Just a note that I decided to go with some films that don't seem to be as well-known to modern audiences who aren't rabid classic movie fans. This meant skipping some of my more obvious favorites, including All About Eve, Double Indemnity, Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Yankee Doodle Dandy and It's a Wonderful Life.
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1949
Starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Southern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Winner of the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay
Also nominated for Best Picture
Deborah Bishop (Crain), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Darnell) and Rita Phipps (Southern) are three country club wives about to embark on a day of charity work when they're handed a letter sent by another local woman, Addie Ross. The letter is addressed to all three and informs them that by the end of the day Addie will have run off with one of their husbands. She doesn't mention which one.
As the day progresses, each of the wives flashes back to significant moments in their marriages that might give their husbands cause to stray. At the end of the day's activities they head home to change for a night at the club and to finally learn which one of them has lost her man to Addie.
Addie is never seen, only heard in a voice over provided by Celeste Holm, who would play a much more visible role in Mankiewicz's next film, All About Eve. As expected with Mankiewicz, the cast turns in terrific performances. For me the standout is Linda Darnell as a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks (seriously, the train literally rattles their house) who uses her stunning beauty to snag her rich boss in what feels like more of a business transaction than genuine love. Largely forgotten by modern audiences, Darnell was huge star back then and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen on screen. She died tragically young (aged 41) from injuries sustained in a house fire.
For a lot of viewers, the ending is a bit ambiguous as to which husband was poached by Addie. There's a great thread here on imdb which shows the variety of interpretations. My vote is for Deborah's husband Brad.
PRC Pictures, 1945
Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Edmund MacDonald and Claudia Drake
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith
Struggling musician Al Roberts (Neal) is hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles to be reunited with his aspiring singer girlfriend (Drake) and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. He is picked up by a fast-talking skirt-chaser named Charles Haskell (MacDonald), who in addition to sporting scratch marks from a previous pick up is ominously popping unidentified pills. While Al is taking a shift at the wheel, Haskell dies in his sleep. When Al opens the passenger door to try and wake him, Haskell falls out and his lifeless head slams into a rock. Worried that police will think he killed the man, Al hides the body and takes off, assuming Haskell's name, identity and car, and resumes his drive west.
The next day Al picks up a bedraggled young woman looking for a ride, despite her odd behavior toward him. He introduces himself as Charles Haskell and wouldn't you know it, Vera (Savage) knows better, because as it turns out she's the one who left her claw marks on the dead man. She uses this knowledge to blackmail Al, who is terrified she will turn him into the police and he becomes her literal prisoner. Once in California he hopes to shed Vera and never see her again, a plan that is fine with her until she discovers that the real Haskell's wealthy, long-estranged father is on his deathbed and hatches a scheme to pass Al off as the long-lost son and heir and collect the Haskell fortune. With the sword she holds over his head, Al has no choice but to reluctantly play along.
The star of this show is Ann Savage. Vera is a ruthless, malevolent force of nature and Savage makes her terrifying. You have no trouble believing she can wear a man down until there's nothing left of him. Vera is repellent and devoid of humanity, yet as an audience we can't take our eyes off her. Savage manages to be compellingly watchable, despite how much we loathe her and dread her next move. It's an amazing performance.
I actually blogged this movie a couple years ago. That much more extensive review can be found here.
United Artists, 1950
Starring Peggy Cummins and John Dahl
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay by MacKinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman (actually a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo)
Barton Tare (Dahl) meets his match when a carnival featuring sharp-shooter Annie Laurie Starr (Cummins) comes to town. The collision between the two sets off sparks and they soon marry and embark on a non-carny life together. Unfortunately, Bart's new wife is more of an adrenalin junkie than housewife, plus she's not happy about their dire finances. She soon pushes Bart into carrying out a series of robberies with her that improve their finances but eat at his soul. He wants his wife to be happy, but he just doesn't have her killer instinct. In the spirit of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, their life of crime comes to an inevitable early end.
In addition to Cummins' spitfire performance, Gun Crazy is famous for a bank heist scene that was filmed in one long continuous take from the back seat of the getaway car. There's a great imdb thread about it here.
Gun Crazy has a lot of similarities to Detour. Both feature morally corrupt women who wear down and ruin their respective men with their criminal schemes, as well as female leads who practically jump off the screen. I would go so far as to suggest neither of these films would be considered memorable today without Savage and Cummins.
First National Pictures, 1921
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan and Edna Purviance
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin
This tearjerking silent film follows Chaplin's poverty stricken Little Tramp as he tries to keep from losing an orphan he found and unofficially adopted as an infant. Child actor Jackie Coogan, who was all of 7 years old when this film was released, is relentlessly adorable and staggeringly talented in a time where film was in its infancy and there was really no precedence for a performance like this from a child actor. Years before Shirley Temple was even born, Coogan gave a stunning performance in what was only his third role and the first in which he actually received credit. The kid actually held his own with Chaplin! Even better news: The Kid recently received the Criterion treatment.
Selznick International Pictures, 1940
Starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Gladys Cooper, Reginald Denny and C. Aubrey Smith
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison
Winner of the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Black & White Cinematography
Also nominated for Best Actor (Olivier), Best Actress (Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Anderson), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Black & White Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Special Effects and Best Score
A shy, mousey young woman (Fontaine) earning her keep as a rich widow's paid companion finds herself wooed by rich, sophisticated English widower Maxim de Winter (Olivier). She quickly becomes the second Mrs. de Winter, only to find herself overshadowed by the late, seemingly flawless first Mrs. de Winter when the newlyweds return to the family home of Manderley. The twists and turns go on from there and it turns out the title character - the late Rebecca - maybe wasn't as perfect as she's made out to be.
There is so much to love about this film. You can't help but pull for the unassuming Fontaine to find a way to assert herself in her overwhelming new surroundings. George Sanders plays his usual shameless cad to the hilt. Despite their brief appearances, Cooper and Bruce are delightfully supportive as Maxim de Winter's sister and brother-in-law. Maxim's reveal about his relationship with his late wife and what may or may not have lead to her death is a shocker. And of course, there's Anderson's Oscar-nominated turn as the coldly sinister Mrs. Danvers, whose obsessive devotion to her late mistress will eventually devour Manderley.
A couple of interesting facts about Rebecca: It was the first film Hitchcock made in Hollywood and the only one of his many legendary films to capture the Best Picture Oscar. Also, just as in the Daphne Du Maurier novel on which the film was based, Fontaine's character has no first name.
Have a wonderful National Classic Film Day!