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+

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*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+

The Sundowners (1960)

sundowners

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Peter Ustinov, Michael Anderson Jr., Glynis Johns

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Summary: An Australian sheepherder and his wife clash over their nomadic existence and their son’s future

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Johns), Adapted Screenplay

Positives

-This was one of the first Hollywood movies filmed in Australia, and there are plenty of good landscape shots-I’m surprised it didn’t get a Color Cinematography nomination on this basis

-Kerr is good as Mitchum’s feisty wife who wants the family to settle down, as is her Australian accent. Ustinov is worth watching for his voice alone and is entertaining enough.

Negatives

-This is an extremely slow and boring movie that feels like a series of loosely connected events, none of which by themselves are very consequential and combined into a 135 minute whole still don’t amount to much of anything. Seeing a lot of sheep shearing, sheep herding and Kerr and Mitchum arguing for 2 hours plus about the same thing without it ever going anywhere isn’t very interesting to me. This was not my kind of movie to say the least.

Overall

Yes, this was an extremely brief review because I really don’t have much more to say about this movie. It barely has a plot despite its runtime and nobody ever really gets anywhere over the course of the film. The only saving graces are the location footage and some of the performances.

Rating: D

1960 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1960

Psycho: One of Hitchcock’s most popular and celebrated films, it might just be his best (except for that awful scene with the psychiatrist at the end). Hitchcock had pretty much done everything he could do in the thriller genre by this time (with North by Northwest being a great endpoint for that part of his career), so he decided to conqueror the horror genre as well. I could say a lot about this movie, but most everything has been said by now: Anthony Perkins of course is the standout and one of the most obvious Oscar omissions ever and it has some of the great shock moments in film.

La Dolce Vita: One of Fellini’s most acclaimed films, it’s structure is quite unusual for the time-it’s a sprawling, lengthy series of episodic sequences starring the main character (a journalist) trying to find meaning in life while indulging in the Roman nightlife. It was nominated for 4 Oscars (an extremely rare feat for a foreign language film) and won the Palme d’Or.

Breathless: When you think of French New Wave, this is probably the movie you think of. It was Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, at the time of it’s release was similar to when Pulp Fiction came out: it was so much cooler, hipper and different than anything else out there and the next decade would see numerous imitators trying to tap into it with diminishing results.

Spartacus: Probably the biggest casualty of John Wayne’s politicking, this movie was nominated for 6 Oscars but not Best Picture. With an outstanding cast (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov) and legendary Director Stanley Kubrick at the helm, it’s an entertaining Roman Empire epic that was historically significant as the movie that along with Exodus, broke the blacklist: Kirk Douglas announced Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter (the same happened with Exodus that year), and President-elect JFK crossed picket lines to attend the movie.

L’Avventura: Generally considered Michelangelo Antonioni’s greatest film, it’s the definition of an art film-structurally bizarre, deliberately paced with long sequences where seemingly nothing happens and tons of ambiguity. Ranked #21 on the last Sight and Sound list.

House of Usher: The first of the eight Roger Corman/Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe movies that the two would make at AIP over the next five years (yes, they worked quickly). I’ve talked about Price before, but Corman is one of the most interesting characters in the history of cinema. He was legendary for pumping out tons of movies for AIP on time and under budget, but his legacy is giving some of the greatest talent in film history their first break: people like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Peter Bogdanovich all got their start working on Corman movies. House of Usher is in the National Film Registry.

Peeping Tom: Michael Powell said in his autobiography “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.” It’s incredibly controversial content (a man uses a portable camera with a spike on the end in order to murder women and capture their reactions) doomed the film with contemporary reviews calling it disgusting filth, but later in the late 1970’s it got a re-appraisal and is considered one of the great horror films of all-time.

Eyes Without a Face: One of the most unusual horror films of all-time, with my favorite Criterion cover (http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/81I%2BYKV5ybL._SL1500_.jpg). This is a very dream-like movie, about a surgeon who disfigured his daughter’s face in a car accident, so his guilt leads him to abducting young women and grafting their faces onto his daughter’s; despite the premise, there’s no gore with the notable exception of one sequence. A great movie in its own right, John Carpenter said the mask from this movie (http://s3.amazonaws.com/auteurs_production/images/film/eyes-without-a-face/w1280/eyes-without-a-face.jpg) probably inspired the Michael Myers mask.

1960 Nominees in Review

The Apartment: A (Won Best Picture)

Elmer Gantry: A-

Sons and Lovers: D+

The Alamo: D+

The Sundowners: D

The two movies that won most of the major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, and both Screenplays) are the two real gems of the year and deserved their accolades. The others…not so much. This was as big a feast or famine year as you’re going to find, and the 3 duds were really a slog to get through. This year featured one of the tougher Best Actor/Actress battles so far, although there was a much more famous one two years later.
Coming for 1961: The second French All-Star movie of the last four years, but swapping out Louis Jourdan for Charles Boyer this time; A Best Picture nominee directed by the guy who made the last two of the original Planet of the Apes movies and nine films with Charles Bronson (and not the good ones); A movie featuring a bit part from the subject of a future Best Picture nominee, Raging Bull; A movie where its Best Actor winner got 5th billing; and a movie where one of the co-directors never did another movie despite it winning Best Picture.