Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Method to the Manliness: "The Men" (1950)

Marlon Brando's film debut is a short, intense drama.

Ken (Marlon Brando) was shot during World War II, and finds himself in a veterans' hospital with other men suffering from "paraplegia," or paralysis. He is angry, depressed, and in a room on his own when his tough doctor Brock (Everett Sloane) puts him in an open ward with others who suffer from the same condition. There he meets gambler Leo (Richard Erdman), reserved Norm (Jack Webb), and inspiring bodybuilder Angel (Arthur Jurado). Ken's fiancee Ellen (Teresa Wright) has been keeping track of Ken without seeing him (his wishes). She decides to hold him to their engagement, reenters his life, and Ken and his group of friends try to deal with life outside their hospital comfort zone, battling prejudice and gawking.

This film came out in 1950, the decade that saw "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront," Brando's triumphs. He is so good here. Erdman provides enough levity to keep this from being a suicidal, brooding melodrama. Webb is unrecognizable as Norm, but the three actors work well together. This was Arthur Jurado's only film, and that is a shame. He was disabled in real life, and died before the age of 40. Onscreen, he is handsome, and has a natural screen talent that comes along once in a long while. The fate of his character is heartbreaking. Sloane should have received an Oscar nod for Supporting Actor. He is phenomenal, and matches Brando line for line. Wright does some nice work as Ellen, overconfident in her ability to live the rest of her life with a wheelchair-bound man. The film uses actual patients from the hospital in the background and in small roles, which adds to the realism of the story. Ironically, DeForest Kelley is also on hand- playing a doctor! Screenwriter Carl Foreman smartly opens the film with a question and answer session with family members of the patients, and tries to bring up the issues of surrounding spinal cord injuries without offending the filmgoers' sensibilities. It was more difficult to talk about sexual, and bowel, issues back in the day. Foreman does push the envelope with is Oscar nominated story, the rage and frustration is on full display.

Zinnemann's direction is outstanding and unobtrusive. He doesn't beat the viewer over the head, letting us see little moments that tell us a lot about the characters. One huge drawback to the film is Dimitri Tiomkin's screeching musical score. There are some scenes that had me wondering why there was music playing at all, and I kept hitting mute thinking it was coming from another television in my building. He tries to amp the emotion up, but the actors don't need any of his help.

"The Men" came out years before "Coming Home" and "Born on the Fourth of July," but can compete with those films for showing what war-time injuries, both physical and psychological, can do to returning soldiers and other support. A nice debut from one of our greatest actors. (* * * *) out of five stars.