Category Archives: 1950s

Review: Marty (1955)

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MartyViewed on its own today, it may be hard to appreciate how significant the 1955 winner of the Best Picture Oscar ‘Marty’ was at the time of its release; British film critic Leslie Halliwell called it “a breath of spring” for Hollywood and just watching the film today on its own merits, it may be hard to appreciate that perspective.

But in the context of what had come before it in American cinema (especially since talkies came in), its significance and impact is much easier to understand. The realism in how the characters in ‘Marty’ behaved and especially how they talked had barely been seen previously in Hollywood mainstream cinema.

Take for example, the most dominant film studio of the 1930s and 1940s, MGM. Their films primarily had smart, usually well-to-do characters always being able to deliver clipped, sharp dialogue full of insights and memorable one-liners. Even a studio like Warner Bros in this era which was much more associated with working-class people (and gangsters) had the same issue.It was hardly naturalistic but it was for the most part extremely effective cinema; after all, it wasn’t called the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood for no reason.

Due to a myriad of factors, Hollywood cinema had a sense of staleness in the early-to-mid 1950s as the medium of television were providing a freshness and realism that was missing from increasingly bombastic, overproduced Hollywood films.

One of the most prominent writers in this medium was Paddy Chayefsky and he was employed to do an expanded version of his TV play ‘Marty’ for the big screen and his script broke all the rules for what constituted quality dialogue in a film. He eschewed having snappy, ‘clever’ dialogue to capture the ‘marvellous world of the ordinary’ of how people really talked. What he menat was capturing how people often ramble, say things that are nothing to do with a group conversation, how they have trouble articulating themselves and the repetition of words. This last aspect is particularly notable as the repeated phrases one hears during the film (“It was a very nice affair” “What do you want to do tonight?”) stay in one’s memory.

But apart from that highly significant aspect, how does ‘Marty’ stand up as a film today?

The film’s story focuses on the title character, a mid-30s bachelor Italian butcher (Ernest Borgnine) whose low self-esteem is exacerbated by associates and family pressuring him to finding the loving partner he’s always longed for. From a situation of hopelessness, things turn for when he falls in love with a teacher at a dance named Clara (Betsy Blair) but for their own selfish reasons those who wanted him married disapprove of this new relationship, putting Marty in a seemingly untenable position.

Chayefsky’s script sharply captures how Marty’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth is reflected by the people who associates with, particularly Angie (Joe Mantell). It appears they are best friends but Angie never seems to provide any real friendship or support to Marty. Indeed when Marty meets Clara, Angie tries to undermine it and just really wants to keep Marty down to his level for his own selfish reasons. If Marty were to marry Clara it’s safe to say Angie would quickly disappear from his life.

Another extremely well-written scene (and the high point of the film) is when Marty’s widowed mother (Esther Minciotti) and widowed aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) converse about moving in together. Catherine is full of bitterness and spite and initially one is repelled by her. But over the course of the scene we see the source of her unhappiness and how as a widow she feels unwanted by her children and is lonely and without purpose in life. By the end of the scene she is defeated and accepting of her fate. It’s a marvellously acted, deeply moving scene with profound insight; something you don’t get often in any scene in any film.

Overall though, it has to be said the passage of time hasn’t served ‘Marty’ particularly well. What felt fresh and unique in 1955 has been imitated so often in the decades since that it feels a bit restricted and formal now, as if trapped by the conventions that it created. And this exposes its weaknesses such as its rather stiff direction by director Delbert Mann, making his winning of the Best Director Oscar that year rather baffling in hindsight.

Overall, ‘Marty’ remains a likable, slice-of-life film with oodles of charm and is highly significant in the history of American 20th Century film. But is it a film which still holds up as being the only film to win both the Best Picture Oscar & Palme D’Or? Not really.

Review: The Wild One (1953)

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the_wild_oneWhen released in 1953, the Laszlo Benedek film ‘The Wild One’ starring Marlon Brando as Johnny caused a sensation. Its story of a group of bikers terrorising a small American town was something new, fresh and exciting in cinema and it aroused such controversy that it was even banned in the United Kingdom for over a decade.

The film’s lasting impact was signified by Brando on a motorcycle becoming one of the iconic images of Hollywood cinema; indeed it was common to see posters of that Brando image as a symbol of rebellion and cool.

But over 60 years have passed since the film’s release and what was once shocking is now very tame; indeed in a recent television screening in Australia it was deemed fine for children to watch (albeit with parental guidance).

Take away the shock factor and the bannings and the imagery, how does ‘The Wild One’ stack up today as an artistic work?

After the memorable pre-credits scene of the group of bikers (called The Black Rebels) whizzing by our eyes on an open road, the film starts off very strongly with a brief scene in a Californian town of Carbonville where The Black Rebels interrupt a motorcycle race and are booted out of town. The film impressively conveys on one hand the disruption the bikers cause and on the other hand the understandable resentment the bikers have towards the oppressive authority figures such as the policeman who smugly orders them out for what was in truth pretty minor stuff. It’s a great summation of the conformity of 1950s life and what the rebellion of the bikers would become much more substantial and widespread in the following decade.

However the rest of the film is set in another small town of Wrightsville and that seems like a replication of what already was conveyed in the Carbonville segment, except for much longer and to generally lesser effect. Most of the bikers and townsfolk remain one-note stock characters and as a result make little impact.

Even at the short running time of 79 minutes, The Wild One feels somewhat overstretched as it is a mishmash of overlapping storylines, ranging from the relationship between Johnny and the daughter of the police chief (played blandly by Mary Murphy) to the arrival of a rival motorcycle gang to The Black Rebels with its leader played by Lee Marvin. And yet after being built up in significance, Marvin’s character is largely forgotten in the film’s latter stages.

One of the most surprising things about the film is that even though it’s one of Brando’s most iconic roles, he actually is somewhat miscast. His brooding, surly persona actually seems at odds with the rest of his gang who have energy to burn and act like hyperactive, naughty kids. As someone who seems like a loner, it’s hard to believe he would ever become the leader of a gang like this.

In contrast, in his brief role Lee Marvin not only seems a much better fit as a leader of a bikie gang, but his effervescent, boisterous performance almost steals the film. It’s a shame he’s so underused.

In terms of style, The Wild One feels like a mixture of being a breath of fresh air into early 1950s Hollywood cinema, as well as being rather stagey and old-fashioned at times during certain scenes.

This is well demonstrated in the film’s pre-credits sequence. The opening shot is a ground-level view of an initially peaceful open road which then is overtaken by a cyclone of motorcycles roaring past. This dazzling and seminal opening is however followed up by our first view of Marlon Brando which is obviously in back projection, severely diluting its impact. Here we see the use of fresh new realism clash with clumsy and cheap studio techniques.

Overall director Benedek does a good job. His direction is often vivid and arresting, not only in the Carbonville sequence impressive, but also as night falls in Wrightsville as he uses intercutting and tempo (and no dialogue) to create a sense of dread that things are about to fall apart in the town. He also makes relatively convincing the sequence of the townsfolk turning to vigilante behaviour and in fact becoming more dangerous than the bikers ever.

So after six decades does The Wild One still hold up? Not really, but it’s still an interesting and entertaining film worth watching. It’s just a shame that it didn’t have Lee Marvin in the main role.

Rating: B-