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

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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

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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

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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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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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Dial M For Murder (1954) Alfred Hitchcock

“Dial M for Murder” was a successful play in both London and on Broadway (where it ran for 552 performances). Written by English playwright Frederick Knott (Write Me a Murder, Wait Until Dark), the hit play originally was turned down for production by London theater managers claiming there would be little interest in this sort of play. Eventually, the BBC showed interest and the play premiered on the British TV station in early 1952. The play made its West End debut when a businessman who owned a lease on the Westminster theater, and with no play ready to put into production, decided to take a chance and put on the low cost thriller with some of the same cast members from the television version. The show was a critical and commercial success.  In October 1952, the play opened in New York with Maurice Evans as Tony Wendice, (Ray Milland in the film). Evans had shrewdly acquired the North American rights to the play. Also in the Broadway cast were Anthony Dawson and John Williams, both who would recreate their roles later on screen. Williams won a Tony Award for his role as the Police Inspector.

Enter Alfred Hitchcock who loves a well plotted mystery.  Hitch was at the end of his Warner Brothers contract and needed a film to complete his obligations.  Women in peril has always been a favorite subject for writers ) and film directors, so the blending of these two talents was a natural fit. Knott wrote the screenplay which remained faithful to the play. Unlike most filmmakers, when they film a play, Hitchcock did not “open up” the story. He kept it confined to the apartment, where the entire play takes place, except for a couple of short scenes outside the apartment and one scene at a men’s club. Continue reading

High Noon (1952) Fred Zinnemann

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“This is just a dirty little town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.”– The Judge

First a confession!  Dave over at the excellent Goodfella’s Movie Blog is in the middle of a year-by-year countdown of the best movie of each year. If you have yet to visit his site please do, you won’t be sorry. Now that’s not the confession, so what is, you ask? Well, in my comments at Dave’s blog for the 1952 best film selection, I stated that I was not a big fan of Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”; subsequently I did not include it in my own list of favorite films for that year. Recently, TCM ran the film again, and unlike the many times it has been aired before, I did not ignore,  but decided to revisit it for the first time in many years. So here is my big confession, truth be told, I was wrong, “High Noon” is one of the great films of 1952 and one of the great westerns of all time! Now this won’t come as a shock to many of you who even without my proclamation already knew “High Noon” was a great movie. Frankly, I am just catching up.

Now that I got that weight off my chest, I can move on…

John Wayne proclaimed his dislike for this movie, seeing it as a parable for the blacklisting and anti-communist furor that was taking hold in the early 1950’s.  He found it disgraceful that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tosses his badge into the dirt at the end of the film. Seven years later, Wayne and Howard Hawks would made “Rio Bravo” as a response to the radical “High Noon.” As late as 1971, Wayne, in a Playboy magazine interview, called “High Noon”, “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” If Wayne disliked what the film stood for, Hawks abhorred it, insulting his sense of professionalism. He therefore made a film where the sheriff refuses help from the town’s citizens, instead accepting help from only other “outsiders” like the young gunslinger and the town drunk. Whereas, Will Kane, in “High Noon”, was an accepted member of the town’s social circle with friends. John T. Chance, in “Rio Bravo” separates himself from the town, he is a professional lawman, an outsider and not part of the town’s citizenship.

highnoon-Coop-Kelly_1_     Ironically, over the years, people and even countries, from both sides of the political spectrum have come to find their own personal values in this film. The former Soviet Union accused the film of being “a glorification of the individual.”  Pro-McCarthyites saw the film as communist propaganda and anti-American. Yet President Ronald Reagan loved the film for it lead character’s “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.” Both Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton loved the movie. Clinton ran the film no less than 17 times while in office! He even recommended it to then incoming President Bush.  So how can one film be interpreted and satisfying on both sides of the political fence? Possibly, because, no matter where you stand politically, the film has come to symbolize the courage and perseverance an individual needs during hard and difficult times. Here was one man who stood up for what he believed in, despite the abandonment, the lack of conviction and courage from the community he helped build and protect. Perhaps the Soviet Union was right, “High Noon” is the glorification of the individual, how American!

Even before the film was completed, staunch conservatives were attacking it. The film was made during the height of the anti-communist witch-hunts. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was finding communist everywhere including in your toaster! Hollywood was under siege, forced by Congress to rid itself of any writer, actor, director who even smelled of leftist leanings. Socially conscience filmmakers were driven out of the country, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey to name two, while others were put in jail (the Hollywood 10).  Still, more lost their livelihood and had to retreat to theater or get out of the business all together. Screenwriter Carl Forman, a known left-winger, was eventually fired by producer Stanley Kramer who was under pressure to do so. There is plenty of irony when you consider that star Gary Cooper was conservative, as was composer Dimitri Tiomkin, both card-carrying members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist group that worked with the HUAC in “cleaning up” Hollywood. Additionally, Tex Ritter who sang the title song shared similar sentiments. Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of rock singer David Crosby) were “gray listed” for working in the film. producer Stanley Kramer and director Fred Zinnemann had liberal views and while not blacklisted were considered sympathizers.   high_noon_clock

The plot is simple, three men ride into the town of Hadleyville, one is Ben Miller, brother of recently released ex-convict Frank Miller, who is arriving on the noon train. Five years ago, Marshal Will Kane sent Miller to prison. Originally, Miller was sentenced to death until the courts changed his sentence to life in prison. Eventually he was released after serving only five years. At the time of his sentencing Miller swore vengeance and now he has come back to collect. This same day, Will Kane is retiring as Marshal and marrying his young sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly). Right after the ceremony, word arrives that Miller is out of prison and coming to town, to kill Kane. His neighbors tell him it is best if he and his wife leave and disappear. They hustle the couple quickly out of town; however, once on the trail Kane has second thoughts. His wife tells him it is crazy to return, Kane says he has never run from anyone before; he has to go back. When he seeks help from the town people, they refuse. Some resented Kane’s tactics while he was Marshal. Others say since Will is no longer Marshal, why should they risk their lives.  Some thought life was better years ago when Frank Miller was here and the town was wide open. Kane’s Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits, blaming Will for not speaking up for him so he could inherit the Marshal’s job upon his retirement. Even the judge who sentenced Miller is packing and leaving town, urging Kane to reconsider and leave too. “The man is crazy”, he says.

