Top Ten Tuesdays (a new Top Ten, every Tuesday)
I’ll admit it; I’m a self-confessed classic movie junkie! I will literally watch anything that was made between 1930 and the present day, no matter how mainstream, or how obscure! On my quest to watch as many retro films that I can fit into one lifetime, I’ve certainly come across many I wouldn’t dream of bothering with again. However, I’ve also come across lots of unknown classics that have now become firm favourites.
Now I’m the kind of sucker who buys those 50/100 B-movie boxsets, which many consider to be full of garbage. But! I’ll have you know, I’ve found they contain some brilliant little productions that every film fan should seek out. So read on to discover ten classics you might not have heard of, but definitely need to watch…
10. Horror Express (1972)
It’s 1906 and an English scientist has discovered a frozen man in the wastelands of Manchuria. Believing him to be the missing link in human evolution, he decides to take the ancient man back to Europe aboard a trans-Siberian train. During the journey, the beast thaws out and begins to pick off the passengers one by one…
This low budget British chiller would be a throwaway affair if it weren’t for the solid performances of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. However, teamed with the hilarious plot and equally comical monster suit, this little known horror is a classic in my book. Resembling a cheap imitation of a Hammer Studios production (which, were damn cheap themselves in all honesty!), the film has a nice Gothic feel. With a genuine air of suspense, the film is a great example of Lee and Cushing’s flexibility as actors. With tight direction and some fantastic scenery for a film with a limited budget, this is a great seventies horror. Look out for Cushing cutting the top of a head off, the scenes with the mad monk and the absurd microscope shot!
Watch it online or download it from The Internet Archive (don’t worry, it’s free and legal, as the film is in the public domain)
09. Dragonwyck (1946)
Country girl Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is invited to her distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn’s (Vincent Price) mansion, Dragonwyck. Tasked with educating Nicholas’ daughter, Miranda becomes increasingly attracted to Nicholas. As she gets closer to her cousin she begins to learn the dark secrets of the Hudson Valley mansion. But one secret proves difficult to discover: just what is Nicholas doing in his tower?
In a similar vein to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), whilst arguably not as compelling as that film, Dragonwyck is still a very entertaining melodrama. With overtones of the horror genre, not least because of the casting of Vincent Price, the film is an excellent, baffling thriller. Resplendent with mysterious – and possibly murderous – twists, the plot is addictive!
The entire cast give solid performances, each delivering a range of emotions effectively. However, here one of the most memorable elements is the haunting soundtrack: the ghostly melodies will certainly stay with you long after watching the film! Dragonwyck is a gloriously Gothic piece that is not merely a romantic melodrama, but also an interesting study of 19th century social structure. With a strong battle between classes running throughout the film, Dragonwyck has the added layer of a dramatic feudal system as part of its mystery.
Without giving away the secrets of the film’s plot, all I’ll say is that although some of the twists may be obvious, there are also aspects that you won’t see coming! The film is also aesthetically pleasing, beautifully shot by Arthur C. Miller and solidly directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
This film has finally been released on DVD, but you’ll have to check online for its availability, as I’ve never been able to find it on the high street.
08. Paranoiac (1963)
Simon Ashby (Oliver Reed), a young man verging on the edge of psychosis, lives in a palatial mansion with his Aunt and sister. In order to be the sole inheritor of the family estate, he plans to drive his sister insane. However, his attempts are hampered by the arrival of a strange man claiming to be their long lost brother. But is this new arrival really their brother, or will Simon dispose of him and his sister before the truth is revealed?
One of a series of psychological horror/thrillers that Britain’s Hammer Studios released in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Paranoiac is a brooding chiller that’s full of atmosphere. Oliver Reed plays the alcoholic, mentally unhinged Simon to full menacing effect. However, his performance remains subtle. When he comes close to chewing up the scenery, he pulls back just in time to refrain from portraying Simon in a tongue in cheek way.
Reed worked his way up from playing small supporting characters in a variety of Hammer productions to being a solid leading man. Paranoiac was the young actor’s second lead role for the studio, the previous being in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Janette Scott is also perfectly cast as Eleanor, Simon’s sister on the verge of a breakdown. Her melodramatic performance is in key with her character and the narrative.
Freddie Francis, who later became famous for his cinematography work on classics such as The Elephant Man (1980), directs his first Hammer feature here. His style is perfectly suited to the ominous air of tension and he builds the narrative to a thrilling crescendo. For Hammer fans this film may feel like an atypical affair that’s missing some of the typical elements associated with the studio. However, here the film is that much more effective for abandoning some of the more ‘cheesy’ elements present in other productions. With the presence of the gothic air that infiltrates all of Hammer’s films, Paranoiac is still distinctly a product of the famous British studio.
With a brand new Blu-Ray transfer and its first release on DVD in the UK, you’ve no excuse to not check it out!
