Tribute to a Bad Man

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We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

 

 

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The Stand at Apache River

Something I like to do on this site is feature a mix of the better and lesser known films. When it comes to the latter category there’s no shortage of candidates to be found among the output of Universal studios. Second features or programmers are of course a varied bunch in terms of quality, but it has to be said that Universal, of all the Hollywood studios, had a real knack for producing entertaining westerns on the cheap. These small-scale, unpretentious movies had a polish and tight professionalism to them that’s very attractive. There’s no doubt that these films were constrained by their budgets but that was often turned into an advantage in itself. The Stand at Apache River (1953) is a fair example of a western which both exploits its limitations and simultaneously suffers from them too.

The opening sees a horseman striking out across an expanse of barren country, nervously checking his back trail for signs of pursuit before heading for the rocky high ground and the promise of safety. This man is Greiner (Russell Johnson), a thief and murderer desperate to avoid a date with the hangman. Hot on his heels is Lane Dakota (Stephen McNally), a driven lawman with a personal interest in running down his quarry. When an unexpected skirmish with a couple of Apache leaves Greiner badly wounded, and Dakota without his much needed proof, the sheriff has no option but to seek temporary shelter until the prisoner is well enough to be brought back to face justice. And this brings us to the location where the remainder of the drama will play out – the Apache River ferry station. Dakota’s arrival coincides with that of a stagecoach carrying Valerie Kendrick (Julie Adams) and Colonel Morsby (Hugh Marlowe), the former being an uncertain bride-to-be on her first trip west while the latter is a veteran Indian fighter with a fearsome reputation. No sooner has this little band of travelers gathered at the isolated station than it’s revealed that a group of 50 Apache warriors has broken free from the San Carlos reservation and may be heading their way. This external threat is exacerbated by a number of internal conflicts, among which are Greiner’s eagerness to elude his captor and the friction that arises between Dakota and Morsby over matters of justice and their respective attitudes towards the Apache. When the station finds itself under siege and repeatedly attacked by the Apache all the tensions within are exposed and add to the danger.

While I was watching this movie I found it difficult not to be reminded of Apache Drums for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the presence of Stephen McNally in the lead and the fact that the title and credits play over the same footage and images as the earlier film. Additionally, both movies have a similar structure, gradually narrowing in focus and confining themselves to a single set as the story progresses. The Stand at Apache River also tries hard to recapture some of the terrifically claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized and elevated the Lewton/Fregonese film but director Lee Sholem doesn’t quite get there. The lighting and cinematography are similar but the same sense of menace isn’t achieved. Where Lewton and Fregonese kept the Apache largely unseen and thus built them up into frightening bogeyman figures, this movie presents them, or at least their leader, as more rounded characters. While this dissipates the threat somewhat, it does offer the opportunity for some consideration of the nature of the conflict between the settlers and the Apache, deftly highlighting the grievances of and injustices towards the latter group. However, this also feeds into what I see as the main weakness of the movie – essentially there is too much going on. You cannot have drama without conflict but it’s also possible to overdo it. The movie only runs for an hour and a quarter and tries to pack in a siege, commentary on settler/native relations, the problems faced by women in isolated frontier settings, and a love triangle to name just a few. In the end, there are too many themes and too little development – arguably, there’s enough material for a couple of movies here.

Stephen McNally and Julie Adams get the most screen time and both of them turn in perfectly acceptable performances. However, the overstuffed plot which I mentioned does work against them and means that their character development is necessarily limited. This is a shame as both of them have interesting back stories, and the acting chops to take advantage of them, but there’s just not enough time to explore it all further. Hugh Marlowe is fine too as the rigid martinet although his role is fairly one-dimensional. There’s also a nice intense turn by Jaclynne Greene as the frustrated and frightened owner of the river station. Russell Johnson (who passed away just last month) and Hugh O’Brian both play potentially interesting characters, though once again it has to be said they really don’t get the chances to show what they were capable of. The only disappointment for me was Edgar Barrier, who I found pretty unconvincing as the Apache chief.

