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Movie Love in the Fifties

James Harvey

(Alfred A. Knopf)

We Love You Madly

“The words ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies.”
—Pauline Kael


If in the 1950s, the U.S. government felt itself to be at risk from enemies abroad, then the moguls in charge of Hollywood at the time believed their universe to be potentially subject to the whims of domestic forces beyond their control. Little could be done to remedy the loss of their hold over film theatres demanded by the government in light of the 1947 Paramount decision. It would be many years later that they would once again be able to own the means of both production and distribution. Even less were they capable of wrenching the public away from their rapid-fire adoption of television. Or convince the ever-swelling numbers of teenagers that the aging stars that once held their parents’ attention demanded continued allegiance.


Frantic, as box office figures continued to decline, the studios sought technological means of making motion pictures remain the dominant form of public entertainment. One format after another was conceived –- Cinerama, Cinemascope, VistaVision -– in order to permit the screen, and those upon it, to seem larger than life. Also, topics that were once deemed out of bounds began to find their way to the screen: drug addiction, racism, human sexuality. And yet, despite the studios’ aggressive eagerness to please, they could not seem to comprehend that a desire to transform subject matter had to be coupled with some rejuvenation of the worn-out tricks of old-fashioned storytelling.


Instead of focusing upon this calamitous collision between form and content, James Harvey addresses himself in Movie Love in the Fifties to what he calls the “postclassical movie.” In works like Vertigo (1958), Touch of Evil (1957) and Johnny Guitar (1954), he observes that, “instead of forgoing or disguising the genre,” these hybrid narratives “emphasized and aestheticized it, using the familiar not to reassure but to astonish and even discomfit us.” He is fascinated by how Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, among others, tinkered with the formal dynamics of material the public seemed all too well acquainted with.


In the process, these men, and others, managed to conceal fleeting instances of unexpected meaning or beauty that transform the familiar material into another realm altogether. Rather than slavishly attempting to retain a hold upon a diminishing audience, these directors deliberately upset the public’s sense of security that drew them in the first place to the comfort of genre conventions. Harvey wishes to illustrate how by appealing to and then upsetting the kinds of emotional allegiance audiences give to established cinematic conventions, a more complex and compelling kind of affection emerges, one drawn by oddity and extremity and not the tried and true.


While Harvey’s object is to uncover the unconventional in the films of the 1950s, his means of going about that end remain familiar, if not at times deliberately old-fashioned. He is a critic of the appreciative mode, the kind that wishes to convince the reader to share his enthusiasm for fare that others reject as excessively baroque, such as the over-the-top melodramas of Douglas Sirk, or deliberately counter-intuitive, such as Robert Siodmak’s use of the girl-next-door Deanna Durbin as a roadhouse chanteuse in Christmas Holiday (1944). Harvey is not one to engage in abstract theorizing or ideological wool-gathering. His focus remains resolutely upon the immediate texture of a film as it presents itself to his eyes and ears. In this regard, he is a formalist of the kind one encounters infrequently these days: someone who focuses exclusively on the disposition of individuals and objects in physical space as presented on the screen.


The language Harvey uses to depict those impressions is matter-of-fact, even occasionally excessively prosaic. Although he indicates an admiration for the idiosyncratic Manny Farber, Harvey possesses little of that stylistic wizard’s capacity to find linguistic equivalents for visual effects. He instead brings to mind someone with good eyes and a keen memory for detail, the ideal individual to have at one’s side at a screening or when confused by the proliferation of options at the local video outlet.


As Harvey attends to the surface texture of a film above all else, he therefore engages in quite a bit of plot summary, even when the subject is a film most readers would know, like Vertigo . While this tactic can, and does, lead to rehashing the familiar, it has the benefit of forcing one not to pass over a sequence or an image without interrogating every inch of its presentation on the screen. Furthermore, as was the case with his earlier study of the screwball comedy, Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges , Harvey exhibits a commendable skill for describing acting styles and the personae stars adopt throughout their career, or choose, in strategic ways, to subvert.


