#17 – Seven Samurai (1954), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Seven Samurai (1954)

The Magnificent Seven. The great Toshiro Mifune leads a stellar ensemble cast in the grandest of Japanese epic films, Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai.

These days Ozu Yasujiro is probably considered to be Japan’s greatest filmmaker, but it’s a good bet that more people have gotten their introduction to classic Japanese cinema through Kurosawa Akira. This is perhaps not terribly surprising, given Kurosawa’s eye for spectacle and a well honed populist streak that makes for stellar entertainment. It also doesn’t hurt that Kurosawa’s films frequently draw from Western cultural touchstones like film Westerns, noir detective fiction and Shakespeare, making his work more accessible to Western viewers. Though a versatile filmmaker who did everything from quiet domestic dramas to urban thrillers, Kurosawa is probably most famous for his samurai pictures, and there is no film in the genre as epic and grand as 1954’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). The plot of the film is quite simple: a village hires seven samurai to defend it from bandits. But within that simple framework Kurosawa creates a sprawling epic touching on issues of class and economy, bravery and cowardice, selfishness versus community, and the nature of loss. Exciting and funny, smart but not preachy, Seven Samurai pretty much defined the action film, giving movies an energy they had never previously known. (209 min.) Continue reading

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#235 (tie) – Red River (1948), dir. Howard Hawks & Arthur Rosson

Red River (1948)

Denial ain’t just… John Wayne stars as a ruthless rancher willing to kill his ranch hands if it means keeping his own form of order on a cattle drive from Texas in Howard Hawks’ Red River.

Howard Hawks is a mainstay of the Sight & Sound list, contributing more entries (six) than any other American director. This will be the fifth Hawks film we’ve tackled here at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and it is readily apparent that the director is a master of many styles. So far we’ve seen an adventure drama, two screwball comedies, a noir whodunit, and now with our latest film — Red River (1948) — a Western. And a very expansive Western at that, as the movie finds cowboy film legend John Wayne and the tightly wound Montgomery Clift (in his first major film role) at the head of a massive herd of cattle as they seek to drive their way to fortune and glory in post-Civil War America. Red River is an unusual Western, passing over the black-and-white morality of so many of these films by presenting a deeply flawed hero/villain in Wayne’s iron-hard rancher. It also serves as an interesting snapshot of a transitional moment in American cinema as a new breed of actor was starting to emerge that eschewed the heightened (some might say stagy) performing styles of Golden Age Hollywood in search of something more real and emotionally resonant. This, of course, comes in the form of Clift, whose twitchy performance as Matt Garth stands in sharp contrast to the old school styles of his fellow actors, and set the stage for the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the decade to come. (133 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – My Darling Clementine (1946), dir. John Ford

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Opposites attract. Henry Fonda (left) and Victor Mature (right) star as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in director John Ford’s classic re-imagining of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

John Ford is a definite candidate for greatest American director of all time. He’s the only director to win four Academy Awards, and he was a man of seemingly endless creative energy, directing some 140 films over a 50-year career. He also has the rare distinction of being a filmmaker who almost single-handedly defined an entire genre of film: the Western. Westerns have been around since essentially the beginning of narrative movie-making. Indeed, one of the first big hits in American cinema was The Great Train Robbery, a short that kicked off the endless parade of movie outlaws holding up trains in the Old West. Heck, even the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was essentially an Australian Western about the bush outlaw Ned Kelly. But it was Ford who really codified the form, particularly with 1939’s rip-roaring action-melodrama Stagecoach. With My Darling Clementine (1946), however, Ford offered up a different sort of Western. Though the movie is very loosely based on the true story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, My Darling Clementine is more a movie about relationships and the inevitable march of modernity than it is about quick draws and outlaw/lawman honor. Modest in scope but emotionally earnest, Clementine is also one of the best-looking Westerns ever made, further elevating the proceedings by applying the atmosphere and compositional daring of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. (97 min.) Continue reading

#78 (tie) – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), dir. Sergio Leone

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Fan With No Name. Charles Bronson circles for a showdown in Italian director Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a widescreen epic take on violence, business, and ethics in the American Wild West.

We’ve made it through every movie on the Sight & Sound list up through 1945 but not a single one has been a Western, surprising given that the genre was a popular favorite going back to at the least The Great Train Robbery (1903). We’ll soon be getting to a few classic Hollywood oaters, but our first foray into the Wild West is coming via Italian director Sergio Leone. In 1964 Leone brought a TV actor by the name of Clint Eastwood out to make a Western based largely on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961). The resulting picture, A Fistful of Dollars, kicked off a wave of Italian-made cowboy flicks generally known as Spaghetti Westerns, with Leone and Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) almost certainly being the most famous. But it is Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era un volta il West, 1968) that has generally ended up being the most critically lauded of Leone’s films. Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Henry Fonda in a rare villain role, Once Upon a Time in the West is something of a culmination of the style developed by Leone in his work with Eastwood. Through a barrage of intense close ups, slow builds of tension, exaggerated sound effects, moral ambiguity, and dynamic widescreen compositions, Leone manages to utterly redefine the Western, making many of his influences seem tame by comparison. (166 min.) Continue reading