Category Archives: 1951

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


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Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


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Valentino (1951, Lewis Allen)

Valentino opens with lead Anthony Dexter (whose resemblance to Valentino got him the job, not his acting abilities) doing the tango. It’s the troupe’s rehearsal and it’s fine. It’s not concerning, which is sort of cool for the film, because most of the scenes are concerning. George Bruce’s screenplay–based on his own story, “Valentino As I Knew Him”–ranges from tepid to cringe-worthy. Lewis Allen’s direction of that screenplay is never better than in this first scene. It’s as good, but it’s also much worse.

So when Valentino approaches mediocre, it’s to be appreciated. And you know early on, because the third scene–where Dexter quits the dance troupe because boss Dona Drake wants him to be hers alone. Not all women’s. Drake’s performance is terrible but her role is terrible and hackneyed. Allen doesn’t care. It’s kind of stunning to watch this beautifully rendered Technicolor–Harry Stradling Sr.’s photography is only workman because Allen never asks him to do anything else (or takes him off set)–with this constantly misfiring production.

Bruce’s script either has Dexter playing Lothario or Great Lover, often to the same character. It might keep the character’s true intentions secret if Dexter didn’t give a spellbindingly awful performance. He kind of makes it through the first act, mostly because Eleanor Parker is on hand to hold the movie up, but once Dexter’s on his own… it gets real bad. A lot of it is Allen. He’s not trying at all with his composition. He has this one shot he uses for Richard Carlson’s close-ups over and over again. Carlson’s thanklessly playing clueless cuckold–Parker’s beau and Dexter’s best friend and both their boss. He’s a movie director.

Through the first act, Parker has this character to play. She’s a fictional silent era star–Allen’s real bad at rendering the silent era stuff, though it’s not clear Valentino had the budget to get the scenes done. The cheapness is another problem. Once Dexter arrives in New York City and it’s a backlot set of a town square? Well, segueing back to Parker, at least they didn’t cheap on her wardrobe. She’s beyond glamorous.

Unfortunately, other than the gowns, Parker ends up with nothing. Valentino makes some promises to its female stars–top-billed Parker and third-billed Patricia Medina–they’re supposed to be Dexter’s great loves. Parker makes it work until the script’s just too silly; she and Carlson also have zero chemistry together as creative partners, much less romantic ones. But it’s the script (and Allen) more than the actors. Medina has this somewhat interesting role as Dexter and Parker’s confidant who Dexter cravenly romances.

Valentino has a really small cast of characters who all are in the movie business and none of them have friends outside each other. There’s familiar chemistry between the actors–all of them–except it’s up to Parker and Medina to hold up Dexter. Parker at least gets to have a full character arc, albeit a terrible, thoughtless one, but not Medina. She’s completely disposable once her function is executed.

Everything in Valentino is purely functional, with the exception of Joseph Calleia’s throwaway comic relief lines. Calleia should have the best part in the movie. He’s Dexter’s down-to-earth confidant and business manager. They’re paisanos. Bruce is big on the authentic dialogue.

But Calleia’s got a crap part. He’s there to prop up Dexter too. Only the writing is a lot less compelling, which is a surprise how boring Bruce can go with this script, and Calleia can’t do it. The material isn’t there. Allen isn’t there. And, somehow, Valentino actually manages to get worse.

When Parker does come back, she’s in a different role–she’s subject, not lead. The film introduces Lloyd Gough as a reporter who’s on to Dexter. The last third turns out to be he and Dexter’s showdown over the Valentino brand. Initially, Gough’s a welcome surprise just because he’s different. Turns out you can be different and bad. Valentino has a lot of different bad things about it. Except the Technicolor and Parker’s wardrobe, there’s nothing to recommend it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; screenplay by George Bruce, based on his story, “Valentino As I Knew Him;” director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Edward Small; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Joan Carlisle), Richard Carlson (Bill King), Patricia Medina (Lila Reyes), Joseph Calleia (Luigi Verducci), Dona Drake (Maria Torres), Lloyd Gough (Eddie Morgan), Otto Kruger (Mark Towers), and introducing Anthony Dexter (Rudolph Valentino).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

Detective Story (1951, William Wyler)

Detective Story, the film, is William Wyler’s “production” of Sidney Kingsley’s play of the same title. Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler adapted the play. Wyler directed and produced the film. It is a stage adaptation and proud of it. The phrasing above is directly adapted from how the film opens and credits Wyler and Kingsley in the opening titles. One card: Wyler, Kingsley, Detective Story. Only it comes after the headlining cast title card: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix. Detective Story is an extremely controlled viewing experience from the start.

Most of the film takes place inside the detective’s office of a police station. There are a handful of locations around the station, but Wyler sticks with the detective’s office. He and cinematographers Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz give the room some impossibly high ceilings–Detective Story’s audience isn’t looking up at it, Wyler wants the audience to be able to examine the film, to examine its pieces.

The best scenes in the film involve Eleanor Parker. She’s Kirk Douglas’s wife. He’s a puritanical cop, she’s got a secret. Wyler opens the film with Bert Freed and Lee Grant–they provide a frame–she’s a shoplifter who’s got to go to night court. Freed’s got to wait with her. Wyler makes the audience wait for Douglas. Then he makes them wait a little longer for Parker. He’s already established the harsh realities of Detective Story; when Parker arrives, she’s a ray of light.

Detective Story is very disillusioned, very noir, only Wyler doesn’t shoot it noir. He’s not making noir, he’s staging a play. Detective Story’s two biggest problems are Robert Swink’s editing, which can’t keep up with the actors, and Yordan and Wyler’s generic cop talk. It might work on stage, with the audience looking up, but not when they’re examining everything. Wyler invites the audience to examine the reality of Detective Story and he even appears to rush through the bad cop talk to far better sequences as though embarrassed.

There are a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. Wyler has to get through it; he’s rarely subtle about the pace. There’s one lovely transition sequence from day to night but otherwise, Wyler’s just trying to get from one great scene for an actor to the next. It’s a play, after all.

Parker gets the best stuff. She gets spun around and has to right herself. She has to dominate her scenes, which is incredibly difficult considering the whole movie is about Kirk Douglas’s whirlwind. Sometimes he’s still, but he’s still a whirlwind. He has to be the hero the audience hates themselves for ever loving. Only it’s not a last minute revelation, it’s late second act plot development. Wyler and Douglas (and Parker) then have to take it all even further. Detective Story, as innocuous as it sounds, means to stomp out all the hopes and dreams it can.

Great performances all over. Freed, Grant, Michael Strong, Gerald Mohr, Joseph Wiseman–especially Joseph Wiseman, whose maniac career criminal ends up being Douglas’s alter ego–George Macready, Cathy O’Donnell. Wyler makes sure every performance is good, but not every actor can get enough of a part. It’s all Douglas and Parker’s show, after all. Even Bendix, who’s Douglas’s far more humane partner and gets a subplot all his own, eventually has to move further aside.

Detective Story isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a most perfect staging of a play on film. Wyler’s pacing is precise, his direction of the actors is flawless, his narrative distance is fantastic, ably assisted by his cinematographers and art directors and set decorator. Sure, Swink’s editing is occasionally messy but it’s all for the best of the actors. And they’re what’s essential. Parker, Douglas, Bendix, Horace McMahon (forgot about him earlier). They do startling work and Wyler knows it and wants to best showcase it. Detective Story’s an achievement for everyone involved.

Except Swink, of course.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; directors of photography, Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz; edited by Robert Swink; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Det. James McLeod), Eleanor Parker (Mary McLeod), William Bendix (Det. Lou Brody), Cathy O’Donnell (Susan Carmichael), George Macready (Karl Schneider), Horace McMahon (Lt. Monaghan), Gladys George (Miss Hatch), Joseph Wiseman (Charley Gennini), Lee Grant (Shoplifter), Gerald Mohr (Tami Giacoppetti), Frank Faylen (Det. Gallagher), Craig Hill (Arthur Kindred), Michael Strong (Lewis Abbott), Luis Van Rooten (Joe Feinson), Bert Freed (Det. Dakis), Warner Anderson (Endicott Sims), Grandon Rhodes (Det. O’Brien), William ‘Bill’ Phillips (Det. Pat Callahan) and Russell Evans (Patrolman Barnes).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.