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Category Archives: Actors

Day of the Outlaw

I like westerns, I like movies which could be described as chamber pieces, and I like snowy backdrops. Day of the Outlaw (1959), directed by Andre de Toth, checks all these boxes. It’s one of those films genre fans will enthuse about yet remains criminally underrated by others. It’s also a film where there’s not a huge amount of action; there is, however, a kind of relentless tension and a whole lot going on just below the surface. In short, the film is a sleeper, a tight and atmospheric classic just waiting to be discovered.

I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is to be found in the deceptively simple story, those tales which initially appear to be straightforward or predictable yet gradually develop into something much more complex and satisfying. Day of the Outlaw is a fine example of a work where layers of depth emerge bit by bit and draw you in before you’ve realized it. It opens in a wintry Wyoming town as two men, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff), ride in and bemoan the stringing of barbed wire and the consequent threat to the open range. Starrett’s blood is up and he vows a showdown with the homesteader responsible. The scene therefore is set for the kind of range war drama that’s been seen countless times. But this is a mere introduction, an opportunity to draw attention to the implacable and tough character of the lead. When it then becomes apparent that Starrett is in love with and covets the beautiful wife (Tine Louise) of his chief rival, the plot moves to another level. And still we’re only dancing around the periphery, for what really matters here is the journey – both literal and figurative – which Starrett (among others) will be forced to embark upon. In a deft piece of filmmaking sleight of hand the entire emphasis is moved away from that which the build-up has led us to expect. Just as we’re about to witness the duel between Starrett and his foe a bunch of newcomers arrive and take us off in a completely different direction. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a Quantrill-like figure, a soldier with a tarnished reputation now reduced to leading a band of amoral cutthroats. Bruhn and his men are loaded down with stolen gold, but he’s got a bullet lodged inside him and the army hot on his heels. The enforced stopover in the snowbound town represents a trial of sorts for the bewildered and helpless residents, but it also holds out a kind of hope for two lost souls – Starrett and Bruhn. Both men find themselves in opposition and through that also find a way to regain a little of the humanity that years of hard living have almost stripped away.

Redemption once again; Starrett and Bruhn have lost something along the way, their hearts have been hardened by the brutality of frontier life, and their salvation will be a by-product of their enmity. As far as I’m concerned, this is what drives the film along and gives it its power. I feel all the other plot devices are simply that, accoutrements put in place to facilitate the drama that forms the heart of the story. It’s the chance meeting of Bruhn and Starrett, at a key moment for both, which gives them pause and either forces or allows them (take your pick here) to alter the course of their respective destinies. The two characters wield a significant degree of influence over those around them and this is what first draws them into an uneasy mutual alliance. However, I believe that the real, if initially unacknowledged, motive comes from the fact that each recognizes something of himself in the other. The effect appears more profound in the case of Starrett, but it’s surely present in Bruhn too, and throws out a spiritual lifeline of sorts.

Day of the Outlaw is surely Andre de Toth’s best film, a well-paced exercise in mounting and sustained tension, aided by Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Lee E Wells’ novel. By having so much of the action confined to the saloon the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and suspense is multiplied. The impromptu dance, hastily organized to placate Bruhn’s increasingly restless men, perfectly conveys the threat and menace posed by the gang. Even when events later take us out into the wilderness of the snow-choked mountain pass that feeling of being locked into an inescapable situation is actually heightened rather than dissipated. A good deal of credit also has to go to cinematographer Russell Harlan here; his shooting of the frozen and forbidding landscape is chilling in every way. When you add in Alexander Courage’s spare, doom-laden score all the ingredients are in place for a memorable interlude in the icy wastes.

The cast is both deep and distinguished (Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Frank DeKova, Dabbs Greer, Alan Marshal et al) but Ryan and Ives easily dominate proceedings. Ives in particular holds the attention whenever he’s on screen, which is entirely fitting as he’s playing a man who’s holding a gang of dangerous roughnecks in check principally through sheer force of personality. The dance segment which I referred to above is a good illustration of this, the frayed dignity of the man shining through and setting him apart from a shabby command which is beneath him in every respect. Ives also gets right into the physical and psychological guts of his character, from the harrowing operation he endures without anesthetic to the slow dawning of his impending and inevitable demise. Overall, it’s a first-rate portrayal of a complex man, and one which is wholly believable. Just as the characters feed off one another, I think the same can be said the performances of the leads. Ryan was never a slouch as an actor anyway and his playing opposite Ives ensured he stayed on top of his game. He starts out as bitter, cold and unforgiving as the country around him, delivering a blistering and scathing verbal attack on his homesteader rival. He holds onto that steely determination throughout, but slowly lets the sharp edges soften a little as he becomes aware of the path he’s been taking and where it must surely lead.

Day of the Outlaw is fairly widely available on DVD now. I have the US release from MGM which presents the film quite nicely in its correct widescreen ratio. However, the film comes with absolutely no extra features, and I reckon it’s more than deserving of some. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have the chance to chat about the movies I love with those who share my passion. Over time though, I’ve also come to realize that I was partly motivated by a wish to see a bit more critical respect afforded to certain films and genres. The western in particular has tended to be passed over as nothing more than time-passing entertainment. Now there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, a movie which doesn’t do so is failing straight out of the gate after all. Still, the underestimation of the western as an art form and as a vehicle for the intelligent examination of adult themes has persisted. A film like Day of the Outlaw highlights this critical neglect. I’d like to think that appreciation of the film has grown somewhat over time though, and I’d encourage anyone keen on polished and smart filmmaking to seek it out.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

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The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind

Films naturally reflect the times in which they are made, there’s no getting away from that. As an art form they of course focus on certain themes, frequently timeless ones at that, but there’s no divorcing the artistic ambition from the current circumstances. The western is particularly interesting in this respect as it uses a historical setting and period tropes to comment on a current situation. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, made back to back in 1966 by Monte Hellman, are a good illustration of this. Here are two films which could not have been made at another time; the mood and aesthetic are firmly rooted in the mid-60s, and in cinematic terms they look back to the classic era of the genre while also pressing forward and moving it in another direction. I see them as slotting in at the end of the genre’s transitional period, making them fascinating both historically and as an absorbing film experience in their own right.

