1961 – Judgment at Nuremberg

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Judgment at Nuremberg – 1961

I think that any film that deals with the Holocaust in a factual and graphic way is a daring film.  This one was even more so because it was the first main-stream motion picture to use actual footage that, even by today’s standards, was graphic and disturbing.  It showed film footage of the rows and rows of dead bodies being disposed of after the end of WWII.  Especially unnerving were the shots of corpses being shoveled into a mass grave by a bulldozer.  Films like this are difficult to watch, but they are powerful.  It is impossible to see those kind of images and not be affected.  I can’t say I loved watching it, but it was certainly well-made and superbly acted.  And just as a side note, I can’t help but think of what kind of emotional scars the driver of that bulldozer must have endured.

The film was a fictionalized account of one of the twelve U.S. military tribunals that took place in Nuremberg, and dealt with Nazi war crimes.  This particular trial dealt with the non-combat crimes of four German judges, each of whom sentenced people, including women and children, to be moved to concentration camps, where death was a certainty.  They also sentenced people to forced sexual sterilization in accordance with the Nuremberg laws.  The four judges were Emil Hahn, played by Werner Klemperer, Werner Lampe, played by Torben Meyer, Friedrich Hofstetter, played by Martin Brandt, and Ernst Janning, wonderfully played by Bert Lancaster.

Lancaster, whose understated performance was a great contrast to his overacted performances in other Oscar nominated films I’ve seen, was just one of the huge names in this film.  I read that many of the actors played their parts for significantly less money than they were used to because they believed in the importance of the subject matter.  Spencer Tracy played the Chief Judge presiding over the trial, Judge Dan Haywood.  A very young William Shatner played Captain Harrison Byers, Judge Haywood’s aid and acting bailiff of the trial. Richard Widmark played the passionate prosecuting attorney, Colonel Ted Lawson, while Maximillian Schell played Hans Rolfe, the equally passionate defense attorney.

Marlene Dietrich played Frau Bartholt, a widow who befriends Judge Haywood, offering a different perspective on the Holocaust from a German point of view.  Montgomery Clift was incredible as Rudolph Peterson, a victim of sterilization and witness at the trial.  Judy Garland was just as incredible, playing Irene Wallner, another witness, who had earlier been sentenced to prison for two years for crimes she did not commit, involving alleged sexual relations with an old Jewish man who had been her dear friend.  Garland and Clift’s performances were remarkably powerful and realistic.

I was very impressed with the way the filmmakers handled the issue of the language barrier.  The judges, attorneys, witnesses and defendants were all required to wear headphones throughout the entire trial, through which translators were shown doing their jobs.  The film started out with the some actors speaking English, while others spoke German.  Then, during Schell’s opening argument, delivered in German, the camera did a quick zoom to a close-up of his face, and he began speaking English.  From then on, even though the headphones were never discarded, all the dialogue was delivered in English.  Whenever a German character spoke without the translators, the point was made that the character knew how to speak English.  I like that the filmmakers relied on the intelligence of the movie-going audiences to understand that distinction.

Another thing I liked was the ending of the film.  One of the movie’s biggest themes, of course, was the guilt, of lack of guilt, of the defendants.  Were they innocent of the charges being brought against them because they were just following orders, or did they have knowledge of the criminal nature of sentences that they delivered when they had been on the bench?  Were they, in their capacity as judges, accomplices to the atrocities of the Holocaust?

In the final scene, after Judge Haywood has found all four of the defendants guilty and sentenced them to life in prison, Ernst Janning, asks to see Haywood alone in his prison cell.  He says, “Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come:  Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that.  You must believe it.  You must believe it!”  To which Haywood replies, “Herr Janning, it ‘came to that’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”  That’s some great writing!

1961 – The Guns of Navarone

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The Guns of Navarone – 1961

Yes, this was a very good movie.  The acting was good, the characters were cool, the action sequences were exciting, and the plot was engaging.  This was part of a cycle of big-budget WWII films that came out in the late 50s and early 60s.  Other films in this little sub-genre were 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai, 1962’s The Longest Day, and 1963’s The Great Escape.

