Friday, September 3, 2010

Year in Review: 1951

There are some years that I really do not like picking a number 1 film. 1951 is such a year - the top two films of the year are so close that on any given day I may have chosen differently - hell any of the top five films are worthy of being singled out. But if that’s the biggest problem I have with a given year, there I’m fine with it.

10. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens)
I know a lot of people think that George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun has aged poorly, and while I will admit that the film doesn’t pack the wallop it must have in 1951, I still feel that it is a great movie. Montgomery Clift is the poor nephew of a wealthy factory owner, who becomes involved with two very different women. First there is the poor, rather slow witted Alice (Shelley Winters) who falls for Clift quickly, and doesn’t really believe that being the nephew of the owner has no real advantage (Clift is treated coldly by his extended family, and kept to the outside). He then meets and falls in love with Angela (Elizabeth Taylor), a beautiful society girl who provides him with the entrance into the upper class that his family wouldn’t. When Alice tells him she is pregnant, he tries one plot after another to get out from her grip, so that he can marry Taylor – but things don’t work out too well for him. Stevens’ direction in the film is superb, but the film really rests on the talent of its cast – particularly the three leads. Clift is great as the main character, caught in over his head, and struggling to get free so he can get what he really wants. Winters is his equal as the poor, dumb Alice, who becomes increasingly shrill as the movie progresses. Taylor is given less to do as Angela – she is pretty much the personification of female perfection, a role she handles well. The trial which ends the movie is a little too cheesy – with Raymond Burr laying it on too thick as the prosecutor, but that’s a minor flaw, with a great film.

9. The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller)
Shortly after the Korean war began, Samuel Fuller made this, his first war film, about the conflict. Fuller had been in WWII and knew how soldiers acted and talked, and wanted to make a realistic film about war. Shot for very little money, with no real stars, The Steel Helmet puts most Hollywood war films of the era to shame. The film doesn’t have a lot of action in it – but it doesn’t need it. Instead, the movie focuses on the men fighting the war itself. This is not a overly patriotic movie like many war films of its time – it paints the Americans as flawed, and a few of them as racists. The movie got Fuller in trouble with the House of Un-American activities who thought that the film portrayed communism in too good a light, but Fuller stood firm. He was in the army, and this is the way he saw things. A great, little war movie.

8. The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith)
Michael Redgrave gives a subtle, sensitive performance as an aging British teacher in a boarding school. But this movie is about as far away from Goodbye Mr. Chips as it can get. He teaches Latin, is hated by his students, hated more by his fellow faculty members and perhaps hated most of all by his wife, who has been having an affair with another teacher for months. He is being forced out of his position to make way for a younger, more suitable teacher, and has to take a much lower paying job somewhere else. The Browning Version follows him on the last day of his teaching career at the school he has been at for years. The film is really about a life that has been wasted, and Redgrave slowly coming to grips with the realization of this failure, and how really, it is all his own fault. He remains the stiff, upper lipped British man throughout, but Redgrave, who carries the film brilliantly, lets us see the character for who is he – failings and all. This is not a flashy film, but it is one that captures its subject nearly perfectly. An underrated gem.

7. Detective Story (William Wyler)
William Wyler’s Detective Story, which seems to have been forgotten by many people, is one of the first films I can think which depicts life as a cop as the kind of long, daily grind that we can come so used to seeing on TV shows (best of all in Homicide: Life on the Street). Kirk Douglas gives an excellent performance as a Detective whose hatred from criminals is personal – having been raised by a criminal father who drove his mother literally crazy. Through the course of one long night, Douglas interrogates burglary suspects and arrests an embezzler, but spends most of his time trying to pin down a doctor that he truly hates – and who has a past that involves’ Douglas’ wife, Eleanor Parker. Douglas carries the film – he is in practically every scene – but the supporting cast is also excellent, especially Parker as Douglas’ wife, who confesses to getting an illegal abortion before she met him – something that must have seemed downright shocking in 1951. Lee Grant is also great a shoplifter who spends the whole movie just sitting around, but cannot stop herself from talking. Personally, I think William Wyler is a rather underrated filmmaker, but certainly do prefer his smaller, more intimate films like this one. It’s one of his best and a neglected film.

6. The African Queen (John Huston)
Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn are both wonderful in this comedic, yet thrilling film. Hepburn is a missionary in Africa who decides to stay on, even after she hears that Germany and England have declared war on. The Germans attack the small village, but Hepburn – a prim and proper English woman – and Bogart – a cynical, drunken Canadian boat captain, survive. She convinces him to turn his boat, The African Queen, into a giant torpedo, take it up river and destroy the German boat that is preventing England from launching a counter attack. He thinks the plan is suicide – they will likely never reach the boat, but goes ahead anyway. Most of the movie consists of these two polar opposites on the boat together, at each others throats and arguing – and of course, gradually falling in love. John Huston was a great filmmaker, seemingly able to tackle movies in all genres and make something worthwhile out of them. Here he has a made a movie that is both hilarious at points (like when Hepburn dumps all of Bogart’s alcohol off the ship) and exciting – as when they are negotiating the rapids, or the finale. The film rests in the hands of Bogart and Hepburn, who have terrific chemistry together. A wonderful film. As a side note, Clint Eastwood’s underrated White Hunter, Black Heart is loosely based on the film of this movie, with Eastwood as Huston, a film director who seems more interesting in hunting the game in Africa than making the movie.

