TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles)
Welles casts himself as the slimy, corrupt Mexican border sheriff in this stark character study. Only Marlene Dietrich can find him sympathetic. Charlton Heston (just pre-BEN-HUR) and Janet Leigh (just pre-PSYCHO) are the unfortunate couple who cross his path. It opens with the longest dolly shot in cinema at that time (until Robert Altman and then Brian De Palma purposefully tried to top it). Despite studio butchering and an ignorant producer, Welles was able to show how art can survive. A few years later, Welles’ letter to producer Albert Zugsmith surfaced, wherein Welles lays out in minute detail just how Zugsmith interfered and damn near ruined the picture.
VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock)
The go-to movie for anybody still around who wonders why Hitchcock is so highly revered. A mature and highly personal work, it is also lush-looking and sumptuously shot on San Francisco Bay area locations by Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer Robert Burks. A tale of doomed romantic obsession, VERTIGO is a movie you feel as well as see. Hitchcock had already proven four years earlier with REAR WINDOW (also with Burks and star James Stewart) that he could keep audiences captivated with long stretches without dialogue. We see what the protagonist sees, and we can come to our own conclusions. Completing the hypnotic spell is the magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann, probably his best-known and certainly among his finest.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (ASCENSEUR POUR L’ECHAFAUD) (Louis Malle)
Before there was the New Wave of Parisian critics-turned-directors led by Truffaut and Godard, there was the “Left Bank” group, which included Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Among them was young Louis Malle, who made a stunning debut with this story of a murder gone wrong. Jeanne Moreau had been essentially a stage actress with a few features at the time. Malle stripped her of her theatrical makeup, revealing her true beauty. She became a star, and they became lovers. Miles Davis was on a concert tour in Paris at the time, and Malle convinced him to do the soundtrack. He improvised the haunting solo score while watching the rushes. Cinema history was made.
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (Arthur Crabtree)
A terrific and lesser-known British sci-fi thriller that just gets wilder as it goes along. Contains one of the scariest single scenes in any film I’ve seen. I was fortunate enough to first see it at a young age, when the power of cinema was first being felt.
THE LOVERS (Louis Malle)
Toward the end of the year, Malle made another film with Jeanne Moreau, inspired by their love affair. It became a success mostly for the wrong reasons; a ”case scandale” simply because it dared to show Moreau’s character actually enjoying lovemaking. That notoriety obscures the fact that it is an extremely mature and sensitive work. The lovers’ tryst and their subsequent conflict is beautifully handled.