12 Angry Men (1957)

12angrymen

Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler (a.k.a. Piglet), Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber

Director: Sidney Lumet (in his directorial debut)

Summary: A jury holdout tries to convince his colleagues to vote not guilty

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay

Positives

-The screenplay is fantastic: the story is constantly moving forward, it’s tense and the pacing is tight, the characters are well-defined almost immediately yet have depth that later becomes apparent and it intelligently explores a number of themes such as prejudice and problems with public defenders that still exist just as much today.

-There are a number of wonderful performances here and I have no idea how it got no acting nominations. Besides Fonda, who is always great playing decent men in scenarios full of bad (or at least flawed) people, Cobb is pure anger and intensity and Begley and Klugman are also memorable.

-The cinematography is outstanding, and the only reason it wasn’t nominated (and in fact should have won in my opinion) was the lack of  big, sweeping landscapes and beautiful scenery, and because this was the one year from 1939-1967 where there was only one cinematography category, and all of the nominees were color films. It captures the tension, claustrophobia of the one location and the shifting dominance of the characters extremely well.

-Any time a movie can successfully make the audience feel the same way the characters do in a movie is a glorious thing-here, every one of the above elements (script, acting, cinematography) serve to make the audience feel the same exhaustion the characters are going through. From the near-constant rising tension throughout the story to the building intensity of the acting to the tighter and tighter camera work as the film progresses, it’s a masterwork of filmmaking from all aspects.

Negatives

-Most of the problems for me come from my perspective as a J.D., where there a lot of problems with how the jury operates in this movie. The most obvious example is when Fonda produces the second knife, which is a massive problem under every state’s rules of evidence (a juror cannot conduct his own independent research for the case nor bring in outside evidence). Beyond that, the jury pretty much takes massive and compounding assumptions about everything and in general do a terrible job of doing what a jury is supposed to do. It didn’t bother me THAT much, as all of this is in aid of an effective story, but it’s probably the film’s biggest failing.

Overall

One of the great courtroom dramas-it’s taut, briskly-paced and has a number of great performances made even better through its excellent cinematography. Whatever problems it has with how juries actually work will don’t hinder the enjoyment that much.
Rating: A

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*The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)*

kwai

Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne

Director: David Lean

Summary: The Japanese Army forces World War II POWs to build a strategic bridge in Burma

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Guinness)*, Supporting Actor (Hayakawa), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

Positives

-Alec Guinness’ character is incredibly complex and unique, with your attitude about him shifting a number of times over the course of the movie; for the sake of spoilers nothing more, but he really has a lot of richness and depth to him right up through the ending, which is fantastic. As far as Guinness’ performance, it was good, but I think the character himself was what made him so memorable in the movie and it could have been played equally well by a number of other great British actors. Hayakawa is the bigger standout from an acting standpoint, playing Saito the Japanese Colonel forcing the POWs to build the bridge. His expressions are great and performance really gives a sense of depth to him.

-This is an interesting movie in terms of themes, which explores the mindsets of Brits, Americans and the Japanese and how they were during the war. The American is shown as mostly lazy and not patriotic towards the war effort, but eventually comes around to being a hero because he feels responsible to his fellow man when he’s in peril; the Brits are dedicated to their sense of duty and to their own reputation to the point of it not being healthy, although one is more about pride than duty in the end; the Japanese are barbarous but have a tremendous sense of honor. Regardless of whether you agree with this assessment of the country’s during WWII, it’s an interesting critique.

-The location shooting in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) paid off big time, as the film looks extremely authentic and the miserable experiences of everyone involved feels that much stronger. The other thing is the color which for a lot of the movie is over-exposed, which makes the movie feel hotter and sunnier which is perfect for this film.

Negatives

-About half-way through, the story shifts focus from Guinness to Holden and Hawkins whose storyline is much less interesting even if it’s essential for the plot.

-The Japanese get massively shortchanged in terms of intelligence and engineering ability (not surprising for the time) vs. the Brits which is unfair considering they were intelligent despite their sadism towards POWs

Overall

I liked this movie a lot, especially Guinness’ character and the cinematography, but I wouldn’t call it the amazing classic like a lot of people.

Rating: B+

Peyton Place (1957)

peyton

Starring: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi (in her debut), Hope Lange, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Phillips (in his debut), Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn, Terry Moore, Barry Coe

Director: Mark Robson

Summary: A peaceful New England town hides secrets and scandals

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Turner), Supporting Actor (Kennedy), Supporting Actor (Tamblyn), Supporting Actress (Lange), Supporting Actress (Varsi), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography

Positives

-The movie starts out slow in this regard, but the last 90 minutes are basically pure smut (well, by 50’s standards certainly), which is entertaining enough-we briskly we move from illegitimate children to incest (sort-of) to dead bodies in the closet to miscarriages. It wasn’t boring at least.

-The performances are generally pretty good (especially Varsi considering she’s a newcomer and honestly the main character), although it did not deserve 5 acting nominations by any means. Turner is only in about 35 minutes of the movie (as much as some of the other supporting actors/actresses), and the others while fine, mostly got their nominations because of how many significant supporting roles there are in this ensemble piece.

Negatives

-This movie takes itself way too seriously for what it is-a lurid, trashy soap opera that doesn’t have much substance to it. Comparing it to some of the better soap opera-ish movies I’ve seen for this, it simply doesn’t hold up to them. Kings Row is the most obvious comparison because they both have the exact same themes and the exact same basic premise; I liked the previous movie better because 1) it felt much more tightly focused, with all of our perspective being funneled through 3 characters instead of 10 and 2) in some ways it went even more off the rails into lurid trash territory than Peyton Place despite coming 15 years earlier (nothing’s going to top what happens to Ronald Reagan’s character in that movie). It’s ending “shame on you for spreading all these trashy rumors around” message also rings incredibly hollow when the entire movie depends on these kinds of things for entertainment.

-At 157 minutes, this is way too long for this kind of movie-it’s almost as long as Bridge on the River Kwai for goodness sakes. The problem is that the 400 page novel has so many subplots and characters and it’s impossible to adequately cover them all in a reasonable length of time; instead, they should have just cut some of the characters for brevity sake considering how thoroughly the main points (town is full of lies, secrets, rumors and gossip) are driven home. I would have cut out the subplot involving Moore and Coe’s relationship along with Coe’s father, which is probably the least important of the bigger ones.

Overall

This movie hasn’t aged well because whatever parts about it were shocking and lurid at the time have been seen a million times since, and even in the day it wasn’t that bad as they scrubbed the heck out of the worst aspects of the book it was based on. Now, it’s mostly just a flaccid melodrama with some decent performances to prop it up.

Rating: C-

Sayonara (1957)

sayonara

Starring: Marlon Brando, Miiko Taka (in her debut), Red Buttons, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Miyoshi Umeki, Ricardo Montalban

Director: Joshua Logan

Summary: American soldiers in post-war Japan defy convention when they fall in love with local women

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actor (Buttons)*, Supporting Actress (Umeki)*, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-It was still very bold at this point to make a movie about interracial marriage, much less one which actually had a white actor and a minority actress in the roles (unlike Love is a Many Splendored-Thing, which had Jennifer Jones as a half-Chinese, half-white woman). At least 16 states still banned interracial marriage and it wasn’t long ago that the production code outright banned miscegenation in films.

-I really liked Buttons and I can see why he won his Oscar, especially considering he was a comedian playing against type. Brando was fine, although him putting on a Southern accent was distracting and it felt like a test-run for five years later when he did a much-maligned British accent in another movie I’ll be reviewing. Umeki’s okay I guess, but her win can only be explained by the Academy wanting to be progressive, as she doesn’t get a lot of screentime and only really has one short scene of note in the whole movie.

Negatives

-This is a very standard star-crossed lovers story (two/three of them actually) just in an exotic locale. A lot of the appeal comes from the then-novel Japanese elements in the movie such as Kabuki, the Takarazuka Revue, general customs, etc. which aren’t don’t stand out for modern audiences anymore.

-We see a lot from the two male leads perspectives, but the Japanese female love interests in the movie are very thinly developed and we get little to no sense about their personalities (especially Umeki).

Overall

There’s nothing particularly interesting here other than some of the performances, but there was nothing especially bad here either and credit has to be given for tackling the subject matter at the time.

Rating: C

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

prosecution

Starring: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power (in his last film), Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Torin Thatcher

Director: Billy Wilder

Summary: A British lawyer gets caught up in a couple’s tangled marital affairs when he defends the husband for murder

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Laughton), Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Sound Recording, Film Editing

Positives

-The three main performances are terrific and Power and Dietrich (more on this later) should have also been nominated. Laughton, even as he as aged horribly in the 22 years since I last saw him, is yet again an absolute highlight with his dry wit and overall presence along with his depiction of his ailing health. This is Power’s best role I’ve seen him in (and was sadly his last before he had a heart attack filming Solomon and Sheba in 1958) showing plenty of range and sincerity for the audience. Dietrich also has an incredibly unique performance that would have easily gotten her an Oscar nomination (and possibly the win) if not for the studio holding back their support for various good reasons I won’t go into here. Finally, it’s fun seeing Lancaster playing an overbearing, motherly nurse to Laughton who in real life was her husband.

-As you would expect from an adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, the ending is explosive, entertaining and extremely memorable. The story in general is well-written with good dialogue, especially for Laughton.

Negatives

-The first 50 minutes or so are mainly flashbacks detailing what events led to the case and these are by far the weakest parts of the movie; in general, this section is way less interesting than the courtroom scenes that comprise the rest of the movie even if Laughton is still fun there.

Overall

This is a fun and suspenseful mystery/courtroom drama (when it gets there) that has plenty of twists and turns along with some excellent performances.

Rating: B+

1957 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1957

The Seventh Seal & Wild Strawberries: Ingmar Bergman exploded onto the world stage with these two classics from the same year. These films tackled weighty subjects like being a man of faith in the face of a chaotic and violent world, facing one’s own mortality, and reflecting on one’s own life and relationships.

Paths of Glory: Stanley Kubrick’s first anti-war film, starring Kirk Douglas as a French CO during WWI who tries to defend his troops decision to not carry out a suicidal order at a court-martial. It was cited as a major influence by David Simon for his series The Wire, as it focuses on the people in the lower levels of organizations who have to deal with the ambitions of those at the top. In the National Film Registry.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?: Jayne Mansfield’s signature role and Tony Randall’s first big movie, it’s a satire on the growing influence of television and the growing influence of advertisements which went along with it that is no less relevant now. In the National Film Registry.

3:10 to Yuma: Classic Western starring Glenn Ford playing against type as the villain with Van Heflin as a man hard up for money who’s being paid to get Ford onto a train to Yuma where he will be jailed. In the National Film Registry.

A Face in the Crowd: The film that made Andy Griffith a star, but here he’s actually playing the villain, a thinly-veiled dramatization of the rise and fall of TV’s original star, Arthur Godfrey. It was incredibly prophetic about the future rise of fake-populist political figures that gained ascendency from the then-new medium of TV and now the internet. In the National Film Registry.

The Incredible Shrinking Man: 50’s sci-fi classic written by the great Richard Matheson that has elements that bear resemblance to the recent Ant-Man movie, although this one is taken completely seriously. In the National Film Registry.

Sweet Smell of Success: Burt Lancaster essentially plays massively influential gossip columnist for the New York Daily Mirror/TV and radio personality Walter Winchell, who was infamous for using his power to destroy the careers of those who crossed him. In the National Film Registry.

An Affair to Remember: Cary Grant and Deborah kerr starred in this remake of Love Affair (a movie I watched for the 1939 awards) that is significantly more popular than the original despite them basically being identical, scene for scene. #5 on the AFI 100 Passions list.

Nights of Cabiria: Between 1954 and 1963, Fellini put out some of the most acclaimed films to ever come out of Europe, and this is right in the heart of that. For this, Fellini won his second straight Oscar for Foreign Language Film (after La Strada), the first two ever given out.

The Curse of Frankenstein: The movie that put Hammer Films, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on the map and led to decades of team-ups with the two actors. Never before had a studio been bold enough to put out a really gruesome horror film in vivid color, and Hammer would carry the torch of being the studio putting out good horror movies for the next decade or so before they went over the line into boobfests in the 70s.

Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley vehicle that ended up creating the famous title song. In the National Film Registry.

1957 Nominees in Review

12 Angry Men: A

The Bridge on the River Kwai: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Witness for the Prosecution: B+

Sayonara: C

Peyton Place: C-

I love tightly paced, tense, laser-focused movies and 12 Angry Men absolutely fits that bill. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times before, but it’s still a great and I consider it the best film of a overall good year. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the “biggest” movie of the year and is really good-I can see why it would have won Best Picture, especially during a period where there were tons of big epics that won Best Picture. The problem with this year is that it has two films that don’t pack the same punch now as they used to for various reasons, and I would have loved to have seen Paths of Glory, The Sweet Smell of Success and/or A Face in the Crowd instead.

Up for 1958: The debut of a director who only made three movies but two of them were nominated for Best Picture; Our first Paul Newman and Last Tennesee Williams-based movie; The first Best Picture nominee with an African-American getting top-billing; The film that, despite it now being considered one of the weaker Best Picture winners, set the then-record for most Oscars; and a Best Actor winning performance where he was only onscreen for 23 minutes and 39 seconds.

But before that, since 1957 marked the 30th Academy Awards ceremony, I will take this opportunity to do my customary rankings for the last 10 years of nominees

Best of 1948-1957

Top Ten Films of 1948-1957

  1. High Noon
  2. 12 Angry Men
  3. Sunset Boulevard
  4. All About Eve
  5. A Streetcar Named Desire
  6. Roman Holiday
  7. Marty
  8. The Red Shoes
  9. On The Waterfront
  10. Julius Caesar

Ranking the Winners 1948-1957

  1. All About Eve (1950)
  2. Marty (1955)
  3. On the Waterfront (1954)
  4. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
  5. All the King’s Men (1949)
  6. From Here to Eternity (1953)
  7. An American in Paris (1951)
  8. Hamlet (1948)
  9. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
  10. Around the World in 80 Days (1953)

Best Actor/Actress/Director 1948-1957

Actor: Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront, Sayonara); Runner-Up: William Holden (Sunset Boulevard, Born Yesterday, The Country Girl, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic, The Bridge on the River Kwai)

Actress: Winner: Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit, The Heiress); Runner-Up: Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, Julius Caesar); Runner-Up: Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Witness for the Prosecution)