50 Lost Movie Classics
From scenes of striking Mexican zinc workers to Burt Lancaster wandering through the city in his trunks, film history is rich with neglected masterpieces that have moved, inspired and disturbed us but somehow missed the commercial boat. We asked a panel of critics and film-makers to sing the praises of 50 forgotten gems, introduced below by Philip French
The Observer, Sunday 17 December 2006
This isn’t just another list of great movies. It’s a rallying cry for films that for a variety of reasons – fashion, perhaps, or the absence of an influential advocate, or just pure bad luck – have been unduly neglected and should be more widely available. You know that feeling when someone hasn’t heard of a film you’ve always loved and you want to show it to them? Or, in a different way, when you get annoyed because a picture hasn’t been accorded the position you think it deserves in cultural history or the cinematic canon? That’s the sort of film we have included on this list. Salt of the Earth, for instance, is a landmark film few have seen, though it was a cult movie to the radical students in John Sayles’s debut, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, which is itself now a cult movie, though Sayles is represented on our list by his lesser known Lianna. We have also included the thoughts of some of Britain’s most interesting film-makers about their favourite under-rated work. For sanity’s sake, we restricted ourselves to English-language feature films.
1 Salt Of The Earth
Herbert Biberman, 1953
Made at the height of McCarthyism by blacklisted left-wing artists (the director was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten; screenwriter Michael Wilson’s name was kept off Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), this politically committed movie recreates a strike by Mexican-American zinc workers against the appalling conditions at their new Mexican mine. A marvellous mixture of naivety, passion, agitprop and forceful feminism, it was the subject of official harassment during production and banned from US screens for a decade but became a cult movie for young radicals in the 1960s.
Richard Lester, 1968
Richard Lester may be better known as the director of the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! but he made Petulia in 1968 and it remains his masterpiece – bursting with the experimentation that typified his early career, but allied with a more adult sense of malaise and pessimism. Set against the backdrop of swinging Sixties San Francisco, Lester senses the darkness that would soon overwhelm the peace and love generation in the tale of the midlife crisis of George C Scott’s doctor and his doomed romance with the much younger Julie Christie, playing it determinedly kooky. Edited in a bold, fragmented style, the story loops backwards and forwards to stunning effect. It’s no surprise to discover that Nic Roeg was the film’s cinematographer – he later employed not only the editing style but also Julie Christie for his own masterwork Don’t Look Now.
3 The State Of Things
Wim Wenders, 1982
This is the film to show to all budding directors and producers as a warning of the calamities that can unfold. When production on his first US film, Hammett, started going awry, Wenders took time out to style this ultimate B-movie about a film crew attempting to make a sci-fi flick out on the Portuguese coast. They find themselves beached in more ways than one as one of the producers absconds with the money to America. When the unsurprisingly irked director tracks him down to LA, he meets his match in the Mob. Featuring a cameo from the great maverick director Sam Fuller, this is Wenders’s wry meditation on an artform that asks the greatest sacrifices of its brethren.
Phillip Noyce, 1978
Many of the early movies of the Australian new wave turned their attentions to the formative years of the new nation. This one looked at the crucial decade after the Second World War as reported on by rival teams of newsreel cameramen and it made a star of Bill Hunter as a photojournalist of Orwellian integrity, who actually looks like Orwell. Rarely seen nowadays but one of the finest Australian pictures and among the sharpest ever about postwar changes in the media.
5 Fat City
John Huston, 1972
In the early Seventies my local cinema was the Screen on the Green in Islington. During the week they screened low-budget American gems and I would go to these movies pretty much on my own until one day I plucked up the courage to ask a classmate, Jackie Littleton, to come with me to see Fat City. I was 16, on my first real date, and John Huston’s elegiac tender boxing meditation really affected me. From the opening lyrics ‘Take the ribbon from your hair’, sung by Kris Kristofferson, I was hooked. And of course it starred probably the greatest unsung actor in cinema history, Jeff Bridges. I haven’t seen Fat City since but I was too enthralled to make a play for Jackie, which I regret to this day, and although she did let me walk her home silently, I will never know what she thought of this American masterpiece.
6 I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Robert Zemeckis, 1978
Produced by Spielberg, this directorial debut by his star protege takes a delightfully affectionate comic look at a party of New Jersey high school kids invading Manhattan in February 1964 to catch a glimpse of the Beatles, in town to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s like A Hard Day’s Night seen from the fans’ point of view and looks back nostalgically to a turning point in popular culture, with a cast of then unknowns, Nancy Allen among them.
