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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Across the Wide Missouri

I’ve already featured a number of films that highlighted the trend in 1950s westerns towards a more sympathetic and mature view of the various native peoples and their relationships with the westward moving settlers. William Wellman’s contribution to this phenomenon can be seen in Across the Wide Missouri (1951), where his setting of the story in the 1820s and its focus on trappers and mountain men, as opposed to the later arrival of large groups of settlers, allows him to sidestep political issues and tell a more human tale. Wellman’s movie suffered from some overzealous editing that frankly hacked his work to pieces and leaves the version available to us today an imperfect one. The director was greatly displeased by this, virtually disowning the film, yet what remains is still a beautifully shot work that has some emotional punch, in spite of what was left on the cutting room floor.

The story is centered around Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable), a rough and ready mountain man and trapper, whose adventures we follow in the form of the narrated reminiscences of his grown-up son – voiced by an uncredited Howard Keel. Mitchell is in the process of putting together an expedition to head into Blackfoot country in search of lucrative beaver pelts. With most of the arrangements in place, Mitchell catches the attention of a young Blackfoot girl, Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques), who has been brought up by the Nez Perce. Despite being amused by her advances, he initially brushes her off. It’s only when he learns of the plans of Brecan (John Hodiak), a Scot who has become so enamored of the Blackfoot way of life that he’s literally “gone native” and been integrated into their tribe, to bring her back to her own people that he changes his tune. Kamiah is the granddaughter of Bear Ghost (Jack Holt), the tribe’s elder, and Mitchell sees an opportunity to gain favour. Of course the only way to take the girl from the Nez Perce is to marry her and bring her back as his wife. While Mitchell isn’t averse to the idea, he still regards Kamiah primarily as a bargaining chip at this stage. In the course of the long trek though he finds himself genuinely falling for her charms. Mitchell doesn’t speak a word of her language, nor she his, and all but the most basic communication has to be conducted through the medium of an interpreter, an old French trapper by the name of Pierre (Adolphe Menjou). One of the interesting aspects of the film is the fact that the Indian characters, and the many of the French too, speak exclusively in their own tongue, lending a touch of authenticity to it all. With much of the focus of the middle section of the movie on the arduous journey undertaken by Mitchell and his fellow hunters, it’s basically an outdoor adventure yarn with a romance woven into it. Although the adventurous elements occupy a lot of the running time, the real heart of the film comes from the interracial romance and the gradual development of cultural understanding that accompanies it. However, few tales succeed without the introduction of some kind of conflict, and that’s provided here by the appearance of a rising Blackfoot warrior, Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban), whose enmity with Mitchell leads to the film taking a tragic turn at the end.

My father told me that for the first time, he saw these Indians as he had never seen them before – as people with homes and traditions and ways of their own. Suddenly they were no longer savages. They were people who laughed and loved and dreamed.

The above words, spoken by the narrator after Mitchell has come upon the Blackfoot settlement, might seem to be stating the obvious these days. However, they are quite potent when viewed in historical perspective. When Across the Wide Missouri was produced it was by no means a given to see some respect granted to Native American customs and ways of life. While it’s disingenuous to say that westerns before the 50s were uniformly dismissive of Indian culture, those that tended towards the kind of sympathetic treatment that grew in popularity as the decade went on were certainly thin on the ground. One could of course argue that the inclusion of the villainous character of Ironshirt shows the movie reverting to timeworn genre stereotypes, but that’s both lazy and a bit of a cheap shot. In the first place, the responsibility for the bad blood that arises can be traced back to both sides. Furthermore, it would be a misrepresentation of the times to suggest that everything was harmonious and that the thought of expelling perceived intruders from their territory never crossed the minds of the Indians. Finally, from a storytelling perspective, the presence of this character and his actions are a large part of what gives the film its emotional impact at the climax.

Across the Wide Missouri must rate as a huge missed opportunity for William Wellman, though the director cannot be held responsible for the failings. The film had the makings of being one of the great frontier epics, a sweeping and intelligent analysis of cultural symbiosis. However, it appears that MGM bosses allowed themselves to be swayed by negative pre-release feedback and cut the movie down (allegedly from over two hours originally) to its current sub-80 minute running time. As such, we’re left with a slightly disjointed effort that nevertheless hints at what might have been. Despite the choppy rhythm, the development of the relationship between Mitchell and his Blackfoot maiden is a touch abrupt, there’s still a lot to admire. Wellman kept his cameras mainly outdoors to capture the splendor of the Colorado locations and, as a result of both the broadly comedic interludes and the incorporation of the landscape into the narrative, produced a film that’s reminiscent of the work of John Ford. Leaving aside the plot, the picture is a visual delight – William Mellor’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking and never less than beautiful.

