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Category Archives: Delmer Daves

The Hanging Tree

I came to town to search for gold
And I brought with me a memory
And I seemed to hear the night winds cry
Go hang your dreams on the hanging tree
Your dreams of love that will never be
Hang your faded dreams on the hanging tree. – Mack David & Jerry Livingston

Redemption and its near relative salvation are in many ways the cornerstones of the classic western. These twin themes recur throughout the genre and lie at the heart of all the great westerns. Allied to these concepts is the notion of spiritual rebirth, the discovery of that indefinable something which serves to draw lost and damaged souls back from limbo. The Hanging Tree (1959) successfully explores all these elements and is a beautifully constructed piece, cyclical and symmetrical, and rich in the kind of life-affirming positiveness that I’ve come to see as one of the integral aspects of director Delmer Daves’ western work.

Montana 1873, the lure of gold has drawn all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to the territory in search of riches. It’s a nomadic, rootless life for those following the gold trail, traipsing from one settlement to another as the hopes of making that big strike ebb and flow. Joe Frail (Gary Cooper) is one of those drifting through the  west, although his motives appear less certain. Frail is a doctor, and seems more interested in the opportunity to keep on the move than in any desire to become wealthy. Newly arrived in yet another shanty encampment that has sprung up around the prospectors’ claims, Frail has no sooner secured a place to stay than he finds himself saving the life of a young man. Rune (Ben Piazza) is a sluice robber, attempting to snatch nuggets from the workings, and running from a trigger-happy lynch mob. Frail takes him in, treats his wound, and keeps him on as a bonded servant in lieu of payment. Thus we have the first instance of salvation, Frail protecting Rune from the hanging tree which he eyes with an air of fatalism at the opening. As the doctor sets up practice it’s gradually revealed that this laconic and reserved man has a shadowy past and a reputation as an accomplished gunman. The second person to be saved is a Swedish immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), the sole survivor of a stagecoach robbery. Suffering from exposure and temporarily blinded, Elizabeth is found by Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), one of those amoral types that exist around gold camps, and nursed back to health by Frail. It’s at this point that the story becomes most involving. Prior to this there were only hints and oblique allusions to the doctor’s inner pain. Frail is a man buried in the past, emotionally entombed and haunting the world of the living rather than actually participating in it. As Elizabeth’s affection for Frail slowly blossoms into love, the doctor draws back and distances himself. Elizabeth’s confusion is shared by the viewer as it’s apparent that Frail is attached to her but unwilling or unable to take the leap of faith necessary. The reasons for this hesitancy masquerading as indifference do become clear as the tale progresses, but it’s only when Frail is also dragged before the hanging tree that a resolution is achieved. The film’s powerful and emotive climax sees the hero’s protective yet stifling armor stripped away and the ultimate redemption, salvation and rebirth realized.

Delmer Daves made some of the finest westerns of the 1950s and it’s only fitting that he should round off the decade with a work as layered, sensitive and complex as The Hanging Tree. As I said in my introduction, the structure of the film is carefully judged. Not only is it book-ended by Marty Robbins’ wonderful rendition of the title song, but it also opens and closes with the figure of Cooper, having undergone a major spiritual reawakening over the course of the story, beneath the hanging tree. The film is packed with symbolism, fire and trees being the most prominent. In both cases, we are encouraged to view these elements in a positive and negative light. Fire is initially referred to, though not seen, as representative of Doc Frail’s traumatic past. When it appears again near the end though it takes on a cathartic quality, burning away the negativity which has dogged him. And of course the focus on trees is even more significant. There are two trees of note: the hanging tree of the title and the one overlooking Elizabeth and Frenchy’s claim. The former naturally calls most attention to itself; the gnarled, clawing branches suggestive of guilt, punishment and death. And yet by the end it comes to symbolize something entirely different – renewal, permanence and the birth of a new life. That other tree, the one which eventually falls into the river, has to be viewed as a positive feature too. It’s destruction of the claim reveals the treasure hidden among its roots, the cache of nuggets which will both precipitate the final confrontation and eventually liberate the characters. Aside from all this, the location shooting and the camera positions of Daves and cinematographer Ted McCord also help focus on the subtext. The fact that Frail chooses a home high on a cliff above the swarming anthill of the mining camp serves to emphasize the remoteness and distance of the character.

