The Best Film of … 1944

1944 was the year of the big turn-around in WWII, with the Axis powers gradually being forced into a retreat across Europe, Asia and the Pacific. There’s a strong propaganda element in much of what the film studios produced at this time – understandably so, with the necessity to reinforce the need to keep up the effort in spite of the terrible costs.

The occasional film did manage to avoid the propaganda war and concentrate on the drama and characters. Three such films being Robert Wise‘s directorial debut, The Curse of the Cat People, the haunting Ealing drama The Halfway House, and Alfred Hitchock‘s adrift-on-the-high-seas soap opera, Lifeboat.


THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE

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Ann Carter and Simone Simon.

Director: Robert Wise (replacing Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired for time and budget over-runs) (USA).

Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Julia Dean, Simone Simon.

Plot: A lonely child creates an imaginary friend based on the photograph of a beautiful woman she finds – only the photograph happens to be of her father’s psychotic ex-wife.

Review: This is one of those films where the children’s parts are directed by adults who seem to have no idea how children talk or behave, so they sound peculiar much of the time. The adults don’t come off much better, trotting off their lines in turn robotically.

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Jane Randolph and Kent Smith trying to understand what’s going through their daughter’s mind.

The exception to this is 65-years-old Julia Dean (1878-1952), and the moment she appears half-an-hour into the film things takes a step upwards. A noted stage actress in her younger days, her first lines are about how she misses “those beautiful, shining, golden days”. One feels she really means it.

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Julia Dean

After this events become increasingly creepy, with Wise introducing the ghost of Irena (the father’s deceased wife), dressed up like a fairy-tale princess. Other strange events happen, and the film becomes an uncomfortable mix of Dickensian melodrama, ‘fifties noir and Disney-like imagery. With all it’s oddities, one felt it necessary to watch it to the end, just to see how things turn out and learn the identity of the mysterious other woman who drifts about the old lady’s home, claiming to be her forgotten daughter, but this plot point never gets properly explained.

simonWhile Wise as a director shows promise, this film is really of curiosity value only and for appearances by Simone Simon and Ann Carter. Simon was a gifted French actress whose first love was the stage and who never really made inroads to Hollywood successfully because of her temperamental disposition (she once hired a bodyguard to protect others during her outbursts) and unlucky choice of roles.

ann-carterAnn Carter was an impressive child actress when well-directed and probably destined for greater stardom, but in her teens contracted a severe case of the muscle-wasting form of polio after swimming in infected waters. After several years of therapy and rehabilitation funded by her childhood earnings, she turned her back on Hollywood and trained as a teacher, living very happily on the opposite side of the continent with her husband and three children.

Having played briefly alongside many of the great names of the day, Carter recalled her unusual childhood – she acted from the age of four and could not recall a time when she was not doing something for the screen – with great pleasure, such her time as Humphrey Bogart‘s daughter in The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947), saying he impressed her as a very kind and humorous individual, and that he nicknamed her “tonsils” one day after she yawned right in front of him.

Score: 2/10.

The film is available here.


THE HALFWAY HOUSE

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Director: Basil Dearden (UK).

Cast: Mervyn Johns, Glynis Johns, Sally Ann Howes, Richard Bird.

keepersPlot: Six travellers, all going through a period of turmoil in their lives, find themselves stranded together at an isolated Welsh Inn.

Review: This is a film of unmistakably British character, an early Ealing Studios production and one of their best. A relative light story, but wonderfully atmospheric. The plot is simply that a cast of troubled individuals all get stranded for a day and a night at a remote Welsh inn, finding that the innkeeper and his daughter have an uncanny ability to identify whatever it is troubling each one of the travelers.

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Something wrong here … where’s Glynis Johns‘ shadow?

The fact that the inn was actually destroyed in a bombing raid and the occupants killed a year earlier is revealed to the audience early on, but not to the characters, although they do work it out gradually without too much difficulty because of odd things that keep happening (such as Glynis Johns having no shadow in the sunshine and her father no reflection in a mirror). In this way it feels slightly odd. The story isn’t a mystery because we and the characters know pretty much what’s going on, it is simply the strength of the acting which makes it so watchable, particularly Mervyn Jones and his real-life daughter Glynis as the ghostly proprietors, and the young girl desperate to stop her parents separating who is none other than 13-year-old Sally Ann Howes, later to become famous as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Sally Anne Howes in The Halfway House (1944) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Howes had begun her acting career a year earlier in Thursday’s Child, acting alongside Stewart Granger – the producer, after auditioning two-hundred girls for the part, chose her simply on the basis of a photograph and the knowledge that she was from a theatrical family and was a neighbour of the film’s writer.

There are elements of war-time propaganda – one character is chastised for profiteering, while another makes up his mind to go and do his bit – and the lack of suspense probably reflect the period as well, not asking the audience have to work too hard to understand what’s going on.

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The Halfway House today (a private residence). Barlynch Farm, near Dulverton, Somerset (grid reference SS 929 289).

The Welsh village is named Cwmbach in the film, perhaps after a real Welsh village of the same name which was indeed partly levelled in 1941 with lives lost when a German bomber dumped its high-explosive payload to save weight on the way home. The filming was done, however, at various locations around Exmoor. Walkers might recognise Dunkery Hill in some of the early scenes.

Score: 5/10.

The film is available here.


LIFEBOAT

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock (USA).

Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee.

Plot: Survivors from a passenger ship and a German U-boat have to survive at sea crammed together in the same lifeboat.

Review: This is a film I must have seen when a child, as some scenes were recognisable – particularly the ones involving a German survivor and an injured sailor. Nice to catch up with it again in a collection of Hitchcock films I picked up.

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William Bendix and Mary Anderson – have to say I never noticed the Hitchcockian advert for ‘Reduco Weight Loss System’ on the back of the paper until reading about the film.

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Sir Alfred Hitchcock, KBE.

A German U-boat sinks along with the armed passenger transport it had attacked. The few survivors clamber aboard a single lifeboat, nicely introducing themselves to us one-by-one. Not unlike The Halfway House, the plot is actually pretty thin, with the drama propelled by the quality of the character actors involved. No big names here, but all sound screen professionals.

It’s an episodic narrative, with the survivors having to cope with various practical and interpersonal issues. One of them happens to be a German from the destroyed submarine, another is a sailor with a gangrenous leg, another is moping over a series of failed relationships, another a mother who has lost her child. They argue about what to do with the German, which way to sail, who should be in command, their personal lives, and so on. It’s all masterfully directed by Hitchcock who never allows the audience to take anything for granted for too long, happily throwing in new twists and turns at unexpected moments.

bankheadAs a key character, this is Tallulah Bankhead‘s most famous role, playing a world-wise and weary self-made socialite, not unlike the extravagant character she was in real life. Passed over in her younger acting years, she ditched America for the London stage where she became a major star. On the back of this success she was invited back to Hollywood and had a number of screen roles, but somehow never made a breakthrough, this being her most memorable role.

She still made her mark in other ways, being famous for holding lavish parties which would last for days and her generally unconventional and outrageous behaviour, although it was always on her own terms – one reason she failed to get good roles in her early days was through refusing to spend time on directors’ couches. It was Bankhead who coined the luvvie expression, “dah-ling”, as this was how she addressed anyone she thought worthy of her attention.

canada-lee-1948The film was criticized when it came out for showing a German with positive traits, not simply as an all-bad Nazi, and also because the character played by Canada Lee was said to be offensively stereotyped and insulting to other black people. The accusations seem bizarre as his role is no more stereotyped than any of the other characters, but the consequence was that many theatres wouldn’t show the film.

There may have been some deliberate mischief-making here – Lee was a keen black civil rights activist under the attention of the FBI and the fanatical anti-communists of the era. Not long after this he found himself on the invisible Hollywood ‘blacklist’ and under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a supposed communist sympathiser. He sadly died of a heart attack aged only 45, never having had an opportunity to clear his name, his condition clearly not helped by these stresses.

Score: 7/10.

Available at Amazon.


So, the best film of 1944 is …

LIFEBOAT (7/10)

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… because of Hitchcock‘s wonderful direction – whenever there’s any risk of things becoming predictable or boring, he happily pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet with a new twist, and Tallulah Bankhead‘s star turn as the incorrigble and self-possessed socialite, who, even in the midst of a stormy ocean, rarely has a hair out of place.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1976.


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The Best Film of … 1888

le-princeStill working on 1944, but came across an article on the origin of movies and discovered the story of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, the first person ever to shoot a true motion picture.

Louis Le Prince was born in Metz in the Moselle department of France in 1841. His father being in military service, the young Louis spent much of his early years in the workshop of one of his father’s friends, Louis Daguerre, a photography pioneer. After studying art and chemistry at Leipzig University, Le Prince and an English friend, John Whitley set up a craft studio in Leeds. The firm soon became renowned for expertise in fixing photographic images on to metals and ceramics – portraits of Queen Victoria and William Gladstone by them are in a time capsule in the base of Cleopatra’s Needle in London.

In 1881 the Le Prince family – he’d married Whitley’s sister, Elizabeth, and they’d had a son, Adolphe – moved to New York, where Louis started experimenting with ideas for a device to record moving images. His first camera had 16 lenses mounted in a square grid, each on recording an images a fraction after the previous lens. Once the film was developed the images could be projected back through the device onto a small screen to create an apparently moving image. The only surviving product from this time is ‘Man Walking Around a Corner‘, shot in Paris in 1887. With each lens in a slightly different position, the resulting ‘movie’ is jumpy, and technically a collection of photographs taken from different angles, so not a ‘true’ movie shot through a single lens. Click on the picture or links to see the movie.

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The same spot today, the corner of Rue Bochard de Saron and Avenue Trudaine, known because of details in a letter Le Prince wrote to his wife in England.

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The world’s first movie camera, now in the Media Museum, Bradford. The lower lens took the pictures. The upper is the viewfinder.

Dissatisfied with the results (and back in England) Le Prince started working on a camera and projector which used only one lens, producing smoother motion. On 14 October 1888 he shot the ‘Roundhay Garden Scene‘, which to purists is the first real movie. Two other pieces survive from this time, ‘Leeds Bridge‘ and ‘The Accordion Player‘, the musician in the latter being his son, Adolphe. Like ‘Walking‘, the films last only a second or two. There was no sound, of course. (I’ve added sound to the clips.)

Le Prince intended to patent his ideas in New York, but events then took a tragic turn. After visiting his brother in Dijon, Le Prince (according to his brother) boarded an express train to Paris on 16 September, 1890, but neither he nor his luggage ever arrived. His disappearance remains a mystery to this day. There is a photograph taken in 1890 of a corpse found in the Seine, but there is no real proof that this was him. He either died in an accident, committed suicide, was murdered or absconded for reasons unknown.

Elizabeth believed him murdered by a competitor for the patents, which she attempted to obtain after his death, but without lasting success. Further tragedy struck when Adolphe was found dead in the New York marshes, having gone hunting there. There were again suspicions of foul play, but nothing was ever proven.

 

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The same location today.

Louis Le Prince was an artistic and engineering visionary, somewhat ahead of his time. Others are often given the credit of being the first movie-makers, but in truth it was this French-born citizen of Leeds, who, given a few more years would have undoubtedly become the pioneer of motion picture making, had not his mysterious disappearance put an end to his and his family’s endeavours.

So, the best film of 1888? Out of the three …

ROUNDHAY GARDEN SCENE (7/10)

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… because it leaves such an impression on the imagination – an astonishing glimpse of a bygone era. The other films, Walking, Leeds Bridge and Accordion scoring 5/10, 6/10 and 5/10 respctively. Admittedly very generous scores considering all these films together comprise only a few seconds of footage, but what an amazing window into another age.


* The American President at the time was Grover Cleveland, who’d campaigned on policies of baring immigrant ethnic groups seen as un-American, to disengage the US from foreign economic and defence agreements and to get his opponent indicted for illegal practice while in office. In spite of limited popularity, he’d unexpectedly captured enough swing states by appealing to the pubic sense of disillusion at the state of the Union of the day. Married to a woman almost 25 years younger, he was, incidentally, a Democrat.


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The Best … MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

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The seven – James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Horst Buchholz, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is considered one the better westerns, usually in the top 20 of various lists. I’d place it a little higher myself. The film was based on Akira Kurasawas‘s Japanese masterpiece, Seven Samurai (1954).

Three sequels followed, Return of the Seven (1966), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972), as well a TV series and other spin-offs. None of these were particularly special, although the TV series, which starred Eric Close, Michael Biehn and Ron Perlman, had a good following.

So where does the 2016 remake sit in all of this? Having recently seen it, as well as being familiar with the Kurasawa original, I had another look at the 1960 version. Here are the reviews …


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (USA 1960)

Director: John Sturges.

Cast: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Charles Coburn, Eli Wallich, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughan, Brad Dexter, Vladimir Sokolov, Rosenda Monteros.

