A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Written by Budd Schulberg
Directed by Elia Kazan
Southern folksy charm is one of those things I see visitors to the American Southeast remark upon often. The city of Nashville likes to boast that it’s the largest small town in the country, and I have to admit, if you are walking down the street, you will have strangers saying, “Hello” and waving. But this friendliness can also be a sinister mask, obscuring ulterior motives and manipulations. When this manner is adopted by someone in the media with less than divine intentions, it can be downright corrosive to society. All that is warm, genial, and welcoming is not good for your health.
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Baby Doll (1956)
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Elia Kazan
Stanley Kubrick called fellow director Elia Kazan, “without question, the best director we have in America, [and] capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” Quite a compliment from someone I consider to be the best American film director we’ve ever had. I’m not unfamiliar with Kazan and have seen a number of his films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, among others. After gaining acclaim with pictures like East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Kazan was able to produce some films independently with Baby Doll being one of those.
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The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Written by James Agee
Directed by Charles Laughton
Of my thirty-nine years on this earth, the last thirty-fours (sans one) have been lived in the American South, specifically Tennessee. The American South is a complex region, the hub of an insurrection that led to the Civil War. The place where slavery festered and even upon its dissolution, its legacy poisoned any possibility of a greater sense of community to the present day. Jim Crow was born here. The American South is a “Christ-haunted landscape,” as author Flannery O’Connor once said, words that could not be truer. Churches pop up so that one city block is crammed full with them. A drive through the country will guarantee passing by at least half a dozen. History and Religion bleed through the trunks of the trees and up through the lawns. These are Visions of the American South.
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The Twilight Zone was not the first anthology of the fantastic, but it has gone down as the most memorable and best-written one. That writing was due in part to Rod Serling setting the standard. Rod Serling looked pretty “square,” but he was a political radical, virulently anti-war and firmly in support of racial equality. He made sure that his anthology told stories relevant to what was happening in the society around his viewers. Serling’s wife, Carol, remarked that he would often say, “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic”. So you can see that Serling felt compelled to not just entertain but educate whether audiences wanted it or not.
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Paths of Glory (1957)
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
– “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray
When Paths of Glory was released in 1957, it was banned in France until 1975. Germany refused to allow it in the Berlin Film Festival lest the picture strain relations with France. Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascist government in Spain would not allow the movie to be shown, and it wasn’t until 1986, 11 years after Franco died. And lest we let the United States off the hook, Paths of Glory was banned from being shown in any military establishment. All this does is speak to the power of the themes of the picture, Kubrick’s first great anti-war film.
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The Killing (1956)
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Jim Thompson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Just a year after Killer’s Kiss, Stanley Kubrick directed this heist film that dripped with noir. It should be noted that starting with this film, every movie Kubrick ever made was based on a novel. For the most part, his films would come to overshadow the books he adapted because Kubrick didn’t believe he was chained to the source material. I think that is an excellent thing because film adaptation is like language translation, you do not go for the exact 1:1 meaning, you shape the content to communicate the ideas and themes best. Kubrick made this picture under the banner of the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, a producing partnership he would continue for two more films (Paths of Glory & Lolita).
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Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Specific names in filmmaking have power & weight to them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. In the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a backlash of sorts about Kubrick’s place in the pantheon of great directors. I get that, though. The prevalence of some names over others allows lesser-known, yet equally deserving directors to be overshadowed. I would counter that I think part of what has led to this annoyance with Kubrick is that he intentionally made films that created division in audiences. Furthermore, his influence on the craft of filmmaking resonates across time, and I suspect will continue into the far future, should humanity survive and keep making movies.
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The Americanization of Emily (1964)
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Arthur Hiller
You didn’t see a lot of films in the wake of World War II that called military action into question. You would see a slew of anti-war films twenty-odd years out from Vietnam. But on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, it was a pretty bold move to put out a movie about the lead up to that event, which questioned the leadership of the U.S. military and spoke to how soldiers’ bodies are so often used as props for state-sanctioned propaganda. This material had to be couched inside a romantic comedy-drama, and the subversiveness is hidden deeper in the narrative after we’ve been given a seemingly light set-up.
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Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Delbert Mann
Paddy Chayefsky was born Sidney Chayefsky in the Bronx to Russian-Jewish immigrants. While serving in World War II, he got the nickname “Paddy,” which stuck with him for the rest of his life. During this time, he was wounded by a land mine in Germany, which led to permanent scarring and his shyness around women, an element that would inspire the character of Marty. He’s always been a gifted child in matters of language arts and began writing plays as an adult. After being sent to recover in a London hospital, he penned a musical, No T.O. For Love, which toured around Army camps eventually opening in London.
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The Vast of Night (2020)
Written by James Montague & Craig W. Sanger
Directed by Andrew Patterson
A story about an alien visitation in New Mexico during the 1950s doesn’t sound terribly original or compelling on the surface. However, the way The Vast of Night is presented with gorgeous cinematography, inventive scene framing, and a narrative that unfolds almost entirely in real-time is what propels into another level of filmmaking. I sat down with moderate hopes after hearing some positive buzz and walked away, absolutely loving this movie. The picture is made by people who fully understand the genre they are delving into and are intelligent enough to play with the tropes. This delivers a film couched in genre expectations but able to explode in fascinatingly unexpected directions.
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