December 8, 2015

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Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge.  Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here). 


Under Pressure was based on the novel Sand Hog by Frank G. Fowler and Edward J. Doherty, first published serially in Argosy magazine. Fowler helped dig the Holland Tunnel, and adapted his experiences into the book.  Once Sand Hog was optioned by Fox, Fowler changed his name to Borden Chase (after the milk and the bank) and went on to a prolific career as a Western screenwriter (Red River, Winchester ’73, Vera Cruz). But Chase received his first script credit on Under Pressure, along with co-writers Noel Pierce and Lester Cole (and an uncredited polish job by Billy Wilder).

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The story follows Jumbo (McLaglen) and Shocker (Lowe) as they lead the Brooklyn team in a tunnel digging race against the Manhattan scalawags fronted by Nipper Moran (Charles Bickford). Whoever fights their way into the opposite team’s tunnel wins $500. Newspaper gal Pat (Florence Rice) is sick of covering horse shows, so ditches the society pages and attempts to report on the feats and follies of the Sand Hogs. Her first pitch is denied by an uppity Manhattan editor, who says, right before firing her: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those rural editors over in Brooklyn didn’t fall for your yarn.” They did, and Pat gets the cover story she so desired. The Sand Hogs’ violent, brutish and short lives make for good circulation, but Pat starts to become part of their family. The mother would be Amelia Hardcastle, the owner of the favored Sand Hogs bar, and the one who keeps the peace in the hot-headed profession. But even she can’t heal the macho head games played by Jumbo and Shocker, who butt heads over the leadership of the Brooklyn Sand Hogs as well as the affections of Pat.

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Instead of confessing their feelings they go back to their dark holes and dig, or else they are stuck in the decompression chamber which eases them back into the above ground oxygen flow. Their whole job is enclosed, trapped and controlled.  One of the central images is the bubbling of water that indicates a healthy oxygen flow underneath. Amelia can read this bubbling like a novel, she can tell when there’s a fire or a containment leak based on the shape and intensity of the burble. This bubble is far more expressive than Jumbo and Shocker, who prefer to express themselves in grimaces and put-downs.

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The first thing Walsh shows before panning down some miniatures into the dank tunnel set (“a huge tube, nearly 500 feet long and seventeen feet in diameter, an exact replica of a vehicle tunnel during construction, was copied as a set from the Fulton Street tunnel in New York, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan” – AFI Catalog), made up of wrought iron and glistening torsos . The biggest torso belongs to Jumbo, and Vincent McLaglen plays him with his usual aw shucks bravado, a gentle giant who bellows out of insecurity, he’s puffed up mainly with hot air. Walsh had previously worked with McLaglen on What Price Glory, and in his autobiography described McLaglen as “a great broth of a man and a fine actor who once fought Jack Johnson.” Edmund Lowe was “a matinee-idol type who was unpredictably able to transform himself”. He has an arch tone to his theatrical voice that fits the character of a know-it-all, while McLaglen bellows like a cow being led to the slaughter. Both men need each other to get through this job alive, as they provide a balance, one that keeps the Brooklyn Sand Hogs’ tunnel from collapsing.

Walsh finished shooting the film in under a month, finishing in October of 1934. But according to the notes in the AFI Catalog, re-shoots were ordered from December 3rd – 31st, with Walsh replaced by Irving Cummings. These were extensive and expensive, costing Fox an additional $200,000. Pat was originally played by Grace Bradley in the version Walsh shot, but her footage was cut and she was replaced by Florence Rice. So all of the scenes with the Pat character were replaced. It is unclear why Bradley provoked such an extreme reaction from Fox, but it means the surviving Under Pressure is only half of a Walsh movie. But it remains 100% a McLaglen and Lowe film, and their affectionate bravado and bluster carry through the movie.

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The movie was dismissed as another McLaglen-Lowe programmer, with the New York Times writing, “vehicles which the studio litterateurs arrange for the hulking needs of Victor McLaglen & Edmund Lowe are never notable for their IQ count.” Contemporary sources like Walsh’s biographer Marilyn Ann Moss dismiss it as “undistinguished”. But this film has a raw energy and a raging visual libido, an extended metaphor for sexual repression, with those energies only released when the two competing tunnel shafts touch in the middle and the Jumbo-Moran fistfight commences. Howard Hawks often said that A Girl in Every Port was a love story between two men, and the same applies to Under Pressure. Jumbo and Shocker care for each other, but they can only express it in the depths underneath the city.


