Sunday, 27 March 2016

My alternative to the American Film Institute's list of the hundred greatest American films of all time

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter
In 2007, the American Film Institute published its second list of the hundred greatest American films, chosen by a panel of 1500 industry worthies. They first performed the exercise in 1998, so I'm rather hoping that we'll be seeing an updated list sometime this year or next. Inevitably, I have some quibbles with their choices (the definition of "American" seems a trifle elastic, given it includes The Third Man and Lawrence of Arabia) and - inevitably - they're rather snooty when it comes to animated films, thrillers, spy movies and horror pictures. I'm not a big fan of Vertigo, Raging Bull, Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, M*A*S*H, Do the Right Thing, Nashville,  Chinatown, Annie Hall, Unforgiven, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Platoon, A Streetcar Named Desire, Bonnie & Clyde, or Tootsie, and I'm bemused as to why Fargo should have dropped out of the top hundred.

But it's a solid enough list, so instead of quibbling, I thought I'd waste an hour or two (or three or four) compiling an alternative top 100, using none of the films on the AFI 2007 Top 100 list, or those which may have been financed by American companies, but which nevertheless strike me as essentially British, or any film released after 2005, because two years isn't really long enough to  judge whether a film is a classic or not.

I've left a gap after every ten films, just to help readers catch their visual breath (and to help me count them as I went along). Yes, there are a lot of Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and Bette Davis movies in the list, which is as it should be - and there's a greater preponderance of films from those genres which the Academy prefers to ignore, but which I love. Here goes:

Alternative Version of the AFI's 2007 "100 Years... 100 Movies" list:

Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's one film as a director
Fargo (1966) - this simply can't be outside the Top 100
Ninotchka (1939) - champagne cinema, only without a hangover afterwards
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1956)
Lost Horizon (1937)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) - Burt Lancaster as a sleazy, incestuous Broadway gossip columnist
Lost Weekend (1945) - Ray Milland as an alcoholic in a Billy Wilder masterpiece
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in a brilliant epic
The Exorcist (1973)
Rosemary's Baby (1968) - Roman Polanski adaptation of Ira Levin's horror bestseller

Gladiator (2000)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Stagecoach (1939) - John Wayne in seminal John Ford Western - glorious
Wuthering Heights (1939) - Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon on t'moors - romantic perfection
All the King's Men (1950) - Broderick Crawford barnstorms as a populist politician
Detective Story (1952) - Kirk Douglas as angsty, tough detective
The Caine Mutiny (1955) - Humphrey Bogart as increasingly deranged Captain Queeg
The Hustler (1962) - moody adaptation of Walter Tevis's novel about pool-hustling
The Best Man (1965) - annoying liberal and cut-throat rightist battle for presidential nomination
Cape Fear (1962)  - Robert Mitchum as vengeful Max Cady is terrifying

42nd Street (1933) - great songs, boundless energy and endless Depression Era pizzazz
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
To Have & Have Not (1944) - Howard Hawks directs Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart
To Be or Not to Be (1942) - Ernst Lubitsch directs Jack Benny in a sparkling comedy
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - glorious technicolour period musical: Judy Garland was never better
The Thin Man (1934) - a detective and his wife stay permanently pissed, and still solve the crime
Mrs. Miniver (1942) - dodgy British accents abound in stupendously pro-Brit war movie
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - John Ford's last great Western
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - John Ford, John Wayne, the cavalry, Injuns - bliss!
Glory (1989) -  Denzel Washington so deserved his Oscar: Morgan Freeman was great as well

Witness (1985) - Harrison Ford among the Amish
Laura (1944) - a rough detective and a screaming queen are obsessed by a dead dame
The Big Heat (1953) - Gloria Grahame serves gangster Lee Marvin a pot of coffee, nice and hot!
Ransom (1956) -  Glenn Ford in a splendidly right-wing kidnap drama
The Big Sleep (1946) - Bogart and Bacall do Raymond Chandler - perfection results
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1934) "How do you live?" - "I steal!"
Three Days of the Condor (1975) - perfectly-formed spy thriller with Robert Redford
The Petrified Forest (1936) - stagey and talky - but Bogard is brilliant
High Sierra (1941) - well-hard Raoul Walsh film noir with Bogart and Ida Lupino
Angels with Dirty Faces (1939) - Cagney, Bogart, the Dead End Kids

The Roaring Twenties (1939) - Cagney, Bogart, guns and one of the  great death scenes
Key Largo (1948) - Bogart, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson in the Florida Keys - sweaty and tense
Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) - techniclour so vivid, it hurts the eyes!
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) - more glorious Errol Flynn technicolour tosh
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow murderer in this Hitchcock classic
Lady & the Tramp (1955)
Fantasia (1940)
Young Frankenstein (1974) - very funny homage to 1930s Universal horror films
Groundhog Day (1993) - Sunday afternoon film of its decade
Kiss of Death (1947) - Richard Widmark's psychopathic gangster is priceless

