West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Written by Ernest Lehman from the musical play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The Mirisch Corporation/Seven Arts Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Action: When *you* was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!

This movie was made for musical comedy/ballet/opera geeks like me and I love it.

This is famously Romeo and Juliet updated to reflect gang life in New York City.  The Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Jets, a gang of working class “white” teenagers, and the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants.  Tony (Richard Behmer), who is trying to go straight after having been leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks.  The Jets and the Sharks are already locked in gang warfare and the attentions of Tony to Maria only escalate matters.

The feud leads to tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  With Chita Rivera as Bernardo’s girlfriend and Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Tony’s friend and new leader of the Jets.

I assisted the director of my high school production of West Side Story and it has a special place in my heart.  But besides nostalgia, I continue to think that the music is some of the best ever written for the stage. Bernstein’s score gives me chills in places.  I can see how some might find all the pointy toed dancing by gang members and their girls ludicrous but I just sit back and enjoy it.  Rita Moreno absolutely deserved her Academy Award even if George Chakiris remains a puzzlement.  Highly recommended to others like me.

The Blu-Ray that came in the mail contained a song-specific commentary by Stephen Sondheim that I ate up.

West Side Story won ten Academy Awards – Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress; Best Director; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Sound; Best Film Editing; and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.  It was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.


One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

One-Eyed Jacks
Directed by Marlon Brando
Written by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham from a novel by Charles Neider
Pennebaker Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Rio: You may be a one eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face.

This is an OK Western but I think I could have died without seeing it.

As the story begins, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are on the run following a bank robbery.  They end up stranded in the desert with one lame horse between them.  Rio suggests a game to determine who will go out in search of fresh horses.  He rigs the outcome so Dad will be forced to stick his neck out for the dangerous mission.

Ironically, Dad makes it to a ranch where he requisitions horses at gun point.  He then makes off with the stolen loot, abandoning Rio to the Mexican police and an eventual five year sentence in a Mexican jail.

Upon his release, Rio joins up with another gang of bank robbers in the States.  They know of substantial deposits in a town’s bank.  Dad has gone more-or-less straight and is now sherriff of that town.  This suits Rio fine since he has dreamed of killing Dad for the last five years.

We follow planning for the robbery and Rio’s dealings with Dad, wife Maria (Katy Jurado) and stepdaughter Louisa.  Naturally, Rio and Louisa fall in love.  With Slim Pickens as Dad’s mean and corrupt deputy.

This is not bad but nothing too special either.  Brando does well with a Texas accent.  He and the scenery look gorgeous in Technicolor.  The movie seems to meander for a lot of its 2 1/2 hour running time.

One-Eyed Jacks was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color.


Viridiana (1961)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Julio Alejandro and Luis Buñuel
Union Industrial Cinematografica/Gustavo Alatriste/Films 59
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Viridiana: I know my own weakness, and whatever I do will be humble. But, however little it is, I want to do it alone.

I had to keep reminding myself to keep a sense of humor during this unforgettable and very black comedy.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is an extremely devout novice who is about to take her vows as a nun.  Her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), whom she has hardly ever seen, has paid for her training and her “dowry”.  She has no desire to see him but he more or less orders her to visit, backed up by the Mother Superior.  Viridiana’s instincts were all too accurate.

When she arrives, she reminds Jaime strongly of his dead wife, who died of a heart attack on their wedding night.  Jaime begins a campaign to make Viridiana his own.  This culminates in the administration of a date rape drug.  Whether or not a rape actually occurred is left to our imagination.  At any rate, Viridiana can no longer return to the convent.  Jaime dies soon after.

During Act II, Viridiana decides to live a Godly life by taking in a group of the most ungrateful and downright sinful poor people imaginable.  Her situation is made even more miserable by the arrival of Jaime’s worldly illegitimate son.

“Vivid” is the adjective that comes to mind for this movie.  Buñuel takes each scene to the edge of surrealism and beyond, leaving an indelible impression.  The seduction scenes early in the film and the poor people’s orgy – with its “Last Supper” tableau – are particularly memorable.  All of this stuff is both hilarious and viscerally disturbing.  If one took it even slightly seriously, the story transforms into something truly depressing.  I have to recommend it even if I don’t think I will be giving it a re-watch anytime soon.

U.S. Trailer

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Directed by Blake Edwards
Written by George Axelrod based on the novel by Truman Capote
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Holly Golightly: Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.

The movie opens with Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy and you think you have found movie paradise.  Then Mickey Rooney takes the screen in yellow face and buck teeth and you start to doubt it.

Holly Golightly (Hepburn) has the charm, beauty and sex appeal to easily score 50 dollar bills when she goes to the powder room while on dinner out on the town.  What she does in addition to get the money is left unstated.  She is slightly dotty and often loses her building key.  Upstairs neighbor Mr. Yunioshi (Rooney) constantly is interrupted with her buzzing him to let her in.  He is big on ineffectual bluster but will resort to calling the cops when Holly’s parties get out of hand.

Holly meets writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) as he is moving in to the building.  They have a lot in common as he is being “kept” by his interior designer, a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal).  They bond early on.  He reminds her of her brother Fred, who was her constant companion during her terrible childhood and she calls Paul “Fred” for the rest of the movie.

We learn that Holly is sweet and vulnerable but also a bit of a fraud.  Her English accent and frequent use of French belie a hardscrabble Texas upbringing.  Inevitably, Paul falls for Holly but she is more interested in marrying for money to support her brother, who will soon be discharged from the army,

I have a long-running love/hate relationship with this film.  This is the iconic Hepburn performance and she is just perfect in it. My next favorite is Martin Balsam as Holly’s agent. It’s a good story which has me in tears by the end

The producer’s commentary expresses regret that they didn’t cast Rooney’s part with a Japanese actor.  That would have helped a bit but the offensively stereotypical characterization of the man would still have been a gigantic problem.  1961 was the tale end of the time when White actors could play Asians and if the performance had not been so broad and obnoxious it might have been a mere footnote to discussions of this film.

Still, I recommend seeing this one before you die – or get much older.

“Moon River” won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Song and Henry Mancini won for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was nominated in the categories of Best Actress; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color.  How did it miss for Best Costume Design?


Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Svensk Filmindustri
First viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Karin: It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.

In Bergman’s first “chamber” film, a small cast and confined setting are enough to powerfully express a master’s vision.

As the film begins, we are dropped into what looks like an idyllic family summer holiday on an island in the Swedish Archipelago  The family consists of Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin, and her brother Minus.  Karin and Minus’s father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is visiting after spending several months in Switzerland working on a novel. Clearly, all love each other a lot.

Soon it appears that there is trouble in paradise.  Karin has been ill and Martin tells David that her condition may be incurable.  Minus is in an awkward teenage phase.  Both children yearn for more affection from their rather distant father.

Gradually we learn that Karin’s illness is mental.  She apparently has schizophrenia and when ill has hallucinations and hears voices instructing her.  She is somewhat better now but no longer feels desire for Martin.  Unspoken tensions within the summer household have her heading for relapse.

Karin’s hallucinations involve a group of benevolent people who are waiting for God to appear.  As Karin drifts farther and farther from reality, a visitation seems imminent.  In the meantime, the family struggles to cope.

We haven’t got into the Liv Ullman years yet but so far Harriet Andersson is my favorite Bergman actress.  She is fantastic in this film.  Both her suffering and her ecstasy are palpable.  This is a profound film and I feel like I need to see it again to comprehend everything.  The themes reach from the nature and existence of God to the nature and existence of reality.  Recommended.

Through a Glass Darkly won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  It was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.

American trailer

The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler
Directed by Robert Rossen
Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen from a novel by Walter Tevis
Rossen Films/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Fast Eddie: You sure don’t leave much when you miss, do you, Fats?

Minnesota Fats: That’s what the game’s all about

I like this film more every time I see it.  That hardly seems possible since I have always loved it.

“Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) has the charm and skills to make an ace pool hustler. His giant ego drives him to prove he is the best at the game.  This will involve beating Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in an epic match-up.  Eddie starts out strong but does not have the stamina or character to close the deal.  Later, he is courted by gambler and “manager” Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who offers him a 25% share of the profits for any games he arranges.  Eddie is insulted both by the low-ball offer and by Bert’s opinion that he is a born loser and refuses.

Eddie then falls on hard times and turns to small-time hustles to barely support himself.  It is then that he meets Sarah Packard, a lame world-weary alcoholic.  She is rightly leery at getting involved with a man almost as screwed-up as she is.  They fall in love any way.

After falling on even worse times, Eddie is ready to accept Bert’s help.  Suddenly, he thinks he is on the road back to the high life.  He is very much mistaken.

Just reading the cast list should give some idea of how powerful this film is.  This is probably my favorite Newman performance among many strong contenders. Scott, Gleason and Laurie also richly deserved their Oscar nominations.  On this viewing, the cinematography was the real revelation.  It is simply stunning in the Blu-Ray print. Rossen’s pool halls and their hangers-on are masterfully captured.

I love the fact that Scott’s character keeps lecturing Newman’s about his lack of character when he has the least of anyone in the story.  I feel enormous empathy and sympathy for Laurie’s.

The Hustler won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Black and White and Best Art Decoration-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Actress; Best Supporting Actor (Scott); Best Supporting Actor (Gleason); Best Director; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.


Divorce Italian Style (1961)

Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all’italiana)
Directed by Pietro Germi
Written by Ennio De Concini, Pietro Germi, and Alfredo Giannetti
Lux Film/Vides Cinematografica/Galatea Film
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Divorce: a resumption of diplomatic relations and rectification of boundaries. Ambrose Bierce

I have an unrequited love affair with Marcello Mastroianni and consider this to be the peak of his acting career.  I just love this movie!

