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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Tomahawk

Over the years I’ve tried to turn the spotlight where possible on those films which I reckon have either been unfairly maligned or, more commonly, just fallen between the cracks and slipped off the radar of movie fans. As a lover of westerns, I’ve found that the genre provides an especially rich vein to mine with respect to neglected gems. This is partly down to the sheer volume of pictures made during the western’s heyday, and also the gradual decline in interest in the genre, not least from a critical perspective. In my own small way, I’ve looked to draw a little attention back towards westerns and maybe encourage others to explore a little deeper. I particularly like the more socially aware pictures of the early 50s, those movies which did their best to offer entertainment and simultaneously encourage thought on the part of their audience. George Sherman’s Tomahawk (1951) is one such film – it’s a handsome looking, well paced work that not only contains a potted history lesson but also approaches the Indian Wars in a mature and intelligent way.

The film is bookended by one of those strident, self-important and frankly grating narrations that became fashionable in the documentary-style noir pictures of the post-war years. In many ways this is an inauspicious opening and one that doesn’t really blend in with the rest of the film. The time and context are established but I feel that this could have been achieved just as well, and with a good deal less piety, via the more traditional method of using rolling captions. Anyway, it’s Wyoming in 1866, at the time the Bozeman Trail is drawing in settlers and prospectors. The fact that this route west passes through Sioux hunting grounds, and violates previous treaty pledges, has the potential to spark off a major conflict with Red Cloud’s warriors. The problem is exacerbated by the government’s decision to build Fort Phil Kearny as a garrison to house an army detachment and offer protection to travelers. The construction proved a sore point with the Sioux, and the film concentrates on a compressed version of the bloody events that ensued, namely the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. It includes all the major players in those battles and gives the story a new twist by adding in a revenge aspect. Everything unfolds from the perspective of Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), a trapper and former scout who allows himself to be coaxed back into service for personal reasons. Bridger is disparagingly referred to by some as a “Squaw Man” – a man who has taken an Indian girl as his wife – and it’s this status that forms the basis for his decision to return to scouting duties. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most notorious atrocities to take place on the frontier, when Colonel Chivington led his irregular cavalry in a raid on a Cheyenne village, butchering and mutilating in the region of 150 of the inhabitants, the majority of whom were women and children. Bridger, who suffered a grievous loss in this massacre, has spent the intervening years hunting those responsible. When the young Cheyenne girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), with whom he’s traveling believes she has recognized one of Chivington’s men among the troops detailed to the new fort, Bridger takes up the offer to scout for the army once again. At first, there exists an uneasy truce between the Sioux and the soldiers, Red Cloud being shown as a man willing to compromise so long as his people aren’t faced with aggression. However, the hotheaded hatred of the Indians by a young officer, Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol), leads to an inevitable killing and matters start to spiral ever downward. The new fort soon finds itself under effective siege, with Dancy and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space) seeking to discredit Bridger in the eyes of the garrison commander and downplay his estimate of the strength of Red Cloud’s forces. The movie covers the essentials concerning the build up to and aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre but alters some details for the purposes of storytelling – most notably by compressing the timeline and shifting some of the responsibility away from Fetterman himself.

George Sherman has never really got his due as a director; he worked in a variety of genres but his westerns for Universal in the 1950s in particular constitutes a strong body of work. His movies tend to be well paced and, more often than not, play around with interesting themes. Tomahawk packs a lot of story into its 80 minutes yet, despite moving at a fair clip, never sacrifices coherence. Aside from the standard cavalry versus Indians stand-off at the heart of the tale, there’s a revenge story and a commentary on the dubious treatment of the Indians blended in too. I think it’s a credit to Sherman’s skill that all these elements are handled well, and that the finished film is never less than entertaining. The majority of the action takes place outdoors, with Sherman and cameraman Charles P Boyle making the most of the Dakota locations. Sherman manages to convey the beauty and expansiveness of the landscape, leaving the viewer in no doubt why men like Red Cloud were prepared to fight and die if necessary to safeguard their ancestral lands. The film makes no bones about where its sympathies lie; the character of Bridger is as much of a guide for the viewer as he is for the army. It’s through his eyes that we’re invited to see things, and this allows us to experience the personal conflict of a man torn by his love for and understanding of the Indian way of life, and his sense of duty to the country of his birth. As such, the film never shies away from depicting the duplicity and inherent racism of Indian policy at the time, yet does its best to address the complexity of the situation too. I feel it slots nicely into that cycle of early 50s westerns that tried to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous period of US history.

