December 29, 2015


Affair in Trinidad (1952) marked Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after a three-year absence. She had been suspended by Columbia Pictures following her marriage to Iraqi prince Aly Khan and relocation to Europe, which violated her seven-year contract.  Her reunion with Columbia was an uneasy one, and Affair in Trinidad was made with a half-finished script and a truculent star. The resulting film was widely regarded as a sloppy rehash of Gilda, but it was a hit at the box office anyway, as audiences were still devoted to their “Love Goddess” Hayworth. Director Vincent Sherman performed an admirable reclamation job on the nonsensical script, but the artistic successes lie elsewhere on the billing block. The film has two superb dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Bettis, who worked closely with Hayworth, and DP Joseph Walker (in his final film) conjures illicit atmospheres through his inky B&W cinematography. The film recently aired on TCM, and is available on DVD from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.


Columbia exec Harry Cohn was eager to get Hayworth back on screen and squeeze the remaining value out of her contract. Gilda was her most successful feature, so Cohn hired that film’s co-star Glenn Ford as well as its screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who was to prepare a script to recapture the old magic. She turned out 15 pages, and off of that Cohn hired Vincent Sherman to direct the picture. According to Sherman, a meeting was held with producer Burt Granet and Van Upp, during which the whole story was to be planned out. Van Upp had only written 25 or 30 pages with no idea how to finish, and was bottoming out on an alcoholic bender. Rita Hayworth was in town earning $3,500 a week with no script to shoot, and Cohn was putting pressure on Sherman to figure something out. Granet dropped out of the project but Sherman stuck around and hired James Gunn to rush the completion of the script (with some revisions by Oscar Saul). Sherman on working with Gunn:

He had a bright mind, not always very focused, he was drinking and very unhappy, but he was talented. The next day I sent for a copy of Notorious…. I stole a little from that film, a little from this, a little from that, and I put together a melodrama that took place in Trinidad.


Rita Hayworth plays Chris Emory, the featured act at a Trinidadian nightclub. Her husband Neal turns up dead in the bay, and she is under investigation for the murder, along with her decadent and rich friend Max Fabien (Alexander Scourby). Then Neal’s brother Steve (Glenn Ford) shows up, and starts to unravel the mysteries coursing through the town, as well as falling madly in love with Chris, who may or may not be guilty of the murder.


Hayworth was displeased by the delays, and refused to report to work until she received a script she could approve. Columbia suspended her from December of 1951 until January 1952, when she relented and agreed to work on the Sherman and Gunn script. By this point it was a production to endure, not to savor. Both Ford and Sherman remember Hayworth as being unhappy and distant on the set. Ford wrote in his journal that, “She had changed. She was still beautiful, still a marvelous girl, but the flame did not burn as bright. There was a tiredness about her now, a sadness in her eyes. She was unhappy a lot of the time. Those of us who loved her tried to bring her out of it but without a lot of success.” Sherman said that Hayworth was the “saddest girl I’ve ever known. She had been used by every man that ever worked with her.”

1952: Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) as nightclub singer Chris Emery in 'Affair In Trinidad', directed by Vincent Sherman. (Photo by Robert Coburn Sr.)

The one person Hayworth seemed to open up to was choreographer Valerie Bettis, who put together the two showstopping dance numbers that are the film’s sole reasons for existing,”Trinidad Lady” and “I’ve Been Kissed Before” (she also acts in a small supporting role as a loudmouthed alcoholic, Veronica, who hilariously slurs that she wishes she could dance like Chris).  Theirs seemed to be a true collaboration, and while the film around them was stilted and familiar, the dance numbers are confrontational and strikingly modern. Bettis called Hayworth, “the most cooperative artist with whom I have ever been associated” (quoted in Adrienne L. McLean’s Being Rita Hayworth).  Bettis was a product of the second wave of modern dance, having studied under German choreographer Hanya Holm, and was interested in folding all forms of media into dance. Her breakthrough solo was choreographed to a poem by John Malcolm Brinnin, while she later adapted Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire into ballets. She became a success in Broadway in her “Tigerlily” number in the revue Inside USA in 1948, and spent the rest of her career oscillating between the stage, film and television.


