Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '56 - James David Patrick ""

Friday, December 2, 2016

Underrated '56 - 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 Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

See his Underrated '66, '76, '86 lists: here:
-------Of all my Underrated lists, Underrated '56 proved the most difficult. I may have said that before, but this time I really mean it. Honest. I came up with four - and only because I happened to toss While the City Sleeps into the DVD player last week. I'm still thinking about adding A Man Escaped to the bottom of this list, but it's hard to consider Robert Bresson's masterpiece underrated. I'll just conclude this pitiful introduction by adding that if you haven't seen A Man Escaped, do it now. Do it yesterday, actually. Push it to the top of your Cinema Shame list. That way I won't feel guilty about not writing about it and we can all soldier on with a clear conscience.

Los Tallos Amargos (Fernando Ayala, 1956)
One of the obscure jewels shown during the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. Most of us attended the screening knowing nothing about the film other than "Argentinian Film Noir" - which was all we needed to pack the theater. Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems) is a tawdry tale of toxic machismo cloaked in chiaroscuro. I'm really trying to sell the movie with that one line. Is it too late to get a blurb on the poster of a 1956 film from Argentina? Did those blurbs have to be in Spanish? Because I don't think I can accurately translate that, despite my many years of Spanish classes that I've forgotten.

A Buenos Aires newspaperman gets wrapped up in a correspondence-school scam with a scheming Hungarian. And if there's a lesson to learn from Los Tallos Amargos, it's never get involved with a scheming Hungarian. Suspicion drives one of the men to commit a most heinous murder... but that which is buried doesn't always remain underground.

The headscratcher finale offers much conversation fodder. But even if you don't believe it all comes together in the end (and I think it does), there's no disputing the gorgeous black and white cinematography by Ricardo Younis.

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)
A tense, wildly uneven and wholly entertaining exercise in the misappropriation of journalistic integrity. I don't think I'm overstepping my analysis when I suggest that this might be the best film of Fritz Lang's American career. Dana Andrews leads a fantastic cast featuring the likes of George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino among other notables. Even though the script skews dry, the cast, especially Dana Andrews and his curious facial ticks, keep the audience engaged.

Lang's film proves unsettling in its prescience as it lays bare the self-fulfilling media machine. This is the German director showcasing his personal distaste for the America of the 1950's - both personal and professionally. His camera lingers on the vulgarities of interior design, sentimental idiosyncrasies (kitschy porcelain knick-knacks, for example) and his own cynical view of the business of mass media.

The villain comes off as a sexually confused misfit, toothless really. Though the film initially recalls Lang's M, While the City Sleeps evolves into something much broader, more Billy Wilder-ish perhaps. Despite the lurid tagline (Sensational Lipstick Murder!) that might have come from a giallo poster, While the City Sleeps is merely a noir with a figurehead villain and an entire commercial enterprise to blame for his sins.
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A Kiss Before Dying (Gerd Oswald, 1956)
If you like your film noirs in CinemaScope and drenched in oversaturated Deluxe color, then boy do I have a film for you. A Kiss Before Dying looks strange, talks strange and acts strange. Perky opening titles fit for a Doris Day rom-com ease you into the Odd, but there's still a steep learning curve. One scene slams to a halt to admire a woman in a see-through blouse. A pregnant woman falls down stairs - with no consequence. At one point a guy coughs, interrupting the scene and it's impossible to tell whether it was actually part of the script or director Gerd Oswald just didn't care to film another take.

As I questioned the competency of Mr. Oswald and studied his filmography, I came to the conclusion that Hollywood also called his ability into question. After a few big projects early in his career (Crime of Passion with Sterling Hayden and Barbara Stanwyck being the most notable), the industry sent him to Siberia, aka TV and Europe, to practice his trade.

That said, A Kiss Before Dying entertains in spades both as a result and in spite of its quirks. It's a basic money grab noir narrative. A college student (a devious Robert Wagner) woos an heiress purely for her money but finds out she's pregnant. When he fears she'll be disinherited, he stages her suicide. The girl's sister, however, has her doubts about the legitimacy of the suicide. The appeal of A Kiss Before Dying has little to do with the story being told. Just let the haywire noir wash over you like a shower of coconuts.
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Patterns (Fielder Cook, 1956)
Rod Serling originally wrote Patterns - a tale of "corporate politics and boardroom bloodletting" - as a teleplay. The episode aired on January 12, 1955 as part of the Kraft Television Series. After the success of the television episode (it actually re-aired four weeks later due to popular demand), Serling adapted the story to the big screen with a few adjustments to the narrative to make it more cinematic.

Serling spins a Shakespearean tale of greed and corruption, deliciously acted by the ensemble cast headlined by Ed Begley and Van Heflin (who might be a little too old here at 46 to be playing a "junior executive," but I'll never argue with a Van Heflin appearance). Most astounding is that fact that the film, now 60 years old, remains perfectly contemporary.

Patterns is a paced endeavor, a study in acting and understated tension. I fail to comprehend how and why this film isn't better known considering it's timeless relevancy and Rod Serling pedigree.
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1 comment:

Silver Screenings said...

So glad you included "A Kiss Before Dying" on the list. Even though it's shot in colour and CinemaScope, the film itself is really unsettling and Robert Wagner exudes true creepiness.

Also thrilled to see you talk about "Patterns", which I haven't seen for years and need to revisit soon.