Pillars of the Sky

Over the years there has been a good deal of ill-informed, and one might even say uninformed, material written and spoken about the classic western, and the depiction and treatment of the Native American Indian has arguably attracted the lion’s share of this negative commentary. That’s perhaps a slightly blunt way to open a post but it does rankle some to see unjustified assessments go unchallenged, not least because it contributes to critical neglect of the genre and a subsequent lack of appreciation and/or interest among potential viewers. Today, it feels as though we are increasingly living in a world of absolutes, one of stark blacks and whites where the very idea of nuance or shading is either dismissed outright or mercilessly lampooned. I suppose that one of the aspects that regularly draws me back to the classic 1950s version of the western is both the ease and the courage with which so many productions navigated moral, and historical complexities. Pillars of the Sky (1956) is an interesting entry in the decade’s Indian cycle,  one which adds religion and its influence on the conflict on the frontier into the blend.

It’s Oregon a few years after the end of the Civil War, and First Sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler) is responsible for patrolling the reservation in tandem with his Nez Perce scouts. The general direction of the tale is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a few westerns from this era. Treaties will be compromised in the name of progress, trust betrayed in the name of expediency, and conflict stoked up off the back of misunderstandings. Still, before the storm comes the calm, represented by the peace efforts of missionary Dr Joseph Holden (Ward Bond). Holden is one of life’s true believers, a man who seeks to bring civilization and all the benefits he associates with his religion to the varied tribes sharing the reservation. Bell presents a more pragmatic face but one which is no less sincere or well-meaning for that. The arrival of the new commanding officer with with orders to supervise the construction and policing of a road through the territory spells trouble. For the army these are orders that have to be executed, for the Indian they are evidence of further hollow promises – whatever the perspective, the end result will be a fight nobody really wants yet one nobody really knows how to avoid either.

Adapted from a Will Henry story, Pillars of the Sky is a typically mature piece of work, eschewing any temptation to paint in broad brush strokes and present the viewer with a simplistic heroes and villains stand-off. As is the case in so many conflicts, there are no clearly delineated good or bad guys, just people manipulated by circumstances and personal loyalties into a situation that can all too easily slide out of control. What sets this production apart from other thoughtful appraisals of the frontier wars is the prominence afforded to the religious aspect. Now some may find this overdone, and I can imagine that accusations of excessive piety might be leveled. Personally, I’m not sure that it has to be approached in that way – the theme here relates to co-existence as far as I can see. Digging a little deeper, it deals with the idea of reaching an accommodation, and on a number of levels. There is of course the wider accommodation being sought between two competing civilizations and cultures, while a range of smaller and more personal examples are to be determined among the characters.

Let’s look at some of those characters then. Firstly, Jeff Chandler’s hard-bitten Sergeant Bell is man having to come to terms with a number of changes and challenges in his life. He has gone from being a Civil War officer to a peacetime non-commissioned man, leading to some amusing confusion for a young lieutenant who served under him in the past and still finds himself saying “Sir” to the man he’s now giving orders to. Bell’s struggle is dual one: he must reconcile his humanitarian instincts with the prickly toughness his years of hard experience have brought about while at the same time assessing his feelings towards a woman he loved and then apparently lost. That woman is Calla Gaxton (Dorothy Malone) and her own path is far from certain, having come west to make a final choice between her old flame Bell and her husband Captain Gaxton (Keith Andes). While this triangle is supposed to add another layer of drama to the story, it ends up as one of the weaknesses for me, with Malone underused and the competition between Chandler and Andes proving something of a damp squib alongside the genuine explosiveness of the main plot strand.

Ward Bond’s missionary offers  him a good role, allowing him to indulge in some larger than life bluster while displaying an equal measure of compassion. And there you have the conflict faced by his character – how best to apply his Christian principles to circumstances and an environment inherently hostile to such ideals. When it comes to portrayals of army brass, it’s common to see inflexible martinets blindly provoking violence yet Pillars of the Sky offers a welcome way around that tired cliché by having Willis Bouchey play an officer who is aware of his own fallibility. Lee Marvin adds another colorful supporting role to his CV as a characteristically hard drinking Irish sergeant. There’s a good deal of broad comedy in his part but plenty of pathos too in his later scenes in the aftermath of the big Indian attack. On the other side of the battle lines, Michael Ansara gives good value as the warrior Kamiakin who has firmly rejected the missionary teachings and contrasts nicely with Sydney Chaplin’s devout and devoted scout.

George Marshall might be best known for making the classic Destry Rides Again – mind you, I’d argue that his own remake of that film Destry in 1954 runs it very close. His long career covered most genres and he made a handful of other notable westerns in the 1950s in The Sheepman and The Guns of Fort Petticoat. I’d rate this among his better movies, for the rich and less common theme and the superb visuals too. CinemaScope westerns are attractive as a rule and the the shooting of the Oregon locations, with the help of cinematographer Harold Lipstein, is quite breathtaking at times, managing to recall Frederic Remington paintings in some shots.

Pillars of the Sky has been released on DVD in a variety of territories over the years and I suspect the same master will have been used for all of those. Universal International productions have a distinctive look and as viewers we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy so many of these via excellent prints and transfers. I have the German release of this movie from Koch and it looks very fine with a sharp, detailed and colorful image. In brief, this is a strong western, and another that has not received its full due, perhaps in part because of the reasons I alluded to in the introduction above. So, if anyone who is keen on westerns has yet to see this one, I recommend they look into it – it has action, drama, visual splendor and intelligence. Check it out.

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Spin a Dark Web

How essential is the femme fatale in film noir? Sure her presence is one of the characteristics you will hear mentioned time and again should  you ask people to check off a list of the necessary ingredients. But is this presence or absence actually integral, and does it define the style? I’m inclined to think no, I’ve seen plenty of undoubted films noir where this character didn’t appear and I don’t feel their dark credentials were diminished as a consequence. On the other hand, the question represents an itch I get the urge to scratch every so often, especially after watching a movie like Spin a Dark Web (1956), where there is an explicit femme fatale whose malign influence drives the plot.

Whatever else one might say about film noir it certainly requires what might be termed the fall guy, someone who manages to get himself involved in a complex and perilous situation. Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) fits that particular bill here, a Canadian living in post-war London, hanging around the fringes of the fight game and keen to pick up some easy money fast. He’s casually attached to a fight trainer’s daughter, Betty (Rona Anderson), but is restless and hungry for cash, restless enough to drop her if the rewards are appealing enough. Looking up an old friend leads to a encounter with gangster Rico Francesi (Martin Benson) and his predatory sister Bella (Faith Domergue). What follows won’t create too many surprises – Bankley is drawn by the glamor of the rackets and Bella is only to happy to lure him ever deeper into her web. As ever, while the profits of the racketeering and the attentions of the dangerously seductive Sicilian prove attractive, there will be a moment of truth, an occurrence which will bring home to our anti-hero the sourness at the back of it all. And that’s when the real danger kicks in…

I don’t suppose many people will be queuing up to sing the praises of director Vernon Sewell but the fact is I’ve become very fond of his work. He made a series of short and tightly paced movies throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s which are, based on the evidence of those I’ve seen so far, very entertaining and occasionally stylish too. Spin a Dark Web is, as I’ve acknowledged, a standard gangster yarn. Nevertheless, the extensive location shooting, much of which is done in a deliberately impersonal documentary style, adds a grittiness to the movie. Additionally, the planning and execution of the complicated racing sting that fleshes out the middle section of the film is well done and highly absorbing. Throw in a number of tough action set pieces and we’re looking at a solid little noir thriller.

Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) is the Hollywood star handed top billing in Spin a Dark Web, and the full-on femme fatale referred to at the top of this piece. She’s the kind of actress I can take or leave, largely dependent on the role she was asked to play. The role of Bella is one that works well in that it uses her cold passion to its best advantage. I think she possessed a detached chilliness and that’s ideal for the part of the self-absorbed and psychopathic woman. Those traits are ideal in the femme fatale, and it’s her conscience-free ruthlessness that makes this film succeed. So, can I answer the question I posed for myself? I’m going to hedge it by saying the femme fatale is essential here; without her deadly allure the fall guy or patsy is rendered meaningless and the film is stripped of much of its potency.

Balance is always important so a counterweight to the femme fatale in the shape of a Girl Friday figure is usually desirable, and it’s hard to think of the better choice for such a part in 1950s British cinema than Rona Anderson. She has the natural grace and charm to offset the driving aggression of Domergue, the selflessness to highlight the hollow appeal of the villainess. What would the British crime film be without Lee Patterson? I liked his work on The Flying Scot when I viewed it a few years ago and Spin a Dark Web again sees him turning in one of those typically dependable performances in a shady, semi-heroic part. I’m not sure I’ve seen much of Robert Arden beyond his central role in Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. He has the kind of hulking amiability about him that lends itself well to sidekick or best friend types, and just enough edginess to carry the notion of a man comfortable on the shadowy side of the street. Martin Benson is fine as the chief gangster, although he does stray close to caricature on a few occasions. Finally, there’s good support from familiar character actors Sam Kydd and Bernard Fox.

