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.

Pillars of the Sky

Over the years there has been a good deal of ill-informed, and one might even say uninformed, material written and spoken about the classic western, and the depiction and treatment of the Native American Indian has arguably attracted the lion’s share of this negative commentary. That’s perhaps a slightly blunt way to open a post but it does rankle some to see unjustified assessments go unchallenged, not least because it contributes to critical neglect of the genre and a subsequent lack of appreciation and/or interest among potential viewers. Today, it feels as though we are increasingly living in a world of absolutes, one of stark blacks and whites where the very idea of nuance or shading is either dismissed outright or mercilessly lampooned. I suppose that one of the aspects that regularly draws me back to the classic 1950s version of the western is both the ease and the courage with which so many productions navigated moral, and historical complexities. Pillars of the Sky (1956) is an interesting entry in the decade’s Indian cycle,  one which adds religion and its influence on the conflict on the frontier into the blend.

It’s Oregon a few years after the end of the Civil War, and First Sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler) is responsible for patrolling the reservation in tandem with his Nez Perce scouts. The general direction of the tale is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a few westerns from this era. Treaties will be compromised in the name of progress, trust betrayed in the name of expediency, and conflict stoked up off the back of misunderstandings. Still, before the storm comes the calm, represented by the peace efforts of missionary Dr Joseph Holden (Ward Bond). Holden is one of life’s true believers, a man who seeks to bring civilization and all the benefits he associates with his religion to the varied tribes sharing the reservation. Bell presents a more pragmatic face but one which is no less sincere or well-meaning for that. The arrival of the new commanding officer with with orders to supervise the construction and policing of a road through the territory spells trouble. For the army these are orders that have to be executed, for the Indian they are evidence of further hollow promises – whatever the perspective, the end result will be a fight nobody really wants yet one nobody really knows how to avoid either.

Adapted from a Will Henry story, Pillars of the Sky is a typically mature piece of work, eschewing any temptation to paint in broad brush strokes and present the viewer with a simplistic heroes and villains stand-off. As is the case in so many conflicts, there are no clearly delineated good or bad guys, just people manipulated by circumstances and personal loyalties into a situation that can all too easily slide out of control. What sets this production apart from other thoughtful appraisals of the frontier wars is the prominence afforded to the religious aspect. Now some may find this overdone, and I can imagine that accusations of excessive piety might be leveled. Personally, I’m not sure that it has to be approached in that way – the theme here relates to co-existence as far as I can see. Digging a little deeper, it deals with the idea of reaching an accommodation, and on a number of levels. There is of course the wider accommodation being sought between two competing civilizations and cultures, while a range of smaller and more personal examples are to be determined among the characters.

Let’s look at some of those characters then. Firstly, Jeff Chandler’s hard-bitten Sergeant Bell is man having to come to terms with a number of changes and challenges in his life. He has gone from being a Civil War officer to a peacetime non-commissioned man, leading to some amusing confusion for a young lieutenant who served under him in the past and still finds himself saying “Sir” to the man he’s now giving orders to. Bell’s struggle is dual one: he must reconcile his humanitarian instincts with the prickly toughness his years of hard experience have brought about while at the same time assessing his feelings towards a woman he loved and then apparently lost. That woman is Calla Gaxton (Dorothy Malone) and her own path is far from certain, having come west to make a final choice between her old flame Bell and her husband Captain Gaxton (Keith Andes). While this triangle is supposed to add another layer of drama to the story, it ends up as one of the weaknesses for me, with Malone underused and the competition between Chandler and Andes proving something of a damp squib alongside the genuine explosiveness of the main plot strand.

Ward Bond’s missionary offers  him a good role, allowing him to indulge in some larger than life bluster while displaying an equal measure of compassion. And there you have the conflict faced by his character – how best to apply his Christian principles to circumstances and an environment inherently hostile to such ideals. When it comes to portrayals of army brass, it’s common to see inflexible martinets blindly provoking violence yet Pillars of the Sky offers a welcome way around that tired cliché by having Willis Bouchey play an officer who is aware of his own fallibility. Lee Marvin adds another colorful supporting role to his CV as a characteristically hard drinking Irish sergeant. There’s a good deal of broad comedy in his part but plenty of pathos too in his later scenes in the aftermath of the big Indian attack. On the other side of the battle lines, Michael Ansara gives good value as the warrior Kamiakin who has firmly rejected the missionary teachings and contrasts nicely with Sydney Chaplin’s devout and devoted scout.

George Marshall might be best known for making the classic Destry Rides Again – mind you, I’d argue that his own remake of that film Destry in 1954 runs it very close. His long career covered most genres and he made a handful of other notable westerns in the 1950s in The Sheepman and The Guns of Fort Petticoat. I’d rate this among his better movies, for the rich and less common theme and the superb visuals too. CinemaScope westerns are attractive as a rule and the the shooting of the Oregon locations, with the help of cinematographer Harold Lipstein, is quite breathtaking at times, managing to recall Frederic Remington paintings in some shots.

Pillars of the Sky has been released on DVD in a variety of territories over the years and I suspect the same master will have been used for all of those. Universal International productions have a distinctive look and as viewers we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy so many of these via excellent prints and transfers. I have the German release of this movie from Koch and it looks very fine with a sharp, detailed and colorful image. In brief, this is a strong western, and another that has not received its full due, perhaps in part because of the reasons I alluded to in the introduction above. So, if anyone who is keen on westerns has yet to see this one, I recommend they look into it – it has action, drama, visual splendor and intelligence. Check it out.

Spin a Dark Web

How essential is the femme fatale in film noir? Sure her presence is one of the characteristics you will hear mentioned time and again should  you ask people to check off a list of the necessary ingredients. But is this presence or absence actually integral, and does it define the style? I’m inclined to think no, I’ve seen plenty of undoubted films noir where this character didn’t appear and I don’t feel their dark credentials were diminished as a consequence. On the other hand, the question represents an itch I get the urge to scratch every so often, especially after watching a movie like Spin a Dark Web (1956), where there is an explicit femme fatale whose malign influence drives the plot.

Whatever else one might say about film noir it certainly requires what might be termed the fall guy, someone who manages to get himself involved in a complex and perilous situation. Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) fits that particular bill here, a Canadian living in post-war London, hanging around the fringes of the fight game and keen to pick up some easy money fast. He’s casually attached to a fight trainer’s daughter, Betty (Rona Anderson), but is restless and hungry for cash, restless enough to drop her if the rewards are appealing enough. Looking up an old friend leads to a encounter with gangster Rico Francesi (Martin Benson) and his predatory sister Bella (Faith Domergue). What follows won’t create too many surprises – Bankley is drawn by the glamor of the rackets and Bella is only to happy to lure him ever deeper into her web. As ever, while the profits of the racketeering and the attentions of the dangerously seductive Sicilian prove attractive, there will be a moment of truth, an occurrence which will bring home to our anti-hero the sourness at the back of it all. And that’s when the real danger kicks in…

I don’t suppose many people will be queuing up to sing the praises of director Vernon Sewell but the fact is I’ve become very fond of his work. He made a series of short and tightly paced movies throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s which are, based on the evidence of those I’ve seen so far, very entertaining and occasionally stylish too. Spin a Dark Web is, as I’ve acknowledged, a standard gangster yarn. Nevertheless, the extensive location shooting, much of which is done in a deliberately impersonal documentary style, adds a grittiness to the movie. Additionally, the planning and execution of the complicated racing sting that fleshes out the middle section of the film is well done and highly absorbing. Throw in a number of tough action set pieces and we’re looking at a solid little noir thriller.

Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) is the Hollywood star handed top billing in Spin a Dark Web, and the full-on femme fatale referred to at the top of this piece. She’s the kind of actress I can take or leave, largely dependent on the role she was asked to play. The role of Bella is one that works well in that it uses her cold passion to its best advantage. I think she possessed a detached chilliness and that’s ideal for the part of the self-absorbed and psychopathic woman. Those traits are ideal in the femme fatale, and it’s her conscience-free ruthlessness that makes this film succeed. So, can I answer the question I posed for myself? I’m going to hedge it by saying the femme fatale is essential here; without her deadly allure the fall guy or patsy is rendered meaningless and the film is stripped of much of its potency.

Balance is always important so a counterweight to the femme fatale in the shape of a Girl Friday figure is usually desirable, and it’s hard to think of the better choice for such a part in 1950s British cinema than Rona Anderson. She has the natural grace and charm to offset the driving aggression of Domergue, the selflessness to highlight the hollow appeal of the villainess. What would the British crime film be without Lee Patterson? I liked his work on The Flying Scot when I viewed it a few years ago and Spin a Dark Web again sees him turning in one of those typically dependable performances in a shady, semi-heroic part. I’m not sure I’ve seen much of Robert Arden beyond his central role in Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. He has the kind of hulking amiability about him that lends itself well to sidekick or best friend types, and just enough edginess to carry the notion of a man comfortable on the shadowy side of the street. Martin Benson is fine as the chief gangster, although he does stray close to caricature on a few occasions. Finally, there’s good support from familiar character actors Sam Kydd and Bernard Fox.

