On The Beach (1959): Peck, Gardner, Astaire, Perkins, and Apocalypse

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I recall my dad sharing a recollection about On The Beach. Back when it came out he went to the drive-in with his family, and they took in the movie. He fell asleep part of the way through only to wake up and the movie was still going. While not necessarily a profound observation, the film is unequivocally long. For some, it will verge on the doldrums, especially for a story about the end of the world.

However, I am tempted to like it for some of the creative decisions it chooses (and in my father’s defense, he never said he outright disliked the movie). It acts as one of the first prominent films detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it leads with a cold open closeup on Gregory Peck’s face as he commands a submarine. The camera is quick to maneuver through the space showing us all the levers and nobs with shipmen scurrying around carrying out their various duties.

It’s already a different feel than something like Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). We can actually breathe because there is no suffocating atmosphere to speak of. That’s what makes the emptiness of the space on the outside so startling. It’s almost too open; it’s all but void of meaningful life except for small envoys existing far enough away from the disaster zones.

Conceptually, the apocalyptic near-future is an intriguing world to come to terms with, just as it is frightening. Because it’s a hybrid society still existing in the world and only time will tell if it can subsist.

We familiarize ourselves with a segment of humanity now living in Australia, and America seems to be decimated. Everyone refers continually to “These Days” — it implies the allowances made in such extreme circumstances. People cannot go on living the way they always did, and things formerly unheard can happen without so much as a bat of an eye.

Shortage leads to a random assemblage of old and new technology to get by. For transportation, electric trains and horse-drawn carriages have a function. And yet for amusement, folks still have beach days soaking in the sun as if nothing is awry. It seems like small consolation for the 5-month expiration date being put on the world.

At first glance, On The Beach doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s really about one major event scattered with the residuals of human relationships. One of our main players is Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), a widower who lost his family to the catastrophe while he was on duty. Currently, he has come to Melbourne to receive a briefing from Admiral Bridie (John Tate) on what they might possibly do next.

Struggling with survivor’s guilt, Towers strikes up an intimate relationship with one Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). A radio signal originating in San Diego calls him back to the sea, and he heads out, unsure if he will ever see her again — yet another person he must reluctantly say au revoir to.

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Anthony Perkins fits into the story as a younger version of Towers, Lieutenant Peter Holmes. He still clings onto his young family while worrying about what might happen to their slice of marital bliss. Because she is less-remembered, I am apt to especially be interested in Donna Anderson who gives a sincere performance as his wife (though it starts to unravel as the clock ticks). Mary cannot bear the implications of their society, as they have a newborn and with her husband away, there will be no telling what will happen to them. It unhinges her.

The most ominous shot during the voyage is an eerily empty Golden Gate Bridge, indicative of the entire West Coast. It’s literally dead. When they finally arrive in San Diego, it proves to be a near ludicrous dead-end involving a window shade and a coke bottle. Even Yankee know-how wasn’t able to avoid utter destruction.

It occurs to me On The Beach is not trying to exploit the situation, but it is using the backdrop to say something as Stanley Kramer always tried to do with his pictures. While he’s not the most virtuoso of filmmakers, his intentions are always upfront, which is admirable.

The director always aligned himself with fine acting talent even affording a trio of former musical stars shots at dramatic parts to reshape their prospective images. That in itself takes unwavering vision. In this one, Fred Astaire gets his chance as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, acerbic scientist Julian Osborn. You’ve rarely seen him this way before. Whether it entirely suits him is relatively beside the point. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland would follow in a pair of uncharacteristic departures in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

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Whereas the source novel apparently laid out who was to blame, the film develops a level of senselessness because no one — even those holding the highest clearance levels — seems to know how the tripwire was set off. They can only speak to their current reality. It makes an already disturbing situation a little more unsettling since there is a sense of universal ambiguity.

The questions linger. Might it have been an accidental mistake leading to the annihilation of our entire world, people all but expunged from the surface of the earth? It’s a chilling thing to begin admitting. Julian (Fred Astaire) is forced to acknowledge he doesn’t know.

