Thanks to a good pair of elevator shoes, the famously diminutive Alan Ladd walks tall into battle against an evil cattle baron.
The past movie year will probably be generally remembered as the one in which three-dimensional gimmicks—multiple sound tracks, polaroid glasses, masking, wide curved screens, and other flashes in the panoramic craze—just about displaced the importance of content and quality. For me 1953 was the year in which Hollywood almost lost me as an irritable non-paying customer. The simple reason for my disaffection with H-movies—I ceased to he a foreign-movie fan when foreign films became so pretentiously unpretentious—is that there were few pictures last year in which the “human element” wasn’t swallowed up by production values. In this era of hard, tight semi-documentaries embroidered with fancying-up touches that seem controlled almost to rigidity, only an occasional Roman Holiday turns up with enough individual flourish to make one interested in any craftsmen but the lead actors.
Wherever you look today, you find the movie artist subordinating himself in order to glorify a mechanical process. There was the wildly energetic dance scene in Moulin Rouge in which the speed, grouping, and rhythm of the dancers seemed indebted to the piston and lever. Even in Shane you found gimmicky stuff going on in every frame: the hero’s name was repeated so often in affected voices that it was like listening to a bird in a clock which instead of saying “Cuck-oo” gave out with a metallic nasal “Shane!” In Disney’s Living Desert actual mud puddles in the Salton Sea were made to burp, writhe, turn themselves inside out, and even spit in time to classical music by means of mechanical tricks.
Mechanization of the artist has become the rage in other arts besides movies. In juke-box ballad-singing tiny voices like those of Como and Joni James are stretched, made earthy, sometimes even doubled and tripled, by the use of sound boxes and tape recorders. The most talked-of realistic painter—Wyath—does a surrealistically touched-up imitation of the camera image. Most of the important American abstractionists drip, scrub, or bleed paint on to canvas with an impersonal skill that makes it hard to believe human hands had anything to do with the painting. But it is particularly irritating to find movie artists over-indulging in mechanical tricks because the medium is so dependent on the immediate kinship set up between spectator and characters. How do you connect with the people in a movie like From Here to Eternity if their very brains and emotions seem ensnared in the delicate camera contortions that fuzz up the surface of a Zinnemann-directed film?
This department saw nothing last year that deserved a Best Film award. Here, but not in any preferential order, are the seven films that gave me the most pleasure.