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The Third Man

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.

The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.

Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.

However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.

Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.

 

 

 
 

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Ride a Crooked Trail

Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

 Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Walter Matthau, Westerns

 

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Readers Choice 3

I reckon it’s time to feature another Audie Murphy western and I’ve narrowed it down to two options. Seeing as it’s been a while since I offered readers a chance to cast a vote for what they’d like to see, I thought it was a good opportunity to run a poll. The choice is between Tumbleweed (1953) and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). I’ll leave the poll open until midnight on Saturday and will go with the majority decision. Take your pick people.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Movie Adaptations

Where do our favorite movies come from? A fair few have been, and continue to be, the result of original scripts but many are adaptations. While a modern movie may credit a play, a TV show, a comic book, or even a video game as its source, the most traditional inspiration came from the pages of novels and stories. Now there’s an obvious advantage built in here – screenwriters have a fully formed narrative from which they can work. On the other hand, this also imposes certain limitations on creativity, depending on how faithful to or respectful of the original writer’s work it’s considered important to be. The greatest difficulties, from the perspective of the filmmakers, tend to rear up when the work being adapted is particularly well-known or well-regarded. Fans of the author or story have a habit of getting up in arms if they sense the filmmakers are straying too far, either in terms of plot or spirit, from their beloved piece of writing.

Yet that is a situation which is virtually unavoidable. When you get right down to it, we’re talking about different media here, with different aims and different aesthetics. Something which proves successful on the printed page may not, for a whole variety of reasons, translate well to the cinema screen. That may be a consequence of the narrative structure not being especially cinematic – lack of pace and urgency, too great a sweep, or too much stream of consciousness. The point here is that changes, maybe major ones, are frequently not only desirable but also entirely necessary for an adaptation to work on the big screen.

It also begs the question of what exactly constitutes a good source for cinematic adaptation. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that very often it’s safe to say that the more worthy or respected the book, the less satisfactory the resultant movie is. Generally speaking, that is. Hemingway was one of the finest writers of the 20th century, perhaps even the finest, yet the adaptations of his writing have all been somewhat lacking. F Scott Fitzgerald is another who could be said to have suffered a similar fate. Frankly, I’m sure we could all name plenty of renowned writers who have been poorly served by the films their work inspired. Conversely, there are countless highly entertaining, and sometimes artistically impressive, films derived from the kind of pulp writing I’m sure even its creators would cheerfully admit never aspired to being regarded as great literature. So those are my questions for anyone who cares to tackle them: What do think are the best literary adaptations? And why does the anomaly of poor books leading to good films, and vice-versa, exist?

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Underrated Westerns

Just wanted to let readers know that Brian at Rupert Pupkin Speaks has been running a feature on underrated westerns recently and getting contributions from various bloggers. Anyway, he asked me if I’d like to submit some for consideration. I was pleased to do so, and you can see my selection here. While you’re there it’s worth looking through the choices others have made – I think the series is a great idea.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Angel Face

 I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours; I don’t want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander; that’s the guy that always gets hurt.

The femme fatale, the deadly woman, the one whose duplicity, self-interest and machinations lure the protagonist towards danger and doom is widely considered to be a staple of film noir. I’ve even seen some argue that such a figure is an essential element of this style of filmmaking, though I wouldn’t go as far as that myself. And yet she is an important figure, one who has achieved iconic status and entered the everyday vocabulary of even casual film fans. There have been outstanding examples of the femme fatale committed to film: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers and Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross to name just a handful of notables. Those women were all devious, alluring and lethal, and all of them were entirely conscious of their inherent malice. But what of those characters who fall almost accidentally into the category of the fatal woman? What if a woman, by her actions, becomes a femme fatale while her motivations and psychological profile are wholly different? As far as I can see, Angel Face (1952) provides an example of just such a case – a dangerously attractive female of deadly intent who’s also a mass of complexities and contradictions.

An ambulance is called to a Beverly Hills mansion late at night. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil), the owner, has almost died in a gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an attempted suicide or an attempted murder, but in the end everyone seems satisfied that it was probably just one of those unfortunate accidents that occur in the home. With the emergency apparently over and people about to head home, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), one of the ambulance drivers, pauses in the hallway, his attention caught by the figure of a girl at the piano in the drawing-room. This is Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), the owner’s stepdaughter. As Frank stops to offer a word of reassurance, we get a glimpse of the fragile instability of the girl; she’s edgy and prone to hysterics. But more than that, there’s an impulsive, neurotic side to  her. The former is immediately apparent when she follows Frank and essentially picks him up as he ends his shift. The latter, the neurosis, is revealed more gradually as she sets about seducing Frank and drawing him ever deeper into the complicated affairs of the Tremayne household. Diane’s father (Herbert Marshall) is – or rather was – a celebrated writer who has let his talents go to seed, mostly as a result of the pampered lifestyle brought on by a comfortable marriage. In Diane’s eyes her father is, and always will be, her whole world. As such, Catherine is the enemy, the cause of her father’s creative decline and her own consequent dissatisfaction. Almost every noir scenario revolves around the weakness of the protagonists, often their inability to accept responsibility for their own situation in life. And so it is with Diane, everything could be hauled back onto an even keel if only Catherine weren’t there: her father would recover his desire to write and she would be free to make a life with Frank. However, fate has an unfortunate tendency to throw a big awkward spanner in the works and even the best laid plans can go disastrously awry.

It’s very often the case that the most compelling movies had a troubled production history. I don’t know whether it’s down to behind the scenes tensions lending an air of urgency to events on the screen or the people involved becoming more focused on their task. Either way, there are plenty of examples of a poisonous atmosphere bringing about a fine movie. With Howard Hughes in charge of RKO there always seemed to be ample opportunity for discord on the set. Angel Face was essentially a film born of pettiness. Hughes wanted Jean Simmons but she’d recently married Stewart Granger and was having none of it. The upshot of all this was Simmons struck a deal to make a handful of films quickly and thus get out of an unpleasant contract. Her dislike of Hughes and his unwelcome attention was so great that she even chopped off her hair crudely and so was forced to play her role in the film with a slightly odd-looking wig. On top of all that, there were issues with director Otto Preminger. Simmons’ first scene in the picture involved her descending into hysterics and Mitchum bringing her out of it with the application of that cinematic staple, the open-handed slap. Well Preminger apparently didn’t like the way Mitchum pulled the blow, claiming it was going to look phony in close-up. So he had him do it again, and again, and again. With Simmons in tears and Preminger relentless, Mitchum apparently turned on the director and either gave him some of the same treatment or threatened to do so – for more on the tumultuous production, see Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server pp 288-291. Maybe nobody was having a particularly good time on the set but the end result was the taut, highly strung atmosphere of the Tremayne house feels completely authentic.

Angel Face is Jean Simmons’ picture all the way, and gave her one of her most interesting and complex roles. As I said in the introduction, she’s unquestionably the femme fatale of the film, her actions causing chaos, death and misery. Yet she brings an emotional immaturity and insecurity to the part that sets Diane Tremayne apart from the classic interpretation of the femme fatale. If her behavior is seen as selfish, then it’s only a childish form of selfishness. Her hatred for her stepmother only exists as a result of her love and devotion for her father, and her ultimate destruction of Frank is an unwanted side-effect – there’s no malicious calculation involved. Where Simmons really excelled was in her portrayal of the brittleness of the character; her every gesture is suggestive of a young woman tiptoeing around the rim of a moral abyss. Mitchum of course was a past master by this stage at playing the kind of weary types who had bid farewell to hope long ago. The deceptive sleepiness and detachment he’s often accused of perfectly suits the character here – a disillusioned veteran half adrift in a world that he only thinks he’s got a handle on. The supporting cast all do fine work too, the highlights being: Herbert Marshall’s dissipated joviality, Barbara O’Neil’s cool take on the society matron, and Leon Ames as the twisty, unctuous lawyer.

Angel Face is available on DVD via Warner Brothers in the US, and the disc sports a very nice transfer. Everything’s crisp and clean and Harry Stradling’s cinematography always looks good. The DVD also carries a commentary by noir specialist Eddie Muller. Otto Preminger’s noir films are all worthwhile, classy efforts. This one may have had something of a sour background but what we see on screen is hard to fault. For me, the performance of Jean Simmons in a difficult and demanding role is the best thing about it all, but that’s just the icing on the cake. I reckon it’s a must see film noir.

 

 

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A Distant Trumpet

It’s been remarked on before how the 1960s saw a gradual change in approach adopted by the Hollywood western. And it was indeed gradual, up until the middle of the decade, and even a little further in some cases, the influence and sensibilities of the 50s could still be discerned. The change, when it did come, tended to be most marked in the work of the newer breed of directors. The old hands, the pioneers, remained closer to the traditional vision and portrayal of the west. Raoul Walsh, with his earliest directing credit stretching way back to 1913, was most assuredly of the old school, and his final film A Distant Trumpet (1964) has more of the feel of a 50s western than one from the mid-60s.

The film opens spectacularly with a clash between the massed forces of the US cavalry and the Apache. It then cuts swiftly to the academy at West Point where General Quait (James Gregory) is delivering a first hand account of those events to a class of cadets. Among his audience is a young lieutenant Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue), soon to be posted to the remote and undermanned Fort Delivery in Arizona. It’s through Hazard’s idealistic and ambitious eyes that the remainder of the story is seen. The slovenliness, incompetency and insubordination he encounters at the isolated outpost is an affront to the young man’s sense of military propriety. As he assumes the task of whipping the rag-tag detachment into something resembling a modern, disciplined fighting force we get a look at the day-to-day lives of cavalrymen that, in some respects, recalls the work of John Ford. Woven into this is a, not altogether successful, romantic subplot which sees Hazard torn between his betrothed, the General’s niece Laura (Diane McBain), and Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette), the wife of a fellow officer. The second half of the movie sees General Quait and his troops arrive at the fort, and the emphasis shifts to the military campaign to neutralize the threat posed by the renegade Apache War Eagle. Quait’s tactics prove only partially effective however, and achieve not much more than driving War Eagle back across the border into the safety of Mexico. Holed up somewhere deep in the Sierra Madre, War Eagle is at liberty to raid over the border whenever he feels like it. Unless of course someone is prepared to risk his neck going alone into the Apache stronghold to negotiate terms with the old warrior. All told, the latter half of the movie works a lot better, not least because the unsatisfying romance is sidelined for long stretches. Not only are action and spectacle brought to the fore, but there’s greater opportunity to highlight the inherent pro-Indian sympathies of the film.

Raoul Walsh brought a lifetime of experience to the shooting of A Distant Trumpet, and the staging of some of the later battle scenes has an epic quality, aided by the wonderful camerawork of William Clothier. Walsh was always a first class director of action, and location work suited his talents especially well. The wide lens is used very effectively to highlight the vastness of the landscape and, again in a way reminiscent of Ford, the relative insignificance of the tiny humans framed against the primal backdrop. It’s easy to forget though that Walsh had a flair for close-ups and more intimate composition too, and the film offers plenty of chances to sample that aspect of his skill. One of the other great strengths of the production is the score; Max Steiner’s pounding, martial theme adds drive to the film and powers it along. And that brings us to the script, so often the crucial factor when it comes to making or breaking a film. The basis for the movie is a novel by Paul Horgan (not having read it, I can’t comment on how true the adaptation is) and the script derived from this reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the finished product. To begin with the positives: the story told is in effect an account of the latter stages of General Crook’s campaign against the Apache, and Geronimo in particular. Right away we have both a compelling narrative and, just as important, a chance to cast a critical eye over government/army relations and policy towards the Indians. The script treats the Apache with the greatest respect – not phony sentimentalism or misplaced adulation – and adopts a mature and balanced stance. There’s no shying away from atrocities, nor is there any attempt to gloss over government hypocrisy and the shabbiness of broken promises. One could, I suppose, complain about the positive resolution that doesn’t take into account how events really played out, but overall the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the situation. As for the negatives, the aforementioned romance, and consequent soapy elements, isn’t very well realized. It would appear to exist primarily as a means of fleshing out the character of Lt Hazard, however, it actually only serves to bog the picture down and dampen the pace in the first half.

I think of Troy Donahue principally as the star of 50s and 60s soap dramas. I understand his performance isn’t all that well regarded in A Distant Trumpet, but I’ll break ranks here and say that he’s reasonable in certain scenes. He fares best in the latter stages where he’s called on to play the action hero for the most part. His deficiencies are far more noticeable in the intimate scenes though, and that makes the romantic stuff seem even more labored. I guess it doesn’t help any that the parts of Suzanne Pleshette and, more especially, Diane McBain are pretty much under written. Pleshette has the stronger, more sympathetic role, while McBain gets to look glamorous but is saddled with playing a stuck-up, unattractive character. To be honest, McBain’s part could have been cut from the movie and not harmed the narrative one iota. James Gregory is very entertaining and seemed to enjoy playing the Latin-quoting general. Every scene he’s in is all the better for his presence. Claude Akins is good value too as the Indian agent, and purveyor of anything and everything from whiskey and guns to loose women. Generally, the supporting cast is fine with small but memorable roles for Kent Smith, Judson Pratt and William Reynolds.

A Distant Trumpet is widely available these days via the Warner Archive and various European releases. I bought the French Warner Brothers DVD back when it was the only edition available. That’s more than a few years ago now but the transfer still stands up well in my opinion. There’s a nice, crisp and colorful anamorphic scope image that’s basically undamaged. French DVDs can be troublesome when it comes to subtitles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any issues with Warner releases. The subs are easily disabled via the language menu on this one. All in all, the film is what I’d call sporadically successful; there’s a strong story in there with a message that’s subtly expressed and never feels forced. On the other hand, there’s flab in the script too that could and arguably should have been edited out. There’s an ambition to achieve something approaching the epic, but the scripting and some of the casting choices fall short. However, while I have some reservations, I feel the movie works reasonably well on the whole.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in 1960s, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

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The Suspect

A man trapped in a hellish domestic situation and driven over the edge by intolerable circumstances, challenged by a hydra-like fate at every turn. It sounds very much like a typical noir scenario, doesn’t it? Well, swap the glare of neon on rain-swept sidewalks for the soft glow of gaslight on damp cobblestones and it becomes apparent that The Suspect (1944) is indeed classic film noir. The setting may be Edwardian London but the moral dilemma confronting the protagonist leaves no doubt as to what category the movie falls into.

Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton) is essentially a nice guy, we’re reminded of this again and again throughout the film. He’s first seen on his way home from his job in a London tobacconists, pausing outside his front door to exchange pleasantries with his neighbor. As he enters his home though it becomes immediately apparent that all is not as it should be in his personal life. His bitter and acid-tongued wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) informs him that their only son is moving out; a temper tantrum and the ensuing actions of Cora having proven to be the final straw for the boy. Marshall himself accepts the news calmly enough, it’s nothing he hasn’t been expecting though it also acts as something of a watershed as far as his own attitude to the marriage is concerned. Exasperated by Cora’s shrewish behaviour, Marshall moves into his son’s old room and seals what amounts to a de facto separation. The situation is reinforced, and is moved onto another level, when he meets Mary Gray (Ella Raines). As these two lonely people gradually embark on a relationship, the first instance of the film’s ambivalent morality comes to the fore. Essentially, Marshall and Mary are indulging in infidelity yet the seemingly chaste nature of their relationship, coupled with the not insignificant fact that both of them appear genuinely happy in each other’s company, encourages us to view it in a wholly sympathetic light. Matters are muddied still further when Cora’s poisonous nature threatens Mary’s future, even though Marshall has reluctantly agreed to end the affair. Everything heats up from this point as Marshall finds himself facing a dilemma, and the only solution he can see is the removal of Cora. Again, our moral sense tells us that this is wrong, and again the vile spitefulness of Cora ranged against the likeability of Marshall (and Mary) means the viewers face their own ethical quandary. The Suspect though is an extremely clever piece of filmmaking, and the decision not to show the murder actually taking place is a further example of its deft manipulation of the audience. By taking this approach, the movie leaves at least a seed of doubt in our minds – it almost feels like it wants to encourage us to believe that Marshall may not really have done away with Cora. Thus far we’ve seen a dysfunctional marriage, an apparently doomed romance, infidelity and murder. However, before the credits roll blackmail, the persecution of the innocent and the possibility of some kind of redemption are all stirred into the mix. I won’t go into details regarding the ending here, but I will say that I felt it adopted a nice ambiguous tone, one that is entirely appropriate given all that’s gone before. Personally, I consider it another example of the film’s skill in sidestepping the strictures of the Hays Code – the door remains open (albeit by only a hair’s breadth) for the kind of resolution the moral guardians of the time would have certainly frowned upon.

Robert Siodmak remains one of the most important figures in the development of film noir throughout the 1940s. His work, taken as a whole, would serve as a pretty good introduction to this style of filmmaking, and his movies are easily up there among my favorites. He started off his noir cycle quite brilliantly with Phantom Lady and then moved on to the odd and unsettling Christmas Holiday. The latter film began to explore the corrosive effects of an unconventional family dynamic and The Suspect continues this focus on troubles in the home, although from a different angle. In fact, Siodmak would go on to expand on this theme in his next noir project too, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry; the films actually have some elements in common, namely Ella Raines turning up to charm lonely men trapped by suffocating domestic arrangements. Much of the movie is consequently shot indoors, particularly in Marshall’s home, and makes good use of the atmospheric set design that was typical of Universal productions. I mentioned before that Cora’s death is never shown, but there is a marvelous sequence where the dogged detective, Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges), visits Marshall and reconstructs the crime. The whole thing takes place on the staircase with Marshall at the foot and Huxley enveloped in the shadows on the landing. As Huxley narrates his theory as to how events may have played out, the detective is literally absorbed into the darkness and the camera darts back and forth between the positions he imagines Marshall and Cora occupied. While it only lasts a few minutes, it really draws you in and neatly highlights the flair and artistry of Siodmak.

Charles Laughton was one of those larger than life actors who was forever in danger of overcooking a performance – anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn will know exactly what I mean – but could also display great subtlety when handled correctly. Siodmak seems to have reined him in successfully and the result is a finely nuanced portrait of a man resigned to a life of disappointment who’s offered a glimpse of fulfillment. A character such as Philip Marshall could quite easily fall into the villainous category, and it’s to Laughton’s credit (with the assistance of that clever script) that he remains such a sympathetic figure at all times. Of course the fact that Laughton found himself paired off with Ella Raines doesn’t hurt either. At first glance Laughton and Raines make for an unlikely couple. Still, it works on screen, and Raines’ ability to project her particular brand of alluring loyalty (a quality Siodmak clearly recognized and exploited very well in their three collaborations) plays a significant part in that. Rosalind Ivan’s role as Cora is a thankless one in that her character honestly has no redeeming features; every time the audience might feel some vague stirring of sympathy she quickly reverts to type. Nevertheless, as a textbook example of bile and vindictiveness, it’s remarkably effective. The real villain of the piece, the man who elicits the most antipathy, is Henry Daniell. He pretty much built an entire career on playing slimy, scheming ne’er do wells and The Suspect offered another opportunity to get his teeth into such a part. He’s supercilious, unscrupulous and self-absorbed – a character it’s uncommonly easy to despise. And finally, a brief mention for Stanley Ridges. Always a reliable presence in any film, Ridges brings a calm authority to his performance as the detective who appears almost reluctant to do his duty.

