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Shotgun

Certain directors seem to get mentioned or name checked quite a lot on this site, particularly in discussions following on from the main posts. One of those is Lesley Selander, a man with a long and varied career but something of a specialist in low-budget westerns. Anyway, he’s a guy who crops up a lot here yet, despite having seen a number of his films now, I’ve never actually featured any of his work. Well, I guess it’s time to put that right by taking a look at Shotgun (1955), a tough little western with a good cast and some nice location shooting.

What we have is a classic revenge tale, although perhaps a quest for justice fits too. The central character is Clay Hardin (Sterling Hayden), a marshal in a small town, working in partnership with his older mentor, Fletcher (Lane Chandler). Lawmen have the unfortunate tendency to make enemies in the course of their work, and these two are no exception in that regard. Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott), a hardened criminal, has just spent six years in prison after having been brought in by Fletcher and Hardin, and he’s quite literally gunning for them. However, things don’t go entirely as planned, Fletcher finding himself on the receiving end of double shotgun blast while Hardin remains unharmed. Their task only half completed, the killers beat a hasty retreat. Meanwhile, Hardin vows to avenge the death of the man he called a friend. As the pursuit gets underway another subplot is introduced, a deal between Thompson and a band of renegade Apache for the delivery of a consignment of repeating rifles. Along the way, Hardin acquires a couple of traveling companions – Abby (Yvonne De Carlo), a former saloon dancer desperate to get to California and a new life, and Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott). Reb’s a smooth-talking bounty hunter and an old acquaintance of Hardin’s. These three form an uneasy and brittle alliance, initially born of a combination of convenience and potential profit, that may either help Hardin achieve his goal, or possibly prevent him from doing so.

I called Shotgun a tough little western, and I think that’s a fair description; it starts out with a feeling of menace and becomes downright mean in places as it progresses. The character of Hardin grounds it all with a sense of honor, but even so it’s of the hard-bitten and hard won variety. The screenplay, by Clarke Reynolds and actor Rory Calhoun, never shies away from highlighting the less savory aspects of the old west – the cool murder of Fletcher, the aftermath of an Apache raid, torture (involving stakes, wet rawhide and a rattlesnake), and a particularly nasty death. No, this isn’t a movie that pulls its punches or romanticizes the frontier. As a result, there’s a sense of danger, or maybe a lack of security might be more accurate, at all times. Selander seemed to have a knack for directing these gritty kinds of westerns; I watched Fort Yuma not that long ago and it displayed a similar frankness towards violence. Context, of course, is everything, and Selander wasn’t using violence in a gratuitous way. The instances of cruelty on screen don’t take place merely for cheap entertainment, they are consistent with the characterizations and the consequences are never glossed over. The most important characteristic Selander brings to the picture though is urgency, the kind of forward movement necessary for any pursuit drama to succeed. There’s never any shortage of incident as we follow Hardin, always pressing ahead towards his ultimate objective. Selander doesn’t let the pace drop, framing the action against the harshly beautiful Arizona landscape but never lingering on it, and wraps the whole thing up in around eighty minutes.

Sterling Hayden appears to have had a penchant for appearing in westerns featuring off-center elements. Johnny Guitar is chock full of strangeness, Terror in a Texas Town opens and closes with a harpoon taking on a six-gun, and Shotgun also climaxes with a highly unorthodox duel. His large frame and loud, somewhat abrupt style of delivery made him an imposing figure, well suited to film noir and westerns. He had a directness too, bordering on aggression, that made him believable here as a former outlaw brought in from the cold. There’s always the feeling that, despite his inherent loyalty to a murdered friend and the ideals he learned from him, he’s only a step or two away from breaking all the rules in his thirst for vengeance.

Zachary Scott never played too many heroes, he didn’t really have the face or personality for it. His specialty was the urbane villain, or at least a highly ambiguous character. His bounty hunter role in Shotgun isn’t especially villainous, but there’s plenty of his typically venal and insincere charm on show. He’s happy enough to tag along with Hayden so long as there’s a chance he may outmaneuver him and collect a nice fat reward, but he remains essentially untrustworthy. The bonus, however, is that his mercenary part means he gets some of the choicest dialogue. Caught somewhere between Hayden’s avenger and Scott’s opportunist is Yvonne De Carlo. Always a striking screen presence, De Carlo spends much of her time enduring the various hardships encountered on the trail, though she does get to indulge in a memorably provocative bathing scene. The outright villain is played by Guy Prescott, all scowls and ruthlessness. In support there’s Lane Chandler, Rory Mallinson and the reliably unpleasant Robert J Wilke.

Shotgun, an Allied Artists picture, is widely available – in a VCI western set in the US, on individual disc in France, and this western set, which I have, from the UK. The UK release has the same titles, spread over two volumes, as the US version so I imagine the transfers should be broadly similar. The film is given a 16:9 transfer but hasn’t been restored at all – there’s not much distracting damage, although the opening could be described as a little rough in my opinion, but the color varies from time to time. Overall, I’d say it’s an acceptable presentation, just. It’s a good mid-range western which holds the attention, helped by the highly watchable cast, and I reckon it would serve as a good introduction to Selander’s no-nonsense approach to filmmaking.

You can also read other views on the movie by both Jeff and Laura.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in 1950s, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 

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Secret of the Incas

Certain movies just seem to stick in the mind for one reason or another, sometimes not the whole film but a scene or two or maybe even only part of a scene. That was the case with Secret of the Incas (1954), which I recall seeing on television as a kid. It was the climax, or parts of it anyway, that remained with me and I hoped for a long time to get the chance to catch it again. Over time I’d heard it said that the film had a big influence on the development of the Indiana Jones character, and it’s easy enough to see where that idea comes from, but that didn’t interest me so much – my early viewing had preceded Raiders of the Lost Ark by a few years. Returning to half-remembered movies can, of course, prove to be enormously disappointing – all the elements which appeared thrilling and memorable to a youngster can fall completely flat when viewed through adult eyes – but not always. I’ve been able to see Secret of the Incas a few times now and I think it still holds up as an entertaining adventure yarn.

Harry Steele (Charlton Heston) is a classic pulp creation, scratching out a living in and around the Peruvian city of Cuzco. Trading on his looks and rugged demeanor, he latches onto newly arrived American tourists and offers his services as guide and, it’s strongly hinted, as a source of entertainment for the bored wives of the tired middle-aged businessmen who retain his services. Essentially, he’s a disreputable character, willing to do most anything to turn a buck and ever on the lookout for an opportunity to hit it big. In this case hitting it big would be the recovery of a fabled Inca artifact, a fabulous jewel-encrusted sunburst which has been lost for centuries and is of huge spiritual value to the indigenous people. While Steele runs his own schemes and scams he also makes use of, and is used in turn, by a fellow expatriate scoundrel, Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell). Both men long to get their hands on the Inca treasure, Steele actually having come into possession of a vital clue to its whereabouts, and the chance to do so presents itself in a somewhat roundabout fashion. The arrival in Cuzco of a Romanian defector, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey), desperate to reach the US by any means looks at first to be an unwelcome distraction. However, the fact that the lady in question is being pursued by an official who just happens to have his own light airplane rouses Steele’s interest. He now has a way to get in and out of the lost city of Machu Picchu, where he believes the sunburst is hidden. Still, with Morgan on his trail, a team of archeologists excavating the site, and an ever-increasing stream of native pilgrims arriving daily, things may not be quite so simple.

Director Jerry Hopper had a pretty solid run of pictures in the early and mid-50s, he’d already worked with Heston on Pony Express and went on make the entertaining Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews afterwards. One of the most attractive aspects of the film is the beautiful location work in Peru, with Lionel Lindon’s camera lapping up the local color and spectacle. Hopper keeps things moving along nicely, blending footage of Peruvian customs to add a sheen of authenticity without allowing the narrative to flag. The script comes courtesy of Sydney Boehm and Ranald MacDougall, the former having written some fine films noir and there’s a brusque, hard-boiled quality to much of the dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in a crime film. Although this is a fairly unpretentious adventure, there’s also enough character development to ensure it doesn’t become overly formulaic. Steele grows and changes as events proceed and he undergoes the kind of redemptive arc I always appreciate seeing.

Charlton Heston almost inevitably ended up dominating any movie he appeared in, the sheer physical presence of the man demanding your attention. That trademark swagger is on display of course, but he has plenty of opportunities to show off his acting chops too. The early scenes highlight his complacent amorality, cuckolding clients to their faces and pocketing the money women give him with relish. If that were all it consisted of, it would be a one-dimensional performance though. What adds interest is the gradual awakening of some ethical sense, the realization that his current path will surely lead to his transformation into all he holds in contempt. Perhaps it’s the stinging rebuke of a woman or maybe the contact with those whose spirituality overrides base greed that pricks at his conscience; whatever the trigger actually is, the character of Steele comes to see himself as he really is, and what he may become. Heston carries that off well, but the presence of Thomas Mitchell is vital in making it work. Mitchell always gave great value as far as I’m concerned, conveying a feeling of pathos better than any character actor I’ve seen. His playing of Ed Morgan is a spot on portrayal of a man gone to seed physically and emotionally. The stubbly face, the stained sweater, the fevered and darting eyes all point to decay and decline, and it’s all perfectly believable. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the political fugitive, a woman whose shady past is alluded to but never wholly explained. This leaves her with an air of mystery and we don’t really need to know what led her to flee to South America anyway. Less satisfactory is Robert Young’s staid archeologist – his performance isn’t a bad one yet the writing leaves his character’s storyline hanging and unresolved at the end. There are supporting roles for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac (her extraordinary and haunting vocal talents provide the basis for much of the soundtrack), Michael Pate, and a knowingly humorous Glenda Farrell.

Secret of the Incas appeared to be out of circulation for a long time but there are DVDs available in both Spain and Italy now. Olive Films had announced their intention to release the movie in the US at one point and then backed out of it citing the poor condition of the available elements. I have the Spanish DVD and it’s easy to see what probably discouraged the US company. The print has the kind of overall softness and instances of damage which mean it’s crying out for restoration. Having said that, the colors are quite strong and it’s by no means a struggle to watch. While I certainly found myself thinking about how much better the film could look I can’t honestly say the presentation reduced my enjoyment to any significant degree. If hunting for lost treasure, remote and exotic locations, and old-fashioned adventure are your thing, then Secret of the Incas should satisfy.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2015 in 1950s, Charlton Heston

 

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The Battle at Apache Pass

You might be forgiven for thinking the concept of the sequel or prequel was an invention of modern-day Hollywood, such is the frequency with which it is discussed and/or complained about on various internet fora. The fact is though such phenomena have been around a long time, the film industry never being one to pass up the opportunity to cash in on a winning formula. Delmer Daves had made one of the earliest and best of what has become known as the pro-Indian cycle of westerns in Broken Arrow and this was followed up a few years later by George Sherman’s The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), which saw Jeff Chandler reprise his role as the Apache leader Cochise. The film may not be quite the equal of its predecessor but with Sherman calling the shots it’s still a fairly strong entry, visually striking and featuring the kind of smooth economy characteristic of much of the director’s work.

With the Civil War raging to the east the army is stretched thin, so thin in fact that frontier outposts are being abandoned as the troops are transferred to the front line. The opening sees a fort in flames as its occupants move out and the hawkish Geronimo (Jay Silverheels) watches and ponders the implications. One man’s trouble is, as always, another’s opportunity and Geronimo see the chance to wrench back control of the territory formerly ceded to the might of the cavalry. The stumbling block to the belligerent warrior’s plans is the Chiricahua chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler), a man intent on finding some means of peaceful co-existence with the white interlopers. Cochise has reached a sort of informal understanding with the local army commander, Major Colton (John Lund). If Cochise is faced with internal challenges, then the same can be said of Colton. In fact, the soldier’s difficulties are greater as they come from  three directions – the scheming Indian agent Baylor (Bruce Cowling), the inexperienced and regulation-obsessed Lt Bascom (John Hudson), and a disreputable profiteer by the name of Mescal Jack (Jack Elam). Baylor is an ambitious man, one who is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his aims, and has no hesitation in using the aggression of Geronimo along with the foolishness of Bascom and the greed of Mescal Jack to start a shooting war that will increase his personal power. The result of Baylor’s machinations is that Colton and Cochise are reluctantly forced into a confrontation neither man wants, and one which both of them knows can only end badly. The climax comes in the form of the titular battle, a spectacular affair which will see much blood spilled, and marks the beginning of the long and brutal Apache Wars, but also one which ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

The movie blends a number of historical events, principally what is known as the Bascom affair and the battle of the title.The former saw the attempted capture of Cochise using the ruse of a fake parley and led to a serious erosion of trust between the warring parties. The latter was one of those few occasions when the native Americans engaged the army in a face-to-face pitched battle, and suffered heavy casualties when the soldiers used artillery to blast them out of the rocks of Apache Pass. Sherman’s direction of the action scenes, particularly the climactic battle, is exemplary and shows evidence of  fairly large budget. However, the film is more than just a handful of set pieces strung together; Sherman knew how to tell human stories and the glue which holds it all together is the relationship between Colton and Cochise, and also the tenderness and love between the Apache chief and his wife Nona (Susan Cabot). This is what lends depth to the film, the bonds of love and loyalty, trust and honor, and it makes the climactic payoff all the more affecting. On a purely technical level, Sherman’s compositions are breathtaking at times, approaching Fordian proportions as he glories in the vastness and magnificence of the Utah locations, with ant-like human figures dwarfed by the ancient, primal landscape.

