Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

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The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.

Bullet for a Badman

Predictability tends to be the scourge of good storytelling. You know the feeling, when you can tell right from the beginning exactly where a writer is heading, how the story is going to develop and what the characters will do. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be derived from such situations, but it’s awfully hard to get enthused about the questionable allure of the familiar. So, having no doubt whetted everyone’s appetite with an opening hook like that, I’d like to say how much a pleasure it is when the promise of the humdrum is swept away and the potentially trite  is actually revealed as an impostor. This is kind of how I feel about Bullet for a Badman (1964), where the opening suggests we’re going to be served up one of those vaguely dispiriting mid-60s efforts, the type of western that highlights the weariness which had crept into the genre during those years. Well if you shouldn’t set too much store by the cover of a book, then I guess this movie goes some way towards bearing out the parallel truism about not judging a film too harshly on the basis of its opening.

Bullet for a Badman starts off with two men setting out on paths  that are soon to converge on the town of Griffin. Sam Ward (Darren McGavin) is an outlaw, his status as a genuine badman established by the cold-blooded killing of an informer, and he’s finalizing his plans to rob the bank in town and then pay a most unwelcome visit on someone he once knew. That someone is Logan Keliher (Audie Murphy), who’s preparing to ride into Griffin with his boy to negotiate financing for his land. The first quarter of an hour or thereabouts play out much as you might expect given the build up I’ve sketched in above. Anyone who has seen even a handful of westerns would most likely be nodding with a sense of uninspired expectation at about this point – the stereotypical characters and circumstances are lined up just the way we anticipate, but then they change tack. The relationships aren’t quite as we’d been led to believe, there’s a complex back story governing the actions and reactions of these people, and what we thought we knew is only the half of it. The revelation of the nature of the connection between Keliher and Ward comes fast and immediately adds a significant amount of meat to the bones of what had looked for all the world like a pretty clapped out tale. Furthermore, once the narrative carries us out of Griffin into the wilderness in the company of the fugitive Ward and the pursuing posse we run into some more previously unsuspected twists. The preconceptions we were actively encouraged to foster in the opening section are whipped away and replaced by a challenge – if the badman we were shown in the early stages isn’t quite excused, then it is at least suggested that we look at those on his trail and ask ourselves whether they are really much better.

I’ve mentioned how the plot, and consequently the characterization, shifts gear after the preliminaries are taken care of and the film moves away from the town of Griffin. Well as that takes place the visual style of the movie naturally alters too. At the beginning there is that flat look that you see in some TV productions of the era, lighting that’s a little too solid and uniform, an over-reliance on sets and mock-ups – the result is not just an artificial appearance, which certainly has its merits, but a cheap one.  Cameraman Joseph F Biroc had an impressive list of credits in both television and cinema but it’s not till we get out among the Utah locations that the best of his talents become apparent. Generally, location shooting has the effect of opening things up, of making a movie feel bigger. That’s the case with Bullet for a Badman, where the film is given the opportunity to breathe away from the backlot. Director R G Springsteen did a lot of TV work, so much that anyone with an interest in the small screen of the period must surely have seen some of his work. Prior to that he made a lot of budget westerns and, to an extent, one could say he was returning to his roots with this, the elusive Showdown also with Murphy, and a handful of A C Lyles pictures. I found his direction here satisfactory overall, but he does let the pace lag a bit in the second act.

I spoke a bit about Audie Murphy’s growing assurance as an actor last year when I wrote a piece on Apache Rifles, a film which was made around the same time as this. Without wishing to go over the same ground repeatedly, let me just reiterate that the abilities which were always there were put to ever more effective use by Murphy as he grew older and grew into the movies; the more complex the role, the more of himself he seemed to put into it. The script by Mary and Willard Willingham, adapted from a Marvin H Albert novel, had protagonist and antagonist as former comrades in the Texas Rangers now cast as rivals by their love of the same woman. There’s plenty of scope for juicy drama in a situation like that, but it needs someone strong to take the part of the antagonist. Here it’s Darren McGavin, another guy I associate primarily with television. I guess many people will think of him as Carl Kolchak from the 70s series and the two reportedly superior TV movies (which I still haven’t seen!), although I’ve also gotten used to him as the 50s version of Mike Hammer. But is he the real villain of the piece? I’ll let each person decide for themselves on that one – suffice to say Skip Homeier, George Tobias, and even Alan Hale Jr have the chance to explore the less savory side of their characters. As for the women, Beverley Owen has a fairly straightforward and typical part as the object of McGavin and Murphy’s affections, while Ruta Lee got more screen time along with a showier if no more original role.

The UK DVD of Bullet for a Badman contains a good print of the movie transferred attractively but economically to disc. There are no supplements at all but the film looks very good, particularly the aforementioned location shooting. The movie itself is one which starts in a frankly pedestrian manner and threatens to become mired in the doldrums. However, it does shake off those routine constraints to become something much more fulfilling. While it does tap into some of the redemptive themes and the richer qualities to be found in the better 50s productions, I don’t want to oversell it either. That opening section is decidedly trite and there are occasional lapses in that direction as it goes along, but I feel that it builds sufficient momentum to keep it fresh for the most part.

The Money Trap

It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.

Quatermass and the Pit

Once upon a time it was quite common to see movies either inspiring TV shows or leading to direct spin-offs. This still happens of course but it doesn’t seem to take place with the same frequency. On the other hand, we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing TV shows being adapted or reimagined as big screen vehicles, with variable success. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking the latter is a purely modern phenomenon. But it’s not really, it had been going on long ago and one of the studios that became aware early on of the potential for commercial exploitation was Hammer in the UK. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were big hits for the BBC and Hammer seized the opportunity to turn them into cinema features, significantly boosting their fortunes and profile in the process. That was in the 50s, and Hammer would return to this winning formula again in the following decade when Quatermass and the Pit (1967) stylishly revived the series in color.

The ominous-sounding pit of the title is an excavation taking place at a London underground station, Hobbs End, aimed at extending the line. This is our point of entry, following the workmen as they shovel out the clay.  In the midst of this routine labor something irregular is spotted trundling along the conveyor belt – the remains of a skull. Almost immediately, another section of earth is pulled away to reveal an almost complete skeleton. So one excavation gives way to another, the structural yielding to the archaeological, this one under the supervision of Dr Roney (James Donald). However, the relatively standard prehistoric material being retrieved isn’t all that’s been buried at this site, the unexpected discovery of an unfamiliar casing suggests there might be an explosive device keeping the ancient residents company. And it’s here that Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), professor of physics and head of the government’s rocket research, comes into the picture. Furthermore, this is also the stage at which the film shifts from the realm of the mundane towards that of the fantastic, and potentially horrific. Quatermass, Roney, and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), find themselves gradually drawn to the conclusion that the contents of Hobbs End station may not be from this planet at all. If their theories are correct, they may have stumbled upon that long sought after “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, something which promises to be not only startling in its audacity but also terrifying in potency and destructiveness.

I’ve never seen the original TV serial that formed the basis for this adaptation but I’ve heard that it was a triumph, a high point for the medium. I’ve also seen claims that the film, while very good, didn’t quite measure up to its origins. I do intend to fill in this gap in my viewing knowledge at some point but for now all I can do is comment on the movie as I see it. I think I first saw this at some time back in the 1980s and it made an instant impression. Anyone familiar with Hammer films will know what I mean when I say that they had a “feel” to them which was unmistakable. This was partly due to the casting but, as with films like Quatermass and the Pit, it was still apparent even if many of the faces weren’t as familiar. It was as much the contribution of the team behind the cameras that created that unique Hammer vibe as anything. Just seeing credits which promised production by Anthony Nelson Keys, photography by Arthur Grant, art direction by Bernard Robinson etc meant you were in for a cinematic experience that had Hammer stamped all over it.

Roy Ward Baker had enjoyed success in Hollywood, UK cinema and then worked quite extensively in British TV before coming to Hammer. As such, his was a sure hand directing and he obviously slotted neatly into the team as he went on to take charge of a number of features for the studio.  Possibly as a result of being a serial in the first place the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace, taking its time only where necessary, and there’s no shortage of incident to hold the attention. Sci-Fi generally depends on intelligent writing and, perhaps more so in recent times, visual effects to be considered successful. While I don’t believe effects are the be all and end all in any production, it’s clear that they do play a part in the enjoyment of many – in Quatermass and the Pit this aspect ought to be considered perfectly satisfactory although obviously not of the kind audiences today would be used to. Of greater importance is the quality of the writing and again, without wishing to go into too much detail and thus spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I believe Kneale’s script fulfills the basic requirement of any good piece of science fiction: it asks as many questions as it answers and encourages the viewer to think.

Kneale never made any secret of the fact he disapproved (to say the least) of the decision to cast US actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations of his work, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, something I’ve seen fans complain about too. Frankly, I never had any problem with Donlevy and quite liked the energy and assertiveness he brought to his interpretation, although I can understand too how a writer might feel displeased with a characterization he found too far removed from his own vision. Anyway, Andrew Keir tackles the role of Quatermass in a different way, emphasizing the more thoughtful sides of the man but retaining something of an edge at the same time. That tougher, more stubborn streak emerges most noticeably when he’s confronting the supercilious and dismissive Colonel Breen whose military inflexibility is captured neatly by Julian Glover. James Donald has a certain reserve and remoteness as Roney, lacking some of the warmth and companionable charm of Keir, but that’s something which serves his character well, bearing in mind how he’s seen to develop in the latter stages of the film in particular. Barbara Shelley feels like one of the constants of British TV and cinema. She appeared in a huge number of notable productions, and something like a half dozen or so Hammer films among them. The roles offered to women in Sci-Fi weren’t always the most interesting yet Shelley’s part in Quatermass and the Pit is actually quite pivotal and she comes across as playing an important part in the central team.

Some Hammer films have been difficult to come by and really only became readily available in recent years. However, that was never the situation with Quatermass and the Pit, it being one of those titles that never seemed to be out of print for any length of time. I had the DVD for years and then picked up the UK Blu-ray last year as I reckoned it was the kind of movie that might benefit from the upgrade, and it does. The old DVD  was perfectly acceptable to my eyes but the Hi-Def version brings out the details and colors even more and gives the whole thing an attractive punch. The film remains an absorbing one no matter how it’s viewed of course – it’s up there among the very best Hammer productions and it’s also one of the finest British Sci-Fi movies.

Strongroom

Suspense is one of the most attractive aspects of any work of fiction, regardless of whether it’s literary or cinematic. There are all kinds of dramatic devices which can be employed to entertain and enthrall an audience but suspense must surely be the strongest. It doesn’t always come off, lots of movies have fallen flat on their faces while attempting it, but the slow escalation of tension, the encouragement of anxiety which feeds off itself and grows incrementally, is one of the more potent techniques available to the filmmaker. If suspense is to be effective as either a source of drama or as the by-product of it, then it needs to be based on characters whom the audience has gained empathy for or discovered some kind of connection with. Strongroom (1962) is a superb exercise in the art of rubbing the viewer’s nerves raw, of depending on such imposters as fate and coincidence to wring as much tension as possible out of a simple story.

A heist movie is nearly always engrossing and that’s particularly the case when the robbery in question starts to go wrong, when the seemingly meticulous plans go awry. In Strongroom nothing much goes right for anyone from the beginning. WE see the employees of a bank preparing to head off for a long weekend as the Easter holidays have arrived. Across the street, in a van, three men  – Griff (Derren Nesbitt) along with brothers Len (Keith Faulkner) and Alec (Morgan Sheppard) – watch and wait for the manager to be left alone inside. These guys have a little larceny in mind and think they’ve got all bases covered, all the angles figured out. But the manager, Spencer (Colin Gordon), staying a little later than usual and keeping one of the staff , Miss Taylor (Ann Lynn), to help him has a knock-on effect.  It throws the calculations of our would-be master criminals out of kilter and leads to an unexpected situation. In order to avoid detection or the alarm being raised prematurely, the robbers rashly decide to lock the manager and his helper in the vault and make good their escape. It’s only afterwards that they start to think of the consequences of their actions – the air supply in the strongroom is finite and unless they want a murder charge hanging over them, they’ll have to figure out some way to ensure the captives are released without betraying themselves. And this is where the aforementioned suspense kicks in; one piece of ill-fortune follows another as the plans slowly unravel and the chances of freeing the pair diminish as rapidly as the oxygen they so desperately crave.

Strongroom was brought to the screen via the writing of Max Marquis and the prolific Richard Harris. While there are definitely holes in the plot, some big enough to drive a large truck straight through, the peril of the central situation is such that they can be glossed over. It helps too that there’s so much happening at every point that there’s not a lot of time available to spend on analysis of some of the implausibilities. The robbery itself is well realized and neatly executed, but the real interest, the meat on the bones of this movie, only arises once the bank has been raided. Essentially, there are four interconnected strands which vie for the viewer’s attention throughout. The growing sense of panic is seen from two separate angles, that of the manager and his assistant trapped in the vault and slowly coming to terms with the very real possibility that they’re not going to be rescued, and also that of the thieves who find their ideas for freeing the captives foiled by one bad break after another. Therein we have the restricted, claustrophobic core of the movie, and out of that springs another of the plot threads. The relationship which develops between Spencer and Miss Taylor gives the whole thing its heart; by showing the endangered pair to be real, likeable people who only now appreciate what life has to offer, and how much they have taken it for granted, the suspense actually means something and the tension and drama take on a human face. Alongside all of this is the plodding procedure of the police which is methodically going about its business and inching ever closer to the guilt-stricken criminals. So, plenty going on, most of it absorbing, and all in the space of an hour and a quarter.

There’s been plenty of discussion on this site recently on the subject of directors and how they and their work are received. We’ve spoken of auteurs, of the overrated and the underrated, and for the most part we’ve concentrated on those filmmakers working in Hollywood. As such, it’s no bad thing to look at a British example here. Vernon Sewell had a long directing career, stretching back to the 30s, and Strongroom came in the latter stages of it. I’ve had the opportunity to see a fair bit of his work now and I have to say it’s generally entertaining – low budget but very solid and with some nice stylistic touches from time to time.

There are no big names in the cast of Strongroom although seasoned movie fans, especially those with any interest in the British B variety will recognize Derren Nesbitt and Colin Gordon. Nesbitt tended to be cast as a villain quite a lot, usually in fairly straightforward roles. This time he’s given more to do and I found him quite engaging as the de facto leader of the gang whose naturally cockiness is gradually chipped away at by his own conscience, his awareness of and need to put right what he realizes is a dreadful wrong placing him in jeopardy. His chief partner in crime is Keith Faulkner, all cold blood and callousness sitting dangerously alongside an explosive and volatile temperament. Colin Gordon was one of those faces you always see in British cinema and he is excellent as the buttoned up banker who finds himself reconnecting with his real self, his humanity even, when faced with death. It’s the scenes in the vault, when Gordon and Ann Lynn open up to each other and reveal a different side to themselves, that elevate the movie to something more memorable than the run of the mill thriller it was probably intended to be.

