The Silver Whip

As far as I’m concerned, one of the great pleasures of maintaining this site, maybe the greatest if I’m honest, derives from the feedback received. so many posts here have prompted discussion, debate, spitballing and recommendations. The latter has been invaluable to me by drawing my attention to movies of which I was either only vaguely aware or which were entirely new to me. There’s something quite invigorating about the realization that not only is one on a learning curve, but also that this curve continues to grow and expand as one moves along it. I guess all of that is just a long-winded way of saying there’s always new stuff to discover and appreciate. As a result of comments made here in the past I was particularly keen to see The Silver Whip (1953), and I’d like to offer a big thank you to John K for his help in making that possible.

What we have here is both a coming of age story and also a parable on the way mistakes and poor judgment can have both positive and negative influences on the lives of those concerned. The events in The Silver Whip are seen from the perspective of Jess Harker (Robert Wagner), a young man with ambition and dreams, for whom responsibility remains no more than an ill-defined word rattling round his consciousness. Harker’s opening narration makes it clear that his greatest desire is become a stagecoach driver, cracking the whip over a team of horses and pressing ever further at the boundaries of the frontier. However, it’s always been the case that one of the closest companions of youth is frustration, with impatience frequently tagging along in reserve, and it’s no different for Jess Harker. He’s stuck with a team of mules and a mail run that’s barely worth the name. What makes it worse is the fact he’s living in the shadow of men like Race Crim (Dale Robertson) and sheriff Tom Davisson (Rory Calhoun), guys who blazed trails back in the days when the law was simply something people talked about rather than lived by. Harker is restless, he’s got an itch that needs to be scratched, and he’s ready to pack up and move out. But, like most young men, he’s got a girl, Kathy Riley (Kathleen Crowley). This girl wants him badly, bad enough to go to Race Crim and beg him to do something to keep Jess in town. Race’s inherent decency leads him to use his influence to get Harker the job of driving the next stage, and it’s here that the mistakes start to be made. This run, along with passengers, will involve carrying a gold shipment, and gold has a habit of attracting the wrong kind of people. A hold-up is going to take place, people are going to die, and others are going to have to live with the consequences. Without going into further plot details, that’s what the movie is all about – the effect, on two men in particular, of a couple of poor decisions at vital moments.

The Silver Whip is adapted from First Blood by Jack Schaefer (which I haven’t read yet but I’ve just ordered a copy) and deals with the way those decisions lead one man towards the heart of darkness and another to enlightenment and maturity. In a sense it’s that eternal fork in the road, that choice of paths we’re all presented with, although perhaps not in such dramatic fashion, as we make our way through life. The hold-up pushes one man off course, or detours him at least, when he allows his base instincts to take control of him. Conversely, it signals an awakening in another, acting as a catalyst for his first steps towards manhood. And yet, while the routes chosen appear to diverge and head off in different directions, the final result is a convergence, an arrival at a common destination. Salvation and redemption are integral to the 50s western, they cannot be removed without taking away something of the soul of a film and the genre itself. The Silver Whip sets its characters on a journey away from their initial personae, testing them morally and spiritually, before drawing them back towards completion. Harmon Jones’ direction and composition alternately highlights the isolation of both Jess and Race, to draw attention to the uncertainty of the former and the cold determination of the latter. But there’s also the blending of both men into opposing camps too, where their individuality is at times absorbed into the groups they come to represent. And of course there’s the ultimate convergence right at the end, the meeting of mind and spirit which offers closure.

One of the first things you notice about The Silver Whip is the strength of the casting. A very young Robert Wagner was an excellent choice as the green and callow Jess Harper, and his gradual awareness of his place in the world and the results of his actions upon others is nicely realized. He acts as our point of reference, the one through whose eyes everything unfolds, and I think Wagner was fine at conveying the development of his character. Having said all that, Dale Robertson gets the plum role of Race Crim, and really runs with it. He moves seamlessly from an open and affable man to one totally consumed by a desire for revenge and weighed down by an enormous sense of guilt. Positioned between these two is Rory Calhoun as the sheriff whose duty puts him in conflict with his former friend. Calhoun’s role is essentially a supporting one but it’s no less important for being so. And also in support there’s another well-judged turn by James Millican, playing the stage boss whose tough edge hasn’t been quite worn away by his desk job. It’s sometimes thought that women get sidelined in westerns, but that’s rarely the case. While both Kathleen Crowley and Lola Albright have limited screen time, there can be no question about the significance of their respective parts. Crowley is marvelously tender in her understanding of Wagner’s foolishness and Albright impresses deeply in her three brief scenes. Her portrayal of the saloon girl, Waco, is pivotal in the transformation of Robertson – the scenes in the saloon and at the beginning of the stage trip establish his devotion to her, and then the aftermath of the hold-up is the moment when his destiny is mapped out.

The Silver Whip is a 20th Century Fox production and is now available as a MOD DVD via that studio. The transfer to disc looks like an off-the-shelf one where the elements were in reasonable shape but haven’t undergone any restoration. The image is acceptably sharp and detailed throughout but there is the odd scratch and mark visible. I also think the contrast is set a little high as whites can look a bit blown at some points. Overall though, the movie looks fine and is certainly quite watchable. I have to say I got a lot of enjoyment out of my first viewing of this film and I can easily see myself returning to it. There are strong performances from all the cast and Jones’ direction is both pacy and thoughtful. A very pleasant surprise for me, and a film I recommend seeing.

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I Confess

Hitchcock films get mentioned and written about all the time, but it’s almost always the same dozen or so that receive all the attention and plaudits. A good many of his movies are really only spoken of in passing, often referred to as bridges between his major works and, while it’s rare to see them dismissed outright, it sometimes seems that the perceived flaws and (relative) lack of success is what draws most comment. I Confess (1953) probably belongs in this category, being regarded as a little too personal and flirting with inaccessibility as far as non-Catholics are concerned. Whatever the popular view might be, it’s a film I’m very fond of, and one which of course contains the now familiar wrong man theme.

The movie opens in a typically quirky and macabre fashion, a succession of street signs flashing before our eyes and leading inexorably to the scene of a murder. As the camera peers through the open window the corpse is laid out on the floor and the door is just closing on the exiting killer. We follow the murderer through the shadowy, cobbled streets, his silhouetted figure suggesting a clergyman. Then, as he casts off the soutane, it becomes apparent that the priestly garb was no more than a convenient disguise, no doubt inspired by the fact that this man earns his keep working for the church. When a man has committed the ultimate sin, has compromised his soul and is wracked with guilt and fear, then it’s not unnatural that he should seek solace and sanctuary in a holy place. The man in question is Otto Keller (O E Hasse) and his entering the church is witnessed by chance by one of the priests, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Keller insists that Fr Logan hear his confession and the latter duly obliges. Much has been made of the fact that non-Catholics may have difficulty appreciating the seal of the confessional, the inability of a priest to ever reveal what he hears under such circumstances. I understand how there are those who might be unaware of this but the absolute confidentiality is made clear in the script so I think it’s not really reasonable to criticize the film on this score. Anyway, both the viewers and Fr Logan are aware of the identity of the murderer almost from the beginning, but further complications are to arise and cast official suspicion in a different direction. If all those signs in the opening sequence led us to a dead man, another set of pointers lead the police, headed up by the dogged and practical Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), towards Fr Logan. The murderer’s literal cloak of convenience helps of course, but the priest’s connections with the victim, a blackmailing, shyster lawyer, fan the flames of suspicion. As the reasons for Logan’s seemingly odd behaviour are laid bare and the object of the blackmail becomes known, the priest’s refusal or inability to speak up damns him in the eyes of the law. With the wheels of blind justice now in motion, Logan finds himself morally trapped and apparently powerless to protect either himself or those he cares about.

