"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 24, 2015

The Best Films of the Year 1950

The 1950s

The 1950s are an interesting decade for a survey of world cinema. It was a "golden decade" for artistic, auteurist films and a period in which many national cinemas succeeded in making an international breakthrough. Moreover, in the larger national cinemas such as the U.S. and Japan, such individualistic directors could rely on the rich resources of the studio system.

A good example is Japan, which had its first international hit with Rashomon (much to the surprise of the Japanese themselves at that time), which was followed  by a long series of masterworks as Tokyo Story, Ugetsu Monogatari, etc., by directors as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Another such country is India, thanks to the masterful Apu Trilogy (1955-59) of Satyajit Ray (it were the years of "Parallel Cinema" from the State of Bengal that challenged the purely money-making ventures of the Hindi cinema of Bollywood).

In Scandinavia, Bergman made his first films, while also Sjöberg and Dreyer attracted attention. Italian film had already made a comeback in the 1940s with the Neo-realist works of De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini; in the fifties, the next generation of Antonioni and Fellini would start making their personal and imaginative films; and Visconti would start making his great nostalgic costume dramas.

France continued being a strong film country, with minimalist works of directors as Bresson and Melville, the surrealist fantasies of Cocteau, and the Hitchcock-like thrillers of Clouzot, while established directors like Ophuls and Renoir returned from exile in the U.S. and were again hitting their stride. And at the end of the fifties the fabulous period of the New Wave would start.

Conversely, Britain was rather in the doldrums after a string of artistic films in the 1940s - there was little innovation in the 1950s, although Powell and Pressburger continued making their color spectacles. And Germany was licking its wounds with fluffy Heimat-films - it would take until the 1970s before artistic cinema did take-off.

In Hollywood, the English-born director Hitchcock and Austrian-born Billy Wilder made their greatest films. Popular genres were noir films, musicals, the Western, science-fiction and the new genre of films about rebellious youth which came up in the middle of the decade. But Hollywood started feeling the competition from television earlier than in other countries (leading to the introduction of various scope formats). The investigation of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War hysteria of the early 1950s and the rampant anticommunist witch hunt of McCarthyism led to the departure of many talents; at the same time, free expression was curtailed by self-censorship, leading to conformism and mediocrity.


Best film of 1950: 

Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Four characters provide self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, a man's murder and the rape of his wife, showing that the objective truth is unknowable. These different accounts are presented in a non-linear way, through an ingenious use of flashbacks and striking images. 
The unconventional Rashomon not only marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage (winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951), it is also widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made. It revolutionized film language with its long silent takes of movement and its varied symbolism, and was a source of inspiration for many directors in the West. In Rashomon, style and content have been perfectly blended. It not only brought fame to its director Kurosawa, as one of the world's great authorial film makers, but also made a star of Toshiro Mifune, who plays the robber Tajomaru in the film with boisterous relish. "Rashomon," the name of the medieval city gate of Kyoto (in the film falling to pieces and thus a symbol of the chaotic times in which the story is set), even found its way into the English language, for the situation where witnesses give conflicting testimonies which cannot be reconciled with each other, is now called a "Rashomon-effect." But Rashomon is not just a film about a trial, it is before anything else a deeply philosophical film that reveals the darkness in the human heart, the selfishness and false pride with which many of us prefer to face the world. To put it in the symbolic terms of Rashomon, which is set in a labyrinthine forest, filmed in an almost hypnotic way, "the characters in the film go astray in the thicket of their hearts." Or as Kurosawa himself put it, "Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem."
Read my detailed review at Japan Navigator.



Other Top Five of the Year: 

La Ronde by Max Ophüls (France)
A Master of Ceremonies operating an old-fashioned merry-go-round, shows us ten vignettes about love in which each new character has an affair with the protagonist from the previous scene, so forming a round dance of sex.
This enchanting, poetic film is my personal favorite. It is a nostalgic film about the fickleness of the human heart and the transitoriness of love, shown in ten short vignettes playing in the Vienna of 1900 (based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler). The film is experimental in that it breaks the "fourth wall:" the stories are presented by a sort of master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook), who addresses us, the audience, but also the actors, and who on top of that appears in various guises throughout the film. He also operates the merry-go-round of the title, a symbol of the round dance of love: every lover has two partners (showing two sides of each character) and the last lover in the film links with the first one, making the circle round. This dance is made concrete through the beautiful waltz music, composed by Oscar Strauss, a scion of the famous family, that returns after each episode. The acting in the film is perfect, smooth and natural (Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Gérard Philipe, etc.); the sets and dresses are opulent. La Ronde exposes human foibles with a wink, it shows compassion rather than satirizing, - but it is also a film with overtly sexual themes (though without nudity or profanity), which in the 1950s was forbidden in many cities in the U.S. In one scene Anton Walbrook cuts up a strip of film because it has been "censored," pointing both at Ophüls' own experiences in Hollywood, and at the fate - at least initially - of the present film. (When compared with the vulgar physical way in which sexual themes are treated today also in Hollywood, what strikes on the contrary is the poetic and high-minded way in which Ophüls addressed this matter, without hiding anything, but also without becoming coarse or tasteless).
Read my detailed review at Splendid Labyrinths.



