Movies Of The Year: 1954

It’s been too long, but here we go back to the countdown. Caveats, methodologies and all previous years, with the addition of any films I’ve seen since the original entries, can be found at The Big List, now in two parts!

16. Them! – Giant ants attack a city in a classic 50s sci-fi Cold War parable (the ants are caused by nuclear tests in the desert.) The only time I saw this was on TV as a kid, but I still have an irrational fear of insects.

15. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Live-action Disney sci-fi film about an obsessive captain, his submarine and the giant squid that attacks it. Cheesy special effects and aimed at an audience of kids, but it’s got Kirk Douglas and James Mason, and was directed by Richard Fleischer, who had one interesting career. From cheap but great noir (The Narrow Margin, His Kind Of Woman), to big budget crap (The Jazz Singer, Dr. Dolittle, Tora! Tora! Tora!) to B-movie wallowing (Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green, Red Sonja), he was all over the auteurist map.

14. Dragnet – Essentially just an overlong episode of the TV series, but in Technicolor. Jack Webb’s just the facts procedural is a fine genre exercise, but it’s lacking in visual style. Compared to a procedural like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, which tells a similarly straight story but with an expressive noir pallet, Webb’s brightly colored and evenly light LA comes off as drab and boring.

13. The Caine Mutiny – Filmed theatre of the well-acted variety, with Humphrey Bogart as the martinet commander of a naval vessel whose crew rebels during World War 2. Bogart’s great as the tightly wound, possibly insane Captain, but the crew comes of just as bad (especially that weasel Fred MacMurray). Also stars JosĂ© Ferrar, Van Johnson and Lee Marvin, and directed by Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, Back To Bataan) who was one of the Hollywood Ten who backtracked after being thrown in prison and named names.

12. Track Of The Cat – Very interesting William Wellman film about a family on a remote, snow-covered mountain. A panther of some type has been attacking their animals, so two of the sons (including Robert Mitchum) try to kill it. When the panther kills his brother, Mitchum sets off alone to find it. Meanwhile, the crises sets off a series of domestic squabbles at home, between the parents, the daughter and the third son, and the neighbor girl he wants to marry. Half low-key, yet intense, theatrical melodrama, half outdoor adventure film, Wellman shot the whole thing in pseudo black and white: it’s in color, but only a few key items are not black or white. It’s like Day Of Wrath meets Grizzly Adams. An odd film, and worth a second viewing.

11. A Star Is Born – The version with Judy Garland and James Mason isn’t as good as the one with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, but it’s still pretty good. Mason’s the celebrity actor with a drinking problem that only becomes worse when the young wannabe he discovers and marries becomes more successful than him. Compared to the earlier version, directed by William Wellman, this George Cukor film is rather boated, especially by the addition of some mediocre Judy Garland songs (the songs are mediocre, not Judy, naturally. She’s as great as ever.)

10. Samurai I: Musashi Myamoto – The kind of samurai film Akira Kurosawa spent much of his career deflating, this first part of a biopic trilogy of Japan’s greatest samurai hero is full of colorful scenery and costumes, features a great performance by the always great April Fool Toshiro Mifune and was directed by Hroshi Inagaki in a reverential, if uninspiring style. It’s going to be on TV in a day or two, I’m a-gonna watch it again and see if it’s improved any in the decade or so since I last saw it.

9. The Far Country – One of the several dark Westerns directed by Anthony Mann starring James Stewart. Stewart plays a loner driving cattle across Alaska who becomes embroiled, very much against his will, in a dispute between a gang of criminals and the small town they control through violence and fear. This is similar to the character Stewart plays in the other Mann films: anti the typical Western hero, whose sense of duty and honor obliges him to protect the innocent. Instead, Stewart is a selfish jerk, only concerned with his own interests and avoiding conflict not for some non-violent ideal (as Stewart did in Destry Rides Again) but out of pure apathy for the public good. Being a Western, of course, this anti-hero eventually comes to protect civilization, but it’s a long struggle to get him there. The genre conventions are preserved, but the sense of post-war alienation is the dominant emotion, not the visceral excitement of the triumph of imperialism.

8. The Barefoot Contessa – Beautiful counterpart to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s masterpiece All About Eve. Where that film was all cattiness and ambition in the world of Broadway actors, writers and directors, this film is wistful nostalgia and innocence corrupted by Hollywood, romanticism destroyed by cynicism. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his better performances as a run-down director who discovers Ava Gardner in Spain and watches her rise to stardom and tragic collapse as a result of love gone horribly wrong.

7. Dial M For Murder – Ray Milland plots to kill his wife, Grace Kelly, but has to improvise when she manages to fight off and kill the man he hired to murder her in this elegant little suspense film from Alfred Hitchcock. This is Hitchcock in his light, entertaining mode, despite, you know, the murder and everything. Milland is terrific as the scheming husband, sure of his own brilliance and Kelly’s as beautiful as ever. Made to be seen in 3D, I’ve only ever seen it on TV. I understand it’s much better with the silly glasses.

6. Sabrina – Speaking of charming, this is perhaps the great misanthrope Billy Wilder’s most ingratiating film, about a young girl, the daughter of the chauffeur, who loves the playboy son of her father’s employer. When she returns home from Paris she’s turned from a cute little wallflower into Audrey freakin’ Hepburn. The flighty son falls for her, as does his strictly business older brother, played by Humphrey Bogart at his fussiest. Sweet and romantic, and more than a little silly, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to remake it.

