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Category Archives: Robert Ryan

Act of Violence

You’re the same man you were in Germany. You did it once, and you’ll do it again. What do you care about one more man? You sent ten along already. Sure, you’re sorry they’re dead. That’s the respectable way to feel. Get rid of this guy and feel sorry later. He dies… or you die. It’s him… or you.

Revenge and redemption, guilt and remorse. Having written about so many classic westerns, especially those from the 1950s, these are words and themes that I find myself returning to time and again. Sure the western explored and exploited these ideas extensively, but it’s not a phenomenon confined to that genre. Film noir, that shadowy world of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, also turned the spotlight on these matters. Act of Violence (1948) tackled such thorny yet compelling issues head-on, using the war and its aftermath as the backdrop, challenging the viewer as much through its clever casting as its examination of the complex ethical questions.

Act of Violence is a film where the demarcation lines between what we traditionally think of as the hero and villain are both blurred and continually shifting. As viewers, we’re constantly thrown off-guard and never entirely sure where our sympathies should lie – the images may be shot in stark black and white but the figures playing out the drama on the screen never are. The dramatic opening, panning from a New York skyline down to a long shot of a limping figure furiously driving himself across a deserted nighttime street, plunges us headlong into the action. As the trench-coat clad figure hauls his crippled form up the narrow, rickety staircase of a seedy boarding house and proceeds to load an automatic, the title flashes briefly before us. This is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a veteran who has been broken both physically and psychologically. Boarding a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles, he disembarks in the small California town of Santa Lisa. This little settlement seems to embody all the optimism and hope for renewal of the immediate post-war years. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is the epitome of the solid model citizen – the American Dream in motion – with his hearty demeanor, beautiful young wife and thriving business. Yet, despite this wholesome and eminently respectable exterior, Enley is carrying round a dark and shameful secret. And Parkson has come to town to kill him. As the action switches to Los Angeles and back again to Santa Lisa, the relationship between these two very different men and the traumatic past events that have scarred both their souls is gradually revealed. While neither one is a saint, the two of them, in their own ways, have been or have become sinners. Both are seeking to lay the demons of the past to rest in their own way and thus attain personal redemption. I think it’s fair to say that in the end both men fulfill their aims, just not in the way we or they initially expected.

Although the film is primarily concerned with redemption, it’s first necessary to take a look at the corrosive effects of its malignant cousins, guilt and revenge. At the heart of the story lies the way those two great emotional imposters eat away at the central characters before ultimately consuming themselves to allow a spiritual renewal to take place. It’s the way Enley and Parkson react to and are shaped by guilt and the thirst for revenge that leads to that ambiguity I already mentioned. The beginning of the movie, before all the circumstances have become apparent, suggests a fairly conventional plot – an innocent victim being pursued by a relentless and implacable enemy. However, as the details emerge, we’re forced to reassess that assumption. It’s no longer as clear-cut as we’d been led to believe and there is no readily identifiable hero or villain, at least not outside the subsidiary characters. What we’re left with instead is something of a classical tragedy, where two pretty regular guys have had their character flaws magnified and honed by the extremity of their wartime experiences. The horrors and violence of their shared past have affected both men profoundly and it takes an, ironically unconscious, act of self-sacrifice to allow them to break the shackles and redeem themselves.

Fred Zinnemann isn’t a name that immediately springs to mind when thinking about film noir directors, and Act of Violence is his one and only stab at dark cinema. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkably strong effort where the visuals are every bit as striking as the script. There’s a very noticeable contrast between the bright and airy world we see Enley occupying at first and the shadow drenched urban wasteland he moves towards in his attempts to evade Parkson. Zinnemann and his cameraman, Robert Surtees, project some marvelous images, often featuring a panicked Enley stumbling blindly through the underbelly of LA by night – an anonymous, pitiful figure dwarfed and made insignificant by the city’s architecture. They also manage to transform Enley’s home, which initially comes across as a kind of post-war idyll, into a murky and threatening place, reminiscent in its dark confinement of the prison camp where all his troubles began.

