If you have read this blog for any period of time, or even if you came upon this particular entry by chance, I assume that I have no need to explain to you what a screwball comedy is — on the offchance you need a primer, I’ve covered the broad parameters of screwball, which essentially refers to fast-paced, verbose Hays Code-era sex comedies that usually hinge upon women in dogged pursuit of men and almost always involve class conflict, in this long examination of the major films of the 1930s, plus this one covering the ’40s. I have also written full reviews of the following major, canonical screwball titles: The Awful Truth; Bringing Up Baby; It Happened One Night; The Lady Eve; My Man Godfrey; The Philadelphia Story; and these somewhat more debatable, or at least less “pure,” entries: Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Thin Man (particularly relevant to this current entry because it’s an MGM title that pairs William Powell and Myrna Loy); and You Can’t Take It with You.
It also seems safe to assume that after ten years of my prattling on you already know the general facts and accepted wisdom about the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious of the classic Hollywood era’s Big Five, and its traditional house style. The quintessential MGM star vehicle is probably 1932’s Grand Hotel; at the link you can read about the ways in which Metro doggedly pushed a strictly regimented image for its stars, in front of and beyond the camera, not to mention its very tightly controlled soundstage environments and lush but often claustrophobic production design (see The Great Ziegfeld and The Wizard of Oz for two enduringly popular examples of these aesthetic features). Taking this foreknowledge into account can be helpful in elaborating on why Libeled Lady, one of the best and funniest screwball comedies and one that happens to have been not just an MGM production but a slick and gushingly marketed MGM star vehicle, is apart from being a shot of confectionary pleasure an especially interesting and unusual picture for 1930s Hollywood. It’s not often that four stars of such caliber were blended into a truly democratic ensemble, especially not one that played so adroitly to the immense talents of all those involved.
There aren’t really any hard and fast rules of what a screwball comedy is, of course — “you know it when you see it,” as they say about another only slightly more lustful artform — but the image of unruly and unkempt loudness the genre’s name conjures up doesn’t seem outwardly compatible with MGM’s staid and tightly controlled reputation. However, MGM had been responsible for what’s sometimes regarded as a major pre-Code precedent to screwball, Bombshell starring Jean Harlow, and was the production origin of The Thin Man and its sequels, which carry through some of the key screwball tropes and certainly the inherent attitude of sexual liberation, at least in the first film, but is also a somewhat prestigious literary adaptation. Ditto The Philadelphia Story, a canon screwball that like Libeled Lady employs the services of multiple major movie stars but is much too stagy, cerebral and slow to hit the jugular in the manner of the likes of the similarly-pedigreed Holiday, for instance — in other words, it’s very much the spitting image of what a working knowledge of the studio era would suggest an MGM screwball comedy to be. It’s what we might call an “old movie.”
By contrast, Libeled Lady is stunningly vibrant and lively, adopting the same tone of fevered urgency as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday — it is, in addition to being a romantic comedy, a newspaper movie — with a shade of emotional maturity and naturally good-natured goofiness that apparently is an accurate rendering of life on the set among its spate of celebrity costars, who actually got to go out on location to an outdoor set and hole up in cabins for a spell. The libeled lady of the title is Connie Allenbury, who sues a major New York paper for millions after a withdrawn early edition throws a specious allegation of adultery at her; the paper’s editor Warren Haggerty postpones his oft-postponed wedding to increasingly impatient girlfriend Gladys Benton in order to hire Bill Chandler, an ex-employee and lothario with a knack for digging up dirt, to do his stuff on Allenbury and thereby thwart the lawsuit. But complications arise. One source of them is Chandler’s methodology: faking a marriage to a reluctant Gladys in order to hit Connie with phony entrapment, a thorny enough business by itself. He then follows the Allenburys, Connie and her dad, onto a cruise ship where he talks a big talk about sharing the elder Allenbury’s passion for freshwater fishing, an image he then has to spend the rest of the film carefully upholding despite his total ignorance on the finer points of angling. Problems also arise when, this being a screwball comedy, everyone falls in love with everyone: Gladys with Bill, suddenly thrown by having a new “husband” who actually pays more attention to her than to a newspaper, Bill and Connie with each other out of sheer mutual attraction, easy intimacy and unstated urges.
But the lion’s share of conflict in Libeled Lady comes from who these people are, and what that entails, and it’s here that a fourth wall is quietly busted. If ever a case were to be made for the potential for artistic triumph even buried deep within the confines of a regulated star system and its attendant cults of personality, Libeled Lady is it. Chandler and Allenbury are William Powell and Myrna Loy respectively, by now an established team of immense cultural impact, box office popularity and undeniable romantic chemistry — this was their fifth pairing, joining movies as iconic as The Thin Man and Manhattan Melodrama — and they exhibit the same ease and believability as always in their supremely spontaneous-looking act of falling for one another. Individually, they also play up all of the most irresistible facets of their screen personas, which trade on what feel like intimacy with their audience: they seem familiar, you feel you know them, and this isn’t possible in a movie like The Great Ziegfeld (or even in My Man Godfrey, in which Powell plays starkly against type).
That same surprising amiability between real-life personage and performance is visible in Spencer Tracy’s rapid-fire, single-minded newspaper man and lackluster bridegroom Haggerty, who’s as engaging and cheerful as was ever evident in the most charming portions of his more serious performances. And Jean Harlow, Powell’s real-world paramour at the time, is given a rare chance to exhibit talents beyond the limits envisioned for her by the ill-fated svengali who’d initiated her career, Howard Hughes. As Gladys, Harlow gets to actually luxuriate in the complexities of a role that’s neither a traditional dumb-blonde sex object nor a tiresome romantic foil: she is funny, the audience empathizes with her frustration throughout the film, and she’s beautiful without being set up as an ornament. (The terrible postscript is that she died only a year later, buried in one of the gowns designed for her in this film.) Between Harlow, Loy and Powell it’s hard to decide which is the film’s strongest performance; it’s also somewhat pointless, as this is an ensemble piece of rare joie de vivre, and by actually having a good time with the stars’ public images and personalities and playing to their own strengths as both actors and celebrities, it becomes the rarest of gems — a glamorous 1930s hangout movie, in which the audience is giddily catered to and honored and made to feel like an actual participant. To this day, the fun of it all is incalculable.
Libeled Lady stands out from even the strongest of its screwball peers and antecedents first because it’s a comparatively adult story — the Five Star Final-like backdrop of newspaper scandal would also bleed into Hawks’ His Girl Friday, but that’s a more straightforwardly plotted comedy-of-remarriage that hinges on a more juvenile relationship dynamic. The couples and couples-to-be in Libeled Lady, in all their various permutations, act out hangups, conflicts and interpersonal dilemmas that are more universal, and their affect is calmer and kinder without approaching the boredom and decorum of a more conventional comedy of manners. Everyone seems like a grownup, even when they’re trying to undermine one another — there are never the traces of nastiness and disrespect you find in, say, certain silent Lubitsch or Hawks comedies — but everyone also seems alive. Secondly, Libeled Lady is also actually a well-plotted film whose script (by former journalists Maurine Dallas Watkins and George Oppenheimer plus two others) builds an intriguing and unpredictable set of conflicts that evade easy or obvious solution, and then fully justify one’s investment with a knockout conclusion; on top of the charm in the performances and the many searing one-liners (most of which don’t even make sense out of context, which is all the better), humor grows out of the classical discomfort and seemingly insoluble prickliness of the situations two foolish men cook up for themselves… which are finally only fully resolved through the supremely adult art of conversation. We are tantalizingly denied the big blowup we expect at the climax because, we learn, Bill and Connie have already talked it out — a startlingly mature plot turn for an American comedy of any vintage, although undermined slightly when Spencer Tracy and William Powell’s oblique marital debate then collapses into fisticuffs.
While the film touches on class with knowing wit and dexterity, it’s also with a certain casual superficiality that suggests screenwriters and audiences were both bored of the subject — this is frothier by a lot than My Man Godfrey in its politics, and almost uniquely among major screwballs makes no point of rendering fools out of the wealthy Allenburys, who exhibit some snobbishness early on but are generally amenable enough, with Walter Connolly a patient father of vocally simple pleasures and the pair even acquiring some audience identification through their running-gag avoidance of a couple of annoying acquaintances aboard the cruise ship. Plus, as soon as Powell and Loy are paired again, it’s only the most hardline cynic who could raise any objection, and Loy herself is too well-controlled, funny and effortlessly sexy for one to keep any philosophical opposition to her social class in mind. Actual commentary on “the press” is also relatively thin on the ground, with the screenwriters’ healthy shot of journalese mostly serving as credible background to a story about matters that are not, and do not claim to be, especially important. That is, if you discard the fact that who pairs off with whom and how their values match up is, in fact, pretty important — not to mention how Joseph Breen from the Hays office spent the run-up to Libeled Lady‘s release crowing about its threats to the institution of marriage!
In certain regards, Libeled Lady almost resembles Lubitsch’s sex farces more than the most manic of the screwball pictures; Powell takes part in some terrific fishing-related slapstick, but otherwise none of the performers edge anywhere close to the deliberate insanity or intensity of Carole Lombard in Godfrey, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday or either of the leads in Bringing Up Baby. The script, Jack Conway’s flawless no-nonsense blocking and each individual performance all methodically contribute to a piece of well-sustained, tonally relaxed storytelling that nonetheless builds to the things that screwball comedy, and this film’s own out-of-chronology title sequence, always promised: a sense of unrestrained bliss, gigantic and unforced laughs through and through that still ring out eighty years downward, and the specious but galvanizing promise that we all eventually get to find “our people” somehow or another.
The more movies you see, the more you spot certain adherences to formula even in the ones that make you happiest: as bright and joyous as screwball comedies can be, one does eventually become capable of playing a certain bingo game with them — the big house, the fractured nutty family, the oblivious fog of affluence and privilege and an ironic counterpoint to same, the deadpan father figure or other side characters, the noisy chaos, the determined heroine, and usually, the barely-concealed sexual explosion. Of course some of these are the things that mark the appeal of such films, but as with film noir in the decades to follow, perhaps what makes the screwball such a fascinating, addictive and — necessarily — time-limited artifact is how differently its parameters could be interpreted by various writers and directors, and how quickly those same writers and directors utterly exhausted them. For as many traits as My Man Godfrey shares with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, William Wellman and Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred, Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer’s His Girl Friday and Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s It Happened One Night, it’s finally as different in tone if not content from any of those films as Hawks’, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde’s Bringing Up Baby, the loudest and most extreme screwball of all, is from George Cukor’s Phillip Barry-derived Holiday, the warmest and most ethereal.
On a personal level, I also find it a bit less endearing than those others, even though there is much to love about it; perhaps it’s relevant that I came to it somewhat later than the rest of those save Holiay. But I always find myself struck by how whereas a manic, vibrant picture like Bringing Up Baby or one as sexy as The Awful Truth really encompasses all of the legendary facets and features of screwball in attitude and tone — remarriage narratives, hot feminine pursuits of hapless men, and again, wordy and wonderful chaos — My Man Godfrey ticks all the boxes in its story content without really taking off in the same way. It never becomes so funny or busy it’s hard to breathe, or so strange and idiosyncratic it launches itself into the heart, and even if at times it’s as verbose and quick as His Girl Friday or Twentieth Century, two more of Hawks’ comedies of the period, it’s in small doses, much less refined and subtle than Godfrey, which if anything seems to share a bit more with the innuendo-laden Lubitsch comedies of a few years earlier such as The Smiling Lieutenant (without the songs, or the mugging to camera) or Leo McCarey’s oddly leaden class commentary Ruggles of Red Gap starring Charles Laughton than it does with its presumptive bedfellows.
The humor in Godfrey is really, for the most part, a humor of small moments — its script (as opposed to the way that script is performed) is more wry and barbed than actively funny, or even witty in the manner of Lubitsch; it tells a story that could just as easily be a more generalized satire of class division during the Depression as the more screwball-typical relationship caper it becomes, or rather, that one character forces it to become. Indeed this is the real narrative of My Man Godfrey: the film appears to be telling one specific story but Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock spends almost the entirety pushing the frame, like Daffy in Duck Amuck, over and away from the film’s natural focus with all her might. In its unmolested state it’s an examination of an odd family dynamic, a horde of blissfully ignorant rich folks, the blood-tied and fractured kooks known as the Bullocks, who bring in cool-headed homeless man William Powell semi-against his will to become their butler as kind of a lark. A different film might well have run with the natural contempt one feels for the Bullocks’ treatment of Powell’s Godfrey as a novelty, who’s initially brought in from a junkyard as literally a scavenger-hunt find, and certainly this is the bottom line for the whole first half of the picture. But Lombard, and presumably Gregory La Cava though who can really say, have other plans. So, for that matter, does Godfrey; we gradually learn he’s a disgraced former businessman whose pursuit of employment has specific and lofty ends in mind, and his intention is not to forget the fellow derelicts whom he’s befriended in the downtime.
Screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morris Ryskind work from a forgotten novella called 1101 Park Avenue by the former, a New Yorker staff writer, but the more famous of the two is Ryskind, due in large part less to his collaborations with George and Ira Gershwin and work on other films like several Marx Brothers pictures, His Girl Friday and La Cava’s own Stage Door than to his later association with William Buckley and Ronald Reagan in the burgeoning midcentury conservative movement. In cineaste circles he’s sometimes recalled for his friendly testimony before HUAC and the risible accusation he loved to hurl that his inability to sell any scripts thereafter was the real Hollywood blacklist. But while he would soon be writing anti-FDR campaign songs for Wendell Wilkie, as of 1936 he openly identified as a socialist. In its populist depiction of so-called “forgotten men” as having greater nobility and business acumen than the wealthy and powerful, with Godfrey eventually rescuing the Bullocks from their own flagrant indulgences through sheer ingenuity while also building the destitute men of the junkyard a hip nightclub to work in (called “the Dump”), you can sense the prevailing liberalism of the day, but there are also germs of the ugly Reaganisms that would eventually overtake Ryskind’s worldview — the “bootstraps” notion that opportunity to work is all that separates the poor from the rich, and that work itself lends a human their inherent dignity. It’s a thin line, though, and the matter mostly is explored here with the same compassion one knows from Capra’s ’30s output.
But none of this business about the Dump and the butler Godfrey’s secret ulterior motives is terribly funny; nor, in fact, is Powell’s performance — quite deliberately so. Powell was lively and droll in many of his best performances, not only in other screwballs like Libeled Lady or in his signature part as Nick Charles in The Thin Man but even when lighting up relatively mundane Philo Vance tales. Godfrey is one of his least gregarious parts, and not even because he is hiding behind thinly veiled disgust like Laughton in Ruggles; instead he’s a man whose cards are kept extremely close to the chest for the entirety of the film. Only in one scene, after a bender on his day off, does he step briefly outside of the mold of quiet, assured dignity and occasional sarcasm — usually directed at the conniving elder daughter of the house Cornelia (Gail Patrick in a role that neither gives much to nor receives much from her).
The comedy is generated from the sheer juxtaposition of Godfrey’s carefully cultivated imperturbability and the madness of the rest of the home’s occupants, all pushed and pulled between their warring factions: first there is Alice Brady’s perpetually hung-over matriarch Angelica, almost without question the model for Lucille Bluth, who doesn’t know what “bucks” are and proclaims constant confusion over everything anyone says while doting on her mysterious musical protégé and hanger-on Carlo (Mischa Auer), whose melodramatic gestures are the film’s most hilarious non-Lombard element and are still typically so offhand and backgrounded they’re easy to miss. Father figure Alexander Bullock, courtesy of gravely-voiced screwball staple (and onetime silent film heavy) Eugene Pallette, is the utopian portrait of an embarrassed-millionaire-to-be, too distracted by his family’s constant expensive machinations and court cases over public unruliness to concentrate on maintaining his status in the world. Jean Dixon’s maid Molly at first seems the one portal of sanity until she like Lombard eventually is driven crazy by Godfrey’s unruffled coolness and starts sewing his buttons back on his suit when he’s not home out of affection, though he doesn’t lose buttons much. (Dixon, who is absolutely terrific here, would go on to give an unforgettable performance in Cukor’s Holiday, sadly her last major film role before she retired to the stage.)
And then, of course, there is Irene.
Carole Lombard was in her late twenties when she made My Man Godfrey. In addition to being one of the most stunningly beautiful actors ever to work in the Hollywood studio system, she was a singular tempest all her own: unabashedly lustful, sharp-tongued, individualistic and effortlessly funny, she cultivated a persona that was, at the time her star rose to its greatest heights in the mid-’30s, genuinely new in mainstream popular culture. Well-known in the celebrity press for her two high-profile marriages, her glamour and for being a Paramount contract player mostly stuck in bland films and parts, she heroically went all-in on a fully energized screwball role in Hawks’ Twentienth Century, which altered the course of her legacy even though the film was not a box office success. When loaned out to other studios, as in Godfrey, which brought her the only Oscar nomination of her career, she was permitted to craft innovative, surprising and richly detailed performances that were never demanded of her at Paramount, and while this would continue sporadically until her tragic early death, her films still mark a cautionary tale of how the now-mythologized studio system just as often stymied talent as it developed it. Left without reins more often, Lombard might well have been ubiquitous in the great comedies of the era; instead, we have only a handful of pieces of evidence to convince us of how brilliant she was. But Godfrey, by itself, would really be enough to make the argument.
Irene’s relentless pursuit of Godfrey is the movie’s sole stroke of real wildness. On the one hand you could charge that it’s disappointing to see the brilliantly acerbic Lombard reduced to playing a seemingly one-dimensional character whose only object is to spill her guts and trip over herself to attract a male acquaintance’s attention, which is a mildly dispiriting departure from the often progressive nature of her usual roles (and the roles of many other women in screwball comedies); but at the same time Lombard deserves accolades for how genuinely surreal this performance is. It’s absolutely maniacal, incomprehensible, almost barely put-together — she’s a cross between Hepburn’s charged, calculated Bringing Up Baby persona and the Robot Maria in Metropolis — and it flies in the face of the relatively staid, novelistic nature of the story threads revolving around business affairs and the right to work; both elements are interesting, but Lombard’s presence is what allows the innocuous family scenes and the thoughtful explorations of Godfrey’s character not to become You Can’t Take It with You.
Lombard does not so dominate My Man Godfrey that it has nothing else to recommend. She and Powell are both thoroughly mesmerizing, just in completely different ways. The best moments in Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette and Mischa Auer’s performances all generate deserved chuckles and occasional big laughs. And La Cava, who came from an animation background in the silent era and whose most famous film this is by a longshot, proves himself an intelligent stylist along with cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (apparently a contracted collaborator of Lombard’s who joined her for a time for films on which she was loaned out), weaving neatly and comically along the ornate staircases of the Bullock house and contributing one of the most stylish opening title sequences of the ’30s, a dockside procession of neon signage reading out the credits (curiously similar to the titles of another Powell film of the same year, The Great Ziegfeld at MGM). It’s a flavorful and elegant film. But let us be clear: it is absolutely nothing worth remembering for more than a few minutes without its leading lady.
Just how out-of-time-and-space Lombard’s role in My Man Godfrey is may be measured best by the final scene. She has never succeeded in puncturing Godfrey’s unerring control of his surroundings and, in reality, she never does; there is an unexpectedly sexy scene in which he trots a fainted Irene upstairs and, when he realizes she’s faking her spell, puts her in the shower and soaks her in her dress (to her clear delight), a moment magnified in its curious erotic tension by the knowledge that Lombard and Powell were in real life a long-divorced couple. But even then, Godfrey’s interest seems to come out of a smug prankishness — there is never any indication that he feels any attraction to her, and he certainly contributes no obvious chemistry to their pairing; their age difference is coyly commented on several times, especially by Cornelia, this too amplified by the ingeniously rendered feeling of adolescence in Lombard’s characterization of Irene. He remains impenetrable. And in the final scene, Irene’s dogged pursuit of not merely control of the butler but control of the destiny of the film she is in comes to a head when she barges into Godfrey’s fancy new office and apartment at the Dump and forces into existence a wedding scene that has absolutely no prompt or precedent and simply doesn’t belong; Powell, to his credit, refuses to visibly break even as the moment envelops him. They never even kiss, but they become lovers and a married couple because that is explicitly what Irene wants, and nothing — not the other characters, not the other actors, not the film, not Hollywood itself — can stop her from getting it. Nor do you want anything to stop her: she is the fun part of all this, the part that engenders joy, the part you long for and the part you constantly yearn to overtake the movie and your own experience of it. And in the end, magnificently, she succeeds.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
It is difficult to separate oneself from Pinocchio, difficult in fact to view it as an independent work of art and not an aspect of one’s own existence; to analyze it carefully feels uncomfortably similar to a visceral self-examination. Walt Disney’s adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s surreal, playful story of a grimly unlikable wooden puppet and his angsty disconnect from normalcy upends or at least subverts its pessimistic view of humanity while also retaining its trial-by-fire deconstruction of the aggressive, dangerous real world that must confront every living child. Thanks in part to its dream-logic, smoothly episodic nature and the (Disney-trademarked) spareness of its central character, the film invites far more engagement as a purely emotive experience than it does as a rational one; this is true of all five of Walt Disney’s first full-length animated productions, but Pinocchio is the most keenly ambitious of the lot, the one most self-determined as an emotional rather than a conceptual experience, and for all the panic that seems to have colored much of its production, the one that most successfully provides a kind of storytelling unencumbered by the necessary limitations of live action cinema. Like almost no narrative cartoon made by a mainstream studio in subsequent decades, it takes complete advantage of its ability to convey the fantastic as something tangible (perhaps even helped along by what can easily be termed its overreliance on live action reference footage, which tones down its otherworldly effect while making its colorful, bold universe more instinctively believable). This seems like it should be an obvious goal of narrative animation, but one need scarcely glance at the average American cartoon of the ’60s or the typical high-budget CGI tentpole of today to understand that imagination is typically sidelined by a commitment to mundane commercialism.
In its actual heyday, Pinocchio lost money — the breakout of the War hurt it, as did the wearing out of the novelty that had greeted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — and while it has gone on to become as culturally ubiquitous and celebrated as any of Disney’s films (and was, in fairness, greeted with raptuorous reviews by newspaper film critics at the time), it’s not difficult to understand why it might have been a more uncomfortable fit for most audiences. Snow White courted validation, the joyous illustration of universal longings; Pinocchio is a challenge, one whose actual message is initially hard to pin down. It speaks to the maturing impulses of the child, the childlike yearning and misapprehension of the adult, and resists the calm, collected framing of traditional routine. The existential experience of seeing it as a child and then returning to it as an adult is haunting because its strange, winding tale is so oddly persuasive in its rhythmic intensity to the primitive formations of a young mind, and seeing it again feels like a new forge among a just barely familiar path. In a very real way, for multiple generations Pinocchio is one of the ways we learned to be human, and certainly how we learned what fear was. But like Snow White it is not strictly or even largely a children’s film and is rather a complete experience of impatiently volleying tones and spectacles. Its universe is more expansive than the earlier film’s, and it also attains a certain striking unpredictability because its source is so much more contemporary (published in Italy in 1883) than the Grimms’ story.
In the aftermath of Snow White, Walt Disney wanted his animation studio that was still churning out short subjects on a constant basis to function as a film factory — he tried to put multiple feature-length cartoons into production at the same time to approximate the efforts of independent sub-major producer David O. Selznick in the time prior to Gone with the Wind. His team of story men began work on both Pinocchio and Bambi before it was even abundantly clear that Snow White would prove a success. Disney had misgivings about Pinocchio‘s title character and would prove skeptical of it as anything except a purely sensory experience, scene for scene, but while his involvement would prove less impassioned than his obvious zeal in regular meetings for Snow White, and while doubt plagued multiple story points throughout the two-year process of bringing the film to the screen, Pinocchio would prove an artistic triumph in large part because of the lessons (especially about pacing) learned on Snow White, but moreover because the earlier film’s success provided a license to engage even more in the presentation of animation as cinema and as art.
For Disney, as ever, art and cinema meant the pursuit of transcendence; back to Flowers and Trees and The Old Mill, he alone among the major producers of American cartoons sought experiences that approximated the joys and pains of real life. Pinocchio, even more than the largely nonverbal and ethereal Snow White, would synthesize these impulses more profoundly than any project ever released under his name save one (Dumbo, released a year later). Making use of a horizontal variant on the famous multi-plane camera that allows for enormous background vistas and more complex camera movements than were ever previously seen in animated film, the results are visually breathtaking — much more reliant on the ballooning effects department than either Snow White or Dumbo — but they are breathtaking in service of a specific psychological purpose. There is brilliant character animation in the film, including Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s work on Pinocchio himself, the great Vladimir Tytla’s on the wicked puppeteer Stromboli, Fred Moore’s skewed self-portrait as the troublemaking child Lampwick and even Ward Kimball’s oddly designed but engaging Jiminy Cricket — but in contrast to Snow White, this is but one element of Disney’s arsenal of tools in service to a common goal of presenting the film’s story and its world within a very specific, very persuasive point of view.
It’s obvious that Pinocchio is intended by Disney as an allegory of childhood, maybe boyhood specifically; such fables are thick on the ground of the culture that’s imparted to most of us early in our lives. But little of it in any medium resonates in quite the elemental fashion that this film does, with its formally striking adherence to the base reasoning of childhood: Pinocchio’s choices and lateral movements can feel nonsensical on paper. How can he so utterly fail to move from point A to B without distraction? How can he so frequently lose touch with the simple needs and pleasures of a loving home? One answer is that the individual directors of each sequence, supervising director Ben Sharpsteen and Disney all successfully make empathy with Pinocchio himself the goal of the enterprise. They achieve this by rendering a world of almost ceaseless excitement from everything that he encounters. Pinocchio is not really a musical — even though it contains, among other songs, perhaps the most famous tune wrought by the Disney studio, “When You Wish Upon a Star” — but its sense of rhythm and exuberance carries through virtually every one of its episodes, whether joyous (the opening among the lonely toymaker Geppetto, his pets and his numerous clocks), absurd (the dance among the marionettes) or harrowing (Pleasure Island). All the while the film demonstrates an understanding of Pinocchio’s corruptibility without totally absolving him of responsibility; in contrast to the innocence and crucial decency of Snow White, Pinocchio is susceptible to what Jiminy calls “temptation,” and his story is treated with a knowing irony that never acquires a sense of condescension because its portrait of mischief is so dynamic and colorful.
And more to the point, it isn’t just the film itself that is crucially aware of this. Many decades later the filmmakers behind Pixar’s Toy Story would confess that the character in that film they identified with most was the villain Sid, a creative and sinister kid next door who dismantles toys and pieces them back together in surreal, macabre fashion. Pinocchio suffers from no such insincerity — its depictions of evil are, for the most part, actually evil, including the downright Dickensian coachman who kidnaps children for Pleasure Island, the nefarious fox Honest John, and the boisterous, exploitative Stromboli — but it also fails to impart judgment of either Pinocchio or the audience for being fascinated by or attracted to “temptations” of the kinds that spring up throughout the film, and this is keenly validated by Geppetto’s quiet acceptance of the child Pinocchio’s transgressions once the shock of the puppet’s new donkey ears and tail wears off. Geppetto’s love for his (essentially) adopted son is unconditional; and in a sense, this is also true of the boy’s only female figure of influence, the Blue Fairy, who in one of the film’s most famous sequences illustrates for him the consequences of dishonestly by extending his nose all the way out into a tree limb with a birds’ nest then gently forgives him. It’s in this manner that Pinocchio most warmly establishes the parameters of fear as something that is most assuredly conquered by love, kindness and empathy.
Pinocchio’s various father figures are all variously defined by their adjacency to these virtues. Jiminy is the most omnipresent and ineffectual, whose existence is only particularly noteworthy to Pinocchio himself and whose advice he routinely ignores; he is also the voice we hear the most in the film, the implication perhaps being that the rite of passage of making egregious errors is an inevitable side effect of growth. Geppetto and Stromboli are handy forces of direct opposition, imparting love and abuse respectively in their roles as spontaneous caregivers. And Geppetto and Pinocchio’s eventually dogged pursuit of one another, and their all-consuming dedication to rediscovering their brief moment of peace at the start of the film, beautifully illustrates with lifelong impact the generosity of spirit that makes life worthwhile. As heartbreaking as the image is of a boarded-up workshop with fishbowl missing and all surfaces caked wth dust, it’s also a symbol of the obviousness of parental love: Geppetto will uproot his life to find his child because there was never even any question that he would. Stromboli never appears again in the film after Pinocchio escapes his cage, a counterintuitive fate for a “Disney villain,” because for all his visions of capitalist triumph in the discovery of the wooden child, his heart could never possibly have the capacity to care enough to chase after him.
If all this sounds heavy, that’s because it is — unapologetically so. Alone among American producers and not merely those who made entertainment ostensibly for children, Disney is unflinching before the boldest kinds of outpourings and expressions of matters as intense as life and death, family and growth. The explicitness of Pinocchio‘s terminology is remarkable: Geppetto does not utilize gentle or coded phrasing when Pinocchio asks why he’s crying at the end of the film and he replies “Because you are dead,” nor does the film silence the protests of one of the transformed boys on Pleasure Island who cries out in absolutely chilling agony “I don’t want to be a donkey” amid a chorus of less distinctive keening. The shot of the drowned Pinocchio after Monstro’s final attack is uglier, more mundane, therefore more terribly real than the carefully arranged Snow White in her coffin — however tender Geppetto’s words, the finality of death and the separation it implies receives no merciful cushioning. Twelve year-old Maurice Sendak would remember the directness of this lesson for the rest of his life, as he remembered in a 1988 essay for The Washington Post, but as is even evident in the clipped, unsentimental phrasing of his own work: “But it was still hot.” “Let the wild rumpus start.” When Disney refuses to dull the edges of death, his work gives life meaning; when he allows the young viewer of his films to feel despair or terror, he is introducing a life of full dimension — or to put it more loftily, a sense of wonder.
Snow White flirted with figures of terror as well; the girl’s chase through the woods has engendered nightmares for the better part of a century now. But in Pinocchio, the procession of menaces is all but relentless; only Honest John is given a slightly comedic overtone. While Pinocchio and Geppetto’s improbable confrontation with the whale Monstro is the film’s most fondly remembered dramatic climax, its interlude on Pleasure Island provides the liveliest and most concentrated shot of mature horror in Disney’s entire career. The amusement park is depicted as a bedlam of Lord of the Flies-like unchecked impulses, destruction and scuffles flowing freely alongside such adult vices as gambling and tobacco, indulgences the Coachman encourages up to the point that a curious and genuinely terrifying transformation afflicts each of the recruited boys, rendering them into literal donkeys who are then launched into commercialized slave labor. But Disney takes on this matter as anything but a strict moralist; Lampwick, the boy whose fate we witness in the most harrowing detail, is treated as a harmless goofball whose cries for his mother as he regresses to an animal state are unfathomably tragic and crushing — the exploitation of children is treated as the villainous act, rather than the easy corruptibility of the naturally naive.
There is some degree of movie-world precedent to Pinocchio, but what’s shocking is the nature of that precedent — Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage and Tod Browning’s Freaks in the haunting shots of Stromboli’s lonely, bleak caravan rollicking away on a stormy night as Geppetto calls out in vain in the pouring rain for Pinocchio, hours after last seeing him (another undiluted expression of love); Lubitsch, James Whale, Rouben Mamoulian and Josef von Sternberg in the showbiz and exploitation world of grifters, hucksters, human traffickers and pedophiles that haunts the sinister fringes in the indistinct Europe of Disney’s frame. More broadly, the film is scored, pictorially composed and performed with the dramatic weight of a live action picture, and a more deeply serious one than most of those dominating the Hollywood mainstream. Equally striking is how long and how loudly Pinocchio echoes down through cinema — most superficially in the works of Steven Spielberg, who would posit the story as baseline for a brilliant if troublesome narrative of a daydreaming man-child in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but most terrifyingly in Charles Laughton’s extraordinary Night of the Hunter which like Disney’s film explores the phenomenal self-reliance of children forced to fend for themselves and the blinding power of unconditional love, including that which isn’t enforced by blood.
A frequent criticism of Pinocchio is that the character’s modification toward being a boy with slightly wooden features as opposed to a full-on moving puppet robs the story of its central purpose — when Pinocchio finally becomes “a real boy” at the film’s conclusion, it seems less of a meaningful transition than it did in Collodi’s story. But as Sendak points out in his essay, the change Disney has made is really one that requires the character’s arc to become one of spiritual completion:
The Pinocchio in the film is not the unruly, sulking, vicious, devious (albeit still charming) marionette that Collodi created. Neither is he an innately evil, doomed-to-calamity child of sin. He is, rather, both lovable and loved. Therein lies Disney’s triumph. His Pinocchio is a mischievous, innocent and very naive little wooden boy. What makes our anxiety over his fate endurable is a reassuring sense that Pinocchio is loved for himself — and not for what he should or shouldn’t be. Disney has corrected a terrible wrong. Pinocchio, he says, is good; his “badness” is only a matter of inexperience.
For Collodi, the point of becoming a “real boy” is to become obedient and selfless. It does not matter who you are, deep down, as long as you follow the rules. For Disney, it absolutely does matter who you are — which isn’t to say that virtue is meaningless, but that the values of compassion and loyalty are self-evident with the onset of maturity: to love is to grow, to become “real” is to love and be loved. To revisit Pinocchio is to be challenged on our progress as humans — to refamiliarize ourselves with ourselves. To judge it as a film feels like a weak and superfluous act, but make no mistake — it is a great one, indeed one of the greatest ever made.
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a mixed-media assessment of a frozen world, steeped in dull colors and failed communication, that despite its narrative simplicity covers huge thematic terrain, judging a marriage not so much by its suddenly crucial overload of secrets as by the noticeable gap between its public face and a hidden reality. That’s “hidden” not merely from friends and well-wishers — which number many; they’re all gathering for a jumbo convention center party to mark the 45th anniversary of the pair’s union — but from husband Geoff and wife Kate themselves. They’re placid, classed-up and child-free aside from the latest in a long line of pampered dogs, seemingly idyllic in manner and comfortably low-key in their habitual relations. Nothing about this suggests ill health or particular noteworthiness until a letter arrives, rocking Geoff (Tom Courtenay) with the news that the body of his onetime lover (and next of kin) Katya, who fell into a crevasse on a frozen hike in 1962, has been uncovered in Switzerland thanks to the melting of the glaciers. Geoff sinks into distraction while subsequent, almost offhand revelations cause Kate (Charlotte Rampling) to reconsider and question the entire foundation of their relationship.
Eagle-eyed cinephiles and former Nick at Nite viewers may well note a close resemblance here to a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled “The Crystal Trench,” directed by Hitchcock himself and taken from a short story by Four Feathers author A.E.W. Mason. That half-hour is structured a bit differently but, climate change and its enormous consequences aside, covers most of the same themes: it revolves around Patricia Owens’ enduring obsession with the husband she lost on a similar climbing expedition whereupon he too fell into a crevasse. She waits decades for the ice to move enough for his body to be excavated, only to make a mortifying discovery when that fateful day arrives. Rampling’s Kate too is doomed to a shattering surprise delivered by photograph, but she needn’t leave home to find this buried truth. Hearing Geoff shuffling around upstairs for photos of the dead woman, witnessing his obvious distraction and complete inability to articulate the emotions behind his midnight explorations, she eventually makes her way into the attic to investigate while he’s away, turning on the projector and mounting a billowy sheet to view the slides from the deadly continental sojourn of fifty years prior. There she is presented with concrete evidence that her husband’s relationship to his onetime wife-to-be bore the marks of a commitment and passion, not to mention an agenda and destiny, decidedly different from Kate and Geoff’s own marriage, and specifically in a manner he never deigned to mention to her.
That is, at least, the way she clearly interprets the discovery that the late Katya was pregnant; this is not to say that a couple with children is more seriously dedicated to one another than a couple without, but there is enough contrast between the life Katya and Geoff shared and the much calmer, less sweepingly romantic one Geoff and Kate finally forged to cause the latter to suddenly wonder about everything: half of a childless couple seeing photographs of her husband’s pregnant former lover, seeing the way he seems lost and aloof in a way we know is completely new for him, it tears at the fabric of everything she’s always assumed about what they both wanted. And maybe they did, but perhaps only because the alternative — giving oneself over again — was too frightening, for him at least. And what would that, along with his own generalized reticence about sharing his innermost (apart from an early passage in which, in a state of shock, he calls his deceased ex “my Katya”), say about his outwardly muted feelings for his actual wife, which she has surely always taken as a kind of coded affection from a quiet man? There’s no reason to doubt a love that’s shared between two people who aren’t especially gregarious about explicitly expressing that love, at least not until one is confronted with evidence that a partner was once a much bolder, much livelier, much more zealously alive person — and the sense that he, after withholding this part of himself for years, is now rediscovering it without involving his spouse.
Two painfully realistic performances anchor this unsettling study in complacency, in the ground-down and uneasy blockage of unwanted emotions and its effect over a long lifetime, and most of all, the degree to which — as Tracey Thorn once sang — the heart remains a child: these are senior citizens acting out the jealousies and longings of teenagers, or at least young adults, and it feels both ridiculous and inevitable. Most of the way through it is a meditation on the crush of memory and the persistence of the past, but to bring things back to Hitchcock, it’s also a ghost story that, like the ghost stories Vertigo and Rebecca, lacks the tangible presence of the supernatural. Instead the ghost, which permeates the entire story, arrives in its fullest form in the film’s terrifying centerpiece, the scene that places Kate in the attic looking at those slides. This sequence feels different than the rest of the movie before and after it, because it is dancing on the edge of sanity a bit: along with its exquisitely unnerving sound design, it brilliantly captures the sensation of seeing something and learning something that you shouldn’t. And as Katya’s image graces that dead sheet, she lives again, haunts again, occupies a new living spirit in the worst, most destructive fashion. Yet the sensation that builds is really no one’s fault — can you blame a person for grieving anew with this new development, and can you blame him for hesitating to bring it to his wife, and finally can you blame her for resenting it? — and least of all Katya’s, her smell and her memory lingering everywhere in this house now but her actual body dead, preserved, encased.
It would be easy to say it was ridiculous for events of fifty years prior to ruin an established marriage, but everything in Kate and Geoff’s behavior throughout the week covered within the film’s narrative, and right up to the final scene at the uncomfortably numb anniversary bash, suggests this is about a lot more than someone who died long ago. It’s about something that’s been dormant but was never really gone and won’t ever be. It all comes to a head after the couple’s replication of their first dance to the Platters’ lyrically inappropriate “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, at which stage a small drama is played out in Rampling’s face and the emptily ceremonial nature of it all finally crushes her. But when one thinks back on the film, the information is all there pretty plainly — a sexual encounter introduced as the first in a long time ends in disappointment, and there’s never a strong feeling of intimacy or warmth between the pair. Given that the only catharsis on offer for the hurtling, despairing Kate after all she’s endured in the run-up to their all-smiles commiseration with old friends is Geoff’s tearful but platitude-filled speech — and given the attempt at a return to normalcy that’s depicted throughout the preceding afternoon by the two essentially going about their own business after Geoff awkwardly love-bombs her in the morning — there’s no real reason for optimism about the couple’s future or lack thereof; it seems the best one can hope for is that these shakings of the ground underneath them won’t be discussed again, which doesn’t seem so reassuring or productive at all.
45 Years is not a pretty or pleasant experience, and it doesn’t have the erotic charge or willful mystery of Haigh’s previous picture Weekend, which rebuked rather than courted its mundane surroundings, even if it’s equally revealing about the relationship of time to romantic love. Its colors and its pallid mood evoke claustrophobia, and its familiarity with the distinctly grooved-in rhythms of nonresistant aging is hard to take any way but somberly. Where its poetry comes in, besides its mournful update of the kitchen sink drama to a world of closed-off feelings, faint memories and unexamined regrets decades beyond the Angry Young Man, is in its curious relationship to the dead. Geoff’s emotional arc isn’t terribly hard to understand; like anyone who might grieve someone they knew long ago, or anyone who may occasionally revisit the missed opportunities of a relationship that ended, he’s both sincerely feeling the ache of loss and is guilty of filling in a few blanks, based partly on his mild modern-day dissatisfactions (not necessarily with Kate so much as with being old), which results in a fleetingly pleasurable renewal of dead yearnings, the romanticizing of something that can be revived by no one but himself: I know that she cares about me, I heard her call my name. Somehow, though, Kate’s relationship to Katya — whom she never met and never will — is what makes the film really unusual and interesting, because she wonders what Katya says about herself, what her existence says about her husband and his attraction to her, and what else Katya’s death and the renewal of his apparent love for her may portend: what else, most horribly, may in fact now be dead along with her.
I’m currently very, very tired of writing so this will be a short one. The entry to follow covers films seen from December 14th, 2020 to February 28th, 2021. The essay in the last post took me most of the month to put together — — resulting in me only having time to watch seven films in February, unfortunately — which means that I’m going to delay posting this until that that entry’s been up for a week. Not that this is Writer’s Corner or anything, but after plugging away at the piece for many weeks I’m overall happy with it — the only thing I’m uncertain about is whether I consistently chose the right place in the structure to go into detail on a given film if it fit in multiple places in the “narrative,” so to speak — Mon Oncle, Bad Day at Black Rock and Sunset Blvd. are good examples of films I had no choice but to address multiple times and I don’t know if I addressed that issue well enough. But I am far, far happier with how it all turned out that I was with the ’40s canon post, which was previously one of my favorite things I’d written here, so…
Full reviews this cycle: I tended for there to be more but like I said, the ’50s piece dominated too much of my attention to get around to the third one I planned to post immediately after The Wrong Man and Munich. You’ll see another contemporary film and a bunch of old chestnuts crop up in the next few weeks. I believe Munich is the last Best Picture nominee I’ll probably be writing up at length for a while, though, with most of the remainder either new to me or unlikely to inspire an outpouring of prose. (That project, by the way, is a few months out from finally, finally, finally entering its home stretch. We’ll have to see what kind of trivial nonsense gets attention for the 2020 awards first, though.)
Other films seen: Returned to old standby The General for fun. Showed Faces Places to my wife. And to refresh myself for the ’50s essay, I revisited Touch of Evil, watching the “preview cut” (the second of the three versions included in Masters of Cinema’s wonderful Blu-ray set) for the first time.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– As addressed in my last post, I watched Bruce Conner’s A Movie and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog for the ’50s project. The second was a revisit and is of course a masterpiece. The Conner film was new to me and I had to watch it on Youtube; it was quite interesting as a media collage and as a rare skewed perspective on the tightly controlled media landscape of those times, but I can’t say I regard as a masterpiece — I would be interested in seeing more of Conner’s work, but I’m unsure of how that would sit copyright-wise. (It appears that one of Conner’s films was slated for Flicker Alley’s avant garde box but removed.) For more of my thoughts on these films, please see the longer piece here.
– Continuing my quest through two DVD/Blu boxed sets I bought a while ago, More Treasures of American Film Archives and The Complete Films of Agnes Varda, I saw several theatrical shorts recently that are joining my informal (and hopefully, someday, formalized) canon of such films, though more extensive thoughts on the Treasures sets will have to wait for my next compilation of catalog DVD reviews — I’ve traditionally posted those at my now-mostly-dormant personal blog but am considering moving them here, and if I can find an ideal format for it, also moving my archive of DVD reviews (which goes back to 2002 or so) to this realm rather than that one, since it doesn’t make much sense there. Would it distress the OCD gods to have Another Kind of Post moved to Slices of Cake?? The mind reels. Meanwhile my full-out review of the Varda box might make it to the next capsule digest. But to come to the actual point: big recommendations for the Biograph-era D.W. Griffith short The Country Doctor (1909), for Gregory La Cava’s cartoon The Breath of a Nation (1919), for Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929), which I’ve actually seen before but I forgot how lovely it was; and four of Varda’s: Elsa La Rose (1966), Uncle Yanco (1968), the completely stunning Black Panthers (1968), a masterpiece and maybe Varda’s best film period, and Le Lion Volatil (2003), which is very silly but also effortlessly charming. Even though I’m not really warming to most of her narrative features so far, the Varda set is an incalculable pleasure all in all and one of the most therapeutic purchases I’ve made in some time.
– Amber and I watched all of MTV’s vintage animated series Daria starting in October, via torrent with its original music intact. The series was very formative for me personally; I began watching it shortly after its first season ended in 1997, and a forum dedicated to the show was the first internet hangout where I actually became a recognizable fixture. I had last seen the series in (basically) its entirety around 2006, when I wasn’t really that far removed from adolescence. The show plays very differently to someone in their late thirties. It’s often wonderful and witty, quite separate from the nostalgia it engenders, and most elements of its coming-of-age parable are done well, even if there’s a certain irresolvable, almost Renoir-like conflict between taking people’s emotions seriously and viewing them through the eyes of a teenager. I’m considering writing something longer about both the show itself and the experience of coming back to it now but this won’t likely be the venue. I hate to be cryptic but if that sounds like something you would be interested in, find a way to let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
– I’m beginning to fantasize unashamedly about the currently impossible things I’m going to try to do once we’ve at least practically conquered the pandemic, and one of the less salacious long-term goals I’m going to work toward is making my way back to the West Coast for screenings of several films holed up in archives I cannot otherwise see; one is The White Parade, the only Best Picture nominee aside from The Patriot — lost altogether — that has neither a home video release nor a circulating bootleg. You can’t watch the film anywhere else, but what you can see are these remarkable home movies documenting part of its creation, courtesy of Loretta Young and made public by UCLA.
Here are thirty all-new capsules.
Young & Beautiful (2013, François Ozon) [hr]
Lyrically shot chronicle of a 17 year-old prostitute whose carefully constructed double life unravels after a bizarre sequence of events leads to her mother’s intervention. A lesser movie with this many tangents, loose ends and unresolved character arcs might feel incomplete, too full of intrigue that goes nowhere; but the way this is thoroughly built from the perspective of Isabelle (strongly played by Marine Vacth) without trying to explain or rationalize her emotions renders all these snapshots of life in progress into a tapestry of lived-in detail.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb) [c]
Barely a movie, more a commercial for Sukiyabashi Jiro, a world famous sushi restaurant in Tokyo with an 85 year-old chef, and to that end essentially a celebration of being a person with an empty life motivated strictly by work, who boasts about his shitty parenting and how more kids would succeed if other parents were equally shitty. I’m sure the food’s great but what a depressing set of philosophies to build a documentary (or a life) around, and cinematically it’s all pedestrian, slow and inconsequential with no creativity to speak of.
La Pointe-Courte (1955, Agnès Varda) [r]
Varda’s first film, rarely seen for decades, is marked by its unstoppable flood of lyrical compositions. The Faulkner-inspired screenplay cuts between near-documentary footage of the lives of commercial fishermen and their families in the village of Sète, and the plight of a couple who’ve reached an impasse in their marriage; the parallel narratives work better in theory than in practice, with the story of the couple played by Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort well-observed but stilted when compared to the naturalistic material it’s intended to contextualize.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda) [hr]
Varda’s brilliant city symphony of Paris follows an actress (Corinne Marchand) awaiting medical test results over the course of ninety minutes imparted to us in real time and tracking her emotions as well as her responses to the people she meets and sights she witnesses. A film that impeccably imparts the complicated joy and terror of being alive.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges) [hr]
Arresting, harshly powerful noir-western that finds Spencer Tracy hobbling through a small town full of hatred and buried secrets, his alienation emphasized lyrically by the CinemaScope frame.
A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor) [r]
Parts of this musical tragedy, the second of four versions of the story so far, are maniacally overdriven; parts are so emotionally powerful they can wipe you out; parts are curiously trivial; the whole effect is strangely uneven. Judy Garland and James Mason are terrific, the former delivering a bracing and disarmingly, vividly human performance. The showbiz stuff is almost uniformly hackneyed when compared to the chronicle of how addiction destroys a relationship and a life. When it’s good it’s as extraordinary as reputed, but it’s too lengthy for those moments to be spread so thin.
Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) [r]
The last fifteen minutes of Sirk’s melodrama of racial identity and overdriven careerism are an emotional powerhouse and are crucial for affording Juanita Moore’s Annie the dignity that was broadly denied to Louise Beavers’ Delilah in 1934. But Sirk doesn’t do much better than his predecessors at rendering all this actually believable. There’s obviously a lot more societal critique injected into his vision of Fannie Hurst’s book, and the performances never falter into camp as could easily have happened; but the beautifully rendered finale feels unearned because everything beforehand is so busy and larger than life.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) [hr]
From W.R. Burnett’s lyrically futile novel, the heist movie that begat all others, still nasty and riveting after more than half a century.
Bob le Flambeur (1956, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Ostensibly a heist picture revolving around a criminal-gone-straight, the Bob of the title (Roger Duchesne), who still hangs around in the scrappy demimonde of gamblers, addicts and weirdos in northern Paris. Melville exploits the deliciously hopeless gaggle of hoods in the film’s territory as they loosely scheme the inevitable “one last job” to bring Bob back into the fold of the true underworld. But in reality this film is just a wry shaggy dog tale, an algebraic word problem from a math textbook but on film — fun to think about in its upending of expectations, but hilariously frustrating to actually watch.
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [c]
Gore Vidal’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play is somehow both campy and lifeless, an inexcusable combination; Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor chew up the celluloid, and the only provided counterpoint is Montgomery Clift behaving as if he’s already had the lobotomy he’s supposed to be administering to Taylor. But hey, at least there’s cannibalism.
Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray) [r]
Surprisingly unpleasant melodrama in which James Mason brilliantly plays a boyishly charming schoolteacher whose sanity unravels after a doctor prescribes him Cortisone for his fainting spells and grows increasingly demonic as his addiction to the drug takes over his life. The film eventually gathers thriller-like tension; its florid (Technicolor and CinemaScope) yet slightly sitcom-like amiability is a strange context in which to find ourselves thrust into detailed depictions of such nightmarish abuse and psychosis. It makes you feel kind of awful, which is probably the point, but it’s also darkly comic.
All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk) [hr]
Quintessential Sirk melodrama, an absorbing narrative of a widow’s affair with a younger man from another class background sending her social and family life into disarray. Half the film is its colors, just colors like you never imagined could exist because they don’t, and of course the emotions bubbling over that make the frame itself seem to ache somehow. The other half is the ingenious casting of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, traditionally limited actors whose deft restraint fuses masterfully with the film’s florid dramatics and incisive analysis of the boxed-in reality of a mature woman’s lonely life in the film’s era.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich) [hr]
A film noir from 1955 directed by Robert Aldrich. You’ll love it. Try not to read anything else about it, not that I’m suggesting there’s any more to it than that; there’s not. That’s really all it is, just your everyday run-of-the-mill film noir. Just fun, I promise. Nothing else to it. Enjoy!
Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
It’s odd, and a sign of the times, to see a hard-boiled thriller about a pickpocket mixed up in a police-spy triangulation so rife with out-of-nowhere Cold War dialogue that feels propagandistic. Sure, we’re thieves, but we’re not “dirty rats” and such. It also scarcely matters in a story this riveting; as self-conscious as Fuller’s style is, it’s also beautifully expressive and bracingly erotic. Thelma Ritter finally gets a crucial enough role for her talents but Richard Widmark is the film’s miracle, subsuming himself gleefully in the role of the ultimate amoral sadist with a heart of, well, something. Monumental entertainment.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks) [r]
The blood-red joy, the joyous and unchecked lust in Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s big numbers respectively make you feel like you’re never going to get old. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and its army of the faceless suitors is legendary, its amoral indecency a shot of fearless wickedness. “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” with Russell surrounded by hordes of men wearing only perfunctory and barely visible swim trucks, herself in a black dress her orgasmic fervor cancels out, is pornographic in the very best way. The story offers almost nothing of note or substance; does it matter?
Los Olvidados (1950, Luis Buñuel) [hr]
Kind of unusual to see a film this bleak — about impoverished, largely abandoned kids falling into crime of both petty and serious varieties in the slums of Mexico City — that nevertheless contains so much warmth and playfulness. The latter is obvious, intrinsic to the way Buñuel surveys the world in all of his films, regardless of how transgressive or cynical they are; the wicked humor of his collaborations with Dali and of Land Without Bread is still in supply here despite its nasty streak, as is the morbid, grotesque strangeness of the way the camera remains unflinching before the most horrific sights it captures.
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955, Luis Buñuel) [r]
Buñuel proves himself unable to land an attempt at a Kind Hearts and Coronets–Monsieur Verdoux styled black comedy about a playboy whose lifelong sexual obsession with murder leads to constant stymied attempts at becoming a serial killer. The best parts by far are those that hew closer to the typical Buñuelian perversity — dream sequences, odd images, strange camera tricks, shockingly open sexuality and moments of stark disorientation — and the rest is endless talk that doesn’t really seem to excite his creativity.
Él (1953, Luis Buñuel) [hr]
When Buñuel cunningly turns melodramatic convention on its head, poking fun at its excesses and extrapolating his disdain to the real-world counterparts of the toxic behaviors therein, he ends up not only with a more keenly observant film about an abusive relationship than almost any other of the 1950s but also gives a home to a brilliantly rendered, terrifying performance by Arturo de Córdova, who makes Charles Boyer in Gaslight look like a sitcom character. Buñuel’s perversity thrillingly slaughters every attempt at a grace note.
Daguerréotypes (1976, Agnès Varda) [hr]
Varda’s documentary about the merchants on the street she lived and worked on for decades functioned at the time as a character study of a neighborhood; decades hence, as an illustration of memory; and finally, with Varda herself gone, an evocation of a bygone era. The contrast of the permanence of a piece of art with the ephemeral nature of life itself is profoundly well-expressed here.
Le Bonheur (1965, Agnès Varda)
Conceptually this is a rather interesting film — basically positing a narcissist’s callous ruination of his own life as being a consequence-free action in a world that automatically bends itself to the impulses of such narcissists so long as they’re men — but it’s irritating to watch, chiefly because the characters are so flat and lifeless. Varda lays the irony on very thickly in her depiction of the idyllic lives of the central couple, but it all seems so cozy that the actions of François (Jean-Claude Drouot) frankly lack dramatic credibility. And the climax, despite its well-earned cynicism and despair, feels curiously melodramatic in context.
The Invaders (1912, Francis Ford & Thomas H. Ince) [r]
One of the first westerns to utilize Native American actors (though they’re not given a whole lot to do), this strings along a threadbare plot about a treaty being broken by railroad surveyors plus various forbidden love affairs before it spends two thirds of its 41-minute runtime on all hell breaking loose in a well-photographed battle scene, which starts with a destroyed telegraph pole approximating a burning cross (title card: “TOO LATE!”) and ends with a man coaxing his daughter to commit suicide to avoid her debasement at the hands of the enemy. The politics are incoherent, but they certainly knew how to get to the point in those days.
Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916, Chester & Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Charming, exciting silent thriller features a wonderful performance by Dorothy Gish as a Dutch immigrant joining her father in New York, where a nefarious crook wraps them both up in a counterfeiting scheme. Excellent compositions and some interesting, unusual creative choices with staging throughout the film make this feel more ambitious than the average early caper, but the pure fun of the chase and suspense are undeniable.
Forty Guns (1957, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
A despairing drama of violence and conflicted loyalties drives this beautifully shot black & white CinemaScope western, featuring a dynamite central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, three decades into her career, as a powerful landowner who leads the eponymous forty gunfighters around Tombstone, AZ asserting her dominance. Three brothers arrive to serve a warrant from the U.S. Attorney General but quickly and expectedly get mixed up in violent local politics. Fuller views every unexpected twist less as a focus of excitement than as further validation for the characters’ near-universal sadness and sense of constantly encroaching doom.
Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) see: Horror of Dracula
Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) [r]
Colorful Hammer Horror version of Bram Stoker’s immortal tale is entertaining, especially the first act, but also a bit rudimentary in light of two already-existing iconic film versions of the story that are so powerfully imagined even if less technically accomplished that this almost can’t help feeling like a carefully choreographed retread. The perioidic lapses into farce feel strained, and though Christopher Lee (as Dracula) and Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing) are both generally fun to watch, Michael Gough’s Arthur is badly pitched and played too much to the wings.
Forbidden Games (1952, René Clément) [hr]
Clément follows two young children, one of them an orphan, through war-torn rural France where their own fantasy life is no less a coping mechanism than the petty disputes among the adults orbiting around them — and is much richer as an expression of real emotional grace and affection. Alternately grim, adorable and funny but never manipulative despite its unflinching portrait of the ravages, violence and despair of its keenly observed place and time, this thanks to its accumulation of detail, insight and incidental mischief reaches a crescendo of such improbable sweetness as to easily forgive the often lurching and unpredictable tone.
Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta)
Rosalind Russell puts in double time creating the majority of the appeal of this extremely overlong stage adaptation (based on Patrick Dennis’s celebrated book) playing the ultimate cool aunt, who has jet set parties and drinks a lot. This inherits a vignette-based structure from the play which stymies any attempt at coherent character development. While DaCosta packs the Technirama frame with characters and business, it just makes it all feel even stagier, sans any sense of spontaneity.
The Tarnished Angels (1957, Douglas Sirk) [r]
Sirk’s film of Faulkner’s Pylon bears all the usual hallmarks of a cerebral novel being shifted to Hollywood melodrama format with stilted and uneven results. Rock Hudson’s central reporter character, becoming a nuisance within the layered psychodramas of a team of flying acrobats led by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, feels too much like an idea rather than a person; you can’t escape the notion that their story would be more compelling and complete without his “perspective.” The flying scenes, capturing all the glorious and dangerous sleaze of small-time showbiz, are an absolute thrill.
Good Ol’ Freda (2013, Ryan White) [hr]
Thoughtful documentary follows Beatles fan club president Freda Kelly, an early Cavern-era fan who took a job working for Brian Epstein and remained a part of the band’s inner circle until several years after their breakup. This is not the superficial exercise in fawning one would naturally expect; Kelly is a terrific interview subject with lots of integrity. Not only are her firsthand observations of and relationships with the Beatles, their families and the rest of their major associates quite fascinating, her life itself and her evolving emotional interpretation of her brush with immortality in the ’60s is just as enveloping.
Les Creatures (1966, Agnès Varda) [r]
Truly bizarre sci-fi nightmare about an author’s encounter with metaphysical wizardry jumbles up lots of themes almost incoherently but is so brazenly original — a forerunner to The Prisoner and even Aronofsky’s mother! — it’s hard not to kind of admire it, even if Varda herself was dissatisfied. Beautifully weird, electronically generated music score by Pierre Barbaud.
Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969, Agnès Varda) [r]
Varda spins her wheels in Los Angeles, capturing a cross section of the affluent hippie universe in June 1968 then stopping dead to try and convey the shock of RFK’s assassination; her ostensible focus is on Warhol superstar Viva! and the two male writers of Hair, who perform in a sort of chaste menage a trois, but she gets distracted with the entrance of Shirley Clarke essentially playing herself, trying to get a deal with a Hollywood studio. As usual in Varda’s work, the attempt to meld fiction and reality doesn’t really gel and just seems haphazard and strange, but individual moments are wonderful, especially if the place and period are of interest.
Opening note: While this essay passes along impressions from the entirety of my experience with the cinema of the ’50s, I explicitly viewed or revisited the following titles gathered from the Lists Projects at the Criterion Forum) in order to write it, and it’s those films I will concentrate on addressing critically in the piece that follows. I started viewing films for this project on October 27, 2019 and finished on February 9, 2021; it involved seeing 50 feature films for the first time in addition to eight that I had previously seen but not in a great number of years, plus various other revisits in part or in whole.
1950s CANON 1.0
Los Olvidados (1950, Luis Bunuel) [cap]
The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) [cap]
Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville) [cap]
In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) [cap]
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson) [cap]
The Steel Helmet (1951, Samuel Fuller) [cap]
Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)
The African Queen (1951, John Huston)
Early Summer (1951, Yasujiro Ozu)
The River (1951, Jean Renoir)
Europa ’51 (1951, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)
El (1952, Luis Bunuel) [cap]
Forbidden Games (1952, Rene Clément) [cap]
Umberto D (1952, Vittorio De Sica) [cap]
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)
The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
The Golden Coach (1952, Jean Renoir) [cap]
High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) [cap]
Duck Amuck (SHORT 1953, Chuck Jones) [see below]
The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, Max Ophuls) [cap]
Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Journey to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953, Jacques Tati) [cap]
A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor) [cap]
La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [cap]
Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
A Story from Chikamatsu (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) [cap]
Senso (1954, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich) [cap]
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Ingmar Bergman)
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955, Luis Bunuel) [cap]
Diabolique (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)
Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
Lola Montes (1955, Max Ophuls) [cap]
Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [cap]
Night and Fog (SHORT 1955, Alain Resnais) [see below]
All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges) [cap]
A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [cap]
The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Killing (1956, Stanley Kubrick)
Bob le Flambeur (1956, Jean-Pierre Melville) [cap]
Street of Shame (1956, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray) [cap]
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) [cap]
Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini) [cap]
Forty Guns (1957, Samuel Fuller) [cap]
The Wrong Man (1957, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov) [cap]
Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)
Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa) [cap]
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)
Le Notti Bianche (1957, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
A Movie (SHORT 1958, Bruce Conner) [see below]
Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta) [cap]
Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) [cap]
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa) [cap]
Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann) [cap]
Bonjour Tristesse (1958, Otto Preminger) [cap]
Tarnished Angels (1958, Douglas Sirk) cap]
Mon Oncle (1958, Jacques Tati) [cap]
Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda) [cap]
Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson) [cap]
Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)
Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [cap]
North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
Good Morning (1959, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Floating Weeds (1959, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais) [cap]
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [cap]
Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
A powerful stage actress takes pity on, and gives employment to, her number one fan who turns out to be a sinister, narcissistic leech. A screenwriter is thrown by a run of bad luck into the home of a former silent film star who gradually sucks away his livelihood and ultimately murders him. A journalist exploits and worsens a man’s fatal accident for the sake of his own career, and runs his own life ragged in the process. A man yearning to break out of his working class origins murders his girlfriend to ease his path to a relationship with a well-off socialite. A police officer with nothing to lose vows revenge after the crime syndicate he was investigating has his wife murdered. A tennis player’s political aspirations are haunted by the psychopath following him through the streets of Washington. A man’s boredom and nosiness get the better of him when he’s holed up in his apartment and begins to suspect that a bit of marital discord he’s been witnessing across the courtyard was prelude to a killing; unfortunately, he’s as visible to them as they are to him.
The Hollywood movie was a scary place to live during the ten years after World War II; even Bogie wasn’t safe, his sanity unraveling before our eyes as an opportunist consumed with greed in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as the paranoid and unstable Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny and as an increasingly deranged, fumingly possessive screenwriter accused of murder in In a Lonely Place. Even when returning to one of his stoic-observer roles in The Barefoot Contessa in 1954, he was still surrounded by tragedy and cynicism that was positioned by writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz as an indictment of Hollywood itself. And Hollywood, shaken to its core by the 1948 ruling that had left the major studios divested of their theater holdings, was in a dark mood — an industry threatened, an artform near the end of its unassailable peak. That refers to Hollywood cinema specifically — it was all different elsewhere in the world, even if somewhere in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s petrifying thriller The Wages of Fear there is the same unblinking look at a certain indescribable despair that’s glimpsed plentifully in certain American studio products of the era. It’s frequently shocking, in fact, how much the strongest Hollywood pictures of the early to mid-’50s feel just as expressive and dark as European and Asian cinema of the next few decades, given the restrictions and censorship under which American films were still operating.
One examines any period of cinematic history because one is interested in the films themselves, and it’s often a mistake to extrapolate liberally outward into the world events that ran parallel to the creation of films and the lives that surrounded them. But it is always necessary, at least perfuctorily, to align cinema and its essence with real life, and this is especially true when looking at the movies made in the 1950s in America, which require — or at the least are deeply enriched by — a working knowledge of the political and social culture and prevailing ethics of their day. This is also crucial because the Hollywood films of this period would prove so impossibly influential, thus the ramifications of how “real life” affected “movie life” echo on down through every subsequent cinematic movement of any importance, globally.
When we think of the ’50s, in terms of American culture, our visions are largely determined by television: the cheerful portrait of the classical, patriarchal (and invariably white) nuclear family, perhaps with a touch of atomic age paranoia and the budding emergence, for the first time, of teen culture — all of it set in the increasingly vital destiny of all such families: the suburbs, helped along by unimaginable prosperity and by the fallout from twenty to thirty years of near-universal chaos. But across the 20th century there may be no moment that was more duplicitous, whose front-facing culture took such great pains to hide out from glaring problems and creeping rot, the seams and cracks of a dam that was inevitably meant to burst; the considerable advances in the Civil Rights movement by the end of the decade offer the brightest indicator of the more complex undercurrent of revolution that extrapolated from the unevenly distributed affluence that persisted in the wake of WWII — much was happening, just not to the kind of people that mainstream mass culture liked to talk about. Because of this, the films and TV of the ’50s often seem to be telling us less than they really are, or more than they meant to, but the repression and collective trauma of the fallout after the Depression and the War, which so clearly manifested in the politics and mainstream lifestyle of the ’50s, would leak out to cinema itself in a number of distinctive and instructive fashions. These various avenues of covert or overt expression of fear, dread, longing, hedonism and cynicism will be the subject of the essay that follows.
Having said that, there is a certain danger in analyzing films as products of their time that foments distance from them as art or as subjects of fascination and/or communication. This need not be the case; what must be remembered, in looking at any period of film history in a broader context, is that these movies were made by real people to say real things — some still relevant, some not, some sincere and some reactionary, some condescending toward their audience and some skeptical about their world. Our response to art like this can be enhanced by an awareness of the context in which it was born, but it shouldn’t dominate those responses; therefore this is not an analysis of history, or an effort to use movies to construct historiography. Rather it’s an attempt to explore the decade through its cinematic output. (And I should add here, a touch informally, that the entire piece revolves around films I have actually seen; I have not seen every film or every significant film of the ’50s and if I present anything here that feels incomplete or inaccurate, I can only apologize.)
The Academy Awards are not an ideal barometer of the artistic heights and historic essence of film history, but they can tell us a thing or two about how the American film industry saw itself at a given time, and — more controversially — the zeitgeist of the business, at least as propagated by the business itself, which in mass media is crucial for better or (typically) worse. All this to say that studying the slate of movies that received the top prize of Best Picture from 1945 to 1959 tells a remarkable story indeed, and one of the many small narratives that forms is how a certain wizened cynicism informs the first several. (1948’s non-Hollywood winner Hamlet, which elicited much bad blood at the time for its “outsider” status, is excluded from this scenario because it is an outlier for many other reasons as well, chiefly that it is the only winner that isn’t a contemporary story.) The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentleman’s Agreement and All the King’s Men vary wildly in their artistic merits, but they share a common weariness and, in the last three cases, display politics and sharply toned sociopolitical commentary that would be unthinkable in a mainstream American film a decade hence.
The “new cynicism,” let’s call it, carries forward dependably through the first half of the 1950s, even though the Oscars’ tide turns rather quickly; Mankiewicz and 20th Century Fox’s All About Eve (1950) is an extraordinarily tough-minded and biting film about fame’s brutal cycles, one sufficiently hard-edged that it plays almost seamlessly today. The screenplay, lifted from a shockingly vapid short story by Mary Orr, is one of the best ever filmed in Hollywood, with a full half-dozen intricately crafted characters squaring off, all theater people in serious adult relationships whose lives are thrown into disarray with the entrance of young Eve Harrington (a chilling Anne Baxter) into their lives and specifically into the life of storied veteran actress Margot Channing (Bette Davis in, as clichéd as it may sound, the role she was born to play). Seeming at first like a naive fan, Eve gradually turns out to have greater ambitions and more carefully structured methods of achieving them than she initially lets on; as the film progresses, Baxter’s eyes grow ever steelier, more foreboding. The film courts the intelligent viewer but finally proves itself ahead of every faction of its audience, in 1950 and thereafter.
It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of wondering why there aren’t a hundred Hollywood prestige pictures like All About Eve, or why its great success did not portend an influx of equally fiery and angry masterpieces. But the truth is that art as fully realized as Eve is rare for any medium, and that much of the film’s air of unusual intensity was apparent even as it was being shot. Davis, despite this being her big “comeback” moment, would immediately move back into programmers; Mankiewicz kept making good movies but none that were nearly this good; and so forth. It just so happens that the fire was lit under everyone involved in this production, and we’re lucky enough to still be able to see the results. Mankiewicz’s command of characterization is absolute — Margot in particular is staggeringly well-developed, her disparate moods evolving organically from a palpable and complete personality, and Davis’ iconic embodiment of her is simultaneously absurdly theatrical and totally believable — and his understanding of media and its relationship to the arts and the public is as nuanced and wide-ranging as that which Orson Welles exhibited a decade earlier in Citizen Kane. He is writing what he knows, yes, but it’s with a world-weary perspicacity that transcends its niche.
Other contemporaneous hits are equally unflinching if not quite so vividly populated with such conspicuously breathing humans: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (both Paramount) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros.) all were among the top box office hits and awards honorees of 1950 and 1951 — to say nothing of the less immediately profitable but equally influential film noir that studios were unleashing around the same time, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat for Columbia and Wilder’s Ace in the Hole at Paramount for starters. Even a musical as seemingly innocent and benign as MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952), co-directed by and starring Gene Kelly (the other director being his former assistant Stanley Donen), was possessed of sufficiently sardonic, cutting humor that new audiences seeing it today for the first time are bound to be surprised at the quickness of its satire, the target of which is the entire foundation of Hollywood morality and celebrity culture upon which it would naturally seem to sit.
Film scholars have had a love-hate relationship with Singin’ in the Rain for over half a century; it comes under bitter scrutiny due to its callous and, frankly, clichéd dismissal of silent film, specifically Hollywood silent film, as primitive or laughable, and within two years of the three-pronged attack on Hollywood’s storied ’20s from Billy Wilder’s pen. The movie’s portrayal of silent actors as dubiously talented and of the corresponding films themselves as glossy, empty entertainment for simple people — with heightened, melodramatic and superficial writing and performing — is supremely unfair; unfortunately, it’s also brilliantly acerbic, quick-witted and bracingly funny. And in the context of the rest of the film, it happens to be matched up with a buoyant and elegant celebration of mere friendship, and by extension of humanity itself; that takes the sting off the dismissiveness and the ruthlessness of the film’s parodies of early Hollywood, but so does the fact that, nearly seventy years later, it’s now a relief to see a version of Hollywood that undercuts its own history instead of placing itself on a smug pedestal. The song numbers, most of them revised and freshened up from old artifacts of MGM’s Freed unit, are almost invariably winning, and the film’s warmth feels surprisingly transgressive within the world of glamour its stars and studio undeniably occupy — at times, as with All About Eve, it seems as though this “cynicism” is really just a break away from the superficial and toward an earthier kind of reality, which needn’t truly be a form of cynicism at all.
The Academy, in the distribution of its top statue, quickly begins to show the emergence of something else, between the glitz of another, considerably more innocuous Gene Kelly MGM musical (An American in Paris) and the cheerful but comparatively empty spectacle of veteran Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, about the day-to-day operations of a circus. It’s not easy to conceive of the same film industry even producing that film and All About Eve in such tight proximity, much less awarding it the same high honor. Tales of more reserved or refined adulthood would prevail again shortly afterward, but the focus was very different than the hard-nosed, uncompromised and defiantly deglamorized concerns of All About Eve and All the King’s Men with their dissections of public life. If those later films mark a regression for commercial purposes, they also mark something just as inevitable, something that informs the best and the worst films of the era, and something that isn’t remotely limited to the United States or its cinema.
History books present the end of World War II as a vivid triumph; the movies, as careful and responsible as they may have necessarily been about the subject of traumatized veterans and cultural fallout, are already telling a more complicated story than the textbooks or the glossy tabloid remembrances of V-E Day as early as William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, which vividly presents the harrowing pain and disappointment that followed the climax of the era’s defining moment of heroism. It’s true that in the movies, war — especially that war — is the breeding ground of male camaraderie, of perverse pride and joy as frequently as devastating loss and fear; there are few films about WWII that have the potent brutality and abject terror of Lewis Milestone’s early talkie All Quiet on the Western Front or of Howard Hawks’ almost equally distressing The Dawn Patrol, but those films, significantly, were about a war that we were permitted to cast as an unjust one. The second World War invited much less ambiguous case studies in combat cheerleading; even Milestone himself joined in with the inoffensive Halls of Montezuma, his last American film before he was blacklisted, in 1951. 1953’s Best Picture winner From Here to Eternity is more wistful than the average war movie of that first decade; depicting activity at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in the months just prior to the Japanese attack in December 1941, it’s florid enough to resemble — if anything — the movie people probably think The Best Years of Our Lives is going to be before they actually watch it: a sentimentalized but credibly humane and rather soapy — and surprisingly sexual — look at the plight of young people and their comings and goings and bed-hopping that happens to be set on the eve of war, which lends it an automatic poignance. It’s based on a doorstop of a bestseller by James Jones that was sharply critical of the U.S. Army to the point of widespread controversy; but much of that is sanded down, the film giving lip service to the book’s plot but rendering goo from its social commentary… perhaps unavoidably.
As the triumph of 1945 rapidly soured, a generation of Americans longed to cling to a moment of righteousness, and Hollywood frequently complied both with dramas like the aforementioned and with comedies that celebrated wartime as a gee-willikers good time of hanging with buddies, carousing and doing one’s damndest not to squander an interrupted youth (Mister Roberts, Operation Petticoat, and to an extent, Wilder’s Stalag 17). Were those same audiences displeased with the relative moral ambiguity of a giant epic like David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai with its elemental conflict about aiding the enemy and bonkers suicidal climax? Or the presentation of an off-the-rails commanding officer in The Caine Mutiny, with the confrontation of damaging wartime prejudices in Bad Day at Black Rock? Or with the reminders of the central injustices of other wars in the particularly grimy Korean War drama The Steel Helmet and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a monumentally painful story of a ridiculously hypocritical court martial in World War I? Perhaps not, since there may have been few other safe expressions of catharsis for one’s own fallout and self-torture in the aftermath of an event that provoked constant reverberations for the society as a whole and for individuals who’d either witnessed or lost on an incalculable scale, a scale the movies — no matter how directly they communicated — could not approach.
And of course, in America we got off easy — it wasn’t in our backyard. Some of the most profound expressions of the war’s true aftermath, on a personal scale, unsurprisingly hail from the places in which the battles were actually fought, their aftermath not so easy to ignore or replace. There might not be a more noble attempt at a profound treatise on what World War II actually meant, its implications for the human race, than Alain Resnais’ Left Bank hallmark Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), not the director’s only meditation wrestling with the human cost of such a global tragedy. The film captures a series of conversations between a French woman and her Japanese lover, ruminating on memories of the War and the past. After opening with sensuality and tragedy fused into something as emotionally raw as art gets, Resnais digresses into a masterfully pure cinematic (but also verbally rich) exploration of not just the brief, stabbing pangs of a short-lived romance but the generalized human relationship with loss, memory and trauma. It’s dreamlike and probing but never confounding. And the longing betrayed by its two characters (though one naturally wishes for a broader window into Eiji Okada’s inner life like the one we receive for Emmanuelle Riva) is many times as palpable, tragic and full of lived-in mystery as what we’ve given by so many more conventional love stories. Resnais’ avant garde textures are made easily communicative by the universal truths they express, much as in his subsequent Last Year at Marienbad, with which it shares a hypnotic consciousness of the way the past lingers like a fog within physical spaces.
This is also a theme of the director’s nearly undisputed masterpiece. Among the most powerful and emotionally relentless films ever made, Night and Fog (1955) is the last of Renais’ often stunning shorts and by far the most culturally influential. With the same restrained curiosity he used when filming the library of Paris in his equally brilliant Tout la memoire du monde, his camera unflinchingly wanders the grounds of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, interspersing that footage with harrowing, often nearly unbearable archive photography (motion-picture and otherwise) of the same locations as they existed ten years earlier, during and just after the Nazi reign. With shattering, impeccably written narration by the poet Jean Cayrol and a flowery, lyrical score by Hanns Eisler serving as effective counterpoint, this half-hour is terrifyingly effective and sobering, not least because of its final (and unabashedly political) message that the horror has not left with the collapse of the Third Reich specifically. It is a film that demands to be seen by every living person, not as a piece of history but as an unerring indictment of humanity itself.
And while American films, even at their rawest in the midst of the War and its immediate aftermath (see William Wyler’s output especially) had a habit of flinching before or turning away from violence and from the most unbridled emotional outpourings, brazenly direct and resolutely grim reactions to the War like Resnais’ and Roberto Rossellini’s boldly insisted upon the wide-open eyes of audiences whose comfort was less a priority than their bearing witness, for perhaps the first time in the history of cinema as an entertainment or artform, to unsentimentalized tragedy and evil. As Rossellini did in Germany, Year Zero, René Clément looks to the purported innocence of childhood as backdrop to his withholding of sentimentality and destruction of the innocence and naivete of the viewer. Forbidden Games (1952) is a pioneering film in its portrait of trauma and the human nature of operating in denial of it and piling up trivial concerns as a distraction — opening with the extremely unpleasant depiction of a little girl’s parents and dog being killed in an air raid, the film them follows her and the family she stays with, especially a precocious young boy who becomes her confidante, as they busy themselves with a budding closeness that borders on romantic and with the seemingly mischievous concoction of an animal cemetery that in reality marks their fascination with, and difficulty processing, the death that looms constantly around them in the early days of German invasion and occupation. Alternately cute, funny and oppressively grim up to its truly upsetting conclusion, the film functions realistically as a document of the way that, as Jean Renoir’s The River put it a year earlier, people of all ages “go on,” chiefly because they have no choice.
But it’s the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) that probably most succinctly captures in narrative form the universally conflicted feelings over the War, its human cost and the seeming impossibility of moving forward. Strikingly visualized, it’s a noir-like story of divided sympathies, loyalties and human needs set in the 24 hours following Germany’s surrender. Specifically to the struggling nation of its setting, it explores the instantly emerging conflict between the newly ruling Workers’ Party and the Underground, which at the start of the narrative is attempting in the person of two foot soldiers (Adam Pawlikowski and the perversely iconic mod-or-rocker Zbigniew Cybulski) to carry out an assassination on a leading Communist that goes awry. The tortured story of the pair’s mission to correct this aberration brings them into contact to a city and a hotel in the hung-over, unresolved throes of what should be a new beginning but broadly seems to be received with resignation and apprehension (something the American viewer from a 2020 vantage point may well know a thing or two about), a note rung harshly by the discordant, drunken celebrations seen throughout the film and especially near its end. Only Cybulski’s Maciek has a taste of a less ambiguous good time thanks to his tryst (which calls out all but directly to Hiroshima Mon Amour, released a year later) with a sullen barkeep exquisitely played by Ewa Krzyżewska.
Cybulski’s performance seems almost obnoxious at first but quickly asserts itself as a rather endearing bit of shades-wearing anachronism, using American iconography much like Breathless would within two years to fashion a character whose confusion and self-laceration provide some muddiness to a traditionally macho vision of bullish heroism. Wajda clearly has a more nuanced reading of the text than the Polish film censors would have likely preferred — the source novel, apparently, is explicit propaganda that was assigned reading in schools by this stage — but he still comes around to an essentially moralist reading not unlike, in opposing ideological direction, The Lives of Others decades later. Both films try to subvert traditional political narrative by making much of a life beyond these didactic urges; the boy at the end of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004) and all his shouting that kissing matters more than demonstrations was surely an echo of Maciek’s consternation in the second half of this film, and you certainly can understand the mindset depicted of a partisan wearied by years of war now opening up into further years of another kind of war.
However, like so much political cinema, Ashes and Diamonds betrays a disconnect between politics and their actual purpose that, to be fair, also surfaces constantly in day to day life. In other words, the film’s ambiguity feels both salient and like something of a copout, all too malleable in its point of view. Meanwhile Wajda and Jerzy Wójcik’s arresting photography occasionally asserts itself with such outrageously contrived compositions it conjures thoughts of Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror or Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss: interesting movies, but most likely schlockier than the company Wajda meant to keep.
That said, schlock may well have been the correct response to the insanity of the era, one reason the heady monologues in some of its more high-minded American science fiction features feel more like pleas for level-headed reason than flights of Saturday morning cardboard-helmet fancy. By 1950 the Cold War was reaching a fever pitch that wasn’t destined to slacken until well past the end of the ensuing decade; the home front was no less fraught, and increasingly so as the Eisenhower era dawned. Senator Joseph McCarthy had been elected in 1946 but only became a nationally known figure with the turn of the decade, capturing the public’s imagination with his conspiratorial rants and raves about communist infiltration in daily life, ushering in a restrictive, reactionary conservatism that was to wax and wane in power but would frame the political reality of the rest of the century. For the American film industry, McCarthyism hit home with the blacklist, which probably did as much as U.S. vs. Paramount to change the industry and alter its power structure forever. Hollywood had traditionally been a left-liberal haven of sorts (not unrelated to its deep-rooted association with Jewish immigrants, who had established southern California as the center of power for the film industry), but once-fashionable flirtations with socialist causes came under the microscope in the postwar era, with certain parties throwing former friends and colleagues to the lions by “naming names” before Congress, which famously led to a horde of writers, directors, actors and other artists to whom studios would no longer provide work. A refusal to “name names” would result in equal censure, most famously directed toward the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters who sacrificed their professional lives in order to stand by their principles, though like other blacklisted writers many continued to work in town at cut rates by attributing their scripts to others.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was no mere blight upon Hollywood and its relatively bourgeois comforts, although it’s no exaggeration to say that McCarthy and the committee’s venom ruined or ended the careers and lives of many gifted or great people; its onslaught on common citizens and their politics was no less egregious, both directly and in terms of the fomenting of fear among the bulk of the electorate, fear of one’s neighbors, fear of appearing unorthodox in any manner — and of course, the convenient seeding of suspicion of social change which would cast a pall over the advancements of the times: the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the nationwide wakeup call that emanated from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man the following year, and the sit-ins, protest marches and seismic cultural shifts that would explode in the ’60s. But the Second Red Scare did plenty to set the stage for the kind of repression, conformity and hate for which the ’50s are still popularly remembered — and which still has its share of terrifying echoes in modern life.
These were paranoid years, the dust from the atomic revolution that rained death upon Japan still in the air and many ugly surprises still to come; the young grew up with this sludge in their veins. Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause would, at the midpoint of the decade, articulate in its extraordinary planetarium sequence the visions of apocalypse with which an entire generation was being raised; faced with such madness, there seemed few choices, and reasons to trust any adults or authority figures were in short supply. Some danced about it. But the artistic result of all this in popular cinema seems obvious in retrospect. Prior to 1950, at least since the infamous box office failure of Fox’s Just Imagine in 1930, science fiction in American cinema had been largely limited to the once-popular serials of the 1930s, like Flash Gordon starring Buster Crabbe, and to its fringe presence within horror films like Mad Love, Doctor X and the beloved Universal monster movies. But the intrigue over the Bomb and the political uncertainty of the postwar years led directly to a renewed use of science fiction as linchpin for speculation over the state and future of the world, purposes it was already serving in literature.
It’s no exaggeration to classify Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise, as one of the most transformative films in the history of American cinema, one that defined and suggested an entirely new realm of possibilities, partly in the rather unsubtle political commentary at the center of its potentially silly story — of a humanoid alien called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his gargantuan robot Gort emerging from a UFO in Washington D.C. to demand a gathering of world leaders and a peace agreement — but chiefly in its use of wild effects and design work to assist in the telling of that story. The cast is populated mostly with lower-level character actors and their performances range from surprisingly good to (in Hugh Marlowe’s case) nearly intolerable, reading dialogue that’s stilted and full of moralizing speeches in a manner that would quickly grow familiar and widespread in sci-fi cinema. But this was no “B-grade” picture; being directed by a Hollywood luminary on the level of Wise, who’d edited Citizen Kane and would go on to vast popularity in the ’60s, using the full resources and slick production values of a big studio, and backgrounded with a wildly influential music score by the peerless Bernard Herrmann, the film created, defined and in some ways marked the apex of its genre.
Even today, it’s an engaging concoction, even as there are moments when it visibly portends the less auspicious elements of its fantastical ambitions — the viewer was meant to contemplate Klaatu’s message, however clumsily expressed it was in his climactic beseeching of Earth (and, metaphorically, America) not to destroy the rest of the universe; but it was just as likely that much of its young audience would go home and just fantasize about the cool spaceship and the massive Gort and his uncanny ability to pick up women and carry them places, a gratuitous plot detail in the film’s third act that somehow managed to inspire the entirety of its amusingly tasteless poster. It’s an intelligent picture, but like so many after it, it also knows where its bread is buttered, a feature that would manifest in various depressing ways.
Wise’s film was among a trio of pioneering efforts — George Pal’s Destination Moon and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World were the others — that established and set the tone for sci-fi films on all intellectual levels over the course of the next ten years. The Day the Earth Stood Still in particular created a cottage industry of both intellectual and pseudo-intellectual science fiction films produced by major or semi-major studios, some staid and some outrageous and some both, as well as exploitation pictures emanating from Poverty Row or from a new breed of independent producer. The B-pictures of the ’50s are widely remembered today, but this newly popular form of storytelling bore fruit at all levels of the business, in the same way that Jaws and Star Wars would send the largest and smallest of distributors scrambling to imitate those films’ success twenty-odd years later. In any prior decade it would be impossible to imagine a big star like Charlton Heston sparring with giant ants as he does in Pal’s 1954 production The Naked Jungle, for James Mason and (of all people) Pat Boone to populate a version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, or for latter-day major Universal to throw money at a trippy Technicolor epic like This Island Earth which alternated a bizarre spaceship set, interplanterary action and even a monster with relentlessly somber, pointed dialogue about the cruel destiny of an entire race.
Hollywood was roughly a decade behind the groundswell of literary sci-fi that, initially driven by monthly magazines anthologizing short stories from a horde of imaginative young writers, adapted the conceptual germs of Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells and Verne to a new era of scientific promise and possibility, suffused with political hand-wringing and covert commentary about the injustices and social limitations of postwar life. And even the most elaborate and intelligent of these early sci-fi feature films couldn’t match the ambition, creativity and intellectual depth being exhibited in formative texts by Isaac Asimov and peers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein — less because those writers were infallible or that their concerns were less than universal (history has borne them out in grand fashion) than because such were the limits of the commercial cinema in America at that stage. Serious science fiction would never really hit the mainstream in a protracted sense, with various potent and innovative examples instead appearing sporadically over the years, and the more childlike appeal of loud action and simple characters typically winning greater immediate success.
In terms of its production origins, The Day the Earth Stood Still could hardly be farther from many of the films it spawned, which evolved from the sub-major and Poverty Row studio structures that bubbled under with cheap westerns and early, independently produced exploitation films in the 1930s and ’40s. The Hollywood mainstream has made sport of mocking these smaller, B-grade down to Z-grade productions — with, especially in the case of the so-called “race films” circuit, more than a hint of ugly condescension — and they’ve had plenty of assistance from the public (and from a couple generations’ worth of cable TV shows and podcasts, now) in selling this image of the incompetent underground filmmaker or producer, not dissimilar to the Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly-Billy Wilder notion of silent cinema as a breeding ground of naive, complacently old-fashioned schlock. Yet there is plenty of pluck and artistry in the work of the likes of Roger Corman, strongly associated with James Nicholas and Sam Arkoff’s legendary B-movie mill American International Pictures. Corman was unmistakably a circus maven out to exploit genre filmmaking for its out-of-the-way potential to dredge up audiences out of the teen trash circuit but he was also an enterprising producer, an usually fast-thinking director and a peerless spotter of talent; even at his worst, Corman’s output reflects curiosity and a spirit of adventurous carousing out on various kinds of limbs. Moreover, the Corman filmography is almost supernaturally conducive to iconic imagery and a kind of speedy restlessness.
Other maverick charlatans in his breed include Nathan Juran, whose Attack of the 50 Foot Woman for scavenger indie Allied Artists produced one of the most memorable posters of all time regardless of the film’s own (dubious) merit. But at the other end of the scale, there really are some bottom-feeding productions from this period, their intelligence totally feigned and their appeal exclusively of an aesthetic nature, and some were studio releases at that — Ray Harryhausen’s SFX for Columbia’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are a momentary distraction from that film’s dull hamhandedness, and the UA-distrubuted “documentary” U.F.O. (Unidentified Flying Objects) trades on its audience’s credulity in an uncomfortable if amusing fashion. Films like this give credence to the sidelined status of science fiction as an unsophisticated genre which stood in place for several decades.
Though his star didn’t rise to its fullest extent until after his death, one of the most widely remembered outsider artists on the Poverty Row exploitation circuit in both sci-fi and horror fields was Edward D. Wood Jr., but there is a sense in which his films are aguably more interesting and entertaining than even Corman’s. Often derided as the worst director of all time — a somewhat absurd distinction originated by hack critic Michael Medved — he was a mindbending auteur with a unique point of view, whose Plan 9 from Outer Space, again purported to be a landmark in poorly made cinema, and certainly a technically disastrous and unintentionally funny picture, is also one of the most unflaggingly entertaining independent movies of its age, no small achievement given its faith-based funding and the various huckster scams that were required for its production to be completed. (Wood’s earlier films like Glen or Glenda that, while still bottom-graded productions, were produced and distributed in a slightly less fly-by-night manner are equally interesting, all for different reasons, and serve as a kind of perversely folksy early interpretation of widespread social change.)
Science fiction on screen has always struggled with the most central attribute of cinema itself: the medium’s status as a visual form of communication often tends to prioritize direct reality over metaphor (as Agnès Varda put it: “Images have a realism that’s always reassuring”), meaning that a viewer inevitably is more interested in the spectacle of a story than in its social content or commentary, especially when that spectacle is as outré and vivid as sci-fi frequently is, in fact is essentially required to be. The purpose of literary sci-fi is typically to talk about life as it stands in the present, to use fantasy in an effort to wrestle with large sociopolitical themes that might otherwise become difficult to address; this is true both as a covert action — of sneaking self-examination into a popular medium for mere dreaming — and as a glide past censorship, an issue that would have been particularly noteworthy in the early Cold War era. But there have always been sci-fi pictures, however scattered and infrequent, that did manage to push the envelope and to hold up a funhouse mirror in a genuinely confrontational fashion; one of the earliest and best examples is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a film that all but directly rebukes McCarthyism but retains considerable firepower even if one ignores that connection.
Brilliantly executed and creepily effective, Siegel’s film — funded by veteran midgrade producer Walter Wanger and distributed on a conveniently ignorable circuit by tiny Allied Artists — is about a small-town doctor stumbling upon a phenomenon that, initially, can’t even be quantified enough to seem improbable but is unmistakable to those who witness it: familiar people suddenly becoming… different, less warm, more distant. Like the Val Lewton production Cat People from a decade prior, this is genre fiction that uses the wildest of fantastic ideas to explore vividly human, deeply uncomfortable emotional issues that resonate almost eerily well today, particularly at the moments when Kevin McCarthy’s Miles is forced to try desperately to convince those around him not only of what is real but also, most maddeningly, that they need to care about it. Siegel’s approach to the story is a major outlier in the sci-fi field in a couple of conspicuous ways: he studiously avoids either dull exposition or making things too explicit, and though there’s plenty of delightful visual audacity to balance what is ultimately a rather serious parable, the film’s special effects are few and far between when compared with the more generalized vague air of discomfort it provides, the real source of its audience participation. The sense of realism the film achieves ratchets up the tension and actually justifies your investment of emotion, which so many impressively mounted and large-scale sci-fi and horror films do not.
Body Snatchers ends abruptly, leaving the viewer encased in a feeling of approaching menace. Lester Bangs once wrote that “dread” was the great fact of the early 1970s; “menace” might apply in the same way to ’50s. Numerous films, in and outside of Hollywood, adopt a tone of inscrutable foreboding — the British cartoon of Orwell’s Animal Farm from 1954 features cute, Disney style animation that it then purposely subverts with a series of diabolically executed nightmare sequences, as grotesquerie overtakes; apart from some of the Disney studio’s anti-Nazi propaganda of the early ’40s and perhaps Winsor McCay’s terrifying black & white mosquito, no one had ever used animation to engender such oppressive discomfort, or to deliberately violate the audience’s sense of trust in the two-dimensional, lovingly drawn frame as a safe haven for child’s play or freewheeling humor.
That menace could manifest in numerous forms. The Bubonic Plague resurfaces in America via New Orleans in Elia Kazan’s now-hauntingly prophetic Panic in the Streets; Mob violence infiltrates the streets and everyday life in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat — and in both cases, it is the stable nuclear family that stands as the most valuable artifact to be destroyed: both films feature “good” wives-slash-mothers who are intelligent and thoughftul and listen carefully to their spouses’ daily woes before cooking dinner, both slightly subverting expectations by being something a touch more independent than idealized Stepford creations (the role in Lang’s film was given to Jocelyn Brando, an actress later blacklisted for petitioning against the Korean War) but still clearly meant to occupy a very carefully designated and inviolable space — a sharp contrast to most of the strong-willed heroines, some married and some not, of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies and sex farces not that many years earlier. Alfred Hitchcock had so memorably depicted a dark force creeping into and poisoning a traditional American family in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, the film that launched a thousand David Lynches (and David Lynch), but what made that film so potently upsetting was how instrinsically appealing and complete the family members, women and men and girls and boys alike, were — they didn’t merely fulfill roles, they felt idiosyncratic and strange and warm, so to watch their subtle destruction was both riveting and inconsolably heartbreaking. Even though there is much to praise in the general characterization of Kazan and Lang’s films, both of which are wonderful, there is an unmistakable and telling change in the way that family is depicted as a concept: previously addressed by Hitchcock as a gaggle of disparate people, in the postwar era “family” is now a possession or even a status symbol for the male lead, presented in idyllic and aspirational fashion only to be either threatened or ripped away altogether. The implication was that the financial security and ambitious suburban fantasy of those days was constantly under threat: you must protect what you have earned at all costs, because disaster is always looming.
It’s worth mentioning that, in contrast to the horror of war being so much more palpable in European than in American films, the above was strictly a Hollywood phenomenon; Japanese films dealt with threats to family structure in a more nuanced and realistic fashion, presented in emotional rather than transactional terms (see for instance Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, ironically a semi-remake of the 1930s Hollywood film Make Way for Tomorrow), while in Europe and particularly in the United Kingdom, such concerns seemed all but alien. When the world itself, or at least England, comes under threat from a maddened atomic engineer who has acquired a peacenik position (whose reception as a villain is depicted with healthy irony by filmmakers John and Roy Boulting) in the terrific thriller Seven Days to Noon, the menace reaches the home front not in so personal a fashion but in a typically understated British depiction of the stoic population of London as a rogues gallery of frosty eccentrics, who casually skirt the crisis but also seem constantly to be downplaying or even chuckling at it. It was also the parlance of British studios to laugh at the Cold War rather than to treat it as infallibaly serious business, as seen in the enjoyable satire The Mouse That Roared about a frivolous war between the U.S. and U.K., independently produced by Walter Shenson who quite resourcefully brought Hollywood science fiction auteur Jack Arnold overseas to direct; a forerunner to Dr. Strangelove in its clever casting of Peter Sellers in three roles and an intriguing portrait of changing times thanks to Jean Seberg’s unexpected presence in the year of Breathless, the film was ironically a flop in its home country but did well when distributed in America by Columbia, where its semi-unfavorable view of Army technocrats was intriguingly well-favored.
Back in Hollywood, albeit on the fringes, the Menace was never more menacing than in the film that seemed least interested in defining it, Robert Aldrich’s gobsmacking Mickey Spillane adaptation (which anti-commie fruit bat Spillane hated) Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the first half of which is a conventional if atypically hardened noir story with a quick-tempered private eye, a couple of mysterious femmes fatales, a whole lot of sadistic weirdos and a few very unpleasant police officers, plus highway road-stop sleaze and Los Angeles location porn aplenty. Already there are hints at unusual transgressiveness in this outsider production, which hints at BDSM and necrophilia before it finally decides to get, well, weird; the Menace here is like “The Thing” in Phil Harris’ 1950 pop hit, something that the film refuses to define straightforwardly but indicates will kill us all. The moment when the film’s true parameters become evident is, along with Raymond Burr’s eye-contact money shot in Rear Window, one of the most mindbending and startling moments in all cinema — the feeling is that the noir conventions that serve as framework are an artifact teetering on the precipice of something much bigger and more horrible. The floor is even less solid beneath you, somehow, than it must have been during the War.
Hollywood still had its cynics, and liberals. Billy Wilder was both, and while he was never really a political filmmaker, his portrayal of the Menace in the ferociously pessimistic yellow-journalism tale Ace in the Hole is at least more forward-looking and progressive than that of The Big Heat or Samuel Fuller’s brilliant anti-communist noir Pickup on South Street — for Wilder, the rot is within, personified in the path of destruction wrought by Kirk Douglas’ corrupt, murderous newspaperman and causing him eventually to destroy himself. Alfred Hitchcock, who admitted to François Truffaut he was a philosophical liberal who voted Republican because of his considerable wealth, wasn’t a political filmmaker either, apart from his wartime propaganda work and the shorts he made for the Free French (he also participated in the editing of a harrowing, long-unreleased survey of the German concentration camps which is now sometimes considered as important as Night and Fog); but if his gritty, experimental drama The Wrong Man (1956) were released today, Blue Lives Matter protesters would line the streets in droves, despite its being an apparently accurate dramatization — in all the real locations, and with many of the real people involved serving as bit players and extras — of real events in New York City that took place just a few years prior.
Manny Balestrero was a working class jazz musician living in Jackson Heights when he was wrongly arrested for the armed robbery of an insurance agency where he was a client; despite eyewitness testimony to the contrary, he was eventually proven to be innocent. This proves an excellent backdrop for a depiction of the equally all-American experience of being on the other side of the constant hunt for the Menace; as portrayed sensitively by Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, Balestrero and his wife make the rounds and do the footwork for their lawyer to try and establish an alibi, but are faced with constant disappointments and dead ends that eventually lead Mrs. Balestrero to a violent outburst and a mental institution. Hitchcock’s fascination with the plight of the wrongfully accused and of individuals finding themselves completely alone was a career-spanning theme, of course, but armed with the confusion and ambiguity of real life he is able like never before to upend conventional ideas, and justify his own suspicions, about authority and justice as both are defined in America. The film is shattering and raw; as in most noir stories, there seems to be doom at every turn, but this is real life happening to real people, and people at that whom we come to really love within the parameters of a 100-minute motion picture. Miles performs immaculately as a thoughtful and three-dimensional but eventually broken wife who nevertheless must serve her outwardly-imposed social role, similar to Barbara Bel Geddes in Panic in the Streets and ill-fated Jocelyn Brando in The Big Heat, but because she is playing a real person and because of the way that Hitchcock and Miles choose to depict her, the permanent loss of any hope for her mental stability comes across as a tragedy wrought by the system rather than one meant to induce dread and psychotic possessiveness of one’s livelihood; Hitchcock’s film means to subvert paranoia and suspicion as barriers to fulfilled life, not to encourage division and cowering before the Menace.
Soon after that, the great Fonda also featured in another of the last latecoming relics of the old 1930s and ’40s-style liberal cinema, Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut 12 Angry Men (1957), adapted from Reginald Rose’s early live teleplay about a jury deliberating a murder case built on circumstantial evidence; in both films Fonda is presented as the wizened, kind-eyed portrait of gentle enlightenment, but in this one he actually carries some level of authority over life and death and justice, which he pointedly chooses in a sense to abdicate. In the United States, 12 Angry Men is one of the first classic “adult” American films most viewers see, typically in school; it’s extraordinarily accessible and has aged well, but it’s rewarding as more than just an opportunity to watch powerhouse actors from Martin Balsam to Lee Cobb to Jack Klugman flex their muscles onscreen or for Lumet to exploit the cinematic possibilities of a single sweltering room. Fonda’s act of pushing back against the overwhelming grain still reads as almost radical in its implications today, but in the midst of the “Red Menace” years it must have been particularly audacious — he is the lone voice speaking out against a guilty verdict that will probably result in a young man being executed, and he spends ninety-six minutes either persuading the other eleven jurors or exposing their own nasty prejudices, periodically revealing morsels of truth about the hatred and fear lurking underneath the superficial ideals of American life circa 1957 within the framework of this quite simple story, which unfolds into the most fully justified brand of catharsis: at the end of the picture, you can almost feel the rain on your face on the steps of the courthouse the second that Fonda does.
Commentators all the way up to Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor have had a field day decrying and balking at the legal implications of 12 Angry Men, laying out in technical terms why it’s nonsensical to portray an accumulation of evidence, even circumstantial, as being incapable of extending past a “shadow of a doubt” dictim. This egregious nerdery, of course, misses the entire point of the film which it even goes so far as to explicitly state: Fonda admits at several points that the boy on trial may even be guilty, but his larger purpose transcends that distinction — a not guilty verdict not only accurately expresses the juror’s nagging doubt at the cruel finality of the verdict itself but also lodges a protest against what was then the natural outgrowth of a cut-and-dried murder case: he is not merely setting a boy free, he is literally saving his life. To complain about 12 Angry Men‘s dramatic interpretation of the legal validity of certain kinds of evidence is to cynically ignore its actual utility as an impassioned cry against capital punishment.
12 Angry Men and The Wrong Man, despite their relative success (though the latter wasn’t especially popular, like most of Hitchcock’s films it eventually turned a profit), were not at all typical Hollywood fare of their era. Much more common even in the rareified world of prestige cinema was the reactionary yet ostensibly forward-looking cinema exemplified by one of the most troubling yet celebrated films of the decade, Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). The anti-union fable, set on the Hoboken docks amid longshoremen under the thumb of a corrupt Mob racketeer played by Lee Cobb, was a response to The Crucible, the famous stage play by Kazan’s former associate Arthur Miller which had used the Salem Witch Trials as political metaphor for the second Red Scare and was meant to condemn Kazan and his ilk for “naming names” before HUAC. Among those in the cast and crew, Kazan wasn’t alone — screenwriter Budd Schulberg had testified as a friendly witness to the committee, as had multiple members of the storied ensemble cast. One man who hadn’t was lead actor Marlon Brando, who won an Academy Award (as did the film itself) in the self-consciously Christlike role of the conflicted dockworker Terry Malloy who refuses to stay quiet about a Mob-motivated killing on the docks; a rising star whose complicated but endlessly mythologized career was forever defined by On the Waterfront and particularly by the mournful “coulda been a contender” speech that marks its emotional climax, Brando found the film politically repugnant but eventually agreed to make it on the condition he could leave the set at 4:00 every day to meet with his therapist.
Schulberg and Kazan’s justification for making the film has the strong feel of clumsy excuse-making, especially given that it unambiguously depicts their position as the morally righteous one, and makes a ridiculous false equivalence between corrupt, murder-happy Union bosses and the American left. Even divorced from its obvious subtext, the film is morally incoherent and quite ugly at times — and matters are not improved by its generally favorable depiction of Terry as a brute who, faced with a woman who doesn’t want to see him at the moment, feels the best course of action is to break her door down. But Kazan’s feel for the location, which he and cinematographer Boris Kaufman photograph with an atmospheric sense of incongruous beauty, is undeniable; few Hollywood films capture and define a specific place so well. Moreover, the film’s position in cinematic history is sealed and inescapable, for good or ill.
Brando was the most prominent and influential of the Method actors, a new school of performing derived from the early 20th century teachings of Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski and his eventual American followers, the acting teachers Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. Stanislavski’s “Method” essentially pared the art of performance to a kind of emotional immersion in a role — the actor would not merely present the outer appearance of living out a part but would psychologically approximate it as well, the logic being similar to jazz: knowing an instrument as second nature makes improvisation a natural act. (Miles Davis was fond of comparing his own work to that of a Method actor.) The outgrowth was an emphasis on what Stanislavski called “experiencing” — subjugating one’s will and consciousness to the demands of a specific part, which would eventually translate, for some actors, to blurring the lines intentionally between performance and reality.
Charles Laughton once complained that Method acting presented the audience with a photograph, as opposed to a painting, a charge similar to that made by animators who express that rotoscoping — the simple tracing of live action — fails to get across the caricature, decisionmaking and artistry necessary for good animation, realistic or otherwise. Laughton’s remark is not entirely fair, given how many brilliant actors have subscribed to Stanislavski and Strasberg’s teachings, but there is some truth in his argument. The problem with the Method is that its advantages are not as readily apparent to the general audience as is sometimes alleged. Many skilled actors who have come to prominence since the late 1940s have been direct students of the likes of Adler and Strasberg, but just as many have not, and it’s an open question whether an adherence to such storied complementary tactics to achieve the result of a “realistic” performance necessarily add anything to a skill set that already exists — in other words, a good actor is a good actor and a bad one is a bad one. Nonetheless, the Method is inescapable in American cinema of the ’50s; a broad range of celebrated actors of the decade ranging from Montgomery Clift to Shelley Winters to James Dean to Rod Steiger to Kim Hunter followed the basic tenets of the technique, and were generally cast alongside classically trained actors to create what some see as a fateful dichotomy (witness, for instance, Brando and Hunter performing next to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire) and often led to frustrations and legendary arguments on-set. The exasperation was understandable; generations of brilliant film acting had persisted in working order without the aid of what could seem like mere gimmickry. But the Method actors who were good, like Winters, were enormously good — and they all could point to the immense popularity of the man in whose shadow they all stood, the one near-universally viewed then and now as the most remarkable actor of his generation.
Certainly, Marlon Brando’s performances are distinctive, both collectively and in their eclecticism: in each of his three films with Kazan of the early 1950s, he presents a wholly different vision of manhood — the brutish Alpha of Streetcar, the ego-driven revolutionary of Viva Zapata!, the conflicted and overgrown simpleton of On the Waterfront. These can also be looked upon alongside the studly Mark Antony of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar and, much later, the muttering USAF officer of the schlocky Oscar bait Sayonara. Unfortunately, with the exception of the credible and nuanced Shakespeare role, what these performances do share is that they aren’t very good, and in fact take on the self-conscious appearance of “acting” in a more distracting fashion than all but the most wooden or florid performance from Hollywood’s silent or early sound era. Brando’s legend precedes him, of course, but there is no subtlety to his work, and in the overwhelming, nearly obsessive drive for “realism” in his roles, he frequently presents what feels like a caricature of working class masculinity, the key tenet of his version of Method being to speak as incomprehensibly as possible and to generally look blatantly tortured at all times. There’s a studied intensity to Brando’s work that feels fatally contrived, and one never quite overcomes the feeling that all of the cogs are visibly turning; the theatricality of Leigh in Streetcar, for example, at least has character, but more to the point, Kim Hunter in the same film achieves realism by visibly relaxing before the camera, something Brando never does across the entirety of his career.
Brando isn’t poorly cast in A Streetcar Named Desire at all — the role demands a figure who could inspire immense lust in multiple women but who is also deeply manipulative and violent — but his apparent commitment to digging through the depths of feeling for every moment in On the Waterfront renders Terry Malloy an uncanny creation; he feels no more sincere in his convictions than the script does. Montgomery Clift, an actor who seems to have relied more than Brando on delving into his own personal demons to create the invisible backgrounds to his performances, comes across much more believably than Brando in the majority of his films: there is a real weight to his work in A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess — but as Hitchcock, a Method skeptic, was quick to point out, the Stanislavski philosophies seemed to add little to the work except inconvenience for the rest of the cast and crew. No use questioning what works for an actor, the intuitive machinations of whose craft can’t ever really be known to the rest of us, but you do wonder how many ego-driven indulgences have been thinly justified in the last several decades by the mythology surrounding Brando and the Method. By the time Clift, after a car accident left half his face shattered, appeared in Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer at the end of the decade, his own persona was bordering on self-parody, not helped at all by the lurid nature of the film itself, particularly since it surrounded him with screeching performers of the classical variety chewing scenery; Brando, a melodramatist who pretended otherwise, would’ve been more at home.