Anyone who has ever read anything about Hitchcock will be aware of two facts: his Catholic upbringing, and the distrust he felt for the law and the institutions of justice. Both of these influences on the director’s life are very much to the fore in I Confess. Church dogma colors every aspect of Logan’s behaviour throughout, cutting down his options and, again through no fault of his own, leaving both him and those around him exposed to misguided moral outrage. And of course all this leaves him at the mercy of a justice system which is unsympathetic to what it’s unaware of. Essentially, Hitchcock is presenting us with an ethical conundrum, a true dilemma where betrayal (be it spiritual or emotional) lies in wait whichever path is chosen. Really, it’s a classic noir scenario, with fate seemingly laying a complex and delicate trap for the unsuspecting protagonist – every act, the noble and the innocent most of all, being misconstrued and misinterpreted. Robert Burks’ lighting and photography, particularly the night scenes, is bathed in expressionistic shadow and Hitchcock blends the tilted angles, telling close-ups, tracking shots and deep focus beautifully. You could say the symbolism is laid on a touch heavily at times – the allusion to the trek to Calvary springs to mind immediately – but it’s all so wonderfully composed that it sounds a little churlish to harp on it too much.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the Method approach to acting, finding it phony and distracting for the most part. However, there are always exceptions, and it’s nice to be able to highlight a positive example. Montgomery Clift was one of the first (perhaps the first?) practitioners of the Method on the big screen, and I feel he was generally very successful. I like internalized performances and I like subtlety, and Clift was a first-rate exponent of this. Great screen acting comes from the little things, the barely perceptible changes of mood and the altered thought processes which we sense as much as see. Clift had many blessings but among the most significant were his composure and his eyes. The early scene in the confession box is a marvelous bit of work with those eyes revealing so much. And the same can be said for every important plot development – the increasing desperation and hopelessness of the situation is perfectly conveyed but never exaggerated. At one time I felt that Anne Baxter was less than satisfactory as Clift’s former love, but I now feel she judged it well enough. Again, it’s a role that calls for as much to be held inside as freely expressed. The longish flashback which clarifies the nature of her relationship with Logan is told from her point of view and it’s probably here that she comes across best. Frankly, there are good performances all round: Malden’s probing and restless detective, Brian Aherne’s rakish prosecutor, O E Hasse as the craven yet pitiful killer, and of course Dolly Haas as his conscience-stricken wife.

A film like I Confess, one which is so heavily dependent on its visuals, needs to be seen in good quality. Fortunately, the Warner Brothers DVD offers a strong transfer that shows off the contrast between light and dark to good effect. It’s clean and acceptably sharp, a solid-looking presentation. The disc also has a “Making of” documentary included, which provides some analysis along with production and background information – a worthwhile extra in my opinion. The film continues to be underrated as far as I can tell, and that probably says more about the strength of Hitchcock’s body of work than it does about the movie itself. I reckon it accomplishes about all it sets out to do but others may disagree with that assertion. Either way, I’d urge people to give it a chance, or perhaps watch it again if they’re already acquainted with it – I believe there are plenty of positive aspects to  focus on.

It Came from Outer Space

– It’s alive.

– And yet it looks so dead out there.

– Oh no, it’s alive and waiting for you, ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, or the cold at night. A thousand ways the desert can kill. Where are you? What do you look like? What am I supposed to be looking for? I know you’re out there, hiding in the desert. Maybe I’m looking right at you and don’t even see you…

Visitors to this site might get the impression I only watch or appreciate a narrow range of movies, westerns and noir thrillers in the main. Well those happen to be my favorites, and therefore get featured a lot, but it shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal on my part of other genres. The fact is I watch all kinds of stuff, even if it doesn’t get written up here with any kind of regularity. Sci-Fi has only made one other appearance on the site, despite the fact I do enjoy it, and I feel it’s time to offer some company to that solitary post. I should also say that Kristina’s recent flurry of Sci-Fi and horror/fantasy related posts over at Speakeasy encouraged me to do something about it. Let me say right away that my favorites in the genre can be found among the classic era material from the 50s and, to a lesser extent, the 60s and early 70s. As such, I’ve decided to run with It Came from Outer Space (1953), one of the best and most literate of the “fear of the unknown” variety.

Any movie with a relatively short running time owes it to the viewers to grab the attention as abruptly as possible, and this movie does just that by having a glowing spherical object hurtle menacingly towards the screen right at the beginning. We soon learn that this strange sight is an extraterrestrial spacecraft careering blindly towards the desert on the outskirts of a small Arizona town. Sand Rock is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and strangers generally have to toil in order to overcome the inherent suspicion of the locals. John Putnam (Richard Carlson), an astronomer and relative newcomer, finds himself in that position when, along with his fiancée Ellen (Barbara Rush), he witnesses what looks like a meteor blazing its way across the night sky and ploughing into the arid wastelands beyond the town limits. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, Putnam is the first to explore the crater gouged out by the impact and also the only one to see the clearly alien craft that caused it. A major rock slide succeeds in burying all trace of the find, and leaves him in the unenviable position of trying to convince others of the significance of what’s just happened. Perhaps not unnaturally, his claims are met with almost universal skepticism, Ellen being the only one not to doubt him, and borderline hostility from one particular quarter. Matt Warren (Charles Drake) is the local sheriff who clearly has feelings for Ellen and this arguably colors his reaction to Putnam’s assertions. However, something otherworldly has landed in Sand Rock, something capable of assuming the form of whoever suits its purposes. Aside from the neat mirroring of attitudes  – both Putnam and the alien interlopers are on the receiving end of essentially the same suspicion and paranoia – the plot develops in an interesting, and quite refreshing direction, in terms of the visitors’ motivations and objectives. Before all of this is resolved though, there’s plenty of opportunity for the suspense to build.

The 50s science fiction boom seems to have been a direct result of the mood of the times – a curious cocktail of fear and hope. There was the paranoia stemming from the dread of devastation raining down from the skies coupled with a wariness over the possibility of an enemy within. This was at least partly balanced by the optimism of the post-war era, where the flip side of the technological revolution was the realization that boundless possibilities for progressive discovery also existed. Putnam’s character, as much as the aliens themselves, could be said to represent these twin concepts, and I feel it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that it’s the positive rather than the reactionary aspect which is embraced in the end.

It Came from Outer Space was to be the first Universal picture shot in the new 3D process. I’ve only seen it flat and it plays fine that way, although there’s a documentary on the DVD which points out how certain shots (not just gimmicky, throwing stuff at the screen material) were carefully composed to highlight the added depth of the extra dimension. The film was shot in California, standing in for Arizona, and good use is made of the Mojave Desert locations. The sense of remoteness, and the attendant perils of such a harsh and bleak environment, is woven into the plot, notably through passages of associated dialogue retained from Ray Bradbury’s original screen treatment. Although he had worked on a number of shorts, this was one of Jack Arnold’s earliest full length features, and his assurance as a director is already evident. Clifford Stine’s moody cinematography obviously helps things along, but Arnold sets everything up and keeps the story moving forward smoothly. Initially, it was planned not to show the aliens to the audience (a principle which I feel probably should have been adhered to) and focus on a combination of reaction shots and first person filming via a distorted lens. As it stands, I think some of the most effective scenes in the film are those where the threat is unseen – the sinister figures of Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson silhouetted in a doorway, or a simple jump scare provoked by a light suddenly illuminating as mundane an object as a Joshua tree.

Richard Carlson had appeared in a whole variety of movies, some memorable and others less so, by the time this picture was made, and it introduced him to the Sci-Fi genre. He had the kind of square-jawed yet thoughtful features that lent themselves to playing heroes with a brain, a quality which would see him cast in a number of other films in this genre in the years to come. In the role of Ellen, Barbara Rush is asked to do little more than provide a supportive and sympathetic presence at first, but she later gets to have a little more fun as her own doppelgänger in the final act. Ms Rush was near the beginning of her long career in this movie and I’ve no doubt her composed performance helped raise her stock as an actress. While her cinema credits are impressive enough, she has worked extensively on TV, including a highly memorable part in a show I can’t seem to get away from mentioning of late – yes, it’s The Fugitive again. Charles Drake took on all kinds of roles over the years, as was the lot of contract actors, though I always feel he was at his best when cast as weaselly or less than sympathetic types. As such, playing the hot-headed, resentful sheriff suited him well and added an intriguing layer to the relationships at the center of the movie.

My DVD of It Came from Outer Space is the old Universal UK release, which is serviceable enough but could be improved. Personally, I’m not that bothered about the absence of a 3D version, although others will likely feel differently, but the open matte transfer is more disappointing. A film like this really needs to get a Blu-ray release in the correct widescreen ratio, and also provide the option of viewing it in 3D for those who wish to do so. On the plus side, there are some good extra features: a commentary track with Tom Weaver and a half-hour documentary on the film and it’s place in 50s Sci-Fi filmmaking. The film remains important as Jack Arnold’s first science fiction project, the genre his name is now most strongly associated with, and also for its position as an early classic in what has become a very crowded field over the years. I think the best, or most interesting, Sci-Fi films use their fantastic or otherworldly elements to tell us something about ourselves above all. It Came from Outer Space neatly challenges expectations and prejudices and encourages us to look within as much as without, which is one of the reasons I enjoy revisiting it. Recommended.

Forty Guns (1957)

A good piece on Fuller’s western, featured on an excellent site, which I’d urge people to pop over and read, and browse around generally.

Films on the Box

When it’s on: Monday, 11 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘May I feel it?’
‘Uh-uh.’
‘Just curious.’
‘It might go off in your face.’
‘I’ll take a chance.’

One of the aspects of the Westerm I find most fascinating is its dying days, the realisation that American expansion has caught up with the untamed frontier, making its ways approach their ending. This is a theme of Forty Guns I really like. Both its hero, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), and rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), have long histories, complicated back stories, and know the elements that have defined their lives are drawing to a close. They’re becoming anachronisms, and their riding off in the direction of California together at the end is symbolic of the dawning new chapter in Arizona’s own tale.

But this is only one aspect of Forty Guns, a film I found very hard to pigeonhole…

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A Lawless Street

The snarling beast… can’t you hear it growling out there? Listen! This town is like a wild animal in chains, Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away, it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.

The hero stalked by his past, living with the legacy of a reputation earned the hard way but not actively sought out, is a common enough theme in westerns. Generally, the inevitable confrontation with the past is undertaken only with the utmost reluctance, with the full knowledge that destruction rather than salvation may await. What’s less common though is a scenario where it’s the cumulative effects of times gone by that are addressed, and where aspects of those times are actually yearned for. A Lawless Street (1955) has such a concept at its heart – a man haunted not by misdeeds but by missed opportunities, and slowly being worn down by conscience, regret and just a hint of fear.

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, and was initially brought in to ensure this frontier town abides by the civilized values one of its leading citizens, Asaph Dean (James Bell), wants to see upheld. Ware is one of those itinerant lawmen sometimes referred to as town tamers, having worked some tough western settlements and built up a name for himself as a gunman of note in the process. One of the things I particularly like about the 50s western is the way such aspects of a man’s character or background are rarely glossed over or glamorized. The memorable opening scene has a lone horseman slowly ride along the empty main street, his body language and general demeanor suggesting he has something serious on his mind, and when the camera zooms in and focuses on his sidearm, then we know pretty well the exact nature of his business. This man is in town to settle a score with the marshal and word of what’s probably in store doesn’t take long to get around. Ware is the type who knows only too well the importance of maintaining a facade, he makes a big play of his apparent nonchalance, projecting an image of supreme confidence regardless of the danger that lie in his path, Yet the viewer knows this for what it is; the brief quote I added at the beginning is a line he lets slip to his landlady as she prepares breakfast for him before he sets off to do his duty. If we have any doubts though, it’s made clear when he returns to his office after the inevitable shooting – the stress of forever living in the shadow of violent threats and the debilitating effects of knowing he’s had to cut short another life are plain to see once he has closed the door against the prying eyes of the townsfolk. The local doctor (Wallace Ford) is aware  of this, and says as much when he later helps to tend to Ware’s injuries after a bruising encounter with the dead man’s brother. The point here is that there’s a marked contrast between the private and the public face of Calem Ware, something that’s further explored when a musical star, Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), arrives to put on a show at the theater. Ware and Tally have a shared past, a framed photo of her stashed in his room alludes to that early on, but its true nature is only revealed gradually. While much of the plot revolves around the machinations of a couple of businessmen (Warner Anderson & John Emery) who want Ware out of the way, and hire gunfighter Harley Baskam (Michael Pate) to that end, the heart of the picture is driven by the relationship between Tally and the marshal, and indeed the marshal’s own intrapersonal relationship.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a film by Joseph H Lewis that wasn’t interesting, either in terms of theme or the visual language he employed in the telling. Although the plot of A Lawless Street isn’t especially original, the way Lewis goes about presenting it elevates it all considerably. Apart from one brief sequence, the entire movie plays out within the confines of Medicine Bend, with all the significant events taking place indoors. The director, and cameraman Ray Rennahan, creates a look and mood which approach film noir at some points and contain a fair amount of symbolism. The image above is, of course, a notable example — the wounded Ware hiding out in his own jail, the shadows of his past and his sense of duty pinning him in place just as surely as the shadows cast by the bars. Note too how the real man seems small and tense next to the solid and imposing image of himself. In fact, a great deal of this film is concerned with the concepts of illusion and reality; one of the main sets is the theater where Tally performs, and what is the theater if not a palace of illusion. As Tally plays her role on the stage, and the marshal assumes his watching from the box seat, the reality is only shown when they move backstage. In the same way, Ware’s office represents his “backstage”, the sanctuary which allows him to strip away the greasepaint of invincibility. Also, let’s not forget the notion of rebirth, the allusion to spirituality, which is frequently found in 50s westerns. The climax toys with the idea of resurrection, of a man back from the dead to reclaim his position in society, and by doing so attaining the spiritual and emotional equilibrium for which he’s been yearning.

Randolph Scott has been featured on this site more than any other actor and I guess most of the reasons for his enduring appeal as a western lead have been covered in depth. For me, A Lawless Street is yet another step along the path Scott was treading in the post-war years, a path that would culminate in the iconic roles he played for both Boetticher and Peckinpah. The part of Calem Ware has enough depth to make it interesting, and Scott had acquired sufficient gravitas by this stage in his career to render his portrayal credible. Angela Lansbury has had a long and distinguished career but the western isn’t a genre that she’s had much association with. A Lawless Street is the only genuine example as far as I’m concerned, as The Harvey Girls is a musical first and foremost. I understand Ms Lansbury has been dismissive of the film and her participation in it, which is a bit of a shame. Aside from the fact the whole production has much to recommend it, her own role is a pretty good one with enough drama and internal conflict to give her something to get her teeth into, and of course there’s the opportunity to show off her singing skills in the theater number.

Michael Pate, John Emery and Warner Anderson are a fine trio of villains: Pate gets across the cunning and menace of his character very successfully, and even outdraws Scott quite spectacularly, while Anderson and Emery are as slimy a pair of puppet masters as you could wish for. Wallace Ford is one of those character actors whose presence is always welcome, and he had a strong pedigree in westerns. As the town doctor, and Scott’s only true friend, he has a good share of screen time and is solid and reassuring throughout. Of the remaining support players, both Jeanette Nolan and Jean Parker deserve a mention for the sense of poignancy and pathos they bring to their small but pivotal roles.

A Lawless Street has been available on DVD for many years via Columbia/Sony, and looks reasonably good. The 16:9 transfer could use a bit more sharpness and some minor work but it’s quite acceptable as it stands. In my opinion, this film is as near the top tier of Scott westerns as makes no difference. The theme, built around a standard genre plot, is rich and has the kind of depth which makes it a pleasure to revisit. The direction by Joseph H Lewis has the pace, the eye for composition and the stylistic flourishes that make his work a rewarding experience. When you factor in the mature and assured performance of Scott, who was very close to hitting his peak, then the result is a deeply satisfying film. All things considered, I give this movie my strong recommendation.

Readers Choice 4

I haven’t run one of these polls for a while now so I thought I’d resurrect the idea and throw the decision of what movie will be featured next open to the readers. The options this time are Joseph H Lewis’ A Lawless Street (1955) or Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) – a western or a film noir. The poll will stay open until 23.59 Wednesday and the winner will be written up some time afterwards. Take your pick, people…