#349. George Stevens

Modern audiences may not know about George Stevens or the films he directed from the 1930s to 1970. Some of the names of his movies might not be familiar to them either, but many of these films are classics in their own rights. He worked with some of the best in the industry at the time. Cary Grant (Gunga Din (1930) and Penny Serenade (1941)), Fred Astaire (Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel in Distress (1937)), and Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams (1935) and Woman of the Year (1942)), just to name a few. By the end of his career, he even directed a film from his own production company, the Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Throughout his directing career, he earned many nominations and awards, but most people on the street probably couldn’t say why. This week’s two films highlight some of the greatest films directed by George Stevens.

A Place in the SunA Place in the Sun
Year: 1951
Rating: Passed
Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours

Throughout the early 1930s, George Stevens directed mostly short films and comedy sketches. By 1941, he had picked up his first nomination for Best Picture with The Talk of the Town. While he did not direct this film, he would earn two more nominations the following year, for Best Picture and Best Director for The More the Merrier (1943). His first win at the Oscars would come almost a decade later with A Place in the Sun (1951). This film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, but only garnered Stevens the golden statue for the latter category. The legacy of this film was recognized in 1997 as one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films, being placed at #92. It is also included as one of the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, for similar reasons, not the least of which was Stevens’ expert directing.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) has not had nearly the amount of success his uncle, Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), has enjoyed. When the two randomly meet, Charles offers George a job in his factory as a way to help his struggling nephew. George takes to the work and finds himself being noticed by management for his good ideas. Consequently, Charles invites George to his estate for dinner with high society. At the party, George is immediately enamored with Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Unfortunately, George has already gotten himself involved with one of the factory girls, Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters). Alice senses George’s flightiness and informs him that she’ll expose him if he doesn’t marry her since she is carrying their bastard child. In a twist of fate, the courthouse is closed for Labor Day, so George suggests they take a boat out on the lake, knowing Alice cannot swim.

Year: 1956
Rating: Approved
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

After his Best Director win in 1951, George Stevens would have another set of Best Picture/Best Director nominations for the western, Shane (1953). He lost that year to From Here to Eternity (1953) but would be nominated for the set again with The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), losing to Ben-Hur (1959) that year. His second win at the Oscars was for Best Director with Giant (1956), which itself lost Best Picture to Around the World in 80 Days (1956). One wonders if the inclusion of Elizabeth Taylor in Giant helped to earn Stevens his Best Director wins, except that his last film ever directed was The Only Game in Town (1970), which featured Taylor but did not earn him a nomination. Following his film career, he founded the American Film Institute (AFI). One does wonder if the two Top 100 lists produced by AFI were biased, as four of his films have appeared on them over the years.

Yet again, Elizabeth Taylor portrays a socialite in Giant as Leslie Lynnton. She is swept off her feet by Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and brought back to his ranch in Texas as his bride. Now that she’s a part of the farm, she becomes involved in its operations, somewhat stepping on the toes of Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). In retaliation, Luz hurts Leslie’s horse and is bucked off to her death. As a result, the ranch’s handyman, Jett Rink (James Dean), inherits a small portion of the property. He has had feelings for Leslie since she first came to the ranch, but respected Bick enough to keep his distance. When Jett discovers oil on his patch of land, he becomes wealthier than the Benedicts, thus upending the social order between these two neighbors. His persistent requests to drill for oil on the rest of the Benedict ranch are eventually granted as Bick realizes his children will not continue his legacy.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous George Stevens classics

Bacon #: 3 (Shane / Alan Ladd -> Paper Bullets / John Archer -> The Little Sister / Kevin Bacon)

#201. Max von Sydow

Not all actors come from North America. Hollywood has an irresistible pull that brings in many actors from all parts of the globe, thus Americanizing them and exposing them to American audiences. Some actors will spend some time working on their craft in their home countries. If they are successful in doing so, it is likely they won’t stay there long. Everyone desires to be famous, so when Hollywood comes knocking, most will answer that call as fast as they can. However, there are a select few who resist the pull of Hollywood and instead make a mark on their native film landscape. This sort of national pride is somewhat rare, but one of the actors who has epitomized this trait is Max von Sydow. While he did eventually come to America, he made sure to leave a lasting impression on his native land. This week’s two films look at Sydow’s work in the U.S. and Sweden.

                                      Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

1965 marked the arrival of Max von Sydow in American films with The Greatest Story Ever Told, wherein he portrayed Jesus Christ. Because he didn’t yet have partnerships with directors like he did in Sweden, his work was quite diverse. From the protagonist of The Exorcist (1973) to a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983) to Liet-Kynes in Dune (1984) to PreCrime’s Director in Minority Report (2002), Sydow has managed to age gracefully through his numerous roles. His latest role in this winter’s Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) will expose him to a fandom who idolizes many of its key actors. Of course, his acting skill has been nominated for an Oscar twice: first for his performance in Pelle the Conqueror (1987), and second, 24 years later, for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011).

A year after losing his father in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) finds that an old man (Max von Sydow) has moved in with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). The man does not speak but instead has the words “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms (a la The Night of the Hunter (1955)). Oskar starts bringing the old man along on the scavenger hunt his late father gave him, conquering several fears along the way. When he realizes the old man is probably his grandfather, Oskar plays the answering machine messages of his dead father, which causes the man to become emotional. This incident causes the old man to move out and tell Oskar to quit the scavenger hunt. Once it is revealed that the search was set up by Oskar’s mother, Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock), the grandfather eventually returns to live with Oskar’s grandmother.

The Seventh SealThe Seventh Seal
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

Sydow’s early career started in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1957 that his acting really flourished. This was due to his partnership with director Ingmar Bergman. In total, Bergman directed 11 films with Max in the cast. Films like Wild Strawberries (1957), The Brink of Life (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Through a Glass Darkly (1961) gave Sydow the chance to show Scandinavian audiences his acting skills. There’s no doubt that Hollywood took notice, but he managed to resist its pull, taking full advantage of the partnership with Bergman. Of course, most of these films pale in comparison to the first collaboration these two masterminds created: The Seventh Seal (1957). The scenes of Death playing chess are some of the most recognized scenes in all of European cinema, if not in the entire world.

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight who just returned to Sweden following his service in the Crusades. Finding his home country is now plague-ridden, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a chess match to delay his inevitable demise. As the knight heads back to his castle, he and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), run across some actors. Heading into a church, Block gives his confession that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed” to a priest who turns out to be Death. After enjoying a picnic lunch with the actors he met earlier, Block invites them to his castle. Along the way, Block encounters Death in a few more forms, eventually finishing their chess game. As a last-ditch effort, Block swipes the pieces off the board, which gives the actors just enough time to escape Death’s grasp, the final checkmate sealing the knight’s fate.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 spectacular Sydow performances

Bacon #: 2 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close / Tom Hanks -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)

#120. Biblical

Many books have been made into movies over the years, but by far the one book which has spawned the most movies has been the Bible. After all, parts of it have been described as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). And yet, with such excellent source material, it’s no wonder so many films have been made in varying languages and varying formats (from TV miniseries to Hollywood blockbusters). Of course, those who are familiar with the book know that the Bible is split into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. While the New Testament movies generally focus on Jesus (there are a few about Revelations), the Old Testament-based movies have many figures and stories on which to base their plots. This week’s two films look at the most prominent stories from both Testaments.

The Ten CommandmentsThe Ten Commandments
Year: 1956
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 220 minutes / 3.67 hours

There are many epic stories in the Old Testament. Going down the list of events and people chronologically, we have Creation with Adam and Eve, the Flood and Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph (the last of which has one of the few musicals based on the Bible). Even though there are some films based on the Judges and Kings of Israel, one of the most famous stories from the Old Testament is that of Moses. In fact, this section of the Bible is where much of Judaism is based, and it is why Passover is celebrated annually. At its core, the exodus of the Israelites is a story of a group of underdogs who just happen to have the Creator of the universe on their side. And yet, even though the life of Moses has been made into many films, the one which did it the best was the Oscar-nominated, Cecil B. DeMille-directed, The Ten Commandments (1956).

The Exodus story is one that shows the great power of God while also showing how He can work through His people. To start off, Moses is saved from being killed as an infant when his mother places him in a basket and sends him down the Nile, where he’s picked up by Pharaoh’s daughter. After it’s revealed that Moses (Charlton Heston) is of Hebrew origin, he’s banished from the kingdom. While in the wilderness, he runs across God in the form of a burning bush, at which point he’s given the responsibility of rescuing the Israelites from the slavery and persecution of the Egyptians. Moses is used by God to perform miracles and plagues on the Egyptians, eventually causing the new Pharaoh (Yul Brynner) to let the Israelites go. However, when Pharaoh changes his mind, God has one last trick up his sleeve: parting the Red Sea. With the Egyptians vanquished and the Israelites saved, God gives His people the Ten Commandments.

The Passion of the ChristThe Passion of the Christ
Year: 2004
Rating: R
Length: 127 minutes / 2.11 hours

Just like The Ten Commandments portrays one of the tenets of the Jewish faith, The Passion of the Christ is a portrayal of the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Since most of the New Testament is filled with letters from various people to various churches, the story of Jesus is the most-filmed section of the New Testament (with Revelation being a close second). Many of these films focus on Jesus’ life as a whole, from His birth through His ministry and ending with His death and resurrection. However, The Passion of the Christ (2004) focuses the majority of its time on the final days of Jesus’ life. The film has been criticized because of its violent portrayal of the torture leading up to the crucifixion, but director Mel Gibson wanted it to be extreme to show the immensity of Christ’s love even after such extreme pain and suffering.

The Passion of the Christ is a tight story that occurs over a short time-span and covers many things which are happening all at once. The film opens with the betrayal of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) by Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello), who has just received his reward for handing Jesus over to the authorities. As Jesus is questioned by the Sanhedrin, Peter (Francesco DeVito) denies knowing Christ three times, thus fulfilling the prophecy against him. While Jesus is brought before the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), Judas Iscariot is overrun with guilt and goes out to a field to hang himself. After being passed back and forth from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate, the Roman eventually washes his hands of the situation and sends Jesus to be crucified. Fortunately, even though Jesus dies on the cross, he doesn’t remain dead as shown by the last scene of the film.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Bible-based blockbusters