“Why is life worth living?” Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) asks into a tape recorder in Allen's 1979 film Manhattan. His answers—random yet specific—include the crabs at Sam Wo’s, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues” and “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.” Here’s our version of that, certain elements of cinema that make our lives worth living, or at least make movies worth watching. They seem to come to us from out of nowhere, little pockets of breathtaking beauty, expert craftmanship and happy accidents. Here are ten such moments—random yet specific—that make us stick around for one more day.
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François Truffaut is born in Paris, 1932. The director began his motion picture career in 1953 as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, penning sometimes brutal assessments of the current releases. In 1957, he made what he considered his “first real film,” a short called Les Mistons. It would be a warm-up for The 400 Blows (1959), a landmark movie about troubled, misunderstood adolescent Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). It would ignite the French New Wave movement, a genre characterized by a loose documentary feel, a fragmented narrative, unconventional editing, nihilistic youth and an often ambiguous endings. Truffaut’s subsequent films included Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1961), The Bride Wore Black (1968), Stolen Kisses (1968), Day for Night (1973) and The Last Metro (1980).
Ever the critic, Truffaut was not shy about expressing his opinions of other films and filmmakers. Among his observations:
“[Michelangelo] Antonioni is the only important director I have nothing good to say about. He bores me; he's so solemn and humorless.”
“The talent of [Jean-Luc] Godard goes toward a destructive object. Like Picasso, to whom he's compared very often, he destroys what he does; the act of creation is destructive. I like to work in tradition, in the constructive tradition.”
“[Eric] Rohmer is the best French director now. He became famous very late compared to the rest of us, but for 15 years he's been behind us all the time. He's influenced us from behind for a long time.”
“Originally, I didn't like [John Ford] because of his material—for example, the comic secondary characters, the brutality, the male-female relationships typified by the man's slapping the woman on the backside. But eventually I came to understand that he had achieved an absolute uniformity of technical expertise. And his technique is the more admirable for being unobtrusive: His camera is invisible; his staging is perfect; he maintains a smoothness of surface in which no one scene is allowed to become more important than any other. Such mastery is possible only after one has made an enormous number of films. Questions of quality aside, John Ford is the Georges Simenon of directors.”
“One looks at films differently when one is a director or a critic. For example, though I have always loved Citizen Kane (1941), I loved it in different ways at different stages of my career. When I saw it as a critic, I particularly admired the way the story is told: the fact that one is rarely permitted to see the person who interviews all the characters, the fact that chronology is not respected, things like that. As a director I cared more about technique: all the scenes are shot in a single take and do not use reverse cutting. In most scenes you hear the soundtrack before you see the corresponding images—that reflects Orson Welles's radio training, etc. Behaving like the ordinary spectator, one uses a film as if it were a drug—he is dazed by the motion and doesn't try to analyze. A critic, on the other hand, is forced to write summaries of films in 15 lines. That forces one to apprehend the structure of a film and to rationalize his liking for it.”
“I think that the ‘noble’ film is the trap of traps, the sneakiest swindle in the industry. For a real filmmaker, nothing could be more boring to make than a Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)—scenes set inside office alternating with discussions between old fogies and some action scenes usually filmed by another crew. Rubbish. Traps for fools. Oscar machines.”
Ronald Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois, 1911. If—politics aside—there is a central joke in all of Reagan’s achievements, it is a silly little movie with a goofy title that the actor made in 1951 (and claims to have never seen until 1984). Bedtime for Bonzo concerns a college professor trying to prove to his bride to be that he did not inherit his father’s propensity for crime. In order to prove his point, he conducts a secret experiment using a lab chimp to prove that nurture can indeed beat the crap out of nature. The film was no great shakes when it came out and enjoyed its greatest popularity in the early 1980s during Reagan’s run for President of the United States and subsequent eight years in the Oval Office. Fred De Cordova served as director for both Bedtime For Bonzo and The Tonight Show, ensuring the former’s frequent mention by the latter’s host, Johnny Carson.
