Back to the Future' '50s Edition

After the exciting, entertaining and educational exercise of compiling our 100-best-films lists, the New York Independent Film Critics Circle decided that for next year's awards we would create a list of the best 100 films of the 1950s. One result of that decision is that I find myself immersed in the films of that decade. I have long argued that the '50s -- not the '70s -- is the most interesting ten-year stretch in American film history, with the chaos in the studios and political tensions creating a fascinating dialectical tension between the bland surfaces of American life and the subterranean violence beneath them. (Think Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, folks.)

So I'm trying to grab at least one '50s film a day over the next seven-and-a-half months (our chosen deadline for submission of members' lists is 12/12/12 -- just for the symmetry of it), and I will share my reactions with readers of the blog.

Very briefly, then, here are some first offerings.

My first official viewing for the '50s list is a nice little noir, Appointment with Danger (1951, directed by Lewis Allen). It's a brisk little number with Alan Ladd as a hard-bitten postal inspector (Hey, as the film notes, they are the oldest police force in the nation) whose current case puts him face-to-face with a nun (Phyullis Calvert) who has witnessed the murder of another postal inspector. The plot has a few holes in it, but at 89 minutes you barely notice. Great cinematography from the estimable John Seitz and a clever little screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. One of the 100 best films of the decade? Hardly, but fun all the same.

A couple of nights later, I caught the last 40 minutes of Preminger's River of No Return, a film of which I had fond memories. Regrettably, it's not as good as I remembered. Preminger, despite his other considerable virtues, isn't really an action director and the big setpieces are rather flat. Plus the process work for the raft and the river looks awful on television. Mitchum, of course, is splendid and Tommy Rettig is serviceable. Monroe and Rory Calhoun, on the other hand . . . . Preminger is all wrong for the western anyway; he needs fully endowed social institutions for his characters to interact with. His best work is set in urban societies (or in the case of something like Anatomy of a Murder, a rural outpost of a modern predominately urban society. Even a costumed kerfuffle like Forever Amber (which holds up surprisingly well) takes place in a social settign with a highly stratified system. That's seldom the case in the western -- especially in the '50s -- where we're dealing more in archetypes than institutions. Of course, in the late '60s you get all those fin-de-siecle westerns that are specifically about what happens when the frontier is finally subsumed into "civilization," a process that is always assumed in the '50s flms but rarely seen.

Naturally, a bullfighter-poker player like Budd Boetticher is particularly well-suited to the '50s western. I saw a minor Boetticher, Seminole, with Rock Hudson trying to avert a war with the eponymous tribe, which is led by his boyhood friend, Anthony "Osceola" Quinn. It's actually a workmanlike B picture with some hints of what ol' Budd will get up to later in the decade (including the appearances of Lee Marvin and James Best). As in the Scott cycle, he pits a truculent, taciturn male lead against a foe/friend who is distinguished from him by his colorful garb and hyper-articulate nature. There is an understated sense of the futility of human action, especially violence, and a rather complicated schema of good guys and bad guys who are often at war among themselves. In short, it's a very rough draft for the Ranown cycle, but with none of the later films' charm. Plus Hudson is a real lightweight at this point in his career, whereas Scott has already built a formidable iconography and has a wry quality that Hudson desperately needed for much of his career. In short, no, it's not one of the 100 best films of the '50s but I'm glad I saw it.

So it begins.