LONELY RODEO: THE LUSTY MEN (1952)

October 14, 2014

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The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.

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The producing team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna had a distribution deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO to make sixty films in under six years, according Bernard Eisenschitz’s essential Nicholas Ray: An American Journey.  The Hollywood Reporter called it “The biggest independent transaction in industry history”. They made four: Behave Yourself! (’51), The Blue Veil (’51), Clash By Night (’52) and The Lusty Men. Hughes’ legendary indecision led to projects dragging on for years. One of these was the comedy thriller Macao (’52), credited to director Josef Von Sternberg, but much of it was re-shot by Mel Ferrer and Nicholas Ray, who telegraphed Sternberg to gain his permission for the re-shoots. Sternberg responded, “I’m here in New Jersey with my rose garden, I’m close to Wall Street and my art gallery. Go ahead.” Unhappy with the results, Sternberg later told Kevin Brownlow: “Nicholas Ray is an idiot. He did terrible things to Macao.”

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But Ray was in Howard Hughes’ good graces for that carpenter job, and Wald and Krasna considered him for the director on Clash By Night, since Ray was acquaintances with writer Clifford Odets from their Group Theater days. But they also needed someone to take on the Cowpoke project (later re-titled to The Lusty Men), as Robert Parrish had bowed out after seeing the Dortort script, and Wald/Krasna failed to lure Raoul Walsh or Anthony Mann. The job was Ray’s, and he threw himself into the research that Stanush provided. Eisenschitz lists “50 pages on ‘Western dialogue and colloquialisms’, 75 on ‘drought and grass problems’, 120 on ‘general research, ranching and rodeo’, plus a collection of notes…on the modern cowboy.”

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The opening sequence consists of archival footage of a small town parade, followed by the local fair rodeo. These sections are scratched up, possibly from old newsreel footage, and then it cuts in to Robert Mitchum perched above a bronco, read to hang on for eight seconds. It’s a brash intrusion of the mythic into the mundane, but Ray immediately cuts to an insert of Mitchum’s hand being tied to the bronc’s hide, an image attending to the technique of the rodeo rider’s art. That cut is an example of the simplicity and clarity in which Ray and his collaborators combined the everyday and the dramatic. The story is also simple. Wes (Arthur Kennedy) and Louise (Susan Hayward) Merritt are saving up money to buy a house. Wes works on a ranch, but is lured into the rodeo by Jeff McCloud (Mitchum), a former champion rider who agrees to train Wes for a cut of any profits he might win. Wes quickly becomes a star, and his dream of home fades. Louise continues to desire that stability more than ever, and can no longer stand to endure the rodeo’s constant near-death experiences. So as Wes and Louise distance themselves, Jeff inserts himself into the gap, seeing in Louise an alternate path not taken, a safe harbor in his self-destructive life. Louise has to make some kind of choice.

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There is a lot of choreography in the frame to establish their shifting relationships. Early on they invite Jeff to dinner. Afterward is the clean-up, with Louise cleaning, Wes sitting on the counter and drying, while Jeff standing coyly in a corner with a mug of coffee, undomesticated and alluring. This arrangement is repeated outside, with Wes seated on a fence, Jeff standing, and Louise pitched in between. Wes looks like a kid, and Jeff a man. Cinematographer Lee Garmes sets up the flashiest version of this composition, with Louise seated in her vehicle while Jeff and Wes are reflected in the windshield. This all sets up the dramatic arc of their characters, as each goes through a different kind of maturation. Mitchum claimed that Ray didn’t give him any marks to hit. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he described their working relationship: ”

Well, you know, a lot of directors will give you the marks. When I act, I come in and say: what page is it and where are the marks? While the director is talking to the other actors, I check out the marks, and I hit ‘em. But Nick is a fellow who likes to discuss the scenes with the actors, what they mean, what my background was…. So while he would talk to me about those things, I’d be looking for my marks. He would usually end up these speeches by saying, And also, improvise. But I couldn’t improvise the marks. Since Nick usually told the cameraman to be on the actor who had listened the most when he was telling them about their background, about Stanislavsky and those people, a lot of times I wasn’t in the scene…

So maybe it was Ray and Kennedy improvising Wes always being seated, but it’s clear much of the film was worked out on the fly, scene by scene. Since they didn’t know where they were going, each sequence has a lived-in feel. This is epitomized in the melancholy sequence when Jeff visits his old broken down family home. He crawls underneath the eaves and pulls out his childhood toys – a dime paperback, a gun, and a tobacco tin that holds two nickels. In this silent act of remembrance a whole childhood flashes by, and an outline of the man we see on-screen, enacting the Wild West fantasies he had as a kid, fantasies that wear poorly on a man pushing 40. While fondling these talismans, he is rousted by the current owner,  a crusty old loner (Burt Mustin, making his film debut at age sixty-seven) who visibly softens when he hears it’s the McCloud boy. They commiserate on their lives of solitude before Jeff departs, two generations of men too frightened to settle down, build a family, share anything of themselves. While Wes learns something of humility over the course of the film, Jeff develops empathy. Having been a direct man all his life in pushing the world away, he is just as straightforward in embracing it. The close-up of Susan Hayward when Jeff declares his feelings is one of trembling astonishment. It is one of the glories of the cinema. Her lips part slightly, as if ready to throw off her ordered life. But she is a practical woman, and a poor one, and there are other things to consider.

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WARNER ARCHIVE ROUNDUP: BORN TO BE BAD

October 30, 2012

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The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

Nicholas Ray shot what was then titled Bed of Roses in 35 days, from June 20th to July 30th of 1949. It was a project that the head of RKO, Howard Hughes, had indefinitely postponed in 1948, one of the provocations that caused the production head Dore Schary to quit. It had gone through seven screenwriters and five directors before Ray took over, with Joan Fontaine in the lead role. Even Fontaine was wary, with her husband William Dozier writing to Hughes, “I’m afraid Joan’s enthusiasm for this project has not heightened any with the passage of time.” It was an adaptation of the 1928 novel All Kneeling by Anne Parrish, divulging the seedy story of Christabel Caine (Fontaine), a manipulative ladder-climber eager to seduce every man she meets and then marry the one with the most money. Her target is Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), the scion of a wealthy family already engaged to Donna (Joan Leslie), the whip-smart assistant to Christabel’s Uncle John, a publisher. Christabel also has the acidically funny Nick (Robert Ryan) on a string, who is one of John’s up and coming authors. Despite all the studio snags, Ray orchestrates a deliciously cynical melodrama of sexual power plays. It is a movie of lush upper class interiors, and Ryan has the characters constantly shifting in the frame, as seen in the bravura opening sequence, in which Donna is preparing a dinner party. Donna is a blur of preparatory focus, walking in and out of rooms while Ray returns to a fixed shot of the hallway. Eventually Donna is speedwalking toward the camera, and trips to the floor over a suitcase inconveniently placed in the hall. It is the introduction of Christabel, who is sitting patiently in a room to the right. In this clever bit of choreography, Christabel is visualized as a roadblock to Donna’s best-laid plans.

Ray is aided by richly layered performances from Fontaine and Ryan. Fontaine uses a girlish hair-flipping exterior to hide her designs, letting diabolical smiles slip out once the other characters leave the frame. Ryan is a wisecracking rogue who sees through Fontaine’s exterior, describing her dual personality to her face, and yet unable to tear himself away from her. In a damning kiss off at one of her ballroom parties, following her marriage to Curtis, Ryan tells her, “I love you so much I wish I liked you.” And yet a few scenes later he’s back in her arms, ready and willing to believe her latest bedside conversion.

