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Category Archives: Burt Lancaster

Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.

Robert Mitchum

Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.

Burt Lancaster

Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.

Barbara Stanwyck

One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.

Edward G Robinson

This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.

Robert Ryan

With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.

Glenn Ford

Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.

Dana Andrews

A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.

Marie Windsor

The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.

Humphrey Bogart

And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.

So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.

 

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Criss Cross

“From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.”

Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, a heist, a hero doomed by fate and his own stupidity, and a rotten to the core femme fatale – all of this sounds a little like a brief synopsis of The Killers. In fact, it refers to Criss Cross (1949), a near relative of that earlier work and a film that vies with it for the honour of being hailed Siodmak’s best movie. Apart from the pairing of director and star, both these films share a similar theme and structure, and I find it almost impossible to decide which is the better one. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – I like them both and they are two of the strongest noir pictures to come out of the 1940s.

The title of this movie is a highly appropriate one for a tale where the paths of all the main characters are continually intersecting in a web of deceit and betrayal, each crossing up the other at the first opportunity. At the centre of it all are three people – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) – bound together by an unholy combination of love, lust and greed. The opening shot, with the camera swooping ominously down from the night skies of LA, sees Anna and Steve caught in a clinch in the parking lot of a nightclub. As the lights suddenly pick them out, their startled and guilty reaction indicates that this is an illicit rendezvous. The fact is further underlined by the terse, tense dialogue – this couple is planning something dangerous, and the possibility of discovery holds a terrifying threat for them. Anna is married to local hood Slim Dundee, but she and Steve were once wed too. Their passionate embrace makes it clear that they have rekindled their old relationship, with the flame burning brightest for Steve in particular. And it’s from the point of view of Steve that the story is primarily seen, with the others moving in and out of the picture at various intervals. He’s a classic noir protagonist, a fairly ordinary guy with limited prospects and a blind spot where no-good females are concerned. A lengthy flashback sequence, accompanied by a suitably weary and resigned voiceover by Steve, spells out exactly how the lives of these three characters converged and the complex ties that continue to bind them together. In short, Steve’s job as a guard for an armored car company has led to his conspiring with Dundee to raid one of the secure vehicles. However, in the noir universe there’s no such thing as honour among thieves and everyone has his own hidden agenda. Steve is the only one of the trio whose motives have some semblance of decency – he’s driven by a kind of desperate love for Anna – and the aftermath of the heist shows just how deep the fault lines of treachery run in this uneasy alliance.

Apparently the untimely death of Mark Hellinger meant that the original script was revised and certain aspects of the story were changed. Be that as it may, the movie that we ended up with is almost impossible to fault and Daniel Fuchs’ script successfully blends the heist and Steve’s obsessive love to powerful effect. Flashback structures can sometimes be confusing or upset the mood of a film but in this case it works perfectly, coming at precisely the right point and filling in the background details that are vital to understanding the nature of Steve and Anna’s relationship. With a tight script, and Franz Planer’s photographic talents, in place, director Robert Siodmak was free to put it all together with his customary visual flair. The opening, which I referred to earlier, pitches the viewer headlong into this complex tale of dishonour and betrayal in incredibly stylish fashion. And it never really lets up from that moment, with one memorable and superbly shot scene following hard on the heels of another. Siodmak uses every trick up his sleeve to manipulate the mood and perspective, from coldly objective overheads to disconcerting low angles and close-ups, interspersed with fast cuts and dissolves. For me, the real stand out scenes, although there’s hardly a poor moment throughout, are the ones in Union Station and in the hospital. The former not only gives a fascinating glimpse of contemporary LA bustle, but also shows the director’s skill in composing a complex series of shots in a crowded environment while retaining control of the geography. In the latter, he uses the reflection from the mirror in Steve’s room to break up the static nature of the setup and extract the maximum amount of tension at the same time.

If the technical aspects of the film are straight out of the top drawer, then the same can also be said for the acting. Burt Lancaster kicked off his career with some finely judged playing as the doomed Swede in The Killers, and Siodmak got him to tap into that same vibe to coax another wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance from him. Once again he hits all the right notes as the big palooka whose dark romanticism sees him suckered by the machinations of a conniving woman. Every emotional state the script calls on him to display is carried off convincingly, from fear and disenchantment right through to the calm acceptance of his fate at the end – from the dumbfounded look of a guy who’s just had his guts kicked out by the woman he loves to the cloying sense of panic of a man under sentence of death and trapped in an anonymous hospital ward. Yvonne De Carlo didn’t have to go through quite as many stages, yet she’s still excellent alternating between the sassy, sensual broad that forms her public persona and the nervy, desperate woman she becomes in private. When she drops all pretense in the climax and reveals her true character to Steve and the audience there’s a tangible shock to be felt. Dan Duryea was an old hand at taking on the role of the slimy villain, and to that he adds a layer of menace as Slim Dundee. He manages this so well that it’s easy to understand the level of fear and trepidation he provokes in Steve when he contemplates the consequences of crossing him. While these three actors carry the movie, there’s real depth in the  supporting cast too. Stephen McNally is solid and sympathetic as the cop whose friendship for Steve leads him to inadvertently push him into crime. In fact, there are lovely little cameos all through the movie: Percy Helton’s chipmunk featured barman, Joan Miller’s garrulous barfly, Griff Barnett’s kindly and lonely father figure.

Criss Cross has been out on DVD for many years now, and the US disc from Universal is an especially strong effort. It offers a near perfect transfer of the film with clarity, sharpness and contrast all at the high end of the scale. My only disappointment comes from the absence of any extra features, bar the theatrical trailer, for such a quality movie. One shouldn’t really complain, in these days of bare bones burn on demand discs, but this film does deserve a commentary track at the very least. Still, we have got an excellent piece of the filmmaker’s art looking great. Criss Cross is a highly rated production that occupies a prominent position in the noir canon, and it has earned that honour. It’s one of those rare films that checks all the boxes and never puts a foot wrong from its dramatic opening until it’s darkly cynical final fade out. Those who are familiar with the picture will know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who are not owe it to themselves to discover this little treasure. This is unquestionably one of the real jewels of film noir.

 
 

Ulzana’s Raid

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By the 1970s revisionism had hit the western in a big way; it had started the previous decade of course, but the social upheval of the period brought it fully to the fore in those last painful days of the Vietnam War. Conflict and domestic unrest have a way of drawing a nation’s gaze inward and it’s hardly surprising that the most iconic cultural markers are the ones upon which attention is most strongly fixed. Such was the case with the western, that most readily identifiable symbol of America’s heritage, and the brutal campaigns against the Indians provided a rich background to use as a parallel for a contemporary war. Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is frequently cited as an allegory for US involvement in South East Asia, and it’s hard to argue with that – inexperienced soldiers battling a largely faceless foe in hostile and unforgiving territory, exposing strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and virtues in the process.

The tale concerns the breakout by a band of Apache led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) from the reservation, and their subsequent rampage across Arizona. In response, the army sends out a detachment under the command of a green officer, Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison), with orders to capture or kill the fugitives. DeBuin is to be aided in his task by two scouts, an Apache, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and a white veteran, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster). DeBuin’s initial approach, fuelled by the fact that his father is a clergyman, is an almost evangelical one, wherein he views the Apache as a misguided and misunderstood people who need to be coaxed back to the bosom of white civilisation. The scouts, McIntosh in particular, have no illusions on this score though – to them the runaway Apache are no aspiring white men who have strayed from the flock, they are a dangerous and cunning enemy worthy of both fear and respect. As DeBuin’s troop follow Ulzana’s blood-soaked trail, encountering one horrific atrocity after another, the young lieutenant sees his faith in the essential goodness of humanity challenged. His reactions range from shock, leading him to question a bemused Ke-Ni-Tay about the motivation for such cruelty, to a kind of outraged vindictiveness as he demands his Apache scout bury the mutilated remains of yet another butchered settler. Throughout all this McIntosh remains dryly philosophical, guiding his young charge as best he can and providing the voice of reason when hate and revenge threaten to displace logical action. What we end up with is an examination of white America’s attempts to come to terms with an adversary whose psychology and beliefs are so alien and incomprehensible that they defy conventional means of tackling them. In the end, it’s only by worming his way into Ulzana’s thought processes that McIntosh is able map out a way to defeat him, although the ultimate irony is that it’s another Apache, and not all the might and firepower of the army, that finally brings closure.

Boxed in - Burt Lancaster in Ulzana's Raid.

