RSS

Category Archives: 1960s

Charade

The term Hitchcockian is one that has become familiar to most film fans. Such movies are defined by Wikipedia as “those made with the styles and themes similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s films” – few directors have had the honor of seeing a subset of movies named after them, Ford and Welles do spring to mind though. Charade (1963) slots neatly into this category, and has actually been referred to as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. It’s easy to see why of course: the casting, the locations, the shooting style, the twisty plot and the presence of the MacGuffin. While these labels clearly attest to the quality of the film, I reckon they’re also a bit of a backhanded compliment to director/producer Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone. Nevertheless, whatever way you approach it, Charade stands out as a terrifically entertaining piece of 60s cinema.

I love films which grab my attention right away, and Charade certainly does that. As a train speeds through a misty European landscape, an object is tossed from it. We get only the briefest glimpse confirming that it’s the body of a man before the screen dissolves into Maurice Binder’s hypnotic credits and Henry Mancini’s mysterious and romantic theme. Cut to a ski resort where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a bored society wife, is contemplating divorce and flirting playfully with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a fellow holidaymaker. It’s all quips and witty one-liners, until Regina returns to Paris and gets some shocking news. The man who made an unscheduled exit from that train at the beginning was her husband, Charles, and she finds that not only is she a sudden widow, but her apartment has been emptied and everything sold off at auction. It had been assumed that Charles was a wealthy man, but in this movie it’s unwise to assume anything. There’s no sign of the proceeds of the sale, and there’s worse to come. Charles was a man with a past, many pasts perhaps as the police point out that he was the owner of a variety of passports. What becomes clear is that Charles was involved in criminal activities stretching back to the war, had stolen a fortune and taken on a new identity. However, that fortune is now being sought by his old accomplices (James Coburn, Ned Glass & George Kennedy), and they don’t much care what they have to do to get their hands on it. Regina finds herself all at sea in a world where her old certainties have been turned upside-down. Even so, it seems there are those prepared to offer assistance: a CIA employee (Walter Matthau) and Peter Joshua, who turns up in Paris too. And yet, nothing is so simple; names and identities are adopted and cast aside with the abandon of a vaudeville quick-change artist. Neither Regina nor the viewer can be sure who’s telling the truth at any given moment, while motives and loyalties shift from one scene to the next.

I guess it’s impossible for any film to exist, be it a work of serious intent or an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment, outside of the zeitgeist of the era in which it’s made. A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths. As viewers, we’re invited to follow proceedings through Regina’s eyes, and share in the confusion and trepidation she feels. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who’s who and what’s what, the rug is yanked away from beneath us and the merry-go-round of doubt and suspicion whirls away once more.

It’s not hard to see how the comparisons with Hitchcock are made. The casting of Grant in a glamorous, light-hearted thriller immediately evokes memories of movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. Made at a time when Hitchcock himself was struggling with tone and mood, Charade has the kind of polished assurance which recalled his strongest cinematic period. Add in the locations, the suspenseful plotting, the smooth shooting style and the MacGuffin (in this case, the stolen money) and all the elements are in place. For all that, I think Stanley Donen and Peter Stone deserve more credit than to simply refer to the movie as a successful pastiche. Ultimately, it’s a different beast, never touching on (and to be fair, I don’t believe it was ever the intention to do so anyway) the darker places that even the frothiest Hitchcock fare contained. No, despite the superficial similarities, Charade should be judged on its own terms and goes its own way, even borrowing a little from Poe with the notion of the coveted fortune hiding in plain view. If anything, it might prove more fruitful to look at the movie in relation to Arabesque, where the writer and director tried, not quite so effectively, to emulate their achievement here.

Charade veers continuously between thrills, comedy and romance, a delicate balancing act for any script and the casting of such a movie is critical in determining whether or not it all comes off. In this instance, the choices are positively inspired. Grant was 59 years old and fast closing in on retirement. Much of his career had been spent honing the sophisticated, urbane persona he so successfully projected. He could, when necessary, play it dark and Hitchcock handed him a corker of a role in the rather wonderful Notorious, but it’s his later collaborations with that director which are closest to his role in Charade. Like the character of Regina Lampert, the viewer can’t be fully sure of what to make of Peter Joshua – his identity and allegiance constantly switch and every time we feel we have his measure he deceives us yet again. Grant’s performance is a marvelously relaxed affair, adjusting the tone with a deftness that’s a real pleasure to watch. He played well off Hepburn too, and the significant discrepancy in their ages is never glossed over in the script – in fact, this aspect is frequently the basis for some terrific, witty dialogue. Hepburn herself was the very personification of chic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the part of the slightly dizzy and vulnerable Regina quite so believably.

While Grant and Hepburn are the undoubted stars of the film, the support cast is strong and deep. Walter Matthau is deliciously unctuous, exuding a vague air of seediness. And then there’s the terrible threesome of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Their first appearance during the funeral of Charles Lampert emphasizes the sinister humor that is always present whenever they are on screen. Coburn sneers expansively throughout, all swaggering menace and teeth. Glass is a barely contained package of neuroses while Kennedy snarls and sulks and stomps around like a petulant school bully. A word too for Jacques Marin as the Parisian policeman growing ever more morose as his investigation spins out of control under the weight of all the bizarre developments.

