The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.

Undercover Girl

A slight departure today, but one which I’m sure most who read and follow here will appreciate. In short, I’m honored to be able to host a guest post from Gordon Gates, a man who has contributed to many a discussion here over the years and who brings along a wealth of knowledge on genre pictures and television shows. He very kindly offered to do a guest write-up, and also floated the possibility of others in the future. I’m delighted to be able to offer Gord this space to highlight a movie of his choice, and I’ve no doubt other readers here will share those sentiments.
I would like to thank Colin for the chance to do a guest review. I am by no means an expert on film but I know what I like. Film Noir, westerns, war films, Sci-Fi and early television are at the top of the list for me. Up first, I’m going to dive into film noir. Undercover Girl  (1950) is a Universal-International B film that stars Scott Brady, Alexis Smith, Royal Dano, Gerald Mohr, Gladys George, Angela Clarke and Richard Egan. This was the second feature helmed by actor turned director, Joseph Pevney. The story was supplied by Harry Essex whose work includes, Desperate, The Killer That Stalked New York, The Fat Man, Bodyguard, I, The Jury and Kansas City Confidential.

This one starts out in Los Angeles where a Police informant is badly wounded in a vicious knife attack. Before he bites it, the informant tells his Police Detective contact, Scott Brady, there is a large shipment of drugs coming to town. The shipment is arriving from New York. He also manages to whisper there is a crooked New York cop involved.As this is going on in LA, back on the east coast, Police Detective Regis Toomey, the crooked cop, has had a change of heart. Toomey has a meeting with mobster, Gerald Mohr about the 10 large he took to look the other way. He tosses the cash back at Mohr and tells him he is taking him in. This does not go well for Toomey. A henchman of Mohr puts the kibosh on Toomey..

Now we meet Alexis Smith, Smith is a trainee with the NYPD following in her father’s footsteps. She takes Toomey’s murder hard and redoubles her efforts to make the force.

LA cop Brady is soon in New York to see if he can uncover anything about the drug shipment. Smith does not believe Brady that her father might have been a bent copper. She offers to help out Brady. Brady takes her up on the offer. He will send her in as an undercover type back in LA.

It is back to LA to fill in Smith on her new identity etc. They hook Smith up with an old time gangster’s moll, Gladys George. George is pumped by Smith for every bit of info she can get. This will help establish Smith’s criminal “bona fides” for her new identity. She is to play a buyer for a drug ring in Chicago.

Several weeks of studying are needed before Smith can be inserted into the local criminal crowd. Smith is put up in a downtown rooming house next door to Angela Clarke. Clarke is the former dolly of low level underworld type, Royal Dano. Clarke is a drunk always looking for a bottle. A few words in her ear from Smith, and a promise of some cash, soon does the trick.  Clarke agrees to put Smith in touch with Dano.
Dano shows up at Clarke’s apartment in a less than happy state. He is not amused that Clarke has set up the meeting with an out of town type. Clarke gets slapped around, then, shoved out the 3rd floor window. Dano beats the feet out the door and right into Miss Smith. She points to a back way out of the building.

Smith fills in Brady on the night’s events. Brady thinks the case is now far too dangerous to continue, but Smith still wants revenge for her father’s murder. She tracks down Dano and convinces him to introduce her to someone higher up the drug food chain. A promise of 1000 bucks quickly has Dano on side.

Miss Smith is soon shown into the office of a doctor. The man, Edom Ryan, has a sideline selling heroin. Ryan actually works for the same mobster, Mohr, who killed Toomey in New York. Keeping an eye on Doc Ryan is, “mad as a hatter” gunsel, Harry Landers. Also on Mohr’s payroll is Lynn Ainley.

Before Ryan agrees to any transaction, he needs to check out Smith’s identification etc. Smith knows all the proper answers to the right questions, and is bumped up the line. She meets the boss, Mohr. A deal is quickly arranged for a substantial amount of product for an equally substantial pile of cash.

Now of course the flies start to roost in the ointment. Miss Smith runs into her former beau from New York, Richard Egan. He blows her cover in front of Dano. Dano, an enterprising bottom feeder if ever there was one, decides to blackmail Policewoman Smith. Five large or he turns her over to Mohr. He gives a time and place to Smith for the exchange.

This lays out all the ground work for the film. Needless to say several double crosses, some flying fists, a barrage of bullets and a stack of bodies are needed to bring the tale to a proper end.

This is another of those Universal-International films that is rather difficult to lay one’s hands on. But it is well worth the time if it can be found.

Scott Brady was the younger brother of noir favorite Lawrence Tierney. Look close early and you can spot the third Tierney brother, Edward, in a small unbilled bit.

The cast is all quite good here, with the always entertaining Royal Dano in particular shining as the low-life grifter. This was director Pevney’s second foray into noir territory after the equally entertaining, Shakedown. He hits the mark all the way through. Pevney directed in several genres during the 1950′ s before making the move to television. Two of more well know TV episodes were from Star Trek. These were, Amok Time and The Trouble With Tribbles. Pevney’s film work includes: Desert Legion, Iron Man, Back to God’s Country, Yankee Pasha, Away All Boats and The Plunderers.

As for myself, I’m from Western Canada. Right now I’m based in Calgary Alberta though I have lived in British Columbia and the Yukon. Quite a few films have been make around here as we are only 60 miles from the Rocky Mountains. Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Costner’s Open Range are just a couple of the westerns made here.

Gordon Gates

Tiger by the Tail

The last time I posted here I spoke about voiceover narration in movies and expressed some doubts about its efficacy. Now that was largely prompted by my experiencing what I felt was a fairly redundant example of the technique. That said, the fact is that this narrative device does serve a purpose and, as others have pointed out, is frequently an attractive feature in various films noir. Generally, I’d go along with that – although it has to be said that a recent viewing of Richard Fleischer’s Trapped had me drumming my fingers at what seemed like an interminable lecture at the beginning. And this, in my own meandering way, brings me to Tiger by the Tail (1955), a British film noir which I reckon uses its narration in the most effective way, that is as a means of conveying the thoughts, fears and regrets of the lead.

The opening is suitably evocative – nighttime, a sparse urban setting and a lone figure stumbling along a pavement before collapsing. As a patrol car pulls up and a policeman goes to attend to the fallen man the credits roll. Thereafter the story unfolds in flashback, with intermittent narration provided by the protagonist. He is John Desmond (Larry Parks), an American journalist somewhat reluctantly handed the assignment of taking over the London office of his organization. He’d been expecting the Paris job and the last minute decision to switch him to Britain hasn’t done much for his mood. The combination of post-war austerity and the less than enchanting weather is picking at him and a decision to go out for a drink alone proves to  be a fateful one. This is what brings him into contact with Anna Ray (Lisa Daniely), and he embarks on a relationship that will see him embroiled in a killing and left to the mercy of a group of ruthless counterfeiters. His only way out is to try to unravel the meaning of a cipher in a notebook, and thus hopefully bring down the gangsters. As is often the case in the world of film noir, Desmond has first to be led up the garden path by a femme fatale in the shape of Ms Ray before being bailed out by a loyal Girl Friday figure – in this case Jane Claymore (Constance Smith), the secretary who proves herself considerably more resourceful than her ill-fated boss.

As films noir go, the plot here is pretty standard fare. There’s a protagonist who’s not exactly a chump but nor is he any brighter than he needs to be. The villains are twisty and mean, and the women, both good and bad, are arguably sharper than anyone. The script adapts a John Mair novel and comes via Willis Goldbeck. Generally a writer and occasional director (I keep meaning to do something catching up with Ten Tall Men, the Foreign Legion picture he made with Burt Lancaster), Goldbeck penned a number of Dr Kildare programmers as well as a couple of Stuart Palmer adaptations , not to mention the deeply unpleasant Freaks for Tod Browning. Tiger by the Tail is a smoothly written piece, albeit a seemingly unusual one for a man close to the end of his career and due to go out on a relative high with a brace of John Ford movies – Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The movie looks attractive throughout and is set up nicely by that generic but stylish and effective opening. The cinematography is Eric Cross (who also shot the visually interesting The Dark Man) and the always reliable John Gilling occupies the director’s chair. Gilling had an eye for a good-looking setup and even if he was as abrasive as his reputation suggests he did, as a rule, manage to get solid or better performances from the actors he worked with. He remains something of an underrated filmmaker although, interestingly, the upcoming Hammer box set from Indicator/Powerhouse is as near a John Gilling collection as we’re  likely to see.

And so to the actors. Neither Larry Parks nor Constance Smith will be household names these days, and indeed I’d be amazed if anyone aside from the most dedicated film buffs are at all familiar with them. Nevertheless, back when Tiger by the Tail went into production both would have enjoyed a considerably higher profile. For different reasons these two people dropped virtually out of sight after having tasted success. One would have though a Best Actor nomination in a big budget movie would ensure a more lasting fame, but such was the power of the blacklist that someone like Parks could see his career grind to a halt almost immediately. I’ll have to confess that I’ve not seen much of his work and can only recall The Swordsman, a fairly entertaining Joseph H Lewis swashbuckler.

