Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

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Copper Canyon

Do the stars of a movie need to be what we think of as genre regulars for it to a success? Back in its heyday the western attracted just about every leading player in Hollywood, some of them slotting in with ease and a number actually going on to carve out a niche for themselves within the genre. Frequently, when less familiar western stars were cast they were backed up by co-stars who had already grown accustomed to riding the cinematic range. However, Copper Canyon (1950) seems to be on of those more unusual productions where none of the three headline stars would have had a background in westerns when the movie was made. So does it succeed? I suppose it does to some extent, although you do have to wonder how much the relative inexperience of the cast hurt it.

The setting is the years following the Civil War, when the process of national healing had only just begun and the wounds remained raw. The whole plot revolves around the struggles of former Confederate miners and obstacles they are confronted with as rivals seek to drive them out of business. These men are in need of a champion, someone capable of figuratively rallying the troops and protecting them. It’s with this aim in mind that a small delegation is sent to sound out Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), a former Rebel officer who has changed his name and, in an attempt to reinvent himself, has become a trick shot artist working the saloon circuit. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows himself to be drawn back into conflict with anyone. But once he does the allure of saloon boss Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) and the challenge of facing down corrupt lawman Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) are enough to keep him interested.

Copper Canyon offers few surprises  in its scripting. The story is typical fare dealing with the oppression of the little guy by the powerful, and a hero who endeavors to tip the  balance a little in the former’s favor. While this is a solid enough premise, I tend to think a touch of ambiguity can elevate such a tale into much more interesting territory. However, that’s not really offered here and so we’re left with the uneasy reconstruction angle and, to a lesser degree, the gimmick of Milland’s sharpshooting to provide a more distinctive flavor – both of which are well enough employed yet I can’t say I regard either as very compelling. On the other hand, the pacing is reasonable and director John Farrow composes some nice shots, favoring plenty of titled low-angles in the interiors. What’s more cameraman Charles Lang lights the interiors to maximize the atmosphere and captures some fine views of the Sedona locations.

As I mentioned at the start, the stars hadn’t much of a western pedigree when Copper Canyon was made. Ray Milland had a strong body of work behind him at this point and had an Oscar to his name but, with the exception of California (1947) which was also made with Farrow, he had mostly straight drama and noir roles among his credits. While he would go on to other material in the genre, notably the superior A Man Alone (1955), he was still something of a novice at this point. In a similar vein, Macdonald Carey had only made Streets of Laredo (1949) prior to this but he too would make a number of other westerns in the following years. Hedy Lamarr isn’t a woman anyone would automatically associate with the west (although that running gag in Blazing Saddles might suggest otherwise) and Copper Canyon was, aside from a few television appearances, her only foray into frontier drama. All three acquit themselves well enough, though I do wonder how contemporary audiences would have viewed that lineup. In support we do get more typical faces like Harry Carey Jr and Frank Faylen. In addition, there are parts for Mona Freeman, Peggy Knudsen and, in a truly startling red wig, the imposing figure of Hope Emerson.

Copper Canyon was a Paramount production and was released on DVD in the US by the same company years ago. Even though the disc was a bare bones affair, the transfer is quite a good one, bright and colorful with only minor damage on show. It’s a fairly entertaining movie but hardly what could be termed essential. There’s competent work from all in front of and behind the camera yet it also has to be said that all either did or would do much more memorable stuff on screen. So, let’s say it’s okay but not something you need go out of your way to see.

The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

Springfield Rifle

Having looked at a hybrid movie last time out (a western/swashbuckler mash-up), I thought I’d continue in a similar vein and feature another western which has borrowed and blended in elements of another genre. Here it’s the espionage or spy movie and the result of this cinematic marriage is Springfield Rifle (1952).  It takes place during the Civil War, which has traditionally been a setting with decidedly mixed returns in both critical and commercial terms. And I think that’s what could be said of this production too: the film is interesting in places, muddled and short on momentum in others, and ultimately not wholly satisfying, a classic mixed bag.

As far as plot is concerned, this is the type of film where one has to be careful not to give too much information away, the mystery aspect is significant and it would be churlish to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t seen this before. Right from the beginning we’re made aware that this is a tale of counterespionage, and I doubt if it’s revealing too much to say that it’s essentially a case of setting a spy to catch a spy. Anonymous raiders are rustling horses in Colorado which are bound for the Union army. The regularity and success of this rustling operation strongly indicates that a spy or traitor is playing a part. Given the nature of conflict at the time, horses are vital to the war effort. So, the top brass is pressing for something to be done, and that pressure is being felt by local commander Lt Colonel Hudson (Paul Kelly). It’s Hudson’s hope that Major Lex Kearney (Gary Cooper) can deal with the problem. When Kearney’s command is relieved of its herd of horses with a shot being fired in anger, the Major finds himself facing a court-martial for cowardice. While this brings disgrace it also opens up an opportunity to learn much more than anyone in a uniform could hope to do. A bitter and disgruntled man, despised and shunned by family and former comrades alike, is in an ideal, unique position to infiltrate the ranks of the raiders.

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When you take a look at the cast and crew of Springfield Rifle you’d think there were strong grounds for expecting a first-rate piece of cinema. Even there are good points to consider, and I’m going to do just that presently, the end product does not measure up to what the constituent parts appear to promise. A film directed by Andre de Toth, especially around this time, is going to have some strengths, and it can’t be denied that the movie looks quite spectacular in places – the location work is a joy in visual terms giving the film a real boost, and the action set pieces are memorably staged and coordinated. There’s also a powerful and distinctive Max Steiner score to add some punch and drive. The beginning, and the somewhat misleading title, raise the prospect of the film being one of those odes to the military that can all too easily run to dreary and sanctimonious. Luckily though, the espionage theme takes precedence and the story goes in some unexpected directions – questions of trust and integrity are not only raised but are explored in some depth as well.

Movies with a script by Charles Marquis Warren normally get my attention, not because I like them all or even rate them all that highly – his TV work is undoubtedly more significant – but his name does encourage a certain amount of anticipation. Frankly, I feel the plot of Springfield Rifle is excessively and unnecessarily complicated. Aside from the twisting and turning, which is par for the course for any spy movie, the structure becomes muddled in my view by the tendency to reach too many (anti) climaxes, thus watering down their effect and drawing the energy out of the picture. The film runs for an hour and a half bit it feels longer than that.

Think of Gary Cooper and 1952 and, supposing you’re a movie fan, the words High Noon must surely come to mind. Springfield Rifle is from that same year but it’s a world away when it comes to quality. Again, it’s not a bad film but it is a rather mediocre one. I try to look at material on its own terms, to avoid unfair or loaded comparisons where possible, but there are occasions when I can’t get round them. In the same year as High Noon the sheer ordinariness of this movie leaps out at one but the fact is that it fares the same when placed against a lot of Cooper’s other genre work. I don’t say Cooper delivers a poor performance – there’s the deceptive simplicity which was his trademark, and also a meanness (verging on sadism I’d say) touched on in the aftermath of a fight with Lon Chaney Jr that would be drawn on further by the actor in Anthony Mann’s later Man of the West. Nevertheless, it’s minor Cooper and I can think of at least a half dozen other westerns which used his persona and talents better.

The rest of the cast of Springfield Rifle is extremely impressive: Lon Chaney Jr, Phil Carey, Paul Kelly, James Millican, David Brian, Phyllis Thaxter, Alan Hale Jr & Fess Parker. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite a list. However, with the exception of Kelly and, to a lesser extent Brian, these people are wasted and their abilities are never exploited as fully as they ought to have been. Many of them are written into the movie and then written out abruptly or, in a few cases, simply dropped with next to no explanation. In some ways, this failure to get the best out of such a bank of talent is the most disappointing thing about the movie.

Springfield Rifle was released years ago on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of a Cooper box set. The film looks OK but there are some marks here and there and there’s the potential, with a bit of restoration, to have the film looking really splendid. I doubt that will happen though, and maybe it’s not something worth getting upset about. While the movie could be spruced up visually that won’t address the weaknesses inherent in the script. My final verdict? A picture which is very attractive to look at, a cast to stoke up your enthusiasm, but a complex stop-start script that eventually trips you up in the overabundance of peaks and troughs.

Quatermass and the Pit

Once upon a time it was quite common to see movies either inspiring TV shows or leading to direct spin-offs. This still happens of course but it doesn’t seem to take place with the same frequency. On the other hand, we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing TV shows being adapted or reimagined as big screen vehicles, with variable success. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking the latter is a purely modern phenomenon. But it’s not really, it had been going on long ago and one of the studios that became aware early on of the potential for commercial exploitation was Hammer in the UK. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were big hits for the BBC and Hammer seized the opportunity to turn them into cinema features, significantly boosting their fortunes and profile in the process. That was in the 50s, and Hammer would return to this winning formula again in the following decade when Quatermass and the Pit (1967) stylishly revived the series in color.

The ominous-sounding pit of the title is an excavation taking place at a London underground station, Hobbs End, aimed at extending the line. This is our point of entry, following the workmen as they shovel out the clay.  In the midst of this routine labor something irregular is spotted trundling along the conveyor belt – the remains of a skull. Almost immediately, another section of earth is pulled away to reveal an almost complete skeleton. So one excavation gives way to another, the structural yielding to the archaeological, this one under the supervision of Dr Roney (James Donald). However, the relatively standard prehistoric material being retrieved isn’t all that’s been buried at this site, the unexpected discovery of an unfamiliar casing suggests there might be an explosive device keeping the ancient residents company. And it’s here that Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), professor of physics and head of the government’s rocket research, comes into the picture. Furthermore, this is also the stage at which the film shifts from the realm of the mundane towards that of the fantastic, and potentially horrific. Quatermass, Roney, and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), find themselves gradually drawn to the conclusion that the contents of Hobbs End station may not be from this planet at all. If their theories are correct, they may have stumbled upon that long sought after “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, something which promises to be not only startling in its audacity but also terrifying in potency and destructiveness.

I’ve never seen the original TV serial that formed the basis for this adaptation but I’ve heard that it was a triumph, a high point for the medium. I’ve also seen claims that the film, while very good, didn’t quite measure up to its origins. I do intend to fill in this gap in my viewing knowledge at some point but for now all I can do is comment on the movie as I see it. I think I first saw this at some time back in the 1980s and it made an instant impression. Anyone familiar with Hammer films will know what I mean when I say that they had a “feel” to them which was unmistakable. This was partly due to the casting but, as with films like Quatermass and the Pit, it was still apparent even if many of the faces weren’t as familiar. It was as much the contribution of the team behind the cameras that created that unique Hammer vibe as anything. Just seeing credits which promised production by Anthony Nelson Keys, photography by Arthur Grant, art direction by Bernard Robinson etc meant you were in for a cinematic experience that had Hammer stamped all over it.

Roy Ward Baker had enjoyed success in Hollywood, UK cinema and then worked quite extensively in British TV before coming to Hammer. As such, his was a sure hand directing and he obviously slotted neatly into the team as he went on to take charge of a number of features for the studio.  Possibly as a result of being a serial in the first place the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace, taking its time only where necessary, and there’s no shortage of incident to hold the attention. Sci-Fi generally depends on intelligent writing and, perhaps more so in recent times, visual effects to be considered successful. While I don’t believe effects are the be all and end all in any production, it’s clear that they do play a part in the enjoyment of many – in Quatermass and the Pit this aspect ought to be considered perfectly satisfactory although obviously not of the kind audiences today would be used to. Of greater importance is the quality of the writing and again, without wishing to go into too much detail and thus spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I believe Kneale’s script fulfills the basic requirement of any good piece of science fiction: it asks as many questions as it answers and encourages the viewer to think.

Kneale never made any secret of the fact he disapproved (to say the least) of the decision to cast US actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations of his work, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, something I’ve seen fans complain about too. Frankly, I never had any problem with Donlevy and quite liked the energy and assertiveness he brought to his interpretation, although I can understand too how a writer might feel displeased with a characterization he found too far removed from his own vision. Anyway, Andrew Keir tackles the role of Quatermass in a different way, emphasizing the more thoughtful sides of the man but retaining something of an edge at the same time. That tougher, more stubborn streak emerges most noticeably when he’s confronting the supercilious and dismissive Colonel Breen whose military inflexibility is captured neatly by Julian Glover. James Donald has a certain reserve and remoteness as Roney, lacking some of the warmth and companionable charm of Keir, but that’s something which serves his character well, bearing in mind how he’s seen to develop in the latter stages of the film in particular. Barbara Shelley feels like one of the constants of British TV and cinema. She appeared in a huge number of notable productions, and something like a half dozen or so Hammer films among them. The roles offered to women in Sci-Fi weren’t always the most interesting yet Shelley’s part in Quatermass and the Pit is actually quite pivotal and she comes across as playing an important part in the central team.

