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Category Archives: Fred MacMurray

Singapore

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize a movie; it may have certain familiar and identifiable features that one associates with a particular genre, yet either fails to capitalize on these or mixes in the traits of another type of movie. Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a touch of the unexpected can enliven a stale formula. But not always. Singapore (1947) has many of the trappings that are associated with film noir: dark, shadowy imagery, a flashback, a voiceover narration, a slightly unscrupulous protagonist, a mysterious woman. Still, it’s not a noir picture; there’s too much melodramatic romance and half-hearted adventure tossed in there. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with a handful of genres and suffers a bit of an identity crisis as a result. Besides that, it’s just not very good.

Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) is a pearl smuggler – we learn this when he’s pulled in to the custom’s office the moment his plane touches down in Singapore. With the war over, he’s returning to his old haunts and the authorities suspect that he’s likely to return to his old trade too. As Gordon wanders through the hotel where he formerly resided, he’s suddenly assailed by memories. A flashback sequence sees him in the days leading up to the Japanese attack and introduces the old lover whose loss still preys on his mind. Gordon and Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) had one of those whirlwind romances that are often found in wartime movies. Just as the couple are about to tie the knot the bombing raids commence, and he races back to his hotel to recover the fortune in pearls he has stashed there. Failing to recover his treasure, he returns to find the chapel in ruins and Linda missing presumed dead. And so we’re up to speed – Gordon has come back to Singapore hoping his pearls may still be retrievable. As he awaits the opportunity to check out his old quarters and see if the loot is still there, he spies Linda. The woman he thought had perished in the bombed out chapel is alive and well, but has no recollection of who he is. Amnesia – we’re back in noir territory, right? Wrong. Loss of memory can serve as a great plot device when it involves blanking out secrets that carry a threat or danger. In Singapore, that’s not the case at all and the story becomes bogged down in a soapy love triangle that really only has two sides. Sure, there’s an attempt to milk some suspense and intrigue from the secondary business of two cartoon villains (Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd) also seeking the elusive pearls, but again the absence of any real threat hamstrings that element.

Casablanca struck gold when it placed its two eternal lovers in an exotic locale, but a movie needs more than that to succeed. Lots of films have tried to tap into that vibe (Macao, Calcutta, Saigon etc.) but the results have been variable at best. For me, Singapore fails on two levels; the central romance and half-hearted mystery just aren’t engaging, and the leads don’t have any spark together. Although both MacMurray and Gardner are good enough in their respective roles they have no chemistry whatsoever, and that’s a major issue when the script revolves around an apparent grand passion. As if that weren’t enough, the chief stumbling block preventing the couple from picking up where they left off – Gardner’s post-amnesia marriage to a planter – rings hollow and utterly fails to convince. As the villain, Thomas Gomez is surprisingly toothless and his character’s borderline incompetence means that we never seriously doubt MacMurray’s ability to get the upper hand. Director John Brahm made a number of noir-tinged melodramas that have much to recommend them, but Singapore is certainly among his weaker efforts. I’m generally a fan of his work and he does his best to inject some style into this humdrum production. The angles are varied and the sets are cleverly lit to enhance the atmosphere as far as possible. Still, apart from a short sequence which sees MacMurray struggling to extract his hidden pearls while avoiding the attentions of the law next door, there’s precious little tension on view.

As far as I’m aware, the only current commercial release of Singapore is the recent DVD from Universal in France. Generally, the film has been presented well; the transfer does exhibit some dirt and speckles but this is really only noticeable right at the beginning. The image is satisfactorily sharp and contrast is consistent throughout. There are no extra features offered and the French subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu – burnt-in captions do appear though on a handful of occasions when text is displayed, but this is too rare and minor to be regarded as a black mark. I guess I’ve made it clear enough that this isn’t an especially good or memorable movie. Singapore was later remade as the Errol Flynn vehicle Istanbul and while that’s no great shakes either, it’s arguably a stronger film. This one is attractively shot and Ava Gardner looks wonderful as always, but that’s about it. I can’t say I got much out of the movie and it’s not one I’d recommend tracking down.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in 1940s, Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray, John Brahm

 

Gun for a Coward

Poster

The western is arguably the most masculine genre around, celebrating toughness and highlighting the virtues of honour, pride, independence and courage. As such, it’s ideally suited to the exploration and analysis of what we consider manhood to be. The 1950s, with the predominance of what’s referred to as the psychological western, mined this theme extensively. Gun for a Coward (1957) attempts to nail down the essence of what makes a man and how his courage, or lack of it, defines him. I say “attempts” because I’m not sure it succeeds entirely in what it sets out to do, settling for the easy option at the end and not quite satisfying as a result.

The story centres around the Keough family, their struggle to build up a ranch and the dynamic between three very different brothers. Since the death of their father the paternal role has been adopted by Will (Fred MacMurray), the eldest of the three and a man who’s seen youth pass him by as the burdens of being the head of the family took priority. Still, he’s a man who’s held onto his dreams and hopes to marry the daughter of a neighbouring rancher now that financial success is within his grasp. Of the two other siblings, Hade (Dean Stockwell) is the youngest and the most aggressively reckless. In the middle, and at the heart of the story itself, is Bless (Jeffrey Hunter), the most sensitive of the trio and their mother’s favourite. Bless is the son who’s character is closest to that of his mother; he’s cautious, passive and non-confrontational. The thing is, these are not the traits that garner respect in the rough and tumble world of the west. Bless has earned a reputation as a physical coward, a man who will always back down rather than meet things head on. Later, we learn that the roots of this lie in the past and relate to the fate of his father – although I’m not sure the explanation we get really stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Matters come to a head during a cattle drive to Abilene, when a series of events all combine to expose Bless to one physical and moral challenge after another. The upshot is that all those around: friends and workers, the other Keough brothers and, most crucially, Bless himself come to question what kind of man he really is. The resolution, when it comes around, conveniently affirms Bless’ physical bravery, but I don’t believe that was ever in serious doubt in the first place. While the perceptions of others may have branded Bless as one who was afraid to go head to head with another in a physical confrontation, the viewer is aware that his evasiveness is based more on a kind of innate knowledge that such grandstanding is ultimately futile. The real issue is Bless’ moral cowardice: his sidestepping a showdown with his mother when she is bent on moving east to take him away from the dangers and hardships of life on the frontier; his failure to do the right thing by the girl he loves; and, related to the previous, his inability to lay the facts on the table with Will. All of these matters are resolved at one point or another, though Bless never really picks up the reins and forces things himself.

Sibling rivalry - Dean Stockwell, Jeffrey Hunter and Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward.

Actor-turned-director Abner Biberman worked mostly in television and I think it’s fair to say his handling of his directorial duties on Gun for a Coward are unspectacular. I don’t mean to say that his work is bad, just that it’s fairly anonymous. He knew how to compose a shot and shoot an action scene, yet there’s nothing especially memorable about any of it. What raises this movie up, and it is a good movie, is the script and the acting. The writing is layered and has a great deal of depth (even if it’s not as fully explored as it could be), slotting itself comfortably into place among the many examinations of human complexity that the decade’s western has to offer. Fred MacMurray, as was the case with a number of aging stars, drifted into the western in the 50s and found a degree of success there. He plays the stable, rock-like character, the voice of reason and the point of reference for the viewer. While he may have been a little old for the role of Will (especially when it’s borne in mind that Josephine Hutchinson, as his mother, was only something like five years older) the part does call for a degree of maturity, and MacMurray also had a knack for conveying the necessary quality of quietly wounded dignity. Dean Stockwell’s young hothead is something of a caricature and there’s more than a hint of a James Dean impersonation in there. The honours really belong to Jeffrey Hunter though, who managed to get inside the skin of Bless and create a completely believable figure. Hunter could project a certain vulnerability when called upon to do so, and in Bless he becomes that man who is aware of his own weaknesses and, consequently, has come to question his stature within both his family and the wider community. Of the supporting players I want to single out Chill Wills, not just for his part in this movie but for his all round contribution to the genre. His was one of those immediately recognizable faces and voices that seemed to turn up in every other western, and invariably enriched the viewing experience.

Gun for a Coward is now available from a number of sources on DVD – a US MOD disc, and reportedly less than satisfactory editions in France and Spain. However, when I saw that it was out on pressed disc in Australia from a company called Visual Entertainment Group (who seem to have licensed a number of Universal and Fox titles) I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say that this R4 release presents the film very nicely – it’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer that’s clean and consistent. The only weak section I noticed was a brief insert that appears during the drive to Abilene, and since that looks a lot like a piece of stock footage it’s not really the fault of the DVD presentation. The disc is very basic with no extras whatsoever. Still, the movie itself is presented handsomely, and the cover pleasingly reproduces the original poster art. All in all, I’d rate Gun for a Coward as a respectable entry among the westerns of the 1950s. When you bear in mind that the decade in question is practically bursting at the seams with classics of the genre I don’t think I’m being mean in my assessment. I certainly recommend checking this one out.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Fred MacMurray, Westerns

 
 
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