Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): A Heist Comedy of Errors

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If you need only one scene to be indicative of everything Big Deal on Madonna Street exemplifies as a caper comedy, the opening scene puts it out on a platter, ready for consumption.

A shrimpy man with a mustache waits on the street corner as a lookout while another named Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) busts open a window to hotwire a car. Except he totally bungles getting nabbed by the cops for his efforts. Even as the alarm goes off, he’s too much of a stiff to make a break for it. Now he’s on the inside, and he deserves it, if not for his botched crime, then at least for being a numbskull.

But he’s also an idea man looking to get out of the can as soon as possible. The job now is finding someone to be his scapegoat. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone has their underlining excuses. A wife already in prison. A baby to take care of. Previous prison time. It’s difficult to scrounge someone up when all your dopey friends are two-bit crooks.

Finally, they settle on Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a beefcake with a glass jaw. He has no prior record and with a dead-end boxing career, he could use the dough. So he goes into the police precinct, lays out his sob story, and proceeds to get handed a prison sentence of his own. Now he’s in the clink to keep Cosimo company.

He requests at least the common courtesy to know why he had to end up in prison in the first place. Cosimo tells him about a golden opportunity in the form of a heist. He’s got it all planned in his head, sans all the gory details. Regardless, it’s going to be the crime of the century, or the decade, or the year, or maybe the month…You get the idea.

When he finally gets on the outside on parole, it’s now Peppe who gathers the usual suspects together to put their plans into action. Their first mistake is probably taking their cues from a lug head, but they’re desperate and a little loopy themselves.

Soon they’re casing the joint and making sure they know what they’re getting into. It’s all very “scientific,” but not quite foolproof. They’ve watched one too many crime movies. The first professional they actually cross paths with is a safecracker (Toto) — a real pro — but he just gives them advice; he’s not actually prepared to take on the job for himself. He’s got his own parole to think about. And so he supplies them some of the tools of his trade and wishes them well.

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Normally heist stories are constructed in a very specific manner. There’s the planning process, then the heist, and the reversal where everything goes haywire. Big Deal is made entirely in its foundation — the best-laid plans that have no choice but to go awry — and their continued complications and digressions only make the scenario more hilarious. Rest assured, we foresee the problems before they ever come to a head. How can we not? But they proceed to get worse and worse.

The vacant apartment they were going to use as their in-road has been filled and so they look to woo one of the tenants so they can gain access. Peppe dons his most charming persona to get a foot in the door, except he goes and falls in love with a maid (Carla Gravina) he’s supposed to be romancing, getting jealous of her steady row of suitors. Then, she gets herself fired and the whole reason she was of value to them in the first place goes out the window. Peppe still loves her.

What ever happened to Cosimo, you ask? He finally gets out, intent on his cut, only to then seek vengeance on his former compatriots, going so far as to ambush Peppe in the carnival’s bumper cars. The youngster Mario (Renato Salvatori) starts his own forbidden love affair with the chaste younger sister (Claudia Cardinale) of one of their co-conspirators. Soon he loses heart and drops out. The family man, Tibero (Marcello Mastrianni), struggles to take care of his son. He also gets his arm broken nabbing a camera for recon. Worse yet, the camera’s worthless.

Their luck never gets better, nor should it. When it comes time to synchronize their watches, of course, they don’t have any. They’re either too expensive or already hocked. A lover’s quarrel heats up, and with it, the lights go on, cutting into the crew’s surreptitious activities up above on the rooftops.  Their timetable is abruptly derailed.

Big Deal on Madonna Street milks comedy from the telling observation that life is never picture perfect and even the most tightly wrought plans have a way of being unraveled or upended by the most unsubstantial wrinkle. These fellows aren’t exactly master criminals to begin with so their brand of setbacks more than fit the size and scope of the crime.

When they do finally get inside, there are leaks. Noises. Cats. Midnight snacks. Major miscalculations. They continue bumbling their way through every waking minute and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Normally heist films go horribly amiss at the most inopportune moment. In Big Deal on Madonna Street, they shoot themselves in the foot countless times, and still, they go for it anyway.

You’ve got to admire their dogged determination and this motley crew is quite likable. It comes from knowing they are criminals who never will succeed. They are armed with a prevailing obliviousness. We can laugh at them and like them, and watch them stumble off into their lives, after having made a complete mess of everything.

Part of this comes with walking with them in their lives and seeing them as commonfolk with all the foibles that come with small-town life. What a lovable pack of misfits and malcontents they are and we learn them to appreciate them for precisely these reasons. They’re unequivocally silly. If nothing else, they provided their audience with some quality entertainment. As a heist film shot as a comedy of errors, Madonna Street has never quite found its equal.

4/5 Stars

The Trouble With Harry (1955): Hitchcock, Humor, and The Macabre

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Idyllic is the word for The Trouble with Harry, and it positively crackles with the autumnal delights one can only know in locales where the seasons give way one to another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography boasts many opulent and gorgeously shot sequences, but Trouble With Harry might have some of the most supernal. Part of this comes from the fact it comes in such stark contrast to his environs in Northern California.

Because the East Coast — Vermont in particular — affords him a very particular canvass and he uses them to full effect. The story goes that he went so far as to have leaves pinned back onto trees to try and replicate the shots on a sound stage. Whatever the techniques it boasts something distinctly tangible.

If the locale is not entirely functional, it still manages to be another integral character in the story just as the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot or the thought of a lemonade out on the porch conjures up visions of a very specific sort. But of course, all of this connotation would be for naught if it was not juxtaposed with the typical Hitchcockian proclivity for the darkly macabre.

The Trouble with Harry might offer his lightest touch — it’s spritzed more evidently with humor than a great many of his movies — but the blackness at its core cannot go unnoticed. Take, for instance, that opening sequence. It’s emblematic of the whole picture. There’s tiny Jerry Mathers freakishly young (even before the days of Leave It To Beaver).

He’s running off on some boyish adventure his toy gun in hand, only to stumble upon the corpse of a man named Harry. The man’s nicely dressed. Laid out in the middle of an open pasture. More importantly, he’s dead.

Hitchcock employs a trick from the painterly masters using foreshortening to make the man’s body envelop the screen as the little boy stares down at him rather inquisitively, ready to run off and tell his mother. From the outset, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring is both rigorous and rather jaunty, perfectly in tune with the sense of place and tone.

But this is no conventional tale of malice or ill-blood. It is, however, the Macguffin to kick our story off. Edmund Gwenn is another fellow who comes upon the body quite by chance — he was out shooting rabbits unsuccessfully — could it be a stray bullet that took Harry out? He thinks it’s better not to risk it and decides to drag the body to more secluded terrain.

