Friday, March 8, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1950's

10. Elevator to the Gallows (1958, directed by Louis Malle)
I previously wrote about Elevator to the Gallows when I first watched it, but essentially it's a French version of the American noir movies of the 40's and early 50's. The debut of future legend Louis Malle, it stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as Florence and Julien, secret lovers planning the murder of her powerful husband (his boss), only to have their perfect plan slowly unravel over the course of the movie's 91 powerfully tense minutes. A haunting, lonely score improvised by Miles Davis sets the backdrop of inevitable tragedy in the lives of our characters. Moreau, who didn't do anything for me in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, here uses her strangely attractive features in a wonderful performance of a woman hoping and searching and afraid for the safety and whereabouts of the lover she can't find, almost going mad with worry. Because, after the murder of her husband, Julien spends the night trapped in the elevator of the building in which he'd just committed the crime.

Gorgeously shot, tautly directed (by just a 24-year-old Malle), expertly acted and painfully tragic, it has all the hallmarks of the great noirs of years past and deserves to be remembered alongside them, above most.

9. Some Like It Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder)
Two broke musicians are witness to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and must go on the run as mobsters chase them through Prohibition-era Chicago, all the way down to Miami. Doesn't exactly sound like the premise of one of the great comedies of all time, but it is. Everyone knows by now that the musicians are played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, who disguise themselves in drag, meet Marilyn Monroe, and hijinks ensue.

Curtis and Monroe are both pretty and charismatic enough that their story is engaging (Monroe in particular, no matter what problems there were getting her to this performance), but it's Jack Lemmon who makes this movie really shine. His flawless comic timing and fearless work opposite pervy Joe E. Brown that takes things over the edge. The absolutely perfect ending "Well, nobody's perfect", despite knowing that that was the ending line, had me rolling on the floor laughing (not figuratively) at this Billy Wilder masterpiece.

8. The Night of the Hunter (1955, directed by Charles Laughton)
Robert Mitchum was always a welcome sight on screen, in my book. But when I watched The Night of the Hunter, he became one of my favorite actors. His bone chilling work as the murderous "Preacher" Harry Powell is among the great villianous turns the movies ever gave us. That he's surrounded by Charles Laughton's expressionistic, poetic, equally frightening movie is what makes it an all-time great. Powell kills his new wife (Shelly Winters), only having married her because he was cell mates with her first husband, who let slip of his family having a big stash of money. He stalks after the kids, unforgettably calling out in that booming Mitchum voice "Chiiiiiildren?" They eventually make it to the safety of Lillian Gish's Rachel, but the fight still isn't over yet.

It's sad that The Night of the Hunter was a massive flop when it was released. Laughton had been Hollywood royalty, having already won an Oscar (Best Actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII) and married to fellow Oscar nominee Elsa Lanchester, and this was his first shot at directing. His weird, disquieting, dark little movie rejected by both critics and audiences, he never directed again and was dead 8 years later, of cancer of the kidneys. Still, it stands as a remarkable achievement in atmosphere and screen horror, and one of the great movies of the 1950's.

7. Rio Bravo (1959, directed by Howard Hawks)
A testament to just how many incredible movies were made in the 1950's (the decade I had the hardest time whittling down to 10 during this effort), Rio Bravo is probably my favorite western, a genre I love wholeheartedly, yet doesn't even crack the top 5 of its decade. Regardless, this is one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen. Howard Hawks' famous quote about what makes a great film was "3 good scenes, no bad scenes" and he was a master at putting that into practice. I don't know that I could single out what the best scene in the movie is, but I can sure as hell tell you there's nothing in the 141 minutes I'd cut out.

John Wayne is terrific here, even if his juicier role in The Searchers is his best work as an actor. He feels like he really would be the sheriff of this small town about to be under siege. Dean Martin should've had a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as the drunken deputy Dude. Walter Brennan adds some wonderful comic relief, and even Ricky Nelson is wonderful as the quick shooting Colorado. When he and the boys have a little musical interlude before the carnage of the finale, it doesn't feel shoehorned in because Nelson was a teen idol at the time and Martin a legendary singer, it works for these characters. It's simply terrific all around and one of those movies I'd gladly watch any time anywhere.

6. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donnen)
Despite growing up seeing a TON of musicals, as well as being a musician, I'm not a big fan of the musical genre of movies. The breaking into song pushes my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and ruins it for me. But, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and the exception here is the infinitely entertaining Singin' in the Rain. Gene Kelly's masterpiece onscreen is one of those happy movies that I watch if I'm sick or feeling down or anything. It's simply too much fun seeing Donald O'Connor throwing himself around like a cartoon, Kelly charming his way through the transition of silent star to the talkies, Debbie Reynolds' personifying the word plucky, and Jean Hagen's oh so wonderfully hateable Lina Lamont.

