Monday, January 4, 2010

1962: Hollywood's Second Greatest Year? Part 5

The Summing Up

In the previous installments of this series I've written on the five movies that for me are the unequivocal American masterpieces of 1962: Lawrence of Arabia, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Miracle Worker, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Ride the High Country. In truth this is not all that large a number of great American movies for any single year. What really distinguishes the year 1962 in American pictures for me, though, is the addition to these five masterpieces of an unusually large number of films that fall just short of masterpiece status but are nonetheless excellent works.

Although many knowledgeable film lovers consider To Kill a Mockingbird a great movie, I would add it to this latter group, probably as first runner-up. Mockingbird has many fine qualities, but I don't think it quite reaches the level of the five I have identified as the great American movies of the year. Its condemnation of racism is laudable and important, but in narrative terms I find that the emphasis on this theme essentially turns the movie into a courtroom drama that proceeds in lockstep to its inevitable conclusion. I prefer the greater emphasis of the novel on the less dramatic but more moving childhood memory aspects of the story.

I am also not a big fan of Gregory Peck, and for me his rather wooden acting style makes the nobility of Atticus Finch seem stiff and just a bit dull. (I realize that I am likely in the minority here.) I would have preferred a warmer actor like Henry Fonda or Joel McCrea or even William Holden as Atticus Finch. I do think, however, that while Mockingbird falls short of masterpiece status, it is still an excellent movie and am including it on the following list of other notable American movies of the year:
  • Cape Fear
  • Days of Wine and Roses
  • Experiment in Terror
  • Hatari!
  • Lolita
  • Lonely Are the Brave
  • The Longest Day
  • Lover Come Back (shown in Los Angeles in late Dec. 1961, probably to qualify for the Oscars—it did receive a nomination for best original screenplay—but not in general release in the US until Mar. 1962)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (a good year for John Frankenheimer, who also directed All Fall Down and The Birdman of Alcatraz)
  • Sweet Bird of Youth
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
For the record, here are the five films nominated for the Oscar as best picture of 1962:
  • Lawrence of Arabia (the winner)
  • The Longest Day
  • The Music Man
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
Several notable British and foreign language films were also first released in the US in 1962. Some of these presage the directions American films would take later in the decade—on the one hand, greater realism; on the other hand, a greater degree of auteur-inspired stylization.
  • Through a Glass Darkly (Sweden)—Oscar winner as best foreign film of 1961
  • Divorce, Italian Style (Italy)
  • L'Eclisse (Italy)
  • Shoot the Piano Player (France)
  • Jules and Jim (France)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (France)
  • Sundays and Cyb√®le (France)—Oscar winner as best foreign film of 1962
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (UK)
  • A Taste of Honey (UK)
  • Whistle Down the Wind (UK)
Finally, a few observations about some of the memorable performances of the year. This was an especially fine year for acting—another reason 1962 was such a great year—and when Oscar time came, all the nominations for best actor and best actress were for once well deserved. But several other nomination-worthy performances didn't make the cut, especially in the best actor category: James Stewart and John Wayne, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Joel McCrea, Ride the High Country; Kirk Douglas, Lonely Are the Brave (according to Michael Douglas, his father's favorite movie he ever made); James Mason, Lolita (he was the very personification of Humbert Humbert); Jason Robards and Ralph Richardson, Long Day's Journey Into Night; Robert Mitchum's menacing psycho in Cape Fear; Paul Newman, Sweet Bird of Youth; Robert Preston's exuberant Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man; Tom Courtenay's sensitive performance as a juvenile delinquent in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

As for actresses, even though I'm a huge fan of Bette Davis and consider her without question a superior actress to Joan Crawford, I feel Crawford—restricted to acting largely with her facial expressions and voice—gave an unusually thoughtful and controlled performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that compared quite favorably to the Oscar-nominated Davis's flamboyant gargoyle. And what about Jeanne Moreau's unforgettable Catherine in Jules and Jim? After all, performances in foreign language films were just beginning to be recognized by the Academy: Sophia Loren had won the year before for her performance in the Italian film Two Women, and Marcello Mastroianni received a best actor nomination that very year for Divorce, Italian Style.

In the supporting categories, the following noteworthy performances were overlooked by Oscar: Lee Marvin, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (the definitive version of his early villains); Ross Martin's chilling psychopath in Experiment in Terror; Charles Bickford, so touching as he mourns the loss of his daughter to booze in Days of Wine and Roses; Edgar Buchanan, Ride the High Country; Brandon de Wilde, All Fall Down; Brock Peters, To Kill a Mockingbird; Walter Matthau as the genial sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave, a performance more subtle and sincere than his later hammy ones; Charles Laughton and Don Murray, Advise and Consent; Eva Marie Saint, All Fall Down; Vera Miles, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and Shelley Winters, hilariously vulgar in Lolita.


John said...

R.D., you present a strong case for 1962, which I cannot argue with. All the films you wrote about in the previous installments and your “runner-up” list are all fine films. Of the films on your “runner up list) I personally favor “To Kill a Mockingbird” (I agree about Peck and have generally found him a bit stiff), “Cape Fear” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”
During this period Blake Edwards, and John Frankenheimer as you stated, was going through a high point in his career, not just with the two films you mention but consider both “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark” (which I feel is the best of the series.) I am a big admirer of Edwards work, though he has had his ups and downs creatively over the years.
A great selection of performances, so unbelievable that it was all in one year! Ross Martin’s performance in “Experiment in Terror” was truly terrifying for me the first time I watched it. A creepy and chilling accomplishment. I may, one other film, and two performances I think deserve to be thrown into the mix… “The Miracle Worker” and the work of Anne Bancroft and a young Patty Duke.

Sam Juliano said...

Splendid overview of 1962 in every sense imaginable R.D., and as always your customary perspicacious examination of the films and their components.

"It quite reaches the level of the five I have identified as the great American movies of the year. Its condemnation of racism is laudable and important, but in narrative terms I find that the emphasis on this theme essentially turns the movie into a courtroom drama that proceeds in lockstep to its inevitable conclusion. I prefer the greater emphasis of the novel on the less dramatic but more moving childhood memory aspects of the story."

This is one of the most brilliant staements in your essay here, and one that I can certainly agree with, but what film version could ever do justice (psychologically and otherwise) to Harper Lee's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, one of the greatest fictional works in all of American literature, and a personal favorite of mine that I've used a half a dozen times with my Junior High School English classes. And that magnificent film has always followed the reading and court room re-enactments. I don't agree with you on Peck's seemingly stodgy performance, nor the speculation that another actor could have filled his shoes. Whatever rightful disclaimers one has of Peck, in this one solitary instance he gave an extraordinary performance that Ms. lee herself was so overwhelmed by (and thought he got it perfectly) that she embarked on a lifelong friendship with the lkate actor). In this sense, his flavorless and boring screen presence is exactly what needed to be conveyed and Peck has a talent (or propensity) for that kind of thing. I do believe he deserved the Oscar over Peter O'Toole, though the choice was admittedly painful.
As you rightfully note, 1962 was a banner year for foreign-language cinema, and you've of course nailed the most essential titles, and your performance round-up is magisterial.
I imagine you'll have 1962 in your sleep for awhile, but nobody does this kind of thing better than you!

Happy New Year, my good friend!

MovieNut14 said...

Interesting piece.

BTW, I've nominated your blog for an award on mine, be sure to check it out and pass along the love!

Judy said...

Another great and thoughtful essay, R.D. - it makes me want to revisit 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in particular. I must say I don't really agree about Gregory Peck - I think he gives a fine understated performance as Atticus, but this is from memory as it is some time since I have seen it- but I do very much like your comments on the movie and the novel.