Another way of putting it is that, if the Method were as effective as it was supposed to be, one wouldn’t have to do research to determine which actors used it and which didn’t, or at the very least one wouldn’t be so consistently surprised by the results. Take Daniel Mann’s Come Back Little Sheba, a sensitive drama about a dead-bedroom marriage rocked to its core by a college student taking a room in the house. Burt Lancaster and especially Shirley Booth offer more multifaceted and dramatically credible performances than any of Brando’s; neither is known to have studied Stanislavski. Conversely, the two ultimate youth culture icons of the 1950s whose legacies the years have ground down into iconography and self-parody, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, both studied under Strasberg, although in Monroe’s case it was after her acting in her earlier films received some (largely unwarranted) widespread criticism. Both were interesting cases as actors; the quirks of their filmographies make them difficult to judge accurately — Monroe was so frequently typecast as a dumb blonde that there’s no real way to evaluate her range, though the scattered good films she performed in do indicate she was an extremely talented comedienne and was capable of considerable gravity with the right director; her deeper skills were only ever brought out by the likes of John Huston, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder, which wasn’t her fault.
Dean is even trickier. Recruited to Hollywood by Kazan after some television and stage work in 1953, he only made three films, but as decades’ worth of college dorm posters attest, his impact vastly outweighed the scale and volume of his filmed work, and along with John Cazale and Renée Falconetti he is one of the handful of actors whose entire output consists of films that are regarded in many circles as classics — possibly as a result of his own presence. Of the three movies that feature Dean, one is good (East of Eden), one is astoundingly bad (Giant) and one is an out-and-out masterpiece (Rebel Without a Cause). It is the last of those, released after his death in a blowout car crash, that rendered the bulk of the images for which Dean is remembered, but little can prepare the neophyte for how sensitive and erotically charged a performance it is: every bit the exorcism of torment and desperation that Brando is reputed to have captured in Waterfront.
Brando’s own discomfort with the content of On the Waterfront speaks to the fact that it was more an expression of Kazan and Schulberg’s personal hangups than of his own, and Brando spent much of the rest of his career in a state of conflict with his own fame; he would experiment with directing in the ’60s and would win a second Oscar in 1973 for an even more ludicrous performance, as Don Corleone in The Godfather, but most of his work would be received as comparatively pedestrian, or would rise essentially to the level of glorified cameo appearances. The morose defensiveness and political cowardice of On the Waterfront was hardly the stuff of Tennessee Williams, the playright whose sexually provocative, decadent work had provided the initial basis for the actor’s career; it was instead a “social problem” picture, except that the social problem was that people were just being too darn mean to its director.
That brand of Menace rings particularly hollow, as is also the case with Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman and produced by Hollywood’s #1 scolding moralist Stanley Kramer, a film that comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to On the Waterfront. Intended as a veiled response to HUAC and the pervasive “Red Menace” dialogue of the day, it approaches the metaphor even more clumsily than Kazan. Gary Cooper, a brilliant actor known for carefully buried emotions whose gifts in this regard are scarcely in evidence here because there is no depth to his character, is a small-town marshal who gets advance word on his wedding day that an old enemy he jailed years ago is coming to town with his troupe of outlaws, and over the understandable protests of his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly in a star-making role), he decides to hang around a little longer and try to recruit some help in fighting back against the gang, but no one wants to lend a hand. Given the film’s anti-conservative background, it’s quite startling how regressive and limited a view of masculinity it presents — prioritizing, essentially, some misguided notion of honor and the potential for a completely unnecessary death over the wishes of the new wife to whom his strongest allegiance and solidarity ought to be. Plus the picture presents its hero as a feckless, hand-wringing coward, which might be a compelling creative choice if it made any sense in concert with his setting the story in motion in the first place.
High Noon is widely remembered today for two features, neither of them related to its politics: first, Zinnemann formats the film in something like “real time” — the most prominent early experiment with this after Hitchcock’s Rope, and a much more commercially successful one — which somewhat masks the threadbare nature of its plot and allows for it to stand as a reasonably effective thriller scenario if one is able to overlook how basically contemptible its protagonist is. Second is its climax, in which Cooper’s hapless sheriff proves incapable of facing his demons alone when the inevitable showdown arrives and he receives an unexpected assist from Kelly, stroking a rifle astride her horse. Foreman seems to look upon this finale — which Zinnemann stages and edits in a confused, almost incomprehensible manner that unfortunately has proven highly influential to the way action scenes are shot to this day — as a feminist or at least a progressive statement, but by forcing the film’s heroine to compromise her own values in order to rescue her family, he ends up making the opposite ideological point, and makes it nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for Cooper given that he is the entire reason she finds herself forced to make this compromise.
The narrative similarities of High Noon and On the Waterfront are obvious — both are punishingly overserious films that revolve around a solo figure standing alone against the Menace, even if only in the case of High Noon is the hero’s plight wholly preventable — and both choose empty, easily malleable intrigue as metaphor for something that’s actually important; this demonstrates the stupid, mousy vagueness of both films, which may simply attest to the impossibility of political directness in Hollywood during the McCarthy years. Both films fancy themselves as brave, and both were greeted with controversy by a community that easily comprehended their underlying messages — the dependably reactionary John Wayne never did shut up about how much he hated High Noon, even though he stood up at the Academy Awards to accept Cooper’s Oscar — but what’s most embarrassing is that High Noon‘s producer Kramer, who like Kazan loved to present himself as a bulwark of liberal Hollywood, openly denounced Foreman and dissolved their association after the film went into production when the latter refused to “name names.”
Regardless of its political intentions and despite its popularity, the central silliness of High Noon‘s premise didn’t escape everyone’s attention. It took seven years, but Wayne eventually responded directly to the film with the help of Howard Hawks, whose Rio Bravo (1959) is a freewheeling, exciting rebuttal to Zinnemann’s film and, however reprehensible Wayne’s attitude toward Foreman and the blacklist may have been, is without question a vastly superior work as both art and entertainment. Hawks’ hilariously blunt complaint about High Noon was “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help” and envisioned a film in which a responsibly coolheaded protagonist faced down by yet another murderous gang would determinedly confront the villains on his own and refuse help from sub-competent townsfolk rather than unsuccessfully courting it. High Noon‘s humorlessness also finds its antidote in Rio Bravo‘s general commitment to being a cracking good time, which it shares with most of Hawks’ engrossing, colorful westerns; the downside is that Hawks’ film is much more relaxed in its pacing, but its sophistication, sexuality and overt brassiness more than compensate and embrace rather than reject the populism at the core of its appeal. Whereas High Noon‘s desperately overblown ending courts exhaustion, Rio Bravo‘s closing note of humorous frivolity just reasserts what a fine time everyone just had dressing up, getting drunk and fantasizing about macho heroics. Only one of these movies knows that it’s bullshit.
The ’50s were the last decade in which the western was a widespread box office attraction for studios, or a reliable low-stakes moneymaker for the Poverty Row outfits; their popularity continued on television in the ’60s but by 1962, the scattered theatrical films in the genre that became mainstream successes were notable aberrations, and virtually every western produced in America since then on any kind of scale has been, in one sense or another, a “revisionist” western or even an “anti-western.” It’s also become popular to look back with scorn on the western’s onetime popularity as a symptom of deep-seated American racism; the irony of these full-on cultural rejections of the form is twofold. To begin with, there’s little point in denying that the western was at its best the most visually beautiful — the most cinematically invigorating — of all Hollywood film genres, which should count for at least as much if not more than any of the narrative or sociopolitical shortcomings within its tropes to the student of great filmmaking. More to the point, however, the western was — especially by this stage — home to some of the most socially progressive, ideologically probing movies being made in Hollywood and specifically to some of the most ferociously nonconformist rebukes to the patriarchal norms of their time, which they got away with because, as with science fiction, it was so easy to bury their subversive messaging as incidental to the conventions of their traditional format. And one needn’t look to a deeply flawed production like High Noon to find these attitudes eloquently reflected.
Make no mistake: there were facile westerns and racist westerns even by the ’50s, and there were jumbo-goofy productions like The Big Country that courted big stars and awards attention but didn’t amount to much. And make no mistake doubly that probably no western released in the ’50s has the sophistication of Akira Kurosawa’s gargantuan and partly Hollywood-inspired epic Seven Samurai, which maximizes the desolation and moral ambiguity of the genre with breathtaking energy and depth, though a few certainly come close. To classify American westerns as an outdated or reactionary artform, though, is to miss how much self-reflexiveness and complex moral questioning is at the core of the best of them. One of the rare Hollywood westerns set in contemporary times, and incidentally one of the scattered film noirs shot in color, Bad Day at Black Rock with its unambiguous anti-racism message and its air of inscrutable paranoia against yet another form of the Menace, in this case hatred, nationalism, and conspiracy (with still more thinly disguised digs at McCarthyism, to which MGM apparently turned a blind eye a year before the Senator’s televised downfall), is a fine example of the variance, dimension and cinematic grace still possible within the now-tried and true form.
No film makes a better or stronger case for the continued relevance and sophistication of the western than Anthony Mann’s brilliant Man of the West (1958), which like Bad Day at Black Rock doubles as one of the finest examples of color noir not made by Alfred Hitchcock. Because it’s free of flabbiness or any kind of cornball distraction, it’s a handy tool for persuading the unseasoned viewer of the immense possibilities within the great works of the waning days of the genre; it may not be as culturally significant a film as The Searchers, for example, or one as popular as George Stevens’ Shane, but in contrast to those films it requires no real apology or leap of faith to familiarize a new viewer with the context of its era. Instead Man of the West simply works as a riveting (and shockingly violent) thriller, and it’s hard not to be shaken by its darkness. It too stars Gary Cooper as a onetime sharpshooter — appearing at the outset to be a bumbling and nervous amateur hick, playing upon Cooper’s traditional persona and arguably on the ineffectual softness of his High Noon character — who gets caught in a botched robbery then wrapped back up in his disowned family’s sinister business alongside two other innocents from the train that left him behind way out nowhere. Mann and his cameraman Ernest Holler render the film compelling and beautiful from its first frames, and thanks to 12 Angry Men screenwriter Reginald Rose it’s also continually surprising as narrative, with a villain (Lee J. Cobb) who’s truly unpredictable and menacing.
Though it’s part and parcel with its generalized, Out of the Past-like air of dread and inevitability, one arguable flaw in Man of the West is its excessive brutality toward its scant female characters. This may not stand out for those who come to westerns with a stereotyped view of what they are and how they work, but coming as it does toward the end of the decade, it’s disappointing in light of the innovations and social advancements visible in other westerns of the ’50s. Undoubtedly the poster child here is Nicholas Ray’s endlessly imitated, uncommonly provocative and modern-feeling Johnny Guitar (1954). The storyline isn’t that far removed from the conventions of the genre, but Ray’s sublimely serious-minded yet unpretentious execution places it in its own class, as does the extraordinary cast led by Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden, those first two embodying powerful and sophisticated female characters that aren’t easily boxed into traditional hero or villain roles. Scholars in subsequent decades would analyze the filmographies of John Ford and Howard Hawks to within an inch of their lives uncovering their various subtexts via freewheeling reinterpretation, and certainly their films lend themselves to and reward such close readings, but it requires considerably less effort to deconstruct and uncover the underlying feminism, sensuality and forward-thinking politics of a more pointedly enigmatic and graceful picture like Johnny Guitar. Ray’s taste for melodrama and his willingness to meet his characters on their own terms are an intriguing contrast — different, not necessarily superior, though certainly more quickly palatable — to the restraint and buried emotion in Ford’s work. Johnny Guitar is riveting enough to feel as if it could be made today with few changes.
And while Sterling Hayden’s character lends the picture its title, it’s Crawford who dominates the poster and whose teasingly androgynous barkeep Vienna drives the story and all of the really strong memories it engenders. Crawford’s second wind, in her late forties (or early fifties, depending on whom you believe), as a leading lady — her career stretched back long enough to have been a teenage love interest for a doomed Lon Chaney in Tod Browning’s silent horror film The Unknown — whose unconventional sexuality, social independence and an appeal that is partly but not strictly romantic marked a major shift in attitude for a film industry that was decades removed from the late Marie Dressler’s brief stint as sixtysomething box office draw and from Frank Capra’s headlining of May Robson (born in 1858!) in his relentlessly lovely Lady for a Day; even now, Johnny Guitar‘s sparring heroines, the other being Mercedes McCambridge, would draw significant notice for their departure from the traditional Hollywood landscape of carefully sanctioned notions of beauty, morality and femininity. This kind of reconfiguration appears often enough in ’50s westerns to qualify as a trend; ’30s leading lady Jean Arthur came out of retirement for Shane, which features her in a more traditional role as a restrained wife and mother but is also conscious of the emotional limitations of that restraint, a feature of the film that’s arguably more interesting than its actual story of an out-of-towner hiding his true motives and talents from the proto-nuclear family that takes him in. Arthur’s attraction and obvious allegiance toward Alan Ladd’s Shane, and its tacit acceptance by her husband (an impotent by implication Van Heflin) offers its own kind of quiet societal upheaval, though none of it is ever really addressed out in the open.
The most blistering example of the revived Hollywood starlet as western heroine is Barbara Stanwyck’s enormously appealing hard-driving landowner Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns (1957), a despairing drama of violence and conflicted loyalties in beautifully shot black & white CinemaScope, both scripted and directed by Samuel Fuller for 20th Century Fox and featuring Stanwyck still at the height of her brilliance three decades into her career at 50 and free-flowing with complex sexuality (enhanced by the innuendo-laden but not remotely juvenile screenplay). She seats the eponymous forty gunfighters, more or less her security detail, at a giganic banquet table every night and leads them around Tombstone, AZ asserting her dominance. Three brothers, led by Barry Sullivan, arrive to serve a warrant from the U.S. attorney general but quickly and expectedly (you did come to see a western, after all) get mixed up in violent local politics. Nearly all prominent or fondly-recollected westerns of the ’50s are about loss, of the struggle of transition and progress and its effect on an entrenched lifestyle, but this one is particularly melancholic; Fuller views every unexpected twist less as a focus of excitement — though there are plenty of stylistic flourishes, especially in the film editing — than as a further validation for the characters’ near-universal sadness and sense of constantly encroaching doom: yet another version of the Menace, but this one is merely a change in way of life and is, if anything, looked upon as a change that must be embraced.
Were you trying to explain the auteur theory to someone, you could do a lot worse than screening Forty Guns alongside The Searchers, Johnny Guitar and Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West — which ends with defiant heroine Claudia Cardinale greeting the railroad as it encroaches upon the old vistas — to investigate how differently major, gifted filmmakers working in one genre approached the same basic thematic conceit of, in essence, a world on the verge of ending. Obviously the most famous, and most famously conflicted, of all these wrestlings with the western’s unresolved contradictions and buried bodies is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), really the last unqualified triumph in two storied careers — Ford’s as well as his leading man John Wayne’s — and one of the most glorious-looking Technicolor pictures ever shot. Of all the most iconic 1950s westerns, this is one of the few that still actually deals with the cheap logic of Native Americans as villains, a story it sells in its first act with genuinely terrifying power; a Comanche attack on a homestead, with kidnapping and murder in its wake, is depicted only in foreshadowing and in its aftereffects, and in both cases Ford’s presentation is indescribably devastating — the absolute terror and sorrow he engenders is forceful enough to drive the rest of the story, which is chillingly articulated by the song playing underneath the opening credits: “What makes a man to roam?”
Wayne spends the rest of the film avenging his family’s deaths and searching for the niece (Natalie Wood) who was kidnapped by a group of Comanche; as seasons change and the fruitless endeavor drags on, the obsession seems to increase even as its true purpose gradually becomes obscure. Ford illustrates Wayne, almost from the earliest scenes, as an outdated figure in a number of respects, turning on its head his gloriously homoerotic introduction of the actor in Stagecoach almost twenty years earlier: a Confederate soldier who also fought in the Mexican Revolution and is apparently wanted for various vigilante activities in the intervening years — his hotheaded, righteous pursuit essentially places him in the position of looking for the last remnants of his own life, and in a much more poignant sense than On the Waterfront and High Noon, finally presents him and the western outlaw hero in general as a man thoroughly on his own, the last vestige of an old fantasy fighting to preserve something that no longer exists and never had any right to.
We are witnesses and even, uncomfortably, complicit in the racism and backwardness of his quest and the ideology that drives it, but in the film’s impossibly moving final moments, when Wood is finally found and discovered to been “raised Comanche” herself, it hits Wayne, Ford and every spectator of the screen like a lightning bolt that he is a figure of the past fighting a worthless battle; not only does he walk away into the blank unknown after the rescue but, to borrow a cliché, so does every western hero; it feels as if there is no statement left to make on any subject that The Searchers addresses after it ends, and the note it strikes is correct: a sense of loss of a kind of unambiguous notion of good and evil that people want to believe is possible, and a sense of the inevitability of progress — which, given that Wood survives the final scenes and faces no violent reckoning to speak of, is also a sense that said progress is not merely the correct but the only route forward. It says a great deal more about the underlying dead end of the traditional western story than any of the various well-loved updates or reprisals to the genre, in the form of criticism or further filmmaking, of any year since.
The implausibility of a traditional hero figure is also a pervasive theme of film noir, the retroactively labeled genre of hard-boiled crime films that had their stylistic zenith in the ’40s but continued — often in unpredictable and refreshing ways — into this decade. It’s drilled into us that the filmmakers responsible for crafting the traditional noir image set had no idea that what they were doing would one day be classified as part of a larger statement, but it’s hard to fully buy into this when watching something like Kiss Me Deadly, which is so relentlessly playful in its treatment of audience expectations and in breaking down so classical a figure as Mickey Spillane’s commie-hunter Mike Hammer. Robert Adlrich is unflinching before Hammer’s brutality in a way that likely wouldn’t be possible in a higher budget studio film (this one slipped into theaters via United Artists), but more importantly he steeps him in a kind of intrigue that’s far beyond his understanding, and that ultimately tests the very boundaries of cinema itself, to say nothing of just noir.
Bad Day at Black Rock and Man of the West were noirs disguised as westerns, and they too challenged notions of traditional heroism: Spencer Tracy’s private investigator can barely walk, and Gary Cooper’s gentle soul at the center of West who wants nothing more than to find a schoolteacher for his small community is himself a reformed killer. Both were subsumed in various ways by a Menace — the moral rot of incestuous families and communities, in both cases — whose scope the films took their time revealing. Such mystery wasn’t a prerequisite; in Fox’s Panic in the Streets and the noir-like British thriller Seven Days to Noon, the threat and the parameters (a pandemic and a rogue nuclear engineer respectively) are laid out in painstaking detail, in the manner of earlier docufictions like The House on 92nd Street — although unlike that film, these really were actually fiction, at least at the time of production.
Fritz Lang in The Big Heat (1953) combines these two approaches to the Menace. A symphony to a fictional city in direct contrast to the vividly rendered L.A. of Kiss Me Deadly, it defines citywide corruption as the motivator to send homicide detective Glenn Ford, who inevitably lives in the suburbs, to the breaking point, but keeps buried for the whole first act how much the local Mob’s ferocity and brutality will finally derail his life and leave him a truly dangerous force with nothing to lose. Lang’s earlier noir Scarlet Street was haunting in part because its pessimism toward romantic relationships was so vividly felt; in this film he illustrates an idealized yet basically believable marriage and then implies that no such security saves anyone from the darkest kind of grief and thirst for revenge. Like most of Lang’s American films, it all feels strikingly uncompromised, and Ford is masterful as an outwardly controlled tempest of emotional chaos, Lee Marvin chillingly believable as the second-in-command hood in all his casual cruelty and violence.
It’s a thrilling film, and for Lang, atypically unambiguous in its morals since it does finally posit law and order as a force of good and decency even when its moral scruples are violently compromised. That’s quite different from the aspersions cast upon the police by Hitchcock in The Wrong Man, on the incompetent justice system in general in Billy Wilder’s Agatha Christie-penned Witness for the Prosecution, or the notion of capital punishment, regardless of how measured its dispensal is, in Robert Wise’s upsetting docufiction I Want to Live!, a companion of sorts to the Hitchcock film with an even more downbeat conclusion. But the 1950s film that comes away with the most well-expressed ambivalence about the police, depicted as both a center of bottomless corruption and as a complex, not altogether meritless moral force, is one of the greatest noirs of all, scripted and directed by one of cinema’s few undeniable originals.
Orson Welles, castigated by the film industry over both his politics and his tendency to reject conventional Hollywood practices, had not directed a full-fledged studio picture since Columbia’s troubled The Lady from Shanghai in 1947; before going to Europe to craft Othello and Mr. Arkadin, which were unevenly distributed in America by United Artists and Warner Bros. respectively, he had directed his fine version of Macbeth for the slightly above-par Poverty Row outfit Republic Pictures, known for its seemingly infinite horde of cheap westerns and for being the only exploitation studio that adhered to the Production Code. Though a lovely production, it was a far cry from the resources to which Welles had become accustomed in the earlier ’40s, even though all of those films save The Stranger (made, like his two prior productions, for RKO) had met with some sort of production or post-production crisis. He leapt eagerly into the chance to make a crime film for Universal toward the end of the decade; sadly, Touch of Evil (1958) would prove no different in terms of its difficult history — but as usual, Welles crafted something extraordinary, in this case masterful, in spite of the obstacles the studio set up against him.
Opening with a breathtaking, long-running crane shot that follows Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as a Mexican government official and his new bride, across a busy bordertown street where they witness a fatal car bombing — this shot even more startling in its ambition, immersiveness and technical chutzpah than the robbery sequence in Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy, to which it serves as a kind of one-up homage — the film then follows parallel stories of the couple’s disparate experiences as Heston’s Vargas tries to get to the bottom of the murder he’s just witnessed and Leigh’s Susan finds herself in a lurid hostage situation, the two linked by the sinister whims of textbook bad cop Hank Quinlan, a powerful local captain played with sneering, slurring menace by Welles himself, who doesn’t much care for Vargas’ interference. Welles aims for his two lead characters’ disorientation to become the viewer’s, and while the complex, tangential story grows clearer with time, the feeling of confusion and desperation amid outright sleaze never departs; few films so successfully sustain such an ugly, gross feeling.
Quinlan is one of film noir’s most reprehensible figures, planting evidence blatantly and crowing with condescension in the face of any and all rebuttals to his carefully cultivated system of operations and the insulation of yes-men surrounding him. But Welles also places him, like John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers, as a tragic figure, a symbol of a revolution through which, as he directly states at one point, what was one cast as heroism is now the very picture of institutional rot. You don’t have to avert blame from Quinlan to understand Welles’ perverse empathy for him, or his — and our — equally perverse disdain for Vargas, a hapless figure who like Gary Cooper’s vacuous sheriff in High Noon is too busy fashioning himself as grownup Encyclopedia Brown to pay attention to his gorgeous and loving wife, who is instead stuck in a dope den dealing with wild-eyed hotel night manager Dennis Weaver and what appears to be a gang of lesbian bikers. (Maybe sleaze isn’t so bad.) As immersive and magnetic as it is, and for all the fun one can have with it, Touch of Evil plays as a melancholy film, and one that is quite direct about its message of moral righteousness as a kind of futile gesture: all Marlene Dietrich can do in trying to sum up Quinlan in its final moments is throw up her hands and just call it life.
As so often, Welles — who would never make another film in his home country — was forced out of the cutting room near the end of Touch of Evil‘s production, which was then beholden to reshoots by another director to purportedly “clarify” the story, and while Welles was able to roll back some of Universal’s excesses before the film’s general release, there has nevertheless been the usual disagreement over which of the various surviving cuts, one constructed in 1998 using his own notes, is definitive; they all have their merits and flaws, but watching any of them offers a true artist’s vision of the underbelly of America, the overarching theme of so much ’50s noir from Gun Crazy to Ace in the Hole to The Night of the Hunter to No Way Out to the first nationally distributed film by future maverick Stanley Kubrick, Killer’s Kiss, which he shot and edited himself on a shoestring but managed to place in a few theaters via UA.
Killer’s Kiss exploits the Lower East Side with the same fervor and thirst for strangeness that Aldrich did with L.A., the only problem being that there isn’t much of a story, a fairly generic bluster of boxing and racketeering and (most memorably) a warehouse full of mannequins, but its visual energy does point to some kind of a future for its director, and there’s no denying its vitality as a time capsule of mid-’50s New York, lyrically captured just as well as the British filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick did in his shadowy, oppressive but largely dialogue-driven Burt Lancaster vehicle Sweet Smell of Success, wherein the actor famously exclaims one of the Utopian thesis statements of film noir at one point: “I love this dirty town.” It took writers like Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman to lay the theme out that directly; Kubrick even in his youth would scoff at such an explicit design, as would Welles, whose Quinlan could never find it in his heart to announce love of anything, not even whiskey or Marlene Dietrich.
Welles and Kubrick weren’t like most other directors, and it wasn’t necessarily a question of their interests or backgrounds so much as their scope of experience — their familiarity with art and scum informs their whole careers to a degree that sets them apart, which isn’t to discount their peers, but whereas Touch of Evil and Kubrick’s two noirs, not to mention Lewis in Gun Crazy and Aldrich in Kiss Me Deadly, do genuinely capture an undercurrent of class struggle and backwater misery that even the best studio noirs typically disregard, Hollywood’s real gift was for uncovering its own underbelly — and using big stars and large-scale budgets to do it. Even though it’s a New York film, Sweet Smell of Success fits here, concerned as it is with the comings and goings of the entertainment press; but the model, which set the stage for the decade to follow, is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., a self-reflexive and morally troubled masterpiece he made for Paramount that is so brutal in its assessment of the dog-eat-dog lower tiers of the film business and the studio system as a whole that it prompted Louis B. Mayer, a falling star of no less magnitude than the film’s central figure Gloria Swanson, to exchange fuck-yous with Wilder at an early screening, something that itself would’ve been unthinkable ten years earlier. It seems that the threat of Hollywood’s growing sentience of its own destruction didn’t escape the notice of all of the moguls.
But the most unerringly played of all the early ’50s dramas about Hollywood, the most relentlessly cynical (even by Wilder’s standards) and the most emotionally devastating was the great Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), a film that plays as powerfully today as if you brought Humphrey Bogart back from the dead and magically made it a week ago. Just as forward-thinking as Ray’s western Johnny Guitar and his teen film Rebel Without a Cause, it comes about its prescience incidentally, the result of its auteur’s observational skills and selfless artistry. There’s a universe in which Lonely Place is played out as a conventional melodrama and is still compelling, but the way that Ray’s camera seems completely powered by deeply murky and uncomfortable emotions is intense enough to make you swoon. Humphrey Bogart, always so engagingly willing to play the bastard in this era, is a decrepit mug of a washed-up screenwriter who’s burned lots of bridges with his assholery. On the night he’s speciously connected to the murder of a local girl, he happens also to fall hard for an independent-minded neighbor (Gloria Grahame) whose will he proceeds almost inadvertently to break down as they fall further and further into the hole of his buried misery and violence.
Not to fall back on modern-day buzzwords, but there is no more potent an examination of what we now call “toxic masculinity” than what Ray presents here, including in the annals of our modern, far less ambiguous media; many noir classics touch on the matter — and Kubrick eventually made an entire career out of undercutting it — but few expose it with such force, nuance and empathy, allowing the brutally doomed romance at its core to occur between two extremely complex people, without that complexity ever covering up for the fact that the misdeeds that escalate throughout the film are anything but violations to every definition of human dignity. The final scene, a devastating send-off, is played to absolute perfection by the two leads; it stands out today as one of the greatest endings to a Hollywood film, certainly one of the most uncompromised, almost redeeming the ghosts of missed opportunities from earlier generations in the likes of Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
Although In a Lonely Place, the film, differs dramatically from Dorothy Hughes’ novel, it doesn’t seem coincidental that such an atypically all-encompassing and ageless portrait of misogyny, abuse and a relationship gone sour, so much more intimate than any trope-defined idea of noir, is sourced from a novel by a woman, in much the same way that the female screenwriters on Suspicion turn that into such a different and more incisive story of an unstable marriage to a dangerous philanderer than it might otherwise have been. It’s a handy challenge for anyone who claims that “old movies” didn’t or couldn’t have sophisticated portrayals of difficult or problematic relationships (though why are you listening to anyone who says that, anyway?). It’s telling that Billy Wilder and Nicholas Ray each made, in the same year, movies about forgotten men in the cogs of the Hollywood system, but one, Wilder, chose to tell a story of the system eating that man alive; and the other chose to show him doing the same to himself and everyone around him.
Conditions were certainly favorite for moral rot and its unsparing depiction in Hollywood, but the Menace could arise anywhere; toward the end of the 1940s noir’s influence began to spread conspicuously to Europe and especially France, where it can easily be argued to have half originated with the Poetic Realism films of the late ’30s anyway. The most relentless, even sadistic, of the French noir filmmakers was Henri-Georges Clouzot, who established himself in the ’40s with searing crime dramas like Quai des Orfevres and the unceasingly paranoid wartime thriller Le Corbeau, the latter a virtual prophecy of Hollywood’s response to McCarthyism. But in the ’50s he became a kind of poet of the perverse; his signature films of the period The Wages of Fear and Diabolique fit with the broad parmeters of noir but, like very few American films, flirt with the barbaric outskirts of the genre. Both are so fiendishly cold-blooded, both ratchet up such intolerable tension, that they can be considered just as credibly as horror films as they can as conventional thrillers. Though neither contains supernatural elements, they glimpse the void between life and death with the same fascination Hitchcock would display at his Vertigo–Psycho apex; Diabolique also appears to have had a considerable effect on Hitchcock, sourced from a novel whose authors penned D’Entre les Morts upon which he based Vertigo, and exploiting a narrative style and unflinching sense of dread that would be readily visible in its impact on Psycho.
As an exposure of the social abyss into which the impoverished are forced, however, The Wages of Fear (1953) stands as Clouzot’s absolute masterpiece and one of the most harrowing films of all time. Set not in France but in an unspecified Central American nation and an isolated village called Las Piedras, the film opens with a melting pot of four European workers attempting to find jobs to survive from day to day, with little hope of any escape from the draconian American oil company that more or less runs the town. The setup is extremely similar to that of John Huston’s legendary Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but as vicious as that film was, Clouzot’s is twice as unsparing in its fuming attack upon capitalism, corporatism and sentimentalism that rivals Buñuel’s Los Olvidados in its sardonic indignation but funnels this into a riveting thriller scenario. Four men are recruited to drive a pair of trucks over an unforged, rocky path to transport nitroglycerin to an oil well that has caught fire. The havoc that extends out from this simple premise whitens the knuckles, churns the stomach and engenders an oppressive feeling of unease: the filmmakers are not to be trusted to ensure our comfort and safety. In contrast to so many horror films, there is no reassuring sense of separation that arrives with depictions of the supernatural; at every turn, Clouzot means to assure us that we remain firmly in the real world, and the implications are difficult to skirt.
Not that the film isn’t fun; Clouzot finds the same joy in cynicism as Wilder did in Ace in the Hole, and the film is so evil it approaches black comedy, right down to the timing of the “FIN” title card over its unrelentingly cruel final shot. But he is more than just a mad scientist doing his number on us; in a strange way, and in a way that aligns Clouzot with Buñuel, the movie is also humane just by virtue of its uncompromising exposure of doom, despair and commercialized evil. When one character speaks at a pivotal moment about the nothingness he sees at the verge of death, he’s articulating a pain we all must one day know. That pain finds an even more cutthroat avenue to us in the director’s savagely macabre Diabolique or Les Diaboliques (1955), an especially merciless film that aims not for the audience to revel in the fun of its corker of a story but to pass along the misery and pain in its characters’ lives. Like Wages, it’s not wholly humorless, but it’s a hell of a nasty experience, which is easy to forget when looking back at the giddy thrills of its climax. Embracing the hopeless drudgery of life at a decrepit boarding school in Paris, Diabolique focuses on two of its teachers (Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot) and their apparently mutual loathing of their boss (and the husband to one of them), the school’s dictatorial headmaster played with appropriate sliminess by Paul Meurisse.
The film moves at a clip up to a point just past the inevitable killing, when law enforcement gets involved in the personage of an inhumanely annoying detective portrayed by Charles Vanel, who threatens to turn the whole enterprise into a bad episode of French Dragnet. Clouzot conquers this to deliver one of the most bloodcurdling finales to any classic film, but it’s interesting that a director so far outside the confines of Hollywood would still prove himself beholden, or perhaps seduced, by the overexplaining and conservatism at the core of the studio system’s traditions. At least Clouzot keeps the better parts of the Hollywood regime as well: the gripping pace, the foreboding textures, the absorbing plotting and robust characterization that transcends the story’s dime-novel core. Jean-Pierre Melville, in his Bob le Flambeur (1956), would throw the baby out with the bathwater in his attempt to subvert genre (and particularly Hollywood) tropes.
Flambeur is ostensibly a heist picture (and ostensibly a forerunner to Nouvelle Vague, which it only resembles in some aspects of its production technique, not so much as a viewing experience), revolving around a criminal-gone-straight, the Bob of the title (Roger Duchesne), who still hangs around in the scrappy demimonde of gamblers, addicts and weirdos and seems largely at peace with his straddling of two distinct worlds in northern Paris. Melville exploits the deliciously hopeless gaggle of hoods in the film’s territory as they loosely scheme the inevitable “one last job” to bring Bob back into the fold of the true underworld along with his protege, a hopeless boytoy named Paolo. Melville uses the familiar patterns and structures of the suspense film, and specifically the heist film as originated by The Asphalt Jungle in Hollywood six years earlier, to set us up for some kind of a fix of vicarious living through the unscrupulous morals of others: we’re privy to much of the intensive planning that goes into the robbery of a casino safe. But whereas most films of this nature dramatize things going awry just after the crime occurs, Bob le Flambeur never even gets that far: it’s a coitus interruptus of sorts, and while it buries a kind of coy twist in its final seconds, it only reinforces the film’s status as a wry shaggy dog tale, an algebraic word problem from a math textbook but on film — fun to think about in its upending of expectations, but hilariously frustrating to actually watch.
More successful in the niche of the French heist, if equally smug in its bleakness compared to Clouzot’s more palpable dread and gloom, is Rififi (1955), which moves us a couple of miles down to central Paris for nighttime jewel thievery and owes its existence to the New Red Scare: director Jules Dassin was a key American architect of 1940s noir but came to France after being blacklisted — Rififi managed to so overshadow his Hollywood films, at least during his own lifetime, that he was frequently mistaken for a French director. Jean Servais stars as another freshly freed former gangster, “le Stéphanois,” who takes a lot less persuading than Bob le Flambeur and runs with equally suss characters, whose open griminess is one of the film’s chief appeals along with its beloved, awe-inspiring twenty-minute silent heist sequence, a marvel of staging and acrobatics, technical fireworks and tension that can’t be adequately described but considerably elevates the movie to the status of a near-indisputable classic. Of course everything falls apart as it must, even without the specter of the Hays Code; Dassin goes further in his unsparingly ugly and depressing exploitation of the unrewarding, ungrounded life of the career criminal than he could have at home working for Zanuck or whomever, but as delightfully filthy as the film feels, its status as the work of a Hollywood-trained director still feels strangely clear. Some fusion of the amoral freedom of Bob le Flambeur with the tight, entrancing thriller plotting and execution of Rififi, as well as the latter’s bitterness and occasional lyricism, might well have been even more revelatory. In the end, there might be no heist picture more transgressive than the grandaddy of them all, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), produced and distributed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but feeling for all the world like an authentic, unforgivingly low-grade exploitation movie in every regard except its artistic merit.
There are a lot of movies like The Asphalt Jungle — many that took a great deal from it, many that took its ideas and ran with them (Rififi and The Killing spend a lot more time on technique and on the chutzpah of their burglars, generally less inept than these) — but the source novel by W.R. Burnett, which it follows nearly to the letter, is rich enough to provide a certain throbbing heart that undercuts what would become the central tenets of the genre that the adaptation essentially founded. Moreover, the film’s casting is so top-to-bottom impeccable — maybe the most note-perfect use of character actors in Hollywood cinema — that every bit of the consternation and self-torture in Burnett’s book makes an appearance even when the prose can’t be conventionally delivered. The expected mainstays of noir are everywhere, but it’s hard to find fault with the film’s mastermind or hood as people, and the goodwill spreads outward from self-interested bookies to innocent blonde airheads; even Louis Calhern’s bankrupt old creep feels more like walking tragedy than menace, his nervous aggression played wonderfully in the actor’s sad eyes. There probably aren’t many moments in cinema more positively seething and powerful in their irony than the dissolve from John McIntire’s inane monologue about all criminals being heartless, evil and subhuman to big dumb lug Sterling Hayden literally and knowingly killing himself just to get one last look at his childhood home.
In the thorny subfield of noir there are films that render the world as grotesquerie; then there are those that seem like no other Hollywood product to glimpse it straight on and really, really see it, even fleetingly. Gun Crazy, with its searing streets of fire it seems no production designer could properly conjure, is one; Shadow of a Doubt and its terrorized, forever tainted suburbia is another. But the downfall of each and every one of Burnett’s characters, from a nickel in a jukebox for the benefit of a pretty and too-young girl to a few curious horses to an incomplete game of cards with a neglected wife, stings like the unwritten, unknowable between-the-lines truth of any given cold story in your local paper, as likely yesterday’s as some stray weekend in 1950’s.
The sleaze and the sense of human waste in The Asphalt Jungle is furthered most adroitly by 28 year-old Stanley Kubrick in his first masterpiece, the racetrack heist film The Killing (1956) — also starring Hayden — which directly adapts numerous characterizations and structural quirks originated by The Asphalt Jungle and, like that film, reveals a profound sorrow and yearning for a way out at the core of the classic heist anti-hero that aligns perceptively with the equally cogent longings that drive the protagonists of The Wages of Fear and Treasure of the Sierra Madre: just one stroke of good luck, just one week of hard work, and you’re out of the woods forever. Kubrick and Huston both address the attractiveness and hollowness of this premise with greater, more lived-in wisdom than Dassin did; and, significantly, both make the act of robbery itself look far less sexy, which is either to its credit or its detriment but probably just a marker of where the films sat in terms of their relationship to real life. Kubrick’s is the most minutely detailed of all these movies, though even he exhibits some coy sleight of hand, or perhaps playfulness, in the sense that the crime he’s depicting really isn’t all that elaborate or intricate at all: hire somebody to cause a distracting ruckus while you rush into the offices where the purse is kept with silly masks on — masks that Kubrick, being Kubrick, can’t resist casting as comically absurd and ominous in relation to the crushing mundanity of the rest of the film.
There’s considerable humor and eccentricity in the specific ways that The Killing‘s heist unravels, it too after initial success and, as in Rififi, undone largely by one bad actor in the fold — an unstable teller unforgettably brought to life by Elisha Cook, who’s in a one-sided marriage to a manipulative adulterer (Marie Windsor, who had wrapped a Corman movie just before this) that has rippling effects on the entire enterprise. The couple’s awkward, chaste relationship — implied to be unconsummated — leaves Cook’s character a volatile firecracker waiting to ignite, and he takes the entire film with him. Hayden nearly makes it anyway, about to board a plane with his girl when one last roadblock finally pummels him and we leave him with a resigned expression that is probably not preferable to the fate that befalls him in The Asphalt Jungle, which leaves him lying in the open fields of his childhood as he breathes his last. For all the film’s semi-ironic appropriation of detached Jack Webb-style narration and such outré elements as chess-playing wrestler Kola Kwariani essentially playing himself and a slurring racist sharpshooter courtesy of Timothy Carey, its air of sadness skirts simple moralism and, like not merely The Asphalt Jungle but Touch of Evil, approaches grand tragedy. That’s not just down to the stymied heist or the peace that’s denied to Hayden after sticking his neck out for the classic “one last job,” it’s even in Kubrick’s darkly humorous but unsettling treatment of Cook and Windsor’s doomed, mutually abusive marriage, a breeding ground of dread and hatred the likes of which American movies in this era — in their quest to present the family unit as infallible — so often resisted.
The marital and interpersonal traditions reputed to be the bread and butter of peacetime life would meet their greatest skeptic in the form of a man who was, quite frankly, a cultural hero even to those most steeped in those traditions. Alfred Hitchcock’s best films of the ’50s invariably work as populist entertainment, but all of them also make sport of questioning the values of the stereotypical upstanding middle American with the forceful perspective of a true outsider, in origin as well as in philosophy; Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo would likely not carry the same power of subversion and transgression if crafted by an American filmmaker — and only one of the three was sourced from the work of an American writer, Cornell Woolrich. But even before this period, Hitchcock’s language had been that of the outcast, his deepest empathy reserved for them: from the misguided gay murderers of Rope to the rural English eccentrics populating Young and Innocent to the vanload of circus freaks in Saboteur to even figures so minor as the terminally bored waitress in Shadow of a Doubt, the crook waxing nostalgic about his “golden curls” in Saboteur or the lesbian mystery writer in Suspicion. When he and Whitfield Cook adapted the queer novelist Patricia Highsmith’s excellent Strangers on a Train in 1951, he enlivened and transferred its parallel character studies to the screen lovingly — of an all-American tennis player (and aspiring politician) and a frustrated, morbid, misanthropic sociopath with a coddling mother and cruel father who proposes an exchange of murders to the former — but there was little question which figure merited more of his and therefore our fascination.
In direct contrast to Shadow of a Doubt, there is great joy to be taken in the way that Strangers on a Train depicts the attempted ruination of a complacent family unit of sorts. In part this is down to the blandness and flagrant privilege of the supposedly “good” side of the film’s coin, Guy, nevertheless strongly played by Farley Granger, who correctly captures the upstanding citizen as secretly a hapless fool who not-so-covertly benefits from what transpires when Bruno (Robert Walker), the weirdo he met on his train ride to visit the sexually liberated wife he wants to divorce, meets said wife on a fairground and strangles her. Hitchcock’s treatment of this opening act is already even more vivid and ambiguous than Highsmith’s novel; not only does the director openly relish in the joyous taunting that Kasey Rogers’ Miriam, Guy’s licentious spouse, launches at her husband in his requests for a divorce on the cusp of his broadened success as an athlete, he also shoots her murder with the counterintuitive lyricism of a Renaissance painter, in a stunning scene that feels of a piece with Ray Bradbury’s ingenious short story The Whole Town’s Sleeping of one year earlier, for the way in which it troublingly yet all too seductively depicts the a young girl’s violent death as an act of almost romantic submission. It is an incalculably intoxicating, morally challenging scene and one of the greatest moments in Hitchcock’s or any director’s career — and none of the many feelings it engenders (fear, eroticism, enchantment, disgust and on and on) are simple to pin down or resolve.
Highsmith was a profoundly great architect of words if not plot, and the extent to which she gets inside Bruno’s head in her novel is almost frightening. But despite being clearly unstable from the outset, Hitchcock’s more cunning version of the character has learned how to turn his off-putting, hyperactive social nature into an asset — in the crucial opening scenes, he doesn’t think Guy is serious in his sarcastic response to the “murder exchange” idea any more than we do, but he knows exactly how to bend the ambiguity and apprehension he elicits in (nearly) everyone he encounters toward his own purposes. He has found a way to use the social niceties of avoidance and dismissiveness to make his own warped moral universe a reality — and that makes him one of the most terrifying villains imaginable. Walker’s performance, captured immediately before his death and his only opportunity to display his chops beyond his frequent typecasting in boring nice-guy roles, is one of those beyond-words moments of absolute brilliance in cinema, achieving everything that Brando is reputed to in On the Waterfront; his every gesture is haunting, and it’s not that anyone else is bad, it’s that he is himself a bold and startling shot of misshapen reality in a world of placid proper wealth and decorum, which he disrupts the same way Joseph Cotten disrupts the more common American dream in Shadow of a Doubt. This is what puts Hitchcock’s best work a step beyond even film noir: he doesn’t just sink us in a foreboding world of unpredictable evil, he shows us our own world and everything that makes sense to us being systematically destroyed by that evil. And even if the wildcard is defeated, the lingering threat seems to remain, as it certainly does at close of business here.
Five years later, social conditions — at least close enough to the surface level to make it to theater screens — had changed, and not even Hitchcock was entirely immune to the tide of conventional thinking; his films of the later ’50s could be dark in a different and a more directly emotional fashion, but never with the maddened, black comic glee of Strangers on a Train, not until he threw caution to the wind by taking his TV crew to the Universal lot for a cheap, quick horror production… but well before all that he demonstrated a certain surprising adherence to the 1950s nuclear family ideal, even if he and screenwriter John Michael Hayes did manage to cast a more inquisitive eye on it than most others, in his slick, high-budget 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, filmed in Morocco as part of a run of location-heavy pictures he directed in this era. The original 1934 film, made in his British period, had centered around a married couple as vibrant as Nick and Norah in The Thin Man but much more believable. The remake, however, pairs domineering doctor James Stewart with Doris Day, playing a singer who’s been forced to sideline her career in order to raise their son, the annoying Chrisopher Olsen whose kidnapping sets the story into motion. Like virtually all of Hitchcock’s thrillers, this one is great fun, handsomely shot, brilliantly directed, genuinely suspenseful and has much to recommend — but seeing the Hollywood mainstream’s most ghoulishly clever filmmaker conspicuously stand up for classical ’50s conformity, Day’s “Mrs. McKenna” stuck in what seems a rather repressed (if posh) lifestyle, reads not just as insincere but as faintly ridiculous, particularly considering how the other three films Hitchcock made with Stewart take such pains to undercut the hollowness of these norms. Even Day filled a far less glossed-over depiction of the emotionally neglected wife of a narcissist in the unlikely context of MGM’s Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me the prior year.
To be fair, there is a degree of unmistakable sadism in Stewart’s performance, visible most clearly in the scene that has him foisting sedatives on his wife before he finally explains that their son was abducted hours ago, but Hitchcock and Hayes stop short of really investigating that the way you’d hope they would, and the way Hitchcock surely would in the throes of almost any other cultural moment. That’s all right — Nicholas Ray was way ahead of them, bringing James Mason in to scream and howl at the exact same kid and force him at near-knifepoint to do his homework and excel at football practice in the outrageous, kitschy, unhinged and surprisingly unpleasant melodrama Bigger Than Life (also 1956). Mason brilliantly plays a boyishly charming schoolteacher whose sanity unravels after a doctor prescribes him Cortisone (which has no addictive properties or side effects of this kind, but… dramatic license) for his fainting spells and grows increasingly demonic as his addiction to the drug takes over his life. When things continually elevate and the film eventually gathers thriller-like tension, it’s ultimately quite difficult to watch because the florid (Technicolor and CinemaScope) yet slightly sitcom-like amiability of this world is such a strange context for us to find ourselves thrust into detailed depictions of such nightmarish abuse and psychosis. It makes you feel kind of awful, especially when the finale’s attempt to redeem everything in twenty seconds feels so hollow.
But there’s also something curiously playful about it — Mason has an excruciatingly long argument with the milkman at one point — especially in the way it uses the embodiment of the usual exhausting little boy who appears in seemingly every ’50s family drama from Shane to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Transforming his oblivious innocence to the hurt glares of a boy who’s witnessed the crumbling of his entire known world to finally a potential victim of insidious violence is upsetting in a sense, but it’s also wildly mischievous. (Who among us hasn’t thought of killing the kid in Shane with a pair of scissors?) Bigger Than Life isn’t really a meaningful treatise on addiction — it’s too flamboyant in the rubbernecking over Mason’s performance (which never falters into camp but is finally so creepy it becomes an oblique pleasure), and in its use of the glum, distant doctors as Passion of Joan of Arc-like gargoyles, to be anything except a schlocky horror film in a minor key, but it also feels like a covert rejection of the carefully imposed mainstream values of its era. Then again, so do most of Ray’s films. After all, what is Rebel Without a Cause except a cry of anguish at the constraining quality of postwar family life, especially for a sensitive adolescent? Rumer Godden’s clan of white colonial occupants in India in Renoir’s The River might be regressive by definition, but isolated from the obligatory perverse decorum of middle-class Americana, at least their lives didn’t seem thoroughly divorced from beauty like the systematic, suburban slab lifestyle of Rebel, California vistas or no; or, for that matter, the unfeeling distance that clouds everything in Kazan’s East of Eden.
That kind of sensitivity has no avenue more conspicuous in Hollywood than Dean’s performance in Rebel; but it does appear, with remarkable directness, in the opening act of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952), the second of his three films starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman, his marriage to whom created an enormous, headline-making scandal in the United States on a scale that’s now impossible to comprehend. The film centers initially on the inarticulate consternation of a young boy (Sandro Franchina, the rare non-irritating child actor) who is portrayed as an atypically believable “sensitive child.” His attempts to get and retain his wealthy, aloof parents’ attention come to nothing, which results in an act of impulsive despair that kills him. The rest of the film focuses on Bergman, her values reformed by the trauma, as a modern saint — more or less a remake of Rossellini’s earlier religious fable The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), which like this film ends up turning its characters into flat mouthpieces for philosophical ravings, but the tale of the disturbed child is so much more interesting than the rest of the film, ringing truer than its sacred implications (which are, at length, much more than implications), that it disappoints us not to get more of Rossellini’s stark exploration of messy family dynamics — though he would incisively explore a failing marriage, again with Bergman, in Journey to Italy two years later.
As for St. Francis itself, it’s an illustration of vignettes from the life of Francis of Assisi that aims for the holy power of transcendence that would be achieved so gloriously by Carl Theodor Dreyer in Ordet and Andrei Tarkovsky in Andrei Rublev but manages nothing like that effect because it fails to render its didactic messages into something universally recognizable. It’s not a Staple Singers gospel song, it is an inscrutable sermon from a pseudo-intellectual and has nothing to offer the secular audience. There is one scene that is outright sublime, involving a leper, but what makes it sublime is less the function it fulfills toward the film’s Catholic messaging than a simple matter of Rossellini’s gift for staging, shooting, editing and establishing mood. It is sometimes difficult to speak with authority about cinema if one isn’t well versed in religion, but there are certainly great and profoundly beautiful religious films: the aforementioned, of course, as well as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and of course the moment in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York when Gary Cooper enters church and surrenders to the Lord at last. Even a director with so troubled a relationship with religion as the lapsed Catholic Alfred Hitchcock could present the power and commitment of belief with a feeling of grace and conviction in the likes of I Confess, which sympathetically shows Montgomery Clift wrestling with his obligations as a priest, and The Wrong Man, the climax of which coalesces with a reverently portrayed act of prayer. And while there’s more than a hint of cynicism to Kazan’s appropriation of Catholicism in On the Waterfront for the sake of his and Marlon Brando’s martyrdom, the sequence of Karl Malden giving sermon on the docks is indisputably powerful.
But there are a lot of situations in which a pious filmmaker seems only to be talking to his or her fellow congregants. The impenetrable works of the beloved French filmmaker Robert Bresson, celebrated as they are in some secular circles (J. Hoberman wrote that “to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures”), are so far out on a limb in their exploration of faith through the use of what he called “models,” intentionally blank textbook depictions of human endeavors rather than approximations of real people, that an appreciation requires either an alignment with the director’s philsophical point of view or an interest in his aesthetic methodology of expressing it. If one shares neither, his films are useless as art or entertainment even if coldly admirable. Pickpocket and A Man Escaped are narrative exercises with similar structures and characteristics, classical crescendos and all. While A Man Escaped benefits from an isolation that keeps Bresson’s formal eccentricities from feeling too indulgent, Pickpocket (1959) is more of a singular and unprecedented experience. It’s a brilliant formal investigation of the physical act of the title — with shifting eyes, poker faces, skilled lateral movements, sleight of hand and complete liberation within confined spaces that feels almost erotic — made to clash with a Dostoevsky-like spiritual redemption that depends greatly upon the audience’s own investment of personal detail since its characters, particularly its gray-rock protagonist played by Martin LaSalle, are blank slates fulfilling what is, visceral economy aside, a rather elementary story.
The film’s treatment of eventually vital young neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green) is so rudimentary that it’s impossible to be moved by the conclusion in which she plays a major role, in much the same way that the severity and ideology of Michel’s lawless behavior do not seem inherently fascinating or enigmatic — Dolly Scal’s brief appearance as Michel’s mother is the most appealing human moment of the film and actually seems to hold some mystery within it. When it comes to almost every other human in Bresson’s piece, it’s not even so much that we’re given little information as we’re given little reason to believe there’s much to know beyond what is explicitly, philosophically, morally laid in front of us. And Bresson was essentially just elaborating on a previously established format; almost every outdoor shot in The Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is effortlessly lyrical and stunning, but the pleasures and resonance unfortunately end there. The sensation is of being a fly on the wall as a very basic scenario — a youthful but sickly and alcoholic priest spends two hours in utter consternation about absolutely everything before abruptly dying of stomach cancer, whereupon Bresson presents us with the image of a cross — is played out by a robot, in this case the rather attractive but puppet-like Claude Laydu.
Hitchcock liked to talk about “negative acting” — a performance created by context rather than readily evident emotional firepower — and while he couldn’t be further from Bresson’s sensibility as a film director, the same kind of theoretical film performance is in evidence here. But all of the characters surrounding Laydu, especially the younger women, do suggest varieties of inner life in which the lead character and Bresson himself seem defiantly disinterested. There’s no doubt it would be easy for some viewers to read a lot of identification into the story, much as someone whose sympathies already align with St. Francis’ philosophies of deprivation would likely be very moved by Rossellini’s film, but Bresson’s sensibility holds almost nothing compelling to a person who isn’t either attracted to or fascinated by pointless self-laceration. As in Pickpocket, Bresson crafts a protagonist who seems ineffectual just for the sake of it, to the point it’s hard to imagine what identity or purpose he even conceives for himself. And the film’s structure of writing and voiceover followed by perfunctory, illustrative action just plays as totally dead as if it were an educational film meant to be screened to budding priests in order to prepare them for the most incurious, unrewarding life possible.
Meanwhile, in their treament of female sexuality, most Hollywood movies of the early to mid-’50s may as well have been Roman Catholic treatises. In the best of them, however, that repression and self-torture managed to become the subject itself. We’ve discussed how the fast-talking, career-driven heroines of the better American comedies and occasionally dramas of the ’30s and ’40s had dried up by the postwar era, and how the domesticated vision of coming home to a flawless, dinner-serving indentured servant of a wife could be lightly subverted or complicated by good directors and scripts but rarely thoroughly overcome outside of the western genre, even in film noir (which of course nearly always struggled with its own Madonna-Whore complex). Big-budget studio comedies like Designing Woman and Pillow Talk could make the outward appearance of being more sexually daring than their antecedents, but in the end their patriarchal and, in the latter case, downright disturbing messages couldn’t be mistaken, nor could the central fallacy of virginal innocence and purity that drives much of Vincente Minnelli’s monumentally fucked up musical Gigi, which sets up and topples Leslie Caron’s headstrong courtesan-in-training and cheerily promotes a life of being unashamedly leered at, from “little girl” to arm ornament.
That said, veteran filmmakers would easily have recognized the Hays-restrictive and socially engendered, TV sitcom-like tendency toward a boxed-in notion of idealized life for American women as a fleeting situation, which (at least in so explicit a fashion) was proven; the nuclear families wouldn’t disappear, but their cookie-cutter manifestation everywhere from Ozzie and Harriet to The Man Who Knew Too Much would within ten years feel as dated as a “buy war bonds” sticker. As such, the more intelligent Hollywood pictures had a certain way of subverting these restrictive trends. A new kind of actress, Audrey Hepburn, became a star in 1953 for her lead role in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, which updated Norman Krasna’s silly old chestnut Princess O’Rourke to the ’50s and added a surprisingly crushing sadness which has the character’s intricately structured life impossible to disrupt for something so earthy as an affair with studly Gregory Peck; Hepburn was superficially girlish and sweet but one reason she remains such a popular figure is that men could not pare down and categorize her personality for their own sexual benefit. She was coquettish if she so desired, but just as often her easy charm and eagerness to please were plainly used by her and by her (male) directors as a mask for something tougher, not necessarily tragic but often resigned. It’s telling that in her later pairing with Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story, hers was the face audiences found acceptable pushing back against a religious orthodoxy; the unusually intelligent movie offers one of her greatest performances.
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell both burst out of the movies’ limited imagination about women’s libidos and strictly domiciliary ambitions in the legendary musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Douglas Sirk zeros in on the pain and sexual longing of a lonely widow and lashes out against the hypocrisy of her children’s restrictive view of her, with admirable subtlety that was then necessary and now renders the film more dramatically credible, in All That Heaven Allows; Charles Laughton clarifies sexual repression as the driver of much national misery in his thriller The Night of the Hunter, defining it as the underlying force and need that informs all of its major and minor adult characters; and in his film of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, Delbert Mann finds actors who can worldlessly express the tempest of desire and disappointment in not just multiple women but an apparently gay man (David Niven), since there are certain things his film cannot come out and say. But maybe, after all, there were things real people couldn’t come out and say either.
But the conditions of the era, and the constant need to employ euphemism, could also make even films by maverick directors more than a little confusing; Separate Tables, unable to explicitly lay out a lot of what it’s trying to address and distressingly substituting it for something much worse, is certainly one instance. Another is Otto Preminger’s bizarre and vaguely scummy Bonjour Tristesse (1958). No question the work of a great filmmaker whose imagination runs too quickly for the limits of such a lightweight story, it’s a Jean Seberg vehicle that has her reading every line like “New York Herald Tribune” and amounts to little more than Disney’s The Parent Trap rendered as a tragedy. Seberg’s dad is once again David Niven (in the film’s only good performance), who’s running around with a much younger woman until fun-hating Deborah Kerr returns to his life and insists that his daughter commit herself exclusively to homework, suggesting that her ideal partner is Bigger Than Life‘s Ed Avery. Gorgeously shot, color and black & white both, Tristesse is riddled with perversity: the sheer body horror of Niven on his back doing the bicycle, of Mylène Demongeot describing her sunburned, cracking skin in excruciating detail, of Kerr and Seberg haunted by each other’s eroticism in a manner that — again — they have to limit to fleeting, teasing suggestion, and of the incestuous bond at the core of the story. But these intriguing qualities aren’t enough to overwhelm the script’s basic emptiness. Sure, you could judge Preminger as intending the entire thing as a meta-narrative that’s really about itself, but beyond gawking at the locations and Saul Bass’ lovely title sequence, that seems more of an intellectual than an emotional exercise… and as the latter, despite noble ambitions, the film is a failure that cries out for the kind of orgasmic break in tension that simply wasn’t possible yet — or, if not that, then for more believable performances that wouldn’t require the bulk of it to be read as camp.
Bonjour Tristesse had based its plot on a quickly forgotten 1955 magazine story; Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957) is sourced from a novel by William Faulkner, Pylon, and there was nothing like a literary adaptation to render Hollywood’s resistance to darker sexual themes all the more glaring. Even apart from all that, the film’s rather stilted script by George Zuckerman bears all the usual hallmarks of a cerebral novel being shifted to Hollywood melodrama format — Sirk’s wheelhouse, undoubtedly — with uneven results. Rock Hudson’s central reporter character, nosing around in the lives of others with misplaced glee like Somerset Maugham in The Razor’s Edge, feels on screen too much like an idea rather than a person, spouting monologues that would sound unnatural from almost any actor, much less one who so often struggled with an image as an empty hunk. Initially searching for a story while taking a few too many nips, he becomes a nuisance within the layered psychodramas of a proto-Coleman Francis team of flying acrobats: a pilot, a jumper, a mechanic and the very young son of two of them… but you can’t escape the notion that their story would be more compelling and complete without his “outside perspective,” which just renders unnecessary space between us as spectators and the film’s actual drama.
As the troubled couple at the center of the flying unit, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack are better, though the latter seems to be gearing his performance to a different kind of audience than this movie was ever destined to have, more gruff action star than rugged, emotionally unavailble object of desire; Jack Carson’s mechanic character, whose unrequied love for Malone is an attempt at a sentimental narrative device, just seems trite even though the performance is good. The flying scenes, capturing all the glorious and dangerous sleaze of small-time showbiz, are an absolute thrill — nothing else truly registers; it’s the kind of film whose characters announce their emotional states in gravely serious detail because there’s no narrative room for them to develop organically. Visually, everything’s perfect, with CinemaScope allowing Sirk to present as the ultimate showboating Alpha; but once again, the film is cut at the knees because the emotional frankness of both Faulkner and of the European art cinema to which it aspires is unavailable to it.
Then again, even a director like early Italian neorealist Luchino Visconti could get starstruck and seduced by the power of Hollywood storytelling, which he unabashedly imitates in his distractingly gorgeous Technicolor effort Senso (1954), about the fractured heart of a noblewoman and concerned with the same notions of sexual liberation and self-torture that Hollywood was pretending to avoid. Alida Valli leans fully into the unpolished melodrama of her role as an Italian countess with Nationalist sympathies and a cousin in the rebellion, who falls in love with a cad among the occupying Austraian army, a rather miscast and surprisingly unrecognizable Farley Granger. Only his smirk seems inherited from his other performances, and it’s an odd choice since his boyish naivete might have helped the story out of its hole of coming off as terribly obvious in its direction from the earliest scenes; instead, Granger makes his character’s manipulative nature so explicit and unmissable that it’s difficult to sympathize with either character or feel much investment in their carnal relations. Nevertheless, the film is so full of striking and even breathtaking images that it nearly fills in the difference of its own dramatic shortcomics via pure aesthetic ecstasy. With better casting, however, it might well have been truly extraordinary. (Visconti wanted Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman.)
A better example of what was possible in Europe and not in Hollywood, from a filmmaker who would know the difference all too well, is The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), a film so similar in certain respects to Senso that it would be easy to call the latter an imitation if not for their close chronological proximity. In what must be one of the signature moments of French cinema in the decade before Nouvelle Vague, and four years removed from his half-decade stint in Hollywood, Ophüls whips around in a state of unlikely euphoria as bored, debt-ridden aristocrat Danielle Darrieux betrays her husband (henceforth “the General,” Charles Boyer) when she falls for the warm, personable Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). Right off the bat, this role reversal is a brilliant stunt: Boyer is clearly a more conventionally attractive, enigmatic figure than De Sica, but the film convincingly portrays the former as a petty bore, the latter as shaking the earth that the superficial Madame de… (surname missing) walks on precisely because of the sincerity with which he treats her.
The story is tied together with a pair of earrings — their symmetry mirroring the story’s — that attain considerable import as narrative device, spiritual symbol, fetish object, grave marker. Ophüls’ famously magisterial, elegant camera movements are as breathtaking as advertised — they walk the hallways of refinement but uncover almost overwhelming compassion and emotion, and the performers rise to the task of rendering all of this in real, palpable space, Darrieux’s haunted, passionate expressions of love as direct and believable as the pain and disappointment Boyer’s General doesn’t dare speak aloud. Emotions are brought to life through the almost comical movement between hands of a piece of jewelry, but the enterprise ceases its triviality when it becomes a measure of change in Louise herself; the ravishingly uncontrolled eroticism in the way she reacts when she sees them again could shut anyone up. From start to finish, though, pride and privilege remain the chief obstacles to love and happiness, a beautiful and fatalistic message that refines — rather than expands upon — the director’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, while outpacing it for frankness and sense of barely concealed sexual abandon. Sadly the director would make just one more film before his death at age 54, one just as relevant to the matter of the repression of desire but one that feels more conventionally soapy. Lola Montès (1955), his only color film, magnificently reenacts the eponymous legend in a series of balletic “ringmaster” scenes, filled with the most lavish setting yet for Ophüls’ trademark tracking shots, but despite a wonderful performance by Martine Carol in the title role, the lower-key narrative material doesn’t stand up to those moments.
Still, Ophüls was on the right track in the subverting of melodrama itself, the transformation of it into a medium for what could never, or rarely, be said in films of the time. There have now been generations of scholarship dedicated to complex readings of Hollywood films that were marketed in the ’50s as simplistic and maudlin, or as so-called “women’s pictures,” which theoretically had a buried sophistication and emotional honesty that made them more reliable direct communicators of the actual concerns and social mores of their time than the films that typically garnered the highest levels of critical acclaim and awards attention. (It’s worth noting that, similarly, filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were largely considered purveyors of genre-based junk in their commercial heyday, and only began to be appreciated as true artists in America, as opposed to Europe, toward the middle 1960s.) This wasn’t a hard and fast rule, obviously; you’d have to be extraordinarily perceptive, maybe delusional, to find anything true or honest lurking in the ostensible “women’s picture” Three Coins in the Fountain; and conversely, Fred Zinnemann’s famous melodrama From Here to Eternity took no pains to hide any of its themes, featuring one of the few instances of something resembling a sex scene in a ’50s Hollywood film and an impressively charged one at that: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, waves crashing over them like the cover of a Harlequin. (It’s almost comical to compare this to The King and I, in which Kerr literally spends the film dancing around her obvious sexual tension with Yul Brynner, glossing over something that literally everyone in the audience can sense.)
By and large, however, Hollywood directors working under the increasingly restrictive mood of the times did have to learn a trick that often resembled telling stories in code: numerous passages in ’50s dramas by the likes of Douglas Sirk, George Stevens, Nicholas Ray, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Elia Kazan, even Alfred Hitchcock trade on a kind of “you know what we mean” energy; audiences of the time would have gotten the message, even if audiences today often have to be persuaded that they’re not imagining things. The Hollywood melodrama should be cited as distinct from the straightforward Hollywood drama, which would now be regarded derisively as “Oscar bait”; a few straddle the line, like the tearjerker Bing Crosby-Grace Kelly vehicle The Country Girl, various self-consciously serious play adaptations such as The Rose Tattoo, the infuriating but basically old-hat Love Affair remake An Affair to Remember, or florid, big, dumb versions of doorstop novels like Sayonara and Giant. But the storied, playful undercurrents of melodrama don’t really touch something like Joshua Logan’s Picnic, which takes too many pains to make sure everyone is aware of its sense of its own silliness to qualify, or old-fashioned, stonefaced Hollywood artifacts like Friendly Persuasion or Anastasia, or in particular misguided “social problem” pictures like The Three Faces of Eve, The Defiant Ones and George Stevens’ truly dire version of The Diary of Anne Frank, all of which garnered much focus and attention in their day but may as well have been Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for all the long-term effects they’d have on the culture or for how much they actually have to say about it. Even good prestige films of the period, like East of Eden, don’t really allow for this kind of covert messaging or reinterpretation.
Compare these to George Stevens’ old world versus new kid clash A Place in the Sun and its nearly ludicrous tragic parameters, which nevertheless have an extremity that can only be described as deeply felt, to any of Nicholas Ray’s films regardless of genre from Rebel Without a Cause to Johnny Guitar, or to MGM’s Love Me or Leave Me, directed by Charles Vidor. This last film is especially intriguing; sitting down for a musical starring Doris Day and James Cagney, the viewer is exposed to one of the most harrowingly imagined portraits of an abusive marriage ever filmed in America in its relatively unflinching dramatization of the life of singer Ruth Etting — you can hardly help but wonder how many women in those audiences felt validated, or uncomfortably shaken, by those screenings. A similar case can be made for George Cukor’s lavish remake of A Star Is Born (1954) starring Judy Garland and James Mason, which adopts most of the basic story elements from the early Technicolor Janet Gaynor vehicle made in 1937 but turns it into a musical; even those familiar with the earlier film cannot be fully prepared for the rawness of the moments when Garland’s Vicki Lester breaks down openly over the career decline and debilitating addictions of her husband, Norman Main.
Cukor’s later films, meaning most of those he made in color, are all a bit garish, and A Star Is Born is at times maniacally overdriven and a bit of a mess (not fully his own fault, as the film was taken away from him in the editing stages of its notoriously troubled production), though some of this fits in with the Hollywood melodramatic tradition of bright colors, bold-faced emotional outpourings and big stars revealing just enough of their underlying true selves to tantalize their fans while still retaining the crucial distance of celebrity charisma. As disarmingly human as Garland is throughout this film, she is still Judy Garland, and as uniformly hackneyed as the film’s showbiz narrative is, its chronicle of how alcoholism destroys a life hews closely enough to the tragedies of Garland’s own personal life to merit some of the long-lived fascination with the picture. There is often the vaguest hint of condescension in some close readings of films like this, which lean far enough toward explaining things the film already makes explicit that one is as likely to end up questioning the sincerity of the movie’s acolytes as the irony of the melodrama itself. (This occurs also with movies like Vertigo that aren’t quite conventional melodramas — though Alfred Hitchcock, who considered true melodrama his only area of expertise as a director, may well have disagreed — when we see modern viewers assume that they are the first to notice that Scotty’s behavior toward Judy is problematic.)
Nowhere is this clearer than in the films of Sirk, who was articulate about his use of melodrama and romance-novel conventions to explore difficult and emotionally taxing themes in his work, but more than a few revisionist critics tend to treat their radical interpretations of his work as though they are the first pioneers to land on the moon, ignoring that Sirk often made plenty of room for the queering and subverting of his own texts; whether that obvious intelligence adds to their intrinsic value is a different question. There is so much aesthetic excitement to his films — his obsessive, minutely detailed use of Technicolor and patterns within it most famously — and so many ways to read into them. We as a society should celebrate anyone who views the open expression of unrestrained emotion as the highest purpose of creating art, even if that expression also requires an honest depiction of the claustrophobic restraint required by polite society (all of Sirk’s films involve roughly an hour of lip-biting and holding back followed by a violent outburst of feeling near the climax). The films are layered and full of both conscious and unconscious possibilities, and the ’50s-vintage critics who derided melodramas and Sirk’s films in particular for being about trivial “women’s issues” deserve the mockery they now receive, but being forced to look cockeyed at every story one is being told to wonder what it’s really saying is ultimately its own kind of exhausting trap.
Written on the Wind (1956) — with the pricelessly confusing tagline “THIS WOMAN IN HIS ARMS WAS NOW THE WIFE OF THE MAN HE CALLED HIS BEST FRIEND!” — is the ideal case in point, not least because it may be Sirk’s schlockiest, most giddily shameless effort. It boasts three big stars plus Oscar winner Dorothy Malone acting out a clichéd plot (subversively tinged with the mild suggestion of incest) about an oil magnate’s children and their all-out war over the objects of their sexual desires, with all the old-money fascination of a primetime soap like Dallas or Falcon Crest, fixation on the problems of the royal, rich and famous being another beloved hallmark of melodrama of any medium or period. Given the loving way Sirk and Russell Metty shoot and compose the film, you can use it to tell yourself practically any story you like — but despite its campiness, whatever subtext Sirk intends is so well masked as a conventional Universal soaper that it takes all too much energy to view it as anything but that. There’s a good deal of wildly over the top fun to be had with it but the only deep, long-lasting attraction is to its eye-popping colors and the inventive way it’s filmed. As far as its relatively poor story goes, it’s almost like one of those interminable Edna Ferber adaptations like Cimarron and Giant, only with economy and (stunning) visual beauty… though it never tops the opening so-simple-yet-so-startling stunt of wind blowing leaves through a door.
By contrast, Imitation of Life and The Tarnished Angels both touch down on the grounded real world often enough, the former especially in its often incisive examination of the sexual and racial politics of the ’50s, to achieve genuine resonance at their best, while All That Heaven Allows (1955) is a full-out triumph, and of all Sirk’s films the one that most clearly justifies the feminist reading of his work, which, again, is not even subtext. Its absorbing narrative, tinged with a much more natural romanticism than Written on the Wind, is of a widow’s affair with a younger man from another class background sending her social and family life into disarray. Part of it, still, is the colors, just colors like you never imagined could exist because they don’t, and of course the emotions bubbling over that make the frame itself seem to ache somehow. The casting is ingenious; neither Rock Hudson nor Jane Wyman were necessarily great actors, but the deft combination of total restraint and florid dramatics here — fusing for an unerring sincerity — is laid out masterfully by both actors, especially Wyman. Sirk’s wit and his incisive analysis of the boxed-in reality of a mature (but by no means old) woman in the film’s era manifest far and wide as both acerbic satire and wistful chronicle of small-scale but deeply consequential injustices, and the story has an unapologetic focus and subjective sensibility that avoid the much broader soapiness of so many other Hollywood melodramas. And as with Love Me or Leave Me, the studio’s success at marketing these Sirk films as “women’s pictures” at the time makes you contemplate how cathartic it must have been to see the supposedly lesser emotional realities of women’s lives projected and taken seriously in such a male-oriented medium and cultural atmosphere. Finally, as explorations of real and false love go, this is one of Hollywood’s most succinct, and among the boldest since it’s so cynical about blood ties — though like all too many of the hallmarks of its genre, it does feature a scene of a character (here, the family doctor) explicitly laying out the film’s themes.
It’s difficult not to focus so heavily on Sirk, because he was simply the most prominent architect of the Hollywood melodrama, and its most eloquent defender. Not all of these films went out on their various limbs as successfully as his; Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), for example, is so campy and outrageous as to make Written on the Wind look like vintage Bergman. Based on Tennessee Williams’ play, adapted by Gore Vidal, it’s focused on Katharine Hepburn as a batshit woman on a quest to retrieve a lobotomy for her niece (Elizabeth Taylor). This is because her niece poses a threat to her wildly delusional protection of the legacy of her gay son, who — BTW — was literally cannibalized by a group of teenagers he abused. It offers sufficiently lurid material in its marathon of outbursts that there’s no real point in hunting for subtext, nor does Mankiewicz even have much fun with it, framing the whole thing in awkward flashbacks and long dialogue passages when he’s not too busy concealing half of Montgomery Clift’s face. It’s impossible to take the film’s histrionic content seriously because it’s too far over the top to offer any dignity to its characters. A comparison of that spectacle to the sobering death-march finale of Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, which meets the demands of serious, morbid themes and excels at presenting them, is as strong a case against the merits of the Hollywood melodrama for true emotive communication as All That Heaven Allows is in its favor.
In his colorful period drama The Golden Coach, the master Jean Renoir offered a French interpretation of melodrama that sits uncomfortably alongside Ophüls’ Madame de… as an early prediction of the widespread critical attention and influence that would be lavished upon directors like Sirk in the coming decades. Renoir’s indulgent ogling of fame and spectacle has far less focus on emotional hunger than Ophüls’ association of inner life to outer flamboyance, but in the film’s final moments, he brings the curtain down and reveals the melancholic truth that an actor like Anna Magnani’s Camilla can only uncover her true self when she is communicating to an audience such as the people now watching the film. It’s a devastating moment that would never happen in a Hollywood film, which brings us to the most uncomfortable fact of all about the endless quest to locate the poetry in melodrama: cinema also could offer actual poetry — of unhidden, untethered variety — which makes covert poetry, valuable as it can be, comparatively pallid.
We’ve spoken thus far of the way that the ’50s, at least the American ’50s, have lingered in the cultural memory. But “cultural memory,” at least for those privileged enough to be able to define it, has its limitations — is it most meaningful to define an entire decade by the facade purveyed by commercial television, the Hollywood film industry, mass culture? Because the purportedly bland and conformist ’50s were also the decade in which the Movement was born; the decade of the Alabama bus boycotts, of school integration, of the death of Emmett Till and the resulting groundswell of activism; and the decade in which African-Americans created one of the greatest of American art forms, rock & roll, and refined and revolutionized another that they had created a generation earlier, jazz. The repression and consternation of the prosperous middle class white American may have truly lent itself to a damaging malaise that was further sickened by the way that Hollywood glossed over it — but this was no comparison to the postwar shift in the lives and attitudes of Black Americans, many of whom had fought overseas against a racist regime only to find themselves returning home to another one. The upshot would be a social, cultural and artistic Renaissance whose repercussions would be permanent — and the movies, at least the mainstream American film industry, were ill equipped to capture or respond to it.
Noble attempts did exist; Samuel Fuller’s Korean War film The Steel Helmet, which does explicitly tackle within its dialogue some of the incomplete work of achieving equality in America, was one. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, regarding a Black doctor embodied by Sidney Poitier and his confrontation with a white supremacist, was another — Mankiewicz was a hardline progressive, but the film is overlong and falters into pedestrian territory, and few if any of the director’s subsequent narrative films would make much space for Black protagonists. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) is a more fascinating artifact of the times, a remake of a moldy 1934 drama in which Louise Beavers portrayed an African-American maid serving as Magical Negro muse and corporate symbol to Claudette Colbert’s ferocious businesswoman. Sirk reconceives the story as being about an actress (Lana Turner) who is ill-equipped to give proper appreciation to any of the people around her, whether her long-suffering daughter or her live-in maid Annie (Juanita Moore). Sirk focuses on the story’s big emotional strokes and revels in sentimentality and gaudiness, stepping to the edge of camp but never falling straight over, for most of its length. Seeing the film today one is constantly disappointed at how Annie is continually sidelined; for all Sirk’s obvious interest in dealing with serious issues of racism, classism and sexism in the script by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, who consciously reframed the story in response to the Civil Rights movement, the Hollywood melodrama as a medium doesn’t seem large enough (or large in the right ways) to handle such issues competently — but then, at the finale, something suddenly happens.
It will surprise no one who knows the mechanics of Hollywood melodrama, or of Douglas Sirk, to know that Annie dies at the climax of the film. Inevitably, there is also a funeral. But what happens at that funeral is extraordinary, and distinctly unlike anything else that happens in a Hollywood picture of the decade. Annie has put money away throughout her life for a lavish ceremony in an enormous New York church; upon her death, we see her framed for the first time in the context of her own people, a vast room and seemingly a city full of Black faces we have never seen before, because we as the presumptively white spectactors of the film have, much like Lana Turner’s aloof employer and supposed friend, never asked to see them. They come out in droves to remember her, Mahalia Jackson sings — a shot of transcendent art in the unlikeliest context — and an estranged daughter finally breaks down and the result is a spiritual and emotional outpouring of truly overwhelming scale. Every hollow notion of Technicolor melodrama’s plastic facsimile of such a crescendo breaks down in the face of this moment, and so does every sense of irony or “code” as vehicle to catharsis. This is not an illustration of emotion, it is emotion itself, far more similar to the closing redemption of Ordet or to the powerful illustration of familial connection in Early Summer than to any bombastic vision of American life. It so convincingly negates Sirk’s general artistic methodology that he never made another film in Hollywood.
In fairness, there are other moments in which Hollywood does rise to the occasion of some of its artists’ politics or compassion, like the harrowing death-penalty sequence that closes Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, but comparing almost any American domestic drama of the era to, for instance, the burgeoning “kitchen sink realism” movement in Great Britain, whose international popularity was sealed in 1959 with Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top, reveals an undeniable gulf in the presentation of what feels like truth, or maybe just in how the respective cultures looked at themselves. There is poetry like some stilted, perfected thing, a cerebral experience, and then there is a sort of lyrical directness so overwhelming that it is simply undeniable in its force, and as popular as it is today to claim that moving outside corporate art for your “media diet” is some form of eltism, foreign films were far more conducive to these kinds of experiences than American pictures were. Room at the Top had its American antecedents, some of them beautiful movies — Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March obviously, the open loss and pain of William Wyler’s Dodsworth and even a shred of A Place in the Sun — but there was nothing concealed about the depth of lust, longing and bottomless dread in Simone Signoret’s eyes in Clayton’s film. There just wasn’t a place for it in the Hollywood conception of the world, not overtly, although it is telling that American audiences embraced the film when they could see it; its screenplay netted an Academy Award, as did Signoret. In a year in which the awards were dominated by Ben-Hur (which it bested for the Adapted Screenplay award), this violent juxtaposition wrought no obvious changes in the industry but signaled a burgeoning of art that didn’t necessarily court or require such approval.
There was precedent for the grimy sets and working class concerns of those British kitchen sink films even in Japan, where Akira Kurosawa lurched wildly out of his usual character in 1957 with his film of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, filmed twenty years earlier by Jean Renoir. Although Kurosawa had dabbled in social realism before with films like Stray Dog and Ikiru, this film’s relatively natural performance style and theatrical staging is still fascinatingly far afield of the kinds of movies we associate with him. If anything The Lower Depths is closer to Kenji Mizoguchi’s taste in material, which makes it doubly intriguing how differently Kurosawa approaches it than his peers would. While affecting at times, though, it’s not an exaggeration to say it feels more like a play than most plays; the single-minded proffering of dialogue and monologues and multilayered but severely contained chaos (the bulk of it playing out on one set, which fails to prompt much cinematic inventiveness) leads to a film that constantly seems to stop in its tracks and revel in sheer misery. And the luxurious length doesn’t help the feeling of stagnation; after a certain point, very little seems to be happening except in short bursts that then spill out into further tortured contemplation.
Ikiru (1952) is much more successful, though it does prove that Kurosawa was not the same poet of generalized social unrest as he was of period spectacle or of modernist, noir-like crime stories. Still, it’s one of the loveliest films about life, death, bureaucracy and middle-class social climbing ever devised. Takashi Shimura’s unlikely hero Kanji Watanabe is a government official whose general method of quietly stumbling through the work week is to do his part to ensure no projects in his department ever move forward, but when he is diagnosed with a terminal illness he begins to work to ensure that a requested playground is finally built. As touching as the film’s general story of finding meaning in small, progressive actions is, even more telling in a certain way is how, upon his death, his coworkers prove completely baffled by his decision to perform one last grand action for someone besides himself, so alien is the concept of selflessness to them. Kurosawa is a sentimentalist who has little sense of subtlety, but that doesn’t prevent him from fully realizing his lead character’s life and death with true dignity and a sense of no-nonsense heroism, and the film’s satirical elements are as well-turned as its moving notion of what it means to create a purpose for oneself.
The most dependable artist of ordinary life in Japan or in any country in the 1950s was Yasujiro Ozu, one of the half-dozen greatest filmmakers ever to live and a director who like Hitchcock reached his apex in this decade by homing in on ideas he had already established in his previous works. Ozu is fond of unorthodox staging that new viewers will find disorienting and even demanding, because he emphatically wishes to place the audience in the frame as a participant, with characters frequently staring directly into the camera when they address other characters. Life moves slowly, and small moments and choices take on the enormity of major plot twists. Even apart from his uncanny ability to craft sublime poetry from day-to-day middle class or working class life (seldom, if ever, the poverty of The Lower Depths), his sensibility is virtually unique in world cinema, and by the signal of almost any given frame, unmistakable for anyone else.
Like Room at the Top but even more explicitly, Ozu’s signature achievement Tokyo Story (1953) has its roots in Hollywood storytelling, which had been a formative influence. It is inspired directly by Leo McCarey’s 1937 domestic drama Make Way for Tomorrow, about an aging couple who gradually become estranged from their children after a foreclosure disrupts their routine; it’s a lovely and emotionally taxing film, but it also falls back on classic Hollywood insincerity and character tropes. Tokyo Story never errs from strict realism, which makes it significantly more heartbreaking. One of the overarching themes of Ozu’s career is containment: like real people, his characters nearly burst with feeling while seldom saying out loud what they really think. McCarey and writer Vina Delmar’s characters say everything out loud but seem to get no closer to the truth, and Make Way falls back on a stroke of tearjerking mawkishness and didacticism, however successful. Tokyo Story‘s drama of an elderly couple’s visit to Tokyo to see their children and grandchildren makes no sudden movies, and comes about its emotional beats and character portraits in a slow accumulation of detail. As a result, when it ends and you regain consciousness, its world is so complete and lived-in you feel you’re entering and not leaving a dream.
In Ozu as opposed to McCarey, the children’s inability to stop their lives for the comfort of their parents isn’t judged nearly as harshly, and in general the natural course of life itself is given a bit more respect. But there are also more secrets. With the striking character particularly of the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara in probably the best of the film’s many excellent performances), there are a number of traits and beats that imply an unknown-to-us history and are thus both admirably withholding and extremely telling. This entire family is comprised of singular people, not simply intended as a generic portrait of humanity and ungrateful children. Everyone is pretty much doing their best under the circumstances. In defiance of the talk about cultural differences (even the maligned polite-smiles-masking-all-emotions and constant small talk tendencies have plenty of analogue in Western culture), fashioning this story carefully over a long period so that everything feels like messy reality allows it to seem wholly universal.
Even more beautiful (and even tricker to pin down) is Early Summer (1951), a masterpiece about the comings and goings of a ramshackle family who are trying to marry off their 28 year-old daughter, who isn’t necessarily interested. The film’s gentle good humor and its uneven rhythm have the feel of a warm heart beating next to you. As in Ozu’s earlier treatise on the modern arranged marriage, Late Spring, social mores and the limited emotional imagination of a hierarchal society do come under considerable scrutiny, with the director rebelling gently against hardline traditionalism and advocating beautifully for tolerance, gentleness, love. This is an Ozu film that never quite aims for the tragic parameters and implications of Late Spring and Tokyo Story, which both posit finite possibilities for their family units altough they never rise to the level of actual despair. Early Summer, by contrast, expresses contentment as an ideal and an end unto itself, an eerily realistic combination of calmness and chaos permeating its keen depiction of family life.
In The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), an achingly sad portrait of an emotionally distant marriage, made between the above two films but as fraught and luxurious as either, Ozu climaxes with one of the most realistically intimate scenes between a couple ever captured by a narrative filmmaker: when he has Michiyo Kogure and Shin Saburi bumbling around in the kitchen late at night to throw a snack together. The devastating catharsis of this moment that has objectively miniscule importance in everything except these two lives doesn’t even require the overt verbal statements of its implications that follow in the next two (lovely) scenes. The lived-in poetry and sheer weight of it are inexpressible by any means except those at Ozu’s dispensal. Along the way there is also the gentle prodding of the generation gap and the lingering feudal traditions, again including arranged marriage; plus baseball and gambling, old war buddies and the explicit celebration of unceremonious coziness. And of course our director’s eye is unfailing; we see in all of the details the broader place of everything — the dust lingering around a lamp, the haunted rear window of a train, the hallways and offices — as a prop in the drama of ordinary life, which is all that gives any of it meaning.
The Italian director Roberto Rossellini tackled the same subject matter a year later in his Journey to Italy (1953) with the same harrowingly direct portrayal of awkward interactions and fatal miscommunications, if less profundity as a result of Rossellini’s determination to build to a spiritual deus ex machina rather than the elegance of quiet Ozu so steadfastly advocated. Even so, the films both have lessons to impart about not just marriage but cinema itself. Rossellini packs his frame with two major Hollywood actors with Academy Awards in their respective recent pasts, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, both of whom sink their teeth deeply into an opportunity to play characters and a scenario so naturally in a manner that no studio would ever allow (though the script does let Sanders fall back on his traditional cad persona a bit). Rossellini’s loose, on-the-run approach is splendidly well-suited to the unfolding chasm between a couple who, like so many one runs across in the real world, seem as if they never could’ve possibly fit together in the first place, fused with a mournful travelogue — as though Dodsworth spent much of its time following the sightseeing excursions Walter Huston went on to distract himself.
There is some registration of Sanders’ Alex’s pain, but far more of the wrestling and fear of an uncertain, morbid future that go on inside Bergman’s Katherine as she wanders Naples, Pompeii and the Catacombs with the weight of a lifetime of regret and distance hanging over her. It’s all quite painfully believable, and without relying on contrived miscommunication, captures impeccably both the avoidance and frequent impossibility of bringing one’s feelings into the air in a difficult relationship, and the manner in which the specific kind of misery engendered by a life like this hangs over everything, makes the broad and vivid world almost invisible. This is all achieved without casting us as leering observers in the manner of 1940s Italian Neorealist films Bicycle Thieves and La Terra Trema; the dialogue has no poetic distance, the camera seeks no beautification of misery, yet the characters’ hearts are always unmistakable and the picture does not shy away from their torment.
But where Journey to Italy departs harshly from Ozu’s more complete achievement is in the abruptness of its ending, which bluntly contradicts the languid pacing and ambiguity of so much prior; moreover, there is its shot of spiritual messaging, whereby a religious procession serves the same purpose for this couple as the wedding observed by Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in Sunrise and suddenly they are in each other’s arms. It is difficult to accept this at face value; Alex is too far gone as an empathetic human being, no matter how much his constant sniping is a cultivated defense — because really, a defense against what? — to trust his reluctant “I love you.” Rossellini intends for this to be as miraculous as the end of Ordet would prove, but it registers more as the sickeningly insufficient bow on top of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar: an hour and a half of misery, meant to be redeemed by a moment of transcendence, of waking up to the world. Frankly, an unceremonious parting would’ve been more in the spirit of the film, and in a strange way, also more uplifting — because it would seem to bring an actual end to the poison.
Italian Neorealism extended faintly on into the ’50s even as foreign directors like Ozu and Renoir (especially in The River) and domestic ones like Rossellini and Fellini (whose early picture about twentysomething layabouts I Vitelloni is arguably one of the last, and best, films directly derived from the Neorealist movement, which had “officially” ended a year or two earlier) went further with its ideas while departing from its already exhausted aesthetic style. Genre pioneer Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is a much better film than his internationally beloved Bicycle Thieves, but it suffers from a similar mawkishness in between its well-considered, weighty and genuinely telling details that render the latter less resonant than they might be otherwise. It’s the cinematic equivalent to a doe-eyed puppy waiting in a pound to be adopted; it’s such an irresistible heartstring-tugger that criticizing anything about it makes you feel like a total creep. It centers largely around the bond of a man, the “Mr. Umberto” of the title, and his impossibly cute mutt Flike, who stands up with a hat in his mouth seeking spare change. Umberto is an unlucky pensioner whose stuck-up, negligent landlord has class-divisive stars in her eyes and is looking for an excuse to kick him out; strapped for cash and unable to find any livable means to escape his situation, he spends the first half of the film in search of enough money or help to scrape by, then becomes increasingly dispirited and begins to try to give the dog away, which results first in a Rossellini-like near-tragedy (the manner in which it is filmed and cut recalls Germany, Year Zero) then in an abrupt but tender change of heart, yet one that leaves the future very much uncertain. Umberto’s only human ally is the terminally dispirited maid played by Maria Pia Casilio, who is hiding her pregnancy from her boss and Umberto’s mortal enemy; the pair’s unusual, wholly platonic friendship is perhaps the most touching portrait the film gives us of the desperation and catharsis of even tentative human connection. Mostly Umberto is alone, or so he believes — and as he is constantly reminded, each time he runs into a former non-stranger on the street.
The story lyrically examines divisions and unity among young and old, rich and poor, human and animal, man and woman, and it is a hallmark of black & white cinema: nearly every shot is stunning, and Carlo Battisti, achingly good as Umberto, does the camera proud. But as in so many of the major works of Italian Neorealism, the decks are stacked so high it feels downright absurd, regardless of how true to life it clearly is — the characters, perhaps apart from Maria, are so faintly sketched-in that the tale feels simultaneously ageless, therefore permanent, and strangely obvious, even a bit sentimental, lacking even the sort of detail or depth that you can sense in a film it undeniably influenced like Wild Strawberries. Its vague feeling of yellow-journalistic misery porn somewhat undercuts its claims to slice-of-life, and this is completely down to the writing; the most riveting scenes are the scattered ones that tell us something about Umberto that we can’t discern the very first time we see him, like his sensitivity to the potential cruelty he spots in the very poor kennel-house where he briefly considers leaving Flike before going off to die. His broader trajectory is moving, but it all feels too easy in its fatalism and eventual begrudging joy to be real — and in this regard it doesn’t transcend the innate limitations of Neorealism.
However, in the same way that Ozu’s reinterpretation of Hollywood storytelling in Tokyo Story creates a film that completely transcends those origins, India’s Satyajit Ray would register the innovations of Neorealist directors like De Sica, Rossellini and Luchino Visconti and make something even more striking and poetic of them, although Pather Panchali (1955), whether by design or accident, also takes on characteristics of certain American films like those of Frank Borzage and William Wyler in the ’30s and ’40s. By the time the film was released in the U.S., those influences were no less alien to Hollywood — even though both Borzage and Wyler were still actively working — than this period film about an impoverished family in Bengal.
Like those directors at their best but less beholden to the distancing effects of stylistic flourish and vernacular, and like the Neorealists but without any temptation to cop to their gawking and self-conscious condescension, Ray takes the everyday lives of people seriously and treats them as inherently dramatic and interesting. The gravity and tragedy of the troubled lives examined here is obvious, but Ray is disinterested in merely telling a fatalistic and grim story, so Pather Panchali is lovely, sensitive and poetic, its black & white photography singing out with such vibrancy and depth you’d swear you were bearing witness directly to everything you’re seeing, which is also how the rich catalog of moments, the accumulated pathos of the storytelling, takes residence in your mind and memory. Nothing you can say about it feels sufficiently lyrical; there’s beauty everywhere, but no sense of fetishization of poverty. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn; the boy at the center of all, Apu (Subir Banerjee) is less an Antoine Doinel than an audience vessel through which the curiosities, sadnesses, fears, weird unexpected miracles of life and childhood come careening toward us. Several scenes in Pather Panchali, the storm in particular, are as striking as anything any director ever captured on film; and the tendency of the world to continue relentlessly moving at our most humiliating or debilitating moments has never been so sickeningly well captured. There’s a sense in which the film could come from no other time or place than India in the 1950s; the face of Karuna Banerjee as Apu’s mother Sarbajaya, though, taking the unfolding darkness overwhelming her life until she completely breaks? That is irreducible, creating a kind of empathy and clarity that’s possible in no other medium, and that is what cinema is about.
Or at least, that’s one thing it’s about. It’s also about the great Ingmar Bergman’s travelogue of an aging professor (the great silent director and fellow Swede Victor Sjöström) on his way to collect an award, surveying the darkness of his dreams, the curtain slowly drawing on his life and the beauty of the countryside in the complex but giddily life-affirming Wild Strawberries (1957). Poetry can manifest in the naturalistic, lyrical fashion of this film and the Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu pictures mentioned above, but it can also manifest in the purest and most daunting kind of overwhelming beauty, even in the form of a narrative as epic, surreal and imaginatively considered as 1950’s Orpheus as filmed by Jean Cocteau, as Bergman’s equally legendary The Seventh Seal (1957), his staggering landmark about a knight’s slow journey across a Plague-ravaged coastline whereupon he is confronted with the personage of Death, who challenges him to a game of chess. These are films of enormous wit and quickness, but also of creativity and depth that seems wholly alien from the strict parameters of Hollywood. No film touched by American notions of Menace has the shattering resonance and philosophical consideration of the Plague in The Seventh Seal, nor can the vast majority of them compare to the generosity toward emotional contemplation in all of Bergman’s films of the period. What those aren’t, without exception, is dour; perhaps this word could be applied fairly to some of Bergman’s later efforts, but the films that made his reputation in the ’50s are phantasmagoric and exciting, and carry an almost unique ability to give one an urge to walk outside and embrace the world.
The most obvious and prominent example of art cinema’s capacity for poetry within enormity is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), a film that like Citizen Kane somehow merits every bit of its untouchable reputation across its gradual, compelling accumulation of elements to a story that it explores, unfolds and exploits with an arresting completeness. Kurosawa spends a luxurious but well-jutsified three hours establishing the characters of the seven men who for no reward apart from honor take on the responsibility of protecting a small village from a group of bandits and plunderers — taking various cues from Hollywood westerns while also inventing ideas and strutural conceits that would inform the action and adventure genres for generations, Kurosawa frames every moment of his gargangtuan story with the ambition and inventiveness of a master painter. Across the most bombastic of its battle scenes and the slowest of its sequences of dialogue and careful character development, Seven Samurai earns its reputation as one of the most riveting films ever made without a single awkward or unfortunate step. It’s true that Kurosawa could not have made The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice — he wouldn’t have had the patience for it — but nor could Ozu, or any other director of any origin, have made Seven Samurai, the fiery and confident expression of a virtuoso.
Looking at Seven Samurai alongside the contemporaneous Hollywood epics of the day causes the latter to appear even more uninspired and lackluster than they really are; it’s not that Kurosawa was immune or ignorant to commercial impulses, but that divorced from the restrictive bounds of American corporatism, studio culture and the star-driven popular press, an artist could actually thrive behind the camera rather than spend his or her career attempting to overwhelm those forces to gain some semblance of control over available resources. Similarly, there’s no question that Douglas Sirk is an important and gifted director — maybe in another setting he could have been an auteur on the level of Ozu, but the fact remains that Sirk is a director whose true predilections and impulses were always fighting to remain visible underneath a torrent of obligations, standards and conventions. There is intensity of feeling in this pictures, but it is no match for the passion within something like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), nor can any American film about faith stand up to its final sense of the miraculous.
Dreyer was already an international titan whose The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath were among the most probing and immensely moving of all films dealing with religion. But Ordet is different. By turns riveting in its claustrophobic intensity and simmering menace, emotionally overwhelming in the purity of its love for its characters and the grief it shares with them, and in the end, staggering in its grace as a cinematic expression of divinity, it is the definitive religious film because, as Inger surmises at the outset, it posits that faith will come to and rescue those who need it, and it comes about this process not through the factions and discord of organized religion — mocked at length here — but through the barer, more honorable paths of love and belief and through the yearnings of the outwardly simple; the depth of belief and gratitude in those stunning final closeups is directly born of the adoration shared among a whole family, but especially that of a loving husband toward his wife. The film is also a remarkable instance of audience participation within a two-dimensional work of art, whereby our own desire for death to be conquered by love is achieved seemingly by sheer force of will, but more accurately by a surrendering of control. Like most of Dreyer’s work, the film achingly captures glory through visual beauty that is never especially assertive, only quietly impassioned; the filmmaker’s hand is gentle on our shoulders.
As inscrutable as faith may have been to the commercial forces of American cinema, love was no less so — for all the noble efforts of many Hollywood auteurs, no American film of the ’50s has the romantic force of either the Italian picture Le Notti Bianche or the Soviet Union’s The Cranes Are Flying (both 1957). The former is an impossibly beautiful two-hander, directed by Neorealist pioneer Luchino Visconti but significantly divergent from his original stylistic manner and thematic concerns, with a couple of lonely people connecting on a neon-lit street over the course of a few emotionally charged evenings. It’s a basically peerless example of actors, camera, environment (a brilliantly evocative studio set just as ingeniously designed and used as the courtyard in Rear Window) as an impeccable emotional match to a story; virtually every moment is soulful and immediate beyond description, and the pain that comes through actively stings. There’s no great trick to its presentation of two beating hearts in the tentative movements of a man and a woman — it mostly just illustrates the outgrowth of a fairly rudimentary scenario, but it does so exhaustively, with an emotional clarity and completeness that render it incredibly affecting as an intimate piece of atmosphere, and as an almost musical expression of a lovelorn dark night of the soul.
The Cranes Are Flying, which is equally observant but more ambitious in scale, is many things — a Soviet response to the trauma of World War II, a persuasive depiction of youthful romance in full bloom — but over and above everything it’s another example of a film in which the (technically bravura) camera is wholly responsive to the moods and emotions of its characters, such that the specifics of those characters, while well-defined, are less important than how easily director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky put their inner lives across in a manner that transcends every kind of verbal language. In this sense — in the way its compositions, camera movement and editing tell the entire story on their own along with the excellent performers — it’s one of the most instantly striking examples of Pure Cinema one is ever likely to encounter. And creating this very evidently requires an unheard-of degree of technical mastery: the camera behaves in ways that don’t seem physically possible, dancing as though it were itself part of the fantasy of it all. In addition to the deservedly famous opening sequence, observe the scene in which the soldiers are gathering to head to the front (a callback to King Vidor’s The Big Parade, if we must remind ourselves of old Hollywood as the jumping-off point for so much); there are multiple astounding shots that track and curve along every conceivable axis, move in and out of close-up and broadly present visual scenarios that, were you to encounter them in a film today, would almost certainly require computer assistance. There is also of course the sickening cycle of shots of the stairwell in Veronika’s building, which at first is a kind of Borzage-like device (7th Heaven) and eventually becomes a harbinger of absolute dread.
But the movie’s aesthetic glory shouldn’t be viewed as something that monopolizes attention in place of storytelling; instead this is avant garde technique at perhaps its apex in service of something remarkably universal that never feels vague or rudimentary. The film has been labeled propaganda, and certainly its final notes of eleventh-hour redemption a la Umberto D‘s rescue of the dog and wandering off into uncertain sunset feel like a begrudging note of sincerely moving but barely justified optimism (did anyone except Rossellini and Clément go all the way in showing what the war actually did to civilians?) that exposes a bit of that utility… but the sense of almost inevitable loss here, and the collective and individual trauma that such events expect us to endure, is unspeakably bleak and infallibly truthful — underneath the divisions of state we’re only left with meaningless death, and if you allow yourself to think of it, it feels insurmountable even today.
Cranes works tremendously well as a fusion of these opposing cinematic ideas of poetry that came into worldwide prominence in the ’50s: subtlety in place of irony, lyrical swooning and elegance in place of sheer bombast. In Japan, Ozu exemplified the former, Kurosawa the latter — Kenji Mizoguchi, at the twilight of his career, measured the median in a series of extraordinary period films. Like so many of these filmmakers all over the world, Mizoguchi had found inspiration in Hollywood’s modes of expression and considerable resources, but the ’50s mark the point when he like so many others found an avenue to take those influences further and essentially to reimagine the emotional and narrative properties of cinema itself. Of his major ’50s films, the most radical is probably The Life of Oharu (1952); it’s also the most harrowing and difficult to watch.
Much as Women of the Night (1948) was Mizoguchi doing Neorealism, this is Mizoguchi doing Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest — essentially an episodic parade of misery suffered by the title character (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb) at the hands of systemic oppression, and powerful men specifically, in 17th century Japan. We meet her as the disgraced daughter of a Samurai warrior who’s been censured and castigated as the result of a love affair and watch as she suffers one indignity, tragedy and humiliation after another. This is well in keeping with Mizoguchi’s attitudes about the burdens suffered by women (see also Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, on and on), but as gorgeous and arresting as it frequently is, the story eventually becomes so one-note that it’s exhausting and verges on the ridiculous. The only redemption in the final seconds involves the aged Oharu finally embracing nothingness, essentially a Buddist precedent to Au Hasard Balthazar, but beautifully staged enough that this renunciation of life doesn’t rankle like the glorified self-torture of Bresson’s films. The assault of bleakness is all too much and too repetitive, but it doesn’t keep this from being a fine and occasionally stunning film — particularly aesthetically; there are several lengthy shots that are simply breathtaking, especially one Under Capricorn-like moment in which a counterfeiter (Eijiro Yanagi) is chased from a brothel after being exposed and the camera seamlessly follows along from the second floor down to the ground. Little wonder that this was Mizoguchi’s international breakthrough, sadly almost at the end of his life.
In cinephile circles today, Mizoguchi’s most widely beloved film is the ghost story Ugetsu (1953), a distinction it certainly earns even if he had made stronger, more singular films and would do so again. Nevertheless it is a ravishing, dreamlike chronicle of a man (Masayuki Mori)’s greedy abandonment of his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) and son during a time of war and his subsequent, tragic cavorting in the spirit world, sourced from fable-like stories by the writer Ueda Akinari, and the sweep of the plot has the deeply rooted, elemental feel of folklore being passed down directly to us. The film is pulled in many directions simultaneously in terms of its focus, ironically given the somewhat schematic and unbalanced nature of its structure, but a key theme is the ravages that war inflicts on people, especially women; in this way the film again fits neatly in with Mizoguchi’s ’30s works about the sufferings of women. Ugetsu lacks some of the elegance of those, introducing a compelling but comparatively weak subplot — about a man-child (Eitaro Ozawa) whose aspirations to become a Samurai warrior leave his wife suffering — that it cannot really resolve satisfactorily. One is so seduced by the opening act with its chronicle of slowly creeping obsession and escape and by the supernatural elements of the midsection, as well as the plight and downfall of the potter Genjurō’s wife, that your only wish is to spend more time in that world and it’s strange to have it routinely interrupted in such a short film. Every part of the film is sensorially arresting (the fog! the light!), however, and the feeling of redemption and grace at the finale, as bleak as the actual events depicted really are, is so persuasive in its maturity about love and death that it could save your life, not unlike the conclusions of Ordet and Imitation of Life.
The motif of an overheard song as a link to personal history from The Life of Oharu would be directly reprised by Mizoguchi in Sansho the Bailiff (1954), probably the most beautiful and satisfying of Mizoguchi’s many terrific ’50s films. This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren’t so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren’t so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we’re permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism make it deeply affecting on a personal level. At so many unexpected moments, Mizoguchi is able to prompt a kind of visceral and pure reaction, and his exposure of love and sacrifice surrounded by uncaring misery becomes a manifestation of the selfless philosophy at the center of the narrative. Given the intricacy and grimness of the film’s emotional threads, it’s an extraordinary achievement that he remains so focused on filling the audience’s heart with empathy and identification; the initial separation of parent from children by a nefarious wicked-witch human trafficker can leave one with absolutely desperate pangs, and the yearning that results lasts the rest of the film, pulled along with the ethereal capturings of a disrupted natural world by Mizoguchi’s graceful camera. As in Ugetsu, he seems to dance on the edge of life and death in a manner that is both deeply felt and purely cinematic; influences and comparisons notwithstanding, it’s quite hard to name anything that feels quite like these two films.
Mizoguchi is a director, like Hitchcock, whose every choice always seems wise, correct and resonant, even in his seemingly minor works. The Crucified Lovers (1954), sometimes known as A Story from Chikamatsu, is an absorbing and rapidly paced Romeo and Juliet-like narrative, set within feudal Japan and adapted from an eighteenth century play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (hence the original title). The tragedy within it juggles the same themes as all of Mizoguchi’s major works — traditional society’s inhumanity to women and celebration of capital, all in all — but is set apart from them in its fast-moving energy and wonderfully sharp sense of irony, though like all of his work it’s immaculately shot and composed. His last feature Street of Shame (1956) is about a group of prostitutes coping with the fickleness of day-to-day life amid the looming possibility of a ban on sex work that could leave them destitute, an issue it tackles without demonizing or glorifying anyone; and it’s an incredible, prescient, beautifully acted and observed film, maybe not as hard-hitting as Women of the Night and Sisters of the Gion, which deal with similar situations and themes, but equally lyrical and haunting — especially its final shot — and exquisitely scored by Toshiro Mayuzumi, a perfect swansong from one of cinema’s greatest and most sensitive directors.
Nowhere was the comparison of emotional intelligence between Hollywood and other movie industries less favorable to the Americans than in the presentation of childhood, and of children’s inner lives. We have already seen the way that Roberto Rossellini almost incidentally chronicled a “sensitive” child’s frustrations in Europa ’51 with greater acumen than one could ever expect the studios with their run of golly-gee-whiz child actors in movies like Bigger Than Life to try and capture, to say nothing of the same director’s rigorously unsentimental yet horrifically moving drama of a young boy in the aftermath of World War II, Germany, Year Zero. The children in Ozu’s films, for another contrast, felt like kids in a way that those populating Hollywood’s various nuclear family stories couldn’t even begin to approximate. Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause did successfully and brilliantly capture middle American adolescence; but adolescence as a social force was a relatively fresh concept, and would be distinctly an American one for a few more years. American films didn’t have the capacity of an unflinching examination of the life of an unloved, neglected child longing for connection like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows; an American version of that film, if it somehow escaped being thoroughly watered down, would almost surely have caused mass protests and accusations of causing familial unrest. And Hollywood never crafted as simple yet beautiful an evocation of the child’s natural imagination as Albert Lamorisse’s masterful short The Red Balloon, another film with power that was so difficult for the traditional system to deny that it netted a screenplay Oscar, and this for a film that scarcely contained dialogue.
Well, almost never. The Dr. Seuss-scriped musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is exceptional in a number of respects, one being that its seemingly infinite visual imagination — following on from Seuss’ most acclaimed flirtation with cinema thus far, the UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing — sets it ridiculously far apart from studio traditionalism. Another is that its discursive, unrestrained and disorganized style manages to successfuly mimic a child’s stream of consciousness. Lastly, it is an actually resourceful use of overblown studio resources, courtesy of Columbia in the year of From Here to Eternity as well as producer Stanley Kramer, this being the best thing by far that Kramer was ever associated with. Dr. T demonstrates that true art and true eccentricity were possible in Hollywood, and it’s such a strange and unique film that it also proves that art and eccentricity were nearly impossible tasks, aberrations, in the film’s land of origin.
