I love old movies. My wife… does not. This is a sticking point for us when it comes to deciding what we want to watch together; on the rare occasions she says we can watch whatever you want she never forgets to add but nothing old and in black and white.
I don’t think my spouse is alone in being wrong about classic cinema — and her objection isn’t really about them largely being in black and white, though that’s a part of it. There’s also the simple fact that moviemaking is iterative, like any other young art form, and it has changed a hell of a lot since some of the first moviegoers were terrified a train was going to drive off the screen and smash them flat. (Though before you share that particular bit of trivia yourself, it’s worth knowing that it’s probably apocryphal.)
Movies were just different back then. They were written differently. They were edited differently — making it up as they went, filmmakers literally had to teach audiences the language of narrative film. And they were certainly acted differently, which is my spouse’s chief complaint. Yeah, people in old movies sound weird (at least until you learn to love the mid-Atlantic accent.)
But different isn’t bad, and old movies aren’t inherently inferior just because the art of making them has advanced over the decades. You could make the comparison to reading Elizabethan or Victorian literature — which feels like homework to many — but I’d argue that it’s more akin to training your palate and learning to appreciate food and drinks that don’t go down easy the first time (think wine or black coffee).
In this slideshow, I’ve rounded up 10 classics that will make it easy to teach yourself to appreciate the cinema of the last century, from the Golden Age of Hollywood through the early 1960s, when the studio system collapsed and movies began to more closely resemble those of today. Yes, if you’re a movie buff, these choices will probably seem a bit basic. But if you’ve seen these, your brain doesn’t need retraining — and chances are, you have a close-minded friend (or lover) who might benefit.
Not exactly starting with a deep cut, are we? But never mind: Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, is one of titans of Hollywood’s first half-century, and if you have any interest in how movies used to be, it’s the one to see (some will argue for Citizen Kane here — and it’s hardly a bad choice — but I’d argue this one is more purely entertaining and accessible).
It stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman — legends both, giving their most iconic performances — alongside a cadre of supporting actors who turn the most minor of characters into memorable allies and well-shaded villains. The script, based on a play, is loaded with memorable lines that have become cliché (what exactly does it mean, “Here’s looking at you, kid?”), but the plot is also a corker: Bogart is Rick, owner of a nightclub in Vichy-controlled France, who must help his old flame Ilsa and her husband, a Czech resistance leader, escape the Nazis. The patrons at Rick’s are a memorable bunch, particularly Peter Lorre as a local crook who comes into the possession of the “letters of transit” that prove crucial to Ilsa’s escape, even though they technically don’t make any sense. From the first frame to the final line, its blend of action, romance, melodrama and spy hijinks make it an enduring classic. Available on: HBO Max.
Watch next: Moral complexity abounds in post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
I love screwball comedy, and could easily have filled this list up with 10 of them, but this one, directed by Preston Sturges, is my favourite. Its plot is pretty brazen for a movie of the era: Trudy Kockenlocker is out at a bar celebrating with the boys before they head off to war and has a wee bit too much to drink. She wakes up the next morning with a ring on her finger but can’t remember who she married (“…it had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky. Or was it Zitzkywitzky?”). Even worse, she winds up pregnant and is minus one marriage licence. The innuendo-laden script, which only gets kookier from there, ran into problems with the censors of the era, but seems pretty tame by today’s standards. Still, it’s the very definition of a romp. Available on: Kanopy.
Watch next: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, in which Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert meet-cute on a cross-country bus ride.
Children of Paradise (1945)
A three-hour foreign language epic about the French circus might seem a weird choice for a list of accessible classics, but this 1945 production — filmed during the turmoil of the German occupation of France during WWII — is captivating from the first frame to the last, and gorgeous to look at (the costumes and expansive sets are a marvel). Set in the late 19th century, it follows an enigmatic actress and four very different men who love her: an actor, a crook, a count and a mime (I know, I know). Drama, intrigue and tragedy about across the lengthy runtime; if watching three hours of subtitles in one go sounds like a tall order, it splits neatly into two halves: “Boulevard of Crime” and “The Man in White.” Available on: The Criterion Channel.
