In times of worry I’ve always found refuge in movies.
With so many of us spending time around the house these days, I thought I’d share some personal favorites, starting with two today and with more to come until this crisis passes—as surely it will. I’m not a professional critic or film historian, and I speak only on the authority of more than half a century of watching and loving movies.
There are great ones from every era, and I’ll start with two from the 1950s. The first is a classic love story, the second a great western. Both are in black and white. If black and white has been a hurdle for you in the past, give it another try now. You may find it helps transport you out of this troubled moment.
I hope you enjoy these suggestions. And please share your own!
Roman Holiday (1953)
Let’s start with a love letter to Italy in happier times. Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a foreign dignitary on a diplomatic visit to Rome. Struck by the beauty of the city and longing for a taste of ordinary life, she skips out on her royal handlers and is soon wandering the streets at night, anonymous and alone. There she meets a down-on-his-luck American correspondent named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck).
The princess, who hides her identity for fear of being sent back to the dreary formality of her other life, and Joe (who secretly recognizes her) can’t let on that he’s a reporter, for fear of losing a career-saving story. This tale of mutual deception blossoming into love unfolds among the landmarks of Rome. Hepburn, in her first major role, seems impossibly young. Her chemistry with Peck is perfect, their romance handled with grace, and the city is alive and splashed with sun and happiness and optimism. We can’t visit Italy right now, of course. Most of us can’t do much but batten down our own hatches and send heartfelt thoughts to a country under full lockdown. Until the day when visitors can return, this charming movie offers a couple of hours of pure escapism and joy.
High Noon (1952)
On their wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), are set to leave Hadleyville, the town Kane cleaned up. He has pledged to find a more peaceful occupation somewhere else. But as they roll off, word comes that Frank Miller, a man Kane sent to prison, is just out of prison and returning with his gang to seek revenge.
Kane knows that if he doesn’t stay and face the gang now he’ll run for the rest of his life. One by one, upstanding townsfolk rationalize their unwillingness to help. They urge Kane to leave and even blame him for having stirred up the trouble with Frank Miller. Their arguments are just plausible enough that we think, briefly, they have a point. But that only sharpens the power of Kane’s decision to take his stand. The movie plays out in real time, with clocks on various walls ticking ominously towards the noon showdown.
High Noon was filmed against the backdrop of McCarthyism sweeping Hollywood and the United States in the early 1950s. But what makes this movie so timeless (not to mention timely right now) is that it’s not the external threat, however real, that is the greatest danger—it’s what happens when contagious fear overcomes reason. And it’s about the power of individual courage to set things right.