However, he’s met by one of his neighbors. John Michael Hayes’ script does splendidly in moments like these. It’s able to place small-town pleasantries up against a grisly murder as if it’s a small trifle — a mere afterthought to be dealt with in the manner of a pothole or a roach problem. In the end, Captain Wiles (Gwenn) and Ms. Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a kindly spinster, set up a date for afternoon tea with the promise of blueberry muffins and genial company.

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What of Harry? It’s true the whole world seems to turn up to find him. Soon little Arnie returns with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and she hardly bats an eye. A local professorial fellow — his nose always in a book — trips over the body without much of an acknowledgment. Even local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), has time enough to sketch a crude portrait of the dead man.

He’s your conventional starving artist. Kindly Ms. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts his particularly exuberant paintings out for sale near her Emporium, though he doesn’t stir up much business from the cows lingering across the pasture.

Ms. Rogers meanwhile is a twice-widowed young woman, and she admits her last husband was too good to live. She’s pursued by Mr. Marlowe even as the old-timers look to start courting in their own way.

The source of the frivolity and the casual delightfulness comes in painting the town as Hitchcock does — this combination of coloring the idiosyncrasies of the quainter side of life as well as the open-air mise en scene, whether pure illusion or not.

What’s lovely about Hitch is the way every movie becomes a sort of game or puzzle in its own right. Because The Trouble with Harry will never be held in the same regard as many of his most obvious successes — movies from this same period of time — but it’s ceaselessly interesting.

Audiences of the 50s would have had a time pinning it down in a conventional sense because it employs fairly frank dialogue whether riddled with innuendo or not, but it also lacks the kind of obvious star power big studios often banked on to sell tickets. Surely Hitchcock could have garnered the best talent and yet he chose not to.

This is a character piece, and it wasn’t meant for the Cary Grants or Jimmy Stewarts of the world — at least not in 1955. It called for something more mundane. And what of the humor? First of all, there are certain expectations from “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s hard to say they are met; it’s almost like he swapped the formula. He leads with the comedy with accents of suspense and the macabre.

A body buried and excavated, put back in the ground, and exhumed time and time again over the course of the day. It’s the film’s prolonged gag. One of the things that makes it feel continually comedic is the lack of a true villain of any consequence.

The closest candidate is Royal Dano, a slightly curmudgeonly sheriff who has a penchant for old cars. He’s sniffing around, always on the side of law and order. No, this is most definitely a comedy, and the two couples join forces to keep their local secret. Because they know quite literally where the dead bodies are buried. Though it’s quite possible none of them is the actual culprit. It’s typical of Hitchcock that his inclinations of Vermont are informed by murder instead of moonlight.

He is, after all, the man who keenly observed that the medium of T.V. “brought murder back into the home where it belongs.” The Trouble With Harry plays with the same form of morbid levity.

3.5/5 Stars

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock and Dietrich

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It’s true that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, dress it up with murder and life becomes a series of stages and varying performances you’re putting on for different audiences — trying your best to play your audience — while not giving yourself away.

Stage Fright feels very much like Hitchcock getting back to his roots; there’s something simpler and yet still charming about the milieu he’s able to drum up evoking the British Isles. In reality, it was a convenient excuse to spend more time with his daughter Patricia currently away at school in the U.K. She even earned a small role. It’s also propitious he seems to be having good fun with the conceit: the combination of play-acting and murder with actors trying their hands at amateur sleuthing.

We are thrown into an almost instantaneous thriller. It dispenses with the lead-up altogether by showing a couple on the run in a car. A fledgling actress, Eve (Jane Wyman), is the complicit accomplice and Richard Todd is a man fleeing the authorities. Through an extensive flashback, he relates how he was pulled into the web of murder spun by his lover — the famed and gorgeous prima donna Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

He tries to touch up the crime scene she’s left behind only to get spooked by her maid turning up on the scene. The murder investigation commences in earnest including a respectable detective named Smith (Michael Wilding).

Eve sets the fugitive up with her father, out of harm’s way, before turning right around and hatching a plan to get to the bottom of the whole thing. One minute she’s trying to get close to the aforementioned policeman to somehow pump him for information with her damsel in distress act. The next moment, she’s putting her thespian training to good use posing as a cockney maid (and temporary replacement) for dame Charlotte herself.

It has some of the dynamics of an All About Eve between actresses though it’s admittedly hinging on cloak-and-dagger antics opposed to true backstage drama. Because it’s on this plane of performance that Hitch seems most intrigued — where acting becomes a conduit for understanding the mystery at the core of this movie.

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If there were any undisputed secret weapon, my bet is up for Alistair Sim. He was always a mirthful co-conspirator if I’m to recall a movie like Green for Danger. He’s eminently likable, though the spark in his eye suggests he’s ever prone to mischief. This accords him all the prerequisites to play a fine father figure opposite Wyman if only for the primary reason they both seem to relish the game and being a part of it together.

They have the most instantly vibrant relationship within the picture, and they give it the comic underpinnings one comes to expect from the director. Sim himself meets the macabre of Hitchcock thanks to a bloodstained dress on a carnival doll used to shock Dietrich out of her performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It mirrors the ugly token of her secret transgression.

In another sequence, the wanted man shows up during her performance — a particularly saucy rendition of Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Before this interruption, the scene is pulled out of the Hitchcockian world momentarily. It’s an individual moment where an auteur like Hitch gets totally overpowered by Dietrich or, in many ways, he acquiesces allowing her to be her scintillating self in the golden limelight before the mechanisms of the plot are meant to take over once more.

Stage Fright feels perfectly comfortable being so theatrical. However, the ideas never feel fully wrought; it’s a bit scattered and inconceivable — nor is Jane Wyman the most compelling Hitchcock lead. Mind you, I’m not expecting her to be a Hitchcock blonde or Ingrid Bergman, but she’s not quite on par with even someone like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.

Likewise, the theater finale is terribly abrupt though it functions on the tenets of many of Hitchcock’s grandest setpieces by taking a novel environment and turning it into a thrilling locale for drama (Donen would rehash a similar sequence in Charade). The scenes in the build-up are of all shapes and sizes as Wyman rather coincidentally juggles a double life. It’s all highly circumstantial.

As it turns out, the lynchpin scene is right at the very beginning. Of course, we don’t realize that until the end, but right there is Hitchcock’s point. To see it any other way is a mistake. Because obfuscation and chicanery are the building blocks of not only acting but murder as well. Perceptions can change so quickly, and he was one of the greats at visual audience manipulation. In Stage Fright he takes it a step further. He lies to us outright on the screen.

3/5 Stars

Woman in Hiding (1950) and Worrying About Ida Lupino

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Woman in Hiding doesn’t waste any time. A car races down a twisting highway only to go careening through the side rails into the drink. The car and its occupant look to be obliterated. Yet we have the dead talking, Ida Lupino whispering to us from the grave. Could this be a situation akin to Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd (1950)? We’re forced to wait before making any prognostication.

The story is set in North Carolina and as such, you have this lingering undercurrent of southern glory and heritage wrapped up in the wounds of secession and racial prejudice. There’s even reference made to the deep lurking traditions of the South with its pitchforks and rocks, of people who wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t allow their way of life to die. It’s actually rather unnerving rarely seeing an African-American character in this Hollywood tableau almost as if they’ve been erased.

Still, the locals go about their business dredging the local waters for the automobile and the missing Mrs. Deborah Clark (Lupino), even calling on the assistance of an old cannon, yet another relic from the aforementioned lineage. This is the backdrop against which Woman in Hiding plays out.

Because Seldon Clark IV (Stephen McNally) came out of this pedigree — tall and handsome, but proud and driven with maintaining the family standing, even to the point of delusion. He’s worked in the mill of a Mr. Chandler making many unwanted passes at his daughter Deborah.

For the time being, nothing comes of it because her father gives the boy a stern talking to, seeing right through the arrogant creep and the rest of the buffoons who beget him. In fact, it is at this point Lupino feels sorry for him — trying to defend him.

The story takes its most drastically abrupt turn on a single cut, when, in a matter of seconds, it comes out the forthright and perceptive old man died in a freak accident. Who was by his side unable to help him? Seldon Clark of course. It’s an obvious equation of two plus two, but, again we must wait until everything unfolds.

Marriage is proposed the day of the funeral, thus tying the knot (and the mill) between Deborah and Seldon. Their subsequent honeymoon at a cabin getaway is rudely disrupted by a former girlfriend. Peggy Dow debuts as a conniving southern belle on equal footing with her darkly vindictive suitor. It instantly rips away any pretenses we might have from her more widely remembered turn in Harvey (1950) as she gets backhanded for her many scandalous insinuations.

Could she, in fact, be the victim of the scenario? Doubts creep in? The first of many as Seldon’s colors become more and more obvious even to his wife. One of the most generous compliments that can be offered to Woman in Hiding is how it wears its melodrama brazenly on its sleeves.

It evokes a helpless world akin to Road House (1948) where nature is a trap — a place in which to be hunted like an animal, in this case, confined to a nightmarish marriage. The narrative does fold over itself and we realize where we find Deborah.

She is a woman caught in a state of matrimonial helplessness, in a society where she has little agency to do or say anything to free herself. It’s the same anxiety film noir of the post-war era gorged itself on, for both men and women. Because it becomes apparent the dividing line between victim and femme fatale is razor-thin. Really all that matters is the point of view provided.

From Deborah’s flustered perspective, there is a vague sense of searching out Patricia Monahan (Dow) because maybe together their corroboration might be able to put Seldon away. Just maybe someone might listen to the truth then.

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For the time being, staying dead is the most auspicious decision. Deborah takes to the road to disappear for a while and make some money on the side waitressing. But there must always be a foil and in this case, it’s a man named Keith Ramsay (Howard Duff).

He’s the genial man behind a newspaper stand striking up a conversation with a woman on the run. He seems like just the type of character who might provide a shoulder to lean on, whether solicited or not. In a world where everyone’s overstimulated with get-rich-quick schemes and radio giveaways, he seems decidedly unconcerned with the rat race as he works at his pop’s shop.

However, he does become a shoulder to lean on — offering comfort — but he’s also a part of the problem. Because this tale gets its punch from a woman being hunted, when she should, in fact, be a victim. In this regard, it’s a precursor to the same problem at the core of Blue Gardenia (1953) as the newspapers start treating her as a fugitive.

Because even as the local hotel is overrun by a traveling convention of drunken out-of-towners and conga lines, darkness can still find its way back in down the stairwells. The most excruciating development comes with the connection between our favorite fellow and the dastardly husband. He has no idea what’s he’s doing when he makes the identification.

Even as Deborah is taken back by her husband and Monahan turns up again only to be stepped on, the story must culminate where it began. In the same small town, at the dead of night, inside the mill. There’s something to knowing what’s going to happen and still having a potboiler raise the pulse. It comes down to the old adage, it’s not the destination but the road taken.

It also comes from actually genuinely caring for a character and as one of the best — some might even say an underrated actress — Ida Lupino plays the victim with an inbred resiliency, making the audience strive for her safety even as we sit powerlessly in the theater seats. It’s not some monumental derivation of the tried and true formulas, but audience identification goes a long way.

3.5/5 Stars

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): A Venus Flytrap of a Film

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For some Suddenly, Last Summer plays like the Holy Grail of Classic Hollywood cult films. It’s a bit like seeing those old Warner Bros. Studio clips of famed actors muffing their lines and then proceeding to blurt out obscenities. It breaks all illusions for those who have a certain perception of what these old movies represent, whether it’s something twee or a sort of refreshing simplicity.

Somewhere between Tennesse Williams and Gore Vidal, we find the origins of something with the carnal instinct of a venus flytrap. Fitting, as the curious plants become one of the film’s earliest portents. One Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) keeps them well-fed in her arboretum. Really, the space — like an overgrown Eden in her backyard — is in memoriam to her dearly beloved son Sebastian.

He’s never seen in the flesh, but he haunts this picture like a male equivalent to Mrs. Rebecca De Winter. The memory of him is kept alive by those closest to him almost to the point of obsession.

But to understand this we must start earlier. At Lion’s View State Asylum in 1937, a brain surgeon (Montgomery Clift) has made strides in lobotomy to provide relief to schizophrenic patients. It’s a primitive solution and his facilities are subpar at best. As a state institution, they lack the funds to take care of their growing population of patients.

Their savior might just come in the form of the same Mrs. Venable who is looking for some aid for her niece (Elizabeth Taylor), a young woman who has recently been interned at St. Mary’s hospitable. She’s purportedly prone to obscene outbursts and other unseemly behavior.

The way it’s described, she might as well be as mad as a hatter. Meanwhile, the way the lady talks about her departed son to the good doctor you would think the former poet was almost like a god. She sees both men’s art — that of surgeon and poet — as supremely powerful and grandly creative. What’s more, there’s no pretense. She’s absolutely infatuated with the memory of her dead son.