Some of Siodmak’s noir pictures have proven pretty difficult to see over the years, though the situation has improved somewhat. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is currently only available in fairly poor quality (although a pretty good print has been broadcast on TV) but it seems to be earmarked as a future release by Olive in the US. The Suspect is another of the elusive ones; it was released on DVD in Spain a few years back and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy. That edition now seems to have gone out of print, although there do appear to be copies still available. There’s also an Italian release but I can’t comment on that – I do have a few other titles by that company though and have had no complaints thus far. The Spanish DVD is taken from an unrestored print – there are small scratches, cue blips and the like – but it still looks quite nice. The contrast, always important when it comes to noir, is fine and the film has been transferred progressively. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub. Also, there are no problems with subtitles – they’re optional and can be disabled from the setup menu. As a fan of Siodmak’s work, I like the film a lot. There is a certain amount of melodrama on show but it’s of the attractive noir variety. Laughton is excellent and admirably restrained, and the presence of Ella Raines is very welcome. Most of all though, I enjoyed the way the tale manipulates and subverts our notions of morality. Overall, it’s a quality entry in Siodmak’s noir series and recommended viewing.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

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The House of the Seven Hawks

The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) has a potentially interesting premise. There’s an American charter boat skipper with a laid-back approach to the law operating out of a foreign port, which straight away recalls Harry Morgan in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. There’s a trio of shadowy figures – a fat man, an effete and prissy assistant, and a none too smart bodyguard – plotting on the periphery, so it’s hard not to be reminded of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Naturally, we also have a brace of females whose motives and loyalties are difficult to pin down. Such a setup promises much, but the movie itself delivers only sporadically.

John Nordley is scratching out a living on the English coast, hiring out his boat for charter. Despite not having clearance to leave British waters, his latest client – an elderly Dutchman going by the name of Anselme (Gerard Heinz) – promises a fat reward if Nordley will run him as far as the Netherlands. Bearing in mind the money involved, Nordley reckons it’s worth the risk and agrees. Unfortunately, just as the vessel is in sight of its destination, Nordley finds that his passenger has passed away in his cabin. A quick search reveals that Anselme had a kind of crude map overlay taped to his body. Sensing it could be important, Nordley appropriates the document, and his suspicions are borne out when a young woman in a motor launch (Linda Christian) turns up purporting to be the deceased’s daughter. Not finding the document, she quickly takes off, and events move pretty fast at this point. It turns out that the dead man was in reality a member of the Dutch police traveling incognito and the document is sought by those on both sides of the law. As such, Nordley has stumbled into a murky situation where everyone seems to know a whole lot more than he does, yet his cooperation, or at least his apparent knowledge of the whereabouts of the map key, is in great demand. What it all boils down to is a hunt for missing Nazi loot, and Nordley has his hands full trying to stay one step ahead of the police, criminals and duplicitous women.

Adapted from a Victor Canning novel, The House of the Seven Hawks flatters to deceive. As I mentioned above, all the ingredients would seem to be in place for an intriguing little thriller. And yet it never really sparks into life. Richard Thorpe’s direction is passable enough, and the location work in the Netherlands is attractive. Still, with the exception of a handful of scenes it all looks a bit nondescript. This kind of tale cries out for some moody or interesting visuals to generate or accentuate the suspense and mystery elements, but that rarely happens. However, a bigger problem is the script. I haven’t read Canning’s novel so I can’t say whether the fault lies with the source material or Jo Eisinger’s adaptation. Either way, the fact remains that the pace fades once the action moves to the Netherlands. The movie runs for around 90 minutes and I think it could have been a better piece if a bit of trimming had been done. There’s too much talk and a lot of it’s pretty dull to boot.

What kept my interest in the movie alive was mainly the presence of Robert Taylor. He’d had a great run in the movies throughout the 50s and had some first-rate work under his belt. His role here as the skipper with a fondness for bending the rules when the price was right seems like a good piece of casting. In truth, he doesn’t disappoint, although the part fails to offer the depth or complexity that played to his strengths as a performer. It’s Taylor’s sardonic and cynical delivery of some pretty banal dialogue that just about keeps the whole thing afloat though. At first, I thought that Linda Christian’s femme fatale was going to provide the movie with a much needed lift, but she’s given far too little to do and disappears far too soon. Which means that there’s more screen time for Nicole Maurey, but her character is a lot less interesting. As it happens, I recently watched Ms Maurey in Robert Hamer’s The Scapegoat, where she was handed a far better role. Eric Pohlmann and David Kossoff played the principal villains, the latter adding a touch of quirky humor, but it has to be said they don’t manage to create the necessary degree of menace; there’s never the feeling that Taylor won’t be able to handle this pair. The other supporting roles of note are filled by Donald Wolfit and Philo Hauser.

