In the first of a regular series of features on American movies, Mike Sutton looks at ten of the best Hollywood films from the Nineteen Fifties which are available on DVD.
No.1, 29th May 2002
I have, for most of my life, been in love with mainstream American filmmaking and a large part of the writing I do is in a perhaps over-optimistic effort to persuade people that Hollywood doesn’t automatically equal Junk. I’m not trying to say that it’s necessarily better than other national cinemas – where would we be without Bergman, Kurosawa or Fellini – but I think the films produced by Hollywood are often underrated, perhaps because the siren song of the expensive and banal has always been so seductive.
This is the first in a series of regular columns which I am calling the “Hollywood Ten” – partly in tribute to the men who were victims of the McCarthy blacklist and partly because it’s a good title. Each column will feature ten films from that most despised part of the film industry with a view to establishing why they deserve a first look or, better still, a second. All the films I feature can be bought with confidence that the DVD will be at least above average and many of the discs I mention are unexpectedly stunning.
My first topic is HOLLYWOOD IN THE FIFTIES
Hollywood in the Fifties was undergoing a process of change. The threat of television was becoming ever more prevalent and the use of foreign studio space was increasingly common, especially in Italy, while the power of the Studio system was waning. However, these changes resulted in one of the richest and perhaps most underrated eras of American cinema; the breaking of the Production Code, the rise of the Actors Studio, the increasing use of independent production companies often run by actors (albeit usually associated with particular studios), the development of Cinemascope followed by other widescreen systems, the responses to the escalation of the Cold War and the ever-present menace of nuclear destruction, and the rise of dissatisfaction with the status quo which eventually bubbled over in the nineteen sixties. This dissatisfaction wasn’t always expressed in entirely obvious ways and some of the most subversive films passed unnoticed at the time.
All of the films I have chosen are interesting products of this rich period of cinema history. Some of the titles choose themselves – can one really discuss Fifties Hollywood without mentioning Brando and Kazan, Hitchcock or John Ford ? But I hope there are one or two less familiar titles here too. I have reservations about my list but the main point I want to raise is the lack of a Hollywood Musical, that most entertaining of all genres. The reason is simple – none of the DVDs currently available do the best of these films justice. Singin’ In The Rain is out on a bare-bones Warner disc that is of disappointing quality but there’s no sign of The Band Wagon, my personal favourite of them all. An American In Paris and Gigi are also available on barebones discs, but it seems perverse to me that such an important part of America’s artistic heritage is being shoved out on featureless DVDs when there is so much accompanying material that could be included. So that’s a gap I will hope to fill later on when Warners get their collective finger out and start doing justice to those great musical gems in their MGM archive.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955, Universal, Douglas Sirk)
You can either follow the route taken by most critics in the fifties and condemn Douglas Sirk’s entire output as saccharine trash or you can look a little deeper and find that he’s one of the most insightful and daring directors of his time. On the surface, this tale of an upper class widow falling for her gardner is little more than a sedulously furbished Mills And Boon story but the intensity of the emotions and the passionate sexuality lying under the surface become immediately apparent once you attune yourself to Sirk’s intentions. He is subverting within a studio genre flick and the superficial slickness of the film hides rage and despair towards the thousand bland little ways in which people casually destroy each other. Jane Wyman was never better than she is here and Rock Hudson is also impressive (all the more so when you reflect on the fact that he was himself being forced to live a lie for the sake of appearances). And just when you think it can’t get any better, there’s a fantastic side-swipe at television in one of the most bitterly ironic moments of fifties cinema.
