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Category Archives: Westerns

Joe Dakota

Last time I looked at a remake. The film in question today isn’t a direct remake, at least not a credited one, but instead it’s what we might term an alternative take on a similar theme. Anyone who has seen Bad Day at Black Rock will easily spot the parallels in Joe Dakota (1957), although this later production doesn’t attain the same level of driving intensity as Sturges’ film. I think it’s fair to say this movie doesn’t have the same ambition, not as far as social commentary is concerned anyway, but it’s still interesting enough and definitely a worthwhile 50s western.

Arborville is a tiny settlement, barely able to justify the label of a town. As an unnamed stranger (Jock Mahoney) rides out of the desert onto its solitary street there’s an almost unnatural calm. At first it seems as though Arborville has been abandoned, like a western version of the Marie Celeste on dry land. The mystery provides only a temporary puzzle though as a lone girl, Jody (Luana Patten), sulkily informs the stranger that the whole population is outside of town at work. The work turns out to be an oil drilling operation, and the locals aren’t exactly thrilled to see an outsider poking his nose in. The main spokesman, Cal (Charles McGraw), initially appears happy enough to allow the visitor to observe the drilling but grows suspicious when this unnamed man decides to explore further, particularly when he exhibits an interest in the old shack that stands next to the derrick. The tone of this opening section of the movie is a little uneven, mixing the suspenseful elements up with some broad knockabout comedy. However, as the story progresses the emphasis on the mystery consistently holds center stage. Everything revolves around the question of identity – the identity of the apparently affable stranger with questions to ask, and that of the old Indian, now disappeared, who once occupied the shack. So there are issues to be resolved in Arborville but no-one seems keen to offer any answers. Even the locals are reluctant to discuss the matter among themselves. What is clear is that the town is nursing a secret, and the stranger is determined to haul that hidden past, kicking and screaming if necessary, out into the open.

Those familiar with Bad Day at Black Rock will know where the story is heading, and I’m not going to spoil things here for anyone who hasn’t seen either film. While the structure of both films is essentially the same the approach is a little different. Joe Dakota has the early lightness I already referred to and, even though the levels of suspense are ramped up as it goes along, the kind of searing examination of race relations that characterized John Sturges’ film is not present. Also, the insularity of the isolated frontier community isn’t probed in the same depth. Everything in Bad Day at Black Rock revolved around notions of hate, fear and neglect – Joe Dakota trades on fear too, but greed lies at the root of it all.

The script was by William Talman, best known as Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason show, and Norman Jolley. This pair also worked together on another Jock Mahoney vehicle, I’ve Lived Before, which I’d like to see one day. The core story is a good one and works well in a western setting, relying on the isolation to act as both a cloak for the town’s guilty secret and a catalyst for the paranoia that accompanies it. The plot recounts a journey towards the truth and, like most 50s westerns, represents a simultaneous quest for redemption or absolution. By the close the collective guilt of all concerned is literally burnt away and cleansed as the mistakes of the past are consumed by flames.

Jock Mahoney was well cast in Joe Dakota, his laid back charm easily wins the viewer over to his side right from the beginning and there was an air of tough resolve about him too which makes him believable as the dogged seeker after the truth. He made a handful of films with director Richard Bartlett – of those, I’ve only seen the enjoyable Money, Women and Guns – who appears to have recognized his strengths and used them to good effect. Charles McGraw had the rough edges and raspy voice to play a variety of movie villains and he always a pleasure to watch. Joe Dakota was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his more devious side, as opposed to a physical threat, and he acts as a good foil for the athletic Mahoney. Barbara Lawrence and Luana Patten took on the two principal female roles, with the latter getting the juicier and more rewarding part. The supporting cast is pretty strong too, with Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef indulging in some comic antics early on to soften the harder image we frequently associate with both men. It’s nice too to see the prolific Anthony Caruso – one of those faces you’ll immediately recognize – in a fairly prominent role.

Joe Dakota was a Universal picture and can be tracked down on DVD easily enough. I have the Spanish release, which is fair but nothing special. A 1957 production would certainly have been shot widescreen but the DVD is clearly open matte – there’s lots of extraneous head room in the frame. Aside from that, the image is reasonable if a little soft. The Eastman color process could be problematic and was apt to fade over time but I can’t say it looks too bad in this case. The disc just offers the film and there are no extra features whatsoever. Generally, this is a good, solid western which presents a different riff on a similar scenario to Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s interesting to look at the contrasting approaches of these two films but I think it would be unfair to compare them directly. Joe Dakota stands up just fine on its own merits and is both entertaining and thoughtful.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in 1950s, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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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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The Far Country

And so I come to the last western made by James Stewart and Anthony Mann, not the last they did together but rather the last one to be featured on this site. For a long time I tended to look upon The Far Country (1954) as the least of the Mann/Stewart westerns but, having been challenged on that view in the past, I asked myself to reassess it. On reflection, I feel my initial stance was both unfair and even lacked a certain logic – after all, there really is no such thing as a lesser Mann/Stewart western. I also think I know why I once undervalued the film, and it’s essentially for the same reason I was sightly ambivalent at one time about the collaboration between actor and director that never was: Night Passage. In short, the film doesn’t have what I can only term the sustained intensity of the other westerns these two men made. Yet to latch onto that aspect is to do the film a huge disservice; where the other films have that sustained intensity The Far Country has more isolated instances of it, and this actually fits the development of the plot and theme perfectly.

