INTRODUCTION

The writing of prefaces is, for the most part, work
thrown away.
—Anthony Trollope




Anthony Trollope hated wasting time. He wrote forty-seven nov-
els, including the Palliser and Barsetshire series, plus assorted
nonfiction and even a play or two. Trollope was so disciplined
that if he finished one novel with a few minutes to spare in his
writing schedule, he started another one. Really. So why was he
taking valuable minutes writing a preface to The Vicar of Bull-
hampton, which he feared nobody would read.
Trollope wrote it, I feel sure, for the same reason I’m writing
this introduction: he felt the need to explain his intentions and
motivations, to put what he had written into a context that would
allow readers to more fully understand what he had done.
The book before you now may seem straightforward enough.
It’s a collection of essays on my fifty-four favorite films. But to me
it raises all kinds of questions. Why this book? Why fifty-four
films and what criteria were used to select them? And why, for
that matter, become a film critic in the first place?


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The answer to the last question, at least, should be obvious. I
became a critic out of a deep passion for films and their ability to
simultaneously do something I love: take me out of this world and
return me to it not only entertained but, if I am fortunate, with
my emotions and my understanding enlarged.
So when one of my editors at the Los Angeles Times accuses me
of personalizing the films I write about, I plead guilty as charged.
I look on the best of the movies I’ve seen—the films discussed in
this book—as friends who’ve enriched my life. As director Wer-
ner Herzog said, a memorable film “sticks to you forever. It never
leaves you. It becomes part of your existence.”
Underlying all the questions this book raises, however, is the
most basic one: How did I happen to become a critic in the first
place—a query that leads to my Brooklyn childhood.
The Brownsville area of Brooklyn where I grew up in the
1950s and early 1960s had more in common with the immigrant
Jewish neighborhood of the 1920s and 1930s Alfred Kazin de-
scribes in A Walker in the City than with the epicenter of hipness
the borough has become. I not only had no thought of being a film
critic as a child, I had no idea the profession even existed. I was
just a kid who enjoyed movies and saw them every chance I could,
which was not as often as I would have liked.
Because my old-country father was uncompromisingly ob-
servant, the traditional Saturday matinees at my two local movie
houses, the ornate pleasure dome that was the Loew’s Pitkin and
the more proletarian Brandt’s Sutter, were open to me only if I was
willing to risk his wrath, which I rarely did. That said, I do have a
vivid memory of sneaking out to see a vibrant, cleft-chinned Kirk
Douglas so bringing to life the title role of Ulysses in 1957 that I
still have trouble visualizing the Homeric epic without him in it.
Since my theatrical attendance was limited, I was fortunate
to come across Million Dollar Movie, a local television program
with wonderful theme music that showcased older Hollywood
features nightly on WoR-Tv Channel 9. (Decades later, when I





INTRODUCTION

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saw Gone with the Wind for the first time, I blurted out, “oh my
god, they stole the theme music from Million Dollar Movie” before
I realized the reverse was true.)
With my sister grown up and out of the house and my par-
ents too exhausted by work to be interested, I curled up by myself
and experienced all manner of movies from King Kong to I Was a
Fugitive from a Chain Gang. I did my watching alone, I formed my
opinions alone, I talked to no one about what I had seen. I was in
effect becoming a critic though I didn’t know it.
Also a likely factor in my critical development, though it took
me years to realize it, was the exposure I had as a child growing
up in the orthodox Jewish world to the tradition of Talmudic
exegesis, the thorough examination of a biblical text. Taking the
next step and analyzing a film, trying to figure out how and why
it was doing what it was doing, was second nature to me, an exer-
cise I engaged in well before I had any kind of official critical job.
Once I abandoned Brooklyn to go to college at Swarthmore,
just down the road in Pennsylvania but a universe away in other
respects, the pace of my movie viewing increased. Screenings of
both Hollywood and foreign classics every Friday and Saturday
night exposed me for the first time to films that could be as pro-
found and moving as any novel. I further educated myself by por-
ing over 16-millimeter rental catalogs and helping to select those
all-college films.
The next step was choosing journalism over the academy as
a graduate school path. At Columbia’s journalism program I took
a seminar in film reviewing offered by Judith Crist, one of New
York’s top critics. She was the first to make me believe I could do
this work professionally, and, as anyone who ever met her knows,
when Judith Crist spoke, you listened. And so the journey began.
When you love something you do it a lot, and over the de-
cades since I started to take film seriously I’ve seen more thou-
sands than I can count. (My friend and colleague David Ansen,
Newsweek critic for more than thirty years and now artistic





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INTRODUCTION


director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, has kept track; he was
at 9,536 and counting the last time I checked.) Sometimes I feel a
kinship with the seventy-something horseplayer quoted in hand-
icapper Andrew Beyer’s classic Picking Winners who told Beyer,
“Son, if I’d spent the time studying law books that I’ve put into
the Racing Form, I’d probably be on the Supreme Court now.”
Compiling a book like this seems to be the logical culmi-
nation of all the watching and reviewing I’ve done since my first
pieces appeared in the Washington Post (where I was a staff writer)
and the Progressive magazine in the mid-1970s. As I look back on
it, writing about film has been a voyage of discovery with two
interlocking purposes: I write to be a guide for the perplexed (to
borrow Maimonides’ wonderful title), to help viewers find films
they will love. But writing reviews soon became more than that.
Through focusing intently on what I liked and disliked, it gradu-
ally became a process of finding out what was important to me on
a broader scale. A way to find out, in short, who I am.
Being useful as a reviewer always came first, however, and
has always been the central element in how I view what I do. This
relates to something I learned as an undergraduate. My ortho-
dox Jewish background had left me with minimal knowledge of
other religions, so I signed up for a course in the New Testament.
There I was told that the word “gospel” meant good news and re-
ferred specifically to the notion of spreading the good news about
Jesus. It struck me that spreading the good news about films that
were worth a viewer’s time was a goal worth having for a critic.
Similarly, it was the drive to write a useful book that con-
vinced me not to go the maximalist “one thousand films to see
before you die” route. Like antitax zealot Grover Nordquist,
eager to make government small enough to be easily drowned
in a bathtub, I wanted to keep my list short enough so that even
a busy person like Mr. Nordquist could reasonably choose to see
them all. Something in the fifties felt right, in addition to alliter-
ating nicely with film.