She’s further obsessed with everything she witnessed on her travels with Sebastian the year before: particularly birds devouring baby sea turtles. Nature is not known for its compassion, and we are all trapped in a devouring creation. In this world, the face of God is not a supreme being but a horrible inescapable truth. If anything, God is made in our own image and it’s a terrifying reflection.

Elizabeth Taylor finally makes her entrance, and she’s as alluring as ever. She’s hardly the world’s idea of an unhinged ward patient, done up as she is in her typical Hollywood glamor, with a slight redux free of charge.

As she meets Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) and becomes accustomed to his calming presence, there’s an uneasy trust being formed. But if anything, it might as well play off the close friendship of Liz and Monty offscreen. He doesn’t do much — at least in a histrionic sense — and she commands most of the scenes, still, it only works if they are together. For all the struggles Clift endured after his career-altering injury, in tandem with the likes of Hepburn and Taylor, he works quite well.

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Of course, there is no real pretense to believe this story is really concerned in any regard with mental health. Catherine goes wandering around the facility only to terrorize herself. If she’s not “mad,” it might all be subjective anyway. At any rate, it feels like a high-profile precursor to Shock Corridor.

However, in that film, the shock befits the low-profile punchiness of Sam Fuller more than Mankiewicz and his A-list cast. Here it feels more than a little dimorphic, bearing two forms that don’t fit together. To be sure, Suddenly, Last Summer transcends mediocrity altogether. It’s arguably something far better or something far worse than it seems.

These long, drawn-out scenes loaded to the gills with theatrical dialogue meet their piece de resistance as Taylor goes off — divulging all the secrets she’s been holding onto. However, if any of this gives off the putrid stench of convention, rest assured the finale is as striking as it is genuinely perturbing.

It paints in oblique language, clouded images, and the drone of Taylor’s own voice as we watch her terrorized face recount the horrors she witnessed. Suddenly, Last Summer reaches the summit with clanging drums and music, cobblestone streets, and streams of lecherous feet chasing after their prize. Here again the overgrown gardens, venus fly traps, and flesh-eating birds have renewed significance.

It takes her to the brink — a cinematic equivalent to visual insanity — and the precipice of reality, leaving her all but ready to jump off. Whether it’s totally effective or not, above all, it leaves a polarizing impression. Thus, the most surprising reaction to the picture would be one of total indifference.

What sets it apart from its brethren and even other Tennessee Williams pictures is how it’s able to lay into its themes even more overtly, almost on the encouragement of The Production Codes. Because it’s preaching a message of the twisted roads humanity can take, paths that ultimately lead to destruction. And yet with all those involved, there is this subversive sense of something else — something more, its screenplay’s skin is crawling with all sorts of undercurrents.

In what universe do Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift star in a picture helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz culminating in cannibalism and interwoven with any number of delectably salacious taboos? It happens here. And yet more perverse still is how God or hope or meaning, in any form, is absent. From a worldview perspective, there is no such thing as Truth (or is it truth serum?). Take your poison.

Either is fitfully terrifying until it gives way to a meaningless apathy. No wonder the asylums are so full of patients. It might be the safest place to be in a world such as this. Our initial fear is poor Elizabeth Taylor receiving a lobotomy. Rest assured we get something far worse: a senseless, devouring world. It’s poised and ready to eat us all up.

2.5/5 Stars

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962): Paul Newman and Geraldine Page

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“I like you. You’re a nice monster.” – Chance Wayne

“Well, I was born a monster.” – Alexandra Del Lago

In this interchange between Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, I couldn’t help adding my own connotations. Alexandra Del Lago was born a monster. Chance Wayne is a self-made one. If anything, his environment has turned him into the self-serving creature he’s become. They are both looking to use one another, and they are not alone.

Although Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the more high-profile entry, the points of connection with The Sweet Bird of Youth are too many to ignore. It’s yet another Tennesse Williams play directed by Richard Brooks for the screen, albeit neutered by the Production Codes of some of its controversy. This is hardly a new phenomenon.

Once more we have a sweaty, hot-blooded showcase for Paul Newman playing opposite a powerful Southern patriarch (in this case, Ed Begley) and other cast holdovers include Madeleine Sherwood.

The premise is simple enough. Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) returns to his hometown of St. Cloud, Florida as a big shot. At least this is the illusion he looks to promote as he sets up in the local hotel.

His companion is a fading movie star plagued by her self-medication and neuroses as she tries to stave off the advances of a has-been career. He has elected himself her PR man — stirring up headlines she doesn’t want — to benefit his own career no less. He fluctuates between opportunism, blackmail, and virile charisma all in the name of getting himself said break.

If Alexandra Del Lago, masquerading incognito as the Princess Kosmopolis, is his Norma Desmond, he is a sleazy sellout looking to wheedle his way into any amount of fame. Chance is looking to use her clout for all its worth because her seal of approval still means something in the industry. Alexandra need only say the word to the Louella Parsons and Walter Winchells of the world, and this nobody could hit the big time.

While Del Lago is on the way out, Williams flips the script with another revelation; Chance is on the way out too — if he ever arrived at all. Because years of striving have found him little success. He believed in the pie in the sky ideas of the local institution: Tom Boss Finley (Ed Begley). Every man can hit the jackpot if he tries hard enough. He didn’t stop to consider Hollywood is a crazy land with walls all around it. All the failures are kept on the outside looking in until they grow old and undesirable.

On Sunday morning the bells ring — it’s Easter, after all — and Alexandra rises from her bedroom suite positively reborn! Chance goes off to the church. The other leg of his personal fantasy involves running off with his sweetheart, the aptly named Heavenly (Shirley Knight). But her daddy, Boss, and the skeevy Tom Finley Jr. (Rip Torn) are bent on keeping her away from Chance. They aren’t opposed to physical violence as Tom Jr. has a group of mobilized hoodlums called the Finley Youth Club at his disposal.

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Because if Boss Finley is a pillar of society and a Sunday morning Christian who promotes his virginal daughter and denounces communism and other prurient attacks on the American way, he’s cracked at the seams himself.

His own daughter is skeptical of his deep-seated hypocrisy. Even before his dear departed wife passed away, he kept Ms. Lucy, a lady waiting, well-compensated at the local hotel. It’s the duplicity of this brand of sing-song Southern hospitality with an undercurrent of venom. Although the South by no means has a monopoly on this type of behavior.

If there is anyone to feel sorry for at this point, it might be Del Lago and yet Page ultimately regains her dignity as her frailties fade away long enough for her to see Chance for what he is: Just a name with a body. She’s known many of them before. Men led by a chain for want of fame and stardom only to be kept down.

