The Classic Film: What Makes a Film classic?


By Dave Hood

Watching a film at the cinema is more popular than gazing at a stage play or reading literature. We make our way and buy a ticket at the box office to take in a film for many reasons: to see our favorite movie stars, to escape the banality of our existence, to witness the latest film of our favorite directors, to be entertained, to be transported to an unfamiliar place or world. On occasion, we experience, with our senses, what will become a film classic, a motion picture that we’ll remember and desire to watch again.

Despite what many people might assume, the classic film does not require approval of film critics, nor an avalanche of box office receipts, nor a Oscar award for best picture. Citizen Kane (1941) received mixed reviews, was a flop at the box office.  As well, Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnet, on which the film is loosely based, offered RKO Pictures $800,000 to destroy all copies of the negatives of this film. The classic Wizard of Oz (1939), the fantasy film starring Judy Garland, with the beautiful song “Over the Rainbow,” lost money because of the high production costs. Taxi Driver is a classic film that never won an Oscar for Best Picture. Same goes for Casablanca and Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz.

So what makes a film classic? Two essential ingredients are audience appeal and endurance. Audience appeal refers to the strong desire of viewers to see the film over and over. As popular culture changes, as time passes, we still desire to experience delight and excitement from certain films we have seen before, so we watch and re-watch them on the big screen, DVD, Netflix, or television, such as Turner Classic Movies. We watch to see legends of Hollywood, dramatic scenes, special effects, iconic urban settings, fashion from a bygone era, and so forth. We watch to escape the banality of life, to be taken to another period in history, to experience fantasy, to imagine possibilities, to relive our past. Perhaps we desire to see a film from a director we admire. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is considered a classic film—in part, because of the slashing scene in the shower played out the suspenseful film score.

We watch to understand how a film was constructed by the directory, how actors played their roles, how cinematographers shot a scene. We watch because the film as an art form moves the soul in some way.

The classic film also has endurance. On other words, it stands the test of time. Even though hundreds of new films are made and released to the public each year, we still desire to watch some of them over and over. Some of them become “classics. “As time passes, new generations of moviegoers also desire to see these films we call “classics,” such as Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Psycho, Casablanca, The Searchers, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, and many others. Why do these films stand the test of time? They are memorable.

What makes a film memorable? Besides audience appeal and standing the test of time, classic films have other essential attributes or characteristics. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, requiring a writer to pen the script or screenplay, a filmmaker to direct the movie, actors to perform, cameramen to shoot the scenes, editors to construct the scenes into a unified story, and so forth. To suggest that a single element creates a classic film is an oversimplification.

In watching classic films, I have identified four essential characteristics of memorable films:

  • Influential film authorship or directing, often an auteur, such as Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Memorable performance by actors and actresses, like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.
  • Skillful cinematography, resulting in a memorable shot, scene, or sequence of shots, such as the shower scene in Psycho.
  • Sound, including memorable dialogue, sound effects, voice over narration, and film score.

As time marches forward, memorable films usually become classics , movies that we desire to watch again and again.

Compelling Storytelling

The classic film requires a compelling story. It is based a script, which is the “blueprint” of the story and film. The screenplay can either be original or adaptation. It creates the structure of the film. All films have a beginning, middle, and end. Film students, screenwriters, film critics sometimes referred this form of film as the “Three Act or Five Act Structure.” The beginning introduces the hero, setting, and conflict. In the middle includes the setbacks, obstacles, and confrontation, leading to a climax.  The film ends with a resolution to the conflict, much like fiction. The best stories include a protagonist, either hero or anti-hero, who the audience can relate to. The best stories in film speak to the human condition—war, love, life, death, heroism, tragedy, good and evil, redemption, human suffering, redemption, and so forth. Look at any classic film, and you will quickly realize it has a compelling story. For instance, Rocky is about the underdog who triumphs. Casablanca is about heroism, honour, and love that is lost. Taxi Driver is about a man who becomes a vigilante.

Sometimes, screenwriters rise from obscurity to write memorable stories. Other times, the screen writer is a renowned director. Woody Allen has been nominated 16 times for his screenplays and won an Oscar at 76 for his screenplay (Midnight in Paris) in 2011. Quentin Tarantino has written several screenplays and directed the films based on them. One of those films, Pulp Fiction, is considered a classic. Well-known for writing dramas, such as Inner Sanctum for radio, John Michael Hayes, penned the screenplay for the dramatic and memorable film, Rear Window, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though Hayes was nominated, he never won the Oscar for best writing/screenplay.

Sometimes a screenwriter collaborates with other “creative types” to write a great script for a film. Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941) with Orson Wells, was one of the highest paid screen writers according to the Internet Movie Database. He won the Oscar for Best screenplay in 1941. The American Film Institute, as well as many scholars and film critics identify this film Citizen Kane as the best classic of all time.

