People write about the first time they saw a great movie, and they often talk about a special, hushed experience in a great theater with a magical audience and probably real butter on the popcorn, too. The first time I saw The Searchers was on the Channel 7 Afternoon Movie, which may or may not have been called “The Big Money Movie” at that moment, so called because the host (future network person Sandy Hill was one for a while) would make phone calls during the commercials and try to give away cash. Not that I minded; I was an adolescent and I enjoyed watching the host dial the phone and ask a trivia question of the selected viewer; sometimes, most of the time, nobody answered the phone, so the segment would take on a quality of not-happening that Samuel Beckett would have appreciated: dialing, ringing, no answer. For weeks, it seemed, nobody could come up with the name of the actor who played Sam Drucker on “Green Acres,” admittedly a tough one. (Frank Cady.)
This, then, was the hushed and magical way I first encountered one of the cinema’s great titles. Not only that, but the two-hour time slot of the “Big Money Movie” needed lots of room for commercials and telephone calls, so a film with a 119-minute running time was not going to work. At worst it would be cut; in the case of The Searchers, it was spread out over two afternoons, so you actually saw a great deal of the movie repeated the second day. Which was kind of interesting. With all of that distraction, it still looked like a classic, although admittedly my 14-year-old self had been tipped off about that by its inclusion in a coffee-table book called The Great Movies, by William Bayer, which I pored over frequently in those days. Later I would see The Searchers twice in one week in a college class taught by one of the world’s foremost John Ford exegetes, Richard T. Jameson, and things fell into place.
Some thoughts on The Searchers are in the post below. The ten best of 1956:
1. The Searchers (John Ford)
2. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
3. Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher)
4. Flowing (Mikio Naruse)
5. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk) and Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
7. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray)
8. Attack! (Robert Aldrich)
9. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)
10. The Man Who Never Was (Ronald Neame)
My #10 sneaks in as a sleeper, a tight British picture about a real-life WWII plot. I did an editorial review for Amazon here.
The top three are solid; the rest were tough. I had to cheat at #5, and along with those two the American cinema was rife with examples of depravity and/or cynicism in 1956, giving the lie to the theory that the culture was entirely whitebread and conformist. A couple of flawed-but-magnificent films barely missed, John Huston’s Moby Dick and Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito. I also love Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, and Hitchcock had two good ones: The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man. It was a competitive year.