The Criterion Region 0 DVD of this film is exceptionally good and the full DVD Times review by Jon Robertson can be found here
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959, Columbia, Otto Preminger)
Otto Preminger did more to break the idiocies of the Production Code than any other single director. His breaking of taboos such as the word ‘virgin’ in The Moon Is Blue and the depiction of heroin addiction in The Man With The Golden Arm were watersheds in film censorship which we should still be grateful for. But he was also, at his best, a fantastic entertainer and his run of films between the late fifties and early sixties was a wonderful example of how art and commerce can be happily married. The best of those films remains Anatomy of a Murder, a minutely detailed courtroom drama in which James Stewart’s country lawyer defends taciturn soldier Ben Gazzara on a murder charge. Gazzara killed a bar-owner who raped his wife Lee Remick, and the film features the kind of frank sexual discussion which would have been unthinkable six years earlier. Another taboo breaker is the display of a pair of torn panties – Stewart says the word ‘panties’ with delicous relish – but this adds to the realism on which the film prides itself. None of this daring would matter a damn if the film didn’t work, but work it does. The courtroom scenes are brilliantly written and played by a fine cast, with George C.Scott taking the acting honours as a charming but ruthless prosecutor, and the ending is still a riveting dramatic set-piece.
Columbia’s R2 release of this film is technically excellent but light on extra features. There’s a very nice looking but short photo montage, some original advertising and the trailer but a commentary would have been nice, possibly by a critic in the manner of the On The Waterfront release. It is available quite cheaply online however, so the strength of the transfer makes it well worth considering
THE BLOB (1958, Fairview/Tonylyn, Irvin S.Yeaworth Jr)
A bit of a left-field choice this you may think. But it’s actually a very typical example of that most vital of American genres, the “B” picture. In itself, that description isn’t particularly helpful, meaning simply that the film was intended for drive-ins and as a support feature to what Joe Bob Briggs calls “indoor bullstuff”. Although the name of the film has become as iconic as the film itself, of it’s type The Blob isn’t all that bad. It’s a monster movie about a gelatinous substance which emerges from a meteor and proceeds to terrorise a small town in Middle America and it’s pretty representative of the sub-genre, combining very dodgy science with some good shocks and lots of daft set-pieces of the Blob claiming victims. Considering the $240,000 budget, it’s quite professional and always looks good – the wise budgetary decision to keep the Blob off-screen for much of the time pays dividends in terms of suspense. There are many better horror-SF films – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Them being my favourites – but this is fine to be going on with until the above two films get decent DVD releases. The central tenet of all monster movies – that the menace is ‘out there’, be it space or (allegorically) Soviet Russia and must therefore be eradicated before the American way of life is threatened – is present and correct. It also helps that Criterion’s DVD is quite simply a masterpiece of exhaustive coverage for a film which really doesn’t deserve the effort.
Criterion’s extraordinary DVD of this film is well worth a look but might only appeal as a purchase to fans of the genre or students of B-Movie history. There are two fascinating commentaries which go into plenty of detail about the production. Technically, it looks astounding but, as many reviewers have suggested, the release raises the question of why so many better films have received such relatively appalling treatment on the format when an entertaining but minor monster flick from the period is given the full five star luxury carriage
KISS ME DEADLY (1955, United Artists, Robert Aldrich)
One of the most unusual thrillers ever made and still shocking almost fifty years later. It’s not so much a private eye thriller – despite being based on Mickey Spillane’s bestselling novel – as a blackly funny comment on fifties paranoia, the Atomic age and the sex war. Mike Hammer’s encounter with a blonde woman stumbling about on a highway turns into a nightmare of dementedly brutal violence and mysterious deceptions revolving around a briefcase full of…. well, it’s something and it’s glowing but beyond that I can tell you no more. Ralph Meeker’s cynical Hammer is a delightful performance and there’s a constant wit to the film which takes the edge of some of the more extreme (albeit usually off-screen) sadism. The plot addresses some of the less savoury aspects of American scientific life in a fascinatingly topical way, as if Aldrich is far more concerned with satire than he is with conventional noir films. That wouldn’t be surprising to be honest – much of Aldrich’s best work is directly anti-establishment from the rowdy anti-heroics of The Mean Machine to the carefully shaded commentary on American wars in his marvellous Western Ulzana’s Raid. This was his debut film and if it’s been overrated in comparison to his later work, it stands out as one of the most politically aware and subversive film noirs. The final scene has become a classic in itself, referenced in countless other films and, in locale at least, by Aldrich himself in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.
The R1 DVD of this film from MGM is pretty basic but does include an interesting alternative ending which is worth a look. Technically, it’s certainly above-average, but a special edition of this film is surely worth hoping for.
ON THE WATERFRONT (1954, Columbia, Elia Kazan)
This preachy, rather self-conscious social drama about the mobsters who held a tight grip on the waterfront would have been unmemorable in just about any other circumstances. But in 1954, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, following their triumph with A Streetcar Named Desire, were involved along with a fantastic cast and the result remains unforgettable cinema. Brando, as the guilt-ridden ex-fighter who works for Lee J.Cobb’s sadistic mob boss and loses everything, including his self-respect, until he meets the redeeming Eva Marie Saint, is absolutely stunning – this is one of the rare performances which really is as good as everyone says it is. His big moments are riveting, and the famous speech in the taxi – “I coulda been a contender Charlie, I coulda been somebody” – is guaranteed to give you chills the first time you hear it. In these days when we never see Brando unless he’s hamming it up in a supporting role, it’s valuable to see his early films to be reminded of just how bloody good he was – in fact, he was one of the two or three greatest screen actors of the twentieth century and the fact that he threw it all away doesn’t affect the fact that his achievement is still here for everyone to see. OK, this film is schematic and more than a bit formulaic but it’s still very powerful and the cast all distinguish themselves – notably Rod Steiger, even if he does have to play second fiddle to Brando in his scenes. Kazan’s direction is as efficient as ever – there’s not much imagination but there is a lot of professionalism in his work.
The Columbia DVD of this film, now available on Region 2, is excellent. The film has been restored with loving care, showcasing the atmospheric monochrome photography. The disc contains a featurette, an interview with Elia Kazan and a very informative commentary from Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955, Warners, Nicholas Ray)
The importance of Nicholas Ray to American cinema has always been underrated and is now in serious danger of being completely overlooked. Always an iconoclast, he, like Sirk, loved to subvert expectations within conventional genre pieces. His best works tend to be his most personal – the insane western Johnny Guitar is a constant delight as is Bigger Than Life, intended as a true life drug addiction horror story but turned by Ray into an inquisition on the nature of the American family and the futility of the American Dream. I’ve recently discovered, thanks to some helpful readers, that the former is on DVD in France but the latter is sadly unavailable. I can’t vouch personally for the French R2 disc but it appears to be highly acclaimed. However, it is to Rebel Without A Cause that I will turn for evidence of his genius. Luckily, it’s not hard to spot in this film, which is also notable for defining James Dean in the cinematic consciousness of several generations. It wasn’t Dean’s debut film – he’d been in five films before this, making his breakthrough in Kazan’s East of Eden – but it was the one which solidified his image as the confused teenager continually coming up against the brick wall of misunderstanding from every authority figure you care to mention. The plot is as old as the hills and probably just as well travelled, but Ray’s film has an authenticity of setting and character that are extremely rare and the key scenes – the knife fight, the chicken run, the confrontation between parents and child – are taut, elegant and full of a controlled energy that is thrilling to watch. The Cinemascope photography is quite awe-inspiring as is the use of rich colour. It perhaps doesn’t have the edge of daring which it did in 1955 – children rebelling against their parents is now considered a normal part of adolescence – but Ray’s film remains a powerful drama and, increasingly, a valuable social document.
Warner’s R2 DVD of this film is technically astonishing with a picture that rivals anything I’ve seen on DVD for sheer clarity and with colours that will knock your eyes out. Not many extras – a featurette on the restoration and some of the 1955 promotional material – but the transfer makes it a must-buy. A full DVD Times review is forthcoming
THE SEARCHERS (1958, Warners, John Ford)
A brief note this – if you want my ecstatic review of one of the greatest films ever made, you can find it here, on DVD Times. Suffice to say that whether or not you like Westerns or John Wayne, both admittedly acquired tastes, this is essential viewing. It’s as rich and profound a film as has ever been made and repeat viewings simply serve to confirm that opinion. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. If you’ve seen it and didn’t like it, then seriously consider selling your DVD player and never watching a film again.
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1958, United Artists, Alexander MacKendrick)
Alexander MacKendrick made some of the best Ealing comedies before uprooting to America and making this coruscating study of the corruption of power. If Sweet Smell Of Success isn’t the most mean-spirited film ever made, it’s in their pitching, but it’s a fresh, invigorating meanness, a Herculean cleaning of the stables. Burt Lancaster is on peak form as the foul gossipmonger J.J.Hunsecker and Tony Curtis was never better than as his flunky Sidney. The plot, involving Sidney’s involvement in breaking up the marriage of his idol’s sister, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the flavour of the beautiful monochrome lighting by the great James Wong Howe – this is one of the definitive New York movies – and the caustic dialogue by Ernest Lehman (who also wrote North By Northwest and, somewhat bizarrely, The Sound Of Music) and old-school Leftist playwright Clifford Odets. The oft-quoted “Match me Sidney” is but the tip of the iceberg; this is a film you’ll watch again and again just to savour the sheer nastiness of the invective. Only Mankiewicz’s All About Eve matches this for sheer bitchy wit and that’s a lot more staid.
You can find Alex Larman’s DVD Times review of the MGM Region 2 release of this film here
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956, Paramount, Cecil B.DeMille)
They don’t make films like this anymore, which is probably a good thing, but there’s no denying the sheer guts of DeMille’s grandiose approach to filmmaking. From the bogus self-effacement of the introduction to the hysterical religiosity of the climax, every aspect of the film is ‘Epic’ turned up to 11. It’s deeply vulgar, often hypnotically boring – especially during the endless dialogue exchanges of the first half – and, despite its creator’s pretentions, has about as much relation to Art (not the same as ‘art’ by the way) as a rendition of Chopsticks on a broken piano has to music. But if you watch patiently, and it has to be said indulgently, it has a real power and a sense of cinema as a huge democratic “event” for everyone to appreciate. When it’s up, running and working, which it does for most of the second half, it’s awesome – the curses coming upon Egypt have the eerie beauty of a Poe story with colours straight out of a Titian and the great moments like the parting of the Red Sea still have the ability to move anyone who loves cinema at an almost primeval level. Once the introductions have been dispensed with, Charlton Heston is marvellous as Moses – the madness of absolute knowledge, hair flowing and blazingly self-righteous like some not-so enlightened despot. DeMille’s vulgarity has an energy which is lacking in some more acclaimed epics by more conventionally ‘good’ directors – Wyler’s endless tastefulness renders Ben Hur a somnolent experience in comparison – and you finish watching the film agog at how astonishing a bad movie can be when its made by a real filmmaker.
I’ve reviewed Paramount’s bare-bones but visually impressive R2 DVD of the film on DVD Times. The review can be found here
VERTIGO (1958, Universal, Alfred Hitchcock)
I don’t think this is the best film Hitchcock made – though its comfortably in his top 3 – and it has certain flaws – notably overlength – which no amount of superlatives can disguise. But it is something truly beautiful, strange and moving and perhaps the best single argument for Hitchcock as a unique filmmaking genius. Other directors have managed to make entertainment as light and frothy as North By Northwest and as tense and scary as Psycho but no other director could have made Vertigo. As a summary of Hitch’s peculiar tastes and hang-ups it’s an invaluable psychological catalogue, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a film which understands the nature of obsessive, hellishly painful, naggingly insistent love like no other and in the plaintive yet strangely disturbing blue eyes of Jimmy Stewart – who would have thought he could have done work as insightful as this – we see the dark side of love exposed. And it’s not a pretty sight. As a thriller, Vertigo doesn’t entirely work, based as it is on a series of coincidences, but as a love story it’s up there with the best ever made. Hitch refuses to set our minds at rest and he denies us the catharsis which made his earlier love stories more reassuring. At the end, Stewart is still screwed up, for all his knowledge of the truth, and we’re still screwed up with him. It’s also, needless to say, technically astonishing with the famous ‘reverse zoom’ shot still proving effective and the colours still as dazzling as they must have been on the first release of the film (particularly in the R2 DVD).
You can find my review of the R1 DVD on DVD Times here and a review of the R2 release here
The second column will be dealing with my choice of the quintessential New York movies. Please mail me at [email protected] if have any comments on this feature.
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