National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


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Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The title says it all. James Stewart is the eponymous stranger who rides into town delivering a load of supplies to an isolated outpost called Coronado. But that’s not his main business at hand. He’s searching for someone because he has some personal matters to take care of. In this small regard, Stewart heads a cast of enigmatic characters with hidden agendas and histories we piece together over time.

Within the opening frames what becomes evident immediately are the million dollar skies and cotton candy clouds captured in CinemaScope and vibrant Technicolor by veteran cinematographer Charles Lang.

At the local general store, the stranger meets the demure shopkeeper Barbara Waggoman who welcomes him to town though she seems less than thrilled to receive his goods as she’s intent on closing up her father’s shop since he died. Otherwise, she tips him off to the salt reservoir outside of town so he and his partner Charley (Wallace Ford) can make some more dough. I’ll always hold a soft spot for Cathy O’Donnell since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and nothing has changed here. She is as soft-spoken and delightful as ever.

Unwittingly this sets them up with the film’s reoccurring point of conflict. Because they begin mining the resource not knowing it’s technically located on the infamous Barb Ranch run by a ruthless cattle baron (Donald Crisp) and yet he’s nothing compared to his crazed son toting an inferiority complex.

He rides in on them with his band of heavies and proceeds to raze all their wagons and shoot every last mule they have. Talk about overkill for mining salt. It’s a textbook overreaction that’s seemingly uncalled for but it only makes Dave Waggonman’s other behavior more believable.

In town, fisticuffs erupt in the middle of a cattle stall as Lockhart handily takes on his adversaries thanks to the help of a plucky woman named Kate Canady. With it Aline MacMahon makes a crackling entrance as one of the film’s most joyously rousing characters.

The picture continues to be a contentious family affair on the whole. The quiet strength of Donald Crisp resonates as a hard man who you know holds onto some regrets for the empire he has forged. Not least among them the entitled softness of his only son. At the same time, he loves the boy dearly and will do anything to maintain his land holdings.

Arthur Kennedy rarely gets a fair shake as an acting talent but yet again much like Bend of The River, he is a vital component of this particular story. Here he is Vic Hansbro, Alec’s loyalist workhorse and the man trusted to rein in Dave. Though not a blood relation Vic has been with the family for a long time and is planning to marry Barbara. He’s a great deal more rational than Dave but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to fight for what’s in his best interest whether it’s against Lockhart or his longtime boss. He’s not about to be pushed around.

A single moment seared into our consciousness unfolds after the boy Dave ambushes Lockhart only to get shot in the hand. But he’s not about to take it like a man. Once his cronies are there to back him up he makes his rival pay in one of the most vindictive scenes out of the Mann canon. Jimmy Stewart gets treated to some eye for an eye maliciousness which only makes his personal vendetta smolder.

He’s intent on discovering the man who’s been giving the Apaches repeating rifles. Because he has a personal stake in it as do most everyone else in the story. It gets him in trouble nosing around. On one such occasion, Canady fishes him out of prison for the back alley stabbing of a man (Jack Elam) that he didn’t commit. As recompense, she asks him to finally accept the offer to be foreman of her ranch and he reluctantly agrees.

You see she has long been a thorn in the side of Alec. She’s been one of the few people he hasn’t pushed out of the territory. But maybe it has something to do with their past history together.

The final act brings everything to a stellar apex as Alec catches wind of the missing shipment of rifles and Vic begins to lose his cool as he does everything in his power to protect his boss, harming him in the process. The stage is set for a showdown, Will finally able to make his peace with Apaches also out on the warpath. It exceeds our expectations in typical Mann fashion.

Though regrettably they would never work on another picture together again based on a minor creative disagreement, James Stewart and Anthony Mann left us a stellar body of work including a line of five western pictures that remain a harrowing testament to the genre. If it must be the end, then The Man from Laramie is a fine capstone to go out with.

4/5 Stars

The Far Country (1954)

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“I don’t need help. I don’t need people. I can take care of me.” ~ James Stewart as Jeff Webster

This Alaskan Northwestern opens and it’s almost like we’ve missed something. Jeff Webster (James Stewart) rides into a town with two men and promptly gives them back their guns and dares them to draw on him. They relent and say they’ll be back for him. To my recollection, we never see them again or if we do it doesn’t matter because for all intent and purposes this little tiff sets up all we need to know about our main character.

