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Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Thunder of Drums

Think of cavalry westerns, or rather, think of the best cavalry westerns and one name tends to spring to mind – John Ford. The famous trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) forms an integral part of Ford’s building up and subsequent deconstruction of the myth of the west. It’s Ford, and Wayne of course, that we think of as being at the heart of their success. While this is entirely justified, there is, however, another figure who had an influence on the shaping of these films – the author of the source material, James Warner Bellah. Aside from the trilogy, his work also provided the inspiration for A Thunder of Drums (1961), a far less celebrated movie. I’m not going to try to argue here that this is a film deserving of the kind of acclaim accorded to Ford’s work, but it does warrant a little more attention than it ordinarily receives.

The story takes place in and around Fort Canby, one of those isolated and undermanned outposts on the extremities of the frontier. It opens in hard-hitting and startling fashion with an Indian raid on a homestead, the full horror of which is reflected in the terrified eyes of a child witness and in the grotesque shadows playing across the ceiling. When the awful aftermath is discovered by a passing cavalry troop the sour and downbeat tone is further emphasised by the fact that these men are bringing their own dead back home. So, with their faces already covered to counter the stench of their current cargo, the troops set about the grim task of burying the victims. From this point on the threat of imminent violence never really slackens, although the action moves into the confines of the fort and remains there until the last half hour. The uncompromising beginning serves to set up the brutal realities facing the fort’s commander, Captain Maddocks (Richard Boone), a man whose past has condemned him to a life of thankless soldiering. With the arrival of a green young officer, Lieutenant McQuade (George Hamilton), we start to get hints that something dark, some error made years before, means that Maddocks is doomed to remain at his present rank until retirement or death release him. And so this western version of the ancient mariner has the task of teaching McQuade the skills necessary for surviving on the frontier and becoming a proper professional soldier. In the process, we get to see (as in Ford’s trilogy) the minutiae of life at one of these half-forgotten postings. Despite Maddocks’ bristly and abrasive style keeping things ticking over, the mid-section of the movie gets itself bogged down in a pretty tedious love triangle involving McQuade and the fiancée of another young lieutenant. What rescues the picture is the last half hour. The troops move out in the open to avenge a massacre and hunt down the hostiles who have been harrying them. The cat-and-mouse pursuit leads to a well-staged climactic battle that ensures the whole thing ends on a high note.

Joseph M Newman was no auteur; he was, however, a versatile professional, the type Hollywood depended on to make good, tight movies. Throughout the 1950s he made a succession of films that, though largely forgotten these days, included some highly entertaining and capable stuff. In this one, his best work is at the beginning and at the end of the picture – a little like the situation with Escape from Fort Bravo, where the strong opening and close bookend a flabby middle. The climax is well handled as an action set piece, especially the Apache ambush tactics and their sudden appearance like spirits conjured out of the ether. Besides this, the greatest saving grace is the central performance of Richard Boone. I thought he was ideally cast as the grizzled officer, ageing and passed over for the promotion his experience and talent merits yet not succumbing to the corrosive bitterness you might reasonably expect him to feel. He had the necessary grit, and a kind of weary resignation, to deliver his memorable dialogue  and lend it the weight it deserved – towards the end, he even gets to put his own spin on the Duke’s old line about never apologising as it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s a lot in Boone’s performance that recalls James Warner Bellah’s other cavalry journeymen. In contrast, George Hamilton’s portrayal of McQuade is problematic and represents a major weakness. Firstly, Hamilton just doesn’t look right; there’s too much Hollywood polish and smoothness about him. What’s more, he just didn’t have the acting chops to either compete when sharing the screen with Boone or to carry off the pivotal role that was so vital in shoring up that sagging mid-section. Similarly, the lightweight and not especially convincing work of Luana Patten (as Hamilton’s love interest) and Richard Chamberlain fails to add much to the film. Still, there are good supporting turns to help paper over the cracks. Charles Bronson has a medium-sized part as a devious and dirty-minded trooper who comes good in the end, Arthur O’Connell is entertaining enough in the role of the top sergeant that Victor McLaglen played for Ford, although Slim Pickens’ talents are basically wasted.