Watch next: Continue your exploration of French cinema with Jean Cocteau’s phantasmagorical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which feels like falling into a storybook nightmare.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, this grim fairytale of a thriller is one of the strangest movies Hollywood ever made. Robert Mitchum plays a drifter, con man and serial killer who has married a string of women for their money and then murdered them (actions his twisted mind is convinced are “doing the Lord’s work”). After being arrested for driving a stolen car, he learns from a fellow prisoner sentenced to die for murder that he has stashed $US10,000 ($13,961) on his property and sworn his two kids to secrecy about its location. No sooner is he out of jail than the sinister preacher heads off to see the widow — and her kids, who know he isn’t to be trusted and flee down the river. A haunting twist on Huck Finn, the film is loaded with surreal imagery and weird special effects, some of them necessitated by the low budget and the director’s inexperience. Audiences at the time were baffled, but it quickly developed a cult following. Modern audiences can appreciate it for just how damn weird it is. Available on: Vudu Free.
Watch next: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, a film noir about a private eye in Los Angeles who gets tied up involving a hitchhiker who has escaped from an asylum and a mysterious glowing suitcase that will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
It’s an incredible understatement to say that classic Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its sensitive handling of race. The trailer for 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun, based on an acclaimed play by a Black writer Lorraine Hansberry, tells you all you need to know: It begins with a monologue from the producer, who painstakingly reassures white audiences who may have balked at seeing a story about a Black family that the play it is based on won lots of awards. It’s a small scale domestic drama about a Black family looking to better its circumstances while living in a racially segregated Chicago, with a legendary cast, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, Jr. Available on: The Roku Channel.
Watch next: Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field, for which Poitier became the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Film noir is this whole thing — stories of crime, murder, femme fatals and amoral detectives — with a lot of potential entry points. Lots of people might say to start with the labyrinthine plotting of The Maltese Falcon, but I like Otto Preminger’s Laura a lot better. Gene Tierney stars as the title character, a successful adwoman who has been murdered by a shotgun blast to the face (hmmm, hard to identify a corpse that way) and the detective who investigates her death and finds himself falling into a twisted kind of love with her — not unlike that experienced by many of the men he suspects of killing her. The pulpy, acidic plot is full of twists and dark humour and hasn’t aged a day. Available on: Your digital rental platform of choice.
Watch next: OK, now you can watch The Maltese Falcon — the 1941 version directed by John Huston.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Look, The Lady Vanishes is probably a weird pick for anyone’s first Hitchcock — even first black and white Hitchcock; Psycho would seem a much more logical choice. But I have a real soft spot for this train-set whodunnit in which an old lady disappears while on a trip across Europe and a young woman — the only passenger who will admit to seeing her — must solve the mystery. Sinister suspects about, as well as a few colourful, very “British” personalities that lend the affair a bit of humour. It was a smash hit at the time and will satisfy anyone who appreciates a good cosy mystery. Available on: Amazon Prime Video.
Watch next: More train-based murder in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
On the Waterfront (1954)
This Elia Kazan-directed drama is perfect for those of you who shy away from the classics because you can’t handle the outdated acting style. I hear you; I disagree, but I hear you. But here’s where it all really started to change: Marlon Brando won acclaim and awards for his so-called “method acting” (which, the finer points of the craft aside, looks a bit more like “acting like an actual person” than you’ll find in many older movies) in the role of a disgraced boxer turned dockworker who runs afoul of the local mob boss who convinced him to throw a fight years earlier. It’s a tragic crime story that echoes in the work of Martin Scorsese but still holdup on its own merits. Available on: Your pick of digital rental services.
Watch next: Elia Kazan’s first Brando collab, A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s (wait for it) Stella.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of the most famous Japanese films ever made, and its influence can’t be understated; it has been remade multiple times (most famously in the Old West, as The Magnificent Seven, but also as… A Bug’s Life) and in Helen DeWitt’s 2000 novel The Last Samurai, a single mother even uses its lessons as a stand-in for the presence of a father figure in her son’s life. It’s plot — a small town is terrorised by bandits and enlists the aid of some wandering swordsmen to help defend it — is simple enough to allow for maximum character development among the titular characters, and the “gather a team of experts” structure has never been more effectively deployed. Available on: HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.
Watch next: Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which manages to tell the same story three times and never get boring.
All About Eve (1950)
This acidic 1950 behind-the-camera story is a prime example of Hollywood’s penchant for navel gazing, concerning as it does a bitter feud between a beloved but ageing actress, Margo Channing (played to bitter perfection by Bette Davis), and an ambitious young up-and-comer Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who is willing to do anything and cross anyone to become a star. The script — which is laced with barbed wit and deep cynicism — will delight anyone who loves the soapy, salacious work of Ryan Murphy, and the cast (which includes Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles) performs it to perfection. It’s pretty much my favourite movie. Available on: All digital rental services.
Watch next: Sunset Boulevard, director Billy Wilder’s own takedown of the Hollywood machine.