best film:  The Seventh Seal from Ingmar Bergman

  • Bergman’s first masterpiece—and a landmark film in 1950’s cinema
  • A gray film- severe in tint and mood—Bergman sets the tone with the choir reigning down during the opening as we set out with the young Max von Sydow (just 28 years old here) and Gunnar Björnstrand back from the crusades as Death, incarnate, shows up on the rocks on the beach
  • I forget how tight the film is- 96 minutes and I always forget the humor (pitch black–certainly) —it is heavy stuff- and von Sydow’s confessional soliloquy, the group of flagellants, the witch burning— medieval darkness- but it isn’t without its breaks for levity
  • Bergman’s screenplay—both in the ingenuity of the fable, and the dialogue– are among cinema’s finest. And the performances, von Sydow in particular—are superior—but it would be wrong to believe Bergman didn’t excel as a visual auteur until the 1960’s– it is here in abundance (with most of the jaw-dropping sequences in the back half of the film)– a standout at 19 minutes as von Sydow approaches the cross to pray. Like much of Bergman’s work- the topic is really the deafening silence of God—he’d go at it in different ways over the years or decades

but it would be wrong to believe Bergman didn’t excel as a visual auteur until the 1960’s- it is here in abundance (with most of the jaw-dropping sequences in the back half of the film)– a standout at 19 minutes as von Sydow approaches the cross to pray.

  • overcast, shadowed, muddled – not the accentuated monochrome difference between black and white—this is Gunnar Fischer as DP- I’m not trying to take away from Sven Nykvist but this is certainly proof that Bergman could make one of the most beautiful films of the decade without the famous (justifiably) cinematographer he’d go on to work with the majority of his career

The best compositions in the film, and among the best of the decade—are in the last few minutes- at 92 minutes the table of the five brought back to Block’s castle (along with Block’s wife)- they all look back at death from the table in a perfect tableau– wow–. Next we get them standing (pictured here)- von Sydow in the background, hands in prayer, the others facing death and the camera— immaculate

image of the seven interlocked on a hill in silhouette- “a solemn dance”

 

most underrated:   Le Notti Bianche from Visconti currently sits at #1549 on the TSPDT consensus extended list—wildly underrated.

  • A Dostoevsky adaptation (White Nights) – certainly going to remind cinephiles of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), and then of course Before Sunrise from Linklater decades later and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy– a man and woman walking and talking in a tight time frame (this is three straight nights) in a European city (Venice here)
  • Silver Lion winner
  • It’s clear that at least up through 1957 (and perhaps beyond through at least The Leopard in 1963) Visconti is going toe to toe with Rossellini and Fellini. For example, Fellini in 1954 (Visconti’s Senso) made La Strada and then here in 1957 we had Nights of Cabiria from Fellini and this here—oddly enough both Italian auteurs getting a boost from Nino Rota who does the superb musical score here.
  • Unlike the Neo-realism Mount Rushmore film La Terra Trema which used location shooting as a character in the film, here, Visconti created an entire city in the of Cinecitta studios. It is meticulously designed and reminds me a bit of Caligari (I mean every puddle and broken window is purposeful), how Cuaron rebuilt streets for Roma and how Coppola moved from the wild jungle of the Philippines to controlling everything inside for the beautiful One From the Heart.

Artificial street signs to create a painting – a stunner at four minutes with Marcello Mastroianni (a big early landmark film for him) in the middle of the street at night. breathtakingly beautiful image here— its Caligari in some ways– certainly looks like an image that could be from Blade Runner

  • It is Visconti- so it is not only operatic (or operatic realism) but opera in the text
  • Great framing with the big column blocking the frame at 40 minutes — With Mastroianni and Maria Schell—two lovers in a frame like Antonioni would go on to master- I think this and Senso, the blocking and arrangement of the two, clearly had an influence on Antonioni

 

most overrated:  McCarey’s An Affair to Remember is a very good film with stellar performances by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr but it is simply not worthy of the #410 spot (which would put it close to Masterpiece range) best film of all-time as the TSPDT consensus would lead you to believe. It’s a fine film, and in the archives, but artistically it is dwarfed by comparison if you look at what say Douglas Sirk was doing in the melodrama genre during this stretch or even what Visconti does with two lovers in Le Notti Bianche– these two films are not close in quality.

gems I want to spotlight:   1957 is loaded with these aspiring westerns– The Tin Star from Anthony Mann may just be his most ambitious film visually. Forty Guns from Samuel Fuller is dazzling, the original (50 years before the Christian Bale/Russell Crowe remake) 3:10 To Yuma is very well done and Budd Boetticher directs not one 1957 film, but two— Decision at Sundown and The Tall T.

from Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star

certainly a worthy cinematic painting from Fuller’s Forty Guns-– gorgeous character blocking

trends and notables:

