Ivy

Film noir has been featured pretty regularly on this site over the years, and anyone who has visited here will likely be aware that I tend towards a reasonably flexible interpretation of the criteria used for inclusion in that category. I wouldn’t dream of trying to persuade those with more purist tastes to come round to my way of thinking, instead I prefer to just present what titles I feel belong according to my personal  (and wholly unscientific) checklist. As such, I’ve always been content to list westerns, color productions and period pieces. It’s to that latter variety that I want to turn our attention today, the relatively small selection of films sometimes referred to as gaslight noir. Ivy (1947) is a title which eluded me for many years so I was pleased to get my hands on a copy recently to see how it fared.

The film opens with a foretaste of what will follow, in fact it involves the title character played by Joan Fontaine stealing surreptitiously along an Edwardian terrace to have her fortune told. That sense of the illicit, of things that “nice” people should not do is further heightened when the seer (a typically eccentric Una O’Connor) alludes to the lady’s unfaithful behavior, and then mutters darkly about the tragedy to come after she departs. This is all very melodramatic stuff, but that’s the nature of the tale being told. It’s soon made clear that Ivy is in an unhappy place in life, married to a jobless milquetoast, Jervis (Richard Ney), and living in correspondingly straitened circumstances while also keeping her options open by toying with the affections of Doctor Gretorex (Patric Knowles). Of course Ivy is nothing if not ambitious, and when an encounter with the extremely wealthy Miles Rushworth (Herbert Marshall) offers the opportunity for even greater riches, well you can probably see where this is all headed. It’s only a matter of time before Ivy realizes her hopes of a comfortable existence would be better served if certain figures were removed from her life. The only question that remains is how best to manipulate people and events to achieve this end.

Ivy is an adaptation (by Charles Bennett) of a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who is probably best know as the writer of The Lodger. The story unfolds during 1909, established by the fact that Bleriot’s successful flight across the Channel is woven into the narrative early on, and that means we get one of those idealized Hollywood imaginings of London in bygone days – a piece of pure fantasy to be sure but one featuring the kind of sets and art direction that just ooze atmosphere. We’re still firmly in the studio era here and Universal-International always had a knack  for conjuring up these kinds of cinematic neverlands. Sam Woods directed smoothly but the fact the film was produced by William Cameron Menzies and shot by Russell Metty surely accounts for that characteristically attractive look.

I tend to think of Joan Fontaine as an actress best suited to less proactive roles, probably stemming from my first seeing her in Rebecca and Suspicion, the two films she made for Hitchcock. I remember not being especially impressed by her work as an unsympathetic character in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad, but she is much more effective in this one and is genuinely convincing as a scheming and two-faced woman determined to clamber over anyone to get what she wants. In fact, she’s easily the most dominant  figure throughout – Ney’s character is the epitome of weakness, Knowles is mainly about pained nobility and repressed emotions, while Marshall (easily the most talented one) has limited screen time but does make an impact whenever he is on view. As ever in productions from this period, the supporting cast is a pleasure in itself. Cedric Hardwicke is quietly engaging as the Scotland Yard man whose tenacity and calm thoroughness acts as a stabilizing influence, and there are familiar faces such as Sara Allgood and Paul Cavanagh appearing in key roles.

Ivy was, in my experience anyway, a difficult film to see for many years but I recently came across a DVD release in Italy which not only makes the movie available but also has it looking quite well. The picture quality is generally strong and the image looks crisp and sharp for the most part. However, I had the impression the sound might be slightly out of sync at the beginning, but it seems to improve later – of course it may be that I simply became accustomed to it. The film itself is a very entertaining period noir with that polished studio appearance that can be a real draw when done properly. The cast, especially the leading lady, is more than competent and the only issue I had was that I thought the opening – setting the scene and establishing the complex relationships – perhaps ran longer than was strictly necessary. Having said that, it’s a solid film and one I’m pleased to have finally gotten round to seeing.

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Blu News – Ramrod

The announcements are coming thick and fast these days! I wrote a piece on Ramrod back in the days when the movie was only available in ropey and generally rotten quality prints. It was always a fine film – the involvement of De Toth, McCrea and Lake ought to tell you that anyway – but the fact it’s getting the deluxe treatment from Arrow in March just means it’s in line for the respect it deserves. From Arrow:

One of the classic Westerns of its era, Ramrod stars Veronica Lake as Connie Dickson, a headstrong cowgirl who’s plans to marry a sheep rancher are thwarted when a powerful local cattle baron, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), and her own father (Charles Ruggles), force her fiancé to flee town.

