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Where the Sidewalk Ends (July 7, 1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

What a difference six years makes. Where the Sidewalk Ends reunited Otto Preminger, the director of Laura (1944), with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the two stars of Laura.

This reunion between director and actors was nothing earthshaking. In the years between Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger had worked with both Andrews and Tierney again separately, and Tierney and Andrews had appeared together in the film The Iron Curtain (1948), which Preminger didn’t direct.

But comparing Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends tells us a lot about where the genre we now know as “noir” went after World War II.

Andrews and Tierney

Laura is a glamorous mystery set in Manhattan high society; Where the Sidewalk Ends is a down-and-dirty drama set in the streets of New York, where ordinary people live, work, and die. In Laura, Gene Tierney is an untouchable and barely real object of desire; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, she’s a beautiful but otherwise average young woman with a job who lives with her father. In Laura, Dana Andrews is a tough but decent police detective; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, he’s a police detective whose desire to be nothing like his criminal father leads him to engage in all manner of brutality and occasionally even criminal conduct.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great movie about a troubled man finally forced to come to terms with himself. Andrews is excellent in the lead role, as is Tierney, and the supporting cast are wonderful, too, especially Karl Malden as a no-nonsense police lieutenant and Gary Merrill as a mean, sweaty crime boss addicted to nasal spray.

Destination Moon (June 27, 1950)

Destination Moon
Destination Moon (1950)
Directed by Irving Pichel
United Artists

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction kicked off with Rocketship X-M (1950), but it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Producer George Pal’s Destination Moon was a lavish Technicolor production two years in the making that endeavored to depict space travel as realistically as possible. Rocketship X-M was a quick cash-in that was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which is how it was able to beat Destination Moon into theaters by about a month.

As a science fiction fan, I can’t help but be impressed by Destination Moon. Its dedication to scientific accuracy is admirable, and for 1950, its special effects are top-notch. On the other hand, as a fan of compelling drama, I have to admit that Rocketship X-M has a more engaging script, better actors, and is more fun to watch.

This is the problem with most “hard sci-fi,” which Destination Moon most definitely is. The ideas are fascinating, but the presentation is pretty dry.

The director of Destination Moon, Irving Pichel, understood this, which is perhaps why the second reel of the movie depicts a group of men watching a film strip that explains space travel in a fun and funny way with our old friend Woody Woodpecker.

Woody Woodpecker

Unfortunately, other attempts to inject fun into the film, like a last-minute replacement on the crew named Joe (Dick Wesson), who’s from Brooklyn and provides comic relief by pronouncing the word “work” as “woik,” aren’t as successful.

Destination Moon is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which I read a few years ago. The basic idea of a mission to the moon carried out by a small crew — as well as a general commitment to scientific accuracy — is retained in the film version, but little else is. Heinlein’s novel was the story of a trio of teenaged boys reaching the moon with the help of their uncle. Once on the moon, they thwart a plot by Germans intent on establishing a Fourth Reich with the moon as their base.

The film version dispenses with the “boys’ adventure” aspect of Heinlein’s novel, as well as the idea of an enemy force already present on the moon. (Although a character in the film does state that the U.S. must reach the moon before a foreign nation is able to establish a missile base there.)

These storytelling decisions all makes sense, since Destination Moon was intended to be a realistic film.

Spacewalk

Even though Destination Moon doesn’t have the same dramatic verve as Rocketship X-M, and even though some of its science is dated, it’s still a tremendously successful science-fiction film, and holds up well today, provided you’re a “serious” sci-fi fan.

Sure, some of the effects look hokey today, but it’s not for nothing that the film won an Academy Award for best visual effects.

The Gunfighter (June 23, 1950)

The Gunfighter
The Gunfighter (1950)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

The 1950s was the decade during which the western genre finally grew up. The Saturday-afternoon kiddie westerns didn’t go away, but the ’50s was when Hollywood started regularly turning out serious, adult dramas that happened to take place in the Old West.

Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) is regularly cited as the first “adult western.” In my recent review of that movie, I talked about why I disagree with that assessment. There were plenty of westerns aimed at adults before Winchester ’73, most notably the films of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and André De Toth.