I guess The Stand at Apache River has to count as a bit of an obscure film these days, and it certainly hasn’t been widely available for home viewing. However, there is a nice DVD out in Spain. Many Universal titles from the 50s seem to be in reasonably good shape and The Stand at Apache River is no exception. The print used isn’t perfect but it’s not at all bad either. While there are a handful of instances of age-related damage, they are few and I wouldn’t refer to them as a particular distraction. Generally, the transfer is smooth, colorful and acceptably sharp. The disc doesn’t offer anything in the way of extras but there’s no problem with subtitles either – there’s the option of French, Spanish or none. All in all, the movie provides plenty of entertainment and excitement. With its short running time it moves along briskly and, leaving aside the matter of the crowded plot, should satisfy those into westerns of this era.

Apache Drums

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Filmmakers assigned to B movie projects always faced an uphill struggle at the outset: inflexible and restrictive shooting schedules, budgets pared right down to the bone, and scripts that, as often as not, lacked any spark of originality. Still and all, there were a select few who seemed to thrive under such circumstances, who had the vision or the maybe even the guts to shape something worthwhile out of the modest resources before them. Fans of classic horror are familiar with, and hold in high regard, the name of Val Lewton. This was the man whose specialist unit at RKO managed to produce a series of classy, polished little nightmares that not only transcended their frugal budgets but actually succeeded because there was so little money available. Apache Drums (1951), made at Universal, was Lewton’s last feature as producer before his untimely death from a heart attack. The film is the only western he was involved in, and it’s such an effective and atmospheric little picture that I can’t help but wonder how he might have fared within the genre had his life not ended so prematurely.

The story is derived from Harry Brown’s Stand at Spanish Boot, and it tells a fairly standard tale. Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) is a gambler, a seemingly incorrigible ne’er-do-well (he’s even earned himself the unwelcome nickname “Slick”) who quite literally opens proceedings with a bang, shooting dead a rival card player in the stark saloon in the town of Spanish Boot. I found it a particularly nice touch that the shooting takes place off-screen as it immediately lends a sense of ambiguity to Sam’s character. He says it was self-defense and no-one seriously doubts that, still the seeds of suspicion are planted in our minds right from the off. The shooting comes at a bad time from Sam’s perspective: the mayor/blacksmith Joe Madden (Willard Parker) has been talked into a kind of moral crusade by the Welsh (the nationality has some significance later in the movie) parson Griffin (Arthur Shields) and Sam is given his marching orders. The fact that Madden is Sam’s rival for the affections of local girl Sally (Coleen Gray) rubs further salt into his wounds but he has no alternative. The dance hall girls have just been sent packing, and Sam is the next undesirable to be ejected. Thus we have the classic western staple of the outcast, shunned by the decent folk and driven out beyond the bounds of civilization. However, Sam’s exile is a short-lived one; he soon caches up with the wagon of girls, or rather their massacred remains. With his dying breath, the freshly scalped piano player who had been accompanying the spurned ladies tells of a formidable Apache raiding party appearing ghostlike and descending upon them. Sam gives his word to hightail it back to Spanish Boot and warn the solid citizens of the impending attack. The thing is he’s neither welcome nor trusted in his former home, the residents, with the tacit support of Madden, being on the point of riding him out of town on a rail before the arrival of a shot-up stagecoach bears out his words. It’s at this stage that the tension starts to build, as the Apache threat draws ever closer. Eventually, the net closes in to the point where all the survivors are holed up and under siege in the old church. Here, in the latter half of the movie, the camera never leaves the interior of the building and so heightens the feeling of helplessness and suspense, as the drums pound throughout the night and the defenders wait and watch for the Apache to leap howling through the high windows.

In writing about a lot of 50s westerns, one word crops up again and again – redemption. There’s no getting away from it; it quite literally pervades the genre throughout the decade, with even relatively humble and unpretentious efforts like Apache Drums having the concept at their core. All of the three main characters – Sam Leeds, Griffin and Madden – redeem themselves before the final fade out. Madden initially comes across as a vaguely priggish figure, allowing his preconceptions of Sam to colour his judgement and using his authority as means of furthering his own personal desires. But through enforced confinement with the man he regards as his opponent, he’s able to rise above his own inherent pettiness to attain a kind of nobility by the end. Griffin is a moral and religious absolutist, quick to judge and condemn all those who he considers to have strayed from the path of righteousness. Again, the circumstances he’s forced into lead to a reassessment of his former stance. There’s a marvelous little moment during the siege, where the preacher who had previously spoken in the most derogatory and disparaging terms about the Apache scout in their midst, Pedro-Peter (Armando Silvestre), moves across to kneel beside him. With the shadows of death creeping ever nearer, these two men pray to their respective deities side by side. And finally there’s Sam Leeds. He starts out expressing nothing but casual contempt for all those poor saps who slave away trying to earn an honest living and build a community. He’s of the opinion that he’s too smart for all that guff, that his only concern is his own welfare and comfort. Yet, he too (perhaps more than the others) finds that the threat from without carries a lesson for him. By putting aside his selfishness and obsession with self-preservation, he grows visibly as a human being. In their roles, Parker, Shields and McNally all manage to create rounded characters that are believable due to their respective weaknesses and prejudices. When you’re dealing with a low budget production such as this, good characterization, and the performers capable of achieving it, is a huge plus.

While the acting is important if you’re counting the pennies, it’s all likely to come to nothing if the technical expertise isn’t present behind the cameras. As I said in the introduction, producer Val Lewton was a past master at wringing the maximum out of limited resources. His RKO chillers all had a very distinctive look and feel, regarding shadow, darkness and the unseen and unknown as assets rather than obstacles. Such is the case with Apache Drums. Some of the most effective sequences follow on from events that the audience never get to see: both Sam’s deadly gunplay and the massacre of the saloon girls happen off-screen and the viewer only gets to witness the consequences of these events. The final section of the movie, which leaves the audience with no choice other than to view the action from the perspective of the terrified townsfolk means that we share in their sense of helplessness and dread. Of course Lewton was either clever or fortunate enough to work with talented directors on his projects. Between them the producer and director Hugo Fregonese work wonders in this section of the film: the image of garishly painted warriors springing through the high windows, backlit by the flames of the burning town, is like a vision out of hell, and retains a powerful shock value. I made brief mention earlier of the fact that Arthur Shields played a Welsh preacher. The reason for my drawing attention to his character’s nationality relates to a passage which takes place during the climactic siege. As the incessant beating of the war drums outside the walls begins to take its psychological toll on those inside, the decision is made to do something in an attempt to boost morale. Shields, playing a Welshman, leads the defenders in a chorus of Men of Harlech. In itself it’s a nice moment, but it’s also significant in that the scene would be mirrored in Cy Endfield’s Zulu over a decade later.

Apache Drums is a film that seemed quite difficult to see for many years. I caught a television broadcast back when I was a teenager and it stuck in my mind, probably because of the imagery as much as anything. At the moment, there are three DVD editions available: from France, Spain and Germany. From various comments I’ve seen, I get the impression they are all derived from the same source, though the French release will have forced subtitles. I have the Spanish DVD from Llamentol, which presents the film in the correct Academy ratio, and boasts a fine overall transfer – it’s sharp, colourful and well-defined. Subtitles are not an issue and can be turned off on the setup menu. The disc also offers the original theatrical trailer for the film, but that’s it in terms of extra features. I really like the film; it’s pacy, well structured and exciting. Aside from that, it looks good, with the kind of visual flair that’s typical of a Lewton production. A low budget sleeper that I happily recommend.

