Introducing new audiences to classic films is an inherently nerve-wracking proposition: No one wants to be the one who assures a guardedly curious viewer “You’ll love this!” only to turn out wrong and turn them off screwball comedies or Westerns forever. So even though Faran Smith Nehme, whose blog The Self-Styled Siren has been a font of wisdom on vintage film for years, needs no assistance in compiling a list of classics she loves, she invoked the wisdom of crowds to put together “Easy to Love: Ten Classics for People Who Don’t Know Classics.”
Of course, this wasn’t just any crowd: Nehme’s Facebook thread was populated with responses from critics like James Wolcott, David Edelstein, Andrew O’Hehir, Charles Taylor and Mark Harris, a handful of Criticwire members (including this one), even the author of the young-adult Lily B. series. So in addition to her own top 10, Nehme put together a separate post culling the best of their responses, which settle on a few common favorites while sometimes branching out in pleasantly unexpected directions.
Although many of Nehme’s respondents recommended the equivalent of throwing newbies in at the deep end with the full-throttle melodrama of, say, Rebecca or Now Voyager, many took as their tacit mission proving to their hypothetical viewers that sophistication in film isn’t a recent invention. To those who’ve absorbed the received wisdom that movies before, say, 1970, offer a sanitized, PG-rated vision of the world, the corrosive cynicism of Sunset Blvd. or the smoldering sexuality of It Happened One Night comes as an eye-opener, proof that it’s possible to be just as knowing about the world without the cable-TV signifiers of random nudity and four-letter words. A generation raised on CGI can only gape at the no-strings-attached stunts of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! and the in-camera wizardry of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. My Man Godfrey deals with urban poverty with a frankness that’s rare these days outside of independent film, and the tension of Hitchcock’s Rear Window has not diminished with time. (I remember watching it on an airplane with my sister when we were children, pounding our legs against the bulkhead wall in gleeful terror as Raymond Burr looked Jimmy Stewart dead in the telescope.)
For my part, cajoling my family to watch Citizen Kane and having my younger brother remark that it was so good he forgot it was in black and white is a memory I’ll always cherish, just as I’ll always flinch remembering my art-school intro class’s tepid reaction to Double Indemnity. (“Did they really think people talked like that?”) But one of my greatest triumphs was showing that same class Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. I’d been warned not to screen it in full, lest I face a mid-film revolt, but this being my first — and, to date, last — foray into teaching, I took the damn-the-torpedoes approach, and miracle of miracles, it paid off. The students who found Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s dialogue indigestibly overripe responded to the overwhelming power of Dreyer’s images, and for the space of a class period, I was Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds rolled into one. I tried to remember that months later when I faced a classroom revolt over Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. You win some, you lose some.