Field of Dreams (1989) - and, yes, I cry every time
The Court Jester (1955) - yea, verily, yea
Farewell, My Lovely (1944) - Dick Powell as the most convincing Philip Marlowe of them all
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) - still very funny, surprisingly
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
The Little Foxes (1941) - I despise writer Lillian Hellman, but this is still rivetting
Moby Dick (1956) - Gregory Peck is as wooden as his leg, but it's a powerful film
Bullitt (1968) - incomprehensible, but San Francisco is so hip and Steve McQueen is just so cool!
3:10 to Yuma (1957) - for a glum, one-note actor, Glenn Ford starred in many classics
White Heat (1949) - "Made it, Ma - top of the world!" James Cagney - what an actor!

Frankenstein (1931)
Alien (1979) - just...brilliant!
Strangers on a Train (1951) - you scratch my back, and I'll kill your wife...
The Thing (1982) - best pre-CGI special effects ever
The Thing From Another World (1951) - "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!"
Forbidden Planet (1956) - The Tempest in outer space, Jungian pscyhology, and Robby the Robot
One-Eyed Jacks (1961) - unfairly derided Western directed by Marlon Brando: Karl Malden is superb
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) - early film noir Western about a lynching: few laughs, but compelling
Deliverance (1972)
First Blood (1982) - Stallone in the ultimate Vietnam Vet thriller; Brian Dennehy is terrific as a cop

Southern Comfort (1981) - Cajuns vs. National Guardsmen - tense Vietnam War allegory
Starman (1984) - Jeff Bridges is charming and funny as a humanoid alien: truly heart-warming
Mildred Pierce (1945) - Joan Crawford turns the amp up to 11 in crazed "Tiger Mom" melodrama
The Stranger (1946) - Orson Welles directed himself as a secretly Nazi professor
Top Hat (1935) - Astaire, Rogers, "Cheek to Cheek", "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" - fabulous
The Ten Commandments (1956) - yes, it's funny ("Moses! your hair!), but I love it, nevertheless
Paths of Glory (1957) - Stanley Kubrick's brooding WWI anti-war drama: Kirk Douglas is superb
The Magnificent Seven (1960) - how can this not be on a list of great Hollywood films?
The Great Escape (1963) - or this?
Gunga Din (1939) - or this - one of the greatest adventure films ever made?

Elmer Gantry (1960) - Burt Lancaster excels as a corrupt preacher
Inherit the Wind (1960) - Hollywood giants Spencer Tracy and Frederick March go head-to-head
The King & I (1956) - "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!"
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Woman of the Year (1943) - Hepburn and Tracy: perfect counterpoint
Jane Eyre (1943)
Mutiny on The Bounty (1935)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Panic in the Streets (1950) - film noir: officials fight to prevent a plague epidemic in New Orleans
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - Coen Brothers give us The Odyssey in the '30s Deep South

Dirty Harry (1971) - audiences lapped up this two-fingered response to left-liberal policing methods
An American in Paris (1951)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Rain Man (1988) - sneer all you want at this "cute disabled man" movie: it works, Hoffman is great
Fury (1936) - Spencer Tracy escapes a lynching, seeks revenge - Fritz Lang directed
DOA (1950) - inventive, blisteringly-paced film noir tale of a man who reports his own murder
Poltergeist (1982) - funny, frightening, silly - horror entertainment at its Hollywoody best
Of Mice and Men (1939) - superb adaptation of a John Steinbeck depression-era story
Patton: Lust for Glory (1970) - George C. Scott is simply magnificent as "Old Blood and Guts"
Finding Nemo (2003) - charming, funny, engrossing - Pixar at its sparkling best

Oh, damn - I missed out Master and Commander: Far Side of the World (2003), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) andAdam's Rib (1949)! Well, I guess I'll just have to do a third list at some stage.


  1. "The vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true". Excellent list, many of them passing your own test of films you have to watch if you chance upon them on the TV, even if you already own the DVD. I know these things are always subjective but I was sorry that neither list had room for The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes or Lost in Translation. However, that has just prompted me to plan a change of programme this evening and dig one of them out.

    1. The first two films you mention are British, and therefore ineligible for inclusion. As for Lost in Translation, I just didn't get it, despite usually finding Bill Murray funny. Maybe I haven't spent enough time abroad.

      Danny Kaye's an odd one. Everyone thought he was funny in the '50s, but by the '80s - maybe even by the start of the '70s - nobody did. (The career of Dr Jonathan Miller, who was a great Kaye fan, followed a similar trajectory.) When I was a lad, I almost wore out a 10" LP of Danny Kaye's comic songs, and now find them practically unlistenable - but quite a few of the films still work. Last year, my son entered the sitting room while "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was showing on TV. I assumed he'd slope off after a few minutes - but he watched the last hour of it, laughing at all the funny bits. He'd never heard of Danny Kaye - I doubt most people under 40 have. I suspect it's the glutinously sentimental passages in many of his films that turned people off - when he's being warm and lovely, you want to smash his face in. Unfortunately, he did a lot of being warm and lovely when he travelled the world for UNICEF after his film career died (while being cold towards his own children). I boycotted him for the last ten years of his life after he appeared on The Parkinson Show and told us that the world needed more of one particular four-letter word - and spelled out "L,O,V, E" in honeyed tones while gazing at Parky with dead, loveless eyes. I spelled out a different four-letter word in response.

