Christmastime bubbles with symbols of cheer: deck the halls, good will toward men, Bing Crosby, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. The movies have been eager contributors to this festive spirit. Every December brings us "Miracle on 34th Street," "White Christmas," "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and other holiday perennials.
Yet several Scrooge-like filmmakers have exploited the season to give their more somber work a built-in counterpoint. In the following movies, the traditional yuletide spirit eludes protagonists like the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Lady in the Lake (1946, MGM, $29.95) -- Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled gumshoe, Phillip Marlowe, finds Christmas in L.A. even hotter than usual when he searches for a missing wife. Goons smash his car and douse him with liquor so the cops can dismiss his "fatal" crash as another Christmas drunk. Robert Montgomery directed and sort of starred (the camera provides a first-person perspective) in this highly-entertaining entry into the Marlowe myth.
Stalag 17 (1953, Paramount, $49.95) -- A German P.O.W. camp was no place to spend World War II, let alone the holidays. But the men in Stalag 17 still throw a bash to remember, thanks to some volunteer transvestites and the prisoners' willing suspension of disbelief. Writer-director Billy Wilder's exciting and touching adaptation of a Broadway hit is one of the great war films. William Holden won a well-deserved best-actor Oscar.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, CBS-Fox, $19.98) -- James Bond (George Lazenby) intercepts SPECTRE's nasty Christmas present to the world: a new strain of bacteria. This expertly-crafted 007 adventure tries to make up for Sean Connery's absence by packing in the thrills -- breathtaking ski chases, bobsled duels, demolition derbies -- and almost succeeds. The gorgeous Swiss scenery includes English actress Diana Rigg.
The Godfather (1972, Paramount, $29.95) -- The ultimate gangster saga has one unforgettably beautiful scene after another. Not the least of them is a suspense-mounting Christmas Eve sequence wherein several Corleone family members pay the price for presumed normalcy. Director Francis Ford Coppola brilliantly intercuts Marlon Brando's shooting with Robert Duvall's kidnapping and Al Pacino's aborted date with Diane Keaton (they had just seen "The Bells of St. Mary's").
Three Days of the Condor (1975, Paramount, $24.95) -- Robert Redford doesn't much feel like celebrating Christmas in Manhattan. His entire CIA office has just been massacred and the killers are after him. Fortunately, he manages to interrupt Faye Dunaway's ski vacation just in time. The only good "God-knows-what" conspiracy film (the '70s were crammed with them) uses Christmas to enhance the paranoia.
Ordinary People (1980, Paramount, $19.95) -- Redford made another dark Christmas statement from behind the camera, and won an Oscar for best director. The season that brings people together serves here to highlight the gaps within one affluent suburban Chicago family. Donald Sutherland is outstanding as a father trying to understand the estrangement between his wife (Mary Tyler Moore) and son (best supporting actor Timothy Hutton).
Heat (1987, Paramount, $79.95) -- Christmas in Las Vegas is a depressing thought, and this crisp Burt Reynolds vehicle shows just how depressing. Reynolds, playing a Vegas bodyguard with gambling fever, chose the perfect property for his return to serious filmmaking. Ace screenwriter William Goldman ("The Princess Bride," "A Bridge Too Far") juxtaposed the Christmas motif with the desolate Vegas lifestyles.