RSS

Category Archives: William Wyler

The Big Country

Poster

The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

East meets West - Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country.

I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about – the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone – his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.   

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

 

The Westerner

Poster

One of the recurring themes of the western is the conflict between the cattlemen of the open range and the fence-building homesteaders, or sodbusters. In truth, this clash (freedom, as represented by the range, and the slow encroachment of civil society from the east) lies near the very heart of the genre. It is this which forms the framework of The Westerner (1940), but the film really revolves around the relationship between two very different men. As such it eschews action in favour of character development, and slots nicely into the group of more mature westerns that were starting to appear at the time.   

The film’s prologue sets the scene in the years following the Civil War when the westward expansion was in full swing. Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) has established himself as the self-styled “Law West of the Pecos” in his own remote corner of Texas. He is shown dispensing his own brand of justice from his saloon/courtroom in the case of a man accused of committing one of the most serious of all crimes, that of murdering a steer. Having tried, convicted and carried out the sentence personally, he comes face to face with his next defendant. Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is a drifter and saddle tramp who’s had the misfortune of buying a stolen horse. This is another capital crime and the case looks to be an open and shut one. When the jury retires to back room to play cards and down some liquor before delivering the inevitable guilty verdict, Harden takes the only path open to him. Noticing that the saloon has been made up as a virtual shrine to Lily Langtry, Harden claims to have made the acquaintance of the judge’s beloved actress and to have a lock of her hair in his possession. Well, clearly such a man can’t simply be hauled out and hanged so the sentence is suspended and the two men form an uneasy alliance. However, Harden finds himself drawn to Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), daughter of a local settler, and is soon caught between the two rival factions.

I am the law - Walter Brennan

Gary Cooper was a highly deceptive actor. There are those who would claim that his laconic style was wooden and that he couldn’t act, but to say that is to ignore the subtlety of the man’s craft. There was no expansiveness to Cooper but everything was communicated through his face and small unpretentious gestures. There is a marvellous example of this during the trial scene in this movie where fear, calculation and, ultimately, triumph are all readable just from his eyes. He’s at his best in the scenes he shares with Walter Brennan but, perversely, has every one of those scenes stolen right from under his nose. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Brennan was the finest character actor American cinema has ever produced. He turned in performances which ranged from fine to excellent in anything I’ve seen him in. His Judge Roy Bean is a multi-layered character who goes from mean and ornery to endearingly childlike and back again. It’s no mean acting feat to make this figure sympathetic, but Brennan managed it and picked up his third Oscar for his troubles. Visually, the film looks great, due in no small part to the photography of Gregg Toland. With all this talent at his disposal, director William Wyler marshals it with his typical professionalism. He offers up some fine cinematic moments, such as the attack on the homesteaders. In the midst of a thanksgiving ceremony, as the camera surveys a rich, tranquil and fertile land to the accompaniment of noble words, the idyll is abruptly shattered by a murderous arson raid. As flames sear the screen, the settlers paradise is transformed in a matter of minutes into a scorched, desolate landscape. Those smouldering, blackened ruins of former homes pointing accusingly towards the heavens are an eloquent reminder of the fickle and dangerous unpredictability of frontier life.

The Westerner was reissued on DVD in R1 late last spring by MGM/Fox and the transfer is a very fine one. I can’t say I noticed any significant damage marks or signs of manipulation, just a crisp, clean B&W image. Previous MGM releases were no more than adequate but the distribution deal with Fox seems to have led to an improvement in quality. The only criticism is the lack of any extra content, but I guess you  can’t have everything. I’d rate The Westerner as a good example of a ’40s oater for grown-ups; it has drama and it’s moving but it also has a vein of sly, dark humour running through it. Recommended.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 11, 2009 in 1940s, Gary Cooper, Westerns, William Wyler

 

The Desperate Hours

Poster

Humphrey Bogart’s penultimate film offered him the chance to have one final crack at the kind of role that had catapulted him into the public consciousness two decades earlier. The Petrified Forest (1936) gave Bogie his big break, but it also led to his being typecast as the one dimensional heavy. For the next five years he wasn’t called on to do much more than sneer at the camera and get shot by James Cagney. Playing Roy Earle in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra would be the turning point for him – sure it was another doomed gangster part but at least this one had a human face. With one exception, he avoided any more underworld roles until we come to 1955 and The Desperate Hours.

The story concerns Glenn Griffin (Bogart) who, in the company of kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and lumbering sociopath Kobish (Robert Middleton), has just broken out of prison. Needing somewhere to lay up until Glenn’s girl can reach them and deliver their money, the trio take over the suburban home of Dan Hilliard (Fredric March) and hold the family hostage. There is also a side matter of Griffin holding a grudge against a local cop (Arthur Kennedy), but this is never really developed as the movie chooses to focus on the clash of those cinematic titans Bogart and March. What we get is a war of will and wits between Bogart’s career criminal, struggling to maintain control over both his companions and the family, and the steadfast and respectable March. The film was adapted from a stage play and much of the drama is played out within the confines of the family home. This both points up the contrast between the snug domesticity of the Hilliards and the violent Griffin gang, and helps highlight the claustrophobic sense of entrapment felt by all the principals. As the balance of power seesaws back and forth, the atmosphere of tension never lets up until the film reaches its satisfying climax.

Humphrey Bogart & Fredric March

Films which are adapted from plays almost always give actors a chance to show what they’ve got. Such is the case with The Desperate Hours, where two of the heavyweights of classic era Hollywood get to slug it out and ultimately share the spoils. By this stage in his career Bogart could play this type of role in his sleep. Glenn Griffin is a man on the edge, battling to maintain control over those around him and his own personal demons. It is his failure to control either his cohorts or his own thirst for vengeance that finally bring him down. In contrast, March’s Dan Hilliard is the epitome of middle American stoicism, never allowing any overt signs of weakness or doubt to be witnessed by his family. Where Griffin’s dependence on violence and threats leads to fatal blunders, Hilliard’s self discipline and decency allow him to coolly wait for his chance. Of the support cast, the parts of Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young are thanklessly underwritten; the former having little to do except show his dogged professionalism and the latter his devotion to the Hilliard’s daughter. Robert Middleton fares best as the stupid and dangerous Kobish. He brings a genuine sense of menace to the film as his character literally crashes around like a bull in a china shop. There are also small yet welcome parts for character specialists Whit Bissell and Ray Teal. 

The Desperate Hours is available on DVD in both R1 and R2 from Paramount. The disc is a totally barebones affair but the widescreen anamorphic transfer is fantastic and, at the time of writing, can be picked up for less than a fiver. All in all, it’s a worthwhile and recommended movie.

 
 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 514 other followers