The Wild One

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Whadda you got?

James Dean was not the first American teenager nor was he the first screen rebel, with or without a cause. Sure we all know that but one would be forgiven for thinking it were actually so if some commentaries on the development of social issues in the movies are held to be true. Disaffected youth had, to a greater or lesser extent, been present on screen for a much longer time; you could make a case for some of the pre-war crime/gangster movies, and a far stronger one for later noir-style disillusionment such as They Live by Night (courtesy of Nicholas Ray, who would of course cast the aforementioned Dean in his most iconic role) or Lewis’ Gun Crazy. No, young people had been butting heads with society for quite a while but the 1950s with the attendant changes of the aftermath of the war seemed to make the phenomenon appear, if not unprecedented, at least more marked. The Wild One (1953), while it no longer retains the same impact, must have provoked a reaction at the time both for its frank approach to its subject matter and the style and attitude of the star.

The opening is one of those ominous warnings about the events about to unfold being extreme yet perhaps indicative of some as yet ill-defined social malaise. And then the bikes and their riders appear and power their way towards the camera. Front and center is Johnny (Marlon Brando), looking tough and insolent in black leather and aviator shades. The bikers ride into a small town in the midst of a race, strutting and swaggering and soon being told to be on their way by the anonymous face of the law. They do so, but the next town they arrive in gets to host them a little longer. The bulk of the movie plays out here, as Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin) turns up and duly encourages further displays of machismo and bravado. While the bikers become increasingly foolish in their boorishness, the locals (or a group with the local population) let their own boorishness grow ever more vindictive and mean. At the heart of it all is Johnny, simultaneously detached and driven, proud of his outlaw, outsider status yet also drawn to the sweet respectability of waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

The Wild One was inspired by events in the town of Hollister in 1947, when a motorcycle gang brought chaos  to the small settlement with no apparent explanation. This is essentially what’s going on in this movie, an outbreak of seemingly inexplicable anti-social behavior, a rejection of the comfortable affluence and respectability which characterized the decade following the end of the war in the US. Laslo Benedek, who had a long and wide-ranging career  in television was the director and provided some nice moody visuals, particularly the scenes taking place during the climactic evening. Still, the fingerprints which are even more in evidence are those of producer Stanley Kramer. He is best known for his message films and The Wild One is the type of vehicle you’d expect him to be involved with even without seeing his name attached to the credits.

Without wishing to belittle any of the other members, and there is a long and solid supporting cast, the film mainly revolves around four people – Brando, Marvin, Murphy and Robert Keith. Of these, Brando is obviously the focus; I can only imagine how different his persona was when he came on the scene in the post-war years. That mumbling, brooding Method approach to his art was always going to mark him out in a world still dominated by naturalistic and theatrically trained performers. Frankly, it’s not a style I’m overly fond of and I suspect that how one reacts to The Wild One will be strongly influenced by how one takes to Brando. Marvin was a terrific foil to Brando’s mannered intensity, the brash exuberance still feeling fresh, elemental and somehow more real. Similarly, Murphy’s demure classiness offers another point of contrast, and a very appealing one too. And last but not last, is the quiet presence of Keith, serving up a finely judged study of weakness and self-doubt. As for those supporting players, Will Wright, Ray Teal, Jay C Flippen and Timothy Carey are just a few of the familiar and reliable faces on show.

The Wild One is now another of the consistently strong series of Dual format Blu-ray/DVD releases from Powerhouse/Indicator in the UK. Although I don’t have any other Hi-Def release of the movie to make a comparison I feel this is a very strong presentation – it’s clean and sharp, has excellent contrast and the blacks look appropriately black. So, no issues on that score. The supplements are, as usual, copious and worthwhile. Jeanine Basinger provides the commentary track and there’s a brief introduction by Karen Kramer. Then there are a number of featurettes: one on the films and its history with the BBFC, another on the events in Hollister that gave rise to the story, and finally there’s a piece on Brando. Furthermore, there’s a Super 8 version of the movie included alongside the trailer and a gallery. The accompanying booklet runs to a satisfying 40 pages and includes an article by Kat Ellinger, an article from 1955 by director Benedek on the movie, a piece by Leslie Halliwell and comments from critics of the time.

The Wild One is a well-made, pacy and influential film. I can’t claim it’s a great favorite of mine but that’s at least partly down to my own ambivalence to Brando as an actor and shouldn’t be taken as any dismissal of the artistic and intellectual merits of the movie. For those who appreciate Brando’s work more the film will probably be a more satisfying experience. That aside, it’s a good movie and the new release is a top quality one, something which is now typical of Indicator.

The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

Blu News – 2 for July

It’s just come to my attention that July will see the release of a couple of new western titles on Blu-ray in Germany. Koch Media will be putting out Cattle Drive (1951) with Joel McCrea along with  Audie Murphy’s Showdown (1963). I don’t have any more details at present but I think this should be welcome news for western fans, particularly since I believe Showdown hasn’t previously been available anywhere in any format.

