Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951) brought Alfred Hitchcock back to box office success after the lull that followed Notorious (1946), and today it remains a favorite with the auteur's fans. Hitchcock presents a deliciously twisted thriller in this tale of murder and blackmail, with Farley Granger returning after his performance in Rope (1948) for a second outing with the director, but it's the creepy appeal of Robert Walker that makes Strangers on a Train such a macabre delight. There's nary a blonde in sight, but Ruth Roman, Laura Elliott, and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, all give memorable performances as the younger women, while Marion Lorne and Norma Varden provide some delightful comic relief in their smaller roles.

Granger plays tennis star Guy Haines, who meets a fan named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) while on a train. Bruno knows all about Guy and his personal problems, especially that Guy can't be with his new love, Anne (Ruth Roman), until his wife (Laura Elliott, aka Kasey Rogers) gives him a divorce. Bruno proposes to kill Guy's wife while Guy kills Bruno's hated father, but Guy doesn't take him seriously until it's too late. When Guy refuses to commit Bruno's murder in return, Bruno sets out to frame Guy for his wife's death, forcing Guy to dodge the police and resort to drastic measures.

Like a lot of Hitchcock's protagonists, Granger's Guy quickly finds himself deep in a situation beyond his control, and the stress pushes him outside the comfortable norms of polite behavior. He becomes secretive, driven, and tense, but we get hints of his inherent darkness early on, when he argues with his faithless wife and then tells his girlfriend that he could strangle the uncooperative woman. Guy never seems especially upset that his wife is dead, just unhappy that he's the most obvious suspect. Granger is solid in the role, but the real star of the picture is Walker, whose talkative, unstable Bruno drives the action throughout. He's a weirdly likable killer, devoted to his mother and rather desperate for Guy's approval, and he's shaken enough by the act of murder to develop a kind of PTSD in response to it. Bruno's scenes with his mother and Mrs. Cunningham, played by Marion Lorne and Norma Varden respectively, show his ability to endear himself to older women through his "naughty" sense of mischief; in some ways he's the opposite of Joseph Cotten's homicidal Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1942). The role ought to have been a comeback moment for Walker, who had struggled with alcoholism after being left by his wife, Jennifer Jones, but the actor died tragically just months after finishing the film.

Hitchcock engages in his usual visual tricks to crank up the suspense, and the amusement park setting of the murder gives him with plenty of striking images to use. Bruno pursues Miriam Haines through the Tunnel of Love in a boat named for Pluto, the god of the underworld; she constantly looks back at him as she romps through the carnival, never recognizing her seeming admirer as a figure of Death. We see Miriam strangled in the reflection of her own glasses, and afterward the glasses worn by Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) cause Bruno to relive the murder, complete with echoing carnival music and a spinning sense of vertigo. A thoughtful viewer might pause a moment to wonder why Hitchcock would cast his own daughter as someone the antagonist wants to strangle every time he sees her, but the scenes are certainly provocative. The director also has fun with the tennis matches, where the spectators watch the back-and-forth between the players just as we watch the deadlier match being played by Bruno and Guy. The climax, back at the amusement park, delivers a hair-raising finale on a runaway carousel, as well as a wonderfully vicious little scene in which Bruno loses the cigarette lighter that he needs to frame Guy.

Strangers on a Train picked up only one Oscar nod, for Best Cinematography, but it's certainly a picture every Hitchcock fan should see. The director followed this film with I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954). You can see more of Robert Walker in Since You Went Away (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and The Clock (1945), while Farley Granger has memorable roles in They Live by Night (1948), Side Street (1949), and Senso (1954). Look for Ruth Roman in The Window (1949) and The Far Country (1954). Patricia Hitchcock, who is still living at this time, appears in two other Hitchcock films, Stage Fright (1950) and Psycho (1960), and she acted in numerous episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series.

PS - If you want to know more about Robert Walker, you can read a thorough discussion of his life and career at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Top 10 List: My Favorite Westerns

My Westerns lifetime learning class is wrapping up this week, and my students have asked me about a top ten list of classic Westerns. I imagine there are plenty of such lists naming the "best" Westerns, but I'd rather make mine a list of personal favorites. I do aim for some diversity in terms of decade, focus, director, and stars, but these are all Westerns that I enjoy tremendously every time I see them. I'm not including the comedy and parody films that prospered late in the day, although I do really love Cat Ballou (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and, for reasons even I can't fully explain, Paint Your Wagon (1969). Here, then, are ten of of my all-time favorite Westerns, listed in chronological order.

1. STAGECOACH (1939)



4. HIGH NOON (1952)

5. SHANE (1953)




9. RIO BRAVO (1959)


What are your favorite classic Westerns?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Movies on an Island Blogathon: My Five Picks

This week the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon, in which different bloggers pick five movies they'd want to take with them to a castaway life. Of course, we're assuming that our islands are hooked up for movie viewing! For me, the five chosen films are ones that would keep my spirits up in such lonely circumstances and also reward frequent repeat visits. They have to be fun (as much as I love film noir, I don't think fatalism will help me keep going in my isolation!), so I'm leaning heavily into comedies, musicals, and family fare for my choices. I'm also picking movies that I personally love because I want the comfort of favorite characters and images; I thought about trying to "catch up" on some three hour foreign language classics I have never gotten around to watching, but I'm sticking with pictures I know and adore. Taking these five along would be like taking old friends or even family members. Here, then, are my five picks.

1) THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) - This big, colorful adventure is one of my all-time favorite films, with a tremendous cast and glorious swashbuckling action. Errol Flynn never looked better, and every scene bursts with excitement, interest, and romance. The big cast, packed with greats, offers plenty to pay attention to even after dozens of viewings. We get heavies like Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains, character actors like Una O'Connor, Eugene Pallette, and Alan Hale, and the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It is, in every respect, basically a perfect movie (OK, so a few of Maid Marian's costumes are a bit odd, but that's nit-picking and you know it). It also reminds me of the rich tradition of Robin Hood legends, which will give me things to think about while I'm sitting around in the sand.

2) SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) - Who doesn't love this movie? Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and the delightful Debbie Reynolds never fail to make me smile, and Jean Hagen has me in stitches with her irritating tones. The songs are winners, the dance numbers are energetic, and the story is full of Hollywood taking a loving poke at itself. As charismatic as Kelly is, for me this movie always comes down to Donald O'Connor's lovable Cosmo, who nails the "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes" numbers with brilliant comic flair. The title song might feel too accurate when monsoon season hits on my island, but at least I'll be able to wish on my lucky star when the nights are clear.

3) LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) - I'm a huge Disney nut, and this is my absolute favorite Disney classic. It has laughs, it has adventure and romance, it even has tearjerker moments of tragedy, and it has some fabulous songs from Peggy Lee. I'd want at least one Disney film to remind me of the good times I have had at Disney parks and watching Disney movies, and for some reason this canine romance gets me every time. It features great vocal performances from Barbara Luddy, Peggy Lee, Verna Felton, and Stan Freberg. It's also a perfect Christmas movie, since it starts and ends at the holidays, so I can watch it to celebrate the season during my years of being marooned.

4) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) - At least one of my picks needs to reflect my island situation, and this one also happens to have Shakespearean roots (it draws its inspiration from The Tempest, my favorite Shakespeare play). Sure, it starts a bit slow, but once it gets going it's a fabulous sci-fi adventure, with Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis falling in love while Walter Pidgeon battles his inner - and outer - demons are Dr. Morbius. Robby the Robot is an iconic figure with a dry humor, an Ariel of metal rather than air, while the invisible killer on the planet is a Freudian Caliban, a monster of the id unleashed. I used to show this film when I taught The Tempest, so watching it on the island will bring back fond memories of my university career, and I'll have lots of time to ponder its thornier psychological themes.

5) SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) - When I'm on the island I want something to laugh about, and this movie always makes me chuckle. Billy Wilder directs a delightfully screwy romantic comedy, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hysterical in drag, and Marilyn Monroe very sexy as Sugar Kane. Again there are lots of great performances in the supporting cast to make repeat viewings rewarding, from George Raft and Joe E. Brown to Pat O'Brien and Mike Mazurki. My daughter has proclaimed this "the funniest movie ever made," so watching it on the island will remind me of the times I have watched it with her while we laughed together.

There are lots of other movies I'd like to take along, too, but our blogathon limits me to five, and I think these five will keep me going with their energy, humor, and engaging plots. If I could have five more, I might add Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Women (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Rio Bravo (1959). For picks from other bloggers, check out the blogathon link post at the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Monday, May 9, 2016

10 Great Westerns of the 1950s

The 1950s produced a bumper crop of A-level Westerns with some of Hollywood's biggest stars in the leading roles, including some we don't necessarily associate with the genre. Over the course of the decade, darker and more complex psychological Westerns appealed to adult viewers, even as the matinee cowboys continue to ride high with the Saturday morning crowd. Westerns and film noir provided fertile territory for directors and actors, with many jumping between the two genres and even blurring the line at times about which was which. Of course, John Wayne and John Ford were still on the scene, but a new generation of Western icons was also developing, with Lee Marvin making his presence known and director Delmer Daves venturing into the genre with Broken Arrow in 1950. You could spend a long time watching Westerns from the 1950s (check out 50 Westerns from the 50s for proof), but here are just ten great Westerns - one from each year of the decade - to get you started.

1) WINCHESTER '73 (1950) - Anthony Mann and James Stewart begin a fruitful collaboration in the genre with this picture, which focuses on the hands through which the coveted title rifle must travel. The cast also includes Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally, but viewers will also find early appearances by Rock Hudson (as a Native American) and Tony Curtis. Mann and Stewart would go on to make four more Westerns together: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all of which are well worth watching.

Westward the Women

2) WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) - Probably the least familiar picture on this list, this women's Western is truly unique in its focus on the suffering and determination of a group of women headed West by wagon train to marry settlers on the frontier. William A. Wellman directs an ensemble cast headed up by Robert Taylor as the women's guide, with Denise Darcel and Hope Emerson getting top billing among the many fine actresses. Renata Vanni gives an especially moving performance as one of the group's older members.

3) HIGH NOON (1952) - A four-time Oscar winner, this dramatic Western appears on almost any top ten list for the genre, and for good reason. Its real-time unfolding adds urgency to the story as we watch the clock tick down to Frank Miller's fateful arrival, while Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance is noble and moving, even if he is much too old to be marrying Grace Kelly. A terrific supporting cast helps seal the deal, including Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Morgan, Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado. Tex Ritter, a singing cowboy from the matinee herd, provides the film's mournful title song, which inspired many later Westerns to have their own, similar themes.

4) SHANE (1953) - George Stevens directs this chivalric romance recast as frontier drama with Alan Ladd in the lead as the Wild West's version of a knight errant. Building their own rustic Camelot on the range are Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the Starretts, with young Brandon De Wilde giving an Oscar-nominated performance as their son. Jack Palance, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is Shane's rival gunslinger. Other familiar faces in the cast include Ben Johnson, Elisa Cook Jr., and Ellen Corby.

5) JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) - Joan Crawford makes a rare genre appearance in this very unusual Western from Nicholas Ray, with Sterling Hayden as the title character. There's a lot of noir atmosphere seeping through, no surprise with Ray in the director's chair and Crawford and Hayden in the leads. The supporting cast is full of Western favorites, though, including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, and Paul Fix. Look out for a truly vicious performance by Mercedes McCambridge as Crawford's rival.

6) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) - Spencer Tracy stars in John Sturges' modern take on Western themes, once again with noir atmosphere turning everything a shade darker and dirtier. Tracy's one-armed WWII veteran comes to Black Rock on a mission of peace, but he finds out that Black Rock has a secret its residents will kill to hide. The landscape and the town speak to the lingering traces of the Old West, and the rest of the cast is packed with genre stalwarts, including Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. Tracy earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance, while Sturges picked up a nod for Best Director, but every aspect of this film exudes excellence. It's just as hard-hitting today as it was in 1955.

7) THE SEARCHERS (1956) - John Ford and John Wayne deliver their most iconic collaboration with this epic tale of loss and obsession, with Wayne in the lead as ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who embarks on a years-long quest to find his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnapped by the Comanche. This is a darker, more morally complicated character for Wayne, but he suits the role perfectly. Widely considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this picture is the go-to example of Ford and Wayne's work together, with a rich subtext and emotional supporting performances that reward multiple viewings.

8) 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) - Delmer Daves directs Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in this tense character study of two very different men brought together by fate. Ford plays the smooth-talking, opportunistic outlaw, while Heflin plays the upright rancher with the dangerous job of getting the captured bandit to the train that will take him to prison. From there the lines between good man and bad begin to blur, with the outlaw and the rancher each coming to understand the nature of the other. Frankie Laine sings the theme song, which harks back to the melancholy theme of High Noon.

9) THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) - At 165 minutes, this is an epic Western, indeed, with Gregory Peck leading an impressive cast under the direction of William Wyler. Peck plays a former sea captain who heads West to take up ranching with his fiancee but, predictably, finds drama and strife as he becomes embroiled in a bitter feud. Burl Ives won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but other notable cast members include Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Carroll Baker, and Alfonso Bedoya.

10) RIO BRAVO (1959) - Howard Hawks and John Wayne strike back against the serious (and often left-leaning) tone of many 1950s Westerns with the rollicking Rio Bravo, which is more interested in action than psychological analysis. Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, who gets a very motley crew of assistants when the bad guys turn up to reclaim one of their own from Chance's jail. Dean Martin is the alcoholic Dude, trying to sober up enough to hold a gun, and Walter Brennan plays crusty old Stumpy. Dreamy Ricky Nelson sings and shoots as Colorado, while Angie Dickinson gives Wayne some romantic trouble as Feathers. The picture is usually seen as a rebuttal to High Noon, and it presages the kind of movie Wayne would continue to make from here until the end of his career. However, for the A Western as pure entertainment, this one is hard to beat.

For even more great Westerns from the 1950s, try The Gunfighter (1950), The Baron of Arizona (1950), The Furies (1950), Vera Cruz (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). You'll find full-length reviews for many of the Westerns listed here in my books, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and Beyond Casablanca II. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.