Sunday, August 20, 2006

It Came From Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space(1953)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Harry Essex (screenplay), Ray Bradbury (story)
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Russell Johnson
IMDB Entry

Jack Arnold should be near the top of the list of directors of science fiction movies.  His films were always surprisingly good, taking pretty stupid concepts and giving them a depth that would seem impossible for anyone else.  Some of his titles are classics:  The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Revenge of the Creature,and The Mouse that Roared (well, it's only marginally SF, but it is a pretty good film)..

Science fiction was different in the 50s.  The critical cliché is that the films are reactions to the fears of the Cold War and the atomic bomb, but that's a bit narrow.  Fifties science fiction was also firmly in the pre-WWII tradition of written SF where scientists tried new experiments and paid the price (it goes back as far as Frankenstein). Unlike today, where SF is just an excuse for mindless action, there was a real intellectual subcurrent in the films.  They made an attempt to be "scientific" (even if the science was silly) and worked to make statements about the scientific process and tried to be more than just straight "thrill ride" adventure.  Tarantula, for instance, was as much about the scientist involved (Leo G. Carroll, a character actor I hold in great fondness for the TV shows Topper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his attempt in trying to end hunger as it was about a giant rampaging spider.  Carroll becomes a tragic character, a man who wanted to save the world, but who made a tragic mistake.

It Came from Outer Space was one of Arnold's first films, and doesn't have the flash or monsters of his more famous ones.  In it John Putnam (played by B-Movie veteran Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend see a meteor land near their desert town.  But when they go to look, there is no sign of it.  And the people in the town start acting . . . differently.  As though they have been replaced by aliens . . . .

What made the story stand above other films of this nature is its ending.  It is completely unexpected, and the movie has a surprise message, especially surprising for a movie of its time.  Yes, there are aliens involved, but these aliens are unlike most movie aliens, which even today usually fall into one of two categories:  evil conquerors or godlike beings here to help us.  The aliens in It Came from Outer Space are quite different, and that makes the movie into a classic.

Ray Bradbury got a story credit, and seems to have written some of the dialog, and life in the small desert town is nicely portrayed.

The movie (like Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon) was originally released in 3-D.  I was lucky enough to see it that way.  No, I'm not old enough to remember the original run.  But about 30 years ago, a local theater had a 3-D movie night with both Arnold films.  It was a lot of fun.  The big 3-D effect was the crashing of the meteor (in another sign of the film's determination to avoid the obvious, this wasn't saved for the climax, but rather one of the first scenes of the film).  But the effect that was most memorable was much smaller.  Putnam is watching the sky with a telescope.  He swings the telescope around to view another part of the sky.  And everyone in the audience ducked to avoid getting hit by it.  Another thing I like about the film:  Arnold did the unexpected.

It's a shame that 50s SF seems to be so overlooked.  Granted, the special effects could not compare to today's, but the stories of the best of them were way ahead of most current SF, which has devolved into CGI "thrill rides" instead of stories.

So if you get the chance, try to seek out the film.  And if you can see it in 3-D -- drop everything.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brute Force

Brute Force(1947)
Directed by
Jules Dassin
Written by Richard Brooks (screenplay), Robert Patterson (story)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levine, Jeff Corey
IMDB Entry

One of the noir-est of film noir, Brute Force is the ultimate prison film, the precursor of the famous Stanford prison experiment.  It's is a dark and brutal look a prison life, where the walls form a warehouse of cruelty and neglect.

The biggest surprise in the film is the performance by Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey, head prison guard.  We all know the later Cronyn -- the crusty but cuddly old geezer, often appearing with his wife, Jessica Tandy.  It does not prepare you for seeing him as Munsey, a sadistic, manipulative, and cruel little man, who uses his power over the prisoners to oppress them totally.  It is an astonishing performance.  Munsey is the one who runs the prison, and treats his charges like a cat treats a trapped mouse.  He is one of the most sadistic characters in films of that time, and the sadism is psychological more than physical.  It was a clever idea to cast a small man like Cronyn in the part, and see him terrorizing those who are physically much bigger.

Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays Joe Collins, one of the prisoners, who leads a jailbreak attempt.  He is a basically decent man, who eventually is broken down by prison life into becoming as cruel as Munsey himself.  The jailbreak is a disaster, of course, and the film is not for people who want happy endings. 

For its time, its violence was shocking, though this is less to in these post-Pulp Fiction days.  But what makes the film work is the role reversal, where the prisoners were essentially good people while the guards -- especially Munsey -- are scum. Plus the fascination of Cronyn's performance, as Oscar-worth as his wife's in Driving Miss Daisy.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Medium Cool

Directed by
Haskell Wexler
Written by Haskell Wexler
Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Harold Blankenship.
IMDB Entry

Haskell Wexler is one of films' top cinematographers, working on films like In the Heat of the Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among others.  One of his few forays into directing was Medium Cool, a scathing look of American society in the late 60s.

Robert Forster in Medium CoolRobert Forster (who years later was Gumshoe in Once a Hero) plays John Cassellis, a television cameraman working out of Chicago in the days leading up to and including the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  Cassellis is the camera, as the opening sequence shows, where he films a car crash without even thinking of giving help.

Cassellis's attitude changes when he befriends a woman and her young son, who moved to the city from Appalachia.  He becomes more socially conscious and, when the son is lost, he wanders the streets during the rioting around the convention, searching for him.

When I first saw the film, I was amazed at the way Wexler intercut scenes that made it really look like Forster was walking among the Chicago protesters.  It turns out that was no Hollywood effect:  Wexler anticipated trouble at the convention, and shot scenes right in the middle of it.

Wexler is a political director and the movie is both an indictment of the politics of the era and an attack on the media.  The final shot is especially chilling, as we discover just how thoughtless people can be while searching to get the footage, and indicts all of use for watching. 

The title, of course, comes from Marshall McLuhan.  I don't happen to have McLuhan here right now, but Wexler is clearly showing the problems with the coolness of the medium.  For Wexler, the medium is too cool, losing its humanity in the search for sensationalism.

Wexler's politics are clear, and that may be why he didn't direct a lot (though whenever he did, it also was a political film).  But in this one instance, he captured a snapshot of American society, and put his finger on a situation that is just as dangerous today as it was when it was made.