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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Duel at Diablo

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The Hollywood western in the mid-60s was at a crossroads. Television had effectively saturated the market with oaters and the whole genre was becoming filled with cliches. In Europe, the spaghetti westerns of directors like Leone and Corbucci were posing other challenges by taking a new approach to genre conventions and increasing the levels of violence. The dilemma faced by Hollywood was whether it should stick with the traditional formula or borrow from the Europeans. The initial result was a kind of compromise or halfway house. Ralph Nelson will be best known for his brutal cavalry western Soldier Blue; in a way it’s slightly ironic for a man who really only dabbled in the genre. Soldier Blue isn’t all that good a film, and much of its fame derives from the revisionist depiction of the violent excesses of the US cavalry. However, a few years earlier, Nelson made his first western, Duel at Diablo (1966), which offered a similarly bloodthirsty view of the Apache. Taken together, it could be said that the two films balance each other out, although Duel at Diablo is much closer to the traditional western in execution.

The opening of the film gives some indication of what’s to come, as the screen is sliced open by a bloodied knife to reveal a charred corpse suspended over a slow burning fire. From a distance, cavalry scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner) watches  and grimaces. Almost immediately, a rider comes into view pursued by two mounted warriors. This is Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), a white woman trying to make her way back to the Apache camp from which she has recently been rescued. The film is essentially an examination of race relations within the framework of the conventional revenge western. It is later revealed that Mrs. Grange bore a son while a captive, and this is a large part of her desire to return. However, that’s not her only reason; her husband Will (Dennis Weaver) cannot bring himself to come to terms with what has happened and rejects her. In her husband’s opinion, any decent woman would have killed herself rather than relinquish her honour. The attitude is widespread and is highlighted when Remsberg has to step in and save her as she is assaulted by a group of men convinced of her easy virtue. Remsberg is the only person to show any real compassion towards Mrs. Grange, and that’s because he too has placed himself on the fringes of white society. The second plot thread running through the movie concerns Remsberg’s quest to hunt down the man responsible for the murder, and subsequent scalping, of his Indian wife. While, eventually, the two threads merge and a measure of closure is achieved, the racial issue remains unresolved and the future awaiting both Remsberg and Mrs. Grange is far from certain.  

James Garner 

James Garner may not be everyone’s first choice to play a hardened army scout but he acquits himself well. If anyone doubts his ability to play tough and gritty western characters I can only suggest they check out his performance a few years later in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun. In truth, the casting in general is a little unorthodox, but it works for the most part. The exception would be Sidney Poitier’s dandified ex-soldier, who appears totally out of his element and never truly convinces. Swedish actress Andersson does well as the woman caught between two worlds and her odd accent actually serves to emphasise both her isolation and the outsider status of her character. Bill Travers was another piece of bold casting as the Scots cavalry lieutenant who dreams of promotion. Again I had no real problem with this since it seemed to blend into the overall scheme of highlighting the racial diversity of frontier life.

Ralph Nelson performs the director’s chores competently enough, even managing a few visually evocative shots of the cavalry column which recalls the great John Ford. His best work, however, is most apparent in the action scenes; the clashes between the cavalry and the Apache are well staged and exciting. He also displays a taste for the gruesome that he would indulge further in Soldier Blue; there are a number of scenes of Apache torture that, though tame by today’s standards, must surely have been regarded as strong stuff at the time. Nevertheless, I don’t believe he had any real feel for the western and fails to draw in the viewer in the way  the genre’s masters could. Another problem is the score by Neal Hefti, whose jazzy compositions work extremely well in the context of The Odd Couple and How to Murder Your Wife, but tend to grate a little in a western.

Duel at Diablo comes to DVD from MGM in both R1 and R2. The R2 is a typically ordinary transfer from this company (I’m not sure, but I’d imagine the R1 fares about the same) that’s neither all good nor all bad. On the plus side, the image is anamorphic 1.78:1 and there’s a theatrical trailer available, but it tends to be too soft in places. Even though it’s no classic I’d say the film is well worth a view for the interesting casting and storyline.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2008 in 1960s, James Garner, Ralph Nelson, Westerns

 

Dark Command

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William Clarke Quantrill was one of those controversial figures who gained fame or noteriety, depending on where one’s sympathies lay, as a result of his activities during the Civil War. The nature of those activities has ensured that his character and associates have continued to appear on screen on a fairly regular basis, right up to Ang Lee’s much maligned Ride with the Devil. Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940) takes Quantrill, changes his name to Cantrell, and adds a written caveat at the beginning to explain that certain liberties have been taken with the truth. As such it’s not a biopic of the man in the traditional sense; it merely uses the character and a few events from his life to tell a standard western story. Taken on this level it works very well, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film by Walsh that didn’t work on some level.   

Dark Command opens in Lawrence, Kansas on the eve of the Civil War, with Bob Seton (John Wayne) arriving in town in the company of perennial sidekick ‘Gabby’ Hayes. Seton is an uncomplicated Texan who’s in the process of working his way across the country. In making the acquaintance of banker’s daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), he also meets local schoolteacher Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Both men clearly have romantic designs on Miss McCloud, and their rivalry later extends to the political arena when they run for the newly instituted position of town marshal. It is Seton’s victory in this election that proves the catalyst for Cantrell’s abandonment of civic duty in favour of a much more lucrative career as a guerilla raider. Actually this brings about a change in the two lead characters; Seton becoming tougher and more assured once the weight of responsibility falls on his shoulders, and Cantrell revealing his venal nature in his quest to attain “greatness”. This personal animosity is played out while, all around, the town divides itself along pro-Union and pro-Confederacy lines. The wider national conflict is referred to only through dialogue and one of those, now cliched, burning map shots.

As I said before the film isn’t a straight biopic and never claims to be giving all the historical facts. Having said that Quantrill did work as a teacher in Lawrence in the years preceding the Civil War, although I’m not aware of his running for marshal or other elected office. It has been said of Raoul Walsh that his idea of humour was burning down a whorehouse; in Dark Command he goes one step further by burning down a whole town, although not for comedic value. The sacking of Lawrence by Quantrill is a known historical event and the film duly acknowledges this. However, this set piece, which forms the climax of the story, doesn’t dwell on the gory excesses of Quantrill’s men. Instead it uses it as a means of neatly wrapping up the personal battle between Seton and Cantrell. One could pick out all kinds inaccuracies relating to timelines, weaponry, the ultimate fate of Quantrill and so on, but I’ve never felt that this serves much of a purpose. Movies are a means of telling stories, and if this requires the makers to play a little fast and loose with the facts, well, so be it.

John Wayne and Walter Pidgeon

John Wayne made Dark Command one year after Stagecoach, the film which offered him a way out of the cycle of B westerns he’d been doing since the failure of Walsh’s The Big Trail. It’s a little ironic that the man who first introduced Wayne to the cinema-going public should again feature at the rebirth of his career. The Duke is still not the finished product here, although he’s not far away; audiences wouldn’t really see his fully formed western character until Tall in the Saddle, a few years later. There’s a bit too much mugging in the first half of the picture, although the easy, confident Wayne we’re all familiar with starts to emerge as the story moves along. Walter Pidgoen was an actor I’ve never really warmed to, but he was capable of turning in good performances as men carrying around a lot of internal baggage – How Green Was My Valley would be a good example of this. His Cantrell is never all that convincing as an out-and-out villain but maybe that’s just the way the part was written. Where he’s at his best are those private moments when he gives vent to all the pent up frustration that comes from thwarted ambition. Claire Trevor, who received top billing here, was a fine actress and does well as the conflicted woman at the centre of events. In Stagecoach she showed good chemistry with Wayne and that spark continues to be evident in this film. Romantic interludes were never Wayne’s strong suit but the tough Miss Trevor manages to draw out her co-star quite successfully.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that Raoul Walsh’s sense of humour tended towards the broad, and that’s certainly the case in the scenes with ‘Gabby’ Hayes. In much the same way as with Walsh’s contemporary and fellow Irish-American John Ford, audiences either get this kind of humour or they don’t. Superficially, one could see similarities in the styles of these two directors, but Ford was the better film-maker. That’s not to say that Walsh was some kind of hack, mind; he was every inch the professional and turned out some of the finest films of classic era Hollywood. However, if anything, the films of Raoul Walsh (which are actually some of my favorites) lack the grace moments that can be found in the best work of Ford. It should also be mentioned that Dark Command contains some top class second unit work from the great Yakima Canutt. There’s a spectacular wagon jump from atop a cliff, and another outing for his patented under-a-moving-wagon escape ala Indiana Jones. Today’s climate of clumsy editing and overused CGI makes this viewer yearn for the era when there was genuine creativity and artistry in the second unit.

The movie is available on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the old R1 from Artisan and the picture quality is quite good. Like all those Republic pictures released by Artisan there hasn’t been any restoration done, so there are instances of speckling and the odd cigarette burn. However, the print remains in pretty good shape and is always watchable. The R2 comes from Universal UK, and while I don’t have it to compare I would be wary of its quality considering its source. Dark Command is a fine western with an epic feel that comes partly from the bigger budget that Republic granted it. I’d recommend it to the general western fan and anyone with an interest in the Civil War era, or the development of the Duke’s career.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2008 in 1940s, John Wayne, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Where Danger Lives

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The films produced at RKO under the stewardship of Howard Hughes were a mixed bag to say the least; the billionaire’s’s involvement lending a crass, juvenile quality to more than one movie. While he led the once great studio along the path to bankruptcy and oblivion, he also introduced the cinema-going public to number of new starlets such as Jane Russell and Faith Domergue. Miss Domergue never made that many memorable pictures, save for Where Danger Lives, This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Of those three, Where Danger Lives (1950) has the slightly odd distinction of presenting her with her best role while also being the least known. In fact, this is a fine movie all round with stylish direction by noir stalwart John Farrow, a powerful lead performance by Robert Mitchum, moody cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and a Charles Bennett script.

At first glance the film may seem like a standard lovers-on-the-run yarn, but that’s merely the framing device for a tale of obsessive love, deception and madness. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is introduced as an overworked but dedicated doctor who, at the end of his shift, is called upon to treat an attempted suicide. He is immediately attracted to the patient, Margo (Faith Domergue), and soon embarks on an affair. The immediate effect of this is that Cameron develops a callous disregard for both his job and his devoted sweetheart, played by director’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan. The whole point of the story is how lust can blind a man to reality and allow him to be deceived and manipulated. The film is packed with lies and liars and it seems that just about everyone is prepared to bend the truth to suit their own agenda, right down to ambulance drivers and small town doctors. When Cameron receives a blow on the head in a struggle, the resulting concussion gradually impairs his judgement and allows him to be more easily duped. In a marvellously surreal passage, the fleeing couple arrive in a town where everyone is bearded and dressed in western apparel. For a moment it looks as though the action has taken a detour into the Twilight Zone, until it is revealed that Mitchum and Domergue have stumbled into a local festival. The idea of nobody being quite what they appear is nicely highlighted when a local boy draws facial hair onto a photograph of Domergue, while muttering that everyone has to have a beard. From first to last, the movie concentrates on shifting identities and false perceptions.  

Dazed & Confused - Robert Mitchum gropes his way towards the truth.

Robert Mitchum was an old hand at playing noir anti-heroes and the role of Jeff Cameron offers him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He goes from being an upstanding professional at the beginning of the film to a shambling brain damaged wreck of a man by the climax. In the hands of a lesser actor the part could easily have descended into eye-rolling histrionics, but Mitchum’s deceptively lazy style ensures that credibility is maintained as his character’s mental state deteriorates and he floats between clarity and confusion. Faith Domergue’s Margo is a fine femme fatale in the classic mould. Her performance isn’t as controlled as Mitchum’s but she still manages to be convincing. It’s obvious from the start that there’s something not quite right about Margo, but you can’t really put your finger on what. Claude Rains appears in a small but significant part, and adds some real class to proceedings; in his few minutes of screen time he shows us another psychologically twisted character, and his playing is every bit the equal of that of his co-stars. John Farrow always seemed comfortable in noir territory, and does a good job of holding together a story that could have easily spun out of control. Farrow is ably assisted by his director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, whose camera does good things with the bleak desert backdrops and shadowy small towns that dominate the film.

Where Danger Lives comes to DVD, paired on disc with Tension, from Warners in R1 via their fourth noir set. It’s a fine, clean transfer which shows Musuraca’s excellent black and white photography at its best. The film comes with a trailer and a short featurette on the movie. This is a  film that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I picked up the box set. I can’t think why it has been such an obscure and hard to see movie since I’d rate it as an excellent example of classic era noir. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2008 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Farrow, Robert Mitchum

 

The Long Memory

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I seem to be on a bit of a Robert Hamer kick at the moment. Having recently enjoyed Pink String and Sealing Wax, I decided to give The Long Memory (1952) a spin. While the former is a Gothic/Victorian noir which may stretch the definition for purists, the latter is the real deal. It has the contemporary setting, stark photography and relentlessly downbeat moodiness that should satisfy all who have a penchant for dark cinema. The story is classic noir wherein an innocent man is persecuted for a crime he has not committed and subsequently finds himself consumed by his thirst for revenge on those responsible for his plight.

Phillip Davidson (John Mills) has just been released from prison, having served twelve years for murder. An early flashback establishes that he had been wrongfully convicted, and that the false testimony of his then fiancee (Elizabeth Sellars) played a significant part in securing that conviction. In a neat twist, it also transpires that the treacherous fiancee has, in the intervening years, married the policeman originally in charge of Davidson’s case (John McCallum). Aware of the fact that Davidson still bears a grudge, the authorities track him Kent where he takes up residence in an abandoned barge along the desolate Thames estuary. As Davidson grimly sets about the task of seeking out his former tormentors the action alternates between his search and the slow unravelling of the idyllic domesticity of the policeman’s life. Running parallel to this is the development of a relationship between Davidson and a refugee girl (Eva Bergh) working as a waitress in a dingy cafe. This plot thread is not mere romantic padding but an essential element that clearly demonstrates just how deep Davidson’s scars run. By the end of the movie the quest for revenge has transformed into more of a journey towards spiritual redemption.

Eva Bergh & John Mills

The acting is out of the top drawer all round with the only weak link in the chain being Elizabeth Sellars. Her performance comes across as even more wooden given the emotional depth shown by almost everyone else around her. John Mills does a fine understated turn in the lead role. The scenes he plays in the old barge with Eva Bergh have such a touching and heartrending quality. These are two people who have spent so long living within themselves that the effort of reaching out to another is close to physically painful. John McCallum is also fine as the decent cop who gradually comes to realise that the woman he married is not all she seems, and who must resign himself to the fact that his career cannot continue if he’s to come out of it all with any sense of honour intact. There’s plenty of good support from a selection of familiar British character actors; special mention going to Michael Martin Harvey as Mills’ slightly kooky neighbour. Where Pink String and Sealing Wax suffered from an undisciplined and unfocused script, The Long Memory can boast tighter writing and pacing. Hamer moves his camera around effectively and makes maximum use of the barren Kent coastline. He also controls the flow of the story very well, and cuts tellingly between the gradual flowering of the Mills/Bergh relationship and the simultaneous disintegration of Sellars and McCallum’s. All of this is backed up by the excellent cinematography of Harry Waxman who manages to throw in some welcome deep focus shots.

The Long Memory is currently only available on DVD as part of the John Mills Centenary Collection II from ITV DVD in R2. The set is a bit pricey but it does offer a good selection of Mills films and is worth checking out. This movie comes on its own disc and, while not perfect, gets a pretty good transfer. There’s optional subs, production notes and a gallery included. I hadn’t seen this film for a number of years and had forgotten what an underrated little gem it is. I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2008 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Mills, Robert Hamer

 
 
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