Van Heflin’s stoic presence is the glue that holds the picture together. He had that lived in look that was just right for playing a toughened frontier scout, and the necessary physicality to make the action scenes seem authentic. I think one of his strengths as an actor was the thoughtful, introspective quality that he was able to bring to his roles, and the character of Bridger allowed him to explore that. You could argue that the revenge motif that runs throughout the movie was a tacked on extra, but it’s very important in helping to flesh out the character of Bridger and explain his motivation. Without the whole Sand Creek back story, Bridger would be just another westerner with a fondness for Indians. The scene where he explains his background to Yvonne De Carlo not only provides something for Van Heflin to get his teeth into, but it also makes it clear to the viewer where his passionate advocacy of the Indian stems from. Heflin rarely gave a poor performance in any movie, and Tomahawk saw him touch on grief, compassion, love and fury convincingly – a real three-dimensional figure rather than a caricature or stereotype. Yvonne De Carlo always brought a kind of tough glamour to whatever part she played, and some of the technicolor movies she made in the late 40s and 50s really highlighted her beauty. Although she was essentially playing the love interest in this film, her character’s real purpose was to draw out Heflin. Therefore, the romantic aspects never actually overwhelm the main focus of the story, serving to complement it instead. The chief villain of the piece was Alex Nicol as the sneering racist. He always seemed at his best playing the bad guy (check out The Man from Laramie for another performance that’s certainly interesting), and Tomahawk gave him the chance to indulge in some great rodent-like nastiness. The film boasts an extremely strong supporting cast, including a small part as a trooper for a young Rock Hudson. Susan Cabot met a very tragic end in real life but she was a very attractive screen presence in her time. I thought she brought a really sweet allure to the role of Monahseetah. In addition, there are well-judged turns from Jack Oakie, Preston Foster and Tom Tully.

Tomahawk is available on DVD in a number of territories, including the US (as part of Universal’s MOD programme) and the UK. Before those editions were released Mondo Entertainment in Germany put the title out as part of a licensing arrangement with Universal, and that’s the copy I have. I have to say that the transfer on that disc is fantastic – it’s sharp, clean and has the kind of eye-watering colours that show the cinematography off to great effect. The film is offered with a choice of the original audio or a German dub, and no subtitles of any kind are present. Extras are confined to text biographies of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson (Hudson’s name gets prominent billing on the cover too despite his minor role – no mention of Heflin at all) and advertisements for other titles in the range. All told, I feel Tomahawk is an excellent little film that rarely seems to get a mention. Sherman paints some lovely images, packs in the action, tackles tough themes, coaxes solid performances from his cast and entertains all the way. Frankly, this really ought to be better known and more widely seen. It’s definitely a movie to check out if you get the opportunity – I don’t think it will disappoint.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rock Hudson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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The Fallen Sparrow

Wartime propaganda movies can be a bit of a mixed bag when viewed with modern eyes, the passage time allowing them to be considered more objectively as pieces of cinema. Some fare very poorly, with weak, stereotypical characterization tending to be the principal fault. On the other hand, there are others which hold up better, which use a little more subtlety and whose stories are more engrossing. The Fallen Sparrow (1943) is one of the stronger efforts, thanks largely to its star and cinematographer. However, it’s not a movie without its faults, most of which stem from an inability to fit comfortably into any one category: it’s a spy thriller with an antifascist message, a film noir in visual terms, and a psychological melodrama. I think it’s the propaganda aspect that lets it down the most though, not because it’s especially dated but more because the motivation of the villains is hard to swallow.

John McKittrick (John Garfield) is a war veteran, not of WWII but the Spanish Civil War. A policeman’s son, he fought on the Loyalist side, was captured and held prisoner long after the conflict had ended. We first see him on a train bound for his native New York. There’s a nervy urgency about the man, and a glimpse at a scrap of newspaper tells us that he’s heading home as a result of an apparently accidental death. A boyhood friend took a dive from a high-rise apartment, and it’s soon made clear that McKittrick is unsatisfied with the official version of events.So far the plot has all the hallmarks of a standard mystery thriller, but it’s McKittrick’s back story that gives it an added twist. During his incarceration in Spain McKittrick was a victim of prolonged sessions of torture, and he only escaped due to the intervention of his recently deceased friend. The effect of this is twofold – McKittrick suspects that the death was no accident and was actually linked to events in Spain; additionally, those years in the dungeons suffering at the hands of faceless tormentors have left him in a psychologically fragile state. With the police keen to give him the brush off, McKittrick sets about looking into the circumstances of the death himself. This leads him into the slightly surreal world of the refugee community – where exiled aristocrats keep company with night club musicians and the granddaughter of a prince (Maureen O’Hara) sells hats to society matrons for a living. Within this odd milieu lurks the threat of a fascist cell and its preoccupation with the recovery of one of the more unusual spoils of war. Teetering on the brink of sanity, McKittrick weaves his way through this group of blue bloods, spies and assorted lackeys in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery and exorcise his personal demons.

Richard Wallace isn’t a director i can say I’m all that familiar with. He’s probably best know for taking charge of Sinbad, the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, but he also made a moderately good noir, Framed, with Glenn Ford. Both Framed and The Fallen Sparrow show that Wallace had some talent for the dark cinema, and this movie in particular features a few very nice touches. I guess the fact that Nicholas Musuraca, who photographed some of the most visually interesting film noirs, was behind the camera helped a lot, and the pair conjure up a handful of scenes whose atmosphere wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. There are plenty of impenetrable shadows that whisper menace, and architectural features like pillars and balustrades are used to pin the hapless and haunted McKittrick in place. The overall effect is to heighten the sense that the hero of the movie is still trapped by the ghosts and monsters of his past, and he frequently seems to be as much the prey of the dark forces crowding around him as the hunter he’s trying to be.

