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Category Archives: Henry Fonda

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 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.

 

The Tin Star

 

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The westerns of Anthony Mann are generally among the highest regarded in the canon. It’s therefore a little odd that one of the movies he made during his purple patch in the 50s is frequently overlooked when his work is discussed. However, this certainly seems to be the case with The Tin Star (1957). I think this may be partly due to one of the casting decisions and, to a lesser extent, to the ending that is just too upbeat and out of touch with the events that preceded it.

The dominant theme in The Tin Star is justice: the definition, mechanics and importance of justice in a frontier environment where civilization was still in its infancy. Parallel to this is the theme of maturity; the need for a man to learn judgement from those who have gone before, and by extension the need for a new society to learn from the past and thus achieve maturity. Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) is a young sheriff who’s so green he’s unlikely to hold the position – or indeed stay in one piece – for long if someone doesn’t come to his aid fast. His saviour turns up in the unlikely guise of a professional bounty hunter called Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda). When Hickman rides into town to deliver a corpse and collect the bounty he finds the sheriff in the back of his office practising his draw, looking for all the world like an overgrown schoolboy playing at being a grown-up. The truth is Owens isn’t much more than a juvenile when it comes to law enforcement and has only got his job because no one else wanted it. That’s not strictly true, there was one other candidate – local loudmouth and rabble-rouser Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand). Sooner or later a confrontation between Bogardus and Owens will have to take place, and it falls to Hickman to tutor the young lawman in the art of reading men and facing down threatening situations. Along the way we learn more about the enigmatic Hickman; he too was once a sheriff before the callousness and hypocrisy of his employers drove him out of the job. Owens is danger not only of becoming the victim of Bogardus’ desire for his badge but also of suffering the same fate Hickman once did. The murder of one of the town’s prominent citizens leads to the capture of two outlaw brothers and the organisation of a lynch mob by Bogardus. It’s at this point that the townsmen show their true colours and, reminiscent of High Noon, turn tail and abdicate all responsibility for justice or law. There’s also a nasty undercurrent of racism running through this settlement, personified by the bullying and hate-filled Bogardus but tacitly accepted by the so-called pillars of society too. The two prisoners are stated to be half breeds (and almost damned for that reason alone) and the woman who Hickman’s been lodging with is an outcast due to her having married an Indian and borne his child. The fact that the movie ends on such a positive, optimistic note after Owens has had to prove himself to the craven and distasteful inhabitants of his town strikes a false note.

Henry Fonda

Anthony Mann mixed up the location and studio work to good effect and produced a western that’s full of important ideas punctuated with the occasional burst of violent action. There are some nice stylistic touches too, such as the climactic duel with the loser falling back into the camera. At the beginning I mentioned what I felt were the two biggest flaws with the film; I’ve already alluded to the unsatisfactory ending, but the casting of Anthony Perkins in the central role of the naive young sheriff didn’t work for me. It’s understandable that an actor was required who could be convincing as a nervy greenhorn lacking in self-confidence, but Perkins does that so well that his later development into a competent town tamer just jars too much. Neville Brand played Bogardus as some kind of malign force of nature, bellowing and bullying his way to the head of a bloodthirsty mob. Again he nailed this perfectly, so much so that it’s really stretching credibility to have the slight figure of Perkins striding across a night time street to slap him into galled submission. Henry Fonda was always at home in western roles and Morgan Hickman is another of his top class performances. He manages to invest some genuine sadness and melancholy into the role of a man who’s lost his family and seen his ideals bruised. There’s tenderness on view too, especially in the scenes where he interacts with the half Indian son of his landlady, and to round it all off he has the necessary mettle to be believable as a bounty killer. It’s also worth noting that while the bounty hunter came to be seen as a staple of the genre (particularly with the rise of the spaghetti western), that certainly wasn’t the case in 1957 and Fonda’s role was something of an exception.

The Tin Star is a Paramount property, and their R1 DVD provides a handsome 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation of the movie. The image is strong and clean with good contrast but the disc itself is totally barebones. Anthony Mann made better known, and indeed better, films than this but it’s still a remarkably strong western that’s only let down by the softened climax and less than convincing character arc of Perkins’ sheriff. It could have offered a scathing critique of a society that would rather pass on the dirty work of law enforcement to those it can then despise (and it does flirt with the notion) but bottled out in the end. Still, Mann’s direction of the material can’t be criticised and Fonda’s powerful performance anchors everything firmly. All things considered, there are more positives than negatives on show and this is a film I would definitely recommend.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, Henry Fonda, Westerns

 

Warlock

 

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Warlock (1959) is a movie that could be approached on a number of levels: as a psychological piece, an early example of revising the myth, an allegory and even as an apology. It’s an exceedingly complex film, which is paradoxically both its strength and its weakness, and also one that remains consistently fascinating. Essentially, this is a variation on the “town tamer” western – almost a sub-genre in itself – but the dense plotting takes it off in a number of directions.

The town of Warlock has become one of those wide open places where the law can only lurk in the shadows, hoping not to draw any unwelcome attention to itself. It has turned into a stamping ground for a band of murderous cowboys, referred to as San Pabloites, who have imposed a reign of terror on the seemingly ineffectual citizens. When one of their number is murdered and the sheriff humiliatingly run out of town the residents decide that the time has come for a positive response. A decision is taken, albeit grudgingly, to hire the services of one Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) for the position of de facto town marshal. Blaisedell, a thinly disguised version of Wyatt Earp, arrives in town along with his friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and sets about restoring law and order on his own terms whilst also overseeing the establishment of a gambling house and saloon. The no-holds-barred tactics of the new marshal soon see him in conflict not only with the San Pablo outlaws but also with those who have employed him, and by extension with the newly appointed sheriff. This man is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), formerly one of the San Pabloites but now a reformed character – and in truth the film is as much about him as anything else. While all this is going on, Morgan is quietly scheming away in the background and manipulating events for his own ends. Sooner or later, a showdown (or more accurately a series of showdowns) will have to occur before matters can be resolved.

Warlock is a film with a whole lot going on, arguably too much for its own good. The parallel with the Wyatt Earp story is an interesting one in that it was, up to that point anyway, much closer to the reality of the situation. Blaisedell’s marshal is no shining hero bent on bringing law to the territory; he’s a professional gunman, ”handy with colts” in his own words, seeking out another pay day and raking in a little extra on the side via his saloon. If the relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan is supposed to hold up a mirror to that between Earp and Doc Holliday then it’s a skewed image that’s presented. Morgan is a crippled soul, both literally and physically, and considerably more dangerous than his partner. So far so good, but Morgan has taken friendship and loyalty to the extreme – to the point that it has twisted itself into a kind of jealous worship. Many commentators have stated that Morgan’s feelings for Blaisedell border on the homoerotic, and I can see where that notion comes from, but I don’t buy into it myself. For one thing, the director Edward Dmytryk said that that wasn’t a correct reading of the film. While Morgan’s obsessiveness towards his friend is clearly off-centre it seems to me more a product of his insecurities and self-loathing than anything else. The other main point of interest is the pivotal figure of Johnny Gannon. It’s hard not to see Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten who became a “friendly witness”) projecting himself onto this character who turns his back on friends, family and associates to follow what he views as his own righteous path. Gannon’s conversion seems justified in a particularly intense scene where he confronts his old comrades in their lair in an attempt at conciliation. This gesture is spurned and results in the kind of brutal sadism that rivals James Stewart’s mutilation in The Man from Laramie.   

Settling scores - Richard Widmark in Warlock.    

This was Edward Dmytryk’s last good film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its problems. As I said, Warlock is a movie rich in plot but such richness can bring about a slightly hamstrung end product. The fact that there are so many plot strands, and the necessity to tie them all up, means that the film has three separate climaxes. The effect of this is to lessen the impact of all of them. That, of course, is more a problem with the scripting than Dmytryk’s direction, which is solid enough and contains some well thought out camera angles. The action, when it comes along, is handled competently and the gunfights are all suitably dramatic. The three leads turn in good performances, with Henry Fonda putting a different spin on the part of the lawman to that which he created with John Ford the previous decade. Anthony Quinn keeps things fairly controlled as Morgan, though he does sail perilously close to the kind of scenery chewing that he was prone to lapse into on occasion. Richard Widmark is also especially good as the outlaw-turned-sheriff who visibly grows in stature and confidence as the story progresses. His faltering romance with a worldly Dorothy Malone (playing the fabulously named Lily Dollar) has enough realism to prevent it from merely being the kind of extraneous padding that is often the case.

As far as I can tell, Warlock should be available on DVD pretty much everywhere. Optimum’s UK disc presents the film in a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. It’s generally sharp as a tack throughout and the colours really do justice to Joe MacDonald’s classy cinematography. Unfortunately, there’s not a thing on the disc in the way of extras, but that’s about par for the course with Optimum releases. OK, this film may not be one of the front line classics in the western genre but it does help its development along. The movie’s greatest flaw is trying to pack in too much story, thus throwing itself off balance. However, there are still a lot of positives to take away from it.

 

The Long Night

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Hollywood has always been in love with the remake, not only of its own domestic product but those originating in other territories too. In the ’40s and ’50s a number of French movies were revisited, Lang’s Scarlet Street and Human Desire being prime examples, with a fair degree of success. Frequently these re-imaginings were (as in the previous examples) the work of directors and crews who had learned their craft in the French and other European cinema industries. Such was the case with The Long Night (1947); a remake of Le Jour Se Leve carried out by emigre director Anatole Litvak. Now I’ve never seen  the original, but a quick scan of the comments at the IMDb tell me that a number of people regard the Hollywood film as inferior. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are both good and bad remakes, and that there are those who display a knee-jerk reaction whenever the term is used. You pretty much have to judge any movie on its own merits and, as such, I think The Long Night stands up well enough.

It’s late in the day in a nameless town and a blind man taps his way up the stairs to his room in a boarding house. His ascent is interrupted as a shot rings out. On the top floor a door bursts open, and a mortally wounded man stumbles out before pitching headlong down the staircase. This was The Great Maximilian (Vincent Price), a second rate conjurer plying his trade in a succession of low rent night clubs across the country. Now he lies dead on a seedy landing in a tenement, gutshot by factory worker Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). That’s how The Long Night opens, and before the end we will learn just how these two men came to this point. For the most part the story is told in flashback from the point of view of Adams, although at one stage there is what you might call a double flashback. Sound confusing? Well, it’s not really, since the story recounted is a fairly simple one. Naturally, there’s a woman involved who acts as the catalyst. She is Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a virginal young innocent for whom both Adams and Maximilian fall – figuratively and literally. With Maximilian persisting in his attempts to seduce the girl and Adams simmering resentment growing, events slowly build towards the only possible outcome. Along the way, other characters flit in and out of the story, most notably Maximilian’s former assistant and lover Charlene (Ann Dvorak). Her streetwise presence serves both to provide a contrast to the gullibility of Jo Ann and to highlight just what a piece of work Maximilian is. His deceitful pursuit of Adams’ girl is one thing, but it’s a rare kind of S.O.B. who shaves the paws of puppies and burns the skin red raw in order to train them to perform.

Broken glass and broken dreams - Henry Fonda

Made at a time when noir pictures were beginning to move towards a wider use of locations and a more documentary approach, The Long Night is something of a throwback. Shot entirely in the studio and making extensive use of miniatures and forced perspective, the film takes on a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. This works pretty well since Joe Adams spends the film holed up in a bullet-riddled room living within his own mind and memories. Fonda does well in a role that demanded he be breezy and cheerful in the flashbacks, all the while growing more uneasy until he finally starts to lose his grip on reality. He always excelled in his portrayals of average guys who are put upon, and he manages to work in some post-war angst which must have struck a chord with the recently returned WWII vets. In contrast, Vincent Price hams it up in a bombastic performance as the villain who is sly, snide and sneering while retaining a certain pathos. Barbara Bel Geddes, in her debut role, was well cast as the youthful Jo Ann. Superficially, she doesn’t seem to fit the stereotypical image of the femme fatale, but her character certainly has a fatal effect on the men in the picture. Ann Dvorak’s wisecracking dame who’s seen it all is is a joy to behold as she picks away at Maximilian’s carefully arranged image, and seems to be having a ball casually humiliating him whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

The Long Night was an RKO picture but it has been released on R1 DVD by Kino. While the film clearly hasn’t had any significant clean-up done it remains in pretty good shape. There are a variety of damage marks present but, with a few exceptions, the print is clear and very watchable. As is often the case with films like this, the audio can be a bit inconsistent but I can’t see anyone forking out for a full blown restoration so this is probably as good as it’s going to look and sound. The disc does boast some nice extras in the form of a text based feature detailing the meticulous work that went into the production design which gives the film its unique atmosphere. Alongside that, there are  a  couple of clips which compare scenes in the movie with virtually identical ones in the French original. All told this is a fine movie that should please anyone with a taste for noir.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2009 in 1940s, Anatole Litvak, Film Noir, Henry Fonda

 

My Darling Clementine

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John Ford always maintained that his version of the events at the OK Corral was based on conversations that the director had had with Wyatt Earp himself. While Ford probably did know Earp (the old lawman reputedly spent a lot of time on and around the early Hollywood sets in his later years) and likely talked with him about what happened in Tombstone, the story played out in My Darling Clementine (1946) is most assuredly not the truth. Despite Ford’s grandiose claims of authenticity, his film is really a remake of Dwan’s Frontier Marshal. Both movies were based on the Stuart N. Lake book, and both are highly romanticised accounts. The difference is that, where Dwan’s film is a workmanlike effort, Ford’s take has all those little artistic touches that move it onto another level. Of course Ford was known for spinning the most outrageous yarns when it suited him, but the huge historical errors don’t change the fact that his film is still the best version by far of the famous story.

The Earp brothers actually feature in this film unlike the earlier version from Dwan. Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) stop off outside of Tombstone while on a cattle drive. On the recommendation of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) they take a trip into town, leaving little brother James to stand watch over the herd. On their return the three older brothers find their cattle have been rustled and James killed. Suspecting the Clantons of perpetrating the crime, Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. What follows is a picture of the emergence of civilisation (most notably represented by the founding of the town’s first church), and the effects it has on the characters.

Wyatt is transformed from a dusty, unshaven trail hand into the coiffed and suit-wearing face of the law and civic respectability. The scene where Wyatt primly escorts Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) along the main street of Tombstone towards the new church, with the strains of ‘Shall we gather at the river’ playing in the background, is deservedly famous and remains one of the most touching and romantic sequences ever put on film. This contrasts sharply with the Clantons, who are shown as a bunch of barely human barbarians. A marvellously sadistic moment takes place when Old Man Clanton savagely horse whips his sons before berating them : “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” The bridge between the two extremes is provided by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) – a man with a cultured background (at one point quoting from Hamlet to help out a drunken actor) who is consumed with self loathing at the knowledge of what he has become. 

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) calling the shots at the OK Corral.  