Gary Cooper was an ideal piece of casting as the taciturn and aloof Joe Frail, his weathered features perfectly reflecting the emotionally desiccated man he was portraying. It’s not uncommon to read critical comments about Cooper’s acting, often failing to appreciate the subtle and understated nature of the man’s work. As with all the great screen actors, Cooper understood and used the little things, the twitch of a facial muscle or the quick glance that reveal more than pages of dialogue and overt emoting ever could. It’s not the first time that the point has been made that a good western is so often elevated by the presence of a strong female role, and Maria Schell’s performance in The Hanging Tree provides a good illustration of this. Frankly, she hardly puts a foot wrong at any point, from her initial helplessness and vulnerability, through the confusion prompted by her rejection, to her eventual emergence as an independent and complete woman. If the movie is really about Frail’s journey I think it’s also fair to say that it would be a meaningless and hollow affair had it not been for the strength of Schell’s character; she is vital to the story and Schell’s beautiful playing of the part gives it that little extra something that makes it special. While Frail’s own internal conflict is the main focus, Karl Malden as the lecherous prospector whose unwanted advances bring matters to a head adds another layer. Malden brought out the earthy, feral qualities of Frenchy and his uncouth impulsiveness makes for a fine contrast with Frail’s wounded gentility. In support, Ben Piazza gets a fair bit of screen time and is fair enough as the boy who first resents his savior’s cool arrogance before gradually warming to him and becoming a firm ally. The other parts of note are filled by Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg as the sympathetic storekeeper and his shrewish wife. Additionally, the ever reliable (and always welcome) John Dierkes flits in and out of proceedings, as does George C Scott, making a showy debut as a venomous preacher/healer.

The Hanging Tree has been available on DVD from a variety of European sources for quite some time now, but always in faded, full-frame transfers. The MOD disc from the Warner Archive improves on these previous iterations in pretty much all areas. The print used is certainly not pristine, displaying the odd scratch and blemish, but it is in the correct widescreen ratio and is much more colorful than anything I’ve seen before. The only extra feature offered on the disc is the theatrical trailer. It’s fascinating to follow how the western grew and built upon its inherent strengths throughout the 1950s, and the end of that decade saw it reach full maturity. The Hanging Tree is certainly a mature work of art, a finely judged and multi-layered examination of human nature and human relationships. For me, these late 50s westerns demonstrate not only what the genre was capable of but what cinema itself had to offer. The more I watch, write and think about the westerns of Delmer Daves, the higher his stock rises. I guess it’s clear enough that I both like and respect The Hanging Tree a lot. I consider it one of my favorites in the genre and I haven’t the least hesitation in strongly recommending it. It’s an absolute must for anyone who appreciates or cares about the western.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in 1950s, Delmer Daves, Gary Cooper, Westerns

 

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The Last Wagon

There she lies…as far into the west as your eyes can see, and then some – The Canyon of Death. The Indians say you can hear cries in the night down there that you’ll hear all your life…usually it’s only the wind.

The more I watch Delmer Daves’ westerns, the higher they rise in my estimation. As a body of work, they work on so many levels and manage to weave a variety of themes into their plots. In terms of basic structure, The Last Wagon (1956) has a simple and straightforward plot – a tough outsider uses his knowledge of the frontier to lead a group of greenhorns to safety. Yet within this fairly standard framework, there are a number of interesting elements vying for the viewer’s attention. The film can be enjoyed as a kind of outdoor survivalist epic; however, it’s also a critique of race and prejudice, a celebration of the positive influence of women, a revenge tale, and ultimately a journey towards redemption. Above all though, and this is the case with most of Daves’ pictures, there is an overriding sense of optimism that pervades the movie. In short, and characteristic of the best westerns of the 50s, it’s an affirmation of the essentially positive aspects of human nature, making it a very American film.

