Monday, May 23, 2022

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1950: And That's Not All!

And now a few more movies from 1950:

The Rules of the Game has a troubled release history. Made and originally released in 1939, the French ensemble comedy was not initially received well in its native country, with some people thinking the film a cynical mockery of society, while some right-wing extremists took it to task for its depiction of a marriage between a Jewish man and a Gentile woman (the way the film portrays the casual anti-Semitism directed at the host of the film's festivities is chilling, smart). Multiple versions of varying length were subsequently released, then it was pulled completely just before the outbreak of WWII. While there is a Variety review from the time, many records and websites indicate that it did not make it to the United States until 1950 - and so it counts for our purposes here.

It rules, by the way. Those who know me well are aware of my obsession with Gosford Park: bought the screenplay, the soundtrack, the DVD, it's perfect. And watching The Rules of the Game, one sees its influence not just on that Altman film - both films deal with the relationships among and between the aristocracy and their servants in the twilight years of that lifestyle - but on his overall career, what with the large cast, pointed politics, sudden slapstick and violent episodes, and overlapping dialogue.

The Rules of the Game does it all so well, losing neither momentum nor the general threads we need to follow, earning those moments when everything slows down and two characters have a heart-to-heart, managing heartbreak and amusement within the same frame. Trust me when I tell you, you'll forget you're reading subtitles at all: the movie is that well-made, that engrossing, and the performances are just...that good! Stands alongside Nashville as the best of the ensemble genre. 

Another film that gave me a lot to think about was The Next Voice You Hear, the making of which was the subject of Dore Schary's book Case History of a Film. In that book, Schary uses the making of the film not just to introduce audiences to how a film is made from source material through post-production all the way to striking the final print following two test screenings, but as an example of low-budget, modest filmmaking in pursuit of making something important, not profitable. The film follows an average American family (father, pregnant mother, son) as a sort of synecdoche for the rest of the world experiencing a strange phenomenon: a voice claiming to be God comes on the radio and more or less says He's going to keep an eye on things for a few days. The impact of such an event is as you might think: panic and fear. Of course, as the film progresses, people realize that perhaps it's not the Apocalypse at all, but rather a Divine nudge to relax, take a breath, enjoy the daily miracles of life. In his book, Schary notes that the short story on which it was based had real high stakes miracles and cataclysms, including the sinking of Australia; for Schary, it was important to focus on the small-scale, not just to save money, but to re-contextualize the idea of what God's miracles really are: nature, childbirth, love. I found it quite moving!

Never Fear is director Ida Lupino's film about a dancer struck with polio, losing her ability to walk, and struggling through rehab. Lupino was inspired by her own experience with polio, which possibly accounts for its ability to address the topic without lecturing or patting itself on the back. One interesting element is the inclusion of "temptations" for each of our romantic leads: the dancer begins to connect with a paraplegic at the clinic, while her fiance starts to spend more time with a girl at the office. No judgments, no villainizing, just observations on how people can grow apart, that other people fulfill different needs, that adults are capable of pulling apart and coming back together and don't perfectly handle all the shocks life shoots at them.

Rio Grande has John Wayne commanding a cavalry regiment in Texas. His estranged son joins up. So does Ben Johnson, standing on horses and making the kind of jumps while doing so that make your heart leap. Eventually, Wayne's wife Maureen O'Hara joins. We hang out for a while, then the Apache attack and there's much action and excitement to be had. Terrific stuff!

Winchester '73 follows the life of the titular rifle as it hops from owner to owner, all while pursued by James Stewart (at his absolute hottest) as the man who rightfully won it in the first place. Psychos, scalpings, sibling rivalry, Shelley Winters, and one killer scene after another. The stretch from Riker's Bar (in which our villains haggle with a trader) all the way through the battle with Young Bull (Stewart! Winters! Rock Hudson! Tony Curtis!) is killer, masterful in writing, performance, shot composition, sound design - you better believe the director is Anthony Mann, who also brought us The Furies this year. Grade-A stuff.

Young Man with a Horn is based on a roman à clef of Bix Beiderbecke, with Kirk Douglas as a man in love with the trumpet. We follow his life as climbs ever upward thanks to his talent and the attentions of a wealthy psychiatry student (delicious Lauren Bacall), but he prefers real jazz played by real people - people like Juano Hernandez and Hoagy Carmichael, both of whom steal the show. I don't know what's missing from the film, but something about the last act just falls flat. Maybe it's the obvious imagery (the taxi crushes the horn, my God!), maybe it's the unconvincing ending. Until then, a well-made movie. Good music.

And which of these many films are the best of the best? Tomorrow, my Top Ten Films of 1950.

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