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Short but Sweet: The Ten Best American Movies Under 90 Minutes

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I found it interesting (if not particularly surprising) that the top box office performers of the last several decades have tended to be longer movies.

For example, blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings series clock in at about three hours per installment, while Avatar and The Dark Knight Rises are both well over the two and a half hour mark.

IMDB did a study suggesting that average movie run times have been increasing pretty much from the start.

Simply by calculating the average length for each decade's top 50 movies, the trend was obvious: from a trim 96 minutes in the thirties, to 109 minutes in the forties, to 114 minutes in the fifties, to 125 minutes in the sixties. (Thank you, David Lean!)

The current record -- a whopping 129 minutes -- was set in the eighties, has stayed pretty much constant since, and shows no signs of declining.

The answer to that obvious question -- "is more actually less?" -- depends on the genre, the specific film, and one's personal taste for both.

That said, with home viewing on the rise, there's something very attractive about tighter, leaner titles that manage to tell their story in under 90 minutes.

Here's why: let's say it's a weeknight, you've just had dinner, you feel relaxed, satisfied and just a little tired. At a moment like this, there's no way you're going to invest your attention in a movie that runs 160 minutes.

But what about something that's maybe about half that length? Now that you might consider.

Having felt this way myself more than once, I decided to compile my own top ten list of American movies running under 90 minutes.

Oh, you're thinking -- these will all be comedies and animated films... well, for the purposes of this piece, I'm just considering live-action films, as quite a few Disney classics do indeed come in at well under 90 minutes. (And much as I love Dumbo, I doubt I'll want to watch it again this fall with just my wife present.)

And while comedies are certainly well represented on this list (reminder to Hollywood: they do lend themselves to brevity), you'll also find dramas, westerns, war films, horror and suspense. A smorgasbord!

No surprise -- given the trends outlined above -- most of these gems are older films.
Still, with titles of this caliber, age hardly matters. Trust me: the (shorter) time will fly as you watch one of these gems.

And lo and behold: you'll be in bed, with the lights out, by ten.

Duck Soup (1933, 68 mins.) -- It seems there's only one man who can lead the country of Freedonia away from fiscal ruin and a disastrous war with neighboring Sylvania: Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Surely he'd save the day if it weren't for the crazy machinations of Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), who constantly spoil his plans. But precisely what are his plans? They seem to involve rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), whose large fortune could certainly ease the pressure in his chaotic administration. Considered by many to be the Marx Brothers' greatest film, "Duck Soup" remains must viewing. An unmitigated delight for grown-ups, even if your children are too young to catch all the rapid-fire dialogue, they're sure to enjoy the physical humor and prevailing sense of anarchy. On one level a biting denunciation of war and fascism, the movie also stands as a masterpiece of absurdist comedy. Hail! Hail! Freedonia! And "Duck Soup", for that matter.

The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935, 75 mins.) -- Having somehow managed to survive a deadly windmill fire, the sad, confused Monster (Boris Karloff) bolts off into the European countryside. Meanwhile, his disillusioned creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) reluctantly assists his demanding, demented mentor, the booze-guzzling Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), in a mad plan to create a female companion for the rampaging creature. But Monster and Bride, they will eventually learn, just weren't meant to be. James Whale's brilliant, wonderfully cheeky sequel to "Frankenstein" managed to equal its predecessor in terms of tone and originality, while adding sly barbs of humor. Apart from Whale's clever, offbeat direction, the film's success is due to the marvelous cast of eccentrics: Thesiger's weird, malevolent turn as Dr. Pretorius, Dwight Frye's nutty hunchback, and the mesmerizing Elsa Lanchester, playing both author Mary Shelley in the prologue, and the shrieking Bride in a now-iconic white streaked fright wig. Then, of course, there's Karloff, whose sad, tragic attempts to speak and connect with others simply underscore his tortured pathos. Wed yourself to the morbidly endearing "Bride."

