Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1950s Film Noir

We follow up last week’s guide to classic film noir of the 1940s by continuing into the 1950s with 4 more entries. With the new decade came new progressions in realism, location shooting, and heightened character psychology.

As Paul Schrader wrote, the noir hero started to “go bananas.” What remained were graft, corruption, and the depravity of the human heart. True, gumshoes and femme fatales were never cut-and-dry. Now they were even less so. Enjoy!

Gun Crazy (1950)

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B movies form the backbone of this often down and dirty genre. There are few better than Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy an exercise in inventive economy. It tells the tale of a romance-fueled crime spree with verve and violent passion. Although mostly forgotten today, John Dall and Peggy Cummins do a fine rendition as a latter-day incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde

The Big Heat (1953)

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It’s a cops and robbers procedural with Glenn Ford as the straight-arrow family man going against the local mob. What Fritz Lang does is boil it over with newfound vindictiveness. We soon find out the good guys aren’t always untarnished nor the noir dames (Gloria Grahame) always the villains. True to form, Lee Marvin plays an incorrigible heavy.

The Killing (1956)

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It’s early Stanley Kubrick so some might find it a stark contrast to his later works. Regardless, it’s one of the finest heist films of all-time. Because the best-laid plans — even the most meticulous — always have a habit of going awry. The set-up is gritty and no-nonsense with a cast headed by a fitting protagonist: Sterling Hayden. Likewise, it’s ending just about sums up film noir fatalism.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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It’s often cited as one of the final signposts of classic film noir. With its tale of below the border corruption instigated by a portly Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) against a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh), it more than fits the parameters of the genre. The extended opening shot is just one stunning testament of Welles’ vision as a director.

Worth Watching:

Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, Night and The City, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Ace in The Hole, The Narrow Margin, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street, Night of The Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Bad Day at Black Rock, Murder by Contract, and so many more.

The Three Musketeers (1973)

threemusk6In the beginning, this Dumas adaptation was to be the next zany live-action vehicle for the Beatles following the success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help. In fact, they even were ready to work with the same director. Well, Richard Lester stayed and the Beatles were disbanded for several years before this film even got going. In this incarnation, it was set to be a three-hour star-studded epic. Instead, it was thought better of, and this became the first installment with a second film coming out a year later.

Thus, The Three Musketeers has impressive star power, but the direction of Lester also supplies action with a constant barrage of gags for good measure. To top it off the film actually does follow the general story arc of the novel, but invigorates it was bits and pieces of humor that lighten up the tone. So perhaps it’s a light and fluffy piece of entertainment, but it’s still easy to enjoy what Lester’s been able to do here. It’s a great deal of fun.

threemusk4Our audacious d’Artagnon is a strapping Michael York, who has picked up plenty of swashbuckling skills from his father. So he heads out on his own to seek out adventure and uphold his family honor. In a matter of minutes he already a succession of duels lined up, and of course who are they with? The Three Musketeers: Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). He sides with his new comrades against the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), and attempt to help the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) get out of a tight jam.

What follows is a rambunctious array of treachery, romance, and royalty that involves Anne’s lover the Duke of Buckingham, a sly chambermaid (Faye Dunaway), the King, and of course the Cardinal. Peace stands in the balance not to mention the Queen’s self-respect, and so d’Artagnon and the boys do the honorable thing and bail her out. I said before that this film has it’s fair share of sword fights which are fun in themselves, but the laughs really accent the story nicely.

threemusk5The plot is there and we can appreciate the work of Alexandre Dumas, but it is not necessarily the focal point. Charlton Heston gives a seemingly uncharacteristic turn as Cardinal Richelieu, the corrupted man of the cloth, who cares more about politics and social unrest than he does about his faith. He’s no Moses or Ben-Hur for that matter. Furthermore, we are treated to a little tooth and nail type action courtesy of Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway. It turns out to be yet another rewarding scene because these two ladies were two of the defining icons of the 1970s, and here we get to see them face off.

I’m already revving up for part two because I wouldn’t mind returning to these characters. There’s a lot of good old-fashioned fun to be had here.

3.5/5 Stars

Planet of the Apes (1968)

f0ab6-220px-planetoftheapesposter“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” ~ Taylor

Planet of the Apes is a highly disconcerting tale despite the rubber visages of the apes which feel quite tacky at times. However, they are so unnatural that they seem to still work within the context of the film. This Sci-Fi classic also really works on another level, because it is an inversion of our accepted dogma. Yet it still shares a degree of similarity to our reality making it a frightening dystopian  world to take in.

The story begins calmly enough in outer space as a group of human explorers circle the solar system with the fate of earth up in the air. We assume the worst. After spending time in hibernation the crew finds that their ship is making a crash landing for an unknown reason so the three surviving passengers bailout. There’s Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon and Dodge and though they do not always see eye to eye, they begin to explore the vast expanses of the seemingly lifeless world for any sign of life.

As time passes, they finally come across human life: a very primitive human society that has no form of communication. They assume they can run this society soon enough with their advanced intellect. However, what they were not counting on were the apes who have advanced far beyond the animalistic humans. Apes are the one with language, culture, weapons, and a whole stratified society.

Taylor and his shipmates are hunted down like common animals along with the rest of the mute natives. What ensues is a rather terrifying story following Taylor as he tries to prove his intellect only to be beat up and caged like a common zoo attraction. It feels strange watching the apes speak in common English as they laugh contemptuously at the stupidity of human lifeforms.

However, a pair of scientists (played by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) become interested in Taylor and he must fight an uphill battle to prove he is different. It is no easy task with beatings, chains, and court trials. The society is so set in its ways that no one will believe that a human actually can have intelligence. It is utterly impossible. This gives context for the famous insult that Taylor hurls at the apes. It’s the first time a mere human has addressed an ape. Needless to say,  they don’t take it well.

Taylor has enough grit and stubbornness to get what he wants, but only when he has gotten away does he really understand what has happened and where he is. How he didn’t realize it before is a puzzle. Then again, he probably was not the only one blinded. Planet of the Apes works on a number of levels, although it can feel a bit corny. First off, the music of Jerry Goldsmith makes every sequence feel all the more unnerving. The lack of CGI in the panoramic images is a breath of fresh air. I will assume that those cinematic shots were actually real, and they would undoubtedly look fantastic on the big screen. Amazing! Furthermore, Charlton Heston does a decent job as the cynical explorer Taylor and as I noted early on he got the girl. Just not the one I expected.

There are a lot of sequels/prequels to be watched and I will certainly try and get around to them some day because this film was definitely enjoyable. Without a question.

4/5 Stars

The Big Country (1958)

230bc-big_country833Directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll Baker, this pacifist western revolves around a feud between two ranching families. A gentleman sea captain comes out west to be with his fiancée on her father’s ranch. After his arrival, he encounters a jealous farmhand (Heston), the beautiful schoolteacher friend of his fiancée, and of course the Hannasseys, who are sworn enemies of the Terills. In a sense he is a fish out of water because he never feels a need to try and prove his bravery to others. The schoolmarm is caught between the two families since she owns the vital watering hole “Big Muddy.” Mckay buys the land as a wedding present but when the wedding ties are cut now he is the one in the middle of it all. In order to stop the imminent bloodshed, he bravely rides into the Hannassey’s territory in order to get both sides to reason. Whether it be the score, the cinematography, or the dialogue, you will certainly come to realize that this is a Big Country.
4/5 Stars

Touch of Evil (1958) – Film-Noir

92b8e-touchofevilStarring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and Orson Welles, this film is one of the last examples of what is considered true film-noir. In a small, dangerous, run down, border town, a mysterious car bombing murder takes place. A Mexican investigator who is a newlywed (Heston) and a hardened American policeman (Welles) join forces on the case. However, soon the case becomes complicated with corruption, kidnapping, and plotting. With his wife in danger, Heston must save her while trying to crack the mystery. Only after some time does he realize the man with the touch of evil. The protagonist wins but that does not mean there is not tragedy as well. Orson Welles does it again with this intriguing film. The opening shot alone shows the brilliance of Welles. This film is one worth seeing, showcasing director Welles and good acting by the entire cast.

4.5/5 Stars

Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, tells the tale of Christ in connection with the young nobleman-turned slave, Judah Ben Hur. We follow Hur as a friend turns against him and he and his mother and sister are imprisoned. Soon he is doomed to a life rowing on a galley but on the way there a kind , mysterious stranger gives him a drink to quench his thirst. It takes a few years but Hur’s fortune turns and he is no longer a slave but a great chariot racer. The time comes to seek revenge and he beats his former friend in the ultimate chariot race. However, his victory is shorlived since he learns his kin are now lepers and the man who showed him kindness years before is now to be crucified. Returning the favor, he gives the suffering man water before He is hung on the cross. Despite the man’s death, miraculously his mother and sister are freed from leprosy. This epic is monumental and tells a wonderful story intertwined with the Gospel.

5/5 Stars