I mentioned the clever casting at the beginning and I feel that plays a major role in making the film a success. The two leads dominate the whole thing and their deceptively typical roles add greatly to the unexpected and unpredictable feel of the film. Van Heflin always had that stolid, comforting quality about him, possessing the look, manner and speech of a guy you could depend on. That aspect is certainly played up in the early stages, and the realization that this man isn’t quite as wholesome as we thought comes as a bit of a shock. With Heflin you tend  to expect strength and inner resolve to be to the fore. He has that of course but, as the story progresses, the focus shifts to his weakness and frailty. Somehow, the desperation of Enley is made more credible by the fact it’s Heflin we’re watching. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe Robert Ryan was one of the greatest actors of his generation. This man was capable of convincingly playing a wide range of characters in just about every conceivable genre. Film noir was good to him though and the complex roles he was handed brought out his strengths. Parkson, the limping and obsessive veteran, offered plenty of scope for the intensity and suppressed rage he had a knack for. In the hands of someone less capable or lacking in subtlety the character simply would not work. Once again, first impressions should not be trusted as the menacing bogeyman figure at the start is fleshed out and transformed by the end.

The supporting roles are filled most notably by three fine actresses: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor and Phyllis Thaxter. In her one of her earliest roles, Janet Leigh impresses as the young bride who sees her illusions about the war hero she thought she’d married shattered. Phyllis Thaxter plays Ryan’s neglected girl, a loyal rock-like figure intent on saving her man from his own self-destructiveness. And finally, there’s Mary Astor. Once the arch siren of The Maltese Falcon, Astor gives a memorable turn as the jaded and weary prostitute who offers comfort to the disoriented and confused Enley in LA. These three women provide a stable core to the movie, their constancy contrasting nicely with the fluidity of their male counterparts.

Act of Violence is available on DVD as part of the Warner Film Noir Vol 4 set. The film is paired on one of the discs with John Sturges’ Mystery Street. It’s been transferred well with no noticeable damage and good contrast levels to show off Surtees’ photography. The extras consist of a commentary track by Drew Casper and a short featurette on the movie. As far as I’m concerned, Act of Violence has a lot going for it. The central themes are ones I’m always drawn to and I feel they’re intelligently presented here. What’s more the cast is exceptionally fine with good performances delivered by everyone involved. All told, we’re looking at a strong film noir that develops in an unexpected fashion, but one which is also very satisfying.

BTW, I just noticed that this is my 300th post, another little milestone passed.

 

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The Proud Ones

The minute you people smelled money, this town got an attack of larceny. I don’t blame it on Barrett; I blame it you. You’re supposed to be respectable. You talk about law and order; you’d sell out for a copper penny – any one of you. You’re robbin’ and stealin’ the same as he is, with your fifty dollar boots and your twelve dollar hotel rooms. If I was on this council, I couldn’t look in the mirror without vomiting!

Occasionally, there are films which I fully intend to feature but somehow they seem to slip through the net at the last moment. I’m not entirely sure why that happens as they’re rarely poor or unmemorable. For one reason or another they don’t get written up and I find my attention has moved on to something else. A good example of this is The Proud Ones (1956), although the fact this movie has cropped up in discussions and comments here a few times lately means it’s never been too far from my mind. As 50s westerns go The Proud Ones remains a pretty solid effort, using a fairly common town tamer storyline to look at a handful of people bound together by events from their pasts that can’t be shaken off, and also slipping in a few sly digs at the way progress and prosperity have a way of shepherding in the beginnings of moral decay.

Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) is one of those lawmen who moved from one hot spot to another, his latest port of call being the peaceful town of Flat Rock. However, Flat Rock is about to undergo something of a transformation as the arrival of the first cattle drive promises an upturn in economic fortunes, as well as the potential for increased lawlessness. Westerns tend to focus on the trouble stirred up by visiting cowboys eager to blow off some steam and cut loose after a long period in the saddle. In this case though the source of the problem isn’t the cowboys champing at the bit for whiskey and women; all the trouble that arises stems from the town itself, or its newest arrival anyway. “Honest” John Barrett (Robert Middleton) has just moved in and taken over the running of the saloon and the gambling tables. The thing is Barrett is a sharp operator, not averse to using hired guns and crooked dealers, and he has a bit of history with Silver. Both men locked horns in the past and the result was that Silver apparently ended up being run out of town. A further layer of pressure comes in the form of Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), another new arrival whose father was gunned down by Silver years before. While the marshal has to deal with the needling of Barrett and the alternating hostility and confusion of Thad, he’s faced with an altogether more serious danger. A man in such a position needs the full use of all his faculties at the best of times, but Silver comes to the sobering realization that he may be in danger of losing his sight just as matters are coming to a head.

I’ll have to admit that I’m not very familiar with a lot of director Robert D Webb’s work – apart from the neglected White Feather and the less satisfactory Seven Cities of Gold – but what I have seen indicates that he had a good eye for wide scope compositions. The wide screen tends to work best with films that are heavily dependent on the use of landscape – movies featuring a significant amount of location shooting. Arguably, films which contain a lot of interior shots, as is the case with this production, require greater care if they’re photographed in scope. An overeager or lesser director might  succumb to the temptation to pack out the frame with too many characters and movement, throwing the composition out of kilter and muddling the focus. It’s to Webb’s credit, no doubt aided by having Lucien Ballard as cameraman, that he resisted those temptations and went for clarity instead. Many scenes take place in Silver’s office/jail, and the wide frame is expertly used to highlight the character interaction of the principals whilst also drawing attention to the little gestures and reactions of the peripheral figures. Lionel Newman is the credited composer and the melancholy whistling theme is an understated and ideal accompaniment for the action on the screen.

I’m a big fan of Robert Ryan, a subtle actor of great depth and range who seemed equally at home in both westerns and film noir. A quick look through his credits for the 40s and 50s makes for impressive reading, with hardly a bad performance on view despite the variable quality of some of the projects he was involved in. The Proud Ones offered Ryan the opportunity to play a man whose outward toughness masks the uncertainties and regrets he really feels. His character’s back story is filled in gradually as we go along and, together with the failing eyesight angle, helps to build audience sympathy. Ryan also managed a good rapport, in contrasting ways, with both Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Middleton. While I’m not sure the relationship between Ryan and Hunter quite works, I wouldn’t lay the blame at the door of the actors. I reckon Hunter was and is criminally underrated and tends to get dismissed as a pretty boy who brought little of substance to his roles. Frankly, I don’t go along with that and find him more than satisfactory in most films – I’d go so far as to say he was excellent in Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James for example –  succeeding in getting across the sense of confusion of his character here. Middleton was a versatile character actor, but always made an especially effective heavy. He brings a nice sense of smugness to his role that provides the necessary counterweight to Ryan’s edginess. There’s also a hint, never fully explored, that both Middleton and Ryan were former rivals for the affections of Virginia Mayo. Whilst Mayo gets a more fully developed character to work with here than was often the case, she seems to put a little too much into her performance. This is understandable for an actress who was frequently handed thankless parts, but it does jar a bit. The supporting cast is long and noteworthy with Walter Brennan (slightly wasted as Ryan’s laconic sidekick) and Arthur O’Connell as the distracted deputy heading it up. I mentioned the swipe the script takes at the greed and moral decline accompanying the financial boom, and the opening quote refers to that. Edward Platt and Whit Bissell catch the eye as representatives of the respectable citizenry easily corrupted by the promise of riches.

Fox released The Proud Ones on DVD in the US some years ago but it remains a very strong transfer. The disc offers the film in its correct anamorphic scope ratio on one side while the reverse has a (redundant) pan and scan version. Color and detail are well rendered and the print used is very clean and practically undamaged. Extra features are limited to a handful of trailers. I don’t think Robert Ryan ever made a poor western and The Proud Ones, even though it may not be among his best known pictures, is a fairly strong effort. One could say it’s a generic 50s western and while it’s hard to argue with that assessment it shouldn’t be taken as a criticism either. I feel Mayo overcooks it a little and the central dynamic between Ryan and Hunter could have been improved by the writers. Still, despite these few quibbles, the movie does work when taken as a whole. I’d call it a solid, above average example of the genre.