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Yul Brynner, forever being upstaged by Steve McQueen.

Plot: Wanting to rid themselves of the bandits who regularly raid their village, a group of poor Mexican farmers hire a group of wandering gunfighters to help fight them off.

Review: The Magnificent Seven is one of those film so ‘right’ and well-constructed that it rapidly became seen as something of a cliché, which is unfair as it was a very original piece at the time. It has its hammy moments, but generally succeeds due to the strengths of the lead actors, general vision of the director and the many light touches that lifts what might have been a forgettable and turgid screenplay into something more unusual.

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The ‘all American boy’ of the film is Horst Buchholz, a German actor who had a French wife. If you listen carefully, you can hear his German accent. For a while Buchholz seemed headed for major stardom, but through a mixture of bad timing and bad advice – he turned down the roles of ‘Sheriff Ali’ (Omar Sharif) in Lawrence of Arabia, the ‘man with no name’ (Clint Eastwood) in A Fistful of Dollars and ‘Tony’ (Richard Beymer) in West Side Story – missed out on what could have been a stellar career.

It stands the test of time, still being entertaining, only occasionally coming over as a dated in some of the attitudes. Poorly received in the States, the film gained its lasting reputation only after the European release. There’s a natural justice in this given the multi-ethnic origins of the main stars – Yul Brynner (Russia), Horst Buchholz (Germany), Brad Dexter (Serbia), Charles Bronson (Lithuania), Eli Wallach (Poland), Vladimir Sokoloff (Russia), Robert Vaughan (France, Germany, Ireland), James Coburn (Scotland, Ireland, Sweden).

The only multi-generational American in a main role was Steve McQueen, this being his breakthrough film. McQueen and Brynner famously fell out on set. McQueen originally had only a few lines, but with his scene-stealing abilities managed to get his part so built up that by the end of production he was more-or-less joint lead with Brynner – watching McQueen in action, twirling his hat in the background or rattling his cartridges before putting them in a rifle, one can almost feel Brynner‘s annoyance at these little bits of stagecraft designed to draw audience attention away from the intended star.

The two did reconcile shortly before McQueen‘s death (from cancer caused by asbestos inhalation during his naval service), with McQueen saying that without Brynner‘s professionalism and guidance he might have never have been anything other than a forgotten B-movie actor.

Score: 7/10. A bit generous, perhaps, but it is entertaining throughout.


SEVEN SAMURAI (七人の侍, Japan 1954).

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Director: Akira Kurosawa.

Cast: Takashi Shimura (the leader), Toshiro Mufuni (the pretend-samurei), Daisuke Kató (the friend), Isao Kimura (the apprentice), Minoru Chiaki (the entertainer), Yoshio Inaba (the strategist), Seiji Miyaguchi (the master-swordsman), Keiko Tsushima (the girl).

Plot: A wandering, masterless samurai agrees to help a bunch of poor villagers defend themselves against a marauding gang of bandits.

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Toshiro Mifuni as Kikuchiyo, a farmer son masquerading as a samurai.

Review: The one drawback with this film is the three-and-a-half hours running time. One-and-a-half hours in, I have to admit to being drawn to the fast-forward button.

My earliest memory of the film is asking my sister to record it for me on her VCR, only to find the last part absent as the tape cassettes lasted three hours at most. The machine could be set to record four-and-a-half hours on the same tape, but the quality was pretty awful. What I saw still left an indelible impression – so much so that even three decades later I still recall much of it. (I finally got to see the end a year or two later.)

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Isao Shimuri as the apprentice samurai, more interested in rolling amongst the flowers and getting to know one of the village girls.

The film is universally rrcognisef as a masterpiece, although (as with other films with a mostly male cast and mostly male reviewers) I wonder if it makes such a great impression with female audiences.

It takes a more comprehensive look at the plight of the poor compared to later productions, contrasting their lot with that of the carefree wandering samurai. There are other universal themes – friends, family, duty, love, integrity, guilt, anger – played out against the medieval Japanese backdrop. It is this tapestry of themes which stand it apart from the remakes which tend to focus on the fighting.

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Keiko Tsushima

There is plenty of sword-swishing and stabbing with bamboo spears towards the end, with a lot of actors falling over, but no actual blood is spilled or limbs severed. Such a contrast to modern films, where directors feel obliged to make any injury as graphic and bloody as possible.

It is a finely crafted work. Kurosawa used unheard of techniques, such as professional choreographers for the fight scenes, allowing improvisation, off-studio set construction, filming with multiple cameras and extensive use of the then uncommon telephoto lenses. He spent each evening meticulously editing the day’s footage rather than doing this ‘post-production’ as was normal. Equally remarkably, this was his first ‘samurai’ film, and set a standard for all those coming after it.

Score: 8/10.


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (USA 2016)

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This is where I wish I’d spent my money.

Director: Antone Fuqua.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Platt, Ethan Hawke.

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Chris Platt in a cowboy hat. I wish I had kept my eyes shut as well.

Plot: A bunch of B+ list actors are persuaded to take part in a misguided remake helmed by a director who specialises in distasteful violence.

Review: I’m not going to describe this in detail, solely to say it was a mistake to go and see it – wishful thinking on my part that this might be a second-rate-but-all-the-same-enjoyable retake on the 1960 version.

It’s not simply that it’s a bad adaptation. It’s a deeply unpleasant film, with an inherent nastiness in the brutality portrayed.

There are none of the camaraderies, idealism, imagination, moral dilemmas or character studies of the former two films. Instead there are people being shot, mutilated, machine-gunned or blown up – men and women – in the name of entertainment, and one simply can not empathise with any of the self-centred characters, not even the usually entertaining Chris Platt. Nul points.

Score: 0/10.


So, The best Magnificent Seven is … no contest really, it has to be …

SEVEN SAMURAI (8/10)

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… because it such an all-round quality product. Would be a 9/10, but it is excessively long – sacrilegious as it may be to say – and it would have been nice to see one or two of the female characters rounded out a bit more.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1944.


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The Best Film of … 1979

In film terms some years seem to date rather more easily than others. Sometimes it’s hard to find anything in one year that doesn’t seem dated, jaded, or of otherwise poor quality. Other years have masterpieces galore. 1979 is somewhere in the middle.

First, a note on Robert Wise (1914-2005) …

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Quite a CV: Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935), Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1965), Orson Welles’ snowglobe in Citizen Kane (1841), Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965), and NCC-1701 in Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979).

In his early days Wise cut his teeth working on such films as Top Hat (1935), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941). In 1944 he got his big chance, being given the director’s chair when the previous incumbent was fired for schedule and budget overruns, and in the process helped producer Val Lewton turn what would probably have been a forgettable, low budget horror flick, The Curse of the Cat People, into a moderately successful study of childhood anxieties.

He continued to surprise and impress throughout his career. In addition to the films mentioned above, his output included other iconic pieces such as the submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), the musical West Side Story (1961) and The Sand Pebbles (1968), a drama starring Steve McQueen about a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river in 1920s revolutionary China. He managed a few flops as well, but was always ready to try something new, and in the year of this blog entry – 1979 – his Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, which turned out to be his last major project before going into semi-retirement.

stormIt seems that no studio was quite convinced that he should be at the helm of a major release after that. Thankfully he did bow out on a good note, directing Peter Falk and Nastassya Kinski in a film with themes not dissimilar to his first, about an elderly shopkeeper who find himself taking care of a young black boy to protect him from the perils of street life, in A Storm in Summer.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is reviewed below, along with the James Bond feature Moonraker, and, keeping the space theme, former Bond Sean Connery in Meteor.


STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

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Director: Robert Wise.

Cast: William Shatner, Persis Khambata, Stephen Collins, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Grace Lee Whitney.

Plot: The crew of the Enterprise have to find a way to stop a mysterious giant spaceship from destroying life on Earth.

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Doohan, Shatner and in-between them Grace Lee Whitney. Whitney was axed after a few episodes of the original series, because – she believed – she was ‘one blond too many and the other was sleeping with one of the producers’. Wise‘s success in reassembling the complete original cast, including Whitney, was something of a catharsis for all concerned, she said, after the unexpected cancellation of a planned fourth series a decade earlier.

Review: It hard to put one’s finger immediately on what doesn’t quite work with this film. It’s reasonably entertaining, the cast are all more than capable, the visual effects are good, the score excellent and the story is well told, but …

The original 1960s/1970s series was a mixed bag, with some episodes a sublime commentary on the human condition (maybe I’ve over-stated that a bit) while others were frankly embarrassing. At its core was Roddenberry‘s mantra that it was the human story that mattered. You can have all the spaceships, exotic locations and aliens you like, but the audience needed characters with human strengths and weaknesses to empathise with – emotional, personal, even sexual. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has Shatner and the others simply carried along by events much of the time, and when issues are finally dealt with it is in a rather matter-of-fact way with no postscript or debriefing, the Enterprise simply sailing off into the sunset.

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Persis Khambatta as an alien robot sent to investigate what the crew of the Enterprise are up to.

[I wouldn’t dare say how many times I’ve watched it, by the way, but I am apparently allowed to call myself a ‘crewman third class’ having contributed to a crowdfunding project called Star Trek Continues, which stars James Doohan’s son, Chris!]

I’m not knocking Wise. He was a craftsman and the film does impress, but the screenplay only weakly touches on what made the original Trek, even the poorer episodes, so watchable – it was all about the people.

Score: 5/10.


MOONRAKER

Director: Lewis Gilbert.

Cast: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale. Richard Kiel.

Plot: James Bond has to undermine the plans of a megalomaniac industrialist who wishes to kill everyone on the planet except a chosen few.

Review: Not really a film to analyse in depth. This is James Bond at it daftest. Not a bad film, just don’t expect anything to make real sense – a Bond-themed pantomime rather than a Flemming-style thriller.

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Roger Moore wrestling a giant snake – don’t ask why – in Moonraker.

Roger Moore says to this day that he never considered himself a particularly good actor, and also that he found the violent side of Bond distasteful. There’s a scene in this film where, on a game shoot, he ‘humorously’ picks off a sniper hiding in the branches of a tree while pretending to aim at a pheasant. The obvious dislike on Moore‘s face while performing the scene is quite genuine and was not something in the screenplay.

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Richard Kiel as Jaws and French actress Blanch Ralalec as the love of his life.

Michael Lonsdale is a memorable villain, although making all the usual mistakes, such as failing to recognise the numerous opportunities to easily bump Bond off, such as the times when he’s elaborately explaining all his dastardly schemes to Bond in the middle of his laboratory with armed henchmen and henchwomen all around.

SPOILER: IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN A BOND FILM AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHETHER HE SAVES THE WORLD OR NOT, DON’T READ ON.

Also present is Richard Kiel in his second and last appearance as ‘Jaws’. Originally a bad guy, in this film he a more humorous and sympathetic character, even getting himself a girlfriend. The reason for this was the popularity of the character with children – in spite of his first film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), being rated for adults only. After surviving a plunge down a huge waterfall, a disastrous crash in a cable car and an exploding space station, Jaws and his girl survive unscathed, as does Bond and his allie, Lois Chiles, one of the more assertive ‘Bond girls’, after they’ve managed to save the planet.

Score: 4/10.


METEOR

Director: Ronald Neame.

Cast: Sean Connery and six other Oscar winners and nominees.

Plot: With a giant meteor heading for earth the Americans and Russians have to agree to point all their space missiles at it to hopefully blow it up.

Review: I remember this film coming out and receiving some strong criticism, but with Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Trevor Howard, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden and Martin Landau all involved, how bad can it be?

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Natalie Wood and Sean Connery. Wood grew up in Russia, her real name being Natalia Zakharenko, and took the part wishing to make use of her natural fluency in Russian. (I’ve got a fruit bowl just like the one she’s holding.)

Sean Connery plays his typical, non-nonsense type. Henry Fonda‘s role is essentially a cameo, with him making ominous pronouncements every now and then as the film progresses.  (A major speech of his for which both cast and crew gave a standing ovation was inexplicably cut from the theatrical release). Natalie Wood is a Russian interpreter, which she does almost continuously throughout the film. The other actors tend to portray stereotypical types, dutifully rattling off their lines as the promised meteor gets closer and closer.

Forty-four minutes into the film, the first meteor fragment crashes behind a mountain – we know this because there’s a rumbling noise and someone’s chucking bits of tree branches across the screen while a couple of furry-hooded nomad types stare into the sky. A little while later there’s a shower of meteors over Italy – a bunch of wobbly red blobs – which we are told burned up in the atmosphere without causing any damage. There are prolonged shots of missile things slowly turning around in space – the words wallpaper and peeling come to mind at this point.

The grand finale – a chunk of the meteor allegedly crashing into New York – is extraordinary, in that it is very obviously stock footage of various commercial building demolitions joined together with a couple of tabletop matchstick models being knocked over thrown in. If I’d been the film-makers I’d have been demanding my money back from the effects company by this time. Watch the trailer  and you’ll get the idea.

