Top 20 of 1951
16. Miss Oyu
After some past resistance to the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, finding them stately and beautiful but more than a little tiring, Miss Oyu was a huge revelation to me, in part because it feels a bit more like a Yasujiro Ozu film in the story of a family dealing with the consequences of an arranged marriage that doesn’t go right, and in the film’s delightfully breezy runtime. Yet unlike the stiff angles and techniques that characterize those films, the camera here practically does its own choreography for the cinematographer, leaping through balletic, drawn out long takes and gorgeous sun dappled groves as the characters go about their business of falling in love with precisely the wrong person for them in a society that does not allow women the right to choose their husbands. The film’s only real misfire falls into the “interesting failure” category with the casting and performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the titular Miss Oyu. She’s a bit too forceful, but that could definitely be appealing to a character as plain and well meaning as Yuji Hori’s Shinnosuke Seribashi. Still, one is automatically more drawn to Nobuko Otowa’s sweeter, emotionally conflicted people pleaser as the far more well rounded character and she is thankfully treated as such. The most fascinating aspect of her performance is just how good she is at remaining a presence while practically falling off the screen. There’s so much self-sacrifice to be found here that one can’t help but empathize with these kind, confused people. Despite the gorgeous natural landscapes, the soundscape is just as fascinating, with birds and trains making an appropriate racket to fill the silences between our main trio. It’s as emotionally turbulent a story as I can think of, with the devil being in the details. But thankfully, all’s well that ends well in its own strange way. Even when Mizoguchi goes into tragic, complex stories that tackle all of Japan, there’s a certain simplicity to them that reminds one of something by Disney or Pixar, aimed at children, even with the oceans of emotional and thematic complexity that goes on display. Miss Oyu the character and the film both feel transgressive for their time even as Japanese cinema was coming to a boil all around the shooting with the national attention from Rashomon. If only all love triangles were this interesting and painted with so many lovely shades of gray.
Favorite Moment: The bird singing.
15. Steel Helmet
Samuel Fuller’s style of using incredibly limited and usually rather flat performances to tell slightly sloppy but raucously energetic stories, all of which were surprisingly progressive for their time despite the fact that he was by all accounts a fairly straightforward craftsman is one that definitely takes some getting used to. The Steel Helmet was not my first Fuller (that would be White Dog), which I think benefited me into catching onto its rhythms. The story of racism and paranoia in the Korean War definitely carries some of the same notes as the other Fuller film focused on racial tensions that I’ve seen, for there is something perfectly fitting about taking advantage of natural human tensions as a way to exploit the cracks between people in a story. Even more miraculous is how much mileage was gotten out of a ten day shoot with an entirely ungenerous budget of one hundred thousand dollars. The latter, at least, is a boon to the movie. Of course something so grim and nasty would look shitty, and props to the production design team for making it look authentically shit. The characters are also far richer than you’d think given how little they speak-we pick up very quickly that our leading man is a bit of a racist and very much a cynic, who’s stuck with a Korean boy who is both way smarter than he’s going to get credit for from a batch of Americans, and a total annoyance in his over enthusiasm. (The boy being named Short Round reflects both well and extremely poorly on whichever Indiana Jones movie that had that character.) Once we meet up with the lost patrol group, which contains some more minorities…thankfully, race is outright commented on only a few times within this movie’s brief running time. It’s merely just shifty looks and underlying passive issues. Most war films don’t have this kind of casual encapsulation of the soldiering experience, never bothering to embrace the tawdry, stupid, arbitrary nature of being forced to fight for one’s country in the way that a film that’s now far older than most films about soldiers managed to latch onto and use for its own benefits. It’s partly due to the director’s own experiences in Korea, no doubt, but it also demonstrates great empathy and a willingness to listen and mold those experiences into a grim little tale of an expedition.
Favorite Moment: The reveal of the prayer followed by the shots and speech.
14. Summer Interlude
Summer Interlude contains a couple picking wild strawberries, a chess game with someone who could arguably be construed as representing death, a setting in a beautiful and idyllic summer, and of course gorgeous black and white cinematography with plenty of crossfades. So…it’s basically Ingmar Bergman’s best bits mixed together before they actually were expanded into full, heartbreaking pieces of work in their own right. But thankfully, the film has enough original material in between some concepts he’d later expand, and said material may be a little minor in comparison to his grander theses but is redeemed by two of the most underrated performances in his filmography: Maj Britt-Nilsson and Birgir Malmsten, who in a rarity for that most icy of directors, actually appear to be having fun despite the fact that horrible things are happening to them, thrown into their lives by a rather merciless auteur. While the latter mostly just makes his charming love interest into an interesting person who is both flawed and someone you would totally want to date, the former is a real revelation, straddling the line between an older, slightly resentful, and neurotic ballerina while playing her younger self as an embryonic version of that same woman even when her life is idyllic, time’s passage hasn’t slapped her yet (“Our faces look 45, our bodies 18” is as grimly hilarious a quote as I can remember hearing on the aging process), and she’s genuinely happy. In real life, the story was based on an affair the director had with a girl who ended up dying from polio, but here, it’s the boy who dies in an accident that destroys poor Marie’s mental health. No wonder it all felt so personal, so for the movie to contain so many small moments of joy is as clear a working through one’s grieving process as I can think of. Even the more on the nose moments, such as Marie’s crisis of faith that contains some rather heavy handed dialogue or the far more uninteresting and potentially problematic plotline involving present day Marie’s affair with a journalist who she is far too good for, feel like world building rather than lacking the subtlety of the cries and whispers about faith and God’s death. It’s widely considered a transitional work into his flat out masterpieces, but what a great transition it is, as beautiful as the very best of his dissolves.
Favorite Moment: The animated record jacket.
13. Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland really only works as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll. That may come across as a confusing way of both saying nice things and damning with faint praise, so let me explain: any other animated film-hell, any other film period-that used this structure of vignettes and episodes, the bulk of which were only tangentially connected by some songs and the leading lady (this is one of those rarities that could be recut in an entirely different order of scenes and still mostly make sense if you left the opening and everything from the trial onward alone), and felt a bit like the Disney team was throwing shit at a wall to see what stuck, and which one of the very animators to be working on it flat out described as the crew collectively trying, much like the residents of Wonderland, to top their coworkers in who could be the craziest of the lot…well, it would not work at all. And yet, it endures as a kaleidoscopic minor classic of the brand. Part of the appeal lies in the soundtrack, with so many of Disney’s very best tunes all in one place. The UnBirthday song alone is some of the best stuff ever composed, but I’m also partial to Painting the Roses Red, especially when the Queen of Hearts joins in. Which brings us to the character work-Her Majesty is as nasty and fleshy a villain as I can think of, with an impressive set of pipes. The Cheshire Cat has never come across as more dangerous and mercurial even in a cast of quicksilver monstrosities as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the bitchy singing court of flowers, the hookah puffing Caterpillar, and the Mad Hatter/March Hare/Dormouse brigade. As visual eye candy and voice work, it’s hard to top AiW despite the fact that we’re saddled with a protagonist that stands out as particularly bland even in by the standards of the Generic Protagonist trope that Walt loved to play into. Still, the brand of mean spirited chaos plays into exactly what the books were, so it succeeds as a work of art on its own terms and as something that easily satisfies the easily bored. All you need to do is wait a few minutes and something new will come along. It’s all vaguely terrifying, but I welcome Disney’s horror show tendencies when they indulge in them.
Favorite Moment: The UnBirthday Song.
12. The Blue Veil
The Blue Veil’s premise is so grim that I’m not sure whether to find it darkly funny or genuinely sad: after losing her baby, Jane Wyman’s character (who has the unfortunate nickname of LouLou and is a war widow) is assigned a job as a temporary nurse for an infant (and yes, the work assignment lady is fully aware of the infant’s death and thinks it will do her good to take the job). And then she ends up becoming a nurse to countless other children but her employers are all different brands of unintentionally awful to her. Sounds like tawdry, cheap melodrama…right? Well…a little bit. The movie does not exactly shy away from maudlin string music tactics. But mostly, it’s not that at all, tackling maternalism and aging in interesting ways. Most of the successes here can be firmly attributed to Jane Wyman pulling all the strongest undertones out of the script. She shades her grieving mother with enough professionalism in every interaction to make it believable that she would totally ingratiate herself with her first employer and all the other men she meets, but makes it into just an accident rather than anything intentional, with the titular veil practically being one that separates her from the rest of others. When she talks about being frightened by loneliness, she conjures up a whole lot of sadness about the two deaths in her life. She’s happily not the only mother given nuance by the writing. Joan Blondell got the Oscar attention for her performance as a fading actress, and it was richly deserved for her reactions to being usurped alone. However, Vivian Vance gets a whole lot of mileage out of what basically feels like a cameo from an I Love Lucy actress in today’s world, playing her secretary that stole away the first boss and fired Louise as so chipper we don’t know if she’s an ignoramus or spiteful. Much more sad is Louise’s decision to end up marrying her next boss in response to this only for it to backfire, and she ends up getting into harder positions as the years go by thanks to the reluctance to hire an older woman. The happy ending is not the movie’s finest hour, exactly, but the broad strokes of it do feel earned enough to make this character study a well thought out one that earns its cheap heartstabs via the means of thoughtful studies of various women and their relationships with children and age.
Favorite Moment: Louise has to leave Stephanie.
11. The Day The Earth Stood Still
A science fiction B-picture disguised as a message movie (although in 1951 it was more likely meant to be the opposite way around, and resulted in typecasting for everyone except Patricia Neal for the rest of their careers) sounds like the most awful brand of preachy and instantly dated garbage ever created, and there is definitely a few times throughout when The Day the Earth Stood Still comes across as a rickety piece of 1950s claptrap. But for most of the running time, the film is a grim commentary on the difficulties of policing the planet and how even the supposed savior cannot run things for the human race. It may be very Cold War and quaint in its allegories and views of other planets, but the movie’s utter hatred of violence and acknowledgement that human beings will always react with prejudice to things they do not understand was and remains completely relevant yet handled as lightly as a feather. It is very much lacking the knife’s edge of some of the other science fiction works of both the era and age and what was yet to come, with the theremin score in particular setting it in antiquated territory, but there are better movies than this that also happen to be more of their own time. Mostly, it’s the script that impresses, with the incredibly stupid but oh so brilliant reference to Jesus that the censors forced in, and the complete lack of storytelling fat that gives us both Klaatu Barada Nikto and a speedy little film, resulting in a quick knockout punch. Visually, it’s minimalism at its finest, with everything the aliens make designed to utilize minimal resources while also being effective at the job the tools were created for. Robert Wise was never a particularly adventurous director, but no one was better at pulling a whole lot out of something small simply by his sheer focus and great instincts. Where The Day The Earth Stood Still really succeeds is by acknowledging the nature of mankind’s many follies, ranging from the posturing of politicians when a clear and effective solution is right there, to the fact that it takes a whole lot of work for people to accept anything unfamiliar to them. With nuclear paranoia still sadly high, one may wish for a Klaatu to save us all, but the movie’s ultimate message is to do your own work.
Favorite Moment: The blackboard joke.
10. Early Summer
Bad news: Early Summer is the weakest entry in Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko trilogy. Good news: still fantastic and merely has the disadvantage of being stuck with stacked competition in the shape of two films that regularly appear on all time “greatest ever” lists, and with good reason. Hooray for consistent trilogies! While this film feels a little padded when compared to the other entries in the threesome, with some content that feels a little cutesier than the similar comedic scenes in Late Spring and Tokyo Story (think of the purse being stolen versus the fight over a child kicking a loaf of bread-the former is definitely the cleverer joke in how it reveals more about Haruko Sugimura’s typical nosy aunt role), we’re measuring in the smallest of wavelengths here. In some ways this movie’s multi-generational focus comes across as preparation for the latter, with Setsuko Hara playing this incarnation of the character as a bit more assured and intelligent than Late Spring’s slightly confused and stubborn daughter. While the director clearly values people who can get by with less and children who obey their parents, we ultimately feel that Noriko’s decision to choose a husband who she likes rather than go into an arranged marriage against the wishes of the older generations in her family is a virtue despite how unintentionally selfish it is. The ending may in some ways be sad, with Noriko realizing she cannot give her family the financial assistance she so badly wants to give them, but somehow there is a deep set assurance that everything will be just right. Despite the fact that this mildly happy ambiguity comes across as outright brilliant when compared to most of the films that are made which outright say the characters will have a happy ending, we unfortunately are putting this movie up against the best work ever made, and so we somehow feel deep down that things will be all right. The other endings in the trilogy come across as ambiguous in a sad, haunting way that also makes them much more interesting. Still, with a title like Early Summer, it’s appropriate that things will ultimately turn out right, for the best days of the year are yet to come. And that applies to what role this middle entry fills, for the best performances and writing and just everything that Ozu could do is also coming up, only two years away…
Favorite Moment: The group photo.
9. African Queen
The African Queen is not really a great work of cinema in the conventional sense of the word, with nothing in the writing that qualifies as particularly brilliant. The direction is content to coast on the strength of the locations and the scenery (notice the silence of the opening credits, outside of the sounds of the wildlife), but what locations they are! I have not gotten around to reading Katherine Hepburn’s book about how she nearly lost her mind during the filming of this movie (someone adapt it please), but the title alone is tempting. As for the film itself, it makes a few small feints in the direction of interesting ideas, such as the opening that sneakily mocks the nature of colonialism and “civilizing” the Africans (who sadly don’t get much screentime beyond that starting point). The rest of the time is nothing but a delicious piece of fluffy cake designed to put our unlikely pair through the wringer that is Mother Nature, elevated by Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart reaching some lovely heights in this study of a woman who gets off to danger while on a boat. I especially like the way that their nupitals are basically turned into a death sentence…or we can just take it for its surface pleasures like Hepburn’s Rose declaring “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so simulating” with all the cheekiness that could sometimes be lacking from her other performances and fully embracing her spinster orgasms. In contrast, Bogie gets totally neutered, and while I can’t call this his finest hour or the one that warrants the Academy Award (Brando was clearly too threatening), his persona being so thoroughly deconstructed and reassembled is great fun. Hollywood’s most dangerous man and most intelligent lady, both rather odd looking to make a suitable physical match to boot, swap their roles for a change and then fall in love at the drop of a hat, and what else do you need? The fact that they both had such hard edges in all their other roles adds to the mystique. I only wish this did not have a reputation as a masterful film, for it is merely a very good variety of star vehicle. Just eat your popcorn, laugh at the genuine prickliness, and don’t think too hard when enjoying the vistas that probably never looked as good as they did here.
Favorite Moment: “I never dreamed any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”
8. Carmen Comes Home
Maybe I need to pay attention more to movies (not possible), or get my eyes checked, but I made it through the entirety of Carmen Comes Home without realizing that the titular character and her best friend Maya were, in fact, basically strippers. Whoops! I just assumed they were overly dramatic aspiring actresses or some such thing if I remember correctly. Japan’s first ever color film is a great debut for the technology, with everything looking electrically shaded even today, most notably Lily Carmen’s outfits. It is a witty comefy, but you can simply Google Image the movie and be treated to some gorgeous images which add to the appeal. While the rural idyll may be beautiful, we’re quickly treated to a slow paced song that I personally found kind of horrible to listen to. And yet that’s what makes the comedy work. Everything pops once Carmen and the lovesick Maya arrive in their hometown and proceed to act in a way that is simultaneously ridiculous and totally human. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with our lovely leading lady (in a great performance by Hideko Takamine that would make her just as big as Toshiro Mifune if there was any justice in the world) and all her costume changes as she sings songs about Paris? Or Maya as she accidentally flashes her undergarments to everyone at a public meeting and huffs off? Or both of them as they put on a stripping revue show, with the profits going to benefit the village itself before the ladies return to the city in a scene that’s shockingly emotional despite very little work being done to make it seem like they’re actually getting treated properly by the townspeople? Something about seeing just how dull the town is combined with Lily’s father staying home from their performance to get drunk is as effective as can be while also a total downer. Little behind the scenes factoids that I stumbled across, such as Takamine and Toshiko Kobayashi having to apply grease paint that clogged their pores and was bad for their health, only makes the riotous sense of campy fun all the more infectous, for if these two actresses can look like they’re having the time of their lives while dealing with misogynistic assholes in character and clogged pores off screen, surely it can’t be that hard to embrace their kind of zest for life?
Favorite Moment: The performance.
