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Strangers on a Train (June 30, 1951)

Strangers on a Train
Strangers on a Train (1949)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros.

Sometimes I think that Hitchcock’s black & white films don’t get enough love (aside from Psycho, which is one of his most modern and accessible films).

Strangers on a Train is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and I think it’s criminally underrated. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but it held up wonderfully. I honestly think it’s one of his best films from this period, and as beautiful an example of “pure cinema” as any film in Hitchcock’s body of work.

I don’t think it’s an accident that this was Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Robert Burks, the cinematographer who worked with Hitchcock into the 1960s and who shot nearly all of his most acclaimed color films, like Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959).

Footsie

Strangers on a Train has a nifty little plot (based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), but it’s the way the story is told visually and rhythmically that makes it such a tremendous thriller. From the opening scene, which cross-cuts between two passengers’ legs walking swiftly through a busy train station, we are in the hands of a master filmmaker.

One of the men is conservatively dressed, while the other wears loud shoes and pin-striped trousers. They finally take their seats on the train, cross their legs, bump into each other, pardon themselves, and then the fun begins.

Farley Granger plays a professional tennis player named Guy Haines and Robert Walker plays an unhinged man named Bruno Antony.

The film starts with an unpleasant scenario we can all relate to — being cornered on public transportation by a chatty and overly familiar stranger — and quickly devolves into a nightmare when Bruno devises a plan in which he and Guy could commit murder for each other, getting rid of troublesome people in their lives while giving each other perfect alibis.

Guy thinks it’s just one more outlandish utterance from his very odd traveling companion, but he quickly learns how deadly serious the insane Bruno really is.

Guy and Bruno

Most of the criticism I’ve seen of Strangers on a Train focuses on how much people dislike the film’s central romantic couple, played by Farley Granger and Ruth Roman, but I honestly don’t understand this.

I think Granger, while not the most interesting actor, is perfectly cast as an attractive young man completely out of his depth. And while Ruth Roman is pretty dull in this role, the scenes in which only she and Granger are on screen together occupy mere minutes of the film’s running time. Most of their scenes together also feature her hilariously dry father, a senator played by Leo G. Carroll, and her crime-obsessed sister played by Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter), whose ghoulish interest in all things dark and sordid recalls the true-crime buffs in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Strangers on a Train is a first-class thriller with some of the most striking black & white visuals in Hitchcock’s career, as well as one of the most memorable and drawn-out murder set pieces in his body of work. It’s a terrific film, and worth revisiting if your memories of it are less than stellar.

The Prowler (May 25, 1951)

the-prowler
The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
United Artists / Horizon Pictures / Eagle Productions

The Prowler is a queasy movie about voyeurism, stalking, and sexual power dynamics, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Evelyn Keyes — a very good actress who appeared in a lot of “small” films but is mostly remembered for playing Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind — turns in a star performance as Susan Gilvray, a lonely and frustrated married woman who spends her nights alone in a great big house in Los Angeles. In a brief POV shot before the opening credits, we see her in her bathroom, wearing a towel. She looks out the window, directly at the camera, and screams.

The interesting thing about The Prowler is that while that Peeping Tom looms large over everything that happens next, we never see him, and the viewer can never entirely be sure that he wasn’t a figment of Susan’s imagination.

But whether or not he exists is beside the point, because Susan soon opens her door to a more insidious threat. One of the two patrolmen who responds to the report of a prowler is Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a slimy, bitter, superficially charming man who hates being a cop and is always looking for an “angle” so he can move up in the world.

keyes-and-heflin

As LAPD superfan James Ellroy is quick to point out in the supplemental features of the Blu-ray, Webb Garwood is never specifically identified as a member of the LAPD, and his badge and certain identifying features of his uniform are different from the ones worn by LAPD officers. However, Garwood’s black uniform and the fact that The Prowler clearly takes place in Los Angeles seem to mark him as an LAPD officer, despite the filmmakers’ decision to err on the side of political caution.

