Journeys in Darkness and Light

The Best of 2017: The 1950s

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As was the case with my films from the 1940s, many great film noir movies came out in the 1950s, but you’ll find few of them here. Most of those will have to wait until my Best of Film Noir post sometime in the near future. Yet you’ll find a little bit of everything in this list from the 50s: comedy, science fiction, horror, Westerns, war, drama, and more. Again, these are movies I watched in 2017 for the very first time. I hope you’ll find something to investigate here:

The Ladykillers (1955) Alexander Mackendrick
Noir City 15, Castro Theatre, San Francisco (1:37)

Yes, I could’ve put this film in both my film noir and my British films lists, but I decided to place it in my Best of the 1950s category. Although it played at Noir City this year, I can’t really bring myself to think of it as a film noir, although I probably had more fun watching this film as any other at the festival. The Ladykillers is the last comedy made at the famous Ealing Studios in England and if that’s your final comedy, what a way to go out… Alec Guinness stars as Professor Marcus, the leader of a criminal gang planning a heist. He and his co-conspirators (Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, and Cecil Parker) must meet in the professor’s apartment and fool his landlady Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, who steals the show) into believing that they’re all members of a string quintet meeting to rehearse. Is Mrs. Wilberforce going to do too much snooping around? Will the professor and the boys have to knock her off? This is a priceless comedy. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Fred F. Sears
DVD – library (1:23)

Scientist Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are out driving when they see a flying saucer. Oddly enough, Martin had his tape recorder running during the incident and even more oddly enough, Martin is in charge of a project with the space program that launches research satellites into orbit. How convenient! While Martin tries to convince his supervisors that the saucer is real, he discovers that they are real. But are they friend or foe?

The Ray Harryhausen special effects were excellent for the time and still look good. As with any film from this era, you have to consider the technology, culture, and audiences of the time. If you do, you’ll probably enjoy Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Night of the Demon (1957) Jacques Tourneur
Columbia Tri-Star DVD (1:35/1:22)

I was initially confused about Night of the Demon. Maybe you are, too. Not about the story itself, but its two versions and titles. I’d heard about the film for years and got excited when I finally found it in a used DVD store in San Francisco. The DVD cover promoted the release as a “double feature” with Curse of the Demon paired with Night of the Demon. They are in fact the same film differing in their titles and running times. The film was released in the UK as Night of the Demon with a running time of 95 minutes. For American audiences, the film was cut down to 82 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon.

Based somewhat loosely on the M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes,” the Charles Bennett/Hal E. Chester script involves the investigation of a satanic cult by American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews). The leader of the cult, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), is suspected of killing a professor named Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was planning to investigate Karswell’s activities. Holden meets Harrington’s surviving daughter Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and they quickly learn about Karswell’s strange activities.

Whichever version you watch, Night/Curse of the Demon is a spectacular film, filled with horror, suspense and unease, featuring excellent performances from the entire cast. (It’s especially fun to see Peggy Cummins in a wonderful role, far different from her classic performance in Gun Crazy [1950]). The film suffers only from Hal Chester’s unfortunate decision to show the demon twice in the film, a silly and totally unnecessary move that infuriated both Bennett and Tourneur (who did not shoot the added footage). Yet there’s much more to the story… You may want to check out Ken Hanke’s excellent review of the film for more insight.

The cut scenes include a brief stop at a farmhouse, a trip to Stonehenge, brief exchanges between Karswell and his mother, and a few quick cuts from the seance scene. The film has been available on Blu-ray in French, Spanish, and Italian editions for a couple of years, but alas, we’re still waiting for a domestic Blu-ray release.

The Next Voice You Hear… (1950) William Wellman
Warner Archive DVD (1:23)

I have a scant but powerful memory of seeing a brief portion of The Next Voice You Hear… as a kid. It really shook me up that God would speak to people through the radio, but I always wanted to see the entire film. Well, it only took me about 40 years, but I finally saw it. Considering the concept and the times (1950), I feared the movie would be unintentionally hilarious, but I found it to be quite charming, and in many ways reverent. As mentioned earlier, the voice of God is heard (although we never hear it) throughout radios all over the world for a period of several days. James Whitmore plays Joe Smith (metaphorical much?) who has a pretty good American middle-class life going with his wife Mary (I’m not making this up!), played by Nancy Davis, and son Johnny (Gary Gray). Yet Joe’s workplace is becoming more and more insufferable due to his harsh old-school boss (Art Smith) and he doesn’t know how he’s going to adequately provide for his family when their baby is born.

The voice is all people are talking about, but most everyone still goes about their days with their normal problems, concerns and hangups. Although others tell him the content of the voice’s broadcasts, Joe keeps missing it when it appears on radio programs, yet becomes more and more obsessed with hearing it for himself.

The Next Voice You Hear… could’ve gone so wrong in many ways, but over 65 years later, its message – while not exactly sophisticated in its delivery – is still relevant (perhaps even crucial) for a people who are filled with fear and anxiety and don’t know where to turn. The Next Voice You Hear… certainly isn’t a perfect film, far from it, but it might just make you search for a voice that may be closer than you think.

Forty Guns (1957) Samuel Fuller
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:19)

Unconventional western with Barbara Stanwyck as landowner Jessica Drummond who with her forty hired guns rules a vast amount of territory in Tombstone, Arizona. (No, it’s not the Tombstone story you’re thinking of…) Reformed gunfighter Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) now works for the Attorney General’s office and has come to arrest a man named Swain (Chuck Roberson) for mail robbery. Of course, Swain works for Drummond and she rules her territory like a dictator. Stanwyck is always a force to be reckoned with and this certainly is true with Forty Guns. The main weakness in such a compelling film is the casting of Sullivan, who really can’t hold his own next to Stanwyck (Who could?). I definitely want to revisit this one as I explore more of Samuel Fuller’s work.

The Steel Helmet (1951) Samuel Fuller
Filmstruck (1:25)

This early Samuel Fuller project has the distinction of being one of the few effective Korean War films and the first film to give Gene Evans top billing. Evans (second from the left) plays Sgt. Zack, an infantryman who survives a North Korean POW camp, is freed by a South Korean boy (William Chun), and discovers an American patrol unit led by a weak, indecisive Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie). The film is filled with stereotyped characters, but the story (written by Fuller) is so good and the actors so strong, you’ll quickly overlook the stereotypes. Fans of the Indiana Jones movies will immediately pick up on the fact that Zack calls the South Korean boy “Short Round.”

Dangerous Crossing (1953) Joseph M. Newman
DVD (1:15)

Based on a John Dickson Carr radio play called “Cabin B-13,” Dangerous Crossing begins with Jeanne Crain as Ruth Bowman, recently wed to John Bowman (Carl Betz) as they begin their honeymoon with a European cruise. When her husband disappears at the beginning of the voyage, no one can remember seeing him on the ship. Is Ruth delusional or has something happened to her new husband? And is the ship’s doctor (Michael Rennie) really trying to help Ruth or simply covering up a crime? It’s all been done before and generally done better (Gaslight, The Lady Vanishes, etc.), but I really liked Dangerous Crossing. The performances are good, the atmosphere eerie and director Joseph M. Newman keeps the pacing tight. Maybe this was a case of the right film at the right time; I really enjoyed it. You could do much worse.

The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann
Warner DVD (1:31)

While tracking vicious killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) through the Canadian Rockies, bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart, left) realizes he’s going to need some help. He finds an old prospector (Millard Mitchell, center) and a former Union soldier (Ralph Meeker, right) who’ll be glad to help for a small fee. When they find out a hefty reward is being offered for Vandergroat, the alliance starts to unravel and the men’s true intentions begin to emerge. Superb western from Anthony Mann, also starring Janet Leigh. Dear Warner Archive: please release this magnificent film on Blu-ray soon!

Compulsion (1959) Richard Fleischer
Netflix streaming (1:43)

“We agreed to explore all the possibilities of human experience, didn’t we?”

Compulsion is based on the infamous true story of the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924 in which two wealthy university students kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy in Chicago. Although Compulsion is a fictionalized account of that event, it is enormously powerful, even after nearly 60 years later. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman play Judd Steiner (Leopold) and Artie Strauss (Leob), two rich college kids who kill a boy yet leave behind damaging evidence. The film focuses on the boys’ twisted philosophy and sense of privilege as they become disgusted with anyone of lesser intelligence or breeding. Stockwell and Dillman are excellent in their roles but it’s Orson Welles who steals the show as the famous attorney who takes the boys’ case. Compulsion is one of the very few classic films you’ll find on Netflix these days so catch it there before they realize what a gem it is and get rid of it.

Update: Compulsion is no longer available on Netflix, but you can purchase it in the U.S. from Kino Lorber or in the UK from Signal One.

Bend of the River (1952) Anthony Mann
DVD (1:32)

I just love these Anthony Mann Westerns starring James Stewart… In this one Stewart seeks to help a group of settlers make their way to Oregon. Along the way, he thwarts a hanging, allowing Arthur Kennedy to go free. Was doing so a mistake? The film boasts an excellent supporting cast including Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Royal Dano and many more. I just love a good, solid Western…

That’s it for the 1950s. Stay tuned for more of my Best of 2017 series soon!

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