Thursday, March 25, 2010

Year in Review: 1957

1957 was a strong year for movies – both American and otherwise – you can tell that by the fact that Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite directors has not one but two films that didn’t even place on my top 10. The top of my list is dominated by war films, but it also has interesting films about newspaper, juries, prostitutes and a lot of Swedish angst. While this is not the best year the 1950s had to offer, it was an incredibly strong one.

10. Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti)
Visconti was always a little different than his contemporaries in Italian cinema. Though, like Rosselini and DeSica, he started in neo realism (with his 1948 film La Terra Terma), Visconti’s career expands into different areas much quicker than either of them did. Le Notti Bianche is pretty much the exact opposite of neo-realism – it is a film that is boldly romantic and artificial, filming the movie almost entirely on soundstages. The movie is a wonderful, sad portrait of loneliness and isolation – as Marcello Mastronini gives a stirring performance as a man new in town who knows no one, who falls for Maria Schell, who is isolated in her house, and longs for the man she loves, who may never come back to her. Filmed is gorgeous black and white, Le Notti Bianche is not the best film of Visconti’s career, but it is certainly a very interesting one.

9. Gunfight at the OK Corrall (John Sturges)
John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral is not the best Western to have Wyatt Earp at its center (that would be Ford’s My Darling Clementine), or even my favorite (that would be Tombstone), but it is one hell of an exciting Western. Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp as a strong and sturdy man, and Kirk Douglas is wonderful as the drunken Doc Holliday (like the best Doc’s, he steals the movie from Earp). Sturges’ direction is exciting and crisp – the battle itself is the centerpiece, and remarkable action filmmaking. The movie also contains some excellent supporting work by Jo Van Fleet as Doc’s girlfriend, and John Ireland, as the villainous Johnny Ringo. No, the movie probably has very little to do with the reality of what actually happened, but I hardly care. This is Western filmmaking at its finest.

8. Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is an endlessly entertaining courtroom drama in the grand old tradition. Charles Laughton gives a wonderful performance as an aging lawyer who takes on the case of Tyrone Power, on trial for murdering a wealthy old woman who made him her beneficiary. Against the advice of his nurse (the wonderful Elsa Lanchester’s Laughton’s real life wife), he takes it to trial anyway, and is mystified by the behavior of Power’s wife – the wonderful Marlene Dietrich. Yes, Witness for the Prosecution has one unlikely twist after another – as many as an entire season of Matlock – but who the hell cares when it is this entertaining – this well acted and directed by people at the top of their game. This movie is just plain fun.

7. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
To many, The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, but while I do think it is a great movie I can think of many Bergman films I like more, and I think he expanded on his theme of the “Silence of God” better in his trilogy – Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence and Winter Light. Nevertheless, The Seventh Seal is still an entrancing film, and film at once so simple, and yet endlessly complex. Bergman favorite Max von Sydow plays a Knight returning for the Crusades, to discover Sweden being overrun by the plague. Death has come for him, but von Sydow does not want to go yet, so he challenges him to a game of chess. To many viewers today, The Seventh Seal represents the art film at its most pretentious, but to me it remains a haunting film – the final image of the film, the infamous “Dance of Death”, remains ingrained in my mind. While it isn’t Bergman’s best film, it is still a masterful one.

6. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
Nights of Cabiria is a transitional film for Fellini – you can see elements of the neo-realism of his earlier films intermingled with the more free flowing, visually exciting style of his later films. The film stars Giuletta Masina, Fellini’s real life wife, as naïve prostitute Cabiria – who at the beginning of the movie is shoved into the water by her latest boyfriend, robbed and left for dead. But this cannot bring down Cabiria, who soon begins to love life once again – only to be constantly mistreated and heartbroken. Fellini’s movie centers on Masina, and she delivers the best performance of her career. We feel for Cabiria as she is constantly beat down by life, but we love her as she keeps getting back up again.

5. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman’s second film on this list this year is to me (obviously) the better one – and perhaps the most optimistic film of his career. The movie stars Victor Sjostrom, a director in his own right, as an elderly physician traveling with his daughter to receive an honorary degree from the university he graduated from 50 years before. Through the journey he is haunted by his memories, his dreams and his nightmares, and meets people along the way who remind of his past, and push him towards the future, which to him means death. Despite its weighty subject matter, the film is not depressing, and offers a rather hopeful look at life and death. Bergman, whose films are normally quite dark and depressing, here almost, seems to be celebrating life.

4. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is one of those films that seemingly never gets tired or boring no matter how often you watch it. The entire movie takes place inside a jury room where Henry Fonda believes that the boy on trial for murdering his father is innocent – while the rest of the jury thinks he is guilty. Lumet’s treatment of the material, which could have been stagy, is instead intensely cinematic. The movie is a showcase for great performances, none more so than Fonda’s, although the entire cast is wonderful. No matter how many remakes they do (my favorite being the recent Russian one simply titles 12); this is the best version of the story put to film. It is masterful.

3. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was ignored when it was initially released, but has become regarded as a classic. The film stars Tony Curtis (in his best role) as Sidney Falco, a low level Hollywood agent who cannot get JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful gossip columnist in Hollywood to pay attention to his clients, so he agrees to a blackmail scheme to try and get Hunsecker’s beloved younger sister to break up with her boyfriend. The film is acid tongued and cynical to the core, looking at a world where everyone is morally bankrupt. Curtis has never been better than he is here – fast talking and conniving, and Lancaster is his match in every scene. The screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman is full of great lines, and Mackendrick’s direction is top notch. They don’t make movies like this very much anymore, and we’re all the poorer for it.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is grandiose studio filmmaking the way it was meant to be done. While so many of the epic films from the studio era now seem bloated and somewhat comical, Lean’s film is a master class is storytelling and filmmaking on a grand scale. The film is essentially divided into two sections – in one British officer Alec Guiness stands up to the Japanese who are running the prison camp where he is being held, but eventually agrees to help design and build a proper bridge for them. Meanwhile, William Holden plays an American who just escaped from the same prison camp, but has to go back with a group of commandos to try and take down the bridge. The two leads are excellent, and are supported by an excellent cast – especially Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese officer in charge of the camp. The film is big, bold, entertaining and leads to an explosive climax. All these years later, The Bridge on the River Kwai remains as exciting as ever.

1. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick had already proven himself to be a director of skill with his first features, but I would argue that Paths of Glory is his first true masterpiece, and the finest WWI film ever made. The film is about three men who are being charged with cowardice, following an attack on a German stronghold that was unsuccessful. Angered by the three regiment’s failure to carry out their orders, the powers that be want to execute 100 men as an example – but settle on three instead. Kirk Douglas is assigned to defend them, but doesn’t like what he sees. There are no witnesses, no trial records – nothing to prove their guilt, and he argues, futilely, in their defense. Kubrick’s control of the medium here is absolute. The acting is first rate – especially by Douglas as the idealistic defender of the men, but also by Wayne Morris as the true coward and Adolphe Menjou as the cynical General who ordered the attack in the first place – and goes to the end of the movie thinking they did nothing wrong. The final scene in the film is haunting and beautiful. Kubrick is one of the best filmmakers in history, and Paths of Glory is one of his best films.

Just Missed the Top 10: Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa), The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa), Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur) The Three Faces of Eve (Nunally Johnson), An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey).

Notable Films Missed: Peyton Place (Mark Robson), Pyassa (Guru Dutt), The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozishvili), Funny Face (Stanley Donen), Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
It is nearly impossible to complain about this film winning Picture and Director, as the film truly is a studio era masterpiece of epic filmmaking. Yes, I prefer Paths of Glory, but the Academy is always going to reward the kind of spectacle on display here rather than the more somber and dark, like Paths of Glory. We are lucky when the film winning as good as this one is.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Alec Guiness, The Bridge on the River Kwai
Again, it is hard to complain about Guiness’s wonderful performance winning the Oscar this year – and impossible to deny that Guiness deserved to have an Oscar on his shelf for his career. Personally, I think the two best performances of the year were both in Sweet Smell of Success by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, but a case could be made for Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men and Victor Sjostrom in Wild Strawberries alongside Guiness. This was a great year for this category.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
It is easy to see why Woodward won this Oscar – she was beautiful, young and married to an equally beautiful and young star – Paul Newman. Also, the movie is about schizophrenia, and allows Woodward an actor’s showcase to play three different women – which she does quite well. The movie is up to her performance though, and remains a good, but not great film. I haven’t seen ANY of the other nominees that year (my bad!), but I personally, I would have loved to have seen Giuletta Masina win for Nights of Cabiria.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Red Buttons, Sayonara
I don’t think much of Joshua Logan’s Sayonara – the kind of melodramatic tearjerker that gives that genre a bad name. Not even Marlon Brando in the lead role can salvage the film. Buttons is fine as Brando’s sidekick, who in the aftermath of WWII while stationed in Japan falls in love with a local woman, and the government’s refusal to let him bring her home causes his tragic end. But if it wasn’t for the films multiple Oscar wins, this would have long since been forgotten. Out of the nominees, I would have voted for Sessue Hayakawa for The Bridge on the River Kwai – but I think both E.G. Marshall and Lee J. Cobb, two great character actors, had the best work of the year here in 12 Angry Men.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara
What I said about Buttons in this film goes double for Miyoshi Umeki, who plays the woman he falls in love with and marries. She is fine in the role, but it is such a meek and underwritten role that it is hard for her to excel in it. I would have loved Elsa Lanchester’s hilarious work in Witness for the Prosecution win here, and Bibi Andersson was great in BOTH Bergman films released this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment