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Category Archives: 1950s

The Oklahoman

Allied Artists Pictures grew out of Poverty Row specialists Monogram and produced and distributed movies from the late 40s through to the 70s. The brainchild of Walter Mirisch, the studio aimed to produce what he termed B+ movies, promising a step up from the lower production values Monogram had been associated with. What resulted was a range of films from the instantly forgettable to the memorable, and everything in between. For this blogathon celebrating the work of the studio I’ve chosen a late 50s western, The Oklahoman (1957) starring Joel McCrea, one of the genuine icons of the genre. It’s a brisk tale of love, race and oil, charging home at just under 80 minutes and never pausing for breath.

It’s 1870 in the Oklahoma Territory and a couple of wagons bound for California have stopped off, the reason being that a baby is on the way. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and leaves the grieving father, John Brighton (Joel McCrea), with an infant girl and a tough choice to make. The experience has sapped his pioneering spirit and, being a doctor, he decides to stay put in the small town and set up in practice. We jump forward a few years and the child is growing up, reaching that stage where she needs a maternal figure in her life. Brighton finds himself in the enviable position of having two attractive women vying for his affections – the first is the young Indian girl, Maria (Gloria Talbott), he’s hired to look after his daughter, while the other is a widowed rancher, Anne Barnes (Barbara Hale). Thus we’re presented with a romantic triangle with the somewhat bemused doctor as the focal point. Westerns tend to use change as the engine to drive their dramatic content, sometimes it’s changes to the social structure or the spread of civilization and the establishment of the rule of law. In this case, the evolution of society is underway with the absorption of the native people into the community already in progress. That theme is addressed of course but there’s also the matter of shifting economic priorities at play, providing the motivation for the actions of the villains and in the process threatening to cast a shadow over the native-settler relationship. When leading rancher Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter) becomes aware of the large oil deposits on the neighboring land owned by Maria’s father (Michael Pate) he sees the direction the economic wind is blowing. If he can’t get the land by buying it, he’s quite prepared to resort to whatever means are necessary, regardless of who gets in his way or what social damage is caused.

While the oil angle is interesting and a little unusual for a western, it’s the treatment of the racial aspect which stands out particularly in this film. Right from the beginning the Indian characters are shown to be working at integration into white society and, even more notably, being accepted on those terms. The conflicts of the past haven’t been forgotten of course, as a conversation among a few town residents on the boardwalk one evening demonstrates, but they’re spoken of in a philosophical and progressive way – there’s an explicit admission of wrongdoing and an awareness that the fighting had justifications from both sides. What’s more, the question of racial tension only rears its head when the villains force it onto the agenda, and even then those who would seek to reopen old wounds and exploit the resulting hostility remain in the minority; there are as many and perhaps more voices expressing support for the Indians.

The Oklahoman came from the pen of Daniel B Ullman, who had a long list of writing credits to his name. Latterly, he wrote extensively for television but also contributed a significant number of western scripts, including Canyon River, Wichita, At Gunpoint and Face of a Fugitive, to name just a few. The cameraman was another vastly experienced guy, Carl Guthrie, and he helps give the whole thing a look which at least partially belies the modest budget. Director Francis D Lyon started out as an editor and did the bulk of his work for TV. His feature credits are limited (he did take charge of the rather nifty Escort West though) but he does fine with this movie and certainly keeps everything moving at pace.

All too often, the romantic elements can feel like a superficial adjunct, something bolted on to pad the running time or broaden the appeal of a movie. However, with The Oklahoman that’s not an issue; the romance, and the jealousies and confusion arising from it fold neatly into the plot and are integral to the picture. Joel McCrea plays what might be termed a typical McCrea role, that of a stolid and upright individual maneuvered by circumstance into a conflicted position. I think the key to McCrea’s success and enduring popularity among western fans is the smoothly professional way he handled such parts. As he aged he grew in courtliness and took on a more introspective air. That served him well in his scenes with both Gloria Talbott and Barbara Hale, the respectful reserve striking the right tone for a character who has long lived alone and has perhaps come to accept that his path is destined to lie in that direction – the gradual uncoiling of this stiffness adds a whole lot of charm and poignancy to the film. Brad Dexter had an unctuous quality to him, a slippery lack of sincerity, which again is used to good effect here. The ready smile is never any more than a paper-thin facade and you can almost see the self-absorbed computations going on behind it. In support there are nicely written parts for Michael Pate, Anthony Caruso, Verna Felton and Esther Dale. Furthermore, we get to see genre stalwart Ray Teal in a rare sympathetic role.

The Oklahoman is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive line and there’s also a European edition, which I own. The film is part of a 2-disc set from Spain, paired up with Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita. The transfer is good enough without being especially noteworthy. Presented in anamorphic scope and boasting generally strong colors, it can look a bit soft from time to time but is in reasonable shape for all that. The disc is a very basic one with no extra features whatsoever and the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be disabled either through the setup menu or on the fly via the remote. I’m very fond of these short, punchy westerns from the late 50s and anything with Joel McCrea in the lead ought to be recommendation enough in itself. Check it out, if you get the chance.

This piece is offered as part of the Allied Artists Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Allied Artists by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

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Posted by on January 30, 2016 in 1950s, Joel McCrea, Westerns

 

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The Outcast

You wanna ride that horse straight up or belly down?

Another week, another Witney. I’m not entirely sure why I’d neglected to feature this director on the site before, a simple oversight on my part is the only reason I can think of. However, I’ve been trying to make up for it to some extent this month, not out of any trite sense of obligation but simply because I’ve liked what I’ve seen. This time it’s The Outcast (1954), a film which I’ll admit had passed beneath my radar until my friend Jerry Entract wrote about it (and thus called my attention to it) last year. Sometimes the recommendations of others strike a particular chord, get under your skin in a way, and I was intrigued enough by the sound of this movie to make a point of seeking out a copy. I’m certainly glad that I did, and only regret that I didn’t get round to watching it sooner.

It’s a classic tale of revenge, of settling scores and restoring things to the way they ought to be. It opens with the image of the stranger, who really isn’t of course, riding into a small Colorado town. This is Jet Cosgrave (John Derek), back home after 8 years and resolved to win back that which is rightfully his. Land is one of those eternal sources of conflict, giving rise to a whole range of emotional responses from jealousy to grim passion. In this instance, the scenario involves a grand swindle, one which also bears the pungent and unpleasant odor of a hushed up murder. The upshot of it all is that it’s sparked a number of feuds, principally that between Jet and his uncle, Major Cosgrave (Jim Davis), and a related one involving a neighboring family. This is a strong enough plot in itself, that notion of a family tearing itself apart carrying all the hallmarks of a classical tragedy, yet is further enriched by the skillful weaving in of two romantic threads. The overarching theme of betrayal is further spiced up by the actions and motivations of a clutch of subsidiary characters, their loyalties shifting like the ebb and flow of an increasingly fickle tide. By the time the show wraps up the complex skein of lies and deception is gradually untangled, and justice is seen to be served in a way which allows Jet to achieve his goals without sacrificing his conscience.

I guess the storyline of The Outcast sounds packed and complicated, and there’s no point in my denying that fact. The number of layers and sub-plots could easily torpedo any picture, if handled clumsily. And that simple observation highlights the beauty of Witney’s style of filmmaking; there’s a simplicity and directness to his approach which allows the focus to remain pin sharp throughout, never allowing the side issues to haul the narrative off course, absorbing and integrating them into the whole to ensure the flow is smooth and clear throughout. Let’s not forget that aspect for which Witney is most often lauded though, the handling and depiction of action. One might expect a densely plotted piece like this to move sluggishly at best yet that potential trap is nimbly negotiated, not least by the frequent and well-coordinated bursts of action. taking place both on the set and on location. I could draw attention to the regular fist and gunfights that intersperse the story, but I’d especially like to mention the wonderfully staged sequence towards the end which involves breaking up a cattle drive – the pace, editing and stunt work is genuinely breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed.

A good number of movies, of various genres, in the 50s touched on the idea of disaffected, displaced and rebellious youth. John Derek’s lead performance in The Outcast slots into that phenomenon quite neatly. The journey on which his character is taken naturally features the redemptive aspect that is virtually inseparable from the western, and there’s also a point being made about the development of maturity. I think Derek handled himself well as he grows beyond the cold and manipulative individual we see at the beginning. His progression towards a more nuanced understanding of the consequences of his determination is credibly achieved. I liked how his slow realization of the undesirability of resorting to violence subtly alters his perspective, and then ties in with his burgeoning awareness of the hollow, and ultimately self-destructive, nature of revenge. Jim Davis was always an authentic western presence, and is very good as Derek’s rival. Again, his character evolves, or disintegrates might be a more apt description under the circumstances, in a wholly believable fashion. The swaggering confidence we see at the outset is chipped away at bit by bit. The best villains tend to have an element of pathos about them, and I think Davis does here as you’re left almost feeling sorry for him as he sees his dreams and ambitions turn to dust around him. In addition to Davis and Derek, there are solid roles for the two principal actresses, Catherine McLeod and Joan Evans. Both women have significant parts to play in the way the tale twists along, and there’s a reasonable amount of depth to their respective characters. The supporting cast is made up of a checklist of seasoned genre players – Slim Pickens, Bob Steele, James Millican, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden and Frank Ferguson all provide memorable turns.

To date, the only release of The Outcast on DVD that I’m aware of is an Italian disc. It looks like an unrestored version of the movie but the  print used (obviously an Italian one as the title card appears in that language) is in reasonable shape. There isn’t any severe damage and the color is fairly rich although there is a little of the fading and variation, which one frequently gets with the Trucolor process, on display. Both the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub are offered and subtitles are, as usual, optional. I might also mention that the film could also be found on YouTube last time I looked. All in all, I got a lot of enjoyment out of this fast-moving picture with its solid cast and no-nonsense direction. Anyway, that brings my short series of features on William Witney films to a close for now (though I’ve no doubt I’ll return to his work at a later date) and it’s nice to finish on a title I very definitely recommend.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2016 in 1950s, Westerns, William Witney

 

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Santa Fe Passage

All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in 1950s, John Payne, Westerns, William Witney

 

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Backfire

All right. What’s certain? Two things… death and taxes…

There aren’t too many films noir set in and around the holiday season, Christmas Holiday and Lady in the Lake probably being the best known, as it’s clearly more marketable to focus on the upbeat and cheerful rather than the dark or cynical side of life. Backfire (1950) isn’t strictly speaking a seasonal noir but a number of its key events do play out over the festive period. As such, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for what ought to be my last full review piece for this year.

It’s November of 1948, the war’s been over a few years now but the scars haven’t fully healed. In a veterans hospital in California Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is still recuperating from his wounds, a serious back injury which has required thirteen operations. Still, he’s on the road to recovery and has hopes of going into the ranching business with his old army pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), and also of marrying the nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), who’s tended him. The holidays are rapidly approaching and Bob is growing anxious that his buddy hasn’t been around of late. Then, late on Christmas Eve as his medication is just kicking in, he has a visit from an unknown woman, a foreigner whom none of the hospital staff can subsequently recall seeing. As he lies in a narcotic haze, she tells him that Steve is in serious trouble, laid up with a shattered spine and desperately in need of help. What’s a guy to do when he learns his best buddy is in such dire straits? As soon as his discharge comes through in the New Year, he resolves to track down the mystery woman and, by extension, Steve. In the world of noir nothing’s quite that simple though, and he finds himself picked up by a squad car upon leaving the hospital. Ferried to the homicide department, our bewildered hero fears the worst, but instead discovers that Steve is top of the police wanted list for the murder of a prominent gambler. And so begins a twisting quest for the truth which dips in and out of the past, a winding path that’s driven by gambling and jealousy, and has death as its final stop.

The problems faced by returning veterans, particularly the difficulty of establishing one’s place back in civilized society, was a recurring theme (perhaps one of the most prominent in truth) in film noir and was arguably the factor which gave greatest momentum to the post-war boom in that genre. Backfire comes at this on three fronts, focusing on the physical, social and psychological barriers to be overcome. While the latter aspect is the one which acts as the catalyst for the violence and tragedy in the plot, its causes are hinted at rather than fully explored – although it does at least make an effort to acknowledge the matter and avoids going down the road that led to such an unsatisfactory conclusion to The Blue Dahlia a few years before. Speaking of which, I have a hunch the coda of the movie here was tacked on as a softening touch – I hasten to add I have no evidence to suggest this is so beyond a feeling that the fade out preceding it may have been deemed a bit too much of a downer.

Vincent Sherman was one of those studio directors who made mainly professional if not wholly memorable pictures. Generally, I’d say I enjoy his work well enough  – Lone Star was quite disappointing but I think Nora Prentiss, The Garment Jungle, The Unfaithful and The Damned Don’t Cry all have worth. The plot does become pretty complicated as it goes along but Sherman uses the flashbacks intelligently and keeps the pace up. There’s some good use of the Los Angeles locations and Carl Guthrie lights the interiors nicely to create the requisite atmosphere.

The poster art is a little misleading, although understandably so in the wake of White Heat. It gives the impression that Virginia Mayo is playing the kind of vampish femme fatale so beloved of noir. The fact is, however, that she’s cast as that other staple of the form, the Girl Friday who lends support to the hero. She’s fine in this role and I think it’s a pity she didn’t get to feature a bit more. Gordon MacRae is the everyman figure who leads us through the complexities – he was primarily a musical star and seems an odd choice at first for this type of film but actually works out OK as the innocent cast into a world which is clearly alien to him. Edmond O’Brien, on the other hand, was very much at home in film noir and does great work (tough, weary but fundamentally decent) in his flashback scenes. While the presence of a femme fatale  – and that doesn’t have to be a “bad girl”, just one whose sexuality leads men into danger – isn’t always necessary, it never hurts either. Viveca Lindfors fits the bill in Backfire, positively smouldering at times and always convincing as a woman unconsciously capable of tempting men to risk it all for. Dane Clark was always busy as an actor but never seemed to really make it as a star; he was excellent in Borzage’s Moonrise and I thought he did well in a number of crime/noir films he made in Britain. His role here is a vital one and he handled it very capably in my opinion. Notable support is provided by the always reliable Ed Begley and John Dehner pops up in an uncredited bit part.

A Warner Brothers production, Backfire is available on DVD as part of that studio’s Film Noir Classics Collection Vol. 5. It’s paired up on disc with Deadline at Dawn and looks good throughout. The transfer is mostly clean with very little damage visible and a nice level of detail. There are no extra features offered. Although this isn’t one of the better known films noir it’s a solid movie with some good performances. The script maybe tries to be a tad too clever at times and I did notice one plot hole which irritated me somewhat (I won’t go into it here as I don’t want to get into spoiler territory) but it remains enjoyable overall. A reasonably entertaining thriller then with a tangential connection to the holidays.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in 1950s, Film Noir

 

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City of Bad Men

A lot of you all rode into this town, but you are the only one who saw anything. You noticed the change. The others don’t look past the end of their guns. You saw the handwriting on the wall. They don’t even see the wall because their backs are against it. Their days are over. They don’t know it.

Sometimes I like to open with a quote that in some way sums up the tone, mood or message of a given movie. In this case, those lines above represent more of what I feel the film could have been as opposed to what we actually end up with. City of Bad Men (1953) is a title which left me feeling not entirely satisfied when I first saw it and so I thought I’d give it another go to see if my reaction would be any different this time. The answer is a kind of yes and no: yes in that I enjoyed it all a little more, but I still came away with that nagging sense of having seen an opportunity missed, or at least not fully grasped.

On St Patrick’s Day 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, a fight for the world heavyweight championship (actual footage of the bout can be viewed on YouTube) took place between Bob Fitzsimmons and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. This event forms the backdrop to and also constitutes a major plot element of the film. Returning from an unsuccessful trip south of the border as soldiers of fortune is a group of weary men led by Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson). With little of worth to show for their time and effort, they are heading for Carson City with the hope of knocking over the bank in what they believe to be a perennially sleepy town. However, the town they ride into has undergone a transformation, partly due to the changing nature of the times but also as a result of the upcoming prize-fight. Yes, civilization and the trappings of the modern age – the motor car and luxuries like the shower – are slowly creeping westward. While his men gaze upon these alien sights with a kind of detached bemusement, Stanton’s calm features mask the fact that the seeds of an opportunistic plan have been sown in his mind. Crowds like this mean money – money which can be made or stolen. Yet Stanton isn’t the only one to entertain such thoughts; other gangs of unscrupulous men, most notably those led by Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone), have been drawn by the prospect of easy pickings. The local lawmen realize the volatility of such a situation and hit on the novel idea of appealing to the mutual suspicion of these various desperadoes and convincing them that the best way to keep the peace (and thus protect their own mercenary interests) is by keeping an eye on each other. Stanton is smart enough to see the advantages of such an arrangement, but he’s also aware of the complications and obstacles ahead of him: the need to come up with a viable plan to pull off a spectacular heist, the latent jealousy of his brother Gar (Lloyd Bridges), and the feelings he still nurses for the girl (Jeanne Crain) left all those years ago.

As I see it, there are four major themes at play in the movie – the noir-tinged heist plot, the classic idea of changing times, the sibling rivalry, and the notion of redemption earned through love. Lots of material to chew over yet only one, the heist aspect, is realized fully and successfully. The fact the script allows this to develop naturally and then the way Harmon Jones directs its execution, cutting between the fight, the collection of the takings and the way the money is subsequently lifted, is a fluid and assured piece of filmmaking. It makes for a fitting climax to the picture, but also highlights the deficiencies in the handling of the other facets. The early scenes give the impression that the “men out of time” part will be of greater importance, but it’s something the film only pays lip service to in reality. Similarly, the tension between Brett and Gar is never fully explored and its resolution feels rushed in the end. As for redemption, which ought to form the centerpiece of a western of this era, I was left feeling that it’s achieved a touch too easily, and the means by which it’s linked to Brett’s reconciliation with his old flame is weakened by its abruptness. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the film has a strong foundation with a number of rich veins running through it, only few of which are mined and even then not to their full extent.

When called upon to do so, Dale Robertson was good at conveying cold intensity but that wasn’t really a requirement in this role. He displays the necessary toughness to hold the whip hand over his own bunch of ne’er do wells and to keep his rivals in check. Essentially though, the part of Brett Stanton is all about calmness, a kind of melancholy thoughtfulness. His air of regret and his flexible morality tie in with, and feel like an extension of sorts of, the type of disillusioned veterans so common in film noir, bewildered by and isolated from the new world they find themselves confronted with. For me, Robertson’s quietness and restraint is one of the major strengths of the picture. Ranged against that is the restlessness and impatience of Lloyd Bridges and, more significantly, the rattlesnake charm of Richard Boone. If anything, Boone is underused in the movie, lighting up the screen every time he appears while leaving you disappointed he’s not there more. Which brings us to Jeanne Crain – her character is a vital one through the effect she has on Robertson, but the script doesn’t treat her well. She’s placed in a conflicted position that’s loaded with dramatic possibilities yet her character arc isn’t wholly convincing and the resolution, which forms the core the film’s resolution in itself, is just a little too convenient for my liking. In support, we have Carole Mathews, Rodolfo Acosta, James Best, Leo Gordon, John Doucette and, in blink and you’ll miss them parts, Frank Ferguson and Percy Helton.

City of Bad Men is a 20th Century Fox production and was released on DVD in Spain some years ago by Impulso, licensing the title from Fox. That disc offers a passable transfer which is clearly unrestored. There are a number of instances of print damage and the colors tend to look faded throughout. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable – there was subsequently a US release by Fox itself, but I have no idea how that transfer compares. The Spanish DVD offers the original English soundtrack along with a Spanish dub and optional Spanish subtitles. Of the Harmon Jones westerns I’ve seen, I’d say this is probably the least of them. I’d certainly rank it below his other two with Robertson, The Silver Whip and A Day of Fury. All told, there are some positive points and the film remains briskly enjoyable. Nevertheless, I can’t shake that feeling that it had more to offer than it ultimately delivered. In the final analysis, a medium effort.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2015 in 1950s, Dale Robertson, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

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Comanche

So that’s the way it is. Comanches kill Mexicans to get even with the Spanish. And the Mexicans kill Comanche in revenge for that. It’s become a way of life.

Westerns, naturally enough, have a habit of featuring a fair number of real life historical figures. For the most part, these portrayals are heavily fictionalized since the films are dramas first and foremost. We’ve seen outlaws and lawmen, soldiers and natives transposed to the big screen, and it’s those in the latter category who, despite what some might tell you, actually tend to fare best in terms of sympathetic depictions. Comanche (1956) looks at Quanah Parker, the son of a captive woman, who rose to prominence as a war chief among his tribe, and presents him in a highly flattering light.

The onscreen prologue informs us that in 1875 a bitter and age-old war continues to rage between the Mexicans and the Comanche. The latter raid and massacre the unprotected villages close to the frontier with the US with impunity, while the former still pay out a bounty for Comanche scalps. The result is a brisk trade among the despised scalp-hunters and also pressure from the Mexican government on their northern counterparts to do something about the frequent cross border incursions. The opening sees one of those sleepy villages razed to the ground, its inhabitants largely butchered and the young women taken as captives. The scene then shifts to the land just across the Rio Grande, where part of the raiding party stumble upon a team of scalp-hunters and quickly overpower them. Just as the prisoners are about to be roasted alive, their grisly death is halted by the intervention of a more powerful presence. This is Quanah (Kent Smith), and his actions serve to raise the ire of his subordinate Black Cloud (Henry Brandon) and also to raise questions in the viewer’s mind. Why should this man make such a magnanimous gesture towards those preying on his people and simultaneously risk alienating the more hot-headed types like Black Cloud? The army’s chief scout Jim Read (Dana Andrews) has a hunch it’s a means of sending out signals of peace. When the US and Mexican governments decide to act, it’s Read who suggests heading into Comanche territory to sound out Quanah on his intentions, and maybe open negotiations with him instead of going straight for the military option. We later discover that there’s an intriguing connection between these two men, although both will have to address betrayals from within their own ranks by those with hawkish tendencies if any rapprochement is to be achieved.

What can be termed pro-Indian sentiments are to be found scattered throughout the westerns of the 1950s, and Comanche is yet another example of this trend. Part of the beauty of these movies, for me anyway, is the realistic way this is handled. We’re not presented with some blind diatribe, demonizing one side or the other for the sake of cheap point scoring. Instead, by focusing on a few individuals, there’s a more balanced perspective offered – the rights and wrongs, along with the brutality and cruelty perpetrated by both camps is acknowledged and confronted. As with almost everything in life, it’s only through such consideration of the subtle shadings that a mature appreciation is possible. And remember, it can’t be stated often enough that the 1950s was the decade when the western itself attained full maturity as a cinematic art form.

Comanche was directed by one of this site’s favorites, George Sherman. He was no stranger to the pro-Indian western and his strong visual sensibility is always in evidence too. This is very much an outdoors picture, shot by Jorge Stahl around Durango, and the tough, dusty landscape provides a harsh and bleak canvas upon which the human drama is played out. Sherman frequently makes full use of the wide scope lens, that primal backdrop packed with hordes of Comanche warriors or snaking columns of cavalry, to create an epic feel at times.

The character of the cavalry scout is a pivotal one from the audience’s point of view as the impartial intermediary acts as the eyes through which we view the unfolding events. Such a role needs to be filled by a man who can convey a sense of integrity alongside a stoic quality, yet he must also maintain an air of the outsider about him since he’s essentially got a foot in both camps. Step forward Dana Andrews. If ever an actor was possessed of the aforementioned characteristics, then it must surely be Andrews. He’s obviously best known for his noir parts, particularly those with Preminger and Lang, but he was equally fine in the western too. Kent Smith might seem like an odd choice to play Quanah, still I think he’s satisfactory. You could argue his role is a touch too noble and one-dimensional, I suppose; even so, he invests the part with a great deal of dignity and you get a feeling of the power of the character. The villainous types are played by Henry Brandon (interestingly taking on the part of the enemy of his own son, if you read The Searchers as a loose adaptation of the Parker story), Stacy Harris and Lowell Gilmore. And then there’s the beautiful Linda Cristal, making her Hollywood debut as the traumatized captive girl. She is pretty good although her character doesn’t get quite as much development as it deserves. Anyway, Sherman was obviously sufficiently impressed by her talents to use her again as the female lead in The Last of the Fast Guns a couple of years later.

Comanche has been available on DVD in France and Spain for a while now but I held off buying it as it seemed the picture quality was nothing special and then there was also the forced subtitle issue on the French disc. It’s just been released in the UK by 101 Films, who have put out a number of western title in recent times, and so I thought I’d take a chance. First, the good news: the film is presented in its correct 2.35:1 scope ratio. And now for the bad news: the disc is not anamorphic so the image is surrounded by heavy black bars that can only be reduced by zooming in, with the resultant loss of resolution. Also, the print used is clearly an old one which, although not showing all that much damage, is somewhat faded and lacking in detail. All told, it’s a very disappointing presentation of the film, one which I can’t recommend in good faith. What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that the film itself is a very worthwhile one that deserves far better treatment than it’s been afforded so far.

By way of a postscript, I’d like to add that this blog was eight years old a few days ago. Normally, I like to mark the occasion with a posting but circumstances conspired against me this time. Anyway, I reckon this movie is an appropriate way to celebrate the anniversary, albeit a couple of days late.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2015 in 1950s, Dana Andrews, George Sherman, Westerns

 

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Thunder in the East

An exotic locale, a morally dubious lead, and a set of circumstances with all the potential of a powder keg in a raging inferno – this is the kind of scenario which generally grabs my attention effortlessly. Such movies always hold out the promise of adventure, intrigue and, if we’re lucky, maybe a little something extra to spice it all up. Thunder in the East (1951) is a film that could have sold itself to me on the basis of the cast alone, and the aforementioned plot elements simply ramped up the appeal.

India, in the period just after independence, and a plane lands in the fictional province of Ghandahar. The pilot is Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd), one of those rootless Americans so beloved of films of the period. He claims to have an appointment with the Maharajah, and positively exudes the kind of cockiness that is the preserve of men confident of making a quick and substantial profit. We never learn much about what made Gibbs the man he is beyond the fact he once was a member of the Flying Tigers, but that’s not really important. He’s in Ghandahar to sell a shipment of arms to the head man and the unstable political situation thereabouts leaves him feeling pretty sure of his chances of success. Regardless of all that, our man is riding for a fall as he’s failed to count on the presence of the Maharajah’s right hand man, and the real power in the province, Singh (Charles Boyer). The latter is a man of rigid principle, one who has seen what can be achieved without resort to violence and is thus determined to be rid of Gibbs and his cargo of munitions. Before he knows what’s hit him, this flyer finds his wings clipped and his weapons impounded. Still and all, a man like Gibbs is naturally inclined to sniff out the chance of making a deal wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. If that means selling his wares to the rebel opposition in the surrounding hills and later topping up his take by evacuating the Europeans he’s placed in greater danger, then so be it. But fate, or perhaps destiny if one’s mind runs in that direction, has a habit of intervening and toying with such schemes. Few men are truly devoid of conscience or feelings, and the apparently innocuous presence of a blind woman (Deborah Kerr) stirs memories of such sentiments within Gibbs. What remains to be seen is how this mercenary character will respond, and indeed how others will similarly address their own preconceptions, as the militia relentlessly burns and butchers its way towards the practically defenseless palace.

Thunder in the East was directed by Charles Vidor, a man whose work I’m not all that familiar with. Gilda is clearly his standout title (Ladies in Retirement is one I intend to get round to as I work my way through my unwatched pile) and ought to mark him out for attention even if he’d never shot another picture. His work on here is fine although it flags a little in the middle as the tension drops off slightly. The film was photographed by Lee Garmes, who was in the middle of a fine run at this point, and his touch is particularly evident in the second half. While it never reaches the heights of exoticism or atmosphere to be found in von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express there’s much to admire in the filming of Ladd’s drive through the sacked town and the tense climax in the besieged palace grounds.

For me, the theme underpinning a film is the aspect which stimulates or interests me most. Even the most casual viewer to this site will be aware that I’m an unashamed fan and champion of the western, that purest and most beautiful of all cinematic genres. The classic western theme is that of redemption and spiritual rebirth, yet it’s by no means confined to that genre and can be found throughout cinema, particularly in the classic period. Thunder in the East is therefore no exception in this respect, and I think it’s this which is its greatest strength. The intrigue and suspense have a part to play of course but the heart of it all, that which gives it life and artistic value, is the redemptive journey undertaken by Steve Gibbs. Allied to this, and bolstering it all, is the focus on the restorative power wrought by the faith of others in the inherent decency and humanity of even the most jaded of souls; just as Ladd becomes the eyes of Kerr by proxy, so she becomes the small voice whispering persuasively within his mind to kindle the embers of half-recalled ideals.

Alan Ladd seemed to make a habit of starring in a string of movies located in the East around this time – Calcutta, Saigon, China – and this provided a pretty good role for him. He had the laconic toughness down pat and was generally at his best when he used that quality to disguise his inner pain. I think the best acting always derives from the search, either within or without, for fulfillment and the peace which accompanies it, and Ladd was a fine exponent of that. For such a quest to take place it’s necessary for a tangible and credible motive to exist. If Ladd is the tarnished knight, then his grail is represented by Deborah Kerr. She was always a classy performer, alluring yet also pure. I alluded to the western above, and I shall do so again as Kerr’s role illustrates just how significant the female frequently is in both spurring and completing the spiritual odyssey of the hero. Playing blind, or indeed any physically challenged, characters can be problematic, the potential for descent into cliché being ever present. In my opinion Kerr avoids that danger and gives a portrayal of a fully rounded character who never strays towards the pitiful nor the superhuman. Boyer is also fine as the conflicted and idealistic Singh, embarking on a philosophical journey of his own over the course of the story. In support, Corinne Calvet is perhaps somewhat wasted as the fearful courtesan and I think more could have been made of her part. In smaller roles, John Williams and Cecil Kellaway are welcome faces in fairly typical, but highly enjoyable, character turns. 

As a fan of Alan Ladd I’ve always been on the lookout for his films and Thunder in the East has been one of the more elusive titles. It’s recently been released on DVD in Italy and I was keen to sample it. The transfer is what I’d term as OK, a little soft and muddy with occasional instances of print damage visible. Having said that, this Paramount film is not widely available and I can’t say the overall presentation was a major disappointment under the circumstances. The soundtrack is offered in both the original English and also an Italian dub and there are optional Italian subtitles. The disc features the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries as extras. I should perhaps point out that the movie offers up a critique of the philosophy of passive resistance, building towards a resolution that may or may not appeal – I leave that judgement to each individual, and it’s not my intention to pass comment on it either way. On the whole, I liked the film. Some may regard the ending as being a little rushed but I can’t say it bothered me too much. Recommended to those who enjoy Ladd and Kerr, and who appreciate the kind of themes often found in westerns of the era.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, War

 

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The Last Posse

Small films with big themes, that’s perhaps as good a summation of the successful B movie as any. Low budget films were always capable of using a superficially simple tale to disguise layers of depth and complexity, the smarter and more skillful efforts using standard cinematic techniques to do so. The Last Posse (1953) is all about the past, both the recent and distant forms, and how the events which occurred drive the actions of men in the present, and indeed have shaped how they and others view themselves.

A posse is usually a group of residents sworn in as temporary deputies, charged with upholding the law via the pursuit of criminals. The film opens with one such group, tired, dusty and disheveled, making their way home to a small New Mexico town. Among them is one man who is clearly in considerably worse shape than his fellow riders. John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) is the town sheriff, a man  of once mighty reputation who is now gut-shot and dying. The drawn faces of the men, the mortally wounded lawman, and the tension writ large on the countenances of the townsfolk leave no doubt that something went badly wrong out there in the desolation of the desert. As the remainder of the posse head off to clean up we can see by their furtive manner and whispered conversation that all may not be the way they’re telling it. Their story has it that the fugitives died after a shootout which also claimed the leader of the posse and, most tellingly, that the $105,000 of stolen money was nowhere to be found. While these leading citizens reappear freshly scrubbed and suitably spruced up there’s no hiding the fact that there are other stains, those on the conscience, which can be neither washed away nor wished away. So what did happen out there in the wilderness? It seems wholly appropriate that a film which concerns itself so much with the past should be told and find its ultimate resolution by means of three lengthy flashback sequences seen from three separate perspectives.

The Last Posse was directed by Alfred Werker, and it was the strong endorsement of both the filmmaker and this title by regular contributor John Knight which led me to view it. I was already familiar with a number of Werker’s other movies (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, He Walked by Night, Shock, Three Hours to Kill and At Gunpoint to name just a few) and I’m keen to see more, Repeat Performance in particular. He was a director capable of packing a good deal of atmosphere and tension into what were, for the most part, small productions. Here we get another fine piece of work, an hour and a quarter of sustained suspense delivered at a smart pace from a smooth script by Seymour Bennett, Connie Lee Bennett and Kenneth Gamet. In the best tradition of western filmmaking, the layers of hypocrisy and faux civilization are gradually stripped away to allow the truth to be revealed as the action moves away from the town, out into the desert and the rocks of Lone Pine. It’s here in this harsh and sparse landscape (beautifully shot by Burnett Guffey) that the illusions and cant are burned away by the merciless sun, and the deceit of the past collides with the brutal reality of the present.

Broderick Crawford is one of those actors I can take or leave, often depending on the kind of role he’s playing. He could have a loud, almost mechanical quality leading to some one-note performances. However, there was also something bruised and lived-in about him, I suppose you could call it the weariness of his years. Whenever he tapped into that, as he certainly does in The Last Posse, he had a lot more to offer. It could be argued that a few characters in the film are somewhat underwritten, more on that shortly, but Crawford doesn’t suffer in that respect. Frazier is a man who has been almost broken by life, propping himself up mainly with alcohol, and with little regard for the quality of men he now has to associate with. What comes across most powerfully is a sense of guilt and regret for a life badly lived, and a good deal of that seems connected to the relationship with Charles Bickford’s Sampson Drune character. The exact nature of the men’s hostility and enmity becomes slowly apparent the deeper they move into the desert but it also highlights one of the weaknesses in the script. Bickford always shone in villainous parts, those craggy features and penetrating eyes were ideal, and he’s suitably arrogant and cruel as Drune. The problem, as I see it though, is that the writing of his character allows for little else; it’s heavily alluded to that he’s also driven by fear and a kind of warped paternal instinct, but the script permits little if any of that to be actively shown. As a result, the vital backstory – the actual core of the movie – is of course ever-present yet lacks a little due to the presentation of the character.

John Derek is one of those actors whose contribution to the movies tends to be underrated or glossed over. I think I first saw him in his breakout role in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door and I’m of the opinion he was a perfectly competent performer. He recently came to my attention again during the Republic blogathon when The Outcast was featured, a film I’ve since acquired for future viewing. Derek’s role in The Last Posse is an important one within the context of the picture but he’s overshadowed for much of the running time by both Crawford and Bickford. Much of the cast is made up of familiar character players: notably Henry Hull, Warner Anderson, Will Wright and, as one of the trio of fugitives, Skip Homeier. This is very much a film dominated by the men and the only female role of note goes to Wanda Hendrix, although it’s really a nothing part – I was actually more intrigued by the uncredited Hispanic girl, the one with her eye on Anderson’s blowhard editor, as her two brief appearances hinted at an altogether more fascinating relationship.

The Last Posse is available as a MOD disc from Sony in the US, it was a Columbia production, and looks good. The film has been given a nice clean transfer and the crisp black and white photography is very attractive. Overall, this is a solid, pacy little western with plenty of depth, even if all aspects of that aren’t explored as fully as they might have been. Definitely worth checking out if the opportunity arises.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2015 in 1950s, Westerns

 

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Dakota Incident

Republic Pictures was in business between 1935 and the late 50s, primarily concerned with producing B features or programmers the studio nevertheless produced its share of prestige vehicles too with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray making movies introduced by the famous eagle logo. Still, these were the exception rather than the norm, and Herbert J Yates’ studio generally contented itself with lower budgeted fare. Dakota Incident (1956) was one of he later offerings, made as Republic was beginning the slow wind down towards closure. One of the paradoxes frequently found in cheaply made movies is the way the financial constraints sometimes led to unusual results. And that’s certainly the case here; a well-worn central story drawing in a number of plot strands, not all of them successfully of course, and ending up as an intriguing study of the vagaries of human nature.

Dakota Incident starts out tense and sparse and continues in the same vein right up to its conclusion. The low-key score which plays over the credits, showing a trio of riders driving hard across barren country, sets the tone for what follows. These men are John Banner (Dale Robertson), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Largo (John Doucette), and it’s clear enough they’re running away from something or someone. The fact is they’re outlaws, making off with the proceeds of their latest robbery, and each distrustful of the other. Banner seems to be the leader, but his authority is suffered rather than accepted amicably. The lie of honor among thieves is quickly exposed as both Frank and Largo conspire to shoot down Banner, the latter actually doing so, before riding away with his share of the money. However, the victim isn’t really hurt, only playing possum, and sets off in pursuit of his duplicitous friends. He’ll track them down in a soon-to-be ghost town, a frontier settlement shrinking and dying under the constant threat of Indian attack. While Banner is settling scores others are preparing to leave town when the next stagecoach arrives. This section of the film, a reasonably lengthy one, establishes the identities of the main characters, and helps define the nature of their interconnected relationships. There’s a verbose senator from the east (Ward Bond), a cool and poised showgirl (Linda Darnell) and her mandolin-strumming minstrel companion (Regis Toomey), and a mysteriously taciturn gentleman (John Lund). All these people will board the stage bound for Laramie, all keen to leave their current location behind and all searching for something at the end of the line. What is sought becomes apparent as the journey gets underway, but what they actually find, holed up in a dry river course after an ambush, may not necessarily be the same.

Stories such as Dakota Incident concern themselves with the gradual stripping away of the layers of civilization with which we cloak ourselves, the shift of location from town to wilderness often being implemented as a visual signifier of the process. As soon as the stagecoach moves out into the desert the true characters which have only been superficially explored beforehand become more apparent. The most overt example of this is the way the attitudes to the Indian threat are articulated. It’s the senator who consistently tries to express sympathy and understanding for the native point of view, something which meets with increasing hostility and belligerence from the other passengers as the danger grows more intense. As such, the redemptive aspect (which must necessarily be present in almost any western of the period) applies much less to the senator than it does to the others. One could say that the senator’s journey is one of vindication while his fellow passengers are on the path to redemption. Banner experiences this on two fronts: the final erosion of his racial prejudice going hand in hand with a form of reconciliation with, and arguably atonement for, his criminal past and the consequences that has had for those around him.

Dakota Incident was directed by Lewis R Foster, a man whose career I’m not all that familiar with, although I do have a copy of another of his movies, Crashout, in my to-watch pile. While the town based section of the film has its moments, Foster does much better work when he takes things outside – the brief opening and then the long siege in the desert. The script, by Frederick Louis Fox, concentrates on the pressures the various characters come under and how they react to them. That siege in the dry riverbed has the result of turning the picture into a kind of claustrophobic chamber piece, the cast now limited to the principals and their lack of an escape route turning their thoughts and emotions inward. Director of photography Ernest Haller was behind the camera on a number of highly regarded films noir and brought a touch of that sensibility to his work here, the darker nighttime scenes being especially effective.

Dale Robertson was good value as conflicted or ambiguous western heroes – A Day of Fury and The Silver Whip are other examples of this – and the role of John Banner was a suitable one for him. For much of the movie’s running time he’s hardly what you’d call a likeable guy, he’s self-assured and capable but not in a pleasant way. Playing off his swaggering machismo is Linda Darnell, an actress who was always sultry and possessed of her own brand of self-confidence. She goes from cool composure, a relaxed awareness of her feminine power, to borderline hysteria and naked hatred as the tension of the siege and the lack of water gnaws away at her – a strong performance. John Lund turned in a study in enigmatic passivity (but with an undercurrent of justified aggression bubbling just below the surface) for much of the movie before finding himself sidelined to an extent in the latter stages. The honors, however, belong to Ward Bond in my opinion. Bond was a master of bluster, a solid physical presence who could be a figure of fun or a serious threat depending on circumstance. In Dakota Incident he’s just about tolerated by his fellow passengers, although his speeches on racial harmony and his amorous advances towards Darnell are, for the most part, treated with ridicule and disdain. The net result of this treatment is that the viewer feels a good deal of sympathy for the man, the sentiments he expresses are hardly what I’d call objectionable. Given Bond’s real life hawkish tendencies, his casting as such an outspoken liberal works remarkably well and his character comes off as having a lot more integrity than practically anyone else.

I don’t think Dakota Incident has been released on DVD anywhere to date – I have Jerry Entract to thank, again, for my getting to see it. The lack of availability is a shame as it’s definitely worth seeing for the cinematography of Haller and also the casting. I wouldn’t say it’s an overlooked classic or anything of that kind, but there’s a good deal to take from it if you appreciate 50s westerns. In fact, I think that’s a comment which could be applied to a lot of Republic’s output – films which are imperfect in many ways yet different enough, with their own look and sensibility, to deserve a little more attention.

This piece is offered as part of the Republic Pictures Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Republic by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

 

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2015 in 1950s, Dale Robertson, Westerns

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Westerns

 

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