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Category Archives: Dana Andrews

Canyon Passage

The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Jacques Tourneur, Westerns

 

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Fallen Angel

We were born to tread the earth as angels, to seek out Heaven this side of the sky. But they who race above shall stumble in the dark and fall from grace. Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.

Film noir is primarily an urban-based style of filmmaking, and derives many of its motifs from the faceless anonymity and frequently hostile isolation that characterize big city life. However, it would be a mistake to think that noir cannot exist outside of this particular environment. There are plenty of examples of the form to be found in a variety of settings – it’s this flexibility that is one of its strengths. While the metropolitan sprawl may well offer enhanced opportunities for portraying bleak, fatalistic tales, the small town, with all its attendant possibilities, represents another fertile setting. The more limited environment may not suggest the kind of impersonal alienation of larger urban surroundings, but the sense of community that exists (regardless of whether it’s shown in a positive or negative light) has its own claustrophobic atmosphere. Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) occupies a kind of middle ground, with the majority of the action taking place in a small tightly knit settlement but also featuring short interludes in San Francisco.

The film actually opens at a sort of geographical mid-point, one could almost say the middle of nowhere. After the credits, inventively flashed up on screen as a series of road signs seen through the windshield of a bus speeding through the night, we’re introduced to Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), and it’s immediately obvious that this is a down on his luck chancer. Not having enough money to ride the bus any further, Stanton finds himself tossed onto the road. With just a dollar in his pocket, he’s stranded in a small town, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s one of those sleepy little places where everybody knows each other and there’s not much to do. Stanton wanders into the local diner, right in the middle of what appears to be some kind of investigation. The owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride), is an anxious man – his waitress has apparently gone missing and he’s clearly distressed. A local cop and a former New York lawman, Judd (Charles Bickford), listen sympathetically and offers reassurance. As Stanton orders some food, the door of the diner opens and a weary but flashily dressed young woman strolls in. This is Stella (Linda Darnell), the source of all the panic a moment earlier. What’s immediately apparent is that Stella is arguably the hottest property in town; Pop is fawning and all puppy-dog eyes, Judd looks on with something approaching warmth, and Stanton too is unmistakably drawn to her. Stanton may be down to his last buck but he’s also the consummate opportunist. Spotting an advertisement for a visiting spiritualist, Stanton talks his way into acting as the promoter for the upcoming spook show. While Stanton might seem like the cat that always lands on its feet, this latest piece of maneuvering will actually drop him right into the centre of a maelstrom of passion lurking beneath the deceptively calm surface of the little coastal town. In falling for the insolent and sensual charms of Stella, he hits upon what he thinks is the perfect plan to win her over; Stella is no fool and wants a man who is willing and able to marry her and take her out of the dead-end job in this backwater. To this end, Stanton hatches a scheme to court and marry a rich heiress, June Mills (Alice Faye), divorce her and run off with Stella. However, it won’t be that easy. Too many men want Stella for themselves, June really falls for Stanton, and a murder will take place. I’m not going to reveal who dies or who did the deed, I’ll say only that Stanton becomes the prime suspect and he will have to unravel the tangled web of deceit and thwarted desire if he’s to have any chance of clearing his name.

Otto Preminger had made his mark with the highly successful Laura, and Fallen Angel can be seen as an effort to build on that, reuniting the director with Dana Andrews along with cameraman Joseph LaShelle and composer David Raksin. There are those who argue that Laura isn’t full-blown noir; while I wouldn’t necessarily go along with that assessment I can see where it’s coming from. With Fallen Angel, however, there can be no doubt about its categorization. The plot, themes, milieu and cinematography are all characteristically noir. In visual terms, this style of cinema is all about light and shadow – thematically, faith and despair are the key. Fallen Angel checks all the boxes on this score. Film noir concerns itself with dissatisfaction and the desire of individuals to escape their circumstances more than anything else. Escape is certainly the prime motivation of all the characters in this movie: we’re taken on a tour of a world populated by people desperate to break free of social constraints, unfulfilling relationships, financial difficulties, and just plain old bad luck. If you watch enough of these kinds of films then, time and again, you run across characters in the concrete jungles champing at the bit to return to the land or to emigrate, while those in the country yearn for the perceived glamor and excitement of brightly lit cities. This is very much the case with Fallen Angel – everybody in the picture has dreams and aspirations, and all of these inevitably descend into nightmare.

Preminger and LaShelle created some wonderful images on the screen, and drew a nice contrast between the small town, where the bulk of the action unfolds, and San Francisco. Contrary to what one might expect, it’s the scenes in the city that have a crisp, clear look whereas the little coastal settlement exists mainly in shadow, reflecting the moral ambiguities and hidden passions that lurk there. It’s also worth drawing attention to the skill and ease with which Preminger moves his camera around, at once building tension and drama, revealing secrets and objectifying characters. There’s one particular scene that illustrates what I’m talking about here, taking place on Stanton’s wedding night. Having slipped out of the house to meet with Stella, he quarrels with her and she storms off to keep her date with her current beau. As Stella strides away, Preminger pulls the camera back to show her getting into her lover’s car before tracking forward to focus briefly on Stanton’s scowling features. Instead of allowing the camera to remain there though, the director maintains the forward movement and passes by Stanton to come to rest on the shadowy background, out of which steps the new groom’s disappointed sister-in-law – a masterfully composed shot.

I’ve written at length about Dana Andrews’ abilities before and Fallen Angel proves yet again what a strong screen presence he had. He did some very memorable work throughout the 40s, and Preminger in particular seemed able to get the best out of him. The noir pictures they made together are all quality productions and all of them offered Andrews the opportunity to explore something different. While he had good support in this movie, his was the central role and he remains the main focus. What we have is an essentially insecure individual who cloaks his own recognized inadequacies with smart patter. It’s only relatively late in proceedings, when he’s on the run and panicked, that he reveals his true character. The nonchalant, worldly veneer that he employs to gloss over his fears and paranoia is stripped away and we get a glimpse of the real man, basically a frightened guy who’s been running from danger all his life. In a sense, the beauty of this film stems from the way Andrews’ character develops as a result of his interaction with two very different women. Of the two, Linda Darnell’s Stella is the one that catches the eye; sultry and seductive, Darnell might at first appear to be the fallen angel of the title but that’s not at all the case. Darnell was a genuine beauty and had an earthy charm that is highlighted in this film. All the main characters are stuck on her, but she flits round them all like a firefly, drawing the best and worst out of them. However, it’s Alice Faye’s June that exerts the most powerful influence on Andrews’ drifter. Darnell provokes the conflict among the men but Faye recognizes and draws forth the humanity and half-remembered decency in Andrews. Not being a fan of musicals, I have to admit that I’m not all that familiar with the work of Alice Faye. Nevertheless, I remain highly impressed with her performance in this film. I understand that a good deal of her role ended up on the cutting room floor, prompting her to walk off the Fox lot, but what we’re left with indicates that she had great dramatic potential. I could go on about the depth and talent involved in the supporting cast, but I’ll confine myself to a few words about Charles Bickford. His role here is a pivotal one, maybe as complex as that of the leads and he carries it off very effectively. For a variety of reasons I want to be brief here, so I’ll just say that Bickford does a marvelous job of conveying reassuring menace.

Back when Fox were running their noir line the choices for inclusion sometimes seemed a little arbitrary. Having said that, Fallen Angel is the real deal, a genuine slice of film noir. The R1 DVD is an excellent presentation of the film – it’s sharp, crisp and boasts very strong contrast that really shows off LaShelle’s cinematography. The extra features consist of a commentary track by Eddie Muller and Susan Andrews (the actor’s daughter), a series of galleries and brief liner notes. If one wanted to be critical, then I guess the plot could be viewed as rather contrived. Even so, the whole thing adds up to a highly polished and attractive package. I don’t believe Preminger ever made a poor noir picture, although I’ll have to qualify that by pointing out that I’ve yet to see The 13th Letter, and Fallen Angel must rate among the better ones. As a drama, a thriller, a film noir, or a kind of cock-eyed romance the movie comes highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Film Noir, Otto Preminger

 

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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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Smoke Signal

Films that adopted a pro-Indian stance can be found throughout the 50s, some more explicit in their sympathies than others. Smoke Signal (1955) offers an interesting variation on this trend; it would be inaccurate to refer to it as directly pro-Indian, rather it provides a critique of anti-Indian thinking. By casting a traditionally heroic actor in the central role and keeping his motivation slightly ambiguous for much of the running time – personally, I feel that greater ambiguity would have made the tale even more fascinating, but more on that later – it challenges our conventional genre perceptions. Add in an unusual setting, with the characters running the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the ingredients are in place for a compelling western.

