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The Unsuspected

His day of reckoning must come. He is tormented by fear that someday he will make one false move, one slip that will betray him, and when he does, the lightning of justice will strike… the unsuspected.

Melodramatic words spoken over the air by the protagonist, the smooth and cultured host of a crime based radio show. And they’re appropriate too as The Unsuspected (1947) fully embraces the instances of melodrama blended into  the story. In fact, the film is made up of a variety of styles – the visuals are pure film noir while the theme and structure perhaps edge closer to the motifs associated with the Golden Age mystery, with at least a nod to the earlier “Had I but known” school of writing. This mix is a generally satisfying one and it’s only a couple of casting decisions which weaken it overall.

It starts off with a killing, a murder carefully disguised to resemble a suicide. The victim is the secretary of Victor Grandison (Claude Rains), writer, broadcaster and connoisseur of all things fine. While this is the jumping off point, the tale rapidly becomes complicated and twisty – a surprise birthday party for Grandison sees the arrival of a young man, Steve Howard (Michael North), who claims to have married the former’s ward, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield), just before she disappeared. Hard on the heels of that revelation comes the news that Matilda has turned up alive and well, but apparently suffering from some form of amnesia as she has no recall of having married, or even having met, Howard. Still with us? Good, for we’re only getting warmed up; the Grandison household is packed full of dysfunctional types – his niece (Audrey Totter) and her drunken, dissipated husband (Hurd Hatfield) – and is a hotbed of plots, counter-plots, jealousy and greed. By the end, another handful of murders will take place and the masks slip far enough to allow the deceptions to be seen for what they are.

Although I deliberately avoided spoilers in the previous paragraph, the identity of the murderer is shown very early on and so this isn’t what we could refer to as a whodunit. If anything, it’s more akin to an inverted detective story where the focus is on how  the killer will be trapped. That aspect, along with the increasingly tangled web of deceit that is spun, is what tips the movie over into noir territory as opposed to a straight mystery/thriller. Added to all that, of course, are the visuals. The Unsuspected is one of those pictures which is largely set bound, perhaps reducing the realism but also increasing the control the director and photographer (Woody Bredell) have over the look and mood of it all. Warner Brothers films tended to have a very distinct look to their sets, and it’s a very attractive one. The studio also had some top professionals on its books, not least director Michael Curtiz. I sometimes think versatility can be a curse for filmmakers, especially when it comes to assessing their critical worth. Curtiz appears to be a prime example of this phenomenon – even a cursory glance at his credits will reveal the sheer number of high-class films he made over his long career and the range of genres he successfully worked in. That ability to turn his hand to virtually every kind of movie the studio sent his way has somehow worked against him  – he’s a man you cannot easily compartmentalize and thus he’s more difficult to  appraise. Yet his work remains immensely stylish and it could be said that his aesthetic goes a long way towards defining the look and feel of Warner Brothers, his long-term home.

Any time you see Claude Rains’ name in the credits of a film you can be reasonably sure of some entertainment. Even when he was handed small supporting roles he always gave value for money. The Unsuspected sees Rains taking the lead and receiving the lion’s share of screen time, and he’s a joy every time he appears – suave, silky and with that shading of understated menace. He’s well supported by Audrey Totter and Constance Bennett, the former slinking around and exuding a feline allure while the latter gets to deliver some great one-liners and wisecracks. Hurd Hatfield is serviceable enough as the washed up artist while Fred Clark and Jack Lambert are welcome faces as far as I’m concerned. All those are positives – however, there are also some less satisfactory elements which need to be acknowledged. Michael North  and Joan Caulfield make up the romantic pairing at the heart of the movie, the couple for whom the audience is supposed to be rooting. And here we have what is arguably the biggest weakness of the movie; both North and Caulfield come across as incredibly flat and frankly dull and it’s quite tough to really care what happens to either one. Bearing in mind that the complex plotting is built around what should be viewer sympathy for this central couple, the disconnect their performances encourage is problematic.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and the film was also released in Spain. I have that Spanish edition, which I believe is a port of the US disc. The transfer does have the odd scratch and mark present but it looks quite good overall with nice levels of contrast and detail. Optional Spanish subtitles are offered and there is a 12 page booklet (in Spanish, naturally) included. There’s an awful lot going on in the story but I think everything remains focused in spite of that, and a much bigger issue is the lackluster characterizations in a couple of cases. However, there are enough good performances from others to help gloss over those deficiencies, and Curtiz and Bredell ensure everything looks terrific. I’ve seen comparisons drawn between The Unsuspected and Preminger’s Laura, and I can see where there are some superficial similarities. Still, this movie is a more straightforward affair and doesn’t have the feeling of obsessiveness that characterizes the Preminger film. Sure it has its faults, as I’ve alluded to, but it’s entertaining stuff for all that and worth checking out if you’re not familiar with it.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in 1940s, Film Noir, Michael Curtiz

 

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The Oklahoman

Allied Artists Pictures grew out of Poverty Row specialists Monogram and produced and distributed movies from the late 40s through to the 70s. The brainchild of Walter Mirisch, the studio aimed to produce what he termed B+ movies, promising a step up from the lower production values Monogram had been associated with. What resulted was a range of films from the instantly forgettable to the memorable, and everything in between. For this blogathon celebrating the work of the studio I’ve chosen a late 50s western, The Oklahoman (1957) starring Joel McCrea, one of the genuine icons of the genre. It’s a brisk tale of love, race and oil, charging home at just under 80 minutes and never pausing for breath.

It’s 1870 in the Oklahoma Territory and a couple of wagons bound for California have stopped off, the reason being that a baby is on the way. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and leaves the grieving father, John Brighton (Joel McCrea), with an infant girl and a tough choice to make. The experience has sapped his pioneering spirit and, being a doctor, he decides to stay put in the small town and set up in practice. We jump forward a few years and the child is growing up, reaching that stage where she needs a maternal figure in her life. Brighton finds himself in the enviable position of having two attractive women vying for his affections – the first is the young Indian girl, Maria (Gloria Talbott), he’s hired to look after his daughter, while the other is a widowed rancher, Anne Barnes (Barbara Hale). Thus we’re presented with a romantic triangle with the somewhat bemused doctor as the focal point. Westerns tend to use change as the engine to drive their dramatic content, sometimes it’s changes to the social structure or the spread of civilization and the establishment of the rule of law. In this case, the evolution of society is underway with the absorption of the native people into the community already in progress. That theme is addressed of course but there’s also the matter of shifting economic priorities at play, providing the motivation for the actions of the villains and in the process threatening to cast a shadow over the native-settler relationship. When leading rancher Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter) becomes aware of the large oil deposits on the neighboring land owned by Maria’s father (Michael Pate) he sees the direction the economic wind is blowing. If he can’t get the land by buying it, he’s quite prepared to resort to whatever means are necessary, regardless of who gets in his way or what social damage is caused.

While the oil angle is interesting and a little unusual for a western, it’s the treatment of the racial aspect which stands out particularly in this film. Right from the beginning the Indian characters are shown to be working at integration into white society and, even more notably, being accepted on those terms. The conflicts of the past haven’t been forgotten of course, as a conversation among a few town residents on the boardwalk one evening demonstrates, but they’re spoken of in a philosophical and progressive way – there’s an explicit admission of wrongdoing and an awareness that the fighting had justifications from both sides. What’s more, the question of racial tension only rears its head when the villains force it onto the agenda, and even then those who would seek to reopen old wounds and exploit the resulting hostility remain in the minority; there are as many and perhaps more voices expressing support for the Indians.

The Oklahoman came from the pen of Daniel B Ullman, who had a long list of writing credits to his name. Latterly, he wrote extensively for television but also contributed a significant number of western scripts, including Canyon River, Wichita, At Gunpoint and Face of a Fugitive, to name just a few. The cameraman was another vastly experienced guy, Carl Guthrie, and he helps give the whole thing a look which at least partially belies the modest budget. Director Francis D Lyon started out as an editor and did the bulk of his work for TV. His feature credits are limited (he did take charge of the rather nifty Escort West though) but he does fine with this movie and certainly keeps everything moving at pace.

All too often, the romantic elements can feel like a superficial adjunct, something bolted on to pad the running time or broaden the appeal of a movie. However, with The Oklahoman that’s not an issue; the romance, and the jealousies and confusion arising from it fold neatly into the plot and are integral to the picture. Joel McCrea plays what might be termed a typical McCrea role, that of a stolid and upright individual maneuvered by circumstance into a conflicted position. I think the key to McCrea’s success and enduring popularity among western fans is the smoothly professional way he handled such parts. As he aged he grew in courtliness and took on a more introspective air. That served him well in his scenes with both Gloria Talbott and Barbara Hale, the respectful reserve striking the right tone for a character who has long lived alone and has perhaps come to accept that his path is destined to lie in that direction – the gradual uncoiling of this stiffness adds a whole lot of charm and poignancy to the film. Brad Dexter had an unctuous quality to him, a slippery lack of sincerity, which again is used to good effect here. The ready smile is never any more than a paper-thin facade and you can almost see the self-absorbed computations going on behind it. In support there are nicely written parts for Michael Pate, Anthony Caruso, Verna Felton and Esther Dale. Furthermore, we get to see genre stalwart Ray Teal in a rare sympathetic role.

The Oklahoman is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive line and there’s also a European edition, which I own. The film is part of a 2-disc set from Spain, paired up with Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita. The transfer is good enough without being especially noteworthy. Presented in anamorphic scope and boasting generally strong colors, it can look a bit soft from time to time but is in reasonable shape for all that. The disc is a very basic one with no extra features whatsoever and the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be disabled either through the setup menu or on the fly via the remote. I’m very fond of these short, punchy westerns from the late 50s and anything with Joel McCrea in the lead ought to be recommendation enough in itself. Check it out, if you get the chance.

This piece is offered as part of the Allied Artists Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Allied Artists by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

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Posted by on January 30, 2016 in 1950s, Joel McCrea, Westerns

 

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The Outcast

You wanna ride that horse straight up or belly down?

Another week, another Witney. I’m not entirely sure why I’d neglected to feature this director on the site before, a simple oversight on my part is the only reason I can think of. However, I’ve been trying to make up for it to some extent this month, not out of any trite sense of obligation but simply because I’ve liked what I’ve seen. This time it’s The Outcast (1954), a film which I’ll admit had passed beneath my radar until my friend Jerry Entract wrote about it (and thus called my attention to it) last year. Sometimes the recommendations of others strike a particular chord, get under your skin in a way, and I was intrigued enough by the sound of this movie to make a point of seeking out a copy. I’m certainly glad that I did, and only regret that I didn’t get round to watching it sooner.

It’s a classic tale of revenge, of settling scores and restoring things to the way they ought to be. It opens with the image of the stranger, who really isn’t of course, riding into a small Colorado town. This is Jet Cosgrave (John Derek), back home after 8 years and resolved to win back that which is rightfully his. Land is one of those eternal sources of conflict, giving rise to a whole range of emotional responses from jealousy to grim passion. In this instance, the scenario involves a grand swindle, one which also bears the pungent and unpleasant odor of a hushed up murder. The upshot of it all is that it’s sparked a number of feuds, principally that between Jet and his uncle, Major Cosgrave (Jim Davis), and a related one involving a neighboring family. This is a strong enough plot in itself, that notion of a family tearing itself apart carrying all the hallmarks of a classical tragedy, yet is further enriched by the skillful weaving in of two romantic threads. The overarching theme of betrayal is further spiced up by the actions and motivations of a clutch of subsidiary characters, their loyalties shifting like the ebb and flow of an increasingly fickle tide. By the time the show wraps up the complex skein of lies and deception is gradually untangled, and justice is seen to be served in a way which allows Jet to achieve his goals without sacrificing his conscience.

I guess the storyline of The Outcast sounds packed and complicated, and there’s no point in my denying that fact. The number of layers and sub-plots could easily torpedo any picture, if handled clumsily. And that simple observation highlights the beauty of Witney’s style of filmmaking; there’s a simplicity and directness to his approach which allows the focus to remain pin sharp throughout, never allowing the side issues to haul the narrative off course, absorbing and integrating them into the whole to ensure the flow is smooth and clear throughout. Let’s not forget that aspect for which Witney is most often lauded though, the handling and depiction of action. One might expect a densely plotted piece like this to move sluggishly at best yet that potential trap is nimbly negotiated, not least by the frequent and well-coordinated bursts of action. taking place both on the set and on location. I could draw attention to the regular fist and gunfights that intersperse the story, but I’d especially like to mention the wonderfully staged sequence towards the end which involves breaking up a cattle drive – the pace, editing and stunt work is genuinely breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed.

A good number of movies, of various genres, in the 50s touched on the idea of disaffected, displaced and rebellious youth. John Derek’s lead performance in The Outcast slots into that phenomenon quite neatly. The journey on which his character is taken naturally features the redemptive aspect that is virtually inseparable from the western, and there’s also a point being made about the development of maturity. I think Derek handled himself well as he grows beyond the cold and manipulative individual we see at the beginning. His progression towards a more nuanced understanding of the consequences of his determination is credibly achieved. I liked how his slow realization of the undesirability of resorting to violence subtly alters his perspective, and then ties in with his burgeoning awareness of the hollow, and ultimately self-destructive, nature of revenge. Jim Davis was always an authentic western presence, and is very good as Derek’s rival. Again, his character evolves, or disintegrates might be a more apt description under the circumstances, in a wholly believable fashion. The swaggering confidence we see at the outset is chipped away at bit by bit. The best villains tend to have an element of pathos about them, and I think Davis does here as you’re left almost feeling sorry for him as he sees his dreams and ambitions turn to dust around him. In addition to Davis and Derek, there are solid roles for the two principal actresses, Catherine McLeod and Joan Evans. Both women have significant parts to play in the way the tale twists along, and there’s a reasonable amount of depth to their respective characters. The supporting cast is made up of a checklist of seasoned genre players – Slim Pickens, Bob Steele, James Millican, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden and Frank Ferguson all provide memorable turns.

To date, the only release of The Outcast on DVD that I’m aware of is an Italian disc. It looks like an unrestored version of the movie but the  print used (obviously an Italian one as the title card appears in that language) is in reasonable shape. There isn’t any severe damage and the color is fairly rich although there is a little of the fading and variation, which one frequently gets with the Trucolor process, on display. Both the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub are offered and subtitles are, as usual, optional. I might also mention that the film could also be found on YouTube last time I looked. All in all, I got a lot of enjoyment out of this fast-moving picture with its solid cast and no-nonsense direction. Anyway, that brings my short series of features on William Witney films to a close for now (though I’ve no doubt I’ll return to his work at a later date) and it’s nice to finish on a title I very definitely recommend.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2016 in 1950s, Westerns, William Witney

 

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Apache Rifles

One of the great pleasures of blogging about movies is the way it has a habit of altering one’s plans in a positive way. Recent discussion put me in the mood to watch more William Witney, and the always fascinating tangential comments mentioned Audie Murphy and one of his films I hadn’t gotten round to. Apache Rifles (1964) is a film I’ve had sitting unwatched on my shelves for a while now and it’s one of the later films of both Witney and Murphy and has the added appeal, for me at least, of fitting into that transitional era for the western that has always interested me. The timing, casting and style are all noteworthy in any examination of this period of film history, and the picture itself is a tight and entertaining affair.

This highly fictionalized account sees Apache chief Victorio (Joseph Vitale) break out of the San Carlos reservation in protest at, among other things, the exploitation of the land and breaking of the treaties by unscrupulous gold miners. And so the hunt is on to bring these miscreants back, in this case led by a Captain Stanton (Audie Murphy), a soldier whose driven and implacable reputation precedes him, both among the troops under his command and the Apache he’s pursuing. Reputations are invariably won, and on occasion lost, for a reason; with Stanton, it all stems from his past and what he believes was his father’s misplaced trust in the word of the Indian. Embittered and determined not be played for a sucker in the same way, Stanton has taken a different path to his forebear and fully embraced his hatred for his enemy. In his eyes, the Apache is essentially sub-human, little more than an animal to be brought to heel by whatever means are necessary. Yet just as he achieves success in persuading Victorio to return to San Carlos, the seeds of self-doubt are sown by his encounter with Dawn Gillis (Linda Lawson), a missionary who has opted to live among the despised Apache. What’s worse, from Stanton’s point of view, is the attraction he feels towards this woman, especially in view of the fact she’s of mixed blood with a Comanche mother. Here we have the basis for an internal conflict, one that’s exacerbated by the unexpected shift in circumstances which takes place. At the precise moment when this unapologetic racist is on the point of questioning his own prejudice the carpet is whipped from beneath him. As ever, economic considerations influence political direction and Stanton finds himself pitched into something of a moral and emotional quandary.  Stripped of his command, he can only look on as the scene is set for a bloody conflict between the wronged Apache and the manipulated cavalry, with his own moral and emotional well-being at stake.

Apache Rifles was made at the same time Sergio Leone was turning out A Fistful of Dollars and only a year before Sam Peckinpah would give us Major Dundee. In short, the western genre was in a state of flux at this point, and here we have a movie which is a reflection of that. The central theme of a man coming to terms with his own preconceptions and the reassessment of White/Indian relations harks back to the golden age of the 50s, while the tone and casting straddles the divide. As the 60s progressed, and the spaghetti western gained an ever stronger foothold on the consciousness of the audience, cynicism and a more casual attitude to violence would take root. Apache Rifles isn’t a cynical picture yet there’s a certain bitterness on show that presages what was looming over the horizon. Witney was an action director, an advocate of pace and punch, and there’s a frankness to his depiction of violence that would be built upon (or some might argue exploited) in the years to come. While there’s no explicit gore on display, there’s an acceptance of cruelty – a crucifixion and the torture of an a captive Apache. The film is by no means graphic compared to what would be the case in the future but there is a hard edge to it all the same. The location shooting, in Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine, similarly recalls the classics of the 50s while simultaneously grounding it in realism.

