1957

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is an enormous feat. It succeeds thanks to director Arnold, writer Richard Matheson, and star Grant Williams. Arnold’s arguably got the greatest successes; he carefully lays the groundwork for the film’s eventual startling visuals. To get to the startling ones, Arnold’s got to get through some absurd ones. Only the first act visuals aren’t startling or absurd, they’re just mundanely peculiar. Even when Williams finally gets it confirmed—his suspicions are correct, he is somehow shrinking—the film gets some energy out of William Schallert giving the news in a very William Schallert way, but otherwise tension doesn’t rise. It’s still early in the film, which only runs eighty minutes and more than half of it is a survival picture; Arnold and Matheson pace things out gradually in the first section. Even though every scene perturbs the plot, Matheson is really just moving Williams into position for the real story to come.

The story of man against his environment, an environment of his own unintentional making. All the smart moves Arnold makes in the beginning as Williams shrinks from six feet tall to three feet tall, all the elaborate set decorating, the outstanding matte shots… the second half survival picture is where Arnold and the crew up the effects work. As Williams shrinks to the height of a doll, then to a matchstick, the effects requirements grow exponentially. It’s a lot easier to have Williams sit shrunk on a couch across the room from regular-size wife Randy Stuart, but getting him into a dollhouse so she can lean down and talk to him like he’s Fay Wray? Arnold doesn’t just up the effects ante, he also takes into account how much more fantastical his visuals are getting. He’s got to sell it all to the audience.

And he does. Shrinking Man is always inventive in how the effects get integrated, because eventually the effects become the visual plane. Reality is long gone.

Matheson does just as well changing gears from the opening medical thriller picture to the survival one. Williams—who narrates the whole picture, usually to solid effect—has entirely different expectations in the second half of the film than the audience. The first half, they’re pretty much inline as far as predicting the plot. Especially if an audience member has seen the posters advertising film as the “Dollman vs. House cat”. Williams doesn’t have the exact same expectations, but he operates with a lot of fear, which comes out in his performance but not the narration. The narration—which ends up being Matheson’s only problem area for specific, somewhat unrelated reasons—is all past tense. Even though Williams spends the first half of the film writing his life story, the narration isn’t that written account. It’s something else, which Matheson never identifies. It’s a soft spot, but given some of the other soft spots in the script, it might be better he doesn’t place it in time and place.

Just to get them out of the way now—the other two soft spots in Matheson’s script? The gentle attempts to comment on Williams’s changing masculine self-image. It all has to do with Stuart, who establishes herself in the first scene as this strong partner. And Williams appreciates her as such. Loads of chemistry in the first scene. Just because the script doesn’t give Stuart anything to do after her second scene, which mostly has her making breakfast, she never gets downgraded either. I guess it’s kind of a larger soft spot overall—the way Matheson abandons Stuart to get to the sci-fi medical thriller. As Williams gets smaller, he gets meaner to Stuart, but he’s really aware of it, both in narration and scene. Stuart’s going to assume he’s really apologetic in a scene because they’re both going through a fantastic trauma. The audience knows from the narration he means it. So it’s all a dramatic wash, which wastes not just Stuart, but Williams as well. They’ve only got so much time together.

Third soft spot is Matheson’s attempt to tie it all into God and the cosmos. The film doesn’t really need it—like, even for 1957, Shrinking Man never gets too sacrilegious in its Nuclear Age sci-fi—but Matheson uses it when he runs out of plot ideas. It’s a really strange move, which might have worked in the source novel (also by Matheson), but doesn’t come off visualized. And given how well Arnold visualizes everything else in the picture, he’s got to know, right?

Besides Williams and Stuart, only April Kent and Paul Langton make much impression in the cast. Kent’s the nice little person who Williams bonds with. It’s an undercooked plot point, but effective. Kent’s good. Langton’s Williams’s older brother, who ends up caring for Stuart after Williams… shrinks too much. It’s a throwaway character, who just sits around taking agency from Stuart, usually in exposition dumps, and Langton’s really bland in the part.