James Stewart continues carving out a diverging path for his screen persona thanks in part to the work of Anthony Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase. We are also treated to late period Walter Brennan playing up his future Real McCoys persona constantly yammering away idly about everything. But he’s loyal and if Webster has anything close to a friend in the whole entire world it would be Ben. He’s a good buddy.

Soon the two cattlemen are Skagway bound but this is no Hope & Crosby Road Picture as they look to make bank on their choice beef. Already Webster is a wanted man and he conveniently is given berth to hide from his pursuers. It yields a rather risque character introduction as Jimmy Stewart gets some assistance from a lovely lady (Ruth Roman) who covers for him — hiding under her sheets — spurs and all.

His next biggest faux pas is breaking up a local hanging with his herd of cattle barreling through town past the flimsy scaffolding. As he has unwittingly made a mockery of justice, Webster soon finds himself brought to court. It just so happens that the local purveyor of law and order holds court with his gavel in the local saloon. Devious and rugged-faced Judge Gannon (John McIntyre) is both chief judge and executioner. He has the clout to snatch the stock away from the perpetrator for his minor offense which he proceeds to do right quick.

As an alternative Webster is hired on to ride point for the proprietress of the Skagway Castle. They’ve already been acquainted and Rhonda’s quite the businesswoman as it turns out. She leverages her allegiance with Gannon to set up outposts in the two largest outposts in the territory. Though Webster is no less opportunistic, using this chance to round up his cattle to drive them to Dawson City for a pretty penny.

More than anyone, the plucky and pouting young red-capped Renee gives Stewart a chance to be a tease with his iconic jocularity but he’s always more condescending toward her. He makes it painfully obvious that he’s not going to fall for her nor does he feel the need for any friends.

He’s the epitome of a Lone Wolf character. The stark majesty of the icy backdrop behind him is an impeccable extension of who he is and he seems very much in his element. He’s willing to traverse roads others will not and predicts an avalanche before it hits. All with calculated detachment. He doesn’t make a habit of worrying about others.

But Gannon will not let up and he looks to muscle his way into Dawson as well seeing as he already has a major stake in Skagway. The formerly tame territory gets wilder by the hour. This sanctioned hike in lawlessness calls for a response from the peacekeepers but any of the men subsequently sworn in as Marshall have little leverage against the Judge’s guns. Their best bet is to wait until real law and order comes. Until then Gannon keeps on confiscating their stakes.

The only man who can do anything to stop them isn’t about to make the town’s problems his own. He’s made a habit of not getting involved. But there comes a point where his hand is forced and there’s no way to separate the town’s affairs and his own agenda. He must act.

Jeff rides his steed down the main street for the final showdown which looks more like an ambush. They underestimate him. To his credit, Mann strips away any final notion of the heroic mythos of the frontier with a gunfight that finds itself in the muck and the mire under a porch. True, Dawson City gets their happy ending and a renewed reputation but the film resonates far more for its besmirched brand of tenacity than for any amount of heroism. James Stewart gave up being a stereotypical protagonist years before and it pays heavy dividends once again.

4/5 Stars

 

The Naked Spur (1953)

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James Stewart carries over his persona from Bend of the River (1952) to continually redefine his career in the post-war years. He is a man under a different name who nevertheless is seething with the same raw fury.

In this regard, there are numerous parallel themes in this subsequent collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann culling the recesses of one man’s mind to showcase his unswerving resentment. There’s not an ounce of amiability in the performance which is almost unheard of.

It winds up being a bit of an open-air paradox with gorgeous Colorado visuals which are nevertheless infused with the tension of a near suffocating chamber piece. Because it proves that such an incongruity is possible. Freedom of movement does not necessarily prohibit continually duress of another nature.

The cast is compact but a mighty group of talent with five individuals that you cannot help but remember. Stewart is the leader in all regards as Howard Kemp who has been tracking Ben Vandergroat for some time now since the other man murdered a Marshall in Kansas.

Millard Mitchell is the crusty prospector, the first man that Kemp runs into, and they form an uneasy partnership with Jesse Tate believing the other man to be a Marshall. It’s true that Kemp is always barking orders at everyone. It continues when a Union soldier helps them scale a rock face and close in on Kemp’s target.

