1959 – Anatomy of a Murder

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Anatomy of a Murder – 1959

Here we have another courtroom drama, the last one being Witness for the Prosecution in 1957.  1957 has the distinction of being the year the hit TV show Perry Mason began its first season.  Hmmm…  This movie stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, and George C. Scott.  Quite an impressive list of names.

Stewart, of course, played the lead, a country lawyer named Paul Biegler.  He was a simple man who loved fishing more than anything else.  His friend and fellow lawyer whose career has tanked because of his alcoholism, is Parnell McCarthy, played by O’Connell.  Arden was wonderful as Biegler’s secretary.  The case that was the centerpiece of the film is that of Fredrick Manion, played by Gazzara, an Army officer who has murdered a man for allegedly raping his wife, Laura, played by Remick.

The question is not whether Manion has committed the murder, but whether Manion was in control of himself when he did it.  The plea?  Irresistible impulse, otherwise known as temporary insanity.  The prosecuting lawyer, played by Brooks West is an idiot, but he brings in a big-shot lawyer, Claude Dancer, played by Scott, to help him win the case, which ended up involving not only murder, but spousal battery, and rape.

In general, the movie was competently made, but I have to mention a few things that I felt to be poorly done.  For example, the filmmakers kept trying to throw unnecessary humor into the script.  That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but it was poorly executed, and here’s why.  Whenever a witness, or a lawyer, or even the judge said something amusing, you would hear a pre-recorded laugh track that would have done well on a low-budget TV sitcom.  But if that weren’t bad enough, it wasn’t even done right.  The people laughing were supposed to be the audience at the trial, which could be clearly seen behind the lawyers.  However, I noticed that when you could hear them laughing, not a single spectator was moving a muscle.  They all appeared stone-faced and serious.  Huh?

Another thing that caught my attention was the music.  In my research, I found that the music was supposedly something special and spectacular, but I just don’t agree.  Duke Ellington wrote a jazz score which has been described as evocative and eloquent.  But to me, it just sounded jarring and inappropriate, meaning that it didn’t always seem to fit.  A film score is supposed to compliment the action taking place on the screen, but more often than not, Ellington’s crazy score dominated the film and distracted me from what was happening like an obnoxious bully.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the remarkable acting.  The talented cast all did a great job, but I need to point out Remick, Gazzara, Arden, and Scott as stand-outs.  Scott, in particular, did a good job.  He was almost portrayed as the bad guy, or at least the guy who is opposing our hero, Stewart.  He seemed to be ruthless in his pursuit of a guilty verdict.  When he got into a witness’s face, the camera angle they used made it seem like he was getting into my face, making his cross-examination even more intense.

And finally, I have to make mention of something that I found interesting, only because I know this movie came out in the late 1950s.  It was a time when certain things were just not discussed in public, a time when the Hays code was still in effect, a time when the use of a certain word would have surely been controversial.  The prominent use of the word ‘panties,’ I imagine, must have been quite a surprise to many people.  But the film made the decision to be refreshingly adult and matt-of-fact about the scandalous word.

I thought it was smart of the filmmakers to have the judge say, “For the benefit of the jury, but more especially for the spectators, the garment mentioned in the testimony was, to be exact, Mrs. Manion’s panties.  (The spectators laugh loudly)  I wanted to get your snickering over and done with. This pair of panties will be mentioned again over the course of this trial, & when it is, there will not be one laughter, one snicker, one giggle or even one smirk in my courtroom. There is nothing comic about a pair of panties that resulted in the violent death of one man, & the possible incarceration of another.”  Yes, you 1959 audiences.  It’s just a word.  Get over it.

1958 – The Defiant Ones

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The Defiant Ones – 1958

This film was not bad.  It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.  Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, play the leads, John “Joker” Jackson and Noah Cullen, two convicts who have escaped from a chain gang, chained together at the wrists.  They run from Sheriff Max Muller, played the Theodore Bikel, and his deputized band of locals, trying to make their way out of the South.  They face many challenges like crossing rivers, evading blood hounds, and getting over their own prejudices toward each other.  The fact that the two men are chained together forces them to work together to survive.

The film’s main issue, of course, was racism, and it made a point of the fact that racism is nine-tenths ignorance.  Getting to know the object of your prejudice leads to understanding and friendship.  The plot was told in a very focused and singular way.  There were very few subplots and only one or two characters that were not necessary to advance the film’s anti-racism agenda.

For example, there was a character, played by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.  He was annoying and unnecessary.  He was part of the hick posse chasing after the convicts.  He carried a transistor radio around his neck and had it tuned in to 50s style rock-and-roll music.  He annoyed the police he was with and annoyed me at the same time.  He was constantly breaking the dramatic tension in the film and I wanted the Sheriff to take the radio and smash it to pieces.  Unfortunately, that never happened.

The acting was very good, Curtis and Poitier turned in some deep and insightful performances.  Curtis starts out as an angry and aggressive character who wants to live a life of wealth and ease.  There are moments in the film in which he really gets to show off his skill as a dramatic actor.  Poitier was just as good.  Cullen just wants to live in a world where he is free, not only from his physical chains, but also from the unfair and oppressive bonds of his race. Eventually, the two learn to trust each other and find that a friendship has formed while they aren’t looking.

The film had only one female character whose name was never given.  The escaped cons find a young boy in a field who they capture, and they force him to take them to his home where their chains are removed.  There, they meet the boy’s mother, played by Cara Williams.  Here is a lady who is so messed up, she is desperate to go on the lamb with Joker just to appease her own loneliness.  She is aware that he is a criminal, but for him, she is willing to leave her son with relatives, give him her entire life savings of $400.00, and move to a big city where he can avoid capture.

Williams did a good job, and while her role might seem superfluous, she actually served several functions.  She was extremely prejudice towards black people.  In an effort to get Joker to stay with her, she tells Cullen how to get to the train tracks.  She directs him to go through the swamp.  What she lets slip to Joker after Cullen leaves, is that Cullen will never make it through the dangerous swamp alive.

This gives Joker the opportunity to realize just how much Cullen has come to mean to him.  He discovers that he has made a friend who he cannot abandon to his death.  He leaves the woman and runs off to save his friend, knowing that it might just cost him his own life in the process.  Oh, and the boy shoots him in the shoulder as he runs off.

Every little scene had its purpose.  There was nothing extraneous, nothing unnecessary.  Every conversation, every line of dialogue, every bit of action, and every character were there for a very specific reason: to expose racism and offer a solution.  The film ended when the two were caught.  The Sheriff stands in front of them when they can run no more.  The end.  Literally.  No final thoughts, no moral statements.  The two men have overcome their natural prejudices.  Roll credits!

But apparently, the entire plot can be debunked with one little tidbit of fact that I found in my research, and it sounds to me to be absolutely plausible.  The story could never have actually taken place.  In the 1950s, segregation was still a prevalent and common problem.  In the South, a black man would never have been chained to a white man.  The whole premise of the plot is based on a falsehood.  But no matter.  It still made for an entertaining film.

1958 – Separate Tables

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Separate Tables – 1958

There wasn’t much to this film.  It had a few big names, and a few mildly interesting scenes, but not much else.  To put it more plainly, it was a bit boring.  It was an American film disguised as a British film, and as such, it seemed that much of its drama relied on subtlety and subtext.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it translated as conflicts that are not very intense and characters who don’t get very emotional.  In other words, the drama is there, but you really have to look for it.

The main plot dealt with issues of class and prejudice, lost souls in search of companionship, and love that cannot be denied.  It sounds like a recipe for something deep and meaningful, but I felt like it was a poor man’s version of a mix between Grand Hotel and the Monty Python comedy series Fawlty Towers… except without the comedy.  The whole film took place in a quiet little English boarding house.  The various residents, each of whom had their own unique personality, all had their own moments of importance.  I think the real interest of the film was supposed to be getting to know them all and seeing how they each reacted to the quaint happenings that took place amongst them.

There were two main stories going on at the same time, so it was difficult to nail down a main protagonist.  It might have been Burt Lancaster, playing the part of John Malcolm, an American who’d once had a rocky marriage with the gorgeous Ann Shankland, a dishonest and desperate woman, played by Rita Hayworth.  Unfortunately, she books a room at the hotel just as John becomes engaged to the establishment’s homely proprietress, Pat Cooper, played by Wendy Hiller.

Then again, the protagonist might be Major Pollock, played by David Niven.  He is involved in a budding relationship with an extremely socially repressed girl named Sybil, played by Deborah Kerr.  Sybil has lived her entire life under the strict and self-righteous thumb of her classist mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell, played by Gladys Cooper.  When she finds out that the Major isn’t really a Major at all, and that he has recently been arrested for publicly molesting women in a cinema, Mrs. Railton-Bell gathers all the residents together and rallies them into forcing him from the hotel.

Each story seemed to have equal prominence, and the two sometimes overlapped, though not very often.  In the end, John seemed to reconcile with Ann on some vague level, and Sybil, along with the rest of the guests, for that matter, finally defied her mother enough to convince the Major to stay at the boarding house, despite his indiscretions.   But the problems never got too intense.  The forbidden romance never got too steamy.  Nearly everyone turned out happy in the end.

For my tastes, the drama just wasn’t dramatic enough for a Best Picture nomination.  Granted, some of the acting was good.  I’m used to seeing Niven as being very proper and British without being stuffy, like his portrayal of Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days.  Here, he moved outside that role, being blustery and stodgy.  I’m also used to seeing Kerr as being very proper and British, with confidence, like her role as Anna Leonowens in The King and I.  She, too, broke out of her usual mold, and played a mousy character with severe social anxiety.

I was also impressed with Gladys Cooper.  She represented intolerance and prejudice, qualities that were very unpopular in a world that was in the middle of the Vietnam War.  We were quickly moving towards the 60s and their groovy ideas of total acceptance of one’s fellow man.  Cooper might be called the film’s villain, from a certain perspective, and she played the part well.  She was appropriately old and crotchety, and, lest we forget, completely self-righteous.

But I think it was the film’s other centerpiece that was the film’s biggest failing.  The tempestuous relationship between John and Ann tried to be subtle by hinting at things that had taken place in the past while being a bit vague about things that were happening in the present.  They made the point of saying “When you’re together, you slash each other to pieces. When you’re alone, you slash yourselves to pieces.”  And then they leave their reconciliation a mystery, never answering the question of whether they will end up together or apart.  A soft ending, I thought, for a soft plot.

1958 – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – 1958

Wow!  This was an incredible movie!  Great story, great characters, great cast, great sets and costumes.  Nearly everything about this movie was amazing.  Notice I use the word “nearly.”  There was one issue in particular that I would have changed, but I know exactly why the film was made as it was.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.

This was, first and foremost, a drama done right.  It starts with a one of the world’s most dysfunctional families and when the wealthy patriarch, Big Daddy, wonderfully played by Burl Ives, learns that he is dying of cancer, the crocodile tears begin to flow, the vultures descend, and the claws come out.  The interactions of the individual characters as they each deal with the situation in their own ways was incredibly well written and fascinating to watch.

Big Daddy is a mean and nasty man who appears to hate his entire family. His wife, Big Mama, played by Judith Anderson, goes through life with blinders on, trying to defend her acerbic husband and pretends that they are both happy.  His oldest son, Gooper and his wife called Sister Woman, played by Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood, respectively, hate the old man and are positioning themselves to inherit his vast fortune.  The two have a brood of children who have never learned any manners.

But the two real stars of the film are Big Daddy’s younger son Brick, played perfectly by Paul Newman, and his wife Maggie “the Cat,” played by Elizabeth Taylor.  These two were amazing to watch.  The couple start off estranged from each other.  Apparently has happened between them that has their marriage on the rocks.  She spends her time desperately trying to win back his affections, and he spends all his time drinking himself to a stupor.

The film follows the family as they learn of Big Daddy’s impending death.  Each they all deal with the news in their own ways.  Secrets are kept and revealed, lies are told and uncovered, emotions run high, and after a night of shouting and arguing, many truths are finally told.  And the family somehow survives the ordeal!  Big Daddy makes his peace with most of the family, Brick and the Cat are reconciled, and the ending is a happy one for everybody… well, except for Sister Woman.

The drama was engaging and the characters created by Tennessee Williams, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play upon which the film is based, were real and complex.  The cast all did such an incredible job, giving us both the lines on the pages and the turbulent emotions that ran beneath the words.  I particularly loved Burl Ives, whose performance was nothing short of genius.

What, then, you might ask was the one thing about this film that I would have changed?  I would have left the original script alone.  Once again that blasted Hays Code stepped in and changed the motivations of a single character, motivations that drove most of the film’s hardest drama.  There was a reason for Brick’s voracious drinking.  It is revealed that he never touched alcohol until the suicidal death of his dear friend Skipper, a character who was dead before the start of the film.

His dear friend…  Apparently, in Williams’ original play, Brick and Skipper had homosexual feeling for each other.  When Maggie confronted Skipper about those feelings, Skipper takes her to bed to prove her wrong.  But he can’t go through with it.  He confesses his feelings to Brick, but Brick rejects him, causing him to commit suicide.  Unfortunately, the Hays code wouldn’t allow any allusion to a homosexual relationship to enter the movie, though if you know what to listen for in the subtext, it is pretty darn clear.  Brick hates himself for rejecting both Skipper’s love for him and his own love for Skipper, which ultimately led to his friend’s death.

As it was, the film made it so that Maggie had tried to seduce Skipper in order to drive a wedge between him and Brick.  Brick believes that she has cheated on him with his best friend, thus creating the rift between them.  They did a good enough job of working around the subject to appease the Motion Picture Production Code, but I wish they could have stuck to the original material.

1958 – Auntie Mame

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Auntie Mame – 1958

Rosalind Russell was fantastic as the title role of Auntie Mame.  She was over-the-top and dramatic, which is what the role demanded.  As a matter of fact, her flamboyant personality was the plot point that drove most of the story.  The essence of the film is actually an easy one to sum up in just a few sentences.  The character’s motto was that “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Mame didn’t intend to miss a single bite.

The plot is also fairly simple.  Young Patrick, played by Jan Handzlik, comes to live with his Auntie Mame, a wealthy socialite, after the death of his father.  Growing up in Mame’s New York house, which seems to be party central, Patrick has an unusual and fabulous childhood.  When Mame falls on hard times, the love that they share sustains them until Mame marries into money.  While Mame and her husband travel the world, Patrick, played as an adult by Roger Smith, grows up in danger of turning into the kind of uptight square that Mame detests.  There is a hilarious scene in which Mame gets rid of the snobbish family of the girl Patrick is expected to marry.  The two reaffirm their love for each other and give us our happy ending.

The story is actually pretty original and the relationship between Patrick and his Auntie Mame is a simple one.  The two adore each other.  No matter what changes life throws at them, their love is a constant that never wavers.  Now, that being said, one of the things I loved most about the film was the ever changing set that was Mame’s home.  The décor seemed to change with Mame’s ever shifting moods.

The first time we see her home, it is furnished with a Chinese motif that is loud, shocking, and bordering on gaudy, but never crossing the line into bad taste.  It is bold and striking, and yet chic and fashionable.  The front door portraying a gold Chinese dragon that spouted smoke whenever the doorbell was rung was a bit much, but that was more for comedic effect.

Next we saw a minimalistic apartment that had plenty of open space and clean lines.  The walls were white with strategically placed curtains and sculptures.  The furniture was bare and unornamented.  It was beautiful.  Several more changes happened throughout the course of the film until it finally settled on an Indian motif with murals of misty jungles and statues or panthers as accents.

The Art Director and the Set Decorator, Malcolm Bert and George James Hopkins, respectively, really had their work cut out for them and they came through with flying colors.  They were nominated for Academy Awards in Art Design, but unfortunately lost those honors to Gigi.  Listen, I’ve seen Gigi, and I can say with confidence, Auntie Mame got robbed.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible and glamorous costumes.  Perfection!

The entire cast did a fantastic job, but I need to mention a few that stood out to me as particularly good.  Keeping in mind that the movie was a comedy, Mame’s best friend Vera Charles, played by Coral Browne, was extremely funny with her acerbic one-liners and witty quips.  Forrest Tucker, playing the part of Mame’s wealthy husband, did a great job.  He was lovable and loyal to Mame.  Yuki Shimoda played the part of Mame’s Chinese butler, Ito.  Sure, he was portrayed as a horrible stereotype, but he was actually pretty funny.  And then there was Joanna Barnes, playing the part of Gloria Upson, Patrick’s boorish snob of a fiancé.  I didn’t like her character, but then, I wasn’t supposed to.  She played the part perfectly.

But the real star of the movie was, of course, Rosalind Russell.  She was fantastic, playing the quick-talking partier with just as much ease and skill as the deep and emotional woman who loves her nephew more than anything.  The scenes in which Mame has to deal with sudden poverty were a nice break from the fast-paced comedy that dominated the film.  She had an air of grace and aristocracy about her that went a long way to defining her endearing character.

Mame is like the eccentric aunt that we all wish we had.  She is charming and personable, and yet fun and exciting.  Without intending to, I think the film makes the point that a little zaniness in life is good, so never stop seeing the world with the wonder of a child.  But the motto still holds true.  Life is a banquet, and most poor sucker are starving to death.  Live!  Live!  Live!

1957 – Witness for the Prosecution

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Witness for the Prosecution – 1957

The defining aspect of this movie was the ending.  I’m going to say that right off the bat because not only did I not see it coming, it was completely plausible.  This film masterfully delivered the classic movie trope of the surprise twist, accomplishing the feat through the incredible talents of its cast of actors.  This switch was a trait that was common to the works of the writer of the original play upon which the film is based: none other than Agatha Christi.

The film touted several big names like Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich.  I’ve seen the two men in other films I’ve watched like Mutiny on the Bounty, Les Miserables, In Old Chicago, and The Razor’s Edge, so I know their talents, but Dietrich surprised me.  This is the first of her films I have had the pleasure to watch.  She did a fantastic job, and in order to explain why, I’ll have to give away the movie’s big finish.

Laughton played Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a British barrister in ill health who takes on Leonard Vole, played by Power, as a client.  He is being charged with the murder of a woman who was in love with him, and who, it turns out, left him a very large sum of money in her will.  Vole claims innocence.  Then his wife Christine, played by Dietrich, enters the picture.  She seems cold and studied, but devoted to her husband.

What follows is a trial in the British court system.  I was reminded of the stereotypical courtroom drama TV shows like Perry Mason and Matlock.  The prosecution called witnesses who gave their testimony and Sir Wilfrid did his best to discredit them.  But things got interesting when Mrs. Vole was called to the stand as a Witness for the Prosecution.  (Roll credits!)  She gave testimony that strongly pointed to her husband as the murderer who she now claimed to hate.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it was all set-up for the big plot-twist that was to come.

But just when things seemed to be going badly for our main characters, a mysterious Cockney woman shows up who provides the perfect evidence to prove that Vole was completely innocent, and that Mrs. Vole had lied on the stand, committing perjury.  Because of this convenient evidence, Vole is found not guilty and set free.

Here is where I found Dietrich’s acting to be incredible.  When Mr. Vole was acquitted, we learn that he actually had killed the deceased woman, and that his wife knew it.  It was she, in disguise, who was the mysterious woman, providing the perfect evidence to set her beloved yet guilty husband free.

As I was watching, I was slightly incredulous, thinking that there was no way Sir Wilfrid would not have recognized the woman in disguise.  But after thinking about it, I realized that I had certainly been fooled.  Why would the barrister be any different?  When Dietrich played the mysterious woman, her entire persona transformed into another character.

Dietrich, as an actress, was known for having that calm and cold exterior, and that’s exactly what she gave us for most of the movie.  But when she put on that disguise, I had no idea that it was her.  Her voice, her mannerisms, her posture, and of course, her look all changed so completely that the thought that it was Dietrich playing the part never even occurred to me.  Sure, I’ll admit that I was also fooled by my own expectations and perceptions of who the actress, Marlene Dietrich was, but however it happened, I was indeed fooled.  Well played, Marlene.

Just as an interesting note, when the film was originally shown in theatres, there was a voice-over at the end of the movie which gave an instruction to the watching audiences.  This instruction is now part of the movie and is retained on the DVD.  It said “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.”  I wonder how well this ploy worked.  But that was not the end.  There was one more twist that happened in the last few minutes… but I’ll leave that one for you to find out about on your own.

1957 – Sayonara

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Sayonara – 1957

I really enjoyed this film.  It had some incredible acting, a great plot that dealt very strongly with racism and prejudice, beautiful cinematography, and fantastic and poignant drama.  This one really delivered.  Where to begin?

The movie starred Marlon Brando, Red Buttons, James Garner, Miiko Taka, and Miyoshi Umeki.  Ricardo Montalban and Patricia Owens rounded out the supporting cast. The acting was top-notch.  I have never been a huge Brando fan, but every movie review I read, every film historian who has an opinion, keeps going on and on about how much of a wonderful actor he is.  Finally, I’m starting to see why.  There is an honesty and an ease in his delivery that is uniquely his own.  I was really impressed with him.

He played Air Force Pilot Lloyd “Ace” Gruver, stationed in Tokyo during the Korean War.  He starts out as the Air Force poster boy, and has no problem toting the company line which discourages American soldiers from fraternizing with Japanese women.  When one of the men under his command wants to marry one, he initially tries to talk him out of it.

But Airman Joe Kelly, fantastically played by Red Buttons, is truly in love with his intended bride, Katsumi, played by Umeki.  In fact, Kelly convinces Ace to be the best man at the wedding.  Then, Ace, himself falls in love with a Japanese woman named Hana-ogi, played by Taka.  And therein lies the film’s drama.  It is an examination of extreme prejudice and discrimination.  The military goes to extraordinary lengths to keep American men from associating with Japanese women.

Sure, the plot mostly focuses on Ace and Hana-ogi, but for me, the real drama of the film came from Joe and Katsumi.  The four friends go to see a play that tells the tale of two lovers who, when they are pulled apart, commit double suicide so that their spirits can be together forever.  Lt. Gen. Mark Webster, played by Kent Smith, tells Joe that he is being reassigned to the United States, and that the U.S. does not recognize his marriage.  He will be forcibly parted from his pregnant wife.  The couple follow the example of the lovers in the play and commit suicide together.

I’m only used to seeing Red Buttons in comedic roles, but he turned in a fantastic performance.  The actress who played his wife, Umeki, was incredibly good as well.  I became emotionally invested in their story and wanted them to be together.  They both did such a good job that they each won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.  Incidentally, Umeki is the only Asian woman to win an Academy Award for acting.

Another reason I really enjoyed this film was the cinematography.  Japan is a beautiful country with a rich culture, full of ancient and time honored traditions.  The filmmakers took full advantage of the serene and yet spectacular locations.  The costumes were also wonderfully done and fascinating to see on the screen.  I especially liked the scenes that showed Kabuki theatre, an all-male style of theatre, and the fictional Matsubashi theatre, an all-female theatre company, though such a company called the Takarazuka Theatre Company, actually does exist.

However, in my research, I found that there were some critics of the film who claimed that the film was “… one in a long list stereotyping Asian American women as ‘lotus-blossom, geisha girl, china doll, or Suzie Wong’ by presenting Asian women as ‘passive, sexually compliant, and easy to seduce’ or as downright prostitutes.”  I find this to be a ridiculous claim because the movie was not presenting Asian American women at all.  The characters portrayed in Sayonara were Japanese women who belonged to a very particular subculture within Japanese society.  I have seen a documentary or two that confirms the fact that the characters were played very true to life.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by this wonderful movie and I thought that Buttons and Umeki really deserved the awards they were given.  Brando was also nominated for Best Actor, though he lost the honor to Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  That one must have been a pretty close race, but I think the Academy made the right decision.  Sorry Marlon.

1957 – Peyton Place

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Peyton Place – 1957

This film has been called the forerunner to most modern soap operas and it isn’t very hard to see why.  Take a group of people in a centralized location and throw in larger-than-life drama.  Even the very nature of the plot was episodic.  I’m not a fan of soaps and have never watched one on a regular basis, but I can at least understand how they can be addictive.

Peyton Place starred Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie, a single mother with a sordid past.  Her daughter, Allison, played by Diane Varsi, is a repressed, straight-laced girl who wants to be a wild-child.  Her best friend is Selena Cross, played by Hope Lange, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  Selena’s alcoholic step-father, is played by Arthur Kennedy.  The new high-school principal is Michael Rossi, played by Lee Philips.  Allison’s socially and sexually repressed boyfriend, Norman Page, is played by Russ Tamblyn.

The list goes on and on.  The film is really an ensemble piece, as are all soap operas.  The plot covers a wide range of stories, each character having his or her own history and motivations.  But, as with most soaps, there were so many subplots, that the main plot, if there really was one, got lost amidst all the multiple story lines.  But I think I’d have to say that there were really two main stories.  The first is Allison’s tempestuous relationship with her mother.  The other is Selena’s rape and eventual murder of her step-father.  The centerpiece of the last quarter of the film is Selena’s trial.

The movie was alright, though I’m not a huge fan of soap operas.  The acting was just fine and the filming locations and sets were all quite appropriate.  The music was average and some of the drama was mildly interesting.  But after watching Peyton Place, I went onto Wikipedia and found out why most of the movie was so bland.  It was that pesky Hays Code doing its dirty little work on the screenplay.

As I have learned, the original novel, upon which the film is based, was far more racy and risqué.  For example, in the movie, Selena is raped by her step-father and a year and a half later, she murders him during his second attempt.  In the novel, she endures years of sexual abuse before murdering him.  However, the real-life character on which Selena is based endured years of sexual abuse from her real father before murdering him.  The original author, Grace Metalius, tried to tell the true story, but her editor, Kitty Messner, considered incest too taboo a subject and altered the truth.  Then when the film was made and the Hays code got involved, the truth was watered down even more.

The whole point of the novel was to show a community with a beautiful and placid facade, beneath which lay a seedy underbelly made up of scandal, homicide, suicide, incest, and moral hypocrisy, all set against the backdrop of a repressive class system.  But I think the film’s final result was different.  It ended up being a movie about social discrimination, sexual repression, coming of age, and freedom.  Throw a little rape and murder in there, and you’ve got yourself a movie.  Maybe the lines between the two are subtle and thin, but a film made today wouldn’t water down the source material.

Then, of course, the film had to bring in the patriotism angle.  The original novel didn’t have anything of the sort, but the movie set the scene in the early 1940s.  You know what that means.  WWII came around and all of the town’s young men got drafted into service.  Several of the minor characters got killed off, including the town’s wealthiest business owner’s son Rodney, played by Barry Coe.  In the original novel, he was killed in a car accident.

One thing that I got out of watching the movie was the idea that parents need to allow their children to be themselves, and they need to be able to let them go when the time is right.  Also, the idea that parents need to teach their kids about sex.  The fact that the new principal wanted to institute a sexual education class in the school must have been a controversial issue in 1957.  It was a pretty progressive concept back then, though in most places, today, it is a required part of a normal education.  The subject of sex was so taboo in that era that kids had nowhere to learn about the subject except with each other by experimentation.  Kudos to Peyton Place for at least exploring the subject a little.

1957 – 12 Angry Men

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12 Angry Men – 1957

I loved this movie.  It is a thoroughly engaging drama about 12 jurors assigned to a murder trial.  They are all different men with distinct personalities, a great credit to Reginald Rose, author of the original teleplay on which the film is based.  The film was an intellectual drama which was superbly acted.  It really made me think about what It would mean to be a juror in such a case, and what the true meaning of the famous term Reasonable Doubt really is.

At times, the trial itself seemed almost secondary to the interactions and personality conflicts between the twelve men.  That’s not to say that the trial wasn’t immensely important to the plot.  It was the very nature of the setting, the reason why the 12 men from different walks of life were all confined in a small room with a common purpose, a singular goal.  It was their job to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty.  The men’s names are never given and they were only referred to by their numbers.

Juror #1, played by Martin Balsam, is the foreman who does his best to keep the deliberations civil; #2, John Feidler, is meek and mild mannered; #3, Lee J. Cobb, is loud obnoxious, and has an explosive temper; #4, E. G. Marshall, is cold and analytical; #5, Jack Klugman, is a gentle man who grew up in a violent neighborhood; #6, Edward Binns, is a blue-collar worker who is tough but principled; #7, Jack Warden, is a salesman who seems indifferent to the case and is also prejudice against immigrants; #8, arguably the film’s lead played by Henry Fonda, is thoughtful and earnestly wants to do the right thing; #9, Joseph Sweeney, is elderly and insightful; #10, Ed Begley, is a harsh, racist loud-mouth; #11, George Voscovec, is a foreign immigrant with a high level of respect for the American justice system; and #12, Robert Webber, is an advertising executive who is indecisive.

The entire cast did an incredible job, but special notice has to be given to Fonda and Cobb, especially Cobb, for bringing out the films greatest emotional drama.  The film deals with a couple of sensitive issues like prejudice and racism.  It shows the benefits of cooperation and open-mindedness, and the destructive powers of bigotry and intolerance.  One particularly well-delivered monologue by Juror #10, showed not only how he was ready to convict the defendant based solely on his Latino heritage, but how the rest of the jurors rejected him for his racist views.

But I also have to applaud the film’s director, Sidney Lumet, for his astonishing instincts in the way the movie was filmed.  For example, the film starts out with more wide shots, giving a feel of openness and ease.  But gradually, as the conflicts heat up, the camera does more cuts and more close-ups, giving the drama more intensity along with a more claustrophobic feel.  Another little trick he used to build the film’s intensity was to start out with camera angles that were at eye level, and gradually lowering them over the course of the movie.  By the film’s climax, most shots were done from low angles, looking up at the actors.

And as for the case, itself, it was actually amazing how the 12 men, through their arguing and examining of the evidence, were able to change the initial vote, 11 guilty to 1 not guilty, to a final unanimous vote of not guilty.  They listed the prosecution’s main arguments, and, one by one, were able to cast doubt on each of them.  For example, a man’s statement that he heard the body fall was called into question by an eye witness’s statement, saying that she saw the murder through the windows of a passing L train.  The passing train would have been so loud that the man could not have heard anything.  It sounds logical, right?

But here is where the film apparently failed in its realism.  According to Supreme Court Justine Sonia Sotomayor, “…most of the jurors’ conclusions are based on speculation, not fact.  Events such as Juror 8 entering a similar knife into the proceeding, doing outside research into the case matter in the first place, and ultimately the jury as a whole making broad, wide ranging assumptions far beyond the scope of reasonable doubt (such as the inferences regarding the ‘Old Woman’ wearing glasses) would never be allowed to occur in a real life jury situation, and would in fact have yielded a mistrial.”  Her statement makes perfect sense, but it was still a highly enjoyable drama.