Great Year for Cinema: 1957

In this new column for my blog I thought I’d take the time to explore some of the great years that cinema has given us, ranging from as far back to its silent era and coming all the way up to contemporary times. Nearly all of my articles thus far have more or less focused on films that have been released in the past twenty years, so a column like this feels appropriate to reach back and find some true standout years in the history of cinema. Articles of this nature will be released once every month, and they will be occurring in a somewhat arbitrary order, which makes things more playful anyway. Of the nearly 120 years that cinema has existed, it can, naturally, be difficult to single out one year as one’s favorite year for film. After much consideration, I have ultimately decided upon 1957 as my all time favorite year for cinema. This can naturally change, of course, but looking back on that specific year reveals not only a few stone cold classics from America, but also multiple international masterpieces as well. Therefore, on a global scale, 1957 simply takes the cake for me. So, let’s start with America first, which, in my estimation, gave us no less than four unquestionably great films.

12 Angry Men – Sidney Lumet

Of all the first films made by directors, there are very few that can surpass Sidney Lumet’s brazing 12 Angry MenAdapted from a teleplay of the same name, 12 Angry Men is bold enough to spend near its entire 96 minutes within a single room, where twelve jurors debate the innocence of an eighteen year-old whose conviction of murder would mean the death sentence. At first glance, perhaps the film would have been best suited on the stage, where each of the twelve men has his moment in the limelight, and it is without question that the performances and writing drive the piece. However, it is due to Sidney Lumet’s striking understanding of the camera and editorial that makes this film vividly cinematic. Relying on camera movement to comment on each individual’s psyche, as well as cuts to claustrophobic close-ups during telling moments of revelation, Lumet elevates the terrific performances, as well as underscoring a theme in which a deep rage was simmering within the American male near the end of that decade, and which would boil over into the next.

Paths of Glory – Stanley Kubrick

If The Killing solidified Stanley Kubrick in 1956 as a major new talent within American cinema, then his remarkable war tale of the following year, Paths of Glory, elevated him to a higher pedestal and displayed elements that would become staples within his cinema: symmetrical compositions, extended tracking shots, as well as the seeds for cynicism in the human race. The film takes place during the dog days of World War I, where a French colonel (Kirk Douglas) is forced to make an impossible decision when his men are charged for cowardice on the battlefield because of not committing an act that any level headed person would find despicable. Douglas gives arguably the finest performance of his career, conveying depth and fear despite his fortitude on the battlefield. Though it only contains one major action sequence, Kubrick’s handling of that scene is sincerely impressive, but his primary focus is on the human element of the film, an ingredient that he would come to treat with greater apathy later in his career. In comparison with his later films, Paths of Glory may not be as technically audacious, but none of his other films hit nearly as close to home.

Sweet Smell of Success – Alexander Mackendrick

Another American classic from 1957 is Sweet Smell of Success, a searing portrait of 1950’s Manhattan, whose sleek polish of style hides a venomous underbelly, where gossip can absolutely kill the dreams of anyone, no matter how big or small. It may be a familiar theme, but fifty five years ago, it played deliciously into a narrative of a top tier Broadway gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), whose sister romances a rising jazz musician. In order to smear the musician, Hunsecker enlists his shameless press agent, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into doing anything to keep him from succeeding. Corruption is the name of the game in the world of Sweet Smell of Success, and for all of the characters, it becomes an inevitability. The pulpy dialogue is as meaty as it is delicious, and coaxes career defining performances from both Lancaster and Curtis. Additionally, Sweet Smell of Success features some of the very best black and white photography of its day courtesy of James Wong Howe, whose use of light and shadow exponentially sells the idea of demons hiding behind the armor of knights.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – David Lean

The final standout American film from 1957 won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and deservingly so. Although it was financed and distributed by Columbia Pictures in America, The Bridge on the River Kwai was directed by the great British director David Lean. Chronicling a battalion of soldiers detained in Japanese POW camp during World War II, the film juxtaposes the harsh working conditions the soldiers endure as they build a bridge for the enemy, while an escaped American POW is tasked with destroying the completed bridge. Following his smaller dramas earlier in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Lean’s cinematic canvas grew dramatically with The Bridge on the River Kwai, and would serve as a similar visual template for the remainder of his career. Employing the expansive 2.55:1 aspect ratio to its fullest, Lean’s vistas of the river and of the surrounding jungles are the first seeds of the epic cinema his films would come to personify. The film is spearheaded by the great Alec Guinness, whose Oscar-winning performance conveys a deep sincere sense of pride, both in self and in nation, as he strives to make the finest bridge he can in order to honor his country. It is only at the end of the film that he realizes his terrible folly.

Throne of Blood – Akira Kurosawa

Jumping into international waters, the first commendable foreign film of 1957 came from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, whose Throne of Blood stands among the best interpretations of Shakespeare on celluloid. In truth, Kurosawa’s vision of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a genuine adaptation in every sense of the word. He takes the structure and themes of the Bard’s unforgettable tragedy, and transposes them into feudal Japan, whose warlords and mistresses stand in place of the original Scottish environment. Kurosawa’s deeply atmospheric sets and landscapes are completely true to Shakespeare’s intentions, and the performances, though devoted to Japanese kabuki and noh traditions, are completely reflective of their characters. Kurosawa’s prized actor, Toshiro Mifune, gives a staggering performance as Taketoki Washizu, the warlord whose lust for power knows no bounds. Finally, with a tremendous title like Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s film has no shortage of death, and the most memorable scene comes at the film’s conclusion where Mifune’s warlord finds himself at wit’s end, surrounded by an army and fired upon by dozens upon dozens of arrows. Where Macbeth dies offstage in Shakespeare’s play, Kurosawa gives us his death in its complete glory, and in a rare move, outdoes the Bard himself.

Nights of Cabiria – Federico Fellini

For a period of time, Federico Fellini was the king of cinema, releasing multiple masterpieces over the course of ten years, from 1954 through 1963. A lover of theatricality, Fellini’s style progressed in these years from Italy’s roots in neorealism up to his own playful cinematic eye which would veer into the worlds in which the physical world married the abstract. Nights of Cabiria represents a crux in that evolution, in which a prostitute searches for deep, true love in a world of surface, meaningless physicality. At the heart of the film is Giulietta Masina as the prostitute, whose presence makes her amongst the most expressive performers on screen this side of Charlie Chaplin. Her emotions are often immediately readable without the need for dialogue, yet Masina also possesses a mysterious aura as well. There’s a depth to her performance living within her eyes that speaks to the truth and sincerity of her character. The other standout aspect of Fellini’s film lies in Nino Rota’s lovely score, who would go on to compose dozens of Fellini’s other films. Although it won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, Nights of Cabiria would go on to be reinterpreted to audience’s greater familiarity as Sweet Charity, but anyone who has seen Fellini’s heartbreaker knows that the true power of the narrative lies with the images flickering on screen.

The Cranes are Flying – Mikhail Kalatazov

As it has become evident, 1957 was a paramount year for the war film, and its greatest triumph came from the Soviet Union, which gave the world the no less than astounding The Cranes are Flying, a love story torn apart by the carnage of World War II. Directed by Mikhail Kalatazov, the film depicts the juxtaposition of home life and the chaotic front lines in such visceral detail, that it completely overshadows the nationalist themes and intentions of the studio that funded it. Because of the control of the Soviet Union over the large part of the film industry, it played into the propaganda affecting its citizens over the decades. Nevertheless, The Cranes are Flying stands head and shoulders above many war films, for the power of its bittersweet narrative, and for its exhilarating cinematography. Shot by Sergei Urusevsky, the film employs so many techniques are integrates them all into its narrative. From stunning handheld work, to expertly staged and lit deep focus scenes, it is no hyperbole that The Cranes are Flying contains some of the very best cinematography in cinema history period.

The Seventh SealWild Strawberries – Ingmar Bergman

A great many directors consider themselves lucky to produce one masterpiece in their entire careers. Those directors, of course, are not Ingmar Bergman, who, in a feat never before seen, made not only two films, but two unquestionable masterpieces in the very same year, 1957. What is more, the films could not be more different. The first, The Seventh Seal, has been hailed as a watershed moment in international art house cinema, and the second, Wild Strawberries, is counted among the films that only get better with repeated viewings. Although they tell radically different stories, both are, in their own ways, deeply provoking explorations of life and death. In The Seventh Seal, a disillusioned knight returns home from the Crusades only to find Death literally welcoming him. Not prepared to give up his life, he challenges death to a game of chess which recurs throughout the film, and along the way the knight finds humanity’s capacity for all things, both good and evil. With Wild Strawberries, Bergman explores the impending death of a man whose lifetime career achievements are about to be awarded, yet whose conflicted past remains unresolved. Both films marked a maturation for Bergman, whose previous films were lighter in tone, and the subsequent themes would remain hallmarks for exploration throughout the rest of his career.

So there you have it. Nine phenomenal films from one terrific year, all of which remain absolute classics to this day, 55 years since their release, each with its place in cinema history. Next month, I’ll be looking at a year far more recent, but one which I predict will have just as long an impact as the films above did, if not on international cinema, then certainly on American cinema.

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~ by romancinema on March 13, 2012.

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