The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.

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The Price of Fear

Hybrid movies, or those which blend and mix genres, can be fascinating when done well. When the recipe is a winner the results can be stimulating, the unexpected seasoning adding  freshness to even the most familiar servings. On the other hand, a poor choice of ingredients tends to produce something stodgy and rather bland. Sadly, I think that’s what happened with The Price of Fear (1956), a movie whose frankly generic title hoped to combine the fatalism of film noir and the soulfulness of melodrama, but it doesn’t really come off and, in spite of a few neat touches and smooth visuals, I came away from it feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

It opens in suitably noir fashion with dog track owner Dave Barrett (Lex Barker) finding out that his partner has sold his share in the business to mobster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), leading to the usual threats and recriminations. At about the same time financier Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon) is just leaving a night spot after an evening out. So, we have two strangers, the kind whose paths are unlikely to cross in the normal course of events. This is all about to change though for both when, to borrow a well-worn phrase, fate decides to put its finger upon them. In short, carelessness at the wheel sees Jessica run over an old gent out walking his dog, while Barrett has the misfortune not only to fall victim to a frame-up for the murder  of his ex-partner but then doubles up by stealing the hit and run vehicle while trying to duck out on a tail. Superficially, it’s  bad break for Barrett but an apparent stroke of luck for Jessica yet this is before their alibis get entangled with their passions, not to mention the relentless external pressure being applied by both the mob and the police.

Abner Biberman started out as an actor, playing parts ranging from comic hoodlums to a whole raft of east Asian types, before graduating to the director’s chair. The bulk of his work was in television, working on a host of well-known shows including The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive, but he also took charge of a number of cinema features. I found his handling of Gun for a Coward, for example, to be solid if fairly unremarkable. I think the same could be said of The Price of Fear, where it all looks attractive enough with a the kind of glossy patina one would expect of a mid-50s Universal-International picture. Still, it never really grips or fully engages you; the script is altogether too languidly paced for my liking and expends far too much time and energy on a not very interesting romance while simultaneously failing to exploit the underlying tensions and also skimming over the potentially absorbing ethical conundrums at the core of the tale.

Overall, I’d say the performances could also be categorized similarly – fair to middling. I can’t say I’ve ever been all that excited by Merle Oberon, frequently finding her a little too distant and emotionally detached. Former Tarzan Lex Barker is another who I find perfectly watchable but not a major draw. I think he does better, at least as his part is written, but the fact remains there’s not a lot of chemistry between the two stars and the central relationship, upon which so much of the drama depends, feels rather flat as a consequence. Charles Drake is usually worth watching in those third-billed roles he made his own and he doesn’t disappoint as the cop in charge of the investigation and Barker’s friend. Unfortunately though, his is essentially a supporting part and the film needed more punch from above. The tragic Gia Scala does catch the eye in her first credited role but it’s underwritten and represents something of a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. Warren Stevens is generally a good bet as oily types of questionable morality and provides good value – of course he was doing some interesting work around this time in various genres, taking one of the major roles in the fabulous Forbidden Planet that same year.

The Price of Fear is easy enough to track down for viewing. It was released in the US some years ago as part of a box set of noir-lite thrillers and then as (I think) a stand alone MOD disc. Additionally, there are Spanish and German DVDs available and there’s usually a very good quality online version to be found too. It’s an OK film, but hardly essential and, as I’ve mentioned on this site many times now, there are far better Universal titles that could be released yet remain frustratingly out of reach. All in all, it’s not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and quarter or thereabouts but don’t expect to be bowled over.

The Glass Web

There’s something interesting about looking at the shape of a filmmaker’s career, what they were doing at certain points, whether there were overlaps or complementary features to be discerned, or perhaps exploratory forays into entirely different areas. It’s educational too to note how the extraordinary can cozy up comfortably next to the ordinary. This is something that struck me while looking at some early work by Jack Arnold. In the same year he made the quite extraordinary It Came from Outer Space, he also directed the much more conventional noir/mystery The Glass Web (1953), although that’s not to say this latter title is without interest.

