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

gun_crazy_peggy_cummins_still

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

45-TouchOfEvil-BFI

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

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

Women’s Prison (1955) Lewis Seiler

    Made in 1955, “Women’s Prison” is an early example of a sub-genre of films that has muddled along for more than 5o years without much change in storyline. There is the young waif (not your typical criminal type but a young innocent who through unfortunate circumstances became involved in a crime), the career criminal who is returning to the joint for the umpteenth time, the wise cracking sidekick, the cruel matrons, and the sadistic superintendent, in this case played by none other than Ida Lupino. Few of these films have ever risen above the level of exploitation, John Cromwell’s “Caged” (1951) the most obvious exception. The most unique and improbable feature about “Women’s Prison” is the prison itself, being a coed penitentiary, well almost. Split into two sections, the men’s and the women’s. There is a Warden (Barry Kelley) who runs the entire institution and a cruel female Superintendent, Amelia Van Zandt (Ida Lupino), who is in charge of the female wing.

     Van Zandt is no nonsense, borderline psychotic who runs the prison with an iron hand, minor infractions punished severely without remorse. It seems the root of Van Zandt’s sadistic nature is her incapability to establish an emotional relationship with a man and takes out her frustrations on the inmates. At least, we are given that explanation by the compassionate prison doctor (Howard Duff) who is in verbal battles with Van Zandt throughout the film. Yes, a woman cannot be fore filled without a man according to the doctor and of course, by the two writers credited of the script, Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur.

    The film begins when waif like Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter), convicted of manslaughter due to a car accident that caused the death of a young girl, and returning inmate Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) are delivered to the prison. Helene is immediately placed into solitary for a two-week stretch, on orders from Superintendent Van Zandt, which is too much for Helene’s fragile psyche and soon she is screaming uncontrollably. Annoyed by the constant ear-piercing crying, Van Zandt orders the matrons to strap Helene into a straight jacket and toss her into a padded cell. That ought to teach her! The following morning, the matrons find Helene comatose, probably from all that screaming. She is taken to the infirmary where prison’s doctor, the sensitive Doctor Crane lashes out at Van Zandt’s inhumane methods. Not taking any bullshit from this compassionate do-gooder, Van Zandt verbally strikes back at him by enlightening him to the fact she is only reforming these women and the harsh measurements are necessary in order to prepare them to function in society.  Helene manages to survive her ordeal in solitary and is eventually transferred into the general inmate population.

    The film’s switches its focus from Helene to another inmate Joan Burton (Audrey Totter), whose husband Glen (Warren Stevens) is also a prisoner in the male section of the prison.  Glen has discovered a secret passageway that leads to the women’s wings and sneaks over to visit his wife. Joan is scheduled to be released soon and being a loving husband, Glen wants to spend a little quality time with his wife before she departs. Apparently, one of his visits was a memorable one as Joan soon finds herself pregnant. When the Warden and Van Zandt discover the pregnancy, they want to know how Glen accomplished this breach in security, sneaking into the women’s wing that is, not getting his wife pregnant. The Warden can’t get any information out of Glen so he threatens Van Zandt giving her one week to find out from Joan the details or she is out of there.

    Van Zandt begins a methodical ritual of waking up the pregnant Joan every night dragging the expectant inmate to her office and attempting to force the woman to spill the beans on how her husband sneaked into the women’s section. Only problem is, Joan doesn’t know because Glen never revealed to her how he did it. Of course, the vile Van Zandt does not believe Joan’s claims of innocence and responds with vicious slaps across the inmate’s face. Finally, in a fit of rage Van Zandt knocks the pregnant Joan down to the floor.

    

 Unconscious, Joan ends up in the infirmary, so severely beaten she is on oxygen. Glen sneaks over again to visit her only to watch her die with him by her side. Almost magically, Glen pulls out a gun and goes after Van Zandt. Meanwhile Brenda and the other inmates upon learning of Joan’s death are set to riot. They burst into Van Zandt’s office, drag her out taking her hostage. The Warden sends in armed guards with tear gas to crush the uprising.

      So here, we have a riot in the women’s wing, a crazed husband with a gun on the hunt for Van Zandt, armed guards lobbing tear gas in and Van Zandt running, hiding and dodging everyone only to appropriately “hide” in the padded cell. The good Doctor, the only one with any common sense in this entire film is helpless to stop the out of control insanity.

