Tag Archives: 1953

CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with  a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways.  Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career  at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.

Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of  poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.

Still from I Confess (1953)‘s I Confess (1953) features a performance by Montgomery Clift, as Father Michael Logan, which takes the psychology of the priestly vocation to an icy extreme. Clift’s performance, born of primordial method acting, parallels the film’s inert aesthetic.

Robert Burks’ shimmering cinematography exudes a Genesis-like potency. This, combined with Clift’s acting achievement, rendered I Confess a cult favorite among New Wave filmmakers and French critics.

American critics and audiences found it a more curious affair. It is akin to Gabriel Fauré’s music. Its appeal is primarily provincial; so subtle that invoking its aesthetic content proves to be a task.  Critics deemed this theological drama from the Jesuit-schooled Hitchcock too inaccessible, an inside affair amidst the director’s populist oeuvre. With introverted themes of Eden-esque transgressions, annihilation of carnality, and dogmatic devotion, I Confess was too bound in the interior of an orthodox landscape. Had Hitchcock’s film taken a more commercial approach, Western reception would have been considerably broader. Local critics predominantly panned Continue reading CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

“Some argue that this kind of thing puts Ed Wood into the company of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Should we buy this argument? Pull the string!”–IMDB Glen or Glenda FAQ

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ed Wood, Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell,

PLOT: A transvestite is found dead, a suicide. Seeking to understand more about this phenomenon, a police inspector visits a psychiatrist who explains transvestism to him using the example of Glen, a heterosexual man who is tormented by the question of whether he should reveal his passion for cross-dressing to his fiancée. Meanwhile, a sinister, omniscient “scientist” (played by Bela Lugosi) occasionally appears to cryptically comment on the action (“pull the string!”)

Still from Glen or Glenda? (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Producer George Weiss wanted to make a film to exploit the then-current case of Christine Jorgensen (born George William Jorgensen), one of the first men to have successful sex-reassignment surgery. According to legend, Ed Wood convinced Weiss that he was the right man to direct the picture because he was a transvestite in his private life and understood gender confusion. The resulting film, shot in just four days, ended up being more about transvestism than sex-change surgery.
  • Against Wood’s wishes, Weiss inserted bondage-themed imagery into the dream sequence to give the film a dash more sex.
  • Wood himself plays the transvestite Glen (and Glenda) under the pseudonym Daniel Davis.
  • In his own life, Wood did not take the advice he gave his character in Glen or Glenda to honestly discuss his desire to wear women’s clothes with his betrothed. Wood’s first wife had their marriage annulled in 1955, after Ed surprised her by wearing ladies’ undergarments to their honeymoon.
  • This is the first of three collaborations between Wood and then down-on-his-luck and opiate-addicted Bela Lugosi. Three of Lugosi’s final four credits were Wood films.
  • Some reviews of Glen or Glenda refer to Lugosi’s character as “the Spirit” rather than “the Scientist”; were there two separate sets of credits, each with a different name for the character?
  • Wood’s 1963 novel “Killer in Drag” features a transvestite character named Glen whose alter-ego is named Glenda.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Such a wealth of possibilities! What about the hairy Satan who inexplicably shows up at Glen and Barbara’s dream wedding? And who can forget Bela Lugosi, yelling nonsense at the viewer while his angry face is superimposed over a herd of stampeding buffalo? The iconic image, however, is Wood’s intended emotional climax: in a ridiculously touching gesture of unconditional acceptance, Glen’s girlfriend Barbara strips off her angora sweater and hands it to the wide-eyed transvestite.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A narratively-knotted 1950s pro-transvestite pseudo-documentary, told in naively earnest rhetoric via a wandering structure that includes flashbacks inside of flashbacks, would have made for a worthwhile oddity in itself. But throw in Bela Lugosi as a one-man Greek chorus reciting fractured fairy tales, and include a fourteen-minute dream sequence mixing Freudian symbolism, bargain-basement Expressionism, bondage, and a guest appearance by the Devil and you achieve incomparable weirdness, the way only Ed Wood could serve it up—on a bed of angora.


