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Category Archives: Joseph H Lewis

7th Cavalry

On June 25 1876 Lt Col George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, and into the pages of history. Exactly how subsequent events unfolded have remained the subject of debate and conjecture to this day. What is certain is the result of that fateful engagement between Custer’s 7th and the enormous force of Indian warriors, largely Sioux and Cheyenne, ranged against them. Custer and his entire command were massacred, wiped out to a man. Over the years, that event has come to symbolize different things to different people: heroism, folly, retribution, or flawed judgement. A number of films have offered various interpretations of what transpired in the heat of battle, and a few have also turned their attention to the aftermath. 7th Cavalry (1956) is one of those movies that looks at what followed and, for a time at least, toys with the notion of saying something definitive about the actions of Custer. Ultimately though, it backs away from this – it’s essentially a film of two parts, with the potentially interesting beginning gradually giving way to a more familiar and standard outdoor adventure that’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could or should have been.

The story is told from the perspective of Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), apparently one of Custer’s favourites, who is first seen returning to Fort Lincoln in the company of his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), shortly after the ill-fated Little Bighorn expedition. At this stage Benson is unaware of what has befallen his regiment, but the uneasy silence hanging over the fort as he approaches it alerts him to the fact that something is badly wrong. These opening scenes are eerily atmospheric, as we follow Benson through the deserted fort, and share in his confusion and sense of foreboding. And then the full, horrific truth is revealed – the overwrought widow (Jeanette Nolan) of one of the slain soldiers confronts Benson and tells him of the massacre and the ugly fate of those who fell, practically accusing him of cowardice and deception in the process. What follows is the return of the surviving units, the establishment of a board of inquiry and the airing of various recriminations. The inquest into this military disaster is to be conducted by the father of Benson’s betrothed, a stiff and uncompromising army man of the old school (Russell Hicks) who has always regarded his potential son-in-law with suspicion at best. This section is where the film is at its strongest, holding out the possibility that a range of themes, ranging from the classic one of redemption through notions of honour and class prejudice, will be  delved into. Yet few of these, barring the former, are ever fully explored as the movie progresses. The second half sees the tone, emphasis and setting shift completely as the investigation winds up rapidly and Benson sets out on a suicidal mission to recover the remains of Custer and the other officers of his command. Here we retreat towards more standard fare as Benson picks a troop of “volunteers” made up of drunks and shirkers (Jay C Flippen, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen et al) who also avoided the initial battle to undertake the perilous mission. Despite being weaker, this portion of the movie is not without its own points of interest, not least the introduction of the idea of spirituality. Sadly though, here’s another potentially fascinating avenue that’s left undeveloped and actually treated in a hokey fashion in order to facilitate a convenient climax.

Over on his site on 50s westerns yesterday, Toby made a very good point when he mentioned Night Passage. If you follow that link you will see exactly what he was saying, and the essence of it is that the way we approach a film, or the weight of expectation that we bring along, can unfairly colour our assessment of it. It’s an idea that I’ve had buzzing around in my own head for a while too, and Toby’s reference to it made me wonder if it didn’t have some application to the movie in question here. What I mean is this: how far does one’s preconceptions based on cast, crew and subject matter impact on the evaluation of a movie? In this case, we have a mid-50s western starring Randolph Scott, directed by Joseph H Lewis, and dealing with one of the most controversial figures in western lore. I think all of these factors are bound to raise expectations in the minds of viewers, expectations on which the finished product doesn’t really deliver. Is that position fair though? On consideration, I think it is, or partially so at least. Lewis has a reputation for making tight and economical little B pictures that frequently transcend their modest production values and offer visual and thematic riches. I don’t think his direction is especially weak in 7th Cavalry, but the script, and its execution, tries to pack too much into a pretty brisk running time. There’s simply too much going on and too little time to expand upon any of it. Ultimately, we’re left with a first half that flatters to deceive, and a visually attractive follow-up (beautifully shot by Ray Rennahan) which leaves us short-changed. The specter of Custer hovers over proceedings throughout, and indeed helps effect a resolution which is far too pat for my liking. I do wonder if the film had had a director and star of lesser standing whether my overall reaction would have been different – I don’t know, but it is something to ponder.

