May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
There is such an embarrassment of riches that I don’t know where to start. Of course Gone With the Wind is bloated and patchy, but few film critics take it seriously as an artwork anyway, and one is loath to deny that it’s a compellingly watchable phenomenon, at least. It’s a Wonderful Life is a likable little movie; you can’t hold it responsible for the excessive mythologizing loaded onto it. The Night of the Hunter has certainly been overpraised, its pictorialism and heavy symbolism a gift to graduate students the world over. There are some smarmy, pandering-to-hip-audience films from the sixties and seventies, such as The Graduate, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show , and Dr. Strangelove , that have wrongly come to be regarded in certain circles as classics, but I would hate to waste my vote for most overrated on such undeserving targets. No, my choice is a film both worshiped on a popular level and enshrined universally as art, The Godfather . Go ahead, shoot me, but when I watch this film, all I can see is the straining for selfimportance, the unearned assumption of House of Atreus tragedy, and the belatedness of coming after all the better-observed, more authentic, and unassuming gangster movies, from Sternberg‘s Underworld and Hawks’s Scarface through Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond , and substituting a syrupy elegiac goop of nostalgia for immigrant family values and virile violence. For me, The Godfather never comes alive in the moment but is a series of anthology scenes meant to be quoted afterward; the one exception is Brando’s brilliant performance.
As for underrated pictures, the list is almost infinite. We could start with Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life or In a Lonely Place , Vincent Sherman’s The Hard Way , and while we are in Ida Lupino territory, all her own directed features, especially Not Wanted and The Bigamist , and all of John Huston’s late works, starting with Fat City , plus Scorsese’s Kundun , Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed , Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment .…The problem is that none of these is exactly a “classic,” and all have their place in the back-street enthusiasms of auteurists and university film studies. So I’m going to focus on someone who, to me, is a very underrated American director within the film-buff community: Joseph Mankiewicz. Though Godard once called Mankiewicz “the most intelligent man in all contemporary cinema,” and he once won two Academy Awards in a row for directing, his stock on this side of the Atlantic has since fallen severely. He is considered too literary when what he is, in fact, is literate. All About Eve hardly ranks as an unsung classic, so I’ll opt for his deliciously complex four-narrative masterwork A Letter to Three Wives . My favorite part is the courtship between Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas, with Thelma Ritter kibbitzing in the background. Awesome.