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Category Archives: Van Heflin

Act of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tomahawk

Over the years I’ve tried to turn the spotlight where possible on those films which I reckon have either been unfairly maligned or, more commonly, just fallen between the cracks and slipped off the radar of movie fans. As a lover of westerns, I’ve found that the genre provides an especially rich vein to mine with respect to neglected gems. This is partly down to the sheer volume of pictures made during the western’s heyday, and also the gradual decline in interest in the genre, not least from a critical perspective. In my own small way, I’ve looked to draw a little attention back towards westerns and maybe encourage others to explore a little deeper. I particularly like the more socially aware pictures of the early 50s, those movies which did their best to offer entertainment and simultaneously encourage thought on the part of their audience. George Sherman’s Tomahawk (1951) is one such film – it’s a handsome looking, well paced work that not only contains a potted history lesson but also approaches the Indian Wars in a mature and intelligent way.

The film is bookended by one of those strident, self-important and frankly grating narrations that became fashionable in the documentary-style noir pictures of the post-war years. In many ways this is an inauspicious opening and one that doesn’t really blend in with the rest of the film. The time and context are established but I feel that this could have been achieved just as well, and with a good deal less piety, via the more traditional method of using rolling captions. Anyway, it’s Wyoming in 1866, at the time the Bozeman Trail is drawing in settlers and prospectors. The fact that this route west passes through Sioux hunting grounds, and violates previous treaty pledges, has the potential to spark off a major conflict with Red Cloud’s warriors. The problem is exacerbated by the government’s decision to build Fort Phil Kearny as a garrison to house an army detachment and offer protection to travelers. The construction proved a sore point with the Sioux, and the film concentrates on a compressed version of the bloody events that ensued, namely the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. It includes all the major players in those battles and gives the story a new twist by adding in a revenge aspect. Everything unfolds from the perspective of Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), a trapper and former scout who allows himself to be coaxed back into service for personal reasons. Bridger is disparagingly referred to by some as a “Squaw Man” – a man who has taken an Indian girl as his wife – and it’s this status that forms the basis for his decision to return to scouting duties. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most notorious atrocities to take place on the frontier, when Colonel Chivington led his irregular cavalry in a raid on a Cheyenne village, butchering and mutilating in the region of 150 of the inhabitants, the majority of whom were women and children. Bridger, who suffered a grievous loss in this massacre, has spent the intervening years hunting those responsible. When the young Cheyenne girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), with whom he’s traveling believes she has recognized one of Chivington’s men among the troops detailed to the new fort, Bridger takes up the offer to scout for the army once again. At first, there exists an uneasy truce between the Sioux and the soldiers, Red Cloud being shown as a man willing to compromise so long as his people aren’t faced with aggression. However, the hotheaded hatred of the Indians by a young officer, Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol), leads to an inevitable killing and matters start to spiral ever downward. The new fort soon finds itself under effective siege, with Dancy and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space) seeking to discredit Bridger in the eyes of the garrison commander and downplay his estimate of the strength of Red Cloud’s forces. The movie covers the essentials concerning the build up to and aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre but alters some details for the purposes of storytelling – most notably by compressing the timeline and shifting some of the responsibility away from Fetterman himself.

George Sherman has never really got his due as a director; he worked in a variety of genres but his westerns for Universal in the 1950s in particular constitutes a strong body of work. His movies tend to be well paced and, more often than not, play around with interesting themes. Tomahawk packs a lot of story into its 80 minutes yet, despite moving at a fair clip, never sacrifices coherence. Aside from the standard cavalry versus Indians stand-off at the heart of the tale, there’s a revenge story and a commentary on the dubious treatment of the Indians blended in too. I think it’s a credit to Sherman’s skill that all these elements are handled well, and that the finished film is never less than entertaining. The majority of the action takes place outdoors, with Sherman and cameraman Charles P Boyle making the most of the Dakota locations. Sherman manages to convey the beauty and expansiveness of the landscape, leaving the viewer in no doubt why men like Red Cloud were prepared to fight and die if necessary to safeguard their ancestral lands. The film makes no bones about where its sympathies lie; the character of Bridger is as much of a guide for the viewer as he is for the army. It’s through his eyes that we’re invited to see things, and this allows us to experience the personal conflict of a man torn by his love for and understanding of the Indian way of life, and his sense of duty to the country of his birth. As such, the film never shies away from depicting the duplicity and inherent racism of Indian policy at the time, yet does its best to address the complexity of the situation too. I feel it slots nicely into that cycle of early 50s westerns that tried to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous period of US history.

