Thursday, December 19, 2019

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Top Ten of 1954

With apologies for both the late posting and the absence of beloved titles like Executive Suite, Hobson's ChoicePrince ValiantRiot in Cell Block 11Salt of the Earth, and White Christmas.....

I present the Top Ten of 1954....

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
dir: Richard Fleischer
pr: Walt Disney
scr: Earl Felton, from the novel by Jules Verne
cin: Franz Planer

A feast for the eyes, with its genuinely wowser special effects, intricate production design, and Kirk Douglas. The spectacle is delivered, musical number included, without diluting the discussions of destruction as a means of salvation, environmentalism as the key to living in harmony, the line between genius and megalomaniac, and technology as deliverer of pain and peace. I don't need to tell you that James Mason is terrific, so tied is his performance with Captain Nemo in pop culture, but it certainly helps that his scene partners - Douglas, Peter Lorre, and especially Paul Lukas - are also delivering complex, engaging performances.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
dir: Luis Buñuel
pr: Óscar Dancigers / George Pepper (aka George P. Werker)
scr: Hugo Butler (aka Philip Ansell Roll) and Luis Buñuel
cin: Alex Phillips

I do love a survivalist drama; this one is both sadder and more hilarious than others, for though Crusoe has escaped the stifling society he was born into and builds a new way of life on a desert island...he recreates the life he left behind. Turns out it wasn't the society he disliked, just that he wasn't the one in charge. His relationship with Friday is telling: a man sentenced to die (for what crime, we shall never know) whom Crusoe saves, renames, and calls "friend" ... though he is treated as a pet and a slave. A cutting satire of the default colonial mindset that's as sharp today as it was then.

Creature from the Black Lagoon
dir: Jack Arnold
pr: William Alland
scr: Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, story by Maurice Zimm, from an idea by William Alland
cin: William E. Snyder

Always a relief when the Universal Monsters films I worshipped in childhood turn out to be even better than I remembered on revisiting. Actually, it's even smarter than I gave it credit for, both in its execution of the mystery of the Creature and in its conversations about the thin lines between science, exploitation, and public relations, and how further learning doesn't necessarily mean debunking old beliefs. Of course, it also works purely as a creature feature: the Creature's bursts of violence are quite gnarly (those claws!), just as the famous water ballet is hypnotically sensual.

The Earrings of Madame De...
dir: Max Ophüls
pr: Ralph Baum
scr: Marcel Archard & Max Ophüls & Annette Wademant, dialogue by Marcel Archard, from the novel by Louise de Vilmorin
cin: Christian Matras

Charting the indiscretions and affections of the bourgeoisie through a simple piece of jewelry that is sold, gifted, pawned, re-gifted, secreted, displayed, scorned and valued. I'm sure there's also metaphor in the fact that the people partaking in these games of love are also diplomats on the world stage, navigations of the heart akin to the negotiations of international politics akin to deal-makings of the wallet. Oh, but forgive me if I only think of that afterward, if during the film I can only watch the sparks between Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica, flirtation becoming passion against a backdrop of beautiful baubles and decadent soirees!

Johnny Guitar
dir/pr: Nicholas Ray
scr: Philip Yordan, from the novel by Roy Chanslor
cin: Harry Stradling, Sr.

A kooky western about society's fear of a strong-willed single woman of independent means and the madness of a witch hunt, with Mercedes McCambridge settling a vendetta against Joan Crawford under the guise of law and order. Not a wasted member of the ensemble, from Scott Brady's dangerously attractive Dancin' Kid to John Carradine's surprisingly sweet Old Tom (though I do feel bad for Sterling Hayden, whose pitch-perfect portrayal of the titular Johnny gets lost amid the tempest of JOAN). Genuinely wrenching, with perhaps the most depressing"victory" in any film of 1954, give or take Drive a Crooked Road.

On the Waterfront
dir: Elia Kazan
pr: Sam Spiegel
scr: Budd Schulberg
cin: Boris Kaufman

It is tough to name names, guys! If you are able to do so, it is only because you are a part of their community, so any informing immediately makes you a snitch, a traitor, a rat. But not taking action means enabling and abetting. There's a thin line between a snitch and a whistleblower, just different agendas defining the terms. So, yeah, On the Waterfront is a thinly-veiled justification of its creators' testimony to HUAC, but how do you stand up against tyranny without some kind of perceived betrayal? A complex issue explored thoughtfully, and even if it's not, it's a great working-class drama/noir populated by a murderer's row of top-tier talent.

Le Plaisir
dir: Max Ophüls
pr: Édouard Harispuru / M. Kieffer / Max Ophüls
scr: Jacques Natanson and Max Ophüls, dialogue by Jacques Natanson, from stories by Guy de Maupassant
cin: Philippe Agostini / Christian Matras

Three stories by Guy de Maupassant adapted by Max Ophüls, by turns dreamy, hilarious, heartbreaking - and altogether human. Ophüls' dazzling, sometimes dizzying camera moves - as in the sweeping dance that opens "Le Masque", or in the house tour that ends "La Maison Tellier" - convey an emotional reality, visualizing perfectly the feeling of nights spent clubbing, of bubbly exhilaration, of bitterness and hope, of loneliness and community. It is a film that values everyone, that finds interest in every interaction. And despite its anthology format, despite three stories with untraditional arcs, it is a complete a quilt of human foibles...and delights.


dir/pr: Alfred Hitchcock
scr: John Michael Hayes, from "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich
cin: Robert Burks

Hitchcock's preoccupations with sex, violence, and voyeurism are most literally and liberally applied here, with a laid-up nosey parker investigating a maybe-murder between debates about marriage with his girlfriend, his masseur, his detective friend, himself... Obviously, there's an unpacking to be done of how the film implicates its own audience, with the act of movie-going itself as the ultimate titillation, yada-yada-yada, yes, absolutely, of course. But if you do want just a tight mystery with side-eye of Thelma Ritter and a heaping helping of Grace Kelly doing her Grace Kelly thing, my God, does this movie deliver!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

dir: Stanley Donen
pr: Jack Cummings
scr: Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley, from "The Sobbin' Women" by Stephen Vincent Benet
cin: George J. Folsey

Certainly the horniest musical I've ever seen, and one that makes sure to include several songs about consent, romancing, and open communication between husband and wife amid the kidnapping of maidens and raucous, impressively acrobatic dance-fighting. Also one of the hottest ensemble of players I've ever seen; no mystery why those sobbin' women would rather stay with the Pontipee boys than return home to their families. It's moral and upright without sacrificing a good time, and pulls off the incredible trick of a song score so perfect, so memorable, you feel you must have known it all your life.

A Star is Born

dir: George Cukor
pr: Sidney Luft
scr: Moss Hart, from the screenplay by Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell & Robert Carson and the screen story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson
cin: Sam Leavitt

One of the very best films of its kind, an original musical where every song Vicki Lester performs is as vital to the story as every glass of scotch Norman Maine consumes. A sexy, exciting take that manages to tell its tale without pitting its leads against each other, reminding you again and again of the very real affection, nay adoration, between them, and how they use their talents and showbiz instincts to bring each other up, even if it's just for right now, even if it just gives them one more day. I'll never get over Norman's horror at realizing what he's put his wife through, or the pain behind Vicki's eyes as she performs through her helpless hopelessness.

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