Some stories are compelling and classic- but they never win an Oscar for best screenplay. Taxi Driver is one of these films, which never won an Oscar for screen play or picture. According to Wikipedia “The film is regularly cited by critics, film directors, and audiences alike as one of greatest films of all time.” Another is Rocky, written by Sylvester Stallone. Although he was nominated for best writing and the film won Best Picture (1977), Stallone didn’t win the Oscar for best screenplay.

Skillful Directing

Filmmakers themselves often play a significant role in determining the success of a film. The director makes or contributes to many of the creative decisions, such as adding or altering details of a screenplay, where the film will be shot, how the actors will play a certain scene and speak the dialogue, what types of shots the cameraman will take, what types of special effects will be used, how each scene will be arranged and edited into a film. When the director has significant influence over the direction and vision of the film, as well as creates a body of work that reflects a particular style and vision, film scholars and film critics sometimes refer to the director as the author of the film or auteur. The director as “auteur” or author has a personal style, creative vision, technical competency, and creative control over the film, and body of work, which identifies him or her as great director.

Many classic films have been directed by the director who is deemed to be an autuer. For instance, John Ford for The Searchers, Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest. Martin Scorsese was the filmmaker for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but he didn’t win Oscar for best directing. Stanley Kubrick was the filmmaker for Dr. Strangelove and 2001 Space Odyssey. Steven Spielberg directed the classics Jaws and Schindler`s List.

Many classic films have been directed by people who never achieved auteur status. For instance, Mike Nichols directed The Graduate, which ranks 7th  on the best film of All-time by the Academy Film Institute (AFI). As well as Jonathan Demme directed Silence of the Lambs (1991), which is ranked ( 65th by AFI.  Sometimes the screenplay is based on an adaption of a novel. For instance, the screenplay for Midnight Cowboy (1969), was written by Waldo Salt, and based on the James Leo Herlihy novel with the same name.

Some films have become classics even though the director was never awarded an Oscar for Best Director. Neither John Ford, the filmmaker for The Searchers, or Orson Welles, who directed and starred in Citizen Kane, a film that many have judged to be best of all time by many, never won Oscar awards for their directing.

In recent years, some filmmakers have created memorable films that many moviegoers will desire to see again in the future. However, because the director and film have not stood the test of time, we cannot refer to these films as classics. Nor can we call the director an auteur. One filmmaker who comes to mind is Steve McQueen. He has directed three memorable films in recent years—Twelve Years a Slave (2014), Shame (2011), Hunger (2010).

Memorable Performances

All classic films include acting that is convincing and memorable, roles often played by the legends of Hollywood, such as Clarke Gable, Robert De Niro, Ingrid Bergman. In looking back, I have learned that Hollywood’s legends have starred in many of these classic films, including Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman in Casablanca, Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Robert Di Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. We also enjoy watching actors who play the role of the hero, who defeat the villain, who triumph over adversity. Sometimes, lesser lights give dazzling performances in memorable films, like Adrien Brody who won Best Actor in The Pianist for his convincing role as a Polish Jewish musician struggling to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War Two.

Many well-known actors have given great performances and never won an Oscar. For instance, Humphrey Bogart never won for his memorable performance in Casablanca, though he did win for his splendid performance in The African Queen (1951). Fred Astaire, who was the leading man and best on-screen- dancer in many of the memorable musicals of the 1930s never won an Oscar for his outstanding performances, though he did win an Honorary Award in 1970 for his artistic contribution to film. Barbara Stanwyck gave an unforgettable performance in Double Indemnity, was nominated for Best Actress, but never won for best performance. In fact, she was nominated four times, and never won an Academy Award, though she’s considered one the best Actresses of all-times. Like Astaire, she was awarded an Honorary in 1982 for her acting contributions to the big screen. Liam Neeson never won an Oscar for his performance as Oskar Schindler, who protected and then assisted Polish Jews in escaping the persecution of the Nazis. in Schindler`s List (1994). Every year, many actors give memorable performances, are nominated for Oscars— but never win.

Memorable Scenes

We remember classic movies because they include one or more great shots or scenes. They require the creative eye of the director, skillful performance of actors, talented cinematography by the camera man, and an appealing setting. A scene also includes a beginning, middle, and end. Actors play roles and often exchange dialogue. The scene is shot by a cameraman in a particular setting, either on location or in the studio. During the editing process, sound effects, a film score, and special effects, such as CGI (Computer –Generated Imagery), are added.

