Awards Time

It’s always nice when someone passes along an award. Sometimes these things have a whole raft of conditions attached which can be enormously time-consuming though. As such, it’s quite relaxing to get one which is relatively simple to accept and pass on. And that’s the characteristics of the award sent my way by blogger vinnieh today.

This one simply involves displaying the award logo (check), linking back to whoever gave it to you (check), nominating ten others to receive it (see below), and letting those ten know (OK, OK, just gimme a minute!) – and that’s it. Simple.

I’m not sure, but I think the award, mainly due to its name, is supposed to go to WordPress powered blogs. That gave me pause, there are plenty of worthy blogs out there – many I respect and like to visit – that operate on other platforms. On this occasion I’ve left out such sites and concentrated on WordPress ones. Maybe that’s not the correct reading of the award, but it’s the way I’ve chosen to interpret it. Anyway, having got that rationale out of the way, here are my ten worthy nominees:

Twenty Four Frames

Tipping My Fedora

It Rains…You Get Wet

Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

Speakeasy

Movie Classics

Lasso the Movies

Only Detect

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

ClassicMovieChat.com

The Last of the Fast Guns

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I’ve met a lot of men in my time. A woman they forget, a mine busting with gold, even the faces of their own children. But I’ve never met a man who forgot a grave he dug.

The Last of the Fast Guns (1958) is set mostly in Mexico, and as a result it belongs to a smallish group of westerns that transplant their heroes south of the border. Generally, these films involve men searching for something or someone. In this case, the hunt is ostensibly for a man, but the reality is that the hero is on an altogether different quest – as he chases after shadows and memories he’s actually trying to pin down a kind of inner peace, looking to come to terms with his own demons and violent nature as the country changes around him.

The opening is stark, brutal and a little shocking in its cold abruptness. The first image we see is a cemetery with a freshly dug grave, and a man quietly riding away from it. At first glance, this scene has an almost supernatural quality, as though the rider has just risen from the earth before mounting up and moving off. However, the truth is that Brad Ellison (Jock Mahoney) has been making preparations, quite literally doing the spade work before heading off to find an occupant for that new grave. He enters the neighboring town and calmly guns down an unnamed man in a brief duel. Right away we know the type of character we’re dealing with, a man of few words with a dangerous reputation that can make him a fortune but is also something of a curse. No sooner has he removed a threat than he’s presented with a proposition: head over the border and track down a man named Forbes. The reason is Forbes’ brother is a wealthy man in poor health and wants to find him to avoid his estate passing on to a treacherous partner. The thing is men like Ellison don’t get hired unless there’s a high risk factor, and the disappearance of two previous messengers is testament to that. Forbes is an elusive figure, someone who’s spoken of in hushed, almost reverential and awed tones, and his shadowy, spectral presence hangs over the picture. Ellison’s mission brings him into contact with four people: Michael O’Reilly (Lorne Greene), his daughter Maria (Linda Cristal), his foreman Miles Lang (Gilbert Roland) and an old padre (Eduard Franz). These four, in different ways, have a powerful effect on Ellison, shaping his destiny as they help and hinder his efforts to catch up with the mysterious Forbes.

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The Last of the Fast Guns is a very interesting piece of work from director George Sherman. It’s one of those late 50s westerns that is very much in the classical mold, but also looks forward to and anticipates some of the trends that would surface in the following decade. The dialogue is terse and economical, rapped out with the kind of staccato rhythm that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film noir, and loaded with existential undertones. The hero is much more of an anti-heroic figure than one typically associates with the 50s – the black clad, mercenary Mahoney recalling Burt Lancaster’s grinning rogue form Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, but not quite achieving the amorality that would characterize the bounty killers peopling many 60s westerns. In a sense the link here is not so much with the approaching spaghetti westerns as the regretful nihilism of Peckinpah. That aspect was reinforced for me by an early scene which sees Ellison stopping off at a type of outlaw refuge when he’s just entered Mexico. This is a lovely interlude as he sits around with James Younger and Johnny Ringo, reminiscing about the past and lamenting the passing of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. For all that, The Last of the Fast Guns is at heart a classic 50s production, concerning itself with notions of rebirth and redemption. And that brings me back to that haunting opening. Ellison can in fact be seen as something of a resurrected soul, a man striving to leave death behind him, to achieve or earn his place among the living. Perhaps it’s telling too that, like in The Wonderful Country, the implication is that this can only be realized in Mexico.

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Former stuntman Jock Mahoney is probably best known for playing Tarzan, but he made a number of good westerns from the mid to late 50s. I guess it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most expressive actor around but he did have a lot of physical presence and was a good fit in westerns. His laconic style works very well here where he’s taking on the role of a tough gunman and killer. In complete contrast – even down to the predominantly white costume – Gilbert Roland is typically swaggering and arrogant. Roland cuts a much more ambiguous figure, leaving the viewer guessing for long periods of time just whose side he’s really on. Together, Mahoney and Roland balance each other out and their friendship/rivalry is one of the most attractive parts of the film. The casting also has a strong television connection: Lorne Greene being forever associated with Bonanza and Linda Cristal evoking memories of The High Chaparral for me at least. Personally, I don’t feel Ms Cristal had a huge amount of screen chemistry with Mahoney, although there is just about enough there for her role as his spiritual savior to work.

As far as I’m aware there are only two DVD editions of The Last of the Fast Guns available at present, from France and Spain. I have the Spanish release from Llamentol (currently on sale at a fairly good price here) which presents the movie in anamorphic scope and clearly comes from a strong source print. As is usual with this company’s releases, there are no extra features on the disc and subtitles can be removed via the main menu. I reckon a lot of George Sherman’s work is underrated and there’s a rich selection of material waiting to be mined for those unfamiliar with him. The Last of the Fast Guns is a good example of Sherman’s deceptively relaxed filmmaking style. The movie is a visual treat, runs for a lean 80 minutes and has a lot more depth than you might expect. Recommended.

High Treason

There’s a tendency to view the Red Scare of the 1950s, as represented in the movies, as a purely American phenomenon. The whole HUAC affair and the subsequent blacklist encourage us to view this as something unique to Hollywood, and there can be no doubt that the paranoia reached its zenith there. However, this offshoot of the Cold War spread elsewhere, albeit in a diluted form. High Treason (1951) provides an example of the British film industry tackling the matter of reds under the bed at the same time. The result is a well made espionage thriller that catches the mood of the period, but also one that contains overtones that can come across as a little unpleasant when you stop and think about them; I’ll address those aspects later.

It’s the early days of the Cold War and the lines between what in official wartime parlance would be referred to as fifth columnists and the kind of spies and double agents that would become a staple of the genre are not yet clearly defined. High Treason affords a glance into the lives and activities of a handful of subversive operatives who straddle those lines. The opening has an apparently meek civil servant, Ward (Charles Lloyd Pack), returning home to his flat, admonishing some boisterous kids along the way, feeding the cat, and then sitting down to transcribe a munitions manifest which will be handed on to a group of saboteurs. This is the stuff of the typical spy story, the outwardly harmless apparatchik beavering away unobtrusively in the service of his foreign paymasters. However, the film then moves to the men of action, the agents who actually put the information to use in spectacular and violent fashion. A wave of sabotage has been sweeping the country, taking lives and creating instability. There’s a dramatic depiction of the bombing of the ship carrying those munitions Ward had told his confederates about. In the aftermath of the carnage and destruction we’re introduced to the men charged with putting an end to this internal terrorism: Commander Brennan (Liam Redmond) and Supt. Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch and Major Elliott (Anthony Bushell) of MI5. The film follows their investigation, detailing the meticulous nature of the surveillance of known suspects, the lucky breaks that are needed to crack such cases, and the trail of corruption and ambition that leads to betrayal at the very heart of government. Police procedural stories, even those as intricate and involved as this, can be a dry affair at the best of times. There’s a tendency to pass over or lose touch with the human aspects that are the necessary ingredients of good drama. However, High Treason avoids falling into this trap by alternating between the men from the ministry and their investigation and the daily agonies suffered by a reluctant member of the spy ring, Jimmy Ellis (Kenneth Griffith), and his immediate family. As gripping as the investigation and the gradual closing of the net is, it’s the focus on Ellis’ doubts and fears that adds real punch to the tale.

The terrific Seven Days to Noon came out a year earlier and Roy Boulting followed up that suspenseful Cold War nightmare with this tale of spies, sabotage and spooks. Boulting carried over a similar sense of pace and atmosphere to High Treason. The two films benefited enormously from the use of authentic London locations, and both also featured the character of Supt. Folland. However, there are some important differences: while Seven Days to Noon achieved a timeless quality that still resonates today, High Treason is more dated by being firmly rooted in the politics and concerns of its time. Which leads me on to the criticism that I alluded to in the introduction. The foreign power for which the spy ring is working is never explicitly named yet, through the frequent use of ominous newspaper headlines and other pointers, it’s clear enough that it is the Soviet Union. Fair enough, Cold War thrillers naturally used the eastern bloc as the bogeyman villain and to expect anything else, or criticize that practice, would be naive in the extreme. Having said that, I did raise an eyebrow at the way the script seems determined to hammer home the point that artistic types and intellectuals were easy prey for communist propaganda – that those with even a vaguely liberal bent were at best foolish dupes and at worst dangerous fanatics obsessed with undermining their own country. Despite that criticism, there’s a whole lot to admire in the movie. It acts as a wonderful snapshot of a Britain that has long disappeared, where heavy industry was an integral part of the economy and the threat of blackouts shutting it down, even for a time, would have spelt chaos. Aside from the historical and sociological insights offered, High Treason is a tightly plotted thriller that grips you from the opening right through to the excitingly shot climactic battle within Battersea power station.

High Treason isn’t the kind of film that could be described as a star vehicle. Essentially, it’s an ensemble piece but, even so, there are a few noteworthy performances that stand out. Irish actor Liam Redmond was a character specialist, looking a good deal older than the 38 years old he was at the time. He brought a quiet, whimsical intelligence to the part of Brennan, and it’s his doggedness that draws together all the disparate strands of the complex investigation. Andre Morell reprises the role of Folland that he played in Seven Days to Noon with his customary charm and urbanity. It’s not a showy part by any means, deferring to Redmond’s authority, yet it’s a typically classy piece of work by Morell. Probably most memorable of all though is Kenneth Griffith as the tortured wireless man who sees his dreams of a better world twisted and subverted by his cynical and opportunistic companions. Griffith gave a very real, honest performance where the agonies of conscience he endures never appear the least bit affected. I was also quite impressed by the work of Mary Morris, in one of the few female roles in the film, as the dedicated and driven spy with few scruples. There’s also strong support on view from Geoffrey Keen, Joan Hickson and Anthony Nicholls.

High Treason was a film that was difficult to see for a long time but is now available on DVD in the UK from Spirit. The film is correctly presented in academy ratio and the transfer is quite good. There is the odd speckle here and there but the print used is generally in good condition with nice contrast levels to show off Gilbert Taylor’s moody cinematography. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The movie represents a welcome companion piece / follow-up to Seven Days to Noon, and although it’s not as good as the earlier production it still has enough going on to recommend it. As a stand alone film it works perfectly well on its own terms, and really ought to be judged as such. I’ll admit I’m not crazy about certain aspects of the subtext, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the film or rate it any lower as a consequence. Whatever way you approach it, High Treason is an effective, satisfying and exciting espionage movie.