Five Favorite Films of the 50’s

The 1950s was such a rich decade in film that I found myself having a difficult time in selecting what films to eliminate. I could only select five  films according to the blogathon rules of engagement. Once I narrowed my selection down the question or questions became how can you leave a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest off you list? How can you not select Sunset Blvd. or Some like it Hot or Strangers on a Train or The Searchers or High Noon or Paths of Glory or Singin’ in the Rain or Vertigo or On the Waterfront or Rio Bravo or well you get the point. The 1950s was a great decade. Narrow a select down to five favorites was not easy.

One rule I made on my own was to list a film  director no more than once. Otherwise I could have listed five  Alfred Hitchcock films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and I Confess. Or I could have went with five Billy Wilder films: Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd, Ace in the Hole, Witness for the Prosecution and Stalag 17. I could also list five John Ford films but you get the point.

With that self set rule in place it became a little easier, however, I made one other rule. List a bunch of runner ups. Like I said the 1950’s was a rich decade. Anyway, here are my five favorite, not necessarily the bests, but favorites with a bit of an explanation followed by my runner ups.

Ace on the Hole

Ace in the Hole3

Manipulation, exploitation, opportunism, and hard-boiled vile, shaken, mixed and slammed into your guts by Billy Wilder. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) is a lurid, take no prisoners portrait of the news media delivering a knock down nasty assault on journalism and the morbid character of the blood leeching public. No one is spared. A film made more than fifty years ago, yet more relevant today than ever. Opportunistic journalists pushing the limits of ethics is a recurring trend. The news media, in general has become more bipartisan and show business, making news more than reporting news objectively.  So-called entertainment news shows, making “superstars” out of marginal personalities like Paris Hilton, the Kardasians on television almost ever night. Kirk Douglas’ Charlie Tatum would fit right in with today’s media world.

 

Rear Window

Rear-Window

This is my favorite Hitchcock film, not an easy task in itself to select. It’s also one of my favorite films of all time. A permanent top-fiver on every list I ever made.  It never gets bumped.  Maybe not so surprisingly I have written about Rear Window twice before. Rear Window gets to the roots of movie watching, and still photography, for that matter.  For anyone who is an avid film goer, it is no great revelation that watching movies is an extension of voyeurism; after all, what are we doing but looking into the lives of others. Observing, in a socially acceptable way, as opposed to peeping into the windows of neighbors or strangers. We are all, to an extent, curious to know what other people are doing, it’s human nature. However, most people can keep these voyeuristic tendencies limited to the socially accepted variety. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of this trait in humans and he suckers us into compliance right from the beginning with the casting of James Stewart. Who better than Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Straight Lace to lure you into peeping in on your neighbors and making you think there is nothing weird about it. You may not like hearing it but yes, if you like watching movies you are a voyeur! Rear Window is also smart, funny, tense, meticulous and intriguing. Oh yeah, there is the gorgeous looking Grace Kelly too, and the excellent Thelma Ritter.

invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers-001

An allegory on the infiltration of communism in America? A metaphor for people turning a blind eye to the McCarthyism hysteria that was sweeping the country in the early 1950’s? An attack on the potential dangers of conformity and the stamping out of individuality? Don Siegel’s 1956 gem of a film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has been said to “really be about” any and all of these themes since its debut now more than fifty years ago. Siegel, who should know, never mentions any of this kind of subtext in his autobiography, A Siegel Film, so one can assume, all the reading into this classic SF film is just that, critics and film goers reading their own thoughts and ideas into a work of pop art. After all, isn’t personal interpretation one of the elements and joys of enjoying art?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an expertly made science fiction thriller that slowly builds in tension and never lets up. Filled with perfectly composed cinematography, a pulsating music score, by Carmen Dragon, and top notch acting performances from Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynters, in a gallant battle to save the human race from dehumanizing pods.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers cautions us on the problem of being complacent with our lives; falling asleep is a danger, we are vulnerable, one loses touch with the world, and pods can quickly take us over. This fear is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, maybe even more so, when the film was made, as pod like ideologues and followers swarm into the political mainstream.

Gun Crazy

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The original title, Deadly Is The Female, says it all. A lethal woman and a chump of a guy whose life isn’t worth a plug nickel once the sexual sparks ignite and the bullets begin to fly. Gun Crazy is a compact, quick moving, finely tuned, low-budget piece of celluloid art. Brilliant in its minimalist approach, this small quickie accomplishes more visual beauty and excellent pacing than 99% of all high budget products that are excreted from today’s filmmakers. Note how director Joseph H. Lewis focuses entirely on the young lovers making all the other characters and their actions secondary. Even the police, as they close in on the couple in the swamp, are barely on-screen. The stunning bank robbery sequence, shot in one long take, sucks the audience, into the action practically making us all accessories in the crime.

