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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Seven Days in May (1964)

Seven4In the opening scenes of Seven Days in May we find picketers from both sides demonstrating outside the White House. Tempers are high. A riot breaks out, and the police come in attempting to break up what has turned into a free for all. Those divisive times were more than fifty years ago. It’s amazing how times have not changed. Today it is no different, tolerance and respect are in short supply. For many of us, emotions are driven by fear. We live in a period where Americans fear foreigners, terrorists, North Korea, Iran, Nuclear war and more. Fear drives irrational behavior. Continue reading

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) John Sturges

gunfight-jpgOne of the earliest films depicting Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and the gunfight at the OK Corral was a 1932 work called Law and Order. While the character’s names were changed, the film told the tale, fictitious as it was, of the infamous Tombstone shootout. Since the making of that film there have been numerous others detailing, correctly or incorrectly, generally more the latter, the story of the battle between the Earp Brothers and the Clanton’s’ at the OK Corral. In 1939, there was Frontier Marshal with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc Holiday. According to Jon Tuska in his 1976 tomb on the Western film (The Filming of the West), it was this script that was given to John Ford and was used as the basis for his My Darling Clementine. Continue reading

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Lewis Milestone

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Steely eyed and sexy, that’s Barbara Stanwyck at her best. No one conveyed the tough dame, determined yet alluring look that can arouse a man’s loins any better. With a screenplay by Robert Rossen (Force of Evil) based on a story by John Patrick, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is a hybrid twisting mix of film noir and 1940’s women’s melodrama with Stanwyck’s dangerous female right in the middle.

It’s the late 1920’s when Martha Ivers, a young orphaned teen, living with her rich aunt (Judith Anderson) strikes the older woman with a cane causing her to fall down a flight and stairs and die. Witnessed by her friend, Walter O’Neil, the boy backs up her story to his father, a hungry and ambitious lawyer, that the older woman did in fact “fall” with no help from Martha. The father suspects that’s not what really happened but realizes Martha, as her aunt’s only living relative stands to inherit a fortune and will make for a perfect wife for his awkward son. Continue reading

Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder

This review is part of the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM: THE FILM PRESERVATION BLOGATHON  to benefit the film noir foundation who work for the restoration of decaying noir films. The blogathon runs from Feb. 14th through Feb. 21st. For more information on how you can help by donating please check out our blogathon hosts, The Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films.

Here is a link to the organization’s facebook page.

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.

From the moment journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque in his broken down vehicle to the final shot of him falling down dead, his face inches from the camera, Wilder creates a rare work that scorches the celluloid it was made on. A disaster at the box office when first released, the film was a hit overseas in Europe where critics liked it for Wilder’s attack on American ethics, even winning the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. Wilder was stung by the bad reviews and poor box office and retreated over the next several years, sticking to adaptations of plays and novels. It was not until 1959 with “Some Like it Hot” that he would do another original screenplay. Critics in the U.S. must have taken the attack personally which may account for the hostile reviews. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.”   I guess Mr. Crowther could not take a joke, especially when the morbid joke is on his profession.

Continue reading

The Arrangement (1969) Elia Kazan

The Arrangement poster

“The Arrangement” opened to mostly terrible reviews in  November of 1969. Vincent Canby of the New York Times said, “The Arrangement” is Elia Kazan’s most romantic movie. It may also be his worst…”  Later on Canby in the same review he says,  “The Arrangement” reeks with slightly absurd movie chic but, unlike Douglas Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” or Vincente Minnelli’s “Two Weeks in Another Town,” it’s not only not much fun, but it’s a mess of borrowed styles.”  Harsh words and while I am not going to claim that “The Arrangement” is a lost masterpiece or even a satisfying film that has grown better with time, the film is not the mess Mr. Canby seemed to think it was.

The Arrangement1    Based on Kazan’s successful novel (it was on the New York Times bestseller list for 37 weeks)  which ran over 500 pages and had to be condensed down to a film slightly over two hours. It is the story of Evangelos Arness, a man who spent his life selling out, he even changed his name to Eddie Anderson. Eddie is a successful advertising executive  married to Florence (Deborah Kerr), they live in a large house with servants. The marriage is affable, they seem to have it all, she seems content, Eddie we find out is not.

The Arrangement still    On his way to work Eddie cracks up, both figuratively and literally when he lets go of the wheel of his sports car and crashes into a truck in the next lane. Not able to not willing to speak he remains silent during his recovery drifting in and out of painful recollections of his childhood with a father who intimidated and dominated him and his mother. These memories are intermixed with visions of his affair with Gwen (Faye Dunaway), a sexy bright independent office associate who finds it painful that Eddie has sold out and how much he must hurt him to imagine what he could have been.

When Eddie physically recovers, his sanity is still in question. His father is taken ill, Eddie goes to New York to stay with the dying man but their time together only brings back the memories of his anguished childhood. He meets up with Gwen, who now has a child, she claims to not know who the father is. Gwen is living with another man, Charles, who asks nothing from her, even when she has affairs with other men, he is there for her.

The Arrangement lc2   Florence comes to New York, only to find Eddie back with Gwen (she literally finds them in bed together). Convinced that he is still unbalanced she make arrangements with the way too friendly family lawyer, Arthur (Hume Cronyn) to have him hospitalized. Eddie, who after a lifetime of being what everyone else wants only wants to be himself even if that means staying in a mental hospital. Gwen comes to get him out and they agree to make another go at a life together. When his father dies, at the cemetery Eddie is there with Gwen, Florence stands close to the family lawyer, her arm in his. They all seem to be okay with the arrangement.

Kazan wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Eddie, but Brando was reluctant to take on the role. Weather it was a fear of working with the man he did some of his greatest work with or it was too soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, which Brando claimed, he turned Kazan down.  The alternative choice was Kirk Douglas, which probably hurt the film. Nothing against Douglas but Brando would have brought a sensitivity and depth that Douglas lacks. Faye Dunaway, who first worked with Kazan in a Lincoln Center production of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall”, gives a perfectly pitched  performance as Gwen, a woman working in a man’s world, intelligent enough to rebel with wit and strength. She seems to have little respect for the men she worked with or for.

The Arrangement lc1  A criticism at the time of its release is the film was too choppy and Kazan could not find the key to slim down the massive book into a two hour cohesive film. What works for me is Dunaway’s performance, and by the way, she never looked better, plus a couple of other interesting scenes, one between Eddie and Florence at the boathouse and the scenes with Eddie and his father, Sam. “The Arrangement” is a hard film to recommend. It is slow in spots and I’ m sure some will find it disjointed and dull but if you look, you still see Kazan’s touch, the outsiders, in both Eddie and Gwen, a theme that he has used over the course of his brilliant career.