The Moonlighter

Over a sixteen year period, starting in 1940 and ending in 1956, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made four movies together, the most famous probably being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Their third collaboration, The Moonlighter (1953), was the only western and the least familiar of the titles. This is a film I’ve only recently caught up with, once again thanks to the assistance of regular contributor Jerry Entract, and I found it a slightly unfocused but generally enjoyable affair. Revenge and redemption, those two faithful old partners in so many westerns, dominate but one is only half explored before being quietly dropped while the other is slipped in as though an afterthought. My feeling is that if these two themes had been more fully, or at least more consistently, developed, then The Moonlighter would have been a much stronger piece of work.

Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) is the moonlighter of the title, a rustler who operates by night, and his opening narration places the action at the beginning of the 20th century, just as the frontier is about to finally close. As he tells us, civilization about to consign the myth of the wild west to the pages of history, but the beast’s claws haven’t been filed down totally yet. The concept of frontier justice still holds sway with some, and the crime of rustling continues to arouse strong feelings and attract harsh punishments. As Anderson sits in jail awaiting trial, a lynching party is arriving in town, impatient and aggressive. This first act of the film is the most powerful, soulful and threatening, and setting up a situation packed with potential. There’s an almost noirish, and indeed nightmarish, tone as the mob forces its way into the jail to demand its pound of flesh. There’s to be no heroic last-minute rescue as a man is mercilessly beaten, dragged from his cell, and hanged without ceremony. Only it’s the wrong man, the fates having conspired to save a guilty man while simultaneously dooming an innocent one. Anderson has been handed a new lease on life but with a bitter little proviso attached – his sense of guilt twisting itself into a thirst for revenge. However, it’s at this point, with the story part of the way down an intriguing avenue, that the focus of the script shifts and revenge drifts away to be replaced by, amongst other things, greed. With Anderson forced to rest up and recuperate in his old family home, other characters are added into the mix: Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), his former love is introduced along with his brother Tom (William Ching). This creates the possibility of a romantic triangle although it doesn’t really work out that way. Instead we meet Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw associate of Wes’ who is keen to talk him into going back into business. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more about how it all pans out except to say that Wes gets to earn his redemption the hard way, suffering significant personal losses before regaining his sense of honor in the end.

The Moonlighter was written by Niven Busch, a man known for his fondness for grand passions and dark psychology. The film hints at this, or perhaps flirts with it, both in the terrific opening and later in the relationship between Wes and Rela. Yet it doesn’t come off successfully; there’s none of the high melodrama of Duel in the Sun or The Furies, nor enough of the darkness of Pursued. Now I like Busch’s work, although I understand if it’s not to everyone’s taste, and the way it has of burrowing into the minds and motivations of characters. The main problem with The Moonlighter is that it never goes far enough, all the ingredients are present and paths are started on but abandoned or strayed from before the themes have a chance to breathe and expand. Then when the redemptive aspect kicks in at the end it feels rushed and loses some of its impact as a consequence.

The director was Roy Rowland, examples of whose work I’ve looked at here in the past, and his handling of the material is patchy too. Again, I refer back to the opening, where he and cinematographer Bert Glennon hit just the right chord and conjure up an atmosphere that’s menacing and quite poignant. But his direction lacks consistency, and as soon as the action moves to the Anderson homestead there’s a flatness that reflects the loss of momentum in the script. The scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck meet after years apart only touches on their shared passion, the actors doing what they can with the dialogue, but it needs a spark and intensity that’s not achieved. Some of that does come as the story progresses, but I don’t feel it ever reaches the heights necessary to make the redemptive payoff work as well as it should.

MacMurray often made a fine anti-hero or villain, in this case I’d say he was playing the former though. When required he could tap into a kind of weary cynicism, and that’s exactly how he starts out – we first encounter him lazing in his jail cell awaiting what he fully expects to be an appointment with the hangman. The weariness falls away later, anger, distrust and bitterness coming along to displace it and MacMurray keeps it credible all the time. He also hangs onto a touch of decency too, despite his character’s criminal nature, which is vital if his eventual change of heart is to be at all convincing. Stanwyck was playing one of her signature tough broads and she’s perfectly satisfactory, as usual, though the role doesn’t have the kind of depth or shading which could bring out the best in her. She’s said to have enjoyed making westerns and the rugged outdoors stuff attracted her, something she got to indulge in here especially during the well filmed climax. Ward Bond doesn’t make an appearance until around the halfway mark, but impresses as the unscrupulous outlaw seeking out a partner to facilitate his schemes. Bond was typically most effective as bluff down-to-earth types or as an imposing physical threat. The movie gives him the chance to show off both of these aspects, moving smoothly from one to the other as the plot advances. Personally, I found William Ching the weakest link – his part is an important one yet he never really convinced me as the brother living in MacMurray’s shadow. In support, there are nice, if short-lived, turns by the likes of John Dierkes, Jack Elam, Charles Halton and Morris Ankrum.

The Moonlighter has been released as an MOD DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive and is certainly worth a look. The turn of the century setting is potentially interesting but not a lot is made of this – the only real reference to the changing times is that Bond’s plan involves exploiting the possibilities afforded by the new motor cars. The movie was shot in 3D but I don’t know if that would add much to it (I’m no particular fan of the process myself) and it plays fine in standard 2D. Taken as a whole, the film is entertaining enough although it did need a script which retained a stronger focus and more character analysis. It starts off well and does have its moments later but meanders a little despite the short running time.

The Badlanders

It seems like everybody around here is stealing from everybody else.

A good heist movie is hard to beat in my opinion, there’s considerable potential for suspense and tension in the execution of a complicated robbery, and the aftermath or outcome is generally rife with possibilities too. The heist is typically used as a plot element in contemporary crime movies, both the serious and more lighthearted varieties, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other genres as well. There’s arguably no more flexible type of film than the western, the setting being able to absorb and adapt aspects almost at will. The Badlanders (1958) is a remake of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the W R Burnett novel, moving the action back half a century and shifting from the urban milieu to the dusty Arizona landscape.

In the dying days of the 19th century two men are released from the prison at Yuma, one because his time has been served in full and the other earning early parole because he prevented the former from assaulting a guard. In fact, these two men, Peter Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) & John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) have quite a lot in common: both ended up behind bars either  directly or indirectly due to the treachery of others, and both hail from a similar part of Arizona. While they set off on apparently different paths they’re fated to meet again as their desire to right some of the wrongs of the past lead them to the small town of Bascom. The settlement is the center of a gold mining operation, beneath the land once owned by McBain before he was cheated out of it, and places have a way of calling men back even if they have no logical reason for returning. Van Hoek was a mining engineer and geologist, cheated in a different way, framed for a robbery and keen to get something back for the time he lost when he was wrongly incarcerated. Everything boils down to a plan to blast a rich vein of ore from an abandoned shaft and sell it back to the current owner, Cyril Lounsberry (Kent Smith). You might wonder why a man would buy what rightfully belongs to him – well Lounsberry is only nominally in charge as the mine is actually in his wife’s name, and he’s a man with a wandering and faithless eye. Such a man is obviously going to be drawn to the idea of an independent source of wealth. On the surface, the key to the whole operation is timing and disciplined organization, but there’s also the intangible element to be factored in, as tends to be the case in the affairs of man, and in this instance it’s the question of trust.

Anyone familiar with The Asphalt Jungle will know how things play out on screen, but there are significant enough differences to set the two films apart. Aside from the altered location, there’s the variation in tone and overall mood of the film. Huston’s film was a classic piece of fatalistic noir, where bad luck and the character flaws of the principals led to the ultimate unraveling of the best laid plans. In The Badlanders, however, the weaknesses of the leads in the earlier version are actually transformed into their strengths, and the resolution is upbeat and positive. I think a good deal of that is down to the director; Delmer Daves made films that mainly emphasized the positive characteristics and leanings of people, and you generally come away from his work with an enhanced appreciation of the inherent decency of humanity. If I were to draw direct comparisons between Daves’ and Huston’s take on the source material, something I’m reluctant to do as it seems s bit of a pointless exercise, then I’d have to say The Asphalt Jungle is clearly the superior film. Still, The Badlanders does have certain points in its favor, and those are mainly the touches which bear the characteristic fingerprints of Daves. There’s some strong cinematography from John Seitz too, especially the interiors but also the outdoors location work in Arizona and Old Tucson.

Alan Ladd underwent a noticeable physical decline in his last years, but that hadn’t really set in when he made The Badlanders. He was still vital and looked in reasonably good shape at that point. His role isn’t an especially complex one, there’s the back story of his being fitted up to provide motivation of course but it’s never expanded upon to any extent. While Ladd is the headline star the most memorable performances come from those billed below him, notably Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Borgnine was typically a powerful physical presence in movies and got to show off that aspect in a number of scenes, yet it’s another side of the man which has the greatest impact. He had a certain innocence below the surface, although this wasn’t always exploited. The character of McBain is remarkable for the way this vague social naiveté is woven into the plot. And the ever soulful charms of Katy Jurado are ideal for drawing out and playing off that. Despite the fact the heist, which it has to be said is filmed with some style, is the main focus of the plot, the tender and sensitive relationship which develops between Borgnine and Jurado is the living heart of it all. In support Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Emhardt and Anthony Caruso do all that could be expected of them in their limited roles.

The Badlanders has been released on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and there are European editions available in France (non-anamorphic, I think), Spain and Italy. The Spanish copy I viewed presents the movie in the correct 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the transfer is perfectly satisfactory – colors look accurate and the print is quite clean. There are no extra features included and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. Speaking as a fan of Delmer Daves’ work, I would say this is a weaker film when stacked up alongside his other westerns. However, just to qualify that evaluation, it’s worth bearing in mind that his westerns rank among the finest produced in the 50s. As such, I think this film deserves to be seen, and is of interest as a rare western heist movie, a remake of The Asphalt Jungle, and finally as a worthwhile frontier drama in its own right.

Rails Into Laramie

There are so many Universal-International westerns that you could pretty much run a blog devoted entirely to the studio’s output alone. With such an abundance of titles, it’s only natural that there should be a wide range in terms of type, budget and overall quality. Some had more spent on them, some featured significant amounts of location filming and some were shot largely on sets. Personally, I like them all, and can generally find something positive to take away from all varieties. Rails Into Laramie (1954) is one of the lower budget efforts, using stock footage and filmed on studio interiors for the most part. It’s a movie that eluded me for a long time and I want to express my gratitude to Jerry E for his help in ensuring I finally got around to seeing it.

The railway, that powerful symbol of westward expansion and the unstoppable advance of civilization, has been at the heart of many westerns. To chart the progress of the railroad is to chart the course of the American west itself so it’s obviously going to feature heavily in pictures set on the ever shifting frontier. When the iron horse appears to have stalled at the Wyoming town of Laramie questions arise as to why this should be so. Someone in Laramie has a vested interest in seeing the work come to a halt, some who’s making plenty of money out of the hard-drinking and hard living construction gangs. And so the army decide to send someone, just one man and not the detail of soldiers the local bigwigs have requested, to investigate and try to get the operation up and running again. The choice is Jefferson Harder (John Payne), a sergeant nearing the end of his stint in uniform but a man familiar with and comfortable among the kind of saloon detritus likely to be responsible for the delays. Harder isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Laramie’s dignitaries, partly due to their disappointment at not getting a full detachment and also because of his friendship with Jim Shanessy (Dan Duryea). Shanessy and Harder are old army buddies and former rivals for the affections of the former’s wife, Helen (Joyce Mackenzie). It’s clear enough from early on that Harder is going to have to go up against his friend as he’s the one behind the stoppages. What remains to be seen though is how he’s going to achieve much with virtually a whole town against him, the machinations of the slippery Shanessy to contend with, and the uncertain allegiance of saloon owner Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard).

One thing which immediately struck me when watching Rails Into Laramie was that there were a few passing similarities to the classic Destry Rides Again. There’s the basic set up of a corrupt town, the ignominious arrival of an improbable savior, the tough female saloon owner, and the leading role undertaken by women in the implementation of justice – and I’ll return to that last aspect presently. At least some of this can probably be attributed to the fact screenwriter D D Beauchamp also worked on Destry, George Marshall’s remake of his own 1939 original. All these elements are very welcome of course and add a lot to the entertainment of the piece, but there are problems, or weaknesses anyway, present in the script too. There are a few plot strands which are introduced and promise to be interesting yet are dropped almost immediately and lead nowhere in particular. There would appear to be potential for an added layer of conflict stemming from the triangle created by Payne, Duryea and Mackenzie, not to mention the allure of Blanchard drifting in the background. We learn that both men wanted Mackenzie in the past but that’s it, no more mileage is gained from that, or the possibility of Blanchard causing Duryea to consider straying. And then there’s the selection of an all female jury to try Duryea, an example of women’s rights which was ahead of its time compared to the rest of the country. Aside from the opportunity for further social comment, there was a suggestion that the women’s actions in participating in jury service would endanger their men. Again though, this is not followed up on and simply peters out.

I tend to think of Audie Murphy when Jesse Hibbs’ name comes up due to his having taken charge of a number of the star’s best films. Hibbs was one of those stable hands who could be relied upon to turn in a solid piece of work and that’s more or less what we get with Rails Into Laramie. There’s nothing flashy on show but it’s a competently directed film. With the so-so script, the responsibility on the performers is increased, though the likes of Payne and Duryea were quite capable in this respect. I’ve seen more of Payne’s noir work but he makes for a personable and convincing enough western lead too. There’s not so much of that bruised quality on display that he used to such good effect in film noir, still the toughness remains and you don’t doubt his ability when it comes to mixing it with the villains. Duryea could play charming, dissembling bad guys in his sleep and his role here honestly is a walk in the park for him. There’s not much physical threat posed by him, it’s more a behind the scenes schemer and fixer this time, and that aspect is left in the capable hands of a sneering and dangerous Lee Van Cleef. Of the two female performers Joyce Mackenzie had a largely thankless part, offering sympathy and support but seeing little development in her character. Mari Blanchard got dealt a far stronger hand and played it to the hilt too. She brings an edgy ambiguity to the part – leaving both Payne and Duryea (and the viewer too) unsure exactly what way she’s going to leap. Then there’s the marvelous James Griffith who adds such value to every film he appears in – I just saw him in a delightful little cameo in Kubrick’s The Killing the other day as it happens – and turns in one of the most memorable bits of work in the movie as the nervous but loyal marshal.

The last few years have seen more and more Universal-International westerns becoming available in various countries. However, Rails Into Laramie remains unreleased anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It’s a modest picture and it wouldn’t rank as one of the top tier efforts by the studio. Even so, it is solidly entertaining and I’d certainly appreciate a release. Again, my thanks to Jerry for making this piece possible.

Edge of Eternity

As a major fan of westerns I have great fondness for those films which, while not belonging in the genre proper, are set in the American west. It’s not at all uncommon to see mystery elements woven into the fabric of many a western tale, and so it’s not all that surprising to come across a whodunit which plays out against the backdrop of the west, even if it is the modern version of this setting. In the case of Edge of Eternity (1959) that setting is one of the most important ingredients, the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon dominating the picture from the gripping opening right through to the spectacular conclusion.

A car draws up just short of the rim of the Grand Canyon and its driver, a middle-aged gent in a business suit, scurries forward to peer across the great chasm through a pair of binoculars. Before we even have the chance to ponder the object of his interest another, younger, man appears and carefully disengages the brake before pushing the car towards his unsuspecting victim. Alerted in the nick of time, the older man jumps aside and the vehicle plunges over the edge. These two figures struggle at the edge of the abyss, and soon both will be no more – one death we witness directly, the other will later be seen only after the fact. This dramatic opening sequence pitches the audience straight into the center of a murder mystery, grabbing our collective lapels and giving us a good threatening shake to ensure our attention doesn’t drift. We don’t know who these men are, why they fought, why they died, or who killed one of them. The task of finding the answers to these questions falls to Les Martin (Cornel Wilde), a deputy sheriff who has moved to Arizona with the hope of rebuilding a career he saw fall apart due to his own mistakes back in Denver. Aside from a natural desire to make up for past errors, Martin also wants to do what he can to help the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan), the man who hired him and offered him a second chance, get reelected. As he painstakingly assembles the pieces of the puzzle and attempts to fit them together so as to form a picture of what happened and why, he finds himself ever more attracted to Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw), the daughter of a local mining magnate. What makes it more difficult for Martin though is the growing realization that there seems to be some connection between the deaths and the wealthy Kendon family.

The films of Don Siegel tend to be direct, no-nonsense, economical affairs. This is not to say they are devoid of artistry, rather the artistry on show is never overblown or self-consciously extravagant. Edge of Eternity, for example, is not an especially deep movie, it’s not a multi-layered affair and it doesn’t pretend to offer any particular insight into the human condition. Siegel was making a whodunit with an action element, and that’s exactly what the viewer is presented with. And of course he knew how to compose exciting sequences, not least the swooping, dizzying climax in the “dancing bucket” swaying precariously in mid-air. In addition, it’s a beautiful looking film, the primal awe-inspiring landscape of the Grand Canyon becoming a character in the drama itself, dwarfing the other players and demanding attention due to its natural wonder and danger. The cinematography of Burnett Guffey, probably most admired for his work on a range of noir pictures but here reveling in the glorious colors on display, really shows off the locations. Finally, there’s a typically strong and robust score provided by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Cornel Wilde took the lead, an interesting role in ways but also a little underdeveloped in others. It’s made apparent that he’s trying to make a new life for himself after the loss of his wife and the subsequent derailment of his career. There was a good deal of potential for more internal conflict resulting from this and it is touched upon a few times, most notably during the short courtroom scene, but it’s never exploited to the full. There is a sense that Wilde is a man who wants to make amends for his past failings but it never goes much beyond that. In fairness, the film is first and foremost a mystery and the Knut Swenson screenplay concentrates primarily on that. I’ve only seen Victoria Shaw in a few films apart from this one – The Crimson Kimono and Alvarez Kelly. With the help of her striking and colorful costumes, Shaw brings a tough and feisty edge to her part, sassy and spirited throughout. Due to the nature of a whodunit and my wish to avoid any accidental spoilers for readers who haven’t seen this film I’ll be briefer than usual with my references to the other members of the cast. Let’s just say that there’s solid work turned in by Jack Elam, Rian Garrick, Edgar Buchanan, Mickey Shaughnessy & Alexander Lockwood and leave it at that.

I’m not sure how widely known Edge of Eternity is, all I can say is I was unfamiliar with this title myself until fairly recently. It’s been released on MOD DVD in the US and there’s also a Spanish disc, which I have. The movie was shot in CinemaScope and the transfer to DVD preserves this anamorphic widescreen ratio. A film like this depends heavily on the visuals and it’s important to see these reproduced as faithfully as possible. For the most part the image is acceptably clean and sharp, although some of the process shots (particularly a few during the airborne climax) look a little rougher. As usual with these Spanish releases, the subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. For me, the movie represented a blind buy, mainly based on the director and star. I enjoyed it very much, and its short running time means it never outstays its welcome. I especially liked the fact it has a cross genre appeal – it’s a suspenseful mystery with some fine action scenes and a bit of western flavor thrown in for good measure. Overall, an entertaining film that I feel is worth checking out.