 

 

Hell Bent for Leather

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You know, the more westerns I watch, and discuss with others, the more convinced I’ve become that the smaller, less ambitious productions actually offer a better representation of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. The leaner budgets mean that the writing, shooting and performances are more honed, less indulgent, and therefore maybe a little more honest and direct. Hell Bent for Leather (1960) is what is known as a programmer; the B western had disappeared and been absorbed by television, but there was still a place for those movies which weren’t going to open as headline A features. The movie is a fine example of economy filmmaking; it demonstrates the benefits of a simple yet tight plot, a small and experienced cast, and a director capable of making the most of his locations.

The story is a very simple one, a case of mistaken identity leading to a desperate manhunt. At the risk of overselling it, Hell Bent for Leather tells a kind of Kafkaesque tale of senseless persecution, the reasoning behind it all only gradually becoming apparent as the narrative unfolds. It opens starkly, with a lone figure staggering out of the wilderness, clutching a shotgun. It’s clear the man is dehydrated and nearing exhaustion, but salvation is at hand – he spies a horseman who has just stopped to eat and rest. This is Clay Santell (Audie Murphy), a horse dealer travelling on business. No sooner has Santell extended the hand of hospitality to the bedraggled figure who’s stumbled upon his camp than that gesture backfires spectacularly. Finding himself viciously clubbed to the ground and his mount stolen in payment for his kindness, Santell only has time to loose off a single shot, winging his assailant and causing him to drop his distinctive shotgun. Santell is now in a similar fix to the man he foolishly tried to help, forced to make his way on foot to the nearest settlement. After this shock beginning, the plot slowly takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality. That shotgun Santell picked up has a history; it belonged to a notorious outlaw who’s been terrorizing the area, in fact most of the townsfolk are at that moment burying his latest victims. However, descriptions of the wanted man are vague, vague enough to fit a lot of men, someone like Santell for instance. There does remain one hope though, the marshal who’s been on the killer’s trail and knows him by sight. Incredibly though, when this lawman, Deckett (Stephen McNally), turns up, he immediately identifies Santell as his quarry. In the face of such a predicament, Santell takes the only option open to him: he makes a break for it with a local girl, Janet (Felicia Farr), as hostage and heads for the hills. What remains to be seen is whether Santell can stay one step ahead of the relentless posse, convince anyone of his innocence and, crucially, discover what motive lies behind Deckett’s seemingly inexplicable actions.

It’s difficult to watch any western from this period that is shot in and around Lone Pine, featuring a limited central cast and a minimalist plot, and not be reminded of Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Hell Bent for Leather measures up to the quality of Boetticher at his best (there are issues with the script, which I’ll come back to, preventing such comparisons) but it certainly treads a nearby path. The film was presided over by George Sherman, one of those journeymen directors whose work, in spite of a long and varied career, tends to be glossed over if not wholly neglected. However, a look at his credits for the late 40s and on through into the 50s reveals a number of quality genre pieces. Sherman shot the bulk of this film outdoors on location, and made the most of Lone Pine’s distinctive rock formations. These serve both as the backdrop and also the main stage upon which the drama is played out. Whether the camera was positioned at ground level, the viewers’ gaze straining upwards to pick out the tiny figures scrambling over the sun-baked surface, or high above and aimed down through the narrow gaps with cold objectivity, the primal, treacherous nature of the terrain is always apparent. Also, for a movie that involves comparatively little gunplay, Sherman maintains the sense of danger and menace, both through the expert handling of his locations and by ensuring that the pace is never allowed to flag.

As I mentioned, the biggest problem with this film comes from the writing, or at least one aspect of it. When you look at a Boetticher movie, especially those written by Burt Kennedy, you’re immediately struck by the quality of the characterization. Those films all provide the leads with plausible and relatively full backstories. Now, Hell Bent for Leather is essentially a three-hander, revolving around Santell, Janet and Deckett. The details concerning the latter two are filled in as the story goes along, quite deftly too, but Santell’s background is not. By the end of the movie, we don’t know any more about this man than we did in the opening minutes. As a result, the lead, the man with whom we must sympathize, is left as a kind of cipher, a guy to whom bad things happen just because – very existentialist but not entirely satisfactory.