Spin a Dark Web has been released on DVD in the US by Sony as part of their MOD line. The disc only carries the movie and the trailer but it looks strong and is presented in an attractive 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The film has also been put out in the just released Noir Archive Vol. 2 on Blu-ray, a set I may well pick up as it contains a number of other interesting sounding films I don’t already have. All in all, I found this an excellent British film noir, well acted and directed and coming in at a snappy hour and a quarter.

The Ride Back

I’ve never been a success at anything I tried to do. Anything I ever tried to do ever, failed. I’ve been a failure and that’s all, a plain old failure. But I’m not going to be this time. I’m going to make this one. I’m going to do this right!

That quotation comes late on in proceedings, uttered reluctantly and somewhat desperately by a man goaded into justifying his actions, the result of baiting of one form or another he’s probably struggled with all his life. Most visitors here will know my fondness for small productions and the reasons for that, not the least of which is the opportunity for experiencing the good old heartfelt reactions and observations one can often find in such modest films. The pared down quality leaves little room for the extraneous; when every word and shot has to count, then the odds are we’re going to see something which presents moral conundrums and human truths in a frank and candid way. The Ride Back (1957) is such a film.

Restrictions tend to stimulate creativity, knowing what you can’t do being a powerful way of forcing one to focus on what can be done. The Ride Back opens with men walking into a barber shop, armed men who mean business. Rather than prosaically show what they say and do and how their presence is greeted, the filmmakers cleverly cut to two little boys playing in the street at the same time. As the adults enter the shop the boys emerge from an alley, one escorting the other with a “gun” fashioned from a branch. As the prisoner bolts his captor raises his weapon, and then the deafening crash of real and deadly gunfire drags the attention back to the world of grown-up violence. A man launches himself out into the street, discarding soap and towels as he flees. This person making a bid for freedom is Roberto “Bob” Kallen (Anthony Quinn), and his flight will carry him  across the border into Mexico where half of his bloodline hails from. Where there is a fugitive from the law there  must necessarily be a pursuer. In this case it’s a lone figure; Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.

The small scale of the production here points clearly to the limited budget involved. There are many of the characteristics of a television piece visible in the tiny cast and the overall feeling of spareness. Writer Antony Ellis and director Allen H Miner (although I’ve seen claims he didn’t actually have the reins all the time) did almost all of their work for the small screen. Now this isn’t meant as any criticism, I’m merely noting that you do get the sense that the whole thing was made by people who were familiar with working to a tight schedule and all the discipline that was required in such circumstances. The story is pacy and the focus never wavers, building the relationship between Kallen and Hamish in a believable way. The enmity and mutual distrust is well handled and grows into a mature understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as the titular ride back throws up a number of challenges that will force both men to confront their own motivations. The movie benefits hugely from the skill and artistry of cinematographer Joseph F Biroc, his shooting of both the interiors and exteriors shows his mastery of lighting, and some clever use of angles emphasizes either space or confinement according to the needs of any given scene. And of course, for fans of western movie theme songs, there is one of those memorable narrative efforts delivered by Eddie Albert to open and close the film.

Anthony Quinn’s part as a half-Mexican gunman must have been a breeze for him, which is not a suggestion that he put any less into his role. No, I mean that there was a “big” quality to the man, a grandness that he seemed to turn on effortlessly and which was ideally suited to this kind of flamboyant and romantic character, something he seemed able to dial up or dial down at will. He’s very good as the sympathetic fugitive, interacting naturally and effectively with both his passionate peasant lover Lita Milan (The Violent Men) and also with Ellen Hope Monroe, the tiny and silent survivor of an Apache massacre.

William Conrad served as both producer and actor on The Ride Back, which I think indicates his level of interest in the project. Quinn played the showier and more eye-catching part, but Conrad’s sheriff is the more interesting character. Both men are headed for a form of personal redemption and both achieve this by the end, conquering distrust of others and distrust of oneself respectively. Conrad nailed the insecurity of his underachieving lawman perfectly, exercising caution at every turn and testing the ground suspiciously before every step. Such was the honesty of his wariness and self-doubt that I found the climactic scenes, where he essentially attains what he’s longed for so deeply by a circuitous and oblique route, genuinely moving. A fine performance.

The Ride Back was released on DVD in the US many years ago by MGM. The 1.33:1 ratio (once again) sounds unusual for a 1957 movie but it looks good overall and, in a way, fits the television vibe surrounding the production. Biroc’s black and white cinematography is nicely reproduced and I wasn’t aware of any major print damage at any stage during my most recent watch. This is by no means a major western and never aspires to be. What it is, on the other hand, is a spare, character-driven piece of storytelling, a virtual two-hander where two very good actors play off each other in an expert fashion and draw in the viewer with the candor of their work. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should try to catch up with it as soon as possible.

Floods of Fear

There’s drama to be found in extremes, which may be of the economic, political, social or emotional variety. The latter is, of course, the most engaging and involving from the viewer’s perspective and gains from being combined with some other highly charged circumstance. In Floods of Fear (1958) we’re presented with our extreme situation in the form of an environmental catastrophe, the floods of the title. In contrast to the big budget, disaster epics that would become popular in the years ahead, this modest British noir places the focus firmly on a handful of central relationships and this limited scale and scope is one of its great strengths.

It all begins with the aftermath of severe and prolonged rainfall and storms, the adverse weather having raised water levels in the Humboldt River to dangerous levels. The opening sees preparations underway to try to shore up flood defenses and prevent, or at least attempt to hold in check, a catastrophic inundation. With resources strained to breaking point, the state has taken to using convicts to assist in the repairs and fortification. When the elements flex their muscles though and sweep aside the levee another threat, a criminal one, is unleashed along with the flood waters. As a result, Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heywood), who has been rescued from her stranded vehicle by convicted murderer Donavan (Howard Keel), finds herself holed up in her rapidly disintegrating home with the lecherous and cunning Peebles (Cyril Cusack) and injured prison guard Sharkey (Harry H Corbett). The tension among this disparate group is palpable while the desire to get away is rising as rapidly as the rank and freezing waters outside. Although all these characters have their own reasons for wanting to leave, the most pressing and intriguing seems to be that of Donavan, who appears to have a private score to settle.

Floods of Fear is an unusual British noir, not only adopting the look and feel of the classic Hollywood variety but going a step further and setting its story in the US. That story was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post serial (later published in novel form) by John & Ward Hawkins called simply A Girl, a Man and a River. And it is a fairly simple and straightforward story, using the framework of the disaster as a background for the various human dramas taking place within. The main thrust is provided by Donavan’s quest for justice, or a reckoning, but it’s the smaller and more personal conflicts among the core cast members that account for the emotional punch the picture carries.

Aside from the fact there is a solid noir/thriller plot involving some interesting characters with credible motivation, the movie benefits enormously from the cinematography of Christopher Challis. Sure there is some stock footage cut in to allow the studio shot material to breathe a little, but that set bound work looks extraordinarily good for the most part, and it’s largely down to how well Challis photographed it. There are a number of terrific nighttime sequences with the characters struggling through treacherous tides, silhouetted against lowering and leaden skies just beyond the clawing branches of half-submerged trees and vegetation.  The direction by Ealing comedy specialist Charles Crichton is strong and maintains the pace and toughness that a movie like this depends on.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be set in the US, nor am I sure the consequent necessity of getting the majority of the actors to adopt (with varying degrees of success) fake accents adds much value. Anyway, that’s the way the producers decided to go. Howard Keel had made his debut as a screen actor in a British thriller The Small Voice a decade before, and I found him quietly impressive in that role. Floods of Fear saw him back in British films, once again outside his more natural home in musicals and once again turning in a solid performance. It’s a physical role and Keel provides a very powerful presence which is essential under the circumstances. Apart from battles against the tides, he gets to take part in a tough and well choreographed fight with fellow US actor John Crawford at the climax. Anne Heywood is both attractive and credible as the girl trapped by the environmental and human dangers, and demonstrates some welcome range and character development as the story unfolds. One of the standout performances comes from Irish actor Cyril Cusack – creepy, shifty, emotionally unstable and wholly untrustworthy, he steals nearly every scene he appears in. I want to add a word of praise for Harry H Corbett too, an actor whose dramatic roles have not always made a particularly positive impression on me. This is one occasion where I felt he was fine though and there was none of the broadness that I feel he allowed to creep into some of his straight parts.

Floods of Fear is a film I had first stumbled upon on TV decades ago and it always stuck in my mind. As is often the case, the movie proved a bit difficult to track down for viewing during all those years and so it was a pleasure to discover it had been released on DVD  in the UK by Strawberry Media. The disc uses a fairly good print and the movie looks good overall. However, a 1958 production would surely have been shot in some kind of widescreen ratio (1.75:1 or 1.66:1 I’d have thought) and is presented 1.33:1 on the DVD. It doesn’t look cropped so I suppose we’re talking about an open-matte presentation – something which is obviously not ideal but is not terrible either. All told, I’m glad the film is available commercially and I think it’s one that should win over a few new fans.