Category: 1956

I feel like I say this at least two or three times a month but it bears repeating. I’m not generally a fan of dramas before the 1960s (film noir is the major exception to that rule). 95% of the time, the Hays Code just kept them from being interesting. They’re all too (especially in comparison to modern dramas) clean and sterilized. So, it’s always great when I come across a non-noir drama from that era that still holds up really well even by today’s standards. Thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James Dean and a shockingly progressive story about racism against Mexicans in the 1920s-1950s, George Stevens’ inter-generational epic Giant was a fascinating (if flawed and extraordinarily too long) look into a time when the cinematic form was finally able to be a little more aware of the tragedies going on in the world around them (rather than serving as a reflection of the societal ideal and ignoring the uglier truths of American society) as well as taking an opportunity to tell a more morally complex and mature tale than the usual Hollywood fare of the time. If we only take the films nominated for Best Picture into account (because The Searchers wasn’t nominated but was easily the best film of that year), Giant was easily better than the over-the-top adventure tale of Around the World in Eighty Days.Giant’s not a perfect film, but I was shocked by how rarely my more cynical side wanted to come out to heckle the more idealistic/romantic side of period dramas of this era.

Taking place over nearly three decades on a nearly 600,000 acre cattle ranch in Texas, Giant is a sprawling film that unveils its ultimate message on greed and pride over the course of three and a half hours. On a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) meets the beautiful and independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after only knowing each other for two days, they marry. Bick takes Leslie back with him to his family’s massive Texas cattle ranch which Bick runs along with his masculine and domineering sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Bick maintains a rivalry with a surly and shiftless cattle hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who inherits a small plot of land on the Benedict estate when Luz dies in a horse accident. Jett’s infatuation with Leslie as well his unwillingness to sell back his inherited land to the Benedicts causes an unspoken strife among the families. When, several years later, Jett strikes oil on his plot of land (and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Texas), Jett’s fortunes rise while the Benedicts slowly begin to decline and their class snobbery suddenly begins to reverse. Faced with either selling his land to Jett or giving up the family trade of cattle to pursue the oil business, Bick decides to enter the oil game even though he doesn’t achieve the same kind of wealth as Jett. Throughout this, we get a recurring subplot about the horrendous conditions that the Mexican ranchhands working Bick’s land must face and the complete lack of empathy from all of the white ranchmen (and eventual oil barons) considering their plight. Only Leslie seems to have any sympathy for them, and twenty years later (when she and Bick have grown children), the eldest son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries one of the local Mexican girls causing a local scandal which forces Bick to come to terms with his own prejudice.

Despite the film’s absurdly exhaustive length (serious cuts could have and should have been made to this film. Just because you’re movie is about Texas doesn’t mean it needs to be as big as Texas), Giant had plenty going for it. First of all, James Dean could have had a career as huge as Marlon Brando’s if he hadn’t died in a car accident at the age of 24. Giant was the second film he received a Best Actor nomination for (though, honestly, he was a supporting player in this film) and (despite being in the wrong category) it was well deserved. He brought a wounded, brooding sensitivity to the role. Their was such a fierce naturalism and realism to his performance that he was acting in an entirely different style and class than everyone else in the film. This was the turning point from the classical Laurence Oliver style theatrical acting of the past to the more modern, method style employed by a lot of the top actors of the 60s and 70s (Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, etc). James Dean was at the forefront of that, and it’s hard for me to believe that Yul Brynner was better in The King and I. James Dean was acting circles around everyone else in the movie. That’s not to insult the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They just came from an entirely different school of acting. Rock Hudson also had a more sophisticated sensitivity and Elizabeth Taylor’s intellectual ferocity was a refreshing mix-up from most of the women of the day. However, there was zero romantic chemistry between Hudson and Taylor (though perhaps I’m reading too much into that because I know that Rock Hudson was gay. However, James Dean was bisexual and he just dripped with sexuality).