Spin a Dark Web has been released on DVD in the US by Sony as part of their MOD line. The disc only carries the movie and the trailer but it looks strong and is presented in an attractive 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The film has also been put out in the just released Noir Archive Vol. 2 on Blu-ray, a set I may well pick up as it contains a number of other interesting sounding films I don’t already have. All in all, I found this an excellent British film noir, well acted and directed and coming in at a snappy hour and a quarter.

The Ride Back

I’ve never been a success at anything I tried to do. Anything I ever tried to do ever, failed. I’ve been a failure and that’s all, a plain old failure. But I’m not going to be this time. I’m going to make this one. I’m going to do this right!

That quotation comes late on in proceedings, uttered reluctantly and somewhat desperately by a man goaded into justifying his actions, the result of baiting of one form or another he’s probably struggled with all his life. Most visitors here will know my fondness for small productions and the reasons for that, not the least of which is the opportunity for experiencing the good old heartfelt reactions and observations one can often find in such modest films. The pared down quality leaves little room for the extraneous; when every word and shot has to count, then the odds are we’re going to see something which presents moral conundrums and human truths in a frank and candid way. The Ride Back (1957) is such a film.

Restrictions tend to stimulate creativity, knowing what you can’t do being a powerful way of forcing one to focus on what can be done. The Ride Back opens with men walking into a barber shop, armed men who mean business. Rather than prosaically show what they say and do and how their presence is greeted, the filmmakers cleverly cut to two little boys playing in the street at the same time. As the adults enter the shop the boys emerge from an alley, one escorting the other with a “gun” fashioned from a branch. As the prisoner bolts his captor raises his weapon, and then the deafening crash of real and deadly gunfire drags the attention back to the world of grown-up violence. A man launches himself out into the street, discarding soap and towels as he flees. This person making a bid for freedom is Roberto “Bob” Kallen (Anthony Quinn), and his flight will carry him  across the border into Mexico where half of his bloodline hails from. Where there is a fugitive from the law there  must necessarily be a pursuer. In this case it’s a lone figure; Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.

The small scale of the production here points clearly to the limited budget involved. There are many of the characteristics of a television piece visible in the tiny cast and the overall feeling of spareness. Writer Antony Ellis and director Allen H Miner (although I’ve seen claims he didn’t actually have the reins all the time) did almost all of their work for the small screen. Now this isn’t meant as any criticism, I’m merely noting that you do get the sense that the whole thing was made by people who were familiar with working to a tight schedule and all the discipline that was required in such circumstances. The story is pacy and the focus never wavers, building the relationship between Kallen and Hamish in a believable way. The enmity and mutual distrust is well handled and grows into a mature understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as the titular ride back throws up a number of challenges that will force both men to confront their own motivations. The movie benefits hugely from the skill and artistry of cinematographer Joseph F Biroc, his shooting of both the interiors and exteriors shows his mastery of lighting, and some clever use of angles emphasizes either space or confinement according to the needs of any given scene. And of course, for fans of western movie theme songs, there is one of those memorable narrative efforts delivered by Eddie Albert to open and close the film.

Anthony Quinn’s part as a half-Mexican gunman must have been a breeze for him, which is not a suggestion that he put any less into his role. No, I mean that there was a “big” quality to the man, a grandness that he seemed to turn on effortlessly and which was ideally suited to this kind of flamboyant and romantic character, something he seemed able to dial up or dial down at will. He’s very good as the sympathetic fugitive, interacting naturally and effectively with both his passionate peasant lover Lita Milan (The Violent Men) and also with Ellen Hope Monroe, the tiny and silent survivor of an Apache massacre.

William Conrad served as both producer and actor on The Ride Back, which I think indicates his level of interest in the project. Quinn played the showier and more eye-catching part, but Conrad’s sheriff is the more interesting character. Both men are headed for a form of personal redemption and both achieve this by the end, conquering distrust of others and distrust of oneself respectively. Conrad nailed the insecurity of his underachieving lawman perfectly, exercising caution at every turn and testing the ground suspiciously before every step. Such was the honesty of his wariness and self-doubt that I found the climactic scenes, where he essentially attains what he’s longed for so deeply by a circuitous and oblique route, genuinely moving. A fine performance.

The Ride Back was released on DVD in the US many years ago by MGM. The 1.33:1 ratio (once again) sounds unusual for a 1957 movie but it looks good overall and, in a way, fits the television vibe surrounding the production. Biroc’s black and white cinematography is nicely reproduced and I wasn’t aware of any major print damage at any stage during my most recent watch. This is by no means a major western and never aspires to be. What it is, on the other hand, is a spare, character-driven piece of storytelling, a virtual two-hander where two very good actors play off each other in an expert fashion and draw in the viewer with the candor of their work. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should try to catch up with it as soon as possible.

Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.

Four Guns to the Border

Generic and predictable – aren’t those terms we’ve all seen tossed casually and in derogatory fashion towards westerns before? Yet generic is no sort of criticism at all, in my opinion. Almost all films, and certainly the more interesting and rewarding ones, belong to some genre or other. Using the word generic is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that certain tropes and trappings are present, and thus should not be construed as some negative feature. Which brings me to “predictable”, and few genres have within them the range and variety of the classic western. So whenever someone presents you with bland labels such as those above, I’d urge caution and encourage everyone to see for themselves and make up their own minds. Now all of this is, I’ll grant, a rather long-winded way of telling readers that Four Guns to the Border (1954) is film which proudly wears its genre badges and also tells a story that flirts with familiarity but tramps off determinedly down its own distinctive path.

The story follows the four men of the title, a gang led by Cully (Rory Calhoun) and comprised of an aging outlaw Dutch (John McIntire), an Indian by the name of Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) and a comically awkward young man called Bronco (George Nader). This group is first seen carrying out a robbery, but an unsuccessful one where their efforts are for nothing as the safe they blow turns out to be empty. And so they move on, crossing the path of an old gunfighter Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller). This is the key event, for even as they separate, the Bhumers on the way to their home and Cully’s companions to a new job, the seeds of a powerful attraction have been planted. When Cully is offered the chance to rob the apparently ultra-secure bank in Cholla and simultaneously humiliate the town lawman Flannery (Charles Drake),  his one time friend and rival in love, he grabs it enthusiastically. In a sense though, all of this is incidental to where the plot is leading – a series of showdowns that bring out the humanity in all of the main players, altering their perspectives on life and their role in the scheme of things. Ultimately, it all winds up in place that is hard to foresee from the beginning, but the journey there and the spiritual growth and renewal that this provokes are not only highly entertaining but also, vitally, hugely rewarding.

Four Guns to the Border was adapted from a Louis L’Amour story (one that I can’t recall whether or not I’ve read) and directed by Richard Carlson. He’ll be forever remembered, and rightly so, for his acting roles in Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space among others, but he was a fine director when he turned his talents in that direction and would make another interesting western with Calhoun a few years later in The Saga of Hemp Brown. Clearly, he liked L’Amour’s writing for he would go on to direct another adaptation of the author’s work a decade later when he made Kid Rodelo. He paces the movie beautifully here, neatly drawing together the strands of a moderately complex affair in a brisk one hour and twenty minutes. The shooting is a blend of interiors and location work, including the Iverson Ranch, and it looks very impressive at all times. The attractive overall look of the production becomes quite beautiful on occasion in the hands of master cinematographer Russell Metty; his rendering of the storm is dreamlike and borders on the fantastic. Still, this is quite appropriate considering that what we’re presented with here is essentially a fable, an uplifting love story where the classic redemption motif is not simply applied but celebrated.

Calhoun is on top form as Cully, sore and surly to begin with, nursing a grudge and holding any finer feelings at a definite distance. If ever a character was in need of a form of spiritual salvation, it’s Cully. When he runs across Colleen Miller’s wide-eyed ingenue, the spark is immediately apparent. Sure Calhoun is a good western lead, as he proved time and again in his career, but Miller’s interaction with him, her infectious and innocent sensuality, is what elevates it all. Although Miller only made a small number of films before retiring early, her screen presence is quite remarkable, and I feel Four Guns to the Border would have been a far poorer and much more routine affair had she not been cast.

Classic westerns were frequently distinguished by the strength in depth of their casting and that was certainly true of Universal-International productions, where a seemingly inexhaustible pool of exceptionally fine character actors was available. Four Guns to the Border benefits greatly from having performers of the caliber of Walter Brennan and John McIntire competing with and complementing each other as authentic frontier types. George Nader and Jay Silverheels provide some gentle humor and the former is quite affecting in his clumsiness. I think it’s fair to say that any movie which can afford to have the likes of Charles Drake and Nina Foch in small to medium supporting roles is a rich one indeed. In fact, a brief glance at the names mentioned in this short paragraph ought to provide ample evidence of the kind of quality that is on view.

Four Guns to the Border is widely available on DVD, at least in Europe where it has been released in the UK, Spain and France. I’ve had the Spanish disc for some time now and I imagine all those versions are taken from the same source. The print is in fine condition with little damage and the Technicolor cinematography looks quite spectacular at times. Thematically, this is one of the classic 1950s Hollywood westerns, a tightly handled production blending action and characterization but placing more emphasis on the latter. There’s a maturity on show in the way the script examines relationships and the twists and turns taken on the journey through life. This is a finely crafted and deeply satisfying film, one I’d urge everyone who is keen on cinema to take the opportunity to view.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

Graft and gangsters on the waterfront probably evoke thoughts of Brando, Kazan et al, but there was more than one movie to make use of that particular milieu. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), while naturally incorporating  some social commentary, follows the template of a more traditional crime story. To add some further confusion the title is borrowed from Richard Rodgers’ ballet. The film features the composer’s music throughout but it has no direct connection to the on screen events; one could perhaps make a case for both having something to say about the pernicious and tragic effects of crime and poverty on the lives of the underprivileged, but I”m not convinced it’s worth heading too far down that route. No, this is essentially a solid crime/noir exposé that sits comfortably alongside, and actually a few notches above, a number of other 1950s  productions which looked at how deeply the gangs and racketeers had embedded themselves in post-war society.

The opening is businesslike, shot impersonally from above,  as a car purposefully makes its way  through the streets of New York, on its way to a killing. While we don’t get the stentorian narration that frequently accompanied these socially aware noir pictures, there is a matter of fact feel to the way a grubby little hit is treated as just another part of the daily routine, another minor affair to tick off the agenda before the day begins in earnest. As Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) lies, bleeding his guts out on a  tenement staircase, and his distraught wife Madge (Jan Sterling) tries to comfort him, the gunmen responsible melt away as unobtrusively as an early morning mist.

Enter Bill Keating (Richard Egan), an inexperienced assistant D.A. and a two-fisted product of the coal mining country of Pennsylvania. He’s full of vim and vigor, and the kind of righteous faith in justice that the audience must know will be sorely tested before the credits finally roll. His principal police contact is Lieutenant Vosnick (Charles McGraw), an insider in a neighborhood and beat where Keating is most assuredly an outsider, and something of a tarnished knight whose gritty manner acts as a thin veil for the principles to which he remains true. These two form an idealistic bond, the goal of which is to break the power of the mobsters and their corrosive hold over the blue collar dockworkers, and the means will be the prosecution of those who came to visit Solly Pitts in the early morning.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was adapted from Keating’s own autobiography The Man Who Rocked the Boat, and directed by Arnold Laven. It rates as one of this filmmaker’s best efforts – part noir, part social justice picture, part melodrama, and completely human. Crime stories can sometimes distance themselves from the viewer, the plot twists seeming to relate to intangible “others” rather than to people like ourselves. However, the sense of empathy is never lost in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the characters feel real at all times, the major and minor tragedies touching on their lives perfectly believable.

I mentioned the brisk, no nonsense beginning already, and the courtroom scenes in the second half are also of note, never overcooked as can sometimes be the case. Then there is the ending, which has the courage and imagination to avoid any anti-climactic reaction from the principals. Instead, this is extraordinarily well realized, with the camera soaring in tandem with Rodgers’ music, panning out to reveal a now deserted dock as a bruised and disheveled Nick Dennis, the radio announcer’s news of the verdict still ringing in his ears, stumbles off towards a hopefully better future. In one hand he’s clutching a bottle of hooch, in the other the lawyer’s crammed briefcase; truth and justice side by side, as always.

One of the first things to grab the attention about Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is the cast – it’s deep and rich, a movie lover’s dream. Egan is top-billed, and he was very much a star property at this stage. He had the right kind of quiet brawn to suit the part of the white collar guy who still hasn’t put too much distance between himself and his working class roots. Julie Adams, who only recently passed away, makes the most of her limited role as his wife who sticks faithfully by him despite the growing pressures from friends and enemies alike. She has a couple of subtle yet telling scenes with sparse dialogue, not the least of which is the aftermath of the dockside brawl when she tenderly caresses Egan’s livid bruises. She doesn’t say a word but those simple gestures and looks convey all the character, and we the viewers, needs to know. It’s little things such as this that I find very cinematic, very discreet, and very effective. Charles McGraw is typically gruff, although atypically white-haired, and offers a reassuringly pugnacious presence.

Jan Sterling was highly skilled at playing the kind of slightly shop worn dames that were the staple of many a film noir, and she brings  that world weary quality to the part of the tough waterfront wife. One becomes accustomed to seeing Dan Duryea in either villainous or slippery roles. He only shows up after the hour mark and, while he is on the side of the villains here as the lead defense lawyer, he gets to play an essentially straight up figure who may wheedle but balks at outright cheating. The real bad egg is Walter Matthau, ruthless and malicious in his determination to  maintain control over the longshoremen. It’s a masterclass in the art of mean and a fine portrayal of the ugly side of corruption.

Sadly, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is yet another of those Universal-International films that nobody seems willing or able to release on disc. At the moment, one has to rely on catching the movie if it happens to show up on TV. I feel there is enough depth and quality in the story, direction and cast to warrant wider availability. Lesser works than this have been shown to have an audience so let’s hope somebody somewhere gets around to this neglected movie before too long.

Indian Uprising

So many things seem to be connected.  And once you move into the field of the arts, and particularly cinema, this becomes all the more noticeable. Film fans tend to spend a fair amount of time griping about the latest remake and indeed the fact that more and more of that species seem to be appearing. I can appreciate that; there is that sense of laziness, of creative stagnation, and sometimes the trepidation that accompanies news that some personal favorite is about to be reimagined. Still, it’s not a new phenomenon and has been happening for about as long as people have been making movies. All of which brings me to Indian Uprising (1952), a modest yet engaging cavalry western, which is hardly the type you’d think anyone would have been clamoring to redo. Nevertheless, the writing team behind this picture are the same people whose names you will find attached to the very similar Apache Rifles, directed by William Witney more than a decade later.

The plot here is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a handful of westerns, but that’s not to be taken as a criticism since it’s the execution of  a story that matters more than how high or low it’s positioned on the originality scale. It’s Arizona in the 1880s and Geronimo (Miguel Inclan) is still free and more than a few steps ahead of General Crook’s cavalry. We see events from the perspective of Captain McCloud (George Montgomery), and the opening has his troops luring a band of Apache into an ambush which leads to the capture of Geronimo’s son. A valuable captive such as this offers an opportunity to draw the elusive war chief to the negotiating table, and McCloud is both humane and canny enough not to overplay his hand, ultimately setting the boy free to demonstrate good faith. What follows is a process that has often been observed. The Apache strike a deal and keep to it, but other interests are keen to make as much money as possible from the newly tamed territory. As expected, plans are set in motion to stir up latent racial antagonism, political pressure is applied, and the flames of a new conflict are kindled for the sake of a tidy profit.

The later Apache Rifles would focus on a different war chief, Victorio, and add a few other elements to the mix but the essence of that film and of Indian Uprising is the question of trust and good faith. These are eternal themes, ones that have resonance in all aspects of human interaction but are especially potent in movies looking at the Indian wars. The message conveyed here is a progressive one but it’s realistic enough not to allow its hopefulness blind us to the facts. The integrity and good intentions of the lead remain intact by the end but the ultimate shabbiness of the government line and its dissembling opportunism is confronted squarely and acknowledged, which is to the filmmakers’ credit. There are a mix of interiors and location work (including the often used Iverson Ranch and the instantly recognizable red earth of Arizona), with the latter showing director Ray Nazarro’s (Apache Territory) work off to best effect and also providing a dramatic backdrop for the major action set pieces.

If you take a look around any of the sites that devote time to classic westerns, it’s hard to avoid coming across some mention of George Montgomery. I’ve not featured him here before and the reason for that is down to the simple fact that I’ve not seen a lot of his films. This is somewhat remiss of me but I have taken steps to remedy that and have acquired a number of his movies – although in my defense, I will say that I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of episodes Cimarron City, his late-50s TV show. He’s a solid and personable lead, his part being a much more straightforward and less complicated one than the corresponding role Audie Murphy would take on in Apache Rifles, and an easy figure for audiences to identify with and root for.

The only woman in the picture is Audrey Long, and Indian Uprising would be her last movie before retiring and settling down to a long marriage to the creator of The Saint Leslie Charteris. She had a relatively brief career anyway although one which included a number of choice films; she played alongside John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle and also was cast in a couple of fine films noir Desperate and Born to Kill. A quick glance at her filmography drew my attention to another of her films I must look out for, Homicide for Three based on Patrick Quentin’s novel Puzzle for Puppets. This stood out for me because I’m a mystery fan and also due to the fact not many of Patrick Quentin’s Peter Duluth stories have been adapted for the screen, the Lex Barker and Lisa Gastoni vehicle Strange Awakening from Puzzle for Fiends being another example.

Thinking of cavalry movies nearly always brings John Ford to mind.  While Indian Uprising is certainly not in the same league as Ford’s work, there are a few common factors, quite aside from the general horse soldiers milieu. In the first place, Mexican actor Miguel Inclan appeared in The Fugitive and also, more notably, as Cochise in Fort Apache. One of Ford’s trademarks was his portrayal of the various army types and the domestic situation in the isolated outposts. The latter doesn’t get an awful lot of attention but, to me anyway, the stage Irish sergeants played by Joe Sawyer and John Call were not such distant relations of those of Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond.

Indian Uprising should be easy enough to locate. There’s a MOD DVD available in the US, a French DVD and the Spanish disc I picked up. I think it also turns up online in the usual places but I’m not positive on that. The image generally looks good with natural colors and minimal damage. While this is very much a second tier western it’s also an enjoyable one. These kinds of movies were the bread and butter affairs that kept the genre ticking over and are often better than some critics would have you believe. I liked the movie and I feel anyone who appreciates what such programmers have to offer will do so too.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

If there’s one thing that turns my stomach, it’s respectability.

By the 1950s the western itself could be said to have attained something very close to respectability. Mind you, the relative dearth of awards bestowed on the genre, even in these peak golden years, possibly contradicts that. If respectability hadn’t entirely been conferred or, as the above quote from Miriam Hopkins’ character asserts, wasn’t even something worth angling for, it would be hard to deny the popularity the genre was experiencing. There are all sorts of theories propounded to account for that popularity, and I guess we’ve all become familiar with a fair few of them. In filmmaking terms, it’s the ultimate American genre, and for many that makes it part of the bedrock of cinema. I think the myth of the Old West as portrayed on screen is one of the strongest representations of the myth of America, and I’m referring to America here as an idea as much as a nation. One of the central tenets of that idea, to  my mind anyway, relates to rebirth, renewal and, that word which is hard to avoid under the circumstances, redemption. All the best examples of the western hinge on this, and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952) is no exception in that regard.

The story begins in the town of Poker Flat, in deep and forbidding darkness. The foul and muddy streets glisten in the night, and few people are to be seen, most are whooping it up in the saloons as they drink and gamble the evening away. Yet, there are a few figures abroad, detaching themselves from  the shadows momentarily to move from one brightly lit establishment to another, although a handful are heading in another direction. These are the men led by Ryker (Cameron Mitchell), and they are on their way to the assay office, planning to raid the safe within. That robbery, where Ryker cynically betrays and sacrifices his confederates, sees some new graves filled and a residue of bitterness left among the miners.

If justice can’t be fully meted out, then outraged morals can at least be assuaged, and so it is that certain undesirable elements are to be run out of town. The can in this case is to be carried by the gambler Oakhurst (Dale Robertson), the drunken Jake (Billy Lynn), ageing saloon girl the Duchess (Miriam Hopkins) and a young woman called Cal (Anne Baxter). The latter is the wife of Ryker, and is in possession  of the proceeds of the robbery, but this is not known to her ill-assorted traveling companions. However, this fact is to play a crucial role as the outcasts along with a young man and his pregnant fiancée are forced to lay up in an abandoned cabin to shelter from and wait out a blizzard.

Remakes are nothing new, it’s a practice stretching right back to the early days of moviemaking. The Outcasts of Poker Flat, freely adapted from Brett Harte’s story,  had already been filmed in 1919 by John Ford, and again in 1937. I’ve not seen either of the earlier versions so I can’t comment on how Joseph M Newman’s 1952 movie compares. It does develop the plot in a different way to Harte’s original text though, reducing the tragic elements and instead building up the positives. This is where I see the western movie, especially in the key post-war years and on into the 50s, bringing those redemptive concepts to full fruition, using contemporary sources and situations, retaining the core shape and then molding them all to slot into the mythic framework we now recognize. In The Outcasts of Poker Flat it’s those title characters who redeem themselves and are spiritually reborn via their confrontation not only with evil but also through society’s rejection of them and, as a consequence of this, their own revitalized self-reliance and self-confidence.

In visual terms, the progress of the characters along the road towards renewal is plain to see. The film starts out in deep and grimy darkness, rooted firmly in an uncommunicative, isolated and threatening environment. By the end though, light has come to dominate, a literal birth is soon to take place and the two leads opt not to return to Poker Flat but to take an alternative turn and strike off towards a new destination. Newman’s direction throughout has been very solid, emphasizing the narrowness and lack of space of the cabin, clearly drawing attention to the parallels in the characters’ lives. And then there’s the gradual widening  of perspective, leading up to the bright, airy and liberated feel of the final scene – a literal journey into the light, towards open horizons. While Newman’s direction is assured and controlled, the real star of the show is the wonderful and expertly lit cinematography of Joseph LaShelle.

The cast is small and ample time is available to allow most to make a mark. The principal female lead is Anne Baxter, a versatile actress who was in her prime at this stage and she offers good value as the conflicted wife who doesn’t quite know how best to extricate herself from the tangled mess her life has become.  Dale Robertson is generally a good western lead, a dependable presence who tends to anchor movies securely. That’s exactly what happens in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, where his unflappable stoicism keeps the tension manageable and the melodrama in check.

That tension comes from a combination of the elements, the isolation and then the return of Cameron Mitchell’s menacing villain. He does a neat line in shiftiness in this movie, coming across as genuinely mean and dangerous and with just enough insecurity to go along with it to add a layer of unpredictability. Billy Lynn is fine as the befuddled drunk and Barbara Bates (who had appeared with Baxter in All About Eve) is appealing and vulnerable but has little to do. On the other hand, Miriam Hopkins is on top form as the jaded and weary Duchess, a woman who knows her best years are behind her, and delivers some of the best lines with an acid relish.

For some reason The Outcasts of Poker Flat doesn’t seem to be widely available. I don’t think it’s out on disc in the US but there are European releases. There’s a French disc which I imagine will suffer from non-removable subtitles and there’s also an Italian DVD. I have a copy of the latter and I have to say the film looks terrific, it has been given a very clean and sharp transfer and the print used is clearly in great shape.

This piece represents the 200th western movie which I have written about on this site and I hope others will think it’s an appropriate choice. Sure I could have picked a big, better known title, but as I said some time ago when I marked the 100th western, it somehow seems more fitting to choose the kind of less celebrated movie I’ve spent a lot of time (although by no means exclusively) flagging up over the years.

Other Joseph M Newman westerns:

The Gunfight at Dodge City

Fort Massacre

A Thunder of Drums

Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison

I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me “Bloody Folsom.” And I earned the name. I’ve been standing here in California since 1878. My own prisoners built me, shutting themselves off from the free world. Every block of my granite is cemented by their tears, their pain, and the blood of many men.

The above is from the opening voiceover of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), and it immediately conjures a grim, forbidding and uncompromising mood. Prison movies are, for the most part, an acquired taste, which is entirely understandable given the sense of confinement and despair, not to mention the fact it’s hard to find many characters to sympathize with. That notwithstanding, it’s also undeniable that those same aspects combine very well if one happens to be looking for a solid film noir setup.

That narration sets the tone right from the start, and the first act follows it up in hard-hitting fashion. The majority of the main figures are introduced, standing in line in the yard before the admin building and apparently waiting patiently to receive whatever disciplinary action is to be meted out for various instances of rule-breaking. The truth is though that these men have planned a breakout using this as cover. The illusion of order and acquiescence is suddenly shattered as  violence and pandemonium take their place. It’s tough, gritty stuff with guards and inmates alike setting upon each other, but the outcome can never really be in doubt and the bid for freedom comes to nothing. Actually, what it does serve to illustrate is the iron inflexibility of Warden Rickey (Ted de Corsia) and the desperation of the prisoners. The regime run by Rickey is a brutal one and the consequences of challenging his authority are shown to be savage indeed. One man who pulled out of the initial botched escape is Chuck Daniels (Steve Cochran), but he’s the type prepared to bide his time till he figures the odds are stacked a little more in his favor. However, the movie is not relentlessly downbeat; there is the seed of something more positive at its heart, and that’s represented on screen by the arrival of Benson (David Brian), the new captain of the guard and a man who believes in more than just the mailed fist approach of his superior.

When I hear about prison movies I find myself automatically thinking of 1930s films, and people like James Cagney, George Raft and Pat O’Brien spring to mind. Subconsciously, they seem to exist for me primarily as an adjunct to the classic gangster pictures. I guess something similar could be said of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, particularly if one views film noir as a kind of maladjusted and disillusioned descendant of the gangster cycle. The cream of those 30s movies were produced by Warner Brothers, the studio that best represented the social conscience of Hollywood in the classic era. That same sensibility from the studio is apparent here, using a hard-edged genre movie to raise questions about and provoke discussion of how society deals with its lawbreakers. It was both written and directed by Crane Wilbur, a man who is probably better known for his work in the former category – aside from The Bat, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else he directed – and he did seem to be drawn to what might be termed “issue” films.

The issue at stake here is one which cannot have gone unnoticed by audiences in 1951, and it reaches beyond the notion of prison reform. Ted de Corsia’s warden is a neatly drawn portrait of a domestic fascist – mean, cruel and contemptuous of anyone but himself, an authoritarian driven by his own insecurity and weakness. Perhaps it’s all a bit one-dimensional, but it’s hard to complain when an actor as accomplished at playing callous, self-serving types as De Corsia was is on such good form. David Brian is an effective foil, confident of and comfortable with his innate compassion. And drifting somewhere in the middle, occupying those grey shadows that are too murky for the stark blacks and whites of De Corsia and Brian, is Steve Cochran. He has the brooding insolence down pat as he slouches around like some overgrown teenager with murderous tendencies. In addition to those three at the top of the bill, there’s fine support provided by the likes of Phil Carey, Paul Picerni and William Campbell.

Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison is available as part of the Warner Archive and it’s been given a strong transfer to DVD. The print used is in very good shape and the clarity and contrast combine to make the noir visuals  particularly attractive. I had a good time with this movie,  appreciating the pace, the toughness and the credible performances. I reckon it’s a well-made and engrossing crime picture which is certainly worth checking out, even for those who might not normally be drawn to either the setting or characters involved.

The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.