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Category Archives: William Holden

The Man from Colorado

The years following WWII saw a number of movies looking at the problems encountered by veterans returning home and the difficulties they faced in trying to assimilate themselves once again into society in peace time. This was a common enough theme in film noir, where the shadowy, paranoid and dangerous world of the dark cinema seemed ideally suited to such tales of detachment and disillusionment. Westerns, on the other hand, would appear an odd choice for exploring these particular issues. However, as I’ve tried to point out in the past, the western was a versatile and malleable genre capable of embracing just about any type of story. The Man from Colorado (1948) deals with a man coming home after experiencing the horrors of a different and more distant war – the Civil War – but the associated problems, especially the psychological ones, are sure to have struck a chord with contemporary audiences. Perhaps more importantly, the film remains relevant for modern audiences as, sadly, new conflicts have a nasty habit of rearing up to rob a little of the soul of almost every generation.

It all starts with a massacre. On the last day of the Civil War a small band of Confederate soldiers are holed up in a box canyon. Faced by a well equipped Union force, these demoralized troops have the choice of making a fight of it or surrendering. Their officer orders a white flag run up, and then watches in disbelief as the Union commander gives the word for his artillery to open up. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford) is the colonel who knowingly seals the fate of this group of doomed men. Devereaux is a man not only hardened by battle but psychologically damaged to the extent that his humanity has been all but stripped away. This calculated atrocity is witnessed by his friend and subordinate Captain Del Stewart (William Holden), but his sense of loyalty to his commander, and perhaps his charity to a man he feels has been scarred enough by conflict, leads to his surreptitiously burying the evidence. Devereaux himself recognizes the mental strain he’s suffering from but hopes that civilian life and freedom from official duties will offer him respite. However, that’s not to be; a man with his war record is attractive to those with a political agenda to push, and the local businessmen in his hometown convince Devereaux to take on the role of federal judge. Reluctantly, Stewart agrees to serve as federal marshal under Devereaux, partly because it affords him the opportunity to keep an eye on his disturbed friend. Nowadays, the condition affecting Devereaux would likely be referred to as post traumatic stress disorder and various treatments would be prescribed. However, we’re talking about 1865 and men had to simply soldier on, so to speak. The power and responsibility that Devereaux now holds seem only to exacerbate the problem, and the fact that Stewart is not only his deputy but a rival in love too doesn’t help matters any. As Devereaux, backed by grasping mining interests, develops a kind of callous megalomania that threatens to undermine all respect for the law among the locals, Stewart increasingly realizes that his friend has gone beyond the pale and it’s his duty to take a stand.

Borden Chase wrote the story that The Man from Colorado was based on, although I don’t know how much of that was altered in the finished screenplay. The dark characterizations certainly all bear Chase’s stamp, but the script shows the mine owners and authority figures in a pretty negative light, something that would appear to be at odds with his conservatism. The depiction of a man driven insane by the horrors of warfare and his inability to come to terms with a post-war life is the main theme of the movie, and it’s obviously the most interesting feature. However, the critique of a society shaped and driven by financial interests is never far from the surface either. Taken together, these two aspects are held up to the light in what is essentially an examination of how society treats those it relied on to defend its safety when the hostilities have come to an end. The inference is that, at the time anyway, a man had to deal with these matters himself, or with the help of a handful of close friends at best. Director Henry Levin is one of those figures who worked away within the studio system, making movies in all kinds of genres, without too much fuss or acclaim. His handling of the material in The Man from Colorado shows he was more than capable of telling an interesting story and keeping the pace tight. The film is a mix of interior and location work, with the former dominating for long stretches. For the most part, the action set pieces take place outdoors – particularly the opening and the fiery climax – while the sound stage interiors are used for the more psychologically complex character scenes. At times here, the lighting, composition and musical cues suggest the feel of a film noir, in spite of the sumptuous Technicolor used in the movie.

