A DECADE AGO, WHEN I was writing about telecom deregulation (and you think you have a boring job), "video on demand"--the ability to order any movie, any time, directly through your television set--was supposed to be just around the corner. And yet, until recently, I was still waiting on line with all the other mopes at the local Blockbuster, where my movie rental choices were pretty much limited to 20 copies of Alien vs. Predator and 20 copies of Catwoman.
Has video on demand finally arrived? Not really. What has arrived is the daily mail, with my latest batch of movie choices from Netflix. The video-mail service has been around since 1999 and claims three million subscribers, but not one of them told me about it until a few months ago.
News like this, I'm realizing, travels slow when you're off the telecom beat. In case you, too, are among the uninitiated, Netflix works like this: You go online to their website, choose movies you'd like to watch from their library of 35,000 titles, and, presto, a few days later your first three choices are sitting in your mailbox. You can check out three movies at a time for a set monthly rate (currently $17.99 plus sales tax) and return them anytime without late fees. As soon as one Netflix DVD is returned, the next item on your queue is automatically shipped off.
This article isn't one of those Armstrong Williams deals. I'm shilling for Netflix for free, out of sheer gratitude. Because I can now watch older gems like Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges's delightful 1941 sendup of a Hollywood director out to make a "message" movie), Alfie (Michael Caine's first breakout role, a very dark 1966 comedy about philandering), and The Year of Living Dangerously (a 1982 thriller about political unrest in Indonesia, starring a young Mel Gibson). Netflix's business model is so compelling that Blockbuster and Wal-Mart have started their own video-mail services, and Amazon.com is expected to soon jump in as well.
In fact, the competition has become so stiff that Netflix's stock recently suffered a sharp drop. But even as cold market forces take their toll, I find myself warming to the Netflix library. Like Amazon.com, the website allows you to make serendipitous links from one title to another. I stumbled onto a 1960 movie called Tunes of Glory, in which Alec Guinness played the lower-class commander of a Scottish army regiment who comes into conflict with his upper-class successor. This reminded me of what a wonderful actor Guinness was, and made me eager to see more of his films.
So I rented Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC's faithful 1979 adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War classic, in which Guinness played super-spy George Smiley on the trail of a Soviet mole who had penetrated British intelligence. This was followed by Smiley's People, the 1982 sequel which wasn't quite as good but was still great fun.
Having gotten hooked on BBC miniseries (thank you, British taxpayers, for subsidizing my entertainment), I rented Brideshead Revisited, the 1981 dramatization of Evelyn Waugh's elegiac novel. Like the le Carré films, this production featured a dazzling cast--Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte, and Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain. (How do the Brits manage to produce so many top-flight actors?)
Then it was on to a more recent BBC triumph: House of Cards, a delicious political satire that ran in three installments between 1990 and 1995. By a nice coincidence, Ian Richardson, who stars as the scheming Tory politician Francis Urquhart, also played the Soviet mole Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor. No one does haughty villainy better. (From the DVD's bonus features, I learned that Richardson does not reserve his talents for high-brow productions: He also played the toff in the back of the Rolls-Royce who asked, in that famous commercial, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?")
I don't mean to imply that Netflix is full of nothing but the best. Most of its thousands of titles are, inevitably, stinkers. I recently made the mistake of renting the 1994 David Spade comedy PCU, the unfunniest campus comedy ever made, and the 1970 Le Cercle Rouge, the dullest detective film ever made. But at least I don't have to schlep these lemons back to the video store. I simply pop them in the prepaid envelope and hope for the best when the next mail delivery arrives.