The film very much belongs to John Garfield, although there’s good support from Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak. I think Garfield is one of the most tragic figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age – a man of immense talent and raw power doomed by poor health and the political climate of the times. He always came across to me as the tough guy with the soft center, possessed of a streetwise cockiness and vulnerability that, while an elusive quality, was a key ingredient of the finest noir protagonists. His career lasted only thirteen years and by 1952 he was dead, aged just 39. He suffered from a heart condition and it’s highly likely that his hounding by HUAC during the McCarthyite Red Scare of the late 40s and 50s was a contributory factor in his early demise. However, in the short time he graced the screen with his presence, Garfield made some terrific and memorable movies, especially noir pictures. Body and Soul, Force of Evil and The Breaking Point are all genuine classics as far as I’m concerned, and even his lesser works like The Fallen Sparrow show how good he could be. I think the most interesting thing about this movie isn’t really the plot, instead it’s Garfield’s portrayal of a severely damaged individual, a psychologically shattered man clinging to the remnants of his sanity. His terror, as the nights draw in and the shadows lengthen, is palpable. The viewer really gets to share in his dread, boxed up in his apartment and sweating despite the snow falling outside, as the dragging footsteps of the limping man of his nightmare past echo in his mind. Walter Slezak brought a creeping menace to many roles, not least Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and his turn as a crippled intellectual fascinated by man’s cruelty to man is well realized. The early scene where he softly lectures a drawing-room of stuffy society types on the delicacies of the torturer’s art, as Garfield stands awkward and withdrawn before him, is a chilling moment. Maureen O’Hara is only one of three women linked to the mystery – the others being Patricia Morison and Martha O’Driscoll – but she gets the meatier and more significant role. She’s not an actress that you would automatically associate with film noir but does fine as a possibly duplicitous woman with divided loyalties.

The Fallen Sparrow was an RKO production and is now widely available in DVD in Spain, Italy, France and the US (via the Warner Archive). I have the UK edition of the film released by Odeon and it’s a reasonable transfer. The image is fairly sharp and has good contrast levels to show off Musuraca’s photography. However, it has to be said the print is quite dirty, with plenty of speckles and instances of minor damage. The disc is completely free of extras, just the option to play the movie or select a scene. The movie is adapted from a book by Dorothy B Hughes and while it’s not up to the standards of the best versions of her stories – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – I reckon it’s still a movie that most fans of film noir would want to see. I feel that aspects of the plot, derived from the overdone combination of propaganda, espionage and melodrama, do hurt it. Having said that, Garfield’s intense performance and Musuraca’s beautiful, atmospheric photography raise the quality quite a few notches. All in all, it’s an enjoyable if not wholly successful film.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Garfield

 

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A Fistful of Dynamite

I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution.

For someone who has dedicated so much time to writing about westerns, I’ll have to admit I have thus far neglected one of the best known directors of the genre: Sergio Leone. The truth is that, outside of Leone’s work, I cannot claim to be a huge fan of the spaghetti western sub-genre. So, while I have reservations about the Euro western in general, I have no hesitation at all acknowledging the artistry and sensibility of Leone. He didn’t actually make a large number of westerns, but those which he did have been highly influential. Once Upon a Time in the West has probably come to be accepted as his crowning achievement. While I have no intention of challenging that assertion, I do believe that A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) runs it a very close second in terms of emotional and intellectual depth.

The setting is Mexico during the revolution, and this provides the ideal background for Leone to lay out his thoughts. It affords him the opportunity to make points of both a political and personal nature, and weave them together into a critique of the direction of contemporary filmmaking. If Ford and Peckinpah had helped deconstruct the myth of the west, and paved the way for the emergence of the spaghetti western, then Leone (critically lauded as a cinematic revolutionary) set about the deconstruction of the myth of revolution itself. The film opens with Mao’s quotation describing revolution as being essentially an act of violence, and the events that unfold on the screen back up this assertion. Yet Leone, in his depiction of the frequent and mindless violence, never glories in the bloodshed. The film we see is a tragedy, a very human one, but at the same time it’s a celebration of friendship and kinship. We follow the fortunes of two men, John Mallory (James Coburn) and Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) as they navigate the danger and treachery of a country in upheaval. John is an IRA man, an explosives expert on the run from his native land plying his trade in the silver mines. Juan is a bandit, a simple peasant content to live off whatever pickings come his way. A chance meeting draws these two contrasting characters together and binds their fates inextricably. Initially, each man views the other as a kind of dupe, a tool to be made use of to further their individual ends. Juan sees the Irishman as the means by which he can finally crack the famed bank in Mesa Verde, while John regards the Mexican as someone he can trick into serving the revolutionary cause. The first half of the movie takes us through the twists and turns of his mismatched duo’s effort to stay one step ahead of the other. The tone is light, bordering on the comedic at times, but the clouds are gathering in the background. The aftermath of the Mesa Verde escapade ushers in the second, darker part of the story. It’s here that the full import of the political situation starts to become clear. Where the violence of the earlier section had a cartoonish quality, the deaths that follow (and there are many) are cruel, and they have consequences. The romance of revolution is laid bare before us, both in words (see the opening quotation above) and actions, and it’s not a pretty spectacle. Leone’s controversial assessment seems to be that betrayal and loss – of family, friends and ideals – are both the result and foundation of revolution. That’s a brave and daring position to adopt at any time, and even more so in 1971 following hot on the heels of the previous decade’s climate of political, cultural and social change.

