“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.


The film opens with a close-up of a bank window getting smashed. Clay Anderson and his gang knock over the establishment, and instead of a clean getaway, try to burn the whole town down, dragging a flaming tumbleweed behind them.  During his escape Clay’s horse twists an ankle. He wanders onto Hollis Jarret’s farm, greeted by a church under construction,  Jarret’s young second wife Peg slicing watermelon, and  freckle-faced kid Dodie gabbing nonstop about horses.  It is Americana kitsch, which soon proves to be nothing more than a veneer which Clay begins to pick away at. Pretending to be a friendly traveler, Peg agrees to house him in their barn until his horse gets well. Clay begins needling her, asking if she was the preacher’s daughter, and upon finding her true role, advances upon her with a leer. He insists that she doesn’t belong on this isolated spread, alone, rotting on the vine. You can see the flickerings of doubt on Patricia Medina’s face. She is revolted by Clay’s aggression, but the truth of his statements are as plain as day. She is too young, Hollis is too old. She is not a devout believer, while Hollis practices a severe, self-abnegating Christianity. Clay’s poison begins its work. The Anderson character was originally intended to be Jesse James, but was changed, according to Richard Maurice Hurst in Republic Studios, due to “legal complications”. Skip Homeier was a child actor (billed as “Skippy”), and he still looks like he is outgrowing his adolescence here, now a gawky 26-year-old trying to appear menacing.


It is this youthfulness that attracts Hollis. When the preacher returns home from a trip to town and sees Clay out by the barn, he immediately knows this is a lost soul from the robbery. Instead of turning him in or urging Clay to leave, he insists that he stay. Hollis has taken a passage from St. Luke’s to heart:  “There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” Hollis accepts Clay’s appearance as a challenge from God – to lead this lost lamb back to the flock, regardless of the consequences. The longer Clay stays, the more aggressive his pursuit of Peg becomes, and his paranoia at being caught has him pulling his pistol on every random visitor. It is as if Hollis has invited Death himself into his home. Peg becomes disgusted with all of them – at Clay’s boorishness and Hollis’ self-destructiveness, pushing herself towards the edges of the frame. But the men proceed onward to the inevitable violent endpoint.


Clay deflects all of Hollis’ attempts at preaching, treating his elder with contemptuous scorn. After another entreaty to turn to Christ, Clay ripostes, “”For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” Hollis, unperturbed, sees this as instruction. He purchases an unruly wild horse from a reluctant Slim Pickens, and believes that if this horse can be broken, so can Clay. Hollis names the horse “Lucifer” (played by Rex the Wonder Horse), and the beast lives up to the appellation. Dodie sneaks into the stable in an attempt to calm Lucifer himself, but instead the animal goes wild, bucking and attacking with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of a slasher movie monster. When Dodie slides underneath a cart, Lucifer goes down on his knees and tries to attack him with his teeth. It is the most terrifying equine performance in cinema history. Witney recalls the performance in a video from the 1994 Knoxville Film Festival:

 “Rex, King of the Wild Horses. This was one of the most animated, wildest horse you’ve ever seen. He had come out of a boys’ school in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trainer discovered that this horse would charge him when he cracked a whip. And I mean charge him. And you got out of the way. They were crying on the set, “Rex is loose!” I saw him chase a little actor under a car, get down on his knees and try to get to him with his teeth [laughter]. It wasn’t funny. Being a horseman myself I really appreciated this horse. There will never be another horse with the animation of this big bay, a thoroughbred Morgan horse, strangely enough.


Witney spent many of his early years at Fort Sam Houston with his uncle, which is where he learned to ride and jump horses, a passion and a skill he would carry with him the rest of his life. This led him to become friends with many of the stunt riders he worked with over the years, including the legendary Yakima Canutt. But for Witney, “the finest horseman ever to step on a horse bar none” was Joe Yrigoyen, who came up making pennies in Mascot Pictures serials, stayed on when the studio merged into Republic Pictures, and continued taking celluloid tumbles into the late 1970s, in Blazing Saddles and The Prisoner of Zenda. He was the stuntman for Clay Anderson in Stranger at my Door, given the task of calming down Rex during the freak-out sequence. In an effort to distract the horse from Dodie, Clay leaps onto Rex’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. It is a supremely athletic and dangerous feat, as Rex swings Joe around on his neck like a reverse rodeo rider.