I think Ulzana’s Raid might just be Robert Aldrich’s best movie, blending action and harsh visuals perfectly. The cruel and pitiless Arizona and Nevada landscapes are a fitting backdrop for the brutal events that play out on the screen. There’s barely an interior shot in the whole picture, the bulk of it taking place amid the dust, rocks and canyons. Where he was a little coy about trumpeting his politics in earlier works here he indulges in a kind of liberal realism that never patronises or descends into sentiment. There’s clearly sympathy for the deprivation that has driven Ulzana and his band off the reservation in search of the spiritual power they crave, but at no point does Aldrich allow the Apache to be seen as the kind of dippy mystics that is the stuff of caricature. He never shies away from depicting the merciless nature of Ulzana and his men, but nor does he seek to cover it up in politically correct excuses – to paraphrase both McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay, the Apache are what they are and that’s how it’s always been. The main focus though is on how the young lieutenant and his men cope with the reality of fighting an enemy that they can neither seem to catch nor even understand. Bruce Davison had suitably innocent and freshly-scrubbed features to portray a man about to have all his high-minded illusions shattered. He matures nicely as the story progresses and McIntosh’s wisdom gradually sinks in. As the grizzled old scout, Lancaster dominates the movie with his wry observations helping to ground it all. He displays a sense of fatalism that befits a man whose years of living on the frontier have exposed him to the brutal nature of men in general. Richard Jaeckel also deserves a mention for his sergeant who’s been through the wars and learnt that while officers need to be obeyed and respected their judgement is not always to be trusted.

Universal’s UK DVD of Ulzana’s Raid presents the film at about 1.78:1 anamorphic. The disc contains no extra features at all, but the movie itself looks very handsome with good detail, sharpness and colour. I should mention that the UK version has a number of mandatory BBFC cuts for horsefalls – these don’t amount to much in terms of time but they do result in slightly jarring editing when they occur. As far as I know, the continental European versions do not have any of those cuts present. As I said, this is probably Aldrich’s best work and it makes for a western that’s both intelligent and engrossing. It casts a cool eye on the old west that refreshingly avoids being either judgemental or romantic – the viewer is expected to be enough of an adult to make up his or her own mind without being led by the nose. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1970s, Burt Lancaster, Robert Aldrich, Westerns

 

Vera Cruz

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Reputations are a strange thing. They tend to wax and wane as the allegiances of critics shift over time and fashions change. Some directors have seen their stock rise dramatically while others have toppled from once lofty positions. There are those though who never seem to be celebrated excessively nor wholly forgotten, they simply exist in that shadowy periphery where both praise and criticism are always heavily qualified. One such man is Robert Aldrich, a director who made some memorable and stylish films yet continues to be granted only a kind of grudging respect. Vera Cruz (1954) was one of his early efforts and has traditionally been viewed as a good action picture, but that’s about it. It’s also been cited as the inspiration for the following decade’s spaghetti westerns, and I fully agree with that assertion. I see it as occupying an odd place among the westerns of the 50s; it doesn’t probe dark psychology like an Anthony Mann film, and it has none of the sparse leanness of Boetticher’s work. Instead it leaps over all of this and presents, or maybe even glorifies, the kind of amoral characters who would come to populate the western from the mid-60s onwards.

The story takes place in 1866, during the Franco-Mexican war, when the followers of Juarez were struggling to wrest control of their country back from those forces loyal to the puppet Emperor Maximilian. The focus is on two Americans who, as the prologue informs us, are among those who have drifted across the border after the Civil War to sell their services to the highest bidder. These men are Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a southern gentleman ruined by the war and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a reckless adventurer and a stranger to the notion of ethics. The early scenes where Erin sells Trane another man’s stolen horse set the tone for the rest of the picture, where double-crosses, lies, betrayals and greed come thick and fast from every side and no one seems to spare a thought for anybody but himself. When it looks as though Maximilian’s people offer the better chance for profit, both men throw in their lot with them. This sets up a nice sequence at the Imperial palace as Erin’s men show themselves up for the uncouth, rag-tag bunch they are. Of course, the aristocrats that they casually offend and outrage are seen to be no better, displaying no qualms whatsoever as they calmly scheme to dispose of their new employees as soon as their purpose is served. The purpose in question is to escort, and ensure the safe passage of, a French Countess (Denise Darcel) and her coach from Mexico City to the port of Vera Cruz. Finally, it would seem that there’s some honour to be seen. After all, risking one’s neck to ensure a woman is able to travel unmolested through treacherous country infested with Juarista rebels on the rampage is not an unworthy enterprise. However, at no point in this story is anything really as it appears on the surface. The whole mission is nothing but a blind on the part of the monarchists to smuggle a shipment of $3 million in gold out of Mexico to buy military aid and , by extension, some time for the crumbling regime. Naturally, everyone wants the money for themselves – Erin, the Countess, Trane and even the Juaristas in order to further their political aims. The fact is that of all those eyeing the fortune, the only one (barring the Juarista general) who has even a shred of decency motivating them is Trane. He sees the money – or at least as much of it as he can bargain for – as a means of restoring his devastated plantation and those who have grown dependent on it. After a succession of ambushes, broken promises and a desperate assault on the Emperor’s forces, everything comes down to a simple duel between two very different men in a dusty Mexican courtyard.