Touch of Evil

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The opening is one astounding continuous long running brilliant shot. It’s a spectacular beginning to one of the most interesting film noir’s ever made. Touch of Evil is also my own personal favorite Orson Welles work. It’s low budget film making that cannot be beat. Released on the top half of a twin bill, at least in New York, the film played at theaters around the city for only four days; scaled back to one theater for another three days and then quickly disappeared. Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan is an unkempt, overweight, beastly looking character. Visually, Welles made himself grotesque by placing the camera at a very low angles to emphasizes his character’s bulk. In one scene, we see Quinlan lifts he massive body up and out of a car, getting the full brunt of his size and hideous unkempt clothes right in our face. If there is a weak link in the film, it’s Charlton Heston playing Vargas, the Hispanic detective. Can anyone really believe Heston as Hispanic? Touch of Evil is a dark dirty, gritty noir.

Read more about the Five Favorite Films of the 50’s here!!!

And below are a few Runner Ups. I’m sure I missed a few.

Some Like it Hot

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

Night of the Hunter

Strangers on a Train

The Asphalt Jungle

Paths of Glory

The Searchers

The Killing

Rio Bravo

Dial M for Murder

High Noon

Sunset Blvd.

Singin’ in the Rain

On the Waterfront

From Here to Eternity

Witness for the Prosecution

Vertigo

Rashomon

A Place in the Sun

Bridge on the Rive Kwai

12 Angry Men

Rififi

Pickup on South Street

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Rear Window – A Second Look

 

still-of-james-stewart-in-rear-window-(1954)-large-picture The previous time James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock worked together was on Rope; an experimental piece for Hitch that was considered a failure by most critics of the time. Stewart himself was not happy with the picture, or with the role, which he felt was not right for him. Additionally, there was the fact Rope was not a financial box office success. Some cities even requested cuts before it was to be shown. In Chicago it was banned outright. This was most likely because the storyline was a bit too close to the real life Loeb-Leopold case of the 1920’s.  Subsequently, when Hitchcock called about Rear Window, Stewart was hesitant to accept, especially after hearing that, like Rope, the film would take place mostly on one set. Furthermore, he would be confined to a wheelchair for the entire film.

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Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

One can easily understand why James Stewart’s introverted professor falls so quickly and hard for Ginger Rogers nightclub entertainer, she is sexy, charming and adorable. “Vivacious Lady,” directed by George Stevens, is a smart and funny romantic comedy, in other words, the kind Hollywood does not or cannot make anymore. The film won’t make anyone’s top list of great comedies, it’s certainly not in the same class as THE LADY EVE, THE AWFUL TRUTH or BRINGING UP BABY but it does have its charm. Written by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano from a story by I.A.R. Wylie it is a remarkably simple story with a running time of 90 minutes and few of those minutes are wasted.

It’s love at first sight when Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) falls for nightclub singer Francey Brent (Ginger Rogers) when he travels to New York to bring back home his wayward playboy cousin Keith (James Ellison). Within days the couple quickly marry and head back to Peter’s small hometown where he is a professor of Botany and his stanch, rigid, unyielding father, beautifully played by Charles Coburn, is the President of the University. Peter has always bowed to dad’s wishes, as does his mother (Beulah Bondi) who fakes heart problems just to gain sympathy and keep family peace when the senior Morgan gets on his high horse. You see, Morgan Sr. is a man who is just use to getting his way. Knowing his father, spineless Peter wants to hold off on announcing the marriage. Two attempts to tell Dad end abruptly with his father constantly interrupting him. As the conversations heat up, Peter’s mother would fake one of her ‘heart condition’ flare-ups. Also waiting back home is Peter’s fiancée, a stuffy, annoying woman named Helen (Frances Mercer) who is not letting Peter go too easily. Finally, the newlyweds are continuously attempting to consummate their marriage throughout the film. Continue reading

Call Northside 777 (1948) Henry Hathaway

20th Century Fox produced a series of semi-documentary film noirs in the late 1940’s including “Boomerang!,” “Kiss of Death,” “House on 92nd Street” and “Call Northside 777,” the last three directed by perennial hard ass Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was a studio director, a craftsman whose work was devoid of complexity, straightforward and took no crap from anyone (see my interview with Dennis Hopper biographer Peter L. Winkler who talks about Hathaway’s battle with young know it all Hopper and how he single handedly blackballed Hopper from Hollywood films.). Despite any lack of pretension in his work Hathaway directed some fine film noirs. In addition to those previously mentioned he made “The Dark Corner” and “Niagara.”