All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (United States)
An ambitious young woman (Anne Baxter, the "Eve" of the title), who hides her real intentions, insinuates herself cunningly into the company of an established but aging stage actress (Bette Davis as Margo Channing) and her circle of theater professionals.
This consciously literary film was showered with prizes, both at the Academy Awards and at Cannes. When I first saw it, years ago, I was surprised at the talkiness - more like a play than a film, although it is not based on a theater piece: the script was written expressly for the film by Mankiewicz himself. My appreciation for All About Eve has since steadily risen - and the somewhat unrealistic, theatrical dialogues (which are, on the other hand, brimming full of sparkling wit) can be explained from the fact that this is in fact a film about the theater, bringing not only an actress on stage, but also a playwright, a producer, a director and a theater critic - the theater is shown as theater. I now see those brilliant dialogues as one of the main attractions of the film, besides the wonderful acting of Bette Davis. All About Eve is often compared to Sunset Blvd. (see below) with which it has the theme of the "aging actress" in common, and among critics that last film now seems to score slightly higher, but I prefer the humaneness and realism of Mankiewicz to the sarcasm and Gothic fantasy of Wilder. While Norma, the actress in Wilder's film, is clearly a sad case of madness, Margo Channing in All About Eve gracefully accepts that she is getting too old at forty to continue playing young women in love, and realizes that she has to let go and move to other roles - and make place for a new generation. Note that there is a small role for a real beginning actress in this film: Marilyn Monroe. A witty and intelligent film, showing us the realities of life (generational change) in a humorous way.
Read my detailed review at Splendid Labyrinths.



Los Olvidados by Luis Buñuel (Mexico)
The morals of young Pedro are gradually corrupted by his membership of a group of juvenile delinquents, in the slums of Mexico City, led by "El Jaibo" - when this leader becomes a murderer, Pedro is also implicated
This film won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel - who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, after being chased out of Spain by the fascists and out of the U.S. by the anti-leftist climate - on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'or. After a popular success with one the fluffy films made out of economic necessity, Buñuel finally could get funding to make a film he wanted to make himself. It is a story about poor kids who have become juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City. Although made with passion, this film is a tough, unsentimental and even cynical statement. Then and now it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like Pedro, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as he has seen the older boy murder a friend who gave him away to the police. "El Jaibo" blackmails Pedro to make sure he keeps his mouth shut. He also twice steals from Pedro's employers when  Pedro is trying to reform his life, shifting the blame on Pedro. Nobody is "good" in this film. At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then forces a lost boy to work for him, and he shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Pedro's mother - who hates her son and refuses him food - seems to have no husband, but she has a whole lot of small children and babies, and is inspired to make more after she meets "El Jaibo" - the fact that his nemesis becomes the lover of his mother makes his own home unsafe for Pedro. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, Buñuel has included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example in the form of a dream (in which the boy killed by El Jaibo comes to haunt Pedro), as well as other weird elements, for example a girl bathing her legs in milk (a beauty recipe, ensuring that in the future she will go the same way as Pedro's mother), or a rooster staring down a blind man. And in typical Buñuel-like fetishist fashion "El Jaibo" is turned on when he sees Pedro's mother wash her feet. Unnecessary to say that it all ends in disaster: Pedro is murdered by "El Jaibo" and his body ends up rather symbolically on a garbage dump; but also "El Jaibo" will not survive his crime for long. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows and many other films, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.


Orphée by Jean Cocteau (France)
Orphée is a poet who becomes obsessed with Death in the form of a femme fatale. Although they become dangerously entangled, Death finally sends Orphée back out of the Underworld, to carry on his life with Eurydice.
This is the fifth and best film of poet, playwright and film maker Jean Cocteau, made when he was sixty. The movie transposes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (the poet and musician Orpheus went to the Underworld to retrieve his deceased wife Eurydice and softened the hearts of the gods with his music so that they let Orpheus have his wife back on condition that he never look at her on their way to the upper world, but in his anxiety he disobeyed this command and she vanished forever) to contemporary Paris. Jean Marais plays Opheus as an established poet who is starting to feel the push of the younger generation, like Cocteau did. By chance he meets the Princess of Death, played by Maria Casares (known from Les dames du Bois de Boulogne) as a sort of femme fatale.  She is driven in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce (the chauffeur, Heurtebise, played by François Périer, also is an important character in the film) with motorcycle outriders in fetishistic costumes. Or perhaps these motor riders are meant to evoke Nazis, as the war was just over - the tribunal of Hades, later in the film, reminds one of an improvised war court judging collaborators. Orphée falls in love with the Princess of Death and at the same time hopes to revitalize his poetry with the help of the cryptic messages (like lines from poems) he hears on the radio of her Rolls. This means he neglects his beautiful wife, Eurydice, played by the Marie Déa. The effects in this film are sublime in their simplicity. To enter the Underworld, the characters pass through a mirror; the Underworld is a deserted building with long, dilapidated corridors; when somebody returns to life, the film is simply wound back. One shudders to think what CGI-obsessed Hollywood today would have made of that. In short, this is a film probing the mystery of artistic inspiration, with a powerfully realized dream atmosphere. Not everything that happens is rationally explicable, but it is fun just to let the images seduce you.


Sunset Blvd. by Billy Wilder (United States)
Norma, a now forgotten silent-screen goddess believing in her own indestructibility has turned into a demented recluse, living with her butler (and former director and former husband) Max in a crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion. Dreaming of a comeback to the pictures, she hires Joe Gillis, a small-time screenwriter, who, seduced by her money, becomes her lover and kept man. 
It is wonderful how Billy Wilder pulls off the feat to have a dead man tell his own story (voice-over at the beginning) and still keep the illusion of a perfectly realistic film intact. As viewer you already know how the film ends, so you focus on the why: how did Joe Gillis end up bullet-riddled in the swimming pool of silent-screen goddess and faded diva Norma? The answer is, of course, greed, and in that sense the film can be seen as a critique of money-paradise Hollywood. Joe Gillis ends up living as a kept man with Norma, not because he loves her or even feels compassion for her (she lives in the delusion that she still is a popular star), but because she is rich and spends freely for him, buying him rich suits, good food and enabling him to spend his time leisurely at her pool side. That is what he confesses to Betty, an aspiring screen writer who is in love with him - he cannot give up his wealthy life and start a new existence with her as two poor, hardworking screenwriters. Joe throws away love for money. Ironically, only moments after he sells his soul in this way, he is fatally shot by the jealous Norma. In the person of Norma the film transcends criticism of Hollywood or greed. Norma is the sad personification of someone who has lost high status or position and since spends all the time regretfully longing for the good old days, in the illusion that one is still "important" or "popular." Such a mistake is of course not limited to the theater, but occurs in all walks of life. A drop of Buddhist non-attachment would do wonders here... position and status are only external things, unconnected to our essential self. Norma in Sunset Blvd. is not laughable, but a sad and pitiable case. In the end, her illusions take wholly possession of her: when after murdering Joe, she descends the big staircase in her house in front of the cameras and flashlights of the newsmen, she imagines she starring in a film again...


Roundup for 1950: 
  • In Japan, Yasujiro Ozu made The Munekata Sisters, about the conflict between a traditional older sister and a modern younger sister, who are both in love with the same man. It is perhaps a minor film in his total oeuvre, but still valuable as it is, after all, by Ozu. Also Kurosawa made one more film, Scandal, a critique of sensationalist journalism (like Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole one year later) with a tense courtroom scene. 
  • Jean Cocteau not only made the poetical Orphee, but was also involved in the filming of his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles by Jean-Pierre Melville, the claustrophobic and incestuous story of a brother and sister who refuse to grow up. Great acting by Nicole Stéphane as the sister, Elizabeth - she in fact carries the whole film.
  • In Italy, two new directors made interesting debuts: Michelangelo Antonioni made Chronicle of a Love Affair, a minimalistically filmed existentialist drama, filled with empty compositions, unpredictable camera movements, and self-obsessed characters; and Federico Fellini made Variety Lights (in cooperation with experienced director Alberto Lattuarda), like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. a film set in the entertainment world, although what we have here is the low world of third-rate vaudeville. And neorealist director Roberto Rossellini started his five-film collaboration with Ingrid Bergman with Stromboli, about a woman from a Baltic country who, married to an Italian to escape prisoner camp, cannot get used to life on the barren volcanic island with its ultra-conservative community. It also meant a rather fruitful cooperation in the personal field between director and star, which scandalized Hollywood (and even the U.S. Senate) because they were both already married.
  • In the U.S., several good noir films were made. I mention here All in a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray, where Humphrey Bogart plays a screen writer who suffers from attacks of violent behavior (yes, again a film set in Hollywood); he becomes a murder suspect, but his lovely neighbor provides an alibi. Even more impact has Night and the City by Jules Dassin, about the downfall and hounding to death of a small-time hustler in nightly London. Interesting is that Dassin was chased out of the U.S. by anticommunist hysteria around the time he worked on this film and seems to have put his own anxieties in this frenetic picture.

[Films are listed under the year of their first release, based on information from IMDB. That I have excluded genre films is not out of snobbishness, but because here I want to concentrate on artistic, "auteur" films. Elsewhere I have written extensively on genre film: noir film, neo-noir film, pre-code film, screwball comedies, musical film, S.F. film, classic cult film, cult film, Japanese cult film, samurai movies, yakuza movies, and Japanese horror movies. Also see my post on Silent Film.]

[Film posters from Wikipedia]