Winchester ’73 is a good movie, and is a notable example of the “adult western.” But since it wasn’t really the first (I mean, John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, for crying out loud), if we’re going to anoint a single film as the one that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the ’50s, I would like to propose Henry King’s The Gunfighter.

Gregory Peck

The Gunfighter stars Gregory Peck as an aging gunslinger named Jimmy Ringo. He has lived to the ripe old age of 35 by being a fast draw, but he’s tired.

In the opening scene of the film, we see that he avoids trouble as much as he can, but trouble finds him everywhere he goes, and he takes no pleasure in shooting young hotheads who want to test their skills against the fastest gun in the West. Ringo is a lonely man who drifts from town to town, never staying in one place for long. All he wants is to escape his reputation and settle down somewhere.

Like another great “adult” western that would come out a couple of years later — High Noon — much of The Gunfighter takes place more or less in real time. With three men on his trail who mean to kill him, Ringo rides into the little town of Cayenne, New Mexico, where his old friend Mark Strett is now a U.S. Marshal. (Strett is played by Millard Mitchell, who also had a major supporting role in Winchester ’73.)

The hands on the clock tick forward as Ringo waits in a saloon run by another of his old acquaintances, Mac (Karl Malden). Word quickly spreads through town, and a crowd gathers outside the saloon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Jimmy Ringo.

At the same time we count down the hours with the tired and worn-out Ringo, we see the making of his replacement, a reedy punk with a wisp of a mustache named Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier).

Ringo desperately wants to see his old love Peggy (Helen Westcott), and the young son they had together. Over the course of the film, we learn that Marshal Mark Strett was also a lawless gunslinger for a time, just like Ringo, but he settled down and found respectability before it was too late. Ringo desperately hopes it is not too late for him, either.

Peck and Westcott

This was the second film in a row that director Henry King made with star Gregory Peck. The first was Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and the two would go on to make a bunch more films together throughout the ’50s.

Like Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter is a character study of an impossibly tough and highly skilled man who is slowly humanized over the course of the film.

The Gunfighter contains most of the important tropes of the western, like the myth of the fast draw and the tension between community and lawlessness. The town of Cayenne is populated with fully realized characters and feels like a real community. It’s also grungier and more lived-in than the freshly painted communities in Winchester ’73, with gnarled trees and rivulets of water running down Main Street. And unlike the fresh-faced actors who populated Hollywood westerns, Peck’s bushy, drooping mustache is actually period-appropriate. (Incidentally, Darryl F. Zanuck hated Peck’s mustache in The Gunfighter, and blamed it for the the film’s mediocre performance at the box office.)

The Gunfighter is a classically structured tragedy set in the Old West. It’s a great film about public perception versus quiet, private reality, as well as the collision of our individual desires with inescapable fate.

I looked for a trailer on YouTube, and couldn’t find a trailer from 1950, but I found this fan edit, which is done in a modern style. I think it’s pretty well-done and effective:

Tarzan and the Slave Girl (June 23, 1950)

Tarzan and the Slave Girl
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Directed by Lee Sholem
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Lex Barker’s second go-round as Tarzan made me miss Johnny Weissmuller just a little bit more than his first.

Part of it was that I just didn’t find Tarzan and the Slave Girl as entertaining as Barker’s first go-round as the character, Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), but I think it was also because the novelty was starting to wear off.

I’m not trying to dump on Barker, who’s fine in the role, and certainly a beautiful physical specimen. Saying that another actor isn’t as good as Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan is akin to lamenting that no one was a better James Bond than Sean Connery.

Some fans of the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs complain about Weissmuller’s pidgin English and monosyllabic dialogue, since the Tarzan of the original novels, Lord Greystoke, grew past his feral beginnings to become a cultured and well-spoken superhuman lord of the jungle. However, I think everything about Weissmuller’s interpretation of the character works in the movies. His difficulty with English emphasizes his magnificent physical qualities, and makes Maureen O’Sullivan (who played Jane in the first six Tarzan movies opposite Weissmuller) a better partner for him, since she has skills that her mate lacks.

