Thursday, July 30, 2009

1958: Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)

Released: October 3, 1958 (Poland)

a.k.a.: Popiół i diament

Director: Andrzej Wajda; Screenplay: Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski; Cinematography: Jerry Wojcik; Studio: Zespól Filmowy “Kadr”

Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski (Maciek), Adam Pawlikowski (Andrzej), Waclaw Zastrzeynski (Szczuka), Ewa Krzyzanowska (Krystyna), Bogumil Kobiela (Drewnowski), Jan Clecierski (The Porter), Artur Mlodnicki (Kotowicz)

When thinking about what it must have been like in Europe on May 8, 1945, the day that the German Army officially surrendered to the Allies, one would think that it would be nothing but endless parties and champagne. Looking back now, sixty-plus years removed from it, it’s easy to view everything as if on a timeline, where once World War II officially ended then those affected by it simply picked up the pieces and moved on to the next chapter of the 20th century. This is obviously a ridiculously naïve analysis, but it at times can be hard to understand how such turmoil remained to be experienced in nations that had been ravaged by war for nearly a decade. With Ashes and Diamonds, director Andrzej Wajda attempts to relate the precarious situation that existed in Poland after the fall of the Nazi occupiers. In an incredibly artistic fashion, he manages to show that while the end of the war may have meant the end of some hardships, it most certainly did not mean an immediate return to peace.

The story focuses primarily on a young Polish resistance fighter, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), and the hit team that he is a part of in its assignment to kill a Communist Party leader who is returning to the country. Along with his longtime partner Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), a secretary to the mayor who is feeding them information, the group lays in ambush at a church hoping to catch the motorcade by surprise. When a jeep approaches, Maciek and Andrzej spring into action, machine-gunning the car and dispatching both the driver and passenger. Believing their assignment to be complete, the group quickly leaves the area and goes into the city where they can report their work to be done.

When Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzeynski), the Communist leader who was the target of the hit team, pulls up in a jeep a few minutes later, it becomes obvious that the wrong men were assassinated. Those passing by the church recognize the two men as cement factory workers, one of whom had returned from a Nazi prison camp just weeks earlier. Recognizing that the bullets were intended for him, Szczuka uses the incident as an example to those witnessing the carnage, proclaiming that it is necessary to take risks like these in order to further the communist cause.

Soon after returning to the city, Maciek is inexplicably face to face with Szczuka, the man he believed he had just killed. When Andrzej reports to his superiors that their mission actually failed, he receives orders that the job be properly carried out that night. Maciek decides that he will finish the job and by sweet-talking a fellow native of Warsaw working at the front desk of a hotel is able to take a room next door to Szczuka’s. Things begin to grow complicated when he meets Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzanowska), a blond bartender working at the hotel. He almost immediately falls in love with her. After the two have a rendezvous in his hotel room, Maciek begins to question the cause that he has devoted himself to. Recognizing that the uprisings, murders, and constantly being on the move have deprived him of ever being able to enjoy pleasures like the love of a girl like Krystyna, he begins to wonder whether he can continue a life on the run. When he takes these concerns to Andrzej, he is all but accused of becoming a deserter. The question then becomes, what Maciek will choose – a “normal” life with Krystyna or carrying out the contract assigned to him and the loyalty demanded by the anti-communist resistance?

In terms of the story, Wajda does a masterful job of depicting the complexity of Polish society in this final day of World War II and outlining the different factions that would jockey for control of its direction in the post-war era. The most impressive thing that is accomplished is how Wajda’s was able to make almost every character serve as a microcosm of a group involved in the struggle. Maciek and Andrzej are the prototypical examples of those in Poland who were staunch resistance fighters, risking their lives in opposition of the Nazis. They continue their fight against the new power, the Soviets, because they feel like they fought not just to rid the country of the Germans but for complete Polish freedom. In the now-ruling Soviets, they feel that their freedom is still being threatened. But there are differences between even Maciek and Andrzej. Adrezej follows orders from resistance higher-ups with a soldierly devotion, whereas Maciek comes across as much more of a free spirit. While this is never completely spelled out in the film, Maciek came across to me as someone who may have originally believed in the justness of his actions but is eventually involved in the fighting because it has become routine. When he sees that his actions have taken the lives of ordinary Poles – the very people he is ostensibly struggling to protect – things are no longer as cut and dry for him.

The moral ambiguity of the film arises when Maciek and Andzej are contrasted with those that they are opposing, in particular Szczuka. Szczuka represents those in Polish society who have wholeheartedly embraced the new Soviet regime that seizes power after the Nazi defeat. Rather than being depicted as an evil communist or traitor to his country, it becomes apparent that Szczuka too considers himself to be a patriot. He also resisted the Nazis and fought to drive them from Poland. His acceptance of the Soviets seems to arise out of a genuine belief that they will better his nation and its citizens. Is he wrong in this belief? Nothing in the film explicitly shows this to be the case. While a viewer may identify with the charismatic Maciek and assume him to be promoting a just cause, Wajda is never so heavy handed as to force the audience to blindly accept this. Szczuka is never shown to be the direct cause of any of the country’s troubles. Thus, Maciek’s questioning his actions becomes completely understandable. It seems only natural for him to wonder if the murder of one man is worth the collateral damage of killing innocent Polish citizens.

Other lesser characters represent equally interesting segments of society. Drewnowski is a man who works as an assistant to the communist mayor, while at the same time providing information to the resistance movement. He appears to represent those in Poland who admire the resistance fighters and long for absolute freedom, while at the same time covering themselves by at least giving the appearance of loyalty to the Soviets. With Krystyna, Wajda shows the Poles who are simply swept into this cauldron of competing interests and who are trying to do nothing more than survive from day to day. She comes in contact with those on both sides of the struggle, showing the impossibility of remaining unaffected by what is happening.

Zbigniew Cybulski emerged from this film a superstar. He would come to earn the nickname of the “Polish James Dean,” which I suppose is a result of the magnetism that both displayed on screen. But these are two very different actors. Whereas Dean’s roles constantly exuded unbridled passion, Cybulski plays Maciek in a very laidback and carefree manner. With the trademark glasses and constant smiles, it is amazing to think that the Maciek character is in the middle of carrying out a contract murder. Rather than being overwhelmed by the situation, he takes the time to pick up a woman and make jokes. The amazing thing is such antics do not come across as hyperbolic. Everything seems so natural.

In the end, though, I’ll disagree with assessments that overly shower Cybulski with praise and ignore the guiding force of the entire production. This is Wajda’s film. As the finale in a trilogy of films about Poland during and shortly after the war, Ashes and Diamonds remains Wajda’s greatest effort. The movie is undoubtedly stylish (it’s no coincidence that the subtitle of my DVD of the film reads “Essential Art House”). But such a chic style never sacrifices the gritty realism that Wajda is able to include in everything. He truly conveys the sense of a war-torn nation. And his shot composition in certain sequences is remarkable. The opening ambush scene and its memorable final shot in the church is an amazing way to start the film. And the sequence in which Maciek watches a pacing Szczuka in the hall of the hotel before stalking him to complete the contract is perfect. The fireworks bursting in the background as Szczuka stumbles toward him is brilliant stuff. He is also able to seamlessly integrate scenery and props directly into his shots, such as using the hanging crucifix or white sheets in the final chase scene. It’s obvious that the man was completely at home in controlling and directing the camera.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1958: There are some huge films in 1958, and I have a feeling that many will choose one mentioned in this section. My second favorite film of this year, and the one that until recently was slated to be the pick as #1, is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Aside from the head-scratching decision to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican police officer, the rest of the film is amazing. It contains my favorite acting performance from Welles and aside from the awkward position producers put him in, Heston also delivers a fine performance. The other landmark movie of this year, and the one that I suspect will receive considerable support, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I really like it, even if I do place it behind other Hitchcock favorites like Rear Window, Psycho or Rebecca. Still, its status is undeniable and is widely accepted as Hitch’s greatest film.

