September 7, 2010


Last week VCI Entertainment released two obscure DVDs into the wild: William Witney’s Apache Rifles (1964, above) and Four in the Morning (1965), which features Judi Dench in her first leading role. Neither are deathless masterpieces, but each are valuable in their own inimitable way. Witney, a prolific director of movie serials for Republic Pictures (he specialized in Roy Rogers and Dick Tracy films, among scores of others), has a small (and growing) auteurist cult, receiving plaudits from Quentin Tarantino in recent years. In 2000, he told the NY Times that, “William Witney is ahead of them all, the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.”

A blunt descendant of The Searchers, it casts Audie Murphy as an Indian-hating U.S. Calvary Captain thrown into a moral quandary when he falls in love with a woman who is half Comanche. Making good use of the desert landscape, Witney starts off with wide shots during Murphy’s vengeful phase, and slowly closes in until the psychologically wrought final sequences take place in intimate two-shots. The first half is shoot outs, the second half fistfights (including a particularly brutal one with L.Q. Jones).

Released the same year as John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Witney’s film is a smaller-budgeted effort to improve the representation of Native Americans on film, although the Apache “Red Hawk” is played by the Italian-American Michael Dante, and the unfortunate ending has him embracing the tribe’s forced relocation to Texas. But the rest of the film is a no-nonsense actioner that pragmatically diagnoses the causes of ethnic violence. That is, the Apache’s land equals money for the town’s miners, and so a higher standard of living for the community. So the “savagery” of the Native Americans is played up by the town leaders in order to provoke a fight. Murphy negotiated a truce with the Apaches mandating that work cease on the local mines, but it swiftly collapses when an Apache is falsely accused of murder. Self-interest always wins out.

Audie Murphy does not have the tools to navigate the minute psychological turns of his character – his bland handsomeness rather dulls the edge of his supposedly violent nature, tempering the drama of his shift in attitude to the Apaches. Witney surrounds him with capable bit players (Jones, Ken Lynch, Bob Brubaker), and matches cuts on action to keep things moving, a whirling film without a center.  To compare Murphy to John Wayne in The Searchers is to see the greatness of John Wayne.

Four in the Morning is a morose bit of British kitchen sink realism, following three tales of working class woe through a single evening. Judi Dench is a harried young mother tending to her wailing and teething infant while her husband gets loaded (she won the “Most Promising Newcomer” award at the BAFTAs). Ann Lynn plays a lonely nightclub gal who strolls the London docks with the eagerly flirtatious Brian Phelan, and they soon alienate each other with a series of power-shifting mind games. In between these two stories, director Anthony Simmons details the fate of a female corpse that washed ashore, documenting the bureaucratic wrangling to send her to the grave.

As a narrative it’s overdetermined and suffocatingly miserabilist, but the stark B&W images of the mud-spattered London ports by DP Larry Pizer subtly expresses the aimless malaise of its characters (Pizer also shot Mannequin 2: On the Move. It’s a job, after all). The scuffed top of the coffin that carries away the Jane Doe says far more, and carries more metaphorical weight, than the overwrought script. If Simmons trimmed the overly theatrical dialogue and let the camera speak, Four in the Morning might be known as more than a footnote in Dench’s career.

The only relationship between these two films is that, luckily, VCI got their industrious hands on them. Of the innumerable companies that release public domain titles, VCI is the only one to put care into their releases. Apache Rifles, as you can see, looks a bit soft, while Four in the Morning has nice sharpness, but exhibits some digital artifacts while in motion. But they are eminently watchable presentations, considering that VCI is dealing with original materials of questionable quality and working on a low budget. Apache Rifles is also festooned with an interview with Michael Dante, and a short, informative documentary about the film.

VCI started in 1961 as a non-theatrical booking company known as United Films, distributing studio titles to college campuses and ships at sea. In 1976 the owner/founder Bill Blair started up a division he named Video Communications, Inc., and they claim to be the first business to sell films directly to home theater owners. They clearly have a strong sense of film history, having also released Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm and Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun earlier this year. A rescuer of orphaned films otherwise languishing in flickering boxes on YouTube, VCI is doing cinephilic yeoman’s work, and they should be thus honored.