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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 74

Part 74: 1958


MOVIES:

  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (winner)

  • Witness for the Prosecution (hidden gem)

  • Sayonara

  • 12 Angry Men

  • Peyton Place



The Bridge on the River Kwai

Director: David Lean

Starring: William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Henry Okawa, Keiichiro Katsumoto, M.R.B. Chakrabandhu, Geoffrey Horne

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Music (Scoring), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa)

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war film without war…at least, not in the literal sense. In this film, the battlefields are not these hallowed grounds but within the folds of the mind, exploring how the events of war wreak havoc on our mental health.

 

“Madness! Madness! Madness!” are the final words spoken in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and certainly all kinds of madness are on display here: the madness of a commander who views collaboration with the enemy not as treason, but as honorable; the madness of a soldier who accepts a suicide mission to return to the prison from which he escaped; and the madness that comes with forcing other humans to make harsh, inexplicable choices.



The Bridge on the River Kwai is mainly the story of a battle of wills between two men. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is in charge of a Japanese POW camp and has orders to use the prisoners in his camp to build a bridge over the River Kwai.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses Saito’s orders, reminding him that the Geneva Convention states that no officer shall be subject to manual labor. When Nicholson goes so far as to present the document to Saito stating the law, Saito uses it to whip him across the face. It’s a very dramatic slap, if I do say so myself.

 

With his bloody (but stiff) upper lip, Nicholson is prepared to die rather than bend on principle. As punishment, he’s eventually locked inside “the Oven” – a corrugated iron hut that stands in direct sunlight…in the middle of the jungle. The standoff between these two goes on for weeks until Saito realizes that he actually needs Nicholson’s cooperation if the bridge is to be built by the target date.



Meanwhile an American POW, Naval Commander Shears (William Holden), is planning his escape. After his first attempt almost kills him, he finds rescue and rehabilitation in a Siamese village. While there, he enjoys many women and days spent shirtless on the beach. But he can’t run away from his problems forever. He’s eventually visited by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who convinces him to join him in a mission back to Saito’s camp, where they will sabotage the building of the bridge. Since Warden has some Don Draper-esque beef on Shears, the shirtless commander has no choice but to comply.

 

By this time, Nicholson has been released and beings working on the bridge with fervor. He believes this to be an excellent way to whip his troops back into shape and show the enemy what good British efficiency can produce. The bridge becomes an obsession for him, and all other concerns are nonexistent. He suggests a better location, offers blueprints and timetables, he even convinces a few officers to work alongside their men, despite his earlier battle with Saito over this very point. He even hammers a plaque into place, boasting that the bridge was “designed and built by soldiers of the British army.”



But not everyone shares his gung-ho spirit. The medic, Major Clipton (James Donald), points out that they are still technically aiding the enemy in constructing this bridge – essentially making them guilty of treason. The bridge, once constructed, will be used to advance the war against the Allies. But Nicholson doesn’t waver. Just as before, he’s a slave to his principles.

 

As the bridge reaches completion, the plot to sabotage its construction is slowly revealed. Who will die? Who will survive? What happens to the dang bridge? It’s madness, I tell you! MADNESS!!

 

Most war movies are about the bravery of sacrifice. The Bridge on the River Kwai is about the absurdity of it. Sacrifice, namely when people’s lives are at stake – is madness. By the end, everyone is left wondering what it all meant. The clash of egos, the stubbornness of leaders, resulted in a “job well done” that really didn’t mean a damn thing.

 

Witness for the Prosecution

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Henry Daniell, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher, Norma Varden, Una O'Connor, Francis Compton, Philip Tonge, Ruta Lee

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Charles Laughton), Best Supporting Actress (Elsa Lanchester), Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture

 

Barrister Wilfred Roberts (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with two things: work and cigars. After suffering a severe heart attack (probably from work…and the cigars), he returns to the courtroom under the watchful eye of his overprotective nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester).

 

Miss Plimsoll has her work cut out for her with the stubborn Wilfred Roberts. She’s under strict orders to make sure he avoids his two vices…and it’s precisely work and cigars that he indulges in during those few times when her back is turned.



It’s during one of those times that Wilfrid has a chance meeting with Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Leonard is accused of murdering Emily French (Norma Varden), a wealthy, older widow who became so infatuated with Leonard that she made him the sole benefactor of her bountiful will. Claiming innocence, Leonard quickly went to the police unsolicited to make a statement – which only seemed to incriminate him more (PS – NEVER TALK TO THE POLICE).

 

With circumstantial evidence piling up, Leonard’s only hope is an alibi provided by his German wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich). But after Wilfrid interviews Christine, he’s not entirely convinced that she’s the doting wife she claims to be.

 


Unsurprisingly, the real star of Witness for the Prosecution is Charles Laughton. Doing what he does best, Laughton offers a boisterously hammy performance that consistently threatens to fly out of control. Paired against his wife, Elsa Lanchester, he engages in great battles of verbal sparring that are often laugh-out-loud funny. His comic timing here is sharp and on-point, creating a cantankerous character who’s ultimately rather loveable.

