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Category Archives: Stewart Granger

Gun Glory

I happened to be involved in an online discussion elsewhere today, and the talk turned to how certain movies can be categorized. To be specific, we were chewing the fat over those films that fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the great and the shockingly bad. Now I’ve long been of the opinion that few movies truly belong in either of those positions; the vast majority occupy some kind of middle ground, with some of us drawn to particular virtues that appeal to us while others are less enamored. I’ve pointed out before that I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “masterpiece”, mainly due to all its high-pressure implications, but I’m no fonder of the label “turkey” either. Anyway, all of this put me in the mood to hammer out a short piece on a film that I think it’s fair to call average. Gun Glory (1957) is what I would think of as an extremely typical film, nothing special but entertaining enough and with at least a handful of positive things in its favor.

The return of the prodigal is an ancient story, although the variant in question here sees the father rather than the son cast as the errant figure. Tom Early (Stewart Granger) is a man who abandoned his wife and son, a gambler and gunman of great notoriety. The film opens with this character making his way back towards the home he has long neglected. A brief stop off in the neighboring town shows that his reputation precedes him, but his optimism remains undimmed as he happily purchases a trinket as a gift for his wife. However, his arrival at his ranch brings him down to earth and back to reality with a jolt. His son, Tom Jr (Steve Rowland), is less than impressed, and then there’s the sickening realization that the woman he once loved has passed away in his absence. Still and all, blood ties are powerful and the father and son come to a kind of edgy understanding – the wrongs and mistakes of the past can never be forgotten, but it’s human nature to try to forgive and move on. Therefore, the two men make an effort to piece together their relationship, Tom Sr being especially keen to win back the trust and respect of his son that he so casually squandered before. He even takes in a lonely widow, Jo (Rhonda Fleming), as his housekeeper in an attempt to restore something of a family atmosphere. The western genre is packed with stories of men desperate to outrun their past ans sooner or later these guys come to realize that it’s an impossible task – the past must be faced squarely and dealt with before any door to the future can be opened. In this instance, the past is represented by the arrival of a ruthless cattleman, Grimsell (James Gregory), bent on driving his herd through town and obliterating it in the process. As such, it’s both an opportunity and a challenge for Tom Early Sr – an opportunity to prove himself and do something decent, but also a challenge to his desire to leave his violent ways behind him.

Roy Rowland was what you might call an efficient director of programmers, movies that were a cut above B pictures but just shy of being A list features. He handled a couple of pretty good westerns in the 1950s (Bugles in the Afternoon and The Outriders) alongside a very strong film noir (Rogue Cop). Films like this called for a brisk, no-nonsense style and Rowland was well suited to that kind of role. A good proportion of the action takes place indoors but there are opportunities for location work too, and the director showed that he was more than capable of composing attractive setups for the wide lens. Gun Glory, which was adapted from a novel by Philip Yordan, isn’t one of those non-stop action movies but when it does come along, Rowland shoots it well with a good sense of spatial awareness. More than anything though, this follows the classic 50s western template of a remorseful man seeking to make amends for his errors.

Stewart Granger was building on his successful western role in Richard Brooks’ The Last Hunt which had been made a year before. He seemed very much at ease in the frontier setting, showing off some highly impressive horsemanship skills in the process. In fact, it’s Granger’s strong central performance that is the greatest strength of the film. It’s clear enough that he’s playing a man carrying around a heavy burden of guilt – blaming himself for not being there when his wife died, and for failing to support his son during his formative years – but he never lays it on too thick. Still, there can be no doubt how he feels about himself; the short scenes of him visiting his late wife’s grave tell us all we need to know without the need for dull, expository dialogue. Rhonda Fleming was given a strong part in the movie as the widow who works her way into the lives and hearts of the two Early men. Her role served the important function of drawing both of these men out and helping them achieve a true reconciliation. I think it’s also worth pointing out the romance that develops between the characters of Granger and Fleming is nicely judged, mature and realistic. To be honest, I felt that Steve Rowland (the director’s son) presented one of the weak links in the film. Again, the part of Tom Jr was a pivotal one yet Rowland never felt convincing to me. As for the supporting players, Chill Wills pops up once again and gives a warm performance as the town preacher and one of Granger’s few allies. James Gregory was another of those familiar faces, a character actor many will recognize straight away, and he provided a nice foe for Granger. There’s also a semi-villainous role for Jacques Aubuchon as a crippled storekeeper with his eye on Fleming.

