Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

 

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

Last May and June marked the fortieth anniversary of a well-known historical event – namely the Watergate burlaries. The ensuing scandal were investigated by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The pair’s investigations were eventually chronicled in a best-selling book and later, a 1976 movie based upon the book. 

As many know, five men were arrested by the police for breaking and entering the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel during the early hours of June 17, 1972. At least two other break-ins had occurred. But the arrests of Bernard Barker, Vergilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, and James McCord caught the attention ofPost reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their investigations – along with those from Time Magazine and The New York Times – of a series of crimes committed on behalf of the Nixon Administration led to the resignation ofPresident Richard Nixon in August 1974 and a best-selling book that chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigations.

Robert Redford bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book for $450,000 with the notion to adapt it into a film, with him serving as producer. Redford had no intention of acting in “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN”. But someone at Warner Brothers agreed to release the film only if he co-starred in it. Redford agreed to portray Bob Woodward. He also brought aboard Alan J. Pakula as the film’s director and William Goldman as screenwriter. Redford, Pakula and producer Walter Coblenz hired Dustin Hoffman to portray Carl Bernstein. When Post executive editor Ben Bradlee realized that the film was going to be made with or without his approval; he, Woodward and Bernstein made a great effort to serve as the film’s technical advisers. Bradlee hoped that the movie would have a positive impact upon the public’s view on journalism.

After viewing “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (for the umpteenth time), it occurred to me Bradlee’s hope may have come true. At least for a while. The movie was very effective in conveying the dogged investigation that Woodward and Bernstein underwent to uncover the Watergate scandal. Mind you, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” only chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation from the arrest of the men involved, to their discovery of Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman‘s involvement, and finally to January 20, 1973; the day of Nixon’s second inauguration. In other words, it covered only the first seven months of the scandal, unlike Woodward and Bernstein’s book. And the phrase – “Follow the money” – had been invented for the movie. It was never featured in the book.

But who cares about these minor differences? “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” still managed to be a superb look into both the investigative process for journalists (something that today’s journalists need to study). It also provided great character studies of both Woodward and Bernstein, their interaction as a team, and also those whom they worked for at theWashington Post – especially Ben Bradlee, Harry M. Rosenfeld, and Howard Simmons. One of the more positive aspects of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation in the movie dealt with the journalists’ handling of the various people they interviewed. I really found it fascinating – especially the scenes that featured the team’s interactions with Judy Hoback , Hugh Sloan Jr.Donald Segretti and W. Mark Felt aka “Deep Throat”.

Even though Pakula and Goldman went through a great deal on focusing upon the movie’s portrayals of the characters – major and minor, it never eluded the fact that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was all about the Watergate break-in and the Nixon Administration. What I found amazing about the movie’s plotting was that it did not focus on Nixon and his men right away. To emphasize the pair’s dogged investigation – especially from their point of view – the movie slowly but firmly widened the spotlight from that final break-in in June 1972 to the array of tricks, plots and crimes that members of the Nixon Administration planned to ensure the President’s re-election in November.

David Shire’s score for “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” struck me as subtle and very fitting for the movie’s themes of subterfuge, paranoia and secrets, while I was watching the film. But I have to be honest . . . it did not strike me as particularly memorable. On the other hand, I was more than impressed by Gordon Willis’ photography. I enjoyed his use of shadows, especially in the scenes that featured Woodward’s meetings with “Deep Throat”. I also enjoyed his use of deep focus photography. I found them very effective in the Washington Post scenes. More than anything, I enjoyed how Willis gave the movie, especially the exterior shots of Washington D.C. a natural look that was the hallmark of 1970s cinema.

But I cannot talk about “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” without discussing the movie’s performances. I tried to think of one performance that seemed out of step or simply bad. And I realized that I could not. The movie featured some truly outstanding performances. One, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” featured cameo performances from those who were known at the time or future stars. First-rate performances came from the likes of Polly Holliday, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, Carl Franklin, Valerie Curtin, John McMartin, Lindsay Crouse, Allyn Ann McLerie and Meredith Baxter. But there were supporting performances that I found exceptional. Stephen Collins gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Hugh Sloan Jr., the Republican aide who was disgusted by the illegal activities of the Nixon Administration. Martin Balsam was great as Post editor Howard Simmons, one of those who had nurtured the careers of younger journalists like Woodward and Bernstein. And I especially enjoyed Jack Warden’s colorful portrayal of Harry Rosenfeld, the Post editor that oversaw the Watergate coverage. Jane Alexander received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Judy Hoback, a bookeeper for CRP. She deserved the attention, thanks to her ability to convey Hoback’s jittery personality in such a subtle manner. And Jason Robards won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Ben Bradlee. I thought his portrayal of Bradlee would be all over the map. Much to my delight, he managed to keep it tight and entertaining at the same time.

Aside from director Alan J. Pakula, the two men who really held this movie together like glue were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They were superb as Woodward and Bernstein. It seemed a pity that neither was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Then again, if that had happened, their nominations would have guaranteed the victory of a third party. If I had my way, I would have allowed them to share the award. Both Redford and Hoffman were like a well-oiled team. The actors not only delved into the individual personalities of their characters, but also made it easy for moviegoers to see how two such men disparate men became such an effective journalistic team. They made one of the best on-screen acting team I have ever seen . . . period. And it is a pity that people rarely acknowledge this.

I am not saying that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is a flawless film. There is no such thing as a movie that is flawless in my eyes. However, the only flaws that come to mind is that the movie only covered the first seven months of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation and it utilized a phrase that was never used in real life or featured in the 1974 book. Otherwise, I feel that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is one of the best movies to be released in the 1970s. And to this day, I find it hard to believe that of all movies, it turned out to be “ROCKY” that beat it for the Best Picture Oscar.

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

Four years after the success of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, producer John Bradbourne focused his attention upon adapting another Agatha Christie novel for the screen. In the end, he decided to adapt Christie’s 1937 novel, ”DEATH ON THE NILE”

Instead of bringing back Sidney Lumet to direct, Bradbourne hired journeyman action director John Guillermin to helm the new film. And instead of re-casting Albert Finney, Bradbourne hired Peter Ustinov for the pivotal role of Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. It would turn out to be the first of six times he would portray the character. The ironic thing about ”DEATH ON THE NILE” is that although ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” had received more acclaim – the point of being regarded as the finest adaptation of any Christie novel – my heart belongs first and foremost to the 1978 movie.

One might ask – how can that be? ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is highly regarded by critics and moviegoers alike. It even managed to collect a few Academy Awards. And its story – a revenge plot that centered around the past kidnapping of a five year-old child – has a great deal of pathos and depth. Yet . . . my favorite Christie movie is still ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Its production never struck me as over-the-top as the 1974 movie. And I believe that it perfectly matched the movie’s plot about Poirot’s efforts to solve the murder of a wealthy Anglo-American heiress during a luxury cruise down the Nile River. Most importantly, because the actor portraying Poirot came from Central European stock, he WAS NOT inclined to portray the detective in an exaggerated manner that British and American actors like Finney and Tony Randall were prone to do. But if I must be honest, I simply enjoyed the movie’s adaptation and Guillermin’s direction.

As I had stated earlier, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, during a cruise down the Nile River. A vacationing Hercule Poirot did not take very long to discover that most of the passengers either bore a grudge against the heiress or wanted something she possessed. The suspects included Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend who was once engaged to her new husband Simon Doyle; Linnet’s American attorney Andrew Pennington, who has been embezzling money from her inheritance before her marriage; a wealthy American dowager and kleptomaniac Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler, who has an eye for Linnet’s pearls; Miss Bowers, Mrs. Van Schuyler’s companion, whose father had been ruined by Linnet’s father; Salome Otterbourne, an alcoholic novelist who is being sued for libel by Linnet; Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs. Otterbourne’s embittered, yet devoted daughter; James Ferguson, a young Communist who resents Linnet’s wealth; Dr. Ludvig Bessner, a Swiss clinical doctor whose methods that Linnet has spoken against; and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s French maid that is being prevented from marrying a man who lives in Egypt. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; Colonel Race, a friend of Poirot and a fellow detective, who is acting as a representative for Linnet’s British attorneys; and Poirot. Most of them had a reason to kill Linnet Doyle . . . and the opportunity to kill her, save one.

Unlike ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, not all of the characters featured in Christie’s 1937 novel appeared in the 1978 film. Which did not bother me, since the deleted literary characters had struck me as the least interesting. Ironically, many of these deleted characters had the strongest motives to murder Linnet Doyle in the novel. Only Jacqueline de Bellefort, Andrew Pennington and Mrs. Van Schuyler made the transition from novel to movie with their motives intact. Another change from the novel resulted in ALL of the suspects either harboring a reason to kill Linnet. Although, I must admit that I found Jim Ferguson’s motive rather slim. Political and economical repugnance toward an obvious capitalist like Linnet Doyle as a motive seemed to be stretching it a bit to me. And most of the suspects, as Poirot revealed, had an opportunity to commit the deed. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (who did not receive credit for his work on the ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” screenplay) may have went a bit too far with this scenario. But if I must be perfectly honest, I have nothing against these changes. In fact, they made the movie a little more entertaining for me.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” had a first-rate cast that had obviously enjoyed themselves. This especially seemed to be the case with Bette Davis, who portrayed Mrs. Van Schuyler. The literary version of the character seemed to be a humorless tyrant. Davis’ version of the character possessed a sly, yet malicious sense of humor that she constantly used to torment her long suffering companion, Miss Bowers. Yet, Davis also gave Mrs. Van Schuyler a sense of privilege to make her slightly autocratic. Another performance that I found highly entertaining, although flamboyant, belonged to Angela Landsbury (the future Jane Marple and the future Jessica Fletcher) as the alcoholic has-been novelist, Salome Otterbourne. Did Landsbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Otterbourne struck me as over-the-top? Yep. In spades. Did I care? Not really. Why? Because the literary version of Salome Otterbourne struck me as even more over-the-top . . . and less likeable. Whereas Angela Landsbury gaven a flamboyant performance, George Kennedy gave a far more restrained one as Andrew Pennington, Linnet Doyle’s embezzling American attorney. One of my favorite scenes involving Kennedy featured a moment when Pennington reacted to Simon Doyle’s admission of a lack of business skills. Anyone could see Pennington’s idea of dealing with the more gullible Doyle instead of Linnet, gleaming in Kennedy’s eyes.

In my review of the James Bond movie, ”MOONRAKER”, I had accused Lois Chiles of giving a slightly wooden performance. Granted, I would never view her as an exceptional actress, I must admit that she gave a much better performance in ”DEATH ON THE NILE”, as the wealthy and slightly autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The amazing thing about Chiles’ performance was that she could have easily portrayed Linnet as a one-note bitch. Instead, the actress managed to successfully convey more complexities into her character, also revealing a charming woman, a good friend (somewhat), and a warm and passionate spouse. Simon MacCorkindale gave a solid performance as the straight-forward Simon Doyle – Jacqueline’s former fiancé and Linnet’s new husband. MacCorkindale not only conveyed Simon’s charm, but also the character’s simple nature, lack of imagination and an inability to realize how much he had truly hurt his former fiancée. If it were not for Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot, I would have declared Mia Farrow’s performance as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort as the best one in the movie. Instead, I will simply state that I believe she gave the second best performance. Emotionally, her Jacqueline seemed to be all over the map – angry, resentful, passionate, vindictive, remorseful and giddily in love. Yet somehow, Farrow managed to keep the many facets of Jackie’s personality in control and not allow them to overwhelm her. I especially enjoyed her interactions with Ustinov, as she portrayed a reluctant disciple to his mentor. The pair had an interesting and strong screen chemisty.

I could also say the same about Ustinov’s interactions with David Niven, who portrayed fellow detective Colonel Race. Niven’s portrayal was charming and at the same time, very humorous. The interesting thing is that Ustinov used to be Niven’s batman (personal servant to a commissioned military officer) during World War II before the pair became good friends. This friendship permeated their scenes together. But more importantly, Peter Ustinov took the role of Hercule Poirot and made it his own. Just as David Suchet would do nearly two decades later. Ustinov managed to inject his own brand of humor into the role without wallowing in some caricature of the Continental European. More importantly, I believe that Ustinov did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s intelligence, sense of justice and formidable personality.

Like its 1974 predecessor, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” could boast a superb production, thanks to the crew that John Bradbourne had hired. Anthony Powell designed the movie’s costumes, evoking an era set during the early 1930s. I must admit that I found that interesting, considering that the novel had been published in 1937 and possibly written in 1936. Although a good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Egypt, I had been surprised to learn that many of the scenes aboard the S.S. Karnak had been filmed in England – both interiors and exteriors. It was a credit to both cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designers Peter Murton, along with Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow that the film managed to convey the movie’s setting of a small and exclusive Nile River steamboat with such clarity and elegance.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” was not without its flaws. Well, I can only think of one at the moment. Actor I.S. Johar portrayed the S.S. Karnak’s unnamed manager. Unfortunately, Johar’s portrayal of the steamboat’s manager invoked strong memories of the many actors and actresses of non-European descent that found themselves stuck in comic relief roles during the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And ”DEATH ON THE NILE” had been filmed in 1977 and released in 1978. Johar found himself stuck in a clichéd and humiliating role and I suspect that Guillermin, Schaffer and Bradbourne are to blame for allowing such a role in the film.

But you know what? Despite that one major complaint, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” ended up becoming my favorite adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It may not be considered the best among film critics and moviegoers. But then again, I have never been inclined to blindly follow popular opinion.