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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Five Favorite films from the Fabulous Fifties!

The 1950s was a fertile decade in Hollywood--despite the blacklist and anti-Communist hysteria--with pictures made to wow audiences to lure them away from their TV sets and back into cinemas. Some movies seemed to underscore the dominant image of a cohesive American family, while others exposed the deep troubles beneath. Societal troubles were often thematic in the best French and Italian films of the decade as well.

In honor of National Classic Movie Day, I'm delighted to share five 1950s films I recommend be on the watchlist of any film fan. I've decided to include one film from each of five genres: Western, the musical, film noir, melodrama, and suspense. Check out all the posts compiled by Rick at the Classic Film & TV Cafe, and create your own personal 1950s watch list!

Western: 3:10 to Yuma (D. Delmer Daves, 1957)
Here's a gripping character-driven Western playing out a tense drama between two flawed men: Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford); the latter is a charming outlaw on the run from a stagecoach hold-up and murder who gets caught and is given to Dan to escort him to the titular train to Yuma (site of the state prison) over a few hours. It's not a particularly realistic or overly violent Western (those would become more the fashion in the 1960s). And it's not meant to be. Instead it's a piece of visual and storytelling art that imbues every stylized scene with tension. The high-contrast black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. is stunning. As the plot revolves around a drought in Arizona, you'll want to have a tall glass of water nearby as you watch, as the dry harsh beauty of the landscape is almost overwhelming.

I love that the characters (at least the main male ones) are three dimensional and underplayed. Glenn Ford apparently was cast originally as Dan Evans, but requested to take on the role of the villain here, and what a great choice. The economy of the script forces all the actors to do much with face and body to convey the struggles of will they face during the running time. The ending is so much more cathartic and satisfying as a result.
I love the composition of this shot.

This film also has that special something, which for me is the score. The song '3:10 to Yuma' is sung by Frankie Laine over the title credits, and the haunting theme repeats during the film in various arrangements--my favorite is the guitar, flute and violin trio.

If you've seen the 2007 remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, expect a similar story, but resist the comparisons. The later film is a much more realistic Western and the vibe is different. Watch the original for a compelling cinema experience on its own.

Noir: Angel Face (D. Otto Preminger, 1953)
Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup in Angel Face
It's a noir and it stars Robert Mitchum. Sold yet? He's the chump taken in by Jean Simmons' rich spoiled girl Diane Tremayne, who ratches up the concept of the 'femme fatale' several orders of magnitude. Her face is angelic but her soul is anything but. ('Kathy' in Out of the Past could take lessons in evil from Diane.) A dominant theme here is that all is not well in the great American family of the 1950s.

Diane turns on the charm to lure Frank Jessup (Mitchum), an ambulance driver, to ditch his earnest girlfriend (Mona Freeman) for her, and the problems (and body count) begin to mount.  It's a terrific thriller, as all along we think that Mitchum is somehow going to escape her clutches, but he keeps getting drawn back in. Mitchum is mesmerizing as usual, and Jean Simmons, the talented English actress who was still early in her career with roles such as Ophelia under her belt, commits fully to her psychopathic character. Herbert Marshall, a favorite of mine, is delightful as her deluded, indulgent father. By the end of this part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, you may never want to get into a convertible again.
Jean Simmons surveying the scene of the future crime(s).

Cary Grant being driven along the Riviera by
Grace Kelly
Suspense: To Catch a Thief (D. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955).
I'll admit that I watched this one for the first time ever last month. It's not the most acclaimed Hitchcock, and having been left cold by some of Grace Kelly's other performances, I had put off watching it. But it was free on Amazon Prime, and I decided to give it a whirl. And I loved it. It's not your typical Hitchcock film in that it's not scary in the slightest, and any minor suspenseful scenes hardly quicken the pulse. But it's a romp and a romantic fantasy that sweeps you away.
In case the color wasn't bright enough, a key
scene takes place in a flower market.
Former jewel thief/cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) has gone straight and is enjoying life in Southern France; due to a rash of thefts, he's pressured into cooperating with the local authorities to set a trap for the yet unknown serial burglar. Along the way he must work with visiting wealthy American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful but aloof daughter Frances (Kelly). The action hops along Hitchcock style with literal and figurative twists and turns until the puzzles are solved.

Arguably the best thing about the film was its location setting - the gorgeous coast of Southern France, in complete bloom with flowers everywhere. I don't think there is another film that can come close to being as colorful. And Grace Kelly seems to be at home in the locale--perhaps that is why I enjoy her so much here. (As everyone knows, she was soon to take up residence as the new Princess of Monaco the year after this film was released.). Just look at some more fabulous images:

Musical: Singin' in the Rain (D. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1953)

I was hoping to find a lesser-known musical to highlight here. But because I'm not a huge fan of musicals, even though I've enjoyed many during this decade, none did I enjoy nearly as much as this one. There's a reason that it tops the American Film Institute's best musical film of all time. So if you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? With Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagan, it's colorful, rollicking, hysterically funny...and those songs! The story revolves around a silent film star (Kelly) who must find a way to succeed during the conversion to sound films. Hollywood is thoroughly enjoying spoofing itself here while celebrating the wonder of a good movie.

Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 Oscar winner The Artist owes much in plot and characterization to this film. Yet I hope that no one ever attempts to remake this fabulous Hollywood love letter to the best of itself. Check out one of my favorite musical numbers "Good Mornin" with all three stars:

Melodrama: The Earrings of Madame De... (D. Max Ophuls,1953)
It's a French film by acclaimed director Max Ophuls, and like many French films of the era, it's filled with ambiguity in character and motivation, but it's so tightly drawn and elegant. I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive last year and I've not been able to get it out of my mind since. The lead character, whose full name is never revealed, is portrayed by stunning Danielle Darrieux. She's partially content with her Parisian life at the end of the 19th century with wealthy husband Charles Boyer, but is rather bored and is seeking other company. When Boyer gifts her an exquisite pair of diamond earrings, they become a pawn multiple times in a series of deceits aimed to help conceal her infidelities.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the film is “one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed. It glitters and dazzles, and beneath the artifice it creates a heart, and breaks it.” Perhaps it's the 'manneredness' of the film that makes it such a pleasure for me. The camera is almost like a character the way it glides around the others in a film - as a viewer it's like being in a waltz with everyone on screen, even if the music grows continually darker and is played in a minor key.

I also particularly enjoyed Vittorio de Sica, the famed director who was also an actor, and just a year removed from his successful and acclaimed Bicycle Thieves, he is so charismatic here as one of Madame's lovers. 
Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux
So break out a bottle of Burgundy, dip into some fois gras, and treat yourself to the best of 1950's French filmmaking. And while you're indulging visit the Classic Film & TV Cafe for more great Fifties films.