Category: 1953


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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

(Quick aside before the actual review. Yet again. There’s a decent possibility we’re entering one of those rare [but beloved] periods on my blog where I review a bunch of really good movies in a row. Rashomon was excellent. The movie I’m about to review was also great. And the other movie I have at home is a Woody Allen film. Odds are that it will be good. I review such a wide range of films to ensure that I can practice reviewing movies I don’t like [since not every movie that a real critic reviews is a winner], but with how my blog’s list works, moments like these do happen every now and then. And thank god because they give me the energy to keep this blog going. When I review a bunch of movies in a row I don’t like, it sucks the energy out of me. End aside)

Is there anything worse than when one aspect of a film stops it from reaching perfection? There is. It’s when the aspect of the film that drags it down is an obvious (and unfortunate artifact) of the age said film was released in. Rebel Without a Cause (which I actually think is pretty much perfect so probably the wrong example to use here) had to be far too subtle about the homoerotic subtext between Sal Mineo’s Plato and James Dean’s Jim Stark. The ending of Double Indemnity the film (as opposed to the novel) was practically forced upon Billy Wilder by the Hays Code. The Hays Code remains as a fairly infamous reminder of a time when Hollywood was under strict scrutiny and any thing remotely morally subversive was doomed to wind up on the cutting room floor. The film noir classic Pickup On South Street came out at the end of the Hays era, but it’s absurd anti-Communist overtones mar an otherwise thrilling picture.


Pickup on South Street remains fresh 60 years later for a multitude of reasons (and even manages to make it’s Red Scare paranoia seem like a minor complaint). Without question, Pickup on South Street is one of the most brutal films of the Hays era that I’ve ever seen. Throw in its salacious sexual undertones, and it would appear that it was a miracle that it ever got made in the first place (much like Double Indemnity, there were many versions of the script that were deemed unacceptable by the Production Code office). Although it’s tame even by the standards of film that would get PG-13 ratings today, this film could pack more sexual sizzle into a roguish leer on the subway than some cheesy macho flick could with actual sex. More modern film makers could learn to operate by a less is more principle. One can only imagine what directors like Billy Wilder or Pickup on South Street‘s Samuel Fuller could have accomplished post-Code.

Candy (Jean Peters), an ex-prostitute, is on the subway when her wallet is nicked by two-bit pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Although Candy knows she’s delivering a package on behalf of her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), neither Candy nor Skip know that her wallet contained microfilm full of government secrets that Joey was planning on selling to Communist agents. After the feds, who were tailing Candy to bust the head Communist spies, and the local police try to lean on Skip to return the wallet’s contents (which they can’t prove he has in the first place), Skip gets wise to Communist plot. Despite falling for the tough-headed Candy, who uses her wiles to locate Skip herself not knowing she’s a pawn in espionage, Skip tries to play both sides to his advantage until his friend, a local snitch named Moe (Thelma Ritter), gets caught in the cross-fire.

From the film’s opening shot, you knew you were in for something special. It’s a long, complex scene with zero dialogue. As Skip gets on the train and unknowingly embroils himself in an international conspiracy, the camera frantically cuts back and forth between about four different faces. Every person we see has a motive. Candy wants to get to her drop-off without drawing any unwanted attention. Skip wants to distract Candy with his good looks so he can nick her wallet. And the two cops don’t want Candy or Skip to notice that they’re watching both of them. The sexual chemistry between Skip and Candy threatens to derail the entire picture in the first scene alone (and that’s before they know each other’s name or try to outmaneuver the other sexually to stay ahead). As Fuller cuts back and forth between their faces, you know this is a film that was hell-bent on crossing what “the line” meant in the early 1950s.

Richard Widmark was everything you’d want in a film noir anti-hero (and the exact opposite of every complaint I had about Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity). Never really becoming a good guy even after becoming the hero of the story, Skip is cocky, a rake, and only out for himself. He cares about people. He surely cares about Moe and even defends her when Candy lets Skip know that Moe was the one to rat him out. His attraction to Candy leads to the film’s violent climax. Yet, at the end of the day, he’s a thief and the little glimmer he gets in his eye as he nicks Candy’s purse or takes a gun off a Communist spy in a moving subway shines as bright as anything else in the film. For a textbook example of how to play a prideful but talented con man, you need not look much further than Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called her a bland punching bag in the paper’s original 1953 review, but Jean Peters should join the pantheon of the great troubled dames of film noir. She may not have the ice cold veins of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (the film I can’t seem to help keep making comparisons to), but as a tough broad who gets caught up in a mess beyond her wildest dreams, she shines. It’s no wonder that her hard-edge and sensuality are enough to soften the armor surrounding Skip McCoy. She may not have Stanwyck’s dark side, but she can go toe-to-toe with the all time great femme fatales in the sexual heat department. She just has to flash her doe eyes and strut her flirtatious walk to get every man’s attention. While the script never came right out and said she used to be a hooker, context clues and Jean Peters’ knowing face  told the audience everything they needed.

The remaining stand-out performance was the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter as the elderly stool pigeon Moe. In a film full to the brim of fast-talkers, Moe still seemed like the blue-print for all motor-mouth hustlers to come. Whether it’s her wounded pride when Candy calls her a “stoolie” or her showmanship selling cheap ties as her front as a snitch, Ritter captures both the tiredness that Moe feels towards “the game” as well as her constant scheming and survivalism. There’s a truly wonderful scene (that also simultaneously manages to be one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments but more on that later) where Joey shows up at Moe’s place to question her about Skip’s whereabouts that Ritter truly imbues Moe with the world-weary hustler pathos that is slowly weighing this old woman down.

Much like The Grifters, the dialogue in Pickup on South Street pops with an authentic vitality. The film almost never slows down to explain to the audience the myriad street crime/police slang terms that flow out of the protagonists mouth like water. Too many films insult the audience’s intelligence by assuming we can’t keep up with insider dialogue, but Pickup On South Street trusts the audience’s ability to use context clues. It makes the film feel like the ultimate pulp dime novel turned into a film, and for aficionados of the film noir genre, it’s an aural delight. The film absolutely drips with the perfect combination of intellectual and masculine energy that it gets your blood pumping while simultaneously stimulating your deep-seated desires for an inside look at the seedier underbelly of the 1950s.

But then, there’s the anti-Communism hysterics which threaten (but fail) to distract from an otherwise remarkable picture. In the same scene where Joey confronts Moe (and she gives an excellent speech about how tired she’s become), this same stool pigeon, who was willing to sell out her friend for $50, won’t talk to Joey cause he’s a Red. Just thinking about what she says is almost enough to make chuckle. She says she doesn’t know much about Commies, but she knows one thing. “I just don’t like ’em.” The whole film is painted with this whole anti-Red McCarthyist tinge, and it gets increasingly absurd. Just about the only manner in which the film averts brow-beating jingoism is with Skip who doesn’t care that Joey is a Commie. He’s upset because he kills Moe and slaps around Candy.

For all film noir fans, it’s a no-brainer. Pickup On South Street may not have the name recognitions of the Maltese Falcons or Double Indemnitys of the world, but it’s nearly as good. It’s a tough, smart, sexy movie that skirts the production rules of the era like few films before it. So, as long as you aren’t a Red (or aren’t a liberal that can’t look past the cultural era the film was made which produces it’s one unfortunate flaw), head on down to dark alleys and crowded subways of New York City. Just make sure you keep an eye on your purse/wallet. Skip McCoy might be hanging around waiting to nick it from you.

Final Score: A

Lately, I’ve been trying to adopt this more professional, less conversational tone for my film reviews. I’ve been reading my New York Times 1000 Greatest Movies book which features the original views and I’ve been trying to learn lessons on how to write movie reviews better. I dislike this film so intensely that I’m going to have to abandon that pretense for now (not that I’ve been great at keeping up with it lately anyways). I’ve mentioned several times on this blog about how I think that old comedies age significantly better than their dramatic counterparts (whose strict adherence to the Hays code mean that they are almost hopelessly naive and simple compared to modern, more morally complex affairs). How to Marry a Millionaire, the supposed classic starring Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, is not one of those comedies that’s aged well. Sexist enough that it should have outraged female audiences of its own day, How to Marry a Millionaire is a soporific and deeply unfunny “classic.”

With the express intent of marrying rich men, New York models Schatze (Lauren Bacall), Pola (Marilyn Monroe), and Loco (Betty Grable) rent a glamorous high rise apartment (which was abandoned when its owner had to go on the lam for tax evasion) to set what Schatze calls a “bear trap,” to ensnare rich men. If you make less than six figures, you need not apply. Unbeknownst to Schatze, one of the first men they meet (Cameron Mitchell) is a hundred millionaire, but Schatze sends him off because she thinks he’s a schlub. Pola, who is blind without her glasses (but doesn’t wear them for vanity’s sake), tries to woo a one-eyed con man. Loco goes off on a disastrous trip to Maine with a married oil man while Schatze successfully woos the aging and incredibly wealthy J.D. Hanley (The Thin Man‘s William Powell) despite not having any feelings for him. However, the women quickly learn that love and money aren’t the same thing.

Almost everything about this film is an abject failure. The only time that I laughed that was more than a slight chuckle was when Lauren Bacall was trying to convince William Powell that she liked older men. After name dropping Roosevelt and Churchill, she mentioned “that old guy inThe African Queen” which is, of course, a fourth-wall leaning joke about her relationship with Humphrey Bogart. Other than that, only Marilyn Monroe’s character Pola’s complete stupidity was able to make me even smile. The jokes fell flat. There was far too much expository dialogue without any real jokes, puns, or gags. And other than poking some slight fun to Pola’s blindness, physical humor was completely absent from the film. When Betty Grable attempted to be funny, she just came off as more annoying and shrewish than a comedic leading lady (although none of the women in this film were at all likeable except for Pola).

I love Lauren Bacall. She had a mature and sizzling sexuality that belied her years (and the era when she was a star) that was on fully display in To Have and Have Not. She was able to show off her commanding and imposing presence in How to Marry a Millionaire but she never had an actual chance to be clever or funny. Even her snarky one-liners (which were Bacall’s specialty) fall totally flat. I’m not sure if we were supposed to root for Schatze (cause despite the film’s ending where love triumphs, it’s still an overwhelmingly greed and materialism driven film), but I know that I found her to be entirely unsympathetic. Marilyn Monroe is an awful actress even though she was the only one to make me chuckle besides the Bacall Bogie joke. Thankfully, the character required her to be fairly brainless so it wasn’t exactly a stretch. She’s gorgeous and she had a certain sexual presence, but her acting chops are non-existent.

This film had to have set the feminist movement back to the 1800s. Lauren Bacall’s character is obviously intelligent, but her grand scheme in life is to marry a rich man and not have to work the rest of her life. For shame. She’s one of the most commanding leading ladies ever and the role is beneath her. Katharine Hepburn would not have approved (since it’s essentially the opposite of her character in Woman of the Year). Even by the end of the film, the ladies didn’t learn to be independent. They just learned that the men they could rely on didn’t have to be millionaires (even though two of them have money). The greed on display was disgusting as well. Maybe that’s me allowing my liberal political inclinations to affect my writing, but there was nothing in the film that came down hard on their materialism and desperate desire for wealth. It just said love was stronger. It didn’t say their greed was bad. Gordon Gekko would be proud.

I do not recommend this film to anyone. Even hard core Marilyn Monroe fans. Not even big Lauren Bacall fans (of which I am one). There is virtually nothing redeeming about this picture except for Bacall’s natural magnetism (which is crippled by the script). The film’s an hour and a half long, and I still found myself mentally begging for time to speed up to bring this torture to a close. People wonder why the average “bad” score for a movie is a “C+” to “C-.” It’s because of films like this because at least films in that range have one or two things I can recommend (or are just actively mediocre instead of bad in any major way). I just pray that it’s another several months before my list for this blog forces me to sit through something as painful as this.

Final Score: D+