1950s

The Wages of Suspense

I had no idea what 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was about before I watched it, and my utter sense of not knowing what the hell was going on grew even deeper when the first scenes showed a group of polyglot expat Europeans in a dusty Latin American village (most sources say South American, but I’ll admit it seemed much more Central American to me). The village, like the men themselves is a dead-end thing, a place for losers with nowhere left to go.

The plot is as thin as paper: two teams need to drive a pair of trucks filled with nitroglycerine–that explodes if it takes any shock–over 600km of rough mountain roads for an enormous payday. That’s it.

So why is it a classic and a critical darling? Because within that paper-thin structure, live two solid hours of suspense and character-building (which, considering the film’s denouement, verges on the nihilistic). There’s not a lot to tell. Even if I summarized the film without missing any of the important events therein, you won’t be able to get the sense that it transmits to audience. One critic said, in his day, that he had the feeling the entire theater was about to explode.

My wife likened the sensation to that of The Big Carnival, in that the story itself is both extremely simple and also secondary to the message the director wished to convey. And the thread used to connect the dots in each is the audience’s concern for the plight of certain cast members who are in mortal danger.

And as a comment on the weirdness of the film, Yves Montand, the older driver from Grand Prix also, interestingly, plays one of the drivers in this one. Fun stuff.

It’s not a film I’d watch a dozen times, but it’s definitely one that is worth watching once for the brilliant management of the tension within. If you can, get a copy and enjoy it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a sexy and modern take on the international thriller. You can check it out here.

The Bigamist was a Great Film… Except for the Title

I suppose the fact that the title spoils one of the ‘Aha!’ moments of the 1953 film The Bigamist, should bother me less than it does. But even though this reveal comes early in the film, audiences already knew it was coming… and it would have been a wonderful moment.

I suspect that this bad decision was caused by either the marketing folk sacrificing a delightful moment for a lot of box-office prurient interest (the film was on shaky financial footing pre-release) or the director wanting to stop the shock of the reveal from becoming the most important part of the film so audiences could focus on the human interest story behind it. Whatever the reason, it led to my main disappointment with this one. I would have loved to be shocked by the discovery that the main character was a bigamist instead of knowing exactly why he was worried in the first scene before it was revealed.

The other disappointment was knowing it would end badly. The Hays Code (which we hate) meant there could be no unambiguous (miraculous, seeing the mess this dude was in) happy ending allowing people to leave theaters uplifted. I don’t mind unhappy endings, but I prefer not to know it’s coming from the off. When that happens, it weighs on me all the way through the movie, the dread of bad news to come.

And the prophecy comes to pass, even if the ending isn’t as awful as some of the crime movies where everyone ends up dead.

Joan Fontaine is utterly charming in this one–an actress in her mid-thirties who was much more attractive than she herself was in her twenties, unusual as that may sound.

Anyway, you already know what the guy’s crime is, and you know it won’t end all that well… but watch it anyway. It’s a good psychological study which goes right to the heart of human emotion and is just as relevant today (perhaps more in our alienated world) as it was in 1953.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own look at human emotion is a book entitled Love and Death, a novel told in short story form following a cast of characters whose lives, unknowingly intertwined, form a single coherent narrative. I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending, but you can check it out here.

You’ll be Singin’ in the Rain, too

Few films, even on the 1001 movies list, contain any scene as universally known–and universally beloved–as the scene in which Gene Kelly sings and dances the title song from Singin’ in the Rain. This scene is deservedly iconic, utterly wonderful and the highlight of the film.

We’ve all seen this scene dozens, possibly hundreds of times. What we sometimes forget is that there’s a movie around this scene, and that movie is unfamiliar to many. In fact, I’d say modern audiences likely have no clue what it’s about. I know I didn’t, despite having caught that scene on TV as a kid several times–I presume I must have been watching the movie at the time.

In short, Singin’ in the Rain is a film about making movies at the very end of the silent era, and it’s one of those that makes you happy to be alive. Not quite as awesome as On the Town, which will likely remain my favorite Kelly musical forever, but it is close. And that iconic song makes might push it over the top for many, many people.

In this segment of the 1001 movies list, I constantly find it amazing how different genres went down completely different paths to try to cater to precisely the same movie-going audience. While crime went to bleak, no-hope, everyone-dies scenarios, musicals expressed the hope of the atomic age in glorious technicolor (I wonder if we’re allowed to use any adjective other than “glorious” to describe technicolor. I may need to ask the blogger’s legal department). I think that’s part of the reason the musicals of the era are so well-loved. The contrast was tremendous.

Other than to recommend tracking down a copy (or finding out when it will be on TV) and watching this one, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. This one deserves its place in the firmament.

Also, a shout-out to Rita Moreno, one of the actresses in the film who is alive today. How cool must it be to be able to say: “I danced in Singin’ in the Rain?”

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a creature feature with brains, entitled Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.

Angel Face Would Have Been Treated Much Differently Today

Angel Face, for those who haven’t seen it (a group that included me until last week) is a clear descendent of the noir films of the classic era. Jean Simmons plays a classic femme fatale in the most literal sense of the word, and Robert Mitchum’s character is ripe for falling into her web.

It’s another of those unflinching noirs from the fifties–entertaining but without the possibility of redemption that tipified the true greats in the genre.

But the fact that noir had completely lost its way in the fifties is, in this particular case, not the point. What jumped out at me from this movie is that it would never be made with the same focus today.

The plot is driven by an obsession–the femme fatale, in this case, is compulsively in love with the guy, and this drive eventually, as in all fifties noir, ends badly.

So far, so good, but I got to thinking: would this film ever be made today?

And the answer appears to be “no way”. In fact, if this one was filmed in 2020, it would either be a horror film in which we focus closely on the disturbed, deranged character of Simmons’ character, moving through the evolution of her obsession while she wreaks tragic havoc on those around her. A psychological thriller could work, too, but a harsh one.

The other possible take would be to look at the woman as a victim. Undiagnosed mental illness leading to awful, tear-jerking events and, eventually, to her doom. All very touching and sad.

In a nutshell, this is why we’re still watching movies from the 1950s. It’s much more fun to watch the femme fatale doing her thing for no reason except that that is what femmes fatale do. And the plot built around that is much better than what would transpire viewed through a “modern” lens.

In fact, this overly indulgent attitude towards people who create serious problems is probably the reason Hollywood has moved to the science fiction blockbuster: having caricatured bad guys is much more entertaining than a politically correct view of mad criminals. People want to be entertained, so anything that doesn’t preach at them is appreciated.

And that makes Angel Face, a film made in 1952, refreshing.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Outside gives a nice mad bad guy to go with a well-thought-out science fiction setting. If you enjoy Loki in the MCU, you should love Graham. You can check the book out here.