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On Dec. 30, 1953, Stanley Kramer’s motorcycle drama The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, held its world premiere at the Palace in New York. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Here is a splendid example of film craftsmanship from the viewpoint of production, acting, direction — in fact, everything but choice of subject. The Wild One keeps one thoroughly absorbed throughout its tense 79 minutes, but it is an unpleasant absorption that certainly cannot be classified as entertaining. The John Paxton screenplay is based on a story by Frank Rooney, in turn based on incidents a few years ago when bands of hoodlums on motorcycles terrorized several California towns. But this Stanley Kramer production is a frightening picture and it is hard to accept as a reflection of American mores a tale that revolves around conflict between young, seemingly hopped-up ruffians and the mob lynch law spirit of the commmunity’s staid, respectable citizens, with the police helplessly standing by.
The Wild One is certainly not for the family trade, nor would parents want their youngsters to see it. Its main appeal would seem to be to those lawless juveniles who may well be inspired to go out and emulate the characters portrayed.
Marlon Brando turns in a tremendously powerful performance as the inarticulate, frozen-faced, truculent outlaw who heads the gang of motorcycle hoodlums. They sweep into a small town and proceed to take it over, halting all traffic, brawling in the streets and committing acts of stupidly pointless vandalism. The only law present is an ineffectual cop (Robert Keith) whose idea of handling an emergency is to ignore it in the hope it will go away. His daughter (Mary Murphy) is a waitress at the local restaurant-bar and, for some baffling reason, becomes infatuated with Brando, registering as a natural for the gang by her desire to go away with him.
A local bully arouses the men of the town and they capture Brando, giving him a terrific beating. Before the general hysteria is lulled, a man has been killed, and Brando faces lynching from which he is rescued by the arrival of the county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men. Flippen soon restores order and the town settles back to normalcy as the young vandals ride out, presumably to continue their depredations elsewhere.
Laslo Benedek’s expert megging keeps the action taut and suspenseful, drawing top performances from a capable cast. A big assist is the fine photography by Hal Mohr, who offers some unusual angles that add to the foreboding mood of the story. Paxton’s dialogue carries a sardonically effective flavor but English subtitles under the jive talk would benefit such squares as this reviewer.
Mary Murphy, in a rather unsympathetic role, impresses as a sensitive actress as well as a beautiful girl. Robert Keith, in a departure from his screen roles thus far, is excellent as the futile police officer who makes a weak gesture at living up to his duties. Lee Marvin stands out as Brando’s hopped-up pal and chief rival, the fight between the two being a grippingly ferocious affair. Jay C. Flippen is perfect as the sheriff, with Peggy Maley, Hugh Sanders, Ray Teal, Will Wright, William Vedder and Yvonne Doughty all contributing good performances.
Rudolph Sternad’s production design is effective, the Garutso Balanced Lens adding a quality of depth to Walter Holscher’s settings. Leith Stevens’ musical score is ominously moody, but under Morris Stoloff’s direction too often crashes into the story, at times even drowning out the dialogue. Al Clark rates credit for a tight, dramatic editing job. — Milton Luban, originally published Dec. 23, 1953.
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