The Gambler from Natchez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

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.

A Day of Fury

That man is a creature of hell. If he stays here, he’ll turn this town into a hell.

Quite a few westerns have served as social commentaries, using their frontier setting to focus the spotlight on a whole range of issues, as frequently acting as an allegory for the era in which they were made as much as a critique of the old west itself. A Day of Fury (1956) is an interesting case in that it’s less of a social commentary than an examination of human nature, and the less savory side of it at that. I think part of the beauty of the adult-oriented westerns of the 50s lies in the way programmers with modest budgets could tackle complex themes successfully while also telling entertaining stories. It sometimes feels like  current filmmakers have lost this once commonplace skill, either overtly preaching at the audience or veering sharply in the opposite direction and rolling out mindless popcorn fare where you’re required to check your brain at the door. As such, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a movie like this where the makers have sufficient respect for their audience to present an entertaining film while simultaneously crediting them with a modicum of intelligence.

A Day of Fury opens by telling the audience that the Civil War has ended, the frontier is closing, and civilization is advancing. As such, the implication is that we’re in for another end of the trail western, another look at the passing of a way of life. Well that’s true enough up to a point, and yet A Day of Fury is good deal more than that. It’s neither an ode to lost innocence nor a celebration of a brighter future ahead. Instead the movie operates on a more spiritual level, holding up a mirror to the human soul and daring us to take a long hard look at what may be lurking within. Everything starts off in a fairly straightforward manner with a lone horseman, Jagade (Dale Robertson), stumbling into an ambush being set up. The proposed victim is Burnett (Jock Mahoney), the local marshal. When Jagade saves the lawman’s skin it looks like a lead in that’s been seen on many occasions. However, there is also a sense that this film is going to head off in a different direction, the terse dialogue between Jagade and Burnett hinting at something darker and less predictable. Jagade rides ahead into town, ostensibly to tell Burnett’s bride-to-be (Mara Corday) that her man has been delayed, but his real motives gradually become apparent. If there was a tension or edge to the initial meeting between Jagade and Burnett, it’s ramped up considerably as soon as the former sets foot in town. Jagade is a gunfighter, a lethal killer whose reputation precedes him. In fact everything about Jagade harks back to a rapidly disappearing era: from his own violent skills to his acquaintance with the marshal’s betrothed and her time as a saloon entertainer. For Jagade, this represents a last stand of sorts; the changing world around him has left him with no other place to go and he seems keen to turn the clock back. Still, that only amounts to a superficial interpretation of the film. We all know that the past is nothing more than a memory which, despite the strongest yearning, can never be recaptured. And so it is with Jagade; his true function is to confront the facade of respectability and gentility that the town has constructed. The pious righteousness is simply a veneer, and one so thin that it starts to crumble when the slightest pressure is applied. Jagade could, I suppose, be viewed as a kind of malignancy that will have to be cut out at some point, but he could reasonably be seen as the cure as much as the illness. Over the course of one Sunday, and there is significance to the fact that the Sabbath is chosen, the townsfolk begin to regress and descend into the type of amoral thuggishness they had frowned upon only a few hours before. And that’s what I feel the movie is all about – the question of whether our civilized values are so cheap they can be bought or traded away, or whether the roots are deeper and stronger.

Aside from the first five minutes, director Harmon Jones keeps the action of A Day of Fury confined to the backlot western town. While I’m in no doubt budgetary considerations played a big part in that decision, I think it works well on an artistic level too. Everything is contained within a series of tightly controlled locations, heightening the tension and dread that grows as the story progresses. Recently, Toby published a fascinating article in which he revealed that Dale Robertson viewed his character in the movie as an incarnation of the Devil. As I said earlier, the film does have a definite spiritual element running through it and Robertson’s reading of the role is in line with that. Personally, the notion of the movie as a religious allegory makes sense and works: the initial meeting in the desert-like surroundings between Burnett and the left-handed Jagade, and the subsequent temptations that are variously succumbed to, resisted, and overcome. If I had any criticism of this approach, it would only be that I think the final shot of the film arguably lays the symbolism on a little too heavy, and that the message had already been successfully imparted without it. To return to the point I made in my introduction, besides all the ideas and food for thought offered up, the filmmakers never lose sight of the primary goal of presenting an entertaining and well-told tale.

