Thursday, June 17, 2010

Year in Review: 1953

1953 is one of the best years I can recall in movie history. Each of the 10 films on my list are masterful, and there are a number of runners-up that I cannot believe didn’t make the cut – and I still have a number of highly regarded films that I missed. Quite simply a stunning year.

10. Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel is one of the best films of his early years. The film is an unflinching examination of the lives and humiliation of a group of circus performers – most notably Frost (Anders Ek) the clown. In the film’s most famous sequence, we see how Frost’s wife humiliated him by swimming nude in front of a cheering group of soldiers. As Frost goes to get her – in full clown makeup – and carries her past the jeering soldiers, your heart breaks a little for him. Meanwhile, the head of the circus Albert (Ake Gronberg) goes to see his wife, who is angry with him that he has made no money, and his mistress (Harriet Anderson) is furious with him that he even went to see his wife, and retaliates by having a fling with an actor, that she immediately feels ashamed of. Sawdust and Tinsel is a penetrating examination of these characters, which endure these humiliations, and somehow find the will to continue on. Bergman made a lot of great films in the 1950s – but none of them are better than this one.

9. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati)
Mr. Hulot is one of the most lovable film characters in history. Played by director Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot fits into the grand tradition of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This is his first of four appearances in Tati’s films, and is perhaps the most endearing (although not the best). Hulot goes to the seaside for a vacation and finds no end of trouble. He mingles with the families, the old couples, the widows and pretty young girls at the resort – none of them seem to notice him unless he is doing something embarrassing – which is often. What makes Hulot so lovable is just how kind, sympathetic and trusting he is – no matter what happens, he takes it in stride, picks himself up and continues on his merry way. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a comedy, but not a laugh out loud one – it is a masterwork of elaborately conceived gags that must have been nearly impossible to stage properly, but Tati somehow manages to pull them off and make them look effortless. Unlike the later Hulot films, there doesn’t seem to be any greater meaning to Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – it is a film that captures the feeling of being on vacation, and introduces us to one of the great characters in screen history – and that is more than enough to make it a great movie.

8. I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess is one of his more underrated masterworks. Montgomery Clift gives an excellent performance as a priest who is accused of murder, but cannot reveal the identity of the real killer – because he confessed to him through the sanctuary of confession. Not only that, but he has to try and protect his former lover (Anne Baxter) who he was in love with before the war who is now providing him with an alibi, but may have an ulterior motive. Hitchcock weaves together the fabric of the story – including a memorable flashback (that had to be tamed down because of censorship), and delivers a masterful film. Shot on location in Montreal, Hitchcock’s film makes the most of this historic city, particularly in the climax of the movie. Hitchcock and Clift clashed repeatedly during the filming – he was a method actor who always wanted to know his motivation, where he just wanted to get the shot he already had planned done – but the result is one Hitchcock’s best films of the 1950s – which could in fact be his greatest decade as a filmmaker.

7. Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is one of the great film noirs of its time – a brutal and unrelentingly grim movie about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who steals the wallet of a beautiful young woman (Jean Peters), not realizing that it contains a top secret microfilm that the government must have at all costs. The film is violent from beginning to end – with everyone at one point or another get beat up, frisk, shot or killed. Widmark is great in the lead role – a cynical, unpatriotic criminal willing to do anything if it means furthering his own self. Peters is excellent as the woman who had the microfilm – and Thelma Ritter is brilliant as the stool pigeon who “gets what’s coming to her”. Fuller’s brilliant cinematography – the longer, tracking shots, the dark visuals – are on full display here and the film is dark and rotten to its core – just like it should be. A great film by a great director.

6. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang)
The Big Heat is one of the most violent film noirs of its time. Glenn Ford is very good as a relentless cop, driven by his friend’s apparent suicide and his wife’s murder to bring down a gangster ring that is protected on high by the others in the police force. But it is the supporting players that really make this movie as good as it is – Gloria Grahame as a gangster’s girlfriend who turns to Ford for protection, and Lee Marvin in one of his best, most heartless roles as the gangster who first burns Grahame with a cigarette, and then throws boiling coffee on her face, permanently disfiguring her. The film is dark and insidious in its intentions though – portraying Ford as a straight arrow hero, when in reality he is the cause of so much death all around him, as women who trust him end up dead because he will not let go on the case. He is right of course – Lee Marvin is as evil as they come in this film, but because of his obsession a whole lot of innocent people wind up dead, who wouldn’t have if he just like it go. Sometimes being a hero doesn’t pay.

5. The Earrings of Madame De… (Max Ophuls)
Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. Opuls penchant for brilliant, long, fluid tracking shots is on full display in this movie that weaves an hypnotic spell over the audience. We are so focused on the visuals that we barely realize that the film is actually involving us in a wonderful story as well – one that builds to a wonderful climax. Madame De (Danielle Darrieux) is married to a wealthy man (Charles Boyer) – but it is a marriage of convienence more than anything – both carry on affairs with the full knowledge of the other partner and don’t care. That is until Madame falls in love with a foreign general (Vittorio DeSica), and their shallow lives come crashing down all around them. The title refers to a pair of earrings that Boyer gave Darrieux as a wedding present. She needs money so she sells them. The jeweler approaches Boyer about buying them back, and he does, but then gives them as a going away present to his mistress, who ends up pawning them to pay gambling debts, where DeSica buys them and gives them back to Darrieux, who now has to explain to her husband where the earrings she told him she lost came from – unaware that he knows what is going on. The movie sounds like a melodrama, because that is precisely what it is. And yet, we are unprepared by how much we come to care about these characters. The visuals are stunning (particularly in the lengthy ballroom sequence that recounts the DeSica and Darrieux’s courtship over a matter of months is in particular brilliant), but are only part of the pleasure of this masterful film.

4. The Wages of Fear (Henri Georges Clouzot)
The Wages of Fear is one of the most intense movies of all time. Four European men, down on their luck and trapped in a dead end South American town are hired by an oil company to transport nitroglycerin to a far off outpost to try and stop a catastrophic fire. The men are split into pairs, each given a truck and told to drive the 300 miles across rough terrain – anything too rough will cause the nitro to explode. We encounter sequence after sequence of nerve fraying intensity – having to cross a bumpy stretch of road where if their speed drops will cause the nitro to explode, a road construction site that takes the trucks perilously close the edge of falling down a cliff, a giant rock that needs to be exploded to get it off the road, an oil spill that they have to drive through rapidly because if they get stuck, they will never get out again. The film is brilliantly structured by Clouzut, who plays with our expectations. Since there are two trucks, we know one will undoubtedly explode, but when it comes, it does so at an unexpected moment. The film is not really about acting, but the performances have a raw, lived in feel to them – these are men defined by their masculinity, who hate to have it questioned. The ending of the film is fittingly ironic and sad. The Wages of Fear is that rare movie that grips you from beginning to end.

3. I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini)
Out of all of Fellini’s wonderful 1950s output – where he seemed to be in line with his neo-realist precursors, I think I Vitelloni is his best. A semi-autobiographical movie about five friends, now well into their 20s, who still act as if they were teenagers. Notorious ladies man Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) has had to get married to the girl he knocked up – but even this isn’t enough to get him to stop chasing women, or settle down and get a job. His four friends are all daydreamers of one kind or another – the moderately talented singer who thinks he is going to make it big, the aspiring playwright who never actually finishes anything, the guy with big plans who relies on his mother and sister to support him – and finally the youngest one – representative of Fellini himself – who finally realizes that his friends are sleeping their lives away, and decides to head out of their small town to try and make his own way. Fellini’s film is one of the best films ever made about male friendship, as well as the dawning realization that sometimes you have to leave your friends behind and follow your own way. Fellini’s film is masterfully written and directed, and is one of his most influential – you see echoes of it in films like Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Fellini would go on in the 1960s to be one of the cinema’s most visually imaginative, and fantastic poets – but this realist drama remains one of his very best.

2. Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is about two brothers who are destroyed by their obsessions. One is a potter, who dreams of making lots of gold for his simple pots – and when it seems like it is all within his grasp, he loses it because he is seduced by a rich woman, who turns out to be a ghost. The other brothers dreams of being a samurai, finds a way to become one, but is heartbroken to discover that after he abandoned his wife to follow his dream, he had to become a geisha to support herself. Mizoguchi’s style is the real attraction here – his flowing camera shots that create a dreamlike atmosphere, the magnificent sequence when the brothers cross the river shrouded in fog, the introduction of the ghost story elements which are not meant to titillate, but rather simply exist and draw us, along with the greedy potter, towards her. The film is a masterwork of style – it tells a story that seems ancient, and yet remains relevant. Mizoguchi ranks right alongside Kurosawa and Ozu as the best directors Japan has ever produced.