And back again to expectations. Randolph Scott made 7th Cavalry just as his collaboration with Budd Boetticher was about to see his iconic status within the western genre fixed permanently. It’s difficult to put that thought to one side while watching the movie but, in all fairness, Scott acquits himself well enough despite the shortcomings elsewhere in the production. Anyone familiar with this site will be well aware of my admiration for Scott, and the roles he took on in the latter stages of his career are easily my favorites. No one ever played pride on screen quite so effectively as Scott, and that aspect forms the cornerstone of his portrayal of Benson. His quiet dignity and innate self-confidence are to the fore as he plays a man whose motives and character are called into question by almost everyone – it’s not quite the conflicted loner that he and Boetticher would so successfully explore but it’s not a million miles away either. As the principal female lead, Barbara Hale is fine, yet the role is limited in scope and offers her few opportunities. The supporting cast in the film is particularly strong – Jay C Flippen, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle and Jeanette Nolan all have their chances to shine and deliver telling little performances, with Faylen and Flippen getting the more interesting and rounded roles. I also want to take this opportunity to mention the small (yet pivotal in terms of the plot) part played by the recently deceased Harry Carey Jr. Over the years, his presence contributed a lot to so many films, especially westerns, and his passing sees yet another link to the golden age of cinema severed. In 7th Cavalry, as in so many movies, Carey displayed an honesty and simplicity that always helped ground a picture and added a certain warmth.

7th Cavalry is one of those films that has been hard to get hold of in an acceptable edition on DVD. There are a number of options available, but most are problematic in one way or another. There’s a French release by Sidonis that reportedly sports a fine transfer but forces subtitles on the original soundtrack, there’s a UK disc that I understand is of appalling quality, and there are no fewer than three editions in Spain. Of those Spanish releases, two are either full frame or non-anamorphic letterbox transfers. The one to go for is this edition by Regia Films, which sees the movie paired up on separate discs with another Lewis title Terror in a Texas Town. The disc has a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, with subtitles which can be deselected via the setup menu. The print used is in pretty good condition, without any noticeable damage, although the colours can appear slightly muted on occasion. In the final analysis, I’d have to say 7th Cavalry is a middling western; there is the promise of something different that’s never fulfilled, and that’s what I find most disappointing.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2013 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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The Big Combo

First is first and second is nobody.

As classic film noir moved into the 1950s, one noticeable change was the increased emphasis on stories involving mafiosi and various syndicates. If you consider that the movement was born out of changing moods and social circumstances in the US in the early 40s, then this shift is not altogether surprising. The whole issue of organized crime was back in the headlines and this concern seemed to have overtaken the more personal, individual angst that had dominated tales in the preceding decade. The Big Combo (1955) is based around such a premise, although it doesn’t really reveal any startling or particularly deep insights into the workings of the mob. But then that’s not the point of the movie, this being principally an examination of two obsessive men and the woman who stands between them; the fact that one is a cop and the other a mobster is mostly by the by.

Where more traditional crime sagas tend to chart the evolution of an investigation, The Big Combo eschews the slow build up and instead plunges right into the story at crisis point. The opening shot has a frantic Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), long time companion of mob luminary Mr Brown (Richard Conte), running through the anonymous and shadowy corridors of a boxing venue. This woman is obviously in a highly emotional state, and it’s no real surprise to learn that she has tipped a bottle of pills down her throat in a desperate suicide bid. This draws in the third figure in the triangle at the heart of the movie, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond’s a driven man, his expenditure of time and money in a quest to bring Brown to book has brought censure from his superiors. However, Diamond isn’t merely a crusader against crime in the conventional sense; his pursuit of Brown is closely linked to his interest in Susan. So, when news of her hospitalization filters through, Diamond naturally seeks her out. Matters are clearly coming to a head for all concerned, and the root lies in a name – Alicia – that Susan has realized carries some special meaning for Brown. Diamond’s appreciation of this fact affords him the leverage he needs to force the tiny crack in Brown’s armour into something more substantial and damaging. Even so, the path is by no means free of obstacles – after all, he’s got nothing more than a name to go on. Before Diamond can piece it all together he will have to see witnesses conveniently disappear, undergo torture himself and inadvertently allow his lover to be gunned down. All the while though, the focus remains firmly on the personal battle between Brown and Diamond, with the issue of the former’s crimes only acting as something of a blind. In reality, it’s a duel to the finish motivated by both men’s desire to possess Susan.

The final fade out has become one of the most iconic images in film noir, stills derived from it appearing in just about every book dealing with the subject. The two figures frozen in silhouette against a background of glowing fog seems to perfectly capture the look and the essence of noir. This ought not to be any surprise due to the fact The Big Combo was lit and shot by the legendary John Alton. Of course it’s not the only memorable moment, the film is littered with shots that are beautifully composed and realized. Alton and director Joseph H Lewis managed to both disguise and turn to their advantage the small budget they had available. The movie boasts a significant number of basic, stripped down sets, yet the director and cameraman artfully cover these deficiencies through the use of clever lighting and framing. Backgrounds tend to dissolve into inky blackness as the key lights pick out and draw attention to the characters. Alton’s take on the dramatic potential of darkness and light is neatly summed up in this extract from Painting with Light (MacMillan, 1949):

To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following little scene: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again…This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the note on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. “It is ten o’clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.”

I’ve mentioned the climax in the airport hangar, but there’s another wonderfully judged moment that takes place at the same sparse location earlier on. I guess what follows constitutes a mild spoiler, so anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film might want to skip over this part. Just as it appears Brown’s empire is crumbling, his subordinate McClure (Brian Donlevy) decides to step in and take advantage of the situation by having his boss assassinated. However, he miscalculates badly and finds the guns of the hitmen turned on him instead. McClure backs up against the wall, stricken with terror, but Brown assures him he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t hear the shots. McClure’s little nervous smile of relief is short-lived though. Brown jerks the hearing aid from McClure’s ear and steps away. The camera cuts to the gunmen and the now silent muzzle flashes of their tommy guns. Very simple and very effective.

Richard Conte was a fine villain in a number of noir pictures, and Mr Brown must surely rank as one of his best roles. He is the absolute epitome of cool arrogance and sadism, wearing a permanent smirk as he raps out Philip Yordan’s slick dialogue. The casual insolence he injects into the delivery is like a contemptuous slap in the face to whoever happens to be on the receiving end. It’s this overwhelming self-assurance and disdain for everyone that ultimately leads to his downfall, but it’s masterfully built up. His first encounter with Wilde in the hospital corridor sets the tone right away; not only does he insult and belittle his nemesis but he does so through an intermediary, not even deigning to address such an inconsequential figure directly. Wilde, on the other hand, plays a repressed and frustrated character. His frustration is twofold: his sense of professional impotence at failing to nail Brown despite investing so much time, money and effort, and his inability to compete on equal terms for the affections of Susan. I thought Wilde carried this off well, his emotions seething just below the surface and only held in check by his dubious morality. He covets Brown’s woman yet is simultaneously repulsed by his knowledge that her purity has been tarnished by her association with the mobster. On top of that, there’s his vaguely puritanical priggishness (note his comment about suicide breaking God’s laws) which is contradicted by his on-off relationship with a showgirl. As the object of Wilde and Conte’s obsession, Jean Wallace didn’t come across so successfully. There’s a blank quality to her performance although, in fairness, that may be intentional as she’s clearly supposed to be a character near the end of her tether psychologically. Wallace was married to Wilde at the time, and it seems he was less than pleased at the infamous scene where Conte starts kissing her neck and then continues working his way down as the camera zooms in on Wallace’s face. This also raised concerns as it was pushing the limits of the production code of the time. When questioned about where Conte went as he descended from view, Joseph H Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.” In addition to that, the movie also features a couple of hitmen (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) who, while it’s never explicitly stated, are clearly involved in a homosexual relationship – strong stuff for a 1955 production.

The Big Combo is one of those films which has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either. I understand the US release by Image may offer the best transfer but I don’t have that one to comment for sure. I used to own a weak Geneon disc which displayed a fair bit of combing and motion blur but replaced it with a Spanish release by Sogemedia/Regia. This disc doesn’t have the combing issues but it’s still only a low-medium grade transfer. The biggest problem is a general haziness and softness that dilutes the work of Lewis and Alton. I continue to cling onto the hope that someone, somewhere will see fit to release this great film with a restored image and in the correct aspect ratio. Leaving aside the less than stellar DVD presentations, I can’t praise the movie itself highly enough. The dialogue, plotting and photography are all pure noir, and the two strong central performances ensure it’s a film worth revisiting.

 

Terror in a Texas Town

So many westerns have hinged on the conflicts that arise over land: the need to expand settlements, the presence of gold or silver, grazing rights, the relentless progress of the railroad. However, not too many have dealt with oil. Terror in a Texas Town (1958) uses the issue of oil to explain the actions of its characters (especially the villains) yet it’s not this that interests us as viewers. At the heart of the story lies a good old-fashioned tale of justice and revenge. As such, we have a very traditional plot, even one that could become mundane in other hands. Nevertheless, director Joseph H Lewis and uncredited writer Dalton Trumbo between them manage to craft a highly unusual western that probes around the genre’s boundaries.

