June 24, 2014


Though it was made in 1939, Dust Be My Destiny has the feel of a Warner Brothers production at the turn of the decade, with its story of a railroad tramp framed for murder. The recession of 1937-’38 had renewed fears of economic collapse, which made the old anxieties new again. John Garfield was getting increasingly frustrated at the roles he was being provided in his WB contract, as he was continually typecast as an ex-con or criminal type who is inevitably redeemed.  The character of Joe Bell in Dust Be My Destiny varies little from the template, which led Garfield to begin refusing roles, and he was punished with suspensions by the studio. The part of Bell was originally intended for James Cagney, and Garfield had become slotted as a kind of shadow Cagney, a pugnacious battler for the working class. Garfield’s politics certainly lined up with the political sentiments, but the material, he felt, was weak. Fellow lefty Robert Rossen adapted the screenplay for Dust Be My Destiny, but studio interference shifted a story intended as an anti-authoritarian Bonnie & Clyde-type tale into a conventional melodramatic romance. The failure of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) gave WB executives pause, causing the material from Jerome Odlum’s novel to be massaged into an unrecognizable shape. Dust Be My Destiny is a curious artifact in John Garfield’s brief, brilliant career, and is now available to view on DVD from the Warner Archive.


Warner Brothers head-of-production Hal Wallis was plugged into the development of the story even as Odlum was still completing his novel. Having written Each Dawn I Die, which was already in production at the studio (with Cagney in the lead), made Odlum a briefly in-demand presence at WB. In an interoffice memo sent to Wallis, the matter of the ending was apparently under negotiation even before the book was published:

As Odlum sees the story at the present time, he is aiming towards killing off Joe, the principal character, at the end. He feels he can do this in a tear-jerking manner. On the other hand, if you do not want the principal character killed off, and want to end the story with everybody happy, he feels he can do something about it at this stage.

While I don’t know how Odlum’s novel ended, happiness wins the day in the feature version. Seton I. Miller was brought in to rewrite the ending, which is a mash-up of seeming every popular genre of the day outside of Westerns. It starts out as a prison drama, as Joe Bell is incarcerated for a murder he did not commit. It shifts to a hobo train-hopping picture after Bell is cleared of the crime and he has to bum around for money. Then it becomes a prison farm movie after he’s busted for vagrancy, where he falls for the warden’s daughter Mabel (Priscilla Lane). And it even finds time to become a jailbreak flick, a muckraking newspaper drama, and a courtroom thriller. The result is a film-by-committee that never settles on a particular tone, and one in which any social relevance is drowned in plot twists.


The remarkable thing is that it remains watchable, thanks to the ace production team working on the feature. Max Steiner provides his usual rousing score, James Wong Howe pulls off some modest tracking shots as well as angelic close-ups of the brooding Garfield. The hobo sections are the most effective, the majority taking place on a storm-swept evening when Howe can play with low lighting. It is also where Ward Bond pops up as a short-fused stickup man who fingers Joe to the cops as a member of his gang, a lie out of spite. The spitefulness comes from a train car brawl, and one wonders how eager the two political opposites (Bond was a rabid conservative) were ready to beg off stuntmen and go after each other for real. For what it’s worth, the punches look stiff.


It is also the only time when the film captures the early ’30s WB spirit, of a certain authenticity in how working people walked and talked. There is so much static speechifying in the film it becomes a series of monologues that grind the film to a halt. Things only pick up with a succession of energetic turns by supporting players, including a Frank McHugh as a hustling theater impresario and Alan Hale as an avuncular newspaper editor. Their sheer warmth invigorates the film when the script is flagging, but they are not on-screen enough to sustain this unusual enterprise. Even film critics, those rather closed-minded fuddy duddys, were seeing how Garfield was being misused. In the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent opened his review of Dust Be My Destiny by describing John Garfield as  the “official gall-and-wormwood taster for the Warners”. His lack of quality material was becoming  a story, and Garfield would battle WB until his contract ran out in 1946, when he joined up with the independent Enterprise Productions, which released an inflammatory group of nine films (including Force of Evil ) before folding under the accusatory eye of HUAC. And Dust Be My Destiny led him there.



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.


July 31, 2012

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“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” –Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.

