“And it seems like people, when they’re deciding ‘Am I going to watch it at home, or am I going to go out to the theatre?’ the tiebreaker is that element of spectacle that makes them say, ‘Oh, I have to see this on the big screen.’ And I don’t know exactly how to feel about that. Because a great deal of the cinema that’s very important to me is very small, very intimate, it’s watercolors rather than the big blockbuster canvases.”—Nick Pinkerton
The above quote comes from film critic Nick Pinkerton’s wide-ranging conversation with James Gray for the release of his new film, Armageddon Time, which is just under two hours long. That’s what counts as a small movie these days. Look at the running times of the movies currently playing near you; how many are under an hour and 45 minutes? The current number one movie in America, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is two hours and 41 minutes, and of the five highest grossing films of the year, only one is under two hours: Minions: The Rise of Gru, a meager 90 minutes. Kids’ movies are about the only dependably short features you’ll find today, which makes sense given that most children haven’t experienced enough of life’s disappointments to necessitate protracted escapist spectacles.
Pinkerton’s obviously talking about much more than just running times, but the length of movies is a decent way to quantifiably measure this trend toward the epic, which dates back to at least 1948. That year’s landmark antitrust decision, United States v. Paramount Pictures, banned production companies from owning movie theaters or arranging exclusivity rights for exhibition, creating a monumental shift in how movies were shown in the US. The standard A movie/B movie model, in which studios released a longer, more expensive A movie as a double feature with a shorter, low budget B movie, was phased out over the next decade in favor of longer roadshow exhibitions. By 1955, the 10 highest grossing films averaged 123 minutes. B movies followed in suit: what were once 60-80 minute movies quickly became 70-100 minute movies.
The closest modern analog to the classic B movie might be DTV action vehicles starring guys like Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White, or maybe the ever-growing bounty of cheap horror titles on streaming services like Shudder, but almost none of these movies is less than 80 minutes. That’s the minimum now, and it’s a shame, because as much as I love to hunker down with a good epic, taking in a feature film in just over an hour can be equally rewarding. Here are five compact classics.
The Narrow Margin (1952, Richard Fleischer, 72 minutes): Much like its passenger train setting, The Narrow Margin is a well-oiled machine, packing two hours’ worth of plot into an efficient 72 minutes. (Peter Hyams’ 1990 remake is 27 minutes longer, and not for the better.) The film follows Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) as he escorts the wife of a mob boss from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify against him. Also riding the train are a couple of mobsters intent on taking out the witness, though none of them knows what she looks like. Director Richard Fleischer and his trusted screenwriter Earl Felton wring every bit of suspense they can out of Brown’s frantic attempts to stay one step ahead of the mobsters, but what’s really masterful—and likely what caught the attention of producer Howard Hughes, who dreamed of remaking the film with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell—is the way Fleischer and Felton similarly manage to keep one step ahead of a dense narrative with many moving parts. It also has one of the best no-music endings of all time—a fitting denouement to such an understated piece of Hollywood entertainment.
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952, Roy Ward Baker, 76 minutes): One of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation surrounding this year’s Blonde was that even Monroe's defenders had a habit of minimizing her talents. When director Andrew Dominik made a few careless remarks about Monroe in interviews, indirectly calling her talent into question, the standard counter argument relied mostly on a series of comedic roles that didn’t exactly dispel any notions that, as an actor, Monroe was a one-trick pony.
One of Blonde’s glaring flaws is that, inescapable accent notwithstanding, Ana de Armas possesses neither the thespian talent or once-in-a-generation screen presence Marilyn had, and when it’s time for her to audition for the role of Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock, her histrionics can’t possibly measure up to the seemingly effortless level of pathos that the real Marilyn brings to the role. Case in point: there’s a wordless scene midway through the film—about a sort of sleazy but likable guy (Richard Widmark, another victim of typecasting) who gets entangled with an unbalanced, potentially violent babysitter (Monroe)—where Nell’s alone in the master bedroom of the hotel suite where she’s babysitting. She turns on the radio and slowly saunters over to the mirror, spraying herself with perfume. She tries on jewelry from a box: first a bracelet, then a pair of earrings. Watching herself in the mirror—bathed in light, positively auroral—she looks entranced by her own beauty, and why wouldn’t she be? The hum of an airplane drowns out the radio, and a worried look seizes her face. She follows the sound to the window, pressing her face against the blinds as she watches the plane disappear, then bows her head. In less than two minutes and without a single line of dialogue, Monroe gives us a vivid glimpse into Nell’s inner life, as full of dreams and disappointments as the actress who portrayed her.
Coach to Vienna (1966, Karel Kachyna, 78 minutes): Several iconic Czech new wave films—Daisies, The Fireman’s Ball, Diamonds of the Night—are under 80 minutes long, but purely from the standpoint of visual storytelling, the lesser-known Coach to Vienna strikes me as the most distinguished. It’s a movie that tells you almost everything you need to know in the first couple of minutes: as the Red Army forces the Nazis into retreat near the end of WWI, two Austrian soldiers demand a recently-widowed Soviet woman transport them to Vienna, so she hides an axe underneath the carriage before they depart. With that very simple setup (and a knock you on your ass orchestral score by Jan Novák), what begins as a tense nailbiter ends as a haunting indictment of war (even The Good War) and its dehumanizing effect.
Angst (1983, Gerald Kargl, 79 minute director’s cut): Confession: I find Angst, the notoriously fucked up fly-on-the-wall depiction of a deranged serial killer, kind of funny. I say fly-on-the-wall, but this fly also frequently rotates around the protagonist—the film owes much of its stylistic distinction to the gyroscopic SnorriCam/steadicam MacGyvered by cinematographer Zbigniew Rybcxynski—and much like the dog who watches the murder of its owner without so much as a yelp, the fly’s passive, indifferent gaze underscores the film’s macabre sense of the absurd. The freshly paroled killer (based on serial killer Werner Kniesek) narrates about his desire to kill, insisting that he won’t get caught, before embarking on one of the most ill-conceived, reckless killing sprees in cinematic history. I’ve already written at some length about our culture’s borderline idolization of serial killers, and Angst serves as effective counterprogramming to this kind of fetishization. It’s a movie about a killer who isn’t particularly good at killing or at the very least isn’t good at getting away with it, climaxing in gallows slapstick that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Coen brothers movie.
Trash Humpers (2009, Harmony Korine, 78 minutes): If you know who Harmony Korine is, you’ve likely already reached your verdict on his work, and if it’s negative, Trash Humpers probably isn’t going to change your mind. It’s a found footage movie about old people—or rather, people wearing realistic geriatric masks—wreaking havoc in their Nashville neighborhood by vandalizing houses, screaming nonsense (“Make it, don’t fake it!” becomes a sort of mantra by the end), and simulating sex with trash cans. Shot and edited on glorious VHS, Trash Humpers is a genuine arthouse oddity, the last Korine would make before descending into his Vice-subsidized Miami phase. Yet there isn’t a single image in either of Korine’s Miami films that matches the fluorescent peach sunset captured from the humpers’ moving car. It’s quintessential Harmony: a moment of quiet beauty nested in an otherwise abrasive work of strip mall Southern Gothic.