The Battle at Apache Pass was Jeff Chandler’s second go at portraying Cochise, and he would return to the role briefly at the beginning of Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise two years later. There have been comments in the past on this site relating to white actors portraying Native Americans, and I’d just like to take the opportunity to quickly address the matter here and forestall any (in my view) unnecessary complaints  – films such as the one in question in no way demonstrate any disrespect to the people on screen, and it actually goes to great lengths to make the point that the Apache were more wronged against. The casting decisions of over 60 years ago are what they are and shouldn’t be judged according to 21st Century standards – the fact remains that films such as this wouldn’t have been made at all if it weren’t for the casting of white actors in leading parts. For me, the crucial matter is how the parts were played rather than who played them. Jeff Chandler’s Cochise fully embodies the notions of dignity and honor; there’s no caricature on display, there’s merely a real human being concerned with the welfare of the people he leads and the woman he loves. The same could be said of Susan Cabot, who brings a real sense of grace and propriety to her part. John Lund doesn’t get mentioned often but he was a fine actor – I thought he was excellent opposite Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own – and has the right kind of weary decency as the army veteran. Richard Egan is another actor who really ought to have gone on to better things – his role as the sergeant here is very impressive and the interaction with, and deference towards, Susan Cabot’s Nona is a notable aspect of the movie. And let’s not forget Jack Elam, a familiar face in so many films. If ever a man was born to play slippery villains, then it was Elam and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

The Battle at Apache Pass is widely available in Europe, although I’m not sure if it’s been released in the US. I have the German DVD from Koch Media, and I’d imagine the other versions probably use the same master, which presents the film reasonably well. The colors are strong and true but there is a little softness from time to time and the presence of cue blips attest to the fact there hasn’t been any restoration undertaken. As is the case with most of George Sherman’s films, it’s both visually attractive and interesting in terms of theme. I liked it and recommend checking it out.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in 1950s, George Sherman, Jeff Chandler, Westerns

 

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The Gunfighter

How come I’ve got to run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days? What are you trying to do? Show off for your friends?

There can be absolutely no doubt that the 1950s represented the coming of age of the western, the genre’s full flowering as a mature and thought-provoking art form. Under the circumstances, it’s highly appropriate that the decade should open with a prime example of this growing assurance, a film which confidently presents a drama of great subtlety and humanity, and also happens to be one of the best pieces of work its director and star ever achieved. I’ve heard The Gunfighter (1950) described as a film which broke new ground and took the western in a whole different direction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with such a sweeping comment as I feel there’s ample evidence of this move already being underway as the 40s drew to a close. I think it’s more accurate to say the film stands as a significant milestone in that process of development.

Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is a big man, one of those guys everyone knows by reputation alone. He’s made a name for himself as a gunman, a deadly killer whose fame or notoriety has become something of a curse. As the credits roll we see him riding hard across a bleak, twilight landscape. Is he running from his past or forging ahead towards a more hopeful future? I guess it’s really a bit of both; Ringo’s personal history and skills with a gun have left him open to challenges from every young tough with a hunger for the limelight. His first stop at a cheap-looking saloon sees yet another glory seeker (a very young Richard Jaeckel) goading him and throwing down the gauntlet. Despite his best efforts to avoid an unwanted fight, Ringo is left with no choice but to shoot the young hot head and make himself three more enemies in the shape of the victim’s brothers. And so he’s on the move again, away from his own legacy and also on towards what he hopes may be his salvation. Eight  years before he left behind a young bride (Helen Westcott) and an infant son, and his one dream now is to see them and maybe try to make a new beginning somewhere else. However, finding and contacting his wife won’t prove so easy as she has changed her name and determined to raise the boy without any knowledge of his infamous father. Ringo’s only ally, and he’s a reluctant one at that, is an old outlaw buddy turned marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). Mark has given his word to safeguard the woman’s identity and will do no more than pass on Ringo’s message requesting a meeting. And so this tired gunman’s only choice is to wait it out in the saloon, besieged by rubbernecking locals and hero-worshiping kids, to see if there’s any possibility of a reunion and a fresh start. All the while the three revenge obsessed brothers draw nearer, and a young ne’er-do-well by the name of Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) itches to take his turn at throwing down on the great Jimmy Ringo.

What we have here is the classic western scenario of a man hemmed in by bad choices in his past, desperate to make some kind of amends and striving for salvation, redemption and renewal. One tends to think of the western frontier in terms of wide open spaces, of boundless possibilities and the promise of personal freedom. Ringo dreams of these of course, but his world has narrowed and closed in around him. The west of Jimmy Ringo has shrunk to the dimensions of a saloon bar in a nowhere town. His fame has imprisoned him and he’s living out a sentence written out and pronounced upon himself by his own actions. But that’s not to say Ringo is a villain in the classical sense; he’s as much a victim of poor judgment, and his obvious love for his estranged family and his desire to make a clean break with violence means he cuts more of a tragic figure. According to one of the extra features on the DVD, writer William Bowers (co-credited with Andre de Toth) got the idea for the story when he spent some time in the company of the legendary boxer Jack Dempsey. It seems that Dempsey was confronted by some blowhard eager to show off and prove his courage by challenging him to a fight. It’s that dark side of fame that’s explored here and the Old West setting, with its inherent focus on the myths of masculinity and machismo, is an ideal canvas for its presentation. The script necessarily confines the action to a handful of sets but director Henry King and cinematographer Arthur Miller never allow any sense of staginess to dominate. The restrictions on Ringo’s movement are essential to the telling of the tale, since his room for maneuver in life is limited it helps that the viewer shares that feeling of being unable to get out into the open. In the end our anti-hero does attain his goal, albeit in an oblique fashion, and the final image, by mirroring the opening, has that perfect symmetry that is always the mark of top class filmmaking.

Gregory Peck was a big box office draw at this point, a leading man with a strong female following and the role of Jimmy Ringo, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the image, was to prove somewhat problematic. King wanted to nail the look of the period as well as he could and that meant making a few alterations to his star’s appearance. It’s been said that Darryl Zanuck laid the blame for the film’s lack of financial success squarely on Peck’s mustache, although it’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take that. Nevertheless, Peck himself rated his performance highly and I guess it’s fair to say time has borne out his assessment. He brings a genuine feeling of the weariness of the burdens of his reputation to the role. The way his dusty and tired character carries himself as he enter the saloon for the first time hits just the right note, and his nervy twitchiness befits a guy who’s learned the hard way that he has to watch his back at all times. Peck was the same age as the character he was playing, although his look and demeanor suggest a man older than that. Apart from the conflict within Ringo which the script calls for, Peck also injects a touch of impish humor from time to time which rounds out the character and makes him seem more human – for example, the little interlude in the marshal’s office where he debates the merits of his being run out of town with the local ladies, all blissfully unaware of his true identity, and ends up conceding that hanging might indeed be a suitable punishment for him, is delightfully played.

