June 17, 2014

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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.

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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.



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.

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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.


December 25, 2012

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It’s A Wonderful Life has screened so often it has become cultural wallpaper, the background noise to tree decorating and on-line discount shopping. When it shifted into the public domain in 1974, television channels could air it without paying fees, and it became program filler for twenty years before subsequent copyright battles (it is now owned by Viacom/Paramount). Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least apathy, and It’s A Wonderful Life  is treated more like a nostalgia piece than a work of art. That was my ignorant attitude, at least, until I watched it again this past weekend, and for the first time fully appreciated its melancholic rendering of adulthood’s parade of dashed hopes and perpetually delayed dreams. It was Frank Capra’s  first narrative feature after four years of making propaganda films for the Army during WWII, and it feels like he imbued it with a life’s worth of disappointments, tagged with a vision of transcending these failures in an ending only Hollywood could provide.

The story for It’s a Wonderful Life was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who sent it out in a 1943 Christmas card. A Civil War historian and sometime fiction writer, Van Doren Stern started work on his short story, then entitled The Greatest Gift, in 1939, but couldn’t find a publisher, so included it in his’43  holiday mailings. It somehow reached Cary Grant, who brought it to RKO’s attention. RKO bought the rights, and started to prepare a version in which Grant and Gary Cooper would star. After treatments by leftists Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted in 1947) and Clifford Odets (who testified before HUAC) were both rejected (were their versions too downbeat?), RKO sold the story rights to Liberty Films, a newly formed company started by Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin after their release from WWII service. Liberty would produce and RKO would distribute, with Jimmy Stewart, also freshly released from wartime service, to star. Liberty borrowed $1,540,000 from Bank of America to fund their first production.

Capra began shooting It’s a Wonderful Life in April of 1946, just as William Wyler began production on The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with the war’s aftermath more directly. Capra was not interested in memorializing the war. He told Richard Glatzer:

Yes, the war did affect me. I didn’t want to see another cannon go off; I didn’t want to see another bomb blow up. War lost its glamour for me. Just to see those trembling people in London during the Blitz, poor sick old ladies crying, crying in terror…children. There’s got to be something better than bombing old ladies and children. I lost…there’s nothing glamorous about war. I didn’t want to be a war hero, nothing. That’s why I made a movie about an ordinary guy.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is listed 4F for the war because of his bad left ear. He is an outsider to his age, missing out on WWII as well as the post-war economic boom when he fails to invest in his old school buddy’s plastics business. His only dream is to travel, but with the death of his father and the entire Building and Loan company depending on him, he stays in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, deferring his adventurous plans year after year. There is one devastating shot when this dream finally dies. George meets his brother Harry at the train station, and learns that Harry will not be taking over his job at the Building and Loan. Stewart’s face collapses in passing, before re-composing enough to congratulate his brother on his marriage and his new life. That expression is Bailey’s private funeral for his future, one now forever bound to be anonymously lower middle class. George is Capra’s ordinary guy, one who sacrifices his own life so his brother can join the stream of history and become the subject of Hollywood hagiographies. But at least in It’s a Wonderful Life, George is the star.

Capra emphasizes George’s subordination, keeping most action in the background while George is oblivious in the fore. As kids, Harry sleds right by George and into a crack in the ice. George has to save him, and loses part of his hearing in the process, setting up his sacrificial role for life. Then there is the school dance, in which George and his girl Mary (Donna Reed) dance without noticing that the gym floor is slowly cracking open, revealing the pool underneath. The rest of the party has noticed and stepped back, but George is again oblivious, and drags Mary along with him into the drink. Capra artfully deploys this water-as-oblivion metaphor throughout, culminating in the snowstorm that marks his decision to jump into the abyss one final time, a potential suicide leap off a bridge.

Disgusted with forever being on the periphery of the American dream, George decides to end it all, which triggers the appearance of Clarence (Henry Travers) the deus ex machina angel. Only through fantasy, through the construction of a George Bailey-less alternate reality, where Bedford Falls becomes a seedy juke-joint town called Pottersville, can his existence be justified. That is, through cinema itself, for what is Clarence if not the director of this nightmare, constructing it with the flick of his finger?  His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror. But instead of glorifying Hollywood trickery, what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so unbearably moving is that it urges George to escape artifice and return to banal reality and celebrate what meager joys are left to us here.  It is the saddest of happiest endings.


April 17, 2012

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I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

Originally, Bell Book and Candle was a stage play written by John Van Druten and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick in 1950. Although her divorce to David O. Selznick had been finalized in ’49, she sold the rights to him in 1953. He intended to cast his next wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the project never got off the ground, and the rights were eventually purchased by Columbia. After initially considering Rex Harrison for the lead, the studio and producer Julian Blaustein decided to re-team Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, who had both wrapped shooting on Paramount’s Vertigo in January of 1958. Since Columbia had lent Novak for that project, Paramount returned the favor in allowing Stewart to film the supernatural romantic comedy, which started shooting on February 3rd. The exuberantly talented Richard Quine (My Sister EileenIt Happened To Jane) was slated to direct, and the legendary James Wong Howe handled the indecently saturated Technicolor cinematography.

Reversing the polarity of obsession from Vertigo, in Bell Book and Candle it is Novak who is the stalker, Stewart the stalked. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stir-crazy witch in the West Village of NYC who deals in African and Oceanic art as a lucrative front. Stewart is the endearingly uptight Shepherd Henderson, the editor-in-chief at an upscale publisher who lives above her storefront. Bored with her hep wiccan lifestyle spent at the Zodiac nightclub (where warlock Jack Lemmon plays the bongos), she yearns for something different. So indeed she indulges in some hoodoo and wraps Shep in her spell. When he finds out his attraction is not entirely natural, Gillian has some explaining to do.

Novak gives a smoldering performance, shooting looks at Stewart of devouring lust as she slowly pours herself onto the couch to accentuate each curve in her body. She even modulates her voice into a low purr, emulating the vocal rhythms of her beloved pet cat. Costume designer Jean Louis puts her in inflammatory red, from a bohemian-chic smock to a scoop-necked sweater, a siren intent on snagging her prey. The colors in James Wong Howe’s cinematography veritably pop off the screen, from those gleaming reds to the sharp pinks of Gillian’s mother Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the rich creams and grays of Shep’s sharply lined attire. Richard Quine, always a sharp caricaturist, lets Lanchester and Lemmon loose as the impish do-badders, providing islands of comedy amidst the torrents of Gillian’s pheromones, which course through this intoxicating Technicolor dream.

Where Bell is fantastical, Westward the Women (1951) is elemental. Based on a story by Frank Capra, it tracks the travails of hundreds of women traveling from Chicago to California, lured by the promise of hard-working husbands and the open air. According to Capra’s biography, he intended to direct the film with Gary Cooper to star, but eventually had to table it, and ended up selling the rights to his neighbor, William Wellman, who had recently finished his Clark Gable western, Across the Wide Missouri (also 1951).

Ostensibly the lead is Robert Taylor as trail master Buck Wyatt, but the film spends most of its time dutifully tracking the intense labor of the women on the drive, as early on most of the cowboys cut loose, unwilling to drive further into unforgiving territory. But the women endure, as Wellman depicts them in extended montages of work, seemingly inspired by the major drive in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931), and perhaps an influence on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011), other Westerns obsessed with process. These processes are inevitably group efforts, lending these sequences a bit of communal proto-feminism, together doing the jobs of men with little fuss and unspoken teamwork. The gritty heart of the film is Patience (Hope Emerson), the Ward Bond of the movie, whose brute physicality inspires the rest of the ladies to self-abnegation and ultimate triumph, but who secrets a sensitive soul behind all the bluster. She is joined by a cross-section of personalities, from the sharpshooting farm girl Maggie, the still-mourning Italian widow Mrs. Maroni, and the two ex-prostitutes Fifi and Laurie, eager for some vision of country life.

Many women suffer and die, but the rest endure, the vast middle section is a grim kind of survival horror movie, as carriages crash and hostile Native Americans chase them down. Pared to the bone of back-story, the film operates by the familiar Wellman method (although only intermittently witnessed in his post-30s work), of showing character through action. All of the women in the film gain a personality through the attention Wellman pays to their faces, instead of lugubrious scenes of exposition.These roll calls of expressions (similar to the montage of faces before the cattle drive in Red River), intimate more in images of their lined brows than any speech could convey.

Never an emotional director, Westward the Women is nonetheless an unexpectedly moving film. When the women finally meet their prospective husbands in California, it’s a scene that could easily become droopingly sentimental, but instead is reticent and ambiguous, a skittish embrace of an uncertain future, one in which the freedoms of their drive West will likely disappear in their return to male dominated society. It is this melancholy undertone that makes Westward the Women a fascinating object, as the seams and contradictions in Hollywood’s depictions of womanhood poke through thanks to Wellman’s distanced, unvarnished approach. In a similar way, Novak’s voracious sexual appetite, that the movie never indexes as negative, undercuts the usual Madonna-Whore complex of romantic comedy that persists today (see, if you must, the dire What’s Your Number for a current example). Both these films are remarkable in that they show women who can fuck and fight with with the best of them, with no apologies.