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Category Archives: Walter Matthau

Charade

The term Hitchcockian is one that has become familiar to most film fans. Such movies are defined by Wikipedia as “those made with the styles and themes similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s films” – few directors have had the honor of seeing a subset of movies named after them, Ford and Welles do spring to mind though. Charade (1963) slots neatly into this category, and has actually been referred to as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. It’s easy to see why of course: the casting, the locations, the shooting style, the twisty plot and the presence of the MacGuffin. While these labels clearly attest to the quality of the film, I reckon they’re also a bit of a backhanded compliment to director/producer Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone. Nevertheless, whatever way you approach it, Charade stands out as a terrifically entertaining piece of 60s cinema.

I love films which grab my attention right away, and Charade certainly does that. As a train speeds through a misty European landscape, an object is tossed from it. We get only the briefest glimpse confirming that it’s the body of a man before the screen dissolves into Maurice Binder’s hypnotic credits and Henry Mancini’s mysterious and romantic theme. Cut to a ski resort where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a bored society wife, is contemplating divorce and flirting playfully with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a fellow holidaymaker. It’s all quips and witty one-liners, until Regina returns to Paris and gets some shocking news. The man who made an unscheduled exit from that train at the beginning was her husband, Charles, and she finds that not only is she a sudden widow, but her apartment has been emptied and everything sold off at auction. It had been assumed that Charles was a wealthy man, but in this movie it’s unwise to assume anything. There’s no sign of the proceeds of the sale, and there’s worse to come. Charles was a man with a past, many pasts perhaps as the police point out that he was the owner of a variety of passports. What becomes clear is that Charles was involved in criminal activities stretching back to the war, had stolen a fortune and taken on a new identity. However, that fortune is now being sought by his old accomplices (James Coburn, Ned Glass & George Kennedy), and they don’t much care what they have to do to get their hands on it. Regina finds herself all at sea in a world where her old certainties have been turned upside-down. Even so, it seems there are those prepared to offer assistance: a CIA employee (Walter Matthau) and Peter Joshua, who turns up in Paris too. And yet, nothing is so simple; names and identities are adopted and cast aside with the abandon of a vaudeville quick-change artist. Neither Regina nor the viewer can be sure who’s telling the truth at any given moment, while motives and loyalties shift from one scene to the next.

I guess it’s impossible for any film to exist, be it a work of serious intent or an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment, outside of the zeitgeist of the era in which it’s made. A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths. As viewers, we’re invited to follow proceedings through Regina’s eyes, and share in the confusion and trepidation she feels. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who’s who and what’s what, the rug is yanked away from beneath us and the merry-go-round of doubt and suspicion whirls away once more.

It’s not hard to see how the comparisons with Hitchcock are made. The casting of Grant in a glamorous, light-hearted thriller immediately evokes memories of movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. Made at a time when Hitchcock himself was struggling with tone and mood, Charade has the kind of polished assurance which recalled his strongest cinematic period. Add in the locations, the suspenseful plotting, the smooth shooting style and the MacGuffin (in this case, the stolen money) and all the elements are in place. For all that, I think Stanley Donen and Peter Stone deserve more credit than to simply refer to the movie as a successful pastiche. Ultimately, it’s a different beast, never touching on (and to be fair, I don’t believe it was ever the intention to do so anyway) the darker places that even the frothiest Hitchcock fare contained. No, despite the superficial similarities, Charade should be judged on its own terms and goes its own way, even borrowing a little from Poe with the notion of the coveted fortune hiding in plain view. If anything, it might prove more fruitful to look at the movie in relation to Arabesque, where the writer and director tried, not quite so effectively, to emulate their achievement here.

Charade veers continuously between thrills, comedy and romance, a delicate balancing act for any script and the casting of such a movie is critical in determining whether or not it all comes off. In this instance, the choices are positively inspired. Grant was 59 years old and fast closing in on retirement. Much of his career had been spent honing the sophisticated, urbane persona he so successfully projected. He could, when necessary, play it dark and Hitchcock handed him a corker of a role in the rather wonderful Notorious, but it’s his later collaborations with that director which are closest to his role in Charade. Like the character of Regina Lampert, the viewer can’t be fully sure of what to make of Peter Joshua – his identity and allegiance constantly switch and every time we feel we have his measure he deceives us yet again. Grant’s performance is a marvelously relaxed affair, adjusting the tone with a deftness that’s a real pleasure to watch. He played well off Hepburn too, and the significant discrepancy in their ages is never glossed over in the script – in fact, this aspect is frequently the basis for some terrific, witty dialogue. Hepburn herself was the very personification of chic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the part of the slightly dizzy and vulnerable Regina quite so believably.

While Grant and Hepburn are the undoubted stars of the film, the support cast is strong and deep. Walter Matthau is deliciously unctuous, exuding a vague air of seediness. And then there’s the terrible threesome of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Their first appearance during the funeral of Charles Lampert emphasizes the sinister humor that is always present whenever they are on screen. Coburn sneers expansively throughout, all swaggering menace and teeth. Glass is a barely contained package of neuroses while Kennedy snarls and sulks and stomps around like a petulant school bully. A word too for Jacques Marin as the Parisian policeman growing ever more morose as his investigation spins out of control under the weight of all the bizarre developments.

Charade was one of those films that suffered from a succession of frankly rotten public domain video releases. Gradually, things improved as official versions came on the market and allowed the movie to be seen in better quality. I still have my old DVD put out by Universal in the UK some years ago. It presents the movie quite well in anamorphic widescreen and a clean, attractive transfer. Since then of course Charade has become available in both the UK and the US on Blu-ray and I can see myself upgrading at some point. The movie is a fine example of slick 60s filmmaking, blending and balancing  the thriller, comedy and romantic aspects of the story to best effect. It’s a great favorite of mine, as elegant, smooth and stylish as its stars. It’s funny, exciting and timeless – even when the twists and hoaxes are familiar, the charm and panache just sweep you along. If you’ve never seen it, then you really ought to make a point of tracking it down.

 

 

 

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Ride a Crooked Trail

Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

 Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Walter Matthau, Westerns

 

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The Indian Fighter

Films like Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway broke new ground for the western by offering up portrayals of Indians which were more three-dimensional than had traditionally been the case. Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter (1955) treads a similarly sympathetic path, showing the Sioux in a generally positive light. Few of the white characters are shown to be particularly admirable, even the nominal hero is not without his faults, succumbing easily to prejudice and greed. In addition, the film has a pro-ecology subtext that’s blended into the story in a way that’s refreshing and unobtrusive. This is not as powerful a film as the examples by Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann which I mentioned, yet it still manages to get its message across without resorting to the po-faced piety of more recent revisionist pieces.

Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is the Indian fighter of the title, an army scout recently returned to the west after the Civil War. He’s been sent along to guide a wagon train bound for Oregon through potentially hostile country. Before he ever reaches his posting though, he’s distracted by two events that are to shape the story that follows. The first is a sighting of Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), the beautiful daughter of Sioux chief Red Cloud, bathing naked in a river. The second is when he stumbles upon a botched deal between two white men, Todd and Chivington (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr), and a Sioux warrior exchanging whisky for gold. Both of these occurrences illustrate Hawks’ inherent sympathy for his old enemies. The former, naturally enough, arousing his romantic instincts, while the latter emphasises his willingness to side with the Sioux when confronted with the exploitative behaviour of his fellow whites. What draws Hawks to the Sioux is the respect he shares with them for the land which they occupy. Red Cloud’s principal objection to white men on his land is based on his belief that their greed for the gold it contains will wreak environmental havoc on the unspoiled paradise. Although Hawks doesn’t voice such fears specifically, there’s a telling moment later on when he confides in a photographer that the reason he doesn’t share his evangelical zeal to publicize the beauty of the frontier is his knowledge that attracting more settlers, and the trappings of civilization that they will inevitably bring in their wake, will spell the end of the west he loves. Even so, Hawks agrees to guide the wagon train through Sioux territory. However, the presence of Todd and Chivington among the settlers soon leads to trouble and puts the lives of everyone in jeopardy. While Hawks’ desire for Onahti drives him to neglect his duty, the equally strong desire of Todd and Chivington for the yellow metal sparks off a Sioux uprising. Faced with suspicion and hostility from both sides, Hawks is desperate to find some way of averting an impending massacre, and the terrible consequences it will have for the Sioux.

By the time he made The Indian Fighter, Andre de Toth had a string of westerns behind him (half a dozen starring Randolph Scott), and he’d developed into a highly competent genre director. He used the wide cinemascope lens to highlight the natural beauty of the Oregon landscapes where the picture was shot. These stunning images make it very easy to see why both Hawks and the Sioux want to do all in their power to preserve the land. The rich visuals are probably the biggest selling point for this picture, but de Toth was no slouch when it came to filming action scenes and his talent in this area is shown to great effect in the climactic Sioux attack on the besieged fort. Not only are the tactics employed innovative and surprising, but the way it’s shot gets across the excitement and danger too. Many of de Toth’s films display a matter of fact approach to physical violence and this one is no exception. Early on, we get to see two victims of Sioux justice strung up by the heels, though the camera mercifully avoids zooming in to focus on the exact nature of their demise. Then later, as the body of a cavalry officer is removed from the mount he’s been strapped to, his hat drops away to reveal the gory aftermath of his scalping.

The Indian Fighter came from Kirk Douglas’ own production company and, as was the case with Man Without a Star, he tends to overindulge himself a little. Generally though, Douglas manages to keep his vigor and enthusiasm within acceptable bounds this time. That is to say, he plays the role of Johnny Hawks with the level of energy that’s not unreasonable for the character. The outdoors nature of the shoot, and the degree of action involved, offered ample opportunity for him to show off his physical powers, which is just as well since Ben Hecht’s script never puts serious demands on his acting abilities. In the role of Onahti, Elsa Martinelli hasn’t a great deal to do beyond looking attractive, and she accomplishes that without too much effort; her introductory swimming scene is one of the more memorable openings for a western. Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr are moderately effective as the heavies, the former faring best, but never pose any direct threat to the hero. The nature of this pair’s villainy comes from the repercussions of their actions rather than the actual menace they generate. Matthau is now best known for his comedic roles but he did make a handful of westerns at the beginning of his film career. He uses that calculating, scheming quality which came so naturally to him, and which he built up in subsequent years, to compensate for the absence of any real physical threat. Chaney’s career, on the other hand, was in decline by this time, and the truth is he cuts a rather shambling figure.

The Indian Fighter is widely available on DVD from MGM. I have the UK release, which I understand is a step up in terms of picture quality from the lacklustre US version. Although the disc offers nothing in terms of extra features, the image is quite pleasing. The anamorphic scope transfer is acceptably sharp, without noticeable damage, and represents the colours very nicely. A film that relies as heavily on its scenic views as this one does needs to look good, and I have no complaints about the presentation. Generally, this is a good and well-intentioned movie, although the villains are a little weak. Having said that, the action and the cinematography make up for such deficiencies. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Douglas’ skittish lead and the thoughtful cavalry commander, the whites are portrayed as either grasping, prejudiced or duplicitous. The only truly honourable figures are the environmentally aware Sioux. which gives the movie a strangely contemporary feel. I liked it.

 
 

Charley Varrick

Poster

The term “underrated movie” is one that tends to get thrown around with abandon these days and its overuse is in danger of rendering it meaningless. However, there are times when that label is most certainly appropriate, and Charley Varrick (1973) is a prime example. I’ve no real explanation for this, but I do have a hunch that it frequently comes down to other work by the people involved dominating the thoughts of film fans. For most people (if they’ve heard the names at all) Don Siegel is identified with Dirty Harry, and Walter Matthau with comedic roles alongside Jack Lemmon. Without wishing to disparage any of those films, it is a shame that such thinking has lead to what is arguably the best work by both of these men being virtually forgotten.

Charley Varrick (Matthau) calls himself The Last of the Independents, something that’s true on two levels – his crop dusting operation is in terminal decline due to the rise of the conglomerates, and the small-time criminal activities he’s turned to are overshadowed by organised crime. When the botched robbery of a tiny New Mexico bank yields a huge payday Charley realises that something is very badly wrong. His sole surviving partner, Harman (Andy Robinson), can’t believe their luck but Charley’s been around long enough to recognise the stench of mob money and the consequences of stealing it. When an apparently unstoppable hitman (Joe Don Baker) goes to work the chase is on, and Charley has to figure out a way of staying one step ahead of both the law and the mob. What follows is a violent and dangerous game of criminal chess played out amid the hick towns and trailer parks of the southwest. Charley Varrick starts out as a man who shouldn’t be expected to engage our sympathy (after all he is the leader of a gang of murderous thieves), but by the end of the film we’re rooting for him – when the odds are stacked so heavily against a man it’s hard not to find yourself taking his part. Added to this Charley is, almost perversely, the only figure who displays any real honour or integrity – this petty hood is the only honest one in a world of crooked bankers, sadistic killers, lowlife chiselers and sharp suited mafia front men.

Sheree North & Walter Matthau - Charley Varrick

Although Walter Matthau’s sourpuss features seem destined to remain forever associated with his comic roles he made a trio of tough crime pictures in the early seventies; The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick. The fact that he was able to switch genres so effortlessly and credibly says much for the talent and versatility of the man. While he plays Charley Varrick as a cool and efficient veteran crook he still manages to fit in a few examples of his trademark deadpan humour. I’d have no hesitation in saying that this is the best I’ve seen of Matthau, and his career was by no means characterised by poor performances. The other standout member of the cast was Joe Don Baker as the smiling, heartless contract killer. Having said that, there is no particularly weak playing and John Vernon, Andy Robinson and Sheree North all give good solid support. Don Siegel rarely gets mentioned when top directors are discussed, but the fact remains that he regularly churned out tight intelligent films that eschewed pretension and made everything look deceptively simple. This and The Shootist are his two best films in my opinion, and I’d hate to have to choose between them. And last but not least, there’s a fine score from Lalo Schifrin that’s just about the ideal accompaniment for both the period and the mood.

As for the DVD, Charley Varrick is available in R2 in the UK from Fremantle in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer (I think the R1 is an open-matte affair). It may not be pristine and it’s an almost barebones disc but there’s no major problems and the price is definitely right. All in all, Charley Varrick is a high class crime movie that really ought to be better known.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Walter Matthau

 
 
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