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Category Archives: Jacques Tourneur

Canyon Passage

The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Jacques Tourneur, Westerns

 

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Wichita

Some years ago I ran a short series of pieces on the various representations of Wyatt Earp in the movies*. I covered almost all the major productions, but one – Wichita (1955) – was omitted for the simple reason that I won’t ever write about a film which I haven’t had the opportunity to view recently. Well, now’s the time to fill in a notable gap in the aforementioned series. For a character whose name has become such an iconic part of the history and mythology of the old west, there is a good deal of variation when it comes to assessment of his motives. While some writers have sought to build up the man’s legend, others have dedicated their efforts to chipping away at it, and then there’s always the stories that Earp himself chose to spin. Despite the diversity of opinion on Earp in literature, I think it’s safe to say that cinema has, for the most part, chosen to cast him in a heroic mold. The historical veracity of those pictures where his character played a prominent part may be open to question, but there can be no doubt that Earp provided filmmakers with a rock solid basis for their portrayals of tough, unflinching lawmen.

Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) is introduced a man hoping to start up business in the burgeoning cow town/railhead of Wichita, Kansas. Two early scenes, one involving a couple of light-fingered cowboys and another depicting a foiled bank raid (where Sam Peckinpah appears uncredited as the teller), make it abundantly clear that Earp is a man skilled in the use of firearms. However, for all his adept gunplay, he has no interest in wearing a badge and using his talents to enforce the law. Wichita is shown to be a town facing something of a dilemma; the railroad is attracting the big cattle outfits and the money that they bring with them, but the town’s also faced with the challenge of lawlessness. Hard men who have spent long weeks riding dusty trails, deprived of liquor and female company, are only too eager to spend their earnings and blow off steam. Everyone of influence in Wichita knows what’s going to happen as soon as the first big cattle drive arrives. These town elders are anxious to fully exploit the financial gains, but they also need someone strong and reliable to ensure that some semblance of law and order is maintained too. Earp would appear to be the natural choice but, as the newspaper editor (Wallace Ford) points out, he hasn’t yet come to terms with his calling in life. It’s only after a child is killed by a stray bullet that Earp bows to the inevitable and pins on a badge.

The script doesn’t concern itself too much with the documented facts – having Earp team up with a fresh young reporter by the name of Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen) for example – but it does give at least a grudging nod in their direction. In reality, Earp finally left Wichita after political disagreements and headed for Dodge City to make money in some questionable ventures. The film ends with our hero setting off for Dodge in order to continue along what’s claimed to be his destined path as a dedicated peace officer. And the political disputes, albeit of an entirely different nature, do form a significant part of the plot. The script sees Earp come into conflict with the business interests in Wichita, men who are prepared to turn a blind eye to violence as long as the dollars keep rolling in. While some people may try to tell you that Hollywood productions of the 50s were generally right-wing in perspective, I’ve never seen too much evidence of that. Wichita is yet another film that champions basic morality above any narrow political consideration.

Wichita is very fine film, where both visuals and theme vie for the viewer’s attention. All of the great directors had the ability to move with ease between genres, and Jacques Tourneur was no exception. Having made what I have no hesitation in referring to as masterpieces in the horror and noir fields, he went on to prove that he was equally at home with westerns. Wichita was shot in scope and Tourneur handles the wide lens beautifully throughout. The opening, which highlights the vast open spaces of the frontier, quickly draws the eye to a tiny speck, a lone figure off on the horizon. This is the first view of Wyatt Earp, a fine visual introduction for a character who remains resolutely apart from the milieu throughout the film. Now that’s a considerable feat in my book, encapsulating the essence and core of a character through the use of one long shot. A good deal of the action in Wichita takes place in interiors, and again Tourneur employs the scope camera to great effect, altering angles to highlight the dominance and physicality of McCrea, to create a sense of chaos or remoteness as required, and generally positioning his actors within the frame in such a way as to focus on the emotional relationships between them. All of this, along with a strong sense of pacing, marks out the work of a top flight director.

With regard to theme, I’ve already mentioned the political sensibilities, but there’s more going on than that. The best classic westerns dealt with the internal struggles of their heroes, men trying to come to an understanding with themselves and to decide on the right path to follow. The Wyatt Earp of Wichita faces this eternal dilemma too, but with the added complication of unavoidable destiny thrown into the mix. Time and again the script makes reference to men being unable sidestep or ignore the responsibilities that fate has laid before them. If one bears in mind that Earp ultimately chooses to pursue what’s morally right then the picture has an uplifting quality. However, it’s not quite so simplistic; in order to fulfill his destiny the hero must do things that offend him personally. I think the minimalist artwork used for the poster sums up that aspect very well – a hunched, regretful figure, full of remorse in his moment of triumph, surveying the body of his slain opponent.

Joel McCrea was an excellent piece of casting as Earp. He may not bear any physical resemblance to the man but both his size and commanding presence ensure he dominates the picture. McCrea was one of the top half-dozen western stars, a man who simply belonged in the genre. He often brought a good deal of warmth to his characterizations, though his role in Wichita sacrifices that to an extent in order to play up other qualities. His Earp is a man who’s not quite satisfied with himself, a reluctant hero whose awareness of his deadly skills pains him. He communicates the dour, steely nature of his character well, and leaves no doubt in our minds as to why this man held such a fearsome reputation. Vera Miles was cast as the romantic interest, and she’s fine given the limitations of her role. The film isn’t a romance so Miles has few dramatic opportunities. Under the right circumstances, she was a very good actress – something like Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man should offer ample evidence – but she’s never stretched here. Lloyd Bridges and Edgar Buchanan played the main villains, the former as a vengeful cowhand and the latter as a conniving, duplicitous businessman, and provide solid opposition to McCrea. The supporting cast is filled with plenty of familiar faces: Peter Graves, Carl Benton Reid, Robert J Wilke, Wallace Ford, and the ever dependable Jack Elam.

Wichita is available as part of the Warner Archive in the US, but I recently picked up a release from La Casa del Cine in Spain that pairs the film with The Oklahoman. Both movies come on their own discs and Wichita looks very good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print seems to be in excellent shape, without significant damage and boasting solid colours. There are no extra features offered but the two movies can be had for less than 5 Euro. Spanish subtitles are removable via the setup menu, however, I did notice that they seem to be burnt in during the opening credits for Tex Ritter’s theme song, and there’s a brief instance of a sign being similarly translated. I think this is an exceptionally good movie, intelligently scripted, beautifully directed by Tourneur and featuring a strong central performance by McCrea. Check this one out.

*Other films featuring the character of Wyatt Earp:

Frontier Marshal

My Darling Clementine

Winchester 73

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Cheyenne Autumn

Hour of the Gun

Tombstone

Wyatt Earp

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in 1950s, Jacques Tourneur, Joel McCrea, Westerns

 

The Leopard Man

Poster

Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

Suspicion and threatening shadows - Jean Brooks in The Leopard Man.

In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience – that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time – as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough – particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story – with a noir sensibility, it should be added – dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1940s, Jacques Tourneur

 

Berlin Express

Poster

Post-war Europe was an excellent setting for a noir picture – the bombed out ruins and a displaced, despairing population provided a near perfect backdrop for such films. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is a mix of spy story, noir and propaganda piece. That latter element is the one thing that knocks it down a peg and damages its noir credentials slightly; those repeated attempts to inject a kind of brave new world optimism into what should be a fatalistic film really work against it in the end.

The movie opens in the documentary style that was popular at the time, complete with the “voice of God” narration to set the scene and introduce the main players. Normally, I’m not averse to a good voiceover but the somewhat strident, Mark Hellinger-style commentary employed here does start to grate pretty fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t dominate things for too long and, once it’s been established that we’re following a group of international travellers on the military express bound for Berlin, regular cinema storytelling techniques kick in. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American agriculturalist on his way to take up a position with the occupying forces, and the plot unfolds through his eyes. His companions are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian – representing the four powers. Apart from military personnel, there are also a number of German nationals on board – one of whom is in mortal danger. The gentleman in question is a diplomat with a noble plan for peaceful coexistence in Europe. When a makeshift bomb kills his decoy, his identity is revealed to the audience but the danger remains. No sooner has the train deposited its passengers in the ruins of Berlin than the eminent diplomat is abducted. So, the four just men, bowing to pressure from the captive’s secretary (Merle Oberon), take on the role of amateur sleuths and the chase is on. Their hunt leads them through the rubble and backstreet dives of the fallen capital, and leads the audience into the best segment of the movie. This is a twilight world, full of people driven to the very brink – scrambling for discarded cigarette butts, scanning the ever present lists of missing persons, and hanging around stations pathetically trying to hawk their meagre possessions. As Lindley and his companions grope their way through this decaying world the speechmaking and in-your-face social comment is mercifully kept to a minimum, letting the visuals make the point much more eloquently. 

Robert Ryan & Merle Oberon arriving just too late.

Robert Ryan plays a role here that is very much that of the everyman bumbling his way into a situation that is over his head. His craggy careworn features were well utilized over the years in countless noirs and westerns, and I always regard his presence in any film as a big recommendation. Merle Oberon, on the other hand was an actress that I could take or leave. Having said that, she does well enough as the French secretary determined to track down her kidnapped boss. For me though, the real stars of the movie were director Tourneur and cameraman Lucien Ballard. Together they manage to turn a middling spy story into a visual treat. The location work helps enormously of course, but there’s no end to the interesting angles and memorable shots served up – low angles, overheads, reflections etc. Tourneur also handles the various set pieces beautifully; from the cabaret scene (reminiscent of the Mr. Memory sequence in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps) and the confrontation in the abandoned brewery, to the tense climax aboard the train once more. Only the happy ever after coda rings false, hindsight allowing us to see that forty years of conflict and subterfuge would be the order of the day rather than the spirit of cheerful comradeship and cooperation that the film alludes to.

Berlin Express was an RKO production and a few years ago that would have meant that there was always the possibility of a shiny new transfer on the cards from Warners in R1. Unfortunately, those days are now gone and this film is on its way to the dreaded Archive. However, there is an alternative in the shape of a R2 release from French company Montparnasse. The R2 disc is typical of the company’s fare, in that it’s neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally poor. The transfer is adequate, there’s no serious print damage but, equally, there’s no evidence of any restoration and it looks to be interlaced. Still, the Archive offering is unlikely to be any improvement and the pricing, suspect media and restricted availability weigh heavily against it. Berlin Express is a film that flirts around the boundaries of noir, but I feel that there’s enough in the story, cinematography and direction to warrant its inclusion in the category. While it may not be up there with the greats of dark cinema it should be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Ryan

 
 
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