The Seventh Victim

Halloween and horror movies have come to complement each other in modern times and I suppose it would be possible to spin out a theory asserting that my Irishness taps into some unconscious yet inescapable atavistic connection to Samhain at this time of year. Still, the truth is that I am not a huge fan of horror as a genre, or perhaps I ought to temper that a little and say that the direction the genre has gone in holds little appeal for me. I can find plenty to enjoy and appreciate in earlier works, starting with the Universal cycle in the 1930s and running right through to the best of Hammer, with detours taking in William Castle’s glib gimmickry and Roger Corman’s raids on Edgar Allan Poe. Right in the middle of those four decades of screen terror can be found the nine marvels of the macabre that producer Val Lewton oversaw at RKO in just four golden years between 1942 and 1946. The Seventh Victim (1943) is as much film noir as anything and if it is to be categorized as horror, then it is of the subtle variety where slow-burning dread and crawling unease reign.

The cinematic world of Val Lewton is one where nothing is quite right, where feeling, moods, and even relationships appear ever so slightly off-kilter. And so it is right from the opening of The Seventh Victim, as the camera pulls back from its close-up on a doom-laden quotation etched into the massive stained glass window flanking the staircase at Highcliffe Academy. As the bell rings and groups of chattering schoolgirls descend those stairs a solitary figure climbs in the opposite direction. This is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), already figuratively setting out on a different path. The starchy headmistress inform this young orphan that her fees have been unpaid for some time and, more worrying, her older sister Jacqueline has apparently disappeared in New York. Eschewing the opportunity to work off her fees by tutoring younger pupils, Mary opts instead to head for New York in the hope of finding her missing sibling. She knows that Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) was the owner of a cosmetics outfit but inquiries there leave her with the disconcerting news that she had sold up just before dropping out of sight.  The last sighting of her was at an Italian restaurant going by the name of Dante. Can it be a coincidence that an establishment borrowing its name from the author of The Divine Comedy should be located below the street, requiring its patrons to quite literally descend to a lower level? These are the first steps which will lead Mary on a labyrinthine route through the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village and on to the lair of a cult dedicated to evil. This quest for Jacqueline – under the supervision of three pillars of rationalism: Tom Conway’s psychiatrist symbolizing science, the law in the shape of Hugh Beaumont, and the arts as represented by Erford Gage’s poet – may be taken as a quest for the soul itself. Now one could read that as a search for fulfillment amid the cold anonymity of the modern metropolis. Then again it perhaps reflects Jacqueline’s own spiritual journey, one which metaphorically traces Dante’s classic path through sin and penance on the way towards hopefully attaining salvation.

The Seventh Victim saw Mark Robson taking his seat in the director’s chair for the first time. He’d started out as film editor working with Orson Welles and then with Val Lewton before the latter offered him the chance to call the shots. It is an impressive debut feature, unsettling and absorbing in equal measure, raising as many questions as it ultimately answers and benefiting from a well-paced script by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People). Nicholas Musuraca’s peerless cinematography comes to the fore too. Time and again we see his key light picking out the subject, carving some small pool of respite from the deep, inky shadows that forever threaten to encroach and envelop. On a side note, there is a “shower scene” in this movie, a typically  creepy and unnerving interlude which I have seen some people suggest might have been an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho. Frankly, I don’t really buy that theory – the scene not only plays out in a wholly different fashion but it’s aiming for a moody and disconcerting effect as opposed to the raw shock of Hitchcock’s iconic sequence.

Debutante Kim Hunter acts as the point of view character for the audience, an innocent (albeit a steadfast and determined one) cast adrift in the city and forced to confront all the empty indifference which characterizes it. It’s a sympathetic piece of work from the young actress, refraining from a descent into hysterics during tense passages such as the late night incursion into the cosmetics company’s premises and the subsequent ride on the subway; the latter scene, imbued with a helplessly nightmarish quality, is worth the price of admission in itself. Guiding her through this are the puppy-like Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage’s vaguely fey poet and a quietly authoritative Tom Conway was Dr Louis Judd. Conway played the same character, or at least a character of that name, in the previous year’s Cat People, and certain comments he makes sound like they are referencing that role although Judd appeared to have died in the earlier movie. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the timeline involved is, or indeed if there is even supposed to be any actual connection between the films. Anyway, that is not something I attach much importance to. At the center of it all, however, is Jean Brooks as the elusive and enigmatic Jacqueline. She drifts in and out of the picture alternating between nervy panic and listless resignation, a visually striking symbol of existential detachment.

Warner Brothers released The Seventh Victim on DVD as part of a Val Lewton box set many years ago, paired on the same disc with a feature length documentary on the producer’s career. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any upgrade offered since then. While the image is pretty strong as it stands, a Blu-ray would only enhance Musuraca’s evocative cinematography. Bearing in mind the studio has been gradually putting Lewton’s films out in high definition, it can only be a matter of time before The Seventh Victim is afforded the same treatment. For those not entirely sold on the concept of the horror film Val Lewton’s tales of subtle solicitude are highly recommended, at Halloween or any other time of year for that matter.

