Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at atalentforidleness.blogspot.com,irabrooker.com and @irabrooker.
Yellowneck (1955; R. John Hugh)
Six deserters from the Confederate army stumble through the Florida Everglades in hopes of making their way to Cuba. Plotwise, that’s about all there is to this movie, and that’s a good part of why I like it. It’s strikingly bleak for its era, with little to no attempt made to lionize the no-good losers at the heart of its story. There are no big names in the cast, which gives us a chance to watch a bunch of undervalued character actors relish a rare turn in the spotlight. If this story had been filmed 15 or 20 years later it would’ve been a nihilistic, hyper-violent Euro-Western (it does bear a resemblance to my much-loved Cutthroats Nine). As it stands, it’s a grimy little chronicle of drunks, thieves, killers and cowards going up against Seminoles, crocodiles, sinkholes and other sundry perils, with the best possible end result being an even more dangerous raft journey over open ocean. That’s some grim going for 1955, or any era.
Women’s Prison (1955; Lewis Seiler)
1955 seems to have been something of a watershed for women-in-prison flicks, but they weren’t yet the glorious cesspools of sleaze generally associated with the genre. Movies like this one and its lower-budget analogue Betrayed Women are largely sober and titillation-free, which isn’t to say they’re dry or dull. Quite to the contrary,Women’s Prison vacillates nicely between light-hearted and harrowing, with slick production and energetic pacing that keeps it clipping right along. If you’ve ever seen a women’s prison movie, you’ve already met the fragile new inmate on the verge of cracking, the brassy hard-timer with a heart of gold, the noble male doctor who’s fed up with the system, and of course the sadistic warden. Those roles were already cliches in ‘55, but a solid cast makes the most of them, particularly a hugely appealing Jan Sterling as the inmates’ de facto den mother and a blistering Ida Lupino as the icy-cruel overseer who’s clearly heading for her comeuppance. Even when you know a tune by heart, it’s fun to hear it played by an old master.
Shack Out on 101 (1955; Edward Dein)
Lee Marvin plays a brutish short-order cook named Slob. That really ought to be all the info you need to make this a must-see, but Edward Dein’s low-key thriller has even more to recommend it than that. Set in an off-season beachside diner run by a machismo-dripping Keenan Wynn, it’s a slow-burning story of love and longing and nuclear espionage. While it’s not the most action-packed entry in the Cold War canon - save for a couple of exterior shots, this could just as well be a filmed play - it’s smartly written, expertly cast and imbued with a melancholy that sets it apart from its higher-octane counterparts. Along with Marvin and Wynn, you get Whit Bissell as a PTSD-stricken watch salesman, Len Lesser as a shady fishmonger and Terry Moore as an aspirational waitress universally known as “The Tomato.”Of course, this being a low-budget 1955 crime movie, you also get Frank Lovejoy, but the rest of the cast radiates enough coolness to balance that out.
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955; Edward L. Cahn)
If I was to pick the most 1955 movie of 1955, it would probably be this loveable bit of sci-fi/horror hokum. A vengeful mobster recruits a reluctant ex-Nazi scientist to reanimate corpses via atomic radiation and build an army of remote-controlled zombie hitmen who can wreak anonymous vengeance on his enemies. Considering that premise, the film takes its science surprisingly seriously and never quite slides into the goofiness that so plainly beckons throughout. America was clearly in a pretty weird headspace in those early Cold War days, and thank heavens for that.
The Looters (1955; Abner Biberman)
I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as backwoods noir, but if it exists, it looks something like this. A charter plane of the damned crashes on a remote mountain. Handsome hermit Rory Calhoun and his drifter buddy Ray Danton track down the survivors, including a self-hating pin-up model, a chipper Navy retiree and a disagreeable banker. When a big bag of cash turns up amongst the wreckage, it doesn’t take long for the inevitable treachery and infighting to surface. While the plot is predictable and the acting is pretty ordinary, the harsh outdoor setting and acid-dripping dialogue push this into darker territory than any number of similar films. Everybody here is deeply damaged and there aren’t many heroes to be found, but there is a sweaty fat guy nervously fingering a rifle. That counts for a lot in my book.