Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '55 - James David Patrick ""

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Underrated '55 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at thejamesbondsocialmediaproject.com. Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

Check out his Underrated '85, '75 and '65 lists too:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/03/underrated-james-david-patrick.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/05/underrated-75-james-david-patrick.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/07/underrated-james-david-patrick.html
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Due to my late summer travels, I haven't had time to compulsively compile, rewatch and overanalyze my choices for the Underrated films of 1955. I've had time to look at the list of films released in 1955 and pick the ones that most people just don't talk about. (Not that I often get together with folks and go "So, what's good from 1955?" Though I do think that would be a great way to arrest most bad conversations before they even begin.) This list has been selected according to the whimsy of my potentially faulty memory. I'm okay with that as long as you're okay with potentially checking out one or two of these movies and going "What the bloody hell was that moron thinking?" And that's my escape clause if you disagree with one or all of these picks. The following five features amount to an A-list director making a B-grade picture, a B-list actor directing a feature with A-grade aspirations, and three B-pictures made by B+/A- list actors. That about covers it. 

Il Bidoni (1955, dir. Federico Fellini) 
Fellini directed this "lesser" picture between La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Two of the Italian master's greatest films and two of the most respected films ever made. So naturally the tepid sandwich meat between the two legendary slices of bread is going to feel like a disappointment. But ho! What's that? It's not tepid capicola after all? Let's have some straight talk. La Strada and Cabiria are great films, stunning tragicomedies of desperation and loneliness. Fellini manages to entertain while his characters endure spiritual and existential crises. (Not an easy balance.) Il Bidoni (The Swindle) places a chubby, unlikable petty crook (Broderick Crawford) in the pariah role at the center of the struggle, at the center of what boils down to an overly sentimental heist film. He steals from farmers and the church. He's no good, I tell you! The recognition of his empty life comes when he happens across his teenage daughter. The crook decides on a final swindle. He aims to dupe his cohorts, retire from crime and start anew. Fellini manages the trick of redeeming this goon by making his final targets even more despicable than the goon himself (a nice, if highly regular twist for a heist film). Fellini's brand of ironic humor enervates the final scenes, which culminate in memorable confrontation along a snowy mountain pass. I can't place Il Bidoni among my favorite few Fellinis, but even that shouldn't be considered damning. I've never seen a Fellini movie that wasn't worth watching. And despite the sentimental warts, I consider Il Bedoni as interesting (maybe even more interesting) than those inarguable classics casting their long shadows over this lesser Fellini. (Available on Blu-ray in R2 from Eureka: Masters of Cinema) 


The Naked Dawn (1955, dir. Edgar G. Ulmer) 
The first thing that'll strike you about The Naked Dawn is the score. Right from the Universal International logo, the guitar wants you to know that this is darn Western picture set in Mexico. If William Castle had directed The Naked Dawn it would have been filmed in Mariachi-Vision (each theater would have had a roving band of mariachis). Next you'll notice Arthur Kennedy as Santiago with died black hair and a greasy cheeseburger beard. This is initially a little bit of a curiosity for anyone that actually recognizes the longtime supporting actor. Until The Naked Dawn I only considered Arthur Kennedy to be capable background, not even necessarily memorable. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award five times, I'm pretty certain Arthur Kennedy's business cards read: Arthur Kennedy, Capable and there. It's around the 10-minute mark when I thought to myself that Arthur Kennedy really was a great actor. He just needed more to do. And in the Naked Dawn, Edgar G. Ulmer gives him plenty of screen time and plenty to do. Maybe he's miscast as a Mexican bandido robbing freight trains. Or maybe B-movie maverick Ulmer knew all Kennedy needed was some scenery to chew and a role meant for Fernando Lamas. The movie's not long on story. Santiago loses his partner in crime during a train-raid gone wrong then happens across the farm of young Manuel and Maria. Santiago the jolly, anarchical bandido upsets the status quo (as those smarmy, anarchical bandidos tend to do). Manuel becomes corrupted by what he sees as an easy path to prosperity, and Santiago falls in love with Maria. Talky bits and shifts in character ensue. The Naked Dawn distances itself from the typical 1950's Western by being dialogue-heavy and allegorical. It's a love triangle with a heap of moralism and a terrific, witty script from Julian Zimet (best known for writing Horror Express, not exactly a resplendent feather in his cap). The film is also notable for being underpopulated (only 7 actors) and a rare example of Edgar G. Ulmer in Technicolor. Fans of the traditional Western might balk at this one, but I found it to be a highly worthwhile genre-progressive oddity. (Available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShKd-ORg6SU


Shack Out On 101 (1955, dir. Edward Dein) 
Speaking of oddities, let's talk about Shack Out On 101. Cold War shenanigans beget the use of a roadside greaseball diner along the Pacific Coast Highway as a front for a Communist spy ring. This, in and of itself, makes for compelling cinema. And then Lee Marvin, playing a short order cook named Slob, walks out in a scuba suit. I don't doubt that this movie went largely unnoticed at the time of its release. Here's a gaggle of character actors making a movie with a director (Edward Dein) that doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page. From our perspective, however, Shack becomes something else entirely. Lee Marvin playing goofy before he becomes a cinematic icon of the masculine ideal. The use of stereotypes as shorthand. The sarcastic war vet. The sexpot waitress. The reverence and fear of "science" played out through nuclear fears and paranoia. This is the B-noir version of Chris Farley's "van down by the river sketch." Shack Out on 101 feels like low-budget guerrilla filmmaking. Almost everything takes place in the "shack" and the characters ham and mug for the camera to varying degrees. Shack stands out among the litany of other noir B-pictures of the era because it feels like no other noir you've ever seen. If you put a harpoon to my head, I'd be forced to compare Shack to something like The Petrified Forest. Except campy and intentionally funny. You also won't be able to miss Seinfeld's Uncle Leo (Len Lesser) in a supporting turn. I found myself saying "HELLO" at the screen whenever he appeared. Audience participation encouraged. (Available on Blu-ray from Olive Films and on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p13ozSx1e0


Shotgun (1955, dir. Lesley Selander) 
Some time ago I went on a Sterling Hayden binge, plucking a few entries from YouTube based on an intricate system of checks and balances (whatever popped up when I searched for Sterling Hayden). I picked this one because of co-star Yvonne De Carlo (who I've always found to be a firecracker). A quick scrub of the movie revealed some nice Technicolor cinematography and a rousing, if especially Western-typical, score. Shotgun amply rewarded my stringent vetting process. (Many others did not. I can't recommend Timberjack, by the way.) Sterling Hayden doesn't need complexity of character or narrative twists. Sterling Hayden just needs time and space to be Sterling Hayden. Walking that line between grouchy and off-putting and charismatic badass. B-movie veteran director Selander understood this Tenant of Hayden perfectly. Vengeful gunslinger Ben Thompson murders Marshal Mark Fletcher. Hayden's deputy vows to track down his boss' murderer. Along the way he happens across damsel-in-distress De Carlo and a bounty hunter (Zachary Scott) who join his band of plucky do-gooders as they track the Thompson gang into the heart of Apache country. When things get grim, Hayden redoubles his intensity and determination. Classic Sterling Hayden. The prosaic title doesn't sell itself, sadly. Since "Shotgun" probably doesn't frost your cookie, consider the far more interesting Brazilian title: Escreveu seu nome a bala (He Wrote His Name with Bullets), which sounds more like a killer spaghetti Western directed by Antonio Margheriti. Selander himself is a bit of an anonymous legend, having worked in Hollywood for 40+ years and claiming 145 directorial credits (most of which are 50's-era Westerns). (Available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNG5RShC8Zk_


Pete Kelly's Blues (1955, dir. Jack Webb) 
Jack Webb directed and starred in this crime-drama about the perils of jazz, crazy dames and answering phone calls while drunk. Only in the 1920's would a gangster/racketeer type want to horn in on the hot jazz action of a seven-piece speakeasy band. Then the hothead drummer mouths off (you know how drummers are) to the wrong people and gets himself shot. It will come as no great shock that Webb plays the titular Pete Kelly with great rigidity. Edmund O'Brien and Lee Marvin (in a sixth-man kind of role) get far too little to do as the gangster angling for a slice of Pete's action and a former band mate. Janet Leigh (Ivy) and Jack Webb don't exactly radiate chemistry. Yet somehow the film comes together. Richard L. Breen's screenplay (Breen wrote the 1954 Dragnet movie also, obviously, starring Webb) and Webb's direction keep the pace moving at a lively clip, and though I'd be hard pressed to call this a by-the-book Noir because of the often bright WarnerColor cinematography and softer, melodramatic elements, the cadence and delivery of the dialogue often recalls the Noir genre. For example: Ivy: What are you doing? Pete: Making tea. Ivy: Could I have some? Pete: You won't like it. I'm using water. Ultimately, however, it's the music (played by Matty Matlock's Dixieland Jazz Band) and musicians that elevate Pete Kelly's Blues. Webb reportedly based the film on his own favorite Dixieland jazz band, Eddie Condon's Dixielanders (who had trouble with meddlesome gangsters). Ella Fitzgerald not only gets to sing a little ditty but act alongside Webb as well, delivering a few lines with an arguable measure of ability. Peggy Lee's Oscar-nominated performance as the hard-drinking lounge singer elevates the sluggish middle bits. If there's one reason to watch Pete Kelly's Blues it's the music. If there's a second reason, it's probably Peggy Lee. Her renditions of standards "Sugar" and "Somebody Loves Me" alone make it essential viewing for Jazz aficionados. I can't help but think that Webb just wasn't the right actor for the role of Pete Kelly, (Lee Marvin, anyone? He's in the movie, after all), but this was a labor of love for the actor. The results reflect that. The deadpan star takes Joe Friday back to the Roaring 20's and there's at least a modicum of novelty in watching Webb in a role meant for someone with a little more easygoing panache. Blink and you'll miss Harry Morgan, silent film comedian "Snub" Pollard, and Jayne Mansfield, in a star-making turn as a befuddled cigarette girl. (Available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive and on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE4uoASL748)

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