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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Sept. 13, 1956)

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 (1956)

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 (September 1956)

30th Academy Awards Retrospective

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.

I vitelloni (Aug. 26, 1953)

30th Academy Awards Retrospective

I vitelloni, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

I vitelloni, Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about a group of ne’er-do-well young men living in a small seaside town, was the only film nominated at the 30th Academy Awards that had originally been released several years earlier. I’m not sure why it was nominated, exactly, since it premiered in 1953, was released in the United States in 1956, and Fellini’s then current film, Nights of Cabiria (1957), was also nominated (and won) the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Fellini was definitely having a “moment” at this point. His film La Strada (1954) had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the year before at the 29th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why Fellini was hot shit in the mid-1950s. La Strada is a beautiful grand tragedy, and I vitelloni is equally beautiful while being much more fun and light-hearted.

The group of five protagonists are, like the protagonist of Fight Club, “30-year-old boys.” They have vague dreams and talk about leaving their small town but never do. They drink, harass women, and avoid responsibility. One of them sings opera, one of them writes plays, and one of them is forced to work and doesn’t exactly excel at it. Most of them experiment with growing facial hair like college students. The film spends more time with certain of them than others, like Fausto (played by Franco Fabrizi), the unofficial leader of the group who marries the girl he got pregnant but constantly tries to seduce other women, several times crossing the line into sexual assault.

The bad sides of these men are constantly on display, which is frustrating, but it’s tempered by how funny their irresponsible idiocy often is. Fellini perfectly captures the rhythms of a seaside town where it’s cold half the year and things only happen a couple of times every year when there’s a festival. These grand bacchanals end in still-drunk hangovers the next morning as the sun rises. The rest of the time the main characters prowl the streets, fight with their parents, and get into trouble entirely of their own making.

I had insomnia and watched this between 3 and 5 in the morning. I put it on because I thought it might help me drift off, but instead it drew me into its world and kept me awake. There’s no manufactured tension or hidden secrets waiting to be revealed. I vitelloni is involving in the best possible way. It presents a completely real world populated with completely real characters, all with an overwhelming aura of melancholy.

Rock Around the Clock (March 21, 1956)

This movie is corny as hell, but it’s an incredible document of the early days of rock & roll, with great performances and lively dance numbers.

The kind of music Bill Haley and His Comets played is presented in this movie as a totally new sound. It was only “new” in the early 1950s to people whose idea of pop music was still Guy Lombardo. Rhythm & blues fans knew the music of black artists like Wynonie Harris and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup — the kind of music that Elvis Presley made palatable to white audiences while still retaining some sexiness and danger.

There’s nothing sexy or dangerous about Bill Haley, but he and his band have incredible chops and their music really moves, daddio. This movie also features a few other bands, most notably The Platters, a black doo-wop group who perform two of their timeless classics in this flick — “The Great Pretender” and “Only You.”

A good example of this film’s viewpoint is the sequence in which The Platters sing beautifully while standing nearly still, and are then followed on stage by Bill Haley and his all-white band performing “Rudy’s Rock,” with Al Rex lying down on stage to hump his bass while saxophonist Rudy Pompilli stands on top of Al Rex and humps him. Wild, sexualized performances? That’s for white performers only, dad.

Rock Around the Clock came out right after “Heartbreak Hotel” topped the charts, and right around the same time that Elvis’s first LP hit stores, so it’s quaint on arrival, but like I said, the music is great and the dancing by Lisa Gaye and her male partner Earl Barton is smoking. Lisa Gaye is easily the best thing about this movie — she’s the only actor whose scenes have some sizzle. And her slicked-back short black hairstyle might be the most dangerous, rock & roll thing about this movie.

The Great Villain Blogathon: The Lord Humungus in Mad Max 2 (1981)

Kjell Nilsson

If you’ve ever seen George Miller’s Mad Max 2 (released in the U.S. as The Road Warrior), you know the Lord Humungus.

He’s hard to forget.

The Lord Humungus is a cryptic but endlessly fascinating villain played by Swedish bodybuilder Kjell Nilsson. He’s clad in skimpy black leather bondage gear and wears a steel hockey goalie’s mask. He packs a Smith & Wesson Model 29 fitted with an optical scope (the same piece Dirty Harry carries, sans scope of course). He drives a heavily modified F100 truck with six tires, exhaust stacks, and a pair of injured, screaming men tied to poles attached to the front.

Humungus truck

The Lord Humungus is the leader of a band of marauders in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Like any good king, he has a herald. In Mad Max 2, the herald is known as “The Toadie,” and he’s memorably played by Max Phipps. The Toadie introduces his leader to the embattled denizens of a stronghold in the outback (and to the audience) with the following speech:

Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!

Unlike The Toadie, whose simpering whine carries across the desert wasteland without amplification, The Lord Humungus uses a PA system and has a disconcertingly quiet, rasping voice. And the fact that he speaks in Swedish-accented English is bizarre to say the least. His quiet exhortation to the besieged people that they “Just walk away” is more terrifying than a thousand threats.

Who is The Lord Humungus? Where did he come from? And what’s under that mask?

SW 29

Mad Max 2 never answers any of these questions, which is why The Lord Humungus is my favorite movie villain of all time. He is humanized, but in strange and unpredictable ways. When his vicious lieutenant Wez (Vernon Wells) screams for vengeance after his boyfriend, the “Golden Youth” (Jerry O’Sullivan) is killed, The Lord Humungus puts Wez in a chokehold, his muscles bulging, and whispers, “Be still my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we love. But we do it my way.”

I first saw Mad Max 2 on my 12th birthday, and since then I’ve seen it more times than I can count. I know every beat of the film like a piece of great music. I know every edit, every musical cue, every line of dialogue, and the way every shot is framed.

And yet … The Lord Humungus continues to terrify me and fascinate me.


One reason I think he’s such a successful villain is that there’s no unmasking — no single shocking moment that slowly loses its power after multiple viewings.

There’s also no back story. The Lord Humungus is humanized in a few unexpected ways, but when the film ends we still have no clue who he was before he became the leader of a band of post-apocalyptic marauders. The viewer can assume that his face is horribly damaged in some way (and his mostly bald head with a few wisps of long hair supports this theory), but we’ll never really know.


This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Karen at Shadows and Satin, Ruth at Silver Screenings, and Kristina at Speakeasy. Click on the picture of the mama’s boy below to see all the great posts about cinematic villainy that are part of this event!
Norman Bates

The Halloween Movie Meme

I know it’s a day after Halloween. (Two days after if you live in Europe. It’s getting late.) But I love horror movies, and when I’m not living 64 years in the past, I watch a fair amount of horror from all eras.

So I couldn’t resist posting these 13 questions and my responses when I saw this list on The Girl With the White Parasol, which is an excellent classic film blog that you should check out if you haven’t already.

1. Who is your favorite movie witch?
Cassandra Gava, the witch who seduces Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (1982). She barely has any lines, but she’s the perfect primal sorceress, both sexually alluring and ferociously terrifying.

2. What is the first movie you can remember being scared by?
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). They used to show movies (real film reels projected on a small movie screen) in the basement of my local public library, and this was the first horror movie I saw from beginning to end, and it scared the crap out of me.* I also remember seeing most of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) on TV and being frightened and fascinated by it, but I’m not sure which came first.

3. Name a classic horror film that would be substantially improved by better special effects.
Dracula (1931). I love the special effects in most Universal monster movies, but this one really falls flat. The rubber bat on a string that plays a major role in the film looks ridiculously bad, even if you squint your eyes and suspend your disbelief really hard.

4. Name your favorite Val Lewton film.
Fifteen years ago I would have said I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Ten years ago I would have said The Body Snatcher (1945). Right now, though, I’ve gotta go with Isle of the Dead (1945). Boris Karloff’s performance is just phenomenal, and the “buried alive” climax still gives me chills just thinking about it.

5. What movie villain or monster has the most frightening “stare-into-the-camera” moment?
I don’t know. There’s not one that stands out for me. But I’m pretty sure if you asked my mother she would say Raymond Burr in Rear Window (1954).

6. What is the most irritating horror film cliche?
I love ’em all.

7. Are there any movies you refuse to watch alone?
Black Christmas (1974) in the dead of winter. I did it once. Never again.

8. Picture an old childhood nightmare of yours. Now try to adapt it to film. Can it be done?
I don’t think anyone wants to see a movie about a bald guy with a thick, dark beard who wears a suit and tie and kills kids on a playground with hedge clippers. Also, when you wake up and go to the bathroom and think you’re not dreaming anymore he comes out of the guest room.

9. Who’s your favorite “scream queen?”
Heather Langenkamp.

10. What is the most disappointing horror remake?
Friday the 13th (2009). It wasn’t a good sequel, it wasn’t a good reboot, it wasn’t a good remake, it wasn’t a good whatever-the-hell-it-was.

11. We’ve all seen our share of vampires, zombies, and werewolves on film, but are there any mythical creatures or monsters out there that you think deserve more movies (i.e. golems, changelings, the Minotaur, etc.)?
Definitely manticores. The manticore is weird enough to be one of those crazy-monster-crossed-with-crazier-monster movies that Roger Corman’s been making for the Syfy channel, but it’s got a sweeter pedigree.

12. Along the lines of “Scary Mary Poppins,” can you think of any non-horror flicks that could easily be adapted to fit the genre?
Herschell Gordon Lewis’s One Hundred and One Dalmation Maniacs!

13. And now, just for fun, pick one movie monster or villain to be remade into a cuddly plush toy, just for you.
I want to go to bed tonight cuddling a stuffed toy of that zombie with the mustache in Dawn of the Dead (1978) who’s sitting on the floor wearing a shirt that says “Bach’s Arco Pitcairn” and is looking longingly at Gaylen Ross through the glass.

*EDIT: My mom e-mailed me today after reading this and informed me that Something Wicked This Way Comes was probably too new to be one of the movies shown at our local public library, and that we saw it at one of the local theaters. So I think my memory is conflating things here.

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