Ralph Meeker always gives the impression that he’s ogling and that distinctive voice that would serve him well as Mike Hammer instantly labels him as a tough customer. His tattered military record suggests something else. He’s not exactly to be trusted as a soldier recently discharged for being “morally unstable,” whatever that means.

Janet Leigh despite her undeniable beauty does well to drop her ingenue image and play a tougher, earthier role as the doting girlfriend of the wanted Marshall-killer. But in her you see much the same conflict as all the other characters. Something is driving them to continue down the road they are traveling. It’s simply a matter of deciphering just what it is.

Arguably most important of all is chortling Robert Ryan as Vandergroat egging Stewart on with continuous catcalls of “Howie” as he commences the mind games that comprise most of the meat of the story. He dispels any misconceptions the other two might have about Kemp. He’s no Marshall and he’s hardly doing this out of the kindness of his heart. There’s a $5,000 reward for the wanted man.

Whether he read his Bible or not, Ben knows enough about human nature and the reality that a house divided against itself cannot stand and he’s looking for any way to pit his captors against each other. Chatting them up constantly and using his girl to try and soften up the other two while scheming here and dropping little remarks there to wheedle under Howard’s skin.

It’s a long stretch of country ahead. Final destination: Abilene, Kansas. He knows as well as they do that a lot can happen in that length of territory. He’s aiming to get himself out from under a hanging tree and so he’s mighty keen to chip away at them as much as possible.

Though he’s very much an instigator, there’s little question that Vandergroat gets some unsolicited help. Anderson’s shady past with a Native American princess means he’s soon caught up in a skirmish with a pack of warriors bent on some form of justice. While initially keeping their noses clean of the whole squabble, there’s finally no recourse but for Kemp and the prospector to get involved. Howard winds up with lead lodged in his leg and he’s hobbling feebly for the rest of the trip.

One must note that the American Indians are utilized solely for their agency to the story. They are not human as our leads are human and that is a shame. Because aside from that major oversight, The Naked Spur is a splendid Western that takes a scenario deeply-rooted in the tradition and yet uses it to more closely still examine the human psyche. Most specifically we see in each character the things that drive them and how men can so easily be weaponized against one another.

Tate immediately gets a renewed hankering for gold when Vandergroat lets him in on a little secret. He happens to be sitting on a gold mine. But only he knows where it is. Then of course, the soldier has a thing for the ladies and is looking to earn some money as much as the next fellow. For Howard, it’s his unbending sense of revenge that he must complete at all costs.

He’s practically dying, plagued by cold sweats and hallucinations but there’s a doggedly resilient quality about him. Proposing cave shoot-outs and fording rivers relentlessly. In a textbook Mann shot of brutality, his anti-hero is getting choked to death rolling around in the dirt only to live to fight another day. That is the ongoing motif that Stewart never allows us to forget for a minute up until the film’s pinnacle.

While not as heralded as a Ford and Wayne type partnership one could argue that Stewart and Mann was a no less important or formative collaboration. The Naked Spur and a slew of other pictures stand as cogent proof.

4/5 Stars

Bend of The River (1952)

Bend_of_the_River_-_1952-_Poster.pngIn Bend of The River, there are glimpses of the man we knew before the war. Joking and smiling with that same face. The affable charm and so on. But it’s also starkly different.

In this picture, James Stewart is on horseback leading a wagon train preoccupied with farming, cattle, ranching, and biscuits. His name is Glyn Mclyntock and this is the life he has crafted for himself.

Of course, when another man comes along to ride with them, a man named Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), they trade glances and instantly know something about the other. Their names precede them as Glyn was once an infamous Missouri border raider and Cole had his own run-ins with the law for similar crimes.

However, no one knows about Mclyntock here and he’s bent on going straight. But with them together we have the perfect case study to test out the theories of one of the leaders of the caravan Jeremy Bailes. He believes a man can never change. “When an apple’s rotten there’s nothing you can do but throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel.”

But these past sins as they were, give each man a time-tested wisdom about the real West. In one such scenario, they knowingly make talk to a pretty gal about bird calls coming from Orioles indigenous to Canada though they realize at that very moment some Shoshone are circling their camp. They’re ready for them.

The journey continues proving reminiscent of the pilgrims of old and that’s what these pioneers are, pilgrims of the Pacific Northwest. Occupied with grand visions of how they will cultivate the land and help build a prospering life for their families. But there’s also talk of stocking up enough food for the first winter and fears of the impending snows. Supplies haven’t been sent ahead yet nor have they gotten any word from Portland — the town where their supplies were supposed to come from.

It quickly becomes apparent following a return trip that the town has been swept by a frenzy of Gold Fever and things are noticeably different. We are conveniently reminded that it was Man who spoiled the land, tainting it with their many vices including pillaging and killing.

The part of the professional gambler in town — one Trey Hendricks — features Rock Hudson in a growing role as the pretty boy. He hasn’t quite reached true stardom yet but to have him in the picture is another stroke of luck in a project that is positively stacked with talent.

Julie Adams (billed as Julia) plays the main love interest, Laura, who is wounded by an arrow and laid up in the town of Bend only to fall for Cole who quickly took on a position at Trey’s establishment. As Glyn has no rightful claim to her, it looks like the two lovebirds will be married.

Mclyntock hires a group of wage laborers to help him peddle the goods back into the mountains as the riverboat they used before can only get them so far. The most memorable of the lot certainly include Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, and Jack Lambert. What’s more, they have no firm allegiances and their compensation amounts to a meager grubstake.

The uninhibited rage that burns in Stewart’s eyes with insurrection afoot becomes increasingly apparent and he’s about ready to administer a deathblow with one stab of a knife only to be stopped by the shriek of dismay from Laura. It brings him back to his senses but in no way ends his ordeal. Not by a long shot.

When a band of miners in desperate need of provisions is willing to pay an astronomical sum for the goods it all but seals the deal; we have a mutiny on our hands. That’s not altogether surprising; it’s how it goes down that proves a jolt.

But that trademark tension of Anthony Mann just will not leave us be and we find ourselves continually harried to the end of the picture because this mission of mercy is our mission. But again, we are reminded of what man is capable of left to his own devices. Avarice is a deadly beast and it brings out a fellow’s true colors.

Stewart is cast out with no horse and no gun. But he’s relentless in his pursuit. The objective clear and he makes sure his foes know it without a shadow of a doubt.

“You’ll be seeing me. You’ll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be. You’ll be seeing me!”

First, it’s one man. Then two shots in the night and finally the confrontation that we’ve all been waiting for. Glyn reemerges to take back the supplies aided by Trey, Laura, and Mr. Baile. The bullets fly. The bodies fall into the stream. Horses scamper away. And our two stars have it out for good.

Mann captures it all for the maximum effect, the most striking visuals being contorted faces in the throes of hand-to-hand combat first in a wagon and finally, the bedraggled forms reeling in the depths of the water. It’s so visceral and physical even alarmingly so. But it gets to us.

Is this a western or what? My goodness. The final shots are so Hollywood — the epitome of its Technicolor glories with everyone getting together and evil conquered — but all this cannot quite rub out the images that preceded it. They are blistering with unmistakable antagonism.

Stewart’s performance might seem unprecedented and certainly, it was for all its psychological torment but his characterization is indebted to Arthur Kennedy who draws upon a vitality of his own. Together they make Bend of the River a tale well worth remembering.

4/5 Stars

After The Thin Man (1936)

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The reason to watch The Thin Man series was never murder. Sure, like its predecessor, this follow-up has the pretense of a mystery plot but that’s merely a trifle in comparison to the return of Nick and Nora Charles.

The novelty of this picture is no longer that it once more brings crime and comedy together because that’s what the original film did. We already have the formula, the groundwork set before us, and certain expectations. But what it does even in its opening vignettes is further develop its leads by transplanting the New York socialites to the world of San Francisco which brings with it different colorations and really an extension to this fanciful world that they live in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are just delightful with teasing ever whip-smart interplay but we also see the class dimensions being played up too. All of a sudden, their marriage of such stark opposites comes into clearer focus and we love them even more.

Nick seems to know someone on every street corner most of them being hoods and shifty conmen begging the question just what he did in his previous life (I can’t ever remember being told)? Meanwhile, Nora comes from money and runs in a certain society that’s slightly averse to the constant verbal barbs and nose-thumbing of her husband. You see, he seems to have no respect for respectable folks. Her family can’t stand Nikolai as he’s called. But he loves his wife and she loves him.