The white-knuckle sequence proves Clay’s humanity, as he leaps in to protect Dodie. So Hollis’ plan is a success, though only after Dodie and Peg were almost stomped to death. For Peg this proves to be the end of her last frayed nerve. With the entirety of the film taking place on the Jarret farm set, there are a limited number of setups that Witney can use to generate tension. So instead of repeating another image of the stable, he flicks off the studio lights. While the rest of the family is asleep, Peg snags a shotgun and stalks towards the stable. She levels the sights onto Lucifer, ready to blast it into Kingdom Come, and her relationship with Hollis along with it. Poised there in low light, the gun raised, and the industrial fans tousling her hair, she is the closest thing the film has to an action hero. But she doesn’t have the nerve to take a life, and there is a storm brewing. The local sheriff stumbles into view, and the final shootout occurs in flames, the farm now an adjunct of hell. In the light of day the family is reconstituted, and Clay has discovered a measure of peace. But the question of whether all of the blood and thunder has been worth it is a question between Hollis and his God.


For a cheap programmer, the film was enthusiastically received, with Variety calling it an “exceptionally well-done family trade offering”, and The Hollywood Reporter praising it as containing “a theme that lifts it well out of the ordinary class and into a niche where it deserves to be considered with very special interest.” Witney always remembered it fondly, probably because of the positive critical response, not something he was used to in that period in his career. Though he always had a high reputation among serial aficionados and Western obsessives, his reputation never grew beyond these cliques. His most famous fan is Quentin Tarantino, who waxed poetic about him in a 2000 New York Times article (I made my much lower profile case at Moving Image Source a few years back).  Stranger at my Door is the first of Witney’s films to be released on Blu-ray, and it might be the last. But even if he never garners a retrospective or a door-stopping biography, his influence reverberates whenever a horse bucks a rider or a punch is thrown on screen.


May 10, 2011

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This year’s summer movie season was inaugurated by the gentle guttural drawl of Vin Diesel in Fast Five, the latest iteration of the jokey car fetishist franchise. Listening to Diesel’s lazy growl battle The Rock’s aggressive, crystalline enunciation offers more diversionary pleasures than most Hollywood money-grabbers. But the most fun I’ve had this year is watching a minor hit from the summer of 1939, the movie serial Daredevils of the Red Circle, which I picked up a $.99 VHS copy of on Amazon. The history of the summer blockbuster is usually traced to Jaws and Star Wars – in which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed B-movie scenarios with A-level budgets and cemented the studios’ preference for the holy teen demographic. Lucas has previously stated that the Flash Gordon serial was one of the influences on Star Wars, and both men further indulged their serial fantasies with the Indiana Jones franchise. While  Spielberg and Lucas continue their attempts to recapture their sense of childhood wonder, always undercut by a winking self-consciousness, the originals are still around, providing unpretentious pleasures their wildly successful descendents have never quite been able to match.

Daredevils of the Red Circle began shooting on March 28th, 1939, and finished a month later, with enough footage to fill 12 episodes released that June. The first is a three-reeler, close to a half-hour, but the rest are two reels clocking in around 17 minutes each. It was budgeted by Republic Pictures at $126,855, but directors William Witney and John English completed it for $126,118. English and Witney had just completed The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), the sequel to their smash hit serial The Lone Ranger (1938)  (the current spate of sequels and remakes is nothing new). In his autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase,  Witney writes that after a two week vacation, Republic producer Bob Beche called him into his office for the next project, which would be Daredevils. When he heard the pitch from the screenwriting team led by Barry Shipman, he said, “I think you guys should stop drinking and give yourselves a chance to get over the DTs.”

The story follows the adventures of three circus daredevils: the leader (and high diver) Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), the nimble escape artist Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and the strongman Burt Knowles (David Sharpe). After their trapeze act is firebombed by the notorious Harry Crowel (a skeletal, menacing Charles Middleton), and Gene’s kid brother dies in the blaze, the trio starts investigating Crowel – who has been calling himself by his prisoner number, 39013. 39013 has been attacking the holdings of Horace Granville (Miles Mander), the rich industrialist who had fingered him for arrest. The Daredevils offer Granville assistance, and with the help of his daughter Blanche (Carole Landis) and their dog Tuffy, they attempt to bring 39013 to justice.

The story is an efficient delivery system for action acrobatics, if not narrative logic, and Witney and English take advantage of their athletic leading men. Bennett was an Olympian shot-putter, while David Sharpe was the stunt coordinator and main stuntman for Republic. Of Sharpe, Witney wrote, “It was a director’s dream to have a leading man capable of doing his own fight sequences. It meant you could keep the camera close to him and it gave us a chance to show him off.” The directors take full advantage of this in fight sequences of unusual physicality and intensity. Witney mentions getting the camera close, but he and English often use wide shots with few inserts and fewer cuts, letting the actors and stuntmen careen through industrial landscapes and drab offices with reckless abandon. The closer shots he mentions must be the numerous times he gets Sharpe to bust through a locked door as deadly gases are seeping in.

There is a joy in just letting these expert tumblers loose, epitomized in a late bit in episode 11 where Sharpe, having failed to break into a room where a hired goon cowers, slips around a corner and knocks the thug out through the side window. Sharpe begins to crack a smile at all the fun he’s having, before Witney-English cut to the next bit of wild action. This is the smile that Harrison Ford puts in quotes in Indiana Jones, but here it’s an accidental bit of non-fiction entering the screen. Sharpe’s character is a no-nonsense bruiser, who doesn’t crack a smile in any other bit of action. Unable to repress his happiness in his work, and with Witney-English eager to move on the next shot, this arrested upturn in Sharpe’s mouth remained in the film, and I can’t think of a better example of Godard’s dictum, “film is truth 24 frames per second”, even if it desperately wants to be lying. Along with Sharpe’s exertions, there are dives into oil fires, leaps from speeding cars and innumerable crashes into inanimate objects. This is dangerous and thrilling stuff, held together with flimsy but fleet story material that knew to keep moving forward.

Witney and English recombine basic scenario elements in each two-reeler, with minute variations to keep things rolling. The trio will inevitably get locked inside a room with death stalking them, fight off thugs at an industrial site, demean Granville’s black servant (this racist role is endured by Fred “Snowflake” Toones), and do it all with nary a crease in their natty suits. The use of repetition and variation brought the structure of these works to the forefront, and it is one of the central pleasures of the serial form. In their haste to crank out the serials, Republic created the forerunners of 70s structuralism, who, Hollis Frampton foremost among them, made films in which the structure and shape of the films was the content. The work of Witney and English made their structures just as visible, unintentionally laying bare the devices of their making, a kind of unconscious self-consciousness.

Another remarkable facet of Daredevils in particular is its emphasis on the hopes and fears tied into technology. Almost all of the major fight setpieces take place in a factory or major industrial site. The first episode ends in spectacular fashion, when a tunnel connecting Catalina Island to Los Angeles springs a leak, and Blanche Granville is stuck inside. Using the wonderful miniature work of Babe Lydecker, their tunnel is flooded. Then there are the brawls at an electrical station, an oil derrick and a gas plant, the sabotage of an experimental laser, and 39013′s expert makeup job to pass himself off as Granville. There is a thin line between technological advancement and abject terror, and the unease with the rapid changes of the era is palpable in every frame. The Daredevils offer split-second escapes from the apocalypses of the imagination, and do it with an unguarded smile.


