Category Archives: 1950s

Return of the Fly (1959)

*. Huh? The 20th Century Fox logo comes up and it’s . . . in black and white? Hadn’t The Fly been shot in beautiful DeLuxe color? What happened?
*. Money happened. They weren’t going for any kind of an art-house vibe here, rest assured. But at the time shooting in colour was a lot more expensive, and the budget here was about half that of the original so . . .
*. There’s some continuity. Kurt Neumann died shortly after finishing The Fly so Edward Bernds took over directing chores. Vincent Price is back as François Delambre and not looking a day older while little Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) is all grown up. The chalkboard in the lab still has André’s last message to his wife on it, which I thought a nice touch.
*. But the lab has moved. For some reason the original lab, which was in the basement of André’s house, is now said to be located at the foundry. Why did they move it? Especially since now Philippe has to build his own lab . . . in the basement of his house (that is, the same house the lab was originally located in). Why did they move the lab out of the basement just so that they could move it back?
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Fly how it benefited from a tight script. The script here, despite the film being 15 minutes shorter, is not as tight. In fact, it’s bizarre in its complexity, including a reporter introduced in the opening scene who is never heard from again, a love interest for Philippe who only opens her mouth to scream on a couple of occasions, a cop (or something) who is turned into a guinea pig hybrid, a heel who is looking to steal Philippe’s invention and sell it to the highest bidder, and his fence, who is a peculiar guy running a funeral home as a front for some business we’re told nothing about.
*. The set-up will have been familiar to any horror movie fan at the time. Basically Philippe is the son of Frankenstein, driven to follow in his father’s footsteps and even discovering a book with all his notes which might as well have been titled How I Did It. Also like father like son is the transformation, which gives Philippe the head, arm, and (this time) the leg of a fly. The heel turns on him and stuffs him in the disintegrator cabinet. Why? I couldn’t figure this part out. Or why he stuck the cop in the device. To kill them? Hardly. It would have been easier just to shoot them. So just to mess them up? I didn’t get it.
*. They do their best to ratchet up the grotesquerie. The guinea pig man is kind of freaky. The fly man is bigger, with a much bigger head, though for some reason his clothes still fit. Unlike the original Fly this one gets to go around killing people though. Not because he’s bad but because they deserve it.
*. The best you can say is that it’s better than average for ’50s monster flicks, but that’s not saying much. It can’t hold a candle to the first movie. Despite being shorter it’s duller in every frame. Where the end of the original still has the power to shock, the ending here has the white-headed fly captured and Philippe (and the fly!) successfully reintegrated. No spoiler alert for that. It’s rotten enough already.

The Fly (1958)

*. The Fly is a simple little movie that’s all the better for not trying to be anything more. There are only a handful of characters and the plot deftly weaves together the back story (related in Hélène’s confession) with what’s going on in the present (the hunt for the fly with the white head). Each narrative, in turn, has its own climax: the revelation of André’s head in the flashback portion and the discovery of the fly in the spider’s web at the end of the frame story. Everything else is just meant to tease us and build up to these two moments, and this is done quite effectively.
*. This double structure isn’t really there in the George Langelaan story (published in Playboy, which actually was a great magazine to read back in the day). So it’s an expert bit of screenwriting by James Clavell, and his first credited work. I read a few of Clavell’s Asian novels as a boy (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Noble House, etc.) and when I saw his name come up here I remember thinking it must have been a different James Clavell. It wasn’t. The novelist was the movie writer, and a director too. To Sir, with Love is probably his best known work, but he kept busy on a wide variety of projects. Reading the highlights of his bio, the range he covered is truly impressive.
*. It’s an adaptation that improves on the original. In Langelaan’s story, for example, when André goes through the cabinets again at his wife’s urging he comes out newly remixed with bits of the cat Dandalo’s head. He still has the fly’s eyes and mouth, but he’s furry and has cat ears. I’m glad they stuck with just having a fly’s head because this sounds more silly than grotesque. The other thing they do is add the scene where they discover the fly in the spider’s web. This is just referred to in the story, as François explains to Inspector Charas that he buried the fly in a matchbox next to his brother’s corpse.
*. Also in the story Hélène commits suicide at the end. The movie went with a happier ending. It’s actually close to the formula, used so many times in the early Universal horror cycles, of a romantic triangle, with a woman attached to a man who becomes a monster and an earnest, square type waiting in the wings (I talked about this a bit in my notes on The Invisible Man, if you’re interested). I think uncle François will be stepping into more than just his brother’s shoes in the future. Although at the beginning of Return of the Fly it’s some twenty years later and they’re burying Hélène, with François only muttering in a voiceover about how he “loved [her] deeply, hopelessly.”

