A Movie A Day #328: Panic in Year Zero! (1962, directed by Ray Milland)


The year is 1962.  Lights flash over California and the news on the radio is bad.  What everyone feared has happened.  Atomic war has broken out and the world is about to end.  Refugees clog the highways as a mushroom cloud sprouts over Los Angeles.  This is year zero, the year that humanity will either cease to exist or try to begin again.

Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family were among the lucky ones.  They were camping in the mountains when the war broke out.  Harry does not hesitate to do what he has to do to make sure that his family survives.  Harry alone understand that this is a brand new world.  When a local storekeeper refuses to allow Harry to take any goods back to his family, Harry takes them by force.  While his wife (Jean Hagen) worries about whether or not her mother has survived in Los Angeles, Harry’s teenage son and daughter (Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) try to adjust to the harshness of their new situation.  Harry may now run his family like a dictator but his instincts are proven correct when the Baldwins find themselves being hunted by three murderous, wannabe gangsters (Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman, and Neil Nephew).  This is year zero.

As both a director and an actor, Ray Milland does a good job of showing what would be necessary for a family to survive in the wake of a nuclear apocalypse.  Milland doesn’t shy away from showing Harry as being harsh and violent but he also makes a good case that Harry has no other choice.  Everyone who tries to hold on to their humanity is either killed or sold into slavery.  What sets Panic In Year Zero! apart from so many of the other nuclear war films that came out in the 60s is that, instead of focusing on an anti-war message or calling for disarmament, Panic In Year Zero! seems to argue that end of the world is inevitable and only those who prepare ahead of time are going to survive.  Get a gun and make sure you know how to use it before it is too late to learn, the movie seems to be saying.  That the movie is probably correct in its pessimistic view of humanity makes it all the more powerful.  Panic in Year Zero! is a little-known but gritty and effective film about the end of the world

 

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Don’t Bother To Knock (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


(I am currently attempting to clean out my DVR.  I recorded the 1952 film Don’t Bother To Knock off of FXM on April 3rd.)

Welcome to the McKinley Hotel in New York City!  The McKinley is a nice place, though it’s no Grand Budapest Hotel.  Presumably, the McKinley was named after the late President William McKinley.  While I’m sure that McKinley would have appreciated the gesture, I don’t know how he would feel about all the melodrama that’s occurring behind closed doors.

For instance, there’s Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, making her screen debut).  Lyn sings in the hotel bar and, though she might seem to be cynical and tough, she actually has a big heart.  In fact, she cares so much about humanity that she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), because he doesn’t seem to have a heart at all.  Of course, she broke up with Jed by sending him a letter.  When Jed checks into the hotel and tracks her down in the bar, he has questions about their breakup and he wants answers that won’t require any reading.  She tells him that he’s not capable of caring about anyone so why should she waste her time on him?  Then she sings a love song because that’s her job.

As for Jed, he’s kind of a jerk in the way that most men tend to be in movies from the 1950s.  He’s an airline pilot who served overseas during World War II and spent a year living in England.  He’s tough and he’s cynical and now, he’s single.  He’s also got a room in a hotel for the night.

And then there’s Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle), who have a function to attend in the hotel ballroom but who don’t have anyone to look after their ten year-old daughter, Bunny (Donna Corcoran).  Fortunately, the hotel’s elevator operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has a niece named Nell (Marilyn Monroe).  Nell is quiet and shy and needs the money.  She’ll be more than willing to babysit!

Of course, the only problem with Nell is that she’s a little unstable.  This becomes obvious when she’s left alone with Bunny and promptly says that, if Bunny isn’t careful, something bad might happen to one of her toys.  Inside the apartment, Nell is impressed by all the pretty things owned by Ruth.  She tries on her jewelry.  She sprays her perfume in the air.  She puts on Nell’s negligee and looks at herself in the mirror.  Eddie is not amused when he discovers what Nell’s been doing.  If she wants all of this stuff, he tells her, she needs to marry someone rich.  That’s not bad advice but the only problem is that Nell is currently single.  She’s been single ever since her boyfriend died in a plane crash.  In fact, Nell was so upset by his death that she even tried to commit suicide afterward.

From his room, Jed has a direct view of Nell trying on Ruth’s clothes.  When he and Nell spot each other, Nell invites him over.  She tells Jed that she’s a guest at the hotel and that Bunny is her daughter.  Jed can immediately tell that there’s something strange about Nell.  Nell, meanwhile, thinks that Jed is her dead boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Bunny is helpless in her room…

Clocking in at a brisk 72 minutes, Don’t Bother To Knock feels less like a movie and more like a one-act play or maybe even an adaptation of an old television production.  (After watching the movie, I was shocked to discover that it was based on neither.)  Seen today, it’s mostly memorable for featuring Marilyn Monroe’s first true starring role.  After appearing in small roles in several films (including All About Eve), Don’t Bother To Knock was not only Marilyn’s shot at stardom but also her first dramatic performance.  Reportedly basing her performance on her troubled mother, Marilyn is sympathetic and almost painfully vulnerable.  Her scenes with Elisha Cook, Jr. are especially charged, full of a subtext that will probably be easier for modern audiences to spot than it was for audiences in 1952.  Marilyn gave an incredibly poignant performance and she is the main reason to watch Don’t Bother To Knock.

Shattered Politics #18: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir by John Ford)


The_Man_Who_Shot_Liberty_Valance“When the legend become fact, print the legend.” — Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Though I understand and respect their importance in the history of both American and Italian cinema, I have never really been a huge fan of westerns.  Maybe its all the testosterone (“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do…”) or maybe it’s all the dust but westerns have just never really been my thing.

However, I will always make an exception for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is not just a great western but a great film period.

But you already knew that.  It’s a little bit intimidating to review a film that everyone already knows is great.  I even opened this review with the exact same quote that everyone uses to open their reviews of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  To a certain extent, I feel like I should have found a quote that everyone hasn’t already heard a thousand times but then again, it’s a great quote from a great film and sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing with the critical consensus.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with a train stopping in the small western town of Shinbone.  The residents of the town — including newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) — are shocked when Sen. Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) get off the train.  Sen. Stoddard is considered to be a front-runner to become the next Vice President of the United States.  Scott is even more shocked to discover why the Stoddards are in town.  They’ve come to Shinbone to attend the funeral of an obscure rancher named Tom Doniphon (played, in flashback, by John Wayne).

Sitting in the funeral home with Doniphon’s coffin (and having reprimanded the local mortician for attempting to steal Tom’s boots), Rance tells Scott why he’s come to pay respect to Tom Doniphon.  We see, in flashback, how Rance first came to Shinbone 25 years ago, an idealistic lawyer who — unlike most of the men in the west — refused to carry a gun.  We see how Rance was robbed and assaulted by local outlaw Liberty Valance (a wonderfully intimidating and bullying Lee Marvin), we discover how Rance first met Hallie while working as a dishwasher and how he eventually taught her how to read, and we also see how he first met Tom Doniphon, the only man in town strong enough to intimidate Liberty Valance.

At first, Rance and Doniphon had an uneasy friendship, epitomized by the condescending way Doniphon would call Rance “pilgrim.”  Doniphon was in love with Hallie and, when he attempted to teach Rance how to defend himself, he was largely did so for Hallie.  Rance, meanwhile, was determined to bring law and society to the west.

And, eventually, Rance did just that.  When Shinbone elected two delegates to the statehood convention in the territory’s capitol, Rance attempted to nominate Doniphon for the position but Doniphon refused it and nominated Rance instead, explaining that Rance understood “the law.”  When Liberty Valance attempted to claim the other delegate spot, Rance and Doniphon worked together to make sure that it instead went to newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).  And when Liberty Valance attempted to gun Rance down in the street, Rance shot him.

Or did he?

That’s the question that’s at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  However, as a film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is far less interested in gunfights than it is in politics.  Perhaps the most important scene in the film is not when Rance and Liberty meet out on that dark street.  Instead, it’s the scene at the statehood convention where the reformers (represented by Rance) and the cattlemen (represented by John Carradine) battle over who will be the territory’s delegate to Washington.  Between John Carradine orating, the horses riding in and out of the hall, Edmond O’Brien drinking, James Stewart looking humble, and John Wayne glowering in the background, this is one of the best political scenes ever put on film.

When Rance first arrives in the west, there is no political system in place.  With the exception of the ineffectual town marshal (Andy Devine), there is no law.  The peace is kept by men like Tom Doniphon and, oddly enough, by Liberty Valance as well.  (Whether he realizes it or not, Shinbone’s fear of Liberty has caused the town to form into a community.)  What little official law there is doesn’t matter because the majority of the Shinbone’s citizens can’t read.

When Rance arrives, he brings both education and the law.  He makes Shinbone into a town that no longer needs Liberty Valance but, at the same time, it no longer need Tom Doniphon either.  Hence, it’s Rance Stoddard who goes from dishwasher to U.S. Senator while Tom Doniphon dies forgotten.  Rance represents progress and unfortunately, progress often means losing the good along with the bad things of the past.

(It’s no coincidence that when Rance and Hallie return to Shinbone, the first person that they see is the former town marshal, who no longer wears a star and who, we’re told, hasn’t for years.  Time has passed by.)

It’s a bittersweet and beautiful film, one that features four great performances from Stewart, Wayne, Marvin, and Vera Miles.  Personally, I like to think that maybe Sen. Stoddard had a daughter who married a man named Smith and maybe they had a son named Jefferson who later made his way to the Senate as well.

It would be fitting.

Shattered Politics #14: The Last Hurrah (dir by John Ford)


Last_Hurrah

Down here in Dallas, we have a county commissioner named John Wiley Price.  Even if you don’t live in Texas, you might have heard about him.  A few years ago, Price stormed out of a commissioners meeting while shouting, “All of you are white!  Go the Hell!”  It was a popular YouTube video for a while and attracted all of the usual type of comments that you see online.  It even made the national news.

Nobody down here in Dallas was surprised by Price’s outburst.  To us, that was just John Wiley being John Wiley.  For that matter, nobody was particularly surprised when it was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI.  Everyone always took it for granted that John Wiley Price was taking bribes and receiving kickbacks.  That’s just the way that things are done down here in Dallas, by politicians both white and black.  (Of course, most of the white politicians who do it don’t get publicly investigated by the FBI.)

Now, if you ask the majority of people in Dallas county what they think about John Wiley Price and they’ll probably say something negative.  I’ll admit that I would probably be among them.  But the thing is — John Wiley Price’s constituents love him.  John Wiley Price was first elected to the commissioner’s court before I was even born and, as long as he’s on the ballot, he will be reelected.  Even if Price is convicted on corruption charges, he will still be reelected.

I can still remember the night that it was announced that John Wiley Price was on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.  All across his district, emergency meetings were held in churches and ministers stood behind the pulpit and, while the TV cameras rolled, they called upon everyone to pray for John Wiley Price.  In Price’s district, he’s known as “our man downtown,” the idea being that John Wiley Price is standing up to the rich and white Dallas establishment and, if he makes some money for himself in the process, so be it.  As long as he’s doing right for the people who elected him, who cares how he does it?

And, as much as we may want to judge the John Wiley Prices of the world, the fact that of the matter is that he’s a part of a long American political tradition.  That political tradition is also the driving force behind today’s final entry in Shattered Politics.

First released in 1958 and directed by John Ford, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), the mayor of an unnamed city in New England that’s obviously meant to be Boston.  Skeffington is the flamboyant head of a large and powerful (but, as the film makes clear, aging) Irish-American political machine.  He’s preparing to run for his fifth term for mayor, a campaign that he says will be his last.

Whether Frank Skeffington is a good mayor or not depends on who you ask.  The poor and the disenfranchised love him.  Skeffington, after all, is the son of Irish immigrants.  He was born poor.  His mother worked as a maid and was even fired by a member of the wealthy and influential Force family.  They know that Skeffington has had to cut corners and that he’s gone out of his way to reward his cronies but they also know that Skeffington is on their side.  Though the phrase is never used in the film, Skeffington is “their man downtown.”

Meanwhile, the wealthy and the upper class see Frank Skeffington as being a crook, a man who has run a corrupt administration and who uses class warfare to keep the city divided against itself and to make himself and his cronies rich.  Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) has thrown his considerable influence between Skeffington’s opponent, a wealthy but dull man named Kevin McCluskey.

Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is in an interesting position.  On the one hand, he is Skeffington’s nephew.  On the other hand, as a journalist, he works for Amos Force.  Skeffington invites Adam to follow and record his final campaign for posterity.

It’s interesting to compare The Last Hurrah to films like The Boss or All The King’s Men.  Whereas those two films came down squarely on the sides of the reformers, The Last Hurrah is firmly on the side of Frank Skeffington.  It presents Skeffington as being a sentimental figure, the type of old-fashioned, populist politician who won office by going out and meeting the people face-to-face and personally giving them a reason to vote for him.  As Skeffington himself points out, he’s the type of politician that will soon be made obsolete by television and modern campaigning.

And it’s impossible not to enjoy The Last Hurrah‘s refusal to pass judgment on its lead character.  It helps, of course, that Spencer Tracy plays Skeffington with a twinkle in his eye while all of his opponents are played by villainous and aristocratic character actors like John Carradine and Basil Rathbone.  Yes, the film says, Skeffington may have been corrupt but at least he wasn’t boring!

Finally, I enjoyed the film because all of the “good” guys were Irish Catholic and all of the bad guys most definitely were not.

So, with that last hurrah, we conclude Shattered Politics for today.  We’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start to get into the 1960s.

Sláinte!