Looking for Classic Cinema? TCM’s Dave Karger Says You Just Need One

All it takes is one. It can be hard to dip your toe in any new-to-you form of media, to know what to pick and what not to, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and so you might get overwhelmed and not go very far, or find a couple you don’t like and get disheartened. In the case of classic movies–movies made 20+ years before you were born–there’s only a little over a hundred years’ worth of movies to pick through. You need a way in! Luckily, Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger has you covered. “I think that’s what the TCM viewers are hoping to get from us,” Karger explained to me recently, “to put these movies in an important context, in the world that they were made in, but also within the context of the filmmakers’ and stars’ careers.” It’s the same advice to viewers that Karger’s co-hosts Eddie Muller and Alicia Malone gave us too. Almost like there’s something to it!

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“I’m always very careful,” he continued, “not to give too much plot away. But that’s the fun, to know, okay, I’ve got two and a half minutes; what should these people know, whether they’ve never seen this film before or whether they’re about to see it? There are people watching who have seen these movies 10 times, and people who have never seen them, so I try to make sure that the intro plays for all audiences.”

And what kind of movie audience is he? Karger told me his background is probably pretty similar to most of us getting into movies, and he found the first “classic” that made him stop and take notice. “I’m a child of the ’80s,” he explained, “so I grew up with all of the silly ’80s movies, particularly the John Hughes ones. It wasn’t until I went to college at Duke University in the early ’90s, in my late teens, that I really started discovering classic film. I took a film class and one of the first films they showed us was Laura.”

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20th Century Fox

For those who haven’t seen it, some context (Oh hey! I get to do it now!). It’s a 1944 film noir directed by Otto Preminger. It tells the story of a detective who’s investigating the murder of a beautiful advertising executive named Laura (murder via shotgun to the face, no less) and, while questioning the various men who leeched off of Laura, he begins to fall in love with the dead woman. Not the best beginning to any romance, you have to admit.

“That was the first time that I really realized the allure of, the height of glamour in classic film,” Karger said of the movie. “I just fell in love with both [the film’s two leads], Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. I thought the whole mystery was fascinating. It’s the epitome of glamorous film noir. It’s a twist on the typical mystery, a twist on the typical love story. It was a very eye-opening film. I remember vividly thinking, ‘Oh, there’s something here that I need to explore more of.'”

The rest of Karger’s recommendations for new-to-classic viewers are a very rounded list of classics of all sorts. The through-line is compelling stories and intriguing relationships. “I think it’s about, as cliche as this sounds,” he began of his own tastes, “I think it’s about story and I think it’s about character. I think we’re in a day and age where all the big movies are based on toys or comic books, and that’s great, and there’s people who get so excited about all of those movies. I get excited about a great performance, a great character, a great relationship, a great story. That floats my boat more than an action movie.”

Karger also says that just because he likes movies for those reasons doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t, but that maybe it’s time to give something else a try. “That’s me,” he said. “And I also think people who love action movies and superhero movies, at a certain point you have your fill of it, and then you’re ready to discover something new. These movies are called classic movies for a reason. These are movies that are of the highest quality.”

Laura‘s at the top of the list, sure, but what’s next? “All About Eve remains my favorite movie of all time,” Karger explained, “and not just because it was written and directed by [TCM’s longest serving host] Ben Mankiewicz’s uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz–but it is kind of cool that I work with a guy whose uncle wrote and directed All About Eve. The film has Bette Davis as a famous and acclaimed actress who befriends a fan named Eve, played by Anne Francis, who very quickly gets her own shot at stardom, only to begin usurping Davis’ career and relationships with icy efficiency.

All About Eve, to me, is just perfection in cinema,” Karger continued. “Every line of dialogue. Every character. I love that it’s the behind-the-scenes, in the world of theater, story. It’s from 1950, but yet it’s so smart, and current in its intelligence. That’s one that I really really love.”

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United Artists

You always need a good, meaty, actor-heavy drama, and Karger recommends one of the best. “12 Angry Men is one that I thought would be good for a newcomer to classic film,” he shared, “because it’s compact, it’s extremely well written and acted, but in a way it feels like a great episode of a TV show. It’s 12 people on a jury deliberating, and you get to see how the tide turns in a deliberation process. I think for someone who isn’t sure about classic film, they’ll turn it on, it will seem like things that they’ve seen before on TV, but it’s a great entry point, and an amazing Henry Fonda performance.”

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You’re a fool if you don’t put at least one Alfred Hitchcock movie on your list, and Karger chose one that’s my personal favorite, and might become yours too. “North by Northwest,” Karger said to my delight. “I think that would be a good first Alfred Hitchcock movie for someone to see. It’s Cary Grant at the height of his gorgeousness, in the best suit every put on film, but it also is a suspenseful movie. It has a couple iconic shots, like with the crop duster, that some people might recognize, even if they don’t know why. It’s just a good first Hitchcock movie that I think people would like.” Con-firmed.

“I also suggest The Red Shoes,” Karger said, confirming he might be my actual long lost best friend. “Because Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are filmmakers who have managed to make films that feel like they’re new. Their films don’t seem like they’re decades old at all.” The story of a ballet dancer who becomes obsessed with perfection probably rings some bells with modern fans. “If people liked Black Swan, they’ll really enjoy The Red Shoes. It’s got beautiful dance numbers. It’s a globetrotting romance, and it’s got beautiful scenery.”

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And finally, Karger reiterates what we also think is one of the best science fiction movies of all time. “ 2001: A Space Odyssey, because I think that if there’s anyone out there who loves Christopher Nolan, it’s great to see the movie that inspired him to be a filmmaker. It’s cool to watch this movie that’s 50 years old, but has special effects that feel like they were made now, and I think it’s the kind of movie that a lot of people have great, nice sized TVs, and you can just sit and let it wash over you. People will know the music. People will know the shot of the bone flying in the air. There’s enough in there that’s gonna feel iconic.”

You can catch Dave Karger on Turner Classic Movies, introducing and discussing movies like these, and so many others. Let him be your guide.

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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