30 April 2009

I Need a Good Title For this Post...How About Ferris Bueller's Year of Living Dangerously?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or so said a young lady named Juliet. But what'd she know? She was a teenager who took her own life.

But is the sentiment true of films? Would The Godfather be as good a film if called The Fighting Corleones? Or would The Searchers be the same film if named Looking For Debbie? How about if It's A Wonderful Life was The Incredible George Bailey? Yeah, as a matter of fact they probably would be.

A good or bad title is ultimately far less important than the work of the movie's editor, costume designer or even the key grip. Still a good title can pique your interest almost as much as the film's trailer. Some films even live up to their titles. It's also nice when a title gives us a notion of what the film is about. I much admired the film for which Halle Berry won her Oscar, Monster's Ball (2001). But the meaning of the title had to be explained and had little to do with the movie. There's no such ambiguity with a title like Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Here are some movies I admire that have excellent titles.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Frank Johnson's Day Off would be a good title. But Ferris Bueller? Unforgettable. Both first and last names are quirky and mark the film as something special. Also the title tells us a lot about what we're about to see. Ferris Bueller is in fact going to take the day off. And what a day!

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). This is a weird title. It translates to: 12 months of existing in peril. Hmmm, still weird. But the deal is, that's largely what the movie about. A guy living in danger for a year. Great title, great film. Peter Weir directed and Mel Gibson starred.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). It's an ironic title because the main character is neither a hero (least not the kind we expect) nor a conqueror. Eddie Bracken played the hero. Preston Sturges wrote and directed. Our hero was first hailed then fell out favor before being hailed again.

Do the Right Thing (1989). Big plus right off the bat, it's a quote from Malcolm X. It also is the theme of the movie, for Malcolm's full quote was "you've got to do the right thing." That's your film right there. Spike Lee wrote and directed and I'd bet a nickle he conceived the title.

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). He was indeed a fugitive from a chain gang. He was real and on the lam when the movie about his life hit theaters. Those facts add even more to the power of the title. Of course the immediacy of the title "I am" is powerful all by itself. Paul Muni starred, Mervin LeRoy directed and it's this Saturday's TCM essential.

If... (1968). You'll note that virtually all the titles on this list are long. Here's one of the shortest titles of any film ever. Of course the ellipse is what makes it. We immediately wonder "if what?" The title is intriguing and remains so after watching the movie. It suggests possibility, choices. From Lindsay Anderson, made a star of Malcolm McDowell.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Because of my sports affiliations I've often joked that I wished the movie were instead called, 49ers of the Lost Ark. Be that as it may, it's a title that gets your attention. I remember when I first heard it I wondered what the hell a lost ark was and who a raider of it would be. Sounded cool though. The subsequent sequels all had mundane titles.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). We knowing going in that a man named Liberty Valance is going to be shot. We also know that his death will be important. We don't know who did the shooting, but whoever it is must be a person of significance. Again, if the title was The Man Who Shot Frank Johnson, not so good. But Liberty Valance? I'm in.

The Trouble with Harry (1955). Harry is dead and the fact of his corpse lying out there in front of one and all is a real problem. So the title is perfect and the movie just about is, too. A dark comedy from Alfred Hitchcock. Cast includes Jerry Mathers in his pre Beaver Cleaver days. (Photo above.)

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). They don't? Who says? That's an odd title. Then you see the movie and think, "yeah, that makes sense." Not that there are any dead guys in plaid that I can recall. From the mind of Carl Reiner. Steve Martin starred.

Along Came Jones (1945). We gotta figure that there's some bloke named Jones who is going to show up somewhere at some point and either be eagerly anticipated or make a real splash. Gary Cooper was Jones and get this, his first name was Melody. Melody Jones. How cool is that? Loretta Young and William Demarest also featured. Great title, Great cast.

Callaway Went Thataway (1951). Okay, full disclosure. Never seen it. Guess I'll have to now. I just love the title. It rhymes! It has the word thataway in it! Come on! That's a fantastic title. I see where it's going to be on TCM on May 11. I'll set the DVR now.

Okay, so what are some of your favorite film titles?


Kate Gabrielle said...

What a great idea for a post! I'm going to let this stew, and come back tomorrow with my favorite titles... this is the kind of thing you need to fall asleep thinking about!

Christopher55 said...

