PRINT THE LEGEND: BARBAROSA (1982)

September 6, 2016

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In 1982 Universal Pictures quietly dumped the Willie Nelson-Gary Busey Western Barbarosa into a few drive-ins. After low turn-out, they pulled it from distribution. There may have been more critics to see it than paying customers, and it was a strong notice from Gene Siskel condemning the studio’s treatment of the film that led it back into theaters six months later. The damage was done however, and Barbarosa sunk from view despite accruing a string of rave reviews (from Pauline Kael, Janet Maslin, and Dave Kehr, among others). A new DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing gives viewers another chance to see this engagingly shambolic revenge film, the first American feature directed by Aussie Fred Schepisi (Roxanne).

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Barbarosa was the first script that photographer, publisher, and poker player William D. Wittliff (who later adapted Lonesome Dove and The Perfect Storm) ever wrote, and per Texas Monthly, “he had never seen a screenplay when he sat down in the early seventies to start writing a movie based on a story his grandfather had told him years before. He didn’t use an outline; he simply wrote down whatever came to him next. Within a month he had a screenplay.” He had been shopping it around for years to no avail, though he had sold others, including one for the TV movie Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), starring Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson had seen Thaddeus and liked it, and it got him on the team of writers for Honeysuckle Rose (which Jerry Schatzberg directed in 1980). So when Barbarosa finally passed Nelson’s desk it didn’t take two pages before he said, “I want to be this guy.” Barbarosa went into production in September of 1980, with Nelson and Gary Busey as co-producers.

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“This guy” is the legend imparted by Wittliff’s grandfather,  an infamous rogue named Barbarosa (Nelson), a thief who falls in love with and marries a Mexican girl, Josephina Zavala (Isela Vega). The Zavala family rejects their union and turns on Barbarosa to drive him away, and in retaliation he shoots off the leg of the Zavala patriarch Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland). And so for decades the Zavala family sends their sons into the Texas wilderness to find and kill Barbarosa, who only seems to grow more elusive. The thief gains a running partner in Karl (Gary Busey), a goofy corn-fed kid on the run from his own unfortunate family feud. But Barbarosa and Karl are not vengeful men, instead revering and loving their implacable opponents. They both dearly wish the could return to their homesteads, but instead are locked in battle against them. As indicated by the PG rating, they try to avoid violence, and the movie proceeds on the avoidance of conflict, a series of comic-pacifist vignettes. They cannot put off their foes forever, though, and Barbarosa’s legacy will be determined by the outcome.

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Though Nelson is not a magnetic screen performer, his vaporousness is appropriate for a character more myth than man. Plus Gary Busey provides all the earthiness you could ask for – he gets great mileage out of his buck teeth and off-kilter waddle. The digressiveness of the film is one of its strengths, and for most of its running time is a pleasant hangout film of Nelson and Busey ribbing each other in the wilds of Texas. But then their respective blood feuds slowly constrict around them, ending their idylls. The Scorpion DVD/BD provides an extensive interview with Schepisi, who laments that Wittliff’s original script was not entirely retained – many sections relating to Barbarosa’s myth were cut out. But there is one pivotal scene that is remains, when Don Braulio gathers his clan around him to tell the tale of Barbarosa, as if reading from scripture. He recounts Barbarosa’s Judas act, marrying Josephina without his consent, and a litany of other crimes, in front of the next generation of Zavalas, who lap up his speech in sweaty close-ups. Don Braulio is perpetrating one myth, while Barbarosa sustains another by staying alive and pulling off extraordinary heists, as if he were a ghost. One harrowing robbery has the great thief nearly buried alive before sneaking away with bags of gold. For the Zavalas he is the devil, while for the rest of the local villagers he is something of a folk hero, one they sing songs about with awe.The real Barbarosa is neither, of course, but he successfully uses that fear to stun his robbery victims. He is aiming to raise enough money to spirit Josephine away from the Zavalas, to a place where neither of them have to work again.

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Fred Schepisi and his DP Ian Baker alternate wide shots and inserts, conveying both the grandeur and the banality of life on the range. The opening credits fade in and out over a time lapse shot of a sunrise over Big Bend National Park in Texas, a picture postcard image. But the film begins with a montage of pricker bushes, close-ups of their blades gashing poor Karl as he bops his way to nowhere in particular. There is a constant shift from micro to macro which the film sustains throughout, from the brute dialogue that surrounds Barbarosa’s life to the ballad the villagers want him to be.

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It is no surprise that this odd, nonviolent Western befuddled the studio. It didn’t help matters when the production company, Marble Arch, sold the rights to Associated Film Distribution, which had an output deal with Universal. Their head of publicity said, “I know we’re going to come out looking like heavies on this, but you test the market for the film’s potential and we found Barbarosa had a lot going against it. It was a Western, and Westerns are the kiss of death. There was no interest, no buzz.”

