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Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Furies

You’ve found a new love in your life, haven’t you Vance? You’re in love with hate.

In some earlier pieces I wrote about the westerns of Anthony Mann, the matter of the order of production of his first few efforts came up. One of this site’s regular visitors, Blake Lucas, was kind enough to clear up what is often a confusing issue. Anyway, in connection with that, we also touched on the evolution of Mann’s style as he settled into his western period. The Furies (1950) was his second foray into the genre, and it seems to me at least that the film bears the hallmarks of a transitional picture. Mann started out making noir thrillers, and polished, highly regarded ones at that, before changing tack and moving west. His first three westerns, partially as a result of the use of black and white photography, retained some of film noir’s mood and sensibilities. The Furies is a very dark film, visually and thematically, yet suffers from a fault that shouldn’t be all that surprising when we consider its place within Mann’s filmography. I think it’s fair to say the director hadn’t fully found his feet in the genre, the upshot of which being a film that’s something of a mash-up of genres and styles, perhaps a reflection of a filmmaker who had not fully decided on the direction he wanted to follow.

The Furies is a ranch, a vast New Mexico spread presided over by the flamboyant T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston). Jeffords is one of those self-made men so common to the western, a latter-day empire builder who has stamped his authority on the section of the frontier that he seized, tamed and held. Such men are frequently given to expansiveness in word and gesture, I guess we could say they earned the right, yet are also prone to all the petty weaknesses that afflict lowlier individuals: jealousy, vanity, loneliness and greed. Of these, perhaps vanity is the most treacherous, for powerful men have the means and ruthlessness to indulge it. Tellingly, Jeffords has a grand portrait of himself dominating the entrance hall of his home, and sits in his study flanked on one side by a bust of Napoleon and on the other by his own likeness. He’s lord of all he surveys, even going so far as to issue his personalized local currency. But a man like this can only extend his authority so far, and in Jeffords’ case the one person capable of challenging him is his daughter. Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is a wilful and headstrong young woman, cast in the same reckless mold as her father. She is first seen, on the eve of her ineffectual brother’s wedding, brazenly trying on her late mother’s gown in the bedroom her father has forbidden all to enter. There, in a nutshell, we have a neat summation of the relationship between Vance and Jeffords; she has, to all intents and purposes, taken on the role of her departed mother. However, any such relationship is fundamentally flawed for the simple reason that the parties involved must naturally look outside for genuine fulfillment. In Vance’s case it appears that she is drawn to the roguish Mexican, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), who has been a squatter on the Furies from way back. Still, this isn’t a tale where anything can be taken for granted, and it turns out that another man is vying for her affections. Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) is a professional gambler with a grudge against Jeffords based on the dispossession of his family. If Jeffords feels some dissatisfaction at his daughter’s choice of suitors, it’s as nothing compared to the violent dislike she feels for the woman he brings into their home. Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) is a self-confessed adventuress, trading her political influence for a share of Jeffords’ wealth. Such a charged situation is almost bound to tip over into violent confrontation, and does so in highly melodramatic fashion. A memorable and disfiguring assault with a pair of scissors leads to a hanging, and the die is cast. Father and daughter are pitted against one another in a struggle for ultimate control of the Furies.

The Furies derives from a novel by Niven Busch and, like Pursued and Duel in the Sun, mixes in a lot of dark Freudian themes. Personally, I like this kind of stuff but I guess it can come across as a little too ripe for some tastes. The confused relationships that constitute the core of the story are all based on a warped blend of love and hate that reach near mythical proportions. Of course the title itself has its roots in the classical myths – the Furies being the three snake-haired goddesses charged with handing out punishment and retribution – and is highly appropriate given the personal trials all the main characters are destined to suffer at one another’s hands. I think Busch is probably the most melodramatic writer to work within the western genre, but this quality works well enough with films of the period. It also tended to attract directors who had experience of film noir and the kind of off-centre psychology that such pictures often dealt with. Anthony Mann’s noir roots are very much in evidence here, with an abundance of low angle shots picking out ceilings in the interiors to emphasise the tense and restrictive aspects of the story. There’s also an unremitting darkness about it all; much of the action takes place either at night or in the half-light of dusk or dawn, with figures frequently shot in shadow or silhouette. I see this film as a hybrid noir/melodrama/western, a halfway house for Mann if you like. Still, there are plenty of examples of the visual motifs he would later develop as he grew more comfortable with the genre. He draws attention to the stark, barren landscapes dominated by rocks. And then there’s the trademark focus on high places and the struggles that take place there. The film’s key scene, where Jeffords and Vance’s fates are sealed, occurs during the siege of the Herrera home high atop a forbidding rock formation.