If Newman is supposed to be an archetype of a callow young man, he has far too much charm and smarts to come off as a Yokum totally duped by Boss Finley’s grandiose talk. Regardless, he and Alexandra each have their own private hell to go to. Where can this story go but down?

In a word, there is a hopeful ending for both of them. It doesn’t aim for the jugular of tragedy. It’s not aiming for the grandest heights of southern gothic melodrama, and so it settles for a minor note. If the sweet bird of youth passes you by, it’s a matter of making your peace with it — finding peace in something else.

I couldn’t help focusing on the hymn playing in the background of the final scenes. These folks have probably sung the words countless times only to have them bounce off the walls of their hearts. Its lines go like this:

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All could never sin erase,
Thou must save, and save by grace.

Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in thee

3/5 Stars

The Young Philadelphians (1959): Paul Newman Takes on Family Skeletons

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What’s most intriguing about The Young Philadelphians is how it manages to be a composite of several standalone genres. It’s a rags-to-riches tale. There’s romance. Stunning courtroom drama. But the sinew holding it together are sudsy soap opera tendencies.

Like most any life, our story begins before our main character, Tony Lawrence (Paul Newman), was ever born. Back in the old days, his mother (Diane Brewster) was to have a church wedding with William Lawrence III, a man who was desirable solely due to his family name. Being attentive to such things, Kate is happy to marry him — leaving behind a lifelong friend Mike Flannagan (Robert Keith) to drown his sorrows.

What unravels in a matter of seconds is the kind of juicy drama offering up Adam “Batman” West himself in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it debut, though he does have a crucial role in the ensuing tale. There are implied sordid details that need not be parsed through now. Regardless, Kate is left as a widow and looks to raise up her infant son to bear the reputable name of Lawrence. He doesn’t know his protective mother is sitting on a stick of dynamite for the sake of her son.

Tony grows up to be a fine, strapping young man of substance. The instant magnetism of Paul Newman is on full display. Not animal magnetism but the kind of charisma that would keep him a beloved figure long after many of his peers from the Actors Studio had mostly dissolved and given way to younger talent. The intensity comes later.

For now, he’s a Princeton boy working in construction because it pays the bills, though his ambitions are to pursue law — all in due time. What follows at the worksite is a contrived meet-cute but no less delightful do to the instant charm of Paul Newman and Barbara Rush. Not only are they beautiful people, but they have a playful rapport to back it up.

Later, he attends a high society party — his mother hopes he can make some invaluable social contacts — but he consorts with Chester Gwyn (Robert Vaughan), a prodigal rich boy with greased back hair and a penchant for getting plastered. His relatives, who run his trust fund, heartily disapprove of his carrying on even as Tony impresses them.

The other person of interest is the same debutant, Joan Dickinson (Rush), who tells them all her classmates are married to very nice young fellows, cautious prudent young men with button-down families. All and all, they are representative of the idle and affluent segment of society looking to find a nice life for themselves complete with a fine salary, a gorgeous wife, and an equally gorgeous home to boot. For those who haven’t had to work like Tony, it sounds like utter drudgery. It’s a lifestyle that has eaten many people like Chet and Joan alive as it molds them into their assigned conventions.

In their own way, Tony and Joan look to pursue their own happiness which — although it fits within the confines of society — still has a hint of the reckless, impetuousness of youth. They still have enough fervor and passion in their chests to see the world as an idealistic space meant to be conquered. However, their parents have other plans for them…

In mere moments, the entire story careens in another direction with twists and turns worthy of a soap opera. Suddenly, the romance burning between them is snuffed out and sullied by insinuations. Tony learns the rules of the game the hard way. Society, as they know it, is built on the bedrock of backroom deals, saving face, and family reputations.

He resorts to making the connections, climbing the social ladder, and running into some old acquaintances. It’s in these crucial interludes where Newman channels his youthful intensity by ripping off the band-aid of a broken relationship and charging forward with a newfound tenacity. Under the circumstances, he foregoes the law firm of the reputable Mr. Dickinson (John Williams) and makes a name for himself in the service of someone else. He lands a big fish by swiping one of his largest clients (played by the perennially bubbly Billie Burke), who literally wanders into his office.

Even as he’s driven by his own private ambitions, Lawrence never completely sheds his conscience. He rebuffs the advances of his boss’s sex-crazed wife (Alexis Smith), stomping out an affair before it can begin.

With the passage of time, we are led to ponder how these lives could have ended differently if given the chance? Tony is still unmarried. Joan found a rich money bags, who unfortunately died fighting in Korea. The war also took Chet’s arm leaving him a crippled and degenerate drunk.

In fact, Vaughan gives the final act all he has, and he is one of the film’s unsung heroes; he provides some outward manifestation of the myriad of issues conveniently swept under the rug by the city’s foremost families. When he hits the papers with a murder rap pinned on him, it rattles all the skeletons buried in the closets. His patriarch, the esteemed Dr. Shippen Stearns even says, “individuals are less important than the whole.” What matters is coming out of the mess without a scandal.

I do adore Billie Burke particularly because we never saw enough of her in this later period of her career, and she still brings the same genial energy she always had in her golden years. She’s another outlier in the film’s stuffy landscape.

However, it’s also a test of Tony’s true character as he juggles his own reservations and allegiances to people like his mother and Chet. Joan reopens wounds, now a decade old, going to the core of who they are as human beings — their ambitions and the ways that they have been changed due to the hotbed of the surrounding society.

It’s the kind of scene I wanted to playback because it feels like it comes at us out of nowhere. She wants to hire another lawyer to take him out of the grinder — fearing he may have sold out again — and he proceeds to bristle knowing he never meant to sell out. At least not really. Their fight, if we can call it that, is what spurs him on in the courtroom. However, there is something else.

We remember where this story began. His mother is forced to tell him something about his untold life and what happened before he was born. Suddenly, this isn’t just a matter of someone else’s life — that would be enough — but this holds implications for his reputation and that of his mother’s. Everything hangs in the balance.

So when he gets to the courtroom the stakes are heady. But he comes at the case with a level of acumen and genuine discernment (although the judge does seem to be giving him far more favor than the prosecutor receives). This observation is mostly immaterial. He puts the key witness, George Archibald (Richard Deacon), up on the stand and does everything he’s been training his whole life to do.

Somehow he’s never spoken a truer word when he says, “I’m not as good as I hoped I could be, but I’m not as bad as I thought I was.” Let them sink in for a moment. As we look on, we see a man who has found his happy medium as he’s slowly learned to be contented with the life put before him without any regrets. He can walk out of that courtroom, his best girl in hand, confident that his reputation is intact, but most importantly his moral conscience is as well. And we are right there with him.

3.5/5 Stars

The Young Lions (1958): Humanity in Epic Scale

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The opening of Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions, based on Irvin Shaw’s titular novel, could be plucked out of an earlier picture like The Mortal Storm. It’s New Year’s Eve 1938 in Bavaria, Germany. Young lovers ski and frolic in the snow as locals make merry indoors.

Marlon Brando is a sympathetic German or closer still a principled man named Christian, currently sharing the company of a beautiful American — one Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). For her, the evening is quashed with the word of Hitler. However misguided it might be, he has a genuine optimism about what Hitler can and will do for his country. Christian is not a monster. Likewise, he believes if lives have to be sacrificed for the sake of peace, he will gladly go to war.

Although these two people will never share the screen again, this is the beginning of everything. Because of course, we know what happened next in the history books. War did come. First in Europe, making its way to France, then Britain, and finally, the U.S. got involved. Christian gets his start policing the streets of France, upending their derogatory view of the enemy, even as he struggles with the perils of radical ideology.

It occurs to me, part of Brando’s success comes with how his social consciousness paired with his acting prowess. Because when he still seemed thoroughly engaged with his career, he sought out parts of such diversity, bringing humanity to all sorts of disparate people. They didn’t always hit the mark (I think of Viva Zapata and Tea House of The August Moon), and yet during this same period, he played an informant, a southern ace who falls for a Japanese girl, and here a sympathetic German during WWII.

There’s a calculated empathy to the adaptation, casting a German and a Jewish man as two of our most prominent protagonists. It’s difficult to begrudge The Young Lions its inclinations because they seem genuine and earnest, especially in the capable hands of Brando and Montgomery Clift. Yes, we must take a moment to mention Clift now.

The older actor is sometimes clumped with Brando, but even in the context of this movie, it’s fascinating to begin comparing them. Brando burst onto the scene and ultimately let himself go — becoming disinterested and disaffected by his screen career. Clift, likewise, was an incandescent talent transplanted from the stage, but he was totally engaged in his craft.

His own setbacks were initially out of his control: a car accident that left him dependent on drink and pain killers. He considered Brando a squandered talent for all of his abilities, but if anything, it shows how devoted Clift was to his art, doubling his efforts even after his injury.

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While they’re not exactly “young” lions, Dean Martin and Clift are a pair of compelling ones as they are drafted to be sent out overseas. You would never think of putting them together. Their personalities seem so adverse to one another, and yet there is a component of loyalty found in their performances bleeding out into real life. They were there for each other, forged by fire as they were.

Dean Martin was two years removed from his split with Jerry Lewis, and The Young Lions was his first big chance to redefine his image as an actor. He gives it a valiant go in a performance that maintains shades of his persona. In this case, Michael is a stage entertainer hesitant about going off to war and looking to dodge culpability any way he possibly can. He jousts with his girlfriend Margaret (Rush), who simultaneously doesn’t want him to die even as she disapproves of his dereliction of duty. When the time comes, he proves his mettle and his steadfastness.

Maximillian Schell was a revelation to me quite a number of years ago when I first saw Judgement at Nuremberg. Because in a picture with such contentious stakes and with so many prominent acting powerhouses, for me, he is the film’s standout with the most spectacular stand. In The Young Lions, he plays Brando’s superior espousing the typical rhetoric: The German army is invincible because it obeys orders and it harbors no sentimentality, moralists, or individualists.

In one sense, he constantly castigates Christian for his lapses in judgment, for this softness he has, but for all his perniciousness, Captain Hardenberg still comes off as a human being.  He has a flirtatious wife (May Britt) waiting back home and a life ultimately crippled by injury. If Martin holds his own up against Clift, then Schell — learning his lines phonetically no less — certainly proves himself a compelling presence opposite Brando.

They get reassigned to Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa working behind enemy lines. It’s in these moments, in particular, as they bomb and mow down their unsuspecting enemy, we get a gutting portrait of how merciless the world can be, but that lets people off the hook too easily.

Human beings — myself included — can be petty, mean-spirited, and cruel to one another, and The Young Lions is not only about this global scale of war between nations. It’s about the conflicts and schisms formed in what’s supposed to be a united front — a shared cultural identity. Whether it’s a German with a heart and soul or a Jewish man who is ridiculed and discriminated against in his own country for something that is out of his control.

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The onslaught of Allied forces sweeping across North Africa — the Brits with their bagpipes and Patton with his tanks — is a force to be reckoned with even as the homefront is ripe with the division. Even as Noah (Clift) finds himself a lovely small-town girl (Hope Lange) to wed, the systematic bigotry of his barracks-mates and his superior officer is crippling. He faces it with a lion-hearted resolve as Michael does his best to back him up.

The tide of the war finds Brando and Schell fleeing on a motorcycle to escape the steadily advancing enemy forces. Christian eventually loses his commander and must face the man’s wife with a renewed disillusionment. Even a return to Paris and greetings from old friends (Parley Baer and Liliane Montevecchi), show him the world has changed dramatically. He has as well.

On the Allied front, Michael finally asks to be sent to Normandy, and there reunites with Ackerman to liberate a concentration camp. It is the same camp that has opened Christian’s eyes about what the Germans have been perpetrating for the past 5 years under the guise of Nazism. While not a totally graphic scene, it’s no less of a gut punch as each character is forced to meditate on what is before them.

There’s this driving sense of fate as The Young Lions mounts to highlight one of the monumental absurdities of war. Here we have spent an entire film — through all its peaks and valleys, heartbreaks and reveries — and we finally bring together our three primary leads.

They are on opposites sides of the conflict though they are all men of a certain stock and decency. And yet because of war and how factions are aligned, they are meant to kill one another. They will never have a chance to sit down at a table together and know how similar they really were. This is the great tragedy The Young Lions underlines.

Not only does it exhume the hidden evils of the human heart, but it also annihilates all sense of common humanity, forcing us to only see a demonized enemy opposed to men and women who are not unlike ourselves.

In a better world or even in a world before the war, these three men could have been friends or compatriots. Alas, it was never to be and what’s crueler still, they will never know what they have missed out on. They already have so many traumas; it’s difficult to discern if these thoughts will plague them. But that is not the purpose. The film is constructed in such a way, it’s meant to commend us to cast off war altogether and this is far more telling.

