Tag Archives: 1950s

Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Punch Drunk

John Larch in The Phenix City Story | Brian Keith in 5 Against the House

Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.

That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)

Alleyways in Phenix City and 5 Against the House’s Reno

In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.

Richard Kiley in The Phenix City Story | 5 Against the House’s parking garage climax

This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Link Dump: #89

This week’s kitty is a threat to the singing cockroaches of Joe’s Apartment (1996), a hyperactive comedy from MTV Films—and a film that features cameos by Hate and Love and Rockets, two of its era’s signature indie comics. And now, links:

This week’s amusingly pornographic search terms: “love 1940s pussy”! “albus lily luna incest fuck hard”! I don’t think we have the kind of Harry Potter fanfiction they’re looking for.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Music, Racism, Sexuality

Obscure-ish Movies of the 1950s

Last month, I wrote up a list of “Obscure-ish Movies of the 1940s,” inspired by Catherine of Cinema Enthusiast and her decade-by-decade viewing schedule. Now she’s moving on to the ’50s, and so am I! Below are 50 more obscure-ish movie recommendations. (I say “obscure-ish,” mind you, because obscurity is so relative.) And so you know, this list was almost dominated by Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Nicholas Ray, so you can really just pretend that the entirety of their ’50s outputs are there.

1950

  • Caged
  • The Furies
  • Panic in the Streets
  • The Sound of Fury
  • Young Man with a Horn

1951

  • His Kind of Woman
  • The Man from Planet X
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • The River
  • The Tales of Hoffman

1952

  • The Marrying Kind
  • On Dangerous Ground
  • Scandal Sheet
  • The Sniper
  • Sudden Fear

1953

1954

  • Animal Farm
  • Hobson’s Choice
  • The Naked Jungle
  • Salt of the Earth
  • Touchez pas au grisbi

1955

  • The Big Combo
  • Cast a Dark Shadow
  • I Live in Fear
  • The Phenix City Story
  • La Pointe Courte

1956

  • Seven Men from Now
  • Street of Shame
  • Tea and Sympathy
  • While the City Sleeps
  • The Wrong Man

1957

  • A Face in the Crowd
  • Forty Guns
  • The Invisible Boy
  • Tokyo Twilight
  • 20 Million Miles to Earth

1958

  • Bell, Book and Candle
  • The Defiant Ones
  • The Horse’s Mouth
  • Man of the West
  • Murder by Contract

1959

  • A Bucket of Blood
  • Night of the Ghouls
  • Room at the Top
  • Santa Claus
  • The Tingler

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema