Book Review: Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See

Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See If You Read, Write About or Make Movies. Joe Leydon. Michael Wiese Productions. 2004. 306 pages. ISBN: 0941188922. Available from for only $9.98!

Every once in a while a good book comes along that is sabotaged by an inappropriate title. Such is the case with Joe Leydon’s Guide. If you’re an average movie viewer, a title that purports to be *only for people who read, write about, or make movies, is going to turn you off. You’re going to think that Leydon analyzes each film to death, and writes in a dry, polysyllabic, academic way that will be of no interest to you.

Not so. Leydon, an award-winning film critic, adjunct professor at the University of Houston and Houston Community College, and host of the website, has all the credentials for academia, but his writing here is geared for the masses.

The movies he includes”defined genres, influenced filmmakers, and still serve as standards by which other films are measured.”

He chooses a half dozen or so movies for each genre illustrated. The Silents, Americana, Men and Women, Song and Dance, Westward Ho, Cinemafantastique, The Master of Suspense, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Action, Funny Business, Foreign Influences, and Beyond the Mainstream.

The Master of Suspense section is devoted to the classics of Alfred Hitchcock: Notorious, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, which is only right given Hitchcock’s seminal influence on the genre, but the other sections have a wider range of filmmakers on display.

For each of the 64 movies he discusses, he gives historical background, information of interest about the movie makers, and delves into the film behind the film.

For Birth of a Nation, for example, he explains the importance of the new film techniques D. W. Griffith pioneered, while simultaneously condemning the plot elements which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was ostensibly the catalyst for that cowardly group’s resurrection. He points out that Buster Keaton’s The General, widely regarded as a classic today, did so badly on first release that it almost ruined Keaton’s career – and he was never granted as much power over his films after that.
In the Americana section, we’ve got the old standbys such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which was condemned at the time as anti-American because it showed corrupt politicians, whereas director Capra had meant it as a celebration ), Rocky, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But, Smokey and the Bandit a must see movie? Well, Leydon includes it because it is often credited – “or perhaps more precisely, blamed – ” for kicking off an action-comedy sub-genre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.

Leydon writes “Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. “

For the Westerns, Leydon includes among others Stage Coach, the Wild Bunch and High Noon (a staple in film classes across the country.) Leydon writes: Everybody knows that *High Noon is the Western saga of a noble marshal who must stand alone against vengeful outlaws while the cowardly citizens of his small town refuse to offer assistance. As often is the case with things “everybody knows.” however, Fred Zinneman’s must-see movie is appreciably more complex than conventional wisdom suggests.

He continues, describing the conventional understanding of the plot. Then: “But what almost always goes unmentioned in discussions of *High Noon are the glancing hints and subtle intimations that suggest maybe, just maybe, the entire situation isn’t as black and white as it seems. Here and there, you can spot clear-cut signs that for the people of Hadleyville, Will Kane has been a sanctimonious spoilsport who will not be mourned or missed. It’s not so much that they’re afraid to offer help – rather, it’s more like they eager to witness long-delayed payback. Or, as a hotel keeper bluntly says of Will, “He’s got a comeuppance coming.” Obviously, Frank Miller still has friends and admirers throughout the town. Just as obviously, Will hasn’t done nearly enough during his tenure as marshal to sway their allegiance.

And then there’s the delicate issue of sexual intrigue…Early on, High Noon none-too-subtly-indicates that Will once had a major hankering for Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), a harshly beautiful and fiercely proud Mexican woman who used to dally with Frank Miller. Is that why Will arrested Frank Miller in the first place? Was he eager to remove a romantic rival? The question lingers in the air, tantalizingly unanswered.”

In Cinefantastique, in which Leydon covers science fiction films, he includes the classics, including Plan 9 From Outer Space, the disastrous film by legendarily bad filmmaker Ed Wood, featuring footage of Bela Lugosi. To Leydon: “…we are transfixed – no, mesmerized – by Edward D. Wood Jr.’s singular triumph of will over incompetence.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Also included are Metropolis, Frankenstein, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and for some reason, Halloween.

Foreign influences include Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and the classic Truffaut film Day For Night.

Leydon strikes just the right note, I think, with his inclusions of movies that Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½everyone knows’ are classics with the lesser knowns that have had just as much influence in their own way. He provides insights into every one.

After each essay he includes what he calls Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Specs’ – title, stars, director, running time, year of release, then gives a listing of three movies For Further Research, and why, and then concludes with Lessons for Filmmakers – which the average movie-watcher will find of interest as well. Indeed, after reading some of the entries I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few people didn’t rush out to their local video store in order to rent some of these titles and watch them with fresh eyes.

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