8 Movies we like to pretend we've seen

James Oliver

We've all done it: there you are, chatting about movies and you find yourself holding forth about something you haven't actually seen.

It's easily done. The best-known movies pass into the cultural bloodstream; we can become familiar enough through clips and the parodies (take a bow, The Simpsons). Why would you actually bother to watch the entire flick?

Well, there's usually a solid reason for a film to become a "classic", and that reason can't be boiled down to quotable lines and iconic moments; their full glories won't reveal themselves until you see them for yourself. 

Citizen Kane 

What is it: There are those who'd call it The Best Film Ever Made; Orson Welles' debut charts the life of a media mogul from childhood to death.

Why you should see it: Certainly not because it's The Best Film Ever Made; that's a terrible reason—what film could possibly live up to those expectations?

No, you should watch it because it's really good. Even in his first film, Welles knew how to hold his audience's attention—he always was a showman—and never lets things get dull: it's far more enjoyable than you might expect The Greatest Film Ever Made to be. So, forget it's a masterpiece—and then you'll realise it is one.

The Godfather 

What is it: Taken from a pulp novel about the mafia, this stately, operatic film was a huge success. But not everyone has been tempted: it's the film that British people most often pretend to have seen, according to one survey.

Why you should see it: Oh, man—popular cinema doesn't come better than The Godfather (except, maybe, The Godfather Part II). Whatever the elevated themes that Francis Ford Coppola brought to the film—highbrows will tell you it's all about corruption in America—he kept close enough to Mario Puzo's original page-turner to hold interest throughout. What's more, he cast it to perfection, insisting on Marlon Brando and an unknown called Al Pacino in the face of studio objections. Endlessly watchable, this is an offer you can't refuse (or shouldn't, at any rate).


What is it: Pretty much the most renowned Hollywood classic there is. Even those who haven't seen it probably think they have.

Why you should see it: Because there's much more to Casablanca than the greatest hits. Yes, it's ram-packed with famous lines—"Play it again Sam", and all that—but so is Hamlet, and there's a whole lot more to Shakespeare's play than "To be or not to be".

Besides, Casablanca is much more fun than Hamlet, so it doesn't feel like homework. There's romance, excitement and humour: this really is one of those films they don't make 'em like anymore. What's more, once you've seen it, you can turn into one of those irritating so-and-so's who insist on pointing out that Bogart doesn't actually say "Play it again Sam".

Singin' in the Rain 

What is it: De-de-de-de—de-de-de-de-de-de—come one! Join in!—de-de-de-de-de-de—de-de-de-de-de-de—de-de-de-de-de-de et cetera.

Why you should see it: The Hollywood musical is having a bit of a moment right now, what with the success of La La Land. Singin' in the Rain is the very best of the breed, not to mention one of the most purely pleasurable movies ever made—it's not just the song 'n' dance routines that are perfect: there's joy in every single moment. Only to be avoided if you have some sort of weird aversion to pleasure.

North by Northwest

What is it: The distilled essence of Hitchcock, the chase thriller to end all chase thrillers.

Why you should see it: Alfred Hitchcock is one of Hollywood's very greatest directors and this finds him at the very top of his game. Cary Grant is the innocent ad-man who gets tangled up with an international spy ring and gets chased from pillar to post—hunted on a train, buzzed by a crop duster, pursued across Mount Rushmore.

For all the acclaim that Hitchcock gets from the critics for his more serious work (like Vertigo), he was at heart an entertainer, never more so than here. This is a perfect film. There's simply nothing wrong with it.

La Dolce Vita 

What is it: Aka, "The movie about that woman taking a dip in the fountain". Made in 1960, this was the first sign that the next ten years would be rather more lively than the decade just gone.

Why you should see it: Famously scandalous in its day—it gave the Vatican a fit of the vapours—Federico Fellini's film looks rather more tame these days. But its themes are more relevant than ever, sadly: it was the first great dissection of celebrity culture, and diagnosed both its appeal and the essential hollowness of its heart. It is a far wiser—and far more moral—film than the Vatican ever realised.

The Great Escape 

What it is: A POW escape drama most famous for its theme tune, and for its ubiquity—it isn't really shown on television every bank holiday; it just feels like it.

Why you should see it: It's easy to joke about The Great Escape, and easier still to whistle a few bars of Elmer Bernstein's magnificent score. But all that makes it too easy to forget what an exceptional piece of work this is. It's a long film but not a moment is wasted, as Steve McQueen, miscellaneous British character actors and James Coburn doing a heroically bad Australian accent do their damnedest to get out of Nazi captivity. We've got a few bank holidays coming up soon: you really should check it out.

The Seventh Seal 

What is it: Famous for the image of a knight playing chess with death, this is one of the movies that convinced the world that movies could be more than "just" entertainment.

Why you should see it: Back in the day, The Seventh Seal was one of the first "art house" blockbusters; young men and women in black polo-necks would sit around drinking frothy coffee pondering What It Meant. Predictably, that made it a target for mockery, and its reputation waned—especially as the high seriousness that director Ingmar Bergman specialised in fell from favour.

As you will have guessed by its inclusion here, it deserves much better. Set in the plague-ridden middle ages, it does indeed deal with a knight haunted by death, metaphorically and literally. But don't worry about What It Means: it isn't a puzzle to be solved—it doesn't matter if you understand it, just surrender to Bergman's images, and let it get under your skin. So dig out your black polo-neck and get stuck in...