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Category Archives: Sterling Hayden

Johnny Guitar

“You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lots of land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”

So says the eponymous hero of Johnny Guitar (1954) Nicholas Ray’s overwrought, subversive western. This is a simple philosophy, espoused by a deceptively simple man. And yet, the film itself is rich, complex and fascinating, both visually and thematically. Over the years, it’s come to be regarded as a cult item, a film so loaded with allegory and subtext that it positively demands analysis. For all that though, it’s a difficult film to try to analyse; there’s so much going on, both on and below the surface, that it’s hard to do it justice. I’ve toyed around with the idea of featuring this movie for a long time now and kept putting it off for one reason or another. However, after a recent viewing, I’ve decided to finally have a go at presenting my take on one of the most startling westerns to come out of the 50s, or any other decade for that matter.

The action opens with a bang, literally. Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden) – although using the pseudonym Johnny Guitar – rides along the base of a hill which the railroad company are in the process of blasting away. As he tops a ridge, his attention is drawn by the sounds of more violent activity; down below, a stagecoach robbery is taking place. Johnny merely watches passively, turning his mount away and continuing on his journey. His destination is an isolated saloon and gambling house, standing alone in the Arizona wastelands. He arrives right in the middle of a ferocious dust storm, the desert winds whipping the red earth up into a furious maelstrom. As he bursts through the doors of the saloon, he finds himself in a curiously still and peaceful world. But this is a brooding, intense stillness, like that found at the eye of the storm. In truth, that’s where we are, right at the centre of a devastating and destructive emotional storm that’s about to sweep across the screen and lay waste to all in its path. This incongruous establishment is run by the equally unusual Vienna (Joan Crawford), a gun-toting woman in jeans and boots who, in the words of one of her employees, thinks like a man and acts like a man. It’s clear enough that Johnny and Vienna have a history, and it’s later revealed that they were once lovers before he abandoned her. However, things have changed now that Vienna’s in trouble and in need of protection: she’s built her saloon in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad and the business it will bring in tow, but elements in the neighbouring town are hell-bent on ensuring that won’t happen. Vienna’s chief rival is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a repressed and frustrated spinster, backed up by the blustering and bullying McIvers (Ward Bond). Superficially, this opposition is based on a desire to prevent the railroad moving in and the hordes of new settler it must surely bring. In reality though, there’s an entirely different desire driving Emma on; it’s a potent and unpleasant mix of jealousy and hatred, jealousy of Vienna and the passions she’s capable of stirring and hatred of her own emotional vulnerability. Radically, from the point of view of the classic western, it’s these two women who are the active protagonists at the heart of the drama. It’s the actions and reactions of Vienna and Emma which power the narrative and shape events. And ultimately, in a complete reversal of the conventions of the genre, it will all come down to a face-off between two determined and driven women.

Nicholas Ray made some pretty good films, but I reckon he was responsible for three great ones: In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar. These movies are markedly different in terms of genre and theme, but they do all share an emotional intensity and feature obsessive lead characters. Johnny Guitar is the most self-consciously stylized, and therefore probably the most misunderstood, of the three. Ray wasn’t aiming for any kind of realism, rather he deliberately played up the heightened sense of unreality (what the critics usually refer to as the baroque aspects) to complement the fantastic nature of the story and characterization. With Harry Stradling operating the camera, Ray used the interiors, especially the main set of Vienna’s place where the back wall seems to be hewn from the living rock, to create an otherworldly feeling. A similar effect is achieved through the use of colour, particularly when it comes to the costumes. Vienna always appears in strong primary colours (scarlets, greens, yellows and whites) and contrasts sharply with the subdued tones of those around her. This is most notable in the case of Emma, who appears in all but one scene clad in funeral black, where the drabness of her dress emphasises not only her pinched and cruel features but also marks her out as the visual antithesis of Vienna. The men in the film all appear in softer, less striking colours too, which serves to draw attention both to the softness of their character and to the subsidiary roles they play. Aside from the skewed representations of gender, Ray and writer Philip Yordan take a swipe at the McCarthyite politics of the time. The posse led by Emma gradually morphs into an implacable panel of self-appointed judges, contemptuous of the rule of law, using betrayal and deceit as a means to punish guilty and innocent alike. The masterstroke here was the ironic casting of Ward Bond (a prime mover in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) as Emma’s chief ally.

This leads me to the casting in general, an area where I can’t honestly find any fault. Joan Crawford is hardly a figure one would normally associate with the western, and Johnny Guitar represents one of her few forays into the genre. Crawford’s career can be roughly divided into three phases: her siren/starlet years up to the end of the 30s, her reinvention of herself as a noir/melodrama heroine in the 40s, and finally as a fixture of schlock horror pictures in the 60s. This movie came towards the end of her second phase, and it forms a kind of bridge between the tough post-Mildred Pierce roles and the gallery of grotesques still to come. While the western environment may seem an odd place to find Crawford, the feeling of otherness she brings is entirely appropriate in context. In addition, the years had hardened her looks and seen them take on that almost masculine aspect that fits the role of Vienna; I can’t think of another actress of the period who could have been plausibly been cast in the part. As Emma, Mercedes McCambridge was another ideal choice. She possessed the shrillness of voice and sharpness of features to perfectly embody a woman barely in control of the raging and conflicting emotions boiling away within her. I think it’s fair to say that no other actress has thus far managed to quite nail the corrosive, consumptive effects of twisted and repressed sexuality to such terrifying effect. Sterling Hayden in the title role, as the only man who displays anything approaching strength or dignity, made good use of both his physical presence and craggy face to impose himself upon all those around him. However, there’s more than just muscle and machismo to his playing; the scene where he and Crawford mull over their past reveals a sensitivity and shows him to be a fully rounded character, perhaps the only one in the film. Scott Brady as The Dancing Kid was the figure at the heart of Vienna and Emma’s rivalry, an essentially feminine role, and he gets across the kind of inherent weakness demanded. His cocksure confidence is basically a front to mask his essential impotence – he’s no match for Hayden’s easy assurance when the chips are down. Among Brady’s sidekicks, Ernest Borgnine remains the most memorable. His performance as the untrustworthy blowhard can be viewed as something of a dry run for a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock.

To date the best DVD release of Johnny Guitar is the version available throughout continental Europe via Paramount. I have the French DVD and it’s a very pleasing transfer, a vast improvement on the UK release by Universal. There’s no noticeable damage to the print, sharpness is acceptable and, crucially for such a film, the colour is well rendered. Subtitles are not a problem, a range of languages are available and can be disabled on the original soundtrack via the setup screen. There are no extra features at all offered. The title will shortly be made available in the US by Olive Films on both DVD and Blu-ray, as a result of that company licensing the Republic catalogue, and I would imagine the same print will be used as a source. If so, it should look pretty good in high definition. Johnny Guitar is one of those movies that viewers are likely to either love or loathe; it’s too heady a cocktail to elicit a lukewarm response. I count myself among the former, and it’s a film I never tire of revisiting. This article I’ve written really only scratches the surface of what’s on offer and tries to give a flavour of this very rich concoction – I haven’t even gone into the resemblances the plot bears to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or the matter of the expansion of the railroad and the clash between progress and tradition. Like all the best pieces of cinema, Johnny Guitar reveals new things on each viewing. I’d say it’s a must for any serious western fan.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 

The Asphalt Jungle

Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.

It could be said that John Huston created the template for the private eye movie with his version of The Maltese Falcon; I think the same is also true of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the heist movie. In terms of plotting and development, this film lays out the pattern that almost all subsequent efforts have followed. Others have played around with the structure and characterization within this sub-genre, but the basic concept of a group of professional thieves assembling to plan and execute a raid before seeing everything fall apart remains the standard formula to this day. Aside from its influential status, The Asphalt Jungle is also a first-rate film noir and a compelling crime drama. Unlike Criss Cross or The Killers, the gang are not foiled by a scheming femme fatale or by having their judgement clouded by emotion. Instead, their downfall is hastened by mistrust born of greed and the little glitches that even the coolest planner couldn’t hope to foresee.

The credits fade from the screen and are replaced by a bleak, deserted and forbidding cityscape where a cruising patrol car prowls ominously. As it does so, a man keeps to the shadows and flits silently from one piece of cover to the next, like prey being stalked by a relentless hunter. The man is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and at this stage the only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that he’s anxious to avoid a brush with the law. Later, we learn that Dix is what’s termed a hooligan, a low-class common criminal using violence and brawn rather than brains and finesse. Dix is the man we follow throughout the movie, and it’s by this means that we’re introduced, one by one, to all the major players in the drama: Gus (James Whitmore), the physically deformed wheelman; Cobby (Marc Lawrence), the bookie with connections in both high and low places; Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the ex-con with a big reputation; and eventually Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the big-time lawyer in need of money. When Riedenschneider emerges from prison with an apparently foolproof plan for a headline grabbing jewel heist, the scene is set for the paths of all the main characters to cross in a game of lies, betrayal and violence. By the time the end credits roll, a daring plan is hatched and put in place, enormous wealth is stolen, promises are broken, and men die abrupt and bloody deaths.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the way the career criminals come across in a far stronger light than the traditional representatives of law, order and respectability. The Asphalt Jungle was made by MGM just as Louis B Mayer’s time in charge was drawing to a close. Apparently, the old mogul wasn’t the least bit impressed by what he saw as a movie peopled by a succession of disreputable types. The fact that the police are portrayed as oafish and corrupt, and that the patrician lawyer is in reality an adulterous confidence man must have raised a few eyebrows at the bastion of wholesome, all-American values that was MGM during the Mayer years. The inclusion of a crusading, moralising police commissioner (John McIntire) looks suspiciously like a sop to silence the protests of the outraged sections of the studio brass. If that was the intention, then I’m not sure it worked out – the almost insufferable, whiter than white sermonizing results in his becoming little more than a cardboard cutout compared to the complex and layered figures ranged against him. Frankly, there’s a lot of John Huston’s fondness for the perverse in this whole setup. The director had a great eye for skewed, noirish imagery throughout his career, and he was also drawn to those dramas that featured characters who were either flawed or were a step or two removed from the mainstream. The film is full up of perfectly realized scenes that highlight the twilight world of these off-centre people: the threatening opening, the charged atmosphere of the planning sessions in Cobby’s back room, and the cool detachment of the heist itself. The latter sequence, with its minimal use of dialogue is a wonderful example of extended tension. In fact, dialogue all through the film is treated as a precious commodity, every word being weighed and delivered to extract maximum effect so that even seemingly throwaway lines are actually loaded with significance. In a similar vein, the use of Miklos Rozsa’s score is rationed too, lending it greater impact when it’s finally allowed to burst forth during Dix’s frantic and fateful drive home.

Sterling Hayden’s performance as Dix is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the narrative focused. Physically, Hayden was ideal casting as the muscle of the gang, and his presence dominates every scene where he appears. His cocksure contempt for the trashy city types that circumstances have forced him to associate with is evident in his arrogant, swaggering manner around the other hoods. The only time he allows the mask of tough insolence to slip a little is when he’s alone with Jean Hagen’s Doll. This fragile woman seems to draw out Dix’s humanity and it’s her presence that encourages him to reminisce with a touching innocence about a happier, cleaner youth growing up on his Kentucky farm. Despite the strident claims of the police commissioner that Dix is a man without conscience or feeling, the viewer can clearly see that he’s an all too human figure. He may be hardened by the necessities of the life he’s had to lead, but the heart of a simple farm boy beats strong below the surface. Although Jean Hagen’s role may have been a small one she is spot on in her portrayal of a lonely and vulnerable woman adrift in the apathetic environment of the big city. The one thing that almost all the characters have in common is their desire to escape the stifling confines of their urban wilderness. Sam Jaffe’s Doc sees the heist as the ideal means to secure a leisured retirement in Mexico and Emmerich views it as an opportunity to dig himself out of the financial and personal wasteland in which he’s mired. Of course both these characters also share a fatal fondness for the company of young women, and that weakness is partly responsible for their coming to grief. Jaffe’s calm inscrutability was well suited to the part of the mastermind who comes to realize that even the most intricate planning and preparation can only take one so far, sooner or later the vagaries of fate step in and throw a spanner in the works. I don’t think I’ve seen Louis Calhern do anything better than his Lon Emmerich, a study in dissipated disillusionment that’s simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Huston often shoots him in close-up to catch the shifting emotions and self-doubt that are particularly evident in the eyes – a wonderfully subtle performance. I’d also like to single out Marc Lawrence, whose sweaty turn as Cobby, the real weak link in the chain, is a fine piece of twitchy character acting. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that although she’s prominently featured in the reissue poster I’ve used above, Marilyn Monroe has a relatively minor part in the movie.

The Asphalt Jungle is widely available on DVD from Warner Brothers, and the transfer on the US disc is especially strong. The image is clean and sharp, and the excellent contrast highlights the skills of cameraman Harold Rosson. The disc includes a commentary track by Drew Casper and James Whitmore, along with a short filmed introduction by John Huston. All told, it’s a very nice presentation of the movie and one that I have no complaints about. The film is a highly accessible slice of prime film noir, whose only weakness is the inclusion of the inserts involving John McIntire’s commissioner and his upstanding officers. These bland, colourless figures are an unconvincing addition, however, they do serve to emphasise the authenticity of the playing around them. This one is a great movie that can be viewed time and again without losing any impact. An easy recommendation.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Huston, Sterling Hayden

 

Terror in a Texas Town

So many westerns have hinged on the conflicts that arise over land: the need to expand settlements, the presence of gold or silver, grazing rights, the relentless progress of the railroad. However, not too many have dealt with oil. Terror in a Texas Town (1958) uses the issue of oil to explain the actions of its characters (especially the villains) yet it’s not this that interests us as viewers. At the heart of the story lies a good old-fashioned tale of justice and revenge. As such, we have a very traditional plot, even one that could become mundane in other hands. Nevertheless, director Joseph H Lewis and uncredited writer Dalton Trumbo between them manage to craft a highly unusual western that probes around the genre’s boundaries.

The entire film is told in flashback, the opening scene cut short at the crucial moment and its resolution only revealed right at the end. The grandly named Prairie City, Texas is one of those typical western towns, dusty, sleepy places where nothing much seems to happen. Be that as it may, the leading citizen, McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), is in the process of shaking things up. He’s engaged in a land grab; having learned that the surrounding area is literally swimming in oil, he has called in an old acquaintance to help him run the homesteaders off their property with a view to seizing it for himself. His henchman of choice is Johnny Crale (Ned Young), an old-school enforcer and gunman who’s had his right hand shot off in the course of his work and who’s fast becoming a relic of a previous era. Crale’s first assignment is to kill a man, a kind of coaxer to encourage the others. As it turns out, this is an unfortunate selection – an old Swede patiently tending the land until his son returns from the sea. The son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), cuts an incongruous figure when he arrives, awkwardly dressed in his ill-fitting city clothes and lugging a heavy sea chest on his shoulder. The scene in the saloon, where Crale tells Hansen of the murder of his father (leaving out the crucial detail of who did the deed) is so well filmed – just two guys and a girl sitting around a table in a deserted bar, yet absolutely riveting in its very simplicity. The viewer is a step ahead of the apparently slow-witted Swede in knowing the identity of the killer, and it’s fascinating to watch the movie’s two protagonists, with their contrasting characters, probing for an insight into each other. Of course, Hansen is nowhere near as dumb as his appearance suggests. Before long, he’s got the measure of both McNeil and Crale and finds himself drawn inevitably towards the almost surreal showdown that started the movie.

Joseph H Lewis is probably best known for two remarkable noir pictures, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, yet Terror in a Texas Town (his last movie before moving to TV) is both powerful and individualistic enough to be mentioned in the same breath. It’s an extremely low budget affair, shot on sets with a very limited cast, that turns its lean production into an asset. The dialogue is trimmed down to the bare necessities, thus lending it greater impact, and every shot is loaded with significance. One example is the scene where Hansen returns to find the Mexican settler he’s befriended has been gunned down by Crale. A simple cut to the tight grouping of the man’s grieving widow and children tells us all we need to know about the effect this killing has had, far more eloquent and touching than reams of sentimental dialogue or exposition. The unique set piece that frames the story, the duel between a six-shooter and a harpoon, is more than a mere artistic quirk, it sums up the idea at the heart of the story: a simple outsider with primitive tools taking on the might of the exploiters. Trumbo’s leftist take on events and characterization is one of the key factors that makes the film so compelling.

Sterling Hayden’s sheer physical bulk always ensured he maintained a powerful presence on screen, and he used that attribute to great effect as the stoic and immovable George Hansen. He’s very convincing as the foreigner who has to measure his words carefully and think before he expresses himself. The fact that it’s this Swede, and his Mexican friend, who stands up to the criminal excesses of unchecked capitalism highlights the way America (as Trumbo no doubt perceived it) had become ineffectual and complacent when it came to facing the threat of corporate greed. Ned Young, as the physically deformed and morally confused enforcer, is a marvellously ambiguous figure. He’s clearly a bad man, both his background and the murders he commits during the film attest to that. Still, he remains a multi-dimensional character; he’s a reluctant killer, motivated less by money than a kind of morbid curiosity about the psychology of fear and death. The true villain is Sebastian Cabot’s McNeil, the very embodiment of a corrupted and heartless American society. This bloated figure, exuding a fake bonhomie, is the archetypical avaricious businessman with the law in his pocket – the unattractive face of a new west. Personally, I’m struck by the parallels between McNeil (and his ultimate fate) and Gabriele Ferzetti’s Morton in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West.

Terror in a Texas Town has been available on DVD for a long time now from MGM in the US. The movie has been given a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer that does justice to Lewis and cameraman Ray Rennahan’s compositions. I suppose the biggest complaint is the amount of grain visible, not something that generally bothers me but there is an awful lot of it. The disc offers no extras except the theatrical trailer. The film has also been released in the UK by Optimum. I don’t have that disc to compare but being a title licensed from MGM, it’s likely to be broadly similar in terms of quality. I have a lot of time for this movie; I love its low budget urgency and the offbeat style. The involvement of Sterling Hayden, Ned Young and Dalton Trumbo conjures up the ghost of HUAC and the blacklist, while the plotting and characterization are further reminders of a period of US history that remains both fascinating and tragic. This movie seems proud of its own B status and proves that lower budgets don’t have to mean lower quality. It gets a definite thumbs up from me.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 
 
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