    Overly melodramatic, with some laugh out loud situations you can easily understand how this film found its camp following in the early 1970’s. Ida Lupino, a very good actress, hams it up here, and one has to wonder if she was in on the joke. Then there is Ms. Lupino’s wardrobe. While the inmates all wear standard drab prison uniform type dresses, Ms. Lupino is dressed as if she fell off the pages of a 1950’s Vogue magazine ad. Lupino apparently, wanted her character to dress stylishly to emphasize the contrast between her control freak character and the lowly inmates.

     Lupino made this film right after the collapse of “The Filmakers”, the independent production company she formed with her former husband Collier Young. It was with “The Filmakers” that Lupino directed most of her films, “The Bigamist”, “Outrage” and “The Hitch-Hiker” and produced and acted in such works as “On Dangerous Ground”, “Beware My Lovely” and “Private Hell 36.”   When the company collapsed in 1955 (an ill-fated decision to go into film distribution, which Lupino fought against) Ida had to find work and “Women’s Prison” was her first post “The Filmakers” job. Interesting enough, Lupino would play a similar role some 17 years later in the made for TV movie, “Women in Chains.”

    Women in Prison films became very popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s though the premise changed very little. This included Roger Corman cheapie’s like “The Big Doll House” and its sequel “The Big Bird Cage”, both with Pam Grier, “Caged Heat”, directed by Jonathan Demme among many others. These films became so popular  that even made for television movies like the previously mentioned  “Women in Chains” (1972) again with Lupino and in 1982, “Born Innocent” with head twisting pea soup queen Linda Blair (who also made her own “R” rated WIP feature film, “Chained Heat”). Even the quaint murder mystery TV series “Murder She Wrote” had a WIP episode entitled “Jessica Behind Bars” that included Adrienne Barbeau in the cast.

     “Women’s Prison’ was directed by the pedestrian Lewis Seiler with a cast that includes along with Lupino, Howard Duff, her husband at the time, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore, Mae Clarke and Juanita Moore. The film was released by Columbia.

     You will notice I am giving this film only two stars out of five for many reasons including a hilarious overly melodramatic script, over the top acting and uninspired direction. That said, on another level, the film is a lot of unintentional campy fun much for the same reasons just mentioned. Just to see Lupino’s final scene padded cell antics makes this film worth viewing. On this basis I would rate the film ***1/2.  

**

The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson

     Humphrey Bogart in his last film plays is of work sportswriter Eddie Willis who lets himself be hired by crooked fight promoter, Nick Benko, helping him exploit giant Argentine boxer, Turo Moreno, who cannot punch his way out of a paper bag. Benko fixed all the fights that is until the championship match, where the current champ, Buddy Brannen, (Max Baer) promises to beat Turo to a pulp.

      Bogart, in this his last film before he died about a year or so later of cancer. He looks worn down and much older than the 57 or so years  he was at the time, but Bogie gives us once last great performance. Rod Steiger who gave an Oscar winning performance as a corrupt waterfront hood in “On the Waterfront” gives another terrific performance here as the crooked fight promoter, Benko. Jan Sterling plays Bogie’s wife who watches as he wavers with he own inner struggles on right and wrong and finally walks out on him. The cast also includes Nehemiah Persoff, and Harold J. Stone.

     “The Harder They Fall” is a tough look at the way, the Boxing racket was, corrupt and dirty. The film spares nothing.  The final boxing match between Brannen and Moreno is equally brutal to anything in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The film was based on a novel by Budd Shulberg who also has to his credits the story and screenplay for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” among others. Burnett Guffey’s gritty black and white photography evokes the slimy bleak atmosphere of the boxing world.    Shulberg, based his character, Moreno on Primo Canera, the 6 foot 8 inch Italian boxer,  whose manager Lou Soresi, not only stole most of Canera’s money leaving him broke, he was also connected to prohibition underworld figure Owney Madden that, led to rumors over the years that many of Canera’s fights were fixed.  In real life just like in the film, Max Baer who played Buddy Brannen, beat up Canera so brutally, his career was essentially finished. Also, look for Jersey Joe Walcott in a small role.  

    According to Wikipedia, “The Harder They Fall” has two different endings. In the DVD version, Eddie Willis demands that boxing be banned while in the second version, a softer ending that is usually broadcast on TV Eddie just suggests that boxing be banned.

More than fifty years after its release the film still hits you will a strong right to the gut.