1954: Part 1

On the Waterfront. Directed by Elia Kazan. I can’t think of anything wrong with Kazan’s instant classic; it has drama, action, romance and that extra special touch, the Oscar-winning lead performance by Marlon Brando. Brando is magnetic; you can never take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen. Narratively, the film works as an allegory for the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Communist witch hunts in the late 1940s and 50s. Brando’s character dares to speak out against the corrupt union boss played by Lee J. Cobb, leading to violence and other serious repercussions. Karl Malden plays a tough but sympathetic local priest, Rod Steiger plays Brando’s brother (who works for Cobb) and Eva Marie Saint plays Brando’s love interest, good girl Edie Doyle, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that role. The nearly flawless screenplay by Budd Schulberg and the cinematography by Boris Kaufman (brother of Soviet Man with a Movie Camera filmmaker Dziga Vertov) help make On the Waterfront one of the seminal American movies of the twentieth century.

Rear Window. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Widely considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Rear Window is indeed put together extremely well. From start to finish you are immersed in James Stewart’s world, though the film is really only a slice of life since it takes place over the course of just one week (at least, I think that’s the case). By now the main concept of has probably become a trope – although arguably reminiscent of the earlier film Sorry, Wrong Number – but what makes Rear Window particularly effective is in how it limits the film’s visible action to Stewart’s apartment and surrounding areas in the complex and courtyard. The tension that arises from the constricted setting makes the mystery and suspense all the more exciting. What’s more, you get to see Grace Kelly display oodles of gorgeous Edith Head costumes like this and this, besides showing real tenacity in the scene where she breaks into Thorwald’s apartment. I also have to mention Raymond Burr as the aforementioned Thorwald, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse/confidante Stella, Judith Evelyn as despondent neighbor “Miss Lonelyhearts” and Georgine Darcy as the aptly named “Miss Torso.”

Sabrina. Directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder was a master of his craft, so much so that he’s my favorite director. He could make films in any style, from meet-cute comedy to courtroom drama to film noir. Sabrina is one of Wilder’s loveliest romances, blending comedy and drama to make its heroine’s tale an engaging one. Audrey Hepburn is nothing less than enchanting in the title role, wearing her hair in a short, chic cut (although I’m also a fan of the ponytail from the film’s early scenes) and clothed exclusively in high-fashion costumes by Givenchy. Hepburn is one-third of a wonderful trio also consisting of Humphrey Bogart and William Holden as brothers who are both enamored of Hepburn, though one more than the other. Bogart and Holden do some career-best work, especially Bogart, who passed away only a couple of years afterward. John Williams has a nice supporting role as Hepburn’s father, along with Walter Hampden as Bogart and Holden’s father and Marcel Dalio as a kindly French baron. Sabrina is probably not held in quite the same universal regard as Some Like It Hot or Sunset Blvd., but it ought to be.

Sansho the Bailiff. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is the fourth Mizoguchi film that I’ve seen, following the captivating contemporary drama Osaka Elegy (1936), the rather boring Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) and the mesmerizing ghost story Ugetsu (1953). Sansho, a drama set during the Heian period (no date is specified, but it must be between the years 794 and 1185), chronicles the struggles of a family to reunite after the father, an outspoken governor, is sent into exile and, years later, the mother and children are separated and sold into slavery. Many more years pass but the children, once they have grown into a young man and a young woman, look forward to the day they can escape their master, Sansho the bailiff, and find their parents. The ensuing drama is both heartbreaking and hopeful, combining the cultural aspects of the jidai-geki (historical film) genre with a sad yet introspective story of family and survival. If you are interested in Japanese cinema or world cinema in general, this is one classic to definitely check out. The performances by Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyôko Kagawa and the haunting cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa aid the creation of an unforgettable atmosphere. Sadly, Mizoguchi passed away from leukemia only two years later, in 1956 at age 58.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Directed by Jacques Becker. A late noir, this crime story stars one of the most well-known men in French cinema, Jean Gabin. Gabin’s unique, lived-in look makes his characterization of gangster Max feel real. The cast is filled with notable actors: René Dary as Gabin’s closest pal, Dora Doll and a young Jeanne Moreau as two of the gangster group’s girlfriends, Paul Frankeur as a nightclub owner, Daniel Cauchy as a young gangster trying to follow in Gabin’s footsteps and Lino Ventura in his film debut as a rival gangster. Unlike the other big heist-related drama of the mid-50s, Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956), Grisbi is relatively easy to follow and it draws you in from the get-go. There is a refined elegance to Gabin’s Max which entices the viewer, even in the scenes when he’s wearing pajamas (made of silk, of course). It’s exceptionally entertaining and it’s truly a pity that Jacques Becker passed away in 1960, so soon after directing such an excellent film.

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