The Violent Men

Quality is a hard thing to  define with any degree of precision. It’s something we all know when we see it but try putting it into words, creating a label for it which can be affixed to suitable candidates and you find yourself in trouble. If that’s a tough one, then differentiating or categorizing grades of quality is the kind of challenge one could base myths on. I, like probably most other people, will take some pride in my ability to recognize “a good movie”, even if that is merely my necessarily subjective view, and I might also try to impart to others exactly why I feel this is the case. But what separates a great movie from a simply good one? I genuinely don’t know, but again I can usually recognize it. All this abstraction leads me to The Violent Men (1955), a Rudolph Maté directed western with a superb cast and the kind of names on the other side of the camera which really ought to ensure its comfortable position among the acknowledged greats. Yet it doesn’t belong there, it’s not poor by any means but never rises above the level of quite good. And I can’t help but wonder why that’s so. Needless to say, any and all ideas on the subject are welcome and will be taken into consideration.

The framework within which the story plays out is a classic one for the genre, the range war. The motivation behind it all appears to be ambition and a twisted kind of love, twisted by a its traumatic birth in violent circumstances. I say appears here because it’s really greed, or perhaps covetousness might be more accurate, which propels everybody and everything towards another of those fiery yet cathartic conclusions. We follow it all from the perspective of John Parrish (Glenn Ford) a Civil War veteran who came west in the uncertain hope of recovering from his wounds. Well he did recover, and clearly made a success, albeit a slightly reluctant one, of his time as a small-scale rancher. However, in something of a subversion of the standard western trope the dearest wish of this young man is to go east. That’s what he claims anyway, or at least it’s what his betrothed, Caroline Vail (May Wynn), has encouraged him to believe. When we meet Parrish he’s poised to sell out and be on his way to a new life, but there are clearly nagging doubts stalking him. He’s ready to sign everything over to local big shot and bully Lew Wilkison (Edward G Robinson), a battle-scarred old tyrant who rules the range with an iron fist but who fails to see the treachery taking place under his own roof involving his restless wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and his shiftless younger brother Cole (Brian Keith).

I spoke about the path that leads to a blazing climax earlier, but it’s a long and slow-burning fuse that leads us there. The first half of the movie builds everything up carefully and methodically, as Ford’s character gradually comes to terms with his own doubts, his sense of responsibility to a place and a people who arguably saved his life and offered him a new start. As he watches injustice pile on top of vindictiveness, till cold-blooded murder is done before his eyes, we see him wrestling with his own indecision. Ford was, in my opinion, a master at pushing against his own natural reticence, a characteristic which colored and strengthened his best performances. This quality gets a solid workout in The Violent Men, the pressure rising incrementally until a release must be  sought.

If drama needs conflict in order to have meaning, then that conflict should be founded on the existence of a strong villain to give it the necessary momentum. The Violent Men presents the nominal bad guy in the form of Edward G Robinson and he growls, blusters and threatens his way through the first half with aplomb. Still, I don’t think he can be classified the main villain; although there’s some effectively sullen slouching from Brian Keith, and even a bit of mean braggadocio from a young Richard Jaeckel, the honor surely belongs with Barbara Stanwyck. Mendacious and manipulative to the end, she pulls the strings and directs the mayhem, easily seeing off any competition from the other women in the cast – May Wynn, Diane Foster and Lita Milan. In support, Warner Anderson is enjoyable as Ford’s dependable foreman and there’s a typically unctuous turn from James Westerfield.

Rudolph Maté began as a cinematographer and carried his talents in that area into his subsequent work as a director, generally turning out visually attractive and striking movies. With a man like that directing and the actual photography duties shared between W Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the film looks exceptionally fine, aided by shooting in the familiar Lone Pine locations. The story derives from a novel by Donald Hamilton, of the Matt Helm stories (much admired apparently by John Dickson Carr) and The Big Country. Personally, the only book by Hamilton I’ve read is Night Walker, which was reissued in paperback a few years ago, and I rather liked it so I’ve a mind to see if I can locate a copy of this. Anyway, plenty of talent on display here so far and that’s further enhanced by having the score penned by the great Max Steiner.

So, we wind up in a similar place to where we started, looking at a mightily impressive list of highly talented contributors in a well made western that flirts with themes that allude to classical tragedy. Make no mistake, this is a fine and entertaining piece of work yet it falls short of what I’d think of as greatness. Nevertheless, this isn’t a major criticism, more something that piques my curiosity. Just to round it all off, while The Violent Men has long been widely available on DVD, the image could use a bit of a brush up and there’s the potential for a very strong Blu-ray. As far as I’m aware, no-one has  released a Hi-Def version of the movie and I think this is a title deserving of that kind of treatment.

Advertisements

Man with the Gun

” It doesn’t look nice for a town as small as Sheridan to have a graveyard as big as we’ve got.”

Man with the Gun (1955) is what I think of as a small production. Sure there’s a big name lead, a supporting cast full of classy and familiar faces, and also some fairly big hitters on the other side of the camera. Still, there no location work and the action is all confined to the studio backlot, which indicates a tight budget. So I call it a small production. Even so, as the quote above indicates, there’s a pretty high body count for such a brisk and spare film but the onscreen violence never appears gratuitous, something I always appreciate.

Sheridan City carries a grandiose name for a mean little backwater, a shabby-looking settlement clinging on to the periphery of civilization. The opening moments add mean-spiritedness to the general meanness when a horseman rides along the grim main street, a dog darting out to bark and yap alongside him. And then he simply shoots the animal dead, not for any particular reason – just because. This is Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) a troubleshooter for local bigwig Dade Holman. The latter has been tightening his grip on the town itself and land surrounding it, and notions of law, justice or just common decency have been getting correspondingly squeezed. Into this increasingly tense atmosphere comes another rider, a grey clad figure with a fearsome reputation. He’s Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum), a professional town tamer who happens to be passing through on an unrelated matter. His business is with Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), the manager of a group of saloon entertainers, and Tollinger’s former love. This gunman’s services seem to be just what Sheridan City needs and the fact it ties neatly in with his personal affairs is a good enough excuse for him to stop a while.

The town tamer western is a variant that allows for plenty of rumination of the role of justice and the weaknesses of the legal system. These kinds of movies concern themselves with societies where the rule has law has broken down to the point where only the intervention of an outsider can restore a community’s faith in its own ability to endure. The outsider should always be one of those types who live by their wits and their ruthlessness, a man with a gun. The role of the outsider always appeared a good fit for Robert Mitchum, a man who, despite his star status, forever gave the impression of not really being an insider. There was that wry detachment about the man which made parts like this ideal, and he does look the real deal as he struts purposefully around and lays waste to the string of largely ineffectual semi-hard men the local land baron sends his way.

Still, a movie needs a stronger hook than that to grab and maintain our attention. Drama requires an emotional core if it’s to raise itself above the level of juvenile thrill-seeking. In Man with the Gun that comes courtesy of the subplot involving Jan Sterling and her previous relationship with Mitchum. Right from the beginning there is a strong sense of sadness and regret floating around these two grim and austere people; they circle one another cautiously and Sterling is the one who ensures contact is withheld and distance remains constant. I’m not going to go into the details back of it all as I think it amounts to a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie. What I will say though is it offers a layer of depth and when the big revelation comes it triggers the films main set piece, the huge conflagration Mitchum sets off to cauterize both his and the town’s wounds.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, this film has an enviable cast of familiar faces on show. Karen Sharpe gets a substantial role as a young girl both drawn to and vaguely repelled by Tollinger’s frank acknowledgement of the persuasive power of violence. It’s a nicely judged performance and benefits from not having to navigate the emotional heat inherent in Sterling’s part, allowing the viewer to sample a different, less charged perspective. There’s also good work from Emile Meyer, in sympathetic mode for a change, and from Henry Hull, who seemed to be channeling Walter Brennan as the cautious marshal. You can usually tell the quality of a movie by the caliber of its villains and anything that features a lineup with Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon and Claude Akins positively demands one’s attention. I could go on listing names here but if I limit myself to saying that there’s an early appearance by Angie Dickinson well down the cast, the depth of talent involved ought to be apparent.

A word now for those behind the camera. Director Richard Wilson might have a comparatively brief list of credits as the man in charge but his work under and alongside Orson Welles is significant, and no man who spent that time around such a cinematic titan could come away the poorer. And what can one say about Lee Garmes? Here was a man whose experience stretched back to Hollywood’s pioneering days and who was responsible for shooting some of the most visually attractive and remarkable works committed to film – Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express being just one example.While Man with the Gun doesn’t have that kind of baroque richness there are flashes of Garmes’ flair, notably that set piece fire scene I referred to earlier. Finally, I’d like to make a brief comment on Alex North’s appropriately spare score and the fact that there’s a wonderfully melancholy quality to the tag he employs for Mitchum’s character.

For a time Man with the Gun was only available on DVD in an open-matte transfer. In truth, aspect ratio aside,  it wasn’t bad in terms of picture quality. Now there are DVDs and Blu-rays available in the US (Kino) and Europe (via Koch in Germany) so good quality presentations are relatively easy to access. I don’t suppose too many people will claim this is a great western but I quite like it, and a lot of that is down to the tone achieved by the accomplished playing of Mitchum and Sterling. Try it, if you get the opportunity.