The basic plot is fairly simple, and just to give proper credit, I lifted this entire paragraph from Wikipedia.  In 1943, the Axis Powers plan an assault on the island of Keros where 2,000 British soldiers are marooned.  Rescue by the Royal Navy is prevented by two massive radar-directed superguns on the nearby island of Navarone. When aerial bombing efforts fail, Allied Intelligence gathers a team of commandos to infiltrate Navarone and destroy the guns. Led by Major Roy Franklin, played by Anthony Quayle, the team is composed of American Captain Keith Mallory, played by Gregory Peck, a renowned spy and mountaineer, Colonel Andrea Stavrou, played by Anthony Quinn, from the defeated Greek army, Franklin’s best friend Corporal Miller, played by David Niven, an explosives expert and former chemistry teacher, Greco-American Spyros Pappadimos, played by James Darren, a native of Navarone, and “Butcher” Brown, played by Stanley Baker, an engineer and expert knife fighter.

Along the way they add two women to their party.  One is Pappadimos’ sister Maria, played by Irene Papas.  The other is her friend Anna, played by Gia Scala.  The two women are natives of Navarone, freedom fighters who are sent to help the commandos.  Anna had once been a school teacher until she was extensively tortured by the Germans.  She no longer speaks.  They help the men sneak into Navarone.

The intense action was inherent to the plot, but the human drama was written in to the characters.  Each man had a story of his own, a history that sometimes got in the way of the mission.  But, in thinking about it, there was never any doubt in my mind that the mission would be completed.  Of course, the heroes would win.  But the question was:  Which of them would survive and what would they have to go through to get the job done?

The answer?  Dangerous sailing over rough waters, a daring climb up a steep cliff, close combat with German soldiers, a cross-country trek carrying Major Franklin who has broken his leg, capture, escape, and a traitor in their midst.  Add to that dissention among the men who disagree with the command decisions made by Captain Mallory after Major Franklin is incapacitated.  It seems like the team has everything against them with little hope of succeeding.  But that was what made the film so exciting.

I particularly liked Anthony Quayle and Gregory Peck.  I thought they both played their parts especially well.  Peck actually surprised me.  He was the all American man, both on the screen and off.  As an actor, he had an image of being honorable, honest, and gentle, a man of integrity and compassion.  But in this film, he really played a cold-blooded, hard-nosed killer.

This point is really brought into the spotlight when the traitor is discovered.  It was the silent Anna.  The men were then faced with a tough decision.  They could not continue on with the girl, but to leave her behind would endanger the success of the mission.  After some heated arguing, Captain Mallory agreed that she would have to be killed.  And he was prepared to do it.  He actually raised his gun to murder an unarmed woman, something which was surely not in keeping with Peck’s squeaky clean image.  Fortunately, that image did not have to be tarnished.  Maria shoots the girl at the last instant, saving Captain Mallory from having to do it himself.

And the final scene is visually stunning.  Not only do they disable the superguns, they practically blow up half the Island.  Fortunately, they made a point of showing that the town of Navarone had been evacuated of its civilian population.  It was a spectacular ending to an exciting and well-made film.  The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and won only 1:  Best Effects, Special Effects.  But as for Best Picture, it lost to West Side Story.  It must have been a tough choice, but though I really liked the Guns of Navarone, I think the Academy made the right decision.

1961 – Fanny

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Fanny – 1961

Oh My Goodness!  Two thirds of this movie was pure drivel!  It was trying to be both a light-hearted comedy and a deep romance at the same time, and it failed at both.  The comedy was horribly executed and the romance was both dreary and creepy, all at once.  Let me explain.

First of all, if you have seen the 1958 Best picture Winner, Gigi, you have seen Fanny.  Both movies took place in France, had a similar plot, two cast members who were in both films, and that same creepy pedophile vibe.  What is it about the way these two films portray an old Maurice Chevalier as romantically lusting after teenage women?  Seriously!  The guy was in his 70s and he is drooling over Leslie Caron’s character, Fanny, who is supposed to be 17 years old, staring down the front of her dress at her breasts at very close range!  It was a little disturbing.

Second, let’s take a look at the ridiculous comedy.  OK, I get that it was a different time and that comedy is not what it is today, but this kind of stupid, juvenile humor seemed fit for a Vaudeville stage.  For example, the film spent several minutes on a little game the old men on the waterfront of Marseille had a habit of playing.  They would place a rock in the middle of the sidewalk and then cover it with a bowler hat.  Then they would watch until a pedestrian would see the hat.  Naturally, his inclination would be to kick the hat, right?  Huh?  And then, of course, the passers-by would kick the rock and hurt their feet.  Haha!!  What a riot!  Never mind that everyone kicked the hat hard enough to send it and the rock tumbling down the sidewalk, but it never even budged.  That’s comedy!  Right?  Right?!?

The humor just wasn’t funny.  All the actors behaved as if they were on that same Vaudeville stage, complete with overdone double-takes, silly garbled voices when they are supposedly being choked, slapstick humor, and even a few village idiots.  When characters are portrayed in such an over-acted way as to make me think they belong in strait jackets, something is wrong.

And then there was the crazy camera work.  At least five or six times in the course of the 2 hour and 13 minute film, a silly technique was used in which a character had a surprise, and the camera would do a quick zoom to a close-up of the shocked face.  It just looked like the trick of an amateur director.

Next, I have to mention the bad dubbing.  It seemed pretty obvious that some of the voices were dubbed, and the worst offender was Fanny’s mother Honorine, played by Georgette Anys.  Like all the other actors, she played her part so over-the-top that it was nearly clownish.  Her mouth didn’t seem to move very much when she spoke and her voice didn’t seem to belong to her.

Playing opposite Leslie Caron as the male romantic lead was Horst Buchholz.  I’m sorry to say that his acting was terrible.  He was supposed to have a great longing to be a sailor and travel over the open sea, but whenever he talked about it, the camera would focus on a tight close-up.  The overly-passionate expression on his face was unnerving.  I couldn’t tell if he was about to cry or have an orgasm.  Either way, I wanted him to stop.  He seemed to be trying too hard to be deep and dramatic, and unfortunately he failed at both.

Now, all that being said, about a third of the film was passable.  The story centered around Fanny and her star-crossed lover Marius, played by Buchholz.  He gets her pregnant before going to sea and so she agrees to the marriage proposal of the wealthy Panisse, played by Chevalier.  Marius’ father, Cesar, played by Charles Boyer, was the best part of the film.  He still played it a little silly, but was not as bad as everyone else.  Cesar agrees to be the godfather of the baby, knowing that it is his true grandchild.  But when Marius returns unexpectedly and demands his fatherly rights, Cesar turns him away, saying that Panisse is the father that has loved the boy.

There were a few slightly dramatic moments that worked for me, like the scene when Marius leaves to become a sailor, or the scene in which Fanny finds out that she is pregnant.  But for the most part, the ridiculous humor distracted me from the human drama that the filmmakers were trying to portray.  I hold Best Picture nominations to a higher standard than this.  Silly films have their place, but not as Best Picture nominations.

1960 – The Sundowners

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The Sundowners – 1960

I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie.  True, there were no big action sequences of any real significance, the music was strangely laughable, and the muddy Australian accents were often distracting, but the story was well structured and the character development was spot on.

The four leads each turned in some pretty competent performances. Robert Mitchum played Irish-born Australian sheep herder, Paddy Carmody.  He has a wanderlust that that he cannot deny.  His wife Ida, played by Deborah Kerr, agreed to live his nomadic lifestyle when she married him, but has since changed her mind.  Their 14 year old son Sean, played by Michael Anderson Jr., wants nothing more than to put down roots and settle in a single place.  Along the way, the meet a British jack-of-all-trades named Rupert, played by Peter Ustinov.

They each did a pretty good job, except with the foreign accents.  They just weren’t very consistent.  Sometimes they sounded perfectly natural, at other times they sounded forced, and still at other times they seemed to disappear completely.  As much as I respect her work, Kerr was the worst offender.  I loved her character, and she played it well, but the accent just wasn’t convincing.  Mitchum did better, but still wasn’t perfect.

The story followed the Carmody family through their ups and downs, the main conflict being Paddy’s aversion to owning a home, and his wife and son’s desire to have one.  The conflict was both believable and interesting because the characters were so well written.  Each of them had their flaws and their own motivations, making them realistic.  Rupert didn’t seem to have any part in their difficulties except that he, like Paddy, had no desire to settle in one place for too long.

At one point, Ida convinces her husband to take a job at a sheep shearing ranch, keeping them in place for several months.  He reluctantly agrees to take the job, giving his wife and son a taste of settled life.  They make friends and they make money.  But when Paddy feels like he needs to leave the sedentary life, he breaks their hearts, saying that he would rather leave them behind than be tied down.

I have been trying to decide whether I disliked his character or not.  If the only way he could be happy was by living out in the open country, and the only way his wife and child could be happy was in a home, then maybe he was making the right decision.  On the other hand, he should have been sensitive enough to the needs of his family to give them what they needed.  Surely a compromise could have been arranged, like buying a home to have, but allowing him to be a roaming sheep herder in a seasonal fashion.

Anyway, that was how the film ended.  The family lost all their money, or rather I should say, Paddy lost all their money gambling, though he promised to earn it back to purchase a farm for them to settle on.  So they ended up remaining on the road with the prospect of putting down roots in the future.

And finally, I’ll end this review by talking about something I really liked and something I didn’t.  The thing I liked was the character of Mrs. Firth, wonderfully played by Glynis Johns.  She was fantastic.  She was the owner and bartender of the local pub near the sheep shearing ranch.  She had a bright and bubbly personality that was easy lo like.  When Rupert wooed her with his British charms, she happily took him into her heart and into her bed.  But what was so great about her character was that when he inevitably left her to go back out on the road, her spirit wasn’t dampened in the least.  She never lost that beautiful smile.  Well played Glynis!

But the thing I really didn’t like was the film’s score.  Sometimes, it seemed like it didn’t fit at all.  It constantly maintained this happy-go-lucky feel, no matter what was happening.  For example, when there is a brush fire that puts everyone’s lives in danger, the music continued to be perky, bordering on silly.  It had a similar feel to those old Disney nature documentaries, and I kept expecting to hear a narrated voice-over saying, “Now what have those two bear cubs found to play with?  They better be careful!  That skunk doesn’t look like he wants to play!”  The score should have made me feel like Paddy might get injured or even burned to death, but the tension inherent in the scene was completely lost.

1960 – Sons and Lovers

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Sons and Lovers – 1960

This was a little British film whose major themes appeared to be young love, sexual frustration and repression, and dysfunctional families.  It starred Dean Stockwell as Paul Morel, Wendy Hiller as his long-suffering mother, Gertrude, Trevor Howard as Walter, his violent, alcoholic father, Heather Sears as Miriam Leivers, his sexually repressed childhood sweetheart, and Mary Ure as Clara Daws, his married lover.  The film could so easily have been melodramatic and too much like a sappy soap-opera, but director Jack Cardiff took it in a serious and insightful direction.

The story took place in Nottingham, England, a coal-mining town, in the early 20th century.  Paul Morel is a young boy who wants to be an artist and has the natural talent to become one.  His mother, who has found no joy in her marriage to a man she no longer loves, focuses all her attentions on him, manipulating his life in the name of motherly love, so that he can never have a healthy relationship with another woman.

Miriam, Paul’s girlfriend, has been raised under the boot-heel of her overly-religious mother who believes that sex is a dirty thing that is only to be endured for the purpose of procreation.  She pushes Paul away any time he starts to get too physically close.  Sears did a good job with her part, portraying a fear of intimacy, and shame for her desire for intimacy.

Paul gets a job in a factory, instead of the mines, like his father and grandfather, a fact which makes Walter feel like his family looks down upon him.  Paul begins a physical relation with a sexually liberated woman who happens to be married.  His mother, in an unconscious effort to put an end to his love affair, becomes ill and dies, forcing Paul to realize that all his emotional efforts had really been focused on her instead of on Clara.  As a result of Gertrude’s death, Paul decides that he will never again have a serious relationship with any woman.  The end.

As it turns out, this seems like it was the perfect film to start off the 60s, the era of free love and the sexual revolution.  The problems it dealt with seemed to be very relevant to the times.  The world, like the main character of Paul, seemed to be searching for freedom from the past generation, like a child yearning to stretch its legs and run.  The film successfully looked at this desire for sexual liberation from a number of different angles.

The actors all did a great job and I have to give a special nod to both Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller for some wonderful performances.  Howard played the part of a low-born man who feels unloved and unwanted by his family, as his sons express their desires for lives of their own that are not fashioned after his.  Even his wife can’t stand to be in the same room with him.  The actor did a great job of portraying the emotional roller-coaster of the depressed alcoholic.

At first, I didn’t understand that one of the biggest themes in the movie was the codependent relationship between Paul and his mother, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Paul’s emotional failings all stemmed from that relationship.  Hiller’s performance was subtle, but the character’s motivations were all quite evident.  I almost missed the little ways she discouraged him from seeing Miriam, saying that the girl wanted him all to herself and that he would never be happy with her.  I almost overlooked the way she told him he would never be happy with a married woman who could never truly be his.  I almost failed to understand how she actually turned him against his father in subtle and yet effective ways.  The part was well written and well played.

I wouldn’t say that the film was great, but it was definitely good.  Sure, the ending was a little depressing, but I felt it was realistic.  Paul walks away from Miriam, saying that he will never love again.  But who, after losing the love of their life, hasn’t thought the same thing?  Except that in this messed-up Oedipal case, his love is his mother.  I tend to think that the statement was only the impassioned declaration of a troubled young man.  Time heals all wounds, and Paul will eventually discover that love is still not only possible, but needed.

And just as a side note:  This film displays how the style for feminine beauty was slowly becoming that classic 60s look.  Even though the story took place in the early 1900s, Ule’s bouffant hairstyle was hard to miss.

1960 – The Alamo

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The Alamo – 1960

John Wayne is back once again, this time playing the famous historical figure, Colonel Davey Crockett.  Alongside him is Colonel Jim Bowie, played by Richard Widmark, and Colonel Barrett Travis, played by Lawrence Harvey.  These three men were the leaders of the doomed forces who were slaughtered at the Alamo Mission in 1836.  The film, of course, is a dramatic telling of the story of the famous battle, and as such, finally explains why we should always, as the saying goes, “Remember the Alamo.”

Now, I’m no history buff, so I needed to do my research, just to see if the film told the true story, or if Hollywood got their meddlesome little hands on it and messed things up.  So here’s the history lesson, according to the film:  Travis is the commander of the Mission’s defending Texan troops.  Bowie, arrives with some volunteer men of his own, and the two Colonels lock horns, disagreeing on nearly every point of command.  Then Crockett arrives with his Tennessee men and gets caught in the middle of the feud.  They are all there fighting for Texan independence from Mexico.  The Mexican army is led by Gereralissimo Antonio Miguel Lopez de Santa Anna

Their plan is to hold out in the Alamo until the arrival of the reinforcements of Colonel James Fannin.  However, when Fannin and his reinforcements are slaughtered by the Mexican army, under Santa Anna’s orders, the 187 men defending the Alamo are doomed to a quick death.

 

Why, then, did they stay, even when they knew that defeat and death were inevitable?  What was the point in defending the Mission?  What did their deaths accomplish?  They bought General Sam Houston time to train an army of volunteers that could defeat Santa Anna’s troops.  The men of the Alamo sacrificed their lives to give General Houston time to prepare his men to fight for the independence of Texas.  Their sacrifices allowed Texas to win the war, and those brave and selfless sacrifices shouldn’t ever be forgotten.  Remember the Alamo.

So, how accurate was the film?  Apparently, according to Wikipedia, not very.  Alamo historian Timothy Todish was quoted as saying, “There is not a single scene in The Alamo which corresponds to a historically verifiable incident”. Historians J. Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle demanded their names be removed as historical advisors.  However, I found that the changes were too insignificant to warrant complaint.  For example, Wikipedia states that “Bowie did not brandish a six barrel volley gun, nor was he wounded in the leg during the final assault, nor did his wife die during the time of the siege. He fell ill due to typhoid fever and was barely awake during the final attack.”  I say, who cares what kind of gun Bowie used except for Alamo historians?  The six-barrel volley gun looked cool and gave his character the look of a butt-kicker!  Plus the fact that he kept on trying to fight after his leg wound made him seem even tougher.  The point is that he was out of the main battle, just like in reality.  So, were the details completely accurate?  No.  But accurate enough?  Yes.

The film also put a special and noticeable emphasis on freedom and the right of every man to make his own choices.  This is not surprising, considering the film was written and directed by the epitome of American patriotism and pride, John Wayne.  Fortunately, there were a few night-time raids, a few quick skirmishes, and the big final battle that helped stir the blood.

As for the acting, Wayne played Wayne and Widmark did a good enough job as a tragic figure.  I ended up liking Harvey’s portrayal of Colonel Travis, though now that I am thinking about it, why would a Texan have a slightly British accent?  However, I am baffled by the only actor in the film to be nominated for an Academy Award.  Actor Chill Wills was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  He played the part of one of Crockett’s rowdy Tennessee volunteers.  Huh?  The character was annoying.  I think he was supposed to be comic relief, but he had no dramatic scenes, no deep or insightful speeches.  His only purpose was to behave like a drunken half-wit.  Even his comic moments weren’t very funny.  Best Supporting Actor?  I don’t get it.  I thought he was the weakest part of the film.

1960 – Elmer Gantry

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Elmer Gantry – 1960

Now, here we have a drama that hit the mark on a number of levels.  The lead character was dynamic and larger than life, the supporting characters were interesting and complex, the cast was fantastic, the plot was engaging, and the directing was excellent.  I have to give the director, Richard Brooks, props for putting together a good film.

The movie starred Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman with ambitions of becoming a Revivalist preacher.  But his motives are entirely suspect.  He isn’t in it for the religion, but for the money.  Basically, he is a con man.  He smooth talks his way into the company of Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons.  She is a Revivalist tent-preacher who is in it for the religion.  She has a true desire to bring people closer to God.  In fact, she has an inner belief that she has actually been touched by God.

When the two of them team up, it is a match made in heaven.  Gantry brings the fire, the brimstone, and the financial ambitions, while Sister Sharon brings the love, the forgiveness, and the honesty.  Together, they set their followers on fire with religious zeal.  But the film was actually a controversial one because it showed a bit of a seedier side of organized religion, something at which conservative Christians probably cringed.  It portrayed Christianity as a circus side-show.

Now, I have to mention that I have never been a huge fan of Lancaster’s acting.  Everything he does seems to be either forced or overdone.  When he laughs, he laughs maniacally.  When he cries, he sobs and bellows.  There is such a lack of subtlety that I often have a hard time taking him very seriously.  But here, I think that his overbearing eagerness as an actor worked in his favor.  The character was one who had a personality like a sledge hammer.  He was supposed to have been both bold and fast-talking, and he played those qualities well.  Still, I think he could have toned it down a bit.  But the Academy did not agree with my assessment and he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance.

That being said, I thought there were some pretty terrific performances by Lancaster’s supporting cast.  The woman who Gantry wronged in the past, and who turned to prostitution in the present, was Lulu Bains, masterfully played by Shirley Jones, earning her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  I also loved the performance of Dean Jagger, playing the part of the Revival show’s manager, William Morgan.

Once Gantry joins Sister Sharon’s tent show, his flamboyant sermonizing draws in the crowds.  He gets Sharon and Morgan to take the show to a larger town where the local church leaders are divided on whether or not to let them stay.  The plot goes over some difficulties that the tent-revival show has to overcome, like Jim Lefferts, an atheist newspaper reporter, played by Arthur Kennedy, who tries to ruin the reputations of the revivalists, or Lulu going out of her way to get revenge on Gantry for the way she feels he ruined her life.  She invites him to her hotel room, only to make sure photos are taken of him that make him appear like a client.  Then she give the photos to the press.

But in the end, these obstacles are overcome, and it was the ending that really caught my attention.  Sister Sharon has been saving money for years in an effort to build a church of her own, believing that she is being moved by the hand of God, himself.  When the church is finally complete, a large crowd of parishioners attend her first gathering.  But before the service can really begin, a man who has lost his hearing approaches the altar and begs for healing.  Sister Sharon was so sure that she had personally been touched by the divine, she put her hands on the man’s ears and prayed over him.  And it worked!  The man regained his hearing, which would lead me to believe that she had been right all along, that her belief in her own special relationship with the Almighty was not simply arrogance.  God truly was working through her!

But as soon as that was revealed, the ending took a turn for the tragic.  A fire broke out and burned the divine Sister Sharon and her new temple to the ground, as if to say “I’ll give you that one miracle, but after that, you’re finished.”  Once the fire has been put out, Gantry simply strolls away with a smile on his face, his con having successfully ended.

1959 – Room at the Top

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Room at the Top – 1959

This was a strange little British movie that had some good points and some bad.  It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either.  It was largely average, both in the plot and in the acting.  It starred Lawrence Harvey, Simone Signoret, Heather Sears, and Donald Houston.

The plot can be summed up fairly easily.  Joe, played by Harvey, is a jerk, a womanizer, and an ambitious social climber.  He comes from a lower-class background, buts get a job at a big city company.  His quickly finds Susan, the richest and most beautiful girl in the area, the young daughter of the company’s president, played by Sears.  He pursues her relentlessly, and when he does not immediately get her, he settles for an older, married woman named Alice, played by Singoret.  The two fall deeply in love.  He finally gets Susan in bed and gets her pregnant.  Susan’s father demands that he marry the girl and take a high paying job at the company.  He leaves Alice to marry Susan.  Alice gets so drunk that she crashes her car, killing herself.  Joe goes through with the marriage, depressed at all the lives he has ruined, most of all his own.

That’s it, in a nutshell.  There are very few complexities, and no unexpected plot twists or character transformations.  There were no characters who were especially likeable except for Joe’s co-worker and friend, Charlie, played by Houston.  He seemed to provide the occasional voice of reason among all the over-blown, soap opera-like events taking place.

And maybe, that is why I found the film to be so average.  I think the plot would have been better served as a series or a soap opera.  It was almost episodic in nature.  The main character, Joe, went from one scene to another, doing whatever pleased him at the moment, behaving however he wanted to satisfy himself and nobody else.  Last week, Joe had an affair with Alice.  This week, Joe Seduces Susan.  Next Week Susan will find out she is pregnant with Joe’s baby.

I’m not exactly sure why this film was nominated for Best Picture, but in fact, it was nominated for six Academy Awards.  One, I can understand: Signoret actually took home the Oscar for Best Actress, which, I’ll admit, was well deserved.  But really, she was the best part of the film.  As for the rest, Harvey was nominated for Best Actor, Jack Clayton was nominated for Best Director, and the final nomination was a bit of a surprise to me.  Alice’s roommate, Elspeth, played by Hermione Baddeley, who had a total of 2 minutes and 20 seconds of screen time, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Again, I’m not exactly sure why.

Now, all that being said, it wasn’t an especially bad movie either.  As I mentioned, Signoret’s performance was very good.  She displayed a realism at times that was honest and serious.  She had what I might call a heavy beauty.  She was, by no means, delicate, but she had a very sensual and lusty glamour about her.  Her casting was perfect.

Also, the feeling of the small British town was well portrayed, thanks to Director Jack Clayton.  It was a plot device that also seemed to serve the lead character of Joe at the end of the film.  He feels like he is trapped in a confined space, not only in his location, but in his situation, and I think the audience was right there with him.

The film was based on the book written by John Braine.  From time to time, I like to read a bit about the source material and see how faithful the film adaptation was.  For Room at the Top, it seems that very little was changed, however, I found one little tidbit of information that I found interesting.  In the film, when Joe gets Susan pregnant, he seemed surprised, but in the novel, Susan’s pregnancy was part of Joe’s plan to marry into a higher social class.  Not only did it force Susan’s father to insist on the marriage, but it gave him added incentive to offer Joe a higher-paid position in his company so that his daughter would be well supported.  I think the movie would have benefited if that motive had been left in.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that it was a bad film.  It was entertaining enough, but I didn’t feel it went above and beyond enough to earn a Best Picture nomination.  When I compare it to the other great films it was up against like The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story, and Ben-Hur, it just didn’t measure up.

1959 – The Nun’s Story

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The Nun’s Story – 1959

For some reason, I was not really expecting to like this movie.  I went into it thinking that it was about a nun so good and pious that she would put Mother Theresa to shame.  She would travel to a foreign country and perform miracles of kindness and love.  She would face insurmountable odds and triumph because of her remarkable faith.  This might sound backwards, but I’m happy to report that I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This was an excellent film.

Audrey Hepburn starred as Gabrielle Van Der Mal, otherwise known as Sister Mary Luke.  As it turns out, the film was about the strict and rigorous training that young women wishing to become Catholic nuns must go through.  That alone took up the first half of the film.  The second half was devoted to what they are required to do, the sacrifices they must make, and the internal struggles they wrestle with once they become nuns.

I found the first half to be fascinating.  It was like an in-depth look into a world I knew very little about.  The subject was handled so well that my respect for the religious order has increased immensely, because not only did the film show what the process is and what trials and tests the prospective nuns are expected to perform, it was very clear about the reasons that governed everything they did.

The film made everything seem high and noble, though not for the faint hearted.  It portrayed something more than just mere commitment to the beliefs and ideals of the church.  It showed devotion, understanding, and supreme faith.  It was done respectfully and with great reverence for the women who choose the life of servitude to their Lord.

Hepburn once said that of all the films she ever made, this was one of her favorites.  It isn’t very hard to see why.  It was grand and inspiring, and yet at the same time it was all too human and realistic.  It showed that nuns in authority, Mother Superiors in different convents or orders, do not always make the right decisions.  It showed that once a woman becomes a nun, the struggles of faith and conscious do not end.

This is made all too evident by the unexpected ending.  The second half of the movie told the story of how Sister Luke became a surgical nurse, being sent to the Congo to assist Dr. Fortunati, played by Peter Finch.  He is a surgeon who has a habit of working his assistants hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, expecting them to give nothing less than their best.

Sister Luke loves her assignment in the Congo, despite rigorous conditions, natives who are not Christians, and threats of tuberculosis and leprosy.  The scene in which a native murders a nun because a Witch Doctor ordered him to, was actually a bit horrifying to watch.  However, Sister Luke is eventually sent back to Belgium, and is there when WWII breaks out.  While there, she learns that her father has been killed by the Nazis.