The Shooting is as minimalist as they come with attention centered on just four people – Gashade (Warren Oates), Coley (Will Hutchins), Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) and an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins). What’s more, precious little is revealed about the backgrounds of any of these characters; Gashade is referred to as having worked as a bounty hunter at one point, but that’s about it. Anyway, it matches perfectly the abrupt sparseness of the tale and the filmmaking style. As viewers we seem to arrive somewhere in the middle of the story, the events leading up to it being explained through a brisk flashback and the ongoing development of the narrative. In brief, the woman turns up and hires Gashade and Coley to lead her through the wilderness, without divulging exactly why she wants to travel or why she wants these men to accompany her. It gradually becomes clear that the events depicted in the flashback have a significant bearing on the woman’s motives, and then there’s the mysterious figure who follows all the way from a discreet distance. If anything, the lack of information and the way subtle hints are dropped as we go along cranks up the suspense. The film is virtually the antithesis of many current productions, where exposition seems to rule and everything has to be slavishly spelled out to audiences. By the time the startling conclusion rolls round almost as many questions have been raised as have been answered, yet the viewer is always treated as an intelligent adult capable of reading things in his or her own way.

Ride in the Whirlwind uses a more conventional narrative structure, and a slightly expanded cast, but it’s another pared down and deceptively simple piece of cinema. Once again no time is wasted in getting to the heart of the matter – a botched stagecoach robbery opens the movie in dramatic fashion and sets up the unfortunate circumstances into which three men will blindly stumble. Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer) are cowhands heading back to Texas who unwittingly come upon the outlaw’s hideout. Sensing something amiss, they plan to ride on the following morning but everything goes awry when a trigger-happy posse shows up. As is the case in The Shooting, events overtake the men and force them into a situation where they have little control of their fate. In a sense this film offers a reversal of perspective; where The Shooting follows the action from the hunters’ point of view, Ride in the Whirlwind lets us see it all develop from the side of the hunted. There’s suspense too, but of a different kind – there’s no particular mystery to unravel and the motivation of all concerned is much more clear-cut and easily defined – as a tense struggle for survival ensues.

Aside from the common contributors – Hellman, Nicholson, Perkins and cinematographer Gregory Sandor in particular – both films are fatalistic, existentialist pursuit dramas. The characters are abruptly and without warning pitched into violent and desperate situations which they are powerless to avoid yet are also committed to seeing them through to the bitter end. There’s an authenticity there too in the spare, clipped dialogue. And then there are the Utah locations: barren, harsh and dusty, a remote and hostile environment where the human tragedies are played out and the land itself poses a physical challenge. So much of the imagery captured by Hellman and Sandor harks back to the classic westerns of the previous decade while the editing and oblique storytelling style is very much a product of the turbulent mid-60s, in fact it’s arguably ahead of its time. Anyone familiar with westerns will find countless nods to the films that went before and laid the groundwork – the dogged pursuit of the wrong men (The Ox-Bow Incident & The Bravados), the deliberate crippling of a gunfighter’s hand (The Man from Laramie, No Name on the Bullet, One-Eyed Jacks), the burning of the shack to flush out the occupants (Red Sundown), the sudden revelation of the hunter and his quarry’s identities (Winchester ’73) and so on. These are motifs that would crop up again in the future of course, attesting to the influential character of the films.

However, there are other factors which mark these productions out as being of their own era, and as forward-looking works too. For me anyway, a clear shift in tone has taken place. The late 40s and on into the 50s saw the world faced with its fair share of difficulty and uncertainty. Still, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the massive social and cultural changes that were becoming apparent in the mid-1960s represented something totally different. Old certainties were being swept aside and consigned to a past that suddenly seemed very distant. Something new and, as is always the case when abrupt change occurs, vaguely unsettling was on its way; Hellman’s pair of westerns are a cinematic reflection of that sense of bewilderment and confusion.

And then there’s the matter of redemption, the mainstay of the genre throughout its golden years but something which would become increasingly rare with the passage of time. Gashade in The Shooting could be said to be on a redemptive quest, essentially chasing himself, or at least the darker side of himself, and perhaps achieving his goal in the end. I find it difficult to see how anyone else in that movie could be perceived in such terms though, and it just doesn’t apply at all in Ride in the Whirlwind. Therefore the altered emphasis in the western is more readily apparent in Hellman’s movies than was the case in other, earlier transitional works. The predominant feeling one comes away with, which is in marked contrast to what was to be found in the genre only a few years before, is ambiguity. While the true villains are easily identified, there’s a blurring or lack of definition when it comes to the heroes. Gashade’s inaction (albeit reluctant) effectively seals Coley’s fate and his subsequent assault on Spear could be seen as sentencing a man like that to certain death rather than genuinely sparing him. Similarly, when Vern and Wes break away from the homestead in Ride in the Whirlwind they cross a line ethically. The westerns that would follow, and not just the more nihilistic spaghetti variant, mostly saw the replacement of the hero with the anti-hero; a figure whom the audience could be asked to identify with but rarely admire, a figure whose moral plane was frequently only a degree or two above that of the villains.

Frankly, these films always looked a little rough any time I’d seen them in the past on any home video format. I’m delighted to say though that the new release by Criterion, available on both DVD and Blu-ray, sees them looking exceptionally fine. Both titles have undergone 4K restorations with the blessing of the director and the results are very pleasing. There’s plenty of detail in the image and the colors are rich and natural, really showing off the starkly beautiful Utah locations. As usual with Criterion releases there’s a wealth of solid extra features offered: the booklet has an essay by Michael Atkinson, and the disc has interviews with various members of the cast and crew. Kim Morgan provides a video essay on Warren Oates, and there’s a conversation between Will Hutchins and Jake Perlin. On top of all that, both movies have commentary tracks with Monte Hellman, Blake Lucas and Bill Krohn, which are relaxed, entertaining and informative. Overall, it’s an excellent package with the two films looking better than I’ve ever seen them.

These are two fine westerns, entertaining, thoughtful, and made by a man who understood the genre. Furthermore, they’re important movies in the evolution of the western, adding another link to the chain which runs from the silent era right up to the present day. I suppose Ride in the Whirlwind would be the more accessible of the two for viewers unfamiliar with Hellman’s work, but both really are essential viewing for anyone with a taste for intelligent and original filmmaking. I highly recommend them.