If Born to be Bad exhibits the genius of the Hollywood studio system, then The Five Man Army is representative of that system’s decline. As the Paramount Decision dismantled the vertical integration of studios, they scrambled to find new ways to gain audiences. The spaghetti western was one such avenue, and as the success of these products became clear, studios cut in on the action. The Five Man Army is a U.S.-Italy co-production distributed by MGM. Although Don Taylor is credited with directing the film, various reports have producer Italo Zingarelli (the pseudonym of director Giulio Questi) and even the young co-screenwriter Dario Argento taking the reigns after Kelly had to depart early to take on a TV production. There is a marked difference between the early, dialogue heavy scenes and the epic, almost wordless train heist takes up nearly the entirety of the last half-hour of the film. I haven’t found any reliable sources on the matter, but whoever ended up sitting behind the camera, it’s an effective Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven style mercenary film, capped by a surging Ennio Morriconne score and that extraordinary finale. Peter Graves, then famous for his role on Mission Impossible, headed the international cast, which was made up of mountainous Neapolitan tough guy Bud Spencer, the stereotyped silent Japanese “Samurai” (Tetsuro Tanba), tiny Italian firecracker Nino Castelnuovo, and Midwestern American James Daly. This roughshod group follows Graves’ immaculate white helmet hair in his attempt to rob an army train filled with gold.

The Wrath of God (1972) is a similarly post-Paramount Decision product, filled with aging Hollywood stars and shot in Mexico. Robert Mitchum, in a nod to his seminal psycho in The Night of the Hunter, plays a lapsed priest, only this time he’s a robber during the Mexican Revolution, using his priestly garb as a passkey through the country. It also features Rita Hayworth in her final feature performance, playing the mournful mother to Frank Langella’s psychopathic son. Mitchum is rounded up by a local strongman to take out Langella, aided by a feuding Englishman and Irishman – Jennings (Victor Buono) and Emmet (Ken Hutchison). Mitchum is as laid back as ever, his laconic priest passively taking in the casual indignities and random slaughters imposed upon the Mexican people. But when he finally rouses himself into action, and flings a tommy gun from behind his robes, it’s a deliriously entertaining moment.

There is nothing so daring about Young Cassidy (1965)a rote bio-pic about the early years of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey (named John Cassidy in the movie – one of O’Casey’s pseudonyms). Originally developed by John Ford, he had quite the job when assailed by a strep throat (and his usual alcoholism), and DP Jack Cardiff stepped into the director’s chair. Ford biographer Joseph McBride suggests that Ford was unhappy with the script and casting, and that his ailments were intentionally self-inflicted to get him off the film. The producers denied his request to shoot in black and white and refused to let him shoot in the old-fashioned Limerick instead of the modernized Dublin. Sean Connery was originally cast in the O’Casey role, but had to back out when he had to fulfill his contract in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964, released before Cassidy). So instead of the Scot, the Australian Rod Taylor took over the role. He manages a decent Irish accent, but gets lost in the episodic script, which is a succession of disconnected macho escapades. The pleasures of the film are exclusively provided by the actresses – a luminous, playful Julie Christie as a Dublin prostitute, and a furtive, hesitant Maggie Smith as O’Casey’s patient girlfriend, until that patience runs out.

As ever, the Warner Archive is an essential resource for the curious cinephile, whether you’re an auteurist or a genre aficionado. This post hopefully suggests that it’s more fun to be both.

THE LATE FILM: RED LINE 7000 AND EL DORADO

May 26, 2009

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In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned  Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.

Buried on a double-bill with the youth-baiting Beach Ball,  Hawks’  Red Line 7000 completely tanked upon its release in November of 1965. It quickly disappeared from popular culture’s memory, despite the best efforts of Hawksians like Robin Wood. Production on his follow-up, El Dorado, began in October of the same year, the fastest turnaround between projects in his career (principal shooting on Red Line ended in April of ’65).  This thinly-veiled Rio Bravo remake was a box office hit upon its release in 1967, and has been a staple of cable channels and home video re-packagings ever since (the latest DVDcame out last Tuesday). Red Line 7000 has remained incredibly difficult to see, aside from the ever-present fuzzy bootleg videos.

The forgetting of Red Line 7000 was enabled by Hawks himself, who slagged the film over multiple interviews. In 1971: “I don’t like it.” In 1974: ” I didn’t like it, I thought it was awful.” In 1975: “I think it’s lousy.” His main complaint has to do with the narrative construction, which tries to weave together three different romances:

Just when you get people interested in one story, you jump to another story. Just when they’re interested in that, you jump to another. By that time they’ve forgotten the first one. They’re all mixed up and they say, “The hell with this thing!”

