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.

Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)


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Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He…

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Prophet Without Honor: Timothy Carey’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (Timothy Carey 1962)


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Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929-1994) was an eccentric, oddball actor who played in everything from early Stanley Kubrick films (THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY) to AIP Beach Party romps (BIKINI BEACH, BEACH BLANKET BINGO ). He had the look of an overfed vampire, and was noted for his off-the-wall characterizations. Carey didn’t play the Hollywood game, considering himself an artist, and you’ve got to admire that. In 1962, he made a film called THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, which he produced, directed, wrote, starred in, and released himself. Top THAT, Orson Welles!.

This ultra-low-budget film is totally bizarre right off the rip. Insurance man Clarence Hilliard (Carey) gets himself fired from his job after telling people they don’t need insurance. He wants more out of life, believing man is a superbeing, and begins to set himself up as a God. After watching a rock’n’roll teen idol, Clarence becomes a charismatic, guitar-toting, fiery…

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Fun in the Sun: BEACH BLANKET BINGO (AIP 1965)


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You’d think by the fourth entry in American-International’s ‘Beach Party’ series, 1965’s BEACH BLANKET BINGO, the formula would be wearing a bit thin. Frankie and Annette are still trying to make each other jealous, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats are still comic menaces, and the gang’s into yet another new kick (skydiving this time around). But thanks to a top-notch supporting cast of characters, a sweet subplot involving a mermaid, and the genius of comedy legend Buster Keaton , BEACH BLANKET BINGO is loads of fun!

Aspiring singer Sugar Kane skydives from a plan into the middle of the ocean and is “rescued” by surfer Frankie. But not really… it’s all been a publicity stunt by her PR agent ‘Bullets’. Sugar is played by lovely Linda Evans, right before she landed on TV’s THE BIG VALLEY, and ‘Bullets’ is none other than the fantastically sarcastic Paul Lynde. But wait… Eric Von Zipper…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Change of Habit (dir by William A. Graham)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Some would say forever but, here at the Shattered Lens, we’re hoping that she might have it all done by August.  Anyway, she recorded the 1969 film Change of Habit off of Starz on March 20th!)

It’s Elvis vs. God for the heart of Mary Tyler Moore!

(Okay, so that may be a little bit glib on my part but, seriously, that pretty much sums up Change of Habit.)

Change of Habit opens with three nuns walking through New York City.  There’s the forgettable nun, Sister Barbara (Jane Elliott).  There’s the black, streetwise nun, Sister Irene (Barbara McNair).  And then there’s the idealistic and wholesome nun, Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore).  Because they’re nuns, even notoriously rude New Yorkers are nice to them.  They walk across a busy intersection and all of the cars stop for them.  A cop sees them jaywalking and just smiles and nods at them.  In case you were ever wondering why someone would become a nun, it’s because nuns always have the right-of-way and they don’t have to obey arbitrary laws.  It’s a good life.

The sisters are shopping and, as the opening credits roll, the three of them duck into a dressing room and change into contemporary civilian clothing.  Obsessively, the camera keeps zooming in on everyone’s bare legs.  You can literally hear the film’s producers telling all the boys in the audience, “This may be a G-rated Elvis film but that’s not going to stop us from implying nun nudity!”

It’s Sister Michelle’s idea that the nuns should wear contemporary clothing, the better to relate to the Godless youth of the 1960s.  Unfortunately, now that they’re dressed like everyone else, they have to actually obey traffic laws.  When they attempt to cross the street for a second time, cars honk at them and the cop yells at them for jaywalking.

Michelle, Irene, and Barbara get jobs working at a free clinic.  The clinic is run by John Carpenter (Elvis Presley).  Carpenter is looking for aspiring actresses to appear in a movie about a babysitter being stalked by a masked murderer on Halloween and … oh sorry.  Wrong John Carpenter.  This John Carpenter is a no-nonsense doctor who will stop at nothing to bring peace and good health to the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York!

That’s right.  It’s an Elvis film with a social conscience!

And that probably sounds like a joke but Change of Habit‘s heart is in the right place.  It’s intentions are good.  At least a few of the people involved in the film were probably trying to make the world a better place.  There’s a subplot involving an autistic child that, when you consider this film was made in 1969, is handled with unusual sensitivity.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of Change of Habit doesn’t feel totally and completely out-of-touch.  The entire film feels so dated that I imagine it probably even felt dated when it was initially released.  This is one of those films where the local black militants give Sister Irene a hard time about being a sell-out, just to eventually admit, during a block party, that maybe white folks aren’t so bad after all.  By the end of the movie, they’re even joking with the cops.  All that was needed was for Elvis to sing a song or two.  To be honest, there are times when Change of Habit feels like the 1969 version of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial.