Enterprise productions was formed by David L. Loew, Charles Einfeld, and silent partner A. Pam Blumenthal. Loew was a son of MGM founder Marcus Loew, and left the studio to pursue an independent producing career in 1935, working with directors like Jean Renoir (on The Southerner (1945)) and Albert Lewin (The Moon and Sixpence (1942)). Einfeld was the former advertising and publicity director at Warner Brothers, and therefore familiar with Garfield, while Blumenthal helped them garner a $10 million line of credit from Bank of America to finance their first six films. Garfield and his business partner Bob Roberts set-up their Roberts Productions shingle under the Enterprise banner.

It was an idealistic endeavor, which actor Norman Lloyd described as “Nirvana”, and then-Assistant Director Robert Aldrich judged that, “For about two and a half or three years before it went down the drain, I would guess that it had a better esprit de corps, and more interest and excitement going for it among the employees, from the laborer to the star, than any place in Hollywood.” Garfield and Roberts’ first film at Enterprise was Body and Soul (1948), and the talent on-board is staggering. Along with Aldrich as AD, it attracted Rossen as director, Polonsky as screenwriter, James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Robert Parrish as editor. Dialogue director (and later a director period) Don Weis told Garfield biographer Robert Nott that “I was amazed that everyone in the company with the exception of [cameraman] Jimmy Howe was involved politically. Every day they [Polonsky, Roberts and Garfield] would come down from the office with a petition for us to sign, for good things like housing for the poor, and I signed everything. “

Garfield bought the rights to the life story of Barney Ross, a Jewish boxer and decorated WWII soldier who was born on Rivington St. in the Lower East Side of NYC, just like Garfield. Ross was born Dov-Ber Rosofsky, son of a Talmudic scholar, while Garfield was originally named Jacob Garfinkle, born to a clothes presser and part-time cantor. It was a deeply personal story to Garfield, although the story’s ethnic character was drained by the PCA, who even objected to showing bouts between a black and a white fighter, although the fight between Garfield and Canada Lee remains in the film. The script had to be heavily revised by Polonsky in any case, telling a profoundly sad version of the familiar rise and fall boxing narrative, as Charley Davis (Garfield) spurns his neighborhood sweetheart and family for the lure of big money promised by mobbed up promoter Roberts (Lloyd Gough). Charley’s Jewishness is never stated directly, but is strongly implied by a neighbor who states that, “over in Europe, Nazis are killing people like us, just because of their religion. But here, Charley Davis is champion.”

The previous winter the N.Y. State Boxing Commission investigated bribery charges, to much publicity and little results, which inspired the powerfully damning depiction of corruption in the Roberts character. His money instantly degrades, as seen when punch-drunk Ben (the civil-rights activist Canada Lee) refuses to take the bills Roberts contemptuously throws onto the ground at his feet. Ben refuses, but Charley picks it up and forces him to take it, telling him that cash has no memory.

This off-hand character moment in Body and Soul becomes the central theme of Force Of Evil (1948), in which the phrase is turned around into, “money has no moral opinions”, and capitalism exists as a pit of despair in which all of the film’s characters sink. J. Hoberman writes in An Army of Phantoms that “The threat in this openly anticapitalist gangster film is the system itself.” Both written and directed by Polonsky this time (adapted from Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People), it retains many of Body and Soul‘s crew, including Aldrich and Weis, although now George Barnes would handle the cinematography’s canted angles and haunting chiaroscuro. The compositions often look like they are for a horror film, with the monster around every corner. The largest bogeyman in this stretch of Wall Street is Tucker (Roy Roberts) a mobster looking to take over the numbers rackets in town, aided by Joe Morse (Garfield), a convictionless lawyer. Tucker even wants to absorb the Mom and Pop bookie service run by Joe’s brother Leo. This relentless amassing of power, with little regard for the welfare of its workers, is the bluntly drawn and bleakly devastating metaphor for the post-war capitalist system that Polonsky and his collaborators were agitating against.

They lost. Enterprise Productions’ largest production, Arch of Triumph (1948), was a box office disaster. Set among refugees in pre-WWII Paris, they again attracted great talents, including Ingrid Bergman and director Lewis Milestone, but their investment went bust. So just as Force of Evil’s indictment of capitalism was hitting screens, Bank of America was seizing the assets of Roberts Productions, after their failure to make their loan payments. Garfield, Polonsky and Rossen were called before the House Un-American Activities committee in 1951, refused to name names, and were blacklisted. Garfield then died of a heart attack on May 1st, 1952.


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.


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.