Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

anatomy

Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott, Kathryn Grant, Joseph N. Welch

Director: Otto Preminger

Summary: A small-town lawyer gets the case of a lifetime when a military man avenges an attack on his wife

Other Nominations: Actor (Stewart), Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Supporting Actor (Scott), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-It’s radically different than most any other trial film, before or since because it shows a lot of the routine investigation that lawyers have to do, and it cares about procedure in court (at least, more so than most) and accurate legal principles. What also makes it unusual is that the movie itself is totally indifferent to whether the defendant is guilty or not-it only cares about how the legal system itself determines innocence or guilt, especially when almost all of the players involved aren’t being truthful or strictly adhering to the rules of ethics. The tone of the movie also works: it’s cynical about the legal system for sure, but not obnoxiously so or bombastic about it, more that any system that relies on people who have obvious self-serving interests is going to have flaws in it.

-The performances are spot on, but I really want to applaud the casting director. Stewart is the perfect choice for a character who acts like a humble country lawyer in court and holds the movie together, but was still a pretty logical casting choice; however, Remick, Gazara, Scott and Welch all give great performances and none of them were major actors at the time: Gazara and Scott had each done one film before this, Welch wasn’t even an actor (he was a real lawyer), and Remick wasn’t all that established an actor yet either.

-Duke Ellington’s score was the first major film score done by an African-American, and while there had been jazz scores in other movies before this one is really front and center and is an inescapable part of the out-of-court scenes. It’s one of the most distinctive and memorable scores so far, and it not getting nominated is one of the most inexplicable oversights so far.

-This isn’t a strict positive, but this movie is way more frank and forward about sex than almost anything else from the time, freely talking about the subject of rape, and using terms that other movies would have danced around (sperm, panties, bitch, climax, etc.). Preminger won over the censors (although it was initially banned in Chicago), and more cracks were appearing in the Production Code.

Negatives

-At 2 hours and 40 minutes (with the last 1 hour 40 being the trial portion), it definitely feels longer than it needed to be, especially the trial portions where some of the testimony we see could have been cut out without any problems. Not that the movie ever feels slow or gets all that dull, but some of the fat could have been trimmed pretty easily.

Other Stuff

-In addition to its groundbreaking score, it also has a well-known and tone-setting title sequence done by the man who made them famous: graphic designer Saul Bass, who also designed the poster. Bass did many opening sequences for movies, including a lot of Hitchcock’s (Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho) and Martin Scorsese’s (Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Casino), as well as many of the most famous corporate logos ever (including AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines, United Way and Girl Scouts). He even directed a movie, Phase IV (1974), which is one of those downer sci-fi horror movies that everybody was making in the 70s and is pretty good.

Overall

It set the template for many future legal dramas, even if they kind of missed the point of this movie and why it’s still so effective. The performances and the script carry the day and make this a memorable, if too unnecessarily long, experience.

Rating: A-

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*Ben-Hur (1959)*

benhur

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott

Director: William Wyler

Summary: While seeking revenge, a rebellious Israelite prince crosses paths with Jesus

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Heston)*, Supporting Actor (Griffith)*, Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score*, Sound Recording*, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*, Film Editing*, Special Effects*

Positives

-From an audio and visual standpoint, this was the biggest and grandest movie ever made up to this point and this feels like a culmination of all the previous epics before it. The sets are unparalleled in scope and detail (even if they did use some matte paintings, which are quite good), the Roman centurion costumes are great, the color is perfect, the cinematography is terrific, the editing (especially considering the sheer amount of footage for a movie like this) is really good, and the soundtrack is one of the best of its kind. All the action is done in camera, either with miniatures (the boats during the naval battle), or simply just done as you see it (the legendary chariot race scene that no one would even think of doing again without CG). This was by far the most expensive movie made up to this point, and it shows-MGM bet the studio on Ben-Hur, and it ended up being the highest grossing movie of the 50’s (and 14th all-time adjusted for inflation). The size of the movie is also why it would end up winning a record 11 Oscars (not matched until Titanic), and it would have probably won the 12th for Adapted Screenplay if not for a controversy over the screenwriting credit.

-Heston is still doing his thing, and his over exaggerated speech and acting fits alright in a big movie like this, although it was more at home in The Ten Commandments because that movie’s tone was so over-the-top vs. Ben-Hur which is played completely serious with no fun allowed. Griffith was the other acting nominee/winner, and he’s fine but I’m surprised he won because he’s not all that memorable; I would have expected Boyd to be nominated due to his solid performance,the significance of his role and his couple of big scenes, but despite winning the Golden Globe, he was not nominated for an Oscar.

Negatives

-Considering how basic the story really is and the lack of any complex/rich characters or themes, there’s no excuse for it being this long. For what is essentially a pretty simple revenge story for the first 3 hours of its runtime, it somehow clocks in at a monsterous 3 hours and 42 minutes; for comparison, the original 1925 version which tells the same story was 2 hours, 23 minutes. I know that it’s almost ingrained in Hollywood that any story involving the Bible has to be at least 3 hours long, but the setting and bigness of the production shouldn’t dictate the runtime.

-In some ways, I enjoyed The Ten Commandments more because it didn’t take itself so seriously and it was a much more lively and consistently entertaining movie than Ben-Hur.

Overall

For pure spectacle, this one is one of the greatest of all-time; however, there’s not enough in terms of characters or story to justify its daunting runtime and there are some dead spots. Ultimately, I enjoyed this movie a lot because there just aren’t many times you see a movie like this, and there’s some incredible scenes, but I wouldn’t call it an all-time classic.

Rating: B+

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

frank

Starring: Millie Perkins (in her debut), Joseph Schildkraut, Shelley Winters, Lou Jacobi, Ed Wynn, Richard Beymer, Gusti Huber, Diane Baker (in her film debut)

Director: George Stevens

Summary: A young girl comes of age while hiding from the Nazis

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Wynn), Supporting Actress (Winters)*, Dramatic/Comedy Score, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*, B&W Costume Design

Positives

-Obviously the story is a winner for so many reasons. It’s one of the earliest and most unique widely-published accounts about living through the Holocaust, there’s a constant air of tension throughout which culminates in a couple of great scenes involving a robber, and there’s really a sense of deterioration both mentally and physically for the characters after being cooped up in one place for two years and only ever talking with the same 7 other people. The only problem I have from a story standpoint is that the teenage romance stuff feels very cliche, and while there were romantic feelings in real life, it was apparently a much more nuanced relationship between Anne and Peter than we see in the movie.

-The Cinematography is good, especially on some of the night scenes, although the studio forcing them to shoot such a claustrophobic movie in Cinemascope is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of. They mostly worked around it by placing columns on the sides of the rooms to act as an artificial narrowing device.

Negatives

-Keeping with the trend of everything needing to be some big epic, this movie is 3 hours long which is really to the movie’s detriment. Many of the scenes feel redundant or last too long and you could have made a much more tight and interesting movie that has a stronger focus on the character and relationship development scenes, along with the scenes that reflect the tension and growing desperation of the situation.

-Not only was this Perkins’ film debut, this was her acting debut period. Stevens saw photos of her as a model and cast her after screen tests. Perkins never did anything else of note despite this plum role, and you can kind of see why-she’s not that great, although she is photogenic and looks the part well enough. It’s unfortunate that Susan Strasberg, who was nominated for a Tony in the original stage production, turned down the role as I remember her being really good in Picnic.

Overall

Uneven and way too long, it definitely has its high points but there’s a lot of old-Hollywood kind of gloss for a movie that would be better as something stark and completely realistic and Perkins was a poor gamble for the lead.

Rating: C+

The Nun’s Story (1959)

nuns

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Dame Edith Evans, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dean Jagger, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Barbara O’Neil

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Summary: The daughter of a Belgian surgeon enters a convent in hopes of serving god as a nursing nun in the Congo.

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Hepburn), Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound Recording, Color Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-Because she’s such a sole focus of this movie, the film lives or dies on Hepburn’s performance which is excellent. Throughout the course of the movie, you see the weariness on her face grow and grow along with her general body language; Hepburn herself frequently called it her best performance. Credit also has to go to the makeup department as well: her at the beginning: http://showbizgeek.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Screen-Shot-2013-05-08-at-21.45.42.png; her at the end: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/The-Nuns-Story.jpg.

Negatives

-The movie starts out as an interesting examination of the life of nun (circa late 1920’s-1930’s) and how much sacrifice, dedication and detachment from everything that makes you an individual is required, and it’s presented in a way that’s intelligent and matter of fact. However, after the first 30 minutes, it dawns on you that the rest of the movie is just going to be this for another 2 hours, making it a 150 minute movie mostly comprised of watching Hepburn being miserable as a nun. She has some brief moments of happiness that keep her going, mainly treating people in the Congo with Peter Finch, but other than that, it’s a steady decline into complete misery. There’s the obvious question that we don’t get any kind of a good resolution to until the very end (which is the best scene in the movie): why does she continue doing it? It is clear she signed a 3 year contract when she confirmed she was to be a nun after about 6 months of training although 1) it’s not like there are any real repercussions for breaking it and 2) it’s not clear why she signed it to begin with, she was already miserable and getting nothing out of it. Basically, she wants to help people as a nurse, but there’s no given reason for why she couldn’t have just been a regular nurse. At the bottom line, the movie really has a big problem: I never really got the sense that she’s an exceptionally religious person, which is kind of a fundamental problem with the movie. The entire movie is about her crisis of faith, but rarely do we get to see anything showing her being someone of incredible faith to begin with, just a lot of talking about it.

Overall

There’s an excellent performance from Audrey Hepburn and the movie starts out interesting enough, but it gets really old really fast and it’s missing a real sense of justification for Hepburn to continue with her suffering after a while.

Rating: C-

Room at the Top (1959)

room

Starring: Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret, Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit, Donald Houston, Hermione Baddeley

Director: Jack Clayton

Summary: A young accountant tries to claw his way to the top in the boardroom and the bedroom

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Harvey), Actress (Signoret)*, Supporting Actress (Baddeley), Adapted Screenplay*

Positives

-Dramas about class are a British specialty, but the movie this reminds me a lot of is American-it’s A Place in the Sun, except turned on its head. Laurence Harvey gives a stiff performance, but it really fits his character, an ambitious, abrasive, immature man who is totally driven to get the top by any means necessary-the result is a person who initially only sees women for the sex they can give him and their family bank account. What makes this a better movie than A Place in the Sun though is that the film treats Harvey’s character as the scumbag he is, and his character actually grows over the course of the film, even if it’s too late.

-Simone Signoret won the Oscar for her performance, and while I am a little surprised she won, but she’s really good as the experienced, intelligent but fragile underneath lower-class woman Harvey becomes attracted to. She’s believable and her slightly worn-out looks (i.e. that she’s pretty for her age, but was stunning in her prime) serve her very well.

-For the time, it’s extremely daring and forthright about its characters freely engaging in sex and affairs without strong moral judgment in a way that was unheard of for the time, and when you combine it with fellow nominee Anatomy of a Murder, you can tell attitudes about permissible content in movies are already changing dramatically.

Negatives

-Sometimes it feels like Signoret’s character is inconsistent and only does things because the plot demands she does. On one hand, a lot of the time she feels like a worldly, strong, totally self-assured, comfortable in her own skin character; others, she falls apart because she’s self-conscious about her age and cannot stand to live without this one guy. It would be like if Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate fell apart when Dustin Hoffman left her, it doesn’t fit.

-A lot of the attraction when it first came out was from its daringness, which has been lost over the years. Freely talking about sex in a movie is no longer shocking and it entirely has to entertain as a story about class struggle, which it does but still.

Other Stuff

-Baddeley is one of the most absurd acting nominations I’ve ever seen-she has the record for shortest screentime of any Acting nominee ever at 2 minutes and 2 seconds. After the movie, I was like “which one was Baddeley?”, look up the name, didn’t remember that character, and then looked up a photo and said “her?!?” She has does nothing of any note whatsoever in this movie.

Overall

This is still a good movie with interesting things to say about class struggle, and many of the performances good and the central character has a great arc to him, even if the shock value is gone.

Rating: B

1959 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1959

North by Northwest: Yet another in the long line of legendary Hitchcock movies that were not nominated for Best Picture. This one is kind of an amalgam of the best elements from other Hitchcock movies: mistaken identity, a man on the run, one of his mainstay leading men (Cary Grant), and scary groups working in the shadows. It’s a lot of fun and is generally considered one of the director’s best.

Some Like It Hot: North By Northwest might not have even been the biggest omission from 1959, as we have this movie from Billy Wilder that’s considered one of the greatest comedies of all-time. It was nominated for six Oscars but not BP, maybe because there were some in the Academy who resented how blatantly it flouted the Production Code-the main characters are cross-dressing for most of the movie and there are obvious homosexual themes throughout. The AFI named it the greatest comedy of all-time and it was one of the first films named to the National Film Registry.

The 400 Blows: The first classic to come out of the French New Wave and the directorial debut of Francois Truffaut. Ranked #39 in the last Sight and Sound poll, it fit in with one of the major themes of the 50’s that would explode in the 60s: youth in revolt against an unjust older generation.

Imitation of Life: Remake of the 1934 Best Nominee I reviewed (and liked a lot), this version is also in the National Film Registry. The story is changed in a number of ways, and I can see why they would but I actually think it weakens one of the characters quite a bit; however, most people consider this version to be the superior one.

Pillow Talk: Nominated for six Oscars but not Best Picture, this movie contains an interesting piece of irony: in it, Rock Hudson is a straight man pretending to be gay at one point; in real life, Hudson was a gay man pretending to be straight. In the National Film Registry.

Rio Bravo: Considered one of Howard Hawks and John Wayne’s best Westerns, this was basically their response to High Noon which they hated for various reasons: it flips the plot, by having a loner turn down the help of a bunch of colorful characters going into a shoot out. In the National Film Registry.

Shadows: Debut of director John Cassavetes, and it’s considered one of the watershed moments in independent cinema. It was originally finished in 1958 and screened a few times, but reactions were negative, causing Cassavetes to rework a lot of the movie including reshoots, with the redone version debuting in 1959, although it didn’t get distribution until 1961. In the National Film Registry.

Sleeping Beauty: It underperformed at the box office, which is why it was the last Disney classic fairy-tale adaptation until Little Mermaid in 1989. After re-releases in the 1970s however, people started appreciating it for its artistic beauty along with some of the darker moments in the classic Disney canon.

House on Haunted Hill & The Tingler: The movies that put director/producer William Castle on the map. Castle was truly a larger than life and entertaining figure in the film industry, bringing youth-appropriate, low-budget horror movies to the masses that were famous for gimmicks: HOHH with it’s “Emergo” (which meant a plastic skeleton being floated over the audience) and Tingler with “Percepto!” (electrical buzzers under the seats). There’s a lot more I could say about Castle (and there’s an excellent documentary about him out called Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story), but he really was the kind of guy that we just don’t see anymore in the movie industry.

Plan 9 from Outer Space: Ed Wood’s magnum opus and the most famous bad movie ever. It has everything: shots turning from day to night to day in the course of a single scene, terrible props, gravestones that fall over, inane dialogue and bad acting. It was a landmark in “so bad it’s good” movies (a genre I am very fond of) that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

1959 Nominees in Review

Anatomy of a Murder: A-

Ben-Hur: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Room at the Top: B

The Diary of Anne Frank: C+

The Nun’s Story: C-

As we exit the 50’s, you can sure tell the 60’s will be a very different decade on the whole, as movies are successfully pushing content boundaries. Heck, in 1959 a movie using the words rape and panties was edgy, by 1969, we had movies like Midnight Cowboy and The Wild Bunch. Ben-Hur is the kind of movie that dominates Oscar ceremonies, as it’s presentation is as good as it gets for the time (and still looks great), it’s epic storytelling (well, setting-wise anyway), and it did massive business at the box office. However, while Ben-Hur is a fine choice, Anatomy of a Murder is probably the better film with more interesting characters, themes, better dialogue and just a more engaging movie for the whole of its run-time. We can already see the old-Hollywood vs. new-Hollywood divide coming from just this batch of films: Anatomy of a Murder and Room at the Top pushed content boundaries and are morally ambiguous, whereas Ben-Hur is your classic Hollywood Biblical epic and The Diary of Anne Frank is made like an Old-Hollywood movie with a lot of gloss on the main character and the romance aspect even if it shouldn’t have been.
Up for 1960: One of the first big, obvious lobbying efforts for a Best Picture nomination despite the movie itself not actually being all that well-received by critics; The last B&W Best Picture winner until Schindler’s List in 1993; A movie based on a Sinclair Lewis novel that faced immense pressure from religious groups before its release; A movie that’s win for best cinematography should be no surprise as two of the all-time greats in the field were involved; and the first Best Picture nominee filmed in Australia.