Of the other cast members, Millard Mitchell really stands out. His portrayal of the reformed outlaw caught between his sense of duty to the community which has offered him a second chance and his loyalty to an old friend is spot on. As good as Peck is, it’s Mitchell who acts as the glue which binds everything together. Gruff, laconic and earnest, he displays a great sensitivity in his moments as the go-between passing Ringo’s message on to his wife, and his toughness is wheeled out too on the occasions when he has to confront the weaselly braggart Hunt Bromley. Skip Homeier always made a fine villain, and this early role is a memorable piece of work. He does a fine job of capturing the bravado, irreverence and resentment of youth, and I think it’s heavily implied in the final shot of the film (although other interpretations of that scene are possible) that Hunt Bromley is essentially a mirror image of a younger Jimmy Ringo. Karl Malden’s entrepreneurial barkeep is an entertaining turn too; obsequious in the face of opportunity and always calculating the profits to be gained, he comes to resemble a circus ringmaster wooing and shooing the onlookers keen for a peek at his prize exhibit. And of course there are the ladies. Helen Westcott as the conflicted wife is never less than affecting as she conducts an internal duel over her love for her husband and the need to protect her son, while Jean Parker is all guts and wistfulness as the widow of another gunman.

The Gunfighter was released on DVD by Fox some years ago as part of a box set of westerns in the US. There are also editions available in other regions but I think the US version is the best of the bunch in terms of picture quality – crisp, clean and sharp. Among the extra features on the disc are short pieces on the film itself, and its significance within the genre, and one on cinematographer Arthur Miller. While both are very welcome, I feel the movie actually deserves a more comprehensive analysis. The Gunfighter is one of the great westerns of the 50s, or any decade for that matter, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit it.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in 1950s, Gregory Peck, Henry King, Westerns

 

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Day of the Outlaw

I like westerns, I like movies which could be described as chamber pieces, and I like snowy backdrops. Day of the Outlaw (1959), directed by Andre de Toth, checks all these boxes. It’s one of those films genre fans will enthuse about yet remains criminally underrated by others. It’s also a film where there’s not a huge amount of action; there is, however, a kind of relentless tension and a whole lot going on just below the surface. In short, the film is a sleeper, a tight and atmospheric classic just waiting to be discovered.

I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is to be found in the deceptively simple story, those tales which initially appear to be straightforward or predictable yet gradually develop into something much more complex and satisfying. Day of the Outlaw is a fine example of a work where layers of depth emerge bit by bit and draw you in before you’ve realized it. It opens in a wintry Wyoming town as two men, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff), ride in and bemoan the stringing of barbed wire and the consequent threat to the open range. Starrett’s blood is up and he vows a showdown with the homesteader responsible. The scene therefore is set for the kind of range war drama that’s been seen countless times. But this is a mere introduction, an opportunity to draw attention to the implacable and tough character of the lead. When it then becomes apparent that Starrett is in love with and covets the beautiful wife (Tine Louise) of his chief rival, the plot moves to another level. And still we’re only dancing around the periphery, for what really matters here is the journey – both literal and figurative – which Starrett (among others) will be forced to embark upon. In a deft piece of filmmaking sleight of hand the entire emphasis is moved away from that which the build-up has led us to expect. Just as we’re about to witness the duel between Starrett and his foe a bunch of newcomers arrive and take us off in a completely different direction. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a Quantrill-like figure, a soldier with a tarnished reputation now reduced to leading a band of amoral cutthroats. Bruhn and his men are loaded down with stolen gold, but he’s got a bullet lodged inside him and the army hot on his heels. The enforced stopover in the snowbound town represents a trial of sorts for the bewildered and helpless residents, but it also holds out a kind of hope for two lost souls – Starrett and Bruhn. Both men find themselves in opposition and through that also find a way to regain a little of the humanity that years of hard living have almost stripped away.

Redemption once again; Starrett and Bruhn have lost something along the way, their hearts have been hardened by the brutality of frontier life, and their salvation will be a by-product of their enmity. As far as I’m concerned, this is what drives the film along and gives it its power. I feel all the other plot devices are simply that, accoutrements put in place to facilitate the drama that forms the heart of the story. It’s the chance meeting of Bruhn and Starrett, at a key moment for both, which gives them pause and either forces or allows them (take your pick here) to alter the course of their respective destinies. The two characters wield a significant degree of influence over those around them and this is what first draws them into an uneasy mutual alliance. However, I believe that the real, if initially unacknowledged, motive comes from the fact that each recognizes something of himself in the other. The effect appears more profound in the case of Starrett, but it’s surely present in Bruhn too, and throws out a spiritual lifeline of sorts.

Day of the Outlaw is surely Andre de Toth’s best film, a well-paced exercise in mounting and sustained tension, aided by Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Lee E Wells’ novel. By having so much of the action confined to the saloon the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and suspense is multiplied. The impromptu dance, hastily organized to placate Bruhn’s increasingly restless men, perfectly conveys the threat and menace posed by the gang. Even when events later take us out into the wilderness of the snow-choked mountain pass that feeling of being locked into an inescapable situation is actually heightened rather than dissipated. A good deal of credit also has to go to cinematographer Russell Harlan here; his shooting of the frozen and forbidding landscape is chilling in every way. When you add in Alexander Courage’s spare, doom-laden score all the ingredients are in place for a memorable interlude in the icy wastes.

The cast is both deep and distinguished (Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Frank DeKova, Dabbs Greer, Alan Marshal et al) but Ryan and Ives easily dominate proceedings. Ives in particular holds the attention whenever he’s on screen, which is entirely fitting as he’s playing a man who’s holding a gang of dangerous roughnecks in check principally through sheer force of personality. The dance segment which I referred to above is a good illustration of this, the frayed dignity of the man shining through and setting him apart from a shabby command which is beneath him in every respect. Ives also gets right into the physical and psychological guts of his character, from the harrowing operation he endures without anesthetic to the slow dawning of his impending and inevitable demise. Overall, it’s a first-rate portrayal of a complex man, and one which is wholly believable. Just as the characters feed off one another, I think the same can be said the performances of the leads. Ryan was never a slouch as an actor anyway and his playing opposite Ives ensured he stayed on top of his game. He starts out as bitter, cold and unforgiving as the country around him, delivering a blistering and scathing verbal attack on his homesteader rival. He holds onto that steely determination throughout, but slowly lets the sharp edges soften a little as he becomes aware of the path he’s been taking and where it must surely lead.