My thanks to the people at The Criterion Collection for making this review possible.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in 1960s, Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Westerns

 

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Shane

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no going back…

It’s a little difficult to know what to say when it comes to a movie like Shane (1953); so much has been written about it over the years and its influence is wide-ranging. I think the western is a genre that lends itself particularly to studies of humanity, it’s less reliant on tricks and all the best examples have something of worth to say about how we treat and react to each other. Shane is a very human picture, a simple story with great depth and sensitivity. I guess it’s fair to categorize it as an archetypical 50s western. The theme of redemption runs right through it, forming its core; it celebrates community, family, love and, maybe most of all, the importance of and one’s need to feel a sense of belonging.

The plot is a fairly straightforward affair and I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The background lies in the dying days of the open range, a key stage in the transition of the frontier from a wild, lawless territory towards a more stable and civilized environment. Major social changes such as this inevitably involve a degree of pain for all involved. The ranchers who tamed the country bitterly resent what appears to be a curtailment of their hard won independence, while the homesteaders must weather both the elements and the hostility of the cattlemen. Into this atmosphere of intractable conflict rides a lone figure, Shane (Alan Ladd), who halts at one of the dirt farms. The owner is Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who, along with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), is in the process of carving out a home and a future. Purely by chance, local rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) isn’t far behind and this immediately raises Starrett’s suspicions. Still, he has no cause for concern on that score as Shane makes it plain he has no connection with Ryker and actually backs up Starrett. It so happens these two men have crossed paths at a fortuitous time for both: Starrett is short of help to work his property, but Shane’s need is arguably greater still. His manner and apparel mark him out as a gunfighter, one of those rootless drifters of frontier lore. Here’s a man who desperately desires to bury his past and perhaps dream of a future, but that requires he find a place where he’s wanted and where he feels he belongs. For Shane, the Starrett homestead is a kind of beacon, a chance to redeem himself and seek out some meaning or purpose in his life. Yet that redemption and purpose will have to be earned the hard way – battles must be fought, temptations overcome, and specters of the past slain and laid to rest once and for all.

Shane is really all about relationships: between man and the land, the individual and society, the present and the past, and at the heart of it all is the Starrett family. This is one of the most wholesome and honest portrayals of family life I’ve seen and it’s not cutesy or fake. The Starretts represent trust, loyalty and devotion, in a credible way, in the face of hardship and adversity. As a viewer, it feels real and sincere, and it has to if that central dynamic which has the power to draw in a man like Shane is to be at all believable. What we have is one of those happy instances where the acting of Heflin, Arthur and de Wilde mesh perfectly with the writing of Jack Schaefer and the direction of George Stevens. All the interactions of the Starretts ring true, from the banal conversations about crockery round the table to the intense discussions on how best to confront the threat to their home. And hovering round the fringes is Shane, the man intimately acquainted with violence who has been beguiled by the allure of such simplicity.

Shane was a gift of a role for Alan Ladd, cementing his place in cinematic history. Ladd’s edgy discomfort was used to great effect in the films noir that first brought him to prominence, but the reluctant western hero was an even better fit. Ladd himself appears to have been a mass of contradictions and self-doubt, and that quality was ideal for his part here. Shane is an extremely self-aware character, aware of his skill with a gun and also fully cognizant of the deficiencies in his personal life. It’s a finely judged performance by Ladd, brimming with regret and yearning. The character of Shane is a man who knows he’s arrived at a crossroads; his past is never spoken of, only alluded to, and he realizes that an opportunity to make up for all his previous actions is within his grasp. He’s a natural outsider, detaching himself from the group given half a chance, yet always keen to be accepted into its ranks. His final decision to confront Ryker and save Starrett is simultaneously inspiring, fitting and heartbreaking. But it has to be – just like little Joey in that memorable finale, we want Shane to return and stay. Still we also understand that he must see things through if he’s to meet destiny head-on and achieve his redemption.

George Stevens was one of those filmmakers who seems to have been deeply affected by his wartime experiences, his presence during the liberation of Dachau often being cited as a profound influence on his subsequent work. Be that as it may, his handling of violence in Shane is worth noting and I feel the quote I used at the top of this piece is of significance. I’ve discussed the depiction of violence in the classic era western on this site and elsewhere before, and Shane illustrates what I think is the dominant approach very well. The film isn’t a devil-may-care shoot-em-up, where killings are seen as little more than an entertaining afterthought. No, the shootings which take place have an impact on the viewer because the characters involved on the screen treat them seriously. Jack Palance may look, sound and act like the cold assassin with no hint of conscience, but the build up to and results of his actions are powerful. On the few occasions a gun is fired in the film the gravity of the consequences is never in question – the sound of the discharge alone is an assault on the senses. When Palance blasts Elisha Cook Jr into the muddy street there’s no flippancy, polish or Hollywood glamor on view – it’s brutal, ugly and shocking in its authenticity. And it doesn’t end there in the cold anonymity of the churned up earth, for the gut-wrenching business of bringing his body back to his loved ones for burial has to be seen to. Cynicism seems to be in fashion these days and I have no doubt there are those who may regard the shot of the dog mournfully pawing Cook’s coffin as it’s lowered into the earth as mawkish sentimentality. As far as I’m concerned though, it’s a supremely touching moment and perfectly encapsulates the grief of those gathered at the graveside. If the repercussions of a killing are hammered home, the effects of less serious violence aren’t swept aside either. The fist fight between Ladd and Ben Johnson is an example of this; there’s no music to be heard to distract us from the landing of blows, and the injuries are never disguised. In Shane, every act of aggression, whether major or minor, is shown to hurt someone.

I’ve deviated a little from my usual format in writing this piece. I could have gone into more detail regarding the plot and social/historical issues it raises, I could also have offered a deeper analysis of the contributions of the cast – Jean Arthur, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan et al. I’m aware too that I’ve made no mention of Loyal Griggs’ superb photography of the Wyoming locations and the dim, smoky interiors, or of Victor Young’s careful scoring. None of that is a result of neglect or lack of appreciation on my part. No, I took a conscious decision to try to focus attention on a handful of those aspects, rather than attempt to draw in all of them, which I feel contribute to making Shane one of the enduring cinematic classics and a definitive 50s western. I hope I’ve managed to do so.