On Affair in Trinidad, Bettis said that “every day there was a major crisis, but Rita and I won all our battles and and of course that gave us great satisfaction, no matter what the studio officials felt.” Cohn objected to Hayworth dancing “Trinidad Lady” barefoot feeling, Bettis said, that “it didn’t make [Hayworth] look attractive.” Perhaps not wanting to delay the production any longer, Hayworth and Bettis would get their way, and the “Trinidad Lady” number is a provocative, modern number in the middle of a retrograde drama. Hayworth’s character is doing her nightly show, unaware that the police have arrived to inform her of her husband’s apparent suicide. The routine, set to a light calypso rhythm (with vocals dubbed by Jo Ann Greer), is not your usual hip-swaying  seduction, but a forceful knifing through space. I am not a dance critic, but The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Terry was suitably impressed, writing:

Here, there is no sense that a dance seems sensual simply because Miss Hayworth is decorating its measures with her sensual presence. Rather do these dances exploit and disclose new aspects of a very vibrant personality. …if you look closely you will see that the legs are but infrequently used to make steps for carrying the body from one geographical location to another but that the legs move because violent actions of the torso propel them forwards and backward and sideways.

She is not moving to get from one place to another but from a hidden force inside her core. This interiority is emphasized in extreme close-ups in which Hayworth stares with a sly grin into the camera. It is not a come hither stare, but more an aggressive announcement of her own sexual power.

The “I’ve Been Kissed Before Number” is set at a party, and is gliding and playful where “Trinidad Lady” is aggressive and confrontational. It is almost all sinuous arms and hands, faux-flirting with the gathered guests. It makes less of a visceral impact but serves its purpose to fire Glenn Ford’s jealousy.

Poster - Affair in Trinidad_02

Affair in Trinidad was a problem that had to be solved, and what could have been a disaster was molded into passable entertainment thanks to the two standout dance sequences. Valerie Bettis would speak highly of her collaboration with Hayworth years later, and they seemed to be the only two on the set who didn’t wish they were somewhere else. With Sherman and Ford Hayworth seemed distant and sad, seemingly defeated by the business. But for Bettis it was a cherished, joyous collaboration. Hayworth seemed to light back up around her (and they would collaborate again for the “Dance of the Seven Veils” sequence in Salome).  When the New York Times asked Bettis if Hayworth was a “truly good dancer by a reputable choreographer’s standards”, she responded: “She fed me…she was an Open Sesame. There she was, under a double-edged sword, so to speak, facing ‘the monster’ — the camera — for the first time in more than three years. I wanted her to loathe it. I wanted her to be so familiarized with the routines she would be contemptuous of it. And she was — like an angel.”


May 14, 2013


Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as  “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.

On the surface Pride of the Marine appears to be a basic WWII propaganda programmer, telling the true story of working class Philadelphia boy Al Schmid (John Garfield) and his path to winning the Navy Cross for his actions in a battle at Guadalcanal, which blinded him. But Daves and screenwriter Albert Maltz (later blacklisted) are more concerned with Schmid’s fragile psyche than his kill count (200 in one night, reportedly). Much time is spent on location in Philly with Schmid’s combative courtship of Ruth (Eleanor Parker), establishing the cocoon atmosphere of life in the pre-War States. The scene in which news of the Pear Harbor bombing breaks on the radio is one of blithe self-absorption. It’s during a dinner party with Schmid and his friends and they think Pearl Harbor is located in Jersey, their whole world limited to the northeast U.S. After the battle, shot like a horror movie in quiet and shadow, Schmid is forced to discover the world anew as a blind man. He becomes bitter and withdrawn, resentful of the U.S. for sending him into that abattoir, and awakening to the racial inequalities of American life. His best pal Lee is Jewish and informs him that as a blind man Schmid would have an easier time getting a job than himself. It is only Ruth’s compassion that can re-integrate him into society, and prevent him from succumbing to nihilism. Schmid is one of many emotionally enclosed Daves protagonists forced to open up due to physical debility.

the_red_house_edward g robinson

The same is true of Edward G. Robinson in The Red House (’47), a delirious farmhouse thriller in which Robinson ritualistically intones, “don’t go into the woods”. An aging patriarch with a wooden leg, he lives with his spinster sister (Judith Anderson) and his adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). Living in an isolated cabin (as alone as Cooper’s cabin in The Hanging Tree), they rarely venture into town, causing rumors to swirl. Robinson is repressing a terrible secret, and he moves with such coiled deliberation it seems he’ll break into a sweat with each utterance. The film locks into such a hypnotic rhythm it could be mistaken for tedium – it’s a series of seized-up Robinson warnings followed by Meg and her young boyfriend Nath (Lon McCallister) searching the woods for a mythical “Red House”. The landscape takes on a menacing character, as filled with traps as the world outside Philly is for Schmid. Once the circular plot breaks open and Robinson’s secret is revealed, a preternatural calm sweeps across his face as death rises to greet him.


Broken Arrow (1950) returns the social concerns of Pride of the Marines, with a script from the now blacklisted Albert Maltz fronted by Michael Blankfort, who received the credit. It is generally regarded as the first Hollywood film to give a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, although numerous Bs as well as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) could also make that claim. It displays Daves’ obsession for historical detail (he consulted his grandfather’s diaries, who crossed the country in a covered wagon), shooting the story of Cochise close to where he actually lived, on the Apache White River Reservation and the Coconino National Forest in Arizona. The setting is overwhelmingly beautiful in Technicolor, shot by Ernest Palmer, that does have a picture postcard prettiness, a fantasy land for this alternate history in which Apaches and Americans live in peaceful assimilationist harmony.


The Criterion release Jubal (1956) returns to Dave’s theme of renewal, the first of three such Westerns he would make with Glenn Ford. Daves co-wrote the screenplay about vagabond cowboy Jubal (Ford) found starving in the woods by  thriving farm owner Shep (Ernest Borgnine). Jubal builds up his strength and self-respect until he becomes foreman, and begins to woo the daughter of a Mormon minister. Shep’s bored housewife Mae (Valerie French) wants a renewal of her own, leading to a destructive jealousy. This is another of Daves’ isolated locales, a tight grouping of Shep’s home, work bunks and stables nestled in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. These buildings are together but separate, the crossing their boundaries causing dissension among the farmhands. The main dissenter is Pinky, played with perverse artifice by Rod Steiger.As Kent Jones notes in his DVD booklet essay, “It’s odd to watch the actor stretch every syllable as far as it can go (“nothing” becomes “nuh-thiiiiiihn”)”. This method madness is a poor fit for the naturalistic presences of Ford (deliberate and reticent) and Borgnine (who is spectacular as a garrulous innocent), but is still fascinating to watch to see how he chews off each particular scene.


Jack Lemmon also seems like a poor fit for the Daves universe, but in Cowboy (1958) he gives a nuanced performance as another damaged Daves loner sliding into self-pity. He stars alongside Ford in a cattle drive odd couple. Lemmon is a Chicago hotel clerk ready to light out for Mexico to chase a girl. Ford is an arrogant, usually rich cattle trader who agrees to take on tenderfoot Lemmon after a generous cash investment. Ford suffers the physical ailment, getting punctured by an arrow, while Lemmon suffers a spiritual malaise, his clumsy urban neurotic becoming a self-destructive wretch after completing his first drive, his romantic dreams of cowboy life dissolved in cow shit and snake bites.  Again concerned with the textures and rhythms of that historical period, Daves adapted Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical 1930 novel On the Trail: My Reminiscences as a Cowboy. The film is littered with process, from how to put on chaps to how to make a steer stand up in a moving train car. Showing a light touch he would use in his 1960s romances, the film turns into a love story between Ford and Lemmon, as they recognize each other’s frailties in themselves. It ends with a shot of them in matching bathtubs, equality achieved at last.


February 26, 2013


Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W,  in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park.   Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.

Edwards described that period of his life as one of “constant testing”. He wanted to “try something that was…away from the things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with.” The opportunity to do something different came when Columbia Pictures optioned the novel Operation Terror for $112,500, an astronomical sum at the time. The book and resulting screenplay were written by the husband-wife team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who spun Gordon Gordon’s experiences in the FBI (as a counter-intelligence officer during WWII) into crime fiction novels. This particular tale involves bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is forced to steal $150,000 from her job or a wheezing goon named Red (Ross Martin) will kill her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly is able to contact the FBI, and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) races against the clock to find the psycho before the money is lost or Toby gets snuffed.

