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Critical Reassessment: 'Heaven’s Gate' And 11 More Films That Have Been Reconsidered Over Time

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 5, 2012 2:18 PM
41 Comments
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It's A Wonderful Life
“It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)
Though it’s now regarded as an American classic, a holiday season staple and has become a Christmas tradition for many families, few would have guessed that would be the legacy of the picture when it was released in 1946. In fact, in many ways, the picture represents the beginning of the second act of Frank Capra’s career. The director was mostly missing from big screens throughout World War II, helping with the war effort, and helming a handful of wartime documentaries. Now independent of any studio, he launched Liberty Films, with “It’s A Wonderful Life” as its first of what would be only two movies in the company’s shortlived existence (the other being “State Of Union”). The film cost a whopping $2 million, quite an expense at the time, but more crucially Capra may have set himself up as a critical target. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Capra railed against a studio system in which a few studio heads dictated the kind of movies that were made (some things never change). The piece was published in May 1946, about a month after production started on the movie, was reprinted in a handful of publications including Reader's Digest, and moreover, Capra declared his own fledgling outfit was going to rally against "the pattern of sameness." So when "It's A Wonderful Life" premiered in December 1946, did critics have it out for him? Perhaps, and there's no doubt that the reception was sharply divided, but more importantly, it was audiences who didn't take to it. The movie wound up losing distributor RKO over half a million and it was the 26th highest grossing movie of the year, and it's not like ticket buyers weren't rewarding quality. The top grossing movie of 1947 (the year it went into wide release)? William Wyler's "The Best Years Of Our Lives." While "It's A Wonderful Life" did wind up earning five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, the movie faded from view. It was only thanks TV reruns in the 1970s and 1980s (and lapsed rights which caused the picture to fall into the public domain for a spell) that it was re-assessed and re-discovered, and newly beloved, gaining the stature we now know it for.

Johnny Guitar
"Johnny Guitar" (1954)
Later embraced by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Pedro Almodovar, Nicolas Ray's beautiful, manic western was initially excoriated for being, well, very strange. One such reason is that while the film's title suggests that Sterling Hayden's Johnny is the film's lead protagonist, Joan Crawford's Vienna is the film's real star, and in a male-dominated genre, that led to a lot of head-scratching. Bosley Crowther was of course one of the most noisomely perplexed detractors, declaring that Crawford was more manly than Van Heflin's rancher in "Shane." Another reason is that the film's creators don't pussyfoot around embracing the melodrama at the heart of their exceptionally campy film. Vienna, a struggling saloon owner, anticipates the arrival of a railroad, but is almost driven out of town by skeptical locals and her rival, Emma (the irresistibly catty Mercedes McCambridge). Hayden's Johhny Guitar offers to swoop in and help Vienna, partly because Emma and Vienna are both his ex-lovers. But therein lies a good part of what makes "Johnny Guitar" so winningly outre: it's only tangentially concerned with wounded male protags. Like Scott Brady's Dancin' Kid, Hayden's Guitar is fairly inconsequential. Like more traditional western heroes, they help pave the way for Vienna's pioneering business but neither man is more important than the promise of a new and, by the genre's standards, bizarre future. The film is in that sense very much about itself, a squirming, hissing whatsit that, in spite of Vienna's protests, is too freakishly exciting to be "buried...in the 20th century!"

The Last Movie
“The Last Movie” (1971)
Listen: now it doesn't seem so shocking to consider “Easy Rider” a fluke. At the time, however, you could forgive a movie studio (in this case, Universal) for giving Dennis Hopper the freedom to do whatever the heck he wanted and to come back with another counter-culture hit. Hopper took a million bucks, went to Peru, then took the footage to New Mexico and worked on it for years until he emerged with a Cubist assemblage of skits and free-form sequences that hinted at an underlying narrative. (One that had to do, naturally, with the making of a movie in Peru, just to keep things more complicated.) While it did well at the Venice Film Festival it did zero business in the United States and critics weren't quite prepared to buy Hopper as a bonafide artiste. In 2005 it played at some art houses (including the Anthology Film Archives in New York) and a number of critics came out to say “Hey, this isn't quite the turkey you think it is.” Among them, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, who went so far as to call it a masterpiece. It has yet to make the jump to (legal) DVD, but it is bandied about as a possible Criterion title, at least if this message board discussion is any indication.

