film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Giant (1956)

Giant (1956) | The Film Spectrum

I grew up during the heyday of the “TV event” miniseries – those big overwrought TV movies, usually told in four or five one-hour episodes, and usually based on equally-big popular novels. They often followed a single family’s story across several years and a couple generations, or the tragic (always tragic) years-long love story between a doomed couple. Or changes in financial fortune, due to lightning-quick lucky breaks or a vengeful sabotage. The tropes in these series became so consistent that a few years back, a team made a spoof miniseries starting Kristen Wiig and Tobey Maguire, and it was popular enough to inspire a sequel. ….I was usually too young for any of them, but remember the TV ads breathlessly promoting them all, turning up again and again.

Which is why even though I’ve never seen Giant before, it felt strangely familiar. It ticks several of the same trope boxes – the decades-long scope, the focus on a single family and their children, the unrequited love that fuels one man’s greed. Even a final grudge-settling battle between rivals. But where those miniseries seemed bombastic, here they felt…compelling. I joked to Roommate Russ that Giant was to be commended for actually taking those tropes and “doing them right.”

Giant: Revisiting George Stevens Epic, Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth  Taylor, and James Dean in his Last Role | Emanuel Levy

The family in question is the Benedicts, a wealthy Texas ranch family currently helmed by Jordan Jr. (Rock Hudson). He makes a journey to Maryland to buy a horse, but also discovers Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the horse owner’s comely daughter, and returns to Texas with both. It’s a bumpy transition for Leslie – Jordan has some, er, archaic views of womens’ roles in society, and has some deep-seated prejudices against the Mexican farmhands working the ranch. But Leslie’s spirited challenges serve to change the status quo (somewhat) and charm Jordan even more.

They also charm Jett (James Dean), a hired-hand on the ranch. Jett is a bit of a slacker when we first meet him, but is under the wing of Jordan’s boss-lady sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) so Jordan can’t fire him. But when Luz is killed in an accident, she leaves a corner of the ranch to Jett in her will. It’s poor grazing ground, and Jordan wants him gone, so he offers to buy it off him in cash instead. But Jett stubbornly stays – and discovers the patch is rich in oil. It’s Jett’s chance to make something of himself – to prove he’s just as good as that fancy Jordan Benedict. And to impress Leslie. Or maybe one of their daughters….

Giant: Epic of American Growth

The plot is super-soapy. But that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would have done. Perhaps because director George Stevens handles them far more subtly than something like The Thorn Birds would have done – the story just unfolds, and Stevens doesn’t weigh scenes down with a lot of Dramatic Significance. The three leads also turn in some top-notch performances, sometimes underplaying big moments; there’s a scene where Leslie and Jordan are going through a rough patch and discuss a trial separation, and it’s a remarkably understated scene. No one screams, no one cries, there are no dramatic shots. Instead it’s quiet and tense, played simply, and lets the inherent drama of the moment speak for itself.

Stevens also sets up the shots really well. We don’t even see Jordan’s ranch until after we’ve seen Leslie’s home in Virginia – the lush green hills, her cozy (and a bit stuffy) old Colonial house a bit overstuffed with toile and antiques. Our first sight of Jordan’s ranch house is when Leslie sees it – a big mansion sitting all alone in the middle of a huge empty field, blasted brown by the hot sun. That mansion also undergoes some subtle changes over the years, reflecting Leslie’s influence – but they just happen, and we never see Leslie pleading with Jordan that “couldn’t we please take down that old portrait of your daddy” or whatever. Stevens also uses several shots that shrink people down in the landscape – or sometimes shrink things down, as in this iconic screenshot with Jett; sometimes they fortell someone’s shift in fortune, as with this clue that Jett’s influence is soon to become very big indeed.

Giant: Epic of American Growth

Also, interestingly, while the characters all grow over the course of the film, they don’t necessarily finish growing. Jordan’s changing attitude towards Mexican-Americans is a subplot throughout, his dismissive prejudice at the top of the film challenged both by Leslie’s outreach to their community and by his grown son (Dennis Hopper) marrying a Mexican woman. A late scene sees Jordan starting a fistfight with a diner cook who refuses to serve his daughter-in-law – but a couple scenes later, he confesses to Leslie that he’s still wrapping his head around the fact that one of his grandkids is Hispanic. Jordan has not had the kind of miraculous shift in mindset a lesser film would have given him, where he’s completely cured of his racism. But – he has changed, and is continuing to change. It’s a process, it’s heading in the right direction, and it’s going to continue after the movie ends.

