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When Movies Tell Great Stories: 5 Classics from the 1950s

 No Spoilers

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond, Sunset Boulevard ©

In the 1950s Hollywood was losing its audience — and its earnings — to television. “Weekly movie attendance declined from 90 million in 1948 to 51 million in 1952… and thousands of cinemas closed.” To recoup financial losses and win back viewers, studios invested in films modeled after the industry’s former successes, but employing the latest technologies, such as EastmanColor, a single-strip film that made color movies less expensive, and Cinemascope, in which anamorphic lenses “stretched” a “distorted image” to fit a wide-screen format that was almost twice as wide as those of previous films. Grand-scale epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments appeared. Countless science fiction films, most based on the genre’s classic literature, created the genre’s Golden Age in Hollywood: War of the Worlds,  The Day the Earth Stood Still,  Forbidden Planet, and Them!

Character- and story-driven films resurged. Some were original, some were based on bestselling novels, and some were adapted from critically and financially successful stage plays, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara, and Dial M for Murder. Most 1950s films featured powerful storylines, morally ambiguous characters, and memorable dialogue. Though the less expensive EastmanColor single-film technology was available, many directors chose to shoot their films in black-and-white, sometimes using unique or intriguing camera angles, perhaps imitating the classic Noir films from the 1940s. In many of these now-classic 1950s films, actors, screenwriters, and directors took huge artistic risks, creating some of the best films ever made. Here are five of the best 1950s classic films, presented in the order they were released, since they are all of outstanding quality.

Sunset Boulevard
(1950)


“Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Nora Desmond

One of the best films ever made, Sunset Boulevard stars a boyish William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter whose financial woes accidentally but serendipitously lead him to what he believes is an abandoned mansion. The neglected property is the home of silent-film star Nora Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who’s spent the last 20 years preparing for her great “comeback.” Intent on using Nora as a quick paycheck — by whipping her Salome into a feasible screenplay — Joe soon becomes ensnared in Nora’s celebrity world of wealth, possessions, and material comfort.

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard ©

Though sexually involved with the older Nora, Joe casually and continually tugs the heartstrings on an ingenue (Nancy Olson) with whom he’s secretly writing another screenplay, and who knows nothing of his relationship with the jealous and emotionally unstable film star. Joe’s actions force all the characters to desperation, conflict, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Gloria Swanson , William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard ©

A poignant hommage to Hollywood’s by-gone silent-film era, as well as an unflinching look at professional ambition, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including one for co-writer and director Billy Wilder. Holden shines as the heel-with-half-a-heart, but Swanson’s brilliant and creepily gothic performance as the melodramatically bad Nora is what makes this film such a classic.

Trivia: Gloria Swanson was a real silent-film star, though, unlike Nora, she successfully transitioned into Talkies: all the photographs of Nora on display in her mansion are from Swanson’s own silent films.

Sunset Boulevard is available for rent from Amazon for $3.99 (viewing time once started is 48 hours, and you can watch it more than once for the same cost).

All About Eve
(1950)

“Fasten your seat belts:
it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Margo Channing

Sometimes Hollywood is at its artistic best when it turns its unforgiving lens on itself, as it does in All About Eve, an intense and brutally honest examination of the Machiavellian ambition in the theatre and film worlds. Bette Davis is New York stage star Margo Channing, who allows a seemingly naïve fan, Eve (Anne Baxter) to “worship” the star while becoming her personal assistant.

Gary Merrill as Margo’s beau Bill, Anne Baxter as Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing, All About Eve ©

Soon, Eve is causing dissension among all the characters; Margo, Margo’s longtime companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s beau Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), playwright’s wife (Celeste Holm), and theatre critic DeWitt (George Sanders). Everyone in the film is forced to re-evaluate their own personal lives, their morality, and their relationships after Eve infiltrates their lives.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders, All About Eve ©

By the time a large number of the characters distrust Eve, however, she is already determined to conquer them all, and she doesn’t care how much damage she causes, as long as she herself becomes a star.

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis (foreground), George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Hugh Marlowe (background), All About Eve ©

Filled with snappy lines and memorable performances, All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Picture. It is the only film ever with 4 Academy Award nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress.

Trivia: Marilyn Monroe’s first important film role.

All About Eve is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started). Note: The original film trailer was a faux interview with Bette Davis regarding the fictional Eve. This trailer is a modern one, since may be more interesting to viewers unfamiliar with the stars of the film.

A Streetcar Named Desire
(1951)

“I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire came to Hollywood via Broadway. The production’s theater director, Elia Kazan, brought play to the big screen, using three of the stage show’s original stars: Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as his wife Stella, and Karl Malden as his best friend Mitch.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Blanche’s sister Stella, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

When Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, Blanche immediately dislikes Stella’s husband Stanley. The feeling is mutual: Stanley and Blanche clash constantly, causing a rift between husband and wife, and making the marriage erupt in angry, sometimes violent scenes. It is only because Stella is pregnant with their first child that Stanley permits his irritating and condescending sister-in-law Blanche to stay.

Karl Malden as Mitch and Vivien Leigh as Blanche, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

After his buddy Mitch falls for Blanche, intending to ask her to marry him, Stanley begins to investigate Blanche’s implausible stories of her past. As the tensions among the characters mount, Blanche and Stanley are driven to a ferocious confrontation in which each fights desperately for his own survival.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Nominated for 4 Academy Awards — male and female Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — A Streetcar Named Desire won three: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Brando, who was nominated for Best Actor but did not win, was relatively unknown to film audiences at the film’s release. The play A Streetcar Named Desire was originally written with only one protagonist: the tortured and delusional Blanche. Brando’s performance as the equally tortured and sympathetic Stanley, a role which he originally “modified” on-stage and subsequently re-created in the film, catapaulted Brando to worldwide attention and critical acclaim.

Trivia: To mimic and symbolize Blanche’s claustrophobia, paranoia, and increasing anxiety, the set of Stanley & Stella’s apartment literally became physically smaller as film progressed, crowding the actors together.

A Streetcar Named Desire is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

On the Waterfront
(1954)

“I coulda been a contender.”
Terry Malloy

In his first Oscar-winning role (second nomination), Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former boxer who dreamt of becoming a champion, now working as a longshoreman. Terry exists on the fringes of organized crime since his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand man of dock gangster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).

Eva Marie Saint as Edie and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

When one of Terry’s “favors” to Johnny gets a fellow longshoreman killed, Terry begins to feel the pricks of conscience — a commodity he would prefer to live without. After Terry meets Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered longshoreman, Father Barry (Karl Malden) exploits Terry’s awakening moral principles in an attempt to get him to testify against the members of organized crime on the docks.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

Torn between his growing love for Edie and his loyalty to his fellow workers (along with his devotion to his brother Charley), Terry must decide whether it is better to live as a criminal failure than to risk dying an honest man.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry, Marlon Brando as Terry, and Eva Marie Saint as Edie, On the Waterfront ©

Based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative articles (“Crime on the Waterfront”) as well as on an original story by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight. In addition to Oscars for the co-stars, Brando and Saint, the film won Best Picture, and Best Director for Elia Kazan.

Trivia: Brando didn’t like his dialogue in iconic taxi scene, so he refused to say it. Director Kazan, tired of arguing with Brando, filmed him and co-star Steiger doing the scene improv, resulting in a classic.

On the Waterfront is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

Anatomy of a Murder
(1959)

“How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?”
“They can’t… They can’t.”

One of the first mainstream films to discuss sex and rape in graphic terms, Anatomy of a Murder caused outrage when it was released in 1959. Jimmy Stewart stars as former prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Paul Biegler, who’s hired by Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) after he shoots and kills a man accused of raping Manion’s wife (Lee Remick).

Lee Remick as Laura Manion, Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, and Ben Gazzara as Lt Manion, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Despite the fact that it’s Manion who’s on trial for murder, pleading “irresistible impulse” — another term for “temporary insanity” — and PTSD-induced “dissociative crisis,” it’s Manion’s wife Laura who is really on trial, in the courtroom and in the small community where they live. What she wore, whether she was drunk, and if she was provocative to the victim on the night in question occupy more of the trial than does the professional testimony of the psychiatrists who examined the war and combat veteran, who claims he unconsciously reacted with violence to his wife’s attack.

Brooke Adams, George C Scott, and Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Attorney Biegler responds with outrage whenever the Special Prosecuting Attorney (George C. Scott) attacks the character of Manion’s wife, but viewers are presented scenes in which the “bored” and “lonely” young wife, who is undeniably attractive and who flouts society’s conventions by not wearing a girdle under her form-fitting clothes, flirts inappropriately with her husband’s defense attorney. Viewers have even more questions about what actually occurred between Manion’s wife and victim than do the jurors.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Steward, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver), which was based on a sensational 1952 murder trial, Anatomy of a Murder vividly examines society’s discomfort with sex and sexuality, as well as with victims of sexual violence. Concentrating on the tendency to blame the victim in sexual assault and rape cases while simultaneously exonerating the victim in murder cases, the film is powerful for its morally ambiguous characters, its strong performances, and its groundbreaking handling of the topic of sexual violence. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture, Anatomy of a Murder is considered among the Top 10 films in the category of Courtroom Drama.

Trivia: Films “explicit” language caused outrage, getting it banned in Chicago theatres. These words were considered especially offensive: bitch, slut, rape, contraception, penetration, sperm, and — believe it or not — panties.

Anatomy of a Murder is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

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Filed under Actors, Classic 1950s Films, Classic Films, Crime Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Rape, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Screenplays/Plays, StagePlays

A Comedy of Noir: 5 Must-See Films

No Spoilers

Two silhouetted figures in The Big Combo (1955). The film's cinematographer was John Alton, the creator of many of film noir's stylized images. from Wikipedia

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the protagonists are more bad than good, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else.

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Film Noir features Femmes Fatales, women of questionable moral virtue. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares unwary males who are so drawn to her that they will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonists of Film Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

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Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character, since their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.

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 American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the classics). Many of the Film Noir of that period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce; Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely;  Cornell Woolrich’s story “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window) and novel I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films), and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Film Noir was not only popular with audiences, it was made by renowned directors: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, this is a disputed title in the Film Noir canon), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window), and Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face). Unfortunately, Hollywood does not live by critical acclaim alone. It is an industry that thrives more on earnings than on awards. Enter a slew of films imitating the popular classics of Film Noir.

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Some of these imitators are bad, really bad, so bad that they actually manage to become amusing, although they are unintentionally so. Most often made by and starring unknown talents, Comedy Film Noir is often in black-and-white, but marred by jarring soundtracks, claustrophobic sets, and fragmented cinematography techniques that are ostensibly attempting to symbolize fractured or fragmented psychological states (see the Joan Crawford photo above).

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The femmes in these films are never sans makeup, and they sometimes change glamor gowns between takes of the same scene, jolting viewers out of the fictional world. Their back-seamed stockings never have snags or runs,

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négligées and peignoirs abound,

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and kitten-heels are de rigeur, even in the boudoir and powder room.

The doomed male protagonists usually appear in suit-and-tie, sometimes wearing the same suit throughout the entire film (sans wrinkles, of course, and sometimes with a rather casual belt), ocassionally sporting two-tone Oxfords that “scream vintage.” Our male protagonists wear their Oxfords with bathrobes, too.

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Male or female, the characters have the best-coiffed hair in history, and their hair never moves, no matter how fast they’re driving in convertibles, or how hard the tree branches above them are shaking.

Combine all of the above-named elements, throw in lots of inappropriate touching and panicked grabbing, season with sappy or melodramatic dialogue, and you’re heading deep into Comedy Noir territory.

In an attempt to restore dignity to some of these forgotten films, I’ve put together a short list of some of the more interesting Comedy Noirs, presented here in no particular order, with their prize-winning attributes at the end of each selection.

Drumroll…

And the Winners are…

♦♦♦

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Fear in the Night
(1947)

Operating on the fallacious premise that hypnotism can make people do things against their morals and their will, Fear in the Night is one of the more unintentionally humorous Noir films. From bizarro cinematic techniques to jarring music, the film features some of the best bad acting Hollywood has to offer. Virtually every scene takes place in a claustrophobically tight set, as if the director thought he was staging a play. The femmes don’t scream or shriek in this film, but that doens’t meant they’re not melodramatic.

Featuring DeForest Kelly in his film debut as the stone-faced, glassy-eyed protagonist forced to commit murder and then trapped in a nightmare of amnesia, his Voice-Over is just like the classics in Film Noir, only without any distinguishing or memorable characteristics.

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Winner
Silliest Noir

Fear in the Night

♦♦♦

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Guest in the House
(1944)

Anne Baxter does a scenery-damaging job in this psychological noir. As the Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Rescued-By-Her-Doctor, Baxter chews up more curtains, pillows, bedclothes, and men’s suit lapels than you can imagine. If the women’s Bride of Frankenstein‘s coiffures don’t have you laughing till the tears come, then the scenes with the bird are sure to slay you.

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From the time Baxter arrives are her fiancé-doctor’s family home to the time she decides she wants the house and the already-married-brother-in-law, you’ll be wondering how the other actors got through the scenes without rolling their eyes. The diary scenes are especially cringe-worthy, but the finale, with the birds, makes it all worthwhile.

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Winner
Scenery-Chewing Noir

Guest in the House

♦♦♦

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The Bigamist
(1953)

With an all-star cast to die for, including Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino (who also directed), Edmund Gwenn, and Edmund O’Brien, you’d think this film would have been a clear Oscar contender. Instead, the suspense fizzles out by the time you see the title: The Bigamist. Instead of viewers wondering what the protagonist is going to do about the two women he loves, the only mystery is how many times the women in his life can give him escape routes which he stupidly fails to take.

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This one will have you rollicking in the aisles by the time all the protagonists end up in court, if only because of their expressions during the judge’s didactic speech.

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Winner
Star-filled Noir Trifle

The Bigamist

♦♦♦

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The Last Movie:
A Film Noir
(2012)

The Last Movie is ostensibly an American film about people trying to make an American film which will be a remake of a Russian film which is an adaptation of the classic American film noir, Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, only nobody making the American remake of the Russian adaptation ever acknowledges the original classic.

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More about trying to make a film than an actual interesting film itself, the sound alone  in The Last Movie is bad enough to be laughable. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Laugh every time you catch yourself trying to figure out what they’re saying in the background when you just heard it about a half-minute earlier, in the foreground.

Winner
American Film about American Film adapted from
Russian Film based on American Noir Film Classic

The Last Movie: A Film Noir

♦♦♦

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The Man with My Face
(1951)

Despite the intriguing jpremise of a man’s returning home one day only to discover an identical look-alike has taken over his life, The Man with my Face, starring Barry Nelson as the horrified and confused protagonist as well as the nasty antagonist, quickly tosses out the suspense when it reveals which man is the imposter.

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The special effect of the Doppleganger is marred by always being blurry, but at least the director was trying to doing something unusual in an age before CGI made it all so much easier. Blackmailers run amok in this film, and all the femmes, whether fatale or not, display mucho bare shoulders, perfectly coiffed hairdos that never move in the wind, and the requisite kitten-heels.

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Most of the characters try to talk each other to death, if only because Attack-Doggie got bored and refused to cooperate until his agent negotiated a raise. If you’re not laughing by the time the protagonist attempts to muss up his crew-cut during the climactic shoot-out, you’re not paying attention.

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Special award for the Doggie.

Winner
Noir with Doberman

The Man with My Face

Note: Some of these films are available free on the internet, but please don’t support piracy of intellectual property. None of these films is in the public domain, and should not be posted in their entirety. Most of the films listed in this post are available for cheap (rent or purchase) on Amazon: all are available for free viewing to Prime members.

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Filed under Actors, Crime Drama, Film Noir, Films, Films/Movies, NeoNoir, Noir, Review