Friday, October 15, 2010

Year in Review: 1955

I am positive that I am going to be criticized for this list. After all, I have left some of the most acclaimed films of all time sitting in the runners up section, and looking at the notable films missed section, I see a much longer list than normal (I console myself of this fact because many of the films missed are not available on DVD as far as I know, and the fact that out of all the years included in this exercise, I watched more films from this one in preparation of this list than any other). And yet, I am happy with this list. If and when I see any of those notable films that I missed, they will have to be pretty spectacular to even get considered for the top 10 – and I find it impossible to believe that any of them could even come close to being as good as the best film from this year – which after all, is one of the very best films ever made.

10. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)
The final film of the great Max Ophuls career is this scandalous, sexual journey through the life f dancer Lola Montes (Martine Carol). She is currently making her living as a circus performer, where the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) tells the story of her past life as a dancer – and as the lover of some very powerful people – including Anton Walbrook as the King of Bavaria. Butchered behind all comprehension at the time of its release, the film has been restored to its former glory – with the wonderful use of color by Ophuls (quite an accomplishment since this is his only color film) and the flashback structure of the narrative. The film is, of course, rather ludicrous in its plot, but Ophuls remains in complete control from beginning to end – his ever roaming camera taking in all the artificial action with ease. It was one of the great accomplishments of Ophuls career that he was often able to make such seemingly meaningless plots and turn them into operatic melodramas. While I do not think Lola Montes represents Ophuls at his finest – it is a fitting way to end one of the great careers in cinema.

9. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
As people who have been following along with my lists know, I am a big fan of the Douglas Sirk melodramas. All That Heaven Allows is one of his most famous. It deals with Jane Wyman as a recently widowed older woman who walks outside one day to talk to her new gardener – Rock Hudson – and falls instantly in love (lust?) with him. What perhaps makes it stranger is that he as well falls in love with her. He introduces her to all of his friends – and none of them find it the least bit odd that he is dating a woman of her age. Her children however are much less understanding – her son all but threatening to disown her if she continues to see this man, who to him, represents the ultimate social embarrassment. Even her friends start snickering behind her back. Of all of the Sirk films, this is probably the most influential – Rainer Werner Fassbinder remade it as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, about an older woman who falls in love with an Arab immigrant in Germany, and you can see more than an echo of the film in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, where Julianne Moore discovers her husband is gay, and starts a relationship with her black gardener. Both of those storylines would have been far too risky for 1955, so Sirk subverts it a little bit. It is entirely possible that Sirk is hinting at bi-racial relationships, and even more so homosexuality (after all, Hudson was gay, although I do not know if Sirk knew that at the time). All That Heaven Allows works as a 1950s melodrama, but like all of Sirk’s films, there are layers upon layers to the film that make it so much more than that.

8. Rebel without a Cause (Nicolas Ray)
If East of Eden (see number 5 below) is the best of the James Dean films, than Rebel without a Cause is far and away the most iconic. It stars Dean as the new kid in high school, who comes to town, falls in love with a girl, defies the local toughs who want to control everything and disobeys his parents – essentially, Dean does everything you wish your teenagers would not do. Although the film was made over 50 years ago, I bet a lot of teenagers can still relate to the feelings of isolation and alienation on display in the film – I certainly did when I was a teenager. The clothes and music have changed sure, but the issues are the same. The supporting cast – especially Natalie Wood as the girl Dead falls for, and the troubled Sal Mineo as a kid who idolizes Dean, although he is heading down a self destructive path, are excellent. Yes, you could complain that the film is a little too phony and lays it on a little thick at times if you wanted to – but director Nicolas Ray (as gifted at melodrama as Sirk when he wanted to be) keeps the film somewhat grounded – especially because of Dean’s excellent, iconic lead performance.

7. Les Diaboliques (Henri Georges Clouzut)
Les Diaboliques is one of the most twisty, turny thrillers of all time. A meek school teacher (Vera Clozut), tired of his loutish husband (Paul Meurisse) running things and treating her life crap, teams up with her husband’s mistress, and fellow teacher (Simone Signoiret) to murder her husband, and provide themselves with the perfect alibi. Things seemingly go according to plan, right up to and including disposing of the body. But then days go by, and the body isn’t discovered – and when Clozut takes it upon herself to ensure the body is discovered, she finds it is no longer where it should be. Strange things keep happening, strange sightings and weird phone calls. Les Diaboliques is an expertly crafted thriller by the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzut – it is a thriller that Hitchcock would be proud to call his own. The performances anchor the story in the realm of reality – a real accomplishment considering how outlandish the plot appears to be at first glance. As the film progresses, Clouzut tightens the screws of the plot, right up until the truly memorable finale. One of the great thrillers of all time.

6. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is an apocalyptic little film noir about paranoia in the nuclear age. Ralph Meeker plays a corrupt PI, who is driving along one day and comes across a hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) who has just escaped from a mental hospital. Before he knows what is happening, he is beaten up and wakes up to hear Leachman being tortured to death – before he is packed into a car, along with the dead body, and shoved over a cliff. When he wakes up, he decides to try and figure out what happened. All the action seems to be trying to get back a mysterious suitcase – containing something that heats up and glows (and could be the inspiration for that mysterious suitcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction). The film is one of the most cynical and nihilistic of all film noirs – and that’s saying something given the genre itself. Aldrich’s surefire direction keeps the movie going at an almost breakneck pace, as it draws us deeper and deeper into its mysteries. This is a great little paranoid thriller – one of the final masterpieces of the classic film noir period.

5. East of Eden (Elia Kazan)
The cult of James Dean is based around his performances in three films – and for my money, his work in East of Eden, no matter how good he was in Rebel Without a Cause or Giant, has always been the best work of his career. John Steinbeck’s novel, loosely based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, provides Dean with the best role of his career. He is a young man who has always tried, unsuccessfully, to get his father (Raymond Massey) to love him as much as he loves his brother – which is complicated even more when Dean tracks down his mother (Jo Van Fleet), who he always thought was dead, and starts up a relationship with his brothers fiancée (Julie White). It has been said that Dean deliberately antagonized the old pro Massey to get him to hate him, so that there scenes would have a ring of authenticity to them – whether this is true or not, you certainly do get the sense that Massey doesn’t like Dean. Kazan’s sensitive direction allows Dean room to maneuver – and no one played brooding youth quite like he did. Dean’s performance is the centerpiece of this great movie – but the entire film is great.

4. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
It is late 1945, and a one armed man (Spencer Tracy) arrives in the tiny town of Black Rock on the train – the first time the train has stopped there since the war broke out. He says he is looking for a man named Kokomo, but finds the residents of the town hostile to him for seemingly now reason. They tell him that Kokomo no longer lives in town – he was a Japanese-American and was forced into an internment camp. But Tracy isn’t buying the official story – and despite being warned off by the local tough (Lee Marvin), and the man who seemingly runs the town (Robert Ryan), he continues to look into what really happened to Kokomo. It took years for Hollywood to deal with the shameful behavior of America in regards to Japanese-Americans during WWII – there have still only been a handful of films down about it – but director John Sturges was brave enough to make this film – an expert blend of film noir and western genres. I think Tracy is a great actor, but I don’t think I’ve ever liked him more in a film than I did in this one – and Robert Ryan, one of the more underrated movie tough guys from the era, is excellent as a truly evil, racist little man. The film is an intense, brave little movie – controversial at the time, but since the controversy has faded, it is easier to admire just what a great little film this is.

3. The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story has long since been underrated – perhaps because until last month, it was never available on DVD. Now that it, it can take its rightful place among the best crime films of the 1950s. The film is about a small Southern town under the yoke of corruption. A young, idealistic lawyer moves back to town, with his wife and young family in tow, and is amazed to see that his hometown has become a seedy, gambling town, where change is impossible because the guys who control everything don’t want to see it changed. The lawyer’s father was once one of the most respected lawyers in the state, and tried to fight against what was happening, but has long since given up. But then, as more and more violence starts happening, the good people in Phenix City cannot hold back any longer and they fight to retake their town. Karlson, a director I need to become more familiar with, masterfully handles this would be routine plot with his excellent filmmaking – his camera that glides down the streets, the dark cinematography that shows corruption in every corner of the city. The performances – by a cast of largely unknown character actors – are all wonderful. The Phenix City Story is a great film noir – one of the best in the final years of the classic noir period – and it’s time that it took that mantle.

2. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman)
When one thinks of Ingmar Bergman, they usually think of the dark, depressing dramas about a world where God, if not dead, is at least silent. But Smiles of a Summer Night couldn’t be further away from those films if it tried – it is essentially a witty, profane sex comedy by the master filmmaker, and it should be said, one of the best that the genre ever produced. Fredrik (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is a widower with a grown son, who married the beautiful, young, naïve Anne (Ulla Jacobson) over a year ago, and is still waiting for her to be ready to lose her virginity. Meanwhile, Anne is flirting with Fredrik’s self serious son (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam), who is studying to be a minister, although he harbors sexual thoughts about his step mother, and the main (Harriet Anderson). Fredrik takes Anne to the theater one night, where the star is Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), Fredrik’s former mistress, who he goes to see afterwards, even though she has moved on and is now the mistress of a Count (Jarl Kulle), much to the chagrin of his wife (Margit Carlqvist), although Desiree indeed does want Fredrik back. All of these characters gather at the home of Desiree’s mother (Naima Wifstrand) for a weekend of flirting, duels and a hell of lot of innuendo. The film is as light weight and breezy as Bergman’s films usually are downbeat and serious. It is pure cinematic pleasure to watch these characters interact – all the performances are wonderful (I particularly love Anderson as the naughty maid).Sometimes a director can surprise you by doing something completely different. In this case, as much as I love Ingmar Bergman’s normal, serious films, I have to say that this film is better than almost all of them – and is one of the greatest triumphs of the director’s career.

1. Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
It has been said by more than one person that Charles Laughton has the only perfect career as a director. The famed British actor made just one film as a director – and it stands as an absolute masterpiece – one of the very best films ever made. Robert Mitchum gives the best performance of his considerable career as a crooked, depraved preacher, who has tattooed his fingers so that one hand says “Love” and the other says “Hate”. Mitchum’s Harry Powell is convinced that the children of a recently hanged man know where their father hide the money he stole – so he seduces and marries the widow (Shelley Winters, adding another great shrewish performance to her resume) to try and get the kids to tell him the secret. The movie is perhaps the best example of Southern Gothic ever brought to the screen, and is a truly frightening movie, particularly as Powell chases after the children (calling him in Mitchum absolutely chilling voice). The film has inspired filmmakers ever since it was made – you can see echoes and references to it in the films of Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch among others. All too often, we approach films through their filmmakers, and compare the film to everything else in their work (as a auteurist, I am as guilty, if not more so of this than many others). But a film like Night of the Hunter forces us to approach it on its own terms, as Laughton didn’t leave us with anything else as a director – and the film is so different than the ones he made as an actor. It is a masterpiece, pure and simple. One of the greatest films ever made – and it really does sadden me that Laughton never stepped behind the camera again.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Desperate Hours (William Wyler), I Live in Fear (Akira Kurosawa), Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick), Marty (Delbert Mann), Mister Roberts (John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy), Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles), Night and Fog (Alain Resnais), Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer),Pather Panchali (Sayajit Ray), The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann), To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock).

Notable Films Missed: Il Bidone (Federico Fellini), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Luis Bunuel), The Far Country (Anthony Mann),Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse), French Cancan (Jean Renoir),Love is a Many Splendored Thing (Henry King), Les Maîtres fous (Jean Rouch),The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann), Moonfleet (Fritz Lang), Picnic (Joshua Logan), Princess Yang Kwei Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi), Taira Plan Saga (Kenji Mizoguchi).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Marty (Delbert Mann)
I have a soft spot in my heart for Delbert Mann’s Marty – in a weaker year it easily would have made my top 10 list. This is one of those rare best picture winners which isn’t about some important subject, and isn’t a large, glossly blockbuster, but a simple movie about a simple guy. Ernest Borgnine is terrific in the title role as a butcher, in middle age, with no wife to come home to at night. He is sweet and shy, and pays way too much attention to what his friends think of him – which is why he initially thinks twice about going out with a seemingly plain girl, even though she seems perfectly matched to him (and of course, since he is played by Borgnine, Marty isn’t exactly the best looking guy in the world either). The film is so sweet and lovable that it often gets mocked by serious film fans who want something more serious to win the Best Picture prize. While obviously I think the Academy could have chosen a better film to win, I still don’t want to rag on this movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Ernest Borgnine, Marty
With Marty, Borgnine effectively changed his screen image. Up until this movie, he had mainly made his career on being a tough guy in supporting roles – like his work in From Here to Eternity and this same year’s Bad Day at Black Rock. After Marty, although Borgnine continued to be able to be tough guys, he also added lovable schlub to his repertoire. I wouldn’t have given Borgnine the Oscar for his work here – for one thing Robert Mitchum was brilliant in Night of the Hunter, but since the Academy didn’t deem him worthy, Spencer Tracy or James Dean were better – but much like the movie itself, I have a soft spot for this performance. Is it one of the greatest in screen history? Certainly not, but I like it too much to really complain either.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo
Anna Magnani is probably best known to serious film fans for her blistering, brilliant turn in Roberto Rosselini’s Open City. After that film, she was able to move to Hollywood and start making movies here. Tennessee Williams apparently wrote the play The Rose Tattoo specifically for her, but she didn’t want to do it on Broadway – but when the role – that of a feisty widow, who after the death of her husband has withdrawn from the world – until a new man, Burt Lancaster, enters her life. Magnani shows some of the same fire and spunk that made her work in Open City so memorable, and the film directed by Daniel Mann is entertaining in the way all Tennessee Williams movies are – because of the melodrama and the sweaty sexuality. It isn’t quite the triumph of A Streetcar Named Desire, but how could it be?

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jack Lemmon, Mister Roberts
Jack Lemmon is one of the best screen actors of all time – effortlessly being able to move from comedy to drama and back again, sometimes in the same role. His work in John Ford and Mervyn Leroy’s Mister Roberts as Ensign Pulver, aboard a not very important ship during WWII is both at different times. Most people will remember his final scene – made memorable by being with a plant – but Lemmon is great throughout the movie. Is it really one of his best performances? I’m not sure, but it really is hard to argue with his win here (it was not a particularly stacked category this year) and is better than his work in Save the Tiger nearly two decades later that one him his second Oscar.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden
Jo Van Fleet’s role in East of Eden is small but memorable. She plays the mother of James Dean and his brother who they had always thought dead. But when Dean tracks her down – she is working as madam at a brothel a few towns away – she makes a memorable appearance in the film. Is her small role worthy of an Oscar? To me, I would have wanted to see Shelley Winters get it for Night of the Hunter, but they ignored her along with the other truly great performances in this category this year. Out of the nominees, she was a fine choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment