Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Best of the Year: The 1950s and Beyond

My Picks of the 1950s and Beyond...
(in alphabetical order)
David Lean’s masterpiece is a real jaw-dropper. Like Lawrence of Arabia, this film is so epic in scope, it is really quite a sight to behold. The Japanese have forced the British soldiers, led by Sir Alec Guinness, to build them a railway bridge. It’s a huge undertaking and Guinness believes he can gain control over the Japanese once the massive structure is built. But little does he know that an American ally is ready to blow the bridge up to smithereens. What engages on screen is nothing short of sheer tension and exciting, magical filmmaking.

The Defiant Ones (1958)
This cinematic breakthrough, nominated for nine Oscars and winner of two, including screenplay, received very high acclaim thanks to the pairing of two great actors of the 50's and 60's, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. They play two convicts who must learn to get along with one another, despite a difference in background, race and criminal history, while chained together and on the lam. It's a standard criminals-on-the-run plot, but it's infused with racial tension and filmed in glorious black and white, furiously paced and wonderfully acted.

Dial M for Murder (1954)
In one of Hitchcock's finest works, Ray Milland plays a tennis pro who decides to murder his promiscuous wife, played by the luminous Grace Kelly. He hires a hit man to strangle her, but it is the hit man who ends up dead. In fun, Hitchcockian fashion, Milland tries to cover it all up and one surprise follows another as the police investigate the baffling case. This was remade in the 90's as A Perfect Murder, which was awfully flat. This one worked because it had a "classic" feel to it, like an old-style, storybook murder mystery. There's no flash and trickery here - just well-oiled, pure bred storytelling.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
In my favorite Hitchcock film, which happens be a remake of his own older version (unseen by me), Jimmy Stewart plays Ben McKenna, a doctor whose family unwillingly becomes a part of a kidnapping/assassination plot during a vacation in Africa. The suspense is taut and thrilling and I believe it is Hitchcock’s tightest film. The Oscar-winning score is terrific and that song, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be,” is haunting, playing a memorable role in this gorgeously shot classic.

Stalag 17 (1953)
My obsession with prison breakouts continues with this searing drama from the great Billy Wilder. Stalag 17 is a POW camp set in Germany and, in its midst, there is a spy who is feeding the Germans information. This information, of course, makes it impossible for anyone to escape the camp and the POWs are fingering William Holden as the culprit. Holden must then find out who the real spy is before he gets himself killed by the bare hands of the angry prisoners. This movie, for lack of a better term, is definitely the shit.

12 Angry Men (1957)
Henry Fonda. Martin Balsam. Ed Begley. Jack Warden. Lee J. Cobb. E.G. Marshall. These were the heavyweights of the 50's. They played half of a jury who were forced to decide on the verdict of a young man on trial for murder. It's the classic courtoom drama that doesn't even step foot in the courtroom. Revered director Sidney Lumet tightens the screws ever-so-slowly and the effect is heart-stopping. Watching old pros at work is always a thrill.

The Young Philadelphians (1959)
Paul Newman plays a young man with good ethics and an eye for success. We watch as he grows out of a blue collar existence into the prestigious world of law. Throughout a majority of this excellent soap opera, Newman is faced with moral exercises and grueling decisions that will eventually make him to be the man he is destined to become. If this sounds like something out a great, epic novel, then I suppose that’s what The Young Philadephians is; a sprawling, episodic, years-spanning drama about principles and moral truths. It’s a beautiful film, immensely watchable from start to finish.

Honorary Mention

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