The Furies really showcases the talents of both Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. Huston had a distinguished career on both stage and screen and this was to be his last role – he passed away shortly after completing the film. As it happens, the part of T.C. Jeffords was a fitting one to sign off on. Huston drew on all his vast experience to give a well-rounded portrait of a complex man. Jeffords is neither hero nor villain; he’s capable of hanging a man out of pure spite, of blackmailing another to achieve his ends, yet he’s also charming, resourceful and philosophical enough to accept his own limitations. Even though we see him behave selfishly and ruthlessly towards those who cross him, it’s impossible not to admire him and feel sympathy too. In short, Huston presented the viewer with a flesh and blood man, a real person whom we ultimately judge on those terms. Stanwyck too got her teeth into the part of Vance, and transformed what initially seems something of a caricature into a woman the audience could respect. As someone who could move easily in both the noir and western worlds, Stanwyck was ideally cast. You never feel there’s anything affected about her toughness, and her rage, when provoked, is as raw and livid as the disfiguring wounds she leaves on her rival. Gilbert Roland didn’t have a huge part in the movie, but it is a significant one in relation to the plot. I’ve always enjoyed the swaggering, swashbuckling machismo that came naturally to him, and as Juan Herrera he had ample opportunity to show that off. He also brought a real sense of dignity to his character, especially as prepared to meet his fate. When I looked at Pursued, I commented on how well Judith Anderson handled herself. The Furies saw her taking on an entirely different character and she demonstrated just how versatile she could be. Flo Burnett starts out as someone whose obvious insincerity does grate, but the transformation she undergoes, as a result of her physical trauma, is well realized. By the end, she commands your sympathy. In the midst of all these strong performances, Wendell Corey suffers somewhat. He was never the kind of actor to grab the attention at the best of times, possessing a quiet, understated quality, and I’m not sure westerns were his ideal environment. Mind you, it doesn’t help that he had to play a pretty obnoxious character whose cocksure smarm feels a little misplaced. In addition to the leads, there were nice supporting turns from Albert Dekker, Thomas Gomez and Beulah Bondi.

The Furies is out on DVD in the US from Criterion, and it’s one of their usual, very professional packages. The image is in good shape, although I have seen more sparkling transfers from the company, but it does have one irritating issue. Criterion went through a stage of issuing Academy ratio movies in pictureboxed format (essentially, a black border running around all four sides) supposedly to compensate for overscan on CRT sets. I never liked this practice; the gain is minimal, the resolution is lessened, and the whole idea is increasingly redundant as HD and HD ready sets become more common. In terms of extras, this is a pretty stacked edition. Firstly, the movie comes in an attractive slipcase that also includes a copy of Niven Busch’s novel. Then there’s a 36 page booklet containing an article on Anthony Mann by Robin Wood, and a translation of an interview with the director carried out for Cahiers du Cinéma by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol. On the disc itself, the highlights are a commentary by Jim Kitses, a 1967 interview with Mann, a 1931 interview with Huston, and a video interview with Nina Mann, the director’s daughter. As I said earlier, I regard The Furies as the work of a director in transition. I hope that doesn’t appear to be a negative assessment of the film as there’s a lot to admire in it. Still, I do feel I ought to point out that the blending of styles isn’t always as smooth as it could be. Overall, I think the performances and visuals carry the day and point towards even more accomplished work to come. Even if it’s not Mann’s best movie it makes for interesting and rewarding viewing.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, Barbara Stanwyck, Westerns

 

The Big Combo

First is first and second is nobody.

As classic film noir moved into the 1950s, one noticeable change was the increased emphasis on stories involving mafiosi and various syndicates. If you consider that the movement was born out of changing moods and social circumstances in the US in the early 40s, then this shift is not altogether surprising. The whole issue of organized crime was back in the headlines and this concern seemed to have overtaken the more personal, individual angst that had dominated tales in the preceding decade. The Big Combo (1955) is based around such a premise, although it doesn’t really reveal any startling or particularly deep insights into the workings of the mob. But then that’s not the point of the movie, this being principally an examination of two obsessive men and the woman who stands between them; the fact that one is a cop and the other a mobster is mostly by the by.