Refusing to kowtow to these powerful men, Connie inherits her ex-fiancés land and determines to run the ranch with the help of her new ramrod, reformed alcoholic Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). But Dave’s diplomatic attempts to resolve the dispute fall upon deaf ears and a bloody turf war on the open range ensues.

With Ramrod, Andre DeToth (a Hungarian-American director who has earned praise from Tarantino and Scorsese) skilfully creates a dangerous world of greed, lies and murder whilst garnering superb performances from McCrea and Lake, two of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1940s.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
• Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
• Andre DeToth in Conversation with Patrick Francis, far-reaching audio-only interview conducted by the documentary filmmaker
• Newly-filmed appreciation by expert on American genre films, Peter Stanfield
• Andre DeToth Interviewed at the National Film Theatre, a career-spanning archival interview from 1994, conducted by writer and broadcaster Kevin Jackson
• Gallery of original promotional images
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Adrian Danks, contemporary reviews and production stories.

Blu News – The Hanging Tree – Updated

While this “news” of a movie I hold in the highest esteem has already broken, I’m just adding an extra bit of info which pleased me no end when I saw it, and I think it’s worth flagging up. The Warner Archive page added the following and the part I’ve highlighted in bold and certainly caught my attention:

THE HANGING TREE (1959)
NEW 2018 1080p HD REMASTER FROM NEW 4K SCAN OF ORIGINAL CAMERA NEGATIVE
Run Time 107:00
Subtitles English SDH
DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 – English
ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO – 1.78:1, 16 X 9 WIDESCREEN
COLOR
BD 50
Trailer in HD

Many stars saddled up and rode into Technicolor® sunsets during the great Western revival of the 1950s, but only a few would be forever associated with the rugged individualists of the West. Among them are John Wayne, Randolph Scott and the star of The Hanging Tree, Gary Cooper.

The story takes place in Skull Creek, an 1870s Montana gold camp. Dr. Joseph Frail (Cooper) arrives, setting out his shingle near the camp’s boom-or-bust hubbub of adventurers, ladies of fortune, mountain men and just plain decent folks. As skilled with a six-gun as with a scalpel, Frail will need both. A tragic past shadows his days. The treachery of the mob clouds his future. A determined immigrant (Maria Schell), a shifty-eyed miner (Karl Malden) and a hellfire preacher (debuting George C. Scott) figure prominently in Frail’s showdown with fate. Prominent, too, is the breathtaking countryside. Here, the mountains are imposing. And a man alone looms ever taller.

Blu News – A Man Alone

A most welcome piece of news from Kino is their announcement of a forthcoming release on Blu-ray and DVD of Ray Milland’s wonderful yet underrated A Man Alone (1955). There’s no date available yet but it’s claimed that the new transfer is coming from a 4K scan. I’m pleased.

Run of the Arrow

Whatever the causes of conflict might be, the aftermath, particularly for those on the side of the vanquished, tends to follow  predictable pattern and is typically characterized by feelings of futility, division and bitterness. The taste of defeat is sour, and the man who partakes of it may well find himself raging against the only adversary worthy of his bruised and broken contempt: the inadequacy and impotence he perceives within himself. Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) takes the capitulation of the South in the Civil War as its starting point, clinically probing the raw wound left by that rending of a fledgling nation before cauterizing it and thus allowing the healing process to begin.

It begins at the end, the end of the war, or one war anyway. With Lee about to acknowledge defeat, one embittered soldier of the South, O’Meara (Rod Steiger), fires the last bullet of the conflict. That fateful shot strikes and critically wounds  a Yankee lieutenant. Yet in what is perhaps a telling action as far as the true character of O’Meara is concerned, he takes his stricken enemy back to his own  lines for treatment by the field surgeon. Our protagonist is an angry and frustrated man, promised much but denied more by the battles he’s lived through, he’s seen his world smashed and his family decimated. For all of the hatred he claims to have embraced and the rage he’s barely able to contain, he never loses touch with his humanity and the deceptively hard heart he notionally displays is in reality little more than a fragile shell. The short-term result is that this man is left feeling adrift in life, rootless and without a sense of loyalty – so he sets out in search of something to  which he hopes he may attach himself. To that end he heads west, to the plains and the simplicity, and in some respects, the brutality of the Sioux. All the while though, as he seeks to transform himself and rediscover his place in the world, O’Meara is in fact on a cyclical journey, one that will ultimately lead him back to his own innate morality. And so the tale can end where it began, and the path towards internal reconciliation can be accessed.