The other films of 1958 that I love, but never really contended for the top spot: Man of the West (Anthony Mann), Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati), The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

1957: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)

Released: June 27, 1957

Director: Alexander Mackendrick; Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, and Alexander Mackendrick (uncredited) based on a novelette by Lehman; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Studio: United Artists; Producer: James Hill; Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Sam Levene (Frank D’Angelo), Chico Hamilton (Chico Hamilton), Barbara Nichols (Rita), Emile Meyer (Lt. Harry Kello), Jeff Donnell (Sally)

- “Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of forty faces, not one - none too pretty and all deceptive.”

If I wanted to get really cute with this review, I would simply post a link to the Odets and Lehman penned screenplay, copy and paste a picture of both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in their roles from the film, and end things at that. That would be more than sufficient in summing up why I consider this film to be not just the best of 1957, but among the finest that I have ever seen. In reality, my review of the film is just going to be expounding on these key strengths, while also singing the praises of the stunning nighttime photography of New York City. I almost never refer to a film as perfect, but I have to admit that when it comes to Sweet Smell of Success, there is nothing that I would argue needs to be changed.

The background on how the stars aligned to bring all of the principals in the film together is interesting. The script, cast, and production team were put together in stages, with each new addition to the team adding something to the final product. The story is based on a magazine story by Ernest Lehman that originally was published in 1950, basing the story on his own experiences working in the New York public relations industry. When the film rights to the story were acquired, Lehman quickly began to work to direct it himself. United Artists balked at the idea, not wanting a novice director causing problems. It was then that the producers turned to a director who had not worked in the United States in over twenty years – Alexander Mackendrick. Mackendrick, although born in the U.S., had moved back to Scotland at an early age and had been working in the film industry in Britain since the 1930s. He had made many successful films as a director at Ealing Studios, but with the sale of company, Mackendrick began casting his eyes toward Hollywood. Courted by the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production company, which had the rights to Lehman’s script, Mackendrick agreed to come back to the States and take over director duties.

Mackendrick and Lehman began working together to tailor the script to the new director’s liking, but soon hit a snag when Lehman fell sick and was no longer able to continue. Into his place stepped Clifford Odets, who began reworking the script even further. I have personally never seen it pinpointed as to exactly what Odets was changing with the script, but it apparently was extensive, as the editing continued even after shooting began. Apparently, it was not changes to the actual storyline, but more of a refining role to improve individual scenes and dialogue. Whatever it was, it worked, as the script is superb, and all three men who had a hand in working on it deserve praise.

It is also Hollywood lore that Universal Studios, which owned Tony Curtis’ contract, was vehemently opposed to him playing the role of Sidney Falco. Curtis, on the other hand, lobbied hard to land the role and fortunately won out – if Curtis ever did better work than in this film, I haven’t seen it. I'll go a step further and say that there are few performances I've seen in _any_ film that top Curtis as Sidney Falco. Orson Welles was supposedly considered for the role of J.J. Hunsecker, a thinly veiled depiction of Walter Winchell, but United Artists pushed for the box office appeal of leading man Burt Lancaster. This is another choice that has been shown to have been correct, as Lancaster showed his versatility. Normally in films noir, Lancaster would play characters that were at heart well-intentioned men, but for whatever reason would be swept up in uncontrollable circumstances. As Hunsecker, he is playing a man with virtually no redeeming qualities.

The screenplay and its story are as biting as you’ll ever encounter. It follows a night in the life of press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a PR man who can hustle with the best of them. As with every other press agent in the city, his number one goal in life is to get his clients mentioned in the newspaper gossip column of the powerful J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Although promised lines in the column, Falco is continually rebuffed by Hunsecker because he has been unable to deliver on a promise made to J.J. Falco had agreed to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and rising jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Until that objective is achieved, Sidney is being shut out from the Hunsecker column.

Over the course of the night, the audience has a firsthand view of Sidney’s bouncing from nightspot to nightspot, meeting with clients, currying favor with journalists and doing his best to schmooze with important people. He also continues doing his damndest to pull Susan and Dallas apart from each other. Throughout the night he also meets with J.J. as the columnist holds court at his usual restaurant table. It is here that we see the power of J.J. Husecker as he has politicians and celebrities coming to him for favors, nearly groveling just to get an audience with him.

I’ve already sung the praises of the screenplay, and I won’t do my usual cut-and-paste of favorite lines (although I will post a link to the actual screenplay: As I said at the beginning of this piece, aside from being my all-time favorite screenplay, there is more than just the excellent writing to admire here. The two lead performances are absolute masterworks, particularly Tony Curtis. Sidney Falco is downright sleazy, with no limitations on what he will do to curry favorable press. In an ironic way, he wears this characteristic as a badge of honor – after all, in his eyes he is just doing his job. As one of his clients tells him, “It’s in a publicity man’s nature to be a liar.” But Sidney goes beyond simply lying. He is outright manipulative, and uses anyone he can to help him out of a jam – his secretary, his sometime girlfriend, his uncle. The amazing thing is that Curtis is so charismatic in the role that you can’t help but at least grudgingly like Sidney. Was this intended by the writers? I don’t know, but if it wasn’t then it is further proof that Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco is the ultimate conman!

All of this action takes place in exactly the setting that one would expect such shady characters to be operating in. I know that I am always harping on the atmosphere of great films, but it’s impossible not to admire the dark New York City streets and nightclubs captured brilliantly by Mackendrick and cinematographer James Wong Howe. They craft the perfect mood for the biting script and subject matter. The streets are dark, with smoke rising from every opening, swirling around the press hounds and P.R. men bustling about and lending a sinister undertone to nearly everyone encountered in the film. This movie isn’t dark in the same sense as other noirs, where there is a doomed feeling attached to every action. It is dark in a very literal sense – everything takes place at night and even when things are happening indoors, they are taking place in dimly lit bars or clubs. It might be reading too much into this fact, but it could very easily be interpreted that these bloodsucking press men are the modern equivalent of vampires who cannot see the light of day. Combine this with the jazz soundtrack of Elmer Bernstein and things are as I (correctly or not) picture New York City to have been at this time.

The story is acerbic and at times can be utterly cruel. Yet it’s always so much fun to watch. Maybe it says something about me and the many other fans of the film that find such biting humor to be so funny and entertaining… I’m not really sure. What I do know is that if we’re talking just pure enjoyment, there are times when I’m tempted to proclaim Sweet Smell of Success as my #1 film of any year.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1957: This was an absolute no-contest year for me, but in going back through the roster of films released this year, 1957 actually was a great one in cinema. There were a lot of films that would have competed in any other year. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is among the two best Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen in film – the other being Kurosawa’s later Ran (I have Chimes at Midnight sitting next to the DVD player waiting to be watched, so that’s why it’s not included in that comparison). Other favorites from this year include familiar directors. Jacques Tourneur has quickly shot up my list of favorites and this year’s Night of the Demon is a horror classic. Billy Wilder, another longtime favorite, contributes a great mystery with Witness for the Prosecution. I love Charles Laughton in this film. Paths of Glory, from director Stanley Kubrick, might be the finest anti-war film that I’ve seen. I love the work Kubrick did in the 50s.

As for those outside of the Hollywood mainstream, I think that Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is brilliant, and that early dream sequence still blows me away. I much prefer this one to The Seventh Seal which was released this same year. And Nights of Cabiria, from Federico Fellini, might be my favorite from the director.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

1956: The Searchers (John Ford)

Released: March 12, 1956

Director: John Ford; Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent based on the novel of the same name by Alan Le May; Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch; Studio: Warner Brothers; Producer: C.V. Whitney

Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Rev. and Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards [older]), Lana Wood (Debbie Edwards [younger]), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Hank Worden (Mose Harper), Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards), Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards)

In yet another interesting situation created by the nature of this countdown, 1956 involved some amusing flip-flopping and second guessing on my part before eventually returning to my original selection. When I first started the countdown, I made a preliminary overview-type list, where I outlined each year and made a rough draft of films for each year. Then, the plan was to go back and compare these early choices against other possibilities and “new” films that I was seeing for the first time in certain years. For a few years, however, there were films that I was positive would not be unseated and thus I was able to concentrate on other years where there were films I needed to see or where there were many comparisons to be made. 1956 was a year that I thought was rock solid. I have long regarded The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest film and among the best westerns ever made. Having to keep Bresson’s A Man Escaped out of the countdown was something that I had made my peace with. So, I felt fairly certain that once I approached 1956, I could just go ahead with the choice and move on to the next year.

