Moby Dick (1956)

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Directed by John Huston
Written by Ray Bradbury and John Huston from the novel by Herman Melville
1956/USA
Moulin Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental

Captain Ahab: From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale.

In a time before the Save the Whale movement, John Huston captured the grandeur and deeper meaning of the Herman Melville classic novel.  Better yet, in the end it is the Whale, or make that Nature or an Omnipotent God, that triumphs.

The film is remarkably faithful to the novel in plot, setting and dialogue.  In 1841 a man (Richard Basehart) who asks us to call him Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He is tired of life on shore and wants to find out what whaling is like.  At the inn, he is told he will have to share a bed.  Thus he meets Queequeg, a cannibal harpooner, and the two become fast friends.  They vow to ship out together and are hired for a three-year voyage on the Pequod.  Before the ship sails, a stranger called Elijah predicts disaster for the ship and its Captain.

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Pip: That ain’t no whale; that a great white god.

Early in the voyage, we see the camaraderie among the sailors and watch them work.  Eventually, Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) emerges from his cabin and announces a reward for the first man that spots the white whale named Moby Dick that cost him his leg.  Moby Dick is a renowned behemoth that has maimed more than one man and sank more than one ship.  The men are game but Starbuck (Leo Gann), the Chief Mate, is troubled.

He becomes more troubled when Ahab insists going after Moby Dick before concentrating on filling the ship’s hold and returning home.  But Starbucks idea of mutiny is not shared by the other men and Ahab carries on until Elijah’s prophecy is fulfilled.  With Orson Welles as a preacher who delivers a sermon on the story of Jonah.

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I didn’t have high hopes for this film as I love the novel but thought it would be impossible for any film to convey what makes it great.  Huston managed admirably however.  This is largely accomplished by skillful lifting of the actual language of the text and a production design that looks to be taken from 19th Century illustrations.  I’m not a huge Gregory Peck fan but he is ferocious and a perfect Ahab here.

Like the novel, this film is more about Ahab’s blasphemy in trying to get vengeance on Fate, Nature, or God than it is a simple whaling adventure.  Huston captures the biblical underpinnings of the novel brilliantly while keeping the action engaging as well.  The whale hunts were not too graphic for me.  Recommended.

This post is part of The Animals in Film Blogathon being hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Other excellent posts on this theme can be found here.

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1956 Recap and 10 Favorite Films

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I have now watched 102 films released in 1956.  The complete list is here. My new randomized viewing schedule worked in keeping me interested.  In fact, the random number generator saved some of the best films for last this time!

1956 is not noted as a “great” year in film history but I ended it with too many films I rated 9/10 or above to fit on my list of personal favorites.  I had a hard time selecting among them or ranking them. Also rans were:  AttackPatternsSomebody Up There Likes Me; Street of Shame; Le mystere Picasso; Early Spring; A Town Like Alice; and Secrets of Life.  Note:  I am saving my review of Moby Dick for the upcoming Animals in Film blogathon.  Totals include that film.  I will revise this post if necessary.

10.  Baby Doll – directed by Elia Kazan

BABY DOLL, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, 1956

9.  The King and I – directed by Walter Lang

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8.  Bigger Than Life – directed by Nicholas Ray

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7.  The Killing – directed by Stanley Kubrick

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6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers – directed by Don Siegel

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5.  Aparajito – directed by Satyajit Ray

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4.  The Bad Seed – directed by Mervyn LeRoy

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3.  The Burmese Harp – directed by Kon Ichikawa

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2.  The Red Balloon – directed by Albert Lamorisse

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  1.  The Searchers – directed by John Ford

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The Wrong Man (1956)

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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail
1956/USA
Warner Bros.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#326 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Lt. Bowers: An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that.

This moving true story is surely the saddest that Hitchcock ever made.

Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) plays the bass fiddle in the orchestra at the Stork Club. Not the stereotypical musician, he is a quiet family man with a wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and two young sons.  He doesn’t drink and is always on time.  The family is barely scraping by so, when Rose must have expensive dental treatment, he decides to see if he can borrow on her life insurance policy.  Then the nightmare begins.

