The Ride Back

I’ve never been a success at anything I tried to do. Anything I ever tried to do ever, failed. I’ve been a failure and that’s all, a plain old failure. But I’m not going to be this time. I’m going to make this one. I’m going to do this right!

That quotation comes late on in proceedings, uttered reluctantly and somewhat desperately by a man goaded into justifying his actions, the result of baiting of one form or another he’s probably struggled with all his life. Most visitors here will know my fondness for small productions and the reasons for that, not the least of which is the opportunity for experiencing the good old heartfelt reactions and observations one can often find in such modest films. The pared down quality leaves little room for the extraneous; when every word and shot has to count, then the odds are we’re going to see something which presents moral conundrums and human truths in a frank and candid way. The Ride Back (1957) is such a film.

Restrictions tend to stimulate creativity, knowing what you can’t do being a powerful way of forcing one to focus on what can be done. The Ride Back opens with men walking into a barber shop, armed men who mean business. Rather than prosaically show what they say and do and how their presence is greeted, the filmmakers cleverly cut to two little boys playing in the street at the same time. As the adults enter the shop the boys emerge from an alley, one escorting the other with a “gun” fashioned from a branch. As the prisoner bolts his captor raises his weapon, and then the deafening crash of real and deadly gunfire drags the attention back to the world of grown-up violence. A man launches himself out into the street, discarding soap and towels as he flees. This person making a bid for freedom is Roberto “Bob” Kallen (Anthony Quinn), and his flight will carry him  across the border into Mexico where half of his bloodline hails from. Where there is a fugitive from the law there  must necessarily be a pursuer. In this case it’s a lone figure; Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.

The small scale of the production here points clearly to the limited budget involved. There are many of the characteristics of a television piece visible in the tiny cast and the overall feeling of spareness. Writer Antony Ellis and director Allen H Miner (although I’ve seen claims he didn’t actually have the reins all the time) did almost all of their work for the small screen. Now this isn’t meant as any criticism, I’m merely noting that you do get the sense that the whole thing was made by people who were familiar with working to a tight schedule and all the discipline that was required in such circumstances. The story is pacy and the focus never wavers, building the relationship between Kallen and Hamish in a believable way. The enmity and mutual distrust is well handled and grows into a mature understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as the titular ride back throws up a number of challenges that will force both men to confront their own motivations. The movie benefits hugely from the skill and artistry of cinematographer Joseph F Biroc, his shooting of both the interiors and exteriors shows his mastery of lighting, and some clever use of angles emphasizes either space or confinement according to the needs of any given scene. And of course, for fans of western movie theme songs, there is one of those memorable narrative efforts delivered by Eddie Albert to open and close the film.

Anthony Quinn’s part as a half-Mexican gunman must have been a breeze for him, which is not a suggestion that he put any less into his role. No, I mean that there was a “big” quality to the man, a grandness that he seemed to turn on effortlessly and which was ideally suited to this kind of flamboyant and romantic character, something he seemed able to dial up or dial down at will. He’s very good as the sympathetic fugitive, interacting naturally and effectively with both his passionate peasant lover Lita Milan (The Violent Men) and also with Ellen Hope Monroe, the tiny and silent survivor of an Apache massacre.

William Conrad served as both producer and actor on The Ride Back, which I think indicates his level of interest in the project. Quinn played the showier and more eye-catching part, but Conrad’s sheriff is the more interesting character. Both men are headed for a form of personal redemption and both achieve this by the end, conquering distrust of others and distrust of oneself respectively. Conrad nailed the insecurity of his underachieving lawman perfectly, exercising caution at every turn and testing the ground suspiciously before every step. Such was the honesty of his wariness and self-doubt that I found the climactic scenes, where he essentially attains what he’s longed for so deeply by a circuitous and oblique route, genuinely moving. A fine performance.

The Ride Back was released on DVD in the US many years ago by MGM. The 1.33:1 ratio (once again) sounds unusual for a 1957 movie but it looks good overall and, in a way, fits the television vibe surrounding the production. Biroc’s black and white cinematography is nicely reproduced and I wasn’t aware of any major print damage at any stage during my most recent watch. This is by no means a major western and never aspires to be. What it is, on the other hand, is a spare, character-driven piece of storytelling, a virtual two-hander where two very good actors play off each other in an expert fashion and draw in the viewer with the candor of their work. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should try to catch up with it as soon as possible.

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Floods of Fear

There’s drama to be found in extremes, which may be of the economic, political, social or emotional variety. The latter is, of course, the most engaging and involving from the viewer’s perspective and gains from being combined with some other highly charged circumstance. In Floods of Fear (1958) we’re presented with our extreme situation in the form of an environmental catastrophe, the floods of the title. In contrast to the big budget, disaster epics that would become popular in the years ahead, this modest British noir places the focus firmly on a handful of central relationships and this limited scale and scope is one of its great strengths.

It all begins with the aftermath of severe and prolonged rainfall and storms, the adverse weather having raised water levels in the Humboldt River to dangerous levels. The opening sees preparations underway to try to shore up flood defenses and prevent, or at least attempt to hold in check, a catastrophic inundation. With resources strained to breaking point, the state has taken to using convicts to assist in the repairs and fortification. When the elements flex their muscles though and sweep aside the levee another threat, a criminal one, is unleashed along with the flood waters. As a result, Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heywood), who has been rescued from her stranded vehicle by convicted murderer Donavan (Howard Keel), finds herself holed up in her rapidly disintegrating home with the lecherous and cunning Peebles (Cyril Cusack) and injured prison guard Sharkey (Harry H Corbett). The tension among this disparate group is palpable while the desire to get away is rising as rapidly as the rank and freezing waters outside. Although all these characters have their own reasons for wanting to leave, the most pressing and intriguing seems to be that of Donavan, who appears to have a private score to settle.

Floods of Fear is an unusual British noir, not only adopting the look and feel of the classic Hollywood variety but going a step further and setting its story in the US. That story was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post serial (later published in novel form) by John & Ward Hawkins called simply A Girl, a Man and a River. And it is a fairly simple and straightforward story, using the framework of the disaster as a background for the various human dramas taking place within. The main thrust is provided by Donavan’s quest for justice, or a reckoning, but it’s the smaller and more personal conflicts among the core cast members that account for the emotional punch the picture carries.

Aside from the fact there is a solid noir/thriller plot involving some interesting characters with credible motivation, the movie benefits enormously from the cinematography of Christopher Challis. Sure there is some stock footage cut in to allow the studio shot material to breathe a little, but that set bound work looks extraordinarily good for the most part, and it’s largely down to how well Challis photographed it. There are a number of terrific nighttime sequences with the characters struggling through treacherous tides, silhouetted against lowering and leaden skies just beyond the clawing branches of half-submerged trees and vegetation.  The direction by Ealing comedy specialist Charles Crichton is strong and maintains the pace and toughness that a movie like this depends on.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be set in the US, nor am I sure the consequent necessity of getting the majority of the actors to adopt (with varying degrees of success) fake accents adds much value. Anyway, that’s the way the producers decided to go. Howard Keel had made his debut as a screen actor in a British thriller The Small Voice a decade before, and I found him quietly impressive in that role. Floods of Fear saw him back in British films, once again outside his more natural home in musicals and once again turning in a solid performance. It’s a physical role and Keel provides a very powerful presence which is essential under the circumstances. Apart from battles against the tides, he gets to take part in a tough and well choreographed fight with fellow US actor John Crawford at the climax. Anne Heywood is both attractive and credible as the girl trapped by the environmental and human dangers, and demonstrates some welcome range and character development as the story unfolds. One of the standout performances comes from Irish actor Cyril Cusack – creepy, shifty, emotionally unstable and wholly untrustworthy, he steals nearly every scene he appears in. I want to add a word of praise for Harry H Corbett too, an actor whose dramatic roles have not always made a particularly positive impression on me. This is one occasion where I felt he was fine though and there was none of the broadness that I feel he allowed to creep into some of his straight parts.

Floods of Fear is a film I had first stumbled upon on TV decades ago and it always stuck in my mind. As is often the case, the movie proved a bit difficult to track down for viewing during all those years and so it was a pleasure to discover it had been released on DVD  in the UK by Strawberry Media. The disc uses a fairly good print and the movie looks good overall. However, a 1958 production would surely have been shot in some kind of widescreen ratio (1.75:1 or 1.66:1 I’d have thought) and is presented 1.33:1 on the DVD. It doesn’t look cropped so I suppose we’re talking about an open-matte presentation – something which is obviously not ideal but is not terrible either. All told, I’m glad the film is available commercially and I think it’s one that should win over a few new fans.

Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.

This Side of the Law

Years ago, when I took my first tentative steps into the world of blogging, I wanted to find some means of talking about the movies which I found interesting. The thing was those films all to often were of a kind that had, let’s say, a somewhat limited following, material that might be obscure but didn’t have the benefit of carrying the cult label. Ever since, I’ve branched out a bit and I like to mix it up, featuring the better known and more critically celebrated alongside the forgotten and the neglected. Still, I want to return on a fairly regular basis to those movies in the latter category, to focus a light on the overlooked corners of cinema’s past and either remind people of something they once saw or, where possible, introduce it to a potentially new audience. With that in mind, let’s pay a visit to This Side of the Law (1950), a small scale and unheralded piece of mystery/noir.

The flashback is a wonderful noir device, offering up someone in a sticky situation and then inviting the audience to step back into the past to see if we can understand exactly how they wound up in trouble. That’s how This Side of the Law opens, with a man quite literally in a hole. David Cummins (Kent Smith) is trapped, bruised and despairing, lying sprawled in the depths of a slimy underground cistern, shut off from the world above and waiting to die. How did he get here? Well, Cummins is a bum, a man who has been picked up and run in on a vagrancy charge. However, instead of doing his time quietly and anonymously, he is spotted by sharp lawyer Philip Cagle (Robert Douglas) who is stunned by Cummins’ resemblance to a former client. And so Cummins sees his life transformed; persuaded by Cagle to take on the identity of a missing millionaire for a brief time, he genuinely goes from rags to riches. The problem is his relatives are less than pleased to see the wanderer return – his weak-willed brother (John Alvin) and adulterous sister-in-law (Janis Paige) are respectively outraged and bemused. And then there is the wife (Viveca Lindfors), unsure of how she feels about the reappearance of a man for whom she held mixed feelings. Of course when a man is as unwelcome as this guy, you have to wonder how long he’ll be allowed to stick around…

Director Richard L Bare spent the majority of his career making Joe McDoakes shorts and then moved on to plenty of television work. His features are few in number but his budget-conscious background seems to have taught him how to get the best out of limited resources. This Side of the Law has a standard plot, one that isn’t going to surprise too many viewers but it’s pretty enjoyable in spite of that. Sure it’s a hoary old yarn and the twists are easy enough to spot in advance. But it looks splendid, one of those productions where the studio sets are a genuine asset. In fairness, much of this is down to the expert cinematography of Carl Guthrie, a man who was something of a genius behind the camera and who created magical and beautifully lit images in countless set-bound films.

Kent Smith never quite made it as a leading man, although he had a long career and was involved in some memorable films along the way. This Side of the Law was a B movie but he did good work in a number of low budget efforts such as this. Tightly made productions don’t give many opportunities for nuance or subtlety but I think Smith managed to convey some in his performance, never overplaying and tapping into the uncertainty and trepidation of his character very credibly. Swedish actress Lindfors is fine as the puzzled wife and also underplays skillfully. On the other hand, Janis Paige vamps successfully and uses her insolent sexuality effectively. I feel John Alvin could have been a bit more restrained as the cuckolded younger brother and would have preferred it if he had reined it in a little. And Robert Douglas, well he was an old pro and very smooth.

This Side of the Law was a Warner Brothers production and has been released on DVD as part of the MOD Archive range in the US and there is also a low-cost DVD available from Italy. The film appears to be in good condition and shows off Guthrie’s photography nicely. Frankly, I like this kind of modest fare, and the moodily expressive cinematography is a big bonus. The film is no world-beater and I have no intention of trying to sell it as such. However, it is enjoyable, good-looking and features a handful of solid performances. If you have the opportunity, give it a try as there are far worse ways of passing an hour and a quarter.