Fanny (1961)

fanny

Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Horst Buchholz, Charles Boyer, Georgette Anys

Director: Joshua Logan

Summary: Two lifelong friends are in love with each other, but the boy’s ambitions for a freer life threaten their romance

Other Nominations: Actor (Boyer), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Color Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-With one notable exception, the performances are great across the board although I’m surprised that Boyer, as good as he is, was the sole nominee and for Best Actor despite being the least important of the 3 main male characters to the plot. Caron and Chevalier both got Golden Globe nominations for Actress and Actor in a Drama, and I’m surprised they were snubbed here. This is easily Caron’s best performance of the three movies I’ve seen her in, and Chevalier gives his most emotionally sensitive performance, something he’s not really known for.

-The entire movie is shot on location in Marseille and you really get the full feel of this being set in France, much more than you did with Gigi. This is aided by the excellent cinematography by Jack Cardiff (who directed Sons and Lovers last year), not only as to location shots, but as to some really creative and effective camerawork indoors as well.

Negatives

-Horst Buchholz sucks and really weighs the whole movie down. His character is also totally unlikeable and unsympathetic, and reminds me of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, although he does make better decisions towards the end than that character did.

-The romance with Buchholz and Caron which is a significant aspect to the movie is pretty blah: they lack chemistry, we’re just told they have known each other their entire lives, nothing we actually see really establishes their strong feelings for one another. Overall, the romance aspect feels like an overdone melodrama in all the worst ways.

Overall

I liked this movie more than I expected to-I hadn’t heard of it before this project and it only has 1300 reviews on IMDB so I’m not alone. The performances and most of the characters are very good, although two of the major elements simply didn’t work at all for me. Still would recommend to certain people though.

Rating: B-

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

navarone

Starring: Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, James Darren, Irene Papas, Gia Scala

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Summary: A team of allied saboteurs fight their way behind enemy lines to destroy a pair of Nazi guns

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

Positives

-This is the second straight year where the best thing about a nominee was its score by Dimitri Tiomkin, who has become one of my all-time favorites. It’s exciting, adventurous and fun, and really sets the tone for the movie.

-This is an entertaining enough blockbuster, with a heck of a premise: a group of elite soldiers are trying to make their way across a Nazi-occupied Greek island to blow up the giant battery guns so some destroyer ships can get to a neighboring island to rescue 2000 stranded British soldiers. For my money, it never fully delivers on how good it could have been (more on this later), but is still enjoyable with plenty of good shootouts and explosions

-It was well-noted at the time that almost all the actors were too old for their roles, but I still think Peck gives a really solid performance and whatever parts of the subtext there are that do get across, it’s because of his conviction and delivery.

Negatives

-At 158 minutes, it’s overly long for what is ostensibly an action movie and it feels like every scene is 1.5x longer than it needs to be to get its point and information across. Your movie should not feel leisurely paced when the characters have literal a do-or-die deadline they are facing.

-Gregory Peck was apparently unhappy with how people got that this was supposed to be an aggressively anti-war movie and…yeah, I didn’t get that sense most of the time either. Sure, there is some of that there, mainly with Scala’s character, and the fear the Greek people living on the occupied island were; however, it mostly just felt like a 60’s action movie, it didn’t feel any more anti-war than most any other WWII film, and in the end felt more anti-Nazi than anti-war. In this way, the movie failed.

Overall

Can any movie with a Nazi island fortress be bad? This is a pretty entertaining movie for the most part, but you definitely start to feel its run time at points and it fails at its intended anti-war theme.

Rating: B-

The Hustler (1961)

hustler

Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Jackie Gleason, Jake LaMotta

Director: Robert Rossen

Summary: A pool shark is obsessed with beating the legendary Minnesota Fats; but at what cost?

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Newman), Actress (Laurie), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Supporting Actor (Scott), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*

Positives

-For the most part, this is a movie that feels very real and natural in all aspects. The dialogue is excellent and feels like something actual people would say to each other, the performances are stripped-down and genuine with my favorites being Laurie and Scott (not sure how Gleason got a nom other than because he was a famous TV actor, he’s barely says anything), and the cinematography is good, especially the blocking the actors in the scenes.  The starkness of black and white pairs well with this approach.