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When Manny goes to the insurance company, one of the workers is sure she recognizes him as the man that held up the office at gunpoint twice before.  She asks around and soon everybody agrees with her.  So the police pick Manny up, they think they have additional proof of his guilt, and soon he is under arrest for armed robbery.  Things go from bad to worse as Rose starts blaming herself for the whole mess.

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I’m a bit of a true crime buff and you rapidly learn that there is nothing quite so unreliable as eyewitness testimony.  That’s all the police really had on Manny.  Yet while you are watching the film, you can understand their point of view completely.  The tragedy of the thing is that this crime is a matter of every day routine for the cops and the prosecutor, who don’t mean badly, but it has the potential to ruin Manny’s entire life and that of his family.  Fonda is perfect in this part.  I like this one a lot.  Recommended.

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Elena and Her Men (1956)

Elena and Her Men (Elena et les hommes)elena-and-her-men-ingrid-bergman-1956
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Jean Serge
1956/Italy/France
Franco London Films/Les Films Gibe/Electra Compagnia Cinematografica
Repeat viewing/My DVD collection

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” ― Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

One would hardly know that a great director was behind this lackluster farce.

The beautiful Polish Countess Elena Sokorowska (Ingrid Bergman) has many admirers and a talent for bestowing good luck upon her favorites through the gift of a daisy.  Her household has run out of pearls to sell though and she decides to marry an elderly munitions manufacturer.  One day she goes out to glimpse General François Rollan (Jean Marais, a war hero.  She meets Henry de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer), who takes her to meet his friend Rollan.  She gives the General a daisy and he is named as the next Minister of War.

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Elena goes off to the country home of her intended but keeps being drawn back to the General, who falls on hard times whenever his lady throws away his daisy.  It is the clever Chevincourt who really loves her, however, and he plots to win her amid the political intrigue surrounding Rollan.

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I forgot almost everything about this film as soon as I turned it off.  Bergman and the scenery looked very beautiful but there seemed to be no point to telling this story.  For me, it just lacked the humor and romance that could have saved it.

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The Killing (1956)

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Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson from a novel by Lionel White
1956/USA
Harris-Kubrick Productions
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant

Johnny Clay: You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is.

Early in his career, Kubrick had it all together.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has emerged from five long hard years of prison and immediately sets out planning a spectacular robbery designed to let him retire from his life of crime and marry his patient girlfriend (Colleen Grey).  We watch the planning of an elaborate scheme to steal up to $2 million in the take of a race track before it can be delivered to the armored car.  The set-up involves a number of moving parts, including a couple of insiders, a muscle man, a sniper and a crooked cop.

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As always with these things, the hit relies on each of its members.  And if we ever learned anything, it is that you can’t trust a criminal.  With Elisha Cook Jr. as a race track cashier and Marie Windsor as his bored and greedy wife.

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This film is only 85 minutes long and each minute is packed with style. The camera work is gorgeous.  Although this has a classic heist plot, I have deliberately kept the plot synopsis brief so viewers can savor every development.  It has one of the great ironic endings and last lines of all time IMHO.  Highly recommended.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Daniel Mainwaring from a serial in Collier’s magazine by Jack Finney
1956/USA
Walter Wanger Productions
Repeat viewing/My DVD collection
#324 of 1001 Moview You Must See Before You Die

Dr. Miles J. Bennell: In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.

It is amazing how much horror can be created with with a simple story and limited special effects.

Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) has been called back to his small town practice urgently because of the large number of patients who insist on seeing him.  When he arrives, however, many of these have cancelled their appointments.  He does see one woman who believes the man who is occupying what her uncle’s body is not really her uncle. He refers this patient to a psychiatrist.  These stories seem not to be uncommon.  Miles already encountered a little boy who ran screaming from the woman who he said was not his mother.

A high point to Miles return is running into his old high school sweetheart Becky (Dana Wynter).  In the years since graduation, both have married and divorced.  They rekindle their relationship immediately.

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They don’t have much of a chance to enjoy a romance, though.  Miles is summoned to a friend’s basement where the friend has discovered a blank faced corpse lying on his pool table.  The corpse is beginning to look more and more like the friend.  Gradually, Miles discovers that the whole town seems to be infected by a mysterious ailment.  And something seems determined to add the doctor and his girlfriend to their number …

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This movie is everything science fiction should be, tight paced at only 80 minutes and creepily disturbing.  The script and direction always have me believing in the good doctor’s predicament.  There is an interesting sub-text but whether it is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy is hard to work out.  It may just be a commentary on how social pressures can rob us of our humanity.  Highly recommended.

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Baby Doll (1956)

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Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Tennessee Williams
1956/USA
Newtown Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Baby Doll: Sometimes, big shot, you don’t seem to give me credit for very much intelligence at all. I’ve been to school in my life – and I’m a magazine reader!

I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly was not this fantastic black comedy!

Baby Doll Meghan (Carol Baker) is nineteen years old and sleeps in a crib.  She is married to Archie Meghan (Karl Malden).  They have an “agreement” that the marriage will not be consummated until she turns 20, which will happen in a couple of days.  Baby Doll does not appear to be enthusiastic and makes it clear that her part of the deal is contingent on the couple retaining the furniture they bought on credit.  This seems doubtful as Archie’s decrepit cotton gin has been put out of business by a modern operation in town.

Baby Doll has pretentions of gentility and Archie sees himself as a good ol’ boy but they both behave like stereotypical White Trash.  Archie has liquor bottles stashed around the place which he frequently sips from on the sly.  The couple lives in squalor with Baby Doll’s Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock) who acts as chief cook and bottle washer when she is not over visiting an acquaintance at the hospital in order to nibble on their chocolate candy.

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Finally the furniture company comes and repossesses all the furniture in the house save the nursery set.  In desperation, Archie sets fire to the competition.  Outsider Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his film debut) who operates the gin is on to Archie and arrives to get his cotton processed and get revenge.  It turns out revenge is sweeter than expected when he sets eyes on Baby Doll.

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My sense of humor is idiosyncratic and possibly warped but I thought this was hilarious. The writing is jam-packed with terrific one-liners and double entendres.  I love Eli Wallach and he is deliciously wicked here.  The other actors match him in excellence.  The direction is also fantastic.  I loved all the shots of farm hands of different races cracking up at the goings on.  Recommended.

The film was condemned by the Legion of Decency for “carnal suggestiveness” and led to an organized nationwide boycott by Catholics.  It was cancelled by 77% of the theaters scheduled to show it.  The film is very suggestive but not graphic by any means.

Baby Doll was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actress; Best Supporting Actress (Dunnock); Best Writing, Best Screenplay – Adapted; and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

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The Ten Commandments (1956)

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Directed by Cecil B. de Mille
Written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank from a number of novels
1956/USA
Motion Picture Associates
First viewing/Netflix rental
#317 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Moses: A city is built of brick, Pharoah. The strong make many, the starving make few. The dead make none. So much for accusations.

This is a 3 1/2 hour Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic.  That practically insures I will not be a fan. Nonetheless, the special effects and the sheer scale of the thing managed to keep my attention.

The first and last parts of the film are from the Biblical story.  The adult life of Moses as Prince of Egypt is made up. A soothsayer tells Pharaoh that a child has been born that will deliver the Hebrews from slavery so he decides to kill all the newborn Hebrew infants. Seeking to save her baby son, Moses’ mother (Martha Scott) puts him in a basket and floats him down the Nile.  He is discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter (Nina Foch), a childless widow.  Her handservant (Judith Anderson) is sworn to secrecy.

Moses is raised as a prince. His general nobility endears him to the current Pharoah, Sethi (Cedric Hardwick) and Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter).  The Pharoah’s other son Ramses (Yul Brenner) is determined to be the next Pharoah and is extremely jealous.  Sethi is not too pleased with Ramses who has not finished the city he promised to build.  Ramses blames this on the laziness, etc. of the Hebrew slave workers.  Sethi sends Moses to oversee the construction.  He takes pity on the Hebrews.  Eventually, he finds out his true identity.

