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Cattle Empire

The trail drive, like the wagon train, is a regular feature of westerns. Long treks across hard, unforgiving territory where adversity must be challenged and overcome play a significant role in the romance of the old west. Such stories provide ample scope for a wide range of dramatic situations, typically involving hostile elements and/or natives. However, I’d argue that tensions resulting from the group dynamic in these kinds of stories is more compelling than any threat arising from without. The forced interdependence of those on the journey, paradoxically limited in their ability to act alone despite the apparent freedom afforded by the vast space around them, is what generates the drama. This dramatic potential is further heightened if the travelers already have some history of conflict prior to setting off. That’s the basic concept behind Cattle Empire (1958), a taut and edgy tale of a group of people asked, out of economic necessity, to put their mistrust and hatred of each other behind them in order to achieve something that will ultimately benefit them all. The layers of the plot are cleverly revealed in stages, drawing the viewer into the story in the process, and contain enough twists to keep one guessing.

When a film has a relatively short running time, it’s vital to grab the attention as early and as effectively as possible. Cattle Empire hits that target right from the opening shot. The residents of the town of Hamilton, hard-faced and embittered, are ranged in a circle on the main street. Lying in the centre of this circle of resentment is the figure of a man, hands bound by a rope that’s attached to the saddle of a horse. At a signal, the rider spurs his mount and the hapless victim is dragged over the rough ground. The punishment continues, the friction shredding the man’s clothes and slicing his flesh mercilessly. However, intervention arrives in the shape of a buckboard carrying three passengers. Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), the man who gave the town its name, demands that the torture end before the victim is killed outright. It’s only with the greatest reluctance that the townspeople abandon their sport and the bloodied figure gains some respite. This half-dead man is John Cord (Joel McCrea), a former trail boss returning to town after spending five years in prison. But for the good citizens of Hamilton, five years of incarceration isn’t enough to repay Cord’s debt. When Cord was last in town the cowboys working under him went on a drunken rampage that left the both the place and its people deeply scarred. That damage is still visible: a business burned to the ground, a man who lost his child, another who lost an arm, and Ralph Hamilton who was robbed of his sight. Given all that had happened, why would John Cord come back to a town with plenty of reason to hate him. Well the reason is he was invited back, by Ralph Hamilton no less. Hamilton, and many of the townspeople, has everything tied up in a herd of cattle and faces financial ruin unless he can get his stock to sale ahead of a rival. And that’s his proposition for Cord, a trail boss of some considerable renown – get the herd to market first and, in so doing, wipe the slate clean. In this, we already have an interesting premise, but it grows ever more complex as the drive gets underway. In addition to the fact that Hamilton’s wife (Phyllis Coates) was once Cord’s girl, there’s the question of what the real motivations of these men are. And perhaps most important of all – whose side is Cord actually on?

Cattle Empire is very much concerned with the mystery of Cord and Hamilton’s past; right from the outset it’s clear that whatever happened in the town five years previously has effected these two deeply, to the point of leading both to objectively odd behaviour. The townspeople are forthright in their desire for vengeance, while Cord keeps us unsure as to how he plans to act and Hamilton initially seems positively sainted. That oddness is suggests that there’s something lurking beneath the surface, and the script wisely keeps the viewer guessing for as long as possible. Ultimately, everything boils down to that staple of the western, and particularly those made in the 50s – the quest for a form of spiritual salvation. Virtually everyone in the movie is seeking atonement for their sins of the past, the shadows of a half-concealed guilt looming large in the hearts of all.

Charles Marquis Warren may not be a familiar name to many these days. However, his contribution to the western on both the big and small screen is significant. While his directing credits are modest in number, his work as a writer and producer does stand out, especially Gunsmoke and Rawhide on television. As the director of Cattle Empire, he did a fine job in my opinion. The film is well paced and packs plenty of incident into its tight running time. The action scenes have a strong sense of urgency about them, and Warren controls the camera carefully to ensure they have as much impact as possible. Generally, he handled the wide, scope lens effectively throughout. The early sequence in the town features some fine composition and placement, and the exteriors and location work that follow make the most of the wide open spaces. The climactic shootout among the boulders of Lone Pine is excellently staged and exciting.