 

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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Northern Pursuit

Well this is a first for me. The themed blogathon has grown in popularity and I’ve always wanted to contribute to one. The thing is I’ve never been one of those disciplined souls who’s felt able to commit himself to producing something appropriate on a given date. That said, when Kristina, the hostess of the always entertaining and informative Speakeasy, sounded me out and said she was running a blogathon in partnership with Ruth at Silver Screenings, well I thought I’d give it a go. The terms of reference are broad – Canada. I could pick anything I wanted so long as it pertained to Canada in some way. Well, I settled on Northern Pursuit (1943) as it stars one of my favorite actors, Errol Flynn, and was directed by the great Raoul Walsh. It’s a wartime propaganda piece, always interesting in themselves, and a good solid adventure/espionage yarn to boot.

A U-boat punches its way through the ice and deposits a party of German flyers on Canadian soil. The nature of their mission isn’t revealed – in fact, it doesn’t actually become apparent until quite late in the movie – and all we know is they are desperate to press on as quickly as possible into the inhospitable northern wilderness. Eventually the unforgiving conditions take their toll and an avalanche wipes out the whole party, save one man. Von Keller (Helmut Dantine) was the leader of the group and finds himself the sole survivor. He manfully struggles on through the wintry landscape until the elements overcome him. However, he’s a lucky man in many ways and is discovered just as he’s on the point of succumbing to exposure. Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn) and Jim Austin (John Ridgely) are a couple of Mounties out on patrol who happen to cut Von Keller’s trail just in time. The point where Von Keller is taken into custody is, for me anyway, the most intriguing part of the movie. Here we learn that Wagner is in fact of German descent and a sense of ambiguity is built up around the character and his motives. As viewers, we’re faced with a moral dilemma, one every bit as knotty as that apparently faced by the hero himself. Is it possible that the clean-cut and dashing Wagner could really be a Nazi sympathizer? The doubt lingers and is then fueled by the escape of Von Keller and a handful of his compatriots from an internment camp. Frankly, I feel it’s a little unfortunate that the allegiances of all the principals are revealed too early; while the remainder of the picture plays out as a reasonably tense and action-packed affair, the conventional nature of everyone’s behaviour is something of a disappointment after such a promising build up.

Despite the fact the film  was shot on Warner studio sets and on location in Idaho, it still acts as a showcase of sorts for the harshness and primal beauty of Canada’s far north. Cinematographer Sid Hickox captures some wonderful wintry images which are both forbidding and attractive. Walsh’s handling of the action scenes has all the assurance that typifies his work, and the quieter passages also bear his unmistakable stamp too. If you see enough of this director’s work, it soon becomes apparent how much he was interested in faces. There are close-ups throughout, quick cut reaction shots zeroing in on the actors which reveal more in an instant than reams of dull exposition could ever do. Now propaganda films can be a mixed bag, at their worst they can lay the jingoism on so thick it’s a bit of a chore to watch them. Northern Pursuit is one of the more interesting examples though. It gets its message across loud and clear yet there’s a thoughtfulness in the script which elevates it to an extent. For one thing, the grievances and dissatisfaction of the indigenous Indian population is touched upon, albeit in passing. The aspect that particularly drew my attention though was the treatment of Canadians of German extraction. A lesser film might well have opted for the simplistic approach and pandered to prejudice. To this film’s credit, the question of loyalty among the émigré community is dealt with in a balanced and enlightened way. The casting obviously plays a part, but the writers were also conscious of their responsibilities and saw to it that the complexities of such an issue were not neglected.

Flynn was still in his prime at this stage, although the trials and their aftermath would shepherd in his decline with remarkable swiftness. By his own admission, he was often simply walking through roles as his expenses mounted. His part in Northern Pursuit had some meat on its bones, although the potential isn’t fully developed. The first half of the movie holds out the prospect of a nuanced and subtly shaded characterization. That it’s not carried on into the latter stages isn’t Flynn’s fault though; the script moves in a much more traditional direction, and the result is a more one-dimensional (though still perfectly entertaining) portrayal. Helmut Dantine is strong in his role as the driven Von Keller, He also starts out better, coming across as grimly determined as opposed to the cold fanatic he reveals himself to be as the plot progresses. In a sense, the supporting players fare better over the 90 odd minutes. Julie Bishop, John Ridgely, Gene Lockhart and Tom Tully all turn in fine performances and see their roles evolve satisfactorily.

Warner Brothers released Northern Pursuit as part of an Errol Flynn adventure set some years ago, and the film looks pretty good on that DVD. It’s a nice clean transfer of a movie whose elements seem to have stayed in good shape – no distracting damage or major flaws. As far as I’m concerned anything with Flynn is highly watchable – the swashbuckler roles are certainly going to be ones he’s best remembered for, but I always enjoy seeing his other genre pictures. Northern Pursuit probably isn’t that well-known yet any collaboration between Flynn and Walsh is worth investing a little of one’s time in.

Submitted as part of the O Canada Blogathon – you can follow the other posts in this celebration of Canadian influences on cinema by clicking on the banner image below.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh

 

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Gunsmoke

At one time the Hollywood studios all seemed to have a particular style and feel associated with them. Even without seeing the credits you could usually tell which company had produced a movie just by its look. Mention Universal to most film fans and they will probably think automatically of the horror cycle running from the early 30s through to the mid-40s. Understandable as that is, it also means that the westerns the studio made in the 50s tend to be overlooked, although not by genre fans. The Universal western (or Universal-International to be more accurate) was for the most part a no-nonsense affair that moved at a fast lick and was visually attractive. Gunsmoke (1953) is a good example of the studio’s output – pacy, entertaining and lacking in pretension.