I tend to think of the desert when a Jack Arnold film comes to mind, and The Glass Web opens with a car coming to a stop in just that location. A couple get out and move into the foreground, the wife briefly bemoaning the isolation and discomfort before her husband does away with her and drops her body down an abandoned shaft. Stark and dramatic stuff, but as the camera pulls back it’s also apparent that it’s a studio set, a mock-up used in the shooting of an episode of a TV show. The actors dust themselves off and the all-important advertising message takes over. The actress who has just been swallowed up by the  desert sands is Paula Ranier (Kathleen Hughes), and in some ways this can be seen as a dry run for her  eventual fate. Without getting into too many details here, and the consequent risk of spoiling things for those unfamiliar with the film, we’re looking at a solid whodunit (although the actual “who” isn’t that difficult to work out) with a dark noir heart beating at the center. Everything hinges on a classic triangle involving Ranier, writer Don Newell (John Forsythe) and consultant Henry Hayes (Edward G Robinson), and it’s gradually revealed as a complex affair encompassing jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, guilt and humiliation.

As arguably befits a movie concerning itself with entertainment industry figures, the bulk of the action is shot on sets and in the studio, where the characters themselves spent most of their own lives. There are a handful of occasions where events do move outside on location, something I think Jack Arnold usually made good use of, but seeing as the whole story is an insular one centered on a fairly tight group of individuals the internalized feel works quite well. In terms of noir, the movie doesn’t break any new ground, focusing on those themes that had become staples of the form by then. I suppose the 3-D shooting was still innovative at the time but I’m not sure it would have brought a lot to proceedings here. Now I’ve only seen it flat but it doesn’t seem like one of those movies where the extra depth would have added much, and the fact there is a short sequence – as Forsythe roams the streets in a despairing mood at the thought of the hole he’s dug for himself – where a series of objects are essentially flung at the camera gives the impression the producer felt it necessary to artificially highlight this aspect.

On the other hand, the setting is of interest. The fact TV was very much in competition with, and indeed seen as a threat to, the movies at this stage is of note. Hollywood has always indulged in some inward-looking self-criticism and some of that approach is adopted. There is a particularly cynical view of the role of advertising in TV production – in fact it’s rather scornful, with characters commenting how the ads are the most important part of the finished show. Then again, there is also an implied acknowledgment of the power and immediacy of the new medium in the climactic scenes, the culprit carelessly making a confession on a deserted sound stage while the cameras surreptitiously roll and pick it all up. Just as TV  in reality could claim to show the viewers events as they happen, so we the audience (and the on screen cops too) get to view this drama unfold via a live feed.

I tend to think of John Forsythe mainly in terms of his television roles, where he was both a familiar face and voice for many years. Having said that, he made a number of memorable big screen appearances too, getting important roles in films by John Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock. His role in The Glass Web has enough complexity to make it satisfyingly unsympathetic and he plays well against the ever impressive Edward G Robinson. By all accounts, Robinson was a cultured man, an trait that often appears at odds with the kind of heavies he was often cast as in the early part of his career, and it’s enjoyable to see him as a character with a passion for art and the finer things.

Not for the first time, I  find myself writing about a Universal-International movie which remains commercially unavailable, and it pains me particularly to note yet another Jack Arnold title languishing in this fashion. The Glass Web pops up from time to time online, but it’s in the usual weak and compromised form. One can only hope that the movie, not to mention a number of others from the same studio, will eventually be afforded a release that allows more people to see it and form their own opinions about its merits.

Warning Shot

As a fan of film noir, I’m always a little saddened to think  of how it gradually faded from cinema screens. Then again, that very briefness is part of its allure, those two decades or thereabouts of slipping in and out of virtual and literal shadows, of exploring the moral ambiguities of life. Of course, the point is that it did fade as opposed to completely disappearing – it never really went away (arguably the themes have a timeless universality which precludes that possibility) and by the 1970s we were simultaneously reassessing the phenomena and witnessing the resurgence of what would come to be termed neo-noir.  This leaves us with a type of cultural no-man’s land between these two eras, one which is often a fascinating place to take a spin around. A lot of people will tell you that the classic period of film noir drew to a close with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. As such, it seems somehow appropriate to look at Warning Shot (1967), based on another Whit Masterson pulp story, as an example of one of these linking works.

A stakeout in Los Angeles on a foggy night, two weary cops sat in their car hoping to get a line on a killer, and hoping just as hard to get relieved and head home to spend the evening like regular human beings.  One of them, Sergeant Valens (David Janssen), goes for another look around and calls out a warning to a figure he glimpses exiting the apartment complex under surveillance. The figure bolts, the cop gives chase, another warning, a gun is drawn, and one fatal shot is fired. As the body is hauled out of the swimming pool it plunged into, the alarming fact that the victim was a respected doctor is revealed, not to mention the more troubling fact that no gun is turned up. Here we have a standard noir setup, a guy we have seen acting according to the rules is about to come in for a roasting by the media and, with all the available evidence suggesting his guilt, he’s on the point of seeing the law he serves focus all its attention and resources on him. His unhappy personal life and, more significantly, his previous near fatal run in with a shooter conspire to further darken his character in the public perception. With his badge suspended and his departmental favors running out, Valens is left with only one realistic option – prove that the victim was something other than the blameless philanthropist he’s been portrayed as.

The first thing to grab one’s attention as the opening credits play is the depth of the cast. David Janssen, fresh off what I continue to believe was perhaps the finest TV show ever made – The Fugitive, takes the lead and he’s a good pick for the part of the fall-guy cop. Those years spent playing Richard Kimble stood him in good stead, honing his edgy self-awareness and that trademark cautious uncertainty had become second nature by this stage. Interestingly, Ed Begley, frequently cast as loud, hectoring and unpleasant types (12 Angry Men springs readily to mind here), is instead handed a more sympathetic part as Valens’ superior.

After that the list of names is impressive indeed: Eleanor Parker, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Sam Wanamaker, Stefanie Powers, Keenan Wynn, Joan Collins, George Grizzard, Walter Pidgeon, Carroll O’Connor. And there we have both a strength and a weakness of this movie. Frankly, it’s natural to want to see as much of these people as possible yet it doesn’t work out that way. The bulk of these performers appear in what are essentially cameos – popping in to add another piece to the puzzle Valens is racing to solve and then dropping out as abruptly, leaving the viewer wishing so many of these roles could have been expanded just a little more.

If there was a glut of talent in front of the cameras, there wasn’t exactly a shortage behind them either. Buzz Kulik may not have had a huge number of cinema credits to  boast of but his television work was extensive and his name turns up on a succession of well-known shows, not the least of which is The Twilight Zone. Some names just naturally stand out and that’s surely the case with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, whose long career stretched right back to It’s a Wonderful Life and included work in every conceivable genre. The movie can at times take on a slightly flat, TV feel but I reckon it’s down to Biroc’s skill that it rises above this as often as not. The mood of the whole piece is further enhanced by a typically classy Jerry Goldsmith score. And while we’re on the subject of notable names, it would be extraordinarily remiss not to mention veteran costume designer Edith Head’s stylish contribution.

 

Warning Shot was released on DVD in the US by Paramount years ago but seems to have gone out of print and, consequently, risen in price. I have an Italian DVD which is completely English-friendly and looks very nice; it is bright and colorful with a tight and smooth widescreen picture and no print damage I was aware of.  In terms of story and mood, I reckon this movie bridges the gap between classic film noir and its soon to be rebooted cinematic progeny. That said, it’s a flawed production overall and the attempt to pack it out with familiar faces ends up hurting it more than helping it – the succession of brief interludes stimulate the appetite like a teaser for a much-anticipated movie but you wind up feeling slightly dissatisfied when you realize that’s all you’re going to get. Generally, it’s an entertaining thriller, taking a sidelong look at mid-late 60s society, rising above its limitations in some respects but, paradoxically, finding itself bound by some others of its own making in the process.

Silver City

Watching movies again after a long gap can alternate between the rewarding and the disappointing. Any conclusions reached are, of course, entirely subjective as it’s we who represent the variable here, the ones who change, and not the movies themselves. And it’s a curious phenomenon, one whose mechanics I’ve never wholly understood beyond vague allusions to the mood one happens to be in on any given occasion. For what it’s worth, I find that my feelings towards most films don’t shift all that radically, and when I do perceive a change it’s a positive one as often as not. Still, when I recently had another look at Byron Haskin’s Silver City (1951) I experienced the opposite effect – a certain disappointment, as though the film I remembered were subtly different.

The show opens with a robbery and pitches us right into what promises to be a pacy adventure. The bright start and then the following sequence that establishes Larkin Moffatt (Edmond O’Brien) as a man fated to be dogged by a tarnished past has the potential to develop into something really meaty and satisfying. We follow Moffatt from one rejection to another as he trudges along the path of weary disillusionment trodden by legions of noir anti-heroes. This was the image I’d been carrying around in my mind – that of the pugnacious, tight-lipped guy slouching his way through a hard-boiled western in search of some form of personal redemption. But that’s only part of the story, and not necessarily a fair representation of it either. Moffatt is thrown a moral lifeline of sorts when Candace Surrency (Yvonne De Carlo) and her miner father Dutch (Edgar Buchanan) persuade him to take on the role of foreman when they’ve made a big silver strike. There’s trouble looming though in the shape of a grasping rival, Jarboe (Barry Fitzgerald), as well as the reappearance of  figures from Moffatt’s past who refuse to let him move on.

On paper, this all sounds quite good – and the fact it’s derived from a Luke Short story attests to its pedigree – but the fact is it plods along where it needs to zip, and the tone tends to vary in a way I didn’t find especially successful. Moffatt is for the most part portrayed as terse, tough and two-fisted but there are a few occasions where he’s involved in some knockabout antics which didn’t blend in naturally for me – there’s a manufactured saloon brawl that feels altogether too broad, in my opinion. Aside from that, I’m of the opinion that there’s almost too much going on in the script – jealousy, romantic subplots which crisscross feel somewhat repetitive, rivalries that spill over from relationships into business, and consequent grudges and bad feeling nursed by others. In short, there’s always something going on but the crowded nature of it all actually serves to slacken the pace rather than quicken it.

On the plus side, there is a fine cast here, led by the ever watchable O’Brien, bringing that natural noir sensibility he had to his role. Yvonne De Carlo always had that earthy allure and photographs wonderfully in Technicolor. I think she generally excelled in westerns and made quite a few, her blend of sexuality and toughness finding a natural home in the genre. Laura Elliott (AKA Kasey Rogers), who had a pivotal role in Strangers on a Train around this time, is fine too as De Carlo’s competition for O’Brien’s attentions. Moving on to the villainous roles, I ‘d argue there are too many of them for their own good. The great Barry Fitzgerald could never be less than enjoyable and he seemed to be having a high time with his malignant Irish pixie act. John Dierkes is good too as a murderous and vindictive drunkard but he’s underused, while neither Richard Arlen nor Michael Moore amount to a big enough threat to provide a solid core to the drama.

I think director Byron Haskin had a great visual sense and this film looks very attractive most of the time. Westerns tends to be at their best when the locations are used to good advantage and while this film has some good outdoor work, it has to be said that the director really made the most of the interiors, and there’s no doubt cameraman Ray Rennahan’s beautifully understated lighting played an important part in this too. Haskin made a trio of westerns around this time with Edmond O’Brien and I’m keen to see the most elusive of them, Warpath.  That title has only had a release in Spain as far as I can tell and I can’t find any reviews to throw light on its quality. Even so, I may well end up taking a chance on this myself in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Silver City has been out in the US on DVD and Blu-ray via Olive  for a few years now, and I think there are European versions on the market too. The movie looks reasonable, if not startling, and passes the time agreeably. However, I still feel there are the ingredients for something better in the mix, and I remain somewhat disappointed that my latest viewing had me noticing more of the flaws than the strengths. Anyway, that’s just my current take and, as ever, other opinions are available.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.

There’s something powerfully compelling about stories of creeping paranoia, where reason is not merely sidelined but is trampled underfoot by the unthinkable. Those 1950s tales, born out of global fear and uncertainty, urging vigilance both towards the enemy within, and, especially in the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the enemy wearing one’s own face once felt like a curious relic of the recent past. Nowadays, with opportunists everywhere never passing up an opportunity to encourage suspicion and division, you’d be forgiven for thinking it way well represent a timeless observation on human frailty.

I find the 1950s an endlessly fascinating decade from a filmmaking point of view. There is an irrepressible post-war optimism on view, a sense of hope and positivity for the future; the big shiny automobiles, those spotless, picture postcard small towns, the neat homes resplendent with the latest technology, and most of all the outwardly content people all seem to reflect this satisfaction. Yet satisfaction can all too easily spill over into smugness and conceit, trapping the unwary and leading them into peril. Perhaps it’s our collective sense of doubt, something indelibly stamped on our consciousness by centuries of nasty surprises, that makes us wonder if there’s not danger lurking in the shadows cast by the glow of our apparent success. It’s this juxtaposition of ideas – the comfortable gloss sharing space with the uncertainty – that makes the best 50s movies such a draw for me.

Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is one of those archetypal post-war figures, young, successful (albeit with a broken marriage behind him) and well-regarded in his community. And Santa Mira is one of those idealized communities I referred to above, comfortable and orderly and the last place one would think of as a threat. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what it represents, for the story rapidly makes it clear that the residents of this small settlement are behaving strangely. There are growing numbers of reports that members of their own families may be imposters, perfect physical and psychological replicas, yet lacking those tell-tale traces of humanity that only those most intimate with us would spot. Surely this is impossible though; it defies all rational explanation and even if it were true, how could one do anything about it before succumbing oneself, and who could be trusted in the interim? Here we have the dilemma faced by the increasingly isolated doctor.

That’s about as much detail as I plan to go into regarding the plot. Those who are already familiar with the film will know everything necessary anyway, and those who are not are entitled to go into it without having the developments spoiled for them by me. In any case, it’s the theme and the thinking behind the movie that interests me most here. The story comes from Jack Finney’s book (called simply The Body Snatchers) which originally appeared in serial form. There are of course some differences but the overall shape of the narrative is retained in Daniel Mainwaring’s screen adaptation. Even the frequently criticized prologue and  epilogue which frame the movie, and were apparently demanded by the studio to counter the perceived bleakness, are close in spirit if not actual detail to the original ending of the novel.

It’s what comes in between though that makes this one of the great Sci-Fi classics. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the film was conceived and executed as an entry into what we now think of as the Red Scare sub-genre, those films which tapped into Atomic Era anxieties and played (or maybe preyed) on fears of infiltration by those bent on damaging society. What lends  this story its power is its use of the notion that the “enemy” is indistinguishable, so much so in fact that even those nearest to us may not be all they appear. And then a further twist of the psychological knife is achieved by having us doubt even ourselves – should our guard drop for the briefest of instants, our souls may be stolen. It’s not a huge step then to regard the danger as something already a part of us, a sort of variation on the old original sin concept and the ultimate in horror, that the face of evil is not just familiar, but one’s own mirror image.

I guess Kevin McCarthy will be forever remembered for his role as the doctor whose calm confidence is not so much eroded over the course of a couple of days as brutally shattered by a series of relentless and terrifyingly swift developments. It’s a credit to McCarthy that the transition from cool professional to gibbering maniac is both seamless and entirely convincing. Dana Wynter gets a great part too as the returning romantic interest. There are nice supporting roles for King Donovan and the underused Carolyn Jones and Jean Willes. And it would be remiss of me not to mention a brief appearance by future director Sam Peckinpah.

Mainwaring’s script, and Finney’s novel naturally, form the core of the movie, but the direction of Don Siegel and the cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks are vital too. The latter bathes the movie in the kind of deep shadow which we normally associate with film noir and the effect (not to mention the parallel) is wholly appropriate given the subject matter. Siegel’s punchy, spare direction is a great asset, keeping the pace up and using a whole range of interesting angles and perspectives – squeezing the characters through tiny windows, moving them along cramped corridors, confining them in cupboards and even under boardwalks – to ratchet up the sense of claustrophobia, the limited room for maneuver and the ceaseless tension.

I see that Invasion of the Body Snatchers has recently had a deluxe Blu-ray release in the US, and it’s a film that’s certainly deserving of such treatment. I’ve not had an opportunity to sample that version but I do hope a European special edition turns up at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’d unreservedly recommend that anyone who hasn’t had a chance to see this movie should make an effort to do so as soon as possible. We’ve had some fine discussion here before on the difficulty in defining exactly what characterizes a great movie. I imagine it’s safe to say few will upbraid me if I assert that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is unquestionably one of the true greats.

The Violent Men

Quality is a hard thing to  define with any degree of precision. It’s something we all know when we see it but try putting it into words, creating a label for it which can be affixed to suitable candidates and you find yourself in trouble. If that’s a tough one, then differentiating or categorizing grades of quality is the kind of challenge one could base myths on. I, like probably most other people, will take some ride in my ability to recognize “a good movie”, even if that is merely my necessarily subjective view, and I might also try to impart to others exactly why I feel this is the case. But what separates a great movie from a simply good one? I genuinely don’t know, but again I can usually recognize it. All this abstraction leads me to The Violent Men (1955), a Rudolph Maté directed western with a superb cast and the kind of names on the other side of the camera which really ought to ensure its comfortable position among the acknowledged greats. Yet it doesn’t belong there, it’s not poor by any means but never rises above the level of quite good. And I can’t help but wonder why that’s so. Needless to say, any and all ideas on the subject are welcome and will be taken into consideration.

The framework within which the story plays out is a classic one for the genre, the range war. The motivation behind it all appears to be ambition and a twisted kind of love, twisted by a its traumatic birth in violent circumstances. I say appears here because it’s really greed, or perhaps covetousness might be more accurate, which propels everybody and everything towards another of those fiery yet cathartic conclusions. We follow it all from the perspective of John Parrish (Glenn Ford) a Civil War veteran who came west in the uncertain hope of recovering from his wounds. Well he did recover, and clearly made a success, albeit a slightly reluctant one, of his time as a small-scale rancher. However, in something of a subversion of the standard western trope the dearest wish of this young man is to go east. That’s what he claims anyway, or at least it’s what his betrothed, Caroline Vail (May Wynn), has encouraged him to believe. When we meet Parrish he’s poised to sell out and be on his way to a new life, but there are clearly nagging doubts stalking him. He’s ready to sign everything over to local big shot and bully Lew Wilkison (Edward G Robinson), a battle-scarred old tyrant who rules the range with an iron fist but who fails to see the treachery taking place under his own roof involving his restless wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and his shiftless younger brother Cole (Brian Keith).

I spoke about the path that leads to a blazing climax earlier, but it’s a long and slow-burning fuse that leads us there. The first half of the movie builds everything up carefully and methodically, as Ford’s character gradually comes to terms with his own doubts, his sense of responsibility to a place and a people who arguably saved his life and offered him a new start. As he watches injustice pile on top of vindictiveness, till cold-blooded murder is done before his eyes, we see him wrestling with his own indecision. Ford was, in my opinion, a master at pushing against his own natural reticence, a characteristic which colored and strengthened his best performances. This quality gets a solid workout in The Violent Men, the pressure rising incrementally until a release must be  sought.

If drama needs conflict in order to have meaning, then that conflict should be founded on the existence of a strong villain to give it the necessary momentum. The Violent Men presents the nominal bad guy in the form of Edward G Robinson and he growls, blusters and threatens his way through the first half with aplomb. Still, I don’t think he can be classified the main villain; although there’s some effectively sullen slouching from Brian Keith, and even a bit of mean braggadocio from a young Richard Jaeckel, the honor surely belongs with Barbara Stanwyck. Mendacious and manipulative to the end, she pulls the strings and directs the mayhem, easily seeing off any competition from the other women in the cast – May Wynn, Diane Foster and Lita Milan. In support, Warner Anderson is enjoyable as Ford’s dependable foreman and there’s a typically unctuous turn from James Westerfield.

Rudolph Maté began as a cinematographer and carried his talents in that area into his subsequent work as a director, generally turning out visually attractive and striking movies. With a man like that directing and the actual photography duties shared between W Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the film looks exceptionally fine, aided by shooting in the familiar Lone Pine locations. The story derives from a novel by Donald Hamilton, of the Matt Helm stories (much admired apparently by John Dickson Carr) and The Big Country. Personally, the only book by Hamilton I’ve read is Night Walker, which was reissued in paperback a few years ago, and I rather liked it so I’ve a mind to see if I can locate a copy of this. Anyway, plenty of talent on display here so far and that’s further enhanced by having the score penned by the great Max Steiner.

So, we wind up in a similar place to where we started, looking at a mightily impressive list of highly talented contributors in a well made western that flirts with themes that allude to classical tragedy. Make no mistake, this is a fine and entertaining piece of work yet it falls short of what I’d think of as greatness. Nevertheless, this isn’t a major criticism, more something that piques my curiosity. Just to round it all off, while The Violent Men has long been widely available on DVD, the image could use a bit of a brush up and there’s the potential for a very strong Blu-ray. As far as I’m aware, no-one has  released a Hi-Def version of the movie and I think this is a title deserving of that kind of treatment.

Man with the Gun

” It doesn’t look nice for a town as small as Sheridan to have a graveyard as big as we’ve got.”

Man with the Gun (1955) is what I think of as a small production. Sure there’s a big name lead, a supporting cast full of classy and familiar faces, and also some fairly big hitters on the other side of the camera. Still, there no location work and the action is all confined to the studio backlot, which indicates a tight budget. So I call it a small production. Even so, as the quote above indicates, there’s a pretty high body count for such a brisk and spare film but the onscreen violence never appears gratuitous, something I always appreciate.

Sheridan City carries a grandiose name for a mean little backwater, a shabby-looking settlement clinging on to the periphery of civilization. The opening moments add mean-spiritedness to the general meanness when a horseman rides along the grim main street, a dog darting out to bark and yap alongside him. And then he simply shoots the animal dead, not for any particular reason – just because. This is Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) a troubleshooter for local bigwig Dade Holman. The latter has been tightening his grip on the town itself and land surrounding it, and notions of law, justice or just common decency have been getting correspondingly squeezed. Into this increasingly tense atmosphere comes another rider, a grey clad figure with a fearsome reputation. He’s Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum), a professional town tamer who happens to be passing through on an unrelated matter. His business is with Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), the manager of a group of saloon entertainers, and Tollinger’s former love. This gunman’s services seem to be just what Sheridan City needs and the fact it ties neatly in with his personal affairs is a good enough excuse for him to stop a while.

The town tamer western is a variant that allows for plenty of rumination of the role of justice and the weaknesses of the legal system. These kinds of movies concern themselves with societies where the rule has law has broken down to the point where only the intervention of an outsider can restore a community’s faith in its own ability to endure. The outsider should always be one of those types who live by their wits and their ruthlessness, a man with a gun. The role of the outsider always appeared a good fit for Robert Mitchum, a man who, despite his star status, forever gave the impression of not really being an insider. There was that wry detachment about the man which made parts like this ideal, and he does look the real deal as he struts purposefully around and lays waste to the string of largely ineffectual semi-hard men the local land baron sends his way.

Still, a movie needs a stronger hook than that to grab and maintain our attention. Drama requires an emotional core if it’s to raise itself above the level of juvenile thrill-seeking. In Man with the Gun that comes courtesy of the subplot involving Jan Sterling and her previous relationship with Mitchum. Right from the beginning there is a strong sense of sadness and regret floating around these two grim and austere people; they circle one another cautiously and Sterling is the one who ensures contact is withheld and distance remains constant. I’m not going to go into the details back of it all as I think it amounts to a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie. What I will say though is it offers a layer of depth and when the big revelation comes it triggers the films main set piece, the huge conflagration Mitchum sets off to cauterize both his and the town’s wounds.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, this film has an enviable cast of familiar faces on show. Karen Sharpe gets a substantial role as a young girl both drawn to and vaguely repelled by Tollinger’s frank acknowledgement of the persuasive power of violence. It’s a nicely judged performance and benefits from not having to navigate the emotional heat inherent in Sterling’s part, allowing the viewer to sample a different, less charged perspective. There’s also good work from Emile Meyer, in sympathetic mode for a change, and from Henry Hull, who seemed to be channeling Walter Brennan as the cautious marshal. You can usually tell the quality of a movie by the caliber of its villains and anything that features a lineup with Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon and Claude Akins positively demands one’s attention. I could go on listing names here but if I limit myself to saying that there’s an early appearance by Angie Dickinson well down the cast, the depth of talent involved ought to be apparent.

A word now for those behind the camera. Director Richard Wilson might have a comparatively brief list of credits as the man in charge but his work under and alongside Orson Welles is significant, and no man who spent that time around such a cinematic titan could come away the poorer. And what can one say about Lee Garmes? Here was a man whose experience stretched back to Hollywood’s pioneering days and who was responsible for shooting some of the most visually attractive and remarkable works committed to film – Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express being just one example.While Man with the Gun doesn’t have that kind of baroque richness there are flashes of Garmes’ flair, notably that set piece fire scene I referred to earlier. Finally, I’d like to make a brief comment on Alex North’s appropriately spare score and the fact that there’s a wonderfully melancholy quality to the tag he employs for Mitchum’s character.

For a time Man with the Gun was only available on DVD in an open-matte transfer. In truth, aspect ratio aside,  it wasn’t bad in terms of picture quality. Now there are DVDs and Blu-rays available in the US (Kino) and Europe (via Koch in Germany) so good quality presentations are relatively easy to access. I don’t suppose too many people will claim this is a great western but I quite like it, and a lot of that is down to the tone achieved by the accomplished playing of Mitchum and Sterling. Try it, if you get the opportunity.

Roadblock

Someday you’re going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary.

Like what?

Like me.

I like the look of film noir, and I’m also fond of its narrative twists and switches, the way fairly regular people find themselves locked into a destructive cycle just because of a stupid or rash decision – that feeling that life can never be fully trusted or depended on, that you are never more than a heartbeat away from having the rug yanked out from under you. And of course there’s the  snappy, sassy dialogue. Roadblock (1951) is an ultra-low budget effort that contains all these elements, and races home in just a little under an hour and a quarter.

“Be careful what you wish for…” a cautionary phrase we’ve all heard and probably used too, and it could be said to sum up the moral of the tale here. After a deliciously teasing opening where we, and one of the characters, are treated to a fine piece of misdirection, we get to meet Joe Peters (Charles McGraw). This solidly named guy is presented to us as morally solid too, a sound and upstanding insurance investigator who’s relatively happy with his lot. A bit of innocent flirting in an airport departure lounge sees him make the acquaintance of one Diane Morley (Joan Dixon), a self-confessed chiseller who is aiming to hit the big league and live in style in Los Angeles. Both of these people will be bitten by the same bug, the one promising something alluring and apparently unattainable just the other side of life’s rainbow. Joe succumbs first, losing his heart and then his head as he brushes aside a lifetime of honesty for a shot at wooing an amoral temptress. And that same temptress then sees her own priorities flipped as the mink-draped luxury she yearns for brings an unexpected chill. For a brief moment, it looks like something positive may come of this. But this is film noir folks, and it’s only a matter of time before those louvered blinds get tilted just so and the shadows grow deeper.

There are a limited number of films noir which make reference to Christmas, and I do like to find one, where possible, to flag up at this time of year. I think I’ve covered a fair few others in the past, though I’m still hoping to source a decent copy of Beware, My Lovely at some point. Roadblock isn’t a Christmas movie of course, the holiday season just happens to feature in the early stages, and I suppose at a push one could draw some inference from the characters dreaming of glittering riches. On a more serious note though, the whole thing really is based around that old staple of dissatisfied people striving for that which is always just a little beyond their reach, and then discovering that what they desired so strongly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

If the director of Roadblock isn’t a name I can claim to know well – Harold Daniels – then there’s plenty of others involved in the production that are very familiar. Seeing Steve Fisher featured among the writers usually interests me as the man behind I Wake Up Screaming is sure to grab my attention. In addition, knowing that Nicholas Musuraca was behind the camera and in charge of lighting the whole business is encouraging. Perhaps the presence of the latter is a little disappointing here – you kind of expect the whole movie to be drenched in inky shadows with this man – as quite a bit of the production has a flat, even overlit appearance. That said, the cinematographers trademark darkness does show up from time to time  – the opening sequence is particularly atmospheric – and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him go about his work.

There are actors who were essentially born to play in film noir, and Charles McGraw has to be one of them. He didn’t get the lead all that often – this film and Richard Fleischer’s stone cold classic The Narrow Margin being notable exceptions though – but gave plenty of value in memorable supporting roles for the likes of Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann. McGraw looked tough and sounded tough, and had the presence to hold your attention every time he appeared on screen. I think the switches his character undergoes in Roadblock are maybe too abrupt and too convenient to be wholly convincing, but that’s not the fault of the actor. The same could be said for the writing of Joan Dixon’s siren. She starts out as a brazen noir dame, a femme fatale in training and then she’s suddenly not. I can understand that the script wanted to exploit the irony of two people getting what they think they want only to find out that they themselves have changed in the meantime. So no, the character shifts don’t quite work for me. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching McGraw and Dixon wind their way along the path fate has laid out for them. In support it’s nice to see Louis Jean Heydt handed a much larger role than was normally the case.

Roadblock is available on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive, and it looks about OK. There is some softness and moments of indifference but it still entertains. This may not be the best known example of film noir and I’d not seen it myself until quite recently but I reckon it’s worth a viewing.

Blu News – More Prime Noir

One of the great names among film noir directors has to be Robert Siodmak, a man who made a series of hugely impressive pieces of dark cinema throughout the 1940s. The first of those stylish and influential works was Phantom Lady, which I wrote about here some years ago. It’s satisfying to see this film now getting a very attractive release on Blu-ray in the UK via Arrow Academy.

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, an insightful archival documentary featuring contributions from Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk, Dennis Hopper and more
  • Rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, starring Alan Curtis and Ella Raines
  • Gallery of original stills and promotional materials
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options


FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode