Why some silver screen classics have lost their lustre

While many big-screen classics shine on, the passage of time has tarnished the lustre of others, writes Joe Queenan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm

I recently watched The Searchers, the 1956 John Ford horse opera that is routinely described by critics as one of the greatest films of all time. In 2008 the American Film Institute named it the finest western ever, as well as the 12th best American movie, while the British Film Institute had it at number seven on the all-time greatest list.

Are they serious? The Searchers, which deals with a mysterious, morally ambivalent man's relentless quest to find - and perhaps kill - a niece abducted by marauding Comanches, is padded out with all sorts of daft comedy. The gags and slapstick fistfights undercut the message of the film: that most white people on the lone prairie preferred that women who had been captured - and presumably raped - by native Americans either vanish or die. Nobody wanted them back.

For better or worse, motion pictures acquire a certain reputation, particularly among those who were young when the films were first released, and then nobody wanted to rock the boat and say, 'Actually, I think Gone with the Wind is racist and stupid'

John Wayne certainly did a good job in the film, and its message was timely, given that it appeared at the dawn of the civil rights struggle when white Americans were finally forced to confront their malignant attitudes towards other races. But Wayne's nephew and comrade-in-arms, played by hapless pretty boy Jeffrey Hunter, was a useless klutz, and the native American chief Scar was brought to life by taciturn German-American Henry Brandon, who now seemed laughably miscast.

Today, the good parts remain quite good, but the cornball comedy gets in the way, making the film seem like something of a relic.

The Searchers is certainly not as good as Ford's black-and-white masterpiece Fort Apache with its much more sympathetic view of native Americans, nor is it as adventurous as his 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And compared to Sergio Leone's cunning, baroque, hugely influential Once Upon a Time in the West, it now seems a bit lame.

Fort Apache and Once Upon a Time in the West are unusual in that Henry Fonda, one of America's most beloved actors, is each time cast in an unsympathetic role. And unlike Wayne in The Searchers, Fonda is completely unsympathetic. This is what gives the two films much of their power.

A few weeks after seeing The Searchers, my wife and I watched Gregory's Girl, a film that is particularly close to the hearts of Britons, of whom my wife is one. Seen it lately? Still think it holds up? How about that horrible 1980s soundtrack? And those short shorts? And that hair? Gregory's Girl now looks amazingly grainy and cheap - the way so many films of that era do. The male lead (John Gordon Sinclair) is positively hopeless and his geekiness, which seemed so charming in 1981, now merely seems annoying. Gregory's girl (Dee Hepburn) is still great but the movie itself now seems clunky and dated.

A few nights later, I watched The Maltese Falcon, another of those titles that always turn up on best-ever lists by the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute. Frankly, viewed 72 years after its debut, the movie is painful: its story is ridiculous and impossible to follow, there's not much action, and Mary Astor, the femme fatale, is about as sexy as a parsnip.

Compared to Key Largo, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity or a lot of other films of this era, The Maltese Falcon is hammy and tedious. Only the supporting players - Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jnr - seemed to have shown up for work with their game faces on. Humphrey Bogart seemed to have sleepwalked through the whole exercise.

For better or worse, motion pictures acquire a certain reputation, particularly among those who were young when the films were first released, and then nobody wanted to rock the boat and say, "Actually, I think Gone with the Wind is racist and stupid", or "Actually, I think Three Amigos is a comic masterpiece", or "Actually, I don't get Spinal Tap, dad".

In fact, movies need to be periodically re-evaluated. And so, for the past year I have gone back and watched scores of films widely viewed as classics to see if they have stood the test of time.

The good news: Jaws, The Shining, Chinatown, Raging Bull, His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Rear Window, The Third Man, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are still terrific. LA Confidential remains compelling. Heat, the last movie Al Pacino did not sabotage, continues to have the feel of a classic, as does The Last of the Mohicans, also directed by Michael Mann. The Silence of the Lambs has not dated, nor have The Matrix, Braveheart or The Omen. The Ring movies are still scary, Reservoir Dogs is still demented and insanely original, as is True Romance. Ulu Grosbard's True Confessions remains a lovely, inspiring, absurdly under-appreciated motion picture that shows Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall at their very best.

The same general rule applies to those films that might be thought of as cheesy or camp. If they worked then, most of them still work now. Footloose is still fun in a demented Reagan-era way. Ditto Flashdance. Dirty Dancing? Still brilliant. Point Break? Just as loopy, with Patrick Swayze's hang-gliding Zen surfer psycho bank robber a treasure for the ages. Not to mention Keanu Reeves as the world's least convincing undercover cop.

By and large, films deemed classics then remain classics today. Days of Heaven is mesmerising, as are Jules et Jim, La Dolce Vita, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, The Virgin Spring, Grand Illusion, Ran and Aguirre, Wrath of God. Les Enfants du Paradis remains profoundly romantic and heartbreaking and strange. And thanks to Casablanca, we will always have Paris.

But other movies fall into the I-guess-you-had-to-be-there category. Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless will no longer leave anyone breathless. In Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson's maverick loner character now seems like a punk. Warren Beatty is just a bit too goofy in Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs Miller. Three Days of the Condor is hamstrung by one of those nauseating 1970s smooth-jazz soundtracks while 2001: A Space Odyssey simply will not end.

Also, Richard Gere's hair makes it impossible to watch Pretty Woman any more, and Val Kilmer's obstreperous hairdo has a similarly disruptive effect in the festively homoerotic Top Gun. The Blues Brothers is 133 minutes of unadulterated self-indulgence, while Animal House and Caddyshack now seem more and more like infantile twaddle only frat boys could love.

But Ghostbusters remains highly amusing, as do Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Odd Couple. Take the Money and Run aside, Woody Allen's early movies no longer seem especially clever or entertaining, but Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo do. And I still like Spinal Tap, although my children do not.

A few years ago I attended a screening of the director's cut of Apocalypse Now in New York. Afterwards, there was supposed to be a reception, but everyone was so blown away by the film's nightmarish vision of the world that no one showed up at the party.

That's the way I feel about Gregory's Girl. In every way imaginable - clothes, hair, values, music - the 1980s were a nightmare. Don't believe me? Watch the film.

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