Time changes things; there’s no denying that it’s true. Movies are no different, and with each passing year, an individual film’s legacy is altered by how it is remembered and revered. Sometimes a film that is extremely popular upon its initial release tends to lose some of its glory. On the other hand there are many films that go unnoticed until years, sometimes decades later, and then suddenly we all seem to realize this brilliantly crafted masterpiece that has been staring us in the face the whole time.
For the most part, it is this idea that is the inspiration for this series I’ve entitled, “The Power of Hindsight”. I’ve already written on the year that was 1963, but this time I will go back to one of my favorite years in film, 1954. In order to make the definitive Lasso the Movies “Best of” list, I have carefully examined the films released in that year and have picked up to ten that I consider the very best- much in the same fashion that the Academy Award Best Picture nominees are chosen. The major difference in my selection process is that I am looking at a list of all films released in 1954, and not just released in America. (The foreign market is so often overlooked, especially during the 1950’s, but luckily we can now appreciate these films as well.)
What I knew about 1954 is that I loved several films released in those short twelve months. What I didn’t know was how many amazing movies there would be vying for the coveted ten spots. In 1954, the Academy Awards only chose five Best Picture nominees. These films were:
“The Caine Mutiny”, “The Country Girl”, “On the Waterfront”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, and “Three Coins in the Fountain”
Another big award winner that year was “The Barefoot Contessa”, with Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien (who did win Best Supporting Actor). Director Otto Preminger released two musical films, the well liked “Carmen Jones”, staring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, and the financially successful “River of No Return”, with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Other musicals that year were the holiday favorite, “White Christmas”, the Frank Sinatra/Doris Day drama, “Young at Heart”, “Brigadoon” with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and George Cukor’s remake of “A Star is Born”. The latter of which earned Academy Award nominations for both of its stars: James Mason and Judy Garland (in her comeback role).
The foreign language market in 1954 is one of the greatest of all time as well, with many of the biggest names in directing history appearing one right after another. Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi released one of his greatest films, “Sansho the Bailiff”, in March, Jean Renoir’s “The French Cancan” came out in April, Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” in September, and Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” came out in December. Also coming out that year were two films that always seem to find their way towards the top of everyone’s “greatest all time” lists, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece, “The Seven Samurai”. I haven’t even mentioned Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla”, which might not be considered the “highest quality” film ever made, but it’s legacy and significance can’t be overlooked, especially when examining a specific year.
Back in the English-speaking world, the great films were just as plentiful. Disney released their adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, to both critical and financial success, John Wayne starred and produced in the disaster drama, “The High and the Mighty”, not to mention the emotional and inspiring drama, “Salt of the Earth”. Alfred Hitchcock released two films that year: “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder”. I happen to think these are two of his finest films, which says a lot considering how much I admire his career. Grace Kelly appeared in both of those Hitchcock films (and won an Academy Award for “The Country Girl”), but she also starred alongside William Holden in well received “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” released in December.
Nicholas Ray directed the western “Johnny Guitar” that year, Douglas Sirk made “Magnificent Obsession”, the mystery/noir classic “Black Widow” came out, David Lean released “Hobson’s Choice”, and Edward Dmytryk (who also directed “The Caine Mutiny”) released his western, “Broken Lance”, starring Spencer Tracy. Just in case all of these titles aren’t enough to make your head spin, Billy Wilder also released one of his all-time greats, “Sabrina” in 1954, which with star power and pitch-perfect writing has remained just as entertaining as ever; even almost 60 years later.
So how does someone only pick ten of these films? There are so many worthy choices, but with only ten spots, someone is going to get left out of the party. Looking at the five films that did get Academy Award nominations in 1954, “On the Waterfront” was the Best Picture winner that year, and deservingly so. It is hands-down one of the top twenty American films ever made, and will definitely make my final cut. I have decided that “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Country Girl” are still both deserving of being called “one of the best” also. They both are marvelously crafted, were directed and written extremely well, and offer some of the best acting performances you will ever find. The other two nominees, “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, however, are going to be replaced on my list. I see why they were loved in 1954, but I don’t think they have won the test of time.
Continuing on, “Rear Window” is a film that seems to improve with time. It is widely considered Hitchcock’s third best film, behind “Vertigo” (1958) and “Psycho” (1960), and is ranked the 48th greatest American film on the last AFI poll. Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” was ranked the 17th greatest film of all time on Sight & Sound’s director’s poll and their critic’s poll in 2012. It was ranked above any other film from 1954 on both lists, thus securing itself a place on mine. Another film ranked highly on the Sight & Sound director’s poll was “La Strada”. Although this isn’t a film that I would personally consider a favorite, I do see its importance and significance.
With the more “obvious” choices out-of-the-way, things got really tricky, but finally I was able to narrow it down to ten. Here they are, the ten films that I think represent the best in motion pictures 1954- and what a grouping it is, too.
- “The Caine Mutiny”– Edward Dmytryk
- “The Country Girl” – George Seaton
- “Dial M for Murder”– Alfred Hitchcock
- “Journey to Italy”– Roberto Rossellini
- “On the Waterfront”– Elia Kazan
- “Rear Window”– Alfred Hitchcock
- “Sabrina”– Billy Wilder
- “The Seven Samurai”– Akira Kurosawa
- “A Star is Born”– George Cukor
- “La Strada”– Federico Fellini