best film:  Lola Montes from Ophuls.  Lola Montes is a pure stylistic explosion and it is far ahead of the rest of the films from 1955. Andrew Sarris called it the greatest film ever made. Sadly, at age 53, it would be Ophuls last film as he would fall ill and die in 1957.

Ophuls would pass away in 1957 and Lola Montes would be his last film– meaning he ended his career with the second best film of 1953 (The Earrings of Madame De… behind only Tokyo Story) and this- the best film of 1955

a frame within the frame, bordered by color

there are dozens of these shots and compositions

Ophuls’ first work in color shows a complete command of the new possibilities

 

most underrated:   La Pointe Courte – the debut film from Agnes Varda is not on the TSPDT consensus top 2000. It isn’t that shocking; this film was not widely available for a long time (still sort of isn’t but it is getting better). But watch this film skyrocket up the list in future years as more and more people discover Varda in general this magnificent film in particular. You couldn’t go wrong picking Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief in this category or Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm– neither of those land in the top 2000—a shame.

  • Varda is 27 years old
  • The title credits on wood, then a smooth tracking shot from that wood (a character in the film as it’s part of the blue collar town and a reoccurring set piece) down an alley—really nice
  • We glide through houses in the town via windows like Renoir
  • Babies crying (neo-realism) and nonprofessional actors
  • Clothesline a nice visual motif
  • Title of the film is a seaside village/neighborhood – film is a portrait of a town—never patronizing
  • The face on face Bergman blocking—may actually be from Varda! It’s here and beautiful- done at 34 minutes in and repeats again at 37 minutes (referencing the position of the two principal actors) and then later it layers them in bed. If this is Varda, and not Bergman- it’s a change for me—this film actually debuts seven months before Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman’s first film (that I know of) with a similar shot.

often cited as the first French New Wave film—and Varda the “Grandmother” of the New Wave. I’m not sure about that- and not sure it matters—it is a great film and—the style is unique and abundant- this is a film of two distinct parts, interwoven, one is a sort of neo-realism rural/fishing/working-class town story a little like Visconti’s 1948 La Terra Trema—and the other is a walk/talking pontification- couple/lovers film like Linklater’s Before Sunrise or Sunset films (obviously 40 years prior)

The face on face Bergman blocking—may actually be from Varda– this here from La Pointe Courte

Varda’s film actually debuts seven months before Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman’s first film (that I know of) with a similar shot– variations on this show would be used for the next 60+ years– in 2019 Baumbach uses a similar shot in Marriage Story

Varda clearly has a photographer’s eye. A great shot of the two actors separated by wood, another of them looking at their reflection in a dirty basin—and the best is a gorgeous reverse tracking shot out of the doorway. There’s a woman looking in the house (via open doorway) of a mother crying (framed by another door) at her dying son. Haunting

  • Gorgeous set piece of abandoned ship
  • Another great shot through an object on the ground and then we track through the object along the beach
  • Dialogue is good, too—a woman from the village says of the two leads “they talk too much to be happy”
  • The village has Ford’s community and custom

from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief-– one of the most underrated films of 1955– the tone is lighter– and that may throw some critics off (I, myself, was guilty of underrating this film for years)– but there is abundant visual ambition

an absolute jaw-dropper here from To Catch a Thief-– I mentioned in 1949 that you can see Ford sketching for The Searchers with She Work a Yellow Ribbon— you can see that very thing here– Hitchcock sketching for Vertigo a few years later

 

most overrated:  There is actually a fair amount to choose from here. The TSPDT consensus top three doesn’t look like mine at all- but it is Renoir’s French Cancan that stands out the most. Like Floating Clouds– maybe I should refrain from commenting until I see it again (last time for both was on VHS I believe) but for now the consensus has it inside the top 500 (#473) and I’d easily get to 1200-1500 films before it.

