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The Hanging Tree

I came to town to search for gold
And I brought with me a memory
And I seemed to hear the night winds cry
Go hang your dreams on the hanging tree
Your dreams of love that will never be
Hang your faded dreams on the hanging tree. – Mack David & Jerry Livingston

Redemption and its near relative salvation are in many ways the cornerstones of the classic western. These twin themes recur throughout the genre and lie at the heart of all the great westerns. Allied to these concepts is the notion of spiritual rebirth, the discovery of that indefinable something which serves to draw lost and damaged souls back from limbo. The Hanging Tree (1959) successfully explores all these elements and is a beautifully constructed piece, cyclical and symmetrical, and rich in the kind of life-affirming positiveness that I’ve come to see as one of the integral aspects of director Delmer Daves’ western work.

Montana 1873, the lure of gold has drawn all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to the territory in search of riches. It’s a nomadic, rootless life for those following the gold trail, traipsing from one settlement to another as the hopes of making that big strike ebb and flow. Joe Frail (Gary Cooper) is one of those drifting through the  west, although his motives appear less certain. Frail is a doctor, and seems more interested in the opportunity to keep on the move than in any desire to become wealthy. Newly arrived in yet another shanty encampment that has sprung up around the prospectors’ claims, Frail has no sooner secured a place to stay than he finds himself saving the life of a young man. Rune (Ben Piazza) is a sluice robber, attempting to snatch nuggets from the workings, and running from a trigger-happy lynch mob. Frail takes him in, treats his wound, and keeps him on as a bonded servant in lieu of payment. Thus we have the first instance of salvation, Frail protecting Rune from the hanging tree which he eyes with an air of fatalism at the opening. As the doctor sets up practice it’s gradually revealed that this laconic and reserved man has a shadowy past and a reputation as an accomplished gunman. The second person to be saved is a Swedish immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), the sole survivor of a stagecoach robbery. Suffering from exposure and temporarily blinded, Elizabeth is found by Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), one of those amoral types that exist around gold camps, and nursed back to health by Frail. It’s at this point that the story becomes most involving. Prior to this there were only hints and oblique allusions to the doctor’s inner pain. Frail is a man buried in the past, emotionally entombed and haunting the world of the living rather than actually participating in it. As Elizabeth’s affection for Frail slowly blossoms into love, the doctor draws back and distances himself. Elizabeth’s confusion is shared by the viewer as it’s apparent that Frail is attached to her but unwilling or unable to take the leap of faith necessary. The reasons for this hesitancy masquerading as indifference do become clear as the tale progresses, but it’s only when Frail is also dragged before the hanging tree that a resolution is achieved. The film’s powerful and emotive climax sees the hero’s protective yet stifling armor stripped away and the ultimate redemption, salvation and rebirth realized.

Delmer Daves made some of the finest westerns of the 1950s and it’s only fitting that he should round off the decade with a work as layered, sensitive and complex as The Hanging Tree. As I said in my introduction, the structure of the film is carefully judged. Not only is it book-ended by Marty Robbins’ wonderful rendition of the title song, but it also opens and closes with the figure of Cooper, having undergone a major spiritual reawakening over the course of the story, beneath the hanging tree. The film is packed with symbolism, fire and trees being the most prominent. In both cases, we are encouraged to view these elements in a positive and negative light. Fire is initially referred to, though not seen, as representative of Doc Frail’s traumatic past. When it appears again near the end though it takes on a cathartic quality, burning away the negativity which has dogged him. And of course the focus on trees is even more significant. There are two trees of note: the hanging tree of the title and the one overlooking Elizabeth and Frenchy’s claim. The former naturally calls most attention to itself; the gnarled, clawing branches suggestive of guilt, punishment and death. And yet by the end it comes to symbolize something entirely different – renewal, permanence and the birth of a new life. That other tree, the one which eventually falls into the river, has to be viewed as a positive feature too. It’s destruction of the claim reveals the treasure hidden among its roots, the cache of nuggets which will both precipitate the final confrontation and eventually liberate the characters. Aside from all this, the location shooting and the camera positions of Daves and cinematographer Ted McCord also help focus on the subtext. The fact that Frail chooses a home high on a cliff above the swarming anthill of the mining camp serves to emphasize the remoteness and distance of the character.

