Dir. by Laslo Benedek - 1 hr. 19 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Watching "The Wild One" for the first time provided me with one of those great cinematic moments, where one of the characters sets up another for a line, and you already knew the line because it's that famous of a line. And it's completely awesome, because you knew the line but not exactly where it came from, and there it is, all set up for you to say, "Whadda you got?" along with Marlon Brando. I know the answer!
Johnny (Brando) is the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, and after trying to disrupt a reputable motorcycle race, they roll into a small town looking for kicks, or more likely, to torture the town's inhabitants for the duration of the weekend. Quickly, things go from tense to problematic when one of the members of the BRMC gets into an vehicular accident with one of the townsfolk. The Sheriff, Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) tries to smooth things over, but Johnny refuses to cooperate. He's got an eye on a waitress (Kathie, played by Mary Murphy) at the diner, and a steadfast refusal to cooperate with the police in any manner, so he and his motorcycle gang take up residence at that diner until the injured biker can get patched up by a doctor. While waiting, another club called The Beetles (a splinter group from the BRMC) rolls into town, and led by Chino (Lee Marvin), immediately starts trouble, which gets further and further out of control.
When you're dealing with a movie from another era, you have to deal with the fact that not every aspect of a film is going to age well. "The Wild One" kicks off with a screen that explains it's based on a true story, and that this is a cautionary tale that should be heeded with all seriousness. It's a really dated storytelling device (a cop-out for those who want to watch people behaving badly, or those who would want to make a film on that subject, but don't want to have to defend it on those merits), and I giggle a bit whenever I see a stern warning about hooligans or whatever. But other than that, "The Wild One" is a fun movie that's held up well.
Mostly, that's because of Marlon Brando's iconic performance here. If you're only familiar with Brando's later work (which is true for me - I'm not sure I've seen him in anything earlier than "The Godfather"), "The Wild One" is a bit of a revelation, and of the era a viewer should be referencing if you're trying to understand why he was held in such high regard. Brando's character isn't very verbose, and what he does say doesn't always make a lot of sense. It's something that the other characters pick up on; at this point in this character's life, he's acting on instinct more than having any particular goal or direction. Even he doesn't know why he's so angry and surly, but he is, and acting on those motivations is sure to get him in some serious trouble eventually. Brando has a physical presence here, and that's understating it. Part of it is his size, but his body language and facial expressions never waver in projecting someone who's behaving like he's half-animal (the title refers to his character, of course). Details and fashions might change over the years (although when you're dealing with a stylized outside group like biker gangs, that's less important), but Brando turning in a performance that you can't take your eyes off of is the sort of thing that holds up well.
Brando's not the only one here who does a great job with their material. Lee Marvin's character, a sort of frenemy of Johnny, lives somewhere between menace and a rueful regret about their not being able to get along, and he also busts off some of the best lines of the movie (my favorite is when he's being hauled off to jail in the streets, and he keeps sarcastically bellowing, "Oh, the shame!"). He's a large, chatty character in all the ways that Johnny is not, and the tension between the two characters essentially holds the entire town hostage. And the lead female character, Kathie, seems to put up with much more than you'd expect a good girl to. Mary Murphy does a good job of trying to keep Brando at arm's length, at least until she can figure out what to do with him. Her character is a fascinating one; she's trapped in a small town, and has dreams of someone swooping in and rescuing her from her doldrums. But when this situation becomes plausible, she's terrified, at least partially because it doesn't match up her expectations. Johnny is interested in her, but he's no white knight (which is drilled home with his behavior towards one of the Beetles), and Kathie is aware that whatever interest Johnny has in her is probably not long-term, and probably not something that she's going to be able to have any control over.
On one hand, "The Wild One" is a silly 50's movie about a biker gang with a brooding, misunderstood leader that seems to invite violent reprobation at every step. On the other hand, it's got Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin rocking every scene either is in, to the degree that this is still totally watchable and fun sixty years later. Execution matters, and even if some of the threats that the bikers present seem understated (or unstated), this is still a tight movie with a billion cool, old Triumph motorcycles.
4 / 5 - TV