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64 years ago...

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A Star is Born (1954)
Director: George Cukor
Country: United States
Length: 176 minutes
Type: Musical

As far as I can tell, the only version of this 1st remake of 'A Star is Born' available on any home-video format (VHS included) is the 1983 "reconstruction". A cut with the misguided goal of restoring the film to it's Premiere length of roughly 3-hours, whether they could find the footage, or not. So lower quality material, outtakes, b-roll and even black&white production photos are used to fill in the missing 22-minutes. The original and polished 154-minute Theatrical Cut, which is what audiences saw in 1954 and which was nominated for 6 Academy Awards is unavailable, unless you purchase an old pre-1983 print. I would applaud an alternate extended cut but to make this the only version is folly, especially when the majority of the amazing CinemaScope/Technicolor/Anamorphic footage has been scanned at 6K.

The film itself is a pretty close remake, scenes and dialogue are reproduced verbatim but with the addition of many musical numbers (accounting for the inflated run-time). Unfortunately they are largely not integrated into the plot, so only serve to interrupt the arc of the story. None more so than 'Lose That Long Face', an upbeat number coming between two emotional crisis (the song was apparently not in the Theatrical Cut for good reason). However, the power of Judy Garland's voice is undeniable and some of the numbers are visually stunning and catchy. James Mason plays the role of the fading star, the anguish on his face during the scene where he decides to die is so tragic.  Unfortunately he never plays it as a "lovable drunk", he's unpleasant from the outset, making it hard to warm to him.  I'm yet to see the 1976 version but I'm ranking this as the least of the three 'A Star is Born' versions I have watched.



Another Bogart film next.
64 years ago...

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The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Country: United States
Length: 130 minutes
Type: Drama

'The Barefoot Contessa' of the title is a Spanish dancer called Maria (played by Ava Gardner), plucked from obscurity, turned into Hollywood's most desirable actress, becoming a wealthy Contessa and finally dying tragically. Her life story is told entirely in flashback by several men who had a role to play in her rise as they stand mourning her grave, wondering if any of them truly understood Maria. This unusual mosaic story structure is very 'Citizen Kane'. Humphrey Bogart plays a washed up movie Director/Writer who instantly bonds with Maria but his part doesn't play out anything like I expected... nothing does. It's all very lavish and romantic, with characters conversing in passionate and poetic speeches written by Director/Writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. I was looking forward to watching another film shot by Technicolor master Jack Cardiff but the current blu-ray transfer has distractingly magenta skin tones.



Next is the first film in the book by Federico Fellini.
64 years ago...

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La Strada (1954)
Director: Federico Fellini
Country: Italy
Length: 108 minutes
Type: Drama

'La Strada' ('The Road') follows a brutish carnival Strongman (Anthony Quinn) and his childlike female Clown assistant (Giulietta Masina) as they drive around performing at small towns. Quinn's performance is thoroughly unpleasant, cruel and animalistic, contrasting with the gentleness of Masina, played like the love-child of Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx. They encounter a third character, a Circus fool, who delights in antagonising the Strongman, headless of his violent temper. It's a worthwhile character study of broken people but it wasn't one that sustained nearly 2-hours for me. Nino Rota's violin score plays a major part in the film and sticks in your head.



Another Kurosawa film next.
65 years ago...

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Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Country: Japan
Length: 207 minutes
Type: Drama,Samurai,Action

This was probably the 3rd time I've seen Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' ('Shichinin no Samurai'). A remote farming village in 15th Century Japan is being threatened by raiders, so they journey to the nearest town to try and find some Samurai willing to fight for them. Since the farmers can't offer any money, they end up with an odd group of good-hearted but aging Ronin and misfits. Kurosawa is careful to define all seven just by their silhouettes but also in the way they move, think and fight. Takashi Shimura as the noble leader Kambei, Toshiro Mifune as the joker Kikuchiyo and Seiji Miyaguchi as the masterful Kyuzo are all superb and so different. 

At 3.5 hours (with an Intermission), it is a long and slow film but time isn't wasted. All the characters get their moments and the strategy used to defend the village is explained very carefully, so the audience know exactly what is happening when the mayhem of the battle descends. I had forgotten how downbeat and depressing the ending is. For my tastes, 'Seven Samurai' is surpassed by the similarly titled '13 Assassins' from 2010. Takashi Miike's film has many of the same recognisable elements but also has copious thrilling action-packed Samurai swordfights, which the more sedate 'Seven Samurai' lacks.



Another Visconti film next.
64 years ago...

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Senso (1954)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Country: Italy
Length: 117 minutes
Type: Drama,Romance

'Senso' (aka 'The Wanton Countess') finds Luchino Visconti in full-on glamorous Costume-Drama mode after 'Ossessione', his more lo-fi debut.  'The Third Man's Alida Valli stars as an Italian Countess in Austrian occupied Venice. Trapped in a dispassionate marriage to an older man, she becomes obsessed with a dashing younger Austrian soldier (Farley Granger), throwing everything away for him.  After seeing Granger overshadowed by his co-stars in two Alfred Hitchcock films ('Rope' and 'Strangers on a Train'), I was impressed with his performance here, speaking fluently in Italian and German. He really conveys the subtleties required to be a truly loathsome, indolent and manipulative cad but also convincing as the object of the Countess' misplaced desires. The final confrontation scene where he throws the full vitriolic truth in her face is devastating. The battle scenes late into the film were impressive but since they didn't feature any of the central characters, they felt like a distraction.