 

gem I want to spotlight:   East of Eden from Kazan

  • Dean’s lead debut, first archiveable film, first nom, and the only film that was released prior to his death in Sep 1955
  • First film for Kazan in color and widescreen

from Kazan’s East of Eden – his first film in color and widescreen

  • Trademark yellow sweater for Dean in every scene almost like his red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause
  • Cain and Abel via Steinbeck in Salinas (on location shooting- gorgeous) California—meditation on hypocrisy from father Raymond Massey
  • Dean is enchanting—method—apparently he even went so far as to provoke Massey (who did not like Dean he said during and after) off-screen to increase the intensity of the performance and the gulf/dynamic between the two
  • Like Rebel– troubled teen, tormented by parents/family relationship – debut for Jo Van Fleet (who is very good here- won best supporting actress)
  • Dean and Massey are two complex characters- I mean Massey is on the draft board and Dean is a war profiteer—it’s believable that he would be upset
  • Dean is such a gifted physical actor—grabbing his hair (busy with his hands like Brando grabbing Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront– the way Dean slinks out of the back of the car
  • Dean has his trademark changes in volume of speaking—soft spoken and mumbling to almost over the top outpouring of emotion
  • Kazan’s triumphs are the train shot using widescreen, the gorgeous yellow flowers in the dialogue scene with Julie Harris (she’s on-point as well as far as the ensemble goes) and the greatest achievement of Kazan here is that he tilts the camera often- Dutch angles—it’s shocking- great art—once he does it to run parallel with Dean’s slouching elbow

Kazan ingeniously uses the dutch/canted angels borrowed from the early German expressionists

  • Dean has a bunch of complex relationships in the film—he dotes on his father, jealous of perfect (Abel) brother, his best friend is Julie Harris— of course the mother—and Burl Ives is strong as the surprisingly sensitive sheriff
  • “brother’s keeper” line—the brother Richard Davalos (Aron) looks like dean in some scenes- under the tree of knowledge especially

 

trends and notables:

  • He’d pass away in 1957—and Lola Montes is the last film directed by Ophuls
  • Just a bit of a pause for the run for the Japanese auteurs—particularly Ozu and Kurosawa. Ozu skips 1955 with no entry and Kurosawa’s Ikimono no kiroku doesn’t really belong in the conversation among the year’s elite films

if it is an off year for Ozu (no film) and Kurosawa (a down year)– Japan is buoyed by Naruse’s Floating Clouds (here)

  • There is a whopping 50 archiveable films from 1955

1955 is a year of unapparelled depth– 50 films in the archives– and no room in the top 10 for gorgeous film Welles’ Mr. Arkadin

  • I’ve said it before but long before Kubrick (getting to him soon here) every year we have a Dreyer film it is an event. 1955 brings us Ordet– the first Dreyer film since 1943’s Day of Wrath and the last one until 1964’s Gertrud

a stark, deliberate, symmetrical mise-en-scene from Dreyer’s Ordet— I’m not sure there is a better single cinematic imagine from 1955

  • The year of the Rays—with Johnny Guitar in 1954 and two films in 1955 (including Rebel Without a Cause) we’re in peak Nicholas Ray territory (10 archiveable films between 1948-58). Godard said (he’s said a lot of stuff) “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” I say the year of “Rays” plural because 1955 is the start of the Apu trilogy and the debut from Satyajit Ray. Nicholas and Satyajit account for seven (7) of the top 100 films of the 1950’s. The Apu trilogy, and Satyajit Ray, are extremely important as far as the history of realism is concerned and I think it is fitting that Ray picks up right when the Italians are finishing up with the mode

this is from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause— a striking tableau shot similar to shot highlighted in 1954 for Johnny Guitar but in a wider format– 1955 was Ray’s first experiment in the wider format with Run For Cover in 2.00 : 1 and Rebel Without a Cause in 2.55 : 1

a subtle painting here from Ray— he captures all three characters posing in the wideshot

The Apu trilogy, and Satyajit Ray, are extremely important as far as the history of realism is concerned and I think it is fitting that Ray picks up right when the Italians are finishing up with the mode

  • Kubrick- I can’t go much longer without getting to the first archiveable film from the great Stanley Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss is a vast improvement over 1953’s Fear and Desire (which I have mixed feelings on) and he’d improve upon that still in 1956’s The Killing. Kubrick would surpass them both of course- but at this point he isn’t nearly as exciting as the starts here for Satyajit Ray or Varda (these are two of the best directing debuts ever).
  • As far as I can find- Oklahoma ! is the first film shot on 65mm. It was also shot on the normal 35mm as well– this would be a major movement in the upcoming years
  • I do think it is a bit of a stretch to call La Pointe Courte the beginning of the French New Wave– works better as an antecedent or precursor
  • 1955 is the beginning and end, tragically, for James Dean. Dean is a big part of my “gems” section above talking about East of Eden but both Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden come out in 1955—and both are spectacular. It is Dean’s debut, he passes away on September 30th before Rebel even gets its premiere (and Giant comes out in 1956). He’s nominated for Academy Awards in both years he’s eligible. It is just so sad—Dean would’ve gone on to be one of the all-time greats.
  • As far as firsts for directors I’ve already mentioned Satyajit Ray, Varda and Kubrick. There’s more though. Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda makes his first appearance, same with John Sturges (no relation to Preston) for Bad Day at Black Rock and of course Charles Laughton directs his first and only film- The Night of the Hunter

a strong composition in John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock

from Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter— so regrettable that Laughton never directed again

Laughton and The Night of the Hunter were smart to borrow from Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath with this stunning shot here

 

  • I mentioned James Dean already but other noteworthy actors with their first archiveable films in 1955 are Michel Piccoli in Renoir’s French Cancan. It is a bit of a passing of the torch as this would be Jean Gabin’s last archiveable film as well. In a similar passing of the torch (though Guinness is far from done in 1955) Peter Sellers makes his archiveable debut in The Ladykillers. Sellers is a comic genius, and much of his reputation rests on his range. He made so many movies where he portrays various characters (most famously in Strangelove) so it is fitting he’d get his start next to Guinness (who it appears he was studying the career of) who did the same thing so often- he was one of the original chameleons (in the line of Paul Muni) and played various characters as well– famously in Kind Hearts and Coronets for one.  Gunnar Björnstrand also has his first of many archiveable films in 1955 as part of the Bergman stable of actors in Smiles of a Summer Night.
  • Future co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau both had their first archiveable films in 1955. Matthau is in The Indian Fighter and Lemmon is in Mister Roberts (and won an Oscar in support). Matthau and Lemmon would go on to make 10 movies together but their first isn’t until 1966. So as for Mister Roberts– it marked the first film on the big screen after a seven-year absence for Henry Fonda (mostly working in theater during the hiatus). Think of that- one of our most prolific actors took seven years off in his prime and still ended with 29 archiveable films. If you look below both John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy are credited for directing Mister Roberts. Famously, Ford and Fonda got into an argument on set and it ended with Ford punching Fonda in the face. Sadly, they never worked together again. You have to think the Jimmy Stewart role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would’ve been Fonda’s.

 

best performance male:  James Dean is the performer of the year with two films that rise above the top 10 of the year quality in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Dean took the world by storm (you can’t say he’s revelatory as he’s so heavily influenced by Clift and Brando) in 1955. Dean’s per performance quality of acting average would ever be matched by any other actor in cinema (ok Bjork is right there, Maria Falconetti, Cazale and Daniel Day-Lewis). If it was just one of Dean’s performances to deal with I might have given the edge to Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter– truly one of the great villains of all-time. It may surprise some but Frank Sinatra has a strong case for best actor of the year in The Man With the Golden Arm. Sure, now in 2021, an actor playing a person with addiction is an easy Oscar-baiting target but Sinatra is deglamorized and raw here—a real performance. He proved he could handle this sort of performance just a few years earlier in his Oscar-winning supporting role in From Here to Eternity. Lastly, the young 8-year old Subir Banerjee deserves mention for his work in Ray’s Pather Panchali.

another cinematic painting from The Night of the Hunter— Robert Mitchum does his career-best work as the corrupt preacher Harry Powell

if there were still any doubts as to Sinatra’s acting chops after 1953’s From Here to Eternity– he squashed them with The Man With the Golden Arm here

best performance female:  Martine Carol gives the best female performance of the year in Ophuls’ Lola Montes. Very closely trailing her is Jane Wyman as Cary Scott in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Simone Signoret dazzles in Diabolique and Grace Kelly slips into the mentions here. Kelly didn’t get a mention in 1954’s summary despite her work in Rear Window so I’m making amends a little and combining it with her work here To Catch a Thief.

Jane Wyman gives one of the best single performances of the year in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows

another brilliant image from the Sirk masterpiece featuring Wyman

green lighting from the window (three years before Vertigo) hitting off of the unmatched beauty of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief

 

top 10

  1. Lola Montes
  2. All That Heaven Allows
  3. La Pointe Courte
  4. Diabolique
  5. The Night of the Hunter
  6. The Man With the Golden Arm
  7. Pather Panchali
  8. Ordet
  9. Rebel Without a Cause
  10. To Catch a Thief

 

again- 1955 is loaded- from Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly-– clearly an influence on Tarantino and Pulp Fiction… Aldrich’s film and several others from 1955 that couldn’t make the top 10 landed on my top 100 of the 1950’s

a great shot from Dassin’s Rifiti — often cited as THE heist film– how’s that for 1955’s depth?

Wyler, in deep focus, here in Desperate Hours— magnificent work

Diabolique from Clouzot – a great film to start with if you’re looking to get into foreign films, black and white films, older films, or all three

had to add this  from The Big Combo

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Generation- Wajda R
All that Heaven Allows- Sirk MP
Bad Day at Black Rock- J. Sturges HR
Blackboard Jungle – R. Brooks R
Blood Alley- Wellman R
Desperate Hours- Wyler HR
Diabolique- Clouzot MP
East of Eden – Kazan HR/MS
Floating Clouds- Naruse
French Cancan- Renoir R
Guys and Dolls – Mankiewicz R
House of Bamboo – Fuller R
Ikimono no kiroku – Kurosawa R
Il Bidone- Fellini R
It’s Always Fair Weather- Donen, Kelly R
Killer’s Kiss- Kubrick R
Kiss Me Deadly- Aldrich HR/MS
La Pointe Courte – Varda MS
Land of the Pharaohs- Hawks R
Le Amiche – Antonioni R/HR
Lola Montes- Ophuls MP
Love Me or Leave Me- C. Vidor HR
Marty- Delbert Mann R
Mister Roberts- Ford, Leroy R
Moonfleet- Lang R
Mr. Arkardin- Welles R/HR
Oklahoma- Zinnemann R
Ordet – Dreyer MS
Pather Panchali- S. Ray MS
Rebel Without a Cause- N. Ray MS
Richard III- Olivier R
Rifiti- Dassin HR
Run For Cover- N. Ray
Smiles of a Summer Night- Bergman HR
Summertime- Lean R
The Big Combo- Jo. Lewis HR
The Big Knife- Aldrich R
The Far Country- A. Mann R
The Indian Fighter- De Toth R
Lady and the Tramp- Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson R
The Ladykillers- Mackendrick HR
The Man From Laramie- A. Mann R/HR
The Man With the Golden Arm- Preminger MS
The Night of the Hunter- Laughton MS
The Phenix City Story – Karlson R
The Prisoner- Glenville R
The Rose Tattoo- Daniel Mann R
The Seven Year Itch – Wilder R
To Catch a Thief- Hitchcock MS
We’re No Angels- Curtiz R

 

 

*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