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Monthly Archives: April 2012

10K!

I just realized that I’ve passed a small milestone, namely that I’ve recorded over 10,000 visits since moving over to the new site. So, if you’re one of those who have passed through here in the last few months I’d like to say thanks. And keep calling back!

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Posted by on April 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Gunman’s Walk

I guess one of the most typical features of the western genre, both implicitly and explicitly, is the way it places the whole concept of masculinity under the microscope. The rugged nature of the environment and living conditions in the old west meant that traditionally male qualities were highly regarded, as such it’s only to be expected that western movies should frequently analyse and comment upon these. Even the humblest programmers tackled this theme, although not always in the subtlest of ways. Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) approached the issue head-on using the framework of a family drama, and also worked in some interesting and important comments on evolving race relations and changing perceptions of law and civilization on the frontier.

Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is an old-time rancher of tough frontier stock, one of that hard breed that carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment. Like many people who have had their character forged by adversity, Lee can’t quite let go of the past. Times have changed, the world has moved on, and Lee has risen to become a respected man in his community, yet he still retains an affinity for the rough and tumble days of his youth. The two sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), who he’s brought up alone – he appears to be a widower – have learned to address him by his first name, a clear attempt by this man to hang onto the identity he possessed in earlier times. On the surface, Ed seems closest in character to his freewheeling father, while Davy is gentler and more considerate. The story naturally deals with the contrast between Ed and Davy, but the real thrust of it all is the relationship both brothers have with their hard-as-nails father. Lee is a man of rigid principles, his own principles mind, and very firm ideas about the way a man ought to behave, and thus how he should raise his boys. Lee’s whole philosophy is built around the idea of standing on one’s own feet and accepting favours from no man; early on he berates Ed for accepting the ranch foreman’s offer to rub down his horse. This kind of tough individualism is an almost constant feature of the western, and it’s an admirable enough trait as far as it goes. Yet, taken too far, this tends to result in a degree of alienation and social isolation, particularly as the advance of civilization gradually renders the notion less desirable. If Lee has trouble getting to grips with this, then the problem is multiplied tenfold when it comes to Ed. In his eagerness to emulate the past glories of his illustrious father, Ed has both absorbed these teachings and twisted them around in the process. The result is that courage, determination and independence of spirit have distorted themselves into bravado, violence and cruelty. In his quest to outstrip his father’s achievements Ed is driving himself beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We get to see examples of his arrogance, insensitivity and casual racism from he beginning, and it’s not long before this unsavoury combination leads to the killing of a half-breed hireling. From this point on, the movie charts Ed’s inexorable moral descent as his father and brother look on, powerless to haul this increasingly uncontrollable young man back from the edge.

Phil Karlson spent the majority of his directing career overseeing B movies, and made a number of very classy crime and noir films throughout the 50s. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brought some of that dark moodiness and pessimism to Gunman’s Walk, thematically, if not visually – although there is a sequence in the jail towards the end that has a look straight out of the classic film noir handbook. The emphasis on these fractured family relationships has a relentlessly downbeat tone that sets the movie a little apart from the usual genre pieces. It’s been stated before that the classic westerns of the 50s were guided by the idea of redemption for the protagonists. It could be argued that this is achieved in some small measure by the end, but the traumatic nature of the developments leading up to this point suggest to me that it will be short-lived. The way I see it, the character of Lee is left so emotionally devastated by the end of the movie that he’s essentially finished and washed up as a man. The final image does indicate that progress has been achieved, but only by reaching closure and burying the past and those associated with an outmoded way of life. As such, this is very much a bittersweet triumph; the next generation (Davy and his half-Sioux sweetheart) setting off to face the future and the final nail hammered into the coffin of the closing frontier.

