1959 was a very good year for world cinema (and Hollywood, too)

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Oct 6, 2011


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The Bottom Line some transcendant masterpieces and some very funny movies

Though, not unusually, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters were distracted by meretricious trash (in a historical, “religious” guise), 1959 was a year with some very memorable work by some old masters (Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph L. Mankewicz, Lewis Milestone, Ozu Yasujiro Otto Preminger, Carol Reed, Roberto Rossellini, Douglas Sirk, George Stevens, Fred Zinnemann), the budding French New Wave (Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, the Bengali director Satyajit Ray working in splendid isolation, and some experienced film-makers who would make more major motion pictures than those they already had made (Ichikawa Kon and Robert Wise).

There were some fine female performances (including one that dominated the movie despite its having less screen time than the movie’s male protagonist), there were more substantial male roles than female ones in ten of my eleven picks. Even one about a “girl’s band” had males playing the parts with more screentime (there was a flamboyant “woman’s picture: in Douglas Sirk’s remake of “Imitation of Life,” but I think that Mick LaSalle is right (in Complicated Women) that women have been subordinated as a focus  in Hollywood product since the Production Code began to be seriously enforced in mid-1934, and beyond the demise that was advanced by Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, both of whom had movies in my top-five of 1959).

[insert drum roll here]

(1) “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu) was the third installment in   Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (following Pather Panchali and Aparajito). As Apu. Soumitra Chatterjee goes from youthful naievete to bitter despair as he gains and loses a wife, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) with whom he falls in love. She dies in childbirth and Apu goes back (from Calcutta where he stayed on after college) to his natal village to raise his son. “Aparajito” may be better, but “Apur Sansar” is even more wrenching. Subrata Mitra shot the trilogy and other Ray movies (and the first Merchant Ivory ones).

(2) “Anatomy of a Murder,” directed by Otto Preminger, had great performances by James Stewart (perhaps his best, “Rear Window” providing the competition), Army/McCarthy attorney Joseph Welsh (as the judge), Lee Remick, Arthur O’Connell, a smarmy George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara... and Duke Ellington and a cute little dog. Focusing on a case of possibly justifiable homicide (an army officer killing his wife’s rapist, the rape being very uncertain), the movie continued Preminger’s undercutting of the censorship code. The courtroom drama included the shocking words “spermatogenesis” and “panties.” Sam Leavitt who had just won an Oscar for “The Defiant Ones” and would be nominated again for Preminger’s epic “Exodus” provided black-and-white atmospheric photography.

(3) Ichikawa Kon’s “Fires on the Plain” (Nobi) makes his “Burmese Harp” look almost light-hearted in comparison. Both show the deperation of Japanese soldiers cut off from any resupply in the waning days of World War II, in this instance in the Philippines (don’t ask me which island! The movie was shot entirely in Japan.). It is very grim and very beautifully shot. Funakoshi Eiji was magnificent as the desperate (but not desperate enough to cross a line others did) Tamura.

(4) “Some Like It Hot”  is the versatile master Billy Wilder’s most loved comedy (I have greater attachment to “One, Two, Three”) with a sweet Marilyn Monroe as a member of an all-girl band into which a charming Tony Curtis and the constantly flustered Jack Lemmon hide out after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. “Nobody’s perfect” as Joe E. Brown says in the final line (flummoxing Jack Lemmon anew), but the movie is close, even with George Raft in it.

(5) “North by Northwest,” directed by  Alfred Hitchcock has two of the best-known set pieces (the crop duster menacing Cary Grant, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint menaced on Mount Rushmore by Martin Landau). It also has one of the slyest romances of any Hitchcock movie and Cary Grant as the archetype of Hitchcock’s mistaken identity (wrong man) motif.

(6) “Il Generale della Rovere,” directed by Roberto Rossellini has the other great Italian neo-realist director, Vittorio De Sica, in the title role as a compromised man  (a thief) who rises to the challenge of his role (a leader of the resistance), adumbrating Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha.”

(7) Michel (Martin LaSalle) is the titular “Pickpocket”  in Robert Bresson’s austere classic (a sort of stripped down Crime and Punishment), who makes the mistake of picking the pocket of a better pickpocket (Kassagi). Well, not ultimately a mistake, since they team. And the lonely hunter finds love (Marika Green). As with “Un condamné à mort s'est échappé”  (A Man Escapes),  the extended focus on the mechanics is fascinating, more so than the character’s existential crises. As in other films, Bresson was aided by a great cinematographer, Léonce-Henri Burel.

(8) “Hiroshima mon amour,” directed by  Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras is a haunting romance between a Japanese man (Okada Eiji) whose family was incinerated at Hiroshima and a visiting French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) who had a German lover during the war and was punished for “horizontal collaboration” after it — against a background of Japanese demonstrations against renewal of US bases in Japan. The leads, neither of whom has a name, were superb, as was the cinematography by Takahashi Mishio and Sacha Vierny

(9) “Room at the Top,” directed by Jack Clayton, based on a novel by John Braine, focuses on a caddish young social-climber of working-class roots played by Laurence Harvey, who has been having an affair with the divine Simone Signoret (who won an Oscar in the role), but casts her aside to marry up, the factory owner’s daughter (Heather Sears). Harvey was almost too convincing as the self-serving manipulator and Signoret broke my heart (over and over, as this was a movie that played very frequently on late-night movies on tv when I was an adolescent). Freddie Francis provided the look(s).

(10-tie) “Our Man in Havana,” directed by  Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man), is the last of the great Alec Guiness comedies. Based on one of the “entertainments” (which I prefer to the serious “novels”) by Graham Greene it has Guiness as a British vacuum-cleaner salesman in pre-Castro (Batista) Cuba, who is recruited as a spy by Noël Coward (who in turn is run by Ralph Richardson), suspected by Ernie Kovacs (in his one great big-screen role) and romances Maureen O’Hara. The Cold War was rarely funnier than with Guiness’s character being takenseriously. In contrast, the great Korean War combat movie “Pork Chop Hill,” directed by  Lewis Milestone All Quiet on the Western Front, Of Mice and Men) is very gritty and serious, though taking and holding the hill has no real military value. Gregory Peck was impressive as the lieutenant trying to keep his men (a group that included Woody Strode [all Korean War movies have to have an exemplary African American soldier], Woody Strode, and actors who became movie stars in the 1960s and the 1970s, e.g. George Peppard, Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, Robert Blake, Norman Fell, Harry Guardino, Martin Landau, and Gavin MacLeod, George Peppard, and Rip Torn).

Ten Alternates:

Les Yeux sans visage/Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju)

I'm All Right Jack  (John Boulting)

Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus)

Rio Bravo  (Howard Hawks)

Les quatre cents coups /The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)

Nazarín (Luis Buñuel)

The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens)

The Nun's Story (Fred Zinnemann)

Ballad of a Soldier  (Grigori Chukraj)


And some other memorable and/or good 1959 movies:
The Bridge, Compulsion, Les cousins, Floating Weeds, The Great War, The Hanging Tree, The Horse Soldiers, Imitation of Life, The Last Angry Man, The League of Gentlemen, The Mouse That Roared, Odds Against Tomorrow, On the Beach, Operation Petticoat, Pillow Talk, Ride Loneseome, Sapphire, Suddenly, Last Summer, Tiger Bay, Warlock, The Young Phildaelphians

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I have also  listed what I think are the ten best films ever made, an expansive list of my favorite movies, best non-American-language movies by country,
the best movies of the 1940s, the 1970s,  the 1980s,
1939, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

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