It’s summer! And it’s hot! So to keep cool, maybe you’re hitting a chain theater to see the latest blockbuster or an indie theater to see the latest festival darling. Perhaps even better is taking advantage of a revival screening of a classic film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute or the Hollywood Summer Nights programs offered at the Ambler, County, or Princeton Garden theaters. Either way, summer is the perfect time to watch movies. So this is the first in a series of lists to celebrate perhaps the most cinematic of seasons, each around a different theme.
This first list is themed in honor of my lack of air conditioning during this small heatwave. These six classic films will really make you appreciate A/C if you have it, or allow you to sweat along with these iconic characters on these hot summer nights if you don’t. In chronological order:
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan, 1951)
We watched this film in my senior year high school English class and this might be the first time I realized the power of adapting plays into cinema. That isn’t to diminish the importance of Tennessee Williams’ words in any way. Sure, it has more of a Hollywood ending than the stage version with some of it trimmed due to the Production Code, but the story remains as powerful. And the filmmaking here underlines every line of the play. Kazan captures Viven Leigh’s Blanche DuBois in an alluring and empathetic light, which helped teenaged Ryan appreciate the character, rather than resenting her like I did while simply reading the play.
Of course, Marlon Brando’s star making turn as Stanley Kowalski is most well-known aspect of this adaptation, it was his performance that led me to appreciate physicality in a performance in a way I hadn’t before. Brando is raw, large, and completely captivating. The way he moves, embodying both a very masculine ideal and devolving to the hulking brute that Blanche sees in him before our eyes. Brando paces this film like a caged tiger, wound too tight by his complicated feelings toward Blanche and the power struggle between them. The heat is quietly in every frame of this film. It is there in the humidity of New Orleans, and the grungy sweat of Brando’s performance, shining even in black and white.
2. Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
To some the heat wave that plagues the characters in this Hitchcock film is merely a narrative device to keep L.B. Jefferies’ (played by Jimmy Stewart) neighbors’ curtains drawn and windows open, however it also palpably ticks the tension higher. In the heat tempers are shorter, patience is thinner, and it is easier to rush to judgement. And due to this film being a technical marvel, Hitchcock places us right there with the characters vicariously experiencing being stuck in a stuffy apartment while the tension mounts around us. I don’t think I could ever say it better than Roger Ebert: “Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart’s voyeurism, we’re along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can’t detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what’s coming to him.”
Due to its wide cultural import, with homages and spoofs in everything from The Simpsons and The Flintstones to Castle and even Rocko’s Modern Life, this is one of those films that you might feel as though you’ve already seen it before you have. That said, this movie is so good that none of that matters while you’re actually watching it.
3. 12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957)
This is my favorite film on this list, and one of the best ever about the American justice system. The entire film turns on that phrase “reasonable doubt,” and the gray areas in evidence and police proceedings that force us to employ jury trials in the first place. This is a movie that is so simple and so good that there’s not much to say on the surface, but if this was a different column, I could write a full biography of each Juror in the film simply based on what they say and how they act in the film.
Making the use of one set for all but three minutes of its runtime, Lumet heightens the smallness of the space by gradually changing the way the characters are filmed, moving from higher to lower angles, and from wide shots to closeups. I In the dog days of summer with just one small fan and increasingly heated discussion to mirror the temperature, the jurors all want to leave but one of them needs to make sure justice is given its proper due. Is there anything more American than advocating for Constitutional rights even while trapped in a room with eleven other sweaty men?
4. In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison, 1967)
This film won Best Picture for its depiction of a black detective, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and a white police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) working together to solve a murder. Like many on this list, tempers run hot in the heat raising the tension of the film like the mercury in a thermostat. However, this movie is most notable for Sidney Poitier’s disarming and heated performance. While unrecognized at the Academy Awards (costar Steiger won, who is also excellent), it was the first role in which Poitier played a character who wasn’t stoic and unaffected by the world around him. He shouts and even slaps a white man (the shock!). For his part, Steiger gives depth to a character that could easily be a flat stereotype. The chemistry between the two men is the backbone of the film. While the mystery itself is a bit rote, these two performances make this film always worth a revisit. And if you haven’t read Mark Harris’ excellent Pictures at a Revolution, about all of the 1967 Best Picture nominees, I highly recommend it.
5. Cool Hand Luke (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
I have never been as hot as the men in this chain gang working construction in the hot Southern sun. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been as turned on as they are by ‘Lucille’ (Joy Harmon) washing that car. One of the most rawly erotic scenes ever committed to film, devilishly juxtaposed within one of the most Christian films of all time.
This movie drips not only with sweat but with Christian imagery. This film uses Paul Newman’s Luke as a Christ figure from the time he arrives at the prison, but the kind that draws upon the image of Jesus the disruptor of the social order. On the one hand, the film is completely in your face about it, there are probably movies actually about Jesus that use less of this imagery. But it is completely necessary to understanding what the film is trying to say. It uses that imagery to establish Luke as a particular kind of anti-establishment figure: the code hero. He defies authority in the name of freedom at every turn, but he does it without swagger or machismo, just that quiet kind of heroics that refuse to kiss the boot of authority. I’m still not sure exactly to what end, other than showing the kind of righteous resistance that characterized the ideals of the social and anti-war movements at the time, but the journey itself is rewarding.
6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)
This is probably the sweatiest film on this list. Just look at Harrison Ford, glistening in so many of the later scenes as he is forced to drink blood, contend with literal flaming hearts, lava, and racing through tunnels and across bridges. This is the most visceral and the most physical of all the Indiana Jones films and steers the series into darker horrors than any of the adventures before and since. This is something I admire about the film, but it remains my least favorite in the franchise overall. Not only do Indians generally find it offensive (they wouldn’t even let Spielberg film in the country), but there is a mean-spiritedness in the way that Indy treats Willie and even Short Round that is uncomfortable for me to watch. Some might argue that is the point of the film franchise where Indy begins to transform into the hero we see in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that is actually his arc (heh) in Raiders too. His journey in that movie happens much more organically than in this dark prequel.
Despite being problematic, there’s still a lot to enjoy, including the actual filmmaking of course. This entry into the franchise has the best sets of all of them. Notably, the entire underground sequence, both the mine and the temple use the space extremely well. The aesthetics of the film strike a delightful balance between the realistic and the fantastic, and while there are great sequences throughout (the opening in Shanghai in particular) it just feels like a mess overall. A hot, sweaty, shirtless Harrison Ford mess.
Honorable mention: Mad Max:Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)
So there you have it: six movies to sweat along to this summer. Stayed tuned for more entries into my summer series and keep cool.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.