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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."