Gun Glory is available as a MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also a Warner/Impulso pressed disc from Spain. I have that Spanish release, and it presents the film very strongly. The transfer is anamorphic scope taken from a very clean and sharp print. I can’t say I was aware of any noticeable damage and the colors are well rendered. All told, there’s really nothing to complain about on that score. The disc offers no extra features whatsoever and subtitles are removable, despite the main menu suggesting that this is not the case. Anyway, we get a very attractive looking film with two good performances  from the stars. The story itself is engaging enough, although there’s nothing on show that genre fans won’t have seen before. As I mentioned above, the direction is capable and professional without being particularly memorable. All told, this is a moderate western – interesting and entertaining but not exactly essential.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in 1950s, Stewart Granger, Westerns

 

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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.

 
 

Footsteps in the Fog

Poster

Victorian London, murder, illicit relationships, blackmail – Footsteps in the Fog (1955) has all the ingredients of a classic turn of the century potboiler. It’s the kind of lush, polished production that’s beautiful to look at, yet you know it conceals a bitter little heart that’s hard as a diamond. British cinema always had the knack of capturing the spirit of gothic tales, and this would reach its zenith a year or two later when Hammer really hit their stride.

In fact, Footsteps in the Fog opens almost like a Hammer production, with a clergyman solemnly intoning over a fresh grave in a rain drenched cemetery. Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger) has just become a widower and his wife is being laid to rest. As his friends drop the pale, grief-stricken figure off at the sombre gates of his home, we see him make his lonely way up the drive and on into the empty house. As he pauses on the threshold of the drawing room, the camera remains focused on the back of this dejected man who stands gazing at the portrait of his dead wife above the fireplace. The shot now switches to a close-up of Lowry’s face as a slow smirk spreads across his features. Thus we learn of the two faced nature of the protagonist, a man that we soon discover has poisoned his wife for her money. This dark secret is also uncovered by the young maid, Lily Watkins (Jean Simmons), who has been harbouring a passion for her employer. Rather than being horrified or repulsed by the knowledge, Lily sees in it the opportunity to blackmail her way, first into the position of housekeeper, and then (she hopes) into her master’s heart. But nothing is ever that simple; Lowry is in love with the wealthy sweetheart of a young barrister and regards Lily as an irksome obstacle in the way of his future advancement. The question is how he will deal with Lily, and what his real feelings towards her are. The plot takes numerous twists and turns before reaching a conclusion that manages to be bleak, ambiguous and satisfying all at the same time.

Jean Simmons  

The plot of Footsteps in the Fog is an engaging and absorbing one, but the film’s real strength lies in the performances of the two leads. Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons were a married couple at the time and they were able to bring some real chemistry to their more intimate scenes together. Granger was an old hand at playing in these kinds of period pieces, and seemed to effortlessly make a frankly despicable character charming – one who I caught myself rooting for at times despite his loathsome actions. However, good as Granger is, the real star of the show is Jean Simmons. It is her Lily Watkins that’s the driving force behind the story with her beguiling mix of trusting devotion and ruthless amorality. With a tight, solid plot and classy lead performances any director should be on fairly  safe ground. Arthur Lubin was mainly a journeyman director, with a string of Abbott and Costello and Francis the Talking Mule pictures behind him, but he does a good enough job and uses some nice low angle shots to help generate suspense and atmosphere. The movie is neatly paced (coming in at under an hour and a half) and really only lags in a few scenes – mainly those with Belinda Lee.

Footsteps in the Fog has been out on DVD in the UK for a bit over a year now as a Sony release exclusive to MovieMail. The film is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 and the transfer is generally a good one with nice colours and really only suffers in one short segment. A little after the twenty minute mark the image takes on a very dupey appearance and there’s some colour bleeding. Fortunately, this only lasts for five minutes or so and I think it would be unfair to criticise the overall presentation based on that. There’s not much in the way of extras, save for the trailer and hard of hearing subs, but the film is something of a rarity and I’m just glad it’s available at all. I think it’s a cracking little movie and it should be a real pleasure for anyone who enjoys stylish gothic thrillers.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1950s, Jean Simmons, Mystery/Thriller, Stewart Granger

 
 
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