The Locket

Ask any movie fan to compile a list of film noir characteristics and the chances are that it will include a femme fatale, a trenchcoat-clad private eye, a rain slick sidewalk, a cheap room sporadically lit by a flickering neon sign, a world-weary and almost insolent voiceover, and maybe a flashback sequence. Actually, the latter is such a classic device, not one which is by any means exclusive to films noir but, even so, one which was frequently exploited successfully by those filmmakers exploring cinema’s kingdom of shadows. There is something inherently noir about the flashback, its underlining of the ease with which the past impinges on the present, that fatalistic allusion to mistakes forever stalking the protagonists, only ever a heartbeat away from the here and now. The Locket (1946) employs a succession of these nested dissolves to lead the viewer back and forwards through the tortured and occasionally bewildering experiences of its characters.

A bright and sunny day, what could be more conventional and thoroughly positive than the sight of a highly polished car drawing up before a well-appointed residence in order to deposit its highly polished and well-heeled occupants (Reginald Denny & Nella Walker) on the sidewalk with no more on their minds than a bit of idle chatter as the navigate their way through the waiting reporters and pass on inside to attend their nephew’s wedding? Everything smacks of sophistication, order and happiness as the groom (Gene Raymond) welcomes his guests. Yet within minutes a summons to have a word with a mysterious guest will create an unmistakable and possibly irreparable crack in this facade, figuratively elbowing the bride, Nancy (Laraine Day), aside and instead ushering in the dark clouds of chaos and disorder, an unexpected and unwelcome storm bringing with it theft, deception and murder. The interloper is Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), a psychiatrist who has a tale to tell about the bride to be. As we delve into the past via the first of multiple flashbacks it becomes clear that Nancy is not a soul at peace. Bit by bit, we are drawn back to her childhood, growing up as the daughter of a servant and suffering a telling psychologial trauma, being presented with a valuable locket only to have it snatched back and then later being falsely accused of stealing it. This proves to be the catalyst for the deeply disturbed life she will go on to lead. It alters her relationship with the world at large, twisting her sense of morality and even her perception of reality. The consequences of all this are her destructive marriages, both to the thoughtful and urbane Dr Blair and the more elemental artist Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), and her ambivalence to if not downright disregard of the law and the sanctity of human life itself.

The 1940s saw the production of a number of movies with plotlines based loosely and often fancifully on then fashionable Freudian approaches to psychoanalysis. Hitchcock explored this area with Spellbound while Robert Siodmak incorporated it into The Dark Mirror. John Brahm was another arrival from Europe and with The Locket he too turned his attention to the  dramatic possibilities stemming from stories of abnormal psychology, something he was not unfamiliar with having already made the rarely mentioned Guest in the House as well as the Gothic chillers Hangover Square and The Lodger. Sheridan Gibney’s screenplay, featuring layers of flashbacks to rival Michael Curtiz’s wartime thriller Passage to Marseille, with its suggestion that even innocent misunderstandings in the past have the malign power to reach forward, haunting characters in the present and leaving them doomed or damned, is powerfully bleak. Factor in Nicholas Musuraca’s gift for conjuring up gloriously evocative shadows around pools of shimmering light and the ingredients for a classic film noir are all in place.

Looked at today, the name that jumps out of the credits is that of Robert Mitchum. Nevertheless, he didn’t receive top billing in 1946 and while his stock was on the rise in Hollywood, it would be the following year when he made the seemingly unloved Desire Me alongside Pursued, Crossfire and the seminal noir Out of the Past before he’d rate a higher position. While his role is a significant one and pivotal in the development and progression of the story he remains the second lead. That said, it’s always a pleasure to see the man working on screen, to watch how effortless he made it all look, and of course his departure from the action is not only memorable but genuinely arresting.

There is something smooth and reassuring about Brian Aherne, his is a quiet screen presence that commands the attention yet never seems to demand it. Whenever he’s around there’s a sense that even though bad things may happen, and they most certainly do, it will all come right in the end. It is this quality which adds punch to the arc his character describes over the course of the movie. We see him move from the calm complacency of one who feels confident of his place in the world towards the dawning of some dreadful suspicion, and on to a kind of frenzied rejection of reality before finally reaching a form of reconciliation with the disbelief he is surrounded by. As Mitchum’s words come back to haunt him his philosophical acknowledgment that he is merely another cog in a dysfunctional cosmic process which appears fated to repeat itself cyclically is a wonderful touch. At the center of this careening emotional vortex is Laraine Day’s Nancy, a psychotic magpie who presents an angelic facade to the world, leaving a trail of devastation in her wake as she flits from one identity to another collecting pretty, shiny things on the way. Day (Foreign Correspondent) is shockingly good at conveying the ethical immaturity of her character by turning on that blank innocence whenever she is confronted with her crimes. In support, Gene Raymond, Helen Thimig, Katherine Emery and Ricardo Cortez drop in and out of the tale, all of them offering telling contributions.

The Locket should be easy enough to obtain as it was released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and also in the UK by Odeon/Screenbound. I have the latter, but it appears that may be out of print now. This is a visually stylish effort, just as one would expect from any project with the names of Brahm and Musuraca attached. The noir aesthetic is reflected in the themes too, that notion of an inescapable past being ripe with potential. This is the type of movie I very much enjoy and one I recommend checking out.

