1955: Part 1

Bad Day at Black Rock. Directed by John Sturges. Quiet but powerful, this examination of racism in a small town is deftly handled by its ensemble cast. Spencer Tracy, Oscar-nominated for his work, is a pillar of courage and dignity as the lead; Robert Ryan is, as always, magnetic as the bad guy at the center of the conflict; Anne Francis is beautiful as the local girl whose allegiance shifts when Tracy shows up; Walter Brennan is his usual dependable self; and Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine make good impressions as two of Ryan’s equally cruel buddies. The film explores race relations in postwar America maturely and realistically, although parts of the film’s climactic standoff feel more like an action flick than what might happen in a real-life situation. Nevertheless, the film benefits from its cinematography; the colors are vivid, expertly photographed by William C. Mellor. Bad Day at Black Rock is not as well-known as many other movies from 1955 but it should be reevaluated as the compelling drama that it is.

The Ladykillers. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. This is a film I’ll never tire of, no matter how many times I see it. Perhaps the greatest comedy ever made by the legendary Ealing Studios, it stars Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, who masterminds a heist. His cronies are played by Cecil Parker, the always great Herbert Lom, Danny Green and a young Peter Sellers. The best actor, however, is Katie Johnson, who is really the heart of the film and deservedly won a BAFTA for her performance. She plays Mrs. Wilberforce, the sweet little old lady whose house serves as the hideout for the criminals. Making matters more complicated: the men pretend to be classical musicians as a front. Besides the dialogue, much of the film’s hilarity lies in its visuals: the shot near the beginning of the film when Professor Marcus’s silhouette is seen on a bulletin board (accompanied by ominous music, of course); Marcus’s absurd teeth; the atmospheric scenes in the train yard; the high angle shots of Mrs. Wilberforce’s house. The tinkling music that often accompanies Mrs. Wilberforce is the icing on the cake. Do yourself a favor and watch this delightful comedy!

Marty. Directed by Delbert Mann. At the center of this sweet, emotional classic is Ernest Borgnine, the unlikely hero of a romantic drama about a butcher approaching middle age and still living with his mother in the Bronx. Borgnine plays the title character with a mix of confidence and kindness. It’s easy to sympathize with him, from his self-loathing because of his weight to the frustrations of a lifelong search for true love. Betsy Blair turns in a winning performance as Clara Snyder, the shy, humble schoolteacher who Marty chances upon at a dance and realizes could be the one. Surprisingly, Marty, essentially an independent film, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first American film to do so. It also won four Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay, written by Paddy Chayefsky, who would later write the chilling and prophetic Network. Chayefsky knew how to represent everyone from the lowliest working-class guy to the fanciest CEO. All in all, Marty is a lovely little film that can give everyone hope.

The Night of the Hunter. Directed by Charles Laughton. I read the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb before seeing the film. I had very high expectations given how much I loved the book and I was not disappointed. Robert Mitchum is pure evil as Harry Powell, the preacher with “love” and “hate” tattooed on each hand. He is an underrated actor; he pushed himself to be more than a pretty face in this and other films, most notably Cape Fear (brimming with raw, brutish sexuality) and Out of the Past. Shelley Winters is excellent as Willa Harper, whose weakness and subsequent marriage to Harry leads to her downfall. Her children, John and Pearl, are forced to go on the run when John realizes the danger they are in. 10-year-old Billy Chapin is terrific as John, the protagonist of the film, and 5-year-old Sally Jane Bruce is good as Pearl. Added to the mix is Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, the tough but compassionate woman who takes John and Pearl into her home. The stark cinematography by Stanley Cortez gives the film its extra edge.

Rebel Without a Cause. Directed by Nicholas Ray. I saw Rebel Without a Cause the day before my seventeenth birthday. It was a hot August day and I was glad to take refuge in the Film Forum. I went alone. After seeing East of Eden some months earlier, I considered myself a fan of James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause proved to be a landmark film screening for me: it felt like a watershed moment in my youth. Although the film is clearly set in 1955, it does not feel dated. Hormones run rampant as each character battles to make a place for himself or herself in a world run by adults. Dean is intense and moving and Natalie Wood also does well as Dean’s friend and later girlfriend, but the actor who really grabbed my attention was Sal Mineo. I knew the bare facts – that he was a contemporary of Dean’s, murdered in 1976 – but I was unprepared for the brilliance of such a captivating young actor. Since Rebel, I’ve seen other films in which Mineo gave great performances (Exodus, Who Killed Teddy Bear), good performances (Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Young Don’t Cry) and phone-it-in performances (A Private’s Affair), Rebel remains Mineo’s definitive film and role as the sensitive John “Plato” Crawford. The film is a cultural milestone and should be seen by every teenager. As Dean tells Mineo when their characters are in the local planetarium: “You can wake up now, the universe has ended.” Rebel Without a Cause is a film you never want to wake up from.

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