Understandably enough, this movie is dominated by two strong central performances, those of Van Heflin and Tab Hunter. Of the two, Van Heflin had the more complex role and probably did the better work. He had to convey a range of emotions throughout, and also maintain a level of control and discipline consistent with playing a man of such iron resolve as Lee Hackett. As I alluded to earlier, his was not an altogether sympathetic part – the ingrained racism of his character, and his belief that he’d earned the right to be above the laws and conventions of lesser men is a bit hard to swallow. However, by the time we get to the final scene, and are confronted with a man whose spirit has been comprehensively broken, it’s difficult not to feel for him. The fact that the viewer is able to regard Lee in this light, after he’s displayed such negative traits, says much about the skills and abilities of Van Heflin. Angry and confused young men were very much in vogue in Hollywood in the 50s, and Tab Hunter’s role slots neatly into that category. The cause of this rebel is to be as big a man as his father, to surpass him in every way he can. Hunter seemed to be having a good time with the excesses of his character and did well with the sudden mood swings and violent outbursts. In retrospect, some of the era’s representations of misunderstood youth can be toe curlingly self-conscious and quite painful to watch, but Hunter managed to avoid the inherent pitfalls and created a convincing portrait of a guy with a hair-trigger temper struggling to emerge from the massive shadow of his father. As the younger brother, James Darren isn’t bad, although the script doesn’t call on him to take an especially active part and he’s pushed into the background somewhat. Kathryn Grant was the only woman in the movie and she too is mostly sidelined by the conflict between father and son that’s at the heart of the story. She does get one good scene though, at the hearing into her brother’s death. She hits just the right note when she demonstrates her indignation at the travesty of justice by flinging Lee’s blood money on the courtroom floor, and the contempt in her voice is palpable as she speaks contemptuously of the pervading racist attitudes of all those around her. The supporting cast also features a notable turn from perennial western lowlife Ray Teal; his small role as a chiseling horse dealer with a strong line in unctuous treachery is pivotal to the development of the plot.

Unfortunately, the two current DVD editions of Gunman’s Walk are problematic. Sony first released the film in Spain and, although it’s not a bad transfer, the disc is a non-anamorphic letterboxed affair. Shortly afterwards, Sidonis in France put the title out with an improved anamorphic scope transfer. However, and this is a major black mark as far as I’m concerned, the disc forces Spanish subtitles on the English language track. The only way around that issue is to make a backup copy with the subtitles disabled. This is particularly irritating when you bear in mind that the presentation is satisfactory in every other respect. Anyway, the movie is a very strong addition to the long list of quality westerns that came out of the 50s. All of the themes it touches on have been addressed in other productions but this picture handles them in a measured and mature way. Furthermore, Phil Karlson’s tight direction, anchored by two fine performances, ensures that everything blends together seamlessly. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful western that pays off with a powerful emotional punch. I strongly recommend that genre fans give it a go – I can’t see it disappointing anyone.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2012 in 1950s, Phil Karlson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

Criss Cross

“From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.”

Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, a heist, a hero doomed by fate and his own stupidity, and a rotten to the core femme fatale – all of this sounds a little like a brief synopsis of The Killers. In fact, it refers to Criss Cross (1949), a near relative of that earlier work and a film that vies with it for the honour of being hailed Siodmak’s best movie. Apart from the pairing of director and star, both these films share a similar theme and structure, and I find it almost impossible to decide which is the better one. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – I like them both and they are two of the strongest noir pictures to come out of the 1940s.

The title of this movie is a highly appropriate one for a tale where the paths of all the main characters are continually intersecting in a web of deceit and betrayal, each crossing up the other at the first opportunity. At the centre of it all are three people – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) – bound together by an unholy combination of love, lust and greed. The opening shot, with the camera swooping ominously down from the night skies of LA, sees Anna and Steve caught in a clinch in the parking lot of a nightclub. As the lights suddenly pick them out, their startled and guilty reaction indicates that this is an illicit rendezvous. The fact is further underlined by the terse, tense dialogue – this couple is planning something dangerous, and the possibility of discovery holds a terrifying threat for them. Anna is married to local hood Slim Dundee, but she and Steve were once wed too. Their passionate embrace makes it clear that they have rekindled their old relationship, with the flame burning brightest for Steve in particular. And it’s from the point of view of Steve that the story is primarily seen, with the others moving in and out of the picture at various intervals. He’s a classic noir protagonist, a fairly ordinary guy with limited prospects and a blind spot where no-good females are concerned. A lengthy flashback sequence, accompanied by a suitably weary and resigned voiceover by Steve, spells out exactly how the lives of these three characters converged and the complex ties that continue to bind them together. In short, Steve’s job as a guard for an armored car company has led to his conspiring with Dundee to raid one of the secure vehicles. However, in the noir universe there’s no such thing as honour among thieves and everyone has his own hidden agenda. Steve is the only one of the trio whose motives have some semblance of decency – he’s driven by a kind of desperate love for Anna – and the aftermath of the heist shows just how deep the fault lines of treachery run in this uneasy alliance.