This proves to be too much for her faith.  A nun’s objective it to love all and forgive all, but she finds she cannot forgive the German soldiers for her father’s death.  And this is what was so unexpected, and yet all too realistic about the ending.  Despite the fact that she has become a wonderful and well respected nun, has gone through tremendous hardship and monumental internal conflict, she quits!  She cannot get past her hate for the Nazis, and so feels like a hypocrite to her holy vows.  She is granted a dispensation from those vows, and leaves the church quietly.  Usually, in movies of this kind, the hero triumphs over all adversity, overcomes any struggle, and proves to have a strong enough will and unbreakable determination than will surpass any conflict.  But Sister Luke fails.  She fails!  Hepburn’s performance was incredibly good, a fact that was never better illustrated than in this final scene.

And just as a side note: In my research, I found that critics of the film complained about the sexual tension between Sister Luke and Dr. Fortunati because it was not present in the book upon which the film is based.  I disagree.  The sexual tension portrayed in the film was barely perceptible and Sister Luke rebuffed it completely and without regret, just as the virtuous character should have.

1959 – The Diary of Anne Frank

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The Diary of Anne Frank – 1959

I saw this movie a very long time ago when I was in High School, and I had forgotten how amazing the film was.  Not only was the acting fantastic, but the directing was masterfully done.  The incredible score and the wonderful cinematography combined to create a tension that was an integral part of the plot.

The film starred Milly Perkins as Anne Frank, a 13 year-old Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during WWII.  Her family went into hiding above a spice factory, aided by Kraler and Miep, played by Douglas Spencer and Dodie Heath, respectively, owners of the factory who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.

The Frank family included Anne’s father, Otto, played by Joseph Schildkraut, her mother, Edith, played by Gusti Huber, and her sister, Morgot, played by Diane Baker.  With them were the Van Daan family with Lou Jacobi playing the part of the father, Hans, Shelly Winters playing the part of the mother, Petronella, and Richard Beymer playing the part of their son, Peter.  And finally, Ed Wynn played the part of Albert Dussell, a dentist who needed a place to go into hiding.

I think it is important to mention the entire cast because they all did such a wonderful job, turning in some masterful performances.  Winters, Perkins, and Huber, in particular, caught my attention.  The realistic quality of the entire film was incredible, and was really driven home by the director, George Stevens.  The film is, of course, based on a Broadway play, which was based on the actual diary of Anne Frank, which offered a unique perspective on the horrors of the Second World War, arguably one of the darkest and most gruesome events in human history.

The two families, three if you include Mr. Dussell as a family, spent two years cooped up in the loft of the factory.  That means 8 people living in one tiny apartment from 1942 to 1944, never leaving, never having privacy, and never fully understanding what is happening in the outside world.  And if that were not enough, the conditions under which they were forced to live were strict and inviolate.  Between the hours of 8:00 in the morning and 5:00 in the evening, every day, they were required to live in a world of complete silence.  No noise of any kind could be made, ever, or all their lives would be forfeit.  How they survived that long under those conditions is beyond me.

But what was even more amazing was the fact that they were all, for the most part, able to keep their spirits up.  There were times when they quarreled, and even a major argument where Mrs. Frank was ready kick the Van Daan family out into the street.  But they endured, and they survived.  And Anne was the most amazing one of them all.  After everything, after all that she was being forced to endure, she still believed in the innate goodness of mankind.

The romance that evolved between Anne and Peter was almost inevitable, and Perkins and Beymer played it perfectly.  It was not about sex or teenage hormones, but about shared hardship and the desire to comfort and be comforted.  Of course it was believable.  It happened, though Hollywood made it just a little more romantic than reality.

The film’s best moments were those in which the tension inherent in the silent hiding was brought to the foreground.  The ultimate downfall of the poor people was a thief who broke into the factory, trying to steal the contents of a safe.  During the hours when the family could live without the fear of making any noise, the criminal forced them into silence while he burglarized the factory, eventually getting away with a typewriter.  It was this stolen typewriter that eventually led the Nazis to the factory, and the arrest of the Jewish families.

The film is nearly 3 hours long, but it felt shorter.  It is a story that is easy to get drawn into.  The excellent score by Alfred Newman did a great job of helping to build the claustrophobia and the tension that dominated the narrative.  The tight camera angles and the confined set were well thought out, and the engaging plot was actually one that celebrated the resilience of the human spirit, despite the sad and tragic ending.

Incidentally, it is interesting to know that after their arrest, the Frank Family was deported to Auschwitz.  There, Anne was separated from her father.  Later, she and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen without their mother.  It is believed that the two sisters died of typhus within days of each other in February of 1945, only months before the camp was liberated by the British.  It was a tragic and horrible end for an innocent 15 girl who, even today, continues to inspire hope in many, along with a belief in the innate goodness of the human race, despite everything that happened to her.  I believe that the film is a fitting tribute to her memory.