best film: 1958 is a two-horse race at the top with Touch of Evil and Vertigo—any year with two of the best thirty films of all-time is a special one by definition. Still, ultimately when forced to pick, it is Hitchcock’s work that emerges as the crowning achievement of 1958

  • From Saul Bass’ gorgeous opening credits with Bernard Herrmann’s score (it has to be his finest, right?)—it is clear this film is different- even for Hitchcock—both his most ambitious film, the height of his perfectionism– and the greatest crystallization of his exposed psychosis on screen
  • At 17 minutes we get the first of many scenes at Ernie’s restaurant- the beautiful plush red velvet décor. Flowers galore in the mise-en-scene throughout and of course the fixation on the color green- starting with Kim Novak’s emerald dress. Hitchcock’s’ camera glides effortlessly and unhurried across the room—hypnotic—approaches her back and lines her up in profile for the first time of many (a repeated formal shot). A strong sequence

Hitchcock (and Stewart’s character) line up Kim Novak in profile for the first time of many (a repeated formal shot). A strong sequence

There are a series of cinematic paintings in this film from Hitchcock that are as fine as he’d ever produce—it may not get better than his Golden Gate Bridge oil painting at 42 minutes- again- a wordless sequence

  • Greens galore, his sweater, her sweater, the car—all leading up to the greatest use of the color green on film in the hotel empire

the color-coated red-flashing nightmare surrealism sequence—the dismembered head of Stewart’s, his silhouette falling from the top of the mission tower—just 90 seconds of creative experimental cinema at its finest

  • Hotel Empire’s neon greens—gob-smacking–dazzling. I don’t remember an earlier (or better) use of neon street light in cinema. This has been borrowed from many many times including Chazelle’s La La Land. We see Novak’s profile again- this time in silhouette at 104 minutes- a masterful formal touch call back to the first time he met here- along with being a stand-alone striking image

We see Novak’s profile again- this time in silhouette at 104 minutes- a masterful formal touch call back to the first time he met here- along with being a stand-alone striking image

  • Green pouring in again after his transformation and possession of Judy back into Madeleine is complete. There’s almost a release as he finishes and perfects her hair at the 116 minute mark and then we get one of cinema’s most singularly brilliant moments/scenes and shots—the 360 degree kiss in the hotel room. The neon green bathing them, the camera dancing with them as the background shifts from the hotel room to the mission and back to the hotel room—cinematic ecstasy

it wasn’t until my Antonioni study a few years ago that I’ve come to appreciate shots like this- posing, blocking, different depths of field— a stunner here– not saying Antonioni influenced Hitchcock or vice versa– just admiring how both great auteurs use body blocking and poses in a frame to tell a story (and create a great image)

 

most underrated:   Gigi from Vincent Minnelli is the most underrated film of 1958. Again, it is rare that the actual best picture winner from the Academy is also “underrated”- but when you look for Minnelli’s work on the TSPDT consensus you can’t find it—even on the extended 1001-2000 list. Minnelli’s use of color, costume and the entire expanded wide CinemaScope frame deserves a better fate than the current TSPDT list. No, it should not have won best picture—but now it’s swung so far the other way it is now underrated. For years TCM ran this little informative commercial feature Scorsese talking about the awful “pan and scan” technique used by television presentations of widescreen films—Gigi was the example (or one of—Ben Hur another) of why you needed the letterbox format to appreciate the entire frame.

Vincent Minnelli’s Gigi is the single most underrated film of 1958

a stunning stand alone frame here from Minnelli’s work

most overrated:  Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur was a film that largely made me scratch my head with indifference—especially for a Lang film. I hope I missed something- I’m a big admirer of Lang’s work of course- but this one sits at #731 on the TSPDT consensus list which would put it in the top 10 for 1958. I’d probably get to 2000 films before it and at least 20 from 1958. TSPDT putting it ahead of like Elevator to the Gallows is utterly baffling.

gem I want to spotlight:   Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room is a formal masterpiece that is so well structured that it’ll have you thinking about it for weeks after watching. It is the best single film from Ray and made at a time when he was on absolute fire (he actually interrupts his Apu trilogy for a year to make this). The Music Room is rhapsodic and filled with such well-earned melancholy.

from Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room – Ray and made at a time when he was on absolute fire. He actually interrupts his Apu trilogy for a year to make this– his strongest single film

trends and notables:

  • Vertigo is the best film made from the best director of all-time—so that’s the biggest story of 1958. It is also the beginning of an unmatched three-year run that Hitch is about to go on that includes North by Northwest and Psycho. These are three of the best 103 films of all-time–made in a three-year span from the same director
  • Touch of Evil is both a masterwork from Welles—but also really the official end of film noir. Film noir is a genre, and genres really can’t end—but noir is sort of also an era and most film historians have if ending here with pretty much everything coming after declared as “neo-noir”. I think it is fitting that noir ends in 1958 and the French New Wave has its unofficial launch the next year in 1959. Touch of Evil’s opening 3 ½ minute long take is important as well- this is jaw-dropping muscular filmmaking—a landmark—though I think Welles film is a masterpiece even without it. You’ll see it below but what a coup for Welles in 1958—he’s long since been working outside of the normal studio system and here- more than a decade and a half after Kane– he delivers the second best film (director) and second best performance of the year (actor).

Touch of Evil’s opening 3 ½ minute long take is important as well- this is jaw-dropping muscular filmmaking—a landmark

a magnificent low-angle, three different depths of field deep focus shot– awe inspiring

Welles luxuriates in the design of the frame with obstructions here– even without the opening long take- this film is a masterpiece

you’ll see the term “Wellesian angles” used on pages all over the site— Welles claims he learned from John Ford- but there’s really nobody else that shot like he did

  • Minnelli needs to be singled out for his 1958– Some Came Running AND Gigi in one year- two top 10 films

this stunner with the lighting in the background is from Minnelli’s Some Came Running— Minnelli never made a masterpiece- so 1958, with this and Gigi in the same year- is actually his peak

is this Minnelli’s Gigi or Visconti’s Senso? High praise here for 1958’s best picture winner from the academy

  • I won’t be noting every great auteur’s first foray into color but it is fun to watch Ozu make the plunge and experiment in Equinox Flower – the red teapot (it is red!), the orange pop, and the gorgeous multi-colored laundry in his trademark pillow cutaway shots

many auteurs stumble when they transition to color- but Ozu embraces the change in Equinox Flower 

a trademark Ozu cutaway- the alley– but he incorporates the colorful signage here

  • 1958 is a big year for directing firsts in the archives – there is no bigger splash than Malle’s two-pronged 1958 debut. His first film, his debut, is Elevator to the Gallows. I think Jeanne Moreau’s performance and the Miles Davis soundtrack steal a bit of Malle’s thunder- but he’s the genius who orchestrated it all—at age 26. As if that wasn’t enough for a debut—The Lovers from Malle also lands in 1958. Brilliant and prolific.
  • Let’s stay with the French for another one here- Claude Chabrol’s debut lands in 1958 with Le Beau Serge—many may point to this as the beginning of the French New Wave. Chabrol is a member—and this precedes Breathless and The 400 Blows– but I’d argue you can’t really start a movement with Le Beau Serge
  • Like Lumet in 1957, Arthur Penn is an east-coast television director that finally got his chance to direct in film—his debut is The Left Handed Gun with Paul Newman is from 1958
  • John Cassavetes probably isn’t worth a mention for his acting career – but as an auteur—absolutely– and 1958 is his debut, Shadows. It is an important milestone as far indie cinema goes. Cassavetes uses his own money and shoots this on 16mm—up until now the bulk of “indie” cinema or lower budget alternatives were genre (think Ulmer in noir, or Fuller, or sci-fi, horror)—but Shadows is a drama—an alternative to Hollywood- and it is no coincidence it emerges at the same time as the French (and sort of against the big budget Cinemascope color epic)

 

Cassavetes in 16mm- an important milestone in the history of indie cinema

prior to this the lower budget alternatives were genre (think Ulmer in noir, or Fuller, or sci-fi, horror)—but Shadows is a drama—an alternative to Hollywood-

  • The single best auteur (with all due respect to Malle and Cassavetes) to have his first archiveable film in 1958 is Shôhei Imamura—Imamura starts here with Endless Desire
  • For actors it is a big year of firsts as well. Klaus Kinski, 14 years before Aguirre, (talk about paying your dues) quietly gets his first archiveable film in Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die
  • Claudia Cardinale makes a slightly more auspicious debut in Big Deal on Madonna Street. Cardinale would be in many of the best films over the next ten years. Another of the most important of the Bergman trope gets his beginning in 1958- Erland Josephson here in The Magician. Yet, perhaps more promising overall than the previous mentions is the first archiveable year (in two films) for Dean Martin in Some Came Running and The Young Lions. Deano had been in a bunch of unspecial films with Jerry Lewis up to this point- but in the Minnelli film especially- he proves he has some dramatic acting chops.