The Bank Dick (1940, 72 mins.) -- Egbert Souse (W.C Fields), with an "accent grave over the "e'", is a hen-pecked tippler who spends most his time hiding out at the Black Pussycat Café (read: Saloon). When he inadvertently foils a robbery, Egbert is hired as guard for the local bank. Complications ensue when Egbert convinces fellow bank employee and prospective son-in-law Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) to embezzle funds to invest in a beefsteak mine. Then the bank examiner (Franklin Pangborn) shows up! Even when the chips are down, Souse will go to most any lengths to save the day. Though his work is not to everyone's taste, we view Fields as a comic genius right alongside Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. Along with his classic "It's A Gift", "The Bank Dick" remains his most sustained piece of hilarity. A brisk outing at just over 70 minutes, the film is full of priceless Fieldsian dialogue, and strikes just the right balance between nutty plot intrigue and broad slapstick. A "must" for comedy fans- and you can take that to the bank! (Trivia note: look fast for fourth "Stooge" Shemp Howard playing a bartender.)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, 75 mins.) -- It's Nevada, circa 1885, and exhausted cowhands Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) have just rolled into a small town to get some rest. But the place is anything but peaceful, with rustling a recurring problem. It seems a respected rancher has just been murdered, his cattle stolen. A horde of outraged townspeople assembles a posse, then find the three men they believe to be guilty. Hungry for swift justice, the citizens decide to hang the men immediately without trial, prevailing over more reasonable souls, including Gil and Art. But have they hung innocent men? William A. Wellman's tense, hard-hitting drama about the ignorance of mob justice, remains as relevant to the treatment of all dispossessed people- including blacks in the twentieth century South- as to the prevailing conditions on the nineteenth century western frontier. Fonda is superb as Carter, chief dissenting witness to the event, and look for Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in early roles as two of the condemned men. Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, this is a top western from one of Hollywood's most seasoned directors. Don't miss it.

Laura (1944, 88 mins.) -- Assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of lovely Laura (Gene Tierney), hard-boiled homicide detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) cross-examines those who may have had a motive: besotted columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wealthy playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and his lover, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) -- Laura's aunt. Strangely drawn to Laura himself, now present only in the form of an oil portrait, Mark can't help falling in love with the dead girl. Then, late one night, in walks the beauty herself! Otto Preminger's impeccable murder-mystery is in many ways the standard against which all other noirs tend to be judged. Eerie and smart, with lots of deliciously twisted feints and counter-feints around the central questions of murder, blackmail, and poisonous passion, "Laura" is a marvel of confounding revelations. Add to that a superb cast: Tierney, enchanting as always, as the lust object; Andrews as a cop with a weakness for beauty; Price as an effeminate rogue; Webb as a prissy critic with a viper's tongue; and Anderson as Laura's scheming, jealous aunt. Preminger's stylish touch and confident direction earned this clever, mesmerizing whodunit five Oscar nods-and movie lovers' eternal admiration.

High Noon (1952, 88 mins.) -- Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is set to retire with his young Quaker bride Amy (Grace Kelly) when word comes that outlaw Frank Miller is arriving on the noon train to settle an old score with Kane (he put Miller away). In fact, three of Miller's accomplices are already awaiting his arrival there. Everyone, including Amy, tells Kane to leave, but he knows he can't. When Will asks his supposed friends and neighbors to stand beside him against the fierce Miller, everyone turns him down. As the clock ticks its way towards noon, Kane realizes he must face the outlaws alone. Fred Zinnemann's stark revenge tale, told in real time, packs enough intensity into eighty minutes to carry two movies. It's suspenseful in the extreme, but also a morality tale, powerful in its simplicity, about the courage to make difficult, principled choices, even when those around you take the easy way out. This offers obvious parallels to the prevailing McCarthyism of the time (writer Carl Foreman was indeed blacklisted), but symbolism aside, this remains a trim, altogether brilliant western, with veteran star Cooper creating the quintessential authentic Western hero.