Charade was one of those films that suffered from a succession of frankly rotten public domain video releases. Gradually, things improved as official versions came on the market and allowed the movie to be seen in better quality. I still have my old DVD put out by Universal in the UK some years ago. It presents the movie quite well in anamorphic widescreen and a clean, attractive transfer. Since then of course Charade has become available in both the UK and the US on Blu-ray and I can see myself upgrading at some point. The movie is a fine example of slick 60s filmmaking, blending and balancing  the thriller, comedy and romantic aspects of the story to best effect. It’s a great favorite of mine, as elegant, smooth and stylish as its stars. It’s funny, exciting and timeless – even when the twists and hoaxes are familiar, the charm and panache just sweep you along. If you’ve never seen it, then you really ought to make a point of tracking it down.

 

 

 

Tags: , , , ,

A Distant Trumpet

It’s been remarked on before how the 1960s saw a gradual change in approach adopted by the Hollywood western. And it was indeed gradual, up until the middle of the decade, and even a little further in some cases, the influence and sensibilities of the 50s could still be discerned. The change, when it did come, tended to be most marked in the work of the newer breed of directors. The old hands, the pioneers, remained closer to the traditional vision and portrayal of the west. Raoul Walsh, with his earliest directing credit stretching way back to 1913, was most assuredly of the old school, and his final film A Distant Trumpet (1964) has more of the feel of a 50s western than one from the mid-60s.

The film opens spectacularly with a clash between the massed forces of the US cavalry and the Apache. It then cuts swiftly to the academy at West Point where General Quait (James Gregory) is delivering a first hand account of those events to a class of cadets. Among his audience is a young lieutenant Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue), soon to be posted to the remote and undermanned Fort Delivery in Arizona. It’s through Hazard’s idealistic and ambitious eyes that the remainder of the story is seen. The slovenliness, incompetency and insubordination he encounters at the isolated outpost is an affront to the young man’s sense of military propriety. As he assumes the task of whipping the rag-tag detachment into something resembling a modern, disciplined fighting force we get a look at the day-to-day lives of cavalrymen that, in some respects, recalls the work of John Ford. Woven into this is a, not altogether successful, romantic subplot which sees Hazard torn between his betrothed, the General’s niece Laura (Diane McBain), and Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette), the wife of a fellow officer. The second half of the movie sees General Quait and his troops arrive at the fort, and the emphasis shifts to the military campaign to neutralize the threat posed by the renegade Apache War Eagle. Quait’s tactics prove only partially effective however, and achieve not much more than driving War Eagle back across the border into the safety of Mexico. Holed up somewhere deep in the Sierra Madre, War Eagle is at liberty to raid over the border whenever he feels like it. Unless of course someone is prepared to risk his neck going alone into the Apache stronghold to negotiate terms with the old warrior. All told, the latter half of the movie works a lot better, not least because the unsatisfying romance is sidelined for long stretches. Not only are action and spectacle brought to the fore, but there’s greater opportunity to highlight the inherent pro-Indian sympathies of the film.

Raoul Walsh brought a lifetime of experience to the shooting of A Distant Trumpet, and the staging of some of the later battle scenes has an epic quality, aided by the wonderful camerawork of William Clothier. Walsh was always a first class director of action, and location work suited his talents especially well. The wide lens is used very effectively to highlight the vastness of the landscape and, again in a way reminiscent of Ford, the relative insignificance of the tiny humans framed against the primal backdrop. It’s easy to forget though that Walsh had a flair for close-ups and more intimate composition too, and the film offers plenty of chances to sample that aspect of his skill. One of the other great strengths of the production is the score; Max Steiner’s pounding, martial theme adds drive to the film and powers it along. And that brings us to the script, so often the crucial factor when it comes to making or breaking a film. The basis for the movie is a novel by Paul Horgan (not having read it, I can’t comment on how true the adaptation is) and the script derived from this reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the finished product. To begin with the positives: the story told is in effect an account of the latter stages of General Crook’s campaign against the Apache, and Geronimo in particular. Right away we have both a compelling narrative and, just as important, a chance to cast a critical eye over government/army relations and policy towards the Indians. The script treats the Apache with the greatest respect – not phony sentimentalism or misplaced adulation – and adopts a mature and balanced stance. There’s no shying away from atrocities, nor is there any attempt to gloss over government hypocrisy and the shabbiness of broken promises. One could, I suppose, complain about the positive resolution that doesn’t take into account how events really played out, but overall the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the situation. As for the negatives, the aforementioned romance, and consequent soapy elements, isn’t very well realized. It would appear to exist primarily as a means of fleshing out the character of Lt Hazard, however, it actually only serves to bog the picture down and dampen the pace in the first half.