 

The ending of Witness for the Prosecution does boast a good twist and begs viewers not to spoil its “shocking secrets” with a plea at the end of the film. Thus, I will follow directions and not spoil it for you!



Directed by Hollywood darling Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution could easily have brought home a Best Picture Oscar (or at least a Best Actor Oscar for Laughton) were it not for Bridge on the River Kwai. While it’s a film that’s often overlooked among his roster of other 40s, 50s, and 60s bangers (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment), Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is still a witty, energetic film brought to life by a talented cast and a filmmaker at the top of his game.

 

Beyond the legal drama, the heart of Witness for the Prosecution lies in the intricate web of human relationships. Just as a witness’s testimony can be laden with hidden motives, human relationships are also seldom what they seem on the surface. This film provides a stark commentary on the irony that, while the law can be circumvented, there still remains an inherent balance – often poetic in nature – that seeks to right the scales.

 

Sayonara

Director: Joshua Logan

Starring: Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Martha Scott, Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, Red Buttons, Kent Smith, Reiko Kuba, Soo Yong, Ricardo Montalban, Douglass Watson

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Red Buttons), Best Supporting Actress (Miyoshi Umeki), Best Sound Recording, Best Art Direction

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture

 

The legacy of Sayonara is similar to that of Gone with the Wind and The Good Earth. These movies, while topical at the time of their release, are now outdated, filled with cheap racial stereotypes about cultures Americans knew nothing about. When it hit theaters, Sayonara was touted as offering a “real glimpse” into the life and culture of the Japanese. But this was comfortably limited to things like geisha, tea ceremonies, paper-walled houses and zen gardens. The Japanese women were portrayed as quiet, obedient and doting, wishing for nothing more than to please their men by scrubbing their backs and sponge-bathing them.



While I can certainly give Sayonara credit for casting mostly Asian actors in Asian parts and taking a stand in favor of interracial marriage in the armed forces (which was essentially illegal at the time), I can’t say the experience of watching it was all that enjoyable. Filled with boring performances and overstaying its welcome by at least an hour or so, Sayonara was one film I was happy to bid adieu.

 

As you might expect, Sayonara deals with prejudice and racism – and who better to embody that than a prim and proper Southern military man? Stationed in Japan during the Korean War, US Air Force Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) is engaged to his longtime sweetheart, Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens), the daughter of his commanding officer.



One of Ace’s men, Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), is intent on marrying Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki), a local Japanese woman. The marriage, however, is strictly against military regulations. Ace is instructed to discourage the nuptials but ends up serving as Best Man at the wedding instead. Way to stick it to the man, Ace!

 

This has less to do with sticking up for his friend and more to do with the fact that Ace is also in love with a Japanese entertainer, Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). She’s a proud woman who refuses to speak to Americans, which only seems to make him want her more. She finally agrees to see him, but both are uneasy about sacrificing their social standing for a secretive romance.

 

Then things get messy. Realizing she’s no longer the apple of Ace’s eye, Eileen begins dating a famous Japanese man. Soldiers married to Japanese women, including Joe, are targeted for transfer back to the US and are told they cannot take their wives with them. Joe and Katsumi, who are now pregnant, refuse to be separated, leading to a heartbreaking sacrifice that shakes Ace and his crew to their cores.



Though Marlon Brando was enjoying quite the career high in the 1950s, Sayonara was not one of his better films. For some reason, he fought tooth and nail for Ace to have a twangy Southern accent that no West Point grad from Virginia would have. This made this famous mumbler mumble his lines even more – so he just sounded like Matthew McConaughey saying his lines with marbles in his mouth. Brando even said that he gave up trying half-way through the film, purposefully doing things wrong just to see what he could get away with…and was quite surprised when those takes were printed and put into the film. It seems directors can be just as vindictive as movie stars!

 

In the end, all these characters had to say sayonara to something in the name of love. Ace, for example, sacrificed his career to be with Hana-ogi, and she had to sacrifice her identity and her obligation to her country to be with him. In the end, these two lovers ride off into the sunset like the lovestruck couple at the end of The Graduate. Where can they go now…and what kind of future is waiting for them when they get there?

 

Perhaps the best thing about this movie is that it ends with a US soldier thumbing his nose at the whole military system before exiting stage left. It took a brave stand against the military’s very real rule against interracial marriage and most likely hit home for many soldiers returning from Korea, Japan and Vietnam with more than just their suitcases.

 

12 Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Rudy Bond, Tom Gorman, James Kelly, Billy Nelson, John Savoca, Walter Stocker

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Director, Best Picture

 

“It’s an open and shut case,” snaps Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic discussion room. When the first ballot is taken, 10 of his fellow jurors agree. There’s only one holdout, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), who isn’t so sure…

 

In form, 12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it’s a crash course in the promises bestowed to us by the US Constitution – the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. The entire film takes place within the small walls of a New York City jury room, on the hottest day of the year, as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.

 


The reason the case seems so open and shut to start is that the defendant has everything going against him: there are two witnesses, a murder weapon, a sloppy public attorney and the fact that he’s from a low-class ethnic background. If found guilty, he faces the death penalty.