Clark Gable had what could be termed a fairly lean run in westerns, with Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men probably being his best showing in the genre. Across the Wide Missouri offered him a strong role though, one that played to his strengths and exploited his trademark roguish charm. In spite of his frequent casting in romantic parts, he had a certain goofball quality which, along with his inherent machismo, made him the ideal choice for a socially clumsy trapper. In addition, he performed very well in the handful of tender and reflective moments; no doubt he drew on his own sense of personal loss for the climactic scenes, and there’s a real dignity in the way he consoles his grief-stricken bride after the murder of her grandfather. As Kamiah, Mexican actress Maria Elena Marques is cute, spirited and gutsy. She barely utters a word of English throughout the film, save a few efforts in heavily accented pidgin, yet her feelings at any given point are abundantly clear. Her presence really drives the picture and gives it its purpose, and it’s refreshing to see the matter of fact acceptance of her relationship with Gable. After a promising start, John Hodiak’s career dipped swiftly and he died a very young man; this film was arguably his last memorable role before the decline set in fully. He had a dour thoughtfulness about him, a withdrawn sense that seems to match the character he plays ideally. There’s no real explanation given as to why Brecan left his own society to become assimilated into the Blackfoot tribe, and the actor’s own distance and remoteness adds to the air of mystery surrounding the character. Ricardo Montalban’s Ironshirt is a completely undeveloped part, although that may be due to the heavy cuts imposed by the studio, and he serves basically as a bogeyman figure. As for the supporting cast, the best work is done by Adolphe Menjou and Alan Napier.

Across the Wide Missouri is now available in the US via the Warner Archive, and also on pressed disc in Europe from Warner Brothers in France. I have the French release of the film and I have to say the transfer is a very good one. The Technicolor hues come out very strongly, which is vital in a movie so heavily dependent on its outdoor photography and imagery, and the print is in pretty good condition. There are no extra features offered, and the French subtitles can be disabled from the language menu. In the final analysis, I’d have to say Across the Wide Missouri is a disappointing film. In doing so, I’m not saying it’s a poor movie, nor am I implying any criticism of the cast and crew. I feel there was a work of greater significance and cohesion here had the scissors not been applied so drastically. As it stands, this picture has fallen by the wayside somewhat when 50s westerns are discussed. Wellman was capable of producing work of considerable depth when the material was right, and the ingredients for something special were in place here. And that’s what disappoints me; we’re only seeing a fraction of the director’s vision. Even so, the movie is not without interest and is worth viewing for its visuals and its progressive storyline.

Just as an aside, it’s five years to the day since I first started blogging back on the old FilmJournal site. Time certainly flies.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in 1950s, Clark Gable, Westerns, William Wellman

 

The Verdict

Some films just seem to work for me, to click if you like. They need not necessarily be movies of any extraordinary depth or have any abiding influence. The Verdict (1946) is one of these; it’s a small movie, a B picture really, but through a happy combination of elements it just checks most of the boxes for me. Firstly, there’s the setting: Victorian London as only Hollywood of the 1940s could depict it. Then there’s the fact that the plot revolves around a classic impossible crime, a locked room puzzle. And finally, a star pairing who worked so well and so memorably in tandem that they almost created a little sub-genre of their own. Mixing all these ingredients together results in a delightful little film that has no pretensions of greatness, that seeks only to entertain, and achieves that, not inconsiderable, goal admirably.

The opening is a first class piece of moody and atmospheric scene setting. The caption informs us that we’re in London in 1890, a dark and brooding place, as the camera tracks in to focus on Newgate prison, the last stop for many a condemned man. With the fog clinging to the gas street lamps and a bell solemnly tolling the hour of execution, the story’s protagonist looms into view. Superintendent Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) is, quite literally, the big man in Scotland Yard. His lumbering bulk and sombre features speak of a man deeply contemplating his actions and his role in the world. Grodman’s latest investigation has drawn to a close and a convicted murderer is on his way to the gallows. Yet Grodman takes no pleasure in this, reflecting that success for a man in his position leaves only a bitter taste. In a sense, Grodman is condemned too, and we’re soon made aware of this paradox as the tale unfolds. Fate, circumstance and the pettiness of a rival have conspired to bring bout a dreadful miscarriage of justice. Grodman has sent an innocent man to the gallows. His professional disgrace is only one aspect of the matter though; a fine little montage succinctly sums up the guilt and paranoia Grodman suffers. Now settled into retirement, Grodman finds himself drawn back into his old life when a curious murder takes place in the boarding house opposite his own quarters. A reprehensible young man (Morton Lowry) had been found stabbed in his room under inexplicable circumstances: the door is locked from the inside and all the windows are sealed up. Grodman’s rival and successor at the Yard, Buckley (George Coulouris), is stumped and reluctantly calls on him for advice. Aside from the baffling mechanics of how the crime was committed, there are a clutch of fascinating suspects: Peter Lorre as an illustrator with a macabre sense of humour, Paul Cavanagh as a stiff-necked politician, June Lorring as Music Hall girl, and Rosalind Ivan’s hysterical housekeeper. Additionally, the possible motives for the murder form a complex web that encompasses jealousy, passion and blackmail. While Grodman strides in his stately manner through this labyrinth of suspicion, it emerges that history is in danger of repeating itself, with the possibility of another innocent victim being ground up by the wheels of blind justice.