I think of Troy Donahue principally as the star of 50s and 60s soap dramas. I understand his performance isn’t all that well regarded in A Distant Trumpet, but I’ll break ranks here and say that he’s reasonable in certain scenes. He fares best in the latter stages where he’s called on to play the action hero for the most part. His deficiencies are far more noticeable in the intimate scenes though, and that makes the romantic stuff seem even more labored. I guess it doesn’t help any that the parts of Suzanne Pleshette and, more especially, Diane McBain are pretty much under written. Pleshette has the stronger, more sympathetic role, while McBain gets to look glamorous but is saddled with playing a stuck-up, unattractive character. To be honest, McBain’s part could have been cut from the movie and not harmed the narrative one iota. James Gregory is very entertaining and seemed to enjoy playing the Latin-quoting general. Every scene he’s in is all the better for his presence. Claude Akins is good value too as the Indian agent, and purveyor of anything and everything from whiskey and guns to loose women. Generally, the supporting cast is fine with small but memorable roles for Kent Smith, Judson Pratt and William Reynolds.

A Distant Trumpet is widely available these days via the Warner Archive and various European releases. I bought the French Warner Brothers DVD back when it was the only edition available. That’s more than a few years ago now but the transfer still stands up well in my opinion. There’s a nice, crisp and colorful anamorphic scope image that’s basically undamaged. French DVDs can be troublesome when it comes to subtitles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any issues with Warner releases. The subs are easily disabled via the language menu on this one. All in all, the film is what I’d call sporadically successful; there’s a strong story in there with a message that’s subtly expressed and never feels forced. On the other hand, there’s flab in the script too that could and arguably should have been edited out. There’s an ambition to achieve something approaching the epic, but the scripting and some of the casting choices fall short. However, while I have some reservations, I feel the movie works reasonably well on the whole.

 
65 Comments

Posted by on March 20, 2014 in 1960s, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Tags: , ,

Will Penny

It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.

Choices and chances – life offers its fair share of both to all of us as it meanders along, and the way we react to them is frequently determined by timing. This could be regarded no more than everyday stuff, but all good drama has such apparently mundane concerns as its foundation. In fact, the best examples of drama all have a timeless quality, containing some basic truth that transcends their age. Westerns, one could argue, are very much rooted in the time period they depict. Again though, the best western movies have at their core a theme that goes beyond time and place, one which addresses contemporary issues while also remaining relevant to modern life. Will Penny (1968) is one such film, focusing on a set of circumstances arising directly from its Old West setting, and also speaking to audiences of matters that are constants of the human condition.

Will Penny is a film that can be approached, and which works, on three different yet interrelated levels. It’s an absorbing adventure, an examination of a way of life approaching its twilight stages, and a tale about the power and promise of human relationships. Will Penny (Charlton Heston) is the archetypical western hero, a man alone, a self-reliant and capable character shaped by the landscape he occupies and the job he does. But Will is a man who’s growing old and, like the frontier itself, is fast approaching a point where he is going to be consigned to the past – tellingly, he’s the only rider at the end of the round-up who is illiterate to the extent he has to sign his name by marking a crude X in the ledger. Whatever the reality may have been, the fictional cowboy has always been a figure of nobility, a kind of latter-day knight bound by a personal code of honor. The first example of this, and also the first of a number of fateful decisions taken, comes when Will passes up the opportunity to move on to Kansas City and continued employment to make way for a younger man who wants to see his ailing father. Instead, Will sets off with two companions (Anthony Zerbe & Lee Majors) with only the slimmest of hopes of finding work to see them through the winter. In the course of their journey two significant events occur, one leading on directly from the other. Firstly, a fatal misunderstanding over the shooting of an elk sparks a feud with a crazed old man, Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence), and his degenerate family. This violent encounter leaves one of the men seriously wounded, and necessitates a stopover at a remote swing station. It’s here that the seeds of the second, and more interesting strand, of the story are planted. Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) is traveling west with her young son, and Will has his first, semi-comedic, meeting with this slightly prim woman as he tries to secure medical attention for his wounded companion. We come across all kinds of people all the time, and Will naturally thinks nothing more of it. However, having found employment as a line rider for a nearby ranch, Will chances upon the woman a second time, now occupying the cabin assigned to him for the long winter months ahead. Despite having explicit instructions to ensure that travelers must move on as soon as possible, Will lets his innate nobility get the better of him once again. His decision to let the woman and her son stay on till spring, coupled with the fact that the Quint clan remain loose and thirsty for revenge, is to have a profound effect on Will’s whole take on his life. As I said in the opening, everything boils down to chances, choices and timing.