P.S. – This is just one of those infrequent updates I’ll be adding to the site over the summer – full, normal service shall be resumed some time in September.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in 1950s, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

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Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.

Robert Mitchum

Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.

Burt Lancaster

Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.

Barbara Stanwyck

One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.

Edward G Robinson

This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.

Robert Ryan

With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.

Glenn Ford

Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.

Dana Andrews

A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.

Marie Windsor

The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.

Humphrey Bogart

And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.

So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.

 

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The Naked Spur

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Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart – one of the three great director/actor partnerships (the others, of course, being John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott) that made such an impact on the western and how it was to develop. The importance and the legacy of their collaborative body of work is undeniable; I think it’s safe to say there’s consensus on that. A thornier issue, or at least a more subjective one, is attempting to settle on their best work. When it comes to Stewart and Mann I reckon a case could be made for any one of their westerns – although I do feel that The Far Country is probably the least of them – which is a testament to the consistency of their quality. However, having given it a good deal of consideration, I feel The Naked Spur (1953) just about gets its nose in front. There are two major, interdependent, factors for this: the obsessive and relentless tone that never lets up, and a lead performance by Stewart that I can only describe as magnetic in its intensity.

That this is going to be a dark and tense affair is evident right away as Bronislau Kaper’s moody score plays over the blood red credits. A solitary rider slowly dismounts and ever so cautiously picks his way towards some target he’s spotted up ahead. This is Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a man who’s been doggedly pursuing a wanted murderer all the way from Kansas. On this occasion he doesn’t have his man, it’s merely an old prospector, Tate (Millard Mitchell), he’s stumbled upon. However, the two men strike a bargain to track what may be Kemp’s quarry. Before they can run down their man though they’re joined by another traveller: a flashy young man, Lt Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who’s just been drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge. Immediately, the viewer is caught a little off guard as there’s no clearly identifiable hero figure: Kemp is a driven, secretive man who’s exhibiting signs of instability; Anderson is a vain, amoral criminal; and Tate is a sly opportunist. When we finally see the fugitive, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), he’s all smiles and affability, and he’s even got a beautiful young girl called Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) as company. Who are we to root for here? As the story progresses it does become clearer where our sympathies are being drawn. Nevertheless, at no point does it become a simple black hat vs white hat exercise. Apart from one short skirmish with a party of faceless Blackfeet, it’s these five, disparate characters who dominate proceedings as they trek across a breathtakingly beautiful landscape towards Kansas. The real conflict of the picture is contained within this tight group, and more specifically within the heart of Howard Kemp.

The eyes have it - James Stewart in The Naked Spur.

Anthony Mann’s direction is tight as a drum, never slackening the pace for more than a moment or two at a time and maintaining the high pressure atmosphere right to the end. He keeps the viewer on edge throughout with a bombardment of disorienting high and low angle shots and extreme close-ups, yet intersperses these with enough long range views to ensure that the geography of the action remains apparent. Even here though, where William C Mellor’s camera showcases the natural beauty of Colorado, the binding together of the five travellers is highlighted – simultaneously dwarfed by the towering mountain backdrops and still hemmed in by their need keep each other as close as possible at all times. There are also examples of what Jim Kitses refers to as Mann’s visual motif of a man straining to scale a high place. Kemp is the one who struggles, and fails initially, to reach that higher ground. By the end he succeeds, he’s no longer overreaching himself and consequently achieves the redemption he’s been searching for all along.

It’s the redemptive quest that marks The Naked Spur out as a genuine classic western, but what ensures its successful execution is the power of James Stewart’s performance. Stewart’s wartime experiences gave him a quality that’s very difficult to define but very easy to discern. He could still draw on and display the old geniality of his earlier years, yet there’s an edge there too. His eyes could suddenly fill up with doubt and paranoia, and that “aw shucks” drawl could just as easily strangle itself into a choked stammer. Both Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock got him to tap into this and coaxed performances from him that are almost painful in their honesty. Stewart’s Howard Kemp is a real three dimensional character, a man who marched off to war to do his duty yet finds that in so doing he has ended up at war with himself. He’s driving himself to reverse the mistakes of the past while also loathing the kind of man he’s forced himself to become in the process. In contrast, Robert Ryan’s Vandergroat is a man at peace with himself; he knows he’s no good, he feels no regret for his past actions, and has no hesitation in turning any situation to his own advantage. Ryan was usually best when he was bad, and in this movie he turns on the charm as the unscrupulous student of human weakness to whom manipulation is second nature.

