Category Archives: Classic Film

The Cream of the Crop and Bottom of the Barrel Pt 1: 10 Star Films

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

 [Editor’s Note: This is the First of a 2-Part Series]

Now I will admit I’m probably a more lenient critic than most because I know how much money goes into these movies. Even if a movie is god awful and terrible, if there was something in there that shows someone in the creative team cared enough about what they were doing, they’ll still get a rating. When I write the review I like to think of it as a film school critique-  by the way it’s so hard to make a student film. But often times when a film is flawed it’s somewhere in its execution so my job and responsibility as a critic is trying to understand what this film was trying to do.

For a film not to get a zero ranking it has to pretty much look like no one was trying. On the flip side it is very hard for me to give a 10 star rating because a movie has to be darn near flawless, which is not easy to do, making it special and deserving of such high praise.

Films that are so bad they are good do not count because they would not earn either rating. Keep in mind these are only from the films I have seen (like The Shawshank Redemption, I will see it one day I promise) so I am not trying to intentionally snub a film in hopes of being pretentious.

So here we go…  starting with my 10/10 stars. I’ll list these in chronological order. Sequels will be one listing in the event that multiple films in the same cinematic universe are eligible. And to preface a little bit of my general criteria, it breaks down into three main categories. On a technical aspect: framing, lighting, visuals, sound, and editing. Secondly, accessibility; is the story good, are the characters believable, is this something the casual movie goer and the film critic can both enjoy? The third basis is unique for each film; how the film relates to others within its genre, sometimes how it compares to the director’s other works, and anything else that could be counted as a standout factor.  These will be relatively spoiler free, just some basic plot information given in act 1.

Courtesy of www.silentera.com

Courtesy of www.silentera.com

Broken Blossoms (1919, Griffith)

Now I know, D.W. Griffith fans, you expect the film he’s more known for, The Birth of a Nation. Here’s my issue with that film and it’s not the one you’re thinking. It’s nearly three hours long, which I know is not comfortable for most people to sit through. Also people don’t tend to realize that it’s the story of the civil war told through the loser’s perspective and get caught up in thinking it’s just all racism. This is what I like about Broken Blossoms. Sorry America, we’re terrible… in most early cinema the Asian was cast as a drunken, lecherous idiot. This film presents him as a hero, though it is done with yellow face, the message in the film is clear and it’s an apology from Griffith and it asks the audience for tolerance.

Sherlock Jr. (1924, Keaton)

Full disclosure, I like Keaton more than Chaplin. This is not to say Chaplin’s films are not worthy of 10 stars, I’ve just only seen maybe one or two of his films versus many of Keaton’s. I also really enjoy Steamboat Bill Jr as a close second and at the risk of having a dozen Keaton film’s I’m just going to include this one. One of the most impressive facts about Keaton though is he did all his own stunts, and this was before the days of advanced special effects.

Sunrise (1927, Murnau)

How can you compare the silent era to today’s films? Truth be told, the fact that they could do so much without spoken dialogue is in itself incredible. The story is simple. A farmer is unfaithful to his wife, his mistress tries to convince him to kill her, he then finds he’s really not happy with anyone but her and they fall in love again. I’m completely oversimplifying this and not doing it justice. Just trust me, it’s a great film.

Metropolis (1927, Lang)

Meanwhile in Germany… one of the greatest works of science fiction ever made was born. A film so innovative for its time it nearly bankrupted Germany’s film industry, it’s fantastic. Unfortunately we may never see it in its entirety since pieces have gone missing. If there’s only one flaw it’s that the two predominate females present in the film represent the laziest archetypes of the virgin and the whore… but at the time that was often the way it was.

Courtesy of jeezjon.typepad.com

Courtesy of jeezjon.typepad.com

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Fleming)

There’s a reason they play this film numerous times on television and back in the days before DVD and VHS when this film was played on television it was an event. Yes the story is simple but the message is such a reflection of the times; there really is no place like home. I believe this film will continue to enchant for generations to come.

Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)

To be honest I’m more afraid of a mob of film students showing up outside my house with pitch forks if I omit this film. Yes, it’s a great film but I don’t know if I can call it “the best film ever made.” The camera work, the fact that they used cheesecloth to create a ceiling in a shot, and all the other behind the scenes technical aspects are brilliant. The two issues I have with the film are essentially irrelevant to its brilliance. One being if Kane died alone in his bed, how did anyone hear his last words? The second being I completely missed “Rosebud” the first time around and at the end was like “Wait, where was that in the film?” If I needed the metaphor explained I imagine others did as well.

Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)

Film Noir is one of those genres that is starting to re-emerge slowly into mainstream story telling. It’s a basic formula that can be cliché at times but when executed correctly can be absolutely brilliant. Of the film noirs I’ve viewed this is by far my favorite. With stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck directed by Billy Wilder, it’s a formula for success. What younger audiences might not be as keen to pick up on is the introduction to Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis. Without dialogue, we know she’s a bad girl and she’s out to get what she wants no matter what it takes, all through the use of a towel and Venetian blinds.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Capra)

We’ve all been at a dark point in our lives where we’ve pondered if the world would be better off without us. This film doesn’t shy away from answering that question and it’s beautifully wrapped up into a Christmas film. If you think about the juxtaposition, I don’t think you could have a more appropriate pairing considering the holidays are a time of depression for many. The message still holds up today because it’s another everyman type story- the world isn’t significantly different without him there, but the people who never met him don’t have the joy in their lives that he brought to it because he was never born. It shows us to appreciate what we have. Also it stars Jimmy Stewart who is possibly one of the best actors of all time.

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly)

I confess I have a soft spot for films about film. But this one is extra special because it presents cinema in a way that explains the transition into talkies in 103 minutes versus a semester of film history. The songs are good and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Gene Kelly perform. There’s also something just so very special about Technicolor.

Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)

I might be in a minority thinking this is superior to Vertigo. The film has a limited set compared to many other Hitchcock films, with all the action happening in a confined space. In this way we’re almost forced into the wheelchair of Jimmy Stewart as he watches his neighbors day by day until he witnesses something out of the ordinary, a murder committed in a neighboring window. The staging is great, the suspense palpable, a film that really puts you into the shoes of its protagonist.

Some like it Hot (1959, Wilder)

I’m sorry, I haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard which is why it hasn’t shown up here. But you want a classic director look no further than Billy Wilder. This is quite possibly the best comedy that has ever been made. It has three of the greatest stars who ever lived headlining it. Also it deals with subject matter that you have to stop and think was kind of risqué for the time, especially that closing line, “well, nobody’s perfect.”

Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)

I will say most Hitchcock films can be ranked incredibly high on my personal favorite list. There are just so many reasons this film deserves the love, first upon release it was completely snubbed by critics. Oh yeah and this was after Hitch gave up almost everything to get the film made. The studios thought the idea was too vulgar, a toilet shown on camera! Heaven forbid. So it was up to him to work with what he had to get it produced, to the point he almost lost his house. Did I mention this completely redefined the slasher genre? And it’s one of the few films that gives you a heroine to follow and then kills her off, forcing you to identify with Norman Bates… yeah creepy.

Courtesy of www.imdb.com

Courtesy of www.imdb.com

The Graduate (1967, Nichols –no relation)

A film that even today’s audience might be able to relate to. A disillusioned college graduate finds himself drifting through life. Maybe less relatable in the storyline about being seduced by an older woman but finds himself torn when he falls in love with her daughter. If you turn this into a metaphor of wanting to stick to what is older and more familiar with embarrassing new changes in life it might make a little more sense. Mrs. Robinson might be one of the more complex and sympathetic females (yes I said sympathetic) to ever grace the screen.

The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 (1972-1974, Coppola)

So fun fact, I’m half Italian and a distant cousin of mine was up against Al Pacino for the role of Michael Corleone; but that’s not why this film is special to me. First off, what an ensemble cast and everyone brings their A-game. Visually it’s candy for the eyes with brilliant choices in framing and lighting. But even if you’re not a cinephile there’s a great story to go with it that can captivate you for six hours and fifteen minutes (let’s face it, you’re going to watch both in one sitting). At its root part one is about a father who leads a life of crime and his sons, one of whom has evaded the streets, even becoming a war hero. Then slowly he’s pulled into the world of crime and the hero turns into a monster. The scene where Michael says “I’m with you now,” and Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) has a single tear fall, is all the audience needs to know that this is the beginning of the end. Some argue part two tops its predecessor because Coppola was given more artistic freedom, personally I don’t think you can have the second without the first but at the same time part two embellishes part one which is why both are works of perfection.

Tune in next week for more of Heather’s 10 Star Films as well as her 0 Star Films.

Review: Sabotage (1936)

Courtesy of jocelyniswrong.com

Courtesy of jocelyniswrong.com

To most moviegoers, Alfred Hitchcock is best known for a handful of his later films. With the exception of Psycho, these iconic mid-fifties and early sixties films were photographed in luscious Technicolor with gorgeous stars who are furnished in lavish locales and have haute culture wardrobes on top of sinister worlds. This tends to get him pigeonholed as a singular director who stayed in a similar mode of which Pauline Kael unfairly accused him.

In over fifty years of filmmaking, Hitchcock has attempted and by and large succeeded at making spare dramedies, gothic thrillers, taut espionage dramas, broody dramas, and yes escapist fare with more intelligence than most high-minded movies. He remained very curious, willing to try new things.

Courtesy of wearecinemaniax.wordpress.com

Courtesy of wearecinemaniax.wordpress.com

Before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1940, he directed 24 feature films in Europe. Most of his British films have a cheekier and more laid-back pace than his intricately plotted scenarios of his American output. I find the overall structure of several of his early works problematic because the first two-thirds are leisurely encounters between the protagonist and the romantic interest and several of the supporting players and then, in the last fifteen minutes the movie rushes to solve all the loose threads of the crime.

One of the better British films is Sabotage (1936) (Not to be confused with the lackluster 1942 Saboteur), about a 30s Guy Fawkes-like attempt to bomb London. It’s grimmer and more pre-code social realist than most of his British films. Hitchcock shrewdly cast Sylvia Sidney, who at the time was the go-to actor in Hollywood, to play the sweet and sensitive waif in glum Depression dramas. (She once quipped that Hollywood paid her by the tear). She plays a similar role here as an American woman who marries a European cinema owner (Oscar Homolka) and moves to London due to the lack of economic opportunities in the States, but she is able to display tenderness and gentility without being saccharine.

Courtesy of 3guys1movie.com

Courtesy of 3guys1movie.com

Apparently, the director and star did not get along as Sidney wasn’t fond of his “cattle treatment” of actors. This is too bad as she embodies the quintessential qualities of a Hitchcockian actor. Her sad and soulful eyes make for many marvelous close ups that rival the intensity of silent stars like Lillian Gish or Gloria Swanson.

Like its title, Sabotage is a narratively and stylistically lean 75 minute film that follows a matter-of-fact chain of events. It cuts to the chase from the get-go with a pre-credit intertitle of a pointed dictionary definition of the word followed by quick shots of London’s power being shut down (one particularly well directed bit is the precision of the authority figures speaking in single sentences after the attack).

Courtesy of twentyfourframes.wordpress.com

Courtesy of twentyfourframes.wordpress.com

In contrast to many of Hitchcock’s films that employ noticeably innovative uses of sound, Sabotage has remarkably memorable moments of silence. There’s one scene towards the end where Sidney angrily approaches Homolka and a slow, deliberate stylized jerkiness in the actors’ movements is reminiscent of German Expressionism acting.

Hitchcock’s master of suspense is revealed in the famous bomb sequence in which Homolka’s character callously gives his young brother-in-law (Desmond Tester) an explosive device. The devastation starts with the teenaged boy being unwillingly humiliated by a street bath and body demonstrator, symbolizing the larger theme of being screwed over by adults in a darkly humorous way. The last fifteen minutes are agonizingly dragged out by the boy being derailed to deliver the package by the police, a common Hitchcockian motif, guarding the parade. Superimpositions of clocks with his innocently smiling face heighten the sense of urgency and of time running out.

Courtesy of en.paperblog.com

Courtesy of en.paperblog.com

Oscar Homolka is suited to playing the husband, playing him in a grave and detached manner. Sidney’s and Homolka’s age difference and lack of screen chemistry adds to the film as it gives the subtext that this is more a marriage of convenience, and makes it believable that she has no idea of her husband’s criminal activities. The co-conspirators are highly average-looking people, unlike many of Hitchcock’s other films where the villains are suave, mysterious characters.

Hitchcock was dissatisfied with the casting of John Loder as the Policeman investigating the saboteurs, preferring the more prolific Robert Donat. Loder being less accomplished fits the role of the moral authority as a boob well. This is part of a trend of lesser actors cast as the good guys, diminishing the preachy message for morality and giving Hitchcock’s films an extra subversive factor in his morally ambiguous films that still make them stand out today.

Courtesy of worldscinema.org

Courtesy of worldscinema.org

For some reason, Hitchcock dismissed Sabotage. While he only remade one of his British films, The Man who Knew Too Much (first in 1934 then 1956), many of his American films rework plot elements from his 30s movies with the bonus of a better conceived third act. In terms of aesthetic style Sabotage is the cousin of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films and one of his personal favorites. There are strong similarities between the two female protagonists and their trajectory from happy-go-lucky innocence to a hardened wisdom from having a murderer in their family. The two films share a sobering tone of the ramifications of murder.

Review: Truck Turner (1974)

“Black, Bold and Bloody mean!”

Courtesy of portlandmercury.com

Courtesy of portlandmercury.com

Political correctness is one of the more insidious nagging forces that plagues our society but more importantly (as far as I’m concerned) our art and entertainment. One of the dearly departed casualties under this regime were exploitation films and its subgenre, the Blaxploitation, whose heyday was in the late 1960s through mid-1970s.

Mostly produced by Roger Corman and distributed by the now-defunct American International Pictures (only on occasion, like MGM with Shaft (1971), did the big studios capitalize on the craze), these films with their bare-bones budgets and puny production values made no pretense to be great art. Corman’s and AIP’s sole goal was to make a large profit. At their best, when they fearlessly went for the jugular, exploitation films were far more entertaining than many “respectable” Hollywood films. Sometimes, as in the case of Truck Turner (1974), a film can satisfy all of the glorious excesses of the exploitation and still be a properly good film.

Courtesy of shadowandact.com

Courtesy of shadowandact.com

Turner was most likely originally conceived as a more traditional action flick. Initially it was a vehicle for Robert Mitchum and then James Coburn was attached before Isaac Hayes came on board and the story was relocated to the urban inner-city. Truck Turner is the perfect storm of the Blaxploitation salaciousness, spirited performances, stellar direction (by Jonathan Kaplan), and a top-notch script by (Oscar Williams and Michael Allin) that seamlessly combines comedy and action.

Unlike most crime films that talk tough but have generically sanitized sets, Turner is pure filth all the way. Following the credit sequence with a moving camera on an assortment of the ghetto bums and riff-raff, the film introduces a passed-out Truck in his apartment amidst the dozens of empty beer cans, food wrappers, and dirty clothes. A phone call by his more responsible partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) rudely awakens him. After an ordeal to find his only clean shirt, Truck has a cussing altercation with his scraggly cat for pissing on it.

Courtesy of blogs.citypages.com

Courtesy of blogs.citypages.com

Although Truck is uncouth and slovenly, he is never unappealing due to the script and Isaac Hayes’ charming and dynamic performance. Hayes at the time was primarily a musician of innovative soul and R&B of the 1960s who rose to prominence with his iconic Oscar-winning theme song for Shaft. It is hard to believe that this is only his second performance (and first headlining role) as he exudes such an ease in front of the camera and is bawdily funny and ultra-macho in a non-turnoff way. Inexplicably Turner did not catapult Hayes into a major action/comedy star. After this film, he sporadically appeared in character roles in films and TV shows, most famously as the Chef on the irreverent animated TV series South Park. He acrimoniously left the show in 2006 after almost 10 years because as a devout Scientologist he objected to its spoof in one of the teleplays.

The first act moves at a loose and breezy pace. It is largely comprised of rowdy buddy-buddy verbal repartees between Truck and Jerry and many of the supporting players. Within the first few minutes, the word “nigger” is used several dozen times in all of its connotations. Another point of discussion/ridicule is Truck’s jailbird girlfriend, Annie, a convicted shoplifter, a great touch for which Williams and Allin deserve special praise.

Courtesy of melvin-rated-x.blogspot.com

Courtesy of melvin-rated-x.blogspot.com

Annazette Chase’s spunky performance is far superior to the run-of-the-mill ingénue. In contrast to most films where the love interest is a boring intrusion, Chase’s presence offers a feisty and sexy female voice who more than holds her own in Turner’s violent, predominantly male-dominated world. Hayes and Chase make the most erotic pigs ever captured on celluloid in an unconventional sex scene involving finger licking fried chicken and Hayes’ baritone voice on a romantic R&B background song.

All of the action sequences are staged and executed with a perfect comedic and adrenaline-inducing zing. The first significant action scene, when Truck and Jerry are chasing Gator (Paul Harris), a pimp on whom they have a bounty, is an intricately plotted ten minutes of pure euphoria. Beginning as a standard car chase, things quickly shift to the absurd when Gator’s cotton candy pink automobile crashes into every object in sight. Just as impressive are the micro cutaway moments such as when Gator’s car crashes into an Orthodox Jew’s cart of bagels which fly out all over the frame.

Courtesy of trash-o-meter.blogspot.com

Courtesy of trash-o-meter.blogspot.com

After an elaborate hide and seek bit in a sewer done with great seriousness, the pace reaccelerates when Truck and Jerry have to fend off a bunch of bar patrons paid off by Gator to restrain them, elevated claustrophobically by Charles F. Wheeler’s rough hand-held camerawork. It ends hilariously as one of the patrons who had his ass whooped by Truck bemoans the little compensation and how he would’ve demanded more had he known it was Truck Turner.

In their next altercation, Truck and Jerry pelt Gator with bullets. One of Gator’s crazed prostitutes then stabs Jerry in the shoulder and Truck smacks her down the ground. The insanity is heightened by Wheeler’s trippy cinematography.

Courtesy of popscreen.com

Courtesy of popscreen.com

Things take a more violent turn as Truck incurs the wrath of Gator’s lady, Dorinda, played by Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols who in this shining cast gives the ultimate scene-stealing performance. She is diametrically against her ethereal Star Trek character as a volatile, revenge-crazed madam who offers a bunch of flamboyantly dressed pimps a bounty to murder Truck. Williams and Allin furnish her with a series of dynamic angry soliloquies, many of which concern her “Black Bitch” prostitutes. Nichols wrings colorful lines like “Her clients call her Colonel Sanders because she’s finger lickin’ good” for all their wonderfully campy delight.

Truck Turner marked Nichols’ only foray into Blaxploitation. She turned down all other offers and for the rest of the 70s and 80s mostly focused her efforts as a NASA recruiter who brought many blacks and other minorities into the organization.

Courtesy of dickswiftshouseofbadcinemaandwafflles.blogspot.com

Courtesy of dickswiftshouseofbadcinemaandwafflles.blogspot.com

Even with all this excellence, Turner still saves its best punches for last. The final shootout between Truck and his adversary Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto, who gives a coolly restrained performance) is another marvelous cinematic juggernaut that excels at presenting simultaneous thrills and gallows humor. The shooting gallery commences in the ICU room of Truck’s badly beaten boss (Sam Laws). Though he’s totally bandaged up, he takes out his gun and partakes in the action. The scope widens as they take their fight to the halls and doctors, nurses, and patients get trapped in the crossfire. Grossly humorous cutaways unfold as fluids in machines get shot at and come flying out. Everything is pitch perfect down to child actor Randy Gray’s convincing performance as a patient ruthlessly taken hostage by Blue. Quentin Tarantino, the most prolific aficionado of the Exploitation, has borrowed several elements of Turner in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Volume 1. The composition and gross violent humor resemble the shoot out sequences in Django Unchained.

Unsurprisingly, Turner hasn’t received much notice from the high and middlebrow publications. The only contemporaneous review I could find is a snippet piece by New York Times critic Vincent Canby. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Canby, not a fan of Blaxploitation, didn’t give it much serious consideration. Most inexplicable is his dismissal of Hayes’ acting abilities. At least he realized that he should “Credit the writers with providing the cast with an innercity patois that is authentic” even if he qualified it with “if largely four-letter, and funnier and pithier than the obvious plot.”

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

However, it has caught the attention of people in the industry. In 2004, it was reported that Queen Latifah was going to develop and star in a remake, although as of yet, the project hasn’t come into fruition. According to IMDb, there are plans to remake Turner as a “story refilmed for a new generation.” As an outsider without an IMDb Pro account, I don’t know if this is still Latifah’s vehicle or another project entirely. Regardless, Truck Turner is such a uniquely seminal piece of rough and gritty 70s cinema that it cannot be entrusted to our safe and boring generation responsible for patronizing, no-less-exploitative drivel like The Blind Side or The Help. Instead it should be critically studied by future screenwriters and filmmakers of comedy and action.

Underrated Classic: No Down Payment (1957)

Suppressive Suburbia: Review of No Down Payment 1957

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

By Adam Tawfik

In 1945, most Americans felt that happy days were here again. After nearly twenty years of dire economic hardship and four years of a psychologically and physically catastrophic war, Americans were eager to celebrate. They finally had the finances to live large. As the economy exploded and emphasis on mass consumption increased, a newly created large middle-class moved out into the spacious suburbs where they could have more property and goods than ever before.

Theoretically these new communities perfectly embodied democratic principles. As historian Lizabeth Cohen explains, “As Americans lived better and on a more equal footing with their neighbors, it was expected the dream of a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved.” That vision did not really pan out; instead, many new sociological problems emerged.

Although the majority of the popular culture (particularly TV sitcoms) at the time celebrated (or at least didn’t question) suburban living, there were a sizable number of films that showed the darker side of this supposed paradise. While it hasn’t received a fraction of the attention of films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life (1956), or The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), No Down Payment, a 1957 Twentieth-Century-Fox film, provided one of the sharpest and most critical treatises on the new living model, tackling a myriad of social issues through the trials and tribulations of four suburban families.

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Everything starts off auspiciously. Newlyweds David (Jeffrey Hunter), an up-and-coming engineer, and his pretty wife Jean (Patricia Owens) venture out of the city to the countryside where they pass by a succession of advertisements for suburban developments, all promising a better, more plentiful lifestyle. They settle on Sunrise Hills whose slogan is “the happy ending to your house hunting.”

In public, neighbors Betty (Barbara Rush) and Herm (Pat Hingle), Isabelle (Sheree North) and Jerry (Tony Randall), and Leola (Joanne Woodward) and Troy (Cameron Mitchell) gush about Sunrise Hills, almost to the point of obsession. Behind closed doors, the couples reveal feelings of despair, deflation, and entrapment in their environment. Sunrise Hills (and suburbia) is neither happy nor the end to these characters’ house hunting, as no one’s ambitions are sufficiently fulfilled and all of them are already living well beyond their means. These same sentiments extend to the marriages as well, although levels of unhappiness and dysfunction vary.

As the plot progresses, the characters’ actions reveal that Sunrise Hills is more elitist and racist than its down-to-earth façade of the neighborhood barbecue parties leads one to believe. Troy and Leola, two uneducated Tennessee country folks, feel maligned by the other residents.  Leola sequesters herself in her home while Troy, a decorated GI, aggressively manifests his resentment towards the college educated David and Jean.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Meanwhile Herm, a kindly and unpretentious general-appliance store owner, genuinely wants to help his employee Ito (Aki Aleong), a hard-working Japanese family man (who is virtually identical to the average suburbanite in every regard except race), move into Sunrise Hills, but caves to the protestations of the supposedly religious Betty, who fears the objections the neighbors will raise and the potential loss of their property value. She later sees the errors of her ways and prods Herm to do the right thing in her characteristically bullying manner.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, one of the few scholars to give Payment critical attention- praising it as “one of the most compelling dystopian visions of the 1950s” – argues that Payment through its “noirish black and white lighting, brutal mise-en-scene,” single-mindedly materialistic characters, and the frantic paranoia of keeping up appearances, fits into the parameters of film noir. Certainly this valid argument can be substantiated by previous works of two of the film’s key personnel: screenwriter Philip Yordan (alias Ben Maddow) penned The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of the darkest, most unrelenting film noirs and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who won an Oscar® for photographing the stylistic classic Laura (1944).

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

An equally compelling case can be made for examining the film in terms of “American kitchen sink realism,” with its ominously sparse uniformly charmless houses, and its long drawn-out scenes where a few characters take center stage to reveal their angsts and desires. LaShelle was also the cinematographer for Marty (1955), arguably the most critically acclaimed and financially profitable film of this type. In Payment, his claustrophobic camera work counteracts the typical glossiness of the Cinemascope widescreen process. LaShelle’s juxtaposition of tight close-ups and intensely dark shadows in the rape scene is one of the most innovative means of dodging the censors, whilst retaining the gravity and psychologically harrowing implications of this heinous act.

Upon its initial release, Payment generally received commendable but not enthusiastic notices. The New York Times reviewer scoffed that, “Despite the producers’ frank and forthright approach, a viewer is left with the feeling that these harried folks do not represent the average, that their stories are only partially told and that undue emphasis is placed on unpleasant aspects of their lives,” thereby reducing the material to melodrama.

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

The ensemble cast, under the direction of Martin Ritt, a former actor and teacher at the prestigious New York-based Actors School (while he was unfairly blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 50s), justifiably received rave reviews. Joanne Woodward got best-in-show notices, although these were overshadowed by the accolades of her tour-de-force headlining role in another controversial film The Three Faces of Eve released one month before Payment. Martin Ritt biographer Gabriel Miller conjectured that this was due to Woodward’s training at the Actors Studio, making her the most compatible cast member with Ritt’s methods.

While Woodward’s combination of childlike vulnerability and wild sexuality is sublime, the other actors provide equally vivid performances. Sheree North, who was wrongly stigmatized as a 50s cheesecake bombshell a la Marilyn Monroe in spite of excelling in a variety of character parts for over thirty years, excels in her first dramatic assignment. Sporting a bob of mousy brown hair, North’s fawn-eyed expressions, whispery voice and hunched shoulders convey the pent-up repression and helplessness of Isabel.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Barbara Rush, another highly underrated actress who was mostly used as eye candy in films, strips away most of her otherworldly glamour, portraying a stern and strident Christian with abrasive gusto. Pat Hingle, a burly theatre actor who went on to become one of the more recognizable Hollywood character actors, nicely underplays the sanest character who acts as the peacekeeper of the community.

Cameron Mitchell, best known for the 1960s and 70s TV Western The High Chaparral, gives a raw and frightening performance as the angry, volatile PTSD-afflicted mechanic. Patricia Owens, a normally competent actress, delivers a stellar performance as an intelligent and sympathetic (but very sexy) woman with a slightly checkered past who is trying to establish a more respectable life.

Courtesy of premiere.fr

Courtesy of premiere.fr

The biggest surprise is Tony Randall, best known for his neurotically straight laced characterizations in the Doris Day- Rock Hudson comedies and the TV series The Odd Couple. He significantly departs from that persona, rendering a pathetic, sleazy characterization of an adulterous, alcoholic used-car salesman, constantly devising futile get-rich-quick schemes.

While only a handful of people seem to have seen Payment since its initial release, those who have regard it with nothing but the highest praise. Notable in this select group is David Bowie. In a 1967 correspondence with his first American fan, long before he became a megastar or created satirical, astute songs about America, Bowie cited Payment as “a great film, but rather depressing if it is a true reflection of The American Way Of Life.”

This section contains SPOILERS

Many critics complained about what they considered to be a “pat” ending, where three of the four couples (plus Ito and his family) cheerily depart from church. Martin Ritt expressed regrets over the film’s conclusion, citing Twentieth-Century-Fox executives’ trepidation of offending the suburban audience. They issued this following statement to the press: “Church-goers, despite the sensational aspects of the picture [it includes a rape], will find it worth while (sic) since the picture opens and closes with church-going scenes.”

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Actually, the film technically doesn’t begin or end with these church-going scenes. In fact, the finale is more ambiguous and downbeat as it closes with Leola departing Sunrise Hills in a taxi, looking back in sorrow, with the camera sinisterly lingering on the misleadingly cheery Sunrise Hills sign. Even the overtly chirpy churchgoing scenes can (and should) be interpreted with skepticism. Sandwiched in-between many stark dystopian scenes, the symmetry of the church scenes creates the impression that the characters’ problems continually circulate in ebbs and flows. Everybody suppresses their true emotions to give the appearance of a happy, well-adjusted suburban family, but ultimately all their grievances will resurface again and again.

Sources:

NYT review of No Down Payment

– Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia

-Gabriel Miller, The Life and Films of Martin Ritt

-Colin Young, “The Hollywood War of Independence,” Film Quarterly 1959