Where more traditional crime sagas tend to chart the evolution of an investigation, The Big Combo eschews the slow build up and instead plunges right into the story at crisis point. The opening shot has a frantic Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), long time companion of mob luminary Mr Brown (Richard Conte), running through the anonymous and shadowy corridors of a boxing venue. This woman is obviously in a highly emotional state, and it’s no real surprise to learn that she has tipped a bottle of pills down her throat in a desperate suicide bid. This draws in the third figure in the triangle at the heart of the movie, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond’s a driven man, his expenditure of time and money in a quest to bring Brown to book has brought censure from his superiors. However, Diamond isn’t merely a crusader against crime in the conventional sense; his pursuit of Brown is closely linked to his interest in Susan. So, when news of her hospitalization filters through, Diamond naturally seeks her out. Matters are clearly coming to a head for all concerned, and the root lies in a name – Alicia – that Susan has realized carries some special meaning for Brown. Diamond’s appreciation of this fact affords him the leverage he needs to force the tiny crack in Brown’s armour into something more substantial and damaging. Even so, the path is by no means free of obstacles – after all, he’s got nothing more than a name to go on. Before Diamond can piece it all together he will have to see witnesses conveniently disappear, undergo torture himself and inadvertently allow his lover to be gunned down. All the while though, the focus remains firmly on the personal battle between Brown and Diamond, with the issue of the former’s crimes only acting as something of a blind. In reality, it’s a duel to the finish motivated by both men’s desire to possess Susan.

The final fade out has become one of the most iconic images in film noir, stills derived from it appearing in just about every book dealing with the subject. The two figures frozen in silhouette against a background of glowing fog seems to perfectly capture the look and the essence of noir. This ought not to be any surprise due to the fact The Big Combo was lit and shot by the legendary John Alton. Of course it’s not the only memorable moment, the film is littered with shots that are beautifully composed and realized. Alton and director Joseph H Lewis managed to both disguise and turn to their advantage the small budget they had available. The movie boasts a significant number of basic, stripped down sets, yet the director and cameraman artfully cover these deficiencies through the use of clever lighting and framing. Backgrounds tend to dissolve into inky blackness as the key lights pick out and draw attention to the characters. Alton’s take on the dramatic potential of darkness and light is neatly summed up in this extract from Painting with Light (MacMillan, 1949):

To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following little scene: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again…This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the note on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. “It is ten o’clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.”

I’ve mentioned the climax in the airport hangar, but there’s another wonderfully judged moment that takes place at the same sparse location earlier on. I guess what follows constitutes a mild spoiler, so anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film might want to skip over this part. Just as it appears Brown’s empire is crumbling, his subordinate McClure (Brian Donlevy) decides to step in and take advantage of the situation by having his boss assassinated. However, he miscalculates badly and finds the guns of the hitmen turned on him instead. McClure backs up against the wall, stricken with terror, but Brown assures him he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t hear the shots. McClure’s little nervous smile of relief is short-lived though. Brown jerks the hearing aid from McClure’s ear and steps away. The camera cuts to the gunmen and the now silent muzzle flashes of their tommy guns. Very simple and very effective.

