My Best Films of the Year List . . .

for 1954.

It is the awards season, the Oscars are here!  (Who, won, what?!) And does it really matter?

Best lists, worst lists, most whatever lists, ya-da, ya-da, ya-da.  Every year film critics proclaim their 10 best films of the year list – or some such. There are many and varied award ceremonies.  The internet is awash with numerous sites proclaiming their the best, the greatest, or the worst of the year, some genre, style, component, sub-component, actor, director, or something-or-other.  I am not against making lists.  They can be fun and inspire discussion – favorite westerns, musicals, horror, film noir, Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa, Fellini, etc.

Any list I might make will vary, depending on my mood, how much coffee I’ve had to drink, what I ate for breakfast, the barometric pressure, or any number of minutiae.  But so many folk get wrapped up in their own “right” opinions – just witness the recent conversations over The Last Jedi.  It’s just a movie.  But it’s a Star Wars movie, so a great many people have their many different, important opinions on it.

But, as is often the case, I digress.

Aside from the fact that I really haven’t seen enough new films to make a best of 2017 list, it doesn’t much interest me.  Time. Perspective. It takes time, and it takes perspective to appreciate how good to great a film may be.  What wins awards today, maybe mostly forgotten in five-ten years.

So I decided to make a highly subjective list from a much earlier year – in this case 1954.  Why that year?  It is the year I was born, for one reason.  For another – I had to pick a year, and 1954 is as good a place to start as any other.  Plus, there are a lot of good to great films released in 1954.

Some ground rules I set for myself:  I have to have watched the film within the last five years, (Unless, I have a particularly indelible memory of the movie, and the opportunity to view it has not presented itself.) and I have to have watched it more than once.  I believe that watching a film only once is not enough to really know and appreciate it.  Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, is such an overwhelming experience, that I can’t imagine only watching it once to fully experience it’s power and beauty.  Then there are the films that one watches over and over, just because – City LightsCasablanca, Some Like It Hot, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The General, Duck Soup, Singin’ In the Rain, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy . . . and on, and on.  That being said, there are plenty of films that I can do without ever seeing again – Leonard Part 6, anyone?

There are several films that possibly might make the cut, but won’t, simply because I haven’t seen them, or haven’t seen them often, or recently enough.  Luchino Visconti’s, Senso; Roberto Rossellini’s, Journey to Italy; Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe; and Herbert Biberman’s, Salt of the Earth won’t make the cut because I (to my shame) have never seen them.  David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice; Mizoguchi’s, Sansho the Bailiff; Douglas Sirk’s, Magnificent Obsession, and Preminger’s Carmen Jones, won’t because I have either not seen them recently enough, and, or not watched them enough times to include them.

So, what are my picks for 1954?

Well first off, I have favorites that my not be the top ten; but are favorites nonetheless.  Gordon Douglas’ giant ant movie Them! is one of the great science-fiction monster movies, as is Ishuro Honda’s Godzilla (Gojira.)  Numerous viewings of these two on the square tube, imprinted these films on my mind.  Seeing both of them in the correct format, or version, re-creates the films anew.

Godzilla-1954
Godzilla doesn’t like being awakened from his/her 2 million year nap.

This is especially the case with Godzilla.  I only was able to see the heavily re-edited Americanized version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) with new scenes featuring  Raymond Burr (as American reporter Steve Martin! Watching it now, I keep thinking of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and almost expect gags to pop up.  There are jokes alright-just not intended jokes.) clumsily edited in. Much of the film’s structure, cohesion, and  deep melancholy were left on the cutting room floor.  Discussion and the real fear of atomic weapons, and their testing are all but gone.   One brief mention of H-bomb testing awakening the big guy from his slumbers is all that is left.  See the original Japanese cut.

The Gill Man, the last of the classic Universal Monsters, made his debut in Jack Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s worth pursing a view in 3D.

On the Western front, William Wellman’s stylized, moody black & white in color (pretty much everything is black, white, gray, or subdued – except for Mitchum’s bright red coat) Track of the Cat with Robert Mitchum, Beulah Bondi, and Teresa Wright, an A.I. Bezzerides script, along with William Clothier’s cinematography make this well worth a look.  Just don’t expect a standard western actioner.  It’s more like a Eugene O’Neill family drama on the plains. There’s also Allan Dwan’s anti-McCarthy, Silver Lode; Preminger’s River of No Return; Andre DeToth’s Riding Shotgun and Bounty Hunter; Robert Aldrich’s Apache; and Edward Dmytryk’s King Lear on the plains, Broken Lance, with Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, and Robert Wagner.

A particular favorite western is Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, another film I’ve seen countless times on old TVs.  Gary Cooper is strong and sagacious, Richard Widmark is cynical and philosophical, and Susan Hayward snarky, sassy and, Susan Hayward – which is quite good by me. It may not come up to the level of a great, but the CinemaScope images of cinematographer Milton Krasker, the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, a good story of men greedy for gold, and the a fore mentioned actors make a great watch.  Just see it in widescreen.

gardenofevil
Gary Cooper views the sunset at the conclusion of Garden of Evil.

Director Don Siegel had a pair of notable films that year, the classic prison drama Riot in Cell Block 11 and the underrated bad cop noir Private Hell 36.  Andre DeToth contributed the taut noir Crime Wave.  Richard Quine’s Pushover, and Roy Rowland’s Rogue Cop, are  very good contributions to the bad cop sub-genre of film noir. And Frank Sinatra played a psychotic killer-wanna be presidential assassin in Lewis Allen’s rather reactionary Suddenly.

Cigar chomping, ex-crime reporter, and Big Red One veteran, iconaclast director Sam Fuller’s CinemaScope, Cold War submarine adventure Hell and High Water is another personal favorite, and great fun – if you don’t take the politicking too seriously.  Fuller completely re-wrote the script.  Disillusioned vet, Richard Widmark, leads a collection other like vets and mercenaries in working with idealistic scientists to stop the Commies from getting and using an H-Bomb. It’s an anti-war, pro-war, thoroughly cynical story-and interestingly enough, the climax takes place on the Korean peninsula.  It’s pretty comic bookish (think the Blackhawk Squadron, or Terry and the Pirates), but it’s Fuller through and through.  Sam didn’t like it much, but . . .

hellandhighwater
Richard Widmark and crew (including Cameron Mitchell and Gene Evans) sweat out a cat and mouse game with an adversarial submarine.

William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty, with John Wayne leading a large cast in a sort of Grand Hotel in the sky, and a precursor to Airport, and the like “disaster” pics was a big hit.  It is also very entertaining with some great, and not so great, overacting.  Wayne is perfect as the worldly co-pilot, allowing his fellow actors to play to the cheap seats.  Claire Trevor, however, is aces.  Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is excellent.

Robert Wise’s, Ernest Lehman scripted boardroom business drama, Executive Suite is an exercise in a very 1950’s business ethic, played by a high powered cast (William Holden,  Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck) as seen through the lens of MGM gloss.  It’s quite good, if conflicted in its message.  Profit is good, but at what price? I am not certain, how certain they are — but it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen this, so I’ll let it go.

The downbeat Korean War drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri, directed by Mark Robson (with William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, and Mickey Rooney) actually questions what exactly is the purpose, and reason for fighting there.  Being a Hollywood film of the mid-1950’s it doesn’t go too far, but the ending leaves open the question.

George Seaton’s, adaption of Clifford Odets’ play The Country Girl was probably overrated at the time, now it’s kind of forgotten, which it doesn’t deserve. Grace Kelly rather infamously won the Best Actress Oscar, as the seemingly shrewish, but ultimately sympathetic wife of drunk actor Bing Crosby, beating out sentimental favorite Judy Garland.  Casting against type, almost works every time.  Bing also cast against type, was nominated for best actor – but he was up against Brando in On the Waterfront, so there you go.  William Holden, as the “normal” guy in between the two, actually give the best performance.  Still, it is a well done drama, and well worth a look.

Okay, so what about my, highly subjective, top picks for 1954? First off, I have a list of 15 not 10. Second, I could not come up with a real order, so I am grouping them as 11 – 15; 6 – 10; 2 – 5, and a #1.

  • Third Tier
  • Vera Cruz
  • veracruz
  • Robert Aldrich’s cynical, and violent (for 1954) proto-buddy film, and supposed blueprint for later Spaghetti Westerns, was rather ahead of its time.  A grinning, in all black, Burt Lancaster, and a stoic, in all earth tones, Gary Cooper,  are opportunistic partners, in a post American Civil War, south of the border down Mexico way, looking to steal (what else?) a fortune in gold.  Juaristas, Maximilian and his Legions, other mercenary American expatriates, a couple of sexy senoritas, and a lot of double crossing, throw in early Bronson and Borgnine – and it’s a nasty good time.  Ugly Americans inserting themselves where they are not wanted -yes, rather ahead of its time.

 

  • The Caine Mutiny
  •  Caine
  • This big adaptation of Herman Wouk’s novel of conflict aboard a World War II U.S. naval vessel and it’s consequences is still a powerhouse drama, relying on character and story, and not just action.  Humphrey Bogart’s brilliant, nuanced portrayal of the troubled Captain Queeg, and Jose Ferrer as the defense council for the mutineers are the standout performances.  Van Johnson as the stand up guy set to take the fall, and Fred McMurray as his opportunistic Iago both turn in top performances.  Ah, it was the strawberries . . .

 

  • It Should Happen to You – it-should-happen-to-you-edit
  • George Cukor’s delightful romantic comedy, from a Garson Kanin, script is showcase for the one and only Judy Holliday as Gladys Glover, a “nobody” who wants to be a somebody, so she blows her savings to have her name plastered on a billboard in Times Square. She suddenly becomes a somebody.  Jack Lemmon makes his screen debut as her frustrated boyfriend.  Second billed Peter Lawford, for once, is actually pretty good as a rather slimy ad executive trying to take advantage of Gladys.  The on location New York filming adds a nice realistic flavor, giving an added layer of the time period.  I love Judy Holliday in anything, and she and Jack make a great on screen couple.  Quite sweet, and wonderful.

 

  • Seven Brides For Seven Brothers – SevenBrides-edit

The Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly production of Brigadoon was to be the big MGM musical of 1954, but I will take this Stanley Donen, Michael Kidd high energy musical over the former any day.  In 1850’s Oregon, backwoodsman Howard Keel goes to town to get himself a bride. There, at a tavern, he meets Jane Powell,  who mightily impresses him with her cooking, and cleaning. After a minimum courtship, they get married and head off to Adam’s homestead – the only thing is, he has six unruly, unkempt brothers at home, and has not informed her of this fact.  Sexual politics being what they are, the plotting of Seven Brides is not very PC by today’s standard (I can only imagine the changes that would be made now,) but it’s played for farce, and is pretty innocently played.  Based on a Stephen Vincent Benét short story, this film is on my list for all time favorite musicals.  The music by Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer are fine and very tuneful; but it is the choreography of Michael Kidd that is what make this the classic that Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is.  Donen, a former dancer himself, films the dance sequences in full shot, extended takes that shows the coordination and timing of the dancers to full effect.  The barn raising sequence is celebrated for good reason.  A musical has to have dance for me to fall in love with it – and this has some of the greatest.

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – 20000-leagues-under-the-sea-1954-edit

Walt Disney himself produced this big adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, the first science fiction film shot in CinemaScope.  James Mason IS Captain Nemo, no one can touch him in my book (but, I do also like Herbert Lom’s Nemo in Mysterious Island (1960.)  French scientist Paul Lukas, his aide, and confidant Peter Lorre, and harpoonist Kirk Douglas are shipwrecked, then saved by Nemo’s Nautilus submarine.  Nemo is both a genius scientist, and a committed anti-war terrorist.  He creates, and develops astounding scientific advances, while at the same time ruthlessly sinking any ship that he comes across that has war making abilities, or carries war materials. We are supposed to side Lukas’ peaceful-rational scientist, but Mason’s presence is so strong we are naturally attracted to him.  Mason’s Nemo is both protagonist and antagonist, he glowers, fumes with an intensity that dominates the film.  Richard Fleischer directs this huge production with sure hand at framing and pacing scenes, large and small.    For a Disney film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is incredibly dark, and serious.  It is also the best Verne screen adaptation.  And adventure for kids of all ages – like me.

  • Second Tier
  • Dial M for Murder Dial M for Murder edit

Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play (Knott also wrote the screenplay,) is the Master’s experiment with 3-D.  It of course takes place almost wholly indoors, in small rooms. And as it was released near end of the 3-D craze, it received practically no release in that format.  No matter.  It is a terrific movie in which ever format you watch it in.  Money strapped ex-tennis star Ray Milland blackmails ex-army officer Anthony Dawson into murdering his wife, Grace Kelly, for her inheritance.  Things do not go as planned.  Milland is excellent in the cad role, and John Williams equals him as a dryly adroit Scotland Yard Inspector.  Robert Cummings is the other man in Grace’s life, and a bit of a bore.  But Grace is lovely, and delivers nice a performance in her first of three Hitchcock films.  I should like to see this in 3-D someday.  I have the 3-D blu ray, but unfortunately , not a 3-D television.

  • The Far Country
  •  far-country-edit

Anthony Mann’s westerns are almost a sub-genre within the Western genre; kind of like John Ford westerns are complete subset.  I don’t think I am going too much out on a limb here to call all of Mann’s westerns, beginning with Winchester ’73 in 1950 through the great and climatic Man of the West in 1958, as classic. (The 1960 Cimarron, although of interest, is not really Mann’s film, as he quit/was fired halfway through filming.)  The Far Country comes in about the middle of the pack (Mann directed ten westerns in the ’50s, this is #six, and the fourth of five westerns he made with James Stewart.) It’s the Pacific Northwest, the Yukon gold rush, and Stewart is a bitter, cynical, lookout for Number 1 kind of guy.  James Stewart was never an “aw-shucks” kind of a hero in Mann westerns.  Here, he’s kind of a jerk, but hey! It’s Jimmy Stewart.  You gotta like him. Walter Brennan is his lone companion, and the only other person he looks out for.  There is wily, corrupt Judge/Sheriff John McIntire, sexy saloon owner Ruth Roman, assorted good miners, blackguard miners, murders, thieves, some nasty violence, and fabulous scenery. In a Mann western, the landscape is a character, and the other characters in the landscape are often in conflict with it.  Stewart in the end is, of course, a standup guy.

  • The Barefoot Contessa – barefootcontessa-edit

After directing his barbed pen at the Broadway theater with All About Eve in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz took aim at Hollywood, and the film industry.  Like Eve, The Barefoot Contessa is told in flashback through various character’s reminiscences of the title character.  But instead of a “triumphant” awards ceremony, the framing story is at a gloomy, rain soaked funeral.  Instead of barbed irony, there is sad tragedy.  Beautiful Spanish dancer (who likes to go barefoot) Ava Gardner is discovered in a Madrid nightclub by a film producer, and a writer-director.  The producer, an arrogant, egotistical, thin-skinned, tycoon (sound familiar?) wants her for his next film.  Humphrey Bogart, as the writer-director (an obvious stand in for Mankiewicz)  persuades her to come to Hollywood.  With his guidance, and the work of sweaty, blowhard press agent, Edmond O’Brien (who won an Oscar,) she becomes a sensation. There is no fairy tale ending – unless, maybe a Grimm’s fairy tale. Mankiewicz’s, one of the greatest of film dialogue writers, script is by turns witty, nasty, sarcastic, sad, and eventually mournful. And, if anyone is a beautiful as Ava Gardner is here . . .

 

  • Johnny Guitar – 
  • johnny-guitar-edit 

This is one gonzo, operatic western.  Sterling Hayden is the title character, Johnny Guitar, but this western melodrama is all about the psycho-sexual battle between two female rivals, and a not so subtle jab at HUAC and McCarthyism.  Joan Crawford is Vienna (in a wide array of costumes,) the owner of a saloon-gambling house on the outskirts of town, camped out awaiting the arrival of the railroad. Mercedes McCambridge is Emma Stone, a cattle baron, who riles up a posse of cowboys, towns people, and layabouts in a vendetta  against Vienna. Emma struts and glares at Vienna with a mixture of hate and lust.  The well known rivalry between Crawford and McCambridge fairly seethes on the screen. Director Nicholas Ray, and blacklisted ghost co-screenwriter Ben Maddow orchestrate this strange, but absolutely fascinating movie, reversing and twisting tropes of not just the western.  Johnny Guitar was a failure when released, but since then it has gone way beyond cult status to be considered one of the great films of the 50’s.

  • A Star is Born
  •  A Star Is Born-edit

This musical remake of the 1937 William Wellman film is every inch a star comeback vehicle for Judy Garland.  It was designed as such; but it is so much more than that.  The story remains the same: alcoholic, star actor Norman Maine takes an interest in wannabe Esther Blodgett – only this time an established singer with a band, not a farm girl fresh off the bus from the Kansas. She becomes “Vicki Lester”, and gradually, and eventually a big star, while Norman heads for the bottom of the bottle, humiliation and degradation. George Cukor, working for the first time in CinemaScope, uses the widescreen very well, not leaving a lot of dead space, but framing things with a natural depth that fills the frame.  And, he gets great performances from his actors. Judy Garland had not made a film in four years, and never one not at MGM. (Cukor had a significant hand in molding The Wizard of Oz, and directed a portion of the film – as did King Vidor, so Victor Fleming should not be given sole credit.)  This was story Judy Garland had been wanting to do for years, and with the aid of, then husband, producer Sid Luft, it finally became a film at Warner Brothers. This is, without a doubt, Garland’s greatest heartfelt performance. But the film would not be the great one that it is without James Mason’s performance as Norman, balancing out the film’s story.  He gives so much of himself in a fully realized characterization, that is equally half of the film story, that without him, the survival/triumph of Vicki would matter so much less. The sincere, and intricate script by Moss Hart, enlarges and details the story – so much so, that the first cut of the film was 196 minutes. For the NY premiere, Cukor cut it down to 181 minutes.  It was hailed as a triumph by pretty much all of the critics, and by Warner Brothers themselves. But the money men at Warners worried about audience turnover, and cut over 25 minutes from the film, gutting much of the depth of the story, and ruining the film’s intricate balance (mostly at the expense of James Mason’s Norman.)  George Cukor was devastated. The film still was a success financially, and garnered nominations and awards–but still.  A Star is Born was also Judy Garland’s last major film triumph.  She did not appear on screen again until 1961’s Judgement at Nuremberg – not a musical. Warner Brother’s inexplicably did not keep the 181 minute version intact, and much of the cut film was tossed.  In the early 1980’s an effort to reconstruct the film was made, and surviving  footage re-inserted, and where the soundtrack only survived, stills used to fill in visuals.  The result is a 176 minute version, that’s far from perfect, but gives back much of the lost balance and depth, so we can see what Hart and Cukor had intended.  I, of course, did not get to see the original cut; but I have seen the general release version vs. the  restoration, and can tell you where the victor lies.

  • First Tier
  • La strada – 
  • La-Strada_1954_edit

La Strada (The Road) was the first Fellini film I ever had a chance to watch.  I remember watching it on television at a rather young age.  I did not understand a bit of it.  Still, I remembered it – Giulietta Masina’s face, Anthony Quinn’s brutish strongman, were images that somehow stayed with me.  I did not see it again until years later in a little shoe box art house-revival movie theater.  I was transfixed. Has there ever been anything like Giulietta Masina’s face?  Gelsomina is sold by her mother into the employ of Zampanò, a brutal strongman, and itinerant street performer who has one trick -breaking chains by expanding his chest muscles.  He needs an assistant. She shows a talent for clowning, and is quickly taught to play the drum, and trumpet. Becoming  a part of the act, Gelsomina draws in audience for Zampanò’s act.  Getting tips is how they survive.  Zampanò then signs on with a traveling circus, where they meet Il Matto (“The Fool”) – Richard Basehart, a clownish tightrope walker.  Gelsomina is enchanted with The Fool, who in turn angers Zampanò with his constant jests.  The circus, clowns, ill fated love, and a Nino Rota score – pure Fellini.  La Strada was Fellini’s first international success – some think it his best film, I will go with 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita, but it indeed one of the great work of cinema.  The final scene with Quinn, all alone on a deserted beach is heartbreaking.

  • Sabrina
  •  Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina (1954) starring Humphrey Bogart and William Holden

The Larrabee family chauffeur’s, mousy, skinny little kid, daughter goes away to culinary/finishing school in Paris, and comes back as Audrey Hepburn.  (Well, she was Audrey before she left for Paris, but you know what I mean. I hope.)  Sabrina is just the chauffeur’s (John William) daughter, but she has a major crush on David Larrabee (William Holden.)  But he doesn’t reciprocate. Her false hopes lead to a bungled suicide attempt, that result in her being sent off to Paris.  When she returns . . .  It’s oft-married, playboy David who flips out over Sabrina.  This upstairs-downstairs affair will not do.  David is already set in an arranged marriage-merger to be with Martha Hyer.  Family, and business arrangements must come first – father Larrabee (Walter Hampden) insists.  So, older, all business-no play, brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) comes up with a plan to woo, and buy off Sabrina.  No, things do not go as planned.  This is Billy Wilder doing Lubitsch. (If you don’t know the films of Ernst Lubitsch, you should.)  Sabrina is pure fairy-tale stuff – Cinderella, anyone? – but it is so good.  I wrote earlier about Joseph L. Mankiewicz being one of the great writer-directors of Hollywood, for me Wilder is one up on Joe.  I love many, and at least like almost all of his films.  This is pure souffle but so satisfying, Billy Wilder originally wanted Cary Grant as the older brother, but Grant turned him down. (As he would again for Love in the Afternoon.)  Bogart seems an odd choice, and it takes a bit of getting used to, but it actually works (for me anyway, just as Gary Cooper works for me in Love in the Afternoon – another very Lubitschian romantic-comedy.)  Comfort food for the soul – my soul anyway.

  • On the Waterfront – onthewaterfront-edit

I guess that On the Waterfront is now often seen as director Elia Kazan, and writer Budd Schulberg’s justifying their friendly witness testimony in front of HUAC, and inpart it may be, but is also based on real life on the docks, and is one of the great American films.  Based partially on Malcom Johnson’s “Crime on the Waterfront”, a series of newspaper articles exposing corruption, and crime on the waterfront docks, and Budd Schulberg’s own reporting and experiences with the people of the area docks, On the Waterfront created a standard for movie writing and acting that still is evident today.  Easy for me to write.  Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy, the punch-drunk, not so bright, conflicted protagonist, is one of the most influential in history of cinema.  But, in addition to Schulberg’s realistic sounding, yet often poetically stylized dialogue, the gritty on location cinematography of Boris Kaufman, Kazan’s framing of the action, and eliciting such honest performances from his actors, plus Leonard Bernstein’s dynamic, pulsing score — it’s just a great movie.  The politics of the movie will continue to be debated (I really knew nothing of the film’s background when I first saw On the Waterfront, but I was blown away by the film. So.) and I don’t have any answers as to motives – I just watch the film, and take it for what I see and hear, while viewing it.

  • Rear Window
  •  RearWindowletterbox-edit

L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies, adventurous, globe trotting professional photographer, is holed up in his Greenwich Village apartment, wheelchair bound after breaking his leg in a race car accident.  It’s summer, in the middle of a heatwave, no central air. – no air conditioning at all.  Jeffries-James Stewart, (as in his Anthony Mann films, James Stewart in Hitchcock, is far deeper than an awshucks-gee whiz kind of a guy- eg. Vertigo) trapped in his apartment, passes the time spying on his neighbors with a telephoto lens through his rear window opening up on a courtyard (a single massive set Hitchcock had specifically constructed,) with many other open windows.  He only has two regular visitors: his insurance provided nurse, Stella-Thelma Ritter, and his socialite-fashion model fiancee, Lisa-Grace Kelly.  Lisa wants to get married.  Jefferies is not too sure – he might go into dangerous situations to take photographs, but he’s afraid to commit to getting married (to Grace Kelly!)  Stella thinks he should get married, settle down, and stop being a peeping tom.  We get to know Jeff’s neighbors as he does.    Gradually, he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors may have killed his wife.  Hitchcock makes us very complicit in Jeff’s voyeurism.  Simple setup, complicated morality–we’re all guilty in Hitch’s world.  We are all voyeurs at the movies.  There is a lot to unpack here, so I will just leave there for now.  Very top level Hitchcock.  Certainly among my favorites.

  • Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) – 
  • seven-samurai-edit

When it comes to writing about Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, I almost don’t know where to begin.  Like a number of the films on this list, it has been written about a lot – and I mean a lot, a whole bunch.  It is simply one of the greatest films ever made, and easily on my short list of my favorite movies of all time.  Sixteenth century Japan, a small remote village is ravaged annually by an organized gang of bandits.  After the bandits strip them of most of their crops, the people barely survive on what they have left .  On the advice of the village elder, the villagers decide to hire some samurai to protect the village. They can afford very little.  What kind of samurai would be willing to fight, and risk their lives for not much more than a handful of rice a day?  After a search, samurai are hired.  A varied lot, in their own individual ways, they are as poor, and disillusioned as the poor farmers who hired them..  Seven Samurai is not simply a samurai action film.  At 207 minutes the movie takes its time in establishing its many, and varied characters; it deals with class, and societal differences, and clashes.  What is duty?  What is honor? The relationships between the samurai and the farmers they are to protect is not an easy one.  Lack of trust, fear, resentment, are often an undercurrent that sometimes seeps out quite openly.  Takashi Shimura, as Kambei, the leader, and organizer of the samurai, is the heart and soul of the film.  His wise, stoic performance grounds the whole.  Then there is Toshiro Mifune, as Kikuchiyo, the seventh samuari, he swaggers, growls, brags, and boasts, over compensating for his lack of skill, and finesse.  Actually a farmer, he is more of a wannabe, than the professional he purports himself to be.  It is an amazing performance.  I don’t know if this is the first “guys on a mission” movie; but it certainly began what has become a long lived sub-genre – beginning with the American remake: The Magnificent 7.  Don’t worry about the film’s length, the movie is so good, the almost 3.5 hours go by quickly.

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Okay.  So much for my best picture pics for 1954.  What conclusions can I draw?  There are three westerns, two musicals, two comedies, two thrillers, two adventure films, and four dramas.  There are only two foreign films on the list.  George Cukor, and Alfred Hitchcock directed two films apiece out of the fifteen.  Humphrey Bogart appears in three different films, James Mason, James Stewart, Grace Kelly in two a piece.  The rankings are fairly arbitrary – except of the top five. (La Strada should have come at #4 & Sabrina at #5, but I didn’t think it worth the trouble to switch them around.) I need to watch more foreign/non-American films, I guess, is the main conclusion.  But altogether it is a great list of films.

La Strada, On the Waterfront, and Rear Window are great films no matter what year.  Seven Samurai is simply one of the greatest films ever mad.

One note of interest: of the fifteen films on my list of best for 1954, I have only seen seven of them on a big screen: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Star is Born, La Strada, On the Waterfront, Rear Window, and Seven Samurai.  With the advent of DVD and blu-ray discs, and now the ability to stream a wide array of content, it has become much easier to have access to a large library of films.  It used to be that one was dependent on the small art house, and revival theaters to get a chance to view any old, rare, or foreign film.  Around here, those places no longer much exist, and there were not a lot to be found back in the day.  (Just when was that, then?)  Watching a film, with an audience, in a darkened theater, projected properly, is not replicated sitting in a room by oneself, watching, let’s say A Star is Born, while wearing your sweats, and sipping cheap wine – but it will do.

I guess that I had better stop – there’s so much more that I could write on all of these movies.  But I have reached a rather large amount of words (for me anyway.) If you haven’t seen these films, I urge you to check them out.

 

 

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