The Verdict is adapted from The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill, one of the classic texts on the problem of the locked room – my thanks to Sergio of Tipping My Fedora for pointing out to me that this is available free as an e-book here & as an audiobook here. This particular form of impossible crime has been a staple of detective fiction for a long time, although its heyday was around the middle of the 20th century. At its best, the locked room problem depends more on the subtle art of misdirection than mechanical hoaxing. As such, this form of the detective story doesn’t always translate well to the screen and is generally far more effective in print. Still, I think Zangwill’s contribution to the canon does hit the mark and should succeed in confounding those not well-versed in this school of trickery. John Dickson Carr, the undisputed master of the locked room, also details the murder method used here in chapter 17 of The Three Coffins – the wonderful lecture on all things impossible delivered by Dr Fell – in case anyone wants spoilers without reading the Zangwill book.

The Verdict was Don Siegel’s first full length movie as director, although he had had extensive experience working in montage and the second unit in the years leading up to it. As a debut feature, it’s an impressive piece of work and demonstrates this was a talented individual with a future. While the film doesn’t bear much relation to what we might think of as a typical Siegel production, it does show that he already had a flair for visuals and pacing. The story is told economically, without unnecessary or tedious exposition, and maintains a consistent rhythm. With cameraman Ernest Haller making the most of the shadowy setups, Siegel uses a variety of interesting angles, dissolves and montage to keep things moving and strike the right tone. Aside from the excellent opening sequence, there’s a fine little section involving a late night exhumation that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror feature. The whole movie is a studio bound affair but, like the best B efforts, it turns this limitation to its advantage. The foggy London streets and mews where the action takes place may be no more than a Hollywood confection yet they have enormous charm, and the controlled environment leaves Siegel and Haller free to extract the maximum level of menace.

Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet established a great on-screen partnership in the 1940s at Warner Brothers, earning themselves the nickname “The Laurel and Hardy of Crime”  – although that term seems to have been developed in retrospect. I remain of the opinion that The Mask of Dimitrios represents their best work together but The Verdict, their final collaboration, isn’t that far behind. Both these men had the knack of injecting a vein of comedy into their playing, of adding a human face to the menacing characters they so often portrayed. In this film, it’s Lorre who gets to indulge in a bit of sly black humour as the philandering cartoonist with a penchant for the gruesome. In contrast, Greenstreet cuts a much more tragic figure, his heavy features reflecting the regret and despair of his character. While Greenstreet’s huge physical presence, frequently emphasized by low angle shooting, dominates every frame he appears in, it’s the scenes he shares with Lorre that tend to be the most memorable. These two brought out the best in one another and seemed very comfortable working together. The main support came from George Coulouris, another actor who specialized in telling character roles, and he has just the right touch of venality as Buckley. In some ways he can be seen as the true villain of the piece, the blustering career cop whose inaction sets the whole affair in motion. Joan Lorring does fine as the blowsy entertainer who may know too much for her own good and ends up as one of Buckley’s chief suspects. Paul Cavanagh, who appeared in three Universal Sherlock Holmes films, has the ideal kind of patrician bearing for the part of the honour bound politician carrying around a guilty secret. Rosalind Ivan is essentially a caricature, a noisy, brittle busybody consumed by unfulfilled passion. The minor parts are filled by Morton Lowry as the slimy cad who becomes the murder victim and Arthur Shields playing yet another of his intense, tight-lipped clergymen.

The Verdict was made available on DVD in the US a while back through the Warner Archive. Additionally, the film has just recently been given a release on pressed disc by Sinister Films in Italy and that’s the edition I own. The transfer is pretty good, although there are plenty of minor speckles and blemishes on show. Some scenes are sharper than others but there’s no serious inconsistency or distraction either. The only extra on the disc is labeled as the theatrical trailer, but it’s actually the opening few minutes of the feature. The film is presented with three audio options: the original soundtrack and no subtitles, an Italian dub, or the original track with Italian subs. The movie is an excellent piece of entertainment, featuring fine central performances, atmospheric direction and an engrossing mystery story. It’s highly recommended for fans of Lorre and Greenstreet or those who like noirish thrillers. The fact that it features a classic locked room problem is an added bonus in my eyes, although those viewers especially familiar with that detective story variant shouldn’t have too much difficulty figuring out the method used.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2012 in 1940s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

Road House

We tend to think of film noir in an urban setting, the iconography of neon and slick, wet streets being such a powerful influence. However, the style isn’t confined to those mean city streets with their ominously shadowed alleyways. Noir can be every bit as effective in a rural or small town environment – the photographic opportunities, while obviously different, still exist and dark existentialism can be found wherever human beings interact. Road House (1948) is one of those partially neglected noir pictures that moves the action out of the city and places it in a small town near the Canadian border, or to be more exact in and around the titular establishment. The somewhat isolated setting works particularly well in this instance, and the classic romantic triangle that underpins the plot has the advantage of involving three top class performers in roles that play to their individual strengths.

The only alley in Road House is the one with bowling lanes in the business owned by Jefty (Richard Widmark) and managed by his childhood friend Pete (Cornel Wilde). It seems that Jefty inherited his money and kept his old friend by his side after the war ended. At the beginning of the movie both men are on the best of terms, coming across as something akin to business partners as opposed to boss and employee. However, a fly in the ointment is introduced in the shape of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), the new lounge singer and, it’s heavily implied, Jefty’s latest squeeze. The opening scene where Pete comes upon the world-weary Lily reclining, shoes off and ever-present cigarette burning on the table edge, in Jefty’s office offers up some great hard-boiled and insolent dialogue. Pete initially flirts and then, as he realizes that Lily is just another in a long line of “entertainers” that Jefty has brought back, fences with the newcomer. Despite Jefty’s obvious enthusiasm, Pete has seen it all before and tries to pack Lily off on the next bus out of town. However, Lily is one of those tough broads from Chicago and has no intention of being bounced so easily. Pete slowly warms to the idea that Lily may after all be good for business when her debut performance (a smoky, throaty rendition of One for my Baby) goes down a storm with the customers. When Jefty heads off for a hunting trip, Pete and Lily find themselves spending more and more time together and their mutual attraction grows. The problem is that neither one of them had cottoned on to the depth of Jefty’s feelings, and it comes as a huge shock when he arrives back with a marriage license in his pocket and a proposal on his lips. The situation’s obviously not a comfortable one so the two lovers decide the only option is to pack up and be on their way. While it was only hinted at and alluded to before, it now becomes clear that Jefty is both devious and emotionally unstable. He arranges to have Pete framed on a trumped-up embezzlement charge and put on trial. But this is only the tip of the iceberg; Jefty uses his influence to swing the court decision and have Pete placed in his custody. Pete is thus transformed into a classic noir dupe, tormented and pushed to the very brink by the increasingly erratic Jefty as Lily can do little but stand helplessly by and watch. The tale powers along towards a terrific and melodramatic climax in the forests along the Canadian border as the former friends go head to head, with love and freedom the prizes at stake.

I guess director Jean Negulesco is most famous for the glossy dramas and musicals he made during the 50s. For me though, his most interesting work remains the tight little thrillers and noir pictures he produced in the 40s. I’m immensely fond of The Mask of Dimitrios, adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel, a low budget thriller dripping in noir atmosphere that makes excellent use of the talents of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Road House though is probably the purest piece of noir that Negulesco worked on, and it indicates that he had a great deal of ability in this area had he chosen to exploit it further. With Joseph LaShelle taking care of the cinematography, Negulesco uses the sets of the Fox backlot to create a stifling yet strangely attractive world in which his three leads can enact their overheated drama. Forests have always held a menacing air, particularly when the action takes place at night allowing the leaves and branches to cast their dappled shadows. It also lends a touch of confusion, characters stumble blindly though whipping, blinding vegetation either in pursuit or seeking refuge. And then there’s the splendid isolation, the sense that events have exited the typical everyday world and passed into a more primal and uncertain landscape. It’s also worth mentioning how music is used so sparsely in Road House: apart from the numbers Lily sings as part of her set, the action plays out against a natural sounding backdrop. Music can of course be extremely effective in building and sustaining mood, but there are enough fireworks taking place on the screen in this movie to render it largely unnecessary.

The US DVD of Road House includes a short documentary feature that focuses on Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino, and it’s particularly heartening to see it drawing attention to Ms Lupino’s abilities. Apparently, Darryl Zanuck acquired the script for the movie specifically with Ida Lupino in mind. She was only thirty years old when the film was made but had already taken on a kind of worldly air which, when combined with a Gloria Grahame style sexiness, slotted nicely into the noir world. Lupino was an incredibly talented woman and, along with her acting, carved out a niche for herself as one of the few female directors of that era – The Hitch-Hiker is a fantastic piece of low-budget filmmaking. Lupino is cast as a sort of unwitting and reluctant femme fatale whose presence provides the spark for what follows. The aforementioned documentary also makes the point that Lupino, as the drifter with a possibly shady past who arrives in town, gets the traditionally male part in the movie and she certainly infuses her role with the kind of tough fatalism that we normally see noir men display. The movie essentially belongs to Widmark and Lupino, with the latter dominating the opening hour before the former grabs all the attention in the last third. Widmark was still tied into the psycho parts that followed on from his searing debut in Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. He comes across as quite affable in the early stages of the story, demonstrating the range that he was soon to explore further as his career progressed, before gradually descending into the giggling lunacy that he practically owned the copyright on. The thing is though, Widmark always had an edge, an emotional fragility if you like, and so the transition his character goes through is never totally jarring – it feels as though it’s simply a natural progression. With two powerhouse performers at work a stable centre was necessary, and that was provided by Cornel Wilde. His part was considerably less showy but that stoicism was important and stops the whole picture from sliding too far and losing credibility. Celeste Holm rounded out the cast in a somewhat thankless part as the girl Wilde throws over in favour of Lupino, helping to save the day in the end and suffering a few unkind digs directed at her appetite and weight along the way.

