Archive for the ‘1950’s’ Category

The Founder

January 31, 2017


The Founder, written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, tells the story of the creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain and how it was eventually taken over by Ray Kroc.

The film begins in 1954. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman trying to sell five-spindle milkshake mixers to drive-ins, without much luck. One day he receives an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernadino, California. His curiosity piqued by this, Kroc goes to see what this place is like. It turns out to be a burger stand called McDonald’s, owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Frustrated with the hassle of running of a conventional drive-in, the McDonalds have developed a factory-like approach to making hamburgers and fries. Kroc senses a potential gold mine here. He tries to persuade the brothers to let him franchise their business. However, the McDonalds are obsessive perfectionists. They don’t want to franchise because they won’t be able to control the quality of the product.

In the film’s best scene, Kroc manages to win the brothers over by making a patriotic speech. Sounding like a preacher, he says he envisions a day when McDonald’s restaurants will be found from coast to coast, and each place will be an “American church” where families can come together to enjoy good food. This is a striking depiction of the peculiar American tendency to combine hucksterism with idealism. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Kroc’s idealism is shallow. As the McDonald’s chain takes off, Kroc becomes more and more ruthless. “If one of my competitors was drowning, I would put a hose in his mouth,” he says to a shocked Mac McDonald, not long before he manages to wrest ownership of the company away from the brothers.

The Founder tells a tale that is a subtle variation of the Faust story, with Kroc as an evolving Mephistopheles, but which is nonetheless quintessentially American, with its depiction of the conflict between the desire to be principled and the urge to succeed .

Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015


Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.


February 3, 2013


I have to admit that I’ve never been terribly keen on Westerns. I find most of them impossible to believe; they’re simply not accurate depictions of the “Old West”. They get all sorts of details wrong, beginning with women wearing twentieth-century hairstyles. And they show cavalrymen shooting guns while riding their horses. In real-life, they had to dismount before firing, otherwise the horses would panic. And of course, there’s that whole business of the good guy and the bad guy facing each other in the middle of the street in a shoot-out. (Of course, the good guy always happens to have faster reflexes than the bad guy does.) In reality, gun battles were usually fought the same way they’re fought today: people hiding behind things and shooting at each other.

The Cartwright family, moments before they were gunned down in the middle of the street.

George Stevens’s Shane is one of the better Westerns that I’ve seen. A retired gunslinger, Shane (Alan Ladd), who is fleeing his past, passes through the land of a homesteader, Starrett (Van Heflin). There he learns that a wealthy landowner named Ryker (Emile Meyer) is trying to force Starrett and other homesteaders off their land. Shane spends the night with Starrett and his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and his son, Joey (Brandon deWilde). He decides to work as a farmhand for Starrett. Meanwhile, Ryker hires a gunslinger named Walker (the wonderfully creepy Jack Palance) to help him intimidate the homesteaders. The rest of the film basically builds towards the inevitable confrontation between Shane and Walker.

Shane is entertaining to watch. The characters are complex, and the cinematography is beautiful. Still, while I was watching this movie, I couldn’t help feeling that it could have been better. It hints at a love triangle between Shane, Marian, and Starrett; but this idea is never developed. At the same time the film puts far too much emphasis on the business of Shane forging an emotional bond with Joey. At times this is almost embarrassing to watch. And I thought they could have done more with Palance’s character. (Palance’s mere presence in a film automatically makes it better.) Still, I can see why this film is considered a classic. If you want to see a good Western, you can’t do much better than Shane.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012

These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.

It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.

The Master

October 1, 2012

Scientology was a logical product of post-World War II America. In a society flush with an extraordinary military victory and enjoying an unprecedented economic prosperity, it seemed inconceivable to anyone that there could be any excuse for not being prosperous and happy. It was not unreasonable then for people to look for the solutions to their problems inside themselves. Psychoanalysis enjoyed its greatest popularity in the U.S. during this period. Scientology, with its roots in pulp fiction (Hubbard was sometimes called the “King of the Pulps”), was a sort of pop culture Freudianism, albeit with religious overtones that were understandable to Americans who had been exposed to evangelical Christianity.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film has a character who is obviously modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, although Anderson insists that the film is not actually about Scientology. Fred Qwell (Joaquin Phoezix) is a World War II veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (In those days, it was called “combat fatigue”.) He is severely alcoholic, and he is unable to hold down a job. One night, hungry and desperate, he stows away aboard a yacht on which a party is taking place. When people on the yacht discover him, they treat him kindly. They take him to the yacht’s “commander”, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd takes a liking to Qwell, and he begins to treat Qwell as though he were another one of his guests. We learn that Dodd is the leader of a movement known as The Cause. He has developed a form of analysis that he believes can make people achieve happiness and ultimately solve all of mankind’s problems It becomes clear to the viewer that Dodd is suffering from megalomania, but Qwell finds him charming, likable, and impressive. Dodd uses Qwell as a test-subject for his theories. Qwell develops a strong emotional attachment to Dodd, so much so that he sometimes physically assaults people who criticize “The Master”. The film subtly suggests that Dodd, for his part, develops a psychic dependence on the fiercely loyal Qwell.

When I went to see The Master, I was under the impression that it was going to be mainly about Dodd. The advertising seems to indicate that. In fact, it turns out to be essentially about Qwell and his efforts to make sense out of the world. I’m afraid some people may find it disappointing for that reason. However, I found it fascinating to watch and emotionally compelling. Hoffman’s performance is amazing. This is the best American film I have seen so far this year.