Thursday, August 12, 2010

Year in Review: 1950

1950 was a wonderful year for the movies – both in America and across the world. This is one of those years where there is seemingly no shortage of great films – any one of my top 4 films could have easily placed at number 1 in a weaker year. But the number 1 film of this year is to me head and shoulders above the rest – and is one of the greatest films in history.

10. Wagon Master (John Ford)
Perhaps because John Ford’s Wagon Master has Ben Johnson in the lead role – and not John Wayne or Henry Fonda – it is not nearly as well known as many of his Westerns. But Wagon Master deserves to be mentioned right alongside Ford’s best entries in the genre. I know a lot of people accused some Ford Westerns (The Searchers for example) of being racist against the Natives (although in that case, I would argue that the movie is ABOUT racism, not racist itself), and that it wasn’t until the 1960s that Ford issued an apology of sorts in Cheyenne Autumn. But watching Wagon Master, I was struck by how sensitive his portrayal not only of the Apache is, but also of Mormons – a group that has often been ridiculed. That is not the only reason why Wagon Master is so good – it is an exciting Western, beautifully shot in Ford’s favorite Valley on the Arizona/Utah border, and Ben Johnson is excellent in the lead role, and is supported by a great cast (even Joanne Dru, who I usually do not like, is quite good in the movie). Wagon Master is not quite the masterpiece that My Darling Clementine or The Searchers is – but it is a Western that deserves a better reputation that it currently enjoys.

9. D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate)
D.O.A. has one of the great opening shots of all time – a man (Edmond O’Brien) walks into a police station in a long tracking shot to report his own murder. Strangely, the police seem to be expecting him, and already know what he is going to say. The movie then flashes back to tell us what happened. O’Brien is an accountant who goes out of town for a few days on business, and ends up in a nightclub where he has his drink switched. He wakes up the next morning terribly ill, and the doctor tells him he has been poisoned, there is no cure, and he’ll be dead in a couple of days. He then sets about trying to figure out who poisoned him and why. The movie moves at a frantic pace as O’Brien slowly figures out what happened to him. Rudolph Mate is best known as a cinematographer (and considering his credits there include Vampyr, Dodsworth, Foreign Correspondent, Gilda and unaccredited work on The Lady from Shanghai there is no doubt why), but in this, his directing debut, he crafted a merciless thriller. The film looks brilliant and his lightning quick and intense. This is a film noir worth tracking down.

8. Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets is a gritty, realistic noir film shot on the streets of New Orleans. A body shows up in the water riddled with bullet holes – but that’s not the most troubling thing about it. Upon examination at the morgue, it is determined that the man had pneumonic plague, and so Public Health Officer Richard Widmark is called in to help investigate. Not wanting to cause panic, he teams up with a cop (Paul Douglas) to try and figure out what happened and immunize everyone who came in contact with the dead man before they have an outbreak. Of course the killers do not want to be found. The performances in the film are all good – especially Jack Parlance in his screen debut as the killer – but the movie is more about mood and atmosphere than the characters. Kazan’s camera has never seemed freer as it glides along the dark city streets of New Orleans, into the seedy underworld on its way to its wonderful chase scene finale. Sometimes movies need to be shot on location to give them the appropriate feel – Panic in the Streets is one of those movies, and the result is a wonderful little film.

7. Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann)
In the first of their 5 Westerns together Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann combine to make a fine Western, which is just a shade darker than it at first appears. Stewart wins a shooting competition against his long time rival Stephen McNally. The prize – a Winchester ’73 rifle – one of only 1,000 made, that is said to be the perfect gun. Angry that he lost, McNally steals the gun and flees town – and Stewart gives chase. The movie establishes what would become the trademark of the Stewart/Mann Westerns – men haunted by their own pasts, trying to overcome the violence in them and start fresh. Winchester ’73 is also an interesting movie because of all the great supporting characters. The gun goes through any number of them throughout the course of the film, with Stewart and McNally chasing it, and each other throughout, until the films violent climax which is wonderful. A great Western by a great director/star pairing.

6. The Furies (Anthony Mann)
The second Anthony Mann film on this list, this one stars Barbara Stanwyck as a head strong woman who helps her father (Walter Huston) run his large estate –The Furies – and the cattle on it. Since her mother died, Stanwyck has always been able to wrap Huston around her little finger, getting everything that she wants from her, and in turn allowing him to spend his money freely – he has enough of it after all. But then Judith Anderson enters the picture. Huston meets her on one of his trips, and brings her home to The Furies to make her his wife. Suddenly Stanwyck doesn’t have the control over Huston that she wants – it is Anderson calling the shots, until a shocking act of violence rips the family apart. What I found most fascinating about The Furies is how unsympathetic the characters are. None of the people in the movie can be classified as “good”, although they aren’t really evil either. They are obsessed with their own greed, their own standing, and their own desires, and their stubbornness is what will eventually ruin them all. I was a little disappointed in the films ending – it tries too hard to wrap everything up in a neat little package – but The Furies, fueled by its great performances, is still a wonderful film.

5. La Ronde (Max Ophuls)
Max Ophuls La Ronde is a wonderfully constructed, fluid movie told in ten different chapters – with one character from the previous chapter coming over into the next one. A prostitute takes a solider for a lover, who in turn falls in love with a maid, who sleeps with her clients teenage son, who takes an older woman for her lover, who husband suspects nothing while he carries on an affair with a younger woman, who is in love with a playwright, who sleeps with the star of his latest work, who is being courted by a count, who will end up with the prostitute we saw at the beginning of the film. All of this is narrated by the great Anton Walbrook who looks upon his people with a sort of detached glee. Out of this simple plot comes one of Ophuls’ best films – a wonderfully paced mediation on people who are constantly lying to each other, and just searching for love. His attention to detail is marvelous – the film, set in Vienna around 1900 has impeccable art direction and costume design. More importantly, Ophuls famed use on his long tracking shots are on full display here, giving the film a free flowing look and feel. The film was a homecoming of sorts for Ophuls – who made this film in Europe after a decade in America, and which set off the best period of his career with masterworks like this, La Plasir, The Earrings of Madame De and Lola Montes before he died too young. La Ronde ranks as one this great films seminal works.

4. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
The knock on Humphrey Bogart has always been that he played the same character in every movie he ever made. The people who say this have obviously never seen Nicholas Ray’s masterful In a Lonely Place, where Bogart is much darker than he ever was before or after. In the film, Bogart plays an alcoholic screenwriter, who was once successful, and now seems washed up. He lives in a tiny apartment, starts drinking at noon, and regularly gets into fights. One of his neighbors is Gloria Grahame, an actress who sees the self pity, the loathing in Bogart, and wants to try and “save” him. But Bogart is beyond salvation. In a Lonely Place is often referred to as a film noir – and it is in a way. Bogart is the flawed hero – basically a good guy, but doomed by his own weakness. There is a murder that is central to the plot, as we don’t know whether Bogart committed it or not. The visuals, brilliantly photographed by Burnett Guffrey and Ray – certainly give the film a noir feel as well. But the film is really a love story. Bogart knew this character inside and out – he was in ways much like him, and Grahame, who ended up separating from her husband Ray on the set of this movie – was in many ways his equal – one of the great screen actresses of her generation. All three of these people made many great films in their career – but In a Lonely Place ranks among the very best than any of them ever touched.

3. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
All About Eve is one of the best, most cynical and savage, of all back stage dramas. It contains, among many other things, Bette Davis’ finest performance as an actress “of a certain age” who is successful beyond her wildest dreams, and has it all come crashing down on her because of an upstart. That is Eve (Anne Baxter), who convinces Davis that she is little more than a wide eyed fan, and worms her way closer and closer to her until she is her understudy. Davis remains the center of the movie however – and completely dominates the film with her brave performance, which I’m sure she felt close to, as it reflected her own life. Davis is one of those actresses who got better as she got older – she never played the naïve young woman very well, but was great as the wily veteran. But Baxter does a great job with Eve as well – completely convincing us of her underhanded ways as she stabs everyone who helps her in the back on her way up. There are other great performances – Celeste Holm as Eve’s biggest fan, who helps her get her big break, and then gets betrayed herself, Thelma Ritter as Davis’ ever loyal wardrobe lady, who sees through Eve in an instant. Best of all is George Sanders – who narrates the film as the newspaper columnist who observes everything, and comments on it wryly. He too falls for Eve, but at least he knows what she is from the beginning, which is more than anyone else can say. Joseph L. Mankiewicz was always a better writer than a director – and his screenplay for All About Eve is one of the great achievements in that regard of all time – a wonderful, wise, witty movie.

2. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
People are not really capable of being truthful – least of all about themselves. We all have delusions about ourselves, how events in our past played out, and how others see us. That is the underlying point of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – a film that shows us the same event from four different points of view, none of which agree with each other. And yet none of the people who tell the story is lying – they are telling the truth as they see it – as they remember it. A samurai is murdered, and his wife is raped. That is all we really know. What happens after is that the wife, a woodcutter and a bandit all tell their stories – and all say they are the murderer. A medium shows up and tells us the samurai’s tale from beyond the grave – and it doesn’t match up with any of the other three stories. What really happened? The movie never tells us the answer to that question. Instead we are left with the four versions of what happened, and yet no solution. That, of course, is precisely the point of the movie. We can never be sure of the truth because people lie all the time – even while they are telling the truth. Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest filmmakers in history. He made his international reputation off of this film, and it’s easy to see why. It remains one of his best films – an absolute masterpiece.

1. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
Sunset Blvd. is one of the best movies ever made about Hollywood – perhaps the very best. It resembles All About Eve in that both are about fading actresses – but while Bette Davis in that film at least understands that she has been betrayed, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is completely clueless and delusional – and by the end insane. She plays a once great silent film star who now lives in a dilapidated old mansion with her butler – the great Erich von Stroheim – who was once both her director and her husband. William Holden is the struggling screenwriter who comes to stay at their place, and gets drawn in by Desmond – making himself a kept man, because he has nowhere else to go. The movie is dependent on its performances to make it work. Holden projects self loathing in his role as the screenwriter, but its more than that. He knows why he is there, and is more than willing to play the part. Von Stroheim is wonderful as the old director, reduced to be a servant, who is so in love with Swanson that he allows himself to be used the way he is. And Swanson is brilliant as Norma Desmond – risking going over the top into parody with her exaggerated movements and line deliveries, but somehow it all stays real. Billy Wilder was a wonderful director – and here he makes the film look like a film noir, although there is more to it than that. His screenplay is honest, cynical, clever and at times hilarious. Sunset Blvd. is one of the best films I have ever seen.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston), Cinderella (Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske & Clyde Geronimi), Cyrano de Bergerac (Michael Gordon), The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rosselini), Harvey (Henry Koster), No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Rio Grande (John Ford).

Notable Films Missed: Born Yesterday (George Cukor), Father of the Bride (Vincente Minelli), King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett), L’Chant D’Amour (Jean Genet), Los Olivados (Luis Bunuel), Night and the City (Jules Dassin), Variety Lights (Federico Fellini).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
It is hard to get too down on the Academy for picking All About Eve for the year’s Best Picture Oscar. After all it is certainly one of the best backstage dramas of all time, features a fantastic, funny, clever screenplay and a host of great performances (they film received 5 acting nominations that year – tying a record that has not been broken).Obviously, I think Sunset Blvd. is the better film – it is darker, more dramatic, and features a screenplay and acting that is at least on par with All About Eve. In terms of which film is better, it really is kind of a tossup. But Billy Wilder was certainly the better director – telling his story in more cinematic terms than Mankiewicz. Still however, I find it impossible to complain about this win, so I won’t.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jose Ferrar, Cyrano de Bergerac
Actors seem to love the role of Cyrano de Bergerac. After all, not only did Jose Ferrar win this Oscar, but Gerard Depardieu was nominated for the same role 40 years later – and the play is rarely out of production somewhere in the world. And yes, it is a great role – the ugly man with a heart and brains, who gives up what he wants most in the world for the sake of others happiness. Having said that, I found that this version of Cyrano, while entertaining, was also rather dull in points. Ferrar does a very good job in the lead role, but I find it hard to believe that people actually believed this was better than Holden’s work in Sunset Blvd., of Jimmy Stewart’s in Harvey – and those are just the fellow nominees who were better. A fine performance, in a fine movie, but certainly not Oscar caliber.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Poor Judy Holliday never seems to get any respect for her work in Born Yesterday – not even from me who has yet to even watch the film, although I am a fan of director George Cukor, so I probably should see it. The reviews of the film, and the performance, never fail to point out that Holliday’s win here came at the expense for two of the greatest female roles in cinema history – Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. I really should watch the film – and I plan to, one day – but just not quite yet.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: George Sanders, All About Eve
George Sanders is brilliant as the acid tongued newspaper columnist who observes the proceedings in All About Eve from afar, and never ceases to have a barbed remark on his tongue. It is a perfect merger of a finely written role, and an actor capable of delivering the lines with the kind of cruel gusto that they so obviously deserve. Sanders is the most obvious of the great performances in this category – but having said that, I have always liked Erich von Stroheim’s work in Sunset Blvd. even more. It is, in many ways, an autobiographical role, as von Stroheim plays the once great silent filmmaker reduced to work below his skill level (in real life, von Stroheim was reduced to playing comic supporting roles and Nazis in other peoples movies – only twice, here and in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, did he really get to shine). Not only that but von Stroheim really does hold the movie together – providing us with a much needed glimpse into the psyche of Gloria Swanson that prevents her from becoming a caricature. Like the films themselves, but of these men were deserving of an Oscar this year, so while I prefer von Stroheim, I won’t complain.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Josephine Hull, Harvey
Josephine Hull’s win for Harvey is somewhat odd. Don’t get me wrong, I actually quite like the film where Jimmy Stewart spends most of his time talking to a giant, imaginary rabbit named Harvey, even while everyone around him thinks he has completely lost his mind. And Hull’s performance as Stewart’s sister, who is so tired of having her brother talk to the giant rabbit all the time that she tries to have him committed, is delightfully funny, and in her own way eccentric. A nomination was certainly worthy. But All About Eve contained two great supporting roles, both of which were nominated – Celeste Holm’s as Eve’s biggest fan, who still gets stabbed in the back, and Thelma Ritter as the only one who sees through Eve from the beginning. Perhaps it was the fact that Holm had already won an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) that prevented her from winning, and internal competition that prevented Thelma Ritter – nominated6 times (this being the first), but never won. Hull is fine in her role – it certainly isn’t an embarrassing win by any means, but one of the two All About Eve women should have taken this one.

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