Thursday, 2 December 2010


Few films were as difficult to rank as ‘The Sound of Music’.

It is allegedly the most watched film ever, but for those who have not seen it, the storyline is as follows: in the last days of peacetime in the 1930s in Salzberg, Austria, a young nun, Maria (Julie Andrews) takes a job working for Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as a governess for his seven children. The Captain runs his house like a ship with no music or fun, but Maria changes this and brings the music back into the house. However, war is approaching and it will not be long before the Nazis enter Austria and everything changes.

It is easy to criticise ‘The Sound of Music’. It is full of sentimentality and children skipping around gardens but it is truly a great film. Starting with the main point about this film: the music. Every single song is a classic, but the best are ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Climb Every Mountain’ and ‘Do-Re-Mi’ the latter filmed all over the sights of Salzberg. It was the last collaboration between Roger and Hammerstein and it is their greatest work: brilliant tunes, brilliant lyrics.

The filming is also stunning, and overlooked. The opening sequence in the mountains is wonderfully constructed, ending with Julie Andrews running towards the camera about to burst into song. It is an iconic film moment and truly great. The scene in the graveyard of the abbey towards the end of the film is also a masterclass in creating tension on the screen.

The script is also highly witty and another forgotten thing about this film. The best lines come from Eleanor Parker as the Baroness, Maria’s glamorous love-rival. Some of her lines are so wonderfully acidic, a personal favourite being, ‘Have you heard of a delightful little thing called boarding school?’, but in fairness the whole script is peppered with delightful one-liners and the whole film is wonderfully quotable.

Moving on to the acting: Julie Andrews is a delight and made for this role. She plays the part of the wholesome love interest, who is actually believable as a genuine partner for the Captain. Christopher Plummer is also great as the captain and father to the seven children, but for me it is the scenes with Eleanor Parker that I relish the most: she is manipulative and acerbic, but also totally charming. In the stage musical she has a song, which was removed for the film. I think that was a totally sensible idea, for without a song she is not part of the music that it brought back into the house.

At the end of the day, ‘The Sound of Music’ is a feelgood musical and not to be taken too seriously, and therefore levels of schmaltz are to be expected, and that is exactly what one gets, which will not be to everyone’s taste. If you are willing to look past dancing puppets and singing nuns then you will actually find a film that is so magical, so heartwarming and most remarkably, so beautifully made. If the word ‘classic’ ever referred to a film it was this one.


In many ways the ultimate coming home from war film released just after the end of World War II. This Wyler masterpiece sees three soldiers coming home from war to their small Midwestern town and the difficulties that they face. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to the world of banking but is not used to working away from his fellow servicemen and finds the transition from the team work he was used to in the war to being a hard hearted banker difficult. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to his wife, who he only married a few weeks before the war, and realises that she does not love him. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) has lost both of his hands in the war and returns to his fiancée, but is worried that she pities him rather than still loves him. As time passes all the men learn to adapt to the changes even though things are not the same as they were before.

What is so good about ‘The Best Years of our Lives’ is that rather than giving the idea that coming home from war is either wonderful or unbearable, it shows the complexity of how relationships changed in different ways for different people and across different ages and socio-economic groups, and also of the most unlikely relationships that were formed between the three men, despite their differences. The issues such as divorce and amputees had rarely been discussed before and it is easy to forget the impact that this film must have had at this time.

The film is an fine example of taking a small story involving a few individuals and using it as a microcosm of what was happening at this time across the whole of the western world, but it manages to be a totally balanced film and at no point becomes patronising or clichéd.

The acting is solid across the board, which is always a relief in these ensemble films. There are no weak links and both March and Russell picked up acting Oscars for their memorable performances. For me it is Russell who gives the best performance as the youngest of the group in what must have been a challenging performance for anyone to carry off. Russell had not been an actor previous to this role and, as an actual amputee, was picked from an army rehabilitation video, and Wyler didn’t want Russell to be sent to acting classes, as wanted a more natural style. Despite this, he manages to easily hold his own despite being surrounded by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Once you’ve combined the excellent acting with the enchanting story and engaging script, and taken into account the fact that it one of Wyler’s best films one realises just what a special film this is. Forget any other returning from war films that you have seen: this one is by far the best and is still totally relevant for today’s audience.


Elia Kazan films are instantly recognisable as his work, and ‘On the Waterfront’ is no exception. It tells the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who works on the gang-run docks on New York. He is involved in the set-up of the death of a young man who refused to cooperate with the gang and becomes guilt ridden, when he spends time with the man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint). The film looks at his relationship with the gang leader (Lee J Cobb), his brother (Rod Steiger) and the local priest (Karl Maldon) whilst he battles with both his own sense of morality and the force of the gang.

It is a film with many complex levels as the viewer is put into Malloy’s position, and is forced to ask the question of whether to take the easy route of going along with something knowing it is wrong, or to stand up against it and risk everything. The film also draws religious comparisons, through the involvement of the priest and through the messianic ending in which Malloy really does refuse to go back on what he thinks is right.

Filmed in moody black and white tones in bleak surroundings, Kazan really uses all techniques to bring the desperation of the situation to life, and each shot, despite being bleak is perfectly taken and it is a beautiful film in a tragic and bleak way. The Bernstein score is also powerful and like the cinematography is both beautiful and tragic, and used well. I think the way that Kazan makes films on small stories about normal people and makes them into productions which manage to be both elegant and intimate shows what a fantastic director he was.

Moving on the acting: what can one say? It is easily one of Brando’s greatest roles, and when you have one of the greatest roles from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) actors ever, then you know that you are in for something special. He is everything that this role should be: tough, vulnerable, honest, and he lives the role. Whenever I see a Brando performance, I don’t think that he is playing a part, but that I am actually watching that person in that situation. This is one of the greatest performances and one of the greatest winners of the Leading Actor Oscar.

Eva Marie Saint also shines in her role, as the grieving sister torn between her feelings for her brother and her feelings for Malloy. Her need to be loved is beautifully honest and I think that the scenes between them are among the best in the film. She also won an Oscar for her performance.

The three supporting men all got nominations for their roles, but I think that the greatest of the three was Karl Maldon, who delivered a good a performance as he did being the nice guy in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, adding a sense of hope to the desperate situation. Maldon is such a consistent actor who never overacts and like Brando, I feel he becomes a role rather than just acting it.

In short, ‘On the Waterfront’ is not the easiest of films to watch but it is one of the most important and relevant of the Best Picture Winners: a film that truly has stood the test of time and should be watched by all.


The first film to win the big five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress & Screenplay) was ‘It Happened One Night’, a screwball comedy romance directed by Frank Capra. The film tells the story of a spoilt heiress, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her father after he traps her on his yacht after annulling her marriage to a society aviator. She takes a bus back to New York to return to her new husband, and is seated next to cynical newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who she immediately dislikes. However, when her purse is stolen, leaving her with no money, she is forced to take Warne up on his offer: he will help her return home, if she agrees to travel with him, so that when he gets back to New York he can write about her and their journey in an article. When they return to New York, Ellie has to ask herself if Warne was interested in her or just making money out of her.

The film is primarily a comedy, and it is wonderfully funny, thanks to the witty script and the wonderful chemistry between the two leads. I can think of few romantic comedies in which the two leads spend so much screen time together, and every moment sizzles between them. The second that they meet her dismissive attitude sets the scene perfectly and as they grow to know each other, and they start to fall in love it is totally believable. It is perfectly fitting that they both won an Oscar, as if only one of them had played the part as well as they had done, then the film may’ve fallen flat.

The film is full of iconic scenes and moments: the scene in which Warne teaches Ellie to hitchhike is one of my favourite comic scenes ever made, but the scene in which they pretend to be an arguing married couple to fool people who are looking for the missing girl is comic genius. The quick one-liners as the couple scream and shout at each other, mirrored by the utter bemusement of the onlookers is followed by Warne and Ellie giggling at their own quick thinking. It’s absolutely charming.

‘It Happened One Night’ is also technically important, which one might not expect from a mid 1930s romantic comedy, but techniques such as back projection imaging, soft lighting and moving cameras were all used in this film, all of which were new innovations. If you compare this film to the winner the previous year ‘Cavalcade’ then the difference is startling, and ‘It Happened One Night’ seems frighteningly modern by comparison.

There are many screwball comedies made in this period, and a lot of these do seem a little dated today, and it is for this reason that ‘It Happened One Night’ is so good. Some of the ideas and situations would not happen today, but the film is full of so much class and so much wit that the overall feeling is one of timeless pleasure and anyone who enjoys a good romantic film will not fail but to love this film, and see one of the best romantic pairings in the history of cinema.