1001 Movies you must see before you die

Steven Jay Schneider (general editor),
1001 Movies you must see before you die.
Quintet Publishing Limited, 2005.
ISBN: 0 7641 5701 9
US$35.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Barron’s Educational Series)

Many years ago, a friend of mine, then about twenty-five, wrote to me that he had embarked on Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime reading plan, a list of over a hundred literary works that Fadiman had selected as an introductory overview to Western civilization. Perusing 1001 Movies you must see before you die put me in mind of my friend’s project. This mammoth (960 pages) compendium is probably best suited for someone newly desirous of attaining cinephilia’s equivalent of being well read. Those who have seen a large proportion of the movies included here are likely to put the book aside with a shrug, but judging from those films on the list that I’m familiar with, it is a pretty good guide to someone embarking on a project to see the best of cinema. Of course it’s hard to resist the urge to quibble here and there with the selections. Hitchcock seems overrepresented compared to, say, Carol Reed (Frenzy [UK, 1972], for example, but no A Kid for Two Farthings[UK, 1955] or The Fallen Idol [UK, 1948]). If Spielberg is to be represented by nine films, why The Color Purple(USA, 1985) but not Duel (USA, 1971)? Why is Yojimbo (Japan, 1961) not among Kurosawa’s six represented films? Are The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999) Three Kings (USA, 1999) and The Matrix (USA, 1999) really among the top 1001 films ever made? The documentary selections are disappointing: two films by the charlatan Michael Moore, nothing by the more rewarding Michael Rubbo, Donald Brittain, or D.A. Pennebaker.

Still, it’s a pretty good list. But it is not as good as general editor Steven Jay Schneider claims it is (“as good as it gets”), and the book falls short on other claims in his alternately defensive and boastful forward. Schneider asks, rhetorically, what was to prevent the list from “being just a cinematic smorgasbord,” and he then proceeds to describe a selection process which – it’s not worth recounting here – was essentially a voting and vetting exercise, without any guiding structure or organizing principle in mind but which yielded what Schneider calls a “menu where every dish is a winner” – which sounds, however hyped, a bit like a smorgasbord.

Schneider writes that his book “takes a great risk in offering up an all-time, all-genre, all-world, must-see films list,” but it’s hard to see how a committee-selected list as long as this one could wind up offending any reasonably forgiving reader. If Schneider takes a risk, it is in his assertion that it isn’t just the selections that “makes this list so special,” but also the “specially commissioned . . . concise, thoughtful, stimulating essays that seamlessly combine important plot details, insightful commentary, cultural and historical context, and a fair share of trivia” that accompany each selected title.

It is the specially commissioned, etc., essays that disappoint. With fifty-eight different contributors, the quality varies, but browse through the entries on films you know well, and you’ll find lazy writing, inattentiveness, and a lack of interest in the cinematic aspects of movies.

Lazy writing? Take this sentence from the entry on Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979) “The ultimate horror of this hypnotic trip, though, is how closely it has been said to capture the reality of ‘Nam.” The writer is horrified because someone – who? – said it reflected the reality of Vietnam, and he assumes that a film, like a butterfly net, can “capture” something called “reality”. The description of a woman in Red River (USA, 1948) taking an arrow in her shoulder “without hardly flinching” is the opposite of what the writer means. Why is the famous Zapruder film used in JFK called “infamous”? Why describe the most remembered scene in Week End(Italy/France, 1967) as a “ten-minute or so” shot when just a tiny bit of effort could have yielded a precise length (7:31, at least in the version I have) and reminded the writer that the shot is interrupted briefly by three of Godard’s signature title inserts?

Inattentiveness? We’re told that in The Third Man (UK, 1949) “everyone except Holly knows” that Harry Lime has faked his own death, but neither Anna nor Major Calloway knows – which means that of the movie’s four main characters, only Harry Lime knows. The eponymous Shane is said to ride away “into a sunset that outshines all sunsets,” but he rides away from the sunset – if indeed it is a sunset, which it doesn’t seem to be in this day-for-night scene; and although the sky is gorgeous, there are lots of gorgeous skies in cinema, and this one has none of the colors usually associated with sunsets. In Kiss Me Deadly (USA, 1955), we are told that we see the kicking legs of “a woman tortured vaginally,” but her legs are closed, and the torturer, when we see him walking away, carries a pair of pliers, an instrument more suited to pulling out fingernails than for inserting into vaginas. Alex Sebastian of Notorious (USA, 1946) is credited with “bizarre heroism” at the film’s conclusion – bizarre indeed, since he acts cravenly, trying to save himself, while his mother offers herself up to save him. Walter and Phyllis do not “riddle each other with bullets” at Double Indemnity‘s (USA, 1944) climax. She shoots him once, he shoots her twice.
Lack of interest in cinematics? If Double Indemnity is “the archetypical film noir,” then why not mention the stylistic features that make it so, instead of just recounting the plot? The entry on The Wild Bunch (USA, 1969) mentions the flashy editing of violent sequences but neglects the astonishing flashback recalled by pursuer and pursued simultaneously. If Rear Window  (USA, 1954) is Hitchcock’s “most successful merger of entertainment, intrigue, psychology,” might its tour de force merger of parallelism and point of view have something to do with its success?

Some of the entries are rewarding to read. The one on The Best Years of our Lives (USA, 1946) manages to work in, gracefully, reference to opposing critical responses to the film. The entry for Sunset Boulevard (USA, 1950) is crisp and attentive. The entry on The Seven Samurai (Japan, 1954) does a nice job of connecting Kurosawa’s work to westerns. The essay on Letter from an Unknown Woman is especially noteworthy: it relates Ophuls’ opulent cinematic style to his narrative intent, and it touches upon the film’s themes and subtexts. Each entry includes major credits and the film’s length. The book is lavishly illustrated. So is there value here? Anyone of a certain age probably has more important things to do before he dies than watch, say, Moonstruck(USA, 1987), Kill Bill: Vol. I (USA, 2003) or Salt of the Earth (USA, 1954) but for a young person wanting something to prod him to watch a large, comprehensive list of mostly important films, this book can serve that purpose, much as Fadiman’s list of great books might have helped my friend gain a basic grounding in Western literature. It turns out, though – I phoned him in the course of writing this review – that he decided instead to follow the readings from the St. John’s College classics-based four-year curriculum. Now that’s a list.

Note: The 1001 films you must see before you die varies according to where you live. There is a North American edition of the book (reviewed here), an Australian edition, and possibly other editions. (The publisher has not responded to inquiries about varied editions, and on Amazon I could find only the North American edition.) The North American and the Australian edition each include about ten films not included in the other, although the differences do not appear to be motivated by concerns of national cinema. In the Australian edition, the Schneider forward is replaced by a transcribed, mostly gushing conversation about the book between David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 2 March 2006 | Last Updated: 2-Mar-06

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →