best film:  Seven Samurai from Kurosawa

  •  Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece further cements Kurosawa’s genius status first marked by Rashomon in 1950 and confirmed in Ikiru in 1952.

A set-piece used three times I believe is the cemetery on the hill- another breathtaking mise-en-scene and creation of a frame

  • Here the great master has substituted the triangulation of the 2-3 bodies mixed in precise geometrical angles in various depths of fields—in favor of larger ensemble compositions—4, 5, 6, and yes, 7 figures and heads carefully layered and blocking each other throughout the frame. It is an awe-inspiring achievement in photography and composition.

There are 30 or more of these but it is absolutely worth highlighting and trying to capture a few- larger ensemble compositions—4, 5, 6, and yes–7 figures and heads carefully layered and blocking each other throughout the frame

  • The narrative seems to have its own gravitational pull it is so good-haha- only a handful of other films (The Godfather comes to mind) can possibly match it in its size, and yet its momentum and trance-like ability to compel
  • The narrative structure is broken into pretty clear thirds, the gathering up of the samurai, the training and time at the village, and the epic battle
  • A triumph by Fumio Hayasaka with the outstanding musical score
  • At 41 minutes with the rice jar in the foreground
  • At 55 minutes Kurosawa obstructs the frame with wood and cuts the screen into thirds
  • At 67 minutes the figures on top of the hill approaching the village is a standout
  • At 70 minutes there’s a great sequence with the village elder with his profile in the foreground
  • despite the 207-minute running time- Kurosawa does not skip on the carefully designed mise-en-scene, character blocking, and Welles/Wyler deep focus

one of the greatest shots in Kurosawa’s body of work– an arrangement like bowling pins almost at the 88-minute mark with Mifune in front, two figures in the second row and three in the back row

Kurosawa’s use of slow-motion (several times, one at minute 23 right after Shimura stabs the kidnapper) would largely influence or define the genre for the back-half of the 20th century. The slow-motion death duel at 49 minutes is another example.

  • Kurosawa is a master of the action sequence often getting it in one sustained shot where most others would cut. Here it is in his decision to shoot largely in medium-long shots with longer take duration—a single pan of the camera or slight movement of the camera opens up so much extra room. I don’t think he’s editorializing with the general’s point-of-view (they’re all ants) like he does in Ran but the technique and skill is the same in both. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he clearly knows the ins and outs of the village set like the back of his hand. His confidence in the layout of the details of the village give the battles an unmissable element of realism to them—the pinnacle of this is in the choreography of the final battle in the rain- pure cinematic bliss.


most underrated:   1954 marks the star of an impressive run for the German-born Douglas Sirk. Sirk, and the melodrama, would influence the likes of  Fassbinder, Almodovar, and Todd Haynes. Magnificent Obsession isn’t his finest work—that would come in the upcoming years- but it is Sirk’s first great film in a string here to close out the 1950’s (seven films between 1954-1959)—and it should be somewhere in the TSPDT consensus top 2000 and it isn’t.


the start of an uncommonly artistically fertile period for Sirk in the mid to late 1950’s- seven archiveable films (with a distinct look and clear marks of authorship) in six years starting with Magnificent Obsession here


most overrated:  Journey to Italy from Rossellini sits at #75 on the all-time consensus list. It’s subtle, muted, and restrained and very well done by all principals involved (by Rossellni, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) but those things, even with greatest of execution, won’t get you to the #75 slot of all-time on my list.

gem I want to spotlight:   A Star is Born from George Cukor. The film has been remade now three times (this is the second version—and the best version) so it is fun to compare with the original, or even Cukor’s own What Price Hollywood? Or the Bradley Cooper version—or—though it isn’t a direct remake—to Scorsese’s New York, New York with Liza playing a variation on the role from her mother here Judy Garland. After more than 20 years directing— the advent of cinemascope in 1953 really set Cukor loose here to create a gorgeous world of widescreen technicolor (which he’d do again a decade later in My Fair Lady)

