There are signs that such stubborn eclecticism reflects a national trend. Last year, Disney-owned "indie" company Miramax created Rolling Thunder, a distribution label that exclusively supports the whims of bad-boy-turned-bore Quentin Tarantino. Remarkably, they agreed to market obscure new foreign releases and dusty American B-movies suggested by Tarantino, the Oscar-winning former video-store employee whose appreciation for "bad" movies is as passionate as it is encyclopedic. In an age when everybody loves irony but nobody knows how to define it, we'll see how Miramax fares with this brave excursion into a cutthroat marketplace.
Still, intrepid Dallas Observer film geeks Jimmy Fowler and Arnold Wayne Jones have noticed that there are plenty of wonderful movies out there already available for mass consumption, but gathering dust on local video shelves, woefully neglected in the stampede toward that section marked "New Releases." What follows is a critical guide to their favorite unsung films. This shouldn't be confused with a critics' best-films-of-all-time list. The only factor common to the guilty pleasures, forgotten classics, and fascinating flukes in this rude pile is their relative obscurity--or a bad reputation unjustly earned. As of this writing, all titles can be rented at a Dallas video store (don't discount Blockbuster, whose Lemmon Avenue location is surprisingly adventurous).
Hail the Conquering Hero. Writer-director Preston Sturges' movies stand as possibly the funniest a single man ever produced. His most famous pictures--The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Unfaithfully Yours--are all terrific, but his best, Hail the Conquering Hero, is among his lesser-known. The pacing of the dialogue and the quality of the lines themselves are comedic timing at its peak. Discharged from the Marine Corps because of chronic hay fever, a small-town boy (the moon-faced Eddie Bracken) finds himself mistakenly lionized as a war hero by his hometown. The plot often just goes through the motions, but it does so with surprising freshness and, most surprisingly, an incredible feel for the complex relationship between the fake hero and the Marine who aided him in his deception. The result is that, by the end, you may find the humor rollicking, but it's the strong message of personal honor that makes it something special, a farce with a heart of deep emotion.
Hara Kiri. This has the feeling of a short story, in which an economy of language, ideas, characters, and images resonates with sharp irony, like the distillate of a pungent odor. A circular and deliberately paced tale set in 17th-century Japan, Hara Kiri tells how members of a temple known for "paying off" former Samurai to prevent them from committing ritual suicide decides to remedy their reputation as chumps by allowing one such death. Director Masaki Kobayashi at first plays with your loyalties, leaving you to wonder who the hero must be. Perfectly acted and beautifully shot in black-and-white, this moody, engrossing drama builds slowly toward a wrenching conclusion.
I Am Cuba. Before Martin Scorsese rediscovered the minor French classic Purple Noon--which just ended a theatrical run in Dallas--he brought the long-lost I Am Cuba to video stores. An engrossing visual feast, I Am Cuba must stand as one of the most impressive uses of cinematography in the history of film. Using what appears to be a hand-held camera with almost no shaking (long before the invention of the SteadiCam), the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, tells numerous stories about life in Cuba in a quasi-documentary fashion. He weaves in and out of crowds, uses phenomenally long tracking shots, accomplishes near-unbelievable feats of visual legerdemain, and does so without any computer graphics. There's not much plot, and the pro-Castro proselytizing may be hard to stomach, but I Am Cuba is one of the triumphant, unappreciated gems of modern cinema.
In a Lonely Place. Nicholas Ray was one of the most astonishing directors to emerge from the studio system, in part because he didn't seem to fit well inside it. Knowing that lends a certain cynical cruelty to the plot of In a Lonely Place, his best--and probably least-viewed--film. Humphrey Bogart plays a Hollywood screenwriter accused of murder, and what makes the story so disarming is that you're never sure whether he did it. But the film is less a whodunit than a compelling character study of a violent, unstable personality. Gloria Grahame, as the one person who sees in Bogart the potential for compassion, has the boozy eyes and worn face that were her trademarks in the '40s and '50s. Even when she was beautiful, as here, her looks belied sadness. It's little wonder that she was married to Ray at the time they made the movie: Her withering fatalism must have been sustaining to him.