Day of the Outlaw is fairly widely available on DVD now. I have the US release from MGM which presents the film quite nicely in its correct widescreen ratio. However, the film comes with absolutely no extra features, and I reckon it’s more than deserving of some. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have the chance to chat about the movies I love with those who share my passion. Over time though, I’ve also come to realize that I was partly motivated by a wish to see a bit more critical respect afforded to certain films and genres. The western in particular has tended to be passed over as nothing more than time-passing entertainment. Now there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, a movie which doesn’t do so is failing straight out of the gate after all. Still, the underestimation of the western as an art form and as a vehicle for the intelligent examination of adult themes has persisted. A film like Day of the Outlaw highlights this critical neglect. I’d like to think that appreciation of the film has grown somewhat over time though, and I’d encourage anyone keen on polished and smart filmmaking to seek it out.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

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Shane

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no going back…

It’s a little difficult to know what to say when it comes to a movie like Shane (1953); so much has been written about it over the years and its influence is wide-ranging. I think the western is a genre that lends itself particularly to studies of humanity, it’s less reliant on tricks and all the best examples have something of worth to say about how we treat and react to each other. Shane is a very human picture, a simple story with great depth and sensitivity. I guess it’s fair to categorize it as an archetypical 50s western. The theme of redemption runs right through it, forming its core; it celebrates community, family, love and, maybe most of all, the importance of and one’s need to feel a sense of belonging.

The plot is a fairly straightforward affair and I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The background lies in the dying days of the open range, a key stage in the transition of the frontier from a wild, lawless territory towards a more stable and civilized environment. Major social changes such as this inevitably involve a degree of pain for all involved. The ranchers who tamed the country bitterly resent what appears to be a curtailment of their hard won independence, while the homesteaders must weather both the elements and the hostility of the cattlemen. Into this atmosphere of intractable conflict rides a lone figure, Shane (Alan Ladd), who halts at one of the dirt farms. The owner is Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who, along with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), is in the process of carving out a home and a future. Purely by chance, local rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) isn’t far behind and this immediately raises Starrett’s suspicions. Still, he has no cause for concern on that score as Shane makes it plain he has no connection with Ryker and actually backs up Starrett. It so happens these two men have crossed paths at a fortuitous time for both: Starrett is short of help to work his property, but Shane’s need is arguably greater still. His manner and apparel mark him out as a gunfighter, one of those rootless drifters of frontier lore. Here’s a man who desperately desires to bury his past and perhaps dream of a future, but that requires he find a place where he’s wanted and where he feels he belongs. For Shane, the Starrett homestead is a kind of beacon, a chance to redeem himself and seek out some meaning or purpose in his life. Yet that redemption and purpose will have to be earned the hard way – battles must be fought, temptations overcome, and specters of the past slain and laid to rest once and for all.

Shane is really all about relationships: between man and the land, the individual and society, the present and the past, and at the heart of it all is the Starrett family. This is one of the most wholesome and honest portrayals of family life I’ve seen and it’s not cutesy or fake. The Starretts represent trust, loyalty and devotion, in a credible way, in the face of hardship and adversity. As a viewer, it feels real and sincere, and it has to if that central dynamic which has the power to draw in a man like Shane is to be at all believable. What we have is one of those happy instances where the acting of Heflin, Arthur and de Wilde mesh perfectly with the writing of Jack Schaefer and the direction of George Stevens. All the interactions of the Starretts ring true, from the banal conversations about crockery round the table to the intense discussions on how best to confront the threat to their home. And hovering round the fringes is Shane, the man intimately acquainted with violence who has been beguiled by the allure of such simplicity.

Shane was a gift of a role for Alan Ladd, cementing his place in cinematic history. Ladd’s edgy discomfort was used to great effect in the films noir that first brought him to prominence, but the reluctant western hero was an even better fit. Ladd himself appears to have been a mass of contradictions and self-doubt, and that quality was ideal for his part here. Shane is an extremely self-aware character, aware of his skill with a gun and also fully cognizant of the deficiencies in his personal life. It’s a finely judged performance by Ladd, brimming with regret and yearning. The character of Shane is a man who knows he’s arrived at a crossroads; his past is never spoken of, only alluded to, and he realizes that an opportunity to make up for all his previous actions is within his grasp. He’s a natural outsider, detaching himself from the group given half a chance, yet always keen to be accepted into its ranks. His final decision to confront Ryker and save Starrett is simultaneously inspiring, fitting and heartbreaking. But it has to be – just like little Joey in that memorable finale, we want Shane to return and stay. Still we also understand that he must see things through if he’s to meet destiny head-on and achieve his redemption.

George Stevens was one of those filmmakers who seems to have been deeply affected by his wartime experiences, his presence during the liberation of Dachau often being cited as a profound influence on his subsequent work. Be that as it may, his handling of violence in Shane is worth noting and I feel the quote I used at the top of this piece is of significance. I’ve discussed the depiction of violence in the classic era western on this site and elsewhere before, and Shane illustrates what I think is the dominant approach very well. The film isn’t a devil-may-care shoot-em-up, where killings are seen as little more than an entertaining afterthought. No, the shootings which take place have an impact on the viewer because the characters involved on the screen treat them seriously. Jack Palance may look, sound and act like the cold assassin with no hint of conscience, but the build up to and results of his actions are powerful. On the few occasions a gun is fired in the film the gravity of the consequences is never in question – the sound of the discharge alone is an assault on the senses. When Palance blasts Elisha Cook Jr into the muddy street there’s no flippancy, polish or Hollywood glamor on view – it’s brutal, ugly and shocking in its authenticity. And it doesn’t end there in the cold anonymity of the churned up earth, for the gut-wrenching business of bringing his body back to his loved ones for burial has to be seen to. Cynicism seems to be in fashion these days and I have no doubt there are those who may regard the shot of the dog mournfully pawing Cook’s coffin as it’s lowered into the earth as mawkish sentimentality. As far as I’m concerned though, it’s a supremely touching moment and perfectly encapsulates the grief of those gathered at the graveside. If the repercussions of a killing are hammered home, the effects of less serious violence aren’t swept aside either. The fist fight between Ladd and Ben Johnson is an example of this; there’s no music to be heard to distract us from the landing of blows, and the injuries are never disguised. In Shane, every act of aggression, whether major or minor, is shown to hurt someone.

I’ve deviated a little from my usual format in writing this piece. I could have gone into more detail regarding the plot and social/historical issues it raises, I could also have offered a deeper analysis of the contributions of the cast – Jean Arthur, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan et al. I’m aware too that I’ve made no mention of Loyal Griggs’ superb photography of the Wyoming locations and the dim, smoky interiors, or of Victor Young’s careful scoring. None of that is a result of neglect or lack of appreciation on my part. No, I took a conscious decision to try to focus attention on a handful of those aspects, rather than attempt to draw in all of them, which I feel contribute to making Shane one of the enduring cinematic classics and a definitive 50s western. I hope I’ve managed to do so.

 

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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Gunsmoke

At one time the Hollywood studios all seemed to have a particular style and feel associated with them. Even without seeing the credits you could usually tell which company had produced a movie just by its look. Mention Universal to most film fans and they will probably think automatically of the horror cycle running from the early 30s through to the mid-40s. Understandable as that is, it also means that the westerns the studio made in the 50s tend to be overlooked, although not by genre fans. The Universal western (or Universal-International to be more accurate) was for the most part a no-nonsense affair that moved at a fast lick and was visually attractive. Gunsmoke (1953) is a good example of the studio’s output – pacy, entertaining and lacking in pretension.

Reb Kittredge (Audie Murphy) has been making a living as a hired gunman, and the opening shots of the film see him and his friend Johnny Lake (Charles Drake) riding hard in an effort to outrun a posse of cavalrymen on their trail. The two men had been plying their trade in the Johnson County War but are now heading off in different directions – Johnny planning to sell his skills elsewhere, while Reb hopes to get  into the ranching business. He’s had an offer of employment from a man called Telford (Donald Randolph), and is setting off to find out what it entails when he’s bushwhacked – a lone sniper shoots his horse from under him using a buffalo gun. As is often the case in these movies, a man’s reputation has the nasty habit of preceding him and then dogging his steps thereafter. Reb has made his name dispensing lead and that’s really the only thing that interests people. It turns out Telford is a slick and ruthless business type who has been buying up all the land around, and now there’s only one man standing in his way. Dan Saxon (Paul Kelly) and his daughter Rita (Susan Cabot) are all that stand between Telford and total control. And this is where Reb comes in – Telford wants to hire him to ensure (by whatever means are necessary) Saxon doesn’t get his cattle to market before his mortgage comes due. So far this is all pretty standard fare, but the initial reluctance of Reb to take on the job and, more significantly, the fact he wins the ranch from Saxon on the turn of a card takes the story in a different direction. Reb has the ranch he always wanted but with Saxon now working for him, the daughter resenting him, Telford on his back, a deadline looming and a former friend gunning for him.

No 50s western would be truly complete if it failed to touch on the notion of redemption, at least in passing. I don’t for a moment believe Gunsmoke was ever striving for great depth yet it does touch on this classic theme. Murphy’s character is referred to as having gained notoriety for his actions in the Johnson County War – while it’s not made clear which side he hired out to the implication is surely that he earned his pay gunning for the big ranchers. By siding with Saxon, the small independent, and taking on the might of Telford and all his resources it could be read as an attempt to make up for his past deeds. Anyway, the pace is so brisk and the script so packed with incident that there’s not that much time to linger over such matters. The screenplay comes courtesy of D D Beauchamp and a novel by Norman A Fox, neither of whom were strangers to the western genre. The direction was handled by Nathan Juran, one of those studio professionals who rarely get a lot of credit for the quality of their work. Juran made a number of westerns with Murphy alongside other studio assignments. As time wore on he moved towards science fiction and fantasy pictures – 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer, and so on – which paved the way for a television career notable for his contribution to various Irwin Allen shows. Juran may not have been an especially spectacular director but he was very solid and I’ve always found his work highly watchable.

Gunsmoke saw Audie Murphy settling more comfortably into his role as a movie star, and particularly as a western star. He would go on to better and more complex parts in the future of course but this film offered him an opportunity to play a guy with some interesting shadings to his character. He’s probably at his best in his exchanges with Charles Drake, who makes for a fine anti-heroic/villainous adversary. Susan Cabot is good too and shows plenty of grit throughout – her driving of a chuck wagon down a treacherous mountain incline is a memorable scene – proving herself capable of providing more than mere eye candy. Still, the acting honors have to go to the supporting cast, particularly Paul Kelly and Donald Randolph. Randolph is oily and effete yet menacing as a coiled serpent, the silky exterior masking a calculating and venomous nature. And Kelly is just about perfect as the rancher who will gamble on anything. His philosophical approach to life and all its tribulations adds a lot of charm to the movie.

Gunsmoke is out on DVD in Spain (it’s also available in Germany as part of a Murphy box set from Koch Media) via Llamentol. The image is pretty good, if perhaps a little soft, and doesn’t have any serious damage visible. Generally, the presentation improves as the feature progresses. I’ve seen the film on TV a number of times and the DVD is comparable to those broadcast versions as far as I can tell. Gunsmoke may not be the best western Audie Murphy made and it’s not the best Universal-International had to offer either. Having said that, I like it a lot – it’s brisk, colorful and entertaining from start to finish. There’s good professional work done by everyone – both in front of and behind the cameras – and the film stands as a fair representation of the style and ethos of a Universal-International western.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Westerns

 

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Joe Dakota

Last time I looked at a remake. The film in question today isn’t a direct remake, at least not a credited one, but instead it’s what we might term an alternative take on a similar theme. Anyone who has seen Bad Day at Black Rock will easily spot the parallels in Joe Dakota (1957), although this later production doesn’t attain the same level of driving intensity as Sturges’ film. I think it’s fair to say this movie doesn’t have the same ambition, not as far as social commentary is concerned anyway, but it’s still interesting enough and definitely a worthwhile 50s western.

Arborville is a tiny settlement, barely able to justify the label of a town. As an unnamed stranger (Jock Mahoney) rides out of the desert onto its solitary street there’s an almost unnatural calm. At first it seems as though Arborville has been abandoned, like a western version of the Marie Celeste on dry land. The mystery provides only a temporary puzzle though as a lone girl, Jody (Luana Patten), sulkily informs the stranger that the whole population is outside of town at work. The work turns out to be an oil drilling operation, and the locals aren’t exactly thrilled to see an outsider poking his nose in. The main spokesman, Cal (Charles McGraw), initially appears happy enough to allow the visitor to observe the drilling but grows suspicious when this unnamed man decides to explore further, particularly when he exhibits an interest in the old shack that stands next to the derrick. The tone of this opening section of the movie is a little uneven, mixing the suspenseful elements up with some broad knockabout comedy. However, as the story progresses the emphasis on the mystery consistently holds center stage. Everything revolves around the question of identity – the identity of the apparently affable stranger with questions to ask, and that of the old Indian, now disappeared, who once occupied the shack. So there are issues to be resolved in Arborville but no-one seems keen to offer any answers. Even the locals are reluctant to discuss the matter among themselves. What is clear is that the town is nursing a secret, and the stranger is determined to haul that hidden past, kicking and screaming if necessary, out into the open.

