NIGHT AND THE CITY: BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950)

January 6, 2015

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 “A brutal policeman is a terrible thing. He has too much power. Too many chances of taking his viciousness out on helpless people.” – Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm) in Between Midnight and Dawn

In the grim police procedural Between Midnight and Dawn, violence is a spigot that cannot be turned off. It begins with a thrill – a tense night time shootout in an auto-body shop with some generic young hoods. But for beat cop prowl car partners Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Daniel Purvis (Edmond O’Brien), it’s just one of their nightly spasms of gunfire. Rocky is able to retain his humanity, working off his nerves through a constant patter of jokes, but Purvis has worn out his concern for human life. Once it turns dark, all women are tramps, all men are thugs, and Purvis’ misanthropic disgust flows into his trigger finger. The movie strays into unconvincing romance — the brightness looking sallow and jaundiced against the sepulchral evening blacks of DP George Diskant (much shot on location in Los Angeles city streets) — but it retains a bitter aftertaste upon its close. Between Midnight and Dawn is available on the TCM Vault Collection’s “Columbia Film Noir Classics IV” DVD box set.

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It was director Gordon Douglas’ second harsh noir of 1950 — he made it immediately following Kiss Me Tomorrow, featuring James Cagney as an abusive, single-minded psychopath. The shadow of Cagney’s character appears in Purvis, peeking out from behind his sober on-duty face whenever he sees any adult carousing after dark. Then he spits out the insults and batters witnesses. He is, according to the film’s rights, and that of the world around him, a “good” cop. He and Barnes are ex-marines and best pals who room together and work together, and their relationship feels like a series of routines worked out over the decades. Purvis is the ungainly sober straight man who reacts to the jackrabbit energy of Barnes and his constant stream of humor. Barnes is always acting, which insulates him from the world outside, while Purvis is an open nerve, instantly pained by everything around him.

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The film was made for Columbia Pictures, and shot from February – March of 1950. It has the looks of a cheap production, using a few office sets and the rest shot on location in Los Angeles. Mark Stevens was positioned as a star for 20th Century Fox for a few years in the late ’40s (The Dark CornerThe Snake Pit), but he was released from his contract in 1950. Between Midnight and Dawn was his second film as a free agent, after he made the romantic comedy Please Believe Me for MGM. It is striking to compare his relative youthfulness in Between Midnight to the films he would write and direct a few years later (Cry Vengeance (’54) and Timetable (56)). In those latter, despairing noirs Stevens looks emaciated and burnt-out, the movies a monument to his disillusionment with the industry. In Between Midnight and Dawn he still has pep and vigor, and earned top billing over Edmond O’Brien.

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The screenplay by Eugene Ling (adapted from a story by Leo Katcher and Gerald Drayson Adams) nails together a hodgepodge of genres, though it would be called noir today. It is framed as a procedural, opening with a voice of God about the little guys who arrive on the scene before the more famous FBI attention hoggers show up – the radio patrolmen (the original title was Prowl Car). Barnes and Purvis then nab the young hoodlums in the auto-body shop after a low-light gunfight. There are other slices-of-life attempts at realism here, from breaking up a couple of brawling pre-teens to dealing with a stink bombed Italian grocers. But then it shifts into gangster movie mode, as the tough who is collared for the stink bomb turns out to be one of the heavies for local mob kingpin Ritchie Garris (a babyfaced Donald Buka). The routine gives way to their pursuit of the Garris gang, who get drawn into a mob war with a cross-town rival. While all this is going on, the movie manages to squeeze in some light rom-comedy, as both Barnes and Purvis become enamored with the young secretary to their lieutenant, Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm). They have an awkward three-person date, and then the two cops move in next door to her, for some strained farce.

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It’s one movie too many, but it’s held together by Douglas’ cold impassive tone and Diskant’s resourceful cinematography.  As Sean Axmaker noted in his article on the official TCM site, Diskant uses” chiaroscuro lighting of shadows and slashes of illumination in studio-set scenes, as in a shootout in a garage early in the film, [while] his location footage is defined by hard, single-source lighting, which gives the scenes a down-and-dirty immediacy.” There is an extraordinary car chase that zips through the Los Angeles bus depot and careens into a rural stretch of wood, the criminal jamming his rifle barrel through the back windshield, spraying death behind him. It is this chase that spells Barnes and Purvis’ doom. Their high-speed heroics initiate a whole cycle of vengeance that nearly immolates them all. And Purvis invites it. The quote at the top of the page, which seems painfully relevant in the light of recent events in Ferguson and NYC, is said by Katherine after Purvis slaps around an innocent nightclub singer. Desperate for a lead, Purvis finally crosses the line from silent to active hatred. There is an unconvincingly redemptive ending in which he makes peace with his demons by shooting them. Purvis walks out of the carnage smiling, flashbulbs popping. He is less an LAPD hero than a Travis Bickle in waiting.