The opening is a masterful bit of claustrophobic horror. To the strains of Henry Mancini’s wailing autoharp score, Remick pulls into the garage of her house near the Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  With shadows of plant fronds splayed across the wall behind her, she pauses as if hearing a noise. The camera pushes in, and the static shadows become a moving one, the darkened figure of Ross Martin sidles over and slides his hands around her neck. His face in darkness, what follows is an extended monologue of sexual aggression in extreme close-up, as he slides his hands down her body offscreen and ticks off her measurements. This is profoundly disturbing, made even more so by Edwards’ refusal to diffuse the tension with a long shot.


Interiors become filled with grotesques, which Edwards forces in his frequent use of extreme closeups and canted angles, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ delirious Mr. Arkadin (1955). This motif reaches its climax inside the apartment of a mannequin designer and friend of the killer whose apartment is a necropolis of plastic appendages. When Red appears among this pile, he looks like just another mound of soulless molding. A creature more of sound than sight, his labored breathing is the only thing that identifies him as human.


The usual thriller mechanics would demand Remick be piled with stress until she snaps into hysteria, waiting to be saved by a male interlocutor. Instead she is spooked but self-assured, as inflexible as the FBI and as fiercely independent as any criminal. She is completely self-sufficient, with no romantic interests and a cold-eyed intensity at getting the job done. She is so self-confident it rather drains the film of tension – there is no question she will succeed. The interest in the film lies in the how, and in what lighting scheme.


Gradually the film moves from baroque interiors to naturalistic exteriors, all shot on location throughout San Francisco, as if Edwards flipped the channel from Welles to Rossellini. Along with his DP Philip Lathrop, whom he worked with on the TV series Peter Gunn,  he captures the Twin Peaks neighborhood, the Fisherman’s Wharf and Candlestick Park with a mix of atmospheric long shots and handheld work. Outside the world is legible with nothing to fear. It is inside buildings and inside characters were there are stresses and manias and kidnappings.

Interiors and exteriors collide in the bravura final sequence at Candlestick Park, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the hometown Giants. While most films just use grainy stock footage of games, Edwards actually shot gorgeous footage on the field, and went to the expense of getting additional insert shots of the sweaty face of Don Drysdale before throwing a pitch (anticipating where network coverage was heading). While this is a boon to baseball nerds like myself, this extreme closeup is an indication that the claustrophobia of the opening sequence will reappear in this outdoor space. The climax occurs after the game ends and the crowd is filing out, the cover for Red’s takedown of Kelly and the money. The previous frames of looming faces and headless mannequins are here replaced by a mass drunken revelers. It is only when Glenn Ford can cut through this morass and empty out the film frame that the threat can be nullified. In the final shot a helicopter pulls up and away from Candlestick Park, out into nothingness.

Don Siegel pays homage to that final shot with his own in Dirty Harry, another story of a San Francisco psycho in which the camera pulls away from a blood-strewn stadium into the sky, as if revulsed by humanity. There are also a number of circumstantial echoes in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark TV series Twin Peaks. The title is taken from the San Francisco neighborhood Lee Remick lives in, and Red’s full name is Garland “Red” Lynch. Perhaps tickled with the coincidence of sharing a name with the movie’s murderer, he also named a Twin Peaks character Garland (Major Garland Briggs) as well. So while the film is a compilation of Blake Edwards’ influence, his triumph of style over substance has had its own curious effect on the films that came after.



May 22, 2012

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The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).

The Big Heat is premised on a divide, the one between Detective Dave Bannion’s middle class abode, a blandly utilitarian ranch house, and the glittering homes and hangouts of the criminal class, like hired muscle Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) plush penthouse apartment. As Tom Gunning wrote in his seminal Films of Fritz Lang, The Big Heat, “moves through this contradictory environment whose smooth surfaces mask the fissure  between the good life for the few and the cramped and hectic worlds of the mass of people”.

It was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Fritz Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Lang renders Boehm’s straightforward revenge tale with an abstracted intensity, the cold open suicide rendered in massive disembodied close-up of a hand on a revolver, followed by an off-screen gunshot. Lang does not use an establishing shot, breaking the film into pieces that Detective Bannion will struggle to re-connect.

Ford is unduly stressed throughout, on the perpetual edge of exhaustion, his speech clipped into little shotgun blasts of bile that anticipate Charles Bronson’s monotonal delivery a decade or so later. Even when in possession of his nuclear home, he seems uneasy, the jollity forced. His wife, played by Jocelyn Brando, emits a generic housewifely cheer, as if Bannion just wandered onto the set of the Donna Reed Show (which wouldn’t premiere until 1958, but please indulge me). When Bannion’s home is emptied out, it feels more like reality, and the middle-class fantasy the dream. Seeing the rage in Bannion’s eyes, an ex-partner on the force tells him, “you’re on a hate binge.” And so he is, blithely stampeding into Lagana’s nightclubs and mansion, more locales in which he doesn’t belong, with his old dark trenchcoat and faded fedora, suspicious of everyone and belonging nowhere. It is with the entry of Debby Marsh, that childishly erotic creation of Gloria Grahame, that Bannion finds another lost soul, uncomfortable in furs and then in her own skin, when Vince Stone famously scars her face with a pot of coffee (off-screen, like the suicide). Their bond is brief but intense, as each have been ripped away from their place in society. Debby tells a fellow female schemer that they are “sisters under the mink”, but she and Bannion are comrades in hate.

The Lawless was the second film Joseph Losey directed in Hollywood, and he would only be able to make three more before he was blacklisted and had to move overseas. He followed up the anti-war fable The Boy With Green Hair (1948) with this socially conscious drama, which he shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, CA in 18 days. He would continue to exploit real locations in his work, used to spectacular effect inThe Prowler (1951) and his remake of Lang’s (1951), in which Southern California becomes a tomb of broken American dreams.

The script was written by Daniel Mainwaring (using his  pseudonym as a mystery novelist, Geoffrey Homes), who would also come under some scrutiny by HUAC, although he was able to work sporadically during that period. Mainwaring’s script hearkens back to the social-realist films of the ’30s, like King Vidor’s ode to communal living, Our Daily Bread, within a completely different political landscape. Anything that smacked of Communism was suspect, so the film’s plea for racial tolerance, and unflattering portrayal of the local police force, came under scrutiny from the Production Code Administration’s Joseph Breen. Here is his amazing note to the film’s distributor, Paramount, as reproduced in the AFI Catalog:

The shocking manner in which the several gross injustices are heaped upon the head of the confused, but innocent young American of Mexican extraction, and the willingness of so many of the people in your story to be a part of, and to endorse, these injustices, is, we think, a damning portrayal of our American social system. The manner in which certain of the newspapers are portrayed in this story, with their eagerness to dishonestly present the news, and thus inflame their readers, is also, we think, a part of a pattern which is not good. The over-all effect of a story of this kind made into a motion picture would be, we think, a very definite disservice to this country of ours, and to its institutions and its ideals….This whole undertaking seems to us to be fraught with very great danger.

However great the danger, Paramount did not greatly alter the film, in which circulation-obsessed newspapermen rile up the public into a frenzy around the story of Mexican “fruit tramp” Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), accused of killing a cop. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, only the stalwart editor Larry Wilder (MacDonald Carey) stands to defend the kid, inflaming the populace to ransack his office. It’s a scene of destructive power, one of the few instances where the theme is illustrated by action rather than static speechifying. This reckless, irrational demolition of a newspaper office, fueled by race hatred, dwarfs the liberal pieties of the rest of the film, which turns Wilder into the hero at the expense of Rodriguez. In plotting action, mostly in long takes, Losey proves he could express his social critique through more subtle means, which he would succeed at in the haunting machinations of The Prowler, one of the great films of 50s middle-class malaise, right alongside The Big Heat.


September 15, 2009


September 25th is Phil Karlson night on TCM, as they’ll be screening three of his tight-lipped noirs along with a rare  B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus. He’s one of the many unsung talents from the studio system, and I’ve been entranced with his work since I saw The Phenix City Story, a docu-drama so precisely detailed the stench of corruption wafts off the screen in pungent waves (it airs at 9:45PM on the 25th). So whenever a Karlson comes across my radar, I devour it. Which brings me to 1967′s A Time For Killing, a film which I watched on TCM a few months back, but which is also available for  purchase on iTunes (the TCM master is in the correct 2.35 aspect ratio, but the iTunes listing says their version is full-screen).

