The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.
Today, November 2, 2013, is the centennial of Burt Lancaster’s birth. When I was growing up, Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He was capable of making highly entertaining genre pieces, but was also considered a serious actor with Oscar nominations in his resume and one Oscar for Best Actor (ELMER GANTRY). He had his own production company and gave boosts to the careers of certain directors he’d worked with (e.g. Robert Aldrich, John Frankenheimer) and he’d also directed on his own (THE KENTUCKIAN). He co-starred in five films with Kirk Douglas and, indeed, the first film I saw Lancaster in was his fourth co-starring turn with Douglas, John Frankenheimer’s political thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. Lancaster was an imposing presence who played larger-than-life roles—his Wyatt Earp in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is a mythical presence on a par with the heroes of ancient Greek tales—and had an athletic background that informed even his non-action roles. As he got older in the 1970s and 1980s, he turned to less showy, more character-oriented roles, with more than a touch of introspection and weariness, such as his grizzled army scout, McIntosh, in Aldrich’s cavalry western, ULZANA’S RAID (1972), and the Mexican-American sheriff, Valdez, who embarks on a quest for justice against a powerful rancher in VALDEZ IS COMING (1972), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. I was lucky to see a lot of Lancaster movies on the big screen when I was growing up and then a lot of his older movies on television. He’s always been one of my favorite movie stars (second only to Robert Mitchum) and I’d like to recall some of my favorite movies of his.
45 years ago this month, I went to see the fifth James Bond movie, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), when it finally came to the Fairmount, one of my neighborhood theaters. It was a single feature, very unusual for this theater, but interest was so high they didn’t have to book a second film (although other theaters in the neighborhood ran it with second features). They’d even raised the prices for this showing so I wound up paying kids’ price even though I was 14 (I was short enough for my age to get away with it) and sat with my 12-year-old sister Claire in the children’s section, presided over by a matron in a white dress and white gloves and wielding a flashlight. This film marked the first time American audiences got to see ninja action in a mainstream studio film. We’d never even heard of ninjas before this film. It was also the first time most kids got to see people fight with samurai swords in an action scene in a big-budget feature film. When the climactic assault by Bond and the ninjas on SPECTRE’s volcano rocket base began, the crowd in the theater went completely nuts. We’d never seen anything like this before and kids were roaring and applauding and cheering and jumping up and down like I’d never seen an audience react before. (Two little wise guys behind me simply exclaimed “Ooooh!” in unison every time something happened.)