July 5, 2011
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.