The nominal lead is James Caan as Max Marsh, an ace driver with deep neuroses regarding the purity of his girlfriends. He’s both attracted and repulsed by Marianna Hill as Gabrielle, an uninhibited racing fan who recently broke up with another driver, Dan McCall (James Ward). After their amicable parting, McCall pursues Holly (Gail Hire), a superstitious, mournful type who blames herself for the deaths of her three previous lovers. The third story is more tangential: that of the tomboy daughter of the crew chief (Laura Devon as Julie) in love with the strapping young driver Ned (John Robert Crawford).

Robin Wood called Red Line 7000 “the most underestimated film of the sixties”, partly because of the structure Hawks so derided:

The fact that the Ned/Julie relationship is so little integrated in the main action is not really the structural fault it at first appears. The other two relationships are parallel: in both, a strong, mature partner (Dan, Gaby) helps someone whose development has been arrested (Holly, Mike); the threads of plot continually interweave. The Ned/Julie relationship offers a contrast, and Hawks keeps it separate. Here, both partners are immature.

I believe Hawks and Wood are both right, that the film is both “lousy” and “underestimated”. The structure has interest, as Wood indicates, but it doesn’t have the performers to put life into its motions. Actors are incredibly important to Hawks, as so much of his script is improvised or written on the set with their participation. Without their engagement, his lived-in community of professionals becomes a cold line-up of earnest-sounding mannequins.

Gail Hire is the most embarrassing here, her labored rasp a caricature of Bacall’s rumbling bass in To Have and Have Not. It’s so ridiculous the audience I saw it with broke out into laughter, and I couldn’t blame them. James Ward and John Robert Crawford  are just blond-haired, blue-eyed blanks, showing none of the charisma or camaraderie essential to Hawks’ work. As Todd McCarthy states in his exemplary biography, he “labored to make the story and the actors come alive. Because of his case members’ limited experience, Hawks got much less creative input from them than he normally liked, and he had to deal with burgeoning egos.”

The film only comes alive in the Caan-Hill sequences, which show the combative sparks of his greatest romances. Hill’s insouciant sexuality baffles Caan’s repressed straight-arrow, and their mutual attraction can only be consummated on the race track. In a beautiful sequence where action replaces exposition, their combustible sexuality is revealed when he lets her take a spin around the track. Through his studied direction, she flawlessly takes the turns, until she spins out joyfully at the end, laughing violently. She tells him it was like “taming a lion”. Having to control Caan’s unstable boy is her dangerous task for the rest of the film. Hidden like a pearl for eager auteurists, this scene both confirms Hawks’s directorial hand and stands as a reminder of what the majority of the film was missing.

El Dorado is something else entirely. It has the feel of a valediction, a re-telling of Rio Bravo (1959) that takes aging as it’s central theme. John Wayne returns to the Hawks fold as Cole Thornton, an old gun-for-hire who rejects a job from corrupt landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Robert Mitchum plays the town’s alcoholic sherriff, J.P. Harrah (the Dean Martin role in Rio). James Caan and Arthur Hunnicut round out the group of ragtag heroes, who try to protect the MacDonalds, a local farming family, from the predations of Jason’s acquisitive clan. Mortality is brought to the fore immediately, when Cole shoots down a MacDonald kid out of self-defense. Mortally wounded, the boy kills himself to end the pain. This random act haunts the rest of the film – it leads to the bullet lodged in Cole’s back and in J.P.’s leg, persistent reminders of their physical degradation.

If it is not as perfect as Rio Bravo – one certainly misses the presence of Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson – for me it is as equally affecting, especially when viewed in the context of Hawks’ and Wayne’s career. As they slowly pirouette through the well-worn jokes one more time (Dry out the drunk, patronize the kid, prod the old coot), it is tinged with sadness – the bullet pressing closer to Cole’s spine with every move. It’s impossible to overstate the grace of John Wayne’s performance here, the hint of grief he exudes when Caan is searching for a gunman, the stoic regret he portrays after he kills the MacDonald kid, and the luxurious slowness in which he moves, whether simply sliding off a horse or leaping off a carriage, he carries the weight of his age with him. It’s a beautiful performance. There’s no grand send-off at the end, just a couple beaten old men, wobbling down the main drag and soaking up every last light of the moon.