Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Year in Review: 1952

Some years the foreign filmmakers just seem to be a step ahead of the American ones. Surprisingly, 1952 is a year like that for me, despite the fact that one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time came out this year - and it is a masterpiece. But 1952 is just such a strong year.

10. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
John Ford was mainly known for his Westerns, but he made quite a few different kinds of films over the course of his career. The Quiet Man was certainly a passion project for himself, and his largely Irish American cast, and the result is one of Ford’s most entertaining, most endearing films. John Wayne plays a famous Irish American boxer, who was born in a small Irish town, but moved to America when he was young. Haunted by his past in the ring, he decides he wants to move back to that Irish town, and live a simpler life. Most of the town welcomes him back with open arms – but Victor McLagen is not so happy. Wayne convinces a wealthy widow to sell him his childhood home back – and its right where McLagen wanted to buy as well. Perhaps even worse, Wayne sets his sights on McLagen’s spirited sister – Maureen O’Hara – as a possible wife. The film is one of Ford’s most comedic, as Wayne has to negotiate an entirely foreign system of dating, and everything else in his life. The film has great supporting work, not just by McLagen, but also by Barry Fitzgerald as the old, drunken matchmaker in town. I don’t think The Quiet Man ranks among Ford’s best work – but it sure is an entertaining movie.

9. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)
Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is one of his more underrated noirs. Robert Ryan delivers one his best performances as a tough as nails cop, who has trouble controlling his rage – often lashing out violently at suspects. Although he gets results, he also gets himself into trouble because of it. His boss thinks he needs to time to calm down, so he sends Ryan up North, to a rural area, to help with a murder investigation. While there, he meets the blind sister of the murder suspect (Ida Lupino, who apparently helped to direct this film). Through her goodness, she helps to calm him down, and deal with his rage better. The film is a cross between film noir – with a magnificent score by Bernard Hermann (which apparently he said was his favorite of all of his scores) – and a melodrama. Ray’s wonderful direction makes the film alive, and moves things along at a great pace. I love the contrast between the dirty streets of the city, and the clean, snow covered rural settings. This may not rank among the very best of Ray’s films – but it is magnificent nonetheless.

8. Angel Face (Otto Preminger)
Aside from his masterpiece Laura, this is Preminger’s best film noir. Robert Mitchum, perhaps the best noir hero, plays Frank, an ambulance driver, dating the nice Mona Freeman and saving up money to open a garage. Things turn South for Frank when he is called to a wealthy house, and meets Diane (Jean Simmons), who was in the house with her father and stepmother where an apparent accidental gas leak took place. Simmons is sexy and seductive, and gradually starts to manipulate Frank into doing precisely what she wants him to do. The film is pure noir – the flawed hero, the innocent girlfriend, the femme fatale – and is played terrifically by the leads. What makes Angel Face great though is Preminger’s direction. The story is simple – and had pretty much been used by countless noir films by then – but that only allows Preminger to pare it down to the essentials, brining out the psychology of his characters more, and experimenting with his visual style. The film is haunting noir masterwork.

7. The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful knows an awful lot about Hollywood, and how movies get made, and puts it all on the screen, warts and all. Kirk Douglas plays a producer (who according to what I’ve read is a sort of blending in Orson Welles, Val Lewton and David O. Selznick), who does whatever he needs to do to get ahead. He starts small, making low budget horror films with his director friend Barry Sullivan – but when he gets big enough, he betrays Sullivan by taking his dream project to another director. Next he meets the beautiful actress Lana Turner (perhaps based on Minelli’s ex-wife – Judy Garland), who is struggling to make it Hollywood – and makes her star, leading her on into thinking that he loves her so he can get what needs from her. Later, he convinces a novelist (Dick Powell) to become a screenwriter, but when his nagging, vulgar wife (Gloria Grahame, excellent as always) keeps pestering him, he gets a low level star to seduce her, and get him to leave her husband alone – the result of which is her death. Now, desperate and broke again, he reaches out to the people he screwed over to help him. The film isn’t really a satire of Hollywood – although it is as merciless in its depiction as Altman’s The Player was, but really is more of a melodrama. The film is anchored by its great performances, and directed with Minnelli’s usual visual flair. It belongs on a very short list of the best films about movies ever made.

6. Viva Zapata (Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata is a mediation on power and corruption, set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution. Marlon Brando gives a great performance as Emiliano Zapata, who is horrified by the corrupt Mexican government, and alongside Pancho Villa, who led the revolution in the North, he leads the revolution in the South – all under the control of Francisco Madero. But when they win, and Madero takes over, Zapata finds that nothing has changed – the new regime is as bad as the old one. Worse still, his own brother (Anthony Quinn) sets himself as a dictator himself. Zapata it seems, is the only honorable man left – everyone else is out for themselves, and when power is in their grasp, they take it and refuse to let go. Kazan’s direction is among the best of his career – taking his inspiration from photos from the time, and the work of Roberto Rossellini, the film feels much more real than much of the director’s work. Anchored by Brando, at the height of his power as an actor and including one of the best death scenes ever filmed, Viva Zapata is an underrated film in both Kazan, and Brando’s career.

