The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s



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The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s

What would a visiting alien learn from Them!, Godzilla, and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman?



By Katy Waldman

Updated Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at 3:11 PM

People who want to talk about the jumpy, kitschy, gloriously lurid movie genre we now know as 1950s sci-fi usually start with Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag is a bug-eyed alien or 50 feet tall but because she wrote, in 1965, the definitive essay on Cold War dystopian fantasy: “The Imagination of Disaster.” “We live,” she claimed in that piece, “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The job of science fiction was at once to “lift us out of the unbearably humdrum … by an escape into dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings” and to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”

In other words, a good horror/fantasy/sci-fi flick provides a healthy dose of escapism, but it also keeps one eye fastened on what we wish to escape from. During the Depression, that could have been the exhausting grind of making ends meet. During the 1950s, it was relentless domesticity and something altogether more insidious: the Soviet Menace and the threat of nuclear war. The United States tested the first atom bomb in July 1945 at Alamogordo, N.M. A month later, it used the new technology to annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After WWII, images of the carnage in Japan mingled with unease about a growing Communist presence in the East, especially once the USSR exploded its own atomic bomb in 1949. Science fiction movies had the double task of distracting viewers from their pedestrian lives and calming the anxieties generated by a shadowy, high-stakes political rivalry.

The films trafficked in the strange and fantastic—mutants, alien invaders, robots—but they also made real dangers mundane, “inculcating a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction.” The more Doomsday devices you see go off, presumably, the less they faze you. What they didn’t do was challenge any of the social conventions that rendered such veiled discussions of nuclear power necessary in the first place. In their visions of atomic apocalypse, B-movies crystallized American paranoia without questioning it. They dehumanized otherness but turned a blind eye to how such dehumanization ended up feeding the nation’s terrors. Deep down, these films had reactionary souls; Sontag finally concluded that they constituted an “inadequate response” to major socio-political issues. (Andrew Tudor went even further when he claimed that the movies glorified government as a bastion of elites uniquely capable of providing for our defense. These flicks “teach us not so much ‘to stop worrying and love the bomb,’ ” he wrote, “as ‘to keep worrying and love the state.’ ”)

But the movies were entertaining—and lucrative. Between 1948 and 1962, Hollywood released more than 500 science-fiction features, which were widely distributed to movie palaces, neighborhood theaters, and drive-ins. Them!, a cautionary tale about giant irradiated ants, was Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing film in 1954. We remember many of these flicks today with mock horror at their corny dialogue, impenetrable plots (I’m looking at you, Cat-Women of the Moon), and less-than-convincing special effects (hello, The Mole People). Yet a few attained critical acclaim, even true classic status. Largely acknowledged as the best of the bunch are 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Of course, as the French director Francois Truffaut wrote, “When a film achieves a certain success, it becomes a sociological event, and the question of its quality becomes secondary.” Imagine that you were the alien Klaatu visiting Earth for the first time. Presented with a sampling of these nuclear fables, by turns outlandish and conservative, cheese-tastic and haunting, what might you infer about the world you’d discovered?

That science is amoral. The celluloid fantasies of the Atomic Age teem with scientists who are mad, hubristic, irresponsible, or just plain evil. But these Promethean overreachers (and/or their creations) generally come up against heroic doctors or specialists who are equally knowledgeable. Thus, in Them!, while it is fallout from the Trinity blast in New Mexico that transforms the ants into 18-foot armored monsters, it is also a father-daughter pair of entomologists, Gwenn and Pat Medford, who deduce what’s happening and how to stop it. (With flamethrowers, mostly.) In terms of sensibility, director Gordon Douglas is clearly a science nerd. He devotes an entire scene to the elder Medford’s charmingly jargon-laden lecture about ant life cycles; chalkboards and slides are dusted off; the audience falls, for a moment, under the spell of discovery. And in another scene, police investigate a general store that has been ravaged by the mutant Formicidae. Yet as the men poke around the ruins, a television cheerily broadcasts a WHO report about how radiation might be used to eradicate disease. Ironic? Sure. But it’s an irony with real optimism at its edges.

Irradiated baddies menace 1950s cinema. Godzilla—roused from the depths of Bikini Atoll by atomic testing—terrorizes Tokyo with nuclear halitosis. Giant, mutated spiders roam the planet in World Without End. I Was a Teenage Werewolf explores the effects of radiation on the human genome, while the “school bus-size locusts” from Beginning of the End owe their powers to USDA tests of radioactive fertilizers. At the same time, though, we humans would be lost without technology—on-screen, anyway. Electricity defeats the alien in The Thing from Another World.* Fighter pilots best Tarantula’s arachnids by dousing them in napalm. As Peter Biskind wrote of the genre in Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, “where science caused the problem, science often solved it too.”



That the universe exists in black-and-white. In atomic B-movies, knowledge may be amoral, but people (and creatures) fall neatly into “good” or “evil” camps. (The question of who controls the immensely powerful technologies science has made possible in real life thus haunts every good sci-fi flick. Is it “Us” or “Them”?) Stark dichotomies were not new to cinema in 1950—Noel Carroll once defined “Otherness, epitomized by the monster” as “the essential ingredient” in all horror film—but the nature of the Other changed during the Cold War. Depression-era monsters captured viewers’ sympathy. Dracula had a suave, campy glamour. Audiences wept when King Kong died. Yet by the time 1950s filmmakers revived the genre, on-screen ghouls had lost all trace of pathos. They were meant to symbolize our supposed Communist foe: ruthless, cold-blooded as an insect or reptile, utterly strange. In fact, the ants in Them! sometimes seem more machine than creature (especially when, during a battle sequence, the side of one ant slips down, and you can see its mechanical insides whirring away). They are strong, smart, aggressive, collectivist, and impeccably organized. They communicate via an eerie keening that sounds almost like sonar. Their gleaming carapaces evoke the technology of war. You get the sense that giving any 1950s sci-fi monster moral complexity would interfere with the political allegory. More important, it would lessen the drama of being confronted by something terrifying and unknown.

That women are scary. And sexy, too, just like the bomb itself. In Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films, Cynthia Hendershot has written persuasively about the eroticization of nuclear power. “In postwar bomb fantasies,” she argues, “sexuality becomes a means of containing the fear of the limits of meaning.” She points out that French designers named their risqué new bathing suit after the site of the Bikini bomb tests; pop songs such as “Atomic Bomb Baby” conflated coital climax with nuclear explosion; Rita Hayworth’s image was stenciled onto a Bikini bombshell. Maybe that’s why oversexed femininity permeates so many sci-fi horror flicks from the Atomic Age. Take the lingerie-clad 50-foot-woman, blasted with alien energy and rampaging through Los Angeles. (“A titanic beauty spreads a macabre wave of horror!” gasped the tagline). Or Mothra, an ancient female deity who assumes the form of a giant moth to rescue two maidens kidnapped from her secluded (and irradiated) island home. In Them!, the monstrous fertility of the queen ants threatens to topple a social order dominated by men. (Joan Weldon’s gutsy scientist may be a babe, but she spends the entire movie chastely in her father’s shadow.) Hendershot proposes that, in a paranoiac worldview, the forces for purification and progress are constantly at war with those of contamination and degeneracy. Since at least Victorian times, matriarchal societies implied a backward step in evolution. So gendered 1950s sci-fi monsters take fears of Darwinist decline, run them through a nuclear power generator, and serve them up to a viewing public already worried about—and fiercely protective of—its civilization. The effect becomes one of diffuse suspicion. Who exactly are the enemies poised to dismantle the American dream? Women? Soviets? Heedless scientists? Somehow all three converge in images of irradiated, unknowable creatures eager to reproduce throughout the United States.

That’s why, for my part, I don’t buy Sontag’s assertion that sci-fi/horror flicks are out to habituate us to the nightmares of the Atomic Age. In true reactionary fashion, I think they want to ramp up dread. Because while the explosion of fantastic imagery across a movie screen can provide a momentary burst of pleasure (as well as terror), it leaves uneasiness in its wake. You are not numbed but sensitized. Questions and insecurities linger.

This is the one-two punch of the atomic bomb: impact and aftermath. After the annihilating blast comes the radiation, the creep of poison that makes your cells betray you from within. No wonder nuclear horror films are saturated in paranoia, fear of enemies external and internal blooming over them like a mushroom cloud. Their diffuse nervousness feels as uncontainable as the atomic danger producing it. And the threat, the anxiety (not to mention the additional threat bred by the anxiety), all seem wild and protean as a mutating gene. They build until you get the sense that, somewhere, a bomb has to detonate. Destruction is at once just around the corner and already complete.

Roll credits.


http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/nuclear_power/2013/01/nuclear_monster_movies_sci_fi_films_in_the_1950s_were_terrifying_escapism.html

Them! (1954)
OK, let’s state the obvious from the start: movies about giant insects or reptiles, whether they are ants, tarantulas, scorpions, or lizards, are silly, sophomoric, and stupid. There, I said it. But some can deliver loads of fun and warrant critical acclaim. Them! certainly falls into both categories, not only because it was the seminal giant-insect creature feature film of the 1950s, but because amidst its surreal premises lurks an army of portents that foreshadow the absurd cosmological repercussions of the dawning Nuclear Age.

And its popularity in 1954 is evidence of how resonant these ominous, apocalyptic signs were. Them! was Warner Brothers most financially successful film in 1954, and studio executives were caught off guard. The film was originally slated to be shot in 3-D and Technicolor, but the BigWigs thought otherwise; their investment was not worth the risk for such an unusual plot. This is why some opening credits are shot in bright red color and why the flamethrowers, lent by the U.S. Army and used by actual combat veterans, shoot directly into the camera. Those scenes along with the many close-ups of the ants themselves were originally designed for 3-D. The film’s success led to many copycats including Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), the Godzilla franchise, and many others. Soon after Them!, giant-everything movies were the rave.


The film begins with two New Mexico State Police officers discovering a shocked young girl walking alone in the desert with a broken doll. They find other sites where carnage and destruction occurred, and strangely, sugar has apparently been the primary target. Since the structures appear to have been damaged from the inside out, and no money has been stolen, the local officials are baffled, so they bring in experts from the FBI, Department of Agriculture, and eventually, the U.S. military. One expert, a myrmecologist or ant expert, helps lead them to the culprits: a colony of gigantic ants that has been exposed to radiation and has exponentially increased in size. The military uses chemical weapons and kills what appears to be the entire colony, but shortly thereafter, odd reports throughout the American Southwest emerge, and it becomes clear the ants have escaped. A dramatic confrontation unfolds in the underground tunnels of Los Angeles’s water system.
The movie’s realism is ironically important. Set near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the film immediately raises legitimate questions about the natural environment surrounding the Trinity Site, located near White Sands Missile Range, the original test site for the first atomic bomb. The film is also shot in real, chronological time since at one point characters refer to the U.S. military’s use of the atomic bomb being nine years ago. In 1954 America, this made eerie sense.
Most of Them!’s characters work for city, state, or federal governments, which conveys the ubiquitous nature of government in 1950s America. In Them!, representatives from the FBI, Department of Agriculture, New Mexico State Police, Los Angeles City officials, Los Angeles police officers, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force play key roles in destroying the ants. While some tensions between some agency officials are revealed, most characters place blind faith in each other and their government’s ability to solve catastrophic problems. If one arm of the government does not succeed, then call in another. This attitude resonates throughout Them!. Ironically, it shows the hope governments offered their citizens and the incompetence and inertia found in all bureaucracies.
The film is full of Biblical allusions and does an excellent job in equating the dawning Nuclear Age to a Judeo-Christian apocalypse. The film opens with a still shot of a Joshua tree and a young girl walking alone in the desert. Upon finding the ants, Dr. Harold Medford, the myrmecologist, prophetically proclaims, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true and there shall be destruction and darkness that come of the creation and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” Later, it is no coincidence that the ants are destroyed in the City of Angels.
The film also masterfully uses many horror movie staples that have become conventions today. Them! wastes no time in establishing a brisk pace. Within minutes, we are fully entrapped in a rapidly unfolding mystery turned monster film. The ants’ eerie calls to each other still echo in many fans’ ears today. Like so many horror films since including Jaws, Halloween, and Jurassic Park, sounds, not visual images, foreshadow the monster’s arrival, adding further tension and dramatic irony to the scene. Although not without mistakes, the film revolutionized the concept of reversing the scale of one’s size: make large objects small and small objects large and you have, almost instantly, a disorienting and horrific situation. The cinematography that unfolds in the ants’ underground burrows and the many skulls and skeletons, some human, that litter those burrows are claustrophobic and haunting. The footage in the underground tunnels of Los Angeles is reminiscent of The Third Man, but nevertheless effective in reminding us that we’re not that different than the monsters we loathe. Them! was one of the first films, and one of the best, to wrap these techniques into a unified, successful whole.
Them! never appears to take itself too seriously, which is perhaps its greatest trait. Subtle jokes are sprinkled throughout the film and provide appropriate counterpoints to the underlying tensions. Edmund Gwenn is wonderful as the equatorial, absent-minded professor of myrmecology, who constantly appears both brilliant and pathetically out of place. James Whitmore is equally effective as the stoic Police Sergeant leading the charge to save the world amidst such chaos and absurdity. Both actors launch their share of memorable barbs.
Them! should not be taken lightly. One of the landmark films of the 1950s,the film should appeal to fans of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Them! truly is, as its tagline suggests, “The Sci-Fi Classic of the Atomic Age”.
Chris Justice: http://classic-horror.com/reviews/them_1954
North by Northwest

A Film Review by James Berardinelli






United States, 1959
U.S. Release Date: 7/17/59
Running Length: 2:16
MPAA Classification: PG (Mild profanity, mild violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Martin Landau
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Cinemtography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
U.S. Distributor: MGM

Most movie-goers will concede that, during his Hollywood years, Alfred Hitchcock crafted four masterpieces: 1954's Rear Window, 1958's Vertigo, 1959's North by Northwest, and 1960's Psycho. What divides fans and critics about these movies is choosing which one deserves to be crowned the best. Although my sympathies lie with Rear Window, one can find as many boosters for each of the other titles. Setting aside Psycho, which is an altogether different kind of motion picture (the precursor to the '80s "slasher" genre), that leaves a trio of films that are as interesting for their similarities as for their differences.



North by Northwest was the final of these three to be made, and many consider it (at least from a plot standpoint) to be Hitchcock's most accomplished effort. The screenplay, written by Ernest Lehman, keeps the viewer guessing but also provides answers in a timely fashion. For example, when things start going wrong for the protagonist near the beginning, we aren't forced to wait until the closing scenes to uncover the plot against him. Enough clues are provided early that the intelligent viewer can deduce what's going on and move to the next mystery. Such intellectual participation, always a Hitchcock hallmark, is sadly lacking in most of today's so-called "thrillers."

Cary Grant plays the suave and cultured Roger Thornhill - a twice married, twice divorced Madison Avenue advertising genius who finds himself inexplicably caught in a web of intrigue when he is mistaken for an international spy. Suddenly, Thornhill's tidy life is turned upside down. He is kidnapped by the mysterious Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), nearly killed by a couple of thugs, arrested for drunk driving, and thrown into jail. Once he is released from police custody, he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. He is aided by the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who apparently has fallen for his undeniable charms - or has she? And that's when things are just starting to get complicated.

As is the case with many of Hitchcock's films, including Rear Window and Vertigo, the director sets up his hero as the only one who knows the truth. His story is so preposterous that no one else believes him without a great deal of convincing. As in Rear Window, the protagonist has a girlfriend who accepts his bizarre story unconditionally, but, like in Vertigo, she's not everything she initially seems to be. We, of course, sympathize with the hero immediately, because we know that he's sane and is the victim of a conspiracy - even though we don't understand what that conspiracy entails.

In his fourth and final outing for Hitchcock, Cary Grant portrays Thornhill with his usual devil-may-care charm and easy smile. It would be hard to dislike Thornhill if he was played by anyone else; it's impossible with Grant inhabiting his skin. While this may not be the greatest performance of the actor's career, he's a solid choice for the part. Curiously, this role was sought by James Stewart (who played the lead in both Rear Window and Vertigo, and would have been a good match here), but Hitchcock rejected him, claiming (at least publicly) that Stewart was too old for the part. The director then proceeded to hire Grant, who was four years older than Stewart, lending credence to the rumor that bad blood had developed between the director and the actor.

Although Thornhill's predicament in North by Northwest is not unlike that of L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window (both have vital information for the police, who won't believe them, so they place themselves in danger to gather evidence), the overall approach is significantly different. In the earlier film, all of the action took place within the confines of Jefferies' room. Even the events in the other apartment building are viewed through the window. In North by Northwest, Thornhill goes on a cross-country trek, beginning in New York and ending at Mount Rushmore, and traveling by plane, train, and automobile.

Another Hitchcockian element evident in North by Northwest is the idea of turning an "everyman" into a detective. This happens in Vertigo, when James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson seeks to uncover the connection between the apparently dead Madeleine Elster and the very much alive Judy Barton. In Rear Window, Jefferies becomes increasingly convinced that a murder has happened in the apartment building opposite his, and he must find a means of proving it. In Psycho, Lila Crane and Sam Loomis go looking for Lila's missing sister. Here, in North by Northwest, Thornhill must use clues and intuition to unravel the complicated plot that has put him on the run from the police with his life in danger.

The set designers were kept busy for North by Northwest. Most of the movie was filmed on soundstages rather than on location. There are exceptions - particularly the famous sequence in which Thornhill is forced to flee a cropdusting airplane that is trying to kill him. With only a cornfield and a few ditches as his refuge, Thornhill must repeatedly dodge the plane's low swipes, as the pilot opens fire while bringing his wheels almost in contact with the ground. Since there was no way this could convincingly be created inside, Hitchcock took the production outdoors.

The final chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore is an example of impressive and realistic design. While it's apparent that the scenes are not actually filmed on or around the famed monument (permission to do so was denied), the life-size replicas are good enough that it's not difficult to suspend disbelief. Likewise, the scenes inside the U.N. take place on a mock-up set that offers a strong sense of verisimilitude. The only place where the set-bound approach falters is during the car chase when a drunken Thornhill is being pursued by his would-be killers. This sequence (like many similar scenes in other movies) looks patently fake, especially by today's standards.

Of course, the hallmark of North by Northwest is the way in which Hitchcock develops tension. It only takes one introductory scene - the one with Thornhill and his secretary in a cab - for us to lend our sympathy to the hero. From that point, with a lone exception, we see things through his eyes. There is only one scene in which we are given information that the protagonist is not privy to - when the camera takes us into a government office to shed light on Thornhill's situation while adding deeper layers to the mystery. In fact, it's the complexity of Thornhill's trap and the seeming impossibility of getting out of it that builds suspense.

As far as leading ladies go, Eva Marie Saint is one of Hitchcock's least appealing choices. Not only is she about ten years older than the character she's playing, but even Grant's charm can't melt her icy exterior. Give me Grace Kelly or Kim Novak any day. (One suspects that Hitchcock would have used Kelly had she been available; unfortunately, her role as the Princess of Monaco precluded her from appearing.) James Mason, the consummate professional, plays Phillip Vandamm perfectly: cultured and calm, with just a subtle hint of menace. Jessie Royce Landis is Thornhill's mother - even though the actress is actually a year younger than Grant. And a young Martin Landau, in one of his first films, has a supporting part as Vandamm's chief assassin.

Of Hitchcock's three great thrillers, North by Northwest has the most playful tone, due in large part to Grant's participation. Vertigo and Rear Window, both with Stewart, are darker movies that invite the possibility that the hero may be losing his mind. From beginning to end, we're sure of Thornhill's sanity. And, although there are a few genuinely amusing moments in Rear Window, Hitchcock introduces strong comedic elements into this film. The result doesn't diffuse the tension, but offers an occasional break from it. For a '50s film, North by Northwest is also surprisingly forthright when it comes to sexual matters. There aren't many euphemisms or double entendres in the interaction between Thornhill and Eve.

When it comes to the meaning of the title, there are numerous theories. One cites a quote from "Hamlet." Another notes that the airline flown by Thornhill is "Northwest." There's no conclusive answer, and no reason for there to be one. The words North by Northwest are evocative enough that they doesn't need an explanation, and, once anyone has become wrapped up in the film's blend of suspense, romance, and mild comedy, such questions become irrelevant.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

Some Like It Hot

Release Date: 1959

Roger Ebert / Jan 9, 2000

What a work of art and nature is Marilyn Monroe. She hasn't aged into an icon, some citizen of the past, but still seems to be inventing herself as we watch her. She has the gift of appearing to hit on her lines of dialogue by happy inspiration, and there are passages in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" where she and Tony Curtis exchange one-liners like hot potatoes. Poured into a dress that offers her breasts like jolly treats for needy boys, she seems totally oblivious to sex while at the same time melting men into helpless desire. "Look at that!" Jack Lemmon tells Curtis as he watches her adoringly. "Look how she moves. Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it's a whole different sex."

Wilder's 1959 comedy is one of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft, a movie that's about nothing but sex and yet pretends it's about crime and greed. It is underwired with Wilder's cheerful cynicism, so that no time is lost to soppiness and everyone behaves according to basic Darwinian drives. When sincere emotion strikes these characters, it blindsides them: Curtis thinks he wants only sex, Monroe thinks she wants only money, and they are as astonished as delighted to find they want only each other.

The plot is classic screwball. Curtis and Lemmon play Chicago musicians who disguise themselves as women to avoid being rubbed out after they witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. They join an all-girl orchestra on its way to Florida. Monroe is the singer, who dreams of marrying a millionaire but despairs, "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." Curtis lusts for Monroe and disguises himself as a millionaire to win her. Monroe lusts after money and gives him lessons in love. Their relationship is flipped and mirrored in low comedy as Lemmon gets engaged to a real millionaire, played by Joe E. Brown. "You're not a girl!" Curtis protests to Lemmon. "You're a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" Lemmon: "Security!"

The movie has been compared to Marx Brothers classics, especially in the slapstick chases as gangsters pursue the heroes through hotel corridors. The weak points in many Marx Brothers films are the musical interludes--not Harpo's solos, but the romantic duets involving insipid supporting characters. "Some Like It Hot" has no problems with its musical numbers because the singer is Monroe, who didn't have a great singing voice but was as good as Frank Sinatra at selling the lyrics.

Consider her solo of "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The situation is as basic as it can be: a pretty girl standing in front of an orchestra and singing a song. Monroe and Wilder turn it into one of the most mesmerizing and blatantly sexual scenes in the movies. She wears that clinging, see-through dress, gauze covering the upper slopes of her breasts, the neckline scooping to a censor's eyebrow north of trouble. Wilder places her in the center of a round spotlight that does not simply illuminate her from the waist up, as an ordinary spotlight would, but toys with her like a surrogate neckline, dipping and clinging as Monroe moves her body higher and lower in the light with teasing precision. It is a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous. All the time she seems unaware of the effect, singing the song innocently, as if she thinks it's the literal truth. To experience that scene is to understand why no other actor, male or female, has more sexual chemistry with the camera than Monroe.

Capturing the chemistry was not all that simple. Legends surround "Some Like It Hot." Kissing Marilyn, Curtis famously said, was like kissing Hitler. Monroe had so much trouble saying one line ("Where's the bourbon?") while looking in a dresser drawer that Wilder had the line pasted inside the drawer. Then she opened the wrong drawer. So he had it pasted inside every drawer.

Monroe's eccentricities and neuroses on sets became notorious, but studios put up with her long after any other actress would have been blackballed because what they got back on the screen was magical. Watch the final take of "Where's the bourbon?" and Monroe seems utterly spontaneous. And watch the famous scene aboard the yacht, where Curtis complains that no woman can arouse him, and Marilyn does her best. She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.

The movie is really the story of the Lemmon and Curtis characters, and it's got a top-shelf supporting cast (Joe E. Brown, George Raft, Pat O'Brien), but Monroe steals it, as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of the will to watch anyone else while she is on the screen. Tony Curtis' performance is all the more admirable because we know how many takes she needed--Curtis must have felt at times like he was in a pro-am tournament. Yet he stays fresh and alive in sparkling dialogue scenes like their first meeting on the beach, where he introduces himself as the Shell Oil heir and wickedly parodies Cary Grant. Watch his timing in the yacht seduction scene, and the way his character plays with her naivete. "Water polo? Isn't that terribly dangerous?" asks Monroe. Curtis: "I'll say! I had two ponies drown under me."

Watch, too, for Wilder's knack of hiding bold sexual symbolism in plain view. When Monroe first kisses Curtis while they're both horizontal on the couch, notice how his patent-leather shoe rises phallically in the mid-distance behind her. Does Wilder intend this effect? Undoubtedly, because a little later, after the frigid millionaire confesses he has been cured, he says, "I've got a funny sensation in my toes--like someone was barbecuing them over a slow flame." Monroe's reply: "Let's throw another log on the fire."

Jack Lemmon gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in the parallel relationship. The screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is Shakespearean in the way it cuts between high and low comedy, between the heroes and the clowns. The Curtis character is able to complete his round trip through gender, but Lemmon gets stuck halfway, so that Curtis connects with Monroe in the upstairs love story while Lemmon is downstairs in the screwball department with Joe E. Brown. Their romance is frankly cynical: Brown's character gets married and divorced the way other men date, and Lemmon plans to marry him for the alimony.

But they both have so much fun in their courtship! While Curtis and Monroe are on Brown's yacht, Lemmon and Brown are dancing with such perfect timing that a rose in Lemmon's teeth ends up in Brown's. Lemmon has a hilarious scene the morning after his big date, laying on his bed, still in drag, playing with castanets as he announces his engagement. (Curtis: "What are you going to do on your honeymoon?" Lemmon: "He wants to go to the Riviera, but I kinda lean toward Niagara Falls.") Both Curtis and Lemmon are practicing cruel deceptions--Curtis has Monroe thinking she's met a millionaire, and Brown thinks Lemmon is a woman--but the film dances free before anyone gets hurt. Both Monroe and Brown learn the truth and don't care, and after Lemmon reveals he's a man, Brown delivers the best curtain line in the movies. If you've seen the movie, you know what it is, and if you haven't, you deserve to hear it for the first time from him.



La Strada

Release Date: 1994

Ebert Rating: ***½    

By Roger Ebert Apr 1, 1994

Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954) tells a fable that is simple by his later standards, but contains many of the obsessive visual trademarks that he would return to again and again: the circus, and parades, and a figure suspended between earth and sky, and one woman who is a waif and another who is a carnal monster, and of course the seashore. Like a painter with a few favorite themes, Fellini would rework these images until the end of his life.

The movie is the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful autobiographical extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work - to see the rest of his career as a long slide into self-indulgence. I don't see it that way. I think "La Strada" is part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) and "Amarcord" (1974), and to the bewitching films he made in between, like "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "Fellini's Roma" (1972).

"La Strada" is the first film that can be called entirely "Felliniesque." It is being re-released, in a restored print presented by Martin Scorsese, at a poignant moment: Fellini received an honorary Oscar at the 1993 Academy Awards, with his wife Giulietta Masina applauding tearfully in the front row. Since then, both have died.

The story is one of the most familiar in cinema. A brutish strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) tours Italy, living in a ramshackle caravan pulled by a motorcycle. He needs an assistant for his act, and from a poor widow at the seaside he purchases her slow-witted daughter Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). He is cruel to the young woman, but she has a Chaplinesque innocence that somehow shields her from the worst of life, and she is proud of his accomplishments, such as learning to play his signature tune on a trumpet.

In a provincial town, Gelsomina is struck breathless by the Fool, a high-wire artist who works high above the city street.

Zampano signs up with an itinerant circus, where the Fool (Richard Basehart) is employed. He mocks Zampano, who attacks him in a rage, and is jailed. The Fool is attracted to Gelsomina, but sees that she has formed a strong bond with the strongman, and leaves so they can be together. But Zampano's jealousy and rage return; he kills the Fool; Gelsomina goes mad, and all is in place for one of Fellini's favorite endings, in which a defeated man turns to the sea, which has no answers.

Seeing the film again after several years, I found myself struck first of all by new ideas about the Fool. The film intends us to take him as a free and cheerful spirit (the embodiment of Mind, Pauline Kael tells us, with Zampano as Body and Gelsomina as Soul).

But he has a mean, sarcastic streak I had not really registered before, and his taunting of the dim Zampano is sadistic. To some degree he is responsible for his own end.

Masina's character is perfectly suited to her round clown's face and wide, innocent eyes; in one way or another, in "Juliet of the Spirits," "Ginger and Fred" and most of her other films, she was always playing Gelsomina. Her performance is inspired by the silent clowns (I was reminded of Harry Langdon in "The Strong Man"), and is probably a shade too conscious and knowing to be consistent with Gelsomina's retardation. The character should never be aware of the effect she has, but we sometimes feel Gelsomina's innocence is calculated.

It is Quinn's performance that holds up best, because it is the simplest. Zampano is not much more intelligent than Gelsomina.

Life has made him a brute and an outcast, with one dumb trick (breaking a chain by expanding his chest muscles), and a memorized line of patter that was perhaps supplied to him by a circus owner years before. His tragedy is that he loves Gelsomina and does not know it, and that is the central tragedy for many of Fellini's characters: They are always turning away from the warmth and safety of those who understand them, to seek restlessly in the barren world.

In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. ("La Dolce Vita" opens with a statue of Jesus suspended from a helicopter; Marcello Mastroianni opens "8 1/2" floating in the sky, tethered to earth.) They are torn between the carnal and the spiritual. You will also find the waifs and virgins and good wives, contrasted with prostitutes and temptresses (Fellini in his childhood encountered a vast, buxom woman who lived in a shack at the beach, and made her a character again and again). You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left. (Fellini's very last film seen in this country, 1987's "Intervista," ends with such an image.) And you will hear it all tied together with the music of Nino Rota, who, starting with "I Vitelloni" in 1953, faithfully composed for Fellini some of the most distinctive film scores ever written, merging circus music and pop songs with the sadly lyrical sounds of accordions and saxophones and lonely trumpets (the tune ending in a rude trumpet squawk, which Zampano teaches to Gelsomina, is mirrored in the nightclub scene in "La Dolce Vita").

When Fellini died, the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote an appreciation in The New Republic that ended with the words: "During his lifetime, many fine filmmakers blessed us with their art, but he was the only one who made us feel that each of his films, whatever its merits, was a present from a friend." In the words of a film about him, "Ciao, Federico."


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