It’s kind of sad, because one know the actors and director were the kind of people who always worked with real commitment to their projects, but I think the financial management fell down here, everything clearly spent on the cast at the expense of the main thing that a special-effect-dependent movie needs – special effects!

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sgHv0XLlHA

Score: 1/10.


So, the best film of 1979 is …

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (5/10)

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… because of the high quality of the finished work, even though it met with a muted response from critics. I kind if hoped it might be Moonraker, but my infallible scoring system can not be wrong.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1944.


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The Best Film of … 1954 (with apologies for 2009)

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godzilla

I’m sure I remember him being taller.

I finally gave up on 2009. There was plenty of so-so entertainment, but nothing which really impressed me enough to blog about it. I’ll keep searching, but until then … 1954.

Immediately back in quality territory. On the Waterfront, Le Strada, Seven Samurai, Them!, The Caine Mutiny, Rear Window, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dial M for Murder, Carmen Jones, The Far Country, A Star is Born, etc., etc., and not forgetting the first outing for Godzilla!

The working title for that latter was “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, but, perhaps to avoid clashing with the Hollywood film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was thankfully renamed simply Godzilla.

Many familiar titles, so rather spoiled for choice, but here are the three I chose to review…


THE CAINE MUTINY

Director: Edward Dymtryk.

Cast: Robert Francis, Tom Tully, Humphrey Bogard, Fred MacMurrey, José Ferrer.

caine-captain

Fred McMurry, Humphrey Bogard and (at the back on the right) Robert Francis. Francis‘s character is the hub around which events are set, although the character himself is mainly a witness, rarely getting directly involved in events. Sadly, Robert Francis, a very promising actor, died a year later when a light aircraft he was piloting crashed.

Plot: The officers of a run-down navy minesweeper have to decide whether to usurp the authority of a captain they see as unbalanced.

Review: This is a film where the competence of the director, screenwriter and actors is immediately apparent. We’re first given a bit of character building, focussing on the trials and tribulations of a newly commissioned officer (Robert Francis) at home and on deck. The ship he has been assigned to – he was hoping for an aircraft carrier or destroyer – is a run-down coastal minesweeper, captained by a man (Tom Tully) he sees as lax and unprofessional.

To his delight, a rotation of staff brings along a new captain – Humphrey Bogart – who, while eccentric in his ways, sets about trying to stamp his authority on the officers and smarten the vessel up. It quickly becomes apparent that the new captain is someone close to breaking point. After Bogart‘s increasingly neurotic behaviour almost causes a disaster, the officers mutiny. The scene then shifts to a military court where all have to justify their actions.

caine-bogeyIt all plays well, watchable in a way which never bores but at the same time seems a little predictable, in line with many other 1950s war films, until José Ferrer, as the defending military lawyer, bursts the bubble of his clients’ celebrations just as they are believing themselves vindicated, making them question their own role in their captain’s downfall.

These final scenes turn the film into a question of morals something in the style of a Sydney Lumet picture (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Dog Day Afternoon). Instead of being so ready with their criticisms, hiding behind protocol and then standing by as things fell apart, should they not have instead stood behind their captain, recognising his cries for help when he was having difficulties?

It’s a film that leaves one thinking, but not as much as it should. The director, Dymtryk, had intended a much longer production with greater insight into each character’s backgrounds. It does have the feel of something with a lot left out. As good as it is, had Dymtryk been allowed to fulfil his vision it would probably be a film of greater overall reputation.

Score: 7/10.


CASINO ROYALE

Director: William H.Brown, Jr.

Cast: Barry Nelson, Peter Lorre, Linda Christian.

casino-royale-1954

No exploding wristwatches, hoverboots or invisible cars, but this is, all the same, Bond no. 1, Barry Nelson, with Bond girl no. 1, Linda Christian, at his side.

Plot: Secret agent James Bond plans to bankrupt and thereby discredit a Soviet agent at the gambling tables, but an old flame and an apparent double agent gets involved and complicates things.

Review: An easy question for hardcore Bond aficionados, but a trick one for everyone else … who was the first actor to play Bond on screen? The answer is not Sean Connery, but Barry Nelson in the 1954 American TV production Casino Royale, with Peter Lorre as Soviet agent Le Chiffre, Michael Pate as Leiter and Linda Christian as one of Bond’s ex’s, Valerie.

It’s a sound production, with many of the early Bond trademarks – his smoking, drinking and gambling, his colleague Leiter helping him (although named Clarence in this production, not Felix), his instant way with the ladies, and an ability to resort to fisticuffs at a moments notice. Absent – and the production is all the better for it – are any car chases, explosions, or ‘get me out of this situation quick’ gadgets. Nelson‘s Bond has to think on his feet as the plan he and Leiter have engineered falls apart and his enemies seem to have gained the upper hand.

Enjoyable, not only as a well-made TV drama, but also because one can’t help making comparisons with the movie versions. Nelson is very able in the role and he could have easily given Connery a run for his money, but that was not to be when the production company pulled the plug on any ideas of TV series or full-blown feature films. While popular in England, Bond novels were a minority interest in the States.

lorre

Peter Lorre suitably creepy as gambling addict Le Chiffre.

The only criticism of this TV drama is that the ending is rather abrupt. The reason may have to do with the fact the programme was not thought to have survived in recorded form, until a ‘Kinoscope’ (filmed recording of a TV screen) turned up, minus a few minutes of the end, in 1981. Very fortuitously the very end scene and credits were discovered elsewhere shortly afterwards and the production was released on video and recently as an ‘extra’ on Bond DVDs for anyone interested.

And it was all performed live! They did that in those days as it was much cheaper than using expensive film cameras. I did noticed a moment of fluffed lines, and a couple of times the actors didn’t seem to know who was supposed to speak next or where to look, but it is all the same a remarkably polished production.

Score: 6/10.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Uy5gunqCAA


ON THE WATERFRONT

Waterfront-Brando

Marlon Brando.

Director: Elia Kazan.

Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint.

Plot: A former boxing champ finds himself in the middle of a battle against union corruption in the New York dock community.

Review: I’ve heard it said that the best actor of all time, according to other actors, was Marlon Brando. I haven’t seen enough of his films to give an opinion, but if he’d played in nothing else, this performance alone would have assured him a place on the top tier of the greatest performances of all time.

waterfront-malden-saint

Karl Malden (one of those actors whose face is familiar but whose name one can never think of) and Eve Marie Saint.

Later in his career, Brando became a bit of a pastiche of himself, heavily obese and sometimes mumbling almost unintelligibly. In his younger days, however, he was cinema magic, such as in the most famous scene from this film when, sitting in the back of a taxi, his brother (Rod Steiger) pulls a gun on him. There is no startled reaction, raised voice or theatrical glare. Brando instead smiles, shakes his head and then, with an expression of pity gently pushes the gun aside, whispering quietly, “Charlie, Charlie, no”, as if his brother had done nothing more than make a slightly offensive joke.

Brando later claimed they’d improvised the whole scene. Not quite true. Kazan‘s was a firm director and in his memoirs said how he kept Brando and Steiger strictly to the screenplay, it was their sheer talent which turned what might have otherwise have been a bit of over-the-top melodrama into such an iconic moment.

Lee J Cobb

Lee J. Cobb.

One always has misgivings about sitting down to watch ‘classics’ such as this. Whatever qualities they might have, they can still be boring or so outdated in values that they are simply irrelevant today. Waterfront, however, is timeless, and all the lead actors have great screen presence. Eva Marie Saint, already recognised for her stage work, won an Oscar for this, her first big screen appearance, Lee J. Cobb is utterly believable as the union leader and abominable thug, and Rod Steiger pretty much matches Brando in the conviction of his acting.

It is Brando, however, that really puts this film on another level. In today’s world of colour, CGI, frenetic action and constant media hype, this slow-burning, black-and-white, 1¾ hour drama (based in real characters and events) is still something special and one is kept guessing about the fate of Brando‘s character right up to the final frame.

Score: 9/10.


So, the best film of 1954 is …

ON THE WATERFRONT (9/10)

onthewater

… because of the all-round quality of the performances and flawless art direction and camera work. The film swept the board at the Oscars, winning best picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay, cinematography, art direction and editing, and numerous other awards internationally.

clipCame across this – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w5aH-IMAGc – researching the film. It’s great fun and amazingly close to the original.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1979.


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The Best Film of … 1934

For 1934 I’ve managed to stay European, with Catherine the Great (UK), Les Misérables (France) and Lieutenant Kizhe (Soviet Union).

I was actually hunting for a Soviet equivalent of Catherine the Great, but came instead across Lieutenant Kizhe, a film with an intriguing premise that reminded me of a favourite episode of MASH.

Tuttle's tags

Alan Alda as Hawkeye, mourning the late Captain Tuttle.

In the MASH episode Tuttle, first broadcast in 1973, the character Hawkeye invents an imaginary officer, Captain Tuttle, as part of a ruse to obtain illicit supplies. Problems arise when the commanding officer rosters Tuttle on duty, forcing Hawkeye to have to invent increasingly elaborate explanations as to why Captain Tuttle never appears, eventually having to fake his death in a parachuting accident when “unfortunately he forgot to take his parachute”. The episode scores an impressive 9.0/10 on the Internet Movie Database. The inspiration for this episode is said to be the 1934 Soviet film Lieutenant Kizhe, something which has the additional bonus of a score composed by Sergei Prokofiev, which includes the well-known piece Troika.


PORUCHIK KIZHE (LIEUTENANT KIZHE)

Director: Aleksandr Faintsimmer (USSR).

Cast: Mikhail Yanshin (the czar), Boris Gorin-Goryainov (the count), Nina Shaternikova (the princess).

1934 Kizhe 2

Oops! Boris Gorin-Goryainov spots his error.

Plot: An officer in the service of a tyrannical czar accidentally creates a non-existent army officer through a clerical error. At first finding ‘him’ useful as a scapegoat to blame a minor incident on, the officer and his colleagues find themselves having to continue the charade indefinately, too afraid of the czar’s wroth to admit to the trivial lie that started it.

Review: I wouldn’t recommend rushing down to the local video store to grab this, but it does have some interesting qualities, a comedy executed with the care and attention that one would expect of a drama. It feels like having watched a one of the better silent movies afterwards, in spite of the spoken dialogue.

1934 Kizhe 1

Contemplating mischief. Nina Shaternikova eyes up her boyfriend’s bottom.

The whole charade begins when the czar’s daughter happens to pinch her soldier boyfriend’s bottom, causing him to yell out. Her tyrannical father, angry at the disturbance, demands to know who shouted.

The soldier blames it on Lieutenant Kizhe, a name he’d accidentally created through a transcribing error on a military document a short time before and hasn’t had time to correct. The czar orders Kizhe to be flogged and sent to Siberia, so the soldier and his colleagues carry out the punishment, but then find they have to continue the charade indefinately, afraid of making the czar even angrier by admitting their conspiracy. Meanwhile, the princess tells her father about the bottom-pinching incident, so he orders Kizhe’s return and promotes him, then promotes him again, then orders him married, and so on. Eventually it occurs to the conspirators to have him killed off by an incurable illness, after which he is given a state funeral, with the czar lamenting that he’s losing all his best men.

1934 Kizhe 3

Nina Shaternikova

Unlike most Soviet productions of the era, there is no propoganda as such – apart from the pre-revolutionary court being painted as run by buffoons. It’s a straight comedy of errors, with some delightful performances from the leads, although the central joke is wearing a bit thin by the end.

Made in 1934, this was the year in which the already fearsome nature of Stalin’s rule stepped up a gear with the arbitrary liquidation or deportation of anyone he saw as undesirable. One can’t imagine a film such as this being made again for decades out of fear that Stalin might think it was his rule which was being parodied. Thankfully the director, Aleksandr Faintsimmer (1906-1982) avoided Stalin’s wroth, and continued making films for Soviet theatres into his seventies.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nbb539QZZXo.

Score: 4/10.


LES MISÉRABLES

Harry Baur

Harry Baur as Jean Valjean.

Director: Raymond Bernard.

Cast: Harry Baur, Charles Vanel, Gaby Triquet, Josseline Gaël, Charles Duilin, Marguerite Moreno, Jean Servais.

Plot: After release from prison for a petty crime, Jean Valjean assumes a new identity to avoid attention from the authorities, but finds himself relentlessly pursued by a government inspector in spite of being a reformed character.

Gaby

Gaby Triquet, aged 9, as the young Cosette. Triquet acted in only a handful of films in the mid-1930s, devoting her adult life to the stage. She died only a few years ago aged 91.

Review: I first saw this about fifteen years ago, and thought it was the best film I had ever seen. Numerous scenes made such strong impressions that they are permanently imprinted in my mind – strange to think that somewhere in my brain there’s a bunch of neurones with ‘Scenes from Les Misérables (1934)’ stamped on it.