James Mason’s tragic (and beautiful) walk out to the water in A Star is Born

After more than 20 years directing— the advent of cinemascope in 1953 really set Cukor loose here to create a gorgeous world of widescreen technicolor


trends and notables:

  • Kurosawa’s third masterpiece of the decade is the lead story of 1954- Fellini, Hitchcock, Ray and others contributed greatly to the year in cinema– but nothing came terribly close to The Seven Samurai 
  • After Seven Samurai– the big story of 1954 is the change in color—it is partly due to the breakout of Cinemascope in 1953- the success of the larger format and color (The Robe)—in 1953, there are 13 color films in the archives—33% of the total. In 1954, there are 20 color films- and we bounce up to 50% color. The top five US box office film was White Christmas (wide format, color) and all top 5 box office moneymakers were color


Grace Kelly in Rear Window– the transition from black and white to color in 1954 is the largest story of the year outside of Kurosawa– Rear Window is one of the five most popular films in 1954– all of them in color


  • The Italians are here— I mean they’ve really been here with Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti but now when you add Fellini (top 3 film for the second straight year) to the list of the best filmmakers on the planet—it is a movement. Three of the top seven films are from Italians in 1954

back to back years with top three films of the year for Fellini- this is La Strada here

one of the highlights from Visconti’s Senso— a frame, within a frame, within a frame– stunning


  • 1954 really marks the height of the method-acting, Kazan-school, Brando-led movement. It all culminates with On the Waterfront (which many still consider the greatest single acting performance of all-time)

    Mizoguchi continues his dominance in the 1950’s– von Sternberg-like obstruction of the frame in Sansho the Bailiff

  • He’s only a few years from passing away (1957) and he doesn’t make my list of actors below—but take a second and look at Bogart’s 1954—Sabrina, The Barefoot Contessa, and The Caine Mutiny– not a throwaway film or performance amongst them
  • It is another big year for actors making their first foray into the archives. Jeanne Moreau (years before the New Wave) is in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Sophia Loren is in The Gold of Naples. 1954 also brings us two talented actors in Kazan’s On the Waterfront– Martin Balsam and Rod Steiger – both east coast guys, definitely unpretty, talented and future Oscar winners. The very young (18) Dennis Hopper is in his first archiveable film—Johnny Guitar. He’d go on to work with Ray again in 1955’s The Rebel Without a Cause.
  • It is a little bit of a quieter year for first the directors with archiveable films—Robert Aldrich is the only real entry of note (unless I’m missing one) with Vera Cruz

Hitchcock’s set-piece experiment in Rear Window

best performance male:  The year is absolutely loaded with genius-level performances. Due to Brando’s towering achievement in On the Waterfront (which is my ultimate choice here), I’m frustrated I can’t go with Mifune in The Seven Samurai. I’m rationalizing (it doesn’t ultimately matter- you can’t talk about the acting in 1954 without either), in my head at least by saying that I had to split the internal “vote” with Takashi Shimura’s performance in Kurosawa’s film which is nearly as strong as Mifune’s and certainly worthy of a mention here. Along with those three performances we have Anthony Quinn giving the performance of his career in La Strada and Jimmy Stewart giving yet another mammoth performance in Rear Window. This is Stewart’s second of four collaborations with Hitchcock (Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo).

Brando’s “I coulda been a contender…” scene with Rod Steiger

Mifune and Shimura (center here– in another lovely composition) are doing at, or near, career-best work here. Shimura as the understated hero—a sharp contrast to his slumped-over shadow of a man in Ikiru. Mifune is a bat out of hell- you can’t take your eyes off him

it doesn’t reach the heights of their future collaboration– Vertigo— but in Hitchcock’s Rear Window Stewart is the pulse of the film


