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Sunday, January 9, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #37: What's Opera Doc?, 1957

"Kill da wabbit!!"


What's Opera, Doc? 1957

Director: Chuck Jones
Writer: Story by Michael Maltese
Animators: Ken HarrisRichard ThompsonAbe Levitow
Producer: Edward Selzer for Warner Bros.
Starring: Mel Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan (voice actors)

Why I chose it
I admit that my ambitious schedule for the posts in this series has slipped (the holidays and all). I even understood, when I picked the film for 1957, that I needed to give myself a break from a two-hour feature film. Luckily, the perfect option appeared: a 6 minute and 36 second animated short that, as an opera fan, I'd heard about most of my adult life. I've never been a fan of animated films, and have not seen very many, which likely makes me an outlier among my classic film-loving tribe. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny find themselves facing off in a Wagnerian-style opera where Fudd as Siegfried is initially duped by Bugs disguised as the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde, and he must win "her." Fortunately, he possesses a trusty magic helmet that gives him power over the elements and a chance to "kill da wabbit."

Opening titles

Production Background
Disney Studios found success with animation in the silent film era, which extended into the sound era with iconic characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros., which had effectively launched the commercial sound film revolution, purchased and distributed cartoons developed by the independent Leo Schlesinger Studios, the first to introduce Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd through its Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. The short cartoon films were produced both in black and white and in color, and the 'wascally wabbit', created by Tex Avery and voiced by Mel Blanc, starred in ~160 of them. These were primarily shown as a bonus prior to a feature film.

Chuck Jones, the director of What's Opera, Doc?, and a long-time affiliate of Warners' animation team, loved to combine his cartoon characters with classical music, and writer Michael Maltese had already introduced a Wagnerian scenario to an earlier cartoon Herr Meets Hare from 1944. The all-Wagner musical arrangements were deftly arranged by Milt Franklyn, and the considerable vocal skills of both Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny) and Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) were up to the task of singing the "recitatives" and "arias" with perfect nuance. The only time that Bryan yielded to Blanc was when Elmer had to shout SMOG!, and Blanc's version won out.

What's Opera, Doc? was the first animated film selected for the National Film Registry.

M. Maltese sketch for What's Opera Doc?

Some other notable film-related events in 1957 (from Filmsite.org):

  • The Caribbean romance film Island in the Sun (1957) was noted as groundbreaking in the late 50s for its two inter-racial romances. There was hugging and kissing in the romance between local West Indian dime store clerk (Dorothy Dandridge) and the governor's white aide (John Justin). In another parallel romance, however, there was only the holding of hands between Joan Fontaine as a socialite and Harry Belafonte as a politically-ambitious black union official.
  • The high-grossing teenage-oriented horror film and cult classic from the exploitation studio American-International, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), starred Michael Landon in a dual role. This rock and roll horror film (the first?) made popular the term "I Was A Teenage..."
  • The famed Universal monster Frankenstein appeared for the first time in color, in UK Hammer Studio's version The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) directed by Terence Fisher, with Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee as the Monster. This monster film, bloodier than its predecessors, marked the advent of a long cycle of the studio's stylistic gothic horror films for the next few decades, with Lee also playing the famed Dracula vampire.
  • Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's allegorical and influential classic art film The Seventh Seal  (aka Det Sjunde Inseglet), the filmmaker's most influential work, told of a symbolic chess game during the time of the Black Plague between black-robed Death (the Grim Reaper) and a 14th-century knight (Max von Sydow). 
My Random Observations
  • At the very beginning of this short, my ears immediately perked up, because the music playing along with the opening credits was that of an orchestra warming up prior to the start of a piece - how perfectly appropriate here. And the little snips of melody that emerge are exaggerated just enough to remind you that you're watching a cartoon opera. When I did a quick search on YouTube, several videos of live orchestral accompaniments to cartoon screenings were returned. I suppose not surprisingly, because live orchestral film accompaniment is popular as entertainment these days.
  • It struck me as a bit odd that while Wagner wrote 17 hours of music for The Ring Cycle, which contains the Siegfried/Brünnhilde story, much of the music comes from his other works, specifically Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. Yet, it still worked, due to the genius of Milt Franklyn.
  • Many operas have a ballet in the middle, and this one is no exception. (Remember the scene in Amadeus where the Emperor is confronted with the fallout when his own rule to eliminate ballet from opera results in dancers jumping around with no music? It's hilarious). The excellent ballet moves by Elmer and Bugs come to us courtesy of some actual dancers with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, who were on set at Warner Bros set for another production and helped Chuck Jones with the sketches for those scenes.
  • While I appreciated the artistry and the love of classical music that clearly shone through (who knew you only need 6+ minutes for an entire opera?), this short alone isn't enough to get me interested in watching more animated films from the classic era. But at least now when someone sings "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!" to the Ride of the Valkyries tune, I'll be able to smile just a bit more knowingly.
Screenshots

