This weekend, a film opened in the United States under the title Nanny McPhee Returns. This was not what it was called anywhere else in the English-speaking world; when it premiered in Britain earlier this year, it was a Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (the cynic in me assumes that the American distributors wanted to avoid the “controversy” of putting a scientific phrase in the title & riling up all creationists in this country).
Neither title is particularly great; but while Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is at least somewhat loose and playful, Nanny McPhee Returns is desperately anonymous, and only vaguely descriptive. Either way, it got me to thinking about the naming of movies, a most esoteric and fine art, and that in turn led to a list of:
Ten Outstanding Movie Titles, in chronological order
(It started life as a ten-best, but even I shied away from that level of unbridled chutzpah. There are just too many brilliant movie titles, especially in regards to a certain boot-shaped country’s exploitation films)
Sh! The Octopus
(William C. McGann, USA, 1937)
Before I saw it, I heard it was kind of dreadful – but with a title like that, how could anyone say with a straight face, “I don’t want to see it”. And it is kind of dreadful, as it turns out, but I don’t expect to convince you, nor Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, who could barely contain his delight at getting to say “Sh! The Octopus” over and over again the time that I saw it.
Martin Ritt, 1963, USA)
There are simple titles, and then there’s the magnificently stripped-down Hud, the fewest number of letters possible for such a potent syllable. The coarse flatness of the “U” bridges the slamming-door emphasis of that “D” with a puffy aspirant that makes the tiny little word seem much harder to say than it is. A title just as crude and direct as its amoral namesake.
Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver
English: This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse
(José Mojica Marins, 1967, Brazil)
Presented without comment; because, what could I possibly add?
Buon funerale, amigos!… paga Sartana
English: Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay
(Giuliano Carnimeo,, 1970, Italy/Spain)
I have not seen this well-regarded spaghetti Western, in no small part because the film I’m imagining is almost necessarily better than the actual thing. But I do know this much: the protagonist is a total fucking bad-ass, and Sartana is going to pay a lot.
Non si sevizia un paperino
English: Don’t Torture a Duckling
(Lucio Fulci, 1972, Italy)
The giallo film with an animal in the title is as much a convention as anything; but there’s still something real grabby about this one in particular: why would I torture a duckling, anyway? And then there’s the way it makes it incredibly hard not to visualise how one would go about torturing a duckling, and if you’re anything like me, by this point you are positive aching to see it.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
(Bob Clark, 1973, USA)
The best part of a fine, undemanding zombie movie is easily its lightly jokey title, which has always struck me as a sort of homage to the wordy Italian titles of the era. Whatever the case, it’s a grand name and a good piece of advice.
Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle
Literal English title: Every Man for Himself and God Against All
Traditional English title: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
(Werner Herzog, 1974, West Germany)
A perfectly ordinary American title hides the wonderful, roiling rhythms of Herzog’s all-time best title (and this is the man who gave us Even Dwarfs Started Small, no less), a vast statement of intent. Stately and wildly paranoid and cynical, it could not possibly suggest the mood of the film any better.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(Chantal Akerman, 1975, Belgium/France)
Man, the ’70s were a great time for movie titles. Here we have a marathon-length description, devoid of any inflection or hucksterism; just a simple statement of who and where. The film itself, a hypnotically myopic 3.5 hour study of the tiniest details of a woman’s domestic life, deserves no less a plaque than this.
Snakes on a Plane
(David R. Ellis, 2006, USA/Germany/Canada)
A perfectly functional title? No, a bold declarative statement, a promise that this movie will fulfill one and only one function, and if you’re not interested in seeing snakes on a plane, then stay the hell away, because snakes on a plane is the only thing going on here. Ah, snakes on a plane.
Mio fratello è figlio unico
English: My Brother Is an Only Child
(Daniele Luchetti, 2007, Italy)
A decent, but largely unmemorable family-historical drama, given the whisper of immortality by a phrase that gets more and more suggestive, mysterious, and compelling, the longer you let it roll around in your mind.
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Italian: Reazione a catena
(Mario Bava, 1971, Italy)
Unfortuantely, the film’s most evocative title (probably my favorite in history) isn’t one of the multiple names it was given in its native country. But I couldn’t let it pass completely unremarked.