A Day of Fury boasts a strong cast of western players. Dale Robertson’s Jagade is clearly the center of attention, the catalyst for all that takes place. And it’s a marvelously ambiguous part, a character who provokes and toys with those around him. The fact that it all works so well is partly down to the scripting of course, but Robertson’s skill cannot be discounted. There’s an air of authority about the man, a calm self-confidence, tinged too with a touch of distaste both for himself and the weakness all around him. In the opposite corner is Jock Mahoney, stoic, reserved and cool. One could say there’s a passivity to Mahoney’s playing here, but it’s a vital aspect of his character – the only serious rival to Robertson’s satanic influence and the solid rock to whom the town must ultimately turn. And lying somewhere between these two is John Dehner as the preacher. Always a welcome face as far as I’m concerned, Dehner represents the most easily identifiable figure in the town, a man who’s not above weakness but who is also able to recognize that fact and actively work to resist it. As for the others, Mara Corday has a showy part as the former saloon girl whose past returns to haunt her and threaten her future happiness. I thought her weary acceptance of the fragility of so-called respectability was very well realized. In support, Jan Merlin had a pivotal role as the fawning, rat-faced acolyte whose actions finally cause the tide to turn while Carl Benton Reid, James Bell and Howard Wendell all turn in small but noteworthy performances.

A Day of Fury isn’t that difficult to see these days. There’s a Blu-ray available from France, although I’m unsure what the subtitle situation is seeing as it’s a Sidonis release. As a result, I ended up buying the Italian DVD. This may well come from the same source as the image is of excellent quality: the movie is presented in a 2.00:1 anamorphic transfer and comes from a print that exhibits little or no damage. The disc offers the movie either with the original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. Extra features consist of the trailer along with poster and photo galleries. The film itself is one I was eager to see as I had heard a lot of things about it from people whose opinions I greatly respect. I was delighted to discover it was every bit as good as I’d been led to believe. I’ve always enjoyed focusing some attention on pictures that are not so well-known, and I guess this one fits that description. I reckon this is a terrific little movie and should provide plenty to appeal to genre fans and those who simply like smart, well-made films.

Two Flags West

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Civil War films have a reputation for doing poor business, which is probably why the era tends to have been approached somewhat obliquely by Hollywood. There are plenty of movies which feature the war as a kind of background element, something always present in the minds of the characters yet rarely directly shown on the screen. Westerns, perhaps on geographical grounds as much as anything, often used the Civil War and its legacy mainly as a plot device to provide motivation. Students of literature, stretching right back to Aristotle, have recognized conflict as the mainstay of drama – the essential element if you like. Two Flags West (1950) is a film positively brimming with conflict, and not just the obvious Confederate/Union rivalry that is central to the story. That of course is interesting enough in itself, but it’s the personal antagonism among the leads (and indeed within their own hearts) that adds depth and substance.

Two Flags West is one of a small group of westerns – along with Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee – which have soldiers of the Civil War’s two opposing sides forced to co-operate on the frontier. The story here is inspired by the proclamation which allowed Confederate POWs to gain a pardon and have their citizenship restored if they agreed to defend the frontier in the name of the Union. The controversial and divisive nature of this choice is made apparent right from the beginning, when the rebel cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Tucker (Joseph Cotten) are shown to be genuinely torn between the notion of betraying their homeland and remaining true to ideals that are slowly killing them. Faced with the prospect of succumbing to disease and malnutrition, these men narrowly vote to accept the Northern offer and move west to New Mexico where a different war is being fought. Asking a man to turn his back on a cause is one thing, asking him to turn his guns against it is entirely different. Therefore, it’s with the understanding that they will not be forced to take up arms against their former comrades that these men agree to wear the blue tunics of their enemies. The western frontier is virtually defenseless, its outposts manned by a rag-tag bunch of wounded and poorly trained troops. In contrast, the new recruits are skilled cavalrymen and hardened combat veterans.

One would think the presence of such seasoned troops would be welcomed by the men they are coming to reinforce. Indeed, that’s the early impression given by Captain Bradford (Cornel Wilde), the affable liaison officer who makes the initial offer and leads Tucker (now demoted to Lieutenant) and his men west. However, their new commanding officer, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), presents a very different face. Kenniston is a man whose external wounds are as nothing compared to the scars he carries inside. Here is a tortured soul, a man consumed by hatred of the enemy, professional disillusionment and personal frustration. His open animosity towards Tucker and his men, and his frank distrust of their loyalty is immediately apparent. It’s only a matter of time before he forces Tucker’s hand by arranging for the new recruits to carry out the execution of men they later discover were actually Confederate spies. Tucker naturally sees this as a breach of the terms he agreed to, and sets in motion a plan to desert. Now, there’s plenty of dramatic conflict in play at this point, but that’s only one aspect of the story. While questions of loyalty, trust and honor are being thrashed out, there’s also the matter of the Major’s widowed sister-in-law to be considered. Elena (Linda Darnell) is a woman desperate to reach California and her relatives, but that desperation stems from her desire to escape the brooding obsession of her late husband’s brother. To complicate matters further, Bradford is clearly in love with Elena and so has an even more delicate balancing act to master. In short, this isolated fort is like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the fuse that will touch it all off is provided by the mass of hostile Indians raiding beyond its walls.

