A SORROWING Greek slave suspiciously resembling Victor Mature, gazing at the Cross in a close-up so immense that his anguished face measured twenty feet from ear to ear,
was the most spectacular movie phenomenon offered in 1953.
But The Robe, based on the Lloyd C. Douglas best-seller about the early Christians, was not by any means the finest motion picture of the year. By mid-November, though, it was smashing all box-office records in the half-dozen Canadian cities with theatres equipped to show it. CinemaScope, a new epic process involving the use of an enormous oblong curving screen and multiple sound, might indeed ultimately help Hollywood to combat television, but further successes after The Robe would be needed to bolster the eager prophecy.
To the astonishment of practically nobody, the best movie of ‘53 was also not to be discovered among the third-dimensional or 3-D “depthies” which began with a grotesque exhibit called Bwana Devil. Even its stereoscopic illusion—made possible only by peering through bothersome polarizing goggles—was mostly primitive and the script and acting and direction were not even amateurish in quality. Bwana Devil made a lot of money in a hurry and so did several of its 3-D successors, but poor stories and gimmick-minded sensationalism (“An Indian in Your Lap! A Flaming Arrow in Your Hair!”) soon robbed the medium of a fair chance to develop properly. Long before year’s-end, the oldfashioned “flatties” and various types of wide-screen projection were battling for dominance, and 3-D appeared to be perishing on the Hollywood-and-Vine.
The best movie of the year, in my opinion—and evidently in the opinion of multitudes of cash customers—was a powerful, adult, warmly sensitive screen version of From Here to Eternity, a Hollywood effort.
James Jones' bitter and shocking novel dealt with U. S. Army Jife in Honolulu just before a Japanese hell erupted at Pearl Harbor. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash tastefully eliminated the tiresome adolescent smut which weakened the book, but preserved its masculine anger and compassion, its timely (and timeless) plea for the right of the individual human being to “go his own way” in a regimented world.
From Here to Eternity as a film, although leaner than the book, is still a bit overcrowded with characters and sub-plots. Director Fred Zinnemann, however, again demonstrated (as he had done earlier in High Noon, The Men, The Search) that he is one of the most gifted creative craftsmen now making movies on either side of the Atlantic. Nobody in the excellent cast had ever appeared to such advantage.
All the movies on my Ten Best list for ’53 are American except The Cruel Sea and The Captain’s Paradise, both from Britain. These two were tops in their respective categories, war drama and comedy.
All but one on my Ten Worst list—24 Hours of a Woman’s Life, a glum English turkey—are from various Hollywood studios. It was, in some ways, difficult to pinpoint the absolute worst movie of 1953 because there were several candidates. Perhaps it was unfair to Bwana Devil to say that it was worse than, say, Red Planet Mars, The I Don’t Care Girl or Blowing Wild but if I had to stay away from one movie, and one movie only, for the rest of my life it would have to be Bwana Devil, from what I saw in 1953.
Similarly, there were some singularly inept performances by individuals and I suppose the next man could come up with a valid argument to prove that he’d seen portrayals that had distressed him more than those of Dean Martin in Scared Stiff, and Barbara Payton in Bad Blonde. For me, they were bad enough.
The remarkable gams of Cyd Charisse, as displayed so fetchingly in The Band Wagon; the buoyant singing of the stage’s brightest comic-opera songs, in Story of Gilbert & Sullivan ; the honest frontier characterizations achieved by director George Stevens in Shane, the year’s finest western . . . these are among the nourishing ’53 memories now sustaining me as ’54 gets under way with its usual official promise of Bigger and Better Things to Come. Well, bigger, anyway—and possibly just as good. ★
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