Film Review: The Killing (1956)

Also known as: Bed of Fear, Clean Break, Day of Violence (working titles)
Release Date: May 19th, 1956 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson
Based on: Clean Break by Lionel White
Music by: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Joe Turkel

Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, United Artists, 85 Minutes

Review:

“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” – Johnny Clay

The Killing is one of the really early films in auteur director Stanley Kubrick’s long and storied oeuvre. It came out less than a year after his previous film and first attempt at film-noir, Killer’s Kiss. With similar titles and coming out around the same time, the two films may confuse people looking back into Kubrick’s filmography. Also, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both noir pictures and presented in silvery black and white.

The Killing is the superior of the two pictures, however, and Killer’s Kiss feels like more of a practice run leading up to this damn fine motion picture, which boasts the star power of well known noir actors Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Elisha Cook Jr. Plus, Marie Windsor is perfection in her role.

The plot of this film is about a high stakes heist at a horse track. A team is assembled, a greedy femme fatale enters the mix and we get scheming, violence and chaos. And it is all capped off by the immense talent of Kubrick behind the camera and a stellar and more than capable cast in front of the camera.

The truth is, The Killing, as great as it is, has always been overshadowed by Kubrick’s more famous pictures: 2001: A Space OdysseyThe ShiningA Clockwork OrangeDr. StrangeloveLolitaFull Metal Jacket, etc. The Killing is a top notch crime thriller and true to the film-noir style, even coming out late in the style’s classic run through the 1940s and 1950s. It is one of the best heist pictures ever made and like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, it helped create a lot of tropes used in heist pictures since its time.

Being a fan of Elisha Cook Jr. for years, I especially love this film because he gets a really meaty and pivotal role. He is one of the top character actors of his day, was in more noir pictures than I can count and even went on to some well-known westerns and popped up in a few Vincent Price horror movies. He really gets to display his acting chops in this and it is nice to see the guy’s range, as he was a more capable actor than one being relegated to playing background characters and bit players.

The Killing was an incredibly important film in the career of Stanley Kubrick, as it lead to bigger things. He would go on to do Paths of Glory and Spartacus and eventually start making more artistic films that changed the filmmaking landscape forever. The Killing was a big part of Kubrick’s evolution and thus, the evolution of motion pictures in general.

Film Review: Please Murder Me! (1956)

Release Date: March, 1956
Directed by: Peter Godfrey
Written by: Donald Hyde, Al C. Ward, David T. Chantler, Ewald Andre Dupont
Music by: Albert Glasser
Cast: Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Dick Foran

Distributor Corporation of America, 78 Minutes

Review:

The thought of Angela Lansbury and Raymond Burr in the same film is pretty cool. The fact that this happened, was even cooler.

However, this wasn’t a Perry Mason and Jessica Fletcher team up movie for television in the 1980s, it was a film noir from the 1950s that uncharacteristically used Lansbury as a murderess.

The first half of this movie feels like a Perry Mason episode, as it is a courtroom drama. However, this came out a year before Burr reached super stardom with that show. Regardless, the first half of the picture really slows this thing down to a crawl and is a lot less interesting than the second half, where the real noir elements start. Hopefully, you aren’t trapped in a slumber, by this point.

The story sees Burr’s lawyer character fall for a murder suspect, his client played by Lansbury. She is accused of murdering her husband, which she did, but Burr believes she is innocent and gets her off. Later discovering that she did indeed kill her husband, Burr feels tremendous guilt. He then decides to trick her into murdering him, so that he can record her in the act and absolve his guilt.

The story is interesting but it takes too long to get going and when it starts to get good, you’re already exhausted from the courtroom stuff. Full disclosure, courtroom dramas typically bore the piss out of me so this might not effect others the same way.

Burr and Lansbury were both good in this but the film itself isn’t worthy of their talents. It is dry and uneventful, at least until the rushed second half, but even then, the shocking finale feels hollow.

This is still worth checking out if you like both of the leads and are a fan of b-movie noir.

Film Review: …And God Created Woman (1956)

Also known as: Et Dieu… créa la femme (France)
Release Date: November 28th, 1956
Directed by: Roger Vadim
Written by: Roger Vadim, Raoul Levy
Music by: Paul Misraki
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Curd Jurgens, Jean-Louis Trintignant

Éditions René Chateau, Kingsley International Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“If I were your husband or your father I’d give you a good spanking.” – Eric Carradine

…And God Created Woman is a film that made a lot of people uncomfortable in 1956. Well, probably not the French, as they are a lot more comfortable with sex than people in North America. Regardless, it was incredibly racy for the late 1950s but it was ahead of its time. Also, it made Brigitte Bardot an international superstar.

The film was sort of a passion project for its director Roger Vadim. In fact, Bardot was his wife and this is essentially a movie created to pimp her out to the world as a sex kitten icon. While Vadim was quite older than Bardot, aspects of their relationship or at least, his understanding of it, came to the forefront within the picture through the character of the older gentleman Eric Carradine (Curd Jurgens).

The story follows Juliette (Brigitte Bardot), an eighteen year-old orphan that has a lot of sexual energy and isn’t the least bit ashamed by it. She continually flirts and has no issue lying about nude. The film is sort of a love square, as it has one more participant than a love triangle. The three suitors are the older and wealthy Carradine. Then there are the two brothers, the eldest is Antoine (Christian Marquand) and the youngest is Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Carradine tries to coerce Antoine into marrying Juliette, to keep her close by. While Juliette seems to love Antoine, it is the younger Michel, who is infatuated with her, that convinces her to get married. Juliette plays all sides against each other without caring much about how it effects them. She just wants sex and fun and doesn’t have much of a moral compass.

While everyone in the film and audiences all act surprised by Juliette’s behavior, she really doesn’t seem much different than many eighteen year-old girls. Granted, this film is over sixty years old, however.

I can’t imagine what it was like in 1956, experiencing this film when there was nothing really like it before. It is certainly a trendsetter and it changed movies forever. For that, it deserves its place in history and should be regarded as significant.

However, as a motion picture, it has a myriad of problems.

To start, the pacing of the film is pretty terrible. It feels very disjointed and more like a collection of random scenes from this girl’s life. Also, it is hard to decipher what the hell is going on with the characters and their true motivations. Everything is emotional and responses to emotion without much character exposition. It’s poorly written, poorly executed and just not that interesting. No one is even that likable and the film is more or less, just a showcase of Bardot’s physical assets.

The locations are beautiful and alluring but they are displayed through basic cinematography and shots that aren’t too interesting. Some of the landscapes are lush and appealing but the straightforward and mundane style of the camerawork and the framing of scenes seems like a big missed opportunity to create something with more artistic merit.

The only thing this film has going for it, is hope that the viewer will be just as mesmerized by Bardot as the male players in the movie and her director husband. While she is attractive, she is very one-dimensional and mostly uninteresting. She did get better in time but in …And God Created Woman, she can’t command a movie as its star.

Criticism aside, it was well worth a watch to experience this historically significant picture. It just didn’t garner enough interest, in my opinion, to ever really warrant a second viewing, let alone be considered a cinematic classic.

Film Review: The Sword and the Dragon (1956)

Also known as: Ilya Muromets (Soviet Union), The Epic Hero and the Beast (UK)
Release Date: September 16th, 1956 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko
Written by: Mikhail Kochnev
Based on:  the byliny tales of the bogatyr Ilya Muromets
Music by: Igor Morozov
Cast: Boris Andreyev, Shukur Burkhanov, Andrei Abrikosov, Natalya Medvedeva, Yelena Myshkova

Mosfilm, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Ooh a real sepia tone has come over the crowd.” – Tom Servo, Mystery Science Theater 3000

The Sword and the Dragon is a film I probably wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is a Soviet fantasy film and for coming out of a communist country in the mid-1950s, the special effects are surprisingly good.

This isn’t a good movie per se but it does have an interesting visual and aesthetic flair. Some of the puppets used are ahead of their time and go to show that the people behind the film were able to accomplish a lot with what they had to work with. If anything, this film is a technical marvel.

