Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Year in Review: 1956

1956 was a wonderful year for movies – so much so that I had trouble narrowing this list to just 10 finalists. It saw the true emergence of one of cinema’s greatest talents, and gave some veterans some of their best films. The number 1 film for me is one that was ignored at the time, went onto become one of the most acclaimed films of all time, and is no suffering a bit of a backlash (for reasons that remain unclear to me).

10. Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan reteamed with Tenesse Williams for this sexual melodrama which got them in a lot of hot water with the League of Catholic Bishops. The movie is about the child bride (Carroll Baker) of an older lout (Karl Malden), who still sleeps in a crib! Although they are married, Malden has to wait until she’s 18 before they can have sex. When he screws over a business rival (Eli Wallach), the rival decides to try and take what Malden values most – his wife’s virginity. The film was daringly sexual for its time, but looking back on it, it’s the drama that remains most powerful. The heart of the movie is the scenes between Baker and Wallach as he tries to seduce her, and they work marvelously well. Like many scandalous movies, the controversy has faded over time – but the film remains a wonderful little film, worthy of the collaboration by the team who made A Streetcar Named Desire.

9. Bob La Flambeur (Jean Pierre Melville)
Jean Pierre Melville is one of those directors who never really got the respect he deserved during his career. It has only been recently that people have embraced him for the master filmmaker that he was. Bob La Flambeur is an enjoyable caper film, centered on a wonderful performance by Roger Duchesne as the title character, a broken down gambler who decides that he’ll get a group of people together and rob a casino. The film obviously has a following – Neil Jordan remade it as The Good Thief with Nick Nolte, and I thought there was more of this film than the original in Steven Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s 11. The filmmaking is masterful, weaving together subplots effortlessly, and gliding along to its unexpected, but wonderful, conclusion.

8. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is a brilliantly crafted movie about a prison escape by a member of the French Resistance being held by the Nazis in the waning days of WWII. Like most of Bresson’s films, he used non-professional actors to portray the characters here – focusing in on their faces and their actions, more so than dialogue, which is barely existant in the film except in the form of voiceover. We see Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) planning and executing his brilliant escape with painstaking detail. The escape itself is wonderfully tense, but Bresson refuses to romanticize the escape, instead opting to film it just as it was, with no music to get in the way. While I do not think that this is as good as some of Bresson’s best films, it is an expertly crafted, tense movie.

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegal)
Most of the B science fiction movies of the 1950s have long since been forgotten except by those rabid fans who love them so much. But Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains a powerful, creepy horror film, with political relevance more than 50 years later. Don Siegal’s direction of the movie is wonderful – building atmosphere and suspense, and Kevin McCarthy’s lead performance as the man who suspects his town is being taken over by pod people truly remains great. The film was a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism – something you really could not get away with if you had come out and made a movie about it outright. Instead, the themes are buried, but clear for anyone to see. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless story – one that filmmakers have been revisiting time and again to address whatever political problems the country is having at the time. Although the 1978 and 1994 versions of the movie are also wonderful, this one is the best.

6. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)
In just his second real movie, Stanley Kubrick already established himself as a master filmmaker. This movie is a wonderfully tense, brilliantly structured crime movie. Sterling Hayden plays a veteran crook after just “one more heist” before he retires. The perfectly structured plan goes off just fine, but the aftermath is bloody and causes the whole thing to come crashing down. The performances in the movie are all excellent, but Kubrick is the real star of the show – expertly crafting the planning, the heist itself and its bloody aftermath. With this film, you truly knew that there was a special director working behind the camera.

5. Rififi (Jules Dassin)
After being banished by the blacklist in America, director Jules Dassin went to France where he made this masterful heist film, which is even better than Kubrick’s The Killing, which is really saying something. The centerpiece of the film is the nearly wordless 30 minute sequence of the heist itself – as the team drill their way in throught the ceiling, then expertly crack the safe – which is done even without the aid of music, and yet is brilliant nonetheless. The film does share certain things in common with The Killing as well – the plan is pulled off perfectly, but the aftermath becomes a bloody mess. In the lead role Jean Servais is wonderful – a tough as nails exterior, hiding a more sensitive person underneath. But the movie belongs to Dassin who expertly crafted this heist movie – one of the greatest the genre has ever seen.

4. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
Normally, I don’t particularly like the old school Hollywood melodramas - but when Douglas Sirk is directing, I cannot help myself. The film are so full of wonderful color, so dripping with sexual innuendo and over the top moments that his films really are masterful. Out of all of his films, Written on the Wind is perhaps my favorite. Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall are the top billed stars - and they are wonderful - but the movie really belongs to Robert Stack (yes, the Unsolved Mysteries guy) as a wealthy playboy and Dorothy Malone as his nymphomaniac sister who destroy themselves, and suck everyone around them into their sick little world. The film is brilliant, melodrama and sexual - Malone caressing that model oil derrick at the end is wonderful.

3. The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock)
For some reason The Wrong Man is not often listed among Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but I think the film is utterly masterful. It is a variation on Hitchcock’s favorite story - the innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This time, it’s Henry Fonda as a musician accused of a robbery he didn’t commit. Fonda is wonderful, but Vera Miles is truly exceptional as his wife, who slowly goes crazy because of the strain of the accusations on his family. Hitchcock made this one in semi-documentary style on the streets of New York, and pulls it off brilliantly. He was always experimenting with different styles - with varying success - but this is one he pulled off brilliantly. Yes, it deserves to be mentioned among the best films Hitchcock ever made.