Cool column, Richard. Here are some of my favorites titles that would have intrigued me before I even knew what the movie was about:

Angels with Dirty Faces
Con Air
Forbidden Planet
The Rocketeer
Shakespeare in Love
Touch of Evil
True Lies
Young Frankenstein

Richard Hourula said...

Good choices, especially Forbidden Planet and Aracnophobia.

Skitch said...

Killer Klowns From Outer Space ;)
Heaven Can Wait
Ruthless People

Two titles of great films that did NOT work at all at the box office (oddly enough both starring Tim Robbins):
The Shawshank Redemption
The Hudsucker Proxy

Drew said...

There Will Be Blood
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Children of a Lesser God
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
The Last Temptation of Christ

Anonymous said...

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This Is Spinal Tap
Beetle Juice

Elan said...

You continue to write the best individual movie blog out there. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Ice Cold in Alex

Anonymous said...

I'd have a much easier time picking worst titles. But I'll give some credit to "Chariots of Fire," which sounds better than the movie is IMO.

I *would* include "Crash" (2005), except that there was already a famous movie by that title, so it gets confusing.

Then there are some titles that you might say are good by virtue of being especially bad. "Snakes on a Plane" comes to mind, as does "The Incredibly Strange People Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?"

J. Skinner said...

Some great titles:

"Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"


"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"

"Life of Brian"

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

"Good Night, and Good Luck"

"The Hills Have Eyes"

"There Will Be Blood"

Frank Johnson said...

sniff...that hurt...

Guy Naamati said...

What Dreams may Come

Not a great movie, but a terrific title, taken from Hamlet:

"For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"

Wesley B said...

What about "3 oclock high"? Atypical 80's teen movie, refreshingly void of John Hughes, Casey Siemaszko's first biggie, Richard Tyson in one of the most fearsome baddies ever to grace the screen. Ultimately relegated to underground status but it impacted me in my formative years like no other

daniel said...

Through a Glass, Darkly
The Conversation
Letters From Iwo Jima
Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
L.A. Confidential
American History X
The Usual Suspects

daniel said...

Through a Glass, Darkly
The Conversation
Letters From Iwo Jima
Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
L.A. Confidential
American History X
The Usual Suspects

Wesley B said...

What about "3 oclock high"? This movie really succeeded despite John Hughes' influence (thankfully) and the lack of brat-packers was refreshing. Casey Siemaszko was perfect for the scared nerd turned nothing-to-lose corned mouse and Richard Tyson was menacing to say the least as Buddy Revell. Plenty of dark humor, especially the scene in the science class when the film showing larger animals eating the smaller ones is playing. This film influenced my young mind and is a great example of forgotten film techniques that "Hollow"wood would be wise to resurrect.

Deborah said...

I'm inordinately fond of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

I hate movie titles easily confused with other movies. "State of Play," "Out of Sight," "No Way Out," "Someone Like You." All those movies I have to describe by cast and plot because the titles blur together.

Westerns tend to blur together. Some of my favorite Westerns have utterly forgettable titles and I'll see a TCM listing and not know if I've seen it: "Bend of the River," "Man of the West," "The Gunfighter."

Other good titles:
Four Weddings and a Funeral
My Life as a Dog
Winchester '76
Look Back in Anger

Anonymous said...

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in the West

Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is NEVER supposed to have the words "Indiana Jones and the..." preceding it!!!)

Turner said...

"The Year of Living Dangerously" has always been my favorite movie title!
As titles go, I've always felt that Spike Lee should have kept the title "A Love Supreme" instead of "Mo Better Blues". I bet he would have made another 10 mil at the boxoffice!

MediaOkra said...

You forgot "The Dark Knight." That one is obvious.

A good example recently of a dull title is "State of Play." It doesn't stand out on a billboard.

Anonymous said...

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Full Metal Jacket & Eyes Wide Shut

Kevin said...


I think very few movies come as close to titular perfection as that. Awesome movie on it's own, but what else could it have possibly been called? What other title would have been so unique yet fitting yet ambiguous yet catchy? It raised the movie, and phrase it self, to a cultural iconic level.

John T said...


Hands down. Brilliant title.

Mad Duck said...

Nobody's thought of The People Under the Stairs?

Now, Voyager
The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone
Rebel Without a Cause
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
American Graffiti
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
A Fish Called Wanda
Four Weddings and a Funeral

and a guilty favorite: Nude for Satan

milo said...

It doesn't relate exactly with the post, but a lot of movies from Hollywood had they title changed... and sometimes they're ridicule. For example, "Juno" is called "The Young Life of Juno". Not that "Juno" is or isn't a great title, but why change it when you don't need to?

Anonymous said...

"Medium Cool" is definitely my favorite.

Logan said...

Shaun of the Dead: His name is Shaun, and Dead [People] are involved, but is Shaun Dead? No. Therefore, Great title.

The 40-Year Old Virgin: Straight to the point.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: Again, straight to the point.

The Thing: It's significantly better than calling it "Alien in Antarctica", isn't it?

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford: BEST...TITLE...EHH-VAH.

I Spit on Your Grave: Clever title...I presume it's something that might happen to me someday.

Anonymous said...

A Scanner Darkly
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Requiem for a Dream
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Fight Club

And as for who said, "Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is NEVER supposed to have the words "Indiana Jones and the..." preceding it!!!)"

Thank you!

Adrian said...


it's just mindblowing.it's 10 times better than the movie.and the movie was pretty darn good.but i mean,come on,ROCKNROLLA!!!!

Anonymous said...

The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang?

Jimmy said...

I Am Legend. Just saying it makes you feel powwerful

mike weber/fairportfan said...

I see i wasn't the first to think of "Once Upon a Time in the West"; of course, there's also "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".

Meanwhile, responding to another comment - isn't it "Winchester '73"?

T-Arsch said...

I was always intrigued by the German title
Fontane - Effi Briest oder: Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen.

I would translate it to
Effi Briest or: Many who have a notion of their abilities and needs, and nevertheless accept the current regime in their minds through their deeds, and therefore stabilize and pretty much affirm it
(as in the German title the syntax is purposely incorrect).

Rak said...

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a great title.

Anonymous said...

A Clockwork Orange

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Road Warrior

J said...

Half Past Dead.

Sure, it's an especially terrible Seagal film, but come on, probably the best film title ever.

PlaidBuford said...

I'll bet no one has heard of this movie, let alone seen it, but Richard Linklater made a film before Slacker called

You Can't Learn to Plow by Reading a Book.

It's on the Criterion Collection edition of Slacker.

Daniel said...

Ghost World, Chinatown, Kill Bill, Raging Bull, In Bruges, Taxi Driver, 3:10 to Yuma, Blood Simple, Get Shorty, The Passenger, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Rififi, Batman Begins, The Night of the Hunter and Three Kings are all good movies with good titles.

Duck, You Sucker, on the other hand is inferior to Once Upon a Time...the Revolution or A Fistful of Dynamite. Hard Eight makes much less sense than PTA's choice of Sydney. Quantum of Solace is a strange title even by James Bond standards. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is better than Tomb Raider 2, but still overlong and unimaginative.

Todd said...

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Run Lola Run
The Replacement Killers
And Then There Were None
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
The Sweet Hereafter
Every Which Way But Loose
The Wrath of Kahn
The Big Lebowski

Anonymous said...


Eyes Wide Shut

Days of Heaven

Anonymous said...

Apocalypse Now

Kate Gabrielle said...

Okay, I stewed on this for a few days (and in the mean time you seem to have had a gazillion replies to this post!) and my favorite movie title is one that was never actually used --

The Man in Lincoln's Nose

(Which, I'm sure you know, became North by Northwest)

Fusion! said...

STAR WARS anyone? Ok,
The Breakfast Club
The Increadibles
Pulp Fiction
Litte Miss Sunshine
The Dark Knight
Death at a Funeral

Anonymous said...

The year my voice broke
Disco pigs
Vanity Fair
Dog soldiers (hidden gem, go see it)
Hideous kinky
Gosford park
They shoot horses, don't they?
The wisdom of crocodiles (just because it makes no sense whatsoever)
Tipping the velvet (Don't know what it means? go look it up)

megan said...

Das Boot - all time fave one to say and or yell loudly at people.
how to lose friends and alienate people - is the most recent movie i watched based off of title alone.
As someone who frequently judges a movie by it's title ( and books by their cover for that matter) you would think I could make a good list... but sadly i did not inherit those skills from you.