Richard Conte was a fine villain in a number of noir pictures, and Mr Brown must surely rank as one of his best roles. He is the absolute epitome of cool arrogance and sadism, wearing a permanent smirk as he raps out Philip Yordan’s slick dialogue. The casual insolence he injects into the delivery is like a contemptuous slap in the face to whoever happens to be on the receiving end. It’s this overwhelming self-assurance and disdain for everyone that ultimately leads to his downfall, but it’s masterfully built up. His first encounter with Wilde in the hospital corridor sets the tone right away; not only does he insult and belittle his nemesis but he does so through an intermediary, not even deigning to address such an inconsequential figure directly. Wilde, on the other hand, plays a repressed and frustrated character. His frustration is twofold: his sense of professional impotence at failing to nail Brown despite investing so much time, money and effort, and his inability to compete on equal terms for the affections of Susan. I thought Wilde carried this off well, his emotions seething just below the surface and only held in check by his dubious morality. He covets Brown’s woman yet is simultaneously repulsed by his knowledge that her purity has been tarnished by her association with the mobster. On top of that, there’s his vaguely puritanical priggishness (note his comment about suicide breaking God’s laws) which is contradicted by his on-off relationship with a showgirl. As the object of Wilde and Conte’s obsession, Jean Wallace didn’t come across so successfully. There’s a blank quality to her performance although, in fairness, that may be intentional as she’s clearly supposed to be a character near the end of her tether psychologically. Wallace was married to Wilde at the time, and it seems he was less than pleased at the infamous scene where Conte starts kissing her neck and then continues working his way down as the camera zooms in on Wallace’s face. This also raised concerns as it was pushing the limits of the production code of the time. When questioned about where Conte went as he descended from view, Joseph H Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.” In addition to that, the movie also features a couple of hitmen (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) who, while it’s never explicitly stated, are clearly involved in a homosexual relationship – strong stuff for a 1955 production.

The Big Combo is one of those films which has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either. I understand the US release by Image may offer the best transfer but I don’t have that one to comment for sure. I used to own a weak Geneon disc which displayed a fair bit of combing and motion blur but replaced it with a Spanish release by Sogemedia/Regia. This disc doesn’t have the combing issues but it’s still only a low-medium grade transfer. The biggest problem is a general haziness and softness that dilutes the work of Lewis and Alton. I continue to cling onto the hope that someone, somewhere will see fit to release this great film with a restored image and in the correct aspect ratio. Leaving aside the less than stellar DVD presentations, I can’t praise the movie itself highly enough. The dialogue, plotting and photography are all pure noir, and the two strong central performances ensure it’s a film worth revisiting.

 

Hell Bent for Leather

You know, the more westerns I watch, and discuss with others, the more convinced I’ve become that the smaller, less ambitious productions actually offer a better representation of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. The leaner budgets mean that the writing, shooting and performances are more honed, less indulgent, and therefore maybe a little more honest and direct. Hell Bent for Leather (1960) is what is known as a programmer; the B western had disappeared and been absorbed by television, but there was still a place for those movies which weren’t going to open as headline A features. The movie is a fine example of economy filmmaking; it demonstrates the benefits of a simple yet tight plot, a small and experienced cast, and a director capable of making the most of his locations.

The story is a very simple one, a case of mistaken identity leading to a desperate manhunt. At the risk of overselling it, Hell Bent for Leather tells a kind of Kafkaesque tale of senseless persecution, the reasoning behind it all only gradually becoming apparent as the narrative unfolds. It opens starkly, with a lone figure staggering out of the wilderness, clutching a shotgun. It’s clear the man is dehydrated and nearing exhaustion, but salvation is at hand – he spies a horseman who has just stopped to eat and rest. This is Clay Santell (Audie Murphy), a horse dealer travelling on business. No sooner has Santell extended the hand of hospitality to the bedraggled figure who’s stumbled upon his camp than that gesture backfires spectacularly. Finding himself viciously clubbed to the ground and his mount stolen in payment for his kindness, Santell only has time to loose off a single shot, winging his assailant and causing him to drop his distinctive shotgun. Santell is now in a similar fix to the man he foolishly tried to help, forced to make his way on foot to the nearest settlement. After this shock beginning, the plot slowly takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality. That shotgun Santell picked up has a history; it belonged to a notorious outlaw who’s been terrorizing the area, in fact most of the townsfolk are at that moment burying his latest victims. However, descriptions of the wanted man are vague, vague enough to fit a lot of men, someone like Santell for instance. There does remain one hope though, the marshal who’s been on the killer’s trail and knows him by sight. Incredibly though, when this lawman, Deckett (Stephen McNally), turns up, he immediately identifies Santell as his quarry. In the face of such a predicament, Santell takes the only option open to him: he makes a break for it with a local girl, Janet (Felicia Farr), as hostage and heads for the hills. What remains to be seen is whether Santell can stay one step ahead of the relentless posse, convince anyone of his innocence and, crucially, discover what motive lies behind Deckett’s seemingly inexplicable actions.