This is precisely what I started to do. After all, what movie that I had not already seen would be able to supplant The Searchers? I began the early section of a review and proceeded as usual. But in stopping to watch a movie around this time, I decided that I would go ahead and watch another 1956 film. It would at least allow me to say that I was thorough in my deliberations. And so it was that I popped in the DVD of Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp and proceeded to sit through it and be entirely transfixed. It was a beautiful film, both in its imagery and its story, and I quickly began thinking about how I would begin its entry as the top film of 1956. I even went so far as beginning to jot down thoughts on the movie, before pausing to give The Searchers a chance to reclaim its throne.

Amazingly enough it did, which I suppose is no great surprise to anyone reading this, as they knew from the headline of this post and the movie poster that my selection would be The Searchers. But it truly was an interesting and circuitous route I took to finally arrive at the choice. When I watched it again, for the first time a good while, there are two elements that jumped out at me and made it impossible for me to pick against it – the awe-inspiring visuals in Monument Valley and the career-best performance from The Duke.

It is John Wayne, of course, who stars as Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate cavalry commander who returns to his Texas home rather than surrender to the victorious Union Army. In Texas he is reunited with his brother Aaron’s family, consisting of his wife Martha and there three children. In addition to his blood relatives, Ethan also learns that a baby he rescued years ago was raised as a part of Aaron’s family, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is introduced to Ethan as his nephew. Ethan immediately dispels any such notion of kinship when he realizes that Martin is one-eight Native American, immediately showing himself to be a racist of the first-degree.

Soon after being reunited with his family, Ethan is asked to go out with a group of Texas Rangers in order to track a band of marauding Comanches. After traveling some distance, the group quickly recognizes that the attacking of cattle had been a ruse to draw the group away. When they return back to the settlement, Ethan is correct in having declared that it was a murder party, as the entire Edwards property is left in ruins. In surveying the damage, Ethan realizes that his brother, sister-in-law and their son have all been murdered. The two daughters, on the other hand, have been kidnapped. Ethan vows to track them and bring them back, and grudgingly allows Martin to go along with him. Thus, begins a quest that will take the two of them years to complete and have them venturing up mountains, through snow, and across open plains. As the two eventually begin to close in on Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), the man holding Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive, events take on an even more sinister tone. Simply returning Debbie to family and friends no longer appears to be Ethan’s chief objective. This is the plan if Debbie is still “civilized,” which in his eyes means “white.” If she has instead been changed by the Comanches – and read whatever you want into “changed,” be it assimilated, transformed, or even having slept with them – then Ethan has no interest in saving her. In his eyes, she would then be nothing but just another Comanch, and he is committed to seeing that group of people wiped from the face of Texas. Martin’s role then becomes ensuring that he is present when they find Debbie, as he is certain that Ethan would kill her without batting an eye.

The primary characteristic, and the one that so many viewers seem to get hung up on, is the overt racism displayed by Ethan Edwards. It is no coincidence that he is a returning Confederate soldier. Yes, I’m fully aware that not all Confederate soldiers were raving racists and I’m not making any such claim. But the image serves to strengthen the idea that in Ethan you’re dealing with a man who truly believes in the idea of various races being different and unequal. There is no getting around the fact that he is an outright racist – there is simply no other way to account for his constant belittling of Indians, his references to Marty as “blanket-head,” or his refusal to claim Marty as a relative because he is just 1/8th Cherokee. This is a fact that I’ve actually known to turn many people off from the character and the movie, as they equate having a hero with this worldview as Ford somehow endorsing it. I just feel like such a reading of the character is flawed it two key ways.

First, I think this is simply approaching the character in the wrong way, and expecting it to be played as John Wayne rather than as Ethan Edwards. To expect Ethan to be the typical John Wayne role, the tough guy who is nevertheless the embodiment of American ideals, is just not what the character is meant to be. And in reality, it’s not what is needed to make the story as compelling as it is. Second, and even more important, is that simply labeling Ethan as a racist and nothing more overlooks very intriguing nuances in the character. I’ve admitted the bigoted attitude Ethan possesses, but at the same time he appears to be somebody who harbors at least grudging respect for the Comanches he is tracking. He seems to know more about them than any other settlers in the state – he speaks the language, is familiar with their customs, and never makes the mistake of underestimating them as many of his companions do. In other words, he is not blinded by his prejudice. And, it has to be pointed out, he does not go through the movie completely unchanged. Does he suddenly emerge as a proponent of equal rights? Of course not. But his outlook obviously begin to adjust. While he remains gruff with him throughout the entire film, it is obvious that Ethan grows to be fond of Marty, no matter how many off-color remarks he makes toward him. Just witness his willing of his entire property to Marty if he were to die. It is far from a 180-degree transformation, but Ethan Edwards seen through the doorway at the beginning of the film is different from the Ethan who is framed in the same way at the close.

Rather than blather on and try to recreate on paper what John Ford produced so magnificently on screen, I’ll instead include a number of my favorite scenic shots that can be found throughout. The film was shot in Ford’s favorite locale, Monument Valley, and the use of Technicolor and the VistaVision process look like they were created for just such a film. Ford is rightly lauded as being among the best in use of outdoor scenery and the sweeping shots that allow viewers to take in the entire scope of the surroundings. He shot many other beautiful films over the course of his career – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine – but The Searchers ranks among the most gorgeous films I have ever seen. Here are some of my favorite shots:

The Searchers is widely regarded as the greatest western ever made. While there are one or two other westerns that I personally prefer, it’s a claim that is incredibly hard to dispute. What I will definitively say is that I don’t think John Ford ever made a finer film or that John Wayne ever turned in a better performance. That one-two combination should be enough to validate its place among the best films of all time.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1956:
An incredibly top-heavy year in my opinion. As I said, Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp was a revelation and very nearly stole this slot. Robert Bresson is a director that I sometimes struggle with, but A Man Escaped is undeniably great. I don’t think it is at all hyperbole to declare it to be the best prison break movie ever made. The other film that was in the running this year was the great Stanley Kubrick noir The Killing. Based on his roster of acclaimed films, I know that I will likely be in the extreme minority when I say that The Killing is my favorite film that Kubrick ever made. The film looks great to this day and is intriguing, if not mysterious, the entire way through.

Another western that deserves mention, but never really contended for the top spot, is Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now. While there is another Boetticher-Randolph Scott western that I prefer, this is definitely among the best B-westerns ever made. The final film I’d highlight is one that a lot of people consider 1955, but in staying consistent with my guidelines I’m including in 1956, is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur. While I don’t consider it to be in the top tier of Melville’s impressive filmography (those films were still to come), it’s a great film nonetheless.

Friday, July 24, 2009

1955: Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)

Released: May 18, 1955

Director: Robert Aldrich; Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides from the novel of the same name by Mickey Spillane; Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo; Studio: United Artists; Producer: Robert Aldrich

Cast: Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Albert Dekker (Dr. G.E. Soberin), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey), Gaby Rodgers (Lilly Carver/Gabrielle), Nick Dennis (Nick), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), Wesley Addy (Lt. Pat Murphy), Marian Carr (Friday), Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse), Jack Elam (Charlie Max), Leigh Snowden (Cheesecake), Percy Helton (Doc Kennedy)

These middle years of the 1950s are getting tougher and tougher on me. It is just one year after another of great films, with nearly every year containing multiple movies that would make an “all time favorites” list. The interesting thing about 1955 in this countdown was that it was a year that had some conspicuous absences in my viewing, as there were a few key classics that I had never seen. Some were a result of not having copies readily available, others were just glaring oversights that had to be resolved before I could make a legitimate selection. While I certainly didn’t expect to be able to make the claim that I had seen every worthy contender for each year, 1955 has some movies that are benchmarks in the history of cinema. And so after seeking out even those films that had eluded me for so long, what is the result?