Road House was one of the last noir movies that Fox put out on DVD in the US before shutting up shop and moving into the murkier waters of MOD releases. The transfer is a good enough effort, despite a warning that the elements used were the best available, there’s no especially noticeable damage to the print. The disc has some nice extra features too: a commentary track with Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan, the documentary I’ve already spoken about, and some galleries. When Fox were running their film noir series there were a few questionable entries, but Road House is the real deal. The direction and performances are spot on and the pacing is very well-judged. While I wouldn’t class this as a forgotten movie, I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t always been given its due. Highly recommended for fans of the leads or film noir.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2012 in 1940s, Cornel Wilde, Film Noir, Richard Widmark

 

Smoke Signal

Films that adopted a pro-Indian stance can be found throughout the 50s, some more explicit in their sympathies than others. Smoke Signal (1955) offers an interesting variation on this trend; it would be inaccurate to refer to it as directly pro-Indian, rather it provides a critique of anti-Indian thinking. By casting a traditionally heroic actor in the central role and keeping his motivation slightly ambiguous for much of the running time – personally, I feel that greater ambiguity would have made the tale even more fascinating, but more on that later – it challenges our conventional genre perceptions. Add in an unusual setting, with the characters running the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the ingredients are in place for a compelling western.

The story is built around Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former captain in the US Cavalry who deserted, joined the Utes and turned renegade. However, Halliday has been captured by the army and is being held prisoner at a remote fort until he can be transported for court-martial. The opening sees Captain Harper (William Talman) and his patrol coming upon the fort that’s currently under siege. Harper’s arrival puts him in command of the tiny garrison which has been whittled down by relentless attacks. He has a special interest in seeing the captive called to account since his brother was killed in a battle with a band of Utes led by Halliday. Apparently, these Utes have been massing and forming alliances with other tribes to stage a spectacular uprising. Harper is initially skeptical about this but when proof is provided it becomes evident that holding out in the fort is not going to be an option. Although reluctant to do so, he takes Halliday’s advice and decides to evacuate the fort, bringing some abandoned boats and making a break for it down the uncharted river. The majority of the running time is spent on this perilous journey, where the small band of survivors must fend off the harassing Utes and struggle to overcome the dangers posed by nature. While Halliday protests his innocence of the charges against him at the beginning, he avoids mention of this for most of the journey. Instead, we’re left to wonder and, like the desperate group around him, have our doubts raised only by his seemingly selfless actions and determination to see his captors to safety. Gradually, as Halliday’s knowledge of the Indians and their tactics proves more effective, he gains the trust of a few of his companions. His strongest allies are the late garrison commander’s daughter (Piper Laurie) and a grizzled old campaigner, Sergeant Miles (Milburn Stone), he once led. The turning point comes when the inflexible Harper, seemingly motivated by spite, orders Miles to undertake a suicidal mission. From here on, sympathy shifts to Halliday, the sole exception being the callous and brutal Lieutenant Ford (Rex Reason). The emphasis of the film is on the group dynamic as much as anything, and the shifting loyalties is an important part of what keeps the viewer’s interest alive. Who, if anyone, will make it to journey’s end is always uppermost in our thoughts and the battle for hearts and minds, ours as much as the characters on screen, ensure the tension is maintained right to the last scene.

Director Jerry Hopper made a series of good if fairly unremarkable movies in the 50s (Secret of the Incas perhaps being the most notable) before embarking on a long and successful career in a string of well-known TV shows. Hopper, and cameraman Clifford Stine, get good value from the Grand Canyon locations, the towering rock face being both visually impressive and also hammering home the bottled up, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it has to be said that while the location work is extremely attractive, there’s far too much reliance on obvious and distracting back projection. Hopper’s handling of the action scenes is just fine, the sporadic battles and skirmishes blend well with the ever-present threat of the raging river and keep the story moving along. I think my biggest complaint relates to the script, and the ending in particular. For me, this was altogether too pat and slightly unsatisfactory – I feel that not only does Harper behave out of character but he gets off a bit lightly too.

Smoke Signal is really Dana Andrews’ picture all the way. Writing of this actor before, I commented on his tendency to internalize his feelings and play things down. That understated quality is highly appropriate for the character of Brett Halliday, a man to whom being true to his own inner convictions has brought only the distrust and enmity of others. I think Andrews was capable of hiding things so well that it’s a pity the scrip didn’t capitalize on this talent and keep the viewers guessing a little longer about the true nature of his character – it would have added more depth and uncertainty. There’s an excellent example of Andrews’ carefully modulated playing in one of the early scenes, when Halliday and Harper first meet. Harper, full of scorn and bitterness, reaches out to snatch away the native amulet Halliday wears round his neck. The flash of anger and resentment that briefly flits across Andrews’ momentarily clouded features, not much more than a twitch of muscle and a hardness of eye, tells us that this charm is special to him and that Harper’s action has gravely insulted him. When it comes to screen acting it’s the little things, those fleeting gestures and tics, that often speak loudest. William Talman tended to get cast in villainous, or at least unsympathetic, parts. He’ll always be remembered as Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe, but he was exceptional as the psychotic bad guy in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. In this film though he portrayed a man bound by his own rigid code, a by the book disciplinarian with a narrow and inflexible perspective. Talman’s performance, alongside Rex Reason’s thuggish characterization, is what lends Smoke Signal its pro-Indian status. As such, it earns its credentials almost by default; the film paints the Utes’ opponents as deeply prejudiced rather than showing the Indians themselves in an especially positive light. As the only woman in the movie Piper Laurie spends much of her time torn between Andrews and Reason, but does well providing a non-partisan viewpoint. In supporting roles, there’s strong work from Milburn Stone, Robert J Wilke and Douglas Spencer.

Pegasus in the UK licensed Smoke Signal from Universal for their DVD release. The disc presents the film in a nicely framed 2:1 anamorphic transfer. The image looks a little soft in some places but there’s no real damage on show and the colours are bright and strong. There are no extra features whatsoever offered, just the main menu and scene selection. Anyway, the Pegasus release is the only one, so far as I’m aware, that presents the movie in the correct aspect ratio and with anamorphic enhancement. Universal westerns from the 50s are always worth seeking out – they’re generally attractive to look at and often feature plots that throw out something a little different. Smoke Signal is a solid, medium grade western that works pretty well. Andrews is dependable and credible, Hopper’s professional direction keeps it all moving along ensuring the pace never flags, and the location work is very welcome. Generally, this is a tight and entertaining mid 50s western that I’m happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2012 in 1950s, Dana Andrews, Westerns

 

Whispering Smith

We’re back in remake territory, proving yet again that this is no modern phenomenon. Whispering Smith (1948) was the third time Hollywood had tackled Frank Spearman’s novel about the soft-spoken railroad detective. It wouldn’t be that last either: Audie Murphy went on to portray the character in the short-lived TV show of the same name in 1961. The film places the railroad and its importance right at the centre, in keeping with the vital role it  actually played in the conquest, building and civilization of the frontier. Down through the years, the movies have shown the railroad companies in both a positive and negative light depending on the view of the west they wanted to emphasize – regarding the coming of the Iron Horse as either the agent of corruption and restricted freedom or as the champion of progress and modernization. Whispering Smith, for the most part, adopts the latter position.

Luke ‘Whispering’ Smith (Alan Ladd) is the railroad’s star cop, with a reputation for being a calm but deadly man. The opening sees Smith falling victim to a couple of bushwhackers, later revealed as members of the Barton gang. The company has sent Smith west to bring in these outlaws, and he lives up to his billing by efficiently taking out two of the brothers when they attempt to hold up the train he has boarded. However, Smith doesn’t walk away unharmed; the shootout leaves him wounded – saved from death only by a bullet deflecting off the harmonica he carried in his breast pocket. As he recuperates in the home of an old friend, salvage engineer and small-time rancher Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston), we learn that there was some history between Smith and Sinclair’s wife Marion (Brenda Marshall). This is only one of the plot threads though. The other, and more significant one, concerns Smith’s gradual suspicion that Sinclair may have taken his first steps along a shady path. For one thing, there’s Sinclair’s association with a notorious crook and rustler, Rebstock (Donald Crisp), and then there’s the small matter of his apparently living beyond the means of a railroad employee. Still, the friendship between the two men holds firm for the time being. What puts it under strain, and ultimately breaks it, is the bullish refusal on Sinclair’s part to bow down and accept the fact the railroad now has new policies, new men in charge, and is determined to crack down on the kind of petty corruption that would have been overlooked in the past. In the end, both Smith and Sinclair have to choose between friendship and the old, freewheeling ways and the more hard-nosed corporate sensibility of their mutual employer.

I think the whole issue of the railroad is approached in an interesting way in Whispering Smith. With the title character as the hero, his carrying out of his employer’s wishes automatically earns a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of the viewer. Many westerns have portrayed railroad representatives as good for nothing flunkies riding roughshod over the pioneering settlers. By showing Smith to be an upright and admirable character and his immediate superior to be a refined man capable of some understanding, the film gives a human face to the railroad. At the same time though, the point is clearly made that it’s the inflexibility of head office, and their rejection of Smith’s direct appeal, that finally pushes Sinclair into out and out criminality. As such, there is a degree of ambivalence in the script’s attitude. Ultimately the railroad, albeit with the human face of Smith to soften the impact, represents the relentless forward march of progress and the inevitable end of the old freedoms that Sinclair personifies.

