Dave’s 5 Films He Would Choose if He Were Asked by Robert Osborne to Program a Selection on Turner Classic Movies

The scenario … You have been selected by Robert Osborne at Turner Classic Movies to program 5 movies and introduce your selections before they begin on TCM. You could obviously choose your 5 favorite films of all-time. Or … you could see this as an opportunity to showcase 5 favorite films that not many people know about but should. I am providing my 5 choices below. Again, while they rank among my favorite films, they are not necessarily my all-time 5 favorite movies. They’re just the ones that people need to know more about. Feel free to discuss, debate … or even better … present your 5 in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

1. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994) dir. Robert Benton
My favorite film of 1994 (aside from “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction”), based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s 1993 novel. Paul Newman plays Donald Sullivan, a sometime-construction worker who has a lifetime of mistakes and screw-ups in his history. When his son and grandson come back into his life, he has a chance at redemption. It’s a movie I always put on when I’m in a foul or depressed mood, because all of the characters (with one or two exceptions) are fundamentally decent people, deeply flawed as they are. This is one of Newman’s five best performances and the supporting cast, from Bruce Willis to Melanie Griffith to Jessica Tandy to even Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, are terrific.

I loved this movie when I saw it in January of 1995, but “Nobody’s Fool” has gained special resonance for me over the years, because I wound up living in the village where this movie took place (renamed North Bath for the film) for 8 years. I didn’t even realize this until a year after I moved there, but everything about the look of this film and town positively nails the quirky, but memorable upstate NY place I once called home.

2. “Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader

One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the 2000s is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane. What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness. As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.” He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter: “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.” In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”

3. “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985) dir. John Schlesinger

One of my favorite films from the 1980s (and one of the most sadly forgotten/neglected) is John Schlesinger’s nail-biting account of two young American friends during the 1970s (one an idealistic communications worker, the other a drug dealer) who decide to sell information to the KGB. Based on the true story about Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee’s descent into treason, it’s extremely well-acted, well-written, well-directed. This is the kind of film that would have won multiple Oscars during the 1970s, but was dumped into theaters January 1985, the traditional no-man’s land for films studios are looking to give a token release to before writing them off as losses on their annual reports. It’s a real shame, because this deserved much better. Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are incredible in this film as Boyce and Lee.

4. “Hopscotch” (1980) dir. Ronald Neame

Is there any cooler actor than Walter Matthau? OK, maybe there a few that are cooler … or maybe several. Who cares, allright? As one gets older, one begins to appreciate the laconic, laid-back, sardonic charm of the ultimate intelligent curmudgeon. It’s hard to pick a favorite Matthau film, but “Hopscotch” is my favorite. This is completely fun from start to finish, and if you’re a fan of “Fletch,” “Hopscotch” is one of the best smart-ass dialogue films of all time. Many people thought this was an odd choice for The Criterion Collection, but I don’t. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since my Mom took me to see it when I was 10, which was especially cool due its R-rating and multiple “F-bombs” throughout.

5. “Last Night at the Alamo” (1984) dir. Eagle Pennell

Before “Eastbound and Down” and the rest of Jody Hill’s brilliantly dark and funny oeuvre of delusional losers, there was Eagle Pennell’s funny and sad “Last Night at the Alamo.” Written by Kim Henkel, the man who wrote the original screenplay for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and one of the best truly indie movies of all time, “Last Night at the Alamo” tells the tale of the Alamo (a Houston dive bar) last night in business. The regulars are an interesting bunch: William (aka Ichabod) is a hot-headed, but dim young man in his early 20s; Claude is a man whose blue collar world is threatened when his wife insists they move the suburbs and she subsequently throws him out for drinking too much; and then there’s Cowboy, the legendary BMOC at the bar, who has a big plan to save the bar … or go to Hollywood to become a cowboy actor. There’s other regulars too, as well as assorted bartenders, girlfriends, wives, and former lovers, who fade in and out of the scenery, as the night continues.

The Alamo’s closing represents more than the closing of their favorite watering hole. This is a place where all the men go to be big shots after difficult days on the job or in their lives. It’s obvious the men feel small outside the Alamo, because they strut around and pathetically act like badasses within its confines. The Alamo’s closing means that these men will now be reduced the lives they lead … with their favorite escape hatch closing behind them.

