Friday, September 10, 2010

Year in Review: 1954

There are at least three films from 1954 that could legitimately claim to be the best, most influential of the year. The bad news is that only one can take the top spot, but the good news is that they are all masterpieces – and they remain just the tip of the iceberg of what was released this year.

10. Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk)
Douglas Sirk made films in almost every genre during the course of his career - but it is the melodrama that he will most be remembered for. While Magnificent Obsession may not quite be as good as some of the other films in that genre he made – All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life – it started the period of his career for which he is most remembered – that of the bright, colorful melodramas, all of which were about more than the surfaces indicated. Magnificent Obsession is about a young, rich playboy (Rock Hudson) who is wasting his life, until he gets into a boating accident that indirectly results in another man dying. He tries to make it up to the widow (Jane Wyman), only to cause an accident that leaves her blind. And that’s just the first act! No, you cannot take Magnificent Obsession seriously as a story, but you can get lost in its visuals, the over the top performances by Hudson and Wyman. And the story does draw you in despite its silliness. This is an example of style over substance to be sure – but what style!

9. Sabrina (Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder’s Sabrina is a wonderful romantic fantasy of a movie. Many of Wilder’s films have a cynical shell to them, but Sabrina was a little softer than those films, more romantic. It stars Audrey Hepburn in one of her best performances as a young woman who has spent her entire life around a wealthy family (her dad being their chauffer), and has always been in love with the younger brother – the dashing, womanizing William Holden, despite the fact that he has never noticed her. After returning for Paris, he does notice her, but his workaholic brother, Humphrey Bogart, doesn’t approve – many because Holden is set to marry someone else, and if that falls through, so does a business deal. So Bogart tries to seduce Hepburn himself. The film is bubbly and sweet – pretty much impossible to resist – and puts just about every romantic comedy in recent years to shame.

8. The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk)
Humphrey Bogart was a great actor, and far too often I hear him dismissed as someone who simply played the same character again and again. His work in The Caine Mutiny, for which he received one of his few Oscar nominations, stands as one of his best. He plays the paranoid Captain Queeg, who takes over an undisciplined ship during WWII, and tries to crack down on the crew. At first, it seems like he is just strict – but his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and paranoid as the film progresses. Miles away from his usual performance, Bogart is wonderful here. The direction by Edward Dmytryk is professional, and somewhat workmanlike, but it does the job. The rest of the cast – Fred MacMurray, Tom Tully, Jose Ferrar and Robert Francis among them – are all also wonderful. The Caine Mutiny is a little different for a war movie of its time – it isn’t a sanctified picture of men at war, but darker, and more complex.

7. Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is a fine, intense thriller which once again shows Hitchcock playing with the visuals of his films. Originally shot for 3-D, this was essentially abandoned because audiences were tired of the process by the time the film was released. But even more interesting is the editing of the movie. This is a film that is based on a play which had only one set – while Hitchcock added a few additional locations, for the most part, this film still only has one room in which to work. And yet because of the way Hitchcock shot and edited the film, it never feels static – never like a photographed play. The movie is about a rich man (Ray Milland) who wants to have his wife (Grace Kelly) murdered. He gets a hit man, but of course, nothing goes according to plan. The performances in the film are wonderful – especially by Kelly who is sympathetic as the wife, which is saying something since we know that she is an adulteress the whole movie. Hitchcock’s direction elevates this into a tense thriller, and while it may not quite be one of his best, it’s pretty damn close.

6. La Strada (Federico Fellini)
La Strada is one of great early films by Federico Fellini – a simple, neorealist drama that is practically impossible to resist. It is a film that gets under your skin and into your heart, and one that I find impossible to forget. Anthony Quinn is excellent as a circus strongman who buys the simple minded Giuletta Masina to be his assistant. They meet a clown (Richard Basehart) who pleasures in mocking the strongman, and who Masina feels a kinship towards. Quinn is exceedingly cruel to Masina, who takes it up until a point until she can longer stand it – but surprisingly, it is Basehart who convinces her to stay with Quinn. The films climax is devastating as Quinn finally realizes what he has done, and completely breaks down. The film is exceedingly simple, and at times plays more like a tone poem than a film – you could site the Chaplin silent films as an influence on it. Fellini would go onto direct more complex and better films than La Strada, but there is something to be said about the beautiful simplicity of this film.

5. A Star is Born (George Cukor)
While this was not the first screen version of the famous Hollywood tale, it is the definitive version – and seems to have served as a template for nearly all showbiz movies – both fictional and ones based on real performers – ever since. James Mason gives one of his best performances, and certainly his most iconic, as an aging, drunken movie star who discovers a great young singer, Judy Garland, and turns her into a star. As her career takes off, he gets dumped by the studio and falls deeper into depression and alcoholism. Sadly, some of this movie has been lost, although the DVD version provides the scenes as best they can (using still photos and a real soundtrack). The film hits pretty much every note imaginable – comedy, drama, wonderful music numbers by Garland. It is a film about both the upside and downside of fame, and truly remarkable achievement.

4. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi)
I have to thank the Criterion Collection for finally bringing much of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films to North American DVD – although there are still many presumably great films by the Japanese director, considered to be the equal of Kurosawa and Ozu, to be released. Sansho the Bailiff is a film about the evils of slavery, and how women are marginalized in the political system. A wealthy governor is banished to a far away outpost, his wife and children taken from him and sold – the wife into prostitution, the children into slavery. The film follows the two children as the struggle to survive under the harsh conditions for years – the son once abandoning his kindly fathers teachings, but eventually finding his way again. Sansho the Bailiff is a difficult film to endure, but masterfully handled by Mizoguchi, whose camera work was perhaps never better than it is in this film. The film is a testament to Mizoguchi’s humanity and masterful direction – a film that for far too long wasn’t available. Now that it is, it can take its place among the masterpieces of cinema.

3. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)
Despite the fact that Elia Kazan made On the Waterfront in large part to defend his decision to name names at the House of Un-American Activities Committee, it remains one of the influential, and best, Hollywood films of the 1950s. Rarely has a movie boasted better performances than this one does. Marlon Brando gives one of his best, most iconic performances as Terry, who was once a promising boxer, but has given it all away and is now just a low level enforcer for the corrupt Union heads at the docks. He is tired of the corruption, and wants to talk – much to chagrin of his brother (Rod Steiger), and of course the union leader himself (Lee J. Cobb). When Brando, who is pretty simple minded, meets and falls in love with a murdered dockworkers sister (Eva Marie Saint), and spurned by a do gooder priest (Karl Malden), Terry decides to testify about what he knows. The film is intense and dramatic – but does have a few lighter moments as well (like Brando putting on Saint’s glove after she drops it). The film is a powerful indictment of corruption and greed, and while it doesn’t undo what Kazan did, it is still a masterpiece.

2. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
Seven Samurai is one of those few foreign films that many people in North America are familiar with – even many people who hate subtitles can tell you what the film is about. It is Kurosawa’s most popular film – his most epic film – and for a filmmaker who made countless films about samurais, it is easily the best samurai film ever made. A small village, who has been raided by bandits in the past, find out that they are going to be raided again in the near future. If they cannot hold off this new attack, they will likely be destroyed. But they know nothing of how to fight. They get rebuffed by every samurai they approach looking for help – until they meet Takashi Shimura, who agrees to help – and he will eventually convince 6 others to stand and fight with him. The film is four hours long, but it never feels like that while watching it. You get involved in its plot and its characters. The film has been influential in many ways – from its recruitment format (something seen in such films as Ocean’s 11, the recent The Expendables, etc.), to introducing the hero through an action sequence unrelated to main plot, etc. The film is certainly inspired by the Hollywood Westerns that Kurosawa loved so much, but it is better than most of those. Its influence can be felt in films right up until the present day. Is it Kurosawa’s best film? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is a masterpiece.

1. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of the master’s very best films. In the film, Hitchcock succeeds brilliantly into making his audience all voyeurs – committing this sin right alongside his protagonist played expertly by James Stewart. Because Stewart is such a wholesome actor, the audience follows him into the films darker places – confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg, he passes the time looking out of his window and at his neighbors across the street. What starts out innocently becomes a little bit of an obsession, especially when he thinks he has witnessed a murder by one of his neighbors. Hitchcock’s use of the camera, and his elaborately built set, are masterful, the score intense. The supporting work by Grace Kelly, as Stewart’s long suffering girlfriend and Thelma Ritter as his nurse, elevate the material as well. But this movie is really about Stewart and his obsession, which is really Hitchcock’s own obsession with voyeurism – and how through the course of this film, he makes it our obsession as well. A true masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Country Girl (George Seaton), Gojira (Ishiro Honda), Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagki), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleisher)

Notable Films Missed: The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Chikamatsu monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray), Senso (Luchino Visconti), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen), Three Coins in the Fountain (Jean Negulesco).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)
It is hard to argue with On the Waterfront being named the best film of the year – especially considering that the Academy, as per usual, didn’t quite recognize Hitchcock’s genius (although he was nominated for Best Director) and Seven Samurai didn’t get released stateside until 1956. The film has everything the Academy looks for in a Best Picture winner – important subject matter, great performances and a respected director. It certainly remains one of the most influential films of its time – and is one of the best choices the Academy ever made.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
It was just a matter of time before the Academy had to give Brando an Oscar. This was his fourth year in a row being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar (following losses for A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata and Julius Caesar) and even though Brando typically refused to play the Oscar game, and pretty much shunned Hollywood his entire career, his performance here was simply too good to overlook. Can you really argue against the performance winning? Yeah, me neither.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
Grace Kelly certainly had a career year in 1954 – not only for this film but also for Dial M for Murder and Rear Window as well. Personally, I think her performance in those two Hitchcock movies are better than her work here – as the ever supportive wife of an alcoholic entertainer (Bing Crosby). But those films were thrillers, and as such, the Academy turned their nose up at them in favor of the more dramatic turn here. It is a fine performance, and a fine film for that matter, but I still wish she had won for one of the other two performances – and barring that, I think Judy Garland, who had a similar yet much more complex role in A Star is Born, should have taken this prize.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Edmond O’Brien, The Barefoot Contessa
I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I have not seen this film. After all, I am a fan of Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien, as well as writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, but somehow I never did get around to seeing this. I suspect that O’Brien won in part because of internal competition among the three nominees from On the Waterfront – especially considering Karl Malden had already won an Oscar, and Rod Steiger was a bit of an unknown at the time (and Lee J. Cobb is the type of character actor who normally had to settle for nominations at best). But until I see it, I won’t know. It is near the top of my to see list after I get through the remaining films I want to see to complete this exercise.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront
Eva Marie Saint benefitted greatly from having a dramatic role in the Best Picture winner, where she got to do most of her scenes next to Marlon Brando at the top of his game. After all, although she was a TV veteran at the time this film was made, it was her first movie credit. But she makes the most of it, bringing out both a dramatic side in Brando, and a more playful one as well. While Saint had a great career since On the Waterfront (most notably in North by Northwest), this remains the film for which she will be remembered forever.

1 comment:

  1. Great post ! Thank you for reviews ! You have discussed about lot of wonderful films and I really liked it. Watching film is always my favorite time pass...