The Earth Dies Screaming

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

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

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

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

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

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Blu News – 2 for July

It’s just come to my attention that July will see the release of a couple of new western titles on Blu-ray in Germany. Koch Media will be putting out Cattle Drive (1951) with Joel McCrea along with  Audie Murphy’s Showdown (1963). I don’t have any more details at present but I think this should be welcome news for western fans, particularly since I believe Showdown hasn’t previously been available anywhere in any format.

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.

The Flying Scot

We hear a lot about budgets when filmmaking is discussed, and you end up with the feeling nowadays that movies are barely considered to be worth watching if the amount of money invested in the production isn’t of the eye-watering variety. This is a shame as it means the range of films made tends to be reduced and, crucially, fewer chances are taken for the simple reason no one wants to accept a risk when the stakes are so high. Now I’m not trying to make a case here for the inaccessible or the utterly impenetrable – movies which are not entertaining or watchable are going to be failures not merely in financial terms but also due to the fact they cannot succeed if they cannot engage with an audience. If I’m lamenting the current obsession with massive budgets, then that’s because it does away with (or at least significantly reduces the potential for seeing) sparse and direct pieces which depend  on tight storytelling techniques rather than whizz bang visuals. I’m referring to frugal little productions like The Flying Scot (1957), the kind of minimalist drama we can’t even count on television taking on these days.

The Flying Scot has three major points in its favor as far as I’m concerned: it takes place almost exclusively on a train, it’s concerns itself with a heist, and it’s pared so far down that practically no excess fat is evident. The opening pitches us straight into the heart of proceedings, tracking along a railway platform to follow the progress of a newly wed couple about to embark on a train to begin their honeymoon, and thereafter their life together.  We see them settle in, put up a reserved notice on the door, draw the curtains. And then they change into casual clothes and lie down on separate berths on opposite sides of the carriage! It’s now quite clear that these people (Lee Patterson & Kay Callard) are no newlyweds, they and their associate in another car (Alan Gifford) are biding their time till they’re due to act. And that action is the smooth and meticulous execution of a plan to steal a half a million pounds in banknotes. Everything moves like clockwork with each person fulfilling his or her assigned role with precision and cool professionalism – it’s at this point that we pause, step back in time, and see what really happens…

The director of The Flying Scot was Compton Bennett, a man with a comparatively small yet interesting set of credits. His big Hollywood success was King Solomon’s Mines but there were other noteworthy titles both in the US and the UK. That this was a very low budget affair is apparent from the small cast with no big names, the limiting of the action to a handful of train carriage sets and the running time of not much more than an hour. However, as I hope my introductory remarks suggested, a limited budget doesn’t have to mean a poor quality movie. With The Flying Scot Bennett turns these aspects to his and the film’s advantage by using the cramped and suffocating space as a device for ramping up the tension, emphasizing the sense of characters trapped by their own criminal plans. Similarly, the short running time positively demands the pace is maintained, the plot forging ahead relentlessly just as the train where it all takes place heads inexorably towards its destination. I’d also like to note the stylish opening section where the first ten minutes or so is played out with one word of dialogue being spoken, it could be described as gimmickry I suppose but it never actually feels like that.  Furthermore, that opening and how it then develops reminded me of the beginning of Gambit, a later film with a lighter overall feel. The presence of Peter Rogers as producer and Norman Hudis as screenwriter brings to mind the Carry On series of comedies that would shortly debut in British cinemas and seem like an odd pair to be attached to a tense little suspense picture such as this. In truth, there is a thread of humor running through the film, but it ‘s of a more carefully observed type than the bawdier variety the aforementioned series would become famous for – having said that, those early Hudis scripts had a gentler approach anyway.

As far as a general audience is concerned, Lee Patterson is probably not a name that will be especially well-recognized. On the other hand, anyone who is a fan of, or even just reasonably familiar with, British thrillers of the 50s and 60s will be very much aware of this guy. Patterson was a Canadian actor who seemed to get cast in every other mystery or noirish thriller, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to have watched more than a handful of these kinds of films without coming across him. I’ve always found him a reliable enough performer, not a big draw but the type who you know will get the job done whether he was cast as good guy or bad. Here, he’s playing a man who is tough to like, displaying a bit too much unnecessary arrogance and self-absorption. He does it pretty effectively and fellow Canadian Kay Callard helps to smooth down his rough edges a little. Alan Gifford, yet another transatlantic import, provides just the right degree of pathos as the ageing crook hoping for one last touch to set him up for retirement but plagued by a health problem and a plan that’s fraying uncontrollably.