Fernando Cefalú (Mastroianni) is the first son in an impoverished aristocratic family.  Things have gotten so bad that Fernando’s father has had to resort to housing his brother and family.  This puts temptation in Fernando’s way in the shape of his shapely 16-year-old first cousin Angela.  She reciprocates his affection in an infatuated teenager sort of way,

Fernando is burdened by the existence of his relentlessly cheerful and clinging wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca).  The domestic and attentive Rosalia might be the perfect wife if it were not for her little mustache and her constant pestering for demonstrations of love.  Fernando finds her unbearable and the audience can see why.

Then Fernando gets an idea.  Divorce is out at this time in Italy but crimes of honor are lightly punished in Sicily.  What he needs to do is find a chump foolish enough to fall for Rosalia and catch them en flagrante.  This is both easier and more difficult than it might seem.

This is a very funny film thanks largely to the spot-on performances by Mastroianni and Rocca.  Mastroianni manages to create a totally insufferable egocentric Latin lover and at the same time get you to hope he will succeed in his project.  He must have had fun sending up the press’s portrayal of himself.  There are also many pokes at the Italian character and customs to savor.  Highly recommended.

Divorce, Italian-Style won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Actor and Best Director.


Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été)
Directed by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch
Argos Films
First viewing/FilmStruck
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

This film gave the term cinema verite to the lexicon while at the same time foreshadowing such exercises as David Holzman’s Diary.

The filmmakers set out to make a film about a particular time and place – Paris in the summer of 1960 – and gathered a “cast” of non-actors to help them do so.  The main concern is how people live their lives.  This is approached by asking people whether they are happy. As the film begins one of the main subjects, Marcelline, takes to the streets with a colleague to stop random strangers with just this question.  She finds very few that will even give her the time of day.

Then we start focusing on the subjects who have agreed to participate in the project. They answer at length, sometimes with gut-wrenching honesty.  At the same time, the film explores the immigrant experience and feelings about the upheaval in the Congo and the war in Algeria.  The film concludes with a reflection on whether the camera has made the reactions filmed “false”.

There’s a lot to think about here.  The filmmakers picked their subjects with a lot of care – it’s not clear whether the people were all previously acquainted – and their stories and emotional and intellectual lives are all fascinating.  The film is beautifully done and I highly recommend it.

Clips with commentary by Jean Rouch

La Notte (1961)

La Notte
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra
Nepi Film/Sofitedip/Silver Films
Repeat viewing/FilmStruck
One of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die

Giovanni: I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.

There is some gold within this sad film about ennui.

The story follows a day in the life of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroiani) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), a restless married couple.  Each is restless in his own way.   As the film begins, the couple visits a friend who is in the hospital in great pain.  The prospect of death has brought him some clarity and the three engage in some honest conversation.  But Lidia can’t take the strain and goes off wandering aimlessly.  Eventually, the two reunite.

Lidia doesn’t feel like another evening at home.  Neither does she want to go to a lavish party at the home of the Gherardinis.  So they go out to a nightclub and watch a mildly pornographic striptease act.  This wears down Lidia to the point that she is ready for the party.  At the party, the couple soon separate.  Temptation awaits each of them. Giovanni’s takes the form of Monica Vitti.

As in the other Antonioni films I have seen, the characters all seem to be searching for some meaning.  For all we know there is none to be found.  One has to be in the right mood to watch this stuff.  Yesterday, I enjoyed the poetry of the visuals but really wasn’t ready for the very bleak story.  My favorite part of this is actually the brief section where Monica Vitti plays the game with her makeup compact.



La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi
Riama Film/Cinecitta/Pathe Consortium Cinema/Gray-Film
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Transvestite: By 1965 there’ll be total depravity. How squalid everything will be.

Life is bittersweet in this episodic tale about a man who cannot seem to find anything to hold onto in a world adrift.

Marcello Rubino (Marcello Mastroianni) is a tabloid journalist who works hand and glove with a pack of photographers (who would become known as paparazzi as a result of this film).  He spends much of his time collecting tidbits of gossip on Rome’s Via Veneto.  Marcello is also constantly up for a good time and collects a number of women from the same location.

The film follows a week in Marcello’s life as each wild night leads to a disillusioning dawn. Included in the episodes are his troubles with his clinging live-in-girlfriend, his encounter with a Swedish sex symbol (Anita Ekberg), a tentative relationship with an heiress (Anouk Aimee), an erzatz miracle, an intellectual salon, and an orgy.  All leave Marcello more depressed and less open to an authentic life than previously.

I don’t know what this says about me but I seem to have the same sense of humor as Fellini.  From the brilliant opening in which the Christ statue is borne by helicopter to the Vatican to the wistful ending, I am awestruck by the images and smiling throughout.  It’s the first of Fellini’s freak shows but I happen to find all the freaks amusing and rather endearing.  The film is more than just freaks, however.  Marcello, brilliantly portrayed by Mastroianni, is Everyman and we identify with his longing for something better and his desperation.  When you think of the scale of the production, it was quite an achievement.  The Nino Rota score is iconic.  Highly recommended.

La Dolce Vita won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Director; Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen; and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.