October 14, 2014

The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.

The producing team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna had a distribution deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO to make sixty films in under six years, according Bernard Eisenschitz’s essential Nicholas Ray: An American Journey.  The Hollywood Reporter called it “The biggest independent transaction in industry history”. They made four: Behave Yourself! (’51), The Blue Veil (’51), Clash By Night (’52) and The Lusty Men. Hughes’ legendary indecision led to projects dragging on for years. One of these was the comedy thriller Macao (’52), credited to director Josef Von Sternberg, but much of it was re-shot by Mel Ferrer and Nicholas Ray, who telegraphed Sternberg to gain his permission for the re-shoots. Sternberg responded, “I’m here in New Jersey with my rose garden, I’m close to Wall Street and my art gallery. Go ahead.” Unhappy with the results, Sternberg later told Kevin Brownlow: “Nicholas Ray is an idiot. He did terrible things to Macao.”

But Ray was in Howard Hughes’ good graces for that carpenter job, and Wald and Krasna considered him for the director on Clash By Night, since Ray was acquaintances with writer Clifford Odets from their Group Theater days. But they also needed someone to take on the Cowpoke project (later re-titled to The Lusty Men), as Robert Parrish had bowed out after seeing the Dortort script, and Wald/Krasna failed to lure Raoul Walsh or Anthony Mann. The job was Ray’s, and he threw himself into the research that Stanush provided. Eisenschitz lists “50 pages on ‘Western dialogue and colloquialisms’, 75 on ‘drought and grass problems’, 120 on ‘general research, ranching and rodeo’, plus a collection of notes…on the modern cowboy.”

The opening sequence consists of archival footage of a small town parade, followed by the local fair rodeo. These sections are scratched up, possibly from old newsreel footage, and then it cuts in to Robert Mitchum perched above a bronco, read to hang on for eight seconds. It’s a brash intrusion of the mythic into the mundane, but Ray immediately cuts to an insert of Mitchum’s hand being tied to the bronc’s hide, an image attending to the technique of the rodeo rider’s art. That cut is an example of the simplicity and clarity in which Ray and his collaborators combined the everyday and the dramatic. The story is also simple. Wes (Arthur Kennedy) and Louise (Susan Hayward) Merritt are saving up money to buy a house. Wes works on a ranch, but is lured into the rodeo by Jeff McCloud (Mitchum), a former champion rider who agrees to train Wes for a cut of any profits he might win. Wes quickly becomes a star, and his dream of home fades. Louise continues to desire that stability more than ever, and can no longer stand to endure the rodeo’s constant near-death experiences. So as Wes and Louise distance themselves, Jeff inserts himself into the gap, seeing in Louise an alternate path not taken, a safe harbor in his self-destructive life. Louise has to make some kind of choice.

There is a lot of choreography in the frame to establish their shifting relationships. Early on they invite Jeff to dinner. Afterward is the clean-up, with Louise cleaning, Wes sitting on the counter and drying, while Jeff standing coyly in a corner with a mug of coffee, undomesticated and alluring. This arrangement is repeated outside, with Wes seated on a fence, Jeff standing, and Louise pitched in between. Wes looks like a kid, and Jeff a man. Cinematographer Lee Garmes sets up the flashiest version of this composition, with Louise seated in her vehicle while Jeff and Wes are reflected in the windshield. This all sets up the dramatic arc of their characters, as each goes through a different kind of maturation. Mitchum claimed that Ray didn’t give him any marks to hit. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he described their working relationship: ”

Well, you know, a lot of directors will give you the marks. When I act, I come in and say: what page is it and where are the marks? While the director is talking to the other actors, I check out the marks, and I hit ‘em. But Nick is a fellow who likes to discuss the scenes with the actors, what they mean, what my background was…. So while he would talk to me about those things, I’d be looking for my marks. He would usually end up these speeches by saying, And also, improvise. But I couldn’t improvise the marks. Since Nick usually told the cameraman to be on the actor who had listened the most when he was telling them about their background, about Stanislavsky and those people, a lot of times I wasn’t in the scene…

So maybe it was Ray and Kennedy improvising Wes always being seated, but it’s clear much of the film was worked out on the fly, scene by scene. Since they didn’t know where they were going, each sequence has a lived-in feel. This is epitomized in the melancholy sequence when Jeff visits his old broken down family home. He crawls underneath the eaves and pulls out his childhood toys – a dime paperback, a gun, and a tobacco tin that holds two nickels. In this silent act of remembrance a whole childhood flashes by, and an outline of the man we see on-screen, enacting the Wild West fantasies he had as a kid, fantasies that wear poorly on a man pushing 40. While fondling these talismans, he is rousted by the current owner,  a crusty old loner (Burt Mustin, making his film debut at age sixty-seven) who visibly softens when he hears it’s the McCloud boy. They commiserate on their lives of solitude before Jeff departs, two generations of men too frightened to settle down, build a family, share anything of themselves. While Wes learns something of humility over the course of the film, Jeff develops empathy. Having been a direct man all his life in pushing the world away, he is just as straightforward in embracing it. The close-up of Susan Hayward when Jeff declares his feelings is one of trembling astonishment. It is one of the glories of the cinema. Her lips part slightly, as if ready to throw off her ordered life. But she is a practical woman, and a poor one, and there are other things to consider.


June 17, 2014

The Man from Laramie poster 1

The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.


Anthony Mann and his screenwriter Philip Yordan were very consciously going after mythic resonances in their Westerns together. Yordan said he was trying to, “find again the purities of heroes of ancient tragedies, of Greek tragedies, and on this I was in perfect agreement with Anthony Mann.” Adapted from Thomas T. Flynn’s 1954 novel by Yordan and Frank Burt,  The Man From Laramie circulates around the Waggoman family, a doomed gene pool overflowing with hubris. Patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is an aging dictatorial ranch owner, one who built up his land through intimidation, but now desires a life of quietude. His son Dave (Alex Nicol) denies him any peace, a short-fused man-child decked out in leather fringe who lashes out against any perceived slight. Dave is Alec’s sole heir, while it is Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) who in actuality manages the ranch, keeping Dave out of scrapes and hoping for a large slice of inheritance himself. When Will Lockhart (Stewart) rolls into town, all of the festering insecurities of the Waggoman family ooze into the open. Lockhart comes from his own broken home on a mission of vengeance – seeking the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache, rifles that gunned down his Army cavalry brother.


Lockhart’s presence activates the Waggoman’s pre-ordained doom, foretold in one of Alec’s dreams, in which a tall slender man kills his son and destroys his family. As in Oedipus Rex, Alec misreads the symbolism of the dream, and suffers his inevitable fate. The family atmosphere is suffocating, but the world of the CinemaScope frame is airy and free. Lockhart is introduced  in a long shot in the desert, traveling from left to right in the frame, pausing to peer at the horizon. He appears as if he is the traditional Western hero, exerting his will over the land. But as the narrative will prove, no one has control other than the fates, and nature rolls along on its own, indifferent to the violence executed amid its beauty. Bazin again:

In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford’s, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. It Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cezanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes.

Humanity’s imprint on the land is transient. In the opening, Lockhart finds scraps of his brother’s cavalry troop, bits of torched wagon wheel and army uniform. All signs of life have been effaced, and soon there will be nothing. The same can be said for Waggoman’s ranch, Alec’s gesture towards permanence threatened with extinction thanks to Dave and Vic’s rivalry for Alec’s affections.

The Man From Laramie (1955) 4

As the film’s instigating force, Lockhart is a man of abiding hatred. As his old coot sidekick will tell him, “hate’s unbecoming on a man like you. On some people it shows.” While Mann prefers to depict the arid landscape in long shot, his few close-ups are used to emphasize Lockhart’s humiliation. In the inciting act, Dave Waggoman orders Lockhart to be tied up and dragged through a fire. Jimmy Stewart’s face turns into an agonized rictus, his voice a swallowed down yelp. The Man From Laramie is a brutally violent film, and Mann claims to have pushed the Stewart and his character to his limit:  “That [film] distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysms. So the band of cowboys surround Jimmy and rope him as they did before in Bend of the River, but here I shot him through the hand!.” The Man From Laramie is a gorgeous paroxysm, one that depicts suffocating, doomed intimacy in the open air. It features one of Stewart’s finest performances, pitched between his natural gentle demeanor, seen in his guarded flirtation with the Waggoman niece (Cathy O’Donnell), and  blinkered, self-destructive rage, whenever his physical boundaries are violated. He is a docile animal except when cornered, when he attempts to carve his own fate out of others’ flesh.



July 23, 2013


The infernal weather system that soaked the Northeast in sweat this past week was moving backwards. In the United States these systems usually travel west to east, but this persistent “dome of hot air” was  traveling in reverse. I feel a kinship with this contrarian gasbag, so in its honor I will look back at an undervalued movie set during summer. A Summer Place (1959) is mainly remembered for birthing the #1 instrumental single by Percy Faith (adapted from the Max Steiner score), but it was a sensation at the time for its frank discussion of sex. It marked a transition in director Delmer Daves’ career from macho action-adventure films into melodramatic women’s pictures, one of the more reviled shifts in film history. He completed his twilight Western The Hanging Tree in August of 1958, and made four candy-colored romance pictures for WB afterward. Dismissed by both critics (the NY Times memorably called it “garishly sex-scented…. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste”) and ardent admirers (Jean-Pierre Coursodon called this period “dangerously close to artistic suicide”) , today they are ripe for rediscovery. A Summer Place is bursting with erotic energy that spreads out in the Technicolor widescreen frame, and treats adultery and teen sex with a forthright shrug.

Sloan Wilson was a hot commodity in Hollywood after his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) became a hit movie (1956) for 20th Century Fox. So when his 1958 book A Summer Place created another stir,with its teenage bed hopping and middle age lust, it was swiftly optioned by WB. Wilson wrote the initial script, but Daves rejected it because it retained the ten-year arc of the novel. Wanting a more linear, compact story, Daves re-wrote the screenplay himself, and compressed the action into one year. Daves had started his career as a scribe, and even had some experience with love stories, having co-written Leo McCarey’s sublime Love Affair (1939). His decision to switch to studio-bound melodramas can be attributed to his health, according to Delmer’s son Michael. Daves had a heart attack in 1958, and doctors advised him to limit his exertions, which would be easier to do at the studio than on location in the Arizona badlands.


The leading role of Molly, the young girl who falls for an inn owner’s son in Maine, was initially offered to Natalie Wood. She declined, and admitted to later regretting it. The part went to Sandra Dee, on loan from Universal, the up and coming emblem of innocence from Gidget (1959). While retaining her perk, the 17-year-old Dee gives an unselfconscious performance as a pragmatic teen in lust, ready to follow her body wherever it tells her to go. The location is Troy Donahue, the sensitive and slender blonde-haired blue-eyed preppie of every suburban white girl’s dreams. He had just been released from his contract with Universal, and after A Summer Place went nuclear signed a long term deal with WB. His earnestly handsome face would grace each of Daves’ next three films. Their parents, involved in an inadvertent wife-swapping roundelay, were played by consummate Hollywood pros Richard Egan, Dorothy McGuire, Arthur Kennedy and Constance Ford. An A-picture all the way, the film received a lushly romantic score from Max Steiner and ripe Technicolor cinematography from Harry Stradling (Johnny Guitar). Kennedy is especially memorable as Donahue’s dad Bart Hunter. A cognac swilling inn-owner who squandered his family’s fortune, Bart is a lost man who Kennedy plays with a slow, sad burn. Punctuating every line with a shot of booze and a lascivious glance, he’s the image of a decadent aristocrat gone to seed.


Bart’s whole kingdom is falling apart at the Maine resort town of Pine Island. Formerly a wealthy scion of a prominent family, he is reduced to renting rooms at the family mansion. A vindictive drunk, his wife Sylvia (McGuire) can barely stand his presence. Their son Johnny (Donahue) is the only proof their union wasn’t a waste. Then Ken Jorgenson (Egan) decides to bring his family for a visit. A former lifeguard at the Hunter estate, he’s now a self-made millionaire with a lingering crush on Sylvia. His wife Helen (Ford) is a neurotic terrified of sexuality, who sleeps in separates beds and browbeats her daughter Molly (Dee) about the sanctity of virginity. When they all come together in the inn, the atmosphere turns hothouse. Bart, sensing the ratcheting erotic tension, teases Helen about his “perverted garden” and its “aphrodisiac” qualities. Within days of the the Jorgenson’s arrival Molly is necking with Johnny while Sylvia and Ken rendezvous in the boathouse. There are divorces and recriminations and unexpected pregnancies, but these are not punishments, they are brute realities waiting to be overcome by couples who are truly in love.

A hallmark of Daves’ films are the forthrightness of his characters. They fall for each other with total abandonment. There is no manufactured tension about “will they or won’t they”, only about the realities of what happens after you do. In Pride of the Marines (1945) doughboy John Garfield woos Eleanor Parker in the opening scenes – the majority of the film revolves around how they cope with his blindness inflicted by the war. Love is total and intoxicating in his movies, but are then rattled with the impositions of living. Late in A Summer Place, Ken is agonizing over how to speak to Molly about sex, wanting to warn caution without robbing her of its joys. Sylvia responds, “Warn her that first it’s the passions and desires that rule a girl’s wants, but that love is far wider and deeper than that. Love is a learned thing between a man and a woman. And after those first, fierce passions start to fade, it’s that love, that learned love, that counts for everything.” Delmer Daves’s movies are about this learning.