Brainstorm

By the 60s film noir, in its pure form, had become a thing of the past. Still, movies kept coming along that borrowed from its style, wove the imagery and sense of fatalism into their own fabric and produced what I think of as post-noir cinema. I’ve spoken before of the transition which the western was experiencing during this decade but, looking at the movies as a whole, it wasn’t confined to that genre. If society itself was in the throes of major changes, then it’s hardly surprising that the most popular art and entertainment medium should be going through a similar process. Brainstorm (1965) is what might be termed a psychological thriller though it also retains some of the plot devices and photographic style of the classic period of film noir.

When a man finishes work in the evening and sets off home he may have any number of expectations about what lies ahead. Finding a car straddling a level crossing, with the doors locked, a beautiful woman unconscious inside, and a train fast approaching would have to come pretty far down the list though. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what scientist Jim Grayam (Jeffrey Hunter) comes upon after checking out of the research institute where he’s employed. Just managing to get the car clear of the tracks in time, he discovers that the doped up lady in the passenger seat is Lorrie Benson (Anne Francis), wife of his boss. By the time he’s driven her back to the Beverly Hills mansion where she resides the effects of whatever she’s taken are starting to wear off, and it’s clear enough too that he’s just foiled a suicide bid. The husband, Cort Benson (Dana Andrews), is the urbane but stiff type, a man accustomed to possessing and controlling both things and people. Well there’s the setup: a desperate woman trapped in a deeply unsatisfactory marriage, a husband who is aloof and calculating, and a good-looking young man who’s just ridden to the rescue. There are no prizes on offer for guessing the direction this story is going to take, but it’s the intensity with which it’s played out, and the ultimate payoff, that grabs the attention. As Lorrie and Grayam grow ever closer, so the suspicions and ruthlessness of Benson grow ever stronger. With Grayam’s position under threat as a result of an insidious campaign designed to call into question his stability, thoughts turn to murder. The commission of the crime doesn’t appear to pose so many problems though as the efforts to evade the consequences.

William Conrad is best known for his acting roles, especially on TV, yet he also did a fair bit of work as a director. The bulk of his credits behind the camera were in television, and they’re quite extensive. He only took charge of a handful of cinema features – this is the only one I’ve seen so far – and that’s a pity as he clearly had a good eye for composition and pacing. Conrad moved the camera around nicely and created some wonderfully framed shots, the shooting of the interior scenes in the Benson mansion are particularly noteworthy, using the kind of angles and lighting which are unmistakably noir. Still, the film is clearly a product of the 60s, George Duning’s score and the snappy TV-influenced editing are evidence of that. In a way, the whole thing is a reflection of the director’s experience – the strong noir sensibility, obviously gleaned from his early acting roles in the likes of The Killers, and the sharp economy of television. Generally, it all looks good, due in no small part to the decision to film in the always attractive process of black and white scope.

I’ve stuck up for the acting abilities of Jeffrey Hunter before, and I’m more than happy to do so again. He remains an underrated performer, an actor capable of taking on strong, intense roles and carrying it all off successfully. The part of Jim Grayam wasn’t an easy one; it required a steady progression along an arc, which I at least feel (although others may not agree), is foreshadowed or hinted at right from the beginning. Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s simply say that Hunter’s character traces a path of development which demanded a good deal of skill by the actor to ensure it remained believable. The presence of Dana Andrews in a thriller automatically makes me think of his collaborations with Preminger back in the 40s and Lang in the 50s, and provides a strong link to classic noir. His role in this film, while essentially in support, is a vital one. Age and hard living had weathered his features, although there had always been a touch of the implacable about him, making him a good choice as the distant and manipulative tycoon. Frankly, I wasn’t as impressed by Anne Francis – sure she’s attractive and there’s no problem seeing why she should be able to captivate and lead Hunter down a path of destruction, but her character doesn’t seem to fulfill the potential suggested by her early scenes. Viveca Lindfors, on the other hand, is excellent as the enigmatic psychiatrist, leaving both the viewer and Hunter’s lead unsure as to her motivations. There are plenty of familiar faces popping up in bit parts too: Michael Pate, Strother Martin and, in a brief but memorable scene, there’s an appearance by future Bond villain Richard Kiel.

Brainstorm has been issued on DVD in the US by the Warner Archive as part of their MOD program, and it’s also available in Spain on pressed disc via Warner/Impulso. I have the Spanish version, which I’m guessing replicates the US disc, and the movie has been given a nice anamorphic transfer. The print used is in good condition, generally sharp and without any obvious damage or defects. There are no extra features, and although the menu suggests playback of the English soundtrack may force subtitles to be displayed, they can be disabled by simply deselecting them with the subs button on the remote. Brainstorm mightn’t be a very well-known film but it’s a slickly made post-noir thriller with a strong cast, and well worth checking out.

The Proud Ones

22_zpsq5pfdja6

The minute you people smelled money, this town got an attack of larceny. I don’t blame it on Barrett; I blame it you. You’re supposed to be respectable. You talk about law and order; you’d sell out for a copper penny – any one of you. You’re robbin’ and stealin’ the same as he is, with your fifty dollar boots and your twelve dollar hotel rooms. If I was on this council, I couldn’t look in the mirror without vomiting!

Occasionally, there are films which I fully intend to feature but somehow they seem to slip through the net at the last moment. I’m not entirely sure why that happens as they’re rarely poor or unmemorable. For one reason or another they don’t get written up and I find my attention has moved on to something else. A good example of this is The Proud Ones (1956), although the fact this movie has cropped up in discussions and comments here a few times lately means it’s never been too far from my mind. As 50s westerns go The Proud Ones remains a pretty solid effort, using a fairly common town tamer storyline to look at a handful of people bound together by events from their pasts that can’t be shaken off, and also slipping in a few sly digs at the way progress and prosperity have a way of shepherding in the beginnings of moral decay.

Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) is one of those lawmen who moved from one hot spot to another, his latest port of call being the peaceful town of Flat Rock. However, Flat Rock is about to undergo something of a transformation as the arrival of the first cattle drive promises an upturn in economic fortunes, as well as the potential for increased lawlessness. Westerns tend to focus on the trouble stirred up by visiting cowboys eager to blow off some steam and cut loose after a long period in the saddle. In this case though the source of the problem isn’t the cowboys champing at the bit for whiskey and women; all the trouble that arises stems from the town itself, or its newest arrival anyway. “Honest” John Barrett (Robert Middleton) has just moved in and taken over the running of the saloon and the gambling tables. The thing is Barrett is a sharp operator, not averse to using hired guns and crooked dealers, and he has a bit of history with Silver. Both men locked horns in the past and the result was that Silver apparently ended up being run out of town. A further layer of pressure comes in the form of Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), another new arrival whose father was gunned down by Silver years before. While the marshal has to deal with the needling of Barrett and the alternating hostility and confusion of Thad, he’s faced with an altogether more serious danger. A man in such a position needs the full use of all his faculties at the best of times, but Silver comes to the sobering realization that he may be in danger of losing his sight just as matters are coming to a head.

21_zpsh77feqgs

I’ll have to admit that I’m not very familiar with a lot of director Robert D Webb’s work – apart from the neglected White Feather and the less satisfactory Seven Cities of Gold – but what I have seen indicates that he had a good eye for wide scope compositions. The wide screen tends to work best with films that are heavily dependent on the use of landscape – movies featuring a significant amount of location shooting. Arguably, films which contain a lot of interior shots, as is the case with this production, require greater care if they’re photographed in scope. An overeager or lesser director might  succumb to the temptation to pack out the frame with too many characters and movement, throwing the composition out of kilter and muddling the focus. It’s to Webb’s credit, no doubt aided by having Lucien Ballard as cameraman, that he resisted those temptations and went for clarity instead. Many scenes take place in Silver’s office/jail, and the wide frame is expertly used to highlight the character interaction of the principals whilst also drawing attention to the little gestures and reactions of the peripheral figures. Lionel Newman is the credited composer and the melancholy whistling theme is an understated and ideal accompaniment for the action on the screen.

I’m a big fan of Robert Ryan, a subtle actor of great depth and range who seemed equally at home in both westerns and film noir. A quick look through his credits for the 40s and 50s makes for impressive reading, with hardly a bad performance on view despite the variable quality of some of the projects he was involved in. The Proud Ones offered Ryan the opportunity to play a man whose outward toughness masks the uncertainties and regrets he really feels. His character’s back story is filled in gradually as we go along and, together with the failing eyesight angle, helps to build audience sympathy. Ryan also managed a good rapport, in contrasting ways, with both Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Middleton. While I’m not sure the relationship between Ryan and Hunter quite works, I wouldn’t lay the blame at the door of the actors. I reckon Hunter was and is criminally underrated and tends to get dismissed as a pretty boy who brought little of substance to his roles. Frankly, I don’t go along with that and find him more than satisfactory in most films – I’d go so far as to say he was excellent in Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James for example –  succeeding in getting across the sense of confusion of his character here. Middleton was a versatile character actor, but always made an especially effective heavy. He brings a nice sense of smugness to his role that provides the necessary counterweight to Ryan’s edginess. There’s also a hint, never fully explored, that both Middleton and Ryan were former rivals for the affections of Virginia Mayo. Whilst Mayo gets a more fully developed character to work with here than was often the case, she seems to put a little too much into her performance. This is understandable for an actress who was frequently handed thankless parts, but it does jar a bit. The supporting cast is long and noteworthy with Walter Brennan (slightly wasted as Ryan’s laconic sidekick) and Arthur O’Connell as the distracted deputy heading it up. I mentioned the swipe the script takes at the greed and moral decline accompanying the financial boom, and the opening quote refers to that. Edward Platt and Whit Bissell catch the eye as representatives of the respectable citizenry easily corrupted by the promise of riches.

2_zps7yyxshri

Fox released The Proud Ones on DVD in the US some years ago but it remains a very strong transfer. The disc offers the film in its correct anamorphic scope ratio on one side while the reverse has a (redundant) pan and scan version. Color and detail are well rendered and the print used is very clean and practically undamaged. Extra features are limited to a handful of trailers. I don’t think Robert Ryan ever made a poor western and The Proud Ones, even though it may not be among his best known pictures, is a fairly strong effort. One could say it’s a generic 50s western and while it’s hard to argue with that assessment it shouldn’t be taken as a criticism either. I feel Mayo overcooks it a little and the central dynamic between Ryan and Hunter could have been improved by the writers. Still, despite these few quibbles, the movie does work when taken as a whole. I’d call it a solid, above average example of the genre.

P.S. – This is just one of those infrequent updates I’ll be adding to the site over the summer – full, normal service shall be resumed some time in September.

Gun for a Coward

Poster

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.

The True Story of Jesse James

Titles

Almost twenty years after scoring a hit with Jesse James Fox tried to repeat their success in 1957. With a screenplay based on and crediting Nunnally Johnson’s 1939 effort, the studio tagged ‘The True Story’ onto the title and director Nicholas Ray was handed the task of trying to offer a fresh perspective on this oft-told tale. So, does this one actually tell the true story? Well, not exactly since the time-line is more than a bit suspect, although it does get quite a few things right which the earlier version didn’t.

The film pitches the viewer straight into the action as it opens during the raid on the Northfield bank. After the dramatic escape of Jesse (Robert Wagner) and brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) the film proceeds to narrate events via a series of flashbacks which lead up to the climactic and doomed heist. The True Story of Jesse James, as I said, manages to correct a few of the errors of the earlier version. In this film the James gang are, more accurately, shown to be driven towards a life of crime as a result of the conditions that prevailed after the Civil War. The treatment of the other characters is also a good deal closer to reality. The 1939 film had the James home being bombed by railroad agents, resulting in the death of Jesse’s mother. Nicholas Ray’s movie has the attack being carried out by Pinkerton men (referred to here as Remington agents) and causing not the death of the old woman but the loss of her arm – again this is pretty much as it happened. It is no bad thing either that the Younger brothers are actually portrayed here, although the emphasis on them is slight.

Jesse James (Robert Wagner) shooting his way out of Northfield.

The biggest weakness of the movie lies in the casting, and particularly that of the lead. While earlier incarnations showed Jesse James as a lovable rogue (Tyrone Power) or a saintly, avuncular type (Reed Hadley), here he has evolved into more of a trigger-happy glory seeker. The trouble is that Robert Wagner just doesn’t have the necessary edge or grit to carry this off successfully. Although he does give a pleasant enough performance he is simply too lightweight. Jeffrey Hunter, on the other hand, is excellent as Frank; so much so that it seems a pity he wasn’t given the lead. Agnes Moorehead adds some class as the mother but her scenes are few. Even though Alan Hale’s Cole Younger is played mostly for comic relief it lends a touch of realism to see the character appear and be shown as a figure of some influence within the gang. John Carradine turns up again (how many  movies did this man make?), not as Bob Ford but as the preacher who baptises Jesse.

While I generally enjoyed this movie there were a few things that did get up my nose. These mostly involved the inclusion of footage from the 1939 Henry King film. The train robbery sequence blends in fairly seamlessly but another example proved especially distracting to me. During the well filmed Northfield raid, as the lead flies and men are falling all around, Frank and Jesse take the time to ride into an alley and divest themselves of their long dusters. Why, you might well ask, would two men caught in a firefight pause to do this? Well, the answer is that we’re about to see recycled footage of Power and Fonda riding through a plate glass window and later jumping their horses off a cliff – and our heroes hadn’t been wearing dusters in the ’39 film! Now those scenes were great the first time round but it smacks of a certain cheapness to wheel them out here again. Another problem I had was at the end of the film. You know that Bob Ford is going to shoot Jesse as he stands on a chair to straighten that picture. Well, here Ford gives it to him in the back of the head at point blank range – and instead of dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes, Jesse swivels around to glare reproachfully at his assassin before succumbing to his wound. Bah!

The True Story of Jesse James is available on DVD from Fox in R1 and Optimum in R2. I watched the R1 and the presentation of this scope film is excellent with no major faults worth mentioning. I can’t comment on the quality of the R2 disc but I would imagine that it has been cut by the BBFC for the aforementioned scene of the jump off the cliff – I understand one of the animals was killed during the filming of that stunt. So, despite some quibbles, I would say this is not a bad movie – just not a great one.