The film musical as an art form matured a little too much in the ’50s, in America and elsewhere. For every masterpiece like Singin’ in the Rain, there were several Hollywood productions derived from bloated Broadway shows like those of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Carousel and The King and I) that replaced the stylish eroticism of classic MGM Freed unit or RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals with the phony indulgences of “event” cinema. For every Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that soaked in progressive visions of feminine sexuality, there was a Gigi, the triumphantly successful but awful film after which MGM’s legendary musical division finally sputtered, or the occasionally bravura but painfully regressive Stanley Donen spectacle Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. For every Love Me or Leave Me or A Star Is Born that integrated domestic drama about the tolls taken by fame, there was a stilted and cruel Interrupted Melody. Even in Europe, outside the confines of the studio system, for every boldly imaginative flight of fancy like Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, there was a compromised creation like Lola Montès that touched the sky but then shrank away from it.
Even within the works of masters there are these disappointing contradictions — Gene Kelly for all his grace and control, which had deservedly enchanted audiences starting in the ’40s and who continued to exhibit mastery over form as star, choreographer and director in Singin’ in the Rain, could also find himself locked in the clumsy if occasionally winning artificiality of Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. The same director botched Fred Astaire’s own comeback, self-consciously dramatized, in The Band Wagon (1953), a much less sucessful attempt at the satire of Hollywood career mortality in Singin’ in the Rain. It sounds like an unassailable proposition: Astaire in color hobnobbing with the Freed unit in the role of a washed-up song & dance man who gets shoehorned into a pretentious playright’s overwrought Faust revival. But the comedy, which dominates the film over and above its music and dancing, falls flat despite enjoyable performances all around, and the story — to whatever extent that matters — never seems to actually start.
Even so, the film contains one of the most beautiful of all Hollywood production numbers, “Dancing in the Dark,” with Astaire and Cyd Charisse subsuming themselves completely to the purest possible expression of romantic longing and rendering almost moot the wonderfully surreal and cinematic Red Shoes-derived grand finales of Kelly’s two big features of the two prior years. “Dancing” obviously is a quintessential moment of Hollywood mythmaking at its peak, is perhaps Astaire’s finest single performance, and renders the entire film automatically indispensable. “By Myself” and the climactic Mickey Spillane ballet are delightful as well, but the other numbers are major steps downward, especially the unnerving “Triplets” which puts the three stars in baby garb and is a challenge to watch without cringing. Unlike the better Minnelli musicals (The Pirate, for example) and of course the RKO Astaire-Rogers affairs, there’s no sense of anything genuinely stringing it all together even abstractly, and the florid production design, brilliant as it is, removes some of the scrappy appeal that might have strengthened it as a comedy.
That’s a situation that often plagues musical comedies in this era — rather than matching the appeal and structure of the comedy beat for beat, there is a sense of elaborate production numbers running circles around the narrative material. Lubitsch’s early talkie musicals never struggled with this, nor did earlier Freed unit classics or Swing Time or, more to the point, Singin’ in the Rain, which is almost as noteworthy for its masterful if acidic mockery of Hollywood as for its sublime numbers, revised from earlier Freed pictures, like “Good Morning,” “Gotta Dance” and the title tune. The starkest possible contrast for this can be found in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), in which an aging Hawks’ increasingly lackluster comic timing stumbles along solely thanks to the eclectic, sumptuous brightness of the song sequences he did not direct, handing them instead to the film’s choreographer Jack Cole. The juxtaposition is unmistakable: the blood-red joy, the joyous and unchecked lust in Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s big numbers respectively — they let Hawks pretend to be decades younger, with all the agility and eroticism of Stanley Donen, and they make you as a viewer feel like you’re never going to get old.
Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and its army of the faceless suitors is legendary, its amoral indecency a shot of fearless wickedness that rings out through the decades, even after dozens of imitations. “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” with Russell surrounded by hordes of men wearing only perfunctory and barely visible swim trucks, herself in a black dress her orgasmic fervor cancels out, is pornographic in the very best way. Meanwhile the story itself — much ado about small-time showbiz and cuckoldry — offers almost nothing of note or substance, it’s just an excuse to reach those heights; Russell’s wonderful, wizened performance is the only thing that renders a smile in the dialogue scenes. You can’t argue that this doesn’t matter or that it speaks well of Hawks’ latter-day acumen as a director of anything besides masculine action pictures (which, to be fair, were at their best nearly as hilarious in this era as his classic screwball comedies), but faced with how transcendent this is when Cole takes the helm, it can’t possibly be that important to the film’s legacy either.
Even Hitchcock threw his hat in the ring of the jumbo-sized prestige musical in a sense, bringing Jay Livingston and Ray Evans — famous composers of “To Each His Own,” “Silver Bells” and “Mona Lisa” among others — in to write a song (“Que Sera, Sera,” which became and remains a standard) for his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, since he had cast Doris Day in the film as a retired singer; the film’s climactic moment relies on a lengthy rendition of the song. Hitchcock had made a full-on musical in 1933, the Strauss biopic Waltzes from Vienna, and had tracked a pop writer’s progression with a composition throughout Rear Window, but this was only the second time a film of his featured something so conventional as a big star singing a hit song. Getting fully in the spirit, another famous musician also appears on camera in the film, namely composer Bernard Herrmann, who gets to play himself conducting an orchestra in the film’s largest-scale setpiece, the Royal Albert Hall scene. This was Herrmann’s second collaboration with Hitchcock; he had been gradually changing the face of film music since his work with Orson Welles in the early ’40s and along with several other iconoclastic composers (Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alex North and David Raksin most famously) had gradually transformed film scoring from a generic, incessant background noise to exploit the capabilities of early talkies to something much more singularly striking. Hitchcock’s films with Herrmann are unimaginable without the latter, which eventually resulted in the director placing the composer’s credit alongside his own, more prominently than screenwriter Joseph Stefano, author Robert Bloch, editor George Tomasini and cinematographer John Russell in Psycho.
The multifaceted utility of the music by the likes of Herrmann, Waxman and North — in other words, the music was as distinguished a piece of art on its own as when placed alongside the film it was meant to score — eventually gave rise to scores that were outright pop outside the confines of the musical genre, such as those of Henry Mancini, or jazz, which manifested noticeably in cinema via Miles Davis’ score for Elevator to the Gallows in 1958, and in Hollywood with Davis idol Duke Ellington’s magnificent, brilliantly counterintuitive score for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder one year later. As the record business became an increasingly vital commodity and a major arm of the entertainment industry in the years after the wartime Musicians Union ban on recorded performances, it became an audible presence in Hollywood, through scenes like the Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much moments described above, and through less diegetic means like the tunes by Frank Sinatra and Bill Haley respectively that underscore the opening credits of Three Coins in the Fountain and, most importantly, Blackboard Jungle.
The song playing as Blackboard Jungle begins is “Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley and His Comets’ legendary 1954 Decca single that had been one of the first mainstream rock & roll hits, and one of the few crucial performances in rock & roll’s first, pre-Elvis wave by a white artist, which might have slightly softened the blow of this supposedly barbaric new music finding its way into so mainstream a territory as an MGM feature about juvenile deliquency. Although the film’s message is ultimately much more square and old-fashioned than its young stars and projection of gritty, take-no-prisoners urban teen life promises — being essentially a hackneyed if wildly influential drama about a “cool teacher” who really tries to understand the inner city high schoolers he’s tasked with instructing — it still managed to excite the burgeoning and newly financially solvent audience of teenagers around the country, which in turn led to the same establishment outrage, municipal bans and ecstatically loosened adolescent morals that rock & roll would quickly ignite when Alan Freed took some of its first celebrities around the country on tour. In the United Kingdom, the film itself managed to start a string of riots, offering such a violent relief to the button-down atmosphere of postwar austerity and dignified popular music — the rudimentary “skiffle” movement, homegrown and primitive country-influenced music kids could play on almost anything with a dirtiness and beat that flew in the face of ingrained notions of class, was another manifestation of this boxing-in of British youth — that there was little choice but to explode.
And an explosion was what happened, just about everywhere that rock & roll touched; the music was an infectiously primal fusion of country and R&B, pioneered (albeit with a number of antecedents, especially in the south among 1940s Black performers) by Ike Turner’s “Rocket ’88” and finessed to its utopian form by many regional labels like Sun and Chess and by many artists, but particularly Elvis Presley (“That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel” were most foundational) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), then rendered into a widespread epidemic by Presley. Thanks to the timing in America of a new prosperity and the emergence of teenagers as a viable demographic, the moment was right like never before or again for a cry out from the root human impulses of sexuality and rage. The effect of this movement springing largely from independent labels and Black artists was twofold, even as its narrative existed separately from that of Civil Rights or jazz, because it rendered a casualness about race relations among the younger generation that was revolutionary in its implications, and infuriating to the establishment of not just “polite” society but the entertainment business itself, which would not understand for years how to properly harness this energy to its own benefit — barely a decade removed from a world in which teenagers and young adults were seldom depicted in Hollywood cinema at all unless they were fighting wars — which did not stop them from trying.
The early rock & roll films that have actually aged well come about their attitude almost incidentally; The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause contain none of the relevant music but are rock & roll films by virtue of the looks and style of their leading men — detached and sneering in the former case, passionate, feminine and emotional but also effortlessly cool in the latter — that quickly manifested as the looks and attitudes to strive for in the rock & roll universe, for artists as well as fans. In Italy, Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche — which prominently and unforgettably features another Bill Haley number, “Thirteen Women” (the much more obscure b-side of “Rock Around the Clock”) — is probably more a rock & roll film than Blackboard Jungle in its actual intended spirit, featuring as it does a montage of ordinary people responding viscerally to the music for an extended dance sequence; it’s also, like many of the spare and instinctively rousing early rock & roll records, hauntingly beautiful and staggering in its direct emotional simplicity, which is something that even the greatest cinema rarely achieves with such economy.
On the other hand, Hollywood movies that are actively about rock & roll tend toward pandering. Elvis Presley as a figure has been, over the decades as he has passed into American mythology, as broadly misunderstood as celebrated, but he is the single most important reason that rock & roll as a form became massively popular and that even more brilliant performers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly came to national and international prominence despite their placement on much smaller labels than Presley’s RCA. Presley had started out on Sun Records, a Memphis label run by Sam Phillips who in the remarkably fertile city of his origin also discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins, all pioneering architects of the form, but it’s debatable if even they would have reached their legendary status on the level they have if not for the afterglow of Elvis’ own explosion, which reached its apex when, after he signed to RCA, his song “Don’t Be Cruel” — written by the great Black composer Otis Blackwell — reached the top of the pop, R&B and country charts all simultaneously.
But the signing to RCA, in a strange way, would end Presley’s career just as it was launching. While other early rock & rollers who survived maintained some degree of artistic (but not financial) freedom to the end of the decade thanks to their smaller-scale notoriety and placement on labels like Chess, Sun, Cadence and Specialty, Presley was forced almost from the moment of his rise to fame to play the traditional showbiz game in the promotion of music that was anything but traditional; this would plague him throughout the rest of his life. And of course, this included the quick shunting of his talents into the movies, a field for which he had no obvious acumen though he did seem to harbor some ambitions of being another Marlon Brando or James Dean. His black & white CinemaScope film Jailhouse Rock is one of the better of the many, many films he would make in the coming years, but apart from the titular production number and MGM’s slick values, the appeal is more of bearing witness to Presley’s pre-Army youth in all its unfettered glory than to anything he actually does on screen, and narratively the film’s juvenile-delinquency narrative is even hollower than that of Blackboard Jungle.
Freed himself, before his downfall in the payola scandal, featured in a few movies about the burgeoning rock & roll-dictated youth culture which were typically wrought upon the matinee circuit by fly-by-night distributors, but even these tended to be examples of an old infrastructure trying and failing to interpret a new and vital form of communication using outmoded, cynical and schlocky ideas. Nevertheless, these films offer chances to see legendary artists like Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon on film, so they have some permanent value even though their stories, such as they are, are thin and they’re pedestrian in cinematic terms. Larger-scale attempts at capturing the moment weren’t much better. There’s a thin line between youthful exuberance and sheer juvenilia, and 20th Century Fox’s The Girl Can’t Help It falters largely on the wrong side in its rather insipid pseudo-gangster sublot revolving around vivacious pinup gal Jayne Mansfield and her inarguably arresting body. But again, it offers an opportunity to watch Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and a then-obscure Gene Vincent in full color and CinemaScope, and whether the film fully works or not, writer-director-producer Frank Tashlin is clearly having the time of his life. Hollywood’s establishment failed in the ’50s to respond to the rock & roll phenomenon, the first and still one of the largest fully grassroots youth culture movements in American history, which spoke simultaneously to the irreducible grace of the music itself (which would be stymied by 1959 not by any artistic stagnation but by larger business forces, commercial interests and human tragedies) and of the increasingly out-of-touch nature of those at the most influential levels of the film business, a problem that would become ever more apparent in the next decade.
Tashlin was an exception, a successful Hollywood filmmaker now well into his forties who seemed to have no trouble understanding the appeal, if not the substance, of the culture he was trying to document. He gleaned much of his quick-thinking stylistic buoyancy from his work as an animator and director at Leon Schlesinger’s cartoon studio, which made the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series, in the 1930s and early ’40s. Unless you count Gregory La Cava, who made one-reel cartoons in the silent era before going on to direct one of the most influential screwball comedies My Man Godfrey, Tashlin was the only major force in American animation to make such a high-profile transition to live action filmmaking until Brad Bird half a century later. Those were exciting days in the field, when it was another artform whose potential seemed outright limitness, and although that potential would never become truly realized, the best of the films that were made along the way remain exciting and vital. But Tashlin left in time to avoid seeing the fallout from a long decline that, by 1950, was evidenced all across the industry — in a sense, what befell the cartoon studios was a prediction of what would finally befall Hollywood itself.
Schlesinger died on the cusp of the new decade, on Christmas Day 1949, but his former studio — which he’d sold to its distributor Warner Bros. five years earlier — continued operating under the model he had set. Like so many corners of the Hollywood film industry, the cartoon division at Warners spent the ’50s struggling with declining budgets, which are readily apparent in the rather simplified staging of its output when compared both with earlier Warner Bros. cartoons and with contemporaneous shorts from the Walt Disney studio. But against the odds, this may have been the studio’s finest era; it certainly was the one that produced the largest number of still-iconic cartoons, many of which are genuinely brilliant. With a couple of exceptions (Friz Freleng’s hilarious Speedy Gonzales and masterful bebop-oriented UPA tribute The Three Little Bops) all were the work of Chuck Jones, who reached his zenith in the Warner studio’s waning years, this despite his often criticized reimagining of various key characters created by others. Daffy became less daffy when emanating from his pen, more generally fussy and angry; Bugs was smug and even detached; Sylvester was a mute, paranoid cat compared with Freleng’s sly schemer; and Elmer Fudd made for a more hapless villain to Bugs and Daffy than Freleng’s preferred Yosemite Sam, who was much funnier when divorced from context than Fudd.
But beneath these distinctions was the subtle vision of a true maverick, particularly in the field of unflashy, nuts-and-bolts characterization, which he understood better than anyone. His Daffy might be missing the boyish fervor with which Bob Clampett created him, but he’s a much more malleable character, able to wander into personages as diverse as a cruel radio host (of a show called Truth, or AAAAGGHHHHHHH!) in 1950’s The Ducksters, a cantankerous sparring partner who can make the most vital life-or-death dispute play as sheer pettiness in Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953), or a flustered sci-fi hero in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (a film blessed with Maurice Noble layouts that are simply astonishing to look at), or — perhaps most notably — an infuriated foil for the filmmaker himself.
Everyone knows that Jones’ masterpiece Duck Amuck (1953), written by his then-usual head of story Michael Maltese, in which Daffy wages war on a mischievous animator interfering with his work, is one of the most effortlessly funny films ever made, certainly one of the greatest of all theatrical cartoons, and that’s because its appeal is so genuine and elemental, playing on the engaging facets of Daffy’s latter-day character of an ornery bitch while also employing gleeful fun with the physical medium of animation and film themselves. But the reason the film is so successful, and eminently rewatchable, is that its very creation feels like a rebuke to every limited view of what art and entertainment can be; it challenges us to think infinitely outside of our prejudices before we even realize it. The other great Warner Bros. cartoon director, Bob Clampett, frequently challenged metaphysical reality through his characterizations and seemed to bend time and truth to his will; but somehow, Jones goes farther by challenging the very fabric of his own craft’s existence. It’s cheerfully avant garde if not outright Warholian: if baked-in scenery and premise can be bettered by the infinite possibilities of the blank white background, who’s to say that the audience’s own imagination has any less potential for transcendence than what any professional animation director might conjure? Then there are the wonderfully radical, almost Brechtian, narrative ideas the film implies — about acting, about reality, about art: Daffy becomes a real, sentient being as soon as he is drawn, he can even talk to us when he is erased, but he cannot control his own destiny. Only the animator can; the punchline, when that animator is revealed to be none other than Daffy’s sometime-ally, sometime-nemesis Bugs Bunny is a nice joke that doesn’t sully the limitless landscape the preceding film has allowed us to contemplate, in which a mere cartoon has seemingly reframed our scope of vision and therefore no less than life itself. Charlie Kaufman could never.
The stock Warner. Bros. cat Sylvester, an amusingly designed character usually paired with Clampett’s Tweety in a run of action-packed Friz Freleng cartoons, may in fact be a more singular creation when stripped of his ability to talk; certainly, his range of emotions is greater in Jones’ hand, as seen especially in 1954’s Claws for Alarm. This is one of the craftiest of all Looney Tunes, one of a small series in which Porky Pig takes a room somewhere in a deserted ghost town or haunted bed & breakfast and is completely oblivious to increasingly macabre goings-on that are all too clear to Sylvester, whose anxiety and pensiveness — seldom harnessed by Freleng — render him somehow more catlike than any conception in which he chitchats with the bird he’s trying to devour. In this case, murderous mice are causing menace in the Dry Gulch Hotel, and their dangers are hardly benign: true, they do dress up as a very trad bedsheet ghost at one point, but they also have knives, guns and the creepiest eyes in cartoon history. When Porky and Sylvester finally escape, it’s seemingly only further down a desert road — and unseen to them, as an injured Porky repeats the same bit of “Home on the Range” again and again, the mice have infiltrated the car. It’s a horrible and perversely satisfying ending. It’s hard to say what’s funniest or cleverest about this: Porky’s increasingly creative insults to Sylvester? The degree to which Jones allows us to not only empathize with Sylvester but to allow us to completely understand and enjoy how ridiculous his pantomimed explanations look? Sylvester’s manic responses to the dangers around him, which are both palpably human and very familiar to any cat owner? Or the beautifully spooky design of the motel itself?
Jones’ own creations are no less expressive — Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote, an “itty bitty elephant” and its human interactions in the tremendous Punch Trunk, and inevitably Michigan J. Frog, whose afterlife as a corporate symbol has served to obscure the elegance and ingenuity of the 1955 cartoon in which he originated, One Froggy Evening, a key example of a film that could have been directed by no one except Jones. The concept — regarding the time-capsule discovery of a singing and dancing frog who foments dismal ruin for any parties unlucky enough to discover him — is surreal to the point of near-insanity, yet it is played in such a straightfaced fashion (no dialogue whatsoever) that its reality seems as tangible as any documentary. As strange and barbed as Jones’ cartoons often get, their sense of internal realism is staggeringly strong, and it’s largely for this reason that his films have aged so gracefully, still looking like nothing else that came out of any other studio, and with a specific character and grace that no other human animator could ever replicate, let alone a computer.
Warner Bros. was the only formerly important cartoon studio still operating at something like its creative peak in the ’50s, and Jones was by far the most artistically adventurous director working in the mainstream, joined in the slightly left-of-center realm by John Hubley (and, later, Hubley’s wife Faith Elliott) and by the British directors Joy Batchelor and John Halas, whose chillingly imagined Animal Farm is (virtually by default) the greatest non-Disney animated feature made prior to the 1960s. Paramount’s post-Flesicher unit, dubbed Famous Studios, stumbled along with increasingly shoestring budgets and survived into the ’60s with largely unmemorable films, while discontinuing its flagship Popeye series in the mid-’50s. Columbia closed Screen Gems, which had employed Hubley as well as Tashlin during and just after the war, in 1949, paving the way for UPA. Walter Lantz switched distribution partners to Universal and achieved some success with the Chilly Willy series, briefly managed by Tex Avery, then pivoted to television. Similarly, Paul Terry sold Terrytoons and all of its assets to the CBS television network in 1953, apparently seeing the writing on the wall before most of his peers. A sorry state of affairs, but the situation at the Disney studio — not surprisingly — was more complicated; if anything, Disney’s animators were more productive in the ’50s than they had been since before the war, managing five features that retain some degree of notoriety to this day as well as a steady output of shorts and a lucrative sideline producing educational films for schools, including such still fondly-remembered relics as Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959).
But Walt Disney was never the same after the 1941 strike that ripped apart his studio; nor was the studio itself, nor was the animation business as a whole. The war had derailed Disney’s production structure anyway, requiring its remaining directors and animators to focus on the creation of propaganda as commissioned by the U.S. government (a cause to which every cartoon studio in Hollywood committed itself to some extent, Warner Bros. most famously with its deliriously inspired Private Snafu shorts). While the studio’s shorts continued to be produced regularly for nearly twenty years past the beginning of World War II, it was with waning artistic ambition and influence (Disney had won ten of the first eleven Oscars for animated short subject and received just one in the ’50s); and the only animated features Disney produced in the ’40s after Bambi were either propaganda or packaged-together collections of shorter pieces that seldom felt like they were any noticeable cut above the studio’s regular short subjects. At last, amid extremely strained resources and near-bankruptcy (neither for the first time), 1950 brought Cinderella, the first Disney animated feature with a single focused story since Bambi, but any comparison to the studio’s first five full-length projects reveals a stark decline, not so much technically as spiritually. Despite a few inspired comic sequences and a couple of worthwhile musical interludes, the film suffers from both its narrative resemblance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the vast gulf in quality between the two films, exacerbated by the use of three directors without a common vision for the story, by Disney’s own decreased hands-on involvement, and most of all by the nearly exclusive use of live-action rotoscoping to dictate the film’s human action.
The studio’s subsequent features made in the ’50s were similarly uneven, but tended to be a bit more rewarding and imaginative — Alice in Wonderland benefits from source-appropriate eccentricity despite a certain absence of soul or grand design, while both Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty gain considerable chutzpah from the graphic possibilities of CinemaScope — with the exception of Peter Pan, whose crass storytelling, general disorganization and egregious shallowness unfortunately point the way forward for a medium that would increasingly become dominated by cheap kids’ stuff. (1963’s The Sword in the Stone, Disney’s penultimate animated feature, would essentially seal the studio’s fate in this regard, at least until the late 1980s brought a new generation’s passion for greater legitimacy to the fore, with mixed results.) In no way are any of the features Disney made in this decade comparable to those he produced from Snow White through Bambi; and it is difficult not to ascribe this problem largely to the loss of many of the studio’s most talented staff in the 1941 fallout, as well as to Disney’s increasing absence from direct oversight.
What exactly was Walt Disney doing that caused him to primarily produce his once all-important animated features by proxy, via memorandums and phone calls? At the time of the bulk of Cinderella‘s production, he was dedicated to the shooting of his first wholly live action film, Treasure Island. While theme parks and television would come to define not just his day-to-day career but his legacy in the coming years, the ’50s also brought him into prominence as a producer of kiddie comedies and adventure films with no animation elements. Like many of the cartoons, these became wildly successful; unlike the cartoons, short and long, they were cheap to produce, and also unlike them, they hold almost no appeal for anyone over the age of (roughly) ten. Whatever mastery is visible in the hands of gifted animators even in the broad comedy of Cinderella and the studio’s still-chugging Goofy series, it transforms to a much more generalized mediocrity in the likes of The Shaggy Dog, a dumb comedy with a certain easygoing charm. While there is some visual excitement to be found in something like Robert Stevenson’s Disney-produced Darby O’Gill and the Little People (starring a pre-Bond Sean Connery), much of it better served by a highlight reel, childhood staples like Old Yeller and Johnny Tremain are like immature facsimilies of “grownup” pictures, their only appeal being nostalgia for anyone who might have been reared on them, but even that is very different from revisiting, say, Pinocchio as an adult and realizing how much more depth it has than a child’s eyes can see.
Among Disney’s box office attractions this decade was also Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, a compilation of episodes of a TV miniseries produced for Disney’s innovative prime-time network anthology show that points the way forward for the industry in an entirely different manner. On the strength of the ABC program, the character of Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap had become a full-on cultural phenomenon, one of the first in the mass culture years to be driven almost entirely by its appeal to tots and the television screen’s knack for placating them. Crockett is anything but cinematic, with rote compositions unmistakably designed for tiny, rounded screens with shaky reception and a workmanlike minimalism of technique; lead actor Fess Parker is very much a TV-sized persona, conveying less recognizably human emotion than, for instance, Grumpy from Snow White. While Crockett wasn’t a cartoon, functioning instead, not ignobly, as Baby’s First Western, the popularity and goodwill he gleaned for the Disney studio would soon bleed over into its methodology for what had once been the center of its prestigious branding: animation. It would become increasingly important in the next forty years for cartoons to become an inconspicuous cost-cutting enterprise; as nearly the entirety of the animation world shifted from big business and cinematic ambition to TV space-filling, nothing was more imperative than that the cartoons were competently-voiced and easy to write, draw and produce quickly. If one could accomplish this under the guise of any sort of artistic stylization, it wasn’t frowned upon, but it wasn’t necessary either.
Ironically the operative influence on the artistic (and, ultimately, commercial) downfall of Hollywood theatrical animation was the very symbol of its key progenitors’ independence. The studio UPA (United Productions of America) was formed after the Disney strike and the subsequent closure of Screen Gems by a group of its disgruntled animators, the most famous and important being John Hubley, a brilliant layout artist who had worked on all of the early Disney features, perhaps most notably on the remarkable Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia, and had suffered most dramatically at the hands of his former boss when Disney’s testimony before HUAC eventually resulted in his being blacklisted. (Hubley was a Quaker and a virulent leftist, which unmistakably flavors his own films and the trajectory of his career. Compare Batchelor and Halas, whose principles did not circumvent the sinister CIA funding lurking underneath their otherwise superb 1954 adaptation of Animal Farm.) However, his career bounced back, and largely on his own terms despite touch-and-go finances. While still at UPA Hubley cocreated a signature character, Mr. Magoo, who bankrolled lots of more experimental cartoons in the studio’s output, but he also directed one of the finest cartoons ever made, 1951’s “Frankie and Johnny”-inspired Rooty Toot Toot. By 1956, three years after the blacklist forced him to abandon UPA to others, he would be operating his own studio with his wife Faith Elliott, whose own cinematic bona fides had already been proven via her mentorship of one Stanley Kubrick, to whom she taught the fundamentals of film editing; the Hubley studio would go on to produce a number of beloved, artistically singular cartoons which attained reams of acclaim and awards (including the first of three Oscars in 1959 for the wonderful Moonbird, constructed from the extemporaneous dialogue of the couple’s two sons) but never achieved significant mainstream popularity. That they collaborated over the years with a range of artists as disparate as Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Alpert, Sidney Lumet and Garry Trudeau is plentiful indication of their cutting-edge restlessness.
Before being ousted from UPA, however, Hubley supervised one of the most influential cartoons of the decade, Robert Cannon’s Dr. Seuss-penned and Academy Award-winning Gerald McBoing-Boing, a witty media satire about a boy who spoke in sound effects, delivered via heavily stylized and caricatured “limited animation” that deliberately restricts character movement and reuses frames. The effect is striking and distinctive when appropriated well — and sparingly: seven minutes of a UPA cartoon like McBoing-Boing or any of the innumerable Disney, Warner and MGM cartoons that adopted its style don’t wear out their welcome the way that a half-hour Hanna-Barbera TV show or a run of Gene Deitch shorts does, and the air of prestige that briefly surrounded UPA led the older studios to scramble to imitate them, resulting in oddities like Disney’s Oscar-winning CinemaScope short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and its slightly stronger predecessor, Melody (both 1953).
But as the decade wore on it became questionable whether the studios, UPA included, were experimenting with limited animation as an artistic statement, as Hubley had originally intended (and as was carried through at first to UPA’s own post-Hubley work, including the magnificently eerie The Tell-Tale Heart of 1953, directed by Ted Parmelee and narrated by James Mason), or as a measure of expending as little money and energy on their output as possible. The notion of limited animation as modernist style, as a rebuke to Disney’s rigid realism, had its roots in inventive cartoons like Chuck Jones’ The Dover Boys at Pimento University (1942) for Warner Bros., and the excellent “Baby Weems” sequence in Disney’s 1941 feature The Reluctant Dragon, supposedly designed to demonstrate the utility of the studio’s storyboard department; such innovations seemed far off from the increasingly low-budget material being churned out by the end of the decade, exemplified by UPA’s dreadful Ham and Hattie series, by several of Bill Justice and Charles Nichols’ engaging but low-effort works for the Disney studio and by the outsourcing of the Warner Bros. animation contract to the lower-cost DePatie-Freleng company. Some of these cartoons compensated for their visual limitations with good writing or story work, as would often be the case with DePatie-Freleng’s films and with Jay Ward’s satirical television comedies in the next decade, and nearly all of them boasted excellent voice acting, but the monotony never took long to set in. By the time the increasingly dominant Robert McKimson, a fine animator and a mediocre director, made Bartholomew Versus the Wheel for Warners in 1964, its childlike homespun charm that might well have been radical and ingratiating ten years earlier felt more like the beating of a dead horse — not to mention, as a theatrical experience, redundant.
Chuck Jones himself came full circle, cleverly taking on the UPA and specifically the McBoing-Boing house style in later works for Warner Bros., most handsomely Rocket-Bye Baby (1956), most cleverly 1960’s High Note (about a drunken musical note disrupting a piece of sheet music), but also in his even more expressionistic work with Abe Levitow and Maurice Noble on the likes of Now Hear This in 1963. Jones had always brought a singular, surprisingly uncompromised vision to his work, in the richness of his character animation and in the often evocatively abstract, barbed backgrounds that are readily visible even in canonical classics like the aforementioned Claws for Alarm, the wonderfully kitschy What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), and the Noble-designed Road Runner series that began in 1949 and flourished throughout this decade, a model of both surreal background design and provocative character animation. Jones was famously adaptable to his assignments without subsuming himself to them, resisting the coldly entrepreneurial tendencies of Friz Freleng and spared the relative humiliation of his onetime colleagues Bob Clampett and Tex Avery’s respective declines despite being fired from Warner Bros. in 1962 for violating his exclusivity agreement (on a UPA feature, no less, called Gay Purr-ee). He suffered little downtime, joining MGM — initially to take over the defunct Tom and Jerry series — where he won an Oscar for the 1963 one-shot The Dot and the Line (a beloved cartoon in some quarters, but one that hasn’t aged very gracefully), and eventually staking an even greater claim on popular culture with his TV adaptation of Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which perhaps out of all his work best demonstrates his ability to make virtually anything, budget notwithstanding, look and feel singular and interesting.
As for Avery and Clampett, the former’s unit at MGM was shuttered depressingly early on in the decade. Avery’s slick cartoons at the studio had frequently been admirably boisterous and supercharged with energy; his Symphony in Slang (1951) is one of the earliest examples of the abstract limited style and the rippling effects of UPA, appearing less than a year after Gerald McBoing-Boing, but it’s not particularly funny, just visually distinctive — and herein lies the problem with much of MGM’s cartoon output. But even at its worst (the Droopy series is a one-joke notion stretched terribly thin), the Avery unit’s work was consistently inspired and enjoyably frenetic in a way that the William Hanna-Joseph Barbera unit’s dreary Tom and Jerry series was not. Unfortunately, the latter was monstrously successful and dominated the animated short category at the Academy Awards for over a decade, generally with cartoons that could scarcely be distinguished from one another.
Soon after their own MGM unit hobbled to its final closure, Hanna and Barbera’s Kellogg’s-sponsored TV series The Huckleberry Hound Show premiered in September 1958, and took the UPA m.o. to its devastating conclusion, with rote and simplistic compositions, flat and nearly nonexistent character animation, a drastically reduced frame rate, and considerable effort expended on distinctive voice acting by the likes of Daws Butler and Don Messick, whose artistic contributions were on a higher plane than any of the ostensible creative staff which sadly included former Warners story men Michael Maltese (Jones’ right-hand man who largely conceived Duck Amuck) and Warren Foster. The difference was that Hound, and the thirty years of Hanna-Barbera TV work that continued in its wake starting with the animated prime-time sitcom The Flintstones in 1960, lacked even the pretense of an artistic voice: it was, in today’s parlance, “content,” and left no question of whether a revolutionary moment like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could even be made possible again. To date, it never has been.
Clampett, probably the greatest raw talent ever to work in American animation, beat Tom and Jerry’s creators to television by ten years, but in puppetry rather than animation with the popular but now forgotten Beany and Cecil. By the late 1960s he was starting to make a career of trading on his legacy as a Warner Bros. director, peddling nostalgia for a world and a medium that already seemed like ancient history even though the Warner animation studio would only wholly close, McKimson resonsible for the entirety of its last year of output, in 1969. (But in truth, the decline had been protracted and obvious for well over a decade; the U.S. vs. Paramount ruling prevented studios from selling their features and shorts as packages, limiting the already erratic audience for cartoons — many of which only acquired their iconic status through television reruns in the ’60s and ’70s — and Warners had shuttered Termite Terrace, where Leon Schlesinger had led his staff through the Golden Age, in 1963 then farmed out further production of cartoons to companies like Freleng’s.) The issue was that Hubley’s vision of a rebellion to the realism and depth of Disney’s work (and even the work at MGM and Warners, which was just as richly imagined if not equally earnest) had been too successful, and for entirely the wrong reasons; the inventors of animation, who had largely written the rules and set the boundaries themselves, were aging out of regular work apart from Jones, Freleng and Disney’s well-protected “Nine Old Men,” and there were no stimulating or elaborate films for younger animators to work on. For the next several decades, until the mid- to late-1980s, a conversation about the above-ground U.S. animation field was almost invariably a conversation about Saturday morning TV cartoons.
Television was no small threat to traditional means of Hollywood production either, and not always because of the simple matter of its ease of access; it’s true that the American film studios scrambled after their forced divestment of movie theaters, and with the looming threat of free nightly entertainment for home viewers, to reel audiences in with every imaginable brand of gimmickry. The movies that dominated the cultural imagination in the late 1940s and early 1950s ranged broadly in quality, but most of them were films that seemed explicitly to be made for adults with relatively sophisticated taste; All the King’s Men, All About Eve, From Here to Eternity and On the Waterfront — all Best Picture winners — were downright radical in their upending of social convention compared to the box office hits that took advantage of the studios’ desperation to lay out florid spectacles and grandiose displays of romance and violence: back to escapism, but without the intimacy of the Douglas Fairbanks pictures that had once established the possibilities of the (quieter, less colorful, less rectangular) screen. Hence the various kinds of bombast that cinemagoers encountered during the ’50s, up to and including the films themselves becoming “bigger” in various manifestations of that term.
The industry was in crisis for most of the decade, and reeling from the apparently universal realization that the cultural dominance it achieved during the Depression would never be attained again, nor would the era of the all-powerful mogul ever enjoy another such zenith. Individual films with troubled productions were always common in the studio system — Wings, one of the most immensely popular films of the 1920s, was infamous for its not-so-death-defying stuntwork, as were Howard Hughes’ troubled films that became subjects of endless tabloid fascination and were often shelved for years on end, to say nothing of the likes of Trader Horn, location pictures whose uncontrollable environs and resulting disasters could be harnessed for cynical, covert publicity. The failing of studio control and an increasingly savvy audience resulted in a situation whereby a major director like John Huston could helm two consecutive films that were inordinately and quite famously problematic, coping in one case (The Red Badge of Courage) with an intrusive studio and in the other (The African Queen) with a setting that was impossible to tame and a director with little interest in trying. What this indicated was twofold: that filmmakers themselves were just beginning to erode producers’ and studio heads’ power to determine the direction of the film business, and thanks to journalist Lillian Ross’ intense documentation of MGM’s butchering of Courage in The New Yorker and in her book Picture, that studios’ ability to perform their dirty work behind closed doors was now forever compromised.
1952 brought Paramount’s unlikely, and today largely forgotten or (unfairly) hated, Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth, a star-studded affair largely focused on Charlton Heston’s portrayal of the general manager of the Ringling Bros. circus. Director Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s kings of spectacle now at the twilight of his career (albeit with his greatest commercial success still to come), unmistakably presents Heston’s character as a kindred spirit, as a provider and conjurer of entertainment analogous to the moviemaker. What’s interesting is that the audience today, assuming they’d bother watching something as winningly silly as this, will automatically associate Heston with DeMille himself or with the archetypal movie director in general. In 1952 he would more likely have brought visions of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Adolph Zukor, David O. Selznick, Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn, a dying breed with dying influence, which is also generally the mist through which DeMille portrays his hero.
Which isn’t to say their control slackened easily; the first half of the decade is rife with old-fashioned grandiose studio entertainment, stars shining as brightly as their lush surroundings. MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines, previously filmed thirteen years earlier in the UK at British Gaumont, was a prime example: the infinitely gifted Deborah Kerr, just three years removed from her aching turn in Black Narcissus, reduced to parroting awkward dialogue surrounded by goofballs. But it looked good, it was entertaining in a corny sort of way, and it sold tickets. The same studio’s 171-minute Quo Vadis? was the first of the “epics” that would expend increasingly obscene amounts of money adapting various historical dramas onto extravagant canvases filled with fussy set design and armies of extras. These films pontificated with a certain kitschy intellectualism and stuffy self-seriousness that filled time until the next bravura action sequence (not unlike the sci-fi pictures of similar vintage, wooden dialogue about the state of the world interrupting footage of berserk robots and flying saucers and the like, scarcely leaving it to the viewer to decide which element was most important); they also placed asses in seats in record-breaking numbers, often in the especially profitable “roadshow” format, for the breadth of the decade, at last breaching the purportedly legitimized world of the Academy Awards at the tail end of the ’50s. Quo Vadis? also featured Kerr, along with a hilariously inept performance by Robert Taylor and a suspiciously great and unabashedly ridiculous one by Peter Ustinov, and was both audaciously trashy and unusually enjoyable for the genre.
Those films were shot in brash, exciting Technicolor; Fox’s incongruously old-fashioned Titanic of 1953 was black & white and was, like The Greatest Show on Earth, a kind of last hurrah of a bygone popular artform: the overstuffed cast filled with major celebrities of novel, handsome and washed-up varieties, all presenting cardboard-cutout personalities in the vein of 1932’s influential MGM company showcase Grand Hotel, fused with the once-foolproof format of 1930s disaster pictures San Francisco and In Old Chicago: an hour or so of domestic squabbling of various kinds followed by brazen special effects depicting some massive tragedy. Vastly inferior to the British director Roy Ward Baker’s account of the disaster A Night to Remember made five years later, the film doesn’t really work, doesn’t even look particularly good, but it commands some mild respect for its relentless flogging of a kind of entertainment favored a full generation earlier. You couldn’t blame them for trying; how were they to know how to compete with whatever was on NBC that night? Fox of all studios would soon be most openly throwing caution to the winds, this kind of movie along with it.
That’s approximately when, inevitably, the screen itself widened and deepened. 3D was a short-lived trend that never caught on with audiences except as a stunt, but widescreen processes like CinemaScope had more lingering impacts. By the end of the decade, even standard films that were shot “flat” in Academy ratio were almost universally matted to create even the faintest illusion of offering more imagery, more immersion than your living room TV set; a large number of the major box office attractions of the era were being shot in various large-format processes such as Todd-AO, Super Panavision 70 and MGM Camera 65 (all of which used 70mm film rather than the standard 35), the simpler anamorphic procedures like CinemaScope and Technirama, and the less advanced but widely utilized (significantly by Alfred Hitchcock, who disliked anamorphic formats) VistaVision.
Experiments with broadening the size of the theater screen extend back to the very first feature film ever produced, the documentary of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons boxing match of 1897, which used a variant of 65mm film in a primitive widescreen format; more famous and carefully considered is Abel Gance’s spectacular battle scene in Napoleon (1927), which used three cameras and three projectors to create a triptych, not dissimilar to the technique that would become Cinerama. The American studio that toyed most with widescreen in the early sound period was Fox, who had poor Frank Borzage shoot an entire alternate version of his innocuous John McCormack musical Song o’ My Heart in something called “Fox Grandeur,” comprised of 70mm film in an aspect ratio of 2:1, used also for a few other scattered newsreels and features. But the Depression largely nixed the indulgence, which never really caught on nationally anyway. 1952, however, brought renegade filmmaker Merian C. Cooper (co-director of the extraordinary silent documentaries Grass and Chang and a little monster movie called King Kong, and onetime head of production at RKO) and his wildly indulgent This Is Cinerama, which premiered the titular process of three side-by-side projectors intended to match with the viewer’s peripheral vision. The film was made up of “demonstration” footage, showing off the immersive possibilities of the form with such foolproof distractions as a POV rollercoaster scene and a montage of Western vistas shot from an aircraft. The only thing missing was an apparatus to lift your seat off the ground. While the film was a success in its necessarily limited “roadshow” release, the process was so cumbersome in both production and projection terms that it caused distribution problems and would only ever be used for narrative feature films twice, both released in 1962 (How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm).
In the meantime, the impact of the Cinerama experiment was considerable enough to lead Fox to come roaring back with its latest widescreen concoction, CinemaScope, a process using a standard 35mm frame and an anamorphic lens to create a picture with a 2.55:1 aspect ratio; at first, the films they made in the format had to be made available in two versions because so few theaters outside big cities were equipped to project in Scope, but unlike 3D and other gimmicks, Scope seemed for a time to actually persuade viewers to favor a night out on the town over I Love Lucy or Playhouse 90. What’s remarkable, seeing most of the early Scope films today, is how painfully dull they are. The first Scope production The Robe is more or less what you’d tend to expect from a studio trying to exploit a larger frame for a hopefully swelling audience, tying with the trend toward historical epics through its Biblical narrative about the Crucifixion and the attendant embarrassment of normally serious actors Richard Burton and Jean Simmons. Tagged as “the modern miracle you can see without glasses,” the film has nothing to offer beyond Henry Koster’s obsessive-compulsive filling of the rectangle. Somehow the equally high-profile Scope release Three Coins in the Fountain, a year later, is even more incomprehensible when viewed on a TV screen — a slick romance revolving around the affairs and longings of three American women in Rome and their quest for the ultimate dreamboat, it feels like a Hallmark movie with bizarrely overscaled production values and a pointlessly wide frame. Only Frank Sinatra’s title song has endured into anything like cultural osmosis; as travel porn it’s inoffensive enough, but at 102 minutes it feels like you’re wasting money just looking at it. It doesn’t help, generally, that Fox was a studio that was in this era fascinated by tedium, or perhaps one that viewed Scope itself as a ticket out of having to worry about pacing or originality — something like Edward Dmytryk’s western Broken Lance looks absolutely gorgeous even on a small screen, but has nothing memorable on offer, its story a pale redux of an old Joseph L. Mankiewicz screenplay, all empty handsomeness or handsome emptiness. There were many reasons to suspect TV had more to offer most viewers in every aspect except sheer flash.
Over the next few years the situation calmed slightly; films like MGM’s Marjorie Lawrence biopic Interrupted Melody that seemed to flaunt the absurd size of the CinemaScope frame out of a sense of obligation while plundering the depths of banality in their dramatics and storytelling wouldn’t exactly grow rare, but they would at least be slightly drowned out by competently or brilliantly directed films that used the added space well (or discreetly ignored it). One of the first films in which Scope seems to be used for a dramatic purpose is John Sturges’ arresting, harshly powerful Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a nightmare of distortion that finds Spencer Tracy hobbling through a small town full of hatred and buried secrets, his alienation emphasized lyrically by the wide frame. East of Eden works similar magic with the distance between John Steinbeck’s irreconcilable mother and son characters played by Jo Ann Fleet and James Dean, as well as a few other two-hander scenes, ingeniously blocked by Elia Kazan. Meanwhile, industry veterans George Cukor and Cecil B. DeMille respectively found new life in old stories in A Star Is Born and The Ten Commandments, whose advancements on their extant narratives are largely miniscule (or would be if not for, in the first case, two spectacular performances by Judy Garland and James Mason and, in the latter, some still-remarkable special effects) but whose showmanship survives impressively into the modern era and is ably demonstrated by their game filling out of the larger canvas. The great William Wyler, meanwhile, would use Ultra Panavision 70 and its ridiculous 2.76:1 ratio in his aggressively dumb, occasionally delightful epic Ben-Hur to mount (or rather, to allow second-unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt to mount) probably the greatest Hollywood action scene since Buster Keaton’s The General, the genuinely gripping and unforgettable chariot race sequence.
On the other hand, a younger director like David Lean could demonstrate perhaps the greatest acumen with the widescreen camera out of everyone, and certainly the greatest balance of spectacle, artful composition and sheer storytelling mastery, in his 1957 POW epic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) — hardly a mere war film, hardly a conventional prison drama, and hardly even typical of Lean himself, a director who in later years would prove all too easily seduced, like Terrence Malick decades later, by mere prettiness as a substitute for depth. But Kwai, produced by latter-day egomaniac mogul Sam Spiegel, forces Lean to compress his love of postcard vistas into a detailed, intricate script by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson whose pace is splendidly unflagging. The picture revolves around British prisoners forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors, and the complications that arise from the divided loyalty of their commanding officer played with terrific verve and ambiguity by Alec Guinness. The film’s many virtues, to say nothing of its rare intelligence and moral complexity, scarcely require one to take its sheer sense of scale into account; its breadth is just one of many elements building the experience. It’s a film that forces Scope to work for it, rather than the other way around, and Lean rises to the task brilliantly — despite his ever-increasing status thereafter, he would never make a richer or more entertaining film, and he would be rewarded in 1957 with the highest grossing film of the year in both the United States and the United Kingdom as well as a Best Picture Oscar, a welcome sign that art and popularity still occasionally melded.
The indulgence of the epics (in a narrative, not a material sense) would reach a kind of peak in 1956 with two of the most unashamedly oversized and frankly vile of all Hollywood films. George Stevens’ extremely popular Edna Ferber adaptation Giant is, like Ben-Hur, so unapologetically stupid it beggars belief, yet so inordinately entertaining in its sheer mad excess that it makes films like The Robe and Three Coins in the Fountain look like someone’s particularly staid home movies. This is the movie in which an oil-slathered James Dean, in his third and final film, socks tycoon dickhead Rock Hudson in the face; the one in which a family of extravagant oil wealth takes a cross-country trip following cars in planes and such; the one that ends with massive zoom shots of babies signifying the next generation of apathetic capitalism. Stevens tries to inject this with proto-feminism and fantasies of a post-racial society, but the source text he’s using is too conservative; its flagrant worship of wealth would be offensive if it were possible to take the story seriously in the first place.
But at least that film functions as a kind of camp. Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days, a threadbare 175-minute Jules Verne adaptation designed to exploit the complicated and gargantuan Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process, is arguably a more grueling viewing experience than all nine hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah; there’s some possibility it made sense as an evening out — impossible to screen in most regular theaters, it booked large-scale engagements around the country gradually, so that even by the time it netted its inexplicable Best Picture Oscar, most of the country was as yet unable to see it — but even then it’s hard to imagine it being taken as anything except a whole lot of empty celebrity schmoozing (the film’s poster is the source of the term “cameo”), and certainly its appeal is sanded down to nothing on a TV screen, where one’s time is best spent ogling David Niven’s appalling wardrobe or waiting for the closing titles by Saul Bass, who acquits himself here as a much stronger artist than director Anderson. (Bass’s titles and posters for Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock’s films in the second half of the decade would mark him as one of cinema’s great largely unsung stylists.) Still, if one is making the argument that widescreen reasserted movies as “an experience,” certainly the enthusiasm with which Around the World in 80 Days was received as a kind of two-dimensional amusement park ride makes a perfectly strong case.
The artistic utility of all these screen processes is of course debatable; like most things it’s very dependent on content — certain pictures of this era, like A Star Is Born, The Tarnished Angels, Forty Guns and Ben-Hur, are difficult to imagine in conventional Academy (1.37:1) ratio because their directors were such resourceful employers of the entire extended frame, as would also be the case with the early French New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows in 1959. Other filmmakers regarded the new challenges that anamorphic widescreen and 70mm created in composition and production with disdain. Anamorphic formats presented considerable difficulties in photographing closeups because anything near the camera became elongated or distorted — which also complicated the capturing of cel animation, one reason Disney was the only studio that generally bothered — and the wider field of vision forced a reconfiguration of production design whose sense of spatial distances had no palpable relationship to the real world. Art directors who failed to correct for this were left with sets that looked curiously barren, and those that did made films that could at times look absurdly busy, as seen for instance in Morton DaCosta’s Auntie Mame. Alfred Hitchcock was among the directors powerful enough simply to refuse to work in widescreen (apart from VistaVision, which just turned a standard 35mm frame sideways); most didn’t have that luxury, especially in a period when the movie business seemed constantly to be on the verge of crumbling altogether. John Ford famously complained that Scope was only suitable for “snakes, and funerals” but even he eventually had no choice but to work in both that process and in Cinerama.
In a sense, most of the widescreen epics the studios tripped over themselves to hurl into now-divested theaters nationwide (or into prestigious “roadshow” engagements, all the better for the phony clout they implied) were no less kids’ stuff than Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier or Superman and the Mole Men, both theatrical releases that signaled the inescapability of television in other ways (being compilations of episodes of TV programs). In either case the entire point being made was a superficial one: sure, you can be entertained at home, but if you come out and make an evening of it, you can be entertained in the same way except now it’s really really big and you have to pay for it. The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur (the last three, again, all Best Picture Oscar winners) may not all have been vapid films, but what they did have in common was that their largeness was paramount to their success. (William Wyler, who had made some of the most emotionally rich and powerful films of previous decades, many of them enormously popular and many of them impossible to imagine being made just a few years later, made no bones about his reason for agreeing to direct the MGM version of the Lew Wallace novel as being, quite bluntly, the size of the check.) Say what you will about this as a tradition dating back to Gone with the Wind or to Griffith or to Gance, but there is invariably a virtually universal audience need that isn’t served by the sheer force of such narratives.
And in the most perfect kind of ironic fillip, into this void of “thoughtful” entertainment slipped, well, television. In its early days the so-called “idiot box” became known for some of the most artistically ambitious and bold mass culture then available to the common citizenry, and this despite the explicit corporate sponsorship that all of the material broadcast on the three networks required. Moreover, the teleplays dramatized on CBS’s Playhouse 90 and The U.S. Steel Hour and NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre and their ilk were performed live, beamed out coast to coast and, no mere filmed theater performances, required the quick-thinking ingenuity and agile, often acrobatic camerawork of future cinema superstars from John Frankenheimer and Robert Altman to Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn to put across, plus the serious dedication of a horde of major and minor actors of stage and screen. But most of all, the operative appeal of these weekly dramatic series came from the eloquent and inventive scripts. These were provided by writers who would eventually change multiple artforms, who were able to take advantage of carte blanche of a brand new medium to craft a kind of drama of which American movies were increasingly ignorant: the human stories, socially forward narratives of working class disappointment or white-collar anxiety, of seamy and discomforting reality or of compromises and hypocrisies behind closed doors. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these teleplays had many times the sophistication of most box office hits of their day, or frankly of the popular “prestige TV” series of our own time.
A teleplay like James Costigan’s stunning A Wind from the South, about a lonely spinster operating a hotel who opens up to a guest after a lifetime of abuse, seems more congruent with European art cinema of the time than it does to the two biggest grossing films of its year of broadcast, The Robe and This Is Cinerama; the emotional reach of Julie Harris’s performance, and Daniel Petrie’s sure-footed but subtle direction renders moot the limitations of TV as a medium, which are only evidenced now by the faded quality of the existing telecine. Other powerhouses of early live TV drama were career-making launching pads for writers Reginald Rose, J.P. Miller, Paddy Chayefsky and, more than anyone, Rod Serling, the first actual celebrity writer of the television era, and a creative genius who used his newfound power exclusively for good. Though he would dabble in cinema, writing screenplays such as Planet of the Apes and Seven Days in May in subsequent decades, he spent his career attempting to enrich television as a focal point for free cultural access to art, a mission he began with exceptionally potent scripts for live TV like Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian, and the legendary piece that made his reputation, Patterns.
When Serling eventually got his own filmed anthology show on CBS in 1959, The Twilight Zone, it grew into one of the most artistically accomplished and culturally vital TV series of all, one whose basis in science fiction and supernatural mythos he was challenged on more than once by those who considered him an intellectual and an important artist; he stuck to his convictions, rightfully so, but it says a great deal that no one else could have gotten an ambitious and audaciously original show like The Twilight Zone onto TV, and therefore that The Twilight Zone couldn’t possibly have existed without Patterns, a scathing chronicle of the rot inside a corporation as seen by a decent family man attempting to make his first steps up the ladder. With a brutal cynicism that verges on nihilism, Patterns is taut, intense and shockingly modern — and it’s still powerful today, whether seen in the original live TV version as released on DVD by Criterion or in the excellent 1956 film adaptation by Fielder Cook, but the extent to which its cutting, blatantly anti-capitalist message and vividly conceived characterization struck a chord with audiences throughout the country is extremely difficult to imagine today. It’s no great trick for something creative and good and serious-minded to be popular, if it reaches enough people, but for it to actually set the country on its ear the way Patterns did… well, quite frankly we have no modern analogy.
Serling followed Patterns with other equally searing, equally powerfully performed live dramas, the most famous being Requiem for a Heavyweight, the most shocking being The Comedian starring Mickey Rooney, based on an Ernest Lehman story and directed with bracing power by John Frankenheimer. The Comedian belongs in a category with Sunset Blvd. and Sweet Smell of Success as films or television that saw directly through the sheen and gloss of the entertainment industry and shot straight to the heart of its commercial brutality and the moral emptiness at its core — but Billy Wilder and Alexander Mackendrick didn’t have to play their stories live to coast-to-coast audiences, and Frankenheimer’s achievement in this regard is nothing short of miraculous. On The Twilight Zone, Serling would try to imagine and portray a better world, but in these early works he documents like few other artists the unforgiving truth about the duplicity at the core of the American dream in the 1950s.