But just like the mysterious and unseen creeper who sets things in motion, it doesn’t really matter whether Webb Garwood is a member of the LAPD or not. He’s a rotten symbol of something much bigger. He represents the worst possibilities of unscrupulous people who have the power of the state behind them. He can sexually manipulate women, commit murder, and perjure himself, but because of his badge, juries and the general public will give him the benefit of the doubt.

heflin-and-keyes

The screenplay for The Prowler — based on the story “The Cost of Living” by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm — was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the cruel power of the state. Trumbo had been blacklisted, but it didn’t stop him from working throughout the ’50s. It just meant he got paid much less than he deserved. (His front for The Prowler was Hugo Butler.) Trumbo is one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, and The Prowler is Trumbo at his down-and-dirty best.

I’ve seen The Prowler several times, and it gets a little better with each viewing. Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin embody their characters. Arthur C. Miller’s black & white cinematography is haunting, and makes Susan’s hacienda look like the loneliest place on earth. Losey’s direction is crisp. Lyn Murray’s music is powerful without being overbearing. Dalton Trumbo’s script is timeless.

The Prowler is classic Los Angeles noir, and one of the best “bad cop” movies of all time.

The Idiot (May 23, 1951)

Hakuchi
The Idiot (Hakuchi) (1951)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shochiku Company

As a nearly lifelong fan of director Akira Kurosawa, The Idiot is a difficult film to review. Watching it was an incredibly frustrating experience, since major portions of the film have been lost, and it’s doubtful they will ever be found.

Kurosawa’s original cut of The Idiot ran about four and a half hours, and was intended to be released in two parts. However, the Shochiku studio bosses trimmed it down to a little less than three hours, which is the only existing version.

Mifune and Masayuki Mori

The Idiot (a.k.a. Hakuchi) is an adaptation of the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Kurosawa followed the plot of the novel fairly closely, but changed the setting from 19th-century Russia to postwar Japan.

Appropriately, the film takes place in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The snowy landscapes give the film the look and feel of a Russian novel. Kurosawa was always preoccupied with weather (especially torrential rainstorms), and The Idiot is a beautiful portrait of a frigid and hostile environment.

The main problem with The Idiot is that it appears to have been trimmed down in a completely arbitrary fashion. The constant wipes (a technique which usually conveys a sense of excitement and forward movement in Kurosawa’s films) seem to always signify an elision in The Idiot. Characters will move from one place to another with no explanation, or the setting will change without warning. Watching The Idiot in its current form is sort of like reading a novel and skipping various chapters at random.

Hara and Mifune

The Idiot is not a film I can properly review, but I will say this — if you have never seen a Kurosawa film before, make sure it’s not this one; however, if you are a Kurosawa fan, it is a film you must see at least once. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, with wonderful performances by the radiant Setsuko Hara, who also appeared in Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), and Masayuki Mori, who gives a haunting performance as the “idiot” of the title, a man deeply traumatized by war.

Kurosawa mainstays Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura have less to do, but turn in dependably good work. I wrote in my review of The Quiet Duel (1949) that it might be Shimura and Mifune’s least interesting pairing for Kurosawa, but this one definitely is, mostly because they don’t really interact much.

Mori and Mifune

The Thing (From Another World) (April 27, 1951)

The Thing
The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
Directed by Christian Nyby
RKO Radio Pictures / Winchester Pictures

I’m probably one of the few people my age who fell in love with the original version of The Thing before seeing John Carpenter’s 1982 version. Back in high school, I’d watch any piece of 1950s sci-fi schlock at least once, but The Thing (From Another World) was far from schlock, and I watched my VHS copy at least six or seven times when I was a teenager, maybe more.

In fact, I loved The Thing so much that I didn’t really like John Carpenter’s remake the first time I watched it. I loved the optimistic, capable characters in the original and all their rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, and I found Carpenter’s version pessimistic and depressing. However, like most of Carpenter’s films from the ’70s and ’80s, The Thing gets better every time I watch it, and it’s now easily one of my favorite sci-fi/horror films.