Akira Kurosawa is born in Tokyo, 1910. “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves,” the director said, referring to the plot of Rashomon (1950), a film about four different and uniquely revealing accounts of a rape and murder. “They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.” Rashomon, considered the first in a string of masterpieces by the Japanese director that also included Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961), opened to universal raves, with a critic or two suspecting that Kurosawa was influenced by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), a movie the director did not actually view until years after Rashomon’s release. In the end, Rashomon took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Film and remains required viewing for film students worldwide.
In viewing Citizen Kane as a faithful recounting of the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, it’s helpful to know that Susan Alexander is nothing like Marion Davies. Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was by all accounts a charming person, a talented actress with a flair for comedy and a loving companion to the man in his later years. Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s mistress and eventual second wife, is by turns simple and shrill, a wounded wife and mediocre singer who eventually finds the courage to leave her benefactor husband. Though Dorothy Comingore’s portrayal of Alexander was widely praised—except in Hearst-own newspapers—Marion Davies’s stock fell considerably as she became irrevocably linked to this fictional, erroneous portrayal of her. Years after the film’s release, no less than director and star Orson Welles himself stated, “I thought we were very unfair to Marion Davies because we had somebody very different in the place of [her]…it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick.”
Some artfully convey the scope of the plot’s spectacle. A few are intimate close-ups, revealing a surprise or two in gracefully conceived compositions. And some of the most striking images have simply emerged over time as distilled representations of the movies they are from. Here’s Part Two of our list of 50 favorites images from the movies. Most are famous. All are memorable.
A giant ape battles fighter planes from atop the Empire State Building in King Kong (1933)
The genesis of Merian C. Cooper’s classic beauty-and-the-beast love story was a dream the producer/writer/director had about an attack on Manhattan by an oversized gorilla. The idea was developed further to include a skyscraper and fighter planes, and, from there, Cooper worked backwards to flesh out the story. In brief, a prickly, three-stories-tall simian dubbed King Kong meets a nice girl on a remote island and is corralled by explorers and shipped to the States, where he is presented as a moneymaking attraction. After breaking free and running amuck in the Big Apple, Kong takes his main squeeze to the top of the tallest building in town, where he is gunned down by none other than Merian C. Cooper playing a fighter pilot.
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) flashes her gam to hitch a ride in It Happened One Night (1934)
At first, Claudette Colbert refused to show her leg for the famous hitchhiking scene, prompting director Frank Capra to proceed using the shapely appendage of a body double. “That is not my leg!” Colbert remarked after seeing the shot, prompting a change of mind and more authentic exposure. The role, which Colbert reluctantly accepted for double the salary after five other actresses turned it down, won the actress her only Oscar.
Waltzing couples—men in black, women in white—provide stark contrast in motion in The Merry Widow (1934)
When viewing the extravagant dance sequence at the center of the film—and if one must traffic in twenty-dollar words—the term “terpsichorean chiaroscuro” comes to mind. It is a pulsating bit of kinetics, made up of more than 500 extras and in keeping with the opulence running throughout the Ernst Lubitsch-directed operetta. The sets included one thousand gas chandeliers that took two hours to light, and, for star Jeanette MacDonald’s gowns alone, costume designer Adrian had a dozen seamstresses toil for four months.
