Will Penny

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It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.

Choices and chances – life offers its fair share of both to all of us as it meanders along, and the way we react to them is frequently determined by timing. This could be regarded no more than everyday stuff, but all good drama has such apparently mundane concerns as its foundation. In fact, the best examples of drama all have a timeless quality, containing some basic truth that transcends their age. Westerns, one could argue, are very much rooted in the time period they depict. Again though, the best western movies have at their core a theme that goes beyond time and place, one which addresses contemporary issues while also remaining relevant to modern life. Will Penny (1968) is one such film, focusing on a set of circumstances arising directly from its Old West setting, and also speaking to audiences of matters that are constants of the human condition.

Will Penny is a film that can be approached, and which works, on three different yet interrelated levels. It’s an absorbing adventure, an examination of a way of life approaching its twilight stages, and a tale about the power and promise of human relationships. Will Penny (Charlton Heston) is the archetypical western hero, a man alone, a self-reliant and capable character shaped by the landscape he occupies and the job he does. But Will is a man who’s growing old and, like the frontier itself, is fast approaching a point where he is going to be consigned to the past – tellingly, he’s the only rider at the end of the round-up who is illiterate to the extent he has to sign his name by marking a crude X in the ledger. Whatever the reality may have been, the fictional cowboy has always been a figure of nobility, a kind of latter-day knight bound by a personal code of honor. The first example of this, and also the first of a number of fateful decisions taken, comes when Will passes up the opportunity to move on to Kansas City and continued employment to make way for a younger man who wants to see his ailing father. Instead, Will sets off with two companions (Anthony Zerbe & Lee Majors) with only the slimmest of hopes of finding work to see them through the winter. In the course of their journey two significant events occur, one leading on directly from the other. Firstly, a fatal misunderstanding over the shooting of an elk sparks a feud with a crazed old man, Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence), and his degenerate family. This violent encounter leaves one of the men seriously wounded, and necessitates a stopover at a remote swing station. It’s here that the seeds of the second, and more interesting strand, of the story are planted. Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) is traveling west with her young son, and Will has his first, semi-comedic, meeting with this slightly prim woman as he tries to secure medical attention for his wounded companion. We come across all kinds of people all the time, and Will naturally thinks nothing more of it. However, having found employment as a line rider for a nearby ranch, Will chances upon the woman a second time, now occupying the cabin assigned to him for the long winter months ahead. Despite having explicit instructions to ensure that travelers must move on as soon as possible, Will lets his innate nobility get the better of him once again. His decision to let the woman and her son stay on till spring, coupled with the fact that the Quint clan remain loose and thirsty for revenge, is to have a profound effect on Will’s whole take on his life. As I said in the opening, everything boils down to chances, choices and timing.

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Before 1968 Tom Gries worked extensively on television, and Will Penny – which he both wrote and directed – allowed him to break through into the cinema. It remains his best piece of work, mainly due to its authenticity. The movie capture the look and feel of its era very successfully – the loneliness, the drudgery of everyday life, and the sense of times changing fast. More significant than any of that though is the authenticity that Gries managed to draw from his characters and how they related to one another. It often feels like romantic sub-plots are injected into dramas almost as an afterthought, and consequently seem fake, forced and superfluous. Here however, the relationship that gradually builds between Will and Catherine, and her son, constitutes the beating heart of the picture. This touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lonely people glimpsing an opportunity for love and companionship is the factor that raises Will Penny up and lends it that timeless quality I referred to earlier. Historically speaking, Will Penny occupies that nebulous zone, as do many westerns of the 60s, straddling the classical and revisionist periods. The clear delineation of heroes and villains, and the focus on a kind of selfless nobility hark back to the likes of Shane and Hondo from the preceding decade. On the other hand, there’s also that melancholy feeling of a disappearing era that would be explored further in films such as Monte Walsh and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in the years to come.

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Will Penny features a first-rate cast, and I don’t believe there’s a poor performance anywhere – Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasence, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe all do good work. Having said that, both Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett seem to connect with their respective roles in a way that elevates them far above those all around them. There are those who would assert that Heston wasn’t much of an actor – similarly ill-informed accusations are often leveled at John Wayne and Gary Cooper – and was more of an icon than a performer. In Heston’s case, this probably comes from his frequent casting as larger than life heroic figures. Will Penny saw him playing a simple human being though, the most reluctant of heroes, and was reportedly his favorite role. Heston gets deep inside his character here, investing him with an astonishing level of credibility. There’s genuine modesty on display, a kind of faltering fallibility about this performance that can be seen in all kinds of ways – the barely concealed shame over his illiteracy and lack of education, the physical suffering he undergoes, and his struggle to come to terms with an emotional awakening that has taken him completely by surprise. Joan Hackett didn’t possess traditional Hollywood glamor, but she too reached inside to find an inner truth that characterizes her performance. The fact that Heston was able to produce something so touching is largely down to Hackett’s playing opposite him. For me, there are two standout scenes: that sweet and beautiful business involving the Christmas tree and the boy; and the climactic scene in the cabin where Hackett and Heston bare their souls and break your heart. The resolution of the movie could be seen as a firm rejection of the standard happy ending, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a downer. Personally, I like to think of it in positive terms; the overriding message for me is that there’s always hope for even the loneliest and unhappiest individuals. Whether one seizes that hope is, of course, another matter entirely.

Will Penny is a Paramount picture and the UK DVD, despite being released a long time ago now, is still a very strong disc. The film is given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer with natural colors and was obviously taken from a very clean print. There are two short features included on the casting and making of the film, with contributions from Charlton Heston and Jon Gries, the director’s son who also played Joan Hackett’s little boy in the movie. Will Penny probably represents Charlton Heston’s finest screen work, and the film is an immensely satisfying experience. It’s thoughtful, mature, at times exciting, and always affecting. For anyone who has yet to see the film, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Gun Glory

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I happened to be involved in an online discussion elsewhere today, and the talk turned to how certain movies can be categorized. To be specific, we were chewing the fat over those films that fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the great and the shockingly bad. Now I’ve long been of the opinion that few movies truly belong in either of those positions; the vast majority occupy some kind of middle ground, with some of us drawn to particular virtues that appeal to us while others are less enamored. I’ve pointed out before that I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “masterpiece”, mainly due to all its high-pressure implications, but I’m no fonder of the label “turkey” either. Anyway, all of this put me in the mood to hammer out a short piece on a film that I think it’s fair to call average. Gun Glory (1957) is what I would think of as an extremely typical film, nothing special but entertaining enough and with at least a handful of positive things in its favor.

The return of the prodigal is an ancient story, although the variant in question here sees the father rather than the son cast as the errant figure. Tom Early (Stewart Granger) is a man who abandoned his wife and son, a gambler and gunman of great notoriety. The film opens with this character making his way back towards the home he has long neglected. A brief stop off in the neighboring town shows that his reputation precedes him, but his optimism remains undimmed as he happily purchases a trinket as a gift for his wife. However, his arrival at his ranch brings him down to earth and back to reality with a jolt. His son, Tom Jr (Steve Rowland), is less than impressed, and then there’s the sickening realization that the woman he once loved has passed away in his absence. Still and all, blood ties are powerful and the father and son come to a kind of edgy understanding – the wrongs and mistakes of the past can never be forgotten, but it’s human nature to try to forgive and move on. Therefore, the two men make an effort to piece together their relationship, Tom Sr being especially keen to win back the trust and respect of his son that he so casually squandered before. He even takes in a lonely widow, Jo (Rhonda Fleming), as his housekeeper in an attempt to restore something of a family atmosphere. The western genre is packed with stories of men desperate to outrun their past ans sooner or later these guys come to realize that it’s an impossible task – the past must be faced squarely and dealt with before any door to the future can be opened. In this instance, the past is represented by the arrival of a ruthless cattleman, Grimsell (James Gregory), bent on driving his herd through town and obliterating it in the process. As such, it’s both an opportunity and a challenge for Tom Early Sr – an opportunity to prove himself and do something decent, but also a challenge to his desire to leave his violent ways behind him.

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Roy Rowland was what you might call an efficient director of programmers, movies that were a cut above B pictures but just shy of being A list features. He handled a couple of pretty good westerns in the 1950s (Bugles in the Afternoon and The Outriders) alongside a very strong film noir (Rogue Cop). Films like this called for a brisk, no-nonsense style and Rowland was well suited to that kind of role. A good proportion of the action takes place indoors but there are opportunities for location work too, and the director showed that he was more than capable of composing attractive setups for the wide lens. Gun Glory, which was adapted from a novel by Philip Yordan, isn’t one of those non-stop action movies but when it does come along, Rowland shoots it well with a good sense of spatial awareness. More than anything though, this follows the classic 50s western template of a remorseful man seeking to make amends for his errors.

Stewart Granger was building on his successful western role in Richard Brooks’ The Last Hunt which had been made a year before. He seemed very much at ease in the frontier setting, showing off some highly impressive horsemanship skills in the process. In fact, it’s Granger’s strong central performance that is the greatest strength of the film. It’s clear enough that he’s playing a man carrying around a heavy burden of guilt – blaming himself for not being there when his wife died, and for failing to support his son during his formative years – but he never lays it on too thick. Still, there can be no doubt how he feels about himself; the short scenes of him visiting his late wife’s grave tell us all we need to know without the need for dull, expository dialogue. Rhonda Fleming was given a strong part in the movie as the widow who works her way into the lives and hearts of the two Early men. Her role served the important function of drawing both of these men out and helping them achieve a true reconciliation. I think it’s also worth pointing out the romance that develops between the characters of Granger and Fleming is nicely judged, mature and realistic. To be honest, I felt that Steve Rowland (the director’s son) presented one of the weak links in the film. Again, the part of Tom Jr was a pivotal one yet Rowland never felt convincing to me. As for the supporting players, Chill Wills pops up once again and gives a warm performance as the town preacher and one of Granger’s few allies. James Gregory was another of those familiar faces, a character actor many will recognize straight away, and he provided a nice foe for Granger. There’s also a semi-villainous role for Jacques Aubuchon as a crippled storekeeper with his eye on Fleming.

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Gun Glory is available as a MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also a Warner/Impulso pressed disc from Spain. I have that Spanish release, and it presents the film very strongly. The transfer is anamorphic scope taken from a very clean and sharp print. I can’t say I was aware of any noticeable damage and the colors are well rendered. All told, there’s really nothing to complain about on that score. The disc offers no extra features whatsoever and subtitles are removable, despite the main menu suggesting that this is not the case. Anyway, we get a very attractive looking film with two good performances  from the stars. The story itself is engaging enough, although there’s nothing on show that genre fans won’t have seen before. As I mentioned above, the direction is capable and professional without being particularly memorable. All told, this is a moderate western – interesting and entertaining but not exactly essential.

Heat Wave

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These days it’s hard to think of Hammer Films without recalling visions of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee battling it out in luridly colored horror movies. The British studio earned an iconic place in the hearts of film lovers for their almost single-handed revival of the Gothic horror picture. More than anything else, this is what Hammer is and will be remembered for. However, things didn’t start out that way. Before their successful reinvention of Dracula, Frankenstein et al Hammer were churning out a series of low budget crime movies. A distribution deal struck with Lippert in the US meant that these cheap and cheerful pictures that flirted with the noir sensibility featured a succession of Hollywood performers, often those nearing the end of their star careers. The resulting movies were of varying quality, but a handful are of particular note. Heat Wave (1954) is among the very best of this bunch, featuring a better than average script, a well-chosen cast, and a mood and atmosphere that comes closer to classic US noir than many a British production.

The story is told in the form of one long flashback, narrated by a resigned and slightly drunk Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol). Kendrick is a struggling hack writer, an American residing in Britain, who has rented a lakeside cottage to get away from it all and try to make good on his latest commission. In Kendrick’s own words, the whole affair began one sultry evening as he sipped his drink and gazed across the lake at the lights of the house opposite. There’s a party going on, and Kendrick is the kind of man who is easily distracted from responsibility and work. A phone call from the hostess, Carol Forrest (Hillary Brooke), informs him that there’s a problem with the launch meant to ferry the guests to their destination, and see if he would mind using his little motor boat to carry them. Kendrick doesn’t need much persuading to take a break from the book he doesn’t feel like writing, so he duly obliges. On arrival, he gets his first glimpse of Carol and the various dissipated revelers she has invited. Straight away Kendrick has Carol pegged as a lady with a wandering eye and pretty flexible morals. While it’s clear enough that Kendrick isn’t exactly the upstanding sort himself, he’s not really interested in what he sees on offer at this point. All noir needs something to draw the hapless anti-heroes deeper into a dangerous situation: Carol certainly represents the bait to pique Kendrick’s curiosity, but the hook comes in the form of her husband, Beverly Forrest (Sid James). Beverly is one of those salt of the earth types, a self-made tycoon with a likeable side. Kendrick spends the evening playing billiards and boozing with his host, and the result is that he’s made himself a new friend. Beverly may be a rich man with a desirable trophy wife, but he’s also lonely and dissatisfied. He’s a man surrounded by sharks, people whose only wish is to get as much as they can from him. In Kendrick he sees something different though; he senses that here’s a guy who isn’t on the make and is good company to boot. However, Carol’s allure is powerful, and her appetite is whetted by the apparent nonchalance of Kendrick. The truth is this broke writer is unquestionably drawn to Carol in spite of his fondness for and loyalty to her husband. Factor in Beverly’s heart condition, his determination to see Carol cut out of his will, her own thirst for money, and the all the ingredients are in place for a classic noir triangle.

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Heat Wave was written and directed by Ken Hughes, adapted from his own novel High Wray. Hughes had already worked on a handful of shorts in the Scotland Yard series for Merton Park and brought the sense of urgency and economy that such experiences demand to bear on the movie in question. The running time of Heat Wave is just shy of 70 minutes, and the pace is necessarily brisk throughout. In short, Hughes never wastes a moment, and ensures that everything we need to know is imparted with the minimum of fuss. British attempts at film noir could be a hit and miss affair, often not quite striking the right tone to make them convincing. However, Hughes’ writing and direction probably get as close to the American template as any Hammer production. The flashback device and Alex Nicol’s weary narration of the unfolding events create a sense of fatalism and poor judgment. In addition, Hughes aims for the shadowy, ambiguous appearance of classic US noir – it doesn’t always come off, but when it does the results are fairly impressive.

I think the casting in these Hammer noir pictures wasn’t always ideal, with some of the imported stars not looking quite comfortable in their surroundings. However, the leading trio in Heat Wave work well together and suit their roles. Alex Nicol was good at portraying weak-willed villains and, although his part here is more anti-heroic than outright villainous, that quality is used very effectively. Kendrick is essentially a washed-up loser, and Nicol captures that aspect perfectly. I’m not one of those who believes that film noir has to have a femme fatale character to work, but such a figure does add something if it’s properly realized. As such, Hillary Brooke’s scheming and ruthless wife is a major plus point for the film. Her cold, naked self-interest contrasts nicely with the slightly befuddled and indecisive Nicol, and her sympathetic husband. Which brings me on to Sid James. Here is a man who seemed to turn up in every other British movie of the 1950s. The South African born actor is now best remembered for his many appearances in the long-running Carry On series of comedies, but he was more than just a comic figure with an infectious laugh. Those familiar, battered features graced movies of a whole variety of genres and he was more than capable in dramatic roles. One thing that’s beyond dispute about Sid James is the sheer likeability of the man on screen. He looked, moved and sounded like a man who had lived a great deal, and that rumpled face had all the humor, regret and understanding of long experience etched in every line. Maybe he isn’t the first guy you’d think of when the image of a tycoon comes to mind, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of drawing the viewer completely to his side. There’s good support from Alan Wheatley as the dogged detective – it may just be my impression but I felt he was channeling Peter Cushing at times. The only weak link, as far as I was concerned, came in the shape of Susan Stephen, appearing far too earnest and middle-class to be convincing as Sid James’ daughter.

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Heat Wave is readily available on DVD from VCI  as part of the Hammer noir series. Hammer Film Noir Volumes 1-3, offering a total of six movies on three discs, represents good value for money. Generally, VCI releases tend to sport medium grade transfers, and that’s a fair assessment of how Heat Wave is presented. The image could be a little sharper and it’s interlaced as usual – in addition, this film really ought to be presented widescreen. Still, it’s hard to be overly critical when the price is so reasonable. Heat Wave isn’t a perfect film – it is after all a low budget programmer – but it is one of the best of Hammer’s early efforts. I’m fond of British thrillers from the 50s and 60s so I may be a little biased here, but I do feel this movie has points of interest for fans of film noir in general and British crime pictures in particular. Anyway, for those who think Hammer stands for horror and nothing else, Heat Wave is a good indicator of the versatility of that legendary studio.

Readers Choice 2

Having tried out this idea before and finding that it proved to be generally popular, I’ve decided to give it another go. Once again I’m letting readers of this site have their say and leaving it up to them to choose the movie that will be featured next. Instead of offering two films with a common actor, as I did last time, I’m switching the focus to a studio. In this case, it’s Hammer Films – best known for their horror output, the studio nevertheless produced pictures in a variety of genres. The options this time are a couple of thrillers from the 1950s: Heat Wave (1954) & The Snorkel (1958). The poll shall remain open until midday on Wednesday, and may the best movie win.