Who can you trust? Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz.

As I said earlier, I’d have to agree with those who claim that Vera Cruz is a major influence on the spaghetti western. In fact, it’s a virtual template for the flood of Euro westerns that hit cinemas within ten years. The south of the border setting is the first thing that comes to mind, and when you factor in the strife torn political background the parallels become more apparent. The difference of course is that in Aldrich’s movie the politics really only forms a backdrop to facilitate the narrative without impacting directly on it. The film isn’t making any particular ideological point, except perhaps that greed overrides everything and corrupts everyone, but concentrates on entertainment albeit with a cynical twist. The main characters, Erin and Trane, profess to have no interest in anything beyond money when they start out. However, as the story progresses, Trane does exhibit something approaching a conscience. Both Cooper and Lancaster’s roles can be viewed as a blueprint for the upcoming anti-heroes from Europe. In a way, the Italians ended up presenting a kind of hybrid of these two men; a mercenary figure who hasn’t abandoned himself totally to amorality, a taciturn man with a personal code of honour (Cooper) who retains a sort of capricious flamboyance (Lancaster). It’s Lancaster’s grinning, black-clad rogue who has the greatest impact, but Cooper’s steadiness plays a significant part in keeping the film balanced. For all Lancaster’s scene stealing bravado, Cooper still holds the attention – his little grimaces at key points have a great understated quality to them. As for Aldrich’s direction, his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. The climactic assault is a well executed sequence that’s perfectly paced with just enough establishing shots to ensure the geography remains clear throughout. Aside from the big set pieces, he uses the wide screen well and mixes up the long, medium and close shots to good effect. He also throws in a variety of angles, and the final duel between Trane and Erin is yet another example of the film’s influence on the likes of Leone. While the lingering, operatic quality is missing, the basic iconography that would become so familiar is certainly present in the angles and the cutting.

Vera Cruz was shot in 2:1 Superscope and the UK DVD from MGM retains that ratio. The anamorphic transfer is a reasonable one, colours are strong and there’s no serious damage to the print. The only extra provided is the theatrical trailer. The film is due out on BD this coming June and it’s the kind of production that ought to benefit from the upgraded picture quality. As a movie, it’s not exactly a typical 50s western; in tone, it almost bears comparison to a 60s WWII extravaganza – big, brash, colourful and noisy. While it may not have the depth of the best from its decade, it is still an influential piece of work. Moreover, it offers an hour and a half of first class entertainment. I like it a lot and think both the film and its director deserve some renewed attention.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1950s, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Robert Aldrich, Westerns

 

The Unforgiven

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John Huston has to be one of my favourite directors but I’ve only just realised that, before today, I hadn’t written up any of his films on this blog. A quick browse through his lengthy and wide ranging filmography also drew my attention to the fact that he only made two westerns – I’m not counting The Misfits or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, although some probably would – and I thought that seemed a little odd. The Unforgiven (1960) is a movie that doesn’t get talked up very much (the director professed a dislike of it which may have hurt its reputation some) but I believe it’s worthy of a bit of attention. The movie derives from a story by Alan Le May (The Searchers) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, concerns the fate of captives. What makes The Unforgiven a little different is the fact that the abduction that forms the background is a reversal of the usual white child spirited away by Indians one. In this case the settlers have taken a Kiowa baby and adopted her as one of their own. This storyline offers the opportunity to examine the effects of racism not only within the community but within the confines of the family as well.

The Zachary’s are a close knit frontier family who, with the father dead as a result of a Kiowa raid, are held together by eldest son Ben (Burt Lancaster). He, with the help of brothers Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure), has been putting together a herd of cattle to send to Wichita and make their fortune. The family’s future looks secure and there is a chance of marrying the only sister, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), into a neighbouring family of fellow ranchers, thereby cementing their partnership. However, the Zacharys’ dreams are built on shaky foundations and are soon to be swept away. Into their midst rides a mysterious old man (Joseph Wiseman), clad in a decaying Civil War uniform complete with sabre. In between quoting scripture he tosses out casual innuendo relating to a dark secret held by the Zacharys. Before long, Ben and Cash find themselves having to hunt down this otherworldly figure, knowing as they do that he intends to destroy them. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film, as the two brothers chase their ghostlike quarry through a swirling dust storm – the old man seeming to appear and disappear at will, and then rushing out of the clouds of windswept sand with his sabre swinging murderously. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts, their nemesis evades them and poisons their neighbours and former friends against them. By the time the Kiowa turn up outside the sod covered family home demanding the return of what they claim belongs to them the Zacharys are about to tear themselves apart. Cash is an unashamed racist haunted by visions of his father’s death at the hands of the Kiowa, and barely able to contain his contempt and hatred for the red men. Therefore, Ben must prove himself the rock upon which the others can depend in order to weather the gathering storm.  

Under siege from within and without - The Unforgiven.

I’ve read that John Huston may have been displeased with the final product due to the fact that Audrey Hepburn later suffered a miscarriage, possibly as a result of a fall during production, not to mention that Audie Murphy almost drowned etc. Be that as it may, the film remains a solid, professional piece of work from Huston. He and DOP Franz Planer made excellent use of the wide angle lens to capture the scenery around Durango, and it contrasts well with the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the Zachary home. Apart from the aforementioned dust storm, the action scenes during the climactic siege are quite impressive. The cast as a whole acquit themselves very well, with Lancaster displaying his customary stoicism interspersed with the occasional witticism. Audrey Hepburn would hardly rank as anyone’s idea of a western heroine but I thought she was pretty convincing in a difficult role. Audie Murphy never gets a lot of credit as an actor but this movie, probably more than any other, shows just how capable he was. He invests the character of Cash with a simmering mix of conflicting emotions that enables him to steal almost every scene he’s in. Lillian Gish also has a high old time as the tough matriarch with a steely resolve, and has a wonderful scene where she sits playing the piano outside at night to counter the music of the Kiowa medicine men. Joseph Wiseman chews up everything in sight as the spectral (no pun intended) Abe Kelsey, a genuinely scary yet pitiful husk of a man driven insane by grief and a desire for vengeance on those he deems responsible for past wrongs.

Given the indifferent treatment MGM often handed their catalogue releases the R2 DVD of The Unforgiven is actually quite pleasing. It’s given a handsome anamorphic scope transfer that has little damage on show save for a bit of light speckling here and there. Since this film is not widely regarded as one of Huston’s greatest it’s no real surprise that the only extra available is the theatrical trailer. I think this movie has been unjustly maligned by many and, even if it never comes to be seen as vintage Huston, it does work well as a mature western that at least tries to tackle a complicated issue. All in all, I like it and feel the performances and photography are ample reasons to give it a go.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, Burt Lancaster, John Huston, Westerns

 

Desert Fury

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Can a technicolor movie be considered a film noir? I think so. Sure, the form lends itself better to the harshness of black and white photography where the light and shadows can be more skilfully manipulated. Having said that, film noir is more than just a photographic style – it’s a style of film making. To me, noir is a combination of many elements (theme, character, time, location, photography etc.) and the more boxes we can check, the closer we come to defining it. Photography is, undoubtedly, one of the major elements that needs to be present – I just feel that photographic style rather than color vs B&W is the clincher. As such, I feel Desert Fury (1947) is most definitely noir. Although the movie is shot in blinding technicolor, the themes and characterization place it firmly in the realm of dark cinema.

Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) returns to Chuckawalla, the small desert town where she was raised by her widowed mother Fritzi (Mary Astor). Paula is shown to be an outsider right from the off, snubbed by the locals due to her mother’s ownership of the town’s gambling joint. The only friend she has is Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a former cowboy now working as town deputy after an accident put an end to his former career. Paula’s arrival back home coincides with the reappearance of a shady character called Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), whose wife died years earlier in a mysterious road accident. When Paula falls for Bendix a whole hornet’s nest of passion is stirred up as Fritzi, Hanson, and Bendix’s partner Johnny (Wendell Corey) all, for their own reasons, try to keep them apart. What tilts this into noir, rather than straight melodrama, is the twisted nature of the relationships involved. Paula is said to bear a strong resemblance to Bendix’s late wife; Fritzi and Bendix were formerly lovers; there’s more than a hint of jealous competition between the two female leads; and there are strong suggestions that the relationship of Bendix and Johnny might be the kind to frighten the horses – heady stuff indeed for 1947. There’s also a nice cyclical form to the movie, which both opens and closes with characters staring over the rails of a bridge at the site of a fatal crash.

Burt Lancaster & Lizabeth Scott

This is a picture that’s dominated by the performances of the women. Mary Astor is near perfect casting as the worldly and tough dame who rules the roost in a man’s world, yet struggles to tame the impulses of her headstrong daughter. Lizabeth Scott was born to star in films noir, and she does the business here as the troubled heroine with the whiskey voice who has to learn a few hard lessons. Burt Lancaster’s role is a bit of a thankless one; he seems to do little more than cruise up and down the desert highway, hoping to run into Scott on her return from Hodiak’s rented pad. Hodiak himself gives an interesting performance as man who’s clearly not all he seems. His initial detachment and suppressed aggression hint at some dark secret, and he gradually descends further into a kind of manic vindictiveness until his flaws and weakness are finally exposed by the sly and knowing Corey. Director Lewis Allen makes sure everything moves along smoothly and makes excellent use of the harshly beautiful locations. A word also for cinematographer Charles Lang, who makes those same desolate landscapes positively pop off the screen.  

Desert Fury is available on DVD in R4 from a company called DV1. Their disc looks fantastic with strong color and detail, although there are some speckles and damage marks here and there. It is, however, totally barebones with not even subs offered. On the plus side there are some interesting liner notes  printed on the reverse of the cover – and it should be available cheaply. For me, this was pretty much a blind buy and I ended up enjoying it a lot. Recommended. 

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2008 in 1940s, Burt Lancaster, Film Noir

 

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

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With Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) John Sturges took his turn at putting Wyatt Earp’s story on the screen. When this film is compared to those which went before, there can be no doubt that it does come closer to the truth. There are more characters represented who actually played a part in the real events, small incidents which have a basis in fact are shown, and a little back story is provided. Having said all that, there are still lots of inaccuracies with names being changed and things not happening as they really did. Still, this is not a documentary, it’s a movie – and a highly polished and entertaining movie at that. 

Frankie Laine’s rendition of the title song opens the movie as Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) rides into Fort Griffin, Texas in pursuit of Ike Clanton. During his stay he meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), whom he subsequently saves from an angry mob intent on lynching him. This places Holliday in his debt and provides the basis for the two men’s friendship. As the film proceeds we see Earp and Holliday cross paths again in Dodge City before moving on to Tombstone, and the famous showdown. The fact that each segment is both punctuated and linked together by the theme song gives the film a slightly episodic feel. Mind you, that’s not a criticism; Laine’s vocals work almost as well as Tex Ritter’s do in High Noon (both of which, coincidentally, were scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). There are romantic sub-plots thrown in for the two leads – the one involving Earp and a lady gambler (Rhonda Fleming) is mostly superflous, while the stormy, abusive relationship between Holliday and Kate (Jo Van Fleet) works better since it does serve to drive the narrative forward.

Doc Holliday and the Earps on the way to the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the second film that Lancaster and Douglas made together and they work well in tandem, each playing nicely off the other. Lancaster’s Wyatt has more of a hard, grim edge to him than was seen in previous incarnations. At one point Holliday tells him, “You know Wyatt, you and I are pretty much alike actually. Both of us live with a gun – the only difference is that badge.” However, Sturges doesn’t explore this side of things too much, and it would be left to later films to point out the fact that Earp’s badge might have been used as a mere convenience. Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday follows the usual pattern of presenting him as a tortured and volatile soul, but his self-loathing has a greater pathos than either Romero or Mature brought to the role, and it’s a vast improvement. John Ireland makes his second appearance in an Earp film, playing Johnny Ringo (he was Billy Clanton in My Darling Clementine) and again comes to a sticky end. In fact there are lots of familiar faces: Dennis Hopper, Kenneth Tobey, DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s ‘Bones’), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam etc.