While the Best Director Oscar certainly should have gone to John Ford for The Searchers (he wasn’t nominated. The Academy really fucked it up that year in that regard), George Stevens’ win that year is at least bearable. Giant is full to the brim of breath-taking shots of the Texas plains, and his camera (and film) patiently capture the transformation of these plains from tens of thousands of cattle to an endless lane of giant oil rigs. Similarly, the film captures the dichotomy between the ever-growing wealth of the Benedicts and Jett compared to the endless poverty and subjugation of the peasant Mexican farmers. It manages to accomplish all of this without going into huge grand speeches and when Bick realizes the error of his ways, it comes at a natural pace (and he isn’t completely cured so to speak). As mentioned, George Stevens’ wrested brilliant performances from his leads and knew better than to try and restrain the fiery James Dean with the contemporary conventions of that age. At the end of the day (and I don’t know how much credit to give to Stevens and how much to give to the cinematographer), Giant is simply a gorgeously shot film. If only he had known to put the same sort of care into editing it down to a manageable length.

Seriously though. This movie is more bloated than Lawrence of Arabia (the next movie in my instant queue, Doctor Zhivago, is another three and half hour David Lean film. Oy vey). If George Stevens (and his editor) had shaved like forty five minutes or so off the 201 minute running time, this could have been an “A-” film. As it stands, it’s full of scenes that drag on a couple minutes too long. It can be repetitive, and there are just simply a ton of moments that could have been excised and not lost any of the film’s magic. Regardless, it’s still a good movie even if its excess keeps it from greatness. If you enjoy older films, it’s easy to recommend. James Dean only has a credited role in three films (he had tiny parts in a couple of other films), and unlike say Marilyn Monroe, he is an American sex symbol/icon/film legend deserving of the title. He was just a raw, natural talent that was taken from us too soon and for fans of good acting, his performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Final Score: B

Here’s some strange irony for you. This will be my 200th film I’ve reviewed for this blog (out of 500 total posts/reviews of other media). It’s a proto-French New Wave film with elements of both film noir and classic heist films. Yet, despite this, I have still yet to watch a proper French New Wave film on here. The closest I came to this was Lacombe, Lucien by director Louis Malle but he was more inspired  by the French New Wave rather than an actual progenitor of the form like Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. 1956’s Bob Le Flambeur (translates to “Bob the Gambler”) by director Jean Pierre Melville is considered one of the preludes to the French New Wave for some of its revolutionary film techniques (which I’ll get to later) and is an endlessly entertaining and ambitious take on the classic gangster movie that subverts the audience’s expectations at every point with one of the best film endings that I’ve seen in recent memory. It wouldn’t seem unfair to say that films like Heat or the Ocean’s Eleven franchise wouldn’t have been able to exist had it not been for the artistic re-imagining of the heist film in Melville’s well-deserved classic.

Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) is a gambling addict with more class in his cuff-links than most film stars have in their whole body. Even when he’s down on his luck (which is all of the time), he still has a nearly palatial hotel room and enough money to spread around to his friends or even offer food and shelter to a down on her luck working girl, the breathtaking Anne (Isabelle Corey). A professional thief in his past, Bob has retired from his life of crime to simply gamble his days away, but when he loses his entire bankroll in one day (on tilt after Anne leaves him for another of his proteges, the young Paolo [Daniel Cauchy]), he has to come up with money quick. When he hears about 800 million francs sitting in a safe in the Deauville casino, the opportunity to strike it rich is too much to turn down. As his crew’s loose lips and greed threaten to tear the entire operation apart, Bob is forced to make the biggest gamble of his career in order to make one last score.