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There wasn’t any buzz until the reviews starting rolling in, and Gene Siskel praised the film but complained that he had to drive 100 miles away to a drive-in to see it. After Universal’s reluctant expansion to NYC and Los Angeles, the New York Times called it “the best Western in a long while”, Pauline Kael called it “the most spirited and satisfying Western epic in several years – it may seem a little loose at first, but it gets better as it goes along and you get the fresh, crazy hang of it”, and Dave Kehr put it on his top ten list for 1982. It was still not enough to make the film turn a profit, or create much of an audience. The fine-looking DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion may finally give Barbarosa the audience it deserves.

TWILIGHT OF THE B-WESTERN: WHITE HORSE, BLACK HAT

November 24, 2015

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C. Jack Lewis saw a lot in his 84 years. A Marine Corps veteran of three wars, he was also a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo” who spent decades on the fringes of Hollywood. A fan of Westerns since childhood, he broke into screenwriting just as the B-Western business was collapsing, thanks to the arrival of television. He managed to sell a few scripts for budget stars like Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown, but would spend the majority his career as a journalist for horse and army publications (he was the founder of Gun World magazine). During that time he met all of the stars of his youth as they sank down the Hollywood food chain, making a living as extras on TV Westerns or as special attractions at traveling circuses. In his affecting memoir White Horse, Black Hat, published in 2002 by Scarecrow Press, Lewis wrote thumbnail portraits of these faded stars, a collection which captured the end of the B industry and the itinerant careers of the low-budget cowboy.

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Jack Lewis was born to a military family in 1924 Iowa. His father was an officer in the Army cavalry, and Lewis followed suit by enlisting with the Marines when he turned 18,. He saw action in WWII as a machine gunner, received a Bronze Star for bravery as a combat correspondent during the Korean War, and served as a Reserve Major for the Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam. Throughout his service he was thinking up scenarios, specifically for the B-Westerns starring the likes of Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Hoot Gibson that dominated his youth. Lewis writes that “from the age of twelve, I insisted I was going to be in the Western movie business. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer and my old man just wanted me to seem reasonably sane.” As a kid he wrote a fifty page script for The Range Busters series and sent it to the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. It was rejected for being too expensive to produce. This would be an early lesson in economics that Lewis would encounter throughout his career, as he struggled to get his work up on screen.

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In 1945 Lewis was training in Pendleton, California for an invasion of Japan, but on his off days would hitchhike to Hollywood and talk his way onto studio lots. One day he weaseled his way into Eagle-Lion, and managed to speak to producer Robert Tansey and a young actor named Al LaRue. A few years later Al would be rebranded as “Lash” LaRue, for whom Lewis would write one of his first screenplays, King of the Bullwhip, It was produced and directed by Ron Ormond for his Western Adventures Pictures, Inc. for  $40,000. Lewis describes the pre-production:

I went to the Hollywood library and checked out a book on screenwriting. A week later, I was in Ormond’s office in the San Fernando valley, script in hand. “This isn’t bad, he said. “I think we can use it, but have you ever seen Lash act?” I admitted I had. “Then take it back and cut all of his lines to ten words or less. Otherwise we’ll never get the picture made!”

Ormond would become one of Lewis’ close friends and collaborators as they tried to make a living on the edges of Hollywood. LaRue, according to Lewis, became another sad story, getting fired from the Wyatt Earp TV show before moving on to appearances at country fairs and rodeos. He eventually hit the bottle, and “at one point, when a police officer drew a pistol on him, the old actor challenged him to fire and ‘put me out of my misery.’” This story is representative of the characters Lewis meets throughout the book, men discarded by Hollywood and clinging to the embers of their fame. What makes White Hat, Black Hat so engaging is the complete lack of judgment. Lewis is very upfront about his own troubles with alcoholism, and treats each story with a matter-of-fact distance. And LaRue’s story does not end in the gutter. He dried himself out , became an evangelist named “Doctor Lash”, and bounced around North Carolina and Los Angeles. Lewis stayed in touch until his last days, whereupon his ashes were lost by the cemetery. “I’m certain he has to be laughing like hell at the final excitement he created!”

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Death is everywhere in this book, there are more heart-attacks per page than the New York Times’ collected obituaries. Comedian Al St. John was in a motel room in Vidalia, Georgia eating grapes when “he just fell over and he was dead.” Charles King had started as an extra in the silents, and ended his life and career the same way, working background for TV’s Gunsmoke. The legend goes that he had just finished playing a corpse on-screen when he suffered the heart attack that killed him.  Tex Ritter had a heart attack in a Nashville jail cell, visiting a friend. Regarding Ritter, Lewis writes: “This was a man I wish I had known better.” The whole book is an attempt to resurrect an era from memory, and Lewis is open and regretful for the gaps therein. Of flight instructor and bit actor Dennis Moore he writes: “I felt a little relieved to find that I was not the only one who never really knew Dennis Moore, but it’s really too bad. No one should have to be that much of a loner.”