It could have been some bloke who thought he saw something on a radar screen knowing if he hesitated his people would be obliterated. If this were the case, he would have only succeeded in setting off the dominoes. In fact, this nearly happened in real life one fateful day on September 6, 1983, to Stanislav Petrov, though he chose to wait, and it proved to be a faulty signal from his equipment.

It’s evident mutually assured destruction is a horrible system to wager on. And once you are past the point of no return, the apocalypse is a horrifying entity if there is no sense of hope. Most films must choose between inevitable doom versus some kind of hope.

In the waning days, we are antsy for finality, and it makes you realize just what the circumstances bring out. Waiting around for the end of the world sounds awful. And yet On The Beach manages to land the dismount even if the interim is slow-moving. True, there aren’t a flurry of events and there are a few asides — like Astaire winning the Grand Prix — which feel slightly superfluous to an impartial observer.

However, again, some kind of statement is being put to the fore, more nuanced than we might initially give it credit for, if not altogether succinct. It’s not simply an alarmist diatribe but there is a sobering urgency to it. The film foregoes the austere religiosity of the street preachers for something perceived to be much warmer.

Ava Garner standing on the shore, kerchief waving in the breeze, watching the receding figure of Gregory Peck on the deck of his sub is the movie’s indelible image. We need people around us to love and be loved by. Of course, some ill-advised individuals (myself included) live their everyday lives just waiting around for something. Hopefully, it doesn’t take nuclear devastation to kick our lives into overdrive.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sniper (1952)

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From the outset with Stanley Kramer’s name emblazoned over the opening credits it gives an indication of what this film is as does the name of Director Edward Dymtryk. Kramer is, of course, remembered as one of the most fervent socially-conscious producers behind a string of classics like Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)?

But then there’s Dymtryk who was one of the most visible casualties of the blacklist as one of the scapegoated Hollywood 10 and also the helmer of such earlier pictures as Crossfire (1947) which had a very obvious message behind it.

Thus, the Sniper looks to be the perfect collaboration with a harrowing story that hopes to simultaneously enact some amount of social change. We are introduced to a man who is one of the “sex criminals” alluded to in the opening crawl who provide a major problem for the local police force.

In this case, we get stuck inside the head of the troubled figure named Eddie Miller, a deliveryman for a local dry cleaning service, who is plagued by not only paranoia and cold sweats but a burning hatred of women.

There’s a peeping tom, voyeuristic manner to the camerawork as we follow Eddie and his morbid curiosity. He sits in his second-floor apartment picking out women through the scope of his sniper rifle and pretending to pull the trigger.  He’s an unstable personality, an isolated individual with a mother complex that sends him seeking out brunettes. But rather than getting some perverse pleasure out of the thought or actual implementation of their suffering, it comes off as a nearly uncontrollable urge.

So rather than hating Eddie for his indiscretions, it’s quite easy to pity his impulses because they feel like precisely that. Something he cannot seem to rein in. In one particular moment, he sticks his hand on the hot burner of a stovetop scalding his hand because it’s the only release he can get from the maddening thoughts hammering inside his skull.

There’s also the suggestion that people like Eddie are the ones who need mental help and yet they get kicked back out to the curb in deference to more priority cases — the suggestion being that physical injury is more pressing than psychological problems. It’s true that it can be a difficult issue to reconcile with.

The front half of The Sniper proves to be a surprisingly frank depiction and we can attribute this to the fact that as an audience we get so closely tied to Eddie Miller as a character. It’s an unflinching portrayal delivered remarkably well by Arthur Franz.

But the picture falters in its efforts to get didactic and it becomes overtly a message picture instead of purely a character study of a troubled man. We sense it trying to make its point rather than allowing the actions to dictate what happens and thus allowing the audience members to arrive at their own conclusions.

The most obvious extension of this is the all-knowing psychiatrist who lays down his wisdom though no one seems ready to listen to his insights. He’s a proponent of nipping the problem of sex offenders in the bud at a latent stage putting them into a mental institution with newly proposed legislation. It’s not that the idea is bad but it’s the execution in cinematic term that proves heavy-handed.

The latter half is more about the investigation to find the killer headed by Detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, Frank Faylen was apparently promoted and transferred from New York following his days in Detective Story (1951). Marie Windsor appears in an uncharacteristic sympathetic role as a victimized nightclub pianist. Her outcome and a number of others subsequently turn The Sniper into a commentary on gender whether it meant to be or not.

I rather like how the film utilizes the streets of San Francisco and there’s no need to overtly make a point that the film is set there, existing within police precincts, humble apartment buildings, and hilly streets. It’s simply the world that the film makes its home. It includes a rather authentic Chinese restaurant which besides providing a little flavor, shows that Menjou could use some work on his chopstick form. Though on a positive note, Victor Sen Yung snags another uncredited appearance after showing up in the S.F. set Woman on the Run (1950) as well.

Still, despite the reality that the picture gets a bit too preachy, there’s often a modicum of truth in this type of film we could do well to consider. The same psychiatrist notes the following, “You’ll catch him and they’ll kill him and everyone will forget about it. That is until the next one comes along and it’ll start all over again.”

It’s the endless cycle that we as humans allow without actually ever fixing problems. Such issues cause me to say, again and again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same old problems just reassert themselves in different ways. It doesn’t help when our attention spans get shorter and shorter while our knowledge of history continues to dwindle.

3.5/5 Stars

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

itsamadmad1It’s easy to forgive this sprawling comedy for a weak script because it does a wonderful job of playing to its strengths and delivering a hilarious payload of laughter. Stanley Kramer (known mostly for his social dramas) drops this raucous comedy full of bone-shattering slapstick and violently wild antics. It also assemblies arguably the greatest comic ensembles with some of the biggest names you could ever hope to see on the big screen. Everyone seems to come out for a who’s who of comedic talent in roles big and small. Half the fun is recognizing a familiar face on the screen for a quick cameo, giving a nod of approval, and then grabbing hold of this rip-roaring comedy once more as it hits breakneck speed. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and that’s part of its charm.

The film opens on a mountainous road when a car goes careening off the side of the cliff. Some onlookers go to see what they can do, but little do they know they’ve stumbled on to a gold mine. It’s not hidden under Jimmy Durante’s big nose, but a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. It’s all very suspect, and everybody gets ready to head their different ways. However, a little old-fashioned, All-American greed sets in and they begin to high-tail it down the coast. The prize of a $350,000 payoff is too much to disregard.

After a harrowing car chase the treasure-seekers break off as follows:

Sid Caesar and his wife Edie Adams charter a prehistoric bi-plane and wind up spending the majority of the film trying to escape the basement of a convenience store using any means possible. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney find a plane of their own, the only problem is that their pilot (Jim Bachus) gets a little tipsy mid-flight, leaving landing duties in their inept hands.The long-suffering Milton Berle constantly is being berated with the incessant babbling of loud-mouthed Ethel Merman. Poor Jonathan Winters is ditched by everyone else, then double-crossed by Phil Silvers, before he’s finally is able to hitch a ride. Berle finally loses all patience and teams up with buck-toothed Brit Terry Thomas. Spencer Tracy the wry police chief Culpepper watches all these events unfold with a play by play being fed his way. Meanwhile, his life begins to fall apart, but that pales in comparison to the gas station that Winters demolishes with his bare hands. That’s not the only destruction this gang leaves in their wake either. They total cars, destroy buildings, and do every type of damage you could ever expect. It’s great!

When everyone finally happens on the treasure they’ve picked up a couple cabbies played by the venerable Eddie “Rochester” Royal and Peter Falk. The mayhem leads to an excavating party and a final chase as Culpepper takes the money and runs with the gang hot on his heels. It all ends thrillingly from the top of a fire escape with a precariously situated ladder. The boys all end up in the hospital, but it’s still a laughing matter thanks to a stray banana peel.

Although the laughs slow down a bit in the second half, this film is a wonderfully good time. You have cameos from everybody like Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, William Demarest, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, and even The Three Stooges. Since there so many people who did make the cut I’ll be a glass half empty misanthrope and list off a few names who did not end up joining the film’s cast. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott, Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, and of course Don Rickles who never let Kramer live it down for not inviting him. Quite the list, but mind you I’m not complaining too much.

The film takes on a personal note too because my dad actually saw the movie being shot on highway 73 back in the 1960s, and he remembers it rather fondly. To me, the film takes on deeper significance due to the crisscrossed palm trees which also became the iconic symbol of Inn-N-Out Burger all across California. What’s not to love about such a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?

4/5 Stars

The Defiant Ones (1958)

2672e-defiant_ones_posterStarring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier with director Stanley Kramer, the film opens in the pouring rain with a truck full of convicts. It goes off road and no one is hurt except two men escape.  A Sheriff an state policemen begin tracking them on foot. However, this pair is unique since one is the white “Joker” Jackson and the other is a black man named Noah Cullen. Their racial prejudice and conflict of interests causes sparks to fly. Through it all they are forced to work together just to survive, whether it be wading through rapids, climbing out of a ditch, or trying to break their chains.  Along the way they narrowly escape a hanging and they meet a lonely white woman. Jackson is forced to make a decision about his newfound comrade and Cullen in turn also makes a sacrifice of his own. This is such an extraordinary story about racial conflict. Ultimately, they are no longer so much black or white as much as they are fellow men. In an era full of racial tensions, this film was extremely relevant and it is still powerful to this day.

 
4/5 Stars

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

ff836-guess_who27s_coming_to_dinner_posterThis film directed by Stanley Kramer, has a relatively simple story line revolving around a major issue. Joanna Drayton has fallen in love with a doctor she met only 10 days before and wishes to get married. Obviously, her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are startled by this whirlwind event. They are even more dismayed when they discover he is a black man. Hepburn’s character lightens to the idea while her husband is adamantly against it. Soon everything becomes even more complicated when the man’s parents are invited to dinner, only to be equally startled. Eventually giving it more thought, Tracy does condone the marriage realizing how much his daughter is in love. This would be Tracy’s final film and he would die only a couple weeks after shooting ended. He and Hepburn do a wonderful job with Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hougton as well. This movie is good and also monumental for the racial issue it covered.

4/5 Stars

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

If you want a movie of comedy legends and who’s who, this film has practically everyone you want. Spencer Tracy is a police officer who is tipped off to where a great sum of money is. Close behind are a group of travelers including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams, and Jonathan Winters. Soon it becomes a mad dash as each group tries to reach the money first. Along the way are many hilarious antics and memorable cameos (including Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Don Knotts, and Buster Keaton). In the final scenes Tracy has the money but the others are still in pursuit. After some wild events everyone ends up in the hospital without any money. However, they are quickly reminded how madly funny the world is all the same. I really enjoyed this film because of the many great stars and hilarious scenarios. It really had me belly-laughing. This was also the favorite movie of the founder of Inn-N-Out Burger so what more could you want?

4.5/5 Stars

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

This epic court drama relates the true story of the War Crime Trials after World War II. With Stanley Kramer directing, this cast is amazing. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Werner Klemperer, and even William Shatner all play a part. However, Maximillian Schell is by far the standout because he is such an amazing defender of his country’s honor throughout the entire film. He wants the Holocaust to be known and yet all the while he goes through the case with dignity even though the pressures are so great. For every intense moment the viewer is stuck in their seat and when the verdict comes it is hard to contain the emotion. This movie should be seen by all not only because it is great but it also chronicles an important event in history. Whatever happens we should never forget the events surrounding the Judgment at Nuremberg.

4.5/5 Stars

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Starring two battling greats in Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, with Gene Kelly as well, the film chronicles a fictitious version of the controversial Scopes Monkey Trial which acted as an allegory for the McCarthy era. March is the prestigious prosecutor on the side of Creationism and Tracy is the famed defense attorney fighting for a young schoolteacher (Dick York). The two spar back and forth on the touchy subject while staying friends outside the courtroom. The whole town backs Brady, condemning Cates and Drummond as evil. However, despite all that is against them, Drumond saves the case by bringing Brady to the stand. The two stars have commendable performances if not their best. Gene Kelly proves he can be a serious actor, playing the cynical newspaper man. The cast is rounded out nicely by Harry Morgan and Claude Akins. Here Stanley Kramer puts together a respectable movie version of the stage play.

4/5 Stars