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Category Archives: Cornel Wilde

Two Flags West

Civil War films have a reputation for doing poor business, which is probably why the era tends to have been approached somewhat obliquely by Hollywood. There are plenty of movies which feature the war as a kind of background element, something always present in the minds of the characters yet rarely directly shown on the screen. Westerns, perhaps on geographical grounds as much as anything, often used the Civil War and its legacy mainly as a plot device to provide motivation. Students of literature, stretching right back to Aristotle, have recognized conflict as the mainstay of drama – the essential element if you like. Two Flags West (1950) is a film positively brimming with conflict, and not just the obvious Confederate/Union rivalry that is central to the story. That of course is interesting enough in itself, but it’s the personal antagonism among the leads (and indeed within their own hearts) that adds depth and substance.

Two Flags West is one of a small group of westerns – along with Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee – which have soldiers of the Civil War’s two opposing sides forced to co-operate on the frontier. The story here is inspired by the proclamation which allowed Confederate POWs to gain a pardon and have their citizenship restored if they agreed to defend the frontier in the name of the Union. The controversial and divisive nature of this choice is made apparent right from the beginning, when the rebel cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Tucker (Joseph Cotten) are shown to be genuinely torn between the notion of betraying their homeland and remaining true to ideals that are slowly killing them. Faced with the prospect of succumbing to disease and malnutrition, these men narrowly vote to accept the Northern offer and move west to New Mexico where a different war is being fought. Asking a man to turn his back on a cause is one thing, asking him to turn his guns against it is entirely different. Therefore, it’s with the understanding that they will not be forced to take up arms against their former comrades that these men agree to wear the blue tunics of their enemies. The western frontier is virtually defenseless, its outposts manned by a rag-tag bunch of wounded and poorly trained troops. In contrast, the new recruits are skilled cavalrymen and hardened combat veterans.

One would think the presence of such seasoned troops would be welcomed by the men they are coming to reinforce. Indeed, that’s the early impression given by Captain Bradford (Cornel Wilde), the affable liaison officer who makes the initial offer and leads Tucker (now demoted to Lieutenant) and his men west. However, their new commanding officer, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), presents a very different face. Kenniston is a man whose external wounds are as nothing compared to the scars he carries inside. Here is a tortured soul, a man consumed by hatred of the enemy, professional disillusionment and personal frustration. His open animosity towards Tucker and his men, and his frank distrust of their loyalty is immediately apparent. It’s only a matter of time before he forces Tucker’s hand by arranging for the new recruits to carry out the execution of men they later discover were actually Confederate spies. Tucker naturally sees this as a breach of the terms he agreed to, and sets in motion a plan to desert. Now, there’s plenty of dramatic conflict in play at this point, but that’s only one aspect of the story. While questions of loyalty, trust and honor are being thrashed out, there’s also the matter of the Major’s widowed sister-in-law to be considered. Elena (Linda Darnell) is a woman desperate to reach California and her relatives, but that desperation stems from her desire to escape the brooding obsession of her late husband’s brother. To complicate matters further, Bradford is clearly in love with Elena and so has an even more delicate balancing act to master. In short, this isolated fort is like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the fuse that will touch it all off is provided by the mass of hostile Indians raiding beyond its walls.

In writing about Robert Wise’s first western, Blood on the Moon, some time back, I mentioned how his time spent working for Orson Welles and Val Lewton was reflected in the imagery he used. While Two Flags West has fewer overtly noir touches, both Wise and cameraman Leon Shamroy use light and shadow very effectively, especially in the interiors. The opening scenes in the prison camp are enhanced by this technique, although the atmospheric photography can be seen all through the movie. I think the image above is a pretty good example of the artistic lighting and composition which is characteristic of this film: the grim faces of Cotten and the prisoners dominate the frame, while the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the boarded-up windows in the background suggest rays of hope and salvation reaching out to them. However, the film offers more than just moody and suggestive imagery. The climactic Indian assault on the fort is excitingly filmed and gets across the frenzied determination of the defenders facing overwhelming odds, and their consequent sense of hopelessness. Earlier, I referred to Major Dundee as another film whose plot hinged on the uneasy alliance of former enemies facing a common foe. Aside from that similarity in the basic story, it’s also interesting to note that Two Flags West foreshadows Peckinpah’s later picture by featuring scenes where both the Confederate and Union troops sing their respective songs simultaneously. As far as the script is concerned, the writers credited are Casey Robinson, Curtis Kenyon and Frank Nugent. The latter ought to be a recognizable name for anyone who is familiar with the films of John Ford – Nugent was a writer on both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This movie doesn’t paint as intimate a picture of life in an isolated fort as Ford’s cavalry films do, but there are still some parallels to be seen.

