5 classic films to watch this autumn

Autumn is here and with the coronavirus pandemic still very much a part of all our lives, social restrictions and remote working mean the next six months might look different from how you originally planned.

Thankfully, as the Zoom quizzes and Netflix film nights of the initial UK lockdown taught us, technology is on hand to help. If you’re looking for some classic films to relax with this autumn, here are five of the best to buy or stream right now.

1. Bicycle Thieves (1949)

Vittorio De Sica’s 1949 Oscar-winner is a ground-breaking work of Italian neorealism. Starring two first-time actors in the main roles, the film is an understated drama made all the more moving by its documentary-like depiction of poverty.

When Antonio (played by Lamberto Maggiorani) is offered a job hanging film posters he must decline the offer, despite having a wife and two children to support. The job requires the use of a bicycle and his is at the pawn shop.

Antonio’s wife, Maria, offers her dowry bedsheets as payment and Antonio retrieves his bicycle, only to have it stolen during his first day on the job. Heartbroken, Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search the streets of post-war Rome for the missing bike.

As the search continues and the reality of a return to unemployment weighs heavy, Antonio becomes increasingly desperate.

Bicycle Thieves (also translated as The Bicycle Thief) is available to buy or rent through BFI Player.

2. Double Indemnity (1944)

Another black and white classic from the 1940s, Double Indemnity is the archetypal film noir. Directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay co-written with Raymond Chandler, the film is based on the novel by James M Cain.

Fred MacMurray stars as insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who falls for femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwick. The ‘Double Indemnity’ of the title refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the pay-out where death is deemed accidental.

Fated to end badly, the tension, dialogue, and crime caper double-crosses are all present and correct; as is a heart and humanity, even amongst the most unlikely of characters.

3. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1967, In the Heat of the Night, stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder case in Mississippi.

Wrongfully arrested on sight upon his arrival, Tibbs experiences racism from the start of the investigation, confronting it head-on and refusing to leave town when warned it is in his best interests, convinced he can solve the murder.

With outstanding performances from Poitier and Rod Steiger as Chief Gillespie (Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar for the role) and a soundtrack by Quincy Jones, the film remains a classic, its message as pertinent as ever.

4. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Sidney Lumet’s career began with 12 Angry Men and would see him nominated for four Best Direct Oscars, although he failed to win any of them.

Better known for 12 Angry Men and later classics such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, he arguably never assembled a better cast than for his 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

When the train of the title is stopped by an avalanche and a body discovered, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave are among the passengers who come under the suspicion of Albert Finney’s Poirot.

Recently remade by Kenneth Branagh, Lumet’s version remains the definitive one, and one of the best of the over thirty adaptations of Christie made for the big screen. 

5. Alien (1979)

The most recent film on our list, Alien marked only the second time behind the camera for British director, Ridley Scott, and his first foray into science fiction. His next film would be the equally influential Bladerunner.

Famously pitched by its scriptwriters as ‘Jaws in Space,’ this taut and atmospheric horror film stars Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Warrant Officer of the spaceship Nostromo. On intercepting a distress signal, the ship lands on a seemingly deserted moon to investigate.

There they find a crashed alien ship and soon discover the intercepted signal wasn’t a distress call at all, but a warning.

The film’s co-stars include John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and the alien itself, designed by H. R. Geiger. Their work on the film won Geiger and his team the 1979 Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

A classic of British science fiction, it’s also a cat and mouse thriller, and an edge-of-your-seat horror film. It’s also Jim’s favourite movie!