RSS

Category Archives: Robert Taylor

The House of the Seven Hawks

The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) has a potentially interesting premise. There’s an American charter boat skipper with a laid-back approach to the law operating out of a foreign port, which straight away recalls Harry Morgan in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. There’s a trio of shadowy figures – a fat man, an effete and prissy assistant, and a none too smart bodyguard – plotting on the periphery, so it’s hard not to be reminded of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Naturally, we also have a brace of females whose motives and loyalties are difficult to pin down. Such a setup promises much, but the movie itself delivers only sporadically.

John Nordley is scratching out a living on the English coast, hiring out his boat for charter. Despite not having clearance to leave British waters, his latest client – an elderly Dutchman going by the name of Anselme (Gerard Heinz) – promises a fat reward if Nordley will run him as far as the Netherlands. Bearing in mind the money involved, Nordley reckons it’s worth the risk and agrees. Unfortunately, just as the vessel is in sight of its destination, Nordley finds that his passenger has passed away in his cabin. A quick search reveals that Anselme had a kind of crude map overlay taped to his body. Sensing it could be important, Nordley appropriates the document, and his suspicions are borne out when a young woman in a motor launch (Linda Christian) turns up purporting to be the deceased’s daughter. Not finding the document, she quickly takes off, and events move pretty fast at this point. It turns out that the dead man was in reality a member of the Dutch police traveling incognito and the document is sought by those on both sides of the law. As such, Nordley has stumbled into a murky situation where everyone seems to know a whole lot more than he does, yet his cooperation, or at least his apparent knowledge of the whereabouts of the map key, is in great demand. What it all boils down to is a hunt for missing Nazi loot, and Nordley has his hands full trying to stay one step ahead of the police, criminals and duplicitous women.

Adapted from a Victor Canning novel, The House of the Seven Hawks flatters to deceive. As I mentioned above, all the ingredients would seem to be in place for an intriguing little thriller. And yet it never really sparks into life. Richard Thorpe’s direction is passable enough, and the location work in the Netherlands is attractive. Still, with the exception of a handful of scenes it all looks a bit nondescript. This kind of tale cries out for some moody or interesting visuals to generate or accentuate the suspense and mystery elements, but that rarely happens. However, a bigger problem is the script. I haven’t read Canning’s novel so I can’t say whether the fault lies with the source material or Jo Eisinger’s adaptation. Either way, the fact remains that the pace fades once the action moves to the Netherlands. The movie runs for around 90 minutes and I think it could have been a better piece if a bit of trimming had been done. There’s too much talk and a lot of it’s pretty dull to boot.

What kept my interest in the movie alive was mainly the presence of Robert Taylor. He’d had a great run in the movies throughout the 50s and had some first-rate work under his belt. His role here as the skipper with a fondness for bending the rules when the price was right seems like a good piece of casting. In truth, he doesn’t disappoint, although the part fails to offer the depth or complexity that played to his strengths as a performer. It’s Taylor’s sardonic and cynical delivery of some pretty banal dialogue that just about keeps the whole thing afloat though. At first, I thought that Linda Christian’s femme fatale was going to provide the movie with a much needed lift, but she’s given far too little to do and disappears far too soon. Which means that there’s more screen time for Nicole Maurey, but her character is a lot less interesting. As it happens, I recently watched Ms Maurey in Robert Hamer’s The Scapegoat, where she was handed a far better role. Eric Pohlmann and David Kossoff played the principal villains, the latter adding a touch of quirky humor, but it has to be said they don’t manage to create the necessary degree of menace; there’s never the feeling that Taylor won’t be able to handle this pair. The other supporting roles of note are filled by Donald Wolfit and Philo Hauser.

The House of the Seven Hawks is a film I’d never seen until I picked up the DVD a while back. It’s available in the US as part of the Warner Archive and as a pressed disc in Italy. I have that Italian release and I have to say it presents the film nicely. The image is 1.78:1 and generally looks fine, without any noticeable print damage and it’s pretty sharp throughout. There’s the option to watch the film in English either with or without Italian subtitles and an Italian dub is also available. Extras consist of the trailer and a gallery. So, how does the movie stack up overall? Personally, I have a soft spot for thrillers of this era and anything with Robert Taylor is always welcome. Having said that, there’s no getting away from the fact that the movie doesn’t represent the best of either. In all honesty, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and done better.

 
37 Comments

Posted by on March 2, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Robert Taylor

 

Tags: , ,

Saddle the Wind

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. – Unforgiven (1992)

I decided to open with the above quote to prove a point of sorts. It’s a point about perception, the way cinema tricks us into believing certain things, or at least the way those who write about cinema shape our views. There are plenty of people who point to Eastwood’s Unforgiven and hold it up as the ultimate myth buster. I like the movie well enough but it does bring a wry smile to my face when I hear it lauded as a film which highlighted the corrosive effects of violence on men who lived by the gun. It’s easy to see how those unfamiliar with the genre, or even those with only limited exposure to it, could buy into the theory that Unforgiven is a bigger game changer than it really is. There is a tendency among some, probably fueled by the influence of the spaghetti western, to imagine the genre was all about cool, trigger-happy gunslingers prior to 1992. Somehow, the perception arose that the western shied away from or glossed over the consequences of violence and killing. Yet if one goes back to the golden decade of the 50s, it’s clear that the genre had already faced such themes head on. Saddle the Wind (1958) is a film about killing, a painful and probing examination of the repercussions of pulling a trigger and taking a life.

