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Monte Walsh

Elegiac is a word that has been used more than a few times to describe westerns that began to appear in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s. While many movies tagged with this term do have a certain sorrowful quality to them, I can’t help feeling that it’s been overused at times. On the other hand, there are occasions where this description is highly appropriate, Monte Walsh (1970) being one of them. This is a remarkable film, a work of gentle and understated power, one which can break your heart and yet fill it up with renewed optimism at the same time. Being well aware of the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, I’m loath to place too much emphasis on the contribution of one individual. However, and despite the fact there’s uniformly excellent work from all those involved in the film, I do feel that a large part of what makes Monte Walsh such an enriching experience comes down to Lee Marvin’s performance in the title role.

The film is split into roughly two halves, with the first part spending less time on plot development than the careful establishment of mood and character interaction. This technique is particularly important in creating believable human beings, people we get to know and consequently care about as the twists and turns of their lives unfold. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are two veteran cowboys, men starting to feel the sharp bite of age in a world on the brink of huge changes. This fact is apparent right from the outset, when the two friends ride back into town after a hard winter to be met with ominous news. The harsh weather has taken a heavy toll on the ranches, wiping out many and allowing corporate interests to step in. Monte and Chet can count themselves among the lucky ones though; they at least have the offer of doing the only job they really know or care about. Their new masters, never seen and contemptuously referred to as “the accountants”, are an unsentimental breed, however, and owe an attachment to nothing beyond the bottom line. As the need to ensure investments remain profitable rules supreme, the initial group of cowhands is gradually whittled down in the interests of efficiency and cost effectiveness – the tight little community the viewer has come to know and identify with is being broken up before our eyes. To begin with, the younger men, those who have more chances of finding alternative employment, are given notice. Still, these chances are few and far between on a frontier that’s becoming hemmed in by both the barbed wire fences of new owners and the economic restrictions of a new era. One of the first redundancies is Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), and his departure is significant in that his meager opportunities set him on a path that will bring him into conflict with the law, his former friends, and ultimately shape the course of events in the second half of the picture. Throughout it all, the overriding theme is a sense of loss, and this is seen principally from the perspective of Monte. As viewers, we’re invited to watch as Monte loses first the job he knows and respects, the friends he’s had all his life, the woman he loves, and the only way of life he’s ever experienced. On paper, this should all add up to a pretty depressing time for the audience, yet the stoicism, the determination, the unstinting hope and essential humanity of the lead character means that there’s a kind of life-affirming optimism at the heart of the movie.

Jack Schaefer wrote one of the most famous stories to be made into a western movie when he penned Shane. He also provided the source material for Monte Walsh and thus added another iconic frontier hero. Instead of a wandering gunfighter, although Monte’s no slouch on that score either, he presented a man battling to come to terms with a world that seems to be suddenly passing him by. I guess it all boils down to a meditation on integrity, the determination to remain true to the experiences and life one knows, and ultimately to oneself. As such, the movie is a curious and successful combination of the melancholy and the triumphant. For all the disappointments, and they come thick and fast as the tale goes along, there’s always a hint of hope. John Barry was one of the greatest composers of film scores and although his name isn’t one normally associates with westerns, he created music that’s literally pitch perfect and complements the images on the screen. He was one of the best at conveying a sense of expansiveness and those dusty scenes of the mustang round-up would be a whole lot poorer were it not for his contribution. Still and all, it’s the main theme  The Good Times are Coming – with lyrics by Hal David and vocals by the incomparable (Mama) Cass Elliot – that dominates it all. At first, this piece may seem like a paradox, an irony, in such a story but it’s actually entirely appropriate. Monte Walsh is a man who’s been bruised by life, but never beaten, a dreamer who’s both in thrall to the past and in love with the future – the ultimate cowboy perhaps. And then there’s the directorial debut of William A Fraker, that master cinematographer who took the reins in only a handful of films. His eye for landscape, his ability to draw genuine performances from his cast, and his impeccable sense of timing are wonderful and it’s regrettable that he directed so few movies.