7 The Swimmer
Frank Perry, 1968
Adapted from a John Cheever short story, this is Hollywood at its eccentric best. Burt Lancaster is mesmerising as the middle-class dropout whose nose dive from suburban society precipitates the strangest odyssey. Adorned only in swimming trunks and his startling muscle tone, he pool dips his way across his Waspish East Coast neighbourhood and attempts to understand his downfall. Structured episodically, there is an elegant craziness to this satire of sorts, as if it has been dreamt up in vivid Pucci-esque colours after one too many dry Martinis. But it captures the schizophrenic mood of late-1960s America – as one nation burned, another cooled off by the pool.
8 Under The Skin
Carine Adler, 1997
Carine Adler’s debut is a visceral and moving exploration of grief. Samantha Morton drew much attention in her big-screen debut, playing Iris, a young woman whose mother’s death prompts a breakdown of sorts. Her sense of self flatlines as she rejects her boyfriend, instead finding solace in a series of risky sexual encounters. Adler explores extremes with every element of the film, from Morton’s heartbreaking performance to the visuals (suburban England is depicted in an exotic palate), to a soundtrack that had Massive Attack next to a delicate Chopin chorus. British cinema at its risk-taking best.
9 The Front Page
Lewis Milestone, 1931
Hecht and MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy is frequently revived on stage and has been filmed four times. This first film version, a milestone work in every sense, helped, through its fast, wise-cracking dialogue and rapid editing, to change the sight and sound of the new talkies. Adolph Menjou as the suave, double-crossing editor Walter Burns and Pat O’Brien as his star reporter head a great cast.
10 The Damned
Joseph Losey, 1961
Losey, a McCarthy-era exile, was taking any respectable work he could get (initially under pseudonyms) until his major breakthrough with The Servant in 1963. Hammer didn’t know what to do with this fascinating, visually dazzling sci-fi thriller centring on a top-secret research station housing radioactive children in Dorset. So they released it as the second half of a horror double-bill without a West End screening. It’s one of the best nuclear-angst films. PF
11 Ace In The Hole
Billy Wilder, 1951
Wilder’s first solo movie after ending his 12-year partnership with writer-producer Charles Brackett is a cynical study of mass hysteria and the yellow press with a stunning performance from Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous journalist exploiting a local tragedy to get back into the big time. Among the great newspaper pictures, it was a flop (even when re-released under a different title) and has never been available here on tape or disc.
12 The Beaver Trilogy
Trent Harris, 2001
Receiving rare but rave screenings at festivals, this gives experimental cinema a great name. Set in Beaver, Utah, it is a triptych shot in the 1980s that repeats the same small-town tale of an Olivia Newton John obsessive who aspires to perform like her at the local talent show. A young Crispin Glover and Sean Penn appear in succession, dragging up for the central role. It’s Stars in their Eyes as directed by Andy Warhol. Hilarious.
13 Top Secret!
Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1984
Many acknowledge Airplane! as a comic masterpiece but this follow-up from the team is just as funny, spoofing WWII movies with both affection and visual wit. It’s more in the style of Mel Brooks than the frenetic gag-a-second joys of the Airport parodies. Val Kilmer’s best-ever role was as the rock’n’roll spy sent behind German lines to resuce a scientist – cue Yiddish jokes and the French resistance fighters Chocolate Mousse and Deja Vu.
Spike Lee, 2000
Spike Lee’s angriest, most savagely funny film, this media satire about a network’s ratings success with a minstrel show is the bravest film about race ever made, though it was too hot a potato for many. Lee rails against buppy culture, wiggas, institutional racism, faux-liberal whites, Jews and blacks. The music’s still great and the superb tap dancing is from Savion Glover, currently the model for the penguin in Happy Feet.
15 3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
I tumbled out of the cinema in 1977 feeling like I had been inside someone else’s head and very uncertain about who I was at all. Sissy Spacek is brilliant as Pinky, a gauche country girl who pitches up in Los Angeles and gets herself a job in a solarium. She’s dazzled by a co-worker, Millie (Shelley Duvall), who believes herself to be very popular and cool even though it’s horribly obvious that she’s neither. Same themes but much less solemn than Bergman’s portentous Persona.
16 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Freed from the constraints of TV, David Lynch pulled no punches with this eerie, elegiac fable of incestuous urban horror. Sheryl Lee shimmers with incandescent sadness as the doomed Laura Palmer, slowly succumbing to the demonic possession of a deadly, dirty secret. Composer Angelo Badalamenti conjures a symphony of suspended chords that hang in the air full of dread, grief, and terrible magic. Dim-witted hacks mercilessly savaged the film, yet this is up there with Eraserhead as Lynch’s most powerful, passionate and personal work.
17 Let’s Scare Jessica To Death
John D Hancock, 1971
The title might suppose another in the kitsch overblown gothics spawned by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Instead it is a creepy and very surreal ghost story. Starting a new life in a remote village might not have been the best move for the titular heroine, particularly when she has spent a stint in a sanatorium in an attempt to cure her of her morbid fascination with death. Regular horror ingredients are all mixed up into something truly terrifying. One of Stephen King’s favourite films.
18 The Low Down
Jamie Thraves, 2000
Beautiful, funny, poetic, brilliantly directed film about the moment in life when you have to question whether you can be young and carefree for ever. In essence it’s the oldest story – boy meets girl … but in this case, it’s in north London and the boy’s life undergoes a series of subtle, but seismic shifts as the relationship develops. Like most British films of any cinematic quality, it was ignored on release, except by the odd cinephile, and most British film directors.
19 A New Leaf
Elanie May, 1971
The sometime genius May (whose shtick routines with Mike Nichols were benchmarks for comedy in the 1960s) made a droll directorial debut. She also took the lead playing an eccentric millionairess botanist subject to the amorous, but suspect advances of aging roue Walter Matthau. As with all May’s work it boasted a sophisticated humour pivoting around this odd couple, yet did little to enamour her to the studio establishment, with the director’s cut running at a reported three hours while May wanted to disown the final film.
Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969
Edward Said called this dramatised Marxist essay the best film ever made about neo-colonialism. It stars Marlon Brando as a cynical 19th-century English aristocrat who first arranges the overthrow of the Portuguese rulers of a Caribbean island, then subverts the supposedly democratic government he’s helped to create. Intelligent, articulate, beautiful-looking, but due to Spanish interference and Hollywood cold feet it was first rewritten then half-heartedly released.
21 The Hired Hand
Peter Fonda, 1971
A beautful, acid-trip western, directed by Peter Fonda as an elegiac reply to Easy Rider. It was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond in a kaleidoscope of bold colours and washed-out sepias. Fonda’s cowboy returns home to regain the love of his wife, who at first employs him only as a worker on her farm. He has to earn her trust back, but news of his old partner, the mighty Warren Oates, tempts him back in the saddle. This is a moving account of love, loyalty and the passing of time.
Todd Haynes, 1995
Haynes’s second feature should have been made an instant classic. There’s a spare and eerie charge to this tale of ‘homemaker’ Carol White (Julianne Moore) who lives a life as blank as her name and who ends up succumbing to an unnamed malaise, retreating from the Californian suburbs to find a cure in the ‘safe’ haven of a new-age clinic which turns out to be the most creepy of places. A true horror film for the 1990s.
Bill Forsyth, 1987
Forsyth eschewed the comic whimsy of his earlier films, such as Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, for his first US studio foray. Based on Marilynne Robinson’s modern classic, it’s a heartbreaking tale of two young sisters haunted by death and family dysfunction that boasts a superb performance from Christine Lahti as the aunt who attempts to step into the shoes of their dead mother. No doubt the studios hoped for something cute and eccentric, taking the central ingredients of orphaned moppets and wacky relatives, instead Forsyth delivered a searing examination of the ties that bind.
24 Le Petomane
Ian MacNaughton, 1979
A forgotten masterpiece short starring Leonard Rossiter as Joseph Pujol in the true story of a man who had an elastic anus. What do you do with such an affliction? Well, Joseph performed impersonations for the pleasure of European royalty – like the Royal Variety Show, only classier. Directed by Ian MacNaughton (Python) and written by Galton and Simpson, I just remember being in hysterics at school as I described the plot to fellow pupils. The teacher caught me mid-sound effect and although I explained that it was a true story, unfortunately history was lost on the maths teacher.
John Sayles, 1982
John Sayles is one of the great US independents (way before Steven Soderbergh) who has been able to combine studio savvy – he started out penning genre pics such as the fish frightener Piranha – while directing such singular, often political visions as Matewan, a strike saga, or Brother from Another Planet, a sort of black ET. Going against the grain of early-Eighties censure or tabloid titillation, Lianna brought a refreshing tenderness and humanity to the coming-out love story of a thirtysomething wife and mother.
26 Bill Douglas Trilogy
Bill Douglas, 1972-78
Douglas started working on this while still at film school. It charts his growing up in a Scottish mining village in the 1940s – a stark childhood evoked with an unsentimental lyricism. Sadly the only other full-length film he made was the sweeping epic Comrades, about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. One wonders what longer career this true poet of cinema might have had, had he been born in France rather than Newcraig hall.
27 The Parallax View
Alan J Parker, 1974
Complex political thriller mixing elements of the Kennedy assassination with Watergate in a heady paranoid tale of a crusading journalist (Warren Beatty) following a trail of corpses leading to a streamlined corporate Murder Inc. One of the finest conspiracy movies, its relevance is constantly being renewed and is current highly topical through the Litvinenko case.
Franco Rosso, 1980
With one of the best soundtracks and best lines in British cinema, it’s better than the enormously over-rated Withnail and I. I first saw it as a teenager on acid at the Scala cinema in the late Eighties and it scared the living shit out of me. Favourite line: ‘Brixton dem’a caal dis?’. I still use it today.
Gavin Millar, 1985
Alice Liddell (played by the late, great Coral Browne) recalls the Victorian childhood that inspired Lewis Carroll (Ian Holm), from the vantage point of ripe age and now transplanted to jazz era New York. Scripted by Dennis Potter, this woefully neglected British gem bore out his perennial fascination with memory, while Jim Henson’s Creature Shop brought to life the wild things of Carroll’s imagination. A sublime and touching take on the biopic.
30 Ride Lonesome
Budd Boetticher, 1959
In the late 1950s Boetticher directed seven Randolph Scott westerns in a row. None was ever given a press show here, and the director wasn’t discovered by most critics until after his virtual retirement. One of the best is the taut and intelligent Ride Lonesome, in which poker-faced bounty hunter Scott traverses hostile Indian country with a bunch of outlaws in pursuit of villain Lee Van Cleef.
Jim McBride, 1983
Critics howled at the blasphemy of Hollywood remaking Godard’s A bout de souffle as a racy erotic thriller, but Jim McBride’s joyous crime against cine-academia is a rip-roaring rock’n’roll ride. Terrific location work makes this one of the best LA movies of the Eighties, while a finger-popping soundtrack jitterbugs between Jerry Lee, Link Wray, and the Pretenders. Richard Gere looks great in ridiculous checked trousers, and even better out of them. Memorable scenes include Dick shagging a shower to pieces to the naked strains of Elvis’s ‘Suspicious Minds’.
32 The Day The Earth Caught Fire
Val Guest, 1961
A brilliant London film, a great journalist movie and a classic example of period sci-fi cinema. Leo McKern is thrilling as the Daily Express writer (it was shot in the paper’s old Fleet St HQ) who has discovered global warming – Val Guest’s film seems more prescient every year. Also, there’s an early cameo from Michael Caine as a policeman ushering crowds out of the city, a scene eerily reflected in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men this year.
33 Less Than Zero
Marek Kanievska, 1987
An example of an over-rated book being beaten by the film version. When researching my Eighties-set film The Business, it brought back all the neon lighting, the fashions and the emptiness of the era. It has this amazing sadness and helplessness to it and at its heart there’s a career-defining performance from Robert Downey Jr. It prefigures all that twitty teen stuff on Beverly Hills 90210 and the weedy OC.
34 Day Night Day Night
Julia Loktev, 2006
New York-based documentary film-maker and installation artist Loktev’s feature debut is an intense and revelatory experience that follows a young woman, of indeterminate origins, as she prepares herself for a suicide bomb mission in Times Square. We are spared backstory details, to focus on the minutiae of the hours leading up to the task at hand. Feted by critics, fellow filmmakers and festivals, it has been neglected by distributors here.
35 Tin Cup
Ron Shelton, 1996
A rarity this, a serious golf movie, with another rarity, a cool performance by Kevin Costner, playing a washed-up pro taking a shot at the big title. There’s a purity of narrative, as if it follows the trajectory of a perfect golf shot. Bizarrely, the story prefigured the real-life, self-destructive hillbilly hero, John Daly.
36 The Ninth Configuration
William Peter Blatty, 1980
‘I believe in the devil, because the prick keeps doing commercials.’ In an experimental asylum, combat-shocked soldiers adapt Shakespeare’s plays for dogs (‘I’m doing Hamlet, but if I cast a great Dane …’) under the mysterious Colonel Kane. This tragic-comic cult weirdie is endlessly quotable.
37 Cutter’s Way
Ivan Passer, 1981
Czech film-maker Passer went into US exile with his friend Milos Forman in 1968, and this post-‘Nam thriller, a minor masterpiece, is as good as Forman’s best. John Heard plays a crippled army vet obsessed with pinning a brutal murder on a rich citizen of Santa Barbara. A box-office failure, but a neo-noir classic.
38 Save The Last Dance
Thomas Carter, 2001
A dance-movie story of a ballerina from a private school who moves to the inner city. Fine hip-hop tunes invade the world of ballet in what is still one of the only mainstream films featuring a successful inter-racial romance.
39 The Mad Monkey
Fernando Trueba, 1989
Despite several Goya Awards (Spanish Oscars), this extraordinary adaptation of Christopher Frank’s book was wrongly trashed by critics in Britain and America. A spine-tinglingly twisted take on Peter Pan, this intense psychological thriller boasts a career-best performance by Jeff Goldblum.The climactic Paris morgue scene is heartstopping.
Monte Hellman, 1974
Hellman’s masterpiece, based on Charles Willeford’s novel about clandestine sporting contests in the Deep South (and scourge of animal rights protesters) was shown only twice, and refused a BBFC certificate. Terrific performances from Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, lovingly photographed by Nestor Almendros.
41 The Narrow Margin
Richard Fleischer, 1952
Lapel-grabbing, low-budget thriller about a cop (Charles McGraw) dodging the mob while escorting a gangster’s widow by a transcontinental train to give evidence before a Los Angeles jury.
42 Terence Davies Trilogy
Terence Davies, 1984
Davies’s debut conjures a metaphysical experience that follows the life and death of its gay Liverpudlian protagonist. It stars Wilfrid Brambell (eschewing his Steptoe and Son persona) in an outstanding performance.
43 Wise Blood
John Huston, 1979
Huston’s low-budget masterpiece adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel about rival fundamentalist preachers in America’s Bible Belt.
44 Robin Hood
Wolfgang Reitherman, 1973
Never counted among Disney classics, but my favourite because Robin was a cool, Flynn-style hero and Marian was, well, a fox. Peter Ustinov’s spoilt-brat King John is pure joy and still one of the best-ever voiceover performances.
45 Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
This magnificent, existential road movie pits sportscar-driving conman Warren Oates against hot rod aces James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. Best of its time.
46 Beautiful Girls
Ted Demme, 1996
An unassuming character study from the sadly deceased Ted Demme. Tim Hutton is wonderful and it’s Natalie Portman’s finest role to date.
Danny Boyle, 2004
Danny Boyle’s Capra-esque modern morality tale deserved to be a much bigger hit. I loved the way it used kids in an un-schmaltzy way.
48 Round Midnight
Bertrand Tavernier, 1986
This under-rated director’s tale of a jazz fan rescuing his hero elicits a great performance from Dexter Gordon whose sax playing and acting are mellow and moving . Martin Scorsese cameos.
Arthur Barron, 1973
Like falling in love for the first time, this wonderful, heartbreaking, teen romance won ‘Best First Work’ at Cannes.
50 Grace Of My Heart
Allison Anders, 1996
New York’s Brill Building provides the hit-factory backdrop for this fabulous tale of a Carole King-style singer-songwriter’s quest for fulfilment.
The Champions: Who’s on our panel
· The majority of the list was chosen (after much soul-searching) by The Observer’s film critic Philip French, our film writers Jason Solomons and Mark Kermode and producer Lizzie Francke, the former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival.
· We also asked a few of our favourite British film-makers to tell us about their lost classics – directors Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Ben Hopkins (37 Uses for a Dead Sheep), Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Nick Love (The Business), Penny Woolcock (Mischief Night), producer/director Stephen Woolley (Stoned) and animator/director Chris Shepherd (Silence is Golden)