For a fair amount of older movies, they’re very much products of their time. While there is a certain of datedness that will accompany any older media, some films hold up better than others. It can be tough to tell why some things work and some don’t, but there is a reason certain movie buffs watch classic films over and over again.
Some of the movies on this list have had remakes, some have heavily influenced the movies that came after them. One thing is true of them all though: you can watch these tonight and they will still be able to suck you in and get you invested.
1. The Third Man
Film noir as a genre has had a massive influence on movies that followed it. That said, some of the best examples of the genre are also noticeably dated. That is now the case of The Third Man. Staring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles in one of his best roles, this movie set in post-World War II Vienna will bring to mind many head-scratching modern thrillers, but it’s done better than most of them.
2. Wait Until Dark
Based on the play of the same name from the previous year, 1967’s Wait Until Dark certainly heavily influenced modern thrillers. Starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman home alone and besieged by violent criminals who are after something she doesn’t even know she has in her possession, this movie steadily ratchets up the tension as it goes.
Is Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Steward) actually friends with a six-foot tall invisible rabbit (known as a pooka) named Harvey, or is he just an eccentric alcoholic? Is he both? I’m not going to spoil it for you here since this 1950 movie based on the Mary Chase play of the same name is worth watching to find out.
4. The Pink Panther
Not to be confused with either the 2006 remake starring Steve Martin or the increasingly slapstick films that followed the original, The Pink Panther from 1963 is quite different than the films that followed. This is much more an ensemble cast than the movies that followed, and while Peter Sellers is brilliant as inspector Jacques Clouseau, Robert Niven and the rest of the films stars deserve equal billing.
I could have dropped nearly any of Akira Kurosawa’s movies here, but Yojimbo is relatively short, so it’s a great starting point. Focusing on a rōnin who finds himself in the middle of a battle between two crime lords, each of whom is trying to hire him, Yojimbo has a relatively simple plot. That said, much like Kurosawa’s other work, you can see his influences in future directors from Stanley Kubrick to George Lucas.
6. Cape Fear
When most people think of Cape Fear, they think of the the 1991 remake starring Robert De Niro. While that movie is also great, it’s worth seeing the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum too. I’ve seen this many times, and even then, the tense unease the film builds over its running time is impossible to avoid.
7. The Sting
Modern heist movies and capers owe a great debt to The Sting. Reuniting Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who had previously worked together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the schemes in this film were inspired by the real-world exploits of con men Fred and Charley Gondorff.
8. The Night of the Hunter
The second movie to star Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter doesn’t offer the same tension as Cape Fear, but it certainly is stranger. The Coen brothers have mentioned this movie as an influence and even recreated a shot from the film in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but they’re far from the only filmmakers inspired by this darkly comic thriller.
9. Bell, Book & Candle
Another movie adapted from a play and another starring Jimmy Steward, Bell, Book and Candle likely informed many modern romantic comedies. While Steward and Kim Novak (who also starred together in Vertigo) are great together, Ernie Kovacs’s performance as paranormal author Sidney Redlitch is one of the highlights of the movie.
10. Arsenic & Old Lace
This dark comedy might be of the screwball variety, but bring the characters forward in time and it would work just as well. Arsenic & Old Lace is a particular favorite of mine. To find out why, take a look at our review of the film.
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