A Factory Worker (Charlie Chaplin) and A Gamin (Paulette Goddard) walk off down a lonesome road at the end of Modern Times (1936)
Though silent films were pretty much a thing of the past when Modern Times began filming in 1935, director Charlie Chaplin was none too keen on having his Little Tramp character speak. The film thus became the last major silent film of that period to come out of Hollywood. (Mel Brook’s Silent Movie and the Oscar-winning The Artist would emerge decades later—in 1976 and 2011, respectively—as throwbacks to the genre.) The Depression-era comedy, a commentary on the industrial age and its dire effects on the working class, saw the Chaplin character befriending Paulette Goddard’s down-on-her-luck orphan girl and generally struggling with modern life. The famous shot that ends the picture was filmed 44 miles north of Los Angeles on the Sierra Highway just outside of Agua Dulce, California.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) walks across a train yard filled with wounded and dying soldiers in Gone With the Wind (1939)
According to Val Lewton, what started out as a joke became an indelible image. Lewton—future producer of such B-movies as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945)—served as producer David O. Selznick’s story editor on Gone With the Wind and ended up writing a number of scenes for the film. One sequence in particular involved Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) going to look for Dr. Meade (Harry Davenport) at the Atlanta depot. For fun, Lewton added an elaborate, costly elevator shot that would follow Scarlett as she makes her way through hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers. To Lewton's surprise, Selznick loved it and called for it to be filmed, though, ever cost-conscious, the producer changed the 1,600 extras required for the scene to 800 extras and 800 dummies.
Monument Valley, featured in a number of John Ford-directed western, makes its auspicious debut in Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach was a movie of firsts for director John Ford. It was his first sound Western. It would mark the first of 14 occasions he worked with actor John Wayne. And it was the first time Monument Valley, located on the Arizona/Utah state line, was used for a filming location. It is the tale of a group of strangers on a stagecoach threatened by Geronimo and his Apache warriors. The choice of Monument Valley was the result of a campaign by one Harry Goulding, who had a trading post there. When he caught wind of a big-budget Western being planned, he headed to Hollywood armed with photos and pitched the site to Ford. The director liked it immediately and was further convinced to shoot at the remote location when he realized that the studio would be less likely to interfere. Once there, Ford was so enamored with the rugged scenery that he had the stagecoach travel across it three times in the course of the movie. Later, Ford would use it as a setting for My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
The enormous warehouse full of Charles Foster Kane’s items in Citizen Kane (1941)
The story begins with newspaper magnate Kane (Orson Welles) kicking the bucket, cuing his newsreel biography to unspool, with the narrator describing the man’s private palace. Included therein are “paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace—a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised, enough for ten museums—the loot of the world.” At movie’s end, after the man’s various personal and professional triumphs and setbacks, we get an idea of just what Kane has amassed over time as the camera pans over a seemingly endless collection of stuff, some of which headed straight for the incinerator.
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) take a walk across a wet tarmac at the end of Casablanca (1942)
The closing shot of two lone figures, officially at cross purposes but allied in spirit, was filmed without dialogue, yet it is the line added in post-production that makes their relationship a perfect marriage of two cynics, and the scene a potent union of sight and sound. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Rick (Humphrey Bogart) utters to Renault (Claude Rains). Producer Hal B. Wallis came up with it and, like so much of the dialogue that precedes it, the line has grown into an enduring part of our pop-culture lexicon. Though runway and airplane scenes were shot at Van Nuys (nee Metropolitan) Airport, the scenes involving the actors were filmed on soundstage Number 1 on the Warner Bros. lot.
Pina (Anna Magnani) is gunned down while chasing after a truck carrying her fiancé in Rome, Open City (1945)
Director Roberto Rossellini’s gritty World War II drama about occupied Rome is set in the world of resistance fighters and the Nazi forces set to quash their efforts. It proves a tragic backdrop for Pina (Anna Magnani), a widowed mother, Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), her neighbor and fiancé, and Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco’s resistance-fighter friend. Rossellini employed German POWS to lend verisimilitude to the film, which is universally regarded as an early landmark of Italian neorealist cinema.
A shoot-out at an amusement park’s hall of mirrors involving Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles), Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) provides the climax of The Lady from Shanghai (1947).
Everett Sloan’s crutches were the idea of director Orson Welles as a way of disguising Sloan’s naturally awkward movements on camera. Regarding the final sequence—later referenced in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)—Welles wished for it to be scoreless to ratchet up the tension, a preference overruled by the film’s studio, Columbia Pictures. The scene was among several trimmed by studio executives who balked at the movie’s 155-minute-long rough-cut.