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Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1950s

Please note that all genre films will have their own postings later in this journey.


Forbidden Games (1952) René Clément (Library DVD)

Forbidden Games is a tremendous film about a little girl named Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), whose parents (and her puppy) die in the opening moments of the film while fleeing a Nazi flyover of a small French country road. Befriended by a peasant boy named Michel (Georges Poujouly), Paulette tries to make sense of the death of her parents and her dog in the only way she knows how. Heartbreaking and darkly comedic at the same time, Forbidden Games is unforgettable.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) Kenji Mizoguchi (Criterion Channel)

It’s odd that the film is named after not just the villain, but one of the most cruel villains you’re likely to see. During 11th century feudal Japan, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), the wife of an important government official, and her son Zushio and daughter Anju, are captured by body merchants while traveling. Tamaki is sold into prostitution, the children into slavery under the sadistic eye of the slave camp master Sansho (Eitarō Shindō). I’m not sure what else to say about this movie, other than this quote from Roger Ebert: “Sometimes it is difficult to say exactly why a story strikes us with such power. In the case of Sansho the Bailiff, it may be the unrelieved tragedy that strikes this good family for no good reason. They are not destroyed instantly, in a natural cataclysm, but separated for long years to know and experience their fates. That gives us time enough to know and believe the depth of Sansho's cruelty. Some humans are born without kindness or mercy, and do with pleasure what others could not do at all.”

The Long Gray Line (1955) John Ford (John Ford at Columbia, 1935-1958 Blu-ray box set, Indicator, Region B)

John Ford does it again. He takes a premise I have seemingly little interest in, gives me a plot whose end I can see from the first frames, and fills it with characters whose actions and motivations I can see from a mile away. And yet somehow he makes me care and even tear up. Dang that guy! The Long Gray Line is based on the life of Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), an Irish immigrant whom we meet as he looks back on his 50-year career at West Point. Co-starring many of Ford’s usuals - Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond, in particular - as well as Donald Crisp, Betsy Palmer, and many others, you can’t help but enjoy every moment of The Long Gray Line.

Written on the Wind (1956) Douglas Sirk (Library DVD)

I’m only lately beginning to appreciate the work of Douglas Sirk, so forgive me if I’m late to the party. Not a big fan of melodrama, I’ve mostly avoided his films, but Written on the Wind contains an entire warehouse of spectacular shots filled with shadows, color, telling looks and glances, raging emotion looking for escape through drunken faces, and more. Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) works as a geologist for the ultra-rich Hadley family, but mostly keeps the family patriarch’s son Kyle (Robert Stack) from self-destruction. Although Mitch is the first to meet a new Hadley employee named Lucy (Lauren Bacall), Kyle sweeps her off her feet and marries her, ruining Mitch’s chance to win her over. Dorothy Malone is fantastic as Kyle’s sister Marylee, the family tramp. Written on the Wind is so much more than a melodrama. I hope you’ll check it out for yourself. (A Criterion Blu-ray is forthcoming.)

I Want to Live! (1958) Robert Wise (Library DVD)

I’d been putting off watching this film for decades, knowing it would either be a real downer or woefully dated. It’s a little of both, but neither as much as I had expected. Susan Hayward won an Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Ward, a prostitute arrested and convicted for a murder she didn’t commit. The film’s focus on the real crime - Ward’s handling by both the justice system and the media - is compelling and absorbing. A good supporting cast includes Simon Oakland as journalist Ed Montgomery. Look for a young Gavin MacLeod as a policeman.

Ordet (1955) Carl Theodor Dreyer (Criterion Channel)

Previously discussed here

There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) Douglas Sirk (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

As indicated above, I’ve really gotten interested in the films of Douglas Sirk lately, and this one is tremendous. Fred MacMurray plays a neglected husband and father who reconnects with old flame Norma Vale (Barbara Stanwyck). Miss Stanwyck rips somebody a new one in this film, but I won’t tell you who. I hope to revisit this one with a full review. It deserves it.

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952) Harold French (Amazon Prime)

This is an odd little film with a European cast based on a non-Inspector Maigret novel by Georges Simenon. It’s often referred to as a film noir, but the hardboiled elements are subdued, primarily by eschewing black-and-white cinematography for Technicolor. Claude Rains plays Kees Popinga, a meek bookkeeper for the De Koster shipping company, run by Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom). Kees soon learns that his boss is not only embezzling the company’s money, but also Kee’s own savings, which are tied up with the company. De Koster concocts a plan including instructions for Kees. I don’t want to tell you too much about the plan, but a French detective named Lucas (Marius Goring) is wise to the embezzlement and keeps a close watch on Kees. Meanwhile, Kees - on the run from Lucas - seeks the protection and solace of de Koster’s former lover Michele (Märta Torén), who probably understood more about the world as a child than Kees does as a middle-aged man. The audience is constantly wondering if Kees is simple, ultra-sheltered, out of his element, or all three. Added to this, we’re also never quite sure where the story is going. Although not completely satisfying, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is definitely worth your time. Classic Flix released the film on Blu-ray and DVD in 2018, alas, with no supplements whatsoever.

The Music Room (1958) Satyajit Ray (Criterion Channel)

I’ve only seen a handful of them, but I suspect that this will always be my favorite Satyajit Ray film. Chhabi Biswas plays Biswambhar Roy, an Indian landowner, once powerful and influential who is now forced to realize that his fortune is slowly deteriorating. Disgruntled at his neighbor who puts on lavish parties, Roy decides to play a game of one-upmanship by throwing an event in his beloved music room. A powerful film with a stunning soundtrack.

That's it for the 1950s. Please let me know what you watched from that decade.

Next up: The 1960s

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