Thursday, December 2, 2010

The 1950s: Loose tiles, juvenile delinquents and a second helping of Sidney Poitier

And so we rollerskate on in to the 1950s.

This is the fifth monthly piece in a six-month project called Decades, in which I've charged myself with watching three movies per month from a particular decade that's underrepresented in my overall collection. Concentrating on the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, I've been choosing the decades randomly since I first started in July, and have already hit the 1970s, the 1960s, the 1920s and the 1930s. In November, the 1950s had their month in the sun, which leaves only the 1940s for December, before I debut a new monthly project in 2011.

I knew I had an ambitious first choice for the 1950s, and without any further ado, let's begin discussing it ...

Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler). Watched: Monday, November 15th through Thursday, November 18th

I had gotten to this point in my life without ever seeing Ben-Hur, and I decided that this project was the perfect opportunity to rectify that. After all, I had informally considered Ben-Hur the movie I was most embarrassed about never having seen, and identifying that movie is the first step toward removing that designation from it as soon as possible. The second step, at least in the case of Ben-Hur, is finding a 3-hour-and-32-minute block of time to watch the damn thing. Not an easy task when you've got a three-month-old on the scene.

So I decided to start on Monday the 15th and designate that week as "Hur Week." I would watch the movie in chunks lasting from 45 minutes to an hour, each night after my wife went to bed, with Thursday intended as the final night. Is that any way to watch one of the classic spectacles in cinematic history? Perhaps not, but I'd rather watch it that way than not at all. With a movie like Ben-Hur, you're already sacrificing something by not watching it on the big screen. Watching it in segments isn't going to drastically reduce your experience further, especially because the movie comes with its own intermission built in.

It surprised me how much I didn't know about Ben-Hur. For starters, I didn't know that it involved Jesus Christ in any way, shape or form, and am still a bit mystified why the novel it's based on is called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Yes, JC does show up a couple times -- you never see his face -- but the story is not primarily about him, and his affect on the story is not particularly important until he cures Judah Ben-Hur's wife and sister of leprosy in the very end. (Oops, spoiler alert -- in case there are any others out there who haven't seen the movie.) One thing I thought I knew, but it turns out it's just a myth, is that you can see the characters wearing wrist watches in the chariot scene. I scanned the wrists of every actor on screen and didn't find a single such anachronism. My wife was actually awake when I had the chariot scene on, and though she thought she'd seen the offending timepieces during previous viewings, she looked it up online and found out that it's an old wives' tale. Apparently, the quality control on the set of Ben-Hur has gotten a bad rap over the years.

What I did know, and was reminded of during this viewing, was that Judah Ben-Hur's tumultuous journey begins with loose tiles on the roof of his home. His daughter (I think it was her) leans over the edge of the rooftop to get a better look at a passing parade of horses below, and she dislodges a couple tiles that land on an important Roman dignitary, injuring him. When Ben-Hur takes the blame, the previously affluent Jew is indentured into slavery aboard a Roman vessel that gets attacked at sea. (I don't know why I'm doing a plot synopsis for you -- you obviously know the story of Ben-Hur.) Having first learned about this tile mishap some two decades ago, I had always been fascinated by it and was interested to finally see it on screen.

I really enjoyed Ben-Hur, and was incredibly impressed by a number of scenes in particular, in chronological order: 1) The scene in which Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd (as Messala) throw spears into a target in Ben-Hur's hallway, to demonstrate their competitive spirit and respective prowess. There doesn't seem to be any trickery in the scene, so I can't figure out how they taught both actors to throw a spear with such accuracy; 2) The rowing scene, which seems to go on forever and really places the viewer in the sandals of these horribly abused slaves, Ben-Hur being one of them; 3) The ensuing sea battle, which must have been the most spectacular and sophisticated ever committed to film at the time; and 4) The chariot scene, which is simply one of the most awesome feats of logistics I have ever seen in a film, shot with a kineticism that must have thrilled contemporary audiences, and featuring some of the most dazzling stunt work that had probably ever been attempted.

I did, however, think Ben-Hur could have benefited from the strict hand of an editor. I'm not sure that William Wyler couldn't have produced an equally great film in just three hours. That said, there aren't any patches that seem particularly slow, and I was amazed that as much time had actually passed, except that I'd just sat through four lengthy viewing sessions to finish it.

Blackboard Jungle (1955, Richard Brooks). Watched: Saturday, November 20th

Blackboard Jungle came into my life completely at random. I was scouring the library shelves for a 1950s movie to watch, during the first weekend in ages in which we had nothing planned. Going alphabetically and grabbing potential contenders as they struck my fancy, I picked up Blackboard Jungle -- I'd seen the title but didn't know much about it, other than that it seemed to be about the educational system -- and kept moving. However, I'd arrived at the library within 20 minutes of closing time, so I didn't get further than the Gs. Therefore, any 1950s film that would have more perfectly fit my needs got excluded in a time crunch.

Blackboard Jungle basically laid the groundwork for every movie you've ever seen in which a teacher tries to get through to a bunch of unwilling and/or dangerous students, such as Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. Because of the originality of its subject matter, it can be forgiven a certain broadness that rears its head in the handling of that particular subject. One problem was that I didn't know if I could take 1955 juvenile delinquents very seriously. Would I see them as threatening, or just dated? I'm glad to say that they actually did carry a certain weight, at least one of them -- Vic Morrow, possibly better known to you as the guy who got decapitated by a helicopter while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. Nearly 30 years earlier he made a pretty menacing young thug, the film's primary antagonist.

The protagonist is teacher Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, an actor I've heard of but am not very familiar with. I'd certainly heard of the film's other biggest name, or who would go on to become the biggest name: Sidney Poitier. I was rather amazed that he was already on the scene in 1955, but here he was, serving as the apparent antagonist who is actually on the teacher's side, once they find their common ground. But the common ground is not initially easy to find, and I was surprised to see where Richard Brooks' film went in terms of depicting the dormant racism of its protagonist -- a place the modern movies inspired by Blackboard Jungle would never have the courage to go. For reasons that are not at first clear, Dadier is angling for Poitier's Gregory Miller, and though Gregory is ultimately good, he can also give as good as he gets when on the receiving end of unprovoked attention. In a moment of frustration, Dadier says to him "Why you black --" and stops himself. He immediately apologizes, but in that moment we realize that Blackboard Jungle is not soft-pedaling it -- not for 1955, not even for now. How rare is it to see a movie in which the good guy has racist tendencies he hasn't acknowledged to himself? It's clear Dadier is a good person and is immediately ashamed of his unexpected outburst, and by allowing the main character to be tainted like this, Blackboard Jungle is perhaps more honest than most movies have the courage to be. Or ... it could just be that it was 1955, and movies weren't quite so worried about the stigmas potentially attached to a racist character.

Blackboard Jungle has a number of good scenes -- the one where the ruffian students destroy a teacher's entire record collection stands out -- and it ultimately rises above what I expected from its standard-issue opening minutes. And besides, can I really call them standard-issue if the movie was such a thematic trailblazer?

Edge of the City (1957, Martin Ritt). Watched: Saturday, November 27th

I have one of my readers entirely to thank for the third November movie. Theis, who has been diligently keeping up with my Decades series (thank you Theis!), suggested Edge of the City in the comments of my previous entry on the 1930s, when I previewed the next decade up to bat. And it was a good suggestion. In fact, it gave me an unexpected second helping of the aforementioned Sidney Poitier. Guess it shows how wrong I was when I thought he didn't really become a star until the mid- to late-1960s. Or, you could say that Blackboard Jungle was the unexpected second helping, watched first, because I already had Edge of the City in my Netflix queue at the time I selected Blackboard Jungle from the library.

Martin Ritt's film is a clear thematic cousin of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, without the same level of fanfare. Like On the Waterfront, it deals with stevedores (I love that word) who are ensnared in dock politics and are under pressure not to become stool pigeons. Edge of the City is a minor film compared to Kazan's classic, filmed three years earlier, and it doesn't have Marlon Brando. But it does have a young John Cassavetes, better known to most of us as the iconoclastic director and father of modern director Nick Cassavetes, and the aforementioned Mr. Poitier. I am not particularly acquainted with Cassavetes' acting work -- I saw him as a doctor in Whose Life Is it Anyway? but cannot immediately think of another role I've seen him in -- and I found him to be very capable of playing the role of a working class man who's disguising his name (calling himself Axel North rather than Axel Nordmann) because he's an army deserter. Couple his desertion with a tragedy in his family history and he's one unhappy character. Which makes it all the more shocking that Poitier's character -- whose different race is slightly less of a thematic issue than it was in Blackboard Jungle -- is able to reach out to him and restore some of his joie de vivre. Temporarily, at least.

It's easy to imagine how a movie like Edge of the City would have planted the seed for how Cassavetes wanted to spend his directing career. Cassavetes' movies were famously about real working class people and low-life criminals, and were notable for their lack of artifice and grungy stylings. Edge of the City has more of a sheen than Cassavetes would have approved of as a director, and its score sometimes veers off toward the melodramatic, which is perfectly in keeping with the prevailing trends of the time. But this is a pretty grungy movie for 1957, with some real drama and some very satisfying character development. It has an intensely satisfying climax, which works both on a literal level and a metaphorical one, mirroring the film's larger issues. I won't tell you too much about what happens because Edge of the City is worth seeing, and most of you probably haven't seen it. In addition to the strong performances by Poitier and Cassavetes, Jack Warden does excellent work as the antagonist, and it was a real treat to see a young Ruby Dee (talk about people who have been around for awhile) as the wife of Poitier's character.

Oh, and perhaps because of the titular similarity (and the pinch of soul thrown in by the presence of Poitier), this movie left me with a really big appetite to listen to Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Unfortunately, I was disappointed to discover that the one Stevie Wonder album I own doesn't have this song on it, even though I thought it did -- in fact, I thought that was one of the reasons I bought it. This was 20 years ago and I must have just been confused.

So, there's just one more stop on this train, just as there's only one more month in 2010. In December, I will be watching movies from the 1940s -- no random selections necessary.

Check back here in late December or early January for the final installment of Decades.

1 comment:

douglassk said...

You make an excellent observation about the impact of "Blackboard Jungle" on 'teacher' movies. Writer-director Richard Brooks hoped to make a film that inspired teachers, not students; one that urged teachers to keep trying and not give up. It was a movie released a few months later that looked at teen angst: "Rebel Without a Cause." Brooks came by his view, I think, from his own experience. I've read a lot about him as I've researched a biography, "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks," to come out in April. Brooks was a poor kid in Philadelphia. He never forgot the teacher who taught him to read; he counted her as one of the four most important people in his life (the others: his parents and a rail yard bum who made him see that writers are also readers). As tough as he was, Brooks was hopeful for humanity and saw film as a medium for expressing that hope. -- Douglass K. Daniel