Saturday, June 28, 2014

Top 15 Unreliable Narrators in Cinema

I’m fascinated by the dichotomy caused by an unreliable narrator. Occasionally while watching a film, we know that the person telling us a story is intentionally lying. Other times, we don’t realize we’ve been betrayed until the film’s final scenes. Either way, it can be so thrilling to witness the world through an unreliable mind, even if only for a few hours. In regards to this post, please be warned, simply discussing such characters can inadvertently produce spoilers. I’m always strict about not spoiling films on this blog, but do proceed with caution here.

15. Jonathan Cooper – Stage Fright (1950)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright isn’t narrated by the Jonathan Cooper character throughout, but it is Cooper’s flashback story at the beginning of the film that puts the plot in motion. And while Stage Fright may not be one of Hitchcock’s most known films, it’s an amusing little experiment all the same.

14. Fenton Meiks – Frailty (2001)

The funny thing about movies is that we often take what we hear at face value. When a character tells us a fact, we believe it as such, mainly because we don’t have any reason not to. But, as Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” And Fenton Meiks is one deceptive son of a bitch.

13. Joel Barish – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

What brings two people together? You lock eyes with someone on a train. You share a moment. You feel like you know them, and maybe you do. Maybe you’ve shared time – love and laughter and spite. Who knows, maybe you know them better than you could’ve dreamed.

12. Louise Howell – Possessed (1947)

Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed is told in flashback by an unstable woman name Louise (a fearless Joan Crawford).  She tells tales of love and jealousy, murder and rage. But there are holes in her story, such as when she pushes someone down the stairs to their death, but then fails to find the body at the end of the stairwell. To understand how this could be, we must first consider the source.

11. The Detectives – True Detective (2014)

It took a few episodes to familiarize ourselves with the world of True Detective. Once settled, we realized that the older Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) were actually lying their asses off to the detectives interviewing them. But why? Who knew the answer to that question would be so profound?

10. Briony Tallis – Atonement (2007)

In Atonement’s best, most melancholic scene, we watch as an aged Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave, so strong) informs us of the real truth behind the fate of her sister. This scene knocked the wind out of me the first time I saw it. I literally had no idea it was coming.

9. Mark Whitacre – The Informant! (2009)

Mark Whitacre is the liar to end all liars. As the only real person on this list, Whitacre’s career deceit make his wrongdoings that much more notable. This man bullshitted his way to the top of the FBI, and for what? A little more money? A little more respect? So much of what Whitacre says in the film is complete nonsense, but what fun it is to sift through Matt Damon’s hilarious narration, desperately trying to pick out the facts.

8. The Narrator – Fight Club (1999)

“It’s called a ‘changeover.’ The movie goes on, and nobody in the audience has any idea.” Yep, pretty much sums up how we felt when we watched this film for the first time.

7. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho (2000)

I love that the debate about Patrick Bateman’s transgressions still lives on. Author Bret Easton Ellis says the story is an obvious satire about yuppie New York culture in the ‘80s. The film’s director, Mary Harron, says she intended every crime in the film to play as fact. We’ll never really know what is true and what is false, but that’s not exactly the point. What’s important to remember is that, in the end, this confession has meant nothing. 

6. The Interviewees – Citizen Kane (1941)

Presumably, the best way to get to know someone who’s died is to speak to the people who knew him best. That’s the angle reporter Jerry Thompson takes when covering the life of Charles Foster Kane. Thompson interviews Kane’s friends, colleagues and his ex-wife, who all have varying perceptions on who Kane was. The result, Thompson learns, is that some men are never fully understood.

5. Verbal Kint – The Usual Suspects (1995)

The fun of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is debating how much of Verbal Kint’s story is real, how much of it is fiction, and how much is pure fuckery.

“And like that… he’s gone.”

4. Francis – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This German Expressionist masterpiece was one of the first films to implore a flashback narrative, which is an impressive feat in its own right. Equally remarkable is that the filmmakers created a story in which things were not at all as they seemed. Who knew that storytelling deceit would catch on as well as it did?

3. Leonard Shelby – Memento (2001)

Leonard Shelby’s “discovery” of the real John G. is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema. Up until this point in Memento, we think we know who Leonard is. We pity his plight and admire his perseverance. And then, like a devious little puzzle, everything clicks into place. Leonard is one of the most deceptive unreliable narrators I’ve ever seen, and the bitch of it is, he doesn’t even know it.

2. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)

Much of the unique mysticism of Taxi Driver is due to its narrative structure. By shaping the film around the disturbed and contradictory mind of Travis Bickle, the audience is never sure what to expect. Travis’ occasional narration (taken from his journal entries) is hostile and often nonsensical. He trips up on words, repeats phrases and plots an illogical plan for a destructive, citywide cleanse. And while his voice over is sparse, it makes for my favorite character narration in film. Complex, haunting, and completely raging mad.

1. The Witnesses – Rashômon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon could literally be titled, The Unreliable Narrators, as it is by far the film to best use the device. The film is about a brutal crime, and the individual perspectives of the people closest to it. We hear stories from witnesses, victims and accused criminals, all of which offer conflicting testimony. In just 88 minutes, Kurosawa paints a perfect and maddening picture of memory and the effect trauma and shock has on it. Who is right? Who is wrong? The world may never know. Exactly.

63 comments:

  1. Fantastic list, as usual! All of these unreliable narrators are truly brilliant choices, my personal favourite being Joel Barish (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favourite film of all time). How do you come up with these lists? I don't believe that there is any other blogger who has as much of a variety in their posts as you have.

    How is Wait going?

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    1. Oh wow Aditya, thanks so much! That's a really kind thing to say :)

      I honestly have no idea how I come up with lists haha. An idea pops in my head (usually spawned from what I'm watching at that exact moment) and I think, "Hey, that might make for a cool list." So usually, I just think of a list at write it up the same day. This one was a bit different, because it did take quite a bit of research and thinking. I rewatched Rashômon a last month though, so that's probably what got the ball rolling.

      It's so crazy to say this, but Wait is very close to being finished. It's in the sound mixing and color correction phase now, which are the last two steps. I've been working on this film for two years, and they fact that it's nearly there is insane. Thanks for asking!

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  2. But Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption?

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    1. He is a narrator, certainly. But there's nothing unreliable about him.

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  3. This is a pretty impressive list. The interviews from Citizen Kane never struck me as a full on example of the unreliable narrator but when you consider how differently each person remembers Kane they would fall into a similar position to Rashômon. Of course Leonard is a wonderful example and we can't forget about Verbal Kint.

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    1. Thanks man. Yeah, the juxtaposition of memory is what drives Kane and Rashômon. I'm personally fascinated by the unreliability of memory, so that's why I've always been so drawn to those films.

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  4. Excellent list. My personal #1 would be Leonard Shelby, but it's hard to argue with your reasoning for giving Rashomon the top spot. Both, like most every movie represented here, are great films.

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    1. Thanks man. I'll never forget the first time I saw Memento. I had to sit through the entire end credits, because my jaw was dropped and I couldn't even think. What exquisite deception.

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    2. Exquisite indeed. Sorry to go off topic, here, but I've started another blogathon I'd love for you to take part in:

      http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2014/06/against-crowd-blogathon.html

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  5. I love this list! I have a thing for narrators. While my heart belongs to the Narrator from Fight Club (like duhs), I think the best ones here have to be the interviewees from Citizen Kane and Verbal from Usual Suspects. Goddamn, I really need to watch Rashomon already.

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    1. Thanks Nik! I knew you'd like the Fight Club love! Even at only 88 minutes, Rashômon is a pretty challenging view. But holy shit, it's so enthralling. One of my all-time favorite films.

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  6. Great choices. I tried to skip reading the ones that I hadn't seen like True Detective (I'll have to forget they showed up on this list). One that surprised me was the narrator in Barry Lyndon, who seemed to enjoy toying with us and giving out misleading information on the character's life. That was one of the strongest parts of that Kubrick film.

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    1. Thanks man. Okay, first off, I PROMISE that the inclusion of True Detective on here does not give anything about the show away. Promise. Barry Lyndon was really close to making the cut here. Such a great film.

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  7. This is probably one of my favorite cinematic tricks. I am a big fan of a majority of the films you have on here though I have say I was really surprised to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I haven't thought of that movie in years lol. Nice pic and really unexpected. When I think of this trick I think of Fight Club, Rashomon, Memento, and some of the others you have on here but that one probably would never pop up in my head. Great list as always (and always surprising)!

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    1. Thanks man, glad you dig it! Honestly, I didn't think of Caligari when I first thought of this list. But then I remembered that film, and it totally fit here. Pretty damn impressive little flick right there.

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  8. Nice post! When we believe one thing for most of a film and then we learn that it's basically a lie and if done right, it can be a great plot twist.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, definitely. I love being deceived like that.

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  9. Good stuff Alex. Verbal Kint is the poster child for this top 10 for me... I'd say The Usual Suspects gets better with very viewing!

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    1. Thanks man. I agree... I've seen Suspects so many times, and it never gets old for me. Love it.

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  10. Great list, I've only seen a handful of these movies, but I've heard quite a bit about a few of the others and Rashomon is one that I've been wanting to see for ages especially since the storytelling technique pioneered in this movie has inspired some of my favorites as it is really powerful when it is done right.

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    1. Thanks! If you're a fan of this technique, then Rashômon is definitely for you. Such a powerful use of this narrative device. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  11. Man, this list is SO GOOD. Your #1 is spot-on! I still need to see Frailty, Stage Fright and True Detective, which I just bought. Hopefully, I'll get to it soon!

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    1. Thanks buddy! I'll be really curious to hear your thoughts on True Detective. What a monumental series.

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  12. One of the coolest experiences of film narration, for me, was this movie called "Fallen" which I watched as a kid. Maybe if I watched it today it would be no big deal but, at the time, I thought it was pretty amazing because of the aspect of narration.

    If I could wake up tomorrow and have all the film productions of my imagination become reality, besides Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu directing Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" I would want HBO to take Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and devote one episode to each book. The narrator, Lemony Snicket, is what makes these great reads.

    I am conscious of discrediting myself in moving from Gonzales Inarritu to Lemony Snicket. I can live with that. :)

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    1. The comment I made below was in reply to your comment, I used my phone to comment so sorry about that :/ But I totally agree with HBO taking ASOUE. What is your favourite book in the series? By the way, awesome blog!

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    2. Hi Aditya,

      The last book is my favourite. Count Olaf reciting Bourdillon ("The night has a thousand eyes ...") transports the book, I feel, to another level. For me, though, one of the more interesting features was the narrator himself and the little glimpses of his life which he affords his readers throughout the series.

      On the off chance you did not know, Lemony Snicket has a new four-book series (entitled All the Wrong Questions) and book three will be released in October.

      I am happy to meet someone who could envision HBO taking on ASOUE. Now there's two of us...

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    3. Hey Kelly, thanks so much for the comment! I really liked Fallen as a kid as well. I revisited it a few years ago when I wrote about Elias Koteas (he's SO creepy in that movie), but the movie as a whole would definitely fit on this list.

      As for ASOUE, I haven't read any of the books, but I love your idea of HBO dedicating an episode to each one. Sounds like a lot of fun.

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    4. Ah, Alex you must read them, they're slightly repetitive but so well written! My favourite book series after Harry Potter. And it's finally great to see someone who's favourite book in ASOUE is also the final one! A lot of people don't like the ambiguity of the ending, but I think it's absolutely marvellous. I've just finished reading the first book in All the Wrong Questions, I must get my hands on the second soon!

      Fallen sounds interesting as well, I'll check it out!

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    5. Ohh an ambiguous ending... now I'm intrigued. I LOVE ambiguity!

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    6. Then you'd love two of my favourite authors: Graham Greene & Cormac McCarthy. I like Salman Rushdie too but he's ambiguous in a different sort of way; a "what the hell is he on about?" sort of way.

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    7. McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. Read all of his stuff a few times. What a distinct brand of poetry he has. Compulsively readable. I'll have to check out Greene. Is that the same Graham Greene who wrote The Third Man?

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    8. Yes that is the same Greene Greene (the other Graham Greene is a North American "Indian" [not sure which word is the preferred one]. The Third Man is a so-so piece of literature but, I'm told, is a classic film.

      I would love to hear more of your thoughts on McCarthy. I'll keep watch. I keep meaning to write a reaction to The Road.

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    9. Very classic film. LOVE that movie. You know, I've thought about doing a Book-to-Film Adaptation post for McCarthy (I did one on the film adaptions of Bret Easton Ellis' books a while back), because I do love McCarthy so much. The Road... great book, rather dull movie. Funny how that works, you know?

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    10. A book-to-film adaptation post --- for McCarthy --- would be very interesting.

      It is simply my opinion - for whatever that is worth - but I think that "The Road" is the best of the adaptations of McCarthy's work (I haven't seen "Child of God" yet but am not holding my breath). The Coen Brothers created a very good film --- a very good film --- but I think they played around a bit with, particularly, the tension of the book between what a particular character experiences and the wider reality into which the reader is absorbed.

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    11. Hey, fair enough. There are bits of The Road that I certainly enjoy. Viggo is incredible throughout, and a Guy Pearce cameo is never a bad thing.

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    12. Yeah ... I actually really liked the Road. It is a beautiful piece of literature and I loved what John Hillcoat did with it ... And then he made "Lawless" :(

      (There are some other great cameo's too; Robert Duvall & "Omar" are two that come to mind).

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    13. (sigh) Lawless. Seemed like wasted talent to me. Though I did love Pearce in it, of course.

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  13. I've always wanted HBO to take ASOUE! I think with the right people in front of and behind the camera, it would be amazing!

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  14. That is a great list. I'm glad you put Rashomon on top as I think it is the standard of the unreliable narrators because we have no idea what really happened.

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    1. Thanks man, that flick is definitely the standard when it comes to a topic like this. A fascinating picture.

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  15. Wow man, every list in this blog is just fantastic. Seriously, objectively, the way you approach every subject on this blog is worthy of much praise. I've thought about narrators in cinema so many times and when you don't even trust the narrator, that's really exciting. I loved your #1 and every single pick of yours is flawless to me. Personally, I love the most Leonard from "Memento". Nolan is a real GENIUS.

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    1. Thanks Stergios! Memento is remarkable, isn't it? And to think, Nolan was 29 years old when he made that movie. Twenty... nine. Incredible

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    2. Yeah man, that's really something. Nolan is a visionary filmmaker and I'm so glad that "Memento" was my introduction to his work. Such a stylish, brave and intelligent movie. By the way, have you seen "Doodlebug"? It's my favorite short film ever.

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    3. Ohh I totally forgot about that short. I have seen it, but I don't remember much about it. Will have to give it a rewatch soon!

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  16. Great idea for a list as always, Alex. There are many I haven't seen yet but I totally agree w/ those I have, esp. Bateman, Kint, Shelby and of course Norton as The Narrator.

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    1. Thanks Ruth! Really happy you enjoyed the list :) Some very... interesting men here, huh?

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  17. Unreliable narrators really do add to the audience involvement, I'm a fan of this type of movie as well. Good selections, I was checking to see if Bateman was on the list, and bingo :)

    Recently watched The Double (with Jesse Eisenberg), and I think its safe to say he was an unreliable narrator, though it may be a stretch to call him a "narrator"

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    1. Thanks man. Oh yeah, gotta have Bateman up there. Dude is on another level of crazy.

      I recently watched The Double as well. I think that film presents an unreliable narrative, but not necessarily an unreliable narrator, you know? Kind of like Swimming Pool.

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  18. One of my favorite blog posts ever. :-) And you've included several of my favorite films of all time.

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    1. Aww thanks Irene, you're too kind. Glad you like the list!

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  19. I gotta say great list so many good ones on here, I have to see Possessed and Stage Fright to completely agree with those but other than that great job. Love the inclusion of Travis Bickle, and Patrick Bateman especially.

    Two more for you to consider would be Shutter Island Leonardo Dicaprio's character (I cannot remember his name), and Blade Runner, Harrison Ford's narration in the movie will always stick with me for the first time I watched it I thought he was also a replicant. I don't know if it was just me or not, but he would be on my list for unreliable narrators.

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    1. Thanks man, really glad you dig the list. DiCaprio's narration in Shutter Island is a great fit here. I considered it, but it just barely didn't make the cut. The Blade Runner narration is interesting. It's either really bad or really good, depending on what cut you watch. I remember Ford saying how much he loathed the narration in the theatrical cut, which is really interesting. Either way, that is a good fit here too.

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  20. Excellent post! I love so many of these films. I especially loved Hart and Cohle telling the story of the shoot out in True Detective. God, that was hilarious.

    I think Tom Hank's character in Radio Flyer would be someone that could be on here too. That's who I instantly thought of after Fight Club when I saw this title.

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    1. Thanks Brittani! Those shoot out stories were my favorite. That show was so mystifying in that way. You saw them doing one thing, while hearing them describing something else. Loved that damn show.

      I haven't seen Radio Flyer since I was a kid, so I honestly don't remember much about it! Looks like I need to give it another go.

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  21. Awesome list! That Atonement maneuver remains the most cruel thing I've ever experienced during a movie. I was completely blindsided and what was happening was so unfair.

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    1. Thanks! That shit was so crazy unfair. There was no way anyone could've guessed that (unless they had read the book).

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  22. Awesome list! We just discussed Taxi Driver on the Lambcast, awesome that Bickle is so high up on your list. "A walking contradiction," as Betsy puts it. He flat out lies to other characters at least twice. And who the hell knows if he's actually a Vet. Love that Kint is on here too. "And like that...he's gone." SUCH A GREAT QUOTE.

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    1. Thanks buddy! Bickle, man... what a walking contradiction, indeed. I love that character so damn much. And Kint as well, so perfect at deception.

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  23. One of my favorite narrative techniques as well, ever since reading The Great Gatsby and interpreting Nick Caraway's true feelings. It is the the one thing people fail to realize about what makes it an American masterpiece, it is NOT really about Gatsby, it is Nick's story, it is his view on a world crashing down before his eyes and the casualties thereof. As for film, Rashomon is easily one of my favorite movies for pioneering the multiple perspective device. Kubrick also used it in The Killing because the studio requested a narrator to help audiences along the way, so of course he had the narrator be unreliable in relating the goings-on.

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    1. I've always found it strange that people think The Great Gatsby is about Gatsby, but you know, oh well.

      I read an interview with Kubrick once and he said that when the studio forced him to add narration to The Killing, he considered ceasing making movies. He hated the narration in that film, and I have to agree. Completely unneeded. Still, a great film.

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  24. What about Nabokov's Humbert Humbert? Most gloriously poetic and also most unrealiable of narrators. (Kubrick's "Lolita" or remake)

    Thanks.
    b

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    1. That's a good call. I need to watch Lolita again!

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