Paths Of Glory (1957, 88 mins.) -- During the brutal days of the First World War, aloof French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his deputy, General Mireau (George Macready) to have his men mount a virtual suicide mission to take a well-defended German position. Even if casualties are high, the French may gain a few feet of ground, and Mireau might get a promotion. When the soldiers ultimately retreat in the deadly attack, Broulard orders that three be selected at random to face charges of cowardice, for which the sentence is death. Guilt-ridden and seething with injustice, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the soldiers' commander, defends the group in the court martial proceedings. As the trial begins, the deck is already stacked against them. How can justice prevail out of injustice? Few films expose the insanity of war more starkly than "Paths", as we contrast the behavior of cosseted armchair generals with the horrific plight of common infantry soldiers -- pawns in an obscene political game, to be sacrificed on the front lines of a pointless war. We share Douglas' righteous fury at the plight of his men as the rushed sham of a trial progresses. Kirk is fabulous as the tortured Dax, and both Menjou and Macready also shine in unsympathetic roles. A small, potent masterpiece from director Kubrick, this disturbing anti-war film hasn't aged a bit.

Love and Death (1975, 85 mins.) -- Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the self-proclaimed Russian intellectual and confirmed coward Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) adores his beautiful cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), but for some reason she only has eyes for Boris's mind. Caught up in wartime fervor, Sonja finally agrees to marry him, then enlists Boris in a daring scheme to assassinate Napoleon. Of course, all these shenanigans only serve to confirm the utter futility of human existence-but hey, it's better than being dead! Director/writer/star Allen hits dizzying comedic heights in this zany spoof of Russian literature, filled with allusions that never lessen the prevailing hilarity. Keaton is fabulous here as well, building on her distinctively ditzy persona as the idealistic but scattered Sonja. Populated with assorted other colorful types, "Love" is consistently sidesplitting- it may just be Allen's funniest. The film also benefits from European locations (yes-Woody actually left New York to shoot this-a rare occurrence back then.) Don't miss that opera scene!

This Is Spinal Tap! (1984, 82 mins.) -- Tracing the life and times of a hapless, aging heavy-metal band touring America for the first time in years to support its new album "Smell the Glove," director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) spends time on the road with Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), as the bandmates relive their past glories, squabble about their present lack of popularity, and find themselves in one humiliating situation after another. Brilliantly parodying the bloated excesses of the rock lifestyle, and gently poking fun at Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz," director Reiner invented a new genre -- the "mockumentary" -- with this gut-busting spoof. Not enough can be said about the comedic talents of Guest, McKean, and Shearer, whose outrageous songwriting ("Big Bottom Girls," "Stonehenge") and improvisational dialogue ("Wot's wrong with being sexy?") are so convincing that many viewers thought Spinal Tap was a real act. Seen once or 30 times, "Spinal Tap" is relentlessly, ingeniously funny.

Stand By Me (1986, 89 mins.) -- In the summer of 1959, four preteen boys -- brainy Gordie (Wil Wheaton), troubled Teddy (Corey Feldman), overweight Vern (Jerry O'Connell), and brooding leader Chris (River Phoenix) -- set out on an overnight hike to find the dead body of a missing boy rumored to be lying a few miles into the woods. Besides the obvious intrigue and adventure of the quest, the boys believe that success will bring them positive publicity. But they may not be the only ones searching. Based on Stephen King's story "The Body," this bittersweet, atmospheric coming-of-age pic set in a small Oregon town is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Gordie as an adult. Hearing of the death of one of his three old friends makes him recall this momentous time in his youth. Strong performances from Dreyfuss and the young quartet of actors, especially Phoenix, lifted this nostalgic tale above the fray and made it a sleeper hit in 1986. Director Rob Reiner (again!) wisely focuses on the things that fascinate boys on the cusp of teen-hood, which makes his film insightful, resonant, and touching. Watch for future "24" star Kiefer Sutherland as a merciless teen bully, and don't mind the leeches.

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