Two Flags West is a movie with a very attractive headline cast. Despite stiff competition from his co-stars, I think Jeff Chandler makes the strongest impression. I suppose his early death is a contributory factor but I feel Chandler rarely gets much credit for his screen work these days. He wasn’t a particularly showy actor nor was he one for extravagant displays of emotion. Instead he was another of those brooding types who seemed to keep a lot locked away inside, only rarely letting his feelings bubble up towards the surface. The role of Major Kenniston was therefore an appropriate one for him. Chandler created a very convincing portrait of a man whose personal and professional failings are eating away at his soul, whose own self-loathing is weakening his judgement. Frankly, Kenniston is a martinet and there’s much to like about him. Having said that, Chandler invests him with great dignity, and his final scene is actually quite moving regardless of how poorly he has conducted himself up to that point. Cast against such an unsympathetic figure, Joseph Cotten’s Confederate officer ought to be the one we’re rooting for. And yet, that’s not really the case either. Cotten had a knack for playing disgruntled, troubled figures, and his portrayal of Tucker taps into that. Yet there’s a kind of sly ambiguity to his role, a slippery irony about him that means we can never be entirely sure of his motives. The result is that while he may be more sympathetic that Kenniston, the viewer can’t fully get behind him. All of this means that the audience is asked to identify most strongly with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell. I reckon Darnell’s part is the more successful one, not due solely to her acting talents – both Wilde and Darnell turn in good performances in my opinion – but perhaps as a result of Wilde’s being absent from the screen for long stretches. Among the supporting cast, there’s are nice turns from Jay C Flippen, Dale Robertson and Noah Beery Jr.

As far as I’m aware, the only DVD edition of Two Flags West currently available is this Spanish release from Fox/Impulso. It’s one of the label’s better efforts, boasting a generally strong transfer, although there is some print damage evident, generally confined to a kind of slight ripple or blur that appears sporadically on the right side of the frame. The release is English-friendly with the original soundtrack included and optional subtitles that can be deselected via the setup menu. The extra features consist of a gallery and a few text screens listing cast & crew. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of this movie might do well to hold off a little longer though. Koch Media in Germany are due to put the title out on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 26 – it’s worth bearing in mind that Koch’s products tend to be of very good quality. I like to highlight forgotten and/or neglected films whenever possible, and I think Two Flags West fits the bill. For one reason or another, it’s not a movie one hears about too often and that’s a shame. There’s a good plot with plenty of tension and a fair bit of depth, strong performances and fine visuals. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and a title deserving of some renewed attention.

 

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Road House

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Big Combo

First is first and second is nobody.

As classic film noir moved into the 1950s, one noticeable change was the increased emphasis on stories involving mafiosi and various syndicates. If you consider that the movement was born out of changing moods and social circumstances in the US in the early 40s, then this shift is not altogether surprising. The whole issue of organized crime was back in the headlines and this concern seemed to have overtaken the more personal, individual angst that had dominated tales in the preceding decade. The Big Combo (1955) is based around such a premise, although it doesn’t really reveal any startling or particularly deep insights into the workings of the mob. But then that’s not the point of the movie, this being principally an examination of two obsessive men and the woman who stands between them; the fact that one is a cop and the other a mobster is mostly by the by.

Where more traditional crime sagas tend to chart the evolution of an investigation, The Big Combo eschews the slow build up and instead plunges right into the story at crisis point. The opening shot has a frantic Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), long time companion of mob luminary Mr Brown (Richard Conte), running through the anonymous and shadowy corridors of a boxing venue. This woman is obviously in a highly emotional state, and it’s no real surprise to learn that she has tipped a bottle of pills down her throat in a desperate suicide bid. This draws in the third figure in the triangle at the heart of the movie, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond’s a driven man, his expenditure of time and money in a quest to bring Brown to book has brought censure from his superiors. However, Diamond isn’t merely a crusader against crime in the conventional sense; his pursuit of Brown is closely linked to his interest in Susan. So, when news of her hospitalization filters through, Diamond naturally seeks her out. Matters are clearly coming to a head for all concerned, and the root lies in a name – Alicia – that Susan has realized carries some special meaning for Brown. Diamond’s appreciation of this fact affords him the leverage he needs to force the tiny crack in Brown’s armour into something more substantial and damaging. Even so, the path is by no means free of obstacles – after all, he’s got nothing more than a name to go on. Before Diamond can piece it all together he will have to see witnesses conveniently disappear, undergo torture himself and inadvertently allow his lover to be gunned down. All the while though, the focus remains firmly on the personal battle between Brown and Diamond, with the issue of the former’s crimes only acting as something of a blind. In reality, it’s a duel to the finish motivated by both men’s desire to possess Susan.

The final fade out has become one of the most iconic images in film noir, stills derived from it appearing in just about every book dealing with the subject. The two figures frozen in silhouette against a background of glowing fog seems to perfectly capture the look and the essence of noir. This ought not to be any surprise due to the fact The Big Combo was lit and shot by the legendary John Alton. Of course it’s not the only memorable moment, the film is littered with shots that are beautifully composed and realized. Alton and director Joseph H Lewis managed to both disguise and turn to their advantage the small budget they had available. The movie boasts a significant number of basic, stripped down sets, yet the director and cameraman artfully cover these deficiencies through the use of clever lighting and framing. Backgrounds tend to dissolve into inky blackness as the key lights pick out and draw attention to the characters. Alton’s take on the dramatic potential of darkness and light is neatly summed up in this extract from Painting with Light (MacMillan, 1949):

To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following little scene: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again…This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the note on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. “It is ten o’clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.”

I’ve mentioned the climax in the airport hangar, but there’s another wonderfully judged moment that takes place at the same sparse location earlier on. I guess what follows constitutes a mild spoiler, so anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film might want to skip over this part. Just as it appears Brown’s empire is crumbling, his subordinate McClure (Brian Donlevy) decides to step in and take advantage of the situation by having his boss assassinated. However, he miscalculates badly and finds the guns of the hitmen turned on him instead. McClure backs up against the wall, stricken with terror, but Brown assures him he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t hear the shots. McClure’s little nervous smile of relief is short-lived though. Brown jerks the hearing aid from McClure’s ear and steps away. The camera cuts to the gunmen and the now silent muzzle flashes of their tommy guns. Very simple and very effective.

Richard Conte was a fine villain in a number of noir pictures, and Mr Brown must surely rank as one of his best roles. He is the absolute epitome of cool arrogance and sadism, wearing a permanent smirk as he raps out Philip Yordan’s slick dialogue. The casual insolence he injects into the delivery is like a contemptuous slap in the face to whoever happens to be on the receiving end. It’s this overwhelming self-assurance and disdain for everyone that ultimately leads to his downfall, but it’s masterfully built up. His first encounter with Wilde in the hospital corridor sets the tone right away; not only does he insult and belittle his nemesis but he does so through an intermediary, not even deigning to address such an inconsequential figure directly. Wilde, on the other hand, plays a repressed and frustrated character. His frustration is twofold: his sense of professional impotence at failing to nail Brown despite investing so much time, money and effort, and his inability to compete on equal terms for the affections of Susan. I thought Wilde carried this off well, his emotions seething just below the surface and only held in check by his dubious morality. He covets Brown’s woman yet is simultaneously repulsed by his knowledge that her purity has been tarnished by her association with the mobster. On top of that, there’s his vaguely puritanical priggishness (note his comment about suicide breaking God’s laws) which is contradicted by his on-off relationship with a showgirl. As the object of Wilde and Conte’s obsession, Jean Wallace didn’t come across so successfully. There’s a blank quality to her performance although, in fairness, that may be intentional as she’s clearly supposed to be a character near the end of her tether psychologically. Wallace was married to Wilde at the time, and it seems he was less than pleased at the infamous scene where Conte starts kissing her neck and then continues working his way down as the camera zooms in on Wallace’s face. This also raised concerns as it was pushing the limits of the production code of the time. When questioned about where Conte went as he descended from view, Joseph H Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.” In addition to that, the movie also features a couple of hitmen (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) who, while it’s never explicitly stated, are clearly involved in a homosexual relationship – strong stuff for a 1955 production.

The Big Combo is one of those films which has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either. I understand the US release by Image may offer the best transfer but I don’t have that one to comment for sure. I used to own a weak Geneon disc which displayed a fair bit of combing and motion blur but replaced it with a Spanish release by Sogemedia/Regia. This disc doesn’t have the combing issues but it’s still only a low-medium grade transfer. The biggest problem is a general haziness and softness that dilutes the work of Lewis and Alton. I continue to cling onto the hope that someone, somewhere will see fit to release this great film with a restored image and in the correct aspect ratio. Leaving aside the less than stellar DVD presentations, I can’t praise the movie itself highly enough. The dialogue, plotting and photography are all pure noir, and the two strong central performances ensure it’s a film worth revisiting.

 
 
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