5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s – in fact, it is probably one of the best ever made. It is about an alien visitor named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who arrives in Washington DC and says he has a message the whole world needs to hear. He is taken into custody, despite the presence of his giant robot Gort, who acts as his protector. Klaatu escapes custody, and with the help of a young boy sees some of the sights in Washington – including Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. But Klaatu still needs to get his message out to the people of earth before he can leave. The problem with the horrid 2008 remake of the film was simple – they spent too much time on special effects, and not enough on the story and the characters involved. The Day the Earth Stood Still had state of the art special effects for its time, but it really is a story about the people involved, and the movie remains focused on them right to the finale. Yes, you could argue that the film is too preachy if you wanted to, but I think its message is well worth hearing, even almost 60 years later.

4. The River (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir’s best films, I feel anyway, came in the 1930s in his native France (although admittedly, I do need to see more late Renoir). The highest compliment I can give to his magnificent film The River, is that it deserves comparison to his early, brilliant work. The film is set in India, and is about a British family there, particularly the young daughter who “falls in love” with an American soldier who has lost a leg in the war. This isn’t a romance (if it was, it would be creepier than Lolita given the girls age), but rather a film about the passage of time, and life and death. Through it all, The River flows right on by them. The River is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen – Renoir’s camera captures India in all its glorious colors. Like many of his films, this one movies at a languid pace. The film doesn’t try to wrestle its characters into a plot, but rather just simply sits back and observes the people and their lives, and deaths and everything in between. The film is gorgeous to look at, but there is something quietly profound about it as well. This film is one of Renoir’s masterworks.

3. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)
Considered a failure upon its initial release, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is now widely regarded as one of his best films – and rightly so. This is perhaps the most cynical of all of Wilder’s films – and unlike later some of his later films, he didn’t add any sweetness to the movie to make it go down easier. Kirk Douglas gives one of his best performances as a disgraced newspaper man working for a dinky, local paper who stumbles across a huge story – and decides to use it to get him back to the big leagues. A local man is trapped in a cave, and smelling a story, Douglas convinces the rescue workers to use a much slower method to get the man out – hoping to prolong the story. Douglas visits the trapped man, the only reporter allowed to do so, and the whole incident quickly becomes a carnival freak show, with Douglas calling the shots. Only the poor sap trapped is sympathetic in this movie – everyone else is looking out solely for themselves, even the man’s wife who goes along with Douglas’ plan, and is happy at all the extra attention, and money, she is receiving. Wilder’s film is a tough, bitter pill to swallow. Like Network 25 years later, it looks at the news business not as some sort of larger than life pursuit of the truth, but as a cold hearted business, where death sells, and everyone is out for themselves. Billy Wilder was a brilliant filmmaker – and Ace in the Hole is one of his very best.

2. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
Strangers on a Train moves with almost merciless speed and efficiency. Hitchcock hated lengthy setups, preferring instead to dive headlong into the action, and even though a lot of talk begins this film, that is still what he did. Tennis star Farley Granger is involved a messy, public divorce from his current wife so that he can marry the woman he truly loves. He meets the strange Robert Walker on a train, who seems to know all about his situation – and proposes a plan. Walker will kill Granger’s wife for him, if Granger will kill Walker’s father in return. This way, both can establish an airtight alibi for the murder of the person close to them, and they can get away with murder. Granger goes along with this plan is jest – thinking they are just talking, not taking it seriously. But when his wife is murdered at a carnival, and Walker reenters his life and demands repayment, things start getting ugly in a hurry. Hitchcock was adapting another master of suspense’s story – Patricia Highsmith – and he does her story proud. The film is a visual wonder – particularly the climatic carnival scene which ranks among the best of all of Hitchcock’s set pieces. Walker makes a merciless villain in easily the best performance of his career. If Granger is a little bit bland, like always, that’s okay because so is his character. One of the master’s best.

