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Film

Stephen Sondheim once named his 40 favourite films of all time

The recent news of the passing of theatre icon Stephen Sondheim has shocked and saddened many, especially the ones who were raised on a healthy diet of his magical musicals. He taught many modern pioneers, those who dominate the landscape of American theatre today, how to engage with the medium and tackle issues that were never associated with musicals before.

In an interview last year, Sondheim claimed that he was an adept actor since his early years and always wanted to play dark characters. According to the late legend, he always had a penchant for playing mentally disturbed characters and was obsessed with one particular figure from the play Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams.

“I was good in college,” Sondheim claimed. “They always cast me, every play they did, if there was a very neurotic, self-destructive, gloomy, ‘Get Sondheim!’ I played every misfit. But there was one part I always wanted to play, which was Danny in Night Must Fall. It was about a serial killer, which is a play I had loved since I first read it when I was 12 years old. And once I played that part, I retired.”

When asked about his favourite character that he has written, Sondheim replied: “Character? Well, you see, I don’t write the characters. The book writers write the characters. I explore the characters… As far as a character goes, I’d certainly pick Madame Rose.”

Adding: “I just think, you know, she’s just so much larger-than-life at the same time she’s life. That’s really hard to do. And I really like her, and I really want to hit her. And it’s just, she’s so alive.”

As a tribute to the late icon, we take a look back at a list of some of the most definitive cinematic masterpieces that shaped Sondheim’s artistic vision over the course of his career.

Stephen Sondheim’s 40 favourite movies:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L. Werker, 1939)
  2. Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock, 1973)
  3. The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003)
  4. They Were Five (Julien Duvivier, 1936)
  5. Character (Mike van Diem, 1997)
  6. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  7. The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945)
  8. The Contract (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1980)
  9. Dance of Life (Julien Duvivier, 1937)
  10. Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden and Charles Crichton, 1945)
  11. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
  12. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
  13. Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)
  14. Fresh (Boaz Yakin, 1994)
  15. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
  16. Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945)
  17. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
  18. Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997)
  19. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
  20. Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)
  21. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
  22. The Mind Reader (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
  23. The More, the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943)
  24. The Nasty Girl (Michael Verhoeven, 1990)
  25. Night Must Fall (Richard Thorpe, 1937)
  26. The Oak (Lucian Pintilie, 1992)
  27. The Official Story (Luis Puenzo, 1985)
  28. The Organiser (Mario Monicelli, 1963)
  29. Out of the Fog (Anatole Litvak, 1941)
  30. Panique (Julien Duvivier, 1946)
  31. Pygmalion (Leslie Howard and Anthony Asquith, 1938)
  32. Adam’s Rib (Vyacheslav Kristofovich, 1990)
  33. The Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz, 1941)
  34. A Slave of Love (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1976)
  35. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)
  36. The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Zoltan Korda, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan and William Cameron Menzies, 1940)
  37. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
  38. To the Ends of the Earth (Robert Stevenson, 1948)
  39. Torchy Blane in Chinatown (William Beaudine, 1939)
  40. War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966-67)

Steven Spielberg, who is currently working on a film adaptation of West Side Story, said in a statement: “Stephen Sondheim was a gigantic figure in American culture — one of our country’s greatest songwriters, a lyricist and composer of real genius, and a creator of some of the most glorious musical dramas ever written.”

Spielberg also revealed that they discussed various politics at length and that Sondheim actually possessed a deep knowledge about film history and the world of cinema: “Steve and I became friends only recently, but we became good friends and I was surprised to discover that he knew more about movies than almost anyone I’d ever met.”

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