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Archive for January, 2013

Back Street (1961)

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Here’s a movie that wasn’t shot in Lincoln, Nebraska — but it’s set there.

Fanny Hurst’s oft-filmed tearjerker gets the ultra-sudsy, completely over the top treatment in this glossy Ross Hunter production directed by David Miller, which manages with stupefying accuracy to consist of nothing but one cliché after another, both in the dialogue and the visuals, creating an entirely unconvincing narrative centering on Rome, Paris, New York and — wait for it — Lincoln, Nebraska, all of it created entirely on the Universal back lot, with some stock footage spliced in for establishing shots. There’s more rear projection and doubling in this film than one can imagine.

The plot is both simple and predictable; Susan Hayward is an up and coming fashion designer who leaves Lincoln for New York, where she makes it big, but falls in love with John Gavin along the way, and since he’s married to Vera Miles, this creates all sorts of complications. In the 50s, the great Douglas Sirk would have directed this for Hunter, who specialized in this sort of film, but by the 1960s, the whole production had to be done relatively cheaply, with the somewhat stolid Gavin standing in for Rock Hudson.

Vera Miles is the best thing in the film, and one wonders what might have happened to her career if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t put her under exclusive contract, and then pretty much kept her off the market — except for Psycho and The Wrong Man — but the most striking thing about Back Street is in its absolute insistence at being utterly predictable at every turn. One can literally recite the dialogue for the film without ever having seen it, and it’s hard to believe that the protagonists of the film took it very seriously; it almost defines the camp sensibility.

There’s a gorgeous DVD out on the film now from TCM; it’s a jawdropping experience.

No Name on The Bullet

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Here’s to director Jack Arnold, who deserves a second look.

I was watching Jack Arnold’s Tarantula last night on TCM, and was struck once again by Arnold’s economy in his shot structure, the simplicity and style with which he sets up his shots, the smooth and precise editing patterns, and the way in which he takes his material seriously, no matter how outlandish the basic premise. With such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, and Creature From The Black Lagoon to his credit, it’s easy to forget that Arnold also directed one of the most interesting Westerns of the 1950s, No Name on the Bullet, starring World War II veteran Audie Murphy as hired killer John Gant who arrives in a small town, intent on killing someone for pay — but whom? Everyone in the town seems to have some secret in their past, some enemy who wants them out of the way, but Gant refuses to tip his hand, resulting in a complete meltdown of the fabric as the community, since everyone thinks Gant is after them alone. Arnold is a really underrated American director, and his work deserves a great deal more scrutiny; here, then, is just a tip of the hat to the man who defined 1950s science fiction, but was also capable of a great deal more, if only he hadn’t become so identified with one genre alone.

Jack Arnold, an American original.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Critics

Friday, January 4th, 2013

I have a new video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on film critics.

As the description on the video’s site notes, there is more to reviewing movies than simply giving a film a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The major distinction here is between daily critics, who write for newspapers on a deadline basis, and more thoughtful critics, who really “unpack” films to get at what really makes them tick. The problem here is that many people confuse opinion with analysis; they’re two very different things. Saying that you like or don’t like a film, a song, a play, a painting, a sculpture — whatever — really tells the reader nothing other than what your personal feeling about the work in question is.

More serious criticism takes a film apart, and considers not only the director, but also the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, the set designer, as well as examining the culture that produced the film in the first place, and how a film positions itself for a specific audience. And that’s just the beginning of things one might consider. There are many truly influential critics I don’t mention here, simply for reasons of space, but the important thing to remember is that daily film criticism is mostly opinion, rapidly rendered for a mass audience; more detailed work in film criticism takes time, effort, and a great deal of knowledge, and is aimed at those who view film both an art form, as well as a manifestation of popular culture.

Here, then are some of people who shape — or have shaped in the past — film criticism.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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