With great umbrage I read that my holiday movie guide was a “chick list.”
I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks “Psycho” is a chick flick is out of touch with women! The shower scene alone deters many women from ever watching the movie; even its star Janet Leigh refused to take showers after filming ended. Also, for the record, “Die Hard’s” absence from the list was occasioned solely by the fact that it’s common knowledge Bruce Willis starred in the Best. Christmas. Movie. Ever. On the other hand, “Frequency”—another non-chick-flick pick of mine—isn’t as well known.
So when it comes to stupid action films, check your Y-chromosome sexist stereotyping. I’ve been plagued by this unjust pigeonholing for more than two decades, beginning in 1990 when my male colleagues invited me to join them to view the just-released—as they put it—“romantic comedy”: “Total Recall.” As if that descriptor would make the plans more appealing.
You want thrillers? Action films? Beyond the obvious “Die Hard,” Indiana Jones, Bourne Identity, and Tom Clancy franchises, try: “Airforce One”; “Along Came A Spider”; “Cape Fear” (remake); “Cliffhanger”; “Conair”; “D.O.A.” (remake); “Don’t Say a Word”; “Face/Off”; “Flesh and Bones”; “Panic Room”; “Point of No Return”; “Proof of Life”; “Ransom”; “The Rock”; “Se7en”; or “True Lies.”
Bonus Recommendation: “Panic Room” stars singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam as the more ruthless villain. Check out “Population Me,” and especially “Back of Your Hand,” if you’re not familiar with Yoakam’s work.
Hopefully, I’ve established my bro’nafides. If you agree but want something more substantial than thermo-nuclear-withstanding refrigerators—but still of the same general genre—consider one these older or lesser-known films.
1. The Original ‘D.O.A.’
Let’s start with some of the originals butchered by later remakes. The 1950 original “D.O.A.” (Dead on Arrival) might not star Meg Ryan as a young co-ed, but it provides one of the most intriguing movie plots to date: a man entering a police station to report a murder—his own.
The man, Frank Bigelow, played by Edmund O’Brien, has been poisoned by a “luminous toxin” and has only days to live. Over the course of the next hour in film time, O’Brien retraces his steps to solve his own murder. “D.O.A.” provides an interesting transition from old Hollywood to new, and you’ll notice that “The Usual Suspects” (recommended below) replicates some of this film’s original elements.
2. 1960s Version of ‘Cape Fear’
Another Hollywood remake—and a horrible one at that—is the 1990s version of “Cape Fear.” On the other hand, the 1960s film is a paragon of psychological thrillers. Robert Mitchum stars as a recently released rapist, and Gregory Peck plays the lawyer responsible for Mitchum’s conviction. Set in a small North Carolina community, Mitchum’s character seeks revenge by stalking Peck’s wife and teenage daughter. After the law proves helpless, Peck plots to kill Mitchum on their house boat on Cape Fear. But his plans go awry, leading to the terrifying final scene.
3. The Original French ‘La Femme Nikita’
The remake of “La Femme Nikita” is a further Hollywood fail, although in this case the movie was marketed as “Point of No Return.” In contrast to the American version, the 1990 French original perfectly captures Nikita’s grit as a drug-addicted teen, then later her transformation into a femme fatale—and a clandestine state-sponsored assassin. Probably the best “action” film of the bunch, but with explicit violence. Also, do note that the film is subtitled, but if you dare accuse me of a preoccupation with foreign films, watch out for a follow-up list of the best non-English films.
4. The 1962 ‘Manchurian Candidate’
“The Manchurian Candidate” is also a familiar name in film but only because of the 2004 remake. However, as is usually the case, the 1962 original version is unrivaled. Starring Angela Lansbury, who garnered a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Frank Sinatra, and Janet Leigh, this Cold War thriller works because it is authentically set in the post-McCarthy era. A classic film with an incredibly original plot and stellar acting.
5. ‘The Usual Suspects’
“The Usual Suspects” opens predictably enough for a thriller, with gunfire and a massacre aboard a ship. But that is all that is predictable about this 1995 classic. Told from the confines of the investigating agent’s office through a series of flashbacks, Kevin Spacey takes the feds on a tour of the underworld in search of the elusive mob boss Keyser Soze. Spacey’s understated performance in “The Usual Suspects” matches perfectly with its surprise ending. A must-see.
6. ‘The Boys From Brazil’
Two words: “Hitler” and “cloning.” Add to that two excellent actors—Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck—and you have one of the most intriguing thrillers of the 1970s. Olivier plays a retired Nazi hunter searching for the Paraguay connection to a string of mysterious deaths. Olivier finds that connection—Peck—but the movie leaves the audience to contemplate whether it is already too late.
Beyond its intriguing plot and superb acting, “The Boys From Brazil” provides much food for thought and should scream CAUTION to today’s scientists.