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

Advertisements

The Big Combo (1955) Joseph H. Lewis

Sexually and sadistically charged “The Big Combo,” is a paradigm for what can be accomplished with spare change filmmaking. This film, and the earlier work, “Gun Crazy” (1950) are director Joseph H. Lewis’ masterpieces.  While on the surface, a straight forward cops and gangster film, Lewis created a world of brutally bold, off beat characters filled with dark shadows and high contrast lighting, courtesy of the brilliance of the master noir cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, He Walked By Night, Raw Deal and The Crooked Way).

Continue reading

The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis

undercover1

Glenn Ford is no stranger to the dark streets of film noir, he’s walked them many times before, in “Gilda”, “The Big Heat” and “Human Desire.” In Joseph H. Lewis’ 1949 film, “The Undercover Man,” a low rent though first-class crime drama filmed in a semi-documentary nourish style. Treasury Agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) who is out to bring down the gangland syndicate leader known only as “The Big Fellow” leads a criminal investigation. It would sound ludicrous if it were not true that the IRS brought to justice real life gangster Al Capone, whose story this film tells a fictionalize version of. Based on a Collier’s magazine article called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank Wilson, it tells the story of how the federal government finally caught Al Capone on income tax evasion.  The screenplay is credited to Sidney Boehm and Jack Rubin, though independent producer Robert Rossen is said to have had a say in the script.  Boehm would go on to write many noir films including “The Big Heat”, “Violent Saturday”, “Mystery Street” and “Side Street.”

Burnett Guffey’s gritty dark lit cinematography is filled with murky overcrowded city streets, dark movie theaters and seedy hotel rooms not fit for a two-dollar hooker but good enough for federal enforcement officers to shack up in during the investigation. It is a dark dingy world filled with squealers, bookies and murderers. In this part of town, the bookies are dropping dead, quicker than flies attacked by a blast of bug spray.undercover-poster1

Glenn Ford is a dour actor who barely breaks a smile here until the film’s ending. His government agent is at times tormented, driven, paranoid and almost beaten. He’s prepared to give up his job, until the mother of slain bookie Salvatore Rocco, hands over her son’s books, and tells him how she and many others came to America to get away from the Mafia in Italy, and how thanks to brave men like him, she and others no longer have to live in fear. The woman’s story brings tears to Agent Warren’s eyes and he decides stay on the case. Joseph H. Lewis states in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that this scene was shot in one take using three cameras. He felt it was the only way he could capture the realistic emotions as portrayed by the actors. Nina Foch, who would have the lead role in Lewis’ “My Name is Julia Ross” is Judith, Warren’s wife. While she has some nice moments, Foch is generally wasted in a role that is of minor importance to the film. James Whitmore is on hand, in his film debut, as fellow T-Man George Pappas.

Lewis spent most of his career in the bargain basement department of filmmakers, though he proved himself a master of camera placement with some of the most unconventional shots to come out of poverty row. He was given the name “Wagon Wheels Joe” after he did one low budget oater that had more cowboys than actors in the cast. Since they could barely read their lines, Lewis, in order to distract the audience from the lack of talent, shot a scene with the camera looking through a wagon wheel. The shot was considered so artistic; it gave Lewis a reputation for placing his camera at unusual angles.

undercover-still1  While “The Undercover Man” was a second feature, it had a budget of about one million dollars and turned out to be the film on the double bill everyone wanted to see. Lewis’ noir films like the aforementioned “My Name is Julia Ross”, along with “So Dark the Night”, “Gun Crazy” and “The Big Combo” are required viewing for any serious film enthusiast.. Along with his noir work, Lewis’ filmography consisted of westerns, generally starring Bob Baker or Johnny Mack Brown. In the 1950’s he made two westerns with Randolph Scott however, his oddest western was the 1958 film “Terror in a Texas Town”, that opens with Sterling Hayden walking down the town street carrying a harpoon! There were war films like “Retreat Hell,” films of intrigue and even the East Side Kids in Poverty Row stuff like “Boys of the City”, “Pride of the Bowery” and “That Gang of Mine.” In the 1960’s, Lewis spent the final days of his career in television doing mostly western series like “The Rifleman”,  “Bonanza”, “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” He died in 2000.

“The Undercover Man” is a good crime thriller. It will not make you forget “My Name is Julia Ross” or “Gun Crazy” or “The Big Combo”, though it will remind you of what a large talent can do with just a small amount of money.

The Undercover Man will be on TCM on August 7th at 10PM EST.