-With one exception, the movie does a terrific job of exploring a relatively unusual theme-what does it really mean to be a winner or a loser and at what point does the “winner” become a loser? In some ways, it’s a reversal of a movie like Whiplash, where the only way to be “great” is to give up everything else and totally devote yourself to something, and I think a healthier message than that movie. In the end, we get a great role-reversal for Newmans and Scott’s characters.

-Although it doesn’t show up all that frequently, I liked the jazz score quite a bit, especially during the pool scenes.

Negatives

-Although it’s completely necessary within the context of the rest of the story, the first 30 minutes didn’t really engage me and it wasn’t until Newman and Piper meet that the movie got going for me.

-I didn’t like how blatantly it just summarized the themes of the movie at the end when they were fairly obvious and talked about frequently during the rest of the movie.

Other Stuff

-Despite being nominated for an Oscar, Piper Laurie didn’t do another movie for 15 years-Carrie, which she was also nominated for.

Overall

This is one of the best attempts at realism from a Hollywood movie so far (along with Anatomy of a Murder) with all of those elements working really well and it’s underlined by an interesting theme that is well-explored.

Rating: A-

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

nuremberg

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, William Shatner

Director: Stanley Kramer

Summary: An aging American judge presides over the war crimes trial of former judges who presided over Nazi Germany.

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Schell)*, Actor (Tracy), Supporting Actor (Clift), Supporting Actress (Garland), Adapted Screenplay*, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, B&W Costume Design, Film Editing

Positives

-More intelligent than I was expecting, lots of different valid viewpoints and aspects to the issues are shown, and it brings up most of the right points. Schell plays the defense attorney to the judges and is probably the most important character, as he provides a number of solid counterpoints to the passionate remarks of Widmark’s prosecutor and has completely understandable motivations. Schell himself is excellent, although he’s clearly the secondary actor in the movie and gets a relatively small percentage of the screen time for a Best Actor winner.

-The other real standout besides Schell is Montgomery Clift, whose nervous, twitchy performance is the most memorable in the movie as you 100% buy that he is a broken man. This was perfect casting, as Clift himself was a wreck by this time: after his 1956 car accident that required major facial reconstruction and the left side of his face was nearly immobile. The pain from the accident led to a painkillers and alcohol addiction, and he never recovered, dying in 1966 at age 45.

-Good makeup for Lancaster: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/Judgment_at_Nuremberg-Burt_Lancaster_2.jpg. To compare, here’s what he like like in Elmer Gantry (1960): http://www.screeninsults.com/images/elmer-gantry-speech.jpg

Negatives

-It’s more intelligent than I would have expected, it still could have been better. While it presents some good arguments as to why the judges shouldn’t be convicted, it ignores some important ones. While it briefly addresses the (then still very much a thing) eugenics movement in the United States that sterilized the mentally disabled, it completely failed to touch on the United States’ own problematic history of race, such as slavery, lynchings, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war, anti-miscegenation laws and Jim Crows laws, all of which would have been very relevant for the purposes of the defense. Not that I don’t agree with the ultimate decision Tracy makes in this film or his reasoning, I just think having such a massive blind spot hurts the legitimacy of the movie.

-Despite it getting nominated, I hated the cinematography which was full of dramatic quick zoom ins & outs, and when people were talking for extended periods of time in court, it circling around them. On the whole, it felt gimmicky and distracting.

Overall

A very good, fairly intelligent and probably as balanced as possible for a Hollywood movie of the time (considering the subject matter) with some great performances

Rating: B+

*West Side Story (1961)*

westside

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, Simon Oakland

Directors: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

Summary: A young couple from dueling street gangs fall in love

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Chakiris)*, Supporting Actress (Moreno)*, Adapted Screenplay, Musical Score*, Sound Recording*, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*, Film Editing*

Positives

-This was a musical that changed the game, even if we wouldn’t see other movie musicals like it the 70s. The Choreography is revolutionary for a hollywood musical, a sort of ballet on the streets and is excellent. The songs are mostly great, although some of Beymer & Wood’s love ballads didn’t do anything for me.

-The Art direction is exceptional, it’s very stylish with lots of bold color choices, yet still feels like New York City.

-Rita Moreno is incredibly charismatic and gives the most memorable performance in the movie, with Natalie Wood as second best for me. Wood probably would have been nominated, but she was nominated for a different movie the same year (Splendor in the Grass).