Revisiting the original version of The Thing was a strange experience, at least for the first 20 minutes. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and Carpenter’s version has in many ways replaced it in my heart.

Once you’ve seen the innovative, gory special effects of Carpenter’s version, it’s hard to go back to James Arness in a bald cap, spacesuit, and claw hands. The 1951 version also lacks the central idea of a shape-shifting alien who can mimic human form, so there isn’t the same level of paranoia, which is a huge part of Carpenter’s version.

arness

After the first couple of reels, however, I settled back into the rhythm of the original and enjoyed it as much as I always did. It’s a completely different movie from Carpenter’s version, and what it does, it does brilliantly. It may not have much in the way of paranoia, but it’s a suspenseful film that establishes a real sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

One thing that struck me on this viewing of The Thing is how much of its gruesomeness and horror is dependent on the viewer’s imagination. Descriptions of things like a plant-based alien-humanoid who lives on blood or scientists hanging upside down with their throats slashed are only referred to in dialogue. This probably played better for audiences weaned on radio dramas, and I’m not sure how well it will hold up for younger viewers accustomed to explicit shocks. On the other hand, the decision of the filmmakers to keep the alien monster mostly off-screen has dated the film well.

The Thing holds up as superior entertainment that is head and shoulders above most ’50s sci-fi movies. The cast is full of actors who never became household names, but they deliver deft character work and seem like real people. What the film lacks in budget it more than makes up for with an intelligent script and tight pacing. It’s a terrific movie that I can watch over and over, and it still feels fresh.

flying-saucer

Tarzan’s Peril (March 10, 1951)

Tarzan's Peril
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

The lavish spectacle King Solomon’s Mines (1950) rewrote the rules of the “jungle adventure” film, since it was shot on location in Sub-Saharan Africa and instantly made all the B movies shot on soundstages and backlots look ridiculous. First and foremost, it showed that there was a lot less jungle in Africa than kids raised on Tarzan movies assumed there was. The distant, rolling plains we saw in King Solomon’s Mines bore little resemblance to the dense jungles where Tarzan swung on vines.

So producer Sol Lesser and RKO Radio Pictures picked up the gauntlet and decided to shoot their next Tarzan picture not only in color, but on location in Kenya.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the color footage, so Tarzan’s Peril was released in black & white. A fair amount of the location footage found its way into the final product, but it’s not integrated very well into the main narrative. We never see Lex Barker strutting in his loincloth through the grasslands of Kenya, for instance. He mostly sticks to the soundstages and backlots, clowning around with Cheetah the chimpanzee and throwing knives at not-very-terrifying giant snake puppets.

Huston and Barker

As I said in my review of Lex Barker’s previous Tarzan picture, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Barker’s movies are probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. With nearly a century of Tarzan flicks to choose from, newcomers are advised to start with the Johnny Weissmuller movies, particularly the first two, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you have kids and don’t want to expose them to the dated and racist depictions of Africans in the early Weissmuller films, you’ll probably want to show them either Disney’s Tarzan (1999) or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) (which, incidentally, was the first Tarzan movie I ever saw).

However, if you’re not a hardcore Tarzan fan, there is one reason to check out Tarzan’s Peril. It features Dorothy Dandridge as “Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba.” Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and along with Lena Horne, she was one of the only black “leading ladies” in Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, even for a beautiful and light-skinned actress like Dandridge, good roles for black women were still hard to come by in the ’50s. And the roles she was offered, like this one, are fairly limited.

Dorothy Dandridge

The problem is not just that Tarzan’s Peril is a low-budget picture (I love B movies, and this is a perfectly decent one with plenty of action), it’s that Dandridge is given frustratingly little to do. In fact, after watching Tarzan’s Peril I wished that Jane hadn’t even been featured as a character. She’s played by Virginia Huston, and except for a bit of mutual splashing around in the water, there’s no erotic chemistry between her and Barker. Mostly she comes off as an idealized version of a prim 1950s housewife, chastising Tarzan for eating food out of a pot on the stove and demanding he sit down to dinner.