Karlson is credited as the sole director, but the movie was originally developed by Roger Corman under the title The Long Ride Home, hot on the heels of The Wild Angels and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the first film in a new multi-picture deal Corman made with Columbia Pictures. It was based on the novel The Southern Blade, a Civil War drama written by Nelson and Shirley Wolford, whose adaptation duties he handed to a young Robert Towne, while Monte Hellman was on board as the editor (he was producing Hellman’s The Shooting, released the same year). A few weeks into the production however, Corman was fired, Hellman resigned in protest, and Towne’s script was scrapped.

There is no definitive story regarding his ouster, but Corman biographer Beverly Gray offers the following:

Towne told Corman’s assistant Francis Doel he suspected that the ouster occurred “because Roger insisted on saving money. Roger didn’t understand that, unlike Sam Arkoff or AIP, [Columbia] wouldn’t think any better of him for saving money. In fact, they would think the opposite. They would think that he was going to make them a picture of lesser quality than they were used to.” Doel recalls that when Columbia executives sent Corman lists of equipment they were planning to ship to his Arizona location, he would cross out items he felt weren’t needed. If, for instance, two generators were listed, he would eliminate one, figuring that the remaining generator would work adequately for the length of the shoot. Presumably, this thrifty behavior raised the suspicions of the Columia brass, who feared getting a cheap-looking product.

Essentially, Corman’s DIY ethos clashed with the plush expectations of the Columbia suits. Corman doesn’t say much about the incident, claiming only that he had a “series of disagreements” before leaving the set. Monte Hellman has a more colorful evasion, quoted from Brad Stevens’ biography of the iconoclastic filmmaker:

“I was editor on the film for a couple of weeks, and resigned when Corman was fired. I never saw the film, and have no recollection of which scenes I may have worked on. It’s another CRAFT moment: Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.”

In any case, Karlson took over the director’s chair, and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma) received sole screenwriting credit. It’s unclear how much of Towne’s script was used in Welles’ version. The cast remained the same, though, and a number of Corman’s cadre of character actors give delightfully eccentric turns: Timothy Carey, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton are all on hand, wielding their jutting-out faces with expressionistic glee. Carey is a bombastic sharpshooter named Billy Cat, Miller a cowardly Union soldier tittering in the corners of frames, while Stanton is a nervous voice of reason on the Confederate side, duly ignored. They provide the colorful background to the dour leads: Glenn Ford and George Hamilton. The contrast is so great between the supporting comedians and the leading brooders, its easy to think that Corman shot most of the former material with his friends and Karlson took over the more psychologically tinged sequences with the latter. But unless someone turns up the production log, it’s impossible to say.

Ford plays Major Wolcott, a quiet type just trying to keep his troops alive as the Civil War winds to a close. He’s stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where Confederate Captain Bentley (Hamilton) is held with a gaggle of good ol’ boys. Wolcott is in love with a missionary, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), who he sends away from the camp because it’s too dangerous.  Bentley and his gang soon break out, run down Biddle’s wagon train and take her hostage. Wolcott is sent out to track them down, just as the war is rumored to be coming to a close.

The script sets up the chase as a study in vengeance. At the open, Wolcott attempts to temper the bloodthirstiness of his Colonel, who orders a brutal execution of a Confederate prisoner. He requests that the search be called off for the escaped prisoners, since the South was expected to surrender at any minute. The colonel insists, Wolcott leaves, and the film tracks the Major’s slow descent into the cycle of vengeance that has enveloped everyone else.

Corman & Karlson keep much of the action in long shot, subordinated to the landscape and the fates that are driving them towards death. Even fight scenes are fought in long shot, including a series of duels between two bickering Confederates. The first takes place in the desert, starting with laughter and ending with knives drawn. Their rage is made small by the camera’s distance, rendered as just a symptom of the disease devouring both sides of the war. For punctuation, Karlson/Corman cut in to distorted extreme close-ups, underlining further Bentley and Wolcott’s psychological breakdown. By the end of the film, when Major Wolcott barrels his way into Mexico, recklessly leading his men to certain death in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, brittle Dick Miller, who runs off with his pal to avoid further combat, turns out to be the smartest soldier in town.