Fuller’s characteristically punchy script is nicely constructed and layered; the classic, cyclical form utilized frames it all neatly while the characters are set up to mirror one another, and the central theme of the quest for inner reconciliation which is portrayed on a personal level can also be seen as an allegory for a wider process in national terms. The figure of O’Meara is (to my mind anyway) suggestive of Fuller himself, in that we have an ethical and fundamentally sensitive man choosing to present himself as a maverick. It’s hard not to see something of the provocative director in the confrontational character portrayed by Steiger. And Steiger, who too often in his career succumbed to the temptation to feast on the scenery, turns in a relatively restrained performance – there’s only one early scene with Olive Carey where he really lets rip and seriously overcooks it.

While I take a lot of pleasure in sifting through  the theme of the picture and the overall shape of it, it’s worth bearing in mind that the movie also functions and can be approached purely as a highly professional piece of entertainment, thus combining the essential characteristics of any successful piece of filmmaking. Joseph Biroc’s photography makes the most of the harsh Utah locations, and it’s always good to see a western which predominantly features exteriors. Aside from Steiger, the cast is very sold too. Ralph Meeker and Brian Keith swagger and sympathize respectively as they offer contrasting images of the victorious Northerners, while Charles Bronson, Sarita (Sara) Montiel and Jay C Flippen fill the principal native roles with varying degrees of success.

This is a slightly shorter piece than I’ve been in the habit of writing here, and there are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I’m still easing my way back  into site after  lengthy lay off. And secondly, I’m toying with the idea of going down the road of writing briefer posts in the future,  ones that focus on a few aspects of a work that particularly engage my attention. We’ll see how it develops.

A Decade, and counting…

It was exactly ten years ago today that I published my first post, although the domain was a different one back then. While I haven’t been active here for a few months now, the site hasn’t closed (let’s just say it’s been hibernating) and I couldn’t really let this anniversary pass without some acknowledgment.

After 10,000+ comments and approaching a quarter of a million visits, I felt that all those who have taken the time to stop by this place over the last decade, to read and contribute to some fascinating discussions, deserve to be thanked. So, my thanks and appreciation to all of you.

I’ve written about a great many things here and, for one reason or another, some have drawn more attention than others and it’s always particularly gratifying to see a piece grow in popularity. With that, I’ll leave you (only temporarily as I do intend to have this place fully operational at some future point) with links to a list of the ten most read pieces I’ve penned and shared:

1 Ten of the Best – Western Directors (5,272 visits)

2 Ten of the Best – Western Stars (2,555 visits)

3 Monte Walsh (1,886 visits)

4 Three Bad Men (1,799 visits)

5 The Last of the Fast Guns (1,610 visits)

6 7th Cavalry (1,476 visits)

7 The Last Wagon (1,361 visits)

8 Jubal (1,225 visits)

9 The Man from Laramie (1,153 visits)

10 The Hanging Tree (900 visits)

Blu News – 4 Noir Classics

November,  when we feel the nights drawing in with a vengeance – an ideal time to take in some dark cinema. Arrow Academy are putting out a very attractive-looking set of noir movies on dual format Blu-ray/DVD  packed with extra features on Nov. 20, and now up for pre-order here.

Film noir has had many influences. Long before the term was even coined, we had atmospheric studio-shot detective thrillers, whose characters gradually became more ambiguous, and whose locations started to take in the world outside (notably New York City). This collection showcases some classic examples.

In The Dark Mirror (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers), a man is murdered and there’s an obvious suspect, but she has an identical twin sister (both played by Olivia de Havilland, Gone with the Wind), and one of them has a cast-iron alibi. The perfect crime? A psychologist with a specialist interest in twin psychology delves into the heart of the mystery, at considerable risk to himself. In Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Fritz Lang (The Big Heat) adapts the Bluebeard legend with a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Shortly after their marriage, Celia (Joan Bennett, Suspiria) begins to suspect her architect husband Mark (Michael Redgrave, Dead of Night) of having a secret past, and wonders about the reason behind multiple rooms in his self-designed home, one of which is kept permanently locked. In Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), an unscrupulous lawyer (John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice) scents a personal fortune when he concocts a plan to merge New York City’s numbers rackets into a single powerful and unbreakable operation, but reckons without his brother, who’d rather stay independent. And in Joseph H. Lewis’ ultra-stylish The Big Combo (1955), Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde, The Naked Prey) is determined to bring down mob boss Mr Brown (Richard Conte, Thieves’ Highway). But Brown feels the same way, and is far less constrained by the law, leading to some wince-inducing set pieces (some involving a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef).