Reb Kittredge (Audie Murphy) has been making a living as a hired gunman, and the opening shots of the film see him and his friend Johnny Lake (Charles Drake) riding hard in an effort to outrun a posse of cavalrymen on their trail. The two men had been plying their trade in the Johnson County War but are now heading off in different directions – Johnny planning to sell his skills elsewhere, while Reb hopes to get  into the ranching business. He’s had an offer of employment from a man called Telford (Donald Randolph), and is setting off to find out what it entails when he’s bushwhacked – a lone sniper shoots his horse from under him using a buffalo gun. As is often the case in these movies, a man’s reputation has the nasty habit of preceding him and then dogging his steps thereafter. Reb has made his name dispensing lead and that’s really the only thing that interests people. It turns out Telford is a slick and ruthless business type who has been buying up all the land around, and now there’s only one man standing in his way. Dan Saxon (Paul Kelly) and his daughter Rita (Susan Cabot) are all that stand between Telford and total control. And this is where Reb comes in – Telford wants to hire him to ensure (by whatever means are necessary) Saxon doesn’t get his cattle to market before his mortgage comes due. So far this is all pretty standard fare, but the initial reluctance of Reb to take on the job and, more significantly, the fact he wins the ranch from Saxon on the turn of a card takes the story in a different direction. Reb has the ranch he always wanted but with Saxon now working for him, the daughter resenting him, Telford on his back, a deadline looming and a former friend gunning for him.

No 50s western would be truly complete if it failed to touch on the notion of redemption, at least in passing. I don’t for a moment believe Gunsmoke was ever striving for great depth yet it does touch on this classic theme. Murphy’s character is referred to as having gained notoriety for his actions in the Johnson County War – while it’s not made clear which side he hired out to the implication is surely that he earned his pay gunning for the big ranchers. By siding with Saxon, the small independent, and taking on the might of Telford and all his resources it could be read as an attempt to make up for his past deeds. Anyway, the pace is so brisk and the script so packed with incident that there’s not that much time to linger over such matters. The screenplay comes courtesy of D D Beauchamp and a novel by Norman A Fox, neither of whom were strangers to the western genre. The direction was handled by Nathan Juran, one of those studio professionals who rarely get a lot of credit for the quality of their work. Juran made a number of westerns with Murphy alongside other studio assignments. As time wore on he moved towards science fiction and fantasy pictures – 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer, and so on – which paved the way for a television career notable for his contribution to various Irwin Allen shows. Juran may not have been an especially spectacular director but he was very solid and I’ve always found his work highly watchable.

Gunsmoke saw Audie Murphy settling more comfortably into his role as a movie star, and particularly as a western star. He would go on to better and more complex parts in the future of course but this film offered him an opportunity to play a guy with some interesting shadings to his character. He’s probably at his best in his exchanges with Charles Drake, who makes for a fine anti-heroic/villainous adversary. Susan Cabot is good too and shows plenty of grit throughout – her driving of a chuck wagon down a treacherous mountain incline is a memorable scene – proving herself capable of providing more than mere eye candy. Still, the acting honors have to go to the supporting cast, particularly Paul Kelly and Donald Randolph. Randolph is oily and effete yet menacing as a coiled serpent, the silky exterior masking a calculating and venomous nature. And Kelly is just about perfect as the rancher who will gamble on anything. His philosophical approach to life and all its tribulations adds a lot of charm to the movie.

Gunsmoke is out on DVD in Spain (it’s also available in Germany as part of a Murphy box set from Koch Media) via Llamentol. The image is pretty good, if perhaps a little soft, and doesn’t have any serious damage visible. Generally, the presentation improves as the feature progresses. I’ve seen the film on TV a number of times and the DVD is comparable to those broadcast versions as far as I can tell. Gunsmoke may not be the best western Audie Murphy made and it’s not the best Universal-International had to offer either. Having said that, I like it a lot – it’s brisk, colorful and entertaining from start to finish. There’s good professional work done by everyone – both in front of and behind the cameras – and the film stands as a fair representation of the style and ethos of a Universal-International western.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Westerns

 

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Joe Dakota

Last time I looked at a remake. The film in question today isn’t a direct remake, at least not a credited one, but instead it’s what we might term an alternative take on a similar theme. Anyone who has seen Bad Day at Black Rock will easily spot the parallels in Joe Dakota (1957), although this later production doesn’t attain the same level of driving intensity as Sturges’ film. I think it’s fair to say this movie doesn’t have the same ambition, not as far as social commentary is concerned anyway, but it’s still interesting enough and definitely a worthwhile 50s western.

Arborville is a tiny settlement, barely able to justify the label of a town. As an unnamed stranger (Jock Mahoney) rides out of the desert onto its solitary street there’s an almost unnatural calm. At first it seems as though Arborville has been abandoned, like a western version of the Marie Celeste on dry land. The mystery provides only a temporary puzzle though as a lone girl, Jody (Luana Patten), sulkily informs the stranger that the whole population is outside of town at work. The work turns out to be an oil drilling operation, and the locals aren’t exactly thrilled to see an outsider poking his nose in. The main spokesman, Cal (Charles McGraw), initially appears happy enough to allow the visitor to observe the drilling but grows suspicious when this unnamed man decides to explore further, particularly when he exhibits an interest in the old shack that stands next to the derrick. The tone of this opening section of the movie is a little uneven, mixing the suspenseful elements up with some broad knockabout comedy. However, as the story progresses the emphasis on the mystery consistently holds center stage. Everything revolves around the question of identity – the identity of the apparently affable stranger with questions to ask, and that of the old Indian, now disappeared, who once occupied the shack. So there are issues to be resolved in Arborville but no-one seems keen to offer any answers. Even the locals are reluctant to discuss the matter among themselves. What is clear is that the town is nursing a secret, and the stranger is determined to haul that hidden past, kicking and screaming if necessary, out into the open.

Those familiar with Bad Day at Black Rock will know where the story is heading, and I’m not going to spoil things here for anyone who hasn’t seen either film. While the structure of both films is essentially the same the approach is a little different. Joe Dakota has the early lightness I already referred to and, even though the levels of suspense are ramped up as it goes along, the kind of searing examination of race relations that characterized John Sturges’ film is not present. Also, the insularity of the isolated frontier community isn’t probed in the same depth. Everything in Bad Day at Black Rock revolved around notions of hate, fear and neglect – Joe Dakota trades on fear too, but greed lies at the root of it all.

The script was by William Talman, best known as Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason show, and Norman Jolley. This pair also worked together on another Jock Mahoney vehicle, I’ve Lived Before, which I’d like to see one day. The core story is a good one and works well in a western setting, relying on the isolation to act as both a cloak for the town’s guilty secret and a catalyst for the paranoia that accompanies it. The plot recounts a journey towards the truth and, like most 50s westerns, represents a simultaneous quest for redemption or absolution. By the close the collective guilt of all concerned is literally burnt away and cleansed as the mistakes of the past are consumed by flames.

