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Category Archives: Actors

The Moonlighter

Over a sixteen year period, starting in 1940 and ending in 1956, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made four movies together, the most famous probably being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Their third collaboration, The Moonlighter (1953), was the only western and the least familiar of the titles. This is a film I’ve only recently caught up with, once again thanks to the assistance of regular contributor Jerry Entract, and I found it a slightly unfocused but generally enjoyable affair. Revenge and redemption, those two faithful old partners in so many westerns, dominate but one is only half explored before being quietly dropped while the other is slipped in as though an afterthought. My feeling is that if these two themes had been more fully, or at least more consistently, developed, then The Moonlighter would have been a much stronger piece of work.

Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) is the moonlighter of the title, a rustler who operates by night, and his opening narration places the action at the beginning of the 20th century, just as the frontier is about to finally close. As he tells us, civilization about to consign the myth of the wild west to the pages of history, but the beast’s claws haven’t been filed down totally yet. The concept of frontier justice still holds sway with some, and the crime of rustling continues to arouse strong feelings and attract harsh punishments. As Anderson sits in jail awaiting trial, a lynching party is arriving in town, impatient and aggressive. This first act of the film is the most powerful, soulful and threatening, and setting up a situation packed with potential. There’s an almost noirish, and indeed nightmarish, tone as the mob forces its way into the jail to demand its pound of flesh. There’s to be no heroic last-minute rescue as a man is mercilessly beaten, dragged from his cell, and hanged without ceremony. Only it’s the wrong man, the fates having conspired to save a guilty man while simultaneously dooming an innocent one. Anderson has been handed a new lease on life but with a bitter little proviso attached – his sense of guilt twisting itself into a thirst for revenge. However, it’s at this point, with the story part of the way down an intriguing avenue, that the focus of the script shifts and revenge drifts away to be replaced by, amongst other things, greed. With Anderson forced to rest up and recuperate in his old family home, other characters are added into the mix: Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), his former love is introduced along with his brother Tom (William Ching). This creates the possibility of a romantic triangle although it doesn’t really work out that way. Instead we meet Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw associate of Wes’ who is keen to talk him into going back into business. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more about how it all pans out except to say that Wes gets to earn his redemption the hard way, suffering significant personal losses before regaining his sense of honor in the end.

The Moonlighter was written by Niven Busch, a man known for his fondness for grand passions and dark psychology. The film hints at this, or perhaps flirts with it, both in the terrific opening and later in the relationship between Wes and Rela. Yet it doesn’t come off successfully; there’s none of the high melodrama of Duel in the Sun or The Furies, nor enough of the darkness of Pursued. Now I like Busch’s work, although I understand if it’s not to everyone’s taste, and the way it has of burrowing into the minds and motivations of characters. The main problem with The Moonlighter is that it never goes far enough, all the ingredients are present and paths are started on but abandoned or strayed from before the themes have a chance to breathe and expand. Then when the redemptive aspect kicks in at the end it feels rushed and loses some of its impact as a consequence.

The director was Roy Rowland, examples of whose work I’ve looked at here in the past, and his handling of the material is patchy too. Again, I refer back to the opening, where he and cinematographer Bert Glennon hit just the right chord and conjure up an atmosphere that’s menacing and quite poignant. But his direction lacks consistency, and as soon as the action moves to the Anderson homestead there’s a flatness that reflects the loss of momentum in the script. The scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck meet after years apart only touches on their shared passion, the actors doing what they can with the dialogue, but it needs a spark and intensity that’s not achieved. Some of that does come as the story progresses, but I don’t feel it ever reaches the heights necessary to make the redemptive payoff work as well as it should.

MacMurray often made a fine anti-hero or villain, in this case I’d say he was playing the former though. When required he could tap into a kind of weary cynicism, and that’s exactly how he starts out – we first encounter him lazing in his jail cell awaiting what he fully expects to be an appointment with the hangman. The weariness falls away later, anger, distrust and bitterness coming along to displace it and MacMurray keeps it credible all the time. He also hangs onto a touch of decency too, despite his character’s criminal nature, which is vital if his eventual change of heart is to be at all convincing. Stanwyck was playing one of her signature tough broads and she’s perfectly satisfactory, as usual, though the role doesn’t have the kind of depth or shading which could bring out the best in her. She’s said to have enjoyed making westerns and the rugged outdoors stuff attracted her, something she got to indulge in here especially during the well filmed climax. Ward Bond doesn’t make an appearance until around the halfway mark, but impresses as the unscrupulous outlaw seeking out a partner to facilitate his schemes. Bond was typically most effective as bluff down-to-earth types or as an imposing physical threat. The movie gives him the chance to show off both of these aspects, moving smoothly from one to the other as the plot advances. Personally, I found William Ching the weakest link – his part is an important one yet he never really convinced me as the brother living in MacMurray’s shadow. In support, there are nice, if short-lived, turns by the likes of John Dierkes, Jack Elam, Charles Halton and Morris Ankrum.

The Moonlighter has been released as an MOD DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive and is certainly worth a look. The turn of the century setting is potentially interesting but not a lot is made of this – the only real reference to the changing times is that Bond’s plan involves exploiting the possibilities afforded by the new motor cars. The movie was shot in 3D but I don’t know if that would add much to it (I’m no particular fan of the process myself) and it plays fine in standard 2D. Taken as a whole, the film is entertaining enough although it did need a script which retained a stronger focus and more character analysis. It starts off well and does have its moments later but meanders a little despite the short running time.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Westerns

 

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The Badlanders

It seems like everybody around here is stealing from everybody else.

A good heist movie is hard to beat in my opinion, there’s considerable potential for suspense and tension in the execution of a complicated robbery, and the aftermath or outcome is generally rife with possibilities too. The heist is typically used as a plot element in contemporary crime movies, both the serious and more lighthearted varieties, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other genres as well. There’s arguably no more flexible type of film than the western, the setting being able to absorb and adapt aspects almost at will. The Badlanders (1958) is a remake of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the W R Burnett novel, moving the action back half a century and shifting from the urban milieu to the dusty Arizona landscape.

In the dying days of the 19th century two men are released from the prison at Yuma, one because his time has been served in full and the other earning early parole because he prevented the former from assaulting a guard. In fact, these two men, Peter Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) & John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) have quite a lot in common: both ended up behind bars either  directly or indirectly due to the treachery of others, and both hail from a similar part of Arizona. While they set off on apparently different paths they’re fated to meet again as their desire to right some of the wrongs of the past lead them to the small town of Bascom. The settlement is the center of a gold mining operation, beneath the land once owned by McBain before he was cheated out of it, and places have a way of calling men back even if they have no logical reason for returning. Van Hoek was a mining engineer and geologist, cheated in a different way, framed for a robbery and keen to get something back for the time he lost when he was wrongly incarcerated. Everything boils down to a plan to blast a rich vein of ore from an abandoned shaft and sell it back to the current owner, Cyril Lounsberry (Kent Smith). You might wonder why a man would buy what rightfully belongs to him – well Lounsberry is only nominally in charge as the mine is actually in his wife’s name, and he’s a man with a wandering and faithless eye. Such a man is obviously going to be drawn to the idea of an independent source of wealth. On the surface, the key to the whole operation is timing and disciplined organization, but there’s also the intangible element to be factored in, as tends to be the case in the affairs of man, and in this instance it’s the question of trust.