The Flying Scot is out on DVD in the UK via Network as part of the ever attractive The British Film line. I imagine a 1957 title would be better suited to at least some form of widescreen aspect ratio but it still looks fine, to me at least, with the 1.33:1 framing used on this disc. The print is in pretty good shape too with no major damage to cause distraction. As for extra features, there’s the facility to watch the opening under the alternative title The Mailbag Robbery. All in all, I thought this a very neat thriller, well constructed and satisfyingly tense – it gets a recommendation from me.

Money, Women and Guns

What’s in a title? Sometimes a lot and other times very little. On the most fundamental level, it’s one of the most prominent hooks upon which to hang a movie, or at least one’s expectations of a movie. It may encourage a sense of what’s coming up, tease you with anticipation or, if handled clumsily, dampen your enthusiasm. If successful, it will have conjured images in your mind, kindled a flame of curiosity and drawn you in. So what of a title such as 1958’s Money, Women and Guns? Does it paint visions of some freewheeling adventure, full of action and eye candy but not all that much depth? I ask this because that’s something like the way I first approached the film, but the reality is a little different. The title grabbed my attention, the opening even looked as though it might be bang on, and then the rest of the movie delivered quite a bit more.

It all begins on location in Lone Pine, with a botched robbery. Three masked men attempt to rob an ageing prospector, but make a poor job of it – two of them will die while the third is driven off by the mortally wounded miner. The incomplete or unclear dying declaration is one of the classic tropes of the mystery genre, the victim tantalizing us with broad hints towards the identity of his slayer before expiring. This time there’s a little additional spin in that, before he dies, the old man makes it known that the perpetrator is named as one of the beneficiaries of his will. Superficially, that is what the story is about, the search for a killer from a short list of suspects. Up to this point it looks very much like a standard, formulaic tale, and that impression is strengthened further when we’re introduced to the lead. “Silver” Ward Hogan (Jock Mahoney) is something straight out of a dime novel, a virtual caricature named for his fondness for silver bullets and accoutrements. Yet first impressions, like the pulpy title, prove to be misleading and the movies becomes much more interesting. Hogan is a detective retained by the prospector’s lawyer to track down the beneficiaries of the will and, using that cover, bring in the surviving member of the gang. So Hogan sets out to locate the names on his list, to give the good news of an unexpected fortune to most, and the less welcome news of a day in court to one.

The film is structured in an episodic fashion, with series of vignettes providing the backdrop against which everything unfolds. It is, as I stated, a standard and quite absorbing mystery on the surface, but with a redemptive thread running through it all that is typical of the era. There is the journey Hogan is on towards personal fulfillment, something he will e seen to have attained by the fade out. As each little drama is played out in the course of his quest, we learn a little more about all those involved, about the motivations of the old man who made this rather odd will and the seemingly disparate group named within it. Essentially, it develops into a succession of moral fables which are telling, touching and not entirely predictable. By the end, it’s the redemptive and restorative aspects that take precedence for us, even the discovery of the guilty party fits into this pattern and the result is a wonderfully positive experience. While the film never becomes overly sentimental, it does reinforce the better side of human nature and every negative consequence has a kernel of positivity within it. In short, you come away from this film with good feeling overall.

Richard Bartlett had already made the engaging Joe Dakota with Jock Mahoney and again used the star’s cool and relaxed persona perfectly. Along with cinematographer Philip Lathrop, he captured some terrific images from around Lone Pine and the whole movie looks very attractive inside the wide CinemaScope frame. However, it’s that powerful thread of salvation which permeates Montgomery Pittman’s script which stands out strongest and gives the film its heart.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a western starring Jock Mahoney that I haven’t enjoyed. He had such an easy-going and assured persona on the screen that you end up feeling confident yourself of what you’re going to get. he role of the master detective fit him like a glove and he handled the action the scenes, the romantic interludes and the occasional light humor with great style, making the whole affair a pleasure to watch. Of course he benefited from having a solid cast working alongside him; Kim Hunter, who had a long and illustrious career from her beginnings with Val Lewton in The Seventh Victim through her Oscar-winning work with Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire and on to cult immortality in Planet of the Apes, is an especially accomplished figure to play off, a classy lady who brings a great deal of charm and grace to a pivotal role. I think Tim Hovey did well too and came across convincingly, which isn’t something you can always say about child actors. And there’s quality all through the cast with Lon Chaney Jr, James Gleason, William Campbell, Gene Evans and Tom Drake all turning in credible or better performances.