Jock Mahoney was well cast in Joe Dakota, his laid back charm easily wins the viewer over to his side right from the beginning and there was an air of tough resolve about him too which makes him believable as the dogged seeker after the truth. He made a handful of films with director Richard Bartlett – of those, I’ve only seen the enjoyable Money, Women and Guns – who appears to have recognized his strengths and used them to good effect. Charles McGraw had the rough edges and raspy voice to play a variety of movie villains and he always a pleasure to watch. Joe Dakota was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his more devious side, as opposed to a physical threat, and he acts as a good foil for the athletic Mahoney. Barbara Lawrence and Luana Patten took on the two principal female roles, with the latter getting the juicier and more rewarding part. The supporting cast is pretty strong too, with Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef indulging in some comic antics early on to soften the harder image we frequently associate with both men. It’s nice too to see the prolific Anthony Caruso – one of those faces you’ll immediately recognize – in a fairly prominent role.

Joe Dakota was a Universal picture and can be tracked down on DVD easily enough. I have the Spanish release, which is fair but nothing special. A 1957 production would certainly have been shot widescreen but the DVD is clearly open matte – there’s lots of extraneous head room in the frame. Aside from that, the image is reasonable if a little soft. The Eastman color process could be problematic and was apt to fade over time but I can’t say it looks too bad in this case. The disc just offers the film and there are no extra features whatsoever. Generally, this is a good, solid western which presents a different riff on a similar scenario to Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s interesting to look at the contrasting approaches of these two films but I think it would be unfair to compare them directly. Joe Dakota stands up just fine on its own merits and is both entertaining and thoughtful.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in 1950s, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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Run for the Sun

Remakes frequently attract bad press, coming under attack for a lack of originality or the simple fact that they are unnecessary. This is so often the case that there’s a temptation to discount a remake out of hand, expecting it to conform to type. Still, blanket dismissals are rarely a good idea and can lead to ignoring worthwhile movies. So what makes a remake worthwhile? Well for me anyway, it ought to offer something different; if not, what’s the point. This is particularly true when we talk about a movie that’s generally regarded as a classic to begin. Richard Connell’s story The Most Dangerous Game had already been filmed very successfully back in 1932 so Run for the Sun (1956) needed to bring something new to the table if it were to be regarded as a valid piece of work. Personally, I feel Roy Boulting’s version of the tale rises to this challenge and succeeds in its own right.

Mike Latimer (Richard Widmark) is a famous author, a Hemingway-style figure who lived the adventures in far-flung locations he wrote about, but he’s dropped out of sight. When such people take it upon themselves to disappear there’s inevitably a desire to find out why. And so Katie Connors (Jane Greer), a magazine journalist specializing in celebrity profiles, heads to Mexico to see if she can track down the mysterious writer and get a line on what drove him to vanish. Well she finds him living a simple life, drinking, fishing and avoiding his typewriter at all costs. The first half of the movie concerns itself with Katie’s efforts to surreptitiously dig deeper, while Latimer finds himself gradually falling for her. Katie’s job involves a degree of dishonesty – Latimer is unaware she’s going to do a write-up on him – which doesn’t sit easily with her, and so she eventually loses all appetite for it. She takes the decision, abruptly, to leave, to head to Mexico City and let Latimer work out his personal issues in peace. And here’s where the film begins to get back to Connell’s premise. As Latimer and Katie set off in his light plane a piece of carelessness leads them unwittingly off course, way off course and running low on fuel over dense jungle. When they spot an isolated clearing, the one place they may be able to make an emergency landing, it looks like fortune is smiling on them. However, the aftermath plunges them into greater danger. The wrecked plane is discovered by Browne (Trevor Howard), an Englishman who has made his home far away from civilization. Browne claims that he and his associate Dr Van Anders (Peter van Eyck) are involved in archaeological research, but Latimer is suspicious: little details don’t quite add up and then there’s the pack of dobermans that roam the grounds, supposedly to keep the Indian laborers from running off and deserting. The fact is Browne and Van Anders are in this remote setting for an altogether more sinister reason, and they can’t afford to have their unexpected guests betray their presence.

The western is perhaps the most prominent example of a genre using landscape and locations as a character. The adventure picture must run it a close second though, and it’s especially noticeable when we look at the sub-genre of survival thrillers. Run for the Sun is heavily dependent on its Mexican locations throughout, highlighting the charming exoticism in the first act before venturing deeper into the wilderness later as events take a more dangerous turn. Roy Boulting really makes the most of the treacherous terrain Widmark and Greer must laboriously traverse and captures the grueling nature of a trek across broken ground and cloying swamps. Joseph LaShelle’s camera drinks in the primal beauty of the jungle and all its attendant perils. The latter half of the film is easily the strongest, helped not only by the locations but also drawing on the director’s skill at building tension and orchestrating the action sequences. Boulting also worked on the script, along with Dudley Nichols, and I like the way it alters or adds to Connell’s story while remaining respectful of the source. The updating to a post-war setting works well and is fairly credible – the reasoning behind the central hunt becomes arguably more rational, even if it does mean sacrificing some of the creepiness that characterized the 1932 version. Ultimately, the theme of man hunting man, and the portrayal of the wilderness as both friend and foe is still intact.

Run for the Sun came in the middle of a great sequence of films for Richard Widmark. He’d graduated from the villainous early roles and was very comfortable as a heroic lead. Even so, the edge that meant he was such a good bad guy was still there and it added something interesting to his heroes. Widmark had a prickly, querulous side that was never far below the surface and it gave another dimension to his characterizations, ensuring there was never any blandness on show. Jane Greer’s place in cinema history was guaranteed when she took on the part of one the greatest ever femme fatales in Tourneur’s Out of the Past. In truth, nothing else she did really came close to that iconic character. Nevertheless, I’ve always found her a welcome presence in any movie or TV show where she appeared. Run for the Sun gave her the opportunity to indulge in a bit of duplicity, although it’s of the mild variety, and she got the sense of internal conflict across quite successfully. Additionally, she coped well with the physical stuff that the long jungle pursuit required. The casting of Trevor Howard as the exiled Englishman was a fine choice. Howard had a quality of bruised refinement about him which was ideal for the part of a man forced by his own ambition and poor judgement to live a life far removed from what his upbringing had promised. Peter van Eyck too was excellent at playing the cool, calculating type, one whose outward polish masks a ruthless streak.