The House of the Seven Hawks is a film I’d never seen until I picked up the DVD a while back. It’s available in the US as part of the Warner Archive and as a pressed disc in Italy. I have that Italian release and I have to say it presents the film nicely. The image is 1.78:1 and generally looks fine, without any noticeable print damage and it’s pretty sharp throughout. There’s the option to watch the film in English either with or without Italian subtitles and an Italian dub is also available. Extras consist of the trailer and a gallery. So, how does the movie stack up overall? Personally, I have a soft spot for thrillers of this era and anything with Robert Taylor is always welcome. Having said that, there’s no getting away from the fact that the movie doesn’t represent the best of either. In all honesty, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and done better.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Robert Taylor

 

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The Hanging Tree

I came to town to search for gold
And I brought with me a memory
And I seemed to hear the night winds cry
Go hang your dreams on the hanging tree
Your dreams of love that will never be
Hang your faded dreams on the hanging tree. – Mack David & Jerry Livingston

Redemption and its near relative salvation are in many ways the cornerstones of the classic western. These twin themes recur throughout the genre and lie at the heart of all the great westerns. Allied to these concepts is the notion of spiritual rebirth, the discovery of that indefinable something which serves to draw lost and damaged souls back from limbo. The Hanging Tree (1959) successfully explores all these elements and is a beautifully constructed piece, cyclical and symmetrical, and rich in the kind of life-affirming positiveness that I’ve come to see as one of the integral aspects of director Delmer Daves’ western work.

Montana 1873, the lure of gold has drawn all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to the territory in search of riches. It’s a nomadic, rootless life for those following the gold trail, traipsing from one settlement to another as the hopes of making that big strike ebb and flow. Joe Frail (Gary Cooper) is one of those drifting through the  west, although his motives appear less certain. Frail is a doctor, and seems more interested in the opportunity to keep on the move than in any desire to become wealthy. Newly arrived in yet another shanty encampment that has sprung up around the prospectors’ claims, Frail has no sooner secured a place to stay than he finds himself saving the life of a young man. Rune (Ben Piazza) is a sluice robber, attempting to snatch nuggets from the workings, and running from a trigger-happy lynch mob. Frail takes him in, treats his wound, and keeps him on as a bonded servant in lieu of payment. Thus we have the first instance of salvation, Frail protecting Rune from the hanging tree which he eyes with an air of fatalism at the opening. As the doctor sets up practice it’s gradually revealed that this laconic and reserved man has a shadowy past and a reputation as an accomplished gunman. The second person to be saved is a Swedish immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), the sole survivor of a stagecoach robbery. Suffering from exposure and temporarily blinded, Elizabeth is found by Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), one of those amoral types that exist around gold camps, and nursed back to health by Frail. It’s at this point that the story becomes most involving. Prior to this there were only hints and oblique allusions to the doctor’s inner pain. Frail is a man buried in the past, emotionally entombed and haunting the world of the living rather than actually participating in it. As Elizabeth’s affection for Frail slowly blossoms into love, the doctor draws back and distances himself. Elizabeth’s confusion is shared by the viewer as it’s apparent that Frail is attached to her but unwilling or unable to take the leap of faith necessary. The reasons for this hesitancy masquerading as indifference do become clear as the tale progresses, but it’s only when Frail is also dragged before the hanging tree that a resolution is achieved. The film’s powerful and emotive climax sees the hero’s protective yet stifling armor stripped away and the ultimate redemption, salvation and rebirth realized.

Delmer Daves made some of the finest westerns of the 1950s and it’s only fitting that he should round off the decade with a work as layered, sensitive and complex as The Hanging Tree. As I said in my introduction, the structure of the film is carefully judged. Not only is it book-ended by Marty Robbins’ wonderful rendition of the title song, but it also opens and closes with the figure of Cooper, having undergone a major spiritual reawakening over the course of the story, beneath the hanging tree. The film is packed with symbolism, fire and trees being the most prominent. In both cases, we are encouraged to view these elements in a positive and negative light. Fire is initially referred to, though not seen, as representative of Doc Frail’s traumatic past. When it appears again near the end though it takes on a cathartic quality, burning away the negativity which has dogged him. And of course the focus on trees is even more significant. There are two trees of note: the hanging tree of the title and the one overlooking Elizabeth and Frenchy’s claim. The former naturally calls most attention to itself; the gnarled, clawing branches suggestive of guilt, punishment and death. And yet by the end it comes to symbolize something entirely different – renewal, permanence and the birth of a new life. That other tree, the one which eventually falls into the river, has to be viewed as a positive feature too. It’s destruction of the claim reveals the treasure hidden among its roots, the cache of nuggets which will both precipitate the final confrontation and eventually liberate the characters. Aside from all this, the location shooting and the camera positions of Daves and cinematographer Ted McCord also help focus on the subtext. The fact that Frail chooses a home high on a cliff above the swarming anthill of the mining camp serves to emphasize the remoteness and distance of the character.

Gary Cooper was an ideal piece of casting as the taciturn and aloof Joe Frail, his weathered features perfectly reflecting the emotionally desiccated man he was portraying. It’s not uncommon to read critical comments about Cooper’s acting, often failing to appreciate the subtle and understated nature of the man’s work. As with all the great screen actors, Cooper understood and used the little things, the twitch of a facial muscle or the quick glance that reveal more than pages of dialogue and overt emoting ever could. It’s not the first time that the point has been made that a good western is so often elevated by the presence of a strong female role, and Maria Schell’s performance in The Hanging Tree provides a good illustration of this. Frankly, she hardly puts a foot wrong at any point, from her initial helplessness and vulnerability, through the confusion prompted by her rejection, to her eventual emergence as an independent and complete woman. If the movie is really about Frail’s journey I think it’s also fair to say that it would be a meaningless and hollow affair had it not been for the strength of Schell’s character; she is vital to the story and Schell’s beautiful playing of the part gives it that little extra something that makes it special. While Frail’s own internal conflict is the main focus, Karl Malden as the lecherous prospector whose unwanted advances bring matters to a head adds another layer. Malden brought out the earthy, feral qualities of Frenchy and his uncouth impulsiveness makes for a fine contrast with Frail’s wounded gentility. In support, Ben Piazza gets a fair bit of screen time and is fair enough as the boy who first resents his savior’s cool arrogance before gradually warming to him and becoming a firm ally. The other parts of note are filled by Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg as the sympathetic storekeeper and his shrewish wife. Additionally, the ever reliable (and always welcome) John Dierkes flits in and out of proceedings, as does George C Scott, making a showy debut as a venomous preacher/healer.

The Hanging Tree has been available on DVD from a variety of European sources for quite some time now, but always in faded, full-frame transfers. The MOD disc from the Warner Archive improves on these previous iterations in pretty much all areas. The print used is certainly not pristine, displaying the odd scratch and blemish, but it is in the correct widescreen ratio and is much more colorful than anything I’ve seen before. The only extra feature offered on the disc is the theatrical trailer. It’s fascinating to follow how the western grew and built upon its inherent strengths throughout the 1950s, and the end of that decade saw it reach full maturity. The Hanging Tree is certainly a mature work of art, a finely judged and multi-layered examination of human nature and human relationships. For me, these late 50s westerns demonstrate not only what the genre was capable of but what cinema itself had to offer. The more I watch, write and think about the westerns of Delmer Daves, the higher his stock rises. I guess it’s clear enough that I both like and respect The Hanging Tree a lot. I consider it one of my favorites in the genre and I haven’t the least hesitation in strongly recommending it. It’s an absolute must for anyone who appreciates or cares about the western.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in 1950s, Delmer Daves, Gary Cooper, Westerns

 

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