Watching classic cinema can be enjoyable but often daunting. Certain iconic films may be familiar, even for those who have never seen them. But diving deep reveals a great wealth of cinematic greatness to expand your horizons. These exceptional black-and-white movie gems should be added to your list of films to watch.
1. Rebecca (1940)
Rebecca is a highly praised film, receiving many accolades upon release. But as far as Alfred Hitchcock films, fans do not mention this one nearly enough. The story follows a beautiful but insecure woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the dashing and mysterious Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). After a whirlwind romance, the two get married and head home to his large estate. But the new Mrs. de Winter soon feels she cannot compete with the memory of Maxim's late wife Rebecca, especially with the cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson).
Rebecca is a masterful film with an evocative, claustrophobic atmosphere that mirrors the feelings of Fontaine as the truth behind Rebecca's death slowly unfolds. It's a film that should be on any Hitchcock fan's watch list.
2. Conflict (1945)
Legendary actor Humphrey Bogart's filmography is full of seminal films such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. If you want to expand your Bogart viewing, look no further than the engrossing and stylish Conflict. A man in love with his wife's younger sister believes he's planned the perfect crime with an airtight alibi. But things are not what they seem, and he questions his sanity.
Conflict has incredible noir elements: lurking in the shadows, intriguing mystery, sharp dialogue, and gripping performances. It's a Bogart deep cut that every noir lover should discover.
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Dark and thought-provoking, Sunset Boulevard tells the tragic tale of the treacherous relationship between an out-of-work screenwriter and an aging silent film star who has lost all sense of reality. The cynical Joe Gillis and ostentatious Norma Desmond show us the dangers of obsession and the price of fame. This noir masterpiece by director Billy Wilder stars William Holden and Gloria Swanson.
4. For Me and My Gal (1942)
When one thinks of the immensely talented Gene Kelly, chances are you think of Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and On the Town. What rarely comes to mind is Kelly's first film, the sweet, sentimental, and sometimes melancholy For Me and My Gal.
It's the tale of two vaudeville partners who fall in love but face personal and outside obstacles at the onset of WWI. The first of the superb pairings of Kelly and Judy Garland, For Me and My Gal, is a romantic, patriotic, and touching story about love and courage.
5. Harvey (1950)
Thoughtful and sweet-natured, Harvey tells the story of the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), who claims his best friend is a six-foot-plus rabbit named Harvey. Consequently, his family fears he is insane and insists he sees a doctor.
James Stewart gives one of my favorite performances in Harvey, an incredibly unique, poignant, and funny film. Through Elwood's wise eyes, we see the world more sweetly as the characters and the audience are given a much-needed lesson in faith.
6. Top Hat (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are an incredible on-screen pair and two of the greatest dancers ever to have lived. Their fourth film, Top Hat, is one of the funniest, sweetest, and most lively collaborations. The premise is typical of their movies: the two meet and sparks fly, but a misunderstanding stands in the way of love. In this case, Rogers mistakenly thinks Astaire is her friend's husband.
Individually, Astaire and Rogers are phenomenal, with superb comedic timing. Together, the two are magical. Their chemistry is fun and organic, and their dancing talents are of the highest caliber. In Top Hat, Astaire's elegance and creativity shine. And Roger's grace and, as she puts it, ability to do everything “backward and in heels” amazes. Top Hat features impressive musical numbers, especially the heavenly “Cheek to Cheek.”
7. Meet John DOE (1941)
Director Frank Capra's films are known for their profound and idealistic themes seen through a dramatic lens. Meet John Doe is his most serious but also most heart-stirring. In the movie, a reporter hires a man down on his luck to pose as the fictional John Doe, a figure who claims they'll take their life unless things change in the country for the better.
Meet John Doe is from 1941, but it remains relevant. The story and characters showcase the importance of building bridges, finding common ground with your fellow man, and standing up against the greed and corruption of untrustworthy leaders. This brilliant and moving film stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It is for those looking for a meaningful, exceptionally performed classic.
8. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The Manchurian Candidate is a psychological thriller with tension, twists, and compelling performances. The movie follows two former POWs. Sergeant Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is a decorated soldier with a domineering mother (Angela Lansbury) with grand political aspirations. Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued with nightmares of Shaw killing two fellow soldiers. In truth, the plot involves brainwashing, conspiracy, and a race to stop an assassination attempt.
Beyond the riveting story, The Manchurian Candidate showcases its stars in a new, captivating light for many viewers. Sinatra proves to be more than a swinging crooner and gives a resounding performance.
9. Angels in the Outfield (1951)
Many modern audiences are likely unaware that the uplifting 1994 Disney film is a remake of this 1951 classic. However, while some elements are similar, the films vary greatly.
This sweet-natured, poignant film is about the power of faith, belief in ourselves, and the grace of humility. The original involves the struggling baseball team, the Pirates, the dejected and prone-to-anger manager, a kind reporter who finds a kinship with him, and the sweet little girl whose prayers are answered by angels who help the team. It's funny, inspiring, and deserves much more attention.