I choose an old warhorse. I ultimately go with a film that was already a favorite, one that I just recently ranked among my Top 10 films of all-time. Yet, even with such a high opinion of Kiss Me Deadly, it was not at all an easy choice. How, you may ask, was it not easy to pick out an all-time Top 10 film? Because when I finally watched Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet for the first time, in my mind I quickly began outlining how I would structure the review for it’s inclusion in this countdown. Eventually, after re-watching Kiss Me Deadly, and pondering which of the two to go with for 1955, I sided with Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic noir. Still, it’s a testament to the strength of Dreyer’s film that after just one viewing I was nearly ready to unseat a longtime favorite.

In the end, after enjoying it one more time, I just couldn’t do it. Kiss Me Deadly is still overwhelming in the number of different ways that it can be enjoyed. It is a movie that contains enough action and entertainment to be enjoyed as your usual noir thriller, yet is also meaningful enough to be analyzed for its cultural significance. The first time that I ever watched it, I came away as a fan of the film, looking it as a slightly above average private eye noir. Comparing it to other similarly structured films, I found it to be good, but wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am now. I put it aside and carried on with other films before coming back to it a few years later. When I returned to it, now more familiar with the context in which the film was made and its impact on the course of cinematic history, my appreciation skyrocketed. I quickly realized that I wasn’t simply watching a hardened variation of a Raymond Chandler story. In fact, as I’ve come to view it, this story actually plays as something of a swansong to that era of stories and characters.

Opening with one of the most classic of opening sequences, a woman in a trench coat is seen running down the middle of a highway. Standing in front of an oncoming car in order to force someone to stop, she causes private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) to run his convertible off the road. While giving her a ride to the nearest gas station, Hammer quickly realizes that his new passenger has escaped from a mental hospital and is wanted by authorities. She (Cloris Leachman) convinces him not to turn her in, hauntingly imploring him to “Remember me” if things go wrong. They of course do, as the car is overtaken by assailants and the girl is killed. Hammer manages to survive, waking up in the hospital after spending three days in a coma.

Hammer emerges from the hospital curious as to the circumstances that led to the girl’s death. His interest is further piqued when both law enforcement and underworld personalities begin probing him for information about what the girl may have revealed to him. Rather than focusing on the usual divorce PI work that he uses to make his living, Hammer and his secretary/sometime-girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper) begin following any leads on the mysterious girl. The more tantalizing the potential lead, the more obsessed Hammer becomes with unraveling this mystery that no one appears to know the answer to. Following this trail brings Hammer into contact with a wide range of characters, from the girl’s supposed former roommate Lilly Carter (Gaby Rodgers), to underworld heavies like Carl Evollo (Paul Stewart) and his henchman Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) and Charlie Max (Jack Elam). For all of the leads that Hammer appears to continually be uncovering, he somehow never seems to get closer to the truth – until it’s too late for him to decide whether he really wants to discover that truth. By the time that Hammer finds a mysterious black box, which appears to harbor a substance or force of unspeakable power and intensity, events seem to have spiraled out of anyone’s control.

The fact that Kiss Me Deadly was made toward the end of the “classic” film noir era is unsurprising, as it plays like a rejection of so many of the central tenets that characterized the genre. Whereas Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe may have been poking their noses into places they didn’t belong, in the end they proved themselves to be valuable as they busted crime or saved others from harm. Mike Hammer sees himself in a similar light, acting as if he is the only person who can truly resolve the mystery of what happened to Christina Bailey and what she was trying to hide. No matter who tells him to leave it alone – the police, gangsters, his friend and close confidant Velda – Mike thinks that he can find justice for any wrongs that have been committed. With every tidbit of information he receives, Hammer becomes more intrigued, always appearing to be on the verge of grasping what it is that he is chasing, but never quite unmasking the truth. What he fails to realize is that in his pursuit, he is causing even more damage in the process, and is setting off a chain of events that will lead to catastrophic consequences. When Mike finally does realize that this is what is happening, it’s far too late for him to reverse course. The mysterious black box has already been discovered, there are already other people who covet whatever it is that the box represents, and there is no way for the box to be discarded or forgotten.

The brilliance of director Robert Aldrich in this film is that he shoots the film to make the audience feel the exact same thing. Until becoming fully aware of what is happening (which took me more than a single viewing), the viewer is going to approach the mystery of the story in the same way as Mike Hammer. Each new bit of evidence is seen as bringing us one step closer to discovering why such sinister men were hell-bent on silencing Christina. And with each new clue, we too feel like we might be able to guess what is going on. It never happens. The audience realizes the stakes involved at the same time that Hammer does, and as I said, at that point there’s no turning back. The conclusion is still stunning today, even when it becomes obvious what is going to happen. Right up until the explosive finish, I kept thinking "He's really not going to end the movie like this is... is he?". He does and it works.

Robert Aldrich would go on to much more financially-successful endeavors and would direct films that were much more popular with the general public (The Dirty Dozen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), but this B-movie masterpiece is undoubtedly his artistic zenith. This film is stylish to the max, as Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo experiment with camera angles and different shot structures. It is little surprise that this film would go on to be a major influence on the French New Wave in the coming years. Aldrich and Laszlo combine to wonderfully capture the gritty feeling of Los Angeles, making every setting and character have a seedy quality. There is also a realization is how adept Aldrich is at handling violence. Filming at a time when explicit displays of violence was not acceptable, Aldrich had to get very creative in order to get across the viciousness of the sequences of events that Hammer is a part of. Simply, yet highly creative shot compositions are able to make otherwise benign sequences become absolutely chilling. The greatest example comes very early in the film when Christina and Mike are captured by the unnamed assailants. The men are torturing Christina, trying to find out what she revealed to Mike. As they are working her over, all the camera focuses on are her feet. We see her feet squirming as she struggles to avoid the pain. When a bloodcurdling scream is heard and the feet give one final anguished jerk, it is clear that the young girl has been killed. Without seeing one drop of blood or a single second of the interrogation, Aldrich still manages to startle the audience.

It is film noir meets Cold War paranoia, which likely sounds like the recipe for a horribly cheesy movie – and in most cases it would turn out this way. Fortunately, Aldrich never allows the film to slip into such territory. Some still argue that the film feels dated, and even if that point is conceded, it does nothing to detract from its greatness. If it’s dated, it’s dated in the same way that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is dated – meaning that something similar isn’t likely to be made any time soon, but that it’s still better than almost anything else likely to be produced. Even so, I would argue strongly that the film most definitely is not dated. While the makeup of world politics may have changed in the fifty years since its release, the tendency for people and groups to deal in absolutes has not. There are still segments of society who refuse to see things in any way but there own or to follow any course of action but the one that they are certain is right. As is the case with Mike Hammer, this oftentimes can serve to make things worse. This is still a relevant film, with themes that can be applied to circumstances other than the Cold War.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1955: Many excellent films to choose from in this year. As I said in the review, Dreyer’s Ordet is a close second. The more films from Dreyer that I see, the bigger fan I become. The man was amazing at taking seemingly simple situations and storylines and using them to put viewers through an emotional grinder. My other two favorites are both French, and if this countdown would have been conducted just a year or two ago, would likely be my two frontrunners for the year. I think that Rififi is the best film that Jules Dassin ever made, with the virtuoso heist sequence still amazing to this day. Similarly, I think that Les Diaboliques (which some label as 1954, I have it at 1955 with first release in January 55) is the best from director Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is as chilling as Hitchcock at his best, and while I’ve come to realize that the ending is a bit preposterous, the buildup is so good that it’s easy to overlook.

Those are the only films that seriously contended for the top spot, but there are others I will still mention. In my attempt to be as thorough as possible, I was finally able to find a copy of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. I definitely liked it, but not quite as much as its reputation had led me to believe I would. I think this is a film that I’m going to need to give multiple viewings before I pass final judgment. East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, in my opinion is the best film in the short career of James Dean. And finally The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis) shows of the photography of John Alton at its finest and is a very underrated noir.

Two films that I am guessing with receive support, but that I don’t feel nearly as strongly about are: Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which I do like, but don’t find to be as good as most others; and, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (another that some have as 1954), which I genuinely dislike.

I should also point out that I didn't include Alain Resnais' Night and Fog in considerations because it's just too difficult for me to compare documentaries to traditional movies. It's still an unbelievable piece of filmmaking and highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

1954: Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)

Released: August 1, 1954 (U.S.)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay: John Michael Hayes based on the short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: James Stewart (L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Carol Fremont), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Wendell Corey (Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Irene Winston (Mrs. Anna Thorwald), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonelyhearts), Ross Bagdasarian (Songwriter), Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso)

As I’m sure happens to everyone who shows a passion for films, I am constantly asked the loaded question, “What is your all-time favorite movie?” Answering such a question is hopeless, as it's one that is impossible to give a valid response to. There are just too many factors that are constantly shifting. The answer at any given point in time is dependent on things such as which films I’ve watched most recently, what kind of films I have been into, what my mood is at that time – basically, a change in any of these elements is likely to produce a different response to the question. Now, with that being said, I could likely draft a list of 10-15 films from which an answer at any given point is likely to be chosen. If forced to narrow things even further, I would venture to say that if someone were to have the time or inclination to track my answers to this question over an extended period (and I pity the person who would even be interested in trying such a thing!), that there is a film that would likely pop up more often than any other. To this day, after countless viewings, I still find Alfred Hithcock’s Rear Window thrilling and exciting every time I watch it.

The amazing thing is that 1954 is such a monstrous year that it has to be a movie that I love this much in order to be chosen as my top film. While there are not quite the volume of contenders that I dealt with in years like 1939 or 1950, those at the top of are magnificent. This year is like a small tournament of heavyweight directors, pitting the likes of Hitchcock, Kazan, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Fellini and Ray against each other. So for me, this is another banner year for cinema.

If Alfred Hitchcock is not my favorite director, he’s certainly on the short list. With Rear Window, the director was in the middle of a ten-year run of classics that can be matched favorably against the best decade-long run of any other director to ever work in film. When watching this film, it’s abundantly clear that you are observing a genius at work – a director who feels like he can do whatever he wants to on the screen and make it work. Forgetting about the reputation and acclaim that it has acquired over the years, think about describing this film to someone at the most basic level. Here is a major motion picture that takes place on one set, and for the most part in just a single room. It is a murder mystery in which the audience never sees the crime or any other violence take place. The story unfolds by viewing a number of seemingly innocuous events, watching them from the rear window of an apartment. Even further, the events that the audience does see transpire take place from a distance, well out of earshot.

To think that a film described in this fashion manages to become one of the most thrilling movies ever made is mind-blowing. And while it is not due solely to the efforts of Hitchcock – there are many other collaborators that contribute to the film’s success – there is no question that it took a personality like Hitch to achieve the greatness that Rear Window does. Only Hitchcock, with this personal interest (and some would even argue paranoia) concerning voyeurism and its place in society could elevate the movie from the bland description given above to the suspenseful masterpiece it is.

I’ll start the meat of this review in the same way that the movie itself begins, exploring the stunning set constructed at Paramount Studios. The base description given earlier saying that the film takes place on a single set is somewhat misleading, because that single set is spectacular. At the time, it was the largest set Paramount had ever constructed, allowing Hitchcock to accurately depict the setting of the Greenwich Village apartment complex and the open-air courtyard at its center. Every apartment that we see through Jeff’s window is like a world of its own, each with its own individual characters and personalities. In Miss Torso’s room you see a blond bombshell, constantly dancing and stretching in skimpy clothing and always being wooed by young men. Miss Lonelyhearts is the middle-aged woman seen in her very domesticated looking apartment, longing for a companion. She is portrayed in the most sympathetic light. The Songwriter lives in an apartment that looks like an artist’s loft, with his piano situated at the center of his room so that he can try to write his first hit song. In the newlyweds that move in early in the film, Jeff and the audience watch as the love struck couple progresses from the bliss early in their marriage to more difficult times that loom ahead. Then of course, there is the apartment of the Thorwalds, where Lars is said to have murdered his invalid wife. Each room is its own world, with those in Jeff’s apartment acting as something of an “all-seeing eye.”

And all of this is shot in beautiful Technicolor, which creates an interesting contrast. There are vibrant colors on display, whether it is in the gorgeous costumes designed by the famed Edith Head or outdoor shots in the quad. Yet many vital scenes hinge on darkness and subtle uses of light. The ability to be seen across the courtyard is dependent upon lights, or lack thereof. Thus, Jeff and Lisa are constantly scrambling to cut off the lights of his apartment, to make it impossible for Thorwald to see them spying on him. There are numerous scenes where Jeff or Stella are stepping (of in Jeff’s case wheeling) back into the shadows to remain unobserved. The same is true for conditions in Thorwald’s apartment, which allow Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks to create the chilling images of his living room in complete darkness, the only visible thing being the cherry of his lit cigarette. It is dazzling stuff, reinforcing the fact that it is not just Hitchcock who deserves praise for the look of the film. Robert Burks photographed many other Hitchcock films (among them Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and North By Northwest) but his accomplishment here is as good as anything else he ever did.

I would be shocked if everyone reading this is not at least vaguely familiar with the plot of the film, but for the sake of completeness I’ll at least offer a brief summary. L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is a celebrated freelance photographer who has been recently injured while filming a car race. With his left leg in a cast up his midsection, Jeff is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Combating boredom, and without the ability to go out to find something better to do, Jeff finds himself people-watching from his back window and observing the various idiosyncrasies and habits of his neighbors. Over the course of his spying, Jeff comes to suspect that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), whose apartment is directly across the courtyard, has murdered his ailing wife. After hearing a pained scream in the early morning hours, Jeff sees Thorwald, said to be a traveling jewelry salesman, quickly leaving his apartment at 2:00 AM carrying a suitcase. From that point on, Mrs. Thorwald is never observed again. Jeff then attempts to convince his friends that a murder has taken place. The first skeptic is his insurance agency nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who is constantly scolding him for his peeping tom antics. His girlfriend and notable socialite Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is also initially skeptical, but is slowly convinced. Eventually, Jeff calls in an old army buddy, Lt. Det. Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) to investigate Thorwald. Doyle remains unconvinced right up until the finish, but Jeff will never let him completely disregard the possible murder.

Whereas many mysteries might lose some appeal in repeat viewings, Rear Window manages to stay interesting no matter how often it is watched. The reason is that it can be experienced and enjoyed on a number of different levels. Due primarily to the tight script of writer John Michael Hayes, the interaction between the small core of primary characters manages to add a lighthearted element. Just witness Stella’s constant scolding of Jeff for his spying or her straightforward values, such as when she declares to Jeff, “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?” and then admitting to copping it from Reader’s Digest. Although discussing the murder and dismemberment of a helpless woman, it’s impossible not to chuckle or smile at some of the exchanges. The best example is when the trio of Jeff, Lisa and Stella are watching Thorwald scrub down his apartment and Stella suddenly blurts out, “Must’ve splattered a lot” as matter-of-factly as possible. Lisa squirms as Stella explains, “Come on, that’s what we’re all thinking.” Jeff is the ultimate cynic, sparing no one from his sharp wit. Lt. Doyle, someone who he obviously cares for, is a constant target of Jeff’s dry humor as he tries to goad him into investigating the supposed murder. At times, all of this repartee plays like a light comedy.