I could focus on the overlong "Broadway Melody" dance sequence, but Kelly did this in most of his movies, having a big show stopping dance number near the end of the movie. But no, the moments that stick out to me are Kelly's iconic title song and dance number, O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh", and the moment when it's revealed that Reynolds was the voice all along. Embarrassed, she tries to run out of the theater, but I never fail to tear up as Kelly calls out "Hey, stop that girl! She's the real star" Roger Ebert has called that a perfect moment of cinema, and I don't disagree.

5. Seven Samurai (1954, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
Generally considered Akira Kurosawa's greatest triumph, again the 1950's show their strength that I count this movie among my all-time 20 favorites, and yet it's only #5 on this list. Endlessly mimicked and ripped off, Kurosawa's tale of a small group of heroes protecting a village from bandits was the biggest movie ever in Japan upon its release, and a huge success worldwide as well, despite its 3 1/2 hour runtime. Having written about it multiple times before, I won't belabor the point here, just safe to say that its reputation is well deserved, even if it's only my personal #2 from the Japanese master.

4. Rififi (1955, directed by Jules Dassin)
The third of four non-English language movies on my 50's list, the blue print for all subsequent heist movies came from Blacklisted American Jules Dassin, directing in France because that's the only job he could get. It's a story you've seen many times since, but never as well, with a terrific lead performance from Jean Servais, and my favorite role in the movie, that of the Italian safecracker, played by Dassin himself. The calling card of the movie is the 30+ minute silent heist itself, a brilliant piece of filmmaking that none of its imitators can match. It's simply a genius movie.

3. On the Waterfront (1954, directed by Elia Kazan)

Occasionally pieces of cinema become such parts of pop culture that people forget even where it came from or the piece loses its power from repetition. Upon first viewing On the Waterfront, I expected the climactic "I coulda been a contenda" speech to be one of those for me. Instead, I found myself weeping at the loss and disappointment Terry Malloy felt in himself and in his brother Charlie. "I coulda been a contenda" isn't even the important part of the speech, it's when Terry says "You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money." It's a devastating scene, and delivered by Marlon Brando in what I believe is the greatest screen performance ever given.

There's plenty of backstory to the movie, about how Elia Kazan named names so he wouldn't get blacklisted, and made this movie as a sort of sticking up for himself. But I don't really care about all that. I care about Terry and Charlie and the other characters in the movie. Kazan set up real and idealistic people and all the actors are flawless. It's overall one of the best acted movies I've ever seen, even with Brando taking such deserved accolades for his work.

2. Throne of Blood (1957, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
Kurosawa loved Shakespeare, even though he thought he was "too wordy." He gave us some of the great adaptations of the Bard's work, with the greatest being this oppressive, horror tinged take on MacBeth. As he did with his later Ran, Kurosawa shifted the tale to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, hear called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actors voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel as MacBeth does, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie. Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan.
1. Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
There's honestly not that much to say about Vertigo that hasn't already been said on an analytical level. It was also recently picked as the #1 movie of all time, in the Sight and Sound poll of film critics and directors, a poll taken every 10 years where Citizen Kane had been the #1 movie for 50 years or so. The first time I watched it, I'd only recently seen Psycho, which had quickly become my favorite from Hitchcock, and was going through a bit of a phase, one in which I watched Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest (again) as well. While watching it, I was taken in by its hypnotic pacing and sumptuous photography, as well as one of the most disturbing performances ever given by a huge movie star. Jimmy Stewart was like the All-American movie everyman. He'd been a beacon of every day nobility and charm on screen for many years, even temporarily retiring to fly in WWII. So to see him play Scottie Ferguson with the kind of subtle delusional mania that he does was both surprising in his choice of role (and Hitch's choice to cast) as well as frightening in the intensity of performance. Stewart's performance is one of the all-time greats, the greatest Hitch ever got from his actors (and he had some great ones), and an incredibly bold statement from a guy whom I'd thought of almost as a persona and not the talented actor he was.

The almost trance-like sequences early in the movie as Scottie follows and ultimately falls in love with Kim Novak's Madeleine, gives way to the startling descent into madness that Scotty experiences in the final section. Hitchcock's presentation of this is somehow still infused with his trademark tension, while never feeling contrived for suspense. He gets us wired through building our central character and following him as he falls in love first with a woman, and then with an idea. We don't need planes flying at us, or scenes of murder in the shower to ratchet up our involvement with this movie. It's Hitch's crowning achievement and one of the truly great movies ever made.

1 comment:

kathy said...

Ok, saw 8 out of 10 on these films. But must say where is 1959 Academy Award winning "Pillow Talk", or is that too much of a Chick Flick?