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

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

Harper (1966) Jack Smight

Harper3 By 1966, the private eye had been regulated to television. Shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye, Honey West and Johnny Staccato are just a few of the better known shows that began in the late 1950’s and/or the early 1960’s. Part of the reason for the decline on the big screen had to do with the rise of James Bond and his fellow international spies. Foreign intrigue, fancy gadgets, sexy women and criminals with more on their mind than just robbery and mayhem superseded the bedroom antics of the lowly P.I. Continue reading

Act of Violence Revisited

Act ov violence

Mary Astor’s career was a long one going back to the early 1920’s. Over the years her career continued to grow until an infamous marital scandal broke in 1936 while she was making William Wyler’s “Dodsworth.”  During the court battle her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe threatened to submit Astor’s spicy, fully detailed, diary as evidence of her infidelities with George S. Kaufmann and other celebrities. Ultimately, the diary was never offered to the court. Astor’s career could have been in jeopardy, since as with most actors at the time, a morality clause was included as part of the contract. Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn refused to fire her and she continued in her role as Edith Cortwright, Huston’s lover in the film.  “Dodsworth” was a hit and Astor amazingly entered what could be considered her peak period with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Hurricane,” “Midnight,” “Brigham Young” leading her into arguably her best year, 1941, with “The Maltese Falcon” and an Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Great Lie.”

After the successful year of 1941, along with its follow up with films like “Across the Pacific” and Preston Sturges, “The Palm Beach Story,” both in 1942, Mary Astor’s career hit another serious bump in the road. She made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM where they pretty much regulated her to playing “mother” roles in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Little Women.” In the 1944 musical, Astor, only 38 at the time, played the mother of Judy Garland who was 22. Suffice it to say, Astor was not happy. One of the few meatier roles MGM tossed Mary’s way came in 1948. Continue reading

Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles

The camera focuses in on what is a homemade time bomb. A young unidentified man carries it to a car placing it inside the trunk. Unknowingly, an American with his bimbo girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. The camera pulls back; we are in a sleazy Mexican border town. The camera follows the car. Coming into the moving camera’s range is Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican police officer and his newlywed American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). They   cross the street heading toward the American side of the border. We pass one bar and strip joint after another; the music, jazz, rock and roll, blaring out from each one. At the border, Vargas stops and talks with the border guards, the two Americans in their car pass through, the girl mumbling something about hearing a ticking sound, but no one pays her much attention. Moments later the car explodes into a fiery ball. With the strategic assistance of cinematographer Russell Metty, Welles frames this opening all in one astounding continuous long running brilliant shot. Continue reading

Act of Violence (1948) Fred Zinnemann

In the late 1940’s, director Fred Zinnemann made a loose trilogy of films depicting the effects of the post war aftermath. First up was “The Search” (1948) with Montgomery Clift as an American soldier helping a young boy search for his mother. The last film was “The Men” (1950) with Marlon Brando, in his film debut, as a paralyzed G.I. attempting to adjust to his new post war life.  In between these two works came the noirish thriller,” Act of Violence.”

“Act of Violence” explores the choices one makes creating the sometimes thin line between being a hero and an informer. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war hero, maybe. He has a beautiful wife, (a young fresh faced, Janet Leigh), a young boy, a thriving business, a house in the California suburbs and is well respected in the business community. He goes on weekend fishing trips with his neighbor while the wives are happily at home. Into this tranquil and serene world comes Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a limping, gun carrying, revenge seeking former army buddy who is dead set on killing Frank. Parkson is sinister looking, seething with hate. Joe cannot forget or forgive what happened back when they were prisoners of war in a Nazi stalag camp. Continue reading

The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur” is a dark western that ranks up there with Ford’s “The Searchers”, Hawks “Rio Bravo” and Zimmemann’s “High Noon”, an exquisite study of character relationships, cynicism, betrayal and redemption with the added scenic beauty of a master painting.

