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.

Advertisements

48 thoughts on “The Wild One

  1. I too am not overly fond of Brando’s ‘mumbling, brooding Method’. It takes time to get warm up to his style, like his westerns in particular. Best regards.

    Like

  2. Not watched this in decades – I have always worried that it might seem very dated, especially as it was parodied so often at the time (I love the spoof in LES GIRLS, helped by the fact that Gene Kelly and Brando did look so much alike). The comparison to Ray is a really astute one (especially with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE just round the corner) – thanks Colin 🙂

    Like

    • It’s a question of fashion really, isn’t it? Anything that strives to have its finger on the pulse, to self-consciously look to the latest rend of the day, is always far more likely to either date markedly or, as you say, set itself up for parody. As such, I think Rebel Without a Cause stands up better – it’s a better movie all round, in my opinion, and touches on some more timeless stuff as opposed to issues tied closely to the era.

      Like

      • With the possible exception of THE DEFIANT ONES, none of Kramer’s overt ‘message’ pictures seem to stand up quite as well as the more indirect one like HIGH NOON (mind you, he was criticised quite heavily by some blacklisted writers for not being as liberal in practice as he was in theory).

        Like

        • I may have said before but I rather like Inherit the Wind – it’s not perfect but there’s much to be said for two hours in the company of Tracy, March and Kelly on form.
          Generally, I agree and think you’re right, but that’s often the case with direct “message movies” although Kramer tended to be so blunt and overt that it’s even more obvious.

          Like

  3. Gordon put it in a nutshell for me, Colin. Good supporting cast. Brando strutting around in a uniform that reminded me a little of a Nazi stormtrooper put me right off. I saw the film at a fleapit cinema on a double bill in the early 60s (probably a western which would have been my reason for being there) and have never felt the need to see it again.
    Brando was terrific in his first film, “THE MEN” and he was again good in “ON THE WATERFRONT” but generally he does nothing for me.

    Like

    • I know, Jerry, much of Brando’s work has left me feeling, shall we say, less than satisfied. That’s not to say I never enjoy his stuff – The Chase, for example, is a wonderful piece of subversive melodrama. And it also features a bruising performance by Richard Bradford just before he left for a job in Britain with his suitcase.

      Like

  4. Colin, I assume the news today is filtering through that Roger Moore has died. Even though he was nearly 90, and so had a long ‘innings’, I do nonetheless feel sad at his passing. He has been with me (on screen) for most of my life and “THE SAINT” on TV was a huge early favourite. I still like it.
    R.I.P. Sir Rog.

    Like

    • Yes, I have heard that, Jerry, and I too feel sad, although this day just seems to bring nothing but dreadful news. Moore was “my” Bond as I grew up going to his version in the cinema. I’ll miss him.

      Like

  5. R.I.P. Roger. I just saw his 1976 film, SHOUT AT THE DEVIL that he made with Lee Marvin. Gad, I had not seen that since the cinema back in the day.
    Jerry and Colin, many thanks for reminding me about the, MAN IN A SUITCASE series! I actually have had it sitting at the back of the closet for several years. I must go dig it out and throw it on the tv series pile. I need to go through the last season of the MAN FROM UNCLE set first.

    Like

    • Gord, I’m not sure if you mean you’ve never seen Man in a Suitcase or just that you’ve not watched it for a long time – either way, make a start on it, you won’t be disappointed.

      Like

    • Gord,
      Personally I would give “MAN IN A SUITCASE” preferential treatment over “MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” as it is a superior series IMO. Either way, I hope you enjoy and will share your thoughts with us when you do. I always enjoy reading your comments.

      Like

  6. Jerry
    I know what you mean. I was in grade school when UNCLE started its first run in the 60’s. All the kids wanted to be UNCLE agents. We all loved the show. Watching it now, other than the first season, it has been a real letdown. I like THE SANDBAGGERS for example much more.

    Gord

    Like

    • Yes, U.N.C.L.E. was a huge hit here in the UK initially but I found the quality quickly went off.
      Now “SANDBAGGERS” was, as you say, Gord, something else! With the excellent Roy Marsden starring. He is still working, though mostly directing stage productions. We have seen a number of these, the most recent a fantastic staging of “TWELVE ANGRY MEN”. Good that you remember that fine series.

      Like

  7. Jerry
    Growing up in Canada from the late 50s I got to see the best of the UK output as well as the American stuff. So it was UK adventure series etc and American crime and western stuff. Lots to pick from whatever ones taste. I still recall sitting in front of the old b/w set to watch THE FLYING DOCTOR from the UK. The lead was American Richard Denning and the series, though filmed in the UK, was set in Australia. Great fun!

    Gord

    Like

  8. Yes, Gord, it was the same stuff for me. We got our first TV set September 1953 (I was not yet 6) so I was lucky enough to catch all those series, British & American.
    Do you remember “BOOTS AND SADDLES” (1957-8)? All filmed around Kanab, Utah. Fine series that has never been issued on DVD or videotape, as far as I know.

    Like

  9. Jerry
    BOOTS AND SADDLES? Sorry that one escapes me. Who was in it? The first actual show I recall watching was ROY ROGERS SHOW.
    Gord

    Like

  10. Gord,
    “B&S” was a realistic, gritty series about the 5th Cavalry starring John Pickard. No big names in it although a young Gardner McKay played a lieutenant. It only ran 39 episodes. I am not surprised you don’t know it though as it has probably never been seen since its original run. It was pretty popular at the time in the UK though and ran into repeats by the BBC.

    Like

  11. Jerry
    A quick look at You-Tube shows one episode of BOOTS AND SADDLES up there. It is broken up in 8 bits of 2-3 minutes each. Gardner McKay I do know, as I have about 60 or so episodes of his ADVENTURES IN PARADISE series. A neat adventure show in my opinion.

    Gord.

    Like

  12. It’s sadly impossible to go back to the day when these movies initially hit the screen – to feel what impact that had. At times I’ve tried to track old Reviews or commentary to get some insight on that. It can be interesting. Movies that seemed outrageous, offensive, and were initially mightily pooped on may now be considered Classics. But sometimes that also works the other way around.

    Like

    • Yes, it’s one thing to be aware of film x, y or z having made an impact and quite another to actually experience that. Like it or not, our current feelings towards a movie will have been colored by the perceptions of other people, unavoidably shaped by the reactions of many in the interim. It’s, I suppose, where that “test of time” part takes on added significance and we start thinking in terms of what constitutes art and what is ephemera, and where the dividing line is drawn.

      Like

  13. First time I saw this was in a retro theater when I was a teen in the 80’s. All I knew was that this is the movie where that Brando guy appeared as the biker. You know, the biker image that’s plastered all over every poster shop you’ve ever been in not to mention pool halls and restaurants. lol.
    Hasn’t aged well I guess but that doesn’t bother us classic fans. I think a total greenhorn of today’s youth might not take to it kindly. That blu ray release sounds like a must have though. Cheers’

    Like

  14. The spirit of Brando’s Wild One character still rides the Lost Highways of America and has pitched up in
    the newly revisited Twin Peaks. Wally Brando exhorts local sheriff Robert Forster to embrace the mythic.

    Like

  15. I just spent the last several days going over my top100 and top 250 film lists and guess what? There are no Brando films.

    Like

    • Well, if he doesn’t appeal to you, what can you do. Although I don’t have a top 100 (or 250) list myself I think that if I were to sit down and compile one, I would find a place for On the Waterfront or The Godfather.

      Like

  16. Colin
    I must admit the top 250 list is about a decade and a half old and should be updated. There are a few re-watched and new films that should be added and some others dropped. Some age well and others get a person to scratching their head as to why one picked them. My top 15 or 20 seems to change all the time with Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS, THE KILLERS and Ford’s THE SEARCHERS usually fighting it out for first in any given week. Four noirs and a western are in the top five. “Dedee d’ Anvers” from 1948 with
    Simone Signoret and Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND join the other three mentioned.

    It has been a good 20 plus years since I have taken in ON THE WATERFRONT or THE GODFATHER. Off your mention I shall add them to the re-watch list.

    Last night I caught Ridley Scott’s THE DUELLISTS from 1977 for the first time since seeing it in the cinema when it came out. What a wonderful film. I also took in a 1952 episode of Jack Webb’s ground-breaking series, DRAGNET. This one was called “The Big Cast” and guest starred Lee Marvin. It was only Marvin’s 3rd year in Hollywood and he is great as a off kilter killer.
    Gord

    Like

    • I like lists, they are fun to make, revise, discuss and justify. They have a fluidity that appeals to me, changing all the time as our tastes and moods ebb and flow. Personally, I try to limit myself to top 10 or top 20 lists, broken down according to genre, era, artist etc.

      Like

  17. I can’t do the ‘disaffected youth’ trope; coming from the most well-educated and well-off generations in the history of humankind, it smacks a bit of self-obsessed ‘white people problems’.
    Films like these were the beginnings of kids killing their parents for turning off the telly. 😊

    Like

    • Ha! Good point about the paradox inherent in a generation rebelling against and rejecting a world that promised for more to them than had previously been the case. Still, I think, at heart, such rebelliousness was/is essentially progressive in that it was forward looking and (I reckon) fueled and driven by a desire to move irreversibly away from a traumatic past rather than just a comfortable present.

      Like

      • But it created a traumatic present. The comments sections on Facebook and Youtube do not show happy and contented people, 7 illegal wars, a woman abused every 11 seconds (up from 27 seconds when I was 18), and when Jack the Ripper killed 5, he was a freak, yet I grew up with John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and the Green River Killer…after these utopian rebel films.

        I’m not sure that I see being drug-addicted, smelly, petulant biker is a step forward, no matter what Easy Rider and co. might tell us. 😊

        Funny that Roger Moore was mentioned here, as Bond and Templar were the ultimate conformists, lol.

        Like

        • Yeah, I don’t particularly buy into thee myth of the post-war rebel myself but it’s just that, something of a myth, as far as I can see. We’ve always had social outsiders and those who in one way or another didn’t conform to contemporary expectations, only they weren’t marketed quite so aggressively I suppose.

          Like

  18. Boy, this could start this discussion going at a considerable tangent – and a very interesting one at that.
    I rather find myself agreeing with Clayton’s comments, as one whose growing-up years took in a lot of those turbulent and rebellious times. Did they make the world a better place? Well, maybe some of it did……

    Like

    • I guess we’re talking about what is still a relatively recent time, so much so that it’s hard to fully asses the impact yet. I find myself undecided on these matters, and I can’t see that changing till we put a bit more distance between ourselves and the era in question.

      Like

  19. Colin, Clayton, Jerry …
    The “Rebel without a Clue” films as I call them, have not for the most part aged well. There are more than a few of the less, shall we say, “social problem”, JUVENILE DELINQUENT films that still work. They are for the most junior members of the crime genre with a drop or two of noir tossed in. Films like, GIRL GANG 1954, RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS 1956, CITY ACROSS THE RIVER 1949, GREEN EYED-BLONDE 1957, RAG DOLL 1962, VIOLENT PLAYGROUND 1958, FOUR BOYS AND A GUN 1957, INCIDENT IN AN ALLEY 1962, SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS 1955 and NO TIME TO BE YOUNG 1957 etc. have for me, held up far better and are still enjoyable to watch. The preaching at the viewer is kept to a minimum which is for me, always a plus. My humble take anyway.

    Gord

    Like

    • While I’ve not seen all those titles myself, I do recognize a few good ones there. The crime story, naturally, has always been a good means of channeling social commentary and I tend to agree that the more subtlety used to highlight whatever one’s message happens to be, the better.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s