The Doolins of Oklahoma

Movies inspired by real life historical people and events can sometimes come in for a bit of stick. It’s common enough to read reviews and see complaints that things didn’t happen as portrayed on the screen. Personally, I have no objection to people pointing out the inaccuracies in such cases, indeed I’ve done so myself on occasion, but I never feel a movie should be judged or criticized too heavily on that score. Ultimately, history is fact and film is art; if the former is a priority, then I feel a well researched history book should be sought out. While I do think film can stimulate an interest in history, and encourage people to dig into the real facts, it fulfills an altogether different function. A movie needs to be evaluated on its own merits, as an artistic endeavor, and granted the license which comes with that. All this is by way of introducing The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949), which uses a set of authentic historical characters, and some events from their lives, to tell a classic western tale. Sure it departs from what is known to have happened but, for me anyway, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in the least.

Our story concerns what was known as The Wild Bunch (no, nothing to do with the Peckinpah movie) who raided banks and trains mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma. It all starts with the botched bank robbery in Coffeyville that saw the Dalton gang wiped out, or almost. Bill Doolin (Randolph Scott) was a member of the gang whose horse came up lame, meaning he had to hang back. Having avoided the massacre of his fellow outlaws, Doolin nevertheless gets involved in a shooting that necessitates going on the run. Putting together his own crew, he proceeds to carry on where the ill-fated Daltons left off. However, as the prologue has already stated, this is the last decade of the 19th century and the frontier is closing fast, civilization and the law are spreading and men like Doolin are being squeezed out. Essentially, Doolin and his confederates are men living on borrowed time and they know it – most of the film involves pursuit, and relentless pursuit at that. The posse led by US Marshal Sam Hughes (George Macready) never lets up once they get a handle on Doolin. However, a western of this period has to be about more than mere hold-ups and shootouts, although there are plenty of those on view. Doolin is one of those classic gunmen yearning to leave his violent and lawless past behind him. For a brief period it even looks like he might have managed it too; an attempt to shake off the marshals leads him to a church in the middle of a service and that in turn introduces him to Elaine Burton (Virginia Huston), whom he weds. Doolin adopts a new identity and settles down, but it’s not to be. His old friends turn up and somewhat cruelly expose him to the in-laws, leaving him with little choice but to strap on his guns again and return to banditry. It’s that old familiar theme of the bad man trying to outrun his past and redeem himself. There are no happy Hollywood endings in this movie but, in a sense, he does achieve his goal. Perhaps it’s appropriate for an outlaw like Bill Doolin that he finally gains his desired redemption in an oblique, left-handed fashion.

Gordon Douglas is a director who I think it’s fair to say has a few fans among regular readers of this blog. I’m quite fond of his work myself and the more I see of it, the more I like it. As was usual with the studio professionals of the era, Douglas made movies in each of the major genres and did notable work in all of them. There’s a tendency to downgrade the efforts of many of these directors by dismissively labeling them journeymen. I find that as one looks deeper into the filmography of a man such as Douglas it becomes apparent how well crafted his films were. There are a number of highly accomplished pictures to be found, containing memorable scenes and moments of great sensitivity. The Doolins of Oklahoma features a number of what I’d term “instances of realization”, points at which the characters become aware of the full import of their actions. Lesser filmmakers can either downplay or over-egg such key moments, thus robbing them of their impact on the viewer. Two scenes spring to mind in this film, where Douglas hits just the right note and leaves us in no doubt regarding their significance: there’s the aftermath of the Coffeyville massacre where Doolin guns down the traitor who betrayed his friends and so seals his own fate in the eyes of the law, and later there’s his reluctant acceptance of the need to leave his new bride despite everything inside him wanting to do just the opposite. Those scenes are not overplayed in any way, nor are they brushed aside. The characters on the screen know how important they are, we know how important they are, and we know it because the director wanted it that way.

Aside from Douglas, there were other influential figures at work behind the camera. Yakima Canutt is noted for his stunt and second unit work on a range of pictures during the classic era – John Ford’s Stagecoach being one of the best known – and his hand is in evidence here. The action scenes have the kind of drive, authenticity and heart-stopping quality often associated with the man. In particular, the climactic stampede bears all the hallmarks of Canutt. And then there’s the cinematography of Charles Lawton, a man capable of capturing beautiful images in both black and white and color. The Doolins of Oklahoma makes excellent use of those Lone Pine locations which are a familiar sight to western fans, and the interior scenes are also expressively and atmospherically lit by this experienced and talented cameraman.

Randolph Scott’s decision to focus almost exclusively on westerns in the post-WWII years was not only a smart career move on his part, but also benefited the genre enormously. Most leading men of the time were capable of playing western characters, and indeed a significant number of them did so. Having said that, Scott was what I’d call the perfect fit for the genre – his slow Southern delivery and lean, leathery looks simply belonged in the west. More important than that though was the personality of the man, which shone through in all his roles, embodying three key ingredients: dignity, decency and resignation. These characteristics meant he was in a position to play the kind of complex figures who made the post-war western such an interesting and rewarding viewing experience. Scott’s heroes were nearly always three-dimensional because the man playing them invested them with that quality. And his anti-heroes, as is the case in The Doolins of Oklahoma, were all the more credible as a result of the subtle little quirks he brought to them. Two scenes in this movie stood out for me as marvelous examples of Scott at his best. The first occurs when Doolin returns to the home he once reluctantly abandoned, in the hopes of laying up there for a time. On arrival, he’s immediately struck by how well-kept the place is, and then the truth hits home – his wife had never left despite his absence. There’s something remarkably poignant about the way this flash of understanding affects him, and the way his innate integrity colors his reaction. The second comes right at the end, as Doolin and Elaine are reunited in the little church where they first met. This is a moment of destiny, a make-or-break point for the character. Scott’s playing is faultless; as he stands in the dark with the woman he loves in his arms, the regret and sadness wash over his features with the knowledge that there’s only one honorable course of action open to him.

Stoicism is a word often used in relation to Scott, and it could be applied here too. However, it’s the term I’d more readily employ to describe Virginia Huston’s portrayal of Doolin’s wife. Hers was a brief film career, but she was presented with a fine opportunity to shine in this movie. It’s a pivotal role in a sense, not flashy or showy, but one on which much of the script’s logic hangs. It called for a woman whose faith in and loyalty to her husband is sufficiently strong to force a character like Doolin to reassess himself. I think Huston nailed those aspects and thus rendered the relationship with Scott wholly believable. The supporting cast is particularly strong and features parts for George Macready, John Ireland, Jock Mahoney (who apparently also doubled for Scott in the fight scenes), Louise Allbritton, Noah Beery Jr, Frank Fenton and Charles Kemper among others.

The Doolins of Oklahoma was a film I’d never seen until it came out via a TCM/Sony collection of Randolph Scott westerns – a set which now looks like it may be out of print actually. The movie looks very well with no significant damage on show, and good contrast levels leave the black and white photography appearing nice and crisp. The extra features offered consist of a series of galleries highlighting the posters, lobby cards, still and publicity photographs. Anyone who is a fan of Randolph Scott, or just westerns in general, will surely take something positive away from this film. I was highly impressed both by Scott’s lead performance and by the smooth direction of Gordon Douglas. The film shows the progression taking place in the star’s work that would lead inevitably to those towering roles in the late 50s and the beginning of the 60s. It also provides evidence of the growing maturity of the genre itself on the eve of its golden decade. Recommended.

This piece is offered as part of the Randolph Scott Blogathon hosted by Toby of the ever entertaining and informative 50 Westerns from the 50s. I strongly urge all readers should head over there and check out the other contributions to this celebration of Scott’s work by following the link above. Alternatively, you can click on the badge below and that will lead you to the same destination.

