Saturday, January 20, 2007

Movies Of The Year: 1955

In 1955, McDonalds, Disneyland and 70 mm feature films were born, Albert Einstein, James Dean, Emmett Till, Cy Young and Honus Wagner died, and Rosa Parks was arrested. I've seen a surprising number of films from 1955, and I don't really know why that should be. It isn't until 1981 that we find another year in which I've seen as many as the 21 from this year, though there are 20 from 1967.

21. Bride Of The Monster
20. Lady And The Tramp
19. Guys And Dolls
18. Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier
17. It's Always Fair Weather
16. Record Of A Living Being

15. The Blackboard Jungle - Glenn Ford stars as the prototypical do-gooder teacher with Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as the leaders of his group of prototypically delinquent students in this prototype of the inner-city teacher movie. The film is distinguished historically by its score: it made Bill Haley and The Comets' "Rock Around The Clock a big hit, which is generally considered the start of the rock n' roll era. The three main actors all give very fine performances, the the movie was directed by Richard Brooks, the man responsible for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Looking For Mr. Goodbar and one of cinema's all-time greatest crimes against literature, the version of The Brothers Karamazov starring William Shatner.

14. To Catch A Thief - Rather disappointing Hitchcock lark starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and some fabulous mid-century European ostentation. Grant plays a retired cat burglar recruited by the police to capture a copycat thief, who just happens to be targeting Kelly's rich mother. The tone is light and comic, with nary the suspense or twisted perversion of the best Hitchcock's. I haven't seen his remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I imagine it's similar to this in it's lighter comic tone (Doris Day??) and Technicolor European locales.

13. The Seven-Year Itch - Tom Ewell stars in this Billy Wilder film as a man left alone in his New York apartment for the summer while his wife and kid are away. He's content, if not bored, by his life, but just happens to have Marilyn Monroe living one floor up. He contrives various ways to see her, and maybe seduce her, while pondering the morality of his actions. Monroe's great: ditzy and hot as ever, but Ewell's truly terrible. Everything in the film is much too big: overacted, overwritten and overdirected.

12. Mr. Roberts - Adaptation of a Joshua Logan play (yes, The Joshua Logan who directed Paint Your Wagon, Sayonara and South Pacific) that had been a big hit on Broadway. John Ford began as the director, but Mervyn LeRoy finished after Ford left for some reason (the rumor is a fight with star Henry Fonda). Set on a cargo ship during World War 2, it's an entertaining film with a great cast (Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, William Powell,

11. Samurai II: Duel At Ichioji Temple - Part two of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, in which Toshiro Mifune plays legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. Like the first, the film is bright and colorful and very traditional in it's depiction of samurai life and philosophy, with none of the reexamination or critique to be found in the period films of Akira Kurosawa or the great 60s samurai films of Masaki Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion, Kwaidan) and Kihachi Okamoto (Sword Of Doom, Kill!). As such, aside from the pretty images, the typical great Mifune performance and some very good action scenes, the film seems a little empty.

10. East Of Eden - Elia Kazan's adaptation of a reportedly very good John Steinbeck novel (I haven't read it) stars James Dean as the younger, unappreciated son of a Salinas Valley, California family. His father (Raymond Massey) is quite strict and moral and likes his older son (Richard Davalos) a lot better than Dean. It doesn't help that dean's also in love with his brother's girl (Julie Harris). It's one of Dean's three great performances, even if the family melodrama is rather typical and even boring at times.

9. Moonfleet - A Fritz Lang boys adventure film about a kid who gets caught up with smugglers, pirates, and buried treasure on the Dorset coast in the 1700s. John Whitely (in a child actor performance that rivals Jake Lloyd's in The Phantom Menace) plays the kid who gets sent to live with his mom's ex-boyfriend, famous buccaneer Jeremy Fox (played by Stewart Granger). Fox doesn't want the kid around mucking up his various schemes (like going off pirating with George Sanders (All About Eve, Rebecca) and his slutty wife) but can't seem to get rid of him. Especially not after the kid learns the location of a buried diamond. The film's a lot of fun, and Lang shoots it in a brilliantly colored, non-realistic style. I've seen a lot of Lang films lately, but I don't really know what to think of him as an auteur. He's generally considered one of the greatest, but I don't think he'd make my pantheon. He's really hard to ignore though. More research is needed.

8. Smiles Of A Summer Night - Ingmar Bergman's attempt at a Rules Of The Game style picture isn't entirely successful, though it does have some very fine moments, especially towards the end. Not funny enough to be truly called a comedy (as it is often labeled) it's a part of the upper class partner switching light comedy genre. My capsule review of it can be found here.

7. The Ladykillers - One of the better in the famous series of Ealing Studios comedies starring Alec Guiness. A gang of crooks rents out the basement of an old lady's London apartment as a base of operations for their latest crime. When they find out she knows too much, they decide to kill her, which turns out to be much more difficult than it should have been. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Sweet Smell Of Success) and also starring Peter Sellers. The Coen Brothers remade this a few years ago with Tom Hanks. I have absolutely no interest in seeing it.

6. Rebel Without A Cause - The most famous of James Dean's three starring roles is in this the defining teen angst movie. Directed by the great Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night, Flying Leathernecks, Johnny Guitar, King Of Kings), the plot concerns Dean's sensitive teenager, some incompetent parents and other adults, his little friend (Sal Mineo) that everyone else picks on and the object of his desire (natalie Wood), who happens to be the girlfriend of the local gang leader. A beautiful film, full of iconographic images and sequences (the planetarium, the fatal drag race, the final tragedy), but it's difficult to separate it from its influence as the definitive statement of a genre.

5. Killer's Kiss - I wrote about this, Stanley Kubrick's first film about a month ago, which you can read here. Despite it's generic B-noir story and actors and budget, I found the sheer energy and flamboyance with which it was directed to be a whole lot of fun, unlike so many of Kubrick's later, perfectionist almost to the point of airlessness films.

4. Ordet - My capsule review of Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic theological meditation can be found here. A family in rural Denmark, a father and three sons, each of which has their own complex relationship with Christianity. The father follows a different strain than the other village people, and they've been feuding over it for years, to the point that when his youngest son wants to marry the neighbor girl, her father won't allow it. The second son, an atheist, is married to a wonderful girl who apparently does all the work around the house, despite being rather pregnant. The third son is crazy and thinks he's Jesus, wandering in and out of scenes spouting aphorisms in a creepy voice. It's one of those movies that makes you want to roll your eyes when people talk about ("it's a religious experience!"), they take it so seriously that it almost demands an ironic response. The seriousness and solemnity with which Dreyer directs makes the film difficult in a cynical age.

3. Night Of The Hunter - The great actor Charles Laughton's only film as a director was a flop at the time but is now universally regarded as one of the greatest dark films ever made. It's a fairy tale of a film noir, about a couple of kids on the run from a psychotic conman who poses as a preacher to marry their mother and steal her deceased husband's secret stash of money, unfortunately, only the two kids know where the money is hidden. Robert Mitchum gives one of his greatest performances as the iconic killer (this is the film where he's got "love" and "hate" tatooed on his fists, which has popped up in everything from Scorsese's Cape Fear, to The Simpsons to Do the Right Thing). The children escape and find refuge with Lillian Gish, who then has to protect them when Mitchum turns up. The film has some of the greatest black and white images ever filmed, dramatic lighting and sharp shadows, everything you think of as the noir style, only instead of an urban crime drama, it's used to powerful effect to create a nightmare of a fairy tale.

2. Mr. Arkadin - One of Orson Welles's lost classics that was magnificently restored in a Criterion box last year. I saw this film at the Brattle Theatre almost a decade ago, but I don't recall which version it was I saw. The Criterion has three versions, apparently there are about a half dozen in existence, depending on how you count. The story is not unusual for Welles's career: underfunded and underequipped, he someone managed to complete filming of a complex noir tale combining elements of many of his previous films, most notably Citizen Kane, The Third Man and the Lady From Shanghai. Then the film was taken away from him and recut for various releases in various parts of the world, under various titles. At this point it's impossible to reconstruct exactly how he would have assembled the footage, but Criterion did an admirable job with their attempt (which includes a commentary by two of my favorite critics (James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum). Anyway, the film itself is fascinating. A mysterious arms dealer and black marketeer (Welles, in a beautifully fake beard and mustache) hires lowlife Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden, the weak link) to help him track down his past, which he seems to have forgotten. Van Stratten falls for Arkadin's daughter (Paola Mori, Welles girlfriend at the time, if I remember correctly), and travels all over the world meeting shady characters played by Welles's friends giving the weirdest performances they can (Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer, and so on.) Think Marlene Dietrich in Touch Of Evil dialed up to 11. It may be Welles's most chaotic film, which can only be partially explained by the film's complicate production history. the most famous sequence is Welles telling one of his favorite stories, that of the Scorpion and the Frog,

1. Kiss Me Deadly - Among my favorite of all film noirs, and perhaps the darkest of them is this Robert Aldrich film of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novel. Spillane's generally considered a violent, fascistic brute more interested in misogyny and violence for its own sake the higher-aspiring hard-boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or even Ed McBain. And Aldrich's Hammer is a lout of a private eye, specializing in divorce cases in which he pimps out his secretary to entrap stupid husbands. Out for a drive one night he picks up a hitchhiking girl (the only reason he stops is she runs his car off the road) on the run from some very bad guys. The villains catch up with them, drug and beat up Hammer and kill the girl. He takes on the case only for revenge. Turns out the bad guys are looking for a box, one of the most famous McGuffins in film history (Hammer even calls it the "Great Whatsit") that has something to do with the H-Bomb. Playing up the griminess of noir, Aldrich takes the genre to its extreme of cynical, nihilistic sadism, turning the whole thing upside down. Even the opening credits run backwards.

Lots of good Unseen movies this year, including films by Resnais, Sirk, Ray, Hitchcock, Dassin and Fuller.

Night And Fog
Pather Panchali
All That Heaven Allows
Empress Yang Kwei-fei
Lola Montez
Bob Le Flambeur
The Trouble With Harry
House Of Bamboo
Floating Clouds
The Man With The Golden Arm
The Big Combo
Richard III
The Big Knife
New Tales Of The Taira Clan
Artists And Models
Bad Day At Black Rock
The Tall Men
The Court Marshall Of Billy Mitchell
The Long Gray Line
Land Of The Pharaohs
The Cobweb


  1. Swap #3 with #1 and you're there. Great year, though.

  2. I can easily see that. It's a very close year at the top.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (corectly written):

    Rififi and Diabolique can easily be put on Top 5.

    Great blog!

  5. I haven't seen [Hitchcock's] remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I imagine it's similar to this in it's lighter comic tone (Doris Day??) and Technicolor European locales.

    I remember it as pretty tense, actually - but I haven't seen the original version. The European locales are limited to London, and seem closer to Frenzy's than they do those of To Catch a Thief. Day plays it straight, for the most part.

  6. I have since seen it, and you are correct. I liked it a lot more than To Catch A Thief, actually.