1. Tokyo Story (Yashujiro Ozu)
Yashujiro Ozu directed a number of great films in his career, but Tokyo Story is his masterpiece – the one that he will always be remembered for. The movie, inspired by Leo McCarey’s great Make Way for Tomorrow, is about two elderly parents who travel to Tokyo and Osaka to see their grown children. Although the children love them, they do not have time for them, and what was supposed to be a wonderful trip soon becomes depressing for them. Only their widowed daughter in law tries to entertain her in laws – the rest are too busy with their lives to care. Tokyo Story is a slow, calm movie – one that paints a picture of Japan after the war as caught between its traditions and the oncoming modernity of the country. While the movie sounds sentimental, it doesn’t exploit, it doesn’t try to wring tears from our eyes – although it does – instead it simply quietly observes this old couple as they try and have a happy trip, and have nothing turn out the way it is supposed to. This is one of the saddest movies ever made – and also one of the very best.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Band Wagon (Vincente Minelli), Beat the Devil (John Huston), From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinneman), Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Roman Holiday (William Wyler), Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder).

Notable Films Missed: Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks), The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir), Indiscretion of an American Housewife (Vittorio DeSica), The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann), The Robe (Henry Koster), The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford), Voyage in Italy (Robert Rosselini), The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinneman)
From Here to Eternity is a wonderful wartime romance – a film that in many other years in the 1950s would have easily made my top ten list. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are excellent as lovers – she the wife of his commanding officer, but I have always felt that the best performance in the film belongs to Montgomery Clift, who refuses to box despite his reputation. However both Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed – in their Oscar winning performances – are excellent as well. No, it didn’t make my top 10 list (which this year is dominated by foreign films) – but out of the nominees, it is a solid choice (even though mine would have been Julius Caesar.)

Oscar Winner – Actor: William Holden, Stalag 17
William Holden was excellent as the soldier who everyone thinks is the rat in this POW movie. He is mainly surrounded by character actors, and perhaps the best thing you can say about him is how effortlessly he blends in with them – yes he is the films central character, and the most important one, but he fits in with everyone else. This was a year where I honestly have to say was not the strongest for this category. Alongside Holden, the Academy recognized the work of Lancaster and Clift in From Here to Eternity, Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (despite the obvious fact that he has only one major scene, and that James Mason’s Brutus is far and away the best performance in the film), and Richard Burton, unseen by me, in The Robe. But despite the fact that none of those films made my top 10 list, I cannot think of many performances in films that did that were better. Most years, the best actor category is the most competitive – not this one.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
This was Audrey Hepburn’s breakthrough role – and she immediately defined her screen persona and got audiences to fall in love with her. Roman Holiday is a joyous little film about a spoiled princess who gets to see how everyone else lives for a little while, before going back to her charmed life. And yet, despite the fact that may sound annoying, it really isn’t – it’s delightful. I do think that several of the foreign women who are so often overlooked by the Academy out did Hepburn this year, but of the nominees it is a fine choice. And you really cannot say that her career didn’t deserve an Oscar, so I won’t complain about this one.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity
Sinatra longed to be taken seriously as an actor, but it wasn’t until this film when he truly was. Sinantra is great in a supporting role as Clift’s only ally, who has a running feud with the bigoted Ernest Borgnine. His tragic death sequence probably clinched him this award, but his whole performance is excellent. Out of the nominees, he was clearly the best – but that isn’t saying much as two of the nominees come from George Stevens’ Shane, a film I have never liked, and the other two were I thought rather minor performances. The clear best choice this year was Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, but it would take the Academy another decade to recognize his brilliance – and for a bad role at that.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity
Donna Reed is very good in her role as Clift’s girlfriend in From Here to Eternity. She also fit the mold that the Academy likes to use for this award – young, pretty and in a Best Picture winner. This is probably the weakest award that From Here to Eternity won on Oscar night – especially when you consider just how great Thelma Ritter (who never won!) was in Pickup on South Street – but given the brutality of that movie, I guess we should count ourselves lucky that they even nominated her, which is more than we can say for the other great performance in this category this year – Gloria Grahme in The Big Heat.

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