Perhaps the most noticeable motif in the films of Anthony Mann is the way his characters are forever driving themselves upwards, striving to attain a higher place and sometimes overreaching themselves in the process. In The Far Country Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is pushing himself further up the globe from the off, from Wyoming to Seattle and on to the north – the Yukon. Webster is a trail boss, a man with a herd of cattle to bring to market. That he’s a hard and uncompromising man is evident from the first scenes where it’s plainly stated that he shot and killed two cowboys who tried to desert him on the way – although it’s later revealed that the deceased had also planned to take his herd with them when they left. Webster’s partner is Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), a man of milder temperament whose ambitions stretch only as far as a ranch in Utah and a plentiful supply of coffee. One would have thought that having got this far, the worst of their trials lay behind these two men. However, that’s not to be. Gannon (John McIntire) is one of those conniving opportunists one often finds in border areas – he’s a man who uses the law, his version of the law that is, to ensure all profits accrue back to him. He seizes on the chance to confiscate Webster’s herd on a legal technicality that’s little more than a whim. However, Webster is no fool and when he’s offered the job of leading saloon owner Ronda Castle’s (Ruth Roman) outfit into Canada he turns it to his advantage. While Gannon is under the illusion that Webster is content to try his luck in the Canadian gold fields the latter snatches his herd from under his nose and jumps the border. So all’s well that ends well? Not exactly – Webster is a hard-nosed individualist, one of those men who look after themselves and leave the others to their own devices. However, the move north sees that isolationist position challenged. New friendships are forged – Rube (Jay C Flippen) and more especially the freckle-faced tomboy Renee (Corinne Calvet) – and with those come obligations, something Webster has assiduously avoided thus far. As first Ronda and then later the malignant Gannon set their sights on a piece of the action in the lucrative gold fields, Webster is forced to take stock of his previous philosophy of exclusively looking out for number one.

The other Mann/Stewart westerns were mainly concerned with individuals haunted by their past, tales of revenge and redemption earned the hard way. The Far Country differs in the sense that the Stewart character isn’t a man directly dogged by a painful history. There is an allusion to a woman who wounded him emotionally, perhaps partially explaining his remoteness from those around him. However, there isn’t that sense of someone running from himself. Instead what we get is a representation of total detachment, a man who places self-interest above all else. For most of the movie Jeff Webster really isn’t all that nice a guy, he cares not a jot who gets hurt so long as his own interests are best served. And so the theme here is more one of renewal and rediscovery, setting it a little apart from the other revenge focused films. The Stewart character isn’t at war with himself, as so often seemed to be the case, although he is eventually forced to question his previous attitude. This is what, for me anyway, makes the film a bit different – the moments of intensity occur in brief flashes, at least until Webster’s hand is forced by Gannon’s cruelty. Of course the threat of brutality and abrupt violence that characterizes the Mann/Stewart westerns lurks just below the surface – it’s this (and also the warmth that springs from the feeling of community) which finally provokes Webster, and consequently allows him to get back in touch with his own humanity.

The Far Country gave Stewart the chance to display more of his trademark affability than his other westerns with Mann, though it remains of the slightly hard-edged variety. Those other films concerned themselves more with a reconciliation with the circumstances and situations arising out of a damaged past whereas here Stewart has to gradually come to terms with his own failings as a human being. As such, the characterization is quite different yet no less interesting. In place of a deep psychological trauma which colors his actions, Stewart has to confront an ingrained emotional detachment instead. The catalyst, as usual, is violence and humiliation, and the transformation – the path towards renewal – is no less dramatic.

Naturally, everything revolves around Stewart’s character, but there’s plenty of good support from a fine cast. Walter Brennan had the lovable old coot thing nailed down by this stage in his career, and his turn as the coffee-obsessed partner provides a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s coolness. Brennan is the human face of the pair, the one audiences can most easily relate to and feel sympathy for. Corinne Calvet fulfills a similar function; there’s an amusing sweetness to this ingenue of the wilderness, although it lessens her impact as one half of the romantic interest. Ruth Roman, on the other hand, is a knowing, worldly figure – she’s arguably a better match for Stewart’s profit-minded cynic, but loses some of her allure as Stewart later finds himself examining his motives and allegiances. She’s actually one of the most interesting figures in the movie, retaining a degree of ambiguity throughout. However, there’s nothing at all ambiguous about John McIntire’s Gannon – he’s the real villain of the piece and positively glories in his iniquity and callousness. McIntire, along with Brennan, was one of the finest character actors of the golden age and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a role like this. Anthony Mann clearly liked working with Jay C Flippen – he used him often in his movies – and gave him another good role in The Far Country as the kind-hearted Rube with a fondness for the whiskey bottle. Already were looking at a pretty impressive battery of seasoned performers but when you bear in mind that the film also found parts for Robert J Wilke, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Chubby Johnson and Steve Brodie it ought to give an idea of the depth of talent involved.

The Far Country has long been available on DVD and really is due an upgrade to Blu-ray by now. Early editions in the US presented the film open-matte, but later pressings were in the correct widescreen ratio. I have the UK DVD, which was always the widescreen version, and it looks pretty good. William Daniels’ photography of the beautiful Canadian locations looks terrific while colors and sharpness are quite satisfactory. As I said at the beginning, there was a time when I tried to rate the Mann/Stewart westerns against each other but that’s a pointless exercise really. Over time I’ve come to understand that all of these films are great in their own ways – to try to compare them or view them as competing productions is to pick away at their greatness, and I honestly don’t want to do that. I held off writing about this film for ages, and for reasons which may appear foolish to others. Although I’ve seen all the Mann/Stewart westerns countless times I kind of liked the idea that there was still another one I had yet to feature. I didn’t like the feeling that I wouldn’t have the chance to write about another one – I got that same sense when I finished writing up the Boetticher/Scott pictures too – so I kept putting it off. Anyway, there it is. These films are among the finest the western genre has to offer – maybe I won’t be writing about them again but I’ll surely enjoy watching them, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who has yet to experience them.

Winchester ’73

The Naked Spur

The Man from Laramie

Bend of the River

 

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2014 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Westerns

 

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Branded

All my life, I’ve been a snake. I’ve lived by my wits. I’ve gotten what I’ve wanted any way I wanted it. Just lately I’ve been wondering just for once if I couldn’t do something straight… do something a little decent.

There have always been movies that have been said to possess greatness. The reasons for their being labeled as such are frequently discussed and analyzed so it’s not that hard to find justification. But what of those films that are largely overlooked? Having recently been asked to participate in the selection of some underrated westerns, this thought has been buzzing around my head. How do some highly deserving movies get brushed aside and miss out on the praise heaped on others? Take a film like Branded (1950), a western which is rarely spoken of and probably unfamiliar to all but the more dedicated genre fans. Yet it has a strong story and a compelling theme, a good cast contributing very convincing performances and solid production values.

Sometimes you can tell from the opening moments that you’re going to be in for an enjoyable movie experience, and Branded is a good example of this. In a nameless town a crowd of armed men surround and lay siege to a dry goods store. Inside is the hostage storekeeper and Choya (Alan Ladd), the subject of the gunmen’s interest. The situation is tense and the dialogue is terse and we learn just enough to know that Choya gunned someone down in self-defense, but no one outside seems too bothered about the right or wrong of it. Making good his escape, Choya is followed by two apparent bystanders. When these guys catch up with the fugitive, a proposition is laid before him, one that promises to make them all rich with minimal risk. Leffingwell (Robert Keith) has been nursing a plan for years and just waiting till he could find the man he needs to pull it off. What Leffingwell has in mind is a kind of masquerade; Choya will pass himself off as the long-lost son of a wealthy Texan rancher called Lavery (Charles Bickford), the boy having been abducted when he wasn’t much more than a toddler. With a fake birthmark tattooed on his shoulder and just enough knowledge to sway people desperate to believe their child might be alive Choya duly obliges. Now while he may have spent his life hustling and doing whatever he had to in order to turn a buck, he’s by no means devoid of conscience. The kindness and warmth shown him by Lavery and his wife starts to gnaw away at him, and it doesn’t help any that his attractive “sister” Ruth (Mona Freeman) is on the scene too. Gradually, we can see that deceiving these nice people in this heartless way is eating away at him. Unable to bear it any longer, he tells Leffingwell that he’s not going through with the deal and plans to take off as soon as he gets Lavery’s herd to El Paso. Right from the beginning it’s been apparent that Leffingwell is a slippery customer with a ruthless streak, but Choya soon discovers that his partner has an even darker side to him. What he learns in El Paso not only increases the disgust he already felt for Leffingwell but also offers him the opportunity to make amends to people he’s hurt badly. By riding into a notorious bandit’s lair in Mexico there’s a chance to both earn redemption and maybe regain some sense of direction in his life.

The bedrock of any good movie is the writing; if you’re working from a solid script, you’re halfway home. Branded was sourced from a novel by the prolific Max Brand (I haven’t read the book myself but I have a copy on order), credited here under his Evan Evans pseudonym. The script itself was the work of Cyril Hume and Sydney Boehm, both of whom have an impressive list of writing credits. For me, the basic story is a strong one and the way in which it develops means that it holds the attention throughout. What’s more, and this is a feature I particularly appreciate in any film, the development of the plot and characters occurs in a natural, organic way. The opening throws the viewer straight into the middle of the action with no explanation of where we are or who the people are, all that is necessary for us to know is gradually revealed as the story progresses. As such, what exposition there is never has that slightly artificial feel that mars some films. Rudolph Maté started out as a photographer, first in Europe and then in Hollywood, before graduating to the role of director in 1947. I’ve seen a good many of his films and, as one would expect, they’re always visually interesting. Branded, photographed by Charles Lang, is no exception in this respect, and makes excellent use of the Arizona and Utah locations and the interiors. I also thought the shooting angles and compositions were very pleasing, evoking the mood of each scene perfectly.

This was only Alan Ladd’s second western, following on from Whispering Smith, and his comfort in the genre is evident. He transposes the edgy, taciturn quality of his film noir characterizations to the frontier setting smoothly and, backed by that solid writing I’ve spoken about, creates a rounded and sympathetic figure in Choya. Successful movies force their leads to undertake a journey, to grow and develop as the narrative moves along. Ladd first appears as something of an enigma, a man about whom we know very little beyond the fact he’s living a lawless existence. While the script obviously plays a significant part in opening up the character of Choya, it’s Ladd’s intelligent and nuanced performance that makes the viewer care. Ladd seems to have been a man riddled with personal insecurities and he taps into that very well in this film. In short, he brings truth to his portrayal of a man who is self-aware, a little lost, and dissatisfied with his own shortcomings. As the chief villain, Robert Keith is extremely good in the role of Leffingwell. His calculating, dangerous nature is apparent from the beginning, but he manages to make the character almost sympathetic (although perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to him as deserving of pity) for a brief time before revealing his real darkness and evil. Charles Bickford was born to play prickly, irascible types and the part of Lavery fits him well – he’s upright, determined and credible throughout. Mona Freeman was handed some thankless roles at times but here she got something a bit meatier. There’s a genuinely sweet and trusting quality to Ruth, something vital as she’s a large part of the reason Choya feels his conscience pick away at him before setting out on that rocky road towards redemption. Finally, Joseph Calleia gets to indulge in some showy theatrics while Peter Hansen offers a sensitive and affecting turn.

Branded came out on DVD some years ago via Paramount and then, like many of the studio’s releases, quietly slipped out of print for a time. Recently, it’s been reissued via the Warner Archive, although I have no idea whether the presentation of the new iteration is any different. The old Paramount disc I own features a reasonably good, if unrestored, transfer. For the most part, the level of detail is strong and colors look very nice – there are, however, a few instances where they waver a little but it’s nothing serious as far as I’m concerned. There are no extra features offered. As I said at the beginning, Branded is one of those films I feel ought to have a better reputation. It’s never less than solid and boasts first class performances from Alan Ladd and Robert Keith in particular. The story too has that tough sensitivity that distinguishes the best 50s westerns – it’s pacy, exciting, warm and intriguing, and it’s well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Rudolph Maté, Westerns

 

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Ride a Crooked Trail

Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

 Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Walter Matthau, Westerns

 

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A Distant Trumpet

It’s been remarked on before how the 1960s saw a gradual change in approach adopted by the Hollywood western. And it was indeed gradual, up until the middle of the decade, and even a little further in some cases, the influence and sensibilities of the 50s could still be discerned. The change, when it did come, tended to be most marked in the work of the newer breed of directors. The old hands, the pioneers, remained closer to the traditional vision and portrayal of the west. Raoul Walsh, with his earliest directing credit stretching way back to 1913, was most assuredly of the old school, and his final film A Distant Trumpet (1964) has more of the feel of a 50s western than one from the mid-60s.

The film opens spectacularly with a clash between the massed forces of the US cavalry and the Apache. It then cuts swiftly to the academy at West Point where General Quait (James Gregory) is delivering a first hand account of those events to a class of cadets. Among his audience is a young lieutenant Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue), soon to be posted to the remote and undermanned Fort Delivery in Arizona. It’s through Hazard’s idealistic and ambitious eyes that the remainder of the story is seen. The slovenliness, incompetency and insubordination he encounters at the isolated outpost is an affront to the young man’s sense of military propriety. As he assumes the task of whipping the rag-tag detachment into something resembling a modern, disciplined fighting force we get a look at the day-to-day lives of cavalrymen that, in some respects, recalls the work of John Ford. Woven into this is a, not altogether successful, romantic subplot which sees Hazard torn between his betrothed, the General’s niece Laura (Diane McBain), and Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette), the wife of a fellow officer. The second half of the movie sees General Quait and his troops arrive at the fort, and the emphasis shifts to the military campaign to neutralize the threat posed by the renegade Apache War Eagle. Quait’s tactics prove only partially effective however, and achieve not much more than driving War Eagle back across the border into the safety of Mexico. Holed up somewhere deep in the Sierra Madre, War Eagle is at liberty to raid over the border whenever he feels like it. Unless of course someone is prepared to risk his neck going alone into the Apache stronghold to negotiate terms with the old warrior. All told, the latter half of the movie works a lot better, not least because the unsatisfying romance is sidelined for long stretches. Not only are action and spectacle brought to the fore, but there’s greater opportunity to highlight the inherent pro-Indian sympathies of the film.

