Today in Movie History: October 3

The Maltese Falcon belongs in that rarefied air of movies that exist solely to be loved by everyone who sees them. Besides signaling the rise of film noir in the 1940s, it made Humphrey Bogart an icon, launched the brilliant career of director John Huston, and turned its titular “dingus” into one of the most recognizable images in cinema. Small wonder it’s considered  one of the greatest films ever made. It opened today in 1941.

Somewhere in Time, Jeannot Szwarc’s time-traveling romance based on a story by Richard Matheson, was roundly panned upon first release. The intervening years have turned it into a cult hit… to the point where fans gather every year at the hotel on Mackinac Island, MI where it was filmed to get their geek on. While technically science fiction, the romance is what sells it, making the fervor and dedication among its fans fairly unique for movies of this sort. And I confess: the romance works quite well, aided by a gorgeous score from John Barry and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, who found the fragility and tragedy in their characters. Somewhere in Time opened today in 1980.

If you just read the basic description of The Trouble With Harry — a black comedy about a corpse that won’t stay buried — then saw director Alfred Hitchcock’s name attached to it, you’d think it was a masterpiece. Sadly, it never plays quite as smartly or as amusingly as it should: a meandering affair the ultimately stands far lower on the canon than one would hope. That said, Hitchcock is Hitchcock, and we’re giving it a shout-out here on those merits alone. It opened today in 1955.

 

Today in Movie History: September 8

There’s only one movie today, but we’re guessing you’ve heard of it. Following the success of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock acquired the rights to a Robert Bloch potboiler loosely based on the Ed Gein serial murder case. Paramount — who found the book morally repulsive — refused to give him the budget he wanted, so he shot it in black and white on the Universal lot using the crew of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. He gave up his fee in exchange for owning a piece of the print, and — freed from normal studio constraints — he was able to push the boundaries of the crumbing Hays censorship code in ways none of his previous films did.

The film was Psycho, and today it sits on the short list of the greatest movies of all time. Above and beyond the copious sex and violence (scandalous for the time), it shattered narrative conventions (killing off the protagonist 30 minutes into the picture), explored deep currents of Freudian psychology, and more or less invented the slasher genre out of whole cloth, all while ensuring that none of us ever took a shower again without just a little hesitation. It opened today in 1960. The horror genre is still trying to catch up.

Speaking of which… while it’s not quite ready to challenge Psycho for its place at the top of the heap, Andy Muschietti’s amazing adaption of Stephan King’s It shares are release date with it. Featuring a talented cast of young actors and Bill Skarsgard’s singularly terrifying clown, it opened just one year ago, but may be on its way to becoming a horror classic.

Today in Movie History: August 1

One of the brilliant things about directors like Alfred Hitchcock is how their work evolves over time… and in this case, how his work in England differs from his work in Hollywood. The 39 Steps makes an outstanding example of earlier efforts informing later triumphs. This one follows one of the master’s standard scenarios — the innocent man wrongly accused —  into a marvelous chase/romance that helped set the blueprint for subsequent classics like North by Northwest. It opened today in 1935.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has gone though its ups and downs in the adaptation department. One of the better ones is The Omega Man, which takes a number of liberties from the source material, but counters with solid sci-fi concepts. Charlton Heston plays the only survivor of a plague that has wiped out the rest of humanity: doing battle with ghoulish survives in the middle of an abandoned Los Angeles. It opened today in 1971.

 

Today in Movie History: June 1

Though it didn’t foster a full-bore revival of the Hollywood musical, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! succeeded in updating the baggy old genre for an entirely new generation. Luhrmann’s trademark attention span deficit and the expert addition of modern pop songs into the mix turned an exercise in empty style into a beloved modern classic, and while I struggle with the film’s abrupt shifts in emotional tone (it’s all a joke or it isn’t guys), it’s hard to dispute the sheer joy of moviemaking that bursts from every shot. It opened today in 2001.

Remakes are common in Hollywood, but far more rare are remakes from the same director. Having already given us a version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, Alfred Hitchcock decided to take it on again twenty years later: making use of technical advances like widescreen and Technicolor, as well as an American family in the lead instead of a British one. Both versions have their charms, but with big stars like Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day headlining this one, it’s by far the most prominent. It opened today in 1956.

Horror movies have always taken especial glee in the monstrous side of birth, but few directors could tap into that anxiety like David Cronenberg. He perfected the notion with efforts like Dead Ringers and The Fly, but first explored in depth with The Brood, which put him on the map… and made it extremely clear that cinema would never be the same again. Oliver Reed plays a scientist, likely of the mad variety, experimenting on an unhinged mother in an effort to cure her of her demons. As you may suspect, wacky mayhem ensures. The Brood opened today in 1979.

Speaking of remakes, most of us have already forgotten the woeful Total Recall double dip from a couple of years ago. Maybe that’s because the original is so gloriously batshit insane that the very notion of remaking it is an exercise in folly. It opened in 1990 and — for better or worse — helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger the biggest star in the world at that time.

Finally, there’s Star Trek III which broke the unspoken rule that odd-numbered Trek movies all had to stink. Faced with the unenviable task of following up The Wrath of Khan, they turned to Leonard Nimoy himself to deirect. He took the story in a wildly different direction, and though far from perfect, it made us accept and even embrace Mr. Spock’s resurrection as something more than a cheap gimmick. Star Trek III opened today in 1984.

 

Today in Movie History: May 9

Alfred Hitchcock had his share of classics, and I confess that there are one or two I prefer to this one. But when talk comes around to the greatest movies of all time, Vertigo is usually a prime contender. Jimmy Stewart’s performance may stand as a career best, and Hitchcock’s incursion into forbidden and frankly terrifying corners of the human psyche will haunt you for days. Vertigo opened 60 years ago today in 1958.

A number of young actors have made a splash by winning or being nominated for Oscars at an age when most of us are worried about how hard the driver’s test will be. But none were younger that Tatum O’Neal who, at the tender age of 10, scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar opposite her real-life dad Ryan in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, playing a father-daughter team of con artists. Among the actresses O’Neal beat was Madeline Kahn,  whose career spiked after her tart performance here as a Depression-Era call girl. The film opened today in 1971.

The other notable film that opened today has the singular honor of iconic pop culture status despite being demonstrably horrible. The original Friday the 13th started out as a quick-fix attempt to cash in on the superior chills of Halloween: made on a microscopic budget and raking in the cash thanks to its signature gimmick. It has its adherents (as does the franchise it spawned), and its signature gross-out moment features a very young Kevin Bacon getting an arrow through his throat, but by objective standards, the film itself is just terrible. It opened today in 1980.