INTRODUCTION

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With thousands of films to choose from, getting the list
down to just fifty-four (the reason for that specific number will
be revealed a bit later) was challenging. These are the films that
mean the most to me, that touch me most deeply, that I can see
over and over again without fear of getting bored. But I’d fallen in
love so often at the movies, embraced so many different films that
appealed to a variety of diverse moods, that I felt like a cinematic
Casanova forced to decide between multiple passions. I experi-
enced this so strongly that I’ve appended an essay describing both
how that process worked and what my fifty-fifth film would have
been, as well as a list of another fifty-four favorites for readers
who have the strength and desire to go on. And, just for fun, I’ve
added a “what to watch next” choice at the end of each essay as
well as suggestions for further reading.
Choosing the specific films became a trickier proposition than
I’d anticipated. While I didn’t want to disappoint or even anger
those who did not find their favorites (believe me, it has already
started to happen, even in my own house), this selection of films
I can’t live without couldn’t be helpful to others if I wasn’t true to
myself. The best part of the dissent is that it’s proof of how much
people care about films, how terribly deeply, as the Ingmar Berg-
man epigraph indicates, they affect people. If your favorite isn’t
here, it’s not because I loved it less but because I loved others more.
I also resisted the impulse to present myself as the most ec-
umenical of critics, someone whose favorites casually extend to
the farthest reaches of the globe. If more of the films I love came
from the studio system than elsewhere, if I had a pronounced pas-
sion for French cinema and film noir, if I found room for a trio of
inside Hollywood films (Bombshell, Singin’ in the Rain, and Sunset
Boulevard) but somehow left off justifiably popular items like Star
Wars that I truly enjoyed, it would just have to be that way.
As I began to write I took the opportunity to link films in
double feature essays when they seemed to go together, but re-
served the privilege not to do so when they didn’t. So films by





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Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, and orson Welles got the double
feature treatment but the two works by Mervyn LeRoy (I Am a
Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Random Harvest) felt so different I
kept them separate.
once the list was complete, it was fascinating to be struck by
unseen parallels—I’d never thought to connect The Dybbuk and
Vertigo in terms of obsessive love lasting beyond the grave—and
to see who besides directors showed up more than once.
Protean costume designer Edith Head surprised me by being
credited in four very different films (The Lady Eve, Sunset Boule-
vard, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), while Lee Mar-
vin (Seven Men from Now, Liberty Valence, Point Blank) showed
up more than any other actor. I was shocked to see one of my
favorites, James Cagney, in only Strawberry Blonde, while an actor
I rarely think about, Charles Boyer, made it in twice with Love
Affair and The Earrings of Madame De . . .
All that said, I took it as a good sign that my list ended up
striking something of a balance between films like Casablanca and
The Godfather that everyone has seen and those like First Contact
and Leolo that have a more limited following. I rewatched each
one before writing my essay, and made sure each fit a specifica-
tion Roger Ebert once laid down. “Every great film,” he wrote,
“should seem new every time you see it.”
If writing reviews has been a gradual process of finding out
who I am and what is important to me, putting this book together
was akin to undertaking a spiritual autobiography, a way to make
explicit what has been implicit for all these years. As a glance at
the list will attest, I am a romantic (if pressed for my top film, I in-
variably pick Children of Paradise). I believe moral choices can be as
exciting as the ones in thrillers. But more than that I am, for better
or worse, a classicist. I trust in the traditional values of character
development and story and I still have faith in the notion of film as
a popular art, emphasis on both words, a conviction that the great-
est films ever made can be accessible to the widest of audiences.





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Putting this book together reaffirmed that despite the cul-
ture’s renewed infatuation with the blandishments of television,
I am an unreconstructed, unapologetic partisan of the cinematic
experience. Yes, TV makes it easy by coming into your
home. And though it can be superb, at the end of the day it’s
a vest pocket experience that doesn’t have the capacity to
envelope you the way film does. In fact, there’s very little TV
does that film couldn’t do if it put its mind to it, that film
wouldn’t be doing right now if it hadn’t shamelessly abdicated
its adult entertainment responsibilities.
Backing me up on this is author George R.R. Martin, whose
novels are the basis for the hugely popular TV series Game
of Thrones. Martin recently purchased an entire New Mexico
movie theater, the jewel box Jean Cocteau in Santa Fe. “If you’re
watching something in your living room,” he told National
Public Radio, “it just doesn’t have the same impact.” I rest my
case.
Why fifty-four films? Once I decided on a number in
the fifties, fifty-four came into my mind for what seemed like no
par- ticular reason. But as soon as I mentioned the number to
UCLA History Department chairman David Myers, the former
director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, he
immediately said, “three times chai,” and I knew at once that
that was exactly the reason I’d gravitated toward fifty-four.
Chai is the Hebrew word for the number 18, as well as the
word for life (as in the traditional toast L’chaim, to life), so any
multiple of eighteen is considered a lucky number. I believe I’ve
been fortunate to be in a line of work that allows me to experi-
ence more movies than any sane person would attempt, and this
book is my way of sharing the best of that good fortune with the
wider world. With any kind of luck, the films that have rewarded
me enormously will bring you the same measure of pleasure and
pure joy.

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