5. High Noon (Fred Zinneman)
High Noon is a classic Western, that many modern critics seem to turn their noses up at – and I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. True, I do prefer Rio Bravo, which is the film that John Wayne and Howard Hawks made to refute this one, because they were disgusted by the way the film portrayed most Americans as cowards, but that doesn’t mean that this film is any less of an achievement. Gary Cooper gives one of his best performances as Will Kane, town Marshall of a small Western town who has just married a Quaker (Grace Kelly), and has decided to leave town and open a shop elsewhere. But then he hears that a notorious criminal that he put away, and had been sentenced to death, has been released on a technicality, and is coming to hunt for him. Kane decides to stay in town to fight against him, and his henchmen, and tries to enlist help from the townspeople. But one by one, they turn him down – not because they do not like or admire him, but because they are scared of what will happen to themselves. Widely, and correctly, seen as an indictment of McCarthyism, High Noon doesn’t bog itself down in the politics, but remains an exciting, tense Western, all building to its epic gun battle climax. Fred Zinneman may not have been the best director in the world, but here he does a remarkable job of keeping the film moving, and quietly building the tension. This is a great Western, and I will argue against anyone who says otherwise.

4. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)
Singin’ in the Rain is often referred to as the greatest movie musical ever made – and while I’m not quite sure I would go that far, it certainly is one of the joyous films I have ever seen. If The Bad and the Beautiful was all about the dark, cynical side of Hollywood, then Singin’ in the Rain is about the joy of making movies – and of watching them. It is not possible to sit through Singin’ in the Rain and not be overjoyed with what you see on screen – the infamous title song with Gene Kelly stomping through puddles with pure, unadultered joy, Donald O’Connor’s exuberant acrobatics during Make’em Laugh, and Debbie Reynolds joining them for the wondrous Good Morning. Not to be outdone, Jean Hagen delivers one of the great comedic performances ever as the silent movie star who is going to make her talky debut next to Gene Kelly – until everyone realizes how irritating her voice really is. If I have a problem with Singin’ in the Rain, it’s that the huge musical set piece of the film, the “Broadway Ballet” grinds the movie to a halt about two thirds of the way through. Yes, it is full of great dancing and music, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and the more I watch the film, the more I just want to get through that number so we can get to the grand finale. But that’s a small problem with a film that is just so much damned fun, so bursting with life and joy.

3. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement)
Forbidden Games is a wonderfully innocent film about childhood – a film that could not be made today. The stars of the film are two children, who perhaps give the best performances of any child actors in history. Brigitte Fossey is five years old, in 1940 France, leaving town with her parents and her beloved dog. The dog runs away, and she chases after it – Nazis open fire, killing the parents, and the dog, but leaving Fossey alive. She doesn’t really understand what is happening, but she is found by Georges Poujouly, a boy a few years older than her, and he takes her to the farmhouse his family owns, and insists they keep her. He helps her bury her dog, and soon they are burying dead animals of all kinds that they come across. The two are fascinated by death, but in the innocent way that only children can be. This is their way of processing the horror all around them – their way of dealing with it. Rene Clement does a masterful job at directing – not least of which because he was able to get such natural, unforced performances from two children in a film that horrifies adults, but seems innocent to them. The film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the war – and that is what gives it the power that it has. It’s that transposition of the horror of the war, to the innocence of the children that makes Forbidden Games a masterpiece.

2. Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
The common opinion is that Bicycle Thieves is Vittorio De Sica’s best film – but for me, I have always preferred Umberto D – even more now that I have a dog of my own (named Scorsese by the way, and he is the cutest, sweetest puppy in the world). The movies are similar in a lot of ways – both are neorealist, both look at poverty in Italy after the war, and both are heartbreaking. In Umberto D. Carlo Battisi is the title character – an old man trying to survive on his state pension, which has decreased in the years since the war. He is going to lose his apartment soon, and will be out on the street. He decides to kill himself, but first, he needs to find a home for his dog Flicke. He takes him to a kennel, and plans on leaving him there, but sees what would happen to him when he doesn’t return. He goes other places and tries to find other solutions – even at one point putting Flicke on the street with a hat in his mouth in the hopes of getting some money. But he can’t do that either – if he is too proud to beg, he can’t make his dog do it either. The finale is heartbreaking, at first because we think that Umberto is simply going to abandon Flicke in a park – but Flicke refuses to go. There are only a few movies in history that truly understand what it is like to have a pet that you love. Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto comes to mind, but Umberto D. is even more heartbreaking and brilliant. A masterpiece.

1. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
When most people think of Akira Kurosawa, they think of his magnificent samurai epics. But of all his films, I think Ikiru is probably my favorite – perhaps not his best film, but the one of those few films I turn to when I get depressed. It is a film about death, but it is hardly depressing. It is in fact, one of most life affirming films ever made. Takashi Shimura delivers his best performance as an old Japanese bureaucrat, whose job it seems is to ensure that nothing ever really gets accomplished, but all the paper work is filed correctly. He learns he has cancer, and about a year to live. He grows depressed, and tries to go out on the town and “live” the life he has been avoiding for years – but that brings him no joy. His son wants next to nothing to do with him – except to ensure that he doesn’t squander his inheritance before he dies. He makes friends with a young woman at his office though, and through his friendship with her he decides what he must do: before he dies, he wants to accomplish one good thing – in his case, building a children’s park in a place that desperately needs one. He becomes obsessed, walking the paperwork from one department to another to ensure it gets the proper approval, and that it will be built. All of this leads to the films devastating final shot – one of the most famous in cinema history. Shimura makes this seemingly pathetic old man into a everyman – almost a hero, but not a muscleman action hero, but someone we can all aspire to be like. Kurosawa’s direction in the film is simple, yet wonderful, capturing this man on his journey. Ikiru is a masterpiece pure and simple – one of all time favorite films.

Just Missed The Top 10: Bend of the River (Anthony Mann), Come Back Little Sheeba (Daniel Mann), Limelight (Charles Chaplin),The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleisher), Le Plasir (Max Ophuls), Othello (Orson Welles).

Notable Films Missed: Bienvenudo Mister Marshall (Luis Garcia Berlanga), Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker), El (Luis Bunuel),The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir),The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi), The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Greatest Show on Earth
The Best Picture Winners of the 1950s seemed to bounce back and forth from huge, color blockbusters to smaller, black and white dramas. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth is obviously one of the former. It is a big, bloated would be epic extravaganza about life in a travelling circus. The problem with the film is that it so dramatically inert, and worse yet completely boring. The presence of a very stiff Charlton Heston is the lead as the circus manager doesn’t help either. The only cast members who show much life in the movie are James Stewart as a mysterious clown who never removes his makeup and Gloria Graheme as the woman in the elephant act. Everyone else just seems to be along for the ride. DeMille was capable of making great spectacles, but this surely wasn’t one of them. There really is nothing going on in this movie. I cannot believe that they actually thought it was the year’s best film. This is one of the very worst films ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Oscar Winner – Director: John Ford, The Quiet Man
I obviously like John Ford’s The Quiet Man quite a lot – it is on my top 10 list after all – but I do somewhat wonder why the Academy felt the need to give Ford his fourth best director – making him the most rewarded director in Oscar history (although strangely, only one of the four films he won for also won Best Picture – How Green Was My Valley in 1941). Perhaps it was nothing more than not being 100% sold on the Best Picture winner, so the Academy decided to give it their old friend. This is a fine win – even if of the nominees I would have given it to Fred Zinneman for High Noon – whose work on that film is far better than on the two films he actually did win for – From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man For All Seasons in 1966.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gary Cooper, High Noon
Gary Cooper had already won an Oscar by this point in his career – for 1941’s Sergeant York. By 1952 however enough time had passed, Cooper had proven to be a big enough star, and they loved High Noon so much that it felt safe to give him another Oscar. And Cooper does carry the movie as he is at the center of nearly every scene of it, and he becomes the quintessential Western hero – a man who stands up for what is right, no matter what the consequences. I think that two foreign actors gave better performances that year, but they never win, so Cooper is fine with me. One thing though – if John Wayne was so disgusted by High Noon and its depictions of Americans as cowards in the face of communism, why they hell did he agree to accept the award on Cooper’s behalf when he couldn’t make it on Oscar night?

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Shirley Booth, Come Back Little Sheeba
Shirley Booth was more of a stage star than a movie star, but recreating her Broadway role for this film was a good choice. The movie is about a loveless marriage between Booth and Burt Lancaster, and how a young woman who rents a room from them (Terry Moore) effects their relationship. Booth is great as the woman who hardly ever leaves the house, and pines for her runaway dog. In Moore, she sees herself at that age – and encourages her dating life. Lancaster is almost as good as Booth as well – as a recovering alcoholic who looks on Moore as an idealized version of the youth he gave up when he married Booth. The film is intelligent and well made, and Booth really is great. Out of the nominees, she was most likely the most deserving – even if I think 5 year old Brigitte Fossey gave the best performance by an actress this year.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
Anthony Quinn is excellent as Marlon Brando’s brother in Viva Zapata! At first he seems as idealistic as his brother – he fights alongside him in the revolution. But after the revolution has been won, and Quinn gets a taste of what power can be like, he sets himself up as a despot. Quinn was a wonderful actor – playing all sorts of different roles (not to mention nationalities) over the course of his career – and in a somewhat weaker year for this category he was a worthy winner. Having said that, even though he appears only in one scene late in the film, I do love Buster Keaton in Limelight.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
Gloria Grahame was a great actress – often appearing in film noirs, but not really as either the good girl, or the femme fatale. Instead, she was often just as damaged as the men in those film (think of her work in In a Lonely Place or The Big Heat). The Bad and the Beautiful was not her best performance, but she is great as the wife of a screenwriter who wants to live the life of a star – and gets her wish, however briefly, when she takes up with a bit player. Grahame was a one of a kind talent – and I am happy that the Academy recognized that with this Oscar – even if I think that year, Jean Hagen’s work in Singin’ in the Rain was the best.

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