Category Archives: Fred MacMurray

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.


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


Tags: , , ,

Good Day for a Hanging

Since when is a young rattlesnake any less poisonous than an old one?

First and foremost, a good film needs to be entertaining. The more interesting ones ask questions and have a clear theme which dominates the plot. For this viewer, the theme is always important as it indicates the  direction the picture is likely to take. As such, I’m always a little disappointed when the theme is underdeveloped or poorly developed. One is left wondering what point the filmmakers are trying to make, what their position really is. Good Day for a Hanging (1959) is an example of this, suggesting that it’s going to offer a critique of justice and the death penalty. However, it loses focus and ends up being neither fish nor fowl, dragging our sympathies in one direction before wrong-footing us and apparently contradicting the line it was initially following.

Ben Cutler (Fred MacMurray) is an ex-lawman living in an idyllic Nebraska town. He’s a widower with a grown-up daughter and only weeks away from marrying Ruth Granger (Maggie Hayes), another single parent. His plans for a peaceful domestic future are thrown into disarray though by the arrival of a five man gang intent on robbing the bank. The heist doesn’t go entirely smoothly, resulting in a shoot-out and pursuit with a hastily assembled posse. The upshot of all this is the aging marshal (Emile Meyer) ends up dead, and the man accused of killing him is a former resident of the town, Eddie Campbell (Robert Vaughn). Cutler manages to wound Campbell and bring him back to town for trial, although the situation is complicated by the fact his daughter (Joan Blackman) was the outlaw’s childhood sweetheart and still carries a torch for him. Well the trial comes to pass, and Campbell ends up convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, principally on the evidence of Cutler who has been drafted in as a replacement marshal due to his previous experience. Throughout it all Campbell maintains his innocence with the support of Cutler’s daughter, who refuses to believe her former love capable of murder. As Campbell’s date with the gallows approaches the discontent within the town grows – Cutler’s isolation also increases as first his daughter, then his betrothed, and finally the citizenry turn their back on him and question his judgment and motives.

Nathan Juran is best known now for his science fiction and fantasy movies but he directed a number of pretty good westerns, notably with Audie Murphy. Good Day for a Hanging was a low-budget affair (recycling the score from 3:10 to Yuma throughout), resembling a TV western in some respects but quite competently handled by Juran. The opening quarter-hour is pretty stylish and tense as the build up to and execution of the bank robbery take place, Juran alternating nicely between wide shots and telling close-ups. The truth is the direction remains smooth all the way and the climactic shoot-out is well done. The script, however, is less satisfactory. One is left with the impression that the writers were unsure or undecided what point they wanted to press home. On the one hand, the whole movie seems to be building towards a condemnation of the death penalty, but then changes tack for the climax. There also seems to be that typical 50s concern with disaffected youth, but again the payoff is at odds with the end result. And then there’s the character of Cutler – the inner conflict of a man of principle is certainly explored, but he’s portrayed as such an implacable and frankly unsympathetic figure that even that doesn’t really hit the mark. All of this amounts to a very average western, and you can’t help but feel let down when you think of the creative and thematic heights the genre had reached by the end of the 50s.

Generally, I like Fred MacMurray in westerns, although I understand he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about doing them. His best roles always had a touch of ambiguity about them, and those where he was downright unsympathetic were probably the strongest. As Cutler, he had the opportunity to play to his strengths, his unbending conviction on the outside causing plenty of internal turmoil. For long stretches it’s hard not to see him as the villain of sorts, apparently oblivious to the mounting pressure from family, friends and community. But I’m not totally convinced that’s how we’re supposed to view him. Once again, I feel the writing is fault here rather than MacMurray – we’re encouraged to see him as others do as opposed to how he sees himself. And then there’s an element of unreality to it all; would any man honestly jeopardize his relations with those closest to him, those he genuinely loves, for what is at best a highly debatable principle? Pitted against him was Robert Vaughn, a man whose place in western lore was just a year away from being cemented in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, but who would find his true niche in TV, particularly as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He’s fine as the troubled youth as far as it goes, but I feel he suffers from the confused scripting too. The supporting cast features, Emile Meyer, Maggie Hayes, Joan Blackman, Denver Pyle and The Virginian, James Drury, all in perfectly acceptable if unremarkable roles.

Good Day for a Hanging was released some time ago in the US by Columbia – TriStar on DVD and should be easily available. The transfer to disc is OK, but nothing more. It’s in the correct widescreen ratio and doesn’t display any noticeable damage, but it’s a lackluster affair for all that. The image is a bit dull and faded, mediocre at best. Even so, this is the kind of film that’s unlikely to have a lot of care lavished on it so I’m happy enough to have it available in acceptable form. Have I been unduly harsh in my overall assessment? Perhaps, and others may disagree. For me, context is the key here; 1959 saw the release of some of the best films the western genre had to offer, and Good Day for a Hanging looks weak when set against them. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, MacMurray and Vaughn are very watchable and Juran does all that’s asked of him, but it promises a lot more than it ultimately delivers.