Leslie Fenton had a relatively brief directing career and his best work, Whispering Smith and Streets of Laredo, came towards the end of it. Both these movies saw Fenton work with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and together they created some beautiful images. Whispering Smith makes great use of the Technicolor process in the indoor and outdoor scenes, resulting in a film that’s rich and textured. There’s also an economy to the storytelling; the fact that Smith, Sinclair and Marion have a shared history is deftly summed up early on by the simple expedient of using close-ups of the characters’ facial reactions. And then the sequence detailing Sinclair’s descent into banditry sidesteps the need for tedious exposition by employing a brief but spectacular montage of wrecks and robberies.

Whispering Smith saw Alan Ladd appear in his first western in a starring role, and it proved that he had a promising future in the genre. Ladd used his quiet toughness to great effect in film noir throughout the 40s and this new departure for him provided an equally productive outlet. His character is given a strong build up early on and he effortlessly lives up to the deadly reputation. Ladd seemed at ease and at home in a western setting and, while there’s nothing gratuitous about his more violent moments, there’s never the slightest doubt that Smith represents a capable and menacing figure. The actor’s ability to seamlessly blend the gentler, more intimate passages with those highlighting his skills with the gun points the way towards his peerless performance in Shane a few years later. Robert Preston had shared the screen with Ladd in the past, most memorably in This Gun for Hire, but this time their roles were reversed. Preston’s Sinclair is a complex mix of ebullience and repressed fury, and the actor creates an interesting character who is three-dimensional enough to remain sympathetic to the end; bearing in mind the loyalty to Sinclair that Smith retains throughout, this is a vital quality to communicate. Brenda Marshall, who had been excellent opposite Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, was close to her early retirement from the movies at this point. I thought she gave a fine, restrained performance as the woman between Ladd and Preston, conveying very well the regret she felt for the chances of happiness she had lost by marrying the wrong man yet remaining steadfast in her vows – there’s a lovely little moment where Marshall and Ladd speak obliquely about their former relationship, and all their mutual longing and desire is clear to see in their eyes even as they talk around it. The film boasts a particularly strong supporting cast, headed up by the ever reliable Donald Crisp and William Demarest while Frank Faylen also deserves a mention for his turn as the creepily sadistic Whitey Du Sang.

Initially produced by Paramount, the rights for Whispering Smith now reside with Universal who have issued it on DVD in the US. That disc presents the film in the correct Academy ratio and it’s an extremely strong transfer, with no print damage to speak of and rich, vibrant colours. The only extra feature offered is the trailer. The movie is a good example of a late 40s western; it’s a fairly straightforward affair but there are some hints of the complexity that genre pieces from the following decade would more fully explore. It’s also noteworthy for offering Alan Ladd his first serious western role and giving a new direction to his career. All told, the movie is a fine piece of entertainment that looks very attractive.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2012 in 1940s, Alan Ladd, Westerns

 

Experiment in Terror

The common consensus holds that classic film noir came to an end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Some argue it lasted a little longer, but it’s pretty much universally accepted that the movement was essentially defunct in the 60s. However, film styles rarely have rigidly defined start or stop points; the nature of filmmaking is too fluid for that, and this is especially true of something as nebulous as film noir. So, even if the new decade saw the emphasis shift and other sensibilities start to take hold, there was still some residue of the old noir influence at play. Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror (1962) pointed towards the way the thriller movie was to evolve in the coming years yet it still bore some of the hallmarks of the works that preceded it – a dangerous urban environment, a dour and downbeat mood, and ample use of striking, high contrast photography. I’ve always been fascinated by transitional cinema, those pieces which seem to straddle eras, and I enjoy seeing how different styles and movements merge, blend and grow. As such, I think Edwards’ film is an interesting example of the phenomenon.

A nighttime view of San Francisco accompanied by Henry Mancini’s cool and slightly menacing score opens the movie. Gradually the camera tracks in and focuses on one car and its driver; Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), a teller in a downtown bank, is making her way home to the suburbs – as it happens, my friend and fellow blogger Michael has just posted a piece on that very opening here on his site It Rains…You Get Wet, and you can check out his full review of the film here. To borrow his words: “…the high contrast images of traffic as lights dancing in the nightfall, beside the luminosity in the landscape of the city by the bay, established its film noir bona fides through pure dark imagery”. As she pulls into her garage a series of quick cuts and close-ups make it clear that something is not quite right. Kelly senses danger and, sure enough, a figure emerges from the shadows to grab the terrified girl and set her nightmare in motion. The intruder’s face is never fully visible but his rasping, asthmatic voice breathes his plans into his captive’s ear. Kelly’s job places her in a somewhat unique position – she has access to money, a lot of it, and  there’s nothing to stop her stashing away a tidy sum and simply walking off with it. And that’s exactly what her assailant wants; Kelly will leave her job with $100,000 in her purse and bring it to him. In return, he promises to cut her in for 20% of the takings, and his generosity even extends to letting her and her kid sister live. As this sinister figure melts back into the night, Kelly slowly starts to regain her senses after the initial trauma. She puts a call through to the FBI and gets connected to an agent, Ripley (Glenn Ford), before the connection’s broken and the wheezing mystery man, pinning her helplessly to the floor, makes it clear that the consequences of any further contact with the authorities will be most unpleasant. However, the Feds are no fools, and once that initial contact has been made it’s only a matter of time before they manage to track its source. Kelly now finds herself in the unenviable position of acting as both bait for the G-men and the stooge for her unseen intruder. What follows is a cat and mouse game with Ripley and his agents lurking the background hoping to use Kelly to draw the would-be bank robber into the open. Kelly’s taking one silkily threatening call after another and relaying them to the FBI, while they in turn are racing against time in an effort to identify and locate the suspect. The first part, the identification, proves reasonably easy – it’s a guy by the name of Red Lynch (Ross Martin) – but tracking him down is another matter entirely. The suspense builds slowly and inexorably as the pressure on Kelly mounts and Ripley’s men scour San Francisco for the whereabouts of Lynch. The tale powers its way along towards a memorable finale at a thronged baseball game at Candlestick Park.

Blake Edwards is arguably most famous for his comedic films, and the bulk of his work as a director lies in that area. Even though he created the iconic TV show Peter Gunn, I don’t believe many people associate him with crime stories. Regardless of that, Experiment in Terror offers strong and convincing evidence that he was more than capable of handling dark, suspenseful movies. The opening scenes of the film pitch the viewer straight into an edgy and unpredictable world where danger seems to lurk in even the most innocuous settings. I think there’s always something very effective about films which highlight the fact that characters can never feel genuinely secure even in their own homes. Here, Kelly Sherwood finds herself under virtual siege, and the proximity of FBI watchers does little to assuage the suspicions of the character, or the viewer, that Red Lynch can get to her any time he pleases. Edwards made great use of real San Francisco locations to help ground the movie but the interior work particularly stands out. There’s a palpable sense of menace throughout, but there are also moments that go beyond that and become positively creepy. I’m thinking mostly of the scenes in the apartment of one of Lynch’s girlfriends – a maker of mannequins whose home is more a chamber of horrors with dummy body parts and impassive visages literally stacked to the rafters. While I guess these scenes could be viewed as a stylistic indulgence that don’t do much to further the plot, they add a lot to the atmosphere of unease. Visually, the film is impressive from first to last and I feel that it’s only a few lapses in the writing that let it down somewhat. I’m referring here to characterization of the villain; Lynch is clearly a bad man, a felon with a long and varied record. Yet, the introduction of a young Asian woman and her son suggests there’s more depth here, another layer to Lynch that’s neither fully explored nor explained. Perhaps the novel from which the film was adapted went further into this aspect but, never having read it, I’m not able comment one way or the other.

Although Glenn Ford gets top billing in this one his is honestly more of a supporting role. He’d started to take on a middle-aged appearance by this time and brought a certain gravitas to the part of Ripley. Movies where menace and hysteria simmer just below the surface need a figure of stability to prevent everything from flying off into melodramatic territory. That’s essentially the function of Ford in Experiment in Terror, and he’s fine as that strong point of reference at the heart of it all. The two most significant roles are those of Lee Remick and Ross Martin, with the former having to do the lion’s share of the work and carry the film for long stretches. Remick didn’t always get the chance to show what she was capable of as an actress and sometimes found herself cast in indifferent roles. Experiment in Terror placed her front and centre though and gave her a meatier part. Rather than going for the easy option and playing it as a stereotypical damsel in distress, Remick brings a lot of welcome resilience to her character. By doing so, she gives a bit more punch to those scenes where she’s in real danger and fearing for her life. Ross Martin’s villain is excellent too, he looks the part and has just the right sinister air about him. Edwards’ decision to shoot his early scenes in a way that concealed his identity works very well and, although the script would have required a major revision to facilitate it, it’s a pity the faceless nature of Lynch couldn’t have been sustained for longer. There’s good support from a very young Stefanie Powers as Remick’s kid sister, one of the main levers Lynch uses to ensure compliance with his plans, and she brings an appropriate sense of innocence to her role. Ned Glass could usually be relied on to add a touch of sleazy charm to any movie he appeared in, and that’s exactly what he does as a chiseling reporter reluctantly helping the Feds. Finally, there’s a touching little cameo from Patricia Huston as Lynch’s ill-fated girlfriend – if nothing else, her presence serves to highlight the ruthless and callous nature of her lover.

Experiment in Terror, as a Columbia picture, is a Sony property. It was long out of print on DVD in the US but has been reissued as a MOD disc and there is a Blu-ray on the way from Twilight Time. I have the inexpensive Sony disc that’s been released in the UK, and I find it more than satisfactory. It’s quite a basic effort with no extra features but the image is very clean and sharp and is presented 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. I think this is a first class example of the evolving nature of crime movies at the time, featuring some of the look and feel of earlier film noir while looking forward to the more explicit realism that was to come. A fine thriller that I strongly recommend checking out.

 
34 Comments

Posted by on November 1, 2012 in 1960s, Glenn Ford, Mystery/Thriller

 
 
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