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Peak of the Cold War

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Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space.

Khrushchev builds a wall around West Berlin.
Castro makes Cuba a Socialist country.

Winner: West Side Story     


– The Hustler                                                       

– Judgment at Nuremburg                             

– Fanny                                                                   

– The Guns of Navarone          

West Side Story **** out of ****

Director: Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno

Wins (10): Picture, Director, Sup. Actor, Sup. Actress, Musical Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing

Nominations (11): Adapted Screenplay

 Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
 It’s not easy getting past the campiness of the film to take it seriously.  Violence morphs into dance numbers faster than you can snap your fingers.  West Side Story is based on the classic Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein.  It’s about two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, that can’t seem to stop fighting (and dancing with) each other.  The crux of the story is the forbidden relationship between Tony, the former leader of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks.   Natalie Wood plays Maria and she is the reason to see the film.  It’s easy to buy into the chemistry between Tony and Maria and their desire to be together despite what their families say.  The film won much deserved Oscars for Art Direction and Set Design.  The big back drops are beautiful and the choreography is just down right fabulous.
Favorite Scenes/Shots:

The scene when Tony and Maria first lay eyes on each other at the dance where both gangs are in attendance is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  It perfectly captures the emotion, mood and the intensity of the moment.  Words can’t do it just here but it warranted a couple of rewinds before I could move on to the rest of the film.  In this scene the edges of the film are blurred, removing all else from view and focusing on the two of them noticing each other.  It simulates a dream-like sequence and gives a glimpse of what Tony and Maria might be feeling.

 Final Verdict:     Should have been nominated.

The Hustler **** out of ****

Director: Robert Rossun

Starring: Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie

Wins (2): Art Direction (B&W), Cinematography

Nominations (9): Picture, Director, Actor (Newman), Actress (Laurie), Sup Actor (Scott), Sup. Actor (Gleason), Adapted Screenplay

 Rotten Tomatoes 97%
 The Hustler, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, tells the story of a young pool shark named Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) who travels from pool hall to pool hall across the country suckering patrons out of their money.  Eddie is young and talented, yet he’s cocky and doesn’t know when to quit while he’s ahead.  Eddie flaunts his cash, gets drunk and pretends to be someone who is horrible at pool.  As soon as the stakes are high enough, he sobers up and nails the shot.  The Hustler has a great cast including, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie & Paul Newman.  It also helps that the film has a decent script.  For a film to become timeless and relevant today, like The Hustler, the script must be well-written and not simply a product of its era.  One of the great things about this film is it’s revelation of the act of hustling.  I love the elements of mystery regarding the pool players’ strategy.  They lose or win by a lot or a little and purpose all as a strategy to fool the other guy.  We, the audience, are never really sure what those strategies are.  We’re not sure who’s hustling who.  It keeps us guessing.
Favorite Scenes/Shots:

The editing in this film is ahead of its time.  The opening credits remind me of Guy Ritchie’s films that came much later like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  They serve somewhat of a purpose to the development of the overall story.  The credits cram a few days worth of hustling into a minute or so of film backed by bright, jazzy lounge music.  There is a scene where Minnesota Fats, played by the Jackie Gleason, nails shot after shot with overlapping and dissolving scenes of on looking patrons counting and collecting their money.  This tells us a lot in a very short amount of time.

 Final Verdict:     Should have been nominated.

Judgment at Nuremberg *** out of ****

Director: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell

 Wins (2): Actor (Schell), Adapted Screenplay

 Nominations (11): Picture, Director, Actor (Tracy), Sup. Actor (Clift), Sup. Actress (Garland), Art Direction (B&W), Costume Design (B&W), Cinematography (B&W), Editing

 Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
 The film takes place in a ruined Nuremberg, Germany in 1948.  Spencer Tracy is Judge Hayward who has come to Nuremberg to preside as a judge over the trial of German judges who reigned during the 3rd Reich.  Judgment at Nuremberg attempts to examine the situation in Germany during the 3rd Reich about a decade later.  Were these judges at fault?  Where the German people to blame in any way?  How did they not know what was going on?  It tries to get us to see events that happened 12 years earlier in a different light than they were originally seen…or actually those things that audiences in 1961 always thought they knew.  While this might have been effective 50 years ago, the message could be lost on an audience today.  The movie thought more of itself than it could actually deliver. Whether it was a flaw in the writing or they were purposely being ambiguous with their message is unclear until the very end when the film ends with subtitles stating that these judges were released from prison just months after the trial.  Obviously, they should’ve served longer sentences….or should they have never served at all?
Maximillian Schel won Best Supporting Actor and his is one of the stand-out performances of a film with a great cast.  The cinematography is one of the better technical aspects of the film.   Most of Judgment At Nuremberg feels play-like and is shot in close-quarters.  The cinematography does a good job of using this to its advantage.  There is a lot of zooming in and out and slow spinning, rotating shots.  The score, although German-like, doesn’t really fit.  Judy Garland is an odd choice to play a downtrodden witness when her larger-than-life face jumps off the screen.

Favorite Scenes/Shots:

The scenes with Maximilian Schell and Richard Widmark taking turns grilling each others’ witnesses are all pretty good.

 Final Verdict:     Should have been nominated.

Fanny  *out of ****

Director: Joshua Logan

Starring: Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer

Wins (0): None

Nominations (5): Picture, Actor (Boyer), Drama/Comedy Score, Cinematography (Color), Editing

 Rotten Tomatoes: 100% 
 Fanny is a ridiculous and horrible film.  It’s based on the book for the stage musical, Fanny and all I can say is thank goodness that it’s not based on the musical itself.  The sound is bad.  The acting is bad.  The humor falls flat.  It is poorly directed.  It sounds like there were a lot of voice-overs in post-production because it has that dubbed sound in the dialogue.  The picture quality is very poor.  The film attempts to be tongue-in-cheek, but there’s nothing clever about it at all.  It’s not a good story, either.  There’s no setup.  Things happen out of nowhere and for no reason.  The film has a sense of humor from a different planet.  There are cues in the film basically telling the audience to chuckle, but I refused to.  Fanny takes its time to tell a story that feels interminable and meaningless.  This is not a good movie.  I am baffled by its nominations.

Favorite Scenes/Shots: None

Final Verdict:     Should not have been nominated

The Guns of Navarone **1/2 out of ****

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Starring: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle

Wins (1): Visual Effects

Nominations (7): Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, Sound, Editing

 Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
 The Guns of Navarone is an adventurous, action, fictional war movie based on the 1957 novel by the same name set in WWII.   The Guns of Navarone is really just too long.  The film is poorly edited. It over-uses the fade-ins and fade-outs in order to emphasize a moving timeline within the film.  The film is about a group of soldiers on a mission to infiltrate an island called Navarone and disengage the devastating canons that are stationed there and are notorious for the amount of damage they have inflicted throughout the war.  The entire film is a cat and mouse chase between the German army stationed on the island and the band of soldiers sent on the mission.  It’s got a very attentive, detailed and exhaustive score.

The film isn’t too formal.  Can there be a both light-hearted and serious war drama?  They seemed to think so in the 50’s and 60’s and The Guns of Navarone tries to be just that.  One thing that doesn’t really stand the test of time is the idea behind a serious war drama that also tries to shoe-horn in a comedic element.  This happened more often back then than it does now.  These days we either have films like Tropic Thunder, that go so far into the realms of absurdity that there’s no question of its intentions, or The Hurt Locker, that keep it realistic and serious.  Contemporary war films don’t attempt to blend war and comedy.  Perhaps we view war in a different way these days.  It’s got a great cast, but Gregory Peck is not at his best in this film.  Overall, the film is decent, but nothing special.

 Favorite Scenes/Shots:  When they are climbing the cliff to get to the island someone falls.

Final Verdict:     Should not have been nominated.

Other Films Not Nominated

Splendor In The Grass **** out of ****

Director:  Elia Kazan

Starring:  Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty

Wins: Original Screenplay

Nominations: Actress (Wood)

 Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
 This is a great film and one of my favorites from Elia Kazan.  Much like the Best Picture winner, West Side Story, Natalie Wood is the best thing about the film.  Splendor relies so much on Wood’s vulnerability and innocence as Wilma Dean to get its message across and she executes her part perfectly.  In his debut film, Warren Beatty plays the part of Bud, Wilma’s good-natured yet sexually frustrated boyfriend.  The onscreen chemistry between the high school sweethearts is completely believable (I’m detecting this trend with Natalie Wood films).  Beatty reminds me of James Franco in this film and I couldn’t help but compare the mother daughter bedroom conversations in Splendor to those in Black Swan.  Both lead actresses are named Natalie and both deal with some heavy life-issues that go unsatisfied by the good intentions of their mothers.  The writing and acting are some of the film’s stronger points.  If not for such a strong Supporting Actor category this year I would bet that Pat Hingle would’ve been nominated for his part as Bud’s imposing father.  Barbara Loden is hilarious as Bud’s wild and loose sister and I’m shocked that she didn’t get a Supporting Actress nomination.  I should also mention that the costume and wardrobe for the film is spectacular, although extremely subtle.

Favorite Scenes/Shots: All of the scenes with Barbara Loden who plays Bud’s sister, Ginny are hilarious.  

 Final Verdict: Should Have Been Nominated instead of The Guns of Navarone

La Dolce Vita **1/2 out of ****

Director:  Federico Fellini


Wins: Costume Design (Black & White)

Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Art Direction (Black & White)

 Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
 Although there are some things about this film that I like, I can’t say that I am a fan of the film itself.  If I were to give one reason only, it would be because it is 3 hours long.  It is very well made, written and contains some stunning cinematography, lighting and shots that seem to be made for and thrive in black and white film.  However, it goes on for three hours and this is not an epic war film we’re talking about.  Just like much of Fellini’s other work, La Dolce Vita follows a man through his aimless wanderings, sidebars of symbolism, imagery and exploits of the female sex.  With proper editing the film could have been much better, but it is just way too long to be enjoyable.  Technically, this film is superb and what made the viewing worth the duration are the endless exhibitions of fine filmmaking by Fellini.

Favorite Scenes/Shots: Riding the drunken girl like a horse, slapping her and then turning her into a human chicken by dousing her in alcohol and emptying the contents of a feather pillow all over her face.

 Final Verdict:     Should Have Been Nominated instead of Fanny
There are a couple of other great films from 1961 that should be mentioned.  Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Breathless are worthy of mentioning among the best of the year.  However, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is too fluffy and chick-flicky to be considered Best Picture.  Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, did many things to inspire future films.  It’s a beautiful film with some great cinematography, but it just doesn’t fit in the group of the best of the year.


Should Have Won:         Splendor In the Grass

I have to say that I enjoyed Splendor in the Grass more than any of the other nominees from 1961.  If these very films were nominated today, I would say that The Hustler would have a fighting chance of winning as well.  La Dolce Vita is too technical.  West Side Story is too musical.  Judgment At Nuremberg has too much of an agenda.  Splendor In the Grass is a beautiful, yet tragic love story that I believe many can relate to.

Overall Year Score – 73%


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