The 39 Steps
It was a Hitchcock film, and there was a code of some kind that required a password with thirty-nine activators. I saw the film when I was about ten years old, and it obviously made a big enough impression for me to put it on your list.
The 400 Blows
It is remembered as one of the first French New Wave films. I remember the emotion when the last image of the film was a freeze-frame of the young boy protagonist.
The Battle of Algiers
I remember it as a strong anticolonialist film, with parallels with the American civil rights movement. In fact, a scene you won’t see in Medium Cool, of black militants going into a theater where The Battle of Algiers was playing, was deleted as a concession to Paramount’s concerns that it would provoke violence against Paramount executives. Paramount argued that if audience members came out of Medium Cool and committed a violent act, Paramount would be liable.
I remember the unique cutting patterns and Godard’s statement that storytelling needs a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order.
Children of Paradise
I remember the title Les enfants du paradis. A young woman teacher said that French film is really important, and that I should see it. I saw it and I liked it, and obviously I remember it, but I don’t know why.
The Cranes Are Flying
A Soviet film, it came out when the Cold War was going full blast. American films celebrated victory without displaying the true extent of the cruelty of warfare, and the damages it inflicts on our humanity. Of particular technical interest to me was a combination handheld crane shot, which I duplicated in Bound for Glory with a new device called the Steadicam.
Les enfants terribles
I remember I liked the photography of Henri Decaë, and that the story about young people seemed very insightful.
I remember the story of Lacombe, Lucien, who was seduced by the German occupiers to be a quisling. They made him feel he was “somebody.” The film, being after the war, dealt with his psychic examination of who he was; many of his contemporaries would not forgive him. I knew director Louis Malle personally, and I know that attracted me to see his film, which was somewhat autobiographical.
Long, long takes of traffic accidents. Fascinating characters along the way. Many frustrated drivers and passengers unable to deal with matters of a complex world. The film delves into their personal dramas, and how the delay affects their plans. Cameraman Raoul Coutard is a friend of mine, and the long takes were considered a tour de force.
Early on, surprisingly enough, Italian cinema broke the Hollywood barrier by making simple, down-to-earth stories. Most of the films were made without live sound but dubbed later by experts. It meant that noisy, unblimped cameras would give flexibility to image-making. Stories like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, and Paisan all fell into that category.
James Franco’s Top 10
“I am obsessed with the Criterion Collection . . . Basically, I have every disc in the collection, and I am making my way through them all. It’s rare that I watch one I don’t like.”