It’s always disappointing when a top movie is handed a less than ideal presentation. The R1 DVD of The Naked Spur from Warner Bros is not a terrible transfer, but it is weak. Clearly, there was no restoration done on this title, and while there isn’t any significant print damage visible there is a softness and lack of detail in the image. These muted visuals are especially noticeable in the long shots. Extras on the disc are confined to a couple of shorts and the theatrical trailer. Anyway, I feel this film remains the pick of the Mann/Stewart westerns, although that’s not to be taken as a criticism of the other films they made together. I’d just place it at the top of an already highly elevated group of films.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

Bad Day at Black Rock

 

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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.

 
 

Born to Be Bad

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Strange how a title can prove misleading, isn’t it? Then again, it’s not always just the title. Take Born to Be Bad (1950) – directed by Nicholas Ray, photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, starring Robert Ryan and appearing in a few noir lists. When you bear all that in mind it’s not unreasonable, I think, to expect to see a good solid noir picture, maybe even a neglected gem. However, appearances are all too often deceptive and that’s certainly the case with this one. I’ll grant that the plot follows a noirish theme and strays towards that elusive dark style at times, but it never quite gets there and remains rooted firmly in melodramatic territory – and soapy melodramatics at that.

The story concerns Christabel (Joan Fontaine) and her determined climb to the top of the social ladder. We first see her after her arrival at the apartment of Donna (Joan Leslie), one of her wealthy uncle’s employees, who’s about to throw a party. Christabel is to attend business school with a view to later working in the uncle’s publishing firm. The first impression we get is of a shy, socially naive woman who’s slightly overwhelmed by the sophisticated and opulent world she’s suddenly arrived in. This feeling is further heightened when she encounters the cocksure and worldly Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), an author who’s recently returned from China. This initial meeting sets the tone for the subsequent relationship between those two characters; Bradley all wisecracks and confidence and Christabel holding him off, but not too far off. The apparent innocence of Christabel is nothing but a sham to facilitate her own scheming though. From the moment she comes across her new flatmate’s wealthy and patrician fiance Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) she gradually reveals her true nature (to the audience at least) as she sets her sights on displacing Donna and ensuring her own comfortable future. There are no surprises in the way the plot develops and it’s this predictability that weakens the movie most. While the story has an inherently noir theme it can’t escape being a study of social manners and hypocrisy, and all the cliches that involves. It’s also not helped by the light tone that seems to pervade it, with the jokey, mocking ending doing nothing to dispel that.

Tough love - Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad.

Nicholas Ray’s directing career was highly unpredictable and could veer wildly from the brilliant to the mediocre. It’s hard to believe that this sudsy concoction came from the same man who produced dark masterpieces like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground. Of course, Howard Hughes’ notorious tampering may have had something to do with the flat and apathetic feel that Ray’s work here inspires. When the plot is a humdrum affair then you look to the visuals to add some life but neither Ray nor Musuraca manage to create anything especially memorable and I caught myself checking out the counter a couple of times while watching, never a good sign. The casting is generally good, although I have to admit I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms Fontaine’s work outside of Rebecca and Suspicion, her two collaborations with Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say I dislike her performances as such, but I’d rarely seek out a film due to her presence – that innocent vulnerability she projected could be used to good effect but it’s also a characteristic that tends to be restrictive. In Born to Be Bad the kind of duality the role calls for isn’t altogether successful as Fontaine’s “bad girl” moments are never entirely convincing. Joan Leslie, on the other hand, is much better as the spurned Donna. She brings a far more believable quality to her playing, and her growing suspicion of Christabel’s motives progresses naturally. Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott were both handed fairly typical parts for them, and they do all that’s asked satisfactorily. Ryan has that familiar swagger that suggests something hidden deeper inside, but his character doesn’t get the chance to develop much and kind of tails off as the picture goes on. Scott got the better written role and thus his Curtis Carey comes across as more rounded, although Ryan delivers the best of some fairly ripe dialogue. 

The French DVD from Montparnasse is quite typical of their RKO titles, a little soft and thick in places but generally clean and I wasn’t aware of any damage to the print. As with all their releases the subs aren’t forced on the English track and extras are non-existent, apart from the usual introduction. I can’t say I got much pleasure from this movie; there are some nice performances but that’s about it as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I went in expecting something different – correction, I did go in expecting something different – and the film I got fell short. If you’re after an undiscovered noir then this isn’t the place to look, but if you want some social melodrama with a touch of darkness it may just fit the bill.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Robert Ryan

 

Inferno

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A little suffering is good for the soul – that would appear to be the message of Inferno (1953). It’s a classic tale of man against nature with a liberal sprinkling of deceit, infidelity and murder thrown in for good measure. The movie is generally regarded as a film noir and I suppose that’s fair enough given its themes, although the visuals (technicolor and wide open spaces) suggest it should be the antithesis of that style.

The opening pitches you right into the middle of the plot with no time wasted on backstory or build-up. Within a few minutes the viewer knows exactly what’s going on and what led up to it. A man has broken his leg out in the desert and his wife and her lover have decided to abandon him and let nature take its course. The unfortunate victim is one Don Carson (Robert Ryan), a hard drinking businessman with plenty of money but few friends. Carson has gone out to a remote part of the desert in the company of his faithless wife Gerry (Rhonda Fleming) and a mining engineer, Duncan (William Lundigan), to scout for manganese deposits. When an accident presents Gerry and Duncan with a heaven sent opportunity to rid themselves of Carson they grab it with both hands. All they need do is manipulate the evidence and cook up a story about Carson going off on an alcoholic bender to be home free. However, the scheming  lovers underestimate their victim and his resourcefulness – Carson may have led a pampered life of privilege but he has a powerful will to live and an instinct for survival. The film twists and turns its way to the conclusion and, as it does so, the character of Carson moves smoothly from being initially an unsympathetic boor to a man the viewer can both admire and root for. The best scenes in the movie have Carson battling against the merciless desert, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. There’s also some clever cutting to point up the contrasting fortunes of the protagonists: while the hero grows desperate for water there’s a sudden jump to a shot of Duncan diving into a crystal clear pool; and when Carson finds himself on the verge of starvation the next scene has his wife delicately carving a roast back at the LA mansion.

Robert Ryan near the end of his tether in Inferno.

Inferno saw Robert Ryan near the top of his game in a career that had more than its fair share of highs. He spends the bulk of his screen time alone in the vast wilderness, crawling and dragging his broken body over the unforgiving terrain. There’s no one else present to play off and that fact makes it even more remarkable that he managed to develop his character into a fully rounded human being that we actually care about. He starts out as a spoiled, sullen drunk petulantly taking pot shots at a discarded whisky bottle, but by the end of the picture his trials and torments have transformed him into a man of character and humility. Rhonda Fleming was well cast as the devious Gerry, brimming with a kind of loathsome sexiness. She is the typically heartless femme fatale with a perverse sense of morality, who doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of leaving a man to a slow, aching death but baulks at the idea of shooting him. William Lundigan was a fairly bland actor but a capable enough one for all that. Although Inferno would be one of his last major roles before moving into television he does a reasonable job with a basically one dimensional character. Director Roy Ward Baker made a handful of movies in Hollywood in the early 50s before moving back to Britain. Inferno was the last of them and it wasn’t a bad one to finish on. He makes wonderful use of the desert locations to emphasise the harshness of the environment and the lonely struggle of the hero. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a cameraman of the calibre of Lucien Ballard on hand, and the two of them managed to turn out a film that’s tense, uplifting and visually arresting. This movie was originally shot in 3D, a process that sometimes led to gimmicky effects shots, but it never really intrudes too much here – though a lantern is fired directly at the camera during the climax.

A while back, when Fox was still in the business of issuing DVDs, it was rumoured that Inferno was due a release in the US, possibly as part of the noir line but nothing ever came of it. However, it has been given a release in R2 in Spain by a company called Impulso. They have licensed a number of titles and market them as Fox Cinema Classics. The transfer for Inferno is a generally pleasing one. Viewed on a 37 inch screen I thought it looked fine for the most part – the image is mostly smooth and sharp but there are instances of heavy grain (especially during the titles). The colour is quite strong but it can take on a slight pinkish hue at times. The disc itself is pretty basic with the only extra of note being a gallery. All told, I was satisfied with this one and it is the only way to get your hands on this title at the time of writing. Inferno is a tight, pacy little movie that clocks in at 80 minutes and rarely stops to take a breath. I’d rate it highly as a noirish thriller in an unusual setting, boasting classy performances and excellent visuals.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Robert Ryan, Roy Ward Baker

 

Berlin Express

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Post-war Europe was an excellent setting for a noir picture – the bombed out ruins and a displaced, despairing population provided a near perfect backdrop for such films. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is a mix of spy story, noir and propaganda piece. That latter element is the one thing that knocks it down a peg and damages its noir credentials slightly; those repeated attempts to inject a kind of brave new world optimism into what should be a fatalistic film really work against it in the end.

The movie opens in the documentary style that was popular at the time, complete with the “voice of God” narration to set the scene and introduce the main players. Normally, I’m not averse to a good voiceover but the somewhat strident, Mark Hellinger-style commentary employed here does start to grate pretty fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t dominate things for too long and, once it’s been established that we’re following a group of international travellers on the military express bound for Berlin, regular cinema storytelling techniques kick in. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American agriculturalist on his way to take up a position with the occupying forces, and the plot unfolds through his eyes. His companions are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian – representing the four powers. Apart from military personnel, there are also a number of German nationals on board – one of whom is in mortal danger. The gentleman in question is a diplomat with a noble plan for peaceful coexistence in Europe. When a makeshift bomb kills his decoy, his identity is revealed to the audience but the danger remains. No sooner has the train deposited its passengers in the ruins of Berlin than the eminent diplomat is abducted. So, the four just men, bowing to pressure from the captive’s secretary (Merle Oberon), take on the role of amateur sleuths and the chase is on. Their hunt leads them through the rubble and backstreet dives of the fallen capital, and leads the audience into the best segment of the movie. This is a twilight world, full of people driven to the very brink – scrambling for discarded cigarette butts, scanning the ever present lists of missing persons, and hanging around stations pathetically trying to hawk their meagre possessions. As Lindley and his companions grope their way through this decaying world the speechmaking and in-your-face social comment is mercifully kept to a minimum, letting the visuals make the point much more eloquently. 

Robert Ryan & Merle Oberon arriving just too late.

Robert Ryan plays a role here that is very much that of the everyman bumbling his way into a situation that is over his head. His craggy careworn features were well utilized over the years in countless noirs and westerns, and I always regard his presence in any film as a big recommendation. Merle Oberon, on the other hand was an actress that I could take or leave. Having said that, she does well enough as the French secretary determined to track down her kidnapped boss. For me though, the real stars of the movie were director Tourneur and cameraman Lucien Ballard. Together they manage to turn a middling spy story into a visual treat. The location work helps enormously of course, but there’s no end to the interesting angles and memorable shots served up – low angles, overheads, reflections etc. Tourneur also handles the various set pieces beautifully; from the cabaret scene (reminiscent of the Mr. Memory sequence in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps) and the confrontation in the abandoned brewery, to the tense climax aboard the train once more. Only the happy ever after coda rings false, hindsight allowing us to see that forty years of conflict and subterfuge would be the order of the day rather than the spirit of cheerful comradeship and cooperation that the film alludes to.

Berlin Express was an RKO production and a few years ago that would have meant that there was always the possibility of a shiny new transfer on the cards from Warners in R1. Unfortunately, those days are now gone and this film is on its way to the dreaded Archive. However, there is an alternative in the shape of a R2 release from French company Montparnasse. The R2 disc is typical of the company’s fare, in that it’s neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally poor. The transfer is adequate, there’s no serious print damage but, equally, there’s no evidence of any restoration and it looks to be interlaced. Still, the Archive offering is unlikely to be any improvement and the pricing, suspect media and restricted availability weigh heavily against it. Berlin Express is a film that flirts around the boundaries of noir, but I feel that there’s enough in the story, cinematography and direction to warrant its inclusion in the category. While it may not be up there with the greats of dark cinema it should be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Ryan

 

Hour of the Gun

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Ten years after making Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Director John Sturges paid a return visit to Tombstone. Where his earlier film drew to a close with the shootout of the title, Hour of the Gun takes it as the starting point and proceeds from there. Although the 1967 movie is more or less a direct sequel, it is a very different production. Those intervening ten years had seen the western evolve away from a brighter optimism to become something much darker. The Wyatt Earp of Hour of the Gun is far removed from the upstanding representative of justice and honour that had previously been the standard. This is a driven, vengeful man who manipulates the law more than he upholds it. 

The first half of the film sticks pretty close to the known facts and it is only towards the end that it drifts off into the realm of fantasy. It opens at the O.K. Corral and is quite accurate in depicting what actually happened; all those involved in the real incident are shown to be there and, for the first time, behave in the way that history has recorded. The story continues with the trial of the Earps and what would come to be known as the Earp vendetta. It is only the ending, where Wyatt and Doc Holliday track down Ike Clanton in Mexico for a final confrontation, that departs radically from the truth. However, aside from greater vercity, the most distinctive feature of this film is the way Wyatt Earp is portrayed. In all the previous versions he was a man whose primary motivation was the service of justice and the badge of office that symbolised it. In Hour of the Gun he starts off in much the same mode, but the attacks on his family bring about a rapid and drastic change. This Wyatt Earp is an anti-heroic figure paying only lip service to the law as he takes advantage of his position to exact a cold and bloody revenge on those he holds responsible for the shootings of his brothers. Although he carries arrest warrants, it becomes increasingly clear to his companions on the posse, and to the viewer, that he has no intention of ever serving them. One by one, the hired gunmen are shot down in what amount to legal executions. 

Jason Robards & James Garner

If you’re only familiar with James Garner as the easy-going Jim Rockford, then his work here is a revelation. His Wyatt Earp doesn’t indulge in shy romances or offer fatherly advice to wayward teens – he is instead the angel of death. For the most part he comes across as aloof and unemotional, yet there is a maniacal, almost psychopathic, gleam in his eyes in those scenes where he blasts away his enemies. Jason Robards was frankly too old to play Doc Holliday although he brings a world-weary cynicism to the part that is attractive. The script makes a number of references to his deadly reputation but his main function in the film is to act as the conscience to Earps dark avenger, taking him to task for using the law to his own ends. Robert Ryan was always good value in any film which he graced with his presence, and his Ike Clanton is more of a politically savvy string-puller than an out and out gunslinger. There’s also a small role for Jon Voight (his big screen debut) as Curly Bill Brocius. The direction from Sturges is a solid, professional job and the story moves along at a nice pace. I’ve become very fond of Sturges as a director; he was no groundbreaker or innovator like Ford, Peckinpah or Leone but he almost always turned out strong, quality product. The film also benefits from a fine Jerry Goldsmith score, downbeat and relentless like the story itself. 

Hour of the Gun seems to be the Wyatt Earp film that no one remembers, and that’s a pity. I think it’s a little hidden gem of a movie that deserves much more recognition. MGM have had this out on DVD in R1 for a few years now in a mediocre interlaced transfer. It’s recently had a R2 outing in what looks like the same print but this time it seems progressive – at least it runs a lot smoother on my system. All things considered, I’d say this is a worthy addition to the Earp canon and a film that I’m more than happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2008 in 1960s, James Garner, John Sturges, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 
 
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