The film has some serious moments, but it’s also hysterically and profanely funny. One of the best scenes in the film is the very first one, where William drives to the Alamo after work with his girlfriend and he rants and screams about everything from having to borrow an undesirable vehicle because his regular ride needs repair to his girlfriend complaining about his cursing and drinking, etc. If the opening scene doesn’t grab you, the rest of the film won’t.

If you’re at all a fan of Jody Hill or Danny McBride, “Last Night at the Alamo” is an absolute must-see.

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“Milius” (2013) dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson

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Today, John Milius is probably most famous for being the inspiration for John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” But Milius was arguably the first of the so-called “Hollywood Brats” of the 1970s to score big in Hollywood. Milius went to USC film school at the same time George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) did and became one of the most in-demand screenwriters during the 1970s. His larger-than-life, gun-toting, right-leaning persona startled, but also fascinated many aspiring talents of the period, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. Milius has been credited for creating the “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” line from “Dirty Harry.” But he’s probably most famous for penning the script for Francis Ford Coppla’s legendary 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.”

Milius also became famous for directing the cult surfing film “Big Wednesday” as well as the box-office hits “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn.” However, despite the box-office success of “Red Dawn,” the film arguably also led to a reversal of fortune in Hollywood due to “Dawn’s” right-wing political leanings (the film’s political stigma alienated many in Hollywood). Coupled with an accountant friend who looted Milius’s vast earnings, Milius was eventually reduced to asking for a staff writing position on the HBO show “Deadwood” in order to pay for his son’s law school. “Deadwood” producer David Milch gave Milius the money and was shocked when Milius paid the entire amount back. Milius had a comeback of sorts creating the HBO series “Rome,” but then had another setback in 2010 when he suffered a stroke. Milius has fought valiantly back and was able to regain his mind and his writing abilities which he hopes to realize with his long-gestating “Genghis Khan” project.

Regardless of where you stand politically, “Milius” is one hell of a documentary about a true Hollywood character and survivor. The fact that so many famous people agreed to be interviewed for this documentary (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, George Hamilton, and many others) only demonstrates how much love and respect he has generated over the years. The one common denominator everyone praises is Milius’s gift for storytelling, which apparently hasn’t been destroyed by his stroke. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson do a splendid job of telling one of the most fascinating true Hollywood stories you’ll ever see. It’s now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

You can also hear an interview with Figueroa on the excellent “Projection Booth” podcast:

http://www.projection-booth.com/audio/Epx31-Milius.mp3

I Was a Teenage Moral Crusader … in the guise of a review of “Faces of Death”

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For those who may not remember this exploitation landmark, “Faces of Death” is less a documentary than a compilation of authentic news footage too grisly for broadcast and reenacted (and faked) scenes of death and mayhem.  The film didn’t make much of an impact in the United States until it was released on video during the mid-1980s.  Due to its then wide release, it was the subject of news stories, editorials, and the kind of hysterical overreaction normally associated with so-called “moral panics.”  To judge whether this film is “good” or “bad” is futile. It’s a freak show. And a freak show’s ultimate success is not based on your judgment, but whether or not the producers got your attention, and ultimately, your money.

Being a teenager and a film fanatic at the time of its stateside video debut (especially of “controversial” films), I was anxious to see it and finally did, when a friend of my brother’s rented the video. The film did everything it was intended to do: it shocked me, appalled me, and grossed me out. It especially helped that I was too dim to see that the film’s grisliest scenes were faked. Given the fact that I was on a speech team at school at the time the film was gaining notoriety, I saw an opportunity to use my viewing of the film as the subject of an indignant diatribe against sadistic violence in film that I hoped would win me some recognition.

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll realize how patently ridiculous this stance is … and was. Like most moral crusaders, I went into explicit … and titillating … detail about the content of “Faces of Death” as well as other controversial epics of the day (“Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “Body Double”) to make a point about … I mean, I was trying to get people to … OK,  for the life of me, I can’t remember what my conclusion was.  I don’t think I called for banning the films and I don’t think I advocated broadcasting them on the Disney Channel.  If memory serves … there was literally no point to the speech at all, except to describe in explicit detail the sexual and violent content of these films. The speech was as much of a freak show as the films I discussed and of course had a tone of “These movies didn’t warp me because I’m smart … but not-so-smart people may do harmful things if they see them, so look out!”