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt with nobility and that quiet dignity that he seemed to bring to all his roles. The self-conscious diffidence he shows fits perfectly for a man who has been more accustomed to living rough in the wilds. It’s no bad thing either that Fonda always seemed comfortable in a western setting, able to mount and sit a horse naturally. I wish I could say the same thing for Victor Mature but, however hard I try, I just cannot accept him in western roles. I’ve seen Mature in many other genre films and thought him fine, but when it comes to westerns – no thanks. I know this is just a personal prejudice but, for me, his casting doesn’t work at all. Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton makes for a wonderful villain, a figure of pure evil who has moulded his sons in his own image – especially the leering Billy (John Ireland) and the slow-witted, and vaguely psychotic, Ike (Grant Withers). Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua is something of a caricature of the typical Mexican spitfire, but she does elicit a lot of sympathy as a woman passionately in love with a man who repeatedly spurns her.

Since the bulk of the story takes place in and around Tombstone, Ford makes less use of Monument Valley than he would in other pictures. However, there are a few scenes that feature his favorite location and they look magnificent as always. Much attention is paid to the town, to all the little rituals of frontier life, and the variety of characters who inhabit it. The celebration of community is pure Ford and you get the feeling he enjoyed recreating this much more than he did the action scenes. Having said that, the inevitable shootout at the OK Corral, though wildly inaccurate, is both stylish and excitingly executed.

My Darling Clementine has been available for some time now on DVD from Fox, but has recently been reissued with the addition of Frontier Marshal as an extra. The transfer is exactly the same on the new disc, but that’s not a criticism since there wasn’t much that needed improvement anyway. You get to choose between the final release version of the film and the pre-release cut, and I’m not really sure which I prefer. I feel the edited version is tighter but I also think Ford’s original cut of the farewell scene between Wyatt and Clementine is better. I suppose we should be grateful that we have both versions to compare. Either way, this is a special film and one that does reward repeated viewings. 

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2008 in 1940s, Henry Fonda, John Ford, Victor Mature, Westerns

 

The Return of Frank James

 Titles

It is, and always has been, common for a highly successful film to spawn a sequel. In 1939 Fox produced Jesse James and, riding on the wave of the reinvigorated western genre, found themselves with a hit on their hands. Of course, it’s a little difficult to continue a story when you have just killed off your main character. However, Hollywood rarely finds itself at a loss for long and the solution was to pick up the story where the first film left off and concentrate on the surviving brother, Frank James (Henry Fonda). The only problem was that, after Jesse’s death, Frank’s life wasn’t the stuff of dramatic, action-packed blockbusters. Therefore, the truth needed to be manipulated to present audiences with a story of revenge and redemption.

In the aftermath of the ill-fated raid on the Northfield bank Frank James had gone to ground. We find him living under an assumed name and it would seem that he has renounced his outlaw ways. On receiving news of the death of his brother he is content to let the law run its course, believing that Bob and Charlie Ford will be tried and duly hanged for the murder. It is only when he learns that, despite their conviction, the Fords have been granted a full pardon that he decides to take matters into his own hands and straps on his guns again. There follows a pursuit across the country to Colorado as Frank attempts to track down the Fords and mete out the justice he feels the courts have denied him. By the end of the film all the loose ends have been tied up and we get a traditionally happy ending. The problem with this is that the production code of the time dictated that a killer should not be presented as the hero – or at the very least that he should be punished for his deeds. The way around that issue was to present Frank James as an essentially honorable man hounded into infamy by circumstances and big business. So while the Fords get their comeuppance it is not Frank who is shown to kill them (which is historically true at least). In fact, the film is at pains to point out the innocence and decency of our hero throughout – even having one of the characters declare indignantly that Frank James never killed anyone. All of this is vaguely unsatisfactory since a man setting out on a mission of vengeance should, to my mind, be allowed to achieve some measure of it directly.

A grim Frank James (Henry Fonda) watches Bob Ford re-enact the murder of his brother.