 

12 Angry Men plays out in real time, taking us inside the deliberation room as these men decide the fate of an 18-year-old boy. Juror #8 harbors a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s involvement and, as he lays out his case, others listen. Soon, other jurors begin changing their vote.

 

Some men are honorable in their change of opinion. Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) is willing to change his mind when logic proves reasonable doubt. The foreman (Martin Balsam) also encourages discussion and open-mindedness.



But not all the vote changes are honorable. Juror #7 (Jack Warden) is willing to vote for whichever side is most likely to win so he can make it to his baseball game. Juror #10 (Ed Begley) is so blinded by his own bigotry that it colors his perception. And Juror #3 is too clouded by his own past to judge another man’s present.

 

As the film progresses, each man brings his moral baggage to the table and, in doing so, realizes that not everything is so cut and dry after all. When the film begins, we’re escorted into the jury room with them and when it ends, we are escorted out to the courthouse steps. As viewers, we know nothing more about these men than what they tell us, what they look like, what they say. We don’t even know their names. Just as some of them are clouded by prejudice against this young Latino man, we too are judging these individuals on what they look like, how they act, and how they behave under pressure.



With as much energy as any action film, 12 Angry Men makes every shot, word and camera angle count. This is a movie that is obsessed with the idea of perspective, how it’s formed, how it’s performed, and how each of these men tries to hide their individual weaknesses by lashing out at others.

 

“Prejudice always obscures the truth,” one juror says. By the final moments of the film, it seems that it’s finally clear to them how that statement relates to their own life experiences. We’ve all got demons and we’re all capable, at one point or another, of making a snap judgment based on race, gender, or past experiences.


This film was never about solving a case – it was about sending a young man to his death. It’s incredibly poignant, especially in today’s day and age, when so many Death Row convictions seem to be based on contaminated evidence. “We’re talking about somebody’s life here,” Juror #8 says. “We can’t decide in five minutes [if he’s guilty]. Supposing we’re wrong?” Wouldn’t be the first time…and it won’t be the last.

 

Peyton Place

Director: Mark Robson

Starring: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Lee Phillips, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Russ Tamblyn, Terry Moore, David Nelson, Barry Coe, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock, Leon Ames, Lorne Greene, Staats Cotsworth, Peg Hillias, Robert H. Harris, Tami Conner, Erin O'Brien Moore

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Lana Turner), Best Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Supporting Actor (Russ Tamblyn), Best Supporting Actress (Diane Varsi), Best Supporting Actress (Hope Lange), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Picture

 

Welcome to Peyton Place, a quaint Americana town set in the vast rolling hills of New England. With white picket fences, red and yellow maple leaves, and picturesque vistas, it’s almost impossible to think this town could hide any secrets…

 

Yet behind the Labor Day celebrations and festivals filled with hot dogs and watermelon, there are dirty, rundown shacks teeming with child abuse and overprotective mothers who still bathe their 18-year-old sons.



Peyton Place divides its near 3-hour runtime between two main groups: the MacKenzie family and the Cross family. The MacKenzie family lives in the clean part of town and seems to have it all together, at least on the outside. Allison (Diane Varsi) is an aspiring writer and high school student who hopes to not only get out of Peyton Place to see the world, but to get away from her domineering mother, Constance (Lana Turner).

 

While most of Allison’s friends are embracing their budding sexual desires, she’s on the cusp of a healthy relationship with Norman (Russ Tamblyn), who’s dealing with his own mother issues (she’s the one who bathes him). They both find themselves having to fight accusations, including those from their own mothers, at every turn. At the same time, Constance is having trouble practicing what she preaches about chastity as she’s pursued by Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips), the new man in town who’s taken over as the high school principal.



Across town, Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) has struggles of her own. She lives in a shack with her mother, Nellie (Betty Field) and stepfather, Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Nellie works as the MacKenzie’s maid while Lucas divides his time not-so-equally working as the high school janitor and drinking.

 

Selena attempts to make the best of a bad situation, but it soon becomes obvious that Lucas is abusive, both physically and sexually, towards Selena. When she eventually becomes pregnant with Lucas’s baby (😳), drastic measures are taken that destroy the Cross family forever.



For a film released in the 1950s, Peyton Place contains a fair amount of serious subject matter, including sexual assault, suicide, incest, and having children out of wedlock. Unfortunately, the Hays Code made it virtually impossible for the director to give these issues any weight or focus. Many of them are treated with the same seriousness as getting caught at a make-out party or are simply illuded to in a way that if you don’t know what the film is trying to say, you’ll miss it.

 

Yet the film was a huge success, mainly because it was based on a book that had audiences RIVITED with its racy content. People flocked to see the drama unfold on screen, but so much of the book’s racier parts had to be cut or re-worked, turning the film into a mere shell of what the book offered readers.

 

What’s left is drama, drama, drama…so if you love soap operas dripping in lust, passion, and fantastic bitch slaps, you’re going to enjoy your stay at Peyton Place, even if you do have to cross the bad side of the tracks to get there.

 

 

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