January 11, 2011


In December, a truckload of William Witney-directed Roy Rogers films were dumped onto Netflix Instant. I was clued into this trove by a conversation between Jaime Christley and Vadim Rizov on Twitter, an indication of why I’m addicted to this unruly microblogging service. As a source of cinephile news-gathering, it’s essential, and more than enough reason to endure the self-righteous posturing that flares up every so often.  Witney’s one of the anonymous artisans who pumped out movie serials for the Mascot and Republic studios, often in tandem with John English. He’s credited with 130 film and television projects at IMDB, and it’s a rather daunting corpus to approach without direction. With supporters as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and Dave Kehr, I took this Netflix cache as a sign I should dig in further (the only one I’d seen before is his so-so Apache Rifles, which I wrote about here). So I sat down with the earliest films on the list: Roll On Texas Moon (1946) and Home In Oklahoma (1946).


As usual, the quality control on these streams leaves something to be desired. First, the version of Roll on Texas Moon presented is the 53 minute television cut. The theatrical version runs 68 minutes. Poking through the site, it seems most of them contain the television versions, although there are a few full edits, which run closer to 70 minutes, including Home In Oklahoma. The first thing to strike me about these programmers is they’re deceptively dark tone. Roy Rogers is an aw shucks stand-up gentleman, and Dale Evans a bright-eyed sprig of independent femininity, but the world they inhabit is violent and strange.

In Roll on Texas Moon, there is a long standing feud between the sheep-herders and the cattle-men that once exploded into a bloody range war. Gabby Hayes, the lovable old coot axiom of the Rogers films, is a cow man, and can’t stand those “dag blasted woolies.” Someone is rustling the sheep on the Ramshead farm, threatening to escalate tensions into a shooting battle once again. Eventually an evening of dinner and song ends in a Mexican standoff. The culprits are eventually brought to justice, but not before a ram is shot in the face offscreen, and a vigilante force led by Rogers faces down the band of desperadoes. Each side suffers heavy losses in the shootout. These are remarkably grim images for a lightly comic Western-musical.

While it’s been cut down, it’s obvious Witney has a natural flair for framing action. When a chase ramps up, he lays down a blazing fast tracking shot (aided by some under-cranking) that pulls back right in front of a pursuing Rogers, or his stuntman pulling off some incredible side-saddle riding. Then he cuts to the reverse angle, zooming forward towards the dastardly evildoer. The sense of danger, for both the cameraman and the rider, is palpable. In isolating each figure in their tendon wrenching moment of tension, and by using an unusual head-on angle, he has the riders speeding right at (or away from) the audience. It’s an enveloping kind of action cinema.


This continues in Home In Oklahoma, which is presented in its uncut 72 minute length. This time the chases are necessitated because of the muckraking journalism of Rogers, here the editor of the Hereford Star. Evans is the city girl, an impulsive Torchy Blane type, from a St. Louis paper reporting on the death of a big-time ranch owner. The set-up is pure Nancy Drew, with the defining clue coming in the family hymnal. But the pleasures of these films are not in the story-telling, as Witney has to speed through gobs of exposition before he can break out an arcing crane shot of a rollicking ranch breakfast or capture Rogers crooning the bittersweet, unsatisfied tune, “I Wish I Was a Kid Again” (short form: as a kid I dreamed of adulthood, as an adult I dream of my childhood).

In keeping with the incipient brutality of the worlds Rogers and Evans must live in, the main villain, a lovely sadist named Jan (Carol Hughes), attempts to kill a small boy in order to inherit his ranch. She also ruthlessly shoots a few less-able men in the back. These hapless corpses take their tumbles in some extraordinary stunt work by Witney’s crew, who are seemingly game for anything. One brave soul falls over a small waterfall, while two bruisers take turns tackling each other on an open-air platform on a moving train. This is rough and tumble cinema made with fearlessness and charm, as well as the inimitable tones of the Sons of the Pioneers.

I’m very curious to explore the rest of his career – and if anyone has recommendations of essential titles, or a copy of Witney’s autobiography they’re able to sell at a reasonable price, I’m all ears. In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase is only available at upwards of $40, and the samples available on Google Books are tantalizingly rich. Another exciting subject for further research.