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)
Marlon Brando revolutionized film acting in this film. True, Montgomery Clift had been doing the method acting thing for a while, and Brando had already tried it in his first film – The Men – but when movie audiences saw Brando’s Stanley in Tennessee Williams’ brilliant play, adapted perfectly by Elia Kazan, things were never the same. Brando oozed sexuality and danger in every scene. True, he was a brute and a rapist, but you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. His line delivery was perfect as well. Vivien Leigh created her second iconic role as a Southern Belle, but Blanche DuBois is pretty far away from Scarlett O’Hara. She is an old fashioned girl who doesn’t seem to realize things have changed, and allows Brando’s brute to drive her crazy. Karl Malden was never better than he was here, as the Mama’s boy and Blanche’s gentleman caller – her only real chance at salvation. And Kim Hunter is amazing as Stanley’s wife Stella, who knows who he is, but cannot resist him. I know some find this adaptation too stage bound, but I have never been one of them. Kazan uses the space effectively in the film, and creates a hot, humid, steamy atmosphere (which worked all the more perfectly for my first viewing of this film – on one of the hottest nights I can remember in my teenage years, in a house with no air conditioning). One of the great stage to screen adaptation of all time, and one of my favorite films.

Just Missed The Top 10: Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi & Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson), An American in Paris (Vincente Minelli), A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond-Hurst), Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson), Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy), The Tales of Hoffman (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger).

Notable Films Missed: Decision Before Dawn (Anatole Litvak), Europa ’51 (Roberto Rossellini), The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick), Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica), The Thing From Another World (Christain Nyby & Howard Hawks).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: An American in Paris
I think the Academy was rebelling against the bleakness of the other contenders when they picked An American in Paris as their winner this year. After all, A Place in the Sun won a total of 6 Oscars, and was about a man who plans, but does not commit, murder and still gets executed for it, and A Streetcar Named Desire, which won three acting Oscars – an almost unheard of feat – was about a sexual brute who drives a woman insane. There is nothing wrong with An American in Paris – it is a perfectly fine 1950s musical, with a great performance by Gene Kelly, not to mention Leslie Caron and Oscar Levant. Vincente Minelli certainly knew how to make a movie musical and the film is a hell of a lot of fun. But it is also rather hollow. I find it strange that this won the Oscar, and the next two years the Academy virtually ignored much greater achievements by the key players here – Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 and Vincente Minelli’s The Band Wagon in 1953. But whatever. Personally, I would have liked to have seen one of the darker films win, but then I’ve always been told I should lighten up, so what do I know?

Oscar Winner – Director: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
The Academy may like frothy, fun movie musicals – but they have often gone darker for the Best Director prize, even when they do give the Oscar to one (for a more recent example, see Chicago winning picture, and Polanski winning Director for The Pianist). So, I’m not overly surprised that they decided to give Stevens the director Oscar, even if his film didn’t win Picture. After all, with five other wins, they clearly loved the movie, and it wasn’t winning any acting prizes, so this was a way to give the film a major award. Also, Stevens was a well established veteran director who hadn’t won. Personally, I think Kazan deserved this award – but he’d get his in a few years. I would have preferred Minelli winning for An American in Paris instead of the egregious Gigi though.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
Humphrey Bogat’s win for The African Queen happened for three reasons: 1) he was a Hollywood legend, reaching the end of his career who had never won an Oscar. 2) He campaigned heavily for it all throughout the season and 3) Marlon Brando said he wasn’t even going to show up to the Oscars because he found them silly. How else can you explain A Streetcar Named Desire winning 3 of the 4 acting Oscars, but losing for the actor that absolutely EVERYONE left the theater talking about? I don’t begrudge Bogart his Oscar – he earned his legendary status, and never was taken seriously enough by the Academy who often overlooked his best work. And at least he won for a great performance, not like John Wayne who won for playing a shadow of his former self in True Grit. But still, come on! Brando in Streetcar should have won this one in a cakewalk.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
The only “new” member of the cast (she replaced Jessica Tandy from the Broadway cast), Vivien Leigh made Blanche DuBois her own character entirely. She was perfect casting because of her other iconic role – Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. You could look at Blanche as what Scarlett may have been in the 1950s – clinging to a way of life long since dead, and being taken advantage of by a man who was in no way as charming as Rhett Butler. Her descent into madness in one of the greats in screen history, and Leigh earned her second Oscar – becoming one of those rare people who win multiple Oscars, but never get nominated for any of their other work. Winters, Parker and Hepburn were all worthy nominees, but Leigh still stood head and shoulders above them.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
People often forgetting about the supporting characters in A Streetcar Named Desire – but they shouldn’t. Malden is wonderful as Mitch, Stanley’s pathetic friend, who could be Blanche’s only chance to escape with her sanity. He is a mama’s boy, but Malden always said the key to the role was that deep down, he really hated his mother – and you can see that in his key scene with Blanche where he talks about his mother. Malden is great in the role, but he isn’t as flashy as some of the other characters, so he is forgotten. But he deserved this Oscar win, just like everyone else in the movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire
The role of Stella is a rather complex one in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Kim Hunter plays it brilliantly – perhaps especially when she isn’t even talking. Watch her in the scene where Stanley screams for her to come back down, and see the carnal lust in her eyes as she goes back to her brutish husband – she cannot resist him, he is just too damned attractive and speaks to her on a base level. Hunter was great in the movie, even if most people talk about Brando and Leigh, she like Malden deserved all the awards she got.

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