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15 movies that made me me, including Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'

Jeff Simon

There's a neat little game going around social media: The 10 movies (or records or books or whatever) that made me me. It looked like fun, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Typically, my passion for movies is such that I couldn't keep it to 10. So here are 15. Nor do I see any point in just printing titles (not everyone is such a movie maven they know what it means, for instance, to invoke John Ford's "The Searchers"). Nor did I see any point without a brief understanding of why the films are on the list. So here are 15 movies in rough chronological order:

"Shield for Murder" and "D.O.A." The North Park was my neighborhood movie theater as a kid in the '50s. You could, on a good weekend for the neighborhood mothers, watch a double feature separated by a couple of movie serials. Consider all that sudden free time for the neighborhood parents. Here, from 1954, was that glorious obscurity, an Edmond O'Brien double feature. The best known was Rudy Mate's "D.O.A.," the film noir that, legendarily, began with O'Brien walking into a police station to say, "I want to report a murder." When asked "whose," he answers "mine." (The rest of the movie is about his search for who poisoned him.) "Shield for Murder" is less known, but it's as much fun in its way. O'Brien directed it and it's a rarity where he plays a sweaty bad guy, a rogue cop who knocks people off and abuses those he doesn't have bullets for. The sight of all those '50s Nashes and Fords racing through LA nights was heavenly. And primal.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Don Siegel's movie is generally agreed to be the greatest low-budget sci-fi movie of the '50s. The biggest unexpected chill I've ever experienced in a movie theater arrived with the scene where Kevin McCarthy leaves girlfriend Dana Wynter to check up on the proximity of the cold, emotionless pod people to the cave where they're hiding. He reiterates how important it is she not fall asleep for even a second. That's when real people turn into pod people – extraterrestrial aliens born of huge sea pods. He returns to reassure her the cold interplanetary predators are not all that close. So they share a big relieved kiss. Siegel's vulpine closeup of Wynter's face as she disengages from his lips tells you she has indeed slept and become one of them. The image is in my head forever.

"The Vikings." Tony Curtis sends his hawk into Kirk Douglas' musclebound face with instructions to kill. The bird only succeeds in tearing out Kirk's left eye, which we see subsequently as a dead eye amid a mass of scars for the rest of the movie. As payback, Kirk lets him live but lops off his right hand and cauterizes it on camera with a torch. The whole thing ends with Janet Leigh torn between them and a big solemn Viking funeral at the end. When you're a 13-year-old boy, stuff like this is unbeatable.

"Vertigo." Unless, not long after, you're one of those people standing in line at the Paramount Theater on Main Street to see the showing of the new Hitchcock film, "Vertigo." The first thing I ever saw that made me realize what I only knew as movies before could also be "films" and, indeed, great works of art, which allowed you to dream while you were wide awake. I was never the same after that.

"La Dolce Vita." To teenagers of the '50s, foreign films meant sex and varying degrees of undress. In this case, that meant opulent Anita Ekberg splashing around the Trevi fountain in Fellini's Rome. But what commanded my mind when it was over, was Marcello Mastroianni's despair at learning of the suicide of his intellectual friend Steiner, after he'd shot and killed his two children in their beds. Fellini's film was so much more than we had been tipped to in advance.

"Giant." I'd just seen a revival of "Gone with the Wind," which, apart from a couple things, I hated. Seeing this, I realized a big commercial epic could indeed be a great film. A lot of people hate James Dean's creepy performance in this. Some of it was so incoherent that his friend Nick Adams had to dub it. I think its scumminess makes it the strangest and best thing on film he ever did.

"Rebel without a Cause." The most famous Dean movie of them all, as well as the archetypal misunderstood teen movie (Dean was no teenager when he made it; he was 24). Older audience members always find Sal Mineo to be tragic in the film. I always thought, as a kid, he was a pain in the neck intrusion on Dean and Natalie Wood.

"Marjorie Morningstar." Say what? "Marjorie Morningstar?" Am I daft? Well, no. They filmed it for three days at the Adirondack summer camp I went to – Camp Cayuga in Schroon Lake. That meant all of us coed campers got a chance to see how beautiful and tiny Natalie Wood was offscreen, how grubby, unshaven and surly her boyfriend Robert Wagner was, how cool co-star Carolyn Jones was, how aged Ed Wynn's palsied hands shook and how gigantic film camera cranes are even though their only function is to give movies images that are only seen for seconds and are otherwise taken for granted.

"The Big Sleep." Courtesy of the Late Movie – and Fred Keller's retrospectives at his Circle and Glen Art theaters – my movie education began in earnest. I have no idea how many times I've seen Bogart and Bacall and Dorothy Malone in this. On average, it's once every couple years over my entire life. I've since learned that some of it was being filmed in Los Angeles when, in Buffalo, I was occupied being born in Millard Fillmore Hospital. So help me, the film and I are somehow connected.

"The Searchers." No, I learned that Westerns weren't just the drive-in throwaways the family went to see on weekends, the way we once saw Ronald Reagan and Rhonda Fleming in "The Last Outpost." They could be sublime, as they are in John Ford's "The Searchers" when John Wayne ends his movie-long quest for Natalie Wood and scoops her up in his arms and holds her over his head. You think he's demonstrating his contempt for his niece choosing to live years among the Native Americans he hates. You're afraid his character Ethan – a raging and homicidal racist – is going to dash her tiny frame to the ground. Instead, he lowers his arms and says, ever-so-gently, "Let's go home, Debbie." Corny music rises. Tears come, every time. Every time.

"The Manchurian Candidate." In 1962, it was murder to convince my fellow Syracuse University freshmen the new Frank Sinatra movie was worth braving a grungy night for because it was directed by John Frankenheimer. Movie directors weren't exactly pop currency back then. They all thought I was nuts beforehand. Afterward, they all thanked me over beer and sandwiches for talking them into it. Decades later, I'd long heard that Frankenheimer was traumatized because his classic presidential assassination fantasy had anticipated by mere months the actual assassination of JFK, whom Frankenheimer had worked passionately for. Decades later, before a significant renovation and rerelease of the film, I finally had my chance to talk to Frankenheimer on the phone, where interview subjects can often be shockingly candid (when people are talking in their own homes, they feel comfortable about saying the damndest things). I gingerly asked Frankenheimer why there was an unusually lengthy period after "Candidate" and before the release of his next film "Seven Days in May."

"Because," he said, "I had a nervous breakdown and became an alcoholic" after the assassination. It remains the most shocking answer I've ever had to a question I asked. Frankenheimer trusted I'd know how to deal with naked honesty to a stranger. I've always been grateful.

"Private Hell 36" and "While the City Sleeps." Howard Duff and Ida Lupino weren't exactly Bogart and Bacall, but for a brief reign in the '50s late movie, they approached that status. Don Siegel's "Private Hell 36" and, especially, Fritz Lang's "While the City Sleeps" weren't exactly great movies, but they were such profound triumphs of casting around Duff and Lupino that we TV watchers couldn't believe our luck. We noiristos and noiristas watched amazing casts snarling, sneering and smirking at each other with pure joy.

"Chinatown." Surely, I thought in 1974, film noir was a dead film genre. Then, expecting nothing special, I entered Cheektowaga's Holiday Theater to review Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." I was, of course, sorry for Polanski's harrowing loss at the hands of the Manson family (his wife Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time of her murder). I admired Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby." But, by and large, I hadn't thought much of his first two films, "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion."

Then I saw "Chinatown" and eventually realized that not only did film noir live, but we now had something that would be called "neo noir" that was capable of bringing all that blackness into the radiant California sunshine of "Chinatown," a film that, nevertheless, had one of the darkest endings in the history of American movies. That ending was all Polanski, a man whose movies could stun you as much as his dire fateful life.

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