For Reel

On the Waterfront (1954)
May 8, 2016, 10:09 pm
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Director: Elia Kazan
4 Stars
On the WaterfrontCritics have argued whether or not the parallels one can make between the subtext of On the Waterfront and Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s participation in the House Un-American Activities Committee trials is a worthwhile endeavor to invest in. Should one humor the idea that the film does indeed carry this self-serving ideology, it is clear that the coincidences are both in great numbers and often-times very explicit, including many monologues about whether “snitching” is the morally just thing to do. And yet, whether or not Kazan and Schulberg’s actions are defensible, this lens of viewing On the Waterfront only enriches the film all the further—it’s a fascinating, sometimes desperate piece of vindication, both serving as a sort of apology and a justification. Beyond this admittedly irresistible reading, however, the picture still works as a particularly rich drama due to the intelligent script and appropriate cast. Marlon Brando’s “contender” scene is justifiably the classic (Rod Steiger’s participation in the scene is actually more devastating), but another remarkable feat of acting occurs when Brando reacts to his deceased pigeons. There is no sense of rage or surprise in his actions—Brando simply performs heartbreak as best as he can, which is to say as good as anyone ever has. Additionally, it must be said that Brando’s performance is not only aided by his remarkable sense of immediacy, but in the use of props. Much is made of the scene in which he plays with Eva Marie Saint’s gloves, however his interaction with both the hook (which comes to serve as a sort of symbol of revolution) and the aforementioned pigeons serve to inform the character and his place within the world.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
October 16, 2015, 9:29 pm
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Director: Richard Fleischer
3.5 Stars
20000 Leagues Under the SeaJames Mason was the right man to play 20000 Leagues Under the Sea’s Captain Nemo, a tragic figure who is is wrought to be an alien to his own generation. Disenchanted by the “progress” of the world outside, Nemo holes himself up in a submarine and indulges the spirit to explore, discover, and put an end to man’s predilection towards war through violent means. If Nemo has clearly gone mad, he’s a product of his time. Mason was particularly gifted at these wounded, grieving characters–he is often characterized as a loner, but one who carries himself with a certain pride and grace. Alongside Mason is Kirk Douglas as a harpooner in an unfortunately misjudged casting decision. Douglas, in his form-fitting sailor outfit and frequent mugging, is so cartoonishly superhuman that he seems like a good fit for a traditional Disney film, but this is undoubtedly one of the darker, more thoughtful ventures of Walt Disney’s career. The production design and special effects are certainly worth mentioning–the rooms aboard the Nautilus are unforgettable, feeling as though a vast gothic mansion has been cramped into a tin can. If it falters on occasion–the tangent involving a cannibal island is unnecessary–the terrific visuals and especially the performances of Mason and Paul Lukas are worth seeing.

Them! (1954)
June 23, 2015, 3:32 pm
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Director: Gordon Douglas
4.5 Stars
Them!As one of the first responses that the science fiction genre had to the nuclear age, Them! signaled a significant advancement for the genre in the 1950s. It was produced by Warner Brothers, a studio that would normally be understood to be above such material, but one that provided the film with the necessary resources to get across the sense of scale. Director Gordon Douglas famously begins things in an atmospheric fashion, surveying what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape as a pair of police offers discover a young girl (Sandy Drescher) suffering from shock. If the idea of giant ants now seems disreputable, that comes with the modern knowledge of the genre that would follow. The circumstances of Them! are delivered with a fatalistic tone, achieving a convincing sense of paranoia that was all too fitting for the Cold War era. What lingers even longer than the monstrous ants are the dark, hollow caves that are the Los Angeles sewers, or the traumatized girl’s face that registers the unspeakable horrors to come.

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
June 12, 2015, 1:37 pm
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Director: Don Siegel
3.5 Stars
Riot in Cell Block 11The opening sequence of Riot in Cell Block 11 is a newsreel montage that articulates the frequency of prison riots across the country. With this introduction, it’s clear that director Don Siegel and screenwriter Richard Collins are articulating that this story is one of many, and that it is representative of a concern that exists outside of the escapist confines of the movie theater. As a message movie, it has some success, albeit in a different vein than a film like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. That is, it doesn’t show the violence–the prisoners often speak of their mistreatment and the overcrowding, but we don’t see it first hand–but the outrage that results from it. At its best, it’s a nicely complicated film about a revolt against a repressive institution, where even the innocent guards are implicated. When one of the guards tries to articulate that he’s just a man feeding his family, he’s met with disdain. He knows full well of the implications of what he’s involved in and continues to work for the institution that is robbing the prisoners of their own humanity. Neville Brand is well-cast as the go-between who successfully navigates both the world of the prisoners and of the warden. He’s not a “good” man–in some instances, he seems downright sociopathic–but the only man in the position to stand up for his cell block.

The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954)
March 28, 2015, 12:59 pm
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Director: Edward Bernds
3 Stars
The Bowery Boys Meet the MonstersFollowing in the tradition of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Cat and the Canary, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters places the titular clowns in a horror setting in which each laugh is complimented by an equal scare. It’s an effective blend, thanks in particular to the outlandish cast of monsters–man, beast, and machine alike! Without access to Universal’s cast of creatures, the filmmakers invent a bizarre family which includes a pair of scientists (John Dehner and Lloyd Carrigan) who want to transplant human brains into both a gorilla and a robot, a racy vampire (Laura Mason) who seems as interested in sex as she is in a meal, and a mischievous grandmother (Ellen Corby) who wants the boys to satiate her man-eating plant. It’s fairly low-grade slapstick and clearly shot on a shoestring budget (there are only a few sets in the whole picture), but it’s fairly irresistible for its offbeat cast of grotesqueries. Leo Gorcy and Huntz Hall do an admirable job at rehashing Abbott and Costello routines–much of the humor derives from the two being oblivious to the dangers around them–and the brief running time keeps things from growing stale.

Black Widow (1954)
November 22, 2013, 3:52 am
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Director: Nunnally Johnson
2.5 Stars
Black WidowNunnally Johnson, the talented writer/producer credited with the screenplays for classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, Roxie Hart, and The Southerner had a short-lived career as a director in the 1950s. Black Widow, his sophomore effort in the director’s chair, is a handsomely made but tedious production. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther rightly quipped, “It is merely an average whodunnit, stretched out on the CinemaScope screen and performed by a fancy cast of actors so that it looks more important than it is.” Van Johnson plays Peter Denver, a Broadway producer who allows a seemingly harmless 20-year-old girl (Peggy Ann Garner) to use his apartment during the day to work on her writing. When her body is found hanging and it is revealed to have been murder, lead investigator Lt. Bruce (George Raft) pegs Peter as the prime suspect. The bulk of the picture involves Peter seeking the evidence that will clear his name, but it is blandly told with stiff or lousy performances (Raft is sleepwalking, Ginger Rogers overplays her role as a Broadway star). In the end, the secrets that are exposed are absurd and improbable, ultimately calling into question a number of poor casting choices.

Twist of Fate (1954)
November 21, 2013, 7:29 pm
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Director: David Miller
2 Stars
Twist of FateA dour British noir that imported Ginger Rogers for hopeful box office returns, Twist of Fate (originally titled Beautiful Stranger in the UK) is burdened with a lousy script and worse performances. Rogers plays Johnny, an impoverished showgirl who is the mistress of Louis Galt (Stanley Baker), a millionaire who insists that his divorce is all but finalized. When Johnny learns that Galt might be lying (little does she know, he also happens to run a counterfeiting ring), she flees and finds herself stranded in a country village outside of Cannes. Rogers’ then husband Jacques Bergerac plays the eventual love interest, an artist who seduces the distraught Rogers through his skills with pottery. Director David Miller and cinematographer Edward Scaife fail in their rendering of the villa on the French Riviera, which despite on-location shooting comes off as bland and lifeless. Worse yet are the clumsily staged and edited action sequences. Herbert Lom fares best as a crook who is in debt to Galt, however Rogers is only serviceable and Bergerac is a bore.

La Strada (1954)
June 19, 2012, 11:05 pm
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Director: Federico Fellini

Arguably the first of Federico Fellini’s true masterpieces, La Strada was at the time his most autobiographical effort and certainly the film that would lay the foundation for the rest of his career to follow. Anthony Quinn stars Zampanò, a traveling strong man who buys an impoverished young woman – Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina – from her mother for his traveling circus act. Zampanò seems to be little more than a cruel brute at first. He whips Gelsomina violently until she perfects her performance, and given that the naive girl is all too eager to please, she’s loyal to a fault and hardly puts up any protest. In the end, Zampanò abandons the broken Gelsomina not out of cruelty but out of mercy – he finally recognizes that he’s no good for her, and has clearly led her down a terrible spiral (unbeknownst to him, her spirits had already been irreversibly crushed). Even if the terrific Masina is the iconic figure of the film – if only because of the relationship that the actress has with Fellini and with his oeuvre as a whole – it is Quinn who gives the most nuanced, fascinating performance of the picture, with his humanity slowly being revealed piece by piece. Despite the devastating conclusion, it’s not a sadistic film – Zampanò’s misery is not something the audience finds just or deserved. The emotion, instead, is perfectly recognizable. Sometimes we don’t recognize how cruel we’ve been until it’s too late.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954)
April 21, 2012, 2:38 am
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Director: Luis Buñuel

A fascinating departure in Luis Buñuel’s oeuvre, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was the surrealist’s first American-funded film, his first film in color, and the only film that he completed entirely in English. Dan O’Herlihy, Oscar-nominated for the role (eventually losing out to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), stars as the titular Crusoe, who finds himself deserted on an island along with only a cat and a dog. Those anticipating the fanciful delusions familiar of Buñuel’s work might find themselves disappointed, however early on there is a remarkable hallucination sequence in which Crusoe glimpses his ever-disapproving father. The specter washes a pig while speaking to Crusoe in a sing-song cadence, and Buñuel’s editors, Carlos Savage and Alberto E. Valenzuela, cut to shots of the father drowning in the sea and a parched Crusoe on a beach in the midst of it. Buñuel’s pictures were not typified merely by their aesthetic values, however, and where it fits into his canon is in the film’s heavy Christian symbology and in the complex moral attitudes that it addresses through the use of a reformed cannibal that Crusoe takes into his custody. For Code-era Hollywood, there is a surprising scene in which Friday, the savage, poses Crusoe logical inquires about the nature of God to which he has no reply. Beyond these pleasures, it’s a well-paced and beautifully-filmed adaptation – filled with golden and green hues by cinematographer Alex Phillips – that successfully brings Daniel Defoe’s novel to the screen without compromising either the source material or Buñuel’s sensibilities as a storyteller.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
January 12, 2012, 7:49 am
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Director: Edward Dmytryk

Often considered to feature the last great performance by Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny was adapted by producer Stanley Kramer and director Edward Dmytryk from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk. Bogart plays a lieutenant commander aboard a ship whose rash, cowardly actions lead to a mutiny by his crew, who must stand on trial for their actions in the third act. The Navy cooperated with the production of the picture and, as a result, in the end it inevitability becomes a fawning admiration of the service branch. A late speech given by a lawyer played by José Ferrer, perhaps meant to make it clear that Naval commanders are not like the one depicted in the film, displaces the blame to Fred MacMurray’s character, whose actions during the court trial mark a radical, unconvincing change in his arc. Bogart is entertaining and, in a crucial scene, is able to dial things down enough to remain sympathetic, however the dialogue given to MacMurray rids the picture of any feeling of authenticity. Wrought to be a novelist, the character makes embarrassingly on-the-nose observations – such as the suggestion that Bogart’s ball bearings are a Freudian symbol – that make it clear that the filmmakers have no faith in the audience to come to these conclusions on their own. Even more appalling than all of this is the indefensible amount of time given to a subplot featuring the dreadfully dull Robert Francis and the Oedipal relationship that he has with his mother.