High_Noon_poster  Approximately 1 hour and 11 minutes into the film, director Zinnemann and his editors, create a mosaic of tension, and a class in film editing. It starts with Kane sitting at his desk writing out his last will and testament, Dimitri Tiomkin’s music begins a tense pounding. Kane looks up at the clock, in extreme close up we see the swinging of the pendulum, the camera moves upward toward the hands of the clock, which reads 11:58. We cut to the outlaws waiting at the train station, then to a low angle shot of the tracks. Next, we see the interior of the church, close-ups of the solemn parishioners. Zinnemann cuts to the saloon, its customers. Back to the pendulum swinging, Will Kane at his desk, a long shot of the exterior of the town, cut to another angle of the town. Back to the railroad tracks, the killers waiting. By this point, the pace of the cuts have accelerated. Zinnemann cuts to a close up of the previous Marshal sitting in his chair, a friend cowering in his home, a close-up of Helen (Katy Jurado) the saloon owner,  and then a close up of Amy. Back to the swinging pendulum, and then the clock, as it is about to strike noon. Quick cuts to the killers, Amy and then, the sudden sound of the train’s whistle. It’s high noon. The camera is back on the tracks and far off we see the smoke puffing from the train engine, the music stops, the quietness is startling; we are back looking at Kane.

It’s time.

Kane comes outside on to the street, he sees Amy and Helen on a buckboard riding toward the train station. Zinnemann now gives us a shot the Marshal in close up. As he looks around Zinnemann’s camera begins to pull back. A crane shot, the camera moves back and up high over the entire town. The streets are empty except for the Marshal.high still

In the final sequence, we see Kane marching toward his confrontation with the band of four who are walking toward him from the other end of town. The gun battle ends as we expect with Kane the victor but only after he gets some unexpected help from his Quaker wife, who came back from the train when she heard the first gunshots, and shoots one of the outlaws in the back just as he was about to kill Will.

The town’s citizens come out of hiding surrounding Kane and his wife. He looks at them in disgust, takes off his badge and tosses it into the dirt. The Marshal and his wife climb up on the buckboard and ride off.

“High Noon” is less than 90 minutes long and takes place in almost real time starting with the three men riding into town and the wedding of Kane and his young bride. Time is a recurring motif in the film. We constantly have shot of clocks, men looking at watches as the minutes tick away toward the arrival of the noon train and Frank Miller.  The film is unconventional in many ways. Unlike most westerns, there is little action here, except for a fight between Kane and his former deputy Harvey and the climatic ending. At one point, the Marshal openly admits to Harvey that he is afraid. There is also no talk of the west being the opening of a new frontier or the beginning of a new community, themes common at the time to western film mythology. “High Noon” is nothing a typical western is suppose to be, it is the antithesis of John Ford’s more romanticized version of west. No wonder The Duke hated it.

Additionally, much was made at the time of the age difference between Cooper, who was fifty-one, and looked a lot older (he was ill), and the young and beautiful Grace Kelly who was about twenty-three.

high-noon-Kelly-Juarado11    Cooper gives an impressive performance as Kane. Looking visually worried, sweat on his face, bound by a sense of honor, he finds himself standing alone amongst the town people he swore to protect.  Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper is one of cinema’s iconic western heroes,  having appeared in “The Virginia”, “The Plainsman”, “The Westerner”, “Vera Cruz” and “Man of the West” among others.

“High Noon” is one of the most beautifully framed and photographed films, brilliantly shot with deep rich blacks. I was truly impressed by the framing of many of the images that could have easily been plucked from the film and work elegantly as black and white still photographs. The man responsible was Floyd Crosby, who surprisingly did not even receive a nomination for Best B&W Cinematography that year. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin has become as iconic as Cooper’s image walking down the empty streets of the town. The haunting title song with the word’s “do not forsake me oh my darling”, a constant reminder that Kane has been abandoned by everyone. Tiomkin by the way would score Hawks “Rio Bravo.” The film also has some great character actors including Lee Van Cleef as one of the killer’s, Lon Chaney Jr. as the former sheriff, Harry Morgan as a so called friend of Kane’s, Katy Jurado as the saloon owner and former lover to both Will Kane and Frank Miller. Most recently, she had hooked up with the young immature deputy played by Lloyd Bridges. Other well known charcter actors include Thomas Mitchell, Jack Elam Otto Kruger and Harry Morgan.

The film’s political overtones are still there, a reminder of uglier times. Though they have faded from memory of some, younger viewers may even be unaware of any political overtones; just read the comments on IMDB.  Still the film resonates with many in the audience today. The politics of prisoners receiving early releases, their sentences being reduced is as timely today with audiences as it is portrayed in the film. Note the discussion about this topic in the church when Will seeks help from the churchgoers. One of the town people speak out saying Miller’s release from prison is not their fight, it is the responsibility of those northern politicians, who released him from prison. In the final analysis, “High Noon” does not fit snugly into any one philosophy. It does not take a straight liberal or a conservative stance. Viewers looking for a particular ideology that fits neatly into their vision will be disappointed. Politically, there is no comfort food here such as conservatives find when they watch FOX news or liberals find watching MSNBC.