*. A final change from page to screen: the story is set in France, the movie in Montreal. I wonder what the thinking was there. France too Old World? Montreal exotic but closer to home? To be honest, I don’t know why they didn’t just change the names and set it in New York. As it is, the proceedings have a kind of antique feeling to them. Were we to be impressed by those neon lights in the lab, or were they just there to show off the DeLuxe color?
*. Just sticking with the subject of Montreal, one of the things David Cronenberg, who’d go on to do his own version of this material, didn’t like here was the way none of the names were French-Canadian names and the characters spoke with French not French-Canadian accents. I don’t know how he’d tell. Yes, they sound different, but none of the actors here were French or French-Canadian (though Patricia Owens was born in British Columbia), and I didn’t think they were trying to put on much of an accent anyway.
*. Pedestrian direction by Kurt Neumann (Pauline Kael called it “draggy”), whose last movie this would be (he died shortly after it was released). I don’t think a more flamboyant style would have added anything.
*. They kept the death in the industrial press, with its stroke set to zero, which must have been pretty shocking at the time. Though the way they conceal the body in various shots is pretty amusing. There’s always someone or something just in the way of our seeing the bloody pancake.
*. It’s the little things that count. We do better creature effects today, but I find the fluttering/trembling of the fly’s mouth parts or proboscis to still be disturbing, even disgusting. You don’t need gore to turn people off.
*. Here’s another little thing. Watch how, in the final scene, Hélène takes Philippe by the hand as they walk away and he has to step over one of the croquet wickets. Did they  not rehearse the shot? You might not even notice it because the kid takes it totally in stride. That’s a professional.
*. The cast are good. It’s not often Vincent Price fades into the background, but he does here. David Hedison is a bore, but Patricia Owens makes everything work. Watch her as she’s at the control of the press at the end. She’s really good.
*. Of course what everyone remembers the most about this movie is the shocking finale. I still remember the first time I saw it. I had no idea what was coming and it really got under my skin. It’s one of those movie moments that, however trashy or ridiculous, are indelible.

The Brain Eaters (1958)

*. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) is usually regarded as having set a standard, and perhaps the standard, for bad movies. But it was far from alone in being an instance of low-budget, incompetent filmmaking in the 1950s. The next year would see the release of this movie, which, while no means as hilariously awful as Plan 9, is a fun example of the so-bad-it’s-good flick.
*. It does have Joanna Lee in it, who had also been in Plan 9. And it did get a nomination for a Golden Turkey Award, which was what launched the audience cult for Ed Wood’s folly. So you might as well sit back and enjoy the crazy switches from day to night and back again, sometimes within the same scene, the hopeless acting, the ridiculous dialogue (“Will he live?” “No, but he’s going to, at least as long as science can make him”), and the laughable monsters, which are crudely concealed from view most of the time in glowing crystal-ball traveling cases but look like bedroom slippers when they finally appear.
*. You wouldn’t have expected anything less (or more) from a film shot in six days on a $26,000 budget. Even Leonard Nimoy has his name misspelled in the credits as Nemoy. I don’t think he was looking to conceal his identity. I think it was just a typo.
*. As in all such movies there are also a bunch of little things that make you go “Hm.” Like the description of the giant cone as being 50 feet tall and with a diameter at its base of 50 feet. That’s not what it looks like. Then there’s the scene where Glenn confronts the Mayor, who turns out to be his dad. But the actors looked the same age to me (I checked, and the fellow playing the Mayor was in fact nine years older).
*. The story is actually kind of strange. Robert Heinlein sued the producers for ripping off his novel The Puppet Masters, but I don’t see a resemblance that’s close enough to be actionable. For one thing, the Brain Eaters aren’t aliens but creatures who have been lurking underground since the Carboniferous Era. As for attaching themselves to the back of their hosts’ necks, something similar had been done in Invaders from Mars. I’m not sure you could copyright that. The main line of continuity I saw had to do with the takeover of the communications network.
*. Roger Corman said he hadn’t been aware of Heinlein’s book but settled out of court for $5,000. The bigger effect, however, was that a production of The Puppet Masters being planned was scrapped, meaning it would take another forty years before that novel would get filmed.
*. The Brain Eaters themselves are more like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Heinlein’s Puppet Masters. Indeed, Nimoy’s speech at the end was pretty close to what he’d say in the 1978 Philip Kaufman entry into the Body Snatcher franchise. If the Brain Eaters take over then everyone will live together in peace and harmony. Who could object to that?
*. A cheap, silly, but still pretty enjoyable time-waster that has the added virtue of not wasting too much time (it’s only an hour long). A minor example of the alien-takeover genre that was big in the ’50s, so also instructive on that front. But mainly of interest to people who just like bad movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

*. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those movies that I saw as a kid and that I’ve never grown out of. I still drop in for a re-watch pretty regularly and it always holds up. Not a perfect film, but perhaps a perfect B-film, and one with a real cultural resonance, as evidenced by the various directions taken by its remakes.
*. The main tack taken with regard to its significance is to read it politically. This has been so seductive precisely because its politics are so ambiguous. Danny Peary: “Much of the film’s cult following is a result of the picture’s ability to be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: as being anti-McCarthy and an indictment of the red-scare American mentality; and as being an anticommunist allegory.”
*. And the reason why it is so ambiguous? I think because nobody involved in making it thought they were making a film with a political message. Instead, it was part of a sub-genre of alien body snatchers that was popular at the time. Peary points to the other SF movies of the time dealing with the same theme: Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). He might also have included The Brain Eaters (1958), which may have been derived from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). I’d note here that The Puppet Masters, chronologically first on this list and perhaps the first SF story of this type, had an explicit anti-communist message. So there’s no denying this was in the air. When the psychiatrist here explains the mass hysteria as “worry about what’s going on in the world, probably” there’s a tip of the hat to anxiety, but over what, exactly?

*. I don’t see it so much as a Red Scare movie today, but that may be because the Red Scare itself is such a distant memory. Do we still think of communism as “a malignant disease spreading through the whole country”? Instead the film’s message seems more like a general broadside against thoughtless, soulless conformity. Does that have a political side as well? Today accusations of being brainwashed or having become “sheeple” get thrown around pretty freely on the right and the left. I don’t see the pod people as commies, but then they’re not libertarians either. Instead they’re a bit like Nietzsche’s last men: Earth seems like a nice place to call home, so they’ll just move in and get comfortable.
*. The novel by Jack Finney doesn’t say much more. The aliens are just another embodiment of the universal life force. They’ll settle down on Earth and breed and . . . that’s about it. They don’t really have any goals or larger purpose. And I think this is the real critique of the aliens. Not that they are conformists, or have no emotions, but that they have no ambition beyond survival. They aren’t as evil as they are boring and one-dimensional.
*. I like Finney’s novel a lot, and while they drop some good parts from it I think the screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring here changes things in ways that work better on screen. It’s also made into a far bleaker story, even with the addition of the upbeat ending that was insisted on by the studio (“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is an emergency!”). In the book Becky and the second couple are never transformed, and Miles manages to discourage the aliens from any takeover plans just by burning down their pod farm. They know they’re licked then and so just hop off planet so they can start wandering again and find a better place.
*. So yes, the ending here is terrible. On a par perhaps with the end of Psycho. Both Siegel and producer Walter Wanger disliked it. But in its defence I’d point out a couple of things. First, there was no way they were going to get away with Miles wildly ranting “You’re next! You’re next!” Second, the ending they wound up with is actually better than the ending of Finney’s book, which really feels tacked on and unconvincing.
*. Don Siegel. Yes, you could think of him as a hack. He worked very quickly shooting genre material, but he was good at it and not without a sense of style and an eye. In addition to keeping everything whipping along for a tight 80 minutes he does some interesting things with shooting at odd angles to disorient us. This is small-town America but on a kilter. Then look at the way that curved branch in the foreground mimics the snake of people climbing the hillside at the end. What a nice touch.

*. There are few special effects, but the bodies coming out of the pods look good and I think they’re quite effective. That there is no way to tell the aliens from the humans makes everything more sinister, and easier. I like the indeterminacy it gives rise to as well, as in the scene where poor little Jimmy is given his sedative. About the only moment I wish they’d cut is the peek behind the curtain to see Wilma and her uncle. We don’t need that. We know she’s been transformed.
*. When Miles goes snooping around Becky’s basement, is that a movie match he lights, or did they just make much better matches in the ’50s? By my reckoning it burns for 30 seconds before it gets down to his fingers, all in one take so there’s no trickery. I do think matches were probably better back in the day, but on the other hand, it looks suspiciously thick so it may have been a special prop.
*. “I want your children,” Becky says to Miles. Bold, but I guess things are looking desperate for them by that point. What she says also makes me think of something A. O. Scott had to say about the film: these are “old flames who clearly want nothing more than to jump into bed with each other, and it sometimes seems as though the whole alien conspiracy is designed to prevent exactly that from happening, because instead of doing what they so obviously want to do Miles and Becky have to run all over the little town of Santa Mira.” They can’t sleep and they can’t fuck. What a nightmare.
*. Remember that in the novel Becky isn’t transformed. Here she is, and Miles’ recognition of the change is the film’s dramatic highlight. Who can forget those two close-ups? But what’s the point? To say that she’s changed, she’s no longer the woman he loved, and then she betrays him! “A moment’s sleep and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction!” More than one man has woken up to a similar experience. And even more women, probably.
*. Well, it’s a great movie. One of the few Bs from the period that transcends its budget and genre. It’s not a movie I see more in with every re-watch, but one that I enjoy just as much every time. The pod people have never gone away, and who doesn’t feel at some point, looking around him or herself, that they may be next?

Invaders from Mars (1953)

*. A movie so strange and singular that I hardly know where to begin.
*. Perhaps one way is to see it as the start of something. In the introduction to my paperback edition of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Heinlein biographer William H. Paterson Jr. refers to that 1951 novel as “the first to work [the] aliens-among-us cultural fear.” The ’50s would really run with this, from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (first published as a serial in 1954 and made into the classic movie in 1956) to 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Ed Nelson’s The Brain Eaters, the latter being a movie that Heinlein sued for plagiarism (The Puppet Masters wouldn’t be filmed until 1994).
*. So perhaps Invaders from Mars, a film based on a story treatment that had apparently been inspired by a dream the author’s wife had, is the first movie to tackle this same theme. I don’t know if it was connected to The Puppet Masters at all, either at the time or since, but the idea of aliens controlling humans by way of a radio receptor implant on the neck is at least similar to where the “titans” (Heinlein’s puppet masters, so called because they hail from Saturn’s moon) attach themselves to their hosts at the beginning.
*. Another first for this film came by way of its being rushed into production to beat George Pal’s War of the Worlds as the first feature to show aliens in colour. As cheesy as much of it looks today, audiences must have been impressed at the time, though the effects can’t hold a candle to what Pal achieved with his much larger budget.
*. These firsts, however, don’t make Invaders from Mars strange, only notable. What makes it strange are two things.
*. In the first place, there’s the look of the movie. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies, best known as an art director (a job title he is credited with inventing). Menzies has some well-known credits, but I don’t know if he did anything as odd as this. And I’m not talking about the fact that it was designed to be shot in 3D and then wasn’t, or any of the alien effects. Actually, the alien ship is kind of dull, a feeling that is not lessened by knowing that the bubbles on the walls were actually thousands of inflated condoms.

*. What I mean by odd is stuff like the set of the hill leading up to the sand pit, which apparently took a big chunk of the film’s budget but that they got a lot of good use out of. It’s odd because it’s so artificial it makes one think of the bizarre landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I mean, you’d know that much just from seeing a farmer go out to a field behind his house in his slippers. But that link to Caligari comes up again in the police station, with its long corridor and high desk sitting at the end. Where do you think the ceilings are in that station? Somewhere in the arc of the heavens.

*. As another example, look at the lettering painted on the street that says “Restricted Area.” I’ve never seen lettering of that Old West style used in such a way.
*. Of course, as with Caligari the point seems to have been to give the movie a dream-like quality, which ties into the other thing that makes Invaders from Mars so strange: its ending. First we follow David (Jimmy Hunt) running away from the spaceship, which has been planted with a bomb, while a montage of scenes from the movie are replayed over his face. This is weird, and looks weird too, echoing the looping of scenes that leads up to the countdown. But then the ship explodes and David wakes up. It seems the whole thing was a dream. He goes to bed and then the beginning of the movie plays again, as he is awoken by the spaceship crashing, again, into the sand pit. Wait, what?
*. It’s an ending that recalls Caligari, with its boxes-inside-boxes ending. And just like with Caligari the ending was changed in different versions because people didn’t like it. For the British release they cut the final bit out, which I guess made things a bit tidier. But it’s still pretty wonky.
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the Martian head in the glass globe (played by Luce Potter, who had been one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) very strange too. What’s with the tentacles? And her pained, voiceless face is wonderfully inscrutable. She seems performing in a silent movie, with some hidden script. And isn’t that how it should be? One wonders how a Martian would feel about all this. Just a job?

*. The contemporary New York Times review called it a movie for kids, and it has that feel. Those Martian guards in their soft green pyjamas (complete with zippers running up the back) are large but strangely unthreatening. In fact, the scariest people we meet are David’s transformed parents. David’s dad even lays into him at one point.
*. Only 79 minutes, but in this case I can’t really call it tight. There’s lots of stock footage of the U.S. army rolling out the tanks to take on Martian spaceship, which is kind of unnecessary since they don’t actually do anything. I wish they’d left that stuff out, but I guess they needed the extra running time to get a release.
*. The weirdness I’ve been talking about is what recommends the film today. It certainly is odd to look at. I’ve mentioned Caligari but it also reminded me a lot of The Night of the Hunter with its dreamy visuals and threatened children. I think it’s more a freak than a great movie, but its status as an indie/cult classic is well deserved. Despite so many movies that borrowed from it, and even a remake in 1986, it’s never been duplicated in either its look or its spirit, and much of it remains unforgettable to this day.

Animal Farm (1954)

*. I first saw this movie when I was a kid, around the same time I first read Orwell’s novel. I’m no longer sure which came first (for me). I’m pretty sure though that I missed all of the political allegory, not knowing anything much about Stalin and Trotsky (roughly Napoleon and Snowball, respectively).
*. Did that make a difference? Well, like any good allegory Animal Farm can be appreciated on different levels. It’s not for children, despite Orwell subtitling it “A Fairy Story,” but that’s when a lot of us were introduced to it and I think young people can appreciate its message. The donkey Benjamin running after the truck taking Boxer away to the glue factory is a scene that’s stuck in my head for over forty years now.

*. Then again, I also remember scenes from classic Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cartoons from around the same time. There’s no telling what’s going to stick in one’s head. And the animation here, by husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, has much the same look as the Merry Melodies, with a lot of static painted backdrops with little movement in many of the shots. There’s also a cute little baby duck (not in Orwell) that seems to have wandered off the Warner Bros. lot.
*. There are other, greater, liberties taken with the source material however. These apparently came from the fact that its financial backers included the CIA, as part of a program to create anti-communist art. Or let’s just call it propaganda. Halas and Batchelor may not have known about the Agency’s involvement, but as a result of their influence the ending is changed quite radically, with the animals rising up against the now tyrannous pigs in yet another turn of the revolutionary wheel.
*. I have a hard time seeing the point in making this change. In the first place, Orwell’s novel strikes me as being quite sufficiently anti-Stalinist, especially with the nightmarish pack of dogs dealing out the state violence. Not to mention the fact that Stalin died in 1953. Second, I question the revolt of the masses at the end on two counts. Did the CIA think it realistic that the Russian people would rise up and throw off their communist rulers? That’s not even what happened in 1989. Then, is the idea of revolution something that the CIA wanted to endorse? Isn’t that how the farm got into this mess in the first place?

*. Up until the end I thought it a respectable adaptation. Maurice Denham is the narrator and does all of the voices. Perhaps as a result the dialogue has been greatly cut, as well as all of the lyrics to “Beasts of England, which is replaced by a barnyard hubbub. There is also some narration, a lot of which is probably unnecessary. The workhorse Boxer no longer has a girlfriend (Clover) but only a longtime companion in Benjamin. It is this stablemate who will be left to mourn (and avenge) his death.
*. The animation works, though I mentioned the connection to the golden age of American cartoons, which is what a lot of it looks like. That’s not a compliment or a criticism, but just saying it has the look of its time. There are some electric moments, and I enjoyed Old Major appearing to dissolve into a porky puddle after his big speech about eeeee-quality. Much of the art has a kind of liquid quality that may be interpreted as having some thematic relevance as well, with all that is solid in the old social order melting into air. As Mr. Jones turns to drink he sinks into a kind of deliquescence that fits the same pattern.
*. According to historians this was the first cartoon feature film made in Britain, and I think it stands up pretty well. It plays much better today than the live-action 1999 version anyway.

North by Northwest (1959)

*. You have to start somewhere when talking about the classics so why not at the crossroads, with Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) waiting for Godot. A crane shot introduces the slanted grid that’s been with us since the opening credits turned into the glass façade of an office building. A kind of chessboard then, for playing a game.
*. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in film history. And, as David Thomson puts it, “one of the most far-fetched events ever filmed in an alleged drama.” For me it’s a scene — I’m talking about Thornhill being chased by the crop-dusting plane — that represents the best and the worst of Hitchcock. It’s iconic, meticulous, unforgettable. It’s also a very deliberate rude gesture at anyone who cares about story, or what Hitchcock derided as “our friends the plausibilists.”
*. I mean, this is an episode that doesn’t even begin to make sense. Apparently screenwriter Ernest Lehman had thought of it as a way to make killing Thornhill look like an accident, which wasn’t an idea worth entertaining even before the plane started firing its machine guns. Yes, as the fellow waiting for the bus points out, it is odd that there’s a crop duster up there when there are no crops to be dusted. But then there is a lonely stand of corn stalks for Thornhill to run into. The appearance of this corn only further underlines the mystery of the crop duster, since this corn is already due to be harvested. What is a crop duster doing in the fall?
*. But that’s just the way the film operates. Apparently its initial inspiration came from Hitchcock telling Lehman that he’d always wanted to film a chase on Mount Rushmore. There now, get me that. But even while shooting, Lehman, who was making parts of the story up as they went along, had a moment of crisis when he realized he had no idea why the characters would be going to Mount Rushmore.
*. You can play along with all this, saying that Hitchcock somehow “proved” that plausibility didn’t matter in the movies. For me, a card-carrying plausibilist, it’s something I’ve never been able to forgive him. Why? Because of what came after: the way movies turned into circus rides. I don’t praise Hitchcock for this development.
*. Here, for example, is someone who does praise him, John Patterson writing in the Guardian: “When Hollywood went all blockbuster-minded in the 1980s, this was the kind of structure – all thrills, no brains – it came to rate most highly. Sequences in Bond movies and the action movies that came to imitate them – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Jack Ryan movies and everything since – are as tenuously joined to each other as theme-park rides, separate, intense experiences strung together with the merest soupçon of plot coherence or narrative plausibility, just like North by Northwest‘s famous crop-dusting sequence. A good half of every summer’s blockbusters still adhere to this approach and we’re poorer for it. It’s not Hitchcock’s fault that his imitators are such tools, but it is useful now and then to trace a tiresome phenomenon back to its not-so-tiresome source.”
*. But why is North by Northwest not-so-tiresome? It seems to me that the thrill rides that came after it actually had more brains, and in some cases even better thrills. As many have noted (including Lehman), the immediate inheritor of North by Northwest was the James Bond franchise. Vandammn’s house is a great precursor to the Bond villain’s lair, and the buzzing crop duster would turn into a helicopter in From Russia with Love. But despite upping the ante on the stunts and thrills, Bond made more sense than any of what we get here. There is no story in North by Northwest but just an excuse to have the hero run from one place to another, from one set-piece scenario to the next. Peter Ackroyd: “That is why it seems to leave audiences, after the initial euphoria of a successful entertainment, sometimes uncomfortable and dissatisfied.”

*. On the other side of this debate are those, and they are legion among writers on film, who admit to this emptiness but find in that very quality (the barren crossroads, Thornhill’s null middle initial, the cryptic title) something essential to film. Anthony Lane: “When, a couple of hundred years from now, an alien federation finally pulls in for gas on planet Earth and asks to see one of those things called ‘movies,’ we could do worse than offer it Cary Grant having cocktails on the train, or hanging off a ledge of presidential rock, as an unsurpassed demonstration of what we mean by film — what it’s all about, what it can be made to do, what it is for.” Emphasis in the original.
*. I can’t go along with this. If a ticket on fairground ride were all that movies are about, what they are for, I would have given up on them long ago. To be sure, there’s a time and a place for this kind of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t deny its entertainment value for a moment. But to claim North by Northwest is film in epitome, rather than just the essence of Hitchcock, is going much too far.
*. Of course there’s a lot to like. Bernard Herrmann’s score. The way James Mason says “Games? Must we?” I doubt there’s another actor who could have delivered that line so perfectly. Martin Landau’s icy killer eyes. (A homosexual? According to Lehman “a little hint” of that crept in, to his professed surprise. Landau says it was something he added on his own.) And of course the banter. I don’t think much of Lehman’s script as a story, but the dialogue is fun and surprisingly risky in places. I like how Eve (Eva Marie Saint) says she’s not into the book she’s started. Lehman: “I don’t write dialogue. I write repartee.”
*. Lehman says a couple of things that struck me as odd on the DVD commentary track. In the first place he talks about the amount of research he did, including getting booked for DWI and climbing part of the way down Rushmore. I wondered how this could have possibly made for a better script, since they are both entirely fanciful episodes (and how much of the chase on Mount Rushmore was written anyway?). But he claims this footwork was “absolutely vital to me” and that he “never could have written any of it without doing the research.” Which I think just goes to show that every writer has a different way of working, and takes inspiration in different ways.
*. The other thing Lehman says that I was surprised by comes during the opening scenes in New York. He remarks how little it has changed. It “looks pretty much the same . . . well this is the ’50s, I imagine it’s pretty much the same today.”
*. I found this particularly strange because one of the things that stands out the most for me watching both this movie and Vertigo today is their representation of 1950s America. It seems like I’m watching a series of postcards from the past in their evocation of San Francisco, New York, or various tourist destinations. The sky so blue, the cars so large and shiny. Every vehicle on the street of Manhattan looks like it’s just been polished. Then those hotel lobbies, those clothes, all that mid-century affluence. I can’t think of too many other movies, even of this same period, that have the same glossy quality. It all seems so rich and artificial, a vision of the past that’s still incredibly bright and new. It can’t be nostalgia, for me, but it does remind me of slideshows of my parents’ vacations. Only so much nicer.
*. It’s not a look that’s typical of Hitchcock. It’s really only in a few of his films. But I can’t think of too many other films that have it. This is the 1950s that so many people think they miss.
*. OK, it’s very nicely turned out and put together. And it’s a lark. The talk has actually aged better than many of the action sequences. It’s not a favourite movie of mine, but I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s iconic and unmissable. It does have a lot to answer for though.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