Before 1968 Tom Gries worked extensively on television, and Will Penny – which he both wrote and directed – allowed him to break through into the cinema. It remains his best piece of work, mainly due to its authenticity. The movie capture the look and feel of its era very successfully – the loneliness, the drudgery of everyday life, and the sense of times changing fast. More significant than any of that though is the authenticity that Gries managed to draw from his characters and how they related to one another. It often feels like romantic sub-plots are injected into dramas almost as an afterthought, and consequently seem fake, forced and superfluous. Here however, the relationship that gradually builds between Will and Catherine, and her son, constitutes the beating heart of the picture. This touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lonely people glimpsing an opportunity for love and companionship is the factor that raises Will Penny up and lends it that timeless quality I referred to earlier. Historically speaking, Will Penny occupies that nebulous zone, as do many westerns of the 60s, straddling the classical and revisionist periods. The clear delineation of heroes and villains, and the focus on a kind of selfless nobility hark back to the likes of Shane and Hondo from the preceding decade. On the other hand, there’s also that melancholy feeling of a disappearing era that would be explored further in films such as Monte Walsh and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in the years to come.

Will Penny features a first-rate cast, and I don’t believe there’s a poor performance anywhere – Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasence, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe all do good work. Having said that, both Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett seem to connect with their respective roles in a way that elevates them far above those all around them. There are those who would assert that Heston wasn’t much of an actor – similarly ill-informed accusations are often leveled at John Wayne and Gary Cooper – and was more of an icon than a performer. In Heston’s case, this probably comes from his frequent casting as larger than life heroic figures. Will Penny saw him playing a simple human being though, the most reluctant of heroes, and was reportedly his favorite role. Heston gets deep inside his character here, investing him with an astonishing level of credibility. There’s genuine modesty on display, a kind of faltering fallibility about this performance that can be seen in all kinds of ways – the barely concealed shame over his illiteracy and lack of education, the physical suffering he undergoes, and his struggle to come to terms with an emotional awakening that has taken him completely by surprise. Joan Hackett didn’t possess traditional Hollywood glamor, but she too reached inside to find an inner truth that characterizes her performance. The fact that Heston was able to produce something so touching is largely down to Hackett’s playing opposite him. For me, there are two standout scenes: that sweet and beautiful business involving the Christmas tree and the boy; and the climactic scene in the cabin where Hackett and Heston bare their souls and break your heart. The resolution of the movie could be seen as a firm rejection of the standard happy ending, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a downer. Personally, I like to think of it in positive terms; the overriding message for me is that there’s always hope for even the loneliest and unhappiest individuals. Whether one seizes that hope is, of course, another matter entirely.

Will Penny is a Paramount picture and the UK DVD, despite being released a long time ago now, is still a very strong disc. The film is given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer with natural colors and was obviously taken from a very clean print. There are two short features included on the casting and making of the film, with contributions from Charlton Heston and Jon Gries, the director’s son who also played Joan Hackett’s little boy in the movie. Will Penny probably represents Charlton Heston’s finest screen work, and the film is an immensely satisfying experience. It’s thoughtful, mature, at times exciting, and always affecting. For anyone who has yet to see the film, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

 
45 Comments

Posted by on June 26, 2013 in 1960s, Charlton Heston, Tom Gries, Westerns

 

Tags: , , ,

Hombre

We all die, just a question of when.

I’m an unashamed fan of westerns from the 1950s, the genre’s golden years, but I’m also pretty fond of those from the following decade. By the end of the 60s, with the spaghetti western in the ascendancy, revisionism was in the air, though that movement wouldn’t come to full fruition until we pass into the 70s. For the classic Hollywood western these were the transitional years, a painful period in some ways, with the genre thrashing about in search of direction. Such times tend to bring about a combination of successes, throwbacks and misfires. When we view the era in this light, I think it’s fair to say that the 1960s was a decade that was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating for western fans. Ultimately, revisionism would strip the genre down to the bone and train a probing searchlight on its innermost workings. One could write an in-depth study on the effects of this process, and I have a hunch the conclusion would be that no genre, least of all one so firmly rooted in myth as the western, could emerge unscathed from such an intimate examination. But I’m not going to take on that task here; instead I’m going to look at one of those late 60s westerns that seemed to benefit from the turmoil of the time, Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). Here we have a movie that avoids the outright nihilism of the Euro western, retains the structure and moral complexity of the best 50s efforts, and looks forward to the bleak honesty of revisionism. In short, it becomes a kind of philosophical meditation on social responsibility.