November 17, 2015

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

CaptureIn Variety the president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Mike Dunn, spoke about the opportunity digital streaming is presenting: “You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet. It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be a completist.” With lower overhead costs than DVD and Blu-ray, and less immediate sales pressure, it’s an attractive spot to place those HD transfers the studio archives have been stocking for a decade plus. While the quality will never match Blu-ray (my HD iTunes download of The Black Watch was 2.86GB, while a single-layered Blu-ray can hold 25GB), it is an acceptable substitute for those niche titles Fox would never release in a physical format. The first reel of The Black Watch is heavily scratched and worn, but the remainder shows clarity and depth, doing justice to Joseph August’s cinematography. It’s certainly worth a $4 rental.

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John Ford’s first sound film was a short, now lost, entitled  Napoleon’s Barber (1928), about an “anarchistic French barber who gives a shave to Napoleon on his way to Waterloo” (description courtesy of Joseph McBride’s John Ford: A Life). He would make two more silents (Riley the Cop and Strong Boy), before entering production on The Black Watch, which was something of a debacle. The film was based on the novel King of the Khyber Rifles (1916) by Talbot Mundy. The scenario by John Stone and dialogue by John K. McGuinness tell the story of Donald King (Victor McLaglen), a captain in England’s Black Watch regiment of Scotsmen. Just before the Black Watch is sent to fight in France at the start of WWI, King is selected to undertake a secret mission in India. His men think he is a coward for taking a cushy post, but his mission is to break up a group of Indian insurrectionists led by Yasmani (Myrna Loy), the so-called Joan of Arc of India, set to start a holy war against the British colonizers. King infiltrates Yasmani’s clan and attempts to break it up from within, which their growing attraction makes more difficult.

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Ford filmed The Black Watch as a part-talkie, but Fox general manager Winifred Sheehan hired British cast member Lumsden Hare to direct additional dialogue sequences. Ford recalled that

Sheehan was in charge of production then, and he said there weren’t enough love scenes in it. He thought Lumsden Hare was a great British actor — he wasn’t, but he impressed Sheehan  — so he got Hare to direct some love scenes between McLaglen and Myrna Loy. And they were really horrible — long, talky things, had nothing to do with the story — and completely screwed it up. I wanted to vomit when I saw them.

Though they didn’t make me nauseous, there are some extended dialogue sequences of ponderous deliberation. It is as if Hare believed dialogue couldn’t be registered unless McLaglen and Loy have rests in between each line. These are jarringly static sequences, because Ford and August shot the rest of the film with group dynamics in mind.

The film begins with a classic Fordian dinner, soldiers arranged symmetrically around the table singing mournful melodies in between busting each other’s chops. There is a general clamor nonexistent in the added dialogue sequences. This clamor increases when the troops go off to war at the train station, in which lines of men wind through the concourse and the soundtrack crackles with drums, bagpipes, and the cries of parting families. In the New York Times Mordaunt Hall praised it’s realism: “Those who witnessed the trains carrying soldiers to the front during the black nights of London town, will be affected by these sequences, for they are without a doubt the most realistic thing of their kind that has come to the screen, and the fact that these scenes are presented with a variety of sounds such as singing, the tramping of fighters’ feet, the officers’ commands, the chug-chug of the locomotives, render them particularly vivid.”

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Things get even more elaborate once Captain King goes to India, and August has a field day shooting through latticework, curtains and lace. Yasmani is introduced in extreme close-up under a veil, Myrna Loy’s face just a suggestion. The representation of India doesn’t get beyond Indiana Jones levels of colonialist fantasy. Though in her early career she was positioned as an exotic object of desire (Across the Pacific, Desert Song), the Montana-born Loy is never quite convincing as a warrior who could command the loyalties of Indian subversives (who are depicted as a thoughtless mob that get gunned down in a gruesome Wild Bunch ending).

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The Black Watch remains strongest in its depiction of the war, and a short sequence showing the Black Watch battling through Flanders Fields is haunting. As the camera slowly tracks backward through a foggy landscape, the men pour forth with ill-fated enthusiasm, as their lives are cut down in the trenches. Peter Bogdanovich praised the back-lighting in this sequence to Ford, who responded with, “Well, we never had many people so I tried that way to make it look as though I had more.” Ford ascribes poetic results to practical problems, describing filmmaking as an issue of mechanics. The Black Watch is a transitional work that provided Ford and his crew an opportunity to work out the kinks in the sound film, poor Lumsden Hare aside. And with Ford’s Men Without Women (1930) also scheduled for release to iTunes in HD  from Fox, we will soon get a fuller picture of Ford and DP Joseph August’s development into the audible age.




