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Category Archives: Robert Wise

Tribute to a Bad Man

We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2014 in 1950s, James Cagney, Robert Wise, Westerns

 

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Two Flags West

Civil War films have a reputation for doing poor business, which is probably why the era tends to have been approached somewhat obliquely by Hollywood. There are plenty of movies which feature the war as a kind of background element, something always present in the minds of the characters yet rarely directly shown on the screen. Westerns, perhaps on geographical grounds as much as anything, often used the Civil War and its legacy mainly as a plot device to provide motivation. Students of literature, stretching right back to Aristotle, have recognized conflict as the mainstay of drama – the essential element if you like. Two Flags West (1950) is a film positively brimming with conflict, and not just the obvious Confederate/Union rivalry that is central to the story. That of course is interesting enough in itself, but it’s the personal antagonism among the leads (and indeed within their own hearts) that adds depth and substance.

Two Flags West is one of a small group of westerns – along with Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee – which have soldiers of the Civil War’s two opposing sides forced to co-operate on the frontier. The story here is inspired by the proclamation which allowed Confederate POWs to gain a pardon and have their citizenship restored if they agreed to defend the frontier in the name of the Union. The controversial and divisive nature of this choice is made apparent right from the beginning, when the rebel cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Tucker (Joseph Cotten) are shown to be genuinely torn between the notion of betraying their homeland and remaining true to ideals that are slowly killing them. Faced with the prospect of succumbing to disease and malnutrition, these men narrowly vote to accept the Northern offer and move west to New Mexico where a different war is being fought. Asking a man to turn his back on a cause is one thing, asking him to turn his guns against it is entirely different. Therefore, it’s with the understanding that they will not be forced to take up arms against their former comrades that these men agree to wear the blue tunics of their enemies. The western frontier is virtually defenseless, its outposts manned by a rag-tag bunch of wounded and poorly trained troops. In contrast, the new recruits are skilled cavalrymen and hardened combat veterans.

One would think the presence of such seasoned troops would be welcomed by the men they are coming to reinforce. Indeed, that’s the early impression given by Captain Bradford (Cornel Wilde), the affable liaison officer who makes the initial offer and leads Tucker (now demoted to Lieutenant) and his men west. However, their new commanding officer, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), presents a very different face. Kenniston is a man whose external wounds are as nothing compared to the scars he carries inside. Here is a tortured soul, a man consumed by hatred of the enemy, professional disillusionment and personal frustration. His open animosity towards Tucker and his men, and his frank distrust of their loyalty is immediately apparent. It’s only a matter of time before he forces Tucker’s hand by arranging for the new recruits to carry out the execution of men they later discover were actually Confederate spies. Tucker naturally sees this as a breach of the terms he agreed to, and sets in motion a plan to desert. Now, there’s plenty of dramatic conflict in play at this point, but that’s only one aspect of the story. While questions of loyalty, trust and honor are being thrashed out, there’s also the matter of the Major’s widowed sister-in-law to be considered. Elena (Linda Darnell) is a woman desperate to reach California and her relatives, but that desperation stems from her desire to escape the brooding obsession of her late husband’s brother. To complicate matters further, Bradford is clearly in love with Elena and so has an even more delicate balancing act to master. In short, this isolated fort is like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the fuse that will touch it all off is provided by the mass of hostile Indians raiding beyond its walls.

In writing about Robert Wise’s first western, Blood on the Moon, some time back, I mentioned how his time spent working for Orson Welles and Val Lewton was reflected in the imagery he used. While Two Flags West has fewer overtly noir touches, both Wise and cameraman Leon Shamroy use light and shadow very effectively, especially in the interiors. The opening scenes in the prison camp are enhanced by this technique, although the atmospheric photography can be seen all through the movie. I think the image above is a pretty good example of the artistic lighting and composition which is characteristic of this film: the grim faces of Cotten and the prisoners dominate the frame, while the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the boarded-up windows in the background suggest rays of hope and salvation reaching out to them. However, the film offers more than just moody and suggestive imagery. The climactic Indian assault on the fort is excitingly filmed and gets across the frenzied determination of the defenders facing overwhelming odds, and their consequent sense of hopelessness. Earlier, I referred to Major Dundee as another film whose plot hinged on the uneasy alliance of former enemies facing a common foe. Aside from that similarity in the basic story, it’s also interesting to note that Two Flags West foreshadows Peckinpah’s later picture by featuring scenes where both the Confederate and Union troops sing their respective songs simultaneously. As far as the script is concerned, the writers credited are Casey Robinson, Curtis Kenyon and Frank Nugent. The latter ought to be a recognizable name for anyone who is familiar with the films of John Ford – Nugent was a writer on both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This movie doesn’t paint as intimate a picture of life in an isolated fort as Ford’s cavalry films do, but there are still some parallels to be seen.

Two Flags West is a movie with a very attractive headline cast. Despite stiff competition from his co-stars, I think Jeff Chandler makes the strongest impression. I suppose his early death is a contributory factor but I feel Chandler rarely gets much credit for his screen work these days. He wasn’t a particularly showy actor nor was he one for extravagant displays of emotion. Instead he was another of those brooding types who seemed to keep a lot locked away inside, only rarely letting his feelings bubble up towards the surface. The role of Major Kenniston was therefore an appropriate one for him. Chandler created a very convincing portrait of a man whose personal and professional failings are eating away at his soul, whose own self-loathing is weakening his judgement. Frankly, Kenniston is a martinet and there’s much to like about him. Having said that, Chandler invests him with great dignity, and his final scene is actually quite moving regardless of how poorly he has conducted himself up to that point. Cast against such an unsympathetic figure, Joseph Cotten’s Confederate officer ought to be the one we’re rooting for. And yet, that’s not really the case either. Cotten had a knack for playing disgruntled, troubled figures, and his portrayal of Tucker taps into that. Yet there’s a kind of sly ambiguity to his role, a slippery irony about him that means we can never be entirely sure of his motives. The result is that while he may be more sympathetic that Kenniston, the viewer can’t fully get behind him. All of this means that the audience is asked to identify most strongly with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell. I reckon Darnell’s part is the more successful one, not due solely to her acting talents – both Wilde and Darnell turn in good performances in my opinion – but perhaps as a result of Wilde’s being absent from the screen for long stretches. Among the supporting cast, there’s are nice turns from Jay C Flippen, Dale Robertson and Noah Beery Jr.

As far as I’m aware, the only DVD edition of Two Flags West currently available is this Spanish release from Fox/Impulso. It’s one of the label’s better efforts, boasting a generally strong transfer, although there is some print damage evident, generally confined to a kind of slight ripple or blur that appears sporadically on the right side of the frame. The release is English-friendly with the original soundtrack included and optional subtitles that can be deselected via the setup menu. The extra features consist of a gallery and a few text screens listing cast & crew. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of this movie might do well to hold off a little longer though. Koch Media in Germany are due to put the title out on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 26 – it’s worth bearing in mind that Koch’s products tend to be of very good quality. I like to highlight forgotten and/or neglected films whenever possible, and I think Two Flags West fits the bill. For one reason or another, it’s not a movie one hears about too often and that’s a shame. There’s a good plot with plenty of tension and a fair bit of depth, strong performances and fine visuals. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and a title deserving of some renewed attention.

 

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Blood on the Moon

Having already covered a number of westerns which have crossed over into noir territory, it’s time to turn the spotlight on one more. If we regard the mid-late 1940s as the heyday of film noir proper, then it’s only reasonable to find one of the strongest western variants within that time period. Blood on the Moon (1948) follows all the typical western conventions but uses a recognizably noir figure as its protagonist and employs the dark cinema’s trademark shadowy photography to emphasize both the sense of danger and moral ambiguity implicit in the story. As is always the case with these genre straddling examples, the film stops just short of being noir at its purest – the essential pessimism of that form rarely blending naturally or completely into a western story.

Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) is one of those guys who’s no stranger to bad luck, a drifter with an ill-defined past first seen traversing a bleak and rocky ridge in the middle of a driving rain storm. When you see a guy strike a frugal camp and bed down to rest his weary bones, gaining some respite from the harsh elements, only to have his outfit smashed to pulp by a wildly stampeding herd of cattle, it’s easy to tell fortune isn’t exactly smiling on him. The herd belongs to Lufton (Tom Tully), and when Garry is taken back to the cattleman’s campsite he receives a kind of backhanded welcome. The west of Blood on the Moon isn’t an open or warm place, rather it’s a world of shadows, suspicion and wariness. Garry has ridden into a developing range war, the classic stand-off between the ranchers and the homesteaders. On one side we have Lufton, a rancher with a herd of beef that the Indian agent has refused to buy and which is about to be seized by the army unless it’s removed from the reservation post-haste. The opposition is a ragtag bunch of settlers, organized and dominated by Tate Riling (Robert Preston), and bolstered in strength by a handful of hired gunmen. Riling is denying Lufton access to old grazing land, ostensibly on the pretext that he’s defending the rights of the settlers. However, his real motivation is the opportunity to force Lufton into selling to him on the cheap, thus allowing him to make a financial killing through his dealings with the crooked Indian agent (Frank Faylen). Garry and Riling are old friends, the former having arrived due to the promise of a job with Riling. Initially, Garry isn’t particularly thrilled with the role he’s been cast in but a job’s a job. Although he doesn’t put it into words, it clear enough that Garry is uneasy about the double-dealing of Riling. What’s more, he’s clearly more impressed by the apparent straightforwardness of Lufton, and then there’s the attraction he feels towards the rancher’s younger daughter, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). For Garry, the turning point arrives in the aftermath of a violent raid on Lufton’s encampment that leads to the tragic death of the son of a widowed settler (Walter Brennan). With his realization of the depth of Riling’s ruthlessness, Garry experiences a crisis of conscience and finds his allegiance shifting.

Apart from the strong cast, Blood on the Moon featured a wealth of talent behind the cameras too. The story was adapted from Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, and has a scripting credit for the author himself. It appears that story caught the attention of the up and coming Robert Wise and he persuaded Dore Schary to let him run with the project. Wise had served a long and telling apprenticeship at RKO, editing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and directing a couple of pictures for Val Lewton. In learning his trade, Wise had been keeping some esteemed company, and the experience showed up in this his first stab at directing a western. With cameraman Nicholas Musuraca achieving beautiful effects with light and shadow, Wise produced a western that’s dark, moody and heavy on atmosphere. There’s some good use of Arizona locations for the exteriors, but the most memorable aspect of the film is the gloomy and claustrophobic interior work. The low ceilings of the buildings, illuminated by guttering oil lamps, seem to press down on the characters, squeezing them and restricting their options as much as their movements. Although there are a number of noteworthy scenes, the highlight is arguably the brawl between Mitchum and Preston in a deserted cantina. This isn’t the typical cartoon scrap that we find in countless westerns; instead it’s a vicious and visceral affair that sees the two combatants slugging it out realistically. There’s no music to distract from the thudding, crunching landing of blows, and the naturalistic half-light makes the bruised and bloody faces and hands all the more convincing.

The first scene we shot after Mitch got outfitted was in the barroom. Walter Brennan was sitting at a table with a couple of pals and Brennan was very interested in the Old West, it was a hobby of his. And I’ll never forget when Bob came on the set, just standing there, with the costume and the whole attitude that he gave to it, and Brennan got a look at him and was terribly impressed. He pointed at Mitchum and said, “That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!”  – Robert Mitchum – Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server, Faber & Faber 2001, p180

The above quote comes from Robert Wise and is as good an illustration as any of the degree of authenticity that Robert Mitchum brought to his western roles. Brennan’s observation was spot on for Mitchum does indeed look the real deal here and gives another of his deceptively easy performances. While he seemed to relish the physical stuff that I mentioned above the quieter scenes are played out with great subtlety and, throughout it all, he moved around the landscape and sets with tremendous grace. Robert Preston was good casting as Riling, turning on the false charm and grins when it suited and really bringing out the slippery side of the character. I thought Barbara Bel Geddes was impressive too, even though the western wasn’t a genre she did a lot of work in. Her role called for a fair bit of shooting and riding and she made for a game, independent heroine. The supporting cast is a long and starry one: Walter Brennan, Tom Tully, the wonderfully gritty Charles McGraw, Phyllis Thaxter, Frank Faylen and Clifton Young all doing good work and helping to flesh out the story.

Blood on the Moon is available on DVD from both Montparnasse in France and Odeon in the UK. Seeing as I have the two discs, I’m of the opinion that the transfers are identical – both sport the same significant print damage during the raid/stampede scene at around the half hour mark. In terms of extras, the French disc (with optional subs) has the usual disposable introduction, and the UK release has a gallery. Overall, I suppose the Odeon disc is marginally more attractive, at least in relation to its packaging which features a reproduction of the original poster art on the reverse of the sleeve. The aforementioned damage, along with various other nicks and scratches, show that no restoration work has been done and the transfer does tend to look a little soft. However, the feature is quite watchable and there are no better alternatives that I’m aware of anyway. The movie is an entertaining and striking one, a strong entry in the filmographies of both Mitchum and Wise. The development and resolution of the plot do dilute the noir credentials to an extent yet the strong visual style means it never strays too far either. Personally, I feel it hits the mark as a western and comes pretty close as a film noir too; as such, it’s recommended to fans of both types of movie.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2012 in 1940s, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wise, Westerns

 
 
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