Sunday, July 7, 2024

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1952: Before The Year Begins

Two months ago, I started a trilogy of retrospectives, looking at films nominated for Academy Awards - and not nominated but released - during the years for which John Ford was named Best Director. Ford won Best Director four times: for 1935's The Informer, for 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, for 1941's How Green Was My Valley (the only time his film also won Best Picture, interestingly enough), and, finally, for 1952's The Quiet Man. Having looked at the cinema of 1935 two years ago, I focused on the latter three, interesting because not only were two of them back-to-back wins, a rare feat, but because the swathe of time covers the lead-up to WWII and the beginning of a new decade.

1952 is a new world. While there were always international relations and, therefore, film releases, the 50s saw a growing importation of international cinema. Mind, "international" still mostly means "British", but one thing that grew out of WWII was better exportation of cinema from the former Axis countries now occupied by the Allies - Japan, Germany, Italy - as well as the growth of international co-productions (The Medium, for example, is an Italian production of an American work).

Today, the first in our month-long excursion into 1952, we look at six films that were not only all made overseas but were released in their countries and in some parts of the USA before 1952. They all still managed to qualify for this year's Oscars, and indeed, two of them were nominated. 

The Medium
release: September 5, 1951
nominations: Best Musical Score (Gian Carlo Menotti)
dir/scr: Gian Carlo Menotti, from his opera
pr: Walther Lowenthal
cin: Enzo Serafin

A modern opera in which a fake medium is overwhelmed by a genuine presence during a session. Cinematographer Enzo Serafin provides the atmosphere, Belva Kibler (as a client) and Leopoldo Savona (as a mute assistant) provide the gravitas. Overall, I was underwhelmed.  The music is the star of an opera, and the music here is just not my bag. 

The Lavender Hill Mob
release: October 15, 1951
wins: Best Story & Screenplay
nominations: Best Actor (Alec Guinness)
dir: Charles Crichton
pr: Michael Balcon
scr: T.E.B. Clarke
cin: Douglas Slocombe

A mild-mannered banker plots a gold heist with the help of an artist and two crooks. One of the better heist films I've seen, thanks to its unexpected protagonist and unpredictable turns. Yes, unpredictable - things will always go sideways in a heist film, but where and how, in this case, is genuinely surprising and, importantly, amusing. Giddy performances from Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway, grown men indulging in one last pubescent romp. Audrey Hepburn appears briefly at the beginning as Chiquita, early in her career; just three years later, she won an Oscar.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
release: October 15, 1951
dir/scr: Albert Lewin
pr: Joseph Kaufmann / Albert Lewin / John Woolf
cin: Jack Cardiff

Pandora, object of affection and obsession for the men around her, finds herself drawn to a mysterious Dutch sailor...could he be the Flying Dutchman of legend? Jack Cardiff is the cinematographer, which is why it's one of the most beautiful things you've ever seen in your life: a golden glow amplifies the summer beauty of the Spanish coast, moonlit nights seem to sparkle between this world and a fantasy one, Ava Gardner's closeups look executed by a man in love. Speaking of Gardner, she's wonderful as a careless woman who finds something, someone, to care for; James Mason as the Dutchman: romantic, sad - I could fix him. It's a magical, romantic movie.

Brighton Rock (aka Young Scarface)
release: November 7, 1951
dir: John Boulting
pr: Roy Boulting
scr: Graham Greene and Terence Ratigan, from the novel by Graham Greene
cin: Harry Waxman

A 1948 UK film. Released in the United States under the title Young Scarface. No wonder: it follows a young gangster trying to assert his power in a seaside town. Well, what can I say, it's a great movie. Script, performances, direction, all thread the difficult needle of Pinkie Brown as vicious thug, preening teen, opportunist, and first-time romantic, some of which he himself is surprised by, trying to push out as weakness. Or is he just a monster? There's enough ambiguity to make it worth a conversation, and all within a real humdinger of a thriller.

The Browning Version
release: November 9, 1951
dir: Anthony Asquith
pr: Teddy Baird
scr: Terence Ratigan, from his play
cin: Desmond Dickinson

A schoolmaster is forced to reckon with his life on the eve of his retirement. The anti-Mr. Chips, all about a man who can't connect the way he wants to, isn't much liked by the boys or his peers or even his wife Well. I love me a sad movie and this one was pretty devastating. Imagine being forced to take stock of your life and finding you come up short - and yet, imagine that throughout the decades of emptiness, you still managed to find one - one! - connection, that made it all worthwhile. In that sense, it's a far better tribute to pedagogy than some other films I've seen. Here is a man (brilliantly portrayed by Michael Redgrave) who finds himself questioning his entire existence, and suddenly here comes a student who tells him, at the last possible moment, he had an impact. That's not a spoiler, by the way, it's there from Act One, but the drama is in how he and others in his life doubt it, twist it, interpret it. And the personal insults, the unfaithful wife and the pension brouhaha, all slaps that Redgrave plays so quietly that they are far more brutal than if he sobbed outright - though when he does sob, oh what impact! What a movie!

release: December 26, 1951
wins: Honorary Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1951
nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Black-and-White (Takashi Matsuyama / H. Motsumoto)
dir: Akira Kurosawa
pr: Minoru Jingo
scr: Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, from the stories "In a Grove" and "Rashomon" by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa
cin: Kazuo Miyagawa

A 1950 Japanese film. Four different accounts of the same crime. I'd read the short story on which it's based a decade ago, I saw the Paul Newman remake The Outrage (has one really experienced capital-a Acting until they've seen Newman as a Mexican bandito?) two years ago, so I do apologize if I wasn't as overwhelmed narratively by this picture as I maybe should have been. No, instead, what stood out for me were the production design, the score, the cinematography, the performances, the editing, the sound design, the directing overall....oh, but other than all of that, it's OK.

Tomorrow, the first month of 1952 is all about murder...
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