Rough Shoot

Hitchcockian is a word that ought to be reasonably common for anyone familiar with the movie reviewing/commentary world. Mind you, time was the term got recycled regularly in relation to new cinema releases, although my impression is that this hasn’t been  happening so often of late. This might be down to recent films not fitting the bill, a gradual waning in the influence of the great man, a lack of awareness (conscious or unconscious) among reviewers. Or maybe I’m just mistaken and it’s as widely used as ever. Whatever. Today’s  film for consideration, Rough Shoot (1953), feels Hitchcockian to me, or perhaps it might be more accurate to talk a Hitchcockian throwback. By the 50s, Hitchcock himself was shifting ever deeper into more complex and layered thrillers. Rough Shoot, with its wrong man mix ups and well-judged combination of jauntiness and suspense feels closer in tone to some of the earlier, pre-Hollywood British thrillers.

Colonel Taine (Joel McCrea) is a US artillery specialist cooperating with the British military and therefore living in Britain. Actually, it appears to be an idyllic existence at the beginning, as Taine chats with the crusty old type he’s letting some land from before wandering off with warnings to watch out for poachers, black marketeers and other interlopers still ringing in his ears. Right on cue, he spots an unknown man trespassing on his property and thus plans to send a blast of buckshot in his direction to discourage him. However, this is no poacher someone else (Marius Goring) has the sights of a rifle trained on him, someone planning to do more than merely throw a scare into him. Two shots coincide and the result is a dead man, and an appalled Taine convinced that he is responsible. Logically, one ought to report the accident immediately yet dramas such as this depend on protagonists suffering from panic and sudden rushes of blood to the head. And so it follows that Taine attempts to conceal the body temporarily, but the actual shooter is keen to take care of matters himself. At this point the tale looks to be drifting determinedly towards film noir territory, with Taine fretting and haunted by guilt while his wife (Evelyn Keyes) is growing increasingly suspicious. And then, in that 1930s Hitchcock style, the tone shifts smoothly towards something a bit lighter with the arrival on the scene of a vain Polish spy (Herbert Lom) and his MI5 boss (Roland Culver). From here the pace picks up considerably, with spies coming and going, a race from the countryside to London to reveal the McGuffin before everything winds up in explosive fashion atop Madame Tussauds.

The writing is always important in the success or otherwise of movies and Rough Shoot comes with a strong pedigree. The source material is a novel by Geoffrey Household of Rogue Male fame. There is some of the rural menace of that noted work on show here but I think it’s fair to say that the adaptation by the great Eric Ambler only strengthens the finished product. I’m of the opinion that Ambler was the finest espionage/thriller writer of the mid-20th century, a superb craftsman and if his screenwriting didn’t quite match the heights attained in his novels, it was still of a high standard indeed.

Robert Parrish moved from a successful stint in the editing department in the 40s to become a director in the 50s. That decade saw him produce some excellent films, from the noir of Cry Danger at the beginning  to a couple of first rate westerns, Saddle the Wind and The Wonderful Country, right at the end. By the 1960s Parrish had seen his best days behind him but Rough Shoot appeared when he was on top of his game. He keeps the pace up and handles the tonal shifts very deftly, never allowing any jarring moments. He moves the camera around well too, making the most of the British locations as well as lining up some effective and atmospheric interior shots, capably assisted by Stanley (Pink String and Sealing Wax) Pavey.

Joel McCrea epitomizes understated dignity for me, he had that old-school decency down pat and watching him ease his way confidently across the screen invariably evokes a sense of reassurance. These qualities made him one of the great western stars but it translated equally well to other genres too. Rough Shoot presented him in one of his rare non-western roles in the post-war years and the largely rural setting could be seen as a comfortable compromise, particularly so as the film was made not only outside of the west but outside of the US too.  Marius Goring was one of the stalwarts of British cinema, appearing in some of the most notable movies. I think he makes a fine villain, cold steel draped in silk and posing a genuine threat every time he’s on view. In contrast to this icy menace is the knowing charm of Herbert Lom, and there’s equally delightful work from Roland Culver. The main female role fell to Evelyn Keyes – she wasn’t given a huge amount to do but does her supportive and resourceful stuff perfectly well. The other female parts are extremely limited  – the striking looking Patricia Laffan (I always think of her as Poppaea to Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis) seemed to be set for something more substantial and interesting but disappears too soon.

Rough Shoot is another of those movies that almost inexplicably remains unreleased for home viewing. The quality of the cast and crew, not to mention the entertaining story, would suggest this title should have been put on the market before now – many lesser works have been long available, after all. I can only think that there must be some difficulties or confusion over the rights which are holding this up. If so, I fervently hope they can be resolved some time soon. I’m of the opinion that this movie, Hotel Reserve and State Secret are the three British films most urgently in need of proper, official home video releases. Let’s hope somebody manages to do something about this. In the meantime, Rough Shoot can be be viewed online quite easily – hardly a satisfactory situation, but it’s the only option at present.

For another take on the movie, you can check out Laura’s thoughts here.

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24 thoughts on “Rough Shoot

  1. I feel like I must have seen his but if so it was much too long ago. Weird how it is not commercially available, sounds just great to me. It is a United Artists film (in the sense that it was copyrighted by them not just distributed) so part of the MGM library …

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    • I don’t know, I imagine there has to be some rights issue involved here – perhaps the fact it’s a Raymond Stross production? There are a couple of Robert Mitchum movies credited to Stross productions – The Angry Hills & A Terrible Beauty – which are equally elusive. Mind you The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is another credited title and freely available.

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  2. Despite its rarity (sadly), this is one of my favourite British thrillers with an American star. Now obviously the fact that it stars Joel McCrea is a big factor for me but I think, like you Colin, that it is a fine film anyway. Well-acted and directed and with a good story well-written.
    As you also say, Eric Ambler was an excellent writer and his first half-dozen books or so must be among the finest of their type ever written. I have them all and have read many/most of them.

    I really hope this film turns up some time soon – a BluRay release would be terrific. This was McCrea’s only non-western film post WW2 and it is great that he was wanted for an espionage thriller in Britain at that point in his CV.

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    • Jerry, the film is easily at the top level of movies made in the UK with US stars/directors.
      On the writing, while Ambler is unsurpassed, in my opinion, as a thriller writer Geoffrey Household was no slouch either. Of his works, I’ve only ever read Rogue Male, which is deservedly famous, but I know that A Time to Kill, which is the sequel to Rough Shoot, sits unread on a shelf in my parents’ home.

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  3. I enjoyed your review very much and the various points that you raise. Firstly, we seem to like the same Parrish movies especially the Westerns that you mention. Oddly enough, I thought Parrish and McCrea’s previous film SAN FRANCISCO STORY was very weak,possibly Joel’s worst. The sole available DVD is pretty poor-perhaps if I saw a really nice high definition version,my opinion might change. Still, any film that has a bar staffed by Florence Bates (with pipe and eye patch!) and Tor Johnson is tough to dislike. Recently I watched a Parrish film that I’ve never seen before FIRE DOWN BELOW which I found hugely enjoyable, though the film does have it’s detractors.
    FIRE DOWN BELOW is flawed, to be sure, but to my taste has Mitchum at his very best.

    Regarding Raymond Stross productions, THE ANGRY HILLS is available as a Warner Archive MOD DVD. To be honest, Colin I waited years to see this
    film and considering the people involved, I found the film a crashing disappointment, strangely flat. Don’t know if there are rights issues with various Raymond Stross productions, but his thriller THE VERY EDGE I do remember as being pretty good despite being trashed by the critics at the time,at any rate the Brit supporting cast is stellar. THE VERY EDGE is the sort of film that might turn up on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

    Wonderful to hear you champion Patricia Laffan,I sure wish that she had a more prolific career. There was something endearingly imperious about her screen persona especially in the cult classic DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS. You mention the Hitchcock influence and Patricia has one of her better roles in 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET. I am a huge admirer of Hathaway’s film and for me it’s the closest we will get to see a Hitchcock film in CinemaScope. 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET combines thrills and humour very much in the style of The Master. For those interested the Wikipedia entry on Patricia is very informative.

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    • I remember seeing Fire Down Below on TV when I was a youngster and missing out on the ending. The whole setup intrigued me and I was always desperately curious to see how it panned out. Eventually, I caught up with it when it appeared on DVD and achieved what we might term cinematic closure. I like the movie well enough too and I agree it is a superb part for Mitchum.

      23 Paces to Baker Street is indeed a very enjoyable movie, and another I first stumbled upon on TV – I think one afternoon when a sporting event had been cancelled and it was hastily shoehorned into the schedules. Patricia Laffan is good in that, although the fact is all of the small cast did top work there.

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  4. Have not heard of this. I thought at first it was Roughshod, a passable western but on closer look its Rough Shoot. I too enjoyed Fire Down Below and with Rita Hayworth spiced things up. Best regards.

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  5. I guess I have to be a voice of dissent here, given the admiration that you and the others who have commented all have for this film. But I say that with some regret, and wouldn’t post this at all except to write something more about Robert Parrish.

    I saw it on TV sometime ago (maybe twenty years or so now) and looked forward to it but found it inexplicably dull. I’m not sure why–it’s not that I don’t like the genre and in the credits this had so much going for it. But somehow it never engaged me. Since I don’t remember it well now, I can’t say much more and this shouldn’t be taken as a definitive opinion. You all have made me feel I might give it another look, given the opportunity.

    I note also that Eric Ambler went on to write the screenplay for Parrish’s very next movie, THE PURPLE PLAIN, which I consider one of his two greatest and surpassed only by THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY, so can’t argue with anything good said about him here either.

    I would have thought that Parrish would have been a good director for McCrea because he is temperamentally an understated director, and has shown he knows how to find a dramatic quietness and subtlety, and so has some affinities with Joel McCrea’s ideal director, Jacques Tourneur (some other directors of McCrea’s best postwar films have also had this to quality in some way, notably Hugo Fregonese, but also to an extent, Joseph M. Newman, and even, for all the toughness and pessimism of his sensibility, Andre De Toth in his style at least). But somehow, here and in THE SAN FRANCISCO STORY, the Western Parrish and McCrea made a little before ROUGH SHOOT, they just seemed to miss and I thought that Western was one of McCrea’s weakest post-1946 films too.

    Just to digress momentarily, I’ve seen all of McCrea’s 26 movies from THE VIRGINIAN in ’46 to RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY in ’62 and am inclined to like them and they are all seem to understand his persona and gifts even when they don’t do a lot with it. Jerry is right in my mind that ROUGH SHOOT is the only non-Western, but that’s because STARS IN MY CROWN, though not strictly Western, is so deeply related to the genre, and specifically to the other McCrea films among Tourneur’s small but superior group of Westerns. In the three films, McCrea is an authority figure, minister in STARS IN MY CROWN, a judge in STRANGER ON HORSEBACK, a marshal in WICHITA.

    I’ve also seen all of Robert Parrish’s 18 features, and I am a great admirer of his work. What troubles his career in my mind (and this has an interesting resonance with some of his best films) is that he never really found a home, as a contract might have given him, or at least a solid reputation so good projects would draw him. For a comparison on that latter point, he might be compared to Nicholas Ray (especially as they have other things in common) in the years that they both were actively workings. Ray was also a free agent after those few years at RKO but always seemed to go to projects that interested in him and in a number of cases, ones that he himself initiated. That doesn’t happen with Parrish too much, but look at the result when he did care deeply about it–THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.

    But mostly, Parrish kind of had to go where there was a movie for him and take the work he could get, and given that, rather amazingly, there is a thematic core and a considerable individual sensibility, often beautifully articulated in his realization of the work. In the works that express him best, the protagonist is at some spiritual crisis point, lost to know where he belongs and what his life should be and whether he really wants to engage it at all. There, the affinity with the alienation and internal (as well as external) conflict one finds in the films of Nick Ray is very strong–really I think Parrish more than anyone else resembles him (one reason why I believe some Parrish directed scenes in THE LUSTY MEN for a few days that Ray was ill play seamlessly). No higher praise than that. The difference is that in Parrish, the inner struggle plays out a lot more quietly; it may seem less vivid, though not less real, and one needs to kind of go to the films rather than let the vibrancy enrapture one.

    I’m not saying I rate Parrish as high as Ray, but there are only a few that I do put on that level, and to talk about them together shows how much respect and admiration I accord to Parrish.

    Of the 18 films, I have very positive feelings about half of them, not only the sublime THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (one of the greatest Westerns ever made, enough reason to love Parrish) and the beautiful THE PURPLE PLAIN.
    It’s in those films most of all one sees the theme, both dramatic and spiritual, that I’ve alluded to, but of the next best it’s there too–in CRY DANGER (a fine debut) and, perhaps felt in different ways for all three of the main characters, the absorbing FIRE DOWN BELOW. It can be felt in a somewhat different way in SADDLE THE WIND too and even in the lighter, contemporary father/son drama MY PAL GUS.

    So that’s the six 1950s one that I do have real affection for, and that’s pretty impressive given the circumstances of his career that I’ve noted.

    Colin, how many of Parrish’s 1960s films have you seen? Just asking because while admittedly it was a troubled time for an American director out looking for a film to make (not just Parrish but others too, as I’m sure you would agree), Parrish for me found his way pretty strongly with three of his films post-1960. IN THE FRENCH STYLE (1962) has a post-BREATHLESS Jean Seberg as another American girl in Paris, kind of emotionally adrift and finding her way–and not caught up with a criminal, so it’s a less taut narrative but it has plenty of effectively banked emotion and the character and her journey do come over well. THE BOBO (1967) is a rare Parrish comedy, but not a typical one. Peter Sellers, who I don’t love in every film though he is wonderful here, creates a memorable character and the movie manages to make a beautiful dramatic switch into something melancholy in a way one does not expect–it has kind of a haunting ending and one of the most memorable last lines ever (and OK, I guess it’s a forlorn film in a way but I’ve never tired of it). Finally, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1969) is a very interesting sci-fi film, kind of like a feature-length version of a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and so puts the Parrish protagonist in lonely crisis into that sci-fi context, and I’d recommend to any fan of the genre.

    Maybe not in every way the career someone this talented might have had, but if he was probably not as deeply satisfied with it as he would have liked, we don’t need to feel that way and for me it’s an imposing contribution.

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    • There aren’t too many films we have opposite opinions on, Blake, but it’s only to be expected that there are some which don’t work for us. Mind you, opinions can and do shift, as I’ve found out more than a few times myself, so it might be worth looking at again if or when you get an opportunity.

      Actually, I’ve not seen that much of Parrish’s films from the 60s – Casino Royale, although I’m unsure how much he had a hand in that, & Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. I’ve always found the former a moderately entertaining mess but the latter left me a bit cold. In the French Style sounds like it might reward a look.

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  6. SADDLE THE WIND.

    I don’t know how I garbled that title the way I did, especially as I love that title so much, partly because of the way one of the most beautiful title songs in any movie (sung by Julie London) was woven around it.

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  7. Thanks for fixing that. Glad to leave my other comment anyway because of what I said about that song.

    I didn’t count in CASINO ROYALE before when counting 18 features for Parrish. If I did I’d rate it absolutely at the bottom of the list as I found it excruciating. But it had five directors and I believe it’s pretty marginal to Parrish, so I don’t hold it against him.

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  8. Courtesy of YouTube I just viewed McRea’s 1948 Four Faces West. Thoroughly enjoyed the conflicted character he played. Another tale of redemption. Never made much notice of Charles Bickford but pleased with his performance of a compassionate lawman. Don’t recall a shot being fired. I can’t see that you’ve reviewed this film.

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    • A good film, and you’re right about it not being one I’ve featured here. It’s been some time since I last saw it but I believe you’re correct too that no shots are fired. I really should try to put a piece on it up here at some point.

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