Lockdown watch: John Landis on seeking solace in Zero Mostel movies

Continuing our series of expert recommendations for self-isolation, Blues Brothers director John Landis on Panic in the Streets, The Producers and the delights of early 1930s horror

My ideas on movies to watch while you are stuck at home are really no different from a list of movies I think anyone should see at any time, not just during a global crisis.

There are many good pictures about contagion, but my favourite (other than Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956]) is Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). Shot on location in New Orleans, this gritty thriller concerns Richard Widmark’s public health officer joining forces with Paul Douglas’s sceptical police detective. After discovering a homicide victim had pneumonic plague, the two men go on a desperate hunt for patient zero in the seedier parts of the city, with two days at most to prevent an epidemic. This is Jack Palance’s first picture and it co-stars the gifted and very young Zero Mostel.

Wonderful movies to see (whether you’ve seen them before or not) are:

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain (1952), co-starring the fabulous Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. This film is so damn good, it is guaranteed to cheer you up. Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) starring a never-better Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, this remains one of the best comedies ever made. WC Fields seems to be overlooked these days, but I would watch three of his pictures: The Bank Dick (Edward F Kline, 1940), Never Give a Sucker An Even Break (Edward Kline, 1941), and the sublime It’s a Gift (Norman Z McLeod, 1934). Truly funny. Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967) starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder remains the gold standard of laugh-out-loud movies. Please note, NOT THE MUSICAL!

‘Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party’ ... the Springtime for Hitler scene in The Producers, 1967.
‘Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party’ ... the Springtime for Hitler scene in The Producers, 1967. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/MGM

The director Budd Boetticher made seven westerns starring Randolph Scott, all surprisingly adult and with complex and often sympathetic bad guys. Seven Men from Now features a sly performance from villain Lee Marvin, in a stripped-down story of good and evil. The Tall T (1957), based on an Elmore Leonard story, finds Scott and Maureen O’Sullivan hostages of the charming and ruthless Richard Boone. All seven of the Boetticher/Scott films are consistently entertaining and almost all of them shot in beautiful Lone Pine, California.

Two pre-Hays Code Paramount Studio horror films are shockingly upfront about violence, sadism and sex. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) stars Fredric March as the handsome Dr Jekyll, who grows more and more bestial and violent every time he becomes Mr Hyde. With Miriam Hopkins as his terrified lover, showgirl Ivy Pierson. Dr Jekyll’s first transformation into Mr Hyde after drinking his experimental formula is accomplished with a simple trick in-camera that is still astonishing. Island of Lost Souls (Erle C Kenton, 1932) stars Charles Laughton as mad Dr Moreau, who uses surgery without anaesthetic on animals, creating beast men. The beast men refer to the operating room as “the house of pain”.

Laughton is magnificent, the movie as dark and creepy as it gets. HG Wells loathed the film, when he saw what had been done with his anti-vivisectionist novella The Island of Dr Moreau. The book is equally sadistic, but this movie (and every other movie version since) adds a semi-human woman carved from a panther, for whom Dr Moreau has a decidedly unhealthy and unpleasant fate planned. Island of Lost Souls was banned in the UK when first released and has only recently become available via home video and Blu-ray. Well worth the watch.

I could easily add several hundred more titles, but let’s wait and see just how long this thing lasts before I continue. Get back to me in three weeks.

John Landis

The GuardianTramp

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