Modern audiences’ main reference point will be the musical production which emphasises the anti-monarchist June Rebellion of 1832, but the novel is really an epic social commentary on what Victor Hugo felt were the good and bad aspects of social and infrastructural progress in mid-19th century France.

Specific incidents that come to mind from the film are:

  • The homeless, recently released Valjean robbing a wandering minstrel boy of a valuable coin, then, realizing he’s done a bad thing, trying to find the boy and sitting down in abject misery when he fails.
  • His meeting with the saintly Bishop of Digne – unaware of the man’s identity – and being struck by the man’s kindness towards him in spite of his obvious criminal background.
  • A nun sworn to always tell the truth, calmly telling Valjean to “cachez-vous” (‘hide yourself’) while being searched for, then equally calmly lying to the authorities while clenching her cross and rolling her eyes to heaven.
  • The moment when, discovering a small girl trying to pick up an impossibly heavy pale of water, he carries it for her, then, arriving at the girls home, discovering that she’s the daughter of a now deceased prostitute he’d once rescued from a street assault. (This mirrors a real event that happened in Hugo’s own life.)
  • Valjeans’s dilemma in deciding whether to save himself or give himself up to the authorities when he learns that an innocent man has been mistaken for himself and arrested.
  • Charles Vanel, the dastardly inspector, being so persuaded by Valjean’s attempts to lead a good life that he jumps in the Seine, unable to either arrest him and so carry out his own ethical impulses or tell his superiors that this obviously good man should be left to roam free.
Javert

Charles Vanel as Javert, the inspector obsessively pursuing Valjean at every opportunity.

The list goes on. The characters are very Hugo-esque, all extreme examples of humanity, either individuals of absolute integrity or utter scoundrels. In that sense it is a fantasy world populated by saints and monsters, a contrast to another film starring Charles Vanel reviewed previously, The Wages of Fear, in which the characters all have rather mixed and self-centred priorities a little closer some characters one meets in real life.

Source: Originally seen on BBC2, broadcast over three days. (Like the book, the film is divided into three parts.) Available from Amazon.

Score: 10/10.

barricade

Valjean unwillingly manning a barricade to protect his adopted daughter’s fianceé. A lot of Dutch angles in this film, but they are used responsibly.


THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT

Director: Paul Czinner (UK)

Cast: Elisabeth Bergner, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Flora Robson, Laurence Hanray.

Plot: A biopic of the early years of Catherine at the imperial court and her troubled marriage to emperor Peter III.

1934 Catherine - Bergner

Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine the Great. She was married to the film’s director. The unmarried couple, both Jewish, had fled harassment in Germany together in the early 1930s and settled in England, quickly establishing themselves in theatrical, screen and literary circles. Elisabeth was acquainted with G. B. Shaw and J. M. Barrie amongst others.

Review: Was hoping for something entertaining and educational, but while being well-directed, in this film history is reduced to costumed melodrama. Fairbanks Peter III is a childish, self-centered, dandy. Bergner‘s Catherine is initially a mooning coquette. Robson gives a stronger performance, but still comes over as more of a caricature than a character.

The explanation may be in the real interests of the director, Paul Czinner, those being opera and ballet, where spectacle, mannerism and theatricality are at the fore in production values and historical accuracy comes second, if at all.

1934 Catherine - Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Things improve a bit in the later acts of the film, allowing Elisabeth Bergner to show a little more of her considerable abilities as the young Catherine realises that it is up to her to take control of the state machinery, although in the final scenes the screenplay once again lapses into melodrama.

From what I have read since, the real Catherine was never so passive, her passion being power and control from the very beginning, so while one learns the names of a few of the main players in this episode of history, it give rather a false picture of the personalities and motivations of the individuals involved.

Sourcehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRfrbww6C2E.

Score: 3/10.


So, the best film of 1934 is …

LES MISÉRABLES (10/10)

… because it is a cinematic work of art, as well as a ripping yarn. This is the best screen retelling of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, managing to include much of the core narrative and characters, although the social commentry and numerous sub-sections of the one-and-a-half-thousand page book (a bible is typically a thousand pages) are inevitably excluded.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 2009.


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The Best Film of … 1953

1953 1     1953 Ugetsu poster.jpg     1953 The Wages of Fear.jpg

After the predictable fare of 2015, it was a great relief to return to an era when story-telling and acting, rather than  effects and star/director ego, were more important.

war.jpg

A talanted individual, director Byron Haskin’s other legacies include putting on screen the archetypal “ooo-arrr-Jim-lad” pirate with Robert Newton’s performance in Treasure Island (1950) and helping Gene Roddenberry turn his ideas for a ‘space western’ into something called Star Trek (1963).

Except for … The War of the Worlds, which is a good example of how well-managed special effects and competent screenplay can flesh out the weakest of storylines and hammiest of acting to produce something considered a classic, and which still scores 7.2 against Spielberg’s 6.5 for his 2005 version at the Internet Movie Database.

Had a look at Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy-drama with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, the film which shot her to fame, but found it rather dull. The British The Cruel Sea came over as rather generic in its characterisations and plot, although as a document about life aboard vessels hunting U-boats in the North Atlantic it has a historical value. Dutifully watched Julius Caesar with such actors as James Mason, John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Marlon Brando and the rather forgotton Louis Calhern (Notorious, The Asphalt Jungle, High Society) as Caesar. It was, of course, good, but even with such an impressive cast somehow lacked that something which makes certain Shakespere adaptions special.

1953 The Kidnappers.jpg

Vincent Winter and Jon Whitely as The Kidnappers.

The Kidnappers was unusual and entertaining. Two orphan boys are sent to rural Nova Scotia to live with their grandfather. When it emerges that the boys are the culprits behind the kidnapping of a neighbour’s baby – they found it lying under a tree and innocently took it to their secret den as a sort of pet – their stern grandfather has to swallow his pride and make amends with the neighbours with whom he had long since fallen out because of issues of prejudice and a land ownership disagreement. It’s a light-hearted tale with wonderful performances from the two child actors, Vincent Winter and Jon Whitely, aged only five and seven at the time. Neither pursued their acting careers in adulthood. Winter became a much sought-after assistant producer involved in such franchises as James Bond, Superman and Indiana Jones. Whitely became an art historian and collection manager at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.

Reviewed below are POW drama Stalag 17,  the Japanese ‘masterpiece’ Ugetsu Monogatori (Romances of the Pale Moon After the Rain) and the explosive French drama The Wages of Fear.