It’s difficult to watch any western from this period that is shot in and around Lone Pine, featuring a limited central cast and a minimalist plot, and not be reminded of Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Hell Bent for Leather measures up to the quality of Boetticher at his best (there are issues with the script, which I’ll come back to, preventing such comparisons) but it certainly treads a nearby path. The film was presided over by George Sherman, one of those journeymen directors whose work, in spite of a long and varied career, tends to be glossed over if not wholly neglected. However, a look at his credits for the late 40s and on through into the 50s reveals a number of quality genre pieces. Sherman shot the bulk of this film outdoors on location, and made the most of Lone Pine’s distinctive rock formations. These serve both as the backdrop and also the main stage upon which the drama is played out. Whether the camera was positioned at ground level, the viewers’ gaze straining upwards to pick out the tiny figures scrambling over the sun-baked surface, or high above and aimed down through the narrow gaps with cold objectivity, the primal, treacherous nature of the terrain is always apparent. Also, for a movie that involves comparatively little gunplay, Sherman maintains the sense of danger and menace, both through the expert handling of his locations and by ensuring that the pace is never allowed to flag. As I mentioned, the biggest problem with this film comes from the writing, or at least one aspect of it. When you look at a Boetticher movie, especially those written by Burt Kennedy, you’re immediately struck by the quality of the characterization. Those films all provide the leads with plausible and relatively full backstories. Now, Hell Bent for Leather is essentially a three-hander, revolving around Santell, Janet and Deckett. The details concerning the latter two are filled in as the story goes along, quite deftly too, but Santell’s background is not. By the end of the movie, we don’t know any more about this man than we did in the opening minutes. As a result, the lead, the man with whom we must sympathize, is left as a kind of cipher, a guy to whom bad things happen just because – very existentialist but not entirely satisfactory.

Given the lack of assistance from the script, it says a lot for Audie Murphy’s abilities that he was able to make the part of Clay Santell work. Murphy rarely gets much credit for his acting, but he could turn in a decent enough performance when the film was of some quality. Even though his part is provided with virtually no background, he still makes Santell a man worth rooting for in Hell Bent for Leather. Being cast in what’s essentially the role of the underdog naturally helps to garner sympathy but he also managed to keep the character real, remaining convincing as he moved from bemusement and disbelief through panic and determination. Felicia Farr had already shown she could handle the role of a western heroine with some accomplishment in a series of films with Delmer Daves, and continued that trend here. Her character is fleshed out as the movie progresses, and she does come across as a woman with an inner strength that keeps her going in the face of adversity. The best, or most interesting, part in the movie was handed to Stephen McNally, an actor who was always a strong supporting player. He really gets under the skin of the driven, slightly unhinged Deckett. At first, this might appear to be a fairly one-dimensional character, but he develops further towards the end. By the time we reach the climax, there’s been enough revealed about Deckett to explain his actions and even create a touch of pathos.

At the moment, Hell Bent for Leather is available on DVD in three countries: Spain, France and Germany. The German release comes via Koch Media, and it’s another of their strong efforts. The film is presented in anamorphic scope, with good levels of detail and rich colour. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer, a gallery and booklet of liner notes in German. The disc offers both the original English soundtrack and a German dub, there are no subtitles at all. It’s also worth mentioning that Pegasus in the UK are rumoured to have this movie lined up for release so, bearing in mind the high quality transfers of Universal titles they have recently put out and their competitive prices, it may be worth holding off on this one for a bit. I feel this film is a superior little programmer that’s well acted and directed, and looks very attractive. It’s one of Audie Murphy’s most enjoyable pictures and also highlights the directorial skills of the underrated George Sherman. All in all, this is a solid, nicely crafted western that represents the genre well and shows what can be achieved with a limited budget and a bit of imagination.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2012 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, George Sherman, Westerns

 

Johnny Guitar

“You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lots of land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”

So says the eponymous hero of Johnny Guitar (1954) Nicholas Ray’s overwrought, subversive western. This is a simple philosophy, espoused by a deceptively simple man. And yet, the film itself is rich, complex and fascinating, both visually and thematically. Over the years, it’s come to be regarded as a cult item, a film so loaded with allegory and subtext that it positively demands analysis. For all that though, it’s a difficult film to try to analyse; there’s so much going on, both on and below the surface, that it’s hard to do it justice. I’ve toyed around with the idea of featuring this movie for a long time now and kept putting it off for one reason or another. However, after a recent viewing, I’ve decided to finally have a go at presenting my take on one of the most startling westerns to come out of the 50s, or any other decade for that matter.