All of which lead us on to the casting. Once again, there’s that sense of transition, particularly with the presence of Audie Murphy and L Q Jones. It’s impossible to think of Murphy without recalling the 50s, his wholesome persona fitting neatly into that more hopeful and optimistic time. But Murphy was far from simplistic, his war record and increasingly complex performances being proof of that. Given the right material, he was capable of the kind of brooding moodiness that grabs the attention. I think he was a fine actor who grew in stature with each successive picture, bringing a kind of coiled self-awareness to his roles. Taking the part of the principal villain is L Q Jones, a man who had already worked with Boetticher and Scott in Buchanan Rides Alone but who would go on to achieve greater fame in his films with Sam Peckinpah. His is a marvelously weaselly part, one with no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s also worth mentioning Michael Dante, who plays Victorio’s son and heir, a stoic and honorable figure throughout if perhaps a little too noble.

Apache Rifles is readily available on DVD, both in the US and the UK. The US edition comes via VCI – I imagine the Odeon UK disc replicates the transfer – and presents the film in its native 1.85:1 ratio. Overall, this is a good presentation of the film that is colorful and free of major distractions and damage. Happily, there are some worthwhile extra features included: there’s a gallery and trailers for some other VCI titles as well as some short featurettes. There are brief pieces on the Lone Pine museum and Michael Dante discussing his work with Witney, and then a more substantial piece on the position Apache Rifles occupies in the evolution of the genre. The latter includes some interesting information on the cast and crew of the movie. All told, this is an entertaining film, one of the last of what might be called the classic westerns. It’s certainly worth a look for anyone keen on the genre and the direction it was taking in the 1960s.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2016 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, Westerns, William Witney

 

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Santa Fe Passage

All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in 1950s, John Payne, Westerns, William Witney

 

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2015 in review

So another year is almost done and dusted, always a good opportunity to say thanks to all those who have stopped by and made the blogging experience a pleasure. Here’s to 2016.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 42,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 16 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Backfire

All right. What’s certain? Two things… death and taxes…

There aren’t too many films noir set in and around the holiday season, Christmas Holiday and Lady in the Lake probably being the best known, as it’s clearly more marketable to focus on the upbeat and cheerful rather than the dark or cynical side of life. Backfire (1950) isn’t strictly speaking a seasonal noir but a number of its key events do play out over the festive period. As such, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for what ought to be my last full review piece for this year.

It’s November of 1948, the war’s been over a few years now but the scars haven’t fully healed. In a veterans hospital in California Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is still recuperating from his wounds, a serious back injury which has required thirteen operations. Still, he’s on the road to recovery and has hopes of going into the ranching business with his old army pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), and also of marrying the nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), who’s tended him. The holidays are rapidly approaching and Bob is growing anxious that his buddy hasn’t been around of late. Then, late on Christmas Eve as his medication is just kicking in, he has a visit from an unknown woman, a foreigner whom none of the hospital staff can subsequently recall seeing. As he lies in a narcotic haze, she tells him that Steve is in serious trouble, laid up with a shattered spine and desperately in need of help. What’s a guy to do when he learns his best buddy is in such dire straits? As soon as his discharge comes through in the New Year, he resolves to track down the mystery woman and, by extension, Steve. In the world of noir nothing’s quite that simple though, and he finds himself picked up by a squad car upon leaving the hospital. Ferried to the homicide department, our bewildered hero fears the worst, but instead discovers that Steve is top of the police wanted list for the murder of a prominent gambler. And so begins a twisting quest for the truth which dips in and out of the past, a winding path that’s driven by gambling and jealousy, and has death as its final stop.

The problems faced by returning veterans, particularly the difficulty of establishing one’s place back in civilized society, was a recurring theme (perhaps one of the most prominent in truth) in film noir and was arguably the factor which gave greatest momentum to the post-war boom in that genre. Backfire comes at this on three fronts, focusing on the physical, social and psychological barriers to be overcome. While the latter aspect is the one which acts as the catalyst for the violence and tragedy in the plot, its causes are hinted at rather than fully explored – although it does at least make an effort to acknowledge the matter and avoids going down the road that led to such an unsatisfactory conclusion to The Blue Dahlia a few years before. Speaking of which, I have a hunch the coda of the movie here was tacked on as a softening touch – I hasten to add I have no evidence to suggest this is so beyond a feeling that the fade out preceding it may have been deemed a bit too much of a downer.

Vincent Sherman was one of those studio directors who made mainly professional if not wholly memorable pictures. Generally, I’d say I enjoy his work well enough  – Lone Star was quite disappointing but I think Nora Prentiss, The Garment Jungle, The Unfaithful and The Damned Don’t Cry all have worth. The plot does become pretty complicated as it goes along but Sherman uses the flashbacks intelligently and keeps the pace up. There’s some good use of the Los Angeles locations and Carl Guthrie lights the interiors nicely to create the requisite atmosphere.

The poster art is a little misleading, although understandably so in the wake of White Heat. It gives the impression that Virginia Mayo is playing the kind of vampish femme fatale so beloved of noir. The fact is, however, that she’s cast as that other staple of the form, the Girl Friday who lends support to the hero. She’s fine in this role and I think it’s a pity she didn’t get to feature a bit more. Gordon MacRae is the everyman figure who leads us through the complexities – he was primarily a musical star and seems an odd choice at first for this type of film but actually works out OK as the innocent cast into a world which is clearly alien to him. Edmond O’Brien, on the other hand, was very much at home in film noir and does great work (tough, weary but fundamentally decent) in his flashback scenes. While the presence of a femme fatale  – and that doesn’t have to be a “bad girl”, just one whose sexuality leads men into danger – isn’t always necessary, it never hurts either. Viveca Lindfors fits the bill in Backfire, positively smouldering at times and always convincing as a woman unconsciously capable of tempting men to risk it all for. Dane Clark was always busy as an actor but never seemed to really make it as a star; he was excellent in Borzage’s Moonrise and I thought he did well in a number of crime/noir films he made in Britain. His role here is a vital one and he handled it very capably in my opinion. Notable support is provided by the always reliable Ed Begley and John Dehner pops up in an uncredited bit part.

A Warner Brothers production, Backfire is available on DVD as part of that studio’s Film Noir Classics Collection Vol. 5. It’s paired up on disc with Deadline at Dawn and looks good throughout. The transfer is mostly clean with very little damage visible and a nice level of detail. There are no extra features offered. Although this isn’t one of the better known films noir it’s a solid movie with some good performances. The script maybe tries to be a tad too clever at times and I did notice one plot hole which irritated me somewhat (I won’t go into it here as I don’t want to get into spoiler territory) but it remains enjoyable overall. A reasonably entertaining thriller then with a tangential connection to the holidays.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in 1950s, Film Noir

 

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City of Bad Men

A lot of you all rode into this town, but you are the only one who saw anything. You noticed the change. The others don’t look past the end of their guns. You saw the handwriting on the wall. They don’t even see the wall because their backs are against it. Their days are over. They don’t know it.

Sometimes I like to open with a quote that in some way sums up the tone, mood or message of a given movie. In this case, those lines above represent more of what I feel the film could have been as opposed to what we actually end up with. City of Bad Men (1953) is a title which left me feeling not entirely satisfied when I first saw it and so I thought I’d give it another go to see if my reaction would be any different this time. The answer is a kind of yes and no: yes in that I enjoyed it all a little more, but I still came away with that nagging sense of having seen an opportunity missed, or at least not fully grasped.

On St Patrick’s Day 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, a fight for the world heavyweight championship (actual footage of the bout can be viewed on YouTube) took place between Bob Fitzsimmons and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. This event forms the backdrop to and also constitutes a major plot element of the film. Returning from an unsuccessful trip south of the border as soldiers of fortune is a group of weary men led by Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson). With little of worth to show for their time and effort, they are heading for Carson City with the hope of knocking over the bank in what they believe to be a perennially sleepy town. However, the town they ride into has undergone a transformation, partly due to the changing nature of the times but also as a result of the upcoming prize-fight. Yes, civilization and the trappings of the modern age – the motor car and luxuries like the shower – are slowly creeping westward. While his men gaze upon these alien sights with a kind of detached bemusement, Stanton’s calm features mask the fact that the seeds of an opportunistic plan have been sown in his mind. Crowds like this mean money – money which can be made or stolen. Yet Stanton isn’t the only one to entertain such thoughts; other gangs of unscrupulous men, most notably those led by Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone), have been drawn by the prospect of easy pickings. The local lawmen realize the volatility of such a situation and hit on the novel idea of appealing to the mutual suspicion of these various desperadoes and convincing them that the best way to keep the peace (and thus protect their own mercenary interests) is by keeping an eye on each other. Stanton is smart enough to see the advantages of such an arrangement, but he’s also aware of the complications and obstacles ahead of him: the need to come up with a viable plan to pull off a spectacular heist, the latent jealousy of his brother Gar (Lloyd Bridges), and the feelings he still nurses for the girl (Jeanne Crain) left all those years ago.

As I see it, there are four major themes at play in the movie – the noir-tinged heist plot, the classic idea of changing times, the sibling rivalry, and the notion of redemption earned through love. Lots of material to chew over yet only one, the heist aspect, is realized fully and successfully. The fact the script allows this to develop naturally and then the way Harmon Jones directs its execution, cutting between the fight, the collection of the takings and the way the money is subsequently lifted, is a fluid and assured piece of filmmaking. It makes for a fitting climax to the picture, but also highlights the deficiencies in the handling of the other facets. The early scenes give the impression that the “men out of time” part will be of greater importance, but it’s something the film only pays lip service to in reality. Similarly, the tension between Brett and Gar is never fully explored and its resolution feels rushed in the end. As for redemption, which ought to form the centerpiece of a western of this era, I was left feeling that it’s achieved a touch too easily, and the means by which it’s linked to Brett’s reconciliation with his old flame is weakened by its abruptness. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the film has a strong foundation with a number of rich veins running through it, only few of which are mined and even then not to their full extent.

