Tag Archives: 1954

Top 100 Films #13 – Rear Window (1954)

 

rearwindow1#13. Rear Window (1954)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes (based on It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich)
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendall Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Rear Window is the Master of Suspense’s single greatest achievement as a filmmaker, creating one of the most thrilling mysteries of all time – yet the entire film takes place in a single location. Rear Window follows L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer who has recently broken his leg in an accident. Confined to a wheelchair in his small apartment, and with a limited number of visitors (mainly his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and personal nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter)), boredom begins to set in for Jeff – he begins to watch his neighbours through the window. Since all of Greenwich Village is seemingly enduring an ongoing heat wave, the entire apartment complex is on display to Jeff, who begins to notice patterns in his neighbours and assign them nicknames. Eventually, Jeff observes some shady business across the way on a dark and rainy night – these events set him on an amateur investigation from the confines of his wheelchair. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the very first directors I became immediately attached to after being introduced to the magic of cinema. His films were darkly funny, intelligent, thrilling, and nearly all of them still felt modern and fast-paced when compared to modern Hollywood movies. Hitch’s love for the medium is obvious in every single one of his projects, good or bad. Seeing Rear Window for the first time absolutely floored me – years of seeing the story parodied and paid tribute to in pop culture somehow had not shaped my perception of the film. Hitchcock makes the most out of his single location setting, mapping out an entire apartment complex through the eyes of James Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, whose boredom and need for entertainment drives the first act of Rear Window. Every character introduced through Jeff’s eyes is humorous, interesting, or peculiar in only a way Hitchcock could accomplish – while not developed, these characters still serve their purpose as fodder for the film’s central mystery. After Jeff witnesses what he is convinced is a murder, Hitchcock makes the audience question whether they believe Jeff, or if maybe our protagonist is going a little stir crazy. As soon as the murder plot is introduced, Hitchcock begins to slowly raise the tension by almost completely changing the formerly carefree and fun tone into a much more sinister (while still playful) one. Rear Window’s themes of voyeurism are titillating and incredibly compelling – especially for a film from the mid-1950’s. These themes reveal a great deal about Alfred Hitchcock’s unique sensibilities, giving audiences a dirty little glimpse inside the mind of the Master of Suspense. Living out some of these titillating voyeuristic experiences is James Stewart as the easygoing L.B. Jeffries. Hitchcock and Stewart’s collaborations always made for fun pairings, and Rear Window is probably my favorite in their partnership.  Stewart’s “aw shucks” personality is for the most part non-existent in Rear Window, instead replaced by a still likable, but far more self-aware and relaxed performance.  Supporting Stewart is the always delightful Grace Kelly, who carries some of the film’s most intense moments – becoming a heavily-involved accomplice of Stewart’s. Grace Kelly’s Lisa leads directly into Rear Window’s thrilling climax, which may be one of the most intense scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography – he makes perfect use of Jeff’s small, dark apartment, as well as our main character’s broken leg. When the moment finally comes, the entire audience are on the edge of their seats. Rear Window holds up as one of the best mystery films of all-time, and more than six decades later is still talked about as one of the greats. It’s a great starting place for those not familiar with Alfred Hitchcock, and anybody looking to get into classic films.

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Top 100 Films #24 – Seven Samurai (1954)

 

seven-samurai#24. Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki

Akira Kurosawa’s first major outing in the genre that made him famous also just happens to be one of the great films ever made.  Seven Samurai is his sprawling epic that clocks in at well over three hours long – but the world class director doesn’t waste a single minute.  Seven Samurai sees a small mountain farming village about to be pillaged by a gang of ruthless bandits.  The farmers band together and recruit a group of experienced, but hungry, ronin to defend their village.  When the bandits finally decide to strike the village, their battle with the titular seven samurai is a violent and unforgettable affair.  Akira Kurosawa’s prowess as a director is clear from the moment Seven Samurai begins – he wastes no time in setting the scene and establishing the film’s central conflict. The bandits are a constant looming threat, and the film never lets you forget it. Even though the film’s runtime is so long, the race against the clock for the farmers and samurai is always front and center, making internal conflicts between the group of samurai that much more frustrating. Kurosawa absolutely knew what he was doing when structuring the film – building the tension constantly until the film’s final, action-packed act.  Kurosawa paces the film as a classic tale of adventure, which works perfectly for Seven Samurai’s epic story – Kurosawa’s influence on film structure can still be felt today.  Anybody who’s seen the animated A Bug’s Life knows the basic story of Seven Samurai, as Pixar opted to remake Kurosawa’s film for a more family-friendly audience.  The entire cast of characters are memorable and well-written, and their interactions with one another are some of the best parts of the film.  The most memorable character in my opinion is Toshiro Mifune’s inexperienced, but invaluable, Kikuchiyo. Mifune’s presence in his collaborations with Kurosawa is almost always the highlight of these films, and Seven Samurai is absolutely no different – his largely improvised performance is often unpredictable and always wild. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Seven Samurai are the movie’s incredible and exhilarating action scenes, especially the climactic battle in the rain.  These scenes are frantically paced thanks to the editing, and Kurosawa’s prowess for camera placement.  The action is quick, violent, and hard-hitting, and still feels as visceral and exciting as modern action-adventure filmmaking.  Seven Samurai is a film that is far easier to watch than it is to write about – its far-reaching influence and technical innovation speak to this.  The adventure is absolutely worth the long run-time, and is a great introduction into the samurai sub-genre.  

