Martin Scorsese's guilty pleasures
Film Comment, May-June, 1998 by Martin Scorsese
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This is the film lover's list. It's like a cushion: you can fall asleep thinking of these pictures. If you're uncomfortable you can lean over and rest on Land of the Pharaohs.
Land of the Pharaohs (1955, Howard Hawks). When I first saw it, as a kid, Land of the Pharaohs became my favorite film. I'd always been addicted to historical epics, but this one was different: it gave the sense that we were really there. This is the way people lived; this is what they believed, thought, and felt. You get it through the overall look of the picture: the low ceilings, the torchlit interiors, the shape of the pillars, the look of the extras. There's a marvelous moment when the dead are being taken away from battle in their coffins, and someone says, "Let us hear the gods of Egypt speak." The camera pans over to one of' the statues of the gods, and it talks. That's it -- the statue talks! You don't see the mouth moving, you just hear the voice. Then they pan over to the other god -- and now he talks. Soon there are about four gods talking. You're never told, "This is how they did it: it was a joke, a trick." In a sense, you're taken into confidence by the Egyptians; you're let in on a religion. I watch this movie over and over again. I put it at the top of the list because it's my favorite.
Khartoum (1966, Basil Dearden). I like anything about the British in the Sudan; I love the 1.939 version of Four Feathers. In Four Feathers, the British me out to avenge the killing of Chinese Gordon in Khartoum by the Mahdi, the holy redeemer. Khartoum takes place ten years earlier. Charlton Heston, as Gordon, is marvelous; and Laurence Olivier has a lot of fun as the Mahdi, with a space between his front teeth. It isn't very good filmmaking, but it has a mystical quality about it. This was a holy war. At the end -- when Mahdi killed Gordon, and then six months later he died himself -- it was as if the two of them canceled each other out, religiously and historically. It's a story I want to be told, over and over again, like a fairy tale.
The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille). I like DeMille: his theatricality, his images. I've seen The Ten Commandments maybe forty or fifty times. Forget the story -- you've got to -- and concentrate on the special effects, and the texture, and the color. For example: the figure of God, killing the first-born child, is a green smoke; then on the terrace while they're talking, a green dry ice just touches the heel of George Reeves or somebody, and he dies. Then there's the red Red Sea, and the lamb's blood of the Passover. DeMille presented a fantasy, dreamlike quality on film that was so real, if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life.
Giant (1956, George Stevens). I've seen this film over forty times. I don't like the obvious romanticism, and it's very studied, but there's more here than people have seen. It has to do with the depiction of a lifestyle through the passage of so many years. You see people grow. I like James Dean; I like the use of music, even though Dmitri Tiomkin did it; I like Boris Leven's image of the house, and the changes in the house; I like the wide image of Mercedes McCambridge riding the bronco, then cut to an extreme closeup of her hitting the bronc with her spur, then back to the wide image. As far as filmmaking goes, Giant is an inspiring film. I don't mean morally, but visually. It's all visual.
The Silver Chalice (1954, Victor Saville). The Silver Chalice is one of the reasons I hired Boris Leven to design New York, New York. Giant and The Silver Chalice: any man who could design those two films ... that's it, I had to have him. The Silver Chalice, which is a bad picture, has no authenticity. It's purely theatrical, and this is mainly due to the sets. They're clean and clear; it's almost like another life, another world. We don't know what ancient Rome was like, so why not take the attitude Fellini had with Satyricon: make it science fiction in reverse? The Silver Chalice came close to that, fifteen years earlier.
Hell's Angels (1930, Howard Hughes and James Whale). The dialogue sequences, directed by Whale, are atrocious; there's no excuse for them. But I was amazed by the aerial footage: real planes, real houses being bombed, overhead shots of barns exploding and things flying up in the air. What I've seen of Wings just Couldn't compare to it. I showed Hell's Angels to John Milius and Steven Spielberg during the preparation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After seeing the film, Milius made a speech: "This is the kind of film that should be made these days."
The Counterfeit Traitor (1962, George Seaton). Before The Countetfeit Traitor, most war-related movies were in black-and-white -- the neorealistic, Rossellini influence. You got used to it. Then, suddenly, comes this film: intelligent, beautifully made, expensive, its plot twists based on true incidents, terrific; performances by William Holden and Lilli Palmer -- and all in vivid color. For kids brought up on the black-and-white battlegrounds of newsreels, the use of color here -- especially the color red, which is very important -- gave the film a presence and an immediacy that frightened us.