*From Here to Eternity (1953)*

eternity

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Philip Ober, Ernest Borgnine

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Summary: Enlisted men in Hawaii fight for love and honor on the eve of World War II

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Clift), Actor (Lancaster), Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actor (Sinatra)*, Supporting Actress (Reed)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording*, B&W Cinematography*, B&W Costume Design, Film Editing*

Positives

-This is a really strong cast, even if I didn’t think everybody deserved their nominations. Our two male leads are the highlights: Lancaster is the prototype for a Hollywood leading man, being a good actor who’s handsome, well-built and Clift is way better here than in either of the previous two movies I had seen in him, as he’s much more expressive and less stilted. Both of them also have great chemistry with their respective actresses and make this a very solid (and for the time, steamy) romance movie. Donna Reed does a good job, playing completely against type as a gentleman’s club hostess (compare this to her role as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life); Deborah Kerr is solid (and also against type), but she’s failed to really impress me yet, which is frustrating because I know she was amazing in The Innocents, a movie that should be getting the kind of accolades The Haunting gets. Sinatra plays with type this time (vs. Anchors Aweigh) and while he’s definitely more than just a singer trying to act, but I still didn’t think he should have won an Oscar for his performance. Finally, I liked Borgnine, who goes way against his (future) type playing a sadistic, racist man who runs the stockade.

-Credit for boldness, this movie crosses a lot of lines that were pretty solidly in place before. This is the first movie I can think of where the U.S. Army is depicted as having tons of scumbags in it (even if they do eventually get their comeuppance), which is especially amazing since the Korean War was still going on as of the filming of this movie. Second, the movie is totally indifferent to a (deserved) extra-marital affair which was one of the last sacred cows of the Production Code.

Negatives

-This is slow movie that takes its sweet time with everything, which gives it a low-energy vibe, which clashes with the many lurid elements of the movie.

-The movie tries to do too much in just two hours, with three major plots: the romances of Lancaster/Kerr and Clift/Reed, and Clift being hazed for not joining the company boxing team. The biggest casualty is Lancaster and Kerr’s romance, as it is potentially the most interesting, yet it gets ignored for long stretches in the movie.

Overall

Very solid romance movie with an eve of entering WWII backdrop, it’s really the performances that make this movie even if the script has some issues.

Rating: B

Julius Caesar (1953)

caesar

Starring: James Mason, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Edmond O’Brien, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Summary: An all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic about Julius Caesar assassination and its aftermath

Other Nominations: Actor (Brando), Dramatic/Comedy Score, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-Just look at the cast list, it’s insane-there’s a combined 29 Oscar nominations, with all 7 either winning or being nominated for Academy Awards; this is not to mention the legendary director/writer at the helm either, who was nominated for 10 Oscars himself. Mason and Gielgud were two of the most accomplished Shakespearean actors of all-time and completely live up to their billing; but it’s Brando, whose mumbly reputation proceeded him and was considered a joke of a casting choice for Shakespeare, who shines through the brightest. Brando really only gets two major scenes in the movie, but his performance as Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral is one of the best of any movie I’ve seen so far; he was so good that Gielgud offered him the role of Hamlet at the next season of the Old Vic, although he declined. I can’t imagine you will find better acting in a Shakespeare film than this.

-I liked the story and characters more than I usually do in Shakespeare works, with Brutus (Mason) as the one honest man in a world of ambitious political players who ends up making a grave mistake, and Antony (Brando) as a cunning general lurking in the background.

-Considering the subject and the people involved, I was surprised to see this film in black and white instead of color. However, I think that choice works here: if it was in color, they might have treated this as a big costume epic, but instead it has a laser-like focus on the material and the acting which both shine through completely. Along with artistic reasons, it was in black and white was because U.S. studios didn’t think they could make money off Shakespeare, so they went cheap here, and with the sets, which were recycled from Quo Vadis.

Negatives

-Everything up to and through Antony’s speech is outstanding, but it definitely tails off after that as there isn’t much else to do but wait for the inevitable conclusion for the last 30 minutes or so.

-The only thing I would say is that the language in Shakespeare still throws me for a loop sometimes and I’ll never get the nuances of it. But if that isn’t a problem for you, then I don’t know why you wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy this movie.

Overall

Easily the best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve seen yet and one that most people haven’t seen. If you have any affinity for Shakespeare, then go see this movie as soon as possible; even if you don’t, I still recommend it as it might change your mind about Shakespeare on film.

Rating: B+

The Robe (1953)

robe

Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger

Director: Henry Koster

Summary: Biblical epic in which the Roman military tribune who commands the unit that crucified Jesus tries to learn about the man he killed.

Other Nominations: Actor (Burton), Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design*

Positives

-There presentation aspects of the movie are a mixed bag, which is about the most positive thing I can say about this movie. The score is outstanding and set the standard for all future Biblical epics; how it was not nominated is beyond me. The sets are also really nice and help give a big-budget feel to the whole movie. I didn’t like the color in the movie, as it’s a bit too garish and the yellows looked especially bad. Whoever the sound designer was should have been fired, especially the foley work where swords clanking and hammers pounding into anvils sounded like aluminum.

Negatives

-Off the top of my head, I cannot remember a worse performance nominated for Best Actor/Actress than Burton’s here: he only has two modes, wooden or crazy bug-eyed scenery chewing, and not in a fun way. His casting was a curious choice for the lead in a Biblical epic, considering he was an atheist. The acting is uniformly awful, but the other lowlight is Jay Robinson who is shockingly terrible as Caligula and is insufferable in all the wrong ways (compare to Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis whose character was insufferable but he was extremely entertaining).

-The movie on the whole is boring and lifeless yet somehow incredibly cheesy, especially after the crucifixion scene about 30 minutes in. The dialogue is stilted, and the whole story is generally uninteresting with large chunks of it being repetitive and dull except for the occasional scene where Burton or Robinson go to town with their atrocious over-acting. I know it is the bible (well, sort of-beyond the general premise, it’s like an expanded universe novel on the Bible), but this movie takes itself so seriously and just falls completely flat on its face, lacking even potential camp value.

Other Stuff

-This film is historically noteworthy as the first ever released movie filmed in Cinemascope, the first true widescreen process. Interestingly enough, this movie was actually filmed twice, simultaneous, once in standard film format and the other in Cinemascope. Each version had different acting and blocking and both are available to watch; all accounts say that the Cinemascope version (the one I watched) was worse.

-The poster has an obvious flaw: Jean Simmons isn’t on it. Instead, the woman on the poster is Jean Peters who was originally cast in the lead female role until she got pregnant. Apparently, no one told the art department.

Overall

Unless you simply cannot be objective when it comes to Biblically-based movies, you will not like this movie. Other than the presentation (which admittedly has its high points), there’s not much good to say, with the acting being especially terrible.

Rating: D

Roman Holiday (1953)

roman

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A runaway princess in Rome finds love with a reporter who knows her true identity

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Hepburn)*, Supporting Actor (Albert), Adapted Screenplay, Story*, B&W Art Direction, B&W Cinematography, B&W Costume Design*, Film Editing

Positives

-This is an extremely well-written movie for the most part for a number of reasons. First, the entire movie at the outset hinges on getting the audience to sympathize with the situation of a royal who has everything, which isn’t necessarily easy; the movie achieves this quickly and effectively mainly through repetition, so that we get a sense of her character’s frustration. Second, it makes good use of comedy and lots of it at the start so that the audience becomes more engaged with the characters before the romance becomes a factor, something that all the romantic-comedies that I have liked so far have done. Finally, and most importantly is something that the script intentionally leaves out: expository dialogue. What really impressed me with this movie is how effectively it uses silence and facial expressions as a method of getting information across instead of having the characters just say what they’re feeling, especially towards the ending, which is flawlessly executed and maybe the best of the genre. Film is a visual medium and this is a script that fully understands this-it relies on the actors and the director being able to successfully get these emotions across, but it’s smart enough to at least give the them the opportunity to do so.

-Both are leads are very good. Peck is very solid, initially playing a really good straight man, then an opportunist, then finally a great romantic lead; the obvious standout though is Hepburn, who went from unknown to superstar overnight with this role, and understandably so. Everything about her exudes charm, elegance and warmth (when she needs to), she has great comedic timing yet she can be just as good in the more dramatic moments.

Negatives

-This movie bears some significant similarities premise-wise to It Happened One Night (which is why Frank Capra was initially going to do it before his production studio went belly-up). I think this movie is much stronger in its emotional aspects than that movie, but the humor isn’t as good, especially in the middle. The big letdown for me here is the middle portion of the movie, which is where the movie transitions from comedy to romance. It’s not that funny, and I didn’t get the sense that this was a rising romance, more so that they were having fun together and then boom they kiss, without a smooth transition.

Overall

Coming into this, I would not have expected me to like as many romance/romantic comedy movies as I have, but I am pleasantly surprised. Both the script and the Audrey Hepburn’s performance are stellar and the ending is unforgettable. Highly recommended.

Rating: A-

Shane (1953)

shane

 

Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon deWilde, Emile Meyer, Jack Palance

Director: George Stevens

Summary: A mysterious drifter helps farmers fight off a vicious rancher

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (deWilde), Supporting Actor (Palance), Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography*

Positives

-There’s one scene I didn’t expect to see, but I think it’s one of the most important in the movie, and it involves Meyer’s character (the main villain) telling Van Heflin why he genuinely thinks he has a right to his land. There’s an old adage that I’ve seen people talk about in terms of pro wrestling, but it applies just as well to movies: a villain is usually more interesting if he thinks he’s right. Even if he’s totally unreasonable, he needs some kind of internal logic, some germ of why he thinks he’s justified in doing what he does. It makes the movie feel more realistic: how many real-life villains think they’re the ones who are evil?

-Alan Ladd is very good in the lead role, as he’s stoic but not wooden which is often hard to pull off. Palance isn’t on screen a lot, but he has some of the most memorable scenes in the movie and always has an impact with his intimidating presence.

-The location filming in Wyoming paid off, as we get lots of beautiful landscape photography with Grand Teton looming in the background of many scenes.

-Victor Young’s score is great as usual, and based off what I have seen, he should be remembered up there with the best of the era (Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann)

Negatives

-Classic westerns aren’t a genre I usually love, and this doesn’t buck that trend. The biggest problem I usually have is that characters and conflicts tend to be one-dimensional and we see a lot of the same types of characters, and this movie is mostly sticks to the formula (or helped make it). Besides the villain who was a plus, it tries to change things up a bit by inserting the perspective of a young kid, but I didn’t like deWilde (as is the case with most actors who are 11) with his acting or his creepy expressionless yet wide-eyed face for most of the film.

-This was Jean Arthur’s last performance, but she’s mostly wasted here as she’s not given much more to do than be a standard worried housewife.

Overall

This is a solid Western, but again the Westerns I like tend to do something that really plays around with the standard Western formula, and this movie doesn’t do much of that.

Rating: B

1953 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1953

Tokyo Story & Ugetsu: Japan produced two of the most acclaimed movies in their country’s history in 1953, and yet neither came from Akira Kurosawa. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story was named the greatest movie of all time by Sight and Sound in their most recent directors poll (and was 3rd on the critics poll), and was inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow; both deal with how the younger generation reacts to their parent’s aging. Ugetsu, from director Kenji Mizoguchi, has great themes about obsession, greed and envy, all wrapped up in a 16th century ghost story; it was named to the Sight and Sound Top Ten in 1962 and 1972.

The Wages of Fear: Known as one of the most tense films ever made, as it’s about truck drivers carrying nitroglycerin on dirt roads. It’s heavy anti-capitalist themes led to 21 minutes being cut for American Release. It’s now considered one of the best foreign films ever made.

Stalag 17: Billy Wilder directed William Holden to an Oscar in this film about a group of American POWs, where they suspect one of them is an informant; because it was filmed in sequence, the cast didn’t know who it was until the last 3 days of filming.

The Band Wagon: Considered one of the great musicals of all-time, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and directed by Vincente Minnelli. It was nominated for 3 Oscars, but was disappointing at the box office, barely exceeding its budget. In the National Film Registry.

The Big Heat: This noir is probably Fritz Lang’s best American film, about a detective whose search for justice after his wife’s murder dooms pretty much everyone around him. In the National Film Registry.

The Hitch-Hiker: Director Ida Lupino was a pioneering director, this being the first film noir made by a woman. She would make her mark later on directing a number of TV episodes, including the only female-directed Twilight Zone episode (the well-regarded “The Masks”). In the National Film Registry.

House of Wax: The role that would define the rest of Vincent Price’s career, in this remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz). Notable for being the first color 3D film from a major studio and for the choice of director for such a project: Andre de Toth had only one eye and therefore could not see 3D. In the National Film Registry.

Little Fugitive: This American film was an influence on the French New Wave of the late 50’s-60’s, with it’s use of handheld cameras which gave it a distinctive look, along with the use of non-professional actors. In the National Film Registry.

The Naked Spur: Technicolor Western starring Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh and just three other actors total. In the National Film Registry.

The War of the Worlds: Hugely influential 50’s sci-fi movie thats effects exceeded what had come before it, at least in this country. The name of the main character, Dr. Clayton Forrester, would later be used as an homage in Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the name of one of the main characters. In the National Film Registry.

How to Marry a Millionaire & Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The two movies that defined Marilyn Monroe’s image and made her a superstar, but somehow neither are are in the National Film Registry, and had a combined one Oscar nomination (Color Costume Design for HTMAM)

1953 Nominees in Review

Roman Holiday: A-

Julius Caesar: B+

From Here to Eternity: B (Won Best Picture)

Shane: B

The Robe: D

If you had replaced The Robe with Stalag 17 or The Big Heat, this would have been the most consistently good year yet. Instead, it’s a really strong year that’s tainted by a very poor film that was there because it was #1 at the box office for the year, and because it marked a significant technical achievement. As for Best Picture, From Here to Eternity was an unsurprising selection, considering it was a good movie that did big business (#2 for the year) vs. Shane which was a genre film (between Cimarron (1931) and Unforgiven (1992), no Western won BP) and the other two, which I thought were the best movies of the year, didn’t do huge business (neither made the top 10). Back in the day, Best Picture usually went to one of the highest-grossing movies of the year: between 1928 and 1979, only 6 movies that won BP finished outside the top 10: The Broadway Melody (1929), The Lost Weekend (1945), Hamlet (1948), On the Waterfront (1954), Marty (1955) and In the Heat of the Night (1967).

In 1954, we have a motley mix of hard-hitting dramas along with a musical and a romantic comedy. They include: a second BP nominee about a maritime mutiny; a movie that’s Best Actress win was considered one of the biggest upsets of all-time; a film about union corruption that’s considered to be Elia Kazan’s response to his friend Arthur Miller and his book The Crucible; a musical with one of the most politically incorrect plot points of the genre; and a movie whose title theme hit #1 in the U.S. and U.K. in 1954, although they were recorded by two different artists.