Additionally, the style and art direction are fantastic, showcasing a lot of creativity.

The film is based off of a byliny tale, or poem, about the famous folklore character Ilya Muromets who likes to ride around and go on adventures, fighting mythological beasts. I’m not hugely familiar with the character, so I can’t say whether or not this is an accurate version of him. However, it is still fun and mostly engaging even if the story is a bit messy and disjointed.

The film is bizarre and surreal but anything featuring puppet squirrels beating on mushrooms like bongos is going to fit that bill. While it is far from perfection, The Sword and the Dragon has a charm and an awesomeness to it.

Film Review: Rodan (1956)

Also known as: Sora no Daikaijū Radon, lit. Radon, Giant Monster of the Sky (Japan)
Release Date: December 26th, 1956 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma, Takeshi Kimura, Takeo Murata
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 82 Minutes

Review:

Rodan was a very pivotal movie in the long history of Toho’s cinematic legacy.

While Rodan, the monster, isn’t as famous as Godzilla or Mothra, he is one of the good guys and an ally to both of those kaiju against the evil monsters that started showing up later.

Rodan’s film though, is one of the best kaiju pictures ever made and it opened the door and set the stage for what was to come from Toho in the future.

To start, Rodan was the first kaiju film to be filmed and released in color. It wasn’t Toho’s first color movie though, as that honor goes to the previous year’s The Legend of the White Serpent (a.k.a. Madame White Snake). While that film was within the tokusatsu genre, it did not feature a kaiju monster. Also, it was co-produced with the Shaw Brothers out of Hong Kong. So in actuality, Rodan is the first color film Toho produced by themselves.

There are also a few interesting facts about the film’s American release. For starters, it was the first Japanese motion picture to get a wide release on the West Coast, which did wonders for its success in the States. Also, it had the biggest TV advertising campaign, up to that time, for New York’s massive NBC affiliate WRCA-TV. The marketing campaign featured a contest to challenge kids to quickly draw Rodan, while an outline of the character appeared on television sets.

As a film, Rodan is quite spectacular. Being the first color kaiju picture, it has a real grittiness to it. While the picture quality isn’t as pristine as the Toho films after it, it has a realism to it, visually. In fact, it kind of has the visual tone of a spaghetti western.

Additionally, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, especially the miniatures come off as more authentic looking, as the bit of graininess hides the imperfections better than the clearer Toho films after this.

The effects of the flying Rodan were well executed, even though there was some trouble on the set and one of the stuntmen in the Rodan suit had a major accident. Luckily he wasn’t hurt and the film turned out fine.

The jet fighter sequences were all well shot and well executed. The big battle between the jets and Rodan was impressive for a 1956 movie, not to mention something from Japan that lacked the budget of an American picture.

The only other monsters in this film were some subterranean bugs that were the size of an adult hippopotamus. The bugs were picking off miners underground and started to make their way to the surface but once Rodan showed up, he treated them like gas station sushi. Sayonara, bugs!

Rodan is capped off by one of the most depressing endings in kaiju film history. While the speech is great and the message clear, it is sad seeing the fate of the film’s creatures. Knowing that Rodan would be a protector of Earth and an ally to Godzilla and Mothra against much larger threats, also changes the perspective of the ending quite a bit.

Rodan was the first kaiju movie I ever saw that didn’t feature Godzilla. It was given to me for free from this girl I was crushing on at my local video store circa 1987 or so. I think she liked me but I was eight years-old and she was a teenager. But if Padme can get the hots for toddler Anakin, why can’t video store girl get the hots for my little kaiju-loving self? She got fired a few weeks later for stealing.

Film Review: The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Release Date: August 1956
Directed by: Edward Nassour, Ismael Rodriguez
Written by: Willis O’Brien (as El Toro Estrella), Robert Hill, Jack DeWitt
Music by: Raul Lavista
Cast: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro

United Artists, 81 Minutes

Review:

This is just a really weird film.

Let me start by saying that, as a western, this film is really good. I enjoyed the story thoroughly and I was engaged by the characters, their situations and the world they lived in. It was dynamite for a mid 1950s low budget western affair.

Then the dinosaur showed up and ruined the movie.

Had this film not had the dinosaur added into it, I would have seen it as a really underrated western gem.

I liked Guy Madison as the lead cowboy a lot. Carlos Rivas was great as his rancher partner Felipe. Eduardo Noriega was a decent western villain. Patricia Medina did a fine job as the love interest and motherly figure to Panchito. Pascual Garcia Pena was hilarious and endearing as Pancho. Mario Navarro was good as his son Panchito and he wasn’t annoying, as kid actors tend to be. Ultimately, this was well casted, had good characters and was well-written and executed.

Then the dinosaur showed up and ruined the movie.

The dinosaur sequences were bizarre and felt out of place with the rest of the film. A lot of the dinosaur effects were achieved using stop-motion but in some of the closeups, they used an articulated puppet. This is also the first film to feature stop-motion shot in a widescreen format and in color.

Unfortunately, the mixing of the stop-motion and the live action isn’t well handled. Often times the dinosaur looks crisp on the screen while the live action backdrop is blurry and out of focus. Also, some of the action between the dinosaur and the separately filmed live action sequences don’t sync up and are nonsensical.

It is hard to decipher what the hell is happening in the end, as our hero swings wildly from a rope, taunting the dinosaur and leading him into a tar pit. A tar pit that didn’t sink the human moments earlier but somehow swallows a giant dinosaur whole. Maybe the dino’s immense weight has something to do with it but low budget sci-fi filmmakers of the 1950s never bothered with crap like physics.

If someone did a re-edit of this picture without the beast, it would be infinitely better.

Film Review: It Conquered the World (1956)

Release Date: July 15th, 1956
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Lou Rusoff, Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Peter Graves, Lee Van Cleef, Beverly Garland, Sally Fraser, Dick Miller

American International Pictures, 71 Minutes 

it_conquered_the_worldReview:

In the early days of American International Pictures, they did some imaginative low-budget sci-fi and horror films. Roger Corman will always be known for being the king of the cheapo horror feature but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. He turned films out at a record pace and was more concerned with tight shooting schedules and doing things as cheaply as possible. His formula worked for a really long time and you have to kind of admire some of the films he was able to put together using this formula.

Most of Corman’s pictures turned a profit and he created a way of doing business that still exists in Hollywood today. Granted, now it just gives us unnecessary Saw and Paranormal Activity sequels, as well as “found footage” horror pictures but Corman was certainly onto something in his heyday.

It Conquered the World is one of these Corman classics. And no, it isn’t a particularly good film but it is still pretty enjoyable and it features a hokey yet really cool monster, a Corman staple.

The film stars Peter Graves, a beloved icon to Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Crow T. Robot, and one of my personal favorites, Lee Van Cleef. We also get to enjoy the talents of one of Corman’s favorite actors, Dick Miller. Granted, Miller’s role here is really limited.

Van Cleef plays a scientist, Dr. Anderson. He has made radio contact with a creature from Venus. The alien monster claims it only wants peace but it actually wants to enslave humanity through mind control. The alien claims he can bring peace by eliminating human emotions, which is a ploy to administer the brainwashing technique. The alien disrupts all electric power on Earth, crippling the planet’s technology. The alien also releases bat-like creatures carrying mind control devices. Graves’ character, Dr. Nelson, finds his wife to be already assimilated and she attempts to use one of the bat-like creatures on him. The film then takes some dark turns until ultimately, there is a final showdown with the bizarre creature.

The acting isn’t great, the direction isn’t either but Roger Corman didn’t concern himself with these things. He had a monster movie to pump out and couldn’t waste time. It should go without saying that the special effects aren’t fantastic either.

It Conquered the World is one of those sort of films where you either love it or you hate it. It only works for a certain kind of audience: one that is familiar with Corman’s style and can look beyond the problems with the film and just enjoy it as a mindless creature feature that, at its high points, is a lot of fun.