Tarzan and the slave girls

The good news is that every Tarzan movie delivers a decent amount of entertainment, and Tarzan and the Slave Girl is no different. If you’re looking for lovely half-naked bodies, animal action, jungle stock footage, and drunken chimp antics, then this movie delivers.

The plot is the typical mishmash that Tarzan movie fans are used to. Deep in the jungles of an Africa that in no way resembles anyplace on the actual continent, a group of white men from a tribe called the “Lionians” are kidnapping young women from other tribes. The young women they kidnap are also white, and mostly look like a casting call for Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell types.

Tarzan (Lex Barker) and his mate Jane (played for the first and only time by Vanessa Brown) are embroiled in this plot when the Lionians kidnap Jane and a woman named Lola (Denise Darcel), and Tarzan must rush to their rescue.

Whatever else this film might lack, it’s certainly full of leering shots of its female stars. Not only do Jane and Lola engage in a catfight for no particular reason, soon afterward they are captured by the Lionian slavers, and the long, lingering closeup of Darcel and Brown both rubbing their feet and ankles when they are shackled together made me wonder if director Sholem was taking some inspiration from Irving Klaw’s fetish films.

In fact, the casting of Darcel, a French actress whom we last saw as the only female character in the war movie Battleground (1949), seems like a way to make sure every heterosexual male viewer’s taste is catered to. Vanessa Brown, who plays Jane, is very slender and youthful-looking, whereas Darcel is fleshy and sexy.

Darcel and Brown

At this point in time, Tarzan and the Slave Girl is probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. If you’ve never seen a Tarzan movie, you have tons to choose from. The best place to start is probably with the first two Weissmuller flicks; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which is arguably the greatest Tarzan film of all time.

However, if you are a hardcore Tarzan fan and have seen all the Weissmuller films, the Barker films are not without their pleasures. They’re solid Saturday matinee viewing, and for my money that’s never a bad thing.

Armored Car Robbery (June 8, 1950)

Armored Car Robbery
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery was originally conceived and shot with the title “Code 3,” but RKO Radio Pictures opted for extreme truth in advertising. It’s a great example of the kind of tough, no-nonsense B-noir that RKO specialized in.

Fleischer had an extraordinarily long career in Hollywood. He directed his first short in 1943, and worked throughout the 1940s making short features and short documentaries, as well as low-budget features that no one remembers, like Child of Divorce (1946) and Banjo (1947).

Fleischer worked consistently throughout the decades, and went on to make huge movies that everyone remembers, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). His directorial style is hard to pin down, as are any personal or authorial touches. Fleischer made movies in practically every genre; film noir, science fiction, war movies, horror flicks, and docudramas. He made trash classics like Mandingo (1975) and the remake The Jazz Singer (1980), which starred Neil Diamond. Toward the end of his career, Fleischer made entertainingly bad movies like Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1984).

Back in the 1940s, Fleischer was one of those competent, hard-working craftsmen who toiled away in the studio system and produced movies that were entertaining, but not particularly memorable. (He was the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, who created Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as the great Superman cartoons of the early 1940s.)

The last movie Richard Fleischer directed that I reviewed was Bodyguard (1948), which starred legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Because there are always more movies to watch than I can possibly make time for, I missed Fleischer’s next few flicks, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Trapped (1949).

McGuire and McGraw

I almost passed on Armored Car Robbery, but I decided to give it a watch for two reasons. First, it’s a heist movie that came close on the heels of one of the greatest and most game-changing heist movies of all time, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Second, it stars granite-jawed tough guy Charles McGraw, whom Fleischer would direct again in one of my favorite noir thrillers of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

So I wanted to see how Armored Car Robbery stacked up against The Asphalt Jungle, and I wanted to see what Fleischer and McGraw were getting up to before they made The Narrow Margin together.

Considering its small budget and tight shooting schedule, Armored Car Robbery stacks up pretty well against The Asphalt Jungle. The heist is not nearly as detailed, but it’s believable, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off.

Like Fleischer’s Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery features a lot of location shooting in Los Angeles. For instance, the heist takes place outside Wrigley Field. (I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that in Chicago, where the Cubs play?) In Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was a ballpark that was in operation from 1925 to 1965 and demolished in 1969. It was built by the same chewing-gum magnate who build the other Wrigley Field.