The classic western hero has frequently been characterized as a loner, a man drifting along on the fringes of society for one reason or another. Such a ploy isn’t accidental of course; it allows us to connect with the spirit of freedom and individualism that’s a significant part of the western’s attraction, and also helps objectify the view of society and encroaching civilization. Generally though, the hero does feel himself drawn in some way towards the society he observes. Hombre presents us with John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by the Apache who has categorically rejected the ways of his own race. He’s first seen in his preferred environment, rounding up wild horses, and has clearly been fully integrated into the Apache lifestyle. However, news of an inheritance – a beaten up boarding house – brings him back to white society, at least temporarily. Arriving in town, he’s adopted the outward appearance of his own people but retains the cool detachment of the Apache. Essentially, Russell has made it his business to mind his own business – to have as little contact with the white world he has rejected as possible. He sells up and books passage on the last stagecoach out. Yet, the interrelated nature of society doesn’t really work that way; all action, even calculated inaction, has its consequences. In a sense it’s Russell’s single-minded detachment that lays the groundwork for what follows.The sale of the boarding house, effectively acts as the catalyst that finally pushes at least one man towards crime, and Russell’s own determination to avoid intervention in the affairs of others ensures that a bullying outlaw, Grimes (Richard Boone), gets to ride the stage. The first hour of the film is a fairly sedate affair, concentrating on establishing the character of each passenger and offering some insight into their relationships. Collectively, they add up to a cross-section of frontier types: the outwardly respectable older man and his younger, disillusioned wife, a young couple coming to terms with the realities of married life, the veteran driver who’s long since bid farewell to his ideals, the woman who has been around and remains a survivor, the swaggering bully, and the enigma that is Russell. Locked within the confines of the bumpy stagecoach, the tensions, prejudices and fears of this disparate little group simmers away just below the surface. The pressure comes to a head when they are held up on a remote part of the trail, and the truth about each one emerges. Abandoned in the wilderness, and facing the very real prospect of perishing, they turn towards Russell to guide them out. But Russell is now in something of a quandary; apart from the fact he’d been shunned due to his Apache affiliations, he feels no obligation towards his fellow man anyway. He’s faced with a philosophical dilemma  – does he follow his head and leave these people to the fate he reckons they deserve, or does he listen to that still distant voice within that urges empathy.

If we count Hud, then Martin Ritt made three westerns with Paul Newman, and all of them have their points of interest. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Hombre is the closest to the traditional western. The basic structure owes much to John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, but it’s a much more cynical affair. The two films do share the vital element of spiritual redemption for their hero, but Ritt’s movie reaches that point in a more tragic and bitter way. The script raises interesting questions about how much we owe others, how far we should go for those we deem undeserving of our sympathy, and whether intervention or isolation is the correct approach. Bearing in mind the film was made while the war in Vietnam was still raging, I think that last issue must have been in the minds of the filmmakers. However, leaving that aside and looking at things from a purely personal perspective, the problems continue to be thorny. Russell not only knows that assisting the abandoned travelers will add to his own peril, but his years living outside of white society have meant that he no longer identifies with these people. Circumstances have resulted in his being caught in a kind of cultural no-mans-land, where his head and heart are in conflict. In cinematic terms, this is a reflection of the position the western itself was facing in 1967, with its soul and conscience pulling in one direction while social and economic factors were pressuring it to go another way. Visually, with the aid of James Wong Howe’s great cinematography and the Arizona landscape, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic western, but the existentialist undertones of its theme point to the future.

Mrs Favor: I can’t imagine eating a dog and not thinking anything of it.
John Russell: You even been hungry, lady? Not just ready for supper. Hungry enough so that your belly swells?
Mrs Favor: I wouldn’t care how hungry I got. I know I wouldn’t eat one of those camp dogs.
John Russell: You’d eat it. You’d fight for the bones, too.
Mrs Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
John Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.

Paul Newman was an adherent of the method style of acting. Now I’m no fan of the method and the frequently affected performances that it encouraged. I understand it is meant to help the actors dig deeper within themselves and find a truth in their role yet it often seemed to produce the polar opposite, a mannered performance that actually draws attention to itself. Some of Newman’s early roles are badly blighted by this in my opinion. However, by the time he came to Hombre he had moderated his acting style, and what we see on screen is far better, far more involving. As far as I can remember, and it’s been a few years since I read Leonard’s novel, Newman’s portrayal of John Russell is pretty close in spirit to how the character came across on the page. It’s a very quiet performance; I think the stillness of the man, the eternal patience of his Apache side is perfectly captured. There’s a great sense of his being aware of everything, absorbing the sounds, smells and moods around him and storing them away. When he’s aroused to action there’s a jarring abruptness to it that makes it all the more effective. The first instance takes place in a cantina where Russell sits and calmly watches and listens to his Apache companions being goaded by two ignorant redneck types. We’re expecting something, a reaction of some kind, maybe a rebuttal from this soft-spoken man. But the sudden swing of his rifle butt to shatter and drive the splinters of a whiskey glass into the face of the barroom lout is both shocking and satisfying. In a similar vein, the later eruption of aggression when he opens fire on Boone when he comes to parley is made more intense by the apparent calm that precedes it.

Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross. His first scene in the station when he intimidates a soldier into turning the last ticket available over to him illustrates this quality well. There’s something in that craggy face and low-pitched voice that conveys his intent far more effectively than bluster and showboating; not an easy task but when it works, it works wonderfully. Of the three female roles in the movie, Diane Cilento had the most substantial and the one with the greatest significance. Generally, I feel she was an underrated performer who was always interesting to watch. She played the most down to earth of the three women on that stagecoach, and the one with the lowest social status. Russell’s decision to sell up saw her out of a job and on the streets but with her spirit unbroken. The script offered her several opportunities to shine and she took each one, displaying an earthy and attractive honesty. She was also fortunate to be playing the character whose mentality the average viewer could most readily identify with, providing a kind of bridge between Newman’s omnipotent aloofness and the self-interest of the others.