Duel in the Sun

Deep among the lonely sun-baked hills of Texas the great and weatherbeaten stone still stands; the Comanches called it Squaw’s Head Rock. Time cannot change its impassive face nor dim the legend of the wild young lovers who found heaven and hell in the shadows of the rock. For when the sun is low and the cold wind blows across the desert there are those of Indian blood who still speak of Pearl Chavez, the half-breed girl from down along the border, and of the laughing outlaw with whom she here kept a final rendevous, never to be seen again. And this is what the legend says: a flower, known nowhere else, grows from out of the desperate crags where Pearl vanished. Pearl who was herself a wild flower sprung from the hard clay, quick to blossom and early to die…

It’s not uncommon to come across critics and writers referring to the operatic qualities of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it applied to other spaghetti westerns, but of course Leone’s films were not really like other spaghettis anyway. Nevertheless, I don’t believe his films were the first westerns this label could legitimately be applied to. To my mind, opera is essentially melodrama set to music; roaring, all-consuming passions explored and exploited with grandeur. Yet excepting a handful of cases, cinematic melodrama tends to get brushed aside somewhat disdainfuly, as though the cranked up passions on display are paradoxically of diminished value. Duel in the Sun (1946) is full-throttle, unapologetic western melodrama, a heady Technicolor cocktail of love and hate, of guilt and desire. It is operatic in scale, mood and ambition, and I feel it must have been an influence on Leone.

The credits roll and segue into an impression of the desert bathed in a twilight glow, Dimitri Tiomkin’s otherworldly score whispers across the sand and rocks, and Orson Welles softly intones those words at the top of this piece. The allusion is towards the epic and the movie, bursting in upon a nighttime street scene, is forever striving to become an epic. There is sweep and scale and spectacle, the frequently breathtaking visuals manfully going toe to toe with a tale which crackles with the power of the emotional currents contained within. This is the story of Pearl Chavez, daughter of a dissipated Creole (Herbert Marshall) and an Indian mother (Tilly Losch). She witnesses her father’s shooting of her faithless mother, and then his subsequent execution for the crime. Before his death though, he sends her on her way to seek out the protection of Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), his first and perhaps only real love. Laura Belle is married to the wealthy and influential Senator Mc Canles (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound bigot whose own family is hardly less dysfunctional than the setup Pearl has just left behind. The idea is to turn Pearl into a lady, a task destined to be thwarted by the girl’s own wilful and untamed nature, the Senator’s undisguised prejudice, and the competing attentions of his two sons.

Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the elder brother, educated and with a broader and more progressive outlook, the latter aspect highlighted especially by his willingness to embrace the arrival of the railroad and the consequent restrictions which will inevitably be placed on the concept of the open range. It’s a common feature in westerns to see the railroad driving back the frontier and pressing ahead with the process of civilization with every sleeper and rail laid. If Jesse can be said to be progressive in this wider, visionary sense, there’s no denying that he also suffers from what might be termed a form of moral idealism, an unfortunate tendency which, at a crucial moment, allows his judgement to be fogged by some latent prudery or sanctimony. Lewt (Gregory Peck), on the other hand, is something of a primal throwback, a reckless man of the moment, impetuous and ruled largely by his instincts and desires. He is his father’s favorite for his full-on machismo and that earthy nature which suggests a greater affinity for the vast and sprawling Spanish Bit ranch. Yet Lewt is as faithless as he is feckless, a self-obsessed man who takes his pleasures where he finds them, spoiled, entitled and lacking any kind of moral compass. He treats his brother with disdain, the world as his private playground, and Pearl as just another glittering toy within it. Pearl herself is every bit as complicated as the men who covet her; she yearns for that illusory respectability her father failed to provide but is too impassioned to ever make the necessary compromises that might attain it. Transplanted into an alien environment, she finds herself assailed on all sides – weighed down by the proprietorial expectations of Laura Belle, shamed and demeaned by the contempt of the Senator, wooed by the decency of Jesse but simultaneously overpowered by her hunger for the no-good Lewt.

Those three points of the dramatic and romantic triangle are brought to life by three well chosen performers. Cotten’s reserve and diffidence is used effectively to show a man capable of professional determination but a more faltering approach to matters of the heart. Peck’s natural confidence is concentrated and twisted into a cocksure egotism. And Jennifer Jones was afforded the opportunity to explore an extraordinarily broad range from barefoot ingenue to abused victim and finally avenging femme fatale.  Generally, it is hard to find fault with the casting of Duel in the Sun. From the decaying patrician weariness of Herbert Marshall to the unvarnished meanness of Lionel Barrymore, the characters who populate the tale neatly capture the flavor of their roles. Lillian Gish had the ability to tap into that fading delicacy that was entirely apposite for a woman whose essential gentility has been broiled by relentless exposure to a husband whose temperament is as caustic and pitiless as the Texas sun. Smaller but by no means insignificant roles are filled by Charles Bickford as the aging and tragic suitor smitten by Pearl, Walter Huston as the larger than life Sinkiller, and Harry Carey as the Senator’s old associate.

Films produced by David O Selznick tend to have a lot of the producer himself in them, his hands on approach practically guaranteeing that. Duel in the Sun saw him producing this adaptation of Niven Busch’s novel and also taking a hand in the writing alongside Oliver H P Garrett and an uncredited Ben Hecht. Somehow the man seemed to be imprisoned by his own success after Gone with the Wind and his struggles to escape and surpass the long shadows cast by that epic production dominate much of his subsequent career. Duel in the Sun has ambition stamped all over it, although it doesn’t always hit the mark. That blend of writers has Lewt appearing too one-dimensional for starters: he’s an out and out villain, self-serving, cold, abusive and murderous. Yet we have to buy into Pearl’s inability to resist him. Sure he ultimately goes too far and pays the price as a consequence, but the fact it takes so long for this to occur is something I find problematic. That said, I guess the overriding theme of the entire piece is that of being trapped by one’s nature. Pearl is in the spotlight more than anyone else, but none of the leading characters seem able to break the bonds built by their own natures either. This is perhaps the real tragedy of it all, a collection of people all fated to live out their lives damaging themselves or those around them.

