The Best (and Last) of the Bs

Cover imageIn common movie parlance, B stands for B, not A. The B movie could be made cheaply (“on a shoestring”), feature a cast of up-and-comers (Lee Marvin, Dennis Hopper), actors who’d found their niche (Randolph Scott, John Payne), character actors (Riot in Cell Block 11), or actors whose glory days were behind them (Van Heflin). Because of a tight script and competent behind-the-scenes personnel, B-movies could exceed expectations and even become classics. A prime example of this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by low-budget master Don Siegel, produced by big-time Hollywood veteran Walter Wanger. B movies can have an edge major studio productions lack. Had they been large-scale studio films they might have been censored under the restrictions imposed by the Production Code until they were shadows of their former selves. The B movie was also termed a “programmer,” i.e., a small-scale production that could run as a matinee feature or part of a double bill with another B film plus cartoons and newsreels.

B movies have a heritage that goes back to the ’30s. Examples include the Three Cover imageMesquiteers western series, some of which starred the young John Wayne. “Poverty Row” studios like Monogram and Producers Releasing Corporation churned out innumerable B films in various genres, sometimes hitting a home run with the likes of PRC‘s Detour (1945).

It’s convenient, of course, to plot trends by decade, but it’s rarely true. The best and last of the Bs extended from the ’50s into the ’60s. Slowly TV took over as prime purveyor of film entertainment, helped when color became common by the end of the decade. Why go to the theater for a modest western when a modest western was on the tube every night? Double features and matinees were also on their way out. The “beach” movies petered out well before decade’s end. They were B movies to be sure, but hardly art or “good” except for the now iconic pop stars and groups who showed up to serenade the surfers, motorcycle men and molls, beach bums and assorted older actors and actresses generally slumming as crackpots or square adults.

The quality B movies released between 1951 and 1962 that are held in Chester County Library’s Multimedia Department are:

Cover imageFixed Bayonets (1951) — Gene Evans’ Sergeant Rock (!) doesn’t care if Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) uses one or six bullets to kill a Commie, just do it!

The Prowler (1951) — Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) ingratiates himself with Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) after she complains about a peeping-tom. Adultery leads to murder and a slag heap.

When Worlds Collide (1951) — A star christened Bellus approaches the solar system and threatens life on earth. A rocket is constructed to transport a selected few to safety on Bellus’s orbiting planet, Zyra.

The Thing from Another World (1951) — A flying saucer crashes in the arctic. The Air Cover imageForce men who find it also discover its pilot, a very tall humanoid, frozen in a block of ice. Too late do they realize that an electric blanket has thawed out the less than benevolent visitor from space. “Keep watching the skies!” urges reporter Scotty.

Kansas City Confidential (1952) — A flower delivery man (John Payne) is set up to take the fall for a bank robbery in this intricately plotted heist film.

The Narrow Margin (1952) — Tough as nails police detective (Charles McGraw) escorts to a trial via train a prime witness who’s targeted for murder. Surprise ending.

Invaders from Mars (1953) — “Moo-tants! What would they want here?” is the anguished question Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) asks the astronomer (Arthur Franz). But is it all a young boy’s dream?

It Came from Outer Space (1953) — Crash landing their spacecraft in the American Southwest (typical ’50s environment), aliens try to keep humans at bay while fixing their spacecraft. Richard Carlson helps them finish their task and tells teacher Barbara Rush they’ll return when the time is right.

Cover image99 River Street (1953) — John Payne again, this time as a one-time boxer turned cabbie framed for his shifty wife’s murder. With help from the underrated Evelyn Keyes (The Prowler), he proves his innocence and takes down the criminals.

Split Second (1953) — Murderous convict Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his wounded companion take hostages in a Nevada ghost town the day before a scheduled atomic blast.

War of the Worlds (1953) — Although H. G. Wells’ classic adventure is updated to 1953 Los Angeles, it’s a decent rendering of the novel.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) — The last of the now iconic Universal monsters Cover imagemakes his auspicious debut (he/it appeared in two other ’50s films) in the Amazon, where in a classic scene the creature parallels from underwater Julie Adams swimming above. Once again, it’s a beauty and the beast fable.

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) — Character actor all-stars in Don Siegel’s docudrama. Psychopathic Crazy Mike Carney (Leo Gordon) was actually incarcerated before becoming an actor and writer.

The Tall Texan (1954) — With a plot similar to the same year’s A production, Garden of Evil, this film features a bow and arrow sequence that is supremely dangerous.

The Big Combo (1955) — Subtext abounds in this gangster saga. Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde) aims to take down the criminal empire of Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) even as he develops a craving for his moll (Jean Wallace). Significant noir features Cover imagethe compelling hitmen duo of Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) — The threat of nuclear holocaust is the backstory in this noir classic featuring Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane’s uber tough private eye Mike Hammer.  How appropriate that his assistant is named Velda?