As far as the performances are concerned, the lion’s share of the work is carried out by Ford and Holden, with the former being the center of attention. The part of Owen Devereaux is arguably the least sympathetic of Glenn Ford’s many roles. He managed to get right into the dark heart of his character, but in doing so missed out on giving him too much dimension. That may be down to the writing as much as anything, but it still means that the central role is robbed of some much needed complexity. Basically, Ford becomes a villainous black hat for the audience to hiss at, and not a lot more. What this means is that Holden’s part is given added interest. A lawman who turns in his badge and joins a gang of outlaws isn’t usually seen as a hero in westerns of the period, but that’s precisely what Holden’s Del Stewart does. There’s considerably more conflict in this character – loyalty, love and social responsibility are all motivational factors for him – and Holden gets to explore his range a good deal more than Ford. Among the supporting cast James Millican has the plum role as the former soldier who insubordination sees him run foul of Ford’s Devereaux. Millican gets to play a great anti-heroic figure and eventually bows out in fine fashion – a terrific actor. Ellen Drew is the only woman in the movie, as the object of both Ford and Holden’s affections, and her role is a weak one; she’s not called on to do much more than look suitably distressed by Ford’s growing excesses. Other parts of note are filled by Edgar Buchanan as a sympathetic doctor and Ray Collins as the mercenary mine owner.

The Man from Colorado is a Columbia production so Sony are responsible for its release on home video. The UK DVD is a very basic disc, lacking a proper menu and boasting no extra features at all, apart from a plethora of language and subtitle options. That notwithstanding, the picture quality, which is ultimately the most important thing, is excellent. The print used for the transfer is in very good condition and displays no damage that I was aware of. The transfer is clean and sharp, and the Technicolor looks to be especially well reproduced – all in all, this is a handsome presentation. Westerns with a strong psychological storyline really came into their own in the 1950s but The Man from Colorado represents a fine late 40s example of this variant. While I think the film could have benefited from a more rounded portrayal of Ford’s character the roles played by Holden and Millican do compensate to some extent. In the final analysis, I consider this to be a solid, worthwhile western that I’d rate as above average.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2013 in 1940s, Glenn Ford, Westerns, William Holden

 

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Streets of Laredo

Late 40s westerns are always of interest, existing as they do on the cusp of the genre’s golden age. Some are very clearly products of their era, combining elements that look back feel more light-hearted, while also displaying some of the complexity that would dominate and define the coming decade. Streets of Laredo (1949) fits comfortably into this category by virtue of being a remake of a 30s film (you can read Paul’s take on the original, The Texas Rangers, here), and also the fact that the overall tone of the movie shifts quite dramatically at or around the mid-point. It’s almost as though we’re seeing two different films playing out, though the contrast works quite well and helps focus the spotlight on the journey the characters undertake over the course of its running time.

Streets of Laredo tells the story of three outlaw partners – Jim Dawkins (William Holden), Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix). These three have established a profitable line in holding up stagecoaches, and whatever other opportunity comes their way. Theirs is an easy-going partnership, one where friendship reigns supreme and binds them together. The film concentrates on how that friendship is put under pressure by circumstances and is finally broken. The impetus arrives early, but its full import is not realized until later. The fate of these three men is dictated by their stumbling upon a raid on an isolated holding. A man and girl are holed up in a shack while a group of rustlers lay siege. Our three heroes, sensing an opportunity to make a killing at the expense of one party or the other, ride in and drive off the attackers. It turns out the girl, Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), is the sole survivor in the shack. The gunmen who have been sent packing are led by Charley Calico (Alfonso Bedoya) and are running a protection racket. in the territory. Reluctantly taking the girl along, the trio set off in search of a place where they can leave her safely and satisfy the consciences. However, that encounter with Calico sets in motion a train of events, beginning with an ambush that sees Reming separated from his two friends. In the years that follow, their fortunes are just as divergent as their paths – Reming gains increasing notoriety as a successful bandit while Dawkins and Jones come close to starving. While chance forced the men apart, it reappears and unites them again, albeit briefly. The years alone have cemented Reming’s determination to live outside the law. Dawkins and Jones, while not reformed characters by any means, have yet to become so hardened. The latter two join the Texas rangers, with far from noble aims at the beginning, while Reming plans to use these inside contacts to facilitate his life of crime. Sooner or later, a reckoning must come with the old enemy, Calico, and it’s this which forces all of them to reassess their motives. In brief, Dawkins and Jones have learned that doing the right thing is sometimes reward enough in itself, while Reming has become so used to the outlaw life that he cannot or will not abandon it. And so an uneasy truce is agreed between these men, but can it last? Dawkins and Reming find their approaches pulling them in radically different directions, and the fact that both are attracted to the grown-up Rannie adds even more strain. What remains to be seen is whether the bonds of friendship are strong enough to withstand the pressure of very different sets of priorities.