The plot is simple, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter running from his past is hell bent on bringing outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in for reward money. Unwillingly he accepts the help of two men he meets along the way, an old out of luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged unbalanced soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they catch Vandergroat, he has with him the pretty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a pal who professes her love for him.  On the long road back Vandergroat makes multiple efforts to divide up the loyalty of the three men splitting them apart and turning them against each other, hopefully long enough so he can escape.

It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at  times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching.  Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.

Stewart’s Howard Kemp is an unhinged anti-hero determined to get the $,5000 bounty money on Vandergroat’s head so he can buy back the ranch his fiancée sold from behind his back. Still he cannot do it without the help of his two untrustworthy partners. Early in the film his attempt to scale a rocky mountain where Vandergroat is held up fails, burning his hands as he falls. He succeeds in capturing Vandergroat only with the assistance of the unstable but younger Anderson.

There is very little typical western action in the film except for an Indian attack early on in the film, yet Mann and screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who received an Oscar nomination) continuously keep the tension high through the characters interaction filled with mistrust and the constant threat for violence.  At one point Vandergroat get hold of a gun and Howard almost out of control faces him down telling him to come on and draw, knowing he can outshoot him. Vandergroat knows it too and does not take the bait, telling the enraged Howard he is going to have to shoot him in cold blood if he wants him dead.  Anderson yells out to kill him saying they’ll get the reward dead or alive.  The old prospector stops the mad chaos before a shot is fired.

All the men come to a violent end except for Howard. Greed does in the old prospector when he falls for Vandergroat’s story about sharing in a non-existent goldmine and is shot dead once he unties the outlaw’s hands. Anderson drowns trying to recover Vandergroat’s body in the wild river and the outlaw is deceived by Lina after she has come to grips that he is a murderer and gives Howard an assist in their final confrontation.

In the end Stewart redeems himself coming to grips with his demons after retrieving Vandergroat’s body from the river (dragging it like a beached whale); he breaks down realizing that the bitterness that has engulfed him has made him less of a person. We are left to assume he and Lina go off to California and start a new life together.

Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.

I love seeing James Stewart portraying such a multi dimensional character. Too often we think of Stewart as the guy next door yet later in his career he took on roles that challenged this perception with films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and especially in the films he made with Mann. Check out this overview of Stewart’s career that was written by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector blog, he spells it all out for you a lot better than I can. Also check out at Wonders in the Dark Sam Juliano’s  wrap of the recent Anthony Mann festival at the Film Forum in New York.

*****

Psycho: Sex, Violence, Advertising and Going to the Movies

How do you write about Psycho and not be redundant? There has been so much written about the film, the director, and the cultural influence that one has to wonder if there are any new avenues left to explore. The number of books devoted to Psycho stands at least number six not including the original novel by Robert Bloch.

The Moment of Psycho – David Thompson

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho – Stephen Rubello

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A  Casebook  – Robert Kolker, Ed.

Psycho in the Shower – Philip J. Skerry

Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller – Janet Leigh

A Long Hard Look at Psycho – Raymond Durgnat

Add to this, the list of books on Hitchcock’s film  and biographies about Hitch and well there is enough reading  to keep you busy for a while.

Still, here I am writing about one of my favorite Hitchcock films. In 1960, Psycho was a film in the forefront. In many ways, it was revolutionary. Hitchcock slyly fought the censors managing to get more sex and violence into one film that ever before, that is, at least since the Production Code came into effect in 1934.  But the revolution was not just about sex and violence. Psycho also ground-breaking in advertising, in sophisticated filmgoers thinking about American film as art and in changing the movie going habits of the public. Psycho did not just break all the rules, it created new ones.

Movie going in the old days….

“It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning!”

