Friday, June 18, 2010

Year in Review: 1958

1958 contains two of the very best films ever made. In any other year, either of my top two films would have been the clear and easy choice for best. But things work out like that. Some years don’t have a clear best picture, and other years have two or more that could easily fit the bill. The rest of the films on this list are worthy, but none can hold a candle to the top two.

10. The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
The year after Bergman made what many consider to be his masterpieces – The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries – in made this film, which is virtually ignored by many people. While it’s true that The Magician is not the film that either of those films were, it is still a marvelous film by a wonderful director. The film is about a magician (Max von Sydow) who comes to a small town, and whose townspeople are weary of him. They want him to give a certain group of influential people a taste of his act, before they allow him to perform publicly. The scientifically minded crowd then tries to disprove all of von Sydow’s tricks – but he is just a little smarter than they give him credit for. To some, The Magician is a lesser Bergman because it is somewhat more accessible – his points about magic and masks are easier to decipher than some of his more complex films – and while I agree that the film is easier to understand, I don’t agree that this makes the film worthless. In fact, I would argue that perhaps The Magician would be the perfect place for many to start with their Bergman education. A masterpiece it may not be, but a wonderful film by a great director it certainly is.

9. The Big Country (William Wyler)
William Wyler’s epic The Big Country is a movie about a pointless feud between two cattle ranchers that ends in death and destruction. Gregory Peck has the lead role as a man, just out of the army, who comes to the wealthy ranch of his future father-in-law (Charles Bickford), and discovers that Bickford is feuding with a less prosperous rancher (Burl Ives, in his Oscar winning role). Everyone assumes that Peck is a coward, because he refuses to be goaded into a fight either by Ives son (Chuck Connors) or Bickford’s head rancher (Charlton Heston) – this disgusts his fiancĂ©e (Carrol Baker) who breaks off their engagement. But Peck isn’t going anywhere – he buys the land owned by Jean Simmons which lies between the two ranchers, and has caused most the problems. The Big Country is appropriately named – the film is epic in scope and running time, and the cinematography is magnificent, capturing the huge spaces of the ranches, and the wilderness around them. If the film has a flaw, it’s that neither of the romantic leads – Peck or Simmonds – are anywhere near as interesting as the characters that surround them. The real stars of the movie are Ives, Bickford, Connors and Heston. But that’s a small complaint about this big entertainment.

8. The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer)
Many of the films by director Stanley Kramer have aged badly in the years since they were released. Once looked on as progressive, and in some cases daring, they now seem rather quaint and antiquated. But this is not the case with The Defiant Ones, which is still an exacting movie. Two chain gang prisoners – Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis – escape, but have to rely on each other to survive as they are chained together. Initially they hate each other – mainly because of the overt racism of the Curtis character – but gradually they come to like and respect each other. The transformation is so complete that both will eventually sacrifice a chance for themselves to escape in order to save the other one. Yes, to a certain extent The Defiant Ones still offers a rather simplistic view of race relations in America. But it a tremendously well acted film by Poitier and Curtis – not to mention Cara Williams, Theodore Bickel and Lon Chaney Jr. in supporting roles – and is also an exciting prison escape movie. It took guts to make this movie in 1958 – and all these years later, it holds up as a well made, well acted and exciting movie – perhaps Kramer’s best film.

7. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is probably best remembered for being the film that inspired George Lucas’ Star Wars. It is amusing to see the two peasants in this film that were the inspirational for C3P0 and R2D2 bicker and complain to each other, but this Samurai film works as a film its own right, not just as a curiosity item. The film is about those two peasants who end up meeting a samurai (Toshiro Mifune of course), who is transporting a Princess (who is like Leia in many respects) through enemy territory with what remains of her treasure in the hopes that they can use it to rebuild her army, and take back the land that is rightfully hers. The film is exciting, and makes wonderful use of the widescreen format Tohoscope (this was the first time Kurosawa used it – and he would continue for the next decade). The film is exciting, but it built on the foundation of its characters, all of whom are interesting. This does not, for me anyway, rank among the best films of Kurosawa’s career – but it is masterful nonetheless.

6. Man of the West (Anthony Mann)
All but ignored at the time of its release, Anthony Mann’s Man of the West has now become a staple of the genre – and I would argue this film starring Gary Cooper is better even than his more famous Western, High Noon. Cooper gives a great performance as a reformed criminal, who is supposed to travel by train with his small town’s saving in the hopes of hiring a school teacher. But when things go wrong, and the money winds up in the hands of Cooper’s uncle (Lee J. Cobb), who taught Cooper to be a criminal in the first place, Cooper has to revert to his old ways in order to save the town’s money, and get his new life back. The film is a forerunner to films like Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and is a tough violent Western. Like many of Mann’s Westerns (and he was a master of the genre, although he doesn’t quite get the credit of someone like Ford), this is a movie where the good guy has a bad past, and the bad guys are trying to hold onto the past. The film is tough, and unsentimental – much darker and more violent and disturbing than many 1950s Westerns, but holds us in its grip for the entire movie. A great performance by Cooper anchors the film, and Lee J. Cobb is terrific (as always) as the bad guy. Probably the best Western of Mann’s career – and he made a lot of great ones.

