Greatest US films: Amazing facts

Which Pinocchio song inspired Close Encounters of the Third Kind? And how did Buster Keaton break his neck without realising? Find out in BBC Culture’s A-Z of the stories behind the classics.

A – Aliens

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, number 75
Director Steven Spielberg was inspired by watching a meteor shower with his father as a child. He later recalled: “When I was a five-year-old kid in New Jersey… my dad woke me up in the middle of the night and rushed me into our car in my night clothes… He had a thermos of coffee and had brought blankets, and we drove for about half an hour. We finally pulled over to the side of the road, and there were a couple hundred people, lying on their backs in the middle of the night, looking up at the sky. My dad found a place, spread the blanket out, and we both lay down… He pointed to the sky, and there was a magnificent meteor shower.”
The song When You Wish Upon a Star was a big influence on Spielberg in the film.  He referred to the score by John Williams as “When You Wish Upon a Star meets science fiction”, and wanted the song included in the closing credits. “I hung my story on the mood the song created, the way it affected me emotionally.”

Star Wars, number 36
Director George Lucas was inspired to create the Wookiee character Chewbacca – a “gentle, hairy, non-English-speaking co-pilot” – after seeing his wife’s dog sitting in the passenger seat of his car. (The dog, called Indiana, provided the name for the lead character in another Lucas franchise.) The word ‘Chewbacca’ is close to the Russian word for dog, собака (sobaka).

ET was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt when my parents broke up.

ET: The Extra-terrestrial, number 91
The film was based on Spielberg’s need for an imaginary friend after his parents’ divorce. “ET is a film that was inside me for many years,” the director has said. “ET was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt when my parents broke up. I responded by escaping into my imagination to shut down all my nerve endings crying ‘Mom, Dad, why did you break up and leave us alone?’… My wish list included having a friend who could be both the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had any more. And that’s how ET was born.” Apart from Elliott’s mother, adults are not seen from the waist up in the first half of the film, reinforcing a child’s viewpoint.

B – Bombshells

The icy, sophisticated blonde – personified by the stars Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly – is an iconic part of the director’s style. He explained his choice in an interview with François Truffaut: “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face.” Hitchcock favoured suspense over shock, saying: “There is no terror in the bang… only in the anticipation of it.”

Vertigo, number 3
Being blonde takes on added meaning in Vertigo. When James Stewart’s character begs Kim Novak to dye her hair, she asks him: “If I let you change me, will that do it? If I let you change me … will you love me?”

Psycho, number 8
Hitchcock’s penchant for blondes reveals a dark side to the director. He said in an interview: “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”

Marnie, number 47
Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly to play the title role. The actress-turned-royal consort was forced to turn down the part after the citizens of Monaco objected to their princess playing a sexually disturbed thief: former model Tippi Hedren took her place.

The Tramp’s voice can be heard for the first time, as he sings a song in gibberish.

C – Charlie Chaplin on cocaine

Modern Times, number 67
The Tramp character struggles to survive in an industrialised world – with assembly lines, factory machinery and cocaine in salt shakers. Charlie Chaplin planned Modern Times as his first ‘talkie’ but reverted to a silent format, fearing the character’s universal appeal would be damaged if he spoke. The Tramp’s voice can be heard for the first time, as he sings a song in gibberish.

D – Dreams

Mulholland Drive, number 21
“The movie is a surrealist dreamscape in the form of a Hollywood film noir, and the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of Mulholland Drive. “Nothing leads anywhere, and that’s even before the characters start to fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope. Mulholland Drive isn’t like Memento, where if you watch it closely enough, you can hope to explain the mystery. There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.” Director David Lynch has said: “I don't know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn't make sense.”

E – Ear

Blue Velvet, number 60
“Jeffrey finds an ear in a field as the clue,” Lynch told the New York Times in 1986. “I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body – a hole into something else, like a ticket to another world. The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect. Maybe a psychiatrist would have something to say about that.”

F – Foreigners

Casablanca, number 9
Many of the actors playing exiles were themselves refugees from war-torn Europe. According to Aljean Harmetz, who wrote The Making of Casablanca: “A dozen good actors, cast adrift, brought to a dozen small roles in Casablanca an understanding and a desperation that could never have come from Central Casting.” Just three of the credited actors were born in the US.

G – Gunslingers

Johnny Guitar, number 64
In his book The Films of My Life, the French New Wave director François Truffaut described how much he admired the 1954 Western. “It is dreamed, a fairytale, a hallucinatory Western… The cowboys vanish and die with the grace of ballerinas.”

