Blu News – The Big Heat

It’s just been brought to my attention that March will see the release in the UK of Fritz Lang’s stripped down, mean and moody film noir The Big Heat. The movie is coming via boutique label Indicator:

INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
• Audio commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
• New filmed appreciation by film historian Tony Rayns
• Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat
• Michael Mann on The Big Heat
• Isolated score
• Original theatrical trailer
• Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by critic Glenn Kenny
• Limited Dual Format Edition of 3,000 copies
• UK Blu-ray premiere

I wrote a piece on the movie here about a year ago and since it’s a  title I like very much I’m pleased to pass along this welcome news.

Fort Massacre

It’s been said that everything has its own time, its place in the overall scheme, and I guess that’s true of art in general and  movies in this particular instance. Anyone browsing around this place for even a short time will probably notice that I’m fond of tracing the lines of development of cinema, especially the western. I like to see where individual films came from, what they were pointing towards and where they fit into the pattern formed by the genre. The reason I mention all that is because as I watched Fort Massacre (1958) it struck me that the film is very much a product of its time, both within the line of progression followed by the western and also on account of its placement in the filmography of its leading player – I shall return to, and try to expand upon, that later.

It opens with a killing, or the aftermath of a massacre to be more precise. In New Mexico a platoon on its way to join up with a larger column, in turn supposed to meet and escort a wagon train, has been ambushed and very nearly wiped out by  a large war party of Apache. What remains is a bedraggled and weary troop under the command of Sergeant Vinson (Joel McCrea), the highest ranking man left alive. It’s down to this man to try to get the survivors to the nearest fort and let his superiors take it from there. However, in order to do this he has to overcome hostility. That hostility is exists on many fonts and on many levels: form the landscape, the elements, the Apache and most damaging of all, from the men he has to lead. The leader whose right to do so is under question could be regarded as something of a cliché, it tends to come down to lack of confidence and questions pertaining to competence. Here, somewhat refreshingly and perhaps daringly, that’s not quite the case. Vinson has to constantly battle the mutinous rumblings from within his own ranks not because they don’t trust his abilities as a soldier, but because his own men look on him as something of a monster, a man consumed with a passion for killing. It’s gradually revealed that Vinson lost all that he held most dear to the Apache and acquired a ruthless, bloodthirsty streak as a consequence. And so every decision that has to be taken is eyed with suspicion by the troopers, and also by the viewers, who wonder whether the veteran sergeant is savior or avenger.

Fort Massacre was the first of two films director Joseph M Newman made with Joel McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City would come out the following year) and it’s an excellent piece of work. With the enduring popularity of cult Sci-Fi movies, I imagine Newman’s name will be familiar to many as the man who took charge of This Island Earth. Here, he keeps the story on track and moving steadily forward, making optimum use of the New Mexico and Utah locations. The two big action set pieces are well handled and sure touch of cinematographer Carl Guthrie is also evident throughout. I mentioned the placement of the film in the timeline of the western back in the introduction, and I’d like to attempt to clarify what I was referring to. By the 1950s the western had attained full maturity, and by the end of that decade it was possessed of the self-assurance that its own artistic elevation bestowed on it. So in practical terms, what does that mean? It means, to my mind anyway, that the genre had clarity of vision. The western by this time, and at its best, could regard itself with clarity, unburdened by the awkwardness of its own adolescence and not yet jaded by the introspection of its post-classical years. The western could see itself as it was, and therefore present audiences with a character like Vinson and, with confidence, ask them to make of him what they would.

Which leads me neatly on to Joel McCrea and his portrayal of Sergeant Vinson, which I also alluded to above. McCrea was approaching the end of his career at this stage, with only the aforementioned The Gunfight at Dodge City and the masterly Ride the High Country as noteworthy works ahead of him. His post-war credits, like those of Randolph Scott, were almost exclusively confined to the western so his authoritative position in the genre was and is unassailable. Again, this breeds the type of assurance that allows a big name player like McCrea to tackle a figure of the moral complexity of Vinson. A lesser performer, at a different place professionally, would have struggled with this one. Vinson is neither all bad nor all good, he’s a human being with all the reactions and failings which go with that. This is where the film is at its strongest, I think, that solid core which McCrea provides allowing for a grown-up appraisal of the revenge motif that bypasses the temptation to go for any simplistic resolution.

For long stretches the supporting cast appear as something akin to a Greek chorus, blending into one disgruntled formation, anonymous behind the figurative masks of their uniform and speaking as one as they voice their criticism of Vinson. Yet, from time to time, individuals do step forward and show something more of themselves. John Russell is the next closest to a rounded character, his self-doubting though educated recruit gradually coming into his own as circumstances and the influences of both his fellow troopers and Vinson mold him. It’s a good role for Russell, though he lacks the warmth McCrea naturally exudes he still acts as a figure for viewers to identify with more comfortably. Forrest Tucker  also has opportunities to shine as the stage Irish soldier who mixes insubordination with charm, a very enjoyable turn and he plays well off Anthony Caruso. Late on there are memorable, and at times darkly humorous, appearances by Susan Cabot and Francis McDonald as two Paiute Indians who become reluctantly involved in the soldiers’ plight.

Fort Massacre is easy enough to track down for viewing, there are readily available Blu-ray and DVD options in the USA, Europe and, I  imagine, other territories. Towards the end of last year there was a blogathon dedicated to Joel McCrea which I had hoped to participate in but which circumstances at the time just didn’t allow. I regret missing out on it and the reason I mention it here is because Fort Massacre was the film I had planned to write up as my contribution. Well, here it is, a few months late, and I recommend anyone reading this check out the other entries in that blogathon, which can be accessed here – good film writing doesn’t have an expiry date.

Tall Man Riding

It’s been a good few months now since I last featured a western on this site, not that the site itself has been all that active of course, so I thought it might be time to return to the genre which has been at the heart of the place over the years. Under the circumstances, what better choice than a Randolph Scott movie from the mid-50s, that time when the star and the genre were at their height. Tall Man Riding (1955) is not in the very front rank of Scott westerns but it’s not what I’d term a weak effort either. We get a director and a lead both working smoothly and professionally and a story which is built around the classic revenge/redemption motif, so there’s plenty to enjoy here.

It opens in what we might refer to as regulation fashion, with a rider coming upon someone in distress. In this case, the rider is  Larry Madden (Randolph Scott) and his travels are interrupted by a horseman going hell for leather across the plains with a handful of trigger-happy types in hot pursuit. While Madden has no idea exactly what he’s witness to, he takes it upon himself to balance the odds a little. With the immediate threat repulsed, he’s both bemused and a little amused to learn that the man he’s just rescued is closely connected to an old adversary. The thing is, Madden is a man with a grudge, and an appetite for a chilled plate of revenge. His back is crisscrossed by the scars of a lash while his mind bears less visible ones, the product of a five-year-old feud that saw his home burned down and his hopes for marriage similarly reduced to ashes. And now he’s unwittingly saved the neck of the man who, to all intents and purposes, stepped into his shoes. Well ain’t that a kick in the head! Anyway, that’s our introduction to the story, but there are a good many twists and turns still ahead: misunderstandings of past and present, alliances and double-crosses, realizations and resolutions to be reached.

The overarching theme of Tall Man Riding is obviously that of revenge, how the desire for it arises, how it affects people and how little it ultimately offers those who dedicate themselves to attaining it. This may not be anything new or startling but it’s a worthwhile point and one which is well made here. All the main characters learn something as they go along, some uncomfortable truths about themselves and others, but generally grow as a result of this. I guess the script could be said to be packed a little too full – there are a range of relationships and associations introduced and only a mere handful of them are explored in any kind of depth. Of course, we don’t need to have everything laid out for us and the glimpses we’re afforded and the allusions consequently drawn could be said to add to the tapestry of the piece as a whole. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Norman A Fox, which I have an unread copy of somewhere but I can’t seem to lay my hands on it right now, and the complexity of the story most likely stems from that source.

The movie is tightly directed by Lesley Selander, diving straight into the action and, even though there are lulls along the way, ensuring that the tale moves forward at a brisk pace. Selander’s films tend to have an edge to them, sometimes even a frank brutality, but this production mostly confines itself to references to past excesses – the scars of whippings borne by Scott and another character – yet there’s something rather harsh about the blackened and exposed remains of Scott’s former home, suggesting the destruction and consumption of some deeply cherished feelings in the inferno. On a more prosaic level, there is also a pretty tough punch-up which dispenses with music and thus keeps our attention firmly focused on its bruising physicality. In addition, the climax sees an excitingly shot land grab sequence, with men, wagons and horses racing and milling wildly in the charge to lay claim to as much choice real estate as possible.

Randolph Scott had a natural nobility, his easy charm and courtesy slotting in nicely alongside it. Still, his best roles and best movies offset this quality somewhat by blending in some complexity of character, at least a hint of ambiguity. Tall Man Riding follows that pattern by giving him a driven, hardness derived from his hunger for vengeance. And the fact we can see the emotional toll this has been taking on him makes his realization of the futility of his quest, and then the subsequent path towards personal redemption, all the more effective and satisfying. While the attention remains on Scott throughout there is able support from both Peggie Castle and Dorothy Malone. Both women have contrasting roles, the former as a streetwise saloon singer and the latter as Scott’s old flame, but their characters look for common ground and the work done by  the two actresses goes a long way towards building up the emotional substance at the heart of the story. John Dehner is as good as he always was as a lawyer advising Scott, and whose motives are only gradually revealed. The principal villain is played by John Baragrey with a generous coating of slick oiliness. Other significant parts are taken by William Ching, Robert Barrat and Paul Richards.

Tall Man Riding has been out on DVD for ages, on a triple feature disc along with Fort Worth and Colt 45. There’s a bit of print damage on show from time to time but nothing too fatal and color and detail are quite acceptable for the most part. AS I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the film doesn’t sit up there with the very best Scott did but it remains a solid example of filmmaking and, if we’re going to be honest here, there isn’t too much genuinely poor stuff in his credits from the late 40s onward. Professional work from Scott and Selander, supported by Castle and Malone, and attractive photography by Wilfred M Cline, makes for a very entertaining feature in my opinion – worth checking out, if you haven’t already done so.

The Thing from Another World

I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.

Those words quoted above are the last lines of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), a plea for caution and vigilance directed at an audience which had just spent an hour and a half having the pants scared off it and, beyond the world of the movies, was taking its first tentative steps into a (fairly) new decade where politics and science were moving ahead in a challenging fashion. As the Cold War tightened its icy grip on the world, Hollywood was serving up its own slice of chilling paranoia where the threat posed by unknown, malignant forces from without was never far away.

The wind is blowing cold in Anchorage, Alaska, intruding from time to time on the warm interiors of the USAF base. It’s here that we first see Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), playing cards with  his men, easy in the company of those he knows well. And it’s also here that news first filters through of a downed, unidentified aircraft. The scientists at a polar research station picked up images of it but they can’t be sure what it is. So Hendry and his crew are sent north to see if they can assist in locating, identifying and dealing with whatever came down out on the ice. Measurements at the research station suggest it must have been something large that dropped from the skies, and sure enough that proves to be the case. To the amazement of those present, it would appear they have come upon a genuine flying saucer. However, their pleasure is to be short-lived as the efforts to melt the surrounding ice lead to the destruction of the craft. Yet all is not lost; a body remains intact, encased in a solid block of ice. Naturally, this one surviving element is brought back to the research station to be kept until it has been decided how to proceed, although a moment’s carelessness sees events take a different and altogether more dangerous turn. That slab of polar ice contains something strong, potentially indestructible, and hungry.

The Thing from Another World sees Howard Hawks listed as producer while Christian Nyby gets the directing credit. According to most of those involved, that’s how the job was divided up although the finished product clearly shows a considerable bit of input from Hawks – he said himself that he worked on the trademark overlapping dialogue that’s to be found throughout the film. So, while this is clearly a Sci-Fi movie, and an iconic and influential one at that, I think it’s fair to say it’s a Hawks movie first and foremost. Even  though I don’t wish to drag this piece too deeply into comparison territory, the fact that this John W Campbell story was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter and has a markedly different feel should tell us that. The Hawks movie (as indeed could be said of the Carpenter film) is a product of its time, both politically and sociologically, and I suppose the same can be said of the filmmaker himself.

On the simplest level, a Hawks film is typically recognizable from its characteristic setting or circumstances – a tight, self-contained group bound together by their sense of professionalism, duty and mutual respect, and of course the affection that simultaneously gives rise to and grows out of their cohesion.  Any Hawks film, and The Thing from Another World is no exception,  is as much about the various bits of business and repartee that arise from the close interaction of the group. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of social unity; people of significantly different backgrounds all (well, let’s say largely) come together as a result of their shared sense of professionalism – and I feel that in the world of Hawks professionalism frequently equates to humanity – to meet adversity head-on. There’s a particular kind of inclusiveness implicit here, something that’s quite common in post-war cinema. This is what I mean when I speak of Hawks being a product of his time; I’m referring not to the Cold Warrior warning of external threats but the man who adheres to the concept of unity and communal strength. Above all else, I see that as the central message of The Thing from Another World, and that’s why I consider it a Hawks movie as much as, or more than, a Sci-Fi movie. Look at the 1982 version of the story (and I’m not implying any criticism of it here)  and its emphasis on suspicion, distrust and division and the point ought to be evident. Hawks, because of his own sensibilities and perhaps because of the era he lived in, could not have made The Thing from Another World in any other way.

Kenneth Tobey had been doing lots of bit parts and getting walk on roles before this opportunity came along. He was never to become a big star but, in among his other credits, he would star in another couple of entertaining Sci-Fi pictures, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. His role here is of the square-jawed and decisive variety, and he handles that aspect very well. However, the heroes in Hawks’ films generally need to be capable of carrying off the inevitable sharp humor too, and Tobey does have the required twinkle in his eyes when necessary. Some of this comes out of the by-play with the members of his flight crew but it’s more obvious in the sparring with Margaret Sheridan. She was under contract to Hawks but her screen credits are limited and I don’t remember seeing her in anything else, which I think is regrettable.

Seeing as this is mostly an ensemble piece, where the group is arguably as important a character as any individual, there aren’t too many stand-out performances. Still, Douglas Spencer (who gets to deliver the lines at the top of this piece) gets a chance to shine as does the rather clinical Robert Cornthwaite along with Dewey Martin and John Dierkes. And of course, there is the Thing itself to consider – James Arness was a considerable presence in more conventional roles and his physicality is used to excellent effect in this film. He has no dialogue and is only glimpsed for long stretches, and when he does get more screen time he’s still kept mainly in the shadows. Nevertheless, his job was to intimidate and threaten, and he does that very successfully.

In addition to those elements I already mentioned, there’s so much more to enjoy about this production, not the least of which is the strong sense of claustrophobia achieved by Russell Harlan’s moody photography, or the eerie scoring of Dimitri Tiomkin. With regard to the story, I haven’t gone into the classic moral dilemma faced by so many movie scientists over how to approach new discoveries that also pose a major threat. The fact is this is a film demanding and deserving of a far longer and more detailed analysis than I’m going to try to deliver here. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on a few of the auteurist principles which caught my attention, but you’re welcome to raise any points you wish in the comments section. The Thing from Another World is a superior piece of classic Sci-Fi from a superior filmmaker, it’s an easy recommendation.

Other views on the movie available from Laura & Jeff.