The Man from the Alamo

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The worst that can happen to you is that somebody will say you died a hero. That man’s going to be called a coward the rest of his life.

That quote essentially sums up what The Man from the Alamo (1953) is all about – the way that courage can be misrepresented and misunderstood, how casual labeling can lead to blind, unjustified persecution. While this idea is central to the film, it’s mixed in with a standard revenge tale, and set against a backdrop of historically significant events. One could say there are the makings of an epic story here but, in the hands of Budd Boetticher, the end result is a short, tightly paced western that rarely pauses for breath and never outstays its welcome.

The opening section plunges the audience straight into the latter stages of the siege of the Alamo, with Travis’ volunteers holed up in the old adobe mission and Santa Anna’s forces massing for the final assault outside. These events have become part of American lore, and far beyond the borders of the US too if the truth be told, coming to represent grit, determination and heroic self-sacrifice. Occasions such as this have the potential to make legends of all involved, to see names honored for generations to come. However, as always, there’s a flip side to the coin. Where circumstances can see one man’s reputation soar, they can equally see that of another cast into the mud. Which brings us to John Stroud (Glenn Ford), one of the defenders of the Alamo and a man who has already proved his mettle in the heat of battle. It’s bad enough when news arrives that no relief will be forthcoming, but the situation is exacerbated for some by reports that enemy sympathizers are raiding the unprotected homesteads to the north. As a result, a handful of defenders draw lots to see who will undertake the thankless task of leaving the mission and heading off to take care of the vulnerable families. The dubious honor falls to Stroud, who accepts his fate and rides off into potential ignominy. The crucial point here is that the viewer knows that Stroud had no other choice, that he was simply dealt a lousy hand and could do nothing but play it. As it turns out, his gesture proves futile – the guerrillas have been and gone, leaving nothing in their wake but charred homes and shallow graves. Stroud is now a man bereft: his home and family are gone, and his name has become a byword for cowardice and dishonor among those not privy to all the details. All that is left is a thirst for revenge, a desire to track down and punish the renegades who have taken all he held dear. At best Stroud finds himself shunned by a contemptuous town, and at worst he risks a lynching by the more hot-headed elements. Yet, despite the threats and insults, he is committed to tracking down the real villains and, in so doing, redeeming himself in the eyes of his suspicious traveling companions while also coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt and shame.

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A brief glance at the credits for The Man from the Alamo provides ample proof of its pedigree: Niven Busch and Steve Fisher feature among the writers, Russell Metty handled the photography, and Budd Boetticher occupied the director’s chair. Boetticher’s status rests mainly on the Ranown films, those pared down masterpieces with Randolph Scott. However, directors, like actors, don’t just arrive fully formed. When you come to examine almost any artist’s finest work, there’s generally a progression that can be traced leading up to that point. And so it was with Boetticher; the Ranown westerns may represent the peak of his achievements, but his earlier pictures were pointing in that direction. As I mentioned at the beginning, the ingredients were in place for a “big” movie. However, Boetticher, and the writers, trim away all the unnecessary flab to leave us with a lean piece that focuses on a driven character, an emotionally damaged outsider who measures words and actions carefully. That inner torment that Scott would so successfully portray a few years down the line isn’t quite so fully developed in The Man from the Alamo, but it’s there in embryonic form at least. I think it’s fair to say that Boetticher did his best work when he was out shooting on location. This film doesn’t have the benefit of the iconic Lone Pine locations yet the exteriors all look suitably handsome. Actually, a fair bit of the filming took place on the Universal backlot, and still looks attractive. The opening in the Alamo is extremely atmospheric, with the guttering candlelight creating a kind of grim claustrophobia, punctuated occasionally by the harsh flashes of the artillery. Generally, all of the action, and there’s no shortage of it, is well handled – the scene with the wagon train in full flight near the end is a good example of the director’s talent for exciting outdoor sequences.

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Glenn Ford started his post-war career strongly with Gilda and built on it very successfully in the years that followed. By the 1950s he was getting better and better, and The Man from the Alamo was made at a time when he was approaching his peak. While there are plenty of good actors around him in this movie, a lot rests on his central performance. Ford’s experience working in film noir stands to him here as there’s more than a touch of bad luck and the cruelty of fate surrounding his character. He was always good in these kinds of roles – the outsider who’s vaguely uncomfortable with himself – and uses that ability to get properly into the character of Stroud. He could also, when he wanted, project a type of self-effacing affability and that helps draw the sympathy of the audience. If you’re going to tell a story like this – about a wronged man whose sense of personal and public honor is questioned – then it’s vital to have an everyman type like Ford whose real qualities are apparent to the viewer. Julia Adams was handed a strong role too as the woman who overcomes her initial skepticism to become Stroud’s main ally. Not only does she bring a lot of dignity to her part, but she handles the physical demands very well too. Every western needs a suitable villain and Victor Jory was an expert at playing cunning and ruthless types. Besides looking shifty and slippery, Jory had a voice that just oozed malevolence. Neville Brand was another of those perennial bad guys and is impressive in a small but memorable role. In support there are worthwhile turns from Hugh O’Brian as a priggish Texan officer who gets to eat some humble pie, and Chill Wills as the one-armed newspaperman forced to put his blustering prejudice aside.

I actually have two copies of The Man from the Alamo on DVD: the UK edition that came out first and the US release that came as part of a four movie set a few years later. Both are Universal releases, and there’s not a lot to choose between them regarding the transfer. Both are in reasonable condition with no major print damage evident, although the colors look a little muted here and there. The UK disc has a variety of language dubs and subtitles available, but the US version represents better value since three other films come with it. Certain names bring raised expectations with them, and Budd Boetticher is one of those. It would be unwise to approach The Man from the Alamo in the hope of seeing a movie of the quality of any of the Ranown pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior movie. Frankly, it’s a good little western on its own terms, but it’s also interesting as an indication of the direction in which Boetticher was unmistakably moving at this stage in his career.

Two Flags West

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Civil War films have a reputation for doing poor business, which is probably why the era tends to have been approached somewhat obliquely by Hollywood. There are plenty of movies which feature the war as a kind of background element, something always present in the minds of the characters yet rarely directly shown on the screen. Westerns, perhaps on geographical grounds as much as anything, often used the Civil War and its legacy mainly as a plot device to provide motivation. Students of literature, stretching right back to Aristotle, have recognized conflict as the mainstay of drama – the essential element if you like. Two Flags West (1950) is a film positively brimming with conflict, and not just the obvious Confederate/Union rivalry that is central to the story. That of course is interesting enough in itself, but it’s the personal antagonism among the leads (and indeed within their own hearts) that adds depth and substance.

Two Flags West is one of a small group of westerns – along with Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee – which have soldiers of the Civil War’s two opposing sides forced to co-operate on the frontier. The story here is inspired by the proclamation which allowed Confederate POWs to gain a pardon and have their citizenship restored if they agreed to defend the frontier in the name of the Union. The controversial and divisive nature of this choice is made apparent right from the beginning, when the rebel cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Tucker (Joseph Cotten) are shown to be genuinely torn between the notion of betraying their homeland and remaining true to ideals that are slowly killing them. Faced with the prospect of succumbing to disease and malnutrition, these men narrowly vote to accept the Northern offer and move west to New Mexico where a different war is being fought. Asking a man to turn his back on a cause is one thing, asking him to turn his guns against it is entirely different. Therefore, it’s with the understanding that they will not be forced to take up arms against their former comrades that these men agree to wear the blue tunics of their enemies. The western frontier is virtually defenseless, its outposts manned by a rag-tag bunch of wounded and poorly trained troops. In contrast, the new recruits are skilled cavalrymen and hardened combat veterans.

One would think the presence of such seasoned troops would be welcomed by the men they are coming to reinforce. Indeed, that’s the early impression given by Captain Bradford (Cornel Wilde), the affable liaison officer who makes the initial offer and leads Tucker (now demoted to Lieutenant) and his men west. However, their new commanding officer, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), presents a very different face. Kenniston is a man whose external wounds are as nothing compared to the scars he carries inside. Here is a tortured soul, a man consumed by hatred of the enemy, professional disillusionment and personal frustration. His open animosity towards Tucker and his men, and his frank distrust of their loyalty is immediately apparent. It’s only a matter of time before he forces Tucker’s hand by arranging for the new recruits to carry out the execution of men they later discover were actually Confederate spies. Tucker naturally sees this as a breach of the terms he agreed to, and sets in motion a plan to desert. Now, there’s plenty of dramatic conflict in play at this point, but that’s only one aspect of the story. While questions of loyalty, trust and honor are being thrashed out, there’s also the matter of the Major’s widowed sister-in-law to be considered. Elena (Linda Darnell) is a woman desperate to reach California and her relatives, but that desperation stems from her desire to escape the brooding obsession of her late husband’s brother. To complicate matters further, Bradford is clearly in love with Elena and so has an even more delicate balancing act to master. In short, this isolated fort is like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the fuse that will touch it all off is provided by the mass of hostile Indians raiding beyond its walls.

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In writing about Robert Wise’s first western, Blood on the Moon, some time back, I mentioned how his time spent working for Orson Welles and Val Lewton was reflected in the imagery he used. While Two Flags West has fewer overtly noir touches, both Wise and cameraman Leon Shamroy use light and shadow very effectively, especially in the interiors. The opening scenes in the prison camp are enhanced by this technique, although the atmospheric photography can be seen all through the movie. I think the image above is a pretty good example of the artistic lighting and composition which is characteristic of this film: the grim faces of Cotten and the prisoners dominate the frame, while the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the boarded-up windows in the background suggest rays of hope and salvation reaching out to them. However, the film offers more than just moody and suggestive imagery. The climactic Indian assault on the fort is excitingly filmed and gets across the frenzied determination of the defenders facing overwhelming odds, and their consequent sense of hopelessness. Earlier, I referred to Major Dundee as another film whose plot hinged on the uneasy alliance of former enemies facing a common foe. Aside from that similarity in the basic story, it’s also interesting to note that Two Flags West foreshadows Peckinpah’s later picture by featuring scenes where both the Confederate and Union troops sing their respective songs simultaneously. As far as the script is concerned, the writers credited are Casey Robinson, Curtis Kenyon and Frank Nugent. The latter ought to be a recognizable name for anyone who is familiar with the films of John Ford – Nugent was a writer on both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This movie doesn’t paint as intimate a picture of life in an isolated fort as Ford’s cavalry films do, but there are still some parallels to be seen.

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Two Flags West is a movie with a very attractive headline cast. Despite stiff competition from his co-stars, I think Jeff Chandler makes the strongest impression. I suppose his early death is a contributory factor but I feel Chandler rarely gets much credit for his screen work these days. He wasn’t a particularly showy actor nor was he one for extravagant displays of emotion. Instead he was another of those brooding types who seemed to keep a lot locked away inside, only rarely letting his feelings bubble up towards the surface. The role of Major Kenniston was therefore an appropriate one for him. Chandler created a very convincing portrait of a man whose personal and professional failings are eating away at his soul, whose own self-loathing is weakening his judgement. Frankly, Kenniston is a martinet and there’s much to like about him. Having said that, Chandler invests him with great dignity, and his final scene is actually quite moving regardless of how poorly he has conducted himself up to that point. Cast against such an unsympathetic figure, Joseph Cotten’s Confederate officer ought to be the one we’re rooting for. And yet, that’s not really the case either. Cotten had a knack for playing disgruntled, troubled figures, and his portrayal of Tucker taps into that. Yet there’s a kind of sly ambiguity to his role, a slippery irony about him that means we can never be entirely sure of his motives. The result is that while he may be more sympathetic that Kenniston, the viewer can’t fully get behind him. All of this means that the audience is asked to identify most strongly with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell. I reckon Darnell’s part is the more successful one, not due solely to her acting talents – both Wilde and Darnell turn in good performances in my opinion – but perhaps as a result of Wilde’s being absent from the screen for long stretches. Among the supporting cast, there’s are nice turns from Jay C Flippen, Dale Robertson and Noah Beery Jr.

As far as I’m aware, the only DVD edition of Two Flags West currently available is this Spanish release from Fox/Impulso. It’s one of the label’s better efforts, boasting a generally strong transfer, although there is some print damage evident, generally confined to a kind of slight ripple or blur that appears sporadically on the right side of the frame. The release is English-friendly with the original soundtrack included and optional subtitles that can be deselected via the setup menu. The extra features consist of a gallery and a few text screens listing cast & crew. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of this movie might do well to hold off a little longer though. Koch Media in Germany are due to put the title out on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 26 – it’s worth bearing in mind that Koch’s products tend to be of very good quality. I like to highlight forgotten and/or neglected films whenever possible, and I think Two Flags West fits the bill. For one reason or another, it’s not a movie one hears about too often and that’s a shame. There’s a good plot with plenty of tension and a fair bit of depth, strong performances and fine visuals. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and a title deserving of some renewed attention.

Fallen Angel

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We were born to tread the earth as angels, to seek out Heaven this side of the sky. But they who race above shall stumble in the dark and fall from grace. Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.

Film noir is primarily an urban-based style of filmmaking, and derives many of its motifs from the faceless anonymity and frequently hostile isolation that characterize big city life. However, it would be a mistake to think that noir cannot exist outside of this particular environment. There are plenty of examples of the form to be found in a variety of settings – it’s this flexibility that is one of its strengths. While the metropolitan sprawl may well offer enhanced opportunities for portraying bleak, fatalistic tales, the small town, with all its attendant possibilities, represents another fertile setting. The more limited environment may not suggest the kind of impersonal alienation of larger urban surroundings, but the sense of community that exists (regardless of whether it’s shown in a positive or negative light) has its own claustrophobic atmosphere. Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) occupies a kind of middle ground, with the majority of the action taking place in a small tightly knit settlement but also featuring short interludes in San Francisco.

The film actually opens at a sort of geographical mid-point, one could almost say the middle of nowhere. After the credits, inventively flashed up on screen as a series of road signs seen through the windshield of a bus speeding through the night, we’re introduced to Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), and it’s immediately obvious that this is a down on his luck chancer. Not having enough money to ride the bus any further, Stanton finds himself tossed onto the road. With just a dollar in his pocket, he’s stranded in a small town, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s one of those sleepy little places where everybody knows each other and there’s not much to do. Stanton wanders into the local diner, right in the middle of what appears to be some kind of investigation. The owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride), is an anxious man – his waitress has apparently gone missing and he’s clearly distressed. A local cop and a former New York lawman, Judd (Charles Bickford), listen sympathetically and offers reassurance. As Stanton orders some food, the door of the diner opens and a weary but flashily dressed young woman strolls in. This is Stella (Linda Darnell), the source of all the panic a moment earlier. What’s immediately apparent is that Stella is arguably the hottest property in town; Pop is fawning and all puppy-dog eyes, Judd looks on with something approaching warmth, and Stanton too is unmistakably drawn to her. Stanton may be down to his last buck but he’s also the consummate opportunist. Spotting an advertisement for a visiting spiritualist, Stanton talks his way into acting as the promoter for the upcoming spook show. While Stanton might seem like the cat that always lands on its feet, this latest piece of maneuvering will actually drop him right into the centre of a maelstrom of passion lurking beneath the deceptively calm surface of the little coastal town. In falling for the insolent and sensual charms of Stella, he hits upon what he thinks is the perfect plan to win her over; Stella is no fool and wants a man who is willing and able to marry her and take her out of the dead-end job in this backwater. To this end, Stanton hatches a scheme to court and marry a rich heiress, June Mills (Alice Faye), divorce her and run off with Stella. However, it won’t be that easy. Too many men want Stella for themselves, June really falls for Stanton, and a murder will take place. I’m not going to reveal who dies or who did the deed, I’ll say only that Stanton becomes the prime suspect and he will have to unravel the tangled web of deceit and thwarted desire if he’s to have any chance of clearing his name.

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Otto Preminger had made his mark with the highly successful Laura, and Fallen Angel can be seen as an effort to build on that, reuniting the director with Dana Andrews along with cameraman Joseph LaShelle and composer David Raksin. There are those who argue that Laura isn’t full-blown noir; while I wouldn’t necessarily go along with that assessment I can see where it’s coming from. With Fallen Angel, however, there can be no doubt about its categorization. The plot, themes, milieu and cinematography are all characteristically noir. In visual terms, this style of cinema is all about light and shadow – thematically, faith and despair are the key. Fallen Angel checks all the boxes on this score. Film noir concerns itself with dissatisfaction and the desire of individuals to escape their circumstances more than anything else. Escape is certainly the prime motivation of all the characters in this movie: we’re taken on a tour of a world populated by people desperate to break free of social constraints, unfulfilling relationships, financial difficulties, and just plain old bad luck. If you watch enough of these kinds of films then, time and again, you run across characters in the concrete jungles champing at the bit to return to the land or to emigrate, while those in the country yearn for the perceived glamor and excitement of brightly lit cities. This is very much the case with Fallen Angel – everybody in the picture has dreams and aspirations, and all of these inevitably descend into nightmare.

Preminger and LaShelle created some wonderful images on the screen, and drew a nice contrast between the small town, where the bulk of the action unfolds, and San Francisco. Contrary to what one might expect, it’s the scenes in the city that have a crisp, clear look whereas the little coastal settlement exists mainly in shadow, reflecting the moral ambiguities and hidden passions that lurk there. It’s also worth drawing attention to the skill and ease with which Preminger moves his camera around, at once building tension and drama, revealing secrets and objectifying characters. There’s one particular scene that illustrates what I’m talking about here, taking place on Stanton’s wedding night. Having slipped out of the house to meet with Stella, he quarrels with her and she storms off to keep her date with her current beau. As Stella strides away, Preminger pulls the camera back to show her getting into her lover’s car before tracking forward to focus briefly on Stanton’s scowling features. Instead of allowing the camera to remain there though, the director maintains the forward movement and passes by Stanton to come to rest on the shadowy background, out of which steps the new groom’s disappointed sister-in-law – a masterfully composed shot.

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I’ve written at length about Dana Andrews’ abilities before and Fallen Angel proves yet again what a strong screen presence he had. He did some very memorable work throughout the 40s, and Preminger in particular seemed able to get the best out of him. The noir pictures they made together are all quality productions and all of them offered Andrews the opportunity to explore something different. While he had good support in this movie, his was the central role and he remains the main focus. What we have is an essentially insecure individual who cloaks his own recognized inadequacies with smart patter. It’s only relatively late in proceedings, when he’s on the run and panicked, that he reveals his true character. The nonchalant, worldly veneer that he employs to gloss over his fears and paranoia is stripped away and we get a glimpse of the real man, basically a frightened guy who’s been running from danger all his life. In a sense, the beauty of this film stems from the way Andrews’ character develops as a result of his interaction with two very different women. Of the two, Linda Darnell’s Stella is the one that catches the eye; sultry and seductive, Darnell might at first appear to be the fallen angel of the title but that’s not at all the case. Darnell was a genuine beauty and had an earthy charm that is highlighted in this film. All the main characters are stuck on her, but she flits round them all like a firefly, drawing the best and worst out of them. However, it’s Alice Faye’s June that exerts the most powerful influence on Andrews’ drifter. Darnell provokes the conflict among the men but Faye recognizes and draws forth the humanity and half-remembered decency in Andrews. Not being a fan of musicals, I have to admit that I’m not all that familiar with the work of Alice Faye. Nevertheless, I remain highly impressed with her performance in this film. I understand that a good deal of her role ended up on the cutting room floor, prompting her to walk off the Fox lot, but what we’re left with indicates that she had great dramatic potential. I could go on about the depth and talent involved in the supporting cast, but I’ll confine myself to a few words about Charles Bickford. His role here is a pivotal one, maybe as complex as that of the leads and he carries it off very effectively. For a variety of reasons I want to be brief here, so I’ll just say that Bickford does a marvelous job of conveying reassuring menace.

Back when Fox were running their noir line the choices for inclusion sometimes seemed a little arbitrary. Having said that, Fallen Angel is the real deal, a genuine slice of film noir. The R1 DVD is an excellent presentation of the film – it’s sharp, crisp and boasts very strong contrast that really shows off LaShelle’s cinematography. The extra features consist of a commentary track by Eddie Muller and Susan Andrews (the actor’s daughter), a series of galleries and brief liner notes. If one wanted to be critical, then I guess the plot could be viewed as rather contrived. Even so, the whole thing adds up to a highly polished and attractive package. I don’t believe Preminger ever made a poor noir picture, although I’ll have to qualify that by pointing out that I’ve yet to see The 13th Letter, and Fallen Angel must rate among the better ones. As a drama, a thriller, a film noir, or a kind of cock-eyed romance the movie comes highly recommended.

Readers Choice

Today, I had planned to post one of my usual pieces but as you can see that hasn’t happened. I won’t bore anyone with the mundane reasons – suffice to say that normal service shall be resumed as soon as possible.

In the meantime though, this offers me the opportunity to try out something I’ve had in mind for a while now. I’ve decided to offer readers of this blog the chance to select which film they would like me to write about. That’s correct folks; you get to cast a vote. I’m going to offer a choice of two movies and although I haven’t specified a time limit on the actual poll plugin, I’m going to set one here – let’s say 11pm this Thursday. Whichever movie has received the most votes by that time will be deemed the winner, and will then be written up.

So here goes! You’re getting a choice of two films starring Dana Andrews: the Otto Preminger noir Fallen Angel (1945) or the WWII mystery Sealed Cargo (1951). I do hope people come in and vote on this – it could be a tad embarrassing otherwise – and you’re free to leave any comments you wish. If I’ve set this up properly then it’s only possible to cast your vote once, so ballot stuffing won’t work. Anyway, have at it, and may the best film win!

Bend of the River

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You’ll be seeing me. You’ll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be. You’ll be seeing me.

If you watch enough westerns, from almost any era, it soon becomes apparent that certain themes and subtexts crop up time and again. The one that I feel is the most constant, that seems to almost define the genre as a whole, is the concept of change. It literally pervades the genre: changes to the landscape, control of the country, the law, social organization, transport, the notion of freedom and opportunity, and so on. Of course some of these aspects either increased or decreased in popularity in relation to the time at which they were produced. So it’s no accident that the 50s, with that decade’s frequent meditations on the idea of personal redemption, should see a tendency to focus on changes in the hearts of men. Bend of the River (1952) concerns itself with atonement for the sins of the past and the desire to change the course of one’s life, along with the associated obstacles and prejudices that need to be overcome.

The Civil War has ended and the westward push is on, the drive to roll back the frontier and build something new and fresh. Over the opening credits a wagon train makes its way through the unspoiled beauty of Oregon. The settlers, headed up by Jeremy Baile (Jay C Flippen), are full of hope and a determined pioneering spirit. There’s a kind of wholesome enthusiasm that radiates from these people, and it’s reflected too in the man who’s guiding them, Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart). When he rides ahead to scout the trail we get the first indication that McLyntock isn’t the unsullied character his traveling companions believe. Topping a rise, he stumbles upon a nasty little scene in the clearing below. There’s a lynching in progress for a horse thief. Seeing as a man’s horse was often his most valuable possession and could mean the difference between survival and death in a hostile environment, frontier justice dictated that the rope was all one could expect for such a heinous crime. Still and all, lynching is a dirty little business, and it’s no surprise that McLyntock intervenes and saves the life of the condemned man. No, that in itself is entirely understandable – what is telling though is the reaction of McLyntock just before he draws his gun. His features register violent revulsion but there’s something of the hunted man that flashes briefly from his eyes. It transpires that the man at the end of the rope is Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), a former border raider whose name is familiar to McLyntock. It’s soon revealed that Cole has also heard of McLyntock, both of them having been in the same line of business so to speak. While these two men with a dark past may have some things in common, there is one crucial difference. The devil-may-care Cole has no regrets about his actions whereas McLyntock is a deeply troubled figure, a man trying to bury his unsavory deeds and make a new beginning among people who trust him. When the wagon train rolls into Portland Cole and McLyntock bid each other farewell – Cole thinking only of how best to make his fortune while McLyntock is bound for the clean air and anonymity of the high country. However, these two are destined to cross paths again. The settlers need supplies shipped to them to see them through their first winter and have paid for delivery in advance. As is often the case though, circumstances change dramatically when greed rears its ugly head. A trip back to Portland sees McLyntock and Cole renewing their acquaintance. But theirs is an uneasy relationship, their friendship balanced rather precariously at all times. The shadows of the past are never far away, beckoning enticingly to Cole while pointing accusingly at McLyntock. On the run from new enemies in Portland, it remains to be seen how fast the friendship of these men will be, and whether McLyntock will be allowed to prove to his companions and himself that a man can truly change his ways.

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Bend of the River was Anthony Mann’s second western with James Stewart, continuing what was to become a highly influential cycle of movies and further developing the persona of the tortured lead. One of the key visual motifs in Mann’s work was the continual striving upwards of his characters, the drive to rise above base instincts and cares. Although this feature isn’t quite as pronounced in Bend of the River as it is in some of his other movies, it is still there. The wagon train, and most especially McLyntock, view the mountain country as a kind of promised land where social and spiritual rebirth are possible. Irving Glassberg photographed the stunning Oregon locations beautifully, and the contrast between the crisp freshness and purity of the mountains is contrasted strongly with the darker, more restrictive and corrupt feeling of the town gripped by gold fever. The central theme of a man desperate for change and redemption is well handled by Mann, working from a Borden Chase script. Additionally, there’s a fairly complex notion of duality at work too. In essence, Cole and McLyntock are mirror images. The inevitable confrontation represents McLyntock squaring off against his own darker nature as much as anything else.

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I think it’s impossible to overemphasize how instrumental Mann was in shaping James Stewart into one of the major post-war movie stars, although both Hitchcock and Capra had a hand in the process too. For much of the time Stewart is, superficially at least, in amiable mode, yet there’s always an unease there. This of course is entirely appropriate as his character is burdened by a tremendous sense of guilt and also a sort of slow burning dread that his past will be revealed and lead to his being rejected. As usual Mann managed to get Stewart to dig deep within himself and draw on his reserves. There are three notable occasions where Stewart’s consuming rage threatens to overcome him. The first is the momentary rush of emotion at the sight of the lynching. The next occurs when the rebellious laborers hired in Portland drop the full weight of a jacked up wagon on Baile – the startling intensity of Stewart’s fury rendering him speechless and inarticulate. However, it’s the final outpouring that carries the greatest impact. With the mutiny complete and Cole having shown his true colors, the emotionally distraught Stewart delivers those lines which I featured at the top of the article. Written down in black and white, they lack the power with which Stewart invests them in his cold, calculated and measured way. With his voice threatening to crack under the strain of maintaining self-control, no-one is left in any doubt that the gloves are off, the Rubicon has been crossed and there’s no going back.

Arthur Kennedy proved a splendid foil for Stewart; where Stewart was all inner conflict and suppressed emotion, Kennedy was a man very much at ease with his own villainy. However, that’s not to say his performance was one-note or lacking in nuance. He starts off as something of a rogue, but not an entirely unattractive one. It’s his innate greed and an inability to rise above his own self-interest that sees him develop into a fully fledged villain. As such, we don’t get the same shock as would be the case a few years later when Kennedy again teamed up with Stewart and Mann to make The Man from Laramie. Here, Kennedy’s character is clearly morally corrupted from the beginning and it’s only the extent that’s in question. The supporting cast in Bend of the River is a remarkably strong one starting with Julia Adams, Rock Hudson and the great Jay C Flippen. This was one of the star making roles for the rising Hudson, a vigorous, heroic part as the young gambler who signs on with the wagon train. Hudson’s good enough at what he’s asked to do, but really it’s not very demanding stuff and he makes only a limited impression. Julia Adams’ beautiful presence graced many a movie for Universal during the 50s and I always like to see her name in the credits. This film offered her a good part as the girl who initially falls for Kennedy’s charm before finally seeing him for what he is and switching her affections to Stewart. And there’s no shortage of familiar faces to add to the villainy ranged against Stewart – Howard Petrie, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Harry Morgan all put in good performances. And then there’s Stepin Fetchit, an actor whose characterizations remain controversial to this day. I think it’s worth noting that both Scott Nollen (whose latest book I reviewed last week) and Joseph McBride have interesting things to say about this performer, namely the way John Ford and he tried to actually subvert racial stereotypes in their work together.

I think Bend of the River is available on DVD pretty much everywhere these days – it’s certainly been out in both the UK and the US via Universal for many years now. The UK disc I have is a completely bare bones affair with nothing at all in the way of extra features. However, the transfer of the film is very good indeed, with excellent color and no print damage worth mentioning. In the past I’ve tried broadly rating or comparing the westerns that Mann and Stewart made together, but it’s essentially a pointless exercise. These are all strong and rewarding movies that can be watched repeatedly without losing any of their power or freshness. Let’s just say that this is one of the top-tier westerns from a great team and leave it at that.

I would just like to add a brief postscript here to let anyone who’s interested in such things know that this has been the 250th film which I’ve had the pleasure of writing about on this site.