10. 12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men is a pristine example of how a film can be utterly compelling and feature a simple premise and setting. The story follows the jury deliberations of the trial of an 18-year-old boy. If convicted, he faces death. Eleven of the jury members quickly vote guilty. But the 12th is unsure and wants to thoroughly discuss the evidence and testimony.
These discussions illuminate essential facts about the case and certain members' various prejudices and biases. Moreover, the movie showcases the importance of democracy, the dangers of hasty judgments, and the burden of truth. In the hands of the director, Sidney Lumet, and the talented cast, including Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, and Jack Klugman, 12 Angry Men is riveting and thoughtful. Fonda proves that heroism comes in many forms.
11. Without Love (1945)
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are some of the most iconic duos on-screen and off. Their genuine love for each other was transferred on-screen in their numerous films. My favorite is the vastly underrated Without Love. It features a unique premise: two lonely souls agree to a platonic marriage of convenience for the mutually beneficial situation and to help the war effort. As the two grow closer, love blossoms inevitably.
The natural and beautiful chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is on full display in Without Love. And the authenticity they bring to their roles helps make the movie lovely and touching.
12. Holiday Affair (1949)
Holiday classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas are yearly staples. But if you want something different, Holiday Affair is a perfect choice. The film tells the unexpected love story between the widow, single mother, and comparison shopper Connie (Janet Leigh) and the man she inadvertently gets fired from his job, Steve (Robert Mitchum).
With a young and precocious son, a nice boyfriend, and the memory of her late husband, Connie doesn't see Steve coming at all. With the Christmas setting, lovely story, and a much different kind of performance by Mitchum than his usual fare, Holiday Affair is an underrated gem.
13. Bringing up Baby (1938)
Starring the beloved Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby is about a professor, played by Grant, who is excited about the new dinosaur bone that was found and his upcoming marriage to his assistant (who likes his work more than him). But when the lack of funding hits the project, a young, flighty heiress and her pet leopard, Baby, may just save his project (and his love life) after all.
14. Some Like It Hot (1959)
When you think of Marilyn Monroe films, Some Like It Hot might be one of the first ones you think of. The comedy tells the story of two male musicians who witness a mob hit and are forced to go on the run. When they find out about an all-female band, the two men don disguises and join the band as they travel around the country. But while traveling, they meet Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Monroe, whom the men can't help but fall in love with.
15. Casablanca (1942)
Next up is the classic film Casablanca. When a cynical man's Moroccan café becomes a safe place for refugees seeking letters to travel safely to America during World War II, he finds himself in the crosshairs of doing the right thing and love when his ex shows up with her husband. This classic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is heartbreaking and beautiful and has one of the most beloved endings of all time. “Here's looking at you, kid.”
16. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
A nuclear holocaust is imminent after an American general orders a bombing strike on the Soviet Union. What he doesn't realize is that this attack could trigger Russia's ultimate weapon: a doomsday machine that could blow up the planet.
17. Young Frankenstein (1974)
This is the tale of young neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) inheriting a castle from his grandfather, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Initially, Frederick wants to avoid having anything to do with his grandfather's work. However, he changes his mind once he looks at some research. He then decides to try to carry on where his grandfather left off in this horror-comedy directed by Mel Brooks.
18. The Elephant Man (1980)
Joseph Merrick has several physical deformities, earning him the nickname “The Elephant Man.” He is presented as a circus sideshow freak in a circus. Dr. Treves sees him one day and tries to bring him into the hospital. While there, the doctor discovers that Joseph is articulate and quite intelligent. As news spreads and Merrick's fame increases, there is the question of whether or not he is still being exploited, just in a kinder fashion.
19. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey is an individual who always puts others ahead of himself. He wanted to travel and see the world, but he knew Mr. Potter would take over the city if he ever did. When a mistake is made on Christmas Eve, and it looks like Bailey's business might collapse, he wonders what it would be like for everyone if he was no longer around. Bailey's guardian angel then shows him exactly what it would be like if George had never been born.
20. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
During the Great Depression, an Oklahoman family is forced to abandon their farm in the Dust Bowl. They hope to make it to California to start a new life. Once they reach their destination, they find out it differs from what they expected.
21. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. A woman has been sexually assaulted, and his job is to defend the man accused of this heinous crime. The man accused of the crime has a different skin color than the woman, which helps to further ignite racial tensions. While trying to defend his client, Atticus is also trying to teach his children about prejudice and how it is wrong to treat someone differently based solely on their skin color.
22. Carnival of Souls (1962)
A drag race occurs one night, resulting in one of the cars driving off a bridge and into the river below. Mary somehow survives and becomes desensitized to everything after the incident. She tries to start over in a new city by accepting a job as a church organist. It isn't long before she begins having visions, and other things start taking place that make her seem crazy to the outside world. She thinks the visions have something to do with an abandoned carnival outside of town and is drawn there.