 

 

best performance male:   James Stewart gives far and away the best performance of 1958 in Vertigo. His John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson is as complex a figure as cinema would produce and Stewart was more than up to the task. Stewart has an edge here, and to a lesser degree in Rear Window, that he would never show with Capra—I think his work with Anthony Mann would be great preparation for this, the apex achievement in his brilliant career. The finest acting in his career is the scene on the way up the stairs as he abuses Kim Novak’s Judy during the film’s climax—I think the film would lose a little bit of its spell if Stewart isn’t absolutely magnificent here. Behind Stewart I only want to single out three others from 1958 (a much lighter year here than 1957 with a whopping ten mentions). Welles is easily the runner-up to Stewart for 1958. His work here rivals his work in Citizen Kane– such an intricate character.  I also want to highlight Chhabi Biswas in Ray’s The Music Room and young Zbigniew Cybulski (known as “the polish James Dean”—sadly as fate would have it, Cybulski dies tragically young before 40 as well) in Ashes and Diamonds. These two round out the mentions this year.

Zbigniew Cybulski, known as “the polish James Dean”, in Ashes and Diamonds

1958 is a big year for Welles- both beyond the camera and in front of it

best performance female:  Stewart is mesmerizing in Vertigo—but Kim Novak is also no slouch either. If she hadn’t retired the role may have gone to Grace Kelly and I believe Vera Miles passed on Vertigo as well. No disrespect to either, but wouldn’t want to see another actor in Novak’s role.  Jeanne Moreau gives her best performance to date and is Novak’s closest rival in this category for 1958 for her work in Elevator to the Gallows. Leslie Caron gets a mention for Gigi and Shirley MacLaine owns every scene she is in—stealing them away from always affable Sinatra and Dean Martin in Minnelli’s Some Came Running.

Moreau (here) and Miles Davis (who does the score) are so good in Elevator to the Gallows that many probably overlook Malle’s contribution

 

top 10

  1. Vertigo
  2. Touch of Evil
  3. The Music Room
  4. Mon Oncle
  5. Elevator to the Gallows
  6. Ashes and Diamonds
  7. Some Came Running
  8. Gigi
  9. Horror of Dracula
  10. Equinox Flower

Mon Oncle here- Tati’s long shot comic brilliance

Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds— one of the best shots from 1958— von Sternberg’s obstruction of  the frame

a shot 15 years before it’s time from Wajda– De Palma would fall in love with this modified split frame depth of field show off shot

a brilliant use of lighting and angles in Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds

it falls outside of the top 10 but Donen continues his experimental use of color in 1958’s Indiscreet

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Night To Remember – Baker R
A Time To Love and a Time to Die- Sirk R
Ashes and Diamonds- Wajda MS
Auntie Mame- DaCosta R
Big Deal on Madonna Street- Monicelli HR
Cairo Station – Chahine HR
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof- R. Brooks HR
Elevator to the Gallows- Malle MS
Endless Desire Imamura R/HR
Equinox Flower – Ozu HR
Gigi- Minnelli
Horror of Dracula – Fisher HR
I Want To Live- Wise HR
Indiscreet- Donen R
Le Beau Serge- Chabrol R
Lonelyhearts- Donehue R
Long, Hot Summer- Ritt R
Man of the West- A. Mann R/HR
Mon Oncle- Tati MS
Murder By Contract – Lerner R
Party Girl- N. Ray R
Rickshaw Man- Inagaki R
Run Silent, Run Deep- Wise R
Separate Tables- Delbert Mann R
Shadows- Cassavetes HR
Some Came Running – Minnelli HR/MS
South Pacific- Logan R
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – Juran R
The Big Country- Wyler R
The Defiant Ones- Kramer R
The Hidden Fortress – Kurosawa R/HR
The Horse’s Mouth- Neame R
The Left Handed Gun- Penn R
The Lovers- Malle R
The Magician- Bergman R
The Music Room- S. Ray MP
The Old Man and the Sea- J. Sturges R
The Quiet American – Mankiewicz R
The Tiger of Eschnapur- Lang R
The Vikings- Fleischer R
The Young Lions- Dmytryk R
Thunder Road – Ripley R
Touch of Evil – Welles MP
Vertigo – Hitchcock MP

 

 

*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