Top Ten Movies: 1956

07_the_searchers__Blu-ray

When thinking of 1956 and all of the continuous, ceremonious even, praise for The Searchers, I almost hesitate to place it as my number one. Do I really love John Ford’s often cited magnum opus because of a lack of my own peripheral vision muddled with a sort of cinephile status quo? Or do I genuinely think of this film as, and here I go and say it, one of the greatest achievements in the cinema? The answer, of course, is listed below. If there is any indication of the “Great American Novel” transferred to film, my argument is that yes, it has already been achieved, and yes, it was done by the sanctified cinematic duo of John Ford and John Wayne. If you trace back Ford’s filmography, you can see him actually cover every groundbreaking moment in American history. From the War of Independence (Drums Along the Mohawk), to the Civil War (The Horse Soldiers), all the way up to the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath) and beyond. So it’s quite the statement to be made then when he introduced a staple in his mythology, in this case the All-American Hero, and stripped away the romantic varnish of its purity. Ethan Edwards is his protagonist but he’s hurdles away from being a saint. Ethan’s clung to all of the ugliness that has tinged the nation’s past and has displayed it for the Eisenhower generation to digest along with their popcorn and drinks. Here’s a genre historically steeped in controversy over its archaic racist depictions and overlooked misogyny. And here’s the flag-bearing director of said genre’s success forcing audiences to question their previous acceptance of the western’s conventions. That’s quite the pill to swallow but quite the courageous leap for Ford to make creatively. So at #1 The Searchers goes.

1. The Searchers (John Ford)
2. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
3. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
4. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray)
5. Flowing (Mikio Naruse)
6. Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher)
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel) and Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville)
8. Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
9. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin) and Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
10. Calle Mayor (Juan Antonio Bardem)

1956 also happened to be a spectacular year for melodrama. Aside from the aforementioned Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life, and Baby Doll, there was also Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow; movies that really pulled away at the patterned curtains and into the American hypocrisy of its domestic complacency. And what an inspired momentum Sirk had with that! Melodrama overseas included Japan’s Flowing and Street of Shame, two wonderful and would-have-been labeled “woman’s pictures” that hold up beautifully today; the latter also the final outing by the ingenuously talented and deeply empathetic Kenji Mizoguchi. Spain had the Betsy Blair tug-at-your-heartstrings Calle Mayor, a gem desperate for rediscovery, and I almost gave the tenth spot to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second in his brilliant Apu Trilogy installment.

Others hovering near the end also include Kubrick’s first solid masterwork The Killing, Robert Aldrich’s biting and sneering war drama Attack!, Vadim and Bardot really digging each other in And God Created Woman, and Fritz Lang’s seething noir, as if he knew how to do anything else, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Then there’s the colors in John Huston’s Moby Dick, and that and just about everything else in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. Oh! And Hitchcock had two perfect Hitchcock pictures in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, warming up for the work he had in store ahead.

Top Ten Movies: 1948

1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman

Certain years are unquestionable in their top ranking of an undisputed masterpiece standing at the helm of its reputation. 1948 is not such a year. In fact, any of the top three titles could have easily taken the reins on a given day. Let’s talk about Red River for instance. Howard Hawks was a consummate craftsman that had very little patience for films with lofty ambitions. In fact, he was once quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, that “a ‘great’ movie is three good scenes and no bad ones.” And yet, Red River, despite all of its traditional characteristics indebted to the western, had already begun to redefine the genre. John Wayne, your meat (probably a T-Bone steak) and potatoes kind of guy, was already beginning to deviate from his black & white image of the knight and shining armor. His Thomas Dunson even predated The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards by questioning the morality of the film’s lead and probing the audience to reflect on their previous acceptance of the genre’s conventions. John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre took it even one step further by demanding that we not only contemplate the gradated ethics of the protagonist, but also acknowledge our own flaws as a human race. Pretty heavy stuff for the forties. And yet, the year has to go to an unconventional love story which by today’s standard would probably result in a restraining order. But cynicism aside, I always recall Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman as if experiencing it through a haze, a mist of some sort on a cold and rainy night. In fact, it’s because of the movie’s gung-ho sincerity in its love story – along with my “Brontë-like” setting watching it – that somehow Ophüls’ picture manages to rise above the rest of the studio system romantic schmaltz that was continuously churning out at the time. And boy was there a lot of it. As for the rest of the year, check it and see.

1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
2. Red River (Howard Hawks)
3. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (John Huston)
4. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
5. The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed)
6. The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
7. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica)
8. They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray) and Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann)
9. La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti)
10. Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa)

It almost kills me to place The Red Shoes at number four. But there it is. Powell and Pressburger’s vibrant, luridly colored musical, is amongst many things an ode to the arts, achieving a masterly status in the world of cinema all the while its protagonist is eluded by such an aspiration towards his personal work in field of ballet. Then there’s a couple of film noirs riding the wave of disenchanted soldiers returning from war and their formerly independent wives burying their angst in gun-totting and smoke-filled pulp thrillers. Italian Neorealism was continuing to do its thing with one of its better known classics (Bicycle Thieves) and an underrated but nevertheless heartbreaking family saga (La Terra Trema) that should be as equally mentioned about today. Cap it off with Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, and man, 1948, while not a benchmark year, was certainly holding its own.

Next time – at the rate that I’m going, who knows! – will be the year 1967. “We rob banks.”

Top Ten Movies: 1952

Singin' in the Rain

When you think of the movies chances are you probably conjure up images in your mind that include Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding farewell one foggy night at the end of Casablanca. Or Cary Grant running for his life while a crop duster tries to gun him down in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest. But there’s no denying that among these iconic scenes also stands Gene Kelly’s eponymous dance number in Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, it is rumored that during this exhilarating and now quintessential musical sequence, Kelly himself was battling a fever of 103 °F. But you’d never guess it! The minute the film begins it never lets go of its wondrous and buoyant momentum. Here was a prime example of what the Hollywood studio system could produce, a high-budgeted technicolor spectacle with stars, songs, and a happy ending. More often than not, it succeeded in telling a good story along with it all. But with Singin’ in the Rain the system got something more. It got a film that dealt with the trials of the motion picture industry transitioning to sound while in the real world Hollywood was desperately trying to survive a new and imposing competitor: Television. So musical numbers from forgotten movies were reintroduced, historical events were loosely incorporated, and the whole industry watched as a film steeped in its own celluloid past provided sheer fun and good laughs in a landmark that all other musicals continue to aspire to achieve today. Not surprisingly, over sixty years later, Singin’ in the Rain still provides those good laughs, as funny and joyous as they were in 1952. 

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
2. Othello (Orson Welles)
3. Europa ’51 (Roberto Rossellini)
4. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
5. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
6. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)
7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
8. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray)
9. Casque d’or (Jacques Becker) and The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)
10. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)

As fragmented as Orson Welles’ Othello is, it’s this same crude element – due to a complicated production history – that enhances the movie’s brooding temperament, not to mention its brilliant use of wide angle lenses to create a cavernous space of veils, bars, and shadows. Then there’s the spiritual odysseys embarked by the leading actresses in Europa ’51 and The Life of Oharu, which allow their films to transcend into a sanctified realm not often found in the cinema, a true rarity that makes a case for the movies as a medium that can attain a higher level of aesthetic beyond their entertainment value. The same can also be said about Akira Kurosawa’s heartbreaking portrayal of what extraordinary results can come out of one dying man’s compassion for others. John Ford returned to his native land to shoot one of his most strikingly lush non-westerns, while Nicholas Ray rodeoed his way down to ranch country in The Lusty Men to dabble in Ford’s mastered genre.

Those that just missed the ranks include Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which, along with Europa ’51, demonstrated that Italian Neoralist films, although waning by early 1950’s, still had some brilliant titles left in their influential movement. Gérard Phillipe channeled his inner Errol Flynn in Fanfan la Tulipe, and Gary Cooper duked it out on his own for a showdown of the ages in High Noon. René Clément had the devastating Forbidden Games, while Fritz Lang delivered two great genre pictures, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. Add a couple of other classic westerns – Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky – some taut B-noirs – Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential – and 1952 is beginning to look like quite the strong year for American cinema.

Next week: 1987. Offering a swan song of a movie as beautiful to watch as it to listen… to the dialogue that is. Melodic, like an old Irish standard.