What do a forlorn Italian father, a costume-drama cad and a pair of Hollywood slapstick heroes have in common? They're all high on a list of must-see movies that David Chase, creator of The Sopranos and director of the 2012 film Not Fade Away, brought us for the occasional Morning Edition series "Watch This."
What unifies them?
Saps At Sea
"When I was a kid, I used to watch Laurel and Hardy with my cousins all the time," Chase says. "I still think they're extremely funny and so surreal."
In this 1940 caper, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy discover a dangerous stowaway — a mobster — during an ocean voyage. In one great scene, they try to poison him with sponge meatballs and spaghetti made from a mop, but their plan backfires, and they end up having to eat it themselves.
"This is a really good comedy, but also the gangster is kind of scary," says Chase, who confesses that he "kind of cribbed something from it for The Sopranos one time."
In Saps at Sea, the heavy, whose name is Nick, refers to his pistol as "Nick Junior" — a reference echoed in a Sopranos episode in which Tony's uncle tells his mistress to "Go check on Junior's Junior." (Note: He was not referring to his gun.)
Chase's favorite Stanley Kubrick film is 1975's lesser-known Barry Lyndon, which depicts a young man's rise from obscurity to prominence — and ultimate ruin.
"The guy is a rapscallion and a rake, and a kind of a scumbag," Chase points out, and he's determined to make something of himself in high society.
There are duels, highway robberies and vicious social snubs, not to mention a fairly big war. And what's great about the movie, Chase says, is that even "with all this violence, there's this overlay of the most civilized conduct." At one point, highwaymen greet the main character with a graceful "Good day to you sir" before essentially robbing him blind.
Are there parallels between the clash of honor codes and violent lives here and on his HBO hit? Chase says he's never thought about it that way, "but I'm sure it's true. When we were doing The Sopranos, I used to love that about it. There were rules, Mafia codes you had to go by, but the code is ridiculous. It's a code among sociopaths."
This 1948 Vittorio De Sica film, whose title is sometimes translated as The Bicycle Thief, is a classic, beautiful in its simplicity, Chase says. It takes place after World War II, in which Italy has been defeated and impoverished. The film's protagonist needs his bicycle to negotiate his daily existence, but it's been stolen. So he and his son go looking for it one Sunday — and that's the whole plot.
"The thing about this movie is it's so simple," Chase says. "And the reason I put it down there is because this is what I wish for myself. Not that my bicycle should get stolen, but that I could write something so simple and clear and clean."
At its heart, he says the film tells the story of the relationship between father and son.
"It's just the most pure, beautiful, simple thing," Chase says.
Movies of all sorts work best at an almost fairy-tale level, Chase argues, because they hark back to hearing stories as a child.
"I think storytelling is all about children. We human beings love to hear stories being told — and it first happens when you're a kid. Your father tells you a story when you're a kid, or your mother or your uncle or whoever it is. You sit there with your mouth open, and your mind goes to all these places they're telling you about that you've never seen, and you're agape. You just can't believe that things can happen like that — but it's just so direct."
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now let's meet the man behind one of TV's most memorable shows ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOKE UP THIS MORNING")
ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun. You mama always said you'd be the chosen one...
MONTAGNE: David Chase created "The Sopranos," the HBO show about a neurotic New Jersey family man and mob boss. This morning, he's our latest guest for Watch This, conversations where we get recommendations for movie and TV DVDs.
When David Chase spoke to MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep, his first pick was the 1940 movie from comedians Laurel & Hardy, called "Saps at Sea."
DAVID CHASE: When I was a kid, I used to watch Laurel and Hardy with my cousins all the time. And I just thought they were the funny - I still think they're extremely funny and so surreal. The story of this is that Hardy has some kind of an allergy to horns blowing. And if he hears a horn blow he starts to go, horns, horns, and he starts freaking out.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAPS AT SEA")
OLIVER HARDY: (as Ollie) Horns. Horns...
CHASE: They take a sea voyage to help him calm him down, and unbeknownst to them, is a gangster - an escaped gangster - and he takes command of the boat. And one of the great scenes is they figure what they'll do is they'll poison him. They'll make him something. He says, Make me something to eat. And they meatballs out of sponge and spaghetti out of a mob and they're going to feed that to him. And he will then, of course, you know, be incapacitated.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
CHASE: But he makes them eat it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAPS AT SEA")
HARDY: (as Ollie) And you're going to like this because it's just like mother used to make.
STAN LAUREL: (as Stan) Oh, she never made any as good as this.
RICHARD CRAMER: (as Nick Grainger) Well, if it's that good, you eat it.
LAUREL: (as Stan) Well, I'm not a bit hungry. Am I, Ollie?
HARDY: (as Ollie) No. And I'm on a diet.
CRAMER: (as Nick Grainger) You heard what I said - eat.
(as Nick Grainger) Just like mother used to make. Eh, Dizzy?
