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.”

Strangers When We Meet (1960): Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas

Screenshot 2020-02-10 at 90848 PMRichard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet proves to be a Technicolor feast on par with much of what Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli were putting out at the same time. A lot of the immediate joy comes with getting a feel for life at the time.

Certainly, it’s done up and made into a polished Hollywood middle class, but this serves the motives of the picture. In the meantime, we can busy ourselves taking in all the sights from the bus stops to the grocery stores, the cars, and all the mundane accents of life circa 1960. These would be all too easy to take for granted if not for the fact we are so far removed from that generation.

Kirk Douglas (who we just lost last week at age 103*) is an architect of some repute and though he doesn’t quite have 2.5 kids, he’s living the American Dream. He has a good job, a beautiful wife (Barbara Rush), and his latest project is being drawn up as we speak. Being a product of Douglas himself, Larry Coe is not about to have his vision compromised, and he’s imbued with a dogged bullheadedness evident in all facets of his life.

Kim Novak, in one respect, feels out of place as a suburban housewife and a mother. It’s not her obvious character type with that husky voice and golden allure of hers. And yet this dissonance serves her quite well as a woman who feels trapped and unfulfilled. The stoic aloofness she could always propagate says everything we need to know about her.

In her day, Kim Novak was seen as the answer to frisky and enticing Marilyn Monroe because while still alluring, she is also the antithesis. While neither is particularly far-ranging in their parts, their fundamental approaches are so very different.

Novak’s register is so low and, in a word, reserved. It’s nothing compared to Marilyn’s sing-song quality, but in a film like Strangers When We Meet one must wager it works far better. Even as she hardly feels like the domestic stereotype — as Marilyn does not — it somehow fits her prevailing qualities.

As Strangers When We Meet sets up its world and the relationships orbiting throughout the story, it becomes apparent the movie exhibits another facet of suburbia that complements Bigger Than Life, No Down Payment, or even Rebel Without a Cause. It’s this idea that even within these perceived oases of middle-class comfort, there is still a myriad of anxietieties and discontentments causing fractures at the seams.

Whereas Novak’s husband comes off as a loveless prude, Barbara Rush does her best to make the most of her marriage, romance, and all. She’s the one we feel the most sympathetic towards as it becomes all too obvious she might very well become collateral damage.

Because with two pretty faces as renowned as Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak — no matter who their spouses might be — we have a premonition that they will be getting together in some way, shape, or form. These are the unwritten rules of Hollywood moviegoing. 

I wasn’t considering it at the time, but they first cross paths at the bus stop because their boys are friends. It’s Innocent enough. Then, it’s the aisle of the grocery store. Larry stirs up the courage (or the brashness) to invite Maggie to see his latest work project.

If we wanted to be purely critical of the man, we could say he is taken first and foremost by her extraordinary beauty. Though I feel like his wife is lovely in her own way. The movie suggests there is a bit more to their affair.

It begins because Maggie seems to understand him; she seems to encourage him in his work — to be genuinely impressed and interested in what he does. Maybe it strokes his ego, makes him feel more important, more heard than he’s felt in a long time. If it’s true of Larry, the same holds for Maggie as well. This coalescing of passion is what brings them together.

Walter Matthau is initially underused and yet with his telling look and a few words, he can insinuate even more into this story. I’m thinking in particular of the moment he tells his neighbor, “We’re like furniture in our own homes. Next door we’re heroes.” He senses the angst on the surface and no doubt suspects the fire burning between Larry and Maggie.

It comes to a head during a dinner party Larry’s wife puts on. There’s a sense this is her admirable attempt to win her husband back, in their social spheres with their friends, and then later, behind closed bedroom doors. Because she’s not blind; she can see her man drifting away from her, and she’s not going down without a fight.

These inferences remain out on the fringes suggesting the wants and desires of the men and women even as guests drone about crabgrass and how all women dress the same these days. You have to look beyond all the obfuscation to appreciate the sequences for what they are.

Take, for instance, the striking scene where Novak goes into the bedroom to pick up her coat only to see the intimate space, her face in the mirror — and wish it was hers — wish she could be sharing it with Larry. In the same sequence, she happens upon his inquisitive young son. When he asks her name she responds with “Maggie” — the name his father calls her — that’s somehow more intimate and more a measure of who she is as a human being.

Ed Mcbain’s script is not at all squeamish about melodrama. The apogee comes when the sleazy Matthau gives Larry a taste of his own medicine charging into his home while he’s away and making clear advances toward his wife. His actions seem to defy logic.

Is he merely doing this to stir up Coe or is it a genuine play for Eve’s affections? I’m led to believe it’s the latter because as it happens, it’s a devastating confrontation, even as it teeters on this unnerving precipice. We feel for Rush, victimized like she is really for the entire movie, but here it all stands right there in her living room. Even for an instant, she feels so completely vulnerable.

The rain pouring down outside acts as a sympathetic indicator if not only a torrent of renewed drama. The overstimulated soundtrack doesn’t do the performances any favors, but they leave a melting impression; we must ponder the outcomes.

