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The Oklahoman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2016 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, Westerns, William Witney

 

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Santa Fe Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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City of Bad Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Two Weeks in Another Town

Introspection can be both self-indulgent and revealing, turning the gaze inward in search of some truth that seems elusive in the outside world can bring rewards, perhaps most notably for those whose business it is to present a facade for public consumption. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that Hollywood, where dreams and illusion are daily spun from the dancing lights of the projector, periodically turns the cameras around to focus on itself. There’s something almost perverse about the industry’s need to pick away at its own glamorous veneer, as though it were prodding us in the ribs and daring us to confront the artifice at its heart. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Vincente Minnelli’s second bite at the hand which fed him, following the previous decade’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a movie star, one of that glittering breed idolized and worshiped by so many. Although it’s perhaps more accurate to say the Jack Andrus we see at the beginning was a movie star, a subdued figure strolling ineffectually round the grounds of the psychiatric clinic where he’s staying. The scar on his face, a memento of the events that led him to his current abode, has healed. However, it’s as nothing compared to the raw wounds he still carries around inside. His doctor says he feels Andrus is fit to leave, not necessarily cured but able to leave all the same. And there’s a hint of hope for the future too, a cable from his old director asking him to fly out to Rome for a small part in his latest production. But we’re talking about the movies here, where nothing and nobody can be taken at face value, and the truth is that Andrus is essentially washed up. The director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G Robinson), doesn’t really have any intention of using him on screen. Basically, it’s a ploy, partly as a kind of sop for Kruger’s guilt over his involvement in Andrus’ breakdown. If our star has hit bottom, then the once great director is headed in the same direction, although his decline is slightly more graceful and a little less dramatic. The picture represents something of a last bid for glory for Kruger, and it’s in danger of being derailed by the ruthlessness of his hard-headed Cinecittà producer. Standing between him and the prospect of failure and humiliation is Andrus, the man he first built up and then destroyed. So what does he do? He tosses this one-time star a few crumbs from his table, hoping that the hunger of a starving man will prove his salvation. To Andrus, the vital but seemingly demeaning task of supervising the post-production dubbing is like a slap in the face initially. Still, the lure of the movie business, and maybe more importantly, the chance to prove himself capable of doing anything of worth again is strong. And then there’s the figure of Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), the woman he tried to love and lost his mind over. She flits in and out of proceedings, simultaneously taunting Andrus with reminders of what he’s lost and holding out the promise of new adventures ahead. What it all boils down to is a two-week sojourn in a town where he may either drown in the heady atmosphere or, if he can see through the showbiz smokescreen, have the chance to regain the mastery of his soul once again.

While I still think Two Weeks in Another Town is a very good film, it could potentially have been a great one. Charles Schnee wrote the script from a novel by Irwin Shaw, and the score was provided by the great David Raksin. With Milton Krasner shooting Minnelli’s beautiful nighttime setups just about all the ingredients were in place for a stone cold classic. But then, and ironically mirrored by the plot itself, came the interference from the studio. In his autobiography (The Ragman’s Son, Pan Books 1989,  pp 342-344), Douglas claims the movie was recut and edited when Joseph Vogel became the new head of MGM, stripping out some of the racier and more dramatically satisfying elements. I think that much can be seen in the somewhat sketchy development of a few of the characters. What we’re left with is the core of the story, of a man desperately seeking personal and spiritual redemption and the peace that comes with it. In addition, there’s the unmistakable stamp of Minnelli, the careful framing of whose shots create the kind of tableaux that approach visual poetry on occasion. It would be remiss of me not to mention his masterful use of color – the whole film is drenched in the deep, saturated hues which often characterize his work. Perhaps he falls short of achieving the dramatic and visual intensity of his sublime Some Came Running, but there are moments when he gets within striking distance at least.

Kirk Douglas was making his third appearance in a Minnelli production and he’s well cast in a role that calls for the type of mood swings which range from ebullience through manic intensity by way of brooding melancholy.  While the focal point of the story is on Andrus’ journey of self rediscovery, and the necessary laying to rest of old phantoms along the way, there’s room too for some interesting observations and musings on the nature of the actor, that wearer of masks. A wistful, early morning conversation with a besotted Daliah Lavi sees Douglas reflecting on the contradictory nature of the actor, the retreat from reality and submergence of the self in the character of others which actually runs counter to the overwhelming desire to better understand one’s own sense of being. Ultimately, it’s the reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible urges which lies at the heart of his character’s motivation.

Robinson’s aging director is also notable, both in itself and as a commentary on the corrosiveness of the movie-making business. The essential insecurity of the man is demonstrated though the need to reaffirm himself through his notorious affairs with leading ladies  – which has had such an adverse effect on his relationship with his wife, an exceptionally acidic Claire Trevor – and also his desperation to prove once again his worth as an artist. It’s his fear of losing control, both personally and creatively, which drives him and finally twists his soul towards bitterness and distrust. The person who links (and divides) Douglas and Robinson is Carlotta as played by Cyd Charisse. Apparently a good deal of her part ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as she is very good based on what we do see of her. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset, she comes across as a blend of the enigmatic and the alluring, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in her wake while attempting to seduce her former lover back onto the same self-destructive path. The contrast comes in the form of Daliah Lavi’s Roman ingenue (demurely clad in simple and pure white throughout as opposed to the arch and lurid costumes of Charisse) whose understated charm and innocence helps restore Andrus’ perspective. I was less impressed by George Hamilton’s troubled young star, never feeling all that convinced by the struggle he’s supposed to be waging against his personal demons. In support, there are small parts (virtual cameos in truth) for George Macready and James Gregory.

Two Weeks in Another Town is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also an Italian release available. I have that Italian disc and it presents the film in the correct anamorphic scope ratio. The transfer is good, clean one with no notable instances of damage. Colors are generally well reproduced, something very important in a film such as this, and the image is pleasing overall. The disc offers the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub, and there are no subtitle options of any kind. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer and some galleries. Frankly, I like this movie, but films about films always interest me anyway, and I feel it’s a great pity that parts of it were excised at the behest of the studio boss at the time. Nevertheless, the movie that we have available to view, in spite of its imperfections, is never less than fascinating for the peek behind the facade of filmmaking it affords us and also the central story of a man battling to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made in life. I recommend it.

Kirk Douglas reaches the grand age of 99 today and I thought I’d take the opportunity to post this piece on that occasion to draw attention not only to this great actor’s birthday but also to just one of the countless strong performances he’s delivered over a long career.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in 1960s, Edward G Robinson, Kirk Douglas

 

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Comanche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Thunder in the East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dakota Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Walk a Tightrope

The B movie tends to get a bad press, attention is often drawn to the cheapness, caliber of stars or sometimes just out and out trashiness. Such criticisms can certainly be justified on many occasions but blanket dismissals are unwise generally and cinema has a habit of throwing out plenty of exceptions to muddy things. The thing is a B movie can work very well so long as certain elements are in place. The lack of funds can encourage economy not only in the nuts and bolts of production but also in the storytelling and pacing. And of course the presence of one or two good actors is able to overcome shortcomings elsewhere. Walk a Tightrope (1965) is very much a B picture, but its two stars and a reasonably intriguing plot help to elevate it considerably.

Carl Lutcher (Dan Duryea) is obviously a man down on his luck, living in a decrepit bedsit with a naive woman (Shirley Cameron) and slightly bemused as to why she should profess to love him. Later we learn that Lutcher is a dockworker by trade but when he heads off to complete a job it’s work of an entirely different nature he has in mind. Lurking opposite a movie theater, he watches Ellen Sheppard (Patricia Owens) bidding farewell to a couple of girlfriends and then follows her as she walks off towards a nearby pub. Ellen’s behaviour seems a little odd – she’s aware of someone tailing her, and then there’s the panic attack she succumbs to upon accidentally running into her new husband (Terence Cooper) and his business partner (Richard Leech). All of this leads to the two men insisting on escorting her home, although she clearly dislikes the idea. Shortly afterwards the doorbell rings and Lutcher forces his way in. To Ellen’s horror, he pulls a silenced pistol and calmly fires three rounds at her husband at point-blank range. Lutcher behaves as though it had all been arranged while Ellen is verging on hysteria due to the shock. So why would a man like Lutcher assassinate a man he’s never met and then ask the victim’s wife to pay him? Everything points to a contract killing but Ellen’s reaction doesn’t fit. Lutcher will have to be tracked down and a trial will need to take place before any indication of what’s really going on becomes apparent, and even then we’re still talking suspicion and surmise until a final twist reveals all..

Frank Nesbitt has few credits as a director, and only a few more as assistant director but he made two thrillers with Dan Duryea, Walk a Tightrope and Do You Know This Voice?, both written by actor Neil McCallum. I haven’t seen the latter but, despite Nesbitt’s rather anonymous direction, I’m quite keen to do so now. McCallum, who also pops up as the prosecutor in the trial sequence, produces a tricky little thriller here which ensures the story develops steadily and at a satisfying pace. Of the other crew members, cinematographer Basil Emmott should be familiar to anyone with a fondness for post-war British thrillers.

I said at the beginning of this piece that a couple of good actors can make a significant contribution to the success of even a modest production, and that’s precisely what happens with Walk a Tightrope. Both Dan Duryea and Patricia Owens were experienced Hollywood performers and it’s their work that adds interest to this thriller. Frankly, I like seeing Duryea taking a leading role in any movie, regardless of whether it’s heroic, villainous or something in between. I think what made him such a fascinating actor was his ability to put a genuinely human face to whatever part he played. His role in this film isn’t an attractive one, he’s a killer after all and nothing we learn about him suggest he has too many redeeming features. However, we do care about him, especially during the trial which dominates the last half, and his turn in the witness-box as he makes no attempt to deny his guilt but becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate to convince the court of the fact he wasn’t acting alone. Patricia Owens appeared in a number of films which I admire, The Law and Jake Wade and The Gun Runners among them, and I think she did excellent work here as well. Her part called for a good deal of subtlety and some fairly complex emotional shifts as the plot weaves its way towards the conclusion, the kind of performance which demands skillful playing in order to remain credible. I feel she nailed the enigmatic aspect of her character and her acting at the climax carries extra punch as a result. Absorbing as the story is, I don’t believe it would be anywhere near as effective were it not for Duryea and Owens.

UK company Network’s releases in their The British Film line continue to impress me, both the selection of titles and the quality of their transfers. Walk a Tightrope is presented in the 1.66:1 ratio and looks very nice. The image is crisp and clean and doesn’t display any particularly distracting damage. The sole extra feature is a gallery but it should be remembered these films are all very competitively priced and represent excellent value for money. This may well be a B movie but it’s also a solid example of a pared down and well paced crime thriller. OK, perhaps it’s not a classic of the genre but it never aspires to that anyway. I enjoyed the basic plot and the two lead performances give it a bit of class – definitely worth checking out.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2015 in 1960s, Dan Duryea, Mystery/Thriller

 

Guns of Darkness

I’ve been making an effort lately to see more new films, or perhaps I should say new to me rather than newly produced movies. Through a combination of blind buys and recommendations from others I’ve been trying to expand my horizons somewhat instead of simply returning to comfortable old favorites. Inevitably, some have worked better for me than others, but I have to say I’ve had no total disappointments yet. The latest is Guns of Darkness (1962), a polished British political thriller by Anthony Asquith. Actually, it’s more of a human drama set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation in a fictional South American state.

New Year’s Eve, out with the old and in with the new. As the minutes tick down towards the end of the old year time is also running short for certain individuals, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Some are thinking only of parties, of song and dance and celebration, others are planning to set off fireworks of an altogether more lethal kind. Tom Jordan (David Niven) is attending a company do with his French wife, Claire (Leslie Caron), and he’s not having a good time. Frankly, Jordan isn’t having much of a time in life in general; he’s a deeply dissatisfied man, contemptuous of his job, ambitious for something he can’t quite define, and on the down slope of a marriage. At the stroke of midnight the revelers, even the reluctant ones like Jordan, link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, the image of their full-blooded rendition intercut with the very different scenes taking place simultaneously outside of their insulated little world. All across the city the streets ring with the sound of army boots on stone, and gunshots and screams. A coup is underway, a swift and bloody change of regime, and will be more or less complete by the time the sun rises on the new year. The aftermath is to be seen next morning, uncertainty and the meting out of retribution mean normal life and the routine of business are put on hold. Returning home early, his mind still reeling from his having witnessed a summary execution, Jordan is about to face a wife who’s both pregnant and on the point of leaving him. However, before Claire has the chance to tell her husband anything, he discovers an unexpected interloper – soon to be ex-President Rivera (David Opatoshu) has crawled wounded into the car of the doctor visiting Claire. Sometimes those who drift rudderless through life find direction or purpose quite unexpectedly, and such seems to be the fate of Jordan. Whatever other failings he may have, he’s a humanitarian at heart, and a man like that really has no option but to follow his instincts under the circumstances. And so the race, and consequent pursuit, is on – Jordan and an initially unwitting Claire find themselves running for the border with the ailing Rivera in tow, their lives and his in grave danger.

Guns of Darkness is packaged as a combination of political thriller and chase drama yet the politics play only a minor role – if anything, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of politics which is critiqued. Little is made of the differences between Rivera and his usurpers, in fact the point is made that they have much in common in terms of the degree of ruthlessness they are prepared to exercise. This is the stuff of broad brush strokes though, window dressing in a sense, and essentially an adjunct to the main theme of the movie. The long trek and accompanying adventures are really just stops along the journey Jordan embarks upon towards emotional maturity and redemption. If anything, Guns of Darkness represents the process of self-discovery of a previously jaded and unfocused man. We’re presented with a guy who has spent his life running away from responsibilities and sneering at everything or everybody he felt was beneath him, and we watch as he comes to realize he’s been running from himself and that the contempt was a mask for indecisiveness. By the end, all that fog has been banished to be replaced by a feeling of purpose and the emergence of a man of true character, a soul reclaimed and renewed.

There was a good deal of talent behind the camera for this film: director Anthony Asquith, who made some fine British films in his time including the underrated The Woman in Question, writer John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, and cameraman Robert Krasker with both The Third Man and Odd Man Out on his extensive résumé. The opening sequence blending the New Year celebrations and the violence of the coup is wonderfully shot with Asquith and Krasker coming up with an excellent selection of angles and lighting setups. There’s plenty of moody noir style photography on view throughout the movie and good use of the Spanish locations, which stood in for South America. A film like Guns of Darkness necessarily involves a fair number of talky scenes but these rarely bog the action down too much and anyway there’s typically enough tension woven into the story to ensure things keep moving along – the station wagon becoming trapped in quicksand and the ensuing struggle to get free being a notable example.

I think the nature of the story, insofar as one can define it through the leading character, is clearly British or European. What I mean is that US films tend to present a more clear-cut lead, typically a man of action or at least one who is more certain of his place in the world. The character of Jordan doesn’t fall into this category, and David Niven was an excellent choice to play him. One usually has an image of Niven as a debonair type, smooth with others and comfortable with himself. While those were qualities he could effortlessly bring to the screen he was capable of a far broader range too when the occasion demanded it. Guns of Darkness sees Niven wholly uncomfortable, at war with himself and those around him, and not really sure why. As soon as Rivera crashes into his life he finds himself taking increasingly bigger risks, and with only the vaguest idea of what his ultimate purpose is. There’s a good deal of subtlety in Niven’s performance, his growing self-awareness coming on gradually and naturally. When he eventually finds he has to resort to the violence he so despises, Niven’s reaction is beautifully judged and there’s suitable attention paid to the consequences of his actions too. And that’s another point in the movie’s favor in my opinion, the violence that takes place is handled with the kind of gravity it deserves.

The picture is basically a three-hander with Niven, Leslie Caron and David Opatoshu receiving the lion’s share of screen time. Caron’s part called for a display of stoicism – there are plenty of physical challenges to be faced as events unfold – and also honest expression of the kind of conflicting emotions experienced by a woman still in love with the man she hopes her husband can be, even as she’s coming to terms with the knowledge that he’ll never be perfect. Opatoshu had one of those roles here it must have been tempting to portray him as a saintly humanitarian, but that was fortunately resisted in favor of making him a more three-dimensional figure. The moment when we realize he’s capable of great cruelty in the name of survival is shocking and at the same time curiously liberating; the result is that we understand we’re looking at a real human being, not simply some idealized caricature. In support, there’s worthwhile work done by James Robertson Justice, Sandor Eles, Ian Hunter and Eleanor Summerfield among others.

Network in the UK have been steadily releasing significant numbers of movies over the last couple of years under their The British Film banner.  Guns of Darkness is one of those titles and it’s the kind of film which would otherwise still be languishing in relative obscurity, although I see it’s also been made available in the US via the Warner Archive. The Network DVD presents the movie in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print looks strong for the most part although there are a few minor blemishes here an there. This is the kind of film I really appreciate having the opportunity to see and it’s gratifying to have it in good condition. I found the tale a solid and quite engrossing one, peopled with characters who felt credible and authentic, and put together by talented professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Anyone who enjoys a well crafted thriller with some depth should get value from this film.

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2015 in 1960s, David Niven

 

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