The Violent Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Man with the Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadblock

Someday you’re going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary.

Like what?

Like me.

I like the look of film noir, and I’m also fond of its narrative twists and switches, the way fairly regular people find themselves locked into a destructive cycle just because of a stupid or rash decision – that feeling that life can never be fully trusted or depended on, that you are never more than a heartbeat away from having the rug yanked out from under you. And of course there’s the  snappy, sassy dialogue. Roadblock (1951) is an ultra-low budget effort that contains all these elements, and races home in just a little under an hour and a quarter.

“Be careful what you wish for…” a cautionary phrase we’ve all heard and probably used too, and it could be said to sum up the moral of the tale here. After a deliciously teasing opening where we, and one of the characters, are treated to a fine piece of misdirection, we get to meet Joe Peters (Charles McGraw). This solidly named guy is presented to us as morally solid too, a sound and upstanding insurance investigator who’s relatively happy with his lot. A bit of innocent flirting in an airport departure lounge sees him make the acquaintance of one Diane Morley (Joan Dixon), a self-confessed chiseller who is aiming to hit the big league and live in style in Los Angeles. Both of these people will be bitten by the same bug, the one promising something alluring and apparently unattainable just the other side of life’s rainbow. Joe succumbs first, losing his heart and then his head as he brushes aside a lifetime of honesty for a shot at wooing an amoral temptress. And that same temptress then sees her own priorities flipped as the mink-draped luxury she yearns for brings an unexpected chill. For a brief moment, it looks like something positive may come of this. But this is film noir folks, and it’s only a matter of time before those louvered blinds get tilted just so and the shadows grow deeper.

There are a limited number of films noir which make reference to Christmas, and I do like to find one, where possible, to flag up at this time of year. I think I’ve covered a fair few others in the past, though I’m still hoping to source a decent copy of Beware, My Lovely at some point. Roadblock isn’t a Christmas movie of course, the holiday season just happens to feature in the early stages, and I suppose at a push one could draw some inference from the characters dreaming of glittering riches. On a more serious note though, the whole thing really is based around that old staple of dissatisfied people striving for that which is always just a little beyond their reach, and then discovering that what they desired so strongly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

If the director of Roadblock isn’t a name I can claim to know well – Harold Daniels – then there’s plenty of others involved in the production that are very familiar. Seeing Steve Fisher featured among the writers usually interests me as the man behind I Wake Up Screaming is sure to grab my attention. In addition, knowing that Nicholas Musuraca was behind the camera and in charge of lighting the whole business is encouraging. Perhaps the presence of the latter is a little disappointing here – you kind of expect the whole movie to be drenched in inky shadows with this man – as quite a bit of the production has a flat, even overlit appearance. That said, the cinematographers trademark darkness does show up from time to time  – the opening sequence is particularly atmospheric – and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him go about his work.

There are actors who were essentially born to play in film noir, and Charles McGraw has to be one of them. He didn’t get the lead all that often – this film and Richard Fleischer’s stone cold classic The Narrow Margin being notable exceptions though – but gave plenty of value in memorable supporting roles for the likes of Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann. McGraw looked tough and sounded tough, and had the presence to hold your attention every time he appeared on screen. I think the switches his character undergoes in Roadblock are maybe too abrupt and too convenient to be wholly convincing, but that’s not the fault of the actor. The same could be said for the writing of Joan Dixon’s siren. She starts out as a brazen noir dame, a femme fatale in training and then she’s suddenly not. I can understand that the script wanted to exploit the irony of two people getting what they think they want only to find out that they themselves have changed in the meantime. So no, the character shifts don’t quite work for me. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching McGraw and Dixon wind their way along the path fate has laid out for them. In support it’s nice to see Louis Jean Heydt handed a much larger role than was normally the case.

Roadblock is available on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive, and it looks about OK. There is some softness and moments of indifference but it still entertains. This may not be the best known example of film noir and I’d not seen it myself until quite recently but I reckon it’s worth a viewing.

The Prowler

Film noir is a look and an attitude as much as anything else. There’s the darkness, both visually and thematically, and the fatalistic tone which creeps ever nearer the doomed characters treading the fine line dividing shadow and light, hope and despair, in this cinematic moral maze. If it grew out of the bitterness nurtured by the economic hardship of the 1930s, the wounds inflicted on society were then cauterized and desensitized by the horrors experienced in WWII. And the end result? A feeling of jaded weariness, of disenchantment when the post-war promise of a brighter future for all remained tantalizingly and agonizingly just beyond the reach of some. The Prowler (1951) is a film about disappointment and dissatisfaction, and the lengths people will go to, either consciously or unwittingly, in an effort to conquer this.

The opening sees Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reacting with shock on realizing that someone has been observing her through her unshaded bathroom window. Naturally, she calls the police to report the incident and has a visit from a squad car containing an old pro on the eve of retirement, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), and another younger man, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It’s the latter who takes the keener interest, not so much in the case itself as the lady at the center of it. You see, Garwood is a dissatisfied soul, a man whose youth was taken up with dreams of wealth and success as a professional athlete. When circumstances didn’t allow this to come to fruition Garwood became a cop, a second-rate job in his opinion and he began to brood. Here’s a man who feels life has cheated him out of what ought to have been his due, and his nocturnal visit to the luxurious Spanish home with the vulnerable and alluring woman inside has just added to his ethical itch. While our disgruntled cop readies himself to scratch while he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, a similar sensation is beginning to come over the woman, just not quite so obviously. She’s not happy either, and you read it in her demeanor, drifting listlessly around her well-appointed but empty home, as her husband (notably absent at least in visual terms until the fateful moment) is an older, less exciting man – and it’s later revealed that he is leaving her unsatisfied in more than one way. The scene is set therefore for a drama built around betrayal, deceit and ultimately murder.

I guess what I’ve written above gives a fair indication of how the tale develops. However, I’ve deliberately left it there – what I mentioned essentially occurs in the first act, and most of it quite early on – as I think it actually moves in slightly unexpected directions, due to some good writing and a pair of strong central performances. The version of the film I watched comes with supplemental contribution from such noir experts as Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and Alan Rode who make the point of how the film is a critique of corrupt authority and how dangerous it is to put too much trust in this. I certainly don’t dispute that reading and I think it’s a major element of Dalton Trumbo’s script. Nevertheless, I found certain other elements, namely the disenchantment and disillusionment with hand dealt by life, every bit as noticeable and important. The character of Garwood has been warped and turned in upon itself by a sense of thwarted entitlement; it’s there in his words when he speaks of his lousy breaks and it’s also writ large on his face as he surveys the comfortable home occupied by Susan and her elusive husband, a marked contrast to the cramped and mean room he lives in. That post-war American Dream wasn’t delivering for Garwood.

As I said, the script was from Dalton Trumbo but this was the era of HUAC and the blacklist and so his name wouldn’t appear on the credits. Originally,  the story (by Robert Thoeren & Hans Wilhelm) was titled The Cost of Living, a phrase repeated by Susan’s husband during his radio broadcasts (voiced by Trumbo incidentally) and I reckon it’s a more apt one than the admittedly catchy The Prowler. The lead is driven by his materialism and his hunger for social status, and the constant refrain of how the cost of living is going down takes on a decidedly pointed meaning when we think how cheap life becomes in his eyes. Still and all, this isn’t some dull socioeconomic diatribe, it’s a pacy and not entirely predictable thriller, and director Joseph Losey moves his camera around with a calm fluidity – it’s never showy or self-conscious but effortlessly artistic. And the climax had me thinking of Anthony Mann and his penchant for driving his characters towards heights they struggle to scale.

Some years ago I wrote a piece on Act of Violence and remarked then on the way Van Heflin was cast somewhat against type. The Prowler takes that a step further by almost entirely subverting the typical dependability of Heflin’s persona. Having him play a policeman, a figure one associates with protection and security, serves to further heighten the shock value of seeing him as a cold and manipulative schemer. Evelyn Keyes is very good too as the suburban wife bored by her everyday isolation, flattered by the attention yet also horrified by the increasingly chaotic turn of events. While there is some interesting support work, most particularly from an earnest and likeable John Maxwell, this is very much a two-hander and a fine showcase for the talents of the leads.

The Prowler came out on DVD first via VCI in the US and that’s the edition I picked up. I was happy enough with the quality at the time and the attractive extra features I referred to earlier were welcome too. A few years later the same company put out a Blu-ray version of the movie but I it sound like a significant upgrade so I just stuck with my older SD copy, and i can’t say I’m displeased. Frankly, I feel this is a fine film noir, well cast, well shot, well written, and well worth ninety minutes of anyone’s time.

Southside 1-1000

I find myself somewhat on the fence when it comes to documentary style film noir. Henry Hathaway is usually credited as pioneering the approach with The House on 92nd Street,  and it’s certainly not without its attractions – the increased reliance on location filming, the sense of urgency that accompanies topical material, and the overall heightening of realism. On the other hand, these factors can serve to date a piece (although one could initiate a separate debate on whether or not being “dated” actually constitutes a drawback) and there is, after all, much to be said for the artistry of unreality. Anyway, this all just serves to introduce Southside 1-1000 (1950), an obscure but enjoyable low-budget example of this noir variant.

With one war having ended a few short years before and a new cold one putting a chill on international relations, the film opens with one of the more hawkish and cautionary examples of the voiceover narration – grim end-of-days stuff which  starts with dire warnings about the threat to liberty and moves on to the role of money in maintaining the nation’s security, and then to the vital part played by the treasury agents, the T-Men, in protecting the integrity of the currency and running down the counterfeiters. The purpose of this quite lengthy build up is to draw the viewer into an examination of one particular investigation, and it all begins with a small-time pickpocket being nabbed relieving a mark of some bad money at the racetrack. What follows is an absorbing account of T-Man John Riggs (Don DeFore) and his efforts to trace the money back to its source. The first part of the story unfolds much like a police procedural, a methodical following up of leads and clues via observation and tails. All until the link in the chain gets broken pretty spectacularly due to a headlong exit from a 12th floor window. After that, the focus shifts and our hero puts himself directly in the line of fire by going undercover and posing as a flash hood looking for a way into the racket.

Southside 1-1000 was directed by Boris Ingster, a man with a tiny list of directing credits (3) but one of which, Stranger on the Third Floor, is frequently referenced as the first film noir. That’s not a bad association to have, although he does deserve mention too for his significant body of work as associate producer and producer on a number of high-profile TV shows, especially Wagon Train and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Southside 1-1000 is a brisk picture that doesn’t waste much time, coming in at just under 80 minutes, yet it does lose some of its impetus in the middle when the undercover sting is being set up. Still, the opening section is strong and then the latter stages sees the pace pick up again and the atmosphere is highlighted through the moody cinematography of Russell Harlan and the editing of Christian Nyby.

Southside 1-1000 doesn’t have any big names in the cast, but there are plenty of familiar faces for movie fans to enjoy. Don DeFore takes the lead and he’s a man I know mainly from a couple of excellent pictures, Ramrod and Too Late for Tears. There’s an easy-going quality to the man which makes him appear comfortable on the screen and he’s the type you find yourself rooting for almost automatically. Nearly everybody else is a shady character of varying degrees of importance, with George Tobias, Morris Ankrum and Barry Kelley all making memorable contributions. The only woman with anything much to do in the cast is Andrea King and she has a part that is both meaty and interesting. While she seems to have had a long, active and varied career, I think the only movies I can say I remember her from are The Lemon Drop Kid and Dial 1119.

The film is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive range, and it looks quite decent for the most part, perhaps a little soft in places but there’s really not much to complain about. I don’t imagine this is an especially well-known movie – it only came to my attention a year or so ago and I don’t think I ever saw it pop up in the TV schedules back in the day. Overall, I have to say I liked it – I guess the less familiar cast and its relative obscurity helped pique my interest and then the talent behind the camera, not to mention the location work around Los Angeles and San Quentin, kept me watching. All told, this is by no means a bad little film and it’s worth a look  if you can track down a copy.

The Naked Jungle

Some films can be difficult to classify satisfactorily, not there’s really any need for us to do so or for the film to accommodate our often arbitrary categories for that matter. Nevertheless, many of us do like  to be able to point to a given slot and pronounce that Film X has its natural home there. The Naked Jungle (1954) is one of those rarities where it’s hard to say with any degree of confidence what genre it belongs to. I guess the nearest is the broad and malleable section known as adventure. Still, that’s only part of it – it’s adventurous for sure, but there’s romance in there, some elements of fantasy, an early stab at the disaster movie, melodrama and, lurking just beneath the surface, a liberal dash of parody. Anyway, however one chooses to label it, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The opening credits inform us that the time is the beginning of the 20th century, 1901 to be precise, and the location is South America, which covers a fair bit of ground. A boat chugging its way downriver is carrying one Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker), a new bride married by proxy and on her way to meet her husband for the first time. An unusual arrangement, but then the entire first act is chock full of oddness and peculiarity. Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is a cocoa plantation owner and, as we are informed, lord and master of all he surveys in the virtual kingdom he has carved out of the jungle. He came to this far-flung place still a teenager and has spent the last 15 years working, building and fighting the ever encroaching jungle. It’s clear he has wealth, luxury and near absolute power, but he lacks a woman. What could be more natural then for such a man than to send for one. What arrives though is something of a surprise to him, not least for her evident beauty and accomplishment. If Leiningen believes there must therefore be something wrong with his newly acquired bride, it also becomes clear he has some failings himself. In his own words he knows nothing of women. Nothing at all. This is the basis for a good deal of overheated melodramatics, but only the forerunner  to the real consuming passion of the movie – the vast army of soldier ants swarming its way across a continent and devouring every living organism in its path.

Mention the name of producer George Pal to a film fan and most will automatically think of Sci-Fi, add in director Byron Haskin and The War of the Worlds should almost certainly spring to mind. Well The Naked Jungle isn’t Sci-Fi but the Man vs Nature plot does make  it a type of proto-disaster movie. And yet that element, while alluded to in the background with various dark mutterings about the unusual behavior of the native wildlife and the feeling that “something” is coming, only reaches fruition in fairly spectacular fashion in the last half hour or so. Until then, we get plenty of the melodrama referred to above. This kind of thing can be difficult to manage successfully, especially the prim Edwardian variety presented here, and exacerbated by the casting of that symbol of virility that was Charlton Heston as a virginal type bewildered by the earthiness of Eleanor Parker. Perhaps wisely, the script by Ranald MacDougall and Philip Yordan (fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow) takes a sidelong view of it all and offers up the kind of ripe and arch dialogue that is hugely enjoyable.

While Heston and Parker must surely have had a  fine old time trading wisecracks about the desirability of a well-played piano and the  like, there’s also ample opportunity for them to  literally get their hands dirty in the mud and, in Heston’s case, a very close encounter with the billions of hungry ants. You’ll never hear me complain about anything where William Conrad makes an appearance and it’s good to see him in a strong supporting role as a sympathetic government official. Familiar character actor John Dierkes is also a welcome sight as a villainous rival planter, and clearly enjoys the chance to make the most of the pulpy material.

So there you have it, The Naked Jungle is one of those films we could call a “guilty pleasure”, much as I dislike that term – if one enjoys something, I can never see what there is to feel guilty about. Frankly, I think it’s a grand piece of entertainment and while the old DVD looks mostly fine, I’d like to see how it looks in Hi-Def. Either way, it’s a fun movie that’s well worth checking out.

The Gunfight at Dodge City

If any decade can be said to offer the finest representation of the strengths of the western, then the 1950s has to be it. And if any one year is to be regarded as providing the purest distillation of the themes and motifs of that genre, then 1959 has to be the prime contender. Whether the effort was conscious or not is of little importance; what matters the way everything built upon foundations already laid earlier, gaining depth and gravitas as the decade wore on, to culminate in the cinematic riches of that peak year. The Gunfight at Dodge City is a fine film, a beautifully shot piece of wistfulness, a mature film for a mature star in a genre which had become a master of its own conscience.

There are certain names which have a habit of cropping up time and again in westerns – lawmen like Wyatt Earp and outlaws such as William Bonney. Bat Masterson may not be quite as well-known but it would be a close run thing and he can’t be far off most people’s radar either. The movie isn’t what you could call a biopic, it just uses a familiar western figure and weaves a story around his legend. We first encounter Masterson (Joel McCrea) as he’s about to return to civilization after a spell hunting buffalo. First though, there’s a visit from an old acquaintance Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson), warning him of the threat posed by a jealous and belligerent soldier. Right away we come face  to face with the theme that dominates the movie, violence and its consequences. Masterson tries to explain to his young and naive companion how the fear and anxiety that walk hand in hand with violence gnaw at the soul, and how the cold brutality of the consequences haunt one thereafter. We get to see it too, in order to drive home the point and the rest of the film employs the oft-used town tamer motif as a vehicle for its parable about loneliness and renewal.

The  previous year had seen director Joseph M Newman explore the ambiguities in McCrea’s character in Fort Massacre. There’s less of that quality on display here, instead we get to see more of the personal integrity typically associated with the star, and an implacability that both commands and demands respect. McCrea was then in his mid-50s, confident enough to project a cool self-awareness and accomplished in the craft of dominating the screen. If the film goes places the western had been before, it’s McCrea’s honesty and directness that keep it feeling fresh. Still, it’s a role that is uncompromising and could become almost too harsh were it not for one character player in particular. John McIntire was a marvelously versatile figure and could add a twinkle to his eye when necessary to lighten even the grimmest  situation. Julie Adams and Nancy Gates are the two women competing for McCrea’s affections, and adding subtle shades to the usual good girl/bad girl scenario.

The Gunfight at Dodge City isn’t a western of the plains or the wide open spaces, remaining confined to the back lot and interiors throughout. However, Newman’s pacy direction and careful use of angles ensures this is never a drawback. If anything, the shot selection in combination with the atmospheric lighting choices of cameraman Carl E Guthrie are used to the greatest possible effect. And then there’s the finely staged climactic duel. It’s a terrific piece of work, as McCrea hears his own words from the film’s first scene echoing in his ears, fatalistically pointing out the folly and fear of the gunman’s path. He reluctantly strides out onto a deserted street to confront an equally unwilling foe, two men fully aware of what they are undertaking yet apparently powerless to break free of the deadly code that binds them. After the iconic face-off the guns will crash and one of them will crumple in the dust, and the whole affair is executed clinically and without any veneer of glamor. This is what the western was building up to – a frank acknowledgment of the grubbiness of violence. The myth  of the west was not built on a celebration of gun play but a celebration of the quest for accommodation with one’s own soul and conscience.

The Gunfight at Dodge City has been readily available on DVD for years now, and there’s also a Blu-ray on the market. I still have the old US DVD, which presents the film quite handsomely in anamorphic ‘Scope. I imagine the Hi-Def version will show off Newman and Guthrie’s imagery to great effect but the old SD copy isn’t bad. I think this is a very strong film, a good example of the quality of work in the genre by this time – an excellent film from a year filled with highlights.

Face of a Fugitive

A race against the clock is usually a solid and bankable  hook upon which to hang a story; there’s that built-in  element of suspense that grows naturally from the diminishing time, and then of course there are a fair few variations to exploit. Face of a Fugitive (1959), one of the last times Fred MacMurray would feature in a western role, sees the net drawing ever tighter around a wanted man, and the complications and obstacles lying in wait.

Jim Larsen (MacMurray) starts out as a prisoner, traveling a train on his way to serve time for robbery. Down but not quite out, he’s just got the jump on his amiable if slow-witted escort when his impulsive brother shows up ready to set him loose. The result of this unsolicited “help” is an exchange of gunfire that sees the lawman killed and the brother fatally wounded. This leaves Larsen running in earnest, now with a murder rap hanging over him and no way to prove his innocence. His only chance is to disappear before the law seal up all the escape routes. A bluff on another train buys a little time but even a name change and a touch of bare-faced audacity may not be enough to allow him to slip away from a small town in time. With all exits patrolled, Larsen’s only chance is to brass it out and hope he can find a way out before the wanted posters bearing his likeness arrive the following morning.

Face of a Fugitive sits comfortably among other late 50s westerns. Its theme of an individual striving to stay one step ahead of the guilty shadows cast by his own past and his somewhat reluctant path towards redemption had been thoroughly explored by this time, but that’s not to say the film is worth any less as a result. It benefits from the weary and fatalistic lead and the frequently inventive and evocative use of studio interiors by cameraman Wilfred M Cline and director Paul Wendkos. I tend to think of the latter as primarily a television name and I think there is, on occasion, a little of that sensibility on show  – the overall pacing and some of the shot selections. He would go on to take charge of a number of noir-tinged episodes of The Untouchables and I see some of that aesthetic at work here. Jerry Goldsmith earns one of his early screen credits for the score although I’m not convinced that a tight little production such as this is the best vehicle for his  more expansive style.

As I understand it, Fred MacMurray wasn’t overly keen on his western films, but he made some impressive ones: At Gunpoint would make for an interesting double bill paired up with High Noon, and Quantez is something of a low budget masterpiece. Face of a Fugitive offered him another worthy part, of the type that sat well with his inherent ambivalence and mock cynicism. I think he was well suited to roles like this, where he never appears fully comfortable with the image of himself he projects – that shallow insolence always feels like a veil to conceal the fragility of his  supposed self-confidence.

If MacMurray was nearing the end of his western career, James Coburn was just setting out on his. Within a year he and six others would head south of the border with John Sturges and never look back. His part here is a small but showy one as the villain’s principal henchman, and he stalks and prowls around the screen with wonderful menace. It’s just as well too as the villain of the piece, Alan Baxter, is just about passable, but lacks that authoritative presence his role calls for. Dorothy Green and Lin McCarthy play the other main characters and are fine without being especially remarkable.

I’m not sure how widely available Face of a Fugitive is for  home viewing – I have  an Italian DVD which is perfectly adequate in my opinion. The widescreen print used is generally clean and the transfer is acceptably sharp. If I had any complaint, it would be that the sound can be a little  weak or muffled from time to time but it remains audible. All in all, this is a good western, pacy and made on a tight budget, it represents a nice showcase for the contrasting talents of MacMurray and Coburn.

The Tattered Dress

Ever wondered how films end up neglected? I was almost going to say “lost” but that’s an entirely different category; I mean movies which are viewable, accessible with a bit of effort, but neither commercially available nor presented in optimum condition. By the way, I’m not offering any answers here. I’m very bit as mystified as the next guy, and I’m really only indulging in a bit of idle musing after watching a less than perfect version of The Tattered Dress (1957). You could argue that the cast is largely peopled with actors who have drifted a little too far out of the public consciousness, although I’m not wholly convinced by that one myself. Regardless of that, the film was directed by Jack Arnold, a cult favorite if ever there was one, and yet this work remains (apparently) unrestored and stubbornly unreleased.

Cinema sometimes feels like the theater of the senses, or maybe a more sensual version of the theater. If we lose the immediacy of the live performance, we also gain something in extreme intimacy, and then in an instant we can also achieve the cool distance of an observer in a gallery. And all the while our senses are targeted and stimulated, particularly our vision and hearing. I’ve come to think that film sequences without dialogue – not silent film, just with the dialogue stripped out – come closest to pure cinema, storytelling predominantly through visuals, music and ambient sound. The Tattered Dress opens like this: with a torn frock, a breathtaking blond racing through a desert night in an open top convertible, a tense meeting with her husband, another ride and then a cool and clinical killing. And not a word spoken.

That’s the setup, a late night killing, a crime of passion by a shooter who needs a sharp lawyer to do the defending. That lawyer is James Blane (Jeff Chandler), famed for his ability to defend the indefensible and the bane of district attorneys everywhere. Blane is blunt, cocksure and beholden to one creed only, the need to win, to succeed and feed the legend of his own ego. His courtroom wizardry has seen him scale the peaks of his profession while he’s sacrificed his personal satisfaction to attain it. If his wife maintains an arm’s length relationship and his children are rarely seen, well so be it. He gets his clients off, and he gets this latest one an acquittal too, shredding the reputation of a small town sheriff on the way. However, this is only part of the story, and Blane’s moment of triumph is an imposter, disguising a comedown that will shake his faith in himself to the core. Yet perhaps he’ll learn something about himself in the process.

Jack Arnold is held in high esteem, and rightly so, for the Sci-Fi films he made in the 1950s. Those films, such as It Came from Outer Space and the excitingly cerebral The Incredible Shrinking Man, were landmarks not only for that genre but for genre filmmaking as a whole. Still, it would be a mistake, and a disservice to the man, if one were to classify him on those terms alone. Tucked in among his credits, one can find a brace of what I’m happy to assert are classy and superior examples of tight and economical western cinema – No Name on the Bullet and Red Sundown. Also, around the same time, Arnold was making (along with Jeff Chandler as it happens) Man in the Shadow where he took aim at small town corruption and racism. Here, under the guise of a slick legal thriller, he cast a sideways glance at the American Dream.

I’d like to think the desert setting, which Arnold seemed drawn to on a number of occasions, has some significance. Is it too much of a stretch to view that harsh and bleak backdrop as a kind of blank canvas upon which he felt greater freedom to explore his themes? Because he does dig under the surface of the glossy 50s American success story – the hotshot lawyer stirs urban/rural and western/eastern hostilities right from the beginning, and his idealized family unit (not to mention that of his smooth and wealthy clients) is shown to be anything but ideal. In short, there’s a nasty bit of corrosion creeping in beneath the chrome trim. The broken home and tarnished ideals of the man are the price he has paid in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, elbowing such trifles as truth and justice aside in his dash for a questionable prize. So, at this point, let me make a proposal – that Arnold was every bit as concerned, all through his Sci-Fi, western and thriller work, with a critical examination of the flaws and  barely suppressed crises of the post-war American soul as the more critically acclaimed Douglas Sirk. While this is something I’ve pondered before, I’ll freely admit that this George Zuckerman scripted production hauled it all front and center for me – Zuckerman also wrote a number of screenplays for Sirk, including the perennially underrated The Tarnished Angels.

Now, a brief word on the performances. Jeff Chandler’s early death robbed the cinema of one of the most promising talents of the era. It has also led to an under-appreciation of his talents and abilities, but a look at any of his best roles quickly highlights his powerful screen presence. Plenty of actors, especially leading men in their prime,  are and were loath to accept what might be perceived as unsympathetic roles. Chandler, however, seemed comfortable enough taking on less than wholesome parts. The lawyer here is not a nice man, he’s a grasping and ruthless type who has lost his way, and yet Chandler embraces this negativity and offers a welcome three-dimensional portrait of ambition colliding with a hunger for personal fulfillment. Facing off against him is Jack Carson, the butt of plenty of jokes as a character player. His bulky joviality is nicely subverted here and his cool undermining of Chandler is very memorable. Jeanne Crain is the estranged wife, still in love with Chandler but proud enough to hold herself back until he rediscovers his humanity. And finally, there’s Gail Russell, that fragile beauty in the middle of a temporary comeback that was destined to be short-lived.

