Movies at the start of the 50s – 1950

1950

Orpheus (Orphee)

 

The Greeks created Drama Tragedy and Comedy for which modern theatre was created in their image.   Greek Mythology are those Greek epics concerning their gods and views of life and death.    Hollywood had given cinematic renditions of Greek mythology as a pure entertainment for many years.   Mostly as action films regarding heroes, gods and monsters.   In all cases whether it is through Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts, the film renditions of the tales are shown as straight ahead interpretations of fantasy.   The French film director/Poet/Artist, Jean Cocteau, when he made a movie, enjoyed using Fantasy as a way to interpret his artistic vision of life and death.   His version of Beauty and Beast from 1946, interpreted the child fairy tale into a tale of morality.    With “Orphee”, Cocteau took one of the Greeks less familiar tales of the netherworld and created a surrealistic parable of true love and sacrifice.   He created a film that even today, has a look that is different with a feel more like a painting then a motion picture.   The story deals with a famous Poet witnessing the death of his young rival and then being summoned by Lady Death herself to witness this death.    Probably because just before the accident that caused the death, he watched this rival with disdain and wished him harm.    Lady Death is a beauty who is always wearing a slinky, sexy lingerie type gown and it is her sexuality that initially draws the Poet.    The Poet has a wife who he treats badly and Princess Death has two leather clad, S & M style henchman and one chauffer who it appears is her netherworld lover.   The henchman carry out her actions of death and appear when someone dies.   We feel that the chauffer is looking for a way out of deaths grip and volunteers to return the poet back to his home after the witness to the young rival’s death.    He brings him back home via his limousine which has its radio constantly turned to some cryptic channel that spews incomprehensible poetry.    The Chauffer falls in love with the Poets wife and the result is that it drives Death to send her henchman to her, causing her death.   At this point the Chauffer convinces the Poet to return to the netherworld and plead for the return to life of his wife.    Back in the Netherworld our Poet takes part in a tribunal of court that will decide on not only the wife’s fate, but the fate of Princess Death and her Chauffer, who interfered with natural life through selfish physical reasons of their own.    This is due to the fact that Death is in love with the Poet, who in turn is in love with Death, who has a controlling relationship with the chauffer, who in turn is in love with the Poet’s wife, who adores the Poet.  A love pentagon as complex as any.  The ending is powerful with its final tribunal decision.   Cocteau used Greek Mythology to give us a complex pentagon of love and jealousy.   He used very simple and unusual visual trickery to show us the crossing from the real world to the netherworld.  Mirrors are used to cross from real to death and when people go back to life he reverses the photography showing backward motion.   These tricks are very effective and are something that would never be thought of today with all our modern special effects.    The look, feel and message of this amazing film will keep you staring at the screen long after it is over.

 

The Asphalt Jungle

“The Asphalt Jungle” is another excellent John Huston adaption from a literary source.  The source is a novel by W. R. Burnett of the same name.    In addition to given his trademark realism and terrific acting to the adaption, Huston succeeded with this film in creating the ultimate Heist drama.  A movie that would be looked at as the high mark and trademark of all Heist dramas that followed.    A Heist drama is that film that is concerned with a robbery of a highly secured source.  Either cash, gold or diamonds.    The prize here is $1,000,000 in diamonds, locked in a safe past a thick brick wall.   The movie does not have a major star and deals in an ensemble of characters.   Huston gives enough respect to each character to allow us to understand what makes him tick.   Not all of the characterizations are flattering and none of the characters could be considered good.    We have the Mastermind (Sam Jaffe), nicknamed “Doc”, who just after getting released from prison begins to plan this new caper.  He needs money ($50,000 that a corrupt lawyer will give him), a safe cracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore) and a heavy to serve as the muscle (Sterling Hayden).   The safe cracker, driver and heavy are hired on a salary basis as Doc and the Lawyer plan on splitting the million.   The acting of each character is great which allows us to believe their story.   The safe cracker has a family that he wants to support.  The driver owns a diner and needs added cash infusion while the heavy wants to take his girlfriend back to his hometown so that he can buy back his families lost farm.   His dream of horses gets emphasized in the bittersweet ending.    The Caper or heist is filmed with great detail and excitement and results in one dead guard and one wounded conspirator (the safe cracker).   The lawyer who is bankrolling the whole caper is played by the terrific character actor Louis Calhern and is actually broke causing his double cross with a shady private detective who attempts to steal all the diamonds.   Calhern has a very young Marilyn Munro, as his mistress in one of her first significant roles.   Her small screen time fills the screen with her trademark sex appeal.   We then have a shootout (One of the earliest examples of a Mexican standoff), a police manhunt and the capture or death of the whole gang.   The movie has lots of thrills and is exciting from start to finish.   The buildup is fascinating, the heist is thrilling and the end result fitting and sad.   It is the little characterization touches that Huston and his source material give each character that make the movie fly.   The weaknesses of each character are what causes their downfall.    The black and white photography is perfect for the feel of the film making this one of the great crime thrillers of cinema.