So they stand out for very different reasons.

Excellent photography from Ellis W. Carter, good editing from Albrecht Joseph; great special effects, great sets. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a big success, it just should’ve been an even bigger one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Albrecht Joseph; produced by Albert Zugsmith; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), Paul Langton (Charlie Carey), April Kent (Clarice Bruce), Raymond Bailey (Doctor Silver), and William Schallert (Doctor Bramson).


The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


The Seventh Sin (1957, Ronald Neame)

The Seventh Sin has three problems. The first is the third act; it’s too rushed. Given the constraints of the film production–a shot-in-Hollywood production about a cholera outbreak in a rural Chinese town–there’s not so much to be done about it. The film has a limited cast, especially once the action moves from Hong Kong to that town, and the roles are restrictive. The second problem is Miklós Rózsa’s music. It’s occasionally perfectly good melodramatic stuff, but Rózsa also has a lot what he must have considered Chinese themes. Regardless of their origin, they come off as trite or condescending and completely alien to the film’s narrative. They’re as patiently false as the rear screen projection shots, only without the actors there to get the scenes through.

The third problem is the big one. It keeps The Seventh Sin down, even when everything else is working (though, obviously, not much of Rózsa’s score). “Leading man” Bill Travers is awful. He’s mediocre at the start, seemingly unable to fully handle the part of a vindictive cuckold, but once he actually has some character development to essay? Travers butchers it even worse.

Now on to the good. Lead Eleanor Parker. She starts the film desperately unhappy, floundering, angry, and completely transforms through her experiences. The Seventh Sin is front-loaded. The most dramatic story stuff is at the beginning, when dull Travers learns Parker’s having an affair with charming Jean-Pierre Aumont. By the time Travers drags Parker to the cholera outbreak, there’s not much drama left. They’re both resigned and burned out. Parker’s already gone through one entire dramatic arc with the character and then she has to build another one, only without any outside incitement. Despite Travers singlehandedly turning the tide of the cholera epidemic, Sin’s all about how Parker experiences it and how that experience changes her. And a lot of her experience is just sitting around miserable.

Sometimes she does have George Sanders, playing an Englishman who’s settled in the town to occasionally run an import and export business, but mostly to get drunk and snoop into people’s personal lives. He finds a kindred spirit in Parker and much of the second act involve his attempts to discover her secrets and then what to do with those discoveries.

All of Parker’s development comes in these quietly composed wide shots; she’s often alone in them, negotiating her place in space. When someone else comes into the shot–specifically Travers–it’s an intrusion. The subdued tension explodes. Parker argues magnificently in the film. The script never really gives Sanders a chance to keep up, which seems a missed opportunity (but not once the narrative plays out). At the beginning of the film, Travers actually does hold his ground for a moment or two but he quickly gets lost. It’s impossible to imagine how The Seventh Sin would’ve turned out with a better performance in his role.

While Ronald Neame gets the sole credit, Vincente Minnelli directed much of it–most of it? And given Neame left because he (incredibly and stupidly) disliked Parker’s performance, maybe Minnelli’s responsible for all the great direction of Parker.

Besides Parker and Sanders (who plays a soulful drunk just like he’s a soulful drunk), Aumont is pretty good. Françoise Rosay is excellent as a Mother Superior who gives Parker quite a bit of advice; it’s mostly from a humanistic standpoint, not a religiously influenced one, which makes the scenes particularly effective.

Good black and white photography from Ray June. He does a lot better with the matte paintings than with the rear screen projection.

Karl Tunberg’s script holds strong for almost the entire film, until the third act rush. That last minute stumble is mostly Tunberg’s fault, but Minnelli (or Neame) could’ve tried to do something to save it. The finale manages to have Parker in every second but lose the character’s depth. Her personal journey becomes perfunctory, which is a big problem given it’s the entire picture.

And most of the picture is quite good.

