this subject, and because of the divided opinion and controversy, most are memorable. One stayed with me more than others, and for a few reasons. For one thing it was based on a true story, and for another, because it was filmed with respect for both the police officer who had been killed, and one of the young men convicted of killing him.
In 1953, the case of Bentley and Craig caught the imagination of the British public. They had committed a robbery, and this resulted in the death of a police officer, P.C. Miles, who was shot and killed by Craig. Bentley was illiterate, and had the mental capacity of a child as well as suffering from epilepsy. Despite this, and allowing for the fact that he did not have a weapon, he was tried along with Craig for the murder, and found guilty. As Bentley was 19 years old, he was sentenced to death. Although Craig pulled the trigger, he was only 16 years old, so spared execution due to his age.
In 1991, I watched the film of these events, ‘Let Him Have It’, starring Christopher Eccleston as Bentley. Rarely have I been so moved by a story. (This trailer is from America.)
Courtroom dramas have always been popular in the cinema. I am sure that you can think of a few without much prompting. No? Here’s a reminder then. ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, ‘Twelve Angry Men’, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, or more recently, ‘The Accused.’ I have always enjoyed them, despite the necessary sets restricting the action in most cases. In 1946, the famous playwright Terence Rattigan wrote ‘The Winslow Boy.’ Two years later, the story was filmed by Anthony Asquith, with a distinguished cast of some of Britain’s finest actors. Inspired by an actual event in 1908, the story is about a young naval cadet being expelled from a prestigious school, accused of stealing some money. The struggle of the family to prove the boy’s innocence almost costs them everything, and involves many of the most prominent people of the day. The film was remade in 1999 by David Mamet, and starred Jeremy Northam as the barrister Sir Robert Morton. I don’t usually have any time for re-makes, but this one has stuck in my memory a lot longer than the original. (Which I have also seen) This is simply because the often underrated actor Northam gives a meticulous mannered performance as Morton. He does this with such skill, and feel for the period, that I could not take my eyes off him in any scene he was in. I do not often use the word ‘flawless’ to describe one actor’s performance, but on this occasion, it is appropriate.
Period and costume dramas are always popular. Adaptations of Regency novels, films of the books of Thomas Hardy, lavish productions set in country houses, or dismal mining villages, all have their fans. I could go on all day listing many that have achieved critical acclaim, and a great deal of them have been made here in the UK, with British acting talent. I can remember most of them quite well, but one stands out, and although it is not so well-known, it is always in my head. The films of Peter Greenaway tend to divide audiences. He has his fans, and as many detractors too. Even for those like me that admire his work, there are many of his films that are just too impenetrable to really understand or enjoy. One of his films is a little of both, yet is so brilliantly conceived and acted, I really didn’t care. Imagery, costume, music, a witty script, and a wonderful cast. It all comes together to make ‘The Draughstsman’s Contract’ (1982) a delight for both the eyes and the ears. An unforgettable favourite.
Some films can play tricks on your memory. Repeated viewings make you think things like, ‘I don’t remember that bit’ or, ‘I thought this film was longer than that.’ This doesn’t make them less memorable, just different. With some productions, hearing the theme music can allow you to instantly conjure up a vision of the action, or recall something as mundane as the closing credits. Films make their impact on audiences in very different ways, and one person’s perception of what happened can be very different to that of the stranger sat next to them. Similarly, what one found entertaining and enjoyable, another will dismiss as complete rubbish. However you remember them, it is a tribute to the power of this form of entertainment that you do.