The opening sees a stranger (Charles McGraw) riding into town. He’s one of those bristly, hard-bitten types, the kind of guy who oozes insolence and aggression, who demands rather than asks. Men like this have a swaggering confidence born of the knowledge that they’re tough, mean and fast enough to carry it all off. Anyway, he makes it clear that he’s looking for a man, Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor), and guys such as this don’t come looking for men just to be sociable. Steve Sinclair is now a respected rancher but he has a murky past that he’s trying to live down, having once been a famed gunman and killer. So what’s new, you may ask. Thus far the scenario is one that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of westerns. Well Steve is a man who has learned from the sins of his youth, he’s become a reformed character and has rejected violence. However, Steve has a younger brother, Tony (John Cassavetes), who appears to have inherited the worst traits of his elder sibling. Tony is more than just a cocksure kid with a gun and a point to prove; he’s a damaged human being, a walking stick of dynamite without a hint of remorse and a lust for killing. We first see Tony as he arrives home with a girl he intends to wed, former saloon singer Joan (Julie London), and a new gun. It’s immediately clear that there’s something itching away under Tony’s hide: he deposits his betrothed in the house, introduces her to all, and then proceeds to indulge his real passion. Where a normal guy would fawn and fuss over his newly acquired fiancée, Tony instead gets straight to work honing his shooting skills with his new six-shooter. Not only that, but there’s a manic, obsessive edge to his practice, rounded off by his blasting away at his own reflection in the water – which of course foreshadows the film’s climax. And this, more than anything else, is what the whole movie is really about, two very different brothers and their attitude to violence. The more Steve tries to rein in the excesses of his brother, the more Tony strains against that moderating influence. What finally brings the conflict to a head is the arrival of a former Yankee soldier (Royal Dano) bent on claiming his family’s legacy and stringing the dreaded barbed wire on the open range. Tony’s overreaction and stubborn refusal to heed Steve’s call for calm leads to a tragic confrontation. His neglect of Joan has already irritated Steve, but it’s his determination to usurp the authority of the local land baron (Donald Crisp) which finally forces the two brothers into a situation where only one can walk away.

Robert Parrish isn’t a director whose name will be familiar to many these days. However, he made a string of fine films throughout the 50s, culminating in the truly excellent The Wonderful Country. I recall reading somewhere that Parrish was unhappy that he wasn’t given full control over the final cut of that movie; I don’t know if that’s true but the fact remains his career as a director appears to have slumped dramatically after hitting that peak. Anyway, Saddle the Wind (with its screenplay by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame) comes awfully close to being his best work – I reckon The Wonderful Country just about pips it to the post but there’s not a lot in it – with some memorable visuals and an extraordinarily powerful theme. Pitting brother against brother always makes for good drama. When you mix in the simmering resentment left over from the Civil War, and a scathing critique of machismo and the culture of violence then it all adds up to something quite special. It’s that last point which I mentioned in my introduction, and I’d like to explore it a little further here. Others have pointed out that the scene where Jack Palance gunned down Elisha Cook Jr in Shane was a pivotal moment in the development  of the western, and I’m not going to argue with that. That proved that gun play and violence was a mean, dirty business. Saddle the Wind follows on from that and literally hammers  the point home: apart from the heartfelt speeches delivered by Taylor and Crisp at various times, the killings that take place in the film, and there aren’t actually that many, are grim and brutal. No-one dies easily; as the bullets tear into bodies, the victims clearly suffer, twitching, kicking and coughing to the bitter end. And then there’s the aftermath, the consequences of taking a life. Two of the characters (Crisp & Taylor) bear the psychological scars of a violent past and their world view is shaped by that. For me, it’s this mature consideration of the effects of violence on the souls of men that marks Saddle the Wind out as one of the great westerns of the greatest decade of the genre.

The more often I watch Robert Taylor’s westerns, particularly those of the late 50s, the more I come to view him as one of the most significant figures in the genre. I didn’t include him in my list of the top ten western stars which I compiled at the tail end of last year, and I tend to think now that it may have been a major omission. I guess Taylor is never likely to attain the status of Stewart, Scott or Wayne but his finest western roles made a big contribution to the genre. In Saddle the Wind he achieved a marvelously quiet dignity, a kind of pained courage that projected all-round masculinity as opposed to juvenile machismo. Taylor’s calm awareness of his own strengths and weaknesses contrasts well with the strutting bravado of Cassavetes. Now there’s a figure one wouldn’t normally associate with the west. Cassavetes had a very urban and modern air about him, a guy who it’s hard to imagine outside of a big city environment. Yet that otherness, that discomfort with his surroundings, works under the circumstances. Cassavetes’ character is a young man at war with himself, and by extension with the whole world around him. If Cassavetes doesn’t truly belong in this frontier setting then it’s merely a reflection of the character whose psychological flaws and displaced morality set him apart from those around him. He honestly comes across as some unbridled force of nature, and Taylor’s futile efforts to tame him could easily be seen as a fruitless attempt at saddling the wind. These two men unquestionably dominate the film but it’s also important to mention the work done by Donald Crisp and Royal Dano. Crisp was always good in patriarchal roles and his benign presence in this movie is every bit as touching and influential as the rather different yet comparable part he played in Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie. Royal Dano was one of those character actors who seemed to pop up all over the place, and his halting delivery and hunted look tend to stick in the mind. Saddle the Wind offered him a role to get his teeth into, a desperate man driven on by his private sense of honor and justice. And that brings me to Julie London. Her fame today derives from her singing (and she provides a beautiful version of the theme song of this film) but she also starred in three exceptional westerns around this time: The Wonderful Country, Man of the West and the film under discussion.

Saddle the Wind was an MGM production and so it was released on DVD by Warner Brothers a few years ago in their Western Classics box set. The film has been given a very good transfer to DVD, the anamorphic scope image looking bright, clean and colorful. The location photography in Colorado looks quite stunning in places and the audio is also strong with the gunshots packing a considerable punch, and Elmer Bernstein’s brooding score sounding rich. The only extra feature offered on the disc is the theatrical trailer. I believe this is a very fine western, although nowhere near as well-known as it deserves to be. I see it as further proof of how far the western had progressed by the late 50s. However, the fact that thoughtful films like this are only infrequently mentioned can also be regarded as evidence of the regression the genre experienced through the following decade. Anyway, next time someone claims that a film such as Unforgiven broke entirely new ground in terms of its critique of violent lifestyles, you can simply point them towards this production and tell them it’s not as new a concept as they first imagined.