Gary Cooper was an ideal piece of casting as the taciturn and aloof Joe Frail, his weathered features perfectly reflecting the emotionally desiccated man he was portraying. It’s not uncommon to read critical comments about Cooper’s acting, often failing to appreciate the subtle and understated nature of the man’s work. As with all the great screen actors, Cooper understood and used the little things, the twitch of a facial muscle or the quick glance that reveal more than pages of dialogue and overt emoting ever could. It’s not the first time that the point has been made that a good western is so often elevated by the presence of a strong female role, and Maria Schell’s performance in The Hanging Tree provides a good illustration of this. Frankly, she hardly puts a foot wrong at any point, from her initial helplessness and vulnerability, through the confusion prompted by her rejection, to her eventual emergence as an independent and complete woman. If the movie is really about Frail’s journey I think it’s also fair to say that it would be a meaningless and hollow affair had it not been for the strength of Schell’s character; she is vital to the story and Schell’s beautiful playing of the part gives it that little extra something that makes it special. While Frail’s own internal conflict is the main focus, Karl Malden as the lecherous prospector whose unwanted advances bring matters to a head adds another layer. Malden brought out the earthy, feral qualities of Frenchy and his uncouth impulsiveness makes for a fine contrast with Frail’s wounded gentility. In support, Ben Piazza gets a fair bit of screen time and is fair enough as the boy who first resents his savior’s cool arrogance before gradually warming to him and becoming a firm ally. The other parts of note are filled by Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg as the sympathetic storekeeper and his shrewish wife. Additionally, the ever reliable (and always welcome) John Dierkes flits in and out of proceedings, as does George C Scott, making a showy debut as a venomous preacher/healer.

The Hanging Tree has been available on DVD from a variety of European sources for quite some time now, but always in faded, full-frame transfers. The MOD disc from the Warner Archive improves on these previous iterations in pretty much all areas. The print used is certainly not pristine, displaying the odd scratch and blemish, but it is in the correct widescreen ratio and is much more colorful than anything I’ve seen before. The only extra feature offered on the disc is the theatrical trailer. It’s fascinating to follow how the western grew and built upon its inherent strengths throughout the 1950s, and the end of that decade saw it reach full maturity. The Hanging Tree is certainly a mature work of art, a finely judged and multi-layered examination of human nature and human relationships. For me, these late 50s westerns demonstrate not only what the genre was capable of but what cinema itself had to offer. The more I watch, write and think about the westerns of Delmer Daves, the higher his stock rises. I guess it’s clear enough that I both like and respect The Hanging Tree a lot. I consider it one of my favorites in the genre and I haven’t the least hesitation in strongly recommending it. It’s an absolute must for anyone who appreciates or cares about the western.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in 1950s, Delmer Daves, Gary Cooper, Westerns

 

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Ten of the Best – Western Stars

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

 

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The Naked Edge

I guess it’s inevitable that cinema, like most any form of artistic expression, will be influenced by the body of work that already exists. Remakes, reimaginings and homages seem to have been with us forever, and one figure who’s arguably been imitated more than any other is Alfred Hitchcock. Both the stories he was drawn to and the filming techniques that he frequently employed have been referenced so many times that there’s a subgenre of “Hitchcock style” thrillers. The Naked Edge (1961) may not be all that well-known but it certainly belongs in that category. Of course, as with most (all?) imitations, it fails to live up to the standards of the movies it alludes to – once a filmmaker sets out on this path he necessarily sacrifices a lot of his own individuality. Still, that doesn’t mean that the movie in question can’t be entertaining in its own right; after all, half the fun for the viewer comes from recognizing the source of inspiration.

The pre-credits sequence opens proceedings in lurid fashion with a murder – a businessman taking a knife to the guts – and hurls the viewer right into the action. There follows a trial where the evidence of George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper), an American resident in London, appears instrumental in securing the conviction of Donald Heath (Ray McAnally) for the murder of their boss and the accompanying theft of the firm’s money. Heath, naturally perhaps, protests his innocence and Radcliffe hastily exits the emotive atmosphere of Old Bailey with his former colleague’s accusations of treachery ringing in his ears. Even at this early stage, the clouds of suspicion are gathering around Radcliffe; the unrecovered loot, his talk of suddenly acquired wealth and an edgy encounter with a disbarred solicitor (Eric Portman) initially stir doubts. Jump forward six years and we find Radcliffe now heading a successful partnership and clearly wealthy. However, it’s only when a long-lost blackmail letter is delivered to his wife that we get to the nub of the matter. Radcliffe’s wife, Martha (Deborah Kerr), may have harboured a few mild suspicions before, but the letter that explicitly accuses her husband of murdering his employer and using the stolen money to finance his own business plants a particularly stubborn seed. A combination of apparent evasiveness by Radcliffe when asked any questions about the murder and subsequent trial and some downright suspicious behaviour on his part cause Martha’s doubts to grow. The deeper she delves into the past, the more convinced she becomes that the full truth may not have come out in court. With her marriage starting to crumble in this sea of distrust, it gradually dawns on Martha that her own life may be in jeopardy too.

A few years earlier, Michael Anderson had directed another “woman in peril” picture – Chase a Crooked Shadow – and in my review of that I commented on his tendency to indulge in some self-conscious effects. The Naked Edge was clearly trying to tap into a Hitchcock vibe (the poster prominently highlights the involvement of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano), and Anderson’s direction makes use of countless low angle shots and zooms. Of course, this isn’t an especially bad thing as we’re treated to some nicely composed shots that accentuate the tension. The climax, where preparations are meticulously laid for an attempt on Martha’s life, consists of a whole series of well-judged shots cut together expertly. Where the film does become overly derivative, and indeed contrived, is in the poor handling of the dialogue. It reaches the point where I found myself imagining the writers sitting around and scratching their heads over how they could mangle the words a bit more to ensure the ambiguity of Radcliffe’s character was rammed home. I feel a lighter touch would have sufficed; Cooper’s performance in the lead contains enough of the man’s own natural diffidence and reserve to get the job done satisfactorily. This was Coop’s last screen role and, even if he doesn’t look exactly ill, he does exude an air of age and weariness. In all honesty, I generally find it difficult to watch performances from actors when I know they hadn’t long to live afterwards – it’s even harder when the person is someone whose work I’ve grown to admire. Whenever Cooper talks about safeguarding his future I can’t help but get that hollow, sinking sensation. In the role of Martha, Deborah Kerr was handed what was really the pivotal role; she’s the one from whose perspective the unfolding events are seen. In order for the viewer to retain doubts it was necessary for Kerr to convincingly portray a woman who could never be quite sure of anything herself. I think she managed that, never allowing histrionics to overwhelm her character and thus alienate the audience. For the most part, the supporting roles are fairly small yet highly memorable. No-one possessing even a passing familiarity with British cinema of the period  could fail to be impressed by a cast list that features: the aforementioned Eric Portman and Ray McAnally, Peter Cushing, Michael Wilding, Wilfrid Lawson, Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold and Joyce Carey to name but a few.

The Naked Edge is out on DVD in the UK from Cornerstone/Palladium. The film is letterboxed (not anamorphic) at about 1.66:1, which would fit a film of this vintage. The transfer is generally good and fairly clean, although I did notice at least one cue blip. There is a certain softness to the image at times and the black levels are decidedly on the grey side. While I wouldn’t term it a displeasing transfer, it could stand some improvement too – even so, it’s never less than watchable. There are no subtitles offered and no extras. So, how do I rate it as a movie? As I’ve already said, the whole “woman coming to distrust a suspicious husband” storyline invites obvious comparisons with Hitchcock; Anderson’s direction throughout only compounds that, and there’s a short sequence that replicates one of Hitch’s more heavily criticised ploys. On the whole though, I think the film is generally successful in keeping the atmosphere tense and the viewer guessing. Let’s call this a cautious recommendation.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in 1960s, Gary Cooper, Michael Anderson, Mystery/Thriller

 

Vera Cruz

Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Westerner

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One of the recurring themes of the western is the conflict between the cattlemen of the open range and the fence-building homesteaders, or sodbusters. In truth, this clash (freedom, as represented by the range, and the slow encroachment of civil society from the east) lies near the very heart of the genre. It is this which forms the framework of The Westerner (1940), but the film really revolves around the relationship between two very different men. As such it eschews action in favour of character development, and slots nicely into the group of more mature westerns that were starting to appear at the time.   

The film’s prologue sets the scene in the years following the Civil War when the westward expansion was in full swing. Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) has established himself as the self-styled “Law West of the Pecos” in his own remote corner of Texas. He is shown dispensing his own brand of justice from his saloon/courtroom in the case of a man accused of committing one of the most serious of all crimes, that of murdering a steer. Having tried, convicted and carried out the sentence personally, he comes face to face with his next defendant. Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is a drifter and saddle tramp who’s had the misfortune of buying a stolen horse. This is another capital crime and the case looks to be an open and shut one. When the jury retires to back room to play cards and down some liquor before delivering the inevitable guilty verdict, Harden takes the only path open to him. Noticing that the saloon has been made up as a virtual shrine to Lily Langtry, Harden claims to have made the acquaintance of the judge’s beloved actress and to have a lock of her hair in his possession. Well, clearly such a man can’t simply be hauled out and hanged so the sentence is suspended and the two men form an uneasy alliance. However, Harden finds himself drawn to Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), daughter of a local settler, and is soon caught between the two rival factions.

I am the law - Walter Brennan

Gary Cooper was a highly deceptive actor. There are those who would claim that his laconic style was wooden and that he couldn’t act, but to say that is to ignore the subtlety of the man’s craft. There was no expansiveness to Cooper but everything was communicated through his face and small unpretentious gestures. There is a marvellous example of this during the trial scene in this movie where fear, calculation and, ultimately, triumph are all readable just from his eyes. He’s at his best in the scenes he shares with Walter Brennan but, perversely, has every one of those scenes stolen right from under his nose. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Brennan was the finest character actor American cinema has ever produced. He turned in performances which ranged from fine to excellent in anything I’ve seen him in. His Judge Roy Bean is a multi-layered character who goes from mean and ornery to endearingly childlike and back again. It’s no mean acting feat to make this figure sympathetic, but Brennan managed it and picked up his third Oscar for his troubles. Visually, the film looks great, due in no small part to the photography of Gregg Toland. With all this talent at his disposal, director William Wyler marshals it with his typical professionalism. He offers up some fine cinematic moments, such as the attack on the homesteaders. In the midst of a thanksgiving ceremony, as the camera surveys a rich, tranquil and fertile land to the accompaniment of noble words, the idyll is abruptly shattered by a murderous arson raid. As flames sear the screen, the settlers paradise is transformed in a matter of minutes into a scorched, desolate landscape. Those smouldering, blackened ruins of former homes pointing accusingly towards the heavens are an eloquent reminder of the fickle and dangerous unpredictability of frontier life.

The Westerner was reissued on DVD in R1 late last spring by MGM/Fox and the transfer is a very fine one. I can’t say I noticed any significant damage marks or signs of manipulation, just a crisp, clean B&W image. Previous MGM releases were no more than adequate but the distribution deal with Fox seems to have led to an improvement in quality. The only criticism is the lack of any extra content, but I guess you  can’t have everything. I’d rate The Westerner as a good example of a ’40s oater for grown-ups; it has drama and it’s moving but it also has a vein of sly, dark humour running through it. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2009 in 1940s, Gary Cooper, Westerns, William Wyler

 

Garden of Evil

Look at her! Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold.

So says Richard Widmark’s Fisk, and in so doing he about sums up the plot of the movie. In a nutshell, a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires four men (Widmark, Gary Cooper, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Mendoza), who are all hanging around a dead-end Mexican town, to accompany her into the badlands on a mission of mercy; her husband is lying trapped in a mine deep in Apache country. What follows is an adventure tale that ties in some weighty themes such as, loyalty, greed, lust and infidelity. There are also some fairly explicit religious-moral allusions with the only features visible in a lava covered town being the church steeple and the entrance to the gold mine. Why, there’s even a crucifixion!

However, the film is never heavy-going and there is more than enough action to satisfy genre fans. The climactic chase and battle with the Apache is especially well-handled by veteran director Henry Hathaway. In fact, the whole thing moves along at a good pace and, at a little over an hour and a half, never outstays its welcome.

Gary Cooper

I love these early scope films from Fox, and this a great looking picture. Hathaway makes fine use of the widescreen process to show off the Mexican locations; some of the photography on the high mountain pass is simply stunning. The score is a bit of an unexpected one, by Bernard Herrmann no less. Herrmann, being Hitchcock’s composer of choice, is not a name you’d automatically associate with westerns. Nevertheless, the combination of soaring and ominous tones fits the mood of this movie perfectly.

There is, though, one very odd aspect to this film. Now, I won’t claim to be highly knowledgable of American Indians but the Apache we see here are the strangest looking bunch I’ve ever come across – surely the Apache never had Mohican haircuts!

That aside, I highly recommend this movie. How can you not love a western with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. I think both men give excellent performances, although I may be a little biased since I’m a huge fan of Coop. He gets to deliver the last line of the film while squinting into the sunset -

The garden of evil – if the earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.

Great stuff!

 
 
 
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