It’s Arizona in 1873, and a rider makes his way down towards a river. The camera pulls back to reveal another figure, a rifleman clad in buckskins concealed on the near bank. He calmly takes aim and drops the rider before wading across to confirm his kill. This dramatic pre-credits sequence introduces Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) in ambiguous terms – is this silent, ruthless killer the hunter or the hunted? It’s soon established that he falls into the latter category, a fugitive being pursued by a relentless posse. Still, Todd is no hapless or helpless victim – he’s an accomplished survivor, having been raised by and lived among the Comanche for twenty years. Nevertheless, he’s not some invulnerable superhuman either, and soon finds himself the bound captive of a brutal sheriff (George Mathews), the last of the posse members. Now all this is just a build-up to the main events of the story, which kick in when the two men cross paths with a wagon train of settlers. In one of the most memorable images from the movie, Todd finds himself shackled to the spokes of a wagon wheel as the settlers reluctantly agree to allow the sheriff and his prisoner to accompany them. Todd’s presence stirs a mixed reaction; the hero-worship of a young boy (Tommy Rettig), a vague attraction in the kid’s elder sister and guardian (Felicia Farr), and bitter resentment among two half sisters – one of whom is part Indian (Susan Kohner) and the other (Stephanie Griffin) a spoiled and overt racist. All of these elements are explored and probed more deeply after disaster befalls the camp. While the young people sneak off for a midnight swim, an Apache raiding party descends on the settlers and kills everyone. Everyone except Todd, whose wagon they roll over a cliff with him still attached. Miraculously, the plunge doesn’t kill him and leaves him in a position to take charge of the frightened and confused group of young people. It’s now down to this wanted killer to lead his raw companions through the Canyon of Death, and on to safety. Aside from the ever-present danger, Todd’s progress is made more difficult by the suspicion of the group and their internal wrangling. What’s more, every step closer to salvation for the youngsters brings Todd nearer a date with the hangman.

As I said back at the beginning, one of the notable features of much of Delmer Daves’ work is its optimism. I’ve mentioned before a tendency in Daves’ films towards endings that can appear weak in relation to what has preceded. However, as a result of some discussions we’ve had on this site, I’ve been reassessing this position. If Daves’ films are viewed as pieces whose aim is to project a positive take on humanity, then the relatively upbeat endings make a lot more sense and actually fit the narrative thrust better. Additionally, and I’m referring particularly to the westerns here, Daves’ best films are all from the 50s, and this progression towards a positive resolution for his anti-heroic protagonists mirrors the general trend in the genre during that decade. In The Last Wagon, Todd starts out as a man driven on by his thirst for revenge against those who destroyed his family. Although he’s never fully drawn back to white society, he is offered a new perspective on life. It’s the combination of a boy’s devotion and loyalty, and the burgeoning love of a girl that maps out a more hopeful future for him. It’s only through his acknowledgment of these two factors that Todd is able to seek out and achieve the personal redemption that gives meaning to the story. From a purely technical point of view, Daves’ work on The Last Wagon is as good as anything he did. The director, along with cameraman Wilfrid Cline, shot the film almost exclusively on location in Arizona, and the use of landscape is spectacular at times. There are many instances of wide, long shots looking down on and across the vast expanses dotted with canyons and buttes. These shots emphasize both the freedom of the country, and also the isolation and relative insignificance of the characters. It all makes for a wonderful contrast with the tight, intimate feeling conveyed by the scenes showing the group interacting whenever they stop to make camp.

As far as performances are concerned, the film really belongs to both Widmark and Felicia Farr. What is most remarkable about Widmark’s playing in The Last Wagon is his physicality. For an actor whose distinctive voice and looks are such a large part of his repertoire, Widmark made less use of them here  than in his other movies. Instead, it’s his cat-like grace and spatial awareness that are to the fore. One would expect a man who has lived his adult life in harmony with the wilderness to appear comfortable and almost at one with his natural surroundings. Such is the case with Widmark as he pads round soundlessly and deftly skips across the rocks and sand. Widmark brought a genuine physical confidence to this role, and his fight scenes – especially his duel, using knife and manacle, with two Apache warriors – have a ring of authenticity to them. On top of that, there’s a raw frankness that Widmark achieves in his scenes together with Felicia Farr. The actress made three films for Delmer Daves, and the quality of the work she did makes me regret they hadn’t collaborated more. In westerns, femininity is seen as a civilizing force, balancing masculine individualism and aggression, and Daves was very good at highlighting this vital aspect. As in her other two films for the director, Farr plays a pivotal role in drawing out the hero and humanizing him. Daves seemed to have a knack for tapping into Farr’s strengths and mining her attractive vulnerability. Just like in Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, Farr’s intimate scenes with the hero are poignant and beautifully memorable.

While the central character of Comanche Todd, and his deep respect for native ways, plays a large part in getting the anti-racist message of the movie across, it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps equally important are the roles of Susan Kohner and Stephanie Griffin. The latter’s open hostility towards her half-sister, based purely on her disdain for her Indian blood, exposes the ugliness that is only disguised by her superficial beauty. Again, the redemptive nature of the western story is emphasized through the gradual transformation of this hate fueled character into a more human and understanding figure by the end. In contrast to Griffin’s naked bigotry, Kohner is the very epitome of dignity and self-deprecation. If Griffin’s character develops in an interesting way, then Kohner’s goes on an equally fascinating journey. It’s through her character, more so even than Widmark’s, that the whole question of identity is addressed. The point being made in the movie is the importance of pride in oneself, and the crucial fact that one can be proud without allowing apparently conflicting social identities to displace each other.

The Last Wagon has been widely available on DVD in most territories for some time now. I have the US release from Fox, and it features a fine anamorphic scope transfer. The disc is one of those odd, from my perspective at least, ones which has the widescreen version on one side and a pan & scan copy on the other. Personally, I see 4:3 versions of scope movies as redundant and can’t really understand the need to include them. Extra features amount to a series of galleries and a selection of trailers for other Fox westerns. The movie comes from Delmer Daves’ strongest period, when he could hardly put a foot wrong, and has to rate among his best work. Like all the best films, The Last Wagon works fine if viewed simply as a piece of entertainment. However, its real strength is the way, as all great westerns do, it turns the focus on other issues and themes, and so encourages the viewer to think. The fact that both Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma are about to get released on Blu-ray by Criterion brought this film back to my attention –  I’d love to think those releases might lead to a critical and popular reappraisal of the strengths of Delmer Daves in particular and the western in general.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in 1950s, Delmer Daves, Richard Widmark, Westerns

 

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The Red House

“Did you ever run away from a scream? You can’t…it will follow you through the woods…it will follow you all your life!”

Last time, I looked at a movie that grafted film noir tropes onto a western story and setting. To the purist, noir really ought to be set in a contemporary, urban location, but there are always examples that prove the exception to the rule. Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947) has its characters battling their demons in a superficially wholesome and clean rural environment, but it does take place in modern times. The tale also imports some of the elements and trappings of the ghost story, largely for the sake of atmosphere and to create a oneiric quality. However, this is no supernatural affair and the only phantoms on view are those locked away in the subconscious mind.

Everything revolves around the reclusive Morgan family: Pete (Edward G Robinson), his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) and the girl they have adopted, Meg (Allene Roberts). Their self-imposed seclusion has given rise to rumours and wild conjecture about what goes on in their private world. As viewers, we gain entry to this odd household via a young boy, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), who has been hired to help out with the farm chores. Our first impressions of the Morgans, especially Pete, are positive, and the overall feeling is that this is a simple, kindly family interested only in minding their own business and not overly concerned about the opinions of others. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent, almost imperceptible at first, that all is not well. Gradually, it becomes apparent that this Garden of Eden houses its own serpent, lurking deep in the shadows of the past and awaiting the opportunity to uncoil itself and strike at the present. The trigger is Nath’s arrival and the refreshing sense of openness that his presence introduces into the musty Morgan home. This impacts most noticeably on Meg, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and eager to sweep away the cobwebs of superstition woven around her. The root of the mystery and the doom-laden atmosphere is the Red House of the title. Pete’s ominous warnings to Nath to avoid the forest at night and his allusions to the menace emanating from the house within don’t have their intended effect. Nath is a young man brimming with self-confidence and Pete’s urgings, while building up the mythic stature of the Red House, serve only to stir his contempt for what he sees as mere old wives tales. The upshot of all this is a growing determination on Nath’s part, aided by Meg and his girlfriend Tibby (Julie London), to find the house and crack its secret. Yet, the deeper the young people penetrate into the forbidding woods and the closer they come to discovering the elusive house, the more pronounced Pete’s paranoia and desperation become. It’s painfully obvious that we’re not being confronted with just the foolish ramblings of a hick farmer, but rather some dark and shameful event in the past that cannot and will not remain buried.