The miniseries of the 70s and 80s gave me the feeling they would bore me silly. But if they had been filmed like this, I may have watched a few.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man 1956, directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Film review

Roommate Russ told me, as we settled down for this one, that I would find it “an un-Hitchcock Hitchcock film”. Very quickly I spotted exactly what he meant.

It’s definitely in Hitchcock’s style – a carefully unspooled mystery, moodily-lit scenes, and some innovative camera work. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s tales of An Innocent Man Trying To Clear His Name. But instead of being an action thriller starring a vivacious and suave hero, like with The 39 Steps, this is a much more methodical tale about a modest Everyman, trapped and left utterly at the mercy of a legal system.

It’s based on the true story of Christopher “Manny” Balestrero, a jazz musician caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Hitchcock changes very little of Balestrero’s story (as originally told in Life Magazine); Henry Fonda takes on the role of Balestrero, a standing bass player with a wife and two kids and a regular gig at the Stork Club. They live in a tiny apartment in Queens, but they’re happy – his two sons idolize him, as does his wife, and he dotes on them all as well. He also gets on great with his in-laws and pays regular visits to his mother over in New Jersey. Sure, the Stork Club doesn’t pay much and they sometimes struggle to make ends meet because of things like mortgage payments or doctor bills, but somehow they figure out how to make it work out. So when Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs dental work, Manny has the idea to borrow against her life insurance policy, and stops by the insurance agency one afternoon.

Is Robert Durst the Wrong Man? How The Jinx is straight out of Hitchcock |  Robert Durst | The Guardian

However, that branch office had recently been hit by an armed robber, one who’d also hit a handful of other local businesses. And the clerk Manny speaks to thinks he looks a little familiar, and so do a couple of the other clerks across the room…one panicky call to the local precinct later, and Manny is met on his doorstep by three plainclothes detectives, politely but firmly asking if he wouldn’t mind coming down to the precinct right now and just answering some questions?

Beyond The Frame: The Wrong Man - The American Society of Cinematographers

For the next hour, we watch Manny’s through the legal system through his eyes, and in excruciating detail. We see the calm and careful questioning from the detectives about his whereabouts, but we hear the threat in their voices. We watch the circumstantial evidence stack higher and higher. We see all the scary details of Manny’s arrest just after he sees them – the handcuffs, the inkpad on the fingerprint table, the shoes of the men all crammed into the paddy wagon with him, the hard bed in his pitifully small cell. We get excited over every possible alibi, and our hearts sink each time one falls through. Worst of all, we start to worry when the stress starts getting to Rose and she acts more and more erratic.

Wisely, even though Rose starts to break down, Manny doesn’t. The real Manny didn’t necessarily break down either; but Hitchcock could have easily gotten away with writing in a scene where a weeping Manny falls to his knees and prays for deliverance (the real Manny apparently did spend his whole night in central booking in prayer). But instead, except for a swoopy camera at one point meant to show Manny is dizzy, most of what we see during Manny’s arrest is Henry Fonda quietly insisting he’s innocent before he lapses into dumbstruck silence, and then the growing cornered-animal fear in his eyes as he’s taken to a prison and shuffled into a cell. He is utterly trapped, and the fear has paralyzed him. Even the one scene where Manny does pray, he just looks at picture of Jesus on the wall and silently mouths the words to a private prayer (to be fair, this is setting up a bit of trickery that I won’t spoil). It’s a beautifully restrained performance befitting a restrained and methodical story, about a genuinely good guy being treated like a criminal and not having any clue how to respond.

Watch The Front Row | "The Wrong Man" | The New Yorker Video | CNE | | The New Yorker

It’s also somehow a very un-Hollywood story, as well as an un-Hitchcock film. I initially wasn’t a fan of the final scene (about which I will keep mum) – I thought it was a little superfluous, and thought it could have skipped straight from the penultimate scene to Hitchcock’s final “where are they now” title card. Roommate Russ and I had a friendly debate about that after – he argued that it lent more emotional weight to Manny’s ordeal to actually see that scene. And I’m realizing he was right – leaving out that scene would have ended things on a much higher note, without letting us finally feel the fear and sorrow and loss that Manny’s panic was keeping him – and us – from feeling. The real Manny didn’t get a nice pat Hollywood ending; it made sense for Hitchcock not to give him one either.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

Terror with both feet on Earth: Invasion of the Body Snatchers | BFI

Strangely, I think I need to dedicate this review to my physical therapist, since we have been discussing this film for our past three appointments. She begins each session with some hands-on massage and treatment, coaxing my weak and wounded knee into bending just a tiny bit further than last time while I lie on my back and wince. This doesn’t give me much else to do, so ever since I told her about this blog, she asks about “what’s the last film you saw” to distract me.

Surprisingly, she hadn’t ever heard of this film – one which I’d heard about for years. So for her sake, in case there are others similarly unfamiliar: Kevin McCarthy is Dr. Miles Bennell, a doctor in the small California town of Santa Mira. He returns from a business trip to messages from his head nurse that a number of patients had been urgently asking to see him, each with the same complaint – they feared that something was wrong with one of their other family members. Even more curious, now that Dr. Bennell is back and following up with them, many wave away their complaints and insist that it was nothing. One patient, Wilma (Virginia Christine), still has concerns, so he visits her for a consult, and she says that something just seems off about her father. He looks fine, he seems mentally all there, but…there’s something emotionless and hollow about him. In fact, Wilma insists, it’s almost like her real father were stolen and replaced with an identical-looking imposter.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter Kevin McCarthy | Wynter, Kevin  mccarthy, Body

It’s an outrageous claim, and Dr. Bennell makes a mental note to get Wilma a psych consult. But he’s a bit distracted when he learns that Wilma’s cousin Becky (Dana Wynter), his old girlfriend, is back in town and conveniently single. And, Becky is all too eager for a date that night (as soon as Bennell sets something up for Wilma, of course). But no sooner have they settled down to their pre-dinner drinks when Bennell gets a call from a panicked-sounding friend of his, Jack (King Donovan) – Jack has just discovered a body in his basement. But not until Bennell and Becky show up do they discover that this body is actually a copy of Jack. Bennell later discovers a similar lifeless copy of Becky in Becky’s basement, and summons police. But both bodies have disappeared by the time police turn up, with the psychiatrist in tow, and all try to convince Bennell and Jack that they were just seeing things. But…there’s something a little uncanny about them all. Something emotionless and hollow….

Watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers | Prime Video

I had to explain to my physical therapist that this was the origin of the term “pod people”, because of the cocoon-like pods in which these duplicate bodies grow before taking over their hosts. And that gradually, Dr. Bennell and Becky find themselves on the run from everyone in town, all of whom seem to be attempting to turn them into “pod people” themselves before mass-producing them and spreading them around the country. “This kind of paranoia was classic 1950s sci-fi,” I told my therapist, “everyone out to get you.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The thing is, though – I had assumed that the real “danger” the film was warning about was Communism. A handful of conversations Dr. Bennell have with some “pod people” urging him to give in seem to support that – they speak of the benefits of living in “an untroubled world” where “everyone is the same”, and how life is much simpler without complex emotions and individuality. However, some contemporary critics have argued just as strong a case for McCarthyism being the boogeyman – the near-forced conversions, the relentless hunt to root out dissent. Still others pointed to the stories of brainwashing techniques being tested on Korean War P.O.W.’s.

Ironically, the filmmakers intended none of these. Director Don Siegel had something of an allegory in mind, but he was thinking more of conformity in general, without ascribing it to any political mindset. Kevin McCarthy also stated in later interviews that they were making a simple thriller film, and producer Walter Mirisch backed McCarthy up in his autobiography: “I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

And it works quite well as a thriller – a slowly-unfolding mystery, a couple of good jump scares, several moments of will-they-escape-in-time. Siegel also wisely avoids falling into the “special effects” trap, relying on moody lighting and the actors’ performances to carry the storytelling. There are those seed pods, but they’re mostly just static props, more intimidating in numbers when you see a great pile of them ready to be shipped off throughout the country. Becky has somewhat more agency than the typical hero’s-girlfriend as well, and the film does not end with a happy “and-now-we-are-safe” moment where they collapse with relief into each other’s arms.

What are the sexual politics of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? | Watch |  The Take

Speaking of the ending, too – I’m not going to spoil things, but I’d heard that there was a last-minute change to the end that dramatically alters the story of the film. The original ending was a good deal more pessimistic, and studios insisted on an epilogue of sorts. I’ve been thinking about the film both ways – and while the new ending is a bit more “Hollywood” happy, I have to say I didn’t mind it. …Although my physical therapist agreed that this kind of Hollywood ending can be a bit far-fetched.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Written On The Wind (1956)

Written on the Wind (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Greetings! I return, rejuvenated by the promise of change for my country and the end of some weird muggy weather we’ve had in New York lately. Although, that spunk was somewhat countered by the film – much like Bigger Than Life, this was another film I was dragging my feet on watching, thanks to the description. Written On The Wind was pitched to me as being about a love triangle among the heirs to an oil baron, which made the whole thing sound less like a film and more like a random episode of Dallas. Fortunately no one in the film was named “Bobby” or “J.R.”, and Lauren Bacall was one of the stars here – but the Douglas Sirk melodrama certainly made it feel kind of familiar to this Gen-X baby.

Written on the Wind. 1956. Directed by Douglas Sirk | MoMA

Bacall is “Lucy Moore”, who starts off as an executive assistant in the marketing department for Hadley Oil, the company founded by an old-school Texas oil baron Jasper Hadley. Jasper still keeps a tight hold on the company, since his two kids – son Kyle (Robert Stack) and daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) – are too busy partying. Fortunately, there is Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a childhood friend of Kyle and Marylee who’s grown up into a responsible, hard-working geologist in the company. It’s Mitch who meets Lucy first, when he drops by the New York office of Hadley oil and discovers her there. He was going to ask her boss to join him for lunch at 21 with Kyle, who’s spontaneously taken a private jet up from Texas; but the pretty and witty Lucy enchants him, and he makes it a date.

WRITTEN ON THE WIND ( 1956 ) – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

However, Kyle’s also just as enchanted with Lucy when he meets her. He’s also far more aggressive in his pursuit, talking Lucy onto his private jet for further adventures (unsuccessfully trying to ditch Mitch on the way). Lucy is nonplussed, and almost bails when Kyle tries flying the trio to Miami Beach for the weekend. But she’s caught off guard when Kyle drops the playboy act, admitting it’s been getting old. To Kyle and Lucy’s great surprise, she marries him.

Written on the Wind (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Mitch and Marylee are equally as surprised. But Mitch is supportive – he still carries a torch for Lucy, but has to admit that she’s a good influence on him; he’s given up drinking and carousing, and is starting to actually buckle down and contribute to the company. Marylee isn’t as convinced that Kyle’s reformed – but she’s more bothered by Mitch’s pining for Lucy, since she’s pining for Mitch herself. If Kyle throws Lucy out, she thinks, it would also take Lucy away from Mitch – so when Kyle and Lucy hit a rough patch, she gets to work. The only trouble is, the loyal Lucy and the upright Mitch haven’t quite gotten over each other, which adds an unpredictable element to Marylee’s plans…

Y’all, typing that all out makes me feel like I’m in high school. This is shot beautifully, and the performances are all fine, but it all feels like overwrought and disposable mind candy, pretty people having exciting problems just so you can watch them and get distracted for a while and then forget the second you look away. The critic for the New York Times panned it, complaining that “nothing really happens, the complications within the characters are never clear and the sloppy, self-pitying fellow at the center of the whole thing is a bore.” I agree completely.

Written On The Wind – Reel Film Reviews

Interestingly, contemporary critics have argued that the heightened melodrama is kind of the point. Roger Ebert argued that Douglas Sirk was intentionally going camp, edging just up to the edge of incredulity as a way to poke fun at the melodramas that took themselves more seriously. “His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony—he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he’s not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style…. If you only see the surface, it’s trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration, and the satirical humor, it’s subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.” Even if that is the case, that doesn’t change the fact that watching this film still requires sitting and watching pretty people have overwrought problems for 90 minutes, and….I’m fine not doing so. I wasn’t into the 80s prime-time soaps either anyway, for precisely the same reason.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Review: Bigger than Life

Confession first – this was a film I avoided for a while solely based on the description, as it sounded like it would be a bit of a histrionic melodrama. It took the boredom of enforced bedrest and the need to progress on the list to get me to watch. But I will admit – I was wrong to judge.

Not that it’s a new favorite, mind, but it was a good deal more affecting than I thought it be – thanks mostly to lead James Mason, who stars here as schoolteacher Ed Avery. He’s well-liked at work – respected by the principal and by his colleagues – and happily married with a son. He does secretly work as a taxi dispatcher a couple times a week to support them, but considers it a small sacrifice to sustain his peaceful, “boring” suburban lifestyle, along with maybe the occasional small treat for wife Lou (Barbara Rush) or son Richie (Christopher Olsen). The bigger problem, though, are strange fits of severe pain that have been gripping him more and more often. When Lou finally drags him to the doctor, he is diagnosed with a rare inflammatory disease, one which could kill him within a year. However – his doctor says they’re conducting a drug trial for that very disease, treating it with regular doses of cortisone. Would he be interested in signing up?

Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - Criterion Collection #507 [Blu-ray Review]

Ed says yes, of course. And after the first few doses – he’s feeling fantastic. He’s pain-free for the first time in a long time, he’s got boundless energy, and is generally feeling fantastic. He’s in such a good mood his first night back from the hospital that he brings Lou and Richie out on the town for a shopping spree, with a new bike for Richie and two designer frocks for Lou. He’s riding high back at the school, with energy to keep up with both his own class and a colleague’s – although that’s because he accidentally double-doses with the cortisone. But that little discovery leads him to double-dose more frequently so he can keep riding the high – a move which gradually shifts his mood from mania into outright psychosis.

Now, that is the description I read, which lead me to envision a lot of Big Acting Moments and Scenery Chewing for Mason. But he goes way more subtle, to the point that it was just as hard for me as it was for anyone in the film to agree on precisely when his behavior became a real problem. His psychotic break at the end is obvious, but all the earlier warning signs are much more fuzzy. Was the stern speech he makes at a PTA meeting a warning sign? One parent actually applauds his words, so maybe not. How about his drilling Richie on his homework? Is that mania, or just dedication? Or how about when he discovers Lou has been secretly calling the school gym teacher Wally (Walter Matthau) to discuss their concerns about him, and Ed assumes they’re having an affair? Isn’t that understandable? When he dramatically quits the taxi job and tells them the job is beneath him, how much of that is the cortisone – and how much is his id finally feeling like it can speak up? Mason’s performance is so subtle and so controlled that he never goes into a full-on stereotypical “mad scene”, even at the end when he is definitely in psychosis and babbling about drawing inspiration from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

There were even a couple of story angles that had relevance for today. Abusing prescription drugs is an obvious one – a couple scenes show Ed going to increasingly greater lengths to keep up his cortisone supply, and if you swapped out “cortisone” for “oxycontin” they would fit almost seamlessly into a contemporary tale. As would Lou’s reluctance to call Ed’s doctor for help; she’s concerned for Ed, but she’s also concerned that looping doctors in again would cost more money than they have. They’re already struggling with Ed’s prescription – especially after he’s quit his taxi job, and after his shopping spree wiped out their savings – and any extra hospital stays might lead to a loss of work and a loss of income and doesn’t all of that sound like it’s from a modern drama?

Bigger Than Life - Film | Park Circus

The film does opt for a more 1950s happy ending, which did ring a bit false considering Ed’s state right before. But that’s just as much a comment on how skillfully Mason was showing us Ed’s state of mind just before.