Now a word about those items the movie got right, and those it didn’t. On the plus side we get a full complement of Clantons and McLaurys, Doc’s woman Kate is present, and Bat Masterson appears in Dodge City. Earp and Holliday are shown to meet in Fort Griffin and later in Dodge, where Doc saved Wyatt’s life as he attempted to stop a fight in a saloon. There’s also a brief reference to Old Man Clanton being shot dead as a result of his rustling activities. As for the negatives, James Earp is again falsely portrayed as the youngster of the family whose death is the catalyst for the gunfight – in truth he was the eldest and lived to a ripe old age. Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo didn’t die at the O.K. Corral, Ringo wasn’t even there. Also, the corrupt County Sheriff has his name changed from Behan to Wilson. 

The film is out on DVD from Paramount in R1 in a wonderful looking widescreen transfer. I haven’t seen the R2 to compare but I imagine it uses the same transfer. There is only very minor damage to the print and the colors are strong. Unfortunately, the disc is utterly barebones with not even a trailer present. The lack of supplements aside, this a great example of a 50’s western and one of the better movies about Wyatt Earp.

 
 

Sorry, Wrong Number

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I’ll start off by saying that I like films that employ flashbacks in the telling of the story. Of course, if this technique is going to be used it needs to be done well. An example of its misuse/abuse would be Passage to Marseille; where there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks to the point that the viewer is driven half crazy and loses all sense of time and place. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) avoids falling into this trap. Here, those trips down memory lane are necessary to drive the story forward and they work perfectly.

The film was adapted from a radio play and summarising the plot is not so easy without giving away too much, and thus ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Almost all of the action is played out via a series of telephone conversations involving Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck). Leona is introduced as a rich, pampered invalid who lives in luxury in Manhattan and, alone and bed-ridden, has only her telephone as a means of communicating with the outside world. As a result of a crossed line, she overhears a conversation between two unknown men as they finalise the details of a murder soon to be committed. Naturally alarmed, Leona first tries to tip off the police but they profess an inability to act given the sketchy information available. Her next thought is to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), but that proves more difficult. Her attempt to contact him results in a series phone calls (and accompanying flashbacks) which gradually build up a complete picture of Leona, Henry and their life together. With each call another piece of the puzzle falls into place, and Leona slowly arrives at a horrifying realization.

Harold Vermilyea explaining that Mr Evans may be found at Bowery 2-1000

Barbara Stanwyck has come to be regarded as something of a noir icon, largely through her icy portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Where that film cast her as the archetypal femme fatale, Sorry, Wrong Number has her play the helpless woman in distress. She does well here with a character that starts off as an unsympathetic figure. As Leona moves from an initial petulance, through frustration to panicked terror, she manages to avoid the temptation to overact. All the emotions on display fit in with the type of woman revealed over the course of the film. Burt Lancaster was in the middle of a series of noirs, or noir tinged movies, at this point and he’s pretty convincing in the role of Henry. He begins as a blue-collar bit of rough who catches Leona’s fancy, becomes her pet plaything, and finally allows his simmering frustration and innate greed to draw him into criminality. There are also plenty of good turns from a support cast which boasts Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson and William Conrad. While this is a movie full of flawed and unsavoury characters, the one sympathetic figure is Harold Vermilyea’s Waldo Evans. He’s the soft-spoken little chemist who dreams and saves in the hope of owning a farm where horses can roam free. When Henry spins him a tale that promises enough cash to realise this dream, the poor sap falls for it and his fate is sealed.    

Sorry, Wrong Number fits the noir bill by delivering a story where there are no winners and no happy endings. We have a roster of characters whose greed, selfishness and weakness set them on a path towards their own self-destruction. The moody photography of Sol Polito is another essential ingredient, and it’s at its most effective in the scenes on Staten Island. This desolate setting, especially the decrepit 20 Dunstan Terrace, is a place where you just know darkness lurks.

The film has long been available on DVD in R1 from Paramount, and it’s a pretty good transfer. The print used is clean but it does display very heavy grain, particularly in the darker scenes. As usual from Paramount there’s not much in the way of extras, just a theatrical trailer. Still, the disc can be picked up for very little and the quality of the movie alone is more than enough reason to justify a purchase.

 

The Killers

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I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre – if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out. 

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

An eternal triangle - she's lookin' at him, lookin' at her.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does – seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through – effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.  

We're killing him for a friend. William Conrad & Charles McGraw.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras – and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.

 
 
 
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