Shack Out on 101 (1955) — Propagandistic anti-communist tract is unintentionally hilarious tale set in a beanery on the California coast where hash-slinger Cottie (Terry Moore) dreams of working behind a desk in a great, big government building while fending off the advances of short order cook Slob (Lee Marvin), who just might have invented the V-neck t-shirt.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) The first and best of the “pod” movies features Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter as Santa Mira residents who discover their hometown has been infested by alien seed pods that recreate humans as emotion-less automatons. Where can you hide in a small town where everybody knows your name and residence?

Running Target (1956) — Modern-day western features a Colorado sheriff (Arthur Franz) reluctantly leading a posse to retrieve escaped convicts dead or alive.

The Killing (1956) — One of director Stanley Kubrick’s early films is a heist saga told from different viewpoints. Needless to say, the race track robbers don’t quite succeed. Chalk up another topnotch escapade for Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle).

Slightly Scarlet (1956) — One of the few fifties noir films in color features John Payne yet Cover imageagain, this time fending off two redheaded sisters, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, who has the best line: “Oh please call me Dor, won’t you? A frank and open door.”

The Brass Legend (1956) — Just before his stint as TV’s Wyatt Earp, Hugh O’Brian faced down outlaw Raymond Burr, so large we feel sorry for his steed.

Seven Men from Now (1956) — One-time sheriff Randolph Scott tracks the men who killed his wife during a freight office robbery. Complicating matters are a husband and wife heading west, Apaches, and a gunman. It all comes down to a showdown between Scott and Lee Marvin.

Decision at Sundown (1957) — Randolph Scott stirs up the residents of Sundown, where he intends killing John Carroll, whose affair with Scott’s wife led to her death—or did it?

Cover imageThe Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) — After a radioactive cloud envelops Scott Carey (Grant Williams) during a fishing trip, he begins shrinking. In short order he must beware of the cat and what has become for him a giant spider.

The Tall T (1957) — Taken hostage along with fellow stage traveler Maureen O’Sullivan, Randolph Scott ingratiates himself with kidnapper Richard Boone and sows dissention among Boone’s cadre comprised of Skip Homeier and Henry Silva. When Boone goes to collect the ransom and Silva follows to make sure he’ll return, Scott gets his chance to survive.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) — Returning from Venus, a U.S. spaceship crashes off the Italian coast. A small container holds a strange reptilian creature that proceeds to grow and terrorize the inhabitants.

The Blob (1958) — Seminal goo movie has a Cold War subtext.Cover image

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) — Riding into the Texas-Mexico border town of Agry, Randolph Scott finds himself at odds with two feuding families and stymied in his attempt to start a ranch.

Fiend Without a Face (1958) — At a Canadian research facility, scientists inadvertently unleash swiftly-moving brains that feast on human ones. Excellent special effects.

Hell’s Five Hours (1958) — Prescient thriller features Vic Morrow as mentally deranged, hostage-taking terrorist intent on blowing up a rocket fuel plant.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) — Sometimes ranked the best science fiction B movie of the decade, this film can be seen as an inspiration for Alien and was itself triggered by The Thing from Another World (1951).

Thunder Road (1958) — Robert Mitchum had hoped Elvis would play his younger brother Cover imagein this drive-in circuit cult favorite about moonshiners.

The 4D Man (1959) — Robert Lansing invents an “electronic amplifier” that allows him to walk through solid objects and naturally visit vengeance upon his enemies.

Ride Lonesome (1959) — Bounty hunter Randolph Scott captures James Best, who warns Scott about the toll his brother Lee Van Cleef will take. Enter Karen Steele, the ingratiating gunmen Pernell Roberts and his sidekick James Coburn (his first film), and Indians. And don’t forget, Van Cleef is still out there.

Terror is a Man (aka Blood Creature, 1959) — A U.S.-Filipino co-production version of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has atmosphere in spades and the gorgeous Ms. Denmark, Greta Thyssen, as she who soothes the monster in this beauty and the beast scenario.

Comanche Station (1960) — Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) buys a recently captured white woman (Nancy Gates) from the Comanches but needs the help of Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his gunslingers to make his way back to civilization. Surprise ending.

Night Tide (1961) — On leave sailor (Dennis Hopper) encounters the seashore sideshow Cover image“mermaid” Mora (Linda Lawson), who just might be the real thing. Besides the story, this is a snapshot of a California entertainment pier in the early ’60s.

Carnival of Souls (1962) — One of those movies that are probably less than meets the eye but have influenced future filmmakers.

Panic in Year Zero! (1962) — Veteran star Ray Milland acts in and directs this thoughtful apocalyptic thriller where the protagonists make sensible decisions to stay alive after a nuclear attack.

Were there any foreign language B movies in the ’50s and ’60s? Yes. The Italian “sword and sandal” mini-epics spawned by Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), and the late ’60s and early ’70s spaghetti westerns generated by Sergio Leone and Clint Cover imageEastwood’s “Man with No Name” trilogy (but not the classier Once Upon a Time in the West, Red Sun, and Duck, You Sucker). Also horror like Italy’s Black Sunday (1960). Japan contributed Godzilla (1954) and its kin, such as Rodan and Mothra. As for Britain’s Hammer Studios, their Gothics may have been lower budget than more mainstream films, but the use of color, sets, music and excellent acting raise them to a higher level.

Post written by Kim Holston

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