Some Hammer films have been difficult to come by and really only became readily available in recent years. However, that was never the situation with Quatermass and the Pit, it being one of those titles that never seemed to be out of print for any length of time. I had the DVD for years and then picked up the UK Blu-ray last year as I reckoned it was the kind of movie that might benefit from the upgrade, and it does. The old DVD  was perfectly acceptable to my eyes but the Hi-Def version brings out the details and colors even more and gives the whole thing an attractive punch. The film remains an absorbing one no matter how it’s viewed of course – it’s up there among the very best Hammer productions and it’s also one of the finest British Sci-Fi movies.

Kansas City Confidential

Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.

Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else.  Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.

I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.

Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony  – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.

Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.

Fort Massacre

It’s been said that everything has its own time, its place in the overall scheme, and I guess that’s true of art in general and  movies in this particular instance. Anyone browsing around this place for even a short time will probably notice that I’m fond of tracing the lines of development of cinema, especially the western. I like to see where individual films came from, what they were pointing towards and where they fit into the pattern formed by the genre. The reason I mention all that is because as I watched Fort Massacre (1958) it struck me that the film is very much a product of its time, both within the line of progression followed by the western and also on account of its placement in the filmography of its leading player – I shall return to, and try to expand upon, that later.

It opens with a killing, or the aftermath of a massacre to be more precise. In New Mexico a platoon on its way to join up with a larger column, in turn supposed to meet and escort a wagon train, has been ambushed and very nearly wiped out by  a large war party of Apache. What remains is a bedraggled and weary troop under the command of Sergeant Vinson (Joel McCrea), the highest ranking man left alive. It’s down to this man to try to get the survivors to the nearest fort and let his superiors take it from there. However, in order to do this he has to overcome hostility. That hostility is exists on many fonts and on many levels: form the landscape, the elements, the Apache and most damaging of all, from the men he has to lead. The leader whose right to do so is under question could be regarded as something of a cliché, it tends to come down to lack of confidence and questions pertaining to competence. Here, somewhat refreshingly and perhaps daringly, that’s not quite the case. Vinson has to constantly battle the mutinous rumblings from within his own ranks not because they don’t trust his abilities as a soldier, but because his own men look on him as something of a monster, a man consumed with a passion for killing. It’s gradually revealed that Vinson lost all that he held most dear to the Apache and acquired a ruthless, bloodthirsty streak as a consequence. And so every decision that has to be taken is eyed with suspicion by the troopers, and also by the viewers, who wonder whether the veteran sergeant is savior or avenger.

Fort Massacre was the first of two films director Joseph M Newman made with Joel McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City would come out the following year) and it’s an excellent piece of work. With the enduring popularity of cult Sci-Fi movies, I imagine Newman’s name will be familiar to many as the man who took charge of This Island Earth. Here, he keeps the story on track and moving steadily forward, making optimum use of the New Mexico and Utah locations. The two big action set pieces are well handled and sure touch of cinematographer Carl Guthrie is also evident throughout. I mentioned the placement of the film in the timeline of the western back in the introduction, and I’d like to attempt to clarify what I was referring to. By the 1950s the western had attained full maturity, and by the end of that decade it was possessed of the self-assurance that its own artistic elevation bestowed on it. So in practical terms, what does that mean? It means, to my mind anyway, that the genre had clarity of vision. The western by this time, and at its best, could regard itself with clarity, unburdened by the awkwardness of its own adolescence and not yet jaded by the introspection of its post-classical years. The western could see itself as it was, and therefore present audiences with a character like Vinson and, with confidence, ask them to make of him what they would.

Which leads me neatly on to Joel McCrea and his portrayal of Sergeant Vinson, which I also alluded to above. McCrea was approaching the end of his career at this stage, with only the aforementioned The Gunfight at Dodge City and the masterly Ride the High Country as noteworthy works ahead of him. His post-war credits, like those of Randolph Scott, were almost exclusively confined to the western so his authoritative position in the genre was and is unassailable. Again, this breeds the type of assurance that allows a big name player like McCrea to tackle a figure of the moral complexity of Vinson. A lesser performer, at a different place professionally, would have struggled with this one. Vinson is neither all bad nor all good, he’s a human being with all the reactions and failings which go with that. This is where the film is at its strongest, I think, that solid core which McCrea provides allowing for a grown-up appraisal of the revenge motif that bypasses the temptation to go for any simplistic resolution.

