Monday, March 2, 2020

CMBA Profile: Cinema Essentials

CMBA profiles one member every month. This month's interview is  with  Jay who blogs at Cinema Essentials. Jay loves all genres but a few of his favorites include, spy films, thrillers, historical epics and more. 

What sparked your interest in classic film?

I've always had at least some interest, as far back as I can remember. Classic films were a major part of the TV landscape when I was a child, so I grew up watching them. I didn't differentiate much between old films and new, unless they were in black & white, which clearly marked them out as being "old". But 1960s films like The Italian Job, The Great Escape or early Bond films didn't seem that old to me.

I always liked spy films and thrillers and the remakes of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes softened me up for the originals. So I was a Hitchcock fan from an early age and also liked Hitchcockian films like 23 Paces to Baker Street, Night Train to Munich and Charade. Charade was one of my favourite Hitchcock films as a child. Until I found out that, inexplicably, it wasn't actually a Hitchcock film, it just seemed like one.

Classic comedies also helped to wear away my early resistance to black and white, particularly Ealing comedies, Will Hay films and early Carry Ons. I also remember staying up late (or what seemed late at the time) to watch Green for Danger when I was 7 or 8. It was an old black and white film, but it was funny and entertaining. More importantly, we could stay up late, which made it much more memorable and interesting.

Older films seem to be disappearing from the schedules in many places now, so people are less likely to have that discovery through TV. So it often seems to be relatives or a class that introduces them to classic films instead. When I read about other CMBA members watching Singin' in the Rain in class, it makes me think I must have gone to the wrong school. We never got anything like that at my school - we had to do work! When I think about the amount of time I spent watching old films as a child, I realise now it should really have been classified as homework.

My family also had a couple of editions of Halliwell's Film Guide, probably the most popular film guide in the UK in pre-internet days. It was a huge book and packed with so much information that it was effectively a potted history of the cinema. It meant that I had an understanding of the scope of film history, and was aware of the big famous films, and many not so famous, long before I actually got to see them.

I think those old film guides aided discovery and exploration, and helped to break down the barrier between old films and new. The Jazz Singer and Metropolis could sit alongside Terminator 2 and Rocky III. Although not literally, of course, unless the author just didn't understand the concept of alphabetical order.

What film genre(s) do you favor?

I particularly like thrillers, spy films, war films, horror, sci-fi, and comedies.

I think one of cinema's greatest qualities is its ability to transport us, to eras long gone or future or fantasy worlds that never were. So I like historical films, sci-fi or fantasy that are good at world-building and can convince us that world is real.

I'm especially fond of big historical epics. Something with huge sets, lots of people on horseback, and men saying things like "My liege, the people are revolting" and that kind of thing.

War films are a genre that I think is often underrated, because when we think of them it's often the generic men-in-tin-helmets type combat films that we think of. But it's a very varied genre with many sub-genres. The Enemy Below, Paths of Glory and I Was Monty's Double are all "war" films from the 1950s, but they're  not really in quite the same genre.

I also love classic British comedies, especially from the 1950s and '60s. Ealing comedies, the Boulting Brothers' satires and almost anything with Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas or Alastair Sim.

Is there a James Bond book in your future? (I say this because you mention the possibility on your website) and who is the greatest James Bond?

I wrote that partly as a joke, but it was obviously at the back of my mind, so it is a slight possibility. I'm hoping to get around to writing about each of the films individually, and then maybe I could eventually work those articles into a book.

But I deliberately haven't gone big on Bond on the site, because there were other things I wanted to feature, so I've only written about The Spy Who Loved Me so far. That was almost the first thing I wrote and I was conscious of not making the posts too long. I don't really worry about that anymore - as regular readers will know. I watched the film again recently and there was a lot more that I wanted to say, so it needs expanding.

The greatest James Bond would have to be Sean Connery, as he originated the part on film and helped to turn Bond into a phenomenon. He had a run of five great Bond films from Dr No to You Only Live Twice that no one else has matched. I also love John Barry's music and Ken Adam's sets, and those elements were often at their best in the 1960s.

What is your “go to” classic film when you need something to lift up your spirits?

As I mentioned, I'm very partial to classic British comedy, so it would likely be something along those lines. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Two Way Stretch with Peter Sellers, which is a work of rare genius.

The original Star Wars still works as well. It transports me back to my childhood in a way that almost no other film can. And yes, Star Wars is definitely a classic film! It's just a shame that it's deliberately been made so difficult to see the original version. As we all know, the "Special Edition" is an abomination, and a serious crime against film history.

For a Bond film, I would probably go with Octopussy. The first Bond I encountered was Roger Moore, so I've always been fond of his films. Octopussy is one of the ones that most people forget, or if they remember it, it's because they don't like it. But there's something about its cheesy humour, strange mashing of genres and its flabby geniality that obviously appeals to me.

Or The Spy Who Loved Me, a Bond epic that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's also one of the best designed films in the series, so there's plenty of eye candy for Ken Adam fans. I sometimes put that one on just to look at the sets. Although I never tell my girlfriend that, because it sounds a bit sad. I just tell her I'm ogling Caroline Munro.

Name three films that most classic film fans love, but you hate, and if you can tell us why?

This is not a very popular opinion, but I do genuinely believe that Bringing up Baby is quite a bad film, and everyone else has lost their minds over that one. I first watched it when I was very into Cary Grant and screwball comedy, but found it very strained and desperate.

I watched It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World recently and thought that was fairly bad. I don't know if it's considered to be a classic though. Most people who come to it now would probably find it very laboured and unfunny, and it just goes on forever.

Rio Bravo is one I've seen on a couple of greatest ever film's lists and it's very average. It's probably not even the best western of 1959, let alone one of the best films ever. I don't hate it though, it's just too mediocre to have any strong opinions about.

I wrote about the 1931 Dracula recently, and thought a lot of that was bordering on bad, although admittedly it has a fairly strong opening.

That was actually four films, but I like to give people value for money.

Do you have a favorite film period?

Probably from the 1940s to the early 1970s. The quality isn't necessarily better in the later years. In fact, the average or below average film was probably better quality in the studio era. But as the studio system breaks down and there's no longer any kind of a production line, each film becomes more its own individual thing, and I like that very much.

The 1940s has some of the best film noir, it sees the western start to mature as a genre, and the second half of the decade is a peak for some of the leading British directors, Lean, Reed, Powell. The '50s is a fascinating transitional era in Hollywood, and the '60s is very interesting internationally, and an important decade for British cinema.

In the '50s and '60s you also have an interesting mixture of styles, with small scale black & white dramas rubbing shoulders with colourful widescreen spectaculars. And fashions change quickly in the 1960s and '70s and no one knows what's going to work anymore, which leads to some fascinating flops, misfires and films that just turn up at the wrong time. (I'm the only person I know who deliberately seeks out flop films. If a film really tanks, then I always want to see it!)

Some of the big historical films of the 1960s and early '70s can also be reasonably literate and intelligent and not just empty spectacle. No one does that better than David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia. But there are other epics from that time, like The Charge of the Light Brigade, Nicholas and Alexandra, Battle of Britain, The Last Valley and Oh! What a Lovely War that all need more love.

Why should people care about “old” black and white movies?

They shouldn't! That's not the answer you were expecting, is it?! Not if they don't want to anyway. I'm not a film fascist who gets indignant because people don't like what I like.

But old films can be a revealing window onto the past. They can give us a sense of their era, the attitudes and language and dress of their time, and they can be worthy works of art in themselves. They can also just be really entertaining.

And if you only watch recent films, then you're missing out on a lot. Because you have to go a long way to find a drama as compelling as Twelve Angry Men, a romance as charming as Roman Holiday, a crime film as stylish as The Third Man, a comedy as witty as Kind Hearts and Coronets, a psycho-drama as fascinating as Vertigo, or a totally contrived thriller handled quite so brilliantly as Rear Window.

Do you have an interest in any other arts that you can share?

I do a lot of reading, mainly non-fiction. History, politics, culture, wildlife, philosophy, etc.

I'd like to explore writing fiction. I did start work on something last year, but I never quite found the shape of the story, and then I got distracted by other things. I enjoyed playing the omniscient narrator though, so it's something I hope to return to.

I'm intrigued by ancient sites and prehistory, so I have an interest in ancient, prehistoric and early medieval art and sculpture. I've also become more interested in classic TV in the last couple of years, I like poetry in moderation, and like most people I enjoy music. I'm also very good at loafing, I consider that to be an art.


  1. Great to learn more about Jay. I always look forward to new posts from him and appreciate the length and detail he goes to in his reviews and articles. I eagerly await the potential Bond book! Maddy

  2. Love your detailed answers, Jay. It's always great to learn more about other bloggers. I'd love to read your book on James Bond.

  3. What an interesting interview! Such considered and insightful responses. I'll read any book you write, Jay.

  4. So Jay likes loafing, eh? Along with his interesting blog, I think that is the prime motivation for his membership in the CMBA.

  5. Thanks everyone. I'll tell any publisher that I now have three potential buyers for the book. Four if you count my mum!