Thursday, November 11, 2010

Year in Review: 1949

1949 is a ridiculously good year for movies. One of the reasons why I waited until near the end to do this year is because I am constantly changing my mind about what order films 2 through 8 should be in. But the best of the year is clearly the best – one of the best films ever made.

10. The Small Back Room (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger may just be the best filmmaking team in history, and from one film to the next, you are never sure of what they are going to do. How did they follow up the massive success of the colorful, ballet epic The Red Shoes? By making this small, black and white film about a British scientist during WWII, who is frustrated by his superiors, and has become an alcoholic to dull the pain in his artificial foot. I admired the scenes featuring David Farrer as the scientist early in the film, and although I didn’t find the films climax – where he has to defuse a bomb – as interesting, it has to be noted that it is made with breathtaking skill by the filmmakers. The Small Back Room may not be Powell and Pressburger’s greatest achievement – but it is an excellent film nonetheless.

9. Late Spring (Yashijiro Ozu)
Yashijiro Ozu’s films all have a similar story about the tension between the generations, and how the most important things are what is not said, not what is said. Late Spring is one of his best films – and one of his best known. It tells the story of Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the only daughter of a widowed professor (Chishu Ryu). They live happily together, with Noriko taking care of her father. But she is of marrying age, and her Aunt convinces her father it is time for her to get married. Even though both she and her father are happy with the current arrangement, they go along with the Aunt’s plans – which ends up with both of them married to people they don’t love and miserable. All of this could be avoided if they simply told each other the truth – and that is the one thing they just cannot do. Late Spring is a sad, almost tragic, movie and one of Ozu’s greatest achievements.

8. House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
King Lear as a film noir. Edward G. Robinson gives one of his best performances as an Italian American banker, who is also involved with many criminal activities. Three of his four sons hate their father – and refuse to help when he is arrested and may end up in jail. The fourth son, a lawyer, agrees to help – and ends up going to jail for his trouble. The film is a complex look at this family in crisis – with Robinson towering over all of them in a magnificent performance. I have often felt that Mankiewicz is a director who is comfortable with complex screenplays – but that he is not the most innovative visual filmmaker. But here, he has crafted perhaps his best looking film – dark and mysterious, with great art direction and cinematography. A wonderful noir, from a filmmaker you wouldn’t expect capable of pulling it off.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
The second, and far and away the best, of John Ford’s Calvary Trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most breathtaking color Westerns ever made. John Wayne is excellent as an aging officer of a remote outpost, who is approaching retirement and is given two final jobs – to deliver the wife and daughter of his commanding officer to an Eastbound stagecoach, and to quell the Indian uprising on a reservation not far away – and avoid another bloody Indian war like the one that has just killed General Custer. He fails at both, and retires, but cannot leave until he puts things right. Wayne is the center of the movie – giving one of his most subtle performances as a man who cannot let go. He is surrounded by Ford’s stock company including Ben Johnson, Victor McLagen. Harry Carey Jr., John Agar and Joanne Dru, and they are all fine. But it is Wayne who stands above them all. The cinematography is brilliant, and Ford shows once again why he is the best director to ever make a Western.

6. The Heiress (William Wyler)
William Wyler’s The Heiress takes Henry James’ Washington Square, and makes it into a terrific movie about lust, love, jealously and revenge – and gives Olivia De Havilland perhaps the best role of her career. She stars as a rather plain (yeah right, but it works here) woman who is still single – and getting old. Her father (Ralph Richardson) is cruel in the way he observes her and talks about her – both behind her back and sometimes straight to her face. But he has a lot of money, and she is his only child – meaning one day she’ll be rich. And that’s when Montgomery Clift enters the picture. He comes from a good family, but is completely broke. They two fall in love – but Richardson wants the relationship to end, and says he’ll cut her out of the will if she doesn’t give him up. The Heiress features great work by De Havilland, who is utterly heartbreaking in the film’s final scenes, Richardson who is cold and cruel, and Clift who it takes quite some time to get a read on. The films last scene is brilliant, but everything up until then works as well. A great film by Wyler.

5. All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men represents one of the only times I can think of when a Pulitizer Prize winning novel was brought to screen, and the result was a great movie in its own right. Robert Warren Penn’s novel was a thinly veiled story based on the life of Governor Huey Long, here embodied by Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, as a largely than life “man of the people”. His goals are enviable, but the means in which he goes about achieving them are deplorable. Crawford, in undoubtedly his best screen role, nails the contradictions in the character, making his hateful and yet somewhat sympathetic. Mercedes McCambridge is also excellent as his mistress. The film is one of the seminal films on American politics ever made – in all its nasty, dirty glory.

4. Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa)
An early Kurosawa masterpiece. This film is about a young cop (Toshiro Mifune) who is shamed when his gun is pick pocketed from him on the bus. He tries in vain to find the gun, but when it is used in a murder, things become more heated. He is taken under the wing of an older cop (Takashi Shimura). The film functions not just as a police movie, but also as social commentary – it’s style owes something to the neorealists as well, and the characterizations, especially by Mifune, is much better, more complex than in most thrillers. Stray Dog represented a huge leap forward in Kurosawa’s career – it is infinitely better structured, better written and more complex than Drunken Angel, the film he made in the year prior to this one. It shows, as much as Rashomon a year later, that Kurosawa was coming of age – and finding his true voice as a filmmaker.

3. White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
James Cagney may have not liked being typecast as a gangster – but he played them better than just about any other actor in history. His work here as Cody Jarrett, ruthless criminal leader, is among the best performances of his career – and that the genre ever had. He is a gangster with a serious Mom complex – feeling that only his mother (Margaret Wycherly) truly understands him. Their scenes together are perhaps the best in the movie – and certainly have a creepy, sexual undertone to them. The film is interesting stylistically – it functions as a throwback to the gangster films of the 1930s, contains semi-documentary elements popular at the time, has elements of film noir (the femme fatale played by Virginia Mayo, the dark cinematography, the psyche of the killer) and was a forerunner to the heist films of the 1950s. How director Raoul Walsh was able to cram all of that in, and still make a wonderfully entertaining film, with one of the most memorable closing scenes of all time, is quite simply remarkable.

2. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis)
Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy is a film noir just oozing sexuality. Apparently Lewis told star John Dall that “your cock has never been this hard” and female star Peggy Cummins “you’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it too soon”. And I can’t think of a better way to describe their performances. Gun Crazy is undeniably an influential film – they are certainly echoes of Bonnie and Clyde in the film, and not just because this is a “lovers on the run” film, but also because of the link that the film draws between sex and violence. Dall is a man obsessed with guns – even turned on by them – and meets his match in Cummins, a sharpshooter. Soon they are in love, or perhaps just lust, and are running from the cops. The film isn’t as explicit as it Lewis would have liked it to be – but there is no mistaking the sexuality on display in every scene in this film.

1. The Third Man (Carol Reed)
The Third Man is a pretty much perfect film. The film plunges us into postwar Vienna, a city destroyed and divided up among the victors. Into this murk comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) who has come because his friend Henry Lime has invited him. But when he gets there, he finds Lime is dead. He is informed that Lime was a criminal, an evil man, and he should leave. But he won’t – he wants to get to the bottom of this, and turns to Lime’s girl (Ailda Valli) for answers. The film is Reed’s greatest directorial achievement – he gives the film a skewed look, hardly ever shooting the action head on, but rather from strange angles. He concentrates on the faces of the actors – the innocent, na├»ve Cotton contrasted with the wizened, corrupt faces of almost everyone else. We all know that Lime is really alive – and when he finally enters, and we discover its Orson Welles, it is perhaps the most famous entrance in cinema history. Welles turns Lime into one of the great villains of all time, which is hard to do with such limited screen time. He gives a famous speech – one apparently he wrote – about the cuckoo clock, which is unforgettable. The chase scene, threw the sewers of Vienna, is one of the most famous ever shot – and for good reason. And the final scene in devastating. All of this is set to the wonderful zither score by Anton Karas. The Third Man is a perfect film in every respect.

Just Missed The Top 10: Adam’s Rib (George Cukor), A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), The Setup (Robert Wise), Thieves Highway (Jules Dassin).

Notable Films Missed: Battleground (William Wellman), Les Enfants Terribles (Jean Pierre Melville), The Fountainhead (King Vidor), Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer), On the Town (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen), Orpheus (Jean Cocteau), The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls), Samson and Deliah (Cecil B. DeMille), Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini), 12 O’clock High (Henry King).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: All the King’s Men
The Academy Awards have always been political – but for some reason, they have often shied away from movies that directly address politics – this is actually the only best picture winner in history about American politics. It is a big, sprawling movie, based on an even bigger novel, that the filmmakers wisely thinned out to bring to the big screen. It is a nasty little movie, but also an extraordinarily entertaining one. It may not be the best winner in history, but it’s damn good.

Oscar Winner – Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives
Joseph L. Mankiewicz is one of only two directors ever to win back to back Oscars – starting with this film, and continuing the following year for All About Eve. Eve is a masterpiece, pure and simple, but A Letter to Three Wives is merely a very good one. It is an interesting film where an identical letter arrives at the homes of three women, supposedly from their friend, who tells them that she is running away with one of their husbands – and then flashing back to show us how they all got there. It is a fine film, with good performances and an interesting structure – but to me, it is hardly worthy of a directing Oscar.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men
Broderick Crawford’s great, larger than life performance is everything that you could want it to be – and the exact opposite of the poor performance Sean Penn delivered in the ill advised remake more than 50 years later. He really does tower over the other characters in the movie, and you cannot help but be won over by him to at least a certain extent – he does not make Stark into a one dimensional villain, but something much more complex and even sympathetic. It is a great performance, by an actor who rarely got to grab the lead role like this.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
Since they were never going to consider someone as sexually provocative as Cummins for this award, De Havilland’s win for The Heiress is well deserved. She is in practically every scene in the film, and carries it off effortlessly. It is heartbreaking to watch her put up with the abuse of her father, and then when she smiles in Clift’s presence it lifts you up – before finally, she has a cruel streak of her own in the film’s final scene. This movie asks a lot of De Havilland, who delivers this complex performance pretty much perfectly.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Dean Jagger, 12 O’clock High
Time for another embarrassing confession – I have never seen 12 O’clock High, despite my love for Gregory Peck. It is said to be an excellent movie WWII fighter pilots, and Jagger acts as our entrance into the world. I have always meant to see the film, yet somehow never have. Regardless, we all know Orson Welles should have won for The Third Man, but since it wasn’t even eligible until 1950, I guess we can’t fault them on that one (at least not this year, since they didn’t even nominate him the year after).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men
Mercedes McCambridge got her start in radio, and did many excellent vocal performances over the years – undoubtedly most memorably as the demonic voice of little Regan in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. But she was also an excellent actress, and here in her breakthrough role, she does a marvelous job at playing Willie Stark’s sympathetic mistress. She knows who he is, and goes along for the ride anyway. Even though she died years ago, I am still hoping to see one final great performance from her – if they ever do get together and finish editing Orson Welles’ unreleased The Other Side of the Wind.

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