-The story is more interesting than a traditional Romeo and Juliet production. I like the setting more, and some of the characters have more personality (Anita is more interesting than the Nurse/Lady Capulet, Maria is a little less starry-eyed than Juliet).

Negatives

-Beymer isn’t that great as Tony and it would have been really interesting to see the studio’s first choice instead: Elvis, who turned it down because Col. Robert Parker didn’t want him playing a street tough; this was one of an incalculable number of terrible business decisions from Parker. Also, Charkis is a heck of a dancer, and is alright as an actor, but he shouldn’t have won the Oscar for dancing.

Overall

With excellent choreography and a great soundtrack, this is one of the best musicals so far. There is usually a sort of “cap” for musicals, as it’s not a genre I enjoy all that much, but this pushes that boundary for me. If you like musicals, you’ve likely seen it already, but still recommended even for those who haven’t.

Rating: B+

1961 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1961

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Nominated for 5 Oscars but not best picture, this is one of Audrey Hepburn’s signature roles in one of the most famous dresses in the history of film. This Blake Edwards’ comedy is also remembered for the song “Moon River” and Mickey Rooney’s astoundingly racist portrayal of a Japanese man. In the National Film Registry.

The Misfits: One of the most infamous productions of all-time that was a disaster for everyone involved. This was the last movie for both Clark Gable (with some saying either the stress of filming or the crash diet he did to prepare led to his fatal heart attack) and Marilyn Monroe (whose marriage to Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay, was breaking down). Pretty much everybody involved (the above mentioned two along with Montgomery Clift and director John Huston) were either on drugs or heavily drinking and it’s amazing they were actually able to complete a film; it ended up being a critical and financial failure, though modern reviews are much more positive.

Splendor in the Grass: This Elia Kazan teenage love story was film debut of a number of notable actors: Warren Beatty (who was the lead), Phyllis Diller and future Oscar winner Sandy Dennis. It was named to the AFI 100 Passions list.

Viridiana: Extremely controversial in its day film by Luis Bunuel about a nun who becomes corrupted by a number of truly horrifying individuals. It came in #37 at the last Sight and Sound directors poll.

The Innocents: Exceptional movie starring Deborah Kerr in one of the best performances of her career as the governess of two children at a house she comes to believe is haunted. Very much in the rising-tension horror movie where there’s no gore or jump scares, in my opinion it’s the best of its kind, far superior to The Haunting. Remarkably for a horror movie, Jack Clayton won Best Director from the National Board of Review and it was nominated for Best Picture at the BAFTAs, but no Oscars.

Yojimbo: Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune collaborated again for one of the greatest samurai movies ever made. Despite that, as much as anything, this film is remembered as the original version of A Fistful of Dollars, the film that started Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, as well as Clint Eastwood’s career as a leading man.

1961 Nominees in Review

The Hustler: A-

West Side Story: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Judgment at Nuremberg: B+

Fanny: B-

The Guns of Navarone: B-

One of the best years yet, as every movie was at least pretty good. West Side Story dominated the Oscars, and I can totally see why, although The Hustler was my personal favorite which should come as no surprise. I am surprised that The Guns of Navarone, a movie I was looking forward to, was my least favorite, but it was too long and in any other year it wouldn’t have been.
1962 feels like a two-horse race between all-time classics. We have: a massive big-budget epic where the gamble of casting an unknown paid off completely; Sean Connery’s last movie before he forever became known as James Bond; A film whose source play had already been prominently mentioned in 1960’s Best Picture winner; Another classic case of “How could you vote for this movie?” “Let’s just say it moved me…TO A BIGGER HOUSE!” which happened a lot in the 1960’s; and AFI’s pick for the greatest hero in film history.

The Alamo (1960)

alamo

Starring: John Wayne, Laurence Harvey, Richard Widmark, Frankie Avalon, Chill Wills

Director: John Wayne

Summary: Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie join the fight for Texas’ independence from Mexico

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Wills), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Original Song (“The Green Leaves of Summer”), Sound Recording*, Color Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-There’s a lot to like about the presentation. After Ennio Morricone, Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon, Rio Bravo, Red River, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Duel in the Sun) was probably the greatest composer of Western films, and The Alamo is one of his best. The Alamo itself is an outstanding near-copy of the real building and looks terrific (Not sure why it didn’t get an Art Direction nomination among its other awards), and the costumes are solid.

