April 2, 2013

16_1939 Wyoming Outlaw

When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced“Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw(1939).


The Three Mesquiteers B-Western series ran from 1936 – 1943 at Republic, and necessarily followed stock scenarios of the three ranch hands thwarting the plans of evil homesteaders and other n’er do wells. Sherman managed to helm the outliers in the series, including the zoo animal burlesque Three Texas Steers and revolutionary fantasy The Night Riders. Wyoming Outlaw is the most downbeat entry of the bunch though, a despairing portrait of institutional corruption feeding poverty and violence. The Mesquiteers, including John Wayne as Stony Brooke, are shockingly passive onlookers, unable to stop the degradation of the Parker family. Because they refuse to pay a tribute to local boss Balsinger (LeRoy Mason), the patriarch Luke Parker loses his job, and his son Will is reduced to stealing and slaughtering cattle for food. Despite their efforts to help, including muscling in on Balsinger’s thugs, the Mesquiteers stand helplessly by while Will turns outlaw and falls in a hail of bullets. For a series built on action and resolution, this is a curiously static and morally ambiguous film, more interested in Will’s forced descent into murderousness than the Mesquiteers knockabout good guy routine.


Governments hadn’t been cleaned up in Sherman films a decade later, when he was at Universal International for the Technicolor spectacles Comanche Territory (’50) and Tomahawk (’51). Both feature attempts to swindle Native Americans out of their land, stoking a free-floating paranoia that merits Kehr’s comparison to Kafka. Sherman also imbues their background characters, like Will in Wyoming Outlaw, with an unusual level of sympathy. Comanche Territory has Macdonald Carey play Jim Bowie, who is delivering a treaty to the Comanche to allow the U.S. to mine for silver on their land. He is waylaid en route, the treaty stolen by local townspeople eager to drive the Comanche out so they can stake their own claims. Katie Howard (Maureen O’Hara) is involved in the scheme, a prickly entrepreneur who is introduced by galloping a horse down the main drag while not spilling a drop of the beer she is holding. O’Hara’s  performance is made up of a flurry of quick-twitch movements of a woman whose mind is never at rest. She dominates every frame she is in, while Carey, embodying a Western icon, recedes into the background. Katie, introduced as a rapacious capitalist and land grabber, becomes the fulcrum of the film, hoping for a pragmatic peace with the Comanche, and thus splitting off from her brother’s gang. The climactic shootout depicts the Comanche and Bowie gunning down the gang, a rare triumphalist moment for Native Americans in Hollywood film.


The opening voice-over in Tomahawk (1951) presents the clearest example of Sherman’s instinct to investigate the motivations of his heroes and villains and everyone in between. He has internalized Renoir’s line in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”.  The camera tracks down two diagonal lines. The first is of the U.S. cavalry, over which the sonorous voice-over describes the lives they have lost for what they consider to be “freedom”. The second diagonal is of a line of Sioux, who because of the White man “suffer starvation and sickness where once there was plenty.” In between them is Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) a long-time scout who was once married to a Sioux woman, before she was slaughtered by a Colorado vigilante group led by a preacher.  He is on hand to help negotiate an agreement for the Army to build a fort on Sioux land. The talks break down over the government’s bad faith, but the fort gets built anyway, and Bridger stays on as a scout. But when a Sioux boy gets shot in the back by a racist Lieutenant, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter to come.

Sherman sets the horizon line low throughout, filling the frame with sky in his frequent long shots of Rapid City, South Dakota. The figures are specks against the immensity of the blue, already lost to history before they lose their bodies. The Sioux line up on this horizon line near the end, unaware that advancements in repeating rifle technology will turn their battle plan into an abattoir. The final shootout is more like a Holocaust, Van Heflin’s severe face colored with nausea.

In these Westerns Sherman cannot film a victor without depicting the resultant loss. There are no heroes or villains, just flawed people with ingrained, unshakeable beliefs and perspectives that set them into conflict. That some pass on and others survive seems incidental to these works, which simply aim to see what makes people tick, and then stop. George Sherman couldn’t stop making films, but he was not only a prolific artist, but a profound one.


March 19, 2013


I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded  The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.

Walsh had been interested in the story since January 1945, having written to Jack Warner in a memo that: “I told Bogart the Cheyenne story the other night and he wants to do it. The girl’s part is a natural for [Ann] Sheridan and we might get [Errol] Flynn go play the bandit.” As biographer Marilyn Ann Moss reported, John Huston had agreed to write the script, but the project never coalesced, and Walsh went on vacation for a few months before embarking on The Man I Love with Ida Lupino in the fall. While that was shooting he pitched the idea again, and this time it got the green light. It was based on a story by Paul Wellman (Apache, The Comancheros) which had been brought to WB’s attention by novelist and screenwriter Alan Le May, who would later write the source novel for The Searchers.

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The story circles around card sharp Wylie, who under threat of arrest is forced into tracking down the enigmatic heist artist The Poet, who had been knocking over Wells Fargo carriages across the Wyoming Territory. With The Poet’s identity a secret, even among outlaws, Wylie impersonates the robber in the hopes of finding his whereabouts. The Poet’s estranged wife Ann Kincaid agrees to help him in the ruse, although her ultimate loyalties remain unclear.

By the time the project got off the ground, none of Walsh’s original cast choices were available. So he went to work with the relatively low wattage Dennis Morgan (Wylie), Jane Wyman (Ann Kincaid) and Bruce Bennett (The Poet) instead of the charismatic triumverate he had envisioned. He also wasn’t happy with the script, sending Jack Warner a memo with suggestions for a new plot outline. Producer Robert Buckner reacted as if Walsh were hijacking his movie, responding that, “it should be remembered that I have done a great many more Westerns than Walsh and that I should certainly be consulted before Walsh’s changes are forced into the script. …I do not look forward to going into production on it with him.” Walsh raised no more objections, so with reservations on both ends, the film went ahead with a final script attributed to Le May and Thames Williamson.

Wylie is not a traditional self-destructively heroic Walsh hero, but a self-interested triangulator trying to please all sides while keeping himself alive. The plot is therefore busier than Walsh’s usual material, a cataract of double and triple crosses that muddies the clarity of his preferred “map movie” mode, as Dave Kehr has termed his penchant for “get from A to B” stories. Walsh doesn’t battle the script as much as resign himself to it, but while it is not one of his more personal works, it the theme of doubling and identity shifting is elegantly laid out by Le May and Williamson, while Walsh wrings every bit of tension out of the little traveling his characters embark upon.

The script is an endless series of reversals. It opens with a secondary gang led by Sundance (a snarling Arthur Kennedy) running down a carriage only to find one of The Poet’s singsong rhymes instead of the booty. Then before Wylie leaves Laramie for Cheyenne he mistakenly flirts with showgirl Emily Carson (a suggestively salacious Janis Paige), thinking she’s Ann. The trio then share a carriage ride, each putting on facades they shuffle among themselves as the movie goes on. Ann, presenting herself as prim and proper, turns out to be the morally compromised wife of a wanted criminal. Emily starts as a party girl and ends monogamous, while Wylie begins cheating at cards and concludes by helping the law.

Even when disengaged Walsh knew who to wring the most tension out of the material. Assistant Director Reggie Callow told Rudy Behlmer that, “he had a way, an absolute knack of placing his camera in the right position to get the greatest effect out of the stunt.” In one emblematic POV shot The Poet has Wylie in his gun sight, only before he can pull the trigger the cowardly Sherriff (the always welcome Alan Hale) jabs his own gun at Wylie, thinking he’s The Poet. Wylie is doomed and then saved by his own duplicity, stuck in a violent circle of his own design. Each character is stuck in a similar loop until they return to the carriage where they started their journey, where they reluctantly reveal their true selves, and the circle straightens into a line out of town.



January 22, 2013

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

The Mesquiteers films were Wayne’s second go-round at Republic, after a series of low-cost A action films at Universal failed to ignite audience interest. He told Maurice Zolotow that “the exhibitors wouldn’t touch a John Wayne movie with a ten-foot projector”, so when his Universal contract expired, he returned to Republic at a lowered salary. He considered his return the lowest point of his career, and was suitably dismissive of his work in this period, saying “Christ, they were awful. They were kids’ movies.” Secretary Mary St. John recalled that Wayne looked like a “wounded puppy — sad, frustrated and unhappy. He felt like his career has bottomed out.” Yet these are marvelously entertaining works, with spectacular stunts directed with speed and clarity by George Sherman, Joe Kane, and other Republic craftsmen. Wayne may have been in a depressive funk, but on film he registers with his lighthearted, almost lilting delivery, emitting from a powerfully angular frame knifing through the wilderness.

While John Ford’s Wayneare always haunted by the past, his step slowed to allow his pained memories to emerge around him, the Republic Wayne is engaged in the perpetual now of a chase. Stony is without past or future, each Mesquiteers film a new beginning. Paired mostly with fellow upright gent Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and comic ventriloquist sidekick Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune), these three earnest cowhands inevitably get roped in to save their community from evil land developers of one shade or another. These quickies are strongly pro-New Deal, pitting the Mesquiteers against a parade of oily land speculators and tin-pot dictators. In this series Wayne is, above all else, a community organizer.

Ostensibly a Western series, the constant need for stories (Wayne made 8 in less than two years) incorporated all manners of cliffhanging dramatics, from the crime procedural of Red River Range (where Stony impersonates a gangster) to the surreal circus comedy of Three Texas Steers. By the end of the Mesquiteers’ time-folding run, they were fighting Nazis. The most elaborately strange of the Wayne Republics would have to be The Night Riders (1939), which imports a Mexican revolution narrative onto the Western U.S. A disgraced cardsharp is convinced to impersonate a Spanish nobleman in order to claim a “Western Empire” of 13 million acres from forged land grants. So what starts as a riverboat gambling brawler ends up as a revolutionary war drama, complete with the Mesquiteers donning masks as a violent protest group, redistributing wealth with the verve of a 99-percenter. The vigilante trio even stumbles into the bedroom of a slumbering President Garfield, who can only offer back channel support against the Western Empire dictator, his hands tied by the isolationist mood of the government. Screenwriters Betty Burbridge and Stanley Roberts stole not only from pulp novels but from the headlines, as FDR was battling isolationist sentiments even as Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in March ’39. The Night Riders was released on April 12th.

Wayne’s career was at a standstill until his friend John Ford cast him in Stagecoach. Eager for the chance to star in an A picture, he accepted the part of Ringo Kid for the low salary of $3,000, barely above his Republic pay. In comparison, the female lead, Claire Trevor, would receive $15,000. Republic agreed to release him to film the project in return for $600 a week. Herbert Yates had no expectations that the film would raise Wayne’s standing. In fact, by the time Stagecoach was released in March of 1939, Wayne was already back making the Mesquiteers quickies Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier. But eventually the film’s overwhelming success, both critically and at the box office, made Wayne a valuable commodity, and he became their A feature star, for the one or two big budget features they produced each year. Dark Command (1940), one of the first results of this new contract, reunited Wayne with director Raoul Walsh, who had tapped him for stardom ten years previously in The Big Trail.

Wayne’s performances, perhaps chastened by the incessant insults Ford would throw at him on set, became more deliberate and thoughtful, as if he weighed each word before letting it loose. This makes Wayne’s characters seem haunted from the first frame in Ford’s works, even in the sprightly Irish romance The Quiet Man, in which Wayne is dogged by an accidental murder in his past. Winston Hoch’s luminous cinematography, which elaborates an endless palette of greens, can do nothing to prettify the striding husk of Wayne, who drags his violent history along with him into every frame. When he sees Maureen O’Hara emerge like a flame-haired ghost in the open plain though, some of that Mesquiteers lightness returns.

Man of the West: Booklet Essay


Man of the West is riven with pain. Made in 1958 during the twilight of the Western genre, it is reflective and interiorized, mapping twisted psychological landscapes over the flattened physical ones. Director Anthony Mann was obsessed with transposing King Lear into the Western, with Lear figures appearing in The Furies (1950), The Man From Laramie (1955), and Man of the West. Mann had dreams of making a more faithful Western adaptation of Lear, and would pursue it the rest of his life. He was working on a version simply titled The King at the time of his death in 1967.

In The Furies and The Man From Laramie these dissipated patriarchs are corrupted cattle barons, while in Man of the West it is a sociopathic dementia-addled bandit named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) – who has three sons instead of Lear’s daughters. Gary Cooper plays Dock’s nephew Link, who was once in murderous thrall to Dock, but has since reformed and married. After a thwarted train robbery Link is absorbed back into Dock’s orbit, and is forced to confront the sins of his youth.

Man of the West was initiated by producer Walter C. Mirisch, who had moved his independent production unit from Allied Artists over to United Artists. He had an affection for aging, totemic Western stars, but tried to pair them with more “adult”, and violent, subject matter. Mirisch’s first production for UA was Fort Massacre (1958), a siege Western starring Joel McCrea. McCrea played a cavalry commander pushed to madness by his hatred of the Apache. The next star Mirisch wanted to dirty up was Cooper. So he sent him the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown, which Cooper approved. Instead of handing script duties to a genre veteran, Mirisch gave the job to Reginald Rose, who came out of high-toned television dramas, and who had written the popular film adaptation of 12 Angry Men (1957).

The script was a hard and violent character study, so Mirisch then brought on Anthony Mann to bring out its psychological subtleties. Mann had recently completed a remarkable series of five Westerns with James Stewart, ending with The Man From Laramie. In Laramie Stewart wandered into the Oedipal anxieties of a power hungry cattle family, the Western landscape a battleground of macho neuroses. The family unit in Man of the West is even more perverse, an all-male gang of thieves led by a half-mad old coot.

Dock Tobin seems to have cracked since Link’s departure, his crew a sloppy bunch of thugs and idiots, including a sweaty mute (Royal Dano) and a jumpy pervert (Jack Lord) Unlike Lear, there is no one left to inherit his ramshackle kingdom (an isolated ranch).  The re-appearance of Link ignites his old dreams, and so the old man ranting in a rocking chair flails to life, scheming a big bank job. He immediately begins remembering their past exploits: ”God forgive us we painted their walls with blood that time”.  But the bank no longer exists — it’s just another figment of past glories swirling in Dock’s head.

This is one of Mann’s most precisely choreographed films, with figures constantly activating each quadrant of the CinemaScope frame. The extended night sequence set at Dock’s ranch shows his command of composition. Link, along with two civilians, have been stranded by a botched train heist. The only home within walking distance is Dock’s, so LInk plays along with Dock’s delusion until he can figure a way out. At their first meeting in the ranch house the Tobin gang and Link stand stock still as Dock weaves his way between them, as if Dock had stopped time through his reminiscences. As the evening progresses it moves from Dock’s dreams to a living nightmare. The stillness of the Tobin gang remains (Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared these compositions to Antonioni), but the threat of violence ratchets up when Billie (Julie London) enters the room. Mann begins to utilize low-angle, looming close-ups, while the flickering of the lamplight captured by DP Ernest Haller gives the room an infernal feel. Eventually Link is held at knifepoint as Billie is forced to strip. It only stops when Dock asserts his newfound virility and orders everyone out, emptying out the frame. The whole sequence is a series of constricting horizontals, a visual template that reappears in the final shootout, done in between the floor slats of crumbling ghost town homes.

The whole film feels like an ending. For Westerns at large, for Anthony Mann’s artistic peak , and for the career of Gary Cooper. It is one of Cooper’s greatest performances, borne out of intense physical debility. At the time of shooting Cooper was almost sixty, and suffering from intense back pain, which he blamed on an old hip injury. For him the production was a test of how much pain he could endure. Mirisch marveled at his professionalism: “That particular day, I saw that Coop was very upset. When I asked him what the trouble was, he told me his back pain was just excruciating. …He told me that the pain of riding his horse down that street was almost unendurable. I could see it in his face. I suggested to him that he let his double…do the ride in a long shot. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘No, I have to do it. You have to be close on me.’ And he did do the ride down that street himself.” It is unclear if his poor health was related to the prostate cancer that ultimately killed him in 1961, but his body was failing him. His performance is heroic – one of tensed, grimacing fragility, his reformed outlaw clinging to life out of sheer will.

Though he does not portray the Lear role, he conveys its complicated emotions more than Lee J. Cobb’s more straightforward, harrumphing villainy. Cooper is conflicted, violent, and obsolete, introduced gawking at the new railroad carving through the West. He recoils from the smoke belched out by these iron leviathans. He has to board the beast, and these opening sequences are almost slapstick, as Cooper fumbles with his seat and repeatedly lunges into the passenger ahead of him. He only regains his authority by entering into Tobin’s demented dream of their shared violent past. Cooper forces his body into its familiar ramrod posture to once again face down the bad guys, with his mortality pressing down on every frame.


September 11, 2012

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The Hanging Tree (1959) is a Western marked by illnesses and maladies, a portrait of a violent man at war with his own impulses. It deploys Gary Cooper as a crumbling totem, the actor’s aching hip tipping his performance from his famous underplaying into a kind of pained decrepitude. It is one of Cooper’s most emotionally wrenching turns, as he is seemingly aware that he was reaching the end of his career, which would end with his death in 1961. Then there is the sickness that felled director Delmer Daves over halfway through the shoot, necessitating that Karl Malden take over behind the camera, using Daves’ storyboards as guides. These sicknesses are made legible in the film, from the name of Cooper’s character, Doc Frail, to the sun exposure that fells Elisabeth (Maria Schell), the Swedish immigrant who Frail nurses back to health, and who tests the boundaries of the doctor’s seemingly impenetrable emotional defenses. Long unavailable in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Warner Archive has released a handsome anamorphic edition of the film on DVD, transferred from an inter-negative. There is some light print damage, but nothing to detract from the grandeur of Daves’ compositions, shot on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area outside of Yakima, Washington.

Cooper personally shepherded the project at Warner Brothers, the second film he produced following Along Came Jones (1944), through his Baroda Pictures imprint. His daughter Maria told Lou Lumenick at the NY Post that, “The story meant a lot to him. He was a Montana boy and had a real resonance with the characters and the drama of the era when there was a push to stake claims. He was born in 1901 in Helena when it was a funny mixture of a rough and ready town at the same time Montana had more millionaires than any other state in the union. Helena even had a hanging tree, so that was not a foreign dramatic touch to him.” The story was adapted from the 1957 novella by Dorothy M. Johnson, and regards the arrival of Doc Frail into the gold rush town of Skull Creek, Montana. He hides  wanted thief Rune (Ben Piazza) at his cabin, but asks for a form of indentured servitude in return. Rune reluctantly agrees, for a while, if only to avoid capture. So when Elisabeth is discovered in the desert, half-mad and blind, Frail and Rune are tasked with healing her. They go about their task increasingly insulated from the madness growing outside their doors, as gold fever has whipped up the town in an anarchic frenzy, encapsulated in the raving, violence-mongering preacher Grubb, played with grandiose menace by George C. Scott, in his indelible big screen debut.

This outside sickness, one of extreme individualism, is one that Frail is sympathetic to, having been burned by intimate relations in the past. So as the trio of himself, Elisabeth and Rune develop into a loving co-dependency, he cuts them off. Warm and giving when they are in need, Frail cannot stand the sight of the others when they have grown self-sufficient, the power relations shifting against him. There is an unsettling shot where Frail walks Elisabeth out to a cliff’s edge and determines that her sight is returning. The shift in his tone from solicitous caretaker to distant acquaintance is chilling in its swiftness and severity. It is clear that Frail has performed this act before, forever retreating back into himself. Daves repeatedly frames them against the dizzying rocky slopes of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, images of serenity that ironically contrast with the relentlessly neurotic and interior Frail.

Despite her near-death experience, only Elisabeth seems truly comfortable in the land, opening a gold panning outpost with gusto, eager to work as much as any man. This confuses her dopey macho assistant Frenchy (Karl Malden), who with his floppy hat and head bob, looks like a schnauzer begging for treats. He is an idiot, and one who does not seem to have advanced beyond Freud’s polymorphous perversity stage, believing that everything and everyone around him is available for his pleasure. Frenchy is the representative of the town’s descent into narcissistic madness. Frail recognizes himself in Frenchy, in their selfish rejection of society. Perhaps this is why Frail turns aggressively violent in Frenchy’s presence, a bitter rage which results in a scene of shocking violence at the same cliff where Elisabeth regained her sight.

Malden not only gave a singularly unsettling performance, but saved the project from imploding. According to the AFI Film Catalog, production began on June 17th, and Delmer Daves’ sickness forced him to leave on July 25th. For the rest of principal shooting, which lasted until August 13th, as well as post-production, Karl Malden took over as director.  He recalls this period to Rose Eichenbaum in The Actor Within:

During the last two weeks of the picture, the director got sick and went to the hospital. So I got a call on Saturday to come over to Coop’s house. I get there, and he says they might have to close down production. ‘That’s too bad’, I say. So he says, ‘why don’t you finish directing this picture?’ ‘Me?’ ‘You can do it, you directed Widmark in Counter Attack. You can do it.’ So I said okay, but if I find that I’m lost and I don’t know how to do it, and we have to sit there and figure it out, don’t scream at me.’ ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘I’ve never spoken angrily to anyone in my life, and I’m not going to start now.’ So I accepted and directed the picture for two and a half weeks. When it was finished, Gary Cooper went over to Warner’s and said to them, ‘star billing!’ That’s the first picture in which I ever got star billing. That’s the kind of man Gary Cooper was.

In order to depict the destructive community of Skull Creek, which burns itself alive in a drunken revelry of greed, the production team had to function as a supportive one. Cooper had a chronic bad back as a result of a broken hip he had as a teen which was never set properly, and it was bothering him mightily on the set. He couldn’t sit side-saddle on a horse, as Marie Cooper tells Lumenick, so a special saddle was created where he would be perched off to the side. This worked for his character, allowing him to literally talk down to the characters Frail is so desperately trying to separate himself from.

The Hanging Tree is a fragile Western, one in which psyches are as easy to shatter as entire communities. Money is both their curse and their salvation, able to put their necks inside a noose as well as buy their way out of it.  The only thing it can’t seem to purchase is happiness, at least that found outside of a bottle. The final shots, in which Elisabeth divests herself of all her gold and land, and instead nuzzles Cooper’s downturned head, are some of the most radical, and radically moving, in the Hollywood Western.


August 14, 2012

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In the numerous attempts to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death, 20th Century Fox has made the most welcome one, releasing impeccably restored editions of seven of her films in the “Forever Marilyn” Blu-Ray box set. Also available individually, these discs are a striking reminder that Monroe was not simply a mass-produced fetish toy, but an idiosyncratic artist who keenly played off of, and frequently subverted, the dumb-blonde characters she was saddled with. It includes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes remains an ebulliently entertaining treatise on female friendship, the revelation for me was Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), a rather melancholy Western (with the saddest theme song in history), in which she plays her woman of questionable virtue with a daring opacity, causing Darryl Zanuck to demand re-shoots to clarify her character’s motivations.

River of No Return was originally conceived by screenwriter Louis Lantz as a Western remake of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It concerns a man, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) whose horse and gun are stolen by gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun). Unable to work on or defend his farm, Calder and his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) search the dangerous countryside for the thief. As Chris Fujiwara reports in his meticulously researched critical biography of Preminger, The World And Its Double, Lettig’s treatment was heavily revised by Frank Fenton, brought in by young Fox producer Stanley Rubin. They fleshed out Calder’s backstory, making him an ex-con recently released from prison on a murder charge. Weston was also given a saloon singer fiancee, Kay, to be played by Monroe. After the theft, Kay is embarrassed by Weston’s actions and stays behind with Matt and Mark,  but her ultimate loyalties are left ambiguously undefined.

Fox executive Darryl Zanuck intended the film to be a garish spectacle that would show off Monroe and the new CinemaScope process, writing in a memo that he wanted it to “stand an audience on its ear.” Otto Preminger did not entirely deliver the thrills Zanuck sought, so Jean Negulesco was brought on to film reshoots, including the sexually suggestive scenes in which Mitchum massages, and later violently wrestles with, Monroe.

Preminger was brought late into the production, after the screenplay and much of the cast were finalized. Used to being producer/director on his films, and having just finished The Moon Is Blue, doing work for hire was a new and fraught experience for him. It was also the first film that he shot in CinemaScope, which he adapted to with a remarkable ease. Working with cinematographer Joseph La Shelle, Preminger composed images for the widescreen frame, which was perfect for capturing the horizontal lines of the pseudonymous river (shot in Alberta, Canada). He also instinctively understood that the wider frame was inimical to quick pans and editing, so he often uses depth to stage multiple actions in one shot. At the time Andre Bazin wrote that River of No Return was an exemplar of CinemaScope filmmaking, that it was one of the first films in which “the format really added something important to the mise en scene.”

This can be seen to an offhandedly brilliant effect in an early shot where Mitchum is strolling through a gold rush town, interrogating a priest about the whereabouts of his son, whom he is picking up. The priest laments that he came West as a missionary to convert Native Americans, but that he thinks white folk need him more now. Gold fever has corrupted his town. In the background Preminger presents nature as another force luring people into the muck. There is a carriage fording the river behind Mitchum, loaded up with women. It gets stuck in the mud,  and one of the ladies tumbles into the water before it reaches shore. This is a comic variation on the dangers the river will later present to Calder and to Kay. Background is comedy, foreground is tragedy.

As easily as Preminger adapted to CinemaScope, the same can’t be said regarding his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, who brought along her very vocal acting coach Natasha Lytess. Fujiwara details Preminger’s growing irritation with Lytess’ constant interruptions, until he finally banned her from the set. She would later return due to Zanuck’s intervention. But regardless of the tension off the set, Monroe is teasingly enigmatic in the film, emphasizing Kay as a performer. She appears warm toward Mark, but there is a coldness in her tone that implies it could be an act, as she is still sworn to marry Weston. She is the perfect foil for Mitchum’s brooding introvert – who repeatedly tells Kay and his son that they are likely to die on their journey. They are like two stubborn mules who kick each other enough until they realize they both like it.

Zanuck did not approve of the ambiguous nature of Kay and Calder’s motivations, writing in a memo that “our picture is inarticulate. We have got to stop guessing about these relationships. Once and for all, we want to lay it on the line so there can be no doubt or confusion as to what our people mean and how they feel.” Three new scenes were shot, including the two sexually suggestive ones previously mentioned, and another with Monroe and Rory Calhoun that would clarify their intent to marry.

Regardless of these additions, Preminger’s film remains intriguingly opaque, the characters’ moral reversals seemingly coming with the wind more than from some inner will. In the glorious CinemaScope landscapes, it is the world that seems to determine the action, and not the other way around, as Calder and Kay are tossed to and fro along the riverbank. It is even the river that provides the most famous symbolic moment in the film – when Kay’s suitcase escapes in the water as Weston carries her to the shore, and onto Calder’s farm. Her final ties to civilization are carried away by the current, and Mitchum’s (gun and horse) are forcibly removed by Weston. They are forced to find a new life, re-shaped and re-directed by the river’s ceaseless flow.


July 3, 2012

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On July 18th, Olive Films will begin their roll-out of the Republic Pictures library with DVD/Blu-Ray releases of High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Republic has long been one of the most underutilized holdings in the home video market, passing from corporation to corporation with little concern for the treasures it contained. But upstart Olive has closed a massive licensing deal with Republic parent Paramount Pictures, and is set to release a flood of material (from B-Westerns to prestige pics) in 2012 that had mostly been overlooked in the digital age. While these first two releases have been well-represented on DVD, it is their premiere on Blu-Ray, and there are plenty of rare gems coming down the pike (all transferred in HD), including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,  Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

Herbert J. Yates began his career in film processing in 1915. By the 1930s his Consolidated Film Laboratories was a major developer of B-film. As the Great Depression sent many Poverty Row studios into the red, Yates took them over, combining six companies (Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield and Invincible) into one Republic in 1935. They made money off of disreputable serials and Westerns, giving daredevil action directors like William Witney endless opportunities to hone their craft on a shoestring budget.

Witney started his career at Mascot, riding horses in films for his brother-in-law, and director, Colbert Clark. Witney directed his first film, The Painted Stallion (1937), for Yates, and remembers the set-up in his autobiography, In A Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase:

Republic’s main office was in New York where taxes were lower than in California, and Consolidated Film Industries, which made all the release prints, was located next door in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The office in New York City was located at 1776 Broadway…

Then, after Yates bought out the last of the executives from the six former companies, Witney writes, “I will say one thing for him. He screwed a lot of very smart men.” Witney wasn’t one of them, working productively for the company in serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), Roy Rogers Westerns and teen-sploitation (Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild) until the company was sold in 1959. It was because of money-making B-pictures like Witney’s that Yates had the money to invest in prestige productions like Orson Welles’ Macbeth and John Ford’s The Quiet Man and (the less expensive) The Sun Shines Bright. Yates rubbed Ford the wrong way, as the curmudgeonly director told biographer Joseph McBride, regarding The Sun Shines Bright:

Well, they didn’t ruin it, they couldn’t ruin it. But they cut a lot out of it. You’re working with a stupid lot of people, the executive producers, so what the hell, you’ve got to expect it.

But whatever his shortcomings as a producer and a shameless money-grubber, Herbert J. Yates, through accident or circumstance, funded some of the glories of the Hollywood Classical Cinema, both the high art of Ford and the low of Witney, and for that he deserves our reluctant thanks.

Yates sold his company’s library in toto to National Telefilm Associates (NTA) in ’59, bowing to the rising dominance of television. They had severely curtailed production, and were mainly making their money selling TV rights anyhow.  A Dec. 23rd, 1957 issue of Billboard announces the sale of syndication rights to NBC of 218 features and 15 serials for $3,5000,000, with the writer noting that, “the move by Republic to put its package in active sales is concurrent with reports that the studio is in the process of terminating film production.” At this point the demand for B-pictures had disappeared, as the 1948 anti-trust Paramount Decision had divested the studios of their theater ownership. They could no longer “block-book” their product and force theater managers to run whatever they sent them.

NTA made money syndicating the TV rights, with the rise of cable TV in the 1980s reinvigorating profits, leading them to change their name to Republic in 1986, and producing their own TV shows like Beauty and the Beast (1987). In 1994, Aaron Spelling Productions purchased NTA/Republic, and essentially used it as a distribution arm, and as a name to sell its own projects, completely divorced from the low-budget studio it once was. Now Republic Pictures Home Video would release a Spelling mini-series like James Michener’s Texas on VHS, while Johnny Guitarlanguished in the vaults. This was followed by some swift multinational swallowings, as Blockbuster purchased Spelling, and then Viacom bought Blockbuster. The Republic library then became the custody of the Viacom-owned Paramount Home Entertainment, all by the end of 1995.

There had been sluggish attempts to release the Republic library on home video during this period. Spelling licensed it to Artisan Video in 1995, who released The Quiet Man and a few others until the company was gobbled up by Lionsgate in 2003. Artisan’s rights expired in 2005, reverting briefly back to Paramount, but Lionsgate then decided to renew this license for another six years, starting in 2006. For what must have been effective but arcane accounting reasons, Lionsgate effectively sat on the Republic library. They released the comparatively unknown Arch of Triumph (1948), Only the Valiant (1951), and One Touch of Venus (1948) on DVD, but left the vast, and vastly better known, titles sitting on the shelf.

Once Lionsgate’s laissez-faire reign ended this year, Olive Films leapt into the fray, manically licensing Republic titles from Paramount, and almost immediately putting them into production. In the first few months of their stewardship, Olive will have released more of the Republic library than Artisan, Lionsgate and their forebears combined. As fast as they are releasing them, there are some quality control concerns, but the early returns are encouraging.  Both High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have received high marks from tech review site, as well as my own eyes. The transfers are clean and sharp with rich contrast. Paramount’s archival wing had obviously had done strong HD transfers on these, and Olive presents them with no digital blow-drying. High Noon comes with a making-of documentary, while Invasion contains no extras, which is the norm for the company. And while Olive has had notoriously poor cover art in the past, their Republic discs all seem to have original poster artwork – a huge improvement over some of their early Photoshop jobs.

While it would have been ideal for Paramount to push its massive resources behind the restoration and release of the Republic library, perhaps it’s more appropriate for the scrappy and relatively under-funded Olive Films to do the job. Releasing its discs quickly, efficiently and with little marketing muscle, the Republic Pictures library has finally found a licensor that can match its huckster spirit, and that has the smarts to take advantage of other companies’ mistakes.


April 17, 2012

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I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

Originally, Bell Book and Candle was a stage play written by John Van Druten and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick in 1950. Although her divorce to David O. Selznick had been finalized in ’49, she sold the rights to him in 1953. He intended to cast his next wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the project never got off the ground, and the rights were eventually purchased by Columbia. After initially considering Rex Harrison for the lead, the studio and producer Julian Blaustein decided to re-team Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, who had both wrapped shooting on Paramount’s Vertigo in January of 1958. Since Columbia had lent Novak for that project, Paramount returned the favor in allowing Stewart to film the supernatural romantic comedy, which started shooting on February 3rd. The exuberantly talented Richard Quine (My Sister EileenIt Happened To Jane) was slated to direct, and the legendary James Wong Howe handled the indecently saturated Technicolor cinematography.

Reversing the polarity of obsession from Vertigo, in Bell Book and Candle it is Novak who is the stalker, Stewart the stalked. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stir-crazy witch in the West Village of NYC who deals in African and Oceanic art as a lucrative front. Stewart is the endearingly uptight Shepherd Henderson, the editor-in-chief at an upscale publisher who lives above her storefront. Bored with her hep wiccan lifestyle spent at the Zodiac nightclub (where warlock Jack Lemmon plays the bongos), she yearns for something different. So indeed she indulges in some hoodoo and wraps Shep in her spell. When he finds out his attraction is not entirely natural, Gillian has some explaining to do.

Novak gives a smoldering performance, shooting looks at Stewart of devouring lust as she slowly pours herself onto the couch to accentuate each curve in her body. She even modulates her voice into a low purr, emulating the vocal rhythms of her beloved pet cat. Costume designer Jean Louis puts her in inflammatory red, from a bohemian-chic smock to a scoop-necked sweater, a siren intent on snagging her prey. The colors in James Wong Howe’s cinematography veritably pop off the screen, from those gleaming reds to the sharp pinks of Gillian’s mother Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the rich creams and grays of Shep’s sharply lined attire. Richard Quine, always a sharp caricaturist, lets Lanchester and Lemmon loose as the impish do-badders, providing islands of comedy amidst the torrents of Gillian’s pheromones, which course through this intoxicating Technicolor dream.

Where Bell is fantastical, Westward the Women (1951) is elemental. Based on a story by Frank Capra, it tracks the travails of hundreds of women traveling from Chicago to California, lured by the promise of hard-working husbands and the open air. According to Capra’s biography, he intended to direct the film with Gary Cooper to star, but eventually had to table it, and ended up selling the rights to his neighbor, William Wellman, who had recently finished his Clark Gable western, Across the Wide Missouri (also 1951).

Ostensibly the lead is Robert Taylor as trail master Buck Wyatt, but the film spends most of its time dutifully tracking the intense labor of the women on the drive, as early on most of the cowboys cut loose, unwilling to drive further into unforgiving territory. But the women endure, as Wellman depicts them in extended montages of work, seemingly inspired by the major drive in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931), and perhaps an influence on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011), other Westerns obsessed with process. These processes are inevitably group efforts, lending these sequences a bit of communal proto-feminism, together doing the jobs of men with little fuss and unspoken teamwork. The gritty heart of the film is Patience (Hope Emerson), the Ward Bond of the movie, whose brute physicality inspires the rest of the ladies to self-abnegation and ultimate triumph, but who secrets a sensitive soul behind all the bluster. She is joined by a cross-section of personalities, from the sharpshooting farm girl Maggie, the still-mourning Italian widow Mrs. Maroni, and the two ex-prostitutes Fifi and Laurie, eager for some vision of country life.

Many women suffer and die, but the rest endure, the vast middle section is a grim kind of survival horror movie, as carriages crash and hostile Native Americans chase them down. Pared to the bone of back-story, the film operates by the familiar Wellman method (although only intermittently witnessed in his post-30s work), of showing character through action. All of the women in the film gain a personality through the attention Wellman pays to their faces, instead of lugubrious scenes of exposition.These roll calls of expressions (similar to the montage of faces before the cattle drive in Red River), intimate more in images of their lined brows than any speech could convey.

Never an emotional director, Westward the Women is nonetheless an unexpectedly moving film. When the women finally meet their prospective husbands in California, it’s a scene that could easily become droopingly sentimental, but instead is reticent and ambiguous, a skittish embrace of an uncertain future, one in which the freedoms of their drive West will likely disappear in their return to male dominated society. It is this melancholy undertone that makes Westward the Women a fascinating object, as the seams and contradictions in Hollywood’s depictions of womanhood poke through thanks to Wellman’s distanced, unvarnished approach. In a similar way, Novak’s voracious sexual appetite, that the movie never indexes as negative, undercuts the usual Madonna-Whore complex of romantic comedy that persists today (see, if you must, the dire What’s Your Number for a current example). Both these films are remarkable in that they show women who can fuck and fight with with the best of them, with no apologies.


January 17, 2012

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The Warner Archive continues to summon the ghosts of Hollywood past onto DVD, a bit of studio witchery we should all get behind. One of their most intriguing recent séance jobs is Frank Borzage’s Smilin’ Through(1941), a haunting WWI melodrama. Despite the mammoth Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, there are still great stretches of Borzage’s career missing on home video (including essential titles like Man’s Castle (’33, hopefully a Sony MOD candidate) and Moonrise (’48), which is streaming on Netflix)). Smilin’ Through, though flawed, has moments of doomed romanticism that rival anything else in his work, with superimpositions establishing the intractable hold the past exerts on the present. A similar theme is lugubriously told in Welcome to Hard Times (’67), a Western in which old studio hand Burt Kennedy flails to channel A Fistful of Dollars on a low budget. Originally made-for-TV, MGM decided to release it into theaters before airing it on ABC, after which it disappeared. Featuring a spate of studio standbys, including Henry Fonda and Aldo Ray, it’s a fascinating failure in which MGM hires old studio craftsman to make a film that blatantly reaches for the youth market.

Frank Borzage had moved from Warner Brothers to MGM in 1937, starting with Big City, and continued there through Seven Sweethearts (’42, also on the Warner Archive), after which he became an independent contractor. The Warner Archive has released seven of these titles, all of which (excepting the well-regarded Mortal Storm (’40)) are due a second look. His stay at MGM was not a smooth one, with the usual studio interference and hijinks (producer Victor Saville famously claimed to have directed the majority of The Mortal Storm, an idea debunked by biographer Herve Dumont).  In January 1941 Borzage was removed from a re-telling of Billy the Kid after initial location shooting (he was replaced by David Miller), and was shifted to a Joan Crawford project, Bombay Nights, which never materialized. He didn’t sit idle long, with production on Smilin’ Through starting in early May.

The project was a rather moldy chestnut, based on a 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, that had already been adapted twice for the screen, in 1922 (starring Norma Talmadge) and 1932 (with Norma Shearer). The scars of a 19th century love triangle are torn open on the eve of WWI, as Sir John Carteret (Brian Aherne) refuses to sanction the marriage of his adopted daughter Kathleen (Jeanette MacDonald) to Kenneth Wayne (Gene Raymond, MacDonald’s husband), whose father had destroyed Carteret’s marriage decades before. Borzage opens the film on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, celebrating 60 years of her rule. The camera pans left to a church, with the ramrod figure of Aherne the only figure not gesticulating in a celebratory fashion. He sourly says, “I don’t like anniversaries”, the weight of the past present in each of his deliberate steps.

He is momentarily levered back into the present by the appearance of Kathleen, the niece of the woman he loved, Moonyean (also played by MacDonald). Entranced by her forthrightness (and resemblance to Moonyean), he temporarily eases his obsession with the past, which manifested in conversations with his ghostly deceased love, and embraces an attentive, active role as a father. Immediately upon making this decision, and loosing the grip of his memory, Borzage collapses time in a gorgeous, layered montage of spring flowers and children’s games. Kathleen’s childhood is compressed into thirty seconds, the narrative resuming once Carteret is once again ensnared by his loss of Moonyean.

The world of the film becomes a kind of necropolis, with Kathleen first meeting Kenneth in the abandoned mansion of his father, Jeremy. They dust off his decanter of wine, untouched since his death, and hold hands for the first time while staring up at his portrait, deeply ensconced in Carteret’s memories of his dead nemesis. Carteret is entombing his family in his obsessive memory, and can only free them by telling his story, and moving on. Borzage privileges this moment in an extended flashback of his doomed wedding day, an unburdening and a confessional, that ends with Carteret cradling Moonyean in a Pieta-like pose, allowing himself to mourn for the first time, instead of simply nursing his hatred. It ends on a transporting image, of a ghostly Carteret-Moonyean and a physical Kathleen-Kenneth passing in the night, going in different directions on time’s arrow, but both savoring the moment.

Please read Kent Jones’ wonderful career overview in Film Comment for a fuller view of Borzage’s career.


In 1967, MGM was trying to crank out genre films on a budget by making deals with television networks, while still reaping the box office rewards from theatrical release. Kerry Segrave wrote in Movies at Home that the studio had renegotiated its deal with ABC, allowing the final three of their six co-productions to be released theatrically before they hit the tube. These were Day of the Evil Gun (starring Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, 1968), Hot Rods to Hell(with Dana Andrews, 1967) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967). Warner Archive has just released Hard Times in a handsomely remastered DVD, and is an artifact of a studio’s shfit to producing tele-films and catering to the burgeoning youth market. Director/writer Burt Kennedy, famous for scripting Budd Boetticher’s psychologically astute Ranown cycle of Westerns, had moved from helming TV shows to becoming a reliable worker on cheap genre films. Right before Hard Times, Kennedy cranked out Return of the Seven (1966), a sequel to The Magnificent Seven (1960), and afterward he made a couple of popular comic-Westerns with James Garner, Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Hard Times is the likely nadir of Kennedy’s work in this period, a slackly paced adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s first novel (Doctorow told the NY Times that the film was the “second worst movie ever made.” The worst? Swamp Fire (’46) starring Johnny Weissmuller).

The film concerns the Mayor and de facto Sheriff of the Western town of Hard Times, Will Blue (Henry Fonda), a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who only acts out of base self-interest. When a drunken hell-raiser (Aldo Ray, credited as “The Man From Bodie”), razes the town to the ground, Blue just watches from a distance, not willing to get involved. Blue and a local medicine show carny build up Hard Times again by turning it into a good-times destination for local miners. As business booms, Blue braces for the return of “The Man From Bodie”. The film opens with a bang, in a near-silent sequence that is an homage to (or straight rip of) the start of Rio Bravo. Instead of a drunken Dean Martin, it’s a buzzing Aldo Ray, who smashes a bottle in close-up, drinking from the shards that are left. Ray is framed to be a force of nature, presaged by a dramatic clap of thunder and causing  raging fires. Ray starts out as intimidating, but is reduced to cartoon villainy by this overdetermined symbolism, a hacky attempt to provide the stylish ultra-violence the young crowds desired, and were delivered in the Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Even the film’s cynicism seems half-baked, as Fonda’s brittle, passive exterior gives way to a conclusion of straining sentimentality. And opening sequence aside, the film is indifferently put together, despite the incredible rogues gallery of faces Kennedy had to work with. In addition to Fonda and Ray there is Warren Oates, Elisha Cook Jr., Lon Chaney Jr., Keenan Wynn and Royal Dano. As these weathered, instinctively expressive faces slide past the screen in this ill-conceived oater, it feels like a roll call at classical Hollywood’s funeral.


July 5, 2011

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Edmond O’Brien enjoys a post-Independence Day fireworks display in Rio Conchos, the 1964 Western just released by Shout! Factory on DVD. With all my squawking about studios cutting back on library titles for home video, there are still plenty of rare and strange items sneaking onto those glimmering circular discs. Over the past few weeks, Shout! Factory and Warner Archive have shown they’re still fighting the good fight, and I’ll run down a few of their most intriguing recent renovation jobs.

I’ll start with Mr. O’Brien. Rio Conchos (1964) is paired with another 20th Century Fox film, the Blaxploitation-Spaghetti Western Take a Hard Ride (1975), encoded onto one dual-layered DVD. Directed by Gordon Douglas in sun-scorched CinemaScope, Conchos is a nasty job in which its ostensible hero, ex-Confederate soldier Jim Lassiter (Richard Boone), cold-bloodedly slaughters a group of Native Americans in the opening. It’s his bad luck that the repeating rifle he used was part of a cache stolen from the U.S. Army. He soon has Army Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and sullen Buffalo Soldier Franklyn (Jim Brown, in his first movie role) on his tail. Haven needs Lassiter to lead him to the rifle seller, so this unlikely trio heads south to Mexico, with the fast talking ex-con Juan (Tony Franciosa) as their guide.

Douglas, whose haunting Only the Valiant I wrote up earlier this year, again utilizes gothic imagery, this time setting Lassiter against imagery of decay and death. In the opener, in which Lassiter’s face is never seen, Native Americans are recovering their dead from a field of gnarled and petrified trees. These civilians are gunned down by a dot in the far background, and fall dead with their brothers. All we see of Lassiter is a reverse angle of his hat and gun, and then a pan down to the shells hitting the ground, a visual rhyme to the men he killed. The next time we see Lassiter, he is sitting, fat and happy, in a burnt out husk of a home, with the sun hollowing out the wrinkles in his jowly face – a satanically jolly figure.

He becomes a hero by default, with the passivity of Haven and the apathy of Franklyn unable to take the lead. Or perhaps because he is so familiar with evil he is the only one comfortable enough to confront it. In the infernal climax, Lassiter is right at home. In Chihuahua he meets his old Colonel Pardee (O’Brien), who has gone mad with dreams of establishing a new South in Mexico, and his half-built plantation house is the misshapen manifestation of that insanity. This time Lassiter enters another man’s decay, and fulfills the promise of those opening scenes, but destroys Pardee along with himself in a scene of grandiose self-immolation.

Speaking of grandiosity, there is Warner Archive’s handsome-looking remastered release of Dark of the Sun (1968), Jack Cardiff’s rollicking men-on-a-mission gloss that nails all of that genre’s pleasures with irresistible efficiency. You’ve got a shirtless Rod Taylor and Jim Brown, an evil German guy (Peter Carstein), and Yvette Mimieux wearing tight pants. Taylor and Brown are mercenaries hired by the Congolese government to recapture uncut diamonds in rebel-held territory, and things do not go as planned. Add chainsaws, gruff cynicism, an anthemic score and $25 million in diamonds, and you’ve got a movie out of Quentin Tarantino’s wet dreams (and he did sample the score for  Inglorious Basterds).  What makes this more than camp fodder is Cardiff’s slashing compositions, whose brash diagonals point to further adventures off-screen. Another unusual aspect to this Dirty Dozen clone is its frank depiction of violence. While it has its share of cartoon shootouts (see above), there are also awkward, grotesque deaths impossible to cheer – here civilians do die and consciences remain decidedly unclean. Rod Taylor is superb as the no-nonsense mercenary, a granite he-man who still sweats like an ox.

Another kind of masculinity is on display in Warner Archive’s The Breaking Point (1950), Michael Curtiz’s faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not. A spare and relentless noir about how unemployment can reduce a man to neurosis and petty crime, it bears no relation to Howard Hawks’ heavily reworked version of the story. In the Curtiz film, Harry Morgan is played by a hunched and fidgety John Garfield, in one of his finest performances. Morgan is a fishing boat captain with a wife and kids, but his business is floundering. His wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) wants him to quit and work on her family’s lettuce farm (Garfield: “What’s so great about lettuce?”). Stubborn to a fault, and loyal to his partner Wesley (Juano Hernandez, whose quiet dignity was also present in Stars in My Crown the same year), he makes some extra cash by ferrying revelers over the border to Tijuana. One of those passengers is Leona Charles, a man-eater played by Patricia Neal with a knee-buckling purr. After her date abandons both of them in Mexico, Morgan doesn’t have the money to pass through inspections to get back home. So he takes on a job smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants back into the states. It is the beginning of his troubles.

Curtiz makes it a film about foreground and background interaction, with his expert blocking allowing for constant motion in every segment of the frame. It’s when the background moves forward, and into Morgan’s space, that his world starts to disintegrate. Harry and Wesley have calm spatial relations, as seen in the first photo, each carving out their own domain. It is the same way in Harry’s home, in which Lucy and his kids occupy background spaces, and approach with his tacit permission. But the entrance of Leona into his life is the breach that brings him down. Expecting just a single man, he spies a couple in extreme long shot, walking down the pier. Once they arrive, the separation between background and foreground breaks down, with Leona inviting them to puncture the space.

Within these setups, Garfield’s unraveling takes place behind his tense jaw clenches and repressed desires. He repeatedly forces himself close to Leona, only to deny himself her body again and again. It is a masochistic maneuver, testing the boundaries of his guilt. He represses his sexual urges and releases his neuroses in violence instead — taking a getaway boat driver job on a horse racing heist. By that point his doom is pre-ordained. But in the culmination of Curtiz’s work with foregrounds and backgrounds, the final shot is reserved for a wandering supporting character, pushed to the fore. Wesley’s son is seen searching the pier for his father, unseen and unknown.


I ran out of time this week, but Shout! Factory has also released an inspiring two-disc set of three Roger Corman Women-In-Prison movies (with a Blu-Ray slated for 8/23): The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Fun for the whole family.