Posted by on April 6, 2015 in 1950s, Fred MacMurray, Westerns


Tags: , ,


Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize a movie; it may have certain familiar and identifiable features that one associates with a particular genre, yet either fails to capitalize on these or mixes in the traits of another type of movie. Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a touch of the unexpected can enliven a stale formula. But not always. Singapore (1947) has many of the trappings that are associated with film noir: dark, shadowy imagery, a flashback, a voiceover narration, a slightly unscrupulous protagonist, a mysterious woman. Still, it’s not a noir picture; there’s too much melodramatic romance and half-hearted adventure tossed in there. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with a handful of genres and suffers a bit of an identity crisis as a result. Besides that, it’s just not very good.

Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) is a pearl smuggler – we learn this when he’s pulled in to the custom’s office the moment his plane touches down in Singapore. With the war over, he’s returning to his old haunts and the authorities suspect that he’s likely to return to his old trade too. As Gordon wanders through the hotel where he formerly resided, he’s suddenly assailed by memories. A flashback sequence sees him in the days leading up to the Japanese attack and introduces the old lover whose loss still preys on his mind. Gordon and Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) had one of those whirlwind romances that are often found in wartime movies. Just as the couple are about to tie the knot the bombing raids commence, and he races back to his hotel to recover the fortune in pearls he has stashed there. Failing to recover his treasure, he returns to find the chapel in ruins and Linda missing presumed dead. And so we’re up to speed – Gordon has come back to Singapore hoping his pearls may still be retrievable. As he awaits the opportunity to check out his old quarters and see if the loot is still there, he spies Linda. The woman he thought had perished in the bombed out chapel is alive and well, but has no recollection of who he is. Amnesia – we’re back in noir territory, right? Wrong. Loss of memory can serve as a great plot device when it involves blanking out secrets that carry a threat or danger. In Singapore, that’s not the case at all and the story becomes bogged down in a soapy love triangle that really only has two sides. Sure, there’s an attempt to milk some suspense and intrigue from the secondary business of two cartoon villains (Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd) also seeking the elusive pearls, but again the absence of any real threat hamstrings that element.

Casablanca struck gold when it placed its two eternal lovers in an exotic locale, but a movie needs more than that to succeed. Lots of films have tried to tap into that vibe (Macao, Calcutta, Saigon etc.) but the results have been variable at best. For me, Singapore fails on two levels; the central romance and half-hearted mystery just aren’t engaging, and the leads don’t have any spark together. Although both MacMurray and Gardner are good enough in their respective roles they have no chemistry whatsoever, and that’s a major issue when the script revolves around an apparent grand passion. As if that weren’t enough, the chief stumbling block preventing the couple from picking up where they left off – Gardner’s post-amnesia marriage to a planter – rings hollow and utterly fails to convince. As the villain, Thomas Gomez is surprisingly toothless and his character’s borderline incompetence means that we never seriously doubt MacMurray’s ability to get the upper hand. Director John Brahm made a number of noir-tinged melodramas that have much to recommend them, but Singapore is certainly among his weaker efforts. I’m generally a fan of his work and he does his best to inject some style into this humdrum production. The angles are varied and the sets are cleverly lit to enhance the atmosphere as far as possible. Still, apart from a short sequence which sees MacMurray struggling to extract his hidden pearls while avoiding the attentions of the law next door, there’s precious little tension on view.

As far as I’m aware, the only current commercial release of Singapore is the recent DVD from Universal in France. Generally, the film has been presented well; the transfer does exhibit some dirt and speckles but this is really only noticeable right at the beginning. The image is satisfactorily sharp and contrast is consistent throughout. There are no extra features offered and the French subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu – burnt-in captions do appear though on a handful of occasions when text is displayed, but this is too rare and minor to be regarded as a black mark. I guess I’ve made it clear enough that this isn’t an especially good or memorable movie. Singapore was later remade as the Errol Flynn vehicle Istanbul and while that’s no great shakes either, it’s arguably a stronger film. This one is attractively shot and Ava Gardner looks wonderful as always, but that’s about it. I can’t say I got much out of the movie and it’s not one I’d recommend tracking down.


Posted by on March 4, 2012 in 1940s, Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray, John Brahm


Gun for a Coward


The western is arguably the most masculine genre around, celebrating toughness and highlighting the virtues of honour, pride, independence and courage. As such, it’s ideally suited to the exploration and analysis of what we consider manhood to be. The 1950s, with the predominance of what’s referred to as the psychological western, mined this theme extensively. Gun for a Coward (1957) attempts to nail down the essence of what makes a man and how his courage, or lack of it, defines him. I say “attempts” because I’m not sure it succeeds entirely in what it sets out to do, settling for the easy option at the end and not quite satisfying as a result.

