Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films: Drama

Find out which drama films make our film expert's top ten

It’s a Wonderful Life 1946 U 125min BW


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this one should be shown by law on TV every Christmas. Frank Capra’s movie is gloriously life-enhancing in that its message is that everybody, no matter how humble, matters. James Stewart is excellent as the small-town philanthropist rescued from suicide by an angel trying to earn his wings by showing him how important his life, however apparently unsuccessful, has been. Sentimental? Well, maybe, but every now and then a refreshingly sharp edge crops up to cut the sweetness.

Did you know? Jimmy the raven appeared in all of Capra’s movies after the 1938 comedy You Can’t Take It with You.

Say it again!  “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” Clarence

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Citizen Kane 1941 U 114min BW 

The best film ever made? Who knows? That sort of judgement has to be subjective, but it’s certainly the best film ever made by a first-time director – 25-year-old Orson Welles, who also co-wrote, produced and starred – and a hugely influential work. 

The innovative techniques Welles used in his story of the rise and fall of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (a thinly disguised William Randolph Hearst) have been adopted by film-makers ever since. Wherever it stands in the all-time top ten, this is a great film that simply has to be seen.

Did you know? MGM boss Louis B Mayer tried to buy up all existing prints in order to destroy them as a favour to his friend Hearst.

Say it again! “Rosebud.” Charles Foster Kane Oscars

Oscars Herman J Mankiewicz, Orson Welles screenplay

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The Shawshank Redemption 1994 15 136min Colour

This one, based on a novella by Stephen King telling how two lifers bond and survive in the Shawshank State Prison, often tops the list of people’s favourites.  

It’s cleverly written and directed by Frank Darabont and immaculately played by Tim Robbins and especially Morgan Freeman, who wouldn’t know how to give a bad performance. And there’s an improbable but uplifting denouement.  I have to say, though, that it’s a film I admire more than like.

Did you know? This was adapted from the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, published in a collection, Different Seasons, that also included The Body (filmed as Stand by Me) and Apt Pupil.

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Sunset Blvd 1950 PG 105min BW

Gloria Swanson once told me in mock reproof: “You can’t talk to me like that – I’m a legend.” So she was and so she is here in Billy Wilder’s dark, maliciously witty tale of a faded star of silent movies desperate to make her come-back in talkies. 

William Holden is the equally desperate young writer who becomes her lover and eventually her victim. This is perhaps Hollywood’s coolest and most cynical attack upon itself and its values, and one of Wilder’s best movies.

Did you know? The original opening had William Holden’s body wheeled into a morgue where he chatted with the other cadavres about how they’d died. But test audiences found the scene unintentionally hilarious and the film was delayed for six months while Wilder devised the now famous swimming pool sequence.

Say it again! “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Norma Desmond

Oscars Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, DM Marshman Jr, screenplay

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Raging Bull 1980 18 123min BW/Colour
Widely regarded as the best film of the 1980s, this is far more than just a boxing movie. It’s the study of a deeply complex man, Jake La Motta, a world middleweight champion who wasted several fortunes and became a fat, inept stand-up comic. 

Under Martin Scorsese’s direction, Robert De Niro portrays him as a man of intrinsic violence, of low self-esteem, who both idolised and mistrusted women, including his own wife. A very powerful performance in a very powerful film.

Did you know? 
After viewing some test footage of De Niro training, veteran British director Michael Powell said to Scorsese, “for some reason those red boxing gloves don’t look right.” It was this observation that inspired Marty to shoot the movie in black and white.

Say it again!  “I knocked him down. I don’t know what else I gotta do. I don’t know what I gotta do.” Jake La Motta

Oscars Robert De Niro, actor

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Bad Day at Black Rock 1955 PG 78min Colour
Almost from the moment one-armed Spencer Tracy alights from a train in the small town of Black Rock, there is tension. He has come to deliver a posthumous medal to the family of a Japanese- American war hero, but the family is not to be found and the townspeople, instantly hostile to Tracy, clearly have nasty secrets to hide. 

John Sturges’s film is taut and cleverly constructed, a latter-day western without the gunplay but with a strong, anti-racist post-Second World War theme.

Did you know? 

Spencer Tracy had difficulty striking matches using one hand, as the script demanded, so he convinced John Sturges to let him use a lighter. 

Say it again! “There is a law in this county against shootin’ dogs. But when I see a mad dog, I don’t wait for him to bite me.” Reno Smith

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12 Angry Men 1957 U 92min BW
Why, I asked the director Sidney Lumet, didn’t Henry Fonda win the Oscar he deserved for this film? “Oh, well,” he said, “they just thought – another great performance by Hank Fonda. What else is new?” It is a great performance in an exceptional legal thriller set mostly in the jury room where, initially, all the jurors but one – Fonda – believe the accused committed murder. 

The atmosphere is taut, sweaty and claustrophobic, as gradually Fonda talks them round. Underlying the discussion and action is the vital principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

Did you know?Filming took place in a 16x24ft courthouse office and Lumet used increasingly long lenses to suggest claustrophobia, as the walls appeared to close in. 

Say it again!“Well, there were 11 votes for guilty. It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” Juror eight

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All about Eve 1950 PG 132min BW
Undoubtedly Bette Davis’s finest performance, as an ageing Broadway star threatened by an unscrupulous, saccharine-sweet young rival (Anne Baxter), who wants to replace her on stage and in bed. Traditional backstage drama but brilliantly acted and elevated to a higher level by a savagely witty script from Joseph L Mankiewicz, who won Oscars for both writing and direction. 

In a splendid supporting cast, the young Marilyn Monroe gives a brief but eye-catching performance.

Did you know? Claudette Colbert was originally set to play the role of Margo Channing, but a slipped disc prevented her. Gertrude Lawrence was then considered, as was Marlene Dietrich, before Mankiewicz finally settled on Bette Davis.

Say it again! “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Margo Channing

Oscars best picture, Joseph L Mankiewicz, directing, screenplay, George Sanders, supporting actor

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To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 PG 129min BW
Harper Lee’s only novel is now an American classic and so is the film. Gregory Peck is at his best as Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer who defends a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white girl. Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Finch’s six-year-old daughter and the story is an examination of childhood as well as racial tension, bigotry, poverty and conditions in America’s south during the 1930s. It’s not flawless but it is gripping.

Did you know? Author Harper Lee gave Peck her father’s pocket watch because the actor reminded Lee of him.

Say it again! “You never really understand a person until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch

Oscars Gregory Peck, actor, Horton Foote, screenplay

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One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975 18 128min Colour
A parable, if you like, about society’s insistence on conformity and the rebellion against it of one man (Jack Nicholson), a patient in a mental hospital. He’s a free spirit in a time and society that doesn’t welcome free spirits. 
His chief antagonist in this darkly serious comedy is the dominatrix nurse, played by Louise Fletcher. A marvellously ambiguous ending leads you to believe that Nicholson has won. But look again and think again… 

Did you know? When Jack Nicholson arrived after shooting had begun, he thought the actors were real patients.

Say it again! “I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.” Randle P McMurphy

Oscars best picture, Milos Forman, director, Jack Nicholson, actor, Louise Fletcher,actress, Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, adapted screenplay

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)


Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 2 is available in the new issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale from Tuesday 24 January