September 7, 2010


Last week VCI Entertainment released two obscure DVDs into the wild: William Witney’s Apache Rifles (1964, above) and Four in the Morning (1965), which features Judi Dench in her first leading role. Neither are deathless masterpieces, but each are valuable in their own inimitable way. Witney, a prolific director of movie serials for Republic Pictures (he specialized in Roy Rogers and Dick Tracy films, among scores of others), has a small (and growing) auteurist cult, receiving plaudits from Quentin Tarantino in recent years. In 2000, he told the NY Times that, “William Witney is ahead of them all, the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.”

A blunt descendant of The Searchers, it casts Audie Murphy as an Indian-hating U.S. Calvary Captain thrown into a moral quandary when he falls in love with a woman who is half Comanche. Making good use of the desert landscape, Witney starts off with wide shots during Murphy’s vengeful phase, and slowly closes in until the psychologically wrought final sequences take place in intimate two-shots. The first half is shoot outs, the second half fistfights (including a particularly brutal one with L.Q. Jones).

Released the same year as John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Witney’s film is a smaller-budgeted effort to improve the representation of Native Americans on film, although the Apache “Red Hawk” is played by the Italian-American Michael Dante, and the unfortunate ending has him embracing the tribe’s forced relocation to Texas. But the rest of the film is a no-nonsense actioner that pragmatically diagnoses the causes of ethnic violence. That is, the Apache’s land equals money for the town’s miners, and so a higher standard of living for the community. So the “savagery” of the Native Americans is played up by the town leaders in order to provoke a fight. Murphy negotiated a truce with the Apaches mandating that work cease on the local mines, but it swiftly collapses when an Apache is falsely accused of murder. Self-interest always wins out.

Audie Murphy does not have the tools to navigate the minute psychological turns of his character – his bland handsomeness rather dulls the edge of his supposedly violent nature, tempering the drama of his shift in attitude to the Apaches. Witney surrounds him with capable bit players (Jones, Ken Lynch, Bob Brubaker), and matches cuts on action to keep things moving, a whirling film without a center.  To compare Murphy to John Wayne in The Searchers is to see the greatness of John Wayne.

Four in the Morning is a morose bit of British kitchen sink realism, following three tales of working class woe through a single evening. Judi Dench is a harried young mother tending to her wailing and teething infant while her husband gets loaded (she won the “Most Promising Newcomer” award at the BAFTAs). Ann Lynn plays a lonely nightclub gal who strolls the London docks with the eagerly flirtatious Brian Phelan, and they soon alienate each other with a series of power-shifting mind games. In between these two stories, director Anthony Simmons details the fate of a female corpse that washed ashore, documenting the bureaucratic wrangling to send her to the grave.

As a narrative it’s overdetermined and suffocatingly miserabilist, but the stark B&W images of the mud-spattered London ports by DP Larry Pizer subtly expresses the aimless malaise of its characters (Pizer also shot Mannequin 2: On the Move. It’s a job, after all). The scuffed top of the coffin that carries away the Jane Doe says far more, and carries more metaphorical weight, than the overwrought script. If Simmons trimmed the overly theatrical dialogue and let the camera speak, Four in the Morning might be known as more than a footnote in Dench’s career.

The only relationship between these two films is that, luckily, VCI got their industrious hands on them. Of the innumerable companies that release public domain titles, VCI is the only one to put care into their releases. Apache Rifles, as you can see, looks a bit soft, while Four in the Morning has nice sharpness, but exhibits some digital artifacts while in motion. But they are eminently watchable presentations, considering that VCI is dealing with original materials of questionable quality and working on a low budget. Apache Rifles is also festooned with an interview with Michael Dante, and a short, informative documentary about the film.

VCI started in 1961 as a non-theatrical booking company known as United Films, distributing studio titles to college campuses and ships at sea. In 1976 the owner/founder Bill Blair started up a division he named Video Communications, Inc., and they claim to be the first business to sell films directly to home theater owners. They clearly have a strong sense of film history, having also released Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm and Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun earlier this year. A rescuer of orphaned films otherwise languishing in flickering boxes on YouTube, VCI is doing cinephilic yeoman’s work, and they should be thus honored.