April 28, 2015


In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall  – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.


Oscar Boetticher (he would adopt the Budd for 1951′s Bullfighter and the Lady) completed his service as an Ensign in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during WWII, and, like McDowall, was making the rounds of Poverty Row. He directed a couple crime films for PRC (Assigned to Danger and Behind Locked Doors (both 1948)) before moving to Monogram, which Boetticher described as “really second rate.” He made three films for them and producer Lindsley Parsons, starting with Black Midnight. With Roddy McDowall in tow, Monogram provided whatever animal-related script they had lying around (credited to Erna Lazarus and Scott Darling). McDowall plays Scott Jordan, who lives on a farm with his uncle Bill (Damian O’Flynn). They work the land and flirt with the neighbors – Martha (Fay Baker) and her daughter Cindy (Lynn Thomas). But when Bill’s wayward son Daniel (Rand Brooks) returns, their balanced ecosystem is upended. Daniel eyes Cindy and distracts Scott with a wild stallion named Midnight. Scott soothes and trains the horse, while Daniel sulks and generally acts suspicious. When Midnight accidentally kills one of Daniel’s friends, Scott has to resort to extreme measures to save the stallion’s life.


Though the plot is packed with incident, Boetticher somehow makes this hour-long drama seem leisurely. Time is spent establishing the rhythms of Bill and Scott’s daily life, of feeding the chickens, cleaning the house, and training the horse. DP William Sickner doesn’t have time to set up many close-ups, but captures all the work in odd, oblique angles, out of boredom, creativity or a combination of both. McDowall still has a spring in his step, seemingly happy to be outside and working, despite the swirling winds that very clearly bedevil the actors in most takes. Every outdoor shot sends everyone’s hair whipping. Bigger budgeted productions would just wait for the wind to die town, but on such tight schedules the shots had to proceed – and they clearly loop the audio in post-production. Each of these location shots seem like a battle, and gives these sequences an air of mounting tension, as if building up to a storm that never arrives.


Boetticher is continually pushing the camera in swift, punchy movements to keep the images interesting, always sidling around corners in a vaguely voyeuristic manner. Roddy McDowall, as in his career, is caught between beatific kid and hormonal teen. His flirtation with Cindy is kept chaste and non-threatening, as every chance at intimacy is interrupted by a McDowall pratfall in which his desires are doused by varieties of H20. But there is a clear attempt to give McDowall more “manly” scenes, none more so than in the epic brawl he has with Daniel that spills out from their country home out into the Lone Pine mountains. It’s a brutal knock down drag out scrum that has Roddy narrowly escape a knife to the face and proves, if nothing else, that he can take a good beating and deliver a believable punch. In Hollywood action movies, this passes for a sign of growth.


Boetticher remembered McDowall fondly:  “I just loved him. He always had his mother and father with him on the set, but he was just about to have his 21st birthday [on the set of Killer Shark (1950)]. So we went out on location on purpose, so he could get out from underneath their jurisdiction and see some girls here and there. So we made the picture in Baja, California, and Roddy was no virgin after that.” Boetticher was a raconteur/serial exaggerator, so whether or not this story is true, it reflects his affection for the young actor, and that affection is all over the screen. This movie is a small one with modest ambition, but there is a looseness and happiness apparent in every frame.

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Sickner reflects this shift in Scott’s importance in a rhymed pair of compositions. In the opening of the film, there is a shot of Bill and Martha in the foreground on a couch, chastising Scott and Cindy in the background, who mimic their elders positions by the fire. Near the end the shot is reversed, with Scott and Cindy commiserating on a fence in the foreground, blotting out the obsolescent Bill and Martha, who are off in the middle distance. Make way for tomorrow. McDowall would go on to acting school and add another fifty years in show business to his resume.


December 7, 2010


In November, Netflix introduced a “streaming only” option to their membership plan, for $7.99 a month, another marker in the slow death of the DVD. Their “Instant” offerings are frequently presented on faded and cropped masters likely made during the VHS days, but the rarity of their hodgepodge collection makes it a near-essential outlet for those interested in American film history. Unless one lives in a cinephilic megacity like New York or L.A., VOD offerings like Netflix Instant and DVD-on-demand outfits like the Warner Archive are the only (legally) easy way to view older titles.

The decline of art and repertory theaters make these services more important than ever. While driving around Buffalo during my Thanksgiving trip home, I passed by the marquee of the art theater I worked at as a disconsolate teen. It’s where I first saw In the Mood For Love and became aware of a cinematic world outside blockbuster-era Hollywood. The letters that greeted me were: Harry Potter/Morning Glory/Inside Job. Through my nostalgic prism this was a bile-inducing travesty, but if I was growing up there now I’d have a much vaster range of titles to watch through Netflix than what I was offered at the upstanding Dipson chain of theaters (you should all go to the old North Park movie palace if you drive through Buffalo).

