As 2007 comes to a close, I thought it would be fun to Netflix my way back to the past, specifically to fifty years ago, 1957. I started by viewing the five films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar that year, all of which are available on DVD, and three of which I had never seen before.
I started with Sayonara, which is very typical of films from the fifties. It was filmed in Cinemascope (four of the five were), and has the kind of bloat that one associates with “event” pictures that were all the rage as the film industry competed with television. The film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but tells a story that could have been easily been wrapped up in two hours or less, but goes overboard in the way that many extravaganzas from the period did, making sure the viewer knew they were filming on location and spending a lot of money.
The film deals, in a superficial Hollywood liberal way, with racial discrimination. Set in Japan during the Korean war, the script specifically focuses on the many relationships that U.S. GIs made with local Japanese women. This was frowned upon by the brass, and they made it very difficult for soldiers to marry these women. As the film begins, Marlon Brando, as an ace fighter pilot, is transferred to Japan. He has a buddy, played by Red Buttons, who has married a local girl, Miyoshi Umeki, and set up house with her. Brando, who is engaged to the daughter of a general, thinks that Buttons is nuts, but he in turn meets a Japanese actress, Mika Tan, and he wants to marry her. The roadblocks put up by the military inevitably lead to tragedy.
Brando, who was by now a big star, and starting to become the idiosyncratic performer that many would know him for, gives a very strange performance. He affects a Southern drawl that makes him sound like he’s from Dogpatch, and appears to be improvising most of his lines. I read that he and director Joshua Logan were at constant odds over the script. Buttons and Umeki won the Supporting Acting Oscars.
Witness for the Prosecution is the unlikely teaming of Billy Wilder and Agatha Christie. Based on her book and play, this Wilder film is a good old-fashioned courtroom drama, starring Charles Laughton as a cantankerous but brilliant barrister who is recovering from a heart attack. He is under doctor’s orders to refrain from the excitability of criminal cases, but he can’t resist taking the impossible case of Tyrone Power, who is accused of murdering an elderly woman who left him a lot of money. Power’s wife, Marlene Dietrich, doesn’t help his case, and ends up being called as a prosecution witness.
This film is lots of fun, and it was Wilder who added the comic relief of Laughton being clucked over by his solicitous nurse, Elsa Lanchester (who was Laughton’s real-life wife)–at one point he tells her, “If you were a woman, I’d strike you.” There are surprise twists at the end. I must admit, though, that it’s hard for me to watch Marlene Dietrich today without thinking of Madeline Kahn as Lily Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles.
If you want to talk about dated films, think of Peyton Place. Based on the novel by Grace Metalious, which was a runaway best seller, this film is a soap opera that is shot in golden hues. It is the story of a small New England town that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting but beneath the surface everyone has terrible secrets. It was thought that the novel was unfilmable, as it was all very racy stuff for the time period, but it was made and was a big smash. Today, though, it’s difficult to watch without laughing. Some of the plot points are still disturbing, such as a man raping his stepdaughter, but in this day and age, when porn is easily found on the Internet, it’s pretty tame stuff. It’s especially hard not to laugh when characters make big revelations, accompanied by a dramatic musical sting. Five members of the cast: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Russ Tamblyn, and Arthur Kennedy were nominated for Oscars, but the film didn’t win any statuettes.
Two films from that year’s quintet deserve classic status. 12 Angry Men is the kind of film that when I stumble upon it on TV it’s hard to turn away. Finally I just went ahead and bought it on DVD. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it is the gripping story, told in real-time and mostly on one set, of a jury deliberating a capital murder case. Eleven vote to convict, but one man, played by Henry Fonda, holds out, and over the course of ninety minutes eventually convinces all of the others that there is reasonable doubt. Some of the finest character actors: Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Robert Webber, Ed Begley and Lee J. Cobb, are on hand, and remarkably each of the twelve make a distinct character, despite us not knowing their names or much of their backgrounds. Some of the sociology is laid on a little thick, but I can’t help but feeling good as one man’s stand is able to change others.
The winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year was David Lean’s Bridge On the River Kwai, which I’ve seen many times. They used to play it on the 4:30 movie when I was a kid, and took a whole week to show because it is so long. The story of British soldiers in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, it is an almost perfect melding of entertainment and art, and a grand adventure yarn. It is also, slyly, a commentary on three cultures clashing–the Japanese, British, and American. The Japanese commander, gruffly played by Sessue Hayakawa, follows the Bushido code, but is really just a bureaucrat. He must use British labor to build a railway bridge, and if he fails, he will have to commit hari-kari. He in his over his head when he meets Colonel Nicholson, memorably played by Alec Guinness, who is a by-the-book martinet. Guinness, as an officer, refuses to perform manual labor, as this is a provision of the Geneva Convention. There is a war of wills, and Guinness finally wins, and when he does, he sets about overseeing the building of the bridge and forgets that he is aiding the enemy.
Meanwhile, the American, played by William Holden as the wise-ass everyman who prefers girls and booze to being a hero, teams up with another Brit, Jack Hawkins, who sees the war as some kind of great game (or “good show”). They are trying to blow up the bridge, and the ending is one of the best of any picture of any year.
Lean would specialize in huge epics that wouldn’t be made today, or at least not the same way. The end of the film, when the bridge is destroyed and a train wrecks, would today be shot using CGI or models. Lean, though, built an actual bridge and wrecked an actual train, having to get it in one take (which makes me think of the joke that has the punchline, “Ready when you are, C.B!”). The verisimilitude of the entire production gives it a kind of sheen that never abates.
Lean and Guinness won Oscars, as did the nominal screenwriter, Pierre Boulle, who wrote the source novel. However, over the years, it came out that Boulle had nothing to do with the script. It was written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, two blacklisted screenwriters. After their deaths they were posthumously awarded the prizes, and in the restored version of the film they get their rightful place in the credits.