For the most part, A Fistful of Dynamite follows a traditional, linear narrative structure. However, there are teasing flashbacks interspersed throughout, each one adding to and expanding on those that precede it. These flashbacks relate to John’s past life in Ireland, and show Leone’s gift for inventiveness by gradually revealing the character. In fact, they work on two levels: (i) they act as an homage to Ford, by evoking the Irish preoccupation with betrayal as seen in The Informer and (ii) they delineate the background of John, simultaneously marking him out as a western hero in the classical mold. Leone was greatly influenced by Ford – a section in Christopher Frayling’s first class Once Upon a Time in Italy reprints a 1983 interview Leone gave an Italian newspaper, where he details his reverence for Ford and tells how he had a framed photo the latter had signed and inscribed in his honour occupy pride of place on his wall. In purely narrative terms, the flashbacks not only flesh out the character of John but they help explain why and how he came to this place in his life. John is essentially an enigmatic character, a man whose motivations are hard to divine, yet the brief interludes in Ireland allow us to build up a near complete picture of him by the end. By charting his descent from romantic idealist to disillusioned technician, the flashbacks both fill in the gaps and establish his western credentials. At first glance, an Irish bomber involved in the Mexican revolution might not appear to be a traditional western figure, but an examination of his character arc – betrayal, revenge, guilt and the quest for spiritual redemption – tells the tale. This lone figure, this outsider with a heart full of regret, searching for a way to bury his past is a recurrent one in the classic western. As such, John moves from apparent cypher to an incredibly complex man, a walking tragedy who seems destined to enter a new cycle of guilt and remorse – his involvement of Juan in his schemes brings only misfortune, and the matter of betrayal once again rears its head. The explosive finale, therefore, represents the only possible way for him to achieve a form of closure and inner peace. Coburn really got under the skin of John, maybe not quite reaching the levels of self-disgust he managed when playing Pat Garrett for Peckinpah but not far off either. The climactic scene on the engine plate with the traitor Villega (Romolo Valli), where he vows never to pass judgement on another man again, is a masterclass in bitterness and loathing.

By contrast, Juan is a much more straightforward character, a simple man with simple dreams. However, he too has to suffer at the hands of idealism. He’s well aware of the hypocrisies and false promises held out by the revolutionaries, yet he allows himself to be drawn ever deeper into the machinations of John and Villega. His casual vulgarity and lack of sophistication mark him as a semi-comedic everyman, someone whose attachment to family allows the audience to sympathize with him despite his being a common criminal. By having the audience view proceedings mainly from Juan’s perspective, Leone manages to hammer home the abrupt shift in tone at the halfway point much more effectively. The fate of his extended family, a direct consequence of his greedy foolishness and unwitting embroilment in politics, hits both him and us hard. The scene in the cave, with a bewildered and grief-stricken Juan stumbling around amid the carnage, is extremely moving no matter how often it’s seen. It brings both the film and the character to a new level, and neither one is ever the same again. Juan is transformed form a gregarious rogue with grandiose plans first to an image of despair, and then to something harder and colder. As an actor, Rod Steiger generally had a tendency to overcook it, to chew up the scenery before moving on to the props for afters. That is certainly in evidence in the early stages, where he is essentially a caricature of a Mexican bandit. However, he was capable of greater subtlety when the occasion demanded, and his reaction to the discovery in the cave, and all that follows, bears testimony to that. Steiger managed to tap into the development of his character, the journey he has taken, but still hold onto a touch of the innocence that makes him endearing. The final fadeout, with Juan’s moon face staring dumbly into the camera lens as his question is heard and the answer flashes before us, underlines Leone’s feelings and highlights the pitiful quandary faced by all of us.

Of course it would be impossible to discuss any Sergio Leone film without also referring to the music of Ennio Morricone. To any film fan, the names of the director and composer are inseparable, and the two men seemed to draw the best from each other. Morricone’s scores are always distinctive, primal pieces that complement the harsh landscapes and off-center characters in Leone’s films. For A Fistful of Dynamite, Morricone created music that was quite unlike the work he did on the previous Leone collaborations. There’s a light, jaunty quality to the scoring in the early scenes that matches the initial buffoonery of Juan and the ribbing of John. This gives way to the lush romanticism of the pastoral flashbacks and the ethereal vocals repeating the name Sean over and over. And finally, the more somber variation on that theme as the flashbacks grow darker and knowledge of what John did to his friend (Sean?) becomes apparent. One of the features on the DVD actually raises that question – who is Sean, and why does John call himself that at first? Of course, Sean is often used in Ireland as the Gaelic form of John, but Leone’s cutting of that scene and the use of the music therein does suggest some kind of transference is taking place, that John’s guilt is subconsciously driving him to adopt the name of his friend.

And finally, a word on the title. This movie has been known under a number of titles: Giù La Testa, Duck, You Sucker!, Once Upon a Time in the Revolution and A Fistful of Dynamite. The original Italian title arguably captures Leone’s message most succinctly – a plea to keep a low profile and thus avoid unwanted political attention and trouble – but the translation into English loses much of that and actually suggests some light-hearted romp. The other two alternatives both represent attempts to draw connections to and capitalize on Leone’s previous successes, but neither is really satisfactory either. In the end, I opted to use A Fistful of Dynamite to head the piece here mainly because that’s the one I’m most familiar with, and it’s also emblazoned across the cover of my DVD.

A Fistful of Dynamite is a movie that has been released in different forms over the years, but the 2-disc DVD from MGM presents the definitive cut. It restores the full, extended flashback at the end of the film and the title of Duck, You Sucker as it fades out. That full flashback, with its dreamy feel, is vital in fully understanding the relationship between John and his friend back in Ireland, and adds a different twist, a shade more ambiguity, to his actions. I’d hate to be without it. The edition is stacked with fascinating extras, not the least of which is an excellent commentary track from Sir Christopher Frayling. I have no particular complaints about the anamorphic scope transfer but I still feel it’s a pity it has yet to be released on Blu-ray. Among Leone’s films, this title sits alongside Once Upon a Time in the West in my affections, and might just edge it out. Objectively, it may not be the better film, but it has a kind of romanticism, and disillusionment – and what’s disillusionment but wounded romanticism anyway – that stirs something in my Irish blood. I don’t know, it’s a film I love – that’s as much as I can say.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in 1970s, James Coburn, Sergio Leone, Westerns

 

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Robbery

Films centered around heists generally fall into two categories – those which take a light-hearted, comedic approach such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job or Gambit, and the darker morality tales to be found in film noir like The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and others. Peter Yates’ Robbery (1967) takes an entirely different tack, and tells its tale in a semi-documentary style. The movie is inspired by (and I use that term deliberately rather than saying it’s based on real events) the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Yates’ film uses the famous crime as a template but it shouldn’t be seen as an exact reconstruction of what happened. The style of storytelling used is probably the strength of the production, but I think it’s fair to say that it also accounts for its main weakness.

The bulk of the running time concentrates on the planning and execution of the raid on the mail train, and merely touches on its aftermath right at the end. The first quarter-hour sets the exciting yet impersonal tone of what is to follow by detailing a daring diamond snatch in central London. The purpose is to secure sufficient funds to set everything in motion, and it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking. The highlight is the intensely shot car chase that takes place after the diamonds have been grabbed. The whole idea of a car chase is one that has been used, and arguably overused to the point of cliché, in countless thrillers over the years. There are, however, instances where this standard element has been shot and employed to great effect, and Robbery is certainly one of those. After this heart-pounding sequence, the pace relaxes somewhat as we watch Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker), a recently released convict, begin to piece together the team of underworld types he needs to pull off the one big score that will allow him to bow out and retire. However, such things never run entirely to plan and little obstacles and issues arise right from the beginning. Taken in isolation, none of these flaws or setbacks amount to much in themselves; however, the cumulative effect as the story develops is what ultimately counts. While we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of all the principals involved, most of the action plays out from the perspective of Clifton and the policeman, Langdon (James Booth), who is on his trail from early on. The robbery itself is carried out in the style of a military operation, with everyone having their roles clearly defined and the timing judged to the second. As viewers, we’re just as aware as the protagonists of the importance of all the details falling into place and the risks inherent in any deviation from the plan. This knowledge, and the script’s focus on it, is what creates the tension on which the story relies. Nevertheless, despite the most meticulous preparation, such things inevitably start to unravel. As I mentioned before, there are numerous weaknesses in the plan that build up and become magnified over the course of the movie, and it’s impossible to identify any one as the most critical. I found the ending of the film quite satisfactory – it has the kind of moral ambiguity that both fits the era in which it was made and also acts as a truer reflection of real life.

I guess Peter Yates really made his name as a director when he took charge of Bullitt. That film featured an iconic car chase sequence through San Francisco, and it appears that his work directing the opening chase in Robbery played an important part in securing his participation in the McQueen movie. In terms of visuals and pacing, it’s hard to fault Yates – the film has a gritty and realistic feel and moves smoothly along. The main set piece, the actually taking of the mail train, is superbly filmed and cut together to heighten the sense of urgency of the gang. The same can also be said of the subsequent sorting and dividing up of the takings in the bunkers below a disused air force base; the claustrophobic set is used to good effect to emphasize the isolation of the gang and their distance, emotionally at least, from the dragnet that has been cast. Generally, the film does a good job of capturing the flavor of that late 60s era, not the swinging, carefree one which seems to be the popular perception now, but the grim and tough one that was familiar to most working-class people. I said in the introduction that one of the picture’s strengths, perhaps its greatest, was the brisk, documentary tone which simultaneously, and paradoxically, weakens it too. The point is that by concentrating on the nuts and bolts aspects of the robbery a lot of the human drama is absent. We don’t really learn a great deal about the characters involved, aside from their role within the gang, and this means we never get the opportunity to feel strongly for them. I don’t think this is a failing of Yates really as some of his subsequent work, especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is basically character driven.

