The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down

13 March 2010

Or How James Garner Learned To Stop Worrying And Think About Film Titles For A Whole Term

Thackeray, striking on the title Vanity Fair late one night, leapt from his bed, ran seven times around his room, and screamed his delight to the world. Clearly he knew the importance of a good title. In Hollywood, where millions can be made and lost on a single release, studios have always known that titles are their first line of attack on the public consciousness.

Stories about titling wrangles are legion, from DeMille’s 1919 adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton becoming Male and Female (the producers didn’t think a naval picture would sell) to Brad Pitt’s contractual clause which necessitated the keeping of the original title for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, much to the dismay of marquee changers.

Exactly what makes a good title is rather elusive. Dr. Atai Winkler, surveying the New York Times bestseller lists from 1955-2005 proclaimed Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder that period’s most commercially appealing title. I have no idea how he concluded that either. From my own extensive research I can reveal this: some things just sound cool.

My top recommendation is place names, which conjure exoticism and escape, even if the whole thing was shot on a sound stage at Warner’s. The king of place names is surely Shanghai, which gives us Shanghai Express, The Lady from Shanghai and, err, Shanghai Noon.

Other pleasing place names are Baghdad (The Thief of Bagdad, Siren of Bagdad) and the fanciful Zanzibar (West of Zanzibar, The Road to Zanzibar): would anyone have heard of that Tanzanian province if it didn’t roll so easily off the tongue?

That brings us to Casablanca. Here, the positive associations of the film are hard to shake. It is a great title but too derivative of the 1938 Charles Boyer vehicle Algiers (from which the film took plenty too) to make the cut.

Indeed, associations dog this exercise. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening sounds shit, because it is, but I can’t help but feel that in another world it was the inspired choice for a rockabilly horror flick. And what about those titles which fit their films like a glove – is that really enough? Perhaps no better example exists than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a title as divisive as the film itself. Incidentally, it’s a terrible title.

There are also the associations of stars. Any Marlene Dietrich title which brings her impossible glamour to mind came into contention: The Blue Angel, The Lady is Willing, Blonde Venus, A Foreign Affair. It’s easy to be fooled by glamour; some even reckon Dietrich’s 1932 effort Shanghai Express has a good title. Fortunately I managed to see through this bias, and then put a Garbo film in there anyway.

Then there’s French. Everything sounds better in French. ‘Beauty of the Day’ becomes Belle de Jour, ‘A Woman is a Woman’ becomes Une Femme est Une Femme, Jules and Jim becomes Jules et Jim. That was a joke; a third example would have been superfluous.

The opposite is Swedish. Ingmar Bergmann was a master of titles but even a brilliant effort like ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ comes out in his native tongue as Sommarnattens leende. Ouch.

If any genre can do titles it’s noir. Here follow just a few of the best: They Live by Night, Touch of Evil, Build My Gallows High and Murder, My Sweet. What counts against them is that they’re all very noir, and very kitsch. If you like kitsch there’s always Russ Meyer (practically a genre in himself) and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

One activity which consistently lends itself to great titles is dancing: Last Tango in Paris, Swing Time, Dancer in the Dark. Through the titling device of metaphor pretty much any film can get a nifty dance related title, even if its focus is muscular dystrophy (Inside I’m Dancing), repressed homosexuality in a traditional Italian family (Mambo Italiano) or blood-drinking ghosts (Danza Macabra).

I think we’ve learnt a lot. For titling purposes the ideal film would be a noir featuring Marlene Dietrich dancing in an exotic setting. And it should be in French. Now, that’s quite a few elements to summate and this perfect title can’t be too long. Hmm, what would it be? Ah, I think I’ve got it: L’Happening. Hmm, Sleeping Murder is pretty great too…

The top 20 film titles

1. Broken Blossoms (1919)

Two words which should never meet. Adapted from a short story called The Chink and the Child.

2. Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Created a box office buzz from its title alone. Samuel L. Jackson: “That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title.”

3. High Noon (1952)

4. Brief Encounter (1945)

Great title. Great tagline: “A story of the most precious moments in woman’s life!”

5. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

6. Deliverance (1972)

7. The Public Enemy (1931)

8. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

9. La Dolce Vita (1960)

10. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Banal on first glance but then you realise its glorious melancholy.

11. Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Impossibly Catholic.

12. We Were Soldiers (2002)

Beats out They Died with Their Boots On as the most romantic military title.

13. Grease (1978)

An incredibly bold choice of title. It captures both its eras – the 50s and adolescence – with fricative economy.

14. You Got Served (2004)

15. Triumph des Willens (1934)

Impossibly Fascist.

16. The Sun Also Rises (1957)

17. It (1927)

Sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963 but Clara Bow had It in 1927. Further reading: the it-girl.

18. The Quick and the Dead (1995)

19. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

20. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

…and the bottom five

1. Feeling Minnesota (1996)

You know when I said place names were good? Well, there are exceptions. By the way, this is no B-movie, even if it does star Cameron Diaz and Keanu Reeves.

2. The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

You haven’t heard of this Alec Guinness spy flick, penned by Harold Pinter? Probably because it was called The Quiller Memorandum.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Hollywood lore says that the title to this now much loved prison weepie was one of the reasons for its box-office failure. I can believe that.

4. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness wasn’t blessed. The lesson: when titling a comedy about a murderous poor relation on his way to a Dukedom…don’t reach for Tennyson.

5. The Sand Pebbles (1966)

An existentialist drama about the insignificance of existence or a big-budget navy film starring Steve McQueen as a rebellious shipmate? The latter, incredibly.