Wednesday, 9 December 2009


2009 is still up and running so I feel it's too soon to make a list over the best films of the year, or the decade for that matter, that'll have to wait until January. But until then why not have a look at 1959, surely one of the more spectacular years in cinema history. I will not go deep, just present the best films, and urge you to watch them if you haven't already. Some of them, though, will be analysed in more depth next year.

1959 is the year one of my top five favourite films were made, Rio Bravo. It's basically Howard Hawks discussing all his themes and letting his actors have a good time whilst doing it. Gilles Delueuze called it a "chamber western" because it's an indoor piece, where people talk and talk and talk, but it also has some great set pieces, both outdoors and indoors. It's effortless but brilliant. In the film Chance (John Wayne) says about Colorado (Ricky Nelson) "He's so good he doesn't feel he has to prove it." and that for me sums up Hawks as well.

Rio Bravo was late Hawks, but one of his biggest fans, François Truffaut, made his first feature film in 1959, The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), and that of course is one of the most influential of films. It's also a warm, tender, sad, poetic and genuine film, rather autobiographical, which makes it all the more sad. The music by Jean Constantin is beautiful and, in fact, it's impossible for me to think of the film without hearing the music.

The other French cinematic masterpiece of 1959 is Pickpocket, an austere philosophical inquiry into the life of a pickpocket, which is probably Robert Bresson's greatest film. It's short, concise and deserves multiple viewings. The film alters between discussions between the pickpocket and a police officer who likes him and scenes when the pickpocket is "working", i.e. stealing wallets and watches and other things. Those scenes have a certain magic grace which makes them wonderful to watch.

And there's more. Billy Wilder, together with script writer I.A.L. Diamond, made Some Like It Hot. Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are running wild in Chicago, on a train and then in Florida, in a more and more outrageous fashion, which asks questions about gender and personalities. It's cruel, and sometimes vulgar, but at the same time sweet and tender, and it's a pure joy to watch it.

Another Austrian in Hollywood, Otto Preminger, made perhaps his ultimate statement of his objective cinema, Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart as the lawyer, and Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott among other actors. Who is guilty? What is truth? Preminger provides the questions, but where are the answers? And it's all shot in long, opaque takes with a great depth of field, and Duke Ellington provides the soundtrack. The title sequence is by Saul Bass of course.

In India, Satyajit Ray made the last part of his Apu trilogy, Apur sansar, the previous two films are Pather Panchali(1954) and Aparajito (1956), and although it might be argued that they work best seen as a whole, they do function separately as well. Apur sansar is about Apu as an young adult, getting out of University and getting married. Like The 400 Blows it's a tender film about real life being lived, and we're just lucky to have been given the privileged to be a part of these characters everyday activities.

Fred Zinnemann made The Nun's Story, about a Belgian girl who decides to become a nun, and then struggles with her faith. It's perhaps Zinnemann's most Bressonian film, especially in the beginning and end, and it's quite fascinating. It also has one of Audrey Hepburn's best performances, as the nun.

Alfred Hitchcock made North By Northwest. It's written by Ernest Lehman, shot by Robert Burks, edited by George Tomasini, with a music score by Bernard Herrmann and titles by Saul Bass, and can be seen as a summing up of all the major themes of Hitchcock's films until then, especially the theme of the "innocent" man and the transfer of guilt, and along the way mother issues, duplicitous blondes and paranoia are thrown in for good measure. And with Cary Grant and James Mason battling it out in the most civilized of manners.

John Ford was perhaps not at his best in 1959, but The Horse Soldiers is still a very good film, autumnal and sad, with a few scenes which are among Ford's best. It's about the American civil war and its terrible costs.

Sam Fuller also went to war, as he frequently did. This time World War II in Verboten!, about an American soldier being sheltered by a German woman in the aftermath of the war. It's all aggressive politics and exuberant tracking shots, and in the end, when Fuller juxtaposed real archival footage, it becomes something else, angry and tragic, and moving, in unexpected ways.

Two excellent thrillers were made in Britain. J. Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay, about a polish immigrant on the run from the police and who ends up with a mischievous little girl as company. It's got a rare feeling for the lower aspects of life in postwar Britain, and the photography by Eric Cross (a break from Thompson's usual collaboration with Gilbert Taylor) has a gritty feel to it, and a good use of deep focus. Val Guest's Hell is a City, a realistic thriller set in Manchester, has a surprisingly existential feel to it, with an ending worthy of Michelangelo Antonioni. Two overlooked gems.

And, finally, there's the Russian war film, or rather a love story in a war setting, Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldato), written and directed by Grigori Chukhrai. It's a bit uneven but the love story between the soldier and the young girl he meets on a train is heartbreakingly powerful and it's poetically shot. It pairs well with that other Russian war film of the 1950s, The Cranes are Flying (Letyat zhuravli 1957).

And my directors? Well, Bergman didn't make any films in 1959, but he did become director at Dramaten, the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. Hasse Ekman made a film, but he was past his peak, on his way out. Fröken Chic, a gentle satire on television and consumption, is sometimes funny, but on the whole inconsequential.

Now, I'm sure I've forgotten one or two great films, and if so, apologies all around. But surely the above mentioned are more than enough for one year?

If you're wondering where Breathless (A bout de souffle) is, it came out in 1960 so it doesn't count, otherwise it would have been here for sure.

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