Of course, the majority of the film deals with Elvis falling in love with Mary Tyler Moore.  He doesn’t know that she’s a nun and, as she falls in love with him, she’s forced to make a difficult choice.  Does she follow God or does she follow Elvis?  Actually, the film ends before she officially makes that choice but there’s little doubt as to what she’s going to eventually do.  In his final non-concert film appearance, Elvis is totally miscast as a serious-minded doctor and, it must be said, he looked miserable throughout the entire film.  You get the feeling he’d rather be doing anything than starring in Change of Habit.  (Maybe he was already thinking about how much he wanted a special FBI badge.)  Mary Tyler Moore is a bit more believable as a nun.  Fortunately, both Moore and Elvis were likable performers and their likability makes Change of Habit, as ludicrous as it often is, far more watchable than it has any right to be.

In the end, Elvis may not have saved society but he did get to sing a gospel song or two.

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #10: The World’s Greatest Sinner (dir by Timothy Carey)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by Wednesday, November 30th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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As I continued to clean out my DVR, I decided to take a break from watching Lifetime films and, instead, I watched a movie that I recorded off of TCM on October 30th.

Filmed in 1962 but apparently never given an official theatrical release, The World’s Greatest Sinner is a genuine oddity and one that everyone should see at least once.  The infamously eccentric character actor Timothy Carey wrote, directed, and starred as Clarence Hilliard, a small-town insurance salesman who, one day, decides to quit his job and … well, your guess is as good as mine as to what he’s doing or why he’s doing it.  Here’s what I can tell you for sure: after stumbling across a concert and seeing how excited everyone is over rock and roll music, Clarence decides to become a street preacher.  While standing on bags of fertilizer, Clarence preaches that everyone is God and that everyone can live forever.

At first, Clarence faces persecution for his beliefs but soon, he has a loyal cult following.  He funds his new church by seducing elderly widows and he even becomes a rock star himself.  At first, he’s held back by his lack of facial hair but then he starts to wear a fake goatee.  He even changes his name to God Hilliard and, while he may have alienated his family, he is now loved by young people everywhere.  In fact, in a remarkably icky scene, we find out that the 40-something God now has a 14 year-old girlfriend.

God Hilliard is so popular that he’s approached by a shadowy figure who suggests that maybe he should run for President.  As the candidate for the Eternal Man Party, God gives ranting speeches that are listening to by his rabid fans, the majority of whom are now wearing arm bands with the letter “F” on them.  (F for Faust, perhaps?  Or F for Fake, as Orson Welles might argue.)  At first, the press ignores God but God runs as an outsider, giving speeches in which he promises to do away with the establishment and return the government to the people and … well, let’s just say that this film, which was obviously designed to be an over the top satire, now feels more than a little prophetic.

It looks like God Hilliard is about to become the most powerful man in the free world but the other God — the one who is vengeful and jealous and capable of throwing lightning bolts and all that — might have other plans….

(Incidentally, this entire story is told in 77 minutes, which should give you some clue of just how frantically paced The World’s Greatest Sinner is.)

Oh my God (not, not you Clarence), this is a weird film.  It’s shocking today so I can only imagine how it must have looked to audiences in 1962.  (Or, I should say, how it would have looked if it had actually been given a theatrical release.)  Admittedly, The World’s Greatest Sinner is a ragged film, full of haphazard editing and occasionally inconsistent sound.  Made for just $90,000, its low budget is obvious in almost every scene.  And yet, all of this works to the film’s advantage.  The World’s Greater Sinner literally feels like a cinematic dream, with its inconsistencies contributing to its otherworldly feel.  This is one of those films that you need to see at least once because you’ll probably never see another one like it.

The entire film is a Timothy Carey production.  He wrote, produced, directed, and starred, creating an indie film at a time when being independent was something more than just a trendy buzzword. If you’re into classic films — and particularly if you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s early work — you might recognize Carey.  He was one of those legendary character actors who was always called upon whenever a movie needed a memorable crazy or an intimidating henchman.  From what I’ve read, Carey was reportedly as eccentric as the characters that he played.  His performance in The World’s Great Sinner swings back and forth between being histrionic and being surprisingly subtle, often in the same scene.  The same can be said of his direction.  For every uneven or poorly lit scene, there’s another that’s artfully composed and full of surprising detail.

The World’s Greatest Sinner is simply something that has to be seen to believed.

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What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: Head (dir. by Bob Rafelson)


Last night, I turned over to TCM and I watched the 1968 film Head.

Why Was I Watching It?

Though Head was a notorious box office bomb when it was released in 1968, it has since become notorious as one of the most incomprehensible movies ever made.  Every book that I’ve ever read about film or pop culture in the 1960s makes mention of Head.  Not only was the film written by a pre-Easy Rider Jack Nicholson, but the film also featured The Monkees literally acting out against their stardom by committing career suicide by appearing the film that was apparently conceived while Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson were tripping on LSD.  I’ve read about Head in dozens of books and I’ve seen it described as being “a surreal masterpieces,” “an incomprehensible, pretentious mess,” and “a total head trip of a film.”  Having now seen the film, I can say that’s all true. 

I do have to admit that before I saw Head, I didn’t know who the Monkees were.  Don’t get me wrong — I knew that there was a band in the 60s called The Monkees and I knew that they had their own TV show.  Thanks to the fact that The Brady Bunch Movie played on cable for like two months straight earlier this year, I knew which one was Davey Jones.  But, that was about it.  Even after seeing Head, I’m still not really sure I could tell you which was one was Mickey Dolenz and which one was Peter Tork.  I also have to admit that I spent the first half of the film referring to Michael Nesmith as the “Texan with the sideburns.”

Fortunately, I watched Head with two wonderful groups of people on twitter — the TCM Party and the Drive-In Mob.  They came together last night and provided a very entertaining live tweet session devoted to the film.  Unlike me, they actually knew one Monkee from another and following their tweets helped me survive the film’s rough first half.  To all of them, I say “Thank you for the education.”

What’s It About?

That’s not an easy question to answer but I’ll try.

The Monkees jump off a bridge and plunge into the psychedelic waters below but they’re saved from drowning by a bunch of mermaids.  This, of course, leads to the four members of the groups finding themselves in scenes from a war film, a boxing film, a western film, and eventually they discover that they’re actually dandruff on the head of actor Victor Mature.  Ultimately, they end up wandering around on a studio backlot where they’re menaced by veteran scary actor  Timothy Carey and an ominous black box that seems to intent on trapping them.  The Monkees react to this by running for their lives, complaining to Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson about the script, and telling everyone that they meet that they’re just actors in a film.  Eventually, it appears that the Monkees don’t have any options left beyond committing public suicide but Rafelson has other ideas…

What Worked?

If you’re as obsessed with pop cultural history as I am, Head is one of those films that simply you have to see.  Even if you find the film to be totally incomprehensible and just a tad bit pretentious, Head is a valuable artifact of its time.  Head is a film that could have only been made in the late 60s and it epitomizes everything about the age that produced it.  It’s like a cinematic Pompeii.

Now, I have to admit that most of the enjoyment I got out of the first half of the film came more from my own curiosity as a secret history nerd than from the film itself.  However, the second half of the film is often times genuinely entertaining.  The satire is a bit sharper and the overall theme (i.e., the struggle to maintain your own unique individuality in a world that demands conformity) starts emerge from the film’s mix of surreal images.

For me, the film really picked up with Davy Jones’ performance of Daddy’s Song:

The woman dancing with Davy Jones was Toni Basil, who choreographed all the dance numbers in this film.

Here’s another sequence that I particularly enjoyed.  This came towards the end of the film and, as I said on twitter, who doesn’t enjoy a little psychedelic dancing?

What Did Not Work?

While Head had all the virtues of its time, it also had all the flaws.  It’s a definite hit-and-miss affair, with the stronger (and occasionally insightful) moments uneasily balanced with plenty of sequences that dragged.  As you may have guessed, Head is the type of film that’s brilliant if you’re in the mood for it but it’s rather annoying if you’re not.

 

“Oh my God! Just like me!” Moments

I would have loved to have been Toni Basil, dancing with Davy Jones in the Daddy’s Song number.

Lessons Learned

Watching Head, I realized that I had discovered this year’s perfect Christmas present.  I’m going to get a 100 copies of Head on DVD and give them out to everyone I know.  That way, I’ll have an excuse to call everyone up in November and tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m giving you Head for Christmas.”  I think, if nothing else, that’ll make me a very popular girl come December.