Money, Women and Guns has been released on DVD in France and Spain but nowhere else, as far as I know. I’ve had the Spanish edition for some time and it’s a good enough copy. It’s presented in the correct anamorphic scope ratio and the print used is in pretty fair condition. Colors are stable and bright and the image doesn’t suffer from much damage. There’s a little softness from time to time, but nothing serious, and some of the process shots look a bit rough – overall, it’s quite acceptable though. The disc, as usual, offers a choice of the original soundtrack or a Spanish dub and optional subs. Frankly, I think this is a delightful movie and one that is good for a number of viewings. That’s not something you can say about too many films with a mystery at the heart of the script. However, Money, Women and Guns, aside from that superb title, features the kind of theme that goes beyond the more mechanical elements of the plot. Perhaps it’s not all that well-known but I’d give it a recommendation.

The Lady from Shanghai

Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

That little speech that Orson Welles’ character just casually produces on a nighttime beach in Acapulco in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) neatly encapsulates the frantic greed and self-destructive instincts at the heart of the story. In a way, I suppose you could say it catches the flavor of film noir itself, that bleak and dark form of cinema which emerged in the years when the world was clawing its way out of the financial abyss it had slid into and was poised to dive into another even more nightmarish period. It must have seemed that a humanity drunk on blood lust was bent on tearing itself to pieces. Yet for all its nihilism, film noir was also an ideal vehicle for experimentation, and there were few better qualified than Welles, that natural-born envelope pusher, to try to extend the boundaries a bit further.

The tale told begins in a deceptively simple manner with Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) chancing upon the titular lady from Shanghai, Elsa (Rita Hayworth), as he saunters through Central Park of an evening. There’s a foreshadowing of sorts of the Grand Guignol drama and chicanery to come when Elsa speaks of her White Russian background and spells as a professional gambler in Shanghai and Macao, while O’Hara spins equally beguiling yarns about his opinion of jails around the globe and his having killed a man in Spain. A bit of convenient chivalry and heroics grabs Elsa’s attention and leads to her lawyer husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), offering O’Hara a job. That job is sailing their yacht around the coast, via the Panama Canal, to the west and San Francisco. It’s as this odd party makes its way south, towards the tropics, that the emotional temperature rises correspondingly and approaches feverish proportions off Mexico. As the atmosphere grows increasingly rarefied and O’Hara finds himself falling under the spell of the enigmatic Elsa, he is approached by Bannister’s partner Grisby (Glenn Anders) with an unusual proposition – he wants O’Hara to kill him. A scenario that has been strange and off-center up to this point now spirals down into a positively surreal vortex of cross and double-cross, where motives and desires become hopelessly entangled.

Welles took a twisty, convoluted but not especially remarkable noir story, If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and ran with its outrageous central premise, that of a man seeking out another who will be willing to take responsibility for killing him. While the essence of the plot is retained by Welles, he opens it out and brings his own characteristic style to bear. Although the scope and geography of the source novel is expanded the vicious intimacy of the amoral group at the heart of it all remains. The shooting style favored by the director and his casting choices mean that the distinctly odd characters of the book are transformed into a veritable gallery of camp grotesques, His real masterstroke was the climax, fitting in a dramatic escape from custody, a chase through Chinatown and that famous final confrontation in the abandoned amusement park, culminating in the hall of mirrors shootout. None of that appeared in King’s novel, which is effectively suspenseful but not really cinematic in any way. Even if what we have today is only an approximation of Welles’ vision, due to studio imposed cuts, it still provides a lesson in how to successfully adapt a piece of literature for the screen – keep important details of the plot intact, and the attendant tension, but have the courage and self belief to add the kind of visually audacious touches needed to create a cinema experience.

I started this post by mulling over some characteristics of film noir, and I’d like to run with that a little further here. As a style of moviemaking or storytelling it can be viewed as a collision of opposite sensibilities: the soft-hearted vs the hard-headed, romanticism vs pragmatism, the idealistic vs the materialistic. And The Lady from Shanghai carries that through in its casting. On the one hand, we have Welles himself, all affected blarney and bemused infatuation. While on the other hand, there’s the venal self-absorption of everyone else. A bleached blonde Rita Hayworth is at the center of it all in a role which sees her beauty exploited to the full as she seeks to beguile Welles on screen and, by all accounts, off it too. Everett Sloane moves jerkily through the tale, his twisted leg defining his physical and psychological weaknesses but, curiously, losing some of the bitterness and regret his character in the book suffered from. Instead we see a more sardonic side to him, and his playing off Glenn Anders’ comically creepy law partner is among the highlights of the picture. Add in a rat-like and oily Ted de Corsia and we have a full house of larger than life performances to enjoy.

The new dual format Blu-ray/DVD from Indicator in the UK is another of their typically stellar presentations. While I don’t have any of the previous US Hi-Def releases of the movie to compare, I’d be surprised if this version has been bettered. The transfer of the film is based on the 2012 Sony 4K restoration and looks terrific. This is a dark film and the deep blacks draw you into the depths of its shadows. It’s been said that high-definition offers a more immersive experience and that’s a term I feel is particularly appropriate in this case. As usual, the supplements are both extensive and attractive. There’s a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich as well as a twenty-minute video “discussion” – carried over from the old DVD – by him. There’s another 20+ minute filmed feature with Simon Callow along with a short extract of a 1970 interview Rita Hayworth did for French TV. Additionally, we get a brief trailer commentary from Joe Dante and an image gallery. The booklet is up to the label’s usual high standards – 40 informative pages with an essay by Samm Deighan, and extract from associate producer William Castle’s memoirs, detailing his experiences in the making of the film, a reproduction of the 9 page memo Welles sent to Harry Cohn regarding the changes made to his work. And all of that is rounded out by some comments by the restoration team on the challenges they faced.

The Lady from Shanghai is a movie whose reputation has grown over the years after its initial poor box-office performance. What we have today isn’t quite what Welles wanted but it’s by no means a poor film – there are flaws to be sure but the flair, inventiveness and sheer passion for filmmaking of its director is apparent in every frame. If you like film noir or Welles, or just absorbing cinema, then it’s a must see. And the new package, transfer and extras, put together for this release is as good as anyone could wish for.

Springfield Rifle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gambler from Natchez

I remember when I was first toying with the idea of starting up a blog on movies, almost ten years ago now, and wondering about whether or not I wanted to focus on certain genres or types of film. Back then lots of the big entertainment sites took what looked like a shotgun approach of covering as wide a range of material as possible and I felt the best way to break into this digital scribbling was to specialize. The question though was what to specialize in. I eventually settled on writing primarily (though by no means exclusively) on westerns of the classic era as that was, and remains, my favorite area. But I’d mulled over a focus on noir thrillers (which do figure fairly prominently as it stands) and even war movies for a while. Another genre that I recall giving some thought to was the swashbuckler/adventure picture yet I ultimately felt that had limited appeal. Anyway, all this leads me in a slightly circuitous way to The Gambler from Natchez (1954), something of a hybrid which blends together elements of both the swashbuckler and the western to produce a pretty enjoyable confection.

We follow Vance Colby (Dale Robertson) on his way back to New Orleans having served in the army of Texas under Sam Houston. The uniform tells us Colby is a soldier, and a run in with an ill-tempered card player reveals his familiarity with games of chance. The fact is he’s the son of a renowned gambler and immensely proud of it too. His defense of the honor of his family leads to a fight (the first of many) and also the acquaintance of a kindred spirit in Antoine Barbee (Thomas Gomez) and his spitfire daughter Melanie (Debra Paget), two people who will figure prominently in events to follow. In brief, Colby is soon to learn that his father is dead, slain after being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack. It looks very much as though the three men responsible, led by foppish but ruthless plantation owner André Rivage (Kevin McCarthy), had other reasons for the killing, and the rest of the tale is taken up with the unraveling of their scheme and the quest for justice.