Run for the Sun is available in the US as a MOD DVD from MGM, and in the UK as a pressed disc from Optimum/Studio Canal. I’ve had the UK release for some years now (I think from reading around that the US MOD is an identical transfer) and it looks very good. The print states the film was shot in SuperScope 235 but the DVD presents the movie 2.00:1 – I don’t know how accurate that is but the compositions look fine and certainly don’t appear compromised by any cropping. The image is clean and sharp with good color reproduction. The disc is a very basic affair which offers no extra features whatsoever. The film itself is a neat and clever updating of the 1932 original, changing the locations and the motivations of the characters but maintaining the central thrust of the theme. It’s a good, solid adventure movie with strong performances from the four principals, and some stunning location photography. If I have any major criticism, it’s that the first half takes longer than it needs to set up the story. Having said that, the latter half picks up the pace impressively and more than compensates for any earlier slackness. It’s a film I enjoy revisiting periodically and I recommend checking it out.

 

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in 1950s, Richard Widmark

 

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Venetian Bird

Post-war Europe made for an ideal backdrop for tales of intrigue and mystery. Aside from the fact the Cold War was never far from the minds of contemporary audiences, the natural chaos present in a continent still in the process of healing the wounds left by six years of all-out conflict created the conditions and circumstances which lent themselves to the telling of such stories. There are numerous examples of movies exploiting this turbulent and uncertain period, some of which – The Third Man, The Man Between, Diplomatic Courier, The House of the Seven Hawks, Berlin Express – I’ve already featured on this site. Ralph Thomas’ Venetian Bird (1952) is another which fits into this grouping, mixing in the themes of political chicanery and fake identities.

Confusion frequently follows in the aftermath of war; people get lost and people disappear. Many are forgotten, existing only as memories buried beneath the rubble, but not all of them. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) arrives in Venice in search of a man who seems to have vanished. Mercer is a detective hired by a grateful American who wants to reward an Italian for his bravery during the war. The man he’s seeking is Renzo Uccello, but it’s not just a matter of looking in the phone book. Uccello is an elusive figure, and Mercer’s efforts to track him down draws the interest of others. He’s followed to his initial point of contact and the man he hopes will offer him a lead is first assaulted and later murdered. Thus it’s clear enough that certain parties don’t want the whereabouts of Uccello known. The question of course is why. Uccello isn’t being sought for any crime, quite the opposite. Mercer’s quest means delving into the past and Uccello’s activities with the partisans of the Italian resistance. As he digs deeper he’s encouraged to believe the object of his search has died, but Mercer remains unconvinced. Not only are there clues suggesting Uccello is very much alive, but there are also indications that he’s involved in something dark and criminal. The closer Mercer comes to the truth, the greater the danger as he is gradually pulled into the murky and volatile world of post-war Italian politics. Before long he finds his role switched from that of hunter to hunted. What started off as a routine investigation develops into conspiracy, assassination and a man hunt taking in the alleys, canal and rooftops of Venice.

Films which use political machinations as their basis can flounder under the weight of their own self-importance if they’re not careful. Mercifully, Venetian Bird keeps the political aspect firmly in the background, the motivations and allegiances are blurred and of importance to the characters rather than the audience. Victor Canning’s script, adapted from his own novel, remains focused on Mercer and his search for Uccello. There’s always the sense that powerful men are manipulating the events but the viewers only concern is how this affects the protagonist, not their wider impact. The pace does flag a little here and there, a little trimming of the script wouldn’t have hurt, but director Ralph Thomas and cameraman Ernest Steward create some nice noir-style visuals and draw as much suspense as possible from the tale – the climactic chase across the rooftops is especially well filmed and quite exciting. The location shooting in Venice is a big plus and adds a touch of realism to the pulpy story. The movie is also notable for its score, provided by the highly regarded Nino Rota.

Richard Todd was in the middle of a fairly strong run of movies when he made Venetian Bird – he’d recently come off The Hasty Heart and Stage Fright, and The Dam Busters was still ahead of him. As Mercer he was a solid leading presence, although I’m not sure he really got across the ambiguity of the character – Mercer is referred to as having taken part in certain illicit activities in Italy in earlier times. Still, he was personable enough and handled the physical stuff satisfactorily. Eva Bartok’s biggest Hollywood role was in Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, made the same year, but I’m most familiar with her from a handful of British pictures. She had a fairly substantial part in this film as the principal link to Uccello, and does quite well – we’re never 100% sure where her loyalties lie and she managed the internal conflict of the character successfully enough. George Coulouris was always a welcome face in the movies and is good value as the local police chief. The other notable roles are filled, with variable success, by John Gregson and Sid James. You wouldn’t automatically think of either of these men as first choices to play Italians, particularly if you’re familiar with their body of work in British cinema. As such, it’s hard not to be distracted by their presence. In support, there are good turns from Walter Rilla (father of director Wolf Rilla) and Margot Grahame.

Venetian Bird was a Rank production and wasn’t the easiest movie to see for a long time. I used to own a promo DVD which came free with a Greek newspaper some years ago but the transfer was a poor one with a pronounced green hue. It’s recently been released in the UK by Strawberry Media (AKA Spirit) who distribute certain Rank/ITV titles. The disc is a vanilla affair containing just the movie and no extras whatsoever. The print used is in pretty good condition with no serious damage on view. Contrast seems to be set at the right level with nighttime scenes looking suitably inky and atmospheric. It has to be said that this company isn’t always the most reliable when it comes to aspect ratios but that’s obviously not an issue here with a 1952 movie. I’m not going to try making a case that Venetian Bird is a top British thriller but it is a solid and entertaining mid-range effort that’s professionally made. Overall, I think it’s an unpretentious film which flirts round the boundaries of noir. I always enjoy British movies of this period and the location shooting is a nice bonus. While it’s no lost classic, it’s worth checking out and it’s not at all a bad way to pass an hour and a half.

