Tag Archives: 1950

Top 100 Films #80 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

sunset-boulevard#80. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr.
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough

The greatest story of a Hollywood downfall ever told, Billy Wilder’s often bleak, often humorous, always poignant Sunset Boulevard still thrills and amazes today.  Often regarded as one of Wilder’s best films, Sunset Boulevard combines trademark elements of film noir and combines them with a healthy dose of cynicism and pitch black wit to create a truly unique experience.  Sunset Boulevard sees Joe Gillis (William Holden) become involved in a complicated relationship with aging former movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Desmond fantasizes day and night about one day returning to her former glory, being directed on the big screen by greats like Cecil B. DeMille (who appears in the film as himself).  Her fantasies are supported by her personal assistant Max (Erich von Stroheim), who helps to create the illusion that Hollywood is begging for Norma’s eventual return.  Joe deals with the manic Norma and her intensely loyal assistant all while writing a film script with the young Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).  Sunset Boulevard weaves a complex dreamy narrative that deals with a wide range of themes, including fame and fortune, the yearning to return to one’s prime, and the personal demons of artists.  Gloria Swanson gives one of cinema’s most iconic performances in her portrayal of Norma Desmond, who is at all times horrifyingly delusional and sympathetic.  Swanson perfectly captures the humiliation of being left behind by Hollywood felt by Norma Desmond, as well as her constant vying for a spot at the table among the elites.  Supporting Swanson are Academy Award nominated performances by William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, and Nancy Olson, all of which are more than deserving of acclaim.  Sunset Boulevard is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest films, featuring incredible direction by one of the all-time greats, a darkly comic script, and multiple iconic performances.  It’s a haunting and unforgettable experience that cannot possibly be given enough praise.

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John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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Noirvember Feature #8 – Night and the City (1950)

NightandthecityNight and the City (1950)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Jo Eisinger (based on Night and the City by Gerald Kersh)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

Director Jules Dassin fits perfectly into many of the themes our Noirvember marathon has seen so far.  Many of the filmmakers covered have been those who sought asylum in Hollywood before or during the rise of Nazism in mid-1930’s Europe.  Many of these men came to America in order to hone their craft and continue working under the freedoms they had once enjoyed in their native lands.  Dassin’s story is the complete opposite of those other filmmakers.  Jules was an American born director who would seek asylum in Europe shortly before the release of his famous film noir Night and the City.  His reason for fleeing a country that many considered to be the freest in the world?  The infamous Hollywood blacklist – which accused Dassin of being a Communist sympathizer.  From there, Jules Dassin would end up in France, and would go on to direct one of the greatest films ever made, Rififi.  Night and the City, along with his film The Naked City, would establish Dassin as one of the great film noir and crime directors of the time, and would help to establish his legacy as one of the great filmmakers of his time.  The film stars the extremely prolific Richard Widmark, as well as Gene Tierney (who also starred in Noirvember feature #1, Laura) one of the best actresses of the time.  Night and the City has been criticized since its release for having no real moral characters for the audience to get behind, and for being hopelessly bleak – even for a film noir.

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Night and the City is the dark and sleazy story about an almost unredeemable man named Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).  Fabian is a hustler out to con anybody he can, and he isn’t particularly good at it.  Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) is Fabian’s main squeeze, with whom he maintains a somewhat unstable relationship.  After seeing proverbial dollar signs in his eyes during a wrestling match, Fabian goes into business with famous former professional wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his protege Nikolas (Ken Richmond).  Having put his famous sleazy charm on the two famous pro wrestlers, Fabian attempts to gain financing for his new sports enterprise.  Gregorius has just had a falling out with his son Kristo (Herbert Lom), and is eagerly looking to go into business with a new partner in order to undercut his son.  After being denied financing from an assortment of characters, Fabian finally settles with acquaintances Phil (Francis L. Sullivan) and Helen (Googie Withers) in exchange for a forged nightclub license.  Soon enough, our main character is approached by associates of the now alienated Kristo, who attempt to dissuade the silver-tongued Fabian from entering the wrestling promoter business.   What follows for nearly our entire cast of less than perfect characters is a complicated web of double crosses, senseless murders, and misfired conning.  Will the charismatic Harry Fabian succeed in the wrestling world, or will the forces working to eliminate his presence win out?  Find out in Jules Dassin’s excellent Night and the City.

The criticisms about Night and the City having no likable characters for the audience to rally behind may be true in theory, but that’s exactly what I admired most about Dassin’s last American production.  The entire film is filled to the brim with some of the sleaziest, most dour characters I’ve seen in film noir up to this point, and every single moment of it is riveting.  The professional wrestling backdrop works in my favour as a fan of the sport, and serves well because of the amount of real life slime balls in the wrestling business, past and present.  The character of Harry Fabian is incredibly captivating because it keeps the audience wondering how and when he’s going to screw over another of his associates or colleagues.  He digs himself into a hole so deep than not even the most talented minds could lift themselves out of, and every minute of it is glorious.  Richard Widmark’s performance as Fabian is the standout in the film, and Widmark absolutely brings the character to life in a realistic and dramatic way.  The supporting cast is terrific as well, all performers bringing a level of sleaze to the picture that goes unmatched by other film noir’s.  The wrestling world backdrop and the slimy cast of characters makes me an incredibly easy watch, and even helps viewers forget about the sometimes overly complex plot unfolding on screen.  Things that happen in Night and the City don’t always make complete sense, but the story still ends up in the right places, and manages to still keep the viewer hooked and knowing the intentions of each and every character.  The highlight of the entire film is a long, intense, and brutal wrestling scene between Gregorius and a rival wrestler under the tutelage of Kristo, The Strangler.  The two men battle until they both collapse from sheer exhaustion, putting on an absolute wrestling clinic in the meantime.  The scene works well to shift the story into its final tragic act, and is an absolute sight to behold.

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I can’t say much more about Night and the City without spoiling many of the twists and turns that take place during the short run-time, but I can say without a doubt that most reading this will enjoy some aspect of the film.  The dark, moody atmosphere, the seedy cast of characters, the complicated, the almost mob-like underworld of wrestling, and the terrific performances and direction by Jules Dassin makes Night and the City an absolute must-see for all viewers.  Much like many film noir’s I’ve covered, it may not always make sense – but even in it’s overly complicated story it’s a terrifically fun and compelling watch.  I can say without a doubt that Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is highly recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #7 – D.O.A. (1950)

DOA1950D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by: Rudolph Maté
Written by: Russell Rouse, Clarance Green

Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Campbell, Neville Brand

Rudolph Maté, director of my next subject D.O.A., had humble beginnings in the film world as a cinematographer.  He is responsible for shooting some of the best films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and his resume includes: two silent films with the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc), William Wyler’s Dodsworth, Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Charles Vidor’s Gilda, and finally Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.  Maté’s resume is undoubtedly impressive to say the least, and this experience behind the camera definitely helped shape what would become a prolific career as a director.  As a director, Rudolph Maté helmed a great deal of film noirs like Forbidden, The Dark Past, Union Station, and The Green Glove, most starring up-and-coming stars like William Holden, Tony Curtis, and Glenn Ford.  On top of his noir catalog, Maté directed a great deal of westerns, adventure and action, and science fiction films of the era.  He was something of a director for hire, but it very clearly paid off for him with many of his films receiving technical Academy Award nominations.  D.O.A. is perhaps the film Maté is best remembered for, and it is seen as one of the better film noirs of the 1950’s by many critics.  The film stars Academy Award winning Edmond O’Brien (also featured in 1946’s The Killers) as Frank Bigelow, and prolific television stars Pamela Britton as Paula Gibson.  

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Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) walking into the police station in the riveting opening of 1950’s D.O.A.

D.O.A. follows a dead man named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) – only he’s not actually dead just yet.  Frank has been fatally poisoned by an unknown party for reasons he’s not quite sure of.  The film starts shockingly with Bigelow walking into a police station to report his own murder, yet he’s surprised to find that the police are expecting him. From there, we’re treated to a long series of flashbacks showing Frank’s life as an accountant.  After departing for a vacation and not bringing along his girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), Frank finds himself in a daze after a visit to a wild nightclub.  It is at this nightclub that Frank Bigelow unknowingly seals his own fate and drinks the poison that will slowly lead to his demise.  Doctors conclude that there is no way to combat the poison in Frank’s system, and give him a number of days to live.  Using the last of his time on earth, our protagonist tracks down suspects who may have been involved in his eventual murder.  He pays visits to a wild array of characters and receives varying levels of hospitality in return.  Eventually we come to find that not only has Bigelow has become embroiled in a transaction of stolen iridium (for which he served as the notary public), but he has also unveiled something much more personal about his murderer.  Will Frank Bigelow bring his murderer to justice, or will his time run up before cracking the case?  Find out by watching D.O.A.

Unfortunately there had to come a time during the marathon where a film just didn’t resonate with me at all.  As much as I hate to have to write these words, that film is Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A.  It isn’t a complete failure by any means, but the film seems so unsure of itself at times.  The script is a mess, and it took me two watches to completely follow along and understand the roles that our wide assortment of side characters played.  D.O.A. starts with a terrific and compelling opening scene, but very quickly follows into the incredibly long, painfully unfunny, and tedious vacation part of the film.  The exposition here is quite heavy, and yet it’s still never completely clear to me what was going on.  There’s just so much going on throughout the film, and none of it ever really has the time to grow into something truly memorable or significant.  Luckily, Edmond O’Brien’s central performance is very good, and gives the audience somebody to root for.  His character may not be well-developed or entirely three-dimensional, but it’s still a great deal of fun to watch his encounters with the potential suspects.  Speaking of the suspects, it was never entirely clear to me why some of these people were being approached by Bigelow.  I understood the motivations at times, but I was left scratching my head more often than not.  Luckily for me, when things finally ramped up in the story, I was instantly hooked regardless of what I thought about the actual story unfolding.  Another good aspect of the film is that Rudolph Maté’s cinematography background absolutely pays off in spades here.  The composition of shots and direction is smooth, subtle and clearly very well-trained, and Maté and his team brings out some of those beautiful noir motifs that I love so much.  

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Overall, D.O.A. is something of a mixed bag.  Even now, a few days removed from the film, I’m not entirely sure what to think about it.  It has many admirable elements and even some very exciting chase sequences, but nothing that I’ll be able to remember in vivid detail a week from now.  Rudolph Maté is a director whose body of work I’d like to explore in more detail, but D.O.A. has made me slightly wary of doing so.  It’s not a bad film, but it certainly isn’t a great one either.  I suppose you can’t win them all.  I would recommend you view D.O.A. at your own discretion.

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