I’ve tagged The Gambler from Natchez as a western here even though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s at best a hybrid form with arguably more of a swashbuckling flavor about it. However, I hope the presence of Robertson (and to some extent Paget) and a story from the pen of Gerald Drayson Adams makes my stretching of the definitions of the genre just about permissible, but I won’t mind if anyone strongly objects. Director Henry Levin moves everything along at a nice even pace, never getting bogged down in unnecessary asides nor skimming over the important parts. Cameraman Lloyd Ahern ensures everything looks as sumptuous as possible while Levin get maximum impact from the action set pieces – a nocturnal chase through the reeds and a brace of duels, one with pistols and the other with rapiers.

Dale Robertson was very much a western star. Sure he worked in other genres but even a quick glance through his filmography shows how much it leans towards the Old West. A film like The Gambler from Natchez called for his customary ruggedness and also a degree of suavity that we don’t always see. It’s a balancing act which I reckon he pulls off perfectly successfully – the polish of the climactic duel with McCarthy standing as proof of that. And McCarthy was one of the most versatile actors to ply his trade in Hollywood, taking on heroic and villainous roles as lead or support with ease – he’s likely most famous for his work in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film I hope to feature here sooner rather than later. Suffice to say he sneers with some style in this movie. Debra Paget’s looks meant she was an ideal fit for westerns and exotica alike. She’s very good as the fiery river denizen with a particularly determined streak and plays well off the cool Robertson. Thomas Gomez is another of those whose presence I always appreciate in a film. He could bring tragedy and pathos to his parts as in Force of Evil yet also possessed a lovely light touch and indulged in that latter quality here.

The Gambler from Natchez has been released in the US as a MOD disc from Fox and had also available in Spain as a pressed DVD via Fox/Impulso for some time before that. I have that Spanish disc which presents the film in what I take is an open matte transfer – IMDb suggest the correct aspect ratio is 1.66:1 and that may or may not be right, I’d have thought anything up to 1.78:1 would be possible. That aside, the movie looks reasonably good, a bit of a clean up would bring out more detail and perhaps add a bit more pop to the colors, but it’s quite watchable as it is.

This is a film which is hard to classify neatly in any one genre, drifting  between the western, the swashbuckler and the adventure yarn. None of that is especially important of course, what does matter is how effectively all these aspects  come together. In my opinion, it all gels and therefore works. The film has  no pretensions of being anything other than a smooth piece of entertainment and goes about its business with style, excitement and wit.  A good film.

Blu News – Another for April

Just time to fit in another announcement for next month. Eureka! in the UK have a dual format (DVD+Blu-ray) of Walter Hill’s classy fight drama Hard Times coming out on April 24.

The specs/features listed for this edition are:

  • New 4K digital restoration
  • Uncompressed PCM and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired
  • A new interview with co-writer/director Walter Hill
  • A new interview with producer Lawrence Gordon
  • A new interview with composer Barry DeVorzon
  • Excerpts from a 1984 interview with Walter Hill at the National Film Theatre, London
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • A 20-PAGE BOOKLET featuring Pauline Kael’s original 1975 New Yorker review of the film, and archival imagery.

This is a film I’ve enjoyed and written about in the past. If you feel so inclined, you can read my thoughts on the movie here.

Bullet for a Badman

Predictability tends to be the scourge of good storytelling. You know the feeling, when you can tell right from the beginning exactly where a writer is heading, how the story is going to develop and what the characters will do. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be derived from such situations, but it’s awfully hard to get enthused about the questionable allure of the familiar. So, having no doubt whetted everyone’s appetite with an opening hook like that, I’d like to say how much a pleasure it is when the promise of the humdrum is swept away and the potentially trite  is actually revealed as an impostor. This is kind of how I feel about Bullet for a Badman (1964), where the opening suggests we’re going to be served up one of those vaguely dispiriting mid-60s efforts, the type of western that highlights the weariness which had crept into the genre during those years. Well if you shouldn’t set too much store by the cover of a book, then I guess this movie goes some way towards bearing out the parallel truism about not judging a film too harshly on the basis of its opening.

Bullet for a Badman starts off with two men setting out on paths  that are soon to converge on the town of Griffin. Sam Ward (Darren McGavin) is an outlaw, his status as a genuine badman established by the cold-blooded killing of an informer, and he’s finalizing his plans to rob the bank in town and then pay a most unwelcome visit on someone he once knew. That someone is Logan Keliher (Audie Murphy), who’s preparing to ride into Griffin with his boy to negotiate financing for his land. The first quarter of an hour or thereabouts play out much as you might expect given the build up I’ve sketched in above. Anyone who has seen even a handful of westerns would most likely be nodding with a sense of uninspired expectation at about this point – the stereotypical characters and circumstances are lined up just the way we anticipate, but then they change tack. The relationships aren’t quite as we’d been led to believe, there’s a complex back story governing the actions and reactions of these people, and what we thought we knew is only the half of it. The revelation of the nature of the connection between Keliher and Ward comes fast and immediately adds a significant amount of meat to the bones of what had looked for all the world like a pretty clapped out tale. Furthermore, once the narrative carries us out of Griffin into the wilderness in the company of the fugitive Ward and the pursuing posse we run into some more previously unsuspected twists. The preconceptions we were actively encouraged to foster in the opening section are whipped away and replaced by a challenge – if the badman we were shown in the early stages isn’t quite excused, then it is at least suggested that we look at those on his trail and ask ourselves whether they are really much better.

I’ve mentioned how the plot, and consequently the characterization, shifts gear after the preliminaries are taken care of and the film moves away from the town of Griffin. Well as that takes place the visual style of the movie naturally alters too. At the beginning there is that flat look that you see in some TV productions of the era, lighting that’s a little too solid and uniform, an over-reliance on sets and mock-ups – the result is not just an artificial appearance, which certainly has its merits, but a cheap one.  Cameraman Joseph F Biroc had an impressive list of credits in both television and cinema but it’s not till we get out among the Utah locations that the best of his talents become apparent. Generally, location shooting has the effect of opening things up, of making a movie feel bigger. That’s the case with Bullet for a Badman, where the film is given the opportunity to breathe away from the backlot. Director R G Springsteen did a lot of TV work, so much that anyone with an interest in the small screen of the period must surely have seen some of his work. Prior to that he made a lot of budget westerns and, to an extent, one could say he was returning to his roots with this, the elusive Showdown also with Murphy, and a handful of A C Lyles pictures. I found his direction here satisfactory overall, but he does let the pace lag a bit in the second act.

I spoke a bit about Audie Murphy’s growing assurance as an actor last year when I wrote a piece on Apache Rifles, a film which was made around the same time as this. Without wishing to go over the same ground repeatedly, let me just reiterate that the abilities which were always there were put to ever more effective use by Murphy as he grew older and grew into the movies; the more complex the role, the more of himself he seemed to put into it. The script by Mary and Willard Willingham, adapted from a Marvin H Albert novel, had protagonist and antagonist as former comrades in the Texas Rangers now cast as rivals by their love of the same woman. There’s plenty of scope for juicy drama in a situation like that, but it needs someone strong to take the part of the antagonist. Here it’s Darren McGavin, another guy I associate primarily with television. I guess many people will think of him as Carl Kolchak from the 70s series and the two reportedly superior TV movies (which I still haven’t seen!), although I’ve also gotten used to him as the 50s version of Mike Hammer. But is he the real villain of the piece? I’ll let each person decide for themselves on that one – suffice to say Skip Homeier, George Tobias, and even Alan Hale Jr have the chance to explore the less savory side of their characters. As for the women, Beverley Owen has a fairly straightforward and typical part as the object of McGavin and Murphy’s affections, while Ruta Lee got more screen time along with a showier if no more original role.

The UK DVD of Bullet for a Badman contains a good print of the movie transferred attractively but economically to disc. There are no supplements at all but the film looks very good, particularly the aforementioned location shooting. The movie itself is one which starts in a frankly pedestrian manner and threatens to become mired in the doldrums. However, it does shake off those routine constraints to become something much more fulfilling. While it does tap into some of the redemptive themes and the richer qualities to be found in the better 50s productions, I don’t want to oversell it either. That opening section is decidedly trite and there are occasional lapses in that direction as it goes along, but I feel that it builds sufficient momentum to keep it fresh for the most part.