The Searchers, number 5
Ranked seventh in the BFI’s 2012 Sight and Sound poll, and named the greatest Western of all time by the AFI in 2008, John Ford’s epic wasn’t received as well by critics at the time. Variety’s review declared it “somewhat disappointing”.

H – Hats

Raiders of the Lost Ark, number 82
George Lucas created the character of Indiana Jones (originally named Indiana Smith) in 1973, but shelved the idea to work on Star Wars. Avoiding the spotlight as Star Wars opened in 1977, he went to Hawaii with Steven Spielberg, who told Vanity Fair: “I told him that I wanted to, for the second time, approach [film producer] Cubby Broccoli, who had turned me down the first time, to see if he would change his mind and hire me to do a James Bond movie. And George said, ‘I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ He pitched me the story, and I committed on the beach.” They based the film on the action serials of the 1930s, and made sure Indy kept his hat on in even the most hair-raising sequences.

I – Idols

Some Like it Hot, number 30
Marilyn Monroe’s contract stipulated that her films had to be shot in colour, but test shots of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag were said to be so grotesque that director Billy Wilder opted for black and white. Jerry Lewis turned down Jack Lemmon’s role, later telling Esquire: “I felt I couldn’t bring anything funny to it. The outfit was funny. I don’t need to compete with the wardrobe. So whenever Billy Wilder saw me, he said, ‘Good afternoon, schmuck, how’s it going?’ And, of course, Jack Lemmon sent me candy and roses every holiday, and the card always read: THANKS FOR BEING AN IDIOT.”

North by Northwest, number 13
Cary Grant’s suit in the 1959 Hitchcock thriller was voted “the most legendary in the history of American cinema” by GQ magazine in 2006. Writer Todd McEwen even wrote a short story called Cary Grant’s Suit, telling the film from its viewpoint.

J – Jungle

Apocalypse Now, number 90
George Lucas was originally going to direct the 1979 war film, but turned it down after receiving the go-ahead to make Star Wars. Francis Ford Coppola stepped in, setting out to take the audience ‘through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war’. The line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” topped a 2004 poll of the best speeches in cinema history.

K – Kisses

It’s A Wonderful Life, number 46
This was James Stewart’s first screen kiss after returning from World War Two. To help with his nerves, director Frank Capra shot it in one take – it worked so well that Hollywood Production Code representatives demanded cuts to some of the scene, deeming it too passionate.

L – Laments

Sunset Boulevard, number 54
Director Billy Wilder wanted the corpse of Joe Gillis to be viewed from the pool’s bottom, but was unhappy with shots taken from a camera placed underwater in a box. In the end, the corpse’s reflection was filmed in a mirror on the bottom of the pool.

M – Mobsters

Mean Streets, number 93
The title was inspired by Raymond Chandler’s essay The Simple Art of Murder, which contains the line: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

I’ve directed eight films, and I’ve been able to edit only three of them myself

N – Noir

Touch of Evil, number 51
Orson Welles’s noir won first prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair; François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard – then critics – were on the jury. It was said to influence both – they went on to make their debut films (The 400 Blows and Breathless) in 1959 and 1960. Yet Welles had been denied the final cut, with Touch of Evil edited against his wishes. “There are scenes in the film I neither wrote nor directed, about which I know absolutely nothing,” he said in an interview for Cahiers du Cinéma. “I’ve been working since I was seventeen, I’ve directed eight films, and I’ve been able to edit only three of them myself… They always tear the film out of my hands – violently.”

O – Odysseys

2001: A Space Odyssey, number 4
In a 1965 interview with Jeremy Bernstein, writer Arthur C Clarke said: “Science-fiction films have always meant monsters and sex, so we have tried to find another term for our film.” Director Stanley Kubrick argued: “About the best we have been able to come up with is a space odyssey – comparable in some ways to the Homeric Odyssey. It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation.”

P – Private eyes

Chinatown, number 12
Director Roman Polanski was good friends with Jack Nicholson and screenwriter Robert Towne. The script for the 1974 LA noir is now considered ‘perfect’ in terms of structure, characters and dialogue. “I’ll tell you my favourite story about Roman,” said Towne in a 2009 interview. “When we started working on the re-write of Chinatown, Roman presented me with a book, a gift, called How to Write a Screenplay. He inscribed it ‘To my dear partner, with fond hope’.” 

Q – QWERTY

The Shining, number 62
The typewritten pages featuring ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ were replaced with expressions in different languages for international versions of the 1980 psychological horror. In Italian, they said ‘Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca’ – meaning ‘The morning has gold in its mouth’; in Spanish, ‘No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano’ – ‘No matter how early you get up, you can't make the sun rise any sooner’; in French, ‘Un «Tiens» vaut mieux que deux «Tu l'auras»’ – ‘One “here you go” is worth more than two “you'll have it”’; and in German ‘Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen’ – ‘Never put off till tomorrow what may be done today’.