*. I thought it a bit sad to go back and read Pauline Kael’s review of The Wages of Fear, where she describes the film as “an existential thriller.” How long has it been since “existential” has had that meaning? Over the course of the last ten years (I think I’m right on the timeframe) it has come, exclusively and quite reductively, to only mean a threat to one’s existence. Kael’s readers, however, would have been thrown back on their readings of Sartre and Camus.
*. Is this a (properly) existential film? My own definition of existentialism — eschewing such stuff as existence preceding essence, whatever that means — is that it’s a vision of life that sees the individual as utterly alone. Which, in turn, leads to the freedom to take ultimate responsibility for your life. The four men transporting the nitro have made their choice and have no one to blame but themselves for the situation they are in.
*. Or is money the new God in this world? It is what makes the world go ’round, the unmoved mover of this ruthless capitalist universe. The men are trapped because of lack of money; with money they would have freedom. That seems a point worth entertaining too. Money precedes essence. Life is cheap.
*. You could even push such conjectures further back in trying to understand just what the hell these scourings of postwar Europe are doing in this town anyway. Dennis Lehane speculates: “While we’ll never discover what has driven them there [the town of Las Piedras], we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse.” I don’t agree. One assumes they came, like one of Joseph Conrad’s European losers holding down some forlorn outpost of “progress,” to get rich, or to at least lord it over the natives. Then they found themselves at the end of the line. I’ve heard such things still happen today in some parts of the world.

*. It’s not often you find yourself wondering about such things in an action or suspense thriller. But they order these things differently, or at least they used to, in France. But I wouldn’t want to go all the way and call this a philosophical film. It takes a long time to get going, but the opening scenes of life in the village seem kind of pointless to me. Roger Ebert thought they were only meant to evoke a sense of “aimless ennui.” Which sounds French, but isn’t deep.
*. Then (and we’re an hour into the picture) the trucks roll out of the yard and we’re into the good stuff. This is where critics usually go into raptures over how Henri-George Clouzot provides a master class in suspense. Which I think he does. The problem watching The Wages of Fear today though is that it’s a class that subsequent generations of filmmakers took and learned only too well. Put another way, I think the best directors make this kind of movie just as well today.
*. Now that’s a long way from saying that today’s filmmakers always do this stuff better. William Friedkin even remade The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, to mixed results. But in general I think audiences are more familiar with how a good suspense sequence is created, and it’s a process that has tightened up over the years. To the point where I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by The Wages of Fear the first time I saw it. I’d been expecting something more of a revelation. I appreciate it more today, but it doesn’t thrill me as I’m sure it thrilled audiences at the time.

*. Another point relating to this is the unsympathetic protagonists. Do we really care all that much if Mario and Jo make it? They aren’t very likeable people. Credit to Clouzot for that, but I wonder what his point was, or if he had one. That they aren’t worthy of redemption? That no one can achieve redemption? That in taking the job they were putting a price on their lives anyway and once you’ve done that there’s nothing else left that defines you? What would Mario do if he got back to Paris? Just hang out at a different café or bistro, with another pretty girl hanging off him.
*. I do like the way the lead truck with Luigi and Bimba makes an offscreen exit in a flash of light and puff of smoke like a magic trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. They’ve been vaporized. And for what sin, or mistake? Who knows? They probably didn’t.
*. There are other things I don’t like. I’ve mentioned the scene-setting at the beginning, which seems to me to go on far too long. Then there is the ending, which strikes me as false and silly. Silly because I don’t believe for a moment that Mario would be careening down that mountain road like a total idiot. False because his crash is intercut with shots of Linda at the café, and what is she to him? Little more than a dog. Ebert found her character “inexplicable” with “no apparent purpose” and I’m afraid he’s right. Mario isn’t going back to be with her. Clouzot should have made a movie of men without women. Linda is an unnecessary romantic foil.
*. In short, this is a good movie but not (or no longer) exceptional. Important, but not one I enjoy all that much. I think Clouzot was trying to make an American-style blockbuster, and mostly succeeded. But America took umbrage, cutting from its release version what it took to be anti-American slurs. And even in France, while successful, it wasn’t a huge hit. The fourth highest earning film of the year in that country doesn’t strike me as being wildly successful. The top three, in case you’re interested, were The Greatest Show on Earth, The Return of Don Camillo, and Peter Pan.

The Racket (1951)

*. There’s a scene in The Racket where I actually winced a bit. It comes at a point when Tom McQuigg (yes, that’s the tough-guy name for the no-nonsense police captain) gets exasperated and tosses a paper cup to one side. It just seems off. I don’t buy it. Someone has to pick that cup up off the floor now, and a character like McQuigg shouldn’t have had to punctuate his words with such a silly dramatic gesture anyway.
*. As awkward as this plays, it’s actually repeated in a later scene where McQuigg confronts crime boss Nick Scanlon (yes, there’s a pair of names you won’t encounter outside of such films as this). Scanlon doesn’t have a cup, but he’s eating an apple and at one point he takes what’s left of it and throws it to one side, the exact same gesture made earlier by McQuigg. It’s very silly.
*. Perhaps I only noticed moments like this in The Racket because there was nothing else going on that I was paying much attention to. This is a not-very-interesting crime drama that’s actually a remake of a silent film of the same name that was also produced by Howard Hughes, which was in turn based on a popular play that had made a star of Edward G. Robinson. Hughes had remade it to cash in on the public interest in the Kefauver Committee’s hearings.
*. The Kefauver Committee (full title The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce) held hearings in 1950-51, which made The Racket timely if nothing else. The next year there would be a number of pictures inspired by the Committee, including The Captive City, Hoodlum Empire, and The Turning Point. It was also portrayed in The Godfather Part II, where Michael Corleone testifies before it.

*. I guess I’m going into other stuff here rather than discussing the movie. Eddie Mueller has a very good DVD commentary where he talks about some of the background. It’s informative, but you can tell he isn’t a big fan of it either. Here are some quotes: “Man that is a clunker of a line,” “not a particularly well choreographed fight scene”, “it’s not a very action-packed screenplay,” “does Robert Mitchum look like a cop? I really think he would have benefited immensely from actually wearing the uniform,” “I think Mitchum was less than fully engaged with this one” (meaning he was just walking through the part, which was his habit when he didn’t care about a script according to his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer), “this is another absurd bit of screenwriting,” “that whole nightclub scene was pretty low rent . . Howard Hughes could really make an impoverished looking production sometimes. There was virtually no money spent on sets in this movie.”
*. The only part I might disagree with in all this is Mueller saying that it’s not an action-packed screenplay. In fact, I think there is a fair bit of action. It’s just that the action isn’t well handled. Robert Mitchum isn’t the most energetic actor on screen at the best of times, and here he really is “walking through” his part. Look at the scene where he discovers the wounded Johnson (William Talman), who is dying from a gunshot wound. “Better get a doctor,” he says, with all the concern and urgency of someone telling the time.

*. In summing up, Mueller admits he prefers the 1928 version and how it would have been better if the remake had been more like the original: focusing on the battle between the cop and the crook for control of the city, with less attention given to things like the Committee. He also suggests that it might have been better if Robert Ryan and Mitchum had switched roles. At least it would have been fun seeing Mitchum wearing that tie Scanlon has on in the final scene. That’s a showstopper.
*. I did think it was an interesting decision not to show the Old Man, head of the criminal syndicate. We don’t even hear his voice over the phone. Mueller says that to increase his amusement while watching the film he likes to imagine the Old Man was Hughes, a reclusive figure who controlled, even micromanaged everything but according to Mitchum never set foot on the RKO lot.
*. Such speculations help to pass the time. As do arguments over whether or not it counts as true noir. Mueller jokes about this as well, saying that the shadows made by a Venetian blind on William Conrad’s face are what tell us it’s noir. I’d maybe point to the lighting in the scene in the garage. Aside from that, however, I think this is just a “conspicuously uninspired” (Bosley Crowther) tales of cops and robbers.
*. Perhaps I’d like it a little more if I had a clearer idea of what’s going on. What with Hughes’s interference the film is a mess, making use of several different directors and turning the original script into something ungainly. I was never sure what exactly Turk’s role was in all this, and what was going to happen to him at the end. Part of the problem is what Mueller identifies as the way all of the corruption is taken totally for granted. McQuigg knows who all the bad guys are, and they know he knows, but . . . life just goes on. At least until the Committee arrives. Then something is mumbled about Acme Real Estate and the door closes, leaving Mitchum to deliver some lines about the turning of the wheels of justice that you’ll have a hard time remembering any more than all the rest of it.

The Land Unknown (1957)

*. Apparently there really had been reports of a warm body of water found in Antarctica, which gives this film its jumping-off point. A group of researchers, and one lady journalist for the Oceanic Press (OP), head south to investigate. Their helicopter is hit by a Pterosaur and they descend into a volcanic cavern where dinosaurs still roam.
*. If it sounds like The Lost World, or even King Kong, don’t think that’s a coincidence. This is a genre with a history, one which runs up to the present day.
*. As with most such creature features the plot is just an excuse for Clifford Stine to do his thing and show us a bunch of monsters. Real lizards are enlarged by way of process shots with tiny people in the foreground. There is also a model water beast (or Elasmosaurus) and a guy walking around in a rubber suit playing a Tyrannosaurus. Yes, I looked up the names of all these beasts. Best of all, however, is a giant carnivorous plant that is always just about to grab Shirley Patterson.
*. Jack Arnold was originally slated to direct and it was going to be in colour with a decent budget. But there was a change of plans and it became a B-picture, or sub-B even, with Virgil W. Vogel at the helm.
*. There’s nothing much to say. I don’t think it even has any historical or cultural interest or significance. It’s the kind of thing I enjoyed when I was 8 years old, along with the Godzilla movies and other stuff the local networks ran on weekend afternoons.