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Best British Films: Violent Thriller Is #1 + Women Bypassed

Best British Films: The Third Man Joseph CottenThe Best British Films ever? Starring Joseph Cotten and directed by Carol Reed from a screenplay by Graham Greene, the iconic “British” thriller The Third Man was partly financed by a U.S. company, David O. Selznick’s outlet Selznick International Pictures.
  • What are the best British films ever made? According to critics polled by Total Film magazine, the Top Ten list consists of male-focused efforts, seven of which released after 1960 and four of which made with partial U.S. backing.

What are the best British films ever made? And how exactly does one define ‘best’ & ‘British’?

What are the very best British films ever made?

That, of course, is a question that could never be objectively answered. It all depends on personal tastes/moods, current trends (yesterday’s dud could be today’s fave and tomorrow’s unremembered), and the clarity of one’s recollections.

Not to mention the fact that you would also have to wrestle with the meaning of the label “British cinema” – as in, what is a “British film”?

Case in point: Set in shadowy postwar Vienna, director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene’s labyrinthine The Third Man is almost invariably found on critics’ and historians’ Best British Films lists. Yet this iconic 1949 thriller was partly financed by an American company: Selznick International Pictures, the indie outlet belonging to Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun producer David O. Selznick.

And what about, to name six titles, The African Queen, The Innocents, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India, The English Patient, and Shakespeare in Love? How “British” are these well-regarded U.K./U.S. collaborations?

From William Shakespeare to Monty Python

Once the Union Jack certification is determined – if ever – you must then be able to compare all sorts of cinematic genres and perspectives.

After all, going all the way back to the early silent era and works by the likes of Maurice Elvey and Cecil M. Hepworth, what’s known as “British cinema” encompasses a large and eclectic array of movies ranging from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers to Ealing comedies, from fluffy Jessie Matthews musicals to grimy kitchen-sink dramas, from Laurence Olivier’s reverential Shakespeare adaptations to lowbrow Monty Python satires, from staid Anna Neagle star vehicles to gassy Carry On romps, from stiff-upper-lip David Lean dramas to grandiose David Lean epics.

So, what are the very best British films ever?

Eyebrow-raisers among U.K. movie critics’ Top Ten

According to 25 British critics polled by Total Film magazine (October 2004), among the Ten Best British Films ever produced are, unsurprisingly, works by Carol Reed, David Lean, Mike Leigh, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – even if not necessarily the expected ones.

Missing from the Top Ten list are works by Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Asquith, Laurence Olivier, Alexander Mackendrick, Tony Richardson, and James Ivory. British-made Best Picture Oscar winners and nominees were mostly left out, and so was just about every major international festival favorite.

Most startling of all, however, is the polled British critics’ no. 1 choice.

Michael Caine Get Carter 1971: Best British FilmsMichael Caine in Get Carter. As per the latest Best British Films poll, Mike Hodges’ violent 1971 thriller is British critics’ no. 1 pick; Michael Caine, for his part, has three other movies on the Top 50 list: Zulu, The Italian Job, and Alfie.

Violent Michael Caine thriller Get Carter is surprising no. 1 pick

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer-backed Get Carter, a largely forgotten – in all fairness, some would call it a “cult classic” – 1971 thriller is the United Kingdom’s best movie ever according to the Total Film poll. (See Top Ten list further below.)

Directed by Mike Hodges, who also adapted Ted Lewis’ 1970 novel Jack’s Return Home, and starring a youngish and stylish Michael Caine, Get Carter follows a London gangster as he travels to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral. Bloody murder and kinky phone sex are part of the grieving process.

Also in the Get Carter cast: the film’s sole BAFTA nominee, Ian Hendry; phone-sex aficionada Britt Ekland; playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer); and some heavy-duty, mass-murder-ready weaponry (what U.S. journalists and pundits coyly refer to as “guns”).

In 2000, Get Carter got an American makeover. Directed by Stephen Kay, starring Sylvester Stallone as the traveling gangster, and featuring a Caine cameo, the critically lambasted $64 million production bombed at the box office, collecting a paltry $15 million in the domestic market.

Mike Hodges: Nine movies in three decades

Unlike Michael Caine, who has enjoyed a long, prolific, and – ignoring trash like The Swarm, Victory, The Island, Blame It on Rio, Jaws: The Revenge, Shadow Run, etc. – prestigious big-screen career, Mike Hodges never quite became an A-list filmmaker.

