Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

“It’s a bum’s world for a bum”: Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

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Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.

The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.

No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.

Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.

And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.

The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.

Irresistibly endearing: Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)

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Is it a waste of time to critique the gender politics of old films? Haven’t things changed since then? Or is it too easy to simply presume that contemporary films are always less offensive? The issues in Marty are still common today, and besides, this film does deserve credit for the ways in which it is actually quite progressive.

The regrettable fact about onscreen stories that involve a character learning to love someone regardless of what they look like is that that the ‘ugly’ person is usually a man. Beyond that, ‘ugly’ women who are significant characters, especially those who get to be in a relationship at some point, are often played by conventionally beautiful actors who should have everything going for them, looks-wise, in our culture. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to see these women as unattractive simply because other characters keep saying they are, or because they’ve been styled in a less flattering way. Meanwhile, there’s a far greater variety in how male actors are allowed to look, even those who get major roles.

Marty blatantly shows these double standards in its casting of the good-hearted but ever-overlooked Marty and Clara with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. I have no wish to say anything unkind about Borgnine’s looks (and if you do, I will cut you), but he wasn’t a matinee idol. Meanwhile, Clara is supposed to be just as ‘ugly’ in the world of this film, but this is entirely a matter of styling and not at all convincing. As the Hollywood Homely entry on TV Tropes points out, Blair had been a model and was once married to Gene Kelly, and yet in this film her character is constantly referred to as a ‘dog.’

Apart from all that (oh, and a decidedly unendearing moment when Marty throws a tantrum because Clara doesn’t let him kiss her), Marty has some interesting things to say about women. It strongly advocates that they should live their lives for themselves, not just for their family. It does this by showing the sad circumstances of two elderly women who devoted themselves to husbands they outlived and to children who are now too old to need their mothers as much as their mothers need them. This film recognises that being a devoted wife and mother is not necessarily rewarding.

Clara may want a loving husband, but she also has a job that means something to her. Even if things don’t work out with Marty, he’s encouraged her to do what she wants with her life, not what she’s supposed to. A few years earlier, Margo Channing in All About Eve famously expressed the prevailing beliefs of the time when she spoke about a woman’s true career being marriage. It’s notable that Marty suggests something different.

Lastly, here’s a few reasons to watch Marty. It may be sentimental, but writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also penned Network and The Hospital gives it an edge. Borgnine puts in a lovely performance. And the best thing about Marty is surprising, given that it’s adapted from a play: it has a great sense of place. With many scenes filmed on the streets of New York, or on real-seeming sets, this film feels like it’s happening in a community. You get shown what these people do with their weekends, how they get around, and the places they go if they want to find each other. Marty is an interesting look back at life in New York in the fifties, and although it’s dialogue heavy, it certainly doesn’t feel stagebound.