Along with Whispering Smith, director Leslie Fenton arguably did his best work in Streets of Laredo. These two films saw him collaborating with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and while Streets of Laredo is perhaps not quite as sumptuous, it’s still a handsome looking production. The exteriors, mainly shot on the Paramount ranch as far as I can tell, always look attractive and lend an air of authenticity to the story. And it’s that story (with a screenplay by Charles Marquis Warren), or rather its shape and development, that makes the film worthwhile. The first half of the movie concentrates on the friendship of the three main characters, and does so in a very light and humorous fashion. The comedic aspects of their relationship are played up and take center stage. It’s this section that harks back to earlier films, but the switch takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. A this point the trio see their easy amiability gradually tested as they begin to drift further apart. Everything takes a much darker turn as Reming starts to reveal the ruthlessness that his eloquence masks. Simultaneously, Dawkins takes his first steps towards eventual redemption, spurred on both by his growing love for Rannie and also his awareness that honesty and ethics have some meaning for him.

William Holden was just about to turn his career around and enter his most successful period at this time. His performance, particularly in the latter half of the movie, looks ahead to that success and also foreshadows the kind of morally challenged heroes that would pop up all through 50s westerns. Holden still had that youthful air about him, but he was also starting to exhibit more of the weariness and self-doubt that he would soon put to good use. It’s easy to see him visibly questioning himself and his previous philosophy as the situation changes around him. As the story progresses, Holden very naturally grows into the part and the Jim Dawkins we see at the end is a very different man to the one who was first introduced. I think that, while the other performances are not without merit, it’s Holden who makes the film what it is. Macdonald Carey was never an actor I could say I was overly impressed by. I don’t mean to say he was poor, but he had a certain blandness that always put me off somewhat. The role of Lorn Reming was a much showier one than Holden was handed, but it was also considerably less complex. Right from the beginning, there’s a glib shallowness about the character, and it therefore requires no great leap to see him stick firmly to the villainous path. However, within the confines of the part, I think it’s fair to say that Carey does pretty much all that’s asked of him.

Frankly, I love watching William Bendix on screen. The man had a wonderful ability to move effortlessly from comedic lug to something altogether more sinister with ease. Bendix was blessed with an extraordinarily expressive face and the camera was able to capture a wide range of emotion there. Streets of Laredo was one of his very few western parts, and I guess my own familiarity with seeing him in totally different settings meant he seemed a little out of place on the frontier. Having said that, he played his part fine; most of the time he’s there for comic relief but he also achieves a measure of soulful pathos that makes his ultimate fate all the more affecting. I was less impressed by Mona Freeman, an actress I haven’t seen an awful lot of to be honest, but that’s maybe down to the way her character was written. She starts out very naive and immature and, despite growing up as the film goes on, never quite loses some of the more irritating traits. The strong supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Ray Teal, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya and Clem Bevans.

Streets of Laredo is one of those Paramount productions whose rights now reside with Universal. I don’t think it has seen a DVD release in the US to date. However, there are editions available in various European countries and Australia. I have the German release from Koch Media, which is quite reasonable. Colors appear quite strong and true but the image can be a little soft in places. The print used for the transfer doesn’t seem to be restored as there are various instances of damage visible, although none are especially serious or distracting. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles at all. Extra features are a couple of galleries and a booklet (in German) that reproduces the original poster art on the back cover. Generally, I d have to rate this as a satisfying little picture that acts as a bridge between 40s and 50 westerns. The story unfolds nicely and adds layers to the characters as it does so. Factor in a well-drawn performance by William Holden and the result is a better than average example of the late 40s western.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in 1940s, Westerns, William Holden

 

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Ten of the Best – Western Stars

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

 

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Sunset Boulevard

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The Hollywood of the 1950s was a fascinating time from the perspective of movie fans. It was a period of innovation, upheaval, recrimination and soul searching. The decade counts as my favourite (although the 1940s runs it a close second) due to the consistent quality of product that it rolled out. It was very much a transitional era, when television would mount a serious and sustained assault on the movies in its effort to become the predominant medium for mass entertainment. When combined with the increasingly paranoid political climate, the looming break up of the studio system, and the fact that a new generation of filmmakers were beginning to assert themselves a certain maturity could be seen developing. As in all aspects of life, maturity often brings reassessment, an examination of self. So it’s hardly surprising that the 1950s saw a number of pictures where Hollywood turned the lens back upon itself. Sunset Boulevard (1950) – along with later examples such as The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Knife – saw Billy Wilder casting a jaundiced eye over the industry.

The Hollywood of Sunset Boulevard is a far cry from the glittering glory days of the 20s, despair and the fear of failure having replaced the opulence and optimism of the early years. This is the world Joe Gillis (William Holden) inhabits; both his apartment and car are beyond his means while his career as a screenwriter has ground to a virtual halt. With the debts piling up, his attempts at hawking his hackneyed scripts coming to nothing and the repo men breathing down his neck, a sudden blow out on a tyre sees him taking an unscheduled detour into the driveway of a crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Despite appearances, this isn’t just some derelict throwback. It’s the home of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), living in decaying splendour with her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), as her sole companion. To a man like Gillis, faced with the humbling prospect of slinking back to Ohio with his tail between his legs, Norma Desmond represents a second bite at the cherry. Cocooned from the modern world by both her wealth and the careful attention of Max, she has allowed her delusions to run wild and convinced herself that the world is waiting with baited breath for her return to the screen. She even has a script prepared, a retelling of the tale of Salome with her, naturally, playing the lead. When Gillis is offered the job of editing her screenplay into something presentable, he senses an opportunity; he knows it’s ludicrous trash but a drowning man will grasp at anything. Thus he finds himself drawn ever deeper into a macabre world as Norma’s companion, plaything and muse. Yet despite the comforts of his new lifestyle, Gillis finds himself repelled by the parasitic, introspective existence he’s tangled up in. The more Norma’s dependence on and love for Gillis grows, the greater is his need to break free of his gilded cage and return to the living. The stifling, closeted world of Norma, Max and Gillis can be seen as a microcosm of Hollywood itself: a self-contained community whose members readily humiliate and lie to themselves in order to perpetuate a dream, ultimately losing touch with that blurred line between fantasy and reality.

William Holden & Gloria Swanson - Sunset Boulevard.

I adore the films of Billy Wilder. His caustic take on life could strip characters and situations right down to the bone. Yet he also understood people, understood what made them tick and he sympathised with them. Even his grotesques and monstrosities have a human heart that can be wounded. For all the dark sourness of Sunset Boulevard, the main characters are all fully rounded people who earn our compassion at one point or another. Wilder doesn’t ask the viewer to stand in judgement of these damaged individuals but rather his criticism is levelled at the system that has brought them to this pitiful state. Even here, his vision of Hollywood is a complex one; on the one hand, he paints a depressing picture of the hazards of living in the past and subsisting on former glories, while he also takes merciless shots at the ephemeral nature of the motion picture business and its fondness for forgetting its roots and those who made it what it is. The film is full of innuendo and references: Norma sitting playing bridge with the ‘waxworks’ (Buster Keaton et al) and watching herself in Queen Kelly while Max runs the projector. The latter is a wonderful touch when you bear in mind that von Stroheim’s directing career came to an end when that film ran into difficulties – the irony becoming even more shocking when the true nature of Max and Norma’s relationship is revealed later on. And in the midst of all the tragedy and bitterness, there are moments of marvellous black humour too: Gillis arriving on the very day Norma’s pet chimp is to be laid to rest; one monkey coming to replace another.

Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies where almost everything seems to blend seamlessly. The script and direction are full of riches but the performances of the three lead players hold it all together. William Holden was a good choice as Gillis, the former golden boy whose career was just starting to languish must surely have identified with the character of the struggling writer. Superficially, Gillis may appear the least complex of the trio but there a number of sides to him. He’s both a chiseler and a dupe, initially weaseling his way into Norma’s household but then failing to appreciate how much she has come to love him. He’s also a cynic (his floating corpse’s narration is loaded with hard boiled idiom) while remaining a kind of noble innocent, his final actions being motivated by a sense of personal honour as much as anything else. Erich von Stroheim’s Max is a very restrained portrait of selfless devotion. I don’t want to say more than that in case anyone hasn’t seen the film – his conversation with Gillis in the shadow drenched garage is a powerful and quite shocking reveal that shouldn’t be spoiled. What I will say is that while all that stony Germanic reserve remains intact throughout the film, his eyes convey perfectly the depth of his feelings for his mistress. However, the real star of the show is unquestionably Gloria Swanson. Her features have all the dramatic expressiveness that befit a veteran of the silents and it’s entirely appropriate that she should make use of this quality in the context of the character she plays. Norma Desmond is a woman who’s never really moved on from her heyday in the 1920s, and Swanson’s incorporation of silent techniques into her performance captures that. There’s a larger than life theatricality about her because that’s the way Norma Desmond sees herself. Additionally, Swanson nails the brittle vulnerability of a woman who’s balanced on the very edge of reason. The final scene may well be a famous one, but it’s Swanson who ensures that its fame is justified.

Generally, I write about movies that I’ve been watching at home. In this case, however, I had the pleasure of seeing Sunset Boulevard projected on the big screen at an outdoor cinema in Athens last night. There’s always something that bit special about seeing classics presented the way they were supposed to be viewed, and it was particularly enjoyable to be part of a full house too. There was a very nice and clean print used – the old R1 DVD (I can’t speak for the newer Centennial Edition) from Paramount is said to suffer from compression issues, although I can’t say I ever noticed anything especially bad about it. The movie is easily one of Willder’s best in a long line of first class pictures – rewarding, satisfying and oozing class.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Billy Wilder, Film Noir, William Holden

 

Escape from Fort Bravo

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Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me – I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.

The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.

William Holden takes a lonely walk.

William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.

When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Westerns, William Holden

 

The Revengers

Poster

The Revengers (1972) is a movie that I picked up some time ago and then just left it sitting on the shelf. I can remember seeing it offered for a bargain price and thinking that anything which had Bill Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Woody Strode in it must be worth at least a look. How very wrong I was. Having just had the misfortune of sitting through this turkey, my dearest wish is that I had let it alone on the shelf or, better yet, had never parted with cash for it in the first place. I think I’m usually fairly generous in my assessment of movies and can find something positive to take away from most of them. With The Revengers, I really tried to find something – anything – of worth, but ultimately, struck out.

I had a bad feeling right from the off, when the credits appeared to the accompaniment of the kind of theme music that screams “made-for-television” movie. However, one can’t judge a film on the basis of its title sequence and I just wrote this off as a particularly pungent slice of early 70s cheese. For a time (about a half hour or so), I thought this might turn out to be a moderately entertaining little flick – something I’m happy to settle for any day. The plot didn’t promise anything original – the family of Civil War hero John Benedict (Holden) are massacred by a bunch of comancheros during a raid on his ranch and he sets off in search of revenge – but I was okay with that. In order to assist in the pursuit of the killers he recruits a band of six ne’er-do-wells (Borgnine and Strode among them) from a Mexican prison. The fact that there are seven gunmen on a mission south of the border, and the casting, automatically evokes thoughts of both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch. But there’s nothing remotely magnificent about the events that follow. The main problem is that the comanchero camp gets attacked too early and leaves the movie thrashing around in need of direction and drive. None of the characters behave in a rational manner and their motivations are weak in the extreme. There’s an interlude in the plot where the wounded Benedict rests up in the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that, while kind of sweet, serves only as padding. I suppose I could go into the script’s twists and turns in more detail but I honestly can’t be bothered; it’s just too dispiriting. As for the ending, the less said about that the better.

William Holden, probably wondering how he got talked into doing this movie.

I would count myself a fan of Bill Holden and I’ve enjoyed about every performance I’ve seen him give. He could usually be depended on to provide some grit and world-weary realism but in The Revengers he just looks old and tired, although not as old and tired as I felt at the end of it. You might have thought that The Wild Bunch would have resulted in his landing more plum roles but it wasn’t to be – at least not until Network came along a few years later. Ernest Borgnine basically just chews up the scenery and Woody Strode shows his customary quiet dignity in what is a bit of a non-role. Susan Hayward’s part is a small one and, as I already mentioned, doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the story; if it weren’t for the fact that this was her last cinematic appearance it would hardly be worth noting. Whatever talents director Daniel Mann possessed, they didn’t lie in the western genre and it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that this was the only one he made. 

The Revengers is available on DVD in R2 in continental Europe but not in the UK. The transfer of this Paramount release is merely passable, and is presented in its correct scope ratio but without anamorphic enhancement. I believe the movie can be obtained in R4 on an anamorphic disc, however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to seek it out as the enhanced picture isn’t going to make an essentially lousy film any more pleasurable. Not recommended.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2008 in 1970s, Westerns, William Holden

 
 
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