Given that Huston was the third different actress to play Jane in as many Tarzan movies featuring Lex Barker, I wished they had written her out of the movie entirely and just focused on Dandridge’s character, Melmendi. Anything like kissing would have been verboten with a white actor like Barker, but they could have beefed up her part and had plenty of erotic subtext. That would have been really fun to watch.

Tarzan’s Peril is OK, but not great. On the plus side, it’s got plenty of action, some of the best location footage in an RKO Tarzan movie to date, and a trio of memorable villains.

The Steel Helmet (Feb. 2, 1951)

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

This movie is a good example of why placing films in their proper context is so important. When I first watched Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (I rented it on VHS many, many years ago) I couldn’t get past the cheapness of the production or the amateurish acting by some of the cast. The exteriors are clearly filmed in California and the interiors are a combination of cheap sets and obvious soundstages. I don’t even think I finished watching it.

Flash forward to right now. For the last several years I’ve immersed myself in the films of the 1940s, and now that I have a really good sense of how war movies told their stories during and right after World War II, I can confidently say that The Steel Helmet is a groundbreaking film. Not only was it the first film made about the Korean War, but its depiction of the toll of combat is raw and uncompromising.

It also features an incredible lead performance by Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. Evans was an actor who’d appeared in bit parts in a bunch of B-movies prior to this, but had never had a lead role before. (He get an “introducing” line in the credits.) Incidentally, one of those B-movies was Armored Car Robbery (1950), which also featured Steve Brodie, who plays the idealistic and naive Lt. Driscoll in The Steel Helmet.

Brodie and Evans

In The Steel Helmet, Fuller casually tackles huge issues like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and racial segregation back home, all with his uniquely blunt sensibility. He throws in oddball characters like a soldier with alopecia who can’t stop applying hair tonic to his bald head, depicts the enormous statue at the heart of a Buddhist temple with a reverence that borders on frightening, and portrays combat as an unending series of horrible events that will continue long after the movie’s runtime is over.

At his heart, Samuel Fuller was always a pulp novelist. His writing was often hackneyed and he assembled his films from crude materials. At first glance, his movies look no different from countless other low-budget productions. But once you really start to investigate the man’s work, you see that his films overflowed with ideas that most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and whatever their shortcomings, they have an impact that most Hollywood big-budget productions never will.

The Steel Helmet made almost 20 times its original budget at the box office, and opened doors in Hollywood for Fuller. His next film was another movie about the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951), made for 20th Century-Fox.

The Enforcer (Jan. 25, 1951)

The Enforcer
The Enforcer (1951)
Directed by Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

I wasn’t expecting much from this fictionalized account of the exploits of Murder, Inc., but I ended up being completely blown away. Although the director listed in the credits is the lavishly named Bretaigne Windust, the bulk of the film was actually directed by Raoul Walsh after Windust was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Walsh is a director I love. He made lean, tough movies that are also incredibly entertaining. He did some of his best work with Humphrey Bogart, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941).

The Enforcer was the last time Bogart and Walsh worked together, and while it’s basically a low-budget B movie with an A-list star, Walsh’s crisp, fast-paced direction and facility with hard-boiled conventions elevate the picture.

Ted de Corsia and Everett Sloane

Even though Bogart is the only big name in the credits, this movie has an outstanding line-up of male character actors. The sheer number of ugly mugs in this movie is overwhelming. Ted de Corsia, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane, and Bob Steele were never going to win any beauty contests, but they are all incredibly convincing as vicious killers.

Also, the black & white cinematography by Robert Burks is an object lesson in how to make simple sets look like works of art. A lot of people will tell you that The Enforcer is not really a film noir because it’s a straightforward D.A. & cops vs. gangsters story, but for me, noir is primarily a style, and this is a movie that oozes style.