STALAG 17

1953 Stalah 17 wire.jpg

Director: Billy Wilder.

Cast: William Holden, Peter Graves, Robert Strauss, Erwin Kalser, Otto Preminger.

Plot: The inmates of a German prisoner-of-war camp realise there’s an informer amongst them  … but who?

Review: Not a great film, but a good one. The screenplay was based on a stage production written by former real life POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzecinski, and this show up in some of the characterisations which might work better on stage don’t transfer to screen so effectively.

1953 Stalag 17

Otto Preminger and William Holden in Stalag 17.

Can’t help thinking than if one of the lead roles had been played by one of the Hollywood megastars of the day it would be acclaimed as an all-time classic. It just needed that edge. William Holden does well enough, but is not quite A list material, more A- or B+. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were offered the part – Douglas later said that declining it was the biggest mistake of his career. Holden was eventually obliged to take the part because of the terms of his his contract with Paramount. In spite of objecting to this and disliking both the play and the character, his performance gained him the ‘best actor’ Oscar for this year.

1953 Stalag 17 fence.jpg

The camp buffon, ‘Animal’ (Robert Strauss) risks getting shot trying to reach the women’s compound.

It’s worth remembering that the film was made less than a decade after the war had ended, so some of the issues raised would still be fresh in the mind of the audience. Several of the cast and production team had experienced POW life and wartime atrocities first hand.

Holden experienced an additional crisis during filming when his wife turned up unexpectedly on set one day. Holden assumed she’d found out about him having a girl in his dressing room, so went up to her, soaking wet and halfway through a scene, begging her forgiveness and not to divorce him. In fact, she’d only come to tell him she’d bumped the car. The marriage survived and couple stayed together for another twenty years, with occasional problems, before they went separate ways in 1971.

Score: 8/10.


UGETSU MONOGATORI (ROMANCES OF THE PALE MOON AFTER THE RAIN)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan).

Cast: Masayuki Mori (Genjurô, the potter), Eitarô Ozawa (Tôbei, his assistant), Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi, the potter’s wife), Mitsuko Mito (Ohama, the assistant’s wife), Machiko Kyô (Lady Wakasa).

Plot: A potter and his friend desert their wives to become a noblewoman’s love interest and a DIY samurai respectively, but their misdeeds comeback to haunt them.

Review: Every picture tells a story. I remember some TV documentary years ago comparing the state of technical and artistic achievements in Europe and Asia in medieval times. It simply showed two pots, such as below. Guess which is which.

That came to mind when watching this film. Set in medieval Japan, one of the characters is a simple potter. He calls his products his ‘children’ and for him the greatest delight is having his work noticed by someone who appreciates craft and form.

1953 Ugetsu 2The first half of the film is straightforward. Two friends, the potter and his assistant, throw themselves into their work to make money. Just as their efforts start bringing in a financial reward, a gang of ill-disciplined soldiers take over the village and the two families have to flee across the countryside. The husbands go off to sell the pots they’d managed to carry with them, leaving their wives to cope alone. So far so good.

Ugetsu lady

Machiko Kyo as ‘The Lady’.

The film then goes off at a very Japanese tangent. The potter’s wife is raped, while meanwhile the potter becomes infatuated with a peculiar noblewoman. The assistant witnesses a suicide then sneaks up behind the suicidee’s assistant and murders him. Numerous crazed samurai parade around screeching loudly. None of the murders are done on screen, apart from a few stabbings, and these all happen bloodlessly and theatrically. Oh, and some of the characters turn out to be ghosts.

Working out what’s going on is difficult at times, although the last scenes do clarify things somewhat. Not a very happy story, and leaves an impression of something made deliberately ‘arty’. As artistic as it is, head-and-shoulders above anything I’ve seen from Western studios from the 1950s, I didn’t feel it’s quite the masterpiece it is claimed to be. Japanese cinema is capable of greater sublety than this and the third quarter of the film is rather piecemeal. The film also mixes two genera – ghost story and moral tale. The former is effectively told, but the latter is done with the sublety of a flying sledgehammer.

Score: 5/10.


truckTHE WAGES OF FEAR (LE SALAIRE DE LA PLER)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot (France).

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter van Eyke, Dario Moreno, Véra Clouzot.

Plot: Four drifters take on the job of driving two trucks loaded with dangerous explosives 300 miles along bumpy roads.

wages-men

The Dutchman, the Frenchman, the Italisn and the Corsican. (Peter van Eyke, Charles Vanel, Falco Lulli and Yves Montand.)

Review: I first watched this a few years ago. It made a strong impression, particularly the existential statements occasionally mixed in with the routine dialogue – very French – and nailbiting moments such as when one of the trucks struggles to negotiate a hairpin bend on a mountain road, wheel skidding all over the place.

There’s not a lot of plot to cope with, it’s more a film about the different qualities of character. Montand is an everyday charmer and chancer, Vanel a dandily-dressed thug, Lulli a jovial Italian emigree and van Eyke a traumatized refugee. All believe their circumstances so hopeless that they’ll risk anything to escape the impoverished Mexican township where they’ve washed up.

clouzot

Véra Clouzot (the director’s wife) plays Linda, the bar girl ever-looking for affection from Yves Montand. The daughter of a Brazilian politician discraced after murdering a rival, she made a new lifefor herself with Clouzot in France, starring in three of his films and screenwriting for a fourth, winning a number of awards. Tragically her rising career was cut short when she died of a heart attack aged only 46.

The film is unmistakably continental in its approach, with curious twists of character, mundane everyday events punctuating the narrative, and the aforementioned philosophical musings. It could never be mistaken for an ‘it does what it says on the tin’ British or American film of the era. Montand in particular is a very mixed bag, idolised by one of the bar girls, he happily walks away when she is being mistreated by her employer, and is clearly more motivated by money than loyalty at times. There are no heros in this film.

Watching it a second time (i.e., knowing what happens in the end), I found myself studying the characters more. They come over as a generally unsavoury lot, apart from the relatively minor character Lulli plays and the rather neglected Linda (played by Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife). At the same time, one has a certain sympathy with them and can’t help thinking, ‘If that was me, what would I do in the same situation?.

Score: 8/10.


So, the best film of 1953 is …

… another tie, this time between The Wages of Fear and Stalag 17, but the winner has to be …

THE WAGES OF FEAR (8/10)

wages

… because of the range of character studies involved, the quality of the performances and generally innovative storyline.


The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1934..


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