December 7, 2010


In November, Netflix introduced a “streaming only” option to their membership plan, for $7.99 a month, another marker in the slow death of the DVD. Their “Instant” offerings are frequently presented on faded and cropped masters likely made during the VHS days, but the rarity of their hodgepodge collection makes it a near-essential outlet for those interested in American film history. Unless one lives in a cinephilic megacity like New York or L.A., VOD offerings like Netflix Instant and DVD-on-demand outfits like the Warner Archive are the only (legally) easy way to view older titles.

The decline of art and repertory theaters make these services more important than ever. While driving around Buffalo during my Thanksgiving trip home, I passed by the marquee of the art theater I worked at as a disconsolate teen. It’s where I first saw In the Mood For Love and became aware of a cinematic world outside blockbuster-era Hollywood. The letters that greeted me were: Harry Potter/Morning Glory/Inside Job. Through my nostalgic prism this was a bile-inducing travesty, but if I was growing up there now I’d have a much vaster range of titles to watch through Netflix than what I was offered at the upstanding Dipson chain of theaters (you should all go to the old North Park movie palace if you drive through Buffalo).

To underline that fact, there has been a swift uptick in the amount of rare Golden Era Hollywood titles added to the Netflix Instant archives recently. Director Joe Dante posted a tantalizing list of newly available films in the comments section of Dave Kehr’s blog a few days ago. I watched two of them this week, Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) and Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957).

I had only known Boetticher’s film previously as the title of Jim Kitses’ seminal critical study of the Western, which is required reading for most genre courses in college. It was made four years before he was paired with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott for Seven Men From Now, which kicked off their brilliant and psychologically tortured series of revenge Westerns. They are spare, interiorized dramas tinged with expressionist visual flourishes, like the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome. In comparison, Horizons West is more conventional, with a flatter visual scheme and more transparent character motivations. But there are intimations of his future masterpieces. It is presented in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in a faded but watchable color transfer.

It tells the story of the Hammond brothers, returning home to Austin from the defeated Confederate army. Robert Ryan is Dan, the older and bitter sibling (“I don’t like to lose”), while Rock Hudson is Neil, the optimist eager to take over the family farm. Dan soon joins a gang of deserters and thieves, and builds them up from cattle rustlers to very persuasive land speculators. Soon Dan imagines building a “Western empire”, where his wife Lorna can be his queen. But before all that he has to run roughshod over his family, and steal Lorna away from the uber-capitalist Northern dandy Cord (a bitchy, superb Raymond Burr).

It is a plot-heavy scenario, with little time for the slow-burn breakdowns of Randolph Scott, but Robert Ryan’s greedy megalomaniac gets the most screen time, and there is a doomed aura to his character that could have been investigated further in a more pared down script (“-I want to make money. -What changed you? -The war, I guess.”). Ryan is a disillusioned war veteran eager to exploit the wide open capitalism of postwar Texas, and succeeds wildly, only to become more violent. His slowly wrinkling face trends downward into a snarl, emphasizing a kind of resigned brutality that Ryan is a master at portraying. It’s a provocative sketch of the haunting leads that Burt Kennedy would crystallize in his later scripts for Boetticher.

Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) comes during one of his peaks, a few years after Pickup on South Street (1953) and the same year as Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow. It’s another of his slam-bang pulp plots laced with punchy dialogue, bravado camera movements, and a simmering social conscience. Shot in CinemaScope by Joseph Biroc, Netflix Instant presents it cropped in 1.33:1, something of a tragedy. But it is otherwise unavailable on DVD in America, so this bowdlerized version is all we have for now. In the opening paragraph of the chapter on China Gate in Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, he makes the characteristic statement:

Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent!

In the opening sequence of China Gate, a young boy wanders through the ruins of a small village in North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. He hides a puppy inside his shirt, only letting him out to eat some scraps on the ground. Then a starving man spies the animal, and desperate for food, chases the boy with a knife wielded high. The kid hides in a nearby bunker housing soldiers and loses him. Fuller strategically wields swooping crane shots, moving in to create tension and then back out to establish the horrifically scarred landscape.

The boy is the child of “Lucky Legs” (Angie Dickinson), an alcoholic single mother of Chinese-Caucasian descent (“I’m a bit of everything and a lot of nothing”). She survives by smuggling booze across the border to China along with, it is strongly implied, prostitution. The French Foreign Legion hires her as a scout on a mission to bomb an major rebel arms cache. The detail is led by Sergeant Brock (Gene Barry), a racist who abandoned Lucky after he discovered their child looked Chinese. Also in this group of mercenaries is Nat King Cole (Goldie), who did the part for scale, simply because of his enthusiasm for the project, according to Fuller. Cole also sings the lovely, funereal theme song, written by composer Victor Young before his death (the lyrics were by Harold Adamson, and the film’s full score was completed by Max Steiner).

It is filled with the bitter, grotesque ironies of war, such as the former French gendarme getting gunned down after an extended monologue about his previous life, which closed with, “This is the way to live!” These soldiers of fortune are brutalized and scared, with one Hungarian suffering from hallucinations of Russian troops stalking him. Brock orders that he be killed. Another dies in a fluke accident, and whose last words are, “I hope there’s a heaven. It would kill me to have to come here again.”

It’s bleak and blackly comic, a desperate and prescient anti-war film made seven years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the ramping up of U.S. troops in the region. I’ll give Fuller the last word:

My tale is full of human foible and confusion. I deliberately wanted that confusion. I was still thinking of Clare Booth Luce’s remark that ‘anyone who isn’t thoroughly confused, isn’t thinking clearly.’


October 12, 2010


The Tarnished Angels (1957) is one of Douglas Sirk’s greatest accomplishments, and it was not available on DVD in the United States until last month (one had to nab Region 2 DVD editions in France and England previously).  TCM released it on September 31st (in partnership with Universal) as part of the Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection box set, along with Thunder on the Hill (1951), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and Captain Lightfoot (1955). It’s the latest production from TCM’s Vault Collection, which makes limited runs of hard-to-find studio titles, only available for purchase on-line.

Now is the time for the full disclosure bit. Since I’m writing for TCM, there’s a clear conflict of interest here. Proceed at your own peril, although all of the following thoughts are my own and are not influenced by my beloved corporate overlords (I promise).


Sirk made his reputation on the melodramas he directed for producer Ross Hunter,  but this set shows off his versatility. It contains a murder mystery (Thunder), a western (Taza) and a swashbuckling adventure (Lightfoot) in addition to the more familiar Sirkian drama of The Tarnished Angels. Thunder on the Hill is a stagy whodunit set in a convent, based on the play “Bonaventure” by Charlotte Hastings. It finds Claudette Colbert’s meddling Sister Mary trying to clear the name of convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe). Valerie is being escorted to a prison to be executed, when a dramatically convenient storm maroons her in Sister Mary’s domain. The scenario is creaky but the actors are game, with Colbert’s earnest moon-shaped face beaming out of her nun’s habit. Sirk wasn’t happy with the project, complaining to Michael Stern that, “only on Thunder did I have a producer who was interfering with my work. He was the only one at Universal. After that film I believe they fired him.” A quick look at producer Michael Kraike’s IMDB page confirms it was the last film he worked on for the studio.

Despite the fraught working conditions, Sirk still displays his impeccable sense of composition,  with DP William Daniels setting up B&W shots in depth, analyzing the power relations between characters. The triangle above finds Colbert flanked by a jealous nurse and the passive doctor, who will both be serious impediments to her investigation. Later, there’s a striking sequence where Colbert commiserates with Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist, a delightful busybody) about the case while the loyal town idiot Willie (Michael Pate) eats in the corner. The diagonal lineup of characters rhymes with the staircase in the background, a more harmonious arrangement for her informal deputies.

Taza, Son of Cochise is less satisfying, but does contain stunning color CinemaScope photography from Russell Metty. It’s an informal sequel to Broken Arrow (1950) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), where Jeff Chandler portrayed Cochise against James Stewart and John Lund, respectively. Here Chandler appears in an uncredited cameo as the Apache Chief, turning over his responsibilities to his son, Taza (Rock Hudson), who battles his brother Naiche (Rex Reason, a name for the ages) for control of the Apache tribe.  The script is a tired reiteration of the Cochise story, and the film, which was originally shot in 3D, fails to display Sirk’s usual visual dynamism in 2D. The colors certianly pop, though.

Captain Lightfoot is an enormously entertaining comic adventure filled with revolutionary skirmishes in 1815 Ireland. It was the first Hollywood feature film to be entirely shot in the Emerald Isle (The Quiet Man just shot exteriors there), and Sirk and DP Irving Glassberg glory in the rolling hills and elaborate period finery for the color ‘Scope frame. Rock Hudson excels as young rebel Michael Martin, a small-time hood taken under the wing of Captain Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow), a legendary Robin Hood resistance fighter and bon vivant (the scenario was lifted for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Captain Lightfoot’s screenwriter W.R. Burnett was not kind to the remake: “He stole it. Son-of-a-bitch. I’m glad Heaven’s Gate flopped.”).


Burnett, an irascible sort, was also not pleased with his director (from Backstory 1): “Sirk was a very bad job of miscasting. He had no sense of humor.” I beg to differ. While Sirk does not opt for out-and-out slapstick, there is a tender, amused tone throughout, from Hudson’s dance lesson to his strategic cigar smoking in a duel. The compositions here are packed, often overstuffed with action and reactions. Thunderbolt’s elaborate ball is masterfully staged and executed, with Hudson continually framed near the center in his eye-grabbing matte-gray suit. When he’s interrogated by the inspector, all stares remain on him, as ladies gather expectantly behind a window. This cements his transition from the one who looks up to Thunderbolt to the one being looked at.

The centerpiece of the box set is The Tarnished Angels (1957) a downbeat study of a family of stunt-flyers in Depression-era New Orleans. Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, it was a treasured project of Sirk’s. Screenwriter George Zuckerman recalled to Gary Morris of Bright Lights film journalthat, “But after the success of Written on the Wind, in conversation with Sirk, I suggested Pylon. His face turned white. He said it was exactly the property he had in mind.” He re-teamed Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind, now as the doomed couple Roger and LaVerne Shumann. Roger was a decorated WWI pilot, now reduced to winning dangerous prop plane races at county fairs. LaVerne does the parachute drops, her buffeted skirt giving the guys on the ground a thrill (Sirk: “[Producer Albert Zugsmith] didn’t want her to wear anything underneath!”). Roger’s constant circling around the pylons is a metaphor for their lives: always moving, never going anywhere. With their son Jack (Chris Olsen) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), they travel the world seeking nothing other than their own anihilation.

Rock Hudson plays a reporter, Burke Devlin, who trolls for a human interest story amidst their wreckage and ends up in love with LaVerne and aghast at the society that produced their infernal little group. Sirk ironically layers images of Mardi Gras and the county fair over their travails, note the ferris wheel behind Dorothy Malone’s head in the group shot above, or the empty chasm of bleachers that opens up next to Hudson in the top-lining still. Then there is the motif of skull masks, which follow LaVerne throughout the film. During her first kiss with Burke, Sirk inter-cuts their clumsy romance with a raucous party next door, where a leotard-clad woman kisses and bites a man in a skull mask. They are instantly associated with death. And when a plane crashes later in the film, another masked man leads her away. The film swoons with metaphorical decay, and in Sirk on Sirk, the director recounts how he read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Robert Stack and Eliot’s Prufrock to Hudson, to drill in their respective destructiveness and isolation.

The camera is constantly moving on short tracking shots, similar to Roger’s peripatetic nowhere man. I’ll close with Luc Moullet’s provocative disquisition on these dollies, which rise above the level of narrative and celebrates the pure artifice of Sirk’s art (quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia):

The whole film is made of short tracks, usually lateral, almost invisible, the camera perpetually strolling five or six meters above the ground. Why? No reason. Just Sirk’s pleasure in making the camera move…In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true. (Cahiers du Cinema no. 87, September 1958).


For a look at the technical quality of the set, DVD Beaver has reviewed it here.


I have no more words to spare on the New York Film Festival, but please check out David Bordwell here and Michael J. Anderson here on my co-favorite film of the festival (tied with Uncle Boonmee)Raul Ruiz’s magisterial The Mysteries of Lisbon.


August 31, 2010


For a man who toiled in the studio system for close to 50 years, cranking out genre quickies and prestige productions with equal aplomb, Raoul Walsh’s work remains astonishingly coherent. My grab-bag syle of viewing has made this resoundingly clear. This week I watched his earliest work, Regeneration (1915) and The Thief of Bagdad (1925) through two films he made in 1953: The Lawless Breed and Gun Fury. The above still is from Along the Great Divide, a spare, Oedipal Western from 1951. All of them, in one guise or another, deals with Walsh’s major concern, the benefits (freedom) and costs (self-absorption, loneliness) of individuality.

In Along the Great Divide (available from the Warner Archive), men are subsumed under vaulting rock formations, isolated and doomed. Kirk Douglas, in his first Western, plays a neurotic U.S. Marshal intent on protecting a cattle rustler accused of murder (Walter Brennan) from his would-be lynchers, and on bringing him to justice. He pushes his deputies as hard as his prisoners, eventually alienating all of them over a harsh drive through the desert. Douglas represses his world-devouring charisma into a bottled-up rage, unleashed only when a bemused, sardonic Brennan starts incessantly humming a tune, “Down In the Valley”, that the Marshal’s Dad used to sing, triggering unwelcome memories.

Filmed in the emptied out High Sierras and the Mojave desert, Walsh shoots his actors in long shots against the alien landscape, reduced to motile dots during shoot-outs. When he comes in close, people are breaking down. The group’s loyalties are in constant flux, and love affairs fall apart on the second half of a shot-countershot. After cooing over a sunset, Virginia Mayo turns a gun on Douglas, eager to save her father (Brennan) from the noose. Everyone acts out of base self-interest, and it is revealed that the Marshal’s obsessive fealty to the law is merely his guilt-ridden reaction to his failure to protect his father. There is a complete interpersonal breakdown, with every man and woman looking after their own interests. As Renoir famously said in the The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons.”

The faces are the landscapes in his debut feature Regeneration (on DVD from Image), a raw urban melodrama of gang life on the lower east side of NYC. Walsh told Peter Bogdanovich:

…I got a thing called Regeneration, a gangster picture, which is right up my alley because I knew all those bloody gangster kids and everybody in in New York. …I went down around the waterfront and around the docks and into the saloons and got all kinds of gangster types, people with terrible faces, hiding in doorways.

In his autobiography he said that, “There were enough bums and winos around to cut down on extras.” Equipped with these authentic visages, Walsh produced a downbeat piece of  social realism that runs underneath the stock drama, a mixture of fiction and documentary that is being mined today by international auteurs like Lisandro Alonso and Pedro Costa (Dennis Lim has a fine overview of this contemporary trend). It tells the story of John McCann (the immortally named Rockliffe Fellowes), a kid whose parents abandon him to fend for himself on the poverty-stricken streets. He turns into a brutal young hood, who softens only under the glare of social worker Mamie Rose (Anna Q. Nilsson), who tries to reform him. As a Walshian hero, though, McCann can never entirely be domesticated, the lure of dissolute freedom is too great. For Walsh, it was a natural decision to use “real” people to fill the cast, a cost-cutting maneuver that also allowed him to film those “terrible faces” which attracted him so much.

Previously employed as an actor by D.W. Griffith, as John Wilkes Booth in A Birth of a Nation and a host of Biograph shorts, there is a strong influence in Regeneration from his mentor. Walsh remembers that he learned “not to allow leads to ‘eat up the scenery’ by overacting’ from him, and describes one of the final sequences of the film:  “I had the camera move in for a close-up in the best Billy Bitzer style.” The close-ups are extraodinary, intimate portraits that impede the story, unnecessary to the action but essential to understand the time and place. More is revealed in a shot of a tattered t-shirt on McCann’s drunken stepfather than any inter-title could convey. Poverty is portrayed matter-of-factly, without condescension or embellishment, and it is this oppressive sense of reality that lends Regeneration its sizable force.

The Thief of Bagdad (streaming on Netflix Instant)was a mega-production, and while it’s more of a triumph for set designer William Cameron Menzies and Douglas Fairbanks’ chest, it continues Walsh’s interest in outsiders, albeit in a brighter, more rakish tone than Regeneration or even Along the Great Divide. Fairbanks’ thief is a charming rogue, but a solitary one, getting tips from a variety of magical grotesques, but his feats of strength and wit are all accomplished alone.

Walsh made two westerns with Rock Hudson in 1953, which deal with opposing visions of masculinity. In The Lawless Breed (on Wesley Hardin escapes the religious strictures of his father, only to fall into the  life of an outlaw. While in Gun Fury (on DVD) Hudson is an upstanding type, a fumbling fiance forced into vengeance when his wife is kidnapped.

The Lawless Breed seems like a dry run for The Tall Men a few years later, as Hardin has a dream of owning a farm and living the quiet life, while his dancehall gal is skeptical. The same dynamic is present between Clark Gable and Jane Russell in the later film, but what they make playful and flirtatious is rendered stolid and melodramatic here. The creaking script makes excuses for all of Hardin’s murders, straining visibly to whitewash his character into a spotless hero. This pushes against Walsh’s instinct to problematize the heroic instinct, and the resulting film is an intriguing failure. The shootouts are crisp and well-staged, but there is no tension or shading in Hardin’s character, with little of the ambivalent violence of Gable, who is a shown as a thief in the opening shot of The Tall Men.

Hudson made Gun Fury with Walsh the same year, which was shot in 3D. It has the most inventive use of 3D technology I’ve seen, mainly in the use of depth effects, which he was already a master at in the lowly 2D format. But here images in the foreground gain a new solidity, with dust kicking up in front of our eyes as a horse cuts through the back third of the frame. There’s a density and volume to the images that is absent from the recent 3D cycle, achieved through the constant interplay between background and foreground that elasticizes the screen space.

Hudson plays Ben Warren, left for dead by a brutal gang who abscond with his wife-to-be Donna Reed. Warren is no fighter, getting gunned down while futzing with a shotgun, and accepts the help of a former member of the gang, and a Native American who had suffered at their hand. The narrative is sleek and focused, pushing Warren forward even when he’d rather not, an accidental hero who’s not very good at his role.

For now, this will be my last post on Walsh, and it’s been nothing less than a revelation for me. His “invisible” style is never less than expressive, from the heights of Manpower to the lengths of the ‘Scope Tall Men, he has an instinctual touch for how to pack his frames for maximum dramatic impact. His heroes are bruised, his women are cynical, but when Walsh alights on a rich vein of dialect (Me and My Gal, Strawberry Blonde), he can be downright hilarious. He’s a shifting target, but I’m in the beginning stages of tracking him down.