Constance Smith fell from grace for entirely different reasons, although her troubles are not unprecedented in Hollywood. Coming from a poor Irish background, Smith quite literally shot to fame and found herself rapidly moving from Rank in Britain to Fox in Hollywood and making star appearances alongside some major names. However, as fast as her fame arrived, it evaporated at a similarly giddy pace. Out of contract, with a personal life descending into chaos, she left the US but the years ahead were to be even more tumultuous. Not that any of this is apparent when watching Tiger by the Tail, where her performance is just fine.

Recent years have been good to fans of British crime and noir. There was a time when these kinds of movies were sprinkled throughout the TV listings, albeit as filler material. Then they seemed to disappear, leaving many wondering if they’d ever be seen again. Small independent labels such as Renown, along with Network and Simply, have done some terrific work in making so many of these forgotten titles available once again. The Renown DVD of Tiger by the Tail has the movie looking quite good; the contrast might be a touch harsh here and there and there are a few damaged frames, but it’s not at all a bad presentation. All in all, I found it a solid little film noir with some highly competent talent behind the camera, and a couple of very interesting stars in the leading roles. In short, an enjoyable movie.

Thunder Over the Plains

I can never quite make my mind up on voiceover narration in the movies; after all, it does create what might be termed an authoritative mood that feels somehow fitting for certain pictures such as documentary-style films noir. On the other hand, it can give the impression of lazy writing, an info dump of sorts that resorts to telling rather than showing, or what’s worse is that it can signal the arrival of historical/political lecturing or finger-wagging. Thunder Over the Plains (1953) opens like this, offering up a potted post-Civil War synopsis that had me fearing the worst. Fortunately though, it panned out differently, the narration serving to contextualize the story before letting the drama at its heart grab the reins and move center stage.

The background is Texas in the years following the Civil War – Reconstruction and carpetbaggers loom large, and with them come all the frustration, resentment and anarchy one might expect in the aftermath of conflict. The main thrust of the story concerns the attacks on the despised carpetbaggers and the role of the army in trying to establish and maintain an uneasy semblance of order. That thankless task has fallen to native Texan Captain Porter (Randolph Scott), and while the burden of duty weighs heavily on him, there’s no doubting his professional ethics. Porter’s main antagonist is Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), a Robin Hood figure among the local population, an especially troublesome thorn in the side of the grasping tax agents, and something as elusive as a shadow in the early morning mist for the hard-pressed military. Porter, and indeed his whole command, is trapped in the middle, regarded with a sneering contempt by the locals while having his hands effectively tied by remote figures in Washington. And so the tit for tat sniping continues, with the warring factions fencing more or less  harmlessly until a would-be informer turns up dead. It’s at this point that the situation creeps relentlessly towards another level of volatility, and Porter also faces the added hassle of a dealing with a newly arrived officer (Lex Barker) who not only lacks professional judgement but has set his sights on wooing his superior’s wife.

It’s never less than a pleasure to come back to the films of Andre de Toth, and although the movies he made with Randolph Scott aren’t held in the same regard as those the star worked on with Budd Boetticher I still feel there’s much to admire and enjoy. With a deep and talented cast, a highly accomplished cinematographer (and frequent John Ford collaborator) in Bert Glennon, and a story overflowing with internal conflict, the director would have found it difficult to go wrong. De Toth  handles the action scenes with gusto, and there’s a lovely little bit of business with McGraw and Scott stalking each other in the aftermath o a well staged ambush. And throughout it all there are some clever close-ups and interesting angles calculated to heighten the tension.

I’ve just spoken of internal conflict, and Randolph Scott (especially as he aged) seemed to grow increasingly confident exploring the dramatic potential of this. Stoicism was one of his greatest on screen traits and this was always employed most effectively when the challenge he faced had its roots within himself. He’s very successful at getting across the sense of a man who is well aware of what his responsibilities are and to whom he owes his professional allegiance, but at the same time is none too fond of the guy looking back at him from the mirror. For all that, the viewer never has any serious doubts concerning his doing the right thing when the chips are down. While Scott is working on the self-appraisal, Charles McGraw is enjoying himself tantalizing the audience with the kind of ambiguity his gruff roguishness was ideal for. Scott generally did some of his more interesting work when facing off against a charismatic and appealing foe – think Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins – and McGraw has something of that quality about him.

If I have a criticism of this movie it lies with the part played by Lex Barker. It’s  not that I have any issue with Barker’s handling of his role – if anything, I’d say he does a pretty good job with a largely unsympathetic part – but my beef is with the way it’s written. With a plot that sees Scott at war with himself as his home state descends into chaos, I feel there was no need to add in an extra layer of conflict in a movie running a shade under an hour and a half. Barker had just come off the Tarzan movies and I get the feeling (this is just a hunch, mind, without any hard evidence to back it up) his part was expanded artificially here. Using his character as a spanner in the military works makes some sense, but the supposed rivalry for the affections of Phyllis Kirk adds nothing of substance to the story and ends up feeling like a lame and half-hearted afterthought. Still, even if that’s a weakness in the picture, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from watching the likes of Henry Hull and Elisha Cook Jr, alongside familiar faces such as Lane Chandler and Hugh Sanders, doing their stuff.

Nowadays, there aren’t too many Randolph Scott westerns that can’t be tracked down and enjoyed. Thunder Over the Plains popped up on DVD in the US some years ago via Warner Brothers on a triple feature set, sharing disc space with Riding Shotgun. Bearing in mind the fact it’s squeezed on alongside another movie, it doesn’t look too bad at all. Naturally, the presentation is basic and there’s nothing in the way of supplements, which I think is a pity. Sure these films that Scott and de Toth made together don’t have the kind of reputation that the Ranown movies enjoy, and I’ll freely admit they are a notch below them in quality, but I can’t help feeling they deserve a little more critical attention. Recent years have seen a number of reappraisals and fresh evaluations of the artistic and cultural legacies of a range of filmmakers. Perhaps it’s now time for a new look at these movies?

Larceny

Larceny (1948) spins a yarn which revolves around a scam, a con. The con man, the grifter if you like, is one who naturally, and as the name implies, trades on confidence. There is of course his own polished brass exterior, his professional mask, but of greater significance is the confidence he inspires, wins, and ultimately betrays in the mark. It’s a dirty business when all is said and done, the sacrifice of something as pure as trust for something as cheap and mired among our base instincts as greed  is the stuff of disillusionment. A famous parting line spoke of the stuff that dreams are made of, but then again it could be said that it’s only a short step from dreams to disillusionment, and therein lies the essence of film noir.

It opens with a sting almost gone wrong. Two sharp and smooth types, Rick Mason (John Payne) and Silky Randall (Dan Duryea), have been bleeding a wealthy Florida citizen and his similarly well-heeled friends, for a yacht club that will never be. They have amassed in the region of a quarter of a million dollars by the time their victim grows suspicious enough to confront them . And so it’s time to move on, this time to small town California and a grieving and gullible war widow. The goal this time is broadly similar: sell the notion of a fictitious war memorial to a scarred soul, and skip out when as much cash as possible has been obtained. A wholly reprehensible scheme, but one with a fair chance of success in a uniquely receptive social landscape, one still reeling from post-war mourning and confusion and casting around for some grain of hope to latch onto. Yet within the soft soap of Randall and Mason there are other gritty little grains: the uncontrolled passion and wandering eye of Randall’s trashy girlfriend (Shelley Winters), the professional and personal jealousy of two mistrustful rivals, an almost impossibly credulous widow (Joan Caulfield) and, most important of all, something called a conscience.

George Sherman is not a man one would normally associate with film noir. This is not to say he wasn’t suited to the form, the movie here is proof he was more than capable of handling its tropes and motifs with great skill, but his real forte lay elsewhere in terms of genre. Sherman’s westerns, particularly those from the golden era of the 1950s, are almost all (those which I’ve seen anyway) imbued with the spirit of redemption and renewal. It’s his apparently natural affinity for and empathy with these positive attributes which make him such a fascinating director of westerns. When it comes to film noir though, these strengths may, for some anyway, be regarded as a handicap. Personally, I don’t buy that; this is partly due to what I’d like to think of as an open-minded or expansionist approach to the genre. Essentially, I’m not keen on locking myself into absolutist positions since it rarely seems to offer us much as viewers if we start excluding and proscribing certain movies as a result of their failure to adhere to rigid, imposed dogma on what should or shouldn’t be permissible. That’s not to advocate a total free-for-all of course, but a little flexibility never hurts.

Just as the director of Larceny didn’t spend his career confined to one genre, neither did its stars. The personnel at the time may not all have been fans but the beauty of the studio system lay in the diversity of material it allowed (or forced, if you prefer) contracted actors and crew to become exposed to and familiar with. John Payne was a personable presence in musicals and romances, but the post-war years saw him shift the focus of his career radically. Larceny represented his first foray into “tough guy” territory and film noir, alongside westerns, saw him do some of his finest work. He’s in great form here, scamming Caulfield, fencing with Duryea and trading clinches and barbs with a spiky and sexy Shelley Winters. And Winters is possibly as good in her role as I’ve ever seen her, firing off some of the finest one-liners anyone was ever handed in a film noir. Duryea is as compelling as he always was (Silky is a superb name for a character and sums up the actor’s manner perfectly) and he displays a marvelous sense of menace. I remember not being all that impressed with Joan Caulfield’s range in The Unsuspected and I found myself having similar thoughts here – I can see how her character needs to project the kind of purity necessary to push the plot in the direction it ultimately takes, but I felt her innocence was overdone at times. But that’s just my take on it. As for support, it’s worth mentioning some fine contributions from Dan O’Herlihy, Dorothy Hart, Percy Helton and Richard Rober.

I would be utterly delighted were I able to post here that I had managed to track down a sparkling and pristine release of Larceny, one which could be eagerly snapped up by fellow movie fans. Sadly, that is not the case; the movie remains, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable for purchase. I watched it online, viewing a print that was very far from optimum condition. This is most certainly not the ideal way to see anything and I only resorted to this as no other option exists at the moment. At the risk of sounding like a hopelessly scratched vinyl recording, I can only reiterate my ongoing dismay at the absence of so many Universal-International title on DVD and/or Blu-ray.

I think it’s worth noting here at the end of this piece that it appears to be the 100th title I have tagged as a film noir, a small milestone. Mind you, I’ve no doubt that a number of those I’ve included over the years will be regarded as some as marginal entries. Ah well, so be it.

Back to God’s Country

Rugged outdoor adventures have a timeless appeal and I think it’s true too that the cold weather variety carry with them an invigorating quality, as though the  crisp, chilled air blasting the protagonists on the screen adds a little freshness and energy to our viewing. A film such as Back to God’s Country (1953) is a largely formulaic affair yet is enlivened considerably by its sub-polar setting. Of course, following a formula need not necessarily be seen as a failing; handling and execution are key elements and, with the movie in question, I feel director Joseph Pevney brings a briskness to the piece that makes its hour and a quarter running time positively zip along.

It’s the late 19th century and we’re  in the icy north of Canada. Peter Keith (Rock Hudson) is running a schooner trading fur pelts in the US and is keen to get underway before the winter freeze sets in and leaves his vessel unable to sail. As such, he’s vexed to receive an official letter ordering him to remain in port until an inspection can be made of his cargo. That would mean a delay which might well see him sealed in for the season and the consequent hit to his finances it would entail. While he and his wife Dolores (Marcia Henderson) have made up their minds to ignore the order and put to sea anyway, it comes to the attention of both that there might be something fishy about the whole thing. Local bigwig Paul Blake (Steve Cochran) is expansive and hospitable yet there’s an oiliness about him and it looks like he may be behind the request, partly for financial gain and partly (maybe even mostly) because he far from honorable designs on Dolores. Thus, with rivalry and subterfuge established, the scene is set for a showdown which will play out for the most part over a couple of enforced journeys through the frozen wastes.

Back to God’s Country appears to have been filmed twice before, back in the silent era, and I can see how the combination of adventure, melodrama and romance would have drawn filmmakers eyeing a source with reasonably wide appeal. Now I’ve no idea how Pevney’s movie compares with those earlier iterations, and indeed I don’t even know whether they still exist or are available for viewing. What I can say though is that this movie represents a marvelous piece of escapism, a no-nonsense slice of entertainment with that characteristic aesthetic one associates with Universal-International pictures. The combination of studio shooting and some location work in Colorado and Idaho is handled most attractively by cinematographer Maury Gertsman, with Pevney marshaling it all with pace and energy. The story holds no real surprises, and arguably has its fair share of cliches, but the meanness, the naked self-interest and almost perverse covetousness of the villain add an edge and an unexpected extra layer.

Steve Cochran was born to play villains, his self-assurance and grace offer a sheen of sophistication, while all the time there’s a gleam in his eye that hints at a ruthlessness any time the main chance wanders into view. By and large, he plays it cool but there is one scene in particular – an assault on Henderson – where he, unfortunately, cuts loose and indulges in the kind of eye-rolling, over-the-top hammy histrionics that would put many a mustache-twirling cartoon cad to shame. His character is of course a thoroughly bad lot, a blackmailer and master manipulator with a history of grabbing possession of whatever and whoever he wants. And there’s a sadistic side to him that goes beyond mere greed, his treatment of Hugh O’Brian’s forger is a case in point, holding him in what amounts to bonded labor. O’Brian does well in that part too, allowing his natural charm to soften his own villainy and act as a counterpoint to Cochran’s.

