Man in the Saddle

The collaboration of actors and directors is a favorite area for analysis by film critics – Ford and Wayne, Mann and Stewart, Huston and Bogart readily spring to mind. That attention tends to get focused on these cinematic partnerships is I think understandable; they offer a reasonably self-contained block of work which can be examined easily. Mention Randolph Scott to western fans and the name that will probably come to their lips is that of Budd Boetticher, again understandable enough given the reputation their series of films together has deservedly earned. However, Scott also made a group of westerns with another director, Andre de Toth, just before he hit his late career peak with Boetticher. Man in the Saddle (1951) was the first, and arguably the best, of a half-dozen movies featuring de Toth and Scott.

The overall framing device is the classic western staple of the range war, the conflict over land and the need for expansion. But that’s actually the least interesting aspect of a story that involves a number of overlapping and obsessive relationships. Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is a man under pressure on two fronts; having already lost his woman, Laurie (Joan Leslie), to his powerful neighbor Will Isham (Alexander Knox), he’s now in danger of seeing his ranch go the same way. Isham is one of those typical western expansionists, a man never satisfied with owning half of anything and ruthless enough to use whatever means are necessary to get what he wants. Standing in the path of this irresistible force is the immovable object of Merritt. The only possible outcome of such a paradox is conflict, even though Merritt does his level best to avoid it for as long as possible. What makes this apparently simple tale fascinating though is the way these characters, and those around them, interact. Merritt clearly retains strong feelings for the ambitious and mercenary Laurie, yet he buries them deep, while Isham is fighting an internal duel with his own jealousy and self-doubt. Matters are further complicated by the presence of another neighbor, Nan (Ellen Drew). She quietly pines for Merritt and in turn is herself desired by Clagg (John Russell), a taciturn loner of brooding temperament. When Isham’s hired gunmen up the ante by stampeding Merritt’s herd and killing one of his men all the passions and obsessions of the principals are unleashed. Merritt is forced into taking a stand against his enemies, even those he was hitherto unaware of.

If one views the westerns of de Toth and Scott in relation to the work both director and actor did independently and with others, then it’s possible to undervalue them. But I think such comparisons, even if they’re inevitable, are unfair. Movies really ought to be evaluated on their own terms – do they achieve what they set out to do? Placing them within a wider context does of course serve some purpose but it ultimately does the films a disservice too. What all that’s leading up to is my belief that Man in the Saddle succeeds in telling its tale. Firstly, de Toth’s direction and Charles Lawton’s cinematography combine well and the tension builds nicely. Visually, it’s an interesting movie with a number of scenes taking place at dawn or dusk (perhaps using the half-light to underline the murky, shifting nature of the relationships) and the location work in Lone Pine and Thousand Oaks particularly enhances the latter half. The climax too is notable for the use of a dust storm as an accompaniment to the action and is suggestive of the elemental, swirling emotions of those involved. The only downside of the film, for me at least, was the slightly clumsy way the comedic parts were integrated. Generally, I have no objection to the introduction of a little comedy to lighten the load, but I’m not sure it’s handled all that successfully in this case.

By the end of his career Randolph Scott had almost elevated the depiction of the stoic acceptance of loss and regret to an art form in itself. One of the more rewarding things about watching those films leading up this is the ability to observe how that persona gradually evolved over the years. As Merritt, Scott touches on this idea of losing the woman he loved. That loss isn’t as fully defined or as final as would be the case in the later movies with Boetticher, but it’s there all the same. Alexander Knox isn’t an actor normally associated with westerns, making only three throughout his career, yet he’s fine as Scott’s rival. He’s very convincing as an emotionally repressed man and this is even more effective when he actually lets loose all his pent-up rage. In truth, all the main players acquit themselves very well: Joan Leslie as the hard-edged pragmatist, Ellen Drew as the calm Girl Friday, and John Russell as the outsider twisted by his unrequited passion. My only complaint is that Richard Rober is underused as the smiling gunman.

Man in the Saddle is readily available on DVD and has been for many years. The US disc from Sony/Columbia presents the film nicely in its correct Academy ratio. This older transfer comes from a good print and boasts strong, vibrant color with plenty of detail. The disc doesn’t have much in the way of extra features, just a standard preview reel for other Sony/Columbia movies available. However, the movie is the main thing and the presentation here should give no cause for complaint. The westerns that Randolph Scott made with de Toth have been overshadowed to a large extent by the later Ranown cycle, yet they’re enjoyable in their own right. Aside from allowing viewers to fill in some gaps in tracing the development of the Scott persona, these movies are good examples of the professionalism to be found in the Hollywood western of the 50s. Man in the Saddle may not be the best thing Scott or Andre de Toth ever did but it’s still a pretty good film and is worthy of the talents of all involved.

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Night Has a Thousand Eyes

I’d become a sort of a reverse zombie. I was living in a world already dead, and I alone knowing it.

Film noir is at heart a fatalistic genre. Greed, stupidity, desire and deceit all play a significant part to be sure, but back of it all is the implication that human beings are locked on a predetermined path which circumstance or fate has chosen for them. Whether or not one subscribes to such a theory is neither here nor there; it’s enough to know that it underpins much of film noir. But what if we already knew what lay in store? Would it be possible to cheat fate and regain control of our lives? That’s the basic premise of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), a noir with a quasi-supernatural slant.

The film opens dramatically with Jean Courtland (Gail Russell) about to take her own life by throwing herself in front of a train. The suicide bid is thwarted at the last moment by Elliott Carson (John Lund), her fiance. But why would a beautiful young woman such as this want to end it all? The answer to this is provided by John Triton (Edward G Robinson), once a small-time mind reader and now a virtual recluse, a prisoner of his own unique talent. Via a series of flashbacks Triton reveals his connection to Jean and the odd events that have shaped his life. Depending on one’s point of view, Triton has either been blessed or cursed with the ability to foretell the future. As his weary narration points out, there were initial advantages to this, such as the knack of predicting how best to make money. Despite these indisputable benefits, Triton gradually came to see that prior knowledge of various tragedies had a corrosive effect on the soul. Slowly, the feeling began to eat away at him that he might be in some way responsible for some of the things that happen. His first reaction was to ignore the premonitions in the hope that doing so might avert them. When that doesn’t work he settles on an alternative course of action; he will actively try to prevent the outcomes that periodically flash before his eyes. And it’s this which leads him into the life of Jean Courtland. Jean is the daughter of his late fiancée, a woman he left and let marry his best friend. That sacrifice failed to save the life of his former love, but a vision of Jean’s imminent death routs him out of self-imposed exile. For twenty years Triton has hidden himself away from the world, shunning human contact. Now however, he decides to take on fate directly. It’s a duel of sorts between a desperate man and the mysterious force that seems to determine all our futures. The prize at stake: the life of a young woman, and the chance for Triton to shake off the unwelcome curse bestowed upon him.

John Farrow is a director I’ve always had a lot of time for. He was extremely versatile, working in a variety of genres and turning out a handful of highly entertaining and well crafted noir pictures. Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a brisk piece of work, yet there’s also a dreamy, melancholic feel to it. The first half is taken up with the flashbacks that explain how Triton’s gift mutated into a curse, and Robinson’s voice-over adds to the noir atmosphere. The latter section sees the focus narrow and is largely confined to Jean’s home, as the police, various retainers and Triton all gather to see if the predictions come true. The fusion of noir motifs and supernatural overtones is unusual and quite successful in my view. While film noir was grounded in at least a superficial reality, there was also an element of the fantastic running through it. I guess the fact this movie was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, given that writer’s penchant for outrageous and sometimes bizarre plot twists, accounts for this mix. Another point of interest is the sympathetic or tolerant stance adopted towards the whole issue of spiritualism. Generally, film and literature of the 30s and 40s tended to be downright hostile when it came to examining the spiritualist craze that grew out of the aftermath of WWI. Most books and movies focused on debunking the techniques of the fake mediums and phony spiritualists, exposing them for the charlatans they were.

While Farrow’s direction is solid and Woolrich’s material is always interesting, it’s the performance of Edward G Robinson that really powers the film. By his own admission, Robinson possessed an air of menace that was often used to great effect. Yet, in reality, Robinson was a highly cultured man and could impart great sensitivity when he was afforded the opportunity. The role of Triton was such an opportunity, a tortured soul robbed of the love of his life and endowed with a terrible gift. Robinson had wonderfully expressive features and it’s a real joy to see him tuck into a meaty and complex part like this. Although he’s the unquestioned star of the movie, he gets good support from John Lund and Gail Russell. Lund’s role is a bit of a thankless one as the stoical, skeptical romantic lead, but he does all that’s required of him. Russell had that tragic, ethereal beauty that works so well on screen and there’s a vague air of confusion about her, a sense of one lost in the world. Somehow, her magical presence seems entirely appropriate in such a film.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a movie that’s just crying out for a decent DVD release. The film can be viewed online quite easily and there’s a DVD available from Italy but neither option shows the movie in the best light. I have that Italian disc and it has to be said the print used is pretty beat up. It’s taken from an Italian source, the titles and credits are presented in that language, and it’s a dirty, scratchy affair. Despite the poor condition and lack of restoration it does remain perfectly watchable throughout. The disc offers the choice of either the original English soundtrack (no subtitles) or an Italian dub. The theatrical trailer and a text essay (in Italian) comprise the extra features. This was originally a Paramount production so, given the lack of any word of Olive releasing it, I’m guessing the rights now reside with Universal. I can only hope that it gets a stronger release somewhere in the future – it deserves it. Regardless of any complaints about the current presentation and availability of the movie, it remains an intriguing film noir. A neglected little gem, ripe for rediscovery.

EDIT: Laura also wrote a piece on the movie here, which I only just noticed.