The impression I am left with has magnitude. It’s a minor miracle how the grandiose scale of a cinemascope epic, backed by performances from such renowned talents, somehow still manages an immediacy and intimacy. The Young Lions might be lengthy, but it never loses its protagonists in a mass of humanity. Instead, it highlights the humanity of a few to illuminate a whole society.

4/5 Stars

“The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”

Sayonara (1957): Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka

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Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) lands on the airbase in Korea and almost immediately gets assigned leave in Kobe. However, this leave has ulterior motives, signed by General Webster (Kent Smith), a friend of his father’s and the father of the pilot’s sometime girlfriend. It’s meant to be a contrived reunion no doubt so they can consider their wedding plans.

One of Gruver’s men, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is set to get married himself. Soon they’re showing off cheesecake photos of their girls until it evolves into something far more complicated with more uncomfortable implications. Because Joe is intent on marrying a Japanese gal named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). If nothing else, you admire the man because he’s totally committed; there’s a complete integrity and personal conviction behind his intentions.

As the film points out later, he wasn’t alone. Lots of servicemen looked to marry Japanese girls after the war, and yet there certainly is something countercultural about him. What becomes immediately evident is this sense of casual (or not so casual) racism. Though hardly a spiteful person, Gruver has some preconceived notions about “slant-eyed runts.”

He has his misgivings about the wedding and yet, as a favor to his subordinate, he agrees to serve as his best man. The pervasive strains of discrimination continue as Gruver makes it to Japan and rendezvous with the Websters and Eileen (Patricia Owen). They attend a club for American personnel only to witness a soldier getting turned away with his Asian girlfriend. The coded language of “fraternization” is really just de facto segregation. For the time being, Gruver has no stake in the matter and so leaves it be.

His first true immersion into Japanese culture, at the behest of his girlfriend, comes from a Japanese kabuki performance put on by a revered actor. Although it’s a bit unfortunate having Ricardo Montalban playing Nakamura, he gives it his best showing, which actually comes off rather sensitive as far as yellowface goes.

While I’m not sure Joshua Logan exactly comprehends Japanese culture aside from its exquisite exoticism, he does take his stage pedigree and proceeds to translate the Japanese arts into flat two-dimensional showings mirroring their inherent performance elements. At the very least he understands their use of space and augments them within the framework of the broader film.

Owen is intriguing because she has all the attributes of a beautiful American girl: well-groomed and fit to be a 1950s housewife, but she has enough wherewithal to think for herself and not to be a “type” for her man to return home to. It forces Brando to make some kind of commitment. Currently, he’s not in a place where he feels that he can. If the movie were to continue down this commonplace path it would be dull going.

Instead, the camaraderie between Brando and a marine, Mike Baile (James Garner), is born. The other actor doesn’t have much to do except act as a cultural guide; still, Garner takes to his role genially and with his unadulterated charms no one could ever fault him. He’s another agreeable face, and he also knows a good deal more about Japanese culture…

Miiko Taka literally stops Brando cold (and the movie with it). The film turns on a new axis as Gruver becomes infatuated with the preeminent dancer, Hana-ogi-san, who can be found crossing the bridge to the theater every day before and after her daily performances. The outmatched pilot finally plucks up enough acumen to find himself a pocket Japanese dictionary only to toss it away.

It’s like a new pastime as he waits to catch a glimpse of her and get a chance to interact. He finally gets his chance — a meeting with her in person — though this is normally totally forbidden for someone in her position. The added grievance is the death of her father who perished at the hands of an American bomb.

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Even though the preamble has some rumblings of discord, there’s something about Brando’s introduction to the Japanese household that’s warm and affecting because in it some cultural understanding is made — appreciation of customs and how our differences somehow lead us to a place of mutual respect.

Amid gags of him continually bumping his on on doorways, there are far more tender moments that never feel like they’re reaching toward didacticism. Joe has him remove his shoes before entering the home, and he learns about sake (fermented rice wine) and how to pour for others.

If this scene tickles the heart, it doesn’t last long. The accompanying moment with Brando and Taka’s first time reclining at table alone together is imbued with a sinking feeling of discomfort. He’s so lax and culturally unfamiliar, making a go of it the best way he knows how. There’s a sense he is sunk even before he’s begun. What words will come out of her mouth in response?

Far from being dismissive, she’s gracious and tender speaking of her life and her desires for love and some far-off dream amounting to something more than her extravagant life of a dancer on the stage. She craves something deep-seated, a longing inside of her.

Although they come from two distinctly different worlds, their lives are similarly planned. Either by the strict confines of her theatrical tradition or the regimens of the military. And yet against this backdrop, they find happiness together watching fireworks, being in each other’s company, and generally filling up their days with romantic contentment. What’s refreshing is how none of this feels self-serving or staged. We willingly believe there is something tangible between them.

The seeds of bigotry have already been planted early and so they eventually germinate. The military cracks down calling for all military personnel to stop seeing Japanese women and those who are married, like, Joe are given especially harsh treatment. They’re effectively forced into subordination on the threat of court-martial and deportation.

Sayonara has successfully put its flag in the ground when you know what’s happening and yet the events unfold and you cannot look away. Because the mantle of the story has been passed onto the characters whom we now care for. What follows has legitimate consequences for us.

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Thus, their friend’s fate is swiftly decided and yet Ace and Hana-ogi’s roads look to be diverging. There is no other way through unless one of them intercedes and gives up everything they have already built. It’s a point of no return.

To Brando’s credit, he sells the transformation from blundering ignorance to genuine care for this woman who has so enchanted him. Mikko Taki, who is still with us, far from simply being gorgeous, brings a quiet understanding and gentility that stays the course of the movie. In no way does it feel like she’s totally overwhelmed or upstaged by Brando. They make the romance a union between two people bridging two cultures in the face of adversity.

The final delight comes with Brando sticking it to all the naysayers and wishing a “Sayonara” to everyone who would stand in their way. It leads to warm feelings not least of all because the picture is finally done.

All said, the Technicolor scenery and scenario are noteworthy, even cutting edge for the time period, but with the loose threads and lumbering running time, the movie could spare to lose a few scenes. Although admittedly obligatory, it’s the scenes of mechanized conflict and dialogue between Brando and the military that feel rote and uninteresting.

The main players are the ones making waiting through the dross worth it thanks to their candor and agreeable charisma. What a lovely screen couple Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki make. Above all, it gladdens me, in all her humility, Audrey Hepburn turned down the role hoisted on her at the behest of Joshua Logan. She graciously declined and instead, we were blessed by a performance by Miiko Taka.