Except Travers. Travers is terrible.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ronald Neame; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Miklos Rozsa; produced by David Lewis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Carol Carwin), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Duvelle), George Sanders (Tim Waddington), Bill Travers (Doctor Walter Carwin), Françoise Rosay (Mother Superior) and Ellen Corby (Sister Saint Joseph).


Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

Wild Strawberries is about a septuagenarian doctor (Victor Sjöström) being awarded an honorary degree. Sjöström’s narration sets it up in the first scene, before the opening titles. Director Bergman’s script, through the narration, lays out the entire ground situation before the titles, in fact. Sjöström is a widower, he has an adult son, he has ninety-five year-old mother, he has a housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl) who takes good care of him.

Then the titles roll and Bergman starts the film proper, though he immediately goes into a foreboding dream sequence. Mortality has come knocking for Sjöström and he can’t shake it. Sjöström’s performance and his narration are two different things. Whereas his performance has some moments of levity–along with the despondency–his narration is from somewhere else entirely. Bergman doesn’t draw attention to it, just lets Sjöström’s voice inhabit the frame.

Following the dream sequence, Sjöström–who’s already been narrating–annouces to Kindahl he wants to drive to the award ceremony, not fly. Before Bergman even gets to the flashbacks–set forty and fifty years earlier–Wild Strawberries already feels detached from present reality. The roads Sjöström drives are usually empty, the trip itself a further detachment from modernity. Only Sjöström isn’t on the trip alone, he’s got daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) along for the ride.

Thulin comes into the film after Sjöström’s done his domestic banter Kindahl and without any warning. Bergman continuously wakes the audience throughout the film, beating two rhythms, one for Sjöström, one for the film itself. Because even though he’s on trip journey through his memories, everyone else is moving forward. Thulin’s got this entirely different, almost joyous story arc–though nothing’s too joyous in Wild Strawberries, as too much warmth would shatter Sjöström. The film’s about Sjöström’s confrontation with that past, spurred in some ways by Thulin’s presence and disinterested hostility, sure, but… once Thulin sets Sjöström spinning, the road trip bringing things up is inevitable.

Most of the straight flashbacks–the ones untinged with dream–are about events Sjöström didn’t witness firsthand. He’s being haunted by the reality of the past, which he’s spent his life avoiding. Bergman doesn’t even try to be subtle about it–if Wild Strawberries has a eureka moment, it’s when memory forces Sjöström to acknowledge his emotional detachment. Bergman’s been showing it throughout the film, particularly with the first flashback. The star of the first flashback is also Bibi Andersson, playing Sjöström’s childhood sweetheart.

Then Andersson reappears in the present, like she’s stepping out of the dream, but she’s really just in need of a ride. She brings along Folke Sundquist and Björn Bjelfvenstam; they’re “kids” (the guys are in their thirties, Andersson is twenty-two, but lets say late teens). Sjöström and Thulin have some great bonding over the kids’ frivolity, since neither get any of their own. Sjöström’s too much of a curmudgeon to want any, Thulin is actively avoiding it.

Andersson acts as the film’s anchor, but Thulin is what perturbs it. She’s present for Sjöström’s journey. She’s also got one of her own, but it only gets room when it figures into Sjöström’s character development. So much of Wild Strawberries is Thulin taking in all, helping the viewer find the punctuation marks Sjöström is skipping across. At the same time, Thulin’s building her own character alongside–but (mostly) detached from–that main action. It’s a great performance, probably the film’s best.

Though it’s hard to really assign that particular accolade. Sjöström’s performance, and Bergman’s direction of it, is Wild Strawberries. The opening narration says it’s going to all be about Sjöström and then it’s all about Sjöström. It’s Sjöström listening, remembering, watching, dreaming, waking, walking, talking. It’s Sjöström.

So while Thulin’s performance is more impressive in what she gets done without the focus Sjöström’s performance gets, Sjöström does excel with the difference.

