The Searchers (1956)

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Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan Le May
1956/USA
Warner Bros./C.V. Whitney Pictures
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#318 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Reverend Clayton: You wanna quit, Ethan?

Ethan: That’ll be the day.

My husband said “It’s that sad Western, isn’t it?” That’s right.  Also the really beautiful one with the great John Wayne performance.

Ethan Edwards (Wayne) comes home to the Texas wilderness three years after the civil war.  He has a cache of Yankee gold which he never really explains, giving him a mysterious air.  “Home” is the household of his brother Aaron, sister-in-law Martha, nieces Lucy and Debbie, blood nephew Ben and adopted nephew Martin Pawley.  Wordlessly, we learn that Martha and Ethan have feelings for each other.  Also that Ethan resents Martin for his 1/8 Cherokee heritage.  Lucy is being courted by Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey Jr.), son of Swedish settler Lars Jorgenson (John Qualen).  Martin is shyly courting Jorgenson’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles).  Debbie is maybe ten years old.

On the very night of Ethan’s return, Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to call.  Clayton is also a Captain in the Texas rangers and is there to deputize Martin and Aaron on a mission to chase some Indians who have slaughtered Jorgenson’s cattle.  Ethan volunteers to take Aaron’s place.  It turns out that the rustling was a trick to draw the men away from their homes.  By the time Ethan and Martin can return to the Edwards homestead the Indians have burned the place down.  They find the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben.  Lucy and Debbie have been spirited away to some unspeakable fate.

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The Raiders set out on the trail of the war party.  Clayton and Ethan clash over strategy, Ethan always favoring the most brutal method, and eventually the Raiders go home leaving Ethan and Martin to search on their own.

So begins a search that lasts many years.  Martin and Ethan spar throughout.  Martin is determined to stick with Ethan to the end though as he fears that Ethan will kill Debbie if he finds she has adopted Indian ways.  With Olive Carey, Hank Worden, and Wayne’s son Patrick.

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I seem to love this film more every time I see it.  The vistas and compositions leave me awestruck.  It’s also a powerful story of racism in the old West along with the bravery and strength of the people who conquered it.  Wayne was never better.  He has a taciturn, savage edge  that complements his heroism.  Most highly recommended.

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Rodan (1956)

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Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeshi Kimura, Takeo Murata, and Ken Kuronuma; English version by David Duncan
1956/Japan
Toho Film (Eiga) Company Ltd.
First viewing/Amazon Instant

Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, that is their tragedy. — Ishirô Honda

Color doesn’t do the special effects in this kaijû movie any favors.

Another H-bomb test awakens not one but two different species of prehistoric monster. Deep in a mine under a dormant volcano (?), miners are dying of horrific injuries.  A survivor finally identifies the culprit as a huge insect, later discovered to be a species extinct for million of years.  Then gigantic eggs begin to hatch.  The good news is that the hatchlings eat the insects.  The bad news is that they promptly take wing and fly like supersonic jets.  Mass destruction ensues.

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This movie is in the Godzilla series but with an oddly comic looking giant lizard/chicken in the lead.  The tanks are clearly models and I think I saw jet trails coming out of the flying pterodactyl.  I watched the dubbed version which probably also detracted.

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Bus Stop (1956)

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Directed by Joshua Logan
Written by George Axelrod from the play by William Inge
1956/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Marilyn Monroe Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Cherie: I hate you and I despise you! Now give me back my tail!

There’s a lot you can say against this movie, yet somehow I always enjoy it.

Young Bo Decker (Don Murray) owns a ranch in Montana and is an expert rodeo rider.  He has been raised by friend Virgil Blessing (Arthur O’Connell).  Bo has led a very sheltered existence and Virgil has decided that the time has come for him to “meet a gal”.  The perfect opportunity will come in Phoenix, where Bo will compete in a rodeo.  Bo announces that the girl for him will be an angel.

The very first night in Phoenix Bo spots his “angel”.  She is Cherie (Marilyn Monroe), who is cadging drinks at a local dive bar and singing, badly, now and then.  Cherie has been raised in the school of hard knocks but sees herself on a direct route to Hollywood and stardom.  Bo makes the drunks in the bar shut up and listen to Cherie sing, she is grateful, and they step outside the bar where she confesses she is attracted to him.

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This is all Bo needs to hear and wedding bells are chiming.  Cherie is baffled and has no intention of marrying anyone.  But Bo is used to getting his way and simply kidnaps her. The saga plays out at a roadside diner where the bus to Montana is forced to overnight by a snowstorm.  With Eileen Heckart, who is rapidly becoming my favorite actress of 1956, as Cherie’s waitress friend; Betty Field as the proprietress of the diner; and Hope Lange, in her film debut, as the diner’s waitress.

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The number one complaint about this movie is of course the matter-of-fact attitude it takes toward the abduction and the resolution of the relationship between Cherie and Bo.  I’m not going to try to excuse this.  Then there is some questionable acting, notably from the usually reliable Field who for some reason puts on a bad Mae West imitation.  I just find something sweet about the very vulnerable Monroe character.  O’Connell is good and Murray is convincing.  Not for everyone for sure.

Don Murray was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

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Early Spring (1956)

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Directed by Yasujirô Ozu
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu
1956/Japan
Shôchiku Eiga
Repeat viewing/Netflix

 

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” ― Katharine Hepburn

Ozu gives us an exquisitely told story of quiet desperation and the breakdown of a marriage.

Masako and Shoji Sugiyama made a love match.  They have been married for several years now.  They are childless and we learn during the course of the film there was a child who died early in the marriage.  They have long since stopped spending much time together.  Shoji works as a salary man in a large company and frequently comes home late.  He regularly gets together with a bunch of friends who commute on the same train.  Masako is fed up and can console herself only with visits to her mother and sometimes with a widowed friend.

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“Goldfish”, one of the friends from the train, has no problem with Shoji’s marital status and goes after him.  They begin an affair and Shoji starts lying to his wife about where he is spending his evenings.  She senses something is wrong immediately but does nothing until the evidence is unmistakable.

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This movie is as much about the disappointing existence of a salary man as it is about infidelity.  There are many quietly poignant scenes conveying Ozu’s frequent theme of the necessity to accept life for what it is.  As usual, it seemed like nothing much was happening until all the threads were resolved and I had tears in my eyes. Recommended.

Clip – opening scene

The Violent Years (1956)

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Directed by William Morgan
Written by Edward D. Wood Jr.
1956/USA
Headliner Productions
First viewing/Amazon Instant

 

Paula Parkins: Hi, Mom. Got time to talk a minute? It’s rather important.

Jane Parkins: Good gracious, no! I’m an hour late already! “Charity First” and all that sort of thing, you know. Besides, what can be so important in your young life as to warrant my attention so drastically?

Ed Wood’s writing nicely balances the overall quality of this film.

The story is framed by what turns out to be a petition by grandparents to adopt their daughter’s baby.  The judge castigates the parents for poor parenting and we segue into flashback.  Paula Perkins wants to talk but her mother is too busy with her charities. Father is a newspaper editor who works 24/7.  Lately he has been covering the rampages of a gang that has been robbing gas stations.  Of course Paula is the ring leader.

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Paula’s girl gang rob a young couple in lover’s lane and rape the man.  They have wild pajama parties with boys.  Finally, their fence gets them a job with “foreigners” vandalizing high schools.  It is this last crime that escalates to murder.  Paula narrowly escapes the death penalty because of her youth.  She had been complaining of strange “cramps” which turns out to be the baby to be.  We segue back to the courtroom and the judge delivers a long lecture on juvenile delinquency and its roots in poor parenting and lack of religion.  During this tirade we get clips highlighting scenes from the movie we have just watched.

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I thought this had potential to be amusing and I did chuckle and groan a couple of times. It lacks a lot of the weirdness of Wood’s own work, though, and is more boring than a good “bad” picture should be.

Trailer – back when terrorism meant high schoolers knocking over a few desks

The Bad Seed (1956)

The Bad Seedbad seed poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
John Lee Mahin from a play by Maxwell Anderson and a novel by William March
1956/USA
Warner Bros.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Leroy: [to Rhoda] I thought I’d seen some mean little gals in my time, but you’re the meanest. You wanna know how I know how mean you are? ‘Cause I’m mean. I’m smart and I’m mean, and you’re smart and you’re mean. And you never get caught and I never get caught.

I don’t find this movie scary anymore but, boy, do I love it.

Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) is the kind of eight-year-old I hated in grade school. She is just about perfect.  She wears frilly dresses even to the school picnic but that’s OK because she never gets dirty.  She is unfailingly polite to grown-ups and super-affectionate to her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) and father Kenneth (William Hopper).  If she has a fault, it is a love for pretty things.  She is an expert at wheedling presents out of her parents and landlady Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) who adores her.

As the movie begins, Rhoda’s father, a colonel in the military, is leaving for a month long assignment in Washington DC.  Rhoda is getting ready to go to the picnic.  She is complaining about how unfair it is that classmate Claude Daigle won the penmanship medal when she deserved it herself.

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I’m not going to reveal too much of the plot because this is a movie that absolutely should be seen.  Suffice it to say that Claude winds up being found drowned in the water near a pier at the picnic grounds with strange half-moon marks on his body.  The drowning has been chalked up to an accident but the headmistress of the school would like to get more information from Rhoda, who was the last to see him alive.  So would Claude’s mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart), an alcoholic.  The apartment building’s janitor, the deranged Leroy, is having fun tormenting Rhoda with stories of a “stick blood hound” that will find a murder weapon in the case.  Meanwhile, Christine is slowly losing her mind.

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I saw this for the first time as a pre-teen and loved it.  At that time I thought it was creepy and it certainly is presented as a horror movie, beginning with a scary view of the pier on a dark and stormy night.  As an adult, I thought this was a hoot!  Almost all the actors came from the Broadway play, where they had honed their roles to the very edge of high camp. That is to say they are just perfect for this particular story.  The film is extremely well written and some of the lines had lived in my memory all this time.  The film is very stagy but in this case that did not bother me in the least.  Highly recommended.

The commentary on the DVD has a very fun conversation between Patty McCormack and a film historian.

The Bad Seed was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actress (Kelly); Best Supporting Actress (Heckart); Best Supporting Actress (McCormack) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

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Rock Rock Rock!

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Directed by Will Price
Written by Milton Subotsky; story by Subotsky and Phyllis Cole
1956/USA
Vanguard Productions
First viewing/Amazon Prime

Hey hey, my my/ Rock and roll can never die/ There’s more to the picture/ Than meets the eye./ Hey hey, my my. — Neil Young

I expect everything else about these early rock musicals to be pretty bad, but not the music.  Unfortunately …

Dori (an incredibly young Tuesday Weld) and Tommy are going steady.  The new girl in school has set out to catch her man with a blue strapless evening dress she will wear to the prom.  Dori’s only hope is to buy an even more spectacular dress.  Her father is fed up with her spending and has cut off her credit cards.  So Dori embarks on a complicated and ridiculous scheme to earn the $30 she needs.  The action is broken up by numerous musical interludes both from the actors and from various rock and roll acts.  With Alan Freed as himself and Connie Francis as the singing voice of Tuesday Weld.

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The plot is really stupid and the acting, even from Weld, is pretty bad.  When DJ Alan Freed started croaking along with one of the acts I knew I was in real trouble.  I had never heard of many of these bands for good reason.  There are some name acts – LaVern Baker and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers – but these did not sing their hit songs.  (Lymon’s rendition of “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” is pretty hilarious though.)  If Chuck Berry and Maybelline had not shown up the movie would have been a total loss.

Clip – My candidate for the Godfather of Rock and Roll – now you don’t have to watch the movie

Secrets of Life (1956)

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Directed by James Algar
Written by James Algar
1956/USA
Walt Disney Productions
First viewing/Amazon Instant

 

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ― Albert Einstein

This is the best of the Disney 50’s nature documentaries I have seen so far.

The filmmakers use close-up and stop-motion photography to observe the life processes of subjects such as plants, insects, and sea creatures.

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This is now sixty years old and is still amazing.  It’s all fascinating but I liked the shots of plants the best.  Watching the seeds disperse and plant themselves was great!  There is also a wonderful long section on honeybees.  Recommended.