September 17, 2013


It’s hard to conceive of Howard Hawks without sound. His films are focused on work and its downtime, and it is in spurts of chatter in which his characters define themselves. As physical as their occupations may be, it’s always their words that reveal their true selves. Which is why watching Hawks’ silent films are so disorienting. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a full retrospective of Hawks’ work, and this past weekend they screened many of his silents, including A Girl in Every Port (1928), which manages to set up many of the director’s pet themes before the arrival of sound allowed his talents to fully emerge.


After Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? minted box office gold in 1926, the Fox Film Corporation was eager to produce more macho globetrotting comedies. Walsh’s film adapted the play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, which followed two army buddies, Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirk (Edmond Lowe), as they battled over women in China, the Phillippines and France during the onset of WWI. Hawks wrote the original story for A Girl in Every Port in 1927, which is essentially What Price Glory? if you remove the dramatic war sections. At this early stage he’s already showing an interest in paring down genres to their basics. This reaches its apotheosis in Rio Bravo, in which the Western is reduced to a street, a jail and a hotel.  His story has two sailors, Spike (McLaglen) and Bill (Robert Armstrong), who joust over women on their worldwide jaunts, until a few brawls make them best friends. While Armstrong’s character is credited as “Salami” in the AFI Catalog, his nickname is not present in the print I saw. Maybe censors removed it for being too sexually suggestive? McLaglen is the hulking goofball, an overeager lothario whose telegraphed moves are no match for Armstrong’s low key mystery.

A number of writers were brought on to polish his scenario, but Seton Miller received the final screenplay credit. These later drafts introduced a vamp character (to be played by Louise Brooks) who seduces Spike and threatens to upend their relationship. This conventional bit of melodrama was imposed in these later drafts, over-complicating Hawks’ simple tale of friendship.


Hawks famously told Peter Bogdanovich that the film was a “love story between two men”, and his depiction of their deepening platonic bond will achieve echoes in his later work. The act of lighting cigarettes will become an erotic emblem throughout his career, seen to charged effect in To Have and Have Not. In A Girl in Every Port, this gesture seals Spike and Bill’s bond. They are both soaked after an extended throwdown with some Keystone cops and an unintended dip in a bay. Bill’s pack of cigs is all wet, so Spike proffers his – and their bond is sealed. They are shown in a simple two shot, with close-up inserts for the lighting. A classical, maximally legible setup, although Hawks does show more camera mobility that we’re used to in his later work. There is a lovely tracking shot through the city streets as the two men look for an abandoned spot to slug each other. There’s also an expressionist touch in one shot, in which Hawks uses a low angle under Louise Brooks’ high diver, her body abstracted against the night sky as she soars down towards the camera. F.W. Murnau was in residence at Fox at this time, and exerted an influence over the whole studio. Even Hawks, an exemplar of Hollywood’s “invisible” style, was inspired to deploy some  visual tricks of his own.

Louise Brooks is stuck in the role of gold digger, without the vibrant independence of later Hawks heroines. She does fill the role though, of the feminine presence that sets the professional male world on tilt, whether Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings or Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. When he had more freedom, Hawks gave more to his female characters. In A Girl in Every Port, Brooks is a narrative device, a carnival high diver who splits Spike and Salami’s indomitable bond. But whereas Arthur and Stanwyck challenged the masculine assumptions undergirding the boys clubs they crashed, Brooks’ obvious villainy only confirms the macho worldview of A Girl in Every Port. The film ends with Spike and Salami ready to continue their love ‘em and leave ‘em life.


Hawks knew Brooks because he was friends with her husband, actor/director Eddie Sutherland. He cast her because, as he told Kevin Brownlow, “she’s very sure of herself, she’s very analytical, she’s very feminine, but she’s damn good and sure she’s going to do what she wants to do.” That could describe all of his female characters following in the wake of Brooks. While he wasn’t able to provide her with a multi-faceted character, she certainly makes a visual impression, with her razor-sharp bob and form-fitting diving gear. She exudes a fearsome modernity which scares the hell out of every man around her – the shape of Hawskian women to come. Her small but pivotal role in A Girl in Every Port attracted the attention of G.W. Pabst, who cast her as the much-desired lead in Pandora’s Box – which turned her from an actress into an immortal image.


July 16, 2013

This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

The earliest sound feature I saw at MoMA’s Dwan retrospective was Man to Man (1930), another of Dwan’s absent parent dramas. It’s an experiment in sound production, testing if audiences would accept varying volume levels in a scene. Dwan used synchronous sound in his tracking shots, affixing a mic to the camera boom and pushing it down the small town set’s Main Street. Because some characters are further away from the mic, the volume fluctuates, more accurately capturing how our ears work than the usual emphasis on clarity above all. He would abandon this technique by Chances (1931), a WWI drama with battle scenes as harrowing as All Along the Western Front (1930) on a much smaller budget. Like Man to Man, it was made for First National (a subsidiary of WB), and concerns two enlisted brothers (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Anthony Bushell) who are in love with the same woman (Rose Hobart). Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich that, “Everything I did was triangles with me. If I constructed a story and had four characters in it, I’d put them down as dots and if they didn’t hook up into triangles, if any of them were left dangling out there without a sufficient relationship to any of the rest, I knew I’d have to discard them because they’d be a distraction. And you’re only related to people through triangles or lines.” His movies are constantly in motion making these connections, and one more mathematically minded than I could probably make graphs tracking his character relationships (especially for the comedies he made for Edward Small in the ’40s). In Chances it is a straightforward love triangle, with the dashing Fairbanks and aw shucks Bushell both enraptured with the rambunctious and gorgeous Hobart, whom they’ve known since childhood. As the trio’s relationship fissures so does the plot, severed into home and war fronts. A feminist even if he would never admit it, Dwan elevates Hobart from a prize being fought over into a fighter of her own, giving her a “sufficient relationship” to the boys. She does not spend the film pining in her boudoir, but in the muck driving ambulances to the front. She has seen the ravages of war as much as the brothers, which Dwan dramatizes in sludge level tracking shots of soot filled trenches. Each character battles their death drive until Bushell cracks, staggering into the mist.

Dwan moved to Fox to make another smoke-filled drama, While Paris Sleeps (1932). F.W. Murnau was under contract to Fox from 1927 – 1930, and his presence influenced everyone at the studio from John Ford (see: Four Sons) to Dwan. Like Man to Man, the story is about an imprisoned father returning to his child, only this time he has to break out of prison, and tries to aid his offspring without their knowledge. Victor McLaglen stars as roughneck Jacques, doing life in jail for killing a dirtbag at a bar. When he receives word that his wife is ailing, leaving his teenage daughter adrift, he engineers a breakout. Plashing through fog-choked swamps reminiscent of Sunrise (1927), Jacques finds his way to the city to engineer his redemption, swinging his ham-fists to clear the way for his daughter Manon (Helen Mack) and busking beau Paul to live free of their past.

A tireless worker, he would also crank out charming programmers for Fox in this period, including the slam-bang melodrama Wicked (1931), a women-in-prison/kidnapping thriller/courtroom drama that cycles through more genres than Tarantino’s wet dreams. What lingers in the mind are the class tensions – old society biddies judging Elissa Landi as she languishes in the clink, waddles wagging, and the dried up rich couple who adopt Landi’s baby without her knowledge. Only a chivalrous deus ex machina Aussie (Victor McLaglen again) can save her from the pits of poverty. 15 Maiden Lane (1936) is also concerned with the circulation of capital, this time in a snappy jewel thieving comedy. Another hour-long Fox quickie, it stars Claire Trevor as a jeweler’s niece who goes undercover to uncover who is running the black market gem trade in town. She gloms onto light-fingered Cesar Romero, who absconds with a diamond in the screwball opener, and slinks her way into his crew, widening her circle of underworld contacts until she meets the main man. As with Wicked, Dwan displays his dexterity with tone, flipping from insouciant comedy to tough-minded gangster flick with the flick of a gun’s hammer.

While the Fox programmers derive their energy from a pile-on of plots, Dwan’s 40′s comedies depend on the slow burn – from anxiety to total destruction. In Dwan’s telling Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) was intended as a straightforward Western for Universal, but he was so dissatisfied with the script he turned it into a parody. The casting of Franchot Tone and Broderick Crawford certainly backs Dwan’s contention, but they attack the subject with glee. Stuck with a mildewed scenario of an evil land grabber harassing homesteaders, Dwan turned it into a slapstick desecration of the Western. The frontier is an exaggerated Tombstone, with gunfights and brawls pimpling every surface of town. Every shot contains at least one man in leathers tumbling to the ground. The film is a playground for performance, and the characters try out and shed a series of identities during its run time. Tone is an investigator acting as a cowboy, while Mischa Auer is a quick-change artist, going from Native American to a trick horse riding gaucho.

