LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1955 and 1956

Posted by · 7:54 pm · June 30th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

1955. The year my father was born and the year the Oscars threw the biggest curveball in their short history. A tiny, 91 minute romantic comedy that made no money at the box office and was initially just meant to be a TV movie won the Best Picture award. The film, of course, is “Marty” and it’s also the second, and to this day last, film to win both Oscar’s top prize and the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Unassuming, pleasant and genuine, Delbert Mann’s directorial debut is one of my favorite choices the Academy has ever come up with. Only downside? Borgnine’s lifetime membership in the Academy begins here.

Fellini kicked off the official Best Foreign Langauge film category in 1956 with a win for “La Strada.” He’d win it again the next year and remains one of the most obtuse filmmakers ever wholly embraced by the Academy. Lest you think the Academy was all of a sudden into personal, independent filmmaking, the Best Picture prize went to straight up stinker “Around the World in 80 Days.” Old habits die hard. If only they made room for the following stone cold classics.

1955 – “Pather Panchali” (Satyajit Ray)

There must be some kind of outstanding rights issues, because Satyajit Ray’s debut feature is almost impossible to find on DVD, despite consistently being cited as one of the greatest films ever made. I was lucky enough to catch a 35mm print at the Aero a few years back and the film was able to live up to the hype. The title translates to “Song of the Little Road” and the languid pace of the film matches the lyrical insinuation of that moniker. The film premiered at Cannes and single-handedly put Indian film on the map and has influenced everyone from Kurosawa to Spielberg to Wes Anderson.

The plot revolves around the day to day life of pre-teen Apu and his family in 1920’s rural Bengal. The father is a feeble priest, the mother a headstrong housewife looking after Apu and his sister, as well as a toothless, curmudgeonly mother-in-law. The father leaves on a journey to try and find work and during his long absence, the remaining family members deal with poverty, mundanities and tragedy. Needless to say, the plot is neither very present or the point.

Subir Banerjee proves the old adage that kids and animals make the best actors because they aren’t acting at all. His performance is never less than 100% authentic and anchors a film that could have easily floundered. Ray’s insistance on using non-actors and real locations aided the film immensely and his lyrical, realist style predates the French New Wave by at least four years. He was said to be heavily influenced by De Sica’s Italian neo-realist works and was personally encouraged by Jean Renoir to make the film.

That it was his first directorial effort is impressive enough, but the fact that cinematographer Subrata Mitra was a 22 year old who had never operated a camera before is mind-boggling. The stark, exquisitely composed images are comparable to any of the best lensed films of the era and serve as an early influence for what Terrence Malick would later perfect with his films. Ravi Shankar’s score is also unsurprisingly lovely.

1956 – “The Killing” (Stanley Kubrick)

Only 27 years old and three features deep, Stanley Kubrick found his groove with “The Killing” and never lost it until his death. The Grandfather of the heist-caper genre, Kubrick’s deft handling of multiple storylines and timelines proved that he was a major talent and while the Academy shamefully ignored this and “Paths of Glory” the following year, they finally tossed him a bone with his one sell-out project, “Spartacus.” Typical Academy.

Any fan of Quentin Tarantino or the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy will find plenty familiar in “The Killing.” Sterling Hayden plays a con man planning one last heist before retiring- a $2 million score at a racetrack. He recruits a ragtag team of personalities with various specialties and the rest of the film follows their plotting and execution of said heist. Only once you think you’ve seen it, Kubrick rewinds and shows you the whole thing again from another perspective. Unheard of narrative criss-crossing for the time.

That it never confuses is a credit to the air-tight screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson. Filled with typical, hard-boiled dialogue left over from the noir genre such as, “Alright sister, that’s a mighty pretty head you got on your shoulders. You want to keep it there or start carrying it around in your hands?” A cast of mostly B-movie actors all step up their game to the level you’d expect Kubrick demanded, with Colleen Gray being the only exception with some wooden work.

Kubrick is the real star though, and his trademark meticulous camera moves perfectly set the geography of the racetrack and the blocking of the heist. Again, it’s not easy to communicate all this kind of information and he does it with some finesse. Throughout the rest of his career, Kubrick would develop a reputation as a dour, humorless perfectionist and this film, along with “Dr. Strangelove”, represents the rare time he truly let a sense of fun imbue the work he put on screen. The film doesn’t hold a candle to the technical achievements of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the commentary of “A Clockwork Orange,” but it’s an undeniably entertaining and influential film from, in my opinion, the greatest filmmaker of all time.

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

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

10 responses so far

  • 1 6-30-2010 at 8:29 pm

    Jeff said...

    “Pather Panchali” is indeed a wonderful film. Have you seen the rest of the trilogy, Chad? If not, I highly recommend the UK release from Artificial Eye—it’s fairly cheap and contains all three films in decent transfers with reasonably good subtitles. The old Sony DVDs are long out of print and the US rights are currently held by New Yorker, so it’s hard to know when or if we’ll see them released again in this country.

    Okay, here are my picks:

    1955: Dreyer’s “Ordet,” which is one of the great films about faith. If you liked Carlos Reygadas’ recent “Silent Light,” then you shouldn’t miss this one. And if you didn’t like the Reygadas film, well, then see “Ordet” anyway.

    1956: Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow,” which stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as former lovers who reunite after twenty years apart. He’s now married; she’s divorced and curious about what might have been. It’s great stuff!

  • 2 6-30-2010 at 8:41 pm

    Jeff said...

    One more thing: Fellini’s 1956 Oscar win was for “La strada,” not “La dolce vita,” which he wouldn’t make until 1960.

  • 3 6-30-2010 at 8:53 pm

    Glenn said...

    “The Killing” is indeed incredible.

  • 4 6-30-2010 at 8:59 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Good catch Jeff. My mistake

  • 5 6-30-2010 at 10:49 pm

    Steven said...

    1955 (GREAT year):

    Frank Tashlin’s “Artists and Models”
    Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali”
    Jean Rouch’s “Les Maitres Fous”
    Thorold Dickinson’s “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer”
    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Ordet”
    Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob the Gambler”
    Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly”
    Anthony Mann’s “The Man from Laramie”
    Phil Karlson’s “The Phenix City Story”
    Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night”
    Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog”
    Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter”
    Max Ophuls’s “The Sins of Lola Montes”

    John Ford’s “The Searchers”
    Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”
    Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows”
    Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”
    Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man”
    Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life”

  • 6 7-01-2010 at 1:44 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Impeccable choices, both. To mention the obvious, it’s always blown my mind that the Academy found no room for “The Night of the Hunter” or “The Searchers” in a single category. Less surprising, but just as wrong, is their bypassing of “Lola Montes” and “Les Diaboliques.”

    And yes, The Apu Trilogy is readily available on DVD here. I’m astonished you guys can’t get it — that’s appalling.

  • 7 7-01-2010 at 7:46 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    You nailed 1956, Chad. The Killing is in the top 20 of my top 100 list and a film I always recommend to people.

    I’ll chime in with other 55-56 choices when I get home and consult the library.

  • 8 7-01-2010 at 4:57 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    Okay, thought I’d add to the discussion. I was glad to see William Holden/Kim Novak’s Picnic got a BP nod in 1955. One of the many unseen gems. My BP nod for 1955 would have to go to East of Eden- one of the best films to not get a BP nod. This has been attributed to Eliz Kazan’s Communist sympathies, but no matter. Great film. Also a big fan of Bad Day at Black Rock & Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

    Chad, perhaps Kubrick honed his craft for 1956’s The Killing with 1955’s Killer’s Kiss, another tight, taut noir. Other notables:


    Bad Day at Black Rock

    The Desperate Hours


    Night of the Hunter


    Lady in the Tramp

    The Seven Year Itch

    Rebel Without a Cause

    To Catch a Thief

    Blackboard Jungle

    Killer’s Kiss


    Invasion of the Body Snatchers

    The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

    The Rainmaker

    The Red Balloon

    Somebody Up there Likes Me

  • 9 7-02-2010 at 1:41 pm

    Dieter Rogiers said...

    It boggles the mind that no one has mentioned Rififi (1955) yet, surely Jules Dassin’s masterpiece and by far the best heist movie ever made.