The entire film is told in flashback, the opening scene cut short at the crucial moment and its resolution only revealed right at the end. The grandly named Prairie City, Texas is one of those typical western towns, dusty, sleepy places where nothing much seems to happen. Be that as it may, the leading citizen, McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), is in the process of shaking things up. He’s engaged in a land grab; having learned that the surrounding area is literally swimming in oil, he has called in an old acquaintance to help him run the homesteaders off their property with a view to seizing it for himself. His henchman of choice is Johnny Crale (Ned Young), an old-school enforcer and gunman who’s had his right hand shot off in the course of his work and who’s fast becoming a relic of a previous era. Crale’s first assignment is to kill a man, a kind of coaxer to encourage the others. As it turns out, this is an unfortunate selection – an old Swede patiently tending the land until his son returns from the sea. The son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), cuts an incongruous figure when he arrives, awkwardly dressed in his ill-fitting city clothes and lugging a heavy sea chest on his shoulder. The scene in the saloon, where Crale tells Hansen of the murder of his father (leaving out the crucial detail of who did the deed) is so well filmed – just two guys and a girl sitting around a table in a deserted bar, yet absolutely riveting in its very simplicity. The viewer is a step ahead of the apparently slow-witted Swede in knowing the identity of the killer, and it’s fascinating to watch the movie’s two protagonists, with their contrasting characters, probing for an insight into each other. Of course, Hansen is nowhere near as dumb as his appearance suggests. Before long, he’s got the measure of both McNeil and Crale and finds himself drawn inevitably towards the almost surreal showdown that started the movie.

Joseph H Lewis is probably best known for two remarkable noir pictures, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, yet Terror in a Texas Town (his last movie before moving to TV) is both powerful and individualistic enough to be mentioned in the same breath. It’s an extremely low budget affair, shot on sets with a very limited cast, that turns its lean production into an asset. The dialogue is trimmed down to the bare necessities, thus lending it greater impact, and every shot is loaded with significance. One example is the scene where Hansen returns to find the Mexican settler he’s befriended has been gunned down by Crale. A simple cut to the tight grouping of the man’s grieving widow and children tells us all we need to know about the effect this killing has had, far more eloquent and touching than reams of sentimental dialogue or exposition. The unique set piece that frames the story, the duel between a six-shooter and a harpoon, is more than a mere artistic quirk, it sums up the idea at the heart of the story: a simple outsider with primitive tools taking on the might of the exploiters. Trumbo’s leftist take on events and characterization is one of the key factors that makes the film so compelling.

Sterling Hayden’s sheer physical bulk always ensured he maintained a powerful presence on screen, and he used that attribute to great effect as the stoic and immovable George Hansen. He’s very convincing as the foreigner who has to measure his words carefully and think before he expresses himself. The fact that it’s this Swede, and his Mexican friend, who stands up to the criminal excesses of unchecked capitalism highlights the way America (as Trumbo no doubt perceived it) had become ineffectual and complacent when it came to facing the threat of corporate greed. Ned Young, as the physically deformed and morally confused enforcer, is a marvellously ambiguous figure. He’s clearly a bad man, both his background and the murders he commits during the film attest to that. Still, he remains a multi-dimensional character; he’s a reluctant killer, motivated less by money than a kind of morbid curiosity about the psychology of fear and death. The true villain is Sebastian Cabot’s McNeil, the very embodiment of a corrupted and heartless American society. This bloated figure, exuding a fake bonhomie, is the archetypical avaricious businessman with the law in his pocket – the unattractive face of a new west. Personally, I’m struck by the parallels between McNeil (and his ultimate fate) and Gabriele Ferzetti’s Morton in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West.

Terror in a Texas Town has been available on DVD for a long time now from MGM in the US. The movie has been given a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer that does justice to Lewis and cameraman Ray Rennahan’s compositions. I suppose the biggest complaint is the amount of grain visible, not something that generally bothers me but there is an awful lot of it. The disc offers no extras except the theatrical trailer. The film has also been released in the UK by Optimum. I don’t have that disc to compare but being a title licensed from MGM, it’s likely to be broadly similar in terms of quality. I have a lot of time for this movie; I love its low budget urgency and the offbeat style. The involvement of Sterling Hayden, Ned Young and Dalton Trumbo conjures up the ghost of HUAC and the blacklist, while the plotting and characterization are further reminders of a period of US history that remains both fascinating and tragic. This movie seems proud of its own B status and proves that lower budgets don’t have to mean lower quality. It gets a definite thumbs up from me.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 
 
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