The shot or sequence of shots
Cinematography is often the most important element of a memorable scene. Cinematography includes film stock, such as black and white or colour; Lens choice, such as wide-angle; depth of field; the types of shot (long, medium, close-up…) and camera movements (panning, tilt, hand held); special effects, such as matte painting or CGI. We think of the film Saving Private Ryan for the technique of using a handheld camera. Titanic, which won an Oscar for cinematography, is remembered, in part, for the work done by Russell Carpenter in recreating nostalgia and sinking of the Titanic, and the people trying to survive in the icy water.

We consider some scenes memorable because of the acting and special effects. Jaws remains a classic because of the “the killer Shark,” which Director Stephen Spielberg created with props. Auteur, Stanley Kubrick, won an Oscar for visual special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film has many memorable scenes between Hal, the super computer on the spaceship, and Dave, the astronaut, especially the confrontation scene in which Dave requests Hal to open the Pod bay doors, but Hal refuses, and then says “goodbye.” In part, we remember Bonnie and Clyde for the final scene in which Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway, who play the villains, are gunned down by long barrage of bullets—the scene is presented on screen in slow motion. Most people who have watched the classic sci-fi Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, will always remember the chest-busting scene, in which a baby alien breaks through the chest of one of the astronauts (John Hurt), and then darts to a hiding place on the space ship. This film won an Oscar for best visual effects (1978).

Many Hollywood classics were shot in black and white, creating a nostalgic feel. For instance, Double Indemnity (1944), a crime thriller about murder, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and directed by Billy Wilder, is remembered for its many suspenseful moments of quintessential film noir. For instance, in the “confession scene,” MacMurray speaks into the recorder and confesses to killing a man. Many years later, after the dawn of colour film, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot Schindler’s List, in black and white, which makes the film seem like it was shot in a bygone era.

Memorable Dialogue, Sound Effects, and Film Score

Audiences prefer dialogue to silent pictures. That is why few people will tell you that a silent film is a classic, albeit Birth of a Nation (1916) a silent film is considered film scholars and by AFI (rated 46) to be a classic film. Memorable scenes include sound, such as dialogue, voice-over commentary by an off-screen narrator, sound effects like a squeaking door of barrage of gun fire, riveting film scores evoking a sad or delightful or suspenseful mood. Why is sound so important? It makes the shot or scene seem real, it adds a layer of realistic details, it creates mood for the story, such as nostalgic, sorrowful, dramatic, suspenseful, playful.

Classic film scenes often include memorable dialogue. The best dialogue is short and sparse and rhythmic. Norm Snider, author of How to Make Love to a Film, tells us that “no character speaks more than two or three lines” at any given line. Classic scenes often include a memorable, short exchange of dialogue between characters, such as the Goodbye scene, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca. Another type of dialogue is the voice-over commentary. One thinks of Citizen Kane.

And yet, dialogue is not essential for great scenes. In fact, many memorable scenes in film have only one or two lines of dialogue, followed by action and film score, or no dialogue at all. Instead the director creates the scene with the shot, action, and sound effects, especially the film score. One recalls of the Stormy Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, or the Shower scene in Psycho, or the Ambush scene in Bonnie and Clyde, or the Running scene in Rocky.

A memorable film score is often one of the elements of a classic scene. The film score provides background sound, creates a historical context, assists in developing a character, contributes to the mood or atmosphere of a film. Composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings injects a sombre and haunting mood into Platoon. Other memorable film scores include Richard Strauss’s theme song, which helped recreate the vastness of outer space and eerie mood in 2001 Space Odyssey. Bernhard Herrmann, who often collaborated with director Alfred Hitchcock, is best known for his composition for the film score of Psycho. Bill Conti composed the uplifting film score in Rocky. Most film lovers Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, running along the streets, up the steps, as the theme song plays in the background.


We judge films to be memorable and classic because they entertain us, perhaps with great acting, dramatic scene, awe-inspiring special effects, generating audience appeal. Classic films also motivate us to watch them again. The classic film also stands the test of time. Though time marches forward, though new films are made and we watch them at the cinema, though some become imbued into the psyche of our consciousness, and melded into popular culture, the best films continue to entertain us no matter what era they were created.

List of Classic Films
There are many classic films. The decision is personal. The American Film Institute has identified what it considers are the 100 Best films of all time. Here are some of the films that I enjoy watching over and over. ( Many have also been selected by The American Film Institute):

  • Citizen Kane
  • Casablanca
  • Double Indemnity
  • Key Lego
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Jaws
  • Rocky
  • God Father
  • Taxi Driver
  • Titanic
  • Rear Window
  • Vertigo
  • Psycho
  • 2001 Space Odyssey
  • The Pianist
  • Platoon
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Schindler’s List
  • Alien

Further Reading on Classic Films:


  • The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook
  • The American Film Institute Desk Reference
  • Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
  • Film: A Critical Introduction by Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis
  • How to Make Love to a Film by Norm Snider 



About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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