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TALL IN THE SADDLE: CLINT WALKER IN FORT DOBBS AND YELLOWSTONE KELLY

July 8, 2014

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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Kennedy wrote the stories for the Budd Boetticher-Rudolph Scott “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, in which the majority of violence is psychological. Fort Dobbs retains the spirit of those Boetticher films, a three-person battle of resentments between Walker, Brian Keith and Virginia Mayo. The ever-reliable Gordon Douglas keeps the focal points of the triangle shifting in the frame, and makes the dramatic Utah desert-scape constrict around its characters. The near wordless opener depicts Gar Davis (Clint Walker) storming into a house to kill a man offscreen. Douglas keeps the camera outside, the only indication of violence a broken window and the sound of a gunshot. Gar then gallops away from the posse forming to catch him, and dresses a corpse in his clothes to throw them off the scent. The desert is a repository of dead things, which is why Gar seems genuinely surprised to find a working farm out there, operated by Celia (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). Knowing the Comanche are on a push to drive white settlers out, he agrees to lead them to safety at the titular Fort Dobbs. Along the way Gar runs into Clett (Keith), a black market gun seller. They were old running buddies turned sour, with a history of distrust between them. Celia is led to believe Gar had killed her husband, while Clett has less than respectable designs on Celia. The whole miserable group troupes through the dirt with eyes implanted in the back of their heads. Douglas emphasizes the act of looking through POV shots through Gar’s eyes, as well as in a remarkable reaction shot from Mayo, gazing at a shirtless Gar as he cleans his gun. An unruly mix of lust, hatred and confusion flickers through her eyes. Walker is improbably good looking, but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming. He didn’t make enough films to develop a persona beyond this, like how Marion Morrison was able to workshop “John Wayne” in all those Republic B-Westerns, but what’s there is clear and true.

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Wayne and John Ford were once attached to make Yellowstone Kelly. They passed, and it fell down the bureaucratic ladder to Douglas and Walker, who turned in a fine-grained epic on a budget. The studio was attracted to the story of Western trapper and Indian scout Luther Sage Kelly because of an advertisement in Variety. According to Susan Compo’s biography of Warren Oates, A Wild Life, an ad centered around Kelly ran for U.S. Savings Bonds in early 1956 with the tagline, “His calling card had claws on it.” WB registered the title Yellowstone Kelly in February of ’56. In Burt Kennedy’s script Kelly (Walker), along with his assistant Anse Harper (Edward Byrnes) get caught up in an inter-Sioux feud when they nurse a young Arapaho woman, Wahleeah (Andrea Martin), back to health. Both the Sioux chief (John Russell) and his young charge Sayapi (Ray Danton) wish to have Wahleeah as their wife. Kelly has to return her or he’ll lose access to Sioux land for his trapping. And when a power hungry army captain attempts to push the Sioux off their land, the love quadrangle turns into a war.

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While the land in Fort Dobbs is a deathtrapin Yellowstone Kelly it’s fertile, lush, and Kelly’s sole source of sustenance. The Technicolor cinematography by Carl Guthrie is rich and viridescent – bursting with life. Walker’s red felt shirt emblazons itself on the screen. The plot is one of revivification, of Kelly’s soul and Wahleeah’s body. Kelly is a loner and a bit of a nihilist, becoming skeptical of all forms of society as he lives like a monk in the Western mountains. He finds peace in work and solitude, successfully repressing needs for human contact. It is the persistent annoyance of Harper asking for a job that begins to open Kelly up to human interaction, and it is the sarcastic, flirtatious Wahleeah who re-introduces him to the possibility of love. An intelligent matching of landscape, plot and theme, Yellowstone Kelly is top notch filmmaking.

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For WB, it was yet another attempt to milk their stars while they were still cheap and on their initial contracts. The film is thick with TV stars. Edward Byrnes had made his name as “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, while John Russell was the lawman on Lawman. Along with maximizing their low-money contract players, using TV actors was an attempt to lure back the crowds who had abandoned film for the antenna. In an August 1958 issue of Motion Picture News, ,future New York Times film critic Vincent Canby thought these small-screen names “may well bring out to theaters that part of the so-called ‘lost’ audience which has been lost because of TV Westerns and action dramas.” Using the full force of their marketing power, WB sent Walker and Byrnes on a nationwide in-person tour, calling the two leads “Warners’ traveling salesmen.” The tactic was successful, as by all accounts the film took in healthy profits. It didn’t turn into big screen superstardom for Walker, who remained a bankable TV actor and occasional film lead. But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.

DVD ROUNDUP: SHOUT! FACTORY AND WARNER ARCHIVE

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.

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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.

THE HORROR: ONLY THE VALIANT

March 1, 2011

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The next few months promise an embarrassment of film criticism riches. On March 15th, J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms drops, the second entry in his breathless and exhaustive cultural history of Cold War cinema. In April, the long-overdue first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing, When Movies Mattered, will grace bookshelves. I’ll have cowed reviews of both near their release, but for now I’ll stick to a title Hoberman singles out in Phantoms, and which he programmed for his series at BAM: Gordon Douglas’ despairing cavalry Western, Only the Valiant (1951, also available on a DVD from Lionsgate).

Based on a novel by Charles Marquis Warren, it stars a visibly strained Gregory Peck as Captain Richard Lance, a by-the-book commander tapped to escort an Apache warrior, Tucsos (Michael Ansara), to another fort, an invitation for an attack on the unsettled frontier. At the last minute his assignment is given to his lieutenant, William Holloway. Holloway is killed, and even Lance’s girlfriend Cathy (Barbara Payton) believes he begged off of the mission.

Tucsos escaped, and is planning an attack before re-enforcments arrive to the Captain’s Fort Winston. So, in a suicidal rear-guard action, he brings a small detail of men to hold off the  Apaches at a narrow pass at the sarcastically named Fort Invincible. Taking only men Fort Winston can spare, it’s a group of drunks and brawlers, who resent Lance for the death warrant he signed for them.

It is unrelentingly grim, with each set designed to look like a graveyard. Even the relatively protected Fort Winston is haunted, here by the ailing commanding officer Colonel Drumm, who lays on his deathbed as he sends his troops to theirs. This necrotic atmosphere further decays in the move to Fort Invincible, with the detail divided on whether to fight Apaches or kill Lance. This sense of hopelessness creeps into every frame. At Fort Winston, there is an opening lineup of troops at Fort Winston, welcoming Lance’s return, which extends to the vanishing point of the shot. Once the detail gets to Fort Invincible, the lineups get smaller as troops get picked off one by one, and soon the graves outnumber the living.

Hoberman places the film both in the context of the cavalry Western and the Korean War. John Ford’s Fort Apache is one of the touchstones of An Army of Phantoms, artfully reflecting the siege mentality of the cold war, presenting a “vision of total mobilization with an appropriate emphasis on order and eternal vigilance: militarized suburbia. The bombing of civilian populations in World War II suggested that the next war might have no front – or, rather, that the front might be in America’s living room.” While the cavalry posts of Fort Apache, Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are functional mini city-states, with space for romantic subplots and ritualized dances, Only the Valiant takes place in a world without leisure time. As Hoberman reported, Only the Valiant was released soon after President Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur from his command,  and the war entered the stage of a long, bloody stalemate, as fears of WWIII continued to percolate. People were dying and no ground was being gained. This is the desperate situation of the men in Only the Valiant.

The shambolic, pained performance of Gregory Peck adds another shade of dread to the film. Peck wanted nothing to do with the project. He was loaned out by David O. Selznick against his wishes, but the great producer was in financial trouble, and netted $90,000 in the deal. Peck felt it was a cut-rate script made by an undistinguished director, but he showed up for work anyway. Biographer Gary Fishgall claims that Peck was taking Seconal to help him sleep, while also drinking heavily throughout production. There are also widely reported stories that he had an affair with his lead actress, Barbara Payton, although he later banned her from the set unless she was in a scene, at least according to Payton’s autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed (the title refers to her later career as a prostitute). He suffered a physical collapse a month after shooting, during a costume fitting for David and Bathsheba. The doctors at Cedars of Lebanon diagnosed “nervous anxiety”, and told him he did not have a heart attack.

Bitter and out of sorts, Peck is magnetically unsympathetic in Only the Valiant, distressingly passive in the face of slander and death threats, and seems to have vengeance on his mind in his selection of the Fort Invincible detail. There is a powerfully disconcerting scene where Peck’s Captain walks down the line of his rag tag crew and tells them why he chose them. It’s a scene of chilling vindictiveness, and not unlike an impromptu HUAC hearing. Gordon Douglas was a staunch anti-communist, having already directed the nuclear commie spy film Walk a Crooked Mile in 1948, and would line up I Was Married to a Communist in the FBI later in 1951.

All of the characters’ fears coalesce in the mountain pass near Fort Invincible. Shot in sequences of lantern-lit flickering darkness, this gaping maw brings out the worst in the men. They splinter and attack each other, warring within and without. The further they descend into primal violence the more it feels like a gothic horror film or monster movie. One of the young recruits,  a cowardly bugler, creeps through the pass on a pitch black night, and in the bottommost portion of the frame a bloody hand jumps out to a jolt of strings on Franz Waxman’s score. One expects a Mummy or Wolfman to reveal its wretched face, but no, it’s just another dead man.