Easily the most remarkable aspect of this film is Jean Pierre Melville’s love of the iconic film noir greats. With obvious allusions to nearly every Bogart film ever made as well as the sheer visual imagery of the smoke-filled room, the layers and layers of shadows, the well-dressed immaculately masculine men, or the rain-soaked streets, this film exudes the vibes of classic American cinema but with a winking self-confidence and playfulness that American movies are too serious to ever incorporate. The film distinguishes itself in terms of cinematography from its beloved predecessors by incorporating several innovations of its own that would go on to revolutionize French cinema forever. Melville uses a hand-held camera (essentially unheard of at the time) and regularly generates unconventional and interesting camera angles that were just light years ahead of their time. That is classic French New Wave before it began and when you throw in the fact that Melville’s editing and cuts were as frenetic and seemingly random (though not really random) as a Godard picture, you can’t begin to overstate how influential his camerawork would be.

I watched this movie earlier and took an unplanned break between putting up this review so I’m going to draw things to a close (also because I have to write a review for the last disc of Season 5 of Doctor Who plus make my best of films 151-200 list since this was movie 200). Needless to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was an ode to film noir while simultaneously allowing itself to be a little cooler and classier than American film noir ever was. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, and there was always something about the smoky stylized atmosphere of movies like Maltese Falcon and Casablanca that made me fall in love with the movies. The film also stands out by being a heist film in name only because it is simultaneously so much more and so much less stripping the genre down to its bare essential and then replacing the parts with something fresh and exciting. For fans of French cinema, film noir, and gangster movies, Bob Le Flambeur is an easy sell.

Final Score: A-

One of the first things I was forced to learn as a film critic was that I had to distance the quality of any single performance in a movie from the over all quality of the film. A show-stopping Daniel Day Lewis caliber role has to be seen as only one of many parts in the total value of a picture. David Lynch’s direction in Inland Empire was inspiring and Laura Dern inhabited her character in terrifying ways, but there’s almost no denying that the script itself was fairly outrageous and practically impossible to follow (though that was also Lynch’s intention). Take away Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness and you are left with a terribly conventional Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson’s incendiary comic (and eventually for MacLaine, heart-wrenchingly dramatic) performances saved Terms of Endearment from being complete and utter melodramatic drivel. I recently finished the 1956 film, The Court Jester, and while Danny Kaye’s comedic and musical chops are unquestionable, the actual  film faltered on a basic inability to decide what kind of film it wished to be and delivered the promised laughs far too rarely.

A spoof of Errol Flynn swashbuckling hero films (most specifically Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), the movie spins the tale of a fictional king in medieval England and the band of outlaws trying to restore justice. King Roderick (Cecil Parker) usurped the throne from the true heir, an infant with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his behind. Ferried away from the castle by loyalists to the true royal family, the heir is now in the protection of an outlaw band led by the Robin Hood stand-in, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley). Employed by the outlaws as both the heir’s nanny as well as entertainment for the band, Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a bumbling carnival performer who quickly finds himself swept up in the final plot to dethrone the pretender King Roderick. Along with the help of the beautiful but deadly Maid Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s chief lieutenant, Hawkins infiltrates the castle posing as the new Court Jester, Giacomo the Incomparable, and gets caught up in assassination conspiracies, the hypnotic schemings of a witch, and more medieval action scenarios than you can shake a stick at.

Danny Kaye is possibly the very definition of comic energy. Able to quickly morph from a riveting musical number with a troupe of dwarves to Gilbert & Sullivan style tongue twisters to a variety of distinct characters all with their own unique humor and identity to a pitch perfect parody of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks heroes of old, he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a beautiful voice and a natural charisma and humor, Danny Kaye was the film’s distinct (though not necessarily sole) saving grace. Basil Rathbone was deliciously villainous as the duplicitous Sir Ravenhurst, and his fencing scenes with Danny Kaye towards the film’s climax were among the only highlights of the action oriented moments of the film. Glynis Johns (who I instantly recognized as the mother from Mary Poppins) was a surprisingly tough and action oriented heroine for a movie from the 1950’s, and it was a refreshing sight from an age where most female characters were more akin to Angela Lansbury’s (Beauty and the Beast) Princess Gwendolyn.

