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.

The Fabulous Forties #1: Port of New York (dir by Laszlo Benedek)


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This last Christmas, along with several other wonderful and sexy gifts, I received The Fabulous Forties DVD box set.  Released by the good people at Mill Creek (who have yet to come across a single public domain film that they couldn’t repackage as being a classic), this box set contained 50 films from that wonderful decade.

Since my proclivity for serial reviewing is well-known, you’re probably not surprised that I’ve decided to watch and review all fifty of the films to be found in the Fabulous Forties box set.  And, once I’ve finished with the Fabulous Forties, I will move on to the Nifty Fifties, the Sensational Sixties, the Swinging Seventies, and the Excellent Eighties!  Since each box set contains 50 films, I will have watched and reviewed 250 films by the time this is all finished.  It might take a while but that’s okay.  Arleigh keeps us well-supplied with energy drinks here at the Shattered Lens bunker and I am determined to keep going until the job is done.

(And, if need be, there’s always Dexedrine…)

Let’s get things started with the first film in the box set, 1949’s Port of New York!

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This low-budget, black-and-white film opens with a series of shots of cargo ships sailing into New York Harbor.  A narrator, speaking in the type of tone that one would usually associate with an old educational film, informs us that, every day, thousands of ships sail into New York Harbor.  Most of those ships are delivering important supplies and conducting important business.  However, occasionally, the harbor is used by drug smugglers.  (GASP!)  Fortunately, both the federal and the state government employ brave and honest men who will stop at nothing to battle the scourge of opium.

(And, fortunately, since this film was made in 1949, they can do whatever they want without having to worry about the Supreme Court getting in the way.)

If it’s not already apparent, Port of New York is a bit of a time capsule.  The drug smugglers are unambiguous in their villainy and the decency and honesty of law enforcement is taken for granted.  Port of New York was filmed on location in New York and I enjoyed getting a chance to see what New York looked like in 1949.

As for the film’s plot — well, it’s nothing surprising.  The port authority discovers that a shipment of morphine, which was meant to be delivered to a pharmaceutical company, has instead been stolen.  A million dollars worth of narcotics is missing and the U.S. Government is going to find it!  Meanwhile, Toni Cardell (K.T. Stevens) approaches a narcotics agent and says that she has information that could take down one of New York’s biggest gangster.  However, before she can tell all the she knows, Toni is murdered.

(The detective who failed to keep Toni from leaving his office and going off to get killed looks down at her body, shrugs, and says, “This one’s on me.”)

Who killed her?  That’s what Mickey Waters (Scott Brady) and Jim Flannery (Richard Rober) spend the movie figuring out.  However, we already know that Toni was murdered by her boyfriend, a suave gangster named Paul Vicola.  Paul is played, in his film debut, by Yul Brynner and he gives a charismatic performance, turning Paul into a memorable monster.  Brynner still had a full head of hair when he did this movie, though his hairline was definitely moving backwards.

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Over the course of their investigation, Waters and Flannery discover that a second-rate comedian named Dolly Carney (Arthur Blake) is being supplied by Vicrola.  The scenes where they interrogate Dolly, who is going through withdraw, are some of the best in the film and are distinguished by Blake’s empathetic performance.  However, beyond those scenes, there’s really nothing surprising to be found in Port of New York.  It’s a thoroughly predictable police procedural that’s distinguished by the presence of Yul Brynner and not much else.  That said, the action in this 82-minute film moves quickly and I enjoyed it as a historical artifact.

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