The fact that the action is set over The New Year blesses the film with jovial gaiety and champagne bubbles that add a little pizzazz to your run-of-the-mill murder of passion. Meanwhile, the dubious Lychee Club takes its place front and center because a couple implicated persons are tied up with the establishment. One of them, named Dancer, runs the joint while his star performer Polly and her brother Phil also seem caught up in something shady. If you had to put a name to it you might call it extortion.

Then a slimy playboy (and unfaithful husband) is found murdered after a night carousing at the club with the chorus girl. That effectively gets his devastated wife accused of murder with her longtime beau (James Stewart) going to great lengths to defend her.

We could keep running off the list of suspects but to no avail, and it has the typically gung-ho cop Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) understandably suspicious as he tries to make head or tails of the whole mess. Of course, he has Nick Charles on his side and a good thing too.

Asta is up to his old tricks running off with a vital clue and Nick’s up to his old tricks having his wife locked up in prison so that he can bail her out. Despite her longsuffering lot in life, she gets in some comic retribution of her own while maintaining a dazzling marriage full of mutual understanding.

Because, in one sense, Nick Charles is a complete imbecile, a habitual jokester, and yet he’s just serious enough to warrant some respect in the crime-solving trade and just sincere enough to hold onto his wife for posterity. Again, that’s all part of his charm. If he wasn’t so good at solving crimes, it’s doubtful people would give him the time of day. Though his wife does continuously and that’s what really counts. That’s the heartbeat of this entire franchise.

The Charles also realize humanity’s aspirations of sleeping the day away and it’s true they can get away with settling down for breakfast just as everyone else is finishing up dinner. That’s their lifestyle. I’m sure most of us hold a deep-seated desire for it in some cockeyed way. But most of us can’t solve murders on a whim either. So they get to be our surrogates on both accounts.

I won’t say he’s the epoch of amateur sleuthing, as the company includes the Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marples, and Jessica Fletchers of the world, but Nick Charles is one of the wittiest individuals to hold the mantle.

It must be noted that he was a creation of the Depression, a needed respite from the day-to-day, but you get the sense that today he comes off as a bit callous. Surely a man who knows so many undesirable characters was aware that there was a Depression on. And yet you see, that’s precisely the trick. In this world, such an event does not exist.

There’s no need to worry about it and this alternate reality instead gets to occupy itself with murder and excess, jokes and romantic patter. It truly is escapism and a gift to the masses. No wonder people loved Nick and Nora so much because it really does seem like they filled a need at the time.

While he’s not the center of attention nor is his role all that meaty until the final moments, James Stewart is nevertheless entertaining in this early part with a slam-bang finish that gives a glimpse of the passionate intensity he offered as an actor. It was full steam ahead for both him and The Thin Man series though you might say his future was a little more promising.

4/5 Stars

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rope (1948)

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Rope’s title sequence is composed of your prototypically serene establishing shot. But really, you could not have a more unique and in some sense unnerving picture. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor and it’s quite the looker as are the beautifully constructed backdrops that spice up the mise-en-scene for this glorified stage play.  He also busied himself with camera set-ups in an effort to shoot the picture as near to a single take as was possible with the technology of the time. He actually “cheated” a bit by splicing segments of film together at intentional breaks to give the effect of continuous motion. Still, it’s an impressive endeavor all the same.

But the experiment is twofold both behind and in front of the camera. It’s all a reworking of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who succumbed to Nietzsche’s superman complex. The project was an early script by playwright Arthur Laurents penned from an adaptation by Hume Cronyn, a Hitchcock regular in several earlier pictures (Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat).

In this case, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are looking for the perfect victim in the perfect murder. Where murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for a few — like themselves.  It all begins with a shockingly graphic opening for the 40s that rips away any shred of upper-middle-class sensibilities put upon us by that establishing shot. It’s all a ruse.

The assertive, far more charismatic Brandon also happens to be the main architect pulling along the flighty Phillip into his little experiment.

The act of throwing a small get-together against this exhilarating backdrop proves tenuous because of the insidiously dark deed that Hitchcock has made his audience privy to. Otherwise, this would be a run-of-the-mill picture of cocktails and hor ‘d oeuvres. But underline it with a murder and it’s a completely different proposition altogether.

Their exhibition comes as little surprise from two men who are snobbish, entitled jerks. Their lives are so dull that they stoop to murder to see if they can be brilliant enough and brazen enough to pull it off, going so far as inviting their most astute mentor played by none other than James Stewart.