I remember practicing this speech in front of my older brother.  He listened patiently and when I finished, he told me in the kind of tone reserved for a doctor telling a patient they have a terminal illness said “Dave, you need to get laid.”  Needless to say, given the lack of point and the endless variety of atrocities I described, the judges saw through my ruse  immediately and the speech was, alas, not a success.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I abandoned being a moral crusader. Not only was I not good at it and full of s–t, I realized that moral crusaders frequently don’t live up to their highfalutin’ pronouncements and often find themselves being referred to as “Client 9” in indictments.  More importantly, my peers of the fairer sex generally don’t find uptight, strident, self-righteous prigs that attractive.   Besides, in subsequent months, I had discovered an awesome way to simulate someone’s hand being blown apart (ala “Taxi Driver”) which I used in my own sleazy Paul Schrader-inspired short film that I made for an arts program the following summer. I should point out that the graphic hand mutilation was ABSOLUTELY essential to the plot.

I’ve included the ending of “Faces of Death IV”.  As much as the narrator looks like Larry David, I don’t believe it’s him (though, God, I wish it were).  Anyway, after the success of the first three “Faces of Death” films, it looks like they had enough money to finally compose a song based on the film series.  The song has to be heard to be believed.  I will warn you that the footage over the end credits is fairly gruesome and not safe for work, but if you’re a sicko like me, the theme song will have you dying in hysterics.  Enjoy!

“Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.

Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.

From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”

Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.

Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.

It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.

Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.

The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.

“American Gigolo” (1980) dir. Paul Schrader

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“American Gigolo” was a transitional film for writer/director Paul Schrader. Pre-“Gigolo”, Schrader was primarily known as the writer of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Hardcore,” which unabashedly showed the nastier side of the inner city sex industry. On one level, “Gigolo” was as sleazy as “Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore,” but it’s the film where Schrader started to trade (in his words) “violence for style.”  The style in question was appropriated from Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the set designer for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece “The Conformist,” and who served as visual consultant for “Gigolo” (as well as for Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of “Scarface”).  Arguably, this is the film that made Giorgio Armani a household name in America and was the film that made Richard Gere a star.

“Gigolo”‘s story is almost like the seamier flipside of “Pretty Woman,” which came out 10 years later.  Gere plays Julian Kay, a high-priced gigolo catering to rich women in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Palm Springs.  While he has risen high enough in the ranks of prostitution to not trick with men, it’s clear that this wasn’t always the case.  Julian eventually finds himself set up for a murder he didn’t commit, but his alibi is one of his tricks, who is married to a local politician.  He needs to find a way to exonerate himself, but his journey leads him down some very dark paths and finds himself increasingly in danger.

“Gigolo” is a film that manages to be extremely sleazy without being offensive.  But despite its high style, it’s not what I would call classy or clean (I mean that as a compliment, by the way.)  Schrader has acknowledged the debt of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pickpocket,”  even though they are very different films from each other.  However, if you watch and like “Gigolo,” you should really check out “Pickpocket” (which is available to watch for free if you have a HuluPlus subscription). The endings of both films are very very similar.

“Taxi Driver” (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese

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“Taxi Driver” is arguably director Martin Scorsese’s best film. While I admire “Raging Bull” a lot, will watch “Hugo” with my kids anytime they want to watch it, and will put on “Goodfellas” when I want a Scorsese film to entertain me and make me laugh, “Taxi Driver” is the one that sticks to my brain the most.

Written by Paul Schrader when Schrader was coming out of the tail end of a hellish personal period when he was drinking too much and going to porn theaters, “Taxi Driver” is a brilliant portrait of a damaged mind rotting away into the ugliest thoughts a mind can have.

The lead character, Travis Bickle (in what’s arguably, Robert DeNiro’s greatest performance), is an ex-Marine who can’t sleep and decides to deal with his insomnia by being a taxi cab driver in NYC. However, Travis purposely seems to go the worse areas of NYC, specifically Times Square and 42nd street, for fares.  As the unreliable narrator, he spits at this world and predicts that one day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

But Travis can’t help subjecting himself to this world, even spending time in low-rent 8mm and 16mm porno theaters on his off hours.  His vision is so warped that  he convinces Betsy, a beautiful blonde campaign worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) to go on a date with him, but  takes her to a fancy porno theater because he thinks it’s a classy date.  He could be naive … or he could be wanting to subject her to the same filth he’s subjecting himself to … in much the same way emotionally crippled people put potential lovers through the ringer to prove their love for them.  Betsy wisely ditches him, which sends Travis further down a downward spiral.  Notice how the camera pans away from Travis while he’s on the phone.  It’s almost like we can’t watch him being rejected because it’s too painful.

