Criterion Sunday 495: “The Golden Age of Television”

Back in the 1950s, a lot of filmmakers and actors made their breaks in filmed plays, initially an hour in length but later longer, both in the United States and in the UK too. Dramas were staged regularly, after a few weeks’ rehearsal, and shown live on television, mainly because pre-taping didn’t exist. However, it does seem as if they were filmed for posterity and while they may not be perfectly preserved, at least they do exist, unlike a lot of early television, which has been wiped forever. The Criterion’s set seems to follow the selections made for a repeat in 1981, and the introductions made at that time for each of the films are presented in this collection as well.


The first film in the collection, 1953’s Marty, is also the one which went on to greatest acclaim later, remade two years later as a feature which swept most of the major Academy Awards for that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay). Looking back at the original TV production at almost 70 years’ distance, it feels as if this is a cute twist on the idea that women are constantly pestered for marriage, but flipping it on its head: here it is the lumpen titular character (Rod Steiger), nearing the age of 40, who is constantly pestered as to when he’s getting married. He has a large Catholic family, and all of them seem to have been paired off, but the problem is: he’s perceived as ugly. Perhaps that’s just the fishbowl lenses of these clunky old TV cameras (they add more than 10 pounds), but at least he’s not a “dog”, as seems to be the insult for unattractive women (the ones we see don’t seem to have weight issues like Marty). It’s hard to find oneself in these old dramas, of course; Marty, for all his unluckiness in love, is also a little bit too persistent and comes across at times as rather an unlikeable character, prone to mumbling then shouting, liable to press for a kiss a little too eagerly. Still, we’re encouraged to be on his side, and I suppose there is an empathy developed for his character. The primitive technology is used nicely by the director for some dramatic camera movements, but mostly this sticks to the play-on-screen format with a tight structure (the complaints of Marty are matched nicely with the moaning of the mothers about their sons abandoning them, though the expected roles for women remain very much of the period) and a small number of settings for the action.

It’s easy to forget that these 1950s TV plays were filmed live. Sometimes that can be obvious for various reasons, but in a film like Patterns (1955) it’s almost hard to tell, so fluid and elegant is the camerawork. It’s obvious the cameras were clunky and the picture is weirdly distorted, but there’s a freewheeling sense to this boardroom drama, as various egos are torn and frayed and words are exchanged back and forth. It gives a particularly visceral sense of the American office which eschews interpersonal drama for a battle of the wills between the company head and his vice-presidents. That said, there’s a lovely speech from our lead character’s wife that sets out the moral compass of the film by being realistic and hard-nosed rather than preachy and virtuous, a tone that you sometimes forget the 1950s was capable of, but is present in the darkness that underlies plenty of that decade’s cinematic output.

More than the first two productions, No Time for Sergeants (1955) seems particularly stagey. The other films managed to find ways to adapt their teleplays into something visual, even on the primitive recording equipment available, but this sticks with non-naturalistic effects like stage lighting and very simple sets. In a way that makes sense because it’s a comedy, but it harks towards a future of TV sitcoms rather than prestige films, and its star Andy Griffith went on to dominate that medium after all. It’s likeable enough, a wartime-set comedy about a slightly foolish Southern man who signs up and bumbles his way through various scenarios, seemingly good natured in his eagerness to please but managing to get his sergeant into hot water along the way — Griffith plays this straight rather than knowing, but he’s certainly less of an idiot than he seems from his accent, and this production exploits that tension nicely.

A Wind from the South (1955) is set in Ireland, which leads to a lot of fairly painful (but certainly could be worse) stabs at an accent. Julie Harris does a good job in the central role, a repressed woman whose brother is the controlling force in her life, who’s been brought up in the traditional ways but starts to feel something for a man who comes through town. There’s some nice work here but it still feels a bit unfocused at times, and perhaps I just react a little negatively towards all those on-screen Irish stereotypes.

After having watched a few of these films, I think it’s the simplest ones that work best, because after all there’s not a lot of budget (or technical ability) to do much more than a few small rooms. Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) draws attention to its staging by having our hero, a baseball player whose nickname is “Author” due to his constant writing (which within the play itself doesn’t seem particularly accomplished), introduce us to his story and break the fourth wall throughout by guiding us the audience through the events. It’s a nice touch but it allows us to forget the very basic sets and focus on the interrelationships between “Author” (a young Paul Newman, and already a pretty magnetic screen presence) and his roommate (Albert Salmi), who’s had a terminal cancer diagnosis and whom he is trying to protect within the team. You get a good sense of the workplace management situation (or lack thereof), the behind the scenes bullying and jockeying for position, it’s all very nicely done and — as mentioned already — well-acted from its cast packed with plenty of talents.

