When drawn into the world of cinema, from the casual movie-goers all the way to the film study scholars, you cannot avoid “the classics.” Those handful of films that seemingly everyone loves; the ones that you are afraid to admit you haven’t seen. You know the ones. The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941). The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965). These are a few of the more well-known examples.
So, what do all these films from vastly different eras and genres have in common? What allows them to stand the test of time, earning the coveted “classic” label?
Film critic Ben Mankiewicz has said that “this question is supposed to be argued over, and it’s supposed to be argued over passionately.” Given the ongoing debate, there really is not one specific answer to what makes a classic film. Mankiewicz continued his discussion by stating that a film must contain some level of “cinematic importance,” and/or an “emotional resonance” that has a lasting effect to be considered a classic.
Others have indicated that a classic film is simply so well-made in some capacity that it is unforgettable to audiences. Often, the films that are considered “classic” are also those that are deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and placed in the National Film Registry for preservation. At the end of the day, many just point to some indescribable quality, a Je ne sais quoi that is the root of classic films.
In my eyes, any “classic” film that you will find is going to include some level of exceptional filmmaking. This could range from the direction, the acting, the score, the costume design, etc. While I believe this is definitely an aspect that can elevate a film’s cultural relevance for the foreseeable future, I think the “classic” film is composed of something more than that.
Throughout the decades, the trends and techniques used to create films have evolved with the availability of new technology and new ideas. I think that a “classic” film can act as a time capsule, a way of looking back at what types of films where most popular in any given era.
What I mean by this is that “classic” films are films that can exemplify in some way whatever filmmaking technique was being utilized in the time-period the film was produced. In this sense, the film can act as a representation of that era.
For example, the 1940’s marked an era in American filmmaking where the film noir was the most prominent genre. With the looming presence of war, the feelings of anxiety and disillusionment felt across the country were being expressed in film. Mysterious, cigarette-smoking protagonists narrate their way through murder and intrigue in this genre. Darker colors are utilized, as well as deep shadows to create a more ominous, grounded tone. Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944) is often recognized as the epitome of a film noir, and a classic film. It includes all the usual tropes that come with the genre, and when watching Double Indemnity, you can see the costume design, cinematography, and heightened visual style that was reminiscent of the films in this decade.
Flash forward thirty years, and the world of American filmmaking has drastically changed. With a new generation of filmmakers rising to prominence, the New Hollywood era was ushered in. This was a time marked by new, more experimental films that pushed the boundaries of what was expected in a film. The directors were taking more control instead of producers. Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976) is a perfect example. With a morally ambiguous leading character, a discussion on mental illness, and extreme depictions of violence, Taxi Driver shocked audiences at the time. Universally agreed to be a classic, and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at their best, Taxi Driver is an embodiment of the film renaissance of the 70’s and 80’s and all the new filmmaking methods that were introduced.
The list of “classic” films is forever expanding. And that is a list that may look different from person to person. Usually, that list is full of unquestionably good films. But I also see that list as a living timeline, something we can use as a window to the past, to see how far we’ve come.