The live dramas proved popular enough that Hollywood had little choice but to take notice, to try and harness its enemies for its own benefit. Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, presented in 1954 on CBS’s Studio One as directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Robert Cummings, would become the directorial debut of former TV stalwart Lumet three years later, at that point a star vehicle for no less than Henry Fonda. Thanks to Lumet’s resourcefulness, and to Fonda’s undeniable grace as an actor as well as a fine supporting cast, the story lost little if anything in translation. But the most gargantuan success in this regard came from a Paddy Chayefsky entry on The Philco Television Playhouse starring Rod Steiger as a lonely butcher, who still lives with his mother, unexpectedly finding love in New York City; it’s a genuinely prescient working class fable that approaches the plight of both of its leads, the other played by Nancy Marchand, with dignity and seriousness and no trace of mockery. The actors and the director, Delbert Mann, embody Chayefsky’s script with real grit and lyricism. Marty would be produced independently as a feature film and distributed by United Artists, two years after its broadcast, keeping director Mann but losing Steiger and Marchand and padding out the running time with an additional subplot; while replacements Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair do a fine job in their roles, their intensity and chemistry can’t match that of the television leads, and on the whole the film version is a much less enjoyable experience than those made for Patterns and 12 Angry Men, though this is magnified a bit because the wide availability of both renditions makes comparison so simple; it’s now easier to see the TV version of Patterns than the film, and the opposite is true for 12 Angry Men.
Nevertheless, Marty as a film was a major popular and international success, even winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which could not have prepared its producers or the industry for where that success finally led — at the 28th Academy Awards, it conquered productions from four major studios to win the Best Picture Oscar, Borgnine beating out Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney and a deceased James Dean for the Best Actor statue. There could be no stronger signal of the permanent effect television was now to have on the American film industry — maybe as peaceful coexistence, maybe (more likely) as an invasion on the order of the British Hamlet‘s derided 1948 win, but certainly as a force that could not simply be disregarded or shouted down by the big studios. But Marty also wasn’t a repeatable offense; it was the last Best Picture winner until 1993 that wasn’t either in color or in Scope, and the last to date whose story occurs on such a modest scale. “Small films” achieving its accolades and pop cultural omnipresence are an aberration, now as then, but Marty‘s success still makes you wonder how different things very well could have been.
Between the withering critique of mass media in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, James Mason hollering at his son to turn his dumb westerns off in Bigger Than Life and the windows-as-screens motif of Rear Window, to say nothing of Douglas Sirk’s amusing yet heartbreaking running gag in All That Heaven Allows of widowed Jane Wyman being told that buying a TV will make her less lonely, actual filmmakers had a somewhat more nuanced if still critical view of the new medium’s place in life and society than their bosses typically did. Hitchcock, by now a producer as well as a director, harnessed TV to increase his own celebrity status and further his career; his filmed anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents began and ended each week with his own deadpan on-screen commentary, which helped make him not just one of the most famous film directors but one of the best-known faces and voices in the country. (Less discussed was that he directed one or two episodes himself each season, adding a few short narratives to his repertoire and setting the stage for one of his longest-lived cinematic triumphs.) But in keeping with Hollywood’s tendency to avoid smaller-scaled stories of regular people, Marty being the very conspicuous exception that proved the rule, the film that seems most accurate in its conception of television’s real place in day-to-day life comes not from the U.S. from Japan.
Yasujiro Ozu’s charming comedy Good Morning (1959), partly a remake of his marvelous silent film I Was Born, But…, is far from one of the greatest examples of Ozu’s art, restraint and delicacy; by his own standards, it’s downright crass and superficial, the scattered moments of quiet emotional truth stunted a bit by how lightweight it all is, but again, only by his standards. While it wanders around a suburban neighborhood capturing the many varieties of bickering among its occupants, the most memorable of its plotlines revolves around two young boys’ vow of silence to try and get their parents to buy a TV set. As in the director’s first color film Floating Weeds, the palette is eye-popping; you wonder why every movie doesn’t look like this, and ironically, why anyone would want to watch television. And of course it’s tremendously staged as only Ozu can, with characters constantly addressing each other directly into the camera in a manner that somehow comes off as warm rather than unnerving. The movie’s concern about the minute, routine details of ordinary children growing up sets it apart starkly from contemporaneous films made in America, where there were surely plenty of kids trying to convince their parents to buy TVs but nobody bothered to make movies about it. Despite the aesthetic differences, Good Morning seems as much a window into worldwide middle-class culture of the time as it does into Japan specifically, and the imagery it presents of TV as both a class symbol and as a marker of a kind of cultural regression is deeply compelling.
By decade’s end, TV had changed too; the live dramas gradually faded as videotape increased in prominence and as the popular imagination — perhaps helped along by a greater percentage of the population attaining access to the three remaining networks, and the streamlining of taste that always inevitably results from any such surge — leaned toward variety and toward situation comedies, and as the writers and directors largely moved on to cinema, the brief popularity and artistic ambition of early live television faded into memory, though its effects would linger for decades. TV would fully earn its reputation for populism and cheapness, and despite everything that happened in the ten years after All About Eve was released, George Sanders’ remark in that film to a young actress named Marilyn Monroe continued to ring true as the ’50s ended: “That’s all television is, my dear. Nothing but auditions.”
Monroe would turn out to be the other side of the James Dean coin: a star mythologized by her beauty and — eventually — its accompanying, all-consuming tragedy; in the meantime, consumed by a cannibalistic industry that worshiped and resented everything she represented. The Monroe story goes far beyond cinema, much farther than Dean’s, to the entire cultural notion of beauty, the limited place carved out for women in American society, and the less easily quantified matter of mental illness being routinely swept under the proverbial rug. Monroe was striking in most of her films, even as those films played self-consciously to the generalized stereotype of who she was (The Asphalt Jungle, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) but she also seemed to embody a barely concealed pain in most of them, harnessed most adroitly by Billy Wilder in Some Like It Hot — wherein she is given more to do, and better dialogue, than in almost any of her other features but also, in fairness, is outfitted with a song sequence and scandalous outfit providing one of the most famous covert nude scenes in postwar Hollywood; impossible to say whether this was the image she was attempting to cultivate but, assuming she had agency in the matter, it is a heart-stoppingly sexy scene and little other context is required to understand what made her an eternal icon whose visage vastly outlived the Eisenhower years, one on the order of Dean, Brando and Presley. But as with those three men, the reality of who Monroe really was would be forever subsumed by the weight of the legend to a degree that you could imagine crushing even a relatively untroubled person.
The playful, sexually transgressive Some Like It Hot also features, among many other delights erotic and otherwise, Tony Curtis aping Cary Grant’s accent and attitude in order to attract Monroe’s attention. Across town mere months later Curtis would appear alongside Grant, graying and stuffier than either the screwball superstar of Bringing Up Baby or the arrogant lothario of Notorious, in Blake Edwards’ innocuous but reasonably funny Operation Petticoat, an ostensible comedy that was really a veiled paean to lost and simpler times when the world was at war and Hollywood knew just what to do to save it. No question that it was a culmination of Grant’s gradual collapse into relatively light fare that had begun with comedies such as I Was a Male War Bride and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer that his presence legitimized — even his last collaboration with Hitchcock, North by Northwest, all but explicitly mocks him at times as a bumbling and out-of-touch ad exec, albeit one who charms the actual pants off double agent Eva Marie Saint. Grant would proceed further into even frothier material in the ’60s, and retired in the middle of that decade out of a resistance to aging conspicuously in front of the Hollywood camera.
The old screen legend was dying out, and the new ones seemed to last longer as lifestyle icons or pinups than as mere actors. The situation was directly illustrated by one of the most relentlessly nasty hits of the cynical early ’50s, Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), a Paramount prestige item so merciless in its attack on Hollywood and its history that it raised eyebrows all across the industry; halfway between satiric black comedy and lurid crime fiction, the picture was almost claustrophobic in its literal and metaphoric darkness. Cinematographer John Seitz, a longtime Wilder associate, was obsessed with letting as little light as possible into the frame and stretching the limitations of black & white nitrate celluloid; his influential lensing of Double Indemnity is one of the strokes of genius that gave film noir its name and seems to have led Wilder to give him license to go all the way with his experimentation, resulting in one of the most convincing pieces of Gothic horror in the Hollywood canon, despite the fact that it’s basically a black comedy about an aging, now irrelevant silent-era actress and her butler who consume and destroy the life of a downtrodden young screenwriter (William Holden).
Said actress is portrayed by none other than actual ’20s Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson, whose fearlessness in picking up this role — in a film that is at least as cruel to her character as Citizen Kane is to Marion Davies — remains remarkable; perhaps even more so is that the man playing her butler and former artistic maestro is none other than Swanson’s onetime boss, the disgraced silent director Erich von Stroheim, censured by Hollywood for hubris (and a self-described loathing of “budgets” and “schedules”) years before it dealt the same fate to Orson Welles. As thrilling as the film’s self-reflexiveness is, it also has a certain trashy train-wreck quality much like Wilder’s next feature, Ace in the Hole, that renders its prolonged dancing on the grave of rich, dusty old Hollywood personalities more than a little uncomfortable. The film is so skillfully written and directed, and so effective as both a dynamic character study and a brutal depiction of life being almost literally sucked away, that its troubling implications seem to generate only awe in the moment, specifically awe that any studio picture would go so far in demolishing the legend and history atop which it was built. Wilder displays even less sentimentality toward the now-storied silent era than Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, and is far less interested in depicting his aged-out ingenune who refuses to believe time has passed her by as anything but a figure of madness and insanity than Joseph L. Mankiewicz was in his endlessly empathetic and nuanced employment of Bette Davis in All About Eve (wherein it’s the young sucking the life out of the old, not the other way around) or even the dependably nasty Hitchcock in Stage Fright. But the film is an ashen pleasure and a vicious masterpiece, as fun and intoxicating in its corrosive evil as it is finally deeply unfair and fanatically mean-spirited: it mocks the instability of Swanson’s Norma Desmond, but only perfunctorily questions the awfulness of a business that has no further use for her at the age of fifty.
What’s amazing is that not only did Wilder remain a viable and respected talent in the aftermath of Sunset Blvd. — a film that seen today seems almost designed to render Hollywood itself moot — with multiple Academy Awards under his belt and more in his future, his work was liberally imitated in the years to follow with films like The Barefoot Contessa and The Bad and the Beautiful, neither of which approach its depravity or its savviness-about-town. One scene in Sunset Blvd. even depicts day to day operations on the Paramount lot, where Cecil B. DeMille is shown shooting a film and offering dismissive niceties to the washed-up celebrity who’s come to see him. DeMille was a silent-era fixture himself, who’d been directing prestigious films almost as long as Wilder had been alive, but the industry still had room for his more conventional showmanship (1956’s The Ten Commandments would prove his greatest ever success), the way it did not have room for von Stroheim’s singular artistic statements or for the forbidden aging of Swanson’s face and body. The star of Stage Fright, Marlene Dietrich, was one of the few women to remain a coveted star and a sensual icon all the way well into her fifties, with Wilder himself taking considerable advantage of her widely discussed legs in Witness for the Prosecution in 1957; and with Hitchcock — in one of his more pedestrian films — giving her an outrageously lascivious song to sing, “The Laziest Girl in Town.” But stars like Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck stand out because they really were complete aberrations. Few women their age were even given roles as plum, however demeaning, as that which Wilder provided Swanson (and which, of course, she embraced with stunning enthusiasm and brilliance).
Rosalind Russell, for example, may have been provided with a fleeting recapturing of her widespread fame in the self-consciously kooky Auntie Mame (1958), but it was in a film that has none of the soul or integrity of her own performance. She puts in double time creating the majority of the appeal of the extremely overlong stage adaptation (based on Patrick Dennis’s celebrated book) playing the ultimate cool aunt, who has jet set parties and drinks a lot. The movie inherits a vignette-based structure from the play which stymies any attempt at coherent character development (especially of Mame’s supposedly loving young ward Patrick, played with eye-popping blandness by two different actors), and as in director Morton DaCosta’s equally well-remembered version of The Music Man, none of the dialogue or situations are actually very funny but a number of line readings are. (Russell is matched in enthusiasm only by Joanna Barnes who plays the secluded, vapid rich girl Gloria like half her face is doing an impression of a corpse and steals the entire second half of the film.) It’s all too practiced and sterile in its zaniness, and while DaCosta packs the Technirama frame with characters and business, it just makes it all feel even stagier, sans any sense of spontaneity. And incidentally, the lazily stereotyped treatment of the Burnsides, a Southern clan whose favorite son Mame marries for a spell, is so flippant and pointless — particularly given Beauregarde’s ultimate fate — it’s hard to see how it fits in a film that expects us to go along with its sentimentalized, huggy conclusion. Russell deserved better, but the halcyon days of His Girl Friday were gone forever, not just for her but for everybody, and she’d feature in just eight more films before her death in 1976.
To state the obvious, the faltering of the star system was virtually simultaneous with that of the studio system — and in both cases, there are arguments to be made that it was largely to the benefit of American cinema as art and, frankly, to the performers themselves: nearly gone were the days in which image-conscious studios would send detectives and fixers out to ensure moral clauses were followed or at least that violations were covered up, even though the specter of licentious, abusive figures such as Howard Hughes would manifest regularly on into the next century. But the crumbling facade of old Hollywood caught some once-beloved personalities in its gears; Vivien Leigh earned a second Oscar and was widely praised for her major comeback as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, released in 1951, but spent the next ten years struggling to keep on top of her constantly threatened mental stability and the widespread stigma that accompanied her problems. She would survive this decade but not the next; Judy Garland, still suffering with the fallout from chemical dependencies wrought by her grueling schedule with peak-“more stars than there are in heaven” era MGM, would be dealt a nearly identical fate. In 1939, both had been ostensibly as lucky as any actor — indeed, as any woman — could be in America. Hollywood destroyed them both, while taking undeserved credit for creating them.
The old world was disappearing before everyone’s eyes. Films were soaring without star power: José Ferrer took his Cyrano de Bergerac all the way to an upset Oscar in 1950, while Marty swept the awards in 1955 on the strength of its modest, scrappy content alone. It’s difficult to verify this without having been there, but it seems inconceivable that the absurdly maudlin Bing Crosby vehicle The Country Girl of one year before Marty didn’t seem moldy and irrelevant within a matter of months of its release — defining Crosby with coy misdirection as a struggling alcoholic singer trying to revive his career after a death in the family, it’s a soap opera injected with a nauseating sense of showbiz self-regard, as far away as can be fathomed from Sweet Smell of Success, and your heart goes out to poor Grace Kelly, who much as in High Noon is given no opportunity to display a fraction of the talent in evidence in her three Hitchcock films. And Humphrey Bogart, who spent the ’40s all but stapled into position as the reluctant hero who pretends to arrogance but secretly possesses a heart of gold or (in his films for John Huston) at least a generally well-codified system of morals, seems to have used the last ten years of his life to deliberately subvert this impression, a cold corrective to the classic notion of the star system as pointed as Hitchcock’s famous stunt-casting of Cary Grant in Notorious.
As compelling as Bogart the conflicted fuckup was in In a Lonely Place and The Caine Mutiny — a film in which his ruthlessly paranoid performance is the only redeeming quality — it was The African Queen (1951) that won him the Academy Award, memorably pairing him with another of the rare fortysomething actresses to retain her popularity, Katharine Hepburn. This was Bogart’s last shot at a certain kind of rugged yet curiously square hero; seen today, for all the miraculous stuntwork and game foolishness that went into the picture’s creation, you’re most stricken by how defiantly uncool it is — in a much more successful and engaging fashion than the smugly elitist The Country Girl. The location photography is gorgeous, the action sequences quite breathtaking. And somehow, the tentative budding romance that develops is just weird and nervous enough to feel right. A renegade self-made man and an outwardly priggish missionary make for an oddly persuasive vision of fully grown adults meekly carving out their place in the world and within each other, in stark contrast to Huston’s reputation (and typical fare) and the brazenly misleading poster. Like a lot of big Technicolor location pictures of the early ’50s, The African Queen feels like one last stab at what a “big Hollywood production” used to feel like.
Hepburn directly confronts two facets of the younger, less ingrained Hollywood in Suddenly, Last Summer, which has her awkwardly hamming it up as an isolated matriarch and teams her up with Method actor Montgomery Clift (given nothing to do) and modern-day “it” girl and the (soon) biggest star in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor (given too much to do), who’d burst into national prominence as a 12 year-old in National Velvet and made her debut as a serious actor when paired with with Clift in A Place in the Sun. Almost a decade later in Suddenly, she seemed to have aged not a single day whereas Clift looked twenty years older, stilted and completely removed from the mindbendingly sexy youthful promise of his first few films. As if to provide a mild rebuke to Hollywood’s extreme gender imbalance, Taylor would retain her career and a major degree of social cachet for decades to come, while Clift’s career was virtually over and he would die in 1966. As if to single-handedly shoot down such romantic notions, Audrey Hepburn found herself the entire world’s flavor of the month when picked up for Roman Holiday, then was forced to spend the rest of her career in various imitations of that part, seldom permitted to step outside the thin line but allowed to do so just often enough for various fleeting seconds or the occasional errant film to make a person wonder what might have been. Hepburn’s typecasting illustrates that young stars weren’t immune to the sad fates that could befall earlier generations of Hollywood actresses — in 1950, the hard-fought battle for the Best Actress Oscar between Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. concluded with an upset win for Judy Holliday in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday, in which she delivers an intentionally annoying performance as a stereotyped “dumb blonde” with unexpected acumen for spotting bullshit, but Holliday’s career went virtually nowhere afterward. It may not be a coincidence that she refused to name names before HUAC.
But it really wasn’t just women who were considered irrelevant after a certain age, it was just that women disproportionately suffered from it — as they do from most things even now and certainly then. You can see Spencer Tracy, a man who always looked older than he was, struggling to make his way through the barren landscapes and long CinemaScope takes of Bad Day at Black Rock despite being only ten years older than the film’s director John Sturges, who was then considered a maverick young upstart. The graying and wrinkling of James Stewart and Cary Grant is a conspicuous feature of Alfred Hitchcock’s last two films of the decade, and the director privately blamed the former’s aged-out appearance for the box office failure of Vertigo — though to be fair, Stewart was never exactly a sex symbol, and Hitchcock generally seems to have been desperate to find a scapegoat for the commercial disappointment of a film he was deeply proud of; it may also be relevant that Stewart himself negotiated a share of Vertigo‘s profits.
As Grant’s trajectory implies, comedy was the last refuge of the star system. In another cross-generational pairing, Tracy and Taylor were the fondly rendered titular pair at the center of Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride, a farcical piece that has the surreal blending of decent observation and tone-deafness that appears often in Hollywood domestic comedies. Tracy never was a comfortable leading man for farces; he spends the celebrated Woman of the Year, co-starring Hepburn, sniping and complaining with a disturbing nastiness rather than being actually funny. But he was Charlie Chaplin compared with Jimmy Stewart, who’s the tip of the iceberg among the many embarrassments of Henry Koster’s nails-on-chalkboard stage adaptation Harvey. John Wayne is totally adrift and confused when surrounded by John Ford’s attempt at slapstick and (ineffectively) ebullient relationship humor in his Ireland location-porn showpiece The Quiet Man. Gregory Peck (matched up with Lauren Bacall, who acquits herself nicely) in Designing Woman, which is practically a remake of Woman of the Year, is less awkward but the role is also less demanding than those afforded either Stewart or Wayne. And Mister Roberts teams three old-world superstars — Henry Fonda, James Cagney and William Powell — and finds them all upstaged handily by wiry young Jack Lemmon, who took home an Oscar and tries his best against the utterly pedestrian WWII story.
The witlessness of many of these comedies was just as much to blame as their stars’ sterile presence for their long-term forgettability. Even Wilder was not immune, stuffing Bogart, William Holden and Audrey Hepburn into one of his most strained romantic comedies, the May-December romance Sabrina, and diluting the actually brilliant and dramatic thriller Stalag 17 with overlong comedic scenes of goofy happenings in a POW camp; if anything, Howard Hawks was better at juggling genres, as seen in Rio Bravo, which also makes vastly superior use of John Wayne when compared with The Quiet Man. The general American mainstream discomfort with sexuality, which freezes up John Ford’s work in this regard particularly, isn’t improved much with the innuendo-filled Pillow Talk starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson — who have searing chemistry and all but fuck while fully clothed on multiple occasions in the film — because much of that innuendo is in regard to sexual assault, which the film cheerfully treats as a big joke.
Not all was lost; Singin’ in the Rain is still one of the funniest films ever made, and Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, about a neighborhood’s dispassionate dealings with a corpse, is one of the most admirably wry, and a brilliant transfer of understated British dark humor along the lines of Ealing Studios (whose last unqualified triumph The Lavender Hill Mob appeared at the dawn of the ’50s, with an unknown Audrey Hepburn in a bit part) to Hollywood, albeit one that people refused to go and see. Comedy used to be a fervent and tirelessly inventive genre in Hollywood, maybe the most of all; think of the screwballs, or Lubitsch’s relentessly sexy early ’30s musicals, or Chaplin’s increasingly elaborate monuments to his own ingenuity, or films as sophisticated and compassionate as Cukor’s Holiday. It still was in certain other parts of the world, where French auteur Jacques Tati’s sophisticated and uncompromisingly original films were as scathing a rebuke of American oversimplicity as Dreyer and Rossellini’s dramas were to The Country Girl. Even before Mon Oncle harnessed a limitless experimental horizon that extrapolated from slapstick to balletic fantasy, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) rendered a restless individuality from something as basic as a series of humorous and endlessly contemplated images, as painterly as film comedy has ever gotten.
Tati’s films are so palpable as experiences in their own distinct language, something you can say about barely any other director. One’s inability to process them the first time they play through is a feature, not a bug; your eyes try to wander everywhere at once, and the film teases you to return to it. There is massive pleasure to be found at the intricate visual gags in Holiday — some subtle, some childlike in their broadness — but you can assure yourself that you’ve also missed a great deal. The experience of watching this smaller-scale, black and white production is ultimately not that different from seeing Tati’s later, more vaunted Playtime; in either case, you’re immersed in a purely visual realm with words viewed harshly as inadequate, for the dialogue here is even more inconsequential than in Tati’s next film Mon Oncle, and the Hulot character’s role is really to lend structure to Tati’s bemused, pointed but affectionate commentary on Modern Life. Holiday has him placing Hulot on the French coastline where his bumbling and noisemaking wreaks minor havoc among the other tourists. His oblivious sense of peace ought to be an object lesson for the lot of them (he’s the only one who seems to be enjoying his vacation). It feels like a long and oddly pleasing dream, one whose real essence comes into question the next morning: what was I saying to myself, really? The feeling it generates of actual interaction with its places and subjects is as ideal an example of Pure Cinema as one can find; and, like all of Tati’s films, it feels like you could immediately replay it and enjoy a totally different experience.
At his best, Billy Wilder could still craft a triumph of the form as singular as Some Like It Hot (1959), which unlike Pillow Talk is an erotic comedy that’s wholly good-natured and consistently funny — clearly Lubitsch-inspired, as transgressive as Design for Living and truly radical in the gleeful gender-bending of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, who spend the majority of the film in drag — even if not as deliriously pleasurable as the movies that influenced it, breaking up its teasing and impressively progressive-minded humor (the cherry on top of the film is its final line, the perfect treatment of blissfully elastic sexuality even if it’s easily played off to certain audiences as merely absurd) with tiresome action scenes involving gangster activity, like an irksome reversal of the genre-twisting in Stalag 17. But at least the film is ambitious, and largely meets those demands; most American comedies by this stage were indistinguishable from (and, often, inferior to) TV sitcoms.
One inarguable leg up over TV that movies could easily claim without a sense of inflation or desperation was color; as much as we may now celebrate black & white cinematography as a sublime craft and form unto itself, color stock was automatically viewed as more prestigious and expensive, frankly because it really was even more than a decade after Selznick International hoarded every available Technicolor camera in Hollywood for the burning of Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind. During the course of the ’50s, partly as a result of the simplification of shooting in color due to the transition toward EastmanColor — which didn’t require the complex and time-consuming three-strip Technicolor process — and partly because of the competition of home viewing (color TV would not reach more than half of American households until the early 1970s), color became the “norm” for A-level theatrical productions by the major studios, with black & white generally (but not always) reserved for lower-budget or non-mainstream cinema.
Like widescreen, the advantages of color were obvious in the hands of certain filmmakers even as it tended to encourage a less imaginative, immersive kind of cinematography for the movies as a whole. Jack Cardiff was probably the greatest of all color cinematographers, his work in The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa and The Brave One either considerably enhancing or single-handedly justifying the films themselves in the same way he had lent such vitality to his work with the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in Britain in the ’40s, even if that glorious collaboration was a far cry from the somewhat more pedestrian Hollywood pictures to which he was connected. By 1958, not long after the beautiful and labor-intensive visual saturation of Technicolor began to fade into antiquity, he had transitioned to directing.
The waning years of the classic three-strip Technicolor process that had made its conspicuous debut with Walt Disney’s Flowers and Trees in 1932, followed by RKO’s live action feature Becky Sharp three years later, continued to produce striking films — Singin’ in the Rain, King Solomon’s Mines, the renowned western Shane, John Ford’s comedy The Quiet Man and perhaps most gorgeously of all, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T — but the bulky cameras fell into disuse in 1954 after Eastman Kodak debuted its Eastmancolor film, which utilized a single strip of film that was then processed much more simply by a variety of labs and studios. Technicolor maintained its dye transfer facility (where dyes were imbibed directly rather than through a photochemical process, and the results were both uniquely beautiful and resistant to fading) but now used the matrix information gathered from one-strip Eastmancolor stock to do so, which does not prevent later Technicolor films such as This Island Earth, The Searchers and Bonjour Tristesse from boasting absolutely eye-popping examples of the bright, saturated beauty of the process, although this became significantly rarer toward the end of the decade when studios broadly began to use their own in-house processes to develop the film, which results in a more natural albeit sometimes washed-out look.
The results under non-Technicolor processes with Eastman film were still more vibrant than color films of modern vintage. Vincente Minnelli expressed consternation about being forced to use not only Eastmancolor (under MGM’s “Metrocolor” label) but also CinemaScope for his Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, but the visual results are still sumptuous enough to become the film’s only particularly memorable element. Meanwhile, Russell Metty rendered Eastman stock to staggeringly lyrical effect in Sirk’s Imitation of Life, which took some of the sting off Universal’s abandoment of Sirk’s beloved Technicolor. And Agnès Varda’s early travelogue documentaries commissioned by the French government, Du côté de la côte and Ô saisons, ô châteaux, look as spectacularly florid as any Technicolor feature of the classic Hollywood period.
By and large, the most beautiful color films were made in other countries. Despite losing Cardiff to America, Powell and Pressburger went for one last round of balletic surrealism with their terrific version of the Offenbach opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Hein Heckroth’s outrageous set designs are done proud by the luminosity of three-strip Technicolor. Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor Senso and Max Ophüls’ Eastmancolor Lola Montès, the only color film the latter ever made, achieve more transcedence in their use of color than in their actual narratives. Terence Fisher’s 1958 variation on Dracula (an early Hammer horror film, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula) boasts vibrant, expressive Eastmancolor photography as the one element aside from Christopher Lee’s brief, smugly creepy performance that sets it apart from the pair of iconic cinematic versions of the tale that preceded it. Not that the film isn’t entertaining — Lee, Peter Cushing and John Van Eyssen’s general fecklessness as Harker are all fun — but it almost can’t help feeling like a carefully choreographed retread, even if of less technically seamless films. Fisher’s perioidic lapses into farce feel strained and badly pitched, and as in so much horror there’s a kind of hedging-of-bets conflict here between straightforward terror and camp, and the garishly lit, cartoonish sets along with the sheer straightforwardness of the dialogue and action fail to put across the sense of mystery and inexplicable menace of Browning and Murnau. But you don’t forget those colors: bright red blood, dark black shadows, blinding white snow.
Jean Renoir’s two major three-strip Technicolor efforts also betray a mastery and poetry that are difficult to find in contemporaneous American films, even if one is an wrenchingly emotional masterpiece and the other is comparatively staid. Renoir had always famously been an observant, compassionate filmmaker, a feature that manifested as much in his satirical stories like The Rules of the Game and The Crime of Monsieur Lange, comedies like Boudu Saved from Drowning or his proto-noir thrillers La Chienne and La Bete Humaine as it did in the more subdued and contemplative classics Grand Illusion and A Day in the Country. But The River (1951), made in English as a coproduction of France, the U.K. and U.S., and India, is nonetheless his loveliest and warmest film. Based on Rummer Godden’s autobiographical novel about growing up as the daughter of a wealthy magnate in India, and taking pains to consider British colonialism in a nuanced but overall critical light, it is ultimately a coming of age story about a teenage girl who happens to be surrounded by a culture whose depth and complexity she would only years later come to recognize. With elements of documentary, Renoir captures the culture of then-colonial India, in an area that’s now part of Bangaldesh, through the eyes of a child. Though far less egregiously so than the other Godden-based cinematic masterpiece Black Narcissus, it is a romanticized and self-consciously exotic, even Orientalist, perspective on the region when compared to Pather Panchali (whose director and cinematographer both befriended Renoir during production) but is nevertheless an ethereal, intoxicating example of pure beauty and explosive life on film.
The slightly muddled politics of The River don’t harm it much — Renoir was too interested in people to resent them, even if they were an occupying force or lived in a mansion among a starving population, which coalesces convincingly with his depiction of class conflict in The Rules of the Game or of warring factions in Grand Illusion. But his conflicted fascination with wealth finally gets the better of him in The Golden Coach (1952), an opulent production but nevertheless an unusually and troublingly empty film for the director. It tracks the comings and goings of the nobility and a theater group in Peru, with the golden coach of the title serving as a symbol of transgressive action between the two classes, but plays as a very watered-down variant on his earlier work about class aggression, demonstrating much more than The River that Renoir softened in his old age and, whereas he was perhaps too generous to the bourgeois in Rules, he now fully serves up the asinine bickering of the subjects of his aesthetic fixations as though they were actual points of narrative interest. It’s all very pretty and nothing sticks, including the humor, and including the almost uniformly annoying performances — but it’s still a film that uses color to persuade us, or at least try and persuade us, of its story’s importance, whereas Hollywood films by this stage were already on the road toward taking it as a given.
Technicolor features were rare overseas prior to the retirement of the three-stip process; it was only after Eastmancolor came into vogue, for instance, that color in Japanese features became widespread, which lent one of cinema’s most infallible poets another tool with which to weave his stories. Floating Weeds (1959), Yasujiro Ozu’s first color film, would much like The Golden Coach be a memorable experience even if it all it had to offer were its lovely, beautifully controlled palette. But there is so much more to see here. It’s a revision of the director’s own A Story of Floating Weeds and significantly improves upon it, with its sensitive portrait of a family fractured by pride and class consciousness (an actor wishes for his son to grow up outside of the world he occupies, so he essentially abandons the boy and sends money to his mother, only to cause old wounds to open when his Kabuki troupe comes to town years later) often hypnotic in its grace and pregnant drama. The tale is better adapted to this postwar environment than was the 1934 film to its period, straining less to transcend its cultural context; there is considerably more overt nastiness in both films’ dramatis personae than is usual for Ozu’s work, which results among other things in a much larger volume of emotional outbursts that would seem entirely foreign in something like Tokyo Story or Early Summer, films whose naturalism and subtlety is never broken, but then again — these are “theater people,” and like those in Renoir’s film, their emotive flourishes inform the blushing colors of the celluloid itself. The visual poetics are beyond description, and so is the immersive use of sound.
The eccentricity of Ozu would have found no quarter with the Hollywood establishment, which since the silent and early sound eras could take artistic individuality only so far, with the likes of Hitchcock, Sirk and Preston Sturges finding covert means to subvert the language of commercial cinema to their own benefit, which could — as we have seen — produce divine art, but it’s very difficult to avoid the fact that Ozu met no such barriers apart from having to wait much longer for the means to use a tool like Eastmancolor, or the fact that in his hands color does become a tool rather than merely a showpiece. All the same words could apply to Jacques Tati, whose comedies were unlike anything else in the world in their fusion of physical humor, visual complexity, sensual immersion and defiant shirking of narrative convention. In his first fully color film Mon Oncle (1958), shot with Eastmancolor stock but looking lusher and more dynamic than almost any Hollywood film that post-dates three-strip Technicolor, it is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears but also deeply counterintuitive as a viewing experience: it is not a means by which to zone out or to be bowled over with easy, effortless yuks.
Tati’s film grammar is his own; on a surface level, Mon Oncle is funny and clever and warmly naive — contrasting a young boy’s arid home life in a hyper-efficient modern house among his superficial, class-conscious parents with the whimsy he encounters on outings with his uncle M. Hulot in his ramshackle, cheerful neighborhood whose colorful strife sparks so much more play and imagination — but as a construction, it’s exacting and ingenious, a film of theoretically simple pleasures that refuses to allow its audience to rest. So many jokes pay off before they’re actually set up, and others are buried in one corner of the screen while three or four other things play out. It’s sharp, rather than just innocent, because of the joy it elicits from its own meticulousness, but the finale can only be seen as truly bleak with only a touch of begrudging optimism — Tati seems to suggest scrappy, joyous culture being totally subsumed, which he would show us directly in Playtime the following decade. But just as in that film, he’s more conflicted than he seems at first — the impersonal, sterile quality of the human interactions in the fancy push-button household is decried at the expense of the celebration of bodily function, clumsiness, ugliness at the heart of Hulot’s scenes. But both worlds are markedly beautiful and full of passion and energy, all dramatizing a process of liberation. Hulot is barely a character, more an omniscient representation of unapologetic human frailty, but like so much of Tati’s work, the film as a whole is a canvas that reflects as eccentric and singular a vision as any art on this scale possibly could.
In addition to Douglas Sirk there was another key exception to the notion that color, as an expression of content as much as form, found better and more impressive outlet in other film industries than in America’s. Though largely unsung because so much of his work is identified with one particular director, and a famously meticulous one at that, Robert Burks may have been Hollywood’s most consistent poet of Technicolor in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock — all of them, really, but especially To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and one of the loveliest-looking color pictures of any era, Vertigo. Because none of these films are imaginable as having the same impact if they were not filmed in color, they alone justify the director’s generalized transition out of black & white, where he had already crafted some of the most seductive images in all cinema, but he did not leave the old world behind entirely, using it specifically to create a documentary impression along with Burks in The Wrong Man, which of course would not be his last flirtation with black & white stock. Surveying the narrative of Hitchcock’s career through 1960, one gets the sense of an artist and a career that continues to build and build to some unseen climax. In 1960, that climax would arrive in the form of a knife ripping through flesh.
Two films released in 1960 synthesize the past and define the immediate and not-so-immediate future, their repercussions felt in various forms for — arguably — the remainder of the history of film as a viable artform. Neither Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (English title: Breathless), released in France in March 1960; nor Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released that summer in New York and the following autumn in the rest of the United States, is technically part of the story we are telling here. But the various events and films that permitted and influenced them most certainly are.
Psycho has several key precedents; Hitchcock was intrigued by the growing success of companies like Allied Artists and American International Pictures, and directors like Roger Corman, who were tapping into a market of exploitation and fear that wasn’t far off from fantasies he had long entertained about the specific engineering of darkest fears and richest emotions through direct, unfettered cinematic means. He understood that audiences were flocking to these smaller, cheaper movies in search of genuine extremity and wished to present the same on a more ambitious artistic scale, from a director with daunting popularity and prestige. Simultaneously, he liked the idea of making a “thirty-day” film, with the usual intricate writing and pre-production process followed by a quick shoot he could put together with the crew of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents: a film that would look authentic, thus could convey a more intimate and dreadful brand of horror. The immediacy of television obviously appealed to Hitchcock, and rather than battle against its reframing of viewers’ habits he wanted to transfer its innate directness to the theater screen. Like The Wrong Man, Psycho would be black & white not because of limited means but for specific, artistic reasons.
Two specific, non-exploitation films also played a significant role in defining Psycho‘s aesthetic: one was Clouzot’s Diabolique, which used the aesthetics of American noir to engender dread and the suggestion of supernatural terror within an ordinary setting. Crucially, this ghost story turned out to contain no actual ghosts whatsoever, as would also be in the case in Vertigo. Secondly was Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), a film that Hitchcock never specifically acknowledged, perhaps in part because he didn’t enjoy a particularly strong rapport with Laughton with whom he had worked twice (on Jamaica Inn and The Paradine Case, both unsuccessful); but watching the film, its eeriness and joyously macabre upending of classical American mores and harnessing of the extreme moral colors of a children’s fable, it’s difficult to believe it had no effect on Hitchcock. Even if he never saw it, there’s no question that it laid out the carpet for a certain acknowledgement of depravity, connecting the dots between Orson Welles’ tireless use of surrealism within the ordinary American landscape and Hitchcock’s attraction to everyday perversity.
The key attribute of Laughton’s film is that it plays like a piece of folklore, as indeed would Psycho: an elemental, cautionary tale of a hidden treasure, an unstoppable evil in pursuit of it, and two innocents against the world who eventually find refuge in the person of their enemy’s polar opposite, though both claim to be equally driven by their Christian faith. Against the backdrop of Lillian Gish’s weary thesis “it’s a hard world for little things,” it forces children to take charge over their destiny after Robert Mitchum, as the unsleeping sociopath hot on their trail, destroys their mother to ease his path to full control over their lives; the last we see of Shelley Winters, as the children’s beleaguered parent, is at the bottom of a river, her own secrets with her. The film is pointedly unsparing in its horror, but its grander morality is as convicted and assured as the good-and-evil parable in a foundational film like Murnau’s Faust. Laughton never directed another picture, and this provocative and stirring masterpiece presents that fact as one of the greatest of lost opportunities; it’s difficult to see him as an actor in any of his subsequent movies, as when buried under period makeup and costuming in Spartacus, and wonder how such an inventive master of cinematic grammar could end up with such an undignified, unsung status. Hollywood never did really know what to do with true artists; a certain number slipped through, like Hitchcock and Ford and Hawks, but they did it by years of paying dues, playing the game and finding a niche that brought them both artistic fulfillment and commercial acclaim — and even they would be punished by critics and audiences for the occasional step out of their carefully configured racket.
Another crucial element setting the groundwork for Psycho is the gradual erosion of the Production Code, in place with varying degrees of strict enforcement since the mid-1930s, at which point the Hays office and its restrictions on the content of Hollywood films had forced a radical change in both the kinds of stories that studio directors could tell and the way they were able to tell them. Will Hays, the hardened moralist who presided over the MPAA at the time of the Code’s inception and provided it with its colloquial name, had departed in 1945, followed nine years later by the man known for enforcing it, single-minded Catholic censor Joseph Breen, whose intense dislike of breasts and politics kept pictures clean and proper for most of the studio era. Filmmakers employed great creativity to find ways around the Code, dispatching a lot of vague cinematic winking on the part of writers and actors and film editors (see for instance the end of The Awful Truth). Despite a brief reassertion and updating of the Code’s policies in the early ’50s and the peak New Red Scare era, which led to several new restrictions, the MPAA’s enforcement and the studios’ self-censorship slackened throughout the decade; a movie like Dial M for Murder probably couldn’t have reveled quite so luxuriously in its sexually charged burst of violence a few years earlier, and the scathing attitudes toward traditional family roles in Bigger Than Life and Separate Tables would have been unthinkable. The most emphatic artistic opponent to Code restrictions was Otto Preminger, who produced and directed two United Artists-distributed films that deliberately violated Code restrictions by courting forbidden topics; released without the usual “approved” certification but nevertheless widely released and successful, The Moon Is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm cracked open a door.
UA was also the distributor of Some Like It Hot, which became the largest-scale hit to date that was issued with no Code approval — the film’s challenging of gender roles as well as Marilyn Monroe’s provocative outfits and the frank sexuality of her performance would have made it impossible to edit down to established moral standards, so UA released it as-is anyway, a sort of culmination of Wilder’s attitude toward the establishment’s disapproval of Sunset Blvd. nearly ten years earlier. Some Like It Hot was followed swiftly by Suddenly, Last Summer and Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, both released by Columbia Pictures, and both of which featured graphic descriptions of rape and deviance plus several words and phrases once forbidden in Hollywood releases. All of these films were independent productions picked up for distribution by formerly sub-major studios. The most surreal event yet would be Paramount’s entry into the fold with Hitchcock’s film, whose violence and luridness had no peer or precedent in Hollywood. Some Like It Hot and Psycho cut the MPAA’s power of censorship at its knees, along with the increasing success of (and fascination with) often sexually explicit foreign-made films that weren’t beholden to Code requirements, nor were exploitation pictures like Glen or Glenda. Even the pornographic closing shot of a train boring into a tunnel at the end of North by Northwest feels more flagrant and audacious, despite showing nothing “objectionable” pre se, than you could imagine Hays and Breen approving of back in the ’30s. And that joke wasn’t even original to Hitchcock.
Bruce Conner’s legendary collage film A Movie (1958) forecasts that closing gag, and exemplifies the sophistication of an audience — Conner was an ordinary consumer of Hollywood pictures no different from the viewer — who knew how to interpret Hollywood’s sideways, euphemism-ridden translation of adult life, and were growing sick of having to see reality so stringently filtered. A Movie wears its dark humor on its sleeve more than most of the key early “found footage” creations in American avant garde cinema (think for instance of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart from 1936), demonstrating an adroit talent for editing despite being more or less self taught; there’s often a keen sense of movement in its free-associative style. The footage itself is cribbed from various cut-rate offerings, fusing stag films with clips of various war-related atrocities as well as a bit of archival ethnography and some scuba diving. It’s almost inevitable that an economically necessitated avoidance of actually shooting any film in any piece like this one, initially intended as part of an installation that was also nixed because of cost, results in a rather obvious “media critique,” and the substance of that critique is typically vague at best. (Emile de Antonio is among the scarce filmmakers to truly conquer this issue, but films like The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu that owe a debt to his work lack its immediacy.) That’s why the most famous moment of A Movie is its naughtiest and wittiest, when a submarine captain looking through a periscope is confronted with visions of a lady undressing, to which he responds by launching a torpedo. The endless cycle of false endings and credits are also a playful addition within a film that feels less like outsider art, because less idiosyncratic, than its antecedent Rose Hobart, even though it’s also considerably more engaging. It’s comforting that oddballs were already stringing things together with this kind of mordant obsessiveness so many generations ago.
If Conner meant to comment on the savvy impatience of the movie audience, he had a powerful peer in this interest in the form of Hitchcock himself, who spent the ’50s trying to edge ever close to his ideal of Pure Cinema, always constantly aware of the increasingly seasoned nature of his public. He had begun the 1940s as a wunderkind, newly emigrated from Great Britain, with Hollywood within his grasp. His first American project Rebecca won the Academy Award for Best Picture less than two years after he left England’s beleaguered film industry. But he ended that decade at one of his lowest ebbs, in the fallout of a failing production venture with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures, a company distributed via Warner Bros. whose first two films lost money, the latter (Under Capricorn) taken back by the bank altogether. Its third, 1950’s Stage Fright, would prove no brighter, most notable for returning Hitchcock to his native country to shoot a picture for the first time since 1938. Hitchcock would continue to serve as his own producer going forward, but as it happened he would dedicate most of his energy to a deal with Paramount that began in 1954; his Paramount films would prove more lavish, mature and successful, artistically as well as commercially. Regardless of such concerns, however, this was the great director’s greatest decade; he would craft a series of films that were, nearly without exception, breathlessly exciting, eclectic and creatively restless, forming one of the most admirable streaks of ingenuity, confidence and invention (and luckily, popular engagement) enjoyed by any artist of the last century. He did not achieve this alone.
Every phase of Hitchcock’s career had relied on stable relationships with collaborators, starting with his wife and scenarist Alma Reville, herself an accomplished director in the silent era, and the screenwriter Angus MacPhail in his British period; but it was in the 1950s that he formed a consistent team of infallible artists who conspired, in consort, to render the director’s dreams into beguiling reality. Reville remained a constant on-set presence and creative partner for Hitchcock, joined over the course of these years by cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert Boyle, editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann, and for certain periods, screenwriter John Michael Hayes, producer Herbert Coleman, costume designer Edith Head and title (and poster) designer Saul Bass. These men and women would carry Hitchcock to his artistic apex. Following Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train and I Confess, he returned to the well of one of his defining inspirations of this period, the notion of confinement which had inspired the experiments Lifeboat and Rope. First, in Eastmancolor and 3D for Warner Bros., he filmed the Frederick Knott play Dial M for Murder (1954) — expanding it slightly beyond the apartment in which the scheme, the attempted murder and the investigation all take place to add an expressionistic trial sequence for falsely accused Grace Kelly that harks back to The Passion of Joan of Arc and Hitchcock’s own early talkie Murder!. The film’s only serious flaw is the casting of smarmy Ray Milland and ineffectual Robert Cummings as the two men subtly fighting for Kelly’s affections; otherwise it’s talky but breezy before and after the rip-roaring setpiece at the center of it all that has Kelly stabbing her would-be killer to death with a pair of scissors. Hitchcock mostly used the 3D effect to emphasize the film’s confinement, but in the moment of his heroine’s triumph over her captor, he bursts out of the frame with a furious, sensual energy that he so often reserved for the violent crimes in his films… one in particular.
It was Rear Window (1954), however, that harnessed and focused all of Hitchcock’s experiments and preoccupations to date into one perfect piece of master-class filmmaking. Movies simply don’t get better, more revealing or pleasurable — or more directly confrontational. James Stewart plays a cad of a photographer struggling with a broken leg who puts all of his friends and loved ones at risk in the course of a fixation over what he can see happening across the street through his binoculars, not that this is much different from his roles in other Hitchcock films; as you see with Cary Grant, he was really the only director who routinely subjected stars to such characterizations. Of course Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries is not a violent obsessive as in Vertigo or an abusive husband as in The Man Who Knew Too Much or a hypocritical nihilist as in Rope, but his defiant avoidance of commitment to his extremely caring and independent-minded girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly again, never better) does paint him as some sort of a sociopath even if you don’t find Lisa ravishing, but how can you not? The extent to which the film undercuts his smug editorializing about marriage and various other matters with constant barbs from not just Lisa but insurance nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter, also never better, and only otherwise given this much to do by Samuel Fuller), coupled with Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes’ curiosity about the everyday lives of (unusually affluent in this case) fairly ordinary people makes this an intriguing snapshot of a moment just before gender attitudes experienced a paradigm shift. You can see how the characters’ genuine wrestling, good and bad faith, with cuddly domesticity versus independence would have had major resonance at the time and is still well-illustrated enough to seem realistic.
But of course, as much as Hayes loved his career-marriage conflicts (something that eventually exasperated Hitchcock) and as well integrated as this one is, you come here for the sheer imaginative joy of the suspense scenes, and the entire film is still a miracle of blocking, design and pacing. The fact that there’s virtually no room for improvement in its intricate set design or run of brilliant setpieces — thrilling and occasionally heartbreaking — gives some indication of why it’s the last time Hitchcock returned to the “single set” well. Despite the confinement, multiple dramas play out in the frame at once, a screen filled to the brim with exquisite detail in a call forward to Tati’s Playtime. Nothing here is so underrated as Franz Waxman’s diegetic score, which along with the sound design makes the known artificiality of the set feel beside the point — in no sense do you ever doubt that what you’re seeing and hearing is a palpable experience. You know exactly how it feels to be in that sweltering apartment.
As if to rebel against the placement of all of his first three color films in single rooms, Hitchcock defied his reputation as a soundstage-bound auteur by taking the gang on the road for a run of location pictures that lasted for the rest of the ’50s; Psycho would be his next wholly backlot-based production. In the meantime, To Catch a Thief took him to the French Riviera, The Trouble with Harry to autumnal New England (delaying the post-production of To Catch a Thief so he could catch the leaves before they changed), the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much to Morocco then London, The Wrong Man to New York City, Vertigo to a lovelorn San Francisco, and finally, North by Northwest (1959) to virtually everywhere in the country all at once.
Accounts vary as to what motivated Hitchcock to craft the bombastic North by Northwest as his follow-up to two much more subdued and aching, uncomfortable pictures; the screenwriter Ernest Lehman claimed it was meant to be “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” gathering up all the traditional man-on-the-run tropes of his classic thrillers from The 39 Steps to Saboteur and pumping them up to a kind of washed-out extremity that (intentionally) bordered on self-parody, with demented, larger-than-life characters, a flagrant disregard for Hays-era decency in Cary Grant’s very adult love scenes with Eva Marie Saint, wildly over-the-top setpieces that often made very little sense such as the famed cropduster sequence, and a restless revolving door of cities and unpredictable locales. The film never stops for a breath, offering direct inspiration for the James Bond series, but whereas Bond would be a crashing bore because he was a classic rugged self-made man who always knew the correct next step and typically had a run of femmes fatales to accompany him there, Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing, a la David O. Selznick) is a boring, awkward, aged-out ad man who spends most of his free time placating his vaguely narcissistic mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and sets the wild story into motion by accidentally accepting a phone call for nonexistent U.S. espionage agent George Kaplan, thus sending a brood of henchmen and spies on his trail.
It’s no overstatement to call this the most gleefully fun movie ever made in Hollywood — ferociously exciting and deeply compelling despite its frothiness and immense dedication to pure audience pleasure, from its opening scene with Saul Bass’ brilliant titles and Bernard Herrmann’s magnificently massive orchestrations to the orgasmic final seconds, it was sometimes regarded as a protest to the relatively lukewarm reception afforded to The Trouble with Harry and Vertigo, films Hitchcock was proud of that failed to find audiences on the scale of Rear Window or his television program, which was making him a ubiquitous presence in America’s living rooms. Under this notion the idea was to throw everything the audience supposedly wanted back at them, to a degree that could easily be read as sardonic or ridiculous; if that’s the case, the film is a failure, because it’s difficult to imagine an audience that is anything but enthralled with it — to the extent that anyone who does not care for North by Northwest should, quite likely, not be trusted to be able to enjoy much of anything.
North by Northwest was an example not merely of Hitchcock doing everything in his power to prove what a master of entertainment he was; it was Hollywood doing everything Hollywood always did best — as apt a summary of the American film industry at its finest as it was of one specific director. It also represented the end of Hollywood as it was known for the previous few decades. It’s not easy to pinpoint the death of the Golden Age and the studio system — 1948 is the most obvious seismic event to disrupt its continuation, but most of the status quo remained in place for most of the ’50s. By 1959, however, everything was visibly changing; Hitchcock, for one, would discount the importance of using movie stars thereafter and would regret his occasional attempts to return to that kind of filmmaking. There would still be “big” and “small” studios but they would have trouble keeping a strong grasp on the direction of the industry, as independent producers and foreign cinema would attain an unexpected commercial cachet. The days when MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and RKO Radio Pictures determined Hollywood’s power structure were already gone by the middle ’50s and would be all but forgotten soon after that.
It’s not unusual to find writers and filmmakers who lament the loss of the studio system, claiming that its regimented structures fostered creativity within a number of inventive auteurs who have still never been bettered. While it’s easy to see the source of this argument and even some shred of truth in it, and while no one denies that classic Hollywood produced some of the most wonderful narrative films ever made, these were largely aberrations, accidents of luck and fate. It takes very little effort to notice the limitations of the studio system; looking at the singular creativity within and the emotional wallop packed by the films of Jean Renoir or Carl Theodor Dreyer or Kenji Mizoguchi, just to choose three random masters, causes one to wonder endlessly at how brilliant men like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, William Wyler and John Ford could have achieved even more greatness within less prohibitive scenarios. Think of how many of the most progressive and masterful Hollywood films that reached us were either fatally compromised, like The Magnificent Ambersons or Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, and then of how many of those that did survive intact to widespread release were misunderstood or considered financial mistakes, like Vertigo. That’s to say nothing of the women and people of color who were given few if any opportunities, in any global film industry, for self-expression, which is why the comparatively infinite sophistication in other arts contemporaneous to the entire studio era, but especially the ’50s, is extremely instructive: jazz, rock & roll, literature, poetry, the visual arts — these were forms equipped to contend with revolution, youth culture, Civil Rights, feminism. However much Stanley Kramer may have disagreed, Hollywood movies were not.
As Bruce Conner’s work showed, Hollywood cinema was ripe for mockery and disdain in its own country of origin; the studio system’s vision of America had been a fact of life for the entirety of existence for anyone in their teens or twenties in the ’50s — and as the films scrambled to reassert their base appeal in directionless, wrong-footed fashion, the same impulse that drove widespread audiences to respond enthusiastically to live teleplays like Patterns led sophisticated and Bohemian crowds in larger cities and college towns to make their way to arthouse cinemas, rebuking the mainstream and finding tremendously challenging, earthy and ambitious Art with a capital A in late 1940s imports like The Bicycle Thief, Ugetsu and Rome, Open City as well as, within a decade, a new breed of independent American film.
One of the distributors that made inroads into the market for art films in the ’50s was Janus Films, which had its roots in a reconfigured stage theater in Massachusetts, where its founders, one of whom was the actor Bryant Haliday, bought the theater and screened acclaimed foreign titles like Rashomon and Umberto D — to their surprise, the venture proved successful beyond their imaginations and by 1956 they had taken it to New York and its Playhouse Theater; with these early investments, Janus then became a distributor and in two years had brought Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali to arthouses nationwide, which proved a commercially viable act of counterprogramming on top of the inherent cultural enrichment of exposing a widespread and diverse (if still limited mostly to larger cities) audience to these exciting new films that were probing the boundaries of narrative cinema. Building an American audience for these movies would have immediate repercussions, even if nothing as instantly earth-shattering as Donald Ritchie taking Satyajit Ray to see Tokyo Story (which, alas, would not see a proper U.S. release until 1972, well after Yasujiro Ozu’s death).
