Marty (1955)

Marty (1955)

In many ways, Marty is entirely different from On The Waterfront – a lack of star players, a seemingly more pedestrian plot and topic, and a general ‘down to earth’ feel, but, and this may sound like a stretch, Marty and On The Waterfront are artistically united, cousins if you will, in that each film is attempting to access ‘reality’ as closely as possible.  Each is just using a different approach.  Where On The Waterfront uses an extraordinary man (not to mention actor) to present the most realistic presentation of character it can manage, Marty presents the plight of a decidedly ordinary man, where reality is accessed through a complete understatement of plot and character.

Marty is remarkable in its unremarkableness.  It strips away any pretence of Hollywood gloss, allowing us to look at these characters as though they are people rather than celebrities.  Their personalities are fairly plain, their looks hardly head-turning and their wants and needs basic and simple.  Yet while they are presented as totally average, the truthfulness of their desires is heartwarming beyond measure.  Marty is closer in semblance to reality because there are no frills.  It doesn’t need the intense Method acting of a huge star to connect to its audience, it shows us that it’s okay to be a normal person.  It tells us that we matter regardless of our status.  It makes us happy with just being.

The two leads, Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, are commendable in their attitudes to their roles.  Endearing and earnest, they totally make the film.

Marty and On The Waterfront are much the same in artistic intent; they both want to show us people that are as real as possible.  But Marty is focussed on dropping the Hollywood angle and bringing us back down to who we really are, not who we aspire to.  And to me that makes Marty astoundingly more interesting, honest and meaningful.

On The Waterfront (1954)

On The Waterfront (1954)

After the terribly dated Gentleman’s Agreement, director Elia Kazan has redeemed himself above and beyond with the sublimely beautiful yet undeniably gruff On The Waterfront. While this film has so much going for it (great writing, excellent cinematography, superb music…) On The Waterfront can ultimately be summed up with just one word: Brando.

In my Hamlet review I talked about Stanislavsky, his relationship to realist acting and how acting in the 20th century came to be measured by an actors ability to behave as naturally as was possible.  Brando is the product of a succession of masters in the realist movement, where from what I can piece together Lee Strasberg, a close friend of director Elia Kazan, worked with Stanislavsky, the great Russian master.  In effect, Brando is the pinnacle of this succession, epitomising in the mid 20th century the most foundational acting movement in living memory.

Here’s me holding this man up like he’s a shining beacon of glory, and that’s because he is.  Brando’s acting in On The Waterfront is astounding in it’s detail, sincerity and charisma.  He’s a very handsome man and he radiates beyond the screen in every scene.  The most fascinating aspect of his performance is how one can read and understand every thought and feeling he has even if his words are expressing the exact opposite.  Take the early scene with Eva Marie Saint as an example, where with everything he says he is trying to convince her that he’s not romantically interested, yet his eyes and intonation tell us otherwise.  He sits on a swing and fiddles with her mitten and without words we know that he is desperately attracted to her (I hestitate to say in love).

I’m not really sure if I felt that the message of On The Waterfront was particularly successful because the ending was quite problematic.  The driving narrative is about bringing down a gangster ring on the waterfront docks of New York, where the people are tyrannised and unable to make their own choices.  Bringing down the gangsters becomes a fight for freedom, one of the most poignant and pivotal themes in human history.  Brando and his crew succeed in taking them down, which is great, but what’s the first action that these newly freed people take?  They go straight to work back at the docks.  Freedom, then, equates being a cog in the machine of labour.  For me freedom is the opposite of embedding yourself in the financial system, and it is here perhaps that the film shows it’s age.

I haven’t mentioned the contender scene because there’s not much to say, other than that it’s wonderful.  On The Waterfront has some of the best actors ever filmed and for that reason it is worth seeing once in your life.  There aren’t many girls in the film though, and there are some questionable ideas of freedom, but wow, Marlon Brando has some acting chops good and proper.

From Here To Eternity (1953)

From Here To Eternity (1953)

I’m not exactly sure how I feel about From Here To Eternity.  It was one of those films I didn’t really connect with, but without any real justification.  It’s funny, but sometimes you strike those.

My closest comparison to From Here To Eternity would have to be Pearl Harbour.  I can see that Pearl Harbour was striving for a similar emotional heart as Eternity’s, with both films being, foundationally, about people and how they interact with one another.  However, there’s a key difference in structure.  Where Pearl Harbour is bound to the inevitable attack on Hawaii, with the film is built around it from start to finish, in From Here To Eternity the attack is the last thing on our mind, and when it finally arrives at the end of the film it simply releases the taughtness around the complex human drama which has unfolded.  Really, From Here To Eternity has little to do with the attack, it is simply a setting for an analysis of the human condition which shows that human beings deal with the same issues regardless of time and place.  In this respect, From Here To Eternity is a much more complex and developed film.

There is also a very interesting representation of the United States Army in From Here To Eternity. I was expecting something decidedly more ‘pro-American’, a kind of reclaimation of the wounding of American pride done by the attack, yet the army is presented as being fraught with difficulty and corruption, especially from those in power.  Again, the message is that people are people, regardless of time, place, rank and position.

There’s loads in this film, it just wasn’t quite for me.  It’s strange, because Frank Sinatra is probably the best supporting actor I’ve ever seen, the film is complex and multi-faceted, and it also has some classic moments which you’ve kind of got to see at least once in your life.  Maybe I just missed the glitzy showbiz style of the last couple of winners…

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show On Earth rounds off a series of BP winners which are ostensibly about performance.  All the way back to Gentleman’s Agreement, where Gregory Peck’s character performs as a Jew, there are explicit forms of peformance…theatre in All About Eve, political performance in All The King’s Men, and of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  I enjoy watching self-conscious performance because it brings both the spectator and the performer to the same level, and there’s a real feeling that one cannot exist without the other.

Set both onstage and offstage at a circus, The Greatest Show On Earth uses performance devices to engage with the transportational ability of film.  Historically, film has been used as a medium for the spectacular, as a way to transport the audience to a place they would normally be unable to access.  Hollywood regularly employs this principle, but I would hazard to suggest that few Best Picture winners thus far have really been made with the intention of offering an escape, usually opting for a more serious exploration of the human condition.  Not so with The Greatest Show On Earth, which thrusts us right into the middle of a circus, allowing us a peek at the internal goings-on of circus management and also extremely close-up experiences with circus acts – much closer than anything the average person is able to experience in real life.

Although its primary purpose is to entertain and please, it injects a narrative drive through character and human drama.  James Stewart, last seen in You Can’t Take It With You, performs excellently as a clown on the run for murder.  I’ve read some criticisms that his character has no purpose in the film, which is entirely untrue as he clearly plays a key role in the film’s climax.  Yet even without a plot function it would have been fun enough just to watch this quirky character performance.

I’ve seen quite a few circuses in the past few years, some big and some small, and in all honesty I can say that The Greatest Show On Earth is the best circus I’ve ever seen.  This is because we’re able to get so much closer to the action than in real life.  Sure the film lacks the sense of danger that a real circus inhabits, but on film our intimacy with the stunts makes it every bit as entertaining.  And though we know now that treatment of animals as it appears in this film is not really appropriate, the archival nature of The Greatest Show On Earth means that we can forgive it and enjoy seeing footage that today is almost certainly illegal, not to mention unethical, to film.

Were it not for the focus on people and relationships, The Greatest Show On Earth would effectively be a parade of circus images, but that’s fine with me as the best way to approach this film is to sit back with popcorn and enjoy the ride.