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27. On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan

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Alex – 8.7   Elliot – 8.8  IMDB 8.3    Rotten Tomatoes 9.2

Alex’s Commentary:

I love On the Waterfront. It is a compelling film from the opening minutes of a person being tossed off a building rooftop, to the climatic march of the longshoremen into a warehouse at the movie’s end. In between, we learn of the mob’s control of union activities on the New York docks, the fear and helplessness of the workers to effectuate change, and the courage of one man, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the former prize-fighter turned longshoreman, and a priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), to fight against the corruption.  Malden-and-Brando

Terry Malloy is an intriguing character. He is a product of his environment. A boy orphaned young, he and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) grew up on the streets but took different paths. Charley was the smart one who used his intellect to rise in the mob hierarchy whereas Terry became a boxer and whatever brains he may have had, seemed to have diminished from his time in the ring. Marlon Brando deservingly won the Best Actor award for his convincing portrayal of the tough guy struggling to know right from wrong and ultimately choosing right. His enlightenment develops as the events in the film unfold prompted by the direction of Father Barry and love interest Edie Doyle played by Eva Marie Saint who won Best Supporting Actress. Of course, Edie’s brother is the person tossed off the roof and Terry feels some culpability for this unfortunate event.

Many of the film’s characters have depth and nuance as evidenced by three actors being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Karl Malden,  Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb who plays mob boss Johnny Friendly. One of the movie’s more famous scenes involves brothers Terry and Charley riding in a cab to what could be Terry’s demise for turning against the mob. Terry explains to Charley that “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender”. on-the-waterfront-44The story and screenplay written by Best Writing winner Budd Schulberg has more memorable lines and quotes than I can enumerate here and should be experienced to fully appreciate the depth of writing.

When superb acting and a great script are coupled with the skillful direction of Best Director winner Elia Kazan and a musical score composed by nominee Leonard Bernstein, the resultant is a film not to be missed. We previously commented on the skillful direction of Elia Kazan in our commentary on Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). It is difficult to impart the feeling of the Bernstein score – it is both atmospheric and, at times, exciting. Although we have viewed other Oscar winning films that won awards for Best Musical Score, this is the first film that I felt that the music played the role of an additional character. We will hear Bernstein’s stylized musical form taken to yet another level when we watch 1961 winner West Side Story.

I would be remiss not the mention the film’s overall casting. on-the-waterfront_charley_brandoIf you had a stereotypical notion of what a 1950’s mobster or a New York longshoreman would look like, On the Waterfront provides the characters. Or is it the film that generated the stereotype? Either way, the physical appearance and clothing of these characters adds to the feel of the film that also won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Bottom line – On the Waterfront is a film that must be seen and if you have seen it before, you should watch it again.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Arguably one of the most iconic films of post-WWII America, On the Waterfront is delivered to audiences with the effective 1,2 punch of Marlon Brando’s dazzling performance and Elia Kazan’s directorial masterpiece.  We saw the first glimpse of Elia Kazan’s handiwork in the 1947 best picture winner, Gentleman’s Agreement.  While Gentleman’s Agreement contained some of the moralistic messaging of On The Waterfront, the delivery was a little heavy-handed and tone deaf when viewed in a modern context.  on-the-waterfront-marlon-brando-1954_a-G-14713769-7174949Additionally, both films are slightly tainted in my mind by Kazan’s testimony in front of HUAC in 1952, two years before the release of our current film.  On the Waterfront’s depiction of Terry Malloy (Brando), seemingly portrays a justification for Kazan’s testimony in its treatment/veneration of our protagonist’s transformation from mob-adjacent to informant.  Despite my serious misgivings with the allegorical nature of the film and its false equivalency in the context of McCarthyism, the art in this case stands alone. This will not be the last time in our journey that we will have to remove external bias in our assessment of the film itself, so as we get to pictures by Woody Allen and Mel Gibson we will again have to note our moral asterisks.  For now though, let us not rain on the parade of one of the greatest pieces of acting that we have seen thus far in the form of Marlon Brando’s mastery.

Educated in the Stanislavski system that introduced Hollywood to method acting, Marlon Brando stands alone as a pioneering force that commanded the industry to do better.  His emotive, measured acting style showed the power of a masculine entity with emotional range. His first of two Oscars for best actor was rightfully earned for his portrayal of Terry Malloy, an orphaned former boxer trapped between the world he knows and the desire to do the right thing.  ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando, 1954, swingDelivering the iconic line, “I could have been a contender” in his dialogue with his brother on their way to Terry’s possible execution, Brando shows his ability to command the screen and catapult this film into the annals of Hollywood history. Brando’s almost dopey and childlike innocence when we are first introduced to him, is disarming as he takes the viewer on a journey of growth, discovery, and ultimate empowerment.   His characterization is spellbinding, as we begin to peel back the layers of his character’s psyche. His life as an orphan looking for belonging provides real insight into his journey up until this point. Between his brother, a made man in his own right, and the mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cob), Terry is left to face the dubious choice of insider vs. outsider in their world on the docks.   It is an impossible choice to turn your back on the life and family you know in order to “do the right thing”, but emboldened by his love interest Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), Terry begins to walk back towards the path of righteousness.  

Eva Marie Saint’s performance as Edie Doyle, the sister of a man whose death Terry is an unknowing accomplice in, earned her an academy award for supporting actress.   Her beacon of morality in the grim unforgiving waterfront, shows Terry the path of redemption, love, and belonging. Screen-Shot-2014-12-02-at-5.09.31-PMWhile working on the waterfront, Terry is merely a pawn in the oppressive labor regime,  however on the rooftops he shows his compassionate side as the guardian of pigeons in his coop. He trains the pigeons to beware of their natural airborne enemies, the hawks who pray on the weak and defenseless birds.  This is clearly an allegory to the effects that the scheming union bosses/enforcers have on the dock workers trying to make a living and feed their impoverished families. Terry is a pigeon and not a hawk, even though his brother and the only life he knows is amongst the hawks.  As Terry shows his compassionate side to Edie through his kindness to the pigeons, they solidify their bond to protect the other dockworkers (pigeons) through standing up to the hawks (labor leaders) and ultimately make the waterfront a safer working environment free from undue oversight and corruption.  

Overall, On the Waterfront excels at creating the stark environment Screenshot-On-The-Waterfrontthat becomes its own character in the story.   Using sound effects to show discord in scenes through devices such as horns and sirens, Kazan is able to punctuate emotional fraught scenes with their own cadences and feeling.   These sound effects and score provided by 20th century master, Leornard Bernstein, add depth and nuisance to our film.  Through the soundtrack and terrific performances steered by our leading actors, not to mention the emotional and compelling moral compass provided by Father Berry (Karl Malden), the film shows how the line between good and bad can so easily be blurred and the importance of trusting yourself to do what’s right.   If the casting of this film was not done as perfectly the story could have ended up landing a bit hollow, however the authenticity of the on-the-waterfront-brando-walksperformances remove any sort of tacit veneer and reveal this complex constructed reality.   

I had never seen the film before watching it for this review, and I was delighted with my experience.   This film is truly Hollywood at it’s finest, and is one of the major reasons for this project. The ability to go back and find a film so original and powerful was truly a joy to me, and I highly recommend any film buff to go out and watch this film.   

 

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26. From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

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Alex – 8.3   Elliot – 8.6  IMDB 7.7    Rotten Tomatoes 8.2

Alex’s Commentary:

It has been a number of years since I had last viewed From Here to Eternity, and my perspective and perceptions obviously have changed over time. This 1953 film, set in the days leading up to December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor, follows military men’s lives and loves. The story has numerous plot lines and develops many strong character studies. I will make a general comment regarding all of the characters in the movie as to not repeat myself as I discuss each one – it is apparent that every character has so much more behind their stories then can be fully explained in a 118-minute film. fhte5-061915The James Jones novel was in excess of 700 pages and screenwriter, Daniel Taradash, had to decide both the key elements of the story line and character background necessary to provide a cohesive narrative. As Taradash won an Oscar for Best Screenwriting, the Academy certainly felt he succeeded. I would be remiss not to mention Fred Zinnemann, the Best Director winner, who engages the viewer throughout the film. Coupled with Oscar wins for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Music, the resulting product is an atmospheric, enthralling film.

The primary storyline involves Robert E. Lee Prewitt “Pru” (played by Best Actor nominee Montgomery Clift), a soldier who transfers to a new unit because his previous unit displaced him as lead company bugler with a player he felt was inferior but had connections. montgomery clift & burt lancaster - from here to eternity 1953This stubborn streak continues as Pru refuses to join his new company’s boxing team which leads to a series of cruel menial assignments from guard duty, to digging unnecessary holes, to scrubbing floors, to running laps and mountain trails. He never breaks because of his love of military service which he believes is his life’s work. Montgomery Cliff plays Prewitt convincingly, but I was left wondering what made Prewitt act the way he did. Uneducated orphan, maybe?

Prewitt’s love interest is Lorene (Best Supporting Actress winner Donna Reed), a woman he meets at a “club” for military men. This is clearly not the Donna I remember as a kid watching The Donna Reed Show.

Probably the most iconic scene which the film is known for is the steamy love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster (Sgt. Milton Warden) and Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes); both nominated for Best Actor and Actress. I never was able to fully discern what motivated Sgt. Warden and why he declined to take the officer’s exam that may have permitted him a vehicle to marry Mrs. Holmes, the unhappily married wife of Warden’s commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). FromHereToEternityI would have to imagine that From Here to Eternity was considered somewhat shocking in the puritanical 1950’s. Themes involving adultery, consorting with prostitutes (not explicitly stated), pre-marital sex, public drunkenness, and abuse of power by a military officer are not the fare typically seen of films of this era.

Of course, the other storyline revolves around Angelo Maggio (Best Supporting Actor winner Frank Sinatra) and stockade Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine). This was an early role for Borgnine who plays a sadistic stockade commander whose personal vendetta against Maggio climaxes when Maggio is sentenced to the stockade – classic man’s inhumanity against man. We will see Borgnine in an entirely different role two films from now in Marty. This is also not the character I remember as a kid watching McHale’s Navy. The role of Maggio was a pivotal role for Sinatra who was previously was known primarily as a singer. Personally, the Maggio character didn’t resonate with me.  fromheretoeternity_fatsojudson_FC_470x264_040420170528 I usually do not enjoy watching characters whose primary role is to portray a drunk. Having recently watched 1946 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend, I felt Ray Milland was a much more believable alcoholic.

In the 1947 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives, we saw the difficulties of veterans returning home after their wartime service. In From Here to Eternity, we see some of the trials and tribulations these soldiers faced during their service that manifested themselves upon their return home. If you have not seen this film, it is not one to be missed.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Our 1953 Best Picture takes viewers back to WWII-era using the incredible source material of the 1951 Novel, From Here to Eternity by James Jones.  While I had not seen this particular film before, I have read the brilliant novel and was eager to see how our director, Fred Zinnemann, would interpret the material. It is not a simple feat to condense 861 pages of brilliant writing into a cohesive and comprehensive 118 minutes, however the screenwriter who adapted the novel, Daniel Taradash, did a great job given the constraints of the time period in which the film was made.   There_eternity_trumpethe novel is much more debaucherous in its depiction of prostitution, however this film was made during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code and thus these activities are largely downplayed or only mentioned through vague allusion.   Besides from Here to Eternity, James Jones also wrote another novel that received the silver-screen treatment, The Thin Red Line.  Terrence Malik’s 1998 film of the same name was also a terrific depiction of the brutal reality of WWII.  Both novels and films are semi-autobiographical in nature and draw from Jones’ experience serving in the war.   

It’s hard to imagine that the vapid spectacle of The Greatest Show on Earth could be considered in the same ballpark of this film.  From Here To Eternity excels in many regards, but to see Montgomery Clift in his prime, truly is a treat for all cinephiles.  This film marked the last film that Montgomery Clift would act in before his car accident while filming Raintree County.  From Here To Eternity 4There could not have been a better actor chosen to bring the stubbornness and moxy of Robert E. Lee Pruitt (Pru) to the big screen.   While an actor’s off-screen personality and mystique do not always impact their performance, the notoriously private and secluded life of Montgomery Clift fits in perfectly with Pru’s audacity and commitment to his personal morality code.   Clift is often lumped into the same category as Marlon Brando and James Dean who all embodied the Hollywood outsider persona, while revolutionizing the industry with raw talent.   

Additionally, there can not be enough said about the surprisingly endearing performance of Frank Sinatra as Angelo Maggio.  While today, “The Chairman of the Board” Frank Sinatra, is a household name, 1953 marked a period of decline for the swooner.   With his records not selling and his inability to fill concert halls anymore, it looked like Frank’s star was fading fast. He wasn’t the first choice for this role and there are rumors that Sinatra’s mob connections helped him get a part in this film.  The famous scene from The Godfather where the movie producer wakes to find his prized horse’s head in his bed is said to be inspired by some of the dealings that led to Frank being cast in this film. 004_020468.tifRegardless of the rumors, Frank’s performance was enough to put him back on the map. His comedic timing and brash persona are incredibly captivating, and he rightfully earned the best supporting actor Oscar that he was awarded for the role.  His character’s chutzpah in the face of adversity showed off the actor’s incredible range from light-hearted to emotional heart-breaking scenes. Without providing too much of a spoiler for this 50 year-old classic, Maggio’s final scene in the film is one of the most memorable scenes that we have viewed in our journey through film history.