Delmer Daves took on both the directing and writing duties (although IMDB claims Albert Maltz was also involved) for The Red House so much of what appears on-screen is down to his efforts. The whole film builds slowly and relentlessly towards the solution of the central mystery and, in terms of pacing, rarely puts a foot wrong. The early stages paint a picture of idyllic rural life, with only the odd hint of something unpleasant slumbering below the surface. The first discernible cracks appear when Nath decides to defy Pete’s melodramatic pleas to avoid the woods and the horrors he claims they hide. Daves’ direction, Bert Glennon’s photography and Miklos Rozsa’s lush, haunting score all combine to glorious effect in the sequence that sees Nath stumbling through the woodland in the midst of a gale. What looked like a peaceful, untroubled paradise by day is transformed into a sinister and menacing jungle by night. The howling wind, the groping branches and the darkness all contribute to the creation a nightmarish landscape that threatens to take possession of the boy. Throughout the film Daves and Glennon draw attention to the contrast between the bright cheerfulness of the days where youthful optimism and hope hold sway, and the gloomy nights when the despair of the older generation casts its long shadow. In the last third, the pace quickens, the visuals darken and the revelations come thick and fast. The result is a powerfully affecting climax that offers excitement, tension, revulsion, and tugs a little at your heart. The ending itself, which emphasises the idea that there’s no escaping the past, is both moving and apt.

Edward G Robinson came to his part on the back of some sterling work for Billy Wilder, Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. I reckon he was at the peak of his powers at this time, and his role as Pete Morgan is a further illustration of his versatility. His time at Warners may have made him famous, but some of his best and most memorable work was done elsewhere. His turn as the lovesick loser in Lang’s Scarlet Street has justifiably earned many plaudits, and I feel his performance in The Red House makes for a nice companion piece. It’s a complex role that calls for a subtle touch to convincingly achieve the transition from the avuncular figure at the beginning to the guilt crazed shell of a man he becomes by the end. He got some fine support in the shape of Judith Anderson, exercising great restraint as the sister who has repressed and subordinated her own desires to maintain the illusion of a united family – there’s a touching moment where we see her stealing a glance onto the porch at the man whose love she spurned, and thus condemned herself to a life of lonely spinsterhood for the sake of her brother. Julie London and Rory Calhoun both had interesting parts too, as good for nothing wasters, and they seemed to have a bit of chemistry in their scenes together. That’s more than I can say for Lon McCallister and Allene Roberts, who never convince as a couple of burgeoning sweethearts. Individually though, they weren’t bad; McCallister had the right kind of cocksure quality for a young man trying to prove himself, and Roberts managed a nice line in wistful confusion and frustration that befitted a girl brought up in such a murky and secretive household.

The Red House is one of those films that seems to have been a staple of the PD market for as long as I can remember, regularly turning up from a variety of distributors in generally rotten transfers. Until recently, the best edition available was the one included on the Edward G Robinson double feature from VCI, although that too displayed problems such as interlacing and a mediocre soundtrack. Last month, the film was released as a region-free DVD/Blu-ray combi by HD Cinema Classics, and it’s the best I’ve seen the film looking and sounding. However, it’s not a perfect release: the DNR has been liberally applied to achieve a smoother look and the brightness has been boosted too. While this is far from ideal, it has to be said that even this digitally manipulated image is streets ahead of what was previously available. The new release also features a commentary track with William Hare and a before-and-after restoration comparison. Bearing in mind the PD status of the film, this is likely to be about the best we’re going to see. The movie is a great piece of rural noir, a slow-burning melodrama that’s visually impressive and emotionally involving. I guess that the unsatisfactory condition of previous editions of The Red House have contributed to its not getting the attention or respect it deserves, but it’s a wonderful and neglected example of film noir for all that. The excellent performances of Robinson and Anderson, and the moody, assured direction of Daves earns it a solid recommendation from this viewer.

 

Jubal

Shakespeare and westerns really don’t sound like they go together. However, in the case of the former, the universality of his themes means that the location and period in which the drama takes place is largely irrelevant. And as for the latter, the genre is so flexible that pretty much anything can be tackled within its framework. William Wellman’s Yellow Sky has been described as a reworking of The Tempest, while Jubal (1956) sees the ideas central to Othello transported to a ranch in Wyoming. In a way, the isolated simplicity of the west provides an ideal backdrop for the presentation of such timeless concepts. Like an uncluttered stage, the absence of the trappings of civilization helps to better focus attention on the more important aspects of the story.

Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is a wanderer, a man who has spent his life running; he claims that he’s been trying to escape the bad luck that’s always dogged his steps. In reality though, he’s been running away from himself, or rather his own perceived inadequacies that stem from traumatic childhood experiences. When ranch boss Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) takes him in and offers him a job and a chance to make a fresh start, it looks as though his streak of ill-fortune may be coming to an end. In spite of Jubal’s initial optimism, he soon realizes that he’s actually walked into a highly volatile situation. Shep is one of those salt of the earth types, brimming with hospitality and geniality yet lacking certain social graces. It’s this cheerful disdain for (or ignorance of) the niceties of polite society that has apparently pushed his young Canadian wife, Mae (Valerie French), away from him. I say apparently, because Mae merely uses this as an excuse – it’s clear enough that the remote ranch life and lack of social contact play an equally significant role in shaping her dissatisfaction. Almost as soon as Jubal arrives on the scene Mae begins to show an interest in the newcomer. On top of all this, there’s the problem of Pinky (Rod Steiger), Shep’s current top man and the previous recipient of Mae’s attention. Where Jubal resists Mae’s advances on the grounds that it would be a betrayal of the one man who ever handed him a break, Pinky never displayed such qualms. Now that he’s been sidelined by the new arrival, his resentment and natural antagonism bubble closer to the surface. Due as much to his own petty and spiteful nature as Jubal’s dedication to his job and his boss, Pinky finds himself falling out of favour both as a lover and an employee. It’s this displacement that triggers Pinky’s pent-up jealousy and latent misanthropy. When the opportunity arises, he slyly plants the seeds of doubt in Shep’s mind. And it’s from this point that the classical tragedy at the heart of the story starts to develop fully.

Delmer Daves had a real affinity for the western, his films within the genre all displaying an extremely fitting sense of time and place. In addition, he also had a great eye for telling composition and the use of landscape. His best movies look beautiful, and Jubal takes advantage of the breathtaking vistas that the location shooting in Wyoming offered. The exteriors have a kind of clean, bracing quality to them reminiscent of the mountain air their backgrounds suggest. These wide open spaces are representative both of the freshness of Jubal’s new life and also the remoteness of Shep’s ranch. However, Daves was no slouch when it came to interiors either; he, and cameraman Charles Lawton, create some extremely moody and tense imagery when the action moves indoors. It’s not always easy to achieve effective depth of focus and shadow density when filming in colour, yet Daves and Lawton manage to pull it off time and time again. When you’re telling a story as thematically dark as this it’s vital to keep the mood of the visuals in tune with the plot – Jubal always looks and feels just right at all the critical moments. What’s more, although Daves’ endings had a tendency to be a letdown in comparison to what went before, this movie maintains the correct tone right up to the rolling of the credits.

Glenn Ford was an excellent choice to play Jubal Troop, his edgy affability and that slight unease were well suited to the role. The character has an innate nobility and honesty, but there are demons lurking there too, torturing the man with personal doubt and a devalued sense of self-esteem. Ford had a gift for projecting all these qualities on the screen; perhaps that’s why he seemed at home playing in both psychologically complex westerns and film noir. In the following year’s 3:10 to Yuma, Ford and Felicia Farr played out one of the most touching and affecting romantic interludes it’s been my pleasure to see on film. This picture also features a romance between the two, just not as memorable or emotionally loaded as what was to come. Part of the problem is the weaker role handed to Ms Farr, but she still manages to convey something of that bittersweet tenderness in her scenes with Ford that would prove so effective in their next collaboration. The other, and much more substantial, female role was that of Valerie French. There was certainly nothing likeable about the part of Mae, whose infidelity (both real and imagined) sets three men at each other’s throats. Her frustrated sexiness is well realized and, by the end, in spite of her deceit, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her fate. Ernest Borgnine’s cuckolded husband draws even more pity though; the way he positively radiates a love for life means that his betrayal really hits home. His brash good humour makes him a favourite of the men, but also leaves him blissfully unaware of the coldness of his wife. When it suddenly dawns on Shep just how much of a fool he’s been, Borgnine’s highly expressive features show very clearly how deeply Mae’s playing around behind his back has affected him. Rod Steiger was always an extremely showy actor, forever in danger of allowing his intensity to spill over into inappropriate grandstanding. As the scheming and reprehensible Pinky, he just about manages to stay the right side of the line – although his tendency towards showboating does raise its head as the movie nears its climax. Among the supporting cast, Charles Bronson makes a strong impression as a hired hand who befriends Ford, and whose intervention at two critical moments help save the day.

Jubal has been available on DVD for a long time via Columbia/Sony in the US. The disc boasts a very good anamorphic scope transfer that looks rich and colourful. There are no extras offered, unless you count the preview snippets for other western titles from the company. The film remains an excellent example of Delmer Daves’ skill at telling a mature and thoughtful western tale. I think the fact that both the director and the star went on to make the better known 3:10 to Yuma a year later has overshadowed this picture to an extent. I’d say that anyone who enjoyed that movie will also appreciate the work on show here. This is yet another strong entry in the western’s golden decade, and fully deserving of any fan’s attention.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in 1950s, Charles Bronson, Delmer Daves, Glenn Ford, Westerns

 

3:10 to Yuma

Posters

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.

 

Broken Arrow

Poster

The 1950s were the heyday of the western. You can look at almost any other decade and find plenty of examples of exceptional westerns, but none can compare to the 50s in terms of the sheer number of intelligent, high quality productions. Broken Arrow (1950) was, to the best of my knowledge, the first western to portray the Indians as more than simple caricatures. This film doesn’t demonise them, nor does it present them as the mystical, tree-hugging hippies that our increasingly politically correct world seems to insist on. Instead it presents a people with their own way of life and their own system of values.

Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a former army scout who stumbles upon a wounded Apache boy and nurses him back to health. In doing so, he starts to regard the Apache as real people who think and feel, and who are not just inhuman killing machines that must be eliminated at all costs. When he is subsequently captured by a raiding party, his act of kindness, though viewed with suspicion, leads to his being spared. However, he is forced to witness three survivors of an ambush tortured to death; this is a war of attrition with no quarter given or asked for from either side. The point is made that these are a people with a strong sense of honor but there is no shying away from their capacity for brutality. Jeffords’ return to white society gives an insight into the cruelty and brutality on both sides, as the town’s residents display  both  shock and incredulity on hearing that he failed to take the opportunity to kill a wounded Apache. Sickened by the endless cycle of tit-for-tat violence, Jeffords takes it upon himself to seek out a meeting with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) in order to try to find some middle ground. The meeting does produce some limited results, and also brings him into contact with a young Apache maiden (Debra Paget). As Jeffords finds himself falling in love, so he seeks to broker a peace deal between Cochise and the army. The racism prevalent on both sides is shown clearly and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to lecture the viewer on who was right and who was wrong. It assumes that adults are capable of making up their own minds – seems such an odd concept these days, doesn’t it?

James Stewart gave one of his usual solid performances, and by the end of the movie you can see director Delmer Daves draw on some of the disillusioned bitterness that Anthony Mann would later exploit so successfully. Jeff Chandler’s portrayal of Cochise earned him an Oscar nomination (eventually losing out to George Sanders), and he is convincing in the role. Generally, the acting is fine all round with good work from Paget, Will Geer, and Jay (Tonto) Silverheels as Geronimo. Delmer Daves is a director who seems to be very underrated these days, but I feel he turned out some great movies (especially in the western genre) in the 50s. One criticism that could be levelled at him is that his endings were frequently a bit of a cop out, however, I don’t feel that it applies in this case.

James Stewart

Broken Arrow is a great example of a 1950s western and, if you have even a passing interest in the genre, it deserves a place in your collection. I watched the R2 DVD from Optimum which is far from a perfect disc. The colors vary from faded to strong and the image is generally soft. Having said that though, it’s by no means a terrible presentation and is certainly watchable throughout. There is a R1 release from Fox but I don’t own this and can’t comment on the transfer.

If anyone has been wondering where I’ve been, I just decided to take a little break from posting. As others have mentioned, you can reach the point where you post so often that it starts to feel like an obligation rather than a pleasure. As such, I’ve decided to post when I feel like it rather than try to fulfill some notional quota I’ve set myself. So, until the next time…

 
 
 
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