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Top 100 Films #26 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

 

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS#26. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Directed by: Stanley Donen
Written by: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley (based on The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent Benet)
Starring: Howard Keel, Jane Powell

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the kind of movie that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t be made today – it’s satirical take on gender roles is far too controversial for the internet age.  Director Stanley Donen was still fresh off his highly successful Singin’ in the Rain, with Donen continuing to tackle the comedy and musical films that made his landmark film so successful.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes place in 1850, and follows a backwoodsman named Adam (Howard Keel) as he ventures into town one day in search of a wife.  He meets a young, assertive woman named Milly (Jane Powell), and the two quickly marry and set off to Adam’s cabin.  What he hasn’t told her is that he has six younger brothers, and expects Milly to cook for and clean after the whole lot of them. Milly, with her never say die attitude, quickly teaches the brothers how to be seen as modern men and how to respect women.  The brothers all fall in love with local girls from the town, with Adam encouraging them to be bold and profess their love for them.  What follows is a serious of hilarious and fun situations that could only be found in a musical from the 1950’s.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is without a doubt one of the most charming, fun-loving musical films I’ve ever seen, and I adored it from the moment the opening credits rolled.  Howard Keel’s Adam is loud, brash, and follows an outdated code of living, but is lighthearted almost to a fault.  Keel’s deep singing voice carries many of the film’s musical numbers, and is one I’ve attempted to replicate in the shower more than once. Jane Powell’s much more innocent, but progressive, intelligent, and level-headed Milly serves as the film’s moral counterweight to Keel’s Adam.  Powell’s beautiful singing voice serves as the perfect contrast to Keel’s booming voice – the two compliment each other perfectly.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers really shines in its songwriting, featuring three of my favorite musical numbers in “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, “Goin’ Courtin’”, and “The Sobbin’ Women”, all of which are funny and charming in their own ways.  Director Stanley Donen makes the best of MGM’s back lot sets, using matte paintings and rear projection to give a sense that the sets are much larger than they are in actuality.  Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a truly unique experience, making compelling song-and-dance numbers out of things like chopping wood and raising a barn – both sequences are far more grand and memorable than they have any right to be.  The highlight from a direction and choreography standpoint is the song “Lonesome Polecat”, which sees Adam’s six unhappy brothers chopping and sawing wood – Donen captures the entire impressive sequence in a single take.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a hilarious satire that takes a good, hard look at gender roles and masculinity.  It’s easy to mistake the film for being a misogynist and ignorant work, but I truly don’t believe it to be anything of the sort.  It’s far ahead of its time in terms of themes and subtlety, and is a film I could watch over and over again.  If you’re fresh off this year’s wildly popular La La Land and looking for another (far different) musical to satisfy your appetite, look no further than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #2 – Them! (1954)

Them02Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (story by George Worthing Yates)
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

One of the most charming things about classic science fiction films is that many of them were somehow able to reflect the real fears and concerns of western society, but project it onto something so mundane and have it be so horrifying.  Them! does just that, taking America’s post-war blues and fears of atomic weapons and using giant monster ants to get the message across.  While it may sound goofy all these years later, Them! has been remembered as one of the great pieces of 1950’s sci-fi for a reason.  Prolific child-star turned director Gordon Douglas was the perfect fit for an ambitious B-project like Them!  Douglas had previously directed dozens of films of various genre, size, and scope, but found arguably his greatest success with this Warner Brothers produced science fiction allegory.  The film starred big screen heavy hitters like the Academy Award nominated James Whitmore and future Gunsmoke television star James Arness.  In a classic bit of movie magic, Whitmore was forced to wear lifts in his shoes to compensate for his utterly average height when standing next to the taller Arness.  As a short man myself, I feel every bit of James Whitmore’s humiliating pain.  The two relatively big name actors, a competent director, and groundbreaking and innovative special effects led to Them! becoming Warner Brothers’ biggest success of the year, and would ultimately help the film cement its place in sci-fi and horror history.  It made $2.2 million at the box office, and helped to kick-start generations of “creature features”, often imitating but never duplicating the critical and commercial success of Them!  The Academy Awards honored the film’s special effects with a nomination for Best Special Effects, but the award ultimately went to the bigger budget screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Them! starts with two police officers finding a small girl wandering around the hot New Mexico desert.  The young girl is in shock, so the two officers get her to safety and begin to retrace her steps.  After finding no sign of the girl’s family, the girl hears a high-pitched squeal carried by the wind, unbeknownst to the officers around her.  Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is one of the responding officers to the scene of a general store that has been completely decimated from the outside.  The owner is found dead, and a large barrel of sugar is found smashed to pieces.  His partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) is killed by an unknown entity while Peterson is filing a report away from the general store.  The deaths of the general store owner and Trooper Blackburn pique the curiosity of the FBI, who sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to aid in the investigation.  Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) join Graham on the trip.  Dr. Medford is able to revive the small girl from her catatonic state, prompting her to scream the words “them!” over and over without any sort of explanation.  The team soon comes face to face with the source of all the chaos in the New Mexico desert, a colony of genetically mutated giant ants.  The first encounter ends after the use of an automatic machine gun, but the group learns that the creature was merely a forager from the colony.  A plan is concocted to gas the ants out of their nest with the use of cyanide, with the team descending into it in order to eliminate any leftover ants.  While inside, Dr. Pat Medford discovers that two queens had hatched and escaped from the nest to establish new colonies.  Can the team stop them with the power of brute human force, or will the mutated ants prove too much to bear?  Find out in 1954’s Them!

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Sandy Deschner as the young catatonic girl who unknowingly sets off the events in Them!

I was originally going to review another film as my second feature of this spotlight, but I felt compelled to write about Them! as soon as the credits rolled.  I went into it expecting nothing but a fun, mindless cheesy science fiction flick, but what I got was so much more.  While it might not be nearly as thought provoking or innovative in hindsight, this is a film that was doing a lot of new and original things at a time where studios weren’t taking many major risks.  Allegory always seems like a better idea in genre films, and it works perfectly in Them!  The fears of the common American citizen can be felt towards the end of the film, especially when the research team finds out the scale of the colony and what the ants are capable of.  They know that they’ve indirectly lent a hand in their creation by allowing atomic weapons to be created, and they know that they must now stop something that’s far more powerful than they themselves are.  The entire first act of the film with the little girl being found has enough atmosphere to match even the best modern sci-fi/horror films.  The fact that the audience doesn’t see the actual ants right away is another effective decision, forcing viewers to create their own monstrosities in the theatre of the mind.  While none of the performances are exceptional (or even noteworthy), it’s probably worth mentioning that the entire principal cast has really solid chemistry together, with no one performance trying to hog the spotlight.  This isn’t exactly a character study as much as it is a “giant monsters destroy things and get destroyed” kind of film, which makes the unmemorable performances a lot easier to swallow.  The direction fits under this “good, but ultimately forgettable” umbrella as well, which I pretty much expected from a journeyman director like Gordon Douglas.  He does his absolute best to hide weak moments in the special effects using dust storms and playing with light and darkness effectively, which helps the creatures feel much more imposing and threatening.  Other than hiding some potential weak SFX, Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his camera, nor does his direction stand out in any way.  The best part about Them! is without a doubt its screenplay, which says a great deal about the aforementioned nuclear holocaust fears and Cold War-era paranoia, but does so in a fairly subtle and evenhanded way.  The film’s message is obvious and anybody with any knowledge of the time period can figure out where it’s going and why it’s stressed so much, but it never overshadows the best part of the film: giant, badass killer ants.  The effects hold up better than those previously seen in something like previous year’s The War of the Worlds, mostly due to the decision to not overexpose the ants and the effective use of animatronics.

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The famous first encounter with a giant mutated ant in 1954’s Them!

Overall, Them! is an incredibly fun science fiction film that in no way feels like it should be nearly as good or important as it is.  At face value, none of the cinematic aspects of the film actually stand out as being different or even anything more than competent, but it just somehow works.  Them! gets by on having a tremendous script that plays its hand at being allegorical, but never opts for heavy handedness that would overshadow the intentions of the B movie that it really is.  The special effects look incredible for the time period, and the atmosphere during the first and lasts acts of the movie feels perfectly chilling and creepy.  Them! is a hell of a good time, and is highly recommended for anybody who loves some allegory in their giant ant movies.

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