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A Timely Reminder
By 1962, I think most Americans had gotten used to the nuclear shadow overhead. Maybe not blasé, but no longer as fearful as the "duck and cover" days of the early 50's. Of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis proved a stark reminder of how real that shadow is(for insight into how close nuclear annihilation came, google "Vasili Arkhipov"). I take the movie as a warning not to slip back into that pre-Crisis acceptance. After all, as the film shows, people are not always in control.
The 112-minutes are riveting. The sets are spare and few, while nothing gets in the way of the one-note plot. When a US bomber squadron strays toward Soviet territory, the narrative mounts from recognition to concern to frustration and finally to cold sweat alarm. It's an expert exercise in building tension. In turn, Soviet leaders are not framed as cold war monsters of the day. Instead, their common humanity in avoiding apocalypse is allowed to surface. I guess my one reservation is with the president (Fonda). He's just a little too cool to be under world- shattering pressure. I'd prefer at least a sweaty brow, now and then, to the cooling drink of water. Still, it's a fine cast of familiar faces, including Walter Matthau as an able-bodied Dr. Strangelove, but without the chuckles.
Perhaps we've forgotten, but the nuclear stockpiles are still with us, even though the Cold War isn't. Plus, we're no smarter now than we were then. To me, these are real causes for concern. So, despite passage of five decades, the film's as relevant now as it was then. The threat of a nuclear freeze-frame still hangs over us all.
Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Still Relevant Story of How Prisons Work
Hook the 80-minutes to a generator and LA would light up for a week. Staging action at Folsom Prison replete with their convicts was a real coup. But the action is not meaningless or action for its own sake. Instead the raw physicality underlines sheer frustration and tactical maneuvering between fed-up cons and hamstrung officials. Prison conditions are woeful, while administrators have little money to fix them. So now there's a trash filled riot raining down. Still, it's the 1950's, so don't expect language or conduct that's too explicit
Surprisingly, there are no heroes on either side, nor is anyone particularly likable. And thank goodness, movie stars were not hired for the leads. That would have gotten in the way of the message. Instead, it's a familiar if no-name cast. But Brand and Gordon are chillingly perfect in their tough-guy roles, while Meyer delivers subtly as the conflicted warden.
Also, don't expect one side or the other to be vindicated. Instead, both are shown as on the receiving end of a John Q. Public that basically doesn't care what prison conditions are like or what it takes to maintain them. That's the movie's pointto alert the public of the time as to why prison riots occur. And also, to humanize the cons without sugar coating them.
Essentially leaders on both sides act rationally given their aims and needs. (Except for Crazy Mike who should be institutionalized.) Director Siegel films in fairly straightforward style, putting camera emphasis where it belongs. On the whole, there may be more theatrical or bigger budget prison movies, e.g. Brute Force (1948). But none reveals more about dynamics between state, warden, guards, and cons. Besides it's a heckuva compelling movie despite the passing decades. And thanks producer Wanger for turning your own stint in jail into a public benefit.
Home of the Brave (1949)
A Little Closer Look a Disturbing Gem
Five soldiers are sent to map out a Japanese held island during WWII. Friction erupts when it turns out that one of the men is black
The years 1949, 50, & 51, witnessed a spate of social conscience movies before the McCarthyite-HUAC purges put an end to them. Unfortunately, this is one of the more obscure. So far as I know, the movie's rarely been revived-- in fact, I had to order a DVD decades after first viewing. Still, the film's many moments of sheer rawness have stayed with me over time.
In my book, the 90-minutes is not a complete success. I still have trouble with the psychiatrist's (Corey) facile analysis of Moss's (Edwards) problem following island combat. It's much too pat and self-assured to be convincing, more like a happy ending contrivance. Yet this Hollywood moment is more than offset by the racially charged atmosphere of the remainder. Note, for example, how the three men react to Moss on his first arrival, which sets the racial stage for what follows. Finch (Bridges) embraces his old friend; Mingo (Lovejoy) is understandably dubious; while racist TJ (Brodie) snubs the black man. Given Mingo's doubts, (understandable, given the intimate nature of the mission that now includes a racial outsider), it's really his ambivalence on which the plot pivots. Lovejoy's low-key performance makes Mingo easy to overlook. Yet, it's really Mingo's trajectory that delivers the movie's ultimate message. I'm with those who think Lovejoy steals the movie in his own mild way.
But get a load of that jungle. It's creepy enough to suck the air out of a dirigible. Anyone like Finch who goes into that maw shouldn't expect to come out. At this point in his career Bridges was one of the most interesting actors around. Always virile and athletic, he's a nice guy here. Yet, catch him in the noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950). There he's egotistical and mean-spirited in totally convincing fashion. Too bad the bulk of his later career, following communist allegations, was spent within the confines of serial TV.
Of course, the movie's mainly remembered for James Edwards' role as a young dignified black man. I think we'd have to go back to Paul Robeson in the 1930's to find a similar black-man persona. Unfortunately, African-Americans were consigned to buffoonish or menial roles during the period. But here, Edwards presents a movie star appearance in a difficult role. His Peter Moss is proud and dignified one moment, yet confused and vulnerable the next. All of which befits an educated outsider in uncertain surroundings. Clearly, there's a laudable effort to deal with the effects racism has on a victim's internal dynamics. Thus, the narrative was an unusual Hollywood attempt at racial honesty, but one that was unfortunately cut short-- after all, the US couldn't fight a cold war by airing its dirty linen to the world. Anyway, thanks reviewer CeOTIS for filling in some facts about Edwards. Clearly, he was suited for Poitier or Belafonte type roles, but I guess his associations with lefties consigned him to the fringes. A genuine loss.
The movie itself manages to rivet interest despite its stage origins. The few sets are confining. Still that has the effect of concentrating the drama. Plus, the fact that we never see the enemy lends an even more unsettling atmosphere. The sudden use of the epithet 'nigger' is jolting to contemporary ears. And especially so, when the easy-going Finch under pressure begins to mouth the word. Then we get an idea of how embedded skin color is in the general culture. Seems to me, however, some latitude should be granted to the lack of combat realism that other reviewers use to criticize. After all, the movie's not really a war movie. Instead, it's a social conscience film using wartime conditions to illuminate conditions at home. Note, however, that the script lays the blame for race prejudice on the individual, that is, unless I missed something. That way more explosive topics like politics or the economy are finessed.
Anyway, viewers who appreciate this film should catch up with other racial films of that pregnant period. Let me recommendIntruder in the Dust (1950); Lost Boundaries (1949); The Well (1951); No Way Out (1950); and Pinky (1949). Despite isolated exceptions, like The Defiant Ones (1958), movies would have to wait another 20-years before the issues would again be taken up in sustained fashion. Nonetheless, the human drama here has lost little of its power over the intervening decades. A tribute, I think, to all those involved.
Medic: Boy in the Storm (1955)
An Early Hopper Showcase
The main draw here is an 18-year old, baby-face Dennis Hopper, in a role quite unlike his usual screen persona. He's Robert, a painfully shy epilectic, who's been kept sheltered by his aged aunt. When she dies, he's turned over to medical authorities for treatment of his malady. Unfortunately, there's no cure, but there are treatments, including the possibility that the attacks will simply go away. But now, Robert must adjust to a more normal life, which his shyness hasn't prepared him for.
Hopper is winning in a sympathetic role, showing an affecting range of subtle emotions. The epilectic attacks are also convincingly done. I wouldn't be surprised the performance here influenced his later casting in Nicholas Ray's epochal Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Also impressive is unknown Evelyn Eaton as the understanding nurse. Anyway, it's easy to see that Hopper was on his way up the Hollywood ladder, even if many of his later characters were as different from the conventional Robert as day is from night.
Medic: Red Christmas (1954)
A Holiday Warning
Released just prior to X-mas, 1954, the entry is meant to warn public on dangers of drinking and driving. The first part is heavy on procedure, as doctors determine extent of woman's road accident injuries. Bray is excellent as attending physician, and we believe him when he says informing injured's loved ones is his hardest duty. Utility actor Repp is also excellent as self-centered driver of guilty car. Wisely, the screenplay doesn't exempt the injured woman since she too has been drinking. But, I wonder if strangers like Repp's character would be allowed entry into hospital receiving room as happens here. Overall, the entry is well intentioned but oddly leaves much to imagination. Thus, there may be disagreement over whether 30-minutes achieves desired full impact.
Based on an actual happening, a mysterious sailing ship with no crew is discovered in the middle of the ocean. The movie unravels the puzzle behind the crew's disappearance.
I wanted to shower after this 60-minutes. This has got to be the grungiest ship's crew in movie annals. The men actually look like they were shanghaied from a waterfront fleabag. Certainly, there was no attempt by the British production to sanitize the visuals, either the men or life aboard ship. Apparently, only an edited version of the 1936 original survives. Thus, the narrative is pretty choppy, leaving holes in the storyline (e.g. characters who just disappear without explanation). Still, between the fragmented narrative, the muddy photography, and the ugly, cramped shipboard, the effect is almost surreal. While, Lugosi's mystical traveler adds an additional slice of exotica.
Too bad we'll probably never know what happened aboard the real Marie Celeste. I remember being fascinated as a boy by the mysterious account of a deserted ship with meals still lying on serving tables. It's as though the crew were suddenly plucked into thin air. Anyway, this movie account is pretty fanciful, but still manages an unsettling aura, thanks in large part to Lugosi's disturbing changes. This edited version is no artistic triumph but does manage a weird appeal all its own.
Wild Horse Stampede (1943)
Pretty Good Production Values
Bad guys want to keep wild horse herd from reaching the army. Maynard and Gibson arrive in time to help keep that from happening.
Looks like lowly Monogram wanted to give The Trailblazers series a big send-off since production values are better than expected. That rousing opening is well stocked with horses, wagons, and cowboys. The big herd crossing the river is also a good spectacle. There are several of these fairly lavish scenes and I don't think they're stock shots, at least that I could tell. The plot meanders a bit, but then they've got a ton of great supporting actors to work in- all-purpose Tom London, baddie Stanford Jolley, Gunsmoke's Glen Strange, and the familiar Kenne Duncan. Unfortunately, Maynard doesn't project much charisma and neither does Gibson. But then each has done a hundred of these matinees and each is pushing past 50. Nonetheless, there's enough hard-riding, fast-shooting, and flying fists, to keep this Front Row geezer happy, along with an easy-on-the-eyes Betty Miles. Matinée fans could do a lot worse.
The Other (1972)
Psychological horror at its best. No one who's seen The Other goes away unimpressed. As other reviews indicate, the movie has developed a strong cult following and deservedly so. Like so many low-key gems, this one too would likely fade into oblivion were it not for DVD and the internet, which can now build an audience from the grass-roots up. And this obscure little movie certainly merits revival.
Director Mulligan worked against convention, filming his classic in bright open sunlight, instead of the creepy shadow and low-key stage lighting dictated by Gothic tradition. But the style works, thanks to a fluid and highly intelligent camera. Watch the opening scene, as the slow pan meanders its way toward the solitary boy revealed finally in dreamy soft focus. This reverie sets the perfect psychological tone for the story and is key to the over-arching plot device. There are other moments of slow, silent pans that lend both atmosphere and creepy suspense, and I particularly like the way Mulligan stays with Niles' little world in spellbinding fashion. That way, the surrounding mayhem is only glimpsed and not belabored, allowing our imagination room to take over. For fans of the genre, his technique is reminiscent of Peter Weir's 1970's co-classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Horror films rarely rely on acting for their impact. This one, however -- as other reviewers point out -- is a rarity. The performances are first-rate, particularly the astonishingly fine turn by the Udvarnoky twins. Chris who plays Niles achieves a naturalness and spontaneity that is itself almost scary. I don't think I've ever seen a farm boy portrayed more convincingly, nor has boyish exuberance been more expertly conveyed than in his spirited gallop to wherever he's going -- which makes the main plot device all the more sinister. Then too, there's Diana Muldaur's agonizing portrayal of the mother. It is only through her stricken eyes that the audience comes to realize the enormity of what's happening, while the shot of her wraith-like face framed by a dirty window pane is enough to haunt many a sleepless night. Moreover, the bustling farm family, always busy with this and that, appears straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Yes, the story unfolds in a complex manner, placing a bit of a burden on the audience. And there are a few holes, as when the elderly neighbor calls the magician Holland instead of Niles -- presumably she's close enough to the household to know better. Nonetheless, there's not an ounce of fat on Tom Tryon's screenplay, while the scattered parts come convincingly together by movie's close. For those fans max'ed out on slasher-gore and blood-fest, this exercise in implied horror is the perfect antidote -- and a worthy addition to the legendary tradition of Nosferatu, Vampyr, and Val Lewton's imaginative 1940's cycle of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. So don't miss it.
Cry Uncle (1971)
Soft Core Comes to the Neighborhood Theater
A rotund private dick is hired to find a killer, and has to get naked in the process.
I can't figure out if the movie amounts to serial copulation with whodunit overtones or a whodunit with serial copulation appeal. One way or the other, a naked Allan Garfield did keep my popcorn untouched. Actually, the 90-minutes is so smoothly directed and the girls so fetching that I did stay glued. Also, catch the symbolically placed donut and banana in the opening slow pan. I guess that tells you what's coming up. As I recall, the movie was much ballyhooed at the time. After all, what could only be hinted at before 1969 now became permissible, thanks mainly to the counter-culture's clash with censorship. Also, the Swedish ground-breaker I Am Curious (Yellow), (1969)-- the first commercial film to show copulation on screen-- drew lines around the block when I saw it. Now Hollywood, even Troma, could cash in on the novelty.
The movie itself may look like an oddity after 40-years. Certainly, the sex scenes take up as much time as the narrative. Still, the production is smoothly done, with about the right amount of tongue in cheek, Garfield included. And I like Madeleine LaRoux (!) who has a different movie look, sort of like an elongated Goldie Hawn. But a screen name like that suggests plans for a big porn career, which I don't think happened. All in all, guys could do a lot worse than Uncle, plus you don't have to feel inferior to the stud (Garfield). And, oh yeah, let the girl viewers figure out the plot.
Goin' South (1978)
A Nicholson Ego-Trip
Many folks think Nicholson can do no wrong. But in my book, this mess has to be the nadir of his often outstanding career. When he's got a strong guiding hand, as in 5 Easy Pieces (1970) or Chinatown (1974), he can deliver aces. Here, however, he's directing himself, and the result is a leering, eye-rolling, slice of buffoonery, perhaps an ego-trip of some misguided sort. The movie itself collapses into near incoherence, lacking both narrative sense and timing. Events follow in no particular order, while scenes too often appear to indulge the actor instead of playing to others or advancing the story.
Actually, the movie reminds me perversely of a kids Saturday matinée, where the baddie schemes to grab the good girl's land and Gabby Hayes or Smiley Burnette supplies comic relief for Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy. Except here, there's only the buffoon, the land-grabber, and the good girl. I do, however, feel sorry for Mary Steenburgen whose affecting performance gets lost amid the eye-rolling antics. Now, I don't know if Nicholson went on a coke binge while shooting in Mexico, as did his buddy Dennis Hopper when he made the disastrous The Last Movie (1971) in Peru. But it would explain a lot. Anyway, the 100+ minutes remains an obscure mess, even 40-years later, and is not so much rollicking as just plain idiotic.