Those familiar with Bad Day at Black Rock will know where the story is heading, and I’m not going to spoil things here for anyone who hasn’t seen either film. While the structure of both films is essentially the same the approach is a little different. Joe Dakota has the early lightness I already referred to and, even though the levels of suspense are ramped up as it goes along, the kind of searing examination of race relations that characterized John Sturges’ film is not present. Also, the insularity of the isolated frontier community isn’t probed in the same depth. Everything in Bad Day at Black Rock revolved around notions of hate, fear and neglect – Joe Dakota trades on fear too, but greed lies at the root of it all.

The script was by William Talman, best known as Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason show, and Norman Jolley. This pair also worked together on another Jock Mahoney vehicle, I’ve Lived Before, which I’d like to see one day. The core story is a good one and works well in a western setting, relying on the isolation to act as both a cloak for the town’s guilty secret and a catalyst for the paranoia that accompanies it. The plot recounts a journey towards the truth and, like most 50s westerns, represents a simultaneous quest for redemption or absolution. By the close the collective guilt of all concerned is literally burnt away and cleansed as the mistakes of the past are consumed by flames.

Jock Mahoney was well cast in Joe Dakota, his laid back charm easily wins the viewer over to his side right from the beginning and there was an air of tough resolve about him too which makes him believable as the dogged seeker after the truth. He made a handful of films with director Richard Bartlett – of those, I’ve only seen the enjoyable Money, Women and Guns – who appears to have recognized his strengths and used them to good effect. Charles McGraw had the rough edges and raspy voice to play a variety of movie villains and he always a pleasure to watch. Joe Dakota was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his more devious side, as opposed to a physical threat, and he acts as a good foil for the athletic Mahoney. Barbara Lawrence and Luana Patten took on the two principal female roles, with the latter getting the juicier and more rewarding part. The supporting cast is pretty strong too, with Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef indulging in some comic antics early on to soften the harder image we frequently associate with both men. It’s nice too to see the prolific Anthony Caruso – one of those faces you’ll immediately recognize – in a fairly prominent role.

Joe Dakota was a Universal picture and can be tracked down on DVD easily enough. I have the Spanish release, which is fair but nothing special. A 1957 production would certainly have been shot widescreen but the DVD is clearly open matte – there’s lots of extraneous head room in the frame. Aside from that, the image is reasonable if a little soft. The Eastman color process could be problematic and was apt to fade over time but I can’t say it looks too bad in this case. The disc just offers the film and there are no extra features whatsoever. Generally, this is a good, solid western which presents a different riff on a similar scenario to Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s interesting to look at the contrasting approaches of these two films but I think it would be unfair to compare them directly. Joe Dakota stands up just fine on its own merits and is both entertaining and thoughtful.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in 1950s, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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Run for the Sun

Remakes frequently attract bad press, coming under attack for a lack of originality or the simple fact that they are unnecessary. This is so often the case that there’s a temptation to discount a remake out of hand, expecting it to conform to type. Still, blanket dismissals are rarely a good idea and can lead to ignoring worthwhile movies. So what makes a remake worthwhile? Well for me anyway, it ought to offer something different; if not, what’s the point. This is particularly true when we talk about a movie that’s generally regarded as a classic to begin. Richard Connell’s story The Most Dangerous Game had already been filmed very successfully back in 1932 so Run for the Sun (1956) needed to bring something new to the table if it were to be regarded as a valid piece of work. Personally, I feel Roy Boulting’s version of the tale rises to this challenge and succeeds in its own right.

Mike Latimer (Richard Widmark) is a famous author, a Hemingway-style figure who lived the adventures in far-flung locations he wrote about, but he’s dropped out of sight. When such people take it upon themselves to disappear there’s inevitably a desire to find out why. And so Katie Connors (Jane Greer), a magazine journalist specializing in celebrity profiles, heads to Mexico to see if she can track down the mysterious writer and get a line on what drove him to vanish. Well she finds him living a simple life, drinking, fishing and avoiding his typewriter at all costs. The first half of the movie concerns itself with Katie’s efforts to surreptitiously dig deeper, while Latimer finds himself gradually falling for her. Katie’s job involves a degree of dishonesty – Latimer is unaware she’s going to do a write-up on him – which doesn’t sit easily with her, and so she eventually loses all appetite for it. She takes the decision, abruptly, to leave, to head to Mexico City and let Latimer work out his personal issues in peace. And here’s where the film begins to get back to Connell’s premise. As Latimer and Katie set off in his light plane a piece of carelessness leads them unwittingly off course, way off course and running low on fuel over dense jungle. When they spot an isolated clearing, the one place they may be able to make an emergency landing, it looks like fortune is smiling on them. However, the aftermath plunges them into greater danger. The wrecked plane is discovered by Browne (Trevor Howard), an Englishman who has made his home far away from civilization. Browne claims that he and his associate Dr Van Anders (Peter van Eyck) are involved in archaeological research, but Latimer is suspicious: little details don’t quite add up and then there’s the pack of dobermans that roam the grounds, supposedly to keep the Indian laborers from running off and deserting. The fact is Browne and Van Anders are in this remote setting for an altogether more sinister reason, and they can’t afford to have their unexpected guests betray their presence.

The western is perhaps the most prominent example of a genre using landscape and locations as a character. The adventure picture must run it a close second though, and it’s especially noticeable when we look at the sub-genre of survival thrillers. Run for the Sun is heavily dependent on its Mexican locations throughout, highlighting the charming exoticism in the first act before venturing deeper into the wilderness later as events take a more dangerous turn. Roy Boulting really makes the most of the treacherous terrain Widmark and Greer must laboriously traverse and captures the grueling nature of a trek across broken ground and cloying swamps. Joseph LaShelle’s camera drinks in the primal beauty of the jungle and all its attendant perils. The latter half of the film is easily the strongest, helped not only by the locations but also drawing on the director’s skill at building tension and orchestrating the action sequences. Boulting also worked on the script, along with Dudley Nichols, and I like the way it alters or adds to Connell’s story while remaining respectful of the source. The updating to a post-war setting works well and is fairly credible – the reasoning behind the central hunt becomes arguably more rational, even if it does mean sacrificing some of the creepiness that characterized the 1932 version. Ultimately, the theme of man hunting man, and the portrayal of the wilderness as both friend and foe is still intact.

