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

the wild one brando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman_on_the_RunB-films have little time to waste and this one jumps right into the action. In a matter of moments, a man is shot, another man has killed him and a third witness gets away into the night. Although Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) is rounded up by the police to be a witness he gives them the slip for an undisclosed reason and they must spend every waking hour trying to track him down.

What’s important to this particular story is that he left behind his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to be questioned by the police and they are hurting for a break. They need answers so they slam her with all sorts of inquiries.

She’s not all that cooperative though and the reasons are rather hard to discern. Is it belligerence, fear, or sheer apathy to the entire ordeal? Because you see, Ms. Johnson for some time had been drifting apart from her husband an accomplished painter who nevertheless put little stock in his own skill.

And that’s where the film’s two themes begin to intertwine.  The police surmise that the runaway man is fleeing a killer, but for his wife the implications are twofold. In her eyes, he’s just as likely running away from a marriage he couldn’t cope with. That is her dilemma which she masks both pointedly and inadvertently with various diversions to keep the police reeling.  After all, she’s not particularly keen on helping them or sticking around for that matter.

Whereas in earlier roles Ann Sheridan was always slightly overshadowed by other performers, most notable of those being the always electrifying James Cagney, here she gives perhaps her finest performance and she’s at the center of it all. That’s not to say she isn’t surrounded by a stellar supporting gallery.

Dennis O’Keefe, remembered as a gritty leading man in pictures such as T-Men and Raw Deal, showcases a new playful side as a journalist trying to nab a scoop on the runaway witness and at the same time making eyes at the man’s bride. But he manages to give the part some life that goes far beyond a one-dimensional characterization. There’s more to him as we soon find out.

The other important player turns out to be Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) who as the long arm of the law is looking to find his man before his adversary does. But he’s not about to take flack from anyone and if ever there was a cop who was no-nonsense he fits the bill. His croaking voice always interrogating his subjects in a continuous effort to get his job done. Too bad he wasn’t quite counting on Ann Sheridan.

A relentless climax aboard a roller coaster at a local amusement park precedes Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train when it comes to making carnival games such a deadly ordeal. And there are hints along the way ratcheting up the tension whether it’s a familiar cigarette lighter, a striking coincidence, or a passing remark that initially goes unnoticed.

The script strikes a strange path at times given to clunky expositional dialogue that feels as trite as can be and then in the very next sequence there’s a bit of patter or a dry quip that makes things all the more interesting. Also, a pair of small supporting roles for Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato add another layer of authenticity to the characterization only surpassed by the on location shooting that catches the essence of mid-century San Francisco.

In the end, Woman on the Run turns out to be one of those wonderful treasures that has rather unfairly gotten buried in the dusty attic of film noir. But far from being an antique, it plays fairly well today with an underlying tension running through Sheridan’s performance as she not only reflects on her own dwindling marriage but stresses to discover her husband’s whereabouts in fear of his very well-being.

It’s surprisingly entertaining and you get the sense that if Norman Forster (a fairly prolific actor, director, and screenwriter) were someone other than Norman Forster, this picture might have been scrutinized more closely. As it is, it’s just waiting for more people to dredge it up. How did I get here? If you’re a sucker for film noir and Ann Sheridan there’s no better place to go than Woman on the Run.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lineup (1958)

Thelineupmovieposter6nfIn style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.

For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.

The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.

Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.

Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?

From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.

Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known.  Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.

Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.

But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.

With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.

3.5/5 Stars