Trouble Comes to Town
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A lonesome drifter strays into a small town, or he’s strolling alongside a deserted road. He’s been in trouble before, and he usually carries his baggage with him. Or maybe he’s just prone to bad luck and an undeserved reputation. As opposed to real life, a drifter in classic film tends to be handsome and sexy as well as a victim of his circumstances. What is uncertain is whether he will bring his problems or the town will heap its own on him.

One such drifter, Ben Quick (Paul Newman), can’t seem to shake his father’s reputation, and he gives up even trying in the 1958 classic, The Long Hot Summer. This film blends five short stories and one novel by William Faulkner. After being chased out of town in suspicion of burning down a barn, this hitchhiker is picked up in scorching rural Mississippi by two young women, Clara (Joanne Woodward) and her sister-in-law, Eula Varner (Lee Remick). Clara’s father, the unscrupulous Will Varner (Orson Welles), owns most of the town, and he sees some of himself in Ben. He’s also anxious to marry off Clara, a 23-year-old “spinster.” Since the well-to-do eligible bachelor, Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson), can’t seem to shake his mother’s hold on him, Will figures that he can persuade the hustler in Ben to marry Clara. Side conflicts ensue, assisted by great performances from supporting actors. Will’s lazy and unambitious son, Jody (Tony Franciosa), is jealous of the affection that he’s giving Ben. Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury), the town Madame and Will’s girlfriend, is pressuring him to marry her. There’s so much innuendo, and this movie sizzles for the 1950s. My only complaint was I that I had to strain to understand Orson Welles’ dialogue. Later, I found out that the mumbling was intentional on his part and was only one example of how difficult he was to work with. It was also noted that editing his dialogue was more difficult than editing the entire movie. In any event, this movie is definitely worth watching, not just for the story but also for its unique characters.

Another hot drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) doesn’t fare as well in Italy’s Ossessione (1943). What attracted me to this movie was the fact that it was banned by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini due to its risqué subject matter. This film was part of the Italian Neorealism cinematic movement, which sought to illustrate the reality and grittiness of life during and after WWII in Italy. That aside, the plot and style are very similar to an American film noir classic. Gino stops at an inn run by a greedy opera aficionado, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan De Landa), and his younger, unhappy wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Together, Gino and Giovanna plan his murder. Is she really in love with Gino, or is she simply using him? You’ll be sure that you’ve seen this movie before, but in an American setting—and you probably have, as it was taken from the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Ossessione prompted me to revisit the actual movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). This time, drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) stops at a roadside hamburger joint owned by Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his sexy and beautiful young wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Like Giuseppe in the Italian version, their alcohol abuse makes for a convenient excuse for murder. Unlike Giuseppe, though, you feel sorry for poor, likeable Nick. The story line is similar, and I don’t want to give away either ending. However, I’m sure that you’re aware that in most film noir, those who commit criminal acts seldom find peace or happiness. I found Postman too melodramatic (even for other films of its time), and I almost turned it off. However, I’m glad I stuck it out, as it has enough teases and twists to make it an enticing film. Hume Cronyn brilliantly portrays Arthur Keats, Cora’s slick attorney, in a supporting role, but Lana Turner’s Cora steals the movie with her seductive demeanor mixed with intense anger.

Of course, these movies would not stand on their own today. But what makes them so appealing is looking at them in the context of their own time. They were all controversial in some aspect, not to mention racy. During the period following the Great Depression through the aftermath of WWII, directors sought to bring out our romantic nature while still maintaining life’s graphic reality. And, at the time, that’s what the country (and the rest of the world) definitely needed.

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