The story is built around Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former captain in the US Cavalry who deserted, joined the Utes and turned renegade. However, Halliday has been captured by the army and is being held prisoner at a remote fort until he can be transported for court-martial. The opening sees Captain Harper (William Talman) and his patrol coming upon the fort that’s currently under siege. Harper’s arrival puts him in command of the tiny garrison which has been whittled down by relentless attacks. He has a special interest in seeing the captive called to account since his brother was killed in a battle with a band of Utes led by Halliday. Apparently, these Utes have been massing and forming alliances with other tribes to stage a spectacular uprising. Harper is initially skeptical about this but when proof is provided it becomes evident that holding out in the fort is not going to be an option. Although reluctant to do so, he takes Halliday’s advice and decides to evacuate the fort, bringing some abandoned boats and making a break for it down the uncharted river. The majority of the running time is spent on this perilous journey, where the small band of survivors must fend off the harassing Utes and struggle to overcome the dangers posed by nature. While Halliday protests his innocence of the charges against him at the beginning, he avoids mention of this for most of the journey. Instead, we’re left to wonder and, like the desperate group around him, have our doubts raised only by his seemingly selfless actions and determination to see his captors to safety. Gradually, as Halliday’s knowledge of the Indians and their tactics proves more effective, he gains the trust of a few of his companions. His strongest allies are the late garrison commander’s daughter (Piper Laurie) and a grizzled old campaigner, Sergeant Miles (Milburn Stone), he once led. The turning point comes when the inflexible Harper, seemingly motivated by spite, orders Miles to undertake a suicidal mission. From here on, sympathy shifts to Halliday, the sole exception being the callous and brutal Lieutenant Ford (Rex Reason). The emphasis of the film is on the group dynamic as much as anything, and the shifting loyalties is an important part of what keeps the viewer’s interest alive. Who, if anyone, will make it to journey’s end is always uppermost in our thoughts and the battle for hearts and minds, ours as much as the characters on screen, ensure the tension is maintained right to the last scene.

Director Jerry Hopper made a series of good if fairly unremarkable movies in the 50s (Secret of the Incas perhaps being the most notable) before embarking on a long and successful career in a string of well-known TV shows. Hopper, and cameraman Clifford Stine, get good value from the Grand Canyon locations, the towering rock face being both visually impressive and also hammering home the bottled up, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it has to be said that while the location work is extremely attractive, there’s far too much reliance on obvious and distracting back projection. Hopper’s handling of the action scenes is just fine, the sporadic battles and skirmishes blend well with the ever-present threat of the raging river and keep the story moving along. I think my biggest complaint relates to the script, and the ending in particular. For me, this was altogether too pat and slightly unsatisfactory – I feel that not only does Harper behave out of character but he gets off a bit lightly too.

Smoke Signal is really Dana Andrews’ picture all the way. Writing of this actor before, I commented on his tendency to internalize his feelings and play things down. That understated quality is highly appropriate for the character of Brett Halliday, a man to whom being true to his own inner convictions has brought only the distrust and enmity of others. I think Andrews was capable of hiding things so well that it’s a pity the scrip didn’t capitalize on this talent and keep the viewers guessing a little longer about the true nature of his character – it would have added more depth and uncertainty. There’s an excellent example of Andrews’ carefully modulated playing in one of the early scenes, when Halliday and Harper first meet. Harper, full of scorn and bitterness, reaches out to snatch away the native amulet Halliday wears round his neck. The flash of anger and resentment that briefly flits across Andrews’ momentarily clouded features, not much more than a twitch of muscle and a hardness of eye, tells us that this charm is special to him and that Harper’s action has gravely insulted him. When it comes to screen acting it’s the little things, those fleeting gestures and tics, that often speak loudest. William Talman tended to get cast in villainous, or at least unsympathetic, parts. He’ll always be remembered as Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe, but he was exceptional as the psychotic bad guy in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. In this film though he portrayed a man bound by his own rigid code, a by the book disciplinarian with a narrow and inflexible perspective. Talman’s performance, alongside Rex Reason’s thuggish characterization, is what lends Smoke Signal its pro-Indian status. As such, it earns its credentials almost by default; the film paints the Utes’ opponents as deeply prejudiced rather than showing the Indians themselves in an especially positive light. As the only woman in the movie Piper Laurie spends much of her time torn between Andrews and Reason, but does well providing a non-partisan viewpoint. In supporting roles, there’s strong work from Milburn Stone, Robert J Wilke and Douglas Spencer.

Pegasus in the UK licensed Smoke Signal from Universal for their DVD release. The disc presents the film in a nicely framed 2:1 anamorphic transfer. The image looks a little soft in some places but there’s no real damage on show and the colours are bright and strong. There are no extra features whatsoever offered, just the main menu and scene selection. Anyway, the Pegasus release is the only one, so far as I’m aware, that presents the movie in the correct aspect ratio and with anamorphic enhancement. Universal westerns from the 50s are always worth seeking out – they’re generally attractive to look at and often feature plots that throw out something a little different. Smoke Signal is a solid, medium grade western that works pretty well. Andrews is dependable and credible, Hopper’s professional direction keeps it all moving along ensuring the pace never flags, and the location work is very welcome. Generally, this is a tight and entertaining mid 50s western that I’m happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2012 in 1950s, Dana Andrews, Westerns

 

The Iron Curtain

The 50s saw the red scare, fanned by McCarthyite rhetoric, blaze into life in Hollywood. With the HUAC inspired blacklists casting a dark pall over the movie capital, there was a kind of desperation in the air, a need to prove one’s patriotism and simultaneous rejection of the evils of communism. This meant the decade saw the production of a number of films directly addressing the issue and sending out a message to the witch-hunters that the industry was aware and prepared to play ball. Whatever contemporary reactions may have been, these films, by and large, not only seem lousy when viewed today but they also remind us of all those careers and lives left in tatters by the taint of the blacklist. From a purely artistic standpoint, the ham-fisted presentation of political dogma and the judgemental tone adopted both bog down the narrative and, in the worst cases, leave a very sour taste. However, there are always exceptions, and William Wellman’s The Iron Curtain (1948) is one of the more polished and less hysterical pieces of work from a generally unsavoury interlude in cinema history. I think this is partly due to the skills of Wellman as a filmmaker, and partly as a result of the production taking place right at the beginning of HUAC’s reign of terror, before it’s raging paranoia had fully matured.

In keeping with a lot of Fox movies of the time, the film opens with a declaration that what we’re about to see is a true story, shot on real locations. The cool, authoritative tone of the narrator further enhances the sense that this is something more than mere Hollywood fantasy. I’ve often found that there’s a tiresome quality to some of these earnest eulogies to the dedication and responsibility of various government agencies remaining ever vigilant in the face of multiple threats from without and within. What sets the introduction of The Iron Curtain apart is its location if nothing else. The entire film takes place in Ottawa, Canada, so we are spared yet another hymn to the efficacy of the FBI, Treasury agents or other assorted G Men. Instead, the plot follows the establishment of a Soviet fifth column in Canada during the war and its subsequent dismantling as the big freeze of the Cold War set in. As I said, the movie doesn’t takes us behind the scenes of one of those complex government sting operations that were much favoured by contemporary filmmakers, but concentrates on telling the tale of how one man brought a spy ring to its knees off his own bat. The man in question is Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews), a cipher clerk freshly assigned to the Soviet embassy in Canada. The first third of the film goes to great pains to establish how loyal Gouzenko was to his own country and political system, one of those resolute, unthinking servants of the state with clear and direct convictions. As we observe the steadfast Gouzenko going manfully about his duties, we’re also afforded a view into the closed world of the Soviet diplomatic mission. And it’s a drab, forbidding world at that, peopled with stony-faced officials and dripping an atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. There’s also a glimpse at the careful construction of the spy network, whose eventual unravelling provides the dramatic backdrop for the latter stages of the story. It’s Gouzenko who brings the whole thing crashing down, and his motivation for doing so is a slow realization that he’s serving a flawed master. The catalyst for his decision is the arrival in Canada of his wife Anna (Gene Tierney), and the birth of a son. The presence of this human element greatly strengthens the story and adds to the dramatic tension of the final third. By doing so, the political aspects necessarily take a back seat to the unfolding drama of a family suddenly cast into a perilous situation.

Even if it’s viewed purely as a propaganda piece, then I think The Iron Curtain is remarkably successful. The reason for that is the script and Wellman’s ability to sidestep the trap of sensationalism and instead adopt a more matter of fact tone, letting the events and their inherent drama speak for themselves. Of course, the air of quiet dread that seems to hang over the scenes in the embassy emphasises the stifling lack of personal and intellectual freedom, but this is quite subtly achieved. The ever-present music from Soviet composers, the inclusion of which in the score apparently caused something of a minor international incident at the time, has the effect of building up the brooding, sinister feel. The only time we take a detour into the realm of direct political preaching is when one of the Soviet residents (Eduard Franz) seals his own fate by getting drunk and lamenting the betrayal of the ideals of the revolution by the apparatchiks who have risen to prominence in Moscow. As a thriller, the film really comes into its own in the final third, as Gouzenko decides to take that leap of faith and defect. Wellman, and cameraman Charles G Clarke, employ classic film noir techniques of lighting and shooting angles to ratchet up the tension during Gouzenko’s theft of incriminating documents from the embassy, and then again in the climactic standoff in his apartment. Another notable aspect of the film is how the government agencies – I’m guessing the Canadian setting facilitated this slight subversion – are conspicuous by their lack of involvement. In fact, there’s initially a downright refusal on the part of the authorities to become involved in what they take to be the ravings of a lunatic.

Dana Andrews was never one of the most emotive or demonstrative of actors, the kind of guy who tended to keep it all inside and bottled up. Such characteristics can unfairly lead to accusations of woodenness when the truth is it’s simply another, and no less effective, style of performing. As it happens, that tight-lipped anxiety that he had a talent for fits the character of Gouzenko to a tee. After all, this is a man who’s been trained to exert self-control in the first place and who then finds himself in a situation where both his own and his family’s survival depends on the maintenance of a facade. Still, Andrews conveyed more than a blank countenance when he had to, the eyes in particular registering the mounting pressure Gouzenko was subjected to. Gene Tierney was making her fourth film alongside Andrews, the most successful being their partnership in Laura a few years earlier, and was good enough in a fairly undemanding role. Her main purpose was to act as a softening and humanizing influence on her previously stiff and determined husband, and that’s how she comes across. However, arguably the most memorable work is produced by the supporting cast. Berry Kroeger was making his screen debut as the shadowy head of Canada’s communists and carries off the part of the principal villain with aplomb. Playing such a Machiavellian puppet master required a good deal of restraint combined with implicit menace. Kroeger was blessed with the features and voice that were ideally suited to this kind of role and he makes a very strong impression. Stefan Schnabel also shines as the head of the NKVD, masking a dangerous ruthlessness with an outwardly reasonable persona. And finally, June Havoc appears as the embassy secretary with a wandering eye and a special brief to vet the reliability of all new staff.

I think the only DVD edition of The Iron Curtain to date is the one issued in Spain by Fox/Impulso. In terms of picture quality, it’s one of their mid-range efforts. There hasn’t been any restoration work done, as can be seen from the cue blips and so on, but the print used is in generally good condition and doesn’t display noticeable wear. Extras are limited to the usual gallery and text data on the cast and crew. The disc offers English and Spanish soundtracks – the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. While I certainly don’t think this film represents Wellman at his best, it is an interesting addition to his body of work. The main attraction of The Iron Curtain though lies in its historical significance, coming as it does near the beginning of the red scare. It’s interesting to observe the comparatively restrained approach it takes to its emotive subject matter in contrast to some of the more hyperbolic and offensive offerings that the following decade would eventually produce. Generally, this is worthwhile viewing for fans of Wellman and for providing a snapshot of early Hollywood reactions to the HUAC assault.

 

The Ox-Bow Incident

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The western is genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied, I’ve used it myself, in an affectionate way, yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it too. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant as well.

The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be – ex-soldier Tetley (Frank Conroy) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.

Trapped in a moral no man's land - Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings. In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up – partly obscured at first and then full face – is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law – the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian – and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.

The R1 DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery  of images. This title is due for a Blu-ray release by Koch Media in Germany in August. Seeing as the extras are to be replicated it’s reasonable to expect that the same film elements will be used, therefore a first class transfer should be on the cards. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer too. A superb film.

 

While the City Sleeps

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Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.

The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig)  – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.

Moralising in the back of a cab - Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews in While the City Sleeps.

After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case. Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.

While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Dana Andrews, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 
 
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