Bugs surprises Elmer hot on the trail.

Bugs as Brunnhilde riding down the mountain, soon to
win Elmer's heart.

"Siegfried" serenades "Brünnhilde" as he approaches her perch.

Elmer's mighty shadow reflects the power of his magic helmet.

Where to Watch
The film is on various DVD collections, and can be currently streamed at Archive.org.

Further Reading
I love this 2007 article in Slant Magazine digging into all the wonders of this little gem of a film. Also, for a bit more on the production, watch this appropriately "short" documentary about the making of What's Opera, Doc? :

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #36: The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956

"Que Será, Será"

The Man Who Knew Too Much1956

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Producer: Herbert Coleman and Alfred Hitchcock for Paramount Pictures, Inc.
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, Daniel Gélin

Why I chose it
At first, I considered watching another Christmas-themed film, but when this Hitchcock popped up on a list of best films of 1956, it was an easy choice. Anytime I get to fill in a gap in an auteur's filmography, I go for it. This is the first, and will probably be the only, Hitchcock in this blog series. But you never know, so check back!

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) and his former stage musical star wife, Jo, take a holiday in Marrakesh with their school-aged son, Hank (Christopher Olsen). It isn't long before they make the acquaintance of a mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), of whom Jo is instantly suspicious. When Bernard, disguised as a Moroccan, is knifed in a market in broad daylight, the fun begins. Before dying, he whispers something to McKenna about an imminent assassination of a political figure in London along with some disconnected details. McKenna and Jo decide to pick up the trail of this intrigue in London, made more urgent by not only the impending assassination but by the kidnapping of little Hank, who is being held for ransom to ensure that the 'man who knew too much' doesn't talk to the wrong people.

Jo and Ben McKenna (Day and Stewart) try to get details about
their son's whereabouts.

Production Background
Hitchcock had already filmed this story with the same name, during his British years (1934). The earlier version was a taut black-and-white suspense story (only 75 minutes long) with different settings and slightly different characters. In 1941, David O. Selznick bought the rights to the story and wanted Hitchcock to remake it for him, but Hitchcock was not inspired. It was only a decade and a half later that his inspiration came when he was vacationing with his wife in Morocco. 

In his interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock compared the two versions by saying that the first film was "the work of a talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional."

The only Oscar the film earned was for Best Music, Original Song, given to Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for "Que Será, Será", which became Doris Day's signature song.

Some other notable film-related events in 1956 (from Filmsite.org):

  • The elegant Grace Kelly, "Hollywood's Fairy Tale Princess," married Prince Rainier III of Monaco on April 18, 1956. Kelly met Prince Rainier III while attending the Cannes Film Festival, and during the making of her third film for Alfred Hitchcock (as his icy cool blonde) - To Catch a Thief (1955). 
  • Legendary producer/director Cecil B. DeMille remade his own 1923 silent epic, The Ten Commandments (1956) -- it was his last film, and his first and sole widescreen feature film. 
  • Producer Michael Todd's and director Michael Anderson's Best Picture-winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956) was notable for its all-star casting -- with dozens of credited cameo roles for its many stars. The term "cameo appearance" was popularized by this film.
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) was first televised (on CBS-TV) on November 3rd, 1956 -- an event that would become an annual holiday season event for many decades. It was the first feature-length film broadcast on a major TV network in its original, uncut form. 
My Random Observations
  • I've decided that James Stewart's superpower was playing not just the everyman, but the super-cranky everyman.  And I do mean super cranky. After years of perfecting this persona, he's at it again in this film, whether it's in scenes in which he bickers with his wife or when, unprovoked, comes to fisticuffs with a group of taxidermists (!). Even in It's a Wonderful Life, and The Shop Around the Corner, where his characters have a right to be cranky, he'll never be accused of underplaying, and I find it annoying. I recall early in the history of this blog I reviewed Destry Rides Again, and found it to contain my favorite Stewart performance because he struck a perfect balance between reluctant hero and cynic. 
    James Stewart with his "I'm really cranky right now" look.
  • Even though the film was a bit long at 120 minutes, Hitchcock didn't waste any time getting the action started, putting our heroes in the middle of Marrakesh. The brightly colored Technicolor camera work combined with the on-location locales made for a sumptuous and sometimes exotic visual banquet. It was just a good way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy day.
    On a bus in Marrakesh.

    In London.
  • For those looking for typical Hitchcock suspense, his subjective camera, or even his black humor, it's all here. I was reminded of why Hitchcock has the reputation he has.
    The composition of this shot gives me the chills.

    McKenna doesn't yet realize he's about to do battle with a 
    stuffed tiger here.
  • One of my favorite podcasts, the somewhat irreverent 'Classic Film Jerks', has a regular segment called "So Old", in which they point out to hilarious effect all the outdated elements of the particular film they're reviewing. The Man Who Knew Too Much had many of these elements. For starters, how about leaving your young son in the care of strangers you'd just met over dinner the night before, and in a foreign country? And despite the cleverness of spunky Jo McKenna, the marital dynamics here were distinctly of their time, with her promising career truncated so she could be a wife.
    The McKennas meet the Draytons (Bernard Miles,
    Brenda de Banzie) at dinner.
  • It's a great song, but the contrast between "Que Será, Será" and the Storm Cloud Symphony as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall may induce a bit of cultural whiplash.
The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Royal
Albert Hall.
  • For this week's edition of 'Bit Player Bingo," I present the one and only film appearance of renowned composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock's frequent collaborator, and Carolyn Jones, who went on to greater fame as Morticia in the original Addam's Family TV series
Bernard Herrmann conducts.
Carolyn Jones (red dress) with other friends of the McKennas.
Where to Watch
The film is available on many streaming services to be rented for a small fee. It's on several DVDs/Blu-Ray that can be purchased or borrowed from your local library.

Further Reading
As always, TCM details more about the film's production in their article here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #35: We're No Angels, 1955

"I'll say one thing for crooks - they'll give you an honest days' work."

We're No Angels, 1955

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Ranald MacDougall from a play by Albert Husson
Cinematographer: Loyal Griggs
Producer: Pat Duggan for Paramount Pictures
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov, Joan Bennett, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll, Gloria Talbott

Why I chose it
This film was squarely at the center of the Venn diagram of Christmas movies, films from 1955, and movies I've not yet seen. It was an easy choice!

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Joseph, Albert, and Jules are prisoners who escaped their cells on Devil's Island, and stowed away on a boat to the mainland (French Guiana in South America). The coastal town where they alight on Christmas Eve gives them little notice, as it seems to be populated with all kinds of former convicts(!) Looking to abscond with enough funds to further their journey, the three get hired by a local shopkeeper, Ducotel, to fix his leaky roof. While on the roof, they observe the goings-on in the house and can't help but insert themselves into the family, finding ways to both help them celebrate Christmas, "fix" the financial problems, and get rid of the family tyrant, all while planning to rob and murder them. Of course, as this is a Christmas movie, it's not a spoiler to say things work out in the end. Well...sort of!

Instead of working, the three escaped convicts eavesdrop 
from the roof on all the goings-on in the Ducotel family.
(l-r: Bogart, Ustinov, Ray).

Mr. and Mrs. Ducotel (Joan Bennett and Leo G. Carroll)
debate how to address their financial troubles.