Given the lack of assistance from the script, it says a lot for Audie Murphy’s abilities that he was able to make the part of Clay Santell work. Murphy rarely gets much credit for his acting, but he could turn in a decent enough performance when the film was of some quality. Even though his part is provided with virtually no background, he still makes Santell a man worth rooting for in Hell Bent for Leather. Being cast in what’s essentially the role of the underdog naturally helps to garner sympathy but he also managed to keep the character real, remaining convincing as he moved from bemusement and disbelief through panic and determination.

Felicia Farr had already shown she could handle the role of a western heroine with some accomplishment in a series of films with Delmer Daves, and continued that trend here. Her character is fleshed out as the movie progresses, and she does come across as a woman with an inner strength that keeps her going in the face of adversity. The best, or most interesting, part in the movie was handed to Stephen McNally, an actor who was always a strong supporting player. He really gets under the skin of the driven, slightly unhinged Deckett. At first, this might appear to be a fairly one-dimensional character, but he develops further towards the end. By the time we reach the climax, there’s been enough revealed about Deckett to explain his actions and even create a touch of pathos.

At the moment, Hell Bent for Leather is available on DVD in three countries: Spain, France and Germany. The German release comes via Koch Media, and it’s another of their strong efforts. The film is presented in anamorphic scope, with good levels of detail and rich colour. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer, a gallery and booklet of liner notes in German. The disc offers both the original English soundtrack and a German dub, there are no subtitles at all. It’s also worth mentioning that Pegasus in the UK are rumoured to have this movie lined up for release so, bearing in mind the high quality transfers of Universal titles they have recently put out and their competitive prices, it may be worth holding off on this one for a bit. I feel this film is a superior little programmer that’s well acted and directed, and looks very attractive. It’s one of Audie Murphy’s most enjoyable pictures and also highlights the directorial skills of the underrated George Sherman. All in all, this is a solid, nicely crafted western that represents the genre well and shows what can be achieved with a limited budget and a bit of imagination.

 

 

Criss Cross

“From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.”

Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, a heist, a hero doomed by fate and his own stupidity, and a rotten to the core femme fatale – all of this sounds a little like a brief synopsis of The Killers. In fact, it refers to Criss Cross (1949), a near relative of that earlier work and a film that vies with it for the honour of being hailed Siodmak’s best movie. Apart from the pairing of director and star, both these films share a similar theme and structure, and I find it almost impossible to decide which is the better one. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – I like them both and they are two of the strongest noir pictures to come out of the 1940s.

The title of this movie is a highly appropriate one for a tale where the paths of all the main characters are continually intersecting in a web of deceit and betrayal, each crossing up the other at the first opportunity. At the centre of it all are three people – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) – bound together by an unholy combination of love, lust and greed. The opening shot, with the camera swooping ominously down from the night skies of LA, sees Anna and Steve caught in a clinch in the parking lot of a nightclub. As the lights suddenly pick them out, their startled and guilty reaction indicates that this is an illicit rendezvous. The fact is further underlined by the terse, tense dialogue – this couple is planning something dangerous, and the possibility of discovery holds a terrifying threat for them. Anna is married to local hood Slim Dundee, but she and Steve were once wed too. Their passionate embrace makes it clear that they have rekindled their old relationship, with the flame burning brightest for Steve in particular. And it’s from the point of view of Steve that the story is primarily seen, with the others moving in and out of the picture at various intervals. He’s a classic noir protagonist, a fairly ordinary guy with limited prospects and a blind spot where no-good females are concerned. A lengthy flashback sequence, accompanied by a suitably weary and resigned voiceover by Steve, spells out exactly how the lives of these three characters converged and the complex ties that continue to bind them together. In short, Steve’s job as a guard for an armored car company has led to his conspiring with Dundee to raid one of the secure vehicles. However, in the noir universe there’s no such thing as honour among thieves and everyone has his own hidden agenda. Steve is the only one of the trio whose motives have some semblance of decency – he’s driven by a kind of desperate love for Anna – and the aftermath of the heist shows just how deep the fault lines of treachery run in this uneasy alliance.