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks)
Although some think that Richard Brooks’ adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had to be too toned down for the screen, I have to say I disagree with that reading. The play never made Brick’s homosexual feelings explicit, and neither does the movie, but it is certainly more than possible to know that is what the movie is about – and why Brick has not gotten his beautiful wife Maggie pregnant yet. The film is still about the decaying values of the South – everyone lies nearly constantly in the film in order to get more of Big Daddy’s money when he dies – which the family now knows will be soon. Brick’s homosexuality is alluded to, and played brilliantly off his image of the high school athletic star, clashing with the idea of masculinity put forth in the South. As Brick, Paul Newman gives one of his best performances – drunken, stumbling around on a crutch, yelling at his wife, refusing to suck up to his father, Newman is wonderful in the role. Elizabeth Taylor is even better as Maggie, his wife, you wants to be pregnant – because she knows that Big Daddy loves her best, and if she had a child, they’d get more money. Burl Ives was also brilliant as Big Daddy – he won the Oscar that year for The Big Country, but he is just as good, if not better, here. The film is a wonderful examination of a culture in decline, and one greedy, deceitful family.

4. Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati)
Jacques Tati’s delightful Mr. Hulot returns in this film – which in my mind is even better than his original outing in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. This time Hulot is at his small apartment, and goes out to see his beloved nephew. His sister and brother in law live in a ultra-modern house filled with automatically gadgets that Hulot finds perplexing – particularly a wonderful fountain shaped like a fish that is only turned on for company. Tati is a master silent comedian in the vein of Chaplin or Keaton, and the film is full of his wonderful sight gags, which are hilarious. The film is also a marvel of production design, and Tati’s camera is wonderful at capturing all the hilarious goings on – it rarely moves, but there is so much going on in every inch of the frame that calls our attention. Ultimately, I find Hulot to be one of the endearing creations in cinema history – he is a man who simple goes along with whatever comes before him, takes no offense to what happens, and tries to remain cheerful and upbeat. Mon Oncle is a celebration of this character, and a marvelous example of Tati’s masterful filmmaking.

3. Some Came Running (Vincente Minelli)
Adapating James Jones’ 1,200 page epic novel to the screen – that was about everything for alcoholism, to prostitution to gambling – but mainly about the poisoned, hypocritical lives of small town America had to be a daunting task for director Vincente Minelli. But somehow, he pulled it off, and created one of his greatest movies. Frank Sintra is excellent as a writer, just out of the army in 1948 America, who winds up back in his small, hometown with a Chicago callgirl (Shirley Maclaine) in tow much to his chagrin. He meets up with his brother (Arthur Kennedy), who he hates. Kennedy tries to get Sinatra to return to the fold of small town life, but his hypocrisy sickens Sinatra – who only cares for his niece. Sinatra falls in with a gambler in town (Dean Martin), and continues to string Maclaine along, even while he falls in love with a English teacher (Martha Hyer) who loves his work. All the performances in the film are wonderful – especially Maclaine – but Minelli is the real star of the movie, shooting in bold, bright Technicolor. The film shifts our allegiances to characters, exposing the darker sides of the seemingly good guy Kennedy, and even the fun love Martin. The finale is one of the greatest set pieces of the 1950s. The film is more incisive in its depiction of post-war America than almost any other film of the era. In a lesser year, this could have easier been the best film released.

2. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles)
Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is the master filmmaker best film other than Citizen Kane. Set in a small, border town the film is about a Mexican cop (Charlton Heston) who starts to suspect that the Sheriff (Orson Welles) is corrupt, and has been fabricating evidence for years. Welles, angered that Heston is looking into his activities, tries to frame Heston’s new, American wife (Janet Leigh) for murder, but he cannot stop Heston from coming after him. The film is a visual marvel – the opening 3 and half minutes are one continuous shot that follows a bomb being planted on its journey through the small town, and the finale, which involves Heston following Welles and an associate under a bridge in order to get him on tape is equally dazzling. Heston is fine in the lead role, but it is a rather thankless one. Leigh is better as his terrified wife, and the rest of the supporting cast – Akim Tamiroff and Joseph Calleia in particular are also great. But the best role goes to Welles himself, who is larger than life as the corrupt Sheriff Hank Quinlan. Rather than make him into a purely evil character, Welles creates a fascinating, complex character out of him – one that allows us to see past his racism to the person underneath. As a writer, director and actor Orson Welles has created one of the best films ever made in Touch of Evil – a film that would have been the best film of almost any other year in history.