The action opens with a bang, literally. Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden) – although using the pseudonym Johnny Guitar – rides along the base of a hill which the railroad company are in the process of blasting away. As he tops a ridge, his attention is drawn by the sounds of more violent activity; down below, a stagecoach robbery is taking place. Johnny merely watches passively, turning his mount away and continuing on his journey. His destination is an isolated saloon and gambling house, standing alone in the Arizona wastelands. He arrives right in the middle of a ferocious dust storm, the desert winds whipping the red earth up into a furious maelstrom. As he bursts through the doors of the saloon, he finds himself in a curiously still and peaceful world. But this is a brooding, intense stillness, like that found at the eye of the storm. In truth, that’s where we are, right at the centre of a devastating and destructive emotional storm that’s about to sweep across the screen and lay waste to all in its path. This incongruous establishment is run by the equally unusual Vienna (Joan Crawford), a gun-toting woman in jeans and boots who, in the words of one of her employees, thinks like a man and acts like a man. It’s clear enough that Johnny and Vienna have a history, and it’s later revealed that they were once lovers before he abandoned her. However, things have changed now that Vienna’s in trouble and in need of protection: she’s built her saloon in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad and the business it will bring in tow, but elements in the neighbouring town are hell-bent on ensuring that won’t happen. Vienna’s chief rival is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a repressed and frustrated spinster, backed up by the blustering and bullying McIvers (Ward Bond). Superficially, this opposition is based on a desire to prevent the railroad moving in and the hordes of new settler it must surely bring. In reality though, there’s an entirely different desire driving Emma on; it’s a potent and unpleasant mix of jealousy and hatred, jealousy of Vienna and the passions she’s capable of stirring and hatred of her own emotional vulnerability. Radically, from the point of view of the classic western, it’s these two women who are the active protagonists at the heart of the drama. It’s the actions and reactions of Vienna and Emma which power the narrative and shape events. And ultimately, in a complete reversal of the conventions of the genre, it will all come down to a face-off between two determined and driven women.

Nicholas Ray made some pretty good films, but I reckon he was responsible for three great ones: In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar. These movies are markedly different in terms of genre and theme, but they do all share an emotional intensity and feature obsessive lead characters. Johnny Guitar is the most self-consciously stylized, and therefore probably the most misunderstood, of the three. Ray wasn’t aiming for any kind of realism, rather he deliberately played up the heightened sense of unreality (what the critics usually refer to as the baroque aspects) to complement the fantastic nature of the story and characterization. With Harry Stradling operating the camera, Ray used the interiors, especially the main set of Vienna’s place where the back wall seems to be hewn from the living rock, to create an otherworldly feeling. A similar effect is achieved through the use of colour, particularly when it comes to the costumes. Vienna always appears in strong primary colours (scarlets, greens, yellows and whites) and contrasts sharply with the subdued tones of those around her. This is most notable in the case of Emma, who appears in all but one scene clad in funeral black, where the drabness of her dress emphasises not only her pinched and cruel features but also marks her out as the visual antithesis of Vienna. The men in the film all appear in softer, less striking colours too, which serves to draw attention both to the softness of their character and to the subsidiary roles they play. Aside from the skewed representations of gender, Ray and writer Philip Yordan take a swipe at the McCarthyite politics of the time. The posse led by Emma gradually morphs into an implacable panel of self-appointed judges, contemptuous of the rule of law, using betrayal and deceit as a means to punish guilty and innocent alike. The masterstroke here was the ironic casting of Ward Bond (a prime mover in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) as Emma’s chief ally.