Apparently the untimely death of Mark Hellinger meant that the original script was revised and certain aspects of the story were changed. Be that as it may, the movie that we ended up with is almost impossible to fault and Daniel Fuchs’ script successfully blends the heist and Steve’s obsessive love to powerful effect. Flashback structures can sometimes be confusing or upset the mood of a film but in this case it works perfectly, coming at precisely the right point and filling in the background details that are vital to understanding the nature of Steve and Anna’s relationship. With a tight script, and Franz Planer’s photographic talents, in place, director Robert Siodmak was free to put it all together with his customary visual flair. The opening, which I referred to earlier, pitches the viewer headlong into this complex tale of dishonour and betrayal in incredibly stylish fashion. And it never really lets up from that moment, with one memorable and superbly shot scene following hard on the heels of another. Siodmak uses every trick up his sleeve to manipulate the mood and perspective, from coldly objective overheads to disconcerting low angles and close-ups, interspersed with fast cuts and dissolves. For me, the real stand out scenes, although there’s hardly a poor moment throughout, are the ones in Union Station and in the hospital. The former not only gives a fascinating glimpse of contemporary LA bustle, but also shows the director’s skill in composing a complex series of shots in a crowded environment while retaining control of the geography. In the latter, he uses the reflection from the mirror in Steve’s room to break up the static nature of the setup and extract the maximum amount of tension at the same time.

If the technical aspects of the film are straight out of the top drawer, then the same can also be said for the acting. Burt Lancaster kicked off his career with some finely judged playing as the doomed Swede in The Killers, and Siodmak got him to tap into that same vibe to coax another wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance from him. Once again he hits all the right notes as the big palooka whose dark romanticism sees him suckered by the machinations of a conniving woman. Every emotional state the script calls on him to display is carried off convincingly, from fear and disenchantment right through to the calm acceptance of his fate at the end – from the dumbfounded look of a guy who’s just had his guts kicked out by the woman he loves to the cloying sense of panic of a man under sentence of death and trapped in an anonymous hospital ward. Yvonne De Carlo didn’t have to go through quite as many stages, yet she’s still excellent alternating between the sassy, sensual broad that forms her public persona and the nervy, desperate woman she becomes in private. When she drops all pretense in the climax and reveals her true character to Steve and the audience there’s a tangible shock to be felt. Dan Duryea was an old hand at taking on the role of the slimy villain, and to that he adds a layer of menace as Slim Dundee. He manages this so well that it’s easy to understand the level of fear and trepidation he provokes in Steve when he contemplates the consequences of crossing him. While these three actors carry the movie, there’s real depth in the  supporting cast too. Stephen McNally is solid and sympathetic as the cop whose friendship for Steve leads him to inadvertently push him into crime. In fact, there are lovely little cameos all through the movie: Percy Helton’s chipmunk featured barman, Joan Miller’s garrulous barfly, Griff Barnett’s kindly and lonely father figure.

Criss Cross has been out on DVD for many years now, and the US disc from Universal is an especially strong effort. It offers a near perfect transfer of the film with clarity, sharpness and contrast all at the high end of the scale. My only disappointment comes from the absence of any extra features, bar the theatrical trailer, for such a quality movie. One shouldn’t really complain, in these days of bare bones burn on demand discs, but this film does deserve a commentary track at the very least. Still, we have got an excellent piece of the filmmaker’s art looking great. Criss Cross is a highly rated production that occupies a prominent position in the noir canon, and it has earned that honour. It’s one of those rare films that checks all the boxes and never puts a foot wrong from its dramatic opening until it’s darkly cynical final fade out. Those who are familiar with the picture will know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who are not owe it to themselves to discover this little treasure. This is unquestionably one of the real jewels of film noir.

Violent Saturday

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Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens – a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities – the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

Winchester 73

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Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. Jimmy Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin – something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

Jimmy Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean – lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by Jimmy Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries – but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.