best performance female:  1954 is overstuffed here as well. I do feel very confident that Giulietta Masina gives the best performance of the year. She’s like a female Chaplin in a film directed by a better director than Chaplin ever had (Fellini), with a better co-star than Chaplin ever had (Anthony Quinn) set to music done by a composer better than any composer Chaplin ever had (Nino Rota). Judy Garland is also superb in A Star is Born– the only film she’s debatably better in is Wizard of Oz.  From an acting standpoint the operatic Senso from Visconti is really the Alida Valli show. Joan Crawford gives the performance of her career in Johnny Guitar. It is over-the-top, wild (a perfect match for Ray’s gender-bending, genre-blasting brilliance) and the only reason it works is because Mercedes McCambridge is equally bold and makes for a worthy adversary. One of the main reasons Ingrid Bergman is the best actress of all-time is because she really had two careers— her Hollywood work in the 1940’s—and her work with Rossellini in the 1950’s–  and this is the high-water mark for that second period here in Journey to Italy.  It isn’t fair to leave off Audrey Hepburn again in 1954- she’s not on the level of these others but if you give her a half-mention for both Sabrina (out-acting both Bogart and Holden) here in 1954 and 1953 with Roman Holiday– that seems about right. Lastly, for Eva Marie Saint NOT to get swallowed whole by Brando’s towering work in On the Waterfront is an incredible feat- she deserves credit here.

Ingrid Bergman is the best actress of all-time because she really had two careers— her Hollywood work in the 1940’s—and her work with Rossellini in the 1950’s–  and this is the high-water mark for that second period here in Journey to Italy

Alida Valli in front of a fresco here in Visconti’s Senso

“The Man That Got Away” is sung by Garland here in A Star Is Born— and it is one of the best moments in cinema in 1954– the arrangement of characters, the drink, the costume, the lighting in the background– it is a 3-4 minute moving painting with Judy Garland singing

one of the best single shots in Johnny Guitar— your central tragic figure, surrounded by enemies in black

a strong tableau in Johnny Guitar– and Mercedes McCambridge spitting fire for the entire time she’s on screen

Audrey Hepburn on the tennis court in Wilder’s Sabrina

top 10

  1. The Seven Samurai
  2. Rear Window
  3. La Strada
  4. Johnny Guitar
  5. Senso
  6. On the Waterfront
  7. Journey to Italy
  8. Sansho the Bailiff
  9. A Star is Born
  10. Magnificent Obsession

another, very obstructed and blocked mise-en-scene from Mizoguchi in Sansho the Bailiff– one of the best single images in cinema in 1954

still another from the Japanese artist– Mizoguchi has one of the very best films of 1952, 1953 and 1954


Archives, Directors, and Grades

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea- Fleischer R
A Star Is Born- Cukor MS
Broken Lance- Dmytryk R
Carmen Jones- Preminger R
Creature from the Black Lagoon – J. Arnold R
Crucified Lovers- Mizoguchi
Dial M For Murder- Hitchcock R
Executive Suite- Wise R
Fear- Rossellini R
Gojira – Honda HR
Hobson’s Choice- Lean R
Human Desire- Lang R
Johnny Guitar- N. Ray MP
Journey to Italy- Rossellini MS
La Strada- Fellini MP
Magnificent Obsession- Sirk HR
Naked Jungle- Haskin
On the Waterfront- Kazan MS
Rear Window- Hitchcock MP
Riot in Cell Block 11- Siegel R
River of No Return- Preminger R
Sabrina – Wilder HR
Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto- Inagaki R
Sansho the Baliff- Mizoguchi MS
Senso – Visconti MS
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers- Donen R
Suddenly- Lewis Allen R
The Barefoot Contessa – Mankiewicz R/HR
The Caine Mutiny-Dmytryk R
The Country Girl- Seaton R
The Detective – Hamer R
The Glenn Miller Story- A. Mann R
The Gold of Naples- De Sica R
The High and the Mighty- Wellman
The Seven Samurai – Kurosawa MP
The Sleeping Tiger- Losey
Them!- Douglas, Gwenn R
Touchez Pas au Grisbi- Becker HR
Track of the Cat- Wellman R
Vera Cruz- Aldrich R
White Christmas – 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