All of the performances are good. Andersson’s successfully enigmatic–dream, memory, and nymph, all ostensibly alternating. Kindahl’s a fine foil for Sjöström. Bergman directs the actors quite well.

Excellent music from Erik Nordgren and photography from Gunnar Fischer. Oscar Rosander’s editing is magnificent. Technically, it’s all great, but that Rosander editing is otherworldly. Bergman and Rosander control the narrative distance with the editing. It’s awesome.

Wild Strawberries is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Oscar Rosander; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, Gittan Gustafsson; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Victor Sjöström (Isak), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald), Jullan Kindahl (Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), and Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Borg).


Peyton Place (1957, Mark Robson)

Peyton Place takes over a year and a half starting in 1941. Director Robson has a really slick way of getting the date into the ground situation. Robson and cinematographer William C. Mellor go a little wild with Peyton Place–there’s a lot of location shooting and Robson tries hard to make the viewer feel enveloped. The film’s a soap opera, not requiring the viewer to situate themselves inside the story, but Robson invites it. The film’s a technical delight; Robson’s proud of its quality.

But the encompassing isn’t required because Peyton Place is a sensational soap opera. From the opening narration, the film declares itself sensational. The film starts with Diane Varsi’s narration then goes to Lee Philips arriving in town. Eventually, after being high school senior Farsi’s new principal, Philips will also romance her mother, played by Lana Turner. Most, if not all, of the drama has something to do with Varsi and Turner’s home or Varsi’s school or Turner’s business. And if it doesn’t have to do with them, then it’s war-related. Varsi starts Peyton Place its protagonist, with Turner sort of waiting in the wings to have her own big story. There’s all sorts of potential juxtaposition and alter ego and it ought to be great.

Only, by the end of the movie, Varsi and Turner are complete strangers to the viewer and each other. The film jumps ship from Varsi’s story two-thirds of the way in and she still narrates, but she’s not part of the action. And when she does return, she doesn’t get to make up any of that time. The film doesn’t even commit to her having an actual love interest in Russ Tamblyn’s troubled teenage boy. It’s a shame because Varsi and Tamblyn are great together, while she and Turner aren’t. Their scenes just aren’t particularly good.

Actually, Peyton Place doesn’t really have anything to do with Lana Turner. Her romance is entirely Philips pursuing her, usually at just the right moment to set off an argument with Varsi. Turner gets through it, but her only pay-off scene is a courtroom breakdown. It’d be more significant if it wasn’t followed by a superior courtroom breakdown, which is setoff in the narrative by Turner’s. So, lots of problems. Luckily the film’s beautifully produced and well-acted (even if in undercooked roles). Robson and screenwriter John Michael Hayes had to clean up the source novel for the censors, which Robson utilizes to give some of his actors more room. They use it well.

Except Philips. Philips is physically fine for the part, but he’s just a bit tepid. He’s supposed to be a sexy progressive dude who cares about education and sex ed and he’s never convincing. He just mopes around Turner until she gives in.

Varsi’s pretty good. She’s got a lot to do in the first half of the movie, it’s all her show. The scenes with Tamblyn are best because it’s her storyline more than anything else in the film. Tamblyn’s just her sweet male friend. His own backstory only exists when Varsi’s around. The film’s failure with it is another of the frustrations.

Anyway, pretty soon Varsi’s just around to support Hope Lange’s story–which is the center of the film as it turns out–or something with Turner, which always affects the high school and that subplot. Hayes’s script is masterful, no doubt, but it’s a masterful soap opera. He’s going for sensationalism, not the characters. Robson’s going for the characters and the visual grandeur of it. While the two approaches end up complimenting each other, there’s only so far Robson could take it.

Lange’s amazing. Sometimes she’s second fiddle in her own scenes, but Robson always makes sure to give her time to act. Seeing Lange’s experience through her expressions is what gives Peyton Place its heart. Robson helps, sure, but he knows Lange’s got to handle a lot of weight and figures out the best way to distribute it.

Also excellent is Arthur Kennedy, who has a similar relationship with the film as Lange.

Tamblyn’s good. Lloyd Nolan’s great as the town doctor who also serves as a guide through the film. Leon Ames is awesome as the mean local rich guy. Lorne Greene is the nasty prosecuting attorney in the third act. I’m not sure he’s good but he’s definitely loathsome, though the courtroom finale isn’t set up well in the narrative. Hayes does fine once he gets into the trial, but its inciting incident is a complete fumble.

Because Peyton Place isn’t a great movie. It’s got a lot of problems. It might even get long in parts, which isn’t a good thing–if you’re going to run two and a half hours, you can’t feel long. But it is a good movie, with some great filmmaking and some great performances. And Franz Waxman’s music is gorgeous.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Grace Metalious; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by David Bretherton; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Jerry Wald; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selena Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Lloyd Nolan (Dr. Swain), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Leon Ames (Mr. Harrington), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Barry Coe (Rodney Harrington), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Miss Elsie Thornton), Lorne Greene (Prosecutor), and Scotty Morrow (Joseph Cross).


The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

The Seventh Seal has a lot of striking imagery. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is peerless, but it’s more–it’s how the photography works with the shot composition, how the shots work with one another (Lennart Wallén’s editing is simultaneously amiable and stunning). And then there’s how it all works with Erik Nordgren’s music. Bergman’s going for theatrics in The Seventh Seal, which I wasn’t expecting. He goes from them right away though–the film’s opening titles are silent and then very noisy; I’m surprised now, after seeing it, learning he adapted it from a play (his own play, but still a play). It makes sense, but since the film’s never stagy and so visual, I hadn’t thought about it.

The film has a lot of characters–something else I wasn’t expecting–but the main ones are Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Nils Poppe. von Sydow is a knight back from the Crusades, Björnstrand is his squire, Poppe is a juggler in a touring company. Even though Bergman opens with von Sydow (meeting Bengt Ekerot’s Death, no less), the film quickly moves to toggling between Björnstrand and Poppe. They’re regular guys, after all. von Sydow is in the middle of a spiritual crisis, pestering Death to confirm or deny the existence of God; he’s not exactly relatable. And von Sydow’s so beautiful, with his golden locks (Seal’s black and white, but they made sure to make his hair look good–for the film, obviously), he’s a bit apart from everything else. Whole scenes will pass between the rest of the cast while von Sydow stays in the background. Sure, he’s the knight on a quest and Bergman’s interested in this specific narrative and the literary trope, but Bergman’s a lot more interested in the people. But he never shortchanges the trope–and Seal’s just under 100 minutes, Bergman’s got a nimble pace–just shows there’s a lot more going on.

Oh, right–Seal’s set against an outbreak of plague, which has everyone gathered worried and looking for signs. Can’t talk too much about that detail without spoiling something. Even though The Seventh Seal is straightforward in its plot, Bergman does so much with the symbolism–which he bakes into the narrative, both visually and in scene–it’s just as dramatically compelling an arc as everything else. Bergman’s really serious about the film. So it’s kind of strange–and endearing–when the film’s fun and funny and gentle. It’s fairly upbeat overall; it’s also without Bergman doing it as a reward, like something the audience gets after sitting through numerous horrific scenes.

All the performances are great. Björnstrand is the best. He has the most to do, but he’s the best. Bibi Andersson’s great as Poppe’s wife. von Sydow’s fantastic. And Ekerot’s good as Death, of course. Oh, and Åke Fridell, Erik Strandmark and Inga Gill are all good. Like I said, it’s a lot of characters. Gunnel Lindblom’s got maybe three lines and she’s great too. Bergman’s direction of the actors is just as breathtaking as everything else in The Seventh Seal.

It’s a wondrous film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ingmar Bergman; screenplay by Bergman, based on his play; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Lennart Wallén; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Maud Hansson (Witch), Åke Fridell (Blacksmith Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Inga Landgré (Karin), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Anders Ek (The Monk), Gunnar Olsson (Church Painter) and Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat).


The Monolith Monsters (1957, John Sherwood)

Against the odds, The Monolith Monsters almost comes together in the finale. The special effects are good, there’s a lot of tension, none of the acting is too bad. And then the end flops. I want to blame director Sherwood, maybe screenwriters Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco, maybe editor Patrick McCormack, maybe producer Howard Christie; I can’t blame any of them in particular because The Monolith Monsters sputtering out is all their faults. Technically speaking, only Ellis W. Carter’s photography is adequate throughout. Even the special effects take a while to come together because they’re poorly paced. The movie’s actually not though. The movie moves at a good pace, though it does lose “lead” Grant Williams too often.

Williams is fine. He doesn’t save the movie but he doesn’t do anything bad in his part, which is an achievement in this picture. Lola Albright’s bad as his girlfriend. Les Tremayne is likable but not good as the town reporter. Oh, Albright’s a school teacher. She’s better as the school teacher than as Williams’s squeeze and she’s terrible as the school teacher. Trevor Bardette is likable but not good as Williams’s college professor. Harry Jackson probably gives the best performance in the film, though an uncredited William Schallert has a ball as a fastidious weatherman.

The writing is fairly lame. Lots of expository dialogue, which director Sherwood can’t get his actors to convey naturally. Some of the problem is the script, some Sherwood, some the actors. Phil Harvey’s Williams’s sidekick and he’s bad whenever he has to talk, but endearing when he’s just moving around the set. It’s weird, but then the film keeps going and other performances are weak and unsupported by the direction and it makes sense. Everything wrong with The Monolith Monsters makes perfect sense.

Except the screw-up at the end. Everything building to it–and some of the scenery gets set up at the film’s open and then more in that weak expository dialogue–it goes seamlessly for almost all of it and then stalls. It’s a problematic but winning special effects sequence. It needs support from the rest of the film and it doesn’t get it. It’s silly. The Monolith Monsters is silly and it shouldn’t be and it ruins a lot of the movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Sherwood; screenplay by Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco, based on a story by Jack Arnold and Fresco; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Patrick McCormack; produced by Howard Christie; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Grant Williams (Dave Miller), Lola Albright (Cathy Barrett), Les Tremayne (Martin Cochrane), Trevor Bardette (Prof. Arthur Flanders), Phil Harvey (Ben Gilbert), William Flaherty (Police Chief Dan Corey), Harry Jackson (Dr. Steve Hendricks), Richard H. Cutting (Dr. E.J. Reynolds) and Linda Scheley (Ginny Simpson).


The Deadly Mantis (1957, Nathan Juran)

The best directed parts of The Deadly Mantis are when the film is propaganda for the military. Director Juran–and editor Chester W. Schaeffer–show more enthusiasm when putting together those brief expository segments than they do anywhere else in the film. Given it’s about a giant praying mantis thawed out from the Artic who eats people, one might think the enthusiasm belongs somewhere else. But, no. Air defense, Red Scare and maybe a little paleontological awe.

Juran certainly isn’t enthusiastic about his actors. Deadly Mantis’s stock footage gets better treatment than its actors. Lead Craig Stevens is pretty lame, so there’s nothing to be done with him. He spouts exposition or hears exposition or tells love interest Alix Talton to settle down and let the men handle things. It’s unfortunate, because Talton’s arc is then going from being self-sufficient and professionally respected to being an Air Force colonel’s squeeze. I suppose it’s affably handled. Steven’s isn’t offensively lame, he just can’t hack it.

William Hopper–as Talton’s friend and the super-cool scientist who figures things out but was also in the service so he’s not a nerd, you know (he doesn’t wear glasses)–is bored but he’s kind of great. Perpetually laid back. Like his paleontologist drinks some herbal tea and it chills him out. Or maybe it’s having spent his life named Nedrick. Regardless of Hopper’s acting motivation, Deadly Mantis is far more tolerable when he’s around. When it’s him and Talton bantering about science and government secrets? It’s probably at its best. Juran doesn’t direct the scenes well, but the museum set is one of the film’s more detailed.

The set design and the special effects are another problem. There’s no enthusiasm to the special effects. The sets at least have to match the stock footage and the set decorators Oliver Emert and Russell A. Gausman work at it. Deadly Mantis might be “stock footage theatre” but it’s well-integrated stock footage theatre. Except with the special effects. Mantis has lots of conceptual problems as a giant monster movie–like the giant monster doesn’t destroy anything and it attacks single people and there’s no eating people scenes. It’s a metaphor about trusting the military to protect us against the Russians first, giant monster movie second. It’s Juran’s fault. If he were doing better work, he’d pull up the rest of the production. None of its problems are insurmountable. Not even Berkeley’s script.

Solid black and white photography from Ellis W. Carter. It’s never breathtaking or even close to it, but it’s affable. It has more personality than the direction.

Really amusing supporting performances from Donald Randolph and Florenz Ames. And Pat Conway’s nice to have around, especially during Stevens’s expository scenes.

Maybe the nicest thing I can say–other than Talton and Hopper deserved a better film–is The Deadly Mantis never disappoints. It’s got a rocky, unpromising open and it never even implies it might significantly improve.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nathan Juran; screenplay by Martin Berkeley, based on a story by William Alland; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Chester W. Schaeffer; produced by Alland; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Craig Stevens (Col. Joe Parkman), William Hopper (Dr. Nedrick Jackson), Alix Talton (Marge Blaine), Donald Randolph (Maj. Gen. Mark Ford), Pat Conway (Sgt. Pete Allen) and Florenz Ames (Prof. Anton Gunther).


Lizzie (1957, Hugo Haas)

Lizzie is about lead Eleanor Parker’s struggle with multiple personality disorder. More accurately perhaps, Lizzie is about Parker’s multiple personality disorder. As a protagonist, Parker disappears fairly quickly into the film’s eighty minute runtime. She doesn’t even get to open the film; it introduces her through other characters’ expository conversation.

Screenwriter Mel Dinelli, quite unfortunately, often relies on expository conversation.

When Parker is the lead, however, Lizzie is in pretty good shape. Even though Parker’s alternate personalities are a little shallow as far as characterization goes, Parker’s performance is strong. Even she can’t do anything with the hallucination sequences though. Lizzie is a technical mess. Director Haas (who gives himself a supporting acting role, which I’ll get to in a bit) has three directorial modes. Some of Lizzie, when the film is just watching Parker act, feels experimental and edgy. Unfortunately, it contrasts with Haas’s inept handling of regular sequences. Lizzie doesn’t have much of a budget and the sets are bad, something Haas and cinematographer Paul Ivano aggravate. But then Haas and Ivano also go for foreboding mood, with the inept assistance of composer Leith Stevens, and Lizzie feels even more uneven.

As Parker’s psychiatrist, Richard Boone doesn’t have much to do but he’s sincere in the performance. There’s even a scene where Parker tries to draw him out a little, allow him room for personality and Boone demurs. Like I said before, Dinelli’s script is a mess.

As Parker’s suffering aunt, Joan Blondell is good. She starts out as a shrill harpy, but eventually Blondell is able to do something with the part. Haas, as an actor, is her mooning sidekick.

Lizzie has some great acting from Parker, who unfortunately proves no matter how fine a performance, when something is dramatically inert, there’s no way to get it moving.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hugo Haas; screenplay by Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by Shirley Jackson; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Leon Barsha; music by Leith Stevens; produced by Jerry Bresler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Elizabeth Richmond), Richard Boone (Dr. Neal Wright), Joan Blondell (Aunt Morgan), Hugo Haas (Walter Brenner), Ric Roman (Johnny Valenzo), Marion Ross (Ruth Seaton) and Johnny Mathis (Piano Singer).


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