Film Review: The Wild One (dir by Laszlo Benedek)


Motorcycles have always been unbelievably sexy and, in 1953, so was Marlon Brando.

1953 was the year that Brando played Johnny Strabler in The Wild One.  Johnny’s the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.  He wears a leather jacket and always has a cap tilted rakishly on his head.  When Johnny moves, he makes it a point to take his time.  He doesn’t run from anyone and, perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t run to anyone.  Johnny’s a rebel and he doesn’t care who knows it.  “What are you rebelling against?” Johnny is asked.  “Whaddya got?” Johnny replies and, when he says it, you not only believe him but you want to join him in his rebellion.

And yet, from the minute that we see Johnny, it’s obvious that there’s more to him than just his jacket and his attitude.  He speaks softly and when he smiles, there’s something almost shy about the expression.  You look into his brooding, soulful eyes and you know that Johnny isn’t just about making trouble.  He’s searching for something that society alone can’t deliver.  Johnny’s a bad boy, the type who you fool yourself into thinking that you — and only you — can reach and help heal.

At least, that’s the way that Kathie (Mary Murphy) feels about him, even though she’s way too smart to accept his invitation to go to a dance with him.  Kathie works at a diner in a small California town.  When Johnny and his gang ride into the town, all of the boring, responsible citizens want to force him to leave.  Kathie, alone, sees that Johnny’s not as bad as everyone assumes he is.  And if there’s any doubt about the fact that Johnny’s got a good soul despite his brooding nature, Chino (Lee Marvin) shows up to remind everyone of what a truly bad biker is like.

Chino and Johnny may both love their motorcycles but otherwise, they’re opposites.  If Johnny has the soul of a poet, Chino has no soul at all.  Johnny’s searching for freedom while Chino is merely searching for power.  Chino and Johnny were once friends, all part of the same gang.  However, Johnny eventually went off on his own and took the younger gang members with him.  Chino, in many ways, represents America’s destructive and wild path.  He’s an old west outlaw who rides a motorcycle instead of a horse.  Johnny, meanwhile, is a wanderer who represents the part of America that created Kerouac and Dylan.

(Interestingly enough, both Brando and Marvin were 29 years old when they made The Wild One.  However, Brando looked much younger and Marvin looked considerably older, which only added to the film’s theme of generational conflict.  Brando, himself, has never rode a motorcycle before making The Wild One and reportedly avoided the actual bikers who were hired to act as extras.  Lee Marvin, on the other hand, was an experienced rider and fit right in with the film’s cast.  To be honest, Lee Marvin is actually more convincing than Brando but Brando had the eyes and the wounded way of speaking whereas Marvin was every single guy who needlessly revs his motorcycle’s engine in the middle of the night.)

Anyway, needless to say, the townspeople are even less happy once Chino’s gang shows up.  Unfortunately, few of them understand the difference between Johnny and Chino.  In fact, the majority of the upright citizens prove themselves to be just as and, in some cases, more violent than the bikers that they’re trying to run out of town.  It all leads to violence, tragedy, and, ultimately, understanding.  This was a 50s film after all.  Director Laszlo Benedek may have played up the more sordid aspects of the story but the film was produced by the reliably and safely liberal Stanley Kramer and the film concludes on a very Krameresque note.

If you only know Marlon Brando from the latter half of his career, when he was best known for his weight, his eccentricities, and his personal tragedies, than watching The Wild One is quite a revelation.  It’s a well-directed film with a host of effective supporting turns but it’s Brando who makes the film unforgettable.  Watching the film, you understand why Brando became a star and you also see just how much he inspired so many of the actors who came after him.  James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without A Cause owes a huge debt to Brando’s work here.  In fact, every rebel owes a debt to The Wild One.  In the role of Johnny, Brando invites and inspires us all to ride down the road and see what we find.

The Wild One was a huge hit in 1953, leaving teenagers excited and parents concerned.  That same year, Brando also played Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar and received an Oscar nomination for the performance.  The Wild One was ignored at the Oscars but lives on whenever anyone hit the road and goes searching for America.