Clip from Glen or Glenda

COMMENTS: Ed Wood had a secret, and it’s not just that he liked the feel of silk panties under his rough trousers. Transvestism, in a way, was the Continue reading 170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

161. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)

“As to who was most responsible for this debaculous fiasco, I will have nothing more to say until all the participants have passed away, including myself.” –Theodore Geisel on The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roy Rowland

FEATURING: Tommy Rettig, Hans Conried, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy

PLOT: Fatherless Bart’s well-meaning mother forces him to practice the piano when he would rather be playing outside like a normal boy. He falls asleep and dreams of an institute ruled over by the dictatorial piano teacher Dr. Terwilliger, who keeps his mother in a hypnotic bondage and plans to enslave 500 boys to play his massive piano. With the help of a plumber, Bart must thwart the evil Dr. T and his henchmen and bring his mom back to her senses. Still from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script and lyrics were written by Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss). The first draft he submitted reportedly weighed in at 1,200 pages (100 pages would be an average script length).
  • Geisel disowned the film after it bombed at the box office, and refused to mention it in his biography.
  • Hans Conried said that eleven musical numbers were cut before the final release.
  • In “The Elevator Song,” the stanza referring to the “Third Floor Dungeon” was cut out of the film after the initial screenings (and does not appear on television screening or home video versions). The original lyrics read “Third floor dungeon: Household appliances. Spike beds, electric chairs, gas chambers, roasting pots, and snapping devices.” It’s speculated that the reference to “gas chambers” was deemed inappropriate in a movie released so soon after the Holocaust.
  • Producer Stanley Kramer is rumored to have directed some of the sequences himself.
  • Frederick Hollander’s compositions were nominated for a “Best Scoring of a Musical Picture” Oscar.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is saturated with surreal Seussian imagery, from roller skating Siamese twins linked by their beards to an elevator operator with no nipples and no face. Even the uniform Dr. Terwilliger requires Bart and the boys to wear—a simple blue beanie with five yellow fingers pointing skyward—is a candidate for most bizarrely memorable image. Throwing up our hands in despair, we’ll go with the obvious choice: the mile-long, two-tiered winding keyboard that the diabolical doctor plans to make his 500 charges play.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hypnotic whammy battle, underground musical cacophony, executioner elevator operator [selections provided by reader “Gargus” as part of a 2016 contest]

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In books like “Horton Hears a Who” and “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss’ fuzzy characters speaking singsong nonsense and cavorting across landscapes with implausible fauna make for children’s classics. But imagery that’s merely whimsical on paper in ink turns positively weird when fleshed out in Technicolor, with live actors singing and dancing. The backdrop of Cold War paranoia, before which flits a fey villain with a fabulous wardrobe, only adds to the oddness.

Joe Dante on the reissue trailer for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

COMMENTS: Theodore Geisel, the Philistine, notably hated The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, considering it an embarrassment and a low point in his Continue reading 161. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)

160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)

“[CROW T. ROBOT and TOM SERVO are complaining to JOEL ROBINSON that the incoherence of the movie Robot Monster is making them physically ill. JOEL kind of likes it.]

JOEL: No, you don’t get it. Isn’t it kind of weird? There’s, like, a guy in a gorilla suit, and he’s got a robot head, and inside he’s got kind of a bunch of clay. I mean, I’ve seen Dali paintings that made more sense than this movie does.

TOM: Yeah, but I think there’s a fine line between surrealism and costume store closeouts!

CROW: I don’t get it, Joel. Is it cool to make no sense? Is it hip to be vague?

JOEL: No, it’s not cool, but it’s surreal…”

–“Mystery Science Theater,” episode 107 (Robot Monster)

DIRECTED BY: Phil Tucker

FEATURING: Gregory Moffett, George Barrows, Claudia Barrett, George Nader, John Mylong

PLOT: Young Johnny is playing spaceman when he encounters a pair of archeologists on a dig. Later, he is struck by lightning, we see footage of dinosaurs fighting, and Johnny awakens in a future world where mankind has been wiped out except for his own family and a few surviving scientists. The remnants of humanity are being hunted down by a Ro-man, an emotionless alien with a gorilla’s body wearing a diver’s helmet.

Still from Robot Monster (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Robot Monster was originally released in 3-D (which may explain why the producers thought floating bubbles were imperative to the story).
  • The film was shot in four days, mostly in Bronson Canyon, with no interiors. It reportedly cost $16,000 to make (which would be about $140,000 in 2013 dollars). As bad as it was, Robot Monster reportedly grossed over $1 million in its initial run, even before it became a cult item.
  • The inserted dinosaur footage comes from One Million B.C. (1940) and Lost Continent (1951).
  • The music is by composer Elmer Bernstein, who was just starting his career. Bernstein would go on to be nominated for 14 Oscars, winning once.
  • According to “The Golden Turkey Awards,” director Phil Tucker attempted suicide due to the negative critical reaction to Robot Monster. Although Tucker did try to kill himself after the movie was released, the idea that bad reviews drove him to it is likely to be wishful thinking on the part of Harry and Michael Medved. The story is usually repeated—with the kind of cheap irony that suggests an urban legend—as some variation of “upset over bad reviews, the director tried to shoot himself, but missed!” Bill Warren gives a more balanced account of the scandal in his 1950s sci-fi primer “Keep Watching the Skies!
  • Robot Monster is a mainstay on “worst movie ever” lists, including the Medveds “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”
  • Included as one of the experiments of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (Episode 107).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “robot monster,” with his diving helmet topped by a rabbit ear antenna, all perched on top of a shaggy Halloween ape costume—especially when he’s framed by the swirling soap bubbles arising from his atom-age alien technology.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s the bubbles that put it over the top. An incompetent apeman alien in a diving helmet I can accept. Dialogue like “I must—but I cannot! Where on the graph do must and cannot meet?” is absurdly awful, but period-appropriate. The random appearance of battling dinosaur footage is common detritus when you are digging around in the scrapyards of cinema. But the unexplained presence of the bubble machine—a piece of equipment important enough to get its own mention in the opening credits—nearly breaks the weirdometer. Where on the graph do “apocalyptic alien invasion” and “happy little bubble machine” meet?


“Trailers from Hell” on Monster from Mars [AKA Robot Monster]

COMMENTS: Plan 9 from Outer Space has long been recognized as the ultimate so-bad-it’s-good unintentional sci-fi comedy of the 1950s, and Continue reading 160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)

IDA LUPINO’S THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is the first and only classic film noir directed by a woman. Lupino began her career as an actress in notable films such as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) (both costarring Humphrey Bogart), and The Hard Way (1943). She earned a reputation as a “hard luck dame” and “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Lupino refused to be defined by categories and ventured into directing. Her first film as a co-director (uncredited) was Not Wanted (1949), a stark and candid film (for its time) about an unwed mother. While on suspension (for turning down too many sub-par roles) Lupino and her husband started an independent film company, The Filmmakers, producing several films which she wrote and directed. As a director she was dubbed “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” which goes to show that sophistic labels die hard.

Lupino’s status as a pioneer for women filmmakers cannot be underestimated. She wrote and directed B-styled films which often focused on serious feminist themes. Her Outrage (1950) brutally dealt with the topic of rape (sadly, the film remains unavailable, but Mike Lorefice’s review should certainly be read).

Lupino ended her directorial career in television, and among her credits in that medium are memorable episodes of Thriller (starring ), The Untouchables, and The Fugitive.  Lupino’s innovative and daring success as a Hollywood filmmaker inspired an homage by jazz musician Carla Bley; it is a composition which has been much performed, most memorably by Paul Bley (Carla’s ex-husband) on his album “Open to Love.”

Lupino’s most acclaimed film is probably The Hitch-Hiker. Distributed by RKO, it is inspired by the true story of early 1950s serial killer Billy Cook. Lupino (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a confidently bleak, taut atmosphere in The Hitch-Hiker. The pacing is psychologically relentless, and Lupino masterfully takes full advantage of claustrophobic compositions (in a car), an expansive, arid landscape, and the noirsh city at night.

Still from The Hitch-hiker (1953)On the run, killer Emmet Meyers (William Talman) kidnaps the two fisherman: Roy (Edmund O’ Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy). Talman (best known as the nemesis of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason) gives THE yardstick performance of unadulterated sadism.

Fortunately, Lupino does not succumb to exploitation-movie sermons: she does not take time to, filling the film’s 71 minute length full of exposed nerves. Lupino handles the material with astute sensitivity, directing three male actors without ever resorting to displays of chest beating machismo. The building tensions between the three men were unsettling enough that RKO head Howard Hughes denied original story credit to the (supposed) leftist writer Daniel Mainwaring. Hughes was convinced the story was a parable about Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism. Leave it to Hughes to be paranoid about depiction of paranoia.  The Hitch-Hiker quickly became a cult hit for a reason: it is simply one of the best examples of Hollywood film noir.

Next week: Cat People begins our coverage on the films of Val Lewton at RKO.