Hollywood 1959: Great Film Year–Foreign Language

Many historians and film critics consider 1939 to be the best year in Hollywood’s history.  Though WWII had broken in Europe, the U.S. was still uninvolved directly—until Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  Indeed, movies were the country’s primary medium of entertainment.  The technology for TV was available but not widespread and it would take at least another decade for the revolutionary medium to take hold.


However, a case could be made that 1959 was just as good in film diversity and quality as 1939, perhaps even better (in my modest opinion).


For one thing, 1959 was the annus mirabilis of the French New Wave, a movement that revolutionized the world and language of cinema with some brilliant films.  Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” and Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” were all released in 1959, taking the Cannes Film fest by storm. (More about the 50th anniversary of the New Wave it in a future essay).


It was a terrific year for Hollywood, as well, perhaps the last one before the decline and demise of the old studio system.  For starters, Hitchcock made one of his most accessible and entertaining films, “North by Northwest,” Otto Preminger excelled with his Oscar-nominated interracial court melodrama, “Anatomy of Murder,” and Douglas Sirk arguably created his most stylish and influential melodrama, “Imitation of Life.”

Did I mention that Billt Wilder made one of the funniest movies to have come out of Hollywood, “Some Like It Hot,” with a trio of grand performances by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe.

In the next two weeks, we will run a series of articles about the 1959 as one of the very best for American and foreign cinema.  Most of these movies are available on DVD (or VCR) and I highly recommend that you watch them, at your leisure, as counterbalanced to the blockbuster fare that has dominated this long Hollywood summer.

1959: French New Wave–Seminal Films

The 400 Blows

One of the landmark films that launched the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” is a captivating autobiographical study of a Parisian youth who turns to life of small-time crime as a reaction to derelict, neglectful parents (the father is ineffectual, the mother is adulterous) and an uncaring society.


Initially intended as a short, the feature was lengthened by adding numerous scenes from Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, through a rapidly presented series of anecdotes, displaying a dramatic and lyric perspective.


Starring Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut’s alter-ego), this fine character study offers an in-depth portrait of a troubled adolescent with sympathy and insight.  The school and home backgrounds are authentically depicted with fresh observations. The director’s attitude is neutral and non-judgmental; he makes fresh observations without editorial commentary. There is no melodrama in handling the story.


This memory-like film is the cinematic equivalent of an autobiographical first novel.  Truffaut concludes with the celebrated freeze-frame shot, which accentuates the story’s prevalent moral ambiguity and youth’s unknown future.  In it we see Antoine from the back at the edge of the water, facing the infinite sea, with his whole life ahead of him.  This single shot of suspending Antoine the boy in an indeterminate future became one of the most influential devices in world cinema, spawning numerous imitations by both French, American and other directors.


The 400 Blows is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the influential French critic (Cahiers de Cinema) and Truffaut’s personal savoir-mentor, who took him under his wings and launched his critic’s career before dying in 1958.


Truffaut returned several times in the next 20 years to the figure of Antoine Doinel, always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, including an episode in “Love at Twenty” called “Antoine and Colette” (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970), and “Love on the Run” (1979). 

“The 400 Blows” was the first film of Francois Truffaut, who went on to become one of the most important international filmmakers.  His celebrated career was cut short in 1984, when he died of brain tumor at the young age of 52.


Oscar Alert


“The 400 Blows” was nominated for the Original Story and Screenplay Oscar (by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy).


Oscar Context:


The winner was the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy, “Pillow Talk” (see review).


In 1973, Truffaut won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar for the comedy “Day for Night,” one of the most poignant features about the process of filmmaking and the director’s role on and off the set.


Please read reviews of other Truffaut’s films.