Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
When the editor of this website asked the staff to make the case for the best year in the history of film, I chose the last year of the 1950s because of one movie: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which is my favorite film and the best one I have ever seen. But, after conducting a quick search for movies released in 1959, I am now truly convinced that it is the best year in film. From Westerns and comedy to the French New Wave and the quintessence of Alfred Hitchcock, 1959 was without question the greatest year to be a moviegoer.
But before we travel to the American West, let us visit France and the first years of the French New Wave. A year before Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless — arguably the most influential and lasting film of the period — Francois Truffaut made his directorial debut with The 400 Blows, a deeply personal and semi-autobiographical film that tells the story of a rebellious boy named Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), whose love for literature and cinema is rivaled only by his hatred for school, home, and conformity. The 400 Blows is the first of many collaborations between Truffaut and Léaud, who would reprise the role of Truffaut’s artistic double four more times.
As a film critic at Cahiers du cinéma, Truffaut advanced la politique des auteurs or the auteur theory. An auteur, briefly defined, is a director who not only produces great work, but one who possesses a unique visual style that permeates each of their films. It is through this style that the director expresses themself and their vision of the world. Truffaut, of course, would go on to fit that definition. The 400 Blows is the beginning of that development, but not because of its autobiographical nature, auteurism ≠ autobiography. Truffaut’s style comes through Doinel’s desires, hatreds, and hardships. Doinel is scorned by his parents, thrown out of school, and seems destined to live life on the margins. How does he pass the time? Stealing, riding the fastest carnival rides, and, above all, going to the cinema — all thrills that allow him to feel. “If the New Wave marks the dividing point between classic and modern cinema (and many think it does),” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “then Truffaut is likely the most beloved of modern directors — the one whose films resonated with the deepest, richest love of moviemaking.” It is Truffaut’s love of cinema that one feels while watching The 400 Blows. At one point, Doinel’s mother, exasperated, says to the schoolmaster, “He prefers to hole up in a theater for hours, ruining his eyes!” And there it is; his mother, the adults, the establishment, don’t understand the cinema, its powers and beauty. Rebellion and cinema are one. What film could better embody the spirit of the French New Wave?
I recently wrote about a brilliant video essay that explored the difference between Marilyn Monroe’s public and private personas. As the essay suggested, it seems as though many today only know Monroe as a sex symbol and not as one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time. If you’re one of those people, buckle-up for Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are two musicians who are forced to flee Chicago after they witness a murder and chased by the mafia. They pretend to be women and join an all-female band on a trip to Florida. While on the bus, they meet Marilyn, fall in love, and the rest of the film is hers. Her timing and delivery is so effortless it’s easy to under-appreciate her brilliance. Curtis and Lemmon are incredibly funny, but always seems to be teetering on the edge of overly-absurd; Monroe maintains the center of gravity and keeps them from crossing that line. As Martin Scorsese said when he presented the AFI Lifetime Achievement award to Mel Brooks, jokes are one thing, but making them part of a cohesive whole is something completely different. Wilder’s ability to blend together three stronger performances by three even stronger personalities into a film that reveals the best of each is a stunning achievement, and is in many ways what makes Some Like It Hot the height of not only comedy, but all movies.
As if those two films were not enough to make the case for 1959, the year also saw the release of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. The highest-grossing film of the year, Ben-Hur won a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Cinematography.
I watched Ben-Hur for the first time about a year ago on Blu-Ray and the film has not aged a day. At more than three and a half hours long, complete with a musical overture, intermission, and entr’acte, Ben-Hur is an epic in every sense of the word. Each shot is beautifully and meticulously crafted. And Wyler’s use of deep space, coupled with wide shots of the Judean landscape, desert, sea, and sky, only enhance the film’s deeper exploration of man’s relationship with God, his country, and family, and the need to keep faith in all three during times of immeasurable pain and turmoil.
The film’s climax: a chariot race between Ben-Hur, who has returned after being imprisoned and banished from his homeland, and the Roman garrison Messala, who not only ordered Ben-Hur’s banishment but was his childhood friend. The drama! Wyler dedicates more than seven minutes to this scene, half of which is exclusively to shots of Ben-Hur and Messala as they circle the track. (I invite you to read the TCM history of this scene, which cost $4 million and took ten weeks to shoot.) Whenever I watch the scene I am enveloped by the sound design: hooves constantly beating against the dirt, the creaking of the chariots, and the muffled cheers of the crows. There are no human voices — no dialogue or narration. It is as if we are the charioteers, hearing only what they, a man competing for his life, would hear, see, and feel. We are absorbed by the scene in the most unsettling, suspenseful, and captivating way.
Still not convinced that 1959 is the best year in the history of film? Well, get your popcorn ready because the chariot scene from Ben-Hur is not even the best scene from 1959. Don’t believe me? Well, then you probably forgot that Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was also released that year. Though the film is full of funny and brilliant moments, there is only one I wish to discuss: the crop duster scene.
Right in the middle of the film Hitchcock for roughly seven minutes places Cary Grant, who plays an advertising executive man wrongly accused of a crime, in the middle of a cornfield alone. He is on the run from the police and supposedly going to meet the man he has been mistaken for, Kaplan. Grant, in the role of Roger Thornhill, waits and waits for Kaplan to arrive. A crop duster slowly begins to makes it way towards him. We think nothing of it. Then, the aircraft attacks! It is clear Kaplan isn’t coming and the whole thing was a set up. Grant runs throughout the cornfield evading the plane until it eventually crashes into a truck carrying barrels of oil. As Truffaut himself pointed out in his famous interview with Hitchcock, the scene is absurd, implausible, insignificant and exactly the kind of sequence only a brilliant director would dream up.
“How can anyone object to gratuity when it’s so clearly deliberate — it’s planned incongruity? It’s obvious that the fantasy of the absurd is a key ingredient of your film-making formula,” Truffaut says.
“The fact is I practice absurdity quite religiously!” Hitchcock replied.
Throughout his career, Hitchcock constantly battled those who insisted on analyzing a film’s plausibility, aka the “plausibles.” Hitchcock argued that this kind of evaluation was the antithesis of art and storytelling. For Hitchcock, filmmaking was about creating an aesthetic experience that captivated audiences. To try and make logical sense of Hitchcock’s work is to miss the point. What matters is what one feels in the moment, not whether we can piece it together afterward. As Hitch said to Truffaut, “Logic is dull.”
If you are not yet convinced that 1959 was the greatest year in the history of the movies, I have one more film to discuss, and it is not only my absolute favorite film but the best I have ever seen. I say the best I have ever seen because I am a still a young man with many movies still to see. But, I doubt I will find one I love and appreciate more than Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.
Quentin Tarantino, a Hawks, and Rio Bravo devotee, once deemed the film the best “hang out” movie of all-time. In Rio Bravo, the characters are your friends, and one of the great joys of the film is simply being in the room as they sit, chat, drink, flirt, and laugh. Each character, whether it’s the sheriff Chance (John Wayne), his right-hand man Dude (Dean Martin), the jail guardian Stumpy (Walter Brennan), or Feathers (Angie Dickinson) is compelling and cool in their own way. The great films are those that give us great characters, and there is no greater cast of characters than the good guys in Rio Bravo.
After a critical and financial flop, Hawks did not direct a film in the four years prior to Rio Bravo. Yet, the film is a masterpiece, and its opening sequence (which I have analyzed at length here) shows the mastery of Hawks’ visual storytelling and is illustrative of the major themes that he deals with throughout the film. Rio Bravo is a story of redemption and friendship. In the film, the characters make mistakes and forgive one another. They are vulnerable and alone, yet grateful to have each other. I end my case for 1959 with the opening minutes of this masterpiece:
P.S. How many great movies were released in 1959? So many that I was not even able to write about them all! Here are a few others. Perhaps we will have a part two!
Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger)
Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger)
The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens)
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
The Devil’s Disciple (Guy Hamilton)