7. On Dangerous Ground
Nicholas Ray was always willing to pump a staid looking scenario full of neuroses and just outright vicious methods of communication between the characters, and On Dangerous Ground takes both that and an interesting bifurcated structure to make a minor classic of his work (and probably his most underrated to boot). The first half, and for my money the better one, is as vicious and unpleasant as any film noir as I can think of that didn’t take advantage of subtext to convey the grosser parts of its meaning. Robert Ryan latches on to everything about his corrupt police detective that is vile and overtly sexual, grimacing as he beats the information out of all his suspects during numerous cold and snowy days (winter isn’t used enough for noirs). It’s fast and gritty and exciting, trapped in a city and an empty apartment that feels cagelike, designed expressly for the purpose of Ryan’s Jim Wilson to sweat out his past demons alone, as grim and typical as anything you’d expect from something in this genre by this director. Then…the second half, and it’s a romance with Ida Lupino playing a blind girl (she plays it as rather surreal but I still enjoy the performance very much since it just fits right into the Ray oeuvre), and in the blanched out wilderness to boot since Wilson’s been assigned to the murder case of Lupino’s character’s brother that took place out there. And despite some initial disappointment, I’ve decided I love Act 2 as well, even when it strains the bounds of credibility with Jim turning into a far more tender individual. There is a shot of the two leads’ intertwined hands that feels like something out of the best kind of silent film, particularly with Bernard Herrmann operating at the peak of his powers for the great score. And as unsubtle as a piece of dialogue exchange such as “In my job, it gets so you don’t trust anyone”/”I have to trust everyone” to underline the differences between the characters is, it works like gangbusters. The studio enforced happy ending doesn’t quite work but it comes far closer than you would think off the strength of the two performances alone. Maybe I just have a soft spot for movies with massive tonal shifts anyway, for some people are a lot less fond of this film than I am, but I can’t imagine why.
Favorite Moment: The beating.
6. The River
I have to wonder just how deliberate the fairly awful performances are in The River. Renoir was clearly entirely capable of directing actors (Grand Illusion was almost 20 when this was made) so the fact that everyone in this film is at best a blank slate for us to either project our emotions onto or fill out the cast a little, and at worst totally unsuited for the acting profession is one of the most intriguing things about it. Far more fun to discuss if not nearly as intriguing: just how beautiful and exquisitely shot The River is. As the encapsulation of the head space of a white girl who grew up in India and did not stop ceasing to find it exotic and gorgeous as all out get even after many years, and of the point of view that much like the river itself, everything simply flows in and out…it pretty much can’t be topped. Despite being eye popping, it’s the emphasis on the muddier, muted colors that makes it stunning. The color brown has never looked better than it does here. The plot is not what you would expect, for despite three girls from completely different backgrounds all vying for the attention of Captain John and his single leg, not a whole lot comes out of it except excuses to portray a beautiful looking story about the god Kali, and explore differences in age and race/class among the ladies. Life progresses so naturally in this movie. There is a single death, and a birth. Both are celebrated in very different ways, but attention is never called to this fact. It’s simply the way things are. Life is like the Ganges or the circle drawn in rice paste on the ground that welcomes us to this story, a place where shit happens but life goes on. Although it does so in a very strange way, one where it supposedly takes a year but it always feels like a bright summer day. It’s very white people problems despite focusing on a half-Indian girl, with India itself never really engaged with (and the characters are fully aware of this), but that distance which accurately portrays the colonialist mentality, only allowing the culture to seep in via a story that becomes a fantasy sequence, is what makes this such an accurate piece of work. It’s an Impressionist painting printed onto celluloid.
Favorite Moment: The Kali story.
5. Ace in the Hole
“Good news is no news, and vice versa” is the ethos that drives Ace in the Hole, a movie so crazy it has to be based on truth, with Kirk Douglas’ vicious alcoholic, womanizing, feral rodent of a man snatching onto his depraved monologues like he’s Norma Desmond and carrying himself in the most bug-eyed intense manner possible, sabotaging the rescue efforts for a man trapped in a cave-in and casually educating his younger partner on his past tricks of the trade to make as much money and fame as you can get in one lifetime. It’s as hammy and theatrical a leading role as they come, yet it works, for the story is pure Billy Wilder, as nasty and cynical as anything under the hot New Mexico sun and he simply matches the intensity, a relentless cracker of the whip. Things get even more sour once the romance factors in and the story of the victim blows up into a literal media circus. For the latter, we are as indicted as the press for lapping both this film and tragic media stories up so quickly. We may lave in this day and age of constant antiheroes, the characters are as close as we can get to being sociopaths in precisely how tremendously assholish they are. For the former, Jan Sterling’s unfamiliarity to a modern audience is a boon, for she’s just as awful and cruel once she’s been exposed to Douglas’ Chuck Tatum-is he bringing out the worst in her or is he dragging her down to his level? Regardless, and this is coming from someone whose favorite film is Sunset Blvd, the references to actual Pulitzer Prize winners who committed some very questionable deeds, and moments when Tatum briefly pokes his head in the direction of humanism before realizing that no, he just wants fame, are as bracing as a smelling salt. The last twist of the knife, when even the lead’s poisonous desires turn on him at the very end so that he cannot have them and they won’t be remembered, is as inspired as any ending I can think of. But isn’t that so perfectly, classically Wilder? All his dark comedies end with people trying to have their cake and eat it too, only to choke on the frosting. But do you think you’re better than his characters? If you do, you’re probably a liar. Enjoy your OJ Simpson story!