Night Of The Hunter
"The Night Of The Hunter" (1955)
As the directing debut of legendary actor Charles Laughton, "The Night Of The Hunter" must have been keenly anticipated at the time. But the film was poorly received by critics and audiences (it was partially buried by the studio, in favor of another Mitchum vehicle, "Not As A Stranger"), and a heartbroken Laughton never directed again. An adaptation of the novel by David Grubb, it's a piece of Depression-era Southern Gothic about two children, John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), whose father is sentenced to hang from a robbery. Only John knows where the stolen loot has been hidden, but his father's cellmate, a fearsome would-be preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), is on the trail, marrying the children's mother (Shelley Winters) in order to get closer to them. It was dismissed as a potboiler on release; Time damned with faint praise by saying it was a "garish, unbelievable but fairly exciting nightmare," while Variety wrote that the film "loses sustained drive via too many offbeat touches that have a misty effect," and that Mitchum played his villain with "barely adequate conviction." They, like the audiences who shunned it and the Academy who ignored it, were wrong. Laughton has an amazingly visual eye, the film shot in an manner entirely uninterested in naturalism by DoP Stanley Cortez, all chiaroscuro and contrast. The blend of terror and magic, while cooly regarded at the time, has become hugely influential over the years, on everyone from Terrence Malick to David Gordon Green (the pair paying direct homage to the film on their collaboration "Undertow."). Laughton's years as an actor pay off too, with a cross-generational mix of talent, from the child actors (who Laughton actually disliked, choosing to leave much of their direction up to Mitchum) to silent veteran Lillian Gish. Best of all is Mitchum; complete with iconic L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E knuckles, he's one of the great screen psychopaths, one you would have thought had just strolled out of the gates of hell. Lord knows what critics missed at the time, but its reputation has been fully restored by now; in recent years, it's been the AFI's 34th favorite thriller, Cahiers du cinema's second most beautiful film, and preserved in the Library of Congress. And oh yeah, The Criterion Collection has issued it in a must own edition.

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41 Comments

  • thedude | April 22, 2014 8:12 AMReply

    "but if you look at the 5-Star reviews on Amazon for the recent 3-disc set (featuring a five hour and twenty minute cut!!"

    Where are you seeing this. I can only find the usual 251 min. version????

  • Kim | April 21, 2014 4:48 PMReply

    In addition to Hook. I think Duck, You Sucker! by Sergio Leone should be heralded as a straight classic. Other films that did not receive the recognition I believe they totally deserve are: Life (yes, the Ted Demme film with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence), *batteries not included, Sphere, Clockers, The Hudsucker Proxy and One Eight Seven.

  • Kim | April 21, 2014 4:43 PMReply

    Steven Spielberg's Hook! The leads play with such joy, the production design, albeit a little tacky, is definitely creative, the visual effects still hold up, John Williams contributes some of his very best work to the score and most importantly: every single child actor in this picture actually does a brilliant job! And I didn't even mention Rufio yet...

  • sanjuro | April 14, 2014 5:19 AMReply

    Drinking Buddies, Safety Not Guaranteed, very poor independent movies, badly written, uninteresting, with directing hardly better than TV sitcoms, that receive praise from lousy critics. Hopefully they will be reassessed and severely downgraded as they deserve in a near future. There are some much better independent movies out there.

  • Michael O'Farrell | December 30, 2012 8:27 PMReply

    To the Playlist staff: It's not true that Charles Laughton disliked his child actors in "The Night Of The Hunter. Disc # 2 of Criterion's superb presentation of the film features a 2 1/2 hour documentary consisting mainly of footage that didn't make it into the final release version : what ended up on the cutting room floor. The presentation is entitled "Charles Laughton Directs" and that is exactly what is shown :Laughton directing his actors, with numerous segments showing his brilliant handling of his child actors, who he treats sternly but really with great support and loving guidance. The fact that the movie was ignored by the studio was criminal. One of America's greatest movies went almost completely unnoticed back in 1955, and sadly Laughton, discouraged by the then poor critical and box office reception, never directed another film. The man was a genius.

  • walking on coal | December 17, 2012 7:22 AMReply

    It's only the latest sign of the rehabilitation of Michael Cimino's epic Western that famously brought down its studio, virtually ended the director's career, and became so synonymous with disaster that Kevin Costner's "Waterworld" was nicknamed "Kevin's Gate" by wags when it seemed that it too was headed for failure.

    http://www.sdfirewalk.com/

  • TommyT | December 11, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    I'm surprised not to see Terry Gilliam's Brazil in your list when you included Fear & Loathing. The battle that Gilliam had with Sid Sheinberg & Universal is legendary.

  • Toby | December 6, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    The Fountain, Bringing Out the Dead, Popeye and Speedracer for starters.

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    I'd add "Near Dark."

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:42 PM

    And "Angel Heart."

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:41 PM

    Also, "Streets of Fire."

  • Baley | December 6, 2012 2:26 AMReply

    Wages of Fear is by no stretch of the imagination a film noir.

  • OWEN | December 5, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    One I was sure was bound to appear, at least between the "Honorary Mentions", is Peeping Tom, a movie that basically destroyed Michael Powell career and resurfaced thanks to the championing of Martin Scorsese. There's a great entry about it in Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" (wich more or less seals the deal concerning the critical reevaluation of a film). Link! http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19990502/REVIEWS08/905020301/1023
    (By the way, I thnk Ebert is wrong when he says people rejected this movie and embraced Psycho because the macabre was expected from Hitchcock, but because Hitchcock always made clear that was all in jest, and always gave his audience escape points from all the grimness - being the humor or the characters you're clearly meant to identify with - while people rejected this movie because, as Ebert certainly notes, made them feel part of the stoking and eventual murdering of the victims. It's all about the perverse pleasures of watching in the dark, you know? Curiously this also could be considered the reason "Frenzy", a later movie in Hitch career, was one of his few flops)

  • Alex | December 5, 2012 4:36 PMReply

    Marie Antoinette. Sofia Coppola's Warhol-esque dissection of celebrity is brilliant, and it's only getting better with time. Firstly, the meticulous art direction couldn't be better, but then there's also Kirsten Dunst, who really gets deep into the psyche of a character we all hate and even makes us sympathetic towards her. Coppola's anachronistic musical choices are amazing as usual (Gang of Four! The Strokes!), and her direction shines as well--this is a really beautiful movie. Marie Antoinette is a culturally important with film that is a testament to the lasting obsession with celebrity and its emptiness that absolutely deserves a critical reevaluation.

  • Vortex | December 6, 2012 5:38 PM

    I completely agree. This one blew me away when I first saw it and it keeps getting better every viewing.

  • DN | December 6, 2012 2:09 PM

    At the risk of appearing a total snob, "Marie Antoinette" is the litmus test that a director colleague and I use to gauge the sensibilities of potential collaborators. If they're down with "Marie," they're down with us. The movie is freakin' brilliant.

  • droop | December 6, 2012 7:01 AM

    yesss

  • AdamA | December 5, 2012 11:51 PM

    I completely agree with Marie Antoinette. Upon first viewing the year it was released, I was severly disappointed. Upon watching it a second and third time I realized how good this film is. This is Coppola unique take on this well known historical story.

  • Tim | December 5, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    glad to see one of my all time favorites, Zardoz, pop up in the honorable mentions. I think recent critical opinion places that film awkwardly somewhere between the "undeservedly panned masterpiece" and the "so bad it's good" categories, which is probably about where it belongs - it's as brilliant as it is ridiculous, and a rare example of a film that comes off better today not in spite of, but rather BECAUSE of how poorly it's aged. in both the outdatedness of its style and the pointedness of its theme it serves a bizarre death knell to the hippie age.

  • OWEN | December 5, 2012 9:43 PM

    And the way it's aged I think actually helps the feeling of isolated reality the whole thing has, and in the end it works for the intention of the filmmakers of depict a society truly removed from our own. When you try to replicate that intentionally it comes off just as a retro toy, overly aware of being a movie, like this year "Beyond the black rainbow" (although I could imagine a Zardoz fan liking it, the self-awareness made it unwatchable for me).
    Also: THAT Connery suit. There are few men that can wear that with a completely straight face (a straight face attitude that makes the movie work by the way, the mere hint of ironic distance and the whole thing would fall apart).

  • TheoC | December 5, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    I really hope Argo is reassessed to "fancy TV movie of the week". Lebowski came out pretty flat, and somewhat divisive though you wouldn't think that now.

    John Carter will go the TRON route and have a pointless sequel in 30 years with the late Taylor Kitsch's head CG'ed, it will still be fucking stupid.

    This is a really good list, though I'm not buying Zardoz, I've always loved Cronenberg's Crash despite how often you have to explain it's not the Paul Haggis movie.

  • wes | December 6, 2012 10:30 AM

    Word on Argo, Theoc.

  • daniel | December 5, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    Catch-22 is another i'd throw on this list; finally folks are starting to see how great that picture was. I saw it before reading the book, and while the book is equally amazing, i have to say, the movie means yet more to me. Funereal slapstick, that movie. Genius.

  • Ken | December 5, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    Eyes Wide Shut is STARTING to get re-evaluated? It's fucking brilliant. I'm pretty sure it was one of Scorsese's top 10 films of the 1990s too.

  • Matt | December 9, 2012 5:54 PM

    Kubrick made Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Matt | December 9, 2012 5:53 PM

    Kubrick made eyes wide shut

  • droop | December 6, 2012 7:00 AM

    it is indeed fucking brilliant

  • Harley Quinn | December 5, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    Cleopatra isn't nearly as bad as people make it out to be and I'm sick of people harping on about it. Is it great? No. But is it the worst movie ever? Certainly not. If they had made it into 2 movies, as originally planned, it would've been a lot better.

  • Wes | December 5, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    Boo: Bringing Up Baby and The Game!
    Yea: Ladykillers and Crash!

  • wes | December 6, 2012 10:28 AM

    I've always thought it was overrated nowadays.

  • Chris | December 5, 2012 3:13 PM

    Wait, you're booing Bringing Up Baby? Are you kidding?

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • Ricky | December 5, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    I'd also include David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to this list. It was booed when it premiered at Cannes in 1992 and was brutally received by the critics ("It isn't the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be" -Vincent Canby) later that year and was a box office bomb, but it seems like it's been reappraised over time and now seems much, much more highly-regarded, and is now analyzed and discussed as a very relevant entry in Lynch's filmography.

    Also, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which I think most seem to agree now that, George Lazenby aside (who again, isn't as terrible as most initially felt he was post-Sean Connery), is actually one of the best Bond films in the series and really laid the groundwork for the more emotional, sensitive, character-driven angle that the more recent Daniel Craig films have taken.

  • Brian | December 6, 2012 5:02 PM

    Fire Walk With Me is a favorite of mine. Thank you for mentioning it.

  • San Simeon | December 6, 2012 7:56 AM

    Agreed on both counts. Fire Walk With Me is a pretty good-to-great film that lives in the shadow of its namesake television series, but does serve as an effective prologue and coda to it. I'd be interested to see all of the deleted scenes from it, too.

  • BrianZ | December 5, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    Nice article. My only qualm, and I apologize for being one of those guys, but who is defending the Coens' Ladykillers?

  • San Simeon | December 6, 2012 7:14 AM

    I have no idea. I've never seen comment on that movie qualified as anything other than the Coen's worst.

  • Fred | December 5, 2012 4:24 PM

    Lots of people are and always have. Sorry I can't come up with a definitive list of names other than my own.

  • Chris | December 5, 2012 2:36 PM

    Yeah, I'm with Brianz. Has there been some major undercurrent of support for The Ladykillers in recent years that I just haven't noticed? The others you mentioned make sense, but The Ladykillers? Hardly.

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