Classic Films on DVD

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 11:50 am

The following list of classic films on DVD provides a sampling of cinematic works from the 1930s to the 1960s. Whether you’re looking for tales of teenage rebellion or aging outlaws, there should be something here to meet your needs.

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Citizen Kane (1941) – Fresh off his success on radio and in the theatre, writer/actor/director/everything Orson Welles made his feature film debut with what many consider to be the greatest movie of all time. Telling the life story of the powerful and ultimately unhappy media mogul known as Charles Foster Kane (Welles), the film was said to draw inspirations from both Welles’ own experiences and those of William Randolph Hearst. The latter, a powerful newspaper magnate of his time, didn’t take kindly to the portrayal, and he prohibited any of his media holdings from printing or broadcasting reviews. A dud at the box office, Citizen Kane would eventually find an audience on television and grow to become a much-loved classic. Its effect on later generations of directors was staggering, as Welles introduced and popularized numerous filmmaking techniques. For a bit more on the subject, see this Citizen Kane analysis.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – The multi-talented Orson Welles followed up Citizen Kane with this film adapted from the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington. The story revolves around the Ambersons, a prominent Indianapolis family, and the rise and fall of their fortunes. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the version shown in theatres varied significantly from what Welles intended (thanks to RKO cutting over an hour of footage and adding a happier ending). But despite this tampering, The Magnificent Ambersons is still regarded as a great example of American filmmaking. Starring Joseph Cotton, Tim Holt, and Dolores Costello.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – Nearly one month after James Dean’s untimely death in a car crash, this powerful Nicholas Ray film was released to both critical and commercial success. Dean stars as Jim Stark, a 17-year-old delinquent who enrolls at a new high school, falls in love, and deals in a most dangerous fashion with some local bullies. Set in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Rebel Without a Cause puts forth the notion that almost any child will slide in lawlessness without strong parenting. Co-stars Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood both received Oscar nominations, and a young Dennis Hopper appears in the role of “Goon.”

The Wild Bunch (1969) – Sam Peckinpah’s look at the death of the Old West and the less-than-appealing prospect of getting old. A bombastic and bloody affair, The Wild Bunch revolves around a gang of aging outlaws (including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez) who head down into Mexico and fall in with a local warlord (Emilio Fernandez). Meanwhile, they’re pursued by a former member of their gang (Robert Ryan), who’s been released from prison and offered a full pardon for their capture. Peckinpah uses slow-motion to great effect, especially during the film’s iconic climax involving a Gatling gun and hundreds of bullet-riddled Mexicans. Female viewers may be a bit turned off by the misogyny, but men will absolutely dig the blood and the grit.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Depicting the world of journalism as a rotten cesspool of corruption, this nasty little motion picture stars Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, an unethical newspaper columnist, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, a scheming press agent willing to do anything to boost the exposure of his clients. Caught in the middle of these self-serving individuals is Hunsecker’s sister (Susan Harrison), a young woman dating a jazz musician (Martin Milner) to the disgust and disapproval of her brother. Alexander Mackendrick provides superb direction, and Hunsecker would go on to be voted as one of the 50 greatest movie villains by the American Film Institute.

Sons of the Desert (1933) – The comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy give their finest film performance as members of a fraternal organization known as the Sons of the Desert. Both take an oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago, but Oliver encounters more than a little resistance from his wife. That’s when things get really wacky, as they resort to increasingly outlandish methods to get to the Windy City on time. If you’re looking for classic films on DVD, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Blowup (1966) – If you’ve ever seen the Brian De Palma/John Travolta film Blow Out, then you’ve got a taste of what awaits you in director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language film. The story follows a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) as he enjoys London in the swinging 60s and unwittingly takes pictures of an impending murder. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, the film features a score from Herbie Hancock and cameos from The Yardbirds and Monty Python’s Michael Palin.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) – A masterpiece of heartbreak and obsession, this Max Ophuls film stars Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a talented but self-absorbed pianist living in Vienna during the early 1900s. With an impending duel acting as a bookend, the story occurs in flashbacks and shows the doomed relationship between Brand and a beautiful-yet-obsessive fan (Joan Fontaine). If you’ve ever been in love with someone who wouldn’t give you the time of day, then you’ll be able to relate to this tear-jerker. Sometimes tough to find at a traditional movie rental chain, Letter From an Unknown Woman can always be purchased from Critic’s Choice Video.

Gun Crazy (1950) – While it was limited by the restrictive codes of the time, Gun Crazy still remains a film noir classic fueled by lust and gunpowder. John Dall stars as Bart Tare, a former soldier who happens to love guns in a really big way. When he runs into a carnival sharpshooter named Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), it’s a match made in Heaven (more like Hell, actually). Before you can say “precursor to Bonnie and Clyde,” the lusty couple embark on a series of hold-ups destined to end in tragedy. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo , the blacklisted member of The Hollywood Ten, co-wrote the script under the alias Millard Kaufman.

Spartacus (1960) – After only a week of shooting, star Kirk Douglas had director Anthony Mann replaced. His choice for the next guy to perch behind the camera? A young filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick. That’s right, Stanley Kubrick helms this epic and somewhat factual tale of a slave uprising against the Roman Empire. Douglas is the noble Thracian who fights for love and freedom, while Laurence Olivier makes a great villain as the Roman politician who’s all-too-happy to grind his opponents into the dirt. The fight scenes are massive and brutal (love those flaming logs), and the fine supporting cast includes Peter Ustinov (in an Oscar-winning role), Jean Simmons, and Charles Laughton.

When it comes to classic films on DVD, I’ve barely even scratched the surface. Still, this should be more than enough to get you started. For even more selections, head over to Critic’s Choice Video and take a look at their inventory. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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