Thursday, December 8, 2022

#2,876. The Wild One (1953) - Teen Rebellion in B&W Triple Feature


This is a shocking story.
It could never take place
in most American towns –
But it did in this one

It is a public challenge
not to let it happen again

When I think of the seminal Marlon Brando performances, a handful of roles leap immediately to mind. Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Don Corleone of The Godfather. And, of course, Johnny, the rebellious biker in Stanley Kramer’s 1953 production of The Wild One.

A precursor to the biker exploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, The Wild One is, indeed, wild, but it is also potently dramatic, with just a hint of romance. And, of course, there’s Brando, setting the screen on fire the moment he and his gang first ride into town.

After disrupting a motorcycle race, during which one of his gang steals the second-place trophy, Johnny Strabler (Brando) and his fellow Black Rebels make their way to a small California town. Frank Bleeker (Ray Teal), who owns the local bar / restaurant, welcomes Johnny and his gang, figuring they’ll spend plenty of money at his place. Johnny even falls for Frank’s niece, Kathie (Mary Murphy), only to seemingly lose interest when he discovers she’s the daughter of the weak-willed sheriff (Robert Keith).

An already tense situation escalates when rival biker gang The Beetles, led by the flamboyant Chino (Lee Marvin), turns up. Once the sun goes down, both the Black Rebels and Beetles start tearing up the place. As for Johnny, he can’t get his mind off of Kathie, who, it turns out, is as restless as he is.

Before the night is out, the bikers will face off against angry townsfolk, and odds are someone will end up dead.

In what is undoubtedly the film’s most iconic scene, Johnny and his gang are hanging out at Frank’s restaurant. A few of the bikers are dancing with local girls, one of whom, Mildred (Peggy Malay), noting the name of his gang, asks Johnny what it is he’s rebelling against. “What do ya got?” is his reply. It is an unforgettable exchange, but it’s Brando’s delivery of the line, punctuated by his cool, callous demeanor, that makes it so. Johnny doesn’t have a cause he’s fighting for, a credo or principle he lives by. He’s just looking to stir up trouble, which, from the looks of it, finds him everywhere he goes.

When he is talking with Kathie, though, we see a glimmer of something more in Johnny. At first, it’s straight-up physical attraction, but as he gets to know Kathie, he realizes her life isn’t any better than his. Her mother dead, her father considered a coward by most in town, she tells Johnny she’s been waiting for someone to take her away. We are never sure if it is love, or just convenience that attracts them to each other, but their scenes together are electric all the same.

The Wild One is, at times, a shocking motion picture, from the level of chaos that the bikers unleash on the town to the townsfolk’s violent reaction to it all. Yet it is the film’s extraordinary cast that impressed me most. Murphy delivers a solid performance as Kathie, with Marvin even stronger in his few scenes as the out-of-control Chino. But it is Brando, playing one of the screen’s most charismatic anti-heroes, who carries The Wild One to another level.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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