LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1953 and 1954

Posted by · 8:07 pm · June 23rd, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

Did you guys see that USA-Algeria game today? I mean, talk about a life without Oscar. How can anyone think of movies while the World Cup is going on? Can we start a petition to give Landon Donovan the Jean Hersholt award this year? I suppose not everyone has the fever so let’s talk about some films that should be burning up your Netflix queue.

1953’s big prize went to “From Here to Eternity,” a serious film that few probably argued about then and warrants uninspired admiration today. 1954 gave us “On the Waterfront,” another serious film that briefly brought the Academy back to social drama before awarding more shitty, bloated epics later in the decade. So what should have gotten some love?

1953 – “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu)

Yasujiro Ozu is one of the few directors I can think of that actually got better with age. The films made in the twilight of his career show a maturation of technique that rivals all masters of the medium, but they also show a maturation of storytelling that favors simplicity, as if he’s realized that life is too short to bother with anything but the heart of the matter. People can’t seem to stop talking about how “Toy Story 3” made them cry, but I can watch the last five minutes of “Rudy” with zero context and cry. “Tokyo Story” made me want to call my parents and tell them I love them, and that is the real power of the movies.

The story tells of an elderly Japanese couple from a small village that comes to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to find that nobody has the time to hang out with them. Don’t exactly need any Venn diagrams to follow the plot, but the film is never less than captivating, with heartbreaking performances from Chishu Ryu and Chiyeko Higashiyama as the parents. Their relationship with each other and their children is never implicitly talked about in expository dialogue but is laid out bare and clear through behavior and performance.

Ozu’s style is not for everyone, but those with a keen eye for composition and blocking will find their jaws on the floor on more than one occasion. The camera moves a grand total of one time, a minimal pan from right to left, but is otherwise locked down, framing the characters in the foreground, background, in doorways and outside, depending on the emotional needs of the scene. Ozu was a painter after all, and any freeze frame taken from any moment can back that up. The film has a languid pace, perfect to match its protagonists and it ends on a touching note that few films can rival.

The ingredients are all there for a Lifetime Original movie, but there isn’t a cliche or a stock moment in the film. Asian cinema that makes it to the West is dominated by Kurosawa and the samurai genre or more recently, crime sagas like “Infernal Affairs,” “Oldboy” or the works of Takeshi Kitano, but it’s Ozu’s work (or to an extent, Wong Kar-Wai) that truly resonates with me and serves as a reminder that any cultural differences can’t overshadow universal truths about life, love and family.

1954 – “The Million Pound Note” (Ronald Neame)

I was not originally intending to choose this film for 1954, but Ronald Neame’s unfortunate death this weekend forced my hand and if I’m not mistaken, we have our first color film in the series. As Guy already mentioned in his tribute post, Neame began his career as a cinematographer, before ending up calling the shots on a number of small, British films and finally, big Hollywood productions. “The Million Pound Note,” renamed “Man With a Million” for America lest we get all confused over what a pound could be, was his fourth film as director.

All but forgotten, and not readily available on DVD I don’t think, the quaint comedy shows two wealthy, bored businessmen in London make a bet that penniless tourist, Gregory Peck, can be given a single, million pound note and last one month without ever having to break it. Sure enough, just flashing it in front of people’s noses and the hearsay that follows turns out to be enough for an instant life of luxury and decadence. But as the late great Christopher Wallace once said, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

The film is based on a short story by Mark Twain, believe it or not, and treads similar thematic territory as 1983’s “Trading Places.” Peck was always a charming leading man, and he proves it here, alternating between affable, defiant and suave. There is, of course, a love story thrown in and Jane Griffiths provides some nice moments as the love interest, but it’s all pretty slight. Neame is trying to say something about the power of perception and subservient tendencies towards the rich, but he wasn’t quite there as a storyteller to pull it all off and stick the landing.

So yes, the movie is not perfect, and you can find better films from this year that weren’t nominated for any Oscars. But it’s almost more interesting to see relics from bygone eras that failed to stand the test of time. Everything in the film is perfectly serviceable, and some of the comedy is actually quite clever, but history isn’t kind to serviceable. With more and more films released every year, how will we decide which to cherish and preserve? And who gets that honor? I’m really glad to have spent 90 minutes with this film and hope you get the same opportunity.

As for Neame, he’s the same kind of journeyman filmmaker that may never have his own class in film school, but put out more than enough worthy material to stay in the conversation. If you can search out some of his early, British work, do so.

Those are my choices. Have your say in the comments.




→ 8 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

8 responses so far

  • 1 6-23-2010 at 9:10 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I like Ozu, and I rarely find films ‘slow,’ but “Tokyo Story” is almost unbearably sluggish for me. Much prefer Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” from the same year, although I just saw that was nominated for an Oscar (Best Costume Design).

  • 2 6-23-2010 at 10:20 pm

    Jim T said...

    “composition and blocking”

    What does that mean?

    Tokyo Story seems quite powerful. I’m sold.

  • 3 6-23-2010 at 10:55 pm

    Jeff said...

    1953: “Tokyo Story” is my pick as well. Interesting that you make your case for the film without a single mention of Setsuko Hara, whose character (I think) is actually the emotional core of the story. But you are certainly right about the artistry of Ozu’s mise-en-scene and about how deeply affecting the film’s concluding passages are. I would urge anyone who found it slow or dry on a first viewing, to revisit it at least once more because it is not a film that reveals all of its wonders in a single viewing.

    1954: I have not seen “The Million Pound Note,” so my pick would be either Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” or Naruse’s “Sound of the Mountain.” Though very different from one another in both style and content, each is a beautifully shot and emotionally rich film by a director at the height of his powers.

  • 4 6-23-2010 at 11:09 pm

    Jeff said...

    @Jim T

    As Chad mentioned, Ozu’s camera rarely moved in his later films (it moved all over the place in his early ones), so his “composition and blocking” is a reference to the choices he made about exactly what would be in each of his shots. His style, from that point of view, was very rigorous—his interiors, in particular, are meticulously composed, with objects in fore-, middle-, and background to give you a sense of the depth of his shot, with his actors then occupying spaces within the shot that keep the whole composition in balance. So, as Chad mentions, each of his shots is like a painting in that its artistry can be appreciated even apart from its place in the film.

  • 5 6-24-2010 at 5:57 am

    Jim T said...

    Thanks Jeff :)

  • 6 6-24-2010 at 10:13 am

    Amir said...

    i know i’m being a douchebag by pointing this out, but the camera actually moves twice in Tokyo Story!
    other than the pan you mentioned, there’s also the scene where they tour around tokyo in a tour bus. that one’s actually the first time the camera moves.
    anyway, the film’s great and an obvious choice for the purpose of this article.

  • 7 6-24-2010 at 2:46 pm

    Steven said...

    1953:

    Jean Renoir’s “The Golden Coach”
    Ida Lupino’s “The Bigamist”
    Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”
    Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear”
    Howard Hawks’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”
    Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat”
    Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage in Italy”
    John Huston’s “Beat the Devil”

    1954:

    Nicolas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar”
    Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques”
    Joy Batchelor and John Halas’ “Animal Farm”
    Luchino Visconti’s “Senso”
    Allan Dwan’s “Silver Lode”
    Kenzi Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Baliff”
    Herbert J. Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth”

  • 8 6-24-2010 at 6:17 pm

    mark kratina said...

    The Academy probably got 1953 right, though every time I’ve seen FHTE since the initial viewing, I like it less. Roman Holiday or Shane were strong contenders.

    1954 has far better contenders. My own opinion is that Rififi or Hitchcock’s Rear Window (not even a BP nominee) were better than OTW. I’m a little surprised Rififi didn’t get any love from you, Chad. Grace Kelly had a couple of strong films in The Country Girl and Dial M. As today is the 60th anniversary of our involvement in the Korean War, it should be noted that William Holden’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri is one of the better Korean War films.

    1953:

    Peter Pan

    The Wild One

    The Band Wagon

    The Glenn Miller Story

    1954:

    Sabrina

    Rififi

    White Christmas

    The Bridges at Toko-Ri

    Broken Lance

    The High and Mighty

    It Should Happen to You

    Dial M for Murder

    Dragnet