Run of the Arrow

Whatever the causes of conflict might be, the aftermath, particularly for those on the side of the vanquished, tends to follow  predictable pattern and is typically characterized by feelings of futility, division and bitterness. The taste of defeat is sour, and the man who partakes of it may well find himself raging against the only adversary worthy of his bruised and broken contempt: the inadequacy and impotence he perceives within himself. Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) takes the capitulation of the South in the Civil War as its starting point, clinically probing the raw wound left by that rending of a fledgling nation before cauterizing it and thus allowing the healing process to begin.

It begins at the end, the end of the war, or one war anyway. With Lee about to acknowledge defeat, one embittered soldier of the South, O’Meara (Rod Steiger), fires the last bullet of the conflict. That fateful shot strikes and critically wounds  a Yankee lieutenant. Yet in what is perhaps a telling action as far as the true character of O’Meara is concerned, he takes his stricken enemy back to his own  lines for treatment by the field surgeon. Our protagonist is an angry and frustrated man, promised much but denied more by the battles he’s lived through, he’s seen his world smashed and his family decimated. For all of the hatred he claims to have embraced and the rage he’s barely able to contain, he never loses touch with his humanity and the deceptively hard heart he notionally displays is in reality little more than a fragile shell. The short-term result is that this man is left feeling adrift in life, rootless and without a sense of loyalty – so he sets out in search of something to  which he hopes he may attach himself. To that end he heads west, to the plains and the simplicity, and in some respects, the brutality of the Sioux. All the while though, as he seeks to transform himself and rediscover his place in the world, O’Meara is in fact on a cyclical journey, one that will ultimately lead him back to his own innate morality. And so the tale can end where it began, and the path towards internal reconciliation can be accessed.

Fuller’s characteristically punchy script is nicely constructed and layered; the classic, cyclical form utilized frames it all neatly while the characters are set up to mirror one another, and the central theme of the quest for inner reconciliation which is portrayed on a personal level can also be seen as an allegory for a wider process in national terms. The figure of O’Meara is (to my mind anyway) suggestive of Fuller himself, in that we have an ethical and fundamentally sensitive man choosing to present himself as a maverick. It’s hard not to see something of the provocative director in the confrontational character portrayed by Steiger. And Steiger, who too often in his career succumbed to the temptation to feast on the scenery, turns in a relatively restrained performance – there’s only one early scene with Olive Carey where he really lets rip and seriously overcooks it.

While I take a lot of pleasure in sifting through  the theme of the picture and the overall shape of it, it’s worth bearing in mind that the movie also functions and can be approached purely as a highly professional piece of entertainment, thus combining the essential characteristics of any successful piece of filmmaking. Joseph Biroc’s photography makes the most of the harsh Utah locations, and it’s always good to see a western which predominantly features exteriors. Aside from Steiger, the cast is very sold too. Ralph Meeker and Brian Keith swagger and sympathize respectively as they offer contrasting images of the victorious Northerners, while Charles Bronson, Sarita (Sara) Montiel and Jay C Flippen fill the principal native roles with varying degrees of success.

This is a slightly shorter piece than I’ve been in the habit of writing here, and there are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I’m still easing my way back  into site after  lengthy lay off. And secondly, I’m toying with the idea of going down the road of writing briefer posts in the future,  ones that focus on a few aspects of a work that particularly engage my attention. We’ll see how it develops.

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Copper Canyon

Do the stars of a movie need to be what we think of as genre regulars for it to a success? Back in its heyday the western attracted just about every leading player in Hollywood, some of them slotting in with ease and a number actually going on to carve out a niche for themselves within the genre. Frequently, when less familiar western stars were cast they were backed up by co-stars who had already grown accustomed to riding the cinematic range. However, Copper Canyon (1950) seems to be on of those more unusual productions where none of the three headline stars would have had a background in westerns when the movie was made. So does it succeed? I suppose it does to some extent, although you do have to wonder how much the relative inexperience of the cast hurt it.

The setting is the years following the Civil War, when the process of national healing had only just begun and the wounds remained raw. The whole plot revolves around the struggles of former Confederate miners and obstacles they are confronted with as rivals seek to drive them out of business. These men are in need of a champion, someone capable of figuratively rallying the troops and protecting them. It’s with this aim in mind that a small delegation is sent to sound out Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), a former Rebel officer who has changed his name and, in an attempt to reinvent himself, has become a trick shot artist working the saloon circuit. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows himself to be drawn back into conflict with anyone. But once he does the allure of saloon boss Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) and the challenge of facing down corrupt lawman Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) are enough to keep him interested.

Copper Canyon offers few surprises  in its scripting. The story is typical fare dealing with the oppression of the little guy by the powerful, and a hero who endeavors to tip the  balance a little in the former’s favor. While this is a solid enough premise, I tend to think a touch of ambiguity can elevate such a tale into much more interesting territory. However, that’s not really offered here and so we’re left with the uneasy reconstruction angle and, to a lesser degree, the gimmick of Milland’s sharpshooting to provide a more distinctive flavor – both of which are well enough employed yet I can’t say I regard either as very compelling. On the other hand, the pacing is reasonable and director John Farrow composes some nice shots, favoring plenty of titled low-angles in the interiors. What’s more cameraman Charles Lang lights the interiors to maximize the atmosphere and captures some fine views of the Sedona locations.

As I mentioned at the start, the stars hadn’t much of a western pedigree when Copper Canyon was made. Ray Milland had a strong body of work behind him at this point and had an Oscar to his name but, with the exception of California (1947) which was also made with Farrow, he had mostly straight drama and noir roles among his credits. While he would go on to other material in the genre, notably the superior A Man Alone (1955), he was still something of a novice at this point. In a similar vein, Macdonald Carey had only made Streets of Laredo (1949) prior to this but he too would make a number of other westerns in the following years. Hedy Lamarr isn’t a woman anyone would automatically associate with the west (although that running gag in Blazing Saddles might suggest otherwise) and Copper Canyon was, aside from a few television appearances, her only foray into frontier drama. All three acquit themselves well enough, though I do wonder how contemporary audiences would have viewed that lineup. In support we do get more typical faces like Harry Carey Jr and Frank Faylen. In addition, there are parts for Mona Freeman, Peggy Knudsen and, in a truly startling red wig, the imposing figure of Hope Emerson.

Copper Canyon was a Paramount production and was released on DVD in the US by the same company years ago. Even though the disc was a bare bones affair, the transfer is quite a good one, bright and colorful with only minor damage on show. It’s a fairly entertaining movie but hardly what could be termed essential. There’s competent work from all in front of and behind the camera yet it also has to be said that all either did or would do much more memorable stuff on screen. So, let’s say it’s okay but not something you need go out of your way to see.

The Wild One

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Whadda you got?

James Dean was not the first American teenager nor was he the first screen rebel, with or without a cause. Sure we all know that but one would be forgiven for thinking it were actually so if some commentaries on the development of social issues in the movies are held to be true. Disaffected youth had, to a greater or lesser extent, been present on screen for a much longer time; you could make a case for some of the pre-war crime/gangster movies, and a far stronger one for later noir-style disillusionment such as They Live by Night (courtesy of Nicholas Ray, who would of course cast the aforementioned Dean in his most iconic role) or Lewis’ Gun Crazy. No, young people had been butting heads with society for quite a while but the 1950s with the attendant changes of the aftermath of the war seemed to make the phenomenon appear, if not unprecedented, at least more marked. The Wild One (1953), while it no longer retains the same impact, must have provoked a reaction at the time both for its frank approach to its subject matter and the style and attitude of the star.

The opening is one of those ominous warnings about the events about to unfold being extreme yet perhaps indicative of some as yet ill-defined social malaise. And then the bikes and their riders appear and power their way towards the camera. Front and center is Johnny (Marlon Brando), looking tough and insolent in black leather and aviator shades. The bikers ride into a small town in the midst of a race, strutting and swaggering and soon being told to be on their way by the anonymous face of the law. They do so, but the next town they arrive in gets to host them a little longer. The bulk of the movie plays out here, as Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin) turns up and duly encourages further displays of machismo and bravado. While the bikers become increasingly foolish in their boorishness, the locals (or a group with the local population) let their own boorishness grow ever more vindictive and mean. At the heart of it all is Johnny, simultaneously detached and driven, proud of his outlaw, outsider status yet also drawn to the sweet respectability of waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

The Wild One was inspired by events in the town of Hollister in 1947, when a motorcycle gang brought chaos  to the small settlement with no apparent explanation. This is essentially what’s going on in this movie, an outbreak of seemingly inexplicable anti-social behavior, a rejection of the comfortable affluence and respectability which characterized the decade following the end of the war in the US. Laslo Benedek, who had a long and wide-ranging career  in television was the director and provided some nice moody visuals, particularly the scenes taking place during the climactic evening. Still, the fingerprints which are even more in evidence are those of producer Stanley Kramer. He is best known for his message films and The Wild One is the type of vehicle you’d expect him to be involved with even without seeing his name attached to the credits.

Without wishing to belittle any of the other members, and there is a long and solid supporting cast, the film mainly revolves around four people – Brando, Marvin, Murphy and Robert Keith. Of these, Brando is obviously the focus; I can only imagine how different his persona was when he came on the scene in the post-war years. That mumbling, brooding Method approach to his art was always going to mark him out in a world still dominated by naturalistic and theatrically trained performers. Frankly, it’s not a style I’m overly fond of and I suspect that how one reacts to The Wild One will be strongly influenced by how one takes to Brando. Marvin was a terrific foil to Brando’s mannered intensity, the brash exuberance still feeling fresh, elemental and somehow more real. Similarly, Murphy’s demure classiness offers another point of contrast, and a very appealing one too. And last but not last, is the quiet presence of Keith, serving up a finely judged study of weakness and self-doubt. As for those supporting players, Will Wright, Ray Teal, Jay C Flippen and Timothy Carey are just a few of the familiar and reliable faces on show.

