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Monthly Archives: April 2008

Hour of the Gun

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Ten years after making Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Director John Sturges paid a return visit to Tombstone. Where his earlier film drew to a close with the shootout of the title, Hour of the Gun takes it as the starting point and proceeds from there. Although the 1967 movie is more or less a direct sequel, it is a very different production. Those intervening ten years had seen the western evolve away from a brighter optimism to become something much darker. The Wyatt Earp of Hour of the Gun is far removed from the upstanding representative of justice and honour that had previously been the standard. This is a driven, vengeful man who manipulates the law more than he upholds it. 

The first half of the film sticks pretty close to the known facts and it is only towards the end that it drifts off into the realm of fantasy. It opens at the O.K. Corral and is quite accurate in depicting what actually happened; all those involved in the real incident are shown to be there and, for the first time, behave in the way that history has recorded. The story continues with the trial of the Earps and what would come to be known as the Earp vendetta. It is only the ending, where Wyatt and Doc Holliday track down Ike Clanton in Mexico for a final confrontation, that departs radically from the truth. However, aside from greater vercity, the most distinctive feature of this film is the way Wyatt Earp is portrayed. In all the previous versions he was a man whose primary motivation was the service of justice and the badge of office that symbolised it. In Hour of the Gun he starts off in much the same mode, but the attacks on his family bring about a rapid and drastic change. This Wyatt Earp is an anti-heroic figure paying only lip service to the law as he takes advantage of his position to exact a cold and bloody revenge on those he holds responsible for the shootings of his brothers. Although he carries arrest warrants, it becomes increasingly clear to his companions on the posse, and to the viewer, that he has no intention of ever serving them. One by one, the hired gunmen are shot down in what amount to legal executions. 

Jason Robards & James Garner

If you’re only familiar with James Garner as the easy-going Jim Rockford, then his work here is a revelation. His Wyatt Earp doesn’t indulge in shy romances or offer fatherly advice to wayward teens – he is instead the angel of death. For the most part he comes across as aloof and unemotional, yet there is a maniacal, almost psychopathic, gleam in his eyes in those scenes where he blasts away his enemies. Jason Robards was frankly too old to play Doc Holliday although he brings a world-weary cynicism to the part that is attractive. The script makes a number of references to his deadly reputation but his main function in the film is to act as the conscience to Earps dark avenger, taking him to task for using the law to his own ends. Robert Ryan was always good value in any film which he graced with his presence, and his Ike Clanton is more of a politically savvy string-puller than an out and out gunslinger. There’s also a small role for Jon Voight (his big screen debut) as Curly Bill Brocius. The direction from Sturges is a solid, professional job and the story moves along at a nice pace. I’ve become very fond of Sturges as a director; he was no groundbreaker or innovator like Ford, Peckinpah or Leone but he almost always turned out strong, quality product. The film also benefits from a fine Jerry Goldsmith score, downbeat and relentless like the story itself. 

Hour of the Gun seems to be the Wyatt Earp film that no one remembers, and that’s a pity. I think it’s a little hidden gem of a movie that deserves much more recognition. MGM have had this out on DVD in R1 for a few years now in a mediocre interlaced transfer. It’s recently had a R2 outing in what looks like the same print but this time it seems progressive – at least it runs a lot smoother on my system. All things considered, I’d say this is a worthy addition to the Earp canon and a film that I’m more than happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2008 in 1960s, James Garner, John Sturges, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

Cheyenne Autumn

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John Ford made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 and with it he bade farewell to the western, the genre with which he was and is most frequently associated. By his own admission, Ford wanted this to be his attempt at setting the record straight with regard to the injustices visited upon the American Indians. Taken as such, it is fairly successful in depicting a people hounded almost to the point of extinction, without indulging in the politically correct schmaltz that more recent Indian centered epics have fallen prey to. Yet it is not a perfect film and does have its faults, not the least of which are the uneven tone and, to a lesser extent, some of the casting decisions.