This collection showcases many of the genre’s major names on both sides of the camera. In addition to the directing and acting talent mentioned above there are cinematographers Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter) and John Alton (An American in Paris), composers Dmitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Miklós Rósza (The Killers) and writers Nunnally Johnson (The Woman in the Window) and Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar). It’s little wonder that directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were so struck by them.

Seeing as I’ve written about, and enjoyed, three of these movies myself (The Big Combo, The Dark Mirror, Secret Beyond the Door) I’m certainly looking forward to what promise to be the definitive editions of these films.

Blu News – Jake Wade

Just spotted this announcement for a most welcome upcoming release on Blu-ray from Warner Archives. The Law and Jake Wade is a superb western – featuring Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor and directed by John Sturges – that never gets talked about enough as far as I’m concerned and has the potential to look great in hi-def. I wrote about the movie some years ago here and I’m very pleased to see it getting this well-deserved upgrade. The WA post on Facebook has this to say:

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958)
NEW 2017 1080p HD REMASTER
Run Time 86:00
Subtitles English SDH
DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 Mono – English
ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO – 2.35:1, 16 X 9 LETTERBOX
COLOR
BD 25
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer (HD)

Robbing banks, holding up stagecoaches: That’s the life Jake Wade tried to leave behind when he put on a badge, found himself a pretty fiancée and set his path on the straight and narrow. But not yet. Wade’s outlaw partner resurfaces to take the lawman and his girl captive, forcing them into a trek to recover the loot Wade buried long ago — and plunging captors and captives into the violent heart of Comanche territory.
John Sturges (The Great Escape) directs, continuing his string of rugged, character-driven tales of action. Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark deliver vivid contrasts as the resolute hero and the depraved desperado. And the snowcapped Sierras provide towering backdrops for the mounting clash of wills.

Republic Studios – A Private Tour

One of my followers, Terry, just sent me details of the following event. It’s not something I’ll be able to take part in personally but it sounds very tempting and may be of interest to some US-based readers. So, read on…

What: Once in a lifetime chance for a private Tour of CBS Studio Center (formerly Republic Studios) & July 4th Celebration

Where: 4024 Radford Ave. Studio City, CA 91604

When: Tuesday July 4th at 5 pm (arrive early to allow time for security check and parking)

How much: $1,000 per person

Only 10 tickets available on a first come, first serve basis. Tickets will only be sold online. https://www.freshtix.com/events/4th-of-july-fireworks-festival-2-2

Get a behind the scenes tour of the historic CBS Studio Center (formerly Republic Studios) backlot given by none other than Studio Center President Michael Klausman.

In the early 1920s silent film producer and director Mack Sennett relocated his movie studio to southern California and the neighborhood around the studio became known as Studio City. The Mack Sennett Studios produced movies featuring the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle before becoming Republic Studios. Republic launched the careers of Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and many others. Today the studio is known as CBS Studio Center. Past and present shows filmed on the lot include Gilligan’s Island, Gunsmoke, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CSI New York, Will and Grace, Seinfeld, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Hot in Cleveland, Last Man Standing and many others.

Public tours of the studio are not available, so this is a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in film and television history. You will see the open air space where John Wayne showered, Seinfeld’s Central Park, and Leave it to Beaver’s house, among many other iconic locations.

The tour begins at 5 pm before the Fourth of July celebration and guests will be taken around the lot on studio golf carts. Preferential parking will be provided. Space is limited to ten participants. After the tour enjoy our VIP July 4th celebration on stage 15 with a meal, sampling stations of food and alcohol from various local restaurants, caricature artists, facepainters and more! Then take your seat on the roof of the parking structure for the view of the best fireworks in Los Angeles. Tickets are available https://www.freshtix.com/events/4th-of-july-fireworks-festival-2-2. Click on VIP plus Private Lot Tour w/Studio President

Please call 818-655-5916 if you have any questions.

Five Card Stud

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

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

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

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

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

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