Anyone familiar with The Asphalt Jungle will know how things play out on screen, but there are significant enough differences to set the two films apart. Aside from the altered location, there’s the variation in tone and overall mood of the film. Huston’s film was a classic piece of fatalistic noir, where bad luck and the character flaws of the principals led to the ultimate unraveling of the best laid plans. In The Badlanders, however, the weaknesses of the leads in the earlier version are actually transformed into their strengths, and the resolution is upbeat and positive. I think a good deal of that is down to the director; Delmer Daves made films that mainly emphasized the positive characteristics and leanings of people, and you generally come away from his work with an enhanced appreciation of the inherent decency of humanity. If I were to draw direct comparisons between Daves’ and Huston’s take on the source material, something I’m reluctant to do as it seems s bit of a pointless exercise, then I’d have to say The Asphalt Jungle is clearly the superior film. Still, The Badlanders does have certain points in its favor, and those are mainly the touches which bear the characteristic fingerprints of Daves. There’s some strong cinematography from John Seitz too, especially the interiors but also the outdoors location work in Arizona and Old Tucson.

Alan Ladd underwent a noticeable physical decline in his last years, but that hadn’t really set in when he made The Badlanders. He was still vital and looked in reasonably good shape at that point. His role isn’t an especially complex one, there’s the back story of his being fitted up to provide motivation of course but it’s never expanded upon to any extent. While Ladd is the headline star the most memorable performances come from those billed below him, notably Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Borgnine was typically a powerful physical presence in movies and got to show off that aspect in a number of scenes, yet it’s another side of the man which has the greatest impact. He had a certain innocence below the surface, although this wasn’t always exploited. The character of McBain is remarkable for the way this vague social naiveté is woven into the plot. And the ever soulful charms of Katy Jurado are ideal for drawing out and playing off that. Despite the fact the heist, which it has to be said is filmed with some style, is the main focus of the plot, the tender and sensitive relationship which develops between Borgnine and Jurado is the living heart of it all. In support Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Emhardt and Anthony Caruso do all that could be expected of them in their limited roles.

The Badlanders has been released on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and there are European editions available in France (non-anamorphic, I think), Spain and Italy. The Spanish copy I viewed presents the movie in the correct 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the transfer is perfectly satisfactory – colors look accurate and the print is quite clean. There are no extra features included and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. Speaking as a fan of Delmer Daves’ work, I would say this is a weaker film when stacked up alongside his other westerns. However, just to qualify that evaluation, it’s worth bearing in mind that his westerns rank among the finest produced in the 50s. As such, I think this film deserves to be seen, and is of interest as a rare western heist movie, a remake of The Asphalt Jungle, and finally as a worthwhile frontier drama in its own right.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2015 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Delmer Daves, Westerns

 

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Rails Into Laramie

There are so many Universal-International westerns that you could pretty much run a blog devoted entirely to the studio’s output alone. With such an abundance of titles, it’s only natural that there should be a wide range in terms of type, budget and overall quality. Some had more spent on them, some featured significant amounts of location filming and some were shot largely on sets. Personally, I like them all, and can generally find something positive to take away from all varieties. Rails Into Laramie (1954) is one of the lower budget efforts, using stock footage and filmed on studio interiors for the most part. It’s a movie that eluded me for a long time and I want to express my gratitude to Jerry E for his help in ensuring I finally got around to seeing it.

The railway, that powerful symbol of westward expansion and the unstoppable advance of civilization, has been at the heart of many westerns. To chart the progress of the railroad is to chart the course of the American west itself so it’s obviously going to feature heavily in pictures set on the ever shifting frontier. When the iron horse appears to have stalled at the Wyoming town of Laramie questions arise as to why this should be so. Someone in Laramie has a vested interest in seeing the work come to a halt, some who’s making plenty of money out of the hard-drinking and hard living construction gangs. And so the army decide to send someone, just one man and not the detail of soldiers the local bigwigs have requested, to investigate and try to get the operation up and running again. The choice is Jefferson Harder (John Payne), a sergeant nearing the end of his stint in uniform but a man familiar with and comfortable among the kind of saloon detritus likely to be responsible for the delays. Harder isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Laramie’s dignitaries, partly due to their disappointment at not getting a full detachment and also because of his friendship with Jim Shanessy (Dan Duryea). Shanessy and Harder are old army buddies and former rivals for the affections of the former’s wife, Helen (Joyce Mackenzie). It’s clear enough from early on that Harder is going to have to go up against his friend as he’s the one behind the stoppages. What remains to be seen though is how he’s going to achieve much with virtually a whole town against him, the machinations of the slippery Shanessy to contend with, and the uncertain allegiance of saloon owner Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard).

One thing which immediately struck me when watching Rails Into Laramie was that there were a few passing similarities to the classic Destry Rides Again. There’s the basic set up of a corrupt town, the ignominious arrival of an improbable savior, the tough female saloon owner, and the leading role undertaken by women in the implementation of justice – and I’ll return to that last aspect presently. At least some of this can probably be attributed to the fact screenwriter D D Beauchamp also worked on Destry, George Marshall’s remake of his own 1939 original. All these elements are very welcome of course and add a lot to the entertainment of the piece, but there are problems, or weaknesses anyway, present in the script too. There are a few plot strands which are introduced and promise to be interesting yet are dropped almost immediately and lead nowhere in particular. There would appear to be potential for an added layer of conflict stemming from the triangle created by Payne, Duryea and Mackenzie, not to mention the allure of Blanchard drifting in the background. We learn that both men wanted Mackenzie in the past but that’s it, no more mileage is gained from that, or the possibility of Blanchard causing Duryea to consider straying. And then there’s the selection of an all female jury to try Duryea, an example of women’s rights which was ahead of its time compared to the rest of the country. Aside from the opportunity for further social comment, there was a suggestion that the women’s actions in participating in jury service would endanger their men. Again though, this is not followed up on and simply peters out.

