A big day for movies starts with the one of the most problematic. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation opened today in 1915, marking a seismic advance in motion pictures as a technical art form while simultaneously pushing a narrative so grotesque it causes one to despair for humanity. Film students are obligated to watch it. Once. Everyone else can probably skip it, and make Griffith’s technical prowess an afterthought to the fact that he may have been single-handedly responsible for the resurrection of the KKK.
If you’re looking for a masterpiece that won’t make you want to punch the wall, there’s Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Taxi Driver, a tale of urban despair that feels more relevant now than ever. Anyone struggling to get the nasty taste of latter-day Robert De Niro movies out of their mouth can revel in his performance here — one of the most unforgettable ever put on screen — along with equally stunning turns from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and Cybil Shepherd.
Five years later, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter Paul Schrader helmed another urban thriller, American Gigolo, which opened today in 1980. Though not in the same league as Taxi Driver, it found an agreeably creepy vibe for its murder mystery and succeeded in turning Richard Gere into a big star.
Speaking of big stars…. for all his career longevity (and despite a late-inning slump disturbingly similar to De Niro’s), Harrison Ford never received an excessive amount of critical respect. The lone exception was Witness, Peter Weir’s police thriller about a good cop hiding among the Pennsylvania Amish that netted Ford his first (and to date only) Academy Award nomination. He lost to William Hurt, and it was the right call, but it’s hard not to be entranced by his layered, surprisingly nuanced performance of a man in a violent job picking his way through a community that rejects all violence.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention The Petrified Forest, Archie Mayo’s adaptation of the celebrated play about the occupants of a remote diner held hostage by a gangster on the run. Bette Davis and Leslie Howard got top billing as the scenario’s ostensible romantic couple, but the real scene stealer was Humphrey Bogart as the gangster; the film marked his transition away from supporting roles and towards the parts that made him a star. The Petrified Forest opened today in 1936.
Finally, there’s John Carpenter’s The Fog, which opened the same say as American Gigolo in 1980. It’s minor Carpenter at best — he never could get the film’s multiple plot threads to come together and a fine atmosphere sometimes overcomes actual scares — but still demonstrates why the man became a legend in genre filmmaking. (And check out John Houseman’s incredible ghost story to kick the whole thing off.)