Fredric March had a nice little late career turn as the corrupt Indian agent, the one whose presence poses the greatest danger to the survival of the group. Basically, he represents all that’s wrong with the society that Russell has rejected – corruption, vanity, weakness and hypocrisy. Still, despite portraying a deeply unpleasant person, March manages to inject a good deal of pathos into his performance and leaves you feeling a little sorry for this man who has transitioned poorly from the successes of his youth; he did something similar in Inherit the Wind, where he tapped into the human frailty of another character who was essentially unsympathetic. Martin Balsam was a first-rate character actor who enriched many a great movie – 12 Angry Men & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to mention just two – with his everyman persona. As the stagecoach driver who has come to terms with his own limitations and realizes that he can no longer fight the tide of progress, he’s another figure with whom the audience can connect.

As far as I can tell, Hombre has never been released on DVD in the UK, though it is readily available from both the US and continental Europe. I have the Dutch DVD from Fox, which presents the movie most satisfactorily. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the transfer is very pleasing with good colour and definition to show off James Wong Howe’s location photography. The disc offers a wide selection of subtitle options and the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. For me, Hombre is a highly successful piece of work that hits the mark on a number of levels: as an entertaining western movie, an examination of race and social cohesion, and also contextually, for the position it occupies in the development of the genre. I consider the latter to be the most fascinating aspect, and yet another link between what may superficially appear to be irreconcilable eras. Nevertheless, whatever way one opts to view the film, it makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

 
46 Comments

Posted by on February 4, 2013 in 1960s, Martin Ritt, Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

Tags:

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.

 
19 Comments

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

 

Tags: ,

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

 

Sands of the Kalahari

Desert wildernesses always provide an intriguing backdrop for movies. The vast emptiness of such settings, and their necessarily harsh conditions, has a minimalist quality that not only encourages but demands strong characterization. The barren, unforgiving landscape means that attention is easily focused on those who people it, and the various tribulations they must endure. As such, everything tends to appear heightened – dangers and relationships, strengths and weaknesses – and the potential exists for a rawer, more honest type of drama. Sands of the Kalahari (1965) is a survivalist epic, superficially an adventure story with a deceptively simple plot. As the tale unfolds both the group dynamic and human nature itself are explored, not always with palatable results, and the twists it takes are fascinating. It also benefits from an ending that is simultaneously bleak, shocking, and tantalizingly ambiguous.

A charter plane has a freak encounter with a swarm of locusts, forcing a crash landing deep in the Kalahari desert of Namibia. Six disparate individuals stumble from the burning wreckage and must find a way to survive beneath the equally scorching African sun. This will be a test of their resolve, their character and their inventiveness. Ultimately though, the trials ahead of them will ask some very fundamental questions about the humanity of all these people. Initially, it’s the pilot, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport), who takes charge and sets about organizing the rag-tag group. However, this film never follows a predictable course, and Sturdevan is gradually revealed to be too venal to serve as a leader. It gradually becomes apparent that particular mantle is to be passed on to O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), a hunter and, crucially, the man with the gun. When Sturdevan decides to set off alone in an attempt to reach some settlement and alert them to their plight, O’Brien has no serious rivals for dominance. Of the other men, Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) is elderly, Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) is too soft, and Bain (Stanley Baker) is a recovering drunk with a leg wound. The sole female is Grace Munkton (Susannah York), an attractive society type and a fish out of water. While this little band are fortunate enough to come upon shelter (a cave) and a plentiful water supply, the problem of acquiring food remains an ever-present threat. Their temporary refuge is situated in an area with a large baboon population but, as Grimmelman points out, eating these fearsome creatures would be a little too similar to cannibalism for anyone’s taste. O’Brien points out that the apes represent competition for the limited food available, and so he takes it upon himself to wipe out as many as possible. However, even as group begin to settle into a familiar routine, it begins to dawn on Bain in particular that O’Brien is not the kind of man to tolerate competition of any kind, from any quarter. And so the internal tensions, and threats, rise in tandem with the need to survive. As the story develops, what becomes more and more obvious is that the danger from within is as great as, and perhaps even greater than, that posed by the forces of nature.

So, aside from being a first-rate adventure yarn, what is Sands of the Kalahari about? Well, the idea that adversity brings out both the best and worst in everybody for a start. All of the six people who find themselves stranded in the back of beyond are tested in various ways, physically, psychologically and morally. It’s how each one responds to the challenges, what they learn about themselves and we about them, that constitutes the core of the drama. Those who eventually find a way out, and I don’t think it’s a major spoiler to say that not everyone does, have been altered by their experiences. In addition, as viewers we are forced to reassess our first impressions of each of the characters: the quiet, passive ones become more proactive, the weak demonstrate reserves of strength, and the strong have their weaknesses revealed. This kind of plotting keeps us forever on our toes, never allowing any sense of complacency regarding the perception of characters to set in. Just when we think we’ve got someone figured out, either the circumstances or the sheer perversity of human nature throws us for a loop. Of course the movie also raises questions about how civilized we really are, and how far we’ve actually traveled from our primitive ancestors. Even those who started out disparaging supposedly lesser peoples, and Sturdevan is a good example of this, gradually come to rely on the techniques and skills they had previously thought beneath them in order to survive. That’s viewing things from a positive  perspective; but there’s a darker flip side to this too. If there is a lesson about using our basic abilities to overcome difficulties then there’s another one relating to the dangers of regressing to the point of savagery. The evolution of O’Brien’s character is a perfect illustration of this, where he ultimately fails as a human being but, conversely, rises to become master of his barbaric environment.

Sands of the Kalahari was produced by the team of Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield after the actor and director had been successful with Zulu. Endfield, along with cameraman Erwin Hillier, really made the most of the location shooting. There are some beautiful long shots of the desert, and the old western staple of positioning tiny figures against a background of massive rock formations is an ideal way of emphasizing the pettiness of the struggle these people engage in, their relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and of course their isolation. Additionally, the close-up work in the interior of the cave highlights the  tightness of the group, and makes the betrayals and treachery that occur all the more powerful. I think it’s worth noting too how well Endfield made use of the baboons surrounding the survivors. These apes are presented as a kind of noisy yet brooding menace lurking just beyond the limits of the camp. The animals are frequently photographed from above, perched high on rocky outcrops, which suggests their surveillance of the movements of the human interlopers has both a remoteness and a disdainful quality.

Stanley Baker was one of the biggest stars that British cinema produced, and was possessed of a magical and rare combination of talents that allowed him to convincingly play sensitive and tough parts with equal assurance. His role as Bain, the drunken engineer from the Congo, afforded him the opportunity to touch on both. As I said earlier, none of the characters in the movie follow the path that their initial appearances allude to; Bain seems at first to be a washed-up loser, a physical and emotional cripple, a largely ineffectual presence. However, his trials trigger something of a rebirth, and he is gradually and credibly transformed into the most heroic figure in the cast. Squared off against Baker is Stuart Whitman, radiating pure machismo and the ultimate survivor. I’ve often been less than impressed by Whitman’s performances, feeling not so much that he was poor but more that he could have been a whole lot better. Sands of the Kalahari provided him with probably his best part, playing to his strengths and exploiting his physicality to great effect. He has all the attributes of the hero, and starts off looking like the man who we’re going to root for, the guy most likely to save the day. However, this ruthless hunter, the group’s self-proclaimed provider, turns out to be a very different beast. It’s he who displays the lightest veneer of civilization, who adapts most readily and successfully to the primal surroundings. Whilst his character’s progression, or perhaps regression is a more apt description, is entirely logical and maybe even predictable, this does nothing to diminish the shock of his final actions. I really don’t want to go into details regarding the ending of the movie for to do so would rob it of much of its power for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that Whitman’s character fulfills his ultimate destiny, and the last shot leaves everything open to each individual viewer’s interpretation. Susannah York’s displaced socialite stands between Baker and Whitman, her presence representing both an enticement and a provocation. Although she plays a pivotal part in the drama I felt she was, ironically, the least rounded character; by the end of the film she, and her motivations, remained something of an enigma for me. The rest of the cast – Davenport, Andrews and Bikel – all did sterling work and I can’t think of a moment when I wasn’t gripped by their performances. Davenport in particular turns in a marvelously manipulative piece of work, pulling the viewer’s sympathy every which way as his lecherous pilot rises, falls and rises yet again in our estimation.

Sands of the Kalahari is a movie that seemed to be out of circulation for an awful long time. I can vividly remember catching a late night television broadcast of this some time in the late 80s and I can safely say I was enthralled. The film, and that jaw-dropping finale, remained lodged in my memory, but it never appeared again. To say I was delighted when I saw the announcement that Olive Films in the US, having licensed the title from Paramount, was putting it out on DVD would be a huge understatement. The movie is also available on Blu-ray, but I believe it’s locked to Region A. Anyway, I purchased the DVD and I certainly have no regrets – it was high up on my wish list for so many years. The DVD from Olive is a basic bare bones effort but the transfer should give no cause for complaint. It’s anamorphic scope and looks great – sharp, clean and colourful. If you have any affinity at all for adventure movies, especially those with exotic locales and compact casts, then this should push your buttons. What’s more, this is no brainless action flick; it’s a literate and thoughtful piece of work that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I recommend it, unreservedly.

 
24 Comments

Posted by on October 4, 2012 in 1960s, Cy Endfield, Stanley Baker

 

Hell Bent for Leather

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

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

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

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

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

 
20 Comments

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

 

The High Bright Sun

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

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

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

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

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

 
8 Comments

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

 

Rough Night in Jericho

My last post looked at a superior little film scripted by Sydney Boehm, and that writer is the common thread linking into this one. Where The Raid was rich and fairly original in terms of theme, Rough Night in Jericho (1967) is an altogether simpler and, ultimately, less rewarding experience. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, just that the plot treads a more worn path and the characterization has less depth and complexity. Generally, it’s a picture with lower ambitions, aiming for entertainment as opposed to any notions of profundity. What is does have in its favour are unusual casting, some instances of striking photography, and a couple of first class set pieces.