I tend to think of Audie Murphy when Jesse Hibbs’ name comes up due to his having taken charge of a number of the star’s best films. Hibbs was one of those stable hands who could be relied upon to turn in a solid piece of work and that’s more or less what we get with Rails Into Laramie. There’s nothing flashy on show but it’s a competently directed film. With the so-so script, the responsibility on the performers is increased, though the likes of Payne and Duryea were quite capable in this respect. I’ve seen more of Payne’s noir work but he makes for a personable and convincing enough western lead too. There’s not so much of that bruised quality on display that he used to such good effect in film noir, still the toughness remains and you don’t doubt his ability when it comes to mixing it with the villains. Duryea could play charming, dissembling bad guys in his sleep and his role here honestly is a walk in the park for him. There’s not much physical threat posed by him, it’s more a behind the scenes schemer and fixer this time, and that aspect is left in the capable hands of a sneering and dangerous Lee Van Cleef. Of the two female performers Joyce Mackenzie had a largely thankless part, offering sympathy and support but seeing little development in her character. Mari Blanchard got dealt a far stronger hand and played it to the hilt too. She brings an edgy ambiguity to the part – leaving both Payne and Duryea (and the viewer too) unsure exactly what way she’s going to leap. Then there’s the marvelous James Griffith who adds such value to every film he appears in – I just saw him in a delightful little cameo in Kubrick’s The Killing the other day as it happens – and turns in one of the most memorable bits of work in the movie as the nervous but loyal marshal.

The last few years have seen more and more Universal-International westerns becoming available in various countries. However, Rails Into Laramie remains unreleased anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It’s a modest picture and it wouldn’t rank as one of the top tier efforts by the studio. Even so, it is solidly entertaining and I’d certainly appreciate a release. Again, my thanks to Jerry for making this piece possible.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in 1950s, Dan Duryea, John Payne, Westerns

 

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Edge of Eternity

As a major fan of westerns I have great fondness for those films which, while not belonging in the genre proper, are set in the American west. It’s not at all uncommon to see mystery elements woven into the fabric of many a western tale, and so it’s not all that surprising to come across a whodunit which plays out against the backdrop of the west, even if it is the modern version of this setting. In the case of Edge of Eternity (1959) that setting is one of the most important ingredients, the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon dominating the picture from the gripping opening right through to the spectacular conclusion.

A car draws up just short of the rim of the Grand Canyon and its driver, a middle-aged gent in a business suit, scurries forward to peer across the great chasm through a pair of binoculars. Before we even have the chance to ponder the object of his interest another, younger, man appears and carefully disengages the brake before pushing the car towards his unsuspecting victim. Alerted in the nick of time, the older man jumps aside and the vehicle plunges over the edge. These two figures struggle at the edge of the abyss, and soon both will be no more – one death we witness directly, the other will later be seen only after the fact. This dramatic opening sequence pitches the audience straight into the center of a murder mystery, grabbing our collective lapels and giving us a good threatening shake to ensure our attention doesn’t drift. We don’t know who these men are, why they fought, why they died, or who killed one of them. The task of finding the answers to these questions falls to Les Martin (Cornel Wilde), a deputy sheriff who has moved to Arizona with the hope of rebuilding a career he saw fall apart due to his own mistakes back in Denver. Aside from a natural desire to make up for past errors, Martin also wants to do what he can to help the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan), the man who hired him and offered him a second chance, get reelected. As he painstakingly assembles the pieces of the puzzle and attempts to fit them together so as to form a picture of what happened and why, he finds himself ever more attracted to Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw), the daughter of a local mining magnate. What makes it more difficult for Martin though is the growing realization that there seems to be some connection between the deaths and the wealthy Kendon family.

The films of Don Siegel tend to be direct, no-nonsense, economical affairs. This is not to say they are devoid of artistry, rather the artistry on show is never overblown or self-consciously extravagant. Edge of Eternity, for example, is not an especially deep movie, it’s not a multi-layered affair and it doesn’t pretend to offer any particular insight into the human condition. Siegel was making a whodunit with an action element, and that’s exactly what the viewer is presented with. And of course he knew how to compose exciting sequences, not least the swooping, dizzying climax in the “dancing bucket” swaying precariously in mid-air. In addition, it’s a beautiful looking film, the primal awe-inspiring landscape of the Grand Canyon becoming a character in the drama itself, dwarfing the other players and demanding attention due to its natural wonder and danger. The cinematography of Burnett Guffey, probably most admired for his work on a range of noir pictures but here reveling in the glorious colors on display, really shows off the locations. Finally, there’s a typically strong and robust score provided by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Cornel Wilde took the lead, an interesting role in ways but also a little underdeveloped in others. It’s made apparent that he’s trying to make a new life for himself after the loss of his wife and the subsequent derailment of his career. There was a good deal of potential for more internal conflict resulting from this and it is touched upon a few times, most notably during the short courtroom scene, but it’s never exploited to the full. There is a sense that Wilde is a man who wants to make amends for his past failings but it never goes much beyond that. In fairness, the film is first and foremost a mystery and the Knut Swenson screenplay concentrates primarily on that. I’ve only seen Victoria Shaw in a few films apart from this one – The Crimson Kimono and Alvarez Kelly. With the help of her striking and colorful costumes, Shaw brings a tough and feisty edge to her part, sassy and spirited throughout. Due to the nature of a whodunit and my wish to avoid any accidental spoilers for readers who haven’t seen this film I’ll be briefer than usual with my references to the other members of the cast. Let’s just say that there’s solid work turned in by Jack Elam, Rian Garrick, Edgar Buchanan, Mickey Shaughnessy & Alexander Lockwood and leave it at that.

I’m not sure how widely known Edge of Eternity is, all I can say is I was unfamiliar with this title myself until fairly recently. It’s been released on MOD DVD in the US and there’s also a Spanish disc, which I have. The movie was shot in CinemaScope and the transfer to DVD preserves this anamorphic widescreen ratio. A film like this depends heavily on the visuals and it’s important to see these reproduced as faithfully as possible. For the most part the image is acceptably clean and sharp, although some of the process shots (particularly a few during the airborne climax) look a little rougher. As usual with these Spanish releases, the subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. For me, the movie represented a blind buy, mainly based on the director and star. I enjoyed it very much, and its short running time means it never outstays its welcome. I especially liked the fact it has a cross genre appeal – it’s a suspenseful mystery with some fine action scenes and a bit of western flavor thrown in for good measure. Overall, an entertaining film that I feel is worth checking out.

 
 

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Dawn at Socorro

– Who’s coming after you?

– My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.

I guess that short exchange, coming near the end of the movie, sums up much of what Dawn at Socorro (1954) is all about. It’s a classic 50s western scenario, the hunger for a fresh start, a chance to slay the demons of one’s past once and for all. In the case of this film there’s the added interest of the disguised Earp/Holliday elements in the story, although this aspect is really only peripheral, and I think it’s no bad thing the names are changed and some of the events portrayed are used primarily as an inspiration – it allows the theme to develop without weighing it down with unnecessary historical baggage.

The story opens with a reminiscence, the words of an old man drawing us back into a past he experienced and into the lives of people he was once intimate with. Our point of entry comes in a cheap saloon, one of those basic drinking spots with low ceilings and lit by guttering lamps. The Ferris clan arrives en masse, planning to pick up the youngest member, Buddy (Skip Homeier), and head back to their ranch. But Buddy’s a hot-blooded guy, at that stage in life where he needs to show off in public how much of a man he is. Reluctantly, his kin leave him to his own devices, but still under the watchful eye of gunman Jimmy Rapp (Alex Nicol). The back room is occupied by the Ferris’ mortal enemies, Marshal McNair (James Millican) and ailing gambler Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun), and it’s only a matter of time before Buddy talks himself into a fight, one which will leave him dead and bring the feud between his family and McNair and Wade to a head. What we’re looking at here is a fictional account of the build up to the confrontation between the Clantons and Earps. It culminates in what is essentially the gunfight at the OK Corral in all but name. And the upshot of the killings is that the Holliday figure, Wade, is convinced of the folly of his lifestyle up to this point. He resolves to make a change, to get out of the territory and do something about his weakening health. Sharing a stage to Socorro with a bitter and self-loathing Rapp, he makes the acquaintance of fellow passenger, Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie). Unknown to him, Rannah has been disowned by a father who believes the worst of her, and chooses to believe her lie that she’s on her way to meet her future husband. The truth is though that Rannah is going to become a saloon girl, working for Dick Braden (David Brian), a gambler whom Wade has clashed with before. It’s the realization of what is actually happening that leads Wade to put his plans to move on to Colorado on hold, to try to regain something of his youthful promise, to halt the waste and do something of worth before it’s too late.

There have been plenty of positive words about George Sherman on this site before, and Dawn at Socorro is another example of quality work from the director. The opening twenty minutes lays the groundwork for the Ferris (Clanton) and McNair (Earp) feud and the subsequent gunfight. The lengthy passage in the saloon, where the character dynamics are clearly defined, is beautifully shot and loaded with atmosphere. Sherman made good use of close-ups throughout the film, but these early scenes see them employed especially effectively. Although this is largely a town based, and therefore interior heavy, film, there is also some nice location work during the eventful stagecoach trip to Socorro. Also impressive is the shooting and composition of the key duel late in proceedings between Wade and Rapp – at the vital moment the camera is positioned high above both protagonists as they face off on the deserted Socorro street. The unusual angle chosen assigns the viewer the role of dispassionate observer gazing down on two regretful men, their individuality diluted by the distance as they become merely a pair of gunfighters on a dusty thoroughfare, their actions mirroring each other and the fatal shots appearing as simultaneous bursts of smoke.

So many westerns have concerned themselves with the dogged pursuit of individuals by the sins of their past, and the salvation, redemption or personal understanding or acceptance which grows out of this. It can be seen as a general western motif I suppose, but in the 50s in particular almost every genre entry of worth features these themes. I may be way off base here (so feel free to pull me up on this if it appears I’m mistaken) but I’m now of the opinion that this phenomenon has its roots in the post-war climate of coming to terms with the events of the past. The world had only recently recovered some kind of equilibrium after years of violence and uncertainty. Those war years represented a loss of innocence for a generation, a time of intense emotional and physical challenge, so it seems natural that the modern art form of the cinema should try to address that. I can imagine audiences of the time would have identified with tales of people struggling to escape the horrors of a violent past and by doing so perhaps regain at least a shred of their former innocence.

The Brett Wade character is very obviously based on Doc Holliday, featuring all the familiar traits which have become associated with Wyatt Earp’s ally in many films over the years. It always provides a strong role for whoever plays it and Rory Calhoun is given plenty to get his teeth into. The combination of swaggering bravado on the outside and corrosive introspection in private automatically rounds out the Wade figure – there’s that essential loneliness and otherness that the more intriguing western characters tend to display. But there’s solidarity too as most of the main players in the drama are consumed with a desire to get back to an imagined idyll, a simpler existence they still recall yet have misplaced through time. When Mara Corday’s disillusioned saloon girl wistfully inquires “How do you turn back the clock?” you know that nobody will be able to hand her a satisfactory answer.

Piper Laurie does some good work too as the young woman rejected by her father and facing a highly uncertain future, trying to convince herself of her suitability for the new life she’s prepared to take on while still dreaming of the one she’s been deprived of. And then we have Alex Nicol, an ever interesting actor, who plays a Johnny Ringo type. Nicol is embittered from the moment we first see him, drinking heavily to deaden some half-defined inner pain, and later overcome and ultimately destroyed by a sense of guilt and inadequacy – I find him the most fascinating figure in the whole movie. The real villain is played by David Brian, a man whose career started off very strong but seemed to stutter soon after. He’s suave, slippery and deadly, a guy with no redeeming features but an excellent foil for the hero. The supporting cast is full of fine actors and it’s pity there wasn’t more for some of them to do: James Millican Lee Van Cleef, Skip Homeier, Kathleen Hughes, Edgar Buchanan and Roy Roberts being the most notable of the long list of familiar faces.

The last few years have seen more and more frequently neglected films from this era getting releases, and Dawn at Socorro is now reasonably easy to get hold of. There was a box set of Universal-International westerns (Horizons West) put out a few years ago and this title was included. There’s also a Spanish DVD, which I have, and the film seems to be available to view on YT as well. I’d imagine a 1954 movie would be shot with some widescreen process in mind – IMDb suggests 2.00:1 – but my Spanish copy presents it full frame, as can be seen from the screen captures above. That aside, the transfer is generally strong, with the Technicolor looking vibrant and the image sharp. There are a few incidences of print damage, but nothing all that distracting. Dawn at Socorro is a western I like very much, with good work by Calhoun and director Sherman. The whole thing has a handsome look, is pacy and well scripted with characterization developed as the story progresses rather than through tiresome and unnatural exposition. One to look out for if you haven’t yet seen it, or to view again if you’re already acquainted.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2015 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rory Calhoun, Westerns

 

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The Long and the Short and the Tall

It’s war. It’s something in a uniform. It’s a different shade from mine.

War movies fall into two broad categories: those which could be described as the “Boys’ Own” variety, where heroics are celebrated and high adventure is the order of the day; and then there’s the anti-war type, films which use the horrific aspects of war as a kind of backdrop to raise questions about our sense of humanity. I think both have their place and are worthy of consideration. The latter category is frequently more interesting though, in cinematic and artistic terms, as the character of war (and I do think it’s reasonable to refer to it as such since the conflict portrayed can be legitimately viewed as a character itself in the drama) necessarily hones in on the very essence of humanity. It’s sometimes claimed that crisis and adversity bring out both the best and worst in people, and surely warfare can be viewed as the ultimate example of this. The tragedy inherent in this rawest expression of human conflict is that it divides and unites in equal measure; there’s that sense of national and international solidarity, perhaps even nobility, in the defense of an ideal, while there’s the simultaneous schism created by different interpretations of said ideal. And on an even more fundamental level, we are drawn together by common feelings regarding what is right and torn apart at the same time by the way we define it. The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961) does exactly this – it looks into the hearts of a handful of men who are bound together and also separated by their views on right and wrong.

As the opening credits roll, accompanied by the First World War song Bless ‘Em All (although I certainly remember hearing an old drunk offering up a lusty rendition of this with the word bless replaced by a more colorful four letter variant when I was a youngster) and images of plants and animals locked in mortal combat, the message seems clear: the struggle for survival is truly universal and not just an affectation adopted by our own species.  The setting is the jungles of Burma in WWII, and a British patrol are taking part in an exercise, one which seems almost juvenile under the circumstances. The half-dozen men under the command of Sergeant Mitchem (Richard Todd) are experimenting with “sonic warfare” – using recordings as a kind of decoy to wrong foot the enemy. Nobody likes the detail, Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) wants to get back to base camp and Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey), a Londoner with nothing but contempt for the army, wants anything but his current circumstances and companions. Even in the early stages there’s friction between the members of the patrol, Johnstone needling Mitchem over his loss of a previous patrol and subsequent demotion, and Bamforth taking a pop at everyone, even the mules, mainly because they don’t hail from London. Still, this is all of little consequence, no more than the natural ribbing that arises when a disparate group of individuals have spent longer than is desirable in close proximity. The first sign of genuine danger comes when the nervy radio operator (David McCallum) tunes into a Japanese transmission which suggests the patrol might be more isolated than expected. And then an enemy soldier strays into their temporary camp. These are the two key elements influencing all that follows; Mitchem has the responsibility for seeing his patrol safely back to base but there’s also the matter of their newly acquired POW and how to treat him. If there was a touch of antagonism before, the moral dilemma now presented – survival vs humane and ethical conduct – threatens to tear the fragile unity of this group apart.

The Long and the Short and the Tall was adapted from a stage play by Willis Hall (screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz) and the theatrical origins do show in the film. Some of the early scenes do have a very stagey quality to them, accentuated by some of the acting and dialogue, but that aspect becomes less pronounced, or at least less important, as the story progresses. The whole thing, with the exception of a bit of stock footage, is shot on studio sets, which I feel actually adds to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. Erwin Hillier’s photography is sweatily atmospheric and director Leslie Norman ensures the focus remains on the men and not on the jungle set. For me, the main thrust of the film is the way pressure and extreme circumstances can change men, how their true characters are revealed by unexpected developments. The early scenes invite us to form an opinion about the patrol and even to pigeonhole the members. However, as the situation changes, as their survival is threatened, those perceptions are altered. The characteristics we might initially have thought of as strengths are shown to be flaws and weaknesses, hypocrisy and prejudice rear their ugly twin heads, and decency and honor manifest themselves from the least likely source.

Richard Todd has the leading role as the veteran sergeant, a man whose capability is never really in doubt, despite the insinuations of his subordinate. One of the more notable features of the film is the shift in character, and therefore in audience sympathy, which takes place over the course of the story. Perhaps it’s not quite as radical in the case of Todd, a hardening of attitude is seen for the most part. On the other hand, both Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey depart significantly from the expectations the audience are initially encouraged to foster. If I wanted to be critical, I could say both men lay the performances on a little thick at times, especially Harvey at the beginning. With the latter there’s a definite theatricality to his playing at first, although that’s at least partially down to the writing, but this improves as the plot develops. By the time the final act comes around the roles have been reversed, and both Harris and Harvey deserve credit for achieving this effect credibly. When a cast is small then the contributions of all the members become more important, and I was favorably impressed by the work of David McCallum, Ronald Fraser, John Meillon, John Rees and Kenji Takaki.

To my knowledge, The Long and the Short and the Tall has only been released on DVD in the UK so far. That disc presents the film full frame, which is clearly not how a movie coming out in 1961 would have been shot. IMDb suggest 1.85:1 as the correct ratio and that sounds correct to me. Aside from that, the film looks pretty good with nice contrast and little or no distracting damage visible. Sadly, there are no extra features whatsoever offered. I suppose some might complain about the studio-bound setting but I can’t say I found it problematic, the story is of the intimate, powder-keg variety so it works well enough. Personally, I find war films a fine vehicle for raising ethical conundrums and a means of focusing attention on our view of fellow men. In terms of setting and moral complexity The Long and the Short and the Tall shares some features with Hammer’s Yesterday’s Enemy, and both movies would make for an interesting double feature.

 
 

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The Silver Whip

As far as I’m concerned, one of the great pleasures of maintaining this site, maybe the greatest if I’m honest, derives from the feedback received. so many posts here have prompted discussion, debate, spitballing and recommendations. The latter has been invaluable to me by drawing my attention to movies of which I was either only vaguely aware or which were entirely new to me. There’s something quite invigorating about the realization that not only is one on a learning curve, but also that this curve continues to grow and expand as one moves along it. I guess all of that is just a long-winded way of saying there’s always new stuff to discover and appreciate. As a result of comments made here in the past I was particularly keen to see The Silver Whip (1953), and I’d like to offer a big thank you to John K for his help in making that possible.

What we have here is both a coming of age story and also a parable on the way mistakes and poor judgment can have both positive and negative influences on the lives of those concerned. The events in The Silver Whip are seen from the perspective of Jess Harker (Robert Wagner), a young man with ambition and dreams, for whom responsibility remains no more than an ill-defined word rattling round his consciousness. Harker’s opening narration makes it clear that his greatest desire is become a stagecoach driver, cracking the whip over a team of horses and pressing ever further at the boundaries of the frontier. However, it’s always been the case that one of the closest companions of youth is frustration, with impatience frequently tagging along in reserve, and it’s no different for Jess Harker. He’s stuck with a team of mules and a mail run that’s barely worth the name. What makes it worse is the fact he’s living in the shadow of men like Race Crim (Dale Robertson) and sheriff Tom Davisson (Rory Calhoun), guys who blazed trails back in the days when the law was simply something people talked about rather than lived by. Harker is restless, he’s got an itch that needs to be scratched, and he’s ready to pack up and move out. But, like most young men, he’s got a girl, Kathy Riley (Kathleen Crowley). This girl wants him badly, bad enough to go to Race Crim and beg him to do something to keep Jess in town. Race’s inherent decency leads him to use his influence to get Harker the job of driving the next stage, and it’s here that the mistakes start to be made. This run, along with passengers, will involve carrying a gold shipment, and gold has a habit of attracting the wrong kind of people. A hold-up is going to take place, people are going to die, and others are going to have to live with the consequences. Without going into further plot details, that’s what the movie is all about – the effect, on two men in particular, of a couple of poor decisions at vital moments.

The Silver Whip is adapted from First Blood by Jack Schaefer (which I haven’t read yet but I’ve just ordered a copy) and deals with the way those decisions lead one man towards the heart of darkness and another to enlightenment and maturity. In a sense it’s that eternal fork in the road, that choice of paths we’re all presented with, although perhaps not in such dramatic fashion, as we make our way through life. The hold-up pushes one man off course, or detours him at least, when he allows his base instincts to take control of him. Conversely, it signals an awakening in another, acting as a catalyst for his first steps towards manhood. And yet, while the routes chosen appear to diverge and head off in different directions, the final result is a convergence, an arrival at a common destination. Salvation and redemption are integral to the 50s western, they cannot be removed without taking away something of the soul of a film and the genre itself. The Silver Whip sets its characters on a journey away from their initial personae, testing them morally and spiritually, before drawing them back towards completion. Harmon Jones’ direction and composition alternately highlights the isolation of both Jess and Race, to draw attention to the uncertainty of the former and the cold determination of the latter. But there’s also the blending of both men into opposing camps too, where their individuality is at times absorbed into the groups they come to represent. And of course there’s the ultimate convergence right at the end, the meeting of mind and spirit which offers closure.

One of the first things you notice about The Silver Whip is the strength of the casting. A very young Robert Wagner was an excellent choice as the green and callow Jess Harper, and his gradual awareness of his place in the world and the results of his actions upon others is nicely realized. He acts as our point of reference, the one through whose eyes everything unfolds, and I think Wagner was fine at conveying the development of his character. Having said all that, Dale Robertson gets the plum role of Race Crim, and really runs with it. He moves seamlessly from an open and affable man to one totally consumed by a desire for revenge and weighed down by an enormous sense of guilt. Positioned between these two is Rory Calhoun as the sheriff whose duty puts him in conflict with his former friend. Calhoun’s role is essentially a supporting one but it’s no less important for being so. And also in support there’s another well-judged turn by James Millican, playing the stage boss whose tough edge hasn’t been quite worn away by his desk job. It’s sometimes thought that women get sidelined in westerns, but that’s rarely the case. While both Kathleen Crowley and Lola Albright have limited screen time, there can be no question about the significance of their respective parts. Crowley is marvelously tender in her understanding of Wagner’s foolishness and Albright impresses deeply in her three brief scenes. Her portrayal of the saloon girl, Waco, is pivotal in the transformation of Robertson – the scenes in the saloon and at the beginning of the stage trip establish his devotion to her, and then the aftermath of the hold-up is the moment when his destiny is mapped out.

The Silver Whip is a 20th Century Fox production and is now available as a MOD DVD via that studio. The transfer to disc looks like an off-the-shelf one where the elements were in reasonable shape but haven’t undergone any restoration. The image is acceptably sharp and detailed throughout but there is the odd scratch and mark visible. I also think the contrast is set a little high as whites can look a bit blown at some points. Overall though, the movie looks fine and is certainly quite watchable. I have to say I got a lot of enjoyment out of my first viewing of this film and I can easily see myself returning to it. There are strong performances from all the cast and Jones’ direction is both pacy and thoughtful. A very pleasant surprise for me, and a film I recommend seeing.

 

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A Lawless Street

The snarling beast… can’t you hear it growling out there? Listen! This town is like a wild animal in chains, Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away, it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.

The hero stalked by his past, living with the legacy of a reputation earned the hard way but not actively sought out, is a common enough theme in westerns. Generally, the inevitable confrontation with the past is undertaken only with the utmost reluctance, with the full knowledge that destruction rather than salvation may await. What’s less common though is a scenario where it’s the cumulative effects of times gone by that are addressed, and where aspects of those times are actually yearned for. A Lawless Street (1955) has such a concept at its heart – a man haunted not by misdeeds but by missed opportunities, and slowly being worn down by conscience, regret and just a hint of fear.

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, and was initially brought in to ensure this frontier town abides by the civilized values one of its leading citizens, Asaph Dean (James Bell), wants to see upheld. Ware is one of those itinerant lawmen sometimes referred to as town tamers, having worked some tough western settlements and built up a name for himself as a gunman of note in the process. One of the things I particularly like about the 50s western is the way such aspects of a man’s character or background are rarely glossed over or glamorized. The memorable opening scene has a lone horseman slowly ride along the empty main street, his body language and general demeanor suggesting he has something serious on his mind, and when the camera zooms in and focuses on his sidearm, then we know pretty well the exact nature of his business. This man is in town to settle a score with the marshal and word of what’s probably in store doesn’t take long to get around. Ware is the type who knows only too well the importance of maintaining a facade, he makes a big play of his apparent nonchalance, projecting an image of supreme confidence regardless of the danger that lie in his path, Yet the viewer knows this for what it is; the brief quote I added at the beginning is a line he lets slip to his landlady as she prepares breakfast for him before he sets off to do his duty. If we have any doubts though, it’s made clear when he returns to his office after the inevitable shooting – the stress of forever living in the shadow of violent threats and the debilitating effects of knowing he’s had to cut short another life are plain to see once he has closed the door against the prying eyes of the townsfolk. The local doctor (Wallace Ford) is aware  of this, and says as much when he later helps to tend to Ware’s injuries after a bruising encounter with the dead man’s brother. The point here is that there’s a marked contrast between the private and the public face of Calem Ware, something that’s further explored when a musical star, Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), arrives to put on a show at the theater. Ware and Tally have a shared past, a framed photo of her stashed in his room alludes to that early on, but its true nature is only revealed gradually. While much of the plot revolves around the machinations of a couple of businessmen (Warner Anderson & John Emery) who want Ware out of the way, and hire gunfighter Harley Baskam (Michael Pate) to that end, the heart of the picture is driven by the relationship between Tally and the marshal, and indeed the marshal’s own intrapersonal relationship.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a film by Joseph H Lewis that wasn’t interesting, either in terms of theme or the visual language he employed in the telling. Although the plot of A Lawless Street isn’t especially original, the way Lewis goes about presenting it elevates it all considerably. Apart from one brief sequence, the entire movie plays out within the confines of Medicine Bend, with all the significant events taking place indoors. The director, and cameraman Ray Rennahan, creates a look and mood which approach film noir at some points and contain a fair amount of symbolism. The image above is, of course, a notable example — the wounded Ware hiding out in his own jail, the shadows of his past and his sense of duty pinning him in place just as surely as the shadows cast by the bars. Note too how the real man seems small and tense next to the solid and imposing image of himself. In fact, a great deal of this film is concerned with the concepts of illusion and reality; one of the main sets is the theater where Tally performs, and what is the theater if not a palace of illusion. As Tally plays her role on the stage, and the marshal assumes his watching from the box seat, the reality is only shown when they move backstage. In the same way, Ware’s office represents his “backstage”, the sanctuary which allows him to strip away the greasepaint of invincibility. Also, let’s not forget the notion of rebirth, the allusion to spirituality, which is frequently found in 50s westerns. The climax toys with the idea of resurrection, of a man back from the dead to reclaim his position in society, and by doing so attaining the spiritual and emotional equilibrium for which he’s been yearning.

Randolph Scott has been featured on this site more than any other actor and I guess most of the reasons for his enduring appeal as a western lead have been covered in depth. For me, A Lawless Street is yet another step along the path Scott was treading in the post-war years, a path that would culminate in the iconic roles he played for both Boetticher and Peckinpah. The part of Calem Ware has enough depth to make it interesting, and Scott had acquired sufficient gravitas by this stage in his career to render his portrayal credible. Angela Lansbury has had a long and distinguished career but the western isn’t a genre that she’s had much association with. A Lawless Street is the only genuine example as far as I’m concerned, as The Harvey Girls is a musical first and foremost. I understand Ms Lansbury has been dismissive of the film and her participation in it, which is a bit of a shame. Aside from the fact the whole production has much to recommend it, her own role is a pretty good one with enough drama and internal conflict to give her something to get her teeth into, and of course there’s the opportunity to show off her singing skills in the theater number.

Michael Pate, John Emery and Warner Anderson are a fine trio of villains: Pate gets across the cunning and menace of his character very successfully, and even outdraws Scott quite spectacularly, while Anderson and Emery are as slimy a pair of puppet masters as you could wish for. Wallace Ford is one of those character actors whose presence is always welcome, and he had a strong pedigree in westerns. As the town doctor, and Scott’s only true friend, he has a good share of screen time and is solid and reassuring throughout. Of the remaining support players, both Jeanette Nolan and Jean Parker deserve a mention for the sense of poignancy and pathos they bring to their small but pivotal roles.

A Lawless Street has been available on DVD for many years via Columbia/Sony, and looks reasonably good. The 16:9 transfer could use a bit more sharpness and some minor work but it’s quite acceptable as it stands. In my opinion, this film is as near the top tier of Scott westerns as makes no difference. The theme, built around a standard genre plot, is rich and has the kind of depth which makes it a pleasure to revisit. The direction by Joseph H Lewis has the pace, the eye for composition and the stylistic flourishes that make his work a rewarding experience. When you factor in the mature and assured performance of Scott, who was very close to hitting his peak, then the result is a deeply satisfying film. All things considered, I give this movie my strong recommendation.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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Cape Fear

Recently, I wrote about Brainstorm, commenting on its connections to classic film noir. Another movie from the same decade, albeit a few years earlier, with an arguably stronger affiliation to the world of noir is Cape Fear (1962). Sourced from the hard-boiled, pulpy writing of John D MacDonald, the film is a merciless examination of some of the darkest areas of human nature. While almost all the varied aspects of the filmmaking process, and the artists and craftsmen involved, blend together to produce the finished product, much of its power derives from the central performance of Robert Mitchum. For a man who initially didn’t want to do the picture, Mitchum fully inhabits his part and brings a level of feral brutality to the character that makes Max Cady one of the most memorable and formidable villains the screen has known.

The story is a relatively simple tale of revenge and retribution, a face-off not only between the principal characters but between the law and justice too. Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful lawyer, married with a teenage daughter and living in some comfort. A typical noir scenario frequently sees the protagonist cornered by circumstance, and what better way to achieve that than to have the past come crashing violently into the present. In Sam Bowden’s case the unwelcome past is represented by the swaggering, cigar-chomping figure of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a man who’s spent eight years in prison on the basis of Bowden’s testimony against him. The question of his own guilt doesn’t occur to Cady, he simply regards himself as a victim of Bowden’s meddling and is thus intent on exacting vengeance for what he considers a life denied him. From his first encounter with Bowden outside the courthouse, a mock affability barely concealing his threats, Cady becomes omnipresent in the attorney’s life. Everywhere he goes, his arrogant nemesis seems to follow, and the veiled intimidation is gradually cranked up with each successive meeting. With the danger to his family becoming ever more apparent, Bowden turns to his friends in the police department in the hopes of using his establishment connections to rid himself of Cady. However, if he thinks he can bend the law to his benefit, he soon finds out how mistaken that assumption is – Cady is clever, cunning and more than capable of turning the tools of Bowden’s trade back on him. Bit by bit, the lawyer is drawn, through mounting desperation, towards that fine line between legality and criminality. Ultimately, Cady’s goading will lead him right up to the rim of the moral abyss and dare him to take that final fateful step.

J Lee Thompson had begun his directing career in British cinema a decade earlier and had made a number of films which showed he had a talent for both action and suspense. While working on The Guns of Navarone, he so impressed star Gregory Peck that he was promptly asked to take charge of this film. There are action sequences in Cape Fear, particularly during the harrowing climax, but it’s primarily a suspense picture, a dread infused journey of terror and moral compromise. As Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score pounds away, Thompson smoothly dials up the tension in tantalizing increments  – clever cutting and camera setups lending an air of danger to such mundane and traditionally secure settings as the family home and the daughter’s school. And cameraman Sam Leavitt plays his part too, alternating between the sun drenched Savannah locations where Sam Bowden walks tall and proud as a leading citizen, and the inky shadows of his home and later the river as his thoughts turn to subverting the law which he serves in order to protect his family.

I said at the start that Cape Fear is a film which benefits from fine work all round. Peck was always good at portraying upright, heroic types. The role of Sam Bowden was a comfortable fit for him, and he catches the slight stiffness that makes the character ever so vaguely unlikable very well; Peck had the ability to convey a kind of prim smugness at times, a quality which fits in nicely in the early stages when he’s calling in favors from Martin Balsam’s accommodating police chief in an effort to run Cady out of town. I found it interesting that Lee Server’s biography claims Mitchum regarded the Peck character as the bad guy until the brutality of the second half of the film clarifies matters. Actually, it not so hard to see where he was coming from with that theory as the story has the establishment figures closing ranks against the outsider in the early stages. Of course the full extent of Cady’s depravity and ruthlessness is starkly revealed as the story unfolds, but that faint touch of ambiguity at the beginning adds further interest to my mind.

Regardless of the solid work from Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase et al, it’s really Mitchum’s show all the way. He’d proved how well he could take on villainous roles in Charles Laughton’s dreamy and magical The Night of the Hunter but I feel playing Max Cady saw him step up to another level altogether. He’s genuinely electrifying every time he appears on screen, strutting and swaggering and dominating every frame with his sheer physicality. To refer again to the Server biography, it’s said that he invested himself in the role so deeply that he terrified Barrie Chase – something that’s clearly visible in the movie itself – and almost had to be restrained during the climactic assaults on both Bergen and Peck. The film was remade 30 years later by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro as Cady, and featuring cameos by both Mitchum and Peck, but it didn’t work anywhere near as well for me. That remake, despite attempts to add some intriguing new aspects to the characters’ relationships, suffers badly from a cartoonish performance by De Niro that pales before the raw dynamism of Mitchum’s work – the sheer primal power of the man burns itself into your memory.

I just recently watched the film again on Blu-ray, which I picked up bundled with the remake for a very good price, and it benefits from the increased resolution but not in any startling way. If Cape Fear isn’t generally referred to as film noir, then it comes awfully close as far as I’m concerned. It’s dark, brooding and tough – the ending does see justice prevail, just, but it comes at a heavy price and nobody really walks away unscathed. For anyone laboring under the illusion that Mitchum tended to phone in his performances, or that J Lee Thompson was simply Cannon fodder, Cape Fear ought to put those myths permanently to rest.

 

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Broken Lance

Remakes have popped up here from time to time in the past and they often divide opinion among movie fans, not only based on their relative merits but also on whether there’s any point in producing them at all. For me, the best remakes, or at least the more interesting ones, try to do something different with the material. For example, the casting may radically alter perspective, or the source material (say, a novel which has been adapted) might be adhered to more faithfully. Shifting from one genre to another – which I feel was successfully achieved with High Sierra and Colorado Territory – is another potentially fruitful option. And this leads me to Broken Lance (1954), which essentially recycles Philip Yordan’s screenplay for House of Strangers and transposes the action from New York to the old west.

Newly released from prison, Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner) is “invited” to the governor’s office in town to be presented with a proposition. His three brothers – Ben, Mike and Denny (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman) – aren’t exactly thrilled to meet him and instead offer a ranch in Oregon and $10,000 in cash, on condition he catches the next train out of town. At  this stage it’s unclear to the viewer why Joe’s siblings are so keen to see the back of him, or why he so contemptuously deposits the proffered money in a spittoon. It’s only after a ride across the vast, open country to the now abandoned family home that the pieces begin to fall into place. As Joe stands amid the dust-choked remnants of his old life, staring at the huge portrait of his now deceased father, his thoughts drift back to earlier days. We see Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy), the gruff Irish patriarch who has tamed a land and is now doing his level best to tame his four sons. Joe is the youngest and his favorite, born of his Indian wife (Katy Jurado), while the others are the product of an earlier marriage. That Mike and Denny are bad apples is immediately apparent when they’re caught attempting to rustle cattle from their own ranch, and Ben’s resentment is seen to be simmering close to the surface as well. The main theme – although it’s by no means the only one – is that of fractured family relations. As the boys have grown into men and the frontier is similarly maturing, the cracks within the Devereaux clan are starting to show. The old man, while not without charm, is of that hard, pioneering breed accustomed to enforcing their will with a six-gun, a whip or a rope. However, times move on and priorities alter along with them. Ben feels that progress requires a change in the way the family business is run, yet he lacks the courage to face down his father directly to effect that change. So there’s tension in the air, but it really only comes to a head when pollution leaking from the local copper workings leads Matt into violent confrontation with the miners. Sadly, from the aging rancher’s perspective, frontier justice has no place in this new world where corporate interests are beginning to assert themselves. With the prospect of a lengthy prison term for his father looming, Joe offers to shoulder the blame as his brothers shirk the responsibility one by one. What ought to have been a nominal sentence turns into a long stretch though as Ben flat refuses to pay the hefty compensation demanded. The result is the exposure of all the old wounds and ultimately the disintegration of a family.

Edward Dmytryk couldn’t be said to be a western specialist yet he made a couple of very strong entries with this one and Warlock. One thing that’s apparent right from the opening credits is the director’s comfort with the wide CinemaScope ratio. Dmytryk’s use of the wide lens (though cameraman Joe MacDonald deserves credit here too) to capture the sense of enormous, uncluttered spaces is quite awe-inspiring at times; it contrasts nicely with the packed interior scenes in town, and neatly highlights the restrictive nature of the advance of progress. This aspect is further highlighted during the trial sequence, where Matt Devereaux, formerly at ease and supremely confident out on the range, alternately squirms and blusters on the stand. Of course it’s also a tribute to Tracy’s acting skills that this works so well. He was arguably the greatest of all naturalistic performers, reacting as opposed to acting. His irascible bravado has an undercurrent of twitchy nervousness, he moves uncomfortably in his chair under the disapproving glare of prosecutor and judge, and is in sharp relief to his earlier scenes where he’s “holding court” in his own home. What we have is a man out of time, or almost, becoming increasingly limited by both the law and his own physical frailty, just as the frontier itself is slowly withering in the face of encroaching civilization.

In a sense, westerns represent an opportunity to dip into the past, to catch a glimpse of an era now gone and existing as no more than a memory. Broken Lance actually mirrors this within its narrative structure, by means of the long central flashback. As viewers we’re invited to take a trip to yesteryear via images on a screen, and Joe Devereaux does something very similar before our eyes; as he gazes upon the imposing portrait of his late father he finds himself transported back to the days and weeks leading up to his imprisonment. Characters pass comment on how much Joe has changed after his incarceration, and I feel Wagner did highly creditable work in the movie. There is a noticeable difference in both his bearing and attitude in the contemporary bookend sequences and the flashback. Wagner isn’t often praised for his acting but I reckon he quite successfully makes the transition from fresh-faced enthusiasm to bitter maturity over the course of the film’s 90 minutes. No doubt the fact he was up against such heavyweights as Tracy and Widmark helped him up his game. Widmark though seems to have little to do for long stretches, really only coming into his own in the final third. His discontented elder sibling is always there as a brooding sideline presence, but the full effects of the denial of parental trust and affection only break through gradually. When the explosion finally comes we’re treated to vintage Widmark – all snarling hatred and half-repressed racism.

The racial matter is never entirely to the fore in the film, although it is of significance and always lurks just below the surface. The difficult legal position in which Matt Devereaux finds himself is at least partly exacerbated by his marriage to an Indian, and then there’s the prejudice the Governor (E G Marshall) cannot overcome at the thought of his daughter’s (Jean Peters)  involvement with a half-breed. The casting of Katy Jurado, the cinematic epitome of soulful dignity, really hammers home the anti-racist message for me. As her family first squabbles and then tears itself apart in an orgy of greed and ambition, she remains the one calm, loving and forgiving constant, surrounded by a sea of pettiness and jealousy. It’s interesting too that following her husband’s death, she moves back to her own people while the three sons of the first marriage relocate to the town and luxury – the ranch lying abandoned, the most positive figure reverting to traditional ways and the negative ones embracing the brave new world of progress. As such, I think this film earns a slot in what we sometimes refer to as the pro-Indian cycle of westerns. Aside from Jean Peters as the spirited love interest for Wagner, most of the others in the fairly big cast are subsidiary characters. E G Marshall gets to indulge in a bit of stiff self-reproach, but Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman have little else to do other than skulk around in Widmark’s sneering wake.

Broken Lance is widely available on DVD nowadays – it’s out on Blu-ray in France although I suspect that edition will have forced subtitles, and the Spanish version is reportedly a BD-R. I have the old UK release from about 10 years ago, which is still a very strong disc. The image is very sharp and clean and does a fine job of showing off the widescreen cinematography. Unfortunately, for such a rich movie, there are no extra features whatsoever offered. As remakes go, Broken Lance is one of the very best in my opinion. House of Strangers (which can itself be taken as a spin on King Lear) is a fine film in its own right but I feel the story is actually improved upon in this instance. By moving the location and turning it into a western, a number of other themes are more productively (or maybe more interestingly) explored  – anyway, it’s sufficiently different and worthwhile to be judged on its own terms rather than comparatively. The characterization is complex, the writing smart, and the direction and cinematography are first class, with what looks a lot like a nod to Anthony Mann in the climactic scene high among the rocks – a highly recommended western that stands out even in the crowded field of 50s classics.

 

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