By now, you probably noticed that I include a lot of foreign films in my recommendations. One reason is because TCM shows the cream of the crop as far as these films are concerned, so the chances of watching a dog are slim. But still, a lot of us have trouble with foreign films. It’s not only the irritation of “reading a film,” (subtitles) but also the fact that European films are paced differently than American films, and they seem to appeal to a different cultural viewpoint than do American films. (Actually they don’t. Compare any great foreign film to a similar American film and you’ll find the plots and concern of each film are practically the same.) I sympathize with your plight and would like to make the following suggestion:
Begin with an American director, specifically one like Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted here and went to England. Dassin directed such noir classics here as Brute Force and Thieves Highway. He also made the splendid Naked City, the charming The Canterville Ghost and the ultimate Conrad Veidt movie – Nazi Agent. The movie by Dassin I would recommend is Rififi, a personal favorite. If you liked The Asphalt Jungle, you’ll love Rififi, which is even more hard-boiled than The Asphalt Jungle (if such as thing is possible). Both films have basically the same plot: the “perfect” jewel heist. But, of course, things always go wrong, and it is in how they go wrong that gives each film its appeal. Rififi moves at a quick pace, leaving the viewer little time to catch his breath. One thing it will not do is disappoint; on the contrary, it will give you a solid introduction to French films.
Then perhaps give Louis Malle a try. Malle employs a distinctly American style in his films, and as he progressed he moved to Hollywood, where he made such films as Pretty Baby, the brooding Atlantic City (with a great performance by Burt Lancaster as an angst-ridden small-time hood), and the vastly underrated My Dinner With Andre, which proved that the art of conversation is not yet dead. The film I would recommend from Malle is Elevator to the Gallows (aka Frantic). I mistakenly thought I was watching this for the first time when, about five minutes into it, I realized that I was watching Frantic, the title chosen when the film, made in 1958, was released in the U.S. in 1962. It was given the title to ride the tide created by Psycho. However, no matter what the title, the truth is that this is an extraordinarily crafted film about the perfect crime and why just one tiny overlooked part can lead not only to the failure of the scheme, but the apprehension of all involved.
Finally, if you love the movies of Quentin Tarantino and want to see from whom he stole, try Bande a Part (released here as Band of Outsiders) by Jean-Luc Godard. Listen to this plot: Arthur and Franz, two crooks with a fondness for old Hollywood B-movies and mimic tough guys (even to the point of acting out scenes) meet Odile (Anna Karina - the then Mme. Godard) in an English class. They learn she lives in nearby Joinville with wealthy benefactors, and that one of them keeps a pile of 10,000 franc notes unlocked in his room. They pressure her to assist them in a burglary while making passes towards her at the same time, with the result that she’s alternately compliant and distressed. Watch for the amazing dance sequence with the three of them in a cafeteria. John Travolta and Uma Thurman perform the same in Pulp Fiction. This film is low budget and looks it, but Godard works best with low-budget movies, as witness his Breathless, another must see. (However, try watching this before viewing the remake with Richard Gere.)
Once you begin to become comfortable, expand your range to other directors. Federico Fellini has many things to offer. He is a bit “talky,” but his style has become so copied in this country that watching his films no longer requires a cultural “quantum” leap.
The same with Bergman, whose style Woody Allen has copied over the years. You may not be awed with Japanese Samurai films; I’m certainly not, but then I’m not a really big fan of Westerns, and that is what the Samurai film translates to in this country. Change, though always slow, is coming to film audiences. I’ve noticed the overwhelming positive acceptance and crossover appeal of films like The Joy Luck Club and Ang Lee’s Taiwanese comedies, Eat Drink Man Woman, and The Wedding Banquet. In fact, Lee has become so successful at what he does that he also directed two mainstream Hollywood films: Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain.
In other words, it’s best not to think of films from other countries as being “foreign.” Their themes and styles are just like ours, only the actors are different (in most cases). One thing you may try that will help with subtitles is to activate the closed captioning option on your remote. Then, after a while, subtitles will no longer seem so imposing.