This is a much less interesting movie than director Fritz Lang’s other collaboration with star Dana Andrews, While the City Sleeps. That movie was about the way the media covered a serial killer and was about ideas, not twists. This is the opposite. It’s all twists and turns that you can predict a mile away and barely has a single idea rattling around in its empty thriller head.
I found its basic premise ridiculous. Two powerful men conspire to frame one of themselves for murder to prove that the justice system is flawed. There are numerous good arguments against the death penalty, but creating a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that satisfies the basic idea of “beyond a reasonable doubt” then saying “Psych! We made it all up!” amounts to an elaborate practical joke, not an indictment of the justice system.
The Violent Years follows a quartet of teenaged girls as they rob gas stations, carry out “lover’s lane” attacks (tying up a young woman and gang-raping her boyfriend), use their connections to stay one step ahead of the police, have “petting” parties, fence stolen jewels, trash a high school on behalf of the Communists, shoot it out with the police, and give birth behind bars.
I had this movie on VHS in high school. I used to watch it. A lot.
Until I watched this great-looking restoration from AGFA, however, I didn’t realize this movie was shot in widescreen. It was so obviously cheap I just assumed it had been shot in full-frame, like a TV episode.
I knew who Ed Wood was but I wasn’t an aficionado (I still haven’t seen Plan 9 from Outer Space). I did know his reputation, and it was obviously his involvement writing The Violent Years that kept it in circulation. I don’t think I liked this movie so much because it was “so bad it’s good.” I was a huge David Lynch fan (still am), and this kind of film is the closest cinematic equivalent to what he was doing in the ’80s and ’90s. Not surreal, exactly, but genuinely weird. The dialogue is so bizarrely written, but the performances are so earnest.
The briskness of the film is another huge point in its favor. I never realized before that this thing was under an hour long. So much happens in it, and even if the plotting, performances, and “ideas” are laughable, it never stops moving for a second.
On the Bowery, nominated for Best Documentary Feature
Lionel Rogosin’s visual diary of New York’s skid row in the mid-1950s was one of three documentaries nominated at the 30th Academy Awards. The other two were Torero (1956), about the Mexican bullfighter Luis Procuna, and Albert Schweitzer (1957), about guess-who.
Albert Schweitzer took home the Oscar. I haven’t seen it yet but I have to imagine it captured the hearts and minds of more Academy voters because it was “inspiring” while this is the opposite.
Rogosin clearly took some inspiration from Robert Flaherty, who made documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948), which were documents of real people and the environments in which they lived, but which were also partially staged and directed by Flaherty to create narratives and dialogue.
On the Bowery follows a man named Ray Salyer, who was born in Kentucky, raised in North Carolina, served in combat in World War II, and who drifted and worked manual labor after the war. He was about 40 when this film was shot, and he’s ruggedly handsome in the mold of an actor like Dana Andrews (who was also a Southerner who struggled with alcoholism), but he’s clearly at a crossroads of his life. In one scene he drinks a bottle of 7-Up and smokes a cigarette and talks with another man about his profound desire not to drink.
His desire and his reality are at odds, and the film’s procession of faces tells a story of his possible future. Old men, toothless men, shirtless men, stewbums falling asleep on bar stools, park benches, and the Bowery sidewalks. (Salyer was apparently offered a Hollywood contract based on his appearance onscreen here, but he drifted further into alcoholism and died in 1963.) The other main “character” is Gorman Hendricks, an older man and former newspaper reporter who died in 1956.
This is a beautiful document of a lower Manhattan that is mostly gone now (like the elevated subway tracks), although you can still see buildings that exist today. It unsentimentally records a time and place, and the cycle of addiction and destitution that exists in it.