30 Days of Noir #16: I Was A Communist For The FBI (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1951 noir, I Was A Communist For The FBI, tells the story of Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy).  The film could just as easily be called I Hate Matt.

Seriously, from the minute we first see Matt, he’s got people hating on him.  When he goes to visit his mother, his three brothers all make it clear that he’s not welcome in their house.  When he goes to the local high school to find out why his son has been getting into fights, the principal is cold and rude to him.  Even worse, his son announces that it’s all Matt’s fault!  When Matt goes to his job at a Pittsburgh steel mill, the other members of his union view him with a mix of suspicion and resentment.  When Matt attempts to give his neighbor’s son some batting tips, the boy’s father tells Matt to get away from his child and adds, “Baseball is an American game!”

As you may have guessed from the film’s title, Matt is a communist.  He’s been a member of the Communist Party for nine years and, during that time, he’s seen a lot of bad things.  He’s met wth the shady spies who secretly deliver Russian orders to their comrades in the U.S.  He’s watched as communist leader Jim Blandon (James Millican) has plotted to sow discord among otherwise loyal Americans.  He’s watched as unions have been taken over and money has been raised on the backs of the workers.  If there’s anything that Matt understands about communism, it’s that the majority of its leaders care little about the people that they claim to represent.

Because Matt’s a communist, he basically can’t go anywhere without someone calling him “a dirty red” or a traitor to his country.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that not even his fellow communists trust him.  When Matt leaves one clandestine meeting, he’s followed until he reaches home.  In order to test Matt’s ideological purity, Jim Blandon orders a school teacher named Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) to get to know him.  We’re told that Eve is one of many communists who have managed to land a job teaching the children of America.

As you’ve probably once again guessed just by looking at the film’s title, the communists have good reason to be suspicious of Matt.  For 9 years, Matt has been working undercover.  As much as it tears him up that he can’t even tell his family the truth, Matt is determined to do what he has to do to keep America safe.  Sadly, that means that Matt has to be a pariah.  He has to deal with his “comrades” showing up at his own mother’s funeral and sarcastically mocking her religious faith.  When his own brother punches him, he has to accept it and lie about  being “a communist and proud of it!”  As he explains it, the fact that his son hates his “communist” father just makes Matt love his son all the more….

I Was A Communist For The FBI is an interesting film.  On the one hand, it’s a very easy film to criticize.  Yes, it’s totally heavy-handed, to the extent that the film even ends with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background.  Yes, Frank Lovejoy is a bit on the bland side in the lead role.  Yes, the film does seem to be making the argument that some people are more deserving of civil liberties than others.  As someone who believes in individual freedom above all else, it’s hard for me not to take issue with the way the film glorifies not only the FBI but also government overreach in general.

And yet, it’s a very well-made film.  Director Gordon Douglas hits all the right noir notes, from the shadowy streets to the pervasive sense of unease and paranoia.  James Millican is wonderfully villainous as Jim Blandon and Dorothy Hart also gives a good performance as Eve.  The film itself portrays the communist leadership as being more concerned with profit than ideology.  At one meeting, they brag about how much money they’ve made by infiltrating the unions.  In another meeting, Blandon orders one of his stooges to start promoting fascism, the idea being to divide Americans into two extremist camps and then wait for them destroy themselves.  When the communists start a riot during a labor strike, they attempt to blame it on a Jewish newspaper.  When they’re not fanning the flames of antisemitism, they’re causally using the “n-word.”  Again, it’s all very heavy-handed but, at the same time, it’s also a reminder that there will always be grifters who will attach themselves to any ideological movement, hoping to enrich themselves off of the idealism of others.  In our current hyperpolitical climate, that’s an important lesson to remember.

Finally, if nothing else, I Was A Communist For The FBI is very much a document of its time.  It was based on a true story, though how close it sticks to the actual facts of the case I won’t venture to guess.  Oddly enough, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, even though it’s clearly not a documentary.  Don’t ask me how to explain that one.  It’s a strange world.

Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 3.12 “The Jungle”


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Along with starting each day of October with a horror film here at the Shattered Lens, we’re going to end each day with a horror-themed television show.

While I had previously caught a few episodes of the Twilight Zone during one of the annual holiday marathons on SyFy, I didn’t truly appreciate the show until I first exchanged e-mails with my friend in Australia, Mark. Among other things, Mark expressed a very eloquent appreciation for The Twilight Zone and that inspired me to watch quite a few episodes that have been uploaded to YouTube and Hulu. Along with being an essential piece of television history, the best episodes of the Twilight Zone remain watchable and entertaining 50 years after they were first broadcast.

Considering the esteemed place that the Twilight Zone continues to occupy in American culture, it seems appropriate to feature it during Horror Month here at the Shattered Lens.

The Jungle, which first aired on December 1st, 1961, is a personal favorite of mine. A businessman returns to New York from Africa. While in Africa, he upset a local witch doctor. Though the businessman, at first, laughs off the possibility that he may be cursed, it soon turns out that he’s wrong. There’s a lesson to this episode and here it is: Don’t piss off a witch doctor.

When I first saw this episode, the final scene caused me to have nightmares!

(By the way, I’m embedding this episode from Hulu. Sadly, you will have to deal with commercials. However, it’s really a great episode!)

(It has also come to my attention that some browsers do not work with embedded Hulu vidoes.  Seriously, the internet is so frustrating!  If the embedded video is not appearing on your browser, you should be able to watch this episode on Hulu.  Here’s the link — http://www.hulu.com/watch/440777.  I apologize for the inconvenience but still, it is a really good episode!)

Shattered Politics #19: To Kill A Mockingbird (dir by Robert Mulligan)


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So, I guess I should explain why I’m including the classic 1962 film (and best picture nominee), To Kill A Mockingbird, in this series of reviews of films about politicians.  After all, while To Kill A Mockingbird dealt with the issue of racism in Alabama in a surprisingly honest manner, it doesn’t feature any elected officials.  Nobody shows up playing Gov. Benjamin J. Miller or President Franklin Roosevelt.  Instead, this film is about a wise lawyer named Atticus (Gregory Peck), an innocent man named Tom (Brock Peters), a girl named Scout (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Philip Alford), and a mysterious recluse named Boo (Robert Duvall).

However, if you’ve read Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, then you know that Atticus is not just the smartest man in Maycomb, Alabama.  He’s also a member of the Alabama state legislature and his political career is a fairly important subplot in the book, with him occasionally having to leave home so he can go down to Montgomery and help to write the budget.  (Incidentally, Harper Lee’s father actually was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.)

In the film, no mention of Atticus being a member of the state legislature is made but I still choose to believe that he was.  Because, as played by Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch is exactly the type of man who you would want to think of as serving in government.  He’s wise, compassionate, and firm.  For much of To Kill A Mockingbird, he is literally the only sane adult in Maycomb.  He’s the only attorney willing to defend Tom Robinson when Tom is accused of raping a white girl.  When a mob shows up to lynch Tom, Atticus is the only adult willing to stand up to them.  (Fortunately, Jem also runs up and shames the mob by reminding them that she goes to school with their children.)  And, in court, it is Atticus who proves that Tom is innocent.

When Tom is still convicted, what makes it all the more devastating is that wise and compassionate Atticus doesn’t seem to be surprised as all.  If even Atticus feels that there is no hope for a black man to get a fair trial from an all-white jury, the film seems to be saying, then there truly is no hope.

Of course, the film is not just about Atticus.  It’s about Scout and Jem and their friend Dill (John Megna) and how the three of them grow up and learn the truth about their world.  Watching them from behind the closed doors of his house is the mysterious and reclusive Boo Radley.  When Boo shows up towards the end of the film, I always find tears in my mismatched eyes.  Boo is played, in his film debut, by Robert Duvall.  Duvall doesn’t say a word but he still makes an incredible impression as the shy and withdrawn Boo.

So, I may be cheating a lot by including To Kill A Mockingbird in this series of reviews.  Oh well.  Who am I to turn down a chance to rewatch it?  To Kill A Mockingbird is just a great film.