To finish this piece, which has ended up running slightly longer than my other recent postings, let me just reiterate that The Tattered Dress is a classy melodrama/thriller with a fine cast and on-form director. That it remains unreleased on any current home video format is something I struggle to understand. There are many films we can safely say are deserving of a high quality digital release – this is most assuredly one of them. I can only hope someone sets about rectifying this oversight soon.

The Halliday Brand

When I started this blog a good many years ago my motivation was to talk about movies, in particular westerns. At the time I felt the genre was somewhat neglected in comparison to others, and that what we might refer to as the medium efforts were passed over with depressing regularity. Films such as The Halliday Brand (1957) were what I had in mind, where a strong cast and crew worked on a project that only a smattering of people seemed to be aware of. This is a movie where the final result isn’t quite up to the level of the filmmakers’ ambition, where you have to admire the stylish execution even as you experience a touch of regret for a promising scenario which doesn’t quite gel.

The opening makes it clear that the Halliday family is a troubled one, Clay (Bill Williams) attempting to coax his brother Daniel (Joseph Cotten) back to the homestead at the point of a gun. The reason is Dan senior (Ward Bond), local lawman and hardheaded pioneer, is on his deathbed and keen to see his estranged son while he still has time. Now this is an especially dark tale of familial strife, bordering on film noir in its intensity and tragedy, and it’s therefore only appropriate that its telling should be largely undertaken via flashback. It’s here that we learn how the elder Halliday is so consumed with an unpleasant combination of racial prejudice and stubborn pride that he’s prepared to ignore the advice of his sons and his own inner voice. His inflexibility leads to a lynching that breaks his daughter’s heart, and then a pointless confrontation which drives a powerful wedge between himself and the son who bears his name. And at the center of this emotional maelstrom sits the mystically serene enigma that is Aleta (Viveca Lindfors), the half-Indian girl who has captured the hearts of both Halliday brothers.

I have to say I really like the films of Joseph H Lewis; they may not always be wholly successful but there is an artistic drive and strong visual sensibility at their heart which is hard to resist. The Halliday Brand sets itself up as a classical tragedy played out against a frontier backdrop, which is a noble enough intention and one which has paid off in other productions. Here I think it works only up to a point as it feels as though there are too many themes (or too many facets of themes) competing for the viewer’s attention over its reasonably brief running time. The essence of it all is the Halliday brand of the title – the literal one is the symbol of the buried tomahawk, of conflicts resolved through strength, while the figurative one is the harsh implacability represented by Halliday senior and the barely acknowledged version of the same to be found in the younger generation. One could draw inferences from the casting of arch-conservative Ward Bond as the in such a role but it’s (in my opinion) an optional exercise and the movie still works without doing so – it’s the human drama at the center of it all that counts for more but the layered structure facilitates different levels of appreciation if desired.

Bond is as impressive as ever in his role here, mean and manipulative to the end and an imposing, authentic physical presence. Joseph Cotten is less effective I feel, his natural reserve fits the quieter and more introspective side of his character but his performance feels somewhat mannered at times and could have used a bit more raw passion. Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors sounds like an odd choice to play a half-Indian girl but her striking beauty, photographed with superb skill by Ray Rennahan, works in her favor and I found her credible in the role. In support there is good solid work done by Bill Williams, Jay C Flippen and a virtually unrecognizable Jeanette Nolan.

The Halliday Brand is available on DVD from the US via the MGM Manufacture on demand line. It looks like an older television master was utilized, meaning an acceptable if unspectacular image in terms of clarity and contrast. However, bearing in mind this is a 1957 production, it’s almost impossible to see how the Academy ratio presented on the disc could be correct. That aside, the film is a moderately successful example of western noir – the classical aspirations don’t all hit the mark but the attempt remains a stylish and entertaining one.