Taking Wing

I’m off to New Zealand tomorrow to look at some birds!  Will be back on December 16 to pick up 1954 once more.

While there I hope to see these guys:

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Kea

I’m also hoping to see something like this:

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Shorebirds at Miranda, New Zealand

 

The Far Country (1954)

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Directed by Anthony Mann
Story by Borden Chase
1954/USA
Universal International Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Luke: Well, I knew it was coming. I warned you, I did. Where’s there’s gold, there’s stealing. Where there’s stealing, there’s killing. I knew it was coming. I just did know it.

This is not too bad but far from my favorite of the Stewart-Mann Westerns.

Stewart plays the now familiar role of Jeff Webster, a rugged and scarred individualist who neither asks nor offers help to anyone.  Well, he does have a soft spot for sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan).  Jeff is wanted for killing some workers who tried to make off with the cattle he was driving to Dawson City, Yukon.  He is apprehended in Skagway.

Conniving town boss Gannon is not too upset about the homicides but is all about confiscating the cattle for disrupting a hanging he was conducting.  While in Skagway, Jeff meets sassy saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and sweet French-Canadian waif Renee Vallon.

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Jeff steals his cattle back and with, Ronda and Renee, in tow continues on to Dawson City, Yukon where they are mighty hungry for a good steak.  Hot on his heels are Boss Gannon and his thugs who are hungry for the miners’ gold and claims.  Much peril and love-triangle romance ensue.

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This is OK but very predictable.  It was filmed on location and has some awesome vistas of Alaska and Canada going for it.

Trailer

 

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

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Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Written by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao from a play by Hideji Hôjô and a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa
1954/Japan
Toho Company
Repeat viewing/Hulu

 

“Fighting isn’t all there is to the Art of War. The men who think that way, and are satisfied to have food to eat and a place to sleep, are mere vagabonds. A serious student is much more concerned with training his mind and disciplining his spirit than with developing martial skills.” ― Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi

The Samurai Trilogy of films about the legendary hero Miyamoto Musashi is excellent.  This first one is mostly background.

Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) is a boy with a dream.  He sets off for war vowing to make a name for himself.  His friend Matahashi impulsively decides to join him, abandoning his fiance Otsu and his aged mother in the process.  The two young men are set to work digging ditches.  They, in their rags, are clearly not thought of as samurai material. Then the side they have been working for loses the war.

The two are at lose ends and starving to death when they come upon a lonely cottage occupied by a mother and teenage daughter.  The two nurse the men back to health.  Both of the women are smitten with the brave Takezo but he repels their advances. After he defeats some bandits, he departs.  The mother seduces the cowardly Matahashi and later marries him.

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Takezo returns to his village to bring news of Matahashi to his relatives.  They believe him really to be dead and from here on out Takezo is on the run.  He is finally captured by a Buddhist priest who is Otsu’s guardian.   He has a spiritual awakening and begins a long period of training as the samurai Musashi Miyamoto.

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This is a solid picture.  It is mostly story with minimal fighting.  The trilogy builds gradually to some classic sword duels.  I am already looking forward to seeing Part II for 1955 and, especially, Part III for 1956.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto won an Honorary Oscar as the best foreign language film released in the United States in 1955.

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Fan trailer (extraneous music inserted and in black-and-white)

The Country Girl (1954)

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Directed by George Seaton
Written by George Seaton from the play by Clifford Odets
1954/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Bernie Dodd: Oh I know, I know. They all start out as Juliets and wind up as Lady Macbeths.

1954 was Grace Kelly’s year.  Here she is acting against type and doing pretty well at it.  Bing Crosby does even better.

Frank Elgin (Crosby) was a big Broadway star until his son was killed in an accident and he started to drink heavily.  Now addicted to the stuff, he is minded by his much-younger wife Georgie (Kelly).  Bernie Dodd (William Holden) is staging a musical and has decided that Frank is ideal for the part.  He casts him over the producer’s objections and finds that Frank has lost all confidence.  Bernie, who is still stinging from his divorce, decides that Georgie is the root of the whole problem.  Frank only half-heartedly tries to stick up for her and his lies add to Bernie’s dislike of his wife.

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For her part, Georgie keeps soldiering along but she is almost at the end of her rope.  She resents Bernie’s meddling and argues with him.  Finally, Bernie starts to send her away and discovers he may have read the situation all wrong.

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Why can’t I be a fan of Clifford Odets?  I’m just not and his wordy dialogue does not work terribly well for me in movies.  At least, he did not turn this story into a domineering wife melodrama so I give him credit for that.  The acting is wonderful.  I thought Crosby disappeared into his part beautifully.  Kelly had the “beauty disguised as a plain Jane” thing  going for her, always a hit with the Academy.  She carries it off pretty well, even flattening her voice for the role.

Grace Kelly won an Academy Award for Best Actress and George Seaton won for Best Writing, Screenplay.  The film was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.

Trailer

Animal Farm (1954)

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Directed by Joy Batchelor and John Halas
Written by Lothar Wolff, Borden Mace et al from the book by George Orwell
1954/UK
Halas & Batchelor
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#295 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

A little Disney-fication aside, this animated feature is a powerful rendering of the book.

Farmer Jones has become a drunken lout and is no longer properly caring for his animals. So one night they meet and under the chairmanship of the pig Old Major decide to revolt.  Their battle cry is “All animals are equal.” Sadly, Old Major dies before the revolution can take place.  Soon all the animals fight bravely for the cause and oust Farmer Jones.  At first, all, save the pigs, work very hard to make the farm thrive.

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As time goes on, the pig Napoleon makes himself dictator.  Gradually, the principles of the revolution are abandoned in favor of a luxurious life for the pigs.  The animals soldier on, particularly the strong and loyal horse Boxer and his friend the donkey but can hardly surmount the mismanagement of the farm.  Things get worse and worse as the pigs begin to sell the farm goods to humans for their own benefit. Finally, poor Boxer is worked to death but from his demise comes the seeds of counter-revolution.

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This has a few cute ducklings to appeal to the kiddies but otherwise pulls no punches in presenting Orwell’s allegory of Communist Russia.  There is a fair amount of onstage animated violence and death.  The animation is very well done and the score is great.  The ending was changed a bit from the book but otherwise it is a faithful retelling.  Recommended.

Trailer

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

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Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Earl Felton from the novel by Jules Verne
1954/USA
Walt Disney Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Captain Nemo: I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor. I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws.

This is a good Disney live-action adventure with a surprisingly strong cast.

It is 1868 and ships have been disappearing at sea.  It is rumored that a sea monster is the cause.  A government enlists scientist Prof. Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre) to investigate.  The ship they are on also sinks in a burst of flames but Aronnax and Conseil survive.  A third survivor is Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a boisterous harpooner.  The three are picked up from the sea by the Nautilus, the submarine responsible for the sinkings.

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The men are introduced to Captain Nemo (James Mason).  He appears to be slightly (or more) insane.  Anyway, he has created this fabulous vessel, a unique source of energy to power it, and the ability to survive solely on products harvested from the sea.  Ordinarily, survivors are killed but in this case Nemo lets all of these survive for the sake of conversation with the learned professor.

Ned is looking for a way to escape from the moment he boards the sub.  The professor, however, is more interested in learning Nemo’s secrets.  The rest of the story deals with the adventures of the sub and Nemo’s guests/hostages.  These include a battle with a giant squid.

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I don’t think I have seen this movie before.  My main connection to it is the submarine ride at Disneyland.  Disney certainly spared no expense on the production or the host of A-list actors. This is one of Douglas’s most light-hearted roles.  He is good at it and even sings a couple of sea shanties.  The effects are fairly seamless for 1954 and a good time should be had by all who enter into the spirt of the thing.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Best Effects, Special Effects.  It was nominated for Best Film Editing.