Favorite Moment: The scarf attack.
4. Strangers on a Train
Now that Carol has begun the Patricia Highsmith renaissance, let’s look back at a work of hers that was truly slashed to make the screen. One has to wonder if the original plot point of Guy murdering Bruno’s father and going crazy from guilt would have made the film even better, but what we’ve got is so delicious that I am loath to sacrifice it as it currently exists. From the opening sequence with the shoes walking through the station, we get the feeling that this pairing of Hitchcock and Highsmith was a match made in heaven. Our two leads join the intellectual killers from Rope as the most fun pair of politically incorrect evil queers, with Bruno fitting right into their world of deliciously calculated plots and schemes. As the director himself correctly pointed out, the right casting was what saved him several hours. Farley Granger is not particularly exciting, albeit very appropriate for the role, but Robert Walker is delightfully malicious, an unsavory flirt who acts half his age when he lets his guard down (and he does so often, perhaps due to the tragic personal circumstances where he ended up having a breakdown and died from a tranquilizer overdose). The gallery of supporting ladies are all delightful, with Patricia Hitchcock and Marion Lorne the standouts as a precocious wiseass and a creepily in denial mother. But even without the inner life that most everyone brings to the table, the momentum is manipulated delightfully after a really great potboiler of a premise. So many setpieces are instantly iconic. The tennis match with the swiveling head and Miriam getting strangled in the reflection of her glasses while her two boyfriends (genuinely didn’t notice that little detail until I wrote it out) gallivant around are the sort of thing that really burns into the mind (and the movie’s sole nomination being Editing is upsetting, but at least it is a very warranted nod). But it all comes down to the runaway carousel sequence, where the legitimate danger that the stunt man is in is palpable and we get a deliciously kinky shot of the men basically fucking their way across the ground while being trampled by the hooves of the horses. It’s as perfect an encapsulation of the strengths of the work as I can think of, and I wouldn’t dream of sacrificing that for all the Granger-as-murderer plots in the world.
Favorite Moment: Merry go round goes mad.
3. Place in the Sun
Has there ever been a nastier yet completely accurate encapsulation of the American Dream as Place in the Sun? In a year where Marlon Brando’s louder take on Stanley Kowalski justifiably reinvented acting forever, we also had a similar, quieter performance from Montgomery Clift in how immersive it was. Before he ruined himself, he was so very clearly doomed within this film, never meant to fit in even with a cousin who looks almost exactly like him already at the top of the food chain. The two women he loves are tearing him apart, with Shelley Winters’ poor dumb factory worker being such a sad, unlikable lump that the desperation to get away from her obsessiveness is, sadly, understandable. Elizabeth Taylor, now that’s who’s right for him, yes? Well, not really, for this movie is all about the cold hard truth: that what one can actually attain and what someone would want are rarely the same when it comes to matters of classism. Yet the chemistry between Clift’s George Eastman and Taylor’s Angela Vickers is so good that we can’t help but desperately want the two to be together. This film reminds me of Sunrise in many sorts of ways, even with sound and the characters actually being just that as opposed to avatars for all the men, wives, and evil city women to ever exist. (The original novel, from the sound of things, is totally that kind of pure boilerplate.) Nothing is more heartwrenching than watching George go through different layers of social humiliation while Clift tries to keep his head above water…and Winters’ below. The plot is the easy part, you could practically recap it in a single sentence, but the many layers of our main trio never cease to stop expanding. George Stevens’ direction has gotten dinged over the years, and he’s not why I’d recommend this so highly, but there are few shots more haunting than the one of the radio when the announcement of the death comes on. Several of the other contenders come from this very movie, too: the deep focus shot of George seeing Angela for the first time, and of course that final march to the electric chair after it’s been revealed that his soul is damned for committing a genuine murder rather than just letting it happen, fully drowned and unable to recover the last thing he has left after he has lost everything.
Favorite Moment: The boat ride.
2. Streetcar Named Desire
Well, this year was never a fair battle, for the original play version of Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest theater texts, and all Elia Kazan had to do was not fuck it up in order to ensure a fairly solid spot. Yet it transcends that, with absolutely gorgeous gray photography, the color of cobwebs ever-present within that apartment. When light shows up in Streetcar Named Desire, it blinds and tears a hole in the psyche. Camera positioning is also carefully utilized, most horrifyingly as we hover over Blanche in the throes of her final mental breakdown. Mirrors are everywhere, too, and while their symbolism is a shade crude it still works a little too well when Stanley breaks the mirror and the off-screen rape occurs. Some have called the ending happy, but I find it sneakily ambiguous, what with Kim Hunter’s Stella already proving that she’d totally go back to her husband in the iconic STELLA! scene. Hunter herself and Karl Malden as Mitch are thoroughly impressive and earn their Oscars, but the film roots itself firmly in the power of Marlon Brando’s Stanley and Vivien Leigh’s Blanche, giving two of the best performances ever. Leigh makes up the performance as she goes along, or at least gives the illusion of it. She straddles the line so well (and has Scarlett O’Hara in the back of almost everyone’s collective mind) that it’s impossible to tell and becomes one of the classical performances for the ages while Brando practically invents method as it both melds with the other three and clashes like a cymbal. He’s far more lived in than you remember, most likely, a man whose valid points about Blanche’s delusions, bigotry, and stupidity get destroyed by what an animalistic monster he is. Despite the fact that only two of the four performances are big and bold, the four leads are a buffet of top tier acting. I’d probably call this the best acted, as well as the most acted, of all movies. It’s also a loud call to any future play adaptations in what can be done if you adapt it to the screen properly, which stands out in a year of Detective Stories and Deaths of Salesmen. New Orleans is very much a setting despite the fact that this is pure Hollywood, a home of pirates, drunks, whores, and tacky overpriced souvenir stores. So why not take the trip to the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Mississip?
Favorite Moment: Stanley and Blanche share the apartment while Stella’s at the hospital.
The first negative perspective one can take says that Rashomon makes the bandit, who is a murderer and a rapist, look too likable by having him played by Toshiro Mifune and having his quirks be a lot more colorful than the usual stuff we encounter. The second says that the wife’s portrayal is deeply problematic. The third is frustration over the layers of both the samurai and the medium’s unreliability as witnesses in the ultimate fate. The final is the reveal that the woodcutter is lying just a little bit, thus making the first few stories irrelevant. Despite all this, the mystery at the heart of the story is a fascinating portrait of its time, with the obvious lies of the original grouping given life by both some of the best, completely exquisite direction ever done (the sun dappled grove is shot in a way that is unfathomably gorgeous and contrasts with the never ending rain of the present), and a script that vaults between weirdly problematic in ways that nevertheless feel like a fairytale (acting like this story is the most horrible thing ever heard/the gender politics that are saved mostly by Machiko Kyo giving quite possibly the most underrated performance of all time as the only one who changes significantly between the arcs). The whole point is that there is no real answer, yes, but it is just too difficult to take the bandit seriously and the samurai/medium combination, regardless of who is really speaking, is a potent duo that ensures they can be disregarded as witnesses. That leaves the minor lies of the woodcutter, with only a little bit of opportunism involved, and how it reflects on the parties. Is Rashomon’s feminism something that can be twisted and wrung out of it, or am I the fifth party in trying to get some sense out of the tale? How does a viewer reflect this information onto the party that is gathered under the gate, hoping to get out of the rain for a while? The truth may be out there, but it has been sidestepped in favor of a cornily optimistic but awfully satisfying ending. Japanese cinema had many more highs to come, but it could have hardly improved itself as a way of announcing itself to the world. Truth is found in artifice where you least expect it to come into the gorgeous sunlight.
Favorite Moment: The wife laughs and the sword fight begins in the woodcutter flashback.