Robbery features a strong line up of British actors, although the focus is mainly on Stanley Baker and James Booth (both of whom, coincidentally, starred in producer Joseph E Levine’s earlier movie Zulu) and they dominate proceedings. Booth is pretty good as the man from the Flying Squad who cottons on to what may be happening before anyone else. Having said that though, the script allows for no sense of who this man is beyond his job – he’s just a cop, albeit a likeable one. Baker does get a little more back story to help flesh out his character, but again this is strictly limited. Baker was a fine actor, one of the best Britain produced, yet he’s handed a fairly one-dimensional part here. We do learn that he’s desperate to avoid a return to prison, and the scenes between him and his wife (a very attractive Joanna Pettet) give at least a glimpse of the private man. Still, by and large, Baker spends most of his time playing it strong, silent and tough. I guess the most rounded character is to be found among the supporting players – Frank Finlay is excellent as the timid banker, an embezzler who finds himself drawn into Baker’s scheme. Finlay gives a very sensitive portrayal of a man torn by personal guilt and his longing to contact his wife, even for the briefest moment, is quite touching. Barry Foster is underused as one of the senior gang members, although William Marlowe gets a slightly meatier part as Baker’s right hand man.

A few years ago, Robbery was released on DVD in the UK by Optimum. Despite its faults, it’s a movie I’ve always liked a lot and so I was keen to pick it up. However, I was disappointed to find that Optimum’s disc had a full frame, open-matte presentation of the film. Anyway, I had to make do with that compromised edition since there didn’t appear to be any other option available. Recently though, I noticed that Regia Films in Spain had put out a disc, and I decided to take a chance and see if it was any improvement. I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent transfer of the film that presented it in the 1.66:1 ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The disc has no extra features whatsoever, but the subtitles don’t cause any problems and can be switched off from the setup menu. The fact that the movie is now available in anamorphic widescreen is the most important advance as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think the film is a perfect one, but it does have a fine cast and shows off Yates’ flair for action and tense situations. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this title to anyone keen on British crime pictures, or just crime movies in general.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Yates, Stanley Baker

 

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The Big Sleep

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950)

That quote from Chandler is a distillation of what he felt were the characteristics of the fictional private eye, and it’s a view that continues to endure. The reason for the popularity of this particular representation is understandable enough: not only does it portray the detective as the classical hero, it also allows the audience to identify with him, to see in him the kind of man they’d probably like to be themselves. Chandler’s knight errant Philip Marlowe has appeared on screen a number of times with varying degrees of success, but the incarnation that I, and I guess a lot of other people too, have the highest regard for is Humphrey Bogart’s take in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946).

Some aspects of the plotting of The Big Sleep are notoriously complicated – the story goes that screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, along with director Hawks, were so confused about who committed one of the murders that they contacted Chandler for clarification. Apparently, the author found himself similarly stumped. The thing is that the murders, motives and twists of the plot pile up so relentlessly that it does take a fair bit of concentration on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. However, that’s not really the point of the movie and the basic thrust of the narrative is easy enough to follow in itself. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective engaged by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger and wilder of his two daughters. In the course of his investigation, which rapidly descends into a murder case, Marlowe finds that the elder sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), appears to be tangled up in things too. Vivian’s a cooler, more composed customer than her sister, yet her involvement with a shady gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), indicates that she too is keeping dangerous company. I’m not going to go into the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot here, firstly to avoid spoilers, and secondly because it will likely serve to do nothing more than confuse readers. Suffice to say the stories of General Sternwood’s two girls eventually dovetail and all the various plot strands are drawn together satisfactorily. Yet, as I said before, you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

One of the great pleasures of The Big Sleep is the dialogue. Most of the memorable lines and passages, such as the little sample above, are lifted almost directly from the pages of Chandler’s novel. However, Brackett, Faulkner and Jules Furthman did have to make some alterations to turn in a workable script, both for storytelling reasons and to ensure the finished product was going to get past the Hays Office. Therefore, the more overt references to the unsavory nature of the blackmailer’s racket had to be toned down for example. The infamous production code is often criticized, and with good reason, for imposing draconian and logic-defying restrictions on what could be shown on the screen. The thing is though, a good deal could be implied if not directly stated, and clever writers could exploit this loophole. In a sort of perverse way, the very restrictiveness of the code meant that filmmakers were forced to be more creative in their efforts to circumvent it; I think The Big Sleep stands as an excellent example of this apparent paradox. The two houses in which much of the tale plays out are the Sternwood mansion and the home of Geiger, the blackmailer. Hawks and his crew succeed in bathing both locations in such an atmosphere of decadence and iniquity that it needs little imagination to appreciate the depravity lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps Hawks’ greatest triumph in the picture is the way he manages to ensure that style rises above substance throughout and he creates a crime story where the crimes and their resolution become secondary to our enjoyment of the ride through Chandler’s twilight world.

While The Big Sleep benefits enormously from a snappy script, strong source material and a first class director, what helps elevate it to true classic status is the casting. The second collaboration of Bogart and Bacall builds beautifully on the foundations already laid in To Have and Have Not. The movie took their on and off-screen courtship to new and more sophisticated levels, and the air fairly crackles whenever they share a scene. I think Bogart was born to play Marlowe, he perfectly encapsulates the weary nobility of Chandler’s creation like no other actor before or since. The part can be seen as an extension or refinement of Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, but there’s a greater sense of honour and less aggressive smugness this time. I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but Bogart’s delivery of his lines is perfect, so much so that it’s very hard to read the novel and not hear him saying the words. On the receiving end of much of Bogart’s wise-cracking, and pitching back every bit as good as she got, was Bacall. Watching her performance today, it’s hard to believe that Bacall wasn’t much past twenty years old when the movie was shot. There’s an air of assurance and worldliness about her that belies her years, the hard-boiled dialogue flowing smoothly as though from a woman who’d been around a long time and had seen all there was to see. In truth, the whole cast does excellent work, but the women in particular stand out. Martha Vickers is all coy treachery, and there are fine and memorable bit parts for Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin. Of the men, I feel Elisha Cook Jr deserves a mention for another of his characteristic turns as an unfortunate fall guy. I guess the only real weakness was John Ridgely, it’s not that he gives a poor performance but he never fully convinces as a dangerous mobster – having said that, he does get one fantastic send off.

