Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Movies Of The Year: 1949

Onto the final third of the countdown. This was a very fine year for movies, with quite a few excellent films noirs and war movies, and a strong international showing (four of my top five are non-American, or three if you're the AFI). As always, methodologies, disclaimers, and updates can be found at The Big List on the sidebar.

19. Take Me Out To The Ballgame
18. Knock On Any Door
17. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad
16. The Big Steal
15. On The Town
14. I Shot Jesse James

13. White Heat - James Cagney's Unforgiven: a middle-aged return to the genre that made him a star, dark and self-conscious. But it's more of an exercise in nostalgia than Eastwood's film, and not nearly as genre-defining/killing.

12. Sands Of Iwo Jima - The first of two prototypical WW2 movies on this list. John Wayne trains the requisite disparate group of young men into an effective fighting force, with some great action scenes and use of stock footage along the way. There's also some nice homoeroticism as two fit blonde midwesterners spend much of the film "wrestling" with each other.

11. The Fountainhead - I can't take Ayn Rand seriously, and I can't believe director King Vidor did either, as this movie is absolutely hilarious. This is what I wrote a year and a half ago:
Gary Cooper stars in King Vidor's adaptation of Ayn Rand's screenplay of her novel about an unyielding architect who blows up a building when a bunch of jerks change his design without his permission. Cooper's elmlike acting style is perfectly suited to the passionate rigidity of the architect. Patricia Neal plays the woman who loves him, though she's married to newspaper magnate Raymond Massey. It's hard to tell how much of the film's humor is intentional, from the hilarity of Neal first spotting Cooper as he wields a giant drill boring holes in a rock, the the over the top seriousness with which Cooper recites Objectivist dogma's doctrine of pure selfishness. Neal brings a real intensity to her S & M relationship with Cooper, and Massey's as good as ever playing a man who wishes he had ideals. A weird movie, either terribly offensive or a lot of fun, depending on how you look at it.

Cooper's acting has grown on me recently, I don't think I'll be comparing him to a tree anymore, but he certainly does capture the architect's absurdly unyielding self-importance.

10. Battleground - The other archetypal WW2 movie, this one directed by William Wellman. During the Battle Of The Bulge, the 101st Airborne is trapped and besieged in the town of Bastogne. Not much in a way of big action sequences, the film instead focuses on the psychology of a whole squad of soldiers, the collective hero being one of the primary elements of the World War II genre, and one that tends to get replaced by the star/hero in later war films (Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, etc).

9. Adam's Rib - As much as I love Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn individually, I can't say I'm a big fan of the films they made together. This is supposedly the best of them, and there are a few things I like about it (Judy Holliday, Jean Hagen, the wonderful long take of Hepburn interviewing Holliday), the movie tends to treat its battle of the sexes theme more like a cartoon than an actual issue. Maybe my memory is faulty, but isn't this film all about putting the uppity Hepburn in her place, just like in Woman Of the Year and Pat And Mike and even The Philadelphia Story?

8. Kind Hearts And Coronets - Quite silly dark comedy with Dennis Price playing a wanna-be aristocrat who kills off all the relatives ahead of him in line for his dukedom. Alec Guinness, of course, plays all eight of the family members. The whole thing is delightful, and probably my favorite of the series of comedies Guinness made at Ealing Studios in the late 40s/early 50s.

7. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon - The second film in John Ford's loosely grouped Cavalry Trilogy, and the only one in color. And what a glorious Technicolor it is. John Wayne plays the retiring Captain of a remote outpost. The film is quintessential Ford: warmly nostalgic, visually beautiful, with lots of fine comic supporting performances (Ford regulars Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, George O'Brien, and Harry Carey Jr), and more enlightened politically than its reputation. There's even a scene of the main character talking to a grave, a Ford trope that is never less than moving.

6. Gun Crazy - Joseph H. Lewis's twisted film noir about a young gun nut mixed up with a women who gets even more turned on by violence than he does. The two take off on a sex and bank robbery spree in the classic Bonnie & Clyde style. Peggy Cummins is great as one of noir's most fatale femmes and John Dall (from Hitchock's Rope) is great as the clueless man. A beautiful film, with a haunting finale in a fog-filled swamp, that is nonetheless a lot of fun as well.

5. Jour de fête - I wrote this not quite a year ago:
Jacques Tati's first feature as a director, about a French village on the day the fair comes to town. Tati plays the bicycle-riding mailman who sees a short film about, he is told, the American post office (it's actually a series of remarkable motorcycle stunts). Tati tries to match the American speed and efficiency and hilarity ensues. Tati's style is already in place, at least visually (fairly long takes chronicling the slow buildups op the sight gags) and in terms of dialogue (there isn't much), but the film doesn't play with sound as much as his later Hulot films do (especially Playtime).


4. The Set-Up - This I wrote a little over two years ago:
I haven't seen a lot of Robert Wise movies (see the comments on The Sound Of Music in the 1965 list for a list of some of his highlights), but this is easily my favorite. It's the opposite of The Sound Of Music. Where that was bloated, colorful, sunny and epic this is dark, taught, and efficient. An essential film noir, it tells the real-time story of an overthehill boxer whose wife can't watch him fight anymore and whose managers have brokered a deal with a gangster for him to throw the fight but haven't bothered to tell him. Robert Ryan excels as the fighter with an unshakable belief that if he wins just one more fight he'll finally be on his way to greatness. But it's the mise en scène that's the real star here. The film essentially takes place on one corner, where a cheap hotel, the boxing arena, an arcade and a bar lie. The sense of seediness, the dark underbelly of urban life that noir so effectively evokes has never been better exemplified than Wise does here, despite the apparent B-level of the production (it's only about 70 minutes long and looks about as expensive as a Twilight Zone episode). The fight scenes are impressive, shot, like the rest of the film, in real time, and I never noticed them looking fake. Certainly as good as any boxing scenes until Scorsese's Raging Bull (#3, 1980), for which this film was a major influence. I'd recommend it for fans of film noir and fans of sports movies, which must cover two-thirds of the world at least.

Here's how I'd rank the Robert Wise Films I've Seen:

1. The Set-Up
2. Executive Suite
3. The Day The Earth Stood Still
4. West Side Story
5. Born To Kill
6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
7. The Sound Of Music

I've started but not finished Until They Sail, and I have The Body Snatcher, Run Silent, Run Deep and Curse Of The Cat People on DVD, but haven't watched them yet.

3. Stray Dog - Akira Kuroswa's first great film noir, if you want to call it that. I guess it's more of a police procedural, but that's splitting hairs. Toshiro Mifune plays a young cop who loses his gun to a pickpocket. The gun then gets used in a series of crimes as Mifune searches for the guy who stole it. Takashi Shimura plays Mifune's wiser, older partner. The film is an early version of the good/evil identity theme that Kurosawa explored more obliquely (and more effectively) in High And Low (and that John Woo has used as the major philosophical rationale (excuse?) for his ultra-violent action films for the past 20 years) in that Mifune and the criminal are of similar age and background, but one was able to become a cop, the other became a thief and killer. It's an effective exploration of the effects the War and Occupation must have had on the surviving Japanese men, something that I haven't seen a lot of in Japanese film: at this time Mizoguchi was making films about women and/or period films, and Ozu's domestic melodramas rarely referenced the war in any direct way. But maybe (probably) I've just been watching the wrong films.


2. Late Spring - My favorite of Yasujiro Ozu's films, Chishu Ryu plays a single father who wants his daughter (Setsuko Hara) to get married already (she 27 years old!) while she'd rather take care of him. So Ryu comes up with a scheme to trick his daughter into matrimony. That's about it for the plot. The film is quintessential Ozu: the floor-level tatami shots, the funky editing patterns, the beautiful "pillow" shots that bridge scenes, the light and bouncy score, the overwhelming mood of joyous melancholy, everything you expect in an Ozu film is here. The camera even moves(!) however briefly and imperceptibly (it tracks to keep the actors immobile). I think it's been awhile since I've ranked some Ozu, though I keep complaining about how hard it is, I might as well. Here's where I'm at right now, with Early Summer on the way from netflix, Chichi Ariki saved on the tivo and An Autumn Afternoon preordered (Criterion's releasing it in September):

1. Late Spring
2. Tokyo Story
3. Tokyo Twilight
4. A Story Of Floating Weeds
5. Floating Weeds
6. Tokyo Chorus
7. I Was Born But . . .
8. Early Spring
9. Equinox Flower
10. Passing Fancy
11. Late Autumn
12. The End Of Summer
13. Good Morning

Though if you ask me again tomorrow, I'll tell you something different.

1. The Third Man - Just because Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles star in it, doesn't make this Carol Reed film of a Graham Greene screenplay an American film. Despite what the AFI tells you, this is a British movie, and one of that country's best ever. Cotton plays a pulp western writer who travels to post-war Vienna in search of his friend (Harry Lime), who he promptly learns is dead. Not believing it, Cotton investigates the death and the mysterious account of a third man who witnessed it. Along the way he meets Harry's girlfriend (Alida Valli), lectures on literature, learns about just how evil Harry was from Trevor Howard, gets lectured on history and clocks by Welles, and hears a lifetime's worth of zither music. It's a flamboyantly perfect film, in the manner of Casablanca or Citizen Kane or All About Eve, and deservedly one of the most enduringly popular films of the period. There are so many wonderful sequences: Welles's shocking entrance, the ferris wheel speech, the chase through the sewers, but my favorite is that final long shot with Valli walking down the road past a waiting Joseph Cotton, the best movie ending ever.

Some fine films have gone Unseen from this year. I've got the upcoming Criterion version of the Powell & Pressburger film preordered already.

The Small Back Room
12 O'clock High
All The King's Men
The Heiress
I Was A Male War Bride
A Letter To Three Wives
Mighty Joe Young
Criss Cross
The Barkleys Of Broadway
The Stratton Story
The Fighting Kentuckian
Pinky
Border Incident
I Married A Communist
The Window
Thieves' Highway
Samson And Delilah
The Reckless Moment
Intruder In The Dust
The Quiet Duel
Le Silence de la Mer
Blood Of The Beasts
House Of Strangers

And now for the awards:

Best Picture:

The End: The Third Man
Oscar: All The King's Men

Director:

The End: Carol Reed, The Third Man
Oscar: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter To Three Wives

Actor:

The End: Alec Guiness, Kind Hearts And Coronets
Oscar: Broderick Crawford, All The King's Men

Actress:

The End: Setsuko Hara, Late Spring
Oscar: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

Supporting Actor:

The End: Orson Welles, The Third Man
Oscar: Dean Jagger, Twelve O'Clock High

Supporting Actress:

The End: Judy Holliday, Adam's Rib
Oscar: Mercedes McCambridge, All The King's Men

Original Screenplay:

The End: Graham Greene, The Third Man
Oscar: Robert Pirosh, Battleground

Adapted Screenplay:

The End: Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor, Gun Crazy
Oscar: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter To Three Wives

Black And White Cinematography:

The End: Robert Krasker, The Third Man
Oscar: Paul Vogel, Battleground

Color Cinematography:

The End: Winton C. Hoch, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
Oscar: Winton C. Hoch, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

Editing:

The End: Oswald Hafenrichter, The Third Man
Oscar: Harry W. Gerstad, Champion

Art Direction:

The End: The Third Man
Oscar: The Heiress and Little Women

Costume Design:

The End: She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
Oscar: The Heiress and The Adventures Of Don Juan

Sound:

The End: The Third Man
Oscar: Twelve O'Clock High

Original Score:

The End: Anton Karas, The Third Man
Oscar: Aaron Copland, The Heiress


Non-Oscar Awards:

Foreign Language Film:

Late Spring

Soundtrack:

The Third Man

Breakthrough Performance:

Jacques Tati, Jour de fête

Villain:

Orson Welles, The Third Man

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