Call me lazy.
This was an interesting decade. Hollywood’s studio system was a wheezing dinosaur. Television was thought to be killing the movies. And yet, as always, great screenwriters, actors, and directors pushed through the pervasive mediocrity and produced stunning masterpieces.
1. Sunset Boulevard, 1950.
Bill Holden was once asked what it took to be a star.
He answered, “It.”
“What’s it?” queried the puzzled interviewer.
“It is the lead role in Sunset Boulevard,” replied Holden.
A scathing portrait of Hollywood, and at the same time, a brilliant and timeless meditation on the cruelties of celebrity.
In her finest role, Gloria Swanson, one of the silent screen’s greatest stars, plays Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent era, who dreams of a great comeback role. Her life is one mad hallucination. Bill Holden plays the down-and-out screenwriter who cynically agrees to write the script that will put her back on top, a film he knows will never be produced. This is one of the saddest love stories ever filmed. Every frame, every line of dialogue, accurate as a sniper’s bullet. Inevitably, when Gloria Swanson, lost in the past, declaims: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” this screenwriter fights back tears.
2. Rashomon, 1950.
In medieval Japan, a terrible crime takes place deep in the forest. Dappled light, blinding sun flares, and hazy natural light create an other-worldy effect.
But this other world is, in fact, the human mind.
The film builds its narrative by telling the story of the crime through several points of view. Each character tells their own version of the truth. And each version directly contradicts the other. Thus, we have what’s become known as the Rashomon Effect.
I don’t think there’s been a more influential film than Rashomon. The template for conflicting points of view has become so common that we hardly notice it anymore. But Rashomon’s singular power derives from Kurosawa’s relentless focus on questions of honor, shame, pride, shifting loyalties, and self-interest, elevate this film beyond all imitators.
3. Strangers on a Train, 1951.
When Alfred Hitchcock approached several A-list Hollywood screenwriters to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel about two strangers who swap murders, he was rebuffed and told that the story was tawdry. Finally, Raymond Chandler, desperate for money, agreed to write the script. Hitch was delighted, until script conferences revealed that Chandler was a mean drunk who did not understand Hitchcock’s focus on manipulating audience emotion through pure cinema. Chandler, Hitchcock complained, was obsessed with “plausibility.” Of course, Hitch delighted in subverting the very notion.
Hitchcock fired Chandler, dumped his entire script, moved on to a small army of screenwriters — including the great Ben Hecht — and directed one of the most audacious thrillers ever filmed. Hitch was never interested in whodunit. No, he wanted to know how and why. The details Hitch used, physical and psychological, create a mosaic of human weakness that is unique in cinema.
Summary: Guy (Farley Granger) is a social-climbing tennis star who is romancing a senator’s daughter while still married to an unfaithful wife. Bruno (Robert Walker) is a cynical, off-kilter and slightly effeminate rich kid who chafes under his father’s authority. These two meet as strangers on a train — and murder ensues.
The film, propelled by a relentless narrative velocity, is filled with some of Hitch’s most powerful images: Bruno getting his nails manicured by his mother; the hound at the top of the stairs; the heart-stopping grope for the lighter dropped down the drain; a strangling reflected in the victim’s eyeglasses; and, of course, the race-against-the-clock tennis match with hundreds of heads moving back and forth, following the volley—all except for one immobile head—a chilling image.
Some critics have suggested that the film is an indictment of McCarthyism. To left-wingers, every film from the 1950s is about McCarthyism. But this is a shallow and dopey reading of the movie. Hitch was never interested in politics. He was interested in good and evil, and the infinite shades between.
To be continued.