In terms of performances, Cattle Empire is well and truly dominated by Joel McCrea. One of the film’s great strengths is the way the character of John Cord is introduced as a villainous figure, the subject of scorn and hatred. The ill-treatment he endures stoically and his subsequent actions indicate that he’s not an entirely bad man, perhaps even one that the viewer can sympathize with. Yet he remains somewhat ambiguous until the climax, and it’s hard to be sure of his real intentions. At every point though, McCrea exudes a kind of wounded nobility, a belief in himself which has you rooting for him even if you can’t completely dismiss the doubts. He also handles the romance angle well; it would be unseemly to lust too openly for the wife of a man you have blinded, even if that woman was once your own. McCrea conveyed the internal struggle that such a situation would be bound to provoke quite deftly, all the while coping with the growing affections of the young girl (Gloria Talbott) who has hero worshiped him all her life. Of the two women, Talbott has the smaller role but manages to create the more endearing and lovable character. In contrast, Phyllis Coates comes across as slightly cold and calculating in her dealings with both Cord and her husband. Of course, for Coates and Talbott, the script pretty much dictates how their respective roles had to be played. The other notable part is that of the blind cattleman played by Don Haggerty, and it’s an important one. If McCrea was to hold onto that air of suspicion that surrounded him, it was necessary to have him faced off against a man whose situation immediately drew sympathy. Without wishing to present any spoilers, I’ll just say that Haggerty’s performance was as considered and subtle as McCrea’s, and thus ensured that the suspense was maintained for as long as possible.

To date, Cattle Empire has not received a DVD release in either the US or the UK. However, there is a particularly fine edition available in Spain from Fox/Impulso. The film has been given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer which boasts fine colour. The print used was evidently in especially good condition, there’s no damage of any consequence to be seen and it’s consistently sharp. The disc allows subtitles to be disabled on the original English soundtrack, and extras are a short gallery and some text screens on the cast and crew. I don’t expect this is a particularly well-known film, but it is a very satisfying and entertaining one. It takes a fairly standard western situation, the trail drive, and puts an interesting spin on it. Contrived romances can drag a movie down, but Cattle Empire avoids that by artfully weaving its variation into the story in a convincing manner. However, the main attraction is the theme of a suppressed desire for revenge coming up against the search for redemption, and the presence of dark secrets bubbling just below the surface. Overall, this is a most interesting movie.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2013 in 1950s, Joel McCrea, 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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Wichita

Some years ago I ran a short series of pieces on the various representations of Wyatt Earp in the movies*. I covered almost all the major productions, but one – Wichita (1955) – was omitted for the simple reason that I won’t ever write about a film which I haven’t had the opportunity to view recently. Well, now’s the time to fill in a notable gap in the aforementioned series. For a character whose name has become such an iconic part of the history and mythology of the old west, there is a good deal of variation when it comes to assessment of his motives. While some writers have sought to build up the man’s legend, others have dedicated their efforts to chipping away at it, and then there’s always the stories that Earp himself chose to spin. Despite the diversity of opinion on Earp in literature, I think it’s safe to say that cinema has, for the most part, chosen to cast him in a heroic mold. The historical veracity of those pictures where his character played a prominent part may be open to question, but there can be no doubt that Earp provided filmmakers with a rock solid basis for their portrayals of tough, unflinching lawmen.

Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) is introduced a man hoping to start up business in the burgeoning cow town/railhead of Wichita, Kansas. Two early scenes, one involving a couple of light-fingered cowboys and another depicting a foiled bank raid (where Sam Peckinpah appears uncredited as the teller), make it abundantly clear that Earp is a man skilled in the use of firearms. However, for all his adept gunplay, he has no interest in wearing a badge and using his talents to enforce the law. Wichita is shown to be a town facing something of a dilemma; the railroad is attracting the big cattle outfits and the money that they bring with them, but the town’s also faced with the challenge of lawlessness. Hard men who have spent long weeks riding dusty trails, deprived of liquor and female company, are only too eager to spend their earnings and blow off steam. Everyone of influence in Wichita knows what’s going to happen as soon as the first big cattle drive arrives. These town elders are anxious to fully exploit the financial gains, but they also need someone strong and reliable to ensure that some semblance of law and order is maintained too. Earp would appear to be the natural choice but, as the newspaper editor (Wallace Ford) points out, he hasn’t yet come to terms with his calling in life. It’s only after a child is killed by a stray bullet that Earp bows to the inevitable and pins on a badge.

The script doesn’t concern itself too much with the documented facts – having Earp team up with a fresh young reporter by the name of Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen) for example – but it does give at least a grudging nod in their direction. In reality, Earp finally left Wichita after political disagreements and headed for Dodge City to make money in some questionable ventures. The film ends with our hero setting off for Dodge in order to continue along what’s claimed to be his destined path as a dedicated peace officer. And the political disputes, albeit of an entirely different nature, do form a significant part of the plot. The script sees Earp come into conflict with the business interests in Wichita, men who are prepared to turn a blind eye to violence as long as the dollars keep rolling in. While some people may try to tell you that Hollywood productions of the 50s were generally right-wing in perspective, I’ve never seen too much evidence of that. Wichita is yet another film that champions basic morality above any narrow political consideration.

Wichita is very fine film, where both visuals and theme vie for the viewer’s attention. All of the great directors had the ability to move with ease between genres, and Jacques Tourneur was no exception. Having made what I have no hesitation in referring to as masterpieces in the horror and noir fields, he went on to prove that he was equally at home with westerns. Wichita was shot in scope and Tourneur handles the wide lens beautifully throughout. The opening, which highlights the vast open spaces of the frontier, quickly draws the eye to a tiny speck, a lone figure off on the horizon. This is the first view of Wyatt Earp, a fine visual introduction for a character who remains resolutely apart from the milieu throughout the film. Now that’s a considerable feat in my book, encapsulating the essence and core of a character through the use of one long shot. A good deal of the action in Wichita takes place in interiors, and again Tourneur employs the scope camera to great effect, altering angles to highlight the dominance and physicality of McCrea, to create a sense of chaos or remoteness as required, and generally positioning his actors within the frame in such a way as to focus on the emotional relationships between them. All of this, along with a strong sense of pacing, marks out the work of a top flight director.

With regard to theme, I’ve already mentioned the political sensibilities, but there’s more going on than that. The best classic westerns dealt with the internal struggles of their heroes, men trying to come to an understanding with themselves and to decide on the right path to follow. The Wyatt Earp of Wichita faces this eternal dilemma too, but with the added complication of unavoidable destiny thrown into the mix. Time and again the script makes reference to men being unable sidestep or ignore the responsibilities that fate has laid before them. If one bears in mind that Earp ultimately chooses to pursue what’s morally right then the picture has an uplifting quality. However, it’s not quite so simplistic; in order to fulfill his destiny the hero must do things that offend him personally. I think the minimalist artwork used for the poster sums up that aspect very well – a hunched, regretful figure, full of remorse in his moment of triumph, surveying the body of his slain opponent.

Joel McCrea was an excellent piece of casting as Earp. He may not bear any physical resemblance to the man but both his size and commanding presence ensure he dominates the picture. McCrea was one of the top half-dozen western stars, a man who simply belonged in the genre. He often brought a good deal of warmth to his characterizations, though his role in Wichita sacrifices that to an extent in order to play up other qualities. His Earp is a man who’s not quite satisfied with himself, a reluctant hero whose awareness of his deadly skills pains him. He communicates the dour, steely nature of his character well, and leaves no doubt in our minds as to why this man held such a fearsome reputation. Vera Miles was cast as the romantic interest, and she’s fine given the limitations of her role. The film isn’t a romance so Miles has few dramatic opportunities. Under the right circumstances, she was a very good actress – something like Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man should offer ample evidence – but she’s never stretched here. Lloyd Bridges and Edgar Buchanan played the main villains, the former as a vengeful cowhand and the latter as a conniving, duplicitous businessman, and provide solid opposition to McCrea. The supporting cast is filled with plenty of familiar faces: Peter Graves, Carl Benton Reid, Robert J Wilke, Wallace Ford, and the ever dependable Jack Elam.

Wichita is available as part of the Warner Archive in the US, but I recently picked up a release from La Casa del Cine in Spain that pairs the film with The Oklahoman. Both movies come on their own discs and Wichita looks very good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print seems to be in excellent shape, without significant damage and boasting solid colours. There are no extra features offered but the two movies can be had for less than 5 Euro. Spanish subtitles are removable via the setup menu, however, I did notice that they seem to be burnt in during the opening credits for Tex Ritter’s theme song, and there’s a brief instance of a sign being similarly translated. I think this is an exceptionally good movie, intelligently scripted, beautifully directed by Tourneur and featuring a strong central performance by McCrea. Check this one out.

*Other films featuring the character of Wyatt Earp:

Frontier Marshal

My Darling Clementine

Winchester 73

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Cheyenne Autumn

Hour of the Gun

Tombstone

Wyatt Earp

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in 1950s, Jacques Tourneur, Joel McCrea, Westerns

 

Foreign Correspondent

There’s something very attractive about movies involving or based around journalists, at least I think so anyway. Classic era Hollywood generally played up the positive, virtuous side of the profession, with a few exceptions of course, which isn’t altogether surprising given the number of writers who had a background in journalism. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) follows in that tradition; it paints a heroic portrait of the newsman and his craft, though it’s not above slipping in the odd sly dig at the less ethical practices of reporters. Of course, it’s also an early wartime propaganda piece and a very effective one, never allowing the message to overwhelm or overtake the necessity of telling a good yarn. This success comes down to a happy blend of inventive direction, strong writing and memorable performances. If it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best known films that may well be due to the fact that it doesn’t have the depth or intensity of his other works. Despite the serious themes and events it depicts, the movie has an almost deceptive lightness of touch that keeps it entertaining.

The story tells of the exploits of one Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) – he’s saddled with the appalling pseudonym of Huntley Haverstock by his boss, but I’m going to refer to him throughout as Jones to avoid confusion – a down to earth crime reporter and a veritable babe in the woods when it comes to the labyrinthine complexity of pre-war European political chicanery. Nevertheless, that’s the assignment his boss, exasperated by the vague non-news coming his way, hands him: travel to a Europe teetering on the brink of the abyss and dig up something worth printing. So this “fresh, unused mind” arrives in London and, through sheer good fortune, ends up sharing a cab with Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), the Dutch politician said to hold the key to the volatile situation that’s brewing. The movie is essentially divided into three distinct segments: the opening London sequence playing up the humorous side and setting up what will follow; the lengthy mid-section in Holland, with its gradually darkening tone; and then a return to England for the climactic developments and revelations. The Dutch section contains some of the film’s best images and set pieces, including the famous assassination amid a sea of rain slicked umbrellas. It’s here that the pace really quickens and a half-comic car chase leads to another notable setup. Hitchcock is said to have decided to feature a scene with windmills simply because Holland is famous for having them. Whatever the truth of the origins of said sequence, it results in one of the most atmospheric and visually striking passages in the picture. Every drop of suspense is extracted from having Jones creep about the gloomy, twisting spiral staircase accompanied only by the grinding of the mill’s gears and the indistinct mutterings of the villains he’s spying on. While the intrigue thickens all around him, Jones also finds time to spar with and romance Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of a renowned peace activist (Herbert Marshall). By the time the action returns to London, Jones has been identified as a threat and plans are laid to ensure his removal from the scene. This offers Hitchcock the opportunity to blend comedy and danger yet again as Jones, accompanied by one of the most genial hitmen in cinematic history (Edmund Gwenn), comes perilously close to taking a spectacular swan dive off a cathedral. The film climaxes with a well staged plane crash that is both technically impressive and satisfying as a resolution.