As I said, Henry Fonda plays the lead very much in the style of the classic romantic hero. Throughout his long career Fonda was most frequently cast as the everyman who was the very epitome of human virtue. Almost thirty years later Sergio Leone would give Fonda the opportunity to finally play a character (also named Frank, as it happens) of pure evil in Once Upon A Time In The West. Gene Tierney (in her debut role) provides some eye-candy and romantic interest as a newspaper reporter, but not much else. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with actors from the previous film, with John Carradine reprising his part as Bob Ford. Once again, Donald Meek is the conniving railroad boss and Henry Hull chews up every piece of scenery in sight as the editor of the local paper and friend of the family. Hull’s best scenes come towards the end of the film in a flamboyant courtroom defence of Frank on a charge of murder. This scene mirrors reality, where Frank James stood trial for robbery and murder and whose character was attested to by an old Confederate officer. In truth, the film spends a good deal of time on the lingering animosity between north and south in the years following the Civil War. All in all, director Fritz Lang’s first foray into the western genre is a pleasant and entertaining one.

Fox’s DVD release of The Return of Frank James is an improvement on the transfer of Jesse James, but not by much. The image is a good deal more consistent here but darker scenes are still quite murky and washed out. Generally, the outdoor scenes fare the best with stronger colour and sharpness. 

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2008 in 1940s, Fritz Lang, Henry Fonda, Westerns

 

Jesse James

Having recently seen The Assassination of Jesse James, and having enjoyed it immensely, it occurred to me to go back and revisit some of the other movies based on the legendary outlaw. Along with William Bonney the name Jesse James has become an integral part of the myth of the west. For both of these men, questions of who and what they were and why they acted as they did have been endlessly explored and no truly satisfactory answers have emerged. But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t since the movies are and were, at heart, an entertainment and storytelling medium. It seems naive in the extreme to seek the whole truth in a dramatic form – if you want the real facts you need to look elsewhere. Henry King’s 1939 version of Jesse James certainly bends the truth more than a little, but that doesn’t mean the film is a poor one.  

This movie opens in the years following the Civil War and portrays Jesse (Tyrone Power) and brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as peace loving farmers in Missouri. That’s the first of many inaccuracies, for the truth is that the brothers had already strayed into lawlessness during the war – Frank riding with Quantrill and Jesse with another group of guerrilla raiders. There is no doubt, right from the beginning, that the true villain here is the railroad and more specifically it’s representatives. The railroad, as in many westerns, is shown to be the product of the greedy and corrupt east. It is the actions of one of the railroad agents (Brian Donlevy) that causes the James bothers to turn their backs on the law. From this point on their fates are mapped out for them and further dissembling on the part of the big businessmen serves only to provide more justification for the brother’s criminal activities.

Would you turn your back on this man? John Carradine & Tyrone Power

The movie is full of some fine set pieces such as the early train robbery with Jesse riding up to the rear, hauling himself aboard, and then proceeding along the roof for the whole length of the locomotive until he reaches the engine. The famous raid on the bank in Northfield could have been given more time but it does contain some great action shots – Jesse and Frank riding their horses through a store window to escape and then following that up with a dive off a cliff into a river below.

Power and Fonda play the brothers as essentially romantic and heroic figures, but the film is not above pointing out the less honorable aspects of Jesse’s character. At one point Randolph Scott’s sympathetic lawman makes it clear that Jesse’s initial justification has been superceded by simple, inexcusable criminality. Another scene, on the eve of the Northfield raid, shows Jesse to be a man on the verge of losing control and only the efforts of his more rational brother haul him back. Scott’s supporting role doesn’t offer much and I get the feeling that it was only included to show that all authority figures are not scheming back-stabbers. The notorious Bob Ford is played by John Carradine as a craven scoundrel with whom the viewer can feel no sympathy whatsoever. As a portrait of cowardly betrayal it’s well done but, as with all the villainous parts, remains one dimensional.  

Fox issued the movie on DVD last year and the presentation is a good deal less than might have been hoped for. Frankly, the print is in poor condition and this is particularly evident for the first half hour or so where the age of the film becomes painfully obvious. Things do improve as it goes on but issues with the colour occasionally arise. The film clearly needs restoration work but, despite it’s shortcomings, I’m still very happy to at least have it in my collection.

 
 
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