2. Bigger Than Life (Nicolas Ray)
Nicolas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is a very strange film. It is a melodrama about the destruction of the nuclear family, when the father (James Mason) becomes addicted to cortisone and completely changes from a loving man into a would-be murderer. But Ray doesn’t play the film as a melodrama – despite its dazzling use of Technicolor. The film almost plays like a horror movie. The lightness and joy in the opening scenes, gives way to a much darker visual look in the films closing scenes – shadows dominate every time Mason is on screen. The house is segmented into different areas that mean different things. Even the end of the film, which is outwardly happy, seems dark and ominous – the horror not over, just on hold. In many ways a companion piece to Ray’s film of the previous year – Rebel Without a Cause (the son here wears the same red jacket James Dean made so famous – this one is even better. In fact, it could be Ray’s best film.

1. The Searchers (John Ford)
Dismissed by critics when it was first released, John Ford’s The Searchers has gone onto become one of the acknowledged masterpieces of the cinema – an inspiration for films as wide ranging as Taxi Driver, Hardcore and The Emerald Forest to name but three. John Wayne gives far and away the best performance of his career as a drifter who returns to the only family he has left – to discover that his two nieces have been kidnapped by Indians. He sets out on their trial, discovering the body of one of nieces, but nothing of the other one. Slowly, his mission turns from being one of rescue, to one of execution – it is better than his niece is dead than one of them. The film’s wonderful climax is perfectly realized, and makes us question what the right thing to do is. Does Wayne’s niece really want to be rescued? The final shot of Wayne standing in the doorway, before heading out on his own again is one of the most iconic in cinema history – and the single best image that Ford ever produced in his life. This is a masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Moby Dick (John Huston), The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock), Giant (George Stevens).

Notable Films Missed: French Cancan (Jean Renoir), Apparajito (Satyajit Ray), The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse), There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang), While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang), Kanal (Andrej Wajda), Friendly Persusasion (William Wyler), The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille), Lust for Life (Vincente Minelli).

Oscar Winner – Picture: Around the World in 80 Days
There are some years where I cannot believe what the Academy rewarded with Oscars. This is certainly one of them. Director Michael Anderson’s huge, slumberous, boring as hell adaptation of the Jules Verne novel is not only perhaps the worst Best Picture Winner of all time – it is a downright awful film from beginning to end. There is literally nothing worthwhile about this “adventure” movie. For a while you can amuse yourself by spotting all the celebrity cameos, but after about an hour even that gets boring – and you still have two hours to go! I don’t think the Academy nominated the best of the year this time around, but both Giant (which I like quite a lot, but is flawed) and The King and I (which I barely tolerated) where infinitely better than this – and I assume the same for the unseen by me The Ten Commandments and Friendly Persuasion. Simply a godawful choice.

Oscar Winner – Director: George Stevens, Giant.
The best thing you can say about this win is that at least they didn’t give it to Anderson for Around the World in 80 Days. That is a little unfair, because Stevens does do a wonderful job of bringing Edna Farber’s epic novel to the big screen, even if I find the film a little uneven (and think that Hudson is a bore in the lead role). Stevens job is very good as is the film. I do kind of wish that out of the nominees King Vidor had won – even though I have yet to see War and Peace – because he was a master filmmaker who never won this award despite multiple nominations, but out of the nominees, I guess this was a fine choice.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Yul Brynner, The King and I
I have never been much of a fan of Yul Brynner, and musicals like The King and I never cease to annoy the crap out of me. Yes, Brynner is amusing in his over the top performance of the egotistical King who hires an foreigner to teach his children, but after the 1,000th time he says etc, etc, etc I wanted to punch him, so no, I don’t think he should have won this award. The Academy missed the opportunity to reward a true legend in James Dean (for Giant, which in my mind should have won an Oscar – for supporting actor), and they overlooked such great work by John Wayne and James Mason that it is shameful. Oh well, I know a lot of people (including my mother) absolutely love this movie and Brynner’s performance, so perhaps I’m wrong.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Anatasia
I love Ingrid Bergman as much as any actress in history, but all three of her Oscar winning performances were nowhere near her best. As the title character in Anatasia, she is fine, and the film is as well, but neither are all that memorable. I think this was an apology from Hollywood for that whole blacklisting thing because she slept with a married man (shock of all shocks). I really don’t understand why they nominate and give her wins for movies like this, when they overlooked her performances in movies like Notorious, Casablanca and Spellbound to name but three. I would have voted for Carroll Baker for Baby Doll, whose twisted, yet innocent sexuality made that film work – but perhaps I’m a pervert.(By the way, is that supposed to be Ingrid Bergman in that poster I have for Anatasia, because it looks nothing like her in the least – perhaps the artist was too busy trying to get the shine of Brynner’s skull correct to notice).

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life
I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t seen this film, as I do love Vincente Minelli, Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn - but it only recently came out on DVD, so I didn’t catch it yet. Quinn is great in almost everything he’s in, so I’ll trust he earned his second Oscar. I do love fellow nominee Robert Stack in Written on the Wind though, and think that had James Dean been in this category for Giant (where he should have – there are times in the epic Giant where he doesn’t show up for an hour) that he should have won but all of that is based on not having seen this one – something I intend to correct at some point in the future.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
I love the fact that the Academy gave an Oscar to someone playing a nympho in 1956. And Malone is absolutely wonderful in the role, and she deserved to win the award. It always makes me smile when I think about it.

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