On the WB DVD of Foreign Correspondent there is an accompanying making-of documentary which makes the point that the film contains a number of visual motifs that would pop up again in later Hitchcock productions, notably in North by Northwest. As I mentioned in the introduction, I think this film is somewhat underrated since it appears, superficially at least, to be more of an adventure romp than the darker and more critically acclaimed movies Hitchcock was to make in the 50s. It’s true that it doesn’t delve into any especially complex psychology but it does showcase the director’s visual flair. Aside from the assassination and windmill scenes, there’s a beautifully composed section in the latter stages where the captive Van Meer is being tortured by the villains in a disused theatre in an attempt to extract the details of clause 27, the film’s MacGuffin. Hitchcock, and cameraman Rudolph Maté, creates an expressionistic setup that foreshadows the look of classic film noir to emphasise the evil and menace Jones and his friends are up against; it even conjures up the slightly surreal image of a group of ghoulish theatre patrons watching the drama unfold before them. It’s also worth noting that producer Walter Wanger, for whom the director was working on loan, seems to have given Hitchcock greater freedom than was the case when he worked for Selznick – the film doesn’t display the kind of lush romanticism that David O encouraged. In addition to the look of the picture, its success is helped by a highly polished and sophisticated script. A whole battery of top flight writers were involved – Joan Harrison, Charles Bennett, Robert Benchley, James Hilton and an uncredited Ben Hecht – and all of them contributed to the smooth, cohesive and witty piece of work we see.

Apparently, Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper for the role of Johnny Jones, but had to settle in the end for Joel McCrea. I can’t see any problem with that piece of casting as McCrea had the easy-going openness that the part demanded, and was able to walk the fine line between comic stooge and man of action. He’s entirely believable as the fish out of water, the no-nonsense crime reporter suddenly thrust into the middle of a huge political storm with nothing but his own wits to see him through. I thought Laraine Day was also fine as the romantic interest and handled both the lighter moments and the more serious stuff quite capably. The film benefits too from a large and talented supporting cast, Herbert Marshall and George Sanders providing a lesson in cinematic suavity. Marshall was handed a plum role as Stephen Fisher, the most complex and easily the most interesting character in the film. I feel he hit the right note at just about every stage and his performance turns out to be quite a moving one in the end. Albert Bassermann was nominated for an Oscar for the part of Van Meer (ultimately losing out to Walter Brennan in The Westerner) and it’s not to hard to see why; he brings a weariness and a kind of innocence to the role, and his key moment during the torture scene is almost hypnotic. As Rowley, the smiling killer, Edmund Gwenn seemed to be having a ball, his brief appearance adding a lovely touch of macabre humour to proceedings. And when it comes to humorous characterization, it’s impossible to ignore Robert Benchley’s turn as Stebbins, the dissipated London correspondent. His wit is as dry as one would expect of a man forced onto the wagon for health reasons, and he steals every scene he appears in.

The R1 DVD of Foreign Correspondent from Warners is a very nice presentation. The image is sharp and fairly clean and never displays any major flaws. In terms of extra features, the disc offers the half hour documentary that I mentioned earlier and the theatrical trailer. For a two hour movie, everything moves along at a terrific lick, never pausing for breath once the hero arrives in Europe. The only time you actually become conscious of the fact that this is really a propaganda piece is during the coda, and even that is done with style and doesn’t feel as contrived as can often be the case. Although this may not be one of Hitchcock’s better known movies it would be unfair to call it a minor work. It’s an incredibly stylish example of filmmaking that’s visually rich and just plain fun throughout. I rate it very highly.

