Back to God’s Country

Rugged outdoor adventures have a timeless appeal and I think it’s true too that the cold weather variety carry with them an invigorating quality, as though the  crisp, chilled air blasting the protagonists on the screen adds a little freshness and energy to our viewing. A film such as Back to God’s Country (1953) is a largely formulaic affair yet is enlivened considerably by its sub-polar setting. Of course, following a formula need not necessarily be seen as a failing; handling and execution are key elements and, with the movie in question, I feel director Joseph Pevney brings a briskness to the piece that makes its hour and a quarter running time positively zip along.

It’s the late 19th century and we’re  in the icy north of Canada. Peter Keith (Rock Hudson) is running a schooner trading fur pelts in the US and is keen to get underway before the winter freeze sets in and leaves his vessel unable to sail. As such, he’s vexed to receive an official letter ordering him to remain in port until an inspection can be made of his cargo. That would mean a delay which might well see him sealed in for the season and the consequent hit to his finances it would entail. While he and his wife Dolores (Marcia Henderson) have made up their minds to ignore the order and put to sea anyway, it comes to the attention of both that there might be something fishy about the whole thing. Local bigwig Paul Blake (Steve Cochran) is expansive and hospitable yet there’s an oiliness about him and it looks like he may be behind the request, partly for financial gain and partly (maybe even mostly) because he far from honorable designs on Dolores. Thus, with rivalry and subterfuge established, the scene is set for a showdown which will play out for the most part over a couple of enforced journeys through the frozen wastes.

Back to God’s Country appears to have been filmed twice before, back in the silent era, and I can see how the combination of adventure, melodrama and romance would have drawn filmmakers eyeing a source with reasonably wide appeal. Now I’ve no idea how Pevney’s movie compares with those earlier iterations, and indeed I don’t even know whether they still exist or are available for viewing. What I can say though is that this movie represents a marvelous piece of escapism, a no-nonsense slice of entertainment with that characteristic aesthetic one associates with Universal-International pictures. The combination of studio shooting and some location work in Colorado and Idaho is handled most attractively by cinematographer Maury Gertsman, with Pevney marshaling it all with pace and energy. The story holds no real surprises, and arguably has its fair share of cliches, but the meanness, the naked self-interest and almost perverse covetousness of the villain add an edge and an unexpected extra layer.

Steve Cochran was born to play villains, his self-assurance and grace offer a sheen of sophistication, while all the time there’s a gleam in his eye that hints at a ruthlessness any time the main chance wanders into view. By and large, he plays it cool but there is one scene in particular – an assault on Henderson – where he, unfortunately, cuts loose and indulges in the kind of eye-rolling, over-the-top hammy histrionics that would put many a mustache-twirling cartoon cad to shame. His character is of course a thoroughly bad lot, a blackmailer and master manipulator with a history of grabbing possession of whatever and whoever he wants. And there’s a sadistic side to him that goes beyond mere greed, his treatment of Hugh O’Brian’s forger is a case in point, holding him in what amounts to bonded labor. O’Brian does well in that part too, allowing his natural charm to soften his own villainy and act as a counterpoint to Cochran’s.

Pitted against these two are Rock Hudson and Marcia Henderson, and they make for an attractive and resourceful couple. Hudson was in the process of building his career at the studio (a career that Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk would soon move to a whole different level) and this type of role, while not all that demanding dramatically, was the kind of thing  that couldn’t hurt. He gets to play it tough and heroic, even in the latter half of the movie when a broken leg sees him essentially confined to a sled. A good deal of the drama arises from a combination of Cochran’s machinations, the deteriorating weather conditions, and also some frankly poor decisions on the part of Hudson’s character. He makes amends for them, naturally, but this also gives Henderson the opportunity to prove her mettle. She too displays a hard edge when the chips are down, playing well off Hudson and holding her own quite convincingly when she has to.

Back to God’s Country may not be all that well-known but nor should it be all that difficult to locate. There seem to have been DVDs released pretty much everywhere – I have this Italian version which seems to have gone out of print and been replaced by another by the same company claiming a Hi-Def restoration  – still, I’d imagine all will be using the same transfer. Generally, it looks OK, but there is a bit of damage and overall ageing visible. Sometimes I think I could happily spend my days watching, and writing about, nothing but Universal-International movies; they’re that entertaining. There’s a polish and professionalism on show that mean even undemanding and average efforts like this offer a good deal of viewing pleasure.

Another view of the movie, from Laura, can also be accessed here.

The Plunderers

A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.

So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.

There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach.  Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.

What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the  veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.

Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with  the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.

As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…

The Duel at Silver Creek

Pulp, a word that usually ends up being employed in a derogatory way. It suggests the cheap, the disposable, and that sense of something a bit crude and tawdry is never far from the surface. It carries around the sour taste  of intellectual snobbery, a self-aware superiority that drains the  joy from entertainment. But, let’s not forget that entertainment and art are under no obligation to remain stand-offish strangers. Frankly, I like pulp material and always have, long before I became aware of the negative connotations assigned to the term by some, or was even aware of the term itself for that matter. As with so many other forms of artistic expression, it worked its way into my consciousness from an early age, entrancing and enchanting an eager mind. In short, this is where the seeds of my lifelong affection for cinema, literature and countless other art forms was first sown. And so to the The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), a film that is unashamedly and satisfyingly pulpy.

The story is a simple one, telling a tale of claim jumpers, manipulation and revenge. The bulk of the action takes place in and around the titular town of Silver Creek, where the villains have set up an outwardly respectable front. The town is served by a lawman going by the colorful name of “Lightning” Tyrone (Stephen McNally), renowned for his speed with a gun but hampered by an injury following a run-in with the aforementioned criminals. The murder of a friend adds a personal element to the marshal’s motivations, and this hunger for a reckoning is shared by his newly acquired ally, a youthful gambler and gunman known as The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy). The efforts of these two to chase down the claim jumpers forms the basis of the plot but it all gets a little more complicated when a layer of romance and intrigue appears in the shape of Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), a particularly devious addition to the limited but frequently impressive roster of western femme fatales.

There are a number of things which jump out at you while watching this movie. Firstly, it’s a Universal-International production so it has the distinctive and unmistakable look that can be found in all of the studio’s output of that era. The Technicolor cinematography of Irving Glassberg is quite beautiful at times, and the shadowy nighttime interiors are rendered in an especially attractive and evocative way. It’s in these moments that a film noir flavor is most noticeable, and that aspect is highlighted both by the intermittent voiceover provided by McNally and the calculated and ruthless machinations of Domergue. Then there are the character names – Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, Dusty Fargo, Tinhorn Burgess, Rat Face Blake, etc – carrying that unreal yet alluring quality of something ripped from a comic strip. Presiding over all this is Don Siegel, a man still learning his trade at this stage – the pacing is a little off in the second act – but already  showing the visual economy that can be found in his best work.

With a plot-driven, action-oriented piece of filmmaking the characterization is always going to come in a very distant second place. Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally were highly capable actors, the former still on the learning curve but growing in confidence all the time while the latter was an experienced and solid second lead/support man. Seeing the names of Murphy or McNally in the credits generally means a movie is worth watching, in my opinion. Neither one is asked to stretch himself particularly here in pretty one-dimensional roles, but they never offer less than good value. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a  great fan of Faith Domergue, I’ll freely admit she did fit the femme fatale mold quite snugly and she vamps very successfully in this part. Susan Cabot is cast in a tomboyish part which, while attractive enough in its own way, feels like a bit of a waste. I think the main weakness though comes from the rather insipid bad guys. While Domergue’s flashiness was always going to overshadow them Gerald Mohr and Eugene Iglesias don’t provide much of a threat to compensate. On the other hand, Lee Marvin does make a definite impression as a loudmouthed townsman in one of his earliest roles.

Looking around at what is available for viewing nowadays, it has to be said that fans of classic westerns have much to grateful for. The vast majority of Audie Murphy’s movies are now accessible in good to excellent quality – a handful are still only viewable via sub-par editions – although it doesn’t seem all that long ago that The Duel at Silver Creek was one of the few that could be picked up easily. I don’t believe it’s been upgraded to Hi-Def but it still looks good to my eyes. If the film isn’t going to offer any new insights, it has to be said it still provides a powerfully enjoyable way to pass an hour and a quarter, which is never a bad thing. That, I feel, is as good a way as any to round off 2019 and to wish everyone a happy, fulfilling and successful 2020.

Planet of the Vampires

Impressions and influences, those are the two items on the agenda today. It wouldn’t be much of a movie that didn’t make some kind of an impression, good or bad, on viewers, and I want to focus on those which I was aware of as I watched Planet of the Vampires (1965), the Sci-Fi chiller from Mario Bava. And then there’s the question of influence, which is something of a two-way street as far as I can tell, and all part of the evolutionary chain running through cinema from its infancy right up to the present day.

Distress signals in Sci-Fi rarely bring anything good, and Planet of the Vampires certainly doesn’t challenge that truism. This is what draws the ill-fated crews of two spacecraft to the planet Aura, and ultimately dooms them. We follow events from the perspective of Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) as he becomes increasingly aware of some presence on the planet which is capable of influencing the  thoughts and actions of his crew, driving them so far as to attack and kill their own comrades. In itself, that ought to be enough to worry anyone. However, when dead crew members start to reappear looking to add to their number, and the remains of another, clearly alien spaceship, suggest something similar has happened before, well…

For me the standout feature of Planet of the Vampires is the distinctive look. The image of astronauts clad in black leather roaming across a psychedelic technicolor landscape, all the while being stalked by vampire/zombie hybrids, is a striking one. Even when the plot doesn’t always seem to make sense, when the meaningless techno-babble makes one’s head spin and the characters insist on placing themselves in needless danger time and again, those visuals are what help to keep one’s attention focused.

There are plenty of people who will tell you that this movie was a big influence on Alien, which came out 15 years later, and I guess there is a strong case to be made for that. While I’ve not done  much reading up on this myself, I have a hunch it’s been well covered elsewhere so there’s not to be gained from my serving up the same stuff. What I noticed more were the influences it seemed to draw inspiration from, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The whole notion of sleep bringing damnation as opposed to succour is hard to miss. Even if the message about relaxing (one’s vigilance) being potentially fatal loses some of its punch stripped of the paranoid Cold War subtext, it remains potent on an everyday level.

Anyway, there you have it, a much shorter piece than I normally like to post, with a few random musings thrown in there. It’s not down to laziness on my part, or any lack of affinity for the movie in question, but instead the pressure of demands on my time in the run up to the holidays. I doubt I’ll have time to put up anything else between now and Christmas, so I’ll use this (admittedly unseasonal) offering as an opportunity to wish a merry, peaceful and relaxing Christmas to all who stop by here.

Detective Story

Cinema and theater, two near relatives in the visual/performance art sphere, both well suited to the presentation of drama via their shared familial traits while also exploiting their own distinctive characteristics to spin their yarns in subtly different ways. In brief, theater is all about intimacy and immediacy – capturing the essence of the moment in an almost tangible way – whereas cinema, somewhat paradoxically, uses its inherent distance to draw us in through the broader visual splendor. The fusion of these two competing yet complementary forms can have mixed results, largely dependent on the scope of the production and its ultimate goal. At worst, it can descend into a static talk-fest, trapped by structure and a vague sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, a clever filmmaker can use his cinematic bag of tricks to create the illusion of breadth without sacrificing the feeling of closeness associated with the stage. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) makes a reasonable fist of striking an equitable balance.

In a nutshell, we’re witnesses at the wake and funeral of one man’s humanity. It opens on a bustling New York street and quickly moves indoors, into the precinct house that will form the backdrop for the bulk of the story. We’ve seen this a thousand times; cops and criminals coming and going, some chirpy and others dejected but most just mired in the routine of their everyday lives. Gradually, the focus is drawn to Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a superficially typical detective, cocksure and confident in his professional and personal life. Yet right away, there are hints of something not ideal as he shares a quick kiss with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). A snatch of conversation, an apparently throwaway line suggests that the All-American wholesomeness on display may be misleading. And so it proves to be as the various characters, from a ditzy shoplifter to a lovestruck embezzler sharing the squad room with genuinely vicious hoodlums, orbit the core drama that will force the McLeods to confront their own inner selves.

Rather than spend a lot of time on the plot and how it develops, I’d prefer to mull over some thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this movie again. To begin, I liked Wyler’s unobtrusive direction and the way he uses Lee Garmes’ cinematography to contextualize not only each scene but the movie as a whole. Wyler can, I suppose, be seen as one of those classic era heavyweights who tended to be associated with “important” pictures. We’re talking “message movies” and that phrase may well evoke thoughts of Stanley Kramer and others at their most ponderous. Still, that’s not entirely fair for these people knew how to shoot a film with skill and artistry too. Here the theme is the impossibility, or maybe the undesirability, of pursuing  purity on an emotional, intellectual and philosophical level. McLeod is set up as a man striving to become a paragon. The story charts the deconstruction of this effort, finally highlighting the hollowness at the heart of it all. And Garmes’ photography, especially his deep focus shooting, keeps the viewer aware of the satellite stories circling the main event, thus preserving the intimacy of the theatrical experience while simultaneously adding a wider cinematic perspective.

I started off this piece referring to the different approaches cinema and the theater take to the same material and those thoughts were always with me as I watched Detective Story. The origin is a stage production, written by Sidney Kingsley, and that aspect is always there, mainly in the restricted setting but even in some of the performances too, to a certain extent anyway. The stage, with the necessity to project calls for a bigger performance, and the use of a different set of acting skills. Cinema is a whole different matter; the giant screens and the possibility of using close-ups, magnifying even the least significant twitch a thousand times, mean more care, control and minimalism are the order of the day. As much as anything, it’s the size of the performances that delineates these forms.

A simmering presence at all times, Kirk Douglas has always been capable of tailoring that size to the demands of a range of roles. I think he was generally at his best when working with strong, experienced directors and the part of McLeod demanded he tread a fine line, touching on the explosive and emotive without straying too far into bombast. His character is ruled and driven by an adherence to rigid principle and moral fundamentalism. This quest for purity has twisted his love and seen it mutate into a passion for vengeance, of the type that has the destruction of the soul as its final destination. It must have helped that the more powerful scenes had to be played against the assured Eleanor Parker. She provides the emotional center of the movie, grounding it and lending it meaning with dignity and empathy.

If the inherent theatricality of the roles has been harnessed by Douglas and Parker, I feel that Joseph Wiseman kept a looser grip on the reins.  There’s a loudness about his work here, and that even goes for the times when he’s not speaking a word, and a tendency to succumb to self-indulgence. He’s very definitely performing, is fully aware of the fact, and wants to make sure everyone watching him knows it too. This could have overwhelmed the picture, but it’s a credit to the measure and subtlety of the likes William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, Craig Hill and Frank Faylen that an equilibrium is maintained. And if I haven’t made individual reference to Lee Grant, George Macready, Horace McMahon and others, well that’s not to say their work is any less deserving of mention.

Personally, Detective Story has always been an enjoyable watch for me, powerful without being preachy and with a timelessness to the core theme to ensure it remains relevant. It’s never, to the best of my knowledge, been released on Blu-ray but the DVD  should be easy enough to track down and, besides, it looks excellent in standard definition.

Finally, I find it very pleasing too to be able to post this on the day the movie’s star Kirk Douglas turns 103.

Some info on a Sam Fuller movie sought…

A brief request here. Someone just contacted me in relation to Sam Fuller’s feature debut I Shot Jesse James, which I wrote about over a decade ago, to see if I could help. What it amounts to is this – the guy says his late stepfather was one Robert W Gardner, who maintained he was a writer on Fuller’s movie. The man has been dead since the 1960s and the online links seem to point to a different Robert Gardner, someone who was directing films into the 1980s.

Anyway, my correspondent is seeking information and has hit a brick wall so I thought I might as well throw the question out there on the off chance any of the visitors to the site, and some of you are very well informed, can shed light on this.

Colt .45

In  almost a dozen years of writing about a wide range of movies in general, and westerns more than any other genre, I’ve tried to point out the type of film I happen to be talking about mainly in relation to theme, and digging down to cast an eye over subtext where appropriate. From time to time though, that approach is unsuitable for the simple reason that the movie in question was conceived and shot as an almost pure exercise in entertainment. Now this is just an observation, a statement of fact as I see it, and not a criticism of the work. I see Colt .45 (1950) very much in that light, a movie primarily concerned with delivering an hour and a quarter of polished and fast-moving diversion, with no more than the occasional flick of a hat brim in the direction of meatier matters.

There have been a handful of westerns borrowing their titles from firearms – Winchester ’73 and Springfield Rifle, for example – and thus building the plot around the importance of those weapons to the characters. Colt .45 is all about the famous revolvers and how their use or misuse affects the lives of those who come into contact with them. One could, I guess, argue that there is a point to be made, and one which is indeed alluded to, concerning the ethics and responsibilities of guns and their users. However, it’s not expanded on in any great detail in the movie and therefore not an aspect I’m going to delve deeply into either – I’m sure there are a variety of opinions on the issue and I want to head off any potential friction by pointing out that there are many other fora to be found around the internet better suited to the expression of any such views so I’d be pleased if we could refrain from setting off down that particular path here.

Leaving that aspect aside, what we have is a pretty straightforward quest for justice yarn as pistol salesman Steve Farrell (Randolph Scott) finds himself not only robbed of the guns he’s been promoting, but also accused and imprisoned as an accomplice of the man who stole them. That man is Jason Brett (Zachary Scott), an ambitious sociopath who sees his new acquisitions as a handy means of obtaining the money and power he covets. The plot is essentially the story of Farrell’s determination to get the guns back and restore his own reputation. Along the way, he will encounter a weak-willed miner (Lloyd Bridges), his tough and resourceful wife (Ruth Roman), and a corrupt and dissembling sheriff (Alan Hale).

As I said above, the film doesn’t have a great deal of depth, but nor has it any  pretensions. It’s aim is to tell a familiar story in a brisk and  breezy manner, and it fulfills that ambition admirably. The main highlight in director Edwin L Marin’s filmography is possibly the very enjoyable John Wayne/Ella Raines western Tall in the Saddle. He’d made a lot of programmers including a couple of Philo Vance mysteries before moving on to a number of noir thrillers with George Raft, and had then seemingly settled into a run of solid westerns with Randolph Scott before his untimely death at the age of 52. Colt .45 is a pacy affair, packing a lot of story and incident into its brief running time and even manages to paint its Indian characters in a positive and sympathetic, albeit a very superficial, light. A major plus is the Technicolor cinematography of Wilfrid M Cline which has both the interiors and the location work on the Iverson Ranch looking especially fine.

I can’t help thinking of Colt .45 as a Saturday afternoon movie, partly because of its no nonsense approach but also because that would have been how I first experienced it on TV at some time back in the mid or late 1970s. Randolph Scott was a great hero to me as a small boy and those screenings of his westerns were a big influence on my view of cinema during my formative years. Somehow, that has never left me and I still get a buzz when I sit down and revisit one of these fast-moving efforts. Scott is a typical straight arrow in this, with all the pride and nobility that was innate to him but lacking the complexity and inner hurt he would perfect in the coming years – sure there is a touch of emotional bruising there but it’s not explored to any extent.

Zachary Scott is a sound villain, probably too loud and overbearing at the beginning but dialing it back and settling down as the plot unfolds and his character nears his goal. In many ways, the strongest presence in the movie is that of Ruth Roman. She always had an air of a tough broad on screen and gets plenty of opportunities to play a dominant part in this movie – doing some hard riding, getting shot, blasting her way out of captivity and even knocking the leading man out cold at one point. In contrast, Lloyd Bridges is all hand-wringing  angst and self-doubt as her ineffectual husband, a neat study in weakness and venality in fact. And a word too for Alan Hale in one of his last roles. For me, he’ll forever be the sidekick of a laughing and swaggering Errol Flynn, a slightly bumbling but true companion. There’s still a suggestion of that twinkle in his eye as his sheriff attempts to play the two ends against the middle, and it’s a pleasure to see him grace another movie for the studio with which he did such great work over the preceding two decades.

I’m not sure how easy it is to locate Colt .45 for viewing these days. It was released on DVD a good few years ago by Warner Brothers as a triple feature, with Fort Worth and Tall Man Riding, but that might be out of print now. Anyway, it’s a most enjoyable western, of that type which seeks to occupy and engage you for a little over an hour and does exactly that with considerable ease.

Arrow in the Dust

Unfulfilled promise, is there anything more disappointing? I’m talking about movies here, of course, and not life in general. This may not be the most enticing opening to a post but it’s honest and it does reflect my feelings after I’d watched Arrow in the Dust (1954) for the first time. On paper this ought to have been right up my street – it’s a mid-50s western starring Sterling Hayden, directed by Lesley Selander and is built around the kind of redemption scenario that typically draws a positive response from me. For all that though, it didn’t work for me, it fell flat and even the relatively short running time seemed excessive.

That promise I spoke of is right there in the credits and the personnel involved, and the tense, nervy opening scene feeds into this. We’re introduced to Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) and no time is wasted in establishing the fact he’s a deserter from the army, and a cautious and jumpy one at that. When his escape leads him unexpectedly upon the scene of an ambush, one where the sole survivor is an old friend, he’s presented with a moral dilemma which will occupy his conscience for the remainder of the tale. That friend is Major Pepperis (Carleton Young), a newly assigned commander who is at death’s door and appeals to Laish’s sense of decency to carry a warning to an endangered wagon train. In brief, Laish puts his instinct for self-preservation to one side for a time and assumes the identity of the dead officer. The question is whether he can pull off this imposture, and how it will affect him.

Sounds reasonably attractive, right? What should have been a winning formula left me cold, worse than that it left me bored too. I lay the responsibility for that with the writing and the technical limitations imposed by a cheap production. For a redemption tale to succeed it’s necessary to take the protagonist on a journey, a spiritual one as much as a physical one. Well, Hayden embarks on the  physical part but there’s never a sense of his evolving as a character, as a person. He uses his presence and that trademark brusqueness but the script offers no opportunity for growth or development. None of this is helped by the nebulous and vague nature of the antagonists – the faceless, rampaging Indians. They are shown almost exclusively via stock footage and I get the impression the script was tinkered with to account for the ever changing groups of raiders – there’s  some flummery mentioned about Pawnee and Apache bands allying themselves against the common enemy.

And that stock footage really is problematic. Sure there may be other movies where the technique has been applied morel liberally, but it jarred every time I saw it (which is a lot!) and took me out of the story. Lesley Selander is a guy whose films generally appeal to me and I tend to actively seek them out for the  hard-bitten sparseness. Here though, I found the constant insertion of recycled footage broke the rhythm of the direction and distracted me badly.

So, that’s about all I have to say on this film, and I know it’s quite a bit less than is customary on this site. Hayden does what he can with the material, Coleen Gray gets short-changed in an underwritten role, and Tom Tully maybe fares best as a crusty and wily scout.

Now I’m fully aware that this stuff is all entirely subjective – one man’s meat is another man’s poison and so forth – and there will be those who feel I’ve been too harsh in my criticisms. That’s as may be but I can only call it as I see it. I realize too that a future viewing might elicit a different reaction – to be honest though, I can’t see myself returning to this for some considerable time. Not wishing to finish on a wholly negative note, readers may wish to check out some more enthusiastic takes from both Laura and Toby.

Rough Shoot

Hitchcockian is a word that ought to be reasonably common for anyone familiar with the movie reviewing/commentary world. Mind you, time was the term got recycled regularly in relation to new cinema releases, although my impression is that this hasn’t been  happening so often of late. This might be down to recent films not fitting the bill, a gradual waning in the influence of the great man, a lack of awareness (conscious or unconscious) among reviewers. Or maybe I’m just mistaken and it’s as widely used as ever. Whatever. Today’s  film for consideration, Rough Shoot (1953), feels Hitchcockian to me, or perhaps it might be more accurate to talk a Hitchcockian throwback. By the 50s, Hitchcock himself was shifting ever deeper into more complex and layered thrillers. Rough Shoot, with its wrong man mix ups and well-judged combination of jauntiness and suspense feels closer in tone to some of the earlier, pre-Hollywood British thrillers.

Colonel Taine (Joel McCrea) is a US artillery specialist cooperating with the British military and therefore living in Britain. Actually, it appears to be an idyllic existence at the beginning, as Taine chats with the crusty old type he’s letting some land from before wandering off with warnings to watch out for poachers, black marketeers and other interlopers still ringing in his ears. Right on cue, he spots an unknown man trespassing on his property and thus plans to send a blast of buckshot in his direction to discourage him. However, this is no poacher someone else (Marius Goring) has the sights of a rifle trained on him, someone planning to do more than merely throw a scare into him. Two shots coincide and the result is a dead man, and an appalled Taine convinced that he is responsible. Logically, one ought to report the accident immediately yet dramas such as this depend on protagonists suffering from panic and sudden rushes of blood to the head. And so it follows that Taine attempts to conceal the body temporarily, but the actual shooter is keen to take care of matters himself. At this point the tale looks to be drifting determinedly towards film noir territory, with Taine fretting and haunted by guilt while his wife (Evelyn Keyes) is growing increasingly suspicious. And then, in that 1930s Hitchcock style, the tone shifts smoothly towards something a bit lighter with the arrival on the scene of a vain Polish spy (Herbert Lom) and his MI5 boss (Roland Culver). From here the pace picks up considerably, with spies coming and going, a race from the countryside to London to reveal the McGuffin before everything winds up in explosive fashion atop Madame Tussauds.

The writing is always important in the success or otherwise of movies and Rough Shoot comes with a strong pedigree. The source material is a novel by Geoffrey Household of Rogue Male fame. There is some of the rural menace of that noted work on show here but I think it’s fair to say that the adaptation by the great Eric Ambler only strengthens the finished product. I’m of the opinion that Ambler was the finest espionage/thriller writer of the mid-20th century, a superb craftsman and if his screenwriting didn’t quite match the heights attained in his novels, it was still of a high standard indeed.

Robert Parrish moved from a successful stint in the editing department in the 40s to become a director in the 50s. That decade saw him produce some excellent films, from the noir of Cry Danger at the beginning  to a couple of first rate westerns, Saddle the Wind and The Wonderful Country, right at the end. By the 1960s Parrish had seen his best days behind him but Rough Shoot appeared when he was on top of his game. He keeps the pace up and handles the tonal shifts very deftly, never allowing any jarring moments. He moves the camera around well too, making the most of the British locations as well as lining up some effective and atmospheric interior shots, capably assisted by Stanley (Pink String and Sealing Wax) Pavey.

Joel McCrea epitomizes understated dignity for me, he had that old-school decency down pat and watching him ease his way confidently across the screen invariably evokes a sense of reassurance. These qualities made him one of the great western stars but it translated equally well to other genres too. Rough Shoot presented him in one of his rare non-western roles in the post-war years and the largely rural setting could be seen as a comfortable compromise, particularly so as the film was made not only outside of the west but outside of the US too.  Marius Goring was one of the stalwarts of British cinema, appearing in some of the most notable movies. I think he makes a fine villain, cold steel draped in silk and posing a genuine threat every time he’s on view. In contrast to this icy menace is the knowing charm of Herbert Lom, and there’s equally delightful work from Roland Culver. The main female role fell to Evelyn Keyes – she wasn’t given a huge amount to do but does her supportive and resourceful stuff perfectly well. The other female parts are extremely limited  – the striking looking Patricia Laffan (I always think of her as Poppaea to Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis) seemed to be set for something more substantial and interesting but disappears too soon.

Rough Shoot is another of those movies that almost inexplicably remains unreleased for home viewing. The quality of the cast and crew, not to mention the entertaining story, would suggest this title should have been put on the market before now – many lesser works have been long available, after all. I can only think that there must be some difficulties or confusion over the rights which are holding this up. If so, I fervently hope they can be resolved some time soon. I’m of the opinion that this movie, Hotel Reserve and State Secret are the three British films most urgently in need of proper, official home video releases. Let’s hope somebody manages to do something about this. In the meantime, Rough Shoot can be be viewed online quite easily – hardly a satisfactory situation, but it’s the only option at present.

For another take on the movie, you can check out Laura’s thoughts here.

Reprisal!

I get a kick out of looking at the way trends and perspectives develop and evolve. Anyone who has followed along on my journey through cinema over the last decade and more may have noted that I come back to this, and other matters besides, on a fairly regular basis. As I do so I can’t avoid also observing changes that have taken place in my own perspective over the years. Films and filmmakers have alternately risen and fallen in my estimation, and what I find especially interesting is how certain individuals who only came to my attention relatively late in the game have become not only firm favorites but people whose artistic merits I now rate very highly and examples of whose work I I seek out with genuine enthusiasm. That’s how it is with George Sherman and that’s the frame of mind in which I approached Reprisal! (1956), and I can’t say I was disappointed.

Drama thrives on conflict, in fact it’s said to be one of the integral components. A good deal of conflict in art, and indeed in life itself, derives from the land. And land of course derives its own importance as much from what it represents as what it is.  So what does it represent? Permanence, stability, belonging and, crucially, identity. The western as a cinematic art from draws heavily upon the myths nurtured on the American frontier, myths which had their roots in the notion of the land and all its associated ideals. There is something primal at work here, it is after all what we all spring from and, ultimately, what we return to. Allied to this is the feeling that ownership of land, although perhaps possession or stewardship would be more apt terms given our ephemeral or transitory nature in comparison, affords a strong sense of belonging.

This is all a slightly circuitous way of leading in to Sherman’s Reprisal!, a film which confronts this eternal ambition existing at the very heart of the human condition. The theme crops up again and again in classic westerns and it plays a critical role in ensuring that the genre never really loses its relevance. Here, we follow Frank Madden (Guy Madison) as he struggles to establish himself as a new landowner. His desire (one of the characters speaks of a hunger for land) to literally put down roots is all-consuming for this man. It is his shot at permanence, his chance to attain a sense of identity that will define him. I don’t want to go into too much detail concerning plot here as, in a movie like this, saying a little is so close to saying a lot and I’d like people to be able to come to the film fresh and without too much information that might color their perceptions. Let’s just say that it’s a pretty thorough examination of a man’s gradual coming to terms with his real self, reaching an understanding with that self and perhaps finding a love worthy of him. The film’s strength lies in both its frank appraisal of the core themes and its courage in refraining from providing pat or easy answers to the questions raised.

Sherman takes what I feel is a characteristically thoughtful approach to his story and there is a large measure of the type of optimism and positivism I’ve come to associate with a director like Delmer Daves on view. I’m always on the lookout for redemptive themes but that’s not really the focus here; but it could, I suppose, be argued that a shade of that is to be seen in the arc followed by Felicia Farr’s character. Instead, we’re presented more with some near relatives, namely sacrifice, renewal and rebirth. Madden’s quest to find his own spiritual equilibrium necessitates his sacrificing some of his most cherished dreams, part of himself in truth, in order to achieve some kind of internal rebirth. Sherman switches between some handsome Arizona locations and interiors and uses the landscape quite effectively. There is the image of the hanging tree casting its shadow over the movie at key moments and this – trees being typically symbolic of cycles of renewal as well as the concepts of nature and permanence – mirrors the use of similar imagery in such powerful films as Ride Lonesome and The Hanging Tree.

Felicia Farr made a number of film with Delmer Daves throughout the 1950s – Jubal, The Last Wagon and best of all 3:10 to  Yuma – and would appear in Hell Bent for Leather, another strong movie for Sherman a few years later. If one stops a moment and considers this little group, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Farr deserves to be rated as one of the most important actresses in westerns, her contribution to what are all quite major genre works cannot be overstated. As I mentioned above, Reprisal! doesn’t attempt to present easy answers or to gloss over human weakness and ambiguous attitudes. Farr plays a woman who is superficially a standard western heroine but her character has layers and these are only slowly revealed as the story unfolds – it’s a characteristically subtle and alluring performance.

In terms of actors featured on this site, there have been some notable absences and I’ve been trying to plug a few gaps in recent months. The focus of this place suggests that someone like Guy Madison ought to have made an appearance by now but, for no particular reason, he ended up being overlooked – no doubt his name will appear again in future though. Reprisal! offered him a very strong role and came along in the middle of his long run on TV playing Wild Bill Hickok. I think what stands out most about Madison’s work on this movie is the restraint he displays. There are some very powerful emotional currents in this film and the fact he underplays lends them even greater potency. The way the lead, the director and the writers consistently sidestep the predictable options is another big plus for this production.

Felicia Farr got the top female billing but there is a worthwhile role for Kathryn Grant (Gunman’s Walk) as a potential rival for Madison’s attention and affections. As the heavies, the ever reliable and versatile Michael Pate is cast as the impassioned yet confused one of a trio of brothers gunning for Madison. Edward Platt is a more straightforward proposition as the older and more clearly hate-fueled sibling while Madison’s real-life younger brother Wayne Mallory appears as a slightly cliched hothead.

As far as I know, Reprisal! hasn’t had any official release on disc in the US. However, there are DVDs available from France and Italy. As a 1956 production this movie would have been shot for widescreen projection (probably 1.85:1) but the current  DVDs appear to be open-matte 1.33:1 presentations. Leaving aside the aspect ratio, the movie looks to have been well preserved and is colorful and sharp. Over time I have grown into a big fan of George Sherman and I think this is a very strong effort from the director. I’d like to think his reputation is being reassessed and upgraded, it most certainly ought to be. I still have a good number of his movies to catch up with and every time I come across a pleasure like Reprisal! I find myself looking forward to the next one all the more keenly.