The leader of the heist crew, played by William Talman, calls in a series of false reports outside Wrigley Field, then observes police response times. He puts together a string of heavies, including dependable baby-faced heavy Steve Brodie and dependable haggard-looking heavy Gene Evans, along with an oily Lothario played by Douglas Fowley.

If you’ve seen a heist movie before, you’ll know that the best laid plans often go awry. Talman is shtupping Fowley’s girl on the side, which can’t possibly turn out well. Incidentally, Fowley’s girl is played by the lovely and talented B-pictures mainstay Adele Jergens, who gets to show off her gams as a burlesque dancer. Armored Car Robbery gives her a nastier, more fun role than the one she played as a dancer in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which the 30-year-old Jergens played Marilyn Monroe’s mother(!).

McGraw and Jergens

After the commission of the heist, Armored Car Robbery is a tightly paced cat and mouse thriller in which the robbery crew narrowly avoids capture by the police as McGraw and his new partner track down leads. A lot of it is shot quickly and unpretentiously, but the cinematography by Guy Roe is always excellent, especially in the nighttime set-ups and the paranoia-inducing low-angle shots when the crew is beginning to unravel.

Armored Car Robbery is great entertainment, and a wonderful showcase for its dependable cast. If you’ve never seen Charles McGraw in a movie before, Narrow Margin is a great place to start, but Armored Car Robbery isn’t a bad place to start either. And it contains the memorable moment when McGraw comforts a friend whose husband has just died with three words, “Tough break, Marsha.” In his book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode called it “the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history.”

Armored Car Robbery will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, July 10, 2015, at 12:15 PM (ET).

Winchester ’73 (June 7, 1950)

Winchester 73
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Universal Pictures

Among film geeks, Anthony Mann is revered for two things — his hard-boiled film noirs of the 1940s and his “psychological westerns” of the 1950s.

Mann’s western phase kicked off in 1950 with three films, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck, and Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor.

Winchester ’73 was significant because it was Mann’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, the most likeable beanpole everyman in Hollywood, and it helped Stewart craft a new image for himself.

Mann and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, but it is their five westerns that are best-regarded today. After Winchester ’73 came Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

I first saw Winchester ’73 about 15 years ago, after being completely blown away by Mann’s noirs T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), and wasn’t as excited by Winchester ’73.

Stewart and Mitchell

Winchester ’73 is regularly lauded as the first “adult western,” and the beginning of a richer and more complicated era for the genre.

I don’t totally buy this. While the majority of westerns in the 1930s and ’40s may have been aimed at kids (it’s almost impossible for an adult to watch a Buster Crabbe western without clawing their eyes out), there were westerns aimed at adult viewers going all the way back to the birth of cinema. To say that Winchester ’73 is the first “adult western” is to ignore the westerns directed by John Ford, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, and plenty of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1950s was the best decade for westerns in the history of Hollywood, and Winchester ’73 is a really good western with complex characters and excellent performances. It just doesn’t totally work for me. It has an episodic structure that follows the “priceless … one in a thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle as it passes from owner to owner, and most of the episodes don’t do much for me until Dan Duryea shows up toward the end. (Although I do always get a perverse thrill from seeing Rock Hudson playing a shirtless Native American.)

I find the last third of Winchester ’73 incredibly thrilling and fun to watch. Duryea plays runty, nasty villains like no one else, and its during his episode of the film that Stewart finally shakes off his nice guy image and does stuff on screen that he’d never done before.

Duryea and Stewart

While it’s not my favorite western of all time, I still would recommend Winchester ’73 to any fans of westerns, as well as any film fans who want to explore the western genre. It’s a well-made movie, an important western, and William H. Daniels’s cinematography is gorgeous.

Also, the DVD of this film released in 2003 is a must-have for classic film fans. The special features listed on the DVD case only refer to an “Interview with James Stewart,” which is the most insane piece of underselling I’ve ever seen on a DVD.

That interview is actually an entire commentary track for the film. It’s guided by an interviewer who asks questions, but it’s still Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie as it goes, occasionally commenting on what’s happening onscreen, but mostly just sharing recollections of old Hollywood and old talent, as well as waxing philosophical about the old studio system. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to for anyone who’s a classic film fan. It was originally recorded in 1989 for a LaserDisc release of the film. Toward the end of the commentary with the interviewer, Jimmy Stewart marvels at how far technology has come and says, “laser, huh?”

It’s incredibly rare to have this kind of commentary track from a star as old as Stewart, and it’s something to be treasured.

Winchester73DVD

Rocketship X-M (May 26, 1950)

RocketshipXM
Rocketship X-M (1950)
Directed by Kurt Neumann
Lippert Pictures

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction begins here.

There were science fiction from the very birth of the medium. One of the earliest narrative films ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), and the silent era saw science-fiction masterworks like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In the 1930s, sci-fi ranged from the Saturday-matinee action of Flash Gordon to the serious-minded speculations of Things to Come (1936).

During World War II, sci-fi all but disappeared from movie screens. (Although it always flourished in the pulp magazines no matter what Hollywood was doing.) But the 1950s were an incredible time for cinematic sci-fi, and that era started with Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon (1950).

Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M came out just a month earlier than producer George Pal’s Destination Moon, which was a lavish and much anticipated Technicolor extravaganza. Rocketship X-M, on the other hand, was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which was how it was able to beat Pal’s production into theaters. (Apparently the similarity of the two films led Lippert Pictures to include the disclaimer “This is not ‘Destination Moon'” in the promotional material they sent to distributors.)

Just like Destination Moon, this film takes many elements from Robert A. Heinlein’s “boys’ adventure” novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which was published in 1947. Unlike Destination Moon, it’s not an official adaptation, which might account for the decision to have unforeseen circumstances lead to the crew of the Rocketship X-M (which stands for “expedition moon”) badly overshooting the mark and winding up on Mars.

Aboard the rocket

The equipment seen in the film was provided by the Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood, so it doesn’t look particularly cheap or overly “fake,” but you’ll run out of fingers if you start counting all the inaccuracies in Rocketship X-M — the crew give a press conference with less than 15 minutes to go until launch, meteoroids fly in a tight cluster and smash into the ship at one point, there is sound in space, and so on.

Some of the scientific inaccuracies can be chalked up to the low budget. The film acknowledges that weightlessness is a part of space travel, but only partway. Small objects float up into the air and enormous fuel tanks are easy for the crew members to lift and maneuver, but their bodies all stay firmly in place.

Despite the budgetary limitations and scientific inaccuracies, I thought Rocketship X-M was a phenomenal sci-fi movie. All the things that money can’t buy — good performances, exciting story, crisp dialogue, imaginative use of earthbound locations to suggest other planets — are up there on screen.

Massen and Bridges

The script for Rocketship X-M was mostly written by the great Dalton Trumbo. Because he was blacklisted, Trumbo’s name doesn’t appear in the credits. The sharply drawn characters, the believable dialogue, and the progressive politics are all Trumbo trademarks. Several of the male characters in the film say and do sexist things, but the script itself is not sexist. For instance, after the crew has had their medical examinations, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) points to Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) and wryly says, “The ‘weaker sex.’ The only one whose blood pressure is normal.” Later in the film, a male scientist confidently tells her to recheck her calculations because they don’t jibe with his and she apologizes — but it turns out later that hers are correct, and his insistence that he is right has dire consequences for the mission.

Most significantly, the film imagines a Mars devastated by a long-ago nuclear war. The possibly cataclysmic consequences of atomic war is a science-fiction concept that can be found in E.C. Comics (specifically Weird Fantasy #13) published around the same time that Rocketship X-M was released, and even earlier in a radio show written by Arch Oboler, but it was a new concept for a Hollywood film.

The 1950s would see plenty of politically reactionary sci-fi movies in which square-jawed American he-men faced alien menaces and came out on top, but there were a fair number of ’50s sci-fi movies that took a dimmer view of America’s growing nuclear arsenal and burgeoning militarism, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Rocketship X-M was the first of these type of sci-fi movies, and it still stands up as superior entertainment.

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