 

Ramrod

 

Poster

Range wars have always been a favourite backdrop for westerns, men struggling over a piece of land upon which they have built their dreams being an ideal source of conflict. It’s not so common though to see a woman as one of the aggressors, and certainly not one as petite and vulnerable looking as Veronica Lake. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Ramrod (1947) it’s surely that one should never be taken in by appearances.

This is a lean, brisk movie where things happen fast and no time is wasted. Within minutes of the opening the main protagonists of the story are introduced and their motivations laid out. Everything revolves around Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake), a headstrong young woman hell bent on establishing herself in her own right and independent of her rancher father. We’re pitched immediately into the middle of a potentially explosive situation where Connie’s betrothed, a sheepman, is about to confront her father and his enforcer, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). Ivey is the man Connie’s father would like to see her paired off with and he’s not averse to the idea himself. When the the sheepman decides that he values his hide more and thus backs down Connie turns her attention to a drifting cowboy and former drunk, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). Nash has no interest in involving himself in the Dickason’s affairs at first, but a run-in with the bullying Ivey leads to a change of heart. He decides to sign on with her as her foreman, or ramrod, and face down her father and Ivey. Nash wants to use the law to secure Connie’s rights but she has other ideas on how to go about things. At the heart of the picture are Connie’s machinations, seductively playing the men off against each other to achieve her own ends. All of this deceit inevitably leads to tragedy and the loss of many innocent lives, although Connie blithely dismisses the bloodshed as a necessary if distasteful step on the road to fulfilling her ambitions. It’s only at the end, when her dreams are almost within her grasp, that this scheming puppeteer realises that her self-absorbed ruthlessness has driven away the very thing she desired most.

Joel McCrea in Ramrod.

Joel McCrea’s portrayal of Nash is spot on, his calm and inner strength fitting for a man who has come face to face with personal tragedy and dragged himself back from despair. His honest, straight shooting persona is also ideal for a man who finds himself duped and manipulated by Connie. In fact, every man in the film falls prey to her deceptions at one point or another. Lake was clearly trading on her film noir credentials as she plays what is essentially a femme fatale out west. Her diminutive stature obviously rules out the possibility of her involving herself directly in any of the violence but her awareness of and confidence in her own femininity, and its attendant power, ensures that she calls the shots at almost every point. Director Andre de Toth was married to Lake at this time and he handles not only her scenes but the whole film very well. While he couldn’t be classed as one of the great directors, de Toth was certainly competent and made enough good films to be worthy of more attention. Aside from a number of very enjoyable collaborations with Randolph Scott, he also made the superior Day of the Outlaw and a handful of quality noirs. He was especially good at shooting action and the stalking by night of McCrea’s friend is particularly well done. It’s also worth noting the tough edge he brought to proceedings with a cigar ground into a man’s hand to provoke a gunfight and a savagely brutal beating being some of the highlights. 

While there are plenty of good things to say about Ramrod the film, unfortunately, that not the case with the DVD. The only edition that I’m aware of is the Suevia release from Spain, and it’s pretty poor stuff. The master looks to be taken from an old VHS cassette and all the expected faults are present in the transfer. The image is scratchy, dirty and lacking in definition, and the audio is weak too. Despite that, it remains quite watchable, although there is an especially bad section beginning on the hour mark and continuing for about two minutes. In terms of quality it’s reminiscent of a mid-range PD title. However, as things stand, it’s the only version available – I’m not sure where the rights for this reside but I have a hunch it could be with MGM. On the plus side it can be had for very little money and there are no forced subs on the English track. I think this is a neglected little western with noir undertones that is well worth a look; anything starring McCrea and directed by de Toth deserves that at least. I’d imagine a decent release would go some way towards elevating its status.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Andre de Toth, Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Westerns

 

Colorado Territory

Poster

The sun travels west…and so does opportunity.

Are remakes ever better than the originals? The common consensus usually says no and there are countless ill-judged and frankly cack-handed examples that would seem to back that up. However, once in a while, it is possible to come across those rare exceptions to the rule. John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is a notable case in point, although that movie had the luxury of building on two predecessors that were markedly inferior. What’s altogether more difficult is to improve upon something that was pretty good in the first place, and it’s inevitable that opinion is going to be divided over the alleged improvement – Hitchcock’s two shots at The Man Who Knew Too Much being a good example. Colorado Territory (1949) is in a similar position since it’s a reworking by Raoul Walsh of his earlier hit High Sierra, and in my opinion the remake comes out on top this time.

Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a notorious outlaw, languishing in jail and awaiting a date with the hangman. However, a visit from an old dear professing to be his aunt leaves McQueen in possession of the articles he needs to effect his escape. It turns out that this was all arranged by an old associate who has need of McQueen’s services one more time. Making his way west by stagecoach he finds himself sharing the ride with a new settler and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). A deadly encounter with a gang of thieves en route highlights McQueen’s particular skills, and earns him the gratitude and (perhaps) the friendship of his fellow passengers. This sequence also draws attention to the fact that here we have a man grown weary of his profession, who dreams instead of starting a new life and sees in Julie Ann a reflection of the woman he once loved and lost. If he’s ever to have a crack at that longed for new beginning though he must first get this final job out of the way. It soon becomes apparent to McQueen that he’s going to have his hands full just keeping his shifty cohorts in line, and it’s not made any easier by the presence of a sultry half-breed called Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). The bulk of the movie’s mid section takes place in an old ruined town populated solely by the would-be robbers and the ghosts of the past. This bleak and desolate setting contributes enormously to the sense of doom and despair that hangs over the whole film, and it’s also a perfect backdrop for the escalating tension and jealousy among the characters. When the robbery does take place nothing goes according to plan (or at least not the way McQueen planned it) but it does give Colorado the chance to show her worth and her loyalty. Just when it looks like these two might have a chance to break out of the world they’ve spent so long locked into fate comes along and deals another blow, leading McQueen to comment: It means we’re a couple of fools in a dead village dreaming about something that’ll probably never happen. This leads to a powerful climax, atop a sun baked mountain and among the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement, that packs a real emotional punch and is sure to stick in the mind of anyone who’s seen it.

The calm before  the storm - Virginia Mayo & Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory.

Raoul Walsh’s direction is highly assured and tight as a drum right from the beginning. A good portion of the movie takes place outdoors and with a liberal sprinkling of action, both elements playing to the director’s strengths. His handling of the attempted stagecoach hold-up near the start and the later train robbery is exemplary with editing, camera placement and pacing all judged to perfection. With Walsh you kind of expect him to get those things right, but he doesn’t disappoint in the more intimate scenes either. It helps a lot that his principal stars were all on form, and I couldn’t fault any of the performances of McCrea, Mayo or Malone. Joel McCrea was great in stolid parts and he put his talents to good use in this anti-heroic role. He had that low key quality that usually shines in westerns and the part of Wes McQueen seemed to fit him like a glove. The scene where he finally tumbles to the true nature and motives of Julie Ann is a fine example of his underplaying, and it’s all the better for that. Which brings me to Dorothy Malone; her role is that of a grasping and shallow woman and if it’s compared to Joan Leslie’s in High Sierra it would be fair to say that Malone invested it with considerably more depth. However, Virginia Mayo is the one that acts everyone else off the screen with her blend of toughness, vulnerability and sensuality. She truly owns the climax of the picture but she has other memorable moments too, not least the aftermath of the robbery when she has to operate on the wounded McCrea. Comparing the performances of the three leads in Colorado Territory to those in High Sierra, I’d say that McCrea just about holds his own against Bogart’s more famous and more intense playing (both men brought very different viewpoints and styles to their work) whereas both Mayo and Malone outshine Lupino and Leslie respectively.