Van Heflin’s stoic presence is the glue that holds the picture together. He had that lived in look that was just right for playing a toughened frontier scout, and the necessary physicality to make the action scenes seem authentic. I think one of his strengths as an actor was the thoughtful, introspective quality that he was able to bring to his roles, and the character of Bridger allowed him to explore that. You could argue that the revenge motif that runs throughout the movie was a tacked on extra, but it’s very important in helping to flesh out the character of Bridger and explain his motivation. Without the whole Sand Creek back story, Bridger would be just another westerner with a fondness for Indians. The scene where he explains his background to Yvonne De Carlo not only provides something for Van Heflin to get his teeth into, but it also makes it clear to the viewer where his passionate advocacy of the Indian stems from. Heflin rarely gave a poor performance in any movie, and Tomahawk saw him touch on grief, compassion, love and fury convincingly – a real three-dimensional figure rather than a caricature or stereotype. Yvonne De Carlo always brought a kind of tough glamour to whatever part she played, and some of the technicolor movies she made in the late 40s and 50s really highlighted her beauty. Although she was essentially playing the love interest in this film, her character’s real purpose was to draw out Heflin. Therefore, the romantic aspects never actually overwhelm the main focus of the story, serving to complement it instead. The chief villain of the piece was Alex Nicol as the sneering racist. He always seemed at his best playing the bad guy (check out The Man from Laramie for another performance that’s certainly interesting), and Tomahawk gave him the chance to indulge in some great rodent-like nastiness. The film boasts an extremely strong supporting cast, including a small part as a trooper for a young Rock Hudson. Susan Cabot met a very tragic end in real life but she was a very attractive screen presence in her time. I thought she brought a really sweet allure to the role of Monahseetah. In addition, there are well-judged turns from Jack Oakie, Preston Foster and Tom Tully.

Tomahawk is available on DVD in a number of territories, including the US (as part of Universal’s MOD programme) and the UK. Before those editions were released Mondo Entertainment in Germany put the title out as part of a licensing arrangement with Universal, and that’s the copy I have. I have to say that the transfer on that disc is fantastic – it’s sharp, clean and has the kind of eye-watering colours that show the cinematography off to great effect. The film is offered with a choice of the original audio or a German dub, and no subtitles of any kind are present. Extras are confined to text biographies of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson (Hudson’s name gets prominent billing on the cover too despite his minor role – no mention of Heflin at all) and advertisements for other titles in the range. All told, I feel Tomahawk is an excellent little film that rarely seems to get a mention. Sherman paints some lovely images, packs in the action, tackles tough themes, coaxes solid performances from his cast and entertains all the way. Frankly, this really ought to be better known and more widely seen. It’s definitely a movie to check out if you get the opportunity – I don’t think it will disappoint.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rock Hudson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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Gunman’s Walk

I guess one of the most typical features of the western genre, both implicitly and explicitly, is the way it places the whole concept of masculinity under the microscope. The rugged nature of the environment and living conditions in the old west meant that traditionally male qualities were highly regarded, as such it’s only to be expected that western movies should frequently analyse and comment upon these. Even the humblest programmers tackled this theme, although not always in the subtlest of ways. Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) approached the issue head-on using the framework of a family drama, and also worked in some interesting and important comments on evolving race relations and changing perceptions of law and civilization on the frontier.

Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is an old-time rancher of tough frontier stock, one of that hard breed that carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment. Like many people who have had their character forged by adversity, Lee can’t quite let go of the past. Times have changed, the world has moved on, and Lee has risen to become a respected man in his community, yet he still retains an affinity for the rough and tumble days of his youth. The two sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), who he’s brought up alone – he appears to be a widower – have learned to address him by his first name, a clear attempt by this man to hang onto the identity he possessed in earlier times. On the surface, Ed seems closest in character to his freewheeling father, while Davy is gentler and more considerate. The story naturally deals with the contrast between Ed and Davy, but the real thrust of it all is the relationship both brothers have with their hard-as-nails father. Lee is a man of rigid principles, his own principles mind, and very firm ideas about the way a man ought to behave, and thus how he should raise his boys. Lee’s whole philosophy is built around the idea of standing on one’s own feet and accepting favours from no man; early on he berates Ed for accepting the ranch foreman’s offer to rub down his horse. This kind of tough individualism is an almost constant feature of the western, and it’s an admirable enough trait as far as it goes. Yet, taken too far, this tends to result in a degree of alienation and social isolation, particularly as the advance of civilization gradually renders the notion less desirable. If Lee has trouble getting to grips with this, then the problem is multiplied tenfold when it comes to Ed. In his eagerness to emulate the past glories of his illustrious father, Ed has both absorbed these teachings and twisted them around in the process. The result is that courage, determination and independence of spirit have distorted themselves into bravado, violence and cruelty. In his quest to outstrip his father’s achievements Ed is driving himself beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We get to see examples of his arrogance, insensitivity and casual racism from he beginning, and it’s not long before this unsavoury combination leads to the killing of a half-breed hireling. From this point on, the movie charts Ed’s inexorable moral descent as his father and brother look on, powerless to haul this increasingly uncontrollable young man back from the edge.

Phil Karlson spent the majority of his directing career overseeing B movies, and made a number of very classy crime and noir films throughout the 50s. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brought some of that dark moodiness and pessimism to Gunman’s Walk, thematically, if not visually – although there is a sequence in the jail towards the end that has a look straight out of the classic film noir handbook. The emphasis on these fractured family relationships has a relentlessly downbeat tone that sets the movie a little apart from the usual genre pieces. It’s been stated before that the classic westerns of the 50s were guided by the idea of redemption for the protagonists. It could be argued that this is achieved in some small measure by the end, but the traumatic nature of the developments leading up to this point suggest to me that it will be short-lived. The way I see it, the character of Lee is left so emotionally devastated by the end of the movie that he’s essentially finished and washed up as a man. The final image does indicate that progress has been achieved, but only by reaching closure and burying the past and those associated with an outmoded way of life. As such, this is very much a bittersweet triumph; the next generation (Davy and his half-Sioux sweetheart) setting off to face the future and the final nail hammered into the coffin of the closing frontier.

Understandably enough, this movie is dominated by two strong central performances, those of Van Heflin and Tab Hunter. Of the two, Van Heflin had the more complex role and probably did the better work. He had to convey a range of emotions throughout, and also maintain a level of control and discipline consistent with playing a man of such iron resolve as Lee Hackett. As I alluded to earlier, his was not an altogether sympathetic part – the ingrained racism of his character, and his belief that he’d earned the right to be above the laws and conventions of lesser men is a bit hard to swallow. However, by the time we get to the final scene, and are confronted with a man whose spirit has been comprehensively broken, it’s difficult not to feel for him. The fact that the viewer is able to regard Lee in this light, after he’s displayed such negative traits, says much about the skills and abilities of Van Heflin. Angry and confused young men were very much in vogue in Hollywood in the 50s, and Tab Hunter’s role slots neatly into that category. The cause of this rebel is to be as big a man as his father, to surpass him in every way he can. Hunter seemed to be having a good time with the excesses of his character and did well with the sudden mood swings and violent outbursts. In retrospect, some of the era’s representations of misunderstood youth can be toe curlingly self-conscious and quite painful to watch, but Hunter managed to avoid the inherent pitfalls and created a convincing portrait of a guy with a hair-trigger temper struggling to emerge from the massive shadow of his father. As the younger brother, James Darren isn’t bad, although the script doesn’t call on him to take an especially active part and he’s pushed into the background somewhat. Kathryn Grant was the only woman in the movie and she too is mostly sidelined by the conflict between father and son that’s at the heart of the story. She does get one good scene though, at the hearing into her brother’s death. She hits just the right note when she demonstrates her indignation at the travesty of justice by flinging Lee’s blood money on the courtroom floor, and the contempt in her voice is palpable as she speaks contemptuously of the pervading racist attitudes of all those around her. The supporting cast also features a notable turn from perennial western lowlife Ray Teal; his small role as a chiseling horse dealer with a strong line in unctuous treachery is pivotal to the development of the plot.

Unfortunately, the two current DVD editions of Gunman’s Walk are problematic. Sony first released the film in Spain and, although it’s not a bad transfer, the disc is a non-anamorphic letterboxed affair. Shortly afterwards, Sidonis in France put the title out with an improved anamorphic scope transfer. However, and this is a major black mark as far as I’m concerned, the disc forces Spanish subtitles on the English language track. The only way around that issue is to make a backup copy with the subtitles disabled. This is particularly irritating when you bear in mind that the presentation is satisfactory in every other respect. Anyway, the movie is a very strong addition to the long list of quality westerns that came out of the 50s. All of the themes it touches on have been addressed in other productions but this picture handles them in a measured and mature way. Furthermore, Phil Karlson’s tight direction, anchored by two fine performances, ensures that everything blends together seamlessly. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful western that pays off with a powerful emotional punch. I strongly recommend that genre fans give it a go – I can’t see it disappointing anyone.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2012 in 1950s, Phil Karlson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

The Raid

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

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

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

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

 

Santa Fe Trail

Poster

If you’re the kind of person who gets hot under the collar when movies play fast and loose with historical facts, or if you find the political undertones of times gone by to be unbearably offensive then Santa Fe Trail (1940) is most assuredly not the film for you. This is the kind of movie that’s awfully easy to criticise and denigrate, and it’s probably a simple task to find lots of sites on the web that have done just that. Well, I’m not going to indulge in that kind of shot-taking. I can live with a movie twisting history for dramatic effect as it seems foolish to expect what is essentially an entertainment medium to stick only to the facts. As for politics, there are always going to be positions that we either agree or disagree with. If I were to limit myself to those movies that conform to my personal views I would in all likelihood be looking at a very small pool of titles. So, while I can acknowledge that Santa Fe Trail has some shortcomings, I’d still say it ranks as an enjoyable movie experience.

The story is a fairly straightforward good guys versus bad guys tale, with the role of the heroes being assumed by the army, and the new West Point graduates in particular. So, we are presented with the fanciful notion of Jeb Stuart, George Custer, Phil Sheridan and other famous military figures all graduating the same year. That’s all nonsense of course, but it does allow the point to be made that the Civil War was an event that was to set former friends and allies at one another’s throats. The focus remains firmly on Stuart (Errol Flynn) and, to a lesser extent, Custer (Ronald Reagan) as they strive to run to ground the abolitionists in Kansas led by John Brown (Raymond Massey). This is the point that most people object to; namely the fact that the film seems to demonise the anti-slavery activists. Now, while there can be no doubt that these characters are portrayed as the villains of the piece, it’s not that simple. The movie actually takes pains to keep to a middle line and actually shows the pro-slavery crowd (albeit in far fewer scenes) to be no better. As I said, the viewers perspective is that of the army in the middle. There are numerous occasions where the characters all voice sympathy for the ultimate aims of, if not the tactics employed by, the abolitionists. If anything, this is the source of the issues many have with the film – it fails to come right out and condemn the southern states advocacy of slavery. Personally, I’m not sure if this should be seen as a weakness. The fact that it doesn’t take the easy route gives it a unique quality. There’s always a certain satisfaction and reassurance that a viewer feels when a movie follows the line that he himself believes to be right. However, there’s also a different satisfaction to be derived from those rare movies whose message remains more ambiguous. Santa Fe Trail is such a film, it never really takes sides clearly and saves its condemnation for the kind of murderous zeal that that can tarnish even the noblest of causes. 

Errol Flynn and Raymond Massey fight over the fate of the Union.