Pitted against these two are Rock Hudson and Marcia Henderson, and they make for an attractive and resourceful couple. Hudson was in the process of building his career at the studio (a career that Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk would soon move to a whole different level) and this type of role, while not all that demanding dramatically, was the kind of thing  that couldn’t hurt. He gets to play it tough and heroic, even in the latter half of the movie when a broken leg sees him essentially confined to a sled. A good deal of the drama arises from a combination of Cochran’s machinations, the deteriorating weather conditions, and also some frankly poor decisions on the part of Hudson’s character. He makes amends for them, naturally, but this also gives Henderson the opportunity to prove her mettle. She too displays a hard edge when the chips are down, playing well off Hudson and holding her own quite convincingly when she has to.

Back to God’s Country may not be all that well-known but nor should it be all that difficult to locate. There seem to have been DVDs released pretty much everywhere – I have this Italian version which seems to have gone out of print and been replaced by another by the same company claiming a Hi-Def restoration  – still, I’d imagine all will be using the same transfer. Generally, it looks OK, but there is a bit of damage and overall ageing visible. Sometimes I think I could happily spend my days watching, and writing about, nothing but Universal-International movies; they’re that entertaining. There’s a polish and professionalism on show that mean even undemanding and average efforts like this offer a good deal of viewing pleasure.

Another view of the movie, from Laura, can also be accessed here.

The Plunderers

A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.

So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.

There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach.  Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.

What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the  veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.

Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with  the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.

As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…

The Duel at Silver Creek

Pulp, a word that usually ends up being employed in a derogatory way. It suggests the cheap, the disposable, and that sense of something a bit crude and tawdry is never far from the surface. It carries around the sour taste  of intellectual snobbery, a self-aware superiority that drains the  joy from entertainment. But, let’s not forget that entertainment and art are under no obligation to remain stand-offish strangers. Frankly, I like pulp material and always have, long before I became aware of the negative connotations assigned to the term by some, or was even aware of the term itself for that matter. As with so many other forms of artistic expression, it worked its way into my consciousness from an early age, entrancing and enchanting an eager mind. In short, this is where the seeds of my lifelong affection for cinema, literature and countless other art forms was first sown. And so to the The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), a film that is unashamedly and satisfyingly pulpy.

The story is a simple one, telling a tale of claim jumpers, manipulation and revenge. The bulk of the action takes place in and around the titular town of Silver Creek, where the villains have set up an outwardly respectable front. The town is served by a lawman going by the colorful name of “Lightning” Tyrone (Stephen McNally), renowned for his speed with a gun but hampered by an injury following a run-in with the aforementioned criminals. The murder of a friend adds a personal element to the marshal’s motivations, and this hunger for a reckoning is shared by his newly acquired ally, a youthful gambler and gunman known as The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy). The efforts of these two to chase down the claim jumpers forms the basis of the plot but it all gets a little more complicated when a layer of romance and intrigue appears in the shape of Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), a particularly devious addition to the limited but frequently impressive roster of western femme fatales.

There are a number of things which jump out at you while watching this movie. Firstly, it’s a Universal-International production so it has the distinctive and unmistakable look that can be found in all of the studio’s output of that era. The Technicolor cinematography of Irving Glassberg is quite beautiful at times, and the shadowy nighttime interiors are rendered in an especially attractive and evocative way. It’s in these moments that a film noir flavor is most noticeable, and that aspect is highlighted both by the intermittent voiceover provided by McNally and the calculated and ruthless machinations of Domergue. Then there are the character names – Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, Dusty Fargo, Tinhorn Burgess, Rat Face Blake, etc – carrying that unreal yet alluring quality of something ripped from a comic strip. Presiding over all this is Don Siegel, a man still learning his trade at this stage – the pacing is a little off in the second act – but already  showing the visual economy that can be found in his best work.

With a plot-driven, action-oriented piece of filmmaking the characterization is always going to come in a very distant second place. Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally were highly capable actors, the former still on the learning curve but growing in confidence all the time while the latter was an experienced and solid second lead/support man. Seeing the names of Murphy or McNally in the credits generally means a movie is worth watching, in my opinion. Neither one is asked to stretch himself particularly here in pretty one-dimensional roles, but they never offer less than good value. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a  great fan of Faith Domergue, I’ll freely admit she did fit the femme fatale mold quite snugly and she vamps very successfully in this part. Susan Cabot is cast in a tomboyish part which, while attractive enough in its own way, feels like a bit of a waste. I think the main weakness though comes from the rather insipid bad guys. While Domergue’s flashiness was always going to overshadow them Gerald Mohr and Eugene Iglesias don’t provide much of a threat to compensate. On the other hand, Lee Marvin does make a definite impression as a loudmouthed townsman in one of his earliest roles.

Looking around at what is available for viewing nowadays, it has to be said that fans of classic westerns have much to grateful for. The vast majority of Audie Murphy’s movies are now accessible in good to excellent quality – a handful are still only viewable via sub-par editions – although it doesn’t seem all that long ago that The Duel at Silver Creek was one of the few that could be picked up easily. I don’t believe it’s been upgraded to Hi-Def but it still looks good to my eyes. If the film isn’t going to offer any new insights, it has to be said it still provides a powerfully enjoyable way to pass an hour and a quarter, which is never a bad thing. That, I feel, is as good a way as any to round off 2019 and to wish everyone a happy, fulfilling and successful 2020.

Detective Story

Cinema and theater, two near relatives in the visual/performance art sphere, both well suited to the presentation of drama via their shared familial traits while also exploiting their own distinctive characteristics to spin their yarns in subtly different ways. In brief, theater is all about intimacy and immediacy – capturing the essence of the moment in an almost tangible way – whereas cinema, somewhat paradoxically, uses its inherent distance to draw us in through the broader visual splendor. The fusion of these two competing yet complementary forms can have mixed results, largely dependent on the scope of the production and its ultimate goal. At worst, it can descend into a static talk-fest, trapped by structure and a vague sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, a clever filmmaker can use his cinematic bag of tricks to create the illusion of breadth without sacrificing the feeling of closeness associated with the stage. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) makes a reasonable fist of striking an equitable balance.

In a nutshell, we’re witnesses at the wake and funeral of one man’s humanity. It opens on a bustling New York street and quickly moves indoors, into the precinct house that will form the backdrop for the bulk of the story. We’ve seen this a thousand times; cops and criminals coming and going, some chirpy and others dejected but most just mired in the routine of their everyday lives. Gradually, the focus is drawn to Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a superficially typical detective, cocksure and confident in his professional and personal life. Yet right away, there are hints of something not ideal as he shares a quick kiss with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). A snatch of conversation, an apparently throwaway line suggests that the All-American wholesomeness on display may be misleading. And so it proves to be as the various characters, from a ditzy shoplifter to a lovestruck embezzler sharing the squad room with genuinely vicious hoodlums, orbit the core drama that will force the McLeods to confront their own inner selves.

Rather than spend a lot of time on the plot and how it develops, I’d prefer to mull over some thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this movie again. To begin, I liked Wyler’s unobtrusive direction and the way he uses Lee Garmes’ cinematography to contextualize not only each scene but the movie as a whole. Wyler can, I suppose, be seen as one of those classic era heavyweights who tended to be associated with “important” pictures. We’re talking “message movies” and that phrase may well evoke thoughts of Stanley Kramer and others at their most ponderous. Still, that’s not entirely fair for these people knew how to shoot a film with skill and artistry too. Here the theme is the impossibility, or maybe the undesirability, of pursuing  purity on an emotional, intellectual and philosophical level. McLeod is set up as a man striving to become a paragon. The story charts the deconstruction of this effort, finally highlighting the hollowness at the heart of it all. And Garmes’ photography, especially his deep focus shooting, keeps the viewer aware of the satellite stories circling the main event, thus preserving the intimacy of the theatrical experience while simultaneously adding a wider cinematic perspective.

I started off this piece referring to the different approaches cinema and the theater take to the same material and those thoughts were always with me as I watched Detective Story. The origin is a stage production, written by Sidney Kingsley, and that aspect is always there, mainly in the restricted setting but even in some of the performances too, to a certain extent anyway. The stage, with the necessity to project calls for a bigger performance, and the use of a different set of acting skills. Cinema is a whole different matter; the giant screens and the possibility of using close-ups, magnifying even the least significant twitch a thousand times, mean more care, control and minimalism are the order of the day. As much as anything, it’s the size of the performances that delineates these forms.