Production Background
Michael Curtiz was on a Christmas movie roll when he made this one, just having completed White Christmas with Bing Crosby. (Of course, We're No Angels as a black comedy bears little resemblance to the earlier beloved classic.) He worked for Paramount, who bought the rights to the French play (La Cuisine des Anges) by Albert Husson. The play was also adapted for a Broadway show in 1953 called My 3 Angels; the producers of that version sued Paramount unsuccessfully, having wrongly assumed the movie ripped them off. 

The film was also the screen comeback for Joan Bennett, a 30s and 40s leading lady whose career suffered after her husband Walter Wanger in 1951 shot Bennett's agent believing them to be having an affair. Bogart wanted Bennett in the part and stood up for her when Paramount equivocated. Bennett said about Bogart "He made the stand to show what he thought of the underground movement to stamp out Joan Bennett...I'll never forget (his) kindness and warmth."

(The above info. from Christmas in the Movie: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, copyright 2018 by Turner Classic Movies, Inc.)

From the opening credits.

Some other notable film-related events in 1955 (from Filmsite.org):

  • James Dean was featured in his first major role and film, director Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), an updated re-telling of the Biblical story of rival brothers - Cain and Abel and a paradise lost. Tragically, Dean -- the prototype of a rebellious adolescent -- was killed in a car accident at age 24, driving his new 550 Porsche Spyder. 
  • Blackboard Jungle (1955) was the first film to feature a rock-'n'-roll song in its soundtrack, "Rock-Around-The-Clock." (sung by Bill Haley and His Comets during the opening credits). It was the first major Hollywood film to use R&R on its soundtrack, and it inspired the next year's popular R&R film, Rock Around the Clock (1956).
  • The iconic 52-foot high The Seven Year Itch (1955) cut-out shot of Marilyn Monroe's white skirt billowing up as she stood over a sidewalk subway grating was located in front of Loew's State Theater in Times Square (NYC), for the film's premiere. Because of complaints of indecency, the original image was replaced with a less provocative one.

  • Andrzej Wajda's first major feature film, A Generation (1955) (aka Pokolenie), was about wartime resistance by young Polish men (in an underground movement) against the German invasion of Poland. It was the first in a trilogy of war films that also included Kanal (1957, Pol.) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Pol.). The film marked the renaissance of Polish cinema in the mid-1950s.

My Random Observations
  • One of the joys of the film is watching the interaction between Bogart (Joseph), Ray (Albert), and Ustinov (Jules). Bogart is the father figure of the three, nearing the end of his career, while Ray and Ustinov were in their primes. All three played variations of their usual personas: Bogart the gruff brains of the bunch, Ray the jolly hunk, and Ustinov the sophisticated scoundrel.  Additionally, Curtiz choreographed the scenes with the three such that their movements were as smooth and synchronized as a juggling act. 
    The convicts reveal the Christmas turkey to the Ducotels
    (gif file from oldhollywoodpage.tumblr.com)
  • I was initially a bit put off by the casual references to murder in the dialogue, but as the movie progressed I accepted them as part of the ruse. 
    "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes."
  • Aldo Ray was a revelation for me. Maybe because I've not seen much of him, but primarily because his looks and movements seemed so modern - he could have walked right out of a current episode of The Young and the Restless!
    Ray (Albert) comes to the aid of Isabelle Ducotel (Gloria Talbott) when she 
    faints; here she just comes to and sees the face of the handsome stranger.
  • The cinematography was rich in saturated color, and there were some lovely long shots with gorgeous scenery. It didn't surprise me that the cinematographer, Loyal Griggs, was also responsible for the stunning mountain vistas in Shane.
The roof of the Ducotel property with lovely distant vistas.
  • I would love to have a group of beneficent crooks decorate my place and cook my Christmas dinner the way these guys managed it for the Ducotel family!
    Joseph (Bogart) dons a pink apron and wields a knife (!) as he and 
    Jules (Ustinov) prepare Christmas Eve dinner.
Maybe these guys are angels, after all.

Where to Watch
Tune in to TCM on Monday, December 20th at 8PM to see the film. It's also currently available to Kanopy subscribers and can be rented on many other streaming services or viewed from the DVD or Blu-Ray.

Further Reading
For a fun review of the film with a special emphasis on Bogart, read here. The expectedly excellent TCM article with production details is here.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #34: Sansho the Bailiff, 1954

"Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others."

Sansho the Bailiff, 1954
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda, from a short shory by Ogai Mori
Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
Producer: Masaichi Nagata for the Daiei Motion Picture Co.
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyôko KagawaEitarô Shindô

Why I chose it
I had yet to include a Japanese film in this series, and the 1950s was a fertile decade for exquisite offerings from Japanese filmmakers such as Ozu and Kurosawa. In fact, Seven Samarai (Kurosawa) was released this year, as was Godzilla (Ishirô Honda). I had seen those, but but hadn't seen anything by Mizoguchi. Sansho the Bailiff appeared on many "best of 1954" lists, and with a Criterion release and an 8.2 rating on IMDb, I was excited to watch it.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In 11th century Japan, the wife, daughter, and son of a benevolent local governor find themselves on their own when the ruling ministry exiles him. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when bandits attack, and the mother, Tamaki, is sold into prostitution and the two teenage children, Zushio and Anju, are forced into slavery at the estate of a local feudal chief, the eponymous Sansho, who is cruel and unyielding. The story follows the physical and spiritual journeys of the children as they mature into adults and cope differently with the pain of separation and brutality of slavery. A number of surprising twists ensue as the two attempt to escape and find their long lost parents. 

Production Background
Mizoguchi was already nearing the end of his career when he made this film, and critics have praised it as his crowning achievement, both now and at the time the film was released. In fact, it won the 'Silver Lion' (second place) at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, along with Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. (The Golden Lion that year was awarded to Romeo & Juliet by Renato Castellani). Both Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951) and Sansho the Bailiff benefitted from the sublime cinematographic skills of Kazuo Miyagawa.

While the broad outlines of the tale are based on a famous Japanese folk legend, apparently a number of changes to Mori's short story adaptation were made by Mizoguchi and his screenwriters, including making the daughter Anju younger than her brother Zushio, so they could cast the sublime and popular young actress Kyôko Kagawa in the role. Other changes included the ending, and the lesser focus in the film on Sansho himself, which leads modern viewers to wonder why the film is named after him.

Some other notable film-related events in 1954 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Federico Fellini released the classic Italian film La Strada (1954, It.) It won the first official Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, awarded during the Academy Ceremony honoring films of 1956.
  • Paramount Studio's first VistaVision widescreen production was director Michael Curtiz's hit film White Christmas (1954), an Irving Berlin musical.
  • The "auteur theory" was first rudimentarily expressed by 21-year-old critic/filmmaker Francois Truffaut in his essay in the French film-review periodical Cahiers du Cinema titled "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema."
  • Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, the first African-American ever nominated in the category, for her role in Carmen Jones (1954). 
  • On the Waterfront (1954) nearly swept the Academy Awards with eight wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), and Best Director (Elia Kazan). The acclaimed film was widely perceived as Kazan's response to critics of his testimony two years earlier before the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). 
My Random Observations
  • Two "e" words swirled around in my head as I thought about this movie after the final credits rolled: ethereal and elegiac. From the deliberate pacing of the scenes and even the slowness of the character's movements during much of the film, you get the sense of immersion in something you must experience, not just watch. The natural light used by Miyagawa (shot on location in Kyoto and Kashikojima Island) captured a gauzy sheen that made you feel like you were peering into a series of long-buried images. 
Early in the film, a mother, her two children, and her maid 
start their perilous journey through a forest.

In exile, Tamaki approaches the ocean and calls out to
her lost children.

Anju waits to hear the fate of her brother, whom she has 
helped to escape from slavery to Sansho.

Zushio (left) rests on his journey to find his mother.

  • Asian cultures and history are far removed from mine, as an American. So when I watched this film, I felt I was taking a lesson in all things Japanese: history, religion, arts, culture, and music. The history, of course, is on two levels: the 11th century setting of the folk tale, and the 20th century interpretation influenced, no doubt, by the ravages of the nation's recent defeat in WWII; I sensed the reverence for and vision of their own history that the Japanese hold. Interestingly, an on-screen commentary at the beginning mentioned that the story takes place in a time in which people had not yet learned to become human. I wonder if Mizoguchi felt that becoming human is in reality a process of evolution that the species has not yet perfected.
    A statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, given to Zushio
    by his father at the moment of his exile.

    Opening titles in a cloud-infused backdrop sets the mood.

Ceremony and rank are critical in 11th century Japan.

  • I loved how very little of what took place in this film was predictable. Triumph and tragedy were always paired, so that other than the universality of human suffering, there was no time to wallow in either optimism or pessimism in the film. Yet the net effect was profound empathy with these characters.
  • While Sansho the Bailiff himself was rather a one-dimensional blustering tyrant, if played well by Eitarô Shindô, the real acting stars were the mother, Kinuyo Tanaka, who had to age prematurely, and her two grown children, played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyoko Kagawa. All three were terrific, but for me, Hanayagi, as the grown Zushio, was the standout. His character was required to transform from a rebellious young man, to a desperate beggar, to an authoritarian leader; he convinced in each transformation.
Sansho, as played by Eitarô Shindô.

Anju (right) in a moment of decision, conferring with a fellow slave.

Zushio (left) sets his jaw in defiance as his minister warns him 
not to incur the wrath of the overlords.
  • The soundtrack of the film, credited to Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, and Tamekichi Mochizuki, is also worth spending time studying. It wove Western-style harmonies with Japanese melodies throughout, and Tamaki's lament for her children appears in many scenes, both as sung by her, and as a background musical motif at key moments, is transporting. Listen to the opening theme here.
Where to Watch
DVDs are available from Criterion and the Masters of Cinema labels, and the film can currently be streamed on The Criterion Channel, on YouTube here, and is available to rent via Amazon Video and Apple TV.

Further Reading
For a fascinating exploration of mid-century Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi's place in it, and the layered themes of the film, go here.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #33: Split Second, 1953

"You know, Larry, if you've seen one atom bomb, you've seen them all."

Split Second, 1953

Director: Dick Powell
Writers: William Bowers and Irving Wallace from a story by Chester Erskine
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Producer: Edmund Grainger for RKO Pictures
Starring: Steven McNally, Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Richard Egan, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Robert Paige, Paul Kelly.

Why I chose it
My interest in Dick Powell was piqued after his role in last week's film, The Bad and the Beautiful, and when this film that he directed popped up on my list, it was an easy choice. I was also interested in seeing secondary player Jan Sterling again. She was reliable and had a strong screen presence as moderately hard-boiled dames during the mid-century in such films as Appointment with Danger with Alan Ladd and Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In a 1950s version of The Petrified Forest, two escaped convicts, through a couple of well-timed car jackings, take two men and two women hostage and hide out in an abandoned desert town in Nevada that is about to be obliterated by a nuclear bomb test. The lead convict, Sam Hurley (Steven McNally) demands that the physician husband (Richard Egan) of one of his hostages (Alexis Smith) come from the city to operate on his gravely wounded compatriot, who cannot travel any further. While all await the doctor's arrival, alliances form and dissolve, and the hostages' bargaining for their lives grows increasingly desperate as the clock ticks down. 

Production Background
This was the first film ever directed by Dick Powell, the former "song and dance man" and actor/crooner who had made an abrupt change to hard boiled roles in the mid-forties. Directing was another mountain he intended to summit, and he did. In a rather sad but ironic twist, while this film dealt with nuclear explosions, it was a later film that Powell directed, The Conqueror, near a former site of nuclear testing that is considered to have exposed cast and crew to harmful radiation. Many of them, including Powell, succumbed to cancer, although a precise link to that film cannot be proven.

The film was the only one produced at RKO during the brief tenure of entrepreneur Richard Slotkin, who had taken over the studio in a hostile maneuver, but then was ousted after his shady business practices came to light. 

Finally, in the "truth is stranger than fiction" category, actor Paul Kelly, who played the wounded convict, had been imprisoned in San Quentin for manslaughter after having killed his lover's husband in a drunken brawl in 1927. He ultimately married the new widow once they both got out of prison. His acting career resurrected, Kelly was successful on stage and in movies, even playing a warden in San Quentin in Duffy of San Quentin. He died in 1956.   

Dick Powell

Some other notable film-related events in 1953 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Following the lead of James Stewart a few years earlier, seven-year contracts with actors were replaced by single-picture or multi-picture contracts.
  • Ida Lupino (one of the few female directors of her era) directed the thrilling, noirish B-film drama The Hitch-Hiker (1953) -- the most successful film in her career. It was the story, based on a true-life account, of a cold-blooded, sadistic, psychotic mass murderer and kidnapper (William Talman). Its release during the height of the McCarthy "Red Scare" era reflected US paranoia about strangers.
  • 1953 was the first year that the Academy Awards ceremony (honoring films released in 1952) were televised (on March 19, 1953), on black and white NBC-TV, with Bob Hope as host (in Hollywood at the RKO Pantages Theater) and Conrad Nagel (in New York at the NBC International Theatre). It was the first ceremony to be held simultaneously in two locations. It resulted in the largest single audience to date in TV's five-year commercial history - estimated to be 43 million.
  • The landmark film of 50s rebellion, The Wild One (1953), by director Laslo Benedek and producer Stanley Kramer, was the first feature film to examine outlaw motorcycle gang violence in America. Marlon Brando portrayed a stunning, brooding, nomadic character - a delinquent archetype - in one of his central and early roles, popularizing the sale of black leather jackets and motorcycles after the film's release.
My Random Observations
  • As I mentioned above, I was particularly eager to see another film with Jan Sterling, and she was excellent here. She has a kind of toughness but also tenderness and vulnerability. She seemed to look a little different to me from what I remembered from some of her other roles, and at first I didn't know why. A bit of research revealed that she'd had a nose job before this film, which she was open about at the time. What was a perfectly fine nose became just a bit daintier, but to me she lost some of her unique look.
Jan Sterling, as down on her luck Dottie Vail, who doesn't know yet
how much worse her luck will get.
Here's Jan Sterling in Appointment with Danger, pre-plastic surgery.
  • If you're looking to be entertained for 90 minutes, you really can't go wrong if this one pops up at the top of your queue. It's taut, packed with interesting characters, and the interweaving storylines build suspense to the explosive conclusion. The only disappointment for me was the rather one-dimensional villain, Hurley, as played by McNally. Not much nuance there, but there was enough development in the other characters that rather made up for that. 
Does Mrs. Garvin (Alexis Smith) have a thing for her captor
Sam Hurley (Steven McNally)?

Dr. Garvin (Richard Egan) operates on Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) while 
Dottie plays nurse and Hurley looks on.

Mrs. Garvin is scared in a fast car drive by Hurley (McNally) with wounded
Bart Moore between them.

  • Noted noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca can usually be counted on to deliver atmospheric scenes, and he did here as well. I enjoyed the variety of settings from the ghost town dark interiors to the aerial shots of the desert and nuclear testing ground, to the bright government offices. All in black and white, of course.

    An itinerant miner (Hunnicutt, left) fortuitously shows up to help
    the hostages. Here he confronts Hurley and Dummy (Frank DeKova).

    The business of government and the press collide. Newsman Larry
     (Keith Andes, far left) is told he is to report on a prison break
     instead of the nuclear test.

    Aerial shot of the ghost town - from the RKO lot.

    The only lights in a deserted Nevada desert town glimmer
    through cracks in the walls of an abandoned bar.

  • I liked that the ending wasn't all "bad guys are vanquished and lovers happily reunite" that often accompanies Hollywood films from this era, even noir. While--spoilers here--not everyone survives, the outcome isn't necessarily predictable. I suppose what is predictable, though, is a heavy handed apocalyptic theme.
End credits begin over a mushroom cloud.
Where to Watch
The movie is currently available to stream on archive.org here, and it's been released on DVD by the Warner Archive label.

Further Reading
The excellent TCM article is here. The "Czar of Noir", Eddie Muller, always delivers great information when intro'ing and outro'ing movies on Noir Alley on TCM; check out his offerings for this movie here (intro) and here (outro). They are definitely worth your time.