The Wild One is now another of the consistently strong series of Dual format Blu-ray/DVD releases from Powerhouse/Indicator in the UK. Although I don’t have any other Hi-Def release of the movie to make a comparison I feel this is a very strong presentation – it’s clean and sharp, has excellent contrast and the blacks look appropriately black. So, no issues on that score. The supplements are, as usual, copious and worthwhile. Jeanine Basinger provides the commentary track and there’s a brief introduction by Karen Kramer. Then there are a number of featurettes: one on the films and its history with the BBFC, another on the events in Hollister that gave rise to the story, and finally there’s a piece on Brando. Furthermore, there’s a Super 8 version of the movie included alongside the trailer and a gallery. The accompanying booklet runs to a satisfying 40 pages and includes an article by Kat Ellinger, an article from 1955 by director Benedek on the movie, a piece by Leslie Halliwell and comments from critics of the time.

The Wild One is a well-made, pacy and influential film. I can’t claim it’s a great favorite of mine but that’s at least partly down to my own ambivalence to Brando as an actor and shouldn’t be taken as any dismissal of the artistic and intellectual merits of the movie. For those who appreciate Brando’s work more the film will probably be a more satisfying experience. That aside, it’s a good movie and the new release is a top quality one, something which is now typical of Indicator.

The Flying Scot

We hear a lot about budgets when filmmaking is discussed, and you end up with the feeling nowadays that movies are barely considered to be worth watching if the amount of money invested in the production isn’t of the eye-watering variety. This is a shame as it means the range of films made tends to be reduced and, crucially, fewer chances are taken for the simple reason no one wants to accept a risk when the stakes are so high. Now I’m not trying to make a case here for the inaccessible or the utterly impenetrable – movies which are not entertaining or watchable are going to be failures not merely in financial terms but also due to the fact they cannot succeed if they cannot engage with an audience. If I’m lamenting the current obsession with massive budgets, then that’s because it does away with (or at least significantly reduces the potential for seeing) sparse and direct pieces which depend  on tight storytelling techniques rather than whizz bang visuals. I’m referring to frugal little productions like The Flying Scot (1957), the kind of minimalist drama we can’t even count on television taking on these days.

The Flying Scot has three major points in its favor as far as I’m concerned: it takes place almost exclusively on a train, it’s concerns itself with a heist, and it’s pared so far down that practically no excess fat is evident. The opening pitches us straight into the heart of proceedings, tracking along a railway platform to follow the progress of a newly wed couple about to embark on a train to begin their honeymoon, and thereafter their life together.  We see them settle in, put up a reserved notice on the door, draw the curtains. And then they change into casual clothes and lie down on separate berths on opposite sides of the carriage! It’s now quite clear that these people (Lee Patterson & Kay Callard) are no newlyweds, they and their associate in another car (Alan Gifford) are biding their time till they’re due to act. And that action is the smooth and meticulous execution of a plan to steal a half a million pounds in banknotes. Everything moves like clockwork with each person fulfilling his or her assigned role with precision and cool professionalism – it’s at this point that we pause, step back in time, and see what really happens…

The director of The Flying Scot was Compton Bennett, a man with a comparatively small yet interesting set of credits. His big Hollywood success was King Solomon’s Mines but there were other noteworthy titles both in the US and the UK. That this was a very low budget affair is apparent from the small cast with no big names, the limiting of the action to a handful of train carriage sets and the running time of not much more than an hour. However, as I hope my introductory remarks suggested, a limited budget doesn’t have to mean a poor quality movie. With The Flying Scot Bennett turns these aspects to his and the film’s advantage by using the cramped and suffocating space as a device for ramping up the tension, emphasizing the sense of characters trapped by their own criminal plans. Similarly, the short running time positively demands the pace is maintained, the plot forging ahead relentlessly just as the train where it all takes place heads inexorably towards its destination. I’d also like to note the stylish opening section where the first ten minutes or so is played out with one word of dialogue being spoken, it could be described as gimmickry I suppose but it never actually feels like that.  Furthermore, that opening and how it then develops reminded me of the beginning of Gambit, a later film with a lighter overall feel. The presence of Peter Rogers as producer and Norman Hudis as screenwriter brings to mind the Carry On series of comedies that would shortly debut in British cinemas and seem like an odd pair to be attached to a tense little suspense picture such as this. In truth, there is a thread of humor running through the film, but it ‘s of a more carefully observed type than the bawdier variety the aforementioned series would become famous for – having said that, those early Hudis scripts had a gentler approach anyway.

As far as a general audience is concerned, Lee Patterson is probably not a name that will be especially well-recognized. On the other hand, anyone who is a fan of, or even just reasonably familiar with, British thrillers of the 50s and 60s will be very much aware of this guy. Patterson was a Canadian actor who seemed to get cast in every other mystery or noirish thriller, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to have watched more than a handful of these kinds of films without coming across him. I’ve always found him a reliable enough performer, not a big draw but the type who you know will get the job done whether he was cast as good guy or bad. Here, he’s playing a man who is tough to like, displaying a bit too much unnecessary arrogance and self-absorption. He does it pretty effectively and fellow Canadian Kay Callard helps to smooth down his rough edges a little. Alan Gifford, yet another transatlantic import, provides just the right degree of pathos as the ageing crook hoping for one last touch to set him up for retirement but plagued by a health problem and a plan that’s fraying uncontrollably.

The Flying Scot is out on DVD in the UK via Network as part of the ever attractive The British Film line. I imagine a 1957 title would be better suited to at least some form of widescreen aspect ratio but it still looks fine, to me at least, with the 1.33:1 framing used on this disc. The print is in pretty good shape too with no major damage to cause distraction. As for extra features, there’s the facility to watch the opening under the alternative title The Mailbag Robbery. All in all, I thought this a very neat thriller, well constructed and satisfyingly tense – it gets a recommendation from me.

Money, Women and Guns

What’s in a title? Sometimes a lot and other times very little. On the most fundamental level, it’s one of the most prominent hooks upon which to hang a movie, or at least one’s expectations of a movie. It may encourage a sense of what’s coming up, tease you with anticipation or, if handled clumsily, dampen your enthusiasm. If successful, it will have conjured images in your mind, kindled a flame of curiosity and drawn you in. So what of a title such as 1958’s Money, Women and Guns? Does it paint visions of some freewheeling adventure, full of action and eye candy but not all that much depth? I ask this because that’s something like the way I first approached the film, but the reality is a little different. The title grabbed my attention, the opening even looked as though it might be bang on, and then the rest of the movie delivered quite a bit more.

It all begins on location in Lone Pine, with a botched robbery. Three masked men attempt to rob an ageing prospector, but make a poor job of it – two of them will die while the third is driven off by the mortally wounded miner. The incomplete or unclear dying declaration is one of the classic tropes of the mystery genre, the victim tantalizing us with broad hints towards the identity of his slayer before expiring. This time there’s a little additional spin in that, before he dies, the old man makes it known that the perpetrator is named as one of the beneficiaries of his will. Superficially, that is what the story is about, the search for a killer from a short list of suspects. Up to this point it looks very much like a standard, formulaic tale, and that impression is strengthened further when we’re introduced to the lead. “Silver” Ward Hogan (Jock Mahoney) is something straight out of a dime novel, a virtual caricature named for his fondness for silver bullets and accoutrements. Yet first impressions, like the pulpy title, prove to be misleading and the movies becomes much more interesting. Hogan is a detective retained by the prospector’s lawyer to track down the beneficiaries of the will and, using that cover, bring in the surviving member of the gang. So Hogan sets out to locate the names on his list, to give the good news of an unexpected fortune to most, and the less welcome news of a day in court to one.

The film is structured in an episodic fashion, with series of vignettes providing the backdrop against which everything unfolds. It is, as I stated, a standard and quite absorbing mystery on the surface, but with a redemptive thread running through it all that is typical of the era. There is the journey Hogan is on towards personal fulfillment, something he will e seen to have attained by the fade out. As each little drama is played out in the course of his quest, we learn a little more about all those involved, about the motivations of the old man who made this rather odd will and the seemingly disparate group named within it. Essentially, it develops into a succession of moral fables which are telling, touching and not entirely predictable. By the end, it’s the redemptive and restorative aspects that take precedence for us, even the discovery of the guilty party fits into this pattern and the result is a wonderfully positive experience. While the film never becomes overly sentimental, it does reinforce the better side of human nature and every negative consequence has a kernel of positivity within it. In short, you come away from this film with good feeling overall.

Richard Bartlett had already made the engaging Joe Dakota with Jock Mahoney and again used the star’s cool and relaxed persona perfectly. Along with cinematographer Philip Lathrop, he captured some terrific images from around Lone Pine and the whole movie looks very attractive inside the wide CinemaScope frame. However, it’s that powerful thread of salvation which permeates Montgomery Pittman’s script which stands out strongest and gives the film its heart.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a western starring Jock Mahoney that I haven’t enjoyed. He had such an easy-going and assured persona on the screen that you end up feeling confident yourself of what you’re going to get. he role of the master detective fit him like a glove and he handled the action the scenes, the romantic interludes and the occasional light humor with great style, making the whole affair a pleasure to watch. Of course he benefited from having a solid cast working alongside him; Kim Hunter, who had a long and illustrious career from her beginnings with Val Lewton in The Seventh Victim through her Oscar-winning work with Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire and on to cult immortality in Planet of the Apes, is an especially accomplished figure to play off, a classy lady who brings a great deal of charm and grace to a pivotal role. I think Tim Hovey did well too and came across convincingly, which isn’t something you can always say about child actors. And there’s quality all through the cast with Lon Chaney Jr, James Gleason, William Campbell, Gene Evans and Tom Drake all turning in credible or better performances.

Money, Women and Guns has been released on DVD in France and Spain but nowhere else, as far as I know. I’ve had the Spanish edition for some time and it’s a good enough copy. It’s presented in the correct anamorphic scope ratio and the print used is in pretty fair condition. Colors are stable and bright and the image doesn’t suffer from much damage. There’s a little softness from time to time, but nothing serious, and some of the process shots look a bit rough – overall, it’s quite acceptable though. The disc, as usual, offers a choice of the original soundtrack or a Spanish dub and optional subs. Frankly, I think this is a delightful movie and one that is good for a number of viewings. That’s not something you can say about too many films with a mystery at the heart of the script. However, Money, Women and Guns, aside from that superb title, features the kind of theme that goes beyond the more mechanical elements of the plot. Perhaps it’s not all that well-known but I’d give it a recommendation.

Springfield Rifle

Having looked at a hybrid movie last time out (a western/swashbuckler mash-up), I thought I’d continue in a similar vein and feature another western which has borrowed and blended in elements of another genre. Here it’s the espionage or spy movie and the result of this cinematic marriage is Springfield Rifle (1952).  It takes place during the Civil War, which has traditionally been a setting with decidedly mixed returns in both critical and commercial terms. And I think that’s what could be said of this production too: the film is interesting in places, muddled and short on momentum in others, and ultimately not wholly satisfying, a classic mixed bag.

As far as plot is concerned, this is the type of film where one has to be careful not to give too much information away, the mystery aspect is significant and it would be churlish to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t seen this before. Right from the beginning we’re made aware that this is a tale of counterespionage, and I doubt if it’s revealing too much to say that it’s essentially a case of setting a spy to catch a spy. Anonymous raiders are rustling horses in Colorado which are bound for the Union army. The regularity and success of this rustling operation strongly indicates that a spy or traitor is playing a part. Given the nature of conflict at the time, horses are vital to the war effort. So, the top brass is pressing for something to be done, and that pressure is being felt by local commander Lt Colonel Hudson (Paul Kelly). It’s Hudson’s hope that Major Lex Kearney (Gary Cooper) can deal with the problem. When Kearney’s command is relieved of its herd of horses with a shot being fired in anger, the Major finds himself facing a court-martial for cowardice. While this brings disgrace it also opens up an opportunity to learn much more than anyone in a uniform could hope to do. A bitter and disgruntled man, despised and shunned by family and former comrades alike, is in an ideal, unique position to infiltrate the ranks of the raiders.

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When you take a look at the cast and crew of Springfield Rifle you’d think there were strong grounds for expecting a first-rate piece of cinema. Even there are good points to consider, and I’m going to do just that presently, the end product does not measure up to what the constituent parts appear to promise. A film directed by Andre de Toth, especially around this time, is going to have some strengths, and it can’t be denied that the movie looks quite spectacular in places – the location work is a joy in visual terms giving the film a real boost, and the action set pieces are memorably staged and coordinated. There’s also a powerful and distinctive Max Steiner score to add some punch and drive. The beginning, and the somewhat misleading title, raise the prospect of the film being one of those odes to the military that can all too easily run to dreary and sanctimonious. Luckily though, the espionage theme takes precedence and the story goes in some unexpected directions – questions of trust and integrity are not only raised but are explored in some depth as well.

Movies with a script by Charles Marquis Warren normally get my attention, not because I like them all or even rate them all that highly – his TV work is undoubtedly more significant – but his name does encourage a certain amount of anticipation. Frankly, I feel the plot of Springfield Rifle is excessively and unnecessarily complicated. Aside from the twisting and turning, which is par for the course for any spy movie, the structure becomes muddled in my view by the tendency to reach too many (anti) climaxes, thus watering down their effect and drawing the energy out of the picture. The film runs for an hour and a half bit it feels longer than that.

Think of Gary Cooper and 1952 and, supposing you’re a movie fan, the words High Noon must surely come to mind. Springfield Rifle is from that same year but it’s a world away when it comes to quality. Again, it’s not a bad film but it is a rather mediocre one. I try to look at material on its own terms, to avoid unfair or loaded comparisons where possible, but there are occasions when I can’t get round them. In the same year as High Noon the sheer ordinariness of this movie leaps out at one but the fact is that it fares the same when placed against a lot of Cooper’s other genre work. I don’t say Cooper delivers a poor performance – there’s the deceptive simplicity which was his trademark, and also a meanness (verging on sadism I’d say) touched on in the aftermath of a fight with Lon Chaney Jr that would be drawn on further by the actor in Anthony Mann’s later Man of the West. Nevertheless, it’s minor Cooper and I can think of at least a half dozen other westerns which used his persona and talents better.

The rest of the cast of Springfield Rifle is extremely impressive: Lon Chaney Jr, Phil Carey, Paul Kelly, James Millican, David Brian, Phyllis Thaxter, Alan Hale Jr & Fess Parker. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite a list. However, with the exception of Kelly and, to a lesser extent Brian, these people are wasted and their abilities are never exploited as fully as they ought to have been. Many of them are written into the movie and then written out abruptly or, in a few cases, simply dropped with next to no explanation. In some ways, this failure to get the best out of such a bank of talent is the most disappointing thing about the movie.

Springfield Rifle was released years ago on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of a Cooper box set. The film looks OK but there are some marks here and there and there’s the potential, with a bit of restoration, to have the film looking really splendid. I doubt that will happen though, and maybe it’s not something worth getting upset about. While the movie could be spruced up visually that won’t address the weaknesses inherent in the script. My final verdict? A picture which is very attractive to look at, a cast to stoke up your enthusiasm, but a complex stop-start script that eventually trips you up in the overabundance of peaks and troughs.

The Gambler from Natchez

I remember when I was first toying with the idea of starting up a blog on movies, almost ten years ago now, and wondering about whether or not I wanted to focus on certain genres or types of film. Back then lots of the big entertainment sites took what looked like a shotgun approach of covering as wide a range of material as possible and I felt the best way to break into this digital scribbling was to specialize. The question though was what to specialize in. I eventually settled on writing primarily (though by no means exclusively) on westerns of the classic era as that was, and remains, my favorite area. But I’d mulled over a focus on noir thrillers (which do figure fairly prominently as it stands) and even war movies for a while. Another genre that I recall giving some thought to was the swashbuckler/adventure picture yet I ultimately felt that had limited appeal. Anyway, all this leads me in a slightly circuitous way to The Gambler from Natchez (1954), something of a hybrid which blends together elements of both the swashbuckler and the western to produce a pretty enjoyable confection.

We follow Vance Colby (Dale Robertson) on his way back to New Orleans having served in the army of Texas under Sam Houston. The uniform tells us Colby is a soldier, and a run in with an ill-tempered card player reveals his familiarity with games of chance. The fact is he’s the son of a renowned gambler and immensely proud of it too. His defense of the honor of his family leads to a fight (the first of many) and also the acquaintance of a kindred spirit in Antoine Barbee (Thomas Gomez) and his spitfire daughter Melanie (Debra Paget), two people who will figure prominently in events to follow. In brief, Colby is soon to learn that his father is dead, slain after being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack. It looks very much as though the three men responsible, led by foppish but ruthless plantation owner André Rivage (Kevin McCarthy), had other reasons for the killing, and the rest of the tale is taken up with the unraveling of their scheme and the quest for justice.

I’ve tagged The Gambler from Natchez as a western here even though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s at best a hybrid form with arguably more of a swashbuckling flavor about it. However, I hope the presence of Robertson (and to some extent Paget) and a story from the pen of Gerald Drayson Adams makes my stretching of the definitions of the genre just about permissible, but I won’t mind if anyone strongly objects. Director Henry Levin moves everything along at a nice even pace, never getting bogged down in unnecessary asides nor skimming over the important parts. Cameraman Lloyd Ahern ensures everything looks as sumptuous as possible while Levin get maximum impact from the action set pieces – a nocturnal chase through the reeds and a brace of duels, one with pistols and the other with rapiers.

Dale Robertson was very much a western star. Sure he worked in other genres but even a quick glance through his filmography shows how much it leans towards the Old West. A film like The Gambler from Natchez called for his customary ruggedness and also a degree of suavity that we don’t always see. It’s a balancing act which I reckon he pulls off perfectly successfully – the polish of the climactic duel with McCarthy standing as proof of that. And McCarthy was one of the most versatile actors to ply his trade in Hollywood, taking on heroic and villainous roles as lead or support with ease – he’s likely most famous for his work in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film I hope to feature here sooner rather than later. Suffice to say he sneers with some style in this movie. Debra Paget’s looks meant she was an ideal fit for westerns and exotica alike. She’s very good as the fiery river denizen with a particularly determined streak and plays well off the cool Robertson. Thomas Gomez is another of those whose presence I always appreciate in a film. He could bring tragedy and pathos to his parts as in Force of Evil yet also possessed a lovely light touch and indulged in that latter quality here.

The Gambler from Natchez has been released in the US as a MOD disc from Fox and had also available in Spain as a pressed DVD via Fox/Impulso for some time before that. I have that Spanish disc which presents the film in what I take is an open matte transfer – IMDb suggest the correct aspect ratio is 1.66:1 and that may or may not be right, I’d have thought anything up to 1.78:1 would be possible. That aside, the movie looks reasonably good, a bit of a clean up would bring out more detail and perhaps add a bit more pop to the colors, but it’s quite watchable as it is.

This is a film which is hard to classify neatly in any one genre, drifting  between the western, the swashbuckler and the adventure yarn. None of that is especially important of course, what does matter is how effectively all these aspects  come together. In my opinion, it all gels and therefore works. The film has  no pretensions of being anything other than a smooth piece of entertainment and goes about its business with style, excitement and wit.  A good film.

The Saga of Hemp Brown

Tales of revenge are a staple in the western genre, the better ones pressing home the point about the self-defeating nature of it all and how it ends up inflicting more harm on the seeker than anyone else. That’s a perfectly valid theme and one which has a wealth of potential when handled appropriately. However, variations are to be welcomed and The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958) successfully does just that by laying the groundwork for a very understandable quest for vengeance yet adds a twist right at the beginning by making it plain that justice is more desirable, and that revenge is necessarily precluded as a result.

I like films that waste little time getting to the point, ones which draw us right into the heart of the story at the earliest opportunity. Here we have a military detail bringing the payroll, and an officer’s wife too, to the nearest outpost. The detail is under the command of a young lieutenant, Hemp Brown (Rory Calhoun), and we first encounter them on a twisty mountain road. They in turn encounter an apparently stranded traveler looking for a ride. He’s Jed Givens (John Larch), a former soldier who once served under Brown. As the party gets moving once again, Givens real motives become brutally and violently clear – his purpose was to facilitate a ruthless ambush. The upshot of this is that the patrol is wiped out, with the exception of Brown. No, Givens hasn’t had an attack of conscience and decided to spare his old commanding officer out of any sense of altruism. Instead, he wants a fall guy, someone to hang the blame on. He knows that Brown will face a court-martial under the circumstances and he’s also carrying around an added bit of insurance – officially, Jed Givens is a dead man and knows this fact is going to torpedo Brown when he tries to explain what happened. So, to cut to the chase, Brown is duly found guilty of cowardice and dismissed in disgrace. Despite the fact that, or perhaps because, nobody believes him and his name is now mud, he takes the only course open to him. He saddles up and heads off to see whether he can trace this murderous and larcenous ghost, and restore his own tainted reputation. Ironically and paradoxically, he will find himself fighting to save the neck of the very man he’d dearly love to see swing.

By the time The Saga of Hemp Brown was made the western was close to its apogee as an expression of cinematic art. Even medium range pictures like this were effortlessly examining complex themes and concepts. The old west has frequently presented the ideal canvas for looking at the clash between the individual and society, how the aims and objectives of each can be reconciled with the other and how or whether they can coexist comfortably. The Saga of Hemp Brown presents what I’d refer to as a reluctant individualist, a man standing apart from society but against his will. We see an outcast, albeit one who has been wronged, not so much railing against a restrictive society but searching for the key that will grant him readmission. Somehow though, I can’t help wondering if he will really want to be absorbed back in again; by the end of the movie he will have experienced the haste to judge unfairly, the tendency towards mob rule and also only found support from one who, similar to himself, is living on the periphery of society. Anyway, alongside the traditional western action, there’s much to occupy the viewer there, and actor turned director Richard Carlson smoothly blends all this into a nicely paced 80 minute film.

Rory Calhoun makes fairly regular appearances on this blog, which shouldn’t be any big surprise given his westerns were very often both entertaining and also quality productions. This was his second collaboration with Carlson, following on from Four Guns to the Border – and  no, before anyone asks I still haven’t watched that one. Calhoun’s work here is typically strong, dealing well with the action and physical stuff and also coping just fine with the more dramatic moments. He gets sympathetic support from and a believable romance with the prolific Beverly Garland. She came to this movie off the back of a role in the excellent The Joker is Wild and gave an attractive performance which played up her soulfulness and emotional bruises. The principal villain was John Larch, another familiar face in countless movies and shows over a long career. It just happens that I was watching him in an episode of The Untouchables the other day and was struck, in both instances, by the ease with which he could alternate between swaggering cruelty and craven fear. And good as Larch is here he faces some competition in the rottenness stakes from a hook-handed Russell Johnson. In other supporting roles are Fortunio Bonanova, Morris Ankrum and an uncredited but memorable Victor Sen Yung.

Sadly, The Saga of Hemp Brown is one of a handful of problematic titles when it comes to finding suitable copies for viewing. The film was shot in CinemaScope and any film using that kind of wide framing really suffers if it is cropped down. The movie begins, in the edition I watched,  with the credits in the correct (though not anamorphic) ratio and  then zooms in to a panned and scanned 1.33:1 image. That’s how it is on the Spanish DVD I own but I understand that’s the case with other releases too. Frankly, this is an unacceptable way to view a film and it’s extremely disappointing that no option to see it in the correct ratio appears to exist at the moment. I can only hope that a decent version turns up at some point in the future. Actually, the fact that the rather rough-looking trailer included on the DVD is in (non-anamorphic) scope adds to the irritation. The movie itself is quite good, absorbing and intelligent, and I can well believe a better presentation could only enhance that impression. As such, I find myself in the slightly odd position of championing a film but feeling unable to recommend anyone make much of an effort to track it down given the state of what is currently available.

Little Red Monkey

Topicality is often seen as a desirable quality in films. Movies are and were, above all else, made to earn money, and what better way to do so than to present your audience with a story that has its finger on the pulse of current affairs. I’m happy to acknowledge this fact but, as someone who spends a lot of time watching, discussing and dissecting older films, I’m in the habit of looking beyond those immediate concerns. All of that was a roundabout way of putting forward the theory that topicality and longevity, and by extension artistic value, may be less than mere casual acquaintances, but might in fact be perfect strangers. These were thoughts that were running through my head the other day as I was watching Little Red Monkey (1955), a film which is firmly rooted in the concerns and mindset prevalent in the Cold War.

Intrigue is surely one of the essential ingredients of a thriller, and Little Red Monkey kicks off with a series of intriguing episodes. To be more precise, we start off witnessing a succession of killings, the assassinations of top scientists. Aside from the acts of murder themselves, all are linked by the curious phenomenon of taking place when a small monkey is present. Now that’s the kind of hook that’s bound to snag the interest of the press and thus we move smoothly to a press conference where a harried government representative is fielding  questions that the reporters are lobbing relentlessly in his direction. They want to know who is behind the violence, what it’s all about, and what’s with the monkey. While the face of officialdom calmly bats away query after awkward query, he has beside him a silent but attentive figure. This is Superintendent Harrington (Russell Napier), the man charged with investigating these events. Before heading off to meet a special arrival at the airport Harrington first spars coolly with Harry Martin (Colin Gordon), one of the more persistent newspaperman in attendance. The nature of the relationship between press and police was one aspect of the film which jumped out at me, and in truth didn’t sit all that comfortably, but I’ll return to that later. Harrington is off to meet a defector whose plane has just touched down and also the man who will be shortly assuming full responsibility for his safety. The defector is simply in the UK to make a transfer before proceeding on to the US, and Bill Locklin (Richard Conte) is the State Department man there to see it all goes as planned. And so we have all the key elements of our scenario falling into place: a supposedly routine babysitting operation that is in danger of being derailed by a bizarre assassination plot and a dogged press.

I like spy stories, I like the trappings of them and the situations typically arising out of them, and I generally like the Cold War milieu that frequently inspires these tales. I also enjoy a good crime yarn, even better if it happens to involve impossible or fantastic elements. In short, Little Red Monkey ought to be right up my street, and yet it didn’t work for me. Why? I think it comes down to a combination of not really caring about the main characters and the movie’s focus on what were probably the contemporary hot topics of defectors and fifth columnists. Frankly, I found the characters of Harrington and Locklin brash, dismissive and perilously close to authoritarian. And these are the good guys. In addition to that, we have the overt suggestion, made more than once, that an unfettered and investigative media is at best a nuisance and maybe even a threat. Then we have the matter of the more unusual aspects of the story – how scientists seem to be getting bumped off by a monkey – getting sidelined in favor of mundane fifth column shenanigans and an insipid romance.  Ken Hughes made some fine shorts and features – Heat Wave is an enjoyable noir, for example – but I feel he squandered the opportunities to do something interesting with this one, allowing the duller moments to predominate.

Richard Conte was a dependable actor, capable of strong, diverse work in the likes of The Big Combo, The Blue Gardenia and Cry of the City but in this film he’s often brusque and snappish, alienating the viewers when he really ought to be connecting with them. Russell Napier is another chilly presence, appearing distant and remote when he’s not railing against reporters. The fact of the matter is the most sympathetic character in the movie is Colin Gordon’s irreverent hack. He’s no saint and has no particularly elevated opinion of himself or his profession but he is more real as a consequence. I found him very effective in Strongroom and this markedly different role is proof that he had some range as an actor. Rona Anderson does her best and is quite personable but her part as Conte’s romantic interest is unremarkable and doesn’t ask an awful lot of her.

Little Red Monkey is the kind of film that popped up in TV schedules with regularity in the past but not so nowadays. It’s been released on DVD in the UK by Network as part of their British Film line, and it looks reasonably good. I would have thought some kind of widescreen ratio would have been appropriate given the year of production but the framing at 4:3 is acceptable. Among the extra features included on the disc is an alternative opening sequence, a neat little touch. I guess it’s clear enough that I wasn’t exactly blown away by this film but all I can do is call it as I see it. To be clear, I don’t say Little Red Monkey is a bad movie, just a disappointing one. There are points of interest in there and it’s a professional piece of filmmaking but I don’t believe it has worn well and, alongside a vaguely unsavory subtext, is too tied to the era in which it was made. So, watchable but hardly essential in my view.

Kansas City Confidential

Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.

Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else.  Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.

I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.

Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony  – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.

Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.