      Sorry - rambling. "The Inspector General" and "Knock on Wood" are good too, I seem to remember.

  2. Read the AFI list and your own list with great interest. If the AFI can drop "The Third Man" and "Fargo" and continue to give "Citizen Kane" the top rating there is something wrong . "Kane" has become a cinematic shibboleth [does anyone watch it anymore? I suspect the same goes for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Inherit the Wind" and "Stagecoach"? And Orson Welles is now viewed as highly overrated? Although his comic turn in "Touch of Evil" was priceless.

    These 100 Best Film lists are pretty meaningless because they cover too many categories and very few people are interested in all categories [I personally have no interest in musicals, sci-fi or horror so have not seen 25-30 films in either list. Does that disqualify me from commenting? Probably yes].

    Nevertheless, please allow me to add my two bits. I could give you a 100 list of great "Westerns" [probably a couple of lists], crime drama, Hollywood film noir, historical fiction or war, but let me suggest the following 15 for future inclusion in your "general" list [the order has no significance] :

    1. The Defiant Ones . Poitier and Curtis.
    2. The Outfit. Duvall and Joe Don Baker.
    3. Billy Budd. Terence Stamp. [Nationality, border-line].
    4. In a Lonely Place. Grahame and Bogart.
    5. The Big Knife. Steiger as Stanley Shriner Hoff with white crew cut.
    6. Hang my Gallows High. Mitchum.
    7. Kiss To-Morrow Goodbye. Cagney.
    8. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. Victor Buono very sinister as always.
    9. The Bad and the Beautiful. Kirk Douglas.
    10. The Killing. Sterling Hayden. Timothy Carey was a superb character actor as well as mentally ill.
    11. The Killers. Both versions - 1946 and 1964. Ava Gardner and then the Prez himself.
    12. They Died with their Boots On. Flynn. He could act very well.
    13. Gilda. George Macready - another wonderful character actor.
    14. Suicide Mission. Jenny Mullholland as Miss Penny. Outstanding performance.
    15. Queen Christina . Greta Garbo. Yes, Peter Cook...I know.

    In terms of Westerns, the three best ones ever made never make it on to any list, it seems. They are "My Darling Clementine" [Ford, 1946], "Red River" [Hawkes , 1949] and "Ride the High Country" [Peckinpah, 1962].

  3. The Outfit was a great movie - used to be on BBC fairly regularly but I haven't seen it for years. Have recently caught the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Maltese Falcon on TCM - just reminds me how much I love those "older" (or Classic) films. Once upon a time they were shown regularly but times move on I suppose.
    Oh and I would have kept the searchers on my list.
    Great blog - just found it.
    Jon T

    1. Well, that's two votes for The Outfit, and it's a great hard-as-nails film, so it definitely gets in my second alternative 100 - when I get round to it.

      I don't know which TV platform you use, Anonymous, but the TalkingPicturesTV channel on Sky is a great source of old movies of the obscurer sort - just as good as TCM. I found myself watching The Intruder last night, a 1953 film which starts with ex tank regiment colonel Jack Hawkins returning home to find his house being burgled by Michael Medway, one of his old crew. Dennis Price does a great turn as a sleek, cowardly bounder. Not absolutely top-drawer film-making, perhaps, .but better-made. more engrossing and better-acted than 99% of the new films available on Sky TV. BBC 4 sometimes shows black and white classics, but only if they tie in with a new film-related documentary. Personally, I'd like to see the BBC use BBC 4 to show some 1950s and 60s European classics, which don't seem to get shown anywhere on TV these days (BBC 2 used to regularly feature them many years ago).

  4. Scott

    As your and the AFIs top hundred shows there is so much great stuff out there that we never get to see.
    The Intruder certainly rings a bell - or is it that I am remembering Dennis Price from another movie (he was always effortlessly good as the cynical bounder type)? .
    I'm stuck with Virgin at the moment but I am thinking of moving to freeview.
    And yes 50's 60's European classics - why not.

    My top 100 would certainly include Dawn of the Dead and Peckinpah's Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (I know but that's just me).

  5. Midnight Express, 1978, the ultimate movie in the prison genre, stirring musical score that brings a lump to the throat, not only far better than Shawshank but based on a true story.

    1. I know my classification system's somewhat eccentric, Luke C - but I regard Midnight Express as mainly a British film, and it appears on my list of 100 Best British films (in the second 50) on this blog here:
      ...and on my Pinterest board of greatest British films here: