10 Best Films of All Time: Katie Doyle

5. Psycho (1960)

Psycho is truly one of those great epiphanies of film theory. Almost every film student and budding cinephile has been lectured at great length about the mastery of Alfred Hitchcock’s direction. But as one takes an initial curious look through his filmography, the evidence for his reputation isn’t immediately apparent. That is until you watch Psycho. You finally get it. To make it even better, Psycho exists as one giant flex.

Having worked in the film industry since the 1920s, Alfred Hitchcock’s ambition to create Psycho arose from his growing fatigue in directing his massive star-studded blockbusters of the 50s, including Vertigo and North by Northwest. It was also born from a challenge when critics, dubbed Les Diaboliques, were claimed by French independent director Henri-Georges Clouzot as having out-Hitchcocked Alfred Hitchcock himself. This would not do. Additionally, Hitchcock was intrigued by the rising success of the B-movie: if these inexpensive and unrefined black and white offerings could make a killing at the box office, how much would a budgeted yet expertly crafted black and white movie make? Thus, Psycho was born.

It is beyond fascinating that this personal challenge arguably marks the beginning of modern cinema. It definitely mirrors the current trending interest in True Crime, being the first major film to draw inspiration from real-life serial killer Ed Gein (with Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs to follow). However, the most trailblazing aspect was the director’s approach to the way he promoted the film – he effectively used the power of the brand to generate excitement, something that wasn’t typically seen until the rise of major film franchises in the mid-to-late 70s with the Jaws and Star Wars.

By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was a household name. He wasn’t just know by name – his director trademarks of cameoing in his movies was by now greatly anticipated by fans. He was also regularly seen on the growing medium of television in his very own ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, a regular series of crime-based short stories. Hence Hitchcock used his ever-recognisable silhouette to Psycho‘s advantage – theatres showing the movie were given the strict instructions to not admit anyone to the screening after the film had started, with customers themselves reminded with carboard cutouts of Hitchcock himself reproachfully pointing at his watch. His methods were also very akin to the modern attitude towards so-called spoilers. After buying the rights to the novel of the same name, Hitchcock went to great lengths to buy up as many copies as he could to keep the film’s crucial twist a secret.

Furthermore, one of the most famous trailers of all time is the one for Psycho. It is very atypical of most theatrical trailers, standing at over six minutes and featuring no footage from the actual film. Instead, Alfred himself shows us around the sets of his film, including the Bates Motel and House, describing them in relation to a crime scene. He solicits interest by beginning to describe a few gory details, but then vaguely shrugs away anything potentially concrete before moving on to the next point of interest. What’s fascinating is the trailer is akin to the behind the scenes recordings that were a must-include for DVDs and Blu-Rays that would fill up the book shelves of most cinephiles half a century later.

The famous shower scene has been seen countless times in isolation, and so it can be assumed that it has lost its shock value. That’s why it’s all the more important to listen to Hitchcock’s wisdom – Psycho needs to be seen from the beginning. The whole point of this Psycho experiment was to emulate the B-movie schlock of the time, but create something of remarkable quality despite a tight budget. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is not just plot fodder, she’s a fully developed character that was propelling the plot herself by her own actions. We had almost an hour of getting to know her where we grew to really like her, that is before Marion takes that fateful shower. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) himself is a character of incredible depth – although the depiction of his alleged mental illness is medically inaccurate, it is grounded in a certain realism and not used for cheap frights. The horrors of Psycho therefore take on a profound tragic nature, and with Hitchcock’s deft direction alongside Perkins’ “the shy boy next door” performance, Norman Bates stands as one of cinema’s most sympathetic villains. There is almost the curious thought that this on-screen depiction of a murderer is at the source of the toxic trend of serial killer apologists regarding the likes of Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez.

Astounding, then, that Hitchcock’s late black and white experiment resulted in his most modern film.

Recommended for you: Top 10 Alfred Hitchcock Films

4. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is probably the most intimidating film on this list, with some film aficionados assuming its legendary status without actually watching it, instead trusting the words of our current masters: Steven Spielberg claims that Lawrence of Arabia is one of the films that inspired his directing career. The fact it seems to sit in the very highest echelons of cinema with its seven Academy Awards and its unquestioned respect from directing royalty, gives the impression of an unattainable even ancient quality. But this a film that can still inspire the next generation of directors. It still leaves an impact.

Lawrence of Arabia draws inspiration from the autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, of the British Army Officer T.E. Lawrence (played in the film by Peter O’Toole). The film begins with his untimely death (that some still believe was an assassination) and funeral before harking back to Lawrence’s service in World War I when he was a Lieutenant based in Egypt. It is immediately apparent that Lawrence is different to the other officers, unusual even. In fact, it is his individuality that has him pegged for a special mission: because of his already existing interest and knowledge in the native Bedouin desert tribes, he is asked to liaise with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in his efforts of leading an Arab rebellion against the Turks, whom are threatening the British tactical position in the Middle East

What was intended to be a brief reconnaissance transforms into an epic journey and adventure. The prince’s interest in Lawrence is piqued by Lawrence’s knowledge of his culture’s traditions and politics compared to the other British officers, and he agrees with Lawrence’s idea that instead of a a full retreat, Lawrence will lead a surprise attack at Aqaba alongside Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). The journey is arduous, with a perilous crossing of the Nefud desert, but after Lawrence saves an ailing comrade who didn’t make it to the oasis, he is accepted as one of the Arabs’ own, symbolised by the burning of his British army uniform and their replacement with beautiful white Arabic robes.

For this success, the British promote him to major but secretly his work is in disregard of the British Empire’s interest as he enjoys his God-like status amongst his new allies. After he succeeds in winning Damascus, which paves the way towards the unification of the Arab nations, Lawrence is left contemplating the consequences of his actions and finding himself not belonging in either culture.

The conversation surrounding the outstanding quality of Lawrence of Arabia is largely based in its cinematography. It was filmed on location in Jordan, at the real locations Lawrence himself traversed, and the scale and scope of the film was achieved by the use of hundreds of extras, many of whom were real Moroccan and Jordanian soldiers. And let’s not forget the specially made Panavision camera lenses that were used for one shot and were then never used for any other project again. Never has the desert looked so breathtakingly beautiful. Beyond these artistic achievements, the real showing of David Lean’s directing prowess is the human story.

The story of T. E. Lawrence was first introduced to me through this film and the campaign of the British against Turkey is an aspect of the First World War I am mostly ignorant of. Thus, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the best examples of captivating storytelling and immersive cinema, capturing my empathy for a point of view I had never before considered – the depiction of the emotional turbulence of Lawrence still holds up and has the power to resound with even modern audiences.

It could be criticised for the casting of Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn in Arabic roles, but the handling of the Anglo-Arabic relations through the focal point of Lawrence matches with modern sensibilities (especially as the film turned out to be a monster hit in Sharif’s native Egypt). Clearly Lawrence is enamoured with Bedouin culture, and after his capturing of Aqaba, is personally enraged at the idea of the Arab’s fight for unity is being exploited by the British. However, his presumptuous attitude over his newly adopted culture, in which he mistakes his own bloodlust for lofty destiny, leads to him being derided by his new family. This deep examination of a person’s inner turmoil and conscience is beyond the expectations of the craggy war movie I expected it to be, but also surpasses what is achieved by its modern contemporaries.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If we agree with the words of Martin Scorsese and consider the works of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be the theme parks of film, then surely Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the Mona Lisa of film. It is tantamount to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Just as those who visit the work of Michelangelo stare upwards agog and in awe, those who make the choice to watch 2001 on the big screen cannot help but to do the same.

A true pinnacle of cinematic mastery that most current filmmakers cannot even begin to hope to emulate, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t just change cinema, it changed the world. The most famous demonstration of this being with the film premiering just over a year before the moon landing – an ongoing popular conspiracy theory is that the televised moon landing of Apollo 11 was a fake filmed in a studio by Stanley Kubrick.

It is not Space Odyssey‘s mere proximity to this historical event that has hatched this conspiracy, it is the startling realism that puts even the most modern science fiction films to shame. It remains a truly tangible vision of the future of space travel.

It is an understatement to say that Stanley Kubrick is a perfectionist with his reputation of driving many an actor to near insanity. Beyond Kubrick’s ever constant demands of retakes, with rumours of all recorded footage for the film being 200 times longer than the final product, 2001‘s victory was a team effort (notable by the technicians’ disgruntlement towards Kubrick and only Kubrick being the named recipient for the Academy Award for Special Visual Effects). Despite these politics, Kubrick knew that for the film to have any effectiveness, he would have to invest into the necessary special effects, as they took up more than half of the movie’s $10.5million budget, and to consult with the experts of the field.

Filmed in the UK, many of the special effects shots regarding the models of space crafts were overseen by the team who had worked on ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’, which any Gerry Anderson fan could attest to the wisdom of. Douglas Trumbull was headhunted after Kubrick had seen his work in the 1964 World’s Fair documentary To The Moon and Beyond – a technique he had developed called Slitscan photography was used to create the legendary Stargate sequence which stunned audiences with its colourful visuals. Most endearing of these, was the consultation of beloved physicist Carl Sagan; according to his book “Cosmic Connections”, he was asked what would be the best way to depict extra-terrestrial lifeforms, to which he replied that it would be likely that such beings would not resemble any life-forms seen on Earth and that following that path would introduce Kubrick’s film to “at least an element of falseness”.

It is probably Sagan’s warning of the danger of creating disbelief in the film that gifted us with what is now one of the most iconic images of cinema, the black monolith. The appearance of this simple black rectangle still stirs something within us even after fifty years, the most famous example of which was a young man crying out “It’s God! It’s God!” before diving through the screen.

As silly as this anecdote is, it helps to illustrate how immersive and powerful 2001: A Space Odyssey truly is. It is not a movie, it’s an experience. Droves of teens and young people went to see it upon its initial release, specifically to have a mind-altering trip, dropping acid during the psychedelic Stargate sequence. Like all great works of art, A Space Odyssey provides a place for reflection and introspection. It is almost impossible to sit through and not have some deep beliefs and opinions affirmed. Additionally, like all great art there is room for interpretation. Some will repeat the mantra of the inspiration of the film’s unofficial theme music “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – God is Dead. Others will see the black monolith’s call to humanity from across the cosmos as a representation of an ethereal higher power.

Either way, whatever philosophy one subscribes to, it is impossible not to be moved by the majestic beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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