5. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) – Dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Star Paul Muni was probably better known for his performance in Howard Hawks’ Scarface, which came out the same year as this, but Fugitive is undoubtedly the better film, packing much more of an emotional wallop in its denouement and seemingly effortlessly conveying an otherwise implausible sequence of events that sees Muni wrongly convicted, escape from a chain gang, before his past returns to shatter his newly built life.
Muni is perfectly cast, portraying the varying shades of a protagonist by turns bitter, desperate, relieved, brow-beaten and cheery. At this stage in the history of film and so early in the infancy of talkies, Muni’s acting style is surprisingly and impressively contemporary, with none of the stilted delivery and hackneyed mannerisms that beset some of the more mediocre performances of the era.
Although it is in some ways an “issues” picture, portraying the relatively lawless system of justice and punishment that typified the world of chain gangs at the time, like its contemporaries Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, it gives us areas of concern, without adopting a preachy tone or a newsreel simplicity. Muni’s James Allen is undoubtedly hard done by, but his predicament is affectingly and convincingly rendered without resorting to melodrama.
Though for many viewers it may feel dated, it has aged pretty well and is a top draw example of just how accomplished film-making and acting of that era could be. Catch it however you can – this might be a place to start.
6. Audition (1999) – Dir. Takashi Miike
Starting off for all the world like some sort of tender romantic drama, Miike’s 1999 film turns on its head at around the half way mark, becoming one of the most mesmerizing, distressing and affecting horror films to ever grace the screen. Ostensible protagonist Shigeharu Aoyama has lost his wife and several years later decides he wants to try to get back into dating but does not know where to start. Fortunately he is a television executive and so with a friend’s help creates a fictitious show for which auditions are held, as a way for him to meet women and see if anything clicks with any of them.
He meets a quiet, seemingly sweet and unassuming young woman named Asami and they begin to date. Later on in the film we cut to her apartment, where someone, or something that we later learn is missing its tongue and perhaps a lot more besides is tied up in a heavy-duty sack. The film then moves off into seriously what-the-heck territory, the finer details of which I will not spoil for you. It is a uniquely unsettling and compelling film and although I cannot and will not pretend that it will be everyone’s cup of tea, if you want a deeply unique and terrifying horror film that does not rely on cheap scares, or hackneyed horror clichés, then this might be the one for you. A word of warning: this film will stay with you for a very long time indeed.
So there you have it. An action-packed crime epic, a bleak film noir, a sports drama, a sci-fi curio, a social drama and a romantic drama turned horror film. A little something for everyone. Please feel free to use the comments section below to recommend your own under-appreciated gems, or give props to any from my list that you’ve already seen.