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Category Archives: Robert Wagner

The Silver Whip

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Broken Lance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 
 
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