At the same time, the film looks at the nature of relationships, using the views into various rooms to explore the different ways that the relationships between couples can progress. In peering into the apartments, you see how different people cope with their own relationship situations. Miss Torso constantly has callers, to the point of having to beat them away, but misses her true love, a soldier who is away. The married couple above the Thorwalds seems to be the model of domesticity, sleeping together on their balcony along with their pet dog. Miss Lonelyhearts desperately wants someone to be with, reaching the point of suicide when she is unsuccessful. Contrast this with Lars Thorwald, who has someone to be with but may have become so fed up with her that he kills her. Jeff, taking all of these scenarios in, has all of this to process as he contemplates his own relationship with Lisa, which appears to be at a crossroads. Arguably the central issue of the entire story is the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Lisa wants a permanent commitment, while Jeff is unsure whether the two would be able to survive his nomadic lifestyle. To a certain degree, the unraveling of the Thorwald murder can be seen as the vehicle that brings the two of them together for the long-term. While engaged in the various plans to solve the case, Jeff begins to see Lisa in a different light and starts to believe that she would be able to survive his assorted assignments around the globe.

The obvious, and most interesting level in my opinion, is the issue of voyeurism. Exactly what judgment Hitchcock is passing on the innate human desire to watch something one is not meant to see is open to interpretation, but there are some key things that I think can help to craft an explanation. For the entirety of the film, the audience is viewing the action from Jeff’s apartment, with much of our view being the exact same as the leading character. When Jeff picks up his camera and looks through the high-powered lens, Hitchcock gives the audience the exact same vantage point. Is he implicating the audience in whatever trouble is stirred up by Jeff’s actions? Or is he making the point that the viewers would act similarly to Jeff if they were in the same situation? It’s hard to give a definitive answer to those questions, but they are interesting to ponder. The fact that in many cases Hitchcock frames shots that literally give the impression that you are viewing things through Jeff’s eyes are meant to make everyone watching feel that it could be them in this scenario.

The exact statement on the voyeurism is also left a bit ambiguous. Is Jeff’s spying justified by the fact that he is able to call in Det. Doyle and solve a murder? It would be easy to say yes, but the fact that Jeff doesn’t exactly come away unscathed seems to point to the fact that he at the very least was the recipient of some kind of karmic backlash. After all, it wasn’t just Thorwald that Jeff was spying on. He also invaded the privacy of many other oblivious tenants. While certainly a “happy ending” for the main characters, it is far from the Hollywood fairytale conclusion. For his trouble, Jeff ends the movie with a cast on both legs, guaranteeing many more weeks of life in the wheelchair. Sure, he has the gorgeous Lisa nearby to comfort him, but he did not come away scot-free.

The performances have been lauded by far better writers than me, but it’s still worth pointing out how incredible the interaction is between the three amateur gumshoes of Jeff, Lisa and Stella. James Stewart has far too many memorable performances to choose a best one, but L.B. Jefferies certainly ranks alongside any other accomplishments. Rather than portraying the usual All-American image for which he has become so beloved, Stewart plays Jeff differently. He is still likable, but he seems to have a restless streak about him. While the audience always identifies with Jeff, it can never be forgotten that we are watching a peeping tom at work. I’ll go on record now and say that Grace Kelly is as beautiful as any woman who ever worked in Hollywood and I would use this film as Exhibit A to back up my argument. Kelly took home the Oscar for Best Actress in 1954 – but not for Rear Window! She won it for her role in George Seaton’s The Country Girl. I’m in no way suggesting that Kelly’s role as Lisa was worthy of an award, but she certainly shows why she remained one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading ladies (and on a personal level, one of the few actors or actresses he seemed to genuinely like). She looks the part of a debutante and plays the role without exaggerating it. Lisa is a socialite with a taste for material things, but Kelly’s performance doesn’t stress this to the point of making it a caricature. And finally there is Thelma Ritter, who to me is like the female Walter Brennan of this era. By this I mean that in whatever supporting role she plays, she manages to very nearly steal the spotlight from those that are top-billed.

I’ll close in reiterating how the suspense created by Hitchcock, writers Hayes and Woolrich, and all other principals involved is the best I’ve ever seen. The reason is that the suspense is not dependent on any parlor tricks. Nothing has to be faked; there is no need for suspension of belief in order for the tension to feel very real. Everyone can relate to situations like when Jeff is forced to watch helplessly as Lisa scrambles to hide from the returning Thorwald. What can he do? If he calls out to her, it will only lead the potential murderer to her even quicker. A call to the police would likely bring help too late. The audience has no choice but to squirm along with Jeff as he can hardly bear to watch. I think that the fact that we are seeing all of the action from a distance only adds to the anxiety created. Since things are not as up close, you’re never able to make complete sense of what is happening. For me, there is no worse feeling than knowing that things are far removed from your control and there is nothing that can be done but to sit and watch what happens. Hitchcock plays on this fear in such simple, yet effective ways.

Every time I put on Rear Window, it rekindles my love of both the film itself and movies in general. There is no better compliment that I can pay to a film than this.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1954: As I said, this is an incredibly top-heavy year, with many films that have just as strong a claim to the top spot as my personal favorite. If creating a complete list of rankings, there would be three films that would be tied for second place. First is the touching Kenji Mizoguchi film Sansho Dayu (also known as Sansho the Bailiff). The visuals are stunning and the story truly is moving. It is not hyperbole at all to say that this movie is just devastating. I prefer this one to Mizoguchi’s other recognized masterpiece Ugetsu, and would probably go so far as to say this is the best movie in Japanese cinema history -- again, no hyperbole at all. The winner of Best Picture of 1954 was Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. This is a prime example of a film that manages to take outstanding individual pieces (director, actors, etc.) and bring them together to create a superb film. This sounds like this should always happen with great individual parts, but this isn’t always the case. The Budd Schulberg screenplay has nearly attained mythical status, as has Marlon Brando’s lead performance. It’s my definitely my favorite Kazan movie. While I chose Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or as my top movie of 1952, my favorite Becker film is actually this year’s Touchez pas au grisbi. Jean Gabin is perfect as the aging gangster, struggling to maintain control in a changing underworld. It is among the best French gangster films ever made. Outside of these three, I see something of a drop off, but that is more an affirmation of there greatness rather than shortcomings of other films.

There are two other movies from this year that I would classify as outstanding films, and that many would call great, but that never really contended in my choice for #1. Many reputable critics and film fans cite Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the greatest film ever made. I don’t quite place it that high – and in fact there are two other Kurosawa films that I like more – but it’s still cinema at its finest. The other is Nicholas Ray’s western noir Johnny Guitar. It took me a long time to finally track this one down, but when I did I was not disappointed. It has the feel of noir dialogue set in the West and works very well.

I also expect some support for Federico Fellini’s La Strada. This is another instance of my being able to recognize a film’s importance but not enjoying it. In fact, after my first viewing, I was somewhat shocked at the status that it had acquired. I’ve softened on that stance since, but it’s still one that falls short for me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

1953: Madame de... (Max Ophüls)

Released: September 16, 1953 (France)

a.k.a.: The Earrings of Madame de…

Director: Max Ophüls; Screenplay: Marcel Archard, Max Ophüls, and Annette Wademant based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin; Cinematography: Christian Matras; Studio: Gaumont; Producer: Ralph Baum

Cast: Charles Boyer (Général André de...), Danielle Darrieux (Comtesse Louise de...), Vittorio De Sica (Baron Fabrizio Donati), Jean Debucourt (Monsieur Rémy), Jean Galland (Monsieur de Bernac), Mireille Perrey (La Nourrice), Paul Azaïs (Le premier cocher), Hubert Noël (Henri de Maleville), Lia Di Leo (Lola)

It is because of situations like this that I have had such a passion for doing this Year’s Best Countdown. In attempting to decide on what my favorite film of each year is, I’ve embarked on movie-watching marathons that have given me the opportunity to take the time to watch overlooked masterpieces and classics that would otherwise remain gaping holes in viewing history. Madame de… has remained near the top of my “to watch list” for some time, but for whatever reason has been continually passed over by other films that have caught my fancy. As I approached the 1950s in this countdown, I realized that I could not make a legitimate selection for 1953 without finally seeing this lauded film and giving it proper consideration.

I watched it for the first time last week and have been kicking myself for waiting so long to see it. It certainly lived up to its reputation. So, for a second straight year, I choose a film set in 19th century Paris as my personal favorite.

It makes me laugh now, but I have to admit that before I finally saw the movie, the English title gave me serious reservations. The Earrings of Madame de… makes the film sound cheesy, as if the earrings in question are used as a kind of cheap gimmick in the film. While the various destinations of the jewelry do factor into the development of the story, they play nowhere near as central a role as a naïve viewer (or some might argue just plain dim-witted!) would believe. They are symbolic, but play nowhere near as direct a role as might be imagined.

The Paris depicted in this film is far different from the one seen in Casque d’or. This is the world of the powerful and affluent – a society populated by generals, diplomats and other notables of French society. The story focuses on the Louise (Danielle Darrieux), the wife of General André de… (Charles Boyer) -- we never find out the last name, hence the title Madame de… After Louise accumulates debts that her usual allowance is insufficient to cover, she decides that she will pawn some of her jewelry to settle her accounts. She decides to sell a set of heart-shaped diamond earrings that her husband had given her. Louise sells them to the very same jeweler who originally sold them to her husband, getting him to promise not to blow the whistle to the General. In order to explain to her husband what happened to the expensive earrings, Louise concocts a ruse about losing them at the opera. Unfortunately for her, an uproar is created to find the earrings. The jeweler, fearing that his role will be discovered, decides to take the earrings back to the General and come clean. The General buys back the jewels, but rather than returning them to his wife, he gives them as a present to his departing mistress. The mistress in turn loses the earrings at a casino in Constantinople. From Constantinople the earrings are bought by an Italian Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), a diplomat who travels throughout Europe. The intrigue begins when Donati comes to Paris and falls in love with Louise. When he gives the earrings to Louise as a present, the plot thickens considerably. Louise tries to pretend that she has found her lost earrings, while the General attempts to discover how the jewels made it back to Paris.

This is another instance where typing out the plot makes it sound much more hokey than it actually is. Reading the brief plot summary that I just outlined, the film likely comes across like a second-rate soap opera. Nothing could be more deceiving. Never once does the film cross the line of being too melodramatic to bear. The most striking thing to me about the story was the fact that Louise is able to come across as anything other than a spoiled debutante. At the basest level, this is what she is. Here is a woman who seems to have willingly gone into a loveless marriage in order to benefit from her husband’s wealth and lavish gifts. But even this is not enough for her, as she spends well beyond the ample means provided to her. It is amazing that the viewer is able to feel any sympathy for such a person, but it was impossible for me not to. The viewer is made to understand that even Louise realizes that all of these material gains through the marriage are not enough to make her content. As she begins to see a path toward happiness, it is hard not to root for her to make it there.

The main reason for this reaction is the direction of Max Ophüls, along with the photography of Christian Matras. As someone not very well-versed in the technical aspects of filmmaking, normally such considerations are not as important to me. Great technical wizardry is secondary for me, and no matter how spectacular it can be, it means nothing to me without an engaging story. Essentially it’s icing on the cake – if I’m already engaged in the story, then it's great to see a director doing inventive things with the camera. This is one of the few films where I can say that I actually became equally, if not more, enamored with watching what Ophüls would do with the camera than with the storyline. This is not to say that the story is dull, because it most certainly is not. It’s just that I quickly realized that the camera and the men controlling it are the actual stars of this film, not Darrieux, Boyer or De Sica.

I’ve never seen camera movement this smooth. A lot of times, when I watch a film with an extraordinary amount of camera movement, it feels very clunky to me, or schizophrenic in all of the jumping to and fro. Here, all movements are seamless and seem to be perfectly in sync with what is happening on the screen. For instance, in the virtuoso ballroom dancing scene, in which Louise and the Baron are slowly wooing each other and growing closer as they discuss her husband’s absence, the camera’s graceful movements mimic the dance steps of those in the scene. It is extraordinary and this sequence is the one that most sticks with me from the entire film. Aside from the flawless movement, it is also an ingenious device to pass lengths of time, as one dance is woven into another, allowing the plot to advance and the two lovers to grow closer together in a very short amount of screen time. Yet, the romance never comes across as rushed because elements like this are so well constructed.

Since I’ve been on a roll making confessions in this review, I’ll make another one here – this is the only Max Ophüls film that I have ever seen. After being wowed by this one, I’ll have to set about remedying that very soon.

Rating: 9/10 (ever so close to the perfect score and may still go up after future viewings)

Other Contenders for 1953: There are a lot of great films to choose from in this year and many that were very near being chosen until I finally saw this masterpiece. My guess is that Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story will see much support in a Countdown like this, but I have to be perfectly honest and admit that I have never been able to get into the film. I can appreciate the reputation and its historical importance, but it’s simply not a film that I enjoy watching. I have this reaction to most Ozu that I see, and maybe this will change at some point in the future, but for right now this one was never even considered by me. As for other films outside of the United States, I think that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is great, and very close to being my favorite film from the Frenchman. It is at times harrowing. Ugetsu Monogatari is another instance of a great film from a certain director, but one that comes just short of being my favorite from him. I think that Kenji Mizoguchi would go on to make a better film, but this one is very close. And finally, Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is different from anything else in this year is always interesting.

My other favorite films of the year come from Hollywood (surprise, surprise). I know that its reputation has declined somewhat over the 60 years or so since it was made, but I still love Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity. The Montgomery Clift-Frank Sinatra duo is outstanding and I’m always a sucker for anything that Burt Lancaster is in. This was actually the early favorite as my choice for this year – that’s how much I like it. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is another classic noir from the man who is arguably the best director in the genre. Glenn Ford’s Dave Bannion character is as coldblooded a good guy as you’ll see in film. Being a lover of westerns, I also have to acknowledge that I am a big fan of the classic Shane from George Stevens. I also have always liked Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, which like the later Kiss Me Deadly manages to successfully combine noir elements with Cold War paranoia. I know many people that found Pickup on South Street too over the top, but it was my favorite Fuller film until I saw The Steel Helmet.

There are a two other films that I have acknowledge having a soft spot for, but that were never truly in contention to be chosen: I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock) and Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder).

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Note on Dates

In recent discussions, and in doing the small research I do for various reviews, I figured it was at least worth clarifying exactly how I decide on the year of release for films that have widely varying release dates in different countries. Except in the extraordinary situation in which a film is denied a release soon after its completion, I go by the first documented premiere date. My research in finding this date is pretty basic – checking it on sites like IMDB or Wikipedia, which have always matched and have yet to steer me wrong in the course of this countdown. So, I go by the date of its initial premiere (usually meaning in its country of origin, although not always), not when it was completed. But in those rare circumstances where a movie is completed and is for whatever reason denied an official release, I’ll go with what is generally accepted to be its debut year. For example, take Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. It was filmed in 1977, but did not receive widespread release until this decade. Even though it was not put out in that year, this is one that will be classified as a 1977 film. This is obviously a unique situation, which will not be an issue with most films.