07. Female on the Beach (1955)
Rich widow Lynn Markham (Joan Crawford) moves into her deceased husband’s beach house, where the previous tenant suspiciously fell to her death from the balcony the night before. Once moved in, Lynn finds herself unable to resist the charms of her next-door neighbour, beach bum Drummond Hall (Jeff Chandler). But what are Drummy’s real intentions and what are the elderly couple next door up to?
This film has possibly had the most exposure out of all those on this list, because it stars the indelible Joan Crawford. However, the fact that it hasn’t received a home video release means it’s probably also the one that’s had the smallest audience. This melodramatic film noir drama pits the steel nerve of Crawford against the charm and charisma of Jeff Chandler. The two leads battle out their obvious attraction to each other and the pointless hostility associated with it, like professional sparring partners.
Drenched in satirical humour, Crawford gets to utter such campy one liners as, “I wouldn’t have you if you were hung with diamonds upside down!” and, “I’d like to ask you to stay and have a drink, but I’m afraid you might accept!” – classic!
Despite this sway towards the tongue-in-cheek, the film remains a compelling thriller. A genuine air of suspense is created as Lynn begins to suspect that Drummy is trying to kill her. This perfectly complements the histrionics that Crawford delivers so well on screen. The twist ending may be slightly predictable, but the mystery (and narrative in general) is really quite secondary to the gripping relationship between the two morally corrupt leads. If you spot this on television, give it a watch…at worst it will have you laughing at its sheer silliness!
As Female on the Beach has not been released on DVD, watch out for it on television. Or if you’re really desperate to catch it, there are a few (recorded from TV) copies floating around the internet.
06. Suddenly (1954)
In the sleepy town of Suddenly, a trio of assassins take over the Benson family home, with the intention of killing the President of the United States as he passes through. Will the captured town Sheriff and the Benson’s be able to stop the hired guns before it’s too late?
One of Frank Sinatra’s greatest dramatic roles is in this taut film noir thriller. The plot is coated in a thick layer of suspense and the claustrophobic atmosphere is perfectly created. The film cleverly captures the tense political air of the 1950s Cold War era: although the thugs have no political agenda of their own – they are simply guns for hire – the fact that they allowed themselves to be paid to assassinate their President suggests that the Communists may have got to them.
What also makes Suddenly an interesting watch is that it was reported (albeit incorrectly) that Lee Harvey Oswald watched it shortly before assassinating JFK in 1963. Although this wasn’t actually the case, it has been argued that Oswald would have undoubtedly been exposed to the film during its theatrical release. With this thought in mind Suddenly becomes a much darker film and infinitely more interesting. Whether or not Oswald was attracted to the violence and immorality of the film, it is still an enthralling thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Suddenly is also in the public domain and available to watch online or download for free at The Internet Archive.
05. Impact (1949)
The scheming wife of Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) plots with her lover to murder the industrialist. The plan backfires though and the wife’s lover dies in a car crash, leaving his body unrecognisable. Believing it to be the body of Williams, the police charge her with his murder. After the attack William’s finds himself dazed and confused in a small town, where news of his ‘death’ begin to jog his memory. Falling in love with local service station owner Marsha (Ella Raines), he is convinced by her to return home and clear his wife’s name. However, when he does he finds himself charged with the murder of his wife’s lover. Can Marsha prove William’s innocence with the help of a friendly police officer?
The multi-layered plot of this film noir thriller is totally engaging. Whilst it’s not always edge of your seat viewing (its runtime is 111minutes, rather hefty for this type of film), it is certainly an interesting watch. Not least for its inclusion of Anna May Wong in the cast. Most iconic for her silent screen roles, it was the Asian actresses first appearance for seven years. Often playing typecast characters, there is no difference here (indeed, the stereotypical ‘oriental’ music that plays whenever she’s onscreen is likely to offend many).
However, with the majority of her roles in the silent period it’s a somewhat rare treat to see her in a small, but substantial speaking role. The narrative remains appealing as Williams weighs up his moral obligation to absolve his wife of the murder charge, whilst contemplating his desire for revenge. The film also turns into an interesting courtroom drama towards the end, as Williams ends up on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. The suspense therefore keeps going whilst we wait for Marsha to help Williams clear his name. A thoroughly entertaining watch, you really should see this!
This is another film in the public domain that is available for free online watching or download at The Internet Archive.
04. Nightmare (1964)
Janet, a young student is plagued by nightmares of her mother haunting her. When the nightmares get worse, she has to leave her country private school. Returning to her family home her nightmares continue. Is what she’s seeing real or is somebody trying to drive her insane?
Another feature that’s part of Hammer Studio’s canon of psychological chillers, this rarely seen gem has only received a low-key DVD in the U.S. recently, but is nowhere to be seen on the UK home video market. Nightmare also relies on the building of suspense and the creation of an eerie atmosphere, rather than any real shocks or gore. The rolling corridors of the house that Janet resides are genuinely the stuff of nightmares: dark and twisting, an endless maze that traps the young girl with her darkest fears.
Nightmare’s biggest success is its ability to confuse the audience with whether what is happening on screen is one of Janet’s dreams or indeed reality. However, in spite of this, the actual narrative isn’t particularly convoluted. It is though, extremely compelling. With many psychological thrillers being far too complicated, it is often those with a straightforward plot that are most successful in achieving their intentions. Nightmare is no exception. Whilst it’s not an overly scary film, it is suspenseful and very entertaining.
Hopefully with Paranoiac’s recent Blu-Ray and DVD release, the rest of the forgotten classics from the British Studio will also see the light of day. Until then, if you’ve got a multi-region DVD player be sure to check out the ‘Hammer Horror Series’ US import DVD, which includes both this film and Paranoiac from this list, plus other classics such as The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Kiss of the Vampire (1963).
03. The Window (1949)
Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is known for telling fibs. When his latest lie lands him in deep trouble with his parents, he’s told enough is enough. That night, in order to get some breeze, he sleeps on the fire escape of the neighbours above him. When he sees them kill a man nobody will believe his story. With his neighbours out to silence him forever, will Tommy be able to get his parents and the police to believe he isn’t lying this time?
This adaptation of the oft-told ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ story is another brilliant film noir thriller. The story is gripping and the film is visually spectacular. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who predominantly worked as a cinematographer (on films such as Hitchcock’s Notorious ), the elements of shadow and darkness that are associated with the genre are brilliantly highlighted. Driscoll is excellent in the role of Tommy, a precocious but likeable kid. The neighbours out to get him are brilliantly played by little-known actors Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Both are excellent at portraying the downright detestable Kellersons. Plus, the climactic ending is not to be missed!
The film has only been released on region two DVD in France, but is available online. It’s definitely worth a watch, but if you don’t want to fork out for the DVD look out for it on TV (which is where I originally saw it)!
02. Quicksand! (1950)
A young mechanic’s life spirals out of control after he steals $20 from the cash register of the garage he works at. Stealing the money to take a beautiful blonde out on a date, he intends to pay it back immediately. However, when the garage’s accountant finds the negative balance before Dan (Mickey Rooney) can return the money, he sinks further and further into a life of crime. When a former girlfriend returns on the scene, will she be able to pull Dan out of the ‘quicksand’ he’s sinking further into?
Starring a young Mickey Rooney – who cast himself firmly against his goody two shoes screen persona – this is another brilliant noir/crime drama. Arguably the star’s greatest role, Quicksand is a tense film that builds suspense in all the right ways. Jeanne Cagney as the femme fatale that triggers Dan’s social decline is brilliant as the icy blonde, whose only ambition in life is for someone to buy her a fur coat. Throughout the runtime you can’t help but wish that Dan would stop and pull himself out of his never ending decline: this makes for a huge amount of suspense, plus rather cringing viewing! Peter Lorre as the sleazy owner of an arcade centre on Santa Monica pier is his usual grotesque, but brilliant self. Interestingly, Lorre and Rooney co-financed the film, but were unfairly cheated out of the profits by an unknown third party. With the film readily available due to its lack of copyright restrictions, you’ve got no excuse for not checking it out!
Again, you can watch it online or download it for free at The Internet Archive.
01. Too Late For Tears (1949)
When a sack containing $60000 accidentally lands in the backseat of Jane and Alan Palmer’s (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) car, it changes the couple’s lives forever. When Alan insists on handing the money in to the police, Jane refuses, stopping at nothing to keep hold of her ill-gotten gains. When her efforts lead to murder and deception, Jane must exploit all those around her to ensure the police don’t catch her…
A tremendously gripping film noir thriller, this is definitely the best little known classic you MUST seek out! Lizabeth Scott is exceptional as the beautiful but deadly Jane Palmer. She is completely convincing when exploiting those around her and her monstrous portrayal of uncompromising greed is one of the greatest in Hollywood history. What makes Too Late For Tears (which was re-released as Killer Bait in 1955) so powerful is the viewer’s ability to relate to the narrative. Although the Palmer’s live in relatively comfortable surroundings (like most of us) it is completely plausible for Jane to want to keep the money in order to improve her life (much like most of us would like the opportunity to do). In the majority cases it wouldn’t lead to murder, like it does here, but given the opportunity it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t likely want to give up the cash either! Jane’s crimes are all ones of opportunity and as such, her downward spiral into crime is a result of trying to maintain her newfound lifestyle. I can’t explain how truly enthralling this film is without giving away too much of the plot…so all I’ll say is go and check it out!
Also available for free to watch online or download at The Internet Archive.
This article was first posted on September 21, 2010