 

Rashamon

Every once in a while, cinema will reveal something new and special.  Something that was never attempted before, that shows a bitter commentary on human living and ending in great hope.  This was Rashamon and in 1950, when it exploded onto the world cinema, it left all who watched it in awe.   Rashamon tells a small tale of murder and rape and turns it around in such a unique way that it makes all who watch it wonder about their own motives and culpabilities.   It ends with great hope that is as unexpected as all that was shown before.   It is a great film of human meaning that at the same time rivets the viewer from beginning to end.    The movie begins in the middle of a rain storm and ends with bright sunshine.   At the start we are shown three people.  A woodcutter, a priest and a commoner who are seeking shelter together at the Rashamon temple during a great rain storm.    The woodcutter tells a tail of his witnessing of a trial concerning a murder and rape.    A bandit is accused of murdering a samurai and raping his wife in the woods.  At the trial, there are witness accounts of the bandit, the wife and through a spirit medium, the dead Samurai.   Each tells the same story in a completely different perspective, attuned to their own mindset with regard only to themselves.    It shows that it is possible to have one occurrence mean different realities in different minds.   In the Bandit’s version, he seduces the wife to mutual love making and courageously kills the Samurai in an equal and skillful duel.  It shows him as being irresistible and courageous.  In the wife’s version, she is brutally raped by the bandit and the rape causes the Samurai to kill himself from shame as she herself unsuccessfully tries to end her own life.  It shows her as being an innocent and prideful victim.  In the Samurai’s version, the Bandit rapes his wife and after the rape, the wife demands the bandit kill the Samurai, for which the bandit refuses, causing the samurai to allow the bandit to go freely so that he can kill himself due to his wife’s actions.  This version shows the samurai seem noble and fair.   Then the woodcutter admits in his recollections, to the Priest that he actually witnessed the whole event and this recollection is different than all the others.   In this version the wife and bandit were having an affair with the bandit begging her to marry him.   She then forces both the bandit and the Samurai to fight for her.   The fight is done through fear and hesitation with the bandit winning through a lucky fall and the samurai begging for his life before death.   The wife also runs away leaving both in this version.  This version leaves all three protagonists seem unworthy and by doing so gives a form of justification for the woodcutters non action.  All four stories have their own selfish reasons for constructing the events as they do, giving way to the idea that the truth is not what we hear and is deeper than a witness account.  The question of what really is truth is a question that can be asked when dealing with international conflicts and political agendas.   We hear what the person tells us wants us to hear.   Facts can be skewered to mean different truths, depending on how they are told.   It is a powerful statement and Karosawa succeeds in showing its true reality.  The movie ends with the protection of a baby as the sun breaks through the clouds and rain.  Sunshine and hope.  A positive and hopeful ending to a bitter and sad moral message.   This is a must see film for all people.  Not just lovers of cinema.

 

Winchester 73

“Winchester 73 is a taught and action packed Western that follows several characters who covet and possess a famous and valuable “Winchester 73” rifle.     The film is centered during and just after July 4, 1876 and includes some real life characters such as Wyatt Earp. The movie also mentions historical events such as Custards Last Stand, within its background.     The story follows a gunfighter named Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his vengeful search for the outlaw Frankie Weldon (Millard Mitchell).   After following Weldon to Dodge City in Kansas, the towns Sherriff, Wyatt Earp, enforces the towns no guns policy and disarms both the hunter and the hunted.   During their time in the town, both gunfighter and outlaw participate in a shooting competition for whose prize is a rare Winchester 73 rifle.    McAdam wins the competition, but Weldon steals the rifle and rides hard out of town.    The film then follows the person with the rifle and the gunfighter chasing him.    The rifle changes hands back and forth a few times causing death and misery to all who possess it.  This includes a tough gun trader and an Indian warrior.   This bad luck lasts until such time as McAdam confronts the thief Weldon, who ends up with possession of the gun once again.       The interesting aspect of the movie is the storyline that follows the gun and how it affects the lives of all who touch it.    It is well directed and acted and interesting throughout.     While not particularly enthralling, the movie is worth a look for fans of the classic Western.

 

Rio Grande

John Ford was a great director who made some amazing Westerns.   He introduced the world to John Wayne and knew how to set his larger then life characters to the backdrop of the desert vastness that was the American West.    His films dealt with the personnel issues and confilicts of his films characters.   “Rio Grande”, sets John Wayne as an Army Lt. Col.  who is posted in the Texas Frontier to protect settlers against marauding Indians.   He must rely on inexperienced  troops and one of them is his estranged son, who recently failed in his attempt at becoming an officer.    Also entering his world is his recently separated southern wife who has come to take their son away from the army.   This is something that the son does not want any part of.   Wayne for his part treats his son as harsh and even harsher than the other recruits, trying to disapprove any notion of favoritism.     In the meantime a romance is rekindled between he and his wife.    There is also a dangerous mission, rescuing kidnapped children in Mexico.   I found the family drama a bit tepid and left me uninterested.   In addition, the action scenes were very ordinary.   Wayne gives a typically strong western performance but his charisma is not enough to hold my interest for very long in this disappointing entry from Ford.

 

All about Eve

1950 had two outstanding films that dealt with aging stars.      “Sunset Boulevard”, dealt with an aging silent film star.   “All about Eve”, concerned the world of Theatre and had an added element of cut throat ambition.     The movie stars the immortal Betty Davis as Margo Channing.  She is a middle aged Theatre starlet going through the final years of her stardom.   Entering Margo’s life is Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), who appears in the beginning to be a devoted fan but ends up being a conniving monster intent on stealing the stardom and star life from her supposed idle.    Margo as played by Davis is no fool and sooner than expected reads through Eve’s true objectives.   It is the wonderful acting of Davis that shines in the movie.  Once she realizes what is going on she makes a conscience decision to leave the deviousness of her protégé by choosing happiness and sanity over ambition.    Watching the dishonest Eve work her evil plan gives the film its pulse; however it is the acting of Davis that brings the movie up to a higher level.   Davis was one of the greatest actresses of her time and thrived on powerful roles of intelligent woman.  In Margo she gives us a tour de force of acting and her emotions run the gamut of feelings of self-importance to deep sympathy.     If she was not a good person, then than Eve’s deception would never work.   In giving such a multi layered texture to her character, Davis succeeds in making this film one of the deeper and interesting works concerning theatre life.    The young Eve, who is the villainess of the film, is effectively portrayed by Ann Baxter and serves as an adequate catalyst to Davis’ performance.    Davis had that harsh look throughout her career and was typecast as a harlot during the later stages.    Here she is introduced as exactly that type of character who then develops into something more complex and deeper.  This is all done with great success, due to the wonderful acting of the incomparable Bette Davis.   The movie also includes some outstanding acting from all the supporting characters’, including a brief, spectacular early appearance of Marilyn Munroe.    Her she plays the dumb blond who is clearly pimped out for promises of stardom.   Her sadness oozes in her short scene but her beauty shines.     If great acting and concise insight into the world of theatre is what interests you, than “All about Eve”, which is actually about Margo, is a movie worth seeing.

 

Sunset Boulevard

As mentioned in the review above, 1950 contained two films concerning aging and forgotten stars.     “All about Eve” concerned the Theatre and “Sunset Boulevard”, concerns Hollywood.    This is not the only difference between these two films.   They differ greatly in tone and content as much as in background.   While, “All about Eve”, is a finely acted tale of treachery and jealousy, “Sunset Boulevard”, is a grotesque exploration into insanity caused by fame and idol worshipping.    The film is as much a Horror movie as it is a drama.    It deals in the fictional psychosis of its main character at the same time as it incorporates real figures of the past Hollywood era, playing themselves.   It is a method that makes one ponder if what we are seeing is a true story about a real forgotten star or a story from the dark recesses of the twilight zone.   It is as complex in its subject matter as it is simplistic in its story telling.   The film contains iconic acting and a terrific screenplay that jumps off the screen.     It tells the story from the perspective of a dead person, presumably recounting everything from the afterlife.    This is a struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), who while escaping from people trying to repossess his debt ridden car, drives into the home of Norma Desmond (The former silent star, Gloria Swanson).      She has a cracked mind who still believes that she is young and desirable and sees in this young writer as a vehicle to write the screenplay for her next movie.   Gillis sees in her, a way out of his desperate poverty and together they join forces in more ways than one.    This is not a plutonic relationship as the much older Norma engulfs Gillis with her obsession.    In addition to his writing he works as a young plaything that allows her to continue her delusion of eternal youth.    This is a sleazy story.    It is also a story about insanity as Norma is clearly insane.   This is a movie that will haunt you hours after it ends.   The filmmakers used a semi-Noire style to its telling.   Having the murdered and dead Gillis recount the tale via flashbacks is straight out of a 1940s noire thriller, but then the story itself takes a different turn.   The relationship between Norma and Gillis is riveting.   He knows that she is living in a dream, yet continues to feed that dream until it is so large it explodes.  Throughout the movie there are individual conversations between the two, where it is obvious that she is not listening to his consistently cynical comments.   The movie reminded me of a horror film.  It is narrated by a dead man and Norma is like Dracula with her sexual obsession and young victim, slowly sucking out his life until he is dead.    There is another character in the film that adds a horror like edge.   Norma has an aging servant named Max (the great silent movie director Erich Von Stroheim).   Max is actually her ex-husband who was a great silent director that directed Norma many times in the past.   He is also the constructer of her fantasy world.   He writes her fake fan letters and creates an illusionary world in her huge Hollywood mansion that they all reside in.   Over protective, Max is constantly watching Gillis and there is always veil of threat in his gaze.   Director Billy Wilder’s decision to cast Von Stroheim was genius.   It was almost as if he created this fictional character through the real life of his actor.   Von Stroheim was in the early 20s one of the greatest silent film directors of all time.   He also directed Swanson and when in this film Max screens for Gillis one of Norma’s old films, they are actually watching an old film of that Swanson made and that was actually directed by Stroheim.    Wilder would consistently use real people and real events in the movie.    For example, Norma has three friends who play bridge with her and they are real silent movie stars playing themselves (including the great Buster Keaton).     When Norma drives to a Hollywood movie set to talk to a director she believes will make a movie of her screenplay, she goes to meet the real Cecil B DeMille, playing himself on a movie set for a movie he was actually directing at the time.     This mixture of fiction with reality gives the story of madness and depravity its power.   It is not possible to discuss this film without referring to the acting of Swanson.   She plays it perfect with her sneers and posturing which if not done just right would fall into self-parody.   Her body language matches these mannerisms to a tea.   It is a wonderful feat of virtuoso acting.     After killing Gillis, Swanson playing Norma, goes over the edge for good and when descending the stairs to her permanent incarceration, her face glaring in front of the police lights, she finally gets her close up and the movie ends with the immortal, “All right Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up”.

 

The Forgotten Ones (Los Olvidados)

This is a film made by Spanish surrealist film maker Luis Bunel, for Mexico, concerning the deeply poor region of Mexico City.    The movie only includes a small short surrealistic element that Bunel was famous for.   The majority of the film has a style more attuned to the Italian neorealism style as most of the cast are non-professionals and the movie is filmed on location resulting in an almost documentary style of realism.    The movie is one of cinemas more powerful and successful exploration into Poverty.     An innocent boy named Pedro is driven into crime by his surroundings when the only thing he dreams about is love and affection from his sad and bitter Mother.    In the lone surrealistic scene of the movie, Pedro dreams that the spirit of his mother comforts him with love and affection.    The movie follows the boy’s inescapable road to destruction as he is led by the completely corrupt teenage terror El Jaibo.   El Jaibo is a character that would influence the criminal youth movies for years to come.   Kubrick would never have been able to create Alex from, “A Clockwork Orange”, if it was not for this film.    El Jaibo drives our young innocent into theft and makes him a witness to murder.    This is a fact that seals his doom.   El Jaibo actually succeeds in getting the affection from Pedro’s mother that Pedro is unable to receive.   It is of a sexual nature but the comparison is disturbing.   The movie makes a point of showing the life of Mexican Poverty as a vicious circle of cruelty.   While everyone suffers, it is the weaker and more helpless that suffer the most.   A blind beggar is robbed by the young hoodlums, a small boy is deserted by his family who can’t afford him, and the same blind man uses the deserted boy as his constant slave.  We know that this same boy will grow into a thug.   Bunel showing the endless circle of suffering that is the way of poverty.   It is hard hitting and sad.  The film ends with the discarding of the beautiful body of the boy Pedro down a pile of garbage.  Powerful and moving this is one of those movies that make you want to do something about 3rd world poverty.

 

In a lonely Place

“In a lonely Place”, is one of those anti-hero movies concerning a main character that is far from being a hero but for whose actual character remains a question mark.    It also includes a fine and forgotten performance from Humphry Bogart.     The film has a HItchcockian theme of inner suspicion and hidden intentions.    We also have the accused man who is loved by a girl who is unsure of his guilt or innocence.    Bogey plays a stagnate screen writer who is hired to adapt a book.  He hires a seemingly innocent coat girl to read him the book well into the night and when she turns up dead the next morning he becomes suspect number 1.     Bogey plays his emotions as indifferent throughout his accusations but as the film progresses we see his dark and violent nature.    He gets angry quite often and will resort to violence when he feels his anger is justified.   He hooks up with his sexy neighbor as they fall in love immediately.   He uses this love as inspiration and a stepping stone in reviving his ability to write.  Meanwhile a murder mystery is happening pointing to him as the killer.   This results in tense scenes of suspicion from his girlfriend played by the lovely Gloria Grahame.     Bogey proves once again he can act in the movie and his dark side gives Graham a legitimate reason to be afraid.    The fear aspects of the movie are what make the move rise above the ordinary.     What put me off about the film is that it has a contrived ending that does not sit with the feel and tone of what went on previously in the film.    The movie is not boring containing Bogey at his prime but it is also nothing that special either.

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