While recovering from surgery a few years back, I treated myself to a classic movie festival of such amazing films like the German thriller M (1931) with Peter Lorre, the delightful dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) with Cary Grant, and the American horror-thriller movie The Bad Seed (1956) with Patricia McCormick. (It was especially interesting to me to learn a little history of American film censorship as it applied to the last movie; the ending had to be edited to fit the Catholic ethos of Hollywood’s film ‘Production Code’ under Joseph I. Breen’s tenure in the PCA).
I’d been channel surfing daytime television and ended up on the Ted Turner Network –quickly captivated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. It was so clever and suspenseful — about an apartment-bound Stewart who decides his neighbor across the way is a murderer — that I was hooked and spent my remaining convalescence watching back-to-back classic movies. To this day I would choose to watch a classic movie over a contemporary film, and my explanation is simple: I like the “tell” versus “show” strategy of the classic directors. The psychological impact is so strong and the movie experience so satisfying to me when a director guides his audience to cleverly directed conclusions or allows them to use their imaginations to supply the details (or the horror, as exemplified in Hitchcock thrillers). The movies are stimulating and seem to stoke audience participation and intelligence. I discovered that I like to be thought-provoked.
I also became a lifelong fan of the actors and directors whose movies I watched during those quick weeks. The entire cast of characters in Arsenic and Old Lace had me crying with laughter, and I have since jumped at the opportunity to re-watch the film whenever possible. Even with the constraints of needing English subtitles for M, I was captured by the subtle and emotionally mesmerizing performance of Peter Lorre. Often typecast in later roles, he colored his villainy with charm, pathos, or round-eyed innocence; in his dark comedies, his humor is understated and sly—he was an amazing actor. James Stewart is all panicked paranoia and sincerity in Rear Window, while Patricia McCormick is the spookiest girl you’d ever wish to meet in The Bad Seed. These movies don’t just entertain and kill a couple of hours to help you wile away the time—they grab you, immerse you in another world, and when you awaken at movie’s end you’re left pondering what you just watched and marveling at the character portrayals.