Strongroom was released on DVD in the UK some years ago by Odeon, although it looks like it might now have slipped out of print. That disc presents the movie in 4:3 Academy ratio, which seems an unlikely choice for a film released in 1962 and is probably open-matte. The image is nothing special, quite soft in places and the contrast is ramped up higher than is necessary. However, even if the picture quality is variable, it doesn’t matter all that much as the movie itself is riveting enough to make such concerns fade as you watch the story unfold. I found this to be a very effective crime/suspense picture, something of a low budget gem and I suggest anyone who hasn’t seen it should keep an eye out for it – there’s lots to take away from this one and very little that is likely to disappoint.

Madigan

A little like the western, the crime story has remained one of the constants of genre filmmaking down the years. Any story which involves elements of crime has plenty of drama built-in so it’s only natural that cinema should take advantage of that.  The western had long been the dominant  genre in both cinema and TV until its gradual decline in popularity began in the mid-60s, and it was at that point that the crime yarn started to edge its nose in front. The detective/cop thriller really came into its own in the 1970s on the big and small screen. Madigan (1968) was one of those pictures which played a significant part in the flowering of the genre at that time, even inspiring its own, short-lived, television series a few years later.

Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) is a New York detective, a veteran with a variable reputation. It could be said that his superiors regard him with a mixture of respect and suspicion. He has a distinguished record on the job but also the kind of casual attitude towards rules and regulations that rubs some up the wrong way. One of those is Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda), the dry, straight arrow who has to try to juggle his police background with the political demands of his position. The ambivalence of Russell is borne out by the punchy opening section which sees Madigan and his partner, Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), screw up what ought to have been a routine bust. The upshot is a dangerous suspect manages not only to elude arrest, but also relieves the two bulls of their service revolvers. This sets up the situation which dominates the rest of the film: the search for the dangerous fugitive and the consequent pressure placed on the shoulders of Madigan and Bonaro to atone for their initial carelessness before matters deteriorate further. Allied to this is the personal stress experienced by both Madigan and Russell, in the case of the former due to strained relations with his wife (Inger Stevens) while the latter finds his almost puritanical approach to life tested by the actions of colleague and childhood friend Chief Inspector Kane (James Whitmore).

One of the regular visitors and contributors to this site (you’ll know who you are) just recently remarked that he doesn’t see himself as one who subscribes to the auteur theory of filmmaking, and also cited Don Siegel as one of his favorite directors, comments which provided me with food for thought. In the past I was reluctant to embrace the notion of the auteur, feeling that it was largely an affectation of the more academic critics and too pat to be applied to so collaborative a task as making movies. Another of our regulars (who will probably recognize himself too) challenged me on this position and made me wonder if perhaps my own interpretation wasn’t too narrow. To cut a potentially long story short, I found myself reassessing my view and coming to the conclusion that the notion of the auteur in cinema needn’t necessarily be a restrictive one. I’m more comfortable now with the term in a broader sense, both in the way it’s used and the people it may be applied to. In short, I think Don Siegel can be referred to as an auteur.

A director such as Siegel is a product of the studio system, working his way up through the ranks and honing his talents in a variety of roles on a range of genre pieces. As I said, I’ve moved away from thinking of an auteur as some domineering presence impressing his vision relentlessly on the films he works on. Instead, I’ve come round to the idea of the auteur as the most influential member of the creative assemblage, someone whose distinctive mark can be discerned on the finished piece. And I think this can be said of Don Siegel; it’s common to consider him primarily as an action director but there’s usually something of himself, or at least his interests, on view in his films. It’s difficult not to be aware of his examination of authority and authority figures throughout his career, and Madigan is no exception.

Siegel’s touch is visible enough to me, and he’s helped in leaving it there by the talents of accomplished cameraman Russell Metty, the writing of Abraham Polonsky and Howard Rodman, and a cool lounge score by Don Costa. While those individuals were all busy pooling their abilities to achieve the best results possible, it appears producer Frank Rosenberg’s contribution was less welcome. On the other side of the camera, both Widmark and Fonda gave the kind of coolly assured performances one would expect of actors with their experience and talent. Widmark’s trademark air of ambiguity is a good fit for the detective who treads the fine line of legality with the sure-footedness of a tightrope walker. Similarly, Fonda does stiff and prissy very well, and it’s all the more effective when the audience is aware  both of his internal conflicts and the hypocrisy of his overt moralizing. Inger Stevens had the meatiest of the female roles (although Susan Clark and Sheree North had parts of note too) and runs with it, getting across her dissatisfaction and frustration very successfully. In support, there’s uniformly good work done by Harry Guardino, Steve Ihnat, James Whitmore and Don Stroud.

Madigan has been available on DVD from Universal for a good few years now. The UK release I own presents the movie in anamorphic scope and uses a good print. Colors are strong and there’s good detail in the image. Additionally, there is no noticeable damage on view. Sadly, there aren’t any extra features offered, but I guess the film is the main thing and it does look very nice. I’ve always been a fan of detective/cop thrillers, regardless of whether they’re films, television shows or stories on the printed page, and Madigan is a prime example of good they can be. It’s tough, pacy, entertaining and has enough human interest to raise it above more mundane, one-dimensional fare. All told, it’s a polished piece of work from a top director, cast and crew. Recommended.

Firecreek

Somewhere in the mid-60s the western began to be less attractive, both in terms of the look and the mood. It’s something which seemed to creep into the genre gradually as the decade wore on. You could even say it made occasional forays before retreating again, but it seemed to visit more frequently and stay a little longer each time. What I’m speaking about here is difficult to put my finger on exactly; it’s got to do with images which haven’t got quite the snap that was once the case, and an attitude of weariness and melancholy. Firecreek (1968) comes close to encapsulating the point I suppose I’m trying to make here – not a bad film by any means, but not an especially attractive one either.

Firecreek is a quiet town, a place where nothing all that important happens and people just go about their daily business without much serious worry. And yet it’s a place lacking something else, something vital whose absence is soon to be highlighted by the arrival of a handful of men. Larkin (Henry Fonda) is gunman, an enforcer for hire who has spent his life roaming the frontier plying his trade, and that of the ragtag bunch of followers he attracts, in the service of the highest bidder. A gunshot wound, the need to rest up and the suggestion of pursuit by unnamed figures has brought him and his men to Firecreek. And it’s here that they run into Johnny Cobb (James Stewart), farmer and family man, and part-time sheriff if or when the need arises. Cobb displays none of the characteristics or indeed the trappings one might normally associate with a lawman, and when this role is eventually revealed it represents as much a surprise to Larkin’s band of toughs as it does to the viewer. These new arrivals profess no interest in hanging around any longer than is necessary while Cobb, and indeed virtually the entire population, takes the view that confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. However, any place where drink is available as well as the presence of that other genuine rarity on the frontier, women, trouble has a habit of turning up too. When violence does burst onto the scene and shatters the tranquility of Firecreek, Cobb in particular finds himself driven towards confrontation. On the surface, he’s forced to face off against the men who have threatened the security of his town, but it’s really a challenge posed by the passive mood of the settlement itself and the withdrawal from life he’s been hitherto happy to embrace.

Firecreek was directed by Vincent McEveety, a man who worked extensively on television (most notably on Gunsmoke) but whose work I’m not very familiar with. Personally, I found the pacing of the movie a bit too leisurely, taking a long time to set up the central situation and then slacking off again before racing towards the resolution. The idea of a group of dangerous men resting up in a small and isolated settlement, while their leader tries to recuperate, and subsequently causing mayhem recalls de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw in some respects. However, Firecreek never reaches those dramatic heights, nor does it have the tight focus of that picture. Aside from the community in peril aspect, it attempts to blend in too many other themes and thus weighs itself down. The main ideas seems to be that of a town which has become a kind of repository for those who have lost their way or lost their nerve in life, a sort of limbo state on the western frontier. That’s an interesting enough concept, the antithesis of the thrusting pioneer spirit typically portrayed in the genre, but it’s introduced late in the day and the back stories of the characters are sketched too lightly to bear it out successfully. Alongside this there are allusions to the conflict between civic duty and one’s responsibilities to family, questions about race and miscegenation, and a whole range of powerful emotions from desire and jealousy through loss and bitterness – yet none of them feel all that fully developed. In addition to all this, much of the plot unfolds within the drab confines of the town and there’s therefore limited scope for cinematographer William H Clothier to show off his unquestioned skills behind the camera.

Fonda and Stewart were big names in cinema and both had their fair share of important westerns behind them, each having worked with the likes of Ford and Mann in the past. Stewart got the meatier role, one which afforded him the chance to progress from his characteristic down-home humility to something approaching the emotional pain Mann so expertly coaxed from him. Although the transformation his character undergoes in the third act doesn’t reach the intensity of those tortured souls he gave us in the previous decade there’s still a touch of that inner rage and frustration he was so adept at tapping into. Fonda’s villain is one of those men who senses the end of the line nearing, a throwback to wilder days who sees he’s fast becoming an anachronism yet can’t envision himself doing anything else. The supporting cast is impressive even though some of the members aren’t used as effectively as they might have been. Of the women, Inger Stevens has the most to do and gets to play a decisive part in the final resolution. Conversely, Barbara Luna and an exceptionally sour Louise Latham play potentially interesting characters whose backgrounds are never fully explored. Gary Lockwood makes for an extraordinarily dangerous henchman with a tinderbox temperament and James Best nails both callous and dumb. As is so often the case, Jack Elam is more or less wasted as the senior member of Fonda’s gang but he’s always a pleasure to watch all the same. With the likes of Dean Jagger, John Qualen, Ed Begley and Jay C Flippen all contributing turns of varying significance, it shouldn’t be hard to appreciate the depth of talent involved in this movie.

Firecreek was released on DVD in the US many years ago, on a disc which has The Cheyenne Social Club on the flip side, by Warner Brothers. The scope image is presented anamorphically and looks fine for the most part. Colors look reasonable to my eye but, as I said at the beginning, it’s not what I’d term a handsome looking movie. The only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. Despite the excellent cast and a plot that offers plenty to mull over, I can’t say I like this movie a lot. The tone, look and central message are all downbeat, and relentlessly so. Films of this era can, at times, leave me with that vaguely dissatisfied feeling. I have a hunch that filmmakers then were striving to achieve what they hoped would be another layer of realism but it’s possible to lose some of that magical and almost indefinable quality that can make cinema such an alluring form of art and entertainment. All told, Firecreek is a film which doesn’t quite work for me – others may react differently of course.

Apache Rifles

One of the great pleasures of blogging about movies is the way it has a habit of altering one’s plans in a positive way. Recent discussion put me in the mood to watch more William Witney, and the always fascinating tangential comments mentioned Audie Murphy and one of his films I hadn’t gotten round to. Apache Rifles (1964) is a film I’ve had sitting unwatched on my shelves for a while now and it’s one of the later films of both Witney and Murphy and has the added appeal, for me at least, of fitting into that transitional era for the western that has always interested me. The timing, casting and style are all noteworthy in any examination of this period of film history, and the picture itself is a tight and entertaining affair.

This highly fictionalized account sees Apache chief Victorio (Joseph Vitale) break out of the San Carlos reservation in protest at, among other things, the exploitation of the land and breaking of the treaties by unscrupulous gold miners. And so the hunt is on to bring these miscreants back, in this case led by a Captain Stanton (Audie Murphy), a soldier whose driven and implacable reputation precedes him, both among the troops under his command and the Apache he’s pursuing. Reputations are invariably won, and on occasion lost, for a reason; with Stanton, it all stems from his past and what he believes was his father’s misplaced trust in the word of the Indian. Embittered and determined not be played for a sucker in the same way, Stanton has taken a different path to his forebear and fully embraced his hatred for his enemy. In his eyes, the Apache is essentially sub-human, little more than an animal to be brought to heel by whatever means are necessary. Yet just as he achieves success in persuading Victorio to return to San Carlos, the seeds of self-doubt are sown by his encounter with Dawn Gillis (Linda Lawson), a missionary who has opted to live among the despised Apache. What’s worse, from Stanton’s point of view, is the attraction he feels towards this woman, especially in view of the fact she’s of mixed blood with a Comanche mother. Here we have the basis for an internal conflict, one that’s exacerbated by the unexpected shift in circumstances which takes place. At the precise moment when this unapologetic racist is on the point of questioning his own prejudice the carpet is whipped from beneath him. As ever, economic considerations influence political direction and Stanton finds himself pitched into something of a moral and emotional quandary.  Stripped of his command, he can only look on as the scene is set for a bloody conflict between the wronged Apache and the manipulated cavalry, with his own moral and emotional well-being at stake.

Apache Rifles was made at the same time Sergio Leone was turning out A Fistful of Dollars and only a year before Sam Peckinpah would give us Major Dundee. In short, the western genre was in a state of flux at this point, and here we have a movie which is a reflection of that. The central theme of a man coming to terms with his own preconceptions and the reassessment of White/Indian relations harks back to the golden age of the 50s, while the tone and casting straddles the divide. As the 60s progressed, and the spaghetti western gained an ever stronger foothold on the consciousness of the audience, cynicism and a more casual attitude to violence would take root. Apache Rifles isn’t a cynical picture yet there’s a certain bitterness on show that presages what was looming over the horizon. Witney was an action director, an advocate of pace and punch, and there’s a frankness to his depiction of violence that would be built upon (or some might argue exploited) in the years to come. While there’s no explicit gore on display, there’s an acceptance of cruelty – a crucifixion and the torture of an a captive Apache. The film is by no means graphic compared to what would be the case in the future but there is a hard edge to it all the same. The location shooting, in Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine, similarly recalls the classics of the 50s while simultaneously grounding it in realism.

All of which lead us on to the casting. Once again, there’s that sense of transition, particularly with the presence of Audie Murphy and L Q Jones. It’s impossible to think of Murphy without recalling the 50s, his wholesome persona fitting neatly into that more hopeful and optimistic time. But Murphy was far from simplistic, his war record and increasingly complex performances being proof of that. Given the right material, he was capable of the kind of brooding moodiness that grabs the attention. I think he was a fine actor who grew in stature with each successive picture, bringing a kind of coiled self-awareness to his roles. Taking the part of the principal villain is L Q Jones, a man who had already worked with Boetticher and Scott in Buchanan Rides Alone but who would go on to achieve greater fame in his films with Sam Peckinpah. His is a marvelously weaselly part, one with no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s also worth mentioning Michael Dante, who plays Victorio’s son and heir, a stoic and honorable figure throughout if perhaps a little too noble.

Apache Rifles is readily available on DVD, both in the US and the UK. The US edition comes via VCI – I imagine the Odeon UK disc replicates the transfer – and presents the film in its native 1.85:1 ratio. Overall, this is a good presentation of the film that is colorful and free of major distractions and damage. Happily, there are some worthwhile extra features included: there’s a gallery and trailers for some other VCI titles as well as some short featurettes. There are brief pieces on the Lone Pine museum and Michael Dante discussing his work with Witney, and then a more substantial piece on the position Apache Rifles occupies in the evolution of the genre. The latter includes some interesting information on the cast and crew of the movie. All told, this is an entertaining film, one of the last of what might be called the classic westerns. It’s certainly worth a look for anyone keen on the genre and the direction it was taking in the 1960s.