Throughout this collection, Rod Serling (as writer) continually proves his worth. After Patterns the previous year dealt with ad men, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) is a boxing drama, which has always been a sport that translates particularly well to the screen. We don’t even see any of the matches themselves, as the focus remains on the difficult decisions that both Jack Palance’s boxer and Keenan Wynn’s coach need to make to survive, the latter by entering into shady deals with dodgy guys that push him towards bad decisions, and the former who’s belatedly coming to the realisation that he needs to remake himself and find some new life because he’s reached the end of the line in the ring. It’s all passionately acted, not least by Palance and Wynn, though it’s also good to see Keenan’s dad Ed mixing it up with some serious dramatic work as well. There are some big scenes and big emotions, but this is the soul of this kind of small scale TV drama and it works really well.

Serling had some of the snappiest scripts of all the films featured and another of his, The Comedian (1957), is also that: a high-tone melodrama about a comedian at the top of his game (Mickey Rooney) who behind the scenes is a bullying tyrant of a man, who treats his brother (Mel Tormé) like dirt and has frequent run-ins with his head writer (Edmond O’Brien, continuing to channel all those noirs he was in over the previous decade). Somehow, despite these characters being in the world of entertainment, they all still feel like heavies, mainly because they are all deeply flawed people scurrying around like rats trapped in a cage trying to get out. And I think it could really land except that maybe because it’s shot live for television, there’s something just a little hammy about it. Too often it feels like Rooney, O’Brien, all of them have just been asked to be a little bit extra, go a little bit further, and so there are spittle-flecked scenes of shouting, characters screaming in one another’s faces, where perhaps a little bit of subtlety might have been rewarding? I don’t know, but it feels like a very aggressive film, I guess because it’s about such difficult people, and that is, after all, the world they all operate in. Given the live filming, it’s incredible that some of the scenes came off, montage sequences, a freewheeling jaunt through a TV studio bouncing from character to character that could have come straight from an Altman film. There’s a lot here that’s genuinely quite great, but then again director John Frankenheimer was even by this point a seasoned veteran of live television.

Indeed, there’s no doubt Frankenheimer was a slick director at the format. And while by 1958 there was a small amount of pre-taping that was possible apparently, for a largely live production this all cuts together superbly well. The problem I have in the case of Days of Wine and Roses (1958) is the broadness of the acting. It’s about alcoholism and the toll it takes on people, but this is straight up a soap opera level of melodrama, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie alternately bawling and spluttering drunkenly at each other. It has a certain intensity to it, but it’s all too easy to laugh — something I attribute more to changing expectations of subtle dramatic work over the ages rather than anything inherent to their choices. It’s all very nicely done, but like the characters it’s all a bit messy.

  • Each of the seven films has an introduction taken from a 1981 series of broadcasts that presented these films again to television audiences for the first time since their original broadcast. In it, a famous host introduces a series of interviews with cast and crew, who talk about the filming and the time and contextualise the importance of these works for viewers of the early-80s, for whom some of the actors first seen on TV in these shows were now household names.
  • There is an additional 15-20 or so minutes of footage of John Frankenheimer being interviewed in 1981 talking about his two productions, and he’s a good interview subject, eloquent about his work and with a pretty good memory given how many films he made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
The Philco Television Playhouse: Marty (1953)
Director Delbert Mann; Writer Paddy Chayefsky; Cinematographer Al McClellan; Starring Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 4 January 2022.

Kraft Television Theatre: Patterns (1955)
Director Fielder Cook; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, June Dayton; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 5 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: No Time for Sergeants (1955)
Director Alex Segal; Writer Ira Levin (based on the novel by Mac Hyman); Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark; Length 50 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 6 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: A Wind from the South (1955)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer James Costigan; Starring Julie Harris, Donald Woods; Length 51 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Mark Harris); Starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)
Director Ralph Nelson; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Ed Wynn; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer Rod Serling (based on a story by Ernest Lehman); Starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses (1958)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer JP Miller; Starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie; Length 80 minutes.
Seen home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 10 January 2022.