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In writing about Robert Wise’s first western, Blood on the Moon, some time back, I mentioned how his time spent working for Orson Welles and Val Lewton was reflected in the imagery he used. While Two Flags West has fewer overtly noir touches, both Wise and cameraman Leon Shamroy use light and shadow very effectively, especially in the interiors. The opening scenes in the prison camp are enhanced by this technique, although the atmospheric photography can be seen all through the movie. I think the image above is a pretty good example of the artistic lighting and composition which is characteristic of this film: the grim faces of Cotten and the prisoners dominate the frame, while the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the boarded-up windows in the background suggest rays of hope and salvation reaching out to them. However, the film offers more than just moody and suggestive imagery. The climactic Indian assault on the fort is excitingly filmed and gets across the frenzied determination of the defenders facing overwhelming odds, and their consequent sense of hopelessness. Earlier, I referred to Major Dundee as another film whose plot hinged on the uneasy alliance of former enemies facing a common foe. Aside from that similarity in the basic story, it’s also interesting to note that Two Flags West foreshadows Peckinpah’s later picture by featuring scenes where both the Confederate and Union troops sing their respective songs simultaneously. As far as the script is concerned, the writers credited are Casey Robinson, Curtis Kenyon and Frank Nugent. The latter ought to be a recognizable name for anyone who is familiar with the films of John Ford – Nugent was a writer on both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This movie doesn’t paint as intimate a picture of life in an isolated fort as Ford’s cavalry films do, but there are still some parallels to be seen.

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Two Flags West is a movie with a very attractive headline cast. Despite stiff competition from his co-stars, I think Jeff Chandler makes the strongest impression. I suppose his early death is a contributory factor but I feel Chandler rarely gets much credit for his screen work these days. He wasn’t a particularly showy actor nor was he one for extravagant displays of emotion. Instead he was another of those brooding types who seemed to keep a lot locked away inside, only rarely letting his feelings bubble up towards the surface. The role of Major Kenniston was therefore an appropriate one for him. Chandler created a very convincing portrait of a man whose personal and professional failings are eating away at his soul, whose own self-loathing is weakening his judgement. Frankly, Kenniston is a martinet and there’s much to like about him. Having said that, Chandler invests him with great dignity, and his final scene is actually quite moving regardless of how poorly he has conducted himself up to that point. Cast against such an unsympathetic figure, Joseph Cotten’s Confederate officer ought to be the one we’re rooting for. And yet, that’s not really the case either. Cotten had a knack for playing disgruntled, troubled figures, and his portrayal of Tucker taps into that. Yet there’s a kind of sly ambiguity to his role, a slippery irony about him that means we can never be entirely sure of his motives. The result is that while he may be more sympathetic that Kenniston, the viewer can’t fully get behind him. All of this means that the audience is asked to identify most strongly with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell. I reckon Darnell’s part is the more successful one, not due solely to her acting talents – both Wilde and Darnell turn in good performances in my opinion – but perhaps as a result of Wilde’s being absent from the screen for long stretches. Among the supporting cast, there’s are nice turns from Jay C Flippen, Dale Robertson and Noah Beery Jr.

As far as I’m aware, the only DVD edition of Two Flags West currently available is this Spanish release from Fox/Impulso. It’s one of the label’s better efforts, boasting a generally strong transfer, although there is some print damage evident, generally confined to a kind of slight ripple or blur that appears sporadically on the right side of the frame. The release is English-friendly with the original soundtrack included and optional subtitles that can be deselected via the setup menu. The extra features consist of a gallery and a few text screens listing cast & crew. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of this movie might do well to hold off a little longer though. Koch Media in Germany are due to put the title out on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 26 – it’s worth bearing in mind that Koch’s products tend to be of very good quality. I like to highlight forgotten and/or neglected films whenever possible, and I think Two Flags West fits the bill. For one reason or another, it’s not a movie one hears about too often and that’s a shame. There’s a good plot with plenty of tension and a fair bit of depth, strong performances and fine visuals. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and a title deserving of some renewed attention.