April 2, 2013

16_1939 Wyoming Outlaw

When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced“Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw(1939).


The Three Mesquiteers B-Western series ran from 1936 – 1943 at Republic, and necessarily followed stock scenarios of the three ranch hands thwarting the plans of evil homesteaders and other n’er do wells. Sherman managed to helm the outliers in the series, including the zoo animal burlesque Three Texas Steers and revolutionary fantasy The Night Riders. Wyoming Outlaw is the most downbeat entry of the bunch though, a despairing portrait of institutional corruption feeding poverty and violence. The Mesquiteers, including John Wayne as Stony Brooke, are shockingly passive onlookers, unable to stop the degradation of the Parker family. Because they refuse to pay a tribute to local boss Balsinger (LeRoy Mason), the patriarch Luke Parker loses his job, and his son Will is reduced to stealing and slaughtering cattle for food. Despite their efforts to help, including muscling in on Balsinger’s thugs, the Mesquiteers stand helplessly by while Will turns outlaw and falls in a hail of bullets. For a series built on action and resolution, this is a curiously static and morally ambiguous film, more interested in Will’s forced descent into murderousness than the Mesquiteers knockabout good guy routine.


Governments hadn’t been cleaned up in Sherman films a decade later, when he was at Universal International for the Technicolor spectacles Comanche Territory (’50) and Tomahawk (’51). Both feature attempts to swindle Native Americans out of their land, stoking a free-floating paranoia that merits Kehr’s comparison to Kafka. Sherman also imbues their background characters, like Will in Wyoming Outlaw, with an unusual level of sympathy. Comanche Territory has Macdonald Carey play Jim Bowie, who is delivering a treaty to the Comanche to allow the U.S. to mine for silver on their land. He is waylaid en route, the treaty stolen by local townspeople eager to drive the Comanche out so they can stake their own claims. Katie Howard (Maureen O’Hara) is involved in the scheme, a prickly entrepreneur who is introduced by galloping a horse down the main drag while not spilling a drop of the beer she is holding. O’Hara’s  performance is made up of a flurry of quick-twitch movements of a woman whose mind is never at rest. She dominates every frame she is in, while Carey, embodying a Western icon, recedes into the background. Katie, introduced as a rapacious capitalist and land grabber, becomes the fulcrum of the film, hoping for a pragmatic peace with the Comanche, and thus splitting off from her brother’s gang. The climactic shootout depicts the Comanche and Bowie gunning down the gang, a rare triumphalist moment for Native Americans in Hollywood film.


The opening voice-over in Tomahawk (1951) presents the clearest example of Sherman’s instinct to investigate the motivations of his heroes and villains and everyone in between. He has internalized Renoir’s line in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”.  The camera tracks down two diagonal lines. The first is of the U.S. cavalry, over which the sonorous voice-over describes the lives they have lost for what they consider to be “freedom”. The second diagonal is of a line of Sioux, who because of the White man “suffer starvation and sickness where once there was plenty.” In between them is Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) a long-time scout who was once married to a Sioux woman, before she was slaughtered by a Colorado vigilante group led by a preacher.  He is on hand to help negotiate an agreement for the Army to build a fort on Sioux land. The talks break down over the government’s bad faith, but the fort gets built anyway, and Bridger stays on as a scout. But when a Sioux boy gets shot in the back by a racist Lieutenant, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter to come.

Sherman sets the horizon line low throughout, filling the frame with sky in his frequent long shots of Rapid City, South Dakota. The figures are specks against the immensity of the blue, already lost to history before they lose their bodies. The Sioux line up on this horizon line near the end, unaware that advancements in repeating rifle technology will turn their battle plan into an abattoir. The final shootout is more like a Holocaust, Van Heflin’s severe face colored with nausea.

In these Westerns Sherman cannot film a victor without depicting the resultant loss. There are no heroes or villains, just flawed people with ingrained, unshakeable beliefs and perspectives that set them into conflict. That some pass on and others survive seems incidental to these works, which simply aim to see what makes people tick, and then stop. George Sherman couldn’t stop making films, but he was not only a prolific artist, but a profound one.


March 23, 2010


The Prowler was made by disillusioned men. Director Joseph Losey, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and visual consultant John Hubley were all eventually blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo was already tarred, so his writing credit was given solely to Hugo Butler – while Losey and Hubley were pushed out of Hollywood soon afterward (Losey made one more film, The Big Night, before moving to Europe, while Hubley turned to uncredited work in commercials). Every major American institution is treated with a disdainful eye in The Prowler, a despairing document reflecting the state of the political Left in 1951, making it one of the bleakest film noirs ever made. James Naremore quotes Losey in describing the Hollywood liberal that year:

The Left in Hollywood was utterly demoralized by Truman, the atomic bomb, and the HUAC investigations, and it was beginning to recognize “the complete unreality of the American dream”.

The protagonists of this sleazy little drama are Webb Gardner (Van Heflin), an oafish cop fueled by class resentment, and Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), a plasticine blonde bored with her milquetoast husband. Or, as Manny Farber described them, “an amoral rookie cop” and a “hot, dumb, average American babe.” Either way, they were born to torment each other. In the opening shot, Susan stares off camera, shrieks, and pulls down the shades. There’s a prowler outside, and we’re out there with him. After this self-reflexive jape, literally putting us in the shoes of a voyeur and jokingly incriminating the whole movie-going enterprise, Losey pulls back to the larger narrative.

Susan calls the police to investigate the prowler, and Webb arrives along with his folksy, contented middle-class partner, Bud (John Maxwell). Sweeping the grounds outside, Webb circles around to the window in her bathroom. In a reversal of the opening shot, the camera is placed inside the window looking out, and Van Heflin takes our offending place where the peeper was first spotted. It establishes his perversity – he’s got a smarmy grin on his face – and re-enforces the possibility of ours. It’s the first of many shots where Webb is shown in transitional spaces – doorways, hallways and windows. The problem is that he always gets closer.

When he returns later that evening, she allows him in her living room, which the script described as “comfortably and tastefully furnished in Barker Brothers’ more expensive style of four years ago. There are overstuffed chairs and a couch; two bad landscapes on the wall” (quoted in “Un-American” Hollywood by Frank Krutnik).

Susan lives in one of the knockoff Spanish Haciendas favored by the upper middle classes in L.A. following WWII. The design is bland, second-hand, and forgettable. In a sly bit of set design, Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier [left] hangs over her dining room table, an artwork depicting labor exploitation tamed and turned by middle class apathy into mute wallpaper. Krutnik weaves a whole interpretation around the placement of the painting, which is available to read in his book’s Google preview.

This is the life Webb had been seeking, a life of quiet contentment in a “tastefully furnished” apartment, with a well-dressed blonde at his side. Over coffee, his class resentments come pouring out. He mews that being a cop is no better than a ditch-digger, money being his only bottom line. Susan ignites his jealousies further by revealing how she grew up in Indiana, in the same town as Webb, only she came from a wealthier family on a well-tended street.

It is this revelation that turns Susan into a prize – the ivory tower hidden from him because of his station in life. He becomes aggressive, animal, relentless. Susan resists meekly, than gives herself over entirely. Her own American dream, of raising a family, foundered in her husband’s infertile loins. Reduced to the life of a cloistered housewife, Webb’s meaty pawing feels like freedom. The husband only lives as a voice on the radio, as he’s the host of a popular nighttime music show, and an unwelcome presence during Webb’s ungainly seductions. In a small note of resistance, Losey cast Trumbo as the husband’s voice, his nasal tenor a ghostly presence even before his body gets knocked off in the Double Indemnity– inspired plot.

The Prowler spreads its sarcasm over the entire roll-call of American myths. Marriage, small-town life, the police force, and even capitalism itself are shown as empty, repressive forces. Susan and Webb are driven to each other, and then self-desctruct, all because of their unrequited love of the American dream. They want a perfect middle-class life, and Webb is more than ready to kill for it.

Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes provide two sterling performances of American indolence and greed. Heflin is especially mesmerizing, his wide-set eyes, gangly limbs, and lasciviously parted lips looking like a grotesque caricature of masculinity. His arms and legs seem to flail out of sequence when he stalks around Susan’s home like an uncaged gorilla, and his apartment is a bubbling cauldron of 50s macho-ness. There’s a target practice sheet on the wall, muscle mags on the desk, and an electronic razor incessantly buzzing around his reddened mug. Then when Susan calls seeking reconciliation for one of their flaps, he strokes the phone’s receiver around the edge of his mouth, his eyes burning with a look of sexual ecstasy. It becomes clear later that he’s been planning a murder. Evelyn Keyes has less to work with. Andrew Sarris describes the dilemma of the actress in a Losey film (thanks to Glenn Kenny for pointing me to this quote in his blog post on The Prowler):

The feminine role in Losey’s world is strictly subordinate because of the histrionic hysteria of his actors. Men simply cannot cope with their lives and social institutions, and they crack up with very lyrical results. Meanwhile the women stand by to pick up the pieces. They cope because of their ability to compromise with reality, an ability Losey frankly admires. Unfortunately, the best roles are the least stable. Hence, Losey’s actresses are usually denied the great scene-stealing moments of psychic dissolution.

This is all true for The Prowler, with Keyes having to swing between lassitude and disconsolate passion – no emotional match for Heflin’s demoniac dissembler. But in her own minor key, she is superb. In her cool apathetic demeanor she delivers lines with a lack of affect, as if her personality had been worn down over time. Her personal desires have been co-opted by those of her society, hence her bizarre decision to hook up with Webb and start a family on the edges of the world they so desperately wish to enter.

By the end they are pushed out of the middle-class suburbs and literally start to disappear. They are forced to go to a ghost town abandoned after a gold rush, where they enact a grim parody of the social roles of husband and wife – she does the dishes, he gets the food – and there’s a baby on the way. This section of the film is heightened both visually and narratively, as the events become more overtly symbolic and hallucinatory. The “door” to their room is a sheet that is beaten down by a raging storm. Webb has no other boundaries to cross, and now he simply wants the world to stay away. But the wind and rain keep busting in, and a simple country doctor brings their whole pathetic existence to a close – climaxing on a long climb up a short hill.

MY SON JOHN (1952)

February 2, 2010


Last Wednesday, TCM presented the first television screening of Leo McCarey’s My Son John in decades. It screened as part of the “Shadows of Russia” series, which tracked Hollywood’s depiction of the country from Tsarist times through Soviet rule. Programmed by the NY Post’s Lou Lumenick and the Self-Styled Siren‘s Farran Smith Nehme, it offered a wonderful chance to catch up with McCarey’s underrated rarity. The reason for its obscurity lies in its politics. Produced during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (for which McCarey was a friendly witness), it is strongly anti-communist, and has been dismissed in many corners as mere McCarthy-era hysteria. As Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the film is generally presented in a condescending manner: “typically introduced with an apologetic chuckle signifying, ‘Nowadays, of course, we can laugh at this.’” The usually sage Robert Osborne adopted this attitude in his introduction to the telecast, referring to it as an embarrassment, and our own astute Morlock Jeff emphasizes the “hysteria” over its other virtues in his article on the movie.  I have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues.

To reduce the film to a kitschy red scare product ignores the complex dynamics occurring in the family unit. Dean Jagger plays the father, Dan Jefferson, an earnest American Legion member who can’t conceive of a world outside his small-town newspaper. He’s an ingratiating buffoon with a quick temper and a taste for the beer barrel at the Legion hall, likeable enough until he starts singing nativist jingles and tossing his son across the room. He is an intentionally ridiculous character, as McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich in Who The Devil Made It?, as unbending in his conservative beliefs as John is with his communist ones. Personally, McCarey may have gravitated more to the father’s view, but his artistic temperament, which cherished improvisation and spontaneity, would never allow a such a monolithic man to be a hero (hence Renoir’s famous quote that McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director). Instead he is thrown through a series of farcical scenes – the song, a drunken rant, an absurd whack of the bible – that display his child-like pettiness and his inability to adapt to the times. His paranoia is proven accurate, but this does not alter the boorish nature of his character. His wife Lucille is the one who uncovers her son’s secret, and is the true dramatic center of the film.

Lucille, played spiritedly by Helen Hayes after a 17 year absence from the screen, is the pragmatic one, calming Dan’s fears, enduring his rages, and attempting to understand John’s point of view. She is patient with her husband but also fiercely independent, evidenced when she secretly dumps the pills he foists on her for her “anxiety”. She coddles him like an impudent pup, with a condescending kind of love. He provides the bombast, but she is in control of the relationship. Hayes’ performance is a bit of a high wire act, managing swings from manic energy to swooning depression with a few broad strokes – her darting eyes and sing-song voice ease the way down to the tragic conclusion. I think she succeeds wonderfully, evincing a rock-ribbed faith in God (in the eyes), paired with a mischievous sense of humor (her staccato laugh).

There is an especially moving scene where John is describing the world’s duty to help raise up the poor, and she finds a connection to Catholicism’s similar tenets to tend to those living in poverty. The joy in her face at this empathetic moment is beautiful and devastating , because she has yet to understand the basic incompatibility of their world views, and hence their imminent separation (and also because of the intensity of McCarey’s close-ups). Her inability to transcend the barrier between these ideologies turns her into the central tragic figure of the film, and is why Dave Kehr calls it McCarey’s most “emotionally demanding movie after Love Affair“. Her capitulation to Dan, when she tells him he was right about their son, is another scene of devious power, with Lucille’s ashen face on a different plane from Dan’s obliging attempts at apology for his drunken antics the night before. It is a drama of generational feuding and familial fissure more than anything else, as Martin Scorsese has also noted.

John is played by the incredible Robert Walker with icy disdain, a callow kind of condescension that college boys convey upon returning home from their first few philosophy classes (I recognized a bit of myself in him). It ended up as his final performance. Walker died near the end of the shoot, necessitating a total rewrite of the final sequences, and some awkward matte work which included some shots from the final carousel sequence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It is these final scenes that have marred the reputation of My Son John more than anything else, as John’s dramatic turn away from communism had to be cobbled together out of scraps of old footage and stand-ins, rendering this already difficult arc impossible to pull off. Without an actor to improvise off of, the subtleties of McCarey’s character work fall away, the family drama fades into the background, and McCarey’s staunch anti-communism dominates, turning the last act into more of the straight propaganda film its critcs claim it is. But it still contains echoes of the emotionally wrenching work that came before, in the few shots of Helen Hayes’ eyes.

McCarey claims it could have been his best film if Walker had survived, perhaps an impossible claim with The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow on his resume, but it lies at the center of his thematic world – at the nexus of personal freedom and familial responsibility that winds through his greatest work. It may not be his best film, but it is an essential one.