The director’s reins were taken up by King Vidor, who would work with Jennifer Jones again a few years later on Ruby Gentry, and the frustration of working under Selznick apparently drove him off the set. This is one of those movies where a whole raft of people seem to have had a hand, albeit uncredited, in getting it to the screen. Aside from Vidor, Josef von Sternberg, William Dieterle, and Selznick himself, to name just a few, worked on the film. Even the cinematography was shared out by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes and Ray Rennahan. One might be forgiven for expecting a bit of a disjointed affair as a result of all this but the finished film remains remarkably cohesive. The scenes of the advancing railroad had me thinking of Leone and his similar setups as Sweetwater gradually takes shape in Once Upon a Time in the West. The panache of the various duels that develop as the story progresses leads me to wonder about their influence too – from the barroom confrontation between Bickford and Peck, and that poignant shot of the engagement ring, to the stylized face off between Cotten and a mounted Peck, and of course the final showdown which builds to a truly operatic finale. In among this there are numerous memorable visual flourishes too, the marshaling of the Spanish Bit riders being a good example. However, one of the standout scenes for me is the dawn meeting between Lewt and the Senator as the younger man heads off into hiding. It is shot in silhouette atop a hill with the rising sun in the centre, an almost demonic image as though the flames of the abyss itself were reaching out to reclaim these two scoundrels.

Duel in the Sun has had a number of releases in various territories over the years, with Kino in the US putting it out on Blu-ray. For the present, I’m still relying on my old UK DVD, which generally looks fine and shows off the stunning cinematography well, although there are instances of softness and a few registration problems at times. I am aware this may not be a movie that is to everybody’s taste – it is necessary to tune into those heightened and heated emotions that underpin this type of melodrama in order to appreciate it all – but it strikes me as a title that would be an excellent Blu-ray candidate for one of the boutique labels in the UK. Here’s hoping…

Rope of Sand

“Consider the diamond itself for instance. Carbon, soot, chemically speaking. And yet the hardest of all matters. So hard, in fact, that whatever it touches must suffer: glass, steel, the human soul.”

Peter Lorre uses that line, or a variation thereof, something like three times throughout Rope of Sand (1949). It’s not a bad line and has an air of wistfulness about it, and it’s tempting to wonder whether the filmmakers were hoping that this echoing might encapsulate the spirit of the movie. In a way it does, but probably not as originally envisaged. In essence, Rope of Sand is a simple story, one incorporating revenge, justice and a treasure hunt. Yet for all its simplicity, it feels somewhat repetitious, stretching its material more than is necessary and losing some of the inherent tautness in the process.

In brief, the plot revolves around Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), a disgraced hunter who has fallen foul of the mining authorities after stumbling through (I presume, although it’s never explicitly referred to as such) the Namib desert in pursuit of a client who recklessly felt he could sneak out some diamonds. The result is the death of the client as well as a beating and torture for Davis, supplemented by the loss of his license. That ought to be enough to ensure any man would give the place a wide berth in future, but Davis is driven in true noir style by both a thirst for revenge and some sort of justice or recompense – he doesn’t appear certain himself as to which one holds the strongest allure. Up against him is the local commandant, the sadistic Vogel (Paul Henreid), and his debonair boss Martingale (Claude Rains). The latter wants to lay his hands on the diamonds Davis left behind just as much as the aggrieved hunter does. To that end he flies in a Frenchwoman of questionable reputation (Corinne Calvet) with the aim of coaxing the location from Davis, and then delights in the added bonus of seeing the new arrival add another layer to the antagonism between Vogel and Davis.

Walter Doniger’s script contains a fair bit of toing and froing, plans made and dropped, schemes attempted and foiled, and retribution handed out. There are dark mutterings amid exotic surroundings, interspersed with a smattering of witticisms as dry and abrasive as the South African sand. Past events are alluded to over hard liquor and a haze of cigarette smoke, then rather unnecessarily clarified via a flashback sequence that serves to simply slow everything down. And all the while the tone is shifting in tandem with the dunes of the surrounding wasteland, louche charm rubbing shoulders uncomfortably with instances of truly grim brutality.

On the other hand, these Hal Wallis productions tend to have a very grand look, a real cinematic sheen that is hard to resist. William Dieterle’s mise-en-scène and Charles Lang’s wonderful lighting combine to present some genuinely sumptuous shots and on occasion it approaches expressionism – the silhouetted figure atop a dune, the torture of Lancaster. Visually, the whole production is quite splendid. As for Franz Waxman’s score, I again found portions of it jarred and almost swallowed up the action on screen instead of complementing and supporting it.

Burt Lancaster is said to have disliked the movie intensely but his work on screen reflects none of that. It’s yet another variation on his, by that stage, patented studies in tough vulnerability and the type of thing he could practically sleepwalk through. Maybe it wasn’t much of a stretch for him dramatically but he turned in a credible piece of work all the same. Paul Henreid ‘s interpretation of an irredeemable sadist is powerful and intimidating, saved from becoming totally one-dimensional by the actor’s ability to hint at an awareness of his own failings. Claude Rains is all silken malice, a puppeteer whose viciousness only appears more palatable than that of Henreid due to the sheen of elegance and sophistication he wraps it up in. The only woman in the story is Corinne Calvet, hired by Rains to act as a siren and finding herself gradully falling victim to the  subterfuge and betrayals. Sam Jaffe’s alcoholic medic is underused and Peter Lorre as a lowlife fixer going by the glorious name of Toady drifts in and out of proceedings like some sweat-stained Falstaff.