“No one will be admitted except at the very beginning of the picture”

No one…BUT NO ONE…will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”

Before television, home video, home theater, streaming, video games and Xbox for entertainment, the public went to the movies.  As much as two or three times a week. Local movie houses changed features at least twice a week to accommodate the ever-hungry audience. That began to change once the dreaded menace of the film studios, television, started showing up in everyone’s home. Audiences began staying home, attendance dropped dramatically. The studios fought back with CinemaScope, 3-D and epic road show productions like The Robe and Ben-Hur.One other factor also came into play, the slow and continuous destruction of the Production Code. What did not change was the habit moviegoers had of just going to a show at any time. They did not bother looking in the newspaper to see what time the feature started, theaters had continuous showings, most folks just entered the theater in the middle of the picture and stayed until that point came in the film where they arrived. It was a strange practice, kind of like starting a book with chapter five, reading it to the end and then going back and read the first four chapters.

That all began to change in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock presented a small, made for less than $1 million dollars, black and white horror film called Psycho.  Theater owners were not happy about this forced ruling  that NO ONE WILL BE ADMITTED TO THE THEATER AFTER THE START OF EACH PERFORMANCE,  fearing a loss of revenue. Were filmgoers going to wait until the next starting time? Those fears were placated once they saw the lines form around the block.  Hitchcock actually wanted to do this when he released “Vertigo” a few years earlier. Theater owners fought it and there was really no dramatic effect, unlike in Psycho that could be argued for doing so. With Psycho, seeing the last part of the film first would ruin the film. Besides, Hitchcock owned 60% of Psycho and could demand anything he wanted. It was his movie both artistically and financially. It was a slow process but audiences eventually would begin to attend movies at the starting time and not just drop in at any time.

Censorship Sex and Violence

Paramount Studios was reluctant to make the film, nervous about the content, so Hitch had to arrange financing though his own production company and shot the film on the Universal Studio lots though Paramount would eventually agree to release the film.

Hitchcock begins Psycho with a shot of the city of Phoenix, and as the Saul Bass credits appeared the camera moves across the city closing in as the final credit reads “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” on one hotel window, the hotel room of two of the leading characters. They are semi-dressed, in bed, participating in a lunchtime tryst! This kind of sensuous bare flesh eroticism was unparalleled in American cinema at the time. Right from the opening scenes Hitchcock was rocking the boat. Like Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and The Moon is Blue, Hitchcock and Psycho was a pioneering force in breaking through the stringent production code that had been enforced since 1934. The code demanded that punishment be handed out, sex between unmarried couples could not go unpunished. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) would meet her maker, wacko Norman Bates, soon enough but strangely, Sam Loomis is not punished for his behavior. Was there a double standard here, the woman had to pay, but the guy was off the hook?  The amount of screen time Marion Crane spends in her bra and half-slip is unprecedented. Not one,  but three scenes, the good Marion wears white undies in the opening scene, however after she steals the $40,000 we see her in a black bra and half-slip.  

This leads us to the famous shower sequence, a Hitchcock potpourri of sex and violence. It is a visually brilliant sequence that has been written and discussed over and over. The editing of this sequence had more than 70  cuts. What did you see, what did you think you saw. Was Leigh naked? Did we, the audience, see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin? Give credit to Hitch for constructing such an intricate piece of work that here we are, almost fifty years later, still discussing it and still in awe. Despite all the blood and gore, we have seen over the past five decades, seeing “Mother” entering the bathroom, the knife coming down repeatedly, Marion in the shower screaming, blood going down the drain, her slumped body leaning over the tub, the amazing close up of the dead woman’s eye as the camera pulls back. This is still shocking today and that may be because art conquers all.  The actual shooting of this sequence in the shower was a tough one for Janet Leigh, as she could not blink though water was pouring from the shower. In the end, they had to use an optical shot. Though the shower scene runs for only approximately 3 minutes, it took seven days to film.

Then there is the toilet bowl flushing. Marion tears up her mathematical equation, subtracting $700 from $40,000 to arrive at $33,300 of stolen money remaining that she will have to return. Guess math was not her strong suit. Anyway, she tears up the note and flushes it down the toilet! OMG, a toilet flushing right there are the big screen! Does this mean movie stars go to the bathroom like the rest of us! Who knew? Yes, this was the first time a toilet bowl was seen on-screen flushing and all.

 

Advertising

“No one…BUT NO ONE…will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”

The poster for “Psycho” featured  Janet Leigh, a major movie star at the time in a bra and a half-white slip.

Never before had a star of her magnitude been featured so blatantly in the advertising. She even appeared on theater marquees semi-dressed. Hitchcock demanded that no one be allowed into the theater once the film began. You must see it from the beginning.  As mentioned earlier, theater owners were not happy about that. They worried audiences turned away would not return. For the first time many filmgoers stood in line to watch a movie.

The Psycho movie trailer is unusual in that it is about 10 minutes long, and it consists of Hitchcock giving us a droll  tour of the Bates Motel and other scenes of mayhem. The trailer was made after the completion of the film and Janet Leigh was on to another assignment by this time, subsequently, Hitchcock had Vera Miles put on a blonde wig and scream in the shower for the trailer scene as it came to an abrupt end.

 

Some Notes on the Film 

Based on a novel by Robert Bloch who used Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein as a role model for his character of Norman Bates. Joseph Stefano was hired to write the screenplay after a failed attempt by James Cavanaugh, a writer who worked on several “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” scripts. Bloch’s Norman Bates was changed from a short fat unattractive man into the tall, slim and more attractive Anthony Perkins who was Hitchcock’s choice from the inception.

Before Janet Leigh got the part, Lana Turner, Piper Laurie, Martha Hyer  were some of the actresses considered or mentioned but never seriously. Leigh’s homespun image and her dramatic role in Orson Welles’  Touch of Evil won her the role. Leigh was not the typical blonde heroine we usually associate with Hitchcock, the icy elegant style of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman. Though just as beautiful, Leigh’s beauty  is more down to earth and seemingly more attainable.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times continued his misguided ways by giving “Psycho” a mixed review. However, he seemed to have a change of heart toward the end of the year when he named it as one of the top 10 films of the year. Other critics called it tasteless, cheap and exploitive; Yet Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News gave it four stars (her highest rating).

With Psycho Hitchcock changed the perceived rules of movies. He overthrew the unwritten, though accepted parameters that were in place, the agreement between the filmmaker and the audience. He does this most blatantly with our treasured star system. The credits announce that there are two major stars, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The unwritten contract is that both of these stars will be in the film for the entire length, be it one and a half hours, two hours or more.  When Janet Leigh is killed after approximately 40 minutes, we the audience, are doubly shocked. First, by the sheer never before seen brutality of the attack,  as we see “Mother’s” knife so violently ripping through the shower curtain and into the naked body of Marion Crane with Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins heightening the bloodcurdling moment.

In another way the killing off of one of the stars of the picture, so unexpectedly, so early on was just as unsettling. Audiences already stunned by the viciousness of the murder now are unnerved by the unexpected disposal of the star. The audience is left wondering, where do we go from here? Hitchcock made it even more unsettling because just before the horrific murder, we watched Marion having something to eat with Norman, and she decided she was going back to Phoenix, return the money, and attempt to make amends. He made us like Marion, gave us hope that somehow it will all be all right for her. We empathize with her and then Hitch pulled the rug out from under us all.

Composer Bernard Herrmann did not even receive an Academy Award nomination for his magnificent  score that contributes so much tension to the film. The Oscar that year went to  Ernst Gold for his score of Otto Preminger’s Exodus. Gold also won a Grammy for the same score while Herrmann was again denied any recognition. Try to imagine Psycho without the magnificent dramatic musical score and you will realize the importance of Herrmann’s contribution.

Some of Hitchcock’s favorite themes run through Psycho.  Food, voyeurism, use of mirrors and reflective surfaces and of course birds. From Norman’s hobby of taxidermy to Norman telling Marion “she eats like a bird, to the city of Phoenix (mythical bird) and Marion’s last name Crane.

Robert Bloch received only $9,000 for the film rights to his novel. He never knew who was purchasing the book until after it was sold. By the time, Bloch paid of his agent and taxes he was left with less than $6,000.

Below are some additional lobby cards, posters and photos.