Almost completely forgotten:
As far as I know, there are four versions of the book: the 1980s version with John Hurt, which is harrowing and utterly faithful, a 1950s TV version starring Eddie Albert - really - and a 1954 BBC version. Then there's this one, from 1956. It begins with an air raid, and the ubiquitous picture of BB in the corner. You may recognize it:
That conception of Big Brother is one of the most enduring, even if people forgot the source material. We meet Winston Smith, played by Edmund O'Brien: he faces the monitor (not a telescreen, but some sort of interrogating electronic eye and performs a ritual to show he's not carrying contraband. Right away, there's a bit of a disconnect with the source material: he looks a bit too well-fed to be Winston.
Parsons, the next-door neighbor with the nasty suspicious brat, is played by Donald Pleasence, and he's a perfect cheerful party tool, a complete believer, ready to demonstrate his enthusiasm.
The Ministry of Truth looks like something out of the Prisoner. You may wonder if the fellow at the desk is O'Brien, the Inner Party man who draws Winston into perdition. But you can't have a movie starring a guy named O'Brien who talks to another guy named O'Brien - so he's named O'Conner.
It's Michael Redgrave, Vanessa's father.
Compared to the epic grunge of the 1984 version, the sets seem small, but they seem "futuristic" without being fancy or ultra-future-modern. They seem like what you might get in 30 years from a totalitarian society.
Of course, there's the two-minute hate. But he's not Goldstein. He's Kalador, which sounds like some alien warlord.
. . . and along comes Big to calm everyone down.
Well, we all know where it's going, right? Winston is fearful of Julia, hates her, fears her, meets her, loves her. We get to see them chat in the cafeteria . . .
Then it's off to the Forest, the primal place, where everything is shed and no one is watching except a distant, forgotten deity. It's the 50s, so a discarded uniform with an Anti-Sex League sash says it all. And really, you'd rather see that than John Hurt's bony shanks working away, wouldn't you.
They find the room where they will steal their hours, and Julia puts on a dress from the Time Before. It's a very Fifties moment:
Donna Reed, live this week from Airstrip One!
As for the trappings of Airstrip One, they're pretty good. Bombed-out buildings weren't hard to find. The graphics are crude and direct.
But the rooms where the Thought Criminals are taken are antiseptic and perfect, unlike the dank despairing cells of the 1984 version. Took me a while to recognize this fellow, and then it hit me: the brave telegraph operator from "A Night To Remember," of course.
The most effective scene in the entire movie is the interrogation of Smith. Note this sequence:
O'Brien appears . . .
. . . then walks away, giving a sense of the depth of the room and the scale of the screen.
How many fingers, Winston? How many?
It's a worthy version, but nothing like the 1984 movie. Few things are. But at least it has a happy ending: he loves Big Brother. And the bullet, while it will come soon enough, does not come yet. When it does, he will be grateful for that, too.