Flynn again gives another variation of his laughing cavalier character. He must surely rank as the most swashbuckling cowboy ever to ride the frontier, and the script offers him ample opportunity to do so here. He was still in his athletic prime at this point, and is in his element whether chasing gun-runners on horseback at breakneck speed across the prairie or storming Harper’s Ferry with sabre drawn. After his unconvincing pairing with Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City, it’s good to see Olivia De Havilland cast opposite him once more – the obligatory love story seems much smoother and more comfortable with these two. Ronald Reagan seems an odd choice for the role of Custer for he possessed neither a physical resemblance to the man nor any of that driving ambition that characterized him. Instead, we get a slightly  comedic figure who’s relegated to playing second fiddle to Flynn’s more Custer-like lead. Raymond Massey’s John Brown is all fiery passion and outrage. His wild-eyed reformer borders on parody but, despite chewing up the scenery, stops just short of that. He still invests his role with a sense of credibility and even manages to bring some humanity to what could easily have become a caricature. A word also for Van Heflin who gives solid support as the mercenary Rader who finds redemption at the end.

This would be the last western collaboration for Flynn and Michael Curtiz, and their penultimate film. By all accounts there was no love lost between them despite the fact they made a dozen movies together. Curtiz again makes good use of both locations and studio, and his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. There’s also a memorable little interlude before the climax, when the group of soon to be famous soldiers all gather round an old indian squaw and have their collective fortunes told. As the old woman sits drawing pictures in the dirt, she tells them that they will all achieve honours and rank but in the process become bitter enemies. This is pure Hollywood fantasy but it’s beautifully filmed and quite poignant in view of the historical context.

Santa Fe Trail has long been a staple of various PD companies on DVD. There has yet to be an official release in either the UK or the US, but there is a Warners DVD of the movie out in France. The disc is a barebones affair but it does present the film better than I’ve seen before. The print used is a little soft in places and a little too bright in others but it is remarkably clean and free of damage. The audio is generally strong although I did notice a momentary dropout on two occasions. If anyone’s looking to get their hands on the best extant version of this interesting and frequently overlooked film I would suggest seeking out this French copy, which has the Warners logo intact at the beginning, and mercifully removable subs. Next time – They Died with Their Boots On.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2009 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Michael Curtiz, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

3:10 to Yuma

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I guess, like everything else, the circumstances in which you view a movie will affect your perception of it. I just rewatched the 2007 3:10 to Yuma the other day having already reacquainted myself with the 1957 version the previous night. Now, I’ve seen the original many times and always held it in high regard although it’s not without its faults. So when I went to see the remake, during its theatrical run, I knew that the central story was a strong one and I was curious to see what it would turn out like. At the time I came away thinking that I had just seen a moderately entertaining but imperfect film. In short, I wasn’t overly displeased. The thing is though, I hadn’t seen the original for a few years at that point. Viewing the two versions so close together has forced me to alter my appraisal of the remake somewhat.

The plot of both films is derived from a short story by Elmore Leonard, and tells of a struggling Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale in the remake) who witnesses a stage robbery carried out by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford in the original, Russell Crowe in the remake). When Wade is later captured Evans volunteers to escort him to the town of Contention and put him on the titular 3:10 to Yuma state prison. Evans hopes that the money he earns from this will be enough to see him and his family through the drought that’s crippling his ranch. There follows a battle for Evans’ soul as Wade tries to buy, persuade and cajole the desperate rancher into letting him go while the clock counts down and the threat of attack by the outlaw gang draws ever nearer.

Those are the necessarily common elements, but if a remake is to have any purpose it must add to or change certain aspects of the original. Firstly, the 2007 version expands the story and runs about a half hour longer, most of this extra time being used to depict the journey to Contention and introduce more characters. This doesn’t really come off successfully for, despite being crammed with incident, it simply serves to slow down the central thrust of the story: the conflict and relationship between Evans and Wade. Where the original cut straight to the chase, the remake forces the viewer to sit through a lot of implausible action which seems to exist merely to dispose of a few superfluous characters. By the time Evans and Wade reach Contention and hole up in the hotel the momentum has been lost and the tension levels have dropped. The DVD of the 2007 movie contains an extra feature which carries the title An Epic Explored, and that tells a tale. This is essentially a small, intimate story based around two men and covering a short period of time. The 1957 version succeeds admirably in telling this story, whereas the remake has ambitions to be something altogether grander yet falls short of fulfilling them.