Apparently the untimely death of Mark Hellinger meant that the original script was revised and certain aspects of the story were changed. Be that as it may, the movie that we ended up with is almost impossible to fault and Daniel Fuchs’ script successfully blends the heist and Steve’s obsessive love to powerful effect. Flashback structures can sometimes be confusing or upset the mood of a film but in this case it works perfectly, coming at precisely the right point and filling in the background details that are vital to understanding the nature of Steve and Anna’s relationship. With a tight script, and Franz Planer’s photographic talents, in place, director Robert Siodmak was free to put it all together with his customary visual flair. The opening, which I referred to earlier, pitches the viewer headlong into this complex tale of dishonour and betrayal in incredibly stylish fashion. And it never really lets up from that moment, with one memorable and superbly shot scene following hard on the heels of another. Siodmak uses every trick up his sleeve to manipulate the mood and perspective, from coldly objective overheads to disconcerting low angles and close-ups, interspersed with fast cuts and dissolves. For me, the real stand out scenes, although there’s hardly a poor moment throughout, are the ones in Union Station and in the hospital. The former not only gives a fascinating glimpse of contemporary LA bustle, but also shows the director’s skill in composing a complex series of shots in a crowded environment while retaining control of the geography. In the latter, he uses the reflection from the mirror in Steve’s room to break up the static nature of the setup and extract the maximum amount of tension at the same time.

If the technical aspects of the film are straight out of the top drawer, then the same can also be said for the acting. Burt Lancaster kicked off his career with some finely judged playing as the doomed Swede in The Killers, and Siodmak got him to tap into that same vibe to coax another wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance from him. Once again he hits all the right notes as the big palooka whose dark romanticism sees him suckered by the machinations of a conniving woman. Every emotional state the script calls on him to display is carried off convincingly, from fear and disenchantment right through to the calm acceptance of his fate at the end – from the dumbfounded look of a guy who’s just had his guts kicked out by the woman he loves to the cloying sense of panic of a man under sentence of death and trapped in an anonymous hospital ward. Yvonne De Carlo didn’t have to go through quite as many stages, yet she’s still excellent alternating between the sassy, sensual broad that forms her public persona and the nervy, desperate woman she becomes in private. When she drops all pretense in the climax and reveals her true character to Steve and the audience there’s a tangible shock to be felt. Dan Duryea was an old hand at taking on the role of the slimy villain, and to that he adds a layer of menace as Slim Dundee. He manages this so well that it’s easy to understand the level of fear and trepidation he provokes in Steve when he contemplates the consequences of crossing him. While these three actors carry the movie, there’s real depth in the  supporting cast too. Stephen McNally is solid and sympathetic as the cop whose friendship for Steve leads him to inadvertently push him into crime. In fact, there are lovely little cameos all through the movie: Percy Helton’s chipmunk featured barman, Joan Miller’s garrulous barfly, Griff Barnett’s kindly and lonely father figure.

Criss Cross has been out on DVD for many years now, and the US disc from Universal is an especially strong effort. It offers a near perfect transfer of the film with clarity, sharpness and contrast all at the high end of the scale. My only disappointment comes from the absence of any extra features, bar the theatrical trailer, for such a quality movie. One shouldn’t really complain, in these days of bare bones burn on demand discs, but this film does deserve a commentary track at the very least. Still, we have got an excellent piece of the filmmaker’s art looking great. Criss Cross is a highly rated production that occupies a prominent position in the noir canon, and it has earned that honour. It’s one of those rare films that checks all the boxes and never puts a foot wrong from its dramatic opening until it’s darkly cynical final fade out. Those who are familiar with the picture will know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who are not owe it to themselves to discover this little treasure. This is unquestionably one of the real jewels of film noir.

 
 

Rancho Notorious

Hate, murder and revenge…

Those three powerful words succinctly describe what Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) is all about. It’s a curiosity – a western that seems to take pride in overturning genre conventions and defying viewer expectations. It’s also a highly stylized melodrama, bordering on parody in fact, a kind of baroque noir picture dressed up in western garb. Over the years I’ve seen the movie come in for some criticism, largely based on the atmosphere of artificiality or cheapness. Still, that’s a big part of what attracts me to it; the anti-realism of the film gives it a theatrical feel, and heightens the sense of watching a morality piece played out on an elaborate stage.

The plot is a fairly straightforward revenge yarn although, perhaps unsurprisingly with Lang occupying the director’s chair, it’s given a twist to keep it fresh. Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is an ordinary cowboy who sees his world turned upside down when a couple of outlaws ride into town, raid the assayer’s office where his fiancée works, and rape and murder the girl in the process. Inevitably, Vern wants justice and sets out with the hastily assembled posse to track down the criminals. However, the traumatic event has caused cracks to appear in the apparently mild exterior of this man, and an obsessive streak begins to emerge when the posse refuses to continue what looks like a fruitless pursuit. Having scornfully dismissed his former friends, Vern sets out alone in search of a reckoning. The first third of the film is thus played out in typically noir fashion, as we follow Vern’s painstaking combing of the country for a clue that will lead him to those responsible for the death of his girl. His progress is charted through interviews and flashbacks, as he slowly pieces together the clues and draws ever closer to his quarry. The final piece of the puzzle, or at least the piece that will bring him within striking distance of the murderer, comes when he contrives to have himself thrown in prison with notorious outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Along the way, Vern has learned that the key to the mystery lies with a woman by the name of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and a place called Chuck-A-Luck. His acquaintance with Frenchy, and his part in making good their jail break, ensures Vern’s smooth entry to the semi-mythical Chuck-A-Luck. This is a ranch, run by Altar, serving as a front for an outlaw refuge where no questions are asked so long as the proprietress is paid 10% of any and all takings. Vern is now in a position to work through a shortlist of possible candidates who may be the murderer. Yet, there is a price to be paid; his initial quest for justice has evolved into a thirst for vengeance and has transformed his character in the process. By the end, the hero has become as violent, manipulative and ruthless as the man he set out to find.

Rancho Notorious was the last of three westerns that Fritz Lang made, and it’s arguably his most interesting. The idea of the ordinary guy overtaken by events and thrown into a world of violence and deceit that’s alien to him is one that can be found throughout Lang’s work. The central theme of how a desire for revenge can twist a formerly decent man and leave him on a par with the criminals he’s pursuing would be further, and more competently, explored when the director returned to it in The Big Heat a year later. Although all of Lang’s westerns contain elements of his trademark noir sensibilities, Rancho Notorious displays them most prominently. I’ve mentioned the use of the flashback in the first half hour of the picture, but the mood and photography all the way through help to cement the fatalistic and pessimistic sense that pervades the movie. One could, I suppose, complain about the overuse of painted backdrops and the ever-present ballad that serves as a stylized voiceover narration for the unfolding plot, but I prefer to see these as tools that Lang used to create his own vision of a dark frontier. The film is less concerned with showing any accurate portrayal of the west than it is with detailing the downward spiral of an essentially good man into a world of corruption and violence.

Marlene Dietrich had already played the archetypical bad saloon girl over a decade before in Destry Rides Again, and her role as Altar Keane comes off as an older but only slightly wiser version of that same character; between these two films she created the template against which all such portrayals would subsequently be judged. Dietrich apparently disliked the film and the reasons for that are detailed in a fine post by Toby at 50 Westerns here. Despite all the discord on the set, she turns in a fine performance as a woman who’s gained a lot of experience but little personal fulfillment. She may well rule the roost at Chuck-A-Luck, but there’s a weary, resigned air about her that indicates happiness has passed her by. Mel Ferrer was an actor I’m generally not that fond of, but I thought the mournful passivity that he possessed was used to good effect here, a nice counterbalance to Arthur Kennedy’s twitchiness. Kennedy wasn’t really a leading man at any point in his career – his best and most memorable work was usually done when he was playing the villainous supporting role – yet that actually makes his casting here more successful. His nondescript, everyman quality is suited to the role of Vern Haskell and he really taps into the obsessive, driven nature of his character as the movie progresses. As an aside, I’ve often seen it stated that Vern falls for Altar after his arrival at Chuck-A-Luck, but I’ve never thought that was the case at all. To me, he’s become so consumed by hate at this stage that he’s incapable of loving anyone and is merely feigning attraction to get nearer to his ultimate goal.

For a long time I had the UK DVD release of Rancho Notorious from Optimum, and it was never particularly satisfying – soft and with washed out colours. The movie then came out in the US as part of the Warner Archive series, sporting an altogether stronger transfer. Since then, I picked up the French release by Films Sans Frontieres which I’m very happy with. It’s a significant improvement on my old Optimum disc and, judging from screencaps, looks very close to the quality of the Archive disc. It’s sharper and more colourful but there’s still some print damage on view. Forced subtitles on the English track are always a concern with French releases but this disc allows them to be disabled via the setup menu. Rancho Notorious isn’t one of Fritz Lang’s better regarded films and tends to be criticised quite a lot. I think this is a little unfair; while it may not be his best work it’s still very entertaining. Much of the problem may come down to a question of expectations, with the film suffering from viewers approaching it with the thought that they will be getting a standard oater. If you accept that you’re in for a piece of high melodrama in a stylized western setting then the movie is unlikely to disappoint.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in 1950s, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Westerns

 

The Indian Fighter

Films like Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway broke new ground for the western by offering up portrayals of Indians which were more three-dimensional than had traditionally been the case. Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter (1955) treads a similarly sympathetic path, showing the Sioux in a generally positive light. Few of the white characters are shown to be particularly admirable, even the nominal hero is not without his faults, succumbing easily to prejudice and greed. In addition, the film has a pro-ecology subtext that’s blended into the story in a way that’s refreshing and unobtrusive. This is not as powerful a film as the examples by Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann which I mentioned, yet it still manages to get its message across without resorting to the po-faced piety of more recent revisionist pieces.

Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is the Indian fighter of the title, an army scout recently returned to the west after the Civil War. He’s been sent along to guide a wagon train bound for Oregon through potentially hostile country. Before he ever reaches his posting though, he’s distracted by two events that are to shape the story that follows. The first is a sighting of Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), the beautiful daughter of Sioux chief Red Cloud, bathing naked in a river. The second is when he stumbles upon a botched deal between two white men, Todd and Chivington (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr), and a Sioux warrior exchanging whisky for gold. Both of these occurrences illustrate Hawks’ inherent sympathy for his old enemies. The former, naturally enough, arousing his romantic instincts, while the latter emphasises his willingness to side with the Sioux when confronted with the exploitative behaviour of his fellow whites. What draws Hawks to the Sioux is the respect he shares with them for the land which they occupy. Red Cloud’s principal objection to white men on his land is based on his belief that their greed for the gold it contains will wreak environmental havoc on the unspoiled paradise. Although Hawks doesn’t voice such fears specifically, there’s a telling moment later on when he confides in a photographer that the reason he doesn’t share his evangelical zeal to publicize the beauty of the frontier is his knowledge that attracting more settlers, and the trappings of civilization that they will inevitably bring in their wake, will spell the end of the west he loves. Even so, Hawks agrees to guide the wagon train through Sioux territory. However, the presence of Todd and Chivington among the settlers soon leads to trouble and puts the lives of everyone in jeopardy. While Hawks’ desire for Onahti drives him to neglect his duty, the equally strong desire of Todd and Chivington for the yellow metal sparks off a Sioux uprising. Faced with suspicion and hostility from both sides, Hawks is desperate to find some way of averting an impending massacre, and the terrible consequences it will have for the Sioux.

By the time he made The Indian Fighter, Andre de Toth had a string of westerns behind him (half a dozen starring Randolph Scott), and he’d developed into a highly competent genre director. He used the wide cinemascope lens to highlight the natural beauty of the Oregon landscapes where the picture was shot. These stunning images make it very easy to see why both Hawks and the Sioux want to do all in their power to preserve the land. The rich visuals are probably the biggest selling point for this picture, but de Toth was no slouch when it came to filming action scenes and his talent in this area is shown to great effect in the climactic Sioux attack on the besieged fort. Not only are the tactics employed innovative and surprising, but the way it’s shot gets across the excitement and danger too. Many of de Toth’s films display a matter of fact approach to physical violence and this one is no exception. Early on, we get to see two victims of Sioux justice strung up by the heels, though the camera mercifully avoids zooming in to focus on the exact nature of their demise. Then later, as the body of a cavalry officer is removed from the mount he’s been strapped to, his hat drops away to reveal the gory aftermath of his scalping.

The Indian Fighter came from Kirk Douglas’ own production company and, as was the case with Man Without a Star, he tends to overindulge himself a little. Generally though, Douglas manages to keep his vigor and enthusiasm within acceptable bounds this time. That is to say, he plays the role of Johnny Hawks with the level of energy that’s not unreasonable for the character. The outdoors nature of the shoot, and the degree of action involved, offered ample opportunity for him to show off his physical powers, which is just as well since Ben Hecht’s script never puts serious demands on his acting abilities. In the role of Onahti, Elsa Martinelli hasn’t a great deal to do beyond looking attractive, and she accomplishes that without too much effort; her introductory swimming scene is one of the more memorable openings for a western. Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr are moderately effective as the heavies, the former faring best, but never pose any direct threat to the hero. The nature of this pair’s villainy comes from the repercussions of their actions rather than the actual menace they generate. Matthau is now best known for his comedic roles but he did make a handful of westerns at the beginning of his film career. He uses that calculating, scheming quality which came so naturally to him, and which he built up in subsequent years, to compensate for the absence of any real physical threat. Chaney’s career, on the other hand, was in decline by this time, and the truth is he cuts a rather shambling figure.

The Indian Fighter is widely available on DVD from MGM. I have the UK release, which I understand is a step up in terms of picture quality from the lacklustre US version. Although the disc offers nothing in terms of extra features, the image is quite pleasing. The anamorphic scope transfer is acceptably sharp, without noticeable damage, and represents the colours very nicely. A film that relies as heavily on its scenic views as this one does needs to look good, and I have no complaints about the presentation. Generally, this is a good and well-intentioned movie, although the villains are a little weak. Having said that, the action and the cinematography make up for such deficiencies. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Douglas’ skittish lead and the thoughtful cavalry commander, the whites are portrayed as either grasping, prejudiced or duplicitous. The only truly honourable figures are the environmentally aware Sioux. which gives the movie a strangely contemporary feel. I liked it.

 
 

The High Bright Sun

I’m not sure how many movies have been set during the guerilla campaign in Cyprus in the 1950s, but The High Bright Sun (1964) is the only one that I can recall seeing. It’s all too easy for a story which makes use of such a background to become bogged down in politics and thus dilute the drama. However, this film has the good sense to avoid becoming too mired in ideological matters and instead concentrates on telling a suspenseful yarn that could have been relocated to most any conflict zone without losing its edge. As such, we end up with a well paced thriller that builds tension relentlessly and holds the attention right to the end.

The tale is all about finding oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Juno Kozani (Susan Strasberg) is a Cypriot-American student visiting the island where her father was born and staying with some old family friends. Having witnessed the aftermath of the fatal ambush of two British soldiers by EOKA guerillas, she is interviewed by an intelligence officer, Major McGuire (Dirk Bogarde). Although Juno can only tell him the few mumbled words of a mortally wounded sergeant, McGuire’s suspicions are aroused. He’s one of those jaded colonial campaigners who has grown accustomed to the guarded silence of the locals, and routinely takes it for granted that details will be withheld. In this case though, Juno has told him all she knows, but he has a hunch that the guerilla leader, Skyros (Gregoire Aslan), was involved. What both he and Juno are unaware of at this stage, however, is that her host is using his flawless respectability to cloak his involvement with the paramilitaries. Following a vaguely unpleasant dinner party attended by a family acquaintance, Haghios (George Chakiris), Juno blunders into the library and sees too much for her own good – a secret visit by Skyros. This is the point at which the story really shifts into gear, with Juno having inadvertently placed herself in a very dicey position. She now has to do her utmost to convince her hosts – and in particular, the hostile and dangerous Haghios –  that she didn’t notice anything untoward. In the meantime, McGuire is playing his hunch that Juno knows more than she can or is willing to say. By the by, it’s decided that Juno represents too great a threat and she finds herself the quarry of the seemingly unstoppable Haghios, first in a hunt across the beautiful countryside, and later holed up and under siege in McGuire’s apartment.

Director Ralph Thomas isn’t best known for his thrillers but he did dabble in the genre, including among his credits the excellent The Clouded Yellow and the unloved remake of The 39 Steps. The lion’s share of his work concentrated on comedies, but he plays down that aspect in The High Bright Sun, and succeeds in producing a tight thriller that draws you in as it goes along. The scene where Juno learns that what she thought was going to be a trip to the airport and safety is really a ploy to see her assassinated by the roadside is nicely shot. It also leads into the chase across the island where Thomas, and cameraman Ernest Steward, gets great value out of the stunning locations – Italy apparently standing in for Cyprus. The script, by Ian Stuart Black and Bryan Forbes, does contain some risible and admittedly clunky dialogue at a few points yet it also maintains its focus throughout and does its best to tell a story rather than descending into political diatribe. If anything it points out the dirty and indiscriminate nature of guerilla warfare, where the innocent often suffer the most at the hands of both combatants.

I thought all the actors turned in nicely measured performances, with Susan Strasberg doing fine as the girl caught out of her depth in a situation that’s spinning out of control. For the most part she underplays, and that’s fine as she’s supposed to be someone who must keep a careful check on her emotions lest she should betray herself. Dirk Bogarde wasn’t overly stretched in this one, though he does bring just the right degree of weary cynicism and self-effacing humour to his role. As the villain of the piece, the fanatical and homicidal Haghios, George Chakiris shows a surprising menace. He really did the coldly determined bit well, only the prospect of indulging in some physical violence bringing a gleam to his eye. There’s also a wonderful supporting part for Denholm Elliott as the apparently dissipated and alcoholic friend of McGuire who proves himself to be both ruthless and resourceful.

The High Bright Sun comes to DVD in the UK via Spirit, who have recently begun distributing a growing number of British titles from the ITV library. On the positive side, the film looks pretty good despite an apparent lack of restoration, without any major damage on view. The colour fares well and does justice to the location photography. The downside is that the movie opens with the credits letterboxed at about 1.66:1 before reverting to 1.33:1 for the remainder of the running time. I think we’re looking at an open matte transfer here, though it might be slightly zoomed too, judging from the extraneous headroom in some shots. This is by no means perfect, but it’s not a totally botched job either – a 1.66:1 movie doesn’t suffer as badly from a compromised aspect ratio as is the case with those composed for wider presentation. The disc is a very basic affair offering no subtitle options and no extra features. I found the film to be a well produced political thriller, with the emphasis on the thrills rather than the politics. It may not be an outstanding piece of work, yet the performances, scripting and direction are all professional and polished. Crucially for a thriller, it does deliver the necessary amount of suspense, tension and excitement. I’d call it a solid piece of entertainment that looks good and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I recommend giving it a chance – it’s certainly worth a look.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2012 in 1960s, Dirk Bogarde, Mystery/Thriller

 
 
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