The tale told here is a familiar one: a town which, through weakness, has allowed itself to succumb gradually to the tyranny of one man. The town is Jericho and the man is Alex Flood (Dean Martin), a former lawman who has come to realize that there’s a better percentage (51% to be precise) to be had in simply ruling the roost. Bit by bit, Flood has acquired a controlling interest in just about every enterprise of value in the town. The one business he has yet to muscle in on is the stage line run by Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), twice widowed and Flood’s former lover. Working on the principle of fighting fire with fire, Molly has taken on a couple of partners she hopes will prove capable of facing down Flood. These men are Ben Hickman (John McIntire) and Dolan (George Peppard), two ex-peacekeepers who also want to try and turn a profit. The movie opens with Flood ambushing the new stagecoach driven by his would-be rivals, and establishes the confrontational tone that runs throughout. When the two men limp into town the first view to greet them is a graphic illustration of Flood’s handiwork – the corpse of a man who crossed him strung up from the hanging tree. With Hickman laid up in bed in Molly’s house recuperating from a gunshot wound sustained in the ambush, Dolan is essentially on his own. He’s a gambler, a man who always does the arithmetic in his head before acting, and he dislikes the odds stacked against him. While he neither likes nor approves of Flood and his tactics, he can’t see that anything’s to be gained in taking him on. The first half of the film basically involves these two natural rivals circling each other warily without either one of them wanting to overtly provoke the other. The scales are finally tipped by two factors: Dolan’s inability to crack the stubborn resolve of his aging partner, and a crude assault on Molly by Flood’s henchmen. When the gauntlet is thrown down, Dolan is bound to a path than can only lead relentlessly to a final showdown with Flood.

Director Arnold Laven’s television credits far exceed his movie work, and I think that background is highlighted in certain aspects of Rough Night in Jericho. A large proportion of the action takes place within the confines of the town – particularly Molly’s home and Flood’s saloon – where both the filming and editing have a TV vibe about them. Whenever the characters venture out into the wilderness around Jericho there’s a far more cinematic atmosphere about it all, probably due to Russell Metty’s presence behind the camera. For the most part, Laven’s work on this picture is competent if not spectacular, though the final stalking scene in the brush is both overextended and clumsy in its editing. There are, however, two memorable sequences that raise the quality considerably. The first is a long, brutal fight between George Peppard and Slim Pickens with the weapons of choice ranging from a bullwhip to chains. Even now the scene carries some clout, and I can only wonder how audiences back in 1967 reacted to the savagery on display. The other notable scene comes towards the end when an exciting and well-staged shootout takes place in the saloon, John McIntire’s shotgun creating some particularly satisfying mayhem.

 And now to the casting. Dean Martin is never going to lauded as a great actor, but his easy-going charm and natural affability meant he was never an unwelcome addition to any production. His portrayal of Alex Flood turns all expectations completely on their head though. Nearly all traces of the usual Dino persona are washed away as he plays Flood as a man without a shred of common decency. His actions right from the beginning – humiliating a deputy, orchestrating a lynching, sadistically beating a woman, back-shooting –  prove there can be no doubt as to his ruthlessness. While it’s certainly a shock to see him in such an unsympathetic role I think he just about carries it off. George Peppard is also effective as the reluctant hero up against Flood and his hired killers, his mostly sombre clothes and cheroot hinting at a reference to Leone and Corbucci. John McIntire was always a reliable presence in movies, especially westerns, and his cool professionalism acts as a stabilising force here. English actress Jean Simmons had already demonstrated her ability to slot comfortably into the world of the old west with her role in The Big Country, and does so again in this film. Her tough widow is the only significant female part amid all the macho posturing and she’s perfectly credible as a frontier survivor. It has to be said though that she – along with Peppard – is involved in one of the least successful scenes in the whole movie. It’s a comic interlude that sees Molly and Dolan matching one another drink for drink before collapsing into bed. The scene isn’t especially badly played or filmed, but it’s tone is completely at odds with the rest of the picture and it draws attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.

The German DVD of Rough Night in Jericho by Koch Media has the film looking wonderful in anamorphic scope. Colour and detail levels appeared acceptably high to my eyes, and I wasn’t aware of any significant print damage. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub – there are no subtitles to worry about. Extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and an inlay card with notes in German. At this point, I ought to mention that the film is due to go in sale in the UK at the end of this month via Pegasus. If the transfer is up to the standard of the company’s other recent Universal releases then it should represent a viable (and more economical) alternative. This is a film whose plot offers nothing new or startling to western fans, who will have seen countless variations on the tale. Nevertheless, there’s a good deal of entertainment to be had along the way, and the cast all do a perfectly satisfactory job. It’s a solid and unpretentious late-60s western whose strengths and weaknesses just about balance each other out.

 
17 Comments

Posted by on March 14, 2012 in 1960s, Jean Simmons, Westerns

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 494 other followers