Although she, like Shirley Yamaguchi in House of Bamboo or even Umeki Miyoshi, is cast as the delicate Japanese beauty, this only becomes a stereotype if it is never replaced with other roles. For what it is, the part balances several traits, including a degree of independence and familial duty. Thus, any lasting criticisms for Sayonara in this area feel more indicative of the industry now 60 years on than a single performance decades ago.

If Sayonara is rife with stereotypes in its honest attempts, then not enough has been done to build on its legacy to bring us even further in the present. Because, amid the flaws, there were some exquisite touches, from the gorgeous imagery to little accents like the neighborhood cherry shop on the corner or the Japanese conversations shared between a husband and wife. They elicit something genuine and emotionally sincere.

3.5/5 Stars

The Wild One (1953) and Brando’s Rebel Icon

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The Wild One will never be lauded as a great movie, but it most certainly proves a seminal one even if you give a cursory glance over what would soon come in its wake. These were not only high school and gang-infused dramas of delinquency and adolescent angst, but it’s an obvious antecedent to the likes of Roger Corman pictures like The Wild Angels (1966) or even one of the most pioneering counterculture relics: Easy Rider.

A Streetcar Named Desire made Brando into an instantly revered actor, but The Wild One helped solidify him as a cult hero. A few years before James Dean — shades, leather jacket, riding a motorcycle — he’s the epitome of anti-establishment, and he found an immediate audience. Not only with the general populous but also for icons who would follow on his coattails like Dean and Elvis.

Like the gangster movies of the 1930s, The Wild One is purported to be a cautionary tale, and yet it can’t help but make the pack of motorcycle lug-heads highly intriguing. It doesn’t altogether glorify them; still, we want to watch them, and we can’t help but turn and look.

Their rank and file are made up of some unusual characters. Would you have ever thought Alvy Moore (Green Acres) and Jerry Paris (Dick Van Dyke Show) would start out in a motorcycle gang?

Aside from Johnny Strabler’s (Brando) instant tuff guy image, projected over the opening credits, their reputation is galvanized as a unit when they defiantly saunter across a racetrack in the middle of a lap. The motorcycles veer to miss them as the crowds yell for them to move it.

They nick one of the trophies on their way out as the police usher them away. They know an unruly mob when they see one. There’s nothing for it but to send them out of town so they can terrorize the next stop further down the road…

Because, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The can gets kicked down the road for someone else to deal with. They wind up bringing their pervasive mayhem wherever they go, in this case, a sleepy town’s main street. In a couple of minutes, they instigate a traffic accident and proceed to hoist the always curmudgeonly Will Wright out of his automobile like a band of obstreperous boy scouts.

The mealy-mouthed sheriff (Robert Keith) is pushed around like a sack of potatoes while a local businessman sees this as an opportunity, coaxing the boys into his establishment with cold beer, steaks, and music. They willfully oblige, led by their leader who instantly becomes smitten with the pretty waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

In this jukebox-filled, bar counter milieu, their brand of insurrection verges on Don and Cosmo-esque ribbing a la Singin’ in the Rain, where they pull the wool over on the “squares” with their jive and absurdly crazy lingo. They even take turns dancing with a pair of local flirts.

Who else would ride lead on a rival motorcycle mob but Lee Marvin? He plays it over the top with a healthy injection of disorderly conduct like a thuggish circus performer in stripes and goggles. Chino’s both a rival and one-time drinking companion, having it out with Johnny in the main plaza. Their point of contention: the pinched trophy.

With Chino hauled off to jail along with a local loud-mouth, the situation escalates to a precarious tipping point. The evening brings raucous insubordination as the untethered bikers run roughshod over the town with renewed abandon.

It’s slightly painful to watch if only for the extent of the overkill as they run the switchboard operator out of her office, commandeer the keys to the jail to intern a new prisoner, and generally overwhelm the city limits in every conceivable way.

Wrightsville wasn’t built to handle an incident like this. Sheriff Bleeker is in way over his head and his well-meaning but diffident demeanor has no reign over the chaos. It’s taking them to the brink.

The hoodlums systematically pull the beauty salon apart, dancing and prancing and goofing off. But it’s also premeditated. Because this sets the stage for them to chase after the most attractive and genteel girl in town, first mobbing her and then chasing after her on their motorcycle as she flees down the street. It’s a different type of social terror and especially in the modern-day, it’s particularly perturbing to be complicit to the moment even as a powerless viewer.

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That’s the one key to Brando’s portrayal. He’s a nonconformist against all forms of authority, and yet he still manages to cleave rather nonchalantly to some kind of romantic code of conduct. In a sense, he rescues her only to whisk her off on his motorcycle to some deserted park. She’s tired, not ready to put up any sort of fight. The progression from here seems obvious.

And yet in some curious about-face, The Wild One flips its primary stereotype on its head creating a curious aside. Kathie intimidates him with her breeding, and then, she simultaneously wants to go off somewhere with Johnny and leave the town behind. Both developments feel unexpected. It happens so fast, too fast even, if this wasn’t the heightened reality of a B-picture. For this reason alone with can forgive the moment.

Because the movie constantly corkscrews its logic this way and that to a dizzying degree. The out-of-towners began as the obvious aggressors only for the townspeople to turn on them, giving them a taste of their own medicine. Nothing lines up in terms of what is fair or just. All that is rational spins further and further out of control. It’s part of the intrigue of the movie — a bit like gawking at a car accident — you can’t turn away.

The town, which has sat passively by for some time, is bent on taking retribution into their own hands. They form a posse and go after Johnny pummeling him and taking him to what can only be called their lair. Their tactics have turned ugly as well, and they categorically fail in carrying out justice until a real authoritarian figure (Jay C. Flippen) comes in to excavate the truth.

As it stands, one man is dead and Johnny is accused of murder. The irony is in this drastic turn. Half an hour before we would have convicted Johnny ourselves on reputation alone. Now he is made to look the victim — albeit an ungrateful and belligerent one.

The Wild One concedes in a final moment where Brando finally cracks a smile. The words “Thank You” still don’t come out of his mouth, but he relinquishes a bit of his bad-boy aura momentarily. However, it’s the movie leading up to this point that would help propel the outlaw biker genre forward and make Brando more than a mere stage phenomenon.

Laslo Benedek is not a well-remembered director, and yet he puts together a brassy picture utterly alive with punk sentiment. However, equally importantly, its sense of grungy low-budget drama is not completely devoid of streaks of good humor. For its day, you can see the spikes, and now it’s a simple pleasure for how conspicuous it feels. It’s ripe for parody, yes, but it was also a template for its many descendants. You can hardly consider one without the other.

3.5/5 Stars