Raoul Walsh brought a lifetime of experience to the shooting of A Distant Trumpet, and the staging of some of the later battle scenes has an epic quality, aided by the wonderful camerawork of William Clothier. Walsh was always a first class director of action, and location work suited his talents especially well. The wide lens is used very effectively to highlight the vastness of the landscape and, again in a way reminiscent of Ford, the relative insignificance of the tiny humans framed against the primal backdrop. It’s easy to forget though that Walsh had a flair for close-ups and more intimate composition too, and the film offers plenty of chances to sample that aspect of his skill. One of the other great strengths of the production is the score; Max Steiner’s pounding, martial theme adds drive to the film and powers it along. And that brings us to the script, so often the crucial factor when it comes to making or breaking a film. The basis for the movie is a novel by Paul Horgan (not having read it, I can’t comment on how true the adaptation is) and the script derived from this reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the finished product. To begin with the positives: the story told is in effect an account of the latter stages of General Crook’s campaign against the Apache, and Geronimo in particular. Right away we have both a compelling narrative and, just as important, a chance to cast a critical eye over government/army relations and policy towards the Indians. The script treats the Apache with the greatest respect – not phony sentimentalism or misplaced adulation – and adopts a mature and balanced stance. There’s no shying away from atrocities, nor is there any attempt to gloss over government hypocrisy and the shabbiness of broken promises. One could, I suppose, complain about the positive resolution that doesn’t take into account how events really played out, but overall the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the situation. As for the negatives, the aforementioned romance, and consequent soapy elements, isn’t very well realized. It would appear to exist primarily as a means of fleshing out the character of Lt Hazard, however, it actually only serves to bog the picture down and dampen the pace in the first half.

I think of Troy Donahue principally as the star of 50s and 60s soap dramas. I understand his performance isn’t all that well regarded in A Distant Trumpet, but I’ll break ranks here and say that he’s reasonable in certain scenes. He fares best in the latter stages where he’s called on to play the action hero for the most part. His deficiencies are far more noticeable in the intimate scenes though, and that makes the romantic stuff seem even more labored. I guess it doesn’t help any that the parts of Suzanne Pleshette and, more especially, Diane McBain are pretty much under written. Pleshette has the stronger, more sympathetic role, while McBain gets to look glamorous but is saddled with playing a stuck-up, unattractive character. To be honest, McBain’s part could have been cut from the movie and not harmed the narrative one iota. James Gregory is very entertaining and seemed to enjoy playing the Latin-quoting general. Every scene he’s in is all the better for his presence. Claude Akins is good value too as the Indian agent, and purveyor of anything and everything from whiskey and guns to loose women. Generally, the supporting cast is fine with small but memorable roles for Kent Smith, Judson Pratt and William Reynolds.

A Distant Trumpet is widely available these days via the Warner Archive and various European releases. I bought the French Warner Brothers DVD back when it was the only edition available. That’s more than a few years ago now but the transfer still stands up well in my opinion. There’s a nice, crisp and colorful anamorphic scope image that’s basically undamaged. French DVDs can be troublesome when it comes to subtitles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any issues with Warner releases. The subs are easily disabled via the language menu on this one. All in all, the film is what I’d call sporadically successful; there’s a strong story in there with a message that’s subtly expressed and never feels forced. On the other hand, there’s flab in the script too that could and arguably should have been edited out. There’s an ambition to achieve something approaching the epic, but the scripting and some of the casting choices fall short. However, while I have some reservations, I feel the movie works reasonably well on the whole.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in 1960s, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

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The Hanging Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Stand at Apache River

Something I like to do on this site is feature a mix of the better and lesser known films. When it comes to the latter category there’s no shortage of candidates to be found among the output of Universal studios. Second features or programmers are of course a varied bunch in terms of quality, but it has to be said that Universal, of all the Hollywood studios, had a real knack for producing entertaining westerns on the cheap. These small-scale, unpretentious movies had a polish and tight professionalism to them that’s very attractive. There’s no doubt that these films were constrained by their budgets but that was often turned into an advantage in itself. The Stand at Apache River (1953) is a fair example of a western which both exploits its limitations and simultaneously suffers from them too.

The opening sees a horseman striking out across an expanse of barren country, nervously checking his back trail for signs of pursuit before heading for the rocky high ground and the promise of safety. This man is Greiner (Russell Johnson), a thief and murderer desperate to avoid a date with the hangman. Hot on his heels is Lane Dakota (Stephen McNally), a driven lawman with a personal interest in running down his quarry. When an unexpected skirmish with a couple of Apache leaves Greiner badly wounded, and Dakota without his much needed proof, the sheriff has no option but to seek temporary shelter until the prisoner is well enough to be brought back to face justice. And this brings us to the location where the remainder of the drama will play out – the Apache River ferry station. Dakota’s arrival coincides with that of a stagecoach carrying Valerie Kendrick (Julie Adams) and Colonel Morsby (Hugh Marlowe), the former being an uncertain bride-to-be on her first trip west while the latter is a veteran Indian fighter with a fearsome reputation. No sooner has this little band of travelers gathered at the isolated station than it’s revealed that a group of 50 Apache warriors has broken free from the San Carlos reservation and may be heading their way. This external threat is exacerbated by a number of internal conflicts, among which are Greiner’s eagerness to elude his captor and the friction that arises between Dakota and Morsby over matters of justice and their respective attitudes towards the Apache. When the station finds itself under siege and repeatedly attacked by the Apache all the tensions within are exposed and add to the danger.

While I was watching this movie I found it difficult not to be reminded of Apache Drums for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the presence of Stephen McNally in the lead and the fact that the title and credits play over the same footage and images as the earlier film. Additionally, both movies have a similar structure, gradually narrowing in focus and confining themselves to a single set as the story progresses. The Stand at Apache River also tries hard to recapture some of the terrifically claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized and elevated the Lewton/Fregonese film but director Lee Sholem doesn’t quite get there. The lighting and cinematography are similar but the same sense of menace isn’t achieved. Where Lewton and Fregonese kept the Apache largely unseen and thus built them up into frightening bogeyman figures, this movie presents them, or at least their leader, as more rounded characters. While this dissipates the threat somewhat, it does offer the opportunity for some consideration of the nature of the conflict between the settlers and the Apache, deftly highlighting the grievances of and injustices towards the latter group. However, this also feeds into what I see as the main weakness of the movie – essentially there is too much going on. You cannot have drama without conflict but it’s also possible to overdo it. The movie only runs for an hour and a quarter and tries to pack in a siege, commentary on settler/native relations, the problems faced by women in isolated frontier settings, and a love triangle to name just a few. In the end, there are too many themes and too little development – arguably, there’s enough material for a couple of movies here.

Stephen McNally and Julie Adams get the most screen time and both of them turn in perfectly acceptable performances. However, the overstuffed plot which I mentioned does work against them and means that their character development is necessarily limited. This is a shame as both of them have interesting back stories, and the acting chops to take advantage of them, but there’s just not enough time to explore it all further. Hugh Marlowe is fine too as the rigid martinet although his role is fairly one-dimensional. There’s also a nice intense turn by Jaclynne Greene as the frustrated and frightened owner of the river station. Russell Johnson (who passed away just last month) and Hugh O’Brian both play potentially interesting characters, though once again it has to be said they really don’t get the chances to show what they were capable of. The only disappointment for me was Edgar Barrier, who I found pretty unconvincing as the Apache chief.

I guess The Stand at Apache River has to count as a bit of an obscure film these days, and it certainly hasn’t been widely available for home viewing. However, there is a nice DVD out in Spain. Many Universal titles from the 50s seem to be in reasonably good shape and The Stand at Apache River is no exception. The print used isn’t perfect but it’s not at all bad either. While there are a handful of instances of age-related damage, they are few and I wouldn’t refer to them as a particular distraction. Generally, the transfer is smooth, colorful and acceptably sharp. The disc doesn’t offer anything in the way of extras but there’s no problem with subtitles either – there’s the option of French, Spanish or none. All in all, the movie provides plenty of entertainment and excitement. With its short running time it moves along briskly and, leaving aside the matter of the crowded plot, should satisfy those into westerns of this era.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2014 in 1950s, Westerns

 

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Man in the Saddle

The collaboration of actors and directors is a favorite area for analysis by film critics – Ford and Wayne, Mann and Stewart, Huston and Bogart readily spring to mind. That attention tends to get focused on these cinematic partnerships is I think understandable; they offer a reasonably self-contained block of work which can be examined easily. Mention Randolph Scott to western fans and the name that will probably come to their lips is that of Budd Boetticher, again understandable enough given the reputation their series of films together has deservedly earned. However, Scott also made a group of westerns with another director, Andre de Toth, just before he hit his late career peak with Boetticher. Man in the Saddle (1951) was the first, and arguably the best, of a half-dozen movies featuring de Toth and Scott.

The overall framing device is the classic western staple of the range war, the conflict over land and the need for expansion. But that’s actually the least interesting aspect of a story that involves a number of overlapping and obsessive relationships. Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is a man under pressure on two fronts; having already lost his woman, Laurie (Joan Leslie), to his powerful neighbor Will Isham (Alexander Knox), he’s now in danger of seeing his ranch go the same way. Isham is one of those typical western expansionists, a man never satisfied with owning half of anything and ruthless enough to use whatever means are necessary to get what he wants. Standing in the path of this irresistible force is the immovable object of Merritt. The only possible outcome of such a paradox is conflict, even though Merritt does his level best to avoid it for as long as possible. What makes this apparently simple tale fascinating though is the way these characters, and those around them, interact. Merritt clearly retains strong feelings for the ambitious and mercenary Laurie, yet he buries them deep, while Isham is fighting an internal duel with his own jealousy and self-doubt. Matters are further complicated by the presence of another neighbor, Nan (Ellen Drew). She quietly pines for Merritt and in turn is herself desired by Clagg (John Russell), a taciturn loner of brooding temperament. When Isham’s hired gunmen up the ante by stampeding Merritt’s herd and killing one of his men all the passions and obsessions of the principals are unleashed. Merritt is forced into taking a stand against his enemies, even those he was hitherto unaware of.

If one views the westerns of de Toth and Scott in relation to the work both director and actor did independently and with others, then it’s possible to undervalue them. But I think such comparisons, even if they’re inevitable, are unfair. Movies really ought to be evaluated on their own terms – do they achieve what they set out to do? Placing them within a wider context does of course serve some purpose but it ultimately does the films a disservice too. What all that’s leading up to is my belief that Man in the Saddle succeeds in telling its tale. Firstly, de Toth’s direction and Charles Lawton’s cinematography combine well and the tension builds nicely. Visually, it’s an interesting movie with a number of scenes taking place at dawn or dusk (perhaps using the half-light to underline the murky, shifting nature of the relationships) and the location work in Lone Pine and Thousand Oaks particularly enhances the latter half. The climax too is notable for the use of a dust storm as an accompaniment to the action and is suggestive of the elemental, swirling emotions of those involved. The only downside of the film, for me at least, was the slightly clumsy way the comedic parts were integrated. Generally, I have no objection to the introduction of a little comedy to lighten the load, but I’m not sure it’s handled all that successfully in this case.

By the end of his career Randolph Scott had almost elevated the depiction of the stoic acceptance of loss and regret to an art form in itself. One of the more rewarding things about watching those films leading up this is the ability to observe how that persona gradually evolved over the years. As Merritt, Scott touches on this idea of losing the woman he loved. That loss isn’t as fully defined or as final as would be the case in the later movies with Boetticher, but it’s there all the same. Alexander Knox isn’t an actor normally associated with westerns, making only three throughout his career, yet he’s fine as Scott’s rival. He’s very convincing as an emotionally repressed man and this is even more effective when he actually lets loose all his pent-up rage. In truth, all the main players acquit themselves very well: Joan Leslie as the hard-edged pragmatist, Ellen Drew as the calm Girl Friday, and John Russell as the outsider twisted by his unrequited passion. My only complaint is that Richard Rober is underused as the smiling gunman.

Man in the Saddle is readily available on DVD and has been for many years. The US disc from Sony/Columbia presents the film nicely in its correct Academy ratio. This older transfer comes from a good print and boasts strong, vibrant color with plenty of detail. The disc doesn’t have much in the way of extra features, just a standard preview reel for other Sony/Columbia movies available. However, the movie is the main thing and the presentation here should give no cause for complaint. The westerns that Randolph Scott made with de Toth have been overshadowed to a large extent by the later Ranown cycle, yet they’re enjoyable in their own right. Aside from allowing viewers to fill in some gaps in tracing the development of the Scott persona, these movies are good examples of the professionalism to be found in the Hollywood western of the 50s. Man in the Saddle may not be the best thing Scott or Andre de Toth ever did but it’s still a pretty good film and is worthy of the talents of all involved.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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A Day of Fury

That man is a creature of hell. If he stays here, he’ll turn this town into a hell.

Quite a few westerns have served as social commentaries, using their frontier setting to focus the spotlight on a whole range of issues, as frequently acting as an allegory for the era in which they were made as much as a critique of the old west itself. A Day of Fury (1956) is an interesting case in that it’s less of a social commentary than an examination of human nature, and the less savory side of it at that. I think part of the beauty of the adult-oriented westerns of the 50s lies in the way programmers with modest budgets could tackle complex themes successfully while also telling entertaining stories. It sometimes feels like  current filmmakers have lost this once commonplace skill, either overtly preaching at the audience or veering sharply in the opposite direction and rolling out mindless popcorn fare where you’re required to check your brain at the door. As such, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a movie like this where the makers have sufficient respect for their audience to present an entertaining film while simultaneously crediting them with a modicum of intelligence.

A Day of Fury opens by telling the audience that the Civil War has ended, the frontier is closing, and civilization is advancing. As such, the implication is that we’re in for another end of the trail western, another look at the passing of a way of life. Well that’s true enough up to a point, and yet A Day of Fury is good deal more than that. It’s neither an ode to lost innocence nor a celebration of a brighter future ahead. Instead the movie operates on a more spiritual level, holding up a mirror to the human soul and daring us to take a long hard look at what may be lurking within. Everything starts off in a fairly straightforward manner with a lone horseman, Jagade (Dale Robertson), stumbling into an ambush being set up. The proposed victim is Burnett (Jock Mahoney), the local marshal. When Jagade saves the lawman’s skin it looks like a lead in that’s been seen on many occasions. However, there is also a sense that this film is going to head off in a different direction, the terse dialogue between Jagade and Burnett hinting at something darker and less predictable. Jagade rides ahead into town, ostensibly to tell Burnett’s bride-to-be (Mara Corday) that her man has been delayed, but his real motives gradually become apparent. If there was a tension or edge to the initial meeting between Jagade and Burnett, it’s ramped up considerably as soon as the former sets foot in town. Jagade is a gunfighter, a lethal killer whose reputation precedes him. In fact everything about Jagade harks back to a rapidly disappearing era: from his own violent skills to his acquaintance with the marshal’s betrothed and her time as a saloon entertainer. For Jagade, this represents a last stand of sorts; the changing world around him has left him with no other place to go and he seems keen to turn the clock back. Still, that only amounts to a superficial interpretation of the film. We all know that the past is nothing more than a memory which, despite the strongest yearning, can never be recaptured. And so it is with Jagade; his true function is to confront the facade of respectability and gentility that the town has constructed. The pious righteousness is simply a veneer, and one so thin that it starts to crumble when the slightest pressure is applied. Jagade could, I suppose, be viewed as a kind of malignancy that will have to be cut out at some point, but he could reasonably be seen as the cure as much as the illness. Over the course of one Sunday, and there is significance to the fact that the Sabbath is chosen, the townsfolk begin to regress and descend into the type of amoral thuggishness they had frowned upon only a few hours before. And that’s what I feel the movie is all about – the question of whether our civilized values are so cheap they can be bought or traded away, or whether the roots are deeper and stronger.

Aside from the first five minutes, director Harmon Jones keeps the action of A Day of Fury confined to the backlot western town. While I’m in no doubt budgetary considerations played a big part in that decision, I think it works well on an artistic level too. Everything is contained within a series of tightly controlled locations, heightening the tension and dread that grows as the story progresses. Recently, Toby published a fascinating article in which he revealed that Dale Robertson viewed his character in the movie as an incarnation of the Devil. As I said earlier, the film does have a definite spiritual element running through it and Robertson’s reading of the role is in line with that. Personally, the notion of the movie as a religious allegory makes sense and works: the initial meeting in the desert-like surroundings between Burnett and the left-handed Jagade, and the subsequent temptations that are variously succumbed to, resisted, and overcome. If I had any criticism of this approach, it would only be that I think the final shot of the film arguably lays the symbolism on a little too heavy, and that the message had already been successfully imparted without it. To return to the point I made in my introduction, besides all the ideas and food for thought offered up, the filmmakers never lose sight of the primary goal of presenting an entertaining and well-told tale.

A Day of Fury boasts a strong cast of western players. Dale Robertson’s Jagade is clearly the center of attention, the catalyst for all that takes place. And it’s a marvelously ambiguous part, a character who provokes and toys with those around him. The fact that it all works so well is partly down to the scripting of course, but Robertson’s skill cannot be discounted. There’s an air of authority about the man, a calm self-confidence, tinged too with a touch of distaste both for himself and the weakness all around him. In the opposite corner is Jock Mahoney, stoic, reserved and cool. One could say there’s a passivity to Mahoney’s playing here, but it’s a vital aspect of his character – the only serious rival to Robertson’s satanic influence and the solid rock to whom the town must ultimately turn. And lying somewhere between these two is John Dehner as the preacher. Always a welcome face as far as I’m concerned, Dehner represents the most easily identifiable figure in the town, a man who’s not above weakness but who is also able to recognize that fact and actively work to resist it. As for the others, Mara Corday has a showy part as the former saloon girl whose past returns to haunt her and threaten her future happiness. I thought her weary acceptance of the fragility of so-called respectability was very well realized. In support, Jan Merlin had a pivotal role as the fawning, rat-faced acolyte whose actions finally cause the tide to turn while Carl Benton Reid, James Bell and Howard Wendell all turn in small but noteworthy performances.

A Day of Fury isn’t that difficult to see these days. There’s a Blu-ray available from France, although I’m unsure what the subtitle situation is seeing as it’s a Sidonis release. As a result, I ended up buying the Italian DVD. This may well come from the same source as the image is of excellent quality: the movie is presented in a 2.00:1 anamorphic transfer and comes from a print that exhibits little or no damage. The disc offers the movie either with the original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. Extra features consist of the trailer along with poster and photo galleries. The film itself is one I was eager to see as I had heard a lot of things about it from people whose opinions I greatly respect. I was delighted to discover it was every bit as good as I’d been led to believe. I’ve always enjoyed focusing some attention on pictures that are not so well-known, and I guess this one fits that description. I reckon this is a terrific little movie and should provide plenty to appeal to genre fans and those who simply like smart, well-made films.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in 1950s, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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