Because affairs can rarely maintain the status quo. Their very definition makes them into this novel entity in one’s life breaking through the presumed drudgery of the everyday. But there comes a point — a slip-up or a guilty conscience — where they must be brought to light.

Douglas spends the majority of the movie constructing his latest cutting-edge home for a gabby author played by Ernie Kovacs. It’s apparent this yet-to-be-finished structure is a metaphor for his life — his hopes and aspirations outside of the conventional suburban life he leads.

He finishes it too, fully realized in all its glory, and still, we watch Kim Novak drive off on her own. This isn’t Picnic. There is not even a faint flicker of hope of a reunion some miles off in the distance. This feels like a permanent departure. Where the characters have chosen the so-called “noble thing,” to preserve their families in lieu of their own private and clandestine fantasies.

The completed space is a bit like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House except it’s for a life (and a woman) he can never hope to have. It’s heartbreaking for any number of reasons. Not merely because they cannot be together. The layers go further. You wonder if their families can ever heal. How will this affect their children? What about their spouses? Is this just a temporary salve that will fail years down the road? We have no way of knowing. They are the ones who have to live with their choices.

3.5/5 Stars

*Note: I originally wrote this review soon after the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5, 2020.

Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars

No Down Payment (1957)

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When a film seems to materialize in front of you coming out of nowhere and subsequently moves you, it seems worthy to try and champion it to others who might also be pleasantly surprised. But first, I believe an acknowledgment of director Martin Ritt is in order because I’m not sure how much adulation he usually gets amid the myriad of prominent Hollywood workhorses out there.

Though he first started out in the theater and then television during The Red Scare years, Ritt ultimately transitioned to movies with a body of work full of variety that has all but stood the test of time on numerous accounts. Highlights include a six-film collaboration with Paul Newman including the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963, and Hombre (1967). Other noteworthy successes many will know are The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979).

He is most definitely an adherent to progressive, socially conscious filmmaking that, while never flashy in formalistic aspects, is nevertheless, chock full of depth for its commitment to humanist storytelling. It’s meant to ring true and touch on subjects that pertain to real people and the world-at-large captured through a lens of stark realism. To his credit, Ritt would never claim the title “Auteur” because he himself spent time as an actor and understood how collaborative such an art form is.

That brings us to the picture at hand, No Down Payment, which while being one of his earlier directorial efforts for film, already has his sensibilities in place. There’s nothing flashy about the picture per se but it readily digs into issues that feel uncommon and cutting edge for the very fact that we rarely see them portrayed in the 1950s. This film provides a very special opportunity and I was more than happy to oblige.

To put it succinctly, our story takes place in the residential neighborhood of Sunrise Hills. What we get is a disillusioning portrait of 1950s suburbia specifically in Los Angeles, that beacon of post-war middle-class living, observing the overlapping existence of four couples.

I enjoy how everything seems to be underlined by party chatter, Cowboys and Indians on the television, and groovy rockability — all integral parts of the ubiquitous soundtrack of the suburbs. But there’s also a veneer with two layers. The outward-facing street view with white picket fences and barbeques with the neighbors and then what’s actually going on, either when the doors are closed or when you can’t contain it anymore and rancor slowly asserts itself. Underneath we also soon realize that everybody is afraid of something.

A young couple just moving in is brought into the fold of the community. The husband (Jefferey Hunter) works as an up-and-coming electrical engineer while his pretty wife (Patricia Owens) urges him to get in a more lucrative field like sales so they can grow their social status.

If your image of Tony Randall is a nice guy or a hypochondriac, try on a philandering day drunk car salesman for size. Jerry Flagg constantly has his wife Isabelle (Sheree North) exasperated because he’s always strapped for cash and never dependable, with aspirations that keep him constantly flocking to the next big idea. Of course, he’s never able to see any of them to fruition.

Arguably, the least done up of any of the husbands is Troy (Cameron Mitchell), a war hero and Tennessee native who currently works as a car mechanic but soon hopes to be brought on as the local police chief. In fact, he’s banking on it. His wife, Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward) is intent on it as well since he’s promised they can have a child once he has greater job stability. She’s tried to bury painful memories of the baby she was once forced to give away. They too are plagued by marital bickering and late night alcohol consumption.

Last of all is Herman Kreitzer (prolific TV actor Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush). While she takes the children to church on Sunday, he stays at home and washes his car out on the street. Otherwise, there’s little discord in the house as he’s a loving husband and father who runs an appliance store and is a member of the local homeowner’s board.

Ritt’s picture, with yet another script fronted by Philip Yordan and actually written by Ben Maddow, has innumerable topics of interest. However, two that were the most intriguing to me had to do with the Kreitzers. Because it just so happens that Herman’s best employee, a man named Iko (Japanese-American though played by Aki Aleong), requested help in getting his family a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. As is, he currently has a taxing commute to work every day.

And though Herman is a good man, he’s hesitant to get involved knowing full well that housing developments have long been run by de facto laws of segregation. L.A. was like any other area where African-Americans were in places like Watts and Japanese-Americans were concentrated in Little Tokyo and even Boyle Heights for a time. That’s just the way it was. You stayed with your kind.

People wouldn’t like it one bit. Off the top of his head, he knows Troy, who fought in the Pacific, wouldn’t be too keen on a “Japanese” living in the neighborhood. So Herman ultimately brings the conversation to his church-going wife who voices similar apprehension (“Do you think you’re ready to have a Japanese as a neighbor?”). It’s this conversation over the kitchen table that causes him to reconsider. Because you see we already know he’s not a churchgoer and part of the reason we can guess has to do with the hypocrisy that is often so easy to find fault with.

That brings us back to Iko and his family. As Herman sees it, what good is a church if it doesn’t lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. How can you say you’re a “Good Christian” and not do anything to help these people? The issue is hardly resolved then and there but it’s a start. At least, in this case, we get the hint of closure in the end. Other threads aren’t nearly as sanguine.

It’s fitting that we return to an establishing shot of that perfect piece of the suburbs and all our main players are at church the following Sunday. Except for one, it means a long drive in a taxi cab to who knows where. While the others will make a go of trying to preserve their dreams, this lonely individual’s exodus is a reminder of how quickly our aspirations can crumble.

4/5 Stars

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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This is the type of film that when the inevitable happens and a character mentions the title phrase a swell of angels voices begin to murmur and in one sense Magnificent Obsession is a sentimental even spiritual endeavor wrapped up in a soapy melodramatic morality tale.

But the key is that if you know anything about Douglas Sirk, you easily get a sense that this is not the director getting on his soapbox unabashedly. He is using the very material he is given and finding some of the ironies within it.

The story unfurls rather like a modern age parable. There were two men. One man died — a good man — so that another might live and that other man is Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) a conceited, frivolous playboy only out for a good time.

The unseen, deceased Dr. Phillips left behind a recently wedded wife Helen (Jane Wyman) who was madly in love with him and a grown daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) who was equally delighted with her new mother.

All of that was torn away from them by the selfish jerk of a man who unwittingly left Dr. Phillips without a resuscitator because the foolhardy Merrick got in a boating accident.

The film begins the long winding road of a soap opera as Merrick begins to change. First, he wants to buy Mrs. Phillip’s sympathy which he will never acquire that way. But he feels like wherever he goes he is somehow haunted by the sacrificial love and anonymous charity which seemed to dictate Dr. Phillips life. He can’t seem to get away from it. It makes him feel awful.

Of all places, he gleans wisdom from one of Phillip’s closest friends a sagacious artist (Otto Kruger) who imparts him with knowledge on how to pursue a life of true purpose. He’s warned by Randolph in one moment, “This is dangerous stuff, one man who used it went to the cross, died at the age of 33” but Merrick begins to go through a radical transformation — to take on this so-called magnificent obsession. Hudson gets the situation which allows him to exhibit his changing attitudes toward his fellow human beings and ultimately his own change in heart.

Anyways the plot spins and jumps in the most inconceivable and unlikely ways that have no other purpose but to set up the dramatic moments that fail to take heed of how absurd everything seems. It’s laid on slightly thick even for me with a few eye-rolling moments no less. Absolute poppycock if I might be so bold.

Still, there’s no doubting the potential impact of this emotional manipulation. You might suspect a crescendo courtesy of the Little Tramp except in lieu of Chaplin we have Rock Hudson in his first leading role. There’s no comparison but he and Wyman do prove to be a compelling romantic team.

I had never quite thought of it like this but sometimes it’s truly a joy to watch some visionary directors work cinematic magic in spite of the material they’ve been given. Currently, if you make a movie it’s usually on your own volition. Either you wrote it or you signed on knowing full well what you are getting involved with (at least in most cases).

But in Classic Hollywood you have so many more examples of great or at least interesting directors saddled with mediocre material. But the truly great ones took that material and made something fascinating out of it whether it was through mise-en-scene, shot selection, or simple choice of tone.

After seeing the works of Douglas Sirk it’s easy to wager that he was such a filmmaker. Originally from Germany and only transplanted to Hollywood in the 1940s, very late compared to many of his contemporaries, he was a very intellectual man and it bleeds into how he approaches his films.

Sometimes to grasp what he is getting at is an exercise in near extrasensory perception. Because he works in irony but very often it gives the pretense of mere melodrama if taken at face value. And that’s what he did, taking that standard so-called women’s picture of the 1950s and giving it a further dimension that allows it depth even today.

So is Magnificent Obsession a masterpiece? Not necessarily. But should that even matter and what does that subjective label mean anyway? Might we just be happy that there are directors like Douglas Sirk who made enduringly riveting films that we can go back to again and again? The idyllic shots of Lake Tahoe would easily make nostalgic souls yearn for the images found in this film alone.

3.5/5 Stars