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68 years ago...

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Director: John Huston
Country: United States
Length: 112 minutes
Type: Film-Noir, Heist

Watching 'The Asphalt Jungle' again after lots of other Film-Noir films, I'm starting to think it might be a contender for being the best one (and an all-time great Heist movie too). There are at least three characters that are rich, complex and empathetic enough to be the main characters in their own films. They are deeply flawed men but so tragic and broken that you can't help but feel for them. Sterling Hayden plays the muscle, driven by pride and regret. Louis Calhern plays the man financing the job, with a sickly wife, mounting debts and a mistress a third of his age with expensive tastes (played by Marilyn Monroe) who calls him "Uncle". The third central character is the mastermind behind the heist, a German Doctor (played by Sam Jaffe) with a taste for beautiful young girls. The film never makes it completely clear if Doc's obsessions are harmless fun, or something more sinister. They say "Beware of an old man in a hurry" and they are all past their prime and desperately searching for something. A total masterpiece.



The first film from Akira Kurosawa listed in the book next.
68 years ago...

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Rashomon (1950)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Country: Japan
Length: 88 minutes
Type: Drama

I first saw 'Rashomon' at the Cinema and viewed it again today in HD, so despite ideal conditions I'm still not loving it. It's partly because when I sit down to watch a movie about Samurai, I have certain expectations of seeing action-packed high-stakes sword-fights, which this film has none of. Instead we pay witness to court testimony from three people about an alleged rape and murder, each person telling the story differently to put themselves in a favourable light. These court scenes and flashbacks are framed by three more people discussing the case in retrospect, sheltering from the rain underneath the ruins of the eponymous "Rashomon" city gate. I'm sure the multi-perspective narrative was innovative at the time and the performances and technique are faultless but there are many better films by Akira Kurosawa in my opinion.



Another James Stewart film next.
68 years ago...

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Winchester '73 (1950)
Director: Anthony Mann
Country: United States
Length: 92 minutes
Type: Western

At last I've found a rare earlier Black & White Hollywood Western that delivers the same sort of feel you get in the latter gritty 60s Spaghetti-Westerns.  It even has that last revelation about why the protagonist (Jimmy Stewart) has been out for vengeance, which is a familiar trope of several Sergio Leone films. The final duel only lacked the kind of glorious Ennio Morricone thunder that would have really made it feel climactic. The cowboys look disheveled, grimy, unshaven and thick with the dust of the trail. Life is cheap and short and only ruthless and quick-to-the-draw stand a chance. There are no perfect heroes here.

The story starts off on a competition to win a rare "perfect" Winchester 1873 Repeating Rifle and then various men spend the rest of the film killing to posses it. It could be argued that the film is pro-Gun in the way it treats this mythic Winchester like an 'Ark of the Covenant', a 'One Ring', or a 'Maltese Falcon' but it could equally be said that it's anti-Gun because nearly everybody who comes into contact with the Rifle succumbs to it's apparent curse. Only one of the men survives to the end, the only one who never fires a shot with it.



Another Ford/Wayne collaboration next.
68 years ago...

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Rio Grande (1950)
Director: John Ford
Country: United States
Length: 105 minutes
Type: Western

Watching this so soon after Anthony Mann's superior 'Winchester '73' makes everything in this Western seem a touch mediocre and not just dated by 2018 standards but 1950 standards too. John Ford Directs John Wayne as a stern Cavalry commander in post-Civil War Texas and Maureen O'Hara as his estranged wife. Their son joins the same Cavalry unit without the permission of either parent and we watch as the family's broken relationship is slowly mended in the fire of conflict. The supporting cast provide some nice comedy moments. Several references to how great The Confederacy and Plantations were, the portrayal of the "Indians" as drunken killers and a big "I wish I was in Dixy!" finale left a slightly sour taste in the mouth. In fact an overabundance of embarrassing singing was distracting throughout the film but Victor Young's score was very fine.



A Bette David classic next.
68 years ago...