Though I enjoy him as much as the next fellow, Stewart does feel oddly out of place in this film and within this role of Rupert. He seems to know it too. Nevertheless, Hitchcock would find far superior uses for him in due time.

There are also a couple knowing winks to the sinisterly attractive James Mason (a future Hitchcock collaborator) who is conjured up to do battle against the dreamboats Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant by a few admiring partygoers. Of course, no one seems to take into account that they have Jimmy Stewart right in their stead.

We begin to feel for Janet and Kenneth two schoolmates who have been used in the game. She is soon to be engaged to the formerly eligible David. Kenneth was the beau she was with before he broke it off. Now their lives are manipulated just like the late boy’s father who is also invited to the gathering.

Rupert proves that he knows something’s afoot not that it’s all that difficult to see Granger’s character slowly coming apart at the seams. Alcohol hardly helps his unstable demeanor. It becomes a showdown with his two pupils but he could have never expected this. It’s on this level that Rope is thoroughly troubling. It’s in this way that we begin to understand why Nietzsche might have been troubled by his own conclusions. There is little hope in this conception of the world.

Simply put, the film is dour to its core. It has no heart and in that sense, Jimmy Stewart does not feel at home within its heartless frames. The charade falls short for these very reasons. Though it’s technically ambitious, it doesn’t quite manage that perfect Hitchcock balancing act of crime mixed with wit. There’s no way it can with such a worldview.

Still, Rope shows, if anything, that Hitchcock is never complacent, always looking for the next great challenge. That is one of the many reasons that we still hold him in high regard as one of the foremost directors of any age. Because even a callous film such as Rope is worth seeing.

3.5/5 Stars

Rear Window (1954): Visual Cinema and “Lisa”

 

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There are such a vast number of levels to appreciate Rear Window on and one of those is its impeccable use of sound as well as a score courtesy of Franz Waxman. In fact, it is quite easy to consider it as a film with a wholly diegetic soundtrack but it’s really a complicated weaving of sound orchestration playing against the images onscreen. For instance, against the credits, as the blinds come up, we’re met with the playfully cool jazzy beats of “Prelude and Radio” which proves to be in perfect juxtaposition with the deathly hot heatwave hitting Greenwich Village in the film’s opening moments.

We’re also inundated with all types of songs popular and otherwise which can be picked out of the story organically if you’re paying attention. Two of the most obvious additions are “That’s Amore” and then “Mona Lisa” which can be heard being sung by a group of party guests.

Whether or not it’s a slight nod to our heroine Lisa is up for debate but it’s also notable that she, in essence, receives her own theme song which is concurrently composed by the songwriter who lives in the courtyard that we come to know over the course of the film. It slowly involves from its nascent stages into a full-fledged tune that gains its wings once the romance between Lisa and our protagonist L.B. Jefferies has come into its own.

Obviously, beyond the elements of soundtrack Rear Window develops so immersive a world and Hitchcock expertly inserts us directly into the environment to the extent that we have no choice but to become involved in the whole ordeal. We are accomplices, if you will, in this viewing party of Jimmy Stewart’s.

It truly is an exhibition in the moving image because the film works so brilliantly with them. Certainly, it begins with the staging and the complex setup Hitchcock had to work with at Paramount Studios but there’s simultaneously the use of color cinematography, the lighting of the stages which sets the scene given the time of day, and common street noise that lends an almost imperceptible authenticity that we take for granted.

Furthermore, working with his long trusted photographer Robert Burks you see Hitchcock moving so fluidly and with so much purpose through the playground provided him. The camera captures objects with clear intention and a crispness that far from simply giving us the illusion of being in the space, in many ways, makes us feel like we are actually right there with Stewart looking out into the courtyard.

You also get the true essence of what visual filmmaking is because his powers of suggestion and even persuasion of the audience are impressed upon us by what he deems important. Hitchcock lays out nearly all of Stewart’s backstory not with clunky expositional dialogue but by giving us a wordless parade of his apartment while our protagonist sleeps. And the whole picture is a constant rhythmic cadence of being fed images followed by Stewart’s reaction shots. It’s Film at its primacy. Where two images put together are blessed with so much more meaning and suggestion than they could ever have alone.

But far from simply marveling at what Hitch has accomplished it’s far more miraculous that we become so enveloped in this story. It’s an admirable mystery plot chock full of tension that’s built up over time and successive shifts in perception, time of day, and personnel moving in and out of the complex. Our one commonality is Stewart stuck in that wheelchair with only his broken leg, his camera, and the neighbors to keep him entertained. They do far more than that.

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Rear Window’s A-Plot is a perplexing mystery thriller that we watch unfold with a systematic unraveling that’s unnerving in part because Hitchcock has orchestrated it all in a limited space. Furthermore,  he has handicapped his protagonist and the outsiders coming in are constantly causing us to second guess or reevaluate our assumptions be they the insurance agency nurse Stella, Jefferies’  policeman pal, or his best girl Lisa. Each character is at one point in opposition to Jefferies while also providing a sounding board for his cockamamie theories which start to bear the grain of truth. We get to be a part of it all.

The utter irony is that once more not only is Hitchcock’s villain atypical — in nearly all areas a seemingly unspectacular man — he’s also quite overtly styled after David O. Selznick. If you know anything about the producer he shares some resemblance with Raymond Burr and there’s no denying that Hitchcock was never fond of the other’s meddling. As much as I love the Rebeccas (1940) and his earlier American works if Rear Window was a representation of the hands-off approach to his filmmaking than I would have to side with him.

At least by this point in his career, there’s no denying that he projected a singular vision that could hardly be quelled by any individual. This is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” after all, as the opening credits proclaim.

However, the beauty of this picture is that it truly does stand up to multiple viewings and every repeated viewing offers up new depths or at least minor revelations that add an even greater relish to the experience.

In particular, are the underlining themes of romance. Because this is a film about love in all its many facets with each character or couple reflecting a certain permutation of what romantic love looks like.

The love stories are playing out in each compartment of the apartment complex. Miss Torso, the queen bee with the pick of the drones. She’s very much eye candy but in the final frames, we realize there’s more to her as her love comes back home from the army. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts who is desperately seeking love and yet has enough respect not to stoop below her dignity. It’s a song that lifts her out of her despair. The Newlyweds are still in the honeymoon phase and we never see them.

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Meanwhile, you have Stella providing her homespun philosophy that people shouldn’t overanalyze their situation. Jefferies is pushing back against any serious romance because in his estimation Lisa is far too perfect for him. Meanwhile, Lisa is left believing she can live in any world that Jeff is in. The list goes on and on.

But for the threads to be resolved that must become fully intertwined with the murder at its core because such an event calls for a response from our characters — at least our main ones. When Lisa sacrifices so much to show her love and devotion to him, he realizes how much he misjudged her character and perhaps more profoundly how dearly he loves her and never wants to lose her. He has made the transition from armchair philosopher and misanthrope to a man smitten with someone else. As long as he ditches the window watching he should be fine.

That leads us to another area of discussion. There’s a bit of a moral commentary present though Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that interested in those conclusions per se as much as he likes manipulating them for the sake of his drama. And yet like Vertigo four years later there is this unnerving sense that he is tapping into some of humanity’s darkest desires to watch and spy on others for pleasure without any consequence or any vulnerability on the part of the peeper.

That draws me to another aspect of the film that I’ve never really considered. Rear Window implicitly asks what it is to be a neighbor or at least what it is to live with neighbors. There’s very little in the realm of actual judgments except for the small condemnation that comes from the woman who lives just above the murderer after her yippy dog has been killed. What does she say?

You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! BUT NONE OF YOU DO.

What she provides is a heartfelt and searing indictment which is nevertheless lost in all the commotion whether it’s the big party going on across the way or the realization by our heroes that their theories about murder have been confirmed. It did make me consider even briefly if the so-called Great Commandment is to “Love Thy Neighbor,” what does that look like?

Far from peering in at other people and staying anonymous, it seems like it involves reaching out to others. In some ways, being vulnerable and candid — transparent even — so others feel comfortable entering into our lives. Like Stella says sometimes people need to go on the outside and look in for a change. If nothing else that breeds empathy.

Of course, if that was the case, there would probably have been no murder and that’s what we want right? Well, anyways, Rear Window still stands as my favorite Hitchcock picture and one of the most clinical and compelling thrillers of all time.  But you probably already knew that. If you did not I implore you to break both your legs if need be and go lock yourself in a room and force yourself to watch it right this minute.

5/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars