Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

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“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

 

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

As far as I know, Guy Hamilton is the only director who has helmed two movie adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. The 1982 movie, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” was the second adaptation. The first was his 1980 adaptation of Christie’s 1962 novel, “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side”.

A big Hollywood production has arrived at St. Mary’s Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple, to film a costume movie about Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England, starring two Hollywood stars – Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster. The two actresses are rivals who despise each other. Marina and her husband, director Jason Rudd, have taken residence at Gossington Hall, where Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly used to live. Due to Colonel Bantry’s death, Mrs. Bantry – who is one of Miss Marple’s closest friends – has moved to a smaller home.

Excitement runs high in the village as the locals have been invited to a reception held by the movie company in a manor house, Gossington Hall, to meet the celebrities. Lola and Marina come face to face at the reception and exchange some potent and comical insults, nasty one-liners, as they smile and pose for the cameras. The two square off in a series of clever cat-fights throughout the movie.

Marina, however, has been receiving anonymous death threats. After her initial exchange with Lola at the reception, she is cornered by a gushing, devoted fan, Heather Badcock (played by Maureen Bennett), who bores her with a long and detailed story about having actually met Marina in person during World War II. After recounting the meeting they had all those years ago, when she arose from her sickbed to go and meet the glamorous star, Babcock drinks a cocktail that was made for Marina and quickly dies from poisoning. It is up to Miss Marple and her nephew, Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock of Scotland Yard to discover the killer.

I surprised to learn that Guy Hamilton was the director of “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. This movie was the first of two times in which he directed an Agatha Christie adaptation that placed murder in the world of show business. Frankly? I am beginning to suspect that he was more suited for this particular genre that he was for the James Bond franchise. Like the 1982 film, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”, I enjoyed it very much. I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1962 novel. I understand that the origin of its plot came from Hollywood history, which gives it a touch of pathos. Along with the quaint portrayal of English village life and the delicious bitch fest that surrounded the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster, I believe that Hamilton and screenwriters Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler in exploring that pathos in the end. There is one aspect of Christie’s story that the screenwriters left out – namely the connection between Marina and the photographer Margot Bence. Honestly, I do not mind. I never cared for it in the first place. I found this connection between Marina and Ms. Bence a little too coincidental for my tastes.

I did not mind the little touches of English village life featured in “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. Although I must admit that I found them occasionally boring. Only when the citizens of St. Mary’s Mead interacted with the Hollywood visitors did I find them interesting. On the other hand, the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster was a joy to watch. And I feel that Hamilton and the two screenwriters handled it a lot better than Christie’s novel or the 1992 television movie. And to be honest, I have to give Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak most of the credit for the venomous and hilarious manner in which their characters’ rivalry played out on screen.

The behind-the-scene productions for “THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly seemed top-notch. Christopher Challis’ photography struck me as colorful and beautiful. However, there were moments when he seemed to indulge in that old habit of hazy photography to indicate a period film. Only a few moments. Production designer Michael Stringer did a solid job of re-creating the English countryside circa early-to-mid 1950s. His work was ably supported by John Roberts’ art direction and Peter Howitt’s set decorations. Phyllis Dalton did a very good job of re-creating the fashions of the movie’s 1950s setting. I especially enjoyed the costumes she created for the fête sequence. The only aspect of the production that seemed less than impressive was John Cameron’s score. Personally, I found it wishy-washy. His score for the St. Mary’s Mead setting struck me as simple and uninspiring. Then he went to another extreme for the scenes featuring the Hollywood characters – especially Marina Gregg – with a score that seemed to be a bad imitation of some of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly featured some first-rate performances. Angela Landsbury made a very effective Jane Marple. She not only seemed born to play such a role, there were times when her portrayal of the elderly sleuth seemed like a dress rehearsal for the Jessica Fletcher role she portrayed on television. Elizabeth Taylor gave an excellent performance as the temperamental Marina Gregg. She did a great job in portraying all aspects of what must have been a complex role. Rock Hudson was equally first-rate as Marina’s husband, the sardonic and world-weary director, Jason Rudd. He did a great job in conveying the character’s struggles to keep his temperamental wife happy and the impact these struggles had on him. Edward Fox was charming and very subtle as Miss Marple’s nephew, Scotland Yard Inspector Dermot Craddock. I especially enjoyed how his Craddock used a mild-mannered persona to get the suspects and others he interrogated to open up to him.

I was never impressed by Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the Lola Brewster character . . . or of two other actresses who portrayed the role. But Kim Novak was a knockout as the somewhat crude and highly sexual Hollywood starlet. Watching the comic timing and skill she injected into the role, made me suspect that Hollywood had underestimated not only her acting talent, but comedy skills. Tony Curtis certainly got a chance to display his comedic skills as the fast-talking and somewhat crude film producer, Martin Fenn. And I rather enjoyed Geraldine Chaplin’s sardonic portrayal on Ella Zielinsky, Jason Rudd’s caustic-tongued secretary, who seemed to be in love with him. The movie also featured solid performances from Charles Gray, Wendy Morgan, Margaret Courtenay and Maureen Bennett. And if you look carefully, you just might spot a young Pierce Brosnan portraying a cast member of Marina’s movie.

Overall, I enjoyed “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. I thought Guy Hamilton did an excellent job in creating a enjoyable murder mystery that effectively combined the vibrancy of Hollywood life and the quaintness of an English village. He was assisted by a first-rate crew, a witty script by Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler, and a very talented cast led by Angela Landsbury.

“GIANT” (1956) Review

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“GIANT” (1956) Review

I have always been partial to family sagas. This has been the case since I was in my mid teens. Whether the story manifested in a novel, a television series or miniseries, or even a movie; I would eagerly delve into that particular story if I found it interesting. 

One of those family sagas that caught my interest at a young age was “GIANT”, the 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel about a wealthy Texas family. However, “GIANT” used to be something of an enigma to me. I found it difficult to appreciate the movie’s last hour, which was set in the 1940s and 50s. And I also found myself confused over which leading man to cheer for – Rock Hudson’s Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. or James Dean’s Jett Rink. Both characters were portrayed ambiguously. And being a simple-minded teenager, I found this a little difficult to accept. I needed clear cut heroes and villains to understand this story. Because of the ambiguous portrayals of the leading male characters and the story’s shift into the post-World War II era, I avoided “GIANT” for years. But recently, curiosity and maturity drove me to watch the movie again.

Produced and directed by George Stevens, “GIANT” began with the wealthy Bick traveling to Maryland to purchase a horse from a local landowner. During his trip, Bick meets and woos the landowner’s older daughter, Leslie Lynnton. They marry and head back to Bick’s large ranch Reata in Texas, where Leslie is forced to adapt to the semi-arid climate and rough culture of the state’s western region. More importantly, both Leslie and Bick are forced to realize that beneath their sexual chemistry and love for each other, they are two people with different social ideals and cultural backgrounds who barely know one another. And they would have to learn to overcome their differences to become a long-lasting couple. One last obstacle to their union turned out to be Jett Rink, a ranch hand who works for Bick’s older sister, Luz. The ambitious Jett not only hopes to get rich, but also falls secretly in love with Leslie. His feelings for the Maryland woman produces an unspoken rivalry between Jett and Bink – a rivalry that spills into business, when Jett strikes oil on the land given to him by Luz Benedict.

After my latest viewing of “GIANT”, my opinion of the movie had changed. I was finally mature enough to understand the ambiguity of the two leading male characters. I also learned to appreciate the movie’s post-World War II period, thanks to the performances of the leads – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. But not only did I enjoy how “GIANT”gave a bird’s eye, though somewhat exaggerated view of Texas, I admired how director George Stevens and screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat explored the cultural tensions that manifested throughout the state during the early 20th century – especially tensions between the state’s Anglos and those of Mexican descent. “GIANT” also focused on class tensions through the antagonistic relationship between Bick and Rink. This was especially apparent in the movie’s exploration of Texas’ gradual shift from cattle ranching to oil production as its leading industry. And Leslie became a voice for gender equality when she expressed her displeasure at society’s patriarchal order to her husband and his male circle of friends. These tensions served as either character developments or stagnation for our main characters. “GIANT” also explored the gradual change of the state’s leading industry from ranching to oil production

Some of my favorite moments in “GIANT” featured these developments and barriers for the main characters. Jett Rink’s discovery of oil on his land and his confrontation with Bick Benedict proved to be one of those memorable moments and should have served as a development in his character. Aware of the contempt Bick has conveyed toward him, it was easy to wallow in his triumph when he finally confronted the rancher. But Jett’s open leer of Leslie Benedict undermined his moment of triumph and proved to be a sign that newly founded wealth would not improve his character. Leslie’s travails as a bride in Texas was never more apparent than in the barbecue sequence that ended for her in a dead faint. But one of my favorite Leslie moments proved to be the famous scene in which she challenged the status quo of women keeping silent during social gatherings at Reata. The tension between the characters in the scene – especially Leslie and Bick – was deliciously obvious. The first half of “GIANT” did an excellent job of conveying Bick’s arrogance and self-worth as a member of the Benedict family, especially in his scenes with Bick. But my favorite Bick moments proved to be the Christmas Eve 1941 sequence in which audiences become fully aware that he is aging and not as self-confident as he used to be; and the famous roadside diner scene in which he gets into a fistfight with the diner’s bigoted owner and lose.

George Stevens had been wise to film most of the film in Marfa, Texas. Located in the high desert of West Texas, Marfa provided the perfect look for the movie’s setting. Cinematographer William C. Mellor, who had worked with Stevens on a few other films, did a first-rate job in utilizing Marfa’s flat terrain in giving the film its wide and sprawling look – especially for the Reata Ranch setting. Mellor’s photography also served well in certain scenes; including Leslie and Bick’s arrival in Texas, Luz’s brutal ride astride the Maryland horse purchased by her brother, the funeral of a World War II combatant (which brought tears to my eyes, by the way), and Jett striking oil. “GIANT” also benefited from Boris Leven’s production designs and Ralph S. Hurst’s set decorations. The work of both men aptly conveyed the changes at Reata, due to Leslie’s influence and the passage of time. I wish I could say something profound about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. But the problem is that I have no real memory of it. The best I can say is that Tiomkin’s score blended perfectly what was shown on screen. I have only one complaint and that was Tiomkin and Stevens’ use of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” during the famous diner fight scene and near the end of the movie. I found this use of the song rather bombastic.

If I have one major complaint, it is Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Mind you, some of them were colorful to look at, especially those costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker and the movie’s other actresses. But yes, I had a problem with Best’s costumes. I feel they had failed to reflect the time period in which most of the movie was set – especially those scenes set between the 1920s and 1941. For example, the following images of Elizabeth Taylor are set in the early 1920s:

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And the following two images featured actresses Fran Benedict and Elsa Cárdenas in two sequences set in December 1941:

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The blue dress with white trimming worn by Taylor looked as if it could have been worn in the early-to-mid 1950s. I could say the same about the costumes worn by Benedict and Cárdenas. Whereas the outfit worn by Taylor during the “Arrival at Reata” sequence looked as if it had been designed in the early 1930s. No wonder I that for years, I thought “GIANT”began in the early 1930s. It took the realization that Leslie and Bick’s twin children – Jordy and Judy – were in their late teens in the 1941 sequence. Best earned an Academy Award nomination for her work. And while I cannot deny that her costumes looked very attractive and colorful, I feel they were historically inaccurate and perhaps that Oscar nomination was not fully deserved.

What can I say about the acting in “GIANT”? Three of the cast members – Rock Hudson, James Dean and Mercedes McCambridge – earned Academy Award nominations. It seemed a pity that a few others failed to get one. Overall, the actors and actresses did a good job. Those who portrayed the movie’s Mexican-American characters did not fare well. Elsa Cárdenas gave a solid performance as Bick and Leslie’s daughter-in-law, Juanita Benedict. But Juana proved to be a slightly dull and ideal character with little depth. Actually, I could say the same about all of the Latino characters. I had expected Sal Mineo to be given an opportunity to display his acting skills as Angel Obregón II, a laborer’s son. Instead, Mineo barely spoke any lines and simply served as a symbol of young Latino manhood. Both Fran Benedict and Earl Holliman fared slightly better as Judy Benedict and her ranch hand husband, Bob Dave. Other than the pair’s desire to start a smaller ranch, the pair was able to overcome minimal characterizations to give solid performances. Only Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper were blessed with interesting characters as Jordy Benedict and younger sister Luz Benedict II. And both made the best of it. One of Baker’s finest moments occurred when Luz becomes silently aware that the man she loved – Jett Rink – was merely using her as some kind of substitution for her mother, whom he had remained in love. And Hopper did an excellent job of developing Jordy from a soft-spoken young man longing to reject his father’s overt patriarchal expectations in order to become a doctor, to the still soft-spoken young man with a hot temper and balls of steel.

Those characters who portrayed members of the older generation fared better. Jane Withers had a peach of a role in the character of Leslie’s best friend Vashti Snythe. Withers did an excellent job of conveying Vashti’s character from a very shy young woman to a bolder one, who became more adept at socializing with others. Chill Wills, whom I have never taken seriously as an actor before, gave a skillful and subtle performance as Bick’s uncle, Bawley Benedict. Mercedes McCambridge, on the other hand, was fantastic as Bick’s iron-willed sister, Luz Benedict. For the short period she was on screen, McCambridge nearly took my breath away in a performance that could have easily veered into caricature. I found myself wishing she had remained on the screen longer. At least she managed to earn an Oscar nomination.

James Dean also earned a nomination as the movie’s most enigmatic character, the laconic and very ambitious Jett Rink. I noticed that most critics have labeled Dean’s performance as the best in the movie. I doubt if I would agree. Mind you, he gave a superb performance, especially in the movie’s latter half as the older and corrupted Jett. But in the first half, he had this habit of keeping his hands busy, which deflected attention from his co-stars. And I found this annoying. Also, Stevens had a habit of posing him in these iconic shots that struck me as slightly artificial. The last actor to earn a nomination was Rock Hudson, who portrayed the family’s patriarch Jordan “Bick” Benedict. Although critics have been willing to compliment his performance, they tend to prefer his comedic roles. They are entitled to their opinion, but I truly believe that Hudson gave one of his best performances of his career in “GIANT”. Although I admired his portrayal of the ambiguous Bick, whose likability was marred by his bigotry; I found myself blown away by his portrayal of the middle-aged Bick. There were times when I forgot that he had been 29-30 years old at the time. Elizabeth Taylor was the only one of the three leads who did not receive an Academy nomination. Some have expressed no conflict with this oversight. I cannot agree with them. I feel she deserved a nomination just as much as her two male co-stars. Her Leslie Benedict proved to be the heart and soul of “GIANT”. And Taylor did such a superb job of maintaining this sprawling movie on her 23-24 year-old shoulders. She also skillfully conveyed Leslie’s journey from a “fish-out-of-water”, to a strong matriarch who proved to have a great influence not only on her family, but also her new community.

Looking back, I realized that I had been too young to appreciate “GIANT”, when I first saw it. The movie proved to be a lot better than I first believed. Although it was not perfect – what movie is – I now realize that George Stevens did a phenomenon job of translating Edna Ferber’s novel into this 201 minutes epic. And the amazing thing is that I was not bored one bit. The movie maintained my interest from start to finish, unlike the 1939 movie “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which bored me senseless during its last hour. And I cannot believe that this movie, along with a few others, lost the Best Picture prize to the likes of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.