CHASE: This is like a really good comedy. But also the gangster is kind of scary and I kind of cribbed something from it for "The Sopranos" one time. The gangster, when they've come upon him on board, he says: My name is Nick and this is Nick Junior, and he pulls out his gun. And in "The Sopranos," at one point, we had Uncle Junior was talking with his mistress and he said something about why don't you go check on Junior's junior. And she goes under...
CHASE: ...underneath the covers.
INSKEEP: The Laurel and Hardy reference, did you receive any mail from anybody who caught that?
CHASE: Not a bit.
INSKEEP: It's being revealed here for the first time by David Chase.
INSKEEP: One of the things I love about this list that you have sent us of movies, is that there are a number of very famous names on it, but not necessarily their famous films. And the next one on your list here is from director Stanley Kubrick, the movie is "Barry Lyndon."
CHASE: Well, that's my - it's hard to pick it - but that's my favorite Kubrick film.
INSKEEP: Director of "2001," director of "Paths of Glory," we could go - "Dr. Strangelove." We could go on for quite some time. But you find "Barry Lyndon" to be your favorite Kubrick film. What's it about?
CHASE: Yeah. Well, probably his best known film for people nowadays is "The Shining," I guess.
INSKEEP: Oh sure, of course.
CHASE: What's the film about?
CHASE: "Barry Lyndon" is a Victorian novel about a young man's trip from - sort of, from like the age of 18 through middle age, and his ruin. He's played really wonderfully by Ryan O'Neal. The guy is a rapscallion and a rake, and a kind of a scumbag - Barry Lyndon. And he wants to rise up in the world. In the first frames of the movie, his father is shot in a duel. And dueling proves to be very important to the whole movie, dueling and warfare.
But what's great about it is that with all this violence, there's this overlay of the most civilized conduct. You know, with the handkerchiefs inside the sleeves and...
INSKEEP: Oh, sure.
CHASE: ...everybody was called sir, like when he's held up by some highwaymen. They say: Good day to you, sir, and could we have - please give us your money now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BARRY LYNDON")
ARTHUR O'SULLIVAN: (as Captain Feeny) And now I'm afraid we must get on to the more regrettable stage of our brief acquaintance. Turn around and keep your hands high above your head, please.
RYAN O'NEAL: (as Redmond Barry) That's all the money my mother had in the world. Mightn't I be allowed to keep it?
O'SULLIVAN: (as Captain Feeny) Mr. Barry, in my profession we hear many such stories. Yours is one of the most intriguing and touching I've heard in many weeks. Nevertheless, I'm afraid I cannot grant your request. Good day, young sir.
INSKEEP: You know, when you talk about a movie that has this elaborate code of honor that is laid on top of a basically violent existence, and you say that's your favorite Kubrick, I wonder if it in some way informed your production of "The Sopranos," where you had people who at least pretended to have this great code of honor, as they were doing violent things?
CHASE: I never thought of it that way. But, you know, I'm sure that's true, because I remember when we were doing "The Sopranos," I used to love that about it; which were that there were rules. There was a Mafia code that you had to go by. But, of course, the code is ridiculous. It's a code among sociopaths.
INSKEEP: You also have on this list a movie called "Bicycle Thieves," also just called "The Bicycle Thief," 1948.
CHASE: Yeah. Well, that's a really - I mean that's a classic.
INSKEEP: Vittorio De Sica, am I saying his name correctly?
CHASE: Vittorio De Sica, yeah. But the thing about that movie - I mean it's a lot of Italian movies that I love. But the thing about that movie is it's so simple. And the reason I put it down there is because this is what I wish for myself. Not that my bicycle would get stolen, but that I wish that I could write something so simple and clear and clean.
INSKEEP: It's been years since I've seen it. Let's remind people what it's about. It's a poor guy in Italy.
CHASE: Yes, right after World War II and Italy is just over being occupied, I guess, by the Germans. It's extremely poor and the guy needs his bicycle to get to work and his bicycle gets stolen. And on a Sunday, he and his son go looking for the bicycle.
INSKEEP: And that's the whole plot.
CHASE: That is it. And it's about the relationship between this boy and his father.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BICYCLE THIEF")
ENZO STAIOLA: (As Bruno Ricci) (Italian spoken).
CHASE: It's just the most pure, beautiful, simple thing.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of what makes it still work as a movie. And it sounds like it's that once you have a very simple story that people can follow, you can hang some very profound issues on it and explore some very profound issues.
CHASE: That's completely true. I think movies work best, actually, when they almost are at the fairytale level. You know, I think storytelling is all about children. We human beings love to hear stories being told. And it first happens when you're a kid and, you know, and your father tells you a story at night, or your mother or your uncle, or whoever it is.
And you sit there with your mouth open and your mind goes to all these places they're telling you about that you've never seen, and you're really - you're agape. You just can't believe that things can happen like that but it's just so direct.
INSKEEP: Well, David Chase, it's really been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
CHASE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: With Steve Inskeep, writer-director David Chase. Now out on DVD, is his newest film, "Not Fade Away," a coming of age story set in the 60s, about a young man with big rock and roll dreams. You can find all of his Watch This recommendations at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.