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Crime in the Streets (1956)

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Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Reginald Rose
1956/USA
Allied Artists Pictures/Lindbrook Productions
First viewing/My DVD collection

 

Mrs. Dane: I’m your mother… MOTHER! God help me when I say it! The word feels dirty in my mouth! ‘Don’t touch me, mother?’ Well, you listen to me! I touched you once! I gave birth to you. I touched you all over! You’re part of my body, and every time I think of it, I wanna wash! You’re garbage, Frankie Dane! I give you up! I give you up!

Here is an interesting, if cliched, juvenile delinquent film noir.

Eighteen-year old Frankie Dane (John Cassavettes) lives in a tiny, shabby apartment with his single mother and younger brother, who is maybe ten or twelve.  Mom is a waitress who constantly complains about how tired she is and is obviously unable to control her son.  Frankie is angst-ridden and sullen but is a natural leader.  He spends every possible moment out on the streets organizing rumbles with rival gangs and harassing passersby. Local social worker Ben Wagner (James Whitmore) works hard trying to bring the boys around but so far has failed miserably.

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After the most recent rumble an interfering neighbor turns in one of the boys for having a zip gun.  Frankie vows revenge.  When he confronts the neighbor, the neighbor shoves him.  Frankie cannot stand to be touched and now starts plotting murder.  Most of the boys refuse to get involved but he can count on psychopath Lou Macklin (Mark Rydell) and fifteen-year-old Angelo (Sal Mineo) who idolizes him.

Can Ben get through to Frankie before a tragedy occurs?  And what about Frankie’s nosy little brother?

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This is very stagy but the acting is powerful.  The dialogue is the weak link.  There is the psychobabble typical of the 50’s, in this case laying the blame for rampant criminality on sibling rivalry and weak or too strict parents, and a lot of it is just too pat.  Cassavettes is strong but is and looks ten years too old for his part.  His v-neck sweater makes him look more like a college student than a street tough.  Still I enjoyed the film for what it was.

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Somebody Up There Likes Me

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Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Ernest Lehman from an autobiography by Rocky Graziano with Rowland Barber
1956/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Netflix rental

Rocky Graziano: Don’t worry ’bout a thing

This was Paul Newman’s first hit.  He will light up the next several decades.

This is the story of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano (Newman).  His birth name was Rocco Barbella.  The Barbellas are poor.  Pa Barbella is an alchoholic ex-fighter who uses “play” fights as an excuse to knock his son around.  Ma Barbella (Eileen Heckart) is a doting mother.  As Rocky grows up, he becomes a severe trial to her.

As soon as he is able, Rocky hits the mean streets and hooks up with a rough gang that specializes in petty theft.  Several stints in reform school do nothing to tame the volatile Rocky.  On one of his rare trips back home, the police collar him and take him down to “volunteer” for the army.  Rocky escapes after knocking out his commanding officer.  While on the lam, he earns money by appearing in prize fights.  Manager Irving Cohen (Elliott Sloane) recognizes his talent and wants to train him.  Before this can happen, Rocky is picked up, court-martialed, and sentenced to a year in Leavenworth.

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Rocky’s stint in prison proves to be the turning point in his life.  His performance in a brawl gets him invited to join the prison’s boxing club and he is trained and worked hard.  He emerges from prison to begin the long road to the championship.  Keeping him on the straight and narrow is his romance with Norma (Pier Angeli).  At the worst possible time, however, the popular fighter’s past comes back to haunt him.  With Sal Mineo and Steve McQueen (in his film debut) as gang members.

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James Dean was signed to play Rocky but was killed before production could start. Newman is surely 100% more suited to this open and uncomplicated character. Wise,who had already directed a fine boxing film, The Set-Up, keeps things moving at a brisk pace.  The fight scenes look great.  The story is warm and human and I was absorbed throughout.  Recommended.

The DVD I watched included a very good commentary by several participants and a film historian.  Most prominent are the voices of Robert Wise and Richard Schickel but Paul Newman, Robert Loggia, and Martin Scorcese all put in appearances.

Somebody Up There Likes Me won Academy Awards in the categories of Best Cinematography, Black-and-White and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.  It was nominated for Best Film Editing.

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