It’s partly due to the specific influence of Janus that the ’50s mark the birth of many of the most iconic and ubiquitous arthouse classics, in particular the peak-period works of Akira Kurosawa, the pioneering black & white successes of Ingmar Bergman and the early films of Federico Fellini. Kurosawa’s international breakthrough Rashomon (1950) presents human nature as nightmarish, impenetrable labyrinth. It’s an insightful, distressing dream and one of the most visually beautiful films ever made, but its far-reaching pessimism and poetry are what really transcend its mystery novel-like structure. Thanks to its intriguing, innovative structure cataloging the same event from multiple varied perspectives, challenging the question of truth itself in a manner counterintuitive to the medium, it was also an easy sell with foreign audiences. Kurosawa’s films from Stray Dog to Seven Samurai could often feel like American movies transferred to another (often richer) space, which fostered some resentment in his own country but has allowed him to maintain a status even today as one of the first non-English speaking directors most students and film lovers fall for.
This meant that, for better or worse, Kurosawa also attracted the kind of superficial fanatics whose interest wasn’t even in aesthetic pleasure so much as general masculine flexing — which may have had its place, but The Hidden Fortress (1958) can engender resentment in multiple directions when one considers how much a film like Star Wars shamelessly plunders from it. Then again, Kurosawa was such a master that an adventure premise which is now so familiar as to be almost beat-for-beat predictable (a tougher-than-she-looks princess played by Misa Uehara is escorted across dangerous grounds along with reams of hidden gold by Toshiro Mifune, all seen from the perspective of two greedy peasants who can’t stop bickering) retains nearly all of its appeal and freshness after sixty-odd years. It would probably still be a joy even if it weren’t so visually breathtaking; the director’s sense of composition and breadth are infallible, to say nothing of how vividly his characters develop — even the annoying ones are always annoying in a knowing, humorous way, the main lesson George Lucas failed to successfully take. And if this is less incisive than Ikiru or Rashomon, less absorbing and sophisticated than Seven Samurai, it’s not an iota less fun to watch — Kurosawa’s action movies aren’t just “accessible” arthouse, they’re cinematic candy in any context, and to say they’re not at all demanding isn’t to discount them; it takes monumental talent and artistry to make something this unequivocally awe-inspiring and consistently thrilling (and funny!) in the most primal ways.
Kurosawa fixated on Shakespeare a lot, and no slur is meant on Shakespeare or upon Kurosawa’s ambitions in that regard; but in reality he was more like our Homer, our Gilgamesh or Sophocles, expressing things and illuminating humanity in ways that go vastly beyond mere language. To that end, Kurosawa’s most celebrated direct adaptation of a Shakespeare work, the Macbeth reconstruction Throne of Blood (1957), feels a bit like a great director coasting along with his vat full of rain, accompanied again by the faithfully nonplussed Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa seems desperate to fill his running time of 109 minutes; the first several scenes drag with repetition, but in general the initial hour or so is magnificent, beautifully photographed and composed and generally a perfectly realized, even streamlined Macbeth. After the murder and its immediate aftermath, the film begins to creak, but it does pick back up for a wonderful climax involving an attack of arrows on Mifune. For all its considerable virtues, though, in comparison with Kurosawa’s better works and even to Ran, his ambitious 1985 version of King lear, it just feels somewhat rote and empty. But one can easily see why it became so globally popular and is often cited as a superior version of the play to either Orson Welles’ or Roman Polanski’s, even though both seem much more accomplished in their perversity today.
Throne of Blood was one of several arthouse hits of the ’50s that can probably be seen to have earned popularity in America due to a certain intellectual attraction to what was then seen as exotic — gradually there would be a perception of an appreciation of or interest in art films as a status symbol, which seemed very shallow and pretentious at the time but is vastly preferable to whatever the fuck corporate-mandated garbage people talk about at the water cooler now. Nonetheless a certain streamiling does take place in which, even if “foreign films” are not grouped together indiscriminately whether good, bad or indifferent, a Fellini film may attain a certain cachet because it’s a Fellini film. The Italian auteur is one of the more frustrating major directors to emerge in this era, purveying a kind of sentimental, nostalgic moralizing as often as anything as ingratiating as his early comedy-drama of wandering young men I Vitelloni; a Fellini picture like La Strada (1954), like some of Visconti and De Sica’s major works of the ’40s, comes about its sense of beauty with a kind of blunt-force mawkishness that hides the near-total lack of dimension in its characterizations, which might be forgivable in a film that didn’t push so hard for an empathetic response.
Not unlike I Vitelloni it’s essentially a Neorealist piece, about a washed-up strongman parading the country with a dated bag of tricks, toting along a long-suffering young woman he abuses relentlessly. The story isn’t lacking in a certain simple, expressive sadness, but its heartbreaking premise leans too much on maudlin melodrama and not enough on detail; all three of the central characters are empty ciphers only serving the barest, most obvious purpose. Anthony Quinn’s Zampano is a brute whose supposed redemption comes from self-pitying sorrow that he eventually comes about arbitrarily (and the weighty finale seems to forget that this is not the first woman he has run down and destroyed); Giulietta Masina’s performance as the drumming clown Gelsomina is singular and charming in its fashion but turns on a dime from innocence to trauma to resentment as called for by the script, never organically, and her forays into Chaplinesque pantomime have a terrible distancing effect in this context; and Richard Basehart’s character is treated by the film as if he’s the prince to break Gelsomina out of her shell and this whole tiresome mess — think of the street peddler in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante — but he belittles her just as much as Zamboni, just not physically. And no matter how reverently and adroitly Fellini films all of this, it is still built upon a pandering, one-dimensional screenplay. It’s schematic rather than primal — but then again, the same goes for much of the films in the original Neorealist movement: it’s tragedy that doesn’t feel truly heartfelt.
But just because Fellini could fall back on such methods did not mean he wasn’t a poet of his own sort, which is what makes his lesser films so frustrating. His other beloved collaboration with Masina (whom he had married in 1943) was perhaps his greatest achievement, Nights of Cabiria (1957), a film that in contrast to La Strada builds a believable character bit by bit to permit and justify one of the most revitalizing parting shots in cinema. Virtually all of Fellini’s films are episodic, but it’s interesting that — despite being much shorter, and a bit more focused — this one matches the later La Dolce Vita almost beat for beat in the specific nature of its episodes while exploring a much more sympathetic, if somewhat grating, character: Masina’s Cabiria is a street-walker suffering in a series of dead-end relationships and situations that find her degraded and devalued, but she continually retains a strength and an unmistakable awareness that she deserves better. And while the technical aptitude, breadth and immersive nature of La Dolce Vita makes it more absorbing in many ways, this film’s hyper focus on the life of the title character, so beautifully played by Masina in what easily qualifies as one of cinema’s signature performances, allows for a more deliberate and heartfelt kind of sweep.
In La Dolce Vita Fellini’s camera would seem constantly aware of the larger world and the limitations of Mastroianni’s basically empty life, but here, the headstrong and world-weary but still naively hopeful Cabiria lives through a series of disappointments that become completely our own, feeling as insular for us as for her, and the breath of air at the finale, when we are at last given a sense of life that has thus far been denied, or has defiantly excluded her and therefore us, is genuinely cathartic and moving. This is almost exclusively because of the depth and liveliness of Masina’s extraordinary performance. Witty and despairing, she — and therefore the film — seems to embody every dragging and soaring moment of life from the ground up.
The other great architect of this kind of cinematic redemption in the arthouses was Ingmar Bergman; seeing The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberies, it’s little wonder that Bergman ended up being so synonymous with the arthouse phenomenon in America. His films of this era revel in the spirit and joy of life even as they question its instrinsic value as anything except a meaningless coincidence of light and love; as strong as those movies and his early Bohemian touchstone Prison are, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) — his worldwide commercial breakthrough — serves as the finest introduction to the zeal and charm that would at times be buried several layers underneath psychosexual alienation and wonderings about the “absence of God” in his future major works. The horniness of the film, basically a traditional country-village comedy of multiple generations and classes intermingling and finding romance, remains unparalleled. Bergman lives in his emotions just like Fellini and Sirk, for that matter and is equally fond of probing at the irrational corners of the heart and mind, but Smiles is less apologetic than any of Fellini’s most hedonistic ventures — his films have a rare kind of honesty and directness, in complete opposition to their reputation among the unthinking as dour, spiritless or inscrutable affairs. And he certainly didn’t need to encode his concerns and fixations the way that Sirk did.
Even putting aside all that, the notion of art and intellectualism as some sort of affront to populism is so much bunk, and a purely American phenomenon — the postwar emergence of cheap camera equipment in the aftermath of the war gave everyone with the inclination access to the means necessary to make movies of their own, and this explosion of low-budget and amateur filmmaking quickly gave rise to some of the most storied artists in the history of film: the aforementioned Bruce Conner for one, plus Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and eventually Stan Brakhage among many others — uncompromised artists who might never have gotten the chance to make a film on the scale of Touch of Evil but certainly would never have contended with the aggressive interference of bean-counters crowing about clarity and cross-demographic appeal either. Does the fact that this democratic access to the creation of cinema resulted in the most radical avant garde motion pictures made to date indicate that the appreciation of arthouse films was inherently snobbish? Roger Corman and Monogram Pictures created covert art in their low-budget films, but the new means of access also permitted Life photographer Stanley Kubrick to make what amounted to an amateur film called Fear and Desire, following a couple of documentary shorts, which he wrote, shot, edited, directed and produced himself; it was an awful film, but it was the birth of an artist that the Hollywood system would not necessarily have nurtured — and would probably have resented or thwarted if it had.
The heights Kubrick would swiftly achieve in The Killing and Paths of Glory offer some of the greatest promise for the future emergence of a revise notion of American cinema as a vehicle for art rather than mere commerce. Paths of Glory (1957), made by a director still in his late twenties with the unexpected boon of a big star in his fold (Kirk Douglas), speaks very closely to an adolescent conception of injustice, broadly cartoonish villain George Macready halfway between war criminal and Snidley Whiplash, but it’s also a fiery and all too believable one. Kubrick’s fluid, Ophüls-inspired long takes and horrifically systematic battle sequences in the first half are the earliest indicator that this is not a standard war picture, along with the fact that all of said battle sequences are over by about twenty minutes in. The entire buildup to — and actual execution of — the sickening murder at the heart of the film is nearly as harrowing as the body of All Quiet on the Western Front. The interplay of the three men is powerful and deeply disturbing, the treatment of them so risible you almost can’t watch. Timothy Carey’s shatteringly sad panic is especially unforgettable, along with various fatalistic lines of dialogue that both downplay the tragedy at hand and make it all the more sincerely upsetting. The famous final scene of a terrified girl brought in to sing for a barroom full of soldiers is almost divorced from the rest of the film, a general comment on the tragedies of war and death and one of the most powerful moments in Kubrick’s career. His future wife’s meek, raw, terrified character is yet another face you never forget, as your anger at the men yelling derisive things at her slowly evolves into pity for all in the room. In that moment, Douglas is an observer just like us — and then he presses on, because even confronted with the absolute injustice and meaninglessness of it all, that’s all we can do.
Kubrick fell into a series of strokes of good luck that made his rise from no-budget to low-budget to A-list filmmaking incredibly steep and rapid, without ever requiring the marketing-based reliance on empty promises of lurid exploitation that obscured the artistry in the work of a director like Corman, or like John Parker, whose magnificent, socially provocative avant garde feature Dementia was cut down to shreds and released with schlocky Ed McMahon voiceover as Daughter of Horror, despite praise in the trades from voices as once-authoritative as Preston Sturges’. At the other extreme, the less romantic version of the course of an independent career in narrative American cinema is John Cassavetes’. The filmmaker’s debut Shadows (1959) defines his future style, based around improvisation and the lives of Bohemian denizens in New York, especially the existential conflicts of an interracial couple. The actors are more diverse than in any mainstream American film of the period — a feature it shares with outsider works like Deren’s — and their style of off-the-cuff, unpolished anti-performance renders laughably moot the storied and studied practices of the Method actors, even if the effect isn’t much farther from that of attending an amateur acting class. There are those who claim that seeing Shadows or Cassavetes’ subsequent works ruined the rest of cinema for them forever, so palpable was its sense of reality: life happening in real time to real people, unfiltered and undeniable. But this ignores the inherent artificiality of the story’s barren, deliberately sparse setup, or the self-conscious hipness of the way the writer-director chooses to photograph it; it also conveniently looks past the defiant artlessness of Cassavetes’ style, which thumbs its nose at beauty while crafting a theortical notion of what cinema is that is no less confining than anything found within the Hollywood system. The film’s quest for total freedom comes up empty, despite its renegade style and subtle paean to bustling, rumbling city life. Across the Atlantic Ocean, a group of critics-turned-filmmakers were working up similarly radical tactics for narrative cinema in the streets of Paris, and were achieving stronger, more assured and ultimately far more expressive and poignant results.
As far as Jean-Luc Godard was concerned, the path to his earth-shaking Breathless probably begins with Monogram Pictures and other Poverty Row outfits in Hollywood, to whom he ended up dedicating the film. Parallel with the scrappy, fast-paced and on-the-fly low-budget American films he admired were the more extreme efforts achieved by various filmmakers within the larger-scale Hollywood system: Nicholas Ray, especially films like Johnny Guitar; Joseph Lewis’ stunningly vicious Gun Crazy; and the works of Samuel Fuller like Forty Guns and Pickup on South Street, movies that don’t seem to embody much compromise to any kind of social clout or moral niceties but got away with it and transcended their territory because these were directors who knew what to say loudly and what to whisper.
Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) predates his involvement with a big studio (Fox would have him under contract for a spell) and fits nicely in the canon of provocative low-budget outsider films of the period. Along with Paths of Glory it’s one of the few American war films during those years to uphold the uncompromising vision of violence and despair seen two decades earlier in All Quiet on the Western Front; that both were independently produced is unsurprising. Involving, direct and refreshingly minimalist across its 85 minutes, it’s a Korean War story — made while the war itself persisted — that fluidly tracks the movements of a Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), lone survivor of his outfit, who wakes from a daze and joins up with a young South Korean boy and a black medic, Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards), followed by an entire company attempting to set up an observation post in a temple. The performances given to bring these vibrantly drawn characters to life are brilliant, with complicated emotions and relationships (and societal implications) captured thoroughly and economically. Despite and maybe even because of the low budget, you get a real sense of being in the weeds; the film is ultimately as bleak as Paths of Glory from a few years down the line, yet it seems less operatic and more realistic than Kubrick’s film. Its hard-hitting treatment of violence — which is beautifully photographed but palpably detested on a primal moral level by the director — would be revived with considerably more ambivalent grounding in Godard’s early work.
Godard was one of a team of prominent young critics at the French periodical Cahiers du Cinema who’d grown up under Occupation and came over the course of the late ’40s through the middle ’50s to resent the direction of French cinema — viewed as stuffy, bourgeois and out of touch — and look toward other countries, especially America, for inspiration. Godard along with François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer eventually graduated from writing passionately about movies to directing them, and founded an iconoclastic, freeform style that harnessed a lack of formal training and near-absence of production budgets to bolt out swinging into the city, making elemental stories out of primal ingredients and striving for the directness of spirit from filmmakers like Fuller, Siegel, Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks, none of whom were considered “serious” filmmakers in the U.S. at the time but all of whom were placed on a pedestal by the French Cahiers critics as true artists and examples of what came to be called the auteur theory.
Auteurism was probably always a misunderstood concept as applied to filmmaking, but it has become more so in recent decades, interpreted naively as a denial that lower-level “below the line” collaborators and even major creative contributors like writers and actors had no ultimate responsibility for the value of the film. What the theory actually holds is that the director’s signature is the primary personal stamp visible upon a filmed work that registers over and above any issues of commercialism and catastrophe that the filmmaker is forced to contend with; it’s a way of finding the commonalities in the works of say, Michael Curtiz despite his being beholden to the studios that contracted him. It’s a way of expressing the clarity of thematic lines and preoccupations that can be drawn between Foreign Correspondent and Under Capricorn, even though the two films have scarcely anything in common in terms of their production values or superficial narrative designs. It is not a way of denying film as a collaborative medium but a way of finding and expressing the personal elements of an inherently commercial and inherently collaborative artform.
Some French filmmakers did not come under negative scrutiny from the Cahiers critic-directors, whose films would collectively come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave movement. Renoir, Cocteau and Vigo were looked upon as godfathers, Bresson and Melville as brothers in arms. Les Enfants Terribles (1950), a collaboration between Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, was the kind of film that stood out sharply above the ornate period fare popular in France at the time and that got the blood of Godard and his peers pumping. It’s an adaptation of Cocteau’s influential novel about an unnaturally close and mutually toxic relationship between a brother and sister, one fragile and the other ruthless, and how the various claustrophobic settings in which they find themselves reinforce the increasingly decrepit and codependent nature of their lives together. One of the central performances, Nicole Stéphane’s, is hugely magnetic; the other isn’t quite so well-defined, which is a general issue with the script despite the very carefully enunciated, detailed voiceover (provided by Cocteau himself). What might have been engagingly mysterious on the page only flirts with the kind of fanciful grace of Cocteau’s better cinematic work here because it generally can’t graft verbal enigmas onto visual ones. The middle third drags because it’s directionless by necessity, and there’s only repetition to guide us to the cathartically despairing climax, which is the most enriching and provocative part of the film. It’s a fascinating effort — one of the most vivid examples of a movie that communicates every sordid element of its setting(s) — but feels incompletely formed, yet one can sense how exciting and liberating its radical form might well have been to a young brood of restless artists.
The international success of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) suggests that the Cahiers critics weren’t the only ones with an urge to escape the boundaries of commercial cinema and to generate something new. It’s exquisitely single-minded, intricately detailing the unadorned and virtually context-free scheming and execution of an escape attempt by a French Resistance officer in a Nazi prison. François Leterrier is the perfect actor for this, with his face hiding mysteries but still easy to read emotionally; and in the last act, when he’s joined in his cell by a second party, there is despite the minimalism an opportunity for Bresson’s true “tests of faith” and such. It’s all thoroughly engrossing and formally intriguing, but strangely underwhelming for similar reasons to most of Bresson’s work — the combination of the voiceover removing virtually every possibility of misinterpretation (and interrupting many otherwise hypnotic scenes) and of the very deliberate decision by Bresson to simply move his character from point A to point B without any great dramatic adornment, his purpose only to make us feel the hours and times of painstaking effort and to demonstrate the immense determination, character, belief (and divinity?) that actually allows Lt. Fontaine to make his way out. The sense of geography and scale is deeply admirable; it’s telling that the outside world, when we come to it, only seems slightly less claustrophobic than the cell. There is still something that feels empty about announcing you are going to show a man escaping and then doing so — just add Mozart — and it’s never surprising, and yet this too is a kind of formal audacity that undeniably challenges preconceptions in a deeply appealing way.
When innovations arrived in France, as in those films and in The Wages of Fear, Diabolique, Rififi and Bob le Flambeur, they tended to be riveting distractions from well-worn orthodoxy. But this was more common elsewhere, and the New Wave directors would tend to look further for their inspirations, modeling their habits of unmoored cameras examining uncontrolled environments on the Italian Neorealists — in whom Fellini had recently revived interest — and interpolating the effortless cool and moral complexity of Poland’s Ashes and Diamonds and of the radical works of the Spanish master Luis Buñuel, whose run of deeply unsettling films made in Mexico began, after a long hiatus, with 1950’s Los Olvidados. It’s unusual to find a film this bleak — about impoverished, largely abandoned kids falling into crime of both petty and serious varieties in the slums of Mexico City — that nevertheless contains so much warmth and playfulness. The latter is obvious, intrinsic to the way Buñuel surveys the world in all of his films, regardless of how transgressive or cynical they are; the wicked humor of his collaborations with Dali and of his short pseudo-documentary Land Without Bread is still in supply here despite its nasty streak, as is the morbid, grotesque strangeness of the way the camera remains unflinching before the most horrific sights it captures — not for Buñuel the abrupt cutting away from the sheer horror of a child’s body in Germany, Year Zero, he means to dwell on the ugliness, to force a confrontation.
“Warmth” is less obvious but it manifests in the film’s clear sense of how the absence of love defines a life, and conversely how the barest suggestion of that love — overwhelmingly female in origin, for whatever that’s worth — potentially upends routunes of neglect and abuse in seconds. But Buñuel views this as simple statement of fact and is otherwise unsparing in his pessimism, which is undeniably well-earned. He seems to ridicule the emotional distance of Italian Neorealism and, even more so, the benign American “social problem” picture, attacked via the presence of the well-meaning social worker character who consistently states and restates the most obvious interpretation of the film’s themes, only to be silenced by a story that has no time for his unjustified understanding or optimism — his emptily liberal charity laid out in its ambitious uselessness. It’s a deeply dissatisfying, morally troubling experience and its cackling fatalism makes for the most inventive yet believable possible take on this kind of narrative.
Buñuel proved himself not quite able to land an attempt at a Kind Hearts and Coronets / Monsieur Verdoux styled black comedy in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) about a playboy whose lifelong sexual obsession with murder leads to constant stymied attempts at becoming a serial killer. The best parts by far are those that hew closer to the typical Buñuelian perversity — dream sequences, odd images, strange camera tricks, shockingly open sexuality and moments of stark disorientation — and the rest is endless talk that doesn’t really seem to excite his creativity. It’s tempting to regard it as sort of akin to a ’30s Renoir film (think The Crime of Monsieur Lange or La Chienne) that happens to be interrupted every half hour with some sort of nightmarish, surreal flight of fancy right out of L’Age d’Or; but Renoir’s ’30s films never dragged as much as this one does in its long, expository narrative scenes. To its credit it never becomes crass in the manner a film with this story easily could, but simultaneously one tends to miss Buñuel’s more outré and nasty sensibilities; even the irony-leaden finale feels rather tepid.
However, when he cunningly turns melodramatic convention on its head in the glorious Él (1952), poking fun at its excesses and extrapolating his disdain to the real-world counterparts of the toxic behaviors therein, he ends up not only with a more keenly observant film about an abusive relationship than almost any other of the 1950s — a forerunner of Vertigo and maybe an echo of Erich von Stroheim but not much else — but also gives a home to a brilliantly rendered, terrifying performance by Arturo de Córdova, who makes Charles Boyer in Gaslight look like a sitcom character. As a corollary, by toying with narrative chronology more than once, by forging in three dimensions the black bugs eating through anti-hero Francisco’s brain from fetish to paranoid despondency to an unshakeable stasis, and then by allowing Delia Garcés — who can’t resist his vulnerability even when he’s openly out to destroy her — full exposure as a victim and a heroine whose boundaries are all too believably elastic, he even one-ups the traditional black comic approaches to psychotic husbands from Divorce Italian Style to Unfaithfully Yours. The worlds of those films feel strained, limited and unreal, and lacking in idiosyncrasy and specificity, by comparison.
But the effect on the whole of this remarkable case study is how it comes across as though The Earrings of Madame de… has been knocked over on its back with its scrambling innards now visible, Buñuel’s perversity lovingly slaughering every attempt at a grace note. You can spend all day and all night queering your favorite texts of classic cinema: finding the validation and hidden meanings in all of the artifacts of these eras of relative unenlightenment and repression. It’s a meaningful activity and even a responsible one! We’ve studied the breadth and depth of The Searchers and All That Heaven Allows and there is much to love in what they say about their times and about life in general… but faced with Buñuel cutting through every bit of distance and laughing maniacally at the futility of mock-love and the sexless sterility of the halls of nobility, not in code and not in secret but staring directly at all of it and then at you, you can’t help but wonder if that directness of spirit and coy upending of expectation is a greater achievement than any straight Hollywood melodrama. Buñuel’s Mexican films would continue to cross boundaries and exploit tonal and narrative possibilities unavailable in Hollywood or France; even if subtler than the Dali films that has started actual riots, they mark him as a continual renegade, and it takes little perspicacity to draw a direct line between his own innovations and restlessness and Godard’s.
There was another significant, slightly older group of Parisian filmmakers who began to experiment with the more freeform cinema in the ’50s; the Left Bank directors — Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker — were nevertheless encouraged and promoted by the Cahiers crew, and the two groups’ works are often bundled together as a clear demarcation of the changing tenor within world cinema. These directors had a certain similarity to the philosophical leanings (and Bohemian attitudes) of Bergman. They were driven to function with cinema as means to generalized artistry, rather than through a specific thirst for cinema itself. Marker was a kind of installation filmmaker, keyed to the broader multi-media culture of avant garde; Varda was, like Kubrick, a still photographer who entered cinema almost incidentally, making the visually enticing but narratively inert La Pointe Courte along with several brilliant shorts and documentaries before she had any real feel for or background in film history and appreciation. Resnais’ work, while accomplished and singular, also was born of very different traditions than Godard’s or Truffaut’s. His slower, more ponderous exploration of physical spaces — Tout la Memoire du Monde, Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour — are reflective and emotionally complex, far off from the shot-from-the-hip feeling of Breathless.
Though he was a purely instinctive critic and director whose work lies squarely within the New Wave — he is credited with the script for Breathless, though is generally perceived as to having contributed only a treatment, along with Claude Chabrol, that Godard then modified as he went along — Truffaut did locate a thrilling intersection between the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank styles in his feature debut, Le Quatre Cent Coups or The 400 Blows (1959), which in its passionate, charged demeanor eclipses the juvenilia of his earlier short Les Mistons. Most of the New Wave directors struggled with sexual politics, insofar as they all seemed regressive and simplistic in their treatment of women as incomprehensible objects of worship, perhaps inherited from the American crime pictures they so passionately enjoyed, but this distancing quality so evident in Les Mistons and increasingly evident in Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim finds a more subdued outlet in The 400 Blows, which is a tirelessly honest film about a messy childhood of aloof parents, fulfilling much of the promise of the first act of Europa ’51, and specifically about longing for and failing to receive a mother’s love.
Shot in hurried, clipped manuevers along Parisian streets with a team of brilliantly cast child actors, the movie concerns Jean-Pierre Léaud as Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel, a put-upon child but not an idealized one: he fucks up frequently and is vividly conscious of his own shortcomings, as is Truffaut. The film feels very much like an act of self-imposed therapy, and it has provided solace now for generations of similarly alienated kids around Doinel’s age bracket. There is nothing simplistic or obvious in its examination of neglect: the most salient moment in its parental abandonment is when it lets the family have a good night in which everyone is warm and loving, after which all that is abruptly stripped away again. Antoine finds his home increasingly unwelcome as his wandering mind derails his school career and sends him squatting in various hideouts with his best friend, and he is forced like so many abused children to learn his own path to survival, and quickly gleans that mere freedom is often a moment-to-moment operation, to be grabbed and enjoyed at whatever scattered intervals it becomes available, a handy metaphor for the act of guerrilla filmmaking that would define the gritty, lively look and feel of both this and Breathless. Both films, with their unanchored cameras and rapid-fire cutting, often feel like they themselves are running, or occasionally dancing.
Truffaut captures, like few other directors, the unguarded truth of childhood as it actually feels — the hauntingly undimmed improvisations of Léaud describing himself and the events that led him to a restrictive home for juvenile delinquents; and, earlier, on, the unscripted responses of a room full of children to a Punch of Judy play. But there are many such moments in a film of almost incomparable richness, one that Godard took pains to praise in his own criticism despite his personal association with Truffaut, and one that just slightly beat the more radical Breathless to cinemas, thus defining Nouvelle Vague in a more heartfelt but also more gut-splittingly intimate — and no less skillful — manner than Godard soon would. The point was that New Wave was never meant to embody a single style or craft, or even to be a closely sustained or curated movement; Truffaut called it a “quality,” and these two disparate sides of that quality, with a location and so many individuals in common in their genesis, shared one particularly glaring facet: the Hollywood system that inspired them both could never have provided the means for either.
With Hollywood itself on the cusp of cultural irrelevance at the end of the ’50s, directors exercising their freedom in fascinating new ways, the “new cynicism” of the earlier part of the decade looks in retrospect like a kind of last gasp. During the peak blacklist years, apart from noirs like The Killing and Sweet Smell of Success (one an independent production and one the work of a British director), international cinema easily outpaced the studios in streetwise skepticism or blackened humor. Before Nouvelle Vague, Buñuel’s Mexican films are the clearest example, with a bitterly coy yet still unflinchingly honest tone that moved beyond the acerbic works of Billy Wilder, who for all his railing was still more “part of the system” than Buñuel ever was. Even Britain’s Ealing Studios comedies had a freewheeling amorality than even the most subversive Hollywood films lacked. One of the last films shot with a three-strip Technicolor camera was The Ladykillers in England, the last of the Ealing comedies, directed by Alexander Mackendrick who would subsequently come to the U.S. to make Sweet Smell. The film is about a gang of crooks, led by Ealing stalwart Alec Guinness, who invade the home of a delusional elderly woman (Katie Johnson) as a base of operations for a rail robbery; as she grows conscious of their intentions, they elect to murder her rather than risk her throwing their getaway into chaos. Playing violent crime for laughs didn’t fly in America, not even if you were Alfred Hitchcock, but the film found international success with the same increasingly curious audiences who were patronizing those Janus screenings. Guinness was a movie star allowed to be evil or natural or difficult to pin down on an ethical basis, a phenomenon visible in other film industries (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Journey to Italy, Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret in Room at the Top) but seldom in ours.
Seldom, not never: at the end of the decade James Stewart starred in two films, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), both of which stretch an actor who’d already participated in his share of stunt casting and expectation-averting roles to the farthest extremes from the boyish, affable image he’d cultivated in the likes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a full twenty years earlier. Stewart is a smarmy, impatient lawyer in one and a somewhat complacent middle class cop in the other, one ignoring the moral depths of the quandaries that face him and one becoming an unwitting victim of his own trauma. Both are profound performances, but one is a thrill to watch and one is transcendently revealing and deeply troubling.
Of all the Hollywood films made in the ’50s, Vertigo is the one most difficult to categorize or to place in a neatly positioned cultural context. You could pare it down to Hitchcock taking a successful stab at combining classical Hollywood melodrama with film noir, inheriting all of Sirk’s color and all of Nicholas Ray’s abject pain. You could also refer to it as a refinement of what Hitchcock had already achieved in Rear Window and a few of his other Hollywood films: casting a sidelong, skeptical glare at the American morals, upper-middle class anxieties and masculine values of the period, effectively neutering and rendering insane an ordinary man whose own guilt makes him a permanent, cyclical victim of his own hubris. All these things are true, but what Vertigo is more than anything is irreducible — the hard, nightmarish emotions it brushes with in its final moments, sympathies uncomfortably and impossibly divided between two different characters who have both been wronged by circumstances but have also participated willingly in that wronging, are invisible elsewhere in cinema, and really elsewhere in art. The film casts the spell of a seductive but ultimately oppressive nightmare, and exploits the production values of a big Hollywood studio to render its varied, thorny themes in broad, undiluted bold strokes. It stretches the Hollywood value system to its very breaking point; thus it does not seem like a coincidence that it appeared at the tail end of the studio system.
Except in France, Vertigo was not a big success and was not received, critically or commercially, as a distinctive effort in Hitchcock’s career; some reviews even seemed to find its story incomprehensible. Based on a novel by the same team that wrote Diabolique, the tale it weaves is of a troubled cop kicked off the force after he has a hand in a fatal accident, at which point an old associate hires him as a private investigator to follow his wife, who seems to be having bizarre delusions. What follows is equal parts ghost story and psychosexual thriller, which ends up incorporating Kim Novak in a sort of dual role as the woman he’s following and another woman he finds in the streets of San Francisco who uncannily resembles her, after her death crushes him and renders him seemingly as mute and lost as Vera Miles at the end of The Wrong Man. This new woman suffers at the hands of the now clearly mad Stewart, who fashions her entirely in the dead woman’s image; but there is also a strange love and comfort that emerges, at least briefly, before everyone’s world is shattered once again.
Over the decades the film’s reputation has steadily increased; it is now popular to name it as Hitchcock’s greatest work, which it arguably is, but as always happens with this sort of pedestal, there has also been a mounting backlash against the film even among admirers of the director’s other films, tied especially to what is perceived as a regressiveness in the film’s sexual politics. What’s fascinating about this is that it’s a reading dictated very specifically by popular conceptions of what life was like in America in the ’50s, the America propagated or illustrated by Pillow Talk and Bigger Than Life, an unwise and naive America in which Jimmy Stewart barking at a woman to wear a certain dress and to insist that she couldn’t possibly care how she looked would have seemed like par for the patriarchal course. There is no doubt that these depictions of, or metaphoric evocations of, what amounts to spousal abuse are potent and mortifying. But Vertigo‘s story hinges completely on the character Scotty’s transformation into a possessive monster — were he not a possessive monster, there would be no story to tell — and that audiences today are instinctively rattled by his unhinged speeches is an indication that the film is working and achieving the horrible discomfort it courts, not that it’s dated.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some audience empathy directed at Scotty — he was, after all, rather severely duped and had his own instability cynically harnessed for a circuitous and ghoulish scheme — but that what Hitchcock revels in is that the payoff he achieves in the torment of those last scenes is so impossible to pare down to primary colors. When Stewart gets choked up while saying “You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing; you shouldn’t have been that sentimental,” what sounds on paper like an expository monologue becomes actively ruinous to one’s sense of stability. Most of Hitchcock’s great films are, to one extent or another, delightful experiences to watch; Rear Window certainly is, and even Shadow of a Doubt is for all of the daunting atmosphere of terror it gradually engenders. Vertigo is something different — sumptuous and intoxicating, yes, but probing and challenging and complex, essentially an art film made by a major studio. By rendering what could have been a hackneyed story — recall that even Clouzot’s Diabolique fell at times into detective-novel cliché — into rich, disruptive but smoothly cultivated emotional colors, Hitchcock comes closer than ever to executing what he called “Pure Cinema.”
Pure Cinema is also a fitting descriptor of the final scenes and shot of The 400 Blows, which achieves and imparts everything and nothing: Doinel runs away once again, and there’s no indication he will actually escape, but after running for what seems like miles he finds the ocean and, seeing it for the first time, waves crashing around him, he can only spin around and just stop and gaze directly into the camera, and Truffaut can only leave him there: bitter, broken, alive and fleetingly liberated. That liberation is bittersweet: Léaud’s eyes are a void, the same void that James Stewart stares into with horror as Judy falls from the tower for a second time at the end of Vertigo, whereupon the film cannot respond with a title card or any sort of direct acknowledgement that the story has ended. All Paramount Pictures, and all the Hollywood studio system, can do is show us its logo one last time.
At the end of 1959 Stanley Kubrick had been finished shooting the conventional Hollywood epic Spartacus for several months but was still in postproduction; though smarter and more violent than the rest of the epic-scale period dramas that had been monopolizing studio budgets for several years, replete with brilliant Alex North score and Saul Bass title sequence, it was still far from the sort of material Kubrick would’ve naturally gravitated toward making, but upon being recruited by the film’s lead actor and producer (and Paths of Glory star) Kirk Douglas after original director Anthony Mann was fired, he recognized correctly that making the film would allow ease of access to clout for future passion projects. (It says much about Kubrick that he almost immediately took this opportunity to put an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, starring James Mason, into production.) Meanwhile Douglas was wrestling with Universal over the matter of the film’s screenwriting credit; the script, adapted from a Howard Fast novel, had been written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten. Douglas would ultimately refuse to compromise Trumbo’s credit on the film, thus effectively breaking the blacklist when the film was finally released the next autumn.
In Paris, in the aftermath of The 400 Blows and its immediately widespread accolades, Breathless — whose editing process had included early, innovative use of intentional jump cuts — made waves in the Cahiers circles and just beyond them well before its actual French release at a series of major bookings in commercial theaters. The Jean Vigo Prize, given each year to a young filmmaker whose work was viewed as uniquely fresh and vital, was awarded to Jean-Luc Godard in January 1960; previous winners included Albert Lamorisse, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Godard’s Cahiers colleague Claude Chabrol. Truffaut would soon begin filming Shoot the Piano Player, as radical a departure from The 400 Blows as he could possibly conceive, and Breathless would shake world cinema to its foundations, as all of the New Wave filmmakers would continue to for the next decade if not longer.
Hitchcock’s “thirty-day shoot” for Psycho turned into one of approximately three months, with a break for holidays; after Christmas, Hitchcock and his staff, including production designer Robert Clatworthy inherited from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and most of the technicians from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, along with fellow Welles alum Janet Leigh, set to work on the fifty-odd setups required for the film’s shower scene, the murder of Marion Crane, a hotel guest in the wrong place at the wrong time just after her sudden moral redemption. The crew spent three days in the bathroom, from the 28th to the 30th of December 1959. On New Year’s Eve, Hitchcock and George Tomasini began gathering the footage together; in the end the scene would embody almost eighty distinct cuts, but it would still remain to be scored for several months ahead of the film’s September release. It was most likely an early night for Tomasini; Hitchcock rarely worked into the evenings, preferring to maintain traditional office hours. And that night there were family and social functions to attend, in Hollywood and in Paris and everywhere else.
And when Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard all woke up the next morning, it was the Sixties.
I’ve never posted anything on quite this scale before in any of my blogs — I guess the coronavirus isolation is getting to me — and while it makes me feel a bit pretentious to have an acknolwedgements section, I don’t think I can avoid it in good conscience because this really was a fumble through the darkness and I couldn’t and didn’t do it alone. My very deep appreciation to the following people who helped make this project and the above extremely long essay successful, knowingly and unknowingly. First the unknowingly — books and articles by Bill Krohn, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ken Mogg, Dave Kehr, Michael Barrier, Nick Pinkerton, Eric Nisenson (RIP), James Kaplan, David Halberstam (RIP), Karina Longworth, Mark Lewisohn, Peter Guralnick, Will Sloan, Susan VanHecke and (as always) Greil Marcus helped me format, contextualize and refresh my understanding of the ’50s cinematically and culturally, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. It was a complete coincidence that I happened to be reading about Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis while doing this, and both books ended up helping me add multiple crucial insights to the essay. Also: the final sentence is blatantly plagiarized from Lewisohn’s Tune In, for which I apologize, but I couldn’t resist, and I paid $120-something for the expanded edition of the book so I’m going to call it even. Everyone who posts at the Criterion Forum helps me better understand movies every single day of my life; I’m still far from where I could be but I’m getting there. Matt E. offered encouragement on an early excerpt that helped me to feel I was on the right track in my approach this time, which was more thorough than my previous entries in this series. Jason K. saying he was looking forward to the post meant quite a lot in motivating me to finish it, even if he was joking and even though it still took me another few weeks. My dear friend and former colleague Katie P. provided me with the means to access several films that would otherwise have been difficult, inconvenient or impossible for me to see during the COVID-19 crisis. And I’ve said it before in public, I’ve even said it to her in person, but the impassioned words about The 400 Blows that permeate the last paragraphs of this piece would never have happened if not for my French instructor’s decision to screen it for our class in 1999, to say nothing of her equally important screenings of Cocteau, Clouzot and Claude Berri films, and I am proud to still know her and speak to her regularly and run the library she uses; eternal thanks, Kim, I know it sounds insane but you really did change my life.
As an aside, while I intend to resume the canon projects with a ’60s list probably around two years from now, I do not yet know if I will attempt to wrap my findings into a similar narrative piece, for a few reasons. My interest in cinema itself doesn’t vary much with period, even if I do have a bit of an admitted bias toward the ’20s and ’30s. But my interest in movie history drops off precipitously at roughly the point that this essay ends. So much as I ended up tackling each decade so far in a slightly different fashion — each time wishing I’d taken a similar tack with the earlier posts! — I don’t know what form the ’60s wrapup will take and I probably won’t decide until shortly before I start work on it, which will be when I’m nearly finished seeing whatever films are required to complete it, but for now I’m just going to say that it may have a completely different approach than this or the other three “decade canon” pieces I’ve posted thus far.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
In the past I’ve used this section to try to help prospective viewers find the films I screened for a given project, but the streaming universe is unfortunately so ephemeral that my best efforts in this regard are probably useless. Instead I’ll just explain how I got access to the 100 films at the top of the post, in the hopes that it provides a vague roadmap for anyone who may need it down the line.
The only two films I had to do anything unusual in order to see were (unsurprisingly) Bruce Conner’s A Movie and (surprisingly) Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels. I settled for a YouTube upload of the former, which has a rather unclear copyright status for various reasons. The latter can’t be rented anywhere and although it is in print on DVD/Blu-ray, that’s only overseas from the fine Masters of Cinema label. Not being comfortable paying shipping costs for a film I wasn’t sure I was going to like much, I shamefully went the illegal route for that one; but I have many MoC releases, I love them so very much, and I encourage you to patronize them as much as possible to atone for my sins.
Apart from that, here’s how the films viewed or revisited for this project panned out:
DVD/Blu from my own collection: Vertigo; Rear Window; Ordet; Wild Strawberries; The 400 Blows; Touch of Evil; Rashomon; Seven Samurai; Singin’ in the Rain; North by Northwest; Ikiru; Sunset Blvd.; Paths of Glory; The Searchers; The Seventh Seal; Night and Fog; All About Eve; Some Like It Hot; Strangers on a Train; The Killing; Diabolique; The Wages of Fear; 12 Angry Men; The African Queen; Rififi; The Wrong Man; The River; Street of Shame (available in Criterion’s Kenji Mizgochi’s Fallen Women box); The Bridge on the River Kwai; Dial M for Murder; Smiles of a Summer Night; The Man Who Knew Too Much; Duck Amuck (available in Warners’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2 box)
Streamed on the Criterion Channel: Tokyo Story; A Man Escaped; Diary of a Country Priest; The Night of the Hunter; Ugetsu; Hiroshima Mon Amour; Early Summer; Mon Oncle; Throne of Blood; Nights of Cabiria; Pickpocket; The Band Wagon; The Earrings of Madame de…; Floating Weeds; Sansho the Bailiff; In a Lonely Place; M. Hulot’s Holiday; Umberto D; Journey to Italy; Pather Panchali; The Life of Oharu; The Cranes Are Flying; The Big Heat; The Steel Helmet; Good Morning; Senso; Lola Montes; The Flowers of St. Francis; The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice; A Story from Chikamatsu; Europa ’51; The Golden Coach; Le Notti Bianche; The Hidden Fortress; The Lower Depths; Bonjour Tristesse; Bad Day at Black Rock; Les Enfants Terribles; Ashes and Diamonds
Streamed on Amazon Prime: Johnny Guitar; Man of the West
Library DVDs: Rio Bravo; All That Heaven Allows; La Strada; Kiss Me Deadly; Written on the Wind; A Star Is Born; Pickup on South Street; Imitation of Life; On the Waterfront; Bigger Than Life; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; The Asphalt Jungle; El; Bob le Flambeur; Forty Guns; The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz; Horror of Dracula; Los Olvidados; High Noon; Forbidden Games; Auntie Mame; The Day the Earth Stood Still; Suddenly, Last Summer
Netflix DVDs: Shadows
Bargain bin purchase: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (best $3.99 Walgreens find since Melvin and Howard many years ago)
Stay tuned for much more routine new material at the blog in the coming weeks!
When I saw this film theatrically, by myself at a midnight screening in January 2006, the trailers positioned before it at my screening included one for the controversial Flight 93 (later retitled United 93), an uneasy beginning to the new phase in which Hollywood believed 9/11 was old enough news to be fair game for an action movie from an A-list director, Paul Greengrass (swiftly followed some months later by Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center). The trailer was ceaselessly unpleasant, using nothing but air traffic control images while sound clips from cell phone calls on the flight raced around the 5.1 surround speakers. I’m not sure how well this was taken at the time but it seemed tawdry in the moment, in a way that Greengrass’ eventual film, however pointless it may have been, did not.
Be that as it may, the act of being confronted with what in this era still felt like a fresh wound for most Americans, even those with no real connections to it besides the ones sold to us at length by the media, ended up being a rather salient prelude to a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the moral and spiritual muck that terrorism and retaliation invite; how, after all, did my discomfort in the pleasantly well-heated movie theater as a sheltered 22 year-old white American food services worker compare to the constant reminders of instability that surrounds everyone around my age and in my class in that part of the world? I thought of myself as one of the good guys — opposed to Bush and the Iraq War, passionately anti-war in general, and broadly disgusted by nationalism, though if I had any thoughts about Israel and Palestine they weren’t particularly deep, I was just here for a night at the movies — but that this unexpected reminder of 9/11 elicited such a strong response in me at all suggested that I was no more immune than anyone else to feeling as if some strike on my country, with or without moral justification, was a censure of sorts against me. United 93 would finally go down as Hollywood’s first truly direct reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but Steven Spielberg’s Munich should be remembered as the movie that really captured the emotional shakiness of those times, despite the fact that it takes place in 1972.
As the film’s title indicates, it hinges upon the massacre of Israeli athletes that took place at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany, but this actual event really, apart from flashbacks, occupies only the first twenty minutes of the picture — which are almost assuredly its weakest, however competent they are. It’s here that director Spielberg shows his traditional stylistic fallbacks most glaringly, the presentation of news clips and of iconic figures (particularly Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who’s treated with slightly over-the-top reverence, at least in her actual onscreen appearances as played by Lynn Cohen) of the relevant period possessive of a “hey, remember this? and what about this?” quality that would also show up a decade later in The Post; none of the actual content is especially troublesome but the manner of capturing and editing it feels simultaneously rote and confusing in a way that doesn’t bode well for the film to follow. But from there, we fire off into the intense story of the barely-qualified Mossad bodyguard Avner (Eric Bana) and his quest with four others, none of them trained assassins (or bomb-makers, or cooks), to avenge the deaths of the Olympic players by murdering eleven people Mossad has deemed responsible — an important distinction, as the connection some targets have to the event is revealed to be tenuous at best — all done covertly without the organization’s direct involvement aside from their generous funding. The mission quickly goes off the rails, with innocent victims, clueless recklessness, vaguely nefarious sources, all the marks of a group of men who don’t really know what they’re doing, and eventually the picking off of their own ranks one by one — and most perversely, all this mess and unfocused destruction is still considered a full-on success by the troupe’s secret bosses.
The violent, deliberately morally confusing film that results recalls, more than any Spielberg film since Duel, the thematically similar work of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular his little-known but excellent Maugham adaptation Secret Agent, also about a non-spy — a writer — sent out to kill people for the government whose conscience begins to rattle and sicken him after the trail of death and waves of complication caused by his work become clear to him. Munich fuses this sensibility with the minutely detailed, fiendishly intricate excitement of Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal, equally exploiting the sense of fascination of being allowed a glimpse of such secretive operations, even cruel or violent ones; and the complete ideological breakdowns of The French Connection, in which we gradually become unsure if the hero cop we’re following is even a half-decent person, much less a hero. All that said, this is very distinctly a Spielberg film, and one of his best: no one defines characters so adroitly, sometimes in mere seconds; no one directs an action setpiece like him or launches into an indelible, enigmatic interlude the way he does — for instance, the sequence in France when we meet the father of Avner’s main information source, Louis, whose family and organization have no national allegiance; or a shockingly lurid but totally galvanizing sideline involving a hired killer from the Netherlands played by Marie-Josée Croze. Or observe the way that we have a full understanding of how each of the five Mossad killers (the others are courtesy of Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler), without excessive overexplanation, react and respond inwardly to the violence and increasing ambiguity of their undertaking. It needs no laying out because it is built into each of their performances and into the way they are situated and narratively aligned within the film, rivetingly so.
Spielberg is correctly recognized as perhaps the cinema’s all-time greatest poet of the action sequence, responsible in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in other hands would almost certainly have been a forgettable film, for some of the most unspeakably impressive such moments since William Wyler sent Charlton Heston et al. running laps in Ben-Hur. Numerous fluidly designed and blocked scenes in this film indicate he lost nothing in the intervening decades, but this is hardly a fresh insight. What he gets less credit for is this: of all popular directors of the last few decades, he may be the most intelligent in terms of the use of screen violence. He understands the primal appeal and the repugnant ugliness of it and is able to exploit both simultaneously. There are exhilarating blasts and deaths here that show how no amount of movie magic can conceal the waste and horror of the events depicted. A horrifying hotel blast offers some wrenchingly real pictures of life suddenly shattered. Later, the unforgettable sequence featuring Croze has a woman who has killed one of Avner’s partners being slaughtered as she attempts to bargain with the Mossad agents using sex. She finally collapses on a chair nude and limp, covered in blood, and one of her killers closes her bathrobe before another insists that he leave it open as revenge for the way she left her own victim lying pathetically in bed. Of all the rough spots in Munich, this is the hardest one to escape. And what matters is that, whatever else these men are, and whatever prompted their actions, there is no mistaking what they are in this moment; there is no room for denial, and the film makes that culpability absolutely impossible to escape.
And this, inevitably, ruffled feathers. In the conservative talk-radio vision of the world, the only options are to be blindly pro-Israel or to be anti-Semitic, and in the aftermath of Munich‘s release Spielberg, Academy Award-winning director of Schindler’s List, was painted as the latter. This despite the fact that the film hedges quite a bit on its dark view of the assassination program, insofar as it doesn’t really acknowledge anyone in the fight as politically or ideologically “superior” per se and at one point even has Bana parroting some propagandistic Zionist statements to a Palestinian he has a lengthy conversation with at a supposed safe house (set up for his group, and apparently for others at the same time, by his French contact) that play, certainly these days, as downright repugnant — the usual party lines about God and destiny and, most ludicrously, how “there are lots of places for Arabs.” To his credit Spielberg doesn’t exactly underline this as totally righteous; he gives sparring partner Ali (a gracious Omar Metwally in a thankless part) the last word and some discomfortingly vicious editorials of his own, and elsewhere depicts Avner as being blindly patriotic in origin, a condition that fades a bit in the course of the film (in contrast to his partner Steve, who right up to the end of the film is proclaiming “Jewish blood” to be the only blood that matters), but he doesn’t exactly sell the anti-Palestinian view as any sort of failing on his conflicted hero’s part either. He’s quite careful, almost slavishly so, to present “both sides”; and in fairness, the film is about a violent terrorist attack and its aftermath, but it also investigates the perceived justification for that attack without demonizing either its perpetrators or the semi-fictional men who avenged it — it would be insane to claim it has some sort of radical or even leftist position on the conflict overall. Yet this wasn’t enough; the film was broadly painted as an attack on Israel by the usual gang of idiots who’ve never done any kind of critical thinking in their lives.
But more importantly, that’s not even what the film is about; it would be impossible, even for such a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg, to wring a worthy thriller out of a mere rant. The specifics are crucial, but the real essence is within the underlying values and elemental clashes that they uncover. At times the “heroes” become monsters, and just as often, the people they are sent to assassinate are shown unmistakably as people, people with thoughts and hearts and lives; a little girl playing the piano, a discussion about the beautiful evening, a bag of groceries, all the signs of what we don’t want to humanize because it hurts too much. Munich may not be a strictly pro-peace parable; but it explicitly calls into question the purpose of killing for vengeance, killing for government, and most of all, killing for religious belief. The senselessness is claustrophobic, but so is the logic that allows it to continue, the way these things have persisted longer than any of us have been alive and how therefore they “must” go on.
Aside from an impeccable cast of mostly character actors (Daniel Craig was not yet a star at this moment, Casino Royale hitting theaters mere months later), with Bana delivering a particularly nuanced and well-controlled performance that’s ultimately the film’s most broadly powerful element, the director is aided tremendously by his usual crew; editor Michael Kahn’s work is flawless as always; Janusz Kaminski’s remarkable photography, despite the use of a blown-out color palette that unfortunately does date the film, generally gives the production a sense of nightmarish immediacy; and even John Williams offers one of the subtlest, finest scores of his career. These three, the screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, and Spielberg himself force us to linger on what most would skirt past, while never allowing the film to stop being the story of a man, the family he leaves, and the juxtaposition of his increasing maturity with an external world that invites his most black and white ideals to fester.
Munich, its story’s deliberate disorganization marked by the abandonment of its initial structure of the systematic location of eleven people and the destruction of each of them, ends with a quick title card describing the aftermath of the events depicted in the film, before panning over to a shot of the intact Twin Towers, over which the credits begin to roll, a moment that’s distressingly “neat” in a film that otherwise refuses such boxing in. The message, as an outgrowth of earlier comments from various characters and real-life figures about the world beginning to listen to decades of grievances from the Arab world about the many and myriad crimes against it, is obvious, though not absent of irony given how much the events of 9/11 itself caused even further marginalization of Arab and Muslim peoples and culture in the West. Full disclosure: at the time I was blown away by the catharsis of it, the opposite reaction I’d had at the Flight 93 preview three hours earlier; it probably bears mentioning that I also really liked Oskar Schindler’s “I could have…” monologue the first time I saw Schindler’s List. Today it seems like the most pointlessly on-the-nose and tastelessly Spielbergian flourish of the whole film, and all these years removed there’s no doubt the film would be better off without that line being explicitly drawn, especially now that the preoccupations of those times seem ever more distant with each passing day, and as 9/11 starts to become just another historical event like the Munich massacre itself. We don’t have those associations to make that moment especially resonant anymore, if it ever even was to people less naive than I was at the time; luckily, the rest of Munich doesn’t require resonance within modern-day headlines to succeed on its own terms, and after a decade and a half its moral questioning and storytelling mastery have proven themselves enduring in a way that few other artifacts of its time are.
[Heavily expanded from a review posted in 2006.]
In François Truffaut’s celebrated book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, the latter’s 1956 exploration of the real-life miscarriage of justice experienced by New York jazz musician Manny Balestrero, prompts one of the few extended disagreements between the two filmmakers. Truffaut’s bone of contention hinges on a moment that closes the first act of the film, when after being put through the wringer for the whole of an evening by the NYPD, Balestrero (Henry Fonda) finds himself alone for the first time in a jail cell, at which point the camera begins to swirl dramatically around his forlorn, exhausted face in a showy, surreal manner — after half an hour of painstakingly straightforward, documentarylike depiction of the same man’s plight. Truffaut claims that this flourish is a disruption of the film’s explicitly stated mission of presenting an actual story without embellishment; Hitchcock defends his choice by claiming that the audience’s identification with the character renders this projection of his internal state of mind, if not wholly necessary, then certainly justifiable. At one point, after this back and forth has continued for several minutes and progressed to Truffaut questioning whether Hitchcock was even the right director to bring a “true” story to the screen — that his sense of melodrama clashes with reality — Hitchcock seems to get slightly frustrated and exclaims: “It seems to me that you want me to work for the art houses.”