The story concerns the Cheyenne who, having been moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, were dying a slow death as a result of disease, starvation and neglect. When a promised meeting with a Congressional committee fails to materialise, they take the bold and, in their minds the only viable, decision to strike out on a march back to their tribal homeland in Montana, 1500 miles to the north. Their journey is seen from the perspective of both the Cheyenne chiefs (Gilbert Roland & Ricardo Montalban) and the soldiers (under the command of Richard Widmark) charged with running them to ground. While the film’s sympathy lies with the hunted, the main focus is on the the various soldiers and civilians who pursue or encounter them. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film; a weakness because the characters of the Cheyenne are never explored in any great depth. The strength comes from the way the white characters are represented as holding a whole variety of, often conflicting, views on the fugitives.

The roles of the principal Cheyenne characters are filled by Mexicans (Montalban, Roland & Dolores Del Rio) and an Italian (Sal Mineo). In truth, this doesn’t work out too badly (I’ve never felt that a part can/should only be played by an actor of the same ethnic origin as the character – it’s called ‘acting’ fer chrissakes!) although Sal Mineo is far too much of a wuss to be taken seriously as a fiery Cheyenne warrior. Richard Widmark is good, as always, as the reluctant cavalryman who knows he has a job to do but also knows he doesn’t have to enjoy it. Pat Wayne is quite wooden as a young Lieutenant who experiences a “road to Damascus” type conversion, going from rabid bloodlust to outraged empathy over the course of the story. Karl Malden is a caricature of a Prussian officer whose blind devotion to duty and orders ultimately leads to tragedy. There are also small roles for George O’Brien (a ‘the-only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian’ Major) and Sean McClory (a professional Irishman). Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jnr appear as cavalrymen and get to show off some mighty impressive horse-riding skills – and there’s a nice running joke where Widmark can never remember that Carey is playing a character called Smith, referring to him variously as Jones, Murphy etc.

Figures in a landscape - a typical Ford shot.

Now a word about the Wyatt Earp scene in the movie. To be blunt, I hated it when I first saw it and I still hate it. The whole thing feels wrong, like it was grafted in from another picture. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film – that bad! We get twenty minutes of Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) playing poker in Dodge City and having their game interrupted by the news of the Cheyenne being sighted nearby. There follows a Wacky Races type chase through the desert, culminating in a saloon girl losing her dress and winding up with her legs around Stewarts neck. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. In his biography of Ford, Joe McBride claims that the director used this sequence as a means of highlighting (through satire) the casual racism of the civilian population, but I don’t buy it. That bigotry had already been shown when a trail hand (Ken Curtis) callously murdered and scalped an Indian begging for food. In fact, the power of the aforementioned scene is effectively ruined by the subsequent clowning of Curtis in Dodge. I can’t think what came over Pappy but this part of the movie definitely didn’t need to be shot.

Warners put Cheyenne Autumn out on DVD as part of their ‘John Ford Film Collection’. As far as I know it is still only available as part of that set. The transfer is probably the best of all the films in the collection. It’s anamorphic scope with no damage of any consequence and strong true colors. The disc carries a commentary from Joe McBride and a featurette on the film and the historical events that inspired it. Maybe it’s not Ford’s best film but it works well enough for the most part, offering a different perspective from Pappy yet retaining his trademark visual and narrative touches.

 
 

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

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With Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) John Sturges took his turn at putting Wyatt Earp’s story on the screen. When this film is compared to those which went before, there can be no doubt that it does come closer to the truth. There are more characters represented who actually played a part in the real events, small incidents which have a basis in fact are shown, and a little back story is provided. Having said all that, there are still lots of inaccuracies with names being changed and things not happening as they really did. Still, this is not a documentary, it’s a movie – and a highly polished and entertaining movie at that. 

Frankie Laine’s rendition of the title song opens the movie as Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) rides into Fort Griffin, Texas in pursuit of Ike Clanton. During his stay he meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), whom he subsequently saves from an angry mob intent on lynching him. This places Holliday in his debt and provides the basis for the two men’s friendship. As the film proceeds we see Earp and Holliday cross paths again in Dodge City before moving on to Tombstone, and the famous showdown. The fact that each segment is both punctuated and linked together by the theme song gives the film a slightly episodic feel. Mind you, that’s not a criticism; Laine’s vocals work almost as well as Tex Ritter’s do in High Noon (both of which, coincidentally, were scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). There are romantic sub-plots thrown in for the two leads – the one involving Earp and a lady gambler (Rhonda Fleming) is mostly superflous, while the stormy, abusive relationship between Holliday and Kate (Jo Van Fleet) works better since it does serve to drive the narrative forward.

Doc Holliday and the Earps on the way to the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the second film that Lancaster and Douglas made together and they work well in tandem, each playing nicely off the other. Lancaster’s Wyatt has more of a hard, grim edge to him than was seen in previous incarnations. At one point Holliday tells him, “You know Wyatt, you and I are pretty much alike actually. Both of us live with a gun – the only difference is that badge.” However, Sturges doesn’t explore this side of things too much, and it would be left to later films to point out the fact that Earp’s badge might have been used as a mere convenience. Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday follows the usual pattern of presenting him as a tortured and volatile soul, but his self-loathing has a greater pathos than either Romero or Mature brought to the role, and it’s a vast improvement. John Ireland makes his second appearance in an Earp film, playing Johnny Ringo (he was Billy Clanton in My Darling Clementine) and again comes to a sticky end. In fact there are lots of familiar faces: Dennis Hopper, Kenneth Tobey, DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s ‘Bones’), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam etc.

Now a word about those items the movie got right, and those it didn’t. On the plus side we get a full complement of Clantons and McLaurys, Doc’s woman Kate is present, and Bat Masterson appears in Dodge City. Earp and Holliday are shown to meet in Fort Griffin and later in Dodge, where Doc saved Wyatt’s life as he attempted to stop a fight in a saloon. There’s also a brief reference to Old Man Clanton being shot dead as a result of his rustling activities. As for the negatives, James Earp is again falsely portrayed as the youngster of the family whose death is the catalyst for the gunfight – in truth he was the eldest and lived to a ripe old age. Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo didn’t die at the O.K. Corral, Ringo wasn’t even there. Also, the corrupt County Sheriff has his name changed from Behan to Wilson. 

The film is out on DVD from Paramount in R1 in a wonderful looking widescreen transfer. I haven’t seen the R2 to compare but I imagine it uses the same transfer. There is only very minor damage to the print and the colors are strong. Unfortunately, the disc is utterly barebones with not even a trailer present. The lack of supplements aside, this a great example of a 50’s western and one of the better movies about Wyatt Earp.

 
 

Winchester 73

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Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. Jimmy Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin – something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

James Stewart crosses over to the dark side.

Jimmy Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean – lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by Jimmy Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries – but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2008 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, Dan Duryea, James Stewart, Westerns

 

My Darling Clementine

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John Ford always maintained that his version of the events at the OK Corral was based on conversations that the director had had with Wyatt Earp himself. While Ford probably did know Earp (the old lawman reputedly spent a lot of time on and around the early Hollywood sets in his later years) and likely talked with him about what happened in Tombstone, the story played out in My Darling Clementine (1946) is most assuredly not the truth. Despite Ford’s grandiose claims of authenticity, his film is really a remake of Dwan’s Frontier Marshal. Both movies were based on the Stuart N. Lake book, and both are highly romanticised accounts. The difference is that, where Dwan’s film is a workmanlike effort, Ford’s take has all those little artistic touches that move it onto another level. Of course Ford was known for spinning the most outrageous yarns when it suited him, but the huge historical errors don’t change the fact that his film is still the best version by far of the famous story.

The Earp brothers actually feature in this film unlike the earlier version from Dwan. Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) stop off outside of Tombstone while on a cattle drive. On the recommendation of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) they take a trip into town, leaving little brother James to stand watch over the herd. On their return the three older brothers find their cattle have been rustled and James killed. Suspecting the Clantons of perpetrating the crime, Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. What follows is a picture of the emergence of civilisation (most notably represented by the founding of the town’s first church), and the effects it has on the characters.

Wyatt is transformed from a dusty, unshaven trail hand into the coiffed and suit-wearing face of the law and civic respectability. The scene where Wyatt primly escorts Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) along the main street of Tombstone towards the new church, with the strains of ‘Shall we gather at the river’ playing in the background, is deservedly famous and remains one of the most touching and romantic sequences ever put on film. This contrasts sharply with the Clantons, who are shown as a bunch of barely human barbarians. A marvellously sadistic moment takes place when Old Man Clanton savagely horse whips his sons before berating them : “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” The bridge between the two extremes is provided by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) – a man with a cultured background (at one point quoting from Hamlet to help out a drunken actor) who is consumed with self loathing at the knowledge of what he has become. 

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) calling the shots at the OK Corral.  

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt with nobility and that quiet dignity that he seemed to bring to all his roles. The self-conscious diffidence he shows fits perfectly for a man who has been more accustomed to living rough in the wilds. It’s no bad thing either that Fonda always seemed comfortable in a western setting, able to mount and sit a horse naturally. I wish I could say the same thing for Victor Mature but, however hard I try, I just cannot accept him in western roles. I’ve seen Mature in many other genre films and thought him fine, but when it comes to westerns – no thanks. I know this is just a personal prejudice but, for me, his casting doesn’t work at all. Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton makes for a wonderful villain, a figure of pure evil who has moulded his sons in his own image – especially the leering Billy (John Ireland) and the slow-witted, and vaguely psychotic, Ike (Grant Withers). Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua is something of a caricature of the typical Mexican spitfire, but she does elicit a lot of sympathy as a woman passionately in love with a man who repeatedly spurns her.

Since the bulk of the story takes place in and around Tombstone, Ford makes less use of Monument Valley than he would in other pictures. However, there are a few scenes that feature his favorite location and they look magnificent as always. Much attention is paid to the town, to all the little rituals of frontier life, and the variety of characters who inhabit it. The celebration of community is pure Ford and you get the feeling he enjoyed recreating this much more than he did the action scenes. Having said that, the inevitable shootout at the OK Corral, though wildly inaccurate, is both stylish and excitingly executed.

My Darling Clementine has been available for some time now on DVD from Fox, but has recently been reissued with the addition of Frontier Marshal as an extra. The transfer is exactly the same on the new disc, but that’s not a criticism since there wasn’t much that needed improvement anyway. You get to choose between the final release version of the film and the pre-release cut, and I’m not really sure which I prefer. I feel the edited version is tighter but I also think Ford’s original cut of the farewell scene between Wyatt and Clementine is better. I suppose we should be grateful that we have both versions to compare. Either way, this is a special film and one that does reward repeated viewings. 

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2008 in 1940s, Henry Fonda, John Ford, Victor Mature, Westerns

 

Frontier Marshal

Wyatt Earp was and is one of the most enduring figures in the mythology of the Old West. I’ve always enjoyed seeing how such people were represented on film, how those representations have evolved over time, and how that evolution reflects changes in the western itself. I’d been planning on running a series of pieces on the various movie incarnations of Wyatt Earp – so here goes. I’m going to look at as many of the screen portrayals of the man as possible; both those that have the famous lawman as the main character, and those that only feature him incidentally. I don’t say that this will be an exhaustive list but it will deal with all the major films chronologically.

1939 was something of a defining year for the western, a turning point – the year the genre started to grow up. After the box office failure of The Big Trail (1930) the western found itself relegated to B movie status. Studios were unwilling to lavish money on what they saw as a bad risk, and so the western would languish on the bottom half of the bill for the remainder of the decade. 1939 was to change all that. John Ford’s Stagecoach, De Mille’s Union Pacific, and Henry King’s Jesse James showed that there was still gold to be found in ‘them thar hills’, and the western returned to A list respectability. Along with those illustrious titles came Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal.

I suppose I should start by saying that if you’re one of those who are sticklers for historical accuracy, then this is not the film for you. This adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s book has a character called Wyatt Earp, who was a lawman in Tombstone – and that’s about as close to the real facts as it gets. In fact, the movie might just as well have been about any marshal in any burgeoning frontier town. There’s a nice little montage sequence at the beginning that establishes the birth and growth of Tombstone, before introducing Earp (Randolph Scott). It’s made abundantly clear that Tombstone is a wide open town where pretty much anything goes. Earp finds himself reluctantly roped into the job of marshal and, by extension, into conflict with the town’s less savoury elements – outlaw Curly Bill Brocius (Joe Sawyer) and his saloon-keeping ally Ben Carter (John Carradine). He also meets the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero), although for some unfathomable reason the script chooses to refer to him as ‘Halliday’. Together, the two heroes take on the might of the criminals in an effort to bring law and order to the streets of Tombstone, culminating in the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. This scene is pure fantasy since the only relationship to the truth here is that it involves Wyatt Earp and has some people getting shot.

Cesar Romero & Randolph Scott as Doc & Wyatt.

Randolph Scott plays Earp as an arrow straight hero. It’s not a bad performance and more or less par for the course for the era. In later years, Scott would show his ability to play much more complex characters but he was rarely given the opportunity to do so at this stage in his career. Cesar Romero is surprisingly good as the guilt-ridden Doc, though it has to be said that the part has afforded the chance to shine to every actor who ever played the role. The outlaws are portrayed as the standard cardboard cutout villains, although John Carradine always lends a touch of class to any part. Some time I must do a count of how many films I own that feature Carradine, for he seems to turn up everywhere. And while I’m talking about ubiquitous actors, there are parts also for Ward Bond and Lon Chaney Jr. Binnie Barnes is the tough saloon singer in love with Doc, and competes for his affections with the more refined Nancy Kelly. One other interesting piece of casting has Eddie Foy Jr playing his own father, who was supposed to have been performing in Tombstone when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.

Generally, this is a pretty decent western, and only fails if you expect to learn something about the real Wyatt Earp. There are no Clanton’s, no McLaury’s, and no Virgil or Morgan Earp. If you view it as simply another western about a marshal cleaning up the town, it works well enough. The film  is now available as a bonus feature on the recent R1 ‘Ford at Fox’ release of My Darling Clementine. While it is included in the smaller sub-set it is missing from the full box, but there was a mail-in to allow those who missed out on it to receive the film. The presentation of what is essentially just an extra is excellent, with a very nice, clean transfer. There’s even a trailer and stills gallery included – another fine piece of work from Fox.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2008 in 1930s, Allan Dwan, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Dangerous Crossing

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How many people are familiar with the name John Dickson Carr? I suspect the answer is very few, yet from the 1930s through the 1960s he was one of the best known writers of mystery fiction. In the decades since he has faded into relative obscurity while his contemporary Agatha Christie has remained a recognizable commodity with the general public. Both of these writers specialised in detective stories that were notable not for their strong characterization but for their clever, and sometimes ingenious, plotting. However, one has remained highly marketable and the other has not – why? The changing taste of the reading public is no good as an explanation since the work of both of them is very much a product of its time. No, the answer may lie in the fact that, at least from the 1970s on, Christie’s writing has been regularly adapted for both television and the big screen. So, as a big fan of Carr, it’s refreshing to see a film available that was sourced from his work.

A newlywed bride (Jeanne Crain) stands on the dock waiting for her husband (Carl Betz). When he arrives they both board the transatlantic liner that will carry them off on their honeymoon. Their happiness, though, is destined to be a short-lived affair. While the husband goes off to see the purser, the wife agrees to meet him in the bar and waits there. It’s a long wait, and when she tries to find him it appears that no one else on the ship has ever laid eyes on the groom. As an increasingly paranoid Crain roams the fog bound ship in an effort to trace her missing spouse, and prove that she’s not some nut job, the characters whom she encounters range from the suspicious to the downright untrustworthy. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Dangerous Crossing (1953), and the result is a neat and professional little mystery that reaches a satisfying conclusion in its short running time. 

Since this is essentially a B picture, there are no major stars on view and the focus is firmly on Crain, and Michael Rennie (TV’s Harry Lime) as the seemingly sympathetic doctor. Crain’s best scenes come towards the beginning of the movie as it slowly dawns on her that her husband is not to be found on the ship and everyone, both crew and fellow passengers alike, treat her with what could be best described as indulgent scepticism. There are also enough doubts sown in the minds of the viewer as to whether the heroine is delusional or the victim of an elaborate plot to keep things interesting. Michael Rennie is solid, as always, playing the one character who may believe Crain’s story. The support cast doesn’t feature too many faces that would be immediately recognizable, but Willis Bouchey (who graced many a John Ford picture) has a nice turn as the ship’s captain.

Jeanne Crain fears for both her life and her sanity.

While Dangerous Crossing has been released as part of the latest wave of noirs from Fox it does not, in my opinion anyway, really belong in that category. It is most assuredly a mystery, albeit one with a few noir touches such as the paranoid atmosphere and the shadowy photography of Joseph LaShelle. There are some nice sequences on the foggy nighttime decks, a tense cat-and-mouse scene in the baggage hold and a chase through a crowded ballroom. This is all handled competently, if unspectacularly, by director Joseph M. Newman. In the hands of someone more imaginative, Hitchcock for example, these set pieces could have been much more memorable. As it is, they seem a little flat – not bad, just not as good as they could have been. 

For a fan of his work, it’s great to see some of John Dickson Carr’s work on the screen. Carr was a hugely prolific writer (he also worked under the pseudonym Carter Dickson since his output was so prodigious that he needed two publishers to handle it) yet few of his works have appeared  on film and I’m not sure why this is. I had been of the opinion that the tricky nature of his plotting might not translate well to film but I’m not so sure of that now. Anyone familiar with the TV series Jonathan Creek (certainly inspired by the locked room and impossible crime puzzles of Carr) will know that this kind of material can work successfully if approached in the right way. Whatever, fans of the master of detection – a kind of mix of Christie, Chesterton and M.R. James – will have to settle for this for now.

The DVD of Dangerous Crossing, part of the recently revived Fox Noir line, is fantastic looking and I’d be hard pressed to find any fault with it. Fox have been doing great work in offering rare and surprising titles in very nice and affordable editions. In addition to the film, there’s a commentary track, an isolated score from Lionel Newman, trailer etc. We also get a short featurette on the film with info on Jeanne Crain and on Fox’s recycling of their sets; I suggest watching the movie first, though, as the featurette does contain a spoiler. So, you get an entertaining, if minor film in a fine presentation from Fox – just remember, it’s not really noir.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2008 in 1950s, Joseph M Newman, Mystery/Thriller

 

Sorry, Wrong Number

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I’ll start off by saying that I like films that employ flashbacks in the telling of the story. Of course, if this technique is going to be used it needs to be done well. An example of its misuse/abuse would be Passage to Marseille; where there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks to the point that the viewer is driven half crazy and loses all sense of time and place. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) avoids falling into this trap. Here, those trips down memory lane are necessary to drive the story forward and they work perfectly.

The film was adapted from a radio play and summarising the plot is not so easy without giving away too much, and thus ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Almost all of the action is played out via a series of telephone conversations involving Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck). Leona is introduced as a rich, pampered invalid who lives in luxury in Manhattan and, alone and bed-ridden, has only her telephone as a means of communicating with the outside world. As a result of a crossed line, she overhears a conversation between two unknown men as they finalise the details of a murder soon to be committed. Naturally alarmed, Leona first tries to tip off the police but they profess an inability to act given the sketchy information available. Her next thought is to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), but that proves more difficult. Her attempt to contact him results in a series phone calls (and accompanying flashbacks) which gradually build up a complete picture of Leona, Henry and their life together. With each call another piece of the puzzle falls into place, and Leona slowly arrives at a horrifying realization.

Harold Vermilyea explaining that Mr Evans may be found at Bowery 2-1000

Barbara Stanwyck has come to be regarded as something of a noir icon, largely through her icy portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Where that film cast her as the archetypal femme fatale, Sorry, Wrong Number has her play the helpless woman in distress. She does well here with a character that starts off as an unsympathetic figure. As Leona moves from an initial petulance, through frustration to panicked terror, she manages to avoid the temptation to overact. All the emotions on display fit in with the type of woman revealed over the course of the film. Burt Lancaster was in the middle of a series of noirs, or noir tinged movies, at this point and he’s pretty convincing in the role of Henry. He begins as a blue-collar bit of rough who catches Leona’s fancy, becomes her pet plaything, and finally allows his simmering frustration and innate greed to draw him into criminality. There are also plenty of good turns from a support cast which boasts Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson and William Conrad. While this is a movie full of flawed and unsavoury characters, the one sympathetic figure is Harold Vermilyea’s Waldo Evans. He’s the soft-spoken little chemist who dreams and saves in the hope of owning a farm where horses can roam free. When Henry spins him a tale that promises enough cash to realise this dream, the poor sap falls for it and his fate is sealed.    

Sorry, Wrong Number fits the noir bill by delivering a story where there are no winners and no happy endings. We have a roster of characters whose greed, selfishness and weakness set them on a path towards their own self-destruction. The moody photography of Sol Polito is another essential ingredient, and it’s at its most effective in the scenes on Staten Island. This desolate setting, especially the decrepit 20 Dunstan Terrace, is a place where you just know darkness lurks.

The film has long been available on DVD in R1 from Paramount, and it’s a pretty good transfer. The print used is clean but it does display very heavy grain, particularly in the darker scenes. As usual from Paramount there’s not much in the way of extras, just a theatrical trailer. Still, the disc can be picked up for very little and the quality of the movie alone is more than enough reason to justify a purchase.

 

The Desperate Hours

Poster

Humphrey Bogart’s penultimate film offered him the chance to have one final crack at the kind of role that had catapulted him into the public consciousness two decades earlier. The Petrified Forest (1936) gave Bogie his big break, but it also led to his being typecast as the one dimensional heavy. For the next five years he wasn’t called on to do much more than sneer at the camera and get shot by James Cagney. Playing Roy Earle in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra would be the turning point for him – sure it was another doomed gangster part but at least this one had a human face. With one exception, he avoided any more underworld roles until we come to 1955 and The Desperate Hours.

The story concerns Glenn Griffin (Bogart) who, in the company of kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and lumbering sociopath Kobish (Robert Middleton), has just broken out of prison. Needing somewhere to lay up until Glenn’s girl can reach them and deliver their money, the trio take over the suburban home of Dan Hilliard (Fredric March) and hold the family hostage. There is also a side matter of Griffin holding a grudge against a local cop (Arthur Kennedy), but this is never really developed as the movie chooses to focus on the clash of those cinematic titans Bogart and March. What we get is a war of will and wits between Bogart’s career criminal, struggling to maintain control over both his companions and the family, and the steadfast and respectable March. The film was adapted from a stage play and much of the drama is played out within the confines of the family home. This both points up the contrast between the snug domesticity of the Hilliards and the violent Griffin gang, and helps highlight the claustrophobic sense of entrapment felt by all the principals. As the balance of power seesaws back and forth, the atmosphere of tension never lets up until the film reaches its satisfying climax.

Humphrey Bogart & Fredric March

Films which are adapted from plays almost always give actors a chance to show what they’ve got. Such is the case with The Desperate Hours, where two of the heavyweights of classic era Hollywood get to slug it out and ultimately share the spoils. By this stage in his career Bogart could play this type of role in his sleep. Glenn Griffin is a man on the edge, battling to maintain control over those around him and his own personal demons. It is his failure to control either his cohorts or his own thirst for vengeance that finally bring him down. In contrast, March’s Dan Hilliard is the epitome of middle American stoicism, never allowing any overt signs of weakness or doubt to be witnessed by his family. Where Griffin’s dependence on violence and threats leads to fatal blunders, Hilliard’s self discipline and decency allow him to coolly wait for his chance. Of the support cast, the parts of Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young are thanklessly underwritten; the former having little to do except show his dogged professionalism and the latter his devotion to the Hilliard’s daughter. Robert Middleton fares best as the stupid and dangerous Kobish. He brings a genuine sense of menace to the film as his character literally crashes around like a bull in a china shop. There are also small yet welcome parts for character specialists Whit Bissell and Ray Teal. 

The Desperate Hours is available on DVD in both R1 and R2 from Paramount. The disc is a totally barebones affair but the widescreen anamorphic transfer is fantastic and, at the time of writing, can be picked up for less than a fiver. All in all, it’s a worthwhile and recommended movie.

 
 
 
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