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Friday, August 12, 2011

AFI/BFI #200: A Place In The Sun (1951)

Director: George Stevens
Writer: Michael Wilson, Harry Brown
Cinematographer: William C. Mellor
Composer: Franz Waxman
AFI Rank:  92 (1998), - (2007)
BFI Rank: -


Theodore Dreiser’s parable on the myth of the American dream was published in 1925 and first commited to celluloid in 1931 with the same title. When George Stevens approached Paramount with the idea of filming another adaptation they were less than excited about a remake so soon after the original. It’s funny to think of 20 years as once being considered too soon for a remake in Hollywood. Stevens sued them for breach of contract and they finally let him make it and thank god they did. A Place In The Sun is as much a masterpiece of American cinema as the book is a classic of American literature.

Those new to the blog may not know that I detest reviews of films that give away the plot. The best way to see a movie is when you know absolutely nothing about it. Even the trailer can be too much. My goal is to get you to watch the picture and hopefully I occasionally succeed. A Place In The Sun is just one of those pictures. The less you know the better it will be.

What I can talk about is the cast. In 1949 Elizabeth Taylor was just 17 and her leading man, Montgomery Clift, was just shy of 30. A great child actor she had done little to suggest what she was capable of here and the studio took a risk that paid off and launched her career as a Hollywood icon. Shelley Winters had only played glamorous roles and taking this part in 1951 must have took incredible courage. The result is simply incredible, a film that is as good today as the day it was made.

Taylor and Clift relaxing on location at Lake Tahoe

The film took home 6 oscars for Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Direction, Film Editing, Music and Screenplay. Clift and Winter both got nominations as did the production itself for Best Picture. Impressive considering there was some serious competition that year from An American in Paris, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire, the African Queen and Death of a Salesman.

It is a little surprising then that the AFI dropped it from their revised Top 100 in 2007 and that Rotten Tomatoes has it at a paltry 75%. The book is far better as usually the case, and the film is much lighter more melodramatic than its 1931 predecessor. Some critics feel it is now dated and that is most likely why it was dropped. I personally feel it has held up extremely well and is in my books at least, Crucial Cinema.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

AFI/BFI #201: In Which We Serve (1942)

Director:  Noël Coward, David Lean
Writer:  Noël Coward
Composer:  Noël Coward, Clifton Parker
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 92


Produced specifically as a World War II propaganda film, In Which We Serve earns its place on the BFI list not only for its accurate portrayal of the Royal Navy but also for its stellar cast, wonderful script and superb direction. Coward’s script, originally hours long before trimming, is based mainly on his close friend Mountbatten’s command of the HMS Kelly that was sunk during the Battle of Crete. Not only did he write but he also directed, composed the music and took the starring role of Captain Kinross. It was a contingency of his involvement that he got that role and it is not too hard to understand why that was baffling and concerning to many inside and outside of the industry at the time. His performance is a joy to watch but is unquestionably at times hard to believe. He was very concerned about his ability to direct and John Mills suggested he bring in the greatest editor he knew, David Lean. This would be Lean’s first time directing and we all know how it went from there. Coward got disinterested with the mechanics of directing and eventually left it to Lean, not even coming to set when he was not acting. The script non-sequential narrative would make Tarrantino proud and with it Coward manages to weave a far more emotional story, moving from home and family to ship and back again.

Richard Attenborough is astounding in his first ever role which is unfortunately uncredited, and of course John Mills is superb. My favorite role of all though has to be Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy. I had not heard of him before but his performance is outstanding and the most memorable of the picture.

More interesting perhaps than who was cast is who was not. Coward blocked the casting of James Mason because of his position on the war and he fired William Hartnell (Dr Who was another 20 years away) for turning up late on his first day of filming.

Nominated for two Oscars in 1944 it lost to another great propaganda movie, Casablanca. The previous year Coward received an honorary Oscar for his outstanding production achievement on the film.

Due to the wonders of the internet you can read the original New York Times review from the US premier in 1942 which helps put the impact of this movie into the context of the time. Watching today many younger viewers will be hard pressed to understand what all the fuss is about.

Some may find it hard going initially as you acclimatize yourself to the classic acting style of forties British films, something Coward is an accomplished expert in. A lot of stiff upper lips and not too many quivering lower ones there are a lot more truly emotional performances than you would expect. But once you are immersed in it the picture carries you along for the ride and what a ride it is.

In Which We Serve is unquestionably Crucial Cinema and one of those rare films that gives you a real glimpse into the past while remaining highly watchable.