Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Wild One (1953)

Thank you, Marlon Brando.

James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause, reviewed on this site last week, did little for this movie fan.

But The Wild One, a 1953 drama from director Laslo Benedek (Death of a Salesman) packs some real punch. It's well worth a view.

There's a sense of unease through much of this brief 79-minute feature.

Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) leads a motorcycle gang. The ruffians on wheels get a quick heave-ho when they stop in one small community. But a weak sheriff, Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith), a population mostly anxious not to get involved and a bar owner who sees potential to make plenty of money on booze sales, Frank Bleeker (Ray Toal), result in Strabler and his boys setting up for a night of carousing.

Bar employee Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy), niece of the boss and daughter of the sheriff, soon catches Strabler's eye. For a guy well familiar with being the boss and in control, Bleeker is a rare curve ball. He likes her. She likes him. But she packs a lot more punch - emotionally - than he anticipates.

Some town folk, especially Charlie Tremas (Hugh Sanders), want the sheriff to clear Strabler and his boys out of town. Pronto. But Harry, unlike his colleague in that earlier town, isn't an enforcer. He wants to make nice.

That proves a problem when Chino (Lee Marvin), and his crew of bikers, also arrive in town. Seems Chino and Johnny belonged to the same biker gang, but split up. They're adversaries, not friends. Meanwhile, the booze keeps flowing, stores start to be looted and Charlie and some other residents opt to enforce the law on their own. Trouble is brewing and someone is bound to get hurt, or killed.

There's lots to enjoy here. Brando was in the middle of a run of some of his biggest roles - A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and Guys and Dolls (1955) all hit the screen within a five-year span. Impressive.

Marvin, quite a busy man establishing his reputation in the early 1950s, shines as the nasty Chino. He's Strabbler without the, if you look for it, kind heart.

The Wild One isn't too subtle about this, but it also raises questions about really laying down the law or trying to make nice. Guess which one works? Charlie's approach to justice also suggests who is the greater danger to a community - transient bikers eager to drink and romance the ladies or citizens eager to grab clubs and start tracking down troublemakers.

Too bad about how really obvious it is Brando isn't riding his own bike. Not a big problem, but it's a distraction. Murphy is impressive as a beauty with a brain. She wants out of the small town and always dreamed some fella would make an appearance and take her away. Johnny may take her heart, but will he take her too. "Why do you hate everybody?" she asks him. We get some idea near the film's end, but Johnny doesn't talk much.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Robert Keith appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone, The Masks, in 1964.

Yvonne Doughty is Britches, an old flame of Johnny's. She only has five television and film credits between 1949 and 1955. The Wild One is the only title that gave her screen credit.

The Wild One is based on The Cyclists' Raid, a story published in Harper's about young bikers who invaded a small town in July 1947.

Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando seldom spoke off-screen, writes Stefan Kramer in Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando.

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