This was ideal practice for the farces he would make for producer Edward Small: Up in Mabel’s Room (1944), Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945). Both Mabel and Gertie were adapted from plays by Wilson Collison, who popularized French farce in the U.S. Mabel was a Broadway hit in 1919, and Small and Dwan both thought it would be appealing light entertainment during wartime. The Collison adaptations use essentially the same plot. In both Dennis O’Keefe plays a neurotic obsessed with retrieving an engraved undergarment from a former beau, for fear his wife will discover his former indiscretion. His clumsy attempts at cloak and dagger lead to outrageous speculation and escalating jealousies. Couples invent baroque scenarios of betrayal, set to the rhythm of slamming doors. Dwan’s camera movement is restrained in these films, nearly static, allowing the tension to arise from the fidgety comings and goings inside of the frame, a stop-start pace that mimics their frazzled mindset. Brewster’s Millions is also about performance, as one-time skinflint Brewster (O’Keefe again) must spend a million dollars in a month to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Not allowed to tell his friends and family of the will, he has to embody a self-destructive capitalist and risk alienating his pals forever. One indelible schizophrenic image finds his team gathered around the TV, cheering on the nag he just splurged on during its inaugural race. O’Keefe is in the background, pulling his hair out as his million to one long shot hits, pushing his ledger back into the black.

While Brewster is sending money to die, The Inside Story (1948) tells of $1000 that circulated through a small town during the Depression, improving everyone’s lot. Made with no stars for Republic, it is the purest distillation of Dwan’s cinema, an organism that thrives on motion. A collection agency arrives to a struggling Vermont town with a payment for a local farmer. Due to a mixup, the hotel owner believes it to be his, and pays off his landlady. Then she uses it to retain a struggling lawyer, and the circle continues on as the stolen cash infuses the whole town with hope. It incorporates many of his favorite motifs, including playacting (the hotel manager’s daughter vamps to distract the collector), circulation (the cash) and strong women (one major subplot is women getting jobs to support their out-of-work husbands). While not providing the visceral impact of Silver Lode or the pure pleasure of Up in Mabel’s Room, it is essential to understanding his work as a whole.

In the 1950s Allan Dwan began one of the great director-producer runs with Benedict Bogeaus, for whom he made 10 films. Their bargain basement budgets hearken back to his Fox programmer days, but they are some of his most ravishingly beautiful, as he used color as another dramatic tool in his kit, like his ironic use of red, white and blue bunting in Silver Lode (1954). Dan Ballard (Dwan axiom John Payne) is about to be married on the 4th of July when McCarty (Dan Duryea) smirks his way into town and places him under arrest for murder. The town initially rallies behind Ballard, but as evidence mounts they turn on him, forcing him to shoot his way out before being lynched. In one of Dwan’s monumental tracking shots, the camera follows Ballard as he flips over Independence Day festooned picnic tables as the citizens rally against him. His railroading is a clear allegory of the blacklist, although that is likely a contribution from screenwriter Karen Dewolf, who was a victim of it soon afterward (she would never write another feature, but did find work in television). Dwan is more interested in the machinations that lead to mob violence, the gradual re-configuring of a town’s moral code. It’s the tragic version of the Edward Small comedies (Getting Gertie’s Garter was co-written by Dewolf), and world-weary saloon gal Dolly (Dolores Moran) even makes the crack, “What do you think this is, a French farce?”, to a deputy peeking under her bed. Both Bannister and McCarty are the Dennis O’Keefe characters, playacting (as a proper gentleman and marshal) to get what they want. But it turns out thtownspeople were the true thespians, as their civilized facade was a performance, vengeful violence their reality. Instead of building up to the pratfalls of a Small comedy, here it’s gunshots.

Tennessee’s Partner (1955) is Silver Lode’s gentle counterpart, another tale of a town’s greed and corruption, but with the focus shifted to two lonely drifters, played with easy charm by John Payne and Ronald Reagan. There is one moment in the film that moves me deeply every time I see it. After the requisite circlings of the Dwan storyline, Payne and Reagan reach a détente. Forgiveness is proffered and accepted, and Payne places his hand on Reagan’s shoulder. I don’t know why this gesture affects me so – perhaps because it is a rare pause in the whirl of the Dwan universe, a moment of beneficent calm before Dwan’s irresistible entertainment machine cranks back up again to take them away.