Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll. Elia Kazan. Oh man, this film is as close to perfect as it gets. The script, the acting, the location, the set design, the cinematography, the editing, the pacing, the music, the soundtrack, even the fricking title sequence…nothing goes wrong. That the bar was set so high so long ago is one reason (but no excuse) for how much total crap has come since.

Perfectly cast Karl Malden and Eli Wallach square off over blonde teenage sex bomb Caroll Baker in this Tennessee Williams penned drama in which no one is without sin. Baker’s 17-year old baby doll sleeps in a flimsy sheer white nightie in a crib, sucking her thumb, while her husband—who can’t screw her by agreement with her father until she turns 18—peeps through a hole in the wall. That obscure object of desire, indeed.

The set is so exquisite it makes my head spin. Adapted from a one-act play, most of the movie takes place in and around a single location, a real-life tumble-down antebellum pile that looks like a cross from the big house from Giant (1956) and the haunted mansion ride at Disneyland. Surreal yet vivid, it’s the kind of place Mink Snopes would hide a body.

Karl Malden, sweating, hair thinning, buffoonish yet menacing while bellowing impotently, is so convincing that it’s easy to forget he’s acting.

But it’s Eli Wallach’s movie. It’s his on-screen debut and he steals the show so completely it might be the only flaw in the production. But what a flaw it is! Wallach shifts from slick debonair to wildcat crazy to bedroom farce comedian to suave womanizer to rapacious businessman so effortlessly, the incredible talent and skill goes almost unnoticed. For people who only know him as gold-toothed Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), his acting here is revelatory.

The framing is fantastic. Each shot is composed like a painting, utilizing negative space as a means of commenting on the relationship between characters.

I could go on with further praise, but the proof is in the viewing. See this and realize what film can do when it’s put in the right hands. Pop culture bonus: Rip Torn’s minor yet noteworthy first appearance on-screen!

 

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