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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part III #4: The Grasshopper (dir by Jerry Paris)


“It’s very simple what I want to be: totally happy; totally different; and totally in love.”

— Christine Adams (Jacqueline Bisset) in The Grasshopper (1970)

Seriously, is Christine asking for too much?

Total happiness?  That may sound like a lot but trust me, it can be done.

Totally different?  That’s a little bit more challenging because, to be honest, you’re either different or you’re not.  If you have to make the effort to be different, then you definitely are not.

Totally in love?  Well, it depends on how you define love…

At the start of The Grasshopper, Christine thinks that she’s heading to America to find love.  While an oh-so late 60s/early 70s theme song plays in the background, Christine leaves her small hometown in Canada and she heads down to California.  She’s planning on meeting up with her boyfriend Eddie (Tim O’Kelly) and taking a job as a bank teller.

Of course, it soon turns out that working in a bank isn’t as exciting as Christine originally assumed.  Eddie expects Christine to just be a conventional girlfriend and that’s not what Christine is looking for. As well, it’s possible that Christine may have seen Targets, in which O’Kelly played an all-American boy who picks up a rifle and goes on a killing spree.

And so, Christine abandons Eddie and heads to Las Vegas.  Since this movie was made in 1970 and Uber didn’t exist back then, Christine’s preferred method of traveling is hitchhiking.  This gives her a chance to meet the usual collection of late 60s weirdos who always populate movies like this.  One driver crosses herself when Christine says that she plans to have a baby before getting married.  Another is a hacky Las Vegas comic.

In Vegas, Christine applies for a job as a showgirl.  As she explains to sleazy casino owner Jack Benton (Ed Flanders), she “once did Little Women in school.”

“Did you do it nude?” Jack replies.

Yep, that’s Vegas for you!  It’s the city of Showgirls, Casino, and Saved By The Bell: Wedding in Vegas, after all!

Anyway, thing do get better once Christine meets and falls in love with Tommy Marcott (Jim Brown), a former football player who is now working as a door greeter in Jack’s casino.  Everyone tells Christine not to get involved with Tommy.  One of Jack’s men, a menacing hitman who looks just like Johnny from Night of the Living Death (he even wears glasses), warns Christine to watch herself.

Through a long series of events, Christine ends up on her own again.  The usual collection of 70s events occur: murder, drugs, prostitution, and ultimately a stint as the mistress of a rich man played by Joseph Cotten.  The important thing is that it all eventually leads to Christine and a skywriter getting stoned, stealing a plane, and deciding to write a message in the sky.

That’s when this happens:

Yes, it’s all very 1970!

Anyway, The Grasshopper is one of those films that tries to have it both ways.  Establishment audiences could watch it and think, “Wow, those kids are really messed up.”  Counterculture audiences could watch it and say, “Old people are such hypocrites.”  Oddly enough, The Grasshopper was written by future director Garry Marshall and it’s an incredibly overwrought film.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film and the film’s direction is flashy but empty.  However, for those of us who love history, it’s as close to 1970 as we’re going to get without hopping into a time machine.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Caine Mutiny (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging.  The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency.  Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is.  The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins).  The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline.  However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command.  As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men.  DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations.  He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.

DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart.  Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart!  From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do.  However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people.  He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense.  Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.

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Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help.  He asks them if they have any suggestions.  They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.

Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine.  Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities.  On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.

And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation.  (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.)  From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him.  After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor.  If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg.  As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.

It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg.  And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches.  And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed.  Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?

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Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect.  The film has its flaws.  In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story.  But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film.  Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him.  Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head.  Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.

Fred MacMurray The Caine Mutiny

But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer.  Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character.  He’s totally passive aggressive.  He’s pretentious.  He’s smug.  At times, he’s rather cowardly.  And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film.  He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom.  (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.)  It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance.  And you know what?  I don’t care how bad a character he may have been.  I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!

The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954.  However, it lost to On The Waterfront.