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Halls of Montezuma (Jan. 4, 1951)

Halls of Montezuma
Halls of Montezuma (1951)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

The American public never really loses its appetite for war movies, it just gets full sometimes and needs to take a nap. That was the situation in 1950. After a few impressive World War II movies were released in 1949, like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, the only World War II movie I can think of from 1950 that wasn’t a comedy, or a postwar drama like Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, was Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines.

But the beginning of 1951 saw several war movies hit American movie theaters. Within a month of the premiere of Halls of Montezuma, at least two more war films were released; Operation Pacific, a film about World War II submarine warfare starring John Wayne, and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, the first film about the Korean War.

No matter which war a film depicts, it’s always going to reflect the time when it was made. So while The Steel Helmet might have been the first film to explicitly depict the Korean conflict, the specter of that war hangs over Halls of Montezuma.

Like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, Halls of Montezuma is largely about the terrible toll of combat — what used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and what is commonly called “PTSD” today.

Widmark

Halls of Montezuma stars Richard Widmark as Anderson, a former schoolteacher who is now a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He suffers from crippling psychosomatic migraines, and his only relief comes when he gets another little white pill from Doc (Karl Malden).

When the film begins, Lt. Anderson is tired of death. He led a company of Marines through the bloody battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and only seven men in his original command are still alive. (Halls of Montezuma might be meant to depict the battle on Okinawa, but I don’t think it’s ever directly stated where it takes place.)

Just like Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma integrates real footage of the war. Unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the documentary footage in Halls of Montezuma is in color to match the Technicolor of the film, and while it often looks spectacular, it always took me out of the narrative, which is the same problem I had with Sands of Iwo Jima.

For instance, early in the film there’s a scene where the Marines are blasting Japanese sniper’s nests and pillboxes with tank-mounted flamethrowers. Lt. Anderson gives a command into his radio, “Spray the whole hill, it’s lousy with Nips.” We see huge arcs of fire hitting a ridge, then real footage of a (presumably Japanese) soldier running, his body on fire. Halls of Montezuma is an impressively staged film, but nothing in it can quite pass for reality when laid side-by-side with documentary footage.

I’m sure that some of my recognition of the fakery of the film is based on the passage of time. In Bosley Crowther’s review of Halls of Montezuma in the January 6, 1951, issue of The New York Times, he praised the film’s documentary realism and called it “A remarkably real and agonizing demonstration of the horribleness of war, with particular reference to its impact upon the men who have to fight it on the ground.” After enough time passes it’s easier to see how a movie has been constructed. No matter how “agonizingly real” a film might look at the time of its release, it just won’t fool anyone 64 years later.

Brand and Webb

Lewis Milestone also directed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), about the First World War, and A Walk in the Sun (1945), about American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II. Halls of Montezuma is similar in some ways to A Walk in the Sun, including the use of occasional voiceover narration to tell the audience what various characters are thinking.

Halls of Montezuma is an earnest and well-made war movie, but it had too many clichés and inauthentic moments for me to call it a great war movie.

The interior sets look like sets, too many of the exteriors look like Southern California (which they are), the Japanese soldiers don’t look Japanese, and too many of the characters seem like “types” rather than real people, like the British interpreter played by Reginald Gardiner or the sadistic and gun-crazy punk “Pretty Boy,” played by Skip Homeier.

There are some great performances in Halls of Montezuma, though. Widmark is completely convincing as a battle-weary officer, and Richard Boone (in his first feature film role) is brilliant as Lt. Col. Gilfillan. When he asks combat correspondent Dickerman (Jack Webb) if he can fire an M1 Garand and then sends him out on a mission to take Japanese prisoners, Boone says with resignation, “I suppose I’ll be the villain of your great American war novel.” It’s one of those moments that would seem too “written” coming from another actor, but Boone sells it.

The 10 Best Films of 1950

23rdOscars

Here’s the countdown of my 10 favorite films from 1950.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment…

Caged10. Caged

Caged is one of the first true “women-in-prison” films. It’s a tough, tragic, intelligent film that’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

The Gunfighter9. The Gunfighter

For my money, this is the movie that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the 1950s. It prefigured the structure of High Noon and tackled the idea of myth vs. reality in the Old West head on.

Stage Fright8. Stage Fright

Stage Fright was Alfred Hitchcock’s most purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment since Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946). It’s a tightly paced melodrama full of intrigue and humor, and is a great example of how adept Hitchcock was at manipulating an audience.

Gun Crazy7. Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endlessly fascinating one. It’s a fast-paced piece of pulp that’s not shy about linking sex and violence, and tells its story through a weird mix of slightly unreal soundstage sets with hyper-real location shooting.

In a Lonely Place6. In a Lonely Place

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place makes some radical changes to its source material — the 1947 novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes — while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity. Humphrey Bogart is terrific as an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage, and Gloria Grahame is equally terrific as the woman who loves him.

All About Eve5. All About Eve

All About Eve is one of the most sophisticated and darkly humorous films of all time. And its story of an aging actress being supplanted by a ruthless young ingenue is more relevant than ever.

The Asphalt Jungle4. The Asphalt Jungle

Heist movies have been with us since the birth of cinema, but The Asphalt Jungle is the granddaddy of the modern heist film, and its DNA runs through everything from Rififi (1955) and The Killing (1956) to Heat (1995).

Sunset Boulevard3. Sunset Boulevard

Like All About Eve, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film about how difficult it is for dazzling young actresses to grow old. Unlike All About Eve, it’s specifically about the transition from silents to talkies. It’s one of the greatest movies Hollywood has ever made about itself; a liminal masterpiece that constantly flirts with being a horror film.

Los Olvidados2. Los Olvidados

Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados is an exhilarating masterwork about the “lost children” of Mexico City’s slums. It’s filled with moments of incredible beauty and brief scenes of pure surrealism that only increase the power of the film’s unflinching depiction of poverty and violence.

Rashomon1. Rashomon

The breakout film not just for director Akira Kurosawa, but for Japanese cinema in general, Rashomon is an uncomfortable meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It exposes the world as a kind of hell, because human beings cannot even be honest with themselves. But it is also a deeply sensuous experience, and an utterly beautiful film.

Los Olvidados (Nov. 9, 1950)

Los Olvidados
Los Olvidados (1950)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Ultramar Films

Most serious film nerds know about Luis Buñuel, even if they’ve never seen any of his movies.

And even if they’ve never seen Buñuel’s first film — the influential surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (1929) — they’ve probably heard about its shocking, disjointed images, like ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand or a woman’s eyeball being sliced open by a straight razor. (If you’ve never seen Un Chien Andalou, go ahead and watch it right now. It’s only 16 minutes long.)

Buñuel made a big splash with Un Chien Andalou (1929) and his next film, L’Age d’Or (1930), but his career and life went in strange and interesting places between 1930 and 1950, taking him from his native Spain to working in Paris, Hollywood, New York, and eventually Mexico, where he settled in 1946.

I last reviewed Buñuel’s work-for-hire Jorge Negrete musical, Gran Casino (1947), which was neither an artistic nor a financial success, but I missed his more successful follow-up, El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap) (1949).

Los Olvidados, however, is the film that really put him on the map, and if you’re only going to see one Buñuel film, I think it should be this one. (Of course, if you’re a serious film nerd, why would you only see one Buñuel film?)

Roberto Cobo

At its November 9, 1950, premiere in Mexico City, the film scandalized and enraged audience members. Los Olvidados dared to not only show the worst side of life in Mexico City — the desperate poverty and parentless children of the slums — but also dared to depict those children not as sentimental objects of noble suffering, but as vicious, angry, and hopeless.

I first saw Los Olvidados at Film Forum in New York, and I was blown away by not only the film’s unflinching depictions of poverty and violence, but also by its incredible beauty.

Cobo and Mejía

A workaday writer or director handed the scenario of Los Olvidados would find hope by giving one of its main characters a happy ending and allowing the audience to nestle comfortably in the lie that good is rewarded and evil punished. (Incidentally, this is exactly what happens in the alternate ending that Buñuel — or someone — was forced to shoot, and which was rediscovered in 1996. After the screening I saw at Film Forum, the alternate ending was introduced and shown via video projection as a historical curiosity, and was received with incredulous laughter from the audience.)

But Buñuel knew that in the world of Los Olvidados, happy endings are a bourgeois lie. At the same time, Los Olvidados is not a hopeless film. It is an exhilarating masterwork, in which a sense of reality is undermined by moments like the one in which the young actor Alfonso Mejía throws an egg at the camera. Ironically, this breaking of the fourth wall undermines reality while at the same time creating a heightened sense of reality, when Mejía stares into the camera with disdain as the egg drips down the lens.