Olive Films released Rope of Sand on both DVD and Blu-ray in the US but I’m not sure about availability elsewhere. It sports a terrific cast and Dieterle’s visual nous is never in question. I’d say it is sporadically entertaining, but the script allows the plot to drift too much in places and the tone lurches a little too freely – the smart dialogue and the harsh physical violence form an uneasy mix with this viewer.

That brings me to the end of this brief exploration of the cinema of William Dieterle which I have undertaken over the course of this month. I did toy with the idea of keeping it going a little longer but I have a hunch a triple bill such as this is sufficient for the present as too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Nevertheless, I will certainly return to the director’s work as it represents a rich vein for movie fans.

The Accused

Film noir never seems to go out of fashion. Sure it has seen its box office power ebb and flow somewhat since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s but movie fans keep coming back to it and if the number of articles, books and releases are anything to go by, its popularity remains strong. Is there then some paradox at work that sees something retaining popularity when at heart it relies on dark and/or pessimistic themes? Is it the cautionary tale aspect of it all that draws viewers, that vicarious thrill which comes from seeing others experience the dangers? Or is it the fact that noir is not so much dependent on the depiction (and the exploitation) of bad luck as on poor decisions? I feel it’s difficult to actively enjoy or take pleasure in witnessing bad luck, even the fictitious variety. However, looking at characters making poor or unwise choices is a different matter, not requiring one to indulge in something as distasteful as schadenfreude. The Accused (1949) is a classic film noir where the lead finds herself drawn into a typically dark vortex by her poor judgement and questionable decision making.

In characteristically noir style The Accused opens with a sense of urgent desperation. A woman is trying to put some distance between herself and what looks like something ugly. She is Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young), a psychology professor, and after she stumbles guiltily along the highway, cadges a ride from a helpful truck driver and finally makes it back to her apartment, we learn via a brief flashback sequence about those bad decisions. Disoriented, disheveled and distraught, she mumbles to herself how her life has crumbled in less than twenty-four hours, and the image dissolves, pulling us back into the past. A provocative student Bill Perry (Douglas Dick) has developed something more than a crush on the professor yet instead of sticking to her guns professionally and passing the matter on to the dean she not only accepts a ride home from this guy (she’d missed her bus), but ends up sharing a meal with him and then a detour to the cliffs above the ocean. Here Perry assaults her and, in an effort to defend herself, Wilma Tuttle bludgeons her assailant to death. Those rotten choices keep on coming: rather than do the sensible thing and report the incident, she tries to cover it up, to fake a fall and subsequent drowning, and of course make it look as though she’d never been near the spot in question. At first, it seems she may get away with it, the inquest returns a verdict of accidental death after all. However, Perry’s dissatisfied guardian San Fracisco lawyer Warren Ford (Robert Cummings) has his doubts, as does the doggedly persistent Lieutenant Dorgan (Wendell Corey). While the net of suspicion draws inexorably tighter, Wilma allows her attraction to Ford to develop into a full-on romance, a situation requiring more delicate decisions to be taken by all concerned.

Having generally enjoyed Red Mountain, I find I’m on a bit of a William Dieterle kick just now. I liked his handling of the western setting but I think it’s fair to say that The Accused, with its dark melodama and a script by Ketti Frings (Foxfire) represented more comfortable territory. The pacing is well judged, hooking the viewer right away and adding developments and complications in sufficient numbers and at appropriate intervals to keep the tension simmering without allowing it to boil over or become unnecessarily confusing. In terms of visuals, Milton Krasner’s cinematography switches smoothly between the brighly lit outdoor scenes where all feels well and the characters are correspondingly open and moodily rendered interiors where ambiguity makes its home. There is also a strong emphasis on mirrors and reflections throughout; this particular motif shows up time and again and alludes to the differing images presented by the characters – the faces they present to the world and those they present to themselves. As a result, there is a constant sense of duality and even duplicity as none of the principals fully reveal themselves to others.

Apparently, The Accused was originally planned as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Now, anyone who has spent any time browsing this site will know that I hold Stanwyck in the highest regard, I’ve always liked her work and admire her versatility. However, the role of Wilma Tuttle called for someone who could convincingly portray a woman whose judgement is almost perpetually in question, whose vulnerability will constantly overide her intelligence. I can’t see Stanwyck pulling that off successfully, there was forever a sense of resourcefulness just beneath the surface that would have made it a tough sell. In contrast, Loretta Young had that doe-eyed trustfulness about her, so somehow it doesn’t feel like such a leap to see her repeatedly taking the wrong turn.

Robert Cummings gets the slick likeability of his part across well. He’s smooth and polished, sure of himself and solid enough to provide an emotional crutch for Young. He comes into his own particularly in the third act when, in the wake of a well staged and shot boxing bout which reveals much, he confronts and accepts the truth and really grows in stature. Wendell Corey’s cop is fine too. There’s a trace of cynicism which feels right for a man in his position and he also does  good line in self-awareness, a smidgen of doomed romanticism sharing space with a barely concealed dissatisfaction with the kind of things his job forces him to do. In support Douglas Dick is creepily effective as the victim, while Sam Jaffe is just about what you expect a forensic scientist ought to look and behave like. Finally, both Sara Allgood and Mickey Knox make brief but very welcome appearances.