The actor who is the glue that holds the entire film together is Burt Lancaster. Lancaster’s performance as the steady and intrepid Sgt. Milton Warden provides a terrific juxtaposition against the brash Maggio and the stubborn Pru.  While Pru is receiving the “treatment” for not joining the squad boxing team, the Sergeant provides a bit of compassion and perspective that helps Pru temporarily through some of the company in-fighting.  from-here-to-eternityWhile the Sergeant does not always take the moral high road, especially in light of his affair with the Captain’s wife, Donna, he still remains a symbol of goodness in the corrupt bureaucratic company. Their scene with the Sergeant and Donna on the beach together is one of the more enduring images from the film and encapsulates the ability of the film to cover all ends of the emotional spectrum.  

There are moments in the film where both Pru and Maggio’s treatment is kafkaesque as their superiors use the system to bully the two soldiers into compliance.  The moment in time displayed in the film is clouded with the ominous presence of historical dramatic irony. As we glimpse this version of life at the Hawaiian army base in the closing months of 1941, the stakes for the characters seem so high in the moment but ultimately do not matter given the scale of history’s tide.  S-1243_From_Here_To_Eternity_021_1f264562-e442-4c96-80f2-947c697950fcWhile the film is ultimately a character study with limited discussion of the global conflict of WWII, as the characters’ individual stories begin to resolve themselves, they are faced with “a day that will live in infamy” as FDR described it. The attack on Pearl Harbor makes the stakes of participation in a boxing tournament seem so insignificant, but that is the stark contrast we are faced with. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  Besides the stellar production-value and terrific performances from our leads, the plot of this film drives an interesting, rarely-seen depiction of military life that is worth seeking out.  The film contains romantic, dramatic, comedic, and action-packed elements that provide something for every film-enthusiast.

 

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25. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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Alex – 6.5   Elliot – 6.3   IMDB 6.7    Rotten Tomatoes 5.3

Alex’s Commentary

The Greatest Show on Earth won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and  Cecil B. DeMille won for Best Director. Given the number of excellent films being produced by Hollywood in the 1950s, I found it unusual that this film would be considered the best picture. greatest3The movie felt more like a documentary of circus life than the engaging drama which it tried to be. The color cinematography and costuming were well done but the cast of established actors could not salvage the weak storyline.

Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, the circus manager, as an unconvincing and unrelatable character. Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde are trapeze artists attempting to upstage each other for the center ring. Again, the characters did not seem believable and the development of their character was lacking. Another character lacking development was ‘Buttons” A. Clown, which wasted the talents of James Stewart. Buttons was apparently a former physician who somehow killed his wife (I assume for benevolent reasons) and then joins the circus to escape from the police. There are a few other weak subplots that are not worth describing.

So how did this film win the best picture? I have two theories. First, DeMille was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1953 Academy Awards and perhaps the Academy thought in addition to this award, Best Picture and Best Director awards would make his evening complete. 25887598905_a67d4bd7f9_bMy second theory is that a very strong group of competing films split the voting enabling a lesser film to emerge victorious. This list of films includes four motion pictures that are considered classics and I believe are far superior to The Greatest Show on Earth. They include Moulin Rouge and  The Quiet Man (the great John Ford film with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). Even more memorable are Singin’ in the Rain and one of my personal favorite films, High Noon starring  Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.

If you are interested in the circus life of the 1950’s perhaps you would enjoy this film; however, with a running time of what seems like a very long 2 ½ hours, I’d suggest watching one of the other four films mentioned above instead.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The name of our film’s director was burned into the annals of Hollywood history with Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard as the main character, Norma Desmond, delivers the closing line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.  With a 40+ year career as a director spanning from his first silent film in 1914 and culminating with two Charlton Heston-led technicolor spectacles (The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments), it’s no wonder that the name Cecil B. DeMille is one of the most revered from the Golden Age of Hollywood history.    While the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille is not necessarily in line with my preferred aesthetics, the impressive scale and visionary nature of his filmmaking had the power to bring to life the biblical and whimsical to entertain the masses.  It’s no wonder that the Golden Globes (The second best award show 😉 ) named their lifetime achievement award after our film’s director with the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award.  MV5BODY4NDBmODctNjlmYy00M2U3LTkyYTYtZmZiMGQxMzFkZWI4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI0MTk0OTQ@._V1_Similar to the lifetime achievement award, it is possible that the Academy Awarded Cecil B. DeMille his first and only best picture win for our current picture as recognition for his storied career and contributions to film as a whole. Although I do prefer the Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly film, High Noon from our nominee pool to this feature, DeMille’s ability to bring the spectacle of the circus to the silver screen is certainly a sight to behold.   .