Lee Marvin has to go down as of the Hollywood greats. Starting out in supporting roles, he damned near stole the picture from many a legendary lead. By the time he made Monte Walsh, Marvin was in his mid-40s and looked every hard-living day of it. He always had character in his face, his voice and movements – you just knew this was a man who had been around, who had done things and was no stranger to life. Consequently, he fits the role of Monte like a glove, having the looks and experience in the genre to positively demand you believe in him. Despite winning an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I still feel this actor has never received his full due. Even today, he tends to be thought of as an action actor, a villainous character and tough guy. Well, he was a tough guy, but in the real sense of the term – an all-round man. He could play menacing as well as any but there was a whole lot more to him, power and subtlety to be exact. As Monte Walsh, he’s electrifying – you can’t take your eyes off him. Every bad break in life is etched into those craggy features and every sadness too, but there’s humor and tenderness beneath it all. I could pick out most any scene in the movie to prove my point but I’ll mention just two. The aftermath of Chet’s wedding is a sobering moment for Monte; the full impact of the changes to his world have just begun to hit home, and he heads for the refuge of the saloon. But as he enters he gets another shock – the place is deserted, a forlorn shell that’s a world away from the thriving hub it had once been. The realization and subsequent acceptance of this unpleasant truth is clear to see in just a few brief twitches around the eyes and mouth. Additionally, one of the most moving sequences comes when Monte arrives too late and discovers that his great love Martine (Jeanne Moreau) has passed away. His grief is completely internalized and controlled, yet there’s no question about its depth. As he opens her little jewelry box and finds both a lock of his hair and the unused money he once pressed upon her, there’s just the faintest glimmer of a tear in the corner of his eye – far more telling and powerful than any display of histrionics.

Marvin may have been the beating heart of the movie, but he had no shortage of first class support right through the cast. Jack Palance was another performer who could ignite the screen at will, an actor of extraordinary intensity who was capable of exhausting an audience emotionally. This film, however, saw him playing a model of restraint and self-control. Where Monte would not be cowed by the vagaries of fate, Chet was the more philosophical. Recognizing that time was no longer on his side, he took the pragmatic view and settled down to town life and marriage. Palance added a note of calmness and pragmatism to his performance here, more blissful than defeatist. However, it’s worth noting that it’s the ornery refusal to bow down that leads to Palance’s downfall. Monte held onto that quality throughout, refused to succumb at any point, and fares better in the end. Jeanne Moreau also gave a memorable turn as Martine, the woman in Monte’s life – even his lifeline to some extent – who can forgive him anything and would wait for him for ever. Moreau was all sadness and sexiness, a classically tragic figure. The wordless scene where she tries to arouse the interest of her man as he struggles to roll a cigarette is a beautiful moment of humor and sensuality. And the discussion she has with Marvin about their future together is an object lesson in how to blend romance and regret with ever allowing it to descend into the maudlin.

For a long time, Monte Walsh was one of those movies that I feared would never see the light of day on DVD. Then Paramount finally came to their senses and released it in the US. The film is correctly presented in anamorphic scope and looks pretty good with no distractions or damage that I was aware of. The only extra feature offered is the theatrical trailer, which I think is a shame as a commentary track would be welcome and appropriate. Still, I’m grateful to have the movie available on disc so I’m not going to complain too much. I think this is one of the great westerns, not only of the 1970s but of one of the greats period. There is a depth and richness to Monte Walsh that stands the test of time; I think it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking where I cannot honestly find anything to criticize. It’s one of those films that grows on you and draws you further in with each subsequent viewing, improving with age. To those already familiar with it, it should need no recommendation. And for those others yet to experience its magic, well you’re in for a treat. I recommend this one without reservation or qualification – the definition of a classic.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2012 in 1970s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Westerns

 

Hangman’s Knot

I just realized the other day that I’ve reached a small landmark as far as this site is concerned - this post will be the 100th western that I have written about. I had to think about what movie I ought to feature to mark the occasion, and it left me with something of a dilemma. My first instinct was to go for a big, important, genre defining picture, one which has stamped its authority all over the western landscape. But then I paused and thought again: is that really representative of the kind of movies I usually turn my attention to? Well not really. For the most part, I’ve written up the films that don’t always draw the attention of the critics, that don’t get ranked high in the “Best of” lists. Sure there are a few heavyweights in there, but they tend to be the exception. So in the end, I opted for something low-key, a bit of a sleeper and an imperfect work – Hangman’s Knot (1952). This might seem an offbeat choice but it reflects what I’d like to think of as the spirit of this site by being a movie from my favourite decade in cinema and featuring two of my favourite performers.

The plot concerns a dreadful mistake and its consequences for those involved. Major Stewart (Randolph Scott) is in charge of a small band of Confederate soldiers who we see setting up an ambush for a squad of Union troops. The aim is to relieve the Yankees of the gold shipment they’re guarding and thus shore up the war effort. The plan goes almost like clockwork and Stewart’s men wipe out the enemy. The sting in the tail though comes in the form of the dying words of their victims’ commanding officer – the war has been over for weeks. In that moment Stewart sees himself transformed from heroic military tactician into common criminal. A discussion with the surviving troops, and the reckless killing of the one man who could be made to testify to their innocence, leads to the decision to head home with the spoils in tow. However, gold is always a powerful draw, and it’s not long before others are on their trail. A self-appointed posse, bounty hunters in reality, have caught the scent and are in pursuit of Stewart’s little party. In desperation, a stagecoach is hijacked and the fugitives head for the temporary shelter of an isolated swing station. It’s here that the second part of the drama is played out, as Stewart and his men find themselves holed up in the stage halt and under pressure from both without and within. The posse have hemmed them in with little hope of a clean escape, while the atmosphere is growing ever more poisonous as both the hostility of the hostages and the men’s own personal differences raise tensions.

Roy Huggins is most famous as the writer of some highly successful and influential television shows (including The Fugitive and The Rockford Files), but his solitary effort as a cinema director plays out like a rehearsal for the Boetticher/Scott pictures that would come later in the decade. The theme, casting, locations and structure of Hangman’s Knot all contribute to the feeling that you’re watching a kind of unpolished Budd Boetticher movie. The opening scenes of the ambush shot around Lone Pine, with their bleak, fatalistic tone, immediately evoke such thoughts. This is especially true when the gung-ho mood abruptly turns into one of horrified realisation. Then there’s the theme of greed and it’s corrupting influence that is gradually expanded upon as the story progresses. With the second act, comes a change of location – the restrictive, almost suffocating, confines of the swing station – where the pressurized atmosphere brought on by greed for gold intensifies for those trapped inside and those laying siege outside. These rising tensions are further exacerbated by the presence of Donna Reed’s Northern nurse, provoking a three-way contest for her affections between Scott, Lee Marvin’s hot-headed subordinate, and Richard Denning’s would-be fiance. This brings to the surface a sentiment that can often be detected in westerns of the period; the contrast between the essential nobility of the southerner (personified by Scott) and the base materialism of the northerner (Denning in this instance), although it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that Marvin is also thrown into the mix to represent the less savoury side of the Confederacy.

It’s hard to find fault with the casting of the movie, though the oversimplified characterization is one of the main weaknesses. I’ve already tried to draw attention to what I see as the parallels between Hangman’s Knot and Scott’s later work with Boetticher, but the reasons why the movie isn’t quite in that class need to be addressed too. One of the features that distinguished the Ranown pictures was the complexity of the characters, both the heroes and the villains. In truth, there was a blurring of the lines defining the good and bad men in those films. That’s not really the case here, where everyone’s development follows a much more traditional path. Apart from a sense of guilt over the ill-timed ambush, Scott’s character carries none of the emotional baggage that made his best roles so memorable. That’s not meant as a criticism of his performance though – an actor can only play a part as it’s written, and the script doesn’t offer much opportunity to add depth. The same problem arises with Lee Marvin; where Seven Men from Now gave him the chance to play a layered and subversively attractive villain, Hangman’s Knot demands a more straightforward, and far less interesting, portrayal. Similarly, the posse in pursuit of Stewart’s band is a collection of stereotypical figures without charm, and lacking the necessary menace too. Perhaps the most successful character is the green youth played by Claude Jarman Jr, whose innocence symbolizes hope for the future and the possibility of a new beginning. Both he and the operators of the stagecoach stop are suggestive of the idea of America as a family torn apart by the Civil War. Of course they also represent the prospect of reconciliation, the offer of “adoption” at the end emphasizing this.

The R1 Columbia/Sony DVD of Hangman’s Knot, which has been available for a long time now, presents the movie in the correct academy ratio, and the image is reasonable although there are some issues with the transfer too. Colours are generally strong throughout but there is some damage to the print. This is most obvious during the indoor scenes in the second half of the movie, the earlier exterior work looks to be in much better shape. Even so, it’s not what I’d term a major distraction at any point. It’s a fast paced film which packs a lot of story into its brisk 81 minute running time and concludes most satisfactorily. I think it’s an underrated western, but I can understand the reasons why that may be so. Still, whatever deficiencies it has, there are plenty of positive points too, not least the way it looks ahead to the Ranown cycle. In fact, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, I think it’s a better and more rewarding movie than something like Westbound – others may disagree of course. Anyway, I recommend any fans of Randolph Scott, or Budd Boetticher for that matter, check this one out if they haven’t already done so.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in 1950s, Lee Marvin, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

The Raid

There is no conflict as dirty, socially corrosive and tragic as a civil war. Friends and neighbours, those whose similarities are every bit as pronounced as their differences, suddenly find themselves sworn enemies at one another’s throats. Any story which uses such a conflict as its backdrop automatically has an enormous amount of built-in dramatic potential. Yet despite that, there’s a hazard too – commercial success is by no means guaranteed. Movies based around the American Civil War were traditionally regarded as box office poison, and I don’t think such an aversion is some affectation confined to the United States. There are few nations which haven’t fallen victim to internal bloodletting, and the scars of these events never fully heal in the public consciousness – it’s hard to get past the essential ugliness of a country tearing itself apart from within. However, a movie can still remain compelling, and indeed worthwhile, in the face of these obstacles. The trick is to sidestep the cloying piety that can sink a script and instead focus on the real human effects of a land and people divided. The Raid (1954) is such a film.

The story is based on a real event during the Civil War - one of those peripheral actions that occur in most conflicts. It opens with a small band of Confederate POWs staging a breakout from a Union prison close to the Canadian border. The aim of the fugitives, under the command of Major Benton (Van Heflin), is to cross into neutral territory and reorganise themselves there. Benton has in mind using the neighbouring country as a springboard to attack the North. His plan is to marshal his forces and unexpectedly raid the border towns, both as an act of revenge for Sherman’s pillage of the South and as a means of drawing vital troops away from the front line and thus relieving the pressure on Lee. The target for the first of these incursions is St Albans, Vermont. Benton arrives in town posing as a Canadian businessman looking to invest in local property, but really scouting the lay of the land and paving the way for his comrades to join him. The basic plan is to clean out the banks, providing much needed funds for buying munitions, and then to torch the town and cause as much havoc as possible before beating a hasty retreat back across the border. On paper, this sounds like a viable proposition but complications inevitably arise. There are three troublesome flies in Benton’s jar of ointment: Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), the young widow running the boarding house where Benton’s lodging; Captain Foster (Richard Boone), the one-armed veteran in charge of St Albans’ small military force; and Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin), whose bitter hatred of the North means he’s something of a loose cannon among Benton’s otherwise highly disciplined force. These three people, and Benton, are a perfect illustration of the effects of civil warfare. All of them have been damaged, either physically or emotionally, by the war and all represent different aspects of the mindset it has created - Keating’s volatile sadism, Katy’s dignified struggle against loneliness, Foster’s self-loathing, and Benton’s juggling of professionalism and sentiment. One key scene highlights the moral dilemma faced by a man in Benton’s peculiar and precarious position. Having just saved the townsfolk from mortal danger (and himself too, as it happens), he returns to his lodgings only to be confronted with that which he least expected – the gratitude and acceptance of the local community. A combination of shock, humility, and horror at his own duplicity briefly flit across Benton’s features. In this moment, everything we need to know about how this kind of war divides loyalties, even internally, is deftly expressed. Still, Benton is a man of principle and, despite any moral qualms he may be experiencing, he forges ahead towards his objective. By the time the actual raid occurs the viewers have been granted a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those from both sides of the divide, making the climax all the more tense and charged.

Argentine director Hugo Fregonese came to Hollywood in 1949 and made a number of films that have largely been forgotten outside of film buff circles. There may not be any masterpieces among his credits but he displayed a very strong visual sense and his work remains interesting at the very least. Apache Drums, produced by Val Lewton, is a little neglected gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, while Saddle Tramp and Harry Black and the Tiger have points in their favour too. The Raid is one of his best efforts, looking handsome and maintaining suspense throughout. The reenactment of the titular raid (a bit of research indicates that the real event resulted in considerably less damage) makes for an exciting climax and it’s well staged by Fregonese and his cameraman, Lucien Ballard. Van Heflin does very well as Major Benton, looking tough and authoritative enough to be believable as the commander of the raiders, and also showing the right degree of sensitivity when necessary. He hadn’t the looks to make a career as a romantic lead but his understated performances generally had a very attractive human quality. Once again, Richard Boone seems to get right into the character he’s playing; the gruffness of Foster initially seems to stem from his bitterness over his war injury but, as the story progresses, it’s apparent that his reserved demeanour has a deeper psychological root. Both actors bring quite subtle nuances to their respective characterizations and there’s nothing one-dimensional about either of them. Personally, I found it refreshing that Anne Bancroft’s widow was used as a softening influence on both Boone and Heflin, and wasn’t there merely to provide an excuse for some superfluous romance. Her presence is integral to the development of the plot and the shifting emotions of the two men staying under her roof, but not as a stereotypical Hollywood siren. Heading up an especially strong supporting cast, Lee Marvin turns in another memorable performance as the vengeful and dangerous Keating. His “bull in a china shop” approach acts as a counterweight to Van Heflin’s measured caution and helps to up the tension.

To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD release of The Raid is the Spanish edition from Impulso/Fox. Generally, whilst apparently unrestored, the disc is one of their reasonable efforts. The film may have been 1.66:1 originally, but this transfer presents it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) – if it’s open-matte it may be slightly zoomed as the framing looks a little tight to my eyes on occasion. However, I wouldn’t say it was seriously compromised. The colour and detail levels are quite strong, and it’s pleasing to look at. The extras are the usual gallery and text items, and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. The film approaches its subject matter intelligently and avoids forcing judgements on the viewer. The combination of a strong, capable cast, a tight script and professional direction adds up to a pacy and entertaining look at an intriguing episode from the Civil War. Recommended.

 

Violent Saturday

 

Poster

Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens – a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities – the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

 

Bad Day at Black Rock

 

Poster

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is what’s termed a modern western. Of course, from a strictly purist point of view, the western really ought to take place within a narrow time period and location. This film is certainly set in the correct location – the arid southwest – but the events take place not in the late nineteenth century, but immediately after the end of WWII. Still, even if the trappings belong to a later era, the basic themes of the classic western are present: a simple tale of good vs evil wherein a lone, righteous figure grapples with the hostility of both the environment and his fellow men. Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the plot, the film is a powerful one that tackles at least two major themes; one of which is very obviously presented, the other is less explicit and takes something of a back seat but it’s there all the same.

The opening is aggressive and dramatic, with a mean-looking black engine, hauling blood red carriages, hurtling through the desert to the accompaniment of Andre Previn’s ominous score. As this impressive and relentless juggernaut grinds to a halt outside the tiny, desolate town of Black Rock, it’s as clear to the viewer as it is to the awestruck locals (the train hasn’t stopped there in four years) that something important is about to happen. The figure that alights is an incongruous one, a middle-aged man with a stiff arm, clad in an austere, black business suit. He could be a businessman, a government man, a gangster – what he’s not is local. This man is John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), and the reactions provoked by his unexpected arrival progress from incredulity to suspicion and finally open hostility. Everybody he encounters is consumed with curiosity regarding his errand in their midst. However, this is not the normal sense of wonder that would occur in any small, isolated community when its members are confronted with the presence of a stranger. There’s fear in the air, fear of the man and what he might discover. As Macreedy finds himself repeatedly stonewalled when requesting even the most basic kind of assistance, he’s also on the receiving end of questions from the locals. But these questions have an edge, they’re of the cagey variety where the asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. What all this means is that fear has a companion in Black Rock – guilt. A great sin has been committed in this community and Macreedy has descended upon the residents like some instrument of judgement or retribution. It’s soon made apparent exactly what has happened, a Japanese farmer has died in mysterious circumstances, and who bears the responsibility. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) is the big man around town, and the one Macreedy must deal with. Perhaps more important than the violent climax is the verbal face-off between these two men outside the gas station. This scene highlights the two principal themes in the movie: the first is the ugly matter of racism, the second is the nature of the west itself. Of the two, I find the latter more interesting, mainly because it’s approached in a much more subtle manner. When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterised by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices – an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.

Two big men - Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock.

This is another of John Sturges’ tightly-paced, economical works, stripped down to the basics and direct. From the moment the train thunders into view at the beginning, until the circle is completed eighty minutes later with the same locomotive making another rare stop at Black Rock, the pace never slackens. Additionally, Sturges’s camera uses the wide lens to excellent effect, the dearth of close-ups serves to keep the characters at a distance and accentuates the isolation of both them and the setting. Despite the high proportion of outdoor shots, there’s still a claustrophobic atmosphere about the whole thing. It’s as though the frontier has shrunk and this western drama is played out within the stifling confines of a town that has ceased to look outwards and has turned its gaze in upon itself. The only time a sense of space is apparent is during the credits sequence, and when Macreedy drives out to the ruins of the Japanese property – the railroad and a murdered foreigner representing the openness that was once the mark of the west. Besides the visuals, this is also a film of words, and although it’s dialogue heavy there’s a snap and colour to the lines that make them instantly memorable. I’ve seen some criticism of Andre Previn’s score, citing its intrusiveness, but I feel that the urgent, driving quality of the music is the ideal accompaniment for the threatening uncertainty that unfolds on screen.

Spencer Tracy’s naturalistic style of acting was greatly admired at one time, but the rise of the method saw it fall out of favour and opinions are likely to remain divided to this day. Personally, I like it; there’s always the feeling that you’re watching a real person reacting in much the same way you might do yourself to the circumstances. The passage of time, and drinking, weathered his features and the bristling aggression that he displayed as a younger man gave way to middle-aged gravitas. Tracy could be seen as the face of moral America, not in a narrow, disapproving or prudish sense, rather the slightly imperfect conscience of everyman. As such, he was ideally cast as John J Macreedy – a man who’s trying to do one last decent thing before bowing out of life. There’s a certain ambiguity about what he means by that of course, I’ve seen it claimed that the character had been contemplating taking his own life until the challenge of exposing the rotten little secret of Black Rock reawakened his appetite. I’ve also come across the suggestion that Macreedy could be taken for a supernatural figure, the fact that Smith’s detective can find no evidence of his existence is the reasoning behind this. It’s an interesting idea, reinforcing the notion of his being the embodiment of a higher justice, but I’m not convinced that it’s actually the case. As Macreedy’s chief opponent, Robert Ryan represents a kind of distorted reflection – another craggy individual, but one whose motives are far from admirable. If Tracy stands for the kind of fundamentally right man we’d like to be, then Ryan is the total antithesis; a bullying, bigoted braggart who’s become twisted by his own inadequacy and a country that has rejected him on every level. Reno Smith is a man to be both pitied and despised in equal measure, and Ryan nailed that quality. Caught somewhere in the middle, like most ordinary people I suppose, are the supporting players: Walter Brennan’s Doc (I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy) and Dean Jagger’s sheriff might be jaded but still retain some ethical sense, while Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are suitably menacing as the loutish sidekicks interested only in doing their master’s bidding. The latter pair refer to themselves as cowboys but there’s no sign anywhere of any ranching taking place – Black Rock isn’t so much a one horse town as a no horse town.

The R1 DVD from Warner Brothers has Bad Day at Black Rock looking great. The anamorphic scope transfer is clean and crisp, and the colours are rich and strong. The extras are a commentary track by Dana Polan and the trailer for the movie – it’s not what you’d call a stacked edition but there’s no reason for complaint either. The film is a very strong effort from John Sturges, both entertainingly tense and thought provoking. He did some of his best work through the 50s and this is right up near the top – a definite and easy recommendation.

 
 

Seven Men from Now

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I was just thinking the other day that it will soon be close to a year since I got my hands on Sony’s superlative set of Boetticher/Scott westerns. Those movies were at the very top of my most wanted list for so long, and it still gives me great pleasure to know that I can now pick them off my shelves and enjoy them any time I please. With that thought in mind, I decided to give Seven Men from Now (1956) another view. This film is of course not officially part of the Ranown group of titles, but it was the first to bring together Scott, Boetticher and Kennedy – so it is the movie that kicked off that cycle and it’s also the template for what was to follow.

As soon as the title credits have rolled the film immediately kicks into gear. Out of the darkness, and a violent storm, comes the lone figure of a man making his way towards the shelter of a nearby cave. It’s already occupied by two vaguely uneasy men, but they still offer the stranger a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. A stilted conversation follows, but when a killing in the town of Silver Springs is brought up something snaps. The camera cuts away, gunfire is heard, and only one man will ride off. That man is Ben Stride (Randolph Scott), former sheriff of the aforementioned town and now a driven manhunter. Seven men robbed the Wells Fargo office in Silver Springs, killing Stride’s wife in the process. Now only five are left alive, and Stride spends the remainder of the movie blazing a trail across Arizona in his quest for vengeance. Along the way he runs into a couple of easterners, headed for California and a new life. The couple are Annie Greer (Gail Russell) and her less than capable husband John (Walter Reed). Stride’s inherent decency means that he can’t abandon these two greenhorns to their fate in hostile country, so he rides with them part of the way. By the time they reach a deserted relay station, the last important figure is introduced. This is Masters (Lee Marvin), an man of dubious character who Stride has had occasion to lock up in the past. However, Masters appears to bear him no ill will and makes it clear that his only interest is in finding the gold that was stolen from Silver Springs. When this oddly matched group sets out again the tensions begin to rise, and it seems only a matter of time before Stride and Masters will square off.

Randolph Scott in a tight spot in Seven Men from Now

As I said in my introduction, Seven Men from Now was the seed from which the Ranown westerns were to grow. Just about every character, theme and situation would be revisited and honed to near perfection over the course of the next four years. Scott is the classical loner, haunted by the demons of his past and desperate to make up for the character flaws and inadequacies that brought him to his present state. He can be hard and ruthless when the circumstances demand but still retains a sensitivity to those who are dependent on him. Gail Russell was given a shot at a comeback with the reasonably meaty role of a woman who married a weak and ineffectual man but will stick by him for all that. Miss Russell’s story was a tragic one; were it not for a combination of insecurity and alcoholism she might have achieved much more than her appallingly short life permitted. Nevertheless, she plays her part perfectly here and it’s almost as if she was able to channel all the dissatisfaction with her own life into Annie Greer. It has to be said that Walter Reed is pretty colourless as the husband, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re looking to play a weak willed and essentially passive character. Lee Marvin, on the other hand, is all swaggering bravado and insidious charm. His nonchalant, sneering dandy with the long, green scarf and twin pistols is the perfect counterbalance to Scott’s underplaying. I’d say he actually steals the picture as he dominates every scene he’s in – the real standouts being his taunting provocation of Scott, Reed and Russell in the confines of a storm battered wagon, and the final one on one duel amid the barren rocks of Lone Pine.

Boetticher and Kennedy revisited this premise again and again in their movies: the small isolated group comprised of the obsessive avenger, the strong yet vulnerable woman, the expendable sidekicks and the villain that you half admire. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s scripts will easily recognise the recurring dialogue, but the beauty of it is that it’s such iconic stuff it never actually sounds cliched. Boetticher’s direction here is first rate, making the most of the familiar Lone Pine locations - the bulk of the action in Seven Men from Now takes place outdoors and that’s a real blessing in any of his movies. There’s the usual mix of telling close-ups interspersed with glorious wide shots. The climax among the labyrinthine boulders creates a great sense of claustrophobia and allows for some marvellously framed images.