R – Race

The Birth of a Nation, number 39
The 1915 silent epic faced calls for its ban upon release, prompting a reaction from director DW Griffith. According to Roger Ebert, “stung by criticisms that the second half of his masterpiece was racist in its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its brutal images of blacks, Griffith tried to make amends in Intolerance (1916), which criticised prejudice. And in Broken Blossoms [1919] he told perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies – even though, to be sure, it’s an idealised love with no touching.”

12 Years a Slave, number 99
The 2013 period drama’s sweep at the Oscars meant that Steve McQueen became the first black director of a Best Picture winner. He chose a rich visual style for the film, saying: “When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, ‘Look – look at this.’”

S – Slapstick

Sherlock Jr, number 44
Buster Keaton did most of his stunts in real time, without camera trickery: in one scene, he falls slowly from the roof of a moving train using a waterspout as counter-weight. The force of the water as the spout opened was so great that his head was knocked against a rail, giving him regular migraines. During a routine check-up years later, it emerged that he had fractured his neck doing the stunt.

T – Technicolor

The Wizard of Oz, number 34
“The transition from black and white (or sepia-coloured) footage for the Kansas sequences into the full Technicolor Oz scenes required some sleight of hand on set,” according to A Brief Guide to Oz. “The inside of the farmhouse was repainted in the sepia tone, and Judy Garland’s stand-in, Bobbie Koshay, went to the door, wearing a sepia version of the gingham dress. She then backed out of the frame, and Judy Garland, wearing the full-colour bright-blue dress, walked forward into the Technicolor Oz.”

U – Umbrellas

Singin’ in the Rain, number 7
When Gene Kelly filmed the title number, he was sick with a fever of 103 F and the director wanted to send him home. He later said: “The concept was so simple I shied away from explaining it to the brass at the studio in case I couldn't make it sound worth doing. The real work for this one was done by the technicians who had to pipe two city blocks on the backlot with overhead sprays, and the poor cameraman who had to shoot through all that water. All I had to do was dance.”

He didn't even want any music in the shower scene. Can you imagine that?

V – Violins

Psycho, number 8
Composer Bernard Herrmann once told director Brian De Palma: “I remember sitting in a screening room after seeing the rough cut of Psycho. Hitch was nervously pacing back and forth, saying it was awful… ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, ‘I have some ideas. How about a score completely for strings? I used to be a violin player you know.’” According to Hitchcock’s original notes, “Through the killing, there should be the shower noise and the blows of the knife. We should hear water gurgling down the drain of the bathtub, especially when we go closer it… during the murder, the sound of the shower should be continuous and monotonous, only broken by the screams of Marion.” As Herrmann put it, “He didn't even want any music in the shower scene. Can you imagine that?”

W – Weddings

The Godfather, number 2
Francis Ford Coppola took on The Godfather after 12 directors had turned it down; he described it as a ‘nightmarish experience’. “When it was all over I wasn’t at all confident … that I’d ever get another job,” he told an interviewer.

As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director.

X – Xanadu

Citizen Kane, number 1
Orson Welles studied John Ford’s Stagecoach before he started shooting his debut film Citizen Kane. “As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director,” he told Peter Bogdanovich in This is Orson Welles. “I’d learned whatever I knew in the projection room – from Ford. After dinner every night for about a month, I’d run Stagecoach… and ask questions. ‘How was this done? Why was this done?’ It was like going to school.”

Y – Years with most films in the top 100: 1970s

Taxi Driver, number 19
Screenwriter Paul Schrader has revealed how his own state of mind bled into the script: “At the time I wrote it I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are upfront in the script,” he says in Schrader on Schrader. “The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the ‘Are you looking at me?’ part. In the script it just says, ‘Travis speaks to himself in the mirror’. Bobby asked me what he would say and I said, well, he's a little kid playing with guns and acting tough. So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the time as the basis for his lines.”

Z – Zombies

Night of the Living Dead, number 85
Director George A Romero has revealed how his walking dead differed from zombies that had appeared on screen before his 1968 horror classic. “I didn’t call them zombies in Night of the Living Dead, and I didn’t think they were. Because in those films, the traditional Haitian voodoo zombie is not dead. And I thought I was doing something completely new by having the dead rise. The recently dead. They’re too weak to dig themselves out of graves. They’re too weak to eat brains, because they’ll never crack the skull. I have these sort of rules that I use, that everyone seems to have gone away from.”

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