The Accused was released in the US as part of the Universal Vault MOD prorgram, and it can be found in various European countries too, looking OK but showing room for improvement.  I understand it’s due a Blu-ray upgrade via Kino in the near future so that might be worth bearing in mind. This is the kind of noir melodrama I generally respond to, it’s well cast, stylishly directed and smartly written. What’s not to like?

Red Mountain

One of the reasons I started this site many years ago was the opportunity it afforded me to write on and maybe draw some attention to movies (many of which happened to be westerns) that appeared to  have slipped between the cracks and drifted into relative obscurity. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was certainly a signficant one. Over time I’ve tried to broaden my base and mix up my content in a way that pleases me and, I hope, engages and attracts a wide range of visitors. Red Mountain (1951) could be seen as a return to my blogging roots in a sense as it is the type of movie I had in mind at the outset, a western with a big name star and directed by a well regarded filmmaker, with some equally impressive names among the crew, but one which rarely gets mentioned.

This is a fanciful tale, one likely to drive the history buffs crazy as it plays fast and loose with historical facts. However, we’re talking about movies here, where artistic license should be granted and where minor matters such as accuracy and fidelity to the known facts are of no more than incidental interest. It opens well, with a faceless killer shooting down an assayer in the town of Broken Bow, the assailant recognizable only by the spurs on his boots. It would seem likely at this stage that we would see a tale focusing on the hunt for this anonymous gunman, and that does appear to be the direction we’re headed in, not least when an innocent man is accused and a vengeful posse summoned. That innocent man is Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), one on whom suspicion is heaped not only because he had been seen in the vicinity but largely because he was once a soldier of the Confederacy and these are the dying days of the Civil War. The townsmen all regard him as a potential traitor and are only too willing to set out with the aim of lynching this interloper. Indeed he comes within a hair’s breadth of this fate but is spared when Brett Sherwood (Alan Ladd) breaks up the party and rescues the happless Waldron. Sherwood is the real killer of the assayer – this is only confirmed right at the end of the movie but it’s acknowledged quite early on in proceedings – and his feelings of guilt and responsibility for Waldron, and later some stronger feelings for the latter’s woman Chris (Lizabeth Scott), drive the plot. All of this is intensified when the infamous Quantrill (John Ireland) comes on the scene. The notorious guerilla leader is in the process of stirring up unrest among the Indian tribes, starting with the Utes, with the aim of opening a new front in the west, one with the potential to derail the Union march towards victory.

One doesn’t think of German director William Dieterle as a natural for  westerns. That said, there’s no earthly reason why we should exclude someone like this – the beauty of the western as a genre is its malleability and the kind of inclusiveness it bred among filmmakers where so many diverse types were able to make strong and successful contributions. That Old West setting was the ideal backdrop for so many tales, a largely untouched landscape invested with enough opportunity and presenting so many physial and ethical challenges that almost any human drama was enhanced when it played out there. Dieterle (who apparently was replaced for a time by an uncredited John Farrow due to ill health) uses the New Mexico locations well, presenting a similar view to that pioneered by John Ford with the vast and imposing natural features framing the conflicts dramatically and simultaneously suggesting their relative lack of consequence in the grand scheme – those towering hills and cliffs and endless horizons prevail and gaze impassively on the petty squabbles acted out in the their shadows and dwarfed by their permanence. Charles Lang’s cinematography makes the most of the natural beauty and is equally effective in the numerous night time shots. The driving and powerful (perhaps occasionally overpowering) score by Franz Waxman adds urgency and also complements some of the grimmer moments in the film.

Red Mountain was the third western for Alan Ladd, following on successfully from Whispering Smith and Branded and paving the way for his signature role in the timeless Shane. While I’m not entirely convinced by some of the writing and characterization in this film, I can’t say that any of that affects the quality of the performances. Ladd’s star was still in the ascendency at this point and he was tremendously good at tapping into the growing uncertainty of his character; there’s a touch of ambiguity there too but it’s the burgeoning sense of unease at the path chosen, the war raging within his own soul, which impresses most.

In contrast, Lizabeth Scott’s career had already peaked and  a few years later any chance of reviving it would be torpedoed by the disgraceful actions of Confidential magazine. She handles her part as the embittered victim of Quantrill’s razing of Lawrence, Kansas with assurance. She is sometimes regarded as a film noir actress first and foremost, and she has some stellar credits in that genre to back that view up, but her work in this film and Silver Lode is just fine as far as I am concerned. Arthur Kennedy fades a little as the story develops, a strong start sees him squaring off against Ladd but his character’s injury sees him sidelined to some extent and the writing I mentioned above does him no favors. John Ireland’s Quantrill offers an interesting study in fanaticism. I particularly appreciated the actors physicality here, using a kind of stiff discomfort to great effect, suggesting a man aware of his own unhinged nature and struggling with some moral straitjacket of his own design. There are also welcome if limited supporting roles for Whit Bissell, Neville Brand and Jeff Corey.

I’m not sure if Red Mountain has received an official release anywhere, which is a pity as the movie has a good deal to recommend it. It represents a strong entry in the filmography of Alan Ladd as he was building his credentials as a western hero and it also adds another layer to the Hollywood work of William Dieterle. Frankly, it’s the kind of film that would look just dandy on Blu-ray if it were given a bit of a clean up. I’d like to think that might happen one day.