-The action is great old-school practical stunts and explosions stuff, but I’m surprised there’s not more of it-the first two hours have a couple of sneak attacks by the Texians, but it’s back-loaded; this is logical, but it’s more of a knock against the movie that it took two hours to get to the real meat of the film.

Negatives

-While the acting is fairly mediocre, most of the problems this movie has come from its script. The dialogue is poor, and there’s so much extraneous stuff in this movie that’s way too long (I watched the shorter version which was still 2 hours and 47 minutes)-why do we need a subplot about Wayne saving a woman from having to marry some jerk that in no way plays into the larger story? Why does it take 90 minutes before the Mexicans even arrive? Ultimately, it’s baffling to me that they decided to make up a largely fictionalized account of the battle (one historian said “there is not a single scene…which corresponds to a historically verifiable event” and the two historical advisors demanded their names be removed from the film) when real life was already interesting enough? The three major figures are two of the most mythologized men in American history (Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie), and the guy commanding the soldiers and sacrificing his life for the cause of Texan independence who was a lawyer who came to Texas only to flee his debt collectors. They also don’t explore any of the causes that led to the Texan-Mexican conflict (i.e. why are these people fighting?) and don’t really address what made the Alamo so significant in the war effort-not that it bought Sam Houston time, but that Santa Ana’s cruelty at the Alamo sparked a huge increase in Texans enlisting to fight. There are many ways they could have made a really good movie about the Alamo, but this was not one of them.

Other Stuff

-Wayne’s huge expensive publicity push and powerful connections within the Academy was the reason this movie was a Best Picture nominee. After the nominations, but during the voting period, Chill Wills put out one of the most hilariously crass ads ever in Variety, saying “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” Wayne was furious, and needless to say it killed any chances her had for winning.

-The movie originally premiered in a 202 minute roadshow version, but was trimmed to 167 for general release. While this roadshow version is available on VHS, Laserdisc and sometimes shows up on TCM, it is not available on DVD or Blu-Ray. I ended up watching the general release version for this reason even if I would usually watch the original version that most Academy voters would have seen.

Overall

The successful publicity push behind this movie despite (justifiably) mediocre contemporary reviews means that I don’t get to watch Psycho, Spartacus, Inherit the Wind or any number of better movies from 1960 that got Oscar recognition. The screenplay is terrible and the quality presentation only makes up for it so much.

Rating: D+

*The Apartment (1960)*

apartment

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen

Director: Billy Wilder

Summary: An aspiring executive lets his bosses use his apartment for trysts, only to fall for the boss’s mistress

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Lemmon), Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Original Screenplay*, Sound Recording, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing*

Positives

-I’ve seen some really great films from Billy Wilder for this project, but this might be the best. The previous four written and directed BP nominees I’ve seen from him (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution) varied from good to excellent, but all lacked the genuine emotional core that The Apartment has, which in a lot of ways reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s best movie-humor balanced with melancholy, and a lot of heart and sentimentality that doesn’t feel cloying. As a screenplay, it’s a perfect commentary on the 50’s-60’s business mentality that was later captured in Mad Men: everybody in management is soulless, constantly drinking and sleeping around with the lower-level employees, and that’s what everybody aspired to be, including Lemmon who’s a decent person totally out of place in this world.

-Lemmon and MacLaine probably should have both won Oscars for this, but were passed over for more established and beloved actors who were “due” (Burt Lancaster for his outstanding performance in the next film I’m reviewing, Elmer Gantry, and Elizabeth Taylor in the otherwise forgotten BUtterfield 8, who almost died from pneumonia during the voting period in March 1961). Lemmon is one of the great everyman actors of all-time alongside Jimmy Stewart and Charlie Chaplin, someone who can make you instantly sympathize with him and every setback he has feels devastating; this is crucial for the movie, as the character in a different actor’s hands could have very easily come off as a boring bum. MacLaine feels completely genuine and her emotions are incredibly realistic. This film, along with 1958’s Some Came Running, which she was also nominated for, show how adept she was at both comedic and dramatic roles, often in the same movie.

-The art direction deserved its Oscar. The office set is the first we see in the movie and the second we see Lemmon in it, we get pretty much everything about his character and his place in the world. The eponymous apartment is a great set too, as it feels very lived in and authentic-most apartments in movies around this time were either dumps or luxurious, and this fills a happy medium.

Negatives

-There are a handful of off-putting scenes that detract from the romance between Lemmon and MacLaine: the main one is where he tells he knows everything about her-height, weight, that she had her appendix removed, etc. because he’s an accountant at the company and looked up her card which is…creepy to say the least. Thankfully, there aren’t too many things like this here.

Overall

Excellent dramedy by one of the legends of cinema at the height of his powers, and featuring two extremely versatile performances by its leads. An all-time classic.

Rating: A

Elmer Gantry (1960)

gantry

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones, Patti Page

Director: Richard Brooks

Summary: A young drifter finds success as a traveling preacher until his past catches up to him

Other Nominations: Actor (Lancaster)*, Supporting Actress (Jones)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Dramatic/Comedy Score

Positives

-This was a very different movie than I was expecting, in a good way. The film doesn’t present religion itself in a negative way, but instead focuses on those who use religion as a way of self-aggrandizement, the frightening combination of power and moral authority, and those who want quick and easy answers to their problems, and if those answers can be packaged in an entertaining way, all the better. What I was expecting was a fairly traditional rise and fall story for Gantry: he’s initially presented as an amoral huckster with a gift for oratory and a deep knowledge of the Bible; while he is that, he surprisingly enough isn’t in it for self-glory or money, and he is a genuinely religious person, but one who is usually too weak to stay away from his vices. His journey, along with that of Simmons’ character, is interesting and surprising and climaxes with a great (if a bit flawed) finish. This is a terrific screenplay, especially considering the original novel was much more blunt with its themes, it cut out an entire second half that repeats the same themes over again, and Gantry is a very different and more interesting character than he was in the novel.

-Lancaster is outstanding and dominates the film as Gantry, with his constant grin, booming charisma when in front of an audience yet toned down enough in front of others to feel realistic.  Even if Lemmon probably deserved it, you can definitely see why they gave the Oscar to Lancaster. Simmons gives a solid performance as well, but her character is fairly bland until we get the end and she kind of gets engulfed in Lancaster’s presence. Jones won the Oscar for her performance as a prostitute whose past with Gantry comes back to haunt him, and she’s good, being both alluring and depressing. Oddly enough, both actress winners played prostitutes (Jones here and Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress for BUtterfield 8). Kennedy is solid as a cynical local reporter, which is funny because he played a very similar role again just two years later in Lawrence of Arabia.

Negatives

-What happens with Simmons’ character at the end seems like too much of a leap in her character where she goes much, much farther than she had before even if there was some scenes starting to point in that direction.

Overall

Lancaster’s lead performance is outstanding, and this is a more reasoned and intelligent portrayal of what can go wrong with religion than most movies would do today. Recommended.
Rating: A-

Sons and Lovers (1960)

sons

Starring: Dean Stockwell, Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure, Heather Sears, Donald Pleasence

Director: Jack Cardiff

Summary: The son of a working-class British mining family has dreams of pursuing an art career but has to deal with his possessive mother

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Howard), Supporting Actress (Ure), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography*

Positives

-Trevor Howard is the best thing about this movie, giving a terrific performance as a coal miner father who feels isolated and disrespected by his family. With that said, he should have been considered a supporting actor as he only appeared for just over 20 minutes in the movie-the shortest performance ever nominated for Best Actor.

-The cinematography is really solid, as it should be considering the director and the DP were two of the best cinematographers of the period. There’s nothing too flashy here, but there’s a lot of fluid camerawork and effective close-ups on faces.

Negatives

-The movie tries to tackle a lot of heady themes, but doesn’t really dig all that deep into any of them. A big part of the problem is that the adaptation removes almost all the vital backstory between the mother (Hiller) and her experiences with the courtship of her husband (Howard) and her raising her two sons; instead, we jump to when her sons are adults and we get almost nothing with her and two of her three sons, which were absolutely vital to the original story. The story is entirely about the inner conflicts of all these characters, but not enough time is devoted to really exploring them. Ultimately, this might be a story better served by a mini-series than a 100 minute film.

-Stockwell’s character is obnoxious and insufferably pretentious and by the end you just want to punch him in the face. When the guy says things like “I don’t think I will ever love because I want to know what it fully means to live” and “I think a crow is religious”, he gets real old real fast

Overall

This is a movie that’s too ambitious for what can be accomplished in its 100 minute run time and simply doesn’t explore the themes it has with the kind of depth that would make it a good movie.

Rating: D+