1950 Ten Best Movies

1950 offers a number of film classics in its ranks, so my #1 movie is not the Greatest film of the year, merely the best. What does that mean? Well, my #1 does not boast the long profile of, say, Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve, a couple of indisputable Hall-of-Famers. It’s more modest than that; Wagon Master rolls in quietly, does its thing, and then rolls out again.

Wagons west: Carey and Johnson

A story of two horse-traders who hitch on with a Mormon wagon train going West, Wagon Master would be a textbook exercise in film directing, but it has too much heart and humor to be a textbook. That director is John Ford, and his repetition of rivers, Monument Valley mesas, and communal dances becomes an index of progress and movement as the film goes on. The zen practice of whittling is not ignored, either. And the fact that Ford elevates members of his supporting company to the lead roles on this one – Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond – gives the picture a wonderfully laid-back quality, as though the grown-ups were on holiday and the kids were in charge (distinguishing themselves mightily in the process) and the movie thus not beholden to the heavy-duty melodrama of a star vehicle. It rolls in, and then it rolls out.

None of which should take anything away from the following films, all of which deserve their places in the ten best of 1950:

1. Wagon Master (John Ford)

2. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)

3. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)

4. La Ronde (Max Ophuls)

5. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)

6. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis)

7. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

8. Orpheus (Jean Cocteau)

9. Los Olvidados (Luis Bunuel)

10. Winchester 73 (Anthony Mann)

Ford’s Rio Grande just misses, and a clutch of excellent films noir are close at hand: Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, and Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends among them. (Starring in those first two, Richard Widmark is the actor of the year.) Italians too: Stromboli, the first one between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and Antonioni’s Chronicle of a Love Affair.

A lot of noir on the Ten already. Even Orpheus and Winchester 73 are kind of noirish. And next Saturday I will publish a long piece on Sunset Boulevard, that nauseated tribute to Tinseltown.

The Searchers

Here is a 1990 piece written for a film series program note, complete with contemporary references to Dances with Wolves. (Remember that? It won a lot of Oscars.) I revive it in anticipation of tomorrow’s posting: the ten best movies of 1956.

The Searchers

by Robert Horton

“You fit a lot of descriptions,” says Captain Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton to Ethan Edwards. That’s about the size of it. Ethan Edwards, the towering main character of The Searchers – one is unsure whether to call him the hero, except in the most mythic sense – is one of the fugitive figures in American films. We do not know precisely where he comes from when he arrives at the beginning of the film, except that he had served on the losing side in the Civil War. And he does not explain why it has taken him three years to return to his family, though we may infer it has something to do with certain vague criminal charges, a never-forsworn allegiance to the Confederacy, and, most pointedly, the fact that he appears to be in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him.

Film AFI Top 100We also do not know exactly why he embarks on the five-year search for his kidnapped niece; or, allowing for familial duty and outrage, why that search is so ruthless, so obsessive, so determined to cross landscapes, seasons, time – especially when his avowed purpose is to kill the girl to save her the supposed barbarism of living as a Comanche bride. Ethan Edwards is like a buffalo, standing in the face of a blizzard, the better to ride it out. His reasons are his own. Perhaps he undertakes the search because it gives him a reason to live for five years, an excuse not to settle down and become part of a community. At the end of the film, he will have to find some other reason, some other war.

A few days ago I saw a new film called Dances with Wolves, directed by and starring Kevin Costner. (It appears the only way to get a Western made these days – and a three-hour opus featuring Native American dialect, at that – is to be a matinee idol.) Dances with Wolves has its problems, but it shares a few things with The Searchers, including a white girl taken in by Indians, and a lone man who flees the Civil War horror for the nothingness of the West. The character Costner plays removes himself utterly from the world, requesting an assignment at a godforsaken outpost; like Ethan Edwards, he seems to have deliberately buffered himself against all human contact. Costner isn’t actor or icon enough to suggest the darkness and the complexity of such a figure, and that failure makes the film’s hero less an intriguing mystery than a black hole.

The Searchers, on the other hand, has John Wayne. There are those who do not consider Wayne an actor at all, but to believe that is to miss something profound about the nature of screen acting, in which presence and personality and physical grace have enormously to do with the creation of a character. There is also history; the man who rides up at the beginning of The Searchers is ineluctably John Wayne, the man who hit the street shooting in Stagecoach, who drew his brand with his fingers upon the land in Red River. And, as John Ford uses Wayne, he is in an almost religious harmony with the Western land itself (if not with the civilization that makes outposts there), particularly among the cathedral-like buttes of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Wayne carries the West, and seems to embody the white man’s ambiguous place in it; he is a killer, he is a hero, he extends the frontiers where people (the people of his tribe, anyway) can safely live, and then he is shut out of the new world.

Ford is supremely attuned to place and history in The Searchers. The Edwards homestead is pitched in Monument Valley (not named as such, but passing for Texas), near no other human presence, in a landscape that seems both inhospitable and sacred. Elsewhere in the film, Mrs. Jorgensen describes the way the earth in Texas needs to be seeded with human blood to justify living there: “Maybe it needs our bones buried here first” (recall the scene in Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath where similar words are used by sharecroppers kicked off their farms). This speech is delivered by Olive Carey, the widow of Harry Carey, one of the great Western stars and an actor who worked with Ford often in the director’s early career. John Wayne gives his own tribute to Harry Carey by imitating the actor’s habit of grasping one forearm with the other hand, in the final moments of the movie. On many levels, The Searchers is about consecration; of land, of character, of memory.

September 2, 2008 Links

Links to my Herald reviews for a typically slow Labor Day weekend–what a way to start the website. Disaster Movie is marginally better than Date Movie (surely that’s the definition of qualified praise), and Traitor is clunky but eventually delivers some spy-movie goods.

Disaster Movie.


The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Constantine’s Sword.

Talking on KUOW-FM’s “Sound Focus” on August 29 about Constantine’s Sword and a revival of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film segment begins at 34:00 in the program.

While we’re doing some catch-up, a link to the 8/22 edition of “Sound Focus,” talking about Tuya’s Marriage and comparing Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Hamlet 2. Film segment at 33:55.