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Edge of Eternity

As a major fan of westerns I have great fondness for those films which, while not belonging in the genre proper, are set in the American west. It’s not at all uncommon to see mystery elements woven into the fabric of many a western tale, and so it’s not all that surprising to come across a whodunit which plays out against the backdrop of the west, even if it is the modern version of this setting. In the case of Edge of Eternity (1959) that setting is one of the most important ingredients, the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon dominating the picture from the gripping opening right through to the spectacular conclusion.

A car draws up just short of the rim of the Grand Canyon and its driver, a middle-aged gent in a business suit, scurries forward to peer across the great chasm through a pair of binoculars. Before we even have the chance to ponder the object of his interest another, younger, man appears and carefully disengages the brake before pushing the car towards his unsuspecting victim. Alerted in the nick of time, the older man jumps aside and the vehicle plunges over the edge. These two figures struggle at the edge of the abyss, and soon both will be no more – one death we witness directly, the other will later be seen only after the fact. This dramatic opening sequence pitches the audience straight into the center of a murder mystery, grabbing our collective lapels and giving us a good threatening shake to ensure our attention doesn’t drift. We don’t know who these men are, why they fought, why they died, or who killed one of them. The task of finding the answers to these questions falls to Les Martin (Cornel Wilde), a deputy sheriff who has moved to Arizona with the hope of rebuilding a career he saw fall apart due to his own mistakes back in Denver. Aside from a natural desire to make up for past errors, Martin also wants to do what he can to help the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan), the man who hired him and offered him a second chance, get reelected. As he painstakingly assembles the pieces of the puzzle and attempts to fit them together so as to form a picture of what happened and why, he finds himself ever more attracted to Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw), the daughter of a local mining magnate. What makes it more difficult for Martin though is the growing realization that there seems to be some connection between the deaths and the wealthy Kendon family.

The films of Don Siegel tend to be direct, no-nonsense, economical affairs. This is not to say they are devoid of artistry, rather the artistry on show is never overblown or self-consciously extravagant. Edge of Eternity, for example, is not an especially deep movie, it’s not a multi-layered affair and it doesn’t pretend to offer any particular insight into the human condition. Siegel was making a whodunit with an action element, and that’s exactly what the viewer is presented with. And of course he knew how to compose exciting sequences, not least the swooping, dizzying climax in the “dancing bucket” swaying precariously in mid-air. In addition, it’s a beautiful looking film, the primal awe-inspiring landscape of the Grand Canyon becoming a character in the drama itself, dwarfing the other players and demanding attention due to its natural wonder and danger. The cinematography of Burnett Guffey, probably most admired for his work on a range of noir pictures but here reveling in the glorious colors on display, really shows off the locations. Finally, there’s a typically strong and robust score provided by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Cornel Wilde took the lead, an interesting role in ways but also a little underdeveloped in others. It’s made apparent that he’s trying to make a new life for himself after the loss of his wife and the subsequent derailment of his career. There was a good deal of potential for more internal conflict resulting from this and it is touched upon a few times, most notably during the short courtroom scene, but it’s never exploited to the full. There is a sense that Wilde is a man who wants to make amends for his past failings but it never goes much beyond that. In fairness, the film is first and foremost a mystery and the Knut Swenson screenplay concentrates primarily on that. I’ve only seen Victoria Shaw in a few films apart from this one – The Crimson Kimono and Alvarez Kelly. With the help of her striking and colorful costumes, Shaw brings a tough and feisty edge to her part, sassy and spirited throughout. Due to the nature of a whodunit and my wish to avoid any accidental spoilers for readers who haven’t seen this film I’ll be briefer than usual with my references to the other members of the cast. Let’s just say that there’s solid work turned in by Jack Elam, Rian Garrick, Edgar Buchanan, Mickey Shaughnessy & Alexander Lockwood and leave it at that.

I’m not sure how widely known Edge of Eternity is, all I can say is I was unfamiliar with this title myself until fairly recently. It’s been released on MOD DVD in the US and there’s also a Spanish disc, which I have. The movie was shot in CinemaScope and the transfer to DVD preserves this anamorphic widescreen ratio. A film like this depends heavily on the visuals and it’s important to see these reproduced as faithfully as possible. For the most part the image is acceptably clean and sharp, although some of the process shots (particularly a few during the airborne climax) look a little rougher. As usual with these Spanish releases, the subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. For me, the movie represented a blind buy, mainly based on the director and star. I enjoyed it very much, and its short running time means it never outstays its welcome. I especially liked the fact it has a cross genre appeal – it’s a suspenseful mystery with some fine action scenes and a bit of western flavor thrown in for good measure. Overall, an entertaining film that I feel is worth checking out.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2015 in 1950s, Cornel Wilde, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller

 

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Dawn at Socorro

– Who’s coming after you?

– My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.

I guess that short exchange, coming near the end of the movie, sums up much of what Dawn at Socorro (1954) is all about. It’s a classic 50s western scenario, the hunger for a fresh start, a chance to slay the demons of one’s past once and for all. In the case of this film there’s the added interest of the disguised Earp/Holliday elements in the story, although this aspect is really only peripheral, and I think it’s no bad thing the names are changed and some of the events portrayed are used primarily as an inspiration – it allows the theme to develop without weighing it down with unnecessary historical baggage.

The story opens with a reminiscence, the words of an old man drawing us back into a past he experienced and into the lives of people he was once intimate with. Our point of entry comes in a cheap saloon, one of those basic drinking spots with low ceilings and lit by guttering lamps. The Ferris clan arrives en masse, planning to pick up the youngest member, Buddy (Skip Homeier), and head back to their ranch. But Buddy’s a hot-blooded guy, at that stage in life where he needs to show off in public how much of a man he is. Reluctantly, his kin leave him to his own devices, but still under the watchful eye of gunman Jimmy Rapp (Alex Nicol). The back room is occupied by the Ferris’ mortal enemies, Marshal McNair (James Millican) and ailing gambler Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun), and it’s only a matter of time before Buddy talks himself into a fight, one which will leave him dead and bring the feud between his family and McNair and Wade to a head. What we’re looking at here is a fictional account of the build up to the confrontation between the Clantons and Earps. It culminates in what is essentially the gunfight at the OK Corral in all but name. And the upshot of the killings is that the Holliday figure, Wade, is convinced of the folly of his lifestyle up to this point. He resolves to make a change, to get out of the territory and do something about his weakening health. Sharing a stage to Socorro with a bitter and self-loathing Rapp, he makes the acquaintance of fellow passenger, Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie). Unknown to him, Rannah has been disowned by a father who believes the worst of her, and chooses to believe her lie that she’s on her way to meet her future husband. The truth is though that Rannah is going to become a saloon girl, working for Dick Braden (David Brian), a gambler whom Wade has clashed with before. It’s the realization of what is actually happening that leads Wade to put his plans to move on to Colorado on hold, to try to regain something of his youthful promise, to halt the waste and do something of worth before it’s too late.

There have been plenty of positive words about George Sherman on this site before, and Dawn at Socorro is another example of quality work from the director. The opening twenty minutes lays the groundwork for the Ferris (Clanton) and McNair (Earp) feud and the subsequent gunfight. The lengthy passage in the saloon, where the character dynamics are clearly defined, is beautifully shot and loaded with atmosphere. Sherman made good use of close-ups throughout the film, but these early scenes see them employed especially effectively. Although this is largely a town based, and therefore interior heavy, film, there is also some nice location work during the eventful stagecoach trip to Socorro. Also impressive is the shooting and composition of the key duel late in proceedings between Wade and Rapp – at the vital moment the camera is positioned high above both protagonists as they face off on the deserted Socorro street. The unusual angle chosen assigns the viewer the role of dispassionate observer gazing down on two regretful men, their individuality diluted by the distance as they become merely a pair of gunfighters on a dusty thoroughfare, their actions mirroring each other and the fatal shots appearing as simultaneous bursts of smoke.

So many westerns have concerned themselves with the dogged pursuit of individuals by the sins of their past, and the salvation, redemption or personal understanding or acceptance which grows out of this. It can be seen as a general western motif I suppose, but in the 50s in particular almost every genre entry of worth features these themes. I may be way off base here (so feel free to pull me up on this if it appears I’m mistaken) but I’m now of the opinion that this phenomenon has its roots in the post-war climate of coming to terms with the events of the past. The world had only recently recovered some kind of equilibrium after years of violence and uncertainty. Those war years represented a loss of innocence for a generation, a time of intense emotional and physical challenge, so it seems natural that the modern art form of the cinema should try to address that. I can imagine audiences of the time would have identified with tales of people struggling to escape the horrors of a violent past and by doing so perhaps regain at least a shred of their former innocence.

The Brett Wade character is very obviously based on Doc Holliday, featuring all the familiar traits which have become associated with Wyatt Earp’s ally in many films over the years. It always provides a strong role for whoever plays it and Rory Calhoun is given plenty to get his teeth into. The combination of swaggering bravado on the outside and corrosive introspection in private automatically rounds out the Wade figure – there’s that essential loneliness and otherness that the more intriguing western characters tend to display. But there’s solidarity too as most of the main players in the drama are consumed with a desire to get back to an imagined idyll, a simpler existence they still recall yet have misplaced through time. When Mara Corday’s disillusioned saloon girl wistfully inquires “How do you turn back the clock?” you know that nobody will be able to hand her a satisfactory answer.

Piper Laurie does some good work too as the young woman rejected by her father and facing a highly uncertain future, trying to convince herself of her suitability for the new life she’s prepared to take on while still dreaming of the one she’s been deprived of. And then we have Alex Nicol, an ever interesting actor, who plays a Johnny Ringo type. Nicol is embittered from the moment we first see him, drinking heavily to deaden some half-defined inner pain, and later overcome and ultimately destroyed by a sense of guilt and inadequacy – I find him the most fascinating figure in the whole movie. The real villain is played by David Brian, a man whose career started off very strong but seemed to stutter soon after. He’s suave, slippery and deadly, a guy with no redeeming features but an excellent foil for the hero. The supporting cast is full of fine actors and it’s pity there wasn’t more for some of them to do: James Millican Lee Van Cleef, Skip Homeier, Kathleen Hughes, Edgar Buchanan and Roy Roberts being the most notable of the long list of familiar faces.

The last few years have seen more and more frequently neglected films from this era getting releases, and Dawn at Socorro is now reasonably easy to get hold of. There was a box set of Universal-International westerns (Horizons West) put out a few years ago and this title was included. There’s also a Spanish DVD, which I have, and the film seems to be available to view on YT as well. I’d imagine a 1954 movie would be shot with some widescreen process in mind – IMDb suggests 2.00:1 – but my Spanish copy presents it full frame, as can be seen from the screen captures above. That aside, the transfer is generally strong, with the Technicolor looking vibrant and the image sharp. There are a few incidences of print damage, but nothing all that distracting. Dawn at Socorro is a western I like very much, with good work by Calhoun and director Sherman. The whole thing has a handsome look, is pacy and well scripted with characterization developed as the story progresses rather than through tiresome and unnatural exposition. One to look out for if you haven’t yet seen it, or to view again if you’re already acquainted.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2015 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rory Calhoun, Westerns

 

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I Confess

Hitchcock films get mentioned and written about all the time, but it’s almost always the same dozen or so that receive all the attention and plaudits. A good many of his movies are really only spoken of in passing, often referred to as bridges between his major works and, while it’s rare to see them dismissed outright, it sometimes seems that the perceived flaws and (relative) lack of success is what draws most comment. I Confess (1953) probably belongs in this category, being regarded as a little too personal and flirting with inaccessibility as far as non-Catholics are concerned. Whatever the popular view might be, it’s a film I’m very fond of, and one which of course contains the now familiar wrong man theme.

The movie opens in a typically quirky and macabre fashion, a succession of street signs flashing before our eyes and leading inexorably to the scene of a murder. As the camera peers through the open window the corpse is laid out on the floor and the door is just closing on the exiting killer. We follow the murderer through the shadowy, cobbled streets, his silhouetted figure suggesting a clergyman. Then, as he casts off the soutane, it becomes apparent that the priestly garb was no more than a convenient disguise, no doubt inspired by the fact that this man earns his keep working for the church. When a man has committed the ultimate sin, has compromised his soul and is wracked with guilt and fear, then it’s not unnatural that he should seek solace and sanctuary in a holy place. The man in question is Otto Keller (O E Hasse) and his entering the church is witnessed by chance by one of the priests, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Keller insists that Fr Logan hear his confession and the latter duly obliges. Much has been made of the fact that non-Catholics may have difficulty appreciating the seal of the confessional, the inability of a priest to ever reveal what he hears under such circumstances. I understand how there are those who might be unaware of this but the absolute confidentiality is made clear in the script so I think it’s not really reasonable to criticize the film on this score. Anyway, both the viewers and Fr Logan are aware of the identity of the murderer almost from the beginning, but further complications are to arise and cast official suspicion in a different direction. If all those signs in the opening sequence led us to a dead man, another set of pointers lead the police, headed up by the dogged and practical Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), towards Fr Logan. The murderer’s literal cloak of convenience helps of course, but the priest’s connections with the victim, a blackmailing, shyster lawyer, fan the flames of suspicion. As the reasons for Logan’s seemingly odd behaviour are laid bare and the object of the blackmail becomes known, the priest’s refusal or inability to speak up damns him in the eyes of the law. With the wheels of blind justice now in motion, Logan finds himself morally trapped and apparently powerless to protect either himself or those he cares about.

Anyone who has ever read anything about Hitchcock will be aware of two facts: his Catholic upbringing, and the distrust he felt for the law and the institutions of justice. Both of these influences on the director’s life are very much to the fore in I Confess. Church dogma colors every aspect of Logan’s behaviour throughout, cutting down his options and, again through no fault of his own, leaving both him and those around him exposed to misguided moral outrage. And of course all this leaves him at the mercy of a justice system which is unsympathetic to what it’s unaware of. Essentially, Hitchcock is presenting us with an ethical conundrum, a true dilemma where betrayal (be it spiritual or emotional) lies in wait whichever path is chosen. Really, it’s a classic noir scenario, with fate seemingly laying a complex and delicate trap for the unsuspecting protagonist – every act, the noble and the innocent most of all, being misconstrued and misinterpreted. Robert Burks’ lighting and photography, particularly the night scenes, is bathed in expressionistic shadow and Hitchcock blends the tilted angles, telling close-ups, tracking shots and deep focus beautifully. You could say the symbolism is laid on a touch heavily at times – the allusion to the trek to Calvary springs to mind immediately – but it’s all so wonderfully composed that it sounds a little churlish to harp on it too much.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the Method approach to acting, finding it phony and distracting for the most part. However, there are always exceptions, and it’s nice to be able to highlight a positive example. Montgomery Clift was one of the first (perhaps the first?) practitioners of the Method on the big screen, and I feel he was generally very successful. I like internalized performances and I like subtlety, and Clift was a first-rate exponent of this. Great screen acting comes from the little things, the barely perceptible changes of mood and the altered thought processes which we sense as much as see. Clift had many blessings but among the most significant were his composure and his eyes. The early scene in the confession box is a marvelous bit of work with those eyes revealing so much. And the same can be said for every important plot development – the increasing desperation and hopelessness of the situation is perfectly conveyed but never exaggerated. At one time I felt that Anne Baxter was less than satisfactory as Clift’s former love, but I now feel she judged it well enough. Again, it’s a role that calls for as much to be held inside as freely expressed. The longish flashback which clarifies the nature of her relationship with Logan is told from her point of view and it’s probably here that she comes across best. Frankly, there are good performances all round: Malden’s probing and restless detective, Brian Aherne’s rakish prosecutor, O E Hasse as the craven yet pitiful killer, and of course Dolly Haas as his conscience-stricken wife.

A film like I Confess, one which is so heavily dependent on its visuals, needs to be seen in good quality. Fortunately, the Warner Brothers DVD offers a strong transfer that shows off the contrast between light and dark to good effect. It’s clean and acceptably sharp, a solid-looking presentation. The disc also has a “Making of” documentary included, which provides some analysis along with production and background information – a worthwhile extra in my opinion. The film continues to be underrated as far as I can tell, and that probably says more about the strength of Hitchcock’s body of work than it does about the movie itself. I reckon it accomplishes about all it sets out to do but others may disagree with that assertion. Either way, I’d urge people to give it a chance, or perhaps watch it again if they’re already acquainted with it – I believe there are plenty of positive aspects to  focus on.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock, Film Noir

 

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It Came from Outer Space

– It’s alive.

– And yet it looks so dead out there.

– Oh no, it’s alive and waiting for you, ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, or the cold at night. A thousand ways the desert can kill. Where are you? What do you look like? What am I supposed to be looking for? I know you’re out there, hiding in the desert. Maybe I’m looking right at you and don’t even see you…

Visitors to this site might get the impression I only watch or appreciate a narrow range of movies, westerns and noir thrillers in the main. Well those happen to be my favorites, and therefore get featured a lot, but it shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal on my part of other genres. The fact is I watch all kinds of stuff, even if it doesn’t get written up here with any kind of regularity. Sci-Fi has only made one other appearance on the site, despite the fact I do enjoy it, and I feel it’s time to offer some company to that solitary post. I should also say that Kristina’s recent flurry of Sci-Fi and horror/fantasy related posts over at Speakeasy encouraged me to do something about it. Let me say right away that my favorites in the genre can be found among the classic era material from the 50s and, to a lesser extent, the 60s and early 70s. As such, I’ve decided to run with It Came from Outer Space (1953), one of the best and most literate of the “fear of the unknown” variety.

Any movie with a relatively short running time owes it to the viewers to grab the attention as abruptly as possible, and this movie does just that by having a glowing spherical object hurtle menacingly towards the screen right at the beginning. We soon learn that this strange sight is an extraterrestrial spacecraft careering blindly towards the desert on the outskirts of a small Arizona town. Sand Rock is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and strangers generally have to toil in order to overcome the inherent suspicion of the locals. John Putnam (Richard Carlson), an astronomer and relative newcomer, finds himself in that position when, along with his fiancée Ellen (Barbara Rush), he witnesses what looks like a meteor blazing its way across the night sky and ploughing into the arid wastelands beyond the town limits. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, Putnam is the first to explore the crater gouged out by the impact and also the only one to see the clearly alien craft that caused it. A major rock slide succeeds in burying all trace of the find, and leaves him in the unenviable position of trying to convince others of the significance of what’s just happened. Perhaps not unnaturally, his claims are met with almost universal skepticism, Ellen being the only one not to doubt him, and borderline hostility from one particular quarter. Matt Warren (Charles Drake) is the local sheriff who clearly has feelings for Ellen and this arguably colors his reaction to Putnam’s assertions. However, something otherworldly has landed in Sand Rock, something capable of assuming the form of whoever suits its purposes. Aside from the neat mirroring of attitudes  – both Putnam and the alien interlopers are on the receiving end of essentially the same suspicion and paranoia – the plot develops in an interesting, and quite refreshing direction, in terms of the visitors’ motivations and objectives. Before all of this is resolved though, there’s plenty of opportunity for the suspense to build.

The 50s science fiction boom seems to have been a direct result of the mood of the times – a curious cocktail of fear and hope. There was the paranoia stemming from the dread of devastation raining down from the skies coupled with a wariness over the possibility of an enemy within. This was at least partly balanced by the optimism of the post-war era, where the flip side of the technological revolution was the realization that boundless possibilities for progressive discovery also existed. Putnam’s character, as much as the aliens themselves, could be said to represent these twin concepts, and I feel it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that it’s the positive rather than the reactionary aspect which is embraced in the end.

It Came from Outer Space was to be the first Universal picture shot in the new 3D process. I’ve only seen it flat and it plays fine that way, although there’s a documentary on the DVD which points out how certain shots (not just gimmicky, throwing stuff at the screen material) were carefully composed to highlight the added depth of the extra dimension. The film was shot in California, standing in for Arizona, and good use is made of the Mojave Desert locations. The sense of remoteness, and the attendant perils of such a harsh and bleak environment, is woven into the plot, notably through passages of associated dialogue retained from Ray Bradbury’s original screen treatment. Although he had worked on a number of shorts, this was one of Jack Arnold’s earliest full length features, and his assurance as a director is already evident. Clifford Stine’s moody cinematography obviously helps things along, but Arnold sets everything up and keeps the story moving forward smoothly. Initially, it was planned not to show the aliens to the audience (a principle which I feel probably should have been adhered to) and focus on a combination of reaction shots and first person filming via a distorted lens. As it stands, I think some of the most effective scenes in the film are those where the threat is unseen – the sinister figures of Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson silhouetted in a doorway, or a simple jump scare provoked by a light suddenly illuminating as mundane an object as a Joshua tree.

Richard Carlson had appeared in a whole variety of movies, some memorable and others less so, by the time this picture was made, and it introduced him to the Sci-Fi genre. He had the kind of square-jawed yet thoughtful features that lent themselves to playing heroes with a brain, a quality which would see him cast in a number of other films in this genre in the years to come. In the role of Ellen, Barbara Rush is asked to do little more than provide a supportive and sympathetic presence at first, but she later gets to have a little more fun as her own doppelgänger in the final act. Ms Rush was near the beginning of her long career in this movie and I’ve no doubt her composed performance helped raise her stock as an actress. While her cinema credits are impressive enough, she has worked extensively on TV, including a highly memorable part in a show I can’t seem to get away from mentioning of late – yes, it’s The Fugitive again. Charles Drake took on all kinds of roles over the years, as was the lot of contract actors, though I always feel he was at his best when cast as weaselly or less than sympathetic types. As such, playing the hot-headed, resentful sheriff suited him well and added an intriguing layer to the relationships at the center of the movie.

My DVD of It Came from Outer Space is the old Universal UK release, which is serviceable enough but could be improved. Personally, I’m not that bothered about the absence of a 3D version, although others will likely feel differently, but the open matte transfer is more disappointing. A film like this really needs to get a Blu-ray release in the correct widescreen ratio, and also provide the option of viewing it in 3D for those who wish to do so. On the plus side, there are some good extra features: a commentary track with Tom Weaver and a half-hour documentary on the film and it’s place in 50s Sci-Fi filmmaking. The film remains important as Jack Arnold’s first science fiction project, the genre his name is now most strongly associated with, and also for its position as an early classic in what has become a very crowded field over the years. I think the best, or most interesting, Sci-Fi films use their fantastic or otherworldly elements to tell us something about ourselves above all. It Came from Outer Space neatly challenges expectations and prejudices and encourages us to look within as much as without, which is one of the reasons I enjoy revisiting it. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2015 in 1950s, Jack Arnold, Sci-Fi

 

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A Lawless Street

The snarling beast… can’t you hear it growling out there? Listen! This town is like a wild animal in chains, Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away, it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.

The hero stalked by his past, living with the legacy of a reputation earned the hard way but not actively sought out, is a common enough theme in westerns. Generally, the inevitable confrontation with the past is undertaken only with the utmost reluctance, with the full knowledge that destruction rather than salvation may await. What’s less common though is a scenario where it’s the cumulative effects of times gone by that are addressed, and where aspects of those times are actually yearned for. A Lawless Street (1955) has such a concept at its heart – a man haunted not by misdeeds but by missed opportunities, and slowly being worn down by conscience, regret and just a hint of fear.

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, and was initially brought in to ensure this frontier town abides by the civilized values one of its leading citizens, Asaph Dean (James Bell), wants to see upheld. Ware is one of those itinerant lawmen sometimes referred to as town tamers, having worked some tough western settlements and built up a name for himself as a gunman of note in the process. One of the things I particularly like about the 50s western is the way such aspects of a man’s character or background are rarely glossed over or glamorized. The memorable opening scene has a lone horseman slowly ride along the empty main street, his body language and general demeanor suggesting he has something serious on his mind, and when the camera zooms in and focuses on his sidearm, then we know pretty well the exact nature of his business. This man is in town to settle a score with the marshal and word of what’s probably in store doesn’t take long to get around. Ware is the type who knows only too well the importance of maintaining a facade, he makes a big play of his apparent nonchalance, projecting an image of supreme confidence regardless of the danger that lie in his path, Yet the viewer knows this for what it is; the brief quote I added at the beginning is a line he lets slip to his landlady as she prepares breakfast for him before he sets off to do his duty. If we have any doubts though, it’s made clear when he returns to his office after the inevitable shooting – the stress of forever living in the shadow of violent threats and the debilitating effects of knowing he’s had to cut short another life are plain to see once he has closed the door against the prying eyes of the townsfolk. The local doctor (Wallace Ford) is aware  of this, and says as much when he later helps to tend to Ware’s injuries after a bruising encounter with the dead man’s brother. The point here is that there’s a marked contrast between the private and the public face of Calem Ware, something that’s further explored when a musical star, Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), arrives to put on a show at the theater. Ware and Tally have a shared past, a framed photo of her stashed in his room alludes to that early on, but its true nature is only revealed gradually. While much of the plot revolves around the machinations of a couple of businessmen (Warner Anderson & John Emery) who want Ware out of the way, and hire gunfighter Harley Baskam (Michael Pate) to that end, the heart of the picture is driven by the relationship between Tally and the marshal, and indeed the marshal’s own intrapersonal relationship.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a film by Joseph H Lewis that wasn’t interesting, either in terms of theme or the visual language he employed in the telling. Although the plot of A Lawless Street isn’t especially original, the way Lewis goes about presenting it elevates it all considerably. Apart from one brief sequence, the entire movie plays out within the confines of Medicine Bend, with all the significant events taking place indoors. The director, and cameraman Ray Rennahan, creates a look and mood which approach film noir at some points and contain a fair amount of symbolism. The image above is, of course, a notable example — the wounded Ware hiding out in his own jail, the shadows of his past and his sense of duty pinning him in place just as surely as the shadows cast by the bars. Note too how the real man seems small and tense next to the solid and imposing image of himself. In fact, a great deal of this film is concerned with the concepts of illusion and reality; one of the main sets is the theater where Tally performs, and what is the theater if not a palace of illusion. As Tally plays her role on the stage, and the marshal assumes his watching from the box seat, the reality is only shown when they move backstage. In the same way, Ware’s office represents his “backstage”, the sanctuary which allows him to strip away the greasepaint of invincibility. Also, let’s not forget the notion of rebirth, the allusion to spirituality, which is frequently found in 50s westerns. The climax toys with the idea of resurrection, of a man back from the dead to reclaim his position in society, and by doing so attaining the spiritual and emotional equilibrium for which he’s been yearning.

Randolph Scott has been featured on this site more than any other actor and I guess most of the reasons for his enduring appeal as a western lead have been covered in depth. For me, A Lawless Street is yet another step along the path Scott was treading in the post-war years, a path that would culminate in the iconic roles he played for both Boetticher and Peckinpah. The part of Calem Ware has enough depth to make it interesting, and Scott had acquired sufficient gravitas by this stage in his career to render his portrayal credible. Angela Lansbury has had a long and distinguished career but the western isn’t a genre that she’s had much association with. A Lawless Street is the only genuine example as far as I’m concerned, as The Harvey Girls is a musical first and foremost. I understand Ms Lansbury has been dismissive of the film and her participation in it, which is a bit of a shame. Aside from the fact the whole production has much to recommend it, her own role is a pretty good one with enough drama and internal conflict to give her something to get her teeth into, and of course there’s the opportunity to show off her singing skills in the theater number.

Michael Pate, John Emery and Warner Anderson are a fine trio of villains: Pate gets across the cunning and menace of his character very successfully, and even outdraws Scott quite spectacularly, while Anderson and Emery are as slimy a pair of puppet masters as you could wish for. Wallace Ford is one of those character actors whose presence is always welcome, and he had a strong pedigree in westerns. As the town doctor, and Scott’s only true friend, he has a good share of screen time and is solid and reassuring throughout. Of the remaining support players, both Jeanette Nolan and Jean Parker deserve a mention for the sense of poignancy and pathos they bring to their small but pivotal roles.

A Lawless Street has been available on DVD for many years via Columbia/Sony, and looks reasonably good. The 16:9 transfer could use a bit more sharpness and some minor work but it’s quite acceptable as it stands. In my opinion, this film is as near the top tier of Scott westerns as makes no difference. The theme, built around a standard genre plot, is rich and has the kind of depth which makes it a pleasure to revisit. The direction by Joseph H Lewis has the pace, the eye for composition and the stylistic flourishes that make his work a rewarding experience. When you factor in the mature and assured performance of Scott, who was very close to hitting his peak, then the result is a deeply satisfying film. All things considered, I give this movie my strong recommendation.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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Cape Fear

Recently, I wrote about Brainstorm, commenting on its connections to classic film noir. Another movie from the same decade, albeit a few years earlier, with an arguably stronger affiliation to the world of noir is Cape Fear (1962). Sourced from the hard-boiled, pulpy writing of John D MacDonald, the film is a merciless examination of some of the darkest areas of human nature. While almost all the varied aspects of the filmmaking process, and the artists and craftsmen involved, blend together to produce the finished product, much of its power derives from the central performance of Robert Mitchum. For a man who initially didn’t want to do the picture, Mitchum fully inhabits his part and brings a level of feral brutality to the character that makes Max Cady one of the most memorable and formidable villains the screen has known.

The story is a relatively simple tale of revenge and retribution, a face-off not only between the principal characters but between the law and justice too. Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful lawyer, married with a teenage daughter and living in some comfort. A typical noir scenario frequently sees the protagonist cornered by circumstance, and what better way to achieve that than to have the past come crashing violently into the present. In Sam Bowden’s case the unwelcome past is represented by the swaggering, cigar-chomping figure of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a man who’s spent eight years in prison on the basis of Bowden’s testimony against him. The question of his own guilt doesn’t occur to Cady, he simply regards himself as a victim of Bowden’s meddling and is thus intent on exacting vengeance for what he considers a life denied him. From his first encounter with Bowden outside the courthouse, a mock affability barely concealing his threats, Cady becomes omnipresent in the attorney’s life. Everywhere he goes, his arrogant nemesis seems to follow, and the veiled intimidation is gradually cranked up with each successive meeting. With the danger to his family becoming ever more apparent, Bowden turns to his friends in the police department in the hopes of using his establishment connections to rid himself of Cady. However, if he thinks he can bend the law to his benefit, he soon finds out how mistaken that assumption is – Cady is clever, cunning and more than capable of turning the tools of Bowden’s trade back on him. Bit by bit, the lawyer is drawn, through mounting desperation, towards that fine line between legality and criminality. Ultimately, Cady’s goading will lead him right up to the rim of the moral abyss and dare him to take that final fateful step.

J Lee Thompson had begun his directing career in British cinema a decade earlier and had made a number of films which showed he had a talent for both action and suspense. While working on The Guns of Navarone, he so impressed star Gregory Peck that he was promptly asked to take charge of this film. There are action sequences in Cape Fear, particularly during the harrowing climax, but it’s primarily a suspense picture, a dread infused journey of terror and moral compromise. As Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score pounds away, Thompson smoothly dials up the tension in tantalizing increments  – clever cutting and camera setups lending an air of danger to such mundane and traditionally secure settings as the family home and the daughter’s school. And cameraman Sam Leavitt plays his part too, alternating between the sun drenched Savannah locations where Sam Bowden walks tall and proud as a leading citizen, and the inky shadows of his home and later the river as his thoughts turn to subverting the law which he serves in order to protect his family.

I said at the start that Cape Fear is a film which benefits from fine work all round. Peck was always good at portraying upright, heroic types. The role of Sam Bowden was a comfortable fit for him, and he catches the slight stiffness that makes the character ever so vaguely unlikable very well; Peck had the ability to convey a kind of prim smugness at times, a quality which fits in nicely in the early stages when he’s calling in favors from Martin Balsam’s accommodating police chief in an effort to run Cady out of town. I found it interesting that Lee Server’s biography claims Mitchum regarded the Peck character as the bad guy until the brutality of the second half of the film clarifies matters. Actually, it not so hard to see where he was coming from with that theory as the story has the establishment figures closing ranks against the outsider in the early stages. Of course the full extent of Cady’s depravity and ruthlessness is starkly revealed as the story unfolds, but that faint touch of ambiguity at the beginning adds further interest to my mind.

Regardless of the solid work from Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase et al, it’s really Mitchum’s show all the way. He’d proved how well he could take on villainous roles in Charles Laughton’s dreamy and magical The Night of the Hunter but I feel playing Max Cady saw him step up to another level altogether. He’s genuinely electrifying every time he appears on screen, strutting and swaggering and dominating every frame with his sheer physicality. To refer again to the Server biography, it’s said that he invested himself in the role so deeply that he terrified Barrie Chase – something that’s clearly visible in the movie itself – and almost had to be restrained during the climactic assaults on both Bergen and Peck. The film was remade 30 years later by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro as Cady, and featuring cameos by both Mitchum and Peck, but it didn’t work anywhere near as well for me. That remake, despite attempts to add some intriguing new aspects to the characters’ relationships, suffers badly from a cartoonish performance by De Niro that pales before the raw dynamism of Mitchum’s work – the sheer primal power of the man burns itself into your memory.

I just recently watched the film again on Blu-ray, which I picked up bundled with the remake for a very good price, and it benefits from the increased resolution but not in any startling way. If Cape Fear isn’t generally referred to as film noir, then it comes awfully close as far as I’m concerned. It’s dark, brooding and tough – the ending does see justice prevail, just, but it comes at a heavy price and nobody really walks away unscathed. For anyone laboring under the illusion that Mitchum tended to phone in his performances, or that J Lee Thompson was simply Cannon fodder, Cape Fear ought to put those myths permanently to rest.

 

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Broken Lance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Jeopardy

You’re smart… honest. I like smart women. They got cat in ’em.

Current trends in cinema indicate that audiences prefer ever-increasing running times, or at least the major studios seem to interpret it that way. In terms of minutes spent in front of the screen, you could definitely say you’re getting your money’s worth out of a movie these days. But is it really possible to reduce the worth of a movie, or any piece of art for that matter, to such crude terms? I’m fine with long films if the story or its telling merits the added time. The problem though is that this is rarely the case; simple stories are padded to the point they lose their edge, and true epics no longer as potent. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time filmmakers knew that quality and quantity were not equal partners, that it was unnecessary to tie them together in a marriage of inconvenience. Today, let’s look at Jeopardy (1953), a movie that does all it needs to do in under seventy minutes.

There’s something wholesome and reassuring about family vacations, especially the hard-earned ones. Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), along with his wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker), are driving south to get away from it all the stresses and strains of life. They’re heading to Mexico, to a deserted fishing cove Doug remembers visiting with an old army buddy, and everything seems right with the world. As they cross the border and move away from the big towns Helen’s narration catches some of the optimistic flavor of the early 50s – there’s an air of domestic contentment, but there’s an edge to her voice at times that warns of a tale which will take a twist before it runs its course. We get the odd hint of an undercurrent of tension  – Doug doesn’t like being told what to do and Helen is obviously not a woman to be undervalued – but the first real sense of danger comes when the family encounters a police roadblock. The reason for the spot check becomes apparent later. For the time being, things couldn’t be better – Doug finds his secluded beach and the family settle down to relax in glorious solitude. However, to borrow from another noir narrator, fate has put its finger on this particular group of people. While exploring the old jetty, Bobby gets his foot stuck in the decaying timbers and his father has to go and free him. It’s at this point that everything, quite literally, falls apart. The upshot is that Doug finds himself trapped in the shallows by a fallen pile, and the tide is rising. With all attempts to extricate him coming to nothing, Doug convinces Helen to drive back to the last settlement they passed in search of help. Reluctantly, she does so, leaving Bobby behind to keep him company. What she encounters though is Lawson (Ralph Meeker), the object of the aforementioned police dragnet. As the water level rises, and Helen’s sense of desperation matches it, we learn exactly how far a woman is prepared to go to save the life of the man she loves.

I’ve commented before on how there’s something very attractive about John Sturges’ work in the 50s, which is not to say I dislike the bigger, and more ambitious films he made in the years to come. I feel he was at his best in the 50s though; there’s a tightness, a kind of taut economy, in his filmmaking during that period. Jeopardy is a straightforward and direct story – there’s no explanation of who Lawson is or what precisely he’s wanted for, but a handful of telling shots let the audience know all that’s necessary about his character and the things he’s capable of. Time is of the essence for the man trapped on the beach, and Sturges never once lets go of that sense of urgency. The almost constant use of motion – the crashing waves, Helen’s chaotic drive to the settlement, and Lawson’s similarly frantic journey back – offer no respite from the tension. Not a moment is wasted, nor a word uttered superfluously. In visual terms, Sturges was as fine an exponent of the wide screen process as it’s been my pleasure to see. While this film was framed for, or at least is presented in, Academy ratio, the director’s spatial awareness and composition is always in evidence. The high, objectifying angles increase the sense of isolation of the characters in a barren and hostile environment, and the close-ups catch every twitch of emotion on their faces.

Barbara Stanwyck was in her mid-40s when she made Jeopardy, and showing few signs of relinquishing her grip on leading roles. By this stage she’d had plenty of experience playing tough broads who knew their way round the world and were capable of giving as good as they got. Unlike similarly strong actresses like Bette Davis or, more especially, Joan Crawford, whom I often find off-putting, Stanwyck retained that toughness without descending into hardness. While she worked in a variety of genres, there was an edge and earthiness which made her a good fit for westerns and thrillers. Jeopardy gave her top billing and plenty to get her teeth into – the painful decisions circumstances have forced her into making are never shied away from and her reactions to them remain entirely credible. Barry Sullivan would go on to make another two movies with Stanwyck – most notably Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns – and he worked well with her on screen. The film has no shortage of high drama and thus needed a strong, stable presence to anchor it all. Sullivan is very good as the man used to taking charge and calling the shots, who’s reduced to helplessness. Even so he’s stoic throughout, and his interaction with Lee Aaker (who also appeared in Hondo the same year) is genuinely touching at times. Just the other day I saw Ralph Meeker described, not at all disparagingly, as “a poor man’s Brando”, and I can see how that could be the case. He had the kind of brutal machismo that made him a terrific and interesting Mike Hammer a few years later in Kiss me Deadly, and he has ample opportunity to show that off here. I think it’s also worth noting that even in a film as lean and pared down as Jeopardy, Meeker’s character still has the chance to earn redemption by the end.

Jeopardy was released on DVD in the US some years ago as part of a Stanwyck box set, and the disc was also available individually. It shares that disc space with To Please a Lady, and the transfer is quite good. The print is generally sharp, clean and without damage. The theatrical trailer is provided as an extra along with the radio adaptation of the story. I’m very partial to sparse, brisk storytelling, even more so nowadays as it seems to have become something of a lost art; men like John Sturges knew how to do it well, and Jeopardy is a solid example of that.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Film Noir, John Sturges

 

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Tony Rome

 This isn’t a family. It’s just a bunch of people living at the same address. 

Trends in cinema are constantly changing with genres rising and falling in popularity all the time. Despite that, the detective story has never really gone out of fashion, in the same way that the literary version stretching back to its earliest appearance in the works of Poe and Dickens remains consistently popular. Sure the style has altered over time, the snappy sophistication of the Van Dine and Queen influenced movies of the 30s giving way to the tougher hard-boiled dialect of the Hammett and Chandler adaptations of the 40s and so on. While the trappings and presentation may shift according to the mood of the times, the central figure of the detective is always with us. Whether these characters happen to be public servants or private investigators they are seekers after truth, and occasionally justice gets a look in too. By the 60s the gumshoe or shamus had passed through the period of post-war cynicism and, though some vestige of that weary attitude was still to be found, taken on an air of cool detachment. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Frank Sinatra to play the title character in Tony Rome (1967), a private eye yarn retaining most of the familiar motifs of the sub-genre and blending them into the more permissive atmosphere of the late 60s.

Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) is a Miami based investigator, just about getting by, making enough to eat and pay off the gambling debts he’s fond of running up. A phone call from his ex-partner, Turpin (Robert J Wilke), lands him a job he’s not especially keen on but it doesn’t look like it’s going to require any great effort on his part either. A young woman (Sue Lyon) checked herself into the flea-pit hotel where Turpin is working as the house dick and promptly passed out under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. Well so what? The thing is the hotel doesn’t need any further hassle from the law and the young lady just happens to be the daughter of Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), an influential construction magnate. Rome stands to earn some easy money by simply delivering the tycoon’s daughter back home and ensuring no awkward questions are asked. Kosterman’s naturally happy to have the girl back but he’s also worried about her recent behavior – she’s been spending prolifically and it’s increasingly difficult for either her father or her incompetent milquetoast husband to control her. Firstly, Kosterman hires Rome to look into his daughter’s activities, then before he gets out of the door the millionaire’s wife (Gena Rowlands) wants to retain his services for an investigation of her own. When the motor launch that doubles as his home is ransacked by a couple of toughs convinced he must know the whereabouts of a jeweled pin the last thing he needs is another client. And yet that’s exactly what he gets the following morning as the Kosterman girl turns up and wants him to locate the jeweled pin (yes, that one) she mislaid in the course of her date with the whiskey bottle. Aside from the potential conflict of interests involved, an apparently straightforward assignment is beginning to turn into fairly complex mess. And that’s only the beginning; after Turpin turns up dead in Rome’s office the bodies start piling up with almost depressing regularity, threatening to sour his long-standing relationship with the police in the shape of Lieutenant Santini (Richard Conte), not to mention a potential relationship of another kind with divorcee Ann Archer (Jill St John). By the time the case is concluded Rome will lay bare the secrets the Kosterman family would prefer to keep under wraps – to reach that point he’ll have to pick his way through a maze peopled by a lesbian stripper, an effete drug pusher, a crooked jeweler and blackmailers.

This was the first of three crime movies director Gordon Douglas would make with Sinatra, the others being Lady in Cement (reprising the Tony Rome character) and The Detective. The latter is clearly the best and most layered of the trio, but Tony Rome is probably the most entertaining. The story derives from a Marvin H Albert novel – a writer whose work I’ve never read despite the fact I’ve seen a few movies now based on his books – and treads a fine line between glamor and seediness, intrigue and humor. Douglas, along with cameraman Joseph Biroc, makes the most of the Florida locations and there are some nicely composed setups (see above) which evoke the look and mood of the classic private eye movie. The plot does become pretty complicated but Douglas keeps the pace even and there’s enough incident to ensure interest never drifts. A good deal of the humor comes via the by-play between Sinatra and Jill St John; although there’s also a glorious, innuendo-laden interlude in Rome’s office, when a frumpy middle-aged woman tries to get him to look into the matter of her depressed pussy and see if he can make it smile again.

Sinatra was well cast as Rome, boozing, smoking and wisecracking his way around Miami and the Keys, mingling effortlessly with both high society and a range of lowlife characters. As a singer he was always capable of going from a buoyant cockiness to almost painful self-awareness, and he brings the same quality to his performance here. The smart, assured dialogue rolls of his tongue as he trades threats and jibes with equal ease, and yet there’s also the honest acceptance of his own weaknesses and failings as a human being. Recently, I’ve been chatting elsewhere about the nature of the detective in crime fiction/filmmaking, and I think Sinatra does well conveying the image of an imperfect but essentially honorable man surrounded by violence and deceit. Jill St John is fine too as the woman looking for a few laughs and finding herself regularly fobbed off as Rome’s investigation takes another interesting turn at just the wrong moment for her. The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces – Simon Oakland, Gena Rowlands, Robert J Wilke, an increasingly exasperated Richard Conte, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner, and cameos for boxer Rocky Graziano and restaurateur Mike Romanoff.

Tony Rome is a 20th Century Fox production and the DVD form that studio is very good – I have the UK box set containing the three Sinatra/Douglas crime films. The movie is presented in anamorphic scope and comes from a nice clean print, the colors are natural looking and I can’t say I’m aware of any significant damage. The movie itself is a good, solid detective story with a well-judged central performance by Sinatra. In fairness, it’s not the star’s best movie, not even his best with Douglas, but it is a good one, entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. It ought to be more than satisfactory for anyone into mysteries, detective stories or Sinatra.

 

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Ceiling Zero

If you spend any time watching, discussing, reading or writing about movies, then the auteur theory is one which will inevitably cross your mind. I was first exposed to this concept in my teenage years, and it’s a notion which I first embraced and then rejected. Over time I’ve shifted my position on the matter frequently, mainly due to my acceptance of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. I’ve now become more comfortable with the label, no longer seeing it as inherently pejorative towards the collective efforts of the other people involved. The fact is it’s hard to ignore the idea of the auteur when you look at the body of work of the most significant directors. Howard Hawks provides a good example of what I’m talking about; his films are remarkable for the frequency with which they return to a broadly comparable milieu, setting and theme. Ceiling Zero (1936) is the kind of film I think it would be impossible to view without thinking: yes, this is clearly a Hawks movie.

The title refers to the kind of weather conditions that were the bane of aviation pioneers, the sky right down on your nose and visibility all but non-existent, compelling them to rely on a combination of fickle instrumentation and gut instinct to see them through. The story takes place in a Newark airfield, and the focus is on a group of pilots and ground crew responsible for the mail run. Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) is the superintendent, a former pilot himself who’s now the de facto boss, hiring, firing and calling the shots in the day-to-day running of the outfit. He’s a disciplined man, secure in his professionalism and apparently unsentimental. And yet that’s not entirely true, for there is a chink in his armor, a blind spot. Jake’s dedication to his job is superseded only by his loyalty to old buddies and former comrades in arms. It’s there to be seen in his easy friendship with veteran flyer Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin) and also his quiet concern for the welfare of an ex-pilot brain-damaged as the result of an accident and now reduced to the status of janitor/cleaner. However, it’s the arrival of another old pal, Dizzy Davis (James Cagney), which underlines this aspect of his character. Dizzy arrives at the airfield in spectacular fashion, indulging in plenty of fancy aerial acrobatics before touching down. It’s immediately obvious that Dizzy is a reckless individual, hard-living and wholly self-absorbed. His reputation as one of the flying greats precedes him, and he plays up to it shamelessly. What we’re watching here is, essentially, the final act in the life of a man who’s a victim of his own legend, coasting along on the reminiscences and indulgence of others. However, times change and a man can only subsist on his past glories for so long. With the job of the pilot moving relentlessly towards a more serious place, a guy like Dizzy is fast becoming a walking relic, a throwback to a devil-may-care era of swashbucklers. The crunch arrives when his selfishness and carousing brings tragedy to the tight-knit airfield, and puts both his character and his friendship with Jake under the microscope. But, as is the case with all the best movies, even those who have squandered the chances life offered before have the opportunity to achieve a salvation of sorts.

Frank Wead adapted Ceiling Zero for the screen from his own stage play and its theatrical roots are clear to see. The action is largely confined to one set, the airfield’s nerve center, where the human drama is played out. As such, it’s an ideal vehicle for Howard Hawks. His signature was always a focus on small groups, isolated in one way or another, and held together by their sense of professionalism. The characters here seem to exist within their own little world, a self-supporting community of like-minded individuals fiercely protective of each other and suspicious of the occasional incursions by those from the outside. A typical Hawks movie could be characterized as one where the characters’ interactions reign supreme, and the settings are merely cosmetic backdrops to facilitate the drama. Only Angels Have Wings (which bears some resemblance to this film) takes place in South America, Rio Bravo in the Old West, Hatari in Africa, The Thing from Another World at a polar research station. Yet in all those cases the location used is of much less importance than the dynamic between the people occupying them. And so it is with Ceiling Zero, where the whole thing revolves around the relationship between Dizzy and Jake.

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien became a recognizable and successful team during the 30’s and I’d rate Ceiling Zero right up there with Angels with Dirty Faces as one of their best collaborations. They both had that mercurial Irish quality that leads to some sparkling moments on the screen, their snappy waspishness colliding as the two stubborn personalities meet head on. Still, there’s the underlying affection and respect which gives it its heart – the sharp exchanges with the machine-gun delivery grab the attention yet it’s the quieter passages the two men share which reveal more. As Cagney’s bravado and vanity recede, and O’Brien’s simple humanity rises to the surface, a genuine friendship can be seen. And it’s there too in the reactions of both to the tragedies and losses they suffer – subtle, heartfelt and quite moving. While the film is really a showcase for Cagney and O’Brien – not that that’s any bad thing – there’s good support provided by Stuart Erwin, Isabel Jewell, June Travis and Barton MacLane among others.

As far as I know, Ceiling Zero has yet to make it to DVD in the US, but it has been released by Warner in France. The French disc offers a reasonable presentation of the film using a print which doesn’t display much in the way of damage but there is a softness to the image indicating a lack of restoration. French releases can have an annoying habit of forcing subtitles, although I’ve never found this to be the case with WB titles. It’s certainly not a problem with this movie – the option to watch with or without French subs is offered on the language selection menu. In my opinion, Ceiling Zero is typical Hawks, and anyone familiar with his work will need no further recommendation. Perhaps it’s not the easiest film to find but I reckon it’s well worth the effort.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in 1930s, Howard Hawks, James Cagney

 

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