 
85 Comments

Posted by on September 24, 2013 in 1950s, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

Tags: , ,

Party Girl

Last time, I had a look at a gangster/noir crossover movie, an early example of the emergence of a darker sensibility in crime movies in Hollywood. Let’s jump ahead almost two decades, to the point at which film noir was nearing the end of the classic cycle. Again, the film in question is something of a hybrid, a fusion of styles and influences, but the principal elements remain the gangster story and shadowy world of the dark cinema. A lot of film noir throughout the 1950s featured the involvement of organized crime so Party Girl (1958), despite abandoning the more usual contemporary setting, can be viewed as a continuation of that trend. Having said that, the movie could be classed as a marginal entry – it’s shot in lurid technicolor and at times resembles a hard-boiled variation of the classic studio musical. However, in spite of what sound like stylistic contradictions, Party Girl is categorized by many writers as a genuine film noir, and I guess its themes do have the requisite darkness and ambiguity to qualify it for inclusion.

Chicago in the early 30s – Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) is a mob lawyer, and a successful one. He’s respected and feared by judges and prosecutors not simply due to his connections but because he’s the top man in his line. Farrell is first glimpsed at a party thrown by crime kingpin Rico Angelo (Lee J Cobb) – actually it’s as much a wake as a party since Rico is laying to rest a broken heart on hearing the news that Jean Harlow, whom he’s adored from afar, is to be wed – and he’s surrounded by a group of city dignitaries hanging onto his every word. One might assume that Farrell has it made, but this is only the silver lining obscuring the cloud. Farrell is almost a cripple, his hip and leg twisted as a result of a youthful escapade gone wrong. It is often the case in movies that physical imperfections are mirrored by deeper psychological scars, and so it is with Tommy Farrell. This man who glides effortlessly through the powerful social milieu in spite of his pronounced limp is emotionally wounded. His beautiful but callous wife left him since she couldn’t overcome her disgust at his physical deformity, and Farrell has been unable to heal that emotional wound. However, his rehabilitation begins at Rico’s party when he agrees to escort home Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer and one of the “party girls” hired for the evening. Although the evening ends with a rather gruesome discovery, Farrell and Vicki do make a connection that will blossom despite a few bumpy stretches along the way. The whole movie is principally concerned with Farrell’s rediscovery of his self-respect after years of loathing himself. Running parallel to the developing relationship with Vicki is the thread that follows Farrell’s attempts to distance himself from Rico and the corrupt and violent world he inhabits. Just when it looks like the hero may have achieved the spiritual peace he’s long been seeking, Rico’s machinations and threats haul him back to defend one of his paymaster’s psychotic associates. However, having had a taste of life beyond the cheap neon glamour of the underworld, Farrell is determined to get out for good. The trick is to find a way to protect Vicki, bring down Rico, and save his own skin at the same time.

Nostalgia for certain periods tends to come in waves, and the late 50s saw a resurgence of interest in the old gangster movies. Party Girl tapped into that vibe and director Nicholas ray added his own personal touch to it. Ray only made a handful of noir pictures altogether – all are interesting in their own way, and two (In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground) are pure bred classics. All of Ray’s best movies dealt with those who were in some way removed from the mainstream of society, and Party Girl follows that template. Farrell is superficially a man at the heart of city life. Yet, he’s an outsider in every sense; a lawyer who essentially makes a mockery of the law, an apparent mob insider who is revolted by the crassness and brutality around him, and a man bedeviled by his own sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fact that the mobsters and hoodlums who populate the film are themselves social pariahs, Vicki is another character existing at the periphery of decency. The struggle which Farrell and Vicki undertake to break free of the dark influences that threaten to drag them down is classic Ray material. Another feature common to Ray’s work, and seen in abundance here, is the unrestrained use of color. Party Girl is a riot of technicolor hues that seem to allude to the heightened emotional state of the characters.

Even though I’m a great admirer of his work in general, I think it’s fair to say Robert Taylor gave an excellent performance as Farrell. As he aged, and his looks took on more character, he did some first-rate work in westerns, and the same can be said about his noir pictures. He brought a dour toughness to his role as the tortured lawyer, and worked well with Charisse. For her own part, Charisse adopted the right kind of world-weary air that befits a woman who has spent her time dodging unwanted passes and living off dubious handouts in seedy nightclubs. She was of course an immensely talented dancer, one of the greats, and the movie features a couple of set piece numbers designed to show off her moves. With the club setting, and her character’s profession, these sequences are blended seamlessly into the narrative. They may capture the look and feel of a musical yet they never have that jarring, artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke. The other big hitter in the cast was Lee J Cobb. This was an actor who could explode out of the screen at times, his inherent power always in danger of turning into bombast. In Party Girl, Ray managed to get the right kind of balance from Cobb for the most part. Sure there are instances where he drifts awfully close to scenery chewing, but there are some quietly effective moments too – his chat with Taylor where he blackmails the lawyer into cooperating under the threat of disfiguring his girlfriend is all the more chilling due to Cobb’s restraint. The supporting cast was headed up by the ever reliable John Ireland as Cobb’s slimy and dangerous right hand man. Also featured were Kent Smith – despite his long and varied career, I’ll always associate him with one of his earliest roles in Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People – as the straight arrow prosecutor, and a manic Corey Allen as the unbalanced hood Cookie La Motte.

For a long time, Party Girl wasn’t the easiest movie to see. However, it has been released on DVD in France and Spain and as a MOD disc via the Warner Archive in the US. I have the old French Warner Brothers DVD which is pretty good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print used for the transfer seems in good shape. There’s plenty of clarity, the colors are strong and quite vibrant, and damage (if there is any) is so slight I can’t say I noticed. There are no extra features on the disc – subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. The blending of styles and genres just about works in the movie, drawing in elements of melodrama, the musical and a crime tale to create a fairly unique film noir. Aside from a trio of good performances, what holds the whole thing together is the direction of Nicholas Ray. In the hands of a lesser director, the disparate elements could well have pulled the movie apart. As it stands, Party Girl remains one of Ray’s interesting experiments which I feel more or less succeeds. Of course much of this depends on how one reacts to Ray as a filmmaker; as such, it’s another of those films that I’d cautiously recommend.

 
42 Comments

Posted by on March 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Nicholas Ray, Robert Taylor

 

Tags: , , ,

The Last Hunt

Westerns, especially the classics of the 50s, tackled just about every theme imaginable, often passing comment on universal concerns that transcend the genre itself. That of course is one of the western’s great strengths, it’s ability to resonate widely. However, the genre has also dealt with what might be termed more direct concerns too, actions and events that impacted  on the shaping of the frontier and the course of US history. Bearing in mind that the old west was essentially a wilderness, it’s no surprise that animals occupied such an important place in the minds of those who lived there. There are countless examples on film highlighting the importance to the native people and settlers alike of the horse. How many times have we witnessed the contempt and hatred directed towards horse thieves? In a primal landscape covering vast distances, the theft of a man’s sole means of transport was naturally one of the foulest crimes. However, the horse wasn’t the only animal which played a significant role in the development of the frontier. The buffalo, that great beast which sustained and dominated the lives of the plains Indians, was every bit as vital in its own way. As such, it’s perhaps surprising that The Last Hunt (1956) is one of the few westerns that concentrates on the fate of those creatures which once roamed in huge numbers across the continent.

The Last Hunt is the story of two quite different men, Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) and Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), who enter into an uneasy partnership. Sandy is a famed buffalo hunter, but he’s also a man sickened by killing and has abandoned his old profession to turn his attention to the cattle business. However, fate has other ideas and, when a buffalo stampede wipes out his herd, a chance meeting with war veteran Charlie leads him reluctantly back to hunting. While Sandy has seen more than enough bloodshed, Charlie has something approaching an obsession with death. Charlie’s wartime experiences have clearly left a mark, and he seems to live to kill. The contrasting approaches of the two  men is highlighted during one of the hunt scenes. Having established a stand, the camera switches between this pair as they go about the slow, methodical business of picking off the buffalo herd. Charlie’s features are fixed in a mask of sadistic delight as one animal after another drops and breathes its last. Conversely, Sandy is stricken by conscience and is on the verge of breaking down and weeping at the thought of the devastation he’s participating in. If the radically different perspectives of the partners weren’t a great enough source of conflict, their rivalry is further complicated when Charlie captures a young Indian girl (Debra Paget) and takes her as his woman. Along with his wide sadistic streak, Charlie is also an unashamed racist with a deep suspicion and hatred of the Indian. He considers the girl to be his personal property, one of the spoils of war if you like, to be used or abused as he pleases. Not only does Sandy regard this kind of boorishness as an affront  to his sense of morality and civilized behaviour, but he also finds himself developing feelings for the girl himself. Charlie’s mounting paranoia and Sandy’s growing self-disgust, fueled both by their slaughter of the buffalo and the presence of the girl in their midst, see the tensions rise inexorably. Sooner or later, these two will have to face off and settle their scores, and the climax of the movie is a memorably chilling one in every sense as the final confrontation takes place during a freezing blizzard.

Richard Brooks started out as a writer, scripting films such as Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo before moving into directing with the Cary Grant suspenser Crisis in 1950. He didn’t work much within the western genre, making only Bite the Bullet, The Professionals and The Last Hunt. As a writer, he tended to tackle complex and controversial subjects and his first western as director (with a script credit too) saw him continue in a similar vein. The Last Hunt works in the theme of racism alongside its ecological message; the systematic elimination of the buffalo was essentially a government sponsored programme once the realization set in that the army wasn’t going to defeat the Indians through conventional military tactics. The buffalo had a special place within Indian culture, providing not only a source of food but also many of the essentials of life. The Indians used almost every part of the animals to make clothing, shelter, and tools. Therefore, it’s impossible to overestimate the status of these creatures as far as the native people were concerned. Brooks highlights the mysticism involved when he features a white buffalo, a sacred figure. This device also serves to draw attention again to the differences between Charlie and Sandy: Sandy is entranced by the sight of such a rarity, while Charlie sees only profit and immediately slays it. Although this is, superficially at least, a fairly simple tale, there’s a lot going on and Brooks blends it all together very successfully, ensuring that a brisk pace is maintained without sacrificing any of the necessary character development.

Robert Taylor is an actor whose work I’ve featured regularly on this site and The Last Hunt offered him one of his very best roles, maybe even the best. Generally, he played heroic figures but this film saw him take on the persona of an irredeemable rogue. I’ve read comments in the past which indicated Taylor had  doubts about his own abilities as a performer, but roles such as Charlie Gilson prove that there was no basis for such harsh self-criticism. I always feel the best and most effective movie villains have the knack of drawing a degree of sympathy or pity from the viewer, and that’s the case with Taylor’s portrayal here. There’s no question that Charlie is a bad lot, but Taylor brought a certain fragility to the part and that adds an interesting variation to what could have been a bland and routine character. Stewart Granger might seem an odd choice for a western hero but here, in his second genre picture, he’s both comfortable and convincing. Apparently, Granger took to the whole western experience off-screen too and was well thought of by the crew. He’s very effective as the conscience-stricken counterbalance to Taylor’s killing machine and the two actors play well off each other. The Last Hunt is another of those movies with a small central cast; they’re usually quite successful at rounding out the characters and offering some more depth. In this case, the two protagonists benefit more from the increased focus though. Debra Paget as the captive Indian girl is never named and remains a slightly colourless presence throughout, albeit a strikingly attractive one. After appearing in Broken Arrow, this was Paget’s third outing as an Indian maiden and it must have looked like she was going to be permanently typecast at this point. Whatever you say about Paget, I don’t think anyone could mistake Russ Tamblyn for a native American. Nevertheless, he was cast as the half-breed hired by Sandy and Charlie, and his sympathetic presence is used to emphasize the blind bigotry of the latter and the relative enlightenment of the former. Best of all among the supporting players though is Lloyd Nolan, another initially questionable choice for a western. Nolan had a very  urban air about him and I tend to think of quick talking cops and the character of Michael Shayne whenever I see him. Still, he really embraced the part of the one-legged buffalo skinner and turned in a very  memorable performance.