The Velvet Touch


Guilt, fear and suspicion – these are all key characteristics of film noir. Marry those elements to the duplicity inherent in the world of the theater, where the necessity to don and discard the masks of performance, and the result should be a richly cultured blend of deceit. These circumstances provide a wonderful source of drama and melodrama, one tapped regularly by filmmakers. Sometimes the world of moviemaking itself becomes the main focus, while on other occasions it is the older and grander backdrop of the traditional theater. The latter forms the setting of The Velvet Touch (1948), where ambition, desire and tangled relationships on and off the stage see barbed witticisms replaced by a blunt instrument, resulting in tragedy.

In a sense, the whole movie could be summed up as a shift from comedy to tragedy. The leading lady of the story, and the leading lady of the Broadway production which has just reached the end of its run, is Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell). She has earned success and renown as a star in light comedic roles yet that pebble in the shoe of human nature that picks at many a person, and most especially the protagonists of film noir, is present. Yes, dissatisfaction is whispering insistently in Valerie Stanton’s ear, urging her to spread those artistic wings and set off and explore new areas. That alongside a new romantic relationship with an architect Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) is pushing her ever closer to a break with the past. And the break is a clean one when it does come, just as clean and sharp as the blow she strikes her producer and former lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames). This is essentially where the viewer comes in, literally in through the window of Dunning’s office, gliding in from the neon lit New York sky to witness the end of a highly strung and threat filled argument, the end of one man’s life and the beginning of a fresh ordeal for others. Shortly afterwards the movie dissolves into a lengthy flashback as Valerie reflects on the circumstances which led, step by relentless step towards this moment of violence. What follows is an investigation into the death conducted by the shrewd and reassuringly portly Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet), an investigation that sees suspicion fall on the devoted but spurned Marion Webster (Claire Trevor). With dread and self-interest setting the pace and driving events into still darker corners of morality, the climactic denouement hints at life imitating art and those lines separating the the performer and the performance becoming blurred once more.

Those blurred lines  recall A Double Life to an extent, but even so I don’t think the similarities run too deep. Sure there’s the theatrical setting and the star, although only towards the very end of the story here, seeing aspects of her personal life and circumstances mirrored in the role she has taken on, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in this case. While The Velvet Touch is a good picture, attractively shot by Joseph Walker from a Leo Rosten (Sleep, My Love) script, it doesn’t have the same depth. That Rosten screenplay has some wonderful dialogue, as sharp and incisive as a scalpel and devilishly funny too; the exchange between Genn and Russell when they first meet at a party and he feigns ignorance of her celebrity is a delight. Some of that may be down to director Jack Gage too. He started out in the business as a dialogue director on  René Clair’s ever charming I Married a Witch as well as Double Indemnity for Billy Wilder. He then fulfilled the same role on  several pretty good melodramas, with Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Bette Davis (A Stolen Life), and Rosalind Russell in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra before landing his one and only credit as a feature film director.

I will have to admit  that I’ve never been a great fan of Rosalind Russell. That said, I do admire her work and in particular I admire what I think of as her courage in embracing certain roles – for example, Joshua Logan’s Picnic sees her throw herself into her character in an extraordinarily challenging way. The part of Valerie Stanton is not an especially attractive one. Admittedly, she is wronged in some respects but her egoism and fealty to her own ambitions, whatever the cost to the innocents around her, is desperately unpleasant. It requires guts and great self-confidence from a performer to undertake such roles, and it is to Russell’s credit that she didn’t shy away from the more unsavory aspects. Claire Trevor rarely disappoints and turned in another excellent piece of work in the same year that she would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her humiliated moll in John Huston’s Key Largo. She got across the bitterness and hurt of the perennially wronged woman perfectly, bringing a considerable amount of dignity to it all.

I often wish Sydney Greenstreet had made more movies. That imposing physical presence in tandem with his rich and unmistakable voice could be employed with equal success to comedic, dramatic and outright villainous roles. I have seen almost all of the films he appeared in and it is safe to say he enriched every one of those. His entrance in The Velvet Touch is terrific. Moving onto the stage to interview the assembled cast, he at first projects an air of vague menace as he casts a fishy eye over the nervous group in front of him. His gaze shifts then to the pitifully small chair at his disposal as he lowers his bulk with trepidation onto it, and breaks into an avuncular chuckle in full recognition of the absurdity of it all. It is a beautifully played aside, milking the tension expertly before leavening it with some much needed humor. Of the others, Leo Genn is debonair and smooth, Leon Ames is brimming with malice and energy and primed for a deserved fall, Dan Tobin radiates a knowing whimsy as a conceited critic, and Frank McHugh gets another chance to practice his patented puppy dog enthusiasm.

The Velvet Touch has been released on DVD in the UK by Odeon and in the US by Warner Brothers so it should be easy enough to track down. It’s a solid noir melodrama set amid that theatrical milieu that this viewer never tires of and has a handful of strong performances to recommend it. I recommend it.

The Naked Spur on Blu-ray

This is an especially pleasing piece of news and one I’m delighted to pass on. Anthony Mann’s movies with James Stewart rate as some of the finest works in the canon of classic Hollywood westerns. The Naked Spur has been available on DVD for a good many years but always looked a bit indifferent, and it’s a movie which doesn’t deserve to be described in such lackluster terms. Fortunately, and after what feels like a very long wait, it has been announced that the Warner Archive is bringing this important film out on Blu-ray on September 21. It’s a movie I have the highest regard for and I look forward to seeing it looking its best.

