Wednesday, 8 September 2010

25. WEST SIDE STORY - 1961

Another film that I am torn about. If you were to ask me what my favourite musical is, I would definitely consider West Side Story, however it’s not my favourite film musical. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I really do, but it has a few faults that stop it getting a higher position on the list.

I will start with the bad. The film is dated. Very dated. Although the music and dancing are brilliant, there are times (when the film is in ‘cool’ mode) that just seem irrelevant today. I think it is a general rule that if musical films are set in the era that they are made they can age very badly, as the general idea of a musical with characters bursting into song needs to be done with some irony. The other negative I have is with Richard Beymer’s portrayal of Tony. I realise that in the Shakespeare play, the character of Romeo is a little soft, but in ‘West Side Story’ the character of Tony is meant to be a former gang leader, and I just don’t buy it, he is just so wet.

And now the positive, and there is lots to say: firstly the music. How anyone cannot just love the wonderful songs by Bernstein is hard to believe. The songs are beautiful, witty and perfectly performed. ‘Tonight’ is a gorgeous love song, performed as both a duet and as a quintet later in the film, ‘Jet Song’ is a fun-packed and intense gang song that makes you know that the film is going to not be like other musicals, but the best moment is the wonderful ‘America’. It is truly one of the best song and dance numbers in any musical ever made.

There are some great performances in this film. George Chakiris is great as Bernardo, and although I would have given the supporting Oscar to Montgomery Clift in ‘Judgement at Nuremburg’, Chakiris’ performance is one of the most memorable Supporting Actor wins that I have seen. He is feisty, passionate and truly convincing as the leader of the Sharks. It is, however, Rita Moreno who steals the show as Anita. The screen really does come alive whenever she is on screen, and her performance in the song ‘America’ is truly fantastic.

It is a cinematographic delight as well. Every scene and shot and close up rivals the most epic of films, and not many films bring the streets of the darker areas of New York to life as much as this one does.

It’s a shame that there are a few faults with this film, and it’s probably the only Oscar winner that I think would be successful if it were remade today with the right director and cast, of course. However, despite the faults, ‘West Side Story’ is one of the most important and beautiful musicals ever made, and will always be rightly regarded as a classic.

26. THE STING - 1973

From the moments I hear the opening bars of Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ I remember why I like ‘The Sting’ so much: there are films that make you think, there are films that are beautiful works of art and then there are films that are just fun.

‘The Sting’ reunited the irresistible combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and I actually prefer this to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. This great film is a comedy crime caper set in the 1920s and is about a small time con-man played by Redford, who after his partner in crime gets killed, teams up with Newman a one time master to seek revenge. The film takes the characters through a wild and elaborate scam in order to settle the score, with the sting being the twist at the end.

Newman and Redford have such chemistry in this film. They play their parts with ease and humour and build great rapport over the duration of the film. I mentioned the relationship between the leads in ‘The French Connection’, and this relationship is even better.

It’s a brilliant example of storytelling. The film moves along at such a rate of knots that it is impossible not to be swept along – there are some wonderful moments: the card game, when Redford asks out a drugstore girl, and of course, the final scene. It is difficult to discuss the film without giving too much away, but in terms of plot, let’s just say that it is fun from start from finish.

The style of the film is also interesting and appealing. It’s a comedy, but also a period drama and is full of wonderful details, like the fact that each section of the film is introduced with titles. The film also could run the risk of over glorifying criminals, but instead it ends up painting a picture of crime in New York at a certain era. The characters are not responsible for destroying law and order, but are rather products of a certain era.

In short it is a wonderful and fun picture that uses many stylistic techniques complete with wonderful direction and great acting to create one of the most memorable films of the 1970s.

Friday, 3 September 2010


In the early 1970s, the Academy looked to the crime genre for their Oscar winners, and in 1971 ‘The French Connection’ beat off competition from such classics as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

The film is a fast paced tale of two policeman played by Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider who investigate a drug deal in which Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) plans to sell $32 million worth of heroin to New York dealers. The plot twists and turns with unrelenting attitude until it ends in a fantastic showdown between the dealers and the police.

The film works in two ways. Firstly it’s a fun, exciting crime drama. Not only is the plot intense and exciting throughout, but it includes some wonderfully dramatic scenes, and so many of these are memorable. There is the famous car scene chase across New York. I am not usually one for lengthy pieces of action and feel that they can often ruin a good drama, but this adds to the tension so much. The other great scene that springs to mind is when Schneider is following Rey on a subway platform. For a while you wonder if Rey has spotted him, as they both hop on and off the train acting as inconspicuous as possible.

The other great thing about the film is the wonderful acting from the two leads. Hackman plays a bigoted alcoholic cop and Schneider is his more straightlaced and reserved partner. Unlike the traditional, modern cops and robbers film, the good guys are not perfect: they are normal people with normal faults. This makes them more interesting and believable and allows them to develop as real characters rather than just being parodies of heroes.

The relationship between the two characters is extraordinary. There are few films in which two male actors have as natural and unforced chemistry. Compare this relationship to, say, Frodo and Sam in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and you’ll see what I mean. They are both excellent.

On top of this, the film is excellent in other areas. It is technically superior to so many films of this genre. It is smoothly edited with camerawork that only adds to the intensity throughout. The music is equally tense, but not overused, and Friedkin’s direction uses both the music and the noises of the city in equal measure to create the required atmosphere.

What is great about this film is that it is not only a great piece of cinema but also totally accessible. Anyone who gives this film a chance will be drawn along by the fantastic performances and great storyline. And yes, despite the strong competition in 1971 I agree with the choice of the Academy for this year.