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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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)
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
- 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
- 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)
- 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
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).
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.
- The Seven Samurai
- Rear Window
- La Strada
- Johnny Guitar
- On the Waterfront
- Journey to Italy
- Sansho the Bailiff
- A Star is Born
- Magnificent Obsession
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|
|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
@Georg– wow you’re right. Thank you! I’ll make the fix in the spreadsheets and the pages the next time I update them. Appreciate the help.
Great job, with 7 samurai.
I will be commenting on the other updates, good work deserves to be recognized.
I’m glad you mentioned Bergman, we talked about this, how she could have had a better decade than in the 40s, i was a bit frustrated seeing how it wasn’t mentioned in any of the previous years (1950 and 1952)
As for Journey to Italy, i had the opportunity to see the movie in the theater, the movie is better than you give it credit for, i still don’t think it’s # 75 but it’s a pretty awesome movie.
This is a great update. However, I’m surprised at the lack of mention for Grace Kelly in the best female performances section. I have not seen all of the performances mentioned, but Kelly’s work in Rear Window seems an odd omission. Does she have any mentions at all now? If she does not have one of 1954’s or any other year’s best performances in your opinion currently, am I correct in guessing you would place her lower on the all-time actresses list than you did before?
Also, I notice that Alida Valli has no page or spot on the all-time list. However, you praise her highly on the new ‘49 and ‘54 pages. Will she land on the list next time you update?
@Graham– two really good points here. So I was just finishing up my draft of 1955 when I published the update for 1954 and I sort of make amends for Grace Kelly in 1955. I’ve done it with Olivier and actually Audrey Hepburn here in 1954 where she’s not maybe fulling deserving for either Roman Holiday or Sabrina– but when you combine them— well– it’s worth a mention for sure.
And you’re correct about Valli- any actress with two mentions will certainly find a spot on the top 100 when updated.
very good review like 1953 no debate for the first place it is indisputable and great comment and pictures of seven samurai.i agree with @aldo on journey to italy and I think you underestimate Sansho the Baliff but again very good review.
Gotta love that post-WW2 Japanese and Italian cinema!
If only the Germans got the same level of kickstart from getting their shit kicked in as they did, instead of taking another 25 years or so and then burning out as fast and brightly as they did in the war. Of course, neither Japan or Italy have been doing so well since the Iron Curtain fell either.
@Malith- thank you for the Audrey help here
I really appreciate you giving a mention to Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It’s one of the most underrated performances due to Brando. I’m saying she’s her equal but she’s not far off either and clearly the second best in the film. A well deserved Oscar win for her.
P. S. I also appreciate your love you Kim Hunter. Again underrated due to Leigh and Brando but here I think all 3 (Leigh, Brando and Hunter) are on the same plane.
*I’m not saying she’s her equal but she’s not far off either.
I had one of these moments a few years ago watching Ace in the Hole (1951) when I looked up Kirk Douglas and realized he was still alive at 102 years old (past on since)
I had another watching On the Waterfront (1954) yesterday and looked up Eva Marie Saint afterwards and noticed she was still alive. She played Marlon Brando’s love interest in a 1954 movie!
@James Trapp- Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t realize she was alive still. I have four films with her in it in the archives I believe- the last one was 1966. How about that? Closing in on 60 years ago.
I have not seen it yet but I noticed Robert Duvall in the cast of Sandler’s latest film Hustle (2022). I looked
at his filmography and noticed he’s been acting, since his debut in 1962, almost non stop. The biggest gap
is 3 years which occured from 2018 to 2021. That aside he has not gone more than 2 years without a role.
Polanski has been directing films from 1962(Knife in the Water) to The Palace(2022). Plus I thought Ghost Writer(2010) and the An Officer and a Spy(2019) was pretty great.
Good call on Polanski, I was really impressed by Officer and a Spy (2019), watched it during my Polanski study, I think I graded it as MS. I hopefully will be able to see The Palace (2022) I am not sure if it has a distributor yet.
Caught a 2nd viewing of Sansho the Bailiff, the 1st was about 4 to 5 years ago when I got serious about Cinema. It is really impressive visually and actually reminds me of Tarkovsky, with the repeated shots of water and nature throughout the film. The creative/inventive framing especially stood out to me, there are some amazing compositions. Mizoguchi uses deep focus long takes and high angle shots. The film juxtaposes some gorgeous shots of nature with human brutality and indifference to suffering. It’s about 2 hours flat with a steady pacing throughout, the film covers about 20 years and at times starts to feel like an epic. Maybe I’ll do a Mizoguchi study in the future, would definitley like to do a more indepth review.