April 19, 2011

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“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Dwan’s career as a whole, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters. …there may be much more to be said…” -Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

My weakness was that I’d take anything. If it was a challenge to me, I’d take a bad story and try to make it good.” -Allan Dwan to Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

Allan Dwan has one of the more intimidating IMDB pageswith 405 directorial credits listed, spanning the years 1911 -1961. As with my on-going infatuation with Raoul Walsh, my haphazard path to Allan Dwan began with a random repertory screening, this time at Anthology Film Archives. The French filmmaker and critic Serge Bozon (La France), programmed an evening of idiosyncratic Westerns that handle male friendship in starkly different terms: Dwan’s Tennessee’s Partner (1955) and Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946). The former is a tender and forthright charmer, while the latter is an opaque and elliptical mystery. As I’ve been frequently enraptured by Tourneur recently (see here), I was surprised to find I found myself more wrapped up in the laconic rhythms of the Dwan film (although both are equally worthy). I then quickly queued up his two other 1955 features, Pearl of the South Pacific and Escape to Burma – and so I begin another auteurist binge.

Tennessee’s Partner (’55) was part of a string of low-budget action films that producer Benedict Bogeaus was packaging together for RKO. Jacques Tourneur had already pitched in with Appointment in Honduras (1953), while Don Siegel kicked off the remarkable string with Count the Hours that same year. Dwan would direct ten of these cheapies (three in ’55 alone), almost all of which used the same proficient crew of old pros, including cinematographer John Alton, art director Van Nest Polglase, editor James Leicester and composer Louis Forbes. In his study of Tourneur, The Cinema of Nightfall, Chris Fujiwara notes that “According to Dwan, Bogeaus’ budgets were never more than around $800,000 to $850,000, and the schedules were about fifteen days.” As Dwan told Bogdanovich:

Ben Bogeaus had lost his shirt on a bunch of pictures that he produced, and for a long time he did nothing. But he had been friendly with a fellow who became the general manager for RKO studios under Howard Hughes, and when they decided to encourage independent producers to come in and make pictures, they also loet Bogeaus in because of the previous relationship with the studio manager. The president of the company was…my old friend Jim Grainger. Now Bogeaus was notoriously extravagant in the early days, and they weren’t too confident that he could safely handle the kind of budget he’d have to use, so to give himself some security, Grainger reached out for someone with experience to go in and work with Bogeaus.

The mandate was to finish under budget and on time, and Bogeaus, no longer extravagant, became rather notorious for cutting corners. On Dwan’s last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Bogeaus hired the crew on the lower wages of a two-part television pilot, even though it was intended as a theatrical feature all along.

This cheapness extends to the aspect ratio, for instead of paying for the CinemaScope process, RKO introduced the cut-rate SuperScope process, which essentially crops a 4×3 frame into 16×9. Glenn Kenny broke it down at MUBI:

Howard Hughes hired brothers Irving and Joseph S. Tushinsky to concoct a process. It is possibly one of the most ass-backward you will ever encounter. (My information derives from Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes’ invaluable book, Wide Screen Movies.) In SuperScope, the film is shot using standard 35mm cameras, lenses, film. Filmmakers were instructed that all action be framed “into a 2:1 aspect ratio with equal cropping from the top and bottom of the frame.” “The film was then cropped to 2:1; a 2:1 anamorphic squeeze was added, and the film was printed by Technicolor in ‘scope format with .715′ height and .715′ width. A narrow black strip appeared on the right side of release print frames to fill in the difference in the .715′ SuperScope width and the .839′ width of CinemaScope.”

Borne out of necessity as well as inclination, these films are sparse and economical, allowing the well-worn genre codes to fill in the blanks in the scripts and the open spaces in the sets. Escape to Burma and Pearl of the South Pacific are minor but diverting efforts, with characteristically impressive work by John Alton. Burma is the stronger of the two, introducing the latticework facade of Barbara Stanwyck’s Burma outpost in the opening, letting Alton’s shadows seep through it in the middle, and then ending with gun muzzles intruding into its intricate grille work. Pearl has some stunning location footage matched with awkwardly cheap studio shots, but still manages to wring dense, fully figured characters out of its pulp cut-outs.

Not much happens in Tennessee’s Partner, with most of the action taking place inside the emotions of John Payne and Ronald Reaganthe two eminently likable leads. Payne is Tennessee, the slick house cardsharp in a high-class brothel, or “Marriage Market”, run by Duchess (Rhonda Fleming). Duchess takes 10% of his winnings after he cleans out the rubes, but she’d like it more if he kissed her with passion. Instead, she gets the sloppy macho tongue slapping of a narcissist only after his own pleasure. Then Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan) totters into town, a mild mannered romantic who arrives to get married. Everyone is an archetype, identified only by a nickname. Howard Hawks certainly saw this movie before making Rio Bravo, another pared down Western heavy on nicknames and the vagaries of male friendship. It’s unnecessary to dwell on narrative-halting backstory when entire lives are present in a name. Whether Cowpoke or Tennessee, or Colorado, Feathers and Dude in Rio Bravo, you have a sense of these characters as soon as they step on-screen and introduce themselves. This allows Dwan and Hawks to focus on the inter-personal present.

One of Tennessee’s cleaned out poker mates tries to knock him off, and Cowpoke, just entering town, guns down the attacker instead. Tennessee and Cowpoke end up in jail on suspicion of murder. Instead of plotting escape, they sit in a tight two shot and talk, in a restful pace, about their lonely lives. Cowpoke laments his solitary life on the road, and Tennessee the constant pressure of having to maintain his perch, with young gunslingers always trying to take him down. It’s lonely at the top and the bottom, and the two men slowly bask in their mutual alienation.

The film progresses in this inverted manner – its heart on its sleeve and its story shunted to the background. Dwan said, “I’ve always preferred stories of intimacy. Spectacle is only useful commercially.” Tennesee’s Partner is a sweet distillation of this inclination. It’s a lovely, lulling experience to watch John Payne as his features soften the more he gets to know his pal. The cynical devil-may-care dash is replaced with nervous concern – as Cowpoke’s fiance turns out to be a gold-digger Tennessee knew back in San Francisco. The story moves on his inability to communicate his concernreflecting also his mulish refusal to admit his love of Duchess. It’s a movie about accepting and validating male emotionality. There is a moment when Payne lays his hand on Reagan’s shoulder, affirming their bond and their love, that stuns in its simplicity and grace.