  • 1957 is Ingmar Bergman’s year. It is extremely rare (von Sternberg’s 1930 comes to mind) that a director has multiple masterpieces in the same year—indeed for all but about a handful of auteurs EITHER Wild Strawberries OR The Seventh Seal would be a career-defining/best film. A year this good just does not happen (or when it does- like Coppola’s 1974—it happens once every 20-30 years or so).

    a remarkable photograph captured in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries

 

  • Right on the heels (and sandwiched between in the top three films of the year) of Bergman is Kubrick and 1957 is the year of Paths of Glory and Kubrick’s first masterpiece. Ophuls passes away in 1957, Renoir’s last archiveable film is in 1956, Rope is nearly a decade in the rearview (1948) – Paths of Glory is an important film in the history of the tracking camera—Touch of Evil coming from Welles the following would be another

Kubrick is telling a story with the tracking shots — holding it in the trenches long after you are comfortable

Form and variation with Douglas walking the trench—not only with Kubrick’s connection with tracking shots, the The Shining, but with the difference in character here in this film—Kirk Douglas walks the trenches once and it’s very different from George Macready walking it (above)

“Paths of Glory was the film by which Stanley Kubrick entered the ranks of great directors, never to leave them”. – Ebert- https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-paths-of-glory-1957

  • Speaking of Welles and Kubrick- there are just directors that are so talented their films look like nothing you’ve seen before and that’s Mikhail Kalatozov – 1957 brings us The Cranes Are Flying – the first archiveable film (and first I can get my hands on) for Kalatozov

the use of objects from Kalatozov– one of the best single shots of 1957 in The Cranes Are Flying

contours — much like Varda’s work in La Pointe Courte– just a clear photographer’s eye with Kalatozov

  • Shakespeare and Kurosawa—a perfect match—and we get the first of three official adaptations here with Throne of Blood (Macbeth) in 1957 – Kagemusha feels like Shakespeare but isn’t – in a few years we’d get The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet) and then of course in 1985 we have Ran (King Lear)

1957 serves as proof that the conversion to color did not happen overnight and it is not a straight line– nine of the top ten films in the top ten of 1957 are in black and white (exception is Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai pictured here)

  • I’ve mentioned Kalatozov—this is his first year with an archiveable film—but we also have the first archiveable film (in a true debut) for Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men). Lumet came up through television. He’d go on to make a total of 17 archiveable films over the course of the next 50 years up to and including Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007—fifty years after 12 Angry Men

turning a play into cinema– Lumet’s debut has angles with an engineer’s precision– a stunner here

  • Two massive acting heavyweights get their start in 1957 as well. I’ve mentioned Max von Sydow – the most recognizable (largely because of this role in The Seventh Seal—and of course he’d work in Hollywood for decades) of the Bergman players. Marcello Mastroianni gets his first archiveable film in Visconti’s work (though this was far from his debut)—these two would be two of the top 25 actors of all-time
  • Anthony Mann is on an absolute roll in 1957. He’d give us two in 1957 (Men in War, The Tin Star) which would make twelve archiveable films in the last eleven years. He’d be back for one more in 1958 and again in 1961. Budd Boetticher would be on a similar roll, again, mainly in westerns starring just one man but instead of Jimmy Stewart (Mann’s most frequent collaborator) it’s Randolph Scott with Boetticher and these are terrific films. He’d give us a total of eight archiveable films from 1951-1960.

 

best performance male:   1957 is one of the greatest years in this category over cinema’s 100 year+ history. After going back and forth for my singular “best” performance I’m settling on Max von Sydow’s work in The Seventh Seal.  He would go on to make eight archiveable films with Bergman, eventually go on to work with Woody, Scorsese, Spielberg, star in The Exorcist and be more than capable in all of it– but he’d never be better than he is here. It’s a staggering performance but only by an eyelash did I pick it over any number of others in 1957 including Victor Sjöström’s expert work in Bergman’s other 1957 masterpiece, Wild Strawberries. Gunnar Björnstrand plays von Sydow’s squire in The Seventh Seal (and has some of the best scenes) as well as a smaller role as the doctor in Wild Strawberries (von Sydow also works in both). I’m already at three actors with the just the Swedes here and I’ve been trying to limit my picks here to five performances a year but there are too many in 1957 to do that- so I’ll get on with it. William Holden and Alec Guinness do some of the best work of their career in Lean’s River Kwai.  I think even above those two I’d put both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster’s career high-water-mark performances in The Sweet Smell of Success (it is definitely Curtis’ best work, Lancaster’s work in The Leopard may trump this but that’s close). Lancaster’s buddy and frequent co-star Kirk Douglas gives his best career performance in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory– his courtroom speech and his steel reserve as he tracks through the trenches– powerful, intelligent, filled with such believable goodness and moral compass—his “you can go to hell” line and delivery is one of acting’s great moments—it’s an atom bomb—I get goose bumps every time.  You can’t stop here without getting to Mifune (there’s really no great distance between Mifune and von Sydow)— the final siege of the castle and Mifune’s performance is clearly the film’s finest moment. So we’re at nine actors named here and I’ll add one more- I definitely think he’s tenth- but Mastroianni sneaks in here for his work in Le Notti Bianche. It isn’t his fault he’s tenth—he’s first-rate in a top five of the year quality film.

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster absolutely spitting fire at each other in Sweet Smell of Success

unlike Sweet Smell of Success with the two leads trading barbs, William Holden and Alec Guinness are really acting in separate movies that collide in the spectacular finale in River Kwai— as good as he is in the broader comedies and as Obi Wan Kenobi– this is Guinness’ shining moment/film on celluloid

the siege here in Throne of Blood and Mifune’s performance- are clearly the best parts of Kurosawa’s film

best performance female:  1957 is a tremendous year for international cinema and in many of those films the female performance led the way. In fact, five of my six mentions here are in non-English speaking language films. The singular greatest performances is once again, like in 1954, Guiletta Masina in Fellini’s Nights of  Cabiria. Behind her we have Maria Schell in Le Notti Bianche and Tatyana Samoylova in The Cranes Are Flying. Isuzu Yamada is here for Throne of Blood (is that one of the best film titles of all-time?). Yamada’s poker-faced embodiment of evil perfectly contrasts with Mifune’s animated puppet. Machiavellian. You can see the wheels set in motion and the seed of her deceit planted. Bibi Andersson like von Sydow and Björnstrand pulls double duty for both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal.  Roles like this for 50-year-old actresses just do not come along often enough but the final mention here is for Barbara Stanwyck (the lone English-speaking role here in the category) in Forty Guns. Man– did Fuller write her a great part– but she’s up for it.  She’s just commanding. She blows poor Barry Sullivan off the screen completely. This gives Stanwyck at least one “best of the year”-level mention in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s.

for the second time in four years, Masina gives the best female performance of the year

a gorgeous dissolve in Sam Fuller’s third top 10 film of the 1950’s so far– Stanwyck (the lone English-speaking role here in the category) in Forty Guns. Man– did Fuller write her a great part– but she’s up for it.  She’s just commanding. She blows poor Barry Sullivan off the screen completely.

 

 

top 10

  1. The Seventh Seal
  2. Paths of Glory
  3. Wild Strawberries
  4. The Cranes Are Flying
  5. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  6. The Sweet Smell of Success
  7. Le Notti Bianche
  8. Nights of Cabiria
  9. Throne of Blood
  10. Forty Guns

 

1957’s greatest use of color may have come from Stanley Donen– Funny Face here…

… and here

a subtle but elegant little cinematic painting here from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria

one of the best shots from 1957– from Tourneur- known as both Night of the Demon and Curse of the Demon

another here from Tourneur’s work– a film just forced out of the top 10 because of the abundance of riches here in 1957

depth in 1957- this from Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd

Archives, Directors, and Grades

3:10 To Yuma- Daves HR
A Face in the Crowd- Kazan HR
A King In New York- Chaplin R
An Affair To Remember – McCarey R
Baby Face Nelson- Siegel
Decision at Sundown- Boetticher R
Edge of the City- Ritt R
Forty Guns – Fuller HR/MS
Funny Face- Donen HR
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral- J. Sturges R
Il Grido – Antonioni HR
Kanal- Wajda R
Le Notti Bianche – Visconti MS
Love in the Afternoon- Wilder R
Men In War – A. Mann R/ HR
Mother India – Mehboob Khan
Nights of  Cabiria- Fellini MS
Night of the Demon- Tourneur HR
Old Yeller- Stevenson R
Pal Joey- Sidney R
Paths of Glory – Kubrick MP
Peyton Place- Robson R
Run of the Arrow – S. Fuller R
Sayonara- Logan R
Silk Stockings- Mamoulian R
Sweet Smell of Success- Mackendrick MS/MP
Tarnished Angels- Sirk R
The Bridge On the River Kwai- Lean MS/MP
The Cranes Are Flying- Kalatozov MP
The Incredible Shrinking Man – J. Arnold R
The Lower Depths – Kurosawa R/HR
The Prince and the Showgirl- Olivier R
The Seventh Seal – Bergman MP
The Tall T- Boetticher R
The Three Faces of Eve- N. Johnson R
The Tin Star- A. Mann HR
The Witness For the Prosecution- Wilder R
Throne of Blood – Kurosawa HR/MS
Tokyo Twilight – Ozu R/HR
Twelve Angry Men- Lumet HR
Wild Strawberries- Bergman MP
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?- Tashlin 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