For a long time The Last Hunt was only available on DVD in Europe. However, the film has recently made its US debut via the Warner Archive. I can’t comment on the quality of that particular transfer though as I don’t own a copy. I have the French release by WB, which looks reasonable although the scope image is letterboxed and non-anamorphic. In common with the majority of Warner titles released in Europe, it’s a bare bones affair with optional subtitles that can be deselected on the setup menu. The movie itself is a real keeper, a bit of a neglected gem that looks good, has fine performances, and makes a number of interesting points about man’s impact on the environment and race relations. The wider availability of this title on DVD may hopefully raise the profile of a film that’s well deserving of some renewed attention.

 
 

The Bribe

The last non-western I looked at had Ava Gardner suffering in an exotic setting. The Bribe (1949) sees the same actress back sweating it out in a far-flung place, but the results are much more satisfying this time. The film is a borderline noir that employs some of the staples of the form to excellent effect. There’s also a first-rate cast who work hard, yet it’s not a movie without some problems. It opens and closes very strongly; the issue is the overpadded mid-section which ought to have had some of its excess fat trimmed off in the editing room. Even so, the finished product is still worthwhile viewing, largely due to some highly memorable visuals and a couple of fine performances.

Rigby (Robert Taylor) is a federal agent investigating a racket involving smuggled war surplus engines. He’s first seen on the balcony of his hotel room on a steamy Central American island, one of those places where even the lethargic ceiling fans seem worn down by the oppressive heat. There’s a violent storm brewing outside while an internal one is already in the process of churning up the hero’s emotions. As Rigby sweats and smokes, his weary voiceover leads us into a flashback sequence that will occupy the first half of the picture. It all starts off with one of those earnest briefings by the Feds, so beloved of post-war noir, which establishes Rigby’s undercover role. He’s been sent to the island of Carlotta to nail a gang of smugglers and his only lead is a couple of suspects, a married couple in fact. Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner) are two down on their luck expatriates scratching out a living on the island; he’s an ex-pilot with a drink problem, reduced to slumming it as a bartender, while she sings in the same night club. Almost inevitably, Elizabeth is drawn to Rigby, his quiet assurance contrasting sharply with the drunken pessimism of her weak and ineffectual husband. The problem is that the feeling is mutual and Rigby slowly finds himself torn between his sense of professionalism and his desire for Elizabeth. To further complicate matters, it’s soon apparent that Hintten is not working alone. Carwood (Vincent Price) has the appearance of just another tourist but he’s awfully keen on making Rigby’s acquaintance, and Bealer (Charles Laughton) is one of those rumpled chisellers who always have an angle to pitch. Suddenly, Rigby’s life has become very complicated – he knows these four are all bound together as conspirators and he knows his duty, but his attraction to Elizabeth is skewing his judgement and is also being used by the villains as a lever to encourage him to turn a blind eye. As the storm breaks and the flashback leads us to the present, it’s clear that we’ve reach the critical moment. Rigby stands at a moral crossroads; does he take the path of honour and do his job or does he follow the call of his heart? If he’s to choose the former then he has to find some means of doing so without damning the woman he’s falling in love with. Now this is an interesting setup, but the development of the romance slows the pace of the film badly. It’s only in the second half, when matters are forced to a head, that the movie picks up speed again and coasts along towards a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island.

For a man with such an extensive filmography, Robert Z Leonard is a director whose work I’m not familiar with. A quick glance through his credits explains that though – he specialized in movies which hold little or no interest for me. However, he, along with cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, does a fine job of blending classical noir iconography with a melodramatic crime story. Even some decidedly turgid romantic moments are made all the more bearable by the clever use of shadows and light filtered through louvred doors. The fact that The Bribe was an MGM production might give one pause for though too. It may well have been the studio that best typified the heyday of Hollywood, but I wouldn’t rank it among my favourites. The house style usually demanded a kind of populist gloss that tended to preclude any notion of realism or grit. In the case of this movie though, the artificiality that marked out MGM actually works in its favour, that heightened sense of unreality adding to the exotic flavour of the setting. From a purely visual perspective, The Bribe looks splendid. The biggest issue is the way the script allows the essentially uneventful middle of the story to drag on for far too long.

I mentioned in the introduction that there are a couple of fine performances, but I’ll work up to that gradually. I found John Hodiak’s work the weakest of the five main players. His first scene where he’s supposed to be drunk felt amateurish and unconvincing, like a guy who never touched a drop doing an impression of a lush. However, he spends most of the remainder of the movie laid up in his sick-bed so there’s no opportunity to see whether he could have added another dimension to his role. It has to be said that Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner made for an extremely attractive leading couple, and they do have a certain chemistry on-screen. Gardner looks breathtakingly beautiful in some shots and it’s clear that this was a woman capable of making any man reappraise his ethics. Taylor was an actor who I think gets slated too often by critics. His looks often meant that he was underestimated, but age and maturity came to his rescue. His post-war work gets better with each passing year as his tough reserve was increasingly reflected in his features. I reckon his western roles bring out the best in him but he also made some first class noir pictures too; The Bribe may not be his finest, but it’s not bad either. Vincent Price was another who improved as the years passed, and his role as the slimy and conniving Carwood represents a step along that path. Right at the top of the heap though is Charles Laughton, giving a performance that’s slyly captivating. His perpetually unshaven Bealer is a clever combination of the sleazy and the pitiful. In a role that could easily have become deeply unattractive, his expressive features and carefully modulated voice create a character who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic.

A while back, I was on the point of ordering the Warner Archive version of The Bribe, but then noticed that the film was also available on pressed disc from Spain. So, I ended up buying the release from Absolute. From reading online comments and looking at screencaps, I think the Spanish release is broadly comparable to the R1 disc. The film hasn’t undergone any restoration and there are minor scratches and marks on the print. Still, there are no serious issues and the contrast and clarity are generally strong. Absolute provide the theatrical trailer and the English soundtrack only; the Spanish subtitles can be disabled via the setup menu. There’s also a booklet of viewing notes included, in Spanish of course, that features the original poster art and lots of attractive stills. The film is an entertaining  yet imperfect slice of noir exotica. Ultimately, the characters, with the possible exception of Carwood, revert to traditional morality and thus dilute the darkness that the script flirts with. It may not be full-blown noir and the script could use a bit of tightening but it’s well worth seeing, if only for Gardner’s beauty and Laughton’s low-life charm.

 
27 Comments

Posted by on March 19, 2012 in 1940s, Ava Gardner, Film Noir, Robert Taylor

 

The Law and Jake Wade

Poster

A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.

It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though – he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.

Raking up the past - Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade.

Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters – the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang – quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.

The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer – this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.

As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

Billy the Kid

Poster

It’s been a long time since I committed myself to doing a themed series. Having done a few of them in the past I kept putting this particular one off. Why? Well firstly, this kind of thing requires watching a number of predetermined films more or less back to back, and I normally baulk at that kind of discipline as I prefer to go with whatever strikes my fancy at a given time. Moreover, I knew that running a series on Billy the Kid means sitting through a few poor movies. Anyway, I finally got myself into the right mood and I’ve decided to delve into it. As with other series I’ve done I’m not claiming that this will be an exhaustive analysis of each and every cinematic representation of this figure – there are just too many movies that feature Mr Bonney. In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering what I think are all the major portrayals. I’ll obviously touch on the historical accuracy of the various films, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that side of things as I’m no expert and, besides, good history and good cinema don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So, let’s kick things off with Billy the Kid (1941), a film that dances around the facts, changes the names of just about every major character, but remains an entertaining piece all the same.

The opening sees Billy (Robert Taylor) breaking an old pal Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail, and subsequently finding himself drawn unwittingly into what would become this movie’s version of the Lincoln County War. In short, there’s a conflict brewing between two rival ranchers, Hickey (Gene Lockhart) and Keating (Ian Hunter) – read Murphy and Tunstall respectively – and Billy is hired as a troubleshooter by the former. One of his first tasks for his new master is to participate in a stampede of Keating’s herd. This excitingly shot sequence leads to a fateful reunion between Billy and an old friend from his childhood, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy playing what’s really the Pat Garrett role), who’s now foreman for Keating. As the two men sit around the campfire it’s clear that a bond still exists, but circumstances have placed them at loggerheads. Gradually though, Billy comes to see that Hickey’s methods are unjustifiable and, after being impressed by the dignity of Keating, it’s not long before a switch in allegiances takes place. So, the two friends become allies under the moderating influence of Keating. Even after Pedro is callously murdered and Billy is itching for revenge, Keating counsels restraint. His way is to work within the law to topple Hickey. Such noble sentiments are cast aside though when Keating himself falls victim to the Hickey faction. The result is the outbreak of open warfare, and Billy and Sherwood, while united in their goal, stand divided over the methods to be used. Inevitably, these two will have to confront each other in combat. It’s surely no secret how the showdown ends, although this film depicts events in a much more heroic way. Leaving historical airbrushing aside, the face-off between Sherwood and Billy is effectively done, as is the earlier retribution that’s meted out to Keating’s murderers.

Robert Taylor as Billy the Kid.

Robert Taylor was 30 years old when he made this picture and looked far too mature to play the callow youth of the title. Still, he turns in a good performance as a man who cannot escape the mistakes of his past. The script explains his descent into lawlessness as a consequence of his father’s being murdered and his resulting thirst for revenge. The upshot is that Taylor gives the audience an early take on the “angry young man” persona that cinema would explore in later decades. He starts out scowling and clad in black leather, easing into more relaxed and typical cowboy garb for the mid section when Keating’s got him cooled down a little, and finishes the same as the plot turns full circle to bring him back into confrontation with the law. Brian Donlevy frequently played the villain in westerns so it’s kind of refreshing to see him on the right side of the law for a change. The scenes where he and Taylor get to act as pals have a certain charm and affability that form a nice contrast to the later ones when they must lock horns and face each other down. The other characters are all painted with broad strokes though, Lockhart’s conniving runt and Hunter’s fair-minded crusader leaving us in no doubt who the heroes and villains are. Having said that, both men handle their material well and if complaints of black and white characterisation are to be made then the fault lies with the writing and not the acting. One of the really positive points of the movie is the wonderful location shooting in Monument Valley; director David Miller may not have been in John Ford’s league but he created some memorable images of tiny human figures dwarfed by those familiar rock formations. The climactic ride to marshal forces and take on Hickey is a great sequence that’s only marred by the puzzling decision to intercut sumptuous long shots with close-ups and poor back projection.

To my knowledge, there are currently two options for acquiring this film – one is from Warner/Impulso in Spain and the other is a DVD-R through the Warner Archive in the US. The Spanish disc is a weak effort that has a kind of hazy softness throughout – I thought it improved marginally as it went on but that may have just been me getting used to it. The print has had no work whatsoever done to it and there are numerous instances of scratches, damage, cue blips and the like. On the plus side, the colours seem to have held up well enough and make the location work look very attractive. As with all the Spanish Warner discs I’ve seen the subs on the English track are fully removable regardless of what the main menu seems to suggest. I’ve seen some screen captures from the US disc and they certainly appeared to be of better quality – crisper, sharper and better defined. The film itself is a fairly typical early 40s effort that combines solid drama with lighter moments. If close adherence to the facts is a prerequisite then this is not the film for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a reasonably entertaining western with professional performances and good location work it should check most of the boxes. Robert Taylor westerns are always good value and I’d rate this as one of his medium efforts.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

Devil’s Doorway

 