5. La Strada – The great Giulietta Masina stars in this Federico Fellini film about a young woman sold off by her family to be the wife of a traveling strongman, played by a dubbed-into-Italian Anthony Quinn. Quinn’s a brute who mistreats the poor girl at every opportunity. On their travels, they meet Richard Basehart, another circus performer, who treats the poor girl well enough to confuse her by explaining that Quinn, despite his boorishness, actually loves her. Masina is great, but the film feels to me like a warm up for Nights Of Cabiria (#3, 1957), in which she plays a similarly put upon character but with a more knowing, more existentially uplifting and moving impact.

4. On The Waterfront – A great example for the politics vs. art debate is this Elia Kazan film about longshoremen with a corrupt union in New York (or is it New Jersey?). Karl Malden plays the local priest who’s trying to get the workers to organize and inform on their mob boss union leaders so the government can lock them up. Marlon Brando plays an ex-prize fighter (Coulda been a contender) and brother of the boss’ right-hand man (Rod Steiger), who after falling for the ridiculously hot Eva Marie Saint starts to become morally confused and decides to talk to the feds. All of this is fine and moral, but for the fact that Elia Kazan named names to the House Un-American Activities Commision and this film was the defense of his actions. Like most Kazan films, the visual style is decent if unremarkable while the acting is phenomenal. Brando gives perhaps the finest performance by the greatest actor of his generation, and the other leads are at the top of their game as well. It’s a film I’ve seen maybe a dozen times, but I can’t bring myself to love it because of that rat Kazan.

3. Sansho The Baliff – Kenji Mizoguchi is perhaps the greatest filmmaker whose films remain largely unavailable on DVD (a situation which is slowly, finally, being remedied). I saw this years ago on video and thought it was one of the most depressing movies I’d ever seen. A few months later, I watched it in class and though it was one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen. Earlier this year, a traveling retrospective of Mizoguchi films played at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, and I got to see it a third time. While it’s not one of My Top 20 Movies, and right now only my third favorite Mizoguchi (after Ugetsu and The Story Of Late Chrysanthemums), it’s still a phenomenally great and powerful film, and, yes, one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. A family of rich folks (mother and two kids) are on the way to their father’s new post in the country, when they’re kidnapped by slave traders. The mom is sold into a brothel and the two kids are trucked off to a slave labor camp, where they grow up battered and terrorized. A decade or so later they attempt to make their escape and reunite with their mother. Horrible things happen, hopes are dashed and yet humanity struggles on and many other great humanist themes. Like all Mizoguchi films, it’s shot in a beautiful black and white with long-take, long-shot tracking and crane shots that emphasize the reality of the hellish space the film depicts while simultaneously provoking a profound sense of aesthetic satisfaction. Criterion’s releasing it in a few months, I’ve already got my copy pre-ordered.

2. Rear Window – One of the greatest, and most famous, of all Alfred Hitchcock films is this essay on voyeurism in which James Stewart plays a wheelchair-bound photographer who passes his convalescence watching his neighbors through their open windows. Not even the quite nubile Grace Kelly can manage to draw his attention away from the little dramas he invents for the people across the courtyard. Of course, this being Hitchcock, Stewart thinks he sees Raymond Burr kill his wife, and enlists Kelly and his nurse, Thelma Ritter, to help solve the mystery. As perverse as any Hitchcock film and one of the greatest metaphors for cinema ever filmed. It’s also a relentlessly entertaining suspense film. Few directors were as able to be both profound and popular at the same time as Hitchcock. Ford, Scorsese, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Renoir, Welles, Keaton, Chaplin, Hawks. . . .

1. The Seven Samurai – The greatest film ever made. The story is simple enough: poor farmers learn they’re going to be attacked by bandits, so they hire a group of samurai to defend them. Defenses are prepared, the bandits attack and life eventually goes on. Along the way, the whole realm of human emotion and community experience is chronicled, satirized, critiqued, and explored, with Kurosawa at the peak of his artistic powers. The film is huge, and not just in its running time (I find the film’s three and a half hours fly by faster than most 90 minute films). From that simple premise ideologies of book-length complexity grow through masterful, original, sometimes breathtaking, though often surprisingly subtle, technique. Dozens of characters are created and brought to life by some of the greatest actors of mid-century Japan, from stars Toshiro Mifune and Takeshi Shimura to minor character actors like Bokuzen Hidari and Seiji Miyaguchi.

It seems to be popular among the trendy critics of today to either dismiss or ignore Kurosawa in favor of his not-quite-contemporaries Mizoguchi and Ozu (as if there were a quota on how many Japanese directors are allowed into the Pantheon. Some of this criticism is an extension of the racist and xenophobic charges against him on both sides of the Pacific in decades past: that he was too Western and not “Japanese” enough. But largely the criticism now seems to be that he’s too popular, too simplistic and too epic compared to the intricate long takes of Mizoguchi and the simple family dramas and character studies of Ozu. Even the greatest critics occasionally fall victim to this misapprehension: my favorite film critic, Jonathon Rosenbaum, for example, includes only two Kurosawa films in his Top 1000 List (Ikiru and Rhapsody In August). Not surprisingly, Kurosawa’s being treated by the trendy today in the same way his idol (and most comparable director) John Ford was treated by critics before the auterists came along and showed how stupid everyone was being. Ford is now revered by critics good and bad, and I love his work as well. But I’d still take Kurosawa if I had to choose between them. There’s nothing Ford has that Kurosawa doesn’t.

Some good Unseen Films this year, but the first is the one I want to see most. I’m just barely getting into Roberto Rossellini, there’s a whole lot I need to see.

Voyage In Italy
Magnificent Obsession
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Broken Lance
French Cancan
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
White Christmas
Creature From The Black Lagoon
Animal Farm
The High And The Mighty
Wuthering Heights
Chikamatsu Monogatari
Johnny Guitar
Salt Of The Earth
Silver Lode
River Of No Return
Executive Suite
Adventures Of Hajji Baba

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