A Thunder of Drums is available as an MOD disc in the US. However, as an alternative, there’s a perfectly acceptable release to be had in Spain. Llamentol/Paycom have presented the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is generally quite pleasing. There is a little softness in the image but it’s clean enough and the colours are nice and strong. There are no extra features offered, but the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the setup menu. I found it interesting to see situations that Ford so skilfully presented taken on by someone else. A Thunder of Drums has none of the artistry or poetry of the old master himself, but it’s a fair enough movie all the same. Considering the inadequacies of some of the performances around him, it’s very much to Richard Boone’s credit that he was able to drive the film as much as he did. I feel that the presence of Boone, and Newman’s handling of the action and exteriors earn this at least a qualified recommendation.

 
 

Westbound

In the past I’ve looked at six of the seven westerns Budd Boetticher made in collaboration with Randolph Scott. Somewhat belatedly, I now turn my attention to the one remaining title. Of this little group of films, Westbound (1958) is the least significant. Taken on its own merits and judged as a stand alone movie, it’s actually not a bad little picture. However, what I’ve just suggested is a large part of the problem; the Scott/Boetticher films are so interconnected and so influential that it’s very difficult to weigh them up in isolation. I’m not saying that they should be viewed as essentially one film – although others have certainly put forward that theory – yet there is a thematic pattern running through them. They all share certain identifiable characteristics that mark them out as clearly being the work of Scott and Boetticher in tandem, all but Westbound that is. There’s nothing in the movie that bears the hallmark of this important cinematic partnership. What I mean is that the film might just as well be any one of the westerns that Randolph Scott made throughout the 50s with other directors. Now that in itself isn’t an especially bad thing, but it does result in a weaker effort when viewed in context.

John Hayes (Randolph Scott) is a captain serving in the Union army during the Civil War who finds himself pulled off active duty to undertake a different kind of task. His pre-war business was running a stage line and, with the North needing to ensure the smooth transfer of gold from California to bolster the war effort, he is asked to resume his old trade. This necessitates moving west to Colorado and taking over his old operation. However, on arrival, he discovers that his former associate Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) has shut up shop and is unwilling to offer any assistance. Putnam’s reluctance, and barely veiled hostility, stems from two factors: he’s a Confederate sympathizer, and he has married Hayes’ old sweetheart Norma (Virginia Mayo). Throw the involvement of a wounded vet and his wife (Michael Dante & Karen Steele) into the central conflict between Hayes and Putnam, and there’s the plot of Westbound in a nutshell. It’s a brisk, no-nonsense affair that entertains as it goes along, yet something is missing. For me, that something is the personal element, the vital ingredient that underpinned all the other Scott/Boetticher pictures. The whole patriotic angle is far too remote and impersonal to really grab you, and the possibility of emphasising the love of both Hayes and Putnam for Norma is glossed over and underplayed if anything. As the story progresses, the ruthlessness of Putnam, and his chief henchman (Michael Pate), does add a little dash to Hayes’ motives, but the truth is it’s too little and comes too late. The result of all this is a film that feels somewhat shallow and disposable in comparison to the director and star’s other works. As such, we get a piece of passable entertainment, but that’s all that can be said.

For Boetticher, Westbound was really nothing more than a matter of fulfilling a contract. If the storyline has a blandness that sets it apart from his best films, it’s not helped by being shot away from his trademark Lone Pine locations and featuring far too many interiors – never one of his strengths. Having said all that, he does turn in a professional and polished pice of work, and the action scenes have a style to them; the best is arguably the raid on the villains hideout as the climactic shootout, though excitingly staged, is marred by having the conscience-stricken townsfolk join in. Randolph Scott’s performance has the kind of affability that often characterized his western roles. That’s not meant as a criticism of the actor at all, I could happily spend days on end watching his movies, but it does evoke memories of some of his more run of the mill movies as opposed to the depth of feeling associated with his Ranown roles. Virginia Mayo was an actress that, on occasion, was handed underwritten parts. That’s not exactly the problem here, but the script does sell her character a little short by not allowing her to have sufficient impact on events. Despite being billed lower, Karen Steele is much more effective as the tough wife of a disabled soldier – the scene where she delivers a full on punch in the face to one of her husband’s tormentors is one of the most memorable in the whole film. In a sense, Steele was the ideal Boetticher heroine – a beguiling mix of gutsy allure. The casting of the villains highlights another area where this movie underperforms in context. Andrew Duggan was competent enough but there’s no sense of his being any match for Scott when the chips are down. And Michael Pate, despite nailing the mean and heartless aspect, has none of the ambiguous charm that Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins brought to their parts.

Having long sworn that I wouldn’t buy into the whole MOD business, I finally caved and bought a number of titles late last year when Barnes & Noble ran a sale on Warner Archive titles. I’ve since heard that Westbound has been released in Spain, but I haven’t seen it listed by any of the usual online outlets. The Archive disc is a real barebones DVD-R, no proper menu and chapter stops inserted at ten minute intervals. The film has been given an anamorphic widescreen transfer that boasts reasonably vibrant colour but has an overall softness or dullness that leads me to rate it a bit lower than the other Scott/Boetticher titles released by Sony and Paramount. However, it is a fair enough presentation. I realise I’m probably labouring the point here, but an understanding of context is everything when it comes to assessing this picture. If one were new to Randolph Scott movies then Westbound wouldn’t necessarily be a bad place to start. If, on the other hand, you’ve heard about the special place Scott’s work with Boetticher holds in the hearts of western fans and critics alike, then this is definitely not the film to show it off. And that’s as fair as I think I can be.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

23 Paces to Baker Street

The films which I’ve been writing about lately have all been fairly heavy on symbolism and meaning, so maybe it’s time to dip into something lighter for a change. As such, I feel that a tight, solid mystery that has no pretensions of being anything other than a piece of entertainment is as good a choice as any under the circumstances. This seems a fair summation of 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) – a not especially well-known thriller that nevertheless features an intriguing plot and polished, professional work from all the participants. The movie belongs in a small sub-genre of films (e.g. The Spiral Staircase, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark) where the hero/protagonist is suffering from either a temporary or permanent disability. There’s nothing particularly exploitative about these films, the disability in question serving merely as a means of increasing tension or suspense – and often, paradoxically, emphasising the superiority of the hero over the villain.

The story here derives from a book by Philip MacDonald (author of some excellent mysteries like The Rasp and The List of Adrian Messenger)  and concerns a blind playwright who finds himself inadvertently drawn into a shadowy plot. Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) is an American residing in London, having suffered some unspecified accident which has left him blind. That this misfortune has shaped his somewhat irascible character is established early on when his work is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of an old flame, Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), who evokes understandably painful memories of happier times. It’s as a result of this visit that Hannon, perhaps wanting to prove his independence, sets off alone to a local pub for a drink. And here’s where the mystery begins; while seated in a booth, he overhears snippets of a conversation through the partition with the adjoining lounge bar. Of course his lack of sight rules out the possibility of identifying the man and woman involved, but what he hears is sufficient to arouse his suspicions that something, conceivably an abduction, is being planned. The problem is that with his disability preventing a straightforward pursuit, and the police’s subsequent insistence that the meaning of the fragmented dialogue is open to interpretation, he’s at a loss to know how to proceed. However, bit by bit, through a combination of good fortune and dogged amateur sleuthing by Hannon, Jean and his servant (Cecil Parker), the body of evidence starts to grow. Everything builds relentlessly towards a tense climax that is reminiscent of Rear Window, where the hero finds the means to turn his physical handicap to his own advantage.

What makes a story like this succeed is the presence of the physical disadvantage which the protagonist has to overcome. Having a hurdle such as Hannon’s blindness to negotiate makes it easier to sustain the viewer’s interest and demands an added touch of creativity in the scripting. I’ve often found that when a tale involves merely exploiting the massive manpower and resources available to law enforcement agencies, it’s much more difficult to feel sympathy for the hunters. Maybe that’s just my natural identification with the underdog coming through, but the (almost) lone and struggling figure always seems more attractive. Henry Hathaway’s direction is smooth and professional in a movie where the action is largely confined to interiors – entirely appropriate since the focus is on a man whose mobility is necessarily limited by his condition. The wide screen of scope is ideal for creating a sense of space in outdoor shots, but Hathaway’s experience meant that he was also aware that careful composition resulted in equally effective visuals in interiors. Generally, there’s a tense atmosphere maintained throughout, but there’s also a nicely judged comedic interlude where Hannon sends his servant/secretary off in pursuit of a suspect; Cecil Parker brings a welcome, lightly comic touch to this stalking sequence and the subsequent reporting of his progress. In the lead, Van Johnson is mostly fine in conveying an alternating mix of frustration and enthusiasm, the shape of the investigation both reflecting and influencing his moods. I also found him convincing as a blind man, the only time he let it slip a little was during the climax where a few reactions didn’t quite ring true. Vera Miles wasn’t given a lot to do as the faithful former lover, much of the time playing a clichéd and stereotypical character. Of course, that no real criticism of the actress, just the part she was handed. The supporting cast is full of fine British character actors: the aforementioned Cecil Parker, Maurice Denham, Estelle Winwood, Patricia Laffan and, in a droll turn as an assassin that reminded me a little of Edmund Gwenn in Foreign Correspondent, Liam Redmond.

23 Paces to Baker Street is a Fox production and remains absent on DVD in both the US and the UK, however, I believe there’s a copy of the film available in Spain but I haven’t seen it. Instead I picked up the Australian release by Bounty Films when it was issued late last year. The disc is completely barebones, but the transfer is pretty good. The movie is presented correctly in anamorphic scope and although it doesn’t appear to have undergone any kind of restoration there’s no especially distracting damage either. The colours are strong, the film has been transferred progressively and the price is acceptable. The only beef I have with the presentation, and it’s a very minor one, is the curious decision to market the title as part of the Bounty Noir Classics line – this is a standard mystery/whodunit and doesn’t even approach noir territory. This is an entertaining, glossy and well-paced thriller that’s capable of holding the viewer’s interest from beginning to end. I found it satisfying and have no problem giving it the thumbs up.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in 1950s, Henry Hathaway, Mystery/Thriller

 

Track of the Cat

The terms art house or experimental film don’t often get used when westerns are being discussed. While there are of course countless examples of highly artistic westerns, it’s rarely the kind of self-conscious artistry that those labels suggest. There’s also the matter of audience expectation to take into account; when the genre was at its peak the fans were largely thought to want the kind of movie that didn’t veer too far from the traditional. In order to produce an art piece, particularly within a genre widely regarded as being bound by convention, you need a filmmaker who has confidence, clout, skill and vision. Although a combination of such qualities may be rare it is not unknown, and William Wellman was a director who fulfilled the criteria. His production of Track of the Cat (1954) was a daring attempt to fuse the western and the art house movie. Back when it was made, the film was not considered a success yet looked at now, over half a century later, it can perhaps be appreciated better.

Generally, mainstream audiences like to be clear about what they’re watching, and part of the problem with Track of the Cat is the difficulty in categorizing it. Sure it’s a western, but it can also be approached as an allegorical morality tale, a psychological dissection of a dysfunctional family, or even a horror story. At various points the movie is all of the above and this diversity can have a disconcerting effect on the viewer who comes at it unprepared. The plot itself is straightforward, simple and springs no major surprises. It concerns the Bridges, a ranching family living an isolated, insular existence with a seething mix of conflicting emotions buried beneath the apparent domesticity. The arrival of a guest, the fiancée of the youngest son Harold (Tab Hunter), coincides with the early snows and the appearance of a panther that threatens to devastate the herd. However, it’s suggested that this cat may be no normal beast, the superstitious bent of an ancient Indian (Carl Switzer) has planted the seed in everyone’s mind that this animal is the representation of a greater evil – all the evil in the world in fact. And so the two older sons, Arthur (William Hopper) and Curt (Robert Mitchum), take it upon themselves to weather the elements and head off to track down the cat and slay it once and for all. From this point on the film cuts between scenes of this near classical doomed quest and those back at the Bridges’ ranch, where the heightening emotional tension mirrors the increasing physical dangers out on the mountain. Whether one views it as a masterstroke or a failing – personally, I tend towards the former – the titular cat is never seen on-screen. Instead, it exists as a kind of psychological bogeyman, a malign presence stalking the dark corners of the characters’ awareness. Peeling back the layers, I think it’s possible to draw a parallel between the panther and Harold’s fiancée, Gwen (Diana Lynn), as both appear on the scene simultaneously and both represent a threat to the status quo. The Bridges’ world, like the snowbound landscape they occupy, is a barren one: the relationship between Ma and Pa Bridges is a loveless one where each merely tolerates the others foibles, that of Arthur and his wife (Teresa Wright) is only superficially better – a telling comment early on informs us that they will remain childless – and likely to decline, and Curt is nothing but a domineering bully. This leaves only Harold, the repressed and half-forgotten son who has yet to become jaded and bitter. The arrival of Gwen and the cat has the potential to tear asunder the entrenched negativity of the Bridges. Both embody a kind of primal energy that, in their contrasting ways, will violently transform this stale and moribund family.

Track of the Cat was the second time William Wellman filmed one of Walt Van Tilburg Clark’s books (the first being The Ox-Bow Incident a decade before) and he once again produced a notable and memorable piece of work. According to Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum, when Jack Warner learned that the colour movie he was backing had next to no colour in it he was not best pleased. Wellman’s response was simple and to the point:  ” If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.” It could of course be argued that Wellman’s radical decision to shoot a colour movie using almost exclusively black and white imagery was not much more than a stylistic affectation, an exercise in aesthetics if you like.  However, I believe there’s more to it than that; the colour, or lack of it, used by Wellman, and cameraman William H Clothier, goes a long way towards defining the nature of the characters and their relationships. Black and white infers absolutes, clearly defined parameters. Bearing in mind that the domestic setup is traditionally the province of females, the fact that the decor of the homestead consists of just these two colours reflects the inflexible and puritanical outlook of Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi). The Bridges inhabit a world where any kind of personal manoeuvrability is severely limited. There are only two notable exceptions to this stark, spartan colour scheme: the red jacket worn by Curt and the yellow blouse of Gwen. Both these colours are indicative of energy, but while Curt’s red conveys the notion of power and aggression, Gwen’s yellow implies warmth and happiness. I think it’s also worth pointing out that when Curt exchanges his jacket for that of his dead brother after the cat’s attack he undergoes a kind of transformation. Now shorn of the symbol of strength and vitality, he dons the cow hide tunic and gradually assumes the characteristics of the prey rather than the predator.

Mitchum managed to capture this character shift very subtly in his performance. There’s a world of difference between the brash, swaggering bully of the first half of the picture and the paranoid, haunted shell of a man he becomes, yet he achieves this switch in a wholly natural and seamless fashion. The role of Curt is very unsympathetic (foreshadowing his work on Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear) but he pulls it off and, in the process, provides evidence of just how versatile and talented he really was. I couldn’t say that any member of the cast struck a false note and everyone involved performed more than competently. However, I do want to single out Beulah Bondi’s turn as the forbidding matriarch. This self-righteous and moralising figure is the lynchpin of the family, binding them all together either in spite of or because of her intolerance. Although there is a terrible quality to this woman, it’s hard not to feel some twinge of pity as she sits in that cold room, waking one dead son, fearing for the life of another and watching the slow disintegration of all she holds dear.

Despite being released theatrically by Warner Brothers, Track of the Cat was made by John Wayne’s production company Batjac and so was put out on DVD a few years back by Paramount in the US, and subsequently elsewhere. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough, though not perfect. The movie really could use a clean up, but there isn’t anything that acts as a distraction or spoils the enjoyment of the movie. Apart from the main feature itself, where the disc really scores is in the extras department. There’s a commentary track with Tab Hunter, William Wellman Jr and Frank Thompson, a gallery and trailers. Additionally, there’s also a feature on the making of the film which has been divided up into four self-contained featurettes. The film won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is a remarkable and unique work that deserves to be seen. Aside from the visuals, and they are quite spectacular, it’s one of those multi-layered pictures that rewards repeated viewings. I’ve seen the movie a few times now and there are still things that I’m only just noticing. Whether or not one warms to the film is ultimately down to personal preference, but it certainly refutes the notion that westerns and art house pictures don’t mix. I recommend giving it a chance at least.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in 1950s, Robert Mitchum, Westerns, William Wellman

 

Secret Beyond the Door

In the past I’ve written about a few Freudian thrillers from the 40s, Spellbound and The Dark Mirror for sure. The decade has many examples though as it was such a fashionable subject and seemed to blend effortlessly into the world of film noir. Looked at now, from a modern perspective, the cod psychological mumbo jumbo of these films is fairly risible. However, films are first and foremost an entertainment medium; we don’t watch them to gain, for example, a deeper insight into psychoanalysis. So, when a movie like Secret Beyond the Door (1947) presents us with a dubious scientific explanation for the odd behaviour of its characters it’s not really fair to criticize it too heavily on that score. Fritz Lang’s film really is an exercise in style over substance – the look, feel and mood of the picture is what carries it, not the plausibility (or lack of it) of the story or the questionable motives of the main characters.

The basic premise is a familiar one, various forms having been used over the years in a variety of films. There’s a young woman on vacation who meets a mysterious yet attractive stranger, falls in love, marries and, after a time, discovers that all is not what it initially seemed. The woman in this particular movie is Celia (Joan Bennett), an heiress who’s recently found herself alone in the world and has taken off on a trip to Mexico before returning to the States and settling down to a life of bland respectability. However, Celia is not the usual, run-of-the-mill innocent abroad. Contrary to appearances, there’s a darker, almost perverse, side to her nature that soon becomes apparent. Quite by chance, she witnesses the flare-up of a knife fight between two local men. This isn’t some matter of slighted honour, more a duel of passion; the men are vying for the affections of a woman. Instead of doing the sensible thing and walking away, Celia is rooted to the spot, fascinated by the events before her. The viewer isn’t the only one struck by the hungry, predatory look in Celia’s eyes as she absorbs this primitive ritual – another bystander’s attention is drawn to her. He is Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), an architect of patrician background. To cut to the chase, Celia and Mark fall in love, marry and move back to his out-of-town home in the States. Even before they leave Mexico though, it’s apparent that all isn’t well with Mark; he has a tendency to withdraw from intimacy without explanation. As the couple embark on their new life the skeletons begin to rattle in the family cupboard and, bit by bit, secrets and hints of a dark past start to emerge. Celia’s husband is a deeply troubled man who appears to have a morbid obsession both with historical murders and the rooms in which those crimes took place, while questions linger over the death of his first wife. The true roots of the problem are not immediately obvious but, even so, the new bride slowly comes to suspect that her own life may be in danger.

 

The script calls for a good deal of irrational behaviour on the part of the main characters, enough to sink many a movie. Despite that, the film still works and is pretty successful as a piece of highly strung noir melodrama. This is largely due to the work of director Lang and cameraman Stanley Cortez, between them creating a stylish and stylized visual experience. The opening segment in Mexico has a dreamy, unreal quality that perfectly fits the mood of the lovestruck Celia. As soon as the action switches to the Lamphere estate the look and feel alters too, the uneasy romanticism of the south of the border scenes switches to something more akin to the gothic nightmare that begins to unfold in Celia’s shadowy and threatening new home. It’s this aspect of the film that leads to comparisons being drawn between it and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On the surface, there are parallels: newlyweds haunted by the spectre of the husband’s murky past, a family home where unwelcome memories seem to lurk in every shadow, and a distinctly odd household. For all that, the two movies are really quite different in essence, chiefly as a result of Joan Bennett’s characterization of Celia. Unlike Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs DeWinter, Joan Bennett is a tougher and more worldly woman. I’ve already mentioned the dark side of Celia that’s apparent from early on, but the perverse side of her character is further developed as the story progresses. A weaker, and maybe a saner, woman would likely hightail it back to the safety of the city when her husband first begins to exhibit signs of serious psychological imbalance. But not Celia; she chooses to stand her ground, whether through raw courage or her own fascination with danger, and stick it out to the bitter end. One of Bennett’s great strengths as an actress, and very likely the reason Lang chose to work with her so often, was her ability to combine feminine allure with the grit necessary to hack it in a grim world. I found Michael Redgrave’s performance much less satisfactory though. My biggest issue was that I never felt entirely convinced by his transition from the cool aristocrat to bug-eyed loon. However, in all fairness, this kind of thing is rarely especially easy to pull off. His best moment occurs in the short fantasy scene where he imagines himself on trial for murder. With a jury of literally faceless men looking on, Redgrave plays both prosecutor and defendant in the ultimate trial of conscience.

For a long time Secret Beyond the Door was one of Lang’s most elusive titles on DVD, at least in an acceptable form. As the rights in the US now appear to reside with LionsGate it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath waiting for anything to appear from that source. There’s been a French disc available for a while but it suffers from the old problem of forced subtitles. However, last year saw two releases that fit the bill: a budget disc from Italy and a nicely packaged edition from Exposure in the UK. Both seem to use the same transfer for the movie, but the UK release sees more effort put into overall presentation. The movie gets a nice remastered transfer with very good contrast (vital for a film like this) and only the odd speckle here and there. For extras we get an extensive gallery and filmographies. There’s also a 12 page booklet that reproduces the original poster art on the cover and contains three separate articles by David Hughes, James Oliver and Claudette Pyne. In this era of cost-cutting MOD programmes, it’s a credit to a small outfit like Exposure that they have both the will and ability to produce a thoughtful edition like this. Anyone interested in collecting classic movies really ought to consider putting a bit of business their way and support such efforts. This film tends to be glossed over somewhat when Lang’s work is discussed, probably due to the absurdity of certain aspects of the plot, but it’s actually very enjoyable. Joan Bennett gives a good performance in the lead and Lang directs with great skill and style. Anyone who is interested in film noir, Fritz Lang, or just classy 40s movies should have a copy of this in their collection.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in 1940s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 
 
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