This leads me to the casting in general, an area where I can’t honestly find any fault. Joan Crawford is hardly a figure one would normally associate with the western, and Johnny Guitar represents one of her few forays into the genre. Crawford’s career can be roughly divided into three phases: her siren/starlet years up to the end of the 30s, her reinvention of herself as a noir/melodrama heroine in the 40s, and finally as a fixture of schlock horror pictures in the 60s. This movie came towards the end of her second phase, and it forms a kind of bridge between the tough post-Mildred Pierce roles and the gallery of grotesques still to come. While the western environment may seem an odd place to find Crawford, the feeling of otherness she brings is entirely appropriate in context. In addition, the years had hardened her looks and seen them take on that almost masculine aspect that fits the role of Vienna; I can’t think of another actress of the period who could have been plausibly been cast in the part. As Emma, Mercedes McCambridge was another ideal choice. She possessed the shrillness of voice and sharpness of features to perfectly embody a woman barely in control of the raging and conflicting emotions boiling away within her. I think it’s fair to say that no other actress has thus far managed to quite nail the corrosive, consumptive effects of twisted and repressed sexuality to such terrifying effect. Sterling Hayden in the title role, as the only man who displays anything approaching strength or dignity, made good use of both his physical presence and craggy face to impose himself upon all those around him. However, there’s more than just muscle and machismo to his playing; the scene where he and Crawford mull over their past reveals a sensitivity and shows him to be a fully rounded character, perhaps the only one in the film. Scott Brady as The Dancing Kid was the figure at the heart of Vienna and Emma’s rivalry, an essentially feminine role, and he gets across the kind of inherent weakness demanded. His cocksure confidence is basically a front to mask his essential impotence – he’s no match for Hayden’s easy assurance when the chips are down. Among Brady’s sidekicks, Ernest Borgnine remains the most memorable. His performance as the untrustworthy blowhard can be viewed as something of a dry run for a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock.

To date the best DVD release of Johnny Guitar is the version available throughout continental Europe via Paramount. I have the French DVD and it’s a very pleasing transfer, a vast improvement on the UK release by Universal. There’s no noticeable damage to the print, sharpness is acceptable and, crucially for such a film, the colour is well rendered. Subtitles are not a problem, a range of languages are available and can be disabled on the original soundtrack via the setup screen. There are no extra features at all offered. The title will shortly be made available in the US by Olive Films on both DVD and Blu-ray, as a result of that company licensing the Republic catalogue, and I would imagine the same print will be used as a source. If so, it should look pretty good in high definition. Johnny Guitar is one of those movies that viewers are likely to either love or loathe; it’s too heady a cocktail to elicit a lukewarm response. I count myself among the former, and it’s a film I never tire of revisiting. This article I’ve written really only scratches the surface of what’s on offer and tries to give a flavour of this very rich concoction – I haven’t even gone into the resemblances the plot bears to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or the matter of the expansion of the railroad and the clash between progress and tradition. Like all the best pieces of cinema, Johnny Guitar reveals new things on each viewing. I’d say it’s a must for any serious western fan.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 

The Tall Target

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of thrillers taking place in isolated or self-contained settings such as old dark houses, ships or trains. The restrictions necessarily imposed are a marvellously effective way of maintaining focus, both for the filmmakers and the viewers. It also makes for effortless suspense as the options open to the characters involved are narrowed down, and a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere is easily achieved. The bulk of the action in The Tall Target (1951) takes place on a train, and the movie uses this cramped stage to enact its dramatic events to great advantage. What makes the film all the more impressive in my view is the fact that there’s not much of a mystery to solve. Nevertheless, what unfolds on the screen holds the attention from beginning to end.

The story is one inspired by a real event – a plot to assassinate Lincoln before his inauguration coud take place. It’s 1861 and the president-elect is due to make a short stop in Baltimore, Maryland before heading on to Washington to take power. Naturally, these are troubled times and talk of secession and war is on everyone’s lips. With Lincoln’s elevation to the highest office in the land it’s only a matter of time before the South declares independence, and war has to be the next logical step. As such, there are those with a vested interest in seeing that the man never gets to Washington. John Kennedy (Dick Powell) is a detective who feels sure he’s stumbled onto a plot to assassinate Lincoln as soon as he sets foot in Baltimore. The problem is no-one wants to believe him, and his chief even goes so far as to threaten him with dismissal if he insists on pursuing the matter. Unfazed by this stonewalling, Kennedy turns in his badge and hotfoots it to the station. His intention: to board the Baltimore train, foil the conspiracy and discover the identity of the ringleaders. However, he immediately hits a snag; his contact, along with his ticket, has disappeared and someone else is claiming to be the real John Kennedy. A quick inspection reveals that the detective’s friend has been murdered, but there’s no way he can prove this. Such an inauspicious start would give most men pause for thought, but Kennedy is nothing if not resourceful and he turns to an acquaintance to back him up. Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou) is the one man aboard the train who can identify Kennedy and vouch for his credentials. So the soldier and the policeman form an uneasy alliance – Jeffers is no lover of Lincoln’s politics – in the hope of flushing out the would-be killers. The list of suspects is a relatively short one: Jeffers himself, a blowhard industrialist (Will Wright), a young brother and sister apparently travelling on to Georgia (Marshall Thompson & Paula Raymond). Although the villain’s identity is revealed around the halfway mark, I’m not going to spoil things for any people who have yet to see the movie. Anyway, that’s not the point of the film. The greatest anxiety is generated by the doubts over whether Kennedy can prevent the assassination from taking place. Now anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of American history knows the answer to that one, but where the script really triumphs is in its ability to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat in spite of this.