The story centres around the Keough family, their struggle to build up a ranch and the dynamic between three very different brothers. Since the death of their father the paternal role has been adopted by Will (Fred MacMurray), the eldest of the three and a man who’s seen youth pass him by as the burdens of being the head of the family took priority. Still, he’s a man who’s held onto his dreams and hopes to marry the daughter of a neighbouring rancher now that financial success is within his grasp. Of the two other siblings, Hade (Dean Stockwell) is the youngest and the most aggressively reckless. In the middle, and at the heart of the story itself, is Bless (Jeffrey Hunter), the most sensitive of the trio and their mother’s favourite. Bless is the son who’s character is closest to that of his mother; he’s cautious, passive and non-confrontational. The thing is, these are not the traits that garner respect in the rough and tumble world of the west. Bless has earned a reputation as a physical coward, a man who will always back down rather than meet things head on. Later, we learn that the roots of this lie in the past and relate to the fate of his father – although I’m not sure the explanation we get really stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Matters come to a head during a cattle drive to Abilene, when a series of events all combine to expose Bless to one physical and moral challenge after another. The upshot is that all those around: friends and workers, the other Keough brothers and, most crucially, Bless himself come to question what kind of man he really is. The resolution, when it comes around, conveniently affirms Bless’ physical bravery, but I don’t believe that was ever in serious doubt in the first place. While the perceptions of others may have branded Bless as one who was afraid to go head to head with another in a physical confrontation, the viewer is aware that his evasiveness is based more on a kind of innate knowledge that such grandstanding is ultimately futile. The real issue is Bless’ moral cowardice: his sidestepping a showdown with his mother when she is bent on moving east to take him away from the dangers and hardships of life on the frontier; his failure to do the right thing by the girl he loves; and, related to the previous, his inability to lay the facts on the table with Will. All of these matters are resolved at one point or another, though Bless never really picks up the reins and forces things himself.

Sibling rivalry - Dean Stockwell, Jeffrey Hunter and Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward.

Actor-turned-director Abner Biberman worked mostly in television and I think it’s fair to say his handling of his directorial duties on Gun for a Coward are unspectacular. I don’t mean to say that his work is bad, just that it’s fairly anonymous. He knew how to compose a shot and shoot an action scene, yet there’s nothing especially memorable about any of it. What raises this movie up, and it is a good movie, is the script and the acting. The writing is layered and has a great deal of depth (even if it’s not as fully explored as it could be), slotting itself comfortably into place among the many examinations of human complexity that the decade’s western has to offer. Fred MacMurray, as was the case with a number of aging stars, drifted into the western in the 50s and found a degree of success there. He plays the stable, rock-like character, the voice of reason and the point of reference for the viewer. While he may have been a little old for the role of Will (especially when it’s borne in mind that Josephine Hutchinson, as his mother, was only something like five years older) the part does call for a degree of maturity, and MacMurray also had a knack for conveying the necessary quality of quietly wounded dignity. Dean Stockwell’s young hothead is something of a caricature and there’s more than a hint of a James Dean impersonation in there. The honours really belong to Jeffrey Hunter though, who managed to get inside the skin of Bless and create a completely believable figure. Hunter could project a certain vulnerability when called upon to do so, and in Bless he becomes that man who is aware of his own weaknesses and, consequently, has come to question his stature within both his family and the wider community. Of the supporting players I want to single out Chill Wills, not just for his part in this movie but for his all round contribution to the genre. His was one of those immediately recognizable faces and voices that seemed to turn up in every other western, and invariably enriched the viewing experience.

Gun for a Coward is now available from a number of sources on DVD – a US MOD disc, and reportedly less than satisfactory editions in France and Spain. However, when I saw that it was out on pressed disc in Australia from a company called Visual Entertainment Group (who seem to have licensed a number of Universal and Fox titles) I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say that this R4 release presents the film very nicely – it’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer that’s clean and consistent. The only weak section I noticed was a brief insert that appears during the drive to Abilene, and since that looks a lot like a piece of stock footage it’s not really the fault of the DVD presentation. The disc is very basic with no extras whatsoever. Still, the movie itself is presented handsomely, and the cover pleasingly reproduces the original poster art. All in all, I’d rate Gun for a Coward as a respectable entry among the westerns of the 1950s. When you bear in mind that the decade in question is practically bursting at the seams with classics of the genre I don’t think I’m being mean in my assessment. I certainly recommend checking this one out.


Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Fred MacMurray, Jeffrey Hunter, Westerns


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 621 other followers