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This is really too long and complicated to summarize in more detail.  We have Nefertiri’s lust, a romance between the Hebrew stonecutter Joshua and a beautiful waterbearer, the perfidy of Hebrew overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), the exile of Moses and his later romance with Jethro’s daughter Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo), and then the plagues of Egypt and the Exodus.  With Vincent Price, John Carradine, and seemingly every actor that worked with DeMille during his long career.

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A lot of the dialogue seems laughable today but it has a kind of slightly campy appeal.  A lot of the acting was overdone.  Yet the whole thing has a kind of irresistible grandeur that keeps you watching.

The DVD came with an adulatory commentary from a film historian who got much of her information from conversations with associate producer and actor Henry Wilcoxson. There were a lot of interesting tidbits.  She says that DeMille saw this as a Civil Rights film. I was charmed to learn that Yul Brenner came by his physique naturally.  He didn’t exercise or count calories.  Cecil B. DeMille ended his career with his most profitable and acclaimed film.  There are very few directors that can claim that distinction, especially after so many productions.

The Ten Commandments won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Sound, Recording; and Best Film Editing.

Could this be the all-time longest trailer???

Written on the Wind (1956)

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Directed by Douglas Sirk
Written by George Zuckerman based on a novel by Robert Wilder
1956/USA
Universal International Pictures
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#321 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Kyle Hadley: You’re a filthy liar.

Marylee Hadley: I’m filthy – period!

Dorothy Malone matches the Technicolor in outrageous intensity!  This melodrama is a lot of trashy fun.

Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) is an alcoholic playboy and ne’er-do-well.  He is the heir to a vast Texas oil fortune earned by his level-headed father (Robert Keith).  Old man Hadley had tried to tame his son by also raising the smarter, handsomer, more capable, but poor Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson).  But now the father is at the point on giving up on both of his children including his wild daughter Marylee, who spends her time drinking in dives and picking up men.

As the film begins, Mitch meets Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), an executive secretary at a fashion magazine owned by the Hadley empire.  He takes her to meet Kyle and Kyle decides to make her his latest conquest by plying her with presents.  But Lucy is not about to be conquered this way.  She leaves the playboy flat and he reconsiders and opens up to her.  They fall in love and marry and for awhile it looks like she is straightening him out.

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In the meantime, we find out that Marylee has been in love with Mitch since she was a girl. A lot of her acting out is done out of spite.  But Mitch thinks of her as his sister and is secretly in love with Lucy.  The story builds to a crescendo as the sibling rivalry (counting Mitch as one of the siblings) plays out in the most dramatic way possible.

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I have mentioned my favorite parts of this film – the eye-popping color and Malone.  I just love that bright red convertible Marylee drives and Kyle’s orange sportscar.  Marylee’s costumes are also fabulous.  The scenery, especially the autumn foliage by a river, is also glorious.  Malone takes her character straight over the top in the most enjoyable way possible.  I love her mambo or whatever it was.  Recommended for fans of this kind of thing.

Dorothy Malone won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  The film was nominated in the categories of Best Supporting Actor (Stack) and Best Music, Original Song (“Written on the Wind”).

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Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: kettô Ganryûjima)samurai-iii-duel-at-ganryu-island-la-locandina-del-film-278277
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Written by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao from a play by Hideiji Hojo and a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa
1956/Japan
Toho Company
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Musashi Miyamoto: Brace up, Akemi.
“A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced in its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.” ― Joseph Conrad, A Set Of Six

There are a couple of gorgeously shot and spectacular sword fights in the last installment of the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy.  They are the highlights of the film.

Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) has continued on his quest to perfect his sword fighting and improve his character.  His rival Sasaki Kojira is itching for a fight.  They meet and eventually set up a fight for the following year.  Miyamoto retreats to a village where he works as a humble farmer.  Lady love Otsu finally locates him there.

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In the meantime, Otsu’s rival Akemi has hooked up with Kojiro.  She is still pining for Miyamoto however and eventually takes off to try to find him.  There is a face off between Otsu and Akemi.  What will be left for Musashi after he tests himself with the only worthy rival remaining in Japn?

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The title duel takes place on the shores of an island at sunset and is extremely beautiful as well as exciting.  It’s the reason I rank this picture ahead of the two prior films.  Toshiro Mifune is excellent but is not given the complexity that Kurosawa offered for this character.