Paramount did western fans a real favour when they put Seven Men from Now out on a DVD a few years back. The R1 disc (I’m going to assume the R2 replicates it) is an excellent anamorphic transfer that I couldn’t fault. In addition to the main feature, there’s a boatload of great extras with the commentary track by Jim Kitses and the documentary Budd Boetticher – An American Original being especially worthy of mention. Seven Men from Now stands as a first class western on its own, but what makes it even more special is the knowledge that Boetticher, Scott and Kennedy would go on to produce still classier material in a very short space of time. If you haven’t seen this film then you really owe it to yourself to put that situation right as soon as possible – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Lee Marvin, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

Seminole

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Budd Boetticher is celebrated, and rightly so, for the seven westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late 50s. Seminole was produced just a few years before those collaborations and, while it’s a satisfying enough picture, it’s not quite up there with his best. One could, I suppose, quibble about its credentials as a western due to the setting (Florida) and the time period (1835) but I feel it’s as near as makes no difference.

The story, most of which is recounted in a long flashback sequence, follows the newly appointed Lt. Caldwell (Rock Hudson) who is travelling back to his birthplace in Florida to take up a position at Fort King. His arrival coincides with the beginnings of an uprising among the Seminole, provoked by a government plan to uproot the tribe and move them west to prevent their presence slowing down the nation’s expansion. Within this framing story there’s further conflict due to the revelation that Caldwell’s boyhood friend, the half breed Osceola (Anthony Quinn), is not only the chief of the Seminole but is also vying for the affections of his sweetheart Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale). While Revere shuttles back and forth in the role of intermediary between the Seminole and the army, a plan is set in motion by the fort’s commander, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), to strike at the enemy in their Everglades homeland and thus preempt any further threat.

The film raises a number of issues, only a few of which are fully explored. The main conflict is the internal struggle which Caldwell experiences between his loyalty to the army and his inherent sympathy for the Seminole he has known all his life. This leads to his being suspected of treachery by his superiors and his eventual court martial. The film tries hard to show the Seminloe in a positive light (mostly due to the performance of Anthony Quinn) but generally takes the middle way, since the army is portrayed as being reasonably even-handed with the exception of the uptight martinet Major Degan. This leads to a bit of a pat, upbeat ending. Much stronger is the middle section where Degan leads his troop on a disastrous march through the steamy swamps with a huge cannon in tow, all the while insisting they keep their tunics buttoned to the collar as per the regulations. One of the more interesting themes, and the film really only touches on it, is that of miscegenation. It is quite clear that Revere has been involved in a long-term relationship with Osceola but, after a brief mention by the chief of how white society would frown on this, she quite happily drops him and contents herself with a future by Caldwell’s side.

Seminole - an early role for Lee Marvin

Rock Hudson is just about adequate in his role as the new officer forced to make war on his one time friend but his acting is a little too wooden to do justice to a part which requires him to experience a good deal of inner turmoil. Anthony Quinn fares better as the reluctant war chief whose living in both the white and Seminole cultures has afforded him an understanding of both. However, the role, as written, calls for a little too much nobility on his part and so weakens the chracter. Richard Carlson’s Degan is a very one dimensional portrayal which consists of much manic ranting and petty spitefulness, still he makes for a good hissable villain. As for Barbara Hale, she hasn’t a lot to do except act as a plot device and provide  some decoration. Lee Marvin shows up in one of his small early parts as Sergeant Magruder and adds a touch of class to the proceedings, as he always did. Boetticher directs the whole thing at his trademark brisk pace, and does his best work when he moves out from the confines of the fort into the swamp scenes and the ensuing battle at the Seminole camp. As I said earlier, his finest work would come a few years later but Seminole remains an entertaining little piece.

Now for the DVD. Seminole is available in R2 in the UK from Optimum and the transfer can best be described as weak. The picture is very soft and muddy throughout, and the colours are extremely faded – a real shame since this is a movie that would benefit enormously from strong, vibrant colours. The only bonus included is the theatrical trailer. There are editions of the film available from France and Germany but I have no idea if they look any better. All told, I would recommend the film – pity about the DVD.

 

Attack

Robert Aldrich made one of most people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior – if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2008 in 1950s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Robert Aldrich, War

 
 
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