LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1957 and 1958

Posted by · 5:49 pm · July 7th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

The Academy was knee-deep in blacklisting around 1957 and Best Adapted Screenplay was given to novelist Pierre Boulle for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” despite him not writing the film or being able to speak English. The three hour epic dominated the proceedings and Lean’s masterpiece and subsequent work would help lay the groundwork for the genre we now know as “Oscar bait.” Ridiculously, “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Paths of Glory,” and “A Face in the Crowd” all received no love and could easily be featured in this column.

1958 saw “Gigi” break records with nine Oscar wins, while the telecast ended twenty minutes early, leaving Jerry Lewis having to try and improvise for that amount of time on live television. Can you imagine Chris Rock having to do that today? I’d watch that in a heartbeat.

Film industries from all over the world were blossoming and titles from this era are more accessible to us now so my choices have become harder and harder to make. If it comes down to it, I’ll err on the side of obscure because really, you all should know that “Touch of Evil” is required viewing without me saying so.

1957 – “Across the Bridge” (Ken Annakin)

Speaking of obscure, Ken Annakin’s tale of a high class criminal on the run was only recently made available on a low-rent DVD and has only amassed 191 votes from users on IMDb. One of those is a 9 from me, after I saw a print in my “Forgotten Films to Remember” class in college. One of the lucky perks of my alma mater having the second largest private collection of film prints in the United States. The one reason that the film deserves to be seen more than any other is the towering performance by Rod Steiger.

One of the most underrated and brilliant actors to ever grace the screen, Steiger plays a German business man on a train ride to Mexico in order to escape extradition for embezzling millions of dollars. Unfortunately, his crime becomes front page news during the journey and he finds a hapless Mexican man on the train with similar features to drug and switch passports with. Where the film goes from there would be a shame to spoil, but needless to say, Steiger’s ruthless character learns a thing or two about a thing or two.

Amazingly, the film uses a relationship Steiger develops for his new identity’s dog to show his emerging humanity and if ever there was a device tailor-made for mawkish execution, it’s that. Annakin somehow finds the right balance and when the character ultimately makes his final choice, it’s a gut-wrenching decision that feels 100% earned. Spielberg should take note.

The screenplay is based on a short story by Graham Greene and is excellently adapted by Guy Elmes and Denis Freeman. Not just in the way the themes are subtly addressed but in the sharp dialogue and multiple dimensions of the characters. Steiger’s situation and his behavior makes it increasingly harder to despise him and different viewers may well leave the film with different final judgments. I found myself coming around early simply because until Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” I hadn’t seen a better male performance.

1958 – “Elevator to the Gallows” (Louis Malle)

Louis Malle turned 25 during the shooting of this film, his first, and saw it win him the most coveted prize in French film and international fame. Rightly so, as his deconstruction of the suspense genre boasts an array of innovations including a dynamite original score by Miles Davis, purportedly recorded in one improvised take.

The plot concerns a woman having an affair with a young man, whom she plots to have kill her husband at his office. The film begins with the successful execution of this plot, only for the man to forget a key piece of evidence and find himself trapped in an elevator after tracking back to get it. With him out of the picture (almost literally), Malle focuses on Jeanne Moreau’s nervous evening in the dark about her co-conspirator’s whereabouts and a young couple who have stolen his car and taken it for a fateful joyride.

Moreau was already a big star in France, and Malle insisted on filming her on location, walking down dark streets with no make-up, looking distraught. No big deal nowadays where de-glamming is just one of the tools in every actress’s Win-an-Oscar-kit, but borderline scandalous at the time. The result was a performance of naked emotion and power, with none of it coming from dialogue. The film even opens on a stunning close-up of her face, first with only her closed, teary eyes lit amongst shadows.

Speaking of shadows, cinematographer Henri DecaĆ« excels here with a hybrid style of photography that incorporated all the standard elements of noir into a New Wave, naturalistic aesthetic that he would all but define a few years later with “The 400 Blows.” His work, accompanied by Miles’s bop, elevates the film to an ethereal beauty at times, particularly when Malle takes a break from the unfolding narrative to build up atmosphere and tension.

Amazingly, Malle would make another masterpiece this same year, “The Lovers,” also starring Moreau and it’s well worth the time to invest in a double feature.

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




→ 20 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

20 responses so far

  • 1 7-07-2010 at 6:19 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    Haven’t seen either of your choices, Chad, but I would submit 12 Angry Men and A Face in the Crowd over “Bridge.”

    A Touch of Evil or the Newman/Taylor classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would get my vote for 1958. The Defiant Ones is a solid film as well.

    Other notables:

    1957:

    Fear Stikes Out

    A King in New York

    The Spirit of St. Louis

    The Wrong Man

    An Affair to Remember

    Man in the Shadow

    1958:

    South Pacific

    Vertigo

  • 2 7-07-2010 at 6:33 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    At least half of those films received some recognition from the Academy, Mark.

  • 3 7-07-2010 at 6:55 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    @ Chad:

    None of the 1957 & 1958 notables received any recognition as far as I can see.

    If you mean the films I cited as better than the eventual BP winners, I knew that. Just an observation that I would rate them higher than the winners.

  • 4 7-07-2010 at 7:01 pm

    Patryk said...

    For 1958, I would suggest “A Night to Remember,” the best Titanic film I have seen yet.

  • 5 7-07-2010 at 7:03 pm

    Patryk said...

    And for 1957, my favorite film of all time, “The Seventh Seal.”

  • 6 7-07-2010 at 7:11 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    South Pacific won Best Sound and was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Score. Vertigo was nominated for Best Sound and Best Art Direction.

  • 7 7-07-2010 at 8:10 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Did you consider “The Seventh Seal” or “Wild Strawberries” for this?

  • 8 7-07-2010 at 8:13 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Adding to Chad, “The Spirit of St. Louis” was nominated for Best Special Effects, and “An Affair to Remember” was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Song, and Best Score.

  • 9 7-07-2010 at 9:19 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Wild Strawberries was nominated for Best Screenplay, but The Seventh Seal was eligible. I just like and wanted to recommend Across the Bridge more.

  • 10 7-07-2010 at 9:25 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    @ Chad:

    My apologies then. Obviously, I need to look beyond these:

    http://www.filmsite.org/aa57.html

  • 11 7-07-2010 at 9:42 pm

    Chase K. said...

    “The Lovers” and “Elevator to the Gallows” are both really great. The former is a kind of feminist bourgeois liberation film and a precursor to the French New Wave.

  • 12 7-07-2010 at 9:57 pm

    Steven said...

    1957:

    Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”
    Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”
    Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man”
    Satyajit Ray’s “Aparajito”
    Mikheil Kalatozishivili’s “The Cranes Are Flying”
    Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”
    Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success”

    1958:

    Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West”
    Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”
    Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo Station”
    Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds”
    Terence Fisher’s “Dracula”
    Satyajit Ray’s “The Music Room”

  • 13 7-08-2010 at 12:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Just a side note to anyone who is unsure if a certain film received Oscar attention or not: IMDB is totally your friend in this situation.

    As Chad says, both years really throw up a wealth of Academy-neglected choices, my favourites of which — “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Touch of Evil” — have all ready been mentioned. I think it was only released in the US some years later, but I’ll toss in Visconti’s “White Nights” as well.

    I confess I’ve never seen “Across the Bridge,” and I’ll be hunting it down sharpish.

  • 14 7-08-2010 at 12:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oh, and “The Witches of Salem,” the French and thoroughly superior take on “The Crucible.”

  • 15 7-08-2010 at 1:47 am

    Glenn said...

    I was so surprised after seeing “Elevator to the Gallows” (or “Frantic” as it is horribly titled on IMDb) that under “Awards” at IMDb there were no Academy Award nominations. Wow. Such a great, perfectly made movie.

  • 16 7-08-2010 at 1:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, at the very least, Miles Davis’s score deserved a shout. (By the way, I know it as “Lift to the Scaffold” — it is a film of many names.)

  • 17 7-08-2010 at 8:50 am

    Flosh said...

    Most of the non-nominated notables have already been mentioned, but I’ll throw in mentions for 1957’s The Tall T and 1958’s The Last Hurrah, the latter in particular an underrated gem from John Ford.

  • 18 7-08-2010 at 1:44 pm

    Davin said...

    Vertigo is my clear favorite, however I am pleased that they at least nominated Witness for the Prosecution. Billy Wilder is a genius.

  • 19 7-09-2010 at 3:24 pm

    Jeff said...

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I’m completely on board with all the love for “Elevator to the Gallows,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Le notti bianche,” and “Touch of Evil.” I would also throw in Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight,” and Wajda’s “Kanal,” both from 1957, along with Sirk’s “The Tarnished Angels,” from 1958.

    My own picks, however, would be Kalatozov’s “The Cranes are Flying” from 1957 and Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” from 1958 (both already mentioned above).

  • 20 7-09-2010 at 7:40 pm

    Glenn said...

    Guy, yes, “Lift to the Scaffold” is what I thought I knew it as, too, but that alternate title isnt listed at IMDb so I kinda figured I’d invented it myself…