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All About Eve (1950)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Country: United States
Length: 138 minutes
Type: Drama

'All About Eve' simply oozes pure class and sophistication and was even better on this second viewing. Bette Davis plays Margo, an acclaimed Broadway actor at the end of her career, being usurped by the ambitious new girl Eve (Anne Baxter). Margo is written and played expertly, so we are always left just on the right side of the sympathy line when she goes full diva. We can see it's the pressure of staying at the top that drives her to it. The female roles are unusually deep, varied and nuanced for a film of this period, dominating the narrative and dialogue.  Marilyn Monroe has an early short role, more-or-less playing herself as a sex-bomb trying to charm her way into the business, anyway she can.  There is plenty for modern viewers to ponder about the way female performers have a shelf life, while the male talent can go on forever and about women having to flatter the men in charge of the money, the text and the review columns.



Is anything better than George Sanders in the role of a slimy, yet charming creep? His performance as waspish theatre-critic Addison DeWitt is so devilish that you can't help but love it (He earned one of the film's 6 Oscars, from a record 14 nominations). 'All About Eve' is the relatively new entertainment business having a look at itself in the mirror, not liking what it sees, smashing the mirror, fixing a drink and then throwing a party in style...  as Margo's famous sozzled line says "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night".

Check out this wonderful scene of a drunken Margo letting the booze talk as 'Stormy Weather' strikes a mournful tone on the piano in another room:



Another Billy Wilder masterpiece next.
68 years ago...

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Director: Billy Wilder
Country: United States
Length: 110 minutes
Type: Film-Noir

I've seen and enjoyed 'Sunset Blvd.' several times but this was the first time I've watched it since I've been exploring the films that led up to it. This allowed me to understand it not as another movie from my past but almost as a contemporary film, made by a 40-year-old Hollywood looking back it's own painful gestation with love and regret. Having begun to enjoy the work of tragic dead silent film-stars like John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, it added an extra layer when they are eulogised in the dialogue.

Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis chances upon the crumbling mansion of a forgotten silent-film megastar called Norma Desmond, where she lives isolated from a world that has long since forgotten her, cared for by a mysterious butler called Max. Her macabre and insane world are emblematically introduced as Gillis arrives during the elaborate funeral arrangements for her beloved chimpanzee. He sees an opportunity to exploit Desmond by earning a buck pretending to put the finishing touches to a patently dreadful script she has written, intended for the comeback that she believes will somehow still happen. However, the tables are slowly turned as Desmond sucks Gillis into a controlling and suffocating relationship as her toy-boy.

Many real Hollywood faces play themselves, or heightened versions thereof, like silent comedian Buster Keaton, Director Cecil B. DeMille and showbiz columnist Hedda Hopper. Not forgetting that two of the four principle characters are a fictional dormant silent-film star, played by semi-retired real silent icon Gloria Swanson and a forgotten silent-film Director played by real "banned" silent Director Erich von Stroheim. In a scene where Norma exhibits one of her old movies, Stroheim had the wicked idea to make it 1932's 'Queen Kelly', the last film he and Swanson made together, which was not released in the US and from which Stroheim was fired.

Swanson's performance is like nothing else, a deliberately exaggerated exhibition of the worst of silent era pantomime, turned up to a maniacal level, her eyes bulging with insanity and her hands bent into tortured claws. William Holden plays the fly caught in her web with contrasting restraint and a sarcasm laced Film-Noir voice-over. 'Sunset Blvd.' is Billy Wilder's calling card as Director of one of the finest films ever made and the acknowledged master of dark and twisted dramas. Swanson also delivers some of the most famous lines in movie history, such as:

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"
"I am big! It's the pictures that got small"
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"



(^ Top video essay)

Another Luis Buñuel film next (hmm).
68 years ago...

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The Forgotten Ones (1950)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Country: Mexico
Length: 78 minutes
Type: Drama

'The Forgotten Ones' ('Los Olvidados') is more commonly known as 'The Young and the Damned' for English speaking countries. Either way, the titles fit as this is an unflinching examination of childhood poverty in the slums of Mexico City. It was very badly received initially because Spanish-Born Director Luis Buñuel had just taken up Mexican citizenship and his first act was to immediately shoot this film, making his new country look like a crime ridden, derelict, wasteland roamed by callous parents, amoral children and pedophiles. Buñuel's trademark cruelty to animals is sadly present again, this time he beats two chickens to death with a stick for the camera. The final shot of a murdered kid's body being tipped into a garbage dump is a real "Jesus Christ!" moment*. I didn't think films this bleak were made anywhere in 1950 and it makes the earlier Italian Neo-Realist films look like Disney.



