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Monthly Archives: May 2015

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

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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.

The Asphalt Jungle (May 23, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.

But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.

Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.

Sam Jaffe

I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.

This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Louis Calhern

Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).

In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.

Marilyn Monroe

Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.

John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.

The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.

The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.

Hagen and Hayden

The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.

The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.

I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).

But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010).

The Asphalt Jungle will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at 9:45 PM ET.