The US R1 DVD of The Big Sleep contains two versions of the movie (as far as I know the R2 doesn’t offer this choice) – the preview version and the theatrical cut. I mention this mainly because there are some notable differences in the two cuts. I’m not going to laboriously list all the changes here, that information is readily available elsewhere online, but I will say that they change the feel of the movie significantly. In short, the preview cut is an altogether blander affair, although it helps to make the plot more comprehensible. The theatrical version is much more stylish, placing more emphasis on the Bogart/Bacall dynamic while sacrificing some of the narrative coherence. Personally, I far prefer the theatrical cut, and not just because it’s the more familiar of the two. While the preview version does offer more exposition, it throws the pacing off balance and fails to fully capitalize on the chemistry of the star pairing. It’s nice to have it available for comparison purposes but that’s about it for me. The transfer is reasonable enough, maybe not up there with the best that Warner Brothers have done in the past but it’s certainly not poor. The disc also offers a short feature on the differences between the versions of the movie, and is useful in giving an overview if you don’t feel inclined to watch both cuts all the way through. This movie and The Maltese Falcon helped cement Bogart’s image as the archetypical private eye. Others have played the part of Marlowe, and others have taken on the role of various private detectives, but Bogart nailed it. The film as a whole, can be viewed as a film noir (although of the lighter variety), a crime/detective story, or simply as an outstandingly well-crafted piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It comes most highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart

 

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7th Cavalry

On June 25 1876 Lt Col George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, and into the pages of history. Exactly how subsequent events unfolded have remained the subject of debate and conjecture to this day. What is certain is the result of that fateful engagement between Custer’s 7th and the enormous force of Indian warriors, largely Sioux and Cheyenne, ranged against them. Custer and his entire command were massacred, wiped out to a man. Over the years, that event has come to symbolize different things to different people: heroism, folly, retribution, or flawed judgement. A number of films have offered various interpretations of what transpired in the heat of battle, and a few have also turned their attention to the aftermath. 7th Cavalry (1956) is one of those movies that looks at what followed and, for a time at least, toys with the notion of saying something definitive about the actions of Custer. Ultimately though, it backs away from this – it’s essentially a film of two parts, with the potentially interesting beginning gradually giving way to a more familiar and standard outdoor adventure that’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could or should have been.

The story is told from the perspective of Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), apparently one of Custer’s favourites, who is first seen returning to Fort Lincoln in the company of his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), shortly after the ill-fated Little Bighorn expedition. At this stage Benson is unaware of what has befallen his regiment, but the uneasy silence hanging over the fort as he approaches it alerts him to the fact that something is badly wrong. These opening scenes are eerily atmospheric, as we follow Benson through the deserted fort, and share in his confusion and sense of foreboding. And then the full, horrific truth is revealed – the overwrought widow (Jeanette Nolan) of one of the slain soldiers confronts Benson and tells him of the massacre and the ugly fate of those who fell, practically accusing him of cowardice and deception in the process. What follows is the return of the surviving units, the establishment of a board of inquiry and the airing of various recriminations. The inquest into this military disaster is to be conducted by the father of Benson’s betrothed, a stiff and uncompromising army man of the old school (Russell Hicks) who has always regarded his potential son-in-law with suspicion at best. This section is where the film is at its strongest, holding out the possibility that a range of themes, ranging from the classic one of redemption through notions of honour and class prejudice, will be  delved into. Yet few of these, barring the former, are ever fully explored as the movie progresses. The second half sees the tone, emphasis and setting shift completely as the investigation winds up rapidly and Benson sets out on a suicidal mission to recover the remains of Custer and the other officers of his command. Here we retreat towards more standard fare as Benson picks a troop of “volunteers” made up of drunks and shirkers (Jay C Flippen, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen et al) who also avoided the initial battle to undertake the perilous mission. Despite being weaker, this portion of the movie is not without its own points of interest, not least the introduction of the idea of spirituality. Sadly though, here’s another potentially fascinating avenue that’s left undeveloped and actually treated in a hokey fashion in order to facilitate a convenient climax.