(* There is an alternate ending available which Buñuel was pressured to make. It ends in the redemptive fashion the viewer expects from a conventional film.)

The first film in the book by Nicholas Ray next.
68 years ago...

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In a Lonely Place (1950)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Country: United States
Length: 94 minutes
Type: Fim-Noir

Nicholas Ray's film has a classic Film-Noir setup and feel but the psychology of the characters is explored much more deeply, with less focus on mystery and action and more on depression and self-destruction. Humphrey Bogart plays Dix, a formerly celebrated screenwriter who hasn't been able to write anything good since he returned from WW2. He's a man torn between two sides, loyal and caring to his few friends, often tender but with a brooding temper born out of self-doubt, that explodes into violence at the slightest provocation (and he looks for provocation everywhere). He becomes the chief suspect in the brutal murder of a nightclub girl and begins to fall in love with his beautiful neighbour Laurel (Gloria Grahame). For me, the lowest and most tragic moment for the character is when he strikes his faithful and kindly Agent Mel (Art Smith). The quiet way in which Mel doesn't make a fuss of it and the shame on Dix's face is so painful to watch. Laurel's sexual attraction to Dix's dangerous side, begins to tip over into fear of how far he could really go, making this an all-round fascinating movie and one of Bogart's best performances.



(^ God I love the atmosphere in this scene.)

One of Billy Wilder's best next.
67 years ago...

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Ace in the Hole (1951)
Director: Billy Wilder
Country: United States
Length: 111 minutes
Type: Drama

Billy Wilder's 'Ace in the Hole' (aka 'The Big Carnival') took me by surprise when I first saw it, it's so nihilistic and cynical for a product of 50s Hollywood and a film I was looking forward to re-watching. Kirk Douglas plays a demonic borderline-sociopathic journalist Chuck Tatum (one of his best roles) who has been "fired from 11 top Newspapers" and is introduced to us strolling arrogantly into the offices of a smalltown paper (causally throwing mild racial slurs at the Native-American guy at the front desk) and explaining why they really need to employ him. He makes no secret of the fact that he is only slumming it until he can find a way to prove himself to the big boys and this crumby paper should be glad they have access to his genius for a short while. When he later chances upon the story of Leo, a man trapped in a cave collapse, he sees an opportunity to exploit the poor man's predicament for his benefit and to build the story into a media frenzy.

It isn't just that Kirk Douglas' main-character is utterly devoid of redeeming features, that makes the film so dark and misanthropic (in a good way). Even Leo's heartless wife wants to make a few bucks out of his misery and then leave him to his fate. The voyeuristic public that flock to see the media circus are portrayed as gawping simpletons at best and willingly complicit and callous at worst. The law are in on escalating the tragedy, as are the local businesses and even Leo's would-be rescue team. Only the local paper's publisher has any real principles and in the scene where he finally confronts Tatum, is framed alongside Christian symbols. 'Ace in the Hole' ranks alongside 'Sunset Boulevard' as one of Billy Wilder's very best films.





Marlon Brando's first film in the 1001 book next.
67 years ago...

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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director: Elia Kazan
Country: United States
Length: 125 minutes
Type: Drama

'A Streetcar Named Desire' was only Marlon Brando's 2nd job in the movies but an instant star-making role. As gruff factory worker Stanley Kowalski he's a muscle-bound hulk of a man, violent and tempestuous with a dangerous sexuality, a method-acting revelation next to most other 1950s stars. Vivien Leigh's transformation from one "southern belle", the determined and unbreakable Scarlett O'Hara who she played in 'Gone With the Wind', to another, the fragile and pitiable Blanche DuBois is so complete that I genuinely had a hard time believing it was the same actress. Harry Stradling's Cinematography makes expert use of light and dark, wherever the actors go they always seem to have shadows moving across their faces and bodies. Director Elia Kazan evokes the claustrophobic heat and humidity, the smell of sweat and rain and the noisy bustle of nights in New Orlean's French Quarter. On the downside, this never feels like anything other than a stage-play, the characters are rarely taken outside of one set and talk in long speeches.



Another Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece next.
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