Poster

Before 1950 the injustices visited upon the Native American people were essentially ignored, or at the very least only touched on, in the cinema. However, in the space of a year two major Hollywood productions would use the plight of the Indian as their central theme. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow was notable for its sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, but Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950) went even further by concentrating on the naked and ugly racism confronting those Indians who had done their best to embrace the ways and laws of the white man. It’s a much more tragic film than Broken Arrow and consequently more powerful; the fact that this power remains undiminished even for a modern audience demonstrates just how radical a picture this must have been sixty years ago.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who has decided to adopt the classic American mindset i.e. looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Not only has he anglicized his name but he has also taken a huge leap of faith by enlisting in the white man’s army and fighting in the Civil War. Returning home to Wyoming as a highly decorated veteran (having won the Congressional Medal of Honor no less), he is full of optimism and hopes for a bright future. He’s confident that the recent horrors of the battlefield will have purged the nation of its desire for further bloodshed. However, soon after his triumphant return he has to face the fact that not everything or everyone has changed as much as he might have hoped. The old grudges and prejudices still live on in the hearts of some, notably an eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who’s moved to Wyoming for his health. Coolan’s snide comments are only a foretaste of what’s to come though, as the local doctor’s refusal to attend to Poole’s ailing father until it’s too late proves. While Poole busies himself building up his cattle ranch and his fortune, Coolan is angling for a chance to seize the ancestral land and teach the red man a lesson on climbing above his station in life. Coolan’s opportunity comes with the Homestead Act, which allowed for the breaking up of former tribal land into individual claims, and he encourages a mass migration of sheepmen in the hopes of forcing Poole off his land. Although Poole is  initially persuaded to hold his fire and try for a compromise by female lawyer, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), the scene is set for violent confrontation between the Shoshone and the sheepmen that Coolan is ruthlessly manipulating. As tensions rise, and the viewer’s outrage at the double standards and open bigotry on display similarly escalate, Poole must finally concede that his dreams of peaceful co-existence are nothing more than the foolish longings of a man too eager to buy into the glib promises of pragmatic politicians. When he dons his old uniform, with his medal proudly pinned in place, to face the same army that he once served with distinction there is a poignancy and irony that drives the message of the film home most eloquently.

Pipe dreams - Robert Taylor in Devil's Doorway.

Anthony Mann had spent the 40s building up his reputation with a series of tight little noirs frequently lensed by master cameraman John Alton. Both men brought their style and sensibility to a western setting in Devil’s Doorway. Given Mann and Alton’s background it’s not altogether surprising that the movie has both the look and feel of a film noir; there are plenty of dark, shadowy scenes and an abundance of low angle shots. One scene that highlights this perfectly is the fist fight that Poole is goaded into in the saloon by Coolan and one of his cohorts. Everything is shot in the cramped confines of the bar with smoke and shadow blending together as the two men hammer each other savagely – there’s no musical accompaniment to distract from the sound of the punches landing, and the quick cutting alternates between the increasingly battered faces of the fighters and the even more grotesque visages of the rubbernecking customers. Having said that, there’s no shortage of more traditional genre imagery either, and Mann demonstrates a breadth of vision and skill with large-scale action scenes that would be further developed in both his later westerns and epics. For me, Robert Taylor was convincing as the Shoshone warrior caught between two camps. He injected a huge amount of humanity into the role of Lance Poole and produced a fully rounded character that transcended the “noble savage” caricature. I guess the black and white photography helps, but I never caught myself thinking that this was just a guy in dark make-up playacting. Louis Calhern also did sterling work as the slimy lawyer who uses convenient statutes as a means of disguising his own prejudices. Paula Raymond was good enough as the woman caught in the middle, but the script shies away from depicting an all-out romance with Poole – the movie was in all honesty already pushing the envelope as far as could be expected for the era. I might also mention the strong support particularly from Spring Byington and Edgar Buchanan.

Currently, there are only two editions of Devil’s Doorway available on DVD. There is an MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and a Region 2 pressed disc from Warner/Impulso in Spain. From the perspective of international customers neither one is ideal – the US disc being both expensive to acquire and on potentially suspect media, while the Spanish release is exclusive to El Corte Ingles for who knows how long with the attendant shipping costs. I viewed the Spanish disc, and the transfer is generally a strong one with good contrast and detail. However, it is unrestored and there are the usual scratches, nicks and blemishes – though never to the point of distraction. There is English and Spanish audio with removable Spanish subs. The disc comes in a slip case with a 34 page booklet, in Spanish naturally, that contains a very nice selection of still photographs and original advertising material. When one considers the development of the western, and the career of Anthony Mann too, this is an important title. As such, it’s disappointing that it should be marketed so restrictively on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the Spanish disc does at least afford the film a degree of respect that’s lacking in the US release. Devil’s Doorway seems to have got lost between Mann’s earlier noir pictures and his subsequent psychological westerns, but it actually acts as something of a bridge. It’s a film that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying while it also provides solid western entertainment. Recommended.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

Westward the Women

Poster

Trailblazing epics depicting the dangers and hardships that went hand in hand with the expansion of the frontier are far from uncommon among westerns. Westward the Women (1951) fits comfortably into that category, but there’s one important difference that sets it apart from others of that ilk: this movie tells its tale from an almost exclusively female perspective. This fact alone means that the film is pretty much unique; there have, of course, been other examples of westerns that focused on women, but they tended to be more of the exploitation or novelty variety. Westward the Women is certainly no exploitation picture, instead it’s a gritty attempt to celebrate the courage and the trials experienced by those early pioneer women, without whom the west could not have advanced.

The plot is a fairly simple one, essentially being a chronicle of a pre-Civil War overland trek. It’s 1851 and California landowner and visionary Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has realised that, despite having overcome a hostile land and prospered, his dreams will amount to nothing if there are no women to pair off with his settlers. In order to address this problem he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to assist him in first recruiting 140 mail order brides, and then escorting them on the gruelling trip from Chicago all the way back to California. The women who make up this matrimonial caravan are a disparate and, in some cases, a desperate bunch. The film doesn’t fully analyse the reasons why these women would readily agree to subject themselves to the harshest of conditions and potentially fatal circumstances just to marry a man they’d never so much as laid eyes on. For the most part, they are looking for a change in their lives and a new beginning( one has gotten herself pregnant out of wedlock, another is a widow, and there a couple of former good-time girls), and that’s about as deep as it goes. The full extent of the task ahead of them doesn’t really become apparent until the dozen or so men Whitman has hired decide to desert after Wyatt’s brand of iron discipline leaves two of their number dead. From this point on there are only four men left (Wyatt, Whitman, a comedic Japanese cook and a green youth) and the women must put aside their femininity and work harder than any man in their efforts to overcome the myriad obstacles the wilderness throws at them. Before they reach their promised land their numbers will be whittled down by accidents, nature and hostile Indians. However, this pruning simply stiffens their resolve and, by the time they reach the end of the trail, those who have survived emerge stronger than ever. In fact, it’s only at the very end that any concession to sentimentality is made – the surviving women meeting their selected partners to the accompaniment of the first notes of music heard since the opening credits rolled.

Robert Taylor, after handing out his own brand of frontier justice, in Westward the Women.   

William Wellman was one of the hardest driving, most demanding and macho directors working in Hollywood. This was a guy who quit acting because he felt it was too soft and no fit profession for a man. Bearing all this in mind, it may seem surprising that he was able to produce a film that was so celebratory of the achievements of women. Of course his hard-bitten outlook is stamped all over the movie, and he has absolutely no qualms about killing off just about any of the characters. While the death toll is fairly high there isn’t an enormous amount of onscreen violence – the big Indian attack takes place while Wyatt is away chasing after the runaway, firebrand Frenchwoman that he finally falls for – and it’s frequently the tragic aftermath that the viewer gets to see. At times the film becomes seriously grim and there are one or two moments that are actually quite shocking, though I don’t intend to spoil it for anyone by identifying them. Nevertheless, Wellman knew his trade well enough to realise that he had to toss in the odd moment of comedy to avoid proceedings becoming relentlessly dour. The least successful of those lighter moments were provided by Henry Nakamura’s Japanese hash slinger and general dogsbody. Much more effective was the imposing Hope Emerson, in a role that was in complete contrast to the kind of threatening ones she was frequently associated with. Robert Taylor also did some excellent work as the hard as nails trail boss who knows that he must push everyone to the limits of their endurance if they are to have even a slim chance of survival. The character of Wyatt grows along the way though, going from a kind of contemptuous dismissal of the green females he has to look out for to deep admiration for the courage and determination these same charges display time and again. There is a romance along the way between Taylor and Denise Darcel, though it’s a hard edged affair too – he even gives her a crack of the bullwhip at one point! All the women in the supporting parts were quite satisfactory, although the majority of their characters were only developed very slightly. I don’t believe that needs to be too heavily criticised though as the scale of the story and the constraints of the running time (just a little shy of two hours) meant deeper analysis was impractical.  

Westward the Women is currently only available on DVD in R2, and there are two choices. There are editions out in both France and Spain from Warner Brothers. I have the French disc (chances are the Spanish release is from the same master) and the transfer is mostly pretty good, academy ratio and not much in the way of damage. There are moments when the image looks a little soft but nothing too distracting. There’s no extra content whatsoever and you get a choice of English or French audio – subtitles are optional with the English track. This is a good western from a director with a respectable pedigree in the genre (Wellman was of course proficient in many types of film, and you can browse an excellent series of articles on his early work at Judy’s blog here) and a star who got better with the years. If you think you’ve seen all the trail western has to offer then this is a film worth checking out. John Ford, another extremely macho director, never shied away from highlighting the vital role played by women in the settling and ultimate conquest of the frontier, and Wellman added his own song of praise to feminine grit with this unusual and very rewarding western.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1950s, Robert Taylor, Westerns, William Wellman

 

Ride, Vaquero

Poster

Ride, Vaquero (1953) was one of those films that always seemed to elude me. I’d read about it and heard about it often but, somehow, could never manage to see it. Well, I’ve finally got around to it. Robert Taylor wouldn’t be the first actor most people would think of as a western character but the fact is he made a good number of oaters in his time. I’ve been watching quite a few of his westerns recently (the ones in the R1 westerns set, and a TV broadcast of The Hangman) and this would probably be my favourite.

Rio (Taylor) is the right hand man for bandit chief Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), operating along the Texas/Mexico border in the aftermath of the Civil War. The end of the war has thrown up new challenges for these men, namely the arrival of new settlers and the renewed interest of the army and the federal government. Esqueda understands that such developments will spell the end of his reign as the undisputed master of his territory. His preferred course of action is a simple one; drive out the settlers before they have had a chance to put down permanent roots. The toughest proposition Esqueda has yet to face comes in the form of King Cameron (Howard Keel), who has come west with his wife (Ava Gardner) to build a new life. An abortive raid on the Cameron ranch leads to the capture of Rio. Instead of handing him over to the law, Cameron offers Rio the opportunity to switch allegiances and become his partner. He accepts, but the question remains whether his decision is based on a desire to embrace a more lawful lifestyle, or just a desire to embrace Camerons wife.

Anthony Quinn

Director John Farrow manages to throw a number of big themes into the mix – the old ways vs progress, loyalty and betrayal, and a man’s need to hold onto what he has won. Taylor gives a good performance as a man who’s in search of his place in the world. He may seem cold and aloof, but that’s surely an essential part of the character. His precise relationship with Esqueda is not fully revealed until the end, and it goes a long way towards explaining the alienation his character feels. Anthony Quinn gives the lusty, larger-than-life treatment to his role of the bandit king, and it’s very enjoyable. Ava Gardner naturally looks great and brings a credibility to her part as the rancher’s wife with the wandering eye. Howard Keel is just about adequate but, since I believe this was his first non-musical role, I won’t be too harsh on him. There are also small yet memorable parts for Jack Elam and Ted De Corsia. 

Ride, Vaquero has recently been released on DVD by Warners in France. The disc is a barebones affair with removable French subs and, unfortunately, boasts a weak transfer. The image doesn’t seem to have undergone any restoration and looks soft throughout. The biggest problem though is the colour, which has faded badly. The film was shot using the cheap Anscocolor process and if you’ve seen the recent R1 of Escape form Fort Bravo you’ll have some idea of what to expect. That said, the film is well worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time and I’d recommend it, if you can get past the deficiencies in the DVD transfer.

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 484 other followers