1951: Part 1

The African Queen. Directed by John Huston. “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” shouts Katharine Hepburn excitedly as the prim-but-quickly-evolving Rose Sayer. The African Queen, the odyssey of a man and woman trying to survive navigating African rivers during World War I, is the film that finally won Humphrey Bogart the Best Actor Oscar. (Although he’d only been a big star for ten years – Alan Arkin and Jeff Bridges had to wait much longer for their awards.) It is clear that in whatever role he played that he was a fine actor, but Bogart’s portrayal of the crusty sea captain Charlie Allnut had a spark that had not appeared in any of his other characterizations. Charlie is funny in a way that Bogart had never before been on film; he stands alone, separate from Bogart’s tough guy roles as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. In The African Queen, he combines the rawness of his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre character, Fred C. Dobbs, with a comic timing that I honestly can’t remember seeing Bogart depict anywhere else. Together with the always-great Hepburn, along with the expert direction of John Huston, an excellent screenplay by James Agee and Huston and also beautiful cinematography by Jack Cardiff, it all makes for a wonderful film.

An American in Paris. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. My mother and I disagree on the subject of Gene Kelly: while she finds his athletic type of dancing “too muscular” I find it a refreshing change from the graceful Fred Astaire. They are the two sides of the dancing coin, each with his own unique style. Unlike Astaire, Gene Kelly, particularly in this film, dances in such a way that you see the work that he put into every step. Kelly relished displaying his body (especially in the Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired portion of the “American in Paris Ballet”), and that kind of virility makes his character’s romance with Lise (Leslie Caron) all the more plausible. The pointless subplot involving Nina Foch notwithstanding, An American in Paris is filled with vivid colors, great music and the crackling wit of Oscar Levant in a supporting role as Adam Cook. As his character describes himself: “It’s not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.” Lastly, I must mention Leslie Caron, whom I met back in December at a special event at the Film Forum. At almost 80 years old she is as lovely as ever and graciously autographed my copy of her memoir.

The Man in the White Suit. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. While The Lavender Hill Mob is probably the more famous 1951 Alec Guinness film, I prefer The Man in the White Suit. I love the madcap trials and tribulations of Guinness’s character, the chemist Sidney Stratton. He is socially awkward until particular moments when he is pushed to the point of madness, giving him bursts of energy and self-confidence. There is a scene in which Sidney kisses Daphne, played by the captivating Joan Greenwood, and afterwards Sidney’s eyes are open wide and his mouth is grinning in a manic way, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly what Sidney is planning on doing next. Needless to say, that one facial expression is hilarious and Guinness is able to say a lot without uttering a word. Also, in my usual movie-fan way, I enjoy Alec Guinness looking young and handsome here, unlike his bespectacled look in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Royal Wedding. Directed by Stanley Donen. I have always loved this Fred Astaire musical, in spite of how poor the film’s quality is on both VHS and TV. So many of its musical numbers are gems. “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life” (whew!) gives Jane Powell a chance to infuse her song-and-dance routine with some real sass; “Too Late Now” is a sweet yet sad ode to love; “You’re All the World to Me,” my absolute favorite, showcases Astaire’s famous ceiling dance on the walls and ceiling of his character’s apartment; and the fun “I Left My Hat in Haiti” has some terrific costumes and dancing.

Strangers on a Train. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This masterful, noir-ish thriller features what is likely Robert Walker’s greatest film performance. His character, the charming sociopath Bruno, is a precursor to Psycho’s Norman Bates. I’m glad I saw Since You Went Away and The Clock before Strangers on a Train; otherwise, I would probably never be able to watch any Robert Walker film without constantly thinking of Bruno. Besides Walker, I must give praise to Farley Granger as the nerve-wracked hero, Kasey Rogers as the horrid wife and Patricia Hitchcock as the helpful sister-in-law. Also worthy of accolades is cinematographer Robert Burks, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on this film and shot every subsequent Hitchcock film (except Psycho) until 1964’s Marnie. (After that, he shot three more films, including the great A Patch of Blue, before dying in a house fire in 1968.) Burks created some of the most indelible images ever caught on film, including his work in Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds. Strangers on a Train is no exception. There is a shot involving a character’s eyeglasses that utilizes the concept of reflection in a simultaneously brilliant and horrifying way. There are also some haunting images of Robert Walker, two favorites being the shot of him standing alone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (or is it a different structure?) and the shot of him sitting in the crowd and staring at Farley Granger during a tennis match.

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2 thoughts on “1951: Part 1

  1. What would you say you enjoyed the best of these? Your review of Strangers on a Train really makes me want to watch it.

    The others are good too, but it just seems like you enjoyed that one the most. That review just really speaks to me!

    • All five films are great, but Strangers on a Train is probably the best. On the other hand, The African Queen is a longtime favorite, full of drama, comedy, action and romance – so I’d suggest starting with those two movies. I’m so glad you commented!

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