I might be beating a dead horse, but for the sake of uniformity I thought it was at least worth restating.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

1952: Casque d'or (Jacques Becker)

Released: April 16, 1952

Director: Jacques Becker; Screenplay: Jacques Becker, Jacques Companéez, and Annette Wademant (uncredited); Cinematography: Robert Le Febvre; Studio: Paris Film, Speva Films; Producers: Robert Hakim and Raymond Hakim

Simone Signoret (Marie, “Casque d’or”), Serge Reggiani (Georges Manda), Claude Dauphin (Felix Leca), Raymond Bussières (Raymond), Odette Barencey (La mère d'Eugène), Loleh Bellon (Léonie Danard), William Sabatier (Roland)

The nature of a countdown such as this creates some interesting situations in how a film’s inclusion depends so much on the strength of the competition in a single year. This point is so obvious that I almost feel stupid reiterating it, but it creates unique instances where a director’s only appearance in the countdown is through a film that I do not actually consider to be his best. Due to strong competition in other years, what I consider to be the best of a particular director’s work can be bound for runner-up status. Such is the case with French director Jacques Becker. For a career spanning twenty-five years, he has a remarkably small body of work. I have seen just three of his films, all of which I think are outstanding and deserve to at least be mentioned in a series such as this. Still, it is ironic to think that this gem, which I choose as the best film of 1952, would at best be my second favorite Becker film and possibly rank as third. And yet, because it is almost a certainty that neither Touchez pas au grisbi or Le Trou are going to prevail in their respective years, Casque d’or will likely be the only Becker officially included in the countdown.

Hopefully the above paragraph will not lead anyone to doubt how highly I think of Casque d’or. Just because there are other movies in Becker’s filmography that I might slightly prefer does not mean that this one is a subpar effort. Far from being subpar, it is in fact among the greatest of French crime films. Although it was initially a box office flop, the movie has long been looked upon with reverence by prominent French New Wave directors. Anyone who doubts its reputation in France need only read the thoughts penned by François Truffau in his book The films of my life. In it he marvels at how so simple a plot can be made to say so much. While acknowledging career best performances by both Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani in the film, he gives credit for the power of the film to the writing and direction of Jacques Becker.

The first thing that struck me about the film is its unique setting. Most gangster or crime films of the era are set in similar post-war periods, emphasizing the darkness and malaise of the times. Films noir being made in America and other gangster films made in France in the 1950s and 60s emphasized dark lighting and cinematography, creating brooding atmospheres that set a very gloomy tone. This story, by contrast, is set in 19th century Paris, a city that feels very much removed from the filthy streets of Rififi or Shoot the Piano Player. While he would create the standard gloomy atmosphere in later films, in this movie Becker does not rely on the shadows and dark figures. In fact, there are beautiful pastoral scenes sprinkled throughout the film that are vibrant and make extensive use of sunlight. I have often seen this characteristic of the film used to compare Casque d’or to an Impressionist painting. It is an interesting parallel, especially considering the fact that the movie is set around the same time that the Impressionist movement was taking place.

What the movie lacks in shadows and dark images, it more than makes up for with the one of the most melancholy moods I have ever experienced in cinema. I know that time and again I refer to the doomed feeling that is present in many noirs. I wouldn’t apply that label to Casque d’or, because the relationship that develops between Manda and his forbidden love interest Marie doesn’t feel so much doomed as heartbreaking. In watching it for the first time, I suppose that I did know that the bond between the two could not possibly last, but “doomed” isn’t the first descriptor to come to mind. Instead, I could not shake a palpable sadness for the two, which is not a feeling that is often stirred in me. But something about the composition of shots from Becker, along with a moving use of the score, manages to touch off just such an emotion.

The story focuses on the relationship between Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani), a recently released ex-con, and Marie (Simone Signoret), a golden-haired prostitute who is known as “Casque d’or” or “golden helmet” in English due to her beautiful locks. The two meet for the first time when Marie accompanies her boyfriend Roland (William Sabatier) and the gang he is a member of to a riverside café. Another member of the gang, Raymond (Raymond Bussières), was a former cellmate of Manda while in prison and the two are reunited. Manda, it turns out, is now working an honest job and attempting to go straight. While catching up with his old pal, Manda’s eyes are caught by the stunning Marie, as the two share a moment that can be described as nothing less than love at first sight. The boyfriend Roland understands this as well, and takes exception to Manda making eyes at his girl. A fight ensues, with Manda knocking Roland out cold.

The next day, Marie finds Manda working at his carpentry shop and the two begin to move toward pursuing a secretive romance. When the gang and Manda cross paths again in a Parisian nightclub, Roland again challenges Manda and the two go to the back of the club to settle their disagreement. Gang leader Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin) sets the terms of the fight, decreeing that it will be a knife fight. Manda agrees, proceeds to kill Roland in the struggle, and then quickly flees the scene. This opens the door for Marie and Manda to pursue their romance, but it is complicated by the fact that Leca also views Marie as his girl. Knowing the identity of Roland’s murderer, Leca uses this information to try and maneuver Manda out of the picture and leave Marie to him alone. He uses his connections with a corrupt police inspector to frame Raymond for the killing, realizing that Manda will never let his friend take the fall for him. Rather than allow Raymond to be executed for his crime, Manda comes forward and faces the consequences. But when he realizes that everything is the result of Leca violating the underworld code of silence, he becomes determined to find a way out of prison and to exact his own revenge.

In detailing the plot of the story, the movie comes across as more of a straightforward gangster flick than it is. It actually lacks the usual violence and action sequences that are used in most gangster films. Even though there are violent actions taking places, Becker shoots them in such a way that makes it clear that his intention is not to focus on the brutality. The knife fight is not drawn out as most other directors would have chosen to do. Instead, the two men wrestle a bit, tussling for control of the knife, and its over soon after being started. Rather than painting Manda as a triumphing hero, Becker emphasizes the relief that he feels – he’s just glad it’s over with, not necessarily reveling in killing a rival. Even the final shootout at the police station is shot in similar fashion, without the gore or glorification of the deed.

In final estimation, Casque d’or is actually more of a romance than a gangster film. The relationship between Manda and Marie is obviously the focus, meaning that for the film to be a success that the actors portraying these two characters would have to deliver. And they do. I have not seen Reggiani in many films, but what I have seen of him he always shines – this and Melville’s Le Doulos. He is perfect here as the loyal Manda. Manda is a character that is dedicated to those he loves, unable to leave a friend in distress. He continues his relationship with Marie, even after realizing that to do so could mean ruin for both of them. Simone Signoret, meanwhile, is unavoidably alluring. With just a glance she believably draws Manda into her web and is irresistible.

It is a film that manages to be so sad, yet one that I never hesitate to put on again. This is a rare combination.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1952: I have to be honest, this is not an overall great year for me. At the same time, I have to make an admission to not having seen one of the films commonly regarded among the best of the year. Having only recently dealt with cancer and all that it entails, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and its story of a man receiving a terminal diagnosis is not one I’ve rushed out to see. As far as other films made outside of the United States, depressing films seem to have been en vogue in 1952. Umberto D. displays the artistry of Vittorio De Sica, but it’s one that I don’t put on very often. Forbidden Games by René Clément is another that can be quite sad but is an excellent film.

The other undisputed classic of 1952, and the one I would bet will be the most favored of this year, is Singin’ In the Rain, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. I do enjoy it, but as someone that for whatever reason has never really loved any musical, I’ve always kept it at arm’s length. That being said, there are parts that I still find laugh out loud funny every time I watch it. That first time that they have Lina try and speak her lines, I can’t help but laugh. So while I never really considered choosing it as my #1 for the year, the review would be incomplete if I didn’t at least acknowledge it.

A pair of underrated noirs also place high on my list of favorites for the year. Richard Fleisher’s The Narrow Margin is a taut noir thriller, with Charles McGraw outstanding as the tough guy cop. I also really like the mysterious plotting and double-crossing of Kansas City Confidential. Obviously, I doubt that either of these films would place in a poll like this, but I felt I should at least highlight how much I think of them.

While at times feeling the same as Howard Hawks in regards to High Noon, I do have to admit that it’s still an entertaining film and a highly influential picture. I tend to agree with Hawks that the going around begging for help didn’t exactly ring true, but at the very least I have to acknowledge it for being the spark to lead Hawks to make possibly the best western of all time!