Travis then becomes obsessed with a teen prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster and decides he wants to rescue her from her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel.  He also becomes obsessed with the political candidate Betsy is working for.   Travis starts buying guns and working out.  The conclusion is troubling to say the least.  Below is a scene where Travis in the middle of his madness is quietly watching “American Bandstand” with jaundiced eyes … especially watching the interracial couples dancing while pointing his gun at the TV.  The song playing is Jackson Browne’s terrifically sad “Late for the Sky”:

“Taxi Driver” is the flipside and middle finger to the mid-1970s Charles Bronson urban revenge blockbuster “Death Wish.”  DeNiro’s Travis character is not only nuts, but racist and sexually twisted.  However, the way that Scorsese directs the film (with brilliant editing by Marcia Lucas), you can’t help but feel for Travis while also being repulsed by him.

Of course, by now, everyone knows that “Taxi Driver” was the film that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to impress Jodie Foster.  While this is (hopefully) a ridiculous notion to most of us, the film is so brilliantly made and gets you so far inside the mind of a gone individual, it really does seem like a blueprint for being a psychopath if one were not in the right frame of mind.

But that’s the problem with great art.  By conveying the darkest parts of the human soul in a realistic and convincing manner, you run the risk of encouraging those in a similar frame of mind to identify a bit too deeply with what you’re trying to express.  However, you can’t begin to understand such dark souls without realistically looking into the heart of darkness that beats in many lost souls that wander through our culture.

“The Searchers” (1956) dir. John Ford

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Arguably, the most revered Western of all time and voted 7th greatest film of all time in the esteemed British film journal Sight and Sound in 2012, “The Searchers” is my personal favorite among the 10 films selected. It was highly regarded by many of the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s and its influence can be seen most significantly in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.”

“The Searchers” is about a woman (played as an adult by Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped as a young girl by Native Americans and her uncle’s obsessive search to find her. The uncle, played by John Wayne, is a Confederate Civil War veteran, on the outside of the law, and extremely racist. In his mission, he’s accompanied by his adopted nephew and the woman’s brother, played by Jeffrey Hunter, who is Native American by birth. Wayne’s character doesn’t consider Hunter to be part of his family and the two quarrel throughout the film. Wayne even reveals that his mission once he finds his niece is to kill her, because she’s likely been defiled by the tribe that kidnapped her. Yes, this is not exactly the most evolved film … but stay with me, please. Though, I’m going to reveal major spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens … STOP READING NOW!!

The first clip shows what happens when Wayne’s character eventually catches up with Wood. As he’s been saying, you expect Wayne’s character to kill her, but instead, he lifts her up and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” This scene leaves me in tears every time I see it.

However, the saddest moment is yet to come. Wayne’s character carries Debbie back to her home and gives her back to his brother. Wayne’s nephew joins hands with the love of his life and enters the home. And then … Wayne turns around and walks off and the door closes behind him. The End.

A devastating masterpiece.

“Hard Working Man” – Captain Beefheart / Ry Cooder / Jack Nitzche, from the film “Blue Collar” (1978) dir. Paul Schrader

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The theme song from Paul Schrader’s mentally brutal 1978 working class thriller “Blue Collar.” One of the great forgotten films of the 1970s, with Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto. As Kotto’s Smokey character famously asserts: “They pit the lifers against the new boys; the young against the old; the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”

 

“Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader

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One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the last decade is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane.  Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane.   What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness.  As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.”    He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter:  “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.”  In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”

“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” – David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder

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The theme song for Paul Schrader’s underrated and wonderfully bats–t crazy Freudian horror film from 1982, in its better original version recorded for the film. (There’s a remake on Bowie’s gazillion-selling 1983 album “Let’s Dance,” which is decent, but not as good as this one). Quentin Tarantino had the good taste to include this on the soundtrack for “Inglorious Basterds” during the scene where Shoshanna gets ready for a night of revenge.