Lewis is the Forrest Gump of B-Westerns, seeming to have encountered every star who passed through Poverty Row.  Even if he met someone in passing, or in Tom Mix’s case, talked to his ghost, he makes room for them in this generous book. An empathetic collector of characters, White Horse and Black Hat opens up a lost world depicting the twilight of the B movie, and the real human consequences of its loss. The majority of people mentioned by Lewis will never have monographs written about them, but here their art, their lives and their deaths are made to matter. “They don’t really forget you in Hollywood”, according to prolific B-Western actor Frank Yaconelli, “They just park you beside the road so you can watch as the rest of them marched on.” With this book, Lewis looks to those left behind, and gives them their final fade-out.

UGLY AMERICAN: RUN OF THE ARROW (1957)

July 28, 2015

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In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.

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In the June 24, 1956 issue of the New York Times, Sam Fuller talked to Oscar Godbout about his new production, then called “Arrow”:  “This is a post-Civil War frontier story that will contain, according to Mr. Fuller, parallels between that period and the difficult social transition now roiling the South. He will be disappointed if it does not provide thinking material for the intellectually committed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.” From the beginning Fuller conceived it as a story about Southern Whites, and their violent reactions against threats to their power. In the film O’Meara fires the last shot of the Civil War, which just misses the heart of Union Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker). While his family encourages him to return home and accept the Confederate defeat, O’Meara wants to fight on. He figures the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so he heads West into Sioux territory, where he befriends the returning Indian scout Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen). They are captured by renegade Sioux warrior Crazy Wolf (H.M. Wynant), and in order to avoid execution, agree to try the (invented by Fuller) “Run of the Arrow”. It is a barefooted chase where they receive a head start based on the distance of an arrow shot by the pursuers.  O’Meara survives through the help of Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, who’s voice is dubbed by Angie Dickinson), the inevitably beautiful young Sioux who falls in love with him. For surviving the run, he is granted safe passage by Chief Blue Buffalo (a bronzed Charles Bronson), but instead O’Meara chooses to stay with the tribe and become a member of their society, taking Yellow Moccasin as his wife and the orphaned mute kid Silent Tongue (Billy Miller) as his son. But the U.S. Army wants to build a fort in Sioux territory, and they send Lt. Driscoll to protect U.S. interests. O’Meara is sent as the Sioux emissary, to guide Driscoll to build on neutral ground. But Driscoll is an irritable, racist warmonger, and rattles his saber until he gets the fight he was begging for.

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The head of RKO, William Dozier, was an admirer of Fuller’s newspaper drama Park Row, and gave him the green light to make the project. These were the last days of RKO as a producer/distributor, and by the time Run of the Arrow was ready for release, it was Universal-International that handled it. While Fuller had control of his script, he needed Dozier’s approval for the cast. They had a stark disagreement for the lead actor. Dozier wanted Gary Cooper, while Fuller argued strenuously for the young method actor Rod Steiger. Steiger had made an impression in supporting roles in On the Waterfront and a slew of television dramas, and Fuller felt he was perfect for the part: “I need the opposite of Cooper. The character’s hateful, a misfit. I want this newcomer, Steiger. He’s got a sour face and a fat ass. He’ll look awkward, especially when he climbs up on a horse. See, my yarn’s about a sore loser, not a gallant hero” (from Fuller’s autobio, A Third Face). Dozier caved, and Steiger got his first starring role. Fuller had a tense relationship with his leading man, who, the director noted, “tended to overact”.  And one’s opinion of the film can hinge on the reaction Steiger’s performance, which is mannered, mumbly and admirably off-putting.

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One of the more remarkable sequences occurs about an hour in, a conversation between O’Meara and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), who is leading the Army engineers to build a new fort. In an unbroken shot that lasts 4 minutes and 25 seconds, DP Joseph Biroc captures a relatively simple two-shot in which the formerly warring duo discusses the future of their country. It begins with everyday concerns, Clark complaining about his saddle, and tracks a few feet to a rest area with covered wagons and a table. “You’re not the only Johnny Reb fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know. Some of them went down to South America.”, Clark says, as he stares down into a few coffee mugs, tossing the old brew out of a few before he finds a clean one. He sits at the right edge of the frame. O’Meara standing off to the left,  claims that this part of the country isn’t part of the United States, and sits down with the words, “we had a right to fight for our rights”, while accepting a cup from Clark. The camera pushes in as O’Meara inveighs “The Union be damned, the Union be damned…we don’t like you makin’ up laws…We’ll go down like a free, White, Christian country.” Clark laughs, “Free, white and Christian, eh. Burning crosses and hiding under pillowcases and terrorizing families. Free, white and Christian!” Brian Keith delivers that devastating line with a smirk, eyeing Steiger to his right. Steiger clenches up, raises both hands to his cup and says, as if a chastened child, “I don’t know anything about that, sir.” Clark sarcastically responds with, “It’s always the other guy.”

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The word “black” or “slave” is never uttered, but the righteous fire briefly dims in Steiger’s eyes, quickly acknowledging and then repressing what underlies a white Southerner’s freedom in post-Civil War America. Or a Northerner’s, for that matter. Captain Clark doesn’t last long, and Lt. Driscoll takes over. If Clark is dreaming of a better Union, Driscoll dreams only of colonization and subjugation. Every power structure in the film is split, internal battles spilling out into exterior ones. The Sioux are riven with dissension between the pragmatic Red Cloud (Frank de Kova) and the warlike Crazy Wolf, and the South has O’Meara’s mother preaching reconciliation with the North, while her son is a staunch separatist. These coalitions are repeatedly jumbled until alliances become meaningless, and all that’s left are the hatreds left undissipated by years of war and bloodshed. Fuller ends the film with the on-screen exhortation, “The end of this story can only be written by you!” Looking back at race relations in the United States in the 58 years since the film’s release, it now reads like an accusation.

OZARK ELEGY: THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941)

June 16, 2015

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After the success of Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne was in demand. While still under contract to poverty row Republic Studios, he was lent out to United Artists for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Universal for Seven Sinners (1940) and Paramount for The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). While still making interesting features for Republic, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he was positioning himself as prestige-picture ready. Shepherd of the Hills was a prime property adapted from a million-book-selling novel, to be shot in Technicolor by director Henry Hathaway and DPs Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene. Hathaway was an advocate for location shooting, and had already filmed Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) in Technicolor at Big Bear Lake in California, where Shepherd would end up as well. The ongoing “Glorious Technicolor” series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening both Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills as part of its sixty feature extravaganza. Shepherd is a delicate, strange and mournful drama of the breakdown of an insular Ozark Mountain community, one trapped in a cycle of intergenerational violence. John Wayne stars alongside his childhood Western hero Harry Carey, and the film acts as a series of lessons from Carey to Wayne, on and off screen.

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The Shepherd of the Hills is based on the 1907 novel of the same name by Harold Bell Wright, whose book was so popular he gets top billing  on the theatrical poster (it was previously adapted to film in 1919 and 1928, and would be again in 1964) . The movie plots out the alignments and resentments of a small Ozark community. The Matthews family is a dark cloud, with matriarch Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi) spewing the thunder. Bereft since the death of her sister Sarah, she advocates retribution for any slight, a paranoiac shutting her family up behind their cabin doors guarded by a slobbering hound.  The sunshine is let in by the Lanes, Jim (Tom Fadden) and his daughter Sammy (Betty Field), peacemakers who bridge the at times warring town. Sammy is close to Matt Matthews (John Wayne), Sarah’s son and Mollie’s nephew, and his natural gregariousness seems like an opening that could break the Matthews gloom. A stranger, Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), arrives offering to buy part of the Matthews land, a plot nicknamed “Moaning Meadows” that it is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Sarah, or at least of the suffocating atmosphere left by her death. Matt is incensed that an outsider might buy this living memorial to his mother, but Daniel’s kindness, which extends to paying for medical bills to restore sight to Granny Becky (Marjorie Main), kindles a tentative friendship. But Daniel is hiding his true identity, the truth of which will force Matt to decide whether to embrace his family’s history of violence, or chart a new path.

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Hathaway keeps the color palette muted, using earth tones more  than the succulent primary colors associated with Technicolor. The effect is in keeping with the characters. These are not chest-pounding pioneers welcoming civilization to the West, but a truculent group of recluses clinging to their allotted land. They are so isolated they speak in their own backwoods biblical poetry. Jack Pendarvis transcribed Sammy’s monologue about “Moaning Meadow”: “It’s where the haint comes from: frogs as quiet as grave-rocks, light coming from nowhere, and the trees don’t rustle, and the flowers grow big but they don’t have pretty smells.” Betty Field delivers these lines with wide-eyed sincerity, without a hint of irony that would have immediately turned the film into Southern kitsch. Instead it tumbles out as cockeyed truths, the town a bunch of inadvertent animists, worshipful, wary and grateful for each blade of grass that surrounds them.

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Folks there talk to animals more often than each other, as one summery evening Matt addresses an owl with, “Evening, brother!” Wayne prefers to sidle up to the knotty dialogue, pushing out the lines towards the end of his breath. When he goes fishing with Harry Carey towards the end of the film, his lines are barely audible, as he fidgets with his rod, dips his head, seemingly wanting to disappear into the dirt. He nearly exhales the lines,  “I got no right to love or marry. I gotta forget thinking about Sammy.” John Ford said he didn’t know the son of a bitch could act after watching Howard Hawks’ Red River, but Wayne was already an actor of great subtlety in 1941. This was during a turbulent moment in his personal life, as he was in the middle of an extra-marital affair with Marlene Dietrich, who he had met on the set of Seven Sinners, which wrapped just before Shepherd. Dietrich, after seeing Wayne at the Universal cafeteria, reportedly told director Tay Garnett, “Daddy, buy me that.”

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Everything is ritualized in Shepherd of the Hills. Mollie atones for her sins by turning her home into a funeral pyre. And when Daniel reveals his true identity, Matt immediately enters into Matthews manner of vengeance. He silently accepts his role in the Matthews narrative, sullenly grabbing his rifle and stomping to Daniel’s cabin, ready to murder for reasons he doesn’t even believe in. It is in his blood. The showdown is set up in long shots of Wayne stalking forward, emerging from the landscape. His arrival is scored to an ominous two note cello phrase by composer Gerard Carbonara that today sounds like the Jaws theme, appropriate for the carnage that Matt wishes to inflict. But Daniel is wiser and quicker with a gun, wounding Matt as an act of mercy. It is a lesson in failure. Matt has to chip away at his masculine pride to accept his loss, and that losing that pride may allow him to love Sammy. Losing that masculinity may allow him to become a man. On-screen and off, John Wayne was learning from Harry Carey. Harry and his wife Olive treated Wayne like family, and, as Scott Eyman writes in John Wayne: The Life and Legend, “offered something approaching unconditional love.” Wayne remembered:

[Carey] had a style of acting that has now become the way of acting in our business. He tried to play it down a little and be kind of natural. You have to keep things going and try and get your personality through, which is what Harry could do. I loved him, because I’d known him for years, and I was a young man and he was an older man. Anyway, he and his wife were around…and I was talking about how I wanted to play every kind of part. the big hero that did everything, the heavies, everything. I wanted to play it all. And Ollie Carey said, “Well, you big dumb  son of a bitch.” I said, what’s the matter?” She said, “Do you really mean what you said? That you’d like to play every kind of part? You think you’re Sydney Carton?” And I said , “Yes, I’d like to get the chance to play all those things.” And Harry was just standing there, and she said, “Do you want Harry Carey to be any different than he is in the movies?” And I said, “No, of course not.” And she said, “The American public [have] decided to take you into their homes and their hearts. They like the man they see. Forget all this other junk. Be like Harry.” That was something I never forgot.

UNINVITED GUEST: STRANGER AT MY DOOR (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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The film opens with a close-up of a bank window getting smashed. Clay Anderson and his gang knock over the establishment, and instead of a clean getaway, try to burn the whole town down, dragging a flaming tumbleweed behind them.  During his escape Clay’s horse twists an ankle. He wanders onto Hollis Jarret’s farm, greeted by a church under construction,  Jarret’s young second wife Peg slicing watermelon, and  freckle-faced kid Dodie gabbing nonstop about horses.  It is Americana kitsch, which soon proves to be nothing more than a veneer which Clay begins to pick away at. Pretending to be a friendly traveler, Peg agrees to house him in their barn until his horse gets well. Clay begins needling her, asking if she was the preacher’s daughter, and upon finding her true role, advances upon her with a leer. He insists that she doesn’t belong on this isolated spread, alone, rotting on the vine. You can see the flickerings of doubt on Patricia Medina’s face. She is revolted by Clay’s aggression, but the truth of his statements are as plain as day. She is too young, Hollis is too old. She is not a devout believer, while Hollis practices a severe, self-abnegating Christianity. Clay’s poison begins its work. The Anderson character was originally intended to be Jesse James, but was changed, according to Richard Maurice Hurst in Republic Studios, due to “legal complications”. Skip Homeier was a child actor (billed as “Skippy”), and he still looks like he is outgrowing his adolescence here, now a gawky 26-year-old trying to appear menacing.

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It is this youthfulness that attracts Hollis. When the preacher returns home from a trip to town and sees Clay out by the barn, he immediately knows this is a lost soul from the robbery. Instead of turning him in or urging Clay to leave, he insists that he stay. Hollis has taken a passage from St. Luke’s to heart:  “There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” Hollis accepts Clay’s appearance as a challenge from God – to lead this lost lamb back to the flock, regardless of the consequences. The longer Clay stays, the more aggressive his pursuit of Peg becomes, and his paranoia at being caught has him pulling his pistol on every random visitor. It is as if Hollis has invited Death himself into his home. Peg becomes disgusted with all of them – at Clay’s boorishness and Hollis’ self-destructiveness, pushing herself towards the edges of the frame. But the men proceed onward to the inevitable violent endpoint.

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Clay deflects all of Hollis’ attempts at preaching, treating his elder with contemptuous scorn. After another entreaty to turn to Christ, Clay ripostes, “”For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” Hollis, unperturbed, sees this as instruction. He purchases an unruly wild horse from a reluctant Slim Pickens, and believes that if this horse can be broken, so can Clay. Hollis names the horse “Lucifer” (played by Rex the Wonder Horse), and the beast lives up to the appellation. Dodie sneaks into the stable in an attempt to calm Lucifer himself, but instead the animal goes wild, bucking and attacking with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of a slasher movie monster. When Dodie slides underneath a cart, Lucifer goes down on his knees and tries to attack him with his teeth. It is the most terrifying equine performance in cinema history. Witney recalls the performance in a video from the 1994 Knoxville Film Festival:

 “Rex, King of the Wild Horses. This was one of the most animated, wildest horse you’ve ever seen. He had come out of a boys’ school in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trainer discovered that this horse would charge him when he cracked a whip. And I mean charge him. And you got out of the way. They were crying on the set, “Rex is loose!” I saw him chase a little actor under a car, get down on his knees and try to get to him with his teeth [laughter]. It wasn’t funny. Being a horseman myself I really appreciated this horse. There will never be another horse with the animation of this big bay, a thoroughbred Morgan horse, strangely enough.

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Witney spent many of his early years at Fort Sam Houston with his uncle, which is where he learned to ride and jump horses, a passion and a skill he would carry with him the rest of his life. This led him to become friends with many of the stunt riders he worked with over the years, including the legendary Yakima Canutt. But for Witney, “the finest horseman ever to step on a horse bar none” was Joe Yrigoyen, who came up making pennies in Mascot Pictures serials, stayed on when the studio merged into Republic Pictures, and continued taking celluloid tumbles into the late 1970s, in Blazing Saddles and The Prisoner of Zenda. He was the stuntman for Clay Anderson in Stranger at my Door, given the task of calming down Rex during the freak-out sequence. In an effort to distract the horse from Dodie, Clay leaps onto Rex’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. It is a supremely athletic and dangerous feat, as Rex swings Joe around on his neck like a reverse rodeo rider.

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The white-knuckle sequence proves Clay’s humanity, as he leaps in to protect Dodie. So Hollis’ plan is a success, though only after Dodie and Peg were almost stomped to death. For Peg this proves to be the end of her last frayed nerve. With the entirety of the film taking place on the Jarret farm set, there are a limited number of setups that Witney can use to generate tension. So instead of repeating another image of the stable, he flicks off the studio lights. While the rest of the family is asleep, Peg snags a shotgun and stalks towards the stable. She levels the sights onto Lucifer, ready to blast it into Kingdom Come, and her relationship with Hollis along with it. Poised there in low light, the gun raised, and the industrial fans tousling her hair, she is the closest thing the film has to an action hero. But she doesn’t have the nerve to take a life, and there is a storm brewing. The local sheriff stumbles into view, and the final shootout occurs in flames, the farm now an adjunct of hell. In the light of day the family is reconstituted, and Clay has discovered a measure of peace. But the question of whether all of the blood and thunder has been worth it is a question between Hollis and his God.

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For a cheap programmer, the film was enthusiastically received, with Variety calling it an “exceptionally well-done family trade offering”, and The Hollywood Reporter praising it as containing “a theme that lifts it well out of the ordinary class and into a niche where it deserves to be considered with very special interest.” Witney always remembered it fondly, probably because of the positive critical response, not something he was used to in that period in his career. Though he always had a high reputation among serial aficionados and Western obsessives, his reputation never grew beyond these cliques. His most famous fan is Quentin Tarantino, who waxed poetic about him in a 2000 New York Times article (I made my much lower profile case at Moving Image Source a few years back).  Stranger at my Door is the first of Witney’s films to be released on Blu-ray, and it might be the last. But even if he never garners a retrospective or a door-stopping biography, his influence reverberates whenever a horse bucks a rider or a punch is thrown on screen.

COWGIRL DIPLOMACY: WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953)

January 27, 2015

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

Allan Dwan signed with Republic Pictures in 1945, “set to receive $1,000 a week for 52 weeks per year, plus five percent of the net profits of all his pictures” (Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios). In 1935 Herbert Yates merged six Poverty Row studios under the umbrella of Republic Pictures, who quickly became known for their adventure serials and B-Westerns starring John Wayne. They were built for quick turnarounds and quicker profits. Though their bread was buttered in programmers, they had four categories of productions, as described in Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors:  Jubilee (“Westerns with a seven day schedule and $30,000 budget (later $50,000)”), Anniversary (“Westerns, action/adventure and musicals with a two-week schedule and budgets up to $120,000 (later $200,000)”), Deluxe (varied subjects with 22 day schedules and $300,000 budgets (later 500,000)), and Premiere (one month shooting schedules and million-dollar budgets). Dwan worked in all of these categories, in every genre. His first project for Republic was the wartime screwball comedy Rendezvous with Annie (1945), and went on to do musicals (Calendar Girl), “frontier operettas” (Northwest Outpost), lyrical children’s films (Driftwood), and Depression-era comic fables (The Inside Story). His received his largest budget for the “Premiere” production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), but would never get that level of investment again.

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Woman They Almost Lynched was probably an “Anniversary” production, clocking in at 90 minutes though having few sets – the whole film takes place on one Western backlot street. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Michael Fessier, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Steve Fisher adapted the story into a screenplay, though Dwan didn’t remember him fondly. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Dwan if the writer understood that the film would be played as a parody, he responded, “I don’t think he’d know now that it wasn’t serious. If the actors said the words, it was OK with him.” The words tell the story of Border City, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border during the Civil War. Mayor Delilah Courtney (Nina Varela) has declared that the town is neutral, and executes by hanging anyone that stirred up Union or Confederate sentiment. When the mercenary band of Quantrill’s Raiders roll into town, the Mayor puts them on notice that they have to leave in 24 hours. Arriving at the same time as William Quantrill (Brian Donlevy) is Sally Maris (Joan Leslie), a city girl traveling to meet her saloon owner brother. When her brother gets shot and killed, Sally is burdened by his debts, and has to run the saloon herself instead of being thrown into debtors’ prison. Sally falls for a dashing Confederate spy named Lance Horton (John Lund), who wants to keep the renegade Quantrill from accessing the town’s lead mines. All the while Quantrill’s cantankerous wife Kate (Audrey Totter) has an obsession with knocking off Sally. Kate was once the fiance to Sally’s brother, and Kate now wishes to wipe that history off the face of the Earth. Dwan deftly balances these overlapping narratives in a film that hurtles along with no wasted motions.2117193ejzrm4v46ptdn.th

The heart of the film lies in the relationship that forges between Kate, Sally and the saloon girls (one of whom is played by Ann Savage of Detour, her last screen role for 30+ years). Each has learned how to live in the world of men, adapted to it and suffered for it. In Woman They Almost Lynched, Sally represents the promise of an independent, distinctly feminine future. Both Mayor Courtney and Kate have carved out their islands of independence by acting more masculine, by constantly indulging their capacities for violence. The Mayor lynches people with little provocation, and littler evidence. Coded as a “spinster”, she uses violence as sexual release by other means. Kate is a fount of uncontrollable rage, who gets her joy by rendering William Quantrill powerless. When she starts on one of her hate binges, all Quantrill can do is stand back and shrug his shoulders. In a remarkable transmutation, Kate is even able to turn the nightclub song into an act of violence, attacking Sally’s brothers with one of their old favorite tunes. Audrey Totter is a force of nature, an open nerve ready to lash out at everyone around her. She is explosive, abusive, and hilarious. Joan Leslie said that, “Audrey later told me she played the whole thing for farce, while I was doing it straight.” This dynamic is evident in their famous bar brawl, in which Totter badgers her into a scrap. Leslie is earnest, the fear and regret rippling across her face, while Totter’s expression is locked into a snarl. Leslie again:  “I had a terrible time with it. I was supposed to hit Audrey, and I just couldn’t. Not hit her on the face! Director Allan Dwan tried to explain, and Audrey told me to go on and do it. Somehow it did get done, but it was a very difficult thing to do.” This is a perfect pairing for Dwan – Leslie playing it straight and sincere while Totter is the clown, destabilizing things from within.

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Jeanine Basinger described their relationship as “fighting over the issue of what it means to be a woman. In fact, the whole movie is structured on this very issue.” After Sally bests Kate in a quickdraw in the middle of the street, she yells, “Why don’t you try acting like a woman? You were born a woman but look at you. A bloodthirsty female. A disgrace to all women.” Instead of being content with being as good as a man, Sally insists on the integrity of being a woman – and urges Kate to live up to that standard. And the feminine code of the film is not one of sensitivity and lace, but of assertiveness and principle. Leslie has the grace and goodness of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. In the most moving moment of the film, Kate gives a monologue about her years of violent marriage: “At first I fought him. I tried every way I knew to try and escape. And later on I…I became just like him. Passion for vengeance and hatred. No trust in anybody, suspicious of everything. And all the time, all the time it was Quantrill I really hated for what he had done to me. So I took my rage out on the world. All hail the awakening of the ex-Kitty McCoy, cafe singer. Two years too late. Two centuries and a dead heart too late. Why don’t human beings ever learn?”

TALL IN THE SADDLE: CLINT WALKER IN FORT DOBBS AND YELLOWSTONE KELLY

July 8, 2014

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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Kennedy wrote the stories for the Budd Boetticher-Rudolph Scott “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, in which the majority of violence is psychological. Fort Dobbs retains the spirit of those Boetticher films, a three-person battle of resentments between Walker, Brian Keith and Virginia Mayo. The ever-reliable Gordon Douglas keeps the focal points of the triangle shifting in the frame, and makes the dramatic Utah desert-scape constrict around its characters. The near wordless opener depicts Gar Davis (Clint Walker) storming into a house to kill a man offscreen. Douglas keeps the camera outside, the only indication of violence a broken window and the sound of a gunshot. Gar then gallops away from the posse forming to catch him, and dresses a corpse in his clothes to throw them off the scent. The desert is a repository of dead things, which is why Gar seems genuinely surprised to find a working farm out there, operated by Celia (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). Knowing the Comanche are on a push to drive white settlers out, he agrees to lead them to safety at the titular Fort Dobbs. Along the way Gar runs into Clett (Keith), a black market gun seller. They were old running buddies turned sour, with a history of distrust between them. Celia is led to believe Gar had killed her husband, while Clett has less than respectable designs on Celia. The whole miserable group troupes through the dirt with eyes implanted in the back of their heads. Douglas emphasizes the act of looking through POV shots through Gar’s eyes, as well as in a remarkable reaction shot from Mayo, gazing at a shirtless Gar as he cleans his gun. An unruly mix of lust, hatred and confusion flickers through her eyes. Walker is improbably good looking, but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming. He didn’t make enough films to develop a persona beyond this, like how Marion Morrison was able to workshop “John Wayne” in all those Republic B-Westerns, but what’s there is clear and true.

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Wayne and John Ford were once attached to make Yellowstone Kelly. They passed, and it fell down the bureaucratic ladder to Douglas and Walker, who turned in a fine-grained epic on a budget. The studio was attracted to the story of Western trapper and Indian scout Luther Sage Kelly because of an advertisement in Variety. According to Susan Compo’s biography of Warren Oates, A Wild Life, an ad centered around Kelly ran for U.S. Savings Bonds in early 1956 with the tagline, “His calling card had claws on it.” WB registered the title Yellowstone Kelly in February of ’56. In Burt Kennedy’s script Kelly (Walker), along with his assistant Anse Harper (Edward Byrnes) get caught up in an inter-Sioux feud when they nurse a young Arapaho woman, Wahleeah (Andrea Martin), back to health. Both the Sioux chief (John Russell) and his young charge Sayapi (Ray Danton) wish to have Wahleeah as their wife. Kelly has to return her or he’ll lose access to Sioux land for his trapping. And when a power hungry army captain attempts to push the Sioux off their land, the love quadrangle turns into a war.

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While the land in Fort Dobbs is a deathtrapin Yellowstone Kelly it’s fertile, lush, and Kelly’s sole source of sustenance. The Technicolor cinematography by Carl Guthrie is rich and viridescent – bursting with life. Walker’s red felt shirt emblazons itself on the screen. The plot is one of revivification, of Kelly’s soul and Wahleeah’s body. Kelly is a loner and a bit of a nihilist, becoming skeptical of all forms of society as he lives like a monk in the Western mountains. He finds peace in work and solitude, successfully repressing needs for human contact. It is the persistent annoyance of Harper asking for a job that begins to open Kelly up to human interaction, and it is the sarcastic, flirtatious Wahleeah who re-introduces him to the possibility of love. An intelligent matching of landscape, plot and theme, Yellowstone Kelly is top notch filmmaking.

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For WB, it was yet another attempt to milk their stars while they were still cheap and on their initial contracts. The film is thick with TV stars. Edward Byrnes had made his name as “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, while John Russell was the lawman on Lawman. Along with maximizing their low-money contract players, using TV actors was an attempt to lure back the crowds who had abandoned film for the antenna. In an August 1958 issue of Motion Picture News, ,future New York Times film critic Vincent Canby thought these small-screen names “may well bring out to theaters that part of the so-called ‘lost’ audience which has been lost because of TV Westerns and action dramas.” Using the full force of their marketing power, WB sent Walker and Byrnes on a nationwide in-person tour, calling the two leads “Warners’ traveling salesmen.” The tactic was successful, as by all accounts the film took in healthy profits. It didn’t turn into big screen superstardom for Walker, who remained a bankable TV actor and occasional film lead. But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.