Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Wild One (1953)

Film: The Wild One (1953)
Stars: Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith
Director: Laszlo Benedek
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Watching certain classic films you realize that they are "classic" in the sense that they launched a movement or a star, and less so for actually being particularly fine films.  I always think of Risky Business in this regard.  It's clear in the film that you're watching one of the truly iconic movie stars, Tom Cruise (he may be insane, but the man knows how to get you through two hours), come into his own as an actor and performer, but the film is dull as dirt.  Watching The Wild One, I will admit I was having similar feelings.  While Brando was more than well-established at the time (Stanley Kowalski had already changed the movies), this was before Waterfront, Godfather, and Sacheen Littlefeather, and as a result The Wild One became his iconic look.  You can still buy posters and luminescent clocks featuring his profile in this movie, lips pouted and with that biker cap on his head, and it's the look most people associate with the great one.  Seeing the film for the first time (after literally being this character for Halloween for a good chunk of the last decade), felt weirdly surreal, like a bizarre sense of deja vu.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film itself, it should be said, is not great, and while it's hardly as revolutionary in its attitudes toward youth as it was at the time, it's worth noting that the movie still has its edge and potency in terms of seeing a well-manicured but staid community disrupted by the breath of a new generation.  The movie is pretty simple in terms of its plot-all that really happens is a pair of biker gangs show up in a small town in rural California, and all hell breaks loose as they party at the local bar, date the local women, and cause everyone in town to mob them in hopes of getting them out of town.  The film's central players are Johnny (Brando, who is insanely beautiful and sexy, though I found him to be more of the former in Waterfront and more of the latter in Streetcar, both also much better films) and Kathie (Murphy) who is drawn to him because, well, she has eyes and a pulse.  We know from the get-go that these two are going to be star-crossed lovers, and indeed they are-they never really connect in an authentic way, even though Johnny manages to make her feel urges she hasn't really thought about before.  The film follows with Johnny being unfairly tried for manslaughter, and dismissed to ride out into the world again, though before he goes he leaves a trophy behind for Kathie to remember him by (don't you feel for the poor sucker who marries her and doesn't realize she's picturing Brando every night instead of a guy who inevitably is named Irving?).

The film gets its iconography both from the sensation this picture caused upon release (it was pretty racy stuff in 1953) and also from Brando at the center.  It's no surprise to anyone to know that Brando is excellent here, as he always was during this portion of his career and he truly sells Johnny as a conflicted youth.  It hurts the story a little to know that Brando, while gorgeous, can't remotely pass for younger than he actually is (he was nearing thirty when this movie was made) and seems a tad long-in-the-tooth for his lack of direction in his life.  Throughout much of the film, quite frankly, I couldn't help but think of the far, far superior Rebel Without a Cause, which clearly inspired this film but featured a more age-appropriate James Dean, who better sells this careless, passionate youth archetype.  The movie's plot feels so thin and the movie is so short (clocking in at just 79 minutes), that it honestly could have just been a half hour of television.

The film does pose some interesting conflict that still resonates, though.  In some ways I thought of the film a lot through the lens of race relations that carry forward all the way to today, and in particular in the way that judicial fairness is pretty much dismissed as the film progresses (it's plain to see that the sheriff should have arrested several of his fellow townspeople, and that Johnny was not the one guilty of manslaughter, even without Kathie's tearful confession).  The film's freshness in that regard might make it more than just a pop curiosity years later, but it veers away from this storyline to return to Johnny-and-Kathie or trying to justify the prejudice that the citizens have for their unwanted visitors.  Overall, then, it's really just about seeing Brando at his peak-method acting to the hilt, sex appeal to the max, and inspiring a generation to try something new.

Those are my thoughts on this very famous film, one of those rare well-known classics that I had never gotten around toward-what are yours?  Do you also feel that the legend of the film is far grander than the actual movie?  What do you think of Brando during this period-do you have a favorite role?  And who else saw the Rebel similarities?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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