the only living boy in ny

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best movies named after a song title – intentionally or not – that you’ve probably never seen!)

Pop culture crosses streams all the time both in an effort to increase profit and benefit from name recognition. Adaptations, brands, and “cinematic universes” are the most obvious examples, but sometimes it’s as simple as a song. From Stand By Me and Bad Boys to Pretty Woman and Soul Man, some films are titled with the clear goal of reaching instant familiarity with potential viewers. They typically go the expected extra step of licensing the song for use in the movie itself, but sometimes the title itself – which I don’t believe counts as copyright infringement – is more than enough.

The latest film to go this route is the indie drama, The Only Living Boy in New York, which opens in limited release this week. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m betting it includes the Simon & Garfunkel song because they’d have to be fools not to. It’s a great song.

For every American Pie or When a Man Loves a Woman though, there are probably half a dozen far lesser known films also named after songs. Some are forgettable of course, but the six films below are all very good to great movies worth seeking out for fans of their respective genres.

the mephisto waltz

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

An aging pianist befriends a younger man named Myles whose own dreams of tickling the ivories for a living crumbled years prior after discovering he lacked the talent. When the famed musician dies though, Myles becomes something of a maestro overnight. It should be a good, albeit odd, turn of events, but Myles’ wife quickly comes to suspect a far darker truth behind the change.

Franz Liszt wrote four pieces of piano music in the late 19th century collectively known as the Mephisto Waltzes, and the film’s composer, Jerry Goldsmith, incorporates some of them into his score here. Music plays an integral role in the film, more so than most films simply borrowing a song title, as there’s something devilish emanating from Myles’ piano keys. It’s a tale of murder, lust, and deals with the devil, and while much of it is low-key, it works to create an underlying sense of unease and growing terror.

Alan Alda plays Myles, and it’s fun seeing his usual mild-mannered “good guy” shift towards something darker and more devious. Bradford Dillman also stars, but the big draw here for many will be the lovely Jacqueline Bisset as Myles’ wife. She takes center stage here in many ways as she’s the one who begins to suspect something is amiss with her husband. Her investigation leads to truths both dangerous and unsavory and ultimately brings her and the film to an atypical – and terrific – conclusion.

The Mephisto Waltz is available to buy on Blu-ray or to watch on Amazon Video.

tequila sunrise

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Two friends find themselves at odds over their career choices as one is a drug dealer and the other is a cop tasked with bringing him in. Their relationship is further tested when both men fall for the same woman.

The Eagles’ early ’70s hit is a song that sets a very distinct vibe, and it’s that Southern California feeling that Robert Towne captures with his late ’80s film. A criminal looking for a way out, a cop torn between doing his job and protecting his friend, and a woman caught between them both – the film offers up an atmospheric love triangle that oozes style, romantic thrills, and subdued action all set against the sun-drenched coastal neighborhoods of Los Angeles. If you’ve seen one of the films on this list it’s probably this one, but enough people I’ve spoken with haven’t yet caught it that I’m happy giving it a bump here.

It’s a surprisingly dense thriller at times – as in crowded not stupid – but even as plot turns threaten to become convoluted, the cast works wonders to focus viewers’ attention like a laser. A sexy, sexy laser. Kurt Russell plays the straitlaced cop, Mel Gibson portrays the smooth criminal looking for an out, and Michelle Pfeiffer is the woman who both men find understandably irresistible. The seductive and sensual onscreen action doesn’t stop there though as the late, great J.T. Walsh co-stars as well.

Tequila Sunrise is available to buy on Blu-ray and to watch on Amazon Video.

mute witness

Mute Witness (1994)

A mute make-up artist working on a low budget horror film in Moscow has the misfortune of witnessing a brutal murder at the studio after hours. She escapes, but is unable to convince the authorities that what she witnessed was real. That’s not good enough for the man behind it all though, and when he orders her to be killed, the silent young woman is forced onto the defensive with no way to call for help.

Fine, there’s no definitive proof that the filmmakers behind this UK/German/Russian production intentionally named the film after Morrissey’s track of the same name off the 1991 album Kill Uncle, but there’s no proof that they didn’t either. (And that, my friends, is why I was not invited to join the debate team in high school.) Both the song and the film are very straightforward in their application of the title, with the film taking things in the direction of a sadistic but creative thriller.

Like Wait Until Dark or the excellent Korean suspense film Blind, this thriller ups the fear quotient by teasing the helplessness of its female protagonist before revealing that an impairment doesn’t automatically make her an easy target. The film’s greater strength is in a script that keeps both viewers and lead character on uncertain footing. It’s not always clear that what we think we saw or know is the truth, and that realization plays havoc with our expectations which in turn ups the suspense even more.

Mute Witness is available to buy on DVD.

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