The film’s Achilles heel however is its basic inability to determine what tone and style it wants to project. At one moment, it’s a children’s musical with Danny Kaye periodically breaking out into song even when it isn’t necessarily appropriate to the story. The next scene it could be a nearly perfect satire of the swashbuckler subgenre. Later, it will want to be a more wordplay and rapid-fire pun style of comedy. Then to top it all off, there are moments where it just wants to be the kind of movies it’s nominally parodying without actually attempting any humor. The writing for the film wasn’t nearly sharp enough to afford them this lack of focus, and I found myself going vast periods of time without laughing at a single gag (when the film took the effort to even make any). Similarly, the ending seems to drag towards eternity, at least until its riotous final moments. While not every comedy needs to be chock full of laugh out loud moments (Sideways or The Savages show that a comedy can be extremely dramatic), when the drama is as uninteresting and stale as what’s presented in The Court Jester, the lack of laughs is potentially unforgivable.

For movie fans who yearn for a more innocent day and simpler storytelling, you may find more mileage from this cult classic than myself, but for everyone else, it may seem to quaint and antiquated to remain truly entertaining 55 years later. It certainly had its moments; the “vessel with the pestle” scene as well as the first musical number involving the dwarves were quite original and energetic, but mostly the film teased you with a potential for hysterical parody of the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear but chose intsead to simply make a less entertaining version of those very films. Danny Kaye deserves every bit of praise that has been lavished on him over the years, but even he is unable to save this film from its weakest elements.

Final Score: B-

 Here’s a little bit of Don Saas blog irony for you. One of the movies that I have at home from Netflix right now is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ran, which I’ve never actually seen, but one of the first Kurosawa films that I ever watched was Rashomon, a story about the investigation of a murder told from radically different points of view. The irony arrives in the fact that the film I just watched, 1956’s Shadow, tries so desperately to channel the style and themes of Rashomon but fails miserably at any attempt of matching Kurosawa’s genius or the original films unique entertainment. What it delivers are three semi-interesting vignettes loosely tied together in ways that barely make any sense and wrapped up in what has to be called one of the worst subtitle jobs that I have ever seen in my entire life.

Shadow is the first bit of Polish cinema that I’ve ever seen, and I’m not giving too much away when I say that it doesn’t leave me expecting too much from the nation. The film tells the story of a man who was seemingly thrown from a train and the investigation into his death. Except, that really isn’t what the movie is about. Instead, you get two detailed looks into the past lives during and after World War II of a Polish Nationalist freedom fighter trying to impede the German war effort and then a look after the War where members of the Communist Party try and fight a shady underground black market dealer. The last segment shows the actual “murder” at the beginning of the film, but at the end of the day, I had no idea how any of this was connected to anything else that happened in the film or what the real point of it all was.

I actually enjoyed the first two memories as, had they been fleshed out more, they could have been interesting thrillers in their own right. However, they were exercises in stylistic film making and nothing more since there isn’t a semblance of a coherent plot holding this whole film together. There weren’t any real connections between the stories despite occasional teasing that there might be, and there wasn’t any sort of higher meaning to be gained from the whole film. The cinematography could be pretty decent at times but that’s really about all I can say well for the film. This film can be avoided.

 Final Score: C

The Searchers

 I’ve reviewed over 80 films for this blog. I mean that’s a ridiculously small percentage of the several thousand films that compromise the master list for this blog, but you’d think that at some point during these 80 films, I would have reviewed a movie that had John Wayne in it. He’s one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and you’d think he’d have popped up by now. Well, he hadn’t, until today that is. I just re-watched what is probably his best movie, John Ford’s all-time classic, 1956’s The Searchers. I kind of think John Wayne films are a wee bit on the over-rated side, but this is one of the best Westerns ever made. Even if you aren’t a fan of Westerns, this is a must see classic.

Taking place in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War, The Searchers is about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a veteran of the Civil War who has returned home to his family in Texas. Almost immediately upon his return, Ethan’s family is viciously murdered by a group of marauding Comanches. The whole family is murdered except for the youngest daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped by the tribe. Ethan spends the next five years of his life, along with the only other man willing to help him out, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), trying to find Debbie and battling the wilderness and Comanche in his quest to get his niece back.

I don’t think that John Wayne is a particularly talented actor. The fact that he won an Oscar for True Grit is just dumb beyond belief. I know he’s one of cinema’s most beloved leading men but his movies just don’t really do it for me. He’s great in this movie. He’s absolutely spectacular. Ethan Edwards is a complex and downright unlikeable guy. He’s racist as hell and treats everybody around him poorly. John Wayne always plays the “white hat” in Westerns, but he makes a stunning anti-hero in this picture. You really believe that he might shoot his niece for becoming one of the tribe. If John Wayne was ever going to win an Oscar, it should have been for this movie, not the caricature of himself that was True Grit. John Ford knows how to get the most out of The Duke.

This is often cited as one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s easy to see why. As a technical accomplishment, it’s inspiring. The cinematography in the film is breath-taking and there are so many wide vista shots that you can easily just soak in the beauty of the film. This is a Western epic, and the various shots and techniques used to make the film would influence the genre for the next 50 years. John Ford was probably the best man to ever make Westerns and this is his magnum opus. It may have dragged at times and the script could have used some editing, but from a direction stand point, it’s just phenomenal.

If you’re a fan of Westerns, I’m guessing that you’ve probably already seen this film. It’s often cited as being one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and while I can name a handful of Westerns that I think are better, it definitely deserves that reputation. Even if you think Westerns are trite, cliché, and overly romantic affairs, this is a fairly dark and (at the time) controversial Western picture. This is easily the best movie that John Wayne ever made (the only other one that I put near its league is The Cowboys), so if you consider yourself a real movie fan, you need to check this one out.

Final Score: A

 As far back as I can remember, musicals have played a pretty special place in my heart. There’s something about the theatricality and glamour of musicals like Grease, My Fair Lady, and Chicago that just holds me absolutely enthralled. I don’t love all musicals. There are some I just can’t suspend my disbelief for, like West Side Story (shocking, I know) and some just aren’t very good to begin with, 2009’s Nine. Well, I just watched a musical that, before this blog, I had never heard of called The Girl Can’t Help It, starring the voluptuous Jayne Mansfield, and while it was far from great or one of the best musicals that I’ve ever seen, it was still really quite good, and to all fans of 1950’s rock and roll and classic movie musicals, it comes highly recommended.

The Girl Can’t Help It is the story of a washed-up, alcoholic talent agent named Tom Miller (Tom Ewell). Tom is hired by a gangster to turn his beautiful, but talentless girlfriend Jerri (Jayne Mansfield) into a star. Romance brews between Tom and Jerri, and Tom must find a way to make her a big hit despite the fact that she’s literally tone deaf. Mixed between the plot of the film are musical numbers performed by some of the biggest names in 1950’s rock and roll like Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, and the Platters. Actually, if this film hadn’t came out in the 1950’s, I would have said its approach to being a musical was incredibly post-modern since no one ever randomly breaks out into song. All of the musical performances are actually occurring naturally within the scene, usually as someone performing at a night club or bar. There’s one fantasy musical number but it is explicitly stated as being so.

I’ll keep this review short since lately all of my TV reviews have dragged on and on. I loved the sound track for this movie. It is a really good mix of white rock and roll artists with black R & B artists and some black rock artists like Little Richard. It was a legitimately funny movie and if you enjoy the more innocent times of older films, this one is probably right up your alley. Jayne Mansfield couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag, but I’ll be damned if she isn’t one of the most gorgeous women that I’ve ever seen. She’s a knock out. The movie wasn’t great, but it was still really good, and I can see myself watching it again at some point the future. I’m definitely trying to find its soundtrack.

Final Score: B