Next up, a Western starring John Payne (yes, with a 'P').
64 years ago...

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Silver Lode (1954)
Director: Allan Dwan
Country: United States
Length: 81 minutes
Type: Western,Political

The plot of this Western is similar to the more famous 'High Noon' but it's a much more overtly allegorical condemnation of McCarthyism (the antagonist is called "McCarty"). On the day of Dan's wedding (also the 4th of July) a dubious man from his past rides into town claiming to be a US Marshal with a warrant for his arrest. The film begins with the townsfolk all joyfully celebrating their good friend Dan and ends with the very same people baying for his blood. The decision to set it all in real-time, across a concise 81-minutes, plays into the intensity and sad plausibility of the town's easy spiral downwards into mob vengeance. The long tracking shots following Dan running the length of the Western town as he tries to evade capture are exciting stuff.



A Musical from Otto Preminger next.
64 years ago...

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Carmen Jones (1954)
Director: Otto Preminger
Country: United States
Length: 105 minutes
Type: Musical

Director Otto Preminger adapts Oscar Hammerstein's Musical reworking of Georges Bizet's Opera 'Carmen', transposed to WW2 era USA, with an all-black cast. I do mean all, even sequences with hundreds/thousands of people, Chicago streets, train stations, even packed sports arenas feature not a single white face. I'm not sure if film censorship at the time required this to be the case, so that there would be no suggestion of people of different races mixing and white actors wouldn't be seen in inferior supporting roles, or if it was an interesting creative decision on Preminger's part. It gives the impression that the characters are living in a parallel-universe 1940s USA, where black citizens occupy every strata of society, something that must have seemed forward looking and welcome to see on the big screen a year before the Montgomery bus boycott. Only the frequent use of "Dee", "Dat, "Dem" and "Dis" in the lyrics dates the piece.

Dorothy Dandridge is super sexy in the title role, Harry Belafonte delivers an amazing performance, ranging from wide eyed innocence to possessed anger and Pearl Bailey is a lot of fun. Star Trek's Brock Peters looks unrecognisably young in a key supporting role but his deep voice is unmistakable. The colourful CinemaScope compositions look great and the opening titles were the first ones by the famous Saul Bass (he designed the beautiful poster above too).



Another film by Kenji Mizoguchi next.
65 years ago...

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Sansho Dayu (1954)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Country: Japan
Length: 124 minutes
Type: Drama

Kenji Mizoguchi's 'Sansho Dayu' is usually translated as 'Sansho the Bailiff', or 'Sansho the Steward'. Either way the film isn't about his character, a cruel slave owner, he's the antagonist for the larger plot. In pre-Shogunate Japan, a benevolent Governor is banished, his family is scattered to the wind and his wife and children are sold into prostitution and slavery. We watch the two children grow up and see if the brutality they endure will dull the selfless kindness their father instilled in them. It's basically a 2-hour wallow in misery it but does have moments of catharsis.



Next up, a Communist film improbably made in '50s USA.
65 years ago...

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Salt of the Earth (1954)
Director: Herbert J. Biberman
Country: United States
Length: 94 minutes
Type: Drama, Political

'Salt of the Earth' is based on the then pretty recent 15-month 1951 Empire Zinc Strike in New Mexico. Exploited Mexican and Mexican-American miners successfully appealed for equal pay and conditions with the white workers. Director Herbert J. Biberman was one of the famous 'Hollywood Ten' and it was written, produced, scored and starring other blacklisted people.  Apparently it's the only major communist feature-film made in the USA, so I guess they all thought, hell if we're blacklisted from mainstream Hollywood, why not go for broke! The star of the film, Mexican actress Rosaura Sánchez, was arrested and deported on trumped up charges part way through the film, so her scenes had to completed with a double and footage smuggled in from Mexico. The cast was also filled with non-professional actors and some were the real people involved in the 1951 strike, including Union activists Virginia and Clinton Jencks. The simplistic portrayal of heroic downtrodden workers, versus evil unreasonable bosses was expected, the main focus being on the wives of the miners and their proto-feminist struggles to be respected as equals by their own husbands, was more unusual. It all feels very current.



Next, the first film in the book featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Jeff Goldblum played Director Herbert J. Biberman in the 2000 film 'One of the Hollywood Ten' aka 'Point of View' which dramatized the filming of 'Salt of the Earth'. I'd be interesting in seeing that, if I can track down a copy.

64 years ago...

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Artists and Models (1955)
Director: Frank Tashlin
Country: United States
Length: 102 minutes
Type: Comedy, Musical

Apart from his serious role in Martin Scorsese's 1982 film 'The King of Comedy', where he was great, this was my first time seeing US comedy superstar Jerry Lewis in his prime and doing what he is famous for. It must just be me but I think he is a spectacularly unfunny guy, over playing every moment, mugging for the camera and shrieking in this grating high-pitched voice. His character is too stupid to live and made me think of a 1950s Jar Jar Binks. Since twenty years had past and with no access to home video, I guess Lewis felt comfortable in ripping off a few of Harpo Marx's best routines verbatim without the public noticing. The writing has some nice touches, satirising hysterical establishment reactions to the perceived bad influence of comic books, a neat spoof of 'Rear Window' (I reckon they shot on the same sets) and a risque running gag about a publisher's mistress. Dean Martin is charming and the farcical energy of the plotting just about sustained my interest.



Marlon Brando doing a Musical next.
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