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Walk a Tightrope

The B movie tends to get a bad press, attention is often drawn to the cheapness, caliber of stars or sometimes just out and out trashiness. Such criticisms can certainly be justified on many occasions but blanket dismissals are unwise generally and cinema has a habit of throwing out plenty of exceptions to muddy things. The thing is a B movie can work very well so long as certain elements are in place. The lack of funds can encourage economy not only in the nuts and bolts of production but also in the storytelling and pacing. And of course the presence of one or two good actors is able to overcome shortcomings elsewhere. Walk a Tightrope (1965) is very much a B picture, but its two stars and a reasonably intriguing plot help to elevate it considerably.

Carl Lutcher (Dan Duryea) is obviously a man down on his luck, living in a decrepit bedsit with a naive woman (Shirley Cameron) and slightly bemused as to why she should profess to love him. Later we learn that Lutcher is a dockworker by trade but when he heads off to complete a job it’s work of an entirely different nature he has in mind. Lurking opposite a movie theater, he watches Ellen Sheppard (Patricia Owens) bidding farewell to a couple of girlfriends and then follows her as she walks off towards a nearby pub. Ellen’s behaviour seems a little odd – she’s aware of someone tailing her, and then there’s the panic attack she succumbs to upon accidentally running into her new husband (Terence Cooper) and his business partner (Richard Leech). All of this leads to the two men insisting on escorting her home, although she clearly dislikes the idea. Shortly afterwards the doorbell rings and Lutcher forces his way in. To Ellen’s horror, he pulls a silenced pistol and calmly fires three rounds at her husband at point-blank range. Lutcher behaves as though it had all been arranged while Ellen is verging on hysteria due to the shock. So why would a man like Lutcher assassinate a man he’s never met and then ask the victim’s wife to pay him? Everything points to a contract killing but Ellen’s reaction doesn’t fit. Lutcher will have to be tracked down and a trial will need to take place before any indication of what’s really going on becomes apparent, and even then we’re still talking suspicion and surmise until a final twist reveals all..

Frank Nesbitt has few credits as a director, and only a few more as assistant director but he made two thrillers with Dan Duryea, Walk a Tightrope and Do You Know This Voice?, both written by actor Neil McCallum. I haven’t seen the latter but, despite Nesbitt’s rather anonymous direction, I’m quite keen to do so now. McCallum, who also pops up as the prosecutor in the trial sequence, produces a tricky little thriller here which ensures the story develops steadily and at a satisfying pace. Of the other crew members, cinematographer Basil Emmott should be familiar to anyone with a fondness for post-war British thrillers.

I said at the beginning of this piece that a couple of good actors can make a significant contribution to the success of even a modest production, and that’s precisely what happens with Walk a Tightrope. Both Dan Duryea and Patricia Owens were experienced Hollywood performers and it’s their work that adds interest to this thriller. Frankly, I like seeing Duryea taking a leading role in any movie, regardless of whether it’s heroic, villainous or something in between. I think what made him such a fascinating actor was his ability to put a genuinely human face to whatever part he played. His role in this film isn’t an attractive one, he’s a killer after all and nothing we learn about him suggest he has too many redeeming features. However, we do care about him, especially during the trial which dominates the last half, and his turn in the witness-box as he makes no attempt to deny his guilt but becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate to convince the court of the fact he wasn’t acting alone. Patricia Owens appeared in a number of films which I admire, The Law and Jake Wade and The Gun Runners among them, and I think she did excellent work here as well. Her part called for a good deal of subtlety and some fairly complex emotional shifts as the plot weaves its way towards the conclusion, the kind of performance which demands skillful playing in order to remain credible. I feel she nailed the enigmatic aspect of her character and her acting at the climax carries extra punch as a result. Absorbing as the story is, I don’t believe it would be anywhere near as effective were it not for Duryea and Owens.

UK company Network’s releases in their The British Film line continue to impress me, both the selection of titles and the quality of their transfers. Walk a Tightrope is presented in the 1.66:1 ratio and looks very nice. The image is crisp and clean and doesn’t display any particularly distracting damage. The sole extra feature is a gallery but it should be remembered these films are all very competitively priced and represent excellent value for money. This may well be a B movie but it’s also a solid example of a pared down and well paced crime thriller. OK, perhaps it’s not a classic of the genre but it never aspires to that anyway. I enjoyed the basic plot and the two lead performances give it a bit of class – definitely worth checking out.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2015 in 1960s, Dan Duryea, Mystery/Thriller

 

Underrated ’55

I’ve contributed a few times to Brian’s “Underrated” series over at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, compiling lists of westerns and thrillers before now. This time I submitted a few suggestions for  Underrated ’55, highlighting movies from the the year 1955 which deserve a bit of attention. You can view my selections here.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Guns of Darkness

I’ve been making an effort lately to see more new films, or perhaps I should say new to me rather than newly produced movies. Through a combination of blind buys and recommendations from others I’ve been trying to expand my horizons somewhat instead of simply returning to comfortable old favorites. Inevitably, some have worked better for me than others, but I have to say I’ve had no total disappointments yet. The latest is Guns of Darkness (1962), a polished British political thriller by Anthony Asquith. Actually, it’s more of a human drama set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation in a fictional South American state.

New Year’s Eve, out with the old and in with the new. As the minutes tick down towards the end of the old year time is also running short for certain individuals, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Some are thinking only of parties, of song and dance and celebration, others are planning to set off fireworks of an altogether more lethal kind. Tom Jordan (David Niven) is attending a company do with his French wife, Claire (Leslie Caron), and he’s not having a good time. Frankly, Jordan isn’t having much of a time in life in general; he’s a deeply dissatisfied man, contemptuous of his job, ambitious for something he can’t quite define, and on the down slope of a marriage. At the stroke of midnight the revelers, even the reluctant ones like Jordan, link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, the image of their full-blooded rendition intercut with the very different scenes taking place simultaneously outside of their insulated little world. All across the city the streets ring with the sound of army boots on stone, and gunshots and screams. A coup is underway, a swift and bloody change of regime, and will be more or less complete by the time the sun rises on the new year. The aftermath is to be seen next morning, uncertainty and the meting out of retribution mean normal life and the routine of business are put on hold. Returning home early, his mind still reeling from his having witnessed a summary execution, Jordan is about to face a wife who’s both pregnant and on the point of leaving him. However, before Claire has the chance to tell her husband anything, he discovers an unexpected interloper – soon to be ex-President Rivera (David Opatoshu) has crawled wounded into the car of the doctor visiting Claire. Sometimes those who drift rudderless through life find direction or purpose quite unexpectedly, and such seems to be the fate of Jordan. Whatever other failings he may have, he’s a humanitarian at heart, and a man like that really has no option but to follow his instincts under the circumstances. And so the race, and consequent pursuit, is on – Jordan and an initially unwitting Claire find themselves running for the border with the ailing Rivera in tow, their lives and his in grave danger.

Guns of Darkness is packaged as a combination of political thriller and chase drama yet the politics play only a minor role – if anything, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of politics which is critiqued. Little is made of the differences between Rivera and his usurpers, in fact the point is made that they have much in common in terms of the degree of ruthlessness they are prepared to exercise. This is the stuff of broad brush strokes though, window dressing in a sense, and essentially an adjunct to the main theme of the movie. The long trek and accompanying adventures are really just stops along the journey Jordan embarks upon towards emotional maturity and redemption. If anything, Guns of Darkness represents the process of self-discovery of a previously jaded and unfocused man. We’re presented with a guy who has spent his life running away from responsibilities and sneering at everything or everybody he felt was beneath him, and we watch as he comes to realize he’s been running from himself and that the contempt was a mask for indecisiveness. By the end, all that fog has been banished to be replaced by a feeling of purpose and the emergence of a man of true character, a soul reclaimed and renewed.

There was a good deal of talent behind the camera for this film: director Anthony Asquith, who made some fine British films in his time including the underrated The Woman in Question, writer John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, and cameraman Robert Krasker with both The Third Man and Odd Man Out on his extensive résumé. The opening sequence blending the New Year celebrations and the violence of the coup is wonderfully shot with Asquith and Krasker coming up with an excellent selection of angles and lighting setups. There’s plenty of moody noir style photography on view throughout the movie and good use of the Spanish locations, which stood in for South America. A film like Guns of Darkness necessarily involves a fair number of talky scenes but these rarely bog the action down too much and anyway there’s typically enough tension woven into the story to ensure things keep moving along – the station wagon becoming trapped in quicksand and the ensuing struggle to get free being a notable example.

I think the nature of the story, insofar as one can define it through the leading character, is clearly British or European. What I mean is that US films tend to present a more clear-cut lead, typically a man of action or at least one who is more certain of his place in the world. The character of Jordan doesn’t fall into this category, and David Niven was an excellent choice to play him. One usually has an image of Niven as a debonair type, smooth with others and comfortable with himself. While those were qualities he could effortlessly bring to the screen he was capable of a far broader range too when the occasion demanded it. Guns of Darkness sees Niven wholly uncomfortable, at war with himself and those around him, and not really sure why. As soon as Rivera crashes into his life he finds himself taking increasingly bigger risks, and with only the vaguest idea of what his ultimate purpose is. There’s a good deal of subtlety in Niven’s performance, his growing self-awareness coming on gradually and naturally. When he eventually finds he has to resort to the violence he so despises, Niven’s reaction is beautifully judged and there’s suitable attention paid to the consequences of his actions too. And that’s another point in the movie’s favor in my opinion, the violence that takes place is handled with the kind of gravity it deserves.

The picture is basically a three-hander with Niven, Leslie Caron and David Opatoshu receiving the lion’s share of screen time. Caron’s part called for a display of stoicism – there are plenty of physical challenges to be faced as events unfold – and also honest expression of the kind of conflicting emotions experienced by a woman still in love with the man she hopes her husband can be, even as she’s coming to terms with the knowledge that he’ll never be perfect. Opatoshu had one of those roles here it must have been tempting to portray him as a saintly humanitarian, but that was fortunately resisted in favor of making him a more three-dimensional figure. The moment when we realize he’s capable of great cruelty in the name of survival is shocking and at the same time curiously liberating; the result is that we understand we’re looking at a real human being, not simply some idealized caricature. In support, there’s worthwhile work done by James Robertson Justice, Sandor Eles, Ian Hunter and Eleanor Summerfield among others.

Network in the UK have been steadily releasing significant numbers of movies over the last couple of years under their The British Film banner.  Guns of Darkness is one of those titles and it’s the kind of film which would otherwise still be languishing in relative obscurity, although I see it’s also been made available in the US via the Warner Archive. The Network DVD presents the movie in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print looks strong for the most part although there are a few minor blemishes here an there. This is the kind of film I really appreciate having the opportunity to see and it’s gratifying to have it in good condition. I found the tale a solid and quite engrossing one, peopled with characters who felt credible and authentic, and put together by talented professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Anyone who enjoys a well crafted thriller with some depth should get value from this film.

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2015 in 1960s, David Niven

 

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The Moonlighter

Over a sixteen year period, starting in 1940 and ending in 1956, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made four movies together, the most famous probably being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Their third collaboration, The Moonlighter (1953), was the only western and the least familiar of the titles. This is a film I’ve only recently caught up with, once again thanks to the assistance of regular contributor Jerry Entract, and I found it a slightly unfocused but generally enjoyable affair. Revenge and redemption, those two faithful old partners in so many westerns, dominate but one is only half explored before being quietly dropped while the other is slipped in as though an afterthought. My feeling is that if these two themes had been more fully, or at least more consistently, developed, then The Moonlighter would have been a much stronger piece of work.

Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) is the moonlighter of the title, a rustler who operates by night, and his opening narration places the action at the beginning of the 20th century, just as the frontier is about to finally close. As he tells us, civilization about to consign the myth of the wild west to the pages of history, but the beast’s claws haven’t been filed down totally yet. The concept of frontier justice still holds sway with some, and the crime of rustling continues to arouse strong feelings and attract harsh punishments. As Anderson sits in jail awaiting trial, a lynching party is arriving in town, impatient and aggressive. This first act of the film is the most powerful, soulful and threatening, and setting up a situation packed with potential. There’s an almost noirish, and indeed nightmarish, tone as the mob forces its way into the jail to demand its pound of flesh. There’s to be no heroic last-minute rescue as a man is mercilessly beaten, dragged from his cell, and hanged without ceremony. Only it’s the wrong man, the fates having conspired to save a guilty man while simultaneously dooming an innocent one. Anderson has been handed a new lease on life but with a bitter little proviso attached – his sense of guilt twisting itself into a thirst for revenge. However, it’s at this point, with the story part of the way down an intriguing avenue, that the focus of the script shifts and revenge drifts away to be replaced by, amongst other things, greed. With Anderson forced to rest up and recuperate in his old family home, other characters are added into the mix: Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), his former love is introduced along with his brother Tom (William Ching). This creates the possibility of a romantic triangle although it doesn’t really work out that way. Instead we meet Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw associate of Wes’ who is keen to talk him into going back into business. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more about how it all pans out except to say that Wes gets to earn his redemption the hard way, suffering significant personal losses before regaining his sense of honor in the end.

The Moonlighter was written by Niven Busch, a man known for his fondness for grand passions and dark psychology. The film hints at this, or perhaps flirts with it, both in the terrific opening and later in the relationship between Wes and Rela. Yet it doesn’t come off successfully; there’s none of the high melodrama of Duel in the Sun or The Furies, nor enough of the darkness of Pursued. Now I like Busch’s work, although I understand if it’s not to everyone’s taste, and the way it has of burrowing into the minds and motivations of characters. The main problem with The Moonlighter is that it never goes far enough, all the ingredients are present and paths are started on but abandoned or strayed from before the themes have a chance to breathe and expand. Then when the redemptive aspect kicks in at the end it feels rushed and loses some of its impact as a consequence.

The director was Roy Rowland, examples of whose work I’ve looked at here in the past, and his handling of the material is patchy too. Again, I refer back to the opening, where he and cinematographer Bert Glennon hit just the right chord and conjure up an atmosphere that’s menacing and quite poignant. But his direction lacks consistency, and as soon as the action moves to the Anderson homestead there’s a flatness that reflects the loss of momentum in the script. The scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck meet after years apart only touches on their shared passion, the actors doing what they can with the dialogue, but it needs a spark and intensity that’s not achieved. Some of that does come as the story progresses, but I don’t feel it ever reaches the heights necessary to make the redemptive payoff work as well as it should.

MacMurray often made a fine anti-hero or villain, in this case I’d say he was playing the former though. When required he could tap into a kind of weary cynicism, and that’s exactly how he starts out – we first encounter him lazing in his jail cell awaiting what he fully expects to be an appointment with the hangman. The weariness falls away later, anger, distrust and bitterness coming along to displace it and MacMurray keeps it credible all the time. He also hangs onto a touch of decency too, despite his character’s criminal nature, which is vital if his eventual change of heart is to be at all convincing. Stanwyck was playing one of her signature tough broads and she’s perfectly satisfactory, as usual, though the role doesn’t have the kind of depth or shading which could bring out the best in her. She’s said to have enjoyed making westerns and the rugged outdoors stuff attracted her, something she got to indulge in here especially during the well filmed climax. Ward Bond doesn’t make an appearance until around the halfway mark, but impresses as the unscrupulous outlaw seeking out a partner to facilitate his schemes. Bond was typically most effective as bluff down-to-earth types or as an imposing physical threat. The movie gives him the chance to show off both of these aspects, moving smoothly from one to the other as the plot advances. Personally, I found William Ching the weakest link – his part is an important one yet he never really convinced me as the brother living in MacMurray’s shadow. In support, there are nice, if short-lived, turns by the likes of John Dierkes, Jack Elam, Charles Halton and Morris Ankrum.

The Moonlighter has been released as an MOD DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive and is certainly worth a look. The turn of the century setting is potentially interesting but not a lot is made of this – the only real reference to the changing times is that Bond’s plan involves exploiting the possibilities afforded by the new motor cars. The movie was shot in 3D but I don’t know if that would add much to it (I’m no particular fan of the process myself) and it plays fine in standard 2D. Taken as a whole, the film is entertaining enough although it did need a script which retained a stronger focus and more character analysis. It starts off well and does have its moments later but meanders a little despite the short running time.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Westerns

 

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The Badlanders

It seems like everybody around here is stealing from everybody else.

A good heist movie is hard to beat in my opinion, there’s considerable potential for suspense and tension in the execution of a complicated robbery, and the aftermath or outcome is generally rife with possibilities too. The heist is typically used as a plot element in contemporary crime movies, both the serious and more lighthearted varieties, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other genres as well. There’s arguably no more flexible type of film than the western, the setting being able to absorb and adapt aspects almost at will. The Badlanders (1958) is a remake of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the W R Burnett novel, moving the action back half a century and shifting from the urban milieu to the dusty Arizona landscape.

In the dying days of the 19th century two men are released from the prison at Yuma, one because his time has been served in full and the other earning early parole because he prevented the former from assaulting a guard. In fact, these two men, Peter Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) & John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) have quite a lot in common: both ended up behind bars either  directly or indirectly due to the treachery of others, and both hail from a similar part of Arizona. While they set off on apparently different paths they’re fated to meet again as their desire to right some of the wrongs of the past lead them to the small town of Bascom. The settlement is the center of a gold mining operation, beneath the land once owned by McBain before he was cheated out of it, and places have a way of calling men back even if they have no logical reason for returning. Van Hoek was a mining engineer and geologist, cheated in a different way, framed for a robbery and keen to get something back for the time he lost when he was wrongly incarcerated. Everything boils down to a plan to blast a rich vein of ore from an abandoned shaft and sell it back to the current owner, Cyril Lounsberry (Kent Smith). You might wonder why a man would buy what rightfully belongs to him – well Lounsberry is only nominally in charge as the mine is actually in his wife’s name, and he’s a man with a wandering and faithless eye. Such a man is obviously going to be drawn to the idea of an independent source of wealth. On the surface, the key to the whole operation is timing and disciplined organization, but there’s also the intangible element to be factored in, as tends to be the case in the affairs of man, and in this instance it’s the question of trust.

Anyone familiar with The Asphalt Jungle will know how things play out on screen, but there are significant enough differences to set the two films apart. Aside from the altered location, there’s the variation in tone and overall mood of the film. Huston’s film was a classic piece of fatalistic noir, where bad luck and the character flaws of the principals led to the ultimate unraveling of the best laid plans. In The Badlanders, however, the weaknesses of the leads in the earlier version are actually transformed into their strengths, and the resolution is upbeat and positive. I think a good deal of that is down to the director; Delmer Daves made films that mainly emphasized the positive characteristics and leanings of people, and you generally come away from his work with an enhanced appreciation of the inherent decency of humanity. If I were to draw direct comparisons between Daves’ and Huston’s take on the source material, something I’m reluctant to do as it seems s bit of a pointless exercise, then I’d have to say The Asphalt Jungle is clearly the superior film. Still, The Badlanders does have certain points in its favor, and those are mainly the touches which bear the characteristic fingerprints of Daves. There’s some strong cinematography from John Seitz too, especially the interiors but also the outdoors location work in Arizona and Old Tucson.

Alan Ladd underwent a noticeable physical decline in his last years, but that hadn’t really set in when he made The Badlanders. He was still vital and looked in reasonably good shape at that point. His role isn’t an especially complex one, there’s the back story of his being fitted up to provide motivation of course but it’s never expanded upon to any extent. While Ladd is the headline star the most memorable performances come from those billed below him, notably Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Borgnine was typically a powerful physical presence in movies and got to show off that aspect in a number of scenes, yet it’s another side of the man which has the greatest impact. He had a certain innocence below the surface, although this wasn’t always exploited. The character of McBain is remarkable for the way this vague social naiveté is woven into the plot. And the ever soulful charms of Katy Jurado are ideal for drawing out and playing off that. Despite the fact the heist, which it has to be said is filmed with some style, is the main focus of the plot, the tender and sensitive relationship which develops between Borgnine and Jurado is the living heart of it all. In support Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Emhardt and Anthony Caruso do all that could be expected of them in their limited roles.

The Badlanders has been released on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and there are European editions available in France (non-anamorphic, I think), Spain and Italy. The Spanish copy I viewed presents the movie in the correct 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the transfer is perfectly satisfactory – colors look accurate and the print is quite clean. There are no extra features included and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. Speaking as a fan of Delmer Daves’ work, I would say this is a weaker film when stacked up alongside his other westerns. However, just to qualify that evaluation, it’s worth bearing in mind that his westerns rank among the finest produced in the 50s. As such, I think this film deserves to be seen, and is of interest as a rare western heist movie, a remake of The Asphalt Jungle, and finally as a worthwhile frontier drama in its own right.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2015 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Delmer Daves, Westerns

 

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Rails Into Laramie

There are so many Universal-International westerns that you could pretty much run a blog devoted entirely to the studio’s output alone. With such an abundance of titles, it’s only natural that there should be a wide range in terms of type, budget and overall quality. Some had more spent on them, some featured significant amounts of location filming and some were shot largely on sets. Personally, I like them all, and can generally find something positive to take away from all varieties. Rails Into Laramie (1954) is one of the lower budget efforts, using stock footage and filmed on studio interiors for the most part. It’s a movie that eluded me for a long time and I want to express my gratitude to Jerry E for his help in ensuring I finally got around to seeing it.

The railway, that powerful symbol of westward expansion and the unstoppable advance of civilization, has been at the heart of many westerns. To chart the progress of the railroad is to chart the course of the American west itself so it’s obviously going to feature heavily in pictures set on the ever shifting frontier. When the iron horse appears to have stalled at the Wyoming town of Laramie questions arise as to why this should be so. Someone in Laramie has a vested interest in seeing the work come to a halt, some who’s making plenty of money out of the hard-drinking and hard living construction gangs. And so the army decide to send someone, just one man and not the detail of soldiers the local bigwigs have requested, to investigate and try to get the operation up and running again. The choice is Jefferson Harder (John Payne), a sergeant nearing the end of his stint in uniform but a man familiar with and comfortable among the kind of saloon detritus likely to be responsible for the delays. Harder isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Laramie’s dignitaries, partly due to their disappointment at not getting a full detachment and also because of his friendship with Jim Shanessy (Dan Duryea). Shanessy and Harder are old army buddies and former rivals for the affections of the former’s wife, Helen (Joyce Mackenzie). It’s clear enough from early on that Harder is going to have to go up against his friend as he’s the one behind the stoppages. What remains to be seen though is how he’s going to achieve much with virtually a whole town against him, the machinations of the slippery Shanessy to contend with, and the uncertain allegiance of saloon owner Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard).

One thing which immediately struck me when watching Rails Into Laramie was that there were a few passing similarities to the classic Destry Rides Again. There’s the basic set up of a corrupt town, the ignominious arrival of an improbable savior, the tough female saloon owner, and the leading role undertaken by women in the implementation of justice – and I’ll return to that last aspect presently. At least some of this can probably be attributed to the fact screenwriter D D Beauchamp also worked on Destry, George Marshall’s remake of his own 1939 original. All these elements are very welcome of course and add a lot to the entertainment of the piece, but there are problems, or weaknesses anyway, present in the script too. There are a few plot strands which are introduced and promise to be interesting yet are dropped almost immediately and lead nowhere in particular. There would appear to be potential for an added layer of conflict stemming from the triangle created by Payne, Duryea and Mackenzie, not to mention the allure of Blanchard drifting in the background. We learn that both men wanted Mackenzie in the past but that’s it, no more mileage is gained from that, or the possibility of Blanchard causing Duryea to consider straying. And then there’s the selection of an all female jury to try Duryea, an example of women’s rights which was ahead of its time compared to the rest of the country. Aside from the opportunity for further social comment, there was a suggestion that the women’s actions in participating in jury service would endanger their men. Again though, this is not followed up on and simply peters out.

I tend to think of Audie Murphy when Jesse Hibbs’ name comes up due to his having taken charge of a number of the star’s best films. Hibbs was one of those stable hands who could be relied upon to turn in a solid piece of work and that’s more or less what we get with Rails Into Laramie. There’s nothing flashy on show but it’s a competently directed film. With the so-so script, the responsibility on the performers is increased, though the likes of Payne and Duryea were quite capable in this respect. I’ve seen more of Payne’s noir work but he makes for a personable and convincing enough western lead too. There’s not so much of that bruised quality on display that he used to such good effect in film noir, still the toughness remains and you don’t doubt his ability when it comes to mixing it with the villains. Duryea could play charming, dissembling bad guys in his sleep and his role here honestly is a walk in the park for him. There’s not much physical threat posed by him, it’s more a behind the scenes schemer and fixer this time, and that aspect is left in the capable hands of a sneering and dangerous Lee Van Cleef. Of the two female performers Joyce Mackenzie had a largely thankless part, offering sympathy and support but seeing little development in her character. Mari Blanchard got dealt a far stronger hand and played it to the hilt too. She brings an edgy ambiguity to the part – leaving both Payne and Duryea (and the viewer too) unsure exactly what way she’s going to leap. Then there’s the marvelous James Griffith who adds such value to every film he appears in – I just saw him in a delightful little cameo in Kubrick’s The Killing the other day as it happens – and turns in one of the most memorable bits of work in the movie as the nervous but loyal marshal.

The last few years have seen more and more Universal-International westerns becoming available in various countries. However, Rails Into Laramie remains unreleased anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It’s a modest picture and it wouldn’t rank as one of the top tier efforts by the studio. Even so, it is solidly entertaining and I’d certainly appreciate a release. Again, my thanks to Jerry for making this piece possible.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in 1950s, Dan Duryea, John Payne, Westerns

 

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Edge of Eternity

As a major fan of westerns I have great fondness for those films which, while not belonging in the genre proper, are set in the American west. It’s not at all uncommon to see mystery elements woven into the fabric of many a western tale, and so it’s not all that surprising to come across a whodunit which plays out against the backdrop of the west, even if it is the modern version of this setting. In the case of Edge of Eternity (1959) that setting is one of the most important ingredients, the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon dominating the picture from the gripping opening right through to the spectacular conclusion.

A car draws up just short of the rim of the Grand Canyon and its driver, a middle-aged gent in a business suit, scurries forward to peer across the great chasm through a pair of binoculars. Before we even have the chance to ponder the object of his interest another, younger, man appears and carefully disengages the brake before pushing the car towards his unsuspecting victim. Alerted in the nick of time, the older man jumps aside and the vehicle plunges over the edge. These two figures struggle at the edge of the abyss, and soon both will be no more – one death we witness directly, the other will later be seen only after the fact. This dramatic opening sequence pitches the audience straight into the center of a murder mystery, grabbing our collective lapels and giving us a good threatening shake to ensure our attention doesn’t drift. We don’t know who these men are, why they fought, why they died, or who killed one of them. The task of finding the answers to these questions falls to Les Martin (Cornel Wilde), a deputy sheriff who has moved to Arizona with the hope of rebuilding a career he saw fall apart due to his own mistakes back in Denver. Aside from a natural desire to make up for past errors, Martin also wants to do what he can to help the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan), the man who hired him and offered him a second chance, get reelected. As he painstakingly assembles the pieces of the puzzle and attempts to fit them together so as to form a picture of what happened and why, he finds himself ever more attracted to Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw), the daughter of a local mining magnate. What makes it more difficult for Martin though is the growing realization that there seems to be some connection between the deaths and the wealthy Kendon family.

The films of Don Siegel tend to be direct, no-nonsense, economical affairs. This is not to say they are devoid of artistry, rather the artistry on show is never overblown or self-consciously extravagant. Edge of Eternity, for example, is not an especially deep movie, it’s not a multi-layered affair and it doesn’t pretend to offer any particular insight into the human condition. Siegel was making a whodunit with an action element, and that’s exactly what the viewer is presented with. And of course he knew how to compose exciting sequences, not least the swooping, dizzying climax in the “dancing bucket” swaying precariously in mid-air. In addition, it’s a beautiful looking film, the primal awe-inspiring landscape of the Grand Canyon becoming a character in the drama itself, dwarfing the other players and demanding attention due to its natural wonder and danger. The cinematography of Burnett Guffey, probably most admired for his work on a range of noir pictures but here reveling in the glorious colors on display, really shows off the locations. Finally, there’s a typically strong and robust score provided by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Cornel Wilde took the lead, an interesting role in ways but also a little underdeveloped in others. It’s made apparent that he’s trying to make a new life for himself after the loss of his wife and the subsequent derailment of his career. There was a good deal of potential for more internal conflict resulting from this and it is touched upon a few times, most notably during the short courtroom scene, but it’s never exploited to the full. There is a sense that Wilde is a man who wants to make amends for his past failings but it never goes much beyond that. In fairness, the film is first and foremost a mystery and the Knut Swenson screenplay concentrates primarily on that. I’ve only seen Victoria Shaw in a few films apart from this one – The Crimson Kimono and Alvarez Kelly. With the help of her striking and colorful costumes, Shaw brings a tough and feisty edge to her part, sassy and spirited throughout. Due to the nature of a whodunit and my wish to avoid any accidental spoilers for readers who haven’t seen this film I’ll be briefer than usual with my references to the other members of the cast. Let’s just say that there’s solid work turned in by Jack Elam, Rian Garrick, Edgar Buchanan, Mickey Shaughnessy & Alexander Lockwood and leave it at that.

I’m not sure how widely known Edge of Eternity is, all I can say is I was unfamiliar with this title myself until fairly recently. It’s been released on MOD DVD in the US and there’s also a Spanish disc, which I have. The movie was shot in CinemaScope and the transfer to DVD preserves this anamorphic widescreen ratio. A film like this depends heavily on the visuals and it’s important to see these reproduced as faithfully as possible. For the most part the image is acceptably clean and sharp, although some of the process shots (particularly a few during the airborne climax) look a little rougher. As usual with these Spanish releases, the subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. For me, the movie represented a blind buy, mainly based on the director and star. I enjoyed it very much, and its short running time means it never outstays its welcome. I especially liked the fact it has a cross genre appeal – it’s a suspenseful mystery with some fine action scenes and a bit of western flavor thrown in for good measure. Overall, an entertaining film that I feel is worth checking out.

 
 

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Dawn at Socorro

– Who’s coming after you?

– My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.

I guess that short exchange, coming near the end of the movie, sums up much of what Dawn at Socorro (1954) is all about. It’s a classic 50s western scenario, the hunger for a fresh start, a chance to slay the demons of one’s past once and for all. In the case of this film there’s the added interest of the disguised Earp/Holliday elements in the story, although this aspect is really only peripheral, and I think it’s no bad thing the names are changed and some of the events portrayed are used primarily as an inspiration – it allows the theme to develop without weighing it down with unnecessary historical baggage.

The story opens with a reminiscence, the words of an old man drawing us back into a past he experienced and into the lives of people he was once intimate with. Our point of entry comes in a cheap saloon, one of those basic drinking spots with low ceilings and lit by guttering lamps. The Ferris clan arrives en masse, planning to pick up the youngest member, Buddy (Skip Homeier), and head back to their ranch. But Buddy’s a hot-blooded guy, at that stage in life where he needs to show off in public how much of a man he is. Reluctantly, his kin leave him to his own devices, but still under the watchful eye of gunman Jimmy Rapp (Alex Nicol). The back room is occupied by the Ferris’ mortal enemies, Marshal McNair (James Millican) and ailing gambler Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun), and it’s only a matter of time before Buddy talks himself into a fight, one which will leave him dead and bring the feud between his family and McNair and Wade to a head. What we’re looking at here is a fictional account of the build up to the confrontation between the Clantons and Earps. It culminates in what is essentially the gunfight at the OK Corral in all but name. And the upshot of the killings is that the Holliday figure, Wade, is convinced of the folly of his lifestyle up to this point. He resolves to make a change, to get out of the territory and do something about his weakening health. Sharing a stage to Socorro with a bitter and self-loathing Rapp, he makes the acquaintance of fellow passenger, Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie). Unknown to him, Rannah has been disowned by a father who believes the worst of her, and chooses to believe her lie that she’s on her way to meet her future husband. The truth is though that Rannah is going to become a saloon girl, working for Dick Braden (David Brian), a gambler whom Wade has clashed with before. It’s the realization of what is actually happening that leads Wade to put his plans to move on to Colorado on hold, to try to regain something of his youthful promise, to halt the waste and do something of worth before it’s too late.

There have been plenty of positive words about George Sherman on this site before, and Dawn at Socorro is another example of quality work from the director. The opening twenty minutes lays the groundwork for the Ferris (Clanton) and McNair (Earp) feud and the subsequent gunfight. The lengthy passage in the saloon, where the character dynamics are clearly defined, is beautifully shot and loaded with atmosphere. Sherman made good use of close-ups throughout the film, but these early scenes see them employed especially effectively. Although this is largely a town based, and therefore interior heavy, film, there is also some nice location work during the eventful stagecoach trip to Socorro. Also impressive is the shooting and composition of the key duel late in proceedings between Wade and Rapp – at the vital moment the camera is positioned high above both protagonists as they face off on the deserted Socorro street. The unusual angle chosen assigns the viewer the role of dispassionate observer gazing down on two regretful men, their individuality diluted by the distance as they become merely a pair of gunfighters on a dusty thoroughfare, their actions mirroring each other and the fatal shots appearing as simultaneous bursts of smoke.

So many westerns have concerned themselves with the dogged pursuit of individuals by the sins of their past, and the salvation, redemption or personal understanding or acceptance which grows out of this. It can be seen as a general western motif I suppose, but in the 50s in particular almost every genre entry of worth features these themes. I may be way off base here (so feel free to pull me up on this if it appears I’m mistaken) but I’m now of the opinion that this phenomenon has its roots in the post-war climate of coming to terms with the events of the past. The world had only recently recovered some kind of equilibrium after years of violence and uncertainty. Those war years represented a loss of innocence for a generation, a time of intense emotional and physical challenge, so it seems natural that the modern art form of the cinema should try to address that. I can imagine audiences of the time would have identified with tales of people struggling to escape the horrors of a violent past and by doing so perhaps regain at least a shred of their former innocence.

The Brett Wade character is very obviously based on Doc Holliday, featuring all the familiar traits which have become associated with Wyatt Earp’s ally in many films over the years. It always provides a strong role for whoever plays it and Rory Calhoun is given plenty to get his teeth into. The combination of swaggering bravado on the outside and corrosive introspection in private automatically rounds out the Wade figure – there’s that essential loneliness and otherness that the more intriguing western characters tend to display. But there’s solidarity too as most of the main players in the drama are consumed with a desire to get back to an imagined idyll, a simpler existence they still recall yet have misplaced through time. When Mara Corday’s disillusioned saloon girl wistfully inquires “How do you turn back the clock?” you know that nobody will be able to hand her a satisfactory answer.

Piper Laurie does some good work too as the young woman rejected by her father and facing a highly uncertain future, trying to convince herself of her suitability for the new life she’s prepared to take on while still dreaming of the one she’s been deprived of. And then we have Alex Nicol, an ever interesting actor, who plays a Johnny Ringo type. Nicol is embittered from the moment we first see him, drinking heavily to deaden some half-defined inner pain, and later overcome and ultimately destroyed by a sense of guilt and inadequacy – I find him the most fascinating figure in the whole movie. The real villain is played by David Brian, a man whose career started off very strong but seemed to stutter soon after. He’s suave, slippery and deadly, a guy with no redeeming features but an excellent foil for the hero. The supporting cast is full of fine actors and it’s pity there wasn’t more for some of them to do: James Millican Lee Van Cleef, Skip Homeier, Kathleen Hughes, Edgar Buchanan and Roy Roberts being the most notable of the long list of familiar faces.

The last few years have seen more and more frequently neglected films from this era getting releases, and Dawn at Socorro is now reasonably easy to get hold of. There was a box set of Universal-International westerns (Horizons West) put out a few years ago and this title was included. There’s also a Spanish DVD, which I have, and the film seems to be available to view on YT as well. I’d imagine a 1954 movie would be shot with some widescreen process in mind – IMDb suggests 2.00:1 – but my Spanish copy presents it full frame, as can be seen from the screen captures above. That aside, the transfer is generally strong, with the Technicolor looking vibrant and the image sharp. There are a few incidences of print damage, but nothing all that distracting. Dawn at Socorro is a western I like very much, with good work by Calhoun and director Sherman. The whole thing has a handsome look, is pacy and well scripted with characterization developed as the story progresses rather than through tiresome and unnatural exposition. One to look out for if you haven’t yet seen it, or to view again if you’re already acquainted.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2015 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rory Calhoun, Westerns

 

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Ten of the Best – Noir Directors

 

It’s been a while now since I tried my hand at compiling one of these lists. Having already covered western directors and stars, as well as noir stars (all of which can be found indexed under the Articles tab at the top of the page), I thought I’d try to round things out by taking a crack at noir directors. Once again it’s a wide field with a lot of runners, and it’s no easy task to narrow it down to ten individuals. I tried to focus on those directors I fell made the greatest contribution to the genre, be it through their innovation, their influence or their general affinity for noir. I haven’t tried to rank them in any particular order – just settling on those I wanted to include was tough enough.

Fritz Lang

In some ways I like to think of Fritz Lang as the father of film noir, the man who brought his expressionist background to bear on Hollywood from his arrival in the 30s and blended it into his dark masterpieces throughout the 40s and 50s. Pretty much every film he made in the US has a strong sense of noir, and there’s not really a bad one among them – even the weaker efforts have significant points of interest.

Robert Siodmak

Another big favorite of mine, Siodmak worked on a whole variety of material before Phantom Lady set him off on the noir path. That was to initiate an incredibly strong run and resulted in his producing an enviable body of work by the end of the decade.

Jacques Tourneur

One of the subtlest directors ever to ply his trade in Hollywood, Tourneur came into his own as part of Val Lewton’s B unit at RKO. Those dreamy low-budget horror classics are packed with noir imagery and sensibility, and Tourneur carried that over into his work in such influential pieces as Out of the Past.

Anthony Mann

Best known today for his brooding and psychologically complex westerns in the 50s, Mann didn’t just chance on those elements. He started out working mainly on economical noir pictures, often with John Alton behind the camera, in the previous decade. While his westerns are, justifiably I think, more celebrated, his 40s film noir remains a major achievement.

Nicholas Ray

A powerful director, Ray’s passionate and intense examination of outsiders spans a number of genres. but films like On Dangerous Ground and In a Lonely Place are among the best films noir produced. Watching his films can be an emotionally exhausting experience but deeply satisfying one too.

Otto Preminger

People may argue over whether Laura constitutes real film noir (for what it’s worth, I think it does) but there can be no question that Preminger made strong genre entries. A difficult man to work for by all accounts, his films with Dana Andrews and the sublime Angel Face, among others, mark him out as a prime mover in the world of dark cinema.

Billy Wilder

Even if Wilder had only ever made Double Indemnity he would still rate inclusion in this list as far as I’m concerned. Once you bear in mind he also made Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard, and that his dramas and comedies frequently featured extremely dark subjects, I don’t think there can be any doubt he deserves his place here.

Joseph H Lewis

With Lewis The Big Combo and Gun Crazy are probably the standout titles, but they’re by no means the only worthwhile noir pictures he made. His sense of visual inventiveness is quite wonderful and I don’t think I’ve seen one of his movies yet where I wasn’t impressed by his pacing and use of the camera.

Jules Dassin

Only eight years elapsed between Brute Force and Rififi, but that period of time saw Dassin move from the US to the UK and then France, and the five films he made during those years make up a sold noir block on his  filmography.

Sam Fuller

A genuine in your face maverick, Fuller hit his noir stride with Pickup on South Street and would return to the genre sporadically into the mid-1960s. A director who was hard to pin down or pigeonhole, aside from the brashness of his filmmaking style, Fuller brought a real burst of energy to his noir pictures.

So those are my ten picks. I had to omit names like Orson Welles, Robert Aldrich, Henry Hathaway, Raoul Walsh, Carol Reed, Curtis Bernhardt and John Brahm to mention just a handful. I’m sure some will disagree with a few of my final choices, and I’d be pleased to hear which ones anyone feels ought to be replaced.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Long and the Short and the Tall

It’s war. It’s something in a uniform. It’s a different shade from mine.

War movies fall into two broad categories: those which could be described as the “Boys’ Own” variety, where heroics are celebrated and high adventure is the order of the day; and then there’s the anti-war type, films which use the horrific aspects of war as a kind of backdrop to raise questions about our sense of humanity. I think both have their place and are worthy of consideration. The latter category is frequently more interesting though, in cinematic and artistic terms, as the character of war (and I do think it’s reasonable to refer to it as such since the conflict portrayed can be legitimately viewed as a character itself in the drama) necessarily hones in on the very essence of humanity. It’s sometimes claimed that crisis and adversity bring out both the best and worst in people, and surely warfare can be viewed as the ultimate example of this. The tragedy inherent in this rawest expression of human conflict is that it divides and unites in equal measure; there’s that sense of national and international solidarity, perhaps even nobility, in the defense of an ideal, while there’s the simultaneous schism created by different interpretations of said ideal. And on an even more fundamental level, we are drawn together by common feelings regarding what is right and torn apart at the same time by the way we define it. The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961) does exactly this – it looks into the hearts of a handful of men who are bound together and also separated by their views on right and wrong.

As the opening credits roll, accompanied by the First World War song Bless ‘Em All (although I certainly remember hearing an old drunk offering up a lusty rendition of this with the word bless replaced by a more colorful four letter variant when I was a youngster) and images of plants and animals locked in mortal combat, the message seems clear: the struggle for survival is truly universal and not just an affectation adopted by our own species.  The setting is the jungles of Burma in WWII, and a British patrol are taking part in an exercise, one which seems almost juvenile under the circumstances. The half-dozen men under the command of Sergeant Mitchem (Richard Todd) are experimenting with “sonic warfare” – using recordings as a kind of decoy to wrong foot the enemy. Nobody likes the detail, Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) wants to get back to base camp and Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey), a Londoner with nothing but contempt for the army, wants anything but his current circumstances and companions. Even in the early stages there’s friction between the members of the patrol, Johnstone needling Mitchem over his loss of a previous patrol and subsequent demotion, and Bamforth taking a pop at everyone, even the mules, mainly because they don’t hail from London. Still, this is all of little consequence, no more than the natural ribbing that arises when a disparate group of individuals have spent longer than is desirable in close proximity. The first sign of genuine danger comes when the nervy radio operator (David McCallum) tunes into a Japanese transmission which suggests the patrol might be more isolated than expected. And then an enemy soldier strays into their temporary camp. These are the two key elements influencing all that follows; Mitchem has the responsibility for seeing his patrol safely back to base but there’s also the matter of their newly acquired POW and how to treat him. If there was a touch of antagonism before, the moral dilemma now presented – survival vs humane and ethical conduct – threatens to tear the fragile unity of this group apart.

The Long and the Short and the Tall was adapted from a stage play by Willis Hall (screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz) and the theatrical origins do show in the film. Some of the early scenes do have a very stagey quality to them, accentuated by some of the acting and dialogue, but that aspect becomes less pronounced, or at least less important, as the story progresses. The whole thing, with the exception of a bit of stock footage, is shot on studio sets, which I feel actually adds to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. Erwin Hillier’s photography is sweatily atmospheric and director Leslie Norman ensures the focus remains on the men and not on the jungle set. For me, the main thrust of the film is the way pressure and extreme circumstances can change men, how their true characters are revealed by unexpected developments. The early scenes invite us to form an opinion about the patrol and even to pigeonhole the members. However, as the situation changes, as their survival is threatened, those perceptions are altered. The characteristics we might initially have thought of as strengths are shown to be flaws and weaknesses, hypocrisy and prejudice rear their ugly twin heads, and decency and honor manifest themselves from the least likely source.

Richard Todd has the leading role as the veteran sergeant, a man whose capability is never really in doubt, despite the insinuations of his subordinate. One of the more notable features of the film is the shift in character, and therefore in audience sympathy, which takes place over the course of the story. Perhaps it’s not quite as radical in the case of Todd, a hardening of attitude is seen for the most part. On the other hand, both Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey depart significantly from the expectations the audience are initially encouraged to foster. If I wanted to be critical, I could say both men lay the performances on a little thick at times, especially Harvey at the beginning. With the latter there’s a definite theatricality to his playing at first, although that’s at least partially down to the writing, but this improves as the plot develops. By the time the final act comes around the roles have been reversed, and both Harris and Harvey deserve credit for achieving this effect credibly. When a cast is small then the contributions of all the members become more important, and I was favorably impressed by the work of David McCallum, Ronald Fraser, John Meillon, John Rees and Kenji Takaki.

To my knowledge, The Long and the Short and the Tall has only been released on DVD in the UK so far. That disc presents the film full frame, which is clearly not how a movie coming out in 1961 would have been shot. IMDb suggest 1.85:1 as the correct ratio and that sounds correct to me. Aside from that, the film looks pretty good with nice contrast and little or no distracting damage visible. Sadly, there are no extra features whatsoever offered. I suppose some might complain about the studio-bound setting but I can’t say I found it problematic, the story is of the intimate, powder-keg variety so it works well enough. Personally, I find war films a fine vehicle for raising ethical conundrums and a means of focusing attention on our view of fellow men. In terms of setting and moral complexity The Long and the Short and the Tall shares some features with Hammer’s Yesterday’s Enemy, and both movies would make for an interesting double feature.

 
 

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