- An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli
- Decision Before Dawn, Anatole Litvak
- A Place in the Sun, George Stevens*
- Quo Vadis, Mervyn LeRoy
- A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan
Since the uniformly great 21st Academy Awards, the field of nominees seems to have settled into a pattern of two near-perfect films, one pretty damned great film, and two that have earned their obscurity as Academy Awards also-rans. While this may have made the job of choosing the best picture of the year a bit easier (and even given that 50-50 chance, they still rarely get it right), it does make writing these introductions a bit of a chore.
Before we get to the five films, I should point out that this was the year that Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart finally won an Oscar, for his performance as a tough, hard-drinking cynic (surely the acting challenge of a lifetime) in John Huston’s un-nominated The African Queen–though Huston did receive a nod for Best Director.
One of my favorite bits of film trivia is Bogart’s account of how, during filming in Uganda and the Congo, everyone in the cast and crew became seriously ill with dysentery–except for he and John Huston, who didn’t touch the local water and instead ate and drank nothing but baked beans and Scotch for the entire shoot. He later quipped, “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”
Anyway, 1951 finally took a break from the brooding postwar gloom that had reigned as Best Picture since 1945, heralding what would be a decade of (mostly) honoring escapist fare. The winner, An American in Paris, was only the second color film to win Best Picture, and the first since Gone with the Wind (1939), and represents the genius behind it, Gene Kelly, at the height of his powers. For that reason, and for its many, many other merits, it would have earned my approval as the year’s best, if it didn’t happen to be competing against one of the best and most influential American films ever made.
Although the category of Best T-Shirt would have been a very
tight close race indeed.
But we’ll get to that next week. First, let’s have a look at the less successful films of 1951.
Quo Vadis, a Sunday school special disguised as an historical epic, tells the story of Marcus Vinicius, a Roman legionnaire who, over the course of three insufferable hours, overcomes his hatred of Christianity in order to boff Deborah Kerr. She, being a good Christian, falls for his rapey charms after a rousing speech by Saint Peter makes Vinicius reconsider his opinion of this Jesus fellow. Meanwhile, Nero is an aggressively idiotic emperor who spends his days playing the lute, burning Rome to the ground, and eating grapes. He is played by Peter Ustinov, easily the second-greatest portrayal of Nero in film history.
The greatest, obviously.
Marcus Vinicius returns to Nero’s Rome to find a new sect has formed called Christianity, which he wouldn’t care about if it didn’t keep interfering with his attempts to bed Lygia, a hostage from the Punic Wars. When his
literal enslavement of her attempts to court her are rebuffed, his only way to get in her frock is to accept her new religion…which he doesn’t, but the moment he shows the slightest sign of being willing to not kill every Christian he meets, Lygia immediately falls in love with him. You would think a three-hour film would be willing to spend any amount of time building a nuanced, believable connection between its romantic leads, but you would be wrong.
Very, very long story short, Nero burns Rome on the advice of his architect (in a scene that is basically the scourging of Atlanta from Gone with the Wind but in tunics) and blames it on the Christians, but during their persecution in the Coliseum they Christian so hard that the people of Rome realize that Nero is guilty and cheer the subsequent military coup that seizes power. Nero dies and our heroes survive, newly married, with Vinicius not quite Christian but finally willing to share Deborah Kerr with Jesus. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Well, except Ferdinand there.
This is a film that could easily have been a tolerable, if forgettable, 90 minutes, but is an unforgivable, and still forgettable, 179 instead. To that end, a lot of things that might have been merely bad become annoying at best, and outright offensive at worst. A case of the latter is the aforementioned rape-centric pursuit of Deborah Kerr by Vinicius, which takes up the first hour of the film. I understand that characters must have an arc, and Vinicius’ is to go from clueless, reactionary Roman to clueless, progressive Christian, but when your hero spends the first third of a three-hour movie forcing himself on his “love” interest and talking about how great it is to own people, it’s very hard to root for him. And when, as I said above, she falls in love with him simply because they appear in love on the poster, it becomes even creepier.
Add to the mix that the only reason they end up together at all is because Nero’s wife, Poppaea, is jealous of them, and it may be the least compelling and most amateurishly executed love story in Hollywood history. Poppaea, by the way, is one of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve encountered in this project, whose only function is to be horny and catty to everyone she sees. Nero never even jumps on her. Not a great character.
Again, we all know which film got it right.
The movie blows, is what I’m saying. But it does have one great and memorable element, and that is Peter Ustinov’s campy yet undeniably engrossing performance as Nero. Ustinov plays him not as the evil conniver of history (and myth), but as a pathetic manchild so desperate for attention he doesn’t care if it’s good or bad. In this interpretation, Nero becomes a pitiable creature, and although he is unquestionably the antagonist one feels no elation when, as his world crumbles and the people whose approval he so cravenly sought finally turn on him, he meets his inevitable end. One just feels sorry for him.
It’s the same way I felt when Cujo died. He was a good boy.
It’s also worth pointing out that Quo Vadis is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made and almost nothing about its portrayal of Nero or his administration or the behavior of humans is faithful to reality, but what can you do.
The token melodrama on the list this year was A Place in the Sun, winner of Best Director. I had high hopes for this one…directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, photographed by William C. Mellor, it had no excuse to be as bad as it was. After being hugely disappointed, I thought how much better it would have been if it were a half hour shorter, better paced, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who would have withheld more information and given the film some much-needed tension (of which there was none). When I told someone this, they responded, “So, basically, it would have been better if it was a different movie?” As odd as it may seem, the answer is…yes. Yes, A Place in the Sun would have been significantly better if it was an entirely different movie.
But, until time travel is invented and the multiverse theory is proven true, we are stuck with the film that inexplicably won six Oscars and was nominated for three more in 1951. Its plot is the very definition of high-concept: a socially ambitious young man, George Eastman, is entangled in affairs with two women, one of whom is Alice, a plain factory girl, and one of whom is Elizabeth Taylor, and he must choose.
Oh, the suspense.
Alas, he gets his factory girl (Shelley Winters) into trouble, and as his worlds threaten to collide, must consider increasingly drastic solutions to his problems. He takes F.G. out on a lake to kill her, but at the last second chickens out…only for a poorly-built canoe to do the dirty work for him. The canoe gets off scot-free but he gets sent down for murder.
Though they do bring the canoe in as a prosecution witness.
Like Quo Vadis, A Place in the Sun suffers from too much air, and a subtext-phobic script intent on spoon feeding the audience every detail that may otherwise have made it a fine picture. We are privy to everything that happens before, during, and after Alice’s death, so there is no question that George is innocent of the crime. As a result, the last forty minutes of the film is spent laboriously showing us what we already know, to set up the big payoff that since he didn’t want to be with her, he is guilty anyway and definitely deserves the electric chair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a courtroom sequence with less drama.
This problem runs throughout the film, and the finished product feels forced right from the opening sequence. The only scene that plays naturally is probably the film’s most famous, in which George, bored being a fish-out-of-water at a high-class dinner party, passes the time in the billiard room by himself. As he pulls off a trick shot, Elizabeth Taylor happens to be wandering past the open door and sees it. Her quietly impressed and slightly breathless “Wow!” is the most honest moment in the film.
It falls apart after that, of course, but it’s a classic scene for a reason. It’s just not enough to save the other 118 minutes.
Another thing that dates the film is the justification for George’s fate, the fact that he “wanted Alice out of the way” and so murdered her in his heart or whatever. It’s terribly unconvincing, and highlights one of the more offensive repercussions of the Production Code: namely, that we are supposed to feel that George “got what he had coming to him” through being executed for a crime he did not commit. It may have been effective in 1951 but feels forced and ridiculous today.
Charlie Chaplin proclaimed it “the greatest movie ever made about America.” I wonder if even he knew what he was talking about.
I’ve been harping a lot about the posters for the nominated films, and how they often fail to capture the essence of the movies they were supposed to advertise. That’s not the case with Decision Before Dawn, as the above poster definitely conveys the tone of a tense, shadowy espionage film…but there’s still something about it that makes no sense: the title. Not once in the entire film is there any decision that is made, or needs to be made, before dawn, or really anywhere near as quickly as that. I don’t think there is even a single scene set at dawn. Oh well, it’s still not a bad title, considering it was a compromise after German audiences objected to director Anatole Litvak’s original idea, Legion of the Damned.
Anyway, the movie takes place in the closing days of World War II, as allegiance to the crumbling Nazi regime began to break apart. The story centers on a young, idealistic German POW Karl Maurer, who is recruited by Allied counterintelligence and agrees to return to his hometown of Nuremberg to gather details of a planned secret surrender by a German general. Despite being really, really bad at spying (basically just openly asking everyone he meets if they know the information he has been sent to find out), he makes it to the rendezvous with his American partner Colonel Devlin, and ends up sacrificing himself so that the intelligence can make it back to the Allies.
The film is a great one, particularly notable for its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of Germany in late 1944 when it was clear to all but the most obstinate Party hardliners that the country was on the verge of calamitous defeat. Karl Maurer is a fascinating and well-written character, based on a real person, whose patriotism and love for Germany is exactly what compels him to work for the Allies: he sees that the continuation of the war will only increase his countrymen’s suffering. His idealism is contrasted with fellow spy Rudolf Barth, who is only in it for the money and ultimately proves himself unreliable at the worst possible time.
Who could have anticipated it, with that innocent puppy-dog face?
As he makes his way through the devastated country (filmed on location in Germany’s ruined cities), Maurer encounters a population wearied by the long war, and an army falling apart as soldiers who can see the end coming clash with superiors bound by duty to continue the fight. His mission is often threatened by the true believers who dot the countryside, who keep a sharp eye out for dissenters and traitors; the film continually contrasts the effects of their actions and Maurer’s on the fate of Germany and asks, what is treason?
Makes sense, given the title of the novel on which the film is based.
I’ve left a lot of details of the plot out, partly because the film is definitely worth watching and I’d hate to spoil it, but mainly because the plot is secondary to the examination of the psyche of a population of a country about to lose a war, and lose it badly. I’m quite impressed by Litvak’s sympathy and sensitivity to the Germans he presents, and it seems that he really did take pains to treat them as people, and to counteract the then-prevalent notion that the country was united and monolithic in its support of the Third Reich. It was a bold move to make such a movie only five years after the end of the war, and to film it in the country itself.
In the end, I think he nailed it. Every person who crosses the frame is a fully-realized individual with a past, and we see them at a turning point in their own lives and in that of the world. How they deal with it, and how it affects those around them, is what Decision Before Dawn is all about; and for those of them who still have a future when it’s all over, one gets the sense that they are strong enough to make something out of it. The coming Wirtschaftswunder would prove this prescient.
This is the first image I got when I searched Wirtschaftswunder. Says it all, I think.
And so we have the first three films of 1951! Next week, for the third year in a row, I’m about to disagree with the choice for Best Picture…but these two films are undeniably two of the best films ever made. Part II coming soon!