Nomadland (2020)

I’ve been doing a week rounding up some of my year’s favourite films that I haven’t yet posted on here, and I know it’s already the new year, but here’s one I saw just this past week that I forgot to post, so I’m doing it now, ahead of my full list of favourites.


By this point director/writer (and editor) Chloé Zhao has built up a pretty solid body of work dealing with the dispossessed in American society. Her previous two features (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) have been sensitive stories of First Nations people, and while this one focuses far more on Frances McDormand, it has the same interest in marginal lives eked out in the kinds of spaces not often seen on the American screen, as she bounces between itinerant work in Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada and other such places with vast horizons and empty space aplenty.

Everyone in the film goes by their own name, even our star (as seen on an ID card she uses in an early shot, though her character uses the nickname Fern), which suggests a strong documentary quality to this tale, and I would believe that everyone we see lives these very lives. There are sad stories and plenty of tears, but these aren’t placed within a framework of anger or misery (though it could easily be spun that way, given that most of the lives we see are largely due to inadequate social welfare protections, and even working for an Amazon warehouse is fairly soft-pedalled given a lot of the journalism that has been built up around that). Instead the film grounds itself in a shared feeling of hope that everyone forges together in these RV parks and desert encampments, that could look like cults but are just communities of like-minded people looking out for themselves. This could easily be the dystopian apocalyptic world of other films, but it’s a disarmingly generous and empathetic take on what such communities might feel like, set amongst people who have embraced their choices and have become determined to find something positive in what others might see as a massive failure of government and society. These lifestyles are hardly going away, but it’s heartening somehow to see people trying to make them work.

Nomadland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷 (based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder); Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 26 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 377: 女が階段を上る時 Onna ga Kaidan o Noboru Toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960)

Director Mikio Naruse had a great run of cinematic masterpieces throughout the 1950s (I did a whole week focusing on his work) and in some ways it’s capped by this melancholy 1960 film, starring one of his frequent collaborators, the wonderful Hideko Takamine. In one blurb I read online, she plays an “ageing Ginza bar hostess”, but Mama-san, as she’s known (her real name is Keiko), is just turning 30; Keiko’s nickname suggests the blurb may not be inaccurate, but if so it’s very much just another commentary on the society depicted in the film. Keiko is motivated and very good at her job, but every step she takes is negotiated with a series of men — to succeed at her job she needs to appeal to them, to make money to have any hope of opening her own bar she essentially needs to sell herself to them (or at least the possibility of her being their wife), and then there are the expectations placed on her by her family. It’s a sad film, but Takamine’s performance ensures it’s never overloaded with mawkishness or hopelessness. She keeps on moving, working, trying to make ends meet throughout, in this post-war Japan dominated by wealth and its acquisition, while all the time people are calling up their debts or talking money in front of her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三; Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Awaji 淡路恵子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Daisuke Kato 加東大介; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 334: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

In covering a miner’s strike in western Kentucky in the early-1970s, Barbara Kopple has shown us a side of America that rarely gets seen on-screen. Sure we’re all familiar with stereotypes of yokels from the Appalachians, but this film is about the work — coal mining, in this case — and the dangers of that work, the threats from the company owners, the meagre amount of pay and the terrible conditions of both the workplace and these people’s everyday lives. It never condescends to its subjects, and it’s firmly on the side of the strikers as they are aggressively confronted by strike-breakers, gun-toting ruffians who ride around in their pick-up trucks scarcely concealing the contempt and anger they have, and the force they’re willing to deploy to get their way. The police, too, are very much on the companies’ side, so we see the unequal force but also the vehemence of the strikers — and, notably, the women who are married to the miners, whose support is as strong if not stronger than their partners. From this tumult a number of characters start to become prominent, not least Lois Wood who keeps a gun in her bra and argues on behalf of confronting the violence they’re shown with their own violent resistance (she doesn’t quite get her way on that, mind).

Kopple contextualises the strikes with a sidebar on union politics (her original documentary subject before this one took over), notably the assassination of Jock Yablonski by the then-leader of the miners’ union in 1969, and the subsequent trial (shades of Harvey Weinstein as we see this previously vital man being wheeled into court as he performs being an invalid). Testimonies from those supporting the strike also recall the bloody 1930s when the so-called “Harlan County War” raged in a series of strikes that inspired a rich heritage of folk music, some of which we see performed (such as “Whose Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece, an old lady by the 1970s, but no less passionate about the union).