Based on a true story, “Call Northside 777” tells the tale of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a Polish-American falsely accused of murdering a police officer. (1) After spending 11 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, his story is assigned to Chicago Times news reporter Mickey McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) when it comes to the attention of his editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb). Kelly had spotted a notice in the classified ad column, a $5,000 reward for information leading to the killer of a police officer back in 1932, 11 years ago, during the height of the prohibition era. McNeal follows up on the story and discovers it is Frank Wiecek’s mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazeski) a scrub woman in a office building who put up the reward saving her paltry salary ever since her son’s conviction. McNeal follows up with a visit to the Illinois State Pen where he talks to Frank only to find his story full of dead ends that cannot be proven. Frank though seems resigned to his fate, he will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Frank even told his wife Helen (Joanne De Berg) to divorce him and marry someone else so their son will have a full and happy family and not be haunted by his father’s past. After McNeal writes about the family, exposing their current lives, an incensed Frank demands they be left alone and wants the entire investigation stopped accusing McNeal of writing his story only for the newspapers’ circulation gains. He rather spend the rest of his life in prison than subject his kid and ex-wife to public scrutiny. Continue reading

Rear Window (1954) Alfred Hitchcock

L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photojournalist for a big time magazine is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment in a leg cast due to an accident during a photo shoot when he got a little too close to the action on a race track. His long period of convalescence is stifling. Use to being on the move, traveling to exotic places around the world, Jeffries is bored and frustrated by his inability to get around. A brutal heat wave with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees only adds to his aggravation. Bored out of his mind, Jeffries spends his days and nights, voyeuristically spying on his neighbors whose apartments are visible from his window facing the courtyard of his housing complex. The tenants are a diverse group of New Yorkers whose lives he becomes fleetingly acquainted with. They include a newlywed couple, a struggling songwriter, a lonely woman, he dubbed Miss Lonely Heart, a young beautiful dancer he nicknamed Miss Torso, and some married couples, one with a dog, another who sleep out on the fire escape, and especially one unhappy couple, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his ailing wife.

 Jeffries girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly), a high fashion model, is pushing him to settle down and get married, a concept Jeffries reacts to as if it were allergenic. Jeffries begins to focus on the Thorwald’s when he notices Mrs. Thorwald, who was always in her bedroom, has seemed to have disappeared and Mr. Thorwald, a salesman by trade, began to be going out at odd hours of the night with his sample case in hand.

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The Mortal Storm (1940) Frank Borzage

Director Frank Borzage began his career in silent film having won two Oscars by 1931 (7th Heaven -1927 and Bad Girl – 1931). “The Mortal Storm” was released in 1940 while the U.S. was still in an official position of neutrality on the war that was raging in Europe. Based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome (1938) the film was, like the 1939 Warner Brothers film “Confession s of a Nazi Spy”, a blatant anti-Nazi film or at least as blatant as the film studios dared to be in those pre-war days.

During the time prior to the U.S. entering the war, Hollywood was cautioned by Washington politicians not to violate the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936 and 1937 by making any films that were openly anti-Nazi or anti-Japanese.   The Government insisted during this period that no specific enemies or nations be mentioned; it could be only vaguely insinuated. Many studio heads balked about this unvoiced position though for the most part they followed the Government’s orders.  Sometimes, like in the 1939 “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”, they did not. And of course there was Charlie Chaplin who financed his own film mocking Hitler and Mussolini in “The Great Dictator.” In between these two films came MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” which clearly states right at the beginning that the story takes place in Southern Germany in a small university village. Continue reading

The Man From Laramie (1955) Anthony Mann

This review contains spoilers

The 1950’s is arguably the finest decade for western films with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande) , Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) , Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. “The Man from Laramie” was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects, land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy, he’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in “Winchester ’73” and “The Naked Spur.” Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind”) struggling to meet the stature of his father, acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult, and then there is Vic the foreman who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies; Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability, he is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the General Store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of his share of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggoman’s greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

“The Man from Laramie” struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonman’s flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded with a gunshot in his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gun shot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from  a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good, in fact it is probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches it is assumed would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.  

*****