Although Anthony Mann had already embarked on his western phase by this time, The Tall Target harks back to the tight little noir thrillers with which he had made his name throughout the preceding decade. Instead of the wide open spaces of the frontier where the drama was played out against a harsh landscape, this film is a closed affair that was shot on sound stages. The actors don’t have a lot of room to move around freely, and that’s entirely fitting for a story where the characters’ capacity for manoeuvre in any sense is severely limited. There are also a lot of typically disconcerting low-angle shots and close-ups of strained faces. Mann seemed to be blessed with good cameramen through most of his career, and Paul Vogel did some excellent work on this movie. Vogel had already shot a number of noir pictures – Lady in the Lake, High Wall, Dial 1119 – and brought that sensibility to The Tall Target. This couldn’t be termed a film noir yet it has the look and feel of one. What we get is primarily a suspense thriller, and it’s a combination of good writing and characterization, as well as atmospheric direction and photography, that ensures it remains gripping. When Kennedy finds himself facing the twin dilemma of being pursued by both the assassins and the suspicious authorities, Mann gets a lot of mileage from such a simple setup as the search for a berth to hide in. Time and again he draws the maximum degree of tension from situations that the viewer knows deep down are going to be resolved favourably. It’s no mean feat to deftly turn potentially trite circumstances into something that has you biting your nails – in fact, I’d say it’s one of the factors which sets the artist apart from the mere journeyman.

Compared to the kind of stuff he’d been doing before, Dick Powell took his career in a completely different direction when he was cast in the role of Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet in 1944. I like the way he worked on the tough guy persona in the following years and carved out a little niche for himself. The Tall Target was one of his last cinema roles before he turned his attention to directing and TV, and he handles the part just fine. Playing a professional detective meant he had to do a bit of a balancing act, conveying the increasing desperation of a lone cop in a race against time yet still keeping just the right side of panic. He got some excellent support from Adolphe Menjou as the newly commissioned colonel. He adds some of his trademark polish to his performance and has the kind of ambiguous quality that helps round out his character. Will Geer brought a lightness of touch to the part of the frustrated conductor, and it’s a welcome contribution amid all the severity. I was also impressed by the sensitivity that Ruby Dee displayed as the slave girl torn between loyalty to her owners and a natural sympathy for Powell’s cause. Paula Raymond and Marshall Thompson were less effective, the former having the misfortune of being handed pretty much a nothing role, while the latter just seemed wooden. To be honest, I’ve never been all that taken with Thompson in anything I’ve seen him in; he always appeared too stiff and repressed for my liking. The cast was filled out with a whole host of character actors who should be familiar faces, including Florence Bates, Will Wright and Percy Helton.

To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD of The Tall Target is the MOD disc available via the Warner Archives. The transfer on that disc isn’t bad; it doesn’t appear to have had any work done on it but it’s in reasonable condition. There are the usual cue blips and the like to be found on unrestored movies though the image is satisfactorily sharp. With MOD discs you generally don’t get any extra features, but this one has the trailer included. I’m a great admirer of Anthony Mann’s work and The Tall Target is a good, solid effort. It has to be said that it’s neither as famous nor as complex as his best films. The lack of complexity shouldn’t be taken as any criticism of Mann, that’s just the way the characters are written, but it may partly explain why it’s not better known. Anyway, it’s a finely crafted little thriller that moves at a good pace and offers plenty of entertainment value. I have no complaints.

 
 
 
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