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Five Classic Movies For Every Writer to Watch

Updated on May 12, 2011

Writers Should Study Cinema

Writers who aren't interested in screenplays should still study cinema for the narrative tools and cues they need to innovate on the page. Classic cinema made great pains to pursue stylistic innovation, pioneer social realism, and push the limits of a viewers' suspension of disability. Even very early in the history of cinema, grand, sweeping epics used huge budgets and special effects to dazzle viewers, while other directors pushed their lenses into the skin of the actors, driving towards the core of human experience. Writers can learn a lot about craft from studying classic cinema. Five in particular should be watched and studied by writers. These five are "Shoot the Piano Player", "M is for Murder", "Metropolis", "For a Few Dollars More" and "When Harry Met Sally".

Francois Truffaut's New Wave Classic, "Shoot the Piano Player"

Few films can be considered to be the forefathers of current cinematic technique more than the French New Wave. Close-cuts, a free-wheeling and improvisational style that favored realism over artifice, and a multi-genre blend of styles and forms reached the entertaining zenith of Francois' Truffaut's classic biopic/crime/romance classic. A perfect mash-up of genres built around the real-life musician Charles Aznavour, pulls liberally from multiple cliches while critiquing them explicitly and implicitly. He's a lovable dog of a hero, but the lively cast of supporting actors steal the scenes, and bumble through a surprising range of emotional energies. The story of our piano playing hero is one that is always being pulled away from his goals by the people in his life. In this, the down-trodden former piano player's tale is a tragic one, but it is a compelling study in how to use different genres and a wide cast of characters to enhance any written work.

M is for Masterpiece

M by Fritz Lang may be the first true masterpiece of cinema. Few films have lasted and retained popularity longer than the chilling, monstrous story of a murderous pedophile made in Germany before the Second World War. This classic crime drama revels in the way that a socially problematic character, a pedophile, upsets the balance of all society and causes all of society to push back against him. Any student of the crime genre, in particular, needs to see this groundbreaking classic for the powerful portrayal of the monstrous man at the heart of the film, and the way society is often just as cruel to him as he is to his victims. Writers need to study how societies and specific individuals in society deal with problems to create believable situations in their stories. This film is just as chilling and entertaining now as when it was first released, and should be required viewing for all writers.

Yesterday's Tomorrows with Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

The current trend in science fiction is Steampunk. Few films inspired Steampunk more than the silent film "Metropolis". One of the original big-budget bonanzas, anyone interested in tactile and design of scenes and landscapes would do well to study the way the retro-futuristic society divides into haves and have-nots, and all the different lighting and set cues that tell the viewer how these different layers of civilization work. It's a bit explicit and overt, but there's nothing wrong with giving your reader unsubtle cues so you can get on with the business of subtle character studies!

Perfect Pacing, Perfect Tension, Unforgettable Subtext in "For a Few Dollars More"

Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western classic, "For a Few Dollars More" is a master class in tension and pacing. The unnamed gunslinger at the center of the drama pits two warring families against each other bit-by-bit until their mutual destruction is assured, culminating in a thrilling gun battle in the streets of this downtrodden border town. Each scene does something to increase the tension. Writers need to study this film to make sure their own scenes work like that, raising the stakes scene by scene, until the reader is at the edge of their seat, late in the night, trying to find out what happens next.

Less famous, but equally important, is the subtext. There's so much we don't know about the main character, but his actions create a strange and alluring subtext. Every stoic gaze and knowing look takes on the weight of history untold, but unforgettable. Eastwoods performance creates a landscape in the mind, where viewers will create a history where none is provided except through the careful and subtle use of cues through action and response. Study this performance and learn of subtext!

Romantic Comedy is the Future! When Harry Met Sally is the Future!

Don't let any Ernest Hemingway imitator lead you down the wrong path. Romance Comedy is the future of writing. If you are writing something that doesn't borrow elements of the romance comedy, you are missing out on one of the most important tools for making readers care about your characters and their lives.

Also of note, the conspiratorial tone of When Harry Met Sally, with the many scenes of characters talking directly to the camera from a couch, is a technique to study. How to balance that conspiratorial, gossip-y tone, with scenes that reveal all the pain and misery and desire of people who would never allow themselves to lose their social mask when they are telling charming stories about their personal history. The balance between the social mask of gossip and the reality of the scene is an important thing to study, along with the romance comedy. Watch and learn how it's done in this immortal love story!


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    • zebulum profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from USA

      I don't much care for Metropolis, honestly but that doesn't mean I can't study it as a writer. When Harry Met Sally is the gold standard of RomCom.

    • profile image

      Phoebe Pike 

      7 years ago

      I know this might not bode well, but I hated "When Harry Met Sally"... I know it is a good movie, but I hated it. There were a handful of good scenes, but it could never compare to "The Godfather", "Pulp fiction", "Pretty Woman" or a lot of the greats out there... it just didn't do it for me.


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