When called upon to do so, Dale Robertson was good at conveying cold intensity but that wasn’t really a requirement in this role. He displays the necessary toughness to hold the whip hand over his own bunch of ne’er do wells and to keep his rivals in check. Essentially though, the part of Brett Stanton is all about calmness, a kind of melancholy thoughtfulness. His air of regret and his flexible morality tie in with, and feel like an extension of sorts of, the type of disillusioned veterans so common in film noir, bewildered by and isolated from the new world they find themselves confronted with. For me, Robertson’s quietness and restraint is one of the major strengths of the picture. Ranged against that is the restlessness and impatience of Lloyd Bridges and, more significantly, the rattlesnake charm of Richard Boone. If anything, Boone is underused in the movie, lighting up the screen every time he appears while leaving you disappointed he’s not there more. Which brings us to Jeanne Crain – her character is a vital one through the effect she has on Robertson, but the script doesn’t treat her well. She’s placed in a conflicted position that’s loaded with dramatic possibilities yet her character arc isn’t wholly convincing and the resolution, which forms the core the film’s resolution in itself, is just a little too convenient for my liking. In support, we have Carole Mathews, Rodolfo Acosta, James Best, Leo Gordon, John Doucette and, in blink and you’ll miss them parts, Frank Ferguson and Percy Helton.

City of Bad Men is a 20th Century Fox production and was released on DVD in Spain some years ago by Impulso, licensing the title from Fox. That disc offers a passable transfer which is clearly unrestored. There are a number of instances of print damage and the colors tend to look faded throughout. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable – there was subsequently a US release by Fox itself, but I have no idea how that transfer compares. The Spanish DVD offers the original English soundtrack along with a Spanish dub and optional Spanish subtitles. Of the Harmon Jones westerns I’ve seen, I’d say this is probably the least of them. I’d certainly rank it below his other two with Robertson, The Silver Whip and A Day of Fury. All told, there are some positive points and the film remains briskly enjoyable. Nevertheless, I can’t shake that feeling that it had more to offer than it ultimately delivered. In the final analysis, a medium effort.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2015 in 1950s, Dale Robertson, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

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Two Weeks in Another Town

Introspection can be both self-indulgent and revealing, turning the gaze inward in search of some truth that seems elusive in the outside world can bring rewards, perhaps most notably for those whose business it is to present a facade for public consumption. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that Hollywood, where dreams and illusion are daily spun from the dancing lights of the projector, periodically turns the cameras around to focus on itself. There’s something almost perverse about the industry’s need to pick away at its own glamorous veneer, as though it were prodding us in the ribs and daring us to confront the artifice at its heart. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Vincente Minnelli’s second bite at the hand which fed him, following the previous decade’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a movie star, one of that glittering breed idolized and worshiped by so many. Although it’s perhaps more accurate to say the Jack Andrus we see at the beginning was a movie star, a subdued figure strolling ineffectually round the grounds of the psychiatric clinic where he’s staying. The scar on his face, a memento of the events that led him to his current abode, has healed. However, it’s as nothing compared to the raw wounds he still carries around inside. His doctor says he feels Andrus is fit to leave, not necessarily cured but able to leave all the same. And there’s a hint of hope for the future too, a cable from his old director asking him to fly out to Rome for a small part in his latest production. But we’re talking about the movies here, where nothing and nobody can be taken at face value, and the truth is that Andrus is essentially washed up. The director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G Robinson), doesn’t really have any intention of using him on screen. Basically, it’s a ploy, partly as a kind of sop for Kruger’s guilt over his involvement in Andrus’ breakdown. If our star has hit bottom, then the once great director is headed in the same direction, although his decline is slightly more graceful and a little less dramatic. The picture represents something of a last bid for glory for Kruger, and it’s in danger of being derailed by the ruthlessness of his hard-headed Cinecittà producer. Standing between him and the prospect of failure and humiliation is Andrus, the man he first built up and then destroyed. So what does he do? He tosses this one-time star a few crumbs from his table, hoping that the hunger of a starving man will prove his salvation. To Andrus, the vital but seemingly demeaning task of supervising the post-production dubbing is like a slap in the face initially. Still, the lure of the movie business, and maybe more importantly, the chance to prove himself capable of doing anything of worth again is strong. And then there’s the figure of Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), the woman he tried to love and lost his mind over. She flits in and out of proceedings, simultaneously taunting Andrus with reminders of what he’s lost and holding out the promise of new adventures ahead. What it all boils down to is a two-week sojourn in a town where he may either drown in the heady atmosphere or, if he can see through the showbiz smokescreen, have the chance to regain the mastery of his soul once again.

While I still think Two Weeks in Another Town is a very good film, it could potentially have been a great one. Charles Schnee wrote the script from a novel by Irwin Shaw, and the score was provided by the great David Raksin. With Milton Krasner shooting Minnelli’s beautiful nighttime setups just about all the ingredients were in place for a stone cold classic. But then, and ironically mirrored by the plot itself, came the interference from the studio. In his autobiography (The Ragman’s Son, Pan Books 1989,  pp 342-344), Douglas claims the movie was recut and edited when Joseph Vogel became the new head of MGM, stripping out some of the racier and more dramatically satisfying elements. I think that much can be seen in the somewhat sketchy development of a few of the characters. What we’re left with is the core of the story, of a man desperately seeking personal and spiritual redemption and the peace that comes with it. In addition, there’s the unmistakable stamp of Minnelli, the careful framing of whose shots create the kind of tableaux that approach visual poetry on occasion. It would be remiss of me not to mention his masterful use of color – the whole film is drenched in the deep, saturated hues which often characterize his work. Perhaps he falls short of achieving the dramatic and visual intensity of his sublime Some Came Running, but there are moments when he gets within striking distance at least.

Kirk Douglas was making his third appearance in a Minnelli production and he’s well cast in a role that calls for the type of mood swings which range from ebullience through manic intensity by way of brooding melancholy.  While the focal point of the story is on Andrus’ journey of self rediscovery, and the necessary laying to rest of old phantoms along the way, there’s room too for some interesting observations and musings on the nature of the actor, that wearer of masks. A wistful, early morning conversation with a besotted Daliah Lavi sees Douglas reflecting on the contradictory nature of the actor, the retreat from reality and submergence of the self in the character of others which actually runs counter to the overwhelming desire to better understand one’s own sense of being. Ultimately, it’s the reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible urges which lies at the heart of his character’s motivation.

Robinson’s aging director is also notable, both in itself and as a commentary on the corrosiveness of the movie-making business. The essential insecurity of the man is demonstrated though the need to reaffirm himself through his notorious affairs with leading ladies  – which has had such an adverse effect on his relationship with his wife, an exceptionally acidic Claire Trevor – and also his desperation to prove once again his worth as an artist. It’s his fear of losing control, both personally and creatively, which drives him and finally twists his soul towards bitterness and distrust. The person who links (and divides) Douglas and Robinson is Carlotta as played by Cyd Charisse. Apparently a good deal of her part ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as she is very good based on what we do see of her. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset, she comes across as a blend of the enigmatic and the alluring, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in her wake while attempting to seduce her former lover back onto the same self-destructive path. The contrast comes in the form of Daliah Lavi’s Roman ingenue (demurely clad in simple and pure white throughout as opposed to the arch and lurid costumes of Charisse) whose understated charm and innocence helps restore Andrus’ perspective. I was less impressed by George Hamilton’s troubled young star, never feeling all that convinced by the struggle he’s supposed to be waging against his personal demons. In support, there are small parts (virtual cameos in truth) for George Macready and James Gregory.

Two Weeks in Another Town is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also an Italian release available. I have that Italian disc and it presents the film in the correct anamorphic scope ratio. The transfer is good, clean one with no notable instances of damage. Colors are generally well reproduced, something very important in a film such as this, and the image is pleasing overall. The disc offers the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub, and there are no subtitle options of any kind. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer and some galleries. Frankly, I like this movie, but films about films always interest me anyway, and I feel it’s a great pity that parts of it were excised at the behest of the studio boss at the time. Nevertheless, the movie that we have available to view, in spite of its imperfections, is never less than fascinating for the peek behind the facade of filmmaking it affords us and also the central story of a man battling to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made in life. I recommend it.

Kirk Douglas reaches the grand age of 99 today and I thought I’d take the opportunity to post this piece on that occasion to draw attention not only to this great actor’s birthday but also to just one of the countless strong performances he’s delivered over a long career.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in 1960s, Edward G Robinson, Kirk Douglas

 

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The Crooked Way in HD

I really like The Crooked Way, a frequently overlooked film noir, and wrote about it here back at the beginning of the year. The new Blu-ray (also available on DVD) has just been reviewed by DVD Beaver so I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind people of this classy little movie which may, hopefully, enjoy a higher profile with this new release.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
 
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