Sunday, September 9

Random Cinematic Year in Review - 1956

A Random Cinematic Year In Review

Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.


March 12, 1956, 19 U.S. Senators and 80 U.S. Representatives from Southern states signed a document called the Declaration of Constitutional Principals. It would be more commonly known as the “Southern Manifesto”. It was drafted as a legal opposition and act of protest the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs The Board of Education that made forced racial segregation of schools illegal. This was the original racist ‘dog whistle’. It promoted racist ideals in practice, but defended them in a legal scholarly manner, attesting the SCOTUS decision had overreached and violated states’ rights to self-govern rather than the outdated and easily debunked myth of white supremacy. It was the 1950’s version of ‘all lives matter.’

Make no mistake, these congressmen were all white supremacists. They had spent their time in government supporting all types of Jim Crow laws. They were just smart enough to understand that they needed to begin framing their argument in a way that may be more palatable to white northerners that integrated their public schools years before Brown vs Education. The Declaration claimed that this decision:

“…is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”

“States’ rights” became one of the long standing strategic banners that conservatives would use for decades to attempt to exploit the racial divide and disenfranchise the African American population. 25 years later in an anonymous interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater would admit:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, "N***er, n***er, n***er." By 1968, you can't say "n***er" -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded ,that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying. "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N***er, n***er.""

This fight would continue in congress and in the court of public opinion for the coming decades with varying levels of success. But to its credit, the Supreme Court never overturned its decision on Brown. As I'm writing this, I am switching back and forth between the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh and Eminem's new album, "Kamikaze". This may be putting me in a slightly odd headspace. I might be feeling a bit extra salty right now. But I wanted to take this as an oppurtunity to highlight the massive importance of the people that sit in lifetime appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is an extremely conservative pick that would like nothing more than to turn back the progress that this country has made over the past five decades. His past is being hidden from he public as well as those we send to vet him and his refusal to give any substantive answers adds even more shrouds of secrecy. These are indeed troubling times. 


THE BAD SEED (Directed by Mervyn Leroy)

This one goes a lot darker than what you should be expecting from 1956. I was expecting something more in the creepy vein of Wolf Rilla’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (’60). What you get instead explores themes that are both psychologically stressful and macabre. The development of the keeps everything grounded in reality; which serves to make the evil child element so much more disturbing than what you would typically get from a straight sci-fi or horror film. 

THE WRONG MAN / THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

I don’t think either of this two deserve to be in the lexicon as Hitchcock’s great masterpieces. But, they’re really good and he was able to release them both in the same year. THE WRONG MAN is a paranoid exploration of Hitchcock’s own phobia of police officers. It also makes you wish that he had worked with Henry Fonda more than just once.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is a remake of Hitch’s own British film with Peter Lorre from 1934. In all honesty, I actually prefer the original. That being said, this one is one of the many from his best collaborator, Jimmy Stewart. This is no less paranoid than any of his other films and it contains some great set pieces. What’s sets this one apart from other works that focus on this type of fear is that our subjects are never allowed to show the hysteria that they are feeling. This is a great twist on Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table”. In this case, our two protagonists must maintain the appearance of the two casual diners with full knowledge of the ticking bomb.

GIANT (Directed by George Stevens)

I think of this more of a performance piece than anything else. It’s an epic story that is told through the faces of Rock Hudson, James Dean and the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. It’s unfortunate that this is remember primarily because it is one of only three feature roles for James Dean who died before this film was even released. I only say this because it tends to overshadow the work that Taylor was doing here. She was a larger-than-life personality and this role never even attempts to hold her back. And this type of character, even among Hollywood’s most popular leading women, was a rarity in this decade.

THE THICK-WALLED ROOM (Directed by Masaki Kobayashi)

I would implore people to watch more films that take place during and around WW2 from different countries. As Americans, we are given a very narrow view of this period of history. This film takes place in the immediate aftermath, in a prison run by the American occupiers for Japanese soldiers accused of war crimes. Kobayashi takes to task both the prosecutors of the said crimes as well as the Japanese government that seemed all too comfortable with allowing the rank-and-file soldiers to take the blame for their atrocities. As a result, this film was considered too controversial for consumption and it was shelved for four years before it could be released. 

BABY DOLL (Directed by Elia Kazan)

Sassy Tennessee Williams dialogue pours over as much sexual tension that a Mississippi cotton gin can take. The constant bickering between Karl Malden and Carol Baker as the titular character will likely grate upon your soul. Luckily, Eli Wallach is doing brilliant work here. His performance is perfect. The first time I watched this, I really thought that it was the only thing that this film had going for it. I found all the other characters to be annoying. Upon revisiting, I still think they’re annoying, but not unsympathetically. I must be getting more forgiving as I get older. 

EARLY SPRING (Directed by Yasujirō Ozu)

Ozu films have a very specific poetry to them. His overarching themes are often dictated in how he lingers. Establishing shots are a little longer. And where other filmmakers would cut seconds after the subject’s dialogue is over and they leave the set, Ozu stays just a bit longer, just watching the backdrop tell pieces of its own completely unrelated stories. These things beautifully undercut the significance of the various melodramatic plot lines he focuses on. Just in case the characters had any delusions of grandeur. In one scene near the beginning, two office employees are watching the mass of employees file into work in the morning. One marvels, “340,000 office workers…” To which the other replies, “So, I’m only 1/340,000th…”

A MAN ESCAPED (Directed By Robert Bresson)

Last month, we took a look at Bresson’s swan song, L’ARGENT (’83). This is from much earlier in his amazing forty-year long career. Although, he has never been my favorite of the French New Wave directors, Bresson probably exemplifies the style of the movement better than any other auteur. This is thrilling procedural showcasing the minimalist elegance that fans of foreign classic cinema would study for years.

THE KILLING (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

In 1956, the cinematic world didn’t yet know what the name Kubrick would mean to it. This is his first great film and the more familiar you are with the rest of his filmography, the better it is. It serves as a precursor of much greater masterpieces and gives us more than a glimpse of the master craftsman at work. I love the ensemble cast lead by Sterling Hayden’s antihero ‘one last job’ character. I love the dolly tracking shots that this piece is riddled with. And I even love the hard-boiled narration that segues between its scenes. If you are just starting your journey into cenefilia, this is a great way to start studying Kubrick.  


The Second Red Scare fueled by years of McCarthyism was finally beginning to wind down in 1956. Public sentiment had already largely turned against these witch hunts and the mid-1950’s saw several U.S. Supreme Court decisions that would essentially put the nail in the coffin of the blacklisting. Senator McCarthy would be dead the following year.

This little horror flick served as the perfect metaphor for the fear felt during the height of the investigations. To some, the pod people, indistinguishable from your closest friends and neighbors, represented a subversive faction that was attempting to undermine traditional American values… But to others, like those who were blacklisted, the threat represented their industry colleagues like studio heads, Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner or directors like the previously mentioned Elia Kazan and actors like Robert Taylor or even the president of the Screen Actors Guild, self-described liberal Democrat, Ronald Reagan. These were their contemporaries, coworkers and fellow artists who, only a few years prior had blazed the trail against convention to create the American film industry. Now, be it out of self-preservation or genuine political conviction, they named names behind closed doors and in open Senate hearings, depriving many of their ability to make a living. “Body Snatchers” works even without this level of metatextuality but I will always maintain that art is created through the societal lens and historical context will serve to inform and elevate pieces like this one.

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