In short, it’s just great to see the urgent and heartfelt engagement with labour rights that subsequent decades of right-wing rule have since undermined so entirely. Of course, even by the end of this film it feels like so much is unresolved and will continue, as indeed I imagine it continues now, both here and on countless other fronts around the world, but the rights of the poorest in society should never be up for debate, and it seems sometimes as if it is constantly necessary to take a stand to protect them.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is The Making of ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’, a short documentary made for this release, in which Kopple and her producer and cinematographers reflect on the filming, and the dangers they faced in covering this story. There are also some interviews from a miner and one of the women shown in the film (the daughter of the film’s most interesting character, Lois Wood), though the intervening years and the very poor living conditions of the miners suggest that many of the main participants in the original documentary have long since passed. It’s fascinating of course to see how the film came together, and to get a sense of what we didn’t see in the telling of this story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbara Kopple; Cinematographers Kevin Keating, Hart Perry and Tom Hurwitz; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 11 July 2020.

파업전야 Paeopjeonya (The Night Before the Strike, 1990)

An important battlefield for resistance, aside from in politics and on the streets, is of course the workplace, and trade unions have a strong role to play in that story. One such is this oppositional work made in South Korea against the background of the Gwangju Uprising, an expression of popular discontent which was brutally repressed in 1980 and led to all kind of fallout during the subsequent decade. It was written, shot and directed by a large roster of activist filmmakers, working largely under the radar of major institutions, and so was only restored very recently.


This Korean film was made in the late-80s, filmed (as I understand it) at a factory which had been occupied by striking workers and using a cast which included a lot of these workers in minor roles. Filmed on 16mm it feels like it has a documentary quality at times, akin to some of the low-budget TV plays being made in the UK at the time which dealt with working-class and working issues in a way that wasn’t exploitative or condescending (itself rather rare in our modern media climate). The main character here, for audience purposes, is Han-su, who sort of watches from the sidelines as his workplace (a metal-working factory) is radicalised thanks to the small-mindedness of the bosses coming into conflict with those who are trying to get a union off the ground. His long face and sullen demeanour conveys his confusion at what’s happening, as he slowly gets up to speed on why unionisation makes sense to protect his job. There’s a nice scene as various people who have been drafted in by management to protect the plant against these unionising workers (who are all swiftly laid off when their plans comes to management’s attention) all find out they’ve been made the same promises. For the most part, though, this isn’t a strident sloganising or propagandistic film, but rather a small-scale drama set amongst these workers that unfolds gradually. The director spoke on stage after the film about how the collective’s first film a few years earlier had been criticised by those whom it had been about, and how that meant they wanted to work more closely with the subjects to find a way of presenting their struggles sympathetically. This they did, to the extent that the film was officially banned and had to find its audience via non-cinematic screenings (which probably makes more sense given the content) and has only now been restored.

The Night Before the Strike film posterCREDITS
Directors Lee Eun 이은, Chang Yong-hyun 장윤현, Jang Dong-hong 장동홍 and Lee Jae-gu 이재구; Writers Kong Su-chang 공수창, Kim Eun-chae 김은채 and Min Kyeong-cheol 민경철; Cinematographers Kim Jae-hong 김재홍, Oh Cheng-ok 오정옥 and Lee Chang-jun 이창준; Starring Go Dong-eop 고동업, Im Yeong-gu 임영구; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 3 November 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)

My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)”

LFF 2019 Day Seven: The Perfect Candidate and Made in Bangladesh (both 2019)

Day seven, aside from being my birthday, was a day of just two films, both of which were fairly decent as films go, if rather earnest, but both of which shone a light on their respective countries in quite revealing ways. Being directed by women, they had lessons particularly about the role and status of women in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Seven: The Perfect Candidate and Made in Bangladesh (both 2019)”

Two Recent Documentaries about Young People in China: A Way Out (2017) and Present. Perfect. (2019)

Continuing my theme of films about China, these two are made in and about China by Chinese women, that elucidate certain aspects of Chinese society one imagines were not particularly pleasing to those in power in that country. It’s about young people and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them upon graduation.

Continue reading “Two Recent Documentaries about Young People in China: A Way Out (2017) and Present. Perfect. (2019)”