To underline that fact, there has been a swift uptick in the amount of rare Golden Era Hollywood titles added to the Netflix Instant archives recently. Director Joe Dante posted a tantalizing list of newly available films in the comments section of Dave Kehr’s blog a few days ago. I watched two of them this week, Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) and Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957).

I had only known Boetticher’s film previously as the title of Jim Kitses’ seminal critical study of the Western, which is required reading for most genre courses in college. It was made four years before he was paired with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott for Seven Men From Now, which kicked off their brilliant and psychologically tortured series of revenge Westerns. They are spare, interiorized dramas tinged with expressionist visual flourishes, like the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome. In comparison, Horizons West is more conventional, with a flatter visual scheme and more transparent character motivations. But there are intimations of his future masterpieces. It is presented in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in a faded but watchable color transfer.

It tells the story of the Hammond brothers, returning home to Austin from the defeated Confederate army. Robert Ryan is Dan, the older and bitter sibling (“I don’t like to lose”), while Rock Hudson is Neil, the optimist eager to take over the family farm. Dan soon joins a gang of deserters and thieves, and builds them up from cattle rustlers to very persuasive land speculators. Soon Dan imagines building a “Western empire”, where his wife Lorna can be his queen. But before all that he has to run roughshod over his family, and steal Lorna away from the uber-capitalist Northern dandy Cord (a bitchy, superb Raymond Burr).

It is a plot-heavy scenario, with little time for the slow-burn breakdowns of Randolph Scott, but Robert Ryan’s greedy megalomaniac gets the most screen time, and there is a doomed aura to his character that could have been investigated further in a more pared down script (“-I want to make money. -What changed you? -The war, I guess.”). Ryan is a disillusioned war veteran eager to exploit the wide open capitalism of postwar Texas, and succeeds wildly, only to become more violent. His slowly wrinkling face trends downward into a snarl, emphasizing a kind of resigned brutality that Ryan is a master at portraying. It’s a provocative sketch of the haunting leads that Burt Kennedy would crystallize in his later scripts for Boetticher.

Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) comes during one of his peaks, a few years after Pickup on South Street (1953) and the same year as Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow. It’s another of his slam-bang pulp plots laced with punchy dialogue, bravado camera movements, and a simmering social conscience. Shot in CinemaScope by Joseph Biroc, Netflix Instant presents it cropped in 1.33:1, something of a tragedy. But it is otherwise unavailable on DVD in America, so this bowdlerized version is all we have for now. In the opening paragraph of the chapter on China Gate in Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, he makes the characteristic statement:

Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent!

In the opening sequence of China Gate, a young boy wanders through the ruins of a small village in North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. He hides a puppy inside his shirt, only letting him out to eat some scraps on the ground. Then a starving man spies the animal, and desperate for food, chases the boy with a knife wielded high. The kid hides in a nearby bunker housing soldiers and loses him. Fuller strategically wields swooping crane shots, moving in to create tension and then back out to establish the horrifically scarred landscape.

The boy is the child of “Lucky Legs” (Angie Dickinson), an alcoholic single mother of Chinese-Caucasian descent (“I’m a bit of everything and a lot of nothing”). She survives by smuggling booze across the border to China along with, it is strongly implied, prostitution. The French Foreign Legion hires her as a scout on a mission to bomb an major rebel arms cache. The detail is led by Sergeant Brock (Gene Barry), a racist who abandoned Lucky after he discovered their child looked Chinese. Also in this group of mercenaries is Nat King Cole (Goldie), who did the part for scale, simply because of his enthusiasm for the project, according to Fuller. Cole also sings the lovely, funereal theme song, written by composer Victor Young before his death (the lyrics were by Harold Adamson, and the film’s full score was completed by Max Steiner).

It is filled with the bitter, grotesque ironies of war, such as the former French gendarme getting gunned down after an extended monologue about his previous life, which closed with, “This is the way to live!” These soldiers of fortune are brutalized and scared, with one Hungarian suffering from hallucinations of Russian troops stalking him. Brock orders that he be killed. Another dies in a fluke accident, and whose last words are, “I hope there’s a heaven. It would kill me to have to come here again.”

It’s bleak and blackly comic, a desperate and prescient anti-war film made seven years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the ramping up of U.S. troops in the region. I’ll give Fuller the last word:

My tale is full of human foible and confusion. I deliberately wanted that confusion. I was still thinking of Clare Booth Luce’s remark that ‘anyone who isn’t thoroughly confused, isn’t thinking clearly.’