 

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Richard Todd

 

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The Underworld Story

Things are tough all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.

There are plenty of examples of film noir weaving contemporary social issues into the tales featured. Through the 1950s it’s noticeable how the whole matter of organized crime came to play a more significant part in the world of noir. Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) is an early example of this trend, although it also takes a look at journalistic ethics, racial prejudice, class divisions, and oblique references to the blacklist. This all adds up to a potent and varied cocktail, one which could easily have become overwhelming in its efforts to cover so many bases. However, the script remains clearly focused throughout and the end product is therefore very satisfying.

Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is the classic slick city reporter, a man for whom the chance of a scoop and the accompanying paycheck trumps all other considerations. This absence of moral qualms is clearly illustrated by the opening scene of the movie, which sees a mob informant gunned down on the court steps. The responsibility for this killing is laid largely at the feet of Reese, who wrote the story tipping the gangsters off to the location of the stool pigeon. Still, Reese is one of those guys who’s not quite as smooth as he thinks he is – all the angling and sharp patter can’t disguise an unfortunate tendency for things to blow up in his face. While his exclusive story had lethal consequences for one man, it also leads to Reese getting his marching orders. Worse is to come though when he finds his name is poison and he can’t get a job on any paper in town. So what’s a guy to do under the circumstances? In this case, he pays a visit to Carl Durham (Howard da Silva), the mob boss he unwittingly helped out when he put the finger on the informant. With a modest payoff in his pocket from Durham, Reese takes himself to a small town where he can purchase a half interest in a local newspaper. Almost immediately it looks like our “hero” has landed on his feet again. No sooner has he talked the owner, Cathy Harris (Gale Storm), into accepting his offer than a major story breaks right under their noses. The daughter-in-law of a local blue-blood publisher, E J Stanton (Herbert Marshall), has been murdered and Reese scents the opportunity to make journalistic capital out of this. Initially, it looks like a gift, and the revelation that the deceased’s maid may have been involved adds a bit of spice. In reality though, it’s another situation which Reese has misjudged and he soon finds himself getting out of his depth. The draw of a society killing and the allegations that the perpetrator may have been a black woman offers the chance for exploitation and therefore money. But it’s soon made clear to the viewer that the real killer was someone else, someone much closer to the victim. Reese’s cynical and insincere crusade is about to backfire on him as dirty family secrets, racism and an unholy alliance between the mob and old money combine to present the kind of threat his sharp spiel won’t be enough to deflect.

The Underworld Story was one of the last films Cy Endfield made before the blacklist and the HUAC hearings would force him out of Hollywood and send him across the ocean to pursue his career in Britain. It’s easy to see how, in the volatile and paranoid climate which prevailed then, a film like this would have drawn some unwelcome attention. The main protagonist is a man who has himself been essentially blacklisted by his own industry, who digs under the apparently respectable facade of a pillar of civilized democracy (the free press) and reveals corruption, duplicity and outright criminality. The racial aspect adds another layer of unpleasantness, though this is only a small part of the story and handled in a fairly half-hearted fashion anyway. No, the real issue here is the subversion of the press and moral bankruptcy of those holding sway over public opinion. Essentially we’re shown three separate yet interrelated faces of the fourth estate: the weakness and ethical ambivalence of Marshall, the crass opportunism of Duryea, and the naive idealism of Storm. Endfield contributed to the script sourced from a story by Craig Rice (which probably accounts for the touches of light humor sprinkled throughout) and the critique of a society manipulated by corrupt and powerful men is always to the fore – the scene where Marshall sits around with local dignitaries and cronies working out how best to rid themselves of the troublesome Duryea is effective in its repugnance. The cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez, resulting in some nicely lit images which add to the noir atmosphere.

Dan Duryea was a fine piece of casting in the role of Reese, his frequent portrayal of charming villains setting up the ambivalence of his character well. Reese, at least until he experiences a late change of heart (or maybe even an acquisition of one), is basically an anti-heroic figure. His main concern for most of the film’s running time is the state of his own bank account, and Duryea was very good at getting across the chiseling soul of Reese. Even as he’s doing his level best to sell out sympathetic characters, you can’t help but like him – not an easy role to pull off but one which was tailor-made for Duryea. Herbert Marshall was another guy skilled at playing complex figures, and he had a real knack for displaying a kind of outraged dignity. Again, you shouldn’t really feel anything much for him but Marshall’s talent for bringing a human face to Stanton means his dilemma becomes understandable. For me, a large part of the film’s success comes down to the way both Marshall and Duryea portray the various shades of gray of their respective characters. There’s good support provided by Gale Storm as Duryea’s partner in the newspaper and love interest, but her role is essentially one-dimensional. The same could be said for the other cast members I guess: Howard da Silva has a high time chewing up the scenery as the grinning and uncouth gang boss and acts as a great contrast to Marshall’s refinement, while Michael O’Shea’s DA is mostly driven by vindictiveness, particularly where Duryea is concerned. One of the oddest casting choices was Mary Anderson as the black maid everyone suspects of the murder. The fact that Anderson is actually white, and never really looks anything else (there was no overt black face make-up involved) despite everyone alluding to her race, is a bit distracting. The racial matter does form part of the story but it’s of secondary importance at best. Had it been more central, then the whiteness of the actress would have been more problematic. Anderson’s work is perfectly good but I did wonder why she was chosen for that part in the first place.

The Underworld Story is out on DVD via the Warner Archive in the US and also on pressed disc in Spain from Absolute. I have the Spanish release and it looks pretty good – there are a few isolated instances of print damage but overall the image is quite strong. The  picture is sharp throughout and the contrast levels show off the noir cinematography nicely. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub and subtitles are optional – they can be disabled from the setup menu. This is a solid film noir from a director I like and it’s always a pleasure to see Dan Duryea in a leading role. He’ll be best remembered for his villainous turns but I enjoy watching him in those rare movies where he got to play the good guy. The Underworld Story isn’t the best known film noir out there but it’s a good production and worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, director or star.

 

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2014 in 1950s, Cy Endfield, Dan Duryea, Film Noir

 

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Tribute to a Bad Man

We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2014 in 1950s, James Cagney, Robert Wise, Westerns

 

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