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.

The Flying Scot

We hear a lot about budgets when filmmaking is discussed, and you end up with the feeling nowadays that movies are barely considered to be worth watching if the amount of money invested in the production isn’t of the eye-watering variety. This is a shame as it means the range of films made tends to be reduced and, crucially, fewer chances are taken for the simple reason no one wants to accept a risk when the stakes are so high. Now I’m not trying to make a case here for the inaccessible or the utterly impenetrable – movies which are not entertaining or watchable are going to be failures not merely in financial terms but also due to the fact they cannot succeed if they cannot engage with an audience. If I’m lamenting the current obsession with massive budgets, then that’s because it does away with (or at least significantly reduces the potential for seeing) sparse and direct pieces which depend  on tight storytelling techniques rather than whizz bang visuals. I’m referring to frugal little productions like The Flying Scot (1957), the kind of minimalist drama we can’t even count on television taking on these days.

The Flying Scot has three major points in its favor as far as I’m concerned: it takes place almost exclusively on a train, it’s concerns itself with a heist, and it’s pared so far down that practically no excess fat is evident. The opening pitches us straight into the heart of proceedings, tracking along a railway platform to follow the progress of a newly wed couple about to embark on a train to begin their honeymoon, and thereafter their life together.  We see them settle in, put up a reserved notice on the door, draw the curtains. And then they change into casual clothes and lie down on separate berths on opposite sides of the carriage! It’s now quite clear that these people (Lee Patterson & Kay Callard) are no newlyweds, they and their associate in another car (Alan Gifford) are biding their time till they’re due to act. And that action is the smooth and meticulous execution of a plan to steal a half a million pounds in banknotes. Everything moves like clockwork with each person fulfilling his or her assigned role with precision and cool professionalism – it’s at this point that we pause, step back in time, and see what really happens…

The director of The Flying Scot was Compton Bennett, a man with a comparatively small yet interesting set of credits. His big Hollywood success was King Solomon’s Mines but there were other noteworthy titles both in the US and the UK. That this was a very low budget affair is apparent from the small cast with no big names, the limiting of the action to a handful of train carriage sets and the running time of not much more than an hour. However, as I hope my introductory remarks suggested, a limited budget doesn’t have to mean a poor quality movie. With The Flying Scot Bennett turns these aspects to his and the film’s advantage by using the cramped and suffocating space as a device for ramping up the tension, emphasizing the sense of characters trapped by their own criminal plans. Similarly, the short running time positively demands the pace is maintained, the plot forging ahead relentlessly just as the train where it all takes place heads inexorably towards its destination. I’d also like to note the stylish opening section where the first ten minutes or so is played out with one word of dialogue being spoken, it could be described as gimmickry I suppose but it never actually feels like that.  Furthermore, that opening and how it then develops reminded me of the beginning of Gambit, a later film with a lighter overall feel. The presence of Peter Rogers as producer and Norman Hudis as screenwriter brings to mind the Carry On series of comedies that would shortly debut in British cinemas and seem like an odd pair to be attached to a tense little suspense picture such as this. In truth, there is a thread of humor running through the film, but it ‘s of a more carefully observed type than the bawdier variety the aforementioned series would become famous for – having said that, those early Hudis scripts had a gentler approach anyway.

As far as a general audience is concerned, Lee Patterson is probably not a name that will be especially well-recognized. On the other hand, anyone who is a fan of, or even just reasonably familiar with, British thrillers of the 50s and 60s will be very much aware of this guy. Patterson was a Canadian actor who seemed to get cast in every other mystery or noirish thriller, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to have watched more than a handful of these kinds of films without coming across him. I’ve always found him a reliable enough performer, not a big draw but the type who you know will get the job done whether he was cast as good guy or bad. Here, he’s playing a man who is tough to like, displaying a bit too much unnecessary arrogance and self-absorption. He does it pretty effectively and fellow Canadian Kay Callard helps to smooth down his rough edges a little. Alan Gifford, yet another transatlantic import, provides just the right degree of pathos as the ageing crook hoping for one last touch to set him up for retirement but plagued by a health problem and a plan that’s fraying uncontrollably.

The Flying Scot is out on DVD in the UK via Network as part of the ever attractive The British Film line. I imagine a 1957 title would be better suited to at least some form of widescreen aspect ratio but it still looks fine, to me at least, with the 1.33:1 framing used on this disc. The print is in pretty good shape too with no major damage to cause distraction. As for extra features, there’s the facility to watch the opening under the alternative title The Mailbag Robbery. All in all, I thought this a very neat thriller, well constructed and satisfyingly tense – it gets a recommendation from me.