For long stretches the supporting cast appear as something akin to a Greek chorus, blending into one disgruntled formation, anonymous behind the figurative masks of their uniform and speaking as one as they voice their criticism of Vinson. Yet, from time to time, individuals do step forward and show something more of themselves. John Russell is the next closest to a rounded character, his self-doubting though educated recruit gradually coming into his own as circumstances and the influences of both his fellow troopers and Vinson mold him. It’s a good role for Russell, though he lacks the warmth McCrea naturally exudes he still acts as a figure for viewers to identify with more comfortably. Forrest Tucker  also has opportunities to shine as the stage Irish soldier who mixes insubordination with charm, a very enjoyable turn and he plays well off Anthony Caruso. Late on there are memorable, and at times darkly humorous, appearances by Susan Cabot and Francis McDonald as two Paiute Indians who become reluctantly involved in the soldiers’ plight.

Fort Massacre is easy enough to track down for viewing, there are readily available Blu-ray and DVD options in the USA, Europe and, I  imagine, other territories. Towards the end of last year there was a blogathon dedicated to Joel McCrea which I had hoped to participate in but which circumstances at the time just didn’t allow. I regret missing out on it and the reason I mention it here is because Fort Massacre was the film I had planned to write up as my contribution. Well, here it is, a few months late, and I recommend anyone reading this check out the other entries in that blogathon, which can be accessed here – good film writing doesn’t have an expiry date.

Tall Man Riding

It’s been a good few months now since I last featured a western on this site, not that the site itself has been all that active of course, so I thought it might be time to return to the genre which has been at the heart of the place over the years. Under the circumstances, what better choice than a Randolph Scott movie from the mid-50s, that time when the star and the genre were at their height. Tall Man Riding (1955) is not in the very front rank of Scott westerns but it’s not what I’d term a weak effort either. We get a director and a lead both working smoothly and professionally and a story which is built around the classic revenge/redemption motif, so there’s plenty to enjoy here.

It opens in what we might refer to as regulation fashion, with a rider coming upon someone in distress. In this case, the rider is  Larry Madden (Randolph Scott) and his travels are interrupted by a horseman going hell for leather across the plains with a handful of trigger-happy types in hot pursuit. While Madden has no idea exactly what he’s witness to, he takes it upon himself to balance the odds a little. With the immediate threat repulsed, he’s both bemused and a little amused to learn that the man he’s just rescued is closely connected to an old adversary. The thing is, Madden is a man with a grudge, and an appetite for a chilled plate of revenge. His back is crisscrossed by the scars of a lash while his mind bears less visible ones, the product of a five-year-old feud that saw his home burned down and his hopes for marriage similarly reduced to ashes. And now he’s unwittingly saved the neck of the man who, to all intents and purposes, stepped into his shoes. Well ain’t that a kick in the head! Anyway, that’s our introduction to the story, but there are a good many twists and turns still ahead: misunderstandings of past and present, alliances and double-crosses, realizations and resolutions to be reached.

The overarching theme of Tall Man Riding is obviously that of revenge, how the desire for it arises, how it affects people and how little it ultimately offers those who dedicate themselves to attaining it. This may not be anything new or startling but it’s a worthwhile point and one which is well made here. All the main characters learn something as they go along, some uncomfortable truths about themselves and others, but generally grow as a result of this. I guess the script could be said to be packed a little too full – there are a range of relationships and associations introduced and only a mere handful of them are explored in any kind of depth. Of course, we don’t need to have everything laid out for us and the glimpses we’re afforded and the allusions consequently drawn could be said to add to the tapestry of the piece as a whole. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Norman A Fox, which I have an unread copy of somewhere but I can’t seem to lay my hands on it right now, and the complexity of the story most likely stems from that source.

The movie is tightly directed by Lesley Selander, diving straight into the action and, even though there are lulls along the way, ensuring that the tale moves forward at a brisk pace. Selander’s films tend to have an edge to them, sometimes even a frank brutality, but this production mostly confines itself to references to past excesses – the scars of whippings borne by Scott and another character – yet there’s something rather harsh about the blackened and exposed remains of Scott’s former home, suggesting the destruction and consumption of some deeply cherished feelings in the inferno. On a more prosaic level, there is also a pretty tough punch-up which dispenses with music and thus keeps our attention firmly focused on its bruising physicality. In addition, the climax sees an excitingly shot land grab sequence, with men, wagons and horses racing and milling wildly in the charge to lay claim to as much choice real estate as possible.