As far as I can tell, there are currently only two ways to obtain Colorado Territory on DVD. I viewed the Warner R2 release from Spain, and the transfer to disc is no more than adequate. There aren’t any major issues like tears or splices and the image is generally quite detailed with good enough contrast. Nevertheless, the print is clearly in need of a good digital scrub as there are speckles, scratches and cue blips all the way through. From the few comments I’ve seen the Warner Archive disc from the US sounds like it suffers from the same sort of problems, so it may be they both used the same master. The R2 disc is completely barebones, with English and Spanish audio. The subs on the English version can be switched off via the remote – the main menu seems to suggest that the subs aren’t optional but that’s thankfully not the case. Colorado Territory is another first class western from Raoul Walsh, and I feel it generally trumps High Sierra. I’m very familiar with the Bogart picture and I like it an awful lot, but I have to give credit to Walsh for revisiting his earlier work and tweaking it successfully. This is an even darker and bleaker film with performances that are at least equal or, particularly those of the two actresses, superior to the original version. I recommend this one highly.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1940s, Joel McCrea, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Ride the High Country

Generally, when I’ve knocked out my thoughts on a film, I’ve tried to avoid those productions which have already been analyzed to death. Such is the case with the work of Sam Peckinpah, which has had more than its fair share of examination and re-examination. However, I have decided that I’m not going to ignore the movie that both provides the title of my own blog and also happens to be my favorite among Sam’s films. Made in 1962, Ride the High Country was the director’s second feature – although this piece by John Hodson helps to explain why the previous year’s The Deadly Companions isn’t a real Peckinpah picture. This film contains the elements that have come to be typically associated with Sam, namely the passing of the Old West, the nature of friendship and loyalty, and a reflection on one’s past deeds.

The whole thing revolves around the two leads, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. These two men are old friends and former partners who have come together one last time,  for one last job. McCrea is the very epitome of honour and personal integrity, whose only wish in life is to enter his house justified. His idealism hasn’t brought him any material rewards, his shabby suit in the early scenes being proof enough of that. Scott, on the other hand, has come to question the value of holding on to principles that lead only to poverty and a poorly attended funeral. And so it’s a question of whether McCrea’s quiet nobility or Scott’s cynical pragmatism will ultimately triumph. The guarding of a gold shipment will test the strength of their friendship to the full, but it is the climactic showdown with a family of degenerate rednecks that brings closure to all the moral issues that precede it.

Scott & McCrea

Both Scott and McCrea play off each other beautifully and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch these two old hands clearly relishing what they must surely have recognised as the roles of a lifetime. Both men had spent the previous decade acting almost exclusively in westerns and that experience adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the film. For Scott and McCrea, Ride the High Country was to be the last hurrah; McCrea would make a few more movies and Scott, wisely I think, called it a day and bowed out with what is arguably his best role. Maybe it’s just my sentimentality, but I always get goosebumps when Scott speaks his final lines in cinema and tells McCrea “I’ll see you later..” – it’s a lovely understated way to bid farewell to a long and distinguished career. Randolph Scott is one of the reasons why I enjoy the western genre so much (I suspect I’m not alone, if that gag in Blazing Saddles is anything to go by) – when I was a child it seemed as though no Saturday afternoon was complete without a television showing of one of his films, so he was and is the personification of the western hero for me.

Ride the High Country is a marvellous looking picture due to Peckinpah’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s wonderful cinematography. The movie is full of memorable scenes, not the least of which being the climax, as Scott and McCrea stand shoulder to shoulder and walk out to confront the murderous Hammond clan and fate itself. Peckinpah would offer up a more elaborately staged and celebrated ‘walk’ in The Wild Bunch, but this one packs just as much punch for its simplicity.

The Walk

Ride the High Country may have become overshadowed by the films that would follow from Peckinpah, but I don’t feel that that should be the case. Is it his best movie? Many would argue that it’s not and point instead to The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it is the one that I have a special affection for, and the one that I find myself returning to most often.

 
 
 
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