best film:  Tokyo Story from Ozu

  • Tokyo Story is a candidate for the greatest mise-en-scene in film history. It is jam-packed with gorgeously arranged sets and shots
  • The film, and the style, is a high-water point for Ozu— but it is not aberration – it is not a major departure by any stretch from his previous films (starting in the late 1940’s) and stretching to his untimely death in 1963 (at age 60). There are actually a number of shots that mirror his shots in previous films (including that shot of Ryu meditating alone in the finale). Though, where another film of his is filled with 10-25 of these gorgeous mise-en-scene shots and compositions… this one has 50-100. It’s impossible to keep count unless that’s all you want to do

an elegant composition- one of dozens in Ozu’s greatest work

starts with an establishing shot (smokestacks), an alley with bottles, a train, a train with laundry and then a layered interior with actors (a family unit) spread out and blocked/stacked so carefully- it is gorgeous to look at… his pillow shot elliptical editing

  • There’s ordinariness in the narrative—even banality– as Ozu is after man of the same things De Sica and Rossellini were interested in in Neorealism
  • Ozu has a way of funneling the frame so to speak- he has objects and walls that not only take up all the white space (teapots, clocks, slippers, flowers, bicycles laundry, lighting those shoji doors) but directs your eyes by creating frames within a frame, division and blocking of the mise-en-scene a la von Sternberg (though this dwarfs anything von Sternberg ever accomplished as much as I love him)
  • 4-5 times with the smokestack pillow shot form… I love the cloud one to signify day change on Ryu
  • There’s another quick montage of the wife moving through the empty house in her daily routine- to the trained eye it’s like Ozu showing off with the interiors. Stunning.
  • The line writing is sublime “By the time you become a doctor I don’t know if I’ll still be here” is haunting
  • At Hara’s friend’s apartment there’s a baby in this bubble thing that, again, is just Ozu showing off with his blocking and framing- it’s so awesome
  • Awe-inspiring shot of the two elderly characters laying down at the spa, the lamp, the tea, the two heads—clearly an influence on Bergman’s shot from his arsenal or Varda’s (La Pointe Courte) blocked faces—the staging of the mourners at the funeral

The final shot and composition of Ryu, alone, thinking, it mirrors the uncle smoking the pipe in Early Summer – It’s another staggeringly beautiful shot

 

most underrated:   Julius Caesar from Mankiewicz—I’m fine with it not landing in the TSPDT consensus top 1000— but nowhere to be found at all in the top 2000? Yikes—that’s wrong. Brando is brilliant yes—but James Mason and John Gielgud are standing on their heads as well.

  • It’s a Shakespeare adaptation of course but it’s in-line with Mankiewicz’s work- multiple characters perspective driving the narrative, dialogue on fire, and top-notch acting—not that different than All About Eve
  • The third nom in four years for Brando with Streetcar in 1951 and Viva Zapata! In 1952—of course he would win in 1954 for Waterfront and yet another nom in 1957 for Sayonara
  • Brando is absolutely genius—but he’s not alone, John Gielgud and James Mason are great- Gielgud probably comes out second best- he has a scene, about 20 minutes in just before the story with a soliloquy as he’s pacing forward… jaw = dropped
  • It’s an imaginative casting for Brando or/and role choice for him. It shows range and that he can do “elevated” material. It’s so varied from his previously nominated work including his 1951 star-making (and artistic acting-paradigm-shifting performance in Streetcar where he plays an animal)
  • The cast is filled with actors with distinct dictions—many imitators and comedians over the years would tackle Mason and Brando especially
  • The narrative moves—packs in the dialogue at a rapid pace- very exciting- excellent choice by Mankiewicz Among the best dialogue of the Bard—Louis Calhern doesn’t fair quite as well- He’s a tall elegant figure though for Caesar—Deborah Kerr not so much either-
  • I love George Macready—not enough of him here
  • When James Mason plunges his dagger into Caesar his face—the acting is spectacular- that isn’t Shakespeare—that’s acting and direction
  • Brando really arrives one hour in—he’s only really mentioned before and in a scene during a parade for a few moments. Of course at the hour mark when he comes in he takes over the film
  • He’s supremely brave, emotional- he’s sweating
  • The camerawork on Brando is fantastic—Mankiewicz knows he has something special—there’s a crane that backs up and expands when Brando yells to give him space and then comes back in closer at the more intimate end of the scene
  • Mason and Brando talking to the roman mob are like two brilliant lawyers making fantastic closing statements. Dueling pianos- it’s acting transcendence– that’s the reason this is a top 10 of the year film

 

Another great one of Brando in the foreground with the mob rioting in the background—great frame

 

most overrated:  The Band Wagon from Minnelli is a very fine film—but the TSPDT launches it way up to #247 overall, and, perhaps more egregiously, #4 of 1953. 1953 is so strong- I can’t find room for it in my top 10 and I’d go beyond that- I’d be at least at #13 here.

gem I want to spotlight:  Beat the Devil is never a film I considered for the top 10—but there’s something about it. It is an odd film—buoyed by solid work from Bogart, Robert Morley, and Peter Lorre. Apparently, Huston, Bogart, Lorre and screenwriter Truman Capote stayed up all night drinking and writing the shooting script for the next day (mostly drinking I think). It is a film I return to often—partly perhaps for its imbalance.

trends and notables:

  • 1953 marks the years where we get the single best film from Ophuls and Ozu- two of the best 20 directors—they are the yin and yang when it comes to moving the camera—Ophuls’ camera is almost always moving—floating around- very influential (an extension of Renoir). Ozu on the other hand has the sedentary camera, choosing the low seating height, the meticulously blocked and arranged frame, and editing with his famous cutaway pillow shots

1953 marks the years where we get the single best film from Ophuls and Ozu- two of the best 20 directors—they are the yin and yang when it comes to moving the camera—Ophuls’ camera is almost always moving—floating around- very influential (an extension of Renoir)

  • the big technology change and story of 1953 is The Robe with Cinemascope—How To Marry A Millionaire was shot first in Cinemascope but The Robe was released first because of its importance (it is actually the weaker of the two films)– 2.55 : 1 aspect ratios— these are also both in color—part of the strategy from the industry to differentiate from television. The results would be important for many director artists (even if they aren’t immediately revolutionary in 1953) working in cinema. It gives these auteurs a larger canvas.

the big story in 1953 is the advent of the wider frame and Cinemascope

How To Marry A Millionaire was shot first in Cinemascope but The Robe was released first because of its importance (it is actually the weaker of the two films)– 2.55 : 1 aspect ratios— these are also both in color—part of the strategy from the industry to differentiate from television

  • The Robe was also a massive hit—and it started the sand and sandal epic genre we’d see dominate some of the larger budget Hollywood productions over the next decade plus until the New Hollywood films would come along in 1967

The Robe was also a massive hit—and it started the sand and sandal epic genre we’d see dominate some of the larger budget Hollywood productions over the next decade plus until the New Hollywood films would come along in 1967

  • it is an incredible year for cinema—the two big masterpieces at the top, at least another seven films worthy of being in most years top five, the top ten is bursting with as many as 15-20 films
  • 1953 marks leaps forward in quality for Bergman (with two films that would land in my year’s top ten), Antonioni, and especially Fellini
  • International cinema is dominant (another great year for Mizoguchi)- there are only two American directors in the top ten films of 1953 (Sam Fuller and George Stevens)

another terrific year for Mizoguchi with Ugetsu

he’s a few years away from his prime- but 1953 marks a step forward for Antonioni as well with The Lady Without Camelias

phenomenal composition in Fellini’s breakthrough film – I Vitelloni

another here from Fellini

Bergman may not have a 2001 or an Apocalypse Now-– but the depth of his filmography is just about without equal– two contributions to his resume here in 1953– first Sawdust and Tinsel here

another jaw-dropper from Sawdust and Tinsel

there is graphic content and there is art– clearly the latter in 1953’s second Bergman entry– Summer With Monika

yet another here from the Swedish master — from Summer With Monika

  • This is not Tati’s debut year—but this is the first time he uses his Chaplin tramp-like famous reoccurring character Monsieur Hulot with hat and umbrella
  • There are some big-time actors with their first archiveable film. Harriett Andersson makes her first and second appearance in the archives in 1953 with the two Bergman films: Summer With Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel. Lee Marvin does the same—making a name for himself in The Wild One opposite Brando and The Big Heat. Richard Burton makes his first appearance in the archives in The Robe. Lastly, Ernest Borgnine makes his first of many appearances in archiveable films as Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson who terrorizes Sinatra’s character in From Here to Eternity

 

best performance male:  Chishû Ryû is here yet again for his work with Ozu. This year it is Tokyo Story and it is a magnificent performance. He internalizes just about everything- so natural. His unspoken frustration at the loud music at the spa is great acting. Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street is next. I’m 93% sure this is Widmark’s best work. He has great chemistry with Thelma Ritter- and he has a great scene with Jean Peters where he massages her face (after smacking it). It is a fine year for acting across the board- but these two stand above the rest. If I had to mention a third it would be Brando. Again, I hate dipping outside of my top 10 but nobody thought Brando could do Shakespeare—well— he’s the best.

Widmark in the opening of Fuller’s Pickup on South Street

best performance female:  There are six elite female performances worth praising in 1953. There’s nobody stronger than Thelma Ritter. Ritter is absolutely commanding in Pickup on South Street. She’s good in everything she’s in from All About Eve to Rear Window (this is a stretch 1950-1953 where she was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award four years in a row). She’d be nominated a total of six times (never won), Brooklyn born and first movie credit at age 45. She plays the street-wise Moe and she’s a perfect match for Fuller’s sordid world and the cracking hot dialogue. She has bags under eyes, playing cops against robbers, giving information, selling ties as a front. She has a great scene with Widmark (man, are they good together) in the coffee shop and then her death scene soliloquy is perfect street poetry. The “I’m so tired” speech and the song on the record ends and the camera pans… gunshot (I mean Fuller behind the camera is one hell of a dance partner for her but still). Ritter is levitating. You could do no wrong picking either Danielle Darrieux from The Earrings of Madame De… or Setsuko Hara from Tokyo Story next. Harriet Andersson was discovered by Bergman and she’s in both of his superior 1953 works here. Jean Arthur is next. I think Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, and Brandon De Wilde are very good in Shane– but Arthur gives the single best performance in the film. The great Deborah Kerr gets the last mention for her work in From Here to Eternity.

Thelma Ritter plays the street-wise Moe and she’s a perfect match for Fuller’s sordid world and the cracking hot dialogue.

Deborah Kerr with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity’s most iconic scene

top 10

  1. Tokyo Story
  2. The Earrings of Madame De…
  3. I Vitelloni
  4. Pickup on South Street
  5. Shane
  6. El
  7. Ugetsu
  8. Monsieur Hulot Holiday
  9. The Big Heat
  10. The Wages of Fear

Wilder and William Holden continue their hot streak in 1953’s Stalag 17

most cinephiles can’t get too far down the path of talking about classic, tense, thrillers– without getting to Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear

George Stevens opens his mythic western Shane on a painting…

…and closes on another one

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

Angel Face – Preminger R
Beat the Devil- J. Huston R
Bread, Love and Dreams – Comencini
El- Bunuel MS
From Here To Eternity- Zinnemann HR
Gentleman Prefer Blondes – Hawks R
Hondo- Farrow
How To Marry a Millionaire- Negulesco HR
I Confess- Hitchcock, Clift R
I Vitelloni- Fellini MS
I, the Jury- Essex, Cook Jr.
Julius Caesar – Mankiewicz HR
Mogambo- Ford R
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday- Tati MS
Niagara- Hathaway R
Peter Pan – Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Luske R
Pickup on South Street – Fuller MS
Roman Holiday- Wyler HR
Sawdust and Tinsel- Bergman HR
Shane- Stevens MS
Stalag 17- Wilder HR
Summer With Monika- Bergman HR/MS
The Band Wagon- Minnelli HR
The Big Heat- Lang MS
The Blue Gardenia- Lang R
The Cry of the Hunted- Joe Lewis
The Earrings of Madame de… – Ophuls MP
The Hitch-Hiker – Lupino R
The Lady Without Camelias – Antonioni HR
The Man From the Alamo- Boetticher
The Naked Spur- A. Mann HR/MS
The Robe- Koster R
The Wages of Fear- Clouzot MS
The War of the Worlds – Haskin R
The Wild One- Benedek R
Thunder Bay – A. Mann R
Titanic – Negulesco R
Tokyo Story – Ozu MP
Ugetsu- Mizoguchi MS

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives