A Fall From Grace
In short, it’s nuts.
What is the classic movie fan to do in the era of Netflix? For a few glorious years FilmStruck was our salvation, offering a rich, well-curated collection of films from the silent era through the 1970s, something Netflix gave up on years ago.
So with FilmStruck dead, where can the fan of classic movies—let's say, just for the sake of argument, anything older than 40 years—get their fix without resorting to renting each and every title on iTunes or Fandango?
The answer might surprise you. The meatiest streaming source for world cinema classics is Kanopy, a free service offered through most (though not all) public and college library systems. But there's a limit of five streams per month and while they carry hundreds of titles from the Criterion Collection from such directors as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, the collection of classic American cinema is relatively small.
That's where Amazon Prime Video enters the picture. Netflix has maybe a dozen Hollywood feature films from the years between 1940 and 1980, along with a collection of war documentaries and rarities from pioneering women filmmakers and African-American directors. Interesting, yes, even admirable, but awfully limited in scope and selection.
Prime Video offers a rich, rapidly-churning catalog of sixties and seventies cinema: "Chinatown" and "All the President's Men," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Raging Bull," "The Great Escape" and "Mickey One." And back it goes through Billy Wilder's "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment," John Huston's "Moby Dick," Howard Hawks' "Red River," "Born Yesterday" with Judy Holliday and William Holden, "Platinum Blonde" with Jean Harlow, and holiday perennial "It's a Wonderful Life" just to name just a few.
Dig a little deeper and you can find the deliriously baroque western "Johnny Guitar" with Joan Crawford, end-of-the-world drama "Five" from radio drama pioneer Arch Oboler, "Dead Reckoning" with Humphrey Bogart, "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" with Ray Harryhausen effects, and Ben Gazzara in "The Strange One," the first film from "Private Property" director and Actor's Studio legend Jack Garfein. There are silent films, crime pictures, westerns, and musicals, plus gialli, spaghetti westerns and Italian crime thrillers, Japanese gangster pictures, cult oddities like Slava Tsukerman's "Liquid Sky" and Teruo Ishii's "Horrors of Malformed Men," and even a few international classics.
So why isn't Prime Video getting more attention?
Amazon's catalog of Hollywood and international classics is admittedly on the shallow side compared to the height of FilmStruck, which married two amazing catalogues with a deep collection of film history. But it's an eclectic collection and it's always churning out new titles. In 2018, Amazon Prime members could stream "Mean Streets," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Man Who Would Be King," "Barry Lyndon," "Bullitt," "Performance," "Point Blank," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Gone With the Wind," and "The Wizard of Oz."
Still, there's a major problem: finding the films in Amazon's catalog. FilmStruck was curated, and told subscribers what was new and it provided spotlights on directors, actors, and various themes to encourage exploration. The classics of Prime Video are buried amongst scores of B-movies, old and new.
There are others problems: Amazon offers both a Prime Video service of streaming movies with a subscription along with its huge selection of Amazon rentals. Recommendation galleries and search results often bring up a mix of both. Even some individual films—"Red River," for example—are offered from multiple sources, only one of which is included in the Prime subscription. The search results don't always favor the free version, which is usually indistinguishable in quality. The only difference is that one will cost you a few dollars to rent. It may simply be a flaw in the system but a more cynical take might see this as a sneaky way to grab a few extra bucks. Whatever the reason, it's doesn’t help the Amazon Prime subscriber make the most of their service.
While the majority of films are presented in fine editions, indifferent quality control means that there are scores of poor copies of public domain titles (as well as some more recent films) that don't look or sound much better than the bargain bin videotapes you could find 20 years ago. That's an instant turn-off in an age where studios routinely remaster their catalog for the HD era.
Browsing by genre on Amazon Prime is like wading through the donations bin of a library sale and counting on Amazon's own recommendations isn't much better. For a company that built its success on targeting consumers based on their buying patterns, the metrics of Amazon's search function fail to sort the wheat from the chaff of its streaming library.
And there's a lot of chaff in their vast collection. For example, when I log in to my account and click my way to "Movies" and "included with Prime," I get plenty of recent releases front-loaded on the page. There are even a few genuine classics in my "Top Rated Movies" feed: "A Clockwork Orange," "The Big Country," "The Great Escape." But when I scroll down to "Classic Movies" the pickings are, shall we say, a little less promising. 1983 "Animal House" knock-off "Screwballs," "Lone Wolf McQuade" with Chuck Norris, and the vile "The Evil That Men Do" with Charles Bronson are all offered up before "All the President's Men" and "The Apartment" appear. Definitions of the term "classic" aside, what in my search history churns up these suggestions?
With FilmStruck gone and no real alternative filling the void at present, Amazon is in a prime position to grab up fans of classic movies. But why isn't there some kind of mailing promoting those older classics cycling through the catalog every month? And why aren't Amazon's Facebook and Twitter feeds alerting movie buffs of what's new beyond "Mrs. Maisel" and "You Were Never Really Here" and other Prime Originals? For a marketing powerhouse like Amazon, they can't seem to find my sweet spot, and I'm a guy who is constantly clicking on classic titles to spotlight in my newspaper columns and website.
There's a great selection of films for film buffs, classics fans, and adventurous viewers. All they need is a little help finding them. So here's a sampling of just a few titles from across the spectrum that you can stream now with a Prime subscription, a little something for all tastes:
George Cukor's "Born Yesterday" (1950), which earned an Oscar for Judy Holliday.
Leo McCarey's "The Awful Truth" (1937) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.
A Deeper Dive:
"Gumshoe" (1972) – The feature debut of director Stephen Frears is a playful tribute to American crime movies starring the late Albert Finney as a small time Liverpool entertainer playing private detective.
"Merrily We Go To Hell" (1932) – Dorothy Arzner, a rare career woman director in the Hollywood’s early sound era, directs this sassy pre-code drama of society decadence and excess with Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney.
"Cockfighter" (1974) – Warren Oates is an obsessive cockfighting trainer who takes a vow of silence after his hubris costs him the championship in the offbeat adaptation of Charles Willeford's novel directed by Monte Hellman.
"Wake in Fright" (1971) – The brutal, blackly funny thriller of an urban schoolteacher (Gary Bond) stranded in a grimy mining town in the sun-blasted Australian Outback anticipates the New Australian Cinema. Donald Pleasance co-stars.
"Death Laid an Egg" (Italy, 1968) – Italian murder mystery intertwines with surreal satire in Giulio Questi's "film blanc" starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as a gentleman poultry farmer who unwinds from a hard day by murdering prostitutes. Gina Lollobrigida and Ewa Aulin co-star.
"Homicidal" (1961) – If William Castle is the B-movie Hitchcock, then this devious little gem is his "Psycho," an inspired twist with a shocker of a first-act murder, a third-act psychologist’s explanation, and Castle's own invention: the "Fright Break."
"Perceval" (France, 1978) – Eric Rohmer’s most unique feature, a strange, sophisticated mix of theater, medieval literature, story-song, and cinema, is a glorious odyssey into the very nature of stories and storytelling.
"The Firemen's Ball" (Czechoslovakia, 1967) – A satirical edges of Milos Forman's dark comedy of a small town fire brigade's annual fund raising party unraveling in chaos was not lost on the Soviet government, which tried to ban the film.
"The Golden Coach" (France, 1952) – Anna Magnani is the earthy, vivacious diva of a traveling troupe of Italian commedia dell'arte players in a Peruvian backwater in Jean Renoir's loving tribute to the theater of love and the power of art. Amazon offers the English language version, which Renoir acknowledged as the definitive version.
"Zero for Conduct" (France, 1933) – Jean Vigo's anarchic gem celebrates the rebellious spirit of adolescent boys in the first masterpiece of pre-pubescent self-actualization, a strange and wonderful film full of unbridled imagination, flights of fantasy, and delirious images.
The 2020 Oscar nominations.
A review of Netflix's Dracula, from the creators of Sherlock.
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A collection of the reviews given our highest possible grade in 2019.