Many people think of the 1950s in America under Dwight Eisenhower as a stable, secure time before the relative liberalism of the 1960s. But that isn’t necessarily so, says film historian and critic David Thomson — fissures were appearing in society after the World War II. And those showed up in some films of the time.
Thomson has put together a series of films, “In Focus: Hollywood Outsiders,” made by directors working in Hollywood, but rebelling against the studio system. The films chosen for this series, which Thomson will introduce and lead a discussion about afterward, challenged filmmaking conventions or criticized American society, he says.
Billy Wilder‘s “Some Like It Hot was an amazingly prescient film that introduces the idea through comedy of gender confusion,” he said. “For the time it was amazingly daring. Then [Douglas Sirk‘s] Written on the Wind is a fascinating critique of money and power in a Texas family that comes apart.”
Along with those two films, the series includes Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and two by Nicolas Ray, In a Lonely Place and Bigger Than Life. Ray wanted to be as much an artist as a writer or painter, Thomson says, but with the commercial constraints of Hollywood, he didn’t feel he could do as he wished.
“Ray is a great example, a tragic example, of a very talented director in Hollywood after the war who wanted to make a new kind of film, but had to get along in Hollywood and had to conform,” he said. “He was in an endless struggle with himself, which didn’t quite destroy him, but destroyed his career and he became an outsider.”
Thomson, who has taught film studies at Dartmouth College, written more than 20 books on film, and been called “probably the greatest living film critic and historian” in The Atlantic, says he has never done something quite like this series and he looks forward to it.
“I hope a lot of the audience come for all the films or a lot of them,” he said. “I like all the films I’ve chosen, and there will be ample opportunity for the audience to talk about the film and ask questions, so it’s kind of like a class without papers or tests. I hope it will be educational as well as source of enjoyment.”
In Focus: Hollywood Outsiders, at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), 2155 Center St., Berkeley, Jan. 18 and March 1, 3:10-6 p.m., $7.50-$13.50. Tickets here.