Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond – Scott Allen Nollen

Biographies and critiques of the work of John Ford and John Wayne abound to be perfectly frank. As such, any new volume on these men needs to offer some different spin on familiar material, another perspective if you like. Scott Nollen’s new book – Three Bad Men:John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond – does so by examining the lives and careers of not only Ford and Wayne but Bond too. It’s quite common to see works which examine the complex relationship that Ford and Wayne had but Bond tends to be given lower billing. While Nollen makes it clear that Ford was without doubt the prime mover, he also focuses on the significant role Bond played in the old director’s life and that of Wayne. In short, the book establishes just how inextricably these three men were linked on both a personal and professional level.

There is some background sketching relating to the early years of these men’s lives, but the bulk of the text concentrates on the Hollywood years, and particularly those when Ford, Wayne and Bond were friends and colleagues. Although they all had radically different personalities, this trio remained fast friends and their affection for one another is never in doubt. Ford looked on Wayne and Bond as surrogate sons as much as friends and co-workers, treating then with all the indulgence, frustration, cussedness and meanness that he was renowned for. Ford was a deeply complex man, an impenetrable enigma in many respects. What comes across clearly is the struggle that seems to have characterized his life – with the studios, producers, performers, and most of all with himself. The contradictory nature of the man is there for all to see in his erratic behaviour, but more than anything in the beautiful images he created and captured on the screen. His difficulty in articulating his sensitive side, burying it beneath a gruff and often abusive exterior, melted away when he got behind the camera.

Of the two actors, Ward Bond comes across as the more straightforward character, although not always in an especially pleasant way. A great bull of a man, Bond was dedicated to living life to the full, whatever the cost to himself or others. Nollen nails the ebullience, the spirit of the man, and paints a picture of a talented individual who was larger than life. Bond’s persona has probably overshadowed his screen work, and Nollen tries to balance that somewhat by drawing attention to his abilities as an actor. However, the book is neither a demolition job nor an attempt to airbrush the less savory aspects. This is very much a warts and all examination of the three men where none of the controversial or distasteful parts are disguised. The result is an honest account of three real people, highlighting their flaws, their virtues and ultimately their humanity.

The book is organized chronologically and follows the interwoven lives of the three protagonists. Both their screen work and their personal lives comes under scrutiny with all their major works being analyzed. Those films where all three collaborated (They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man, The Searchers etc) are examined in detail as is the work they did independently. One notable feature is how much of the book is given over to looking at the  work of Bond. There’s a fairly substantial section on his time heading up the cast of Wagon Train on television, and a welcome appreciation of some of his finest film roles, such as his strong showing as John L Sullivan in Gentleman Jim. Of course all of this is juxtaposed with an honest, and far from complimentary, appraisal of his involvement in the shameful HUAC episode. None of the trio emerge with a great deal of credit from that particular period, least of all Bond. Once again though, it serves to highlight the contrary unpredictability of Ford.

In his preface, Nollen makes it clear that he doesn’t intend for this book to be seen as a definitive account of the lives of Ford, Wayne and Bond. Instead it’s a look at how their paths crossed and how each was instrumental in influencing the careers and thoughts of the others. There’s a good introduction by Michael A Hoey (son of character actor Dennis Hoey) and detailed appendices and filmographies of the three men. Nollen’s research is meticulous and scholarly yet the writing style remains highly readable throughout, never becoming dry or tiresomely academic. There are plenty of personal reminiscences by those who worked with the three principals and the book is beautifully illustrated with a thoughtful and interesting selection of photographs. Overall, Three Bad Men makes for a worthwhile, informative and entertaining addition to the existing canon of work on these men.

Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond by Scott Allen Nollen, foreword by Michael A Hoey
398 pages Published 2013 by McFarland & Company, Inc  – ISBN 978-0-7864-5854-7

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Fury

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I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

The 1930s arguably represent the true golden age of Hollywood. Cinema had emerged from its infancy and stood virtually unchallenged as the premier entertainment medium. The decade conjures up a host of cinematic images: the musicals of Busby Berkeley and Astaire & Rogers, the Gothic nightmares of James Whale, the screwball comedies and the sophistication of Lubitsch, the swashbucklers of Curtiz & Flynn, and so on. But there was something else there too, something that began to drift in from Europe, gaining momentum as the decade wore on and the ranks of the refugees swelled. They brought with them a darker sensibility, partly rooted in German expressionism, and partly a result of their experiences on a continent slowly sliding into political and social turmoil. The seeds of what would grow into film noir were being planted during these years and, despite only the vaguest shoots being visible at that stage, would finally come to full fruition in the 40s. There can be little doubt that the films of Fritz Lang were a major influence on the growth of this movement, and his first feature in the US, Fury (1936), points the way towards what was to come. However this is no film noir; instead it’s a powerful piece of social commentary, a pitiless probing of the darker and less savory aspects of human nature and, ultimately, a classic morality tale.

The story concerns an ordinary guy, a guy named Joe. In this case it’s Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man struggling to get along during The Depression. Times may be tough but Joe isn’t without hopes and dreams, mainly centered on his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). Joe and Katherine are in love and naturally want to marry, but that takes money. The film opens with their last moments together, strolling along the city sidewalks and musing about their future as they gaze at the unattainable luxuries in the store windows. Joe is sending Katherine west with a view to joining her and settling down once he has made enough money. Time passes, Katherine pines, and Joe and his brothers make enough from their gas station for him to realize his dream. There’s optimism in the air as Joe sets out on the long drive west and Katherine makes plans for his arrival. Yet all this comes to an abrupt end as Joe is flagged down by a slow-witted, shotgun-wielding deputy (Walter Brennan) from a hick town. It’s at this point that the Kafkaesque nightmare that will ultimately draw in all the characters begins to develop. It turns out there’s been a kidnapping and Joe, as a stranger unable to give a satisfactory account of his movements, is pulled in for questioning as a suspect. There’s only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but he’s held until the DA an arrive. However, the gossipy mentality of the small town soon takes over, and the Chinese whispers that ensue have a snowball effect that sees the local citizenry gradually transformed into an unreasoning and rampaging mob. First they lay siege to the jail, then storm it, set it ablaze and finally dynamite what remains. All the while Joe, an innocent man, is trapped inside and growing increasingly panicked. With the building reduced to rubble, it looks as though Joe has perished. The effects are immediate on all concerned – Kathrine, who arrived just in time to witness the final moments, suffers an emotional breakdown, Joe’s brothers are angry and devastated, while the townsfolk begin to feel the first pangs of collective guilt. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Joe survived the conflagration but has physical and, more importantly, psychological scars that are deep rooted. Stripped of his former sense of fair play, he and his brothers set in motion a plan to achieve what he sees as poetic justice.

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The fury of the title can be interpreted on two levels, that of the baying mob outside the jail and also that of the man they think they have burnt alive. In both cases, Fritz Lang captured the build-up to and subsequent manifestation of this fury perfectly. The gradual spread of tittle-tattle among the townsfolk is treated in an almost comical fashion at first – the shots of chattering ladies intercut with images of cackling hens – before taking on an ever more menacing character. It all culminates in the wonderfully realized assault on the jail by the frenzied mob. Lang uses montage and lighting to great effect here, cutting rapidly between the faces of the citizens, joyously looking on with an almost religious fervor, and the alternately despairing and stricken features of Joe and Katherine. In this way Lang provokes a combination of horror, pity and moral outrage in the viewer. What we have witnessed is a great injustice, a perversion of the ideals of civilized society. It’s natural therefore to empathize with Joe and the gut reaction is to take pleasure in seeing this victim turn persecutor. However, the film is a critique of the veneer of respectability and civilization that we adopt both as individuals and as a society. As such, Lang does not take us down a morally bankrupt route, choosing instead to focus on the opportunity for personal and collective redemption. In the end the film’s message is that conscience is the real victor, punishing the guilty more effectively than any court of law and hauling a fundamentally decent man back from the brink at the eleventh hour. Again, Lang uses visuals as much as words to make his point, showing how Joe has cut himself off from humanity and the mental anguish that such actions must inevitably arouse. He cuts a poignant figure as Lang shows him alone and bitter, haunted by the voices in his mind and the images of the condemned which float in and out of his consciousness.

Beyond this the film also has some salient points to make about of the role of the law and ultimately affirms the notion of its being one of our fundamental social pillars. However, Lang first takes its weaknesses to task. The fragility of the law is demonstrated by the way the corrupt tendencies of politicians is instrumental in allowing the situation to spiral out of control in the first place. It is also implied, in the disgruntled and disparaging way the citizens of the town speak about the machinations and trickery of lawyers, that the faith of the ordinary man in the legal system has been shaken to such an extent that respect for the law itself is threatened. As is so often the case, it takes the dispassionate eye of the outsider, the immigrant Lang, to draw attention to both the flaws and strengths inherent in the system. Indeed, the point is reinforced early on when one of the minor characters, an immigrant barber, corrects a local on his misunderstanding of the terms of the constitution – his knowledge and respect for the document arising from his being obliged to learn its contents.

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If one were to make a list of the greatest screen actors of all time, then Spencer Tracy would surely have to figure high up. Personally, I reckon there’s a case to be made for placing him right at the top. He was probably the greatest exponent of naturalism on screen, rarely, if ever, allowing the audience to catch him acting. As a result, Tracy brought an earnest believability to the varied roles he took on over the years. As he aged he attained something of a statesmanlike quality, becoming the very epitome of the best elements of the American character. Still, even as a younger man, he had that air of honesty and plainness about him, tempered somewhat by an underlying sense of implacability. In brief, the lead in Fury was an ideal role for Tracy, drawing on both sides of his character. He dominates the movie from beginning to end and takes the transition from down to earth guy to hate-fueled avenger smoothly in his stride. And it’s that transition that lends the film so much of its power; the progression from humble amiability through bewildered terror, and then cruel vindictiveness. His reappearance in the aftermath of the jail burning, like some kind of malignant resurrection, is a shocking moment. Not only has he become hard and driven, but there’s a different cast to his whole physical appearance – not some prosthetic alteration but a subtle shift in posture and body language.

Despite Tracy’s powerhouse performance, top billing in Fury went to Sylvia Sidney. Of course Sidney was a big star at the time, making movies for Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler before seeing her career take a downturn. While she doesn’t make the same impression as Tracy, her role is vital to the development of the story and it’s her influence that keeps her man from going over the edge. Sidney’s greatest asset was her wonderfully expressive features, especially those huge eyes. Lang made good use of this by employing frequent close-ups of her, notably as she looks on in horror at the actions of the mob and then later when a shattering realization dawns upon her. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns from a range of familiar faces. I think Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan, Edward Ellis and Walter Abel all deserve particular attention though – they all make significant contributions as the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser, the gormless deputy, the sour but conflicted sheriff and the determined DA respectively.

Fury came out on DVD some years ago via Warner Brothers, and it’s very well presented on disc. There is a bit of age related damage on view, but the film looks remarkably fine for its vintage. Lang’s movies were always visual treats and the lighting and use of shadows and contrast were particularly important features. The Warner Brothers DVD represents this aspect very well indeed and viewing the movie is a pleasure. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich that includes excerpts from an interview with Fritz Lang. Although Fury is now over 75 years old, the points it makes about society, the law and human nature remain relevant today. That type of timeless quality is a large part of what makes it a classic, but it’s not the whole story. Lang’s striking imagery and Tracy’s unaffected performance are major factors here too. This is one of Lang’s major works, a compelling tale that is emotionally absorbing and also engages the intellect. Definitely recommended.

Ride Clear of Diablo

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Revenge, or at least the quest for justice, is a theme frequently featured in westerns. Relentless duplicity, on the other hand, is more often to be found in crime movies. Ride Clear of Diablo (1953) is a pretty good example of a conventional western that blends both of the aforementioned elements into its brief running time. By using the revenge motif mainly as a device to drive the narrative, rather than indulging in any especially deep analysis, and thus keeping the focus firmly on the various double-crosses, the film manages to provide plenty of exciting, pacy entertainment.

Everything revolves around Clay O’Mara (Audie Murphy), a railroad surveyor based in Denver, who receives a wire informing him of the murder of his father and brother as a result of a raid on their ranch by rustlers. Returning home to bury his family, O’Mara is cautioned against seeking retribution by the local preacher (Denver Pyle), and reassures the man of the cloth by letting him know he’s interested in a meeting with the sheriff. What O’Mara doesn’t know, but we the viewers do from the opening moments, is that Sheriff Kenyon (Paul Birch) and the family lawyer, Tom Meredith (William Pullen), are the men responsible for the murder. Meredith is clearly the brains of the outfit, and he’s the one who advises Kenyon to accede to O’Mara’s wishes and swear him in as a deputy with a view to tracking down the killers. Meredith’s idea is to set O’Mara on a false trail and send him off in pursuit of a man who he figures will gun him down. To that end, Meredith and Kenyon tell him that notorious wanted outlaw Whitey Kincade (Dan Duryea) is one of the leading suspects. O’Mara sets off for the neighboring town of Diablo where Kincade is believed to be hiding out. This is just the first in a series of crosses and double-crosses fill the movie, and none of them seem to work out quite the way any of the conspirators hope. While slightly unnerved, O’Mara isn’t the kind of man to back down from a challenge, particularly not one in which he has as much personally invested as this. As it turns out, he’s no slouch with a gun either and, to the surprise and near mortification of Kenyon and Meredith, manages to outdraw Kincade and haul him back to town for trial. That O’Mara should pull off such a coup is bad enough as far as the villains are concerned, but what’s more troublesome is the fact Kincade has taken a shine to the gutsy deputy. Kincade has his own suspicions regarding the motives of these outwardly law-abiding citizens, but he’s no saint and also has a perverse sense of humor. Rather than put O’Mara on the right track straight away, Kincade toys with him and offers only oblique hints, preferring to sit back and watch pleasurably as Meredith and Kenyon fail time and again to ensnare O’Mara. However, such games can only be played out so far, and O’Mara must sooner or later come upon the truth, while Kincade must also make a decision as to where he really stands.

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Director Jesse Hibbs spent many years working in the second unit, and had a relatively short career in charge of feature films before moving into television. Ride Clear of Diablo was one of his earliest directorial efforts, and his first with Audie Murphy – both men would work together a number of times in the years to come. Stylistically, this movie is fairly unremarkable, although there are some extremely atmospheric scenes such as the opening in a near deserted saloon, where an alluring singer (Abbe Lane) ensures a couple of hapless cowboys remain distracted while her rustler friends slip away to round-up the herd. Even though some of the action was filmed on location around Lone Pine, Hibbs arguably does his best work during the interior scenes – which seems a little odd for a western director. The first appearance of Dan Duryea, after his character has been given a strong build-up, and Murphy’s subsequent face-off with him is also particularly well realized. Despite what the events that take place at the beginning may suggest, Ride Clear of Diablo lacks the kind of psychological complexity that is often found in revenge/quest westerns. Still, that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the movie as a whole; it never intends to go down that route, and achieves what it wants perfectly well without doing so.

I imagine synopsis I included makes it clear that Dan Duryea’s role as Whitey Kincade makes a significant contribution to the film. I’d go so far as to say that although Audie Murphy receives top billing and gets the lion’s share of the screen time, it’s as much Duryea’s picture as anyone’s. Duryea was one of the finest screen villains ever, even better when he was given the opportunity to play up the character’s ambiguity. With Whitey Kincade he was handed the chance to portray an extremely engaging anti-heroic figure. Duryea always had an enormous amount of charm and could never be characterized as unlikable. Ride Clear of Diablo highlights his playful menace, and he steals every scene he appears in. By the end of the movie your greatest regret is the fact he wasn’t allowed more time to cast his skewed, cynically amused glance over proceedings. In contrast, Murphy is far more stoic and traditionally heroic, and it creates a nice balance. However, even in a pretty straight and limited part such as this, Murphy brought some of that nervy unease, a kind of edgy watchfulness, that made him an interesting lead on so many occasions. Susan Cabot was cast as Murphy’s love interest and, to make matters more intriguing, the niece of the corrupt sheriff. She handled the conflicted aspects of her role well and her presence is both an attractive and important element in the story. Abbe Lane’s saloon girl is equally enjoyable, despite her part offering less depth and impact. The remainder of the supporting cast – Jack Elam, Paul Birch, Russell Johnson and William Pullen – constitute a fine bunch of out and out villains and fall guys.

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Ride Clear of Diablo is now available on DVD fairly widely. There have been various European options for some time and the movie was then released in the US, initially as part of a four movie set of Audie Murphy westerns and then later as an individual DVD-R. I have the German version that came out via Koch Media some years ago. The transfer on that disc is a little variable, but satisfactory overall. For the most part it’s sharp enough but there are instances where it briefly takes on a soft, dupey appearance. The technicolor is well reproduced and print damage, despite what looks like an obvious lack of restoration, is limited. The soundtrack offers a choice of the original English or a German dub – there are no subtitles at all. Extra features on the disc consist of the trailer and a gallery, along with liner notes in German. I consider the film to be a very entertaining outing for Audie Murphy and it ought to satisfy his fans. The icing on the cake though is the marvelous performance by Dan Duryea – anyone who has yet to discover the man could hardly ask for a better introduction, and those already familiar with him will have a ball renewing their acquaintance.

Series Sleuths

Growing up in an era when the TV schedules were regularly padded out with all kinds of vintage entertainment was a great experience. It meant that my tastes became eclectic without my ever realizing it. Choice of channels was limited, but that actually meant that I was exposed to a wider range of material than can be the case in the increasingly fragmented media landscape of today. While it might appear to be a paradox, the restricted options led to a whole generation of us getting to see the kind of movies, and shows too, that we would probably never have bothered seeking out on our own initiative. The fact that almost everybody you knew saw pretty much the same stuff also resulted in a lack of any negative stigmatization based on the age or style of the movies – old, new or whatever, it was all just entertainment. And this leads me on to the detective movie series. These tended to run in seasons, either during the school holidays or sometimes in the early evening slots. Essentially, these formed cheap fillers for the schedulers, and the overall quality could be variable. Nevertheless, I developed a lifelong love of these old B movies. They were made on the cheap, often featuring distinctly hokey plots, but they usually moved at an incredibly brisk pace and always seemed to be steeped in atmosphere. I guess I’ve seen entries from all the major series but I’ll confine myself to highlighting the five which I remember enjoying the most, and of which I also saw the complete run.

Sherlock Holmes

Arguably, this was the finest series of all. Conan Doyle’s character has appeared on the screen countless times over the years and everyone will have their own favourite incarnation. For me though, nothing will ever surpass the teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. They started out with two fairly lavish productions for Fox before moving to Universal, where the tighter budgets meant the stories and characters were updated and modernized. Some may object to this development, but I’ll remain forever enchanted by the intrepid duo making their way around those old abandoned Universal horror sets, which seemed to be permanently shrouded in studio fog.

Charlie Chan

The Chinese detective from Honolulu, with his impossibly large family, has to run Doyle’s immortals a very close second. Earl Derr Biggers’ creation was conceived as an antidote to the sinister Asians popularized by the fiction of Sax Rohmer among others. Chan’s wit, good manners and razor-sharp mind meant he stood out from the bumbling or villainous white characters around him. The long running series of movies originated at Fox and later moved to poverty row outfit Monogram, with Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters all playing the lead in succession between 1931 and 1949. While Oland’s characterization is probably the most sympathetic, I especially like the spooky atmosphere of the Toler films.

Mr Moto

The popularity of Chan meant there was an obvious market for heroic Asian sleuths. That void was filled by John P Marquand’s Japanese detective Moto. Between 1937 and 1939 Peter Lorre played the role in eight movies for Fox, before the political situation of the time led to the notion of a hero of Moto’s nationality falling out of fashion fast. Moto was younger and physically more dynamic than the portly Chan, so the movies tended to play up the action to a greater degree. Still and all, Lorre’s characterization is fun and the movies are marvelously entertaining.

The Falcon

I had to make my mind up  whether to include The Falcon or The Saint here. In the end, I settled on The Falcon, mainly because I feel the tone and quality of the movies are more consistent than the variable nature of The Saint entries. Those two series are inextricably linked due to RKO’s decision to launch The Falcon as a way around the difficulties it was having with Leslie Charteris’ character. There were thirteen films made between 1941 and 1946, starting out with George Sanders in the lead before he bowed out and handed over the reins to his brother Tom Conway – who played The Falcon’s brother but kept on the alias.

Crime Doctor

While my previous four choices all had their roots in novels or short stories, Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, came to the screen via the radio. The title character had an interesting history, being a criminal with amnesia who adopted the identity of a psychiatrist. In ten films for Columbia between 1943 and 1949, Warner Baxter took the lead as the former crook now dedicated to fighting crime. These were very low budget affairs, but Baxter brought plenty of gravitas to the role, and are of interest for the way they blended the then fashionable use of cod Freudian psychoanalysis into the solutions of the problems.

So there are my five picks. I could have expanded this group and included the other sleuths that had their own series in the 30s and 40s. However, I wanted to keep it to those that remain most firmly in my memory – also, five seemed a nice, neat number. Of course that means I had to omit the likes of The Saint, The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, The Whistler, Bulldog Drummond, and so on. My apologies if I’ve left out anyone’s particular favorites, but it’s an opportunity to stop by and tell me which one(s) I should have featured and why.