Trailer

Executive Suite (1954)

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Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Ernest Lehman based on the novel by Cameron Hawley
1954/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Amazon Instant

 

Narrator: It is always up there, close to the clouds, on the topmost floors of the sky-reaching towers of big business. And because it is high in the sky, you may think that those who work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say that it isn’t so.

The fantastic cast could not quite overcome the didactic story line.

Avery Bullard is the Chief Executive Officer of Tredway Corporation, a publicly traded company which makes furniture.  It has been a one-man operation and he has not even bothered to replace the last Executive Vice President.  One fine day he drops dead of a stroke en route to a hastily called board meeting in another city.

Board member George Caswell (Louis Calhern) sees the boss die on the sidewalk.  It is awhile before the body is identified.  He takes advantage of his insider information to sell a large block of the company’s stock short, expecting it to take a nose dive when the death becomes public.  We get to know the other board members and their sometimes messy private lives before they learn of the death.

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Loren Shaw (Fredric March) is the corporate controller.  His eye is firmly on the bottom line at all times.  Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) is Bullard’s aging right-hand man.  Josiah Dudley (Paul Douglas) is sales manager.  He is having an affair with his secretary, played by Shelley Winters.  Dean Jagger plays a kind of eminence gris of the board.  McDonald Walling (William Holden) is the company’s research manager and is a driven young hot-shot.  He is married to Mary, played by June Allyson.

The final board member is Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of the company’s founder.  She owns a large chunk of the stock but has not been active on the board.  She is apparently in despair over the demise of her affair with Bullard even before she learns of his death.  Serving as Secretary to the Board is Erica Martin (Nina Foch).

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Once he learns of the boss’s death, Shaw takes over and is determined to take Bullard’s place via a hastily called board meeting.  It looks like he has enough dirt on enough of the members to accomplish his mission.  But he may be stymied through an impassioned speech by one of the members and help from an unexpected quarter.

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I found this film highly predictable and burdened by its speechy critique of cutthroat capitalism.  The cast, of course, acquits itself admirably and the whole production is of a high standard.  Shelley Winters managed to make her tiny part the most natural and memorable thing about the movie for me.

Executive Suite was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories:  Best Supporting Actress (Foch); Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.

Trailer

Senso (1954)

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Directed by Lucino Visconti
Written by Suso Cecci D’Amico, Lucino Visconti from a novella by Camillo Boito
1954/Italy
Lux Film
First viewing/Netflix rental

“When you have seen as much of life as I have, you will not underestimate the power of obsessive love.” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This film is almost as lushly beautiful as Visconti’s later classic The Leopard.  I was a bit distracted by my irritation with both of the lead characters, however.

The story takes place in Venice, Italy in 1866.  Venice is still ruled by the Hapsburg Empire but rebellion is running high and the Italian War of Unification was on the horizon.  We begin at the La Fenice opera house where Verdi’s patriotic opera Il Trovatore is playing. The audience uses the occasion to shout revolutionary slogans at the Austrian officers attending the show.  Lt. Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) insults patriot Roberto Ussoni, who challenges the Austrian to a duel.

Ussoni’s cousin is fellow patriot Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), whose husband has made peace with the Austrians.  She takes it on herself to see Mahler privately and beg him to not accept the challenge.  Mahler says the cousin will be arrested before any duel can take place.  The meeting makes Mahler bold and soon the two are having a passionate affair. This is evidently represents Livia’s sexual awakening.

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But after a while Mahler stops showing up for their trysts.  She humiliates herself by calling at the quarters he shares with other Austrian officers but she has no success in learning his whereabouts.  Finally, with war openly declared, the Count moves his household to the countryside.

Just as mysteriously as he disappeared from Livia’s life, Mahler shows up at the estate. Then Livia’s real troubles begin.

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This is one of Farley Granger’s better performances, actually, as he certainly inspired some emotion in me.  I disliked his character heartily almost from his very first appearance on screen.  I don’t want to give too much away here but I just could not understand why Valli’s character would be moved to any sacrifice for this louse.  I suppose every heart has its reasons.

The film is absolutely stunning both visually and aurally from the first moments.  Worth seeing.

Clip

Them! (1954)

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Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Ted Sherdeman and Russell S. Hughes from a story by George Worthing Yates
1954/USA
Warner Bros.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

The Ellinson Girl: [screaming hysterically] AHHH! THEM! THEM! THEM!.

This started the trend in giant creature movies that would dominate the sci-fi genre over the next two or three years.  It is probably the best of them all.

The story begins in a Southwestern desert near an atom bomb test site as a little girl walks down a road clutching her dolly with a blank expression on her face.  A couple of policemen pick her up.  Officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) tries to bond with her but she appears to be catatonic.  On the way to the hospital, the policemen pass a uninhabited trailer.  The trailer has been torn to pieces but no money has been taken. Later, they stop by a similarly uninhabited general store and find the body of its owner.  All the money is in the till.  Some sacks of sugar are spilled out on the floor.  They take a cast of a track nearby and send this to Washington for identification.

The owner of the trailer was an FBI agent and soon agent Robert Graham (James Arness) joins the investigation.  Finally, the detectives are surprised to see that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has become involved.  The USDA send out scientist Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his scientist daughter arrive to assist in the investigation.

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The good doctor is reticent about what could be causing the damage until he is more sure.  He wants to keep the news from the public to avoid panic.  Finally, the giant ants are sighted.  The rest of the film follows the efforts to destroy the creatures and keep them from reproducing.

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They played this on TV a lot when I was a kid and I thought it was pretty darn scary.  I think I was more scared of the actual ants than the film’s apocalyptic warnings about nuclear testing.  The movie is still pretty effective and tautly paced with some good dialogue.  You learn a lot about the habits of your garden ants.  It’s a nice example of what a studio could do with the stuff of which many poverty-row flicks were made.

Them! was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects.

Trailer

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)seven samurai poster
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
1954/USA
Toho Company
Repeat viewing/My DVD collection
#278 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Gisaku: Find hungry samurai.

Yes, there is a 3/12-hour film in which not one minute is wasted.

A simple farming village has been repeatedly attacked by bandits.  The bandits are simply waiting for the barley harvest to strike again.  Some of the villagers believe there must be a way to fight back and the village elder recommends samurai.  Since the villagers can offer their saviors nothing more than room and board, they have a very hard time finding takers.

One day, the villagers spot a samurai who selflessly cuts off his symbolic top-knot in order to pose as a monk and rescue a child who has been held hostage.  This is Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and he helps to recruit five other samurai who care more about adventure and camaraderie than money.  The roster is filled out with Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a wanna-be samurai who more or less cannot be shaken off.

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The samurai do not receive a warm welcome in the village.  One villager, Manzo, forces his daughter to dress as a boy as protection.  But the ice is broken by Kikuchiyo who has a special bond with farmers.  The remainder of the first half is devoted to the training of the villagers and detailed planning of strategy for the eventual battle.  Certain villagers will be required to abandon three outlying houses for the good of the twenty houses in the main village.

The second half of the film is devoted to the long battle with the bandits.  We see both the samurai and the villagers in moments of waiting and moments of action.  Because of the long build-up, we know enough about the characters to fully appreciate their heroism and their sacrifice.

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I simply love this film and seem to watch it about once a year.  By now, all the principal characters seem like old friends.  The plot sounds sort of simple but is packed full of telling incidents and great dialogue.  The skill in film-making is astonishing and reveals Kurosawa’s prodigious talent as an editor.  One of my favorite parts of the film is the fantastic score by Fumio Hayasaka.  Most highly recommended.

Seven Samurai was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.

Trailer