A simmering presence at all times, Kirk Douglas has always been capable of tailoring that size to the demands of a range of roles. I think he was generally at his best when working with strong, experienced directors and the part of McLeod demanded he tread a fine line, touching on the explosive and emotive without straying too far into bombast. His character is ruled and driven by an adherence to rigid principle and moral fundamentalism. This quest for purity has twisted his love and seen it mutate into a passion for vengeance, of the type that has the destruction of the soul as its final destination. It must have helped that the more powerful scenes had to be played against the assured Eleanor Parker. She provides the emotional center of the movie, grounding it and lending it meaning with dignity and empathy.

If the inherent theatricality of the roles has been harnessed by Douglas and Parker, I feel that Joseph Wiseman kept a looser grip on the reins.  There’s a loudness about his work here, and that even goes for the times when he’s not speaking a word, and a tendency to succumb to self-indulgence. He’s very definitely performing, is fully aware of the fact, and wants to make sure everyone watching him knows it too. This could have overwhelmed the picture, but it’s a credit to the measure and subtlety of the likes William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, Craig Hill and Frank Faylen that an equilibrium is maintained. And if I haven’t made individual reference to Lee Grant, George Macready, Horace McMahon and others, well that’s not to say their work is any less deserving of mention.

Personally, Detective Story has always been an enjoyable watch for me, powerful without being preachy and with a timelessness to the core theme to ensure it remains relevant. It’s never, to the best of my knowledge, been released on Blu-ray but the DVD  should be easy enough to track down and, besides, it looks excellent in standard definition.

Finally, I find it very pleasing too to be able to post this on the day the movie’s star Kirk Douglas turns 103.

Arrow in the Dust

Unfulfilled promise, is there anything more disappointing? I’m talking about movies here, of course, and not life in general. This may not be the most enticing opening to a post but it’s honest and it does reflect my feelings after I’d watched Arrow in the Dust (1954) for the first time. On paper this ought to have been right up my street – it’s a mid-50s western starring Sterling Hayden, directed by Lesley Selander and is built around the kind of redemption scenario that typically draws a positive response from me. For all that though, it didn’t work for me, it fell flat and even the relatively short running time seemed excessive.

That promise I spoke of is right there in the credits and the personnel involved, and the tense, nervy opening scene feeds into this. We’re introduced to Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) and no time is wasted in establishing the fact he’s a deserter from the army, and a cautious and jumpy one at that. When his escape leads him unexpectedly upon the scene of an ambush, one where the sole survivor is an old friend, he’s presented with a moral dilemma which will occupy his conscience for the remainder of the tale. That friend is Major Pepperis (Carleton Young), a newly assigned commander who is at death’s door and appeals to Laish’s sense of decency to carry a warning to an endangered wagon train. In brief, Laish puts his instinct for self-preservation to one side for a time and assumes the identity of the dead officer. The question is whether he can pull off this imposture, and how it will affect him.

Sounds reasonably attractive, right? What should have been a winning formula left me cold, worse than that it left me bored too. I lay the responsibility for that with the writing and the technical limitations imposed by a cheap production. For a redemption tale to succeed it’s necessary to take the protagonist on a journey, a spiritual one as much as a physical one. Well, Hayden embarks on the  physical part but there’s never a sense of his evolving as a character, as a person. He uses his presence and that trademark brusqueness but the script offers no opportunity for growth or development. None of this is helped by the nebulous and vague nature of the antagonists – the faceless, rampaging Indians. They are shown almost exclusively via stock footage and I get the impression the script was tinkered with to account for the ever changing groups of raiders – there’s  some flummery mentioned about Pawnee and Apache bands allying themselves against the common enemy.

And that stock footage really is problematic. Sure there may be other movies where the technique has been applied morel liberally, but it jarred every time I saw it (which is a lot!) and took me out of the story. Lesley Selander is a guy whose films generally appeal to me and I tend to actively seek them out for the  hard-bitten sparseness. Here though, I found the constant insertion of recycled footage broke the rhythm of the direction and distracted me badly.

So, that’s about all I have to say on this film, and I know it’s quite a bit less than is customary on this site. Hayden does what he can with the material, Coleen Gray gets short-changed in an underwritten role, and Tom Tully maybe fares best as a crusty and wily scout.

Now I’m fully aware that this stuff is all entirely subjective – one man’s meat is another man’s poison and so forth – and there will be those who feel I’ve been too harsh in my criticisms. That’s as may be but I can only call it as I see it. I realize too that a future viewing might elicit a different reaction – to be honest though, I can’t see myself returning to this for some considerable time. Not wishing to finish on a wholly negative note, readers may wish to check out some more enthusiastic takes from both Laura and Toby.