One apparent reason is his sporadic – and generally not all that well-received – output: Nine features over the course of three decades. Among them, the thriller Pulp (1972), also starring Caine, plus veterans Mickey Rooney, Lizabeth Scott, and Lionel Stander; the sci-fier The Terminal Man (1974), with George Segal and Joan Hackett; and the costly box office dud Flash Gordon (1980), with Sam J. Jones in the title role and Max von Sydow as the Emperor Ming.

Hodges’ latest effort, the poorly received and little-seen crime drama I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, came out in the U.K. earlier this year. Clive Owen, Charlotte Rampling, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers star.

More ‘Top Ten Best British Films’ surprises + Hollywood influence

Back to Total Film’s Best British Films: Besides the 1971 Get Carter, there was a quartet of notable surprises among the polled critics’ selections:

  • Terence Young’s James Bond thrill-ride From Russia with Love (1963), whose highlight is not a youngish Sean Connery but a lesbianish Lotte Lenya.
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), a satirical – and, however juvenile, subversive – take on the life of Jesus Christ.
  • Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), a psychological comedy-drama starring Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner David Thewlis in (what amounts to) the title role: An unwashed, unpleasant, unhinged Londoner. Not among the Top Ten: Leigh’s Oscar-nominated Secrets & Lies.
  • Danny Boyle’s (partly) Edinburgh-set black comedy Trainspotting (1996), featuring drug use, urban squalor, and hard-to-decipher (for non-locals) Scottish accents and lingo.

In addition to The Third Man and Get Carter, Hollywood’s influence on the Top Ten can be attested via the United Artists-released From Russia with Love and David Lean’s Columbia-backed 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia Peter O'TooleLawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole. One of the Top Ten Best British Films as per Total Film’s critics poll, David Lean’s all-male biopic of British army officer/writer T.E. Lawrence became one of the most commercially successful movies ever made.

Older classics mostly bypassed + female-centered stories ignored

No pre-1945 movie made it onto Total Film’s Top Ten Best British Films list.

In fact, only three titles came out before 1960: The Third Man, Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 romantic/political fantasy A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (instead of the duo’s better-known Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes), and Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Also worth noting is that not a single movie on the Top Ten list features a woman in a central – or even “co-central” – role. For instance:

  • In The Third Man, Alida Valli’s mysterious and mysteriously accented character is subordinate to that of Joseph Cotten’s nosy American.
  • In A Matter of Life and Death, romantic interest Kim Hunter is a charming part of the decor.
  • In Kind Hearts and Coronets, leading women Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood play second fiddle to Dennis Price and to the myriad Alec Guinnesses.
  • Two of the movies on the list, Lawrence of Arabia and Life of Brian, are all but female-free.

Top Ten Best British Films

And here’s Total Film’s Top Ten Best British Films:

  1. Get Carter (1971).
    Director: Mike Hodges.
    Cast: Michael Caine. Britt Ekland. Ian Hendry.
  2. A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946).
    Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger.
    Cast: David Niven. Kim Hunter. Roger Livesey. Raymond Massey.
  3. BAFTA (Best British Film category) nominee Trainspotting (1996).
    Director: Danny Boyle.
    Cast: Ewan McGregor. Ewen Bremner.
  4. BAFTA (British) & Cannes winner The Third Man (1949).
    Director: Carol Reed.
    Cast: Joseph Cotten. Alida Valli. Trevor Howard. Orson Welles.
  5. Life of Brian (1979).
    Director: Terry Jones.
    Cast: Monty Python (Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, etc.).
  6. The Wicker Man (1973).
    Director: Robin Hardy.
    Cast: Edward Woodward. Christopher Lee. Diane Cilento. Britt Ekland. Ingrid Pitt.
  7. BAFTA (British) nominee Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
    Director: Robert Hamer.
    Cast: Dennis Price. Valerie Hobson. Alec Guinness. Joan Greenwood.
  8. Oscar/BAFTA (British & Any Source) winner Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
    Director: David Lean.
    Cast: Peter O’Toole. Omar Sharif. Alec Guinness. Anthony Quinn. Claude Rains. Arthur Kennedy.
  9. From Russia with Love (1963).
    Director: Terence Young.
    Cast: Sean Connery. Daniela Bianchi. Pedro Armendáriz. Robert Shaw. Lotte Lenya.
  10. BAFTA (British) nominee Naked (1993).
    Director: Mike Leigh.
    Cast: David Thewlis. Lesley Sharp. Katrin Cartlidge.
Pygmalion Wendy Hiller Leo Genn Irene Browne Violet VanbrughPygmalion with Wendy Hiller, Leo Genn, Irene Browne, and Violet Vanbrugh. Co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (who also stars), MGM’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s play is considered by some one of the best British films of the 1930s.

Bypassed ‘Best British Films’

As mentioned further up, only three pre-1960 productions are included in Total Film’s Best British Films list.

Below is a short list of classic (at least in part) British-made features – from the silent era to 1959 – that were left out.

Note: The (British) label indicates that the movies in question were nominated/won only in the BAFTAs’ Best British Film category.

  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927).
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
    Cast: Ivor Novello. June Tripp.
  • Oscar nominee The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).
    Director: Alexander Korda.
    Cast: Charles Laughton. Robert Donat. Merle Oberon. Elsa Lanchester.
  • The 39 Steps (1935).
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
    Cast: Robert Donat. Madeleine Carroll. Peggy Ashcroft.
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938).
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
    Cast: Michael Redgrave. Margaret Lockwood. Dame May Whitty. Paul Lukas.
  • Oscar nominee Pygmalion (1938).
    Director: Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard.
    Cast: Leslie Howard. Wendy Hiller.
  • Gaslight (1940).
    Director: Thorold Dickinson.
    Cast: Diana Wynyard. Anton Walbrook.
  • Major Barbara (1941).
    Director: Gabriel Pascal.
    Cast: Wendy Hiller. Rex Harrison. Robert Morley.
  • On Approval (1944).
    Director: Clive Brook.
    Cast: Clive Brook. Beatrice Lillie. Googie Withers. Roland Culver.
  • Dead of Night (1945).
    Director: Robert Hamer, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton.
    Cast: Michael Redgrave. Mervyn Johns.
  • Cannes Grand Prize co-winner Brief Encounter (1945; tied with several other titles).
    Director: David Lean.
    Cast: Celia Johnson. Trevor Howard.
  • Oscar nominee Great Expectations (1946).
    Director: David Lean.
    Cast: John Mills. Valerie Hobson. Alec Guinness.
  • Black Narcissus (1947).
    Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger.
    Cast: Deborah Kerr. David Farrar. Flora Robson. Kathleen Byron.
  • BAFTA (British) winner Odd Man Out (1947).
    Director: Carol Reed.
    Cast: James Mason. Robert Newton.
  • Oscar nominee The Red Shoes (1948).
    Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger.
    Cast: Moira Shearer. Anton Walbrook. Marius Goring.
  • Oscar, BAFTA & Venice (Golden Lion) winner Hamlet (1948).
    Director: Laurence Olivier.
    Cast: Laurence Olivier. Jean Simmons.
  • The Winslow Boy (1948).
    Director: Anthony Asquith.
    Cast: Robert Donat. Cedric Hardwicke. Margaret Leighton.
  • BAFTA (British) winner The Fallen Idol (1948).
    Director: Carol Reed.
    Cast: Ralph Richardson. Michèle Morgan.
  • BAFTA (British) nominee Passport to Pimlico (1949).
    Director: Henry Cornelius.
    Cast: Stanley Holloway. Margaret Rutherford. Hermione Baddeley.
  • BAFTA (British) winner The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).
    Director: Charles Crichton.
    Cast: Alec Guinness. Stanley Holloway.
  • BAFTA nominee The Man in the White Suit (1951).
    Director: Alexander Mackendrick.
    Cast: Alec Guinness. Joan Greenwood. Cecil Parker.
  • BAFTA nominee The African Queen (1951).
    Director: John Huston.
    Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Katharine Hepburn.
  • BAFTA nominee Summertime (1955).
    Director: David Lean.
    Cast: Katharine Hepburn. Rossano Brazzi. Isa Miranda.
  • Oscar/BAFTA winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
    Director: David Lean.
    Cast: William Holden. Alec Guinness. Jack Hawkins. Sessue Hayakawa.
  • BAFTA nominee Look Back in Anger (1959).
    Director: Tony Richardson.
    Cast: Richard Burton. Claire Bloom. Mary Ure.
  • Oscar nominee/BAFTA winner Room at the Top (1959).
    Director: Jack Clayton.
    Cast: Laurence Harvey. Simone Signoret. Heather Sears.

“Best British Films” endnotes

Joseph Cotten The Third Man image: Selznick Releasing Organization.

Peter O’Toole Lawrence of Arabia image: Columbia Pictures.

Michael Caine Get Carter image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Leo Genn, Irene Browne, Violet Vanbrugh, and Wendy Hiller Pygmalion movie image: MGM.

“Best British Films: Violent Thriller Is #1 + Women Bypassed” last updated in December 2021.

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