Run for the Sun came in the middle of a great sequence of films for Richard Widmark. He’d graduated from the villainous early roles and was very comfortable as a heroic lead. Even so, the edge that meant he was such a good bad guy was still there and it added something interesting to his heroes. Widmark had a prickly, querulous side that was never far below the surface and it gave another dimension to his characterizations, ensuring there was never any blandness on show. Jane Greer’s place in cinema history was guaranteed when she took on the part of one the greatest ever femme fatales in Tourneur’s Out of the Past. In truth, nothing else she did really came close to that iconic character. Nevertheless, I’ve always found her a welcome presence in any movie or TV show where she appeared. Run for the Sun gave her the opportunity to indulge in a bit of duplicity, although it’s of the mild variety, and she got the sense of internal conflict across quite successfully. Additionally, she coped well with the physical stuff that the long jungle pursuit required. The casting of Trevor Howard as the exiled Englishman was a fine choice. Howard had a quality of bruised refinement about him which was ideal for the part of a man forced by his own ambition and poor judgement to live a life far removed from what his upbringing had promised. Peter van Eyck too was excellent at playing the cool, calculating type, one whose outward polish masks a ruthless streak.

Run for the Sun is available in the US as a MOD DVD from MGM, and in the UK as a pressed disc from Optimum/Studio Canal. I’ve had the UK release for some years now (I think from reading around that the US MOD is an identical transfer) and it looks very good. The print states the film was shot in SuperScope 235 but the DVD presents the movie 2.00:1 – I don’t know how accurate that is but the compositions look fine and certainly don’t appear compromised by any cropping. The image is clean and sharp with good color reproduction. The disc is a very basic affair which offers no extra features whatsoever. The film itself is a neat and clever updating of the 1932 original, changing the locations and the motivations of the characters but maintaining the central thrust of the theme. It’s a good, solid adventure movie with strong performances from the four principals, and some stunning location photography. If I have any major criticism, it’s that the first half takes longer than it needs to set up the story. Having said that, the latter half picks up the pace impressively and more than compensates for any earlier slackness. It’s a film I enjoy revisiting periodically and I recommend checking it out.

 

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in 1950s, Richard Widmark

 

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Venetian Bird

Post-war Europe made for an ideal backdrop for tales of intrigue and mystery. Aside from the fact the Cold War was never far from the minds of contemporary audiences, the natural chaos present in a continent still in the process of healing the wounds left by six years of all-out conflict created the conditions and circumstances which lent themselves to the telling of such stories. There are numerous examples of movies exploiting this turbulent and uncertain period, some of which – The Third Man, The Man Between, Diplomatic Courier, The House of the Seven Hawks, Berlin Express – I’ve already featured on this site. Ralph Thomas’ Venetian Bird (1952) is another which fits into this grouping, mixing in the themes of political chicanery and fake identities.

Confusion frequently follows in the aftermath of war; people get lost and people disappear. Many are forgotten, existing only as memories buried beneath the rubble, but not all of them. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) arrives in Venice in search of a man who seems to have vanished. Mercer is a detective hired by a grateful American who wants to reward an Italian for his bravery during the war. The man he’s seeking is Renzo Uccello, but it’s not just a matter of looking in the phone book. Uccello is an elusive figure, and Mercer’s efforts to track him down draws the interest of others. He’s followed to his initial point of contact and the man he hopes will offer him a lead is first assaulted and later murdered. Thus it’s clear enough that certain parties don’t want the whereabouts of Uccello known. The question of course is why. Uccello isn’t being sought for any crime, quite the opposite. Mercer’s quest means delving into the past and Uccello’s activities with the partisans of the Italian resistance. As he digs deeper he’s encouraged to believe the object of his search has died, but Mercer remains unconvinced. Not only are there clues suggesting Uccello is very much alive, but there are also indications that he’s involved in something dark and criminal. The closer Mercer comes to the truth, the greater the danger as he is gradually pulled into the murky and volatile world of post-war Italian politics. Before long he finds his role switched from that of hunter to hunted. What started off as a routine investigation develops into conspiracy, assassination and a man hunt taking in the alleys, canal and rooftops of Venice.

Films which use political machinations as their basis can flounder under the weight of their own self-importance if they’re not careful. Mercifully, Venetian Bird keeps the political aspect firmly in the background, the motivations and allegiances are blurred and of importance to the characters rather than the audience. Victor Canning’s script, adapted from his own novel, remains focused on Mercer and his search for Uccello. There’s always the sense that powerful men are manipulating the events but the viewers only concern is how this affects the protagonist, not their wider impact. The pace does flag a little here and there, a little trimming of the script wouldn’t have hurt, but director Ralph Thomas and cameraman Ernest Steward create some nice noir-style visuals and draw as much suspense as possible from the tale – the climactic chase across the rooftops is especially well filmed and quite exciting. The location shooting in Venice is a big plus and adds a touch of realism to the pulpy story. The movie is also notable for its score, provided by the highly regarded Nino Rota.

Richard Todd was in the middle of a fairly strong run of movies when he made Venetian Bird – he’d recently come off The Hasty Heart and Stage Fright, and The Dam Busters was still ahead of him. As Mercer he was a solid leading presence, although I’m not sure he really got across the ambiguity of the character – Mercer is referred to as having taken part in certain illicit activities in Italy in earlier times. Still, he was personable enough and handled the physical stuff satisfactorily. Eva Bartok’s biggest Hollywood role was in Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, made the same year, but I’m most familiar with her from a handful of British pictures. She had a fairly substantial part in this film as the principal link to Uccello, and does quite well – we’re never 100% sure where her loyalties lie and she managed the internal conflict of the character successfully enough. George Coulouris was always a welcome face in the movies and is good value as the local police chief. The other notable roles are filled, with variable success, by John Gregson and Sid James. You wouldn’t automatically think of either of these men as first choices to play Italians, particularly if you’re familiar with their body of work in British cinema. As such, it’s hard not to be distracted by their presence. In support, there are good turns from Walter Rilla (father of director Wolf Rilla) and Margot Grahame.

Venetian Bird was a Rank production and wasn’t the easiest movie to see for a long time. I used to own a promo DVD which came free with a Greek newspaper some years ago but the transfer was a poor one with a pronounced green hue. It’s recently been released in the UK by Strawberry Media (AKA Spirit) who distribute certain Rank/ITV titles. The disc is a vanilla affair containing just the movie and no extras whatsoever. The print used is in pretty good condition with no serious damage on view. Contrast seems to be set at the right level with nighttime scenes looking suitably inky and atmospheric. It has to be said that this company isn’t always the most reliable when it comes to aspect ratios but that’s obviously not an issue here with a 1952 movie. I’m not going to try making a case that Venetian Bird is a top British thriller but it is a solid and entertaining mid-range effort that’s professionally made. Overall, I think it’s an unpretentious film which flirts round the boundaries of noir. I always enjoy British movies of this period and the location shooting is a nice bonus. While it’s no lost classic, it’s worth checking out and it’s not at all a bad way to pass an hour and a half.

 

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Richard Todd

 

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