Apocalypse Now (1979)
There is an entire movie devoted to the nightmare that making this film actually was: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) is a documentary co-directed by Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's wife. It is amazing to me that such a good film can come out of such disastrous circumstances: way behind schedule, way over budget, afflicted by natural disasters (Typhoon Olga destroyed many of the sets), health problems (Martin Sheen had a heart attack), and then, of course, there was Marlon Brando (a bit of a natural disaster himself on set). And still, for all of its troubles, the end result is a haunting, surreal journey from civilization into the heart of war and madness.
Double Indemnity (1944)
This role was quite a departure for the usually amiable and fatherly Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a slick insurance salesman who is drawn into an adulterous and murderous affair with the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Billy Wilder co-adapted the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, so we get lines like this:
"Should I laugh now, or wait 'til it gets funny?"
Edward G. Robinson was reluctant to accept a supporting role in this film, having spent most of his career to that point in leading roles. I'm glad that he decided to do it. He's perfect.
Another brilliant film from Billy Wilder.
All About Eve (1950)
Claudette Colbert was originally going to play a more congenial Margo Channing, but when she had to drop out before filming due to a back injury, Bette Davis was brought in as a replacement. Davis's more "prickly" on-screen presence warranted a re-write of the script, and that's why he have this resplendently wicked film. This role was a major comeback for Davis who'd had a string of poorly performing films just before this role fell into her lap. Many consider this to be her best role ever. (I think I'm in that camp.)
High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper was a gifted movie actor, and the camera loved him. This is one of my favorite Cooper films and one of my favorite Westerns. Director Fred Zinnemann masterfully builds the tension toward the approach of the noon train carrying outlaws bent on revenge against the retiring sheriff (Cooper). Cooper strikes a careful balance between pride and desperation as he refuses to run even as the townspeople refuse to help him. I particularly enjoy the use of "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," as a theme throughout the film. It won an Oscar for best song and was performed by Tex Ritter. (John Ritter's dad. Jason Ritter's grandfather.)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
This film manages to be incredibly cynical and naively optimistic all at once, as Jimmy Stewart's Junior Senator Smith struggles against corruption and apathy in Washington D.C. The filibuster scene is memorable for Jimmy Stewart's earnest performance. In fact, it is the on the strength of the performances of Stewart, Claude Rains, and Jean Arthur that this film manages to keep from being just so much schmaltz. It is funny now to think that this movie was denounced as being un-American in 1939, but I guess Senators don't like movies in which they are portrayed as being completely corrupt but for one member. Fun movie. Not groundbreaking, but fun.
*BONUS* Here's Tex Ritter performing "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," from High Noon.