For much of the previous decade, French critics such as Truffaut had been pushing the argument that Hitchcock already was doing precisely that — that for all his commercial success, Hitchcock’s work was rife with subtext and depth that defied its easy connection with the mass audience it enjoyed. Today there’s scarcely anyone who would disagree that Hitchcock’s immensely popular Hollywood movies, particularly by the 1950s, were serious-minded and ambitious works of art, but it was a novel opinion in its time, even though some of Hitchcock’s darker efforts — I Confess and Under Capricorn, to name a couple — were as tortured and morose as any downbeat European film festival darling of the same period. But The Wrong Man may very well be the first film he made that potentially takes the lofty interpretations of the Cahiers auteurists into account (assuming he ever did): a tour de force of evocative minimalism and well-contained anguish that is as dramatically and technically masterful as anything Hitchcock ever produced. It is also one of his most viscerally upsetting films, and despite its almost wry title and the presence of a big star in the lead, it does not have the feel of escapist, romantic entertainment that even a movie as bleak as Vertigo manages to attain. Instead, Hitchcock putting the spotlight on the maddening and anticlimactic tragedies and injustices of day-to-day life among the working class has just as much conviction and urgency as Hitchcock coasting around New England giggling about a dead body; it turns out he’s as good at depressing us inconsolably as he is at showing us a fun time, but that may in fact be The Wrong Man‘s downfall for some: you don’t exactly walk away reassured about love, life and security.
Supposedly to stave off audience members who’d otherwise spend 100-odd minutes squinting for his traditional cameo, Hitchcock appears forebodingly, a shadow far from the camera, at the outset of the film — before the Warner Bros. logo, even — to announce that this project is different from his usual fare, and makes a basic and quick point about truth being stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Sure it is; it’s certainly more troubling. In contrast to Truffaut’s point, The Wrong Man actually achieves an astonishingly fluid synthesis of form and content; Hitchcock, with the help of screenwriter and longtime associate Angus MacPhail as well as writer Maxwell Anderson and the director’s usual stable of cohorts from his peak decade (Robert Burks, George Thomasini, Bernard Herrmann, etc.), applies every one of his hard-won lessons about audience identification to the intimate account of Balestrero’s wrongful arrest and subsequent imprisonment, his camera gliding and cutting its way through the terrifying and cruel process of his physical and emotional confinement, a tormented journey expressed with images, most of them surprisingly haunting given their objectively mundane settings.
But Hitchcock doesn’t quite have it right either when, at the beginning of the film itself, he implies that the story he’s about to tell has all the riveting ups and downs, twists and turns of a conventional thriller. That sounds nice but this isn’t really a thriller at all — most of its suspense is vague in nature, not dependent on pace and information as is typical of the director’s films, and the more important elements of the story have to do with its mood, its easily understandable despair and its riveting presentation of actually lived experience in the very places where it was lived. While there’s some compression and conventional fleshing out of the real story, Hitchcock sticks quite strictly to the sequence and nature of events depicted, and many of those events are dead ends, coincidences, disappointments, banal repetitions and anticlimaxes (the delicatessen scene in which the “right” man is caught is a shining example of a moment that is presented exactly as it happened and that no screenwriter in the world would be brilliant enough to conjure up from thin air); no one would decide to conjure up and tell this story — even the answered prayers, a rare respite, would be dismissed as too contrived. But those disappointments, from mistrial to dead witnesses to aborted music lessons, are precisely what make this film so singularly powerful, and incidentally are what align it closely with the language of film noir: the theme is that there is doom at every turn, and you’re fucked through no fault of your own. And it really does feel like it’s happening to you, because that’s the way Hitchcock shoots it and also because its events are so devastating in their, for a lack of a better word since they really happened, believability.
Balestrero’s tale is enough to strike fear in the heart of most anyone, even as the presentation of it here trades liberally on Hitchcock’s (and, presumably, much of the audience’s) well-known phobia and suspicion of police. A bass player at the Stork Club in Manhattan, Manny doesn’t carouse with that establishment’s high-class patronage; rather, he lives in Jackson Heights and after stepping into an insurance office to secure a loan for his wife Rose’s wisdom teeth removal, he’s misidentified as a serial armed robber who’d previously held up the same office as well as several other nearby businesses near Manny’s home. On being confronted and handcuffed, Manny isn’t permitted to call his wife and children and let them know what’s happening, and is quickly railroaded by the NYPD, positively identified by the victims at the insurance agency and thrown into jail overnight, told all the while in sinister tones “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about,” not an easy dictum to take to heart when Manny’s picked out from a lineup and his handwriting is found to be a close match for the perpetrator’s. It’s a rather profound illustration — as good as any that exists in the movies — of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or the fallibility of certain areas of expertise (handwriting analysis, for instance) in declaring a holistic truth.
It’s certainly an important part of Hitchcock’s strategy to bring all of this to the recognizable world we ourselves occupy; The Wrong Man is rife with incredible shots of New York, subways and all, in 1956, and reenacts numerous scenes at their actual locations, periodically using actual involved parties in lieu of actors and occasionally capturing incidental documentary evidence of life in progress, such as when Fonda’s booked into jail and real prisoners can be heard heckling the celebrity in their midst. The Stork Club gets considerable use in the film too, providing an unexpected glimpse of jet-set nightlife pre-’65; and even the sanitarium in which Rose is institutionalized, once her mental state is finally crushed under the weight of Manny’s situation, is the corresponding real place with its real staff. But the authenticity of the film doesn’t really come from its heavy use of these decidedly uncinematic settings (all of which Burks shoots and lights majestically, never more apparent as one of the most skilled and underrated cinematographers in Hollywood history) so much as from its uneasy awareness of the banality of its story, of the fact that its events are something like daily occurrences. The disruptive message is that all of the protocol and bureaucracy that we watch in action, over and over and at length, cannot save us from the infuriating simplicity of a human mistake. That these often innocent mistakes can have the power to derail and permanently damage lives isn’t lost on the director, or on us.
Talking of innocence, one reason The Wrong Man is free to toy with expressionistic ideas while maintaining its relentless use of Manny as audience surrogate, his perspective as our guiding light, is that cinema provides an opportunity real life does not: we the viewers unmistakably know of Manny’s innocence, because it can be shown to us. We also know he’s one of us, a relatively ordinary but gentle soul who loves his family and is already suffering under the constant anxiety of financial stress. All this makes the procession of random events that destroy him all the more haunting. It justifies the pounding drama (and surprising looseness) of Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous score, which at times directly suggests his work on Vertigo the next year. It merits the heartbreaking nature of the moment when Vera Miles’ Rose, at last informed of Manny’s whereabouts, is first glimpsed by Manny in POV in the courtroom after his night in jail. It makes Fonda’s terrified eyes gazing out of his cell in one nightmarish shot a moment of aching realism rather than unjustified gimmickry. And it creates the tension in the moment when actress Doreen Lang, identifying Manny in court, also seems to be accusing us. (Interestingly, she would do virtually the same thing six years hence in Hitchcock’s The Birds.)
But the cinema can also show us that most of the people who cause Manny’s arrest are no more evil or malicious than he is; Hitchcock’s outstanding staging of the initial scene at the insurance office, in which three of its employees quietly consult one another to try and determine if Manny is the man who twice robbed them, doesn’t demonize or undermine them — it plainly shows the three of them, in tight and claustrophobic compositions, trying their best to handle a horribly stressful situation. At the end of the film, when Manny sees two of them face to face after he’s finally cleared, he doesn’t look upon them with condescension or anger but with a certain resigned blankness; he knows as well as we do that it would do no good to blame them, to blame anyone except the actual crook or perhaps the police who made communication so impossible.
Inevitably, the most expressionistic flavor of The Wrong Man comes from its actors — in the end this isn’t a documentary at all, it’s a piece of drama and a piece of theater that just happens to be drawn from actual events, and the performers don’t necessarily make a play at imitation or grit. Their work is subtler than that. Fonda’s portrait of innocence here is absolutely gripping — he is awkward and sad, he’s cheerful and flawed, he’s all the things his most famous roles made him but in a lower key that renders his vast age difference from the man he’s playing (38 versus 52) all but invisible. Yet somehow, under the tense eyes and open face he does still betray just enough mystery to imply the menace that’s picked up on by his false “victims” (and eventually by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone). Fonda was great in so many films that it’s hard to justify calling this his best performance, but it’s probably his most finely tuned and impeccably realized in terms of its function as the linchpin of a complex narrative.
Vera Miles, as his wife Rose, is equally brilliant — fully realizing her role as half of a couple struggling valiantly with everything except each other, then as a broken woman, while completely convincing us of the fusion and bridge between those two personalities. And their chemistry is easy, natural, palpable; they and their children are the rare Hitchcock family that doesn’t come under negative scrutiny, perhaps because life itself put them through enough, and there may be no other couple in Hitchcock’s canon since Leslie Banks and Edna Best that seems, at the outset and even after their lives are upturned, to deliver such a feeling of real mutual respect and warm longevity. Their first embrace after Manny posts bail is stirring in its exquisite easiness: “You’ll never know,” he says. “I know. I know,” she replies, and you believe it. (Miles’ resourcefulness and sophistication in this part, which while well-written does have all the same caveats and limitations of most domestic female roles in ’50s Hollywood films, clearly blew Hitchcock away; he immediately cast her as the lead in Vertigo, but she had to drop out when she became pregnant, and he used her instead — prominently, but in a less crucial role — in Psycho. Kim Novak is tremendously good in Vertigo, but out of sheer curiosity, the mind boggles at wondering what Miles might have done with that character.)
That makes it so hard to take when she begins to slip away from him, through no fault of either of them, and is unable to so much as hear or reply to him when she takes up residence in the sanitarium. At that stage, the story almost becomes Rose’s more than Manny’s, and as such it can be taken only as a tragedy despite Manny’s validation and freedom. Hitchcock clearly intended it as a downcast finale — the pair’s last scene together has her completely unmoved by the end of their ordeal, repeating the words “That’s fine for you,” as Fonda mournfully walks away in a prediction of Barbara Bel-Geddes’ same movement a year later — and this is only half-heartedly stymied by the insertion of a title card alleging that Rose, two years later, was “completely cured.” Almost needless to say, this wasn’t true; according to her son, Rose Balestrero never recovered from the traumas of 1953 and spent the rest of her life under a cloud, although she did remain married to Manny until the end of her life. (Rose died in 1982, Manny in 1998; Manny was consulted heavily on the film and is said to have been very pleased with the results.) Even without this knowledge or the knowledge that all of the money the family made from The Wrong Man went directly to paying for Rose’s health care, the half-second of optimism — accompanied by a quick shot of Florida, where Manny moved the family and returned to work in the aftermath — would feel insincere. It’s unmistakable that Hitchcock intends the fracturing of communication in this marriage to be his final statement, and his final declaration of the havoc wreaked upon his characters by nothing more than a chance encounter with fate. In a filmography rife with freakish incidents and dangerous psychopaths, this might be the most distressing final message he ever left us with.
This was the last of Hitchcock’s films for Warner Bros., part of a protracted deal that had risen from the ashes of his ill-fated production company Transatlantic Pictures in the early ’50s. It was also his first black & white production since I Confess, also for Warners; meanwhile Hitchcock was making history with a procession of big-budget color films at Paramount, plus a monstrously popular CBS TV series, that were increasing the intensity of his fame — interrupting all this for an intentionally modest title like The Wrong Man could be argued as a dry run of sorts for Psycho, but that film used its grittiness to make its jolts of horror more shocking. The horror in The Wrong Man is more of a pall of unease that refuses to clear even well after its conclusion. Truffaut’s feeling that the movie’s moments of embellishment were misplaced could be justified if the movie were exploiting the Balestreros’ pain; in fact, Hitchcock didn’t take a salary for the picture and its production values, including those moments when the camera begins spinning on its axis and delving us further into Fonda’s agony, are designed specifically to foster further empathy for Manny and his family. With its essentially unerring picture of stomach-churning hopelessness born of nothing more than freakishly bad luck, and of the unhelpful yet ruthless efficiency of authority figures, an argument can be made that the film comes off as more personal to Hitchcock himself than Vertigo. He alters his language to deliver this story, and does so in a manner that reminds us the extent to which cinema itself was his language — and, as ever in Hitchcock’s canon, it tells us everything we need to know.
This entry covers the period from October 1st to December 12th, 2020. Several long-term projects of mine are entering the home stretch almost simultaneously, which makes it feel like they’re going more slowly than they are. The 1950s canon is about to become my nearly exclusive focus for a couple of months; gathering up a massive number of library holds, typically my final step in this process, will be an interesting challenge during COVID. I have one unseen theatrical title left in my “Beatles cinema” undertaking, then will be revisiting their various video and television projects. I’m at last only three years behind on catalog DVDs in the unwatched pile; pathetic, yes, but at least I finally knocked out the Ozu Eclipse set and Universal’s Marlene Dietrich “Glamour Collection” box and some Criterions that must date from five or six 50% off sales ago. And of course there’s also all the 2010s rewatches I’m determined to eke out by sometime next year.
The main news to share is that after I finish the ’50s list I’m working on and offer up another hopefully illuminating post about the experience, I will be taking a temporary break from the canon projects before I move on to the 1960s. The reasons for this are rather convoluted and I don’t expect them to make much sense to anyone but me. But I feel like trying to illuminate something non-work related so let’s give it a shot. I came up with the idea for these chronological canon lists back in 2015 because I felt that my original plan for the blog was taking too long and keeping me away from the kinds of movies I was interested in for too-lengthy stretches, preventing me from broadening my horizons in terms of the classic and world cinema that most interests me. I was correct about this; as a matter of fact, the process has so completely reframed and reconfigured, even skewered, my understanding of cinema that two things have happened. I am finding the very foundations of my taste changing rapidly, and I am seriously questioning how qualified I really was in the first place to have a blog like this when each year it seems like a new world opens up and I realize how little I knew or understood. Some of this is just the emotional changes that come with growing older, some of it is a deeper understanding of how much one’s relationship with art is the essence of an enriched and enjoyable life (at least in my view). But basically I am finding that my perspective is shaking pretty radically from where it used to be thanks to the education I’m getting from these films and the dramatic way in which they’re altering my cinematic “bedrock,” if you will.
I see this as being a wonderful thing, even if it causes me to look askance a bit at many of the things I wrote and wrote about in the early years of this outlet as well as others I’ve had. Simultaneously, however, it occurs to me that if the future projects in this vein cause me to rethink things as drastically as those already completed ones have, and if my life continues to be as unpredictable and complicated as everyone’s inevitably is, my outlook is going to be changing even more. I’m going to lose touch increasingly with the movie world I inhabited as an adolescent and as a young adult. (Aging and living through epochs does something to you — it’s quite weird and fascinating and scary to me that I wrote capsules back in ’06 for films that I no longer remember existing, much less seeing as a teenager or child.) But I do regret one element of this, which is that there are things I never investigated and expressed that were important to me. It feels like I’m about to enter a period when it’s my last chance to tackle some of the films that really had an impact on me early on, at least with any kind of emotional honesty about how they affected me.
As a small gesture toward compensating for this, in 2021 I will be resurrecting one of the viewing projects I cancelled when I switched to the decade canons. The films nominated for the AFI 100 in its two iterations (1997 and 2007) totaled 400 each time, with considerable overlap. There are about 75 I’ve never seen at all, some really glaring gaps in my knowledge and some once-popular movies I never seriously planned on subjecting myself to. But there are around 60 that I’ve seen and never written about at length — and they tend to be, in some sense, “big” films (major parts of popular American film culture, for better or worse) that, were I not constantly preoccupied with this or that, probably should have been early titles in my collection of movie writeups. Quite a few of them I love but haven’t seen in years; a few I saw once, maybe when I was too young to get much out of them; a few I actively dislike but still deserve attention in this space. It’s not that I don’t think I’ll still have something to say about Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Blazing Saddles or Airplane! or Brazil or Pinocchio or Night of the Living Dead in another ten years, but I think it’s a fair bet — judging by the work I’ve done so far — that such output would have no resemblance to what I would write now or what I would have written when I first fell in love with them. And since this blog’s only real purpose is as a sort of personal journal of my progression as a film lover, I like the idea of trying to grab those things one last time before they slip away.
Also, if you detect that I’m feeling a little lost and sentimental these days, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong; I don’t think I’m alone.
Only thing that gives me pause is that this will return us to the state in which the two main lists I’m working on currently are going to be dominated all but exclusively by films from the U.S., which was an accidental situation that bugged me early on about the state of things here. I considered having three mainline projects going at once but it just feels like too much, and anyway, the movies we’ll be tackling here would have needed attention at some point regardless of the source. But worry not. Those who’ve thrilled at my first encounters with Cinema 101 arthouse titles — which I would not want to abandon, even temporarily, anyway — will be pleased to learn that in the past few months I have made the following three very important purchases…
…and that the AFI titles will be interspersed healthily with my delvings into these sets, which I’m greatly looking forward to as well. Anyway, I expect there will be lots of long reviews and I do want to actually enjoy myself, so no promises on my pace of getting through this. (I’m also considering adding a series of director-oriented posts to the repertoire here, inspired by the auteurist nature of the Blu-ray sets pictured above, but I’m not yet sure if I can schedule that without any strain.)
Full reviews this cycle: As will hopefully be the case from here on out, quite a few.
– The Hours and Times (second viewing, last seen 2008) for the Beatles project at my music blog. (LBoxd capsule)
– Good Night, and Good Luck (second viewing, last seen 2006) for the continuing but soon to be briefly sidelined Best Picture nominees project. (LBoxd capsule)
– Smiles of a Summer Night (fourth viewing I think? last seen 2009 or 2010) for the 1950s canon. My Bergman set came just in time. Wrote a long review back in the Livejournal days that was heavily revised for this. (LBoxd capsule)
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (second viewing, last seen earlier this year) on the occasion of its Criterion release (reviewed below) and also because when I initially saw the film I promised I’d actually wrack my brain and get some legit thoughts down as soon as possible. (LBoxd capsule)
– The Day the Earth Stood Still (second viewing, last seen 2007) for the 1950s canon. I had written what I remembered as a lengthy review back in ’07 but it was mostly unusable.
– By coincidence, we’re looking at a probable situation shortly in which there will be about three of these posted in rapid succession and I hope it doesn’t discourage anyone from checking them all out. I don’t know why it would but I always feel funny about oversaturation.
Other films seen (with LBoxd links):
– For the seemingly neverending 2010s rewatch project, these were all second viewings, all last seen at various points earlier in the decade: Calvary; Rabbit Hole; The Beguiled; Nightcrawler; and This Is Not a Film (slight upgrade on that last one, a more ingenious work of art than I’d remembered).
– Because of its new Criterion release, a second viewing of Noah Baumbach’s very fine Marriage Story.
– Just-for-fun watched a couple of the first Blus I bought, Out of the Past (third viewing, last seen 2018) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (god fucking knows how many times I’ve seen this, probably about twelve, but the last was at IMAX in 2018).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– What the last of the six Looney Tunes Golden Collections indicates more than anything is how significant the individual stamps of specific directors were on those cartoons. Laying a Chuck Jones against a Robert McKimson, say, there is simply no comparison — Jones’ work screams out in its singularity and vision. I don’t know why it’s hidden amongst the bonus cartoons, but his film about the tiny elephant, Punch Trunk, is an unsung masterpiece — impeccably designed and timed, hilarious and curiously modern. And his “house style” has a distinctiveness that can’t be matched even when other directors attempt a similar expressiveness, as in the serviceable but comparatively flat Bartholomew Versus the Wheel (which I adored as a child, full disclosure). The last disc gets rather weird in general; I was actually unaware that Bob Clampett had turned Horton Hatches the Egg into a Merrie Melody in 1942. He did a fine job, but it fits oddly with the generalized aesthetic of the Schlesinger studio. But nothing prepared me for the very last Looney Tune in the set, something called Norman Normal, based on a song by Peter Paul and Mary (!?) and honest to goodness one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever seen. But the more I think about it the more I believe it may actually be quite brilliant? Judge for yourself.
– Managed to complete the set of all five of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures boxed sets of DVDs, which ran from 2000 to 2011. The comical thing is I have them all but have only had time to watch the first one… until I at last cracked open the second this week. Right away I was confronted with something intimidatingly, maybe accidentally brilliant that I’d somehow never seen. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) is an experiment in synchronizing a sound cylinder with a roughly ten-second bit of footage. But said footage has such an ethereal, unexpectedly surreal quality that it beggars belief. Like so many films from the first decade of cinema it attains poignance from its sheer age but calling it “primitive” would be short sighted; it’s higher art, and more interesting, than a lot of expensive feature films made today. The two men dancing, looking uncomfortable and out of place; the giant sound apparatus that dominates the frame; the squawking, eerie violin music that survives through all the crackle; and the Edison employee who wanders in during the final frames all create a strikingly off-balance quality. I watched the thing about fifty times in a row. It completely consumes me. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. How can anything so perfect even exist, much less totally free of any kind of ambition or intention? So far nothing else on the second Treasures set even touches it.
– My favorite rock band these days is the Wave Pictures. Filmmaker Tabitha Denholm’s 2013 video for their track “Like Smoke” is inexpressibly beautiful and I can’t stop looking at it.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Grand Budapest Hotel (Criterion): The home video releases of Wes Anderson’s movies are always a treat. Criterion really made this film’s physical manifestation count, with a tremendously fun and evocative package containing an assortment of printed knick-knacks relevant to the movie and selling it as a really immersive experience. As far as actual disc content, there’s a bunch of EPK stuff that isn’t too interesting and a lot of video essays that don’t add much — David Bordwell’s is all right — but there’s a lot of very cool verité behind-the-scenes footage and a nice documentary about the intricacies of the production. The audio commentary with Anderson, Jeff Goldblum and others is all over the place — almost manic, really — but very fun. The main booklet is more fun to look at than to read; Richard Brody’s essay isn’t very good, and I couldn’t really follow the relevance of the included Mark Twain story. But who cares. Such a delight, all in all.
– The Great Escape (Criterion): A good example of the kind of movie noted in the long digression above that I fully worshiped as a teenager — watched it repeatedly over the course of a couple of years — and have never gotten around to properly delving into and appreciating in written form as a grownup. I got a huge kick out of this new release of it; it has a few neat vintage 1990s documentaries, made for cable, about the movie as well as the real story that inspired it. These are quite fun to watch, especially since they incorporate the participation of several of the real prisoners depicted in the film. There’s some repetition of anecdotes here and there, inevitably with this much content, but the only thing I felt was a bit of a waste was an interview with the critic Michael Sragow who really adds nothing and seems to be present only so that not everything on the disc is “old” material. There are two audio commentaries and surprisingly, both are reasonably engrossing, but of course I especially liked the old 1991 laserdisc track that includes the director John Sturges as well as Elmer Bernstein and various actors and such. Of course it repeats a lot of what you’ve heard elsewhere on the disc, but even the essay by Sheila O’Malley is guilty of that. I found this a really absorbing package on the whole, even though it took me quite a while to get through everything. (Two three-hour commentaries is a lot to hear.) There’s been some controversy over the compression on the film itself; it looked all right to me on the projector.
– A Midnight Clear (Shout! Factory): A much-needed rescue of an excellent movie that’s never been given a remotely respectable video release in America, where the old DVD was open matte and low-quality. Shout! goes all the way here, with a superb transfer and a brand new documentary with updated 2019 insights from Keith Gordon (as engaging as ever) plus Ethan Hawke, who seems to care particularly deeply about this movie, and Frank Whaley among others. It was strangely fun to watch Gordon get wound up talking about how poorly served the film (not to mention its predecessor The Chocolate War) has been on video. Shout! also brings over the extras from the old European DVD release circa 2000; there’s a commentary from Gordon and Hawke, recorded on opposite coasts, that’s pleasantly laid-back. (Includes amusing anecdote about Gordon as cuckold, thanks to his directing of his wife in a scene that has her making out with the entirety of the male cast.) You also get deleted scenes with commentary; these are kind of interesting, adding to the atmospheric nature of the film and potentially making it an even darker, more downbeat experience. Shout! truly killed it on this package, and it’s welcome because it’s a film that long invited such an elucidation.
– It Couldn’t Happen Here (BFI): Was very excited about this — in the VHS days I tried to track down a copy of Pet Shop Boys’ feature film when I wanted to see and hear everything they had anything to do with, and it was always out of reach… with the commercially released video apparently PAL-only and impossible to get your hands on in America anyway. Having now seen the film, of course, it’s hard not to be disappointed even when set up with low expectations, but I’m still glad the new disc release exists. I managed to get in on the ground floor with the dual format limited edition set, which has a hardbound book — handsome looking, but packed with essays of quite limited appeal, and a new Neil Tennant interview that’s depressingly short. The supplements are probably more interesting than the film; director Jack Bond proves quite engaging in a long interview and on the commentary track, in which he goes on and on about how insane you are if you don’t like the movie. An interview with choreographer Arlene Phillips is equally illuminating, but less about the film itself than her career overall. The presentation quality is terrific, as you’d expect, but honestly? A video collection would’ve probably been better and more fun. (And you do get one of the band’s videos, “Always on My Mind,” comprised of judiciously edited footage from the film.) It looks neat on the shelf anyway.
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Criterion): Oddly skimpy package for what may be the best film of the decade. Dana Stevens interviews director Céline Sciamma and does an excellent job, creating an illuminating and sometimes funny conversation that dates from immediately prior to lockdown. (Sciamma says something about “Criterion and chill” and gets amusingly defensive when she’s accused of using Ligeti in her film.) The interview with painter Hélène Delmaire is also fascinating, in terms of her own technique and the way it was integrated into the film. I was less enamored with the montage of discussions with the two lead actors; perhaps it’s the editing, but somehow it just wasn’t very interesting to me. The last of the interviews, with cinematographer Claire Mathon, probably is interesting but is so technical and involved I found it hard to follow. And that’s really it — no further elaboration beyond the booklet. At least the movie looks incredible.
– The Lady Eve (Criterion): Criterion’s technical director Lee Kline tempered expectations for this release in an interview last year, explaining that the only available elements were in such poor quality or condition that there was no way to make the film look as good as it ought to, considering its status as such a major work. So I expected a really underwhelming visual when I got the disc, but in fact it looks quite good with only sporadic evidence of subpar prints and the lack of a negative. As for supplements, perhaps the biggest of the new extras is a Zoom conference between Preston Sturges’ son and a gaggle of filmmakers and critics who are acolytes of Sturges’. This was produced during the pandemic, and the results are weird; and I’m not sure what to make of Criterion’s decision not to edit out some of the technical fuckups. The new David Cairns video essay is all right, as is a cool featurette about Edith Head. There’s a song from a proposed musical that was meant to be made of the film’s story, but why? The commentary by Marian Keane comes from the original 2001 DVD; I owned that disc — have now donated it to the library — but never listened to the commentary as I generally disliked the tracks Keane recorded on Hitchcock films. Having now heard it finally, it’s OK — heavily analytical and sometimes too much of a simple narration — but not something you need to hear more than once. I am glad I finally sat and listened to it instead of expecting I knew what it was going to embody, though. Finally there’s a nice thick booklet but half of it is an extremely boring Life Magazine profile of Sturges. This is another strangely underwhelming package — artwork’s pretty bad too; the old DVD used the poster, which was lovely — but the unexpectedly high transfer quality somewhat makes up for it.
– Marriage Story (Criterion): The inclusion of the two letters read aloud at the beginning of the film as separate inserts in the digipack is a really brilliant touch, and adds to the feeling of uniqueness for a physical package to a movie that many would argue doesn’t need one. (I would not argue this, as I don’t trust Netflix or any other company to actually keep things available in perpetuity, but many would.) As for the on-disc supplements, I liked the Baumbach interview fine (the more press kit-ish compilation of actor interviews less so) but was really taken with a below-the-line crew interview piece that felt like it went in-depth in a way unusual for such pieces. Despite not being a big Randy Newman fan (I keep trying), I also enjoyed his interview; I’ve never seen him talking about film composing at this length. But the jewel in the crown is the ninety-minute “fly on the wall” behind-the-scenes documentary, which is my favorite kind of extra — context-free footage of filmmaking in progress — and really delivers a sense of immersion and detail. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my favorite of all the recent Criterion releases in terms of its supplemental content.
– Tender Mercies (Kino Lorber): This lovely film, despite winning a couple of high-profile Oscars, has only ever had rather lackluster video releases so it’s nice to see it get some sort of a red-carpet treatment — the cover art alone feels like an incalculable upgrade from the hideous DVD. Kino’s only newly added feature, though, is one of the worst audio commentaries I’ve encountered in a while, by a critic I’m not going to name (google it yourself) who is ill-prepared and badly informed — several statements he makes are directly contradicted by other, more accurate information given elsewhere on the disc and even, in one case, in the actual closing credits of the film — and, I know this is unfair, but has an annoying voice and a fondness for cute “little jokes” that grated on my absolute last nerve. He also spends a lot of the commentary reading other critics’ reviews of the film, which I understand to an extent but comes across as time-filling after a while. I really don’t know that the film needed a commentary if its attempt at scholarship was going to be so off-the-cuff and informal. Slightly better is a vintage featurette from around 2002 (I guess it must be from the old DVD though honestly I don’t remember it being there); this has solid talking head interviews with most key figures involved with the film, including Horton Foote who’s since died, plus child actor Allan Hubbard who grew up to be a guitar instructor and even sings a song. As these cheaply produced retrospectives go, it’s a good one. But the main thing to say about this Blu-ray is that I couldn’t get over how good the film looked — the transfer is absolutely stunning, one of the best I’ve seen to date, and for such a “small” movie a real treat to feast the eyes upon.
– Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Warner Archive): No label has been more consistent in recent years in the quality of its video output than WAC so it’s no surprise that this concert film looks terrific in its latest iteration. (Apparently it’s a clone of a former retail release, which I didn’t realize.) This was a blind buy for me; I’ve been a fan of Elvis for only about 10-12 years (which may sound like a lot, but I’ve been a Beatles fan for 30) and I’m leery about most of his feature film output, but this documentary about his first Vegas residency seemed like something I should have. (Certainly if I need It Couldn’t Happen Here, I need this!) I was right — it’s great fun and quite fascinating. The film was completely reedited, reconfigured, reimagined in 2001 to become less a talking-head documentary and more of a performance film, and only the revised version is on Blu-ray… WAC does add the original theatrical film but it’s just on a DVD, which may be disappointing to some. Personally I’m fine with it; the original movie is mostly a curio, and the 2001 version looks and sounds excellent.
Depending on how long the Varda set — next up in my new-release kevyip — takes me to get through, this section may be omitted in the next update.
The usual crop of capsules follow; twenty-nine new, one revised.
Tokyo Chorus (1931, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[Part of Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies Eclipse DVD set.] An insurance salesman with a lingering thread of childhood rebellion walks out on his job in solidarity with an elderly coworker, prompting hardship on the part of his wife and three young children. Several Ozu “tropes” about children and the men who resemble them make their probable debuts here, but as usual, the movie surprises at every turn in what it doesn’t do, and in how simultaneously warm and cutting it manages to be. It’s a cliché to watch a silent film and proclaim that it lives in the memory as a talkie, but the acting in these early Ozu titles is really that bracing in its realism.
Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Hard not to be shaken by the darkness of this legendary and violent western, which feels in nearly every respect much more like noir than it does your average Ford or Hawks classic, starring Gary Cooper as a reformed killer — appearing at the outset to be a bumbling and nervous amateur hick — who gets caught in a botched robbery then wrapped back up in his disowned family’s sinister business along with two other innocents from the train that left him behind way out nowhere. Compelling and beautiful from its first frames, and continually surprising as narrative, this is possibly the ideal introductory western, free of flabbiness or cornball distraction.
Bugsy (1991, Barry Levinson)
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Basically a vanity vehicle for Warren Beatty who does about what you’d expect, up to and including making eyes with future wife Annette Bening, in a fairly generic gangster movie that’s slick enough not to feel too terribly dated; the pedestrian Ennio Morricone score actually works for it, adding a certain salient timelessness to its macho posturing.
The Golden Coach (1952, Jean Renoir)
[1950s canon.] Opulent Technicolor comings and goings of the nobility and a theater group in Peru, with titular coach serving as a symbol of transgressive action between the two classes. This plays as a very watered-down Rules of the Game; a softened Renoir, already perhaps too generous to the bourgeois in that film, serves up the asinine bickering of the subjects of his aesthetic fixations as though they were actual points of narrative interest. It’s all very pretty and nothing sticks, including the humor, and including the almost uniformly annoying performances.
Lenny (1974, Bob Fosse) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films of its era, and a fine example of a movie that transcends its static origins through sheer immersion, plunging us into a procession of muddy, jet-black clubs in which Lenny Bruce and all his famous supposed obscenities, by turns tame and dated now, regain their power from the way that they seem to burst out from empty space and float around in three dimensions. The performances, especially Dustin Hoffman’s, are engaging and powerful; and it may be one of the last New Hollywood pictures to really sink into an us-vs.-them cultural dynamic.
The Birth of the Beatles (1979, Richard Marquand) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Former Beatles drummer Pete Best served as a consultant on this dramatization of the band’s Hamburg period, but it’s lazy and superficial on an Encyclopedia Brittanica level — only less accurate, using versions of the group’s personalities that seem to be lifted more from Richard Lester’s Help! than from reality. Stephen MacKenna’s John Lennon dominates the narrative and looks much too old for the part, playing a 20 year-old at 34. Any Beatles fanatic can shoot holes through every scene, but it’s so inert and awkwardly paced you can’t imagine anyone finding it compelling without being a Beatles fanatic.
The Merry Jail (1917, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
[Included on Trouble in Paradise Criterion DVD.] Very early German-language Lubitsch farce, focused on a woman catching her husband in a sensual trap after he skirts both her and the police to attend a wild party, is witty and charming in pretty much exactly the manner of his 1930s Hollywood films, with a bit more camera mugging but overall subtle acting and astonishing technical chutzpah that calls to mind how much more advanced The Love Parade looks than other early talkies. It’s all rather slight but wears the years far better than you’d expect of a 1910s comedy of manners.
Le Notti Bianche (1957, Luchino Visconti) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Impossibly beautiful two-hander with a couple of lonely people connecting on a neon-lit street over the course of a few emotionally charged evenings. A basically peerless example of actors, camera, environment as impeccable emotional match to a story; virtually every moment is soulful and immediate beyond description, and the pain that comes through actively stings. Plus there’s rock & roll.
It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987, Jack Bond) [c]
[New Blu-ray.] Pet Shop Boys’ long-buried theatrical film — a Magical Mystery Tour-like wasteland road movie, England laid waste by Thatcherism, and lots of songs from Please and Actually — is directed by a surrealist provocateur prominent in British TV and film known for his associations with Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Jane Arden and Roald Dahl among others. Casting him as the auteur of a full-length pop video is a very 1980s stunt that sadly fails to pay off, mostly because the mixture of Bond’s sensibility with Pet Shop Boys’ actual material is so fatally jarring; quite often it’s just bewildering and/or irritating.
Beatlemania (1981, Joseph Manduke) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] A filmed version of a Broadway musical that was comprised of a Beatles lookalike-soundalike band playing bland, slavish covers of many of the group’s most well-loved records. But it gets (even) worse: the rote performances are interspersed with “psychedelic” montages that volley between non-sequitur and, you guessed it, major historical events of the ’60s. The schlocky, kitschy way it’s all executed is just so gross and does a terrible disservice to the genuine emotional resonance of the Beatles’ music.
The House That Jack Built (2018, Lars von Trier) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] This is maybe the only serial killer movie that actually captures what a mundane and insipid person one must be to choose that as their vocation. As usual Trier’s script is mordantly funny and richly revealing in all its discomfort; the film is also of course ravishing in its visual design, and he coaxes a phenomenal lead performance out of Matt Dillon. It’s one of the director’s most aggressively moral films.
It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Schults) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] A profoundly distressing horror film about a family holing up and hiding out off the grid as the result of a pandemic, forced to contend with complication when a stranger enters their ranks. Neatly plotted in the most spirit-crushing manner, with fine performances and a rich atmosphere of the unknowable and unanswerable; a movie that doesn’t flinch or compromise before pure dread but defines people as people rather than genre tropes with striking compassion and vividness — which only makes it harder when conditions begin to slip.
Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) [c]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Some carousing cock-of-the-walk asshole (Michael Caine) repeatedly refers to women as “it,” is generally belligerent and vile in a manner clearly intended to be amusing (or, more likely, an act of naughty escapism for the button-down elements of its audience), only to then have a screenwriterly come-to-Jesus prompted by a contrived and mawkish face-to-face collision with, like, humanity innit. This inexplicable cultural touchstone isn’t even good Mod-hedonistic escapism; watch The Knack if you want to see this kind of thing done well.
The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Kurosawa was such a master that an adventure premise which is now so familiar as to be almost beat-for-beat predictable (a tougher-than-she-looks princess played by Misa Uehara is escorted across dangerous grounds along with reams of hidden gold by Toshiro Mifune, all seen from the perspective of two greedy peasants who can’t stop bickering) retains nearly all of its appeal and freshness after sixty-odd years. It would probably still be a joy even if it weren’t so visually breathtaking; the director’s sense of composition and breadth are infallible, to say nothing of how vividly his characters develop.
The Letter (1940, William Wyler) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] The second of Wyler’s big Bette Davis collaborations is oft cited as an early or prototypical film noir, but it’s basically a straight melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham play, about the conniving wife of a rubber magnate in British Malaya and the aftermath of her murder of her alleged would-be rapist. Although Davis’ performance is enjoyably fraught and campy, the plot is so generally ludicrous and lacking in palpably human behavior that you start to get wound up in the more minutely implausible details. The whole affair does get enjoyably wild and surreal in the last half-hour.
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa) [r]
[1950s canon.] It’s fascinating to see Kurosawa take on this kind of material — a straightforward adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play about the variously hopeless occupants of a slum — whose relatively natural performance style and theatrical staging are so far afield of the kinds of movies we associate with him. While affecting at times, though, it’s not an exaggeration to say it feels more like a play than most plays; the single-minded proffering of dialogue and monologues and multilayered but severely contained chaos leads to a lengthy film that constantly seems to stop in its tracks and revel in sheer misery.
A Tale of Two Cities (1935, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Solid literary adaptation, surely ammo for someone’s “Dickens is foolproof” thesis, given extravagant production values by MGM and David O. Selznick — and generally quite well cast, though the plot has so much ground to cover in 125 minutes, incorporating a big Bastille-storming setpiece, that the characterizations don’t really come through apart from Ronald Colman’s cynical Carton. Conway pulls off the finale with great sensitivity; it’s genuinely moving, thanks largely to Isabel Jewell’s performance as the Seamstress.
Backbeat (1994, Iain Softley) [hr]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] (Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change.) Though it could be even stronger if it really contended with the emotional weight of its central tragedy, this film about erstwhile Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (sensitively played by Stephen Dorff) and his intense romance with photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee, luminous) is gripping and fascinating, and easily the best dramatic portrayal of the Beatles’ early career to date, capturing the grit and grime of their Hamburg days in generally well-observed detail.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Narratively the same movie as The Blue Angel — Marlene Dietrich is inscrutable, hovers her sexuality powerfully, destroys some guy’s life — except with the additional campiness Von Sternberg had absorbed and rendered into a language at Paramount, though on a much more modest scale than his best efforts at the studio. It’s amusing but it doesn’t really go beyond a trifling variation of the title; obviously you’ll eat it up if you’re a fan of the lead actor or director.
Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville) [r]
[1950s canon.] Adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s influential novel about an unnaturally close and mutually toxic relationship between a brother and sister, one fragile and the other ruthless, and how the various claustrophobic settings in which they find themselves reinforce the increasingly decrepit and codependent nature of their lives together. One of the central performances, Nicole Stéphane’s, is hugely magnetic; the other isn’t so well-defined, which is fatal. And this only flirts with the fanciful grace of Cocteau’s own cinematic work because it generally can’t graft verbal enigmas onto visual ones.
Naughty Marietta (1935, W.S. Van Dyke) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] This operetta, revolving around a fairly routine story of a princess traveling undercover to avoid an arranged marriage and instead meeting up with Nelson Eddy, is less ribald than a Jeannette MacDonald vehicle with this title should be; but it benefits from the neatly frantic plotting of director Van Dyke, MGM’s usual ridiculous production values, some significant chemistry between the leads and even some actual comedy here and there. The “Sweet Mystery of Life” climax packs a bigger wallop than you’d begin to expect a film with this premise and staid atmosphere could generate.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda) [r]
[1950s canon.] Strikingly visualized, noir-like story of divided sympathies, loyalties and human needs in the immediate aftermath of WWII in Poland. Set in the 24 hours following Germany’s surrender, the film explores the instantly emerging conflict between the newly ruling Workers’ Party and the Underground. As in so much topical cinema, there’s a disconnect here between politics and their actual purpose resulting in an ambiguity feels both salient and like something of a copout, all too malleable in its point of view.
Rachel, Rachel (1968, Paul Newman) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Newman’s obviously deeply felt directorial debut is the painful story of a repressed schoolteacher who scolds herself for masturbating and wishing she had a family beyond the narcissistic mother for whom she caretakes, and what happens after she goes on a date with a long-estranged childhood friend. Joanne Woodward strikes alternately stilted and splendidly believable notes in the central role; the film is nearly stolen by Estelle Parsons as a closeted colleague who’s significantly more interesting than the actual love interest the story offers up.
Night Moves (2018, Kelly Reichardt)
[2010s catchup.] The usual naturalistic expanses of Reichardt’s cinema, bent not-very-seamlessly into a thriller structure with an environmental conscience. In Oregon, three nervous outsiders (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) perpetrate a dam explosion then scatter but are reunited in mutual anxiety by an unforeseen bit of violence. Starts out well, atmospheric and suspenseful, but lacks a coherent way to wrap up its intriguing premise.
Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook) [c]
[2010s catchup.] Park’s Hitchcock obsession completely sinks this generically excruciating mess, his first English-language film, about the increasingly psychotic and metaphysically ambiguous events surrounding straight-A goth girl Mia Wasikowska after her dad dies and her creepy Uncle Charlie (uh-huh) visits Disney’s Haunted Mansion where she lives with her narcissistic mom Nicole Kidman. Emptily flashy horror-thriller that sledgehammers every one of its half-baked ideas into oblivion. Apart from Wasikowska and Jacki Weaver, the cast is phenomenally bad, especially Kidman.
The Flame of New Orleans (1941, René Clair)
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] A bit weird to see Marlene Dietrich in a straight comedy (Clair’s first American film), a fairly polite chronicle of romantic duplicity in New Orleans. Not without its funny moments but pretty forgettable on the whole.
Yesterday (2019, Danny Boyle) [c]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Himesh Patel does the best he can as the only person in England and the world who remembers the Beatles, who starts passing off their songs as his own and becomes world famous; from there the trajectory is obvious and terribly dull. Richard Curtis’ screenplay makes infuriatingly little sense and is desperately unfunny. A more thoughtful film with this premise is possible, but it would have needed to be more complicated and messy, which would have left less time for the supremely half-assed romcom that dominates the ludicrously extended running time.
Z (1969, Costa-Gavras) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Explosively exciting, relentless and almost assaultive political thriller is the cinema of outrage much like The Battle of Algiers, with the twist that it’s also a crackerjack, highly accessible thriller of the first order. The mystery elements only enter the fold in the second half; before that it’s a movie about the physical logistics of direct action, its risks and its consequences. Costa-Gavras makes no secret of where his sympathies lie, nor of the actual events he means to amplify, but he also tells a story of almost universal power and intrigue — and using techniques that retain their power of breathless immediacy even now.
Golden Earrings (1947, Mitchell Leisen) [NO]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Leisen’s love of deliberately uneven narratives coalesces in trainwreck fashion with a wartime comedy of manners: Marlene Dietrich is a ridiculous “Gypsy” singing and making stew in the forest, stumbled upon by escaped British POW Ray Milland, who soon plays dressup and joins her while hiding out. Alternately offensive and tedious, this is a monstrous humiliation for all involved — the two leads in particular, Milland never more transparently inadequate as a heartthrob or a comedian in a role that seems to expect both.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970, Denis Sanders) [r]
[New Blu-ray.] This concert film documenting the first week of Elvis Presley’s 1970 residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas exists in two distinct versions — a trendy, frenetic mess interspersed with often banal talking heads and ample footage of Presley fucking up and exhausting himself; and a 2001 recut that emphasizes the band and the music from rehearsal to fruition nearly without interruption. What the two films have in common is that they communicate that Presley was a peerless showman even on the cusp of his decline; he is an engaging and magnetic presence throughout.
There was a time many years ago when The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise’s classic production for 20th Century Fox, was considered the greatest of all science fiction films. It isn’t difficult to understand the reasons for this; serious-minded and compelling in a way that sets it apart from the industry of B-pictures for which it was in some sense largely responsible, the film harnesses the considerable resources and polish of its pedigreed director, studio and even composer (Bernard Herrmann) for a sensation of real and high-stakes drama that isn’t limited by the typical trappings of genre. The only sense in which it stands apart from “prestige” studio fare is its relatively anonymous casting, and even this helps the film transcend its natural limitations — the “regular folks” coping with jarring circumstances come across as convincingly ordinary citizens, who despite their proximity to the seats of power in Washington function as multi-pronged audience vessels. They believably interpret the sudden worldwide zeitgeist into which they’re swept in just the disparate fashion you can imagine the actual populace would, something with which we collectively have plenty of experience (especially in the 21st century).
The crisis with which the entirety of planet Earth must contend is the sudden landing of a real-live flying saucer in the U.S. capital city, where military and government officials interpret the flashy visuals and verbal promise of peace about as you’d expect: by firing a shot that throws a potentially enlightening encounter into disarray. This sends messenger alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) on the run as he desperately attempts to stave off the human race’s construction of space-bound atomic weaponry in order to prevent our own planet’s assured destruction from interplanetary peace forces. Leaving his strong-arm robot Gort at base camp, he solicits the assistance of the occupants of a small boarding house where resides, among others, widowed Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, never posited as a love interest for Klaatu, thank heavens) along with her precocious son Bobby (Billy Gray, later of onetime Nick at Nite staple Father Knows Best). This kind of “peace, or else” narrative was especially and understandably common in the ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though there was no less impulse than there is today to treat any unequivocal antiwar statement as crackpot moralizing, as sardonically displayed again and again within this film, wherein it’s completely out of the question for Klaatu to express his warning to all nations at once due to the political machinations required for such a communication. (Such a notion is the entire basis for the non-sci fi British picture Seven Days to Noon, whose ironies are much subtler.) Klaatu eventually must turn to direct and foreboding action to acquire attention — with the world and especially the American population totally immune to the abstract possibility of destruction, again something we all now know the film got exactly right — and in doing so has to race against a manhunt forming against him, aided by Helen’s slimy boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe).
As implied, the effect The Day the Earth Stood Still had on the film industry, especially the financially lower tiers of same, was monumental and is visible in science fiction of films of the best and worst quality for decades hence. The ingeniously minimalist production design, with contributions from Frank Lloyd Wright, has echoes everywhere from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina; the use of varied ensemble casting to convey a large-scale crisis, and to render seriously the threat of a supernatural phenomenon, is mirrored and furthered effectively by Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later; and hardly a year goes by without a film in which an alien or a monster or a misunderstood criminal stumbles onto the same mother-child dynamic encountered here. As one of the earliest truly “literary” sci-fi pictures, carrying a dormant torch from Just Imagine and Things to Come and of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it seems inevitably to have given rise to the staid thoughtfulness of Star Trek, though conversely it also displays just enough of the whiz-bang excitement of the older, more kid-targeted film serials to keep younger eyes riveted, at least to a point. Less generous viewers can find its occasional hamminess, its sledgehammer political subtext, its strained seriousness and the general silliness of some of its ideas and dialogue (Neal admitted to busting up frequently during the production) off-putting, but only if they’ve never seen one of Roger Corman’s weaker sci-fi movies or even something more nobly intelligent like This Island Earth or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, compared to any of which its sincerity and spirit are impressively long-lived. The broad trend of 1950s sci-fi is to talk endlessly about ideas in a fashion that eventually feels stilted and self-important; the triumph of Robert Wise, screenwriter Edmund North and most of the cast is to render these oddball notions immediate, their metaphoric relevance unmistakable.
That’s to say nothing of the sense of wonder the picture is able to convey, thanks in part to the rendering of the film’s second act largely from the eyes of the young boy Bobby, whose curiosity and openness are engaging without coming across as overly wide-eyed in the familiar manner of so many similar roles in sci-fi movies of this vintage. Secondarily, Rennie’s enigmatic performance of Klaatu and the reasonable, enlightened urgency North provides to his character make even the modern viewer feel a certain peace of mind in his presence, an understanding that what he is dispensing is the only variety of wisdom that truly matters to a species now capable of destroying itself and everything around it. But it’s hard to convey how radically this idea of listening to an intellectual analysis of the human race’s situation would have played in 1951, on the cusp of the Second Red Scare; it’s a bit surprising everyone involved with the production wasn’t ultimately blacklisted, especially since one of its central messages is that Americans should “talk” to the U.S.S.R. A movie whose central advocation is of thoughtful communication and active listening is inevitably destined to be thought of as a hallmark of “liberal cinema,” which is more than a little depressing.
Perhaps that’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still somewhat muddies up its polemical tendencies in the last ten minutes, which for various reasons manage to squander much of the goodwill that the film spends an hour-plus acquiring. For anyone who is watching for the sheer excitement of it all, the structure of the ending (a murder, a resurrection, a speech, a departure) can only be described as an anticlimax, but that may well be a structural necessity in order to bring across the film’s impassioned message, which zombie Klaatu must deliver to an assembly of (most likely powerless) scientists from across the world. It’s a coyly cynical notion that it’s completely impossible for the actual leaders of Earth to end their “petty squabbling” long enough for a plea to end war and destruction, just as pointed as the fact that the compassion-driven Klaatu begins and ends his time on Earth by being gunned down. The film probably should end with a moment of bitter disappointment: either with Klaatu dying on the street giving orders for Gort to destroy the planet thanks to the inevitability of its belligerence, or maybe even with a direct call to action to the scientists and therefore to the audience. What we get instead is something of a half-measure; there is a vaguely exploitative, largely pointless sequence in which the heretofore strong and self-possessed character Helen, given an order to convey the message of Klaatu’s death to Gort, meaninglessly hesitates out of apparent fear, gets chased around in typical helpless-woman-in-distress fashion, and then upon finally saying the key words as assigned gets picked up and carried onto the spaceship and watches awkwardly as Gort carries out the retrieval then revival of Klaatu. It’s protracted and juvenile in a way the rest of the film isn’t, and you’re left with the notion that the entire massive chase scene portending all this (precipitated by the greed of Helen’s future ex-fiance, a character poorly and cartoonishly conveyed by a miscast Marlowe, who’s too dorky to play this kind of straightforward egomaniac without making the film seem like a joke; and by the Judas-like behavior of the kid Bobby) was just a way to stretch out the runtime a bit.
Nevertheless, now here we are, and we assume we are about to be treated at last with Klaatu’s grand, vital message for all of the human race — the scientific minds from all nations on the specially arranged chairs in the film, the regular folks and future generations watching in the movie theater and years later at home, the government leaders and officials who’d finally see the error of their ways after witnessing this fine work of popular art. Surely it would be something stirring like Chaplin’s moment in the sun at the end of The Great Dictator pleading for action and reason, or like the “now or never” intensity of what Joel McCrea says over the radio in Foreign Correspondent. Or, to travel three years into the future, Joseph Welch laying into Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor. Or the Gettysburg Address by the previously invoked Lincoln. What is the grand, paradigm-shifting bit of wisdom our hero Klaatu has to offer us? I will now reproduce it in its entirety.
I am leaving soon and you’ll forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first signs of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace without arms or armies, secure in theknowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
While it begins and ends well enough, this aggressively marble-mouthed treatise about the importance of, er, flying robot police amounts to something closer to Peter Graves’ incomprehensible faux-profound “man is a feeling creature” verbal essay in Corman’s It Conquered the World, or better yet, Bela Lugosi’s infanmous Bride of the Monster show-stopper. (“Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master! I will perfect my own race of people. A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”) Instead of tying the film’s text to its subtext in a meaningful fashion, this chatter only makes it seem childish, and has a distancing effect from any attempt to take its moral standing seriously — today it almost feels like a cowardly refusal to truly convey a message of peace, instead an advocation for the thought-crime unit eventually depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. It leaves the film in a compromised state, the audience (including the still-terrified gaggle of scientists) in confusion. It’s a gross derailment of a deeply respectable project.
For that reason, The Day the Earth Stood Still lives in the memory mostly as a fun and influential curio; you process it the same way you might any engagingly antique piece of once-relevant ideology, quickly forgetting how prescient, tense and upsetting it is for the majority of its first two thirds. The performances, apart from Marlowe’s, are wonderfully wholehearted and human, especially Neal whose heroine has a real heft and dimension far apart from the traditionally expected 1950s “Mom” archetype. Saddled with a lot of difficult dialogue, Rennie delivers most of it impeccably, and seems just off-kilter enough — like a forecast of David Byrne — to sell himself equally as a being from another world as as someone who actually could blend in on the streets of Washington. The pacing is impressively brisk — Wise has UFOs landed, Americans botching it and the planet in serious trouble within fifteen minutes — and the special effects from the flying saucer interior and exterior to the giant robot Gort are impressively slick and dreamlike, capturing the perfect balance of camp, menace and joyous futurism. You can ask for little more from entertainment; but for enlightenment, the movie steps just up to the precipice and then flies dejectedly away, which may after all be all that we humans really deserve.
[Includes a modest amount of material from a review I posted elsewhere in 2007.]