While Charlton Heston does shine in this film, eschewing his brand of masculinity that reminds me of a somewhat gruffer Humphrey Bogart in Gone With the Wind, he lacks the likability that we have seen in other leading men in Best Picture Winners.   This rough around the edges character, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), with “sawdust in his veins” is a much more complex character than a surface viewing would initially lead you to believe.  His tough exterior doesn’t break often, although there are moments when his humanity and compassion do peak through. greatest-show-on-earth10-827x1030The foil to Heston’s character is Holly (Betty Hutton), a “flyer” whose abilities on the trapeze and bars have catapulted her to center ring.   As she enters the film, she is established as Charlton Heston’s love interest although that storyline is not fully developed.   Betty Hutton is a passable actress and her performance in this film lands very hollow based on her over-acting. Her love triangle with Brad and The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde) provides some intrigue, although like the rest of the plot of the film, it ultimately is underdeveloped.   The saving grace to the film is Jimmy Stewart, whose character Buttons is a likable clown with a dark past.   It’s hard for me to think of a role in which James Stewart diminishes the overall quality of a film.  In this particular instance, his natural acting ability shines a light on the deficiencies of his fellow cast.  Even though James performs in clown makeup throughout the entire production, he is still able to bring his humble, everyman charm to the role.   It’s not often the case that one would consider a Best Picture winner as a minor role, but for the incomparable Mr. Stewart this performance is and should be forgotten when considering his body of work.   003a1ec7_mediumHe only had so much to work with given how cheesy the script and storyline were. Also appearing in minor roles were Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis and Gloria Grahame as Angel.

The characters that really steal the show however are not our leading characters, but rather the actual circus folk depicted in this film.  The film splices plot between elaborate circus scenes that play almost like a documentary of a spectacular performance of the actual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus troops.  This is a fascinating new territory for film as the footage not only serves as a dramatic ensemble character study, but also as a commercial for the circus.  Through using real acts currently performing during the 1951 circus season, it provides real incentives for fans of the film to go out and view their favorite performers in real life.  Personally, I loved seeing the spectacle of dogs riding horses. Additionally, there is a great cameo from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope that adds additional intrigue.  25792668261_e1a100a090_bThe film also provides behind-the-scenes coverage of moments that the average circus-goer would never get to see such as the circus train, the rigging and set-up of the iconic circus tent, and the practice routines for the various acts as they prepare for the night’s performance.  Even moments where Charlton Heston is going through a line-up of elephants and prescribing remedies for elephant-illness such as gin and ginger, are intriguing glimpses of a different world not often glimpsed by the public. As I watched some of the more harrowing trapeze stunts, I found myself on the edge of my seat hoping that we wouldn’t see an accident.  When it comes to world building Cecil B. Demille excels at bringing the grandeur of the circus to life, and depicting the magical place of wonderment and danger that delights adults and children alike.

The film has certainly dated itself with certain special effects including an epic train crash clearly filmed with models. According to IMDB, this film was “the first movie that Steven Spielberg ever saw. His father took him to the theater, promising him a trip to the circus. He was six years old at the time. In Spielberg’s 2005 movie War of the Worlds a brief clip of the train crash scene is seen when one of the characters is channel-surfing.” Besides the low-grade special effects there are a few instances show2of blackface and jokes at the expense of the obese and dwarves that are not endearing in a modern context.   While I don’t have moral qualms with the concept of the circus in general, there have always been questions about the treatment of animals in the production of these spectacles. Even the the 2017 Hugh Jackman feature, The Greatest Showman, loosely based on the life of PT Barnum, incurred the ire of PETA due to Barnum’s abysmal track record of animal abuse.     

Overall, I think this film was a step in the wrong direction from some of our other recent films.   While some of the films we’ve viewed in our journey haven’t aged well or are a little melodramatic, this film borders on the edge of bad.   The acting, special effects, script, and plot just couldn’t be redeemed by the wonderful circus footage. The film was also 2.5 hours long, which is quite a lot of viewing time that the film does not justify based on its content/plot.  Webphoto 2002Not all of the best picture winners deserve to be remembered in perpetuity, and this film in particular is deserving of its place near the bottom of all best picture winners. Due to the time period, this film was produced during the heyday of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism and thus we are left with the result of what happens when Hollywood plays it safe.   This commercial for the circus was successful in making me want to see a Cirque du Soleil show in the near future, but not much else. See it if you want to laugh at some bad acting, or if you really like dated portrayals of trapeze acts.

 

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