Randolph Scott had a natural nobility, his easy charm and courtesy slotting in nicely alongside it. Still, his best roles and best movies offset this quality somewhat by blending in some complexity of character, at least a hint of ambiguity. Tall Man Riding follows that pattern by giving him a driven, hardness derived from his hunger for vengeance. And the fact we can see the emotional toll this has been taking on him makes his realization of the futility of his quest, and then the subsequent path towards personal redemption, all the more effective and satisfying. While the attention remains on Scott throughout there is able support from both Peggie Castle and Dorothy Malone. Both women have contrasting roles, the former as a streetwise saloon singer and the latter as Scott’s old flame, but their characters look for common ground and the work done by  the two actresses goes a long way towards building up the emotional substance at the heart of the story. John Dehner is as good as he always was as a lawyer advising Scott, and whose motives are only gradually revealed. The principal villain is played by John Baragrey with a generous coating of slick oiliness. Other significant parts are taken by William Ching, Robert Barrat and Paul Richards.

Tall Man Riding has been out on DVD for ages, on a triple feature disc along with Fort Worth and Colt 45. There’s a bit of print damage on show from time to time but nothing too fatal and color and detail are quite acceptable for the most part. AS I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the film doesn’t sit up there with the very best Scott did but it remains a solid example of filmmaking and, if we’re going to be honest here, there isn’t too much genuinely poor stuff in his credits from the late 40s onward. Professional work from Scott and Selander, supported by Castle and Malone, and attractive photography by Wilfred M Cline, makes for a very entertaining feature in my opinion – worth checking out, if you haven’t already done so.

The Thing from Another World

I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.

Those words quoted above are the last lines of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), a plea for caution and vigilance directed at an audience which had just spent an hour and a half having the pants scared off it and, beyond the world of the movies, was taking its first tentative steps into a (fairly) new decade where politics and science were moving ahead in a challenging fashion. As the Cold War tightened its icy grip on the world, Hollywood was serving up its own slice of chilling paranoia where the threat posed by unknown, malignant forces from without was never far away.

The wind is blowing cold in Anchorage, Alaska, intruding from time to time on the warm interiors of the USAF base. It’s here that we first see Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), playing cards with  his men, easy in the company of those he knows well. And it’s also here that news first filters through of a downed, unidentified aircraft. The scientists at a polar research station picked up images of it but they can’t be sure what it is. So Hendry and his crew are sent north to see if they can assist in locating, identifying and dealing with whatever came down out on the ice. Measurements at the research station suggest it must have been something large that dropped from the skies, and sure enough that proves to be the case. To the amazement of those present, it would appear they have come upon a genuine flying saucer. However, their pleasure is to be short-lived as the efforts to melt the surrounding ice lead to the destruction of the craft. Yet all is not lost; a body remains intact, encased in a solid block of ice. Naturally, this one surviving element is brought back to the research station to be kept until it has been decided how to proceed, although a moment’s carelessness sees events take a different and altogether more dangerous turn. That slab of polar ice contains something strong, potentially indestructible, and hungry.

The Thing from Another World sees Howard Hawks listed as producer while Christian Nyby gets the directing credit. According to most of those involved, that’s how the job was divided up although the finished product clearly shows a considerable bit of input from Hawks – he said himself that he worked on the trademark overlapping dialogue that’s to be found throughout the film. So, while this is clearly a Sci-Fi movie, and an iconic and influential one at that, I think it’s fair to say it’s a Hawks movie first and foremost. Even  though I don’t wish to drag this piece too deeply into comparison territory, the fact that this John W Campbell story was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter and has a markedly different feel should tell us that. The Hawks movie (as indeed could be said of the Carpenter film) is a product of its time, both politically and sociologically, and I suppose the same can be said of the filmmaker himself.

On the simplest level, a Hawks film is typically recognizable from its characteristic setting or circumstances – a tight, self-contained group bound together by their sense of professionalism, duty and mutual respect, and of course the affection that simultaneously gives rise to and grows out of their cohesion.  Any Hawks film, and The Thing from Another World is no exception,  is as much about the various bits of business and repartee that arise from the close interaction of the group. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of social unity; people of significantly different backgrounds all (well, let’s say largely) come together as a result of their shared sense of professionalism – and I feel that in the world of Hawks professionalism frequently equates to humanity – to meet adversity head-on. There’s a particular kind of inclusiveness implicit here, something that’s quite common in post-war cinema. This is what I mean when I speak of Hawks being a product of his time; I’m referring not to the Cold Warrior warning of external threats but the man who adheres to the concept of unity and communal strength. Above all else, I see that as the central message of The Thing from Another World, and that’s why I consider it a Hawks movie as much as, or more than, a Sci-Fi movie. Look at the 1982 version of the story (and I’m not implying any criticism of it here)  and its emphasis on suspicion, distrust and division and the point ought to be evident. Hawks, because of his own sensibilities and perhaps because of the era he lived in, could not have made The Thing from Another World in any other way.

Kenneth Tobey had been doing lots of bit parts and getting walk on roles before this opportunity came along. He was never to become a big star but, in among his other credits, he would star in another couple of entertaining Sci-Fi pictures, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. His role here is of the square-jawed and decisive variety, and he handles that aspect very well. However, the heroes in Hawks’ films generally need to be capable of carrying off the inevitable sharp humor too, and Tobey does have the required twinkle in his eyes when necessary. Some of this comes out of the by-play with the members of his flight crew but it’s more obvious in the sparring with Margaret Sheridan. She was under contract to Hawks but her screen credits are limited and I don’t remember seeing her in anything else, which I think is regrettable.

Seeing as this is mostly an ensemble piece, where the group is arguably as important a character as any individual, there aren’t too many stand-out performances. Still, Douglas Spencer (who gets to deliver the lines at the top of this piece) gets a chance to shine as does the rather clinical Robert Cornthwaite along with Dewey Martin and John Dierkes. And of course, there is the Thing itself to consider – James Arness was a considerable presence in more conventional roles and his physicality is used to excellent effect in this film. He has no dialogue and is only glimpsed for long stretches, and when he does get more screen time he’s still kept mainly in the shadows. Nevertheless, his job was to intimidate and threaten, and he does that very successfully.

In addition to those elements I already mentioned, there’s so much more to enjoy about this production, not the least of which is the strong sense of claustrophobia achieved by Russell Harlan’s moody photography, or the eerie scoring of Dimitri Tiomkin. With regard to the story, I haven’t gone into the classic moral dilemma faced by so many movie scientists over how to approach new discoveries that also pose a major threat. The fact is this is a film demanding and deserving of a far longer and more detailed analysis than I’m going to try to deliver here. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on a few of the auteurist principles which caught my attention, but you’re welcome to raise any points you wish in the comments section. The Thing from Another World is a superior piece of classic Sci-Fi from a superior filmmaker, it’s an easy recommendation.

Other views on the movie available from Laura & Jeff.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.

Seeing as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday today I wanted to make a point of featuring one of his movies to mark the occasion. With one of the great movie stars I figured it would be appropriate to choose a movie about movie-making, not only one of the best of that little sub-genre but one of the best Hollywood has produced. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a carefully crafted piece of work, episodic in structure but with an organic, flowing quality that ensures scenes and sequences segue naturally to provide us with a portrait of a man both shaping and simultaneously being shaped by the cinema. Sounds like a perfect role for Douglas, doesn’t it?

If one wanted to be glib, it could be said the film is the story of a phone call. In fact, it  starts with  a series of telephone calls, three to be exact and each one is rejected with something approaching relish. Three calls to three Hollywood figures, all of whom take pleasure in telling the party at the other end of the line to take a running jump. That guy at the other end of the line is Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), once a big-time producer but now reduced to hearing casual brush-offs across a long distance line. So we’ve got a good hook right here, you do tend to wonder why a man should be summarily dismissed in this fashion. Curiosity is such that we want to know what a man like this has to say, and by the end of the picture those on the screen clearly share this feeling too. In the meantime, we have the build-up, where studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to persuade the director (Barry Sullivan), the leading lady (Lana Turner) & the writer (Dick Powell) to at least take Shields’ call and give their collective answer on whether or not they are prepared to work with him one more time.  So, this trio gathers in Pebbel’s office while he, through flashbacks, recalls the way their lives and careers became entwined with that of Shields, and why they feel the way they do about him.

 Hollywood thrives on narcissism, it loves to look at itself and can’t resist encouraging us to look at it while it indulges in this introspection. You could say that’s indicative of the all-consuming vanity of the movies, the conviction that audiences will be fascinated by the chance to peek behind the cameras and glimpse the artists and technicians at work and play, that there’s no drama as compelling as the everyday lives of the filmmakers themselves. And I guess they’re right, there’s always been a market for celebrity watching and this has shown no sign of abating any time soon, if anything it’s more intense than ever these days. We sometimes hear about stripping away the glamor but the classic Hollywood exposés didn’t really do that, sure they showed the less savory side of the business and those involved in it but even so they couldn’t help making it look good. As the title of this film suggests, there are some rotten people on screen but they and the world they inhabit remain beautiful and captivating. The Oscar-winning Charles Schnee screenplay focuses on the ruthlessness, the lack of scruples of Shields, the way he’s consistently used and manipulated his colleagues to attain success. Yet, for all that, despite the duplicity and the betrayals, the milieu holds our attention and we’re never allowed to forget that Shields brought success even to those he hurt.

Director Vincente Minnelli clearly enjoyed turning the cameras around since he, and Douglas, would return to the theme 10 years later when they made Two Weeks in Another Town, again scripted by Schnee and produced by John Houseman. He’s always going to be best remembered for his musicals but it has to be said he had a marvelous talent for well-judged melodrama – this movie, the aforementioned Two Weeks in Another Town, Home from the Hill and the dazzling Some Came Running are significant artistic achievements and add up to a highly impressive mini-filmography by themselves.

 Kirk Douglas was second billed in The Bad and the Beautiful behind Lana Turner and earned himself his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t win (losing out to Gary Cooper in High Noon that year) and claims in his autobiography to have been surprised by the nomination, believing his roles in Wyler’s Detective Story or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were more worthy of such an honor. I think this says something about the way Douglas views his own work, seeming to prefer the more driven and less sympathetic parts. While there is much to dislike about Jonathan Shields, it’s said that Minnelli worked on Douglas to bring out the nicer side of the character and tone down the more explosive and less likeable aspects. Which is not to say he doesn’t explode at any point – he does have two fairly intense, in-your-face scenes opposite Lana Turner, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a proper Kirk Douglas film if they weren’t there.

Lana Turner wasn’t an actress who ever impressed me all that much, meaning she was always someone you noticed in a movie (her looks kind of demand that) but whose roles were frequently less memorable, with a few notable exceptions. I think The Bad and the Beautiful ranks as one such exception. The fact she was playing an insecure, alcohol dependent star was an advantage as it required a degree of fragility and vulnerability that Turner was able to convey successfully. In terms of awards though, the big winner among the actresses was Gloria Grahame, who scooped the Oscar for best supporting actress. Grahame was a terrific screen presence, sexy and credible in just about everything I’ve seen her in. Her part in this film is a small one, confined to the section with Dick Powell, yet she doesn’t waste a moment of the time she has. Powell was fine too as her cynical husband, adding an intellectual spin to the kind of insolence he had down pat by this stage. I generally like Barry Sullivan, he was one of those guys who could be a hero or villain (or even something in between) quite effortlessly. He was good enough as the director who sees his idea stolen but it’s an undemanding and perhaps a bit of a thankless part under the circumstances. And there’s plenty of depth in the cast – Walter Pidgeon, Leo G Carroll, Gilbert Roland and Paul Stewart all make contributions.

 This is a movie where some people like to see if they can pick which cinema personality each of the main characters was based on – Douglas’ lead appears to be a composite of sorts with the characteristics of at least two producers (one of whom is a cult favorite) on view. Of the others, some are pretty obvious (Lana Turner’s part, for example) while others (like Barry Sullivan) are less so. I won’t go naming any names here – it might spoil a little bit of the fun for some and anyway the curious can easily search online for clues/opinions. That’s just trivial stuff though, the movie provides a masterclass in professionalism and polish where there’s next to nothing to fault in the direction, writing, photography (another Oscar there for Robert Surtees) and acting. The Bad and the Beautiful is an extremely smooth and classy piece of filmmaking, Hollywood writing its own lore and having a good time doing it. The film is easy to find and looks good too, at least my old Warner Brothers DVD does. Viewed for the first or the fiftieth time, it still satisfies.

It’s a rare thing to be able to post something on the occasion of the 100th birthday of a living screen legend, a bona fide star of the Golden Age of cinema, and it gives me a real kick to be able to do so on the day Kirk Douglas hits three figures – congratulations to him and may he see many more.