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

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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

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

A Case of Catch-22

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”You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.    (Joseph Heller, Catch-22) Continue reading

Book Review: My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

orson1Have you ever wished you could be a fly on the wall of a brilliant conversationalist, a raconteur, an artist who freely speaks out on just about everyone and everything in his world? That’s just what readers of the new book, My Lunches with Orson: Conversation Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, get to do. Yes, it’s the OrsonWelles, the man who made what many consider the greatest film ever made. Welles, of course, was also a respected actor, though he sold his services in many bad films for the money to make his own. Welles also indulged in pushing second rate products in ads like Paul Masson wine and would pop up on talk shows every other week. He was a man of taste and contradiction.

The book compiles a series of conversations recorded during the last years of Welles fascinating life. The original tapes remained “lost” for years until editor, Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; Down and Dirty Pictures), urged independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom to have them transcribed.  What’s revealed is a fascinating, paradox study of a cinematic genius who knew even in his final years that he was better and brighter than just about anyone else in town. 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

70th Anniversary of War of the Worlds Broadcast

    A slight detour to Radioland today being this is the 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles famed “War of the Worlds” broadcast on CBS Radio on October 30th 1938. For those not in the know Welles and the Mercury Theater broadcast a Halloween treat that many listeners assumed was the real thing and frightened people across the country. Listeners who tuned in at the beginning were aware that this was a radio show and not a real life news broadcast, however, many listeners tuned in after the start of the show and did not know what was happening.

    Based on H.G, Wells novel, the setting was changed to Grover Mills, New Jersey which lent to its authenticity. The New York Daily New headline on the following day screamed “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.”  The article began  A  radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” – which thousands of people misunderstood as a news broadcast of a current catastrophe in New Jersey – created almost unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco between 8 and 9 o’clock last night. The panic started when an announcer suddenly interrupted the program of a dance orchestra – which was part of the dramatization – to “flash” an imaginary bulletin that a mysterious “meteor” had struck New Jersey, lighting the heavens for miles around.”

    Most of the show was broadcast as a series of news bulletins which added to its authenticity. Adding to the tension for many was the real life fact that Hitler was on the move in Europe and the U.S. would soon be drawn into the war.

    According to various newspaper’s local hospitals were crowded with people in shock, The telephone company was overloaded with panic phone calls and some people even attempted to kill themselves rather than be taken by aliens. Studies done later indicate that the wide spread “panic” of millions of people was blown out of proportion by the newspapers who were concerned that Radio, fairly new at the time, would kill the newspaper business. Yellow journalism was a common occurrence in those days. Over the years, the stories about the broadcast have grown and today it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. There definitely was panic however, as to how widespread the panic was, is in question.

     In the aftermath, CBS, Welles, who was the director and narrator, and the Mercury Theater  were not punished or fined, however, CBS promised not to ever use “we interrupt this  program” for dramatic purposes again. Within less than three years, Orson Welles would go to Hollywood and direct his first film, the masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”

   In 1957 CBS’s Studio One dramatized the event with an episode called “The Night America Trembled.” In 1975, A made of TV move called “The Night That Panicked America” was broadcast on ABC TV with a cast that included Vic Morrow, Meredith Baxter and John Ritter.

The Stranger (1946) Orson Welles

     “The Stranger” is considered an odd duck in Welles directorial hierarchy. The film was seen as a test to see if Welles could work within the system, meaning could he stay within budget.  Many film scholars have dismissed it as contract job, unlike his first two films and his later work, which all had Welles personal stamp all over them. The film even slipped into the public domain resulting in a lot of cheap poor reproduced DVD’s which has not helped enhance its reputation. Only recently did MGM release a high quality version for home video.  While the movie does not have the flare or the visual stunningness of “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger” has enough Wellesian, touches to distinguish it as a Welles film and even more important it is an entertaining film to watch.

    Today, there is nothing original about the story we’ve seen it before, the man on the run who changes his identity living in a small town (Shadow of a Doubt). The former Nazi war criminal who fled, and is now living in another country (The Boys of Brazil, Apt Pupil), yet Welles style is evident. We see it in the long takes, the expressionistic lighting and unusual camera angles. While the story today is common, in 1946 it was not. “The Stranger” is also notable for its use, only a year after the end of World War 2, of actual concentration camp footage used to reveal the truth about Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) to his father in-law and wife.

    Welles himself pretty much disowned “The Stranger”, seeing it only as a ‘gun for hire’ job. It is the only film he directed where someone else wrote the script (Victor Trivas), and where he did not have control over editing. He also had problems with producer Sam Spiegel. Originally, Welles wanted Agnes Moorhead in the role of Inspector Wilson however, Spiegel wanted a name with more star power and Edward G. Robinson was signed for the role. Welles and Robinson did not get along, during the filming.  Spiegel would go on to produce epics like “The Bridge on the Rive Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

    The plot involves a convicted war criminal, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), who is released from prison in hope that he will lead officials to the more notorious Nazi, Franz Kindler. An investigator from the War Crimes Commission, Inspector Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is assigned to follow Meinike. As planned, Meinike leads Wilson to the small New England town of Harper, Connecticut where we find Kindler leading a new life as Charles Rankin, a professor at a nearby college. Rankin is about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of the prominent citizen Judge Longstreet. From this point on, it becomes a cat and mouse game between Wilson and Kindler/Rankin. As Wilson gathers more and more evidence, he comes closer and closer to forcing Kindler to reveal to all his real identity. 

    Orson Welles, whose acting was more in demand than he directing, is always on edge as his character becomes more and more trapped in a vice like grip until the final exciting climax. The always good Edward G. Robinson seems to be doing a variation of his Barton Keyes character from Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Loretta Young is good as the naive wife who wants to believe her husband is innocent and not whom Wilson says he is. Also notable are a young Richard Long as Mary’s brother and Billy House who plays Mr. Potter, the checker playing General Store owner.

    Ironically, “The Stranger” is one of Welles few films to do well at the box office and the film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  Due to its success, Welles was able to go on and make “The Lady from Shanghai” next. Admittedly, “The Stranger” is not in the class “Citizen Kane”, The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Touch of Evil”, it is a more standard thriller with some Wellesian touches thrown in however; it does not deserve to be more than just a footnote from Welles filmography and is certainly well worth seeing.