Alphabet-Soup Cinema: A Letter-Perfect Watch List

Z i i

hide captionGood next to W.: Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras' film Z was famous for its dark, political themes.

Z

Good next to W.: Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras' film Z was famous for its dark, political themes.

Malcolm X i i

hide captionSpike Lee's much-praised movie bio might make a good addition to an XYZ triple feature, if not for that difficult "Malcolm."

Malcolm X

Spike Lee's much-praised movie bio might make a good addition to an XYZ triple feature, if not for that difficult "Malcolm."

T2 i i

hide captionFor sequels, movie companies have a less difficult time creating movie titles. As evidenced here, letters and numbers (and scary graphics) often suffice.

T2

For sequels, movie companies have a less difficult time creating movie titles. As evidenced here, letters and numbers (and scary graphics) often suffice.

Last week, I reviewed W., Oliver Stone's film about the relationship between George H.W. Bush and his son George W. — and I suggested, entirely in passing, that if someone had made a movie about John Adams and his presidential son John Quincy Adams, it could have been called Q.

Cue the e-mails. One listener suggested that W. might make a good triple feature with Z, the '60s political thriller from Costa-Gavras, and X, Spike Lee's portrait of a prominent African-American leader.

It wouldn't, actually: W. isn't in the same league as the other two films, and anyway, Spike Lee's picture is called Malcolm X.

But the concept's a grabber. W., X and Z? All we need is a Y.

Back when I worked at a chain of movie theaters, the manager of our repertory house would've killed for a triple feature that would fit that easily on his marquee. One-letter titles were hard to come by.

There was M, Fritz Lang's German crime thriller from the '30s — and the '50s-era American remake. As a double feature, that would give you M & M.

There's Q, a 1982 horror flick about a flying lizard that you could pair with a 1973 snake movie called SSSSSSSSSS. If only there'd been texting back in the day.

But for most belle-lettre'd films, you'd have had to misrepresent the title to make the game work. T and Sympathy, for instance, or P-Wee's Big Adventure.

Or the Spanish film ¡Ay Carmela! That could maybe stand in for "I."

Every once in a while, a big movie can get away with just initials: Steven Spielberg's E.T., for instance, though the studio felt the need to explain that one by adding the words The Extra-Terrestrial. Nineteen years later, they did the same thing with Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

But after a title is well-established — say, Terminator or Mission: Impossible — studio marketers feel perfectly comfortable selling sequels as T-2 or M-I:3.

And sometimes they even get creative: The horror franchise Halloween, for instance, marked its 20th anniversary — not its 20th movie — with an installment called H20.

Some letters lend themselves to this kind of treatment, others not so much. X's are everywhere, possibly playing off the old racy-movie rating.

That was the idea with Roger Corman's X, for which the ads noted that Ray Milland's X-ray eyes let him see through clothes. There's also the Vin Diesel action flick xXx, not to mention X-Men and The X-Files.

And this past summer, an Argentine film used the chromosome symbols — XX for female and XY for male — to come up with the title XXY for a story about a hermaphrodite. Josh Brolin, who starred as the title character in W., even wrote and directed a short this year called X.

L? Lots harder. For the longest time the only "L" title I could come up with was El Cid, and that's clearly cheating. You'd think some French auteur would've made a big romance about someone named Elle, but I've never seen one. There's The L Word, on TV of course, in the tradition of F-Troop and the science-fiction miniseries V.

For K, there's K-2, about the second-highest mountain in the world. And for D, there's D2, the sequel to The Mighty Ducks. (Also: D-Day.)

The title O stood for Othello in a hip-hop prep-school tale of jealousy and handkerchief, and for erotic obsession — and a photographer named "O" — in The Story of O.

But for J, I've got nothing. Nor for N, unless you'll give me The EN-forcer.

And oddly, the three letters that say alphabet best of all — A-B-C — turn out to be among the least used in this way in titles. For B, there's Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie, but for C, you have to go back 38 years to Joe Namath's biker-gang flick CC & Company.

And for A, apart from animated shorts and obscure documentaries, I was coming up totally blank until a friend who's more literary than I suggested an elegant finesse: Gary Oldman and Demi Moore in that bright-red-A-for-adultery movie, The Scarlet Letter.

Give that guy an A for alphabetical effort — and acknowledge his superior movie IQ.

Correction Nov. 12, 2008

Some versions of this story incorrectly said Daniel Day-Lewis acted in the movie "The Scarlet Letter." The film actually starred Gary Oldman.

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