I wrote a piece on this film many years ago, which can be found here.

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.

The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.

Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too.  Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.

John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has  learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.

It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.

Seven Thunders

Referring to a film as a war movie probably brings to mind images of large set piece combat scenes, of pitched battles raging across the screen with intensity. Seven Thunders (1957) is a war movie and although it does feature an impressively destructive climactic set piece it is really a story (in truth a series of interlocking and interwoven tales) which is played out against, and given added urgency due to, the backdrop of war and occupation. It combines elements of a thriller, drama, and romance and ultimately ties together all the apparently disparate strands. As such, like all genre pictures, it is able to draw in and blend that which one might more readily associate with a different genre. That said, it perhaps tries to cast its net too far and too wide.

And speaking of casting nets, the opening scene by the dockside in the port of Marseille during the Nazi occupation sees a fishing vessel deposit its latest catch. Along with the bounty yielded by the Mediterranean is a pair of escaped Allied prisoners of war on the latest leg of their journey, having escaped from prison camps in Italy. Dave (Stephen Boyd) and Jim (Tony Wright) are taken to a safe house, somewhere to lie low till they can be shunted further along the line. The principal narrative thread is the experience of these two men, with particular focus on Dave and the street smart  young French girl (Anna Gaylor) he finds himself reluctantly falling in love with. Running parallel to this is the matter of Doctor Martout (James Robertson Justice), on the surface a man who is dedicated to aiding the flight of large numbers of refugees and otherwise doomed individuals, but in reality a cold and utterly ruthless serial murderer. Eventually, these two plot strands converge as the relentless Nazi pressure contrives to force the increasingly restless Jim to seek an alternative means of exiting a neighborhood that is soon to be razed to the ground. As these plotlines creep toward their dramatic confluence, other characters and tales spin out of and around them, adding more layers of both tragedy and comedy. There is the impoverished  intermediary (Eugene Deckers) who unwittingly sends victims to the psychopathic Martout and then finds his own life touched by an unspeakable loss. There is the young Wehrmacht soldier whose lack of lack of judgement, self-confidence and self-control brings about that loss. There is then the Englishwoman (Kathleen Harrison) who provides some much needed comic relief, not least when it is discovered that breaking through her wardrobe leads not to a magical land such as C S Lewis might have imagined but instead to a bordello. So, there is no shortage of incident as events build toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

All told, I don’t feel Seven Thunders ranks as one of Hugo Fregonese’s more successful pictures, although there is much to enjoy and appreciate in it and the director does some characteristically strong work. The main story is a compelling one and Fregonese gets the most out of the burgeoning romance between Boyd and Gaylor, capturing the immediacy of wartime relationships and gaining credibility both from the performances and the Marseille locations. On the other hand, the Martout sub-plot feels largely unnecessary – it’s neither poorly executed nor uninteresting, but it feels a little undeveloped in itself and also nudges the principal story aside on occasion. If it’s purpose is to add extra tension to the climax, I’m not sure that is necessary. In terms of linking elements together, the Martout strand fleshes out Eugene Deckers role and that in turn affords greater significance to the shocking and tragic business involving the Wehrmacht soldier. Still, I’d have thought those aspects could have been blended in by  some other means. I guess my criticism would be directed at the writing then as opposed to the direction. That writing derives from a novel by Rupert Croft-Cooke, someone whose work I’m more familiar with under his Leo Bruce pseudonym. Leo Bruce wrote some witty detective fiction and those lighter moments I mentioned involving Kathleen Harrison recall this.

Stephen Boyd was on the cusp of real stardom when Seven Thunders was made. He had recently had a memorable part in the fine thriller The Man Who Never Was and was about to get another good role in Henry King’s The Bravados, as well as prominent parts in some glossy melodramas in Hollywood. Overshadowing all this though would be the plum role as Messala in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He handles the action scenes very competently, including a rooftop fight with a snooping German and the final escape from the city that is collapsing around his ears. The romantic relationship with Anna Gaylor works well too, there’s a sweetness to it and some chemistry between the players. Tony Wright, who had been cast in the early Hammer picture Bad Blonde / The Flanagan Boy opposite Barbara Payton and then portrayed the villain in Tiger in the Smoke, has less to do but carries it off satisfactorily. I tend to think of James Robertson Justice as primarily a comic actor, for the simple reason that those were the parts I first saw him in. However, he did plenty of dramatic work and I think there is something startlingly effective about seeing actors one associates with lighter work portraying out and out evil characters. I know I got a definite chill from seeing him calmly informing one of his victims of the fate which awaits him.

Kathleen Harrison had a long career, and a long life too, playing some wonderful eccentrics and brings both humor and believability to her turn as the woman who has made a life for herself in the French port. As the proprietress of the adjoining bordello, former dancer Katherine Kath nails the world weariness of her character and seasons it with a dash of knowing levity. In other supporting parts, Eugene Deckers has about his creased features that careworn seediness that is a close cousin to despair and, along with Rosalie Crutchley as his downtrodden wife, deals sensitively and effectively with some of the most touching and heartrending moments in the movie.

There is a UK DVD of Seven Thunders available; while the image is generally clean and attractive I’m not sure about the aspect ratio of the presentation, it may be open matte but I think it looks a little cramped at the sides in some shots. In the final analysis, I would rate this as a movie that works well for the most part despite the fact the script attempts to pack in more story than is strictly necessary.