His chapter on what I consider Humphrey Bogart’s most memorable film, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 In A Lonely Place is one of the best in the volume. It draws attention not only to the intersection between his character, the volatile screenwriter Dix, and Bogart’s own abrasive personality but also how Bogart shades the complexity of this character, mingling fierceness and sweetness without ever losing sight of the figure’s underlying disposition for aggression. Some of Harvey’s best phrasing occurs in his characterizations of stars: how Kim Novak comes across as a “sexpot with gravitas”; the way in which Agnes Morehead’s character in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons possesses a “shrill seagull voice”; and how often Marlon Brando’s face emanates “an animal sort of inadvertence -– the undefended expressiveness that goes with not being able to make a face, the way people (and actors) do.”


Harvey also resurrects the careers of some lamentably passed-over figures, like the German-born Robert Siodmak, with a balance of fannish affection and scholarly discrimination. He remarks upon how “he made thrillers that were more ‘psychological,’ less gimmicky and improbable than Hitchcock’s, more grounded in character and dramatic logic -– altogether more in key with the postwar seriousness.” Siodmak’s “rich feeling for transactions of personal dominance” never succumb, Harvey feels, to the kind of sadistic attraction to interpersonal abuse typical of Fritz Lang or Hitchcock. True, there are those exceptions to the rule, like Franchot Tone’s twitching, cliché-driven murderer in Phantom Lady (1944), yet the characterizations in The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1948) and Cry of the City (1948) are amongst the most deft in all of film noir.


Harvey likewise demonstrates an unslavish affection for the emotional roller coaster that was the career of the cult favorite Nicholas Ray. He describes with clarity how his characteristic ambivalence found its way onto the screen in such affecting work as rodeo-centered character piece The Lusty Men (1952), the brooding war drama Bitter Victory (1957) and the flamboyantly over-the-top western Johnny Guitar (1954). Ironically, for a critic who is customarily so matter of fact, Harvey has both an attraction to and a marked capacity for the kind of battiness that runs throughout Ray’s work. He points out time and again the manner in which his characters run away with their emotions in a manner that seems unhinged from the demands of the script or, at times, even the interest of the audience.


Harvey particularly and effectively calls attention to how the characters in Johnny Guitar seem to be forever fuming and, in a particularly memorable phrase, characterizes Mercedes McCambridge portrayal of the mannish Vienna as coming across “like a walking hard-on.” Harvey reminds us as well that, despite the fact that a number of Ray’s films run off the tracks before the final credits, they continue to possess a kind of vitality that other work that was more celebrated at the time, like that of Elia Kazan, no longer demonstrates.


At the same time, despite the evident strengths of Harvey’s prose, Movie Love in the Fifties fails to address some of the most salient characteristics or characters of that era. While Harvey admits he has left the Western more or less entirely out of consideration, his failure to address either the horror or science fiction genres does not allow him to take into account their embodiment of some the period’s most jittery sensibilities. Likewise, he addresses little about the cinematic treatment of the musical innovations of the period, rock ‘n’ roll specifically, and only casually discusses the interests of the adolescent audience and their affect upon Hollywood’s ambitions.


In addition, while he alludes to the work of such key figures of the day as Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel and Anthony Mann, their work does not cross the critic’s radar. One can only imagine how Harvey’s attention to visual detail would benefit from the over-saturated frames of these masters of visual and emotional hysteria. Aldrich and Fuller in particular seem to epitomize the kind of giddy, go-for-broke dueling with generic requirements that Harvey admires in the work of Ray, Siodmak and most of all Douglas Sirk, to whom he devotes virtually a quarter of the volume. The German-born Sirk’s intentional garishness and ironic tossing about of many of Hollywood’s most ingrained cliches mirrors the demolition work Aldrich and Fuller engaged in routinely.


For reason of these and other omissions, Movie Love in the Fifties comes across like the work of a suitor with a limited emotional life, one inclined to extend his sympathies just so far but no further. In that I share his love for the work of many of these directors and chastise his dismissal of others, I can enjoy and even admire Harvey’s analysis of these films, but think of him in the end as a kind of cheap date.

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