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Tag Archives: Dalton Trumbo

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.

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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.

Gun Crazy (Jan. 20, 1950)

Gun Crazy
Gun Crazy (1950)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
King Brothers Productions / United Artists

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde there was Gun Crazy.

Not literally, of course, since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks during the Great Depression. I’m speaking of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, which is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the depiction of violence in American films. The bloody gunfight that ends Bonnie and Clyde presaged the brutal excesses of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), ushered in a new era in onscreen bloodshed, and helped lead to the ratings system we all know and love today.

None of the shootings in Gun Crazy involve fake blood, but it’s still a significant film in the history of onscreen violence. For one thing, Gun Crazy is not shy about linking sex and violence. Its two protagonists are social misfits who only really come alive when they’re handling firearms or shooting at something.

Barton Tare (John Dall) is obsessed with firearms from a young age, but even though he’s a crack shot, he can’t bring himself to kill anything. He’s in trouble with the law from an early age after smashing a store window to steal a revolver, and is looking at a lifetime of one dead-end job after another until he goes to the circus with his friends and meets British trick-shot artist Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). He does what no other rube has ever done — out-shoots her in a trick-shot contest — and they fall in love. Their love quickly turns into a trigger-happy folie à deux, and they tear across the country robbing banks.

Peggy Cummins

Gun Crazy was based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. Even though the movie takes place in the post-war era when it was filmed, it has a distinctly Depression-era flavor. It presents a world in which Americans can choose between a life of crime, easy money, and an early death, or they can choose to be honest citizens and slave away in drudgery for chump change.

Gun Crazy was filmed in the spring of 1949 and originally released in theaters early in 1950 under the title Deadly Is the Female. Presumably the producers felt that “Gun Crazy” sounded too trashy and tawdry, and wanted a classier sounding title. After the film underperformed at the box office, they re-released it with its original title, Gun Crazy, in August 1950, but distributors rarely jump at the chance of putting out a film that already flopped under one title, and the late-summer release of Gun Crazy went nowhere.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when French critics were rediscovering and recontextualizing Hollywood “film noir,” that Gun Crazy started to earn the reputation it enjoys today as one of the all-time great noirs.

Dall and Cummins

Director Joseph H. Lewis was never a household name, but I’ve always been impressed by his ability to inject style into pedestrian material. His last movie, The Undercover Man (1949), was a great example of this.

Gun Crazy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endlessly fascinating film to watch. Like most of Lewis’s movies, the pacing is quick, but the reason I keep coming back to it is the weird mix of slightly unreal soundstage sets with hyper-real location shooting.

One of the most talked-about sequences in the film is the robbery in which the camera never leaves the backseat of Bart and Annie’s car.

Originally, the bank robbery was an elaborate sequence, but Lewis wanted to do something simpler and save time and money, so he shot a test in 16mm, then worked with his crew on the details. They removed the backseat from a stretch Cadillac to accommodate a camera that could move forward and back, and pan to the right when Cummins leaves the car to talk to the police officer. All of the dialogue between Dall and Cummins in the car was improvised. The only scripted dialogue is when Cummins gets out of the car to distract the cop.

I find it an incredibly effective scene, but it’s the kind of filmmaking that still divides audiences. For instance, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), the camera never leaves the getaway car during a pawnshop robbery sequence, which some people found tense and realistic. Others, who wanted more “Fast and the Furious” type of action, felt differently.

If you have any affinity for crime stories or film noirs, you owe it to yourself to see Gun Crazy. Also, for further reading, please check out this great piece on Gun Crazy by Karen at Shadows and Satin: Famous Couples of Noir: Annie and Bart in Gun Crazy (1950).