We're going to Contention - Ben Foster

The other major difference in the two films is a change in emphasis and tone. The first movie presented Dan Evans as a man in a bad spot and dogged by ill fortune, but there was nothing pathetic or defeatist about him and the viewer can feel for him without ever being asked to. The new Dan Evans is, we are told over and over, a cringing loser who manages to elicit only pity from his captive rather than respect. In fact, even his family are contemptuous of him – Van Heflin’s distraught wife turned up in Contention to beg him to drop the matter and return home while Christian Bale’s other half disappears from the story early on like she just doesn’t give a damn what happens to him, and I’m not sure if I blame her. The ’57 movie showed Evans’ two boys to be a couple of nice respectful kids, while the ’07 one gives us a surly brat who never misses an opportunity to bad-mouth his father, regardless of the company they’re in, and left this viewer yearning to see him on the receiving end of a good hiding. All told, there are far too many jarringly modern touches to the remake; when Bale’s wife upbraids him for not making decisions together and his son throws another insult his way I was taken out of the film completely. Such moments defy all logic in terms of time and place – it’s akin to seeing a bunch of brawling cavemen interrupted by one of their number saying “Wait a minute fellas, surely we can talk this through like civilised men.”

As long as she has green eyes - Felicia Farr and Glenn Ford

Delmer Daves is a director who I feel has been severely underrated and a comparison of his work with that of James Mangold during two key sequences points this up. Take the scene with Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr first. When they stand on the porch and talk about their former lives there’s a very poignant sense of two lonely people and their sense of loss. As the camera follows Ford back into the saloon there’s a kind of innocent charm about his seduction of Farr, and then the camera zoom and music cue hit the mark perfectly when he asks the colour of her eyes. In contrast, Mangold just has Crowe sidle up behind Vinessa Shaw, grunt in her ear and off they go. The other sequence that highlights Daves’ superior handling of the material is during the lengthy wait in the hotel. While Ford stretches out on the bed he tries to tempt his captor into letting him walk with offers of a bribe. During this exchange the camera cuts back and forth between the faces of the two men, each time the focus zooms marginally closer on Van Heflin and ratchets up the tension. Mangold shoots the same scene mostly static and the result is that the tension doesn’t build and it simply falls flat.  Another problem is the ending of the remake. One criticism of Delmer Daves’ work was that his endings were often a bit of a cop out after what had gone before. The climax of the ’57 3:10 to Yuma was always its weakness but it feels deeply satisfying when compared to the absolute travesty that the remake offers as a conclusion. This is not to say that Mangold doesn’t do anything well. His handling of the action sequences is noteworthy, from the opening stage hold-up (complete with exploding horse) to the climactic gun battle/chase through the streets of Contention. The problem is that these have a comic book, Spaghetti western feel that sits a little uncomfortably with the dour tone of the rest of the picture. 

I know Russell Crowe is a fine actor but when I compare his Ben Wade to that of Glenn Ford’s he comes off second best; there’s just not enough charm and too much of his natural oafishness showing through. I also prefer Van Heflin’s Dan Evans to that of Christian Bale but I don’t mean that as a criticism of the latter’s acting skill, rather I would put it down to the writing of the part. Ben Foster certainly outscores Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s henchman Charlie Prince; the role is greatly expanded in the remake and Foster really sinks his teeth into it. I also want to mention Peter Fonda, whose grizzled bounty hunter was one of the best things about the 2007 movie. How can you not admire a man who’s back in the saddle mere hours after being gut-shot and then operated on by a vet – what a guy! 

So, I think I can safely say that my preference is for the 1957 3:10 to Yuma. However, people who come upon the remake with no knowledge of or exposure to the original may find it entertaining enough. Sure it’s chock full of implausibilities and boasts an outrageous ending but even I was willing to take these in my stride at first. Watching them consecutively as I did will only throw all those negatives into even sharper relief.

 
 
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