The Crooked Way

Confusion and disorientation, a world suddenly tipped out of kilter, false and mistaken identities – such phenomena are par for the course in the film noir universe. Taken individually, these elements crop up in countless ordinary thrillers, but mix them all together in an urban setting with a story of organized crime and it moves into noir territory. The late 40s saw the full flowering of this type of cinema, when the initial optimism of the post-war years was just fading enough to allow disillusionment to take a firmer hold. The Crooked Way (1949) is one of those low budget efforts that is easily overlooked – the stars and director are people only familiar to hardcore movie fans, although the cinematographer, quite rightfully, still draws huge critical praise. What’s more this film often gets overshadowed by a glossier, more expensive production with a strikingly similar theme. I reckon it’s a touch unfair as there are plenty of positive ingredients; it’s by no means a perfect movie, but it does deserve a bit more credit and attention than it’s normally afforded.

Eddie Rice (John Payne) is on the point of being discharged from an army hospital in San Francisco. He’s seen sitting in a doctor’s office while questions are fired at him, questions like where he came from and what he did. Well, Eddie doesn’t have any answers for the simple reason that he has no memory. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain, in an inoperable spot, and as a result he’s suffering from amnesia. All that’s known is that he joined up in Los Angeles using the name of Eddie Rice. The doctor’s advice is to go back to LA, see and be seen, and maybe someone will remember him, give him some lead about his vanished past. So that’s exactly what he does, and no sooner has he stepped out of Union Station than he runs slap bang into two guys who seem to know him very well indeed. These are two cops (Rhys Williams & John Doucette) and neither one is thrilled to run into him. This is vaguely unsettling for Eddie but a greater shock awaits him at the station house when he learns that his real name is actually Riccardi, and he’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm. Lots of films noir feature regular guys stumbling into trouble and desperately trying to escape it, but in this case that’s not possible; whatever else a man can do, he can’t run away from himself. The temptation is there alright and Eddie weighs it up yet there’s that fundamental philosophical desire to know oneself as well as one can. No, he’s going to have to stay, to discover what kind of man he was and why he did the things he did. To do so, he must reacquaint himself with the woman he once loved (Ellen Drew) and the partner (Sonny Tufts) he crossed up and sent to prison. Trying to trace back through the blank pages of his own past is a big enough ask in itself, but Eddie’s quest for his own identity becomes even harder when he finds himself beaten, framed for murder and running from both the mob and the law.

In 1946 Joseph L Mankiewicz made Somewhere in the Night, telling the story of a veteran with amnesia returning to LA to trace his background and unearthing some disconcerting facts. It was produced at Fox and exhibits all the gloss that studio could afford to give its movies. The basic premise is quite similar to that of The Crooked Way and I imagine more people have seen or heard of it – that loaded, evocative title can’t hurt any either. It’s a fairly good picture on its own terms, but if you put these two amnesia films up against each other, then I’d have to plump for The Crooked Way every time. This is partly down to the grittiness which goes hand in hand with a lower budget, and also the strong reliance on authentic LA locations. On top of that, there were two men behind the camera whose presence is a significant part of why the film works for me: Robert Florey and John Alton. I guess few will know the name of Florey nowadays – he was one of those émigré directors who came to Hollywood in the early thirties and worked mostly on B pictures before moving into television, where his credits are extensive. The thing about Florey is he had a background in expressionism and consequently his work has a strong visual sense that’s ideal for capturing mood and atmosphere. In addition to this film, I strongly recommend checking out his direction of Perchance to Dream from The Twilight Zone, one of the finest episodes of that excellent series. John Alton should, of course, need no introduction. A true artist, Alton’s deep black shadows and imaginative lighting are a joy. Any film he worked on bore his unmistakable stamp, and The Crooked Way is no exception.

This is quite a pivotal film in the career of John Payne. George Sherman’s Larceny had got him into crime pictures and The Crooked Way builds upon that. Payne was a good fit for noir in that there was a toughness about him but also a lived-in, kicked around look which such movies required. His role was a demanding one, calling for innocence, bewilderment and a bit of an edge too. The character of Eddie is complex due to the fact he starts out as someone trying his best to be decent yet also lacking assurance. He is, by necessity, a man aware of nothing beyond the here and now but he’s also keen to know how he got to that place, what path in life led him there. When the revelations come, Eddie is shocked and confused since it doesn’t square with the way he feels about himself. Payne is fine at getting across the nervy uncertainty of the character, the flashes of aggression which are buried deep within. The movie was a good stepping stone for him, laying the foundations for strong performances in later noir vehicles like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential. Ellen Drew, in the films I’ve seen, often appeared to be handed passive roles. The Crooked Way gave her more to do though by casting her as a woman who’s had a hard enough time and thus encourages a more gutsy performance, even stopping a bullet meant for Payne at one point. As the principal villain, Sonny Tufts is suitably mean, his introduction during the interrogation of a mob informer setting the tone for what follows. In support, there’s good work from Rhys Williams, John Doucette and Percy Helton.

The Crooked Way was released on DVD in the US by Geneon a long time ago now. It’s not a bad transfer, a bit harsh looking in places maybe, but it’s also interlaced. Some of the other titles from that imprint have subsequently appeared or been announced from Olive and Kino, so I’d like to hope a stronger version would hit the market sooner or later – and I’ve just noted that it appears Kino do indeed have plans for this title in the summer. The movie isn’t without its faults of course – there’s a heavy reliance on coincidence on a number of occasions (but, in all honesty, that could be said of a lot of noir pictures) and the ending is just a little too pat. Still, I don’t see these as major flaws of the type to ruin the viewing experience. Overall, this is a good solid noir, based on an interesting premise, beautifully composed and shot, oozing the requisite hard-boiled feel. It’s the kind of half-forgotten film I always like to tell people about, if they have the time or patience to listen to me. I say give it a try, it might surprise you.

 

One-Eyed Jacks

Some films can be extraordinarily difficult to write about; they may be overly complex or annoyingly abstract, their essence forever dancing tantalizingly beyond your grasp. Alternatively, there may be other factors involved, some quality which draws and fascinates you, making them easy to admire yet hard to truly love. That’s the position I find myself in when it comes to One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando’s one and only shot at directing. The visuals and theme appeal to me, and certain passages are beautifully realized. Still, when I look at it overall, I could never include it as one of my favorites.

The story (based on the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones) is very loosely based on Billy the Kid. It concerns two men – Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) – bank robbers plying their trade in Sonora in Mexico. Running from the army and carrying the proceeds of their latest hold-up, Longworth sets off to find fresh mounts for both of them. However, his inherent greed gets the better of him and he leaves Rio stranded. Leaping forward five years, we see the younger man breaking out of his Mexican prison. And he has but one thought in mind, revenge. His search eventually takes him across the border to Monterey, where Longworth has built a respectable new life for himself. The former outlaw has gained a wife and stepdaughter (Katy Jurado and Pina Pellicer respectively) and got himself elected sheriff. As the title suggests, both men only reveal a little of themselves to those around them. In Longworth’s case his law-breaking past is common knowledge, but his fear and sadism are carefully concealed beneath a veneer of bluff amiability. Rio too is adept at playing his cards close to his chest, and lulls his old partner into thinking that he bears no grudges. For all that, the animosity on side and distrust on the other cannot remain buried for long. The catalyst comes in the form of Longworth’s stepdaughter, and the passion she arouses in Rio. While his initial seduction of her seems primarily motivated by a desire to strike at Longworth’s cozy domestic set-up, it’s clear enough that his true feelings run deeper. Either way, it sets in motion a series of events that will inevitably lead to a violent and final confrontation between the two adversaries.

The film’s path to the cinema screen was a long and complicated one – Sam Peckinpah worked on the first draft of the script before being removed, and Stanley Kubrick was down to direct it until he too was replaced. So it fell to Brando, and his fingerprints are all over what we now have. Intensity is a word that’s frequently bandied around when this man’s name is spoken, and One-Eyed Jacks has some of that, a sort of relentless quality in its storytelling. But, and this is part of the issue I have with the film, there’s a labored feel about parts of it too. It’s said that Brando had accumulated over five hours of footage when he finished shooting, and the form we have today is still fairly lengthy. Charles Lang was the cinematographer and there’s no question of the beauty of some of the images – the Mexican and Californian locations look simply breathtaking at times. Still, Brando allows it to drift too much for my taste. The long period of recovery at the coast, after Longworth humiliates Rio and mutilates his gun hand, feels drawn out. Sure it allows time for the character of Rio to adjust to new circumstances and offers him the opportunity to reevaluate his plans, but it also slows the pace.

I’m going to be honest here and admit that, for one reason or another, Brando is an actor I’ve never warmed to. I guess a lot of it comes down to the fact that method acting often presents me with a problem. There is, by definition, something studied about it, a lack of spontaneity perhaps. All the preparation and internal reflection seems, to me at least, to steal a little of the honesty from a performance, especially where emotions are involved. There can be no question about Brando’s screen presence, and there are times when he is powerfully effective – he absolutely nails the simmering rage and indignation, and the scene on the veranda as he shares a tequila with Malden, and they smoothly tell each other lies, is played to perfection. Yet it’s the moments of truth which ring slightly hollow for me; Rio’s admission of deceit as he reclines on the beach with Louisa, and his later reaction to the news that he’s to become a father. These are key character moments, scenes where genuine, heartfelt honesty is required, and I’m not sure it’s achieved.

Malden, on the other hand, comes away better. This may be partly down to his role being more complex; he’s clearly a villain, and a deeply unpleasant one at that, but there are all kinds of undercurrents. Dad Longworth is a master of deception – a professional in the art in comparison to Rio’s half-hearted hoodwinking of gullible women – a pompous, jealous sadist masking his rotten core with a facade of bonhomie. And underpinning all that is his fear and cowardice. Malden conveys all of this quite effortlessly and by the end of the movie you feel that you know something of the real man. Of the supporting cast, three figures stand out – Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens (Peckinpah would use these two in one of the most heartrendingly beautiful scenes a decade later in the flawed yet magnificent Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Ben Johnson. Jurado was blessed with a pair of the most soulful and expressive eyes you could hope to find, and she was able to evoke pride, dignity, pain and any emotion called for with consummate ease. He role as Malden’s wife afforded the opportunity to do just that and she seized it. Pickens always had that unpolished air about him that was ideal for down to earth types but could be equally effective, as is the case in this film, in portraying vaguely sinister yokels. And of course Johnson (like Pickens) was a natural cowboy who never gave a bad performance. Flitting in and out of the picture, all too briefly in most cases, are such notable character actors as Elisha Cook Jr, John Dierkes, Ray Teal and Timothy Carey.

One-Eyed Jacks has long been a staple of the cheap public domain DVD, and there have been some extremely ropey presentations over the years. I’m not sure if there’s been what you might call a definitive edition released yet but some are clearly superior to others. I have the Spanish DVD released a few years back by Sony/Impulso and it’s not bad in my opinion. The film is presented 1.85:1 anamorphic and looks pretty good. I’ve seen other widescreen editions (mostly derived from the old Laserdisc transfer, I think) where the colors were washed out and weak. My Spanish disc is acceptably sharp and the colors generally look richer. Released in the 60s but with more than a little 50s flavor about it, not least in the redemptive curve undertaken by Brando’s character, One-Eyed Jacks is something of an enigmatic movie. I’ve never been able to fully make my mind up about it, and that hasn’t changed. Love it, loathe it, or anything in between, western fans owe it to themselves to check it out and see if they can decide.