Over on his site on 50s westerns yesterday, Toby made a very good point when he mentioned Night Passage. If you follow that link you will see exactly what he was saying, and the essence of it is that the way we approach a film, or the weight of expectation that we bring along, can unfairly colour our assessment of it. It’s an idea that I’ve had buzzing around in my own head for a while too, and Toby’s reference to it made me wonder if it didn’t have some application to the movie in question here. What I mean is this: how far does one’s preconceptions based on cast, crew and subject matter impact on the evaluation of a movie? In this case, we have a mid-50s western starring Randolph Scott, directed by Joseph H Lewis, and dealing with one of the most controversial figures in western lore. I think all of these factors are bound to raise expectations in the minds of viewers, expectations on which the finished product doesn’t really deliver. Is that position fair though? On consideration, I think it is, or partially so at least. Lewis has a reputation for making tight and economical little B pictures that frequently transcend their modest production values and offer visual and thematic riches. I don’t think his direction is especially weak in 7th Cavalry, but the script, and its execution, tries to pack too much into a pretty brisk running time. There’s simply too much going on and too little time to expand upon any of it. Ultimately, we’re left with a first half that flatters to deceive, and a visually attractive follow-up (beautifully shot by Ray Rennahan) which leaves us short-changed. The specter of Custer hovers over proceedings throughout, and indeed helps effect a resolution which is far too pat for my liking. I do wonder if the film had had a director and star of lesser standing whether my overall reaction would have been different – I don’t know, but it is something to ponder.

And back again to expectations. Randolph Scott made 7th Cavalry just as his collaboration with Budd Boetticher was about to see his iconic status within the western genre fixed permanently. It’s difficult to put that thought to one side while watching the movie but, in all fairness, Scott acquits himself well enough despite the shortcomings elsewhere in the production. Anyone familiar with this site will be well aware of my admiration for Scott, and the roles he took on in the latter stages of his career are easily my favorites. No one ever played pride on screen quite so effectively as Scott, and that aspect forms the cornerstone of his portrayal of Benson. His quiet dignity and innate self-confidence are to the fore as he plays a man whose motives and character are called into question by almost everyone – it’s not quite the conflicted loner that he and Boetticher would so successfully explore but it’s not a million miles away either. As the principal female lead, Barbara Hale is fine, yet the role is limited in scope and offers her few opportunities. The supporting cast in the film is particularly strong – Jay C Flippen, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle and Jeanette Nolan all have their chances to shine and deliver telling little performances, with Faylen and Flippen getting the more interesting and rounded roles. I also want to take this opportunity to mention the small (yet pivotal in terms of the plot) part played by the recently deceased Harry Carey Jr. Over the years, his presence contributed a lot to so many films, especially westerns, and his passing sees yet another link to the golden age of cinema severed. In 7th Cavalry, as in so many movies, Carey displayed an honesty and simplicity that always helped ground a picture and added a certain warmth.

7th Cavalry is one of those films that has been hard to get hold of in an acceptable edition on DVD. There are a number of options available, but most are problematic in one way or another. There’s a French release by Sidonis that reportedly sports a fine transfer but forces subtitles on the original soundtrack, there’s a UK disc that I understand is of appalling quality, and there are no fewer than three editions in Spain. Of those Spanish releases, two are either full frame or non-anamorphic letterbox transfers. The one to go for is this edition by Regia Films, which sees the movie paired up on separate discs with another Lewis title Terror in a Texas Town. The disc has a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, with subtitles which can be deselected via the setup menu. The print used is in pretty good condition, without any noticeable damage, although the colours can appear slightly muted on occasion. In the final analysis, I’d have to say 7th Cavalry is a middling western; there is the promise of something different that’s never fulfilled, and that’s what I find most disappointing.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2013 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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New Year Awards

Well last year was pretty good all round, and finished up with my blogging friend and colleague Michael from It Rains…You Get Wet bestowing two awards on me. Not only does Michael run a terrific site, but his support for my own efforts over the years has been immense – for that I thank him unreservedly.

Well, let’s get on with the awards and the attached rules:

Versatile Blogger

The rules for accepting are as follows:

  •  Display the award certificate on your website.
  • Announce your win with a post and include a link to whoever presented your award. 
  • Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers. 
  • Create a post linking to them and drop them a comment to tip them off.
  • Post 7 interesting facts about yourself.

Blog of the Year 2012

The ‘rules’ for this award are simple:

  1. Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award
  2. Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.
  3. Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award – http://thethoughtpalette.co.uk/our-awards/blog-of-the-year-2012-award/   and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)
  4. Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them
  5. You can now also join our Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience
  6. As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

This is an excellent chance for me to pass on my thanks to all my readers and to link to and pass on these awards to some most deserving people.

1 The Stalking Moon

2 50 Westerns from the 50s

3 Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

4 100 Films in a Year

5 Films on the Box

6 Westerns Reboot

7 Tipping My Fedora

8 Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

9 Not The Baseball Pitcher

10 Speakeasy

11 Movie Classics

12 The Grim Cellar

13 Just a Cineast

14 Classic Movie Ramblings

15 Lasso the Movies

Seven interesting facts about me? The interesting bit is the difficulty here. Let’s see then:

1 I’m able to hold a conversation in four languages (obviously not simultaneously) – English, Irish, Greek & French.

2 My grandfather taught me to ride a pony when I was just four years old.

3 To date, I’ve owned four dogs.

4 The number four seems to have some significance for me!

5 I love rainbows yet dislike rain – go figure.

6 I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 28 years old but moving to Greece and being surrounded by the Mediterranean and Aegean seas took care of that.

7 I’m left-handed. I know, but I’m running out of stuff here!

So that’s that. I hope all those worthy bloggers I’ve nominated get some little cheer from this and that it sets 2013 off to a good start for them.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 
 
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