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
Vertigo is the best film that Alfred Hitchcock ever made. It is a thriller that remains fascinating even after you know all the films secrets – because it is not really about the thriller elements of the plot, but rather the deep, psychological damage of its main character. Casting Jimmy Stewart in the lead role was a stroke of genius by Hitchcock. Stewart was the all American “nice guy” – he’s George Bailey and Mr. Smith for God’s sake! And yet in Vertigo, he plays a former cop, tormented by his fear of heights, who is hired to follow the wife (Kim Novak) of a rich man. Instead of investigating her, he falls in love with her, and her death – apparently by suicide from jumping for a bell tower (where he is unable to follow because of his fear) tears him apart. When he meets a woman who looks very much like her again, years later, he becomes obsessed with turning her into the woman he loved – not knowing that she is in fact the same woman. Stewart’s nice guy persona hides the characters darker nature – he essentially wants to perform necrophilia, and this knowledge disturbs him. With another actor in the role, the audience may not want to take the dark journey, but because it’s Stewart, we follow him down his dark path. The film is a visual marvel from start to finish, containing some of the most iconic shots in cinema history (the vertigo effect is the most famous example, but also the wonderful moment when Novak comes out transformed into her old self) – and Bernard Hermann’s score could be the best of his career. Sadly, Vertigo did not get the recognition it deserved when it was made – but has since become known as one of the greatest of all films – a distinction it certainly earns.

Just Missed The Top 10: I Want to Live (Robert Wise), The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt), Nazarin (Luis Bunuel), The Old Man and the Sea (John Sturges), Separate Tables (Delbert Mann).

Notable Films Missed: Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda), Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli), Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner), The Music Room (Satyajit Ray), The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk), The Tiger of Eschnapur (Fritz Lang), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Gigi (Vincente Minnelli)
Vincente Minnelli did in fact make a masterpiece in 1958 – but it was Some Came Running, not this sexist drivel of a movie musical. The film is essentially about a man (Louis Jourdan) of an upper class, who falls in love with a beautiful, poor girl (Leslie Caron), and plans on keeping her as his own personal concubine, as he goes out and finds a suitable wife. The happy ending of the movie is when this sexist pig decides not to do that, and do the girl the honor of marrying her. What crap! And an very old Maurice Chevlier singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls is one of the more disturbing moments in any best picture winner ever. I love Vincente Minnelli as a filmmaker – but good God do I ever hate Gigi – one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. Since the Academy didn’t recognize the brilliance of Vertigo or Touch of Evil – and didn’t deign Minelli’s actual masterpiece worthy of Best Picture nomination, this probably should have gone to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – but strangely that films sexuality made it too controversial to win the Big Award. Strangely, that film looks downright modern in its depiction of adult sexuality, while this film is sexist trash.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: David Niven, Separate Tables
David Niven is quite good in Separate Tables as the seemingly upstanding Major, who has more secrets than we would like to admit. Oddly though, the movie isn’t really about Niven – but about Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth. Niven is also hampered by the fact that Deborah Kerr plays opposite to him in several scenes – and despite the fact she got an Oscar nomination, it is a bad performance by the great actress. But Niven is strong a British sort of way – keeping his chin up throughout, and he is touching in his final scene. I probably would say that all of his fellow nominees – Newman, Poitier, Curtis and Spencer Tracy for The Old Man and the Sea – not to mention James Stewart’s absolutely brilliant performance in Vertigo – were all better, but Niven is pretty good as well.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Susan Hayward, I Want to Live
Hayward is certainly the reason to see this Robert Wise drama about a woman sentenced to death for a murder she did not commit – but because of her questionable morals, and criminal history, no one believes her. This was her fifth, and final, nomination so a certain amount of “its her time” thinking went into her win as well. However, considering that the two best performances nominated – Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shirley Maclaine in Some Came Running, were by younger actress, pushing the boundaries of acceptable sexuality, her win is not that surprising. Kim Novak should have at least been nominated however – especially since they found room for Deborah Kerr.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Burl Ives, The Big Country
Burl Ives gave not one, but two, great supporting performances this year – in this film, as well as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Personally, I prefer his work as Big Daddy in the later, as opposed to his vengeful rancher in The Big Country – but that’s just a matter of taste. Ives, best known as the singing Snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, could really act when given the right role – and he was given two this year, so I guess he earned his Oscar – even if Orson Welles should have had this easily, and of the nominees, I may have given it to Arthur Kennedy.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables
Wendy Hiller delivers what in my mind is the best performance in Separate Tables as the hotel owner who is engaged to Burt Lancaster, before Rita Hayworth, his old love, reenters his life. Hiller was a great actress – who was nominated for two other Oscars in her career – and she delivers a full blooded performance in Separate Tables, which makes her stand out from the rest of the cast who at times were a bit too theatrical. It is saying something that although her movie is not, in my mind anyway, in the same league as fellow nominees Martha Hyer or Cara Williams, that her performance certainly is.

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