King Solomon’s Mines (Nov. 9, 1950)

King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

King Solomon’s Mines was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in Africa since the disastrous Trader Horn in 1931.

Trader Horn made a tidy profit at the box office, but the actual shooting was fraught with danger, disease, and even death. The leading lady, Edwina Booth, contracted a serious illness that forced her to retire from acting, and she sued MGM, who settled with her out of court.

So MGM was naturally hesitant to mount another massive production shot on location in Africa, but King Solomon’s Mines was a gamble that paid off. Not only is it a beautifully shot, well-acted, and exciting film, it was a massive financial success, and was MGM’s most popular release of 1950.

Stewart Granger

It’s been awhile since I’ve read H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines, but this film version felt very different to me from its source material, and mostly in ways that I liked.

The most obvious change from the novel is the gender switch of one of the main characters to allow for a female lead. In the novel, a safari leader named Allan Quatermain is hired by a British aristocrat, Sir Henry Curtis, who wishes to find his brother who went missing while searching for the mythical treasure of King Solomon in uncharted regions of southern Africa.

The film version instead features a character named Elizabeth Curtis, whose husband is missing. She’s played by the red-haired Scottish actress Deborah Kerr.

Allan Quatermain is played by the English actor Stewart Granger. The role was originally offered to Errol Flynn, but he balked at the rigorous location shooting and turned it down in favor of appearing in Kim (1950), an adaptation of the novel by Rudyard Kipling. That film was shot in India, but the actors didn’t have to rough it, and stayed in a resort, where presumably Flynn could continue drinking himself to death in comfortable surroundings.

Meeting Siriaque

The gender switch is an obvious change, but it’s the overall tone of the film that I thought was the biggest shift from Haggard’s novel. The novel is a rousing Victorian adventure story, while the film is much more of a travelogue. In fact, one of the most common complaints about King Solomon’s Mines from modern viewers is that it’s “boring,” and has very little of the type of action they expect from an adventure story.

Which version you prefer depends upon your personal taste, but I personally loved this film. After so many years of “Africa” in Hollywood films being depicted as a jungle set on a sound stage, seeing the actual landscapes of Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo was a revelation. This is a stunningly beautiful film, and Robert L. Surtees’s Oscar for best color cinematography was well-deserved.

King Solomon’s Mines premiered on November 9, 1950, in New York, and went into wide release on November 24.

Dial 1119 (Nov. 3, 1950)

Dial 1119
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)

Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.

After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.

Levene and Thompson

It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.

Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.

Marshall Thompson

One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.

Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.

Atom Man vs. Superman (15 chapters) (June 19-Sept. 25, 1950)

Atom Man vs Superman
Atom Man vs. Superman (15 chapters) (1950)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Columbia Pictures

Atom Man vs. Superman was the second of two Columbia serials that starred Kirk Alyn. The film serials were soon overshadowed by the very popular Adventures of Superman series starring George Reeves that ran on TV from 1952 to 1958.

It’s safe to say that if you’re digging into the Kirk Alyn serials, you’re a serious enough Superman completist to want to watch both of them.

However, if you’re only a mildly die-hard Superman fan and just want to watch one of the Kirk Alyn serials, I’d recommend this one. I know some comic-book fans love origin stories, but personally I find origin stories tiresome, and once they’re out of the way the real fun can begin. (See, for example, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Atom Man vs. Superman treads a lot of the same ground as Superman (1948) — it’s still a low-budget affair helmed by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet — but unlike the first serial, this one features Superman’s greatest nemesis, Lex Luthor. Also, Kirk Alyn physically looks better in the role of Superman than he did in the first serial. His physique is still nowhere close to what you’ll see in comic-book movies today, but he does look like he hit the gym and packed on some muscle after his first appearance as the character.

Character actor Lyle Talbot was the first actor to portray Lex Luthor onscreen, and despite wearing a bald cap instead of having a shaved head, he looks like the character we know from the comics and delivers a pretty good performance. And, just like the first serial, Noel Neill is fantastic as Lois Lane. With all due respect to Margot Kidder, Neill’s interpretation of the character is my favorite of all time. In fact, Neill was the only actor from the Columbia serials who went on to play the same character in the 1950s TV series.

Superman and Atom Man

Atom Man vs. Superman is not without its problems. The titular “Atom Man,” who wears a black robe and a glittering bucket over his head, never quite works as a villain. And this is still a Sam Katzman production, which means it’s a low-budget affair that plods along without ever hitting the delirious heights of the best serials, like Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).

Still, it’s got plenty of goofy fun, not to mention that every chapter opens with the cheeriest montage of atomic bomb explosions you will ever see.

Devil’s Doorway (Sept. 15, 1950)

Devil's Doorway

Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The great director Anthony Mann worked in a lot of different genres, but he’s most revered today for his noirs and his westerns.

Mann directed three westerns that were released in 1950. Winchester ’73 was the first one released in theaters, but he finished shooting both The Furies and Devil’s Doorway before starting work on Winchester ’73 with star James Stewart.

Winchester ’73 was far and away the most successful, and it’s still a favorite of western fans. (Mann and Stewart also went on to make several more highly regarded westerns together.) Devil’s Doorway remains the least widely seen.

There are a lot of reasons for film fans — particularly western fans — to see Devil’s Doorway. It breaks the traditional mold of the western by having heroes who are Native Americans and villains who are white settlers. It’s well written, tightly paced, and beautifully shot. It was also the last movie Mann made with cinematographer John Alton, who shot some of Mann’s greatest films, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).

Like he did in Border Incident, Alton turns wide open spaces, big skies, and towering western mountain ranges into dark, oppressive spaces that seem to be closing in on the tiny humans who inhabit them. Devil’s Doorway is one of the best-looking black & white westerns I’ve ever seen.

Robert Taylor

My one real problem with Devil’s Doorway, and it’s a big one, is the casting of Robert Taylor as “Broken Lance” Poole, a Shoshone who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Poole is a Medal of Honor winner who returns home to find that the land where he grazes his cattle is going to be overrun by homesteaders and sheepmen. Poole petitions to homestead his own land, but his petition is rejected because he is not an American citizen, but rather a “ward of the government.”

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play non-white characters, especially if they are the lead of a film. And in this respect Devil’s Doorway is no different from the other big western released in 1950 with Native American heroes, Broken Arrow, which starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise. But I found Robert Taylor especially bad. At the time of filming, Taylor was pushing 40, but he looks a decade older. He also looks not at all Native American. At least he doesn’t put on a goofy accent or speak in pidgin English, but he still looks completely wrong for the role. When I was watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon Lovitz playing Tonto on old episodes of Saturday Night Live.

Aside from the presence of a miscast and aging matinee idol as its protagonist, Devil’s Doorway is a powerful western drama with beautiful cinematography and some stunning battle sequences. It’s definitely worth seeing, along with Mann’s other westerns.

Rashomon (Aug. 25, 1950)

Rashomon
Rashomon (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Film Co., Ltd.

Rashomon was the breakout film not just for director Akira Kurosawa, but for Japanese cinema in general. It was awarded the prize for best film of the year at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and received the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1952.

It took me a few years to really “get” Rashomon. I was a big fan of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Seven Samurai (1954) from a young age (I saw both of them on the big screen when I was 12), but when I started exploring the rest of his filmography on VHS tapes I checked out of the library, Rashomon didn’t make much of an impression on me. I enjoyed both Yojimbo (1961) and Throne of Blood (1957), but I thought Rashomon was “boring.” (Forgive me! I was a teenager.)

I remember watching Rashomon for the first time and seeing it as a kind of “whodunnit.” I thought the different viewpoints were all leading up to some kind of pat conclusion. When it ended ambiguously, I was vaguely unsettled and a little bit angry. Perhaps, since it took place in 11th-century Japan, I was expecting more swordplay. And of course, seeing it on VHS wasn’t an ideal presentation.

Masayuki Mori

Flash forward maybe 10 years. Rashomon was playing at Film Forum in New York, so I went to see it. It was like seeing a completely different film. Not only had I grown more comfortable with ambiguity, but seeing a 35mm print on the big screen revealed what a deeply beautiful film Rashomon is. Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, shot Rashomon deep in virgin forests in the heat of midsummer. Searing flashes of sunlight wash across the characters, alternating with